‘Evolution, God, and an Unfolding Connectedness…’

Today in the progressive religious world, is Evolution Weekend and I want to recount a story by Rex Hunt that reminds us that there is a difference in talking about the nature of God and the Nature and God.

Rex tells of the time he bought a recommended book and when he got it home he realised he discovered that it was not called Nature of God at all. But instead, Nature and God. Nevertheless, the book and its author, L Charles Birch, former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, became a valuable travelling companion with him on his personal theological journey. The very first sentence in Birch’s book is: “The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science”. (Birch 1965:7). While the third sentence said: “On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position”. (Birch 1965:7). Rex noted that since reading Birch an interest in communication, regular eye tests, and as a self-described ‘religious naturalist’ the relationship between science and religion, has remained with him! On the latter: the relationship between science and religion, three major views exist:

(i) the ‘conflict’ view – that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition;
(ii) the ‘contrast’ view – that science and religion are different because they ask different questions;
(iii) the ‘integration’ view – that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.

Unfortunately, what emanates from many pulpits is more likely to represent the ‘conflict’ view than the ‘integration’ view. Which is why, on Evolution Weekend, many clergy try to speak personally about God.

God’ spelt G-O-D is a symbol or word known and used by nearly everyone who speaks the English language. But it is also a word which has many uses and meanings attached to it. The Macquarie Dictionary for one defines the word as: “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe”. (Macquarie Dictionary 1981:763). And this way of speaking theologically is called ‘classical theism’. This ‘God’ is supernatural, interventionist, and nearly always couched in male anthropological (or human-like) language and images. And for many this is still the way they think when they hear the word ‘God’.  Increasingly however this way of thinking no longer works. With inclusive language, pronouns critique and  dare I say it shifts in the human relationship with nature and the cosmos people’s thinking has and continues, to change.

Many have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘creativity itself’, I have used the term serendipitous creativity to try to embody the changing dynamic relationship rather than persist with terms that depict an impersonal machine maker who made something and then stepped back to watch it work and who only intervenes when asked to or when something needs fixing. Many clergy use the label of Christian Atheist to signify their difficulties with Theism. I prefer the term ‘Anatheism’ which suggests that this God is through and beyond and more than theism. Or as what might be terms as Love itself.

  • Many have tried, in the main, to use non-personal metaphors rather than personal ones to avoid the mechanistic and embrace the relational.  And let’s be honest the thoughts of many have been including those positively influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species.

In that book Darwin suggested that the world/universe was:

  • unfinished and continuing;
  • involved chance events and struggle, and
  • natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint”. (Birch 1965:29).

Put another way more inclusive way might be to say: cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution. (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004). Or yet another way: “In the beginning was creativity and the creativity was with God, and the creativity was God.  All things came into being through the mystery of creativity; apart from creativity nothing would have come into being. (Kaufman 2004:ix).

I would dare to suggest that we have mentally constructed another universe in recent years. Both in science and in religion/theology. Not as some sort of revelation by by evolution in keeping with our reality. In science, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth’s age is approximately 4.5 billion years.  While the universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…” (Gillette 2006:1), is approximately 14 billion years old.

And “if we put our fourteen-billion-year universe on a clock of one hour, humanity appears in only the last few seconds” (Peters 2002:127). So, ‘modern’ science is saying and has been saying, again and again: the universe must be regarded as a whole; it is of intrinsic value, and each part, galaxy, organism, individual atom, participates in that intrinsic value as each part or web, participates in this wonderful web of life.

This is further supported by recent neurological understandings and experimental outcomes of the human brain at work. Iain McGilchrist’s work on the brain and the mind supports this interdependent dynamic relational reality. No longer is it sufficient to argue that each part, put together makes a whole like some sort of mechanical entity is rather a living organism that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a whole first and foremost.

As one overseas colleague of Rex’s has said: “This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read”. (John Shuck). This is a challenge to the definitions we use for God.

And just in case you think this is new there are a few books, such as: Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution”, David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone. How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives, and
Lloyd Geering, ‘From the Big Bang to God’. Our Awe-inspiring Journey of Evolution. That support this view.

The ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former (now late) Harvard Divinity School theologian, Gordon Kaufman, presents God as a non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’
“manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person.  We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth”. (Kaufman 2004:58).

Rex argues that Kaufman clearly names the problem with traditional religious language and thinking. Likewise, his alternative thinking and language embraces both our scientific knowledge and the reality beyond the symbols of biblical faith.

What is happening around the world is that a growing number of people, religious and scientifically minded, and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, or this dynamic more that is both organic and material or spirit and matter interwoven are recognising that our modern life-style is: harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns.

The earth is under assault!  Indeed “we are killing our very life support system in a manner unprecedented in human history.  And yet, most of us go about our daily lives more or less blissfully indifferent to the devastation”. (Hill 2008:10). Thus, progressive religious thought calls each and every one of us to ‘dance with’, to find and live in harmony with, our world.

And progressive religious/christian thought seeks to name appropriately that creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms… galaxy organism and individual atom… ‘God’ or ‘the sacred’ or ‘serendipitous creativity’.

Meanwhile, Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, has a couple of interesting and detailed comments. They are like that which I have often been accuses of, a bit technical and a little wordy, but they are an attempt to revisit interpretations and concepts of the past in a new way.

To the question: ‘How old are we?’ Peters says: “phenomenally, a few decades; culturally, a few centuries or millennia; biologically, millions of years; cosmically, about 15 billion years”. (Peters 1992:412).

To the additional question: ‘How long will we continue?’ he adds: “phenomenally, a few more decades or less; culturally, maybe a few more centuries; biologically, millions of years or, if we do not destroy ourselves first, perhaps until our sun dies five (5) billion years from now; cosmically, until the universe ends, which may be never…”. (Peters 1992:412).

