The See What is Possible in Looking Again.

The world watched as the officer knelt on the neck of a man until the life went out of him. He cried for his mother and complained that he could not breathe. The mob member misjudged the initiation requirements and a member of the other gang died with a bullet in his chest. The initiate knew there would be retaliation so brazenly went on as if nothing had happened. The community watched as the mighty made an example of him as a means of keeping the peace and maintaining control. The executed him in the public scene so as to maintain the level of fear and sustain their empirical control. They had support as the colleagues looked on, as the clan put up the defence of their own, as his friends hid and his communities of allegiance sought their own safety in the realm.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters.

What seems to strike a cord, in the similarity of the stories above is that the crucifixion was a sanitized murder within systemic violence. Another approach might be to say that because such things can happen in our human community there has to be a communal, social disfunction that perpetrates a systemic injustice that hinders a just response because it seems to be socially unacceptable to make waves, or question why such things happen. Put it down to bad people, original sin or some sort of parental irresponsibility but don’t question the system. In so doing we sanitize the reality and like the disciples of Jesus, the fellow policeman on the scene and the other gang members watching find cover just in case. They don’t question their own actions because they are too busy saving themselves.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore. It has transcended space and time perhaps and is in our very faces, it is happening now. The violence like the poor seems always with us, even if the evidence that there is less than there used to be, the world after all is a more peaceful place overall and it is communication advances that enable us to see what was hidden before and not the level of global violence expanding. It is just more visible rather than growing. We use the big picture to justify our individual dilemma.

What seems to be developing alongside this is an awareness that we are sleeping if we miss this example of crucifixion under our very eyes, it seems too complex and too far away from me as an individual to really make any difference. Like the disciples I need to make sure I am around after all this noise dies down. I need to put this crucifixion into perspective and make sure I continue to be able to tell true story. I don’t really want to ask the hard question. Is this the crucifixion all over again? Is this the systemic violence that executed Jesus.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore. But be careful here, if you agree with this then you have to think that Jesus dying for our sins is as Brandon Scott suggests, Jesus dying for our sins if a theological way to avoid what Paul says is the scandal of Jesus. Execution. That scandal being that the Jewish expectation of Gods power standing up for good doesn’t work nor does the Greek expectation of the divine wisdom sorting important things out. Crucifixion says that Rome won, the Roman system won and Jesus lost. Empire triumphs and it always does and it always will. And the best response to this inevitability is to deny its brutality and its violence. Call it conspiracy theory or wacky backy thinking. In fact evidence suggests that the followers of Jesus in the 1st century stylized the story and so began the development of the crucified Christ in a wooden cross as symbol of salvation. The brutality and violence was sanitized into a good Friday event. And take note that Jesus suffering and agony becomes some sort of divine gift. There are attempts to liturgically raise a Holy Saturday and note the suffering as a vigil, a recognition of the suffering Christ, but it is the deified Jesus that suffers, It is God’s son that suffers not humanity. The deification of Jesus bar Joseph is completed. Over time and the systemic violence is sanitized as our fault. Note I am not denying the crucifixion, just trying not to deny the horrific violence and brutality of a system trying to defend itself against change and loss of power.

When the centurion supervising Jesus; execution sees Jesus die he says. “This man really was God’s Son!” The author of this in Mark intends Jesus’ last words to be provocative and confrontational. It is a sarcastic comment that says You must be joking to think that this guy is a son of God! You can imagine the officer with his knee on the neck saying that ‘You must be joking if you think this guy doesn’t deserve this” and you can imagine the mobster saying that you have got to be joking is you think this is not a justifiable rite of passage that confirms loyalty and support and inclusion. The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore.

So, what about the resurrection? Can we say the same about that?

The shocked family was standing on the footpath in front of their house, watching the firemen swarming in and out. A grease fire had severely damaged the kitchen and smoke was saturating everything they owned. They felt deeply the probable loss of treasured items and they wondered how bad it could be. They watched in dismay as the fire was put out.  They saw the holes in the walls. The scorched ceilings. The broken crockery. Their home was a real mess and they tried not to think about the cleanup job that awaited them.

Suddenly a pizza delivery car pulled up next to the curb, and a young bloke jumped out carrying
one of those large pizza delivery bags. The father of the family looked puzzled: “Sorry mate! He said; you must have the wrong address. None of us ordered a pizza, and besides, my wallet was in my coat pocket – in the kitchen”. The delivery bloke smiled, shock his head and said:
“Yea, I know you didn’t order this.  But I saw you all just standing there and I had to do something.
“There’s no charge.  Just take it easy and have something to eat”. And with that he jumped back into his car and sped off as the astonished family watched.  (A story adapted from William Bausch)

 The crucifixion was there before them and how many of them saw the fire, shook their heads, and drove on? How many saw the people in need? Saw the brutal blow to their family and their friends. How many saw the brutality of the devastation perpetrated by the destructive event and didn’t jump to conclusions about poor maintenance, accidental use of volatile materials mismanaged, or unfortunate accident and drove on? One young bloke saw and decided to do something about it. The ‘doing’ was not some heroic firefighting or lifesaving risk taking. It was some simple words and ordinary caring.

It was similar to that of the Jesus of the Mark story who saw and heard Bartimaeus and,
as the storyteller says, did something about it. He offered some simple words and ordinary caring.

The story of Bartimaeus, clearly created by the storyteller Mark, is an interesting and important story. In the metaphor of the resurrection. There is a nobody in the world’s eyes, a sidelined person, a blind beggar sitting in the dust, suddenly, and to the surprise of all, becomes the hero of the story. When he raised his voice, people were quick to remind him he was a nobody.

Shut up you; they said! Be quiet! No-one wants to listen to you! Get back in the closet! Yet with the persistence which can characterise the desperate, he does not shy away from being a nuisance… He says; “I am not odd, or stupid, I am not a case to be solved, a need to be met. I’m a person, and not a discounted person or a person to be discounted.

Mark’s Jesus responds, hears his request, and, we are told, and 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).

And 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). Again the resurrection is lifted out of its historical time prison and becomes a living example.

I am sure you will recognise this ‘inclusive’ theme as a familiar one in Mark’s stories.
If you have been following this lectionary year of Mark you will note the inclusive focus on 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 religious tradition” (Funk 2002: 55).

Much of Jesus’ energy is in controversy with his fellow Jews and was spent trying to show that we must interpret scripture in a way which sees its priority as concern for human well-being some theory. The systemic battle highlighted by the execution and murder of Jesus is overturned by love, inclusion of the outcast, respect for the other and commitment to the alternative. The resurrection is the process of reconciliation, of renewal and of restoration of the realm of God.

There is another story that might signal resurrection too and it was one told by Bishop John Shelby Spong when he was in Australia some years back. We note also his recent death in the States. His story Was in what was a sharing of a theological vision for, and call to, the church. The whole event – sponsored by The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought – proved to be  a rewarding, 
challenging, and an inspirational experience for nearly everyone of the 650 people concerned.

Only one person, when 649 others were giving Spong a standing ovation, indicated a ‘thumbs down’ response.

Like the story of Bartimaeus, Jack Spong said during his Tuesday morning presentation:
“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 are reminded of is. “Is this what blind Bartimaeus saw in Jesus?” Was it a resurrection experience? A God presence offering life, love and being?  Another biblical storytelling person Tom Boomershine, 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).

We can resonate with that comment. And we can also be bold enough to suggest this is what John Shelby Spong did. He gave people 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! The daily engagement between faith and life is relived constantly as a resurrection event.

The thoughts and words and ideas of Jack Spong are 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. Where Spong and those who respond to his vision of religion usually fall foul of conservative or evangelical church folk, is the fear of people who choose not to, or are unable to, see or hear the value of the individual in the systemic driven environment. Their resistance seems to be because of a fear of the systemic nature of the human need to be socially responsible because that will mean personal change. And we know that a life lived in fear can never bear to face the need for change, or to see the possible in looking again from a different perspective.

So, I hope you can see why Mark’s story about a bloke called Bartimaeus might be an important story in our religious tradition, at this time in human history. Perhaps we need to listen to all the Bartimaeus’ when they speak up! Maybe we need to hear then as affirming the resurrection journey we are on?

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction as well as peace and love and the indwelling of the realm of God. The story stays with us. It matters. Amen.

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.

‘Are We Pretending to be Asleep?’     

With the appearance of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic there is now broad general recognition that we have entered an emergency century, a crux in human history. The variables of global weather patterns are becoming disrupted, the magnet poles are shifting at a greater rate, the sun spots are more prevalent and appear to be more influential on the earth’s crust and the planet is warming at an exponential rate. The absolutes that provided certainty as a balance to all this apparent chaotic development are no longer viable. Does God exist is almost a redundant question at least outside the church it is and that is an ever-increasing number of people. Christianity is becoming a label many no longer want because of historic activity that is coming to light about the church’s behaviour over the last 1000 years at least.

Whether we respond well or poorly to these things will have an effect, even if we bury our heads and do nothing. The world is changing like it or not and how we respond will have huge ramifications for future generations of people and for the biosphere at large. Do nothing to curb the wholesale destruction of the ecosystem by unbridled production of a product alien to the organic, sustainability of the planet and from our current moment we could be contributing to a mass extinction event that will hammer the biosphere and civilization both, or we could by making significant, challenging and difficult change be starting the process of establishing a prosperous and just global society that will be sustainable over the long haul of the centuries to come. The radical disparity of these possible futures, the sheer range of them—but with a kind of excluded middle, in that if we trend in one direction or other that trajectory is likely to prevail—is part of the feeling of our time, which could be characterized as a general sense of danger, dread, and fear, mixed with a battered but still strong feeling of hope that our rapidly increasing scientific knowledge and technological capability, and a rising awareness of our global collective fate, and our ultimate reliance on Earth’s biosphere will combine to usher in a new and better era in human interactions with the planet and other people.

