It All Depends

Posted: September 19, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 16: 1-8a

It All Depends.

Jesus is talking to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his manager was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? At least is it seems, that Jesus is giving the guy the benefit of any doubt, or is he? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Oops it seems as though the jury has returned already. Guilty as charged without trial. Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. Loosing the job means back to labouring or worse. I have decided what to do so that, There is no way I can defend myself here so I had better see if I can make it as good as can be for my future. One plus is that when I am not a manager I will be welcome in peoples homes so I will ensure as many of them are available by sorting out their debts.  So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And it seems that the householder or  master knew what was going on and commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

That story we have just heard from storyteller Luke this morning about the actions of an absentee householder and a manager, is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables  On top of that, its strangeness has not made it any easier to understand as it has created confusion,  controversy, and embarrassment, not just for modern interpreters but apparently from very early times.

There are a number of things in this story that contribute to its difficulty and I want to have a look at some of those as an introduction. First is the title. Although not in the story itself
nor in the New RSV, many Bible translations give this story the title ‘The unjust steward’ The New RSV goes a little way and makes its title ‘The Dishonest Manager; and both these titles straight away prejudges one of the characters. Perhaps a more accurate title would be the first line from the story itself: ‘A rich man who had a manager’ or maybe even to describe the man a little it would be ‘A householder or master who had a manager.

Remembering that a Rich man is most likely to be what was known as a ‘Householder’ Not just the owner but a person of familial standing. Rich in status, familial power and responsibility and thus rich in terms of the society. He was in many cases the owner of slaves who could be his steward, or manager. The next difficulty is when we begin to contextualize and see the story as a metaphor or an analogy. Many of us assume the householder is God. And when we do that, we create more difficulty. We then must find some way to make the householder’s praise or commendation of seemingly wrongdoing as acceptable. After all, there’s something in the human psyche which revolts at seeing so-called ‘badness’ in any form rewarded.

The next issue to consider is the gossip that has been going around to the point that the householder has heard it and feels the need to check it out. After all it seems to be that the householder’s manager is acting inappropriately. ‘What is this that I hear about you?’

Is he suspicious of the gossip and struggling to believe that his manager could be doing something wrong or is he beyond suspicion and believing the gossip as true and that his manager is bad? Could it be that people with other issues have been spreading lies about the manager and now the householder, his master, believes the lies? If the latter is true then the story has a very different feel to it.

And for another issue we have the economic system. Again, many of us unconsciously assume the economic system implied in the story is capitalism. But this can obscure the social and economic structure of that day even when there is a whiff of ‘rogue trader’ about the manager. It seems that we have a structure where there is a clear hierarchy of control and power. It is ok to have slaves and exploit those with less. It may be a question of whether or not the manager is bad or very clever, so, what’s the point of the gossip?

Where are we with this very different story?

Well, let’s revisit it and see if we can find a way through given the questions we have just raised. We can maybe agree that this story is a riddle.  But we need to be wary because solving the riddle might take us in an unexpected direction. Maybe there should be a health warning label, something like: ‘beware – solving this story could prove fatal to the life we now find rather comfortable… maybe there needs to be a warning statement before we hear this parable.

Both the characters in this story, the householder and the manager do not seem to conform to the standard of behaviour that is generally thought appropriate to the realm or empire of God. That is, when dismissed from his job, the manager or steward goes to those who owe a debt to his master and with some fancy insider trader’ footwork, drastically reduces their debt.

“But the manager’s master or the householder is no saint either,” suggests Brandon Scott. The master has long been profiting from the manager’s shrewdness… with interest rates to boot. So, siding with one against the other is not all that helpful. What then, is Luke’s Jesus doing in this story?

Well, we know, or we are pretty sure that Jesus in his parables is offering a vision of a counter world. ‘The kingdom of God is like’ We have a “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential” (Heaney 2001) as one scholar has described it, or an alternative expansive vision of what’s possible as I claimed last week.

Another way of saying this could be that: Jesus is creating a safe place for all those who were left out, cheated, robed of their land and livelihood, unable to cope with the human system, declared unclean due to illness or orientation, those who have no hope… This safe place is where the Roman Empire, and the powerful, the ruthless, the religious zealots, the monied, or what or whom-ever “could not intrude and dominate” (Scott 2001:144).

That has to be good news if you are on the margins of church, of society, of the commercial, or political systems whatever the time in history. But to be honest the parable continues to intrigue and mystify. No agreed solution to the riddle has been found totally acceptable. And that can be bad news if you want security, if you want a religion with answers, a clear set of rules, or dare I say it if you want a top down, economical unit that is fits the expectations of being a financially sound, growing in numbers sort of parish where people come every Sunday for their reward. It needs to be a safe place for the alternative, for the misfit, for the left out, disadvantaged and the struggling. How we imagine or re-imagine the world is the fundamental question that separates church from any other form, and maybe that’s why it is in decline. Because it is seen as the answer to everything rather than the Way to live with the reality that seems so confusing and confused.

At the end of the day, chances are we will find ourselves standing in the householder’s shoes more than once in our life time. The better we are at working the system the more likely and that is when we need the alternatives, because we have choice and power. Not in or as a successful adaption to the world but rather in our ability to be where several outcomes or endings are possible To be where the most confused are. There is always a risk.  It all depends. Life is often an unsolved riddle.

Our call is to travel with Jesus and have faith with him that his re-imagined view – his glimpsed alternative – of the world, is the Way of God.

Heaney, S. 1995.  The redress of poetry. NY: New York. Schocken Books.
Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagine the world. An introduction to the parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.