Peters, answers are a kind of cosmic recipe for the functioning of all things. And reminds us that nature is in us as much as we are nature. “We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos…  As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a larger part of the universe as a whole…  We contain in us… after many cosmic, biological, and cultural transformations, the radiation that was present at the origin of the universe”. (Peters 1992:412).

For Peters and for many the evolutionary epic is a religious world view. All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Weekend, we might talk about God. The capacity of the natural world to inspire a religious response from humans has long been recognised—even before the new level of stunning cinematographic visualisations as in David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet 1 & 2 and before that, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

Thus, there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions.  “If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred,” writes Jerome Stone, “surely, we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognized as sacred… 

J A Stone reminds us that there is a strong monotheistic tradition of cutting down the sacred groves. What we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship… but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.” .(Stone 1997)

One of the important things to understand and embrace is that religious orientation only lives while we are making it up, while our imaginations and creative juices are firing and we are ‘composting’—crafting—new angles, new narratives, new metaphors within the particular context of the moment because these things are liberating.  And such ‘crafting’ is today, much more than embarking of a salvage operation!  What matters most for the religious life, is imagination and experimentation.  Honouring and engaging the mind, living the question as dynamic, dialectic, not just intellectually thinking and by exploring the adventure of being human, using intuition, imagination as the mode of becoming. 

Bibliography:
Birch, L. C. Nature and God. London. SCM Press, 1965.
Birch, L. C. Science & Soul. Sydney. University of New South Wales Press, 2008.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. (An online journal).
Hill, J. A. Ethics in the Global Village. Moral insights for the post 9-11 USA. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.
Kaufman, G. D. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
Macquarie Dictionary. McMahons Point. Macquarie University, 1981.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity International, 2002.
Peters, K. E. 1992.  “Interrelating Nature, Humanity, and the Work of God: Some issues for future reflection” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 27, 4, 403-419.
Zimmermn, M. “The Evolution-creation Controversy. Why it Matters”. Part 1, in The FourthR 23, 6, 11-15, 26, 2010.
Stone, J. A. “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-pagans: Obstacles to Appropriating the Old Ways” in (Ed). C. D. Hardwick & D. A. Crosby. Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty. New York. Peter Lang, 1997

R E Hunt

Salt and Light… Today?

Posted: January 30, 2023 in Uncategorized

Salt and Light… Today?

Much debate and discussion has taken place over the years as to what is the role of the church. And by church I mean that in a universal sense. The ‘church’ that we find in the local expression often called a congregation. We note that like most businesses, organisations and human institutions we as the church always seem to be in the middle of one of those discussions about the future. And they are always discussions about restructuring… Always it seems!

As far as the church goes it seems that many of us feel all this restructuring talk will enable our Church, Congregation or Faith Community to more resemble the kingdom or realm of God of which Jesus spoke about. We tend to forget that it is an alternative way of being from that which we might assume is better or perfect, or efficient.

What we invariably get caught up in is the causes have more to do with dwindling resources,
an outdated theology, and the rate of change in the world. Like climate change issues we scramble with what we think is a better way of doing things rather than seek an alternative way of being. It seems that we don’t really want to believe that if everything changes, then change too must change.

For instance, each generation finds itself further removed from its predecessor. The gap between children and their parents is always a little wider than it had been for parents and their parents. (Friedman 2009:10). The same can be said for ‘church’.

During this time of continuing change, what will guide us in our understanding of ‘church’? How will our ecclesiology mirror our theology and how will our theology reflect the alternative we seek and how will our theology reflect that which we now know?

It is always tempting to look back. And it is important to reflect on how the past has influenced our present, but as historical beings we are not just nourished by our past. We actually live in the present, and it is a new present, “qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106). This is the nature of the realm that we seek, it is always the alternative, it is always that which is yet to be but it is also about being alternative and thus we are required to be attentive to alternative, always ready to engage imagination.

It will of course also be tempting to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures. We will always create resistance to change otherwise it would not be new, it would not happen without the other, the other person, the other point of view. Without challenge is would become useless fundamentalism. It is always more that its label, more than extremes.

Maybe the question we face is where are our discussion about alternatives? Where are our guides amid these calls for change or redefinition? What will shape our new present which is  qualitatively different from our past? If we have any so-called hope as followers of Jesus what might it look like? Maybe we could start with our stories? Perhaps today’s stories, which hint at common everyday life in first century Palestine, and as told by the storyteller we call Matthew, can be a guide, or at least offer a couple of suggestions or signposts.

The images of the ‘church’ as light or salt, as eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, as catalysts for illumination or flavour seem to be in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking. These sayings might appear to uncover something of the indirect and hidden nature of the church. That is, they might as stories from the past reveal a way in which the life of a faith community could seek to express itself.  Rather than calling attention to itself, to claim some sort of singular truth possessed as a group of people who know it all, who have got it all sorted as if there is only one way of being? Maybe the question we face in our time is what is a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’, that is most effective when it/they are not noticed. I am not suggesting that church can exist outside of, nor instead of or in separation from, the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings.

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson,
published an important book called, “A People on The Way”. It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and Australian culture’ where he picked up the three biblical images of light,
salt and yeast and said they provide “a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”.

He then went on: “That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence…  Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”. A continuing persisting presence…  Hidden, we might say, like salt? Just enough salt and we say ‘this steak is juicy and tender’. Too much salt and we spit it out and complain. The salt is not detectable if it is doing its job. Its effects are.

Grierson, also being a storyteller, digs into his local history and tells a ‘salt’ story…  His story was that during the post war years in the 1940s in Australia a small but determined Catholic woman heard of thesickness of aged neighbours in small houses in her street.

