Pentecost 26C, November 20th 2016 Isaiah 65:17-25

New Heavens.  New Earth.  Possibilities For Human Society, Now.

What is this New Heaven, New Earth? What are the possibilities for human society today, in short where is our hope? The gospel is grounded in the idea that hope is possible, that hope is in all we need so where is it? What does it look like?

For starters we might see if we can paint a picture of what this hope looks like as it is today and then we might be able to see an alternative picture of what it could be.

It seems to me that the hope we all talk about today is far from the biblical hope that Jesus envisaged. That sort of optimistic hope is far from being the hope we seem to live by today. Our hope is perhaps a so-called mushy neo-evangelical muddle in the middle of extremes. Now you might say; what does that mean?

Well! It’s no secret that the western world over the past several decades has witnessed growing economic inequality and deepening economic insecurity for a very large section of working people around the world. Just look at the rich lists and the debates around what poverty means and how to measure it, and we see that all we can talk about is the results of policy rather than any alternative policies that might address the issue constructively and systemically or if you like culturally. The point I want to make is that we miss the hidden things when we get caught up in the debates. In very technical language we have to say that most analysts miss the hidden injuries of class that become dramatically intensified when the underlying psychological and spiritual dysfunction of global economic ideology, interacts with economic insecurity. Note I am talking about all ideological drivers as opposed to naming any ideology such as capitalism or socialism and I am doing this because I think using those names limits our ability to see beyond the current presenting view and be able to entertain an alternative.

Another way of approaching this hidden factor is what was shown in the Brexit vote process and just this last week in the American Election. The American situation has a very important message for the world and that is that we can keep on voicing our arguments for acceptance of our world view and our principled stand for justice peace and integrity, but we cannot expect that argument to overcome more fundamental needs. As progressive communities we have a belief in democracy being a reliable, liberal mechanism for populations to express their interests, and yet the centre of gravity of what occupies most people’s consciousness is one that we’re mostly far out of touch with. We’re in an echo chamber of postmodern, globalist values that have their own drivers. We group together on Facebook. We follow each other on Twitter. We consume digital media and stay abreast of events and global affairs like never before and yet the whole world, the very world we think we can see is actually unknown to us, even as our neighbours, who have the most impact on our national lives, have become foreigners living beside us. We see the diversity and the differences but we fail to recognize the very nature of the community that has become globalized.

In this sort of environment, both Socialism and Capitalism as economic and social systems escape the scrutiny they should receive and they become fundamentalist when they are not open to critique. In simple terms, both left and right movements lose faith in the efficacy of democratic government and turn to authoritarian leaders in the hope that their own fears and pain can be alleviated. How often do we hear today “it would be good to have a benevolent dictator” as if all this political stuff is too technical and too difficult to be sorted out. A nice person telling us what to think would help. HaHa! This development has been happening around the world in recent years including NZ. Just listen to talk-back and read face-book and this becomes more obvious. Intolerance, racism, sexism and the extremes are voiced without critique. And in the vacuum created by this battle of ideas we lose sight of how to even shape an agenda for how to build a healthier and more just society in the coming decades, let alone know how to articulate what it is that we think is healthy and just. We become consumed with restructuring or shifting the chairs on the deck of the Titanic rather than finding a lane with less icebergs.

 

Back to my concern for a certain hope or a hope filled existence rather than one driven by fear. The truth is that this mushy-middle approach is not only frightened, and frightening, it has flattened and been made one-dimensional, the role of both theologian and prophet, in the life of the church and thus the idea of a certain hope rooted in the possibilities of imagination and creativity and dare I say it, God has become sidelined by the presenting rather than the actual.

 

Our story from the prophet Isaiah will have none of that fear driven stuff. Instead, through the use of vivid picture language, Isaiah offers a vision, or states a position, which reminds us “of the ideals for which we hope and for which we believe God strives.  The ‘new heavens’ and ‘new earth’ the prophet foresees signify the possibilities for human society when we open ourselves to God’s transforming power” (RPregeant ,P&F web site, 2007).

Some might say that this is a most appropriate passage as we come to the end of the Christian year, and in America yet another election! The task of Trump is to now speak consilitary without losing face, to hold true to what he said within the constraints of what he can and can’t do. His success or failure will be determined by his ability to keep control of the myth he created in the face of a different reality. The challenge that now faces the country is to hold him to the ideal by spelling out what is expected of him in office. One group of Australian biblical scholars reflected on this passage and they wrote; “All that has prevented creation from being what God intended will be removed.  The disasters we see in the world about us every day are not what will determine the future of God’s creation.  Neither terrorist activity nor the exercise of military power will hold sway in God’s order of things.  Political deception will have no place, nor will abuse within the family or workplace.  The selfish exploitation and neglect of nature will be recognised… This is what the writer(s) of Isaiah 65 look toward.  They look not just to the making new of the physical world, but also to the renewing of the relationships and interconnections within the world which maintain life in its physical, spiritual, social and other dimensions.  That is the Christian hope” (HWallace et al. web site, 2007). New heavens.  New earth.  Possibilities for human society, now.

Over the last few weeks I have been talking about the so-called ‘apocalyptic’ talk as being a basis for human transformation rather than ‘end-of-the-world’ stuff. Again underlying this claim is that life is better lived out of the possibilities and in hope rather than the fear of failure and the inevitability of death. We also noted that this required of a certain encounter with this reality and it is that we are to read and study the biblical stories seriously, and not literally, and that our purpose is to even though it feels a small way, we are to participate in the transformation of the world. Again our task is about reimagining rather than scaremongering with the end-of-world stuff.

So how do we go about this reimagining of our lot, our world as it is and what it could become? How do we if only in a small way begin to participate in the transformation – reimagining – of the world? One way might be as I suggested earlier by beginning with a critique of the now and the way the now was created. Michael Lerner, a progressive Jewish Rabbi in America, wrote in 2006 a powerful book called The Left Hand of God. In the book Lerner challenges both the political ‘right’ and the political ‘left’ to re-imagine the way society is organized by presenting what he calls a new “spiritual vision… a whole different level of discourse, not something narrowly instrumental that is basically about winning an election” (Lerner 2006:5, 18).

He sets out what he called a ‘Spiritual Covenant with America’. “We invite our fellow Americans”, he writes, “to join us in building a society based on (a) new bottom line”  (Lerner 2006:229).

 

He goes on to identify eight areas or issues that are covered by the Covenant, and they include:

  • families,
  • personal responsibility,
  • social responsibility,
  • values-based education,
  • health care,
  • environmental stewardship,
  • building a safer world, and finally
  • the separation of church and state and science.

 

It is true that the greater secularization of society in New Zealand might want to claim that we have addressed some of these issues they are still in my mind a sound basis from which to begin the focus on where hope might lie.

We don’t have time to go into any detail of Lerner’s Covenant today other than to offer some words from his conclusion that might ring bells in our New Zealand context as well: “There is an enormous spiritual hunger in America.  It is a yearning for a new way to think and a new way to live.  We have been trapped into thinking that fulfillment comes from achieving material success.  But as the globalized economy makes accessible more and more material goods at prices that can be afforded, and more Americans have more commodities – more computers, cell phones, DVDs, cars, boats, televisions, and other gadgets – than anyone else on earth, we find ourselves reaching for something else, something that cannot be satisfied by a new purchase.  We want meaning to our lives…” The similarity of the background scene between America and NZ confirms for me the evolution of the western world and its impact on western society.

Lerner also offers two images of Right Hand and Left Hand of God, into our context and this can mirror the Western world’s democracy that is based on the party political structure. The adversarial winner takes all mode and more importantly for my address today the idea that a New Heavens and New Earth a New World“, is a challenge to the current western point of view. Lerner says that The Right Hand of God is embraced by the powerful… [and] used to provide legitimacy to an American empire and a competitive and unjust economic marketplace…  The Left Hand of God emphasizes the need to build a world based on love, kindness, compassion, generosity, mutual cooperation, recognition of the spirit of God in every other human being and an awareness of our interdependence with others…  (Lerner 2006:358).