An Alternative, Expansive Vision

Posted: September 13, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 15:1-10

‘An Alternative, Expansive Vision’

John Shea, the American priest, theologian and storyteller wrote in his book, The Challenge of Jesus’ that; “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”.  His comment, which at first glance seems simple and obvious is actually a fundamental shift and challenge to what has been the orthodox view or practice for many years. It is doubly important because it speaks to the very heart of one’s spirituality. It aligns into sin with an acceptance that life is always being policed, always in trouble seeking a way out, always less than perfect and in need of help to get out. It does not deny the presence of not being sure, or not getting things right, or that life contains struggles but it claims that the Way of Jesus to hear the call he makes upon one’s life and to act upon it. In my title I have called this an alternative expansive vision that calls us out of sin. It is the certainty, the possibility of, the likelihood of ‘out of them’ that matters more than being able to describe the sins and count them. It is about human desire, human flourishing: the possible out of the impossible. Sin is only there to reveal the possible, reveal the alternative, reveal the expansion of the environment. There is nothing that cannon be achieved in the Christ so to speak.

And that mini sermon brings us to the texts of today. I think it was important because I think it touches at the heart of this morning’s stories. In the ‘nitty gritty’ of contemporary biblical theology today, all the major scholars agree that Jesus’ primary identity was that of a sage. Some put more emphasis on the mystic nature of his work and others the political and social. But all seem to agree that he was a sage or wisdom teacher, interested both in understanding life, and in communicating that understanding. But as a sage, Jesus 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… seeking wisdom… as in communicating the understanding he came to…  And the best place to gain wisdom, according to Jesus the sage, was right in the midst of ordinary life” (Taussig 1999: 14).

I would suggest that he took time out to test his thinking on this by going to the quiet places as well as expressing what he believed in the midst of ordinary life. We might think of him sitting on a couch in the corner of some tavern, wine mug in hand, and soldiers and business folk. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. His listeners would laugh. Maybe scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own.

In the midst of ordinary life…  This concentration on ordinary life, according to New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, meant that Jesus as a sage: 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.

Hal Taussig suggests that: “The real energy of his 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” (Taussig 1999: 17, 18).

Here again we see the concentration on sin and all things that weigh us down as defensive, negative introspection from which there is no escape other than to embrace an alternative expansive vision.

As a sage, we can accept that Jesus told many stories. 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. We have two such stories, called parables, today. The story of ‘A man with a hundred sheep’. The story of ‘A woman with ten drachmas’. Luke’s Jesus seems clear. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin contributed in any way to their finding. Sin has nothing to do with the outcome. Neither the sheep nor the coin was punished or lectured for being lost. Concentration on sin is not helpful. 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 the seeking and finding by their respective owners. The acceptance of the alternative hope-filled vision. And when that which was lost was found, the finder threw a party.
Perhaps even spending the coin or committing the sheep to the proceeds of the party!

Sin can have a use but only as resource for joy, an alternative expansive vision. Thus, the call of Luke’s Jesus is not ‘repent’ but rather ‘rejoice’. But there’s more!

These stories are parables and a parable are a story with a twist in the tail, which turns our world views upside down. So where is the twist? Well! If we play some more we might ask ‘Why a sheep?  Why a woman?’ In the society of Jesus’ day, both shepherds and women, along with many other classes of people, existed on the margins of society. There was what we might today find extreme cultural differences. The sheep and women of society, the nobodies were not included in the ‘A’ social guest list. They had no status, were landless and poor, and not to be trusted. Certainly not candidates for ‘the kingdom’.

And by naming them, Luke indicates they were indeed part of the general group
called ‘toll collectors and sinners’… Collaborators with the oppressive system and those who were sinners. For Luke they were the unlikely ones who were seeking the company of Jesus. They were those the pharisees and the scribes, if we accept Luke’s comments or bias, apparently complained about and rejected. So, for Luke some tension seems to be 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. 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. One sheep. One coin.

And then the twist in the tale, so, too is the kingdom or realm or empire of God. The realm of God is less grand, and less than anticipated. Less than sinless, less than a bed of roses. It includes those who are usually or always, excluded. So, we have a couple of stories which say: Beware! We are unable to predict the outcome when the resolution is always unexpected. Pretty ordinary, really! Life is more about ambiguity, and serendipity and uncertainty is it not? I invite you to ponder that some more.

John Donahue says that “Surprise, extravagance, and joy characterise these parables (Donahue 1988:150). Likewise, “Jesus’ teachings about God’s reign were fresh and surprising,” he says. Theologian Hal Taussig again also says, “His teachings were so striking that usually his hearers were inspired, shocked, or actively puzzled.

I dream of my sermons being like that one day, haha! When Jesus spoke, the clever social involvement of his teachings called people to self-examination and new relationships”; suggests Hal Taussig. 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. I don’t know if any of you saw the TV program on Monday evening last where a researcher was highlighting the fact that in New Zealand politics the percentage of promises actually delivered was extremely low if almost non-existent. Promises are about getting votes and not about freeing the people from the declared sin.

Jesus proclaimed an alternative.  A new vision of what could be. And that requires living without reservation into a completely open future. One example of this need for an alternative is what Rabbi Arthur Waskow said on an anniversary some years back now…. He said: “The Inquisition burned the Talmud.  Nazis, on 10 May 1933, burned thousands of books – among them the works of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Maxim Gorki, George Grosz, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Helen Keller. And now we have amongst us in America some who call themselves Christians, who have called for burning the Quran, and who have chosen September 11 as the day to do so. “The great German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansor: ‘Where they burn books, they will finally also burn people’.” (Rabbi Arthur Waskow. 1/9/2010. The Shalom Centre)) The focus on being called into sin, fear and failure of the new will lead to self-destruction rather than that which Jesus showed by his life. There is an alternative, expansive vision should you accept the call. Amen.

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.

Luke 14: 25-33

Recognizing the Sacred Where We Are.

Understanding the background and culture of Jesus is very important when we come across stories such as those we have today. How else can we understand Jesus’ comment that his followers must ‘hate’, or more accurately, ‘detach oneself from’, their immediate family members!

On the surface it offends against all the values most people hold dear. But Luke the storyteller has Jesus employing a common rhetorical devise, used by many of the wisdom sages of the day. An approach which would be familiar, even if offensive, to the audience.

