The Wedding Dream

Posted: January 18, 2019 in Uncategorized

The Wedding Dream

John 2:1-11

The Cana story is surely one of the most charming in all the Bible.
And John is the only one to tell this story. The wedding itself would have been a great social occasion. A celebration probably for the whole community. It would have been a significant event in the life of a community. This makes the fact that the wine ran out a matter of significance also. What bad planning it must have been, or there was a serious under-estimation of how much was needed. What we don’t know is how many days the party had been celebrating when the wine actually ran out but we do know that weddings were traditionally occasions for festivities lasting a week or more. Relatives sometimes traveled great distances, and friends and neighbours poured in. The groom’s father usually paid the bill!

Some of the questions we might ask at the beginning is; How did the story survive in the tradition till the time of John’s gospel? Why did not one of the other evangelists pick it up? And how indeed does it fit into John’s gospel? And perhaps the most important question; What is the real focus of this story? Is it the Wedding or what came later? The central issue was it seems the running out of the wine.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but it is a great story so it’s worth exploring what meaning we might give to it, so let’s have a go.

First of all we might start with the Gospel of John itself and suggest that like so much of the Gospel of John, the story of the wedding at Cana has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness, faces melting into other faces, voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance.

And let’s remember here that we are not talking about miracles. The issue is not about Jesus turning water into wine but rather John’s concern to suggest that it is the sign that matters. For some there is a claim that we should take this story as written testimony to Jesus’ powers over the laws of nature. That he has somehow miraculously violated the laws of fermentation and instantaneously turned plain old tap water into wine of the best available vintage. But John never calls any of the signs Jesus performs miracles.
To John, these are ‘signs’, and signs are objects or gestures with one meaning that suggests another. John has a concern with events that show who Jesus is and what his ministry is about. These events some have called miracles are actually signs, doors into, indicators of something more and not supernatural examples.

So, what is the sign here? We note that it is on the third day that the wedding takes place; the third day that Jesus comes to change the water into wine, and in the way of dreams the number 3 calls up that other third day when just at daybreak, in another way and toward another end, Jesus came and changed despair into rejoicing. Water into wine would say that the party can go on and that has to be good. There are also the six stone jars, and we might wonder why six? Is there some sort of echo half-heard of the six days of creation perhaps, the six days that preceded the seventh and holiest day, God’s day? God breathed into and it was good.

And then the cryptic words that Jesus speaks to his mother with their inexplicable sharpness. Were they, a fore-shadowing of an hour beyond this hour in Cana of astonished gladness and feasting, of a final hour that was yet not final? But beyond the mystery of what it means, detail by detail, level beneath level, maybe the most important part of a dream is the part that stays with you when you wake up from it.

It can be a sense of revulsion at some hidden ugliness laid bare. It can be a kind of aching homesickness for some beauty that existed only in the dream. There are dreams which it is impossible to remember anything about at all except that they were good dreams and that we are somehow the better for having dreamed them. But taking this story in John as a dream, I think that what we carry from it most powerfully is simply a feeling for the joy of it—a wedding that almost flopped except that then this strange, stern guest came and worked a miracle and it turned out to be the best wedding of all. Certainly, it is because of the joy of it that it is remembered in the marriage service.

But joy or no joy, people also cry at weddings. It is part of the tradition. Women are said to cry especially, all dressed up in their white gloves and their best hats with the tears running down, but I have known grown men to cry too and sometimes even the minister forgets to worry about whether his robe is straight and whether the best man has remembered the ring and has to hold tight to his prayer book to keep down the lump in his own throat. Just the sheer joy at the commitment of two people to a relationship that is seen as the most significant one in one’s life is heart moving and often brings tears to the fore. Sometimes the tears are good tears, tears as a response to the mystery not only of human love but of human finitude, the seemingly idiotic faith placed in a human decision, the transience of things.

But more often than not, I suspect, the tears that are shed at weddings are not to be taken too seriously because they are mainly sentimental tears, and although I suppose that they do little harm, I would be surprised to hear that they ever did much good. To be sentimental is to react not so much to something that is happening as to your own reaction to something that is happening, so that when a person cries sentimentally, what he or she is really crying at very often is the pathos of his own tears. When we shed tears at a wedding, our tears are likely to have a great deal less to do with the bride and groom than with all the old dreams or regrets that the bride and groom have occasioned in us.

In our sentimentality, we think, “How wonderful that they are going to live happily ever after,” or “How terrible that they are never going to be so happy again,” and then we relate it all to our own happiness or our own lost happiness and weep eloquently at ourselves. It is all innocent enough, surely, except that it keeps us just one step further than we already are, and God knows that is far enough, from the reality of what is going on outside our own skins; and the reality of what is going on outside our own skins is the reality of other people with all their dreams and regrets, their happiness, the pathos not of ourselves for once but of them.

The reality of the bride and groom, which is also their joy, is of course that they love each other; but whereas sentimentality tends to stop right there and have a good cry, candor has to move on with eyes at least dry enough to see through. They love each other indeed, and in a grim world their love is a delight to behold, but love as a response of the heart to loveliness, love as an emotion, is only part of love and of what a Christian wedding celebrates, and beyond it are levels that sentimentality cannot see. Because the promises that are given are not just promises to love the other when the other is lovely and lovable, but to love the other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and that means to love the other even at half-past three in the morning when the baby is crying and to love each other with a terrible cold in the head and when the bills have to be paid. From my own experience it is the love that enables the relationship to continue when a partner is lost to Alzheimer’s or to death. The love that is affirmed at a wedding is not just a condition of the heart but an act of the will, and the promise that love makes is to will the other’s good even at the expense sometimes of its own good—and that is quite a promise. It is what makes one return again and again to an abusive relationship and to being there till any need of the other is removed.

Whether the bride and groom are to live happily ever after or never to be so happy again depends entirely on how faithfully, they are able to keep that promise, not to obey and bury self in service of the other but rather as a willingness to seek the relationships wellbeing. Just as the happiness of us all depends on how faithfully we also are able to keep such promises, and not just to a husband or a wife, but to each ‘other’ we encounter in life. Because, selfless love when it is limited to that can become finally just another kind of self-centeredness with two selves in the center instead of one and all the more impregnable for that reason. The loving relationship between two people cannot be sustained in isolation. It has to engage in the world.