Some of us will remember when Covid 19 arrived some people were saying that there is an opportunity here to make the changes in human behaviour for the better, if we took the opportunity. There have been snippets of hope expressed in people’s compassionate response to students and rugby clubs without encouragement hit the streets to help people stricken by earthquake damage and the loss of life. The value of community was also seen after the Mosque attacks and the recent floods. The truth is we live in this curious mixture of fear and hope; probably this has always been the case for humanity, but now it has bloomed into an obvious existential and historical crisis. The problems we face now are immense and numerous. We are a global society, but we are ruled by a nation-state system in which many still regard national interests as overriding any global considerations. The emphasis on a monetarist-based trade system has had us play with a controlled tariff-based system and more recently a free trade model where again the monetarist focus has been kept as if sacrosanct. Challenge or change to this thinking has been seen to be impossible or unwise. And we have agreed to rule ourselves and run our affairs by way of a political economy that is unsustainable, extractive, and unjust, and yet is massively entrenched in national laws and international treaties. Even the idea of democracy is challenged but put in the too hard basket. So, we are left with a nation-state system that is insufficient, and yet all we have; and neoliberal capitalism has been seen to be cruel and destructive, and yet it is still the world’s current overriding system of laws.

So how do we proceed from here?  The first thing in my opinion is to ask the question of what Jesus di in his time when his people were faced with the magnitude of change facing his people. Get over the dualistic way of thinking because that just gets us stuck in the he right she’s wrong, that’s good and that’s bad way of thinking. We do however have to use the tools at hand, at the same time see them as suspect or questionable because they could actually be a big part of the problem. Own the fact that it’s a dilemma but it is one of language, concept and not a concrete unassailable fact.

One thing that may help to start our thinking here is the simple principle that what can’t happen, won’t happen. This is to invoke the reality principle in the form of the facts of science that are incontrovertible. Magic doesn’t work, so magical thinking is not going to be sufficient; physically impossible things are not going to happen in this century or any other, and so we are not going to be conducting our civilization as we have been into the future, because that isn’t physically possible. The planet’s biosphere doesn’t produce the resources we need at the rate we are using them, nor is it capable of disposing of the toxic wastes we are producing at the rate we are producing them. So, change will be coming, one way or another, and because the current situation is so very untenable, the changes coming are going to be profound. We are now already in the time of change. So, in this very perilous situation, we need plans. That’s the most important task the church can be doing.

And let’s not be sucked into the idea that the complex is a problem, that once we have got control it will be ok, This, change is not like that. This change is from a structured management model that is based on exponential growth where the most competitive wins and equality is pitted against equity and distorted under the guise of freedom. The reality is that there are solutions specific to sectors of our society and each will need a vision of change for the better. As the general problem is a wicked problem, in the technical sense of being multiplex and intractable, the solutions are therefore going to be complex.

What the pandemic has revealed is the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of imbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. As one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.” Ultimately, there is no going back to normal because normal no longer exists—except perhaps in the guise of messages of the mainstream media and politicians who seek to keep the public in a consensus mode while a small elite sucks the wealth out of human communities and natural ecosystems, all in the name of the dominant ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been a part of global mainstream discourse since the 1980s. It propagates the fiction that humans are essentially individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and as a result, unrestrained, free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have transformed the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labour. Neoliberalism is the logical outcome of a worldview based on separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. And just in case you think I am sounding like a leftist socialist or communist, those categories are all failed political labels. It has to be evident that the value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond to climate breakdown, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.

In short, I think I agree with many commentators struggling with these issues when they say we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. And let’s be very honest here such a change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It is said that if our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behaviour on a similar scale. The question might be what does this change look like? What sort of vision do we need to move in the right direction?

Well, given that this is a sermon based on the Christian and Judaic scriptures what do they suggest as a response, or better still what does the life of Jesus have to say about such a need? It is certainly not more of the same. It is certainly an alternative way of being and doing what it means to be human. Religiously, socially, economically, and politically the world has to change. On the economic terms it is to be a non-violent, and equitable. Note I said equitable not equal because it is not a world where the majority is subject to the few like our current systems and it is also a world where nature and natural organisational principles and structures are valued above those that are fabricated. Systems, values and actions need to support an ecological civilization based on core principles that sustain living systems in natural ecologies. Over billions of years on Earth, life has evolved resilient processes that allowed it to spread in rich profusion and stunning diversity into virtually every nook and cranny of the planet. As a result, if left undisturbed by human depredation, natural ecosystems can persist in good health for millions of years. A key learning is that living systems are characterized by both competition and cooperation. However, the major evolutionary transitions that brought life to its current state of abundance were all the results of dramatic increases in cooperation. The key to each of these evolutionary steps—and to the effective functioning of all ecosystems—is symbiosis: the process by which both parties in a relationship give and receive reciprocally, reflecting each other’s abilities and needs. With symbiosis, there is no zero-sum game; the contributions of each party create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. An important result of symbiosis is that ecosystems can sustain themselves almost indefinitely. Energy from the sun flows seamlessly to all the constituent parts. The waste of one organism becomes the sustenance of another. In contrast to our current civilization, which built its wealth by extracting resources and letting waste accumulate, nature has a circular economy where nothing is squandered.

So, what do we as the remnant church do? Well, there’s not enough time left to include it in this sermon which has been mainly about the why change question. The church can be part of this change but it needs to be focused on what it does best or at least what it used to do without much effort, and which in my view has led to its apparent irrelevance. It can play a part in the complex interconnection of different organisms in a symbiotic network and contribute to what is an important foundational principle of nature: that of harmony. Harmony doesn’t mean bland agreement. On the contrary, it arises when different elements within a system express their own needs so that the system as a whole is enriched. Harmony arises when the various forces of the system are in balance. This can manifest as balance between competition and cooperation; between the system’s efficiency and its resilience; or between growth, maturation, and decline. I think the church can be a place where harmony is sought in the search for the change that is required. A prayer by a J Wood has been used at a number of church meetings and it is probably a good place to start when arguing that the church is a place where alternative approaches can be debated. The prayer 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

That last line of the prayer sums up the humble faithful courage required of the church or rather followers of the Jesus Way, in order to respond to the change that is required of us all. “To be resolute in gospel action” as a contribution to the harmony required in the new civilization emerging. We can no longer just see our role as the place of social action. Of course, that is required but it only contributes to harmony when it is about the elimination oof the need for it, Peace and justice are perpetual goals because we will always have the poor with us, it is part of what it means to be human, it is not acceptable because it is part of an inequitable reality that requires our participation for fairness, goodness and a harmonious equitable reality.

At the root of ‘gospel action’ today. Is a demand that any such reform will include a spiritual vitality and expressiveness. It will include an insistence on a Jesus and Christ centred faith with intellectual integrity. It will support a transgression of traditional gender boundaries. It will claim that a person can be a follower of Jesus and be a faithful follower without claiming to be of the best or the only true faith. 

Today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, touches on this matter of ‘gospel action’ or ‘mission’ as the 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 ‘gospel action’. So where does Mark’s story now leave us? Well, perhaps close to something like the emotion in a prayer/poem by Tom Shuman called ‘Where you sit’…

we leave our box seats at the symphony or ball park,
and pray you won’t catch our eye as we pass you
sitting with the homeless; we wait for a few minutes at the doctor’s office
to get a $10 shot so we won’t catch the flu,
while half a world away you sit for a week

hoping medicine which will cost you a year’s wages
finds its way to your village;

we sit in our home theatres, watching the latest “reality” on our plasma screens,
while you sit in the darkness, rocking your child asleep,

as she cries from the ache of an empty stomach.

Lord Jesus:
when (like James and John) we want to be at your side in glory:
remind us where you sit. 

 © 2006 Thom M Shuman

Transitioning to an ecological civilization will require fundamentally redesigning our economy. Across the world, the success of political leaders is currently measured by how much they’ve managed to increase their nation’s GDP. However, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, a life-affirming society would emphasize it growth in quality of life, using alternative measures such as the “Gross National Happiness” index established by the state of Bhutan, which assesses qualities such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity. Ever since the nineteenth century, most economic thinkers have recognized only two domains of economic activity: markets and government. The great political divide between capitalism and communism arose from stressing one or the other of these two poles (with social democracy somewhere in between). An ecological civilization would incorporate government spending and markets, but—as laid out by progressive economist Kate Raworth—would add two critical realms to the old framework: households and the commons. In particular, the commons would become a central part of economic activity. Historically, the commons referred specifically to shared land that peasants accessed to graze their livestock or grow crops. But in a broader context, the commons refer to any source of sustenance and wellbeing that is not appropriated either by the state or private ownership: the air, water, sunshine, and even human creations like language, cultural traditions, and scientific knowledge. The commons is virtually ignored in most economic discussions because, like household work, it doesn’t fit into the classic model of the economy. But the global commons belong to all of us.

In an ecological civilization, it would once again take its rightful place as a major provider for human welfare. The cumulative common resources that our ancestors have bequeathed to us through untold generations of hard work and ingenuity represent a vast reservoir of wealth—our shared human commonwealth—compared to which the value added by any individual is a drop in the ocean. An ecological civilization, recognizing this, would fairly reward entrepreneurial activity but would severely curtail the right of anyone to accumulate multiple billions of dollars in wealth, no matter what their accomplishments.

On the other hand, it would recognize the moral birthright of every human to share in this vast commonwealth. The transition could effectively be achieved through a program of unconditional cash disbursements to every person alive on the planet, known as universal basic income. The dominant neoliberal view of human nature leads many to assume that free money would cause people to become lazy, avoid work, and exacerbate addictive behaviors. In every test conducted, however, the opposite turns out to be true. Programs consistently report reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, truancy, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol consumption, along with increases in health, gender equality, school performance—and even entrepreneurial activity. For these moral and practical reasons, universal basic income would be integral to the design of an ecological civilization. The transnational corporations that currently dominate virtually every aspect of our global society would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve. Corporations above a certain size would be required to be chartered with the explicit purpose of optimizing not just for shareholder returns, but also for social and environmental outcomes.

There is much more to be said about what is possible for the change to an ecological civilization and this sermon is already too long, so I will finish as I began by saying that let’s remember that the natural world is warning us with pointed urgency that we are on the wrong track. It turns out that our audacious human inventions like the economy, state power, and technology are not autonomous machines that exist outside of history or the natural order. We are actually biological creatures, not just citizens or versions of homo economicus (the economic agent who rationalizes all choices toward economic gain). Let’s acknowledge this as a shock to our consciousness because, as moderns, we do not readily acknowledge that we are profoundly interdependent on other organisms. We thus face a new existential challenge: How can we make our modern, materialistic culture more compatible with a living, evolving planet? Despite our pretensions as champions of the Enlightenment, human life will not survive unless it moves more fully into sync with the ecological imperatives of the planet. Time to stop pretending we are asleep? Amen.

