Seeing Beyond

Posted: March 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 26: 6-13

Seeing Beyond

Rex Hunt of whom I have often spoken and referred to or quoted noted a poem called “Contact lenses” that he thought spoke as contemporary context to today’s gospel story as told by the teller we call Matthew.

“Lacking what they want to see
makes my eyes hungry
and eyes can feel
only pain.

“Once I lived behind thick walls of glass
and my eyes belonged
to a different ethic
timidly rubbing the edges
of whatever turned them on.
Seeing usually
was a matter of what was
in front of my eyes
matching what was
behind my brain.
Now my eyes have become
a part of me exposed
quick risky and open
to all the same dangers.

“I see much
better now
and my eyes hurt.”

(E S Fiorenza).

Rex also noted that he had never preached on this biblical story as told by Matthew. Whereas the rendition of this story, as told by Luke, he has. He went on to note the differences Matthew offers as opposed to Luke

Matthew says the story happened in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, just before Jesus’ death whereas Luke says it all happened in the home of Simon the pharisee, in Galilee. Luke says it was Simon who objected to the unnamed woman’s actions.
In Matthew, it was ‘the disciples. In Matthew, the objection revolves around the extravagance of the anointing. In Luke, Simon’s objection centres on the woman’s so-called ‘sinful past’.

Rex also notes that for many reasons, the whole of biblical narrative tradition seems to have been adversely influenced by Luke’s story conclusion. The sinfulness of the woman.

To compound this conclusion further, some storytellers and commentators suggest the woman was a prostitute. But there is absolutely nothing in Matthew’s story to confirm or suggest this. And even if you want to push Luke’s story to the extreme edges, his mention of the woman being a ‘sinner’ does not point to her being a prostitute. The New Testament scholar Barbara Reid suggests that “…this woman need only have been ill or disabled or have frequent contact with Gentiles to be considered a sinner” (Reid 2000:97).

“It is remarkable,” she says that neither commentator nor Bible translator “has thought to point the reader to the way Jesus perceives her by entitling [the story]: ‘A woman who shows great love’” (Reid. http://www.textweek.com).

So, we ask; what is Matthew’s special take, via his storytelling? I like Rex want to suggests that it is about having a new perspective – on life and others. And that’s what the poem is about.

‘Once I lived behind thick walls of glass…
‘Now my eyes have become a part of me exposed…
‘I see much better now… beyond usually.

Can Matthew’s hearers, and now we…

Can all of us move from behind our ‘thick walls of glass’ that has shaped our seeing and hearing of this story. To ‘see’ the woman’s humanity as well as her great love?
To ‘see’ Jesus’ humanity and his re-imagining of the world?

Generally speaking, women had a leading role in the early Jesus movement. Women had access to financial resources they used for ministering to Jesus. Women journeyed with Jesus. Women were often unnamed. Our Lenten mentor, Jewish new testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, suggests: “Women followed Jesus then, and women follow him now, for the same reasons that men did: because they found something in his person and his message that spoke to their hearts…”  (Levine 2006:143).

But, Levine cautions, while many can and do find that inspirational, you “do not have to construct a negative view of Judaism in order to do so” (Levine 2006: 143). On the other hand, neither do we have to turn Jesus into some misogynist, as some church leaders have done and still do, to support their farcical arguments that women cannot be ordained or have leadership positions, because Jesus (apparently) didn’t appoint any women to his inner circle!

We need to stop bearing ‘false witness’. Such action when it happens must be denounced. And denounced by Christian theology. Especially when such claims come from the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings and opinions. And in a world where right is a commodity to be owned, bought and sold.

But of-course Matthew’s story and our reflection on it, could also have gone beyond ‘women’, and been about asylum seekers, corporate developers’ bribes, homosexuality, the continuing wars around the globe. In this world today in the wake of the Trump election and questions about the social influencing and the social impact, the false news, to wide interpretations of what might be considered truth. And now in the think of a global pandemic where the world is poised to change, be it tighten up on freedoms, abolish privacy monetize humanity or provide space for a new thing a world where common sense banishes hate, intolerance, power seeking, and people live and breathe as though we all matter. Where we do more than give lip service to love and explore the depths of humanity that come from such empathetic, valued individuality and actions.

Matthew’s context for this particular story is not the same as Luke’s more popular one but rather appears in its context to be a lead up to Jesus death. Which also fits in with our current season of Lent. And it also fits without current world situation, poised on the edge of change of apocalyptic proportion. The death of what we have known and the birth of a new age. Jesus’ death mattered to Matthew.  Indeed, to all those early storytellers. But only because his life mattered more. Many spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life (Patterson 2004). And how their own small communities could embrace life, not be scared of it.

So, my invitation to you all today is similar: Do not deny that the situation we find ourselves in is disastrous, death bringing, fearful, life-threatening and deeply horrific. Do not push it away either as God’s punishment of a bad world nor deny it just as part of evolution of the species. But see it as the call of Jesus to embrace life, all of life, and not be scared of it. Step out from behind the thick walls of glass and see much better, now…Step out of the fear and the blaming and the seeking to find who did it and work together in love for each other,

Prayer to an ‘Almost’ God

Just when we think we have it all figured out,
things change again. I am ‘almost’ there.

It is as if the rug is pulled out from under my feet,

I don’t know where to put my foot,

 But I am ‘almost there and I need to take the step.
When will I be able to rest
in the comfort of knowing what comes next?

When will my ‘almost’ become my reaching the ‘next’?

I see the ‘almost’ that transcends all time,
that created the stars and set them in place,

My ‘almost’ is so huge that it belittles and confuses my ‘Almighty’

I see the ‘almost’ that is never there yet already present,

The ‘almost that is ageless yet known in every age,
The ‘almost’ that authenticates ‘promise’ and confirms the grace that accepts
being there but not yet, the changes that are about to invite the freedom and the possible, the almost that is already present in the now.