Dostoevsky describes Alexei Karamazov falling asleep and dreaming about the wedding at Cana, and for him too it is a dream of indescribable joy, but when he wakes from it, he does a curious thing. He throws himself down on the earth and embraces it. He kisses the earth and among tears that are in no way sentimental because they are turned not inward but outward, he forgives the earth and begs its forgiveness and vows to love it forever. And that is the heart of it, after all, and matrimony is called holy because this brave and fateful promise of a man and a woman to love and honour and serve each other through thick and thin looks beyond itself to more fateful promises still and speaks mightily of what human life at its most human and its most alive and most holy must always be.

A dream is a compression of time where the dreamer can live through a whole constellation of events in no more time than it takes a curtain to rustle in the room where he sleeps. In dreams, time does not flow on so much as it flows up, like water from a deep spring. And in this way every wedding is a dream, and every word that is spoken there means more than it says, and every gesture—the clasping of hands, the giving of rings—is rich with mystery. Part of the mystery is that beyond the limits of our imagination Jesus as the Messiah or The Christ is there as he was in Cana once, and the joy of a wedding, and maybe even sometimes the tears, are the miracle. In this story when the wedding feast was over, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and started out for the hour that had not yet come but was to come soon enough, the hour when he too was to embrace the whole earth and water it with more than his tears. Again, we have in this dream the depth and breadth of this marriage relationship, this relationship with each other.

And so, it was also, we hope, with the bride and groom at Cana and with every bride and groom and let’s not forget, all human relationships — that the love we bear one another and the joy we take in one another may help us grow in love for this whole troubled world where in the end our loving transforms things and where children seek to absorb this love as the means of life.

The created world is in itself a wondrous splendour and it is our freedom to destroy it or not. Participation in this created splendour is the beginning and the end of all our lives, but ours are our lives themselves, to hoard in misery and to indulge with anxiety and fear or to give away in joy. The revelation of goodness is the gift of power and the glory, but ours is the ear that is deaf to its manifestation, the tongue that is mute in its transformation and the eye that is blind to its beauty. The sign is that the love of the Christ is ours to share and we can either leave it on the cross are share it with each other.

Turning water into wine is about loving the unlovable, the bitter and the lonely. It is about caring for the very slow, and the very old. It is about unleashing the forgotten and the joyless and opening ourselves to the new born and the dying. Amen.

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Liberation of Life

Posted: January 8, 2019 in Uncategorized

Baptism of Jesus C, 2019

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Liberation of Life

Here we are again. At the beginning of another calendar year and already into Epiphany of the Christian year. As is the custom we are in the week after the day of Epiphany and as is required in the lectionary into the Baptism of Jesus. This time it is in the Luke year and we began introducing John a couple of weeks ago when we spoke of John as the cousin of Jesus in their particular mother’s womb. I have also on occasion suggested that John and Jesus were similar in faith but different in approach or different in theology. For John, it was a sad world and one that is fear driven whereas I suggested that Jesus’ world was potential-filled and love driven.

Today I want to begin by asking some questions and then suggest a way forward. One of the options by way of theme for today is Baptism but what I don’t want to do is build a case for what I think Baptism is or what it does but rather begin by accepting it as a rite that says more than its practice reveals. I want to start my thinking on the basis that Jesus offers an alternative to a fear-based life. Not in the sense of ignoring the fact that struggle is a part of human living. Not everything is smooth sailing. But rather, there is a life driven not by a response to evil or to all the negative things that make up life or seem to dominate it on many occasions and I think that this is what Jesus is on about. I want to see if I can find an alternative mode of living that I think Jesus is advocating.

I know this is perhaps idealistic and may even seem unrealistic because it seems that evidence is against a love-driven world. Our road toll goes up more than down, our prisons are full and we need more, debates about lock them up and throw away the keys battle with the costs and efforts required for rehabilitation and restorative justice. The punitive approach seems to fail us even when we do it in the cause of public safety. Even community safety seems elusive and so we add more rules and regulations to living seeking this eldorado that always seems to elude us.

I told a story some years back after 9/11 where a man at an airport checkpoint had simply forgotten to take the loose change out of his pockets and had set off one of the metal detectors. Unaware he had done this, he kept on walking toward the gate lounge. It was nothing really.  No big deal. But when the security officer shouted “Stop!” everybody in the whole area froze, and the airport grew deathly silent. You could almost touch the fear in the air. Upon reflecting an observer said: “You know, I think the old world where we thought we were safe and secure is gone forever.

What happened back there suggests that a major transformation in thinking is required. It also suggests that we don’t know what’s going to happen next in the world, and this makes us anxious and afraid. The fact of the matter is, we were already afraid and after 9/11 more afraid than we used to be. John the Baptist’s message was different from Jesus’. Interestingly, for the most part, John’s message was one of fear!

Returning to our text in Luke and his story, we remember that Jesus was about 30 when he went to hear John the Baptizer, preach and on one of those occasions, it seems to be more implied than actually said – Jesus was baptized. Luke doesn’t say where Jesus was baptized. Neither does Luke say who baptized Jesus. However, tradition has it that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan and that the agent of that baptism was John. We note here that this interpretation comes for a blending of stories from the other gospels. Not from Luke.

So, allowing for what really was probably an embarrassment for the early Jesus/Christian movements… we focus on two questions: • What might there have been in John’s message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism? • And what might have he experienced during his baptism and days spent in the wilderness that reportedly followed?

According to John Beverley Butcher in the introduction to his book, An uncommon lectionary, the evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Butcher suggests:

“Without Jesus’ baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history!  The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently” (Butcher 2002). For Butcher, this event was of “pivotal significance… in the life of Jesus”. For storyteller Luke, it too was a significant moment. But one that has got him and others in the early Jesus-cum-Christian movement, into a fair amount of trouble, it seems.

And just in case you think assigning a fear-based motivation to Johns approach to life is simplistic and perhaps over-done, another commentator, Bruce Epperly, (Epperly 2007) tells this story that I think builds on my case for a fear-driven fixation by offering a more positive approach. Epperly says that: “The North African Desert Mothers and Fathers tell the story of a monk who came to his spiritual guide with a question about the next steps in his spiritual journey.  The monk described his monastic solitude and daily rituals and then asked what more he could to in order to experience God in his life.  His spiritual guide simply responded with the words, ‘Become fire!’” And then he goes on to offer this comment: “Today’s scriptures invite progressive and mainstream Christians to ‘become fire.’  This is the heart of John the Baptist’s response…  While the meaning of John’s affirmation is unclear, -and here I think Epperly is questioning John’s fear-based approach, ‘fire’ surely points to the energetic nature of God’s presence in our spiritual lives.  Our faith journey is meant to embody the energy of the ‘big bang’ or ‘big birth’ of the cosmos.  God’s energy flows through our lives in each moment.  We are the children of cosmic stardust and cosmic energy, who are meant… not only to live but to live well and live better” (Epperly P&F website, 2007). A fire-based approach to life is not a fear based one.