And which should also be familiar to us in our 21st century world, brought up on the politician’s speeches and promises during election time!

What do I mean by politician’s speeches? Well first of all they have an undisclosed purpose, an agenda and that is to engender support for a cause, usually the acquiring of enough votes to achieve an appointment. And the second is to get people to like them, agree with them or at least think they know what they are talking about and know what they are doing. Thirdly they are intent on getting their message out as quickly and with maximum impact. Fourthly they want to be seen to give equal measure to empathy, warmth and authority. They want to be seen to be good human beings who people can trust with decisions that effect their lives. Fifthly they want stay in control of this process and they want to exude confidence so that when people are not sure they will place their doubt in the hands of the politician. Sixthly they use repetition to emphasis the points in their speech that they believe will maintain all of the above by keeping it in front of the listener. Seventh, they will link their concerns and issues and points of view to great orators of the past. Biblical quotes do this well.

At one level this seems overly manipulative and even deceitful but it is an acceptable practice in many fields of public discourse. The difference comes when the purpose becomes distorted by the search for personal power. Its here that the fake news label begins. Any commitment to outcomes gets swallowed up by being able to hold ion to power in the face of a lie that got one there. Truth becomes expendable as a part of the power game.

Of course, I am not saying that this game with truth and power has become part of the Gospel but what I am saying is that the literary structures are used by Luke and Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. For the object of his concern is, according to William Loader, family power. “Family power and control which will not be released 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 suggest at great risk that a blanket policy of returning uplifted children to their families is a requirement that should be occurring but what about when the family is the worst place that child might be? I can use the family idea to gain political support while a child’s life might be at risk if it returns to the family house, Note I said house and not home for a reason.

And Bill Loader goes on: “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).

It might be hard to imagine but, in a society, where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore radical in 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. And I am not suggesting he is saying commit suicide or seek martyrdom. 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 without critique.

Rex Hunt tells a story that sounded interesting to me on this point about discipleship. The story is that; Clarence Jordan, of Cotton Patch Bible fame, was born in 1912 in west central Georgia, USA, into a race dominated society.

As a young man he became intensely aware of the radical kind of following that is demanded in the Sermon on the Mount. This changed his view on the racial divisions in the American society for good. In 1942 Clarence and his wife established the ‘Koinonia’ farm. A place where people of all races could be taught productive farming. The fact there was a considerable number of African-American people present… And that everyone there joined around a common table… was something the wider community objected against, right from the beginning. The opposition against his venture grew. They were accused of being ‘communists’, ‘race-mixers’, and of threatening the security of their community.

In 1956, threatening phone calls began. Soon the persecution took the form of bombings, shootings at their houses, building-burnings, economic boycotts, and harassment from the infamous KKK. In the early 1950s, it is told, Clarence approached his brother, Robert Jordan, later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, asking him to represent Koinonia farms legally. “Clarence”, Said Robert’ I can’t do that.  “You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got”. “We might lose everything too, Bob.” Said Clarence. “It’s different for you.” Said Robert. “Why is it different?  I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. “I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question, he did you. “He asked me: ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’ And I said: ‘Yes’.  What did you say?” “I follow Jesus, Clarence, – up to a point.” Said Robert. “Could that point by any chance be – the cross?” said Clarence. “That’s right.  I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.” “Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple.  Said Clarence, “You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.” “Well now, said Robert, “if everyone who felt like I do, did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?” “The question,” Clarence said, “is, do you have a church?” (McClendon 1974:127-128)

Did you recognise the political aspirations, and especially the pious, exhortation language. Is your language a Southern Baptist language? Some of that difference we have wrestled with as Progressive Christians that the cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement. That God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but divine sharing in human suffering. That 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.

But in the spirit of the Clarence Jordan’s story let’s return to some of the theological comment we might have picked up along the way. The call to ‘discipleship’ is a call to be on a journey. It is not about the ‘feel good’, ‘flag waving’, ‘happy-clappy’ overly therapy oriented theologies of much of today’s so-called Pentecostal or charismatic aberrations. And it is a real question for those that are business-oriented models of church not because they are responsible economically but because they are prisoners of the political speak of the day. They do not ask themselves if they are true to purpose as opposed to success at all costs. They are redefining success without critiquing it.

Am I being unfair and claiming my way is better? No, I don’t think so because discipleship is also not about accepting 11th century Archbishop Anselm’s idea of salvation. It’s not about the crucifixion of Jesus being willed by God to save the world because humanity’s sinfulness had dishonoured God (Brock 2010), That idea is now called ‘substitutionary atonement theology’.

Discipleship is about an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love, just as the call to be ‘church’ is a call of offer a safe place for some depth of theology and reflection and story. 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 one of the purposes that seems to have been swallowed up by the pace of social movement and political speak and correctness is that of deepening the experience of God, which is to give disciples like you and me, the courage, the knowledge, the will, to go out among people in our community and encourage them to also recognise ‘the sacred’ where they are.

On the good side of this experience we could say that the attempts at historical justice for abused children, Oranga Tamariki’s attempts to get the protection of children right and the whole ecological green movement is an attempt to care for the planet. To recognise the sacred where we are.

And to return to what some of us followers of the Jesus Way doing as disciples; in April 2010, president of The Centre for Progressive Christianity (USA), Revd. Fred Plumer, said:

“… it is time to publicly reject that whole idea of substitutionary or vicarious Atonement theories and repent for the harm this religious relic has caused over the centuries.

“I have always thought that it was more important for progressive Christians to talk about what we are rather than what we are not.  But I think it is time to publicly repent for the pain and suffering that the whole idea that we as humans are born faulty and unworthy by some vindictive god who demanded that there be some severe punishment to make up for this same god’s mistake.  Therefore, according to creed this God would have to sacrifice his only begotten son, (who is actually himself) to avenge something that really never happened.  Do you have any idea how many people throughout history have suffered in fear, humiliation, doubts, at the hands of sick clergy, mobs, abusive husbands, and anybody into power because of this flawed piece of our theology?  It is way past time to separate ourselves from this delusion to make a clear and public statement for allowing it to go on for so long…

“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”.)