 The ‘almost enables an emptiness of heart shaped by anxiety,
and fills it instead with wonder and awe, and beauty and possibility and hope.
The ‘almost’ releases me from the maybe and pushes aside the chains of complacency,
and binds us to an ever-present, ever-moving Spirit of transformation by imagination

 The ‘almost’ takes the things I believed to be permanent and stable
and leaves them by the way side as markers of the impossible

That without ‘almost’,

the impossible would founder on the edges of the possible
And keep us away from being enfolded in a quantum like unquenchable love

‘Almost’ reminds us that memory of the dynamic,

ever-moving, evolving, unfolding, emerging is entry into

The possibility of a world without a fear that paralyzes,
and with a way into and out of a grief that cripples us with anger
that imprisons us in a loss of what had been.


‘Almost’ by incarnation becomes angels arriving to gently move us
over that frightening edge into the unknown,
inviting us to enter the realm of trust.

Self-worth, human flourishing, life is grounded because,

‘Almost’ is always eternal. Always enduring and everlasting.

In ‘almost’ restlessness finds peace, meaning finds purpose

And in ‘almost’ evolution, creation, and imagination

Become finite within infinity

Yes! and amen.

Doug Lendrum

Notes:
Levine, A-J. 2006.  The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. NY: New York. HarperOne.
Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the Passion. Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Reid, B. E. 2000.  Parables for Preachers. Year C. MN: Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Now I See

Posted: March 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

Psalm 23        John 9:1-41

Now I See

How quickly the world changes.  Just a few weeks ago the world was going about its business as it always did. Children were attending school in most towns, local businesses were open and thriving, the shelves in the local grocery store were well-stocked, the churches we were attending were gearing up for Holy Week, people and families were enjoying travel abroad and most were experiencing fairly normal workdays, and we had never heard the phrase, “social distancing,” or “self-managed quarantine’.

Now, just days later, schools and universities around the world are closed.  Libraries, restaurants, cafes, and cultural centers are shutting their doors.  Some are finding it hard to find hand sanitiser, bathroom tissue, or other staples at the local grocery.  Some churches will offer worship services online for at least the next month.  Others are flying home, ahead of a nationally mandated travel restriction and in some countries a ban between nations.  Doctors and nurses experiences in the emergency room have drastically changed, and it is suggested we are to maintain a one to two meter distance from every human being we encounter.  We are experiencing the life in the shadow of Covid-19.  Like we said at the beginning, how quickly the world changes.

But wait a minute! Is “change” the right word? It doesn’t seem pandemic enough and isn’t life about change anyway? Maybe we should use the word  “apocalyptic” to describe what life feels like right now, and maybe that’s the better word.  After all, an apocalypse, rightly defined, is an unveiling, a revelation of things previously unseen or unknown.  Maybe the world hasn’t changed that much at all. There have been pandemics before and they have been thought to be natural or man-made, accepted as part of what happens when you have people who are always trying to find things out. Or maybe the world hasn’t changed so much as it has been exposed, uncovered, made plain, laid bare.  Maybe the evolutionary outcomes haven’t been given due attention because we thought we had it all controlled. We did.t account for a God who could be seen to be ambiguous, uncertain, and co-creative. Maybe we were blind to the freedom we actually have or the responsibilities that are ours before, and the time has now come to see.

To see what, exactly?  That we are fragile.  That we are one — interdependent and interconnected.  That our daily choices can have life-and-death consequences for other people and our planet.  Maybe we have been able to project sin and responsibility away onto someone else. And maybe we have forgotten that unselfish love is risky, inconvenient, and essential.  That so much more is at stake in our spiritual lives than our personal safety and comfort and having got it right for me.  Maybe we are supposed to be people of the Cross, long enough to see that we are also people of the Resurrection.

Our Gospel story for this fourth week of Lent is about costly seeing.   Debie Thomas an American facing the changes in America reminded me of a poem I used in my book. “The Place Where We Are Right,” by Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, In my book I used it to challenge the place that orthodoxies have in life. They can lead to a sense of entitlement, privilege and superiority and power over others. They foster communities that are insular, isolated, and exclusive. Debie Thomas puts this simply as being right is a place challenged by the heart of the Gospel’s message:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

In our text from John’s Gospel, Jesus heals a “ruined” man on the Sabbath, a man who has been blind since birth.  When Jesus sees him, he kneels down, spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste with his saliva, rubs the paste on the man’s eyes, and instructs him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.  When the man obeys, his sight is restored.

Traditionally this is a miracle story, but the Gospel writer doesn’t spend too long on the healing itself.  The focus of the lectionary is rather on the religious community’s response, both to the man’s blindness, and to his restored sight.  It is in this response that Amichai’s poem resonates, speaking powerfully to the challenges of our own time and place.  “From the place where we are right,” the poet says, “flowers will never grow in the spring.”  In other words, one of the most barren and desolate places we can occupy as Christians is a place of smugness.  Of rightness.  Of certainty.  The more convinced we are that we have full insight, comprehension, and knowledge, the less we will see and experience what we name God. Here is my claim for a God that is ‘Almost’ not yet complete, not yet here but insistent, coming, becoming, immanent.

Even before Jesus heals the blind man, the disciples assume that his blindness is his own fault.  So they ask Jesus who has sinned and incurred God’s displeasure — the man himself, or his parents.  But Jesus rejects the entire premise of their question.  There is no relationship between the man’s condition and his sinfulness, Jesus says.  God does not make people sick in order to punish them for wrongdoing.  To step away from our brother or sister’s suffering because we assume it’s divinely ordained, is not righteous.  It’s reprehensible.

In the story John tells, Jesus sees the blind man — a man whom no one else really sees. In the eyes of his peers, the man is contaminated, burdensome, and expendable.  In his community’s calculus of human worth, the blind man barely registers — he’s not a human being; he’s Blindness.  The condition itself, with all of its accumulated meanings.  Which is why, when the man’s sight is restored by Jesus, his own townspeople — the people he has lived and worshipped with for years — don’t recognize him.  They don’t know how to see him without his disability.  To do so would be to recognize a common humanity, a bond, a kinship.  And that would be intolerable.    One could see how damaging this would be, Gosh a woman could even would be a partner in marriage as apposed to a mans wife, a vehicle for his child, a chattel of his household.