And here we recall the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, when he appears before his home synagogue gathering, the storyteller Luke has Jesus using the words of Isaiah

to describe the significance of this baptism event. Surprisingly, baptism is not a word or call to the mission, sending him into the future. It is about the delight of God in this beloved, this chosen, this person called by name. We read this as baptism not be a calling to ‘do’. But a calling to ‘be’… and it is this calling that liberates for life. One does not have to ‘do’ anything as a result of baptism. One has to be this chosen one, this transformed person, this reoriented one as a result of an awareness of one’s preciousness in the eyes of God.

I want to take this idea of being a bit further and see it as the outcome of life as a progressive Christian. A follower of the Jesus Way as opposed to one who somehow is a better person because of a belief. I think this has something to do with how one avoids doing in order to be good and the being good.

Two distinct threads of interest that have dominated my thinking in recent years and the first is my evolving Christian faith as a progressive Christian, In this question, are all the challenges of what it means to be a non-theist, non-literalist Christian and what is belief and what do I believe? and the second is mental health, what is fully human life when one has Alzheimer’s or dementia or some sort of mental struggle. I always saw these two threads as separate, but recently they have become more and more intertwined. As strange as it may sound, both threads have led me to ask questions about mindfulness and mindfulness seems to be more about being than doing.

But is mindfulness just an evolution of yoga? Is it another way of saying meditation? Or is it something different. Is it perhaps contemplative ministry evolving into the 1st Century? Is meditation a combination of mindfulness and cognitive therapy? What is true is that a focus on mindfulness has a lifeline for some people with something like depression, and in some cases, techniques like these have become a matter of survival. Others have found that whatever the situation, mindfulness can give them a better perspective and leave them feeling more alive, awake and present.

So, what do we mean by mindfulness? A definition that seems ok to me says that the basic principles of mindfulness are very simple and yet utterly counter-intuitive. Mindfulness is about intentionally bringing our awareness to the present moment by paying attention to the sensations, sights and sounds around us, and calmly noticing – without judgment – the thoughts and feelings that arise. The aim is to interrupt the mind’s natural tendency to be somewhere other than here and now, and to recognize that our thoughts and emotions are products of our minds and do not necessarily represent reality. Observing and interacting with our own thoughts in this counter-intuitive way allows us to take control of our minds and improve our experience of life. I am not sure that the space between conscious and unconscious is a simple as that nor do I think it challenges the fear-based thinking but it is a very good cognitive approach, I think. And it does base itself in the assumption that a non-fear-based approach is possible. It may even support my contention that goodness has a natural priory and that doing or attempting to do can get in the road of being.

In regard to the mindfulness being explored today we need to recognize that it while being largely secularized, many Christians still feel uneasy about its Buddhist roots. Many of us were taught when growing up, that Christianity and Buddhism were in opposition to one another. But as a progressive, they both offer valuable insights into what it means to be fully human and fully alive, and as far as we can see are entirely compatible. We acknowledge also that within Christianity itself there is a rich tradition of practices very similar to mindfulness, but in modern western Protestantism, these have largely been forgotten or at least sidelined by an exclusively belief driven agenda. Experience has been assigned to the emotional charismatic movement whereas contemplative Christianity contains within it much of the same mind-training principles that are found within mindfulness. There are differences, but the basic approach is very similar.

But what happens when beliefs no longer provide an anchor in one’s faith? What happens when one’s skeptical being thrives? Well! First of all we might see Christianity as offering a revolutionary way of being in the world rather than living life in response to a concrete set of beliefs. And let’s be clear here, this is not easy but it seems to have integrity if one is on a Faith Journey, if one is on a pilgrimage. I for one have thought of life as a journey but have not always held this view about belief. My recent life has been about my experience of “deconstructing” the static belief system I was taught to hold above all else, I was fortunate not to have had a strong literalized biblical faith from which to evolve but I do recognize my literalism, my dogmatism, my reliance on creeds, and my exclusive cognitive world. I recognize my arrogance; bullying nature and I lament the obnoxious righteousness of my behaviour as one who has the answers. I also recognize the struggle in dealing with the confusion, grief and existential chaos this process of deconstruction and rebuilding has entailed.

During the last 20 years, I have effectively tried to think my way through what felt like one long “crisis of faith”, looking for solid answers to construct a new belief system I could hold onto. I eventually realized there would be no end to this search. I saw that this desire for answers was less about being human and more about being culturally on top of things.

I discovered I would have to learn to be at peace with uncertainty, or my thinking would become increasingly obsessive and unhealthy. I discovered I would have to embrace ambiguity or I would burn out in the face of a never-ending test. I have yet to find out for myself but many say that mindfulness helps them to find that peace. Rather than forever trying to understand and explain everything, one can focus on what is actually going on around them and allow their authenticity to become part of the picture of the mind. With contemplation, one can be more awake to everyday experiences, more present with other people, and more appreciative of the beauty of it all. I had a recent experience of this when telling my personal story, I got the sense of it being too introspective, too much all about me and I began to ask questions of the others in the room. Questions as to who they were, and not what they do.

I still have beliefs and hopes about God and the spiritual aspects of life, but they are no longer my anchor. I can say I don’t believe in the traditional God yet believe there is a Serendipitous Creativity that I might name God. I can jokingly say I don’t think God exists, yet say that what I name God does. I can say that I am a follower of Jesus but not of the person with the surname Christ. I can say I question all that is said about the post-Easter Jesus while affirming a single starting point of the pre-Easter Jesus. So, when beliefs shift, as they inevitably do, One, need not be as disorientated as they once were. Our anchor is this moment, this breath. we cannot control the nature of God or the reliability of biblical texts, but we can control how we respond to life in each moment. I for one, am finding this to be a much healthier way to be, and indeed a more authentic Christian way. We can be centered, calm and fully alive without feeling the need to understand everything. So, here’s a vote for mindfulness, here’s also a vote for what it can say to the church as a means of awakening to the divine presence.