Taussig, H. A New Spiritual Home. Progressive Christianity at the Grassroots. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2006.

Clayton, Philip. Kelli M Archie, Jonah Sachs, and Evan Steiner The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Mark 10:17-26

The Habit of a Collective Society.

I want to start with a couple of definitions that might help as we go along. The first is ‘individuality or “the quality or character of a particular person or thing that distinguishes them from others of the same kind, especially when strongly marked.” The second is ‘individualism’ or in an interpretation for today’s topic; “a self-centred feeling or conduct; egoism”. Perhaps explained in our case today as a sort of unbridled individuality that threatens the welfare of an orderly community.’

Some commentators have suggested that our text indicates, what could be the first recorded act of modern individualism. The storyteller Mark says an unnamed rich man asks Jesus
what he could do to have a fully satisfying, authentic life. Accustomed to paying a price to achieve his desired ends, this man seems to assume he can attain or buy the quality of life taught and lived by Jesus. For him, life was an achievement. A prize to win. A commodity to be bought.

We can reasonably assume that this man has been looking all his life for such personal fulfilment and satisfaction. So, the thing which very likely crosses our mind is: doesn’t all this sound very familiar and modern?

Rex Hunt reminds us that some 15 or so years ago, American sociologist Robert Bellah edited a couple of books on the American lifestyle. They were called Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. In those books Bellah and his research associates claimed that the desire to get the most out of one’s life – to be the best or achieve the highest – was a hallmark of our time. This sounds logical and almost timeless in its application to human life. Hasn’t it always been like this?

They also suggested we are so intent on fulfilling ourselves and our own destiny, that we put our lives and careers above everything else. This suggests that our individuality matters more to us than the success of any larger group or institution. The question is when does it become ‘individualism’? Or a threat to an orderly community?

In a fear driven world such as that we have, (an assumption I make) we don’t have to go far to get frightened into preparing for a horrible future. similar comments. We are encouraged to save for the future shocks by joining superannuation schemes we are told to save and invest and insure… Personal or family financial security is promoted as a virtue, by taxation accountants, investment advisers, and financial planners. I am not saying this is a bad thing but rather that it could blur further the line between a creative freely given and life enhancing individuality that is collaborative and complimentary and an individualism that is a threat to orderly community. And why is this a problem? Well, I think it might just go to this thing we call ‘the realm of God’. Is this realm not one based on, driven by and expressing a wasteful love rather than order and individual ascendancy? One of the questions being wrestled with today is, ‘where is the line between the rights of an individual not to have a vaccine and the rights of an individual to have a vaccine shot and that’s a question before the argument about the suitability of any one type of vaccine. The question is whether or not it is individuality at stake here or is it individualism taking over be majority choice.

On the other hand, social commentators such as Hugh Mackay in Sydney, some time back claimed that the rise in individualism rather than community, is really driven by the popularist chant: gimme, gimme, gimme! He writes: “Perhaps our desire for more, more, more is a thinly disguised attempt to distract ourselves by constant stimulation, constant change, constant excitement, constant entertainment and the illusion of constant renewal.  But distract ourselves from what?” (Mackay/SMH-9/2/02).

Speak to many leaders of organisations such as community service groups, or Girl Guides, or Meals-on-Wheels, or the local school canteen and they will all say they are suffering today because the majority of us no longer value service above personal success and enjoyment. The golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’ is under threat by an individualism disguised as individuality. Maybe this is why it can be so easy for us Christians in the Western developed world to understand the rich man and to sympathize with him. He is one of us! Individualism is timeless, a basic human attitude. But! Is it?

Like him, we too want to be sure we don’t neglect anything that might improve our personal situation. Like him, most of us are always looking for something to give us an edge, something that will make us more successful, or more competitive or more complete or more secure. And as such, the majority of us live by the logic of the market place, and the encouragement (or fear driven scare tactics) of those with collective influence and power. We hear the response to this as protest, apathy and plain individual ignoring. Everything becomes a commodity to be used and depleted, hoarded or thrown away. And we have the heightened level of destructive change in our environment as a result of this insidious individualism masquerading as individuality.

Some years ago, now a Dr Richard Greene interpreted a local survey on ecology done by a small group of Australians. The survey measured the relative amount of the world’s resources an individual takes up, taking into account how often we use a car, eat meat, whether or not we recycle… that type of thing. Dr Greene said their individual ‘ecological footprint’ averaged out at about 7.6 hectares (or 19 acres) – per person. That means, if everyone in the world lived at the same level of consumption as that small group of Australians did, we would need 4.2 planets to sustain us all!  I don’t know about you but it is not easy to think about our personal impact on the world in those terms. But when you think about it for a bit one can see that everything I do and you do, impacts on others. The problem is clearer when we avoid individualism and stay with individuality. Web the see that some of the ‘others’ have less opportunities less choices less power, to protect themselves from the negative impact of my decisions. Perhaps that is why those who live in the poorer, developing countries, consider anyone who lives in the Westernized developed world as among the earth’s wealthy.

To perhaps make this distinction between individuality and individualism more blurred and I suggest mor important to wrestle with is to tell another story in the spirit of Mark’s story and this elusive thing called eternal life. A parallel story which invites us move beyond the acquisition of things, towards the sharing of compassion.

A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a creek. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.  “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope you can give me something even more precious. “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

The encouragement is to wrestle with a number of things when coming to this txt about the rich man. The first is to acknowledge that Jesus is not very likely to have said these things that Mark says he did. They do however have a bit of a ‘Jesus’ echo to them. The chances are that Mark or one of Marks contributors had heard of a similar story, reshaped it, and offered it to his small (probably poor peasant) Jesus movement, as they struggled to define their Christian borders and live with neighbours across the road who were different.

The other thing to remember is that we can only imagine what Mark or his contemporary had in the back of their mind when they edited and offered this story some 35 to 40 years after Jesus? Maybe their reasoning went something like this: “Jesus’ challenge… was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. Admirable as his effort had been, he had missed the point of the commandments. Jesus’ challenge exposed what was missing: a sense of compassion for the poor.” (Bill Loader/web site).

“Marriage verses Divorce, or More?”

Mark 10: 2-16

I want to start this exploration of the text from Mark with a translation that I think is helpful for us to put aside some of our assumptions about is and revisit its word to us today. Remember it is a translation but also see it as an attempt to probe beneath the text to seek the context it seeks to convey, the context of the writer and the intent of the writer of which we know very little and make huge assumptions. This does not mean of course that we can’t use the text in this way because our intent is with humility, seeking integrity and an authentic rendition of the story.

We enter the scene: And the pharisees came (and) were asking him if it is permissible (for) a man to release a woman, putting him to the test.  But he answered (and) said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  But they said, “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment, but from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female.  Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”

We note here that there is or are unspoken questions raising the discussion matter. Was there some debate about the authenticity of what Jesus had been saying about marriage or divorce? It they were trying to test Jesus and catch him out why?

And in the house, the disciples again were asking him about this, and he said to them, “Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her.  And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery.” And we note that Jesus answers as a follower of Judaism and as a Jew and he answers with reference to Moses the one who brought his people out of exile. A very core belief for his questioners.

We continue the translation: And they were bringing children to him so that he might touch them, but the disciples were rebuking the ones bringing.  But seeing, Jesus was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.”  And he took them into his arms, was blessing them, laying hands upon them.

Here we note perhaps the reason for the Rabbi’s testing of Jesus? Was he being successful in sharing his ideas of this new way of being he was preaching about? Did the Rabbi’s sense that he was on to something that they had missed? What would it do to their standing? Was there something about this that rung true but would change their world? This realm or kingdom sounds like one that is too accommodating of anything goes, to radically liberalised, and if his success catches on what will happen to tradition, and all the truths that we have put safeguards around. What do we do with all the creeds and doctrines we have agreed to? Maybe this is why they felt the need to test Jesus and maybe the topic of marriage and divorce are just symbols of a bigger threat, that of the very fabric of their social assumptions, What happens to the standing of the patriarchal society? What happens to the peace and harmony our patriarchal society is based upon? What happens to our understanding of community?

Returning to our text we see that it begins at verse 2 of chapter 10.  In verse 1, we had just been told that Jesus has entered into Perea which is on the other side of the Jordan River from Judea.  He is still in the domain ruled by Herod Antipas, but is moving south toward Jerusalem.  We continue:

“The crowds again gathered around him” We note here that this is the only use of the plural “crowds” in Mark’s gospel.  Further, to establish the link with previous teaching, Mark says “as was his custom, he again taught them.”  The mention of crowds also means that there will be a large audience for the rabbinical debate which is about to ensue. This conversation we are about to witness is a biggie and there is a lot of interest in it. Again the reason for the Rabbi’s testing Jesus is heightened.

Looking at the question the writer is addressing, another level of this conversation. We find that Mark has spoken of several controversies involving the pharisees earlier in the scriptures (2:15-17, 2:23-3:6, 7:1-15, 8:11-12) so the mention of pharisees in this context invites interest and suspicion.  These pharisees come to “test” Jesus, as they had also done also in 8:11.  What was the test?  They ask if it was “permissible” for a man to divorce–“release”–his wife. And the test was to place Jesus squarely in the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist being killed.  John had questioned Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias (6:17ff).  “It is not lawful (exestin),” John had said. The Pharisee’s were testing his following of Judaism, not unlike todays progressives face from fundamentalists. The same question John faced is now before Jesus–“is it lawful?” (exestin)–has now been placed before Jesus.  If Jesus agrees with John, that could be interpreted as treason against Herod Antipas.  (Jesus is in Perea, keep in mind, on Antipas’ turf.)

Another significant matter is that Mark has already told us that the pharisees were conspiring with the “Herodians” (3:6).  If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas’ divorce, some of those “Herodians” would no doubt argue that he should deserve the same punishment as that dished out to John. So here we have Mark writing about the relationship between organised state religion and free thinking challenging cultural, social and economic assumptions. There could be an alternative way of being of God’s Kingdom and it might be unsettling to those with power influence and a social standing in a belief system based on control and obedience and a false collectiveness as opposed to true healthy vibrant community based on Love and acceptance and goodness and mercy.

