A New Covenant

Posted: March 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

A New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains dimensions that typically pass unrecognized, but which provide a rich description of an ideal polity. This prophetic vision can serve as a powerful counterpart and companion to more conventional expectations and idealized societies. This leads me into St David’s aspirations to transform itself into a school. The questions that undergird the school vision is how do we honour the minds of children? How do we provide an environment where it is safe to ask questions and not expect answers or at least expect only answers for now or answers that will change? And how do we empower our children to seize the opportunity to become more fully human.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The new covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31 is the dawn that will pierce the grueling night of a shattered people. As they face the destruction of their nation and the prospect of a long and bitter exile, God presents his people with assurance of restoration, lodging the seed of a glorious future hope in the cold, hard soil of Israel and Judah’s winter.

Walter Brueggemann identifies a number of elements to the new covenant promised here. First, there will be a new ‘solidarity’: the separation occasioned by Israel and Judah’s sin will be overcome and YHWH will identify himself as their God and them as his people. By implication, the division within the kingdom itself will end and Israel and Judah will once again be united as a single people (cf. Ezekiel 37:15-28).

Second, there will be a new ‘knowledge’ of YHWH. Brueggemann maintains that this is a reference both to the people’s knowledge of the saving tradition within which YHWH revealed himself (cf. 2:6-8) and to obedience to his ‘commands for justice’ (cf. 22:15-17). The reconstituted nation evinces both a new acquaintance with YHWH’s identity and memory of his work and displays a new loyalty and obedience to him.

Third, the new relation will no longer be characterized by intermediation and the distance that maintained between YHWH and the majority of the people. Middle men with privileged access and knowledge, brokering relations between God and his people, will no longer be necessary. Rather, from the poorest to the richest, the youngest to the oldest, all will enjoy access to God and be acquainted with his truth. ‘All know the story, all accept the sovereignty, and all embrace the commands.’

All of these elements of the new covenant relation are founded upon a great act of divine initiative, an initiative which breaks the ‘vicious cycle of sin and punishment’ within which Israel had become trapped and opens a new page. This initiative takes the form of forgiveness. This involves a re-membering of the people’s broken history, made possible by the fact that YHWH will no longer bring their sin to mind. To this point the people’s history has been a bitter burden, a tale of squandered blessings and the fear of a forfeited birthright. The popular proverb of Jeremiah’s day, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ describes the fatalist sense of a people imprisoned by their past. To this demoralized people, YHWH declares a release from all debts, reigniting their guttering hope. Within the past to which they once were shackled—whose weight had threatened to drag them down to the abyss—they will now discover the liberating realization of the promised new covenant knowledge of the forgiving God.

Christian appropriations of this prophetic passage have often been inattentive to its political dimensions, exhausting their applications of it within discussions of the spiritual renewal of individuals and vocational ecclesiologies. The new birth of the individual and the rebirth of the church have used up our energies to no avail.

I want to show you a short video featuring John D Caputo a Roman Catholic Theologian and philosopher. I hope that you might see this clip as an introduction to the idea of what a new covenant might look like for us today.

Video 1.                      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xBMYzPuDtQ

The covenant introduced by Jeremiah addresses the situation they find themselves in and the promise extended to those within its sphere of influence. The prophecy is declared to a riven polity, the history recalled is one of national constitution and declension; not unlike our globalization and the decline of our societies, the predicament answered is national judgment and exile, the sins forgiven are those of kingdoms, and the promised new covenant is to be made with political bodies—the houses of Israel and Judah. This new covenant is about nationhood, about society, and about the people’s future.

I want to show you a second video now and this one is about the value of education and about what a new look at its purpose and the vision that lies behind it might look like. I invite you now to see what St David school might look like as a new covenant example.

Video 2.          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY5v2lyycfs

Embedded within the Jeremiah prophecy is a fecund vision of a sort of utopian polity, a polity where social and political authority is the possession of all, where each person is the trusted bearer of the national identity, where our past is restored to us and we are furnished with a future, released from the crushing debts accumulated through past failures. It presents challenges to certain prevailing political and educational notions, not least those which present an antipathy between law and freedom, control and choice: in Jeremiah’s new covenant, the fullness of freedom arrives through the internalization of the law. The placing of the law in the heart and mind equips and empowers us freely to provide appropriate responses to God’s world, expressing his rule within his creation in loving wisdom and delight.

We have honoured the mind of our children, we have established the environment that is based on the generation of questions and we are ready to explore the adventure of humanity.

One, David Bentley Hart in an article, describes the difference between two sorts of political visions that we encounter as we look back on our human history.’ The first vision he says, ‘hovers tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages’ and in the futile pursuit of them we can all be led to our deaths. The second, visions, however, are like ‘cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.’

Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant requires the addition of a further category to this and it is that of an espied promised land. As in pursuing Hart’s mirages, our premature attempts to enter into the reality of such a vision in our political life are doomed to perish deep within the wilderness of human weakness and wickedness unless we handle them carefully. Handled carefully, such a vision can provide benefits such as seeing the limitations of our realities, and thus protecting us from misrecognition of the relativities within our polities with more absolute ones, in other words we can critique our aspirations and discard the unhelpful directions, while being inspired to aim higher. Unlike, unlike both of Hart’s visions, this third way, this espied promised land declares the temporariness of our history and, to those with faith to receive, a rich burden of the new alterative affords a foretaste of that future hope. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 293-294

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics [Second Edition] (Leicester: Apollos, 1994) 24-26.



Posted: February 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lent 2B, 25.02.2017
Mark 8:31-38


This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a call to discipleship and it follows on to our last week’s attempt to find an alternative theology of Sin and evil. Last week I think I tried to suggest that self-deprecation and sacrifice and the doctrine of original sin were unhelpful when seeking a definition of sin for today and that acknowledging human limitation might be a better approach. Today we search the idea of suffering and we begin by saying that a call to follow Jesus is no easy thing. A response to the call requires intention, courage, determination and commitment, all those traditional things, and one of the things that makes this no easy matter is that over time and personal circumstance our understanding of what is easy or difficult has been to either a greater or a lesser degree part of our daily living. This says that mixed in with the call are several fragments on other issues. Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin. Suffering and persecution. The cross, and ultimately, death. The summary of what we hear in the call and in the stories of the calling can be heard in the words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

One of the outcomes of a tradition based on sacrifice and atonement is that with our post-modern western ears we read things out of context, and in, this particular invitation to discipleship we hear it as a glorification of suffering, and a docility of character. Without an accurate critique of the patriarchal setting of the text we slide into assigning blame to women, and an encouragement of the role of victim. Discipleship becomes a life of perpetual suffering especially for women and that’s ok because that’s how it is for followers of Jesus. Indeed, this is the way many people in the not too distant past, were encouraged to interpret this story. Because such a way of life is or was considered an imitation of ‘Christ’.