The main difference between contemplative prayer and mindfulness is that the aim of prayer has a focus on being and seeks the union with the divine rather than simply bringing your attention to the present moment. It reminds us also of the authentic engagement with one’s context, environment and with all of the natural world. Baptism asks the questions about how to be and contemplative mindfulness reveals where one might be. Where better to seek divine engagement than in the beauty of nature and the gift of each breath? Where better to seek the divine engagement than in the coolness of the breeze, the sound of laughter or the faces of those we pass by on the street?

Nothing provokes a sense of awe and gratitude like being fully awake and present to the world in front of my eyes. It can feel a lot like the presence of that which we name God. Amen.

Notes:

Bradley, I. 2000.  Colonies of Heaven. Celtic models for today’s church. London: D L & T.

Butcher, J. B. 2002.  An Uncommon Lectionary. A companion to Common Lectionaries. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

Ludemann, G. 1998. Virgin Birth? The real story of Mary and her son Jesus. Translated: John Bowden. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International

Miller, R. J. 2003.  Born Divine. The births of Jesus and other sons of God. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

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Magi: Imagining Unity’

Posted: January 2, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 2:1-12

Magi: Imagining Unity’

Even though perhaps the earliest of the Christmas stories to be challenged in its historical value the image of the wise men from the East kneeling before the infant child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations. Most of us have sung at some time the words ‘As with gladness men of old…’‘We three kings of orient are…’ One could claim perhaps with the rise in awareness of inclusive language and challenges to the idea of monarchy and kingships and the links to empire thinking there has been a waning of popularity in the wise me story. But even so the story, itself, has always fascinated people because it links Jesus to the wider world of the orient and to the mysteries of the heavens. The international status is heralded by the story and we like that and if we stumble on the King, idea, we can always settle in the wise men focus. Wisdom is equated with inclusiveness and balances out the downside of Kingdoms and Kingship which as patriarchal overtones. And we can always remind ourselves that it is only the storyteller Matthew who tells for us the story of the Magi who come to visit Jesus.

The truth is that this story has been richly embellished over the years. The number of the Magi is not given in Matthew’s story. In Christian imagination they have ranged from two to a whole cohort. But in most of nativity art, from earliest times to the present, there are three. Which seems natural that three gifts should have three carriers! And after all we have all those ornamental crib sets that couldn’t be wrong? This question of numbers may seem to be a bit of trivia reserved for Trivial Pursuits evenings and dining with pious clerics. But the conversation definitely heats up when someone suggests that the number was zero! That the story of the Magi is only ‘legendary’.

We may even remember the names that Christian imagination has given them. They were called: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. And they were maybe Astrologers, magicians, and or philosophers? About the latter there are differing opinions. And again, despite our nativity cribs and Christmas cards, no suggestion as to the mode of transportation is offered in the Matthew story.

Contemporary storyteller and Catholic theologian John Shea, suggests: “The Magi may be dubious as historical facts, but in the Christian tradition they have been credible bearers of rich insights into strange ways of faith…  The story became more a springboard for the imagination than an anchor for sober reflection” (Shea 2003:130).

Shea goes on to further suggest that the Magi of popular poetry and story: “… do not claim to be authentic interpretations of Matthew…  Yet they do try to tell the truth about some of the common patterns of our lives.  I want to suggest that this is a key point to remember. First, they try to make good on the Isaiah promise that is connected with the feast of the Epiphany: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone’.” And then they tell a story that speaks to what we know as human beings and its that that I want to explore a little today as we think about epiphany, about what it means to us, about what it says about our living. What are these ‘Magi of popular poetry and story’ that they stimulate our imagination and show us a glimpse of unity

G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay on three modern wise men. They journeyed to a city of peace, a new Bethlehem, where they offered their gifts. I want to use his rendition and depart a little from it to make my point.

The first gift would be to offer gold suggesting it could buy the pleasures of earth. Here is the link to our desire to own things to have things within our control, to possess, isolate to ourselves, be it simply getting on, on our own steam or the ills of narcissism where we are the center of the world and everything exists for us alone. The wise men seek a new birth to find the answers. How do we be human and love each other? How do we create unity? A way of living together? Valuing individuality and uniqueness.

The second would offer the modern scent of chemistry – the power to drug the mind, seed the soil, control the population. Here we have the link to our obsession with escape and profit and the ability of all sorts of drugs to make our world easier to live in, be it prescription or illicit. The wise men seek a new birth to find a way of living with this need. How do we be human and love each other? How do we create unity? A way of living together? Valuing our need for time out as well as application?

Chesterton has the third as an offer of myrrh in the shape of a split atom – the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace. maybe myrrh here is more akin to perfume than P or heroin but maybe its is just as destructive or helpful in that it is a way, we fool ourselves in our thinking, and maybe this is more important in that we can justify horrendous actions of destruction when floating in a cloud of lavender or smelling the roses, unaware of the nuclear war just waiting for catalyst. Road rage suggests it doesn’t heed much.

When the wise men arrived, they met Joseph, but he refused them entrance. They protested; “What more could we possibly need to assure peace? “We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies?” Joseph whispered in the ear of each individually. They went away sad.  He told them they had forgotten the child.

There is another legend that the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man. Balthasar in his middle years. Melchior a senior citizen. When they approached the cave in Bethlehem, they first went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man like himself.
They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthasar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise. The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a new-born child, but each had met someone of his own years.

And yet another legend is told by poet Langston Hughes who plays upon the theme of racial unity in “Carol of the Brown King”. “Of the three Wise Men Who came to the King, One was a brown man, So, they sing. “Of the three Wise Men Who followed the star One was a brown king from afar… And the last verse: “Three Wise Men One dark like me – Part of His Nativity.”

These imaginative stories around the Magi share in the remembering and celebrating
as well as the concerns which is the season of Epiphany. The invitation to imagine unity. Thanks to the poets among us, those legendary foreigners from the East can be our spiritual guides today.  For they crossed the boundaries of geography, ethnicity, class, economics, and religion, to follow their star.

We have all been given our own star or, better still, each of us has a “personal legend”. As others have said… we embody God’s dream for the world in a unique and singular manner…“We acknowledge this awesome mystery embodied in every human person, aware that each gives God unique and personal expression” (Morwood 2003:20).

The story suggests that epiphany is a call us to follow that dream into unlikely places and to see that dream in unlikely and ordinary persons. The Magi, call us to imagine the impossible, go the extra mile in search of unity and to do it ourselves. Amen.

