What is a Good Life?

Posted: October 5, 2022 in Uncategorized

What is a Good Life?

Rex Hunt the Australian cleric I often quote from tells a story in a sermon on our topic a few years back. The story goes like this and you will no doubt have heard such stories often;

A man in his early 30s was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had a wife and young children and a promising career. Suddenly all of that was swept away from him. He could barely talk or walk. He was in constant agony. His friends and his family, except for his wife and mother, avoided him. The doctors shook their head. It was too bad. He was a nice bloke and deserved a longer life. But there was nothing they could. Finally, he went to a famous surgeon who offered to operate on him, even though everyone else said the tumour was inoperable. The surgeon warned the patient could very well die during the operation, though he (the surgeon) was pretty sure he would survive and return to health. They decided to take the risk. After nine hours of surgery, the surgeon came into the waiting room, grinned at the man’s wife and said, “Got it!” The man recovered and went on to a happy and successful life. Twenty years later the surgeon died. “We should go to the funeral,” the man’s wife said. “I’d like to,” her husband replied. “But it’s on the weekend and I have an important golf tournament.”  (Adapted/Andrew Greeley.web site, 2004)

Traditionally the story by Luke of the Ten healed lepers/outcasts, is used as an object lesson for ‘thankfulness’. Very much like the story of the man with a brain tumour. But what if it wasn’t about thankfulness? What if it was about the new Jerusalem or the new Kingdom of God or the realm of God that Jesus was keen to challenge people with its concept. What if the tenth Leper is a symbol of this new realm this new way of being that Jesus was on about? Maybe this story has some hidden codes within it and we need to break them. Perhaps. Allowing for some general problems with Luke’s lack of geographic knowledge, ten ‘lepers’ spotted Jesus from the distance they were forced to keep between themselves and other people. They called out to him, presumably in desperation, for there was little to no hope for lepers, for the unclean, in those days. Jesus also kept his distance and did nothing. But Luke says he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. And as they rushed off, they were made whole. At that point one of them, a Samaritan, a foreigner, stopped in his tracks. Instead of going to the priests and giving thanks in the ‘traditional’ way, as set down in the rules and regulations, turned back.

He (we presume it was a ‘he’) didn’t do what was expected. He didn’t do what Jesus asked him to do. He didn’t follow the others, with whom he had probably lived for years. Instead, he stood alone ‘against the stream’ and followed his heart And in search of this code we note the words Luke’s Jesus says: your faith has made you whole. Not my faith has made you whole! Nor is it God has made you whole! The healing presumedly emanated from within the power of the outcast. All the other nine (and we read: Judeans) wanted, was to be made well. To go back home and start all over again, doing what everybody else was doing. To lead a normal life… driving to work on Mondays, doing the shopping on Thursdays, attending synagogue on Friday night if nothing more interesting was on, dining on the occasional kosher Big Mac,
meeting someone and maybe starting a family of nice, normal, ordinary kids? And who would blame them?

But one, a Samaritan (read: unclean? heretic? Northern Jew or even Muslim perhaps for a conservative exclusive Christian?) rather than a Judean (and here we read: clean? holy? And even Christian perhaps?) comes back. And Luke’s Jesus gently lifts the man to his feet and affirms him. It’s all right. Remember this moment of faithing.

No brokers were needed. Not even for those whom others considered outside the paddock of God’s love and acceptance. Luke’s Jesus had a lot of time for those who dared to risk being themselves… we recall the likes of the unjust steward or the devious manager we remember the prodigal son, to name just a few. Likewise, many of those whom Luke’s Jesus singled out for special attention, where others considered them unacceptable, unclean, beyond consideration. Yet they were the ones who risked themselves in more ways than those who were the so-called ‘averagely good’.

The ‘averagely good’ are safe, because they don’t take too many risks.  They always keep the right side of any rules. And they don’t step out of line in case that’s a bad thing to do. The ‘averagely good’ people mostly remain just that. ‘Averagely good’ for the rest of their lives. But those who follow their heart and continue to work at being themselves, know that sometimes risks must be taken. Those that know reality is not what it seems, that loving is more powerful than fear, that the weak power of goodness is more transformative than the strong power of rule and dominance and control. Their faithing is making them whole. And we remember another Lukan story – the so-called Good Samaritan, where the question was changed from ‘who is my neighbour?’  to ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?’… (Robert Funk)

Maybe the question from this story is not ‘where are the other nine?’  but ‘where is the tenth?’… Where is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions as Barbara Brown Taylor asks?

Maybe faith is not about how to live a ‘normal’ or ‘averagely good’ life. Nor is it slavishly doing as Jesus says, down to the last biblical letter. But maybe it’s to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. And to have faith with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the story/parable. To transcend the boundaries we erect around ourselves, and as I suggested a few weeks ago maybe its about joining Jesus in the reimagination of the opportunities in the face of the plight of being a leper facing exclusion or an averagely good person facing irrelevance. Maybe its time to realise how much we, and all on this fragile earth, are accepted, and affirmed by a right relationship with our planet. Being Christian today is not about being right or being better than or even being average, it is about joining the Jesus model of breaking through the systemic and the assumed boundaries that are supported by fear and control and the norm and having faith in the transforming power of weakness, of exclusion, of forgiving, of turning the other cheek, of giving up one’s comfort whatever that is in terms of complacency, fitting in, empire building, financial elitism, all for the sake of the other. The power of the cross is after all about being finished, being eliminated by the power of might. Even if one still believes in the traditional Supernatural nature of Jesus or God it is the weak power that works. The Romans and the empire hade the might power but it crumbles in the face of the weak power of the crucified one. Remember we are talking metaphor. Just as the tenth leper is the one who gets it right by not doing what Jesus says might be that the outcast of today gets it better. And in the political climate of Jesus’ time, as in our own, such a claim surely is something to think about? Is the challenge to re-imagine and thus recreate? Is it time to admit that doing theology is not about claiming that it is dealing with hard conceptual knowledge but rather interpreting imaginative and poetic figures. Is it not time to demystify, pare away supernaturalism and thus render meaning to people who do not think that religion means crucifying our intelligence after all are not the traditions bound up by their culture, language and historical time and place in which they grow and as we are experiencing today wither away or lose their symbolic power. Is it not time for the tenth leper to shake up the world. Amen.

What Time Is It?

Posted: September 27, 2022 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 17C, 2022
Luke 17: 5-10

What Time Is It?

Is the Christian Faith going to disappear or not? Is any form of religion going to survive into the future? All these are big questions that currently seem to be driven by a level of fear uncovered by the examples all around the world. One might suggest that our obsession with self and the importance of individualism and personal place in the human psyche is in need of examination. It is beginning to seem as though the age of reason is over and the age of personalization is becoming stretched by the need for collaboration and collective approaches to life.  Control of the masses seems to be too complex to understand and the expending of competitive energy seems to be struggling as; out of synch with the rising anxiety within the populace and there is an increasing resorting to winning at all costs and to the closure through some sort of violence over dominance of expectation. Is protest allowed to include a justifiable violent act? Is Rugby allowed to equal physical assault upon another? Is the game about exterminating the other by any means. The administrators and the referees seem to be the targets in the face of their attempts to protect individuals. Is this a reaction to the futility of violence? Is it an attempt to sanitize the direction  society is moving?

When the apostles ask Jesus to adjudicate on the assault on faith, they perceive his answer is to say ‘Increase your faith’ because your questions are born out of a lacking of it. Its not about expecting your faith to remain strong and comforting, you have to go the extra mile, you have to live as though it is beyond question and then you will know.

Three years ago I quoted an Australian social commentator named Hugh Mackay who was writing for various newspapers, around 2004, and in one of his columns he wrote about the Australian experience of this paradox between sport and anxiety. This suggests that it might be a Western problem as opposed to just a NZ one. He quoted from a survey published… by Edith Cowan University that said; See how chirpy, sports mad and easy going we all are?  Well, yes, but see how anxious and insecure we are, too”.  I suggested back then that there is this paradox at work that is clouding our thinking or making it harder to really know what is going on.