The truth is that throughout history, as well as within each of us, we can find elements in our life experiences that identify with the vision of the Right Hand of God. And similarly, there are also signs in both our individual and communal lives that come under the influence of the vision of the Left Hand of God. My claim today is that the hope of the Gospel lies in our ability to be able to critique both hands. Why? Because; when social energy flows more toward hope, we find ourselves supporting policies that are more generous, more oriented toward establishing peace and justice. And when social energy flows more toward fear, we find ourselves supporting policies that seek to dominate others, and to build institutions based on the assumption there is not enough in the way of material goods to go around  (Lerner 2006:358-59).

The good news in our text today is: that the world can be re-imagined; can be transformed. And our role in all this is to challenge the powerful voice of fear. Be it in the church or in society in general. Challenge the assumption that fear is the driver of society and bear witness to the reality and the ramifications of the vision of Isaiah and Michael Lerner and others. A Christian hope is a certain hope because the impossible is possible. New Heavens, New Earth, New World. A New Way is possible, new economic ideas, new models of family, new understandings of responsibility, new ways of learning and experiencing life, new ways of caring for each other and the environment, and new ways of keeping each other safe are possible. All it takes is having a hope that is impervious to ideology and to circumstance, a hope rooted in the possible of the impossible. And we would say; a hope rooted in the Jesus Way. Amen.

Notes: Lerner, M. 2006.  The Left Hand of God. Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.  New York. HarperCollins

“Our concern should be about the living.”

Haggai 1: 15b – 2: 9           Luke 20:27-38

Pentecost 25C November 6 2016

Haggai is considered one of the most minor of the Minor Prophets. We remember here that the term “minor” merely refers to the length of the work, not to its importance. After all, Amos, Hosea, and Micah are termed “minor prophets, and no one would dare call their oracles less than powerfully significant. Yet, Habakkuk, and now Haggai, are little read or used in our preaching and teaching. These two books usually receive little attention yet there is quite a bit that can be gained by reflecting on them.

First, the name Haggai comes from the word “festival,” more specifically a pilgrimage feast. It is analogous to the Arabic hajj, the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca commanded for every able-bodied Muslim to make at least once in their lives. Hence, Haggai’s very name suggests that his primary interests will be in worship, liturgy, and proper sacrifice in the temple of Jerusalem. Indeed, he quickly announces that the reasons for the Israelite struggles for survival in the “new” Jerusalem, the holy city regained after the end of the Babylonian exile, are the refusal of the returnees, as well as those who remained in the land, to pay careful attention to the fallen temple, spending the bulk of their time building and furnishing their own houses. “You have looked for much, but look! It came to little. When you brought it home, I blew it away. Why, says YHWH of the Armies? Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag 1:9). For Haggai, the key to Israelite success in the difficult circumstances of a destructed Jerusalem is full attention to the rebuilding of the temple that was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587/586 B.C.E.

Fortunately for us later readers of this tiny book, we are given very precise dates with which we may comprehend the historical context of Haggai’s concern. According to Haggai 1:1, his prophetic activity begins in September of 520 B.C.E, the second year of the reign of King Darius I of Persia. Thus, Haggai speaks sixty-six years after the fall of Jerusalem. Much has happened in the interim. Most especially in 539 B.C.E. the Babylonian empire has been usurped by the Persians, led by the extraordinary King Cyrus. In effect, Cyrus entered Babylon, becoming its overlord without firing a shot, or at least very few shots. The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, was apparently a far better librarian than he was a king, and Babylon tottered under his lax leadership and was ripe for the plucking.

Cyrus’ ruling practices were far different from those of the Babylonians. Instead of dragging defeated rulers and their courts off to the capital city, Cyrus rather allowed all former captives to return home and even paid for their journeys, apparently providing extra cash for any plans they might have upon their return. Little wonder that the exilic prophet, Second-Isaiah, refers to Cyrus as YHWH’s Messiah (Is 45:1)! Still, the exiles’ return was less than glorious. They found a wrecked city, a shattered economy, and many who had not gone with them to Babylon, but instead had remained in the land, eking out a subsistence living as best they could. These people had no time and little interest in rebuilding the temple, but were far too busy merely living. One can only imagine what many of them thought when Haggai began to accuse them of selfishness and greed with respect to the temple of YHWH. They no doubt retorted, “Easy enough for you to say! You have not attempted to live in a destroyed and chaotic land for the past three generations! Take your temple talk elsewhere!”

But Haggai had Persian internal turmoil on his side, or at least he thought he did. After the death of Cyrus in 529, Cambyses became king; his policies were not as generous and lenient as those of his predecessor. For the seven years of his reign, he tightened the screws of the empire, and tiny Israel no doubt feared the lash of his hand. At his death in 522, the Persian throne was in turmoil until Darius I consolidated power and ensured the survival of the empire in 520. Perhaps in these years of Persian confusion, the vassal states imagined that they might experience some bursts of freedom and independence. It was precisely then that Haggai urged his fellow Israelites to rebuild the Temple, thus paying appropriate homage to YHWH, and thus ensuring, according to Haggai, the return to the ancient glories of Israel. However, with the consolidation of Darius’ authority, any hope for genuine freedom from Persian mastery was dashed. The attempt to put Zerubbabel (“seed of Babylon”), a direct descendant of the great David, on the throne was thwarted by the now stable power of Darius, though we have no direct evidence of how that attempt was made impossible.

So what are we to make of this Haggai? Build the temple, he shouts, and all of your troubles will be over. You will have rich harvests, countless vats of grain and wine, and rest and ease from your fears, if you will only spend your time building the temple. The difficulty of this demand is made quite clear in Haggai 2. “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? (Not too many, to be sure, given that it was wrecked nearly seventy years before.) How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Hag 2:3) The memory of the glorious temple of Solomon (though its “glory” in reality was far less than the splendid buildings of the mighty Babylon) was shattered in the light of the ruin that confronted the exiles. Attempts to rebuild would be massively difficult, given the economic hardships of a land left in tatters for so long.

But Haggai will not give up. “Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says YHWH; take courage O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, high priest; take courage all you people of the land, says YHWH! Work, for I am with you, says YHWH, according to the promise I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear” (Hag 2:4-5). You see a temple in ruins, the very symbol of YHWH’s presence compromised in your sight. To rebuild the thing will be well-nigh impossible. But build, says Haggai, build!

Let’s just take a moment and think about this sort of message for us today. For rebuilt temple think restored St David’s brick building. Will rebuilding it be possible? What is it that will be rebuilt? Will it be buildings or will it be the church? Haggai did not think that building an old building would ensure safety and success, it has to be a holy building and it is here I want to challenge us to think what that means.. What a holy building was to ancient Jerusalem and to Judeans is the question and to us today. To understand what rebuilding a holy means is our question. This is a challenge to us here at St David’s because our future is not about new buildings, not even new school buildings. We know that a clean, sound new building will not honour God in itself. I don’t know about you but I have been in lots of church buildings and some of them I could not say of them that they were holy. We also know that in many instances the energy, financial resources and the time given to buildings has destroyed people’s commitment to their faith journey. Maybe the destruction has not been physically but it has been spiritual, it has taken the life out of people by its demands. Evidence says that the energies that go into building new churches often end up with those who have given most leaving soon after completion. Spirits drained by delivering physical resources need recovery themselves.