So, of course, when the man shows up healed and whole, the community rallies to discredit him.  To restore order, re-establish the social hierarchy, and reinforce the status quo.

But why?  Why does the community feel such an urgent need to silence the healed man?  We know this. We know the core reason is fear.  A fear so primal and so deep, it drives away all compassion, all empathy, all tenderness, all sense of kinship.  If the man’s blindness isn’t a punishment for sin, then what does that mean about how the world works?  Anyone might get sick, or suffer from a disability, or face years of undeserved pain and suffering for no discernible reason whatsoever.  That wouldn’t be fair — would it?  That would be a version of reality the good religious folks can’t control.  A terrifying, destabilizing version.  Who among us can bear to surrender the illusion of control?

Not only does the community’s legalistic approach to faith prevent them from seeing the healed man; it also prevents them from seeing God’s love and power at work in their midst.  No one in the story rejoices when the man is healed.  No one – not even the man’s parents — expresses joy, or wonder, or gratitude, or awe.   No one says, “I am so happy for you!” or asks, “What is it like to see for the first time?  Does the sunlight hurt your eyes?  What are you excited to look at first?”

Instead, the community responds with contempt, its need to preserve its own sense of righteousness more important than celebrating a fellow human being’s restoration to life.  “The place where we are right,” the poem says, is “hard and trampled like a yard.”  Hard and cynical.  Hard and suspicious.  Hard and stingy.

This suggests that vulnerability, softness, curiosity, and openness are essential to real seeing.  A challenge in the face of the Cornid Virus is it not? The Gospels tell us that Jesus’s true identity eludes just about everyone until after his Resurrection.  Even his disciples struggle to understand who and what their Teacher is.   Most of the people who encounter Jesus are too busy seeing what they want to see — a magician, a heretic, a political and military leader, a carpenter’s son, a wise man, a phony, a clerical threat — to notice what the blind man, free of all such filters, discerns by the end of the story.  The blind man alone sees Jesus and calls him, “Lord.”

We might say, then, that this is one of the rare and beautiful moments in the Gospels when Jesus himself is truly seen.  The blind man sees Jesus as wholly and purely as Jesus sees him; the gaze and the recognition in this story are mutual.  Because the healed man has no preconceptions, because the spiritual ground he stands on is soft and supple, he is able to see God as God is.  “Doubts and loves dig up the world, like a mole, like a plow.”  The ‘Almost’ allows the whispers of the divine Spirit to bring forth new life.

Whether we want to or not over the coming weeks, we will face a choice — the choice to see or to turn away.  Will we allow the ground we stand on to remain pliable, or will we harden our stance and refuse to grow and change?

Will we be flexible in the ways we extend love across distances, or will we hunker down in fear and suspicion?  The question is will we dare to be the Church in new ways, even as we practice quarantines and social distancing — or will we forget that we are one body, connected and interdependent, incomplete without each other?  Will we have eyes to see God in our neighbours, regardless of whether they are sick or healthy, insured or uninsured, citizen or foreigner, protected or vulnerable?  Will we be brave enough to look our own vulnerability — our own mortality — in the eye, and trust that our God is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death?  Or will we yield to cynicism, panic, and despair?

Maybe we can take a lift out of our text and be in awe of the trust the healed man has in Jesus by the end of this week’s Gospel story — a trust deep enough to enable him to bear honest, radical witness to his experience, even at the risk of censure and excommunication from his religious community.  In shedding his identity as “the man blind from birth,” the healed man becomes a disciple, a traveler, a pilgrim.  He commits himself without looking back, straining forward instead of clinging to what others tell him is right and true.  He is, in the truest sense, born again.

So maybe during this time we are entering we too, can confess our blindness and receive sight.  May we can also find praise for the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us.   May we also soften and prepare the ground we stand on, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising guise ‘Almost’ chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too. Amen.

‘A Transforming God’

Posted: March 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 4: 5 – 42

‘A Transforming God’

 Jesus arrives at the Samaritan town called Sychar. This town is near the land that Jacob gave to his son Joseph and Jacob’s well is there. Jesus arrives and he is tired by the journey. The first thing he does is to sit down by the well. We are told it is about noon when the Samaritan woman comes to draw water, and Jesus says to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ The Samaritan woman replies and says, ‘What?  You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?’

Jesus replies to her saying: ‘If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman doesn’t back down at this and says: ‘You have no bucket’, ‘and the well is deep: how could you get this living water? Are you greater than our ancestors Leah, Rachel and Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it with their descendants and flocks?’

Jesus replies: ‘Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside, welling up to eternal life.’

The woman said, ‘Give me some of that water, so that I may never have to come here again to draw water…’ ‘I see you are a prophet.’ said the woman. ‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, while you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’

Jesus said: ‘Believe me, woman; the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know; for salvation comes from the Jews.  But the hour will come – in fact it is here already – when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper our God wants. ‘God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’

The woman says to Jesus, ‘I know the Messiah is coming – the Anointed One –  who will tell us everything.’

‘I who am speaking to you,’ said Jesus ‘I am that one.’

The dialogue ends and John summarizes and says that many Samaritans of the town had believed in Jesus on the strength of the woman’s testimony when she said, ‘He told me all I have ever done,’ so when the Samaritans came up to Jesus, they begged him to stay with them. Jesus stayed for two days, and when he spoke to them many more came to believe; and they said to the woman, ‘Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard this one ourselves who we know really is the saviour of the world.’

For the purposes of our approach to this text we note that just across the ditch we have one of the driest continents on earth, a place where water is a precious commodity.  In fact, it could be said that water is everything. Water is life… For Australians the logical connections with our Baptism liturgies that focus on the active, dynamic symbol of water ring true whereas it might be harder for us New Zealanders because as a country we are blessed with the gift of water from both the land and the air. The way we use water is more likely to be to add benefit to our land management and or to exchange it for money.

So in returning to our text we need to remember that in our story from the storyteller/theologian we call John the images and practices  are from a land of deserts, and if we can remember for just a moment that we are in the middle of the season called Lent, which begins with stories around a time in the desert, a place of little to no water,we might find today’s story an interesting juxtaposition.