Now any thinking person has to see that such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story.  Period. And this demands of us a teasing out of the text in an alternative way. Taking just two key themes in our text from Mark we find two issues. One is Suffering and the second is ‘The Cross’ but when we look carefully we see that Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering. Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se. What he does indicate is that one particular cause of suffering,
is persecution by the powers-that-be if you become a challenge to their authority, suffering is a very real possibility when one challenges the status quo and for those who have chosen to follow in the way of the humble Galilean, Mark’s call is to remain faithful to that way, and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution.

We need to remember here that the first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. We should not suffer at all is our expectation. It is something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible. Even down to the Panadol-a-day to keep the headache away! But ancients viewed suffering as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life. It was part of the human lot, of everyday existence. And why wouldn’t it be! With at least 80% of the population living at subsistence level or below, with hunger and disease or being sold off into slavery, common experiences, high taxation a daily occurrence, and families in constant danger of losing their land to cover rising debt…

“That is how Rome managed it”, comments Stephen Patterson, New Testament scholar, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. “Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces, was to suck up as many of the province’s resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether.  It slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.” (Patterson 2002:201)

It is no wonder that the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now, train their children to be able to endure suffering, even to sacrifice it for a cause, for it becomes an important survival skill! To be able to die in the cause of living with it. So, Mark’s message that the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth, painting Jesus and his followers as having the power to end suffering and bring health, life and safety for all, was certainly very attractive. What story do we need to deal with suffering today? What is it anyway?

A brief look at the cross or crucifixion, is a look at a cruel, shameful, and legal means of execution. Anyone questioning Roman authority was, from the empire’s perspective, a potential and unnecessary troublemaker. And political authorities then, as many still do today, believed in pre-emptive action against all possible threats. The Iraq invasion could be claimed to be a good example of a preemptive strike poorly justified.

And let’s be clear the people of Jesus time would never have sung: “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died…” That is 17th/18th century middle-class piety. Neither would they have said: “It is her cross to bear”. Or that “God has given him a heavy cross”. Or that “You just have to accept it: it’s your cross”.

The reality was to take up your cross was specifically to pick up the cross beam and carry it out to the place of your execution, where you would be nailed or tied to it, and then hoisted up on to the upright pole or on to an olive tree stump. As Joanna Dewey has said on her website; “No ancient audience could miss the reference to execution, or think of the cross as a general reference to all human suffering…  Following Jesus (was) both blessing – the ending of much human suffering – and incurring new suffering at the hands of those who will do their best to destroy Jesus’ followers.”

So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general. Why not? Because all forms of violence destroy life. Suffering and the cross as symbol was not even considered until much later for ‘Christian’ congregations. That didn’t happen until early in the 5th century and then thanks to Constantine, not Mark. And neither is it about sacrificial atonement or supernatural rescue. That is, when the cross is seen as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, In Marks time God is implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. (Shea 1975:179)

What this claim is that the meaning of suffering and the cross are a general exhortation to remain faithful to the way of Jesus, in the face of persecution and even execution, by political authorities.  (Joanne Dewey) And that is Ian Cairns says is “the all-absorbing commitment par excellence!” (Cairns 2004:123)

The call to discipleship that Mark is talking about was a tough call because one’s life could depend on it. It is still a tough call but today it is more a cerebral call to participate in a journey that is composed of questions rather than with answers. Application of an educated mind is vital. A call to live with questions that demands integrity, honesty and candour. It’s a call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy). This is a call where what one believes but its demand is that what one believes is vitally important as it leads to practice. When one extrapolates that, it is a call to make forgiveness reciprocal without exacting penalties or promises. And it is a call to accept an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love of one’s neighbour.

Let’s be clear here; Mark’s 1st century story may have offered us some indicators – even resources for our 21st century struggle to be disciples, to be the church, in our time. But in reality, we will have to work it out for ourselves, and we have to do it together.

The challenges of discipleship for us today are tough not because we could face execution or banishment, it is tough because the human environment we live within is one where the answers are so complex and demand of us a more flexible understanding of order in what is now a collective systemic complexity. Our choices are greater than ever before in terms of what we do and how we do it, so much so that we cannot even contemplate including everything, if we ever could anyway, and this complexity and choice is going to become even more complex in the future. The challenge for us is that there is harmony, hope, peace and human enrichment in this scene if we want to look. The challenge and the blessing of discipleship is real and we cannot but find the sacred in this if we are to walk the Jesus Way.

One example of this complexity facing discipleship is what John Spong challenges the church with. He argues that religion is a business and it is used as a control mechanism We might see this happening in some places as the rise of Islamophobia. Islam has been turned into a scapegoat, a target at which we can direct all our fears and anger, and an excuse to invade other countries and create a more intense global national security state. But the truth is, just as Christianity can claim of itself, Islam has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. These manufactured fears are all part and parcel of a faithless response or as it is now called ‘false flag’ terrorism, which we can read more about on Facebook, in newspapers and many debates about the future if we are unfamiliar with the concept.

Spong affirms that “religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand. It’s in the guilt producing control business.” You will remember we spoke about that last week with that story about Mission in South America years ago when discovering a people who knew no fear about their living meant that fear had to be manufactured for the Christian mission of evangelization to even begin.

Spong also describes the problem with organization. Many churches still claim that there is something such as the true church, and along with that goes some ultimate authority. Many of us would accept that the idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system by any human creed by any human book, is almost beyond imagination for us. For us God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu a Buddhist; all of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. Most of us would also say that using fear to coax people into a certain way of life or belief system, has been part of our tradition and we are not comfortable with that.

Spong’s understanding of discipleship is that people need to accept responsibility for the world. If we simply leave global change in the hands of God, we remove our own responsibility and agency in this world. If we want to change the world, we have to do it. The Dalai Lama expressed this as well, arguing that it’s not enough to just pray. We must take responsibility for our planet.