The topic of marriage and divorce is problematical for us in that we come to it with a conditioned social cultural and traditional mindset and its possible we miss the core meaning or purpose of the text. We need to remember that Rabbinical argument, according to Deuteronomy 24, divorce clearly was “permissible”—or “lawful.”  (Deuteronomy 24:1:  “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.  She then leaves his house.”) Maybe the issue of at the heart of the test was not about marriage and divorce but about the very success of the Jesus Way that we frightening the Rabbi’s?

The certificate of divorce in their tradition was called a “get.”  This terminated the marriage and made it possible for the woman to re-marry.  The certificate read:  “You are free to marry any man.”  (France, p. 393) So, Remarriage was not an issue for men because they could marry more than one woman. Again this raises the question of marriage and divorce being more than the initiating topic.

We might also throw into the mix the question of what defined “something objectionable”?  This question was being hotly debated between the two main theological schools of Judaism in that period, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.  The more conservative school of Shammai argued that only adultery was an acceptable reason for divorce.  The school of Hillel argued that almost anything could be considered “objectionable,” such as burning the pot roast, for example.

Jesus responds to the question with a question, which is significant for us in that it is not common practice today but it was a typical rabbinical practice then.  “What did Moses command you?” he asks.  The question is subtle.  Moses had no “command” on this issue.  The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy was, essentially, a concession to the reality of divorce and an attempt to provide structure and guidelines in its wake.   

The pharisees respond that “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  With the understanding that a “permission” is not the same as a “command”, this was true.  Moses had permitted divorce.  The pharisees present an acceptable legal argument based on the book of Deuteronomy. 

Jesus dismisses this permission with a sharp rejoinder.  “For your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce, he says.  This accusation of “hardness of heart”–sklerokardia–is a very serious one.  “Hardness of heart” is associated with resistance to the ways of God (Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7). Almost a rejection of God, a fundamental challenge. Moreover, Pharoah, their ancient enemy, had also had “hardness of heart.”  No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharoah.  Secondly, Pharoah is a representative figure for patriarchy.  Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharoah. 

Having hit the Pharisees as hard as he could theologically by associating divorce with Pharoah and patriarchy, Jesus then switches from the subject of divorce to marriage in general.  In effect, he will base his argument on a broader understanding of Moses–not specific commands or permissions, but a general attitude toward life and relationships based on God’s design of creation. He broadens the discussion to place it firmly in the bigger picture or what the realm of God might be and be seen to be.

Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, he (God) made them male and female.”  The reference is to Genesis 1:27:  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  We not the most significant thing here for us as westernized individualistic focused persons. The “image of God” her for both Jesus and Mark is that it is a corporate–“them”–and includes both male and female. Difference in sex is not part of the discussion. Here we have the strongest challenge for our interpretation of the text. We are asked to put aside our generational, evolved individualism and see the world alternatively. That of the collective, communal, and that in common.

We might note here also that the Essenes used the same text to prohibit divorce.  Contrary to the common assumption, Jesus does not actually “prohibit” divorce in this reading.  What he does do is remove it from being something of a technical issue, and places it in the much broader context of God’s desire for human life.

Jesus continues:  “Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.”  Here, the reference is to Genesis 2:24:  “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Note that the man is to leave his family–that is, he is to leave his own patriarchal tradition, his acceptable cultural understanding, his very assumed way of orienting himself with in society. 

Jesus adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”  Jesus avoids the technical term for divorce (apoluse) and switches instead to “separate” (chorizo).  He does not directly challenge the Mosaic law which allows for divorce, but instead bases his argument on God’s intention in creation which is the unity of marital relationships and the essential equality of male and female. Again it is what male and female, what marriage and divorce are all about. It is the collective, communal the in common.

Jesus goes on to explain adultery and marital relations and in the context of contradicting Jewish law by stating that a woman might divorce her husband.  This was acceptable in Greco-Roman law, but not Jewish law.

Here again we have the concern for the collective bigger picture of this realised alternative kingdom of realm of God. Jesus invokes God’s intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken.  He subverts the dominant patriarchal worldview that only men could get divorces, and only women could commit adultery against her spouse.  His teaching recognizes the profoundly wrenching experience of divorce, as anyone who has been through it can attest, and also recognizes the reality of divorce and the importance of maintaining justice in its application.  

And now to summarize we come to the text that includes the children. This is about receiving the powerless:  Immediately after the teachings on the collective, people were bringing children to Jesus “so that he might touch them.”  The disciples “rebuked” those who were bringing the children, apparently forgetting that Jesus had recently said that whoever welcomed a child also welcomed him, which was the same thing as welcoming God (9:36-37).  The disciples get it wrong again.  

“Rebuked” (epitimao) is a strong word, one often used against demons and demonic powers in Mark.  Seeing the disciples turn the children away, Jesus was “indignant” (aganakteo).  Indignant was also a strong word.  It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus then says, “Do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”  Children represent all the “little ones” cared for by God.  Of these “little ones,” the kingdom of God is constituted. Again the concern is for the realm of God. In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “truly I say to you” occurs 14 times.  It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows.  Then Jesus says, “Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.” The saying is not about the “simple faith” of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.  It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status. We note that 60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.  Indeed, already in Mark, the synagogue leader’s daughter had died of illness (5:21ff.), the syrophoenician woman’s daughter was ill (7:24ff.), and a man’s son was demon-possessed (9:14ff.). Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it.  Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom.  Pharoah oppressed his slaves.  From the point of view of the child, families oppress children. The message here is about the nature of the realm of God which is significantly different from the status quo. It is a radical alternative.

The episode closes with Jesus taking children into his arms, “blessing them”. Again, a strong word used only here in the four gospels. Also; the use of “laying hands on them” is a repetition of the three verbs; taking, blessing, laying hands and it adds force.  Jesus is overtly placing the powerless in the center of the community’s life, at the centre of the realm of God, at the centre of the collective new life. Exactly this collective, way of being where the individual is seen as imperative to community says Mark, is the kingdom of God.  Amen.

A Redundant Dualism or Not?

Posted: September 20, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 9:38-50

A Redundant Dualism or Not?

Mark’s borrowed story set down in the Lectionary for today has the potential to raise many issues 
and touch painful experiences. Why? Because it has the potential to press many of our social conscience, and maybe even personal, ‘buttons’, such as: Exclusion. Child abuse. and Power. Coupled with these, Mark has Jesus speaking in some fairly desperate and exaggerated terms in order to underscore his vision of reality.

It seems that someone outside the circle of Jesus and his close associates is seen to be ‘trading’ without the proper credentials. The disciples, but probably more correctly, Mark’s struggling congregation, see this person and others, as outsiders. And they want to be sure that outsiders remain outsiders. They check him out. Listen to what is being said. Watch what is done. Take notes for further reference. And to be sure the disciples are diligent.  They present their case to Jesus. Outsiders should remain outsiders. The trouble is that Mark says Jesus doesn’t agree.

On this point William Loader of Australia suggests: “Jesus is not an egotist obsessed with protecting his reputation, but someone who cares about people. It does not matter if the love comes from his hand or the hand of another, as long as it comes” (William Loader/Web site 2003).

What this implies is that when so-called ‘insiders’ start deciding who the so-called ‘outsiders’ are, they walk with real danger. And this is expressed well in Richard Jensen’s comment on this story: “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line!  Jesus is always with the outsiders!” (Jensen 1996:149).

So, this story starts out about insiders wanting to keep outsiders out. But it also includes a cautionary note that suggests insiders, ‘though they don’t often realise it, can very easily become ‘outsiders’ themselves by their actions. This prompts our title for today. Is this a redundant dualism or not?

Mention child abuse and immediately many of us will recall the stories of sexual abuse experienced by children at the hands of some clergy and religious in the church. Because of the media coverage given to these cases and the Royal Commissions established to judge it is logical that many, if not all of us, have formed some strong opinions on this subject.

To think this is commendable and proper as injustice of such heinous proport needs exposing and eradicating. Returning to the title for today and not wanting to downplay the seriousness of child sexual abuse in any way, we might remember there are other, perhaps more subtle forms of abuse as well. Joel Marcus is professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Boston University School of Theology. Raises a point that anyone who has travelled in ‘third-world’ countries will, resonate with in his touching, if not challenging, story:

He writes: “Once, on a bus tour of Egypt, we were led into a ‘school’. It turned out to be a carpet factory where children sat hour after hour before huge looms, weaving lovely rugs to grace the living rooms of Western tourists like ourselves.  They were beautiful children who flashed us shy smiles, and their hands flew so rapidly over the looms that we could scarcely see them.

“I remember a young woman from the tour, a college student, hugging one of the little girls and weeping – weeping that this child should have to forfeit her childhood, and her hope for the education that might lift her out of poverty, for the sake of the few dollars she was earning for her family by making rugs for tourists.

“Somehow, just by visiting, we all felt complicit in the exploitation and destruction of spirit that was going on in that so-called school” (Marcus/Religion-on-line web site).

These stories, both biblical and otherwise, certainly seem hard stories for any who wishes to make distinctions between outsiders and insiders. Mark seems to be saying to his congregation, here is a choice: restriction and constraint, or preservation and setting free.

To choose the first is to fall into the disciples’ trap of exclusiveness. To choose the latter is to rise to the Jesus challenge of inclusiveness. An inclusiveness which, as has been suggested on previous occasions, enlarged God to include humankind and enlarged the self to include the neighbour.  According to Mark, Jesus talked a lot about what he called the kin(g)dom or realm or domain or empire of God. But this domain… this re-imagined vision of reality wasn’t some ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thing to wait for. It was present but invisible, becoming a part of their lives right then. Hidden in the dualism perhaps was the significance of division, the significance of the power of hopelessness, the significance of the courage needed to rise above the dualisms and as Jesus advocated embrace the alternative which is an inclusiveness rooted in a world beyond fear, beyond dualisms, beyond exclusion as a manes of ordering life. And it is an inclusiveness that gave and gives a preference to the underside of their social world. The poor and landless.
The unclean. The prostitute. The toll collector. The slave child. All those who had been marginalized, treated as ‘outsiders’, became privileged in God’s domain. And remember it is always a ‘Way’, an alternative always there to be found. Dualisms such as insiders and outsiders are not enough, they identify but they do not provide solutions.