We are in the throws of local body elections and politicians wanting to be re-elected (or elected), tend to play on that sense of anxiety. Reading all their desired contributions and what they intend to do. What they promise. One would have to say that in many cases they are caught up in this game of paradox. How do they win your vote as an ideal person to maintain the ideals of democratic leadership, collective interests as well as frighten us into thinking that they will control all the ills of sector interests, profiteering corporations and runaway institutional greed and corruptible power? They count on us wanting to seek out security and comfort, rather than risking the so-called stresses and challenges of change and they do this by promising to alleviate perceived burdens of high rates, high pollution, traffic congestion, proper ecological policies, accurate measurement and strong audit principles etc. I am not saying this is wrong or not to be expected but rather calling for an awareness of the nature of fear-based change. We read of the like in our Hebrew Scripture from Lamentations, The city the nation, the faith are under pressure for change and they feel it.

Similarly, Luke the storyteller has the disciples of Jesus in the first part of today’s reading, making a ‘comfort’ or ‘security’ request of him: ‘make our faith greater’ they ask. But, the storyteller says, Jesus’ replies: unleash, expend, use… the faith you already have. Faith is a style by which life and work are done. It’s not a fossil fuel, that must be hoarded and marketed. Faith is the eradication of probabilities says Johnathon Sacks, and the championing of possibilities. I would add that it is time to dare to imagine, dare to imagine a new world, anew way and of course this means a way of live as opposed to a way of fear. It is not about escapism in sport or a redirection of concern. It is not about legalizing marijuana and providing another mind-altering drug. It is about increasing faith, increasing trust, increasing a realistic engagement with the truth. It’s a way of seeing and a way of being.

Reflecting on my own religious journey, and re-iterating what I said then, I have to admit that there were times when I understood ‘faith’ as a collection of knowledge, beliefs, affirmations, and memorized Bible verses. That was my biggest fear in fact because I have never been able to rote learn much at all so quoting bible verses draws a blank from me. Looking back, I think I probably understood ‘faith’ as something that could be measured by volume. If I studied hard or worked diligently or impressed my bible class teacher, I could increase my faith. Trouble was I could never study hard enough. I am an experiential learner so book study or any sort of induced study was hard work.

I have to say again that I was relieved somewhat when I heard that faith is not dependent upon a certain belief but rather a way of life. Andrew Greeley, poet, priest and sociologist said: “There is no such thing as a little faith any-more than there is a little pregnancy. Faith is an overwhelming power no matter how weak it may seem”. Nothing was said by Andrew and others, about faith being about a set of beliefs or affirmations… even though honest theological thinking is important. Nothing was said about faith being the provision of answers to a set of questions… even though an intelligent religion is more-healthy than an unbelievable one. Nothing was said about shooting God into the hearts of others with some sort of wonderful life changing set of words called a sermon. Proclamation has become an active political tool that expects something that mirrors someone else’s idea of ecstatic revelation. We are all supposed to know what evangelism feels like and looks like. Rather, the comments of those who invite us to question this need to have faith are inviting us to recognise and acknowledge the present-ness of God already here or there! I thing this faith that Jesus was talking about is like the faith revealed by the devastating emptiness of outrage or utter despair that comes when someone breaks the trust one has in them. There is nothing worse than the loss of trust and as we know trust is a closer word to faith than is belief.

From a study of the ‘historical’ Jesus it seems he recognised the presence of faith in the most unlikely of places. Why? Because faith is an action rather than a commodity. You can’t have it but you can do it. And in most cases, it is an action, a launching out, a moving on against what appears to be overwhelming odds. Is the church in decline? What is the decline in attendance telling us? Is it about the demise of the church or is it about seeing it through faith-filled eyes? Is it already here in another form and calling upon our imagination? Is it rather that our questions are missing the mark? I like New Testament scholar Brandon Scott’s comment when he says: “Theology can never begin by assuming that it already has the answer. Any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest” he says. (Scott 2003). I like that!

For where there is radical doubt, there is also the possibility of new beginnings, of imagination, of hope. Probabilities become possibilities. Of change.  Because as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: Life refuses to be embalmed alive!

But this is only the first part of today’s story. An important part to be sure because it gives us the challenge to our assumptions about faith and truth and it provides us with another way of seeing. The second part – the bit about slaves or servants is a little different. It jars our 21st century sensibilities in that Luke reflects the social assumption of Christianity around the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. We might call them conservative but it could also be the rise of literalism and the influence of Greek and Roman thinking. For us it is also from this same period that we get the pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Epistles – Timothy and Titus – with their household codes that exhort Christians to reflect proper respect to those above them in the social order: wives to husbands, children to fathers, slaves to masters. I say pseudo because the social, political and religious assumptions are seeking to legitimize Christianity within the culture making it more palatable with Greek and Roman thinking, not unlike what we do when we export the gospel. Think like me because it is better. We take with us the basic myth and we manipulate the contextualization of it in order to win votes or increase attendance.

In these collections as in this Lukan saying the radical vision of Jesus has given way to the collective instinct that traditional values should not be challenged (Jenks. Faith Futures web site, 2010). And once again the link between the story and the saying can be found in the contemporary call of politicians wanting to be elected or re-elected, with their claims for “family values” and faith-based engagement in party politics. Greg Jenks, Australian progressive biblical scholar, asks: Are Gospel values to be found in historical expressions of human society, or in a prophetic critique of any and every human institution
that claims ultimate value?  (Jenks. Faith Futures web site, 2010)

He writes: “Conservatives opposed to homosexuality appeal to the Bible as if it provided timeless truths free of the cultural conditioning of its authors and original audiences. I would tend to agree but condition it by saying that the term conservative is no longer able to be so clearly defined. Some conservatives value context above concrete creed. To their chagrin, progressives also appeal to the counter-cultural instinct of the faith tradition that birthed the Bible in the first place…” We wouldn’t have the bible if some didn’t want to preserve the truth as they saw it. But he goes on to make what I reckon is this important comment: “The Bible does not serve either side well in such disputes.  It is a flawed text insofar as it assumes and promotes such things as slavery, demon possession, ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, a three-tiered universe, and the subordination of women. In its defense it is poetry and story used in a literal and artificial way, It is experiential in metaphorical in nature and thus always living.

Such realities should be an embarrassment to traditionalists and progressive alike.  The Bible does not fit neatly with our cultural assumptions…  The immense spiritual value of the Bible may lie more in its capacity to empower our human quest than its ability to solve or resolve our immediate challenges” says Jenks. (Jenks. Faith Futures web site, 2010).

And here’s the link with part one of our text. We find out what life is all about through the living of it. It is always the new that matters, time is a measurement we don’t need right now but rather later because we are always becoming. To be alive is to be becoming. And this is what faith is all about: a way of living, an attitude, a vision, that creates us daily. Like good cheese or good wine, a matured faith is a gradually maturing process. So even if your faith is like a small seed particle you have within your grasp a potent life force. So just do it, get on with it. Love, love and love again/ Unleash your faith now. Its time. Amen.

Scott, B. B. 2003.  “Father knows best! Where is fundamentalism taking us? In private circulation from the author.


‘Storm as Precursor to Life and the Call of Imagination’

Honour the Mind, Live the questions and Explore the Human adventure

Was Jesus of Nazareth the Storm that brought about change?

A poem to start our thinking.

‘Amidst the discordant noises of the day we hear the Spirit calling;
We stumble as we tread Earth’s way; asking that we be kept from falling.

Our eyes are open but often they cannot see for the gloom of night:
We can no more than lift our hearts but for an inward light.

The wild and fiery passion of our youth consumes our soul; 
In agony we turn to God for truth and self-control.

For Passion and all the pleasure it can give will die the death;
But this of us eternally must live, it is for sure God’s borrowed breath.

‘Amidst the discordant noises of the day we hear the Spirit calling;
We stumble as we tread Earth’s way; asking that we be kept from falling.