One of the challenges we face is how we use the bible because we know we are dealing with texts that are very old, and when we consider what we do know about them and that there are multiple versions of various texts, all of which have likely been manipulated, changed, and distorted over the years, it becomes difficult to accept any one without question. Hence the challenge to live the questions as opposed to searching for answers.

Another point that is important for discipleship is hypocrisy. Many people claim ties to their faith yet know very little about its tenets, choosing rather to accept a popular leave it to God approach that denies critique and thus questions. This makes it easy to ignore the hard bits and choose the easy, not thinking approach, under the guise of an authentic supernatural faith. This is commonly seen within many so-called ‘spiritual’ movements as well, which can be seen as another form of religion in itself.

When it comes to religion, it is clear that we have to do your own research; we have to read the books and examine the teachings for ourselves. Use our own head and find what resonates with us instead of allowing ourselves to be indoctrinated and letting someone else do our thinking for us. The texts are open to interpretation and it’s up to us to find meaning in them and apply it to our life. I don’t think this is about whether there is a God or not because we can still believe in God and not be religious. What we are doing however is recognizing that Religion is a man-made construct. And, that has to be good!

We are also recognizing that Religions as organizations are going to have to change. New discoveries are constantly being made that are challenging long-held belief systems. We cannot grow if we refuse to have an open mind and accept new possibilities about the nature of reality, and it’s childish to hold on to old belief systems just because they are familiar. I want to leave it here with a quote that says; “It’s a mark of an educated person to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” And my adaption which is; that, it is the mark of a disciple to be seen to be humble, determined and committed to the building of a more complete humanity. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.

Patterson, S. J. “Dirt, Shame, and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (Ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association, 1975.


Article by Arjun Walia ‘Collective Evolution American Bishop Explains How Religion is Made-Up & Used to Control People

‘A Journey Inwards’

Posted: February 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lent 1

‘A Journey Inwards’ 

William Blake wrote;

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

On Wednesday 14 February we began the Lenten period in the Church calendar. On Wednesday the 14th we noted that it was also St Valentine’s Day and it is said that in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. For us as Christians since about the year 1000CE Ash Wednesday has been a day when people were marked with ashes of palm trees burnt the previous year. Ash Wednesday has been a day when worshippers gathered and were reminded of their sinfulness and mortality. The practice was not part of the protestant church practice for many years being swallowed up in the rejection of anything depicting iconography symbolic or not sustainable in reasoning.

The challenge we have this year is the timing. As Rex Hunt puts it; we have Love and sin all on the same day!! One might say ‘That’s life”. Life is all about choice, about discernment and decision, about the richness and beauty always at risk of the choices we make in our attempts to understand and live within the randomness of existence. Lent for the Christian church is associated with the story of the Jewish Galilean sage called Jesus, and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness. The location of this event upon which the tradition is based happened at the beginning of his brief public activity in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire, sometime between the years 26-36CE.

Today we are challenged to reflect on what we are symbolically alluding to in the period we call lent and we as Progressive Contemporary followers of Jesus do this by not accepting a simple call to public self-abasement, as the means of acknowledging our struggle with the paradoxical juxtaposition of love and sin. We do not see that an act of sacrifice is a loving act because we struggle with the idea that that sort of exchange is what Jesus lived for. We want to acknowledge our limitedness as a human being but we also want to find a way of unfolding what that means without having to accept that we are now all bad and in need of outside intervention to make us good. That idea might be a means of projecting away what we have traditionally called our sinfulness, or the result of original sin but it does not give priority to the belief that a human being is essentially good and the task is to live that goodness as opposed to spending all our efforts on dealing with our sinfulness. Note that original sin comes after the creation of goodness so perhaps someone couldn’t deal with the fact that humans are essentially good so we have to explain the things we do wrong. It has to be said however that we progressives are still trying to get our heads around the same question. We all accept that we are biological animals and that we have a finite life span, but we don’t really like it, so having original sin as a panacea we can blame our death on our behaviour.

Leaping back to our story of Jesus and his response which was to go into the desert for 40 days, I think, maybe his trip was to get his head around this question of human purpose and human response, to think about his world where Roman world view was dominant and his people’s response was consumed with its ability to deal with this oppressive living existence. Reconcile with what it means to be human, reflect on what responses were manifesting and repentance or more correctly turn around the juggernaut of the popular responsive mode of being might have been his need. He is faced with a Culture that is not based in love but rather fear, nor in a responsible confidence but rather a fear driven responsibility. And what does this action that he took look like? He is said to have gone into the desert. What does that mean? His location is very easily imaged as being all desert with some small pockets of vegetation. What was the difference between their town and the desert? There must have been some distinction between desert and non-desert that was significant. But having accepted that our image might not be completely accurate we can for the sake of some idea look at our contemporary understanding of a desert and what better than just next door in Australia.

They have ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia. It is over 800 kilometers wide and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometers. In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometers or 18% of the Australian mainland and approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain it is effectively desert.

So, taking that image and exploring the experience of Jesus in the wilderness we look for the evidence of utter isolation and uninhabitable place and our image of a parched earth with its cracks and its groaning under the blazing sun across the wide land. And we find the desert in its colours and in Australia’s case its redness, we find it in its fickle dust that permeates everything we touch. We breathe it, taste it and it enters every personal space including our eyes. It takes over our lives.

However, there is another picture here as well. The perception of what a desert wilderness area is, varies greatly. It depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’. To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty. A place without life. But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, it has a compelling fascination, as a place vibrant with life.

The spinifex which we have sung about in some hymns out of Australia, are blue grey with amber glints. They look soft but they are prickly and hard. They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal can eat them out or destroy their roots. Here is the seed of a picture that says that it may look as if nothing can live in the desert, but underneath the spinifex, the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand. Life may not stir all day, but come night… lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

One of the learnings is that a desert is what one sees at first glance but at another look it is transformed. What seems barren, uninhabited, desolate – even hostile because it lacked the visible plants and animals of our experience can be seen differently. Seen differently the wilderness environment can be ‘very romantic, beautifully formed by nature’
as well as ‘the worst country in the world’: “… an ‘alien landscape’, where nature was ‘upside down’ and flora and fauna were so unnervingly weird”.

This raises the contradiction of perspective, first glance, and of time for reflection. So, when it comes to lent there is the suggestion that it is a very real time where we can once again, in an intentional way, seek out the present-ness of the sacred lurking in the most unlikely of places, the sacred is waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced. If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentless isolation and a place where people face despair and animals die of thirst, then the desert experience will always be an alien danger. So too our expectations of lent and of any intentional reflection and of any intentional cleaning out of the cupboard of our past.