Mark’s listeners were not prepared for the irony of that. It contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out of who should hold leadership in the movement and who should not.

So, where is the good news in all this? Well, it seems that the God of Jesus is the God of politics and the marketplace, the God of the poor and the working and the retired, the tillers of the land, the students, and the people of justice. Of people of all sexual orientation. Dualisms are still with us even today so its nit about eradication nor of living with. It is about an alternative Way of being and doing. Don’t get hung up on the energies required to sort out the insiders and outsiders just get on with providing an alternative that includes all of them.

We can see every day what dualisms like that can do and do, do to our society, to people. We can see the groups of noisy people running around in anguish, shouting: Forbid her!
Not him! Imprison him or her but not him or her. But as Mark reminds us: in Jesus’ vision, God breaks out of our rules for proper credentials, for power and authority.

Whenever we want to draw lines in order to define who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, Mark says remember… Jesus is always with the outsider! And that, has to be the real message of hope for us in these stories! What do you think?

Jensen, R. A. 1996.  Preaching Mark’s Gospel. Lima. CSS Publishing.

Mark 9:31-36

Dancing at the heart of the universe.

The story line seems simple enough. “The earth is in an intricately balanced equilibrium of temperature, ocean currents and weather patterns, and this equilibrium is being distorted.  Massive disruption is going to occur without major corrective measures” (Paul Sheehan, SMH 2006).

The ‘story line’… is the story line in the Al Gore film, ‘An inconvenient truth’. The film is about human-induced global warming. But it is also about one man, Al Gore, former Vice President of the USA, indeed the candidate George W Bush, um… ‘defeated’ for the top job in 2000. And his passion to tell the world about an issue which goes to the very core of who we are, as a species.

This is an important film and all of us should see it.

Support for this film and its moral message is very strong from commentators: “Whether you are convinced by what you see or not, every other subject is trivial by comparison” (Paul Sheehan, SMH 2006). “You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times 2006).

But some don’t get it. Despite the scientific research used to support the thesis of the film
there are those who are sceptical. They claim no matter what we do, global warming is “inevitable”
and instead of thinking we can prevent it or slow it, we should “start figuring out how we’re going to adapt” (Cairncross, Globe & Mail 2006).

Such thinking can result in a paralyzing negativity, especially in the world of global-warming politics, because it makes the problem appear insolvable. Planet Earth’s story is important and all of us should hear it. While it is not surprising to note the negativity in that it is reflected in many areas of life such as anti – vaccinationists, in our Covid ravaged world or an alternative view to almost everything in life driven by an underlying marriage to dualisms as a priori when approaching any subject.

One event that seemed simple enough. Was the return of Pope Benedict xvi to the German University of Regensburg, where he was a theology professor in the 1970s. During his speech to academics, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who regarded some of the prophet Muhammad’s teachings as: “evil and inhuman” (Phillip Coorey, SMH 2006).

While his speech quite rightly condemned religious violence, his biased words implied that only Islamic fundamentalists had ever been guilty of religious atrocities. The Islamic world reacted angrily. Despite a personal and public apology from Benedict during the week, protests continued in the Muslim world, especially in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Iraq.

This is not the first time this pope Benedict caused anger and resentment. At his election in 2005 former Catholic theologian Matthew Fox said this was the election of the “first Grand Inquisitor as Pope” (Fox 2005). While Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff said Ratzinger “a hard man and without compassion,” and he feared that while Pope “an immense hell of hypocrisy will reign in the Church”.

These may seem harsh statements. But what is more significant is that they go to the heart of an out-of-date church and they challenge an authoritarian clergy. Not just in the Roman Catholic tradition but the whole Church. They are important issues and all of us should reflect on them. As issues that still go on in other forms today.

One issue that could be examined today is the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as Governments and communities seek to control and eradicate the global infection. What is the response generating in its wake or in its assumptions or even in its management policy? What effect will the response have on our understanding of what it means to be human in our world today and tomorrow? This is not a protest against what is happening but rather the results of the dualistic and simple approach to combating it?

Another occasion seemed straight forward enough. This one is unpacked by the teller we call Mark.  He says that: An itinerant sage with a group of disciples was walking from one place to another, listening and talking. And that while in a poor, peasant, agrarian society such an occasion was perfectly natural. these disciples were caught up in other issues, preferring to think about prestige and rank in their community, and figuring out how they were going to bring it about.

But this story appears to have been mor e complex than that as the story line is also about the sage Jesus and his passion of inviting others to re-imagine their world: to enlarge their picture of God to include all of humanity, and to enlarge their feelings of self to include the neighbour.

Ian Harris talks about this when writing of the faith journey of Dr Ian Cairns when working his way through Marks Gospel. Ian shows that God is not an unchangeable outsider, but is rather being formed in the processes of human searching and reflecting, and is therefore changing the patterns of human thought. The word ‘God’ symbolizes ‘our highest ideals of well-being, for the universe and for all its species, including the human.

So, in a symbolic act Jesus took a young street child, set the child in front of everyone so they could see, and put his arms around her. To understand the power of Jesus’ symbolic action
we should not think of children simply as loving and innocent. At the time of Jesus children were ‘non-persons’ (John Donahue. American web site 2006).

Where a child was a nobody unless its father accepted it. Where it was commonplace and legal for children to be ‘exposed’ in the gutter or rubbish dump, to die, or to be taken by someone who wished to rear a slave. 

Contrary to the disciples’ desire for positions of power and importance, Jesus is suggesting, it seems to me, that they should be more concerned with honouring into their midst the poor and vulnerable. In other words, re-imagining their world by enlarging their feelings of self to include the neighbour…

To quote Paul Ricoeur when he talked of the hermeneutical imagination: “Are we not ready to recognize in the power of imagination, no longer the faculty of deriving images from our sensory experience, but the capacity for letting new worlds shape our understanding of ourselves. This power would not be conveyed by images, but by the emergent meanings in our language. Imagination would thus be treated as a dimension of language”.

With the Mark story we have a hugely radical way to ignore or push the social boundaries of his society!  To ‘get up the nose’ of those who exercised power to value themselves over others! In acts of caring for vulnerable human beings we are to come face to face with the divine. This, is an important story and everyone should hear it.

Again, in Ian’s work we see Jesus as ‘the human one’ whose authority is of God. Note he is not God but his Authority as Jesus is of God in the sense that he pursues his vision of a world where human beings are freely able to move towards their highest human potential as responsible citizens of the cosmos.

Why? Because the point of Jesus’ life or his ‘ordering vision; is to advance what has been called the Kingdom of God or the reign of God or as Cairns puts it the kin-dom of God. This is not a call to submit to a higher will beyond ourselves but rather to a wholehearted commitment to the ‘common good’, the at-oneness of all things, or a rich quality of life in the here and now, a life ruled by justice and compassion.

What is becoming clear is that in current cultural development we are beginning to recognise that with the corruption of this Jesus ordering vision, essentially by the church itself, a modern ‘material prosperity’ is: harming other creatures, diminishing the functions of ecosystems, and altering our global climate patterns (Peters 2002).

Australian New Testament scholar William Loader suggests that: “Human beings have mostly attributed value to those who have power.  At some levels that has been physical power…  It is equally about having wealth, political power, family power…  They are saying such people are of Or as Cairns puts it, “Faith needs to become an active awareness of the sacred quality inherent in the whole of life, and a wholehearted response to this dimension; and again, ‘a positive determination to wrest meaningfulness from life.

Never before in the history of the world have so many known about so much. The new age dawning is an age of increasing scientific unity. Our living must be set in the context of the larger life we call the universe. And life’s choices are ours to make.

We need to embrace that ‘Spirit’ is a dimension in all of life, a perspective from which all of life may be viewed, and an energy in which all of life may be lived. Once we have heard the cry of the planet, or our neighbour’s cultural or religious pain, or the most vulnerable in our society,
we need to make a choice about what we will do.

Will we dance at the heart of the universe? Will the spirit of compassion and inclusiveness at the heart of Jesus’ life be our response? Will we dance at the heart of the universe? Will the mutual care of a community of faith… be our response? Will we make a difference when we make those decisions?


Peters, K. 2002.  Dancing with the sacred. Evolution, ecology and God. PA: Harrisburg. Trinity Press International.

Harris, Ian 2021 Hand in Hand, blending secular and sacred tom enlarge the human spirit. The Cuba Press

Reclaiming the Humanity of Jesus

Posted: September 8, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 8: 27-38

Reclaiming the Humanity of Jesus

“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee.

He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants

living long enough at subsistence level

to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution.

“He speaks about the rule of God,

and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.”

(John D Crossan)

John Dominic Crossan is the author of those descriptive words about the one called Jesus,

Found in Crossan’s The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. In this book Crossan offers us another lens through which to view Jesus. This lens is one of Jesus as a Jewish peasant. Many have likened this to a similar work on the historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, published more than 80 years ago.

In keeping with the debate we have been having as to insiders and outsiders, those in and those out and the debate around evolution, is the universe fixed and unchangeable or constantly evolving these seems that during the time of Jesus there was two streams of thought within Judaism: one an exclusive Judaism, and two an inclusive Judaism. • Exclusive Judaism sought to preserve the ancient traditions as conservatively as possible. And • Inclusive Judaism sought to adapt the ancient traditions through association, combination and collaboration. The place of interpretation in the process of understanding seems top have been a consistent concern.

Getting a handle on this point seems important for us today also because these two streams

act as background for Jesus’ ministry and belief about God. And they act as foreground for the question Mark has Jesus asking his disciples in today’s gospel story: What are people saying about me? Who do people say I am?

The truth is that we all have our own picture of Jesus. And that picture is shaped by the stories in the gospels and the thinking of several theologians. It is a constructed picture – perhaps more as a painting than a photograph – and we have to admit to have ignored those things we find questionable as does any biblical student or Bible interpretation.