Notes:
Morwood, M. 2003.  Praying a New Story. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Shea, J. 1993.  Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad

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Luke 2:40-52

‘An Infatuation With The Possible’

Here we are at another end of a year. Another end of a decade. All the events of 2018 have passed by and people gave been born and others have died. Our little community has lost loved ones and others have been born. Hundreds perhaps thousand of surveys have been held, some more scientific than others, some only simple small samples others hundreds of thousands of participants but all hailing some sort of knowledge or claim.

Given all of the above I want to use one of these for todays journey towards the possible. This one was an Australian survey some years back but I think it could be applied here in New Zealand. It was a survey that looked at belief and it said that “Belief for most is about values far more than devotion.  It could be said that it’s belief without belonging” (Marr 2009:1).

In general terms some of the results from this survey said that: 68% of people believed in God, 53% believed in life after death, 56% believed in Heaven, 38$ believed in Hell 37$ believed in the devil 51% believed in angels 22% believed in witches 34% believed in UFOs 41% believed in astrology 49% believed in psychic powers such as ESP 63% believed in miracles – 63%;  34% believed that the Bible is the Word of God 27% Believed that the Bible is literally true 21% believed that the teachings of their religion had only one interpretation 42% Believed in Evolution and 30% of people believed that there is – or seems to be – no God.

All of the above regardless of the exact numbers seems to suggest that “Belief is shrinking and disbelief is growing.  Ok if that is the case then we need to say that it is a very slow process. We also need to remind ourselves that we are only talking about belief and not all aspects of what it means to be human. It is argued that belief is a rational intention governed by perception. In short, a belief is dependent upon a whole lot of other beliefs. This suggests that there may be other beliefs that are falling away before we get to the falling away of belief, such as whether or not we believe that God exists depends on a belief that there is such a thing as God. Or more correctly, our belief that God exists depends upon a more complex presupposition that there is some sort of external reality.

There are sceptics who suggest that time will, of its own accord, wipe Christianity out and this might be so but can we be sure? Remember we are talking about belief and not all of our complex systems of making meaning. And here we are on the cusp of a new year and we ask ourselves ‘What happened to Christmas? no sooner here than gone, “and even though the commercial world has sales to elongate the season, we barely had the chance to celebrate Christmas, in the church!”

This brings us to one of the great mysteries of life, the mystery of time. Everything that happens to us, happens to us in and through time. Time, called a day, can weigh us down or raise us up. Yet this day… this time, vanishes. This is an incredible fact. When we look behind us, we do not see our past standing there in a series of day shapes. We cannot wander back through the gallery of our past. Our days have disappeared. Our future time has not yet arrived. This suggests that to see time as past present and future is no more than an illusion. The only ground of time is the present moment.

The time or years of childhood through youth to adulthood seem implied by this morning’s storyteller’s words: The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably… That’s it!  Not much content. No clues by which to judge how he progressed from saying ‘mum’ and ‘dad-da’ to pronouncing ‘messianic’ and anthropomorphic’! Or how many learned responses lead from his first cry to the singing of a country music classic! Just plenty of gaps. We are left to wonder or speculate. And some of that contemporary speculation includes the suggestion that “between the ages of twelve and thirty Jesus traveled into Asia and mastered the techniques of Buddhist meditation” (PNancarrow. P&F Lectionary web site, 2009).

But lets just stop a moment and reflect. Here we have a moment in time… a temple experience that can serve as a model for growing up and growing in wisdom. Just like the moment we talked about last week. The moment of two pregnant mothers meeting through the unborn children unfettered by the time of their birth as we have a moment in time to learn of humanity. One overseas colleague puts it like this: “On the verge of adulthood, Jesus retreats to the temple for theological reflection and questioning…  (His) three days in the temple were a pivotal point in his spiritual evolution.  Jesus grew in spiritual stature by claiming his faith tradition faithfully and then extending its experiential and theological boundaries to new horizons” (BEpperly. P&F Lectionary web site, 2006).

When we play with that comment in our imaginations for a moment. It comes clear that the child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably… and the nature of this moment is that he ‘Grew in Wisdom.

The first examination is of what is meant by grew. The biblical storytellers tell us very little
other than implying that Jesus managed to complete the complex, intricate, mostly mysterious process of growing up. He grew up. He progressed from being a helpless baby to reach adulthood, where he was capable of holding down a job, making and keeping friends, theorizing about the origins of things, separating fancy from fact, getting angry without having to hurt others, caring for others without needing to possess them (Purdy 1993). In him both nature and nurture did their necessary work. “The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably…”

The second examination is of Wisdom, and Jesus discovered that a fool and his money are soon parted, the love of money is the root of many evils, you cannot tell a book by its cover. He learned that power corrupts, that an army marches on its stomach, and if you would teach a hungry man, first you had better feed him (Purdy 1993).

He learned that sin and sickness are not necessarily the two sides of the same coin,
that the devil can quote scripture, and a smile sometimes is a mask for hate. Through all this “The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably…”

The truth is that our storyteller Luke is very sketchy on the detail. Indeed, we have only the barest of fragments or outline. We have to fill in that outline with what we know about childhood. Because the only childhood truly accessible to us is our own. And even then, it is from that time that does not exist today. To live life to the full. To love wastefully. To be all that we can be… paraphrasing Bishop Jack Spong, can be challenging and risky business. Yet we are reminded of what could be some more wise words, by British theologian and (another) retired bishop, John Tinsley, when he wrote in one of his pastoral letters about 20 odd years ago: “A lot of our endeavour (as church) has gone into taking the risk out of faith… We try to create a hideout for faith where we can be un-perturbed” (Tinsley 1990:438-39).

Our congregations can become hideouts for some of us. For we can forget that we always live on the edge of something new. That’s the risk. To live on the edge of something new. How we meet that ‘risk’ or that ‘new’ is an important moment in time in fact it is the now.

Brian Epperley said some years ago”: “Growing in wisdom and stature calls us to take our faith seriously enough to study scripture, wrestle with traditional theological doctrines, explore new images of God, Christ, and salvation, and spend time in prayer, meditation, and service.  A growing faith is not accidental, but requires going to our own spiritual ‘temple’ regularly to listen, ask, and share. Even Jesus was unfinished and incomplete” (B Epperly. P&F Lectionary web site, 2006).

Given our understanding of time and the importance of the present I think as our title suggests, we are being encouraged here to greet the new horizons in this coming year and in our own particular situations, not with fear, nor with a desire to contain them but rather with an “infatuation with the possible” (E Bloch, quoted in H Cox 1964:10) without which our congregational and personal life is just unthinkable.

