The loss of Trust’

Posted: November 14, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost27A.2005

Matthew 25:14-30

The loss of Trust’

The story commonly named ‘The parable of the talents’ is one of those stories that has left its mark on our language and culture in a big way. Indeed, so much has it become part of our everyday vocabulary that we tend to miss the ‘fang’ hidden in its tail. And that’s a pity.

Richard Ford in his book The Parables of Jesus and the Problems of the World challenges us to look again at the parables and this morning we look at the so-called parable of the talents with another critique.

Remember that all the parables are proffered as being about the realm of God as opposed to the realm of the present or in Jesus case the realm of the Roman Empire. This parable about talents is like many of Jesus’ long parables such as the Wicked tenants, the Vineyard Workers, The Unforgiving slave, the Dishonest Steward and the Prodigal Son. All these involve the entrusting of money or property across the gaps of inequality. And here we have the source of today’s title. The breakdown of trust that is endemic to such inequality makes these stories descriptions of how powerful people, perpetrating larger systemic injustice under the guise of law actually break apart the fragile integrity of those subjected to exploitation and they without being held accountable, deepen the tragic fissures in human relatedness. The breakdown in trust, isolates, categorizes and marginalizes people who already have very little. And what is particular about today’s story is that it explores the breakdown of trust that occurs within those who seek to bring about change from within or who go along because of apathy or a desire not to make waves.

In all these stories Jesus as a peasant is not so much addressing his own so much as those members of the Jewish retainer class still able to maintain a reasonable living due to their enslavement to the powerful. In our story of the talents we explore the idea that Jesus’ superb artistry enables him to develop a metaphor for the agrarian empire of Rome as it both images and mimics the very imperialist structures it subverts. It images empire by evoking its polarities and thereby framing its vacant middle, namely the absence of any law to intervene. Its claim to fame as a system is that it is the most efficient and there is no other better. Master and slavish subordinates, accurately capture the two complimentary groupings essential for effecting the imperial transfer of wealth from the control of the many to the control of the few. The banks, the money men are in charge because that is the way it is. The exploiting slave master and the well-appointed slaves represent both the Roman overlords and the Jewish aristocracy who include the needed retainer class of bureaucracy and the military. What is implied but not articulated in the parable itself is the mass of exploited peasants required to create the expropriated wealth. The aristocracy then justifies its own dominance by imposing self-serving rationalizations into those unable to fight back. The powerful maintain their carefully constructed belief system and work endlessly to silence the oppressed. A relationship of distrust between those who have and those who have not unfolds.

Those without “are lazy, they could do better if they only tried harder, they have the opportunity to succeed if only they got off their backsides” and so on. The strong steadfastly press their versions of reality into the weaker and then with equal tenacity resist experiencing or even acknowledging the painful consequences of what they have imposed. ‘There is no actual poverty only what someone has created”, they say. The poor are better off today than they have ever been”. They say.

This parable is clever as it mimics this aristocratic imposition of its own self-aggrandizing, self- justifying reality. The master’s uncritical description of his personal behaviour stands as an unchallenged summary of imperial ideology. ‘I reap” he says, “where I did not sow. And I gather where I did not scatter”. What is lawful is controlled by the slave master thus the message is that the aristocratic minority are entitled to whatever they can take from the vast majority. As in the empire itself, so in the parable all other alternatives are ruthlessly excluded. Like the middle class in many societies today, the absent middle ground produces the third slave who is an exploited member of the retainer class and he is called upon to exploit. Play the game or get left behind. Middle management is the third slave doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn’t. Even his refusal though dangerous is by necessity both constricted and disguised. Appearing to be inept he is hiding behind a façade of cowardliness in order to affect a covert opposition. The parable then proceeds to take listeners on a journey to suppose, then to probe, and finally to identify the actual sources of this third slave’s disguised behaviour. What they find is the covered-over and nearly hidden footsteps of a seeming uncertain yet strikingly courageous resistor. The one who wants to change things from the inside, the one who opts for incremental change.

We remind ourselves again that first century Palestine was part of the increasingly commercialized and monetized agrarian empire of Rome. An agrarian empire of any era can be conceptualized as a complimentary hierarchy of exploiters and exploited. Within a misshapen pyramid, resources are sucked up from the large base toward the miniscule apex. It is suggested that some 2 percent of the population probably received a quarter of the national income and the governing class and ruler together received not less than half. This came about because it was believed that the state is a piece of property which its owner can use within broad and ill-defined limits. And that property consists of rights and not of things. Specifically access to the rights of things which are in short supply.