Last week I argued that we have very little evidence for a picture of Jesus of Nazareth but that what we have is significant for a vibrant creative profile for a faith journey. I also raised the issue about the birth and development of a movement called Progressive Christianity based on the work of the Jesus Seminar in the late 1980s/early 1990s. A movement initially comprised of a group of more than 75 internationally recognised theologians and biblical scholars who met to share their thinking and research on the Bible. In their first report, titled The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus, they voted on the authenticity of the stories of the New Testament… using a colour coded legend to express their understanding. They developed the following categories:

When Jesus probably said those words they were coded (Red) When Jesus probably said something like those words they were coded (Pink). When Jesus didn’t say it but it contains his ideas is was coded (Grey) and when Jesus didn’t say it.  And they have been put into his mouth by his followers or the early church they were coded (Black). Why am I saying this? Well when we check today’s gospel story we find that those scholars reckon it falls into the fourth category.

That of words being put into his mouth and this suggests Jesus is in an atypical situation.

What we have is that apart from John’s Gospel, which was maybe written as much as 100 years after the life of Jesus, Jesus does not initiate a dialogue with his own identity as the focus. Does this matter? Does this make it difficult in finding a Jesus profile? I don’t think it does if we are careful. We can still see Jesus as a young man, going to see his cousin John, and being baptised by John. We can see that Jesus began his ministry with a sense of inadequacy. He went to the Jordan to be empowered, for he knew his imperfection. We can also be pretty sure of his character and intent from the story of the so-called ‘calling’ of his intimates. He chose as those who would be close to him humble folk fisherfolk labourers. We can also glean more of his intent by the sense of his love of and compassion for, people. Around him thronged sick people hopeless people common people, and he gave a special place to those who society condemned: scoundrels, harlots widows mentally ill… the lost sheep and not the flock that was safely in the fold.

The picture we get of Jesus is of one who invites all to become people of value, of importance, of greatness even and we are invited to enlarge our picture of God to include humanity, self and to include neighbour and to seek and discover the sacred in ordinary life.

Another part of this picture of Jesus is also of one who taught ‘good humanism’… a turn the other cheek and walk the second mile humanism, a give to others more than they ask. Love one’s enemies and show endless patience. What is significant here is that it is in the ‘humanistic’ side of Jesus we find all are members of one common natural family, no matter what their other pretensions may be.

What we might take carefully here is a conservative reaction to the deconstruction of the sacred or the humanization of Jesus and thus of religious faith. We might remember that religious orientation includes spiritual responses, which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy at the wonder of being alive. It also includes moral responses, involving values rooted in nature—to seek justice and cooperation among social groups and balance in ecosystems. Wonder, although not the only possible response when contemplating the immense scale of matter, space, and time, is surely appropriate once we realise we belong to something so very far beyond us. Such naturalistic wonder and awe counts as deeply spiritual.

Professor of Theology Michael Hogue gathers up these characteristics and suggests, in part, that religious naturalism“…is a humble religious path that decentralizes the human species within the infinitely broader metaphysical and aesthetic rhythms of the Universe. It is a way of knowing that reveres the wisdom of collective human experience and reason more highly than any single sacred book or tradition. It is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come: from the symbols, myths and rituals of the world’s diverse religious traditions, from literature and the arts, from the intricate splendors of indigenous knowledges to the mind-bending ways of the modern sciences.” (Michael Hogue)

What seems to be developing is an understanding that Nature and naturalism are for us today ‘a main game’ for any progressive spirituality despite the continuing influence of neo-orthodoxy.  If we think back over the past two centuries and recount the ways scientific knowledge has impacted our lives, what would top the list? With the growth of interest in Climate and Global Warming, and the cosmic view it can be suggested that the recognition that nature is constitutive of who and what we are as human beings. “Whether or not we believe that there is something more”, writes Jerome Stone, “nature is so significant that all our beliefs must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.” (Jerome Stone)

And given a chance, the cosmogenesis (cosmic evolution)story is too compelling, too beautiful, too edifying, and too liberating to fail in captivating the imagination of a vast majority of humankind.
“For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, and an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself.”  (Thomas Berry)

The human story and the universe story are the same story. We are not encapsulated, separated, isolated beings. Whatever we are, the universe is. “The reality inside of us and the reality outside of us are ultimately one reality. In us the universe dreams its dreams. In us the universe struggles for a moral vision. In us the universe hopes for new possibilities. In us the universe strives for self-understanding. In us the universe seeks the meaning of existence.” (David Bumbaugh) 

Do you not think that Jesus of Nazareth might have been on to something and that that something was why what little he did say made huge sense? And we have been trying to understand him ever since? Amen.


Crossan, J. D. 1991. The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. VIC: Nth Blackburn. CollinsDove.

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

Loomer, B. M. 1976.  “S-I-Z-E is the measure” in  (ed) H James; B. Lee. Religious experience and process theology. The pastoral implications of a major modern movement. Paulist Press.

‘Celebrating Evolution as a Reality Where People Matter’

“He had the ability to teach us startlingly new perspectives with a gentle touch. His calm, inviting delivery let us see what he was suggesting about our fundamental understanding of the historical Jesus. We were able to see how he modelled critical thinking and reflection. He made us comfortable with our discomfort at relinquishing cherished notions and opinions. He taught me that when we think critically, no one has to suffer, no one has to be made the enemy.”
David Dykes

Those words were from an online tribute to Marcus Borg. A leader within progressive Christianity, for whom we who seek to emulate his ability to offer us a way of following Jesus in our time and place honour his integrity, scholarship, and personal character.

Last week we engaged with the human propensity for the creation of exclusive circles and the insider’s and outsider’s debate and we touched on the post liberal theological journey within Christianity. I make no apology for singling out what I think is the most significant attempt to evolve the approach to a contemporary theology and a relevant Christianity and a relevant walking of the ‘Jesus Way’.

Today we have another interesting and different story from our gospel tradition. And a response guided by the thinking of Rex Hunt. It is a single-entry story (Mark 7:24-30) that not only paints Jesus in a not-so-positive light, but also seems to question the very spirituality that initially shaped him. Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in a previous story, the anonymous storyteller we call Mark now has Jesus challenged (and by implication, the Markan community somewhere in Syria) to put that teaching into practice by ministering to those often seen as ‘unclean’—or just different.

Or as we might say in our everyday language…  Take the time to look beyond external factors like nationality, religious heritage, or social position, which by their nature often exclude. So, to use a Borg saying: what ‘lens’ did the storyteller use and why? What ‘lens’ can we use to hear this story with twenty-first century ears?

Rex tells of being on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, several years ago, attending the 4th National Gathering of The Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia/NZ. We know that Queensland is a northern state in Australia with summer temperatures perhaps ‘similar’ to Arizona… Often very high with Desert to the West, channel country and some rain forests in the middle, and the famous, but diminishing, Great Barrier Reef along the Eastern coast.
For years its tourist catch-cry was: ‘Beautiful one day. Perfect the next’.

The Keynote speaker at the Gathering was feminist theologian and Catholic religious, Miriam Therese Winter. And for many especially the men it was a truly wonderful and stimulating experience. It was also an awakening experience for many of them as they began to hear some of the biblical stories through the eyes and ears — or through the ‘lens’ — of women.

Rex’s comments are made in that spirit as he reflects on Mark’s story. The storyteller’s ‘lens’—a Phoenician woman—and her unconventional behaviour as determined by social convention, bested Jesus. If we believe the storyteller, it caught him on the hop, so to speak. What initially draws the dominant culturally conditioned male’s wrath by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness, eventually subverts that discomfort into agreement. Such is the power of an authentic alternative and one might say the motivation for Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need. Now, Mark suggests, Jesus is faced with having to learn that social conventions, ingrained in his spirituality, should not do so either. And if it was good enough for Jesus to have a change of heart, then what seems implied in this story, is: why shouldn’t it be also good enough for others, especially Mark’s own community, to be so challenged?

On the surface the story is presented as one about healing. But if we dig a little deeper, we will find Mark intended it to be a story of inclusion and distributive justice. And where a woman becomes the lead actor or ‘lens’ in the interaction. The storyteller’s teaching moment seems to be: that people matter most. No one can be excluded. None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’. None! The restoration of the individual is thus sacramental of the restoration of society. Not as a preference but as a contribute to the indwelling of the reign of God. We remember here the ‘perfect generosity that we spoke of last week as the sight or ideal and manifestation of the reign of God that Jesus sought in the outworking of his vision.

Recalling last week, we saw that the search for the historical Jesus has taken us to a place where we have very little evidence but that that evidence is very compelling and that we can know Jesus by his profile, voice print and we can discern what is called his ordering vision or what his intent was and how he saw the vision unfolding as the reign of God, the alternative world the spoke of and sought.

The first two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer express the view that when God’s name is truly revered, God’s Kingdom comes and that this happens when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And the man who sells everything he owns to gain an exquisite pearl is a disaster as a businessman, but an exemplar of the singlemindedness that God’s reign calls for. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is about properly valuing goodness, not about prudently valuing property. This ‘perfect generosity that characterizes God’s reign is depicted in the father’s acceptance of his prodigal son and in contrast to the older son’s ungenerous calculations.

Having argued for an understanding of the paucity of evidence and for what we have as being significant and suggesting that we might approach our understanding by looking through a lens let me change the ‘lens’ a little. Arthur Dewey is an author, a progressive theologian and a Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar. You have no doubt heard of them
even if you haven’t heard of him.

In one of his many articles, he explores the possibility of viewing Jesus through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman. Why? Dewey reckons this could help us work out what Jesus was about. He writes:

“It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision…? What can we make of those words?”

How does Dewey suggest Jesus went about crafting his words? He goes on:

“Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision.”

So, what might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audiences?  Rex Hunt suggests the following suggestions and invites the reader to ponder them some more:

(i) dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality;

(ii) admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal immigrants – whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’;

(iii) challenge all to reshape their social categories, especially those of others, formed by fears and rumours and innuendo.

How could this happen? Dewey suggests:

… can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply.

In short Rex suggests we might: practice ‘ubantu’. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explained as meaning of this Zulu word:

We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I de-humanize you, I inextricably de-humanize myself. The solitary human is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.

There are still many in our communities who know what it is like to be without a voice, to be flattened, to be destroyed. And when Christian politicians and pastors — we know the kind — we find them in Legislative Assemblies and all over Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter… When these seek to change laws to enable the church or businesses, to exclude or denigrate minority groups,
it is no wonder others in the community think it natural to also treat asylum seekers,
gay, lesbian, and transgender folk, and the homeless in a degenerating way.