One of the stark warnings we seem to be hearing today as science warns us of the Anthropocene and the ending of the sixth civilization, we are currently experiencing is that if we don’t risk hoping, if we don’t change directions we are going to end up where we are headed. When John Steinbeck wrote. ”The dawn came, but no day” and of dusk slipping “back toward darkness,” he was bearing witness to the cruel reality that hope is hard work and delayed hope is risky ground. He was highlighting that more tragic than the loss of security that comes with the loss of hope is in fact the loss of the capability to imagine the totality as something that could be completely different. My proposal today under the title of Storm as the precursor to imagination or as the catalyst for imagination is a claim that the violence of some storms is an awakening of the crucial importance of an awareness of the crucial part imagination platys in the life of the planet, our life on it and our relationship with it. We can no longer imagine human life as superior to or independent of all other life forms that constitute a living planet. And why do I think imagination of so important? It is because imagination is required to bring order to, to remember, to orientate, to re-construct, to make one aware of, to story, to appraise both our past and our present. To imagine is to engage in shaping the future, the possibilities yet unmade, to make real what is otherwise absent. To engage in imagining is about a hope as yet unrealized it is always marked with risk, with self-deception and even the possibility of self-destruction. We know this because of where we are in our relationship with the universe now. Charles Peguy writes;

“it is she (Hope), this little one, who carries everything,

For faith only sees what is,

But hope, she sees what will be.

Charity only loves what is

But hope, she loves what will be.

Faith sees that which is.

In time and in Eternity.

Hope see that which will be.

In time and for all Eternity.

And Victor Havel reminds us that Hope is a dimension of the soul and not dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. It is an orientation of the spirit, of the heart. My claim today is that imagination is no longer mere imitation of imitations. It is no longer a part of the world of fiction or fantasy. It is rather akin to that of Hannah Arendt’s claim in that imagination is ‘The prerequisite of understanding”. It is the coupling between thinking and judging. She also goes on to claim that commitment to human community calls forth a responsibility to attend to the important relationship between understanding and imagination and that imagination is indispensable for achieving the possibility of any shared meaning at all. One must be able to imagine the world from the other’s perspective or community remains impossible.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other ………

……… The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

In a world faced with the matter of things, such as the ending of the sixth extinction or the Anthropocene, escatology and the hermeneutics of imagination are important for understanding. The art of religion, the art of Imagining, the art of poetry are no longer alternatives to reality they are intrinsic to it. One way of thinking about imagination is to see it as a way of thinking, responding and acting shot through the whole array of our human engagement with reality. This means we need to challenge any distinction between ‘being imaginative’ and deploying ‘reason’ because to do so is unhelpful. To further support this is the recent studies of McGilchrist and Johnson who claim that this relationship between imagining and reasoning is far deeper than we ever thought is interesting in that the most basic conceptual and linguistic units that we use to think or speak about anything at all are not produced by reason but are rather products of acts of imagination. They require right hemisphere activity as well as Left and maybe even a right hemisphere priority.

Such is the storm upon our sensibilities and upon truth in this age of post covid, impending extinction increasing interdependence politically and socially and the heightened awareness of our part in the change to our climate, that it is imperative that we employ our whole human capabilities in response. As Dr Lowe reminded Wellingtonians recently, this world is almost over, almost about to be different, almost new and we must imagine a new Jerusalem.

Imagine if you will that the word God is a verb not a noun, an action not a thing perhaps loving rather than love itself. Imagine this dynamic action of loving is called ….

The Almost Moment

The ‘Almost Moment is always meditating

until the fingertips of work touch,

embracing the possibility of the impossible,

and living the poetics of the possible,

The ‘Almost” moment is the hyphen,

The hyphen in the im-possible

The hyphen is the proximity of our distance,

and the distance in our proximity.

The ‘Almost’ moment is the moment

The moment of reconciliation,

the deeper, richer, more mature

concretization of moments

The ‘Almost’ moment, taken by itself

is one-sided and abstract.

theism–atheism and anatheism;

losing the ‘Almost’ to simplicity.

The ‘Almost’ moment, taken by itself

As faith–doubt–second faith;

position, opposition, composition.

Is lost in the different

The ‘Almost’ moment, when taken by itself

Loses the other to the question

Both become limited by error 

and the ‘Almost’ moment becomes a negative one

The ‘Almost’ moment held together with others

displaces positions before they arrive

not as higher or better, but decomposed

each one in its place of health-filled ambiguity but not of need

The ‘Almost’ moment when before and beneath

as opposed to after or above

enables deconstruction without destruction

undecidability and the weak become truth with authenticity

The ‘Almost’ moment is more than positive

Affirmation displaces the dividing distinction

Not as arbitrary relativism

But in the name of authentic affirmation

In the Almost’ moment the divine becomes victim

The divine, crucified, humiliated and weak

Become the ‘Almost’ and the moment becomes truth

a weak force, weak strength, of uncompromising forgiveness.

The ‘Almost’ moment is when its empty yet power-filled’

An empty power more sovereign than might

A potent weakness that acquires actuality

The ‘Almost’ moment humanized and real.

Unconditional loving.

And just in case your imagining is being tested and teased by reasoning about now and some materialisation might help? Another poem….

A Serendipitous Presence

Words are without completion

too small for the task that eludes all.
How can we speak of a gentleness within,
the warmth of heart in response to call?

How can we name you ‘Storm’ and understand?

How can we know you, ocean of love,
Words fail to be enough, this we know true,

strong as forever, soft as a dove.
living within and without is our clue.

We know times of spiritual blindness,
when excess and pain distort our sight.
Something within and without us,
shows us how darkness can turn into light.

Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
yet all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.

Words are creative completion

small and yet enough, for the task of call.
They speak of the gentleness within,
and warm the heart in response to the call.

Being confused is ok because as Iris Murdoch said: ‘The world is not given to us on a plate, it is given to us as a creative task. We work and make something of it” So let us “Honour the Mind, Live the questions and Explore the Human adventure” Amen.

What does Lost mean?

Posted: September 8, 2022 in Uncategorized

What does Lost mean?

Oh, dear here we go again! A sermon on the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Isn’t the story so clear that there is no need to preach on it? Doesn’t everyone already know the message here? Isn’t the message clear that the love of God is amazing? It is inclusive of all, aware of the persecuted, the outcast, the lost one among millions?

I remember when one of my daughters went missing at the shopping mall. I was devastated thinking that I had lost her. Where had she got to? How could I have lost her? Would I find her again? What would I say to her when I found her? Why had she wondered off? Was it her intention? What would her mom say to me?

Maybe that would be my introduction to the sermon about the two parables we have this morning as text. The story highlights how serious the lostness is and so gives rise to the emotions one might find in the text of how important to lost one is be it a sheep or a coin in our monetarist society of today. Maybe the rest would be about how I tie the story to the text? Maybe I could tie the parable of the lost sheep to the idea that people are truly saved from eternal torment, or separation from God for time-everlasting. Maybe the lost one sets the value of the stories for us? Maybe the lost sheep is the daughter from my story and maybe Jesus is the searching father, but the trouble is then who is God the Father, is God the abductor? And yes, I could be literalizing the text but how else am I supposed to understand the story? It is for sure not an analogy, so much because it is a parable. It is a distinct literary creation and is always contextual. The trouble is I don’t know enough about the context let alone the culture, the mores, the situation?

And, after all what other interpretation can I have if I want to affirm a substitutionary atonement theory? The trouble is I have to believe that Jesus is God but because he is man also the God bit has to step aside for a while so that we can see how the God bit sacrifices his human bit to save the human bits. Oh Well!!!!! Moving on . . .