Martin Goodman in writing about the first Jewish revolt suggests the relentless aristocratic aggrandizing of wealth lay behind the 66-73 CE revolt. Reaping where they had not sown was the reason, and this was done by means of taxation and then land appropriation being achieved through defaults on high interest loans and the natural vagaries of agricultural production. The overall view of the Herodian period is that elites coerced an increasing peasant alienation from the land. Goodman sees the economic stresses as much more intense in Judea as opposed to Galilee, maybe because of the Galilean access to a fishing industry. This could also go toward the reasoning that Jesus was not observing a level of injustice so blatant as to provoke both rebellion and the consequent Roman retaliation.

The challenge of this parable for us is about our perceptions of the Master and what we see as the message. How did the peasants in Jesus time see the Master? To them he would have been criminal because he chokes off any peasant protest, then he raises his single, powerful voice to impose his own, self- assured entitlement, and then, through his seemingly authoritative denigration of the whistle-blower, proceeds to mislead listeners down through the ages. The question we face or the twist in the tail of this parable is, ‘how is it that we have become so unable to recognize the precision with which Jesus here represents the endless process of elites and their co-opted retainers accumulating wealth at the expense of the vast majority from whom they take?’ How is that we so readily locate ourselves on the side of those who steal?

Richard Q Ford in his book on these parables suggests that we should look carefully at how Jesus has constructed this parable. We should then see that he biased his narrative in favour of our not recognizing. With an artistry he imitates elitist control and his parable functions in exactly the same way as did the aristocracy of his day. It elevates the voice of the oppressor. It obliterates the voice of the oppressed. It supports the aristocrat definition. It allows into awareness no other perspective. It admires the masters final crushing of dissent. What better evidence he says could be had of the effectiveness of the parables mimicry of imperial control? How better to envelop us in the irony of our own identification with the very persons who oppress us?

To further explore this is to see the metaphor ‘slave’ as representing both the Jewish aristocracy and the Jewish retainer class, the latter consisting of bureaucrats, scribes, soldiers, tax collectors, and other prospering clients of the elite. Lured by financial and social rewards this group had relinquished the egalitarian understandings of land distribution and debt alleviation inherent in the values of ancient Israel. The linchpin of empire is the collaboration of the retainer class, because without them the governance could not function. Dominic Crossan suggests that peasant resistance, lacking retainer leadership cannot succeed. In creating this parable, where the first two of these retainers are unabashed collaborators but the third is not, Jesus is concentrating precisely on the line between those who owed their loyalty to the authority of the existing government and those who owed their loyalty to the authority of divine mandate. In devising the character of the third slave, Jesus appears to be addressing those Jewish retainers in urban Galilee who might still possess some allegiance to the social egalitarianism so central to ancient Israel’s values.

The third slave, along with those listeners who are willing to follow him, appears to move either uncertainly or deftly within a disguised resistance that aptly reflects the imperial domination of definition. His constricted, perhaps deliberately inarticulate, perhaps skillfully hidden, seemingly cowardly, apparently mocking, and always dangerous resistance becomes a necessarily misleading, but nonetheless precise and courageous counterpoint to the dominating strategies so fundamental to the functioning of empire. Each of his subordinate’s confusing moves in turn reflects varied threats to the integrity of imagination and to the wholeness of body – threats that can so readily distort, disorganize, or even destroy independent thought and action. By choosing to locate themselves either against or with the third slave, parable listeners themselves adopt these same distorting strategies so essential to imperial control.

Barbara Reid puts it this way: She says: “From this perspective, the man who expects his money to be increased is the wicked one, one who is unfettered in his greed…  The third servant, then, is not wicked (or incompetent), except in the eyes of those who are greedy and making acquisitions or those who are co-opted by them, as are the first two servants.  The third (servant) is the one who acted honourably by blowing the whistle on the wickedness of the (owner)…  The parable is a warning to the rich to stop exploiting the poor and is one that encourages poor people to take measures that expose such greed for the sin that it is” (Reid 2001:207-208).

I would add; it is one that also highlights just how complex collaboration with evil can be and how without critique we can all sustain a destructive empire, human system, and ideology that maintains oppression. Some questions that arise out of this challenge are; Is the church a collaborator or a challenger? When we stay silent are we supporting that which oppresses? Sometimes another reading can turn what is thought to be a reasonably OK treatise, upside down! Parables are stories which turn our world views upside down because which world we view can make all the difference to how we live in the present and claim the future. Amen.

