Who We Are To Be’            

Last week, when the season of Advent commenced in our Lectionary readings I suggested, that we were starting with a problem in that the set readings had little or nothing to do with Advent or the coming season called Christmas. Well! We could say the same for todays readings also. This time we start with the tradition that for some time we Christians have understood today’s stories from Isaiah and Matthew, as prophecies of Jesus. But… the question is; is this really the case?

Process theologian John Cobb, says: ‘Not really’. When he suggests: “Jesus did not fulfil the prophecies of Isaiah in the way Isaiah expected….  For Isaiah the main point was about kingly succession… And whatever Jesus’ ancestry was, he was not what Isaiah expected.  He did not engage in royal judgement, administering justice to the poor.  Neither did he kill the wicked.”  (John Cobb, P&F Web site, 2007)

But, does this mean Christians have been wrong in seeing the Isaiah passage as an anticipation of Jesus? Well! Again, John Cobb continues: He says “In part, of course, they have erred.  But it is not wrong to view Jesus as a partial fulfilment of, the hopes that Isaiah expressed.” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2007)

So, the best, or maybe the more honest things we can do or say, is: we can affirm that we can see in Jesus some of what Isaiah hoped for, and we can assert that Jesus was also different from what Isaiah considered ideal.

So here we are now…. into the Second Sunday in Advent. And Matthew, jumping 30 years or so in time in a matter of only a couple of short story chapters, introduces John the Baptiser, the so-called final prophet of Jesus’ coming, and places him centre stage for a moment. In John the Baptiser then, what have we got? Well referring back to what I have said of John earlier we see that in John’s preaching the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear in the disobedient – the insider. Whereas, in Jesus’ preaching the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘common ones’ – the outsider.

Here we have two very different visions by which to reimagine a nation. A judgement to inspire fear. And an invitation to inspire hope. I am sure this sounds very familiar to those who have been following my recent sermons and their link to my and others recent experience. But let’s be clear here. Both visions have been used in the past (and the not-so past), by Christians. I would also suggest or perhaps even claim that only one of those visions has the capacity to re-imagine new possibilities for the world. Only the one which does not bombard people with issues of personal morality and sanctions called ‘sin’, has the capacity to re-imagine new possibilities for the world.

Having said all that I want to tell a parallel story that gives another context for the very same challenge of fear or hope. It is a story from Ukraine/s past, and it highlights a long history of international and ethnicity being used as fodder for conflict.

Ukraine was in the middle of an election. And, trouble was erupting out on the streets, as the result was being disputed. Not unlike the more recent Hong Kong situation perhaps but with different political motivation. The regular evening TV news was on air, coming from the government, controlled TV station.

A presenter was reading the script. Another was ‘signing’ so the deaf could also ‘hear’ the news. But the news was what those in power wanted to say, rather than it being an account of what was actually happening. Again what happens in political conflicts where one want to put their own spin in aid of their success. There was no mention of the protests or challenges to the validity of the voting system, being mentioned. In a moment of madness, some say, the signer stopped translating the set script. And instead, started to give her account of all the other events that were also happening.

She said she knew she would be sacked because of her actions, but felt she could no longer put up with the government’s lies and propaganda. Immediately following the broadcast all the members of the news room came to her, not only to support her actions, but also to join the struggle against the government and its lies.

Stopping there we have to ask what has this story to do with advent? Why tell this story as an ‘advent’ story? Well! Because it sought to re-imagine new possibilities for the country. And it began when the deaf – the outsiders – when they were given the opportunity and the respect to ‘overhear’ what was going on! Like-wise today, we could suggest, Matthew is inviting his small Jewish community to ‘overhear’ some things, through the ‘signage’ called John the Baptiser.

Developing along-side of and often in conflict with developing Jewish communities,
it can’t have been easy for this small community. All groups were trying to form or reshape
their own identities and allegiances among the people. As I and others have suggested before the social, political and economic environment is one of disparate groups seeking identity, and place in a diverse and often intolerant society. Empire is making itself felt at all levels of society and the religious are feeling threatened and entering survival modes.

Remembering that Matthew is a storyteller, he lets the community ‘overhear’ John talking,
hoping they might see and hear themselves in these conversations. In the hearing, they (and we) might sense something new and different is afoot. As one of Shirley Erena Murray’s hymns suggest: “Now the star of Christmas shines into our day. This points a new direction: change is on the way -there’s another landscape to be travelled through, there’s a new-born spirit broadening our view” (Shirley Erena Murray/hos)

In returning to the lectionary we still have a problem, especially the purpose or theology behind the shaping of it. And I want to suggest that it is with the underlying purpose which is based on presenting a mythical ‘Christ of faith’ – often called the “Easter barrier” – which has overpowered the ‘historical Jesus’. I have often suggested that we need to stay with the pre-Easter Jesus as opposed to the post Easter Jesus. The perhaps greater challenge is to see the post-Easter Jesus as one who has been distorted by a culture of political, economic and social distortion. This is not a new claim in that it has been around for hundreds of years and it lies beneath much of traditional theology today. And for some of us that’s a shame.  A crying shame. Because what we are often left with is a mere shell called the God/man Jesus.

Personally, I support those scholars who call for a demotion of Jesus. Not because I don’t think he challenges us with the divine, but because a fully-fleshed demoted Jesus
“becomes available as the real founder of the Christian movement… Along with Bob Funk I can say that “He is no longer… its mythical icon, embedded in the myth of the descending/ascending, dying/rising lord of the pagan mystery cults, but one of substance with us all.”  (Funk 1996:306)

So, this Advent journey I invite you to go beyond the Lectionary parameters and consider a few things…

  1. Consider the need for a fresh awareness of your creative capacity. For inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings.
  2. Consider the option of becoming a person infected or inspired by hope rather than fear for it is ‘creativity God’ who acts in us for the sake of peace.  And God in other people, who receive our actions participate in the peace-making.
  3. Thirdly, consider what sort of God or Jesus might be more God-like. A God or Jesus who is the essence of a society unafraid to be vulnerable, to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek and to lead others into a new and impossible future. Is it a God who reminds us to watch out or one that invites us to be awake?

Finally, maybe we might consider the invitation to re-tune our senses to a watchful present-ness of the sacred in the ordinary in the every-day in the outsider in the new. Let us enjoy and be blessed by our Advent journey this year. Amen.

Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. New York. HaprerCollins, 1996.
(HoS) Hope is Our Song. New hymns and songs from Aotearoa New Zealand. Palmerston North. New Zealand Hymnbook Trust, 2009.


‘Step Into the Mystery of Life,’

Marcus Borg back in 2013 wrote that, “Seeing Advent as a penitential season strikes me as unfortunate. It is the product of a seriously distorted and yet widespread understanding of Christianity: namely, that the central issue in our lives with God is our sinfulness (commonly understood as disobedience and/or failing to measure up to what God requires from us) and thus our need for repentance and forgiveness. “Within this framework, that’s the reason Jesus was born. As the divinely-conceived Son of God, he was sent by God to be the perfect sacrifice, the payment for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. Provided, of course, that we believe in him. “That is a serious impoverishment of Christianity and Advent”

The Pohutukawa blooms into our New Zealand lives. The rich red flower creeps its way into our vision sometimes in burst and others like a slow and sure event. It signals a New Zealand Advent!