Now, if you thought that part was difficult wait for the next part. As one story goes there are many reasons when one can agree that eternal hell exists. One of those is to say that it doesn’t make logical sense Not to believe in eternal hell and here is the gist of that one: if there is north/south, and west/east, then there must be heaven/hell (hell as eternal torment). Make sense?  Well, it might help if we believe heaven is “up there” and hell is “down there,” then perhaps a north/south analogy would be a decent one. But who believes that today? It also means we would be dealing with like things, locales or directions in this instance. When discussing any notion of heaven and hell though, north and south analogies don’t seem to work, as heaven and hell are not simply different and opposite locales, or something remotely similar even, but are so weighted, that they carry with them ethical, theological, philosophical, Christological, soteriological, eschatological, anthropological, and psychological ramifications. So, this subject simply cannot be properly analogized by opposite directions. And even if we wanted to, in this model, it seems to be a glaring non-sequitur or illogical response, to suggest that because the opposite direction of north is south, then the opposite of everlasting life in heaven is everlasting life in spiritual and/or physical torment. That is to say, we would be making an illogical jump from one thing to the other, and thus our analogy falls apart. Why is the opposite of everlasting life in heaven not simply death? It seems that would be a closer and more fitting comparison to make. The other problem I have with that particular worldview that it’s a highly dualistic way of thinking about things! And again, this ads complexity because life is not black and white, it is not just certainty and uncertainty, it is rather shades of grey or more complex than just being dualistic. Sure, we know that a crucial way of measuring and authenticating and discussing and in fact making sense of reality is to reduce things to their parts and having two clear parts is required it is always only among many other parts, here’s what I mean by this. First concede and say that we indeed use our dualistic mind to traverse the world around us. For example, in order to make it safely to my friend’s house for our Thursday night chats, I need to make the correct combination of left and right turns, and in order for my child to understand what tall is she needs to conceptualize what short is. But when we start getting dualistic about our ultimate destinations, things start making very little sense because we know that that is an illogical reduction of options.

First, how does this even work? If God is One and holds the universe together, uni meaning one? How can one be eternally separated from God in the way most Christians contend? We are talking about God as that which holds all of creation together, aren’t we? And not God as a deity like Zeus or Odin even. So how does the true God, in order for people to live in perpetual torment, separate God’s self from them? What, then, holds this space together if not the One God? Could this not be considered, then, polytheism, as hell would either have to hold itself together, and thus be in and of itself a god, or be held together by yet another god. I suppose that God himself could hold hell together but aren’t we then at a different definition for hell, since it is no longer eternal separation from God?

Second, where does this belief in hell as eternal separation come from? Certainly not Judaism! We read of the psalmist of Psalm 139:7–12, who writes: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

It seems that for the psalmist there is no “eternal separation from God.” Not even Sheol, or, the “abode of the dead,” could separate a person from God. Now, Sheolcould be thought of as a place where people do in fact receive punishment, but to suggest one can either remove himself or be removed by God from God’s presence, doesn’t seem to be an option according to this passage. And if we take a look at when Jesus talks about “hell,” or Gehenna, we would be hard pressed to make the case that he even hints at the fact that all those who are there are metaphysically removed from God’s presence, yet still continue to exist. But this seems to be what many of us followers of Jesus believe about hell.

Now, the last thing that I’ll say about this particular response to the meaning of the parables of the lost is about how this “justification by contract,” if you will I will approach attributed to God or even barter is in fact “good news.” Frankly, I’m not sure how the news that Jesus saves us from a place God designed—or, didn’t design since it exists apart from him? — can be called “good news/gospel.” The first problem is that it doesn’t actually sound like good news. The better news is that Jesus the Christ supernatural or not saved us by example, not that we have to enter into an economy of exchange model of soteriology so that we don’t go to a place of metaphysical separation from an “omnipresent” God. That sounds a bit absurd!

Anyway, this has already raised too many questions for one sermon and it is very short on answers to even consider it as a sermon. It makes no claim to be other than a beginning of the challenge to a literalism that has taken years to develop and will not change overnight, in fact some suggest that only with the death of a Christianity based on such a developed myth will there be change. The primary failure of this treatise is not a call to go out and preach a Gospel that encourages people to become lost so that they can be saved. Sorry, but again, that doesn’t seem Christocentric enough for my liking. I think I am suggesting we go preach the Gospel that Jesus the Christ saved us and that we are free from ourselves and our death-dealing self-created power systems.

Have peace!

Or better still

Shalom and Salaam.

Luke 14: 25-33 “Following this guy Jesus is Different”

We note at the beginning that in the lectionary this text is preceded by the parable of the great banquet (14: 15-24).  And that there; those invited to the banquet declined to attend, citing other priorities–care of land, possessions (oxen), and family (newly married). We note also that the use of the word hate is not a call to not love our father, mother, wife and children; it is not a call to harm our family, or wish them ill; it is rather, a call to heed the radical nature of the call Jesus places on those who would follow him, to count the cost and to realize “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple”.  Luke has Jesus using the age-old custom of rhetorical challenge in his presentation. It was not uncommon for such a use of the language to emphasize a point or to awaken attention to what follows.

Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. For the object of his concern is, according to William Loader, family power. “Family power and control which will not release from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge”. (WLoader Web site 2004) And Bill Loader goes on: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family”. (WLoader Web site 2004) In a society where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core”. (Funk & Hoover 1993:353)

This theme of costliness has been building throughout Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus. There is a very real cost to being a follower of Jesus. It will cost the entirety of your being (9:23–27). There is not time to go back and bury the dead (9:60), no time to say farewell (9:61). The cost of discipleship is nothing less than a complete breach with the things of this world. And what are the things of this world in a culture based on the concept of family if not our father, mother, wife, and children? Does this mean that we can have no relationship with our mothers and fathers, our sister and brothers? No, of course not. As we look to the teachings of Jesus on what it means to follow him, we see that it would be impossible to follow him and not have deep meaningful relationships, but it does mean that our relationships are transformed by our relationship with our God when we heed the challenge Jesus offers us. Our relationships with everyone from family to neighbour, happen in light of heeding what Jesus is suggesting. And this relationship, we are assured, will cause discord. What can be promised when the change is clearly understood is that persecution will come to those who follow him; there will be those in the world, those who are counted as friends, and those who are family who will reject us—that is the cost of following Jesus. It does not mean that family will reject one but that the nature of the resistance and the fear of change will be like rejection of family which is in that time and culture the very bedrock of being human. Without the family life would be impossible. The call to love one’s neighbour, to accept the stranger, to invite the outcast into one’s life are all in the similar vein, they are like the cost of loss of family.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other

The truth is that you make my life worthy

Having you around makes my day smooth and easy.

Without you it is hard for me to end a day fulfilled.

The truth is that you make my life worthy

The truth is that you give me reason to love

Without you I cannot say “I’ve loved you since the day I met you.”

I cannot stare at you from afar and know the deep feelings that rend me silent.

The truth is that you give me reason to love

The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

“Great crowds were going along with him.”  This reminds us both that Jesus is still journeying toward Jerusalem, as he has been since 9:51, and that Jesus had a large popular following. In our obsession with individualism, we can easily forget:  Jesus was beloved by many. What he said was universal and not just for the few. He “turned” to address them.  Again, in Luke, this is not unusual.  Jesus is said to “turn” and speak to someone, or some group, on six different occasions, usually with a message of special import.  This one is stark:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, that one is not able to be my disciple.”

This is reminiscent of episodes from Paolo Pasolini’s film, The Gospel according to Matthew.  From the perspective of the camera, the viewer is in the crowd following Jesus.  Most of the time, one can only see his back, though, occasionally, he turns around to deliver a difficult saying, almost as if daring people to continue following him. 

Luke appears to be doing something like that here.  The fundamental message is completely uncompromising.  You are “not able” to be a follower if you place anything, even your own family, even your own life, above following Jesus. Luke has several sayings of Jesus which could be interpreted as “anti-family.”  There are at least six passages thought to be like this. 8: 19-21, 9:59-62, 12:51-53, 14: 26-27, 18:29, 21:16.)  Of these passages, this week’s saying is the most abrupt.  (We note that the parallel saying in Matthew (10:37) says nothing about hate (miseo).  Instead, in Matthew, Jesus cautions against loving family “more than me.”) 

We might also note that “Hate” should be understood in the context of the first-century middle-eastern world.  It is not so much an emotional position, but a matter of honour and shame. In the ancient world…hating one’s family meant doing something that injured them, particularly by disgracing them.  Life was family centered, and the honour of the family was very highly valued.  Every family member was expected to protect the honour of the family.  If some members joined a suspect movement and abandoned their home, this brought disgrace on the family… (p. 235) 

This would have been a real concern particularly at the time Luke was writing.  And we know even today that division within families quite often accompanies the birth of new social or religious movements. Letters survive to this day of some Roman families who complained that their son or daughter had run off and joined some group called the “Christians.”  No doubt some Jewish families also felt the strain of divided loyalties, and no doubt some felt dishonoured by a family member’s participation in the Jesus movement.  Jesus’ saying nevertheless reflects the all-encompassing nature of following him.  The depth of loyalty was akin to giving precedence over family loyalty when journeying with Jesus “on the way”.   