My footnote to this is that we need to critique the power of speaking that creates power and control for some and can hide the real issues of justice for those more vulnerable than ourselves. The Jesus Way is the critique the social, religious, economic and political landscape in search of the Way of Love, Justice and Peace. Amen.


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.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

An Invitation to Creative Interdependence

This week’s lectionary suggests that we cannot thrive, or even survive, without recognizing and acting upon our sense of interdependence with the world around us.  It says that an authentic creation emerges from healthy relatedness, not pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rugged individualism, or them and us, it and me approaches.  In claiming our indebtedness to interdependence and the integrated role of all of us, including and perhaps most especially our understanding of God, our successes at this interdependence role will benefit our families, friends, and social order.  We will put the “law of love” above the “law of self” and discover a world of constant opportunity to see holiness everywhere, and welcome angels in every encounter.

A Father’s Day connection might be that Jeremiah describes the interplay of divine anger and grief.  In words that are almost too human, Jeremiah’s God expresses disbelief that the nation has turned from the divine to follow gods of their own making.  Moreover, they have not only abandoned their loving and protective parent, they have come to believe that they can go it alone without the help of the one who brought them into existence.  They have forgotten the heritage of grace and intimacy, choosing self-reliance and personal and national autonomy over divine-human interdependence.

As a parent and grandparent, the behaviour of Israel reminds us of a toddler who says “I don’t want you” to a parent even though her or his survival and nurture depends on the parent’s love, or a teenager who boldly rebels against his or her parents, proclaiming her or his freedom while using the parents’ financial credit cards and tuition payments.  We know that differentiation is essential to growth, and that interdependence rather than absolute independence or utter dependence is what we seek.  God wants Israel to grow up and become an agent in its own economic and political well-being; but God also knows that healthy growth depends on recognizing the source of your survival and the gifts that enable you to be creative. The oceans are part of how we survive as a species. We are interdependent even though we cannot breathe underwater without artificial means.

The heavens cry out against our worship of false gods, idols of our own making.  Following penultimate realities rather than the ultimate reality says Paul Tillich, eventually leads to personal and corporate destruction.

Freedom and creativity find their fulfillment in the affirmation of our connectedness and dependence on realities beyond us, most especially the intimate yet uncontrollable reality of that which we name God. Economics, politics, religious life, and relationships lived without an affirmation of interdependence and recognition of what we call divine movement in all things, including our own achievements, leads to political and institutional gridlock, social chaos, and planetary destruction.  But the antidote is not a return to passivity before God and others, it’s not about pushing God into some metaphysical form out there above it all. It’s not about forfeiting our divinely-given agency, nor is it about a radical individualism, that takes no account of the role of that which we name God or others in our own creativity and largesse, but rather a creative interplay of gratitude and agency, responsibility and receptivity, and creativity and community.

Psalm 81 continues this theme of divine-human interdependence.  When we turn from God individually or corporately, there are negative consequences.  When we forget that we are part of nature, sharing the Earth with other non-human animals, we reap the whirlwind of ecological destruction and put ourselves, our children, and planetary future at risk.  Still, and here’s the rub. This God is always willing to welcome us home to a great feast, the feast of abundant living in relationship with creation, both human and non-human. Evolution, progression, hope and grace all suggest the invitation is always there.

The reading from Hebrews describes a lifestyle of spiritual interdependence and awareness.  The reading suggests a way of life in which we attend to God’s presence in every relationship.  Every moment can be a divine encounter.  Marriage, conversation, and yes, even business are holy enterprises, challenging us to integrity in everyday life. We may be entertaining angels in disguise, and this reality calls us to treat everyone as an angel in the making. This is also the only way we can discern their value.

Imagine living as if the people you encounter are messengers from God, imagine if everyone is the image of ‘The Christ’ the source of insight and wisdom and the invitation to generosity and care.  How would your life change if you saw every encounter charged with “God’s grandeur?”

Jesus’ “parable” in Luke, highlights relationships and interdependence.  It says that humility is essential in healthy human relationships.  The issue is not that of disgrace if you are told to move to a lesser seat, but the willingness to see yourself in relationship with others, not as special and unique but part of the fabric of human interdependence.  The affluent are often described as “job creators” and given special privileges, unavailable to their employees or the unemployed. They are seen as the few who own everything yet as important as successful business leadership is, no one can be a job creator without employees and customers. Interdependence is the arbiter of justice and ultimately of success.

In the realm of God, the playing field is leveled economically, relationally, and spiritually.  No one has the upper hand, and although some persons may be more successful economically or more awakened spiritually, our growth and success is relational as well as individual.  Our place in society or spiritual leadership depends on the efforts and affirmation of others, and when the interdependence breaks down so does the whole of creation.

Jesus continues the conversation by counseling that we welcome persons who cannot apparently benefit us.  The realm of nuisances and nobodies says, John Dominic Crossan, is also essential to our well-being: we are connected and their achievement and self-affirmation is part of our spiritual evolution and personal growth.  Small encounters, performed with a sense of grace and care, can transform peoples’ lives and inspire them to spiritual transformation.

These stories are implicitly political and economic.   They challenge extreme self-made individualism and the libertarianism of our time.  They reveal the hidden atheism of economics without ethics as inadequate and they challenge the governmental politics that abandon vulnerable members of our society.  In their communitarian approach, these scriptures remind us that achievement depends on the interplay of choice and circumstance, and that we are called to provide a healthy environment, grounded in relational values, to encourage everyone to embrace her or his identity as a beloved child of the divine.   While good choices are not guaranteed by the support of our community, a community that cares for its children and vulnerable members creates a tipping point in which people are more likely to be generous than self-interested and creative than passive.