So, we might come to this story with the context in mind This is a land where droughts are just around the corner and some rivers or creeks might only flow once a year.
And in some cases only flow a few times in a century. Numerous travelers may have perished for lack of water. Like Australia no water, no life. Water and life go together. To survive in the desert “is to know the sources of moisture and how to tap into the water-table” (Ferguson & Allen 1990:37).  A dry, hot place.  While Palestine may not have been as arid or huge or perhaps even a place that had to be ‘conquered’ to get anywhere it was a challenge.

On the other hand, the people who lived there would have treasured and memorized every watering hole. From one generation to the next, they would have told stories and sang songs which were like maps of their territory. And in these stories and songs the precious water holes would have been prominent. They treasured water. It meant life.

Taking a quick look at the collection of stories told by John, we can see that he tells several stories using water. Water turned into wine. Water to wash disciple’s feet. Jesus walking on water. And of course, there are all those exciting fishing stories.

Today’s story of a Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well, belongs in this collection. In this story John has Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. Indeed, the conversation between the two, is the longest of any Jesus is supposed to have had with anyone.

Traditionally, the substance of the story is said to be about ‘a very liberal’ Jesus talking to an immoral Samaritan ‘outsider’ woman. And, so this line of interpretation goes, Jesus issues a call to her to: “clean up her act, get right with God, and join the Jesus team to preach God’s word of forgiveness and love”.  (McKinney. PST Web site, 2008)

 But as many scholars have pointed out, this and similar interpretations are an awful misreading of an important story. Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish new testament scholar: reminds us that the woman is not an outsider in the story.  It is the Jewish Jesus who is the outsider. The woman is a Samaritan, and they are on her home turf. Secondly, we see that the woman’s visit to the well is in the daylight, and this is well recognized storyteller’s device about seeing the ‘light’, rather than an indication of social ostracism.

And thirdly there is absolutely nothing that indicates she is ‘sinful’ or sexually promiscuous. “The… woman says Levine might be unfortunate, but she is not sinful…  The only ones who condemn her are the biblical scholars.” (Levine 2006:137)

Another person who helps us appreciate this story beyond the traditional, is a bloke called Rick Marshall. He takes John’s image of a well and the rising up of the water, and says: “Who knows where (the water) comes from.  But we drink it and go on living our lives…  That’s how the creative, transforming power of God is:  Who knows where it comes from, but it sustains us and we go on living our lives.  We are called to trust the ‘Living Water’.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005)

It sustains us and we go on living our lives. “We experience the creating, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005) The place of water in the whole of life. Life giving out of and within the arid wanting places in life.

What if this is also what the storyteller, we call John had in mind, when he told the story of Jesus asking a woman for a drink. The Jewish outsider in the land of the Samaritan and I have claimed earlier that Samaritans are Jewish but maybe not Judean Jews. The Judean Jew in the land of a Samaritan at noon asking her for a drink is symbolic of the asking for enlightenment and he is reminded by the woman’s response that he is asking for help as a stranger when their history is a common history. John is perhaps suggesting here that the difference between man and woman, Samaritan and Judean is not the issue here but rather the place that water has in everyday life is. We remember also that Jesus was from Galilee in the northern part of the area that could be an intermixing of the two kingdoms after the two become one. There is a common history here. We might also remember that John is some decades later telling the story of the impact Jesus had on Jewish life, identifying this with the place of water in normal everyday Jewish life.

As you will appreciate with pending retirement coming I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and what I thought I have been doing and whether or not it has been of any value. Anthony de Mello tells a story that I think reflects what I have been trying to do.

The preacher was a great success.  Thousands came to learn wisdom from him.
When they got the wisdom, they stopped coming to his sermons. And the preacher smiled contentedly. For he had attained his purpose, which was to bow out as quickly as possible
for he knew in his heart that he was only offering people what they already had,
if they would only open their eyes and see.  (Anthony de Mello)

Life giving water that flows upon, into and over and beyond one’s life is like the transforming present-ness of the Serendipitous Creativity God. It comes upon us unexpectedly as something too common to take note of, and it comes with both a coolness and warmth depending upon the need and it sustains us as we live our lives, pervasively cleansing and flushing and also quietly moving through life, our life. At once a vehicle for our resurrection, or the five yearly replacing of every cell, and it’s purpose is that we might live life to the full, love wastefully, and be all that we can be.  (John S Spong)

I think I like that story better than the focus of the things that divide us. Promiscuous Samaritan outsider who is admonished by Jesus and told what to believe as opposed to the metaphor of the life-giving water of the everyday that is symbol of the transformation of life that Jesus offers. Amen.

Notes:
de Mello, A. The Song of the Bird. 10th edition. India: Anand. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988.
Ferguson, G. & R. Allen. ”Thirsty in a Dry Land: The Migrant Experience of the Absence of God” in G. Ferguson & J. Chryssavgis. The Desert is Alive. Melbourne. JBCE, 1990.
Levine, A-J. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious’

The streets were dark and deserted. Not a soul can be seen.  At least he hoped not. There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow, never using the major streets of the town, travelling only in out of the way places, hoping not to be seen. So, what’s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night? He is going to pay a call on Jesus who is staying with friends. He doesn’t want anybody to know that he, one of the leaders of the community, would be going to see this itinerant preacher.

Jesus is roused from his sleep, we presume, and meets Nicodemus.

The image is of strangers in the night… and one of the most common interpretations is that there is something wrong with this guy. He appears to be reduced to the possibility of being a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist, His so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison
is often interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness.
Or as Jack Shea suggests, he is “stranded in twilight.  He is not mesmerized by the signs… He wants a teaching, not another miracle.  But before he can receive a teaching from God, he must receive a teaching about himself”.  (Shea 1998:83-84)

Here is the suggestion that Nicodemus is at first and foremost a curious person. He is curious about this guy Jesus and here I want to suggest that this is the challenge for us. Nicodemus was a Jewish Rabbi curious about a fellow Jewish Rabbi and this suggests there is a need for us to be curious about who Jesus is for us who call ourselves Christians. Being curious is not reserved to those outside the faith but also to those within the faith. We are to question our own claims, assumptions. And doing this is part of a faith journey and not something that will destroy our faith. Our personal theological journey is always on the move.