This does not belittle the word “hate” because it is laden with emotion in our cultural context.  It suggests repulsion at a visceral level.  In this case, however, in the context of first century middle-eastern culture, to “hate” one’s own self means that the person disconnects from everything that has heretofore defined that person. To put it another way, one’s past no longer defines who they are.  One’s identity is no longer formed by one’s former allegiances, nor one’s experiences in life, nor even one’s genetics.  These are part of the old world which is giving way to the new world of a God centered existence. Followers of Jesus are not defined by the past, but by their work in the present and their future hope. And then Luke has another go, this time with what could be termed a haymaker punch He says: “Whoever does not bear their cross and come after me is not able to be my disciple.”  Followers of Jesus live with the expectation that they may meet the same fate as will Jesus. Like the short-lived lives of prophets throughout Judaism so too are those who follow the guy Jesus, destined for rejection and very likely by those closest to one.

And again, what is the nature of this rejection? How does one measure this cost? ‘Which of you, wanting to build a tower, does not first sit (and) count the cost, if he has (enough) to complete? –that lest perhaps, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish, all the ones seeing might begin to mock him, saying, ‘This person began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first to deliberate if he is able with ten thousand to meet with twenty thousand coming upon him?  And if not, yet being far from him, he sent a message asking for peace.

A Prisoner of Doubt

This prisoner is not bound by bars of steel,
but the barriers to freedom, remain just as real.
There is no judge that can free one on bail,
and no able lawyer that can keep one from jail.
It started so simply, just a concern here and there,
or maybe a bad memory, that grew in thin air.

One started to repeat, things already said,
offering faint clues as to the negative ahead.
One slowly grows worse, as the stories flash by
One knows something is wrong, but not what, nor why.
To try to go anywhere becomes such a task,
for over and over, the same questions I’d ask.

Then comes the times when how and why become true,
I beg: “Please help me!” and weep a world of blue.
Now’s the time doubt becomes the bus,
and every day is a dilemma to be had and such a big fuss.

The answers we give seem like assurances no one can receive.
Slowly, but surely, the doubting shuts doors we believe.

Now we can see, the beginning of the end.
What is this illness, with no hope to be found?
Doubt as a prisoner of fear

Has no place in a faith that is dear

Doubt as an opportunity to be without fear is connection

A blessing of hope and resurrection.

The two (semi)-parables of our lectionary suggest making reasonable assessments of success–or failure–before embarking on a task.  What if one gets started building a tower, or conducting a war, only to find out that their resources are not sufficient to complete it?  The result will be shame–“all the ones seeing might begin to mock him”–which, as mentioned above, was a weighty matter in a culture where issues of honour and shame were paramount.  Jesus’ would-be followers are to consider quite thoroughly whether or not they have the intestinal “resources” to follow Jesus.

The lection concludes with a summary statement:  “So, therefore, any one of you who does not forsake (apotasso) all that he has is not able to be my disciple.”  This is the third time in this short lection that Jesus has proposed that a person is “not able to” do something.  The phrase is ou dunatai einai–“not able to be” my disciple. 

First, anyone who puts close relationships before Jesus is “not able to be” his disciple.  Second, anyone who does not bear their cross is “not able.”  Third, anyone who does not forsake “all that he has” is “not able.”

We saw it coming in the parable of the great banquet.  The first invitees all had business (or new wives) to attend to.  In this lection, which follows immediately upon that one, we see that all of one’s past–possessions, land, family, assets, “all that he has”–is not able to deliver.  They are all provisional, but walking the Jesus Way, following This Guy Jesus is ultimate. Amen.

‘Creative Interdependence’

Posted: August 23, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Creative Interdependence’

This week’s lectionary suggests that we cannot thrive, or even survive, without recognizing and acting upon our sense of interdependence with the world around us.  It says that an authentic creation emerges from healthy relatedness, not pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rugged individualism, or them and us, it and me approaches.  Even the business world of today is concerned about the interrelatedness of its activity; the bottom line is already quadrupole in its aims as a result. cultural, economic, environmental and social. In claiming our indebtedness to interdependence and the integrated role of all of us, and perhaps most especially our understanding of God, our successes at this interdependence role will benefit our families, friends, and social order.  The aim is to put the “law of love” above the “law of self” and discover a world of constant opportunity to see holiness everywhere, and welcome angels in every encounter.

Jeremiah describes the interplay of divine anger and grief.  In words that are almost too human for the God talk of his day, Jeremiah’s God expresses disbelief that the nation has turned from the divine to follow gods of their own making.  Moreover, they have not only abandoned their loving and protective parent, they have come to believe that they can go it alone without the help of the one who brought them into existence.  They have forgotten the heritage of grace and intimacy, choosing self-reliance and personal and national autonomy over divine-human interdependence. One of the challenges we face is that our God has been distanced from humanity so much that many of us no longer consider our God relevant.

As a parent and grandparent, the behaviour of Israel reminds us of a toddler who says “I don’t want you” to a parent even though her or his survival and nurture depends on the parent’s love, or a teenager who boldly rebels against his or her parents, proclaiming her or his freedom while using the parents’ financial credit cards and tuition payments.  We know that differentiation is essential to growth, and that interdependence rather than absolute independence or utter dependence is what we seek.  God wants Israel to grow up and become an agent in its own economic and political well-being; but that which we name God also knows that healthy growth depends on recognizing the source of our survival and the gifts that enable us to be creative. The oceans are part of how we survive as a species. We are interdependent even though we can no longer breathe underwater without artificial means. This will be the same for us when we are surrounded by Robots empowered by artificial intelligence. Our interdependence with them will be the topic of the day.

The heavens might still cry out against our worship of false gods, idols of our own making and that is good.  Following penultimate realities of so-called absolute status rather than the ultimate ambiguous reality suggests Paul Tillich, eventually leads to personal and corporate destruction. (My words).

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

Psalm 81 continues this theme of divine-human interdependence.  When we turn from God individually or corporately, there are negative consequences.  When we forget that we are part of nature, sharing the Earth with other non-human animals, we reap the whirlwind of ecological destruction and put ourselves, our children, and planetary future at risk.  Still, and here’s the rub. This God is always willing to welcome us home to a great feast, the feast of abundant living in relationship with creation, both human and non-human. Evolution, progression, hope and grace all suggest the invitation is always there. Something in this interdependence suggests that our vocabulary, our perception, our truth and our knowing is always to be. This is where I have suggested a naming of God as ‘Almost’ might be a better option. ‘Almost’ suggests that there is always more, always potential, always hope in the complexity and the seeming lack of order or predictability that we live with today A definition of entropy suggests that the gradual decline into disorder and ultimately the defeat of a supernatural or metaphysically bound God faces is inevitable. There is a need to rename and redefine that which we name God and the question is, is this because we have lost sight of our interdependent nature?