Another way of saying this might be to speak of a new ‘empire’ protocol. Where the normal order of things is reversed: the exalted are humbled and the humble are exalted, the first are last, and the last are first. Sound familiar? This is subversive wisdom from a radical Jesus inviting us to see the alternative, turn things upside down. And that’s one of the shocks in this story today. There are others like eating together and sharing food “in a society constantly threatened by hunger and famine” (Scott 2001:129). This meant that that it was often a competition just to be at the table. And those who run empires, be they the Roman empire or the New Zealand or the empire of China, or the USA, know it is better for people to compete against each other than it is for people to co-operate together. Competition divides allowing weaknesses to emerge and by used.  Co-operation unites. Its strong and cannot be divided.

So once again we hear the radical Jesus behind Luke’s Jesus. Share.  Don’t hoard.  Co-operate.  Be more interdependent and imagine the results. Of an abundant and more holistic and sacred world. A radical Jesus who can become loaded with a heap of emotional garbage. A radical who’s revolt takes on a special form.  “He revolts in parable” says Brandon Scott.  He says: “I see no evidence that Jesus was leading a political revolution or that he had a social program in mind. He clearly affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organizer or activist” (Scott 2001:138).

He revolts in story – especially in that special story called parable. His language suggests a counter-world, a hoped-for world “that redresses the world as it is and… makes sense”. (Scott 2001:140). Let me repeat that.  Re-imagines a counter world that makes sense. That’s what people said about the vision of religion suggested by Bishop Jack Spong, and turned out in their thousands to hear him. That’s what people say about proposals to lessen greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, or remove pollution from all our waterways.

That it makes sense!

Of-course not everyone agrees on any of these issues and that’s a reality. So, ultimately it all comes down to one simple invitation: gather at the table, explore the communal, be together on the journey have faith with Jesus rather than faith in Jesus.

Again, Brandon Scott is helpful, on this radical statement: “In the re-imagined world of the parables we stand beside Jesus and trust that his world will work, that it can provide the safe place – the empire of God – that resists all other empires.  Jesus is our companion on the journey, not our Lord and Master… Like Jesus we can be faithful to the vision of the parable” (Scott 2001:149). Faithful to the re-imagined vision of the story. With Jesus. Amen.

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

Beyond the Rules

Posted: August 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 11C, 2019
Luke 13: 10-17

Beyond the Rules…

What does it mean to be a Protestant in 2019? We have a few years under the belt now that suggests being a protestant was being a non-Roman Catholic but is it still that? I don’t think it does, in that it has to be said that the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant is no longer as cut and dried. Even the recent Popes have had to rethink what it means to be a Christian in today’s world and it has to be said that in almost every congregation there would be such diversity of theology that it is hard to distinguish what the differences are. Sure, the practice, the way we do things, still has some difference but essentially in terms of theology, and belief there is little difference. We might all be confused or alternatively more divers in our thinking. This is a remarkable shift given that it is only a little more than 500 years since the Protestant Way emerged. There is however one difference still evident and that is that to be Protestant is to protest, even if many protestants don’t do it. I would suggest that just as there was a need for Luther to challenge his church and to challenge what would have been considered fundamental truths there is the same need today. Like the Roman Catholic Church in those times the institutional church today is in need of revolution, and like then I think it is in the areas of belief and practice, not in the sense of the previous practice being wrong but, rather, in its need to be relevant in its engagement with culture and human need. The need to be contextual is today a world of huge diversity and of rapid change.

In terms of human need I suggest that our cosmic beliefs and our ecological practices need to be spoken to, spoken for and critiqued with our theological, justice and peacemaking beliefs and practices. As I indicated last week, we cannot be moderate’s any more. We need to be protestants again, We need to provide some resistance to the injustice of today. The ecocide that is evident, the apathetic approach to responsible management of the planet needs the resistance of protest. One might even say that the current mess in Hong Kong is a very good example of the breakdown in our society and this need. Is it appropriate for a dominant ordering institutional ideological and political evolution and practice? Is it that expectations have not been heeded and protest without transformation is doomed to be squashed by superior powers? In the end will justice suffer at the hands of might. I think this sort of resistance is risky today because it can very easily be sidelined by political propaganda paid for by the mighty, but then again it might sew some seeds of change in the way that power is applied.

When we think about this in terms of being religious protestant we acknowledge that resistance of injustice as a response to God’s “justification by grace through faith” sparked the Protestant movement in 1517, and such a commitment to protest continued to function as a foundational and prominent organizational tactic. For example, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 – essentially an imperial parliament – the established order sought to reduce conflict by suspending the 1521 Edict of Worms, which had declared Luther as a heretic and banned his writings. Many Lutherans interpreted the 1526 decree as a victory, but after the Emperor annulled the Diet’s decision of 1526, in 1529 a group of princes and representatives refused to accept the imperial revocation. What was significant in that earlier time was that those allied with the new resistance movement, refusing to be bound by worldly authorities, became known as “Protestants”.

When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a “supreme power” that is destroying “true religion”, may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience.

Protestant meant those who protest matters of faith and those matters of faith were about the wellbeing of society, and that wellbeing was dependent upon faith.

Looking back, we see that while also filled with its own errors and abuses, Protestantism served an important and positive social function and has done so for hundreds of years, both religiously and politically, by advocating for systems and structures that resist various manifestations of tyranny and promote diverse expressions of freedom. The question being asked by such protest as that in Hong Kong is not should one protest; but rather, does protest still have a place and if so, what form does that protest take.

There are currently hundreds of millions of Protestants in the world let alone those Catholics who question the power of the institution. These children of the Reformation possess the capacity to spark massive and life-giving social change if somehow united and organized. While there are clear and often conflicting variations in theological and political belief, that which does bind Protestants together, is a common heritage of responding to God’s grace with protest against injustice.