Yet, Haggai was not on about just the physical resources. The temple he talked about was not just the physical temple it was also the temple that was at the core of Judaism. It was the place of liturgy, ritual and worship that was more important. We hear a lot about this sort of Jerusalem later in the debate between Paul and Peter about the importance of Jerusalem being at the heart of the Spirit of Judaism. Jerusalem was not just a place it was also a world view, it was a way of being in the world and the place and the practices such as circumcision were the rituals that sustained its place in the mind of the people. Paul’s debate like those in Haggai’s world who had remained, was not only about the place, but rather about the ability of that Spirit to be rebuilt in other nations. Paul’s concern was to take the story of Jesus to the Nations, the world other than the Judaic world. A faith tied to a building in Jerusalem was less than helpful. A faith tied to a building at 70 Khyber Pass Rd Grafton might be less than helpful. Our debate might be that the Spirit that is St David’s can be rebuilt without the brick building but like Haggai says; it needs rebuilding.

Haggai says that ‘if I am only concerned with my own house, and give no attention to the house of YHWH, of what use am I to those starving children, those hungry children of this same God? Haggai preaches hope in the midst of hopeless ruin, a future in the midst of a land nearly devoid of one. Haggai preaches hope for a restored St David’s in the midst of a cleared site, in the idea of a congregation with no buildings. It is a rebuilding of the temple with whatever the building might assist the congregation to be a servant of the temple that is the Spirit of God and people together.

Just in case you might be wondering how the Christian Scriptures address this question Haggai raises, our lesson from Luke puts it this way. The Sadducees, one of the powerful parties in the Jewish religious hierarchy, in an attempt to trap Jesus by his making some heretic statement, asked him a question about marriage and resurrection.  They tell a story of one of seven brothers who married a woman and had no children, and then he died.  As was often the custom, to care for the widow another brother married her, and the same thing happened to him–no children and then death.  All seven brothers married the widow and all met with the same fate. ‘No children and death’.  The seven-time widow eventually herself died.  Next came the perplexing question from the Sadducees.  “In heaven whose wife of the seven is she?”  Jesus reflects for a moment before answering.  An answer Jesus doesn’t give is ‘how would I know because if it had been me I would have thought twice about marrying her after the second or third husband had passed away. But instead he reminds them that God is God of the living, not the dead.  His answer implies that the question they have asked is inconsequential.  He is basically saying, “Our concern should be about the living.”

The Gospel of Mark’s account of this same encounter gets to the heart of Jesus’ answer.  After Jesus has silenced the Sadducees with his thoughtful response, in Mark we read the following passage:

28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he had answered them well, he asked, “What commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe looked at him and said, “You are right.”

What’s the New Jerusalem here? What’s the restoration?  To love God and to love neighbour as yourself!  Jesus says to his inquisitors that that is the only important stuff in life!  The essence of Jesus’ message is that the overseers of The Law had spent too much time on the minutia of The Law–turning the two basic commandments into over 600 commandments.  Sounds a lot like the Presbyterian Church today and one might even say that in St David’s world all the hoops that seem to get in the road of our mission aspirations seem to be about compliance with some law or another, be it legal or media driven. The assumption that because we love the building we should restore it in its current state forever. All those who are reminded of their life’s milestones, marriages, baptisms, funerals want to keep it the way it was when their milestones were made. Jesus says: Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven; it is all about loving God and loving neighbour now!

My argument for today about restoration of the temple is that St David’s future is less about the buildings and more about the Spirit of St David’s, the energies, the caring, the loving and the mission that has made the congregation what it was is and can be. It is the life blood and the Spirit of the congregation that matters. Yes by all means keep some symbols of the past to help the remembering. But why a building that no longer provides the memory of those milestones. Very few marry, and have their funerals in churches these days. Fewer people are baptized in churches than used to be. As we all know, we live in a society that is more stressed out, on more anxiety reducing medication, and has more therapists and mental health counselors than any other time before.  Depression, rage, anger, physical violence–we all know that these are by-products of a society that makes everything into a life or death crisis ….a society that proclaims you must have it all or you are deficient.

The occupation of energies searching for the stuff that the world considers important makes us feel more insufficient and like an addiction drives us to seek more and more of this world’s unattainable dream.  To be happy you need this trinket or that title or this victory?  Oblate priest and writer Father Ronald Rolheiser, reflecting on the emptiness that many feel as they search for the supposed important stuff writes:  “Always there are deeper hungers that are being stifled. And always, as Karl Rahner so poignantly puts it, we are suffering the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable as we are learning that here in this life there is no finished symphony.”  We are driven by our insufficiency to seek things that are unnecessary.

Haggai says to those stuck in their status quo and driven by their fear of losing even a new building, wake up and get on with restoring the real temple. It is the people united in the New Jerusalem that matter. And Jesus says to those who want answers to questions that are unanswerable, get on with the living for each other. Amen.

Pentecost 24C, 2016 II Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

Watch out for the ‘anti brigade’

There is a story about a bloke who was always having bad luck. Once he found a magic lamp, rubbed it, and a genie appeared and gave him the Midas touch. For the rest of his life, everything he touched turned into a muffler!  (Bausch 1998:390).

Just in case you missed the joke when hearing Midas hear the name of the car repair franchise called Midas Care. Originally they used to specialize in fitting mufflers and exhausts, and just to explain ones joke the moral of the joke is that when one is consumed with the fear of bad luck all one gets is a muffled idea of the world.

Our biblical story this morning from the pseudo-Pauline letter called ‘ii Thessalonians’, is also one of those similar challenges. Pseudo means, “not actually but having the appearance of; pretended; false or spurious; a sham. But it also means almost, approaching, or trying to be.

There is no reputable biblical scholar who agrees that this so-called Pauline letter, was written by Paul. All the evidence points to someone using Paul’s name to claim authority, while writing sometime after Paul. John Dominic Crossan (Crossan & Reed 2004:105), who is probably the leading biblical scholar of our time, is clear. There are authentic Paul letters and there are pseudo Paul letters. The authentic letters can be named: Romans, 1st & Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians and Philemon.

The inauthentic or post Pauline letters, attributed to Paul but not written by Paul, include: Ephesians, Colossians, Second Thessalonians 1st & Second Timothy and Titus.

This sounds a bit technical but when we know that some people have their favourite Paul bits it is important to consider. Do your favourite bits of Paul belong in the authentic Paul basket or in the pseudo Paul basket? It can make a lot of difference. Even more so when we know that not only are there pseudo Paul letters, but some of those letters are anti Paul letters. The evidence is revealed by much of the content of Ephesians and Timothy, unfortunately relied on by fundamentalists and neo-orthodox these days, for their ‘anti’ causes!

You might now well ask: Why the anti-Paul letters?  And again I turn to Crossan who suggests, they are an “attempt to sanitize a social subversive, to domesticate a dissident apostle, and to make Christianity and Rome safe for one another” (Crossan & Reed 2004:106). Here we have the institution normalizing facts, building doctrine and dogma by controlling the masses. The radical Paul is being domesticated, pulled into line, made comfortable, and sanitizing the challenge of a stirrer. Which kind of brings us back to today’s biblical story. The first thing to remember is that it is Paul who is the target of these writings. The second thing is that of what content is used to make the argument about Paul. Focus of the content is our next path.

We might imagine that some of the author’s hearers are frightened. They seem convinced that the so-called ‘second coming of Jesus’ is about to happen. So they have got themselves all into a lather. And their goings-on have divided their small community. The words, ‘for the sake of unity’ they have to change, ‘in the interests of harmony we need to find a compromise’, ‘making peace amongst ourselves is the primary task’ are phrases that are heard as the concern for orthodoxy is championed.

The author then tries to counter this ‘apocalyptic scenario’, but to no avail. Instead the comments seem to pour oil onto troubled fires. Palpable fear grips the Thessalonians. And here we have the real possibility to manipulate peoples thinking. In the midst of their fear they are vulnerable to ideas that make the disruptions go away. Sounds a bit like the elections in the USA Vote for the one you fear the least. Fear speaks louder than either history or reasoned debate!