A Zen teacher said to his students: ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes, but the elders furrow their brows. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes, but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust. We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

And echoing the words of William Blake, a former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests: “To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

Rex Hunt suggests that our Zen teacher probably had a different thought in mind. To raise a speck of dust is to stir up goodness, struggle for justice, speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power, band together to stand resolutely and non-violently before evil and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it. For progressive Christians lent is not a time of sorry self-deprecation. We are not helped by that perspective. For us lent can be a time when, in positive and intentional ways, our focused actions can enable others to flourish. When our selfless actions seep into the world
‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’… encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, and strengthening the bonds of community.

Judging from what we know of Jesus, he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom, strongly encouraging his hearers to take a second look at the traditions that helped them make their way in the world. And with a storyteller’s imagination,
he set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life. Wilderness and thus reality are not what they seem, take time and look again. Amen.

Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The Prophet. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
McRae-McMahon, D. Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.


Transfiguration B, 2018
Mark 9: 2-9

‘Unsettled into the fulness of Life!’

Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystic proclaimed, ……We are all meant to be mothers of God……… for God is always needing to be born. For those of us nurtured in the patriarchal phase of Christian history that is an unsettling comment. Some of us have moved on to be able to be comfortable with the feminine images and metaphor for God but many of us are still unsettled by it. A few of you noted we had a hymn with the line mothers of God recently. But when you think about where we have been since Christmas the unsettling challenges haven’t stopped. We have not long celebrated Christmas where Holy innocence has led to Jesus being born and 12 days later, on Epiphany, we celebrated his physical arrival, a much-awaited incarnation called forth by ages of invocation and prophecy. Christmas carols lift the refrain, “Christ was born to save!” And then, Eckhart comes along with, “God is always needing to be born.” As 2018 unfolds, this teaching is a prompt for us. What role will we play as mothers of God? The other question I think that lies here is what do we understand as the transfiguration?

The English poet and song writer Sydney Carter in his poem Friday Morning in the mid-1960s wrote, “you can blame it on Adam, you can blame it on Eve, you can blame it on the apple, but that I can’t believe”. This was a very typical reaction to much Christian thinking in the 1960s. This was when people such as Bishop John A T Robinson wrote many popular books on theology in the hope some would see that there was a constant need for fresh formulations of the reality of God. Then, from the late 1980s through to now, this work is being carried on by others like John Shelby Spong, another Anglican bishop.

I want to wrestle with the transfiguration idea today because I think that today’s gospel story by Mark is about one of those ‘but that I can’t believe’ incidents, full of myth and pre-modern images. I suggest wrestling because the idea of transfiguration is one idea for which there are very few postmodern images. All the searches I made this week for images to use on the power point ended up with traditional images of Jesus with some sort of halo or burst of light around him. There were a few new age type images but they were all either centered on the human form or on the cosmos. None seemed to speak to me of a postmodern transfiguration whatever that is.

Our story from Mark is a so-called incident in the life of Jesus called the Transfiguration or Shining. As a story it is very imaginative. Storyteller Mark says Jesus and some of his closest friends climb to the top of a mountain. Immediately we hear a connecting link to other existing ‘hero’ stories. Going to the top of a mountain is a common thing in Israel’s stories. Because mountains are regarded as ‘thin places’- when God, the Divine, the Sacred – can be experienced. I happen to like that idea of thin places because it speaks to me of some place that is neither here nor there. It is a least a portal between idea and event. They climb to the top of a mountain. They enjoy the magnificent views. They breathe deeply the fresh air. This experience recharges their flagging spirits and re-sensitizes their imaginations. They are refreshed by Creativity God. Then out of the blue, pious Peter attempts to secure this experience in some tangible way: ‘Let’s build our own chapel, he says and you, Jesus, can be our private chaplain’. But as our storyteller says, a booming voice puts paid to that bad idea. Says something about preserving buildings doesn’t it.

Ched Myers, has an interesting comment: he says “After all, in Mark the true impediments to discipleship have nothing to do with physical impairment, but with spiritual and ideological disorders…”. Or, as another on the Process and Faith website has said: “Because of their relationship with Jesus, Peter, James, and John experience a walk up a mountainside in an exciting and enlivening way.  Because they have allowed themselves to see life through Jesus’ eyes, however fleetingly and partially, they have come to know God in new ways and to see Jesus as the vehicle for that new knowing. Once again, the hand or pen of the storyteller is there. After coming to know God in new ways and of seeing Jesus as the vehicle for that new knowing, the storyteller reminds them and us they are to climb down from the top of the mountain. They are to refresh others as they have been refreshed by God. Or in other words, they are to move from a private refuge (chapel) to a public presence (community).

So, how can we approach this mythical, supernatural story from Mark today? Rex Hunt suggests we can do it two ways. One with a historical question… like ‘How/where did this happen?’ or we can approach it with a theological question… such as ‘What connections can we make to this story?’ For me I think I would want to start close to the second question, but before we do I want to bring in another thought. This time about a transfigured community.

Soong-Chan Rah, a theologian and seminary professor who is committed to freeing spiritual communities from what he calls, “Western Cultural Captivity.” writes, “Lament is honesty before God and each other”. He asks, “should we not be concerned over a church that lives in denial over the reality of death in our midst?”  As readers of “Progressing Spirit,” and earlier posts by Bishop Spong”, he says, “we are not blind to the death around us – the extinction of species, government’s termination of life-affirming policies, and the archetypal display of patriarchy in its last gasps. While so much of labouring to birth God begins inwardly, as individuals, it is what we do together that makes our beliefs visibly alive in the world. This is tough when the dominant system rewards us for our ability to do things without needing any help – some people thrive on this, and some give up entirely, hoping that others will find a magical way forward. But these, “Independence Teachings,” are written nowhere in the sacred texts that we know. Moreover, Earth’s teachings repeatedly show us the brilliant interdependency that sustains us all – trees needing CO2, and mammals needing oxygen – as the most obvious example.