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

Imagine living as if the people you encounter are messengers from God, and I am not using imagination here lightly but that’s another sermon or three. Imagine if everyone is the image of ‘The Christ’ the source of insight and wisdom and the invitation to generosity and care.  How would your life change if you saw every encounter charged with “God’s grandeur?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beyond Rules…

Posted: August 17, 2022 in Uncategorized

Beyond Rules…

What does it mean to be a follower of Yeshua of Nazareth in 2020? We have a few years under the belt now that suggests being a Christian is less about being a Protestant or a Catholic or being a Presbyterian as opposed to a Methodist, but is it still that? I don’t think it is, in that it has to be said that the difference these designations try to portray are already consumed by irrelevance redundancy and have become concepts of the past that no longer contribute to the world as it is now. While it might be said and with some justification that denominationalism and an institutionalism of the industrial world has had its day there is still a human need for gathering as a collective group of people for taking stock of what it means to think then act, to acknowledge that we don’t yet know it all and that its ok to enjoy being a responsible human being. There are signs that this awareness is happening, even amongst the increasing divisions and intolerance of diversity that seem at time s to control the world. The world is shrinking as we humans become more global and less national, more cosmic than local. Globalization of economies and partnerships is inevitable. The commercial world is interdependent for materials and trade partnerships that demand the collective and the collaborations. Interdependence is real and the relevance of differences are torn between individualism and the collective but only at a personal and superficial political and social level. Suspicions of the power and influence of the corporate bring a focus on the individual and sadly the individual loses sight of how to work collectively. The relevance of religion and subsequently of Christianity is a real question that the church seems reluctant to acknowledge or has put in the too hard basket. Even the recent Popes have had to rethink what it means to be a Christian in today’s world and it has to be said that in almost every congregation there would be such diversity of theology that it is hard to distinguish what the differences are. Sure, the practice, the way we do things, still has some difference but essentially in terms of theology, and belief there is little difference. Our theological task has become a battle for difference and thus something we should not do for the sake of harmony. I suspect that the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in its attempt to revisit the question of unity and the impact its decisions around diversity and sexuality have had on its unity are just examples of a church in survival mode as opposed to mission. Is this just waving the flagpole without a flag? The world has taken over the issue of diversity and subjugated it to the realm of chaos as opposed to order. We might all be more confused or alternatively more diverse in our thinking but is that because we have failed to keep up with change? This is a remarkable shift given that it is only a little more than 500 years since the Catholic verses Protestant Way emerged. I would suggest that just as there was a need for Luther to challenge his church and to challenge what would have been considered fundamental truths there is the same need today. Like the Roman Catholic Church in those times the institutional church today is in need of revolution, if it is already not too late, and like then I think it is in the areas of belief and practice, not in the sense of the previous practice being wrong but, rather, in its need to be relevant in its engagement with culture and human need. The need to be contextual is today being relevant in a world of huge diversity and of rapid change.

In terms of human need I suggest that our cosmic beliefs and our ecological practices need to be spoken to, spoken for and critiqued with our theological, justice and peacemaking beliefs and practices. We cannot afford to be moderate’s any more. We need to be protestants again perhaps. We need to provide some resistance to the injustice of today. The ecocide that is evident, the apathetic approach to responsible management of the planet needs the resistance of protest and the application of compassion, responsibility and collective action. Otherwise, we might have war to do it for us. One might even say that Cameron’s Brexit, Trumps election and Putin’s War in Ukraine are examples of the breakdown in our society and this need for a global responsibility. A new understanding of neighbour and a new responsibility of co-creator of society. And I am not talking of global parliament or a single administration. I am talking about attitude and purpose and practice, and ultimately a new theology perhaps of a weak power, a turn the other cheek power, a shared vulnerability that invokes a compassionate response, a theology that acts as though it believes that love changes things and that grace and forgiveness are societal imperatives not just choices. Is it appropriate for a dominant ordering institutional ideological and political evolution and practice? Is it that expectations have not been heeded and protest without transformation is doomed to be squashed by superior powers? In the end will justice suffer at the hands of might. And let’s not be naive here, this sort of resistance is risky today because it can very easily be sidelined by political propaganda paid for by the mighty, but then again it might sew some seeds of change in the understanding of a gospel power and the way that power is applied.

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

Is it not time for a protest against religious apathy and its theological bases of salvation through fear and its reliance on the theory of original sin and its doctrines of atonement and penance as those things that are destroying religion and is it not time to challenge the assumptions of absolutes that lie in the way we talk and be the church. Protestant meant those who protest matters of faith and those matters of faith were about the wellbeing of society, and that wellbeing was dependent upon faith.

In today’s traditional gospel story by the anonymous storyteller, we call Luke, we find an imaginative, rather than an historical story, of Jesus supposedly breaking the law. Luke says Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when he saw a ‘bent-over’ woman, and he immediately stopped what he was doing, called the woman, and heals her. We have heard this story many times in our life-time, but can we imagine the woman in this story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I wonder if our storyteller called Luke also went on to re-imagine the woman. In his storyteller’s heart, did she also discover “that once you have started to unfurl, once you have set foot on the path of healing there is no way back and there is no stopping either. It will protest, it will fight itself free, rip things open, tear the bonds asunder, and it will hurt because it is beyond the rules?” Amen.

‘The Challenge for Progressive Christians’

Conservative Liberal, Radical, Moderate, Traditional, Mainstream, Orthodox, all labels that seek to claim some sort of exclusivity amidst diversity. All valid but perhaps stereotypical in response amidst a reality that is never static or absolutely definitive. Each believing it has the right to be balanced in everything. Given the aforesaid is there any point to claiming anything to define one’s theological approach to reality or at least to one’s own belief system in this increasingly secular age, if that is not also beyond singular definition.

Sam Harris in his book ‘End of Faith; said that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. This seems to me to be a suggestion that all Christians including ‘Progressive Christian’s like I liked to think of myself as are responsible for the conflict. He said that Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed”. He names scriptural literalism as the prison of non-violence and I tend to agree. Violence cannot be eradicated because any allowance of literalism allows the violence to exist. Pretty harsh and directed words for one to hear.

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

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

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

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

It is a bit of a shock when we read these words because this isn’t the gentle and long-suffering and peaceful and approachable Jesus many of us have traditionally come to expect. This sounds like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone near the end of his tether. Having heard this story it does make it a bit difficult to preach from it, because it paints such a dark picture, and because history has proved it true in so many ways.

Let’s take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit of the story. And let’s take a look at it from what could be said to be a non- literalist view and what I want to call a radical non-orthodox view. The scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar write in their notes on this story: “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce new thinking into family relationships, for example, in his suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

While, West Australian theologian Bill Loader says: “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”. But Loader is not finished.  He goes on: “…or is it?  He suggests that ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The danger here is that the peace they mean is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts and we are well aware that such suppressed issues are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity.  Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes.  At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo.  Sadly, for many people non enlightened Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly.  The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spiritualities” (Loader web site, 8/2010). That has to be a challenge to being Progressive surely?

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

Despite his regular habit of going into lonely places to pray and to restore his own space and equilibrium, he still experienced stress and tiredness and perhaps a degree of depression, and he reacted to it.

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

Very often we can think of Jesus as some sort of superhuman being. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the story-teller we call Luke, it makes sense. We know in our bones that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. Moreover, our present world is not one free from religious conflict. While we might have moved from nations pitted against nations and violent outbursts on a global scale might be reduced to isolated yet persistent violence in the name of causes with underlying or over-arching religious tone. People still bomb and kill other people all in the name of God, and we are now stretching what we mean by the name of God.

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

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

Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Or can the ‘good news’ itself be a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Continuing the questions of Susan Nelson, fellow process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” Why indeed!  Marshall goes on: “… is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will?  Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not ‘strong enough.’ I and John D Caputo seem to agree here and suggest that the problem might be with the so called ‘strong omnipotent interventionist, in control, God to start with and the weak God that is found in the ‘perhaps’ or the ‘almost’, the ‘yet to be’ and ‘uncompleted’ God might be an approach free of the dangers of extremism and the apathy inherent in the moderate approach. Being confident of God as a weak vulnerable God cannot be a perpetrator of violence. Or can it given the defensiveness of Christian factions bound to supernaturalism and literalism in a fear of extinction.

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

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

So how can we hear the words of Luke’s Jesus, today. Perhaps a couple of suggestions.

Like my response to a question about different Christian denominations recently, firstly, we need to hear them in context. And that context seems to have been an expectation, wrongly, that the world was coming to an imminent end.

So, people were required to live ‘in the proper way’ even when parents or friends or one’s spouse may have held a different religious orientation. Second, we need to hear these words within the dominant Jesus message, usually summed up in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. Third, we can listen to the critics of religion.  And listen well

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

Meanwhile theologian Sallie McFague in her book Models of God, has suggested that each age must look at how its images for God, function. And if some images work for death, it is appropriate, even necessary, to find the new ones that work for life.  All of life.