This commitment to personal and public renewal is meant to benefit all people of good will, regardless of religious and political identity. So, the question becomes: When existing authorities seek to reduce ethical constraints, misappropriate funds for personal gain, legitimize lies, and establish forms of hierarchical rule that exploit and conquer through dishonourable policies, will Protestants honour their heritage and serve their prophetic vocation in society? Five-hundred years after Luther bravely protested as an expression of faith, will the caretakers of his legacy now allow a world order that is defined by division and manipulation of that diversity? Will Protestants be seduced by apathy and complexity and by a debilitating use of difference as a tool for the wealthy, the politically manipulative dominant malaise of our day and age? Or will we instead resolve to “bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”?

In religion, politics, education, economics, and countless other facets of life, the mass protests of 1517 had a dramatic impact upon the past 500 years. This is most certainly true. Whether or not Protestants accept the responsibility of resistance in 2019 may define the next 500 years. Can those of us who still dare to identify as Protestant, take comfort in the belief that God will love and forgive us regardless of what we do. This will require courage, determination and long term thinking for those of us Protestants who also still dare to call ourselves citizens, because we know that history may not be so gracious.

On the other side, the power of Protestantism has seen a change in the attitude toward War. Global strategies for world war will not be easy to implement other than by use of massive destructive weapons by a few. The idea that huge numbers of people can be motivated to join a cause for war is thankfully more remote than it was. During the late 1960s, many university students, sat in the gutters and registered their protest against the Vietnam War. Many of us can remember the controversy which such actions aroused. Many of us hear of the Vietnam vets and the treatment they received because of what that war did to them and to others. It was seen as a war of the ego for some. I can remember at the time being confused. Being anti the protestors as well as for them. There were those who cheered any effort, no matter what form the protest took. There were those who were more cautiously behind the principles of anti-war, but who were totally opposed to the demonstrations because they were illegal. Not unlike the Springbok tour in NZ and the advent of the Cavaliers rugby team. All silenced perhaps by the rise of Mandala. There were all shades of opinion in between. Many people in the time of the Vietnam War fell into the category, of those who thought they might be opposed to the war, but who were horrified by the actions of the demonstrators. Nobody, they said, especially not students, should consider themselves above the law. Action was OK, but should always be within the law. Similar things were said during the demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Similar thoughts are being expressed about Hong Kong today.


The truth is that whenever so-called ‘illegal actions’ have been taken to heighten the consciousness of the general public towards a particular issue, there has been controversy. And in today’s traditional gospel story by the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, we find an imaginative, rather than an historical story, of Jesus supposedly breaking the law. Luke says Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when he saw a ‘bent-over’ woman, and he immediately stopped what he was doing, called the woman, and heals her. We have heard this story many times in our life-time, but can we imagine the woman in this story.


One reflection on this story goes like this. “18 years she had been growing smaller, into herself, face down, 18 years she had been bound by this spirit and made quite unable to stand up.  And here she was, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, bent and all, but close enough to the front to catch his eye. “She must have longed for something, otherwise she would not have come, would not have tried, would not have risked meeting the eyes of this man.  Was there still hope in her somewhere?  A tiny wisp of a hope, that could have been blown away very easily?  Was there still the un- bendable conviction that somehow she was worth more than being the woman weighed down by sorrow and pain?” Then the words, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment’.


The reflection continues; “What did those words, those hands do?  Did they awaken anger and revolt in her that had been slumbering inside her all along?  Or did they make a jolt of electric energy course through her, making her, suddenly, realise that she was alive and that she wanted to live… tall?… What was it? “Was it a coaxing ‘you can do it’ or was it a commanding ‘come on woman, get yourself together’ type of statement that made something inside her decide that it had been enough, that she would stand tall, that she would unfold herself, unbend and open herself to him and to the world?


Luke’s story says the leader of the synagogue was indignant, and has him rebuking Jesus for healing her, against the Law, on the Sabbath. Overhearing such a rebuke did it tempt the woman, urge her, “to roll up in a tight ball again…


What is so threatening about her?  Is it the tales she might tell or is it the eyes they don’t want to meet because they know what bent her in the first place?…


“How did the people around her react to the look in her eyes, the tallness that suddenly stood over them, the power and strength that seemed to ooze out from somewhere deep inside her.  Did they like the new woman?  Or would they have preferred the curled up version?


Luke continues to craft his story by having Jesus respond to the leader’s complaints by attacking. The story’s crowds and Luke’s congregation, would have been delighted. There’s nothing people enjoy more than seeing a pompous and pious official put in their place. But the untold bit of this story is: Jesus gained another enemy. For virtuous public officials don’t take kindly to being humiliated. And Luke weaves this clue into another story later on.


What statement was Luke intending Jesus to make by his actions in this story? That people are always more important than the law? That if through the application of the law some innocent human being comes in for unnecessarily harsh treatment, then that law should be ignored? Is this a call for protest? Perhaps too he was saying something about the interpretation of law. That laws are often capable of wide interpretation, and should always be interpreted for the good of individuals. Is this a call for protest?


Here’s the point, for my title of ‘Beyond the rules’… Despite all the hoo-har often reported in the media, being a follower of Jesus, walking the Jesus Way isn’t about keeping the rules, not the moral rules, not the so-called biblical rules… It works in a totally different ball-park. It’s about giving of oneself in love and compassion, and if that challenges someone else’s rules, go with the love and break the rules. It’s about risking oneself and one’s reputation, if that should become necessary. It’s about standing up for people, even if the rules sometimes condemn those people. The most powerful and life-giving action Jesus took was to give the ‘bent-over’ woman a new sense of who she was. After years of being beaten down with the belief that she was of no value, Jesus affirms her whole sense of being. What a gift! What a ‘miracle’! But I wonder if our storyteller called Luke also went on to re-imagine the woman.


In his storyteller’s heart, did she also discover “that once you have started to unfurl, once you have set foot on the path of healing there is no way back and there is no stopping either. It will protest, it will fight itself free, rip things open, tear the bonds asunder, and it will hurt?” Amen. 2007).