Notes:
Reid, B. E. 2001.  Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.

Ford, R. Q. 2016 The Parables of Jesus & The Problems Of The World Cascade Books Oregon

 

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The Unexpected

Posted: November 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 23A, 2017
Matthew 25:1-13

The Unexpected

One of the things I had to do when I was preparing to go to Dunedin and start training as a Minister was to write down what I thought parables were and which stories in the Bible I thought were parables. I have often wondered since what the faculty thought of my response. What I am certain of now is that I didn’t have a clue what was and wasn’t a parable when I wrote my response. And that is confirmed every day since as I am constantly finding new things about the scriptures. The most obvious question that comes up about our reading from Matthew today is “if it is a ‘parable’ then where is the surprise? There is no twist in the tale, no unexpected surprise. The Jesus Seminar said this about the story: that “It does not cut against the religious and social grain.  Rather if confirms common wisdom that says that those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… The story comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254). The story also emphasizes boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again, is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus. So here we have to accept that this story is not a parable and thus there may not be much of Jesus in the story. But we don’t have to discard it just yet. There are several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes that seem to be running through it.

But before we engage in that discussion we might see if we can orient the text in its own time. We find ourselves with Matthew toward the end of the first century C.E. Followers of Jesus who are Jewish are spreading out beyond Jewish influence and in some cases the differences have meant a separation from synagogue worship. The increasing acceptance of Gentile membership in the Jesus movement has meant that the belief systems were beginning to make distinctions between Rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus movement. On top of this the return of Jesus was taking too long for many and for others the nature of its meaning was changing. His return was increasingly metaphorical and thus more culturally universal. We find ourselves with Matthew addressing himself to a Jewish audience as they struggled with these new social realities. Sad about their loss of the past and uncertain about their readiness for the future.

At one level the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins deals with the trepidation and aimlessness that many of the audience may have felt. The simple logical message is the importance of preparedness. In the story, five of the bridesmaids were ready for the coming of bridegroom’s party, and five were not. Alongside the lesson concerning the need for preparation, another idea deals with the fact that no one can prepare someone else for all the eventualities of life. Much as we would like to prepare our children, our families, or our friends, we can’t do it completely, we just have to get on with doing as much as we can. Show them the ropes, and lead by example. At another level the three sub-themes are developing. What is a Jesus community like? What is this communal care like? What does the second coming of Jesus really mean and indicating a cultural change coming; what is happening to the core social institution of marriage?

What is this communal care like?

In a society where there is limited amount of wealth, and where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, the actions of the so-called five wise young women raises the question: How is the issue of scarcity in a community dealt with? Process theologian Bruce Epperly asks; “What would have happened if the women had pooled their resources?  Would they all have been excluded from the party or rewarded for their quest to be generous?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) With perhaps a growing economic instability and uncertainty, choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response, but is it the only way, or even the right way? When one prepares to protect what one has how is this concern balanced with the concern for the needs of others, especially those who are most vulnerable to almost total loss? It has been claimed before that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity, our intimate beliefs about reality need to be lived out in our society, and not restricted to the individual realm. As an aside there is an interesting issue here when it comes to our ability to change St David’s. If we struggle with the idea that we need to dissolve and join with another congregation is it our belief, that is getting in our road to becoming more authentic? Should we commit ourselves to change in order to support people in other congregations who are struggling to maintain themselves?” Are we as a church just a group of unrelated individuals or are we an interdependent body of Christ?

What does the second coming of Jesus mean?

Those who hear ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do so because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others, where the message of ‘stay alert’ and ‘be ready’, and ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasized. He is addressing the issue that Jesus hasn’t arrived yet. Dom Crossan addresses this well I think when he says that “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not 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 its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)

It appears that a theme dear to Matthew’s heart is the theme of the anticipation of coming judgment. It is important for him to emphasize to his community two things with regard to Jesus’ return. One is that they don’t know when it will come, so speculation is futile. The second is that it will come, so preparation is crucial. In the story of the Faithful or Unfaithful Slaves that directly precedes the story of the closed door, the Master comes back sooner than the slave anticipated and found him abusing his powers. In this week’s story, the Bridegroom comes later than the foolish bridesmaids anticipated and they had not gathered the provisions needed to welcome him.