South Melbourne, the suburb where she lived, was hard hit by strikes and unemployment. Many people were sick because of poor nutrition, and unable to act because of advanced age. So Mary Kehoe mobilised some of her friends and they cooked meals for those who were ill.

A problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need?  And a solution was found in the use of an old pram. The meals were loaded into the pram, and pushed up the street to the houses of the unwell and needy, and to a canteen two houses from Mary Kehoe’s place. Her efforts to involve the local council had resulted in the provision of two huts to act as a relief centre. Meals cooked at her house were wheeled to the canteen where many gathered for emergency help. Thus began ‘Meals on Wheels’, which today it is so much a part of many of our social service provisions  where its beginnings are lost and forgotten. What this does is give hope and support to hundreds of people, who without it, would not survive.

The manifestation of imagination, human effort and a continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt changes things.

Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in some sort of context: “…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…” She goes on: “In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and flavour of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s basiliea”. (Reid 2001:48). Like the symbolic Hebrew Passover meal the reality of collaboration, shared celebration, shared resources the church is seen in its becoming.

Then She makes this important comment: She says: “The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in a new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus.  Just as Christians of the last century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus’ teachings presumed the institution of slavery, so today we face the challenge of eliminating sexism, inculturation, extremisms and systems of domination, though even though these are woven into the fabric of the Gospels”. Makes some significant challenges for reliance of restructuring I suggest. If everything changes, then change must change too.

What do we mean when we suggest our new way of being will be characterised or shaped by:
(a) listening to the community first rather than talk;

(b) letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response;

(c) letting our response be original and creative.

I want to suggest that St Andrews has been innovative, attentive to others and resourceful in its support and initiatives. It’s model has been to speak inclusive language, to be inclusive in its actions and its evangelism tries to be a continuing receptive persisting presence, and hidden if you like, like salt. And amid change that too is changing. Where is the alternative that identifies the Way of Jesus?

If we are to face a ‘church’ which is discussing change and restructuring because of dwindling resources and interest in faith communities that come with an identity assumed or not… And if we are to face this changing situation with integrity and purpose, then how we become ‘church’ in the community, will be more important than how we are structured within any set of set of Regulations or guidelines or Constitution. Note I haven’t given you any solution because I am not sure we have understood the question yet. What does it mean to be light and salt to those who don’t understand or want to be like us? How do we be a continuing persisting presence… This is the question that is being asked.

Bibliography:
Friedman, E. H. What are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writing and Diaries. New York. Seabury Books, 2009.
Grierson, D. A People on The Way. Congregation, Mission and Australian Culture. Melbourne. JBCE, 1991.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minniapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.

We Are To Be!

Posted: January 26, 2023 in Uncategorized

We Are To Be!

In today’s gospel story we have the beginnings of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes. Some have even paraphrased the title as: ‘Be-Attitudes’ or ‘Attitudes for Being’. It is a very well-known section of the gospel story and we probably have heard a similar story – from Luke, and most probably last year. But Matthew’s story is not the same as Luke’s.  However, Luke’s version is written after Matthew, and it is likely that he is using earlier material. That said, the Luke story is about the poor, the hungry and those who weep. He is clearly talking about human need and he reflects Jesus’ sayings that when God’s reign is enacted, there will be change but it will be good news for only certain people. The poor. The hungry. The depressed. Whereas in Matthew’s story we find that these promises have undergone some change.  Matthew’s focus is less on the needy, and they have been somewhat ‘spiritualised’. Matthew’s focus is more on the hearers who need to be challenged to take up new attitudes.

[Former] West Australian Bill Loader offers this suggestion for the change in emphasis: “Love and compassion are the hallmark of the discipleship for which Jesus calls… Perhaps this reflects the kind of people who made up Matthew’s community.  So… the beatitudes have been changed from promises to the poor and hungry to challenges to people to be ‘poor in spirit’ and to ‘hunger after righteousness’… attitudes and behaviour you need to develop”.  (Loader web site 2005).

Now, whether Jesus actually preached a so-called ‘sermon’ like this or not, is debatable. Much recent scholarship reckons he didn’t, and that what we have here is an edited collection of sayings. What seemed to matter for Matthew the storyteller, was the building-up of his young, struggling house-churches. And to do that Matthew had to recruit more followers who would take upon themselves the responsibility for dreaming and for re-imagining the world. But they had little or no inkling how to live out that dream. How to be a ‘kingdom’ of equals. So, Matthew tells a story… of Jesus leading a group of supporters to the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he, Jesus, begins to teach and stretch their imaginations.

The Inclusive Language Lectionary from which we gained our version today uses the words “Happy are…” ‘Happy’ is a word which seems to jar as somewhat strange and even superficial and not everyone is happy with the ‘happy’ translation. A few commentators reckon it makes Jesus out to be some kind of “pop psychologist”.  (Sarah Dylan Breuer). However, I like Rex Hunts response to that when he asks, “doesn’t everyone strive to be ‘happy’?” And besides, doesn’t the more familiar translation, ‘Blessed’ open to the irritating touch of the pious. There is a third suggestion around and that is to replace ‘blessed’, the traditional term derived from the Latin, with its modern equivalent ‘congratulations!’ For in these sayings “Jesus declares that certain groups are in God’s special favour”. (Funk 1993:138) And then there is a fourth one which is to translate the Greek as ‘honoured’ . (J H Neyrey). Honoured are you when you make the greatest claim for others; Honoured are you when you bring peace rather than being a source of dissension; Honoured are you when you act non-violently in the face of violence.