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

To sound like an old academic, I might suggest that thinking theologically might help, so long as thinking theologically means more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past. We are beyond acceptance verses deconstruction. We are now in the reconstruction phase which is not about just restating with old words. And at the risk of being literal,

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

May those who are Progressives have the courage to go on that (reconstruction) journey despite all odds.


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

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


Are We Afraid of Hopelessness?

Today’s readings describe what seems impossible possibilities. Hope amidst hopelessness, a life of love that rebuffs a life of fear.  Todays, world is in a place in time it has never been before. Despite the fact that it has experienced 5 extinctions of its civilizations the planet is still here. It still lives. We are left with the question as to what about us in the nearing end of the sixth extinction and especially what of our faith? What does it have to say to us in what seems like an exponetial race toward an end? What are we afraid of and more so where do we find hope in these days of human history? Big questions and the importance of ‘Do not be afraid’ goes straight to ‘Where is our hope?’ What is the ‘good news?’

Isaiah challenges the people to go from apathy to awareness and transform their worship from ritual to justice-seeking.  Today in a world racing towards the completion of secularization and abandonment of ‘religion where is this thing called hope” What does it look like? Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah following God’s promises that, although they are childless, they will become the parents of a nation.  Jesus asks his followers to stay awake in every season of life, and sell their possessions to have resources to give to the poor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are immediately left with the question: Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so good? Well! perhaps it’s because Luke knows that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, maybe be even a heralding of the end of a civilization, and we often prefer our old, familiar, certain ways. We hide in a fear of change, a fear of credibility, a fear of the big picture and we hide in the present. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth or a reluctance to recognize that we live on a living planet that has cycles of its own. We reject the idea of a serendipitous reality and hide in our not knowing. We are afraid that we might not understand. We are aided in our fears by the world we have created. Our advertising is based on our feel-good factor and when we feel afraid we opt out in favour of safety and certainty. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed and we shouldn’t be afraid. Or so we tell ourselves.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future. It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again. We need to be contributing, cooperating, collaborating and participating not hiding from, avoiding, and living in fear.

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

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

But wait a minute! The, people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. Maybe it’s too easy for us to see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. Is that us avoiding our own fears and projecting it backwards. It’s all the fault of my parents or my upbringing. What am I afraid of?

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

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

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

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

‘What if the First Creation Story had it Right?’

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night and there was evening and there was morning, the first day. God called the dome Sky and there was evening and there was morning, the second day. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God saw that it was good. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

What if it is what we do with creation that is our responsibility and that is the meaning of the second creation story? Hosea 11: verses 1 to 11 is full of God’s parental love and patience with a wayward and disobedient child. And we are pretty sure that Hosea was writing from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  We are also of the view that Hosea was writing from Israel after the split between the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  The Assyrian empire was invading and much of Hosea’s prophecy revolved around the theological implications of the fall of the Northern Kingdom. This period in Israel and Judah’s history was marked with a great deal of political intrigue and instability, and it was at a time when stability was needed to defend Israel from Assyrian attack. Local Canaanite religious practices seemed to have made their way into Jewish practice, particularly of the god Baal. The Canaanite god, Baal, was the storm god and was associated with rain and fertility. It seemed that Israelites were turning to, or perhaps syncretistic incorporating, Baal worship. This suggests that the text is wrestling with two things at least. One being the understanding of just who this God is and how this God operates and two what does this God want from his people?

In a classic text on the prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts that the prophet’s passion is energized by her or his vision of the divine pathos. The prophetic God is passionate for justice and God’s passion for justice is grounded in God’s intimate care for the world in all its wondrous messiness. God not only loves humankind, God loves individual persons and grieves when one of God’s children is homeless, abused, unjustly treated, or neglected. God is equally passionate in God’s response to those who commit injustice. God still loves them, but God’s passion may sound like what Hosea describes as a lion roaring in the wilderness.

Hosea’s words epitomize the divine pathos. God’s people are bone of God’s bone and flesh of God’s flesh. God mourns, laments, struggles with mixed feelings of love and rage, and vows to be faithful to God’s people despite their infidelity. God sees the people suffering as a result of their injustice and mourns for them, knowing how painful the consequences of injustice will be for them. Again, we have this call to see the goodness that is part of creation and the priori for respoinse.

In effect, Hosea’s God is literally mad as hell at these wayward people. But, love tempers God’s anger at their behaviour. Like a parent whose child has gone astray, God is angry and anguished, but this cannot nullify God’s love. While we may have more “rational” and “dispassionate” understandings of God’s love, we need to ask ourselves imaginatively questions such as “What would anger God about our nation’s behaviour? Where have we brought pain to God?” We must ourselves, “Where are we turning away from God? Where are we oblivious to God’s call through the experience of those persons who, to use Howard Thurman’s words, have their backs against the wall due to poverty and injustice.

Hosea is speaking to the nation, and of course this also includes individual decisions as well. We are the nation and we cannot evade – those of us who “have” – our complicity in our nation’s waywardness. The prophetic God would be rightly angered by the vast gulf between the rich and the poor, our destruction of the environment, our abandonment of children, our voicing family values and yet supporting business policies that destroy family life, our failure to provide sufficient incomes for the working poor, and the institutionalized injustice inspired by prison systems driven by profit rather than human wellbeing motives.

Nichole Torbitzky a university teacher comments that she hears regularly from her undergraduates about the unfortunate comparison between the ‘wrathful’ God of the Old Testament and the ‘loving’ God of the New Testament. She actually enjoys this discussion because it gives her the perfect teaching moment to correct a theological mistake. Implied in this observation is that two different gods are at work here and almost always, the student will backtrack and clarify that what was really meant is that God is the same God in both testaments, just that God became more loving and forgiving in the New Testament. This is when Torbitzky refers to our passage for this Sunday from Hosea.

The people of Israel had broken their end of the covenant with God by worshipping Baal and other Canaanite gods alluded to throughout the book of Hosea. Hosea sees this as a refusal to trust in God to protect them from the invading Assyrians. The Northern Kingdom’s lack of trust in God could also be seen in the many political intrigues that marked this period (see 2 Kings 14–17). 

In the midst of all of this unfaithfulness, Hosea used parental imagery to describe God’s faithfulness. God appeared as a parent-figure who calls, loves, teaches, heals, leads with kindness, embraces/hugs, bends, and feeds. Even in the face of the people’s disobedience and unfaithfulness, God’s heart cannot bear to punish, but grows warm and tender. This is not a picture of a wrathful God. Contrary to popular belief Hosea depicted a loving and forgiving God, who invites reconciliation. God is good and it is we who make the response.

Today’s passage provides a huge amount of rich material. Not only does Hosea’s image of God reveal the constancy and loving compassion God has toward humanity throughout the Bible, but he also highlights that the truth about the nature of God is so important to a view of the human-divine relationship. For Christianity and for process thinkers in particular, this passage from Hosea highlights the truth that God never promises individuals, groups, or nations, that they will never have to deal with adversity and hardship. Rather it claims that hardship is real. Adversity is unavoidable (especially when we are making foolish decisions). The other truth is that God is Love and love never abandons us even in our hardship and adversity, and poor decision-making. Love does not negate our hardship and adversity but rather acknowledges it as part of living. Even, at our lowest, even when we are forgetful, fearful, and unfaithful, our God is with us, calling and directing us toward the path of the divine life, the divine pathos.

When we read our New Testament text for today, we see that back at the end of chapter 10, Jesus visits Martha and Mary, who are most often said to be located in the town of Bethany (John 11), about two miles southeast of Jerusalem. Jesus goes from there to pray, have dinner with some Pharisees, and to cast out a demon. No mention is made of the specific geographical location since Martha and Mary’s house, but it is probably safe to say that he is in Judea during the events of our text for this Sunday.

When we look at the background for this text, we see the Laws of inheritance: In our story, a man in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene on his behalf in a question of inheritance. The man requests, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Here are some of the assumptions that we usually make around this passage

  1. This is a younger brother making the request.
  2. The younger brother is getting no inheritance at all and is asking for ‘his’ half.
  3. There are no other brothers.
  4. There are no sisters.
  5. There is no mother.
  6. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son.
  7. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son as a matter of ‘birthright.’