The truth is that we are often unprepared for what comes next in life, despite our constant preoccupation with the future. Sometimes a premature ending takes us by surprise. At other times, we are unprepared for something to take longer than we had anticipated. In the former case, we think we have all the time in the world, to mend a relationship, to achieve an important goal, to discontinue a bad habit or begin a good one, to take care of ourselves, to read important books, to take a stand, to show we care. How often do we hear people say they wish they had done or said something sooner? We had all the time in the world to spend time with our kids. Except somebody sped up the clock, and now their rooms are empty and we get the sinking feeling that our ship has sailed.

Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, “Repent one day before your death.” One of them then asked, “How will we know when that day is?” To which he replied, “All the more reasons to repent today, lest you die tomorrow.” In the story of the closed door, the problem was not the surprisingly quick return of the master, but his surprising delay. The bridesmaids, the 5 foolish ones anyway, were not prepared for the long haul. Even though life and the world may seem to go on forever, a day is coming when there will be no more second chances to do certain things or to cease doing others.

What is happening to marriage?

This is too big a subject for part of a sermon except to note that many churches have yet to sort out what it means. We have some that persecute or restrict ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, others that disagree with both this action, and indeed, any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church. What is significant is that the basis of the claims is usually presented as ‘contrary to scripture’.
This and other claims are then supported by a list of scripture passages
identified by those prosecuting the charge, as relating in some way to marriage and the marital relationship. Coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’. The trouble is that there is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage. In fact, we have very limited, if any, information on first century Palestinian Jewish wedding customs. What we can glean from a range of sources, seems to be:

  1. that marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was rather an arrangement made “by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192). 2. That the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and 3. that the marriage was arranged and ratified on negotiated terms.

Once these were met the wedding then took place in two stages: 1st a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then 2ndly a transfer of the young bride, often no more than 12 – 13 years of age, to the home of her husband.

Our story by Matthew opens at the conclusion of the negotiations, with the bridegroom coming to collect the bride. “The young women are relatives and friends of the groom.  They are not bridesmaids… The bride is never mentioned in the story” (Reid 2001:193). Note I have said ‘young women’ rather than following some scholars who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, because the word used to designate them is the same word used in the story of Jesus’ birth, which has also been translated as ‘virgin’. The trouble with this is that the word does not mean that. It means ‘a young woman of marriageable age’. Here I think we have an example of the need to preserve a particular orthodoxy and override modern scholarship.

In conclusion then, the story of the Ten Maidens appears only in Matthew’s Gospel. Certain features of the wedding it describes seem realistic, others are strange. In ancient Palestinian weddings the marriage feast was at night; the bridegroom was met with lamps, and the bridegroom was expected to delay coming for the bride. Certain details are not realistic. They include the length of the delay, the midnight arrival and the supposition that the shops would have been open for the sleeping maidens to buy oil (Luke 11:5-8). This suggests that the story is already an allegory of the delay of Christ’s return in Matthew’s community. The five foolish maidens are not foolish because they slept, but because their lamps are not lit. Light in the story symbolizes good deeds done in response to God’s gracious initiative.

The return of Christ for Matthew will be a time that separates the good from the bad (13:36-43; 26:31-46). The five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins represent these two groups.

If one takes the view that all these stories like the sayings of Jesus are about the nature of the kingdom of God. Then one has to say that: “It shows up where you least expect it.” In this case, it is the vision of a door slammed in our faces and permanently locked. Every shattering of the illusion of endless time, every reminder of the ticking clock and our mortality is where the kingdom of God beckons.

As we live out our lives in what seems often to be an imperfect, troubled world, this story suggests we should take action in response to injustice while effective action is still possible. We should participate now. In this parable Matthew retains the urgency of the return of Christ in his community, while also acknowledging that it is not necessarily imminent. As Jesus followers we have the responsibility to continue in good deeds in the extended present, in the knowledge that the time will come when we will lose the opportunity for proper action. The servants in the story of the unfaithful and faithful servants failed because they abused the time of waiting in doing evil deeds. The maidens in this story fail by inactivity. They presume a gracious future without preparing for it by active discipleship. This is the definition of foolish for Matthew. Amen.

Notes:
Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Minnesota. The Liturgical Press.

Craig L. Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (Baker Academic Press, 2004).