Let’s take another look at Nicodemus before I try to give shape and form to what I think the challenge is for us in New Zealand today. And let’s do that through the eyes
of both some Jewish and Christian new testament scholars.

Let’s begin by looking at the bible and acknowledging that this is a story composed by the storyteller we call John. We note that we only ever hear of Nicodemus in John’s writings and that much debate centres around this story and the storytellers use of this story at this point in the gospel.

We note also and this is the crux of today’s discussion. Traditional Christianity
appears to have used a Jewish Jesus and a Jewish Nicodemus to support its own ends as opposed to remaining true to history. This is not a new claim nor is it a criticism. It is rather an acknowledgement that this was the norm when passing on the stories. It was permissible and even expected that they be retold in ways that fitted the current culture and world views. The gospel needs to make sense to now and this means that there are huge dangers in literalizing and fixing the story in a time and place. We talk today about the gospel being irrelevant and part of that is the misguided use of text that supports slavery to encourage people to abandon it.

It seems obvious to say that Jesus was a Jew. A first century Galilean Jew whose prayers were Jewish. His thinking was Jewish. His ‘voice’ is thick with Jewish history – personal and cultural. And we miss that when we follow traditional Christianity and convert him into a proto-Christian. We deny also that much ‘Greekness’ has impinged his Jewishness.

Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, has said that: “With the stress in some churches on Jesus’s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, Jesus’s historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven”.  (Levine 2006:19)

Levine than goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as: against the Law, against the Temple, against the people of Israel, as the only one to speak with women, as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression, as the only one who cares about the ‘poor and marginalized’.

“It is No wonder that, even today Jesus somehow looks ‘different’ from the ‘Jews’: in the movies and artistic renderings, he’s blond and they are swarthy; he is cute and buff and they need rhinoplasty and Pilates”. (Levine 2006:19)

This ‘divorcing’ of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful. Especially when we hear John’s story about Nicodemus.

So, in light of these comments, we might consider some suggestions about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus.

We might hear that Nicodemus was a pilgrim.  A sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to “expand his search beyond the standard texts… and distractions of the day”.   (PFarris.www.textweek.com 2008)

We might also hear Nicodemus, as a member of the religious institution of his day,
as a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new. So instead of questioning his motives, we might see that Nicodemus’ motives need to be recognised as both open and honourable. This says that for Nicodemus, as for us, he must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways
rather than prescribing a single way of thinking or believing.

How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different?
Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing!

Now I want to show you two videos that I think ask us to be curious like Nicodemus and to value the mode of critique, challenge of the status quo and perhaps more importantly ask the hard questions about Nicodemus and of our traditions, creedal assumptions and doctrinal claims.

Video Making Sense Part 1 Iain McGilchrist

I think that challenge of that clip is to ask ourselves what it says about our need to be pilgrims as opposed to passive consumers. If Iain is correct then we have to ask if something about our belief system or our slavish compliance with tradition needs to be challenged.

The other thing we might ask ourselves is what the obsession or imbalance toward the so-called left-brain orientation in the western world is pushing aside? What is that which we are missing out on? Our next video I think suggests that one of the outcomes of this left-hemisphere bias is creating a mindlessness, an environment where we no longer value a huge part of what it means to be human.

Video Making sense Part 2 Ellen Langer

The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions. Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different! Nicodemus then could be seen as the Patron saint of the curious.  (MHess.www.textweek.com 2008)

The message is to protect the curious in each of us. Put yourself in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers, of whatever faith tradition, whose  openness defines a new community of hope and grace and  have the courage to dare to know this serendipitous creativity God, with all your heart and mind, with courage and strength because traditional theological boundaries have been and are being pushed…

And pushed again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination. Amen.

Notes:
Lee, B. L. The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity.  Mahwah. Paulist Press, 1988.
Levine, A. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. Harper One, 2006.
Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B Robinson (ed). Journey Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Shea, J. Gospel Light. Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness. New York. A Crossroad Book, 1998.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

The Unfolding Interconnectedness of Life

Today in the progressive religious world, that St David’s has become part of; in the last few years, this weekend is Evolution Weekend. It began I think in the United States as congregations saw the need to claim a place for evolution in a Christian world that was being overcome by a fundamentalist movement in education and in theory. A weekend where congregations made a claim for evolution as opposed to Creationism based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Many thought that there was little need for such a movement in that such literal Creationism would soon be exposed as fantasy but amazingly it still exists for those locked in a literal approach to the bible despite the fact that it no longer makes sense in a world that has moved on.

For many outside the church even this topic is a waste of time and energy because for them the argument between science and faith seems to no longer exist, and as my Grandson has often said of the church’s wrestling with this sort of debate, “I have a very simple view of religion all you have to do is follow the golden rule; – do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ And when Karl Barth that well known theologian was faced with that same response he said; ‘I have a very simple view of astronomy – twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.’ They were and are right are they not. The science and faith argument is a strange one difficult to rationalize and one wonders why bother because what we know that has been provided by science and what we knew then now cannot be reconciled. L Charles Birch former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, in 2008 said and I think he was right “Such simplistic concepts are caricatures of science and religion” In many ways, the battle between religion and science, and specifically between evolution and various forms of creationism, that is being waged [in the USA] today while being more outdated is also more rancorous than it was 150 years ago.  And, although some of those on the creationist side are incredibly vocal, from a religious perspective they are clearly out of the mainstream” (Zimmerman 2010:11)

So, to celebrate this, I want to talk very personally about God. First of all, lets go to an extract of an article by Rex Hunt entitled … It’s Natural!  A ‘Forgotten Alternative’ for Progressive Spirituality. No matter how beautiful some may consider it, a supernatural worldview, and the practices that reinforce it, anaesthetizes us to things we need to do if we are to create sustainability for our planet, our children, and their children. To use Gretta Vosper’s words: “Stripped of a divine plan, we progressives are challenged to be active participants who can mould the world around us rather than simply passive recipients who engage, now and again, in acts of devotion with the hope of altering the course of events.”