It is sad but we can hear it today in the management of the covid invasion. The move towards legislation for punishment of the fearful the protester, the alternative thinker is a knife edge away from this non-Christian response.

Australian author Tim Winton said in his 2015 Palm Sunday address when talking about the response to the so-called boat people:

We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening.

Social commentator Hugh Mackay called this attitude ‘disengagement’. In a newspaper article he wrote: 

We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed… We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices.

While we might have moved on from that localized crisis, we still avoid the plight of others. We still think that ‘trickle-down economics’ is the answer to every question. Even it seems, if the planet burns itself up as a result of our obsession with wellbeing and so-called freedoms.

Until a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her, gives the ignored or the forgotten, a voice that is. We need to remember that prophets come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t look the way you would expect. Every generation must work out its values and its faith responses
to changing circumstances, just as those who preceded us were required to do. The world is always evolving and not everything passed down has the same value for life in the modern world.

We need to take seriously the nature of our discrimination and yes, we need to discriminate but we need to ask what lens we are using. And that goes for science, for politics, for education, and for religion. Change is what change is. This is an evolving world and we must evolve or destroy ourselves.

Perhaps another way of saying this is to say that when all is said and done, we actually live in a new present, every moment and that new present is qualitatively different from any of our human pasts. In this present, as we think about ourselves and others, how do we
find the energy to nurture a creative and compassionate lifestyle?

Sir Lloyd Geering suggests we need to take with radical seriousness the following:

• An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.

• An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.

• An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.

• An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.

• Responsibility for the care of one another.

• Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.

• Its value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.

I think that’s a pretty good ‘ordering vision’ in keeping with the one Jesus had.

Geering goes on to say:

In developing a spirituality for today’s secular world, we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves…  Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet.

As we ponder further on all this, thus completing this sermon, may our creative imaginations
become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways — a new lens — to be a human community in the world. Especially when everything around us seems fragile and unsure. And especially when we might be facing the transition of what has been called the sixth extinction of civilization.

To reiterate last week’s conclusion it has to be said that the reign of God at the heart of the Jesus Way of being was an ideal kingdom in his ordering vision and thus an ideal goodness that informs but ultimately transcends the moral virtue attained or is attainable by any individual or by any society. It was and is a goodness that transcends what is realizable in history when it offers our life in history a sense of direction. As a Christian today we are still faced with the challenge of discerning how to respond to an aspiring, enabling, but impossible ideal. That is why it can never be a journey marked by concrete doctrine or creed or absolutes that would deny evolution. It is a living dynamic ever changing faith journey. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-Realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Clayton, P. “Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity”. 27/01/2015.
Dewey, A. J. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Geering, L. G. Coming Back To Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2008.
Hunt, R. A. E. Against the Stream. Progressive Christianity between Pulpit and Pew. Preston. Mosaic Press, 2013. (Re-issued by Morning Star Publishing, 2014)

Drawing Exclusive Circles…

Posted: August 25, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 7:1-8

Drawing Exclusive Circles…

The problem an authentic progressive Christianity seeks to address is what I call an applied theology or a relevant incarnational theology and what is commonly the strongest criticism of Christians, that of being hypocrites. Not doing as we say.

Twenty-five or so years ago no one had heard the term ‘Progressive Christianity? It used to be expressed as ‘liberal’ terminology so fuzzy and ‘anything goes’ it was for many almost meaningless. Then along came ‘The Centre of Progressive Christianity in the United States and an organization was born. Churches around the world began to identify themselves as ‘Progressive’ St David’s Khyber Pass Rd in Auckland was one of maybe three in Auckland who signed up to the movement and subsequently became part of the ‘Common Dreams Conference group based In Australia. Throughout New Zealand small groups of people still watch video series ‘Living the Questions’ produced by the Centre, and Marcus Borg’s book ‘Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time’ is still hailed as an entry book to read.

Rex Hunt quotes the following story the German theologian, Ernst Kasemann. wrote in his book from 1969 Jesus means freedom. It begins; The scene is a parish in Amsterdam, Holland, where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore, the keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened on Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive. The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish and set them to do the necessary work, if that meant profaning the Sabbath? Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction in order to honour the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide. The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God’s will.  God… can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death. The pastor tried one last argument: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath? Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: I have always been troubled, pastor, by something that I have never ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it.  I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal.

Having completed a long and complicated tour through some of the sermon-stories of John, this morning the lectionary returns to the stories of the earlier storyteller we call Mark. And this particular story, with all its different layers and subsequent interpretations,
raises this important question: How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’?

The vehicle our storyteller Mark uses, is a supposed encounter between Jesus, some pharisees, and his own disciples, over the entrenched purity laws and the traditions which encased them. Even though many scholars now agree such a debate, if it happened at all, probably took place among branches of early Christianity itself – between Christian what did it look like? Jews and Christian Gentiles – long after Jesus’ death. Through the tradition of purity laws and the symbolic action of ritual washing, Mark appears to show a liberal or progressive Jesus, claiming such Torah provisions and associated inherited traditions, must be set aside. A liberalization perhaps? The question we are left with is Why? Why the liberalization and what was the growing conservatism that Jesus and Mark were referring to?

As for Mark it’s possibly that he knows such inherited religious traditions always need to be critiqued. Maybe this debate is not about health issues or hygiene – and must be re-imagined and rethought in new situations. Maybe Mark knows that such inherited religious traditions can create enormous ‘power’ tensions between those who seek to include, and those who seek to exclude. And as such, maybe, just maybe, Mark captures Jesus’ priorities, correctly. Maybe even some so-called ‘biblical injunctions’ should be disregarded because they can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. Maybe Biblical traditions should never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring! Mark in focusing on attitudes of the heart and resultant behaviour, Mark invites his hearers and his readers to begin reimagining and rethinking.

Let me just backtrack a little and ask just how much we actually know about the historical Jesus? Can we identify, with any probability, which of the teachings and deeds attributed to Jesus are based on accurate memories of him and which are the embellishments or inventions of the preachers and storytellers among his earliest followers? And what I think is more important. How can we discern the ‘vision’ or foundational insights that inspired and informed his individual teachings and actions? And then having caught a glimpse of that vision how can that vision rooted in the particular time and place of Jesus still speak to us today? And this is even more difficult in that it is too easy to get caught up in squabbles over ‘truth’ and ‘real’ and not focus on what the vision was that has taken millions of followers on the path till today and what it is that that vision says to us here now and today?

Perhaps we might start by acknowledging that we cannot know as much as we would want about the historical Jesus but we can be clear that we have quite a bit of data none-the-less. Then we might acknowledge that we can identify with appropriate nuance, his authentic sayings and deeds. Roy Hoover and Robert Millar in a recent article in “The Fourth R” magazine suggest that profiles of Jesus can and have been discerned that will be sufficient to sustain a valuable historical Jesus of faith.

What can be said is that Jesus did not think that the world would come to a catastrophic end in his lifetime and be succeeded by a new age brought into being by divine intervention, nor did he say that he had come into the world to give his life as a ransom for many. This is a foundational change for many of us today because One: it asks, if an apocalyptic hope or an eschatological expectation was not part of Jesus’ ordering vision and not the view that furnished coherence to his teaching and guided his course of action, what was? And if it was not his aim to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, what was he trying to do?  This claims that his ordering vision, his driving motivation, his aim in life, has to be based on what we do believe we know about him as the ‘authentic words of Jesus” and they appear to be from the work done of ‘The Five Gospels” in 1993. That work asked the questions” What can we discern in the aphorisms and parables and is there a unifying theme that holds them together? Is there a coherent point of view that characterised Jesus’s teaching as a whole and guided his course of action?

The second question was that if there is such a thing as an ordering vision or characteristic, and coherent point of view, what was he trying to do? Roy Hoover suggests that Jesus’ ordering vision is most clearly expressed in two clusters of authentic sayings` preserved by Matthew’s Gospel as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Hoover suggests that these two clusters of text hold the vision of Israel’s religious ideal. He suggests that the Essenes specifically through the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, the Pharisees, and John the Baptist, all embraced what they regarded as Israel’s religious ideal as the remedy for the wrongs that plagued religion and society for Israel in their time. Each had a particular and characteristic view of the Temple establishment in Jerusalem that was consistent with their vision of Israel’s religious ideal. Jesus; teaching and activity can be seen as his own version of such a quest and carried with it his own view of Jerusalem’s Temple.

Hoover also suggests that Jesus’ aim was to persuade all who could hear him to embrace his vision and to accept the challenge to actualize this ideal, to live this vision. He believed that by actualizing this ideal among themselves and by proclaiming it as good news about the reign of God, they could change the life of their whole society from the way it was to the way it ought to be. If that were done, what was wrong in his country would be righted and its people would come to know the good life in their own experience. Is this not a relevant vision for us today, for our whole world as it faces the questions of the very survival of the planet and our civilization? Why is it that few people see that Jesus vision can be theirs today?

Maybe the questions we face today are “How do we address issues which, if not addressed, will destroy us?  And how do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’? As Mark is saying.

Maybe we could heed Edwin Markham’s simple religious poem:

He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle that took him/her in!

Maybe we can discern Jesus’ vision in the two blocks of text from Matthew’s Sermon of the Mount.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil, when someone slaps you on the right cheek turn the other as well. When someone want to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to one who begs from you. And don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you.

Love your enemies and pray for your persecution. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? So be ‘perfect’ just as your heavenly Father is ‘perfect’. Matthew 5: 39 – 48

No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account. That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there? Take a look at the birds of the sky; they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow; they don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t God care for you even more, you also who trust God. Matthew 6: 24-30

In the commentary on these passages Robert Funk notes that the three aphorisms in Matthew 5: 39 – 41 forms ‘an exceedingly tight series’ and that they seem never to have circulated as individual sayings. “These cleverly worded aphorisms provide essential clues to what Jesus really said. Funk suggests that these passages convey to us a sense of Jesus; ordering vision, in other words that view of things that furnished his teaching with its coherence and guided his course of action.He also says that these two clusters could bridge the distance between the authentic Jesus traditions in the gospels and the historical figure about whom they were written. They take us as close as we can every be to the voice of the Jesus of history. In these clusters of sayings Jesus urges his hearers to have a total trust in the generosity and care of the Father in Heaven and to be single minded in their commitment to do God’s Will by imitating the divine generosity. To do this is to live under God’s reign. Here we have the centrality of the message as the manifestation of the kingdom of God in Jesus life and work and we have the claim that it is through love that it shall be manifest. Have faith means to trust the divine process and as Spong suggests Love wastefully is the means of revealing the reign of God already come. Jesus’ vision seems to be saying that there is a vision of life under God’s reign that invites the hearer to abandon the accepted, ingrained habits of dealing with life on the basis of self-defense and self -interest. See things a new way, imagine and act out a way of life that trusts God’s care absolutely and imitates God’s justice unconditionally. Scary, life changing stuff as it is radical challenge to the economic, social religious and political norms of the day yet it was understood by those who caught his vision of God’s reign. Are we not in this time of planetary change, social, economic and political turmoil not in need of such a vision?