Matthew sets the stage and he does that in story… A story which has us and the members of his collection of house churches, overhearing a Jesus’ conversation… A story which invites a response in favour of those who are adversely affected by the powerful goings-on of the ‘empire’. And encouraging a response that is more an incentive to want to do away with all that oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, imprisons others. The challenge is one of attitudes, assumptions and systemic culture akin to that which we call colonialism, inculturation and a number of social, political and economic isms. To borrow some 21st century words of social commentator, Hugh Mackay: “The acid test of the decency of any society [or group] is the way it deals with the disadvantaged, the drop-outs, the criminals and, yes, the ‘aliens’”.

In all these story suggestions we can sense Matthew’s hope that at least some of the house-church membership will reply: Yes, we know that’s risky. Yes, we know that means change. But… we can be that!  Our hope for the future lies with us in this. We can live out that dream! We can make that happen. And like Matthew’s house-churches, we are also invited to listen. To discern, to hear the alternative, to seek the better, the alternative. Like Matthew’s house-churches, we too can respond: And yes, that will be risky because we will be changed. And like the members of Matthew’s house-churches, we can. accept that we will not get it all right first time, that we need to adapt and move during the change. It will not be perfect. But it will be with the strongest of intent because it is about the attitude of the common good, the compassionate and the loving..

One of the challenges we in New Zealand face at this time is the upcoming 2023 national elections. In my view we have had a leader who took on a challenge to change attitudes to the poor and disadvantaged, and to the adversarial attitudinal them and us approach. The stigmatization of difference, and to the individualist propensity to isolate the frightening. Some argue that this last battle was hugely difficult and even divisive. What was possible lost in this was the theme of the search for wellbeing. The nation was once again sucked into an adversarial mode and we know now of the vitriolic, bigotry, the racism and stereotyping that such an approach revealed and we were reminded of the challenge of the beatitudes. Happy are the  poor that, Blessed are the poor, Honoured are the poor. We are forced to ask: how does that happen without a change of heart? How does a nation change its attitude? Can it change? The danger of the election process is that we lose sight of who are we to be and get caught up in the need to win and to control our world as if our ideals are absolutes of right when the reality is that life is dynamic and can only succeed with attitudes of compassion and love. The task of politics is the wellbeing of the people ad it can only happen within an attitude of love, Love for the people, Love for those who struggle to be able to be who they are called to be. Fully functioning members of the society that we name New Zealand. It wasn’t called the ’team of 5 million’ for nothing. It wasn’t about the battle between the centralization verses the privatisation of resources and control, it was about the attitude towards each other as human beings on this populated planet called Earth. Surely we have learnt that the way we have been doing things, the attitudes we have towards each other, towards the planet and to wards the cosmos cannot be sustained. Time to read the beatitudes again it seems? Amen.

Bibliography: Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005. Funk, R. W. et al. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan Publishing, 1993. Jerome H. Neyrey. <http://www.nd.edu/~jneyrey1/loss.html&gt; “Honoring the Dishonored: The Cultural Edge of Jesus’ Beatitudes,”

‘Each Day Nurtures and Enlivens’

The story of the Baptism of Jesus is a story that reminds us of the nature of awareness, the nature of encountering or engaging with the novel, the new. It challenges us to ask about choice and decision and making change and how to value them as part of life and living while at the same time acknowledging their importance as watershed or significant life choices. In the time of the early gatherings of Jesus followers it was important to declare ones membership of the cause, Baptism was a ritual that expressed that and later took on the supernatural status of divine family. The context of the story in our context is our lives and how we live them. During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post-Christmas ritual of disassembling the lounge room Christmas tree and decorations. The fairy lights and decorated wreaths and been packed away. The last remaining spot of candle grease removed from the dining room table. And the Christmas cards packed away as reminders for another year. Maybe the cupboards and ‘under beds’ have once again received their annual ‘gifts’ and will not be invaded for another 11 months. It’ll soon be back to reality! Time to get back into the public demands of commuting and work and all that.

In the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’ let me then pose a couple of questions. How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight? And how do we act once we are out in the public view? In this post Christendom and almost post Christian world, what is the significance of the ritual of Baptism? Parties, media releases and performances are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view.

 Rex Hunt talks of an article he read in 1970 Joint Board of Christian Education –
written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.  The query was, “How can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations, to include those important special stages of life – such as applying for a first job, or leaving home to go to university, or heading off overseas for 12 months? What rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate, as those among us step out into the public spotlight in these ‘first time’ public events? Rex commented that he was left with the conclusion we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that. Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate.”

Rex also notes that the church has been reasonably successful despite the decline in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry within the church. It still maintains its recognition and even one’s authentication or legalization through ordination and induction.

The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew, is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus into the public spotlight. And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself, others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so. For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ is of the one who will “establish justice upon the earth”. through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force. We note here the magnitude of the significance of his Baptism as more than an individually motivated act and thus an integral part of the meaning of the ritual. His coming out was both an individual personal choice and a social, political, economic, and religious transformation.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story. For instance, only Matthew: • includes a conversation between John the baptiser and Jesus; • recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request; • stresses the public character of the baptism – the ‘voice’ addresses everyone. And the baptism of Jesus was also a very controversial subject. John was not the first to baptise people. Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptise other Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew: “No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism…”. (Barclay 1956:52-53).

Rex has also said elsewhere… that;(i) Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports, but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community, (ii) that tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptising Jesus, and (iii) the John baptism was not a Christian baptism!

Grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is also tricky business.  There is no consistent or one New Testament view on this which leaded one to abandon that understanding.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism.  Only that Paul already met with baptism

These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities. Especially the debate around the different style and theology of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptiser! Dom Crossan also puts this in context for us: “The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful” (Crossan 1991:232).