So, where to start personally?  Well… Some options…. start by taking a three-year-old child, (maybe your grandson or grand-daughter) for a walk along some wet-lands track. Do not plan to be in a hurry. Every twig. Every coloured stone. Every duck. Every small grasshopper or lizard to cross your path will be an occasion for closer ‘looking’ and excitement. Such is the enchantment of a three-year-old for the natural world.

Start with your own life. With the fifty trillion cells of your body that are converting energy to make protein right now so you can read/hear these words. Or… with the awareness that the body you are carrying around now won’t be the body you’ll be carrying around one, three five years from now. It will have completely rebuilt itself from the inside out.

Allow yourself to be shaped by this creativity. This wonder. Webs of culture, life, and cosmos, resulting in unending successions of ever-evolving levels of living forms.  Each day lifts its head from the dew-strung grasses and offers new hope, new possibilities, extra chances.  Because every moment is pregnant with possibility. The miracle of each moment awaits our sensual wonder. Hosannah! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This. Horizontal transcendence. Nature embedded in humanity. Humanity embedded in nature.

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 super-naturalist traditions.

The very first sentence in L Charles Birch’s book is that: “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). He was right and it was the church’s inability to question its dependence upon super-naturalism that got in the way. The result has been a fragmentation of thinking in regard to the relationship between science and religion, three major views exist: One; the ‘conflict’ view – that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition; Two; the ‘contrast’ view – that science and religion are different because they ask different questions; and Three: the ‘integration’ view – that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.

Unfortunately, what emanates from many pulpits even today is more likely to represent the ‘conflict’ view than the ‘integration’ view. The science faith debate gets swallowed up in the dualisms of secular and sacred, evil world and belief in God to name but two. This is perhaps why Evolution weekend is important. Not just in an ecological sense where man made climate change is the topic of the day, but also in a theological sense where the topic of God is also under siege.

‘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).

We know that 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 even some of us in this room perhaps, this is still the way to think when we hear the word ‘God’. But for those of us who have chosen to walk the ‘progressive’ path, this way of thinking doesn’t work anymore.

As I have said before; over the years my thinking has and continues, to change.
Firstly: I have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘serendipitous creativity’,
rather than a being who creates, and Secondly; I have tried, in the main, to us non-personal metaphors rather than personal ones.

The thoughts of many others have interacted with my own thinking, 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:

1; unfinished and continuing;

2: involved chance events and struggle, and

3: natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint”

Put another way: Both Peters and Kaufman have said the world/universe is cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).

Or yet another way: “In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and the serendipitous creativity was with God, and the serendipitous creativity was God.  All things came into being through the mystery of serendipitous creativity; apart from serendipitous creativity nothing would have come into being. (Kaufman 2004: ix adapted).

The issue is that today, we have mentally constructed another universe. Both in science and in religion/theology. 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. Each part, rather than one species or organism
separating itself out as more important than the rest.

As John Shuck has said: “This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read” (JShuck). I can recommend a good book to read on this and one is Lloyd Geering’s book, From the Big Bang to God. Our Awe-inspiring Journey of Evolution. He says in that book that “… the future of the human race remains an open question. On the one hand we must take full account of the perilous crises already facing us; like black clouds on the horizon, they indicate an imminent period of storms that could lead to catastrophic outcomes. It does seem unlikely that humans worldwide will be able to muster the willpower and the unity of action to avoid them altogether.

“On the other hand, we can draw hope from the Great Story of how we came to be here at all. It is a truly awe—inspiring universe that has brought us forth and, at least on this planet, has come to consciousness in us, displaying the human inventiveness, creativity and entrepreneurial skills that have helped to make us the creatures we are. And this potential may lead us to as—yet—unimaginable heights.

“If our descendants survive and evolve to reach an even more exalted state of being than ours, they will have arrived at what our forebears long aimed for when in their traditions (Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim or Christian) they hoped, respectively, to enter Nirvana, the Promised Land, the unity of all nations, or the Kingdom of God.”

When we ask the questions of theology, we might see that the ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former 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).

Here 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.

A growing number of people around the world, religious and scientifically minded,
and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, are recognising that our modern life-style is:  harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns. They are saying that the earth is under assault!  Indeed that “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).

Here is a strong argument for progressive religious thought that calls each and every one of us to ‘dance with’, to live in harmony with, our world. And progressive religious/Christian thought names that creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms… galaxy
organism individual atom… ‘G-o-d’ 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 a bit technical and a little wordy, so I invite your careful listening.

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 progressives, the evolutionary epic is a religious world view. Science and faith are about the same thing.  All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Sunday/Weekend, we are bound to talk about God.

 

Salt, Light, Church

Posted: February 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 5: 13-20

Salt, Light, Church

Over the last few years when the focus has been on a declining church in terms of numbers and size there has been much debate and discussion in some circles as to what the role of the church is. Is it the last-ditch stand on behalf of the Gospel? Is it the time for renewal of the old or is it time for renewal in a new world where Christianity no longer hold the majority in terms of membership? What is the church in a universal sense and what is its role? And at another level, what is the ‘church’ in the local expression called a congregation.

It has to be said that our church, the PCANZ always seems to be in the middle of one of those discussions. The obvious is the seemingly perpetual discussions about restructuring. And it has to be said that some people feel all this restructuring talk will enable the PCANZ to be better at reflecting the kingdom/realm/empire of which Jesus spoke about.  What do you think?

One suggestion is that decline has more to do with dwindling resources, an outdated theology, and the rate of change in the world. And it seems to make sense. But if we digress a little, we can say 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’.

Given that this change has been going on for years and this seems logical what has guided us during this time of continuing change, what has guided us in our understanding of ‘church’? And our theology? But how will this looking back help us? It is always tempting to look back.  Many do, to the so-called ‘good old days’! But as historical beings the truth is that we are not just nourished by our past. We actually live in the present, and it is a new and novel present, Gordon Kaufmann says it is “qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106).