Here it is once again; the first Sunday in Advent. The season of waiting. The season of anticipation. The season for recognising the incarnate nature of the sacred in nature and in the one called Jesus of Nazareth – the human face of the one we name as God. But unlike most of the northern hemisphere of our world, where the church liturgical calendar was first shaped, today for us is the recognition of the arrival of Summer. And Summer in New Zealand Australia is a natural time for celebration. It is the time of balancing the place work and industry has in our lives with the freedom and joy of holidaying and letting go and of doing all the things that speak of joy and freedom. It is the time when we reflect on the value of being human and sacred and connected. It is a time when we wallow in the idea and phenomenon of new life and new growth to be seen, ripeness and richness, as plant and bush and tree display their many colours against the green of this collection of Islands perched on the edge of earth crust plates. It is a time when we recognize that nature is a gift in early Summer in New Zealand and we anticipate its arrival eagerly.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  And immediately we confront readings set down in the Lectionary for today that little to do with our perceptions of either Advent or the coming season called Christmas. For instance, if we approach Matthew as a narrative, today’s reading comes about 9/10th of the way through the book… Closer to the end of the complete story than to the beginning. So, it comes to us totally out of context. Second, all the readings offered paint diverse pictures of a world quite different from ours today. And not only that, these stories or readings are not directed to a time thousands of years later – into our time, as seems to be assumed by those who shaped the Lectionary.

With Rex Hunt and other Progressives, I think a far better place to start would be the beginning of Matthew, where we find the genealogy of Jesus. It seems a better place in that there is a place where the best can come out of the worst. And the worst can come out of the best!

Process theologian John Cobb’s suggestions might help here? He says that those who have selected these passages “understand Advent to be the season of anticipation, of expectancy, and hope generally… [And] in all the texts the hope is grounded in faith in God.” (Cobb. P&F Web site, 2004)

So continuing to listen to process theologian John Cobb for a few more moments, we can acknowledge that we human beings are not good at predicting the future. We can appreciate that the actual course of history is far more ambiguous than are the visions that lure us forward.
We can realise that even the one we name God does not control the future or know just what will happen. Our God is within the big picture not outside it making it run. Our God is within it with us participating in the running. And we can hear also that the hope which keeps us going is far deeper and more fundamental to our faith than we realise. “Hope has survived repeated disappointments in the past.  It will survive many more in the future.  It will do so as long as we believe in the biblical God.” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004)

Of course, such a statement still needs clarification. Because such a statement presupposes that God’s working in history does not displace the working of human beings. And that is immediately a bit of a shock to those who believe God is all-powerful! Either justified by stepping back and watching the created run like a machine and could ‘do something’ in various situations but chooses not to in some. John Cobb explains his comment a bit more. The quote is a bit detailed so I invite you to listen/read carefully. “God works in hope for peace and justice, but the world turns to violence and oppression.  Still God’s work is not futile.  Here and
there it succeeds, encouraging the hope for wider and more inclusive success.  That success depends on our response to God’s invitation to share in the achievement of God’s purposes.  And our hope depends on the assurance that God does not give up on us” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004). This still tends to assume a supernatural God over and above all but it does recognize to a degree humanities part in the care of the planet which sadly has been shown to be inadequate.

What one gleans is however that despite frustration and disappointment, we are still called to be a people of hope. For hope is what is handed down from mother to daughter to son,
not merely as a package passed from one generation to another. But as hope which is alive in mother and daughter and which now lives in the child of the third generation. Hope is always tentative yet never just wishful thinking. It is always a certainty yes never an assumption. Today is the first Sunday in Advent. A time of waiting… a time of change… a time of hope, and the story of Jesus is the understanding of the incarnate nature of the human relationship with the sacred. Gods chosen partner in the care of creation, for it , and with it.

Indeed, during the season of Advent, the stories “of babies or shepherds or stars or lullabies are saying the world, as we know it, is about to change, it is evolving.  Their message is ‘wake up, pay attention, get ready… Strange words they might be, but maybe we need something jarring to lift us out of our complacency and wake up to something new”.

One story of the manifestation of this hope might be the story from Dresden, the German city that was devastated by the fire-bombing at the end of the World War 2. They found in the ruins a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation. It was the score to Albinoni’s ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’. In the midst of this devastation of war – the very worst that we do to each other – there survived something of the most beautiful
that we create for each other. So the Albinoni piece became a sign of hope.
And it has been used that way.

Another story is the one in the time of the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War, the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people
standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in the middle of them. Twenty-two people were killed. Innocent people. Hungry people.  Wanting to buy bread. A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned out bakery, a man named Vedian Smailovic placed a chair, and began to play his cello. For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people who had been killed at that spot.

The gesture itself was wonderful, playing music. But what gave it deeper significance is 
the music he played each day was ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.

Hope is not being afraid of doubt, not wallowing in the negative, not getting bogged down in the realities of human existence but rather seeing them in their rightful place as signs that bring an awareness of the positive, the hope-filled moment, the deep huge picture of a certain hope. We have it. Without it, we cannot live. A Pohutukawa advent hope calls to us, lures us, to breathe, to pause, and to shake off the doldrums – and most importantly fear.

For this Advent hope, first announced by angels to shepherds, “means that despite appearances men and women of violence are no longer in control of history… that those who would seek to determine history’s outcome through violence will never succeed… When the angels announced the coming of the Christ to the shepherds their first words are ‘fear not'” (Northcott 2010:17).

Advent then is Fear not, and step into the mystery of life, the whole of life. Note I said fear not, ‘and’ and not ‘but’.

Muir, J. J. Heretics’ Faith. Vocabulary for Religious liberals. Annapolis: F. J. Muir, 2001.
Northcott, M. S. Cuttlefish, Clones and Cluster Bombs. Preaching, Politics and Ecology. London: DL&T, 2010.          

‘The Galilean Nobody’

Posted: November 20, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘The Galilean Nobody’

In recent times today in the lectionary has been traditionally called ‘The Feast of Christ the King’ Sunday. And by recent, I mean every year since it was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally, it was celebrated on the last Sunday in October, but it was moved to the last Sunday of After Pentecost Time immediately preceding Advent, making it a fitting end to the liturgical year. In recent years it underwent a name change: to the ‘Reign of Christ’. Its original introduction was in response to the perceived rise of secularism throughout Europe, and when dangerous dictatorships were emerging in Europe and beyond. In reality: the political power of one challenging the political power of another. In justification for its inclusion in the Lectionary, it is claimed there are ‘countless passages throughout the New Testament’ where Jesus is referred to as “King.” But those referrals are by others. Not by the historical Jesus.

The earliest sources known to biblical scholars suggest a plausible Jesus is an impoverished Palestinian situated in his historical circumstances… That is, in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire sometime between the years 26–36 CE. We have referred to the subversive assumptions placed upon Galileans by the Roman Governors. It is a place well known for the provision of rebels against the state.

Jesus was one who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time “and were remembered by his earliest companions, and repeated to others after the crucifixion”. Galileans were peasants, were poor, were nobodies. And considered political rabble-rousers. The mere speaking with a Galilean accent could mean immediate arrest.

We are the heirs of several ways of interpreting this Galilean Jesus. One leads to Supernatural understanding: the fully God and fully human ‘God-Man’ mediator between human beings and God. Called ‘the Christ’. Often Jesus Christ as if ‘Christ’ is his surname! The other leads to a natural humanistic understanding which supports his radical emphasis on love “as the overarching posture within which humans should live out their lives.”

In the interests of transparency, And the choice of serious scholarship over tradition Rex Hunt comes down on the naturalistic side of Jesus in biblical scholarship. This is also at the core of much Progressive scholarship led by the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar.