Being the progressive Christians that we are we can dismiss all this ‘apocalyptic’, ‘end-of-the- world’, ‘second-coming-of-Jesus’ stuff as fanciful rubbish. And most of it is.  Or if you prefer Bishop Jack Spong’s evaluation: “gobbledygook and complete non-sense”  (Spong eLetter, 31.10.07), or Crossan’s “transcendental snake oil”.

If you are the progressive Christian we all seek to be then it is important to try and go under the apocalyptic veneer so that we can get in touch with the real underlying issue. And that real issue is very likely not about the end of the world or the second coming of Jesus, but rather about the end of evil and injustice and violence… in this world.

So why a second coming? A second coming will mean that what we are experiencing will end. As Crossan says: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  It is also not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  Nor is it an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with divine presence”  (Crossan 2007:230-231). Stop projecting away one’s fear and deal with life as it is.

So if the Second coming idea is rubbish or at best the literature of the oppressed what is it that the oppressed are seeking? Well; Russell Pregeant, writing of this says we need to get in touch with: “the hope for peace and justice that has led many in our own time, under the influence of liberation theology, to speak of apocalyptic writings as ‘the literature of the oppressed’”  (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007). Apocalyptic literature then is literature of the oppressed who are seeking justice. The second coming story is the cry of the oppressed.

And he goes on to say: “[this is] a reminder that God is certainly not satisfied with the unjust structure of the present world… [But] we need neither the outrageous fantasies of the so-called ‘rapture’ nor the grotesque images of millions of souls condemned to eternal torture while the blessed shine like the sun, to insure that human life has eternal significance”  (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007).

Neither fear mongering, nor desperate fantasizing will change things for the better because it sets up fearful response based in the natural dislike of manipulated approaches to change. Participation in the change makes it a real and helpful event.

So, having said that there is no second coming what next? If there is no second coming and if apocalyptic talk, which wants to claim a basis in divine destruction, is unhelpful, then what value is apocalyptic talk? Why was it of value in the time of the author of our text?

We need to assume that the author thought it had value and that the compliers of the canon thought it did also, so what was that value?

All I can think of is that it had value in that it made the claim that human transformation is possible. This so called second coming, this impossibility made possible is a claim that something is possible and that something is human transformation. Maybe it is that simple. Or is it? If it is that simple then how do we avoid the Midas touch? How do we avoid being nothing more than mufflers?

The Jewish theologian, Dr Abraham J. Heschel once stated that; “Every generation has a definition of man it deserves” (Who is Man? 1965, p. 23). He added: “It is characteristic of the inner situation of contemporary man that the plausible way to identify himself is to see himself in the image of a machine” (Ibid, pp. 23–4). ” Our contemporary dilemma lies in the fact that we usually frame our definition in terms of what rather than who a person is. Our “what-ness” places us in the category of things, but being human is really a process in which we are constantly engaged. It is a journey towards knowing, feeling, and comprehending more; towards a transformation that will carry us beyond ourselves. It is a journey in which the very process of travelling is not distinct from the unfolding awareness of our own mystery—the beautiful and awesome mystery of being human.

This is perhaps where the second coming idea breaks down. Maybe we get caught in the question of what a second Jesus looks like rather than who this returned Jesus might be. This also makes sense when we see that we are to read and study the biblical stories seriously, but not literally, and it also makes sense when we acknowledge that even if only in a small way, we are called upon to participate in the transformation of the world.

Carl Jung is quoted as having said that: “The core of the individual is a mystery of life, which is snuffed out when it is ‘grasped’…. This idea of a returned Jesus of Nazareth is a way of grasping at life to lock it in time and make it dead, whereas who this returned Jesus might be makes it possible for us to participate and thus Jesus lives in every time and in every place. Jung also said that; True understanding seems to be one which does not understand, yet lives and works . . .” In other words; it is by living and working that we ultimately define ourselves as human. It is through the process of living that we come to know ourselves as truly human. Maybe the value of the idea of the second coming is part of the search for human identity that has been the subject of literature, art, and philosophy throughout the ages. It is we know central to every religious tradition and in all cultural systems, sooner or later the human enters on the stage of existence.

Who is this thing we call human. We can work out what it is but the question of who it is always seems to escape us. The focus on what we are is a limited exploration in physiology whereas a focus of who we are opens more doors. Things become different; something not altogether explicable happens. There is a stirring, a shaking, a “never-again-the-same” quality as life takes on purpose and meaning. We have physical bodies with their unique characteristics; we have feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. In times of deep inner reflection, moreover, we have an awareness of something more: something beyond yet near; something neither wholly of ourselves nor wholly other; something indefinable yet real and true.

The value of the second coming story is not about what sort of Jesus returns and more about who this returned Jesus might be? A transformed person, a transformed humanity. Amen.

Notes: Bausch, W. J. 1998.  A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications. Crossan, J. D. 2007.  God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and NowIn Search of Paul. How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. New York. HarperCollins. Crossan, J. D. & J. L. Reed. 2004.  . New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

Pentecost 23C, 2016 Luke 18: 9-14

CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO AND UGLY INHUMANITIES…

Marcus Borg reminds us that the ministry of Jesus was about challenging the status quo and calling his own to an alternative life path. He says that:

“The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good). Rather, his teachings and behaviour reflect an alternative social vision. Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself” (Marcus Borg)

In our reading from Luke, Jesus is confronted with some people who seemed complacent about their status in society, self-assured in themselves perhaps even somewhat arrogant about their own importance and making fundamental statements about their religious status. He tells them a parable about two people who went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. Jesus says that the Pharisee, was standing by himself, he wasn’t participating in the prayer time with others but rather choosing a place on his own. And he was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, and looking across at the other man there with him, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Jesus has the second man a tax-collector, standing far off, making no gestures such as looking up to heaven, but rather just beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus finishes his parable by saying that 14I tell you, this man, the tax collector, went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian. He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers.

Indeed more than that. One only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble! The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14)

The society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically, and religiously. Boundaries were part of everyday life. They were the norm. his was a society where they lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations, was nothing short of enormous.

While we might equate the situation where a small percentage of wealthy and powerful families lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land we need to be careful not to assume similarities of purpose and implementation. As several scholars have recorded the purpose of taxation was not social well-being  but rather enhancement of the position of elites. It was an acceptable social standard for the elite to be adequately sustained in their excess. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180)

As with many human institutions of privilege and power many named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as Toll Collectors. The story we read from Luke is about the toll collectors.

Traditionally, there are three aspects that need to be considered when interpreting the parable.

The first is that the story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, but the challenge is that another translation and one considered more correct by many the word should be Toll Collector… And Toll collectors were not just tax collectors. They were “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

The second aspect is that the story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: the arrogant and the humble…

Thirdly that the story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

All these traditional readings of the parable are, now considered to be unfortunate misnomers, because they ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an example story, rather than remain a parable with its raw, blunt edge challenge.

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story that we might think about.

The sad bits concern the Pharisee and the Toll collector…

The first is about the Pharisee, a member from the faction of society that assumed moral superiority and saw their task as being entrepreneurial in their application of their tasks and whose primary task was seen to be about making the rules. He stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (read: ’sinner’) or those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. The toll collector had to deal with the sinners so was one. The Pharisee’s standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. Blind to the corruption, the assumptions and unquestioning acceptance of privilege.

The second sad part is the Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation. He was standing far off because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sort to be inconspicuous. Acceptance of one’s place, Job defines status an unchallenged assumption.

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

What we have is that the actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure and enters the temple. He doesn’t rebut the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo, “but [he] does the unthinkable. He speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words have created, (The Pharisees prayer and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… As W R Herzog writes; he claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

Having God listening and speaking outside official channels! Having a ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: How radical can one be?