And of course this raises another question. That which we have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life. Like us, but not really one of us. So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise by setting a good public example? Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. That he was content to be identified along with the tax collectors, the lowly, the outsider. Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister, suggests: “Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons…  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so-called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity…”.  (Bruce Prewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue. In Matthew’s era and in our era. And no doubt all of you will have your own opinion on this issue as well. I am sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively and aware of the raging debates of his time. But Like Rex and many Progressives, I am also inclined to the view the reason he told this story was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’ to the life of the man Jesus who’s vision would enlarge their experiences of what it means to be human, a child of God, and the understanding of that which they named Elohim, Yahweh, and God and what we might name Love, The sacred, Perhaps or Almost.

Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus: Jesus’ baptism. And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism. To know again, to remember again, to acknowledge that the refreshing waters of baptism signified by the ritual enlivens, and nurtures us each new day. It also reminds us that we live in tat which we call God, the Serendipitously creating event we call God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us in every new moment of life. If anything needs a ritual then that has to worth ‘coming out’ and celebrating! Amen.

Bibliography:
Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.

Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.

Posted: January 11, 2023 in Uncategorized

Travelling Light.’

Did you hear the story floating about over the Christmas holidays? It claims that because the nativity stories were written by men there is a gap in the narratives about the birth of Mary and Joseph’s baby boy. This alternative version says that… Three Wise Women actually arrived before the three Wise Men (Ones). The women quickly asked for directions, got there in time to deliver the baby, made a casserole, and brought disposable nappies, baby cream and baby powder as their gifts for Mary, and a soft toy for the baby.

Are we in a post Christendom world or maybe even a post Christian World? Are we abandoning the Jesus story in favour of another or are we modifying it in the light of revelation? Are we reinterpreting it and how far can we go. I found a poem by John Roedel.

I was riding comfortably on the road to God

when suddenly and without warning

the wheels fell off of the ornate carriage I was riding in

~ and I became stuck

I was stranded on a dusty road

surrounded by the untamed wilderness on either side of me

“I have to get moving again,” I thought

so, I spent way too much time

desperately trying to fix what was irrecoverably broken

eventually, it became clear that I would never get my life to look the way it used to

I was tempted to turn the wreckage of my life into a roadside museum

and to make a home out of the ruins

but then suddenly and without warning

a blue butterfly came out of the badlands next to me ~

and landed right on my nose

her wings had the most abstract watercolor pattern I had ever see before

~ but after spending an hour watching her stretch and close her wings

I was able to see that the pattern actually spelled three words that I spoke out loud

“come find Me”

then suddenly and without warning the butterfly lept off of my nose

and back into the sprawling wild

I immediately set fire to the wreckage of my broken down carriage

and I chased the butterfly straight into the chaos of the wilderness

I’ve been out here for years now and I’ve learned that no matter how lost I have gotten

I have never felt more found by the Great Love

I have learned that there is no set road for me to journey to the home of God

for me, God’s home isn’t a fabulous destination at the end of a detailed map

or tight travel schedule

God’s home is the uncharted dangerous expanse of wonder and howling wolves

where the two of us climb trees to scout the next day’s walk

I was never going to find Love by watching the wheels spin on a groomed path

I was only going to find God by stepping off the path and into the crackerjack

splendor of the mystery that has been calling to me for years

it’s an undiscovered land where tree trunks are shaped like question marks

and rivers lead me from one curiosity to the next

it’s a relentless and unending adventure where Spirit arranges a couple hundred

bright blue butterflies in the sky to spell the same thing each morning:

“Come find me”

Today, we move further into the church’s traditional calendar… into the season of Epiphany. We remember here that Epiphany means ‘revelation’ or ‘showing forth’. Like the poem above we can say in our everyday contemporary language that: Epiphany is about ‘going on a journey, about searching for the new. We hear a collection of stories: of the Magi or Wise Ones, the baptism of Jesus, and the Marriage Feast of Cana, where Jesus begins his public ministry, and the calling of the first disciples. Interestingly enough, the biblical stories imply
Epiphany is a search everyone must make.

The storyteller we call Luke… has the poor doing the searching,  in the form of shepherds. The storyteller we call Matthew… has the learned (and rich) doing the searching, in the form of the Magi.

We are used to hearing the story of the Magi, but many of us miss the fact that our religious tradition gives us two sets of so-called Magi or Wise Ones. The first set are the ones we call the Magi. Legend and not history has it there were three and they have those lovely mediaeval names of Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. And they took a series of risks as they pushed some boundaries and searched the heavens, followed the star, and made a commitment. But there was a second group of Wise Ones, the one’s Herod called in… These were the scribes and the pharisees.

Herod says to these Wise Ones, “I’ve got a problem here”.  And when you’ve got a problem you either call in the experts, or check out Wikipedia! Herod chose the former. He gathered a bunch of them together and said, “They talk of the birth of a messiah; I want to know where he is to be born.” And these Wise Ones come up with a ‘poetic’ answer: “In Bethlehem of Judea.” And that’s all that we hear of them.

Two groups of so-called ‘wise ones’.  Two different groups of ‘wise ones’. One group prepared to play it safe… One group, curious about the new, but prepared to take some risks. This Epiphany, we are asked to choose between the two ‘wise’ types: between those who play it safe, and between those who take a risk. Again, like that revealed by the poem above this risk or this revelation is a challenge about the need for a journey. It is perhaps too easy to say and could be said about every year and it can and should but like every year this one is going to be a very interesting and important year for this congregation this church this denomination and for you and I. A bit of a watershed year, we might say.

The challenge of this Epiphany, this year, this group of people is for it to be a year where we all dare to:

• use our imaginations a little more,

• recommit our involvement a little more, and

• like the Magi, become changed ourselves because of the experience and ‘return home by      another way’.