Luke 12:49-56

‘Why I Have Difficulty Being A Moderate Christian’…

It was a challenge to hear that being a moderate Christian was providing the context for biblical literalism and violence, because I thought being balanced in everything meant being a moderate. I struggled to get my head around how being balanced was an act of violence.

Sam Harris in his book ‘End of Faith; said 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.  I read ‘not merely; to mean that while extremism is indicative of or the outcome of, the conflict, moderate Christian’s like I liked to think of myself as are responsible for the conflict. He said that 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”. He names scriptural literalism as the prison of non-violence. Violence cannot be eradicated because moderates allow literalism and the violence it perpetuates to exist. Pretty harsh and directed words for a moderate to hear.

I want to suggest that they are harsh words to hear in the face of our text for today also. Our challenge here is to hear what the text is saying to us and to resist the easy acceptance of a literalist reading. Listen again to the text as found in the New RSV and this time try to see it the writer taking the place of God making sense of an intimate involvement in peoples lives as well as acknowledging that life is always complex, never black and white and filled with opportunities to get it wrong as well as get it right. Imagine the text being heard in a patriarchal tribalistic, familial cultural environment and add in to that context a people who have long been and constantly are slaves, citizens and survivors of an oppressed and conquered world.

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

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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

It is a bit of a shock when we read these words because 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 now having heard this story again, I feel somewhat anxious, about preaching from it, because it paints such a dark picture, and because history has proved it true in so many ways.

Let’s take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit of the story. And let’s take a look at it from what could be said to be a not- literalist view and what I want to call a radical non-orthodox view. The scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar write in their notes on this story: “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce new thinking into family relationships, for example, in his suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

While, West Australian theologian Bill Loader says: “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”. But Loader is not finished.  He goes on: “…or is it?  He suggests that ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The danger here is that the peace they mean is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts and we are well aware that such suppressed issues 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.  Sadly, 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’ spiritualities” (Loader web site, 8/2010). That has to be a challenge to being moderate surely?

History says that religion has been the cause of many wars and conflicts, and has divided families. In Northern Ireland, such conflict has a long history and we sense that it lies close to the surface still. And yet in another way we can find this story from Luke comforting. Comforting that Jesus not only knew what stress was, Comforting, too, in 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.

Some of us find these words difficult to hear… Because being Christian is a Way of living that offers freedom from, power over and space for peace, and comfort and we often tend to see Jesus as not really a real human and so it isn’t always easy to realise how his chosen way of action, must have got Jesus down at times.

Very often we can think of Jesus as some sort of superhuman being. 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 story-teller we call Luke, it makes sense. We know in our bones that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. Moreover, our world at the moment, it seems, is one that is rocked with religious violence. We have moved from nations pitted against nations to now include isolated yet persistent violence in the name of causes with underlying or over-arching religious tone. People bomb and kill other people all in the name of God, and we are now stretching what we mean by the name of God.

And while much of the present religious violence that catches the media’s attention might seem to be acts of terrorists claiming to be Muslim, we know that naming them thus raises the fact that Christianity also has a tradition of violence against others (infidels, heretics) all in the name of God. We now have debates about the moderate position taking place in the form of deliberations about the meaning of words and when is violence and what do we mean by Muslim of Christian? One wonders if we are seeking to find the extremist to blame it on rather than how to make peace?

Susan Nelson on her web site asks an important question when she says “Is there something in our religious traditions that encourages acts of violence? (SNelson. P&Fweb site,12/2003) Do we really want to think, for instance, that it was God’s will for hundreds of people to die in bomb explosions? We might ask the same question of the Christchurch Mosque attack. Even though we may interpret these as acts of violence, and wake up calls for Western Christians to confess their responsibility in the miseries of the world, do we really want to say this violence is from God? Do we need to have the violence of God in order to hear the ‘good news’?

Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Or can the ‘good news’ itself be a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Continuing the questions of Susan Nelson, fellow process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” Why indeed!  Marshall goes on: “… 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.’ I and John D Caputo would agree here and suggest that the problem might be with the so called ‘strong omnipotent interventionist, in control, God to start with and the weak God that is found in the ‘perhaps’ or the ‘almost’, the ‘yet to be’ and ‘uncompleted’ God is an approach free of the dangers of extremism and the apathy inherent in the moderate approach. Being confident of God as a weak vulnerable God cannot be a perpetrator of violence.

And then we move to the important issue of ‘power’: “The fundamental issue here is raised by the question: What kind of power does God have?  Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving? Does it generate compassion or a need for survival? Is it like imposed social engineering and thus coercive or is it an enticing invitation to participate? Another, important question is this: What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God?  Another question: What does it mean to win or conquer?” .(RMarshall.P&Fweb site,8/2010)

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. Perhaps a couple of suggestions.

Like my response to a question about different Christian denominations recently, firstly, 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.

So, 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 summed 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).

Meanwhile theologian 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.

One might say that the omnipotent, interventionist all powerful, almighty God needs to become the God who is imagination, creativity, energy, insistence, ambiguity, vulnerability etc. is more attuned to a God that is love than a right, powerful overlord is.

To sound like an old academic, I might suggest that thinking theologically might help, so long as thinking theologically means 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. We are beyond acceptance and deconstruction. We are now in the reconstruction phase which is not about just restating with old words.

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

May those who are moderates have the courage to go on that (reconstruction) journey.


Harris, S. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf, 2006.
Harris, S. The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton, 2004.
Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”.
McFague, S. Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press, 1987.
McLennan. S. Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan, 2009.
Rick Marshall.   <;
Susan Nelson.  <

Caputo, John D, The Insistence of God A Theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press 2013

What Are You Afraid Of?

Posted: August 6, 2019 in Uncategorized

What Are You Afraid Of?

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20       Luke 12: 32-40

 Today’s readings describe what seems impossible possibilities. Hope amidst hopelessness, a life of love that rebuffs a life of fear.  Isaiah challenges the people to go from apathy to awareness and transform their worship from ritual to justice-seeking.  Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah following God’s promises that, although they are childless, they will become the parents of a nation.  Jesus asks his followers to stay awake in every season of life, and sell their possessions to have resources to give to the poor.