Madeline Boucher The Parables: Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1981)

John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parables (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

Pentecost 21A

Matthew 23:1-12

All Saint’s Leadership; a Matter of Integrity

Two of the readings assigned to this week by the lectionary mirror each other, one from I Thessalonians and the other from Matthew 23. In the case of the Mathew one where Jesus’ description of the religious leaders, the suggestion is that their errors come from a number of areas. The first being separating themselves from others, and the second from claiming a special position in relationship with God, and thirdly from assuming a type of authority that is beyond human reach. Here is the challenge that comes with being charged with a teaching and influencing role like sharing the good news, we need to share it with humility and for the well-being of others and not our self-aggrandizement or ego-boosting. We are mere mortals, and yet we have been entrusted with a message that joins, rather than separates us, from others, its task is a binding together in brokenness and healing. It does imply however in raising the error that we can as Thessalonians and the words of Jesus suggest, mediate the good news through words of wisdom and love, and this should be our goal, whether teaching, preaching, or sharing with one another. Sharing the gospel is not about telling others what we have but rather inviting others to walk the journey with us. Let the gospel speak for itself as opposed to telling others what we think it is.

Is this leadership challenge just about the minister or is it all of us? When we talk about leadership is it leadership by the Saints for the saints? I think that we need to put down the status issue for a bit and see the challenge of leadership being a challenge to all people. To see that leadership is not just about some being out front but also about all being up front, leadership is not just about introducing the new and novel but also about making it stand on the old and become something new, not just about assuming the risk associated with something new but also about deconstructing the risk. Not just about presenting the Way of Jesus but making it authentic, Leadership of all the Saints is a matter of integrity. My claim for this view is that the Greek word behind leadership concept is simply leader which is more likely to be a reference to anyone in a position of authority. The problem that Jesus is addressing in this passage is not the specific words that we use to address those in authority over us. But rather how leaders of one kind or another act towards people over whom they have authority. Jesus is not calling us to avoid having leaders, he is calling us to have leaders–and to be leaders–who are humble, who have the best interests of others in mind at all times, and who are constantly listening for the voice that ask the question, ’Who benefits from this claim, suggestion, assumption or invitation? This is very likely a timely text for the church today as we wrestle with what the gospel is that we share, what is the good news we want to share? And if we think we have a handle on that how do we go about getting others to walk that path with us?

 

We are very aware that in our time, in this particular period of human history the church is in a time of transition, a time where many are feeling dissatisfied with the interpretation of the Gospel message that satisfied previous generations. Many no longer participate in what we know as Church. And among those who do participate many feel that the church needs to drastically rethink its theology and mission. Alongside both those groups is the group that fears such rethinking as ‘watering down’ Biblical truths and consequently condemning ourselves and our world. The reality is however that whatever camp one is in there is a dramatic shift underway and the common question is ‘what does it mean to be a Christian.

As good strong Presbyterians we are also aware that how we read the Bible is key to how we understand our faith. If you take the Bible to be directly and literally applicable to our lives today, you have to either take the whole thing literally (which most of us would agree causes a LOT of problems), or we have to pick and choose the bits we think are relevant (which then means we have interfered with God’s literal word and so caused a lot more problems). Alternatively the Bible can be seen as a collection of historical documents – poetry, folklore, songs, stories, historical accounts – making up a rich and fascinating history of God relating to people. Those who still hold to a theistic interventionist God can hold on to this selection of writings can be God-breathed, inspired and relevant but never intended to be an instruction manual for life. Those of us who question a theistic interventionist God can still value the bible as material depicting the thoughts and aspirations of the time of their writing as they interpreted who Jesus was for them and what the gospel was. And we can take responsibility for what he means to us and what the gospel is that we share and today. And with today’s text we can find a way to show leadership in this scenario.

Matthew as storyteller is quite blunt about how to go about leadership, he does not tolerate fools easily, and he will not countenance smugness and elitism. He has Jesus passing comment on some of the Jewish leaders of the day: “do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach”. Matthew’s Jesus, says that leadership is a matter of integrity where one’s inner life and external behavior are in synch. Or as one commentator has put it: “Without orthopraxis [right action], orthodoxy [right belief] is of little value.” (Epperly.P&F web site, 2005)