We have a Jesus who has a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. We have a Jesus who smashes apart a brokered religion where priestly mediators are the necessary link between God and the individual. We have claim that God’s domain has no brokers. That everyone has direct access to the Holy One. That petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: He systemizes it by saying that “a brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… [a] passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131)

It is no wonder that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, were always under suspicion because they were Galilean. He was thought of as a threat to their welfare. He may even be mentally unstable!

It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then, heard a voice that shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities!  He was challenging the basic structures of the accepted norms. And when the muted ones began to speak, when the suppressed were released as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”. Says Brueggemann 1989:51)

It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers now, who consider brokered Christianity (and here we might hear ‘orthodoxy’) as simply incredible, are shunned and considered heretics! And just in case we missed that: a non-brokered Christianity goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! How radical is that claim? Especially for those of us who like the church.

A major shift then was where the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation and that is now our pious brokered assumption. We are expected to not rock the boat for fear of taking away people’s faith. We are not supposed to question these fundamentals for fear of getting it right.

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

An example might be the Uniting Church of Canada, one of the most progressive churches in the world according to Gretta Vosper has built a rule that enables them to censure her. The system of oppression strikes again.

The challenge is to see that the early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, or saw a halo circling his head! He was not special in any sense of a special divine being. They made claims about him because they had heard him say and seen him do certain things. They experienced him acting in their lives. And what they experienced in the company of this person, was an empowerment as they were and deep seated movement within themselves. The life to which he called his followers involved a reversal of ordinary social and political, cultural – and – religious standards. (Kaufman 2006:111)

As A Dewey says “if Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles…He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge”. (Dewey 2015:4) 

And as Kaufmann says; the challenge Jesus brings today is “the radical challenge of distributive justice. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, [and] religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus might have missed all this, just as the spiritualized Jesus of traditional interpretation. does, but as Walter Wink claims; we can “rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177) The invitation of this parable is the call to accept the challenge to ponder some more credible alternatives. Both about the sage called Jesus. And about those we, our society, our church or our government exclude for political, cultural, economic or religious reasons. Amen.

Bibliography: Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989. Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28, 1, 4. 2015.  Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002. Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994. Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015. Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006. Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. Wink, W.  “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

Pentecost 21C, 2016 Luke 17:11-19

Risking More Than An ‘Averagely Good’ Life

Traditionally the story by Luke of the Ten healed lepers/outcasts, is used as an object lesson for ‘thankfulness’ but Rex Hunt and others suggest there is more to it than that. I tend to agree with them and I want to go with that idea today.

I want to suggest that the story begins with three allusions to important Lukan themes and the first is that the story is part of Jesus’ final “journey to Jerusalem” and because of this the author takes the opportunity to put into it Jesus’ teachings, primarily to his disciples, about his faithfulness in the face of opposition, even to the point of death. Here then we have the author’s message of Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling. Note he is not ordained to die nor is he keen to die. He is rather aware that he may be at risk of dying but he believes his message is more important than his safety.

Second, is the question of his itinerary. It is at best baffling. Jesus should not be going east or west, but rather south; and not, from Samaria to Galilee, which is to the north, but from Samaria to Judea.

We are compelled to ask how this makes sense and it could be argued that the Gospel’s author, writing 50 or more years later somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor, can be excused for being directionally challenged or be a hopeless map reader and thus confused. However, a more likely explanation is that these geographic details are surpassed by important theological allusions: namely, the prominence of Samaritan converts to Jesus’ Galilean movement. Remember Samaritans are “foreigners” that is, not Judeans. They traditionally would have worshipped Israel’s God, not in Jerusalem, but in the temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that they preserved the original Abrahamic religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian exile. From the perspective of most Judeans, a Samaritan was an apostate. And people who could benefit from hearing the ‘Good News” of “repentance and forgiveness of sins. This is after all to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” as noted later in the gospel. And Jesus’ disciples were to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” as noted in (Acts 1.8).

Third, in verse 12, the noun form of the Greek verb in “ten lepers met him” refers to the “meeting” with the risen Jesus as early as the pre-Pauline description in 1 Thess 4.17 The noun form is the same term for the “meeting” with the “bridegroom” in Matthew and the large crowd’s “meeting” with Jesus as he entered Jerusalem in John 12.13 In other words, the verb in Lk 17.12 alludes to an encounter with the risen Jesus, the promised Messiah, who is full of divine power to heal.

Here we have the environment if you like of the text. The literary construct, the, geographical and contextual constructs are being driven by the theological making the text open to interpretive pursuit. With that in mind we explore the story.

Acknowledging that this story has some hidden codes within it we come to the text first with a skeptical mind and explore the theological assumptions.

All ten lepers called Jesus their “master” (v. 13), implying that they all considered Jesus their social superior and a person with power. All of the passages where this epithet occurs in Luke depict Jesus as a person with divine power or as a divine figure in the company of Moses and Elijah, who also are depicted as divine figures.

All ten lepers petition Jesus in language that is typical of prayers to God and is common in healing stories in the Gospels: “have mercy on us” (v. 13). That implicitly attributes to all ten a belief that God’s power was at work in Jesus that Jesus would have compassion on them and use his God-given power to heal them, and that God would listen to Jesus’ petition on their behalf.

All ten lepers were “made clean” (vv. 14 and 17) after they obeyed Jesus command to “Go and show yourselves to the priests” (v. 14). Note the sequence: a request for healing, then a command to go, then obedience, then the healing occurs “as they were going.” The point is that healing occurs in response to a pious request and an act of obedience, both of which might be considered “works”; certainly they are deeds. Although there is no indication that they were considered meritorious, they do have a role in the healing, even if the ultimate role was God’s or Jesus’

We then explore some of the cultural assumptions and accepting that Luke’s geographical issues are in fact theological manipulations the ten ‘lepers’ spotted Jesus from the distance they were forced to keep between themselves and other people. They were outcasts. They called out to him, presumably in desperation, for there was little to no hope for lepers, for the unclean, in those days. We note also that Jesus kept his distance and did nothing. He was however close enough to be heard as Luke says he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. And as they rushed off, they were made whole.

We don’t know whether any of the lepers showed themselves “to the priests.” Even allowing for the various biblical translations It only says that they all were cured as they went, went along, or were going or as they left , so that we can assume they were going to look for priests, perhaps in the temple in Jerusalem. Whether any of them did that, we are not told. Maybe some did, maybe all did, maybe none did. What we do know is that one of them, “… because he saw that he was healed, turned back…”. That implies that this healed leper turned back before reaching the (temple) priests. Finally, the text indicates there is no expectation that any of them should return to Jesus. We are left with the assumption that showing themselves to the priests would be a sufficient way to verify their purification and to praise God.

This is puzzling! Are we supposed to assume that the other nine, somehow, did not see that they had been healed, that they continued to the priests in order to obey all that Jesus commanded, and that they expected the priests to heal them? The narrative gap is huge in terms of what we don’t know about the nine and only invites speculation that is better left in honour of the gap rather than make wild assumptions.

We are told that all ten lepers were “made clean” after they left Jesus but we don’t know how they were “made clean” or who healed them. The primacy of God’s role is again implied by the expectation that they all should “praise God” while the one leper’s act of thanking Jesus (v. 16) acknowledges Jesus’ role in their becoming “clean.” Some scholars here suggest that we have two stories put together. That there is the clear healing story followed by the cross-cultural message. In the first part Luke has the faithfulness of Jesus as the clear message that Jesus is the agent of God who heals. The later addition if it is in fact a later addition, switches to the remarkable faith of the Samaritan, a “foreigner,” in contrast to that of the Judean lepers. In support of this is the language about “cleansing/purifying” which suggests that the story has to do with restoring social outcasts to inclusion in the community. Jesus’ instruction to “show yourselves to the priests” is not just about verifying their physical cure and giving thanks and praise to God. It is also about initiating a process of incorporating them back into the community.