It would be fair to say that most of us have made these assumptions when reading this text and perhaps we might have been challenged to ask if these assumptions are that accurate. For example, it appears that ‘birthright’ inheritance is not set in stone in Jewish law and certainly not in Roman law. Why? Because Jesus, it seems, is quick to see past the assumptions to the possible complications and mitigating factors in inheritance squabbles. He doesn’t ask if the man has a right to half of the inheritance, nor does he try to get to the bottom of whether or not it is fair that a man should get half of the inheritance.

So, what if the man is asking Jesus to choose laws of Israel over the laws of Rome or vice versa. This would not be the only place in the gospels where someone tried to trick Jesus into making a declaration that could be used as evidence of sedition. Perhaps that is what is going on here. But, then again, it was not unusual in Jesus’ day to seek the opinion of a learned and respected Rabbi on matters such as this. (we have our lawyers and our theologians present,) The Talmud (the book of Jewish legal interpretations) is full of questions and opinions to help settle matters just like this. Perhaps the man in the story is simply looking for this popular, young, charismatic rabbi to shake things up regarding inheritance law. Jesus has, after all, just been denouncing the Pharisees (see Luke 11:37-12:3). He did have a way of upending conventional wisdom. Just a few sentences back he exhorted his listeners to “not fear those who kill the body” (Luke 12:4). Considering all of this, perhaps the man in the crowd is not crazy or hiding ulterior motives when he asks this question.

Maybe the man is not completely crazy, but he certainly does not get the truth Jesus is there to speak. Jesus’ response is quick and one might say; delicious. He, responds to this question with a question, “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you” (Luke 14)? Jesus is clearly not interested in getting involved in these kinds of squabbles. The next question we come to is “why not?” Why does he not have anything to say about inheritance rules? Jesus has had a lot to say about the treatment of the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast, and the marginalized. Why would he not have something to say about ensuring that inheritance is used for those same ends? Why would he not take this opportunity to upend the inheritance rules of both Roman and Jewish societies that tended to favour the oldest son? Why not proclaim that inheritance should be split equitably between all of the children, including the daughters? Why not proclaim that an inheritance should not be claimed until the mother passes away too, to protect widows? Frankly, we would not have been surprised if Jesus had made these kinds of prescriptions for life in the coming Kingdom. Some of us even treat the bible as though it does.

Rather than answer the man’s question directly, as he so often does, Jesus tells a story as an answer. The story is commonly called the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In this parable, a rich man, who just got richer, decides he needs to build bigger barns to store his grain and riches. The Rich Fool tells himself, ‘then I will be happy, and relax.’ And to be honest, this doesn’t seem all that foolish. Most of us don’t think we have a great deal of wealth. And because of this the wealth we do have, we want to protect. Would it not be foolish of us to fail to protect that which we have worked so hard to gain and save, in hope of one day retiring and enjoying the fruits of our labour and maybe passing a little onto our children (or at least not being a financial burden to them at the end)? To our mind, that is an important part of the dream. So far, the man in the parable seems pretty level headed. So, what is the problem?

Just as the Rich Fool was settling down with his plans and his dreams of retirement, God intervenes and upends these well-laid plans (as this so-called interventionist God is wont to do it seems). God’s words for this man are not what we would have expected. God does not tell him, ‘Well done, wise and faithful servant! You sowed and reaped, managed and saved, and even though tonight is the night your life is demanded of you, you have left a worthy legacy!” Instead, he is reprimanded for his greed and foolishness. God demands, ‘who will gain from all of this stuff you have stored up!?” In the context of this passage, the answer naturally is his heir, probably his oldest son, for the most part.

Again; why would storing up all of this stuff for one’s heir be a problem? That seems only right. And, here is the part where we fall in love with Jesus all over again. Jesus is talking to a guy who is moaning about inheritance inequities as he sees them. And Jesus implies that inheritance laws are a problem. They are problematic because they cause enmity in households, because they leave out the vulnerable, because they are a testimony to the greed that causes one to think only of himself, but they are not “rich toward God.” (Right about now you might be thinking about the family that has had big trouble over what is ‘fair’ when Mom and Dad passed away.) Our current concern in NZ might suggest that the marriage split fairness is an issue in the forefront of our time and needs to be dealt with.

Implied in this condemnation is that being rich is both a spiritual and a very real material and financial commitment to the Realm of God. But wealth hoarded, is foolish. Life is short, and one never knows when their day has come. Wealth shared, bellies filled, lives changed for the better, is wise. It is the Jesus Way. It is faithful to God.

So, Does God Want Us to be Wealthy? What I have just said is deeply unpopular with many good people in many good churches. And this suggests that we have to think very carefully about what it means to be rich toward God. We have to be very careful not to let ourselves off of the hook too easily. An appropriate sermon illustration for today may come from a Bloomberg article about the super-wealthy who promised huge donations to the Notre Dame Cathedral rebuild. According to the Bloomberg article, at the time of its writing, no actual funds had come from these mega-wealthy donors. Instead, all of the money that had been received at that point had come from small donors, particularly donors from the US and from the French government. The ethical questions around giving vast amounts of money to rebuild a building rather than feed the poor or house the homeless is worth spending some time on. The Congregation at St David’s Khyber Pass wrestled with this ethic that supports making their building an A category building. Is this the Jesus Way? Is the restoration of the lovely old building what God would want? Of course, it is. But is it really?

In terms of process thought about God, we can see an easy argument for the idea that God wants us to be wealthy. It goes like this: 1. God wants the best possible for every occasion. 2. It is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy. 3. Since it is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy, it is the best possible outcome for mission. 4. Therefore, God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous.

But, let’s stop and take a moment to inspect these assumptions. As Marjorie Suchocki aptly pointed out in The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), sometimes the best possible for a situation is something we would deem morally bad. At this point, it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole that justifies disproportionate wealth as making the best of a bad situation. Besides, the rationalization continues, how are we to judge what God deems ‘best’ . . . maybe it is best for a few people to control most of the wealth in the world while the rest suffer and struggle. Here is where we come to assumptions #2 and #3. Since I benefit from prosperity and wealth, surely it is the best possible for me to be wealthy and prosperous.

The parable for this week calls out this way of thinking and answers any questions about God’s judgment on wealth and prosperity. How do we judge what God thinks is best concerning wealth? This is surely, no secret. God has already told us: do not store up treasures for yourself, be rich toward God (vs. 21). Jesus tells us that, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (vs. 15). God pretty clearly states that what we, like to tell ourselves is beneficial, God calls greed. Because assumptions 2 and 3 are false, the conclusion that God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous cannot stand.

Ok Then; if God does not want us to be prosperous and wealthy, what does God want? Maybe God wants us to realize that Faithfulness and blessing are not reflected in our material security. And that, God’s best possible for us does not consist of an abundance of possessions. Instead, Jesus directs us to be rich toward God. But what does that look like? For the man in the crowd, perhaps that would look like dropping the squabble with his brother. For the wealthy would-be Notre Dame donors, perhaps it would look like using their money to truly tackle food, housing, and health care insecurities in their country. For us, for you and me? Well here is a few ideas:

  1. What about thinking about how we as a congregation can help others to budget including a line or two for that who have no idea how to? Not because they need it but because it might help them feel normal, included and valued and us feel we are normal too.
  2. What about thinking how we as a congregation can help people work through the inheritance issues. We don’t know what the man in this story did, but a clear implication of Jesus’ teachings is that inheritance is a tricky thing and maybe because it always will be, we need to pay attention to our and our society’s expectations. After all, its not about equal shares, its, about fairness.
  3. What about spending some time looking at the bigger picture that included the possible outcomes of giving. Maybe giving to sound and effective ministries and organizations has some long-term values for a better society.
  4. And lastly, what about not being afraid to talk about money. Jesus wasn’t. And maybe we can be more critical of ideologies and assumptions about wealth, and its management. As we are told the poor will always be with us, so what are we doing about that beyond the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff?

How are we responding to the first creation story that says it was good?