After winter’s snow and ice, rivers of water and muddy, sloppy mush precede the return of firm earth, gardens and leaves. Our communities are only as strong as the transparency and vulnerability we entrust to them. So, we are left with the question: How will our spiritual community resolve, this year, to acknowledge the mess? How will we create a very intentional time and space for lament…and then to mindfully respond? Our knowledge of ourselves says that when our anguish is fully met, we see our passions and convictions more clearly; more love becomes possible. Love = God being born. Mothers of God we become. Unsettled we might be with this and rightly so because as Lauren Van Ham suggests, none of us knows how our story with Earth is to evolve or find its end for that matter; but it is in this paradoxical space of wrestling and finding blessing that our spiritual paths are formed. Somehow, we know the Love that comes from this wrestling with unsettling — the divine Love that is in us, and for us, wants us to be in Love.

As 2018 evolves, we might ask ourselves how we perceive God needing to be born? When we’re clear about what isn’t working, we are asked to imagine what we do want and Van Ham asks us to consider three practices: The first is stopping for Stillness, the second is daring to feel and sharing our Laments in Community, and then the third is Wrestling – not for the perceived reward of winning – but rather to receive the unimaginable flow of Earth’s Love that is in us, for us and beyond us, calling us to God who is always needing to be born!

So What connections can we make to this story. Well I hope we have already made some but let’s go deeper, so to speak. It seems that at least one of things being suggested in this story by the one we call Mark, is that it is saying something important about God. And we have acknowledged that, that something is not about any so-called supernatural power or event. That’ is the 1st century mythical and cultural encompassed story for Marks hearers. The key however is I think, that God is to be ‘experienced’ as a creative transforming presence in ordinary people’s lives. Not by coercion and power over, but rather by lure and suggestion and imagination. As Jesus was transfigured or ‘changed’ before Peter, James, and John, God’s so-called ‘will’ (to use tradition language) is to transform us in the everyday moments of our lives.

So, how does this happen?  In very personal-sounding traditional language one colleague of Rex Hunt suggests: If our deepest experience is loneliness, it is the will of God to transform us from loneliness to human connectedness. If our deepest feeling is fear and anxiety, then God wishes to move us creatively past that, to love and to trust. What he is suggesting is that God wants to move us beyond the meaninglessness of life to the intensity of living, characterized by joy and by vitality. To a new level of depth in our existence that will provide joy and zest and empowerment.

There is good news in this story for 21st century ‘even for post-moderns’ like us,
despite all the mythical baggage. And the good news is, our God or Divine energy is not aloof and detached, but rather works like the new metaphor of an expert weaver. Continuing the metaphor, God uses the fibers of our lives, weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love and creativity. And as it is with us, individually, so too is it with us, as church or faith community. It is the creative transformation of God that wants to move congregations beyond being a cozy club with ‘feel good’ attitudes, to being people at mission who meet and serve others where they are. So, if we are to continue to be the inclusive people of faith we say we are, we might need to be people who are continually and radically open to the creative, transforming present-ness of God…

The Jesus Way is inviting us to a better way of being the church. Not because it has been wrong in the past but because the divine invitation is about our refreshment and it will unsettle us. Once again John Shelby Spong sums this up well: “God, the source of life, calls us to live fully.  God, the source of love, calls us to love wastefully.  God, the Ground of Being, calls us to have the courage to be ourselves.  So, when we live, love, and have the courage to be, we are… expanding our humanity”. What God refreshes, unsettles, and changes, God or The Divine Spirit or Energy does so with and through us.

So, leaving the last word to Jack Spong. “The mission of the Christian Church is not to convert the world, but to call all who are also part of the creation into the fullness of life”


Myers, C. 2008. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. New York. Maryknoll. Orbis Books.
Spong, J. S. 1999. Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Spong, J. S. 2001. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.


Itinerant Healer

Posted: January 31, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 5B 4.2.2018

Is 40: 21-31              Mk 1: 29-39

Itinerant Healer

We talked last week about the authority of Jesus and I proposed that one of the reasons Jesus enjoyed success in the establishment of the movement he did not intentionally seek was that a sort of societal collapse took place as the Roman Empire began to self-destruct. I also suggested that as part of this destruction Rome swallowed up Jesus the revolutionary and domesticated the movement to the point that we are this day on our third search for the historical Jesus.

Our Hebrew scripture reading for today takes us back and puts the Jesus time in the larger context when we recall that the region of Palestine gets its name from a group of people who migrated to the land from the Greek isles to the West at about the same time as the Israelites came into the land from the East. The Philistines quickly gave up their Indo-European language in favour of the Canaanite language spoken by the earlier inhabitants of the land. Over time, they also adopted Canaanite gods and worship practices. Here we have an example of evolution of culture and the collapse of societies, not in the sense of complete annihilation but close. After the Assyrians conquered their cities in the eighth century B.C.E., the Philistines eventually ceased to exist as a coherent, self-identified group of people. They had merged into the surrounding society, so that today no people anywhere identify themselves as descendants of the Philistines. The name of the territory lingers, but the people no longer exist. The same is true of the Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, and even, for the most part, Israelites from the Northern Kingdom. Only Judah emerged intact as a coherent people after years of occupation and exile. The question we asked last week of Jesus is now asked of the Judaeans. How did they manage to survive while their neighbours around them didn’t? A large part of the answer is reflected in today’s reading from Isaiah.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? . . . Lift up your eyes and see:

It was common in the ancient world to interpret the conquest of one nation by another as the victory of one god (or set of gods) over another. If one’s national gods were weak, people reasoned, perhaps it would be better to worship the gods of the conquerors. The Jews had a different idea. Although they had been defeated by the Babylonians, they interpreted their troubles not as an indication of God’s weakness but as an indication of their own sins. In contrast to the diminishing value many nations placed on their gods after they were conquered, the Jews’ estimation of God did nothing but grow during the exile. Of particular importance was their growing understanding of their God not as a national God alone but as God of the whole world, even its creator.

Accepting the idea, proclaimed by the exilic prophets, that their God was the creator of the world as well as their national deliverer allowed the Jews to flourish under difficult circumstances, endure the years of exile, and emerge as a stronger people. Over the centuries the Jews have faced many other threats to their existence–the war with Antiochus Epiphanes, the First and Second Jewish Wars with the Romans, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, and the Holocaust–but their faith in God as creator of the world, a God who also loves and sustains them and calls them to follow God’s will, has preserved them through the centuries.