In verse 16, we learn that one of the lepers is a Samaritan, but we don’t learn that he is an exception until v. 18, where we also are told that he is a “foreigner”. This is quite important in that this particular term is only found here in the NT. The implication is that the others while outcasts are not “foreigners,” so we are supposed to assume that they are Galileans or Judeans. This inclusion of a Samaritan introduces an oddity absent in the earlier layer of the story. A Samaritan would not be instructed to go to the temple in Jerusalem, let alone visit Judean priests!

And so this presupposes a situation in which Samaritans have already become part of the Jesus movement. What makes the faith of the Samaritan leper, a “foreigner,” remarkable in contrast to that of the other lepers is that, in addition to praising God (v. 15), he demonstrated devotion to Jesus as a person worthy of worship, representing this by his prostration at Jesus’ feet (v. 16), and he thanked Jesus, which are appropriate responses to Jesus’ role in healing him. Verse 18 implies that, if the other lepers went to the priests and gave God praise that was not enough, in spite of Jesus’ command in v. 14. Verse 18 adds a new expectation: They were supposed to return to Jesus and give God praise (again). It is not enough to give God praise in the presence of Judean priests—they also should show the same devotion to God-present-in-Jesus that the Samaritan showed (v. 16).

Here we have the author of this Gospel and the book of Acts being keen to show that many more Samaritans (and other “foreigners”/gentiles) than Judeans turned to acknowledge the presence of God in Jesus.

A contemporary “application” of this second, later story (vv. 15-19) challenges us in our understanding of other religious traditions. For example, here is an opportunity for us to jettison the age-old mistaken belief that Judaism is about self-righteousness and works-righteousness, whereas Christianity is about righteousness by faith. We can imagine, beyond the limits of this narrative that Judeans, no less than Samaritans, were “saved by faith.” In any case, v. 19 does not undo the fact that the other nine lepers expressed faith in Jesus as a healer, faithfully obeyed his commands, and consequently were “made clean” while they were going to the priests.

The Samaritan was a “foreigner” that is, not a Judean. He or she would have traditionally worshipped Israel’s God, not in Jerusalem, but in the temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Samaritans claimed that they preserved the original Abrahamic religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian exile. From the perspective of most Judeans, a Samaritan was an apostate. Someone who has left the true faith.

Here also is an opportunity to reflect on multiple paths to “salvation” in the original tribes that made up Israel and Judah (northern and southern kingdoms). Even within Christian traditions, we have multiple paths to “salvation” and correspondingly diverse understandings of “salvation.” Largely under the influence of the Pauline letters, Christian understandings of “salvation” in the west focused on Jesus’ death as the event in-with-through which God forgave humanity’s sins and, thereby, “justified” sinners, or made them “righteous.” Progressive’s no longer think that way.

Today’s story, however, like many others in the Gospels, is about “salvation” be it in the social, economic, material, physical, empirical realities of this daily life on earth! In the ancient pagan and Jewish world, diseases were a sign of divine punishment for a person’s sins. There is no hint of that view in this story. If there is any clue about causes of skin diseases here, it is in Jesus’ title “master” or “commander” (epistatēs). Impure spirits in the lepers’ skin were made to depart by a superior power in Jesus. Of course, I am speculating, in the absence of a fuller account of the cleansing process. The title “commander” is all the text gives us. What is clear, however, is that the story gives no hint that the lepers’ sins are the issue. Their salvation is palpable: their skin is cleansed of leprosy, their purity is restored, and they are reincorporated into the community.

Rex Hunt tells a story as entry into discussion on this text and I want to end my address with it today. I want to end with it because it introduces today’s context, asks questions of today’s theology and leaves us with questions. It asks questions of our faithfulness. It asks us who we are as followers of the Jesus Way. Are we the Samaritan or one of the nine?

The story goes that ‘a man in his early 30s was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had a wife and young children and a promising career. When suddenly all of that was swept away from him. He could barely talk or walk and he was in constant agony. His friends and his family, except for his wife and mother, avoided him. The doctors shook their head. It was too bad. He was a nice bloke and deserved a longer life but there was nothing they could do.

Finally he went to a famous surgeon who offered to operate on him, even though everyone else said the tumour was inoperable. The surgeon warned the patient that he could very well die during the operation, though he (the surgeon) was pretty sure he would survive and return to health.

They decided to take the risk and after nine hours of surgery, the surgeon came into the waiting room, grinned at the man’s wife and said, “Got it!”

The man recovered and went on to a happy and successful life.

Twenty years later the surgeon died. “We should go to the funeral,” the man’s wife said. “I’d like to,” her husband replied. “But it’s on the weekend and I have an important golf tournament.”  (Adapted/Andrew Greeley. Web site, 2004)        Pause

Can you hear the words of Luke’s Jesus saying: your faith has made you whole? Luke’s Jesus says that the healing emanated from within. He gently lifts the man to his feet and affirms him. He is saying that faith is not about how to live a ‘normal’ or ‘averagely good’ life. Nor is it slavishly doing as Jesus says, down to the last biblical letter. It is rather to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. And to have faith not of Jesus but with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the story/parable. To transcend the boundaries we erect around ourselves, and to realize how much we, and all on this fragile earth, are accepted, are affirmed.

And to leave you with another question it is to ask ‘where is the tenth?’… Where is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions?  (Barbara Brown Taylor) Amen.

Pentecost 20C, 2016 Luke 17: 5-10

“Be Uprooted And Planted In The Sea”

‘Unleash Your Faith’

Last week we finished a series focused on finding the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary on the sacred and at the end the question of the afterlife was raised and some very interesting points were discussed. So I thought I would try to explore what that might mean. You need to know here, that I don’t know what I am talking about and in the end I am not sure we will know any more anyway.

This is my way of agreeing with Brandon Scott when he says: “Theology can never begin by assuming that it already has the answer. Any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest”  (Scott 2003).

And so this address is based in the argument that where there is radical doubt, there is also the possibility of new beginnings, of imagination, of hope. Of change.  Or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: Life refuses to be embalmed alive!

I do however want to see if I can put this concern for the afterlife, into the context of eschatology.

Our text says that the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ and he replies that someone with faith the size of a mustard seed could say to a tree “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey them. In other words the apostles were asking Jesus to intervene and make them feel more comfortable, more with it, more in tune with the Jesus Way and he says if you want more faith then get on with it, uproot it from your comfort zone, unleash it from the boundaries you have locked it into, live it.

Henry Nelson Wieman, says that “(faith) is not a verbal statement.  It is a way of life”. And Andrew Greeley, poet, priest and sociologist says: “There is no such thing as a little faith anymore than there is a little pregnancy. Faith is an overwhelming power no matter how weak it may seem”.

What is interesting is that they didn’t say anything about a set of beliefs or affirmations… even though they would both say that honest theological thinking is important. They didn’t say anything about providing answers to a set of questions… even though they would both say that an intelligent religion is more healthy than an unbelievable one. They didn’t say anything about smiting God into the hearts of others; words that we so often experience from the mouths of many evangelical Christians… But their comments do claim however that we can recognise and acknowledge the presence of a God already there!

This is a suggestion that faith is not something we have, or possess, or own. It is never ours and maybe even the word faith itself is redundant in that it has been captured by an old concept linked to a supernatural event managed by a supernatural master being. Maybe it’s time we stopped using the word Faith and this would mean describing our journey not as one of a Christian Journey of Faith and more as a Jesus Way of living a life of trust. And remember; this trust is not a guarantee of anything, it is not a vehicle for security, but rather a way of living with uncertainty, accepting the incomplete, being challenged about the important.