Rex Hunt suggests we might need an image to help us as we begin our new year together, as leaders and followers and the image he suggests is of being on a journey… on a camping trip, in tents, to be exact. We are on a journey. And because we are in tents, we need to travel light. While we need the ‘kitchen sink’, it needs to be a light-weight kitchen sink! But more than that, we are all on the journey together. We need each other’s guidance. We need each other’s encouragement. We need each other’s imagination. We need each other’s curiosity. We need each other’s creativity. We need each other’s balance.

We are all on a journey. And all of us are at different points on that journey. Some of us are way up the front; others of us are at the rear. Some of us are willing; some of us are dragging our feet just a bit. Some of us journey with great certainty; some of us have some doubt. It doesn’t matter where we are in the trip… It’s important that we are journeying at all. At least we’ve responded… we’re taking the risk, to explore, and to return home by another way!

And where is the hope of a new and different future? As a result of their journey, the Magi were changed. No longer could they be instruments of a government oppression. No longer could they repose in cynicism. No longer could they face the world with mere curiosity, remaining aloof. They were changed.  For they had been confronted with the newness and the hope experienced in a God like never before known. And their story is our story, too.
Home by a different way, never to be the same again. As we confront the demise of Christendom and maybe of the Christianity as we know it maybe the hope lies in our ability to interpret for today?

Epiphany

Caught in the kaleidoscope of love I am confronted by the beauty in ambiguity.

Swept away in gratitude for graced glimpses of what used to be certainty

wallowing in companionship of the other,

mesmerized by the constancy of the limited declaration.

Serendipitously divine beauty calls beyond the deeply disconcerting

carrying us far away to a place beyond and yet within the simple

complete but not yet dead alive and not yet born

Drawn by sunsets the dark clouds of distance are revealed

Yet still promise near the peaceful peaks and distant mountains

 The coloured strands of vision dance and glow like every changing form

 bouncing off barren branches and fluttering leaves of time

Sacred beauty is revealed in the gift of magnificence

like a cloaking of the soul brought to bear

In loving, consolation, affirmation, healing,

challenge and gratitude.

A dance of allurement in the heart of mystery,

Born a life of beauty, of mind beyond mundane, a life of sacred unity.

D Lendrum

In a way Epiphany is about another way to live. Another way to love. Another way to belong. Another way to be all we can possibly be.

John Shuck says that “Because Creativity God “is a god on the move and on the margins”. “This is a god who invites us to…

  • Imagine a world in which there are no weapons because no one can ever think of a need for one.
  • Imagine a world in which we don’t fear each other but enjoy each other.
  • Imagine a world in which no one ever needs to worry about what to eat or what to wear or where to sleep.
  • Imagine a world in which we give what we take and everyone has enough.
  • Imagine a world in which our talents and creativity are valued for the joy they bring not the profit they make.
  • Imagine a world in which the circle of care is so large that no one is left out.
  • Imagine a world in which education is a lifetime love of learning.
  • Imagine a world in which we live with the rhythms of Earth.
  • Imagine a world in which we respect and care for all living things.
  • Imagine a world in which the decisions we make are made with the awareness of how they will affect seven generations to come.
  • Imagine a world in which we are daily filled with awe and joy”  

(JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 16/1/2011).

What is sure is that the journey awaits us… Imagine a world where the story of Jesus is a story that describes our journey, not God’s. This is Epiphany, our time for searching and journeying! The story of God is already being told and awaits ours to make it exist. So, Welcome to the journey… to an exciting camping trip. Together. Amen.

‘Each Day Nurtures and Enlivens’

The story of the Baptism of Jesus is a story that reminds us of the nature of awareness, the nature of encountering or engaging with the novel, the new. It challenges us to ask about choice and decision and making change and how to value them as part of life and living while at the same time acknowledging their importance as watershed or significant life choices. In the time of the early gatherings of Jesus followers it was important to declare ones membership of the cause, Baptism was a ritual that expressed that and later took on the supernatural status of divine family. The context of the story in our context is our lives and how we live them. During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post-Christmas ritual of disassembling the lounge room Christmas tree and decorations. The fairy lights and decorated wreaths and been packed away. The last remaining spot of candle grease removed from the dining room table. And the Christmas cards packed away as reminders for another year. Maybe the cupboards and ‘under beds’ have once again received their annual ‘gifts’ and will not be invaded for another 11 months. It’ll soon be back to reality! Time to get back into the public demands of commuting and work and all that.

In the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’ let me then pose a couple of questions. How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight? And how do we act once we are out in the public view? In this post Christendom and almost post Christian world, what is the significance of the ritual of Baptism? Parties, media releases and performances are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view.

 Rex Hunt talks of an article he read in 1970 Joint Board of Christian Education –
written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.  The query was, “How can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations, to include those important special stages of life – such as applying for a first job, or leaving home to go to university, or heading off overseas for 12 months? What rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate, as those among us step out into the public spotlight in these ‘first time’ public events? Rex commented that he was left with the conclusion we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that. Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate.”

Rex also notes that the church has been reasonably successful despite the decline in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry within the church. It still maintains its recognition and even one’s authentication or legalization through ordination and induction.

The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew, is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus into the public spotlight. And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself, others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so. For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ is of the one who will “establish justice upon the earth”. through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force. We note here the magnitude of the significance of his Baptism as more than an individually motivated act and thus an integral part of the meaning of the ritual. His coming out was both an individual personal choice and a social, political, economic, and religious transformation.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story. For instance, only Matthew: • includes a conversation between John the baptiser and Jesus; • recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request; • stresses the public character of the baptism – the ‘voice’ addresses everyone. And the baptism of Jesus was also a very controversial subject. John was not the first to baptise people. Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptise other Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew: “No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism…”. (Barclay 1956:52-53).

Rex has also said elsewhere… that;(i) Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports, but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community, (ii) that tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptising Jesus, and (iii) the John baptism was not a Christian baptism!

Grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is also tricky business.  There is no consistent or one New Testament view on this which leaded one to abandon that understanding.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism.  Only that Paul already met with baptism

These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities. Especially the debate around the different style and theology of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptiser! Dom Crossan also puts this in context for us: “The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful” (Crossan 1991:232).

And of course this raises another question. That which we have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life. Like us, but not really one of us. So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise by setting a good public example? Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. That he was content to be identified along with the tax collectors, the lowly, the outsider. Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister, suggests: “Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons…  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so-called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity…”.  (Bruce Prewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue. In Matthew’s era and in our era. And no doubt all of you will have your own opinion on this issue as well. I am sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively and aware of the raging debates of his time. But Like Rex and many Progressives, I am also inclined to the view the reason he told this story was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’ to the life of the man Jesus who’s vision would enlarge their experiences of what it means to be human, a child of God, and the understanding of that which they named Elohim, Yahweh, and God and what we might name Love, The sacred, Perhaps or Almost.

Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus: Jesus’ baptism. And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism. To know again, to remember again, to acknowledge that the refreshing waters of baptism signified by the ritual enlivens, and nurtures us each new day. It also reminds us that we live in tat which we call God, the Serendipitously creating event we call God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us in every new moment of life. If anything needs a ritual then that has to worth ‘coming out’ and celebrating! Amen.

Bibliography:
Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.

Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.

Hope, really? Is that what you call it?

Perhaps in preparation for this sermon one might remember what John O;Donohue wrote when he said that “Wisdom is not just special knowledge about something. Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” This is not about sameness, assimilation or unification of thought. It is rather about that which is always more than the sum of its parts, more than, an awareness of the alternative and a willingness to walk into it.

Much of the gospel story this Fourth Sunday in Advent centres on Matthew’s rather sketchy outline surrounding the birth of Jesus. And there is a significant difference between Matthew’s version – which we heard today, and Luke’s version – which we traditionally hear around this time of the year, and that there is a fair degree of difference. The reality is that they are very different.  And despite attempts to the contrary by both the church and the many ‘Carols by Candlelight’ events, they can’t be harmonized into one grand, neat story. In artistic terms, Luke’s picture is full of bright primary colours. A cheerful story. A buoyant, hopeful, joyous story. Matthew’s picture, on the other hand, is a picture using a darker palette. The colours are more sombre, darker hues. A more gothic like story – disturbing, disquieting. Having said that it is perhaps almost better to say that Matthew’s story does not actually narrate the birth of Jesus at all. It is implied.

Meanwhile, in the church or amongst the various so called followers of the Jesus Way there was and still is much theological ink and energy wasted on the debate surrounding the matter of virgin birth or virgin conception. It is also possible to believe that, despite what many English translations of the Bible say: Matthew did not believe in a virgin birth. Neither did Paul. But Luke probably did.

Here we have it, our absolutes, our belief system, our so-called truth, our faith, our Christianity all challenged by our own understanding of scripture and its place. And like the early Christians we too handle this in various ways between total fundamentalist denial of the thought and a liberal silence in the face of its own deconstructive prowess. Some efforts become canonized and others persecuted in the interests of a singular point of view. Even among the most adventurous scholars we hear the call for understanding, of our minds, and an acknowledgement that too often they shelter us from the realities we might uncover.

WE note also that the Hebrew text of Isaiah which Matthew quotes clearly has nothing to do with virginity. At most it means only that a young woman, who is now a virgin, will become pregnant. No ‘miracle’ is intended. What has fueled the more recent debate goes back some 70 years or so. When in the 1950s the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible properly translated the Isaiah words with ‘young woman’, “some people were so upset that they sponsored public burnings of the version.  The official Catholic translation, the New American Bible, uses ‘virgin’ in (Isaiah) because bishops overruled the Catholic scholars and demanded that it be mistranslated.”  (Miller 2003:95)

So where in the midst of all this, is our hope?  The ground of this Advent season?  And how can we be empowered to live fully, to love wastefully, and dare be all we can possibly be, as the late Bishop Jack Spong urged us?

The hard truth is that we do not anticipate that Jesus will come, or come again, in any literal sense.
Our hope is shaped by a ‘progressive theological’ understanding of incarnation: Our God or whatever we name as God acts in the world in and through our actions. As we are open to this God’s working within us, Jesus Way becomes authentic human embodiment. As we seek to serve our God, we are never alone.  As the old tale reminds us we experience again and again, Emmanuel, our God-is-with-us. So during these closing days of Advent and in the rapidly approaching season of Christmas, we can anticipate God’s renewing and transforming present-ness, now, even as we remember God’s focused ‘coming’ or embodiment in Jesus in the past. And this hope we expound is less about the supernatural or the other than natural and more about an alternative view of presence that is not outside of nor over or under but rather embodied within. A sort of certain hope that awaits our expression. A hope we can encourage others to also recognise ‘in the sacred’ where they are.

This also suggests that our hope is directed to the unfolding of the sacred, the working out of the Spirit and that the primary evangelical task is the participation in this sacred enterprise unconditionally is the call. This Advent and this Christmas, maybe we can manifest or embody that hope in all the nooks and crannies of our various communities. Amen.

Bibliography:Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad, 1993.

https://www.rexaehuntprogressivelgy.com/

Look Again! In, Through and Beyond The Crumbling

Once again we encounter the so-called John the Dipper and despite our general Advent and Christmas festivity expectations, today’s theme seems to be suggest that there is more to this Christmas story about: Something about where can we find hope when all around us things are crumbling. That somewhere in, through and beyond is more to know. On the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘Christmas’ as the perhaps ultimate time for hope and rejoicing.  Who was John the Dipper – or Baptiser as tradition refers to him? Well! Scholars speculate that John was a young man, probably in his late 20s – very early 30s. He had spent most of his youth, maybe as many as 14 years or so, living in the desert wilderness.