And we need to be careful here because the novel, the new is always vulnerable as are all things that are serendipitous and created. We need to be careful because it will also be tempting to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures. In fact what we do when we set out to change structures and to develop new strategies for going forward we actually set up a formidable resistance that takes out focus away from the new and eats up resources and energies for change that if any only a few small and seriously altered attempts are left.

I am now going to suggest that all of this sort of focus is bereft of a wholeness and in the most part inappropriate.  Having said that I need to do what I am not keen on doing and that is to make a suggestion as an answer. I can’t claim it as my answer because it has been suggested by many before and I think it has not been taken up because it too has suffered in the face of Western culture and its, concentration on the left hemisphere of the human brain. So, if Kaufmann is right; what will shape our new present which is qualitatively different from our past?

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 towards the task.

First of all, we might think about the images of the ‘church’ as light or salt. These images have been eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, and the interesting thing is that they seem to be in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking. These sayings appear to uncover something of the indirect and hidden nature of the church. That is, they reveal a way in which the life of a faith community should seek to express itself.  Rather than calling attention to itself, a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’, is most effective when it/they are not noticed (Reid 2001:61).

Likewise, they also make it clear ‘church’ cannot exist alongside of, or in separation from, the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings but is that in contrast to

Being the salt and light, in other words being not noticed as individual or as a faith community or as church?

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson,
published a book called, A People on The Way. It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and in his case Australian culture’. It became a book used by many as a study guide. In it, Grierson 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, you might say, like salt? Just enough salt that we can say ‘this steak is juicy and tender and full of flavour’. Too much salt and we spit it out and complain. Not enough and after a while it becomes bland and all we have is the texture and the fibre. The key is that 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. “During the post war years in the 1940s in Australia a small but determined Catholic woman heard of the sickness 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 mobilized some of her friends and they cooked meals for those who were ill. The problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need?

A solution was found in the use of an old pram. And 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 our social service environment that its beginnings are lost and forgotten. It gives hope and support to hundreds of people, who without it, would not survive. A continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt.

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).

Then this important comment: “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. Today we face the challenge of eliminating all sorts of discrimination such as that within sexism and systems of domination, political and economic empire and let’s reflect that these too are woven into the fabric of the Gospels” If everything changes, then change must change too.

I can remember helping a congregation to shape both a Vision Statement and a Statement on Evangelism. As to the latter we agreed our response would be characterized or shaped by: One: listening to the community first rather than talking about what it needs; Two; letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response; and Three; letting our response be original and creative. The model of evangelism was to be a continuing persisting presence, hidden if you like, like salt. And amid change that too is changing.

If we are to face a ‘church’ which is continually discussing change and restructuring 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 a set of Regulations or a Constitution. How to be a continuing persisting presence…is the question, and I want to make another suggestion here. I want to suggest that we might think about becoming skeptical mystics and apply that understanding to the task.

The truth is that we are in uncharted territory in terms of global population growth and ecosystem stress. We are currently living in heightened conflict with almost everything. Our environment, our political and organizational structures and with each other. We do not learn from our past because we have been gathering in communities with social conflict for at least 25000 years and we have even seen throughout cultural and lasting traditions that practices like fostering gratitude, holding detachments and understanding one’s opponent are ways of expanding one’s perspective and foster innovative solutions. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot resolve a problem with the same thinking we used to create it.

Matthew Fox suggests that we need to act as mystic warriors but I prefer to suggest that when implementing change, we act with mystic intent. In explaining what I mean I think that mystics listen to the greater whole. They empty themselves so that they can be a channel. They are the ultimate skeptic, the endless questioner, the one that seems unafraid of the questions and is somehow wise. They tap into the vastness of the Universe and recognise the endless possibility available through the divine spark within their hearts. They share forth immense love and compassion that arises out of a deep listening. They never rest in any knowing but instead bathe in a sea of uncertainty. As Meister Eckhart once said, ‘I pray to God to rid me of God”.

People who engage in life with mystic intent are people who pay attention to the here and now. Acting with intent, mystics are not passive peace makers. They are strong in their weakness, sure in their compassion and love. As Margaret Wheatley noted; A leader is anyone who wishes to help at this time, and leadership is intentional work. Being mystic with intent is about being both salt and light, in other words being one who knows they are unique in all the universe and the same time as being nothing but dust. Without them the world is but a place of persistent conflict. With them despair is overcome by joy and peace is possible. Change has meaning and purpose. With mystic intent at work the liturgical words of returning to the earth dust to dust become, alive in the cosmos, stardust to stardust and the wise mystic knows which to say from moment to moment knowing both are equally true. Amen.

Notes:
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.

Matthew Fox. Skylar Wilson, Jennifer Berrit Listug; Order of the Sacred Earth Monkfish Book Publishing Company Rhinebeck, New York.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

‘Imagination and the Word’

Posted: January 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Imagination and the Word’

Carl Sagan wrote: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

And inviting us to explore what this imagination might feel like he wrote that: There is a wide, yawning black infinity. In every direction, the extension is endless; the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce.

I want to have a go; first of all to see if I can move imagination from the sphere of the temporary or the fanciful, or of the somehow untrue, and I want to do this by claiming that imagination is something we cannot live without, or in face be human without.