Hunt comments of the way Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson— a woman not afraid of upsetting the church hierarchy—described this ‘natural’ Jesus. “Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…”

Most Progressive theologians could agree. Rex says that with a scenario spinner’s imagination this ‘natural’ Jesus invited others to re-imagine the world with him. His ‘tools-of-trade’ were parables, short stories, and aphorisms. Most of his provocative and permissive secular stories feature characters from the peasant class in an agrarian village society. All were part and parcel of first century Judaism.

But that is also thought not quite enough and a claim is that Jesus was not your traditional Judean sage or teacher… A first step in finding wisdom in his sayings is to recognise that: He does not appeal to Torah; He does not invoked God as authority for statements; Some things later attributed to him did not originate with him. And most important… He was Jewish, not Christian, and not even the first Christian; As one of the Jesus Seminar scholars, Charles Hedrick, proposes: “…I tend to think of Jesus as a lower class unschooled popular sage, a shrewd critic of his own culture and its values, who expressed himself in brief memorable language…” Domonic Crossan gas written of Jesus as a mystic also.

But turning to alternative Matthew text for today we might say that in addition to the first three ‘blessed’ in this morning’s Lukan text there is one saying, called an aphorism, as example of his teaching style… “Be as sly as snakes and simple as pigeons” (Matt 10:16)

That has to be a bit of a problem or at least a perplexing saying! Two contrasting personality traits. Where it is impossible to be both ‘sly’ and ‘simple’ at the same time. What did Jesus mean by that? We are left groping for some way to relate this to life. Again Charles Hedrick:
“The saying ridicules community wisdom by contrasting different character traits valued in community: shrewdness and prudence, cantor and purity. But when associated with snakes and pigeons… community morals are turned on their ear. Like certain other sayings of Jesus, this oxymoron perplexes and teases but offers no clue how to apply it to life.”

Then there is another teaching style—a parable this time… “An Injured Traveller” (Luke 10:30-35, otherwise known as ‘The Good Samaritan’). Perhaps the most famous of all parables,
generally speaking this is a story about some ‘bad’ blokes, another of their Judean tribe beaten half to death, and at least one ‘good, compassionate’ bloke. And that good bloke is a mortal ‘enemy’ called Samaritan! Here again it is simplistic to avoid the complexity. There is the claim that Samaritans are in fact Jews from the remnants of the Northern Jewish Kingdom of Israel as opposed to Judah.

Everyone knows, so it is reckoned, what it means, including our anonymous storyteller who adds an answer: Who is my neighbour? But this turns the parable into an example story. And forfeits the parable’s challenge to re-imagine the world anew. Progressive scholars say this is the wrong question/answer mix. A parable challenges neat and common garden-variety answers. Turns our world and answers upside down. The real question/answer is: Whom will I allow to be my neighbour? And an honest answer to that question, just might really surprise us.

What we do know is how others used his oral saying and stories. They are called Gospels.
But perhaps surprisingly, we do not know how Jesus used them. Oral storytellers don’t leave books or TV documentaries! And then they are only fragments spiced with humour.

On reflection then, it seems reasonably clear he dealt generally “in sweeping unrealistic challenges to daily life … His sayings would have provoked questions with no definitive answers and his stories would have raised issues with no stated solutions.”

Rex Hunt tells of a time when he and a couple of his colleagues appeared on the ABC TV religion program ‘Compass’. His opposing colleagues were very strong on a Christianity based on creeds, doctrine, and tradition. And where the Bible is a rule book for life. A so-called ‘confessional’ theology. And where Jesus is important because he died.

Rex, on the other hand, tried to suggest, equally as strong, that the way we are ‘Christian’ is in having trust with Jesus, not trust in Jesus. Not ‘belief’, even though what we believe is important, but as ‘way’, as ‘trust’, walking without fear, daring to engage in and be surprised by, life. If we can rescue Jesus he says; from the cloying baggage of heavy Christological beliefs then “we are freed to go on the journey that Jesus chartered rather than to worship the journey of Jesus”.

A so-called ‘progressive’ theology. And where Jesus is important because he lived. The difference is profound. “It is finished” is less about the transition from human to supernatural and more about the completion of the story and the subsequent release from a violent empirical Reign or Way and the discovery of a New Reign or way of being and doing life. So this day, Christ the King Day in traditional language, or the Reign of Christ Day in a bit of a modern edit, really is a call for an ongoing conversation about how we see Jesus and how we see Christianity. I would like to suggest that we are yet to fully grasp what The Messiah meant in ancient Hebrew culture and thus what the root of Christ is. It brings with it a far more complex and rich meaning that the surname of Jesus and I dare to suggest the Greek translation from Messiah to become ‘Christ: Contrary to the impression fundamentalists and others might make, Christianity has never stood still. It is not a museum. It has always been capable of revision and restatement. Evolution. The Big Bang. Quantum Mechanics. Relativity. Also, in biblical criticism and social action. theology and language. In liturgical renewal.

And we just now need to realise, be it ever so slowly, that Jesus is no longer embalmed in doctrinal winding sheets, that he has slipped ecclesial control and continues his walkabout on this fragile planet. Nature, humanity, the cosmos, family, friendships, politics. There is but one world and we will be drawn together by our common purpose. In our multi-cultural, multi-faith community, such knowledge, such conversations, and such revisions are really important. Ours is to be brave enough to participate in this dynamic living world of serendipitous life as well. Amen.

Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014
Hedrick, C. W. Many Things in Parables. Jesus and his Modern Critics. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004
Johnson, E. “Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished”, UNIFAS Conference, Rio de Janeiro, (7-14 July 2010). <https://sgfp.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/deep-incarnation-prepare-to-be-astonished/&gt; (Accessed 4 October 2016)
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress, 2006
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001
Wink, W. “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in (ed). Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 20

“Hope in a Weak God”

Posted: November 8, 2022 in Uncategorized

“Hope in a Weak God”

There comes a time to break the silence created by liberal thought. A time to move beyond fear. A time to speak one’s truth, even if it will not be welcome. There comes a time
for all to call into question what has gone before. There is a time for the singing of a new song, for the claiming a new understanding of power, where we find courage, and dare to know who we are. There is a time when out of the cosmos, out of earth, out of ourselves, there rises an irresistible Spirit from within us.  This is our calling as followers of the man named Yeshua.

To no longer seek the might of God on our side but rather to acknowledge that that God does not exist because that God is too small and seek the God that insists the God that empowers us and the God that we find in the event of loving.

The Dalai Lama reminded us that “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. You always have this choice”

The many years of relying on might to illumine who we are and how God is in relation with us have ended, they no longer satisfy us as a species within a cosmic evolutionary reality. The lack of hope, the decline of the church the rising inequity situation and the loss of absolutes and the level of intolerance all suggest that what we believe and how we understand reality need our courage and our compassion to become our mode of being.

If we believe that the Jesus way is about living a radical love with a lavish generosity. If we believe that an extravagant forgiveness and an inclusive hospitality are the compassionate actions required as an image of the sacred life then we need to support a selfless service along with a passion for justice within a creative nonviolent society as to provide the event of a simple safe living for everyone.