But and there is a big but in here. Be careful not to make do with a singular focus on social justice, – doing good works look for the hyperbole that exposes the literal and look out for the tactical answer. The idea of the reign of God is more than a ploy to bring about social and cultural change, it is more than a strategy to modify the economic system, it is more than a new way of being church or religious, it is also an ideal to realize. It is always to come, always an ‘Almost’ but not yet. It is not about supporting the destitute the discarded by society it is about banishing self-interest, about a real generosity of soul, of meeting the other in in a fullness, it is a Way of living.

And when we come to the loving one’s enemies it is the indiscriminate generosity of that which we call God that confronts us. There is no prayer for or appeal to the immanent end of history and the creation of a new age by divine intervention as grounds for showing one’s enemies unusually generous considerations. Only God’s generosity is in play here and that is through the sun rising each day.

God’s behaviour is perfect according to Matthew, Compassionate according to Like. The key here is that God’s behaviour cannot be improved upon. It is the ideal. In Jesus’ vision it is always the call to do the right thing, always to imitate and trust in God’s goodness. Love your enemies. Not in terms of having affection for but rather an unconditional good will, that is revealed as the Way of Jesus. How one reveals their love of humankind, how one manifests friendship in a reciprocal way. The love one seeks to emulate is unilateral, grounded in an unlimited goodness far beyond the mutuality of the likeminded this love of God is a generosity that transcends all differences between people and peoples.

To sum up for now is to say that we have little historical evidence but we have enough to be able to share in Jesus’s vision for humanity, the planet and be relevant in the evolutionary progressive world that reflects the divine agency and purpose. The unfinished nature of our profiles of Jesus reflects the potential not the problem and the unfinished character of Jesus’ work in effect invites anyone so inclined to ‘complete; what he began as one’s own work. Again, I suggest an incarnational theology. Amen.

Notes: and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. Thwer
Kasemann, E. Jesus Means Freedom. London. SCM, 1969.
White, L. 1967.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”.
McFague, S. Super, Natural Christians. How We Should Love Nature. Kindle edition, 2000.

The Quest for Spiritual Life.

Posted: August 17, 2021 in Uncategorized

The Quest for Spiritual Life.

Last week we looked briefly at communion, community and things common as the bread of life and this week we continue the theme by looking a little more closely at that which we call Spirituality. This week I suspect those of us with some Celtic in our heritage will enjoy the meandering.


It is said that in the Celtic spiritual tradition, pilgrims often draw a circle around themselves
before embarking on a journey. Initially standing still, the pilgrim points her finger outward, and then rotates in a clockwise direction until she completes the circle. Noy wanting to evaluate this I wonder if most of us do this in some ritual form of preparation for leaving home, some sort of list of things to do before we leave. We don’t think of it as a spiritual exercise but maybe it is?

Again, in the Celtic tradition what is called a circling a prayer is often said and Bruce Epperly offers the following as a contemporary circling prayer;

God protect me on this journey.
Surround me, whether I walk, drive, or fly.
Fill my heart and mind with surprising possibilities.
Remind me that I am always in the circle of your love.
Remind me this day, O Holy Adventure, 
that your inspiration guides me in every situation.
Open my eyes to your presence in each meal,
as I turn on my computer,
as I start my car.
Awaken me to possibility and wonder.
Energize me to love and embrace all I meet.  (Epperly 2005:80)

This practice of faith, the ‘caim’ or ‘encircling’, reminds the traveler that God surrounds him wherever he goes. “While we recognize that life is filled with risks and that faith cannot protect us from every threat, We also recognize that God is present as a force for wholeness and reconciliation in every situation” (Epperly 2005:80).

Today’s biblical stories, I think are opportunities for us to explore what we mean by personhood and divinity and thus are about spirituality. A Spirituality that is the experience of living in the moment of human interactions that are bristling with virtues and values..

The Psalms as reconstructed by Francis Macnab, and from the gospel sermon-story by a bloke we call John, we continue to reflect on God’s present-ness in the world, and in our lives. Francis Macnab, theologian and psychologist, in his presentation of Psalm 84, that we read as our contemporary reading today attempts to get into the mind and the experience of the writer
to see if he can discover or reasonable assume “what was bothering this philosopher of life, and what let him to say what he said” (Macnab 2006:ix).

Steven Prasinos; I think puts this another way when looking through the lens of psychology sees religious experience as a reality that is part of consciousness. We embody this reality as ‘subjective energy field’ that exists within us and around us. A living, unseen, subjective field that flows and vibrates, And within that subjective dimension is meaning, or significance, what matters, what motivates, and emerges into an experiential field. We are ceaselessly operating within meaning structures or as I might put it a serendipitous creativity. John in his theme of living bread explores this also.

What Macnab says he discovered is this. He says;: “I found [the writer] was emphatically and repetitively proclaiming a fairly revolutionary view of the world, creation, his beliefs about God, humanity, the human spirit and human potential. Again and again I found his psychology had long pre-empted our current psychological explorations and research on happiness, optimism, the positive human emotions, and the sense of awe and wonder” (Macnab 2006:ix).

Listen again to some of how Macnab tells Psalm 84:

O God, from my place in the working world,
and in the wide wilderness of life,
I long for that sure sense of knowing what it is all about.

I yearn for that experience of joy
to come to my whole body and soul.

I look for your presence as a pathway to life’s fullness (Macnab 2006).

He goes on to say: Though we are often wounded and hurt in this fractured world,
we discover that this world also has its source of healing. We are all enriched and our hearts are made stronger as we tap into that power that flows into us. The very sight of a spring of water
arouses our anticipation of being refreshed and renewed. From all our external involvements,
we hear the call of our inner spirits(Macnab 2006).

And then in the words of his tradition he says: God – you stand in front of us when we fear the future. In our dark times you bring the sun to shine again. Out of our troubles you point us
to the pathway of our best bliss. And as we receive: we are rich indeed!(Macnab 2006).

It seems to me that what the Psalmist is suggesting, is that we are to experience the divine centre in yourselves. In our bodies. In our actions. In our everyday lives.

As a progressive Christian I want to agree with that. but it’s a bit of a different situation when we come to John’s sermon-story. We’ve been wrestling with his concepts on and off for several weeks now. We’ve struggled with the language and the images.

The problem is that now, as a progressive Christian, I want to challenge John, and reject his apparent denial of the ‘flesh’ or ‘body’ as useless. Somehow I am not comfortable with this rejection of what is after all  a wonderfully created creature. Somehow I think we can do better than this.

I like a growing number of people want to support process theologian Bruce Epperly’s comments when he says: “we need to redeem such passages for our time and place.  We can affirm that the spirit gives life, but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’, it is also ‘embodied’ and ‘incarnational’ (Epperly/P&F web site-06).

Sure, John’s position has a long history. Some of it, as we have heard, dating back to the early Christian communities, whose theology seemed to prevent them “from seeing Jesus as a God-infused human being and convincing them rather to perceive him as a divine visitor who came from heaven” (Spong 2005:61).

And some of it as recent as the early 18th century when one, Charles Wesley, “penned his popular ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ which portrayed Jesus as not human at all, but one ‘veiled in flesh’…” (Spong 2005:61).

Wesley’s world and John’s world is dualistic. Our world is not. Or at least not as much. I touched on this last week also with my concerns about a fixation on dualisms. Life is not just black and white, right and wrong. So perhaps a richer understanding comes with the mystics from the past,
as well as from process theology in the present. Maybe God is in all things and all things are in God, rather than God being a supernatural miracle worker in the sky who can come (or doesn’t come) to our aid in times of need.

As a progressive Christian I want to own the former Epperly comment rather than the latter as a simple entry to a more comprehensive and complex way into the subject of the existence of God.  God in all things and all things in God. seems to me to be a more authentic approach.

Why” Because it is equally important for me is, that experience this creativity we name ‘God’,
routinely, quietly, mysteriously, and moving through life, our life. not as being but as essence insistence and purpose. This way in “is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly again, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being” (Epperly/P&F Web site-2005).

And I want to remember that well into the twentieth century many people thought that the air was filled with spirits of the dead, angels, and demons. Most Christians though of the Spirit as a Ghost and it was only with the biblical translations that change it to the Holy Spirit rather than Holy Ghost that people began to shift.

Yes, we can affirm with John and Paul that the ‘spirit gives life’ It inspires personal creativity and transformation. It lures us to support the well-being of others. It challenges us to look beyond our own interests to an integration of our well-being and the well-being of the planet (Epperly, P&F web site 2006)


The big challenge of today is the understanding of Spirit in a Covid rent world. W can accept that God is Spirit that humans are Spirit but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’. It is also ‘embodied’, even in the rough and tumble of our everyday world. The issue is that such an understanding is in the biblical stories but it is usually found in the less read pages of sacred text!

Bishop John Shelby Spong, has some wonderful words in one of his books, ‘The Sins of Scripture’ that might be helpful. He writes: “I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made, including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God… as… calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is” (Spong 2005:66).

Then the chapter concludes with these words: “We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities.  We need to shift our vision to look within – at life, at love, at being” (Spong 2005: 66).

May it be so with us in all our living. Amen.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Bruce G. Epperly, & Paul S. Nancarrow. 2005.  Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World. Claremont. P&F Press.
Macnab, F. 2006.  A Fine Wind is Blowing. Psalms of the Bible in Words That Blow You Away. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Spong, J. S. 2005. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York HarperSanFrancisco.