In other words and perhaps with a bigger vision of life Isaiah challenges us to explore a holistic spirituality.  Prayer and praise are important as is living through the liturgical year, but our most dynamic worship is fruitless if we turn our back on the poor.  Holistic worship is concrete, and seeks to love God by loving creation, including both the non-human and human world.  All worship must be grounded in grace but inspire prophetic action.  The meaning of “prophetic” will differ from community to community and congregation to congregation.  Still, it must touch base with the real suffering in our neighbourhood and the world around us.  The challenge is to become aware that sadly, too much worship implicitly supports injustice and ecocide by its apathy.  If our hymns and our words, drown out the cries of the poor, we are likely to experience a famine on hearing the divine word, despite our apparent piety.

The Epistle to the Hebrews portrays Abraham and Sarah’s faith as involving trusting God with the unseen and unknown.  They launch out – you might say recklessly – with no promises and few guarantees.  They don’t even know where they are going.  This foolish faith is an anathema to those who consult Google Earth or set their GPS for a five mile drive toward somewhere new. The narrative of Abraham and Sarah invites us to be risk takers, willing to go forth with only a dream to guide us toward God’s far horizons. Do not be afraid. This elderly couple gives up everything secure to follow a promise.  By comparison, most us are far too prudent and careful.  Many of us will take solace in an interventionist God and leave it alone as magic. At the very least, we need to consider becoming prudent risk takers, open to setting aside certainty to follow the divine call.

And, then, there’s Jesus.  It’s all about our personal and communal treasures.  What is truly most important to us?  Are we willing to let go of everything to do the great work God calls us toward?  Jesus promises a realm that is unending and with a new definition of satisfying.  Entry into this realm, however, requires attentiveness, willingness to launch out on a moment’s notice, and the possibility that we have to become downwardly mobile for the sake of following this vision.  Look out for fear though because we will very likely feel conflicted as we read Jesus’ admonition.  We want enough security in this lifetime and we have obligations to family, congregations, and institutions.  If we join the way of Jesus, we may have to get up and go to respond.

I don’t know what this is saying to you but for me it says I am not off the hook, and I too need to confront my own desire for security – financial, vocational, doctrinal, and liturgical, first, and I need to do this before placing undue burdens on anyone else.  For starters, this text – and the others – calls for an examination of conscience to determine what is truly important to us.  The hour and moment of this opportunity’s coming may or may not conflict with our other responsibilities.  It may not represent a sharp break, but it will call us to perceive our responsibilities from a different perspective.  The homeless and hungry must simply wait for any direct or indirect action on our part.  Choices must be made moment by moment and fidelity may involve caring for our families first and insuring their well-being before putting ourselves at risk or devoting hours and days to a cause in our community.  The issue is not one of “either-or” but God’s call in the moment, given our various responsibilities and personal gifts. Here is Luke’s Jesus saying ‘do not be afraid’ as introduction to the good news.

He has a habit of prefacing good news with the exhortation “Do not be afraid.” This seems a bit odd since we’re more likely to think that it’s the delivery of bad news which requires a little no-fear pep talk. But over and over Luke’s pronouncements about God’s generous ways of working in the world—about the good news of the kingdom—are preceded by the words “Do not be afraid”: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.”
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”

In this week’s reading from Luke 12, it’s Jesus, who says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

We are immediately left with the question: Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so good? Well! perhaps it’s because Luke knows that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, and we often prefer our old, familiar, certain ways. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth. This is what advertising is based on, our feel-good factor. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future. It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again.

The book of Isaiah opens with dire warnings for those unwilling to do this, those caught up in empty ritual —“solemn assemblies with iniquity”—whose “hands are full of blood.” Here we can perhaps make something of a connection between fear and violence. Luke’s repetitive, rhetorical preface to the gospel’s good news — “Do not be afraid”—reminds us that fear, unchecked, can lead to the worst forms of oppression, intimidation, and brutality.

The prophet Isaiah tells the people that such evil is at work “even though you make many prayers.” On behalf of Yahweh he gives the necessary instructions: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

But wait a minute! The, people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. Maybe its too easy for us to see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. But can we recognize our own?

The grace that God offers—evident in Isaiah and in Luke—is that judgment is always tempered with mercy. We need not fear because the One who speaks to his “little flock” is the Shepherd who guides and feeds, who leads and supplies, giving us all that we need to bear witness to the kingdom. He tells us to “be dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.” 

That words Do not be afraid remind us that the words that startle and unsettle us need to be taken seriously, not run away from or denied by fooling ourselves. Isaiah wasn’t kidding around and neither was Jesus. The good news of God’s way of working in the world is also disturbing news. But the words need not undo us. Do not be afraid. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But let’s not start to chastise ourselves here by admitting we will never quite make this required transition in our lives. The truth is that we are not all social activists or prophets, and yet we must insure that our faith communities are not apathetic when it comes to the well-being of our community’s, nation’s, and planet’s most vulnerable citizens.  At the very least, we all need to be pastoral prophets, caring first, but also challenging. We must be willing to balance care for our family, the health of our communities, and social concern.  The task isn’t easy; if the world is saved one person at a time, we must hold all these callings in contrast, putting some ahead of others and then placing the calling of one moment in the background when other callings appear.  Sometimes we must care for our own grandchildren before other peoples’ children, but our love for our own family eventually must bear fruit in seeking well-being for the planet’s children.  We are all in this together and even a small act can be catalytic.

Today’s readings remind us to seek God’s realm in and beyond our daily responsibilities, be not afraid, and to consider constantly the need to give up certain types of security to be faithful to God’s presence in the persons in front of us and across the globe.  We may have an uneasy conscience at times and this is good news, be not afraid. It is the uneasiness that invites us to mindfulness and intentionality, and reflection on what is truly important in the course of a day and a lifetime. Amen.