The idealism, the foolishness, the alternative that the Yeshua story gives us is not the success of the mighty, the sorted ones, the clever an but where is the d in-control ones and here I would read the most efficient, effective evidence based successful. Yes, they are needed for today’s economically prioritized world but there is a need for a better balance. How to do things is crucially important but we need to know why we do things also. We have become very good at making things happen efficiently, we have become manipulators of our cosmic reality but we are destroying ourselves because we have not asked ourselves why we need to do this. In our Christian tradition we have been saying that God is in control as we have been destroying ourselves, we have been saying Yeshua has saved us from destruction yet now we know this has not happened. We have been saying our hope lies in a God who exists and is in charge and yet fewer of us believe this than ever before. So, something is not right and we have spent years trying to figure out how to be followers of the guy Yeshua and all we have left it seems is that we care for ourselves better. Sing the right hymns, say the right prayers, make sure our members know we care for them.

All credible so -called Christian acts but where is the radical love defined, where is the inspiration for lavish generosity resourced and inspired? What does forgiveness look like? Who receives the hospitality in other words who is the stranger? Who is the other? Is service just doing things for people or is it about changing their world. What does Sacred Justice look like and how do we make the paradigm shift required for a nonviolent simple life?

As John D Caputo puts it; The weakness of God is that God does not exist, the folly of God is that God leaves existence up to us, and we have the choice to either make God exist or not. So, does God exist? The answer is we don’t know yet because history is not over yet. We are still making it and that has to mean that what we name as God is insisting and calling us to participate in the making of the New Jerusalem that the old Judaic prophets called for and the Kingdom of God that Yeshua called for. Our call might be to participate in the caring for the planet and thus the creation of the cosmos. Our hope is in the shared writing of the poem of human existence, the writing of the song of the universe not as a task to be done but as an event to be lived now and forever. Read the symbols, interpret the depths and breadths of human existence and write the story we find in the poor the disadvantaged and the outcast for there we understand the weak power of God.

I like the challenge of the history that claims that under Constantine the Empire did not convert to Christianity but that Christianity converted to the Empire. We still live with the results of a Christianity that feigns supremacy, that is antagonistic to the poor and the outcast. We hang on to the charitable kudos as justification while being soft on its sustenance of the status quo and we hide behind strategic theories and feel-good politics in a delusion that might is right and that the only options are the instinctive and primitive fight or flight options. They have got us again and again to the brink of nuclear annihilation and an industry of diplomacy that is self-sustaining rather than shifting the paradigm. Yes, I am being harsh and dismissive in my comments but when addressing systemic abuse and complacency one needs to be. If the church is to survive as a human organization it must change or die and I am far from the first to say that. The truth is that any form of fundamentalism is not theology. On theoretical grounds it has nothing to stand on philosophically or theologically and is a pathology, a profound fear that the ground is shaky and it is. It can only exist in literalism and denies that “Christianity” is a process, a movement or the Spirit in time. Like Joshua they are asking that their God stops the course of the sun across the sky. A quote I read is that it’s like Donald Trump screaming, “Stop Counting, if you keep counting, I’m going to lose” We might say “If God exists, he is just resting at the moment”. As Caputo suggests, when Jesus departed and Left his Spirit behind its s as if he were saying “I have done my part, the rest is up to you.”

Last week I wrote a little about the effect of the theory of Humanism, which in its modern sense, arose in the seventeenth century and consists of placing value on autonomy, reason, and science. And I suggested that since God is not a conclusion of evidence-based reason, Today I would claim that while we might be in a time of the rise of posthumanism it too relies on the tradition of humanism and on humanist values like evidence-based reason, the importance of education, and the autonomy of the individual. Posthumanism, though, seeks to break the boundary that traditional humanism assumes between the human and natural worlds. Humanism, in its classic expression, casts nature, through the use of science, as an object of human manipulation. Posthumanism blurs the boundaries between human beings and nature. This makes evolution a value in posthumanism because to affirm evolution means to affirm that human beings are a natural process of the earth. The fundamentalist religious reaction to posthumanism is creationism. Not only is creationism bad science, it is also a reading of posthumanism as a threat which is bound by almighty, supernatural priori for God.

As I have argued earlier this claim is no longer tenable and should be discarded in favour of a Weak God and a God of insistence as opposed to existent. This enables us as Christians to talk into the climate change, global warming care for creation debates as genuine participants in the hope we all seek rather than as holders of irrelevant beliefs and outdated intellectual and scientific contributions. Even the Dalai Lama has said that spirituality and quantum physics are companion searches, not rivals. One has to say that we live in the most hope-filled of times, so long as we stay in the discussions. Amen.

Valuing the power of the mind, the use of controversy and the influence of perception.

This sermon is an attempt to stand outside the story, acknowledge the context of the reader and the creative use of context and the hermeneutics of the authors.

Humanism as the intro to today’s context.

Humanism, in its modern sense, arose in the seventeenth century and consists of placing value on autonomy, reason, and science.

‍Humanism is not anti-religion, but it is portrayed this way because, when compared to traditional religious beliefs, it appears radically atheist. Autonomy means that human beings are responsible for their own actions. No god has placed us in our station for a purpose. Life is an individual gift, and what we make of it is the action of our autonomy.

‍Reason is the guide for life. In humanism, a good life is a life that corresponds to the best judgements possible about the real world, and this judgement rests on the use of reason. Reason makes education a humanist value.

‍Science is the method of humanism. Reason cannot flourish if its content holds little or no corresponding truth. Corresponding truth means that a truth claim holds a consistent relationship to reality, and the vehicle of such a relationship is evidence. The age of science is the age of evidence-based reason.

Since God is not a conclusion of evidence-based reason, and since evidence-based reason is a humanist value, it is often concluded that humanism is atheism. This, however, is not true. Humanism can appreciate mystery and can value mysticism. Mystery and mysticism in humanism, though, are not religious confessions; rather, they identify the edges of human knowledge and open up the religious experience of wonder.

Posthumanism as today’s context

Posthumanism relies on the tradition of humanism and on humanist values like evidence-based reason, the importance of education, and the autonomy of the individual. Posthumanism, though, seeks to break the boundary that traditional humanism assumes between the human and natural worlds. Humanism, in its classic expression, casts nature, through the use of science, as an object of human manipulation. Posthumanism blurs the boundaries between human beings and nature. This makes evolution a value in posthumanism because to affirm evolution means to affirm that human beings are a natural process of the earth. The fundamentalist religious reaction to posthumanism is creationism. Not only is creationism bad science, it is also a reading of posthumanism as a threat.

The Power of the mind;

The text  as Translation of Luke 20: 27-38

Some of the Sadducees, the ones saying there is no resurrection, came to question him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote to us that, if a man’s brother dies, having a woman and he without children, that his brother might take the woman and raise up seed to his brother.  There were, therefore, seven brothers, and the first took a woman; he died without children–and the second and the third took her, and, in like manner, the seven also; and they left no children and they died, and afterward, the woman died.  Therefore, in the resurrection, whose woman of them is she?  For the seven had her a wife.

The Context/Differences

Background and situation:  This event happens during the early part of passion week.  Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem on a wave of public support, and, at the same time, tweaked the nose of the Roman authorities by mocking their own triumphal (military) procession. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey as the crowds wave palm branches and shout “hosanna.”  This is in stark contrast to the Roman triumphal procession of soldiers, horses, military standards, the clank of metal swords, and the silence of a cowed and resentful people. After entering Jerusalem, Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the temple.  Some of Jerusalem’s wealthy families had franchise agreements with their cronies in the Temple to provide money changing “services” for people who had to change their Roman money into Temple coin, a “service” they performed at exorbitant rates.  Jesus’ attack on the moneychangers was revolutionary.  It struck at the economic power of the Temple elite and their wealthy supporters.