And then maybe it can be said of us all. These people… the congregation of St David’s, grew into a mature adulthood, filled with wisdom, and God regarded them favourably… Amen.

Notes:
Cox H. 1964.  On Not Leaving it to the Snake. New York. Macmillan
Purdy J C. 1993.  God with a Human Face. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox.
Tinsley J. 1990. Tell it slant. The Christian Gospel and its Communication. Bristol. Wyndham Hall Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

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Peace: Experiencing the Unexpected: God.

Here we are at the end of Advent again and on the cusp of the arrival of Christmas day.
The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected awareness of the presence and present-ness, of ‘Serendipity Creativity’ God; in our ordinary living. In the ordinary… like the song of the Tui in the morning, like the creaking of the branches knocking together in the hot Summer wind… In the ordinary… like the realization that rain is not a singular thing but made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing… In the ordinary… like the flares of a friend’s passion to shape justice, and move the world toward peace. And in the ordinary… like the landscape, in all its diversity. In the ordinary… like the lovemaking songs of the cicadas. In the ordinary… like the red orange glaze of a setting sun.

We begin this story of peace being found in the experience of the unexpected. And by unexpected I want to suggest it is justice that we seek because contrary to the Roman Western and increasingly eastern world peace is not found through victory. Victory only legitimizes violence and peace is not sustainable, whereas the peace that follows justice is sustainable, and I do not mean justice as legitimate revenge, I mean it as the achievement of a relational responsibility beyond compromise. A dynamic peace that sustains itself through shared responsibility. Micah speaks of a coming ruler who will restore peace to the world. Emerging from unlikely Bethlehem, this leader will walk in the ways of peace and bring true security to the people. There is a global as well as local feel to this passage. As followers of Jesus we are people in search of peace and even in relatively tranquil New Zealand, there is anxiety and tentativeness as we look at both the global scene and the local scene. The prevalence of domestic violence, the rate of suicide, the murder of tourists, the hit and run of motorists, all point to a global dilemma. We ask of Micah; can the prophetic dream calm our spirits and mobilize us to move from fearful reaction to hopeful action in facing the moral, social and political dilemmas of our time? We have been touching on the impact of a fear driven world over the last few weeks. It is clear, that guns can’t save us, banning refugees can’t save us, and closing the door to religious immigrants can’t save us. Only a heart open to God and our brothers and sisters can bring healing to us and our world. So where do we start?

Well, as usual I think we need to start with the big picture as a way of beginning with that which unites us all as a global community. We might start with the first creation story and with God as that which breathes life into the universe, not as a being but as the serendipitous creativity at the core of what we understand as living galaxies. I resonate here with the scientific imagination of Richard Dawkins, when he says: “The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful it appears.  It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realize that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we’re here.  The added excitement that comes with what we know is that we have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever did.  That is such an exciting possibility, it would be such a shame to blow it and end our lives not having understood what there is to understand.” (Radio interview/book release).

When we engage with the Luke text we find that the prenatal encounter of the fetal Jesus and John the Baptist invites an energetic harmony that joins John and Jesus from the very beginning. At one reading they are spiritual soul friends, bound by God’s vision, from the very beginning and at another they have strongly differing world views of how to transform the world they know. Both are conceived remarkably and today, we know that fetuses are aware of their environment, and are shaped by the emotional and environmental lives of their parents. Fetuses can “know” each other and are heartened by loving parents and communities. This passage reminds us to love the children in our midst – regardless of ethnicity, religion, nation of origin, or economic-family background. And I would suggest here that peace is to be found not in the diminishing of difference but in seeking the complementarity of it. Suppression of difference does not bring about peace, seeking justice for all does.

There is an implicit political vision in this passage. First, the passage affirms the reality of prenatal experience. The lives of fetuses cannot be objectified but even amid difficult maternal decisions must not be relegated to the status of non-entities. Second, the lives of prospective parents must be affirmed to insure, that prenatally fetuses have as positive a beginning as possible. The quest for justice must attend every season of life from conception to death.

Mary’s Magnificat, described in Luke’s gospel, provides an image of hope for the vulnerable and oppressed. Mary’s hymn speaks of a world turned upside down. The poor will become affluent and the affluent will lose their fortunes, the powerful will be dethroned and ordinary people will take the reins of power. This is an impossible dream, as the wealthy gain more and more power and largesse even in today’s world. Yet, it is a dream that tells us that our current situation fails the test of divine affirmation. It fails the test of a just world. Homelessness due to self-serving economic systems, underemployment, due to the speed of technological change, and economic instability due to individualism and competitive victory-oriented processes must provoke an uneasy conscience, especially among the powerful, whose largesse is built upon the poverty of others. And note here I am not arguing against capitalism or socialism because they are both failing us. I am suggesting that we are not asking the prior questions that are rendering what we do as insufficient for justice and thus a lasting peace.

The days are growing shorter for the ancients and for us. Is there hope of illumination? Can we dream of a new era for humankind? These are the hopes of Advent and Christmas, something is being born that will mobilize our hopes and hands to change the world that God loves.

Two pregnant women meet.  Cousins, tradition tells us later. Two named pregnant women, with speaking parts, meet. Mary. Elizabeth. Like all the other stories told by Luke, and this one is no different, the teller has a ‘theological’ reason for the story. To confirm the miracle promised by the angel, and to establish the superiority of Jesus to John even before they are born.

Most scholars also agree Luke is not telling a realistic story. The trip they embark on is the first of two unrealistic trips to be undertaken by Mary while she is pregnant. This has caused at least one female scholar to suggest: these stories could only have been told by a male!

Yet we are challenged to consider this fictional story of this meeting of the two women as having shaped Christian imagination and inspired Christian art through the centuries. Artistically, their meeting is often depicted “with these two women in a wordless embrace, sharing, like all mothers-to-be, the mystery of new life within themselves, and with a sense of mutual awe over what God has done.” (JDonahue. America web site, 2006). On the other hand perhaps the most famous artistic Mary presentation is in the great Pieta, where Mary as mother, is cradling the broken body of her son. The challenge is to hold these two stories together to balance the fear with the hopefulness, the negative with the positive. The claim is that people who are oppressed and cannot speak out because they’ll be imprisoned, or shot, or retribution will be made against their families, say they understand this Mary who cradles her son.

While for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our society, Mary “an unwed mother in an extremely traditional society.” understands what it feels like to carry the awful burden of ‘otherness’. But unlike many of us who live in fear and hopelessness, tradition suggests Mary does not see her otherness as a reason for despair. “She sees through the identification, this stigma, and recognizes that God is working through her otherness to transform the social structures that dominate the world.”  (MBrown. ‘Out in scripture’ web site, 2009).