And like all challenges Jesus left with his people and subsequently with us nothing is easy. Clarity about what to do always underestimates the nature of change. We here in the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand had an inkling of this when we remember what welcome Lloyd Geering got when he asked the church to look at the story differently. And Australians learnt this when Francis Macnab, called for ’a new faith for the 21st century’, “a faith beyond orthodox Christianity”. We here in the New Zealand church put Lloyd on trial while the uniting Church wrote pastoral letters and called for the parish to withdraw its advertising on the grounds that ‘it gave offense to Jews, and many Christians’. It didn’t offer any proof that offence had been taken but then being right transcended having integrity. Phrases like “outside the teachings of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, and “contrary to the scriptures” were used and isn’t it interesting that similar phrases have been used to ban gay and lesbian from Ministry in our church. Again the gospel is built on a fallible status given to the bible. One that disallows interpretation in favour of manipulation. In essence the shame of it all is that both the theological student and the thinking lay person has been denied any option other than conservative orthodoxy.

Last week in the lectionary Sunday was reformation Sunday and it was in September 1965 that Lloyd Geering wrote an article for Outlook for Reformation Sunday where he asked the question: “Is the Christian faith inextricable bound up with the world-view of ancient mankind, which has now been superseded, or can the substance of it be translated into the world-view of twentieth century mankind? (Geering 2006:131)

 

Some readers heard this and reckoned what he said was ‘the word of God for our age!’

But it was the second article six months later, on ‘the resurrection’ which had others reacting furiously! Even the editor of the mag Outlook, on receiving the original article, felt uneasy. So much so that not only did he seek advice from his Board, he also sent a copy of the article to Professor William Barclay in Scotland, to obtain his opinion. Barclay wrote back that Geering’s article “largely represented his own views, but that he would never dare say so publicly in Scotland!” (Geering 2006:134)

And here we have it, the question of leadership that Jesus addresses through Matthew Never dare say so publicly… Even though one of his university colleagues, Gregor Smith, had just published a book called Secular Christianity, with similar views, and the book “never caused so much as a ripple in Scotland.” (Geering 2006:134) Another note of interest was that when the NZ Moderator issued a Pastoral Letter to the Church membership back then, he confessed: by saying what Lloyd had said; ‘the gap between the pulpit and pew in the understanding of the Bible has been too great for too long.’ (Geering 2006:134)

For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity. For Macnab, Geering, and many, many others leadership and integrity and honesty must all be in synch. Anyone who believes that the Christian faith is a pre-packed and unalterable teaching, doesn’t get it! For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity. And so it should be for us. Amen.

Notes:

Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne. Abacada Press, 1971.

Geering, L. Wrestling With God. The Story of my Life. Exeter. Imprint Academic, 2006.

PS: A colleague, John W Smith and I, have edited a book, published by Polebridge Press. The book’s title is: Why Weren’t We Told! A Handbook on Progressive Christianity. This book contains an interesting chapter written by Paul Alan Laughlin on ‘progressives’ reclaiming the ‘heretics’.

 

Self-Love and Events of Grace

Posted: October 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 24A
Matthew 22: 34-40

Self-Love and Events of Grace

It matters if someone loves us. It matters that we love ourselves. It without question I think that there is no human experience more fundamental than the transforming ‘event of grace’ that we name as being loved. And; there is a considerable body of theological opinion which claims the very heart of the Christian message is that Jesus of Nazareth shows the unconditional and gracious love of God. In the music from ‘The Man from La Mancha’ I think the quest for God and for life is aptly described. “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with the unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go; Here is the engagement with mystery, the foolish expectation, the sharing in the pain and having the courage of faith and beneath all this energy sapping reality is the engagement with change and specifically the importance of understanding what we can and can’t change. Change itself is the basic and only absolute face of life, change as the process of questioning, of evolution, and of creativity both artistic and novel.

Change is inevitable within this understanding and so we wrestle with unwanted change and change we can’t make and it is here that we engage with another paradox. We are called to imagine an unchanging God of love or more correctly God who is love and in doing this we affirm the inescapable reality of change, uncertainty and mystery. Here we can acknowledge that God can be understood as a symbol representing the evolutionary process. Or God as a symbol of the very process of creation itself (serendipitous creativity). While at the same time saying that the only thing that never changes is God’s steadfast love, not because that love is outside above or over humanity but rather because we are saying that the reality and importance of contingent (interdependent, fluid, and changing) relationships never changes. Since God 9like a rainbow is an image and not a thing, since God does not exist but is being itself (the ground of Being) then transcendent reality is about relationships (loving oneself and ones neighbour), especially those relationships that involve compassion and love. Contingency is about every-changing relationships, whether quantum or personal. Our existence will always involve relationships and this relational quality of life never changes so long as there is life. So, change itself is the unchangeable reality of life, and spirituality is about coming to terms with this reality. In his book ‘Meeting Jesus again for the first time Marcus Borg describes the spiritual journey as ‘Moving beyond belief to relationship.’ He sees himself not as a believer but as an aspiring mystic or Spirit person and he talks about his experience of the great mystery as entering into a relationship with Mystery/Spirit/God, a relationship that involves one in a journey of transformation. When he talked about change he called it a transformation that gives us the unconventional, the compassionate wisdom to oppose harsh divisions of economic, status, race, culture, gender and sexuality, divisions and boundaries which are a part of the/purity/holiness systems typical of ethnic/cultural groups we still find in our world today.