Controversy stories follow.  First, the chief priests raise the issue of authority.  Who are you to challenge us?  In response, Jesus invokes John the Baptist, reminding his interrogators that they had opposed John, who continued to be a popular figure among the people.  Then, he tells the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, a particularly violent story, and one of particular poignance in light of John the Baptist’s death.

Jesus does two important things here:  (1)  He “allies” himself with the popular John in the public mind, and (2) he accuses the chief priests of having a hand in imperial violence.  Jesus is ratcheting up the pressure. The Temple elite has not been able to do much about any of this because of Jesus’ overwhelming support among the people.  They were helpless when he drove out the moneychangers because “all the people were spellbound by what they heard.”  They couldn’t stop Jesus because “they feared the people.”  (20:19)  Next, they try to get him on taxes.  “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  If he says “yes,” he loses public support.  (People paid up to 50% of their meager income in taxes of one kind or another.)  If he says “no, don’t pay taxes” he could be arrested for treason.

Jesus dodges the question by asking for a coin, a coin with Caesar’s picture plastered on it, along with designations such as “divi et rex”–“god and king.”  Jesus says, basically, “If Caesar is so insecure he needs to go around plastering his picture on things, then let him have the dumb coin,” or words to that effect.

Enter the sadducees–the concentrated power, you might say, of the Temple elite.  The sadducees represented both the heart of Temple power and Temple corruption.  They lived high on the hog in the Temple complex.  The Romans made sure this Temple elite had access to the “finer things of life” in exchange for their help in facilitating Roman power and control. The sadducees were staunchly conservative in their theology.  For the sadducees, the Torah consisted of only the written text of the pentateuch.  The pharisees–the “liberals” of their day, in a certain manner of speaking–took a broader view of Torah.  For them, Torah included the oral interpretation of the written text.  Even though the pharisees and sadducees were both opponents of Jesus, they were also opponents of each other.   The sadducees would naturally have reacted against any idea which threatened the status quo, particularly a new-fangled idea like resurrection, a concept which had probably originally filtered into northern Israel from Persia in the period 200-300 BC, and one which, moreover, was associated with justice and righteousness.  (During the Maccabean revolt, c. 160 BC, the question arose as to how God could allow good and righteous people who stood for God and God’s law to die violent and horrible deaths.  What would God do about such a clear case of injustice.  Answer?  God would raise them.)


In order to undermine the idea of resurrection, the sadducees pose the question of levirate marriage, the whole idea of which was to continue the name and lineage of a man who died childless.  He could still have children after he was dead if his widow married his brother.  Their children would be considered the legal and religious heirs of their mother’s first husband. Another “what if?” question:  “What if,” ask the sadducees, “a man dies and his widow marries his brother, but then he dies, then another, then another, and the woman never has children by any of them, who would she be married to in your supposed resurrection?”  The issue is framed around children, with its relationship to lineage, and the woman as property–“whose woman will the woman be?”  In effect, the sadducees played the “family values” card.  If we listen to you, they say, the whole structure of society would become absurd.  You are undermining the traditional family!  

Ironic aside:  In this, the Temple was following the “family values” policy of the previous Roman government headed by Caesar Augustus, who was married three times, each one of them for political reasons.  Augustus made adultery a public crime, although he himself had committed adultery with Livia, his third wife, during her previous marriage, and he continued to commit adultery with numerous other women after they were married.  Hypocrisy on the question is not a new thing. Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.


Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and are given to marry, but the ones considered worthy to obtain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage;  for they cannot die any more, for they are equal to angels and they are children of God, being the children of the resurrection. Marriage is an institution of “this age.”  Marriage was instituted to deal with the problem of death.  It was a way of providing offspring who would continue a man’s name and lineage into the future.

In the resurrection from the dead, Jesus says, people will be “like angels,” who do not die.  There will be no need to try to extend one’s self beyond their death because there will be no death.  (Notice Jesus does not say that people will be angels.  Rather, they will be equal to angels (isangeloi) in the sense that, like angels, we will no longer die.) The important thing is not becoming parents, but rather children–“children of God” and therefore “children of the resurrection,” which obviates the need for both offspring and marriage.  Furthermore, in the resurrection, relationships will no longer need to be guarded by exclusive bonds.

Jesus includes both men and women in this–“those who marry and are given in marriage”–which was unusual in a time where marriage had to do with male property rights.  Neither men nor women will need to marry to have an identity because their fundamental identity, which supercedes all others and casts all others into irrelevance, is the designation of “children of God, children of the resurrection.”  The owning of people will be over.  All relationships will be transfigured and equalized.

And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’


Now that the dead are raised, and Moses showed at the bush, as he called the Lord God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob, and he is God not of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are living.”  Jesus invokes the story of Moses at the burning bush where God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  By the time of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all been dead for a long time, yet the Lord God refers to these patriarchs as if they were alive.  Therefore, Jesus reasons from the Torah, they are alive.  If they were still dead, God would be God of the dead, which would mean he is the God of nothing at all. But God is a God of life, “for to him all of them are alive.”  The NRSV inserts “of them,” but this is missing in the Greek text, and, in my view, should not be included.  “For to him, all are alive”–a striking note of universality.

The sadducees, however, couldn’t really quibble since Jesus had made his argument on the basis of a creative use of sadducee-acknowledged Torah, Exodus 3.  This is why “they no longer dared to ask him another question.” (v. 40)

The embodiment of the Image of God

The “image of God” as a metaphor offers some guidance. In traditional Christian philosophy, the “image” is the purpose (the aim of the form) of human creatures. Remember, a “form,” from Plato, is the perfect image of a material thing. Everything that exists in the world is imperfect, but everything that exists, that is seen, participates in its form, its unseen perfection. In Christian philosophy, traditionally stated, the image of God is the form God created for human beings. The image of God is what we are meant to be perfectly in our everyday imperfections. In the Bible, of course, the philosophical understanding of the image is not present. For biblical writers, the image of God is more active than passive. It is the way God forms human beings. It is the life or breath that God gave human beings to make them human. All human beings are brothers and sisters because all alike are the image of God, the life of God’s creative act. All human beings, we could say, are divine soul-bearers or energy-bearers, according to the Bible.



Posted by John Petty on November 04, 2019 at 10:53 AM in Bible, History, Lectionary, Liturgy, Religion, Theology | Permalink

Faith and Belief in Translation

Posted: October 27, 2022 in Uncategorized

Faith and Belief in Translation

Many of us hold to the belief that we can name a sacred power within and around us. That this power is a divine spirit that we call by many names and experience in many ways. It is a power that empowers and heals, that calls us forth. Many of us hold to the belief that we can claim a creativity, a making and transforming of beauty out of words and notes, images and colours, lines and pictures and silence. Many of us hold to a belief that it is justice that compels and empowers us to risk whatever we must risk to create a climate in which all people can be who they are.

Many of us hold to a belief that our imagination and our dreams are the way we experience the world as it is, in both its ugliness and its beauty, and we see what it can become. A peace that is based on openness, honesty and compassion. Many of us hold to a belief that we can expect change to continue to occur in our world. This is our hope that we rely on to inspire our courage to continue to bring about these changes. Many of us hold to a belief in the power of love. Some see this as a weak power that overcomes might, a passionate love within and around us that laughs and cries, challenges and comforts, a healing love that perseveres.