Perhaps the most contemporary artistic rendering of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth occurs in Michele Zackheim’s 1985 art work called The Tent of Meeting. It is a 400 square meter art work in the form of a Bedouin style tent whose canvas walls are covered with historic imagery from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Describing this work, the late professor of Christianity and the Arts, Doug Adams, said: “An appropriate surprise appears at the top… where the hand of God appears above the pregnant figures of Mary and Elizabeth meeting. The surprise is that we see God’s left hand instead of God’s right hand.”  (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003).

Adams explained: “Michele Zackheim has presented God’s left hand to include and affirm what has often been excluded or viewed negatively.  Traditionally, God’s right hand has been featured in art but not God’s left hand.  In social as well as religious rituals and stories, the right hand has been associated with the clean or the saved while the left hand has been associated with the dirty or the damned.  Such associations have been based on social customs arising from use of the left hand to wipe ones rear end in the days before toilet paper…” (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003).

In another comment Adams indicates that the artist’s intention is to say God reverses all our assumptions. God includes those whom we often exclude. And then this short but telling comment: “We need to develop eyes to see the unexpected in Advent.” (DAdams, PSR web site, 2003). Yet it is not the artistic depictions which have grabbed me so much this year. What has stayed with me more than anything else is the way our storyteller has chosen to play
with a whole series of parallels or contrasts. We don’t hear them all in the Mary and Elizabeth story. But they are there when we read great slabs of Luke’s story. Such as these contrasting emphases: the play between light and darkness, the supernatural with the ordinary, the role of women – and that spirituality is not men’s business alone, the plight of the powerless rather than the position of the powerful, Jesus and John, and between Caesar’s empire and God’s empire.

For me, all of these things come full front-stage in the drama of the unexpected presence and present-ness of serendipitous creativity ‘God’ as the leading role. Today is Advent 4, the last day in the Season of Advent. The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected arrival God in the ordinary human business of living. Why? Because human business is holy business. Frequently a messy business. But holy business none-the-less. (W Loader web site, 2009).

And to finish; there is no indication in Luke’s story that Mary should be seen as less than human or more than human, less than woman or more than woman. What she is, is ‘blessed… among women’. And that’s the provocative challenge and the promise of Advent. Engage meaningfully in the ambiguities and uncertainties of life. It is the unexpected that is promised. Be hope-filled, joyfully, embracing the possibilities of the unknown and live lives of wastefully loving because that is about and making real and everlasting peace by being all that we can be. Amen.

What is Joy?

Posted: December 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

What is Joy?

One of the long-term debates within biblical scholarship is between scholars who argue ‘for’ or ‘against’ Jesus of Nazareth shared a similar vision of the expected ‘kingdom of God’ with that of John the Baptiser.

Generally speaking, when we ask what was John’s vision or worldview? Tradition has it, that it was a vision shaped by the themes of personal crisis, judgment, and renewal, coupled with the belief of an imminent divine intervention. A worldview that could be said to have generated the charismatic, spirit focused faith response and maybe even the prosperity gospel movement where the marker between faith and non-faith is the prosperous result. Be a good Christian and you will prosper in every way. God gives out Harley Davidsons to good Christians. Going back to the Tradition we find that this is not new because it rings bells in line with the thinking of Israel’s prophets,
such as Zechariah, Daniel, but especially Elijah. Not as the charismatic or prosperity gospel sort of response but in terms of the world in crisis, based on judgment and thus an imperative need for renewal.

On the other side of this debate are those like me who claim that this was the difference between John and Jesus. Whereas John’s worldview begins with doom and gloom and the evidence of the past to shape the future, Jesus’ worldview concentrated not on the past nor the future, whether near or distant, but on “God’s present and collaborative kingdom” here and now. (Crossan 2010:93).

And, let’s be clear here; opinion continues to be divided. Sometimes even heatedly divided! At the everyday level we approach each moment with blind acceptance of what is without critique or with total disbelief that what we have just seen or heard is true, or we approach it with a healthy dose of both ends and everything in between.

So, is this comparison between John and Jesus possible, helpful or justifiable? Our practice would say it is so long as we don’t get caught by an extreme stand.

When we apply this thinking to who Jesus was because, in the end, the comparison attempt is an attempt to discover who Jesus was so that we can understand who he is for us. When we go to the theological colleges we find that the ‘orthodox’ view, taught in those colleges and from most pulpits, is the apocalyptic or ‘end times’ Jesus as the real Jesus. In the end, all we need to do is to believe and Jesus will sort it out. It will be all right in the end. Under this process lies the return of Jesus, the life after death question and ultimately the apocalyptic Jesus is the logical answer to a John worldview. The difficulty of difference between John and Jesus is removed in the interests of common thinking.

Rex Hunt and John Smith of Australian note put together a handbook on progressive Christianity some years back called “Why Weren’t We Told?” and in it, Rex wrote a short cameo on ‘John and Jesus’. He stated that he does not accept that the apocalyptic Jesus is the real Jesus and asked who John the Baptiser or ‘dipper’ was.

Smith responded with a suggestion that from all that we know and do not know, scholars suggest John was a highly visible and influential Jewish folk hero “whose charismatic reputation almost certainly preceded and overshadowed the public career of Jesus.” (Smith 2002:109). From John Dominic Crossan we learn that John seems to have spent most of his youth living in the desert wilderness, along the Jordan River. He offered baptism as a cleansing from sin in that river location, which, according to Crossan, “baptism and message went together as the only way to obtain forgiveness of one’s sins before God’s firestorm came.” (Crossan 1991:235). Note the negative approach; Be saved by baptism from the fallen state you are in and do it before the end arrives.

But is this a concern for extremes anyway? Am I painting the difference between John and Jesus? Maybe we could put it another way? Maybe this radical preacher from a conservative priestly family was very upfront by claiming in both word and deed, that the temple’s costly monopoly on the forgiveness trade had come to an end. The thing in common with Jesus may have been the shared understanding that sociologically, religiously and politically the temple, the religious institution has seen its days and was in need of renewal, revolution and redirection.

One of the affirming arguments for this view is the stories and the poems, both modern and biblical, that have always presented John in colourful terms. The poet and theologian John Shea who captures this ‘colour’ well in his poem ‘The Man Who Was a Lamp’:

“John expected an ax[e] to the root of the tree
and instead, he found a gardener hoeing around it.