Those who went on to call themselves Christians owe their very existence to the prophets of the exile who proclaimed a new vision of God and to the people who took that understanding of God to heart. The very fact that a new vision was possible enabled the freedom to be able to see an alternative. We today are recipients also of this freedom. It is our encouragement to proclaim the oneness of the divine and to see the divine as creativity that brings the past, present and future into an evolutionary mode. Aside from the bringing of science and faith together in our thinking this is of course the argument that there is such a thing as God regardless of what we might name it, force or energy, light or creativity or the purpose of the cosmos. If we lose this vision, of the value of religion for the human species and in our case of the Jesus Way, we will be in danger of succumbing to the fate of the Philistines and their neighbours whose gods were not able to provide them with a reason to exist.

Having argued I think for the existence of God and for a very secular yet divine role for Jesus we might now go to our Mark text to explore what everyday practice might look like. In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus comes to Peter’s house, heals his mother-in-law, then spends the rest of the night healing and casting out demons. We remember that last week we acknowledged that in Jesus time this would not have been unknown activity but it is not common today. What is interesting is that if he had wanted to, Jesus could have set up shop right there in Capernaum and made a reputation for himself as a healer, but that’s not what he does. Instead, early the next morning Jesus gets up and goes out into the wilderness to pray. When his disciples find him, they ask him to come back to the city to continue the healing ministry.

“Listen Jesus” they might have said. “You’re a hit!” “You’re popular you need to go to Jerusalem or all the big cities. This has the makings of a great ministry!” But. “No,” Jesus said, “let’s go to the neighbouring towns, because that’s what I came out to do.” Jesus seems to think that his ministry was bigger than a single town, even a single large city but it is person to person that is required. He needed to make contact beyond his immediate groups but he couldn’t let alone expect to visit every city in Israel, much less in the world, in his lifetime. He did however see value in an itinerant rather than a purely localized ministry. It is true that we don’t believe that everyone is called to travel the globe with the gospel message, but we can agree that we should think in global terms. We can’t do that, if the only perspective we have is our own city, or even our own neighbourhood and our own routines. Seeing other parts of the country, and especially other parts of the world, will remind us that our little community reflects neither the diversity nor the need of the world as a whole. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, nor can we preach God’s good news to everyone on the planet, and we’re not called to do that. In fact, I think that’s the wrong way to look at any mission engagement or opportunity. Yes, we have something to contribute, but we have just as much, and probably more, to learn from the people we visit in other places. We may take them hope, but they can show us faithfulness. We may take them material riches, but they can show us spiritual riches. We may take them a message, but they can show us humility. It’s not that the poor around the world are better than we are or closer to God. It’s that they have experienced life in ways that we never have, and they might just have more in common with the majority of the human race than we ever will. Our call to follow the example of Jesus is a call to an itinerant ministry in todays context. As we travel through life, we might be faithful in sharing the wisdom and the riches that we have, but we might also be willing to learn from those for whom we minister, they have just as much to offer us as we have to offer them.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  God is infinite, dynamic, and moving through all things. Divine energy flows through all creation, giving life and healing. All human lives are important, but at best temporary, dwarfed by the majestic infinity of the Cosmos.  In the grandeur of the universe, we appear not to matter. Leaders of nations might make major global decisions, but their influence is limited; their time, like ours, is short.  However a Cosmic divinity is everywhere, intimately participating in lives.  In the interplay of finitude and infinity, today’s scriptures join action and contemplation in the quest for a perspective on life that enables us to become divine companions in creative transformation.

Mark 1 describes a day in the life of Jesus.  The healer from Nazareth is certainly busy that day: he heals the sick, preaches, teaches, and casts out demons.  His calendar is full and yet he has time for encounters large and small.  But, he also has time for stillness, perhaps, to gain perspective. As embodiment of the all-present God, Jesus reveals God’s vision and power in every encounter.  The timeless call is to mount up with wings of eagles, to experience abundant life and share that life with others. To participate in the Cosmos. No healing is too small for Jesus.  No problem is too small for divine concern. We might think that the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is even too small to record in scripture. Still, we can all relate to her need for healing, despite its apparent unimportance in the overall scheme of things. It isn’t cancer, heart disease, or MS, but it matters.

We don’t know all the mechanics of Jesus’ healing, but we have the need for person to person engagement and we have the need for the engagement to be more akin to small groups rather than globalized gatherings. Quantum physics tells us that the universe is energetic and while there is no evidence that Jesus practiced a specific touch-based healing we can assume that the same energy of love found in healing touch also animated Jesus’ healing ministry.  In an interdependent world in which spirit is embodied and the body inspired, we can’t limit the power of healing to change our minds and bodies for the good.   Mind and body are connected and in fact can’t be separated, so that changes in our bodies bring about changes in our minds. Healing is at the heart of the Jesus’ ministry, and the healings described in Mark 1 can be embodied in today’s congregational ministries.

Mark’s description of a day in the life of Jesus ends with the Healer spending a time in prayer.  Action is balanced by contemplation.  Healing power and social activism burst forth from stillness.  Here is the call to spend time in silence to gain energy and direction in our lives. Paul speaks of finding his theological and missional flexibility through his sense of God’s providence in his life. Isaiah speaks of the grandeur of God in contrast to human finitude.  Ironically, we gain a sense of stature by our affirmation and embrace of the grandeur of the universe and its creativity.  We are infinitesimal and hardly noticeable in a universe of 125 billion galaxies, and yet our actions can radiate across the universe and our planet, becoming a tipping point from death to life, ugliness to beauty, and alienation to reconciliation.  The intimate and infinite are connected, giving us perspective and the inspiration to become divine companions in healing the Earth. Isaiah also notes that “God’s understanding is unsearchable.”  The apophatic, without images (negative theology) and the kataphatic, with images (incarnational theology), require one another.  The beauty and the wonder of the universe proclaim the divine. That’s why we need poets as well as scientists and theologians. Historically, the kataphatic has been identified with becoming and movement, while the apophatic has been described in terms of unchanging being; but perhaps what is incarnational is living, moving, and creating.  We need to get beyond the dualism of being and becoming and like the yin-yang symbol see both as necessitated in a divine, human life.  Amen.

Epiphany 4B, 2018
Mark 1: 21-28

Authority and The Messiah Complex!

We have been exploring what the text talks about as the authority Jesus speaks with. We have asked what it is and how we might understand it across the time span between the tome of the text and now as well as the time the text is talking about. While we have little material upon which to base our argument because of the weight the tradition has given to this authority we do need to wrestle with an understanding. The dictionary says that authority means the power to determine, adjudicate, or otherwise settle issues or disputes; jurisdiction; the right to control, command, or determine. In his context then Jesus is given the authority to make decisions about what is important. We note that this may have had a sense of a legal authority as well because of the status he was given. We need to be careful here to note that this authority was not required for the banishing of demons because exorcisms would have been quite commonplace and conducted by many as well. What we can surmise however is that in his time, in the social, political and economic environment the granting of authority would have been significant. It is very likely that the authority given was an acknowledgement of significant leadership skills.