Many of us know who we are and our potential, painful as that can be at times, yet we continue to call each other to become more of who we are. We celebrate, we remember and we commemorate. We create rituals. We play and dance, and sing and love well. Many of us value our diversity and we affirm our many shapes and sizes, colours and traditions,
emotions and thoughts, differences and similarities, recognizing this as life that wells up within
and flows out of us like a streaming fountain as the good and the holy. Many of us hold to the belief that we are good and holy as a sacred part of all creation. (Inspired by Susan Kramer)

Bernard Brandon Scott reminds us that ‘Faith” is a problematic word, so problematic that at times I think we should abandon its use. It’s a weasel word he says, with so many and varied meanings that what it means often is difficult to know. Given the importance of faith in religious discourse, the varied meanings have significant implications and ramifications. Scott posits that we are trapped between the use of “faith” in English and “faith” as a translation for the Greek word pistis in the New Testament. They are different and so make understanding both the New Testament and our own usage difficult.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives as its first definition (1a) “allegiance to duty or a person” with the gloss “Loyalty.” Then follows an example usage: “lost faith in the company’s president.” Within this first definition there is a second sense (1b) with two subsenses. “(1) fidelity to one’s promises” and then “(2) sincerity of intentions • acted in good faith.

This first definition of faith, secular in character, understands faith as loyalty or allegiance and lays stress on relationship, “allegiance to duty or a person”. Except for 1b(2) this understanding of faith would work well for the New Testament. Here are three different examples.

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

This “how much more” argument, common in Rabbinic literature, contends, “if God cares for this little thing, how much more in your case.” So, God’s great care is contrasted with little allegiance or faith to God. The author of Matthew’s gospel is chiding the readers about their little loyalty to God.

Mark 5 relates a story of woman from the crowd who reaches out and touches Jesus. When he asks who touched him, she comes forward in fear and trembling. Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Her persistence or bravery in coming forward signals her “faith.” It’s her allegiance to Jesus that has healed her.

A final example is from Paul who uses “faith” extensively. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). (Rom 4:16–17 NRSV)

“Faith” in this passage refers to Abraham’s loyalty to God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations. “The faith of Abraham” takes us to Merriam-Webster’s second definition which is religious in nature. 2a (1) defines faith as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” which would seem to perfectly fit “faith of Abraham.” So why give the faith of Abraham as an example of 1b, the secular usage? First the distinction between the first definition and the second is not a matter of meaning but of usage, which is what a dictionary definition is supposed to do. So, this second definition is really an elaboration of the first. The meaning does not change, but the usage does.

A second subsense (2) pushes the definition even further in a religious vein: “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.” The fact that this is a subsense of 2a indicates that Merriam-Webster’s editors see these two as very close in English usage. But pistis (faith) in this sense is not used in the New Testament.

There are two notable items in the subsense.

  • Belief
  • Doctrines

“Belief” and “faith” are often interchangeable in English and “beliefs” and “doctrines” are likewise synonymous. The first definition of belief in Merriam-Webster indicates a shift. “state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” “Mind” is the important word, because belief introduces an aspect of mental activity which was absent in our examination of faith. “Faith” involves a relationship.

The belief/faith correlation is an English issue, not Greek. Greek does not make this distinction. The problem arises because the Greek root pist- can be formed into a noun, a verb, and an adjective. English has a noun, “faith,” and an adjective, “faithful,” but no verb. “He faiths God” is impossible in English; instead, one must say, “she believes in God” or “he has faith in God.” “Has faith” makes “faith” a noun object, not an action. “She trusts God” is different from “he believes in God.”

The belief/faith dynamic is further complicated by the Council of Nicaea (325). One of Constantine’s objectives was to unify Christianity, which was divided and diverse. The Nicene Creed aimed to solve this problem. This shifted Christianity from a religion of praxis, in which it’s what you do that counts, to a religion of belief or faith, in which it’s what you believe that counts. Notice what is missing from the Creed—the life of Jesus. There are no ethics in the Creed. Faith now has an intellectual content, a set of beliefs. The meaning of faith has moved very far indeed from the New Testament.

The ‘b’ part of the second definition offers another feature: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Paul’s use of the faith of Abraham falls into this category. Abraham has faith, allegiance or trust, that God will be faithful to the promise to make Abraham the father of many nations. That fact that Sarah is barren mocks this promise. Paul plays up this aspect of faith in Romans 4.It is important to notice that Paul’s use of this argument is not anti-reason, but rather that faith is loyalty or allegiance to God’s promise in spite of the fact that it has not yet come true. (See my The Real Paul, chapter 9)The North African Tertullian in On the Flesh of Christ (about 203–206) pushed this argument in a slightly different direction.

The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.

Tertullian was a strong backer of reason and his argument that “it is certain, because impossible” is following Aristotle’s objection that the apparent unbelievability of a report can be an argument for its truth. If the witness was making it up, why would the witness not make up something more credible? It is a version of the criterion of dissimilarity.

After languishing for centuries, Tertullian’s statement came alive in the seventeenth century, when the English polymath Thomas Browne gave Tertullian’s statement a new twist. “Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith.” He argued that the more impossible something was to believe, the more it strengthened one’s faith. Voltaire defined faith as “believing things because they are impossible,” a riff on Tertullian, and later he referred to Augustine as saying “I believe because it is absurd, I believe because it is impossible.” Augustine, of course, never said any such thing.

Subsequently the phrase was translated back into Latin, Credo quia absurdum, giving it the authenticity and gravitas of an ancient language, and was applied to all religious belief and has become part of the standard argument against religious belief. “I believe because it is absurd” goes back to neither Tertullian nor Augustine and is a creation of the eighteenth century. (See Peter Harrison’s ”’I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme” for an excellent tracing of the history of this quote.)This checkered history does not absolve faith of the charge but should serve as a warning. The situation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had drastically changed from the middle ages. Religion was the science of the Middle Ages, but the Enlightenment and rise of science challenged that dominance by demonstrating that Genesis as science had failed. Religious faith resisted science. Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin, chapter 2, is especially good on this aspect. The spoof in Alice in Wonderland is well placed.

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Merriam-Webster spins out a third sense of faith: “3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs • the Protestant faith”.

This third sense identifies “faith” with a particular set of religious beliefs. This is a Western and Christian understanding of religion. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are not beliefs or faiths, but practices, as Christianity was before Constantine and the Nicene Creed. These religions often accommodate to our understanding and refer to themselves as faiths, but that is only a form of cultural colonialism masquerading in English usage.

This understanding of “faith” is absent from the New Testament.

Those using “faith” in speech and writing frequently do not make the careful distinctions of the editors of Merriam-Webster. The distinctions are jumbled together and not carefully parsed. This causes a problem in reading the New Testament because the range of meaning of the English word “faith” exceeds the Greek word pistis, traditionally translated “faith.”

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

In this saying “little faith” fits definitions 1a and 2a(1). But if an English reader should slot in sense 3, that Jesus was chiding them for not adhering to Christian faith as a system, or sense 2a(2), the traditional doctrines, then the saying would go awry. In this way it could be understood as not having enough faith in Jesus.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Again 1a and 2a(1) work, but this one can easily in English be understood as 2a(2), “belief in the traditional doctrines of religion.” Thus, it could be and frequently has been understood as her faith in Jesus healed her.

Because the English word “faith” is so liable to mislead a reader of the New Testament, the translators of The Complete Gospels and The Authentic Letters of Paul opted to translate pistis and its cognates as “trust” (Complete Gospels) or “confidence” (Authentic Letters) to enable a reader to more fully understand what the New Testament authors were trying to convey. Our three example texts make this shift evident.