Being uprooted is about leaving the comfort of one’s roots, one’s safety nets and being planted in the sea is about a transformation of world view, Life in a new world, life as one has never experienced it. Unleashing one’s faith is not about hiding that which is hard to understand in the supernatural. It is rather about uncovering the gem, about freeing one’s living from the control of fear, and from the prisons we build into it, and build with it, such as cultural assumptions and doctrinal constructs. And why does this make sense?

It makes sense because the realities of our lives show that it’s almost impossible to find any supernatural claim that is taken seriously today. Many people still talk about there being a realm of supernatural diagnoses and healings beyond the powers and resources of modern science-based medicine, but very few accept that it’s probable. It remains at best in the possible. Some seek healing and resources outside of medicine and the search for alternative substances and therapies indicates this but this is rather the extension of medicine as opposed to seeking solace in the supernatural. And we would have to say that the eschatological world, the world to come is almost gone as well. Very few talk about the second coming anymore and even the last Trump has faded away. Maybe someone should tell the candidate for the American Presidency he needs to change his name.

All joking aside we might look to what is going on in the political world and there too we see that a Faith that is grounded in what one has and what is coming soon, is under huge challenge. Both American main party candidates no longer have inspirational future oriented visions and both use fear as their main vehicle for change. Trump uses the fear of being overrun by immigrants with less patriotism and America being led by someone who is expedient with the truth and Clinton uses the fear of being run by a narcissist, bigot, and a person with no acumen for politics and leadership of a country. (Those are not my words by the way,) The point is that both use fear as a means to manipulate people’s choice.

Don Cupitt, in a recent article suggested that a shift in thinking on a global scale arrived in the 1960s when the final secularization of western thought occurred and almost the whole of the old eschatology vanished. On the evidence of contemporary funeral services the beliefs in the old ‘particular judgement’ of the individual after death and his or her consignment to purgatory have also disappeared. After death nothing further happens, or can happen to us. This suggests that the old eschatology has been secularized but apparently some of it still remains. The old feeling that our time is running out, that life is too short, that a great dark cloud hangs over us, and that we should consider changing our lives before it is too late, still remains with us even if in new and secular forms.

Cupitt also suggests that this development has been with us since 1945 when the Western world’s furiously accelerating growth in knowledge, technology, population, and wealth, all crashed violently. Germany was the place of the western world’s highest cultural achievements in thinking, music and art, and this came to an end and the centre of the west shifted to the United States.

We are in the next stage of change as the accelerating growth in science, technology and wealth has spread throughout the remainder of the world. A case in point is the place of NZ in the video gaming arena. It leads the world apparently, huge growth in income from this industry is expected.. Eschatology has become secularized at a global level at the same time as it has become personalized. At a global level it is manifest in the fear of global annihilation with the triggers now in the hands of almost all nations. The Facebook phenomenon, may be a global movement of the individual voice in the face of secularization. And there is a trace of a collective belief in life after death and the supernatural surviving in some funerals. ‘We shall be together one day’.

I suspect that the NZ focus on the sacrifice of soldiers, who lost their lives and the concern with the loss of old buildings, are also grounded in an awareness of transience. “Change is happening too fast”, “we are losing too much of the past”, what does it mean to be a New Zealander? We are all soon to die, and death is final and simple cessation, so what can we do to refute this? We can make sure that we leave a mark, both on the psyche and the landscape, as a gift toward what is to come. We can save things beyond our living.

At the individual level the eschatology is also in the enhanced awareness of transcience. Cupit says: “I am soon to die, and death is final and simple cessation. I may possibly know one day very soon that I am dying, but I’ll never know that I am dead. I can be aware that I am getting close to that invisible frontier, but I’ll never be aware of actually crossing it. But I am acutely aware, already, that I am doing many things for the last time, and I shall never again walk easily, or near the end be able to think and concentrate intensely and with a clear head. I know all the time that I am going downhill toward the invisible cliff-edge”.

Cupitt says that he knows he must love life and savour its poignant transience to the full. He suggests that one might savour the sight of the first Brimstone butterfly one sees each spring. It appears in early spring but its emergence from hibernation is variable and he remembers that all its beauty has never been seen, because it never sits alive with its wings spread open. Cuptt notes that he has loved it all his life because of its colour it was the original butterfly. He goes on in the article to talk about this awareness of transitoriness being already very common in seventeenth-century English poetry. Time is short he says, and I must try to make something of what little I may have left, while I can. That is the modern return of the old eschatological urgency. Life itself demands that we live it to the full. While we still can.

That was a long exploration of the first part of our text and I promise to summarize the second part more quickly. This second part is about slaves or servants and we need to get past our 21st century sensibilities for a bit.

What this saying by Luke does is reflect the social conservatism of Christianity around the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. We might suggest also that it comes from the same period that we get the psuedo-Pauline Pastoral Epistles – Timothy and Titus – with their household codes that exhort Christians to reflect proper respect to those above them in the social order:  wives to husbands, children to Fathers, slaves to masters. Gregory Jenks suggests that in these collections as in this Lukan saying the radical vision of Jesus has given way to the collective instinct that traditional values should not be challenged (Jenks. FaithFutures web site, 2010).

And once again the link between the story and the saying can be found in the contemporary call of politicians wanting to be elected or re-elected, with their claims for “family values” and faith-based engagement in party politics. He then asks the question that underlies this whole address: Are Gospel values to be found in historical expressions of human society, or in a prophetic critique of any and every human institution that claims ultimate value?  (Jenks. FaithFutures web site, 2010)

He also argues that theology should always seek the questions rather than the answers when he says; “Conservatives opposed to homosexuality appeal to the Bible as if it provided timeless truths free of the cultural conditioning of its authors and original audiences.  To their chagrin, progressives also appeal to the counter-cultural instinct of the faith tradition that birthed the Bible in the first place…”

But he goes on to make what I reckon is a very important comment: “The Bible does not serve either side well in such disputes.  It is a flawed text insofar as it assumes and promotes such things as slavery, demon possession, ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, a three-tiered universe, and the subordination of women.  Such realities should be an embarrassment to traditionalists and progressive alike.  The Bible does not fit neatly with our cultural assumptions…  The immense spiritual value of the Bible may lie more in its capacity to empower our human quest than its ability to (re)solve our immediate challenges”  (Jenks. FaithFutures web site, 2010).

So back to the claim we made at the start of this address. It is that we find out what life is all about through the living of it. We are always becoming. To be alive is to be becoming. It is a trusting living. And this is what faith is all about. We don’t own it, or possess it because it is a way of living, an attitude, a vision, that creates us daily.

Like good cheese or good wine, to trust is to engage in a gradually maturing process. So even if your trusting is like a small seed particle you have within your grasp a potent life force. Unleash it! Amen.

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

Pentecost 19C 2016

25.09.2016

Our Thinking, Feeling and Behaving, as Sacred Tasks.

Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15                      Luke 16:19-31

Over the last three weeks, in fact for much longer than that but especially in the last weeks we have been exploring what we mean by ordinary life and we have taken as our basis for this the fact that Jesus was a human being just like us and that he taught by using contextualized parables. We have suggested that where we might have gone astray with our interpretation in the past was when we made Jesus into a God and so pushed him away in our thinking ensuring his parables became allegories and they then became doctrine. This tied everything up neatly in a rule and life and hope became dependent upon the supernatural, and upon a miracle form of outcome In so doing we shifted the integrity of our faith and the likelihood of a certain hope towards an early acceptance of the impossible as the indicator of our faith engagement. Believe in the supernatural and you can have hope. In practice this meant that we parked our minds at the door of the church and left them there until we came out again. The ordinary was forever distanced from God.

Our concentration on ordinary life, is an attempt to close this gap by revaluing the ordinary human experience and it has become imperative if we are as Borg suggested see Jesus again for the first time.