It would also argue for the concept of Messiah to be considered strongly. Here we have someone who seems to show significant knowledge of how things work on the big scale, a relationship with a world beyond Roman dictatorship, a world beyond a passive complacent acquiescence in the face of oppression, a world beyond political and social patronage and class systems, a world beyond what is obvious.

It could be argued that we today live in a similar environment where leadership with an authority like that conferred on Jesus is needed. I want to show you a video now that raises questions about this big picture that we could see as our environment and if the video and Jared Diamond are correct the situation our leadership are faced with and also the authority that leadership might need to help us address our future. Diamond asks the question Why do societies fail? And with lessons from the Norse of Iron Age Greenland, deforested Easter Island and present-day Montana, he talks about the signs that call us to critique that environment to see if we can build an alternative, not unlike the call Jesus must have felt when he did what he did and said what he said. Small bickies perhaps in terms of the level of complexity but none the less a very similar scenario in terms of the changes the systems faced.

Video             Collapse of Societies https://www.ted.com/

We can look back and label the agrarian, industrial and information ages and we can look back and label the premodern, modern and postmodern ages as indications of change the human species has made as evolution takes its path. Each one a crisis that things must change or die and in fact end up changing so that what was dies. But what does this have to say about the authority of Jesus? Well I wonder, and I am open to be challenged on this. I wonder if the leadership Jesus gave was akin the leadership that brought about a societal change and thus a leadership that is required today.

When you think about it many of those changes Diamond spoke of are similar to our own experiences, as if these changes are going on all the time, but the ones we notice are the ones that come clear after they have eventuated, and history says that in times of rapid social change people look for a ‘messiah’! We have been asking questions about the effect Jesus had on the world by way of his personal being. What was it about him that was different? What was it that he brought to the world that created a movement. Recent tradition says that it was his God status, his supernatural being, but we have asked questions about that and there was something else.

According to this morning’s gospel anecdote, which we believe was created by
the storyteller Mark to express his notion of the mission of Jesus,
when Jesus spoke people found something powerful happening to their psyches. ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority…The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant.  Here is a teaching that is new’. We note that the authority is linked to something new, a new understanding, a new world view, and alternative they had not thought of. We note also that the people are astonished not that Jesus taught, but at the authority by which he taught. The information he gave them seemed to fit with their understanding but the way he put it seemed to be radically new and challenging and encouraging. A re-imagining of what this was is offered by John Dominic Crossan: He says; ‘He was an illiterate peasant, but with an oral brilliance that few of those trained in literate and scribal disciplines can ever attain.’ At best, we can guess a credible Jesus taught about the kingdom or realm or domain of God, which was everywhere present but not yet demonstrated by society.

The way Jesus presented this alternative was to focus on some central themes like celebration, compassion, and inclusiveness, and by illustrating the realm and activity of God “by focusing his hearers’ attention on the observable behaviour of phenomena in the physical world around them rather than by reporting his own personal mystical visions…” (Smith 2008:79). He drew on common life experiences, trading in the trivial, the ordinary, rather than interpreting scripture. He was it seems, a secular sage! Who left the interpretation of scripture and the interpretation of his authority to the society that followed. This personal style would have had the effect of shifting the power base of knowledge from the experts (in scripture, scribes) to the common people. It was a very different way of doing theology. And it was fresh and news!

One might also suggest that our traditional classical theology and traditional ecclesiastical authority do not sit comfortably with this view even today and our good times as a Christian Society could not allow this kind of a position. The conservative church today wants a return to the ‘good old days’… Good old days of a powerful church, a clear influence on society with capital and corporeal punishment, Christian instruction in schools, (Note I said instruction and not education) fixed laws on moral conduct, longer Jail sentences, and direct lines of external authority: parent, teacher, boss, bishop, pope, prime minister. All models that Rome and Israel had adopted as the society of the day. And then along comes Jesus ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority….

Our question is do we, living in the early part of the 21st century, have a chance as never before, to facilitate a new ‘religious’ authority? For 2000 years, Jesus of Nazareth has been represented to the world “in terms of later inferences drawn from his sayings and deeds, rather than in terms of what he himself did and said”. What is truly incredible is that “The only other time in history that this was possible was in the first century”. When one thinks about this the decline of the church has to be considered as an outcome of holding on to a tradition that no longer makes sense as literal history. Throughout the last 500 year or so history of the church, people have wrestled with the clash between the Bible and modern science. And many have coped by a ‘suspension of disbelief’ for an hour or two each week. But what happens when those same people decide they can no longer live with the inconsistencies of tired metaphors and a belief known “to be patently false”?

The urgent question for the church right now, in the 21st century is: How long can it – you and me – count on suspended disbelief to shore up its outworn myths?  I would also like to suggest that this is the kind of argument Jesus had with the authorities of his day. That is why imagining another possible way of being in the world, another completely re-imagined society was, and can be, fresh news. Amen.

Hedrick, C. W. “The ‘good news’ about the historical Jesus” in A. Dewey. (ed) The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.
Smith, M. H. “Ears to Hear. Learning to Listen to Jesus” in C. W. Hedrick. When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journey. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.



Epiphany 3B
Mark 1:14-20

Beyond the Heresy Called Complacency

The title today suggest that complacency is a heresy and that it is possible to see through it and find something that is beyond it. In short, the implication is that it is possible to see beyond a theory or a doctrine that is supported and confirmed by established beliefs, and customs. It also suggests that complacency as a point of self-satisfaction or a smugness about the present situation needs to be challenged so as to ensure there is an awareness of any potential danger lurking ahead. Last week we spoke of discipleship as being akin to physical engagement and a shared journey of discovery centered on the character and teachings of the wandering sage we call Jesus of Nazareth.