He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
and along came a singing seed scatterer.

He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
then found a bridegroom on the bench.” (Shea 1993:177).

So we are left with two different worldviews and maybe the similarities between John and Jesus as well as the differences between them, suggest that its less about a different world and more about seeing the world differently?

Maybe joy is when someone discovers they have experienced renewal.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent and advent comes before the celebration we call Christmas. Indeed, Advent has become “a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas.” (Gomes 2007:214). In traditional Christian language, Christmas is about the birth of a baby we call Jesus or Yeshua. Historian Clement Miles observed more than 50 years ago that: “The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished…” (Miles 1912/76:157). This is less about claiming a supernatural Jesus or arguing that tradition has it right and authentic but more about the claim that Christmas is about the birth of a human child which is already special, sacred and divine in its human-ness.

As such Christmas is the most human, and easily the most popular festival of the year, involving nearly all the population. And the baby is the most loveable! There is no need to worry about the secular, commercialization taking over Christmas because it can’t take away from being human whereas it can question, challenge and take over from a supernatural or non-natural deistic claim.

And this brings us back to the fact that much of the thought that eventually shaped Christianity did not come from the human Jesus. Or as I might say, the pre-Easter Jesus. It came from Greek thinking centered on a divine Christ as defined by the emperor and various church councils.

And what happens when the human Jesus meets Christianity? According to many of those who call themselves ‘progressive’— and they don’t mince their words—there is a crisis! We have experienced this in the life of our congregation when the Presbytery asked us what we were going to teach in our proposed school? As if there was something they might not agree with or like too much. This human Jesus is seen as a challenge to the growth of the orthodoxy, faith communities that grow from a human Jesus might be a challenge to the institutional status quo.

For those of us who consider ourselves progressive, even if we are not sure of that word. We feel the crisis as having identified several barriers that prevent an honest understanding of Jesus.  These barriers appear as ignorance and as popular images of Jesus. They appear as fear of the gospels losing their authenticity as inerrant and infallible. And sadly as Bob Funk said; they appear as a self-serving church and clergy. They promote spirituality as self-indulgence. (Funk 1996:47).

So, what does our story of John and Jesus have to say? Perhaps as Rex Hunt suggests there are two signposts and they are highlighted in the human Jesus/divine Christ collision that we find in the comparison between the worldview of ‘John’ and ‘Jesus’.

The first signpost is credibility. As David Galston writes; Whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus, “ it must be a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.” (Galston 2012). Jesus was human like anyone. He was a homeland Jew not a Christian. He never rejected his Jewish roots.

So a possible Jesus “is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.” (Galston 2012). And let’s be careful here as there are still some unresolved issues associated with all this.  As David Galston, says: “It is never possible to reach absolute conclusions about antiquity because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit.” (Galston 2012).

This should not be seen as a barrier to faith or to an understanding of being a follower of the Jesus Way because we can be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible. As David Galston says; “This simple foundation is the honesty involved in the search for the historical Jesus” (Galston 2012).

Maybe joy is when someone discovers the possibility of renewal.

The second signpost is methodology That is, what makes the best sense of the available data. And those of us who have been engaging in progressive Christianity discussions and seminars and conferences and maybe those of you hearing many of my sermons will know we use various ’tools’ in our search for the historical or human Jesus. Tools such as Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, Literary Criticism, Rhetorical Criticism and latterly what is termed seeking the Voiceprint of Jesus.

Such tools enable us to realize, for instance, that the gospel writers were a few generations removed from the human Jesus. They inhabited a different cultural setting and worldview. So put simply, an honest progressive methodology is: “check out things for yourself, make sure you interpret things correctly and learn for yourself.  Instead of jumping to conclusions about a subject or about other people, first, ensure you are reading the situation correctly.” (Galston 2012).

Attuning oneself to the question of this human or historical Jesus means developing a mature, critical mind that no longer employs the methodology of believing “the biblical narratives literally—narratives that… were not intended ‘literally’ in the first place.” (Galston 2012).

And be clear this is not only a challenge to old traditions. It is a challenge to recent institutional claims such as that of former Pope Benedict xvi in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.

Maybe joy is when someone discovers renewal is in being skeptical.

Let’s also be clear that all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes, is so that we can live in our contemporary situation with integrity and truthfully? And what will this look like? Well again, David Galston’s comments might be helpful. He says; “Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point will be to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity.” (Galston 2012). Walking the Jesus Way is possible, by carrying forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement… Or as Walter Wink has said: “…go on the journey that Jesus charted rather than to worship the journey of Jesus.” (Wink 2000:177).

So taking the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, seriously, we ask; how might we capture the spirit of both his particular interpretation of John and by comparison, his take on Jesus?

In the case of John’s thinking: It will require a truly creative change or transformation,
in both our thinking as well as in our doing. And hearing his voice as one of hope rather than fear. In the case of Jesus’ thinking: While he originally accepted and even defended John’s vision “of awaiting the apocalyptic God… as a repentant sinner.” (Crossan 1991: 237) that vision was deemed inadequate. For Jesus his thinking changed from waiting for the kingdom to being in the kingdom. Not to be in a different world, but being in this world differently.

Maybe joy is when someone discovers renewal is a choice

Living out the implications of the Jesus vision in our own time, with our own creativity, is still before us. It is still our challenge despite 2 000 years. I like Rex Hunt and a growing number of Jesus freaks am firmly of the belief that the old-religion story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus or Christ, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives.

The thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness. One thing’s for sure. The world in these early years of the twenty-first century requires that we think differently about the questions of what it means to be Christian, about what Christianity is, and who decides.

If we decide to order our lives in terms of the human Jesus it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take, or fail to take, the steps to carry out that decision. Not some supernatural authority or extra-human power.

Maybe joy is when someone discovers hay it is ours to make.

Notes:
Crossan, J. D. The Greatest Prayer. Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
—————- The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn: CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for the New Millennium. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Kindle Edition. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom. How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Miles, C. A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1912/76..
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracles All Year Long. New York: Crossroads, 1993.
Smith, M. H. “Israel’s Prodigal Son. Reflections on Re-imagining Jesus” in Hoover, R. W. ed., Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Wink, W. “The Son of Man. The Stone that Builders rejected” in The Jesus Seminar (ed) The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

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‘Love’

Posted: December 4, 2018 in Uncategorized

Advent 2 9.12.2018

Malachi 3:1–4 Luke 3:1–6

‘Love’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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