Some time back now I suggested that much of what is known as gnostic literature, is about ‘knowing’, and until recently not considered as worthy of being in the canon. At the core of this rejection, of the idea of knowing, is the suggestion that every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above or outside. And that the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that calls to us. Whereas Gnostic literature invites us to consider that the immensity of Christianity takes its interior meaning as a sign of an immensity within the self of every human being. As a path of inner awakening, as a path of deep self-knowledge (in other words, gnosis), it invites and supports the inner struggle to attend, to “hear and obey” one’s own Self, God in oneself. As Jean-Yves Leloup suggests, this is the intimate meaning of Anthropos: to be fully human oneself, is the incarnation of God. This is an unknown teaching in recent Christian teaching — not in the philosophical or theological sense, nor in the sense that it has never been said before, but in the sense that our ordinary thoughts and feelings can never really penetrate it. It seems too complex and emotional and too new-age-like. And it is unknown in the sense that we live our lives on the surface of ourselves, not knowing the one thing about our own being that it is necessary for us to know and that would bring us every good we could seriously wish for. The fitness industry says get fit and find it, the business industry says plan for it and know it, the personalisation says believe in yourself and know it as success. But in the end, we are speaking of an unknown part of ourselves, which is at the same time the essential part of ourselves: the Teacher within, our genuine identity. The way — and it is surely the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world— it is the practice, and the community supporting the practice, that opens a relationship between our everyday sense of self and the Self, or Spirit. I would suggest here that imagination becomes part of this relationship between self and Spirit and between self and world. We are told, this is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in the gnostic tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. The danger here is to retain the incarnation within the inner world rather than recognize that what it might be more than that. What it might be is the realm of intermediate attention and of mediating conscious forces in the cosmos that are mythologized as the angelic realms in the esoteric traditions of the world’s religions. A bit of a mouthful but it is in this miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower within ourselves that the deeper, intimate experience of conscious love is given— a conscious love for our starved and confused self that is at the same time love for our neighbour whose inner condition is identical to our own. And I suggest it is the imagination that applies this consciousness to in the world. You will need to give some time to this suggestion I am making because it is in the arena of theory and speculation and it is after all my attempt to shift imagination into being a vital aspect of everyday human life, rather than something only some have more of than others..

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is that the more it shows us about the meaning of Christianity, the more the mystery deepens. This paradox is due, surely, to the fact that, like every truly spiritual communication, it speaks to us both on the surface and at deep unconscious levels at the same time. While at the intellectual level it points to the resolution of apparent contradictions that sometimes drive us away from belief in the objective existence of the Good, it at the same time opens the heart to a silent recognition of homecoming— the joy of what we knew without words all along, but had all but given up hope of finding.

No mystery is greater or more welcome than this— that above our minds, in the depths of silence, we may be given to know ourselves as Being and as created to serve the good both for God and our neighbour. All it needs is the vehicle of imagination.

So having perhaps added confusion and mystery I want to see if I can bring us back to the everyday.

John Shea wrote the following story to assist us to shape our expectations as we enter this space called imagination;

A woman went into a marketplace, looked around, and saw a sign that read: ‘God’s Fruit Stand.’ “Thank goodness.  It’s about time,” she said to herself.

She went inside and she said, “I would like a perfect banana, a perfect cantaloupe, a perfect peach and six perfect strawberries.” God, who was behind the counter, shrugged and said, “I’m sorry.  I sell only seeds” (Shea 1997:53).

One of the first contemporary biblical theologians to recognise the importance of imagination and story in the tradition of the Christian faith was American, Amos N Wilder.

Way back in the 1960s he said this: “Jesus’ speech had the character not of instruction and ideas but of compelling imagination, of spell, of mythical shock and transformation” (Wilder 1964/71:84).

Wilder identified that it is through imagination and story that God ‘speaks’. That Christianity is a religion of imagination and the word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance… Not a word of instruction and ideas.
But a word of compelling imagination.

So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, the storyteller says ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’.

In poetic terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, “oblivious of any concern for transcription” (Wilder 1964/71:13) or written record.

Jesus was: “a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1964/71:13).

Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is argued I think by the Jesus Seminar who in its quest for the historical Jesus is now in search of his voice print. Writing things down has about it the risk of over emphasis on a sense of permanence while at the same time helpfully presupposing continuity and a future.

One risk of this is that the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken. What we call the ‘gospel’ arose out of a radical break, when old customs and continuities were undermined. And for storyteller Matthew that ‘radical break’ is contained
in the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’.

Most biblical scholars now days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the work of the author of Matthew’s gospel,
(at least from Chapter 3 onwards… to the first two chapters were written by someone else…) place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another Moses, in particular.

Jesus, like Moses, goes up to the mountain and sits as he speaks, demonstrating his authority, like that of Moses, as a teacher. The question often asked about the Beatitudes and other teachings on the mount is, what did they mean for Jesus’ followers in the age after his death? And what do they mean for us in the present age? If the Beatitudes are seen as new laws given by Jesus or as defining the in and the out, even defining difference then one set of propositions follow. However, if the Beatitudes are the gospel, the good news, then they can be seen differently. They can be sees as a gift – a re-imagining. A gift to expand the limits of word. A re-imagining that invites our response in favour of those who are adversely affected by the goings-on, of the ‘empire’. A response that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, and or imprisons others.

I don’t know about you but for me, I favour the later. The Beatitudes are not a new set of laws, but following the metaphor of the opening story, seeds are offered as a gift of Creativity God. God does not offer perfection – or perfect fruit. God offers the seeds and invites and lures us to plant them… And then constantly care for them as they become complete. Imagination enables us to see the more, to picture hope, it encourages us to engage in a life that is a blip in cosmic timing and yet a hugely valuable lifetime of purpose and meaning. In our openness to this God or the sacred, we become a constant unfolding, a never-ceasing development. Life is a journey.

So, when going to our text for today we might ask; Why should we favour this view of the beatitudes as gift?  Well! Maybe because it is both realistic and hopeful in the same breath. It recognizes limit, incompleteness and failure. And yet it refuses to absolutize these states.  There is always the lure forward. The seed may or may not become completed that is the risk of creation and evolution. As gift it enables us to rise above or work through, in other words to re-imagine a wonderful bountiful world. The Beatitudes remind us that our Serendipitous Creativity God – is doing something new and unexpected in our midst and we can ill afford to ignore it. Change is life and life refuses to be embalmed alive!

And another joy of this serendipitous, creative and unexpected life is agelessness, and thus timeless. We can be 25 or 85 or 65… we always have the possibility of striking out on a new path. Why? Because we are a seed burgeoning toward a ripeness never achieved but always in the process of achieving. We are one with the divine serendipitous creativity that we might name “Almost”. We are a product of ‘Almost’s’ fruit stand, becoming, in this moment and in every moment to come. Amen.’