In the traditional teachings of the church, there is little doubt that following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has become an important theme in church life. In a world where membership and attendance of traditional forms of church are in decline, evangelism and encouraging others to join is a major question being faced. At face value today’s story by the storyteller we call Mark, is one such story. The calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John. And by implication, the commencement of a movement which centered on the character and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

What we do believe is that Jesus had followers, and last week we argued that conversation, engagement and shared development of thought and understanding played a significant part on the growth of the movement. We also believe that this engagement, conversation and shared journey included both men and women, despite patriarchal assumptions both outside and within the movement. We argued last week that the person to person contact was one of the most common ways in which teaching and learning took place in the time. And while we can learn something of the roles men took in this process, from the various stories in our biblical tradition, the role women took goes almost unnoticed until we read the Gospel of Mary – which didn’t make it into the biblical collection.

It is worth noting here that when we talk about a Jesus movement we believe that it was not ever an intention of Jesus to take any initiative in carrying out a recruitment drive. We do not believe he had any intention of organizing a movement. As we said last week the issue was always a person to person engagement without a party manifesto or a strategic organizational plan. It can be said that this personalization has worked against the movement in modern and postmodern times, because it accommodates diverse thinking and this works against a unified mass evangelism, not unlike our political experiences today we all need to be heard, to have our say, to be understood and this means we have to deal with differing views on almost everything. If we look at recent church history we see attempts to move beyond the personal and we find personality cults and short-lived personality driven programs. One might say that Constantine set us on a wrong path when he made Christianity a state religion because it gave us both a false sense of hope in a unified movement and established a model of institution that was doomed to failure because it was dependent upon sameness and a common understanding. The global ecumenical movement and the Church union events all show the difficulty of transitioning from personal to collective faith. Because I tend to agree with those who claim Jesus was a wandering or itinerant sage without organisational intentions, and a person who never intended to found a movement much less a church, I wonder why and how the movement developed, other than as a response to social, cultural, economic and political events of the time. For the movement to have as much popularity in the early centuries the sense of freedom from institutionalization must have played a significant part in its growth as a movement.

This I think leaves us with a Jesus who was thoroughly consumed in the religious/political concerns of his own time and place, and a Jesus whose focus was not on some mystified realm beyond time, or on some present world which we simply appreciate or accept. His focus had to be on a new realm of God here and now, and ready to emerge. This means that what we have in this particular story this morning, is more in the hands of the storyteller Mark or more focused on a particular community, he thinks he knows and a community he thinks he knows the needs of. What we have then is less likely to be a record of one of the actual deeds of Jesus.

So, with this limited information, we find a storyteller who seems to have a collection
of stories and sayings and theological reflections, some probably written fragments, but most retold and remembered from oral telling, and the storyteller is adapting and weaving them together with a particular purpose in mind. From what we can discern the reason for the storyteller’s writing is, so that a small community can honour Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, hear a link between “Jesus’ ministry and John’s preceding one” (Cairns 2004:16) and, hear and understand, remember and be empowered as people of the Way. The authority of Jesus in a mass setting without him is of concern to the writer. How does one walk the Jesus Way today is the question being asked even then?

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has also been associated with the evangelical missionary endeavour of ‘saving souls’. This today is suspect because it implies that something needs saving without saying from what or for what. It also struggles because of thinking around what a soul is. Do we have one? What is it in relation to scientific thinking? What does neurology say about the existence of a soul?

Today’s text gives us a metaphor that is at similar risk. Certainly, our text in its metaphorical form is how many preachers have treated it. They have concluded that it was spoken exclusively to Simon and Andrew: ‘make you fishers of men’ or the more inclusive, ‘…people’, fishers of people. But this metaphor is not only very tired and outdated, it is also, some of us would say, a misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Why do we say this? Well because the evidence of his intention to build a movement is a major question. Why the need for an evangelical approach if one if not building a movement. So, we need to consider some other options. Scholar Ched Myers, in his comments on this story, offers an important and different interpretation, which suggests that phrases like ‘fishers of men’ and ‘hooking of fish’ are actually euphemisms for judgement upon the rich given by ancient Hebrew Prophets. They are more about what this new kingdom will remove than about bringing more people to follow the Jesus Way.

Myers says initially: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”. He later goes on to say that: “…following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. We know this idea has merit because we know the Christianity is always an ‘in the world’ religion as opposed to an ‘out of the world’ one. Culture, is the operating ground for human endeavour. It is the connection with sociology, politics and psychology. Jesus is advocating that the first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple… To transform it and this is not a call to reach an ‘out’ of the world existence, but rather a call ‘into an alternative social practice.’ (Myers 2008: 132-133)

Those words by Ched Myers resonate with me. because they suggest to me that being a disciple in the 21st century requires us to engage in both social analysis as well as theological reflection. To be political, not in a partisan way or a mass control or manipulation sense but in the recognition that the person is not alone, the person is the person because of the person to person relationships one has. Individuals count because they are in relationship. The cultural, sociological concern is an engagement of the person in the science or art of government, be it family, clan, tribe, village, city, nation, world. This suggests that we need to remind ourselves when we read the biblical test and the extra-biblical stories and study and speculate about them, they are less about earthly stories with heavenly meanings, and more earthy stories with heavy meanings! So, returning to our title for today; the question is what does this doctrinally induced, industrialization created complacency look like?

Rex Hunt wrote on his website some time back about the American celebration called Martin Luther King Day, ‘which by the way’, was last Monday the 15th January. It is a celebration more at home in America than anywhere else, but the reason for it is common to all of us. Hunt recalls that a journalist named James Carroll, wrote an article called ‘The Dream and its Enemies’. In it he suggested that while the outright racism of white supremacists was one of King’s enemies, “almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.” (Carroll. ‘Globe’, a New York Times Co. 2008)

Carroll went on: “This nation honours Martin Luther King Jr because of what he forced on it.  Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth.  Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible.  What happened was that King’s work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.” (Carroll) One has to ask; was it treated like a call out of this world rather than a call into an alternative social practice… One can also ask similar questions of all our political parties, all of our concerns for justice. Are they calls out of this world, calls susceptible to an unworkable complacency or are they calls into an alternative social practice?

Discipling, as the storyteller we call Mark suggests is about accepting the urgent invitation to ‘break with business as usual’. To re-imagine the world, both personal and communal. It has to start with the person because that is the foundation of being in this world and of it at the same time. It’s also the way we keep the heresy of complacency at bay. One can’t re-imagine and be trapped in the same old, same old at the same time. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. New Zealand: Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Coverston, H. S. “Ears to Hear? Who is my Neighbour? Preaching with Integrity and Moral Reasoning”. Seminar Papers, Westar Institute, Fall. Santa Rosa, 2005.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.