He was also a young man who was passionate about his cause. Some might say obsessed’. Others have even hinted ‘jealous’… of his (so-called) cousin, Jesus. Does evangelism come as a family trait? Well! Storytellers and poets on the other hand,

give a bit more colourful (and imaginative) picture. Matthew describes him, and in a detail never given to Jesus: “John wore a garment made of camel-hair  with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts with wild honey.” Jack Shea, in a poem in his book ‘Starlight’, says John was: “…a map of a man…  Unexpected angels were pussycats next to this lion” (Shea 1993:175). Norman Habel, in a collection of poems and paintings – the latter by Pro Hart – has John’s father, the priest Zechariah, say: “That boy, I said, will blaze the promised track for us to follow through the wilderness and back to God… “A chorus of crows out in the yard echoed my inner pride, ‘God, it’s good to be a father! Yes!  It’s great to have a son!’  (Hart & Habel 1990:18).

Meanwhile, Rabbi David Blumenthal, in an article published in Cross Currents (eZine edition) pointed out: “Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.  (Where did we go wrong eh?) There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God.  Nor does Judaism recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance.  Although the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology and practice” (David Blumenthal, 2010).

There is every likelihood the early Christian communities made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus, (including the stories about John!), and their efforts seemed to be designed

to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important. Interesting inference given that the character of Norther Galileans is a noisy rebel like character. From all we know (and do not know) about his preaching style, John strongly claimed that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear (or at least change) in the ‘disobedient’

– the so-called insider. While similar, his preaching style was also in contrast to Jesus’ style,

that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was1 an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’ – the so-called outsider.

Two very different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation that still influence us today, in our search for hope. So, we should not be too surprised when the storyteller we call Matthew has John asking the question of Jesus: Who the heck are you – really? Even to Matthew’s John (and by implication, Matthew’s small community), Jesus did not fit stereotypical ‘messianic’ expectations. Or at least later interpretations of what being a Messiah means.

With things constantly getting more difficult between the various developing Jewish communities, not to mention some downright ‘rivalry’ between them, it was proving difficult to maintain everyone’s enthusiasm for a hopeful view. One way Matthew’s community decided to respond to their situation was to look back to some of their earlier experiences to see if they could name something from there. And they remembered the prophet Isaiah and his vision… So, remembering their past, they hoped it would open a way ahead.

Once again, some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful: “Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in a new situation.  They learn from both the fulfilments and the disappointments…  They formulate their hope in new ways.”  (P&F Web site, 2007) This is interesting in that it raises the question that reinterpretation is required to define what hope is, It is always subject to the period or time it is sought.

But then these telling and hopeful words: “From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice…  people were moved by Jesus’ transformation of the way God and the world were understood…  the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire” (P&F Web site, 2007).

And here’s the rub: if one is to advocate the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire’, one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation. In fact the change or alternative view Jesus argues for is a challenge to the social, political, and economic assumptions of empire thinking and practice. Like Rex Hunt of whom much of this sermon’s thinking is based I too think this is what the Advent and Christmas stories are really all about!

Look again! There is an alternative!

It is good to light Advent candles each year. It is good to sing Advent songs and Christmas carols. But there is a restlessness and a longing and a challenging about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert! There is change happening, there is an alternative to your assumptions a workable authentic hope is through and beyond the presenting cultures and assumptions. And the longing for the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love, is not wishful thinking, a yet to be obtained peace, an idealistic joy and a love yet to seek, but rather they are to become concrete – and real – in our lives, now.

This restlessness is captured in a bloke called John the Dipper when he comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. And the people – read: the poor, the powerless, those on the edges of society – hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’. For their political situation was such they needed a word of hope.

We remember here that rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent. As I write the NZ government is about to face the inquisition of its handling of the covid response. And it seems it is driven by opposing thoughts about economic decisions and statistical argument and resulting outcomes.

The reality was that life was and can be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. Not the message we tend to see on our Christmas cards, is it? But that’s the social political and economic context of the first Christmas story. Will the commission’s review take that into account. What was the loss of hope? Where was it? And while both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams, both were seeking to transform their world, and bring an end to war and violence, injustice and oppression.

In one of the gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible, (another interesting debate) the Gospel of Mary, Peter asks Jesus: what is the sin of the world? Jesus is said to reply: There is no sin.  It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies. (Similar to J D Caputo who suggests it is us who make God exist whereas if ones hope is beyond ‘things’ and a form of ‘materialism’ God insists).

As one of Rex Hunt’s colleagues in the USA said of this text some years ago: You don’t often hear in church: ‘there is no sin’. And he goes on to suggest that; “Most of us familiar with [traditional] church have heard a lot about sin.  I think that for the community of early Christians who appreciated Mary’s Gospel, sin is lack of awareness.  Sin is a fogging over.  Sin is becoming lost in the thoughts, anxieties and desires of our material existence that we live as though we are asleep…” (John Shuck, 2007)

So, perhaps when we light our Advent candles and sing Advent songs and Christmas carols each year there is also a need for a restlessness and a longing about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert!  Be open! Look again! Look in, through and beyond the presenting gloom so that with these postures to the fore, the four traditional themes of Advent

– hope, peace, joy, and love – can become concrete, can become real, in our lives. Amen.

Bibliography

Hart, P. & N. Habel. Outback Christmas. Adelaide. Lutheran Publishing House, 1990.

Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. Third edition. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 1993.

https://www.rexaehuntprogressivelgy.com/

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.

Notes:
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.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘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’.

Bibliography:
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.