We noted as Hal Taussig has said, Jesus was a sage. He did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom. He did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and he did not promote an other-worldly emphasis. Instead “The real energy of Jesus’ teachings is found in their expansiveness of vision and in their critique of religion and not in its defence…  And his favourite place to teach was probably at dinner” In other words in the ordinary. The week before last and this week our title has been about the nature of the ordinary and the claim is that the ordinary is sacred and the sacred is found in the ordinary.

The lectionary readings for today together present both challenge and hope.  They plant our hope in our relationship with God or a divine something.  They contain a claim that those who commit themselves to this divine cause can imagine futures and act on their imagination, even if the arc of imagination goes beyond their lifetimes. This is not to claim that non-believers cannot imagine a future and act on it but rather that one who wrestles with the divine relationship will know a different way of living. In their view of what it means to be human they will know of a hope that is certain and an imagination that creates and transforms reality.

Here we have the difference between a person who believes in a God and someone who doesn’t. The difference is revealed in their living life as a human being. In the ordinary. In recent traditional language they can face illness, external threat, and death knowing that their God’s providence encompasses them. In progressive language they can know of a life unlimited by the fear of an ending but rather a life grounded firmly in the limitations of humanity yet with a relational experience of a hope that is certain rather than wishful thinking.

Jeremiah bought the farm!  Locked in jail for his prophetic preaching, Jeremiah decides to buy a plot of land, and makes a plan for the future.  His actions are an audacious image of hope!  The nation is at a precipice, defeat and destruction are on the horizon, and the prophet takes a leap of faith buying a property he will never occupy.

Someone has claimed that Martin Luther said that “If he knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, he would still plant a tree.”  Jeremiah’s audacity reminds us that we are always planting seeds for tomorrows we may never see.  Our small daily actions, resolutions about new life, and social involvement transform the world in ways we can’t imagine and may tip the balance between flourishing and destruction.

And when we get to our reading from Luke we find ourselves again drawn toward the idea that it is in the ordinary, everyday event that we find the divine. It is strange but true that we would rather the words of Jesus are not really meant for you and me. We would prefer to be able to say that you and I, at first glance, are neither the rich man in the story before us now nor are we Lazarus.  We would have to agree that on the economic scale we are usually measured by, we probably do fall somewhere in-between.  So at first it would be easy to dismiss Jesus’ words as not meant for us. And yet, we can’t quite do that.

A 25year old student was living in a small flat attached to an old church somewhere in the USA. She lived in this flat free of charge, in exchange for opening the church building in the morning, checking to be sure the doors were locked at night, and this meant taking a late evening walk through that massive building and glancing into every nook and cranny to be sure no one had made their way in during the day who hadn’t also made their way out by nightfall.  Mostly all she encountered were the occasional bats who had been stirred out of their hiding places by the large fans in the church tower in late summer — but it was also so that now and then a homeless person would find his or her way into a pew where he or she hoped to spend the night safe and warm.

You can tell by know I think, that the neighbourhood is not the kind most people would probably want their 25 year old daughter living in, even if it wasn’t known as an area marked by poverty and crime and the kind of fear that can live in every heart when both are present.

The fact was that she wasn’t there most of the time.  She would get up early and unlock the doors and head across town to school where she would spend the day learning and socializing with others who were preparing to be leaders in the church. And most days she’d be getting home long after the neighbourhood had settled down.   It was not so different for those who called that church home.  Most of them didn’t live within walking distance of that building like their ancestors did.  For the most part, except for the small staff, they were only there on Sunday mornings.  And no, they didn’t have a whole lot of connection or commitment to their neighbours.  But they did allow their kitchen to be used on weeknights for a soup kitchen: in an important way ensuring that the hungry were fed. Even that single important ministry was one our student seldom witnessed or so she told everyone.  She claimed that most days she would park her car outside long after that stream of hungry people had made their way past her front door.

The truth was that most of the time she would make sure she didn’t arrive home until late.  And it was because she was actually a little afraid of the people who lined up to be fed every night.  Her world seldom intersected with theirs and she wasn’t all that unhappy on most days to miss that line of children and old people, individuals and entire families who came to have their hunger satisfied.  So when on that rare occasion she did happen to come home a little early, usually she would take a side door in and make her way to her apartment — avoiding too much contact with those who lived so differently than she.

However one day one of the men in line stepped away from the others. He blocked her way to the side door and proceeded to scream at her using words she had seldom, if ever, heard directed at her.  And in that moment she felt a mix of surprise and fear as his outburst forced her to lift up her head and look into his eyes.  And then into her own heart to acknowledge the indifference that lived there.

This story has been told many times and each time the student received a huge amount of sympathy. People have said that, it would be only normal to be afraid in the face of such an encounter. And no, of course, she didn’t necessarily do anything wrong which would have deserved such a chastising from a stranger.  But here’s the point.  Neither had the rich man in Jesus’ parable done something particularly wrong.  At least we don’t hear that he did.  Rather his sin was simply one of indifference.  Of turning the other way his whole life long.  Of not feeling and responding to the pain of one over  whom he apparently literally had to step on his way about his business every morning, noon, and night.  His sin was that of allowing himself to be so utterly closed off from all this world God made and the varied people who inhabited it alongside him not to mention his daily opportunity to make a difference in it.  And to be sure, the rich man’s sin was reflected in his still seeing Lazarus as beneath him — as one whom he could order around — even after their fates had been sealed His sin was not in seeing Lazarus as the child of God that he was. Here we have the challenge. The rich man’s sin is much like ours.

Here we have the common theme or challenge of these last weeks of readings. The clear message is that you and I do understand the rich man in Jesus’ parable.  We might even say that we have some measure of sympathy for him because we know how easy it is to be too busy to take care of the need that is sitting on our doorstep.  We can say we have heard the message that we don’t have what it takes, and we have heard ourselves respond that someone else will take care of it, or that such problems are so massive that one person or even a few hundred people can’t make much of a difference.  And yes we can easily respond that Jesus’ words as not meant for us, and yes we know that to turn away or reject them would be just one more step towards sealing ourselves off into a kind of hell of our own making.  The hell of fear. One where the needs of others are seen as threats and not as opportunities to live as people of the Jesus Way or in traditional language ‘the whole people of God we were made to be’.  The rich man’s sin was his indifference.

It took a screaming, hungry, homeless person to shake our student out of her indifference.  And like her we find ourselves every single day intentionally needing to stand still to try to listen and really see the needs of the world with the eyes of Jesus and not our own. The Jesus Way is a way of living seeking out opportunities to banish fear to the side-lines, replacing it with a confidence born out of a certain hope and living as one who sees and gives and loves in this life right now.

And so we are left to ponder this story of the rich man and Lazarus and to ask who is at our at our doorstep now— who, in fact, passes by our place every single day.   It will be a steady stream of folks who work hard for less than enough pay. And it is not a call to just say hello, or to offer some comment on the weather. It is not to ask a perfunctory ‘how are you?’  The truth is that we do not know their stories.  Sometimes we don’t even know their names.  Why should it take someone screaming at us to awaken us to their plight?

All of this is to remember that the sacred is found in the ordinary and the everyday, in our feelings, thoughts and in our action. It is not the presence of God or the Sacred or the Divine that we need to see but rather the stranger in our midst, the person next to us, the one in need in front of us. The sin is our indifference in the face of the ordinary.

I want to finish with a few verses from a song by Enya. They are based on a song that is endless not unlike a certain hope and they seemed to me to encourage us to sing with courage in the face of the ordinariness of life and it takes the view that this response is irresistible.

“How Can I Keep from Singing?”

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation,

 

I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn

That hails a new creation;

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

 

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

Amen.

Websites

The Text This Week Bruce Epperley   The Adventurous Lectionary: Imaging Hope in Times of Uncertainty

R A E Hunt