He said to her, “Daughter, your trust has cured you. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:34)

If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow, won’t you even more, you with your meager trust? (Matt 6:30)

That’s why becoming heirs results from putting confidence in and relying upon God, so that the promise is entirely a matter of free gift and is guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, not only to those who claim to be heirs by virtue of covenant law, but to those who share Abraham’s confidence and reliance upon God. (Roms 4:16)

To attempt to banish the use of the word “faith” is tilting at windmills. Religious folk seem attached to the word, view it as essential. But we do need at least to be clear about what we mean when we use the word and not use is as Scott suggests; ‘a weasel word’ to avoid knowing what we mean? So, maybe we can try using “trust” or “confidence” in the New Testament, and in the other meaning be precise.

And just in case you think I have wandered too far from our text, Barry Robinson in his eMail sermon The gospel in sycamore, puts it this way: “What bothered the good people of Jericho was not so much what Jesus had to say… but the way he said it. “It is one thing to believe in loving your neighbour, to believe in welcoming the lost, to believe in forgiving the guilty; but it is quite another thing to practice what you preach, to actually practice doing it. That’s what bothered people about Jesus. “He not only said that we should love God and one another.  He actually went out and did it.  He didn’t just say God’s embrace was wide enough to welcome everyone, he actually went out and embraced people no one else would. “It upset the balance.  It was too unsettling to the way things were”. Maybe we have lost the meaning of faith in translation away from praxis in favour of the supernatural intellectual definition?

For more, check out:

‘I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme,” by Peter Harrison

Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faithby Philip Kitcher

The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challengeby Bernard Brandon Scott

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionariesby Kory Stamper

Progressive Christianity

Posted: October 21, 2022 in Uncategorized

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

Progressive Christianity

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian. He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers. Indeed, more than that. One only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble!  The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14)

There is growing evidence that the society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically, and religiously. Boundaries and differences were all the go. And they all lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations, was nothing short of enormous. A tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful families lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land.

As several scholars have recorded the purpose of taxation was not social well-being but enhancement of the position of elites. Period. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180) Named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as toll collectors. Jews regarded toll collectors as collaborators who profited
by preying on the countrymen on behalf of the Roman Empire.

The storyteller we call Luke even has a story about them. Actually there are two stories about them.

(a) The Jesus story. Short. Sharp. Leaving little other than questions.

(b) The Luke adaptation of that Jesus story some 50 years after the original.

And his conclusion: Pharisees are smug, self-seeking, judgmental.

We heard the latter (this morning) as the Gospel reading.

(i) that story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, due to an incorrect translation of the word ‘telones’.

It should be Toll Collector… “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

(ii) that story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: the arrogant and the humble…

(iii) that story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

It is now suggested that all these traditional readings of the parable are unfortunate misnomers. That all these traditional readings ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an allegory or example story, rather than hearing the raw, blunt edge of the original. That all these traditional readings are full of literary traps for unwary readers and listeners!

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story. The first sad bit being the Pharisee, a member from the faction of moral entrepreneurs and rule-creation, stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (we might read here: ’sinner’) – those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. His ‘standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. The Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation was because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sought to be inconspicuous.

And the radical bits…  A Toll Collector (hear again ‘sinner’). A Toll collector in the Temple grounds was unheard of!  And the hearers of this story – so-called fellow sinners – would have drawn that conclusion before the story’s end. Both he and they were excluded, despised, ruled and taxed over.

So what have we… The actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure.
He never rebuts the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo,
“but [he] speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words have created, and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… He claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

God listening speaking outside official channels! A ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: Include me in! Make an atonement for me! How radical can you get? This radical!  This radical Jesus had a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. Not only that, all brokered religion in other words the need for priestly mediators as the necessary link between God and the individual; is at an end. God’s domain has no brokers. Everyone has direct access to the Holy One. Petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: “A brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… A passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131) It is no wonder that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, are always under suspicion because they were Galilean, they and he were thought of as threats to others welfare. Sometimes even mentally unstable! (Brueggemann 1989:51) Jesus’ voice shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities! And, when the muted ones began to speak, as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence over the years of a settled captivity to Rome, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”.  It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers who consider brokered Christianity (and we hear: ‘orthodoxy’) were considered simply incredible, and were shunned and considered heretics! And just in case you missed that: a non-brokered Christianity goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! And Some might say began as early as the second century. As the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation. The mythical, traditional cross cultural change agent of society had begin to become the exclusive structured absolutist faith that people no longer believe.

Someone is also said to have been more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church: “It is as if Jesus was the subject of a corporate takeover, where the new company retained his name and reputation but the values and aspirations of what he started were replaced by a totally different corporate ethos and agenda that have nothing identifiable to do with him”. (Horsfield 2015:290)

It is increasingly clear that the early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, not a divinity like that claimed of Roman Ceasar’s, not that claimed of traditional Messiahs but a promised humanity beyond that status, a halo circling his head suggests that What Jesus brought was something more than the divine role they had come to understand! They made claims about him because they had heard him say 
and seen him do certain things that seemed like beyond the natural they knew. They experienced him acting in their lives in unknowable ways. And what they experienced in the company of this person, a sense of empowerment that moved them deeply. The life to which he called his followers involved a reversalof ordinary social and political, cultural – and too often – religious standards.

The words of Canadian Bruce Sanguin suggest this when he said : “Jesus was proclaiming the end of one era for humanity and the dawning of a new one – one person at a time… [His] very being was a proclamation of what the new human looked like… In his teachings he conveyed new spiritual wisdom, which if adhered to, effectively overturned the world of conventional wisdom”. (Sanguin 2015)

If Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles… Words are not enough unless they evolve and express this that is not super natural, not super anything but rather poetic, and musical and mindful beyond and including reason.

He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge, Dewey says. The radical challenge of distributive justice that Dominic Crossan speaks of. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, [and] religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus misses all this. So too does the spiritualized Jesus of traditional or ‘orthodox’ interpretation. But we can “rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177)

Progressive thought invites us to accept the challenge to ponder some more creditable alternatives. Both about the human sage called Jesus. And about those we or our church or government exclude for political reasons. As the former outspoken advocate for the environment, Thomas Berry, has lamented: “To learn how to live graciously together would make us worthy of this unique beautiful blue planet that was prepared for us over some billions of years, a planet that we should give over to our children with the assurance that this great community of the living will nourish them, guide them, heal them and rejoice in them as it has nourished, guided, healed, and rejoiced in ourselves”. (Berry 2014: 190) Amen.

Berry, T. “Spirituality and Ecology: A Sermon” in M. E Tucker & J. Grim (ed) Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. New York. Orbis Books, 2014

Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation.. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.

Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28 A, 1, 4. 2015.

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

Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.

Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. 
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Kelowna. CopperHouse/Wood Lake Publishing, 2015.
Wink, W.  “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

The Fragility of Heart and the Weakness of God

It is true that millions of people around the world grow flowers in their gardens. We give flowers as gifts on special occasions, whether as a simple thank you for an invitation to dinner,
or as a sign of congratulations, or as an acknowledgement of bereavement. We associate flowers with love, with joy, with sympathy, with sorrow, with death. I can remember my Father in Law who brought a bunch of flowers to his wife every Friday evening for every year of their marriage, Flowers and their symbolic power in our lives is immense…

The important thing about flowers that affect us deeply, is that they are given to us by nature. They are the products of evolution and play their own role in the great web of life. This role is independent of human feelings. Flowers are what they are. Humanity breeds many varieties of flowers to make them yet more affecting to us, but they are nature’s creation, not our own. Another significant factor is that most flowers are at the most vulnerable end of the natural spectrum. They are mostly fragile and susceptible to damage and destruction. There is a fragility about them that suggests that beauty is like things of the heart, they are fragile and susceptible to damage. They are of the most vulnerable and not unlike the crucified God, or the God that is at the whim of human need vulnerable to human use. They are at the whim of acceptance, and ultimately love.

Many decades ago, in the spring of 1936, while waiting for his beloved to arrive from London for their wedding, “and germinating the ideas that would bloom into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell (1903-1950) planted some roses in the garden of the small sixteenth-century cottage that his suffragist, socialist, bohemian aunt had secured for him in the village of Wallington.

Three and a half years after he planted them, and after thirteen seasons of tending to them, Orwell’s roses were struggling to bloom for the first time. World War II had just begun. Orwell recorded in his diary: “Cut down the remaining phloxes, tied up some of the chrysanthemums which had been blown over. Difficult to do much these afternoons now it is winter-time. The ‘chrysanths’ now in full flower, mostly dark reddy-brown, & a few ugly purple & white ones which I shan’t keep. Roses still attempting to flower, otherwise no flowers in the garden now…”

This man. most famous for his scrutiny of totalitarianism and propaganda, and an unyielding political vision, had planted roses!  “That a socialist or a utilitarian or any pragmatist or practical person might plant fruit trees is not surprising,” wrote author Rebecca Solnit. “They have tangible economic value and produce the necessary good that is food even if they produce more than that. But to plant a rose — or in the case of this garden he resuscitated in 1936, seven roses early on and more later — can mean so many things…”

If war and injustice and power and destruction have an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks, and gardens.”

Yesterday a woman was planting flowers in her garden. Her activity was more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She was digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging,
under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination.

Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little bulbs and seeds will explode into daffodils, tulips, irises, freesias, geraniums, pansies, daises, and sunflowers.

A warlike pathway will have been won by soft and coloured things. The yellow eyes of asters, the purple tongues of irises, and the crayola pansies have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. (Fleischman 2013)

It is Spring. Hosanna! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This. (Goodenough 1998) Today, in the spirit of persistent women as presented in the biblical ‘justice’ scenario we read of and patience and faith experiences captured through beauty and nature, independent of the gospel story, yet somehow embodied in the metaphor we honour the spirit of flowers, of wonder, and of beauty. “Beauty… transforms like no other encounter and sets us squarely in the realm of the sacred…. Justice in the face of absurdity, beauty enlarges, transforms, and embraces the whole complexity that is life.  Beauty prefers to feel all and feel deeply, thereby participating in the divine act of creative transformation.” The challenge of flowers featuring in church Harvest Festivals, is always that it is not enough to express fully our gratitude for the beauty we encounter in the visions, smells and placements of those flowers. Nor in the beauty of the transformation that justice reveals.

Our story today is generally known as the parable of the importunate widow, or the parable of the unjust judge.  The text is unique to Luke.  Jesus is speaking to the disciples, though throughout this section, the pharisees are still within earshot. 

The passage follows immediately upon 17: 22-37, a major theme of which is the suffering and rejection of Jesus, which provokes an eschatological crisis, out of which comes the New Day of the Lord–“the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Humanity be in his day” (17:24). 

The judge did not fear God (phobos) or have respect (entrepomenos) for people.  Entrepomenos is an unusual word.  It can mean “to shame” or, in the passive, “to be ashamed.”  It can also mean “reverence,” though this is the third meaning. The judge not only felt no “reverence” for people, but also had no sense of “shame” in how he treated them– a typical Roman judge it is easily said, in other words.  Roman judges had vast power within their jurisdiction.  If they wanted to, they could decide cases based on personal whim alone.  The judge in this story is just such a judge–one with no concern for justice.

But there was an importunate widow in that city, and she was coming to him, saying, ‘Avenge me from my opponent,’ and he was not willing for a time. The stage of the parable is set by the contrast between, on the one hand, a powerful magistrate who can do whatever he feels like doing, and, on the other, a poor widow who must take what she can get. That the woman appears by herself in court means that she has no male relative to speak for her.  She is indeed powerless and poor.  On the “power scale,” the judge is at one end and the widow at the other.

We remember here that the Hebrew scriptures are replete with injunctions to consider the needs of widows, orphans, and strangers.  Perhaps these injunctions are so frequent because the people of Israel needed continual reminding and, as it could be construed, to little effect! 

By the time of Jesus, the powerful and unscrupulous were still preying on widows.  Jesus will later say that the Temple elite “devour widows’ houses” (20:47), such as when the Temple bureaucrats swooped in upon the death of the husband and “managed” the estate, taking a sizable cut for themselves.  It should not be surprising that a judge who does not fear God would likewise not care about God’s demonstrated concern for the weak and vulnerable.  If he does not fear God, why would he respect people?

The widow says, literally:  “Avenge me from my opponent (antidikos).”  The widow, normally a sympathetic figure in Jesus’ stories, seems to expect that she may actually get justice in this kangaroo court.  She thinks she might yet come out a winner.  For all its well-known corruption, she still believes in the system! This certainty for the widow could be her belief that she has faith in it being in Gods tine that she would receive justice….

“For a while he refused” literally, but it seems that the woman’s faith was in Gods “inbreaking time”, if you will.  According to “regular time,” the judge has no use for the widow but in God’s time she would. In God’s time will come justice (though justice will be defined in a surprising and unusual way, as we shall see).  “God’s time” is not something that happens after chronological time ends.  “God’s time” is any time in which the reign of God breaks in.  It can be right now. It might be a stretch but for me here is the place of the vulnerable beauty of the fragile flower the fragility of the heart in the face of might, the fragile beauty of the flower in the  face of wind and rain and storms of all kinds.

In his speech to himself, the judge openly acknowledges what had originally been said about him, i.e., that he doesn’t fear God or respect people.  This tells us that he has had no internal change.  He remains the same person he was when first identified. Nevertheless, he decides to change his approach regarding the widow:  “Though I am not fearing God nor respecting human beings, yet because this widow gives me trouble, I will avenge her, so that she might not come (and) give me a black eye unto the end.” 

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates hupopiaze as “wear me out.”  This seems weak.  The word comes from the world of boxing and refers to striking someone under the eye.  “Give me a black eye” is not only faithful to the Greek, but paints a rather startling and humorous picture of the poor widow battering the powerful judge.

Such is the power of beauty and the fragile and the heart in the face of rules and regulations, and expectations. The weak goodness or love is akin to the fragility and vulnerability of the beauty of nature. What’s more, she will “give me a black eye unto the end (telos).”  The word telos is a special word in the scriptures.  It means the goal, the consummation, the gathering of all into all.  If the widow keeps battering him with her appeals, her desire for justice just may make the judge look bad through all eternity.  To avoid this fate, the judge rules in the widow’s favour.

Their vindication will be soon–en taxei–but not, however, by making the poor widow come out a winner through the judicial process.  Quite the contrary.  The vindication that is approaching “soon” is the death of Jesus.  The woman’s “justice,” and all true justice, will come when the beauty of the flower consumes everything. Amen. 

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.