What does this love look like? Well, it has to look like God Godself and it has to look like creative change. Sacred transformation or Grace as the name of this process frees us from the kind of narrow-minded or pathological conventionality that tends to demonize anything or anyone it perceives as different. It also puts hold on the pathological individualism that cares little about promoting the general welfare. This transformation is about ‘believing in Jesus’ not in the sense of having got anything right, but in the sense of becoming more and more compassionate beings like the Spirit person Jesus. As the Bach cantata says, “If Jesu’s spirit be not yours, ye are not his.”.

Some scholars would have us say that if God is love then we cannot reverse it and say Love is God. I like others think this is wrong, even if it is partly about semantics and when we say Love is God we mean that we think that when we remain clear about the most valuable in life we will be surrounded by the Mystery of Compassionate Love, both individually and collectively as long as humanity survives in the universe. It we understand how important and effective it is to give love, to love ourselves as we do our neighbour it is more likely that we will receive love. Compassion begets compassion.

This leads me on to deal with the love of self and the dangers of narcissism and a self-love without neighbour. We know from experience and from scientific discovery that “respect and acceptance of our own integrity and uniqueness, is bound up with self-awareness and we understand that love for and understanding of our own self first, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another person”. I think that John Calvin and his fundamentalist followers today who claim that self-love is selfish love got it wrong. I think that the radicalness of Jesus’ statement is that self-love is not the same as selfishness. A selfish person is interested only in him or herself and wants everything for him or herself; they can see nothing but her or himself. This is also a way of claiming that a selfish person does not love hers or himself too much, but rather too little. There is a fear of not measuring up that drives the need for more for oneself and the outcome is that there is little left for selfish people to love others. They are incapable of loving others because they are incapable of loving themselves.

One thing we do know is that: no one human alone can create community. “Interactions among humans and between humans and the natural world creates communities “Self-love, the love referred to by Jesus when he said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – requires the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth and freedom, because all of us are rooted in our capacity to love.  Then, and only then, can we go on to love our neighbour”. It is as if self-love shapes the capacity to love neighbour.

The notion of Divinity as Love and compassion helps us come to terms with the powerful horrific and destructive aspects of nature without being judgmental about these aspects of reality because without is we would be left with a purely impassive and stone-cold sense of reality. Without the idea of Divinity as Love and compassion we would have a reality that is sterile and one-dimensional. We need images that help us touch the deeply personal and spiritual dimensions of life. So, it is my claim and others that to say both God is Love and Love is God is a step toward embracing all dimensions of the sacred, but especially the good, positive, ideal aspects of the universe that we prefer and deem worthy of worship.

While all the above might sound like I am hailing reason as the answer to everything I want to say that when we love our neighbour as we love ourselves we are not just valuing intellectual insight into the nature of reality. We are actually saying that Mystery is a warm personal experience. Not in the sense of being in any way selfish because we say that Love is God because we want to say that we limit God when we only express love as a personal experience by personifying God. nature or the universe. When we say Love is God or Compassion is divine we are acknowledging that images and metaphors are fully human because they have the ability to create and imagine and that is precisely what being human is about. Only humans create personifications, metaphors and abstract language.

The challenge of today’s talk is to say what your image of God is.  As Gordon Kaufman asks in his book ‘In the Beginning – Creativity”, What is ‘God’ like for you? What picture, if any, do you have when you hear “one of the most complex and difficult [words] in the English language, a word rich with many layers and dimensions of meaning”

Generally speaking, there are at least three different strands to the way the word God has been used in English-speaking societies: (i) the biblical strand (ii) the philosophical strand (iii) the popular strand. So how do we speak about the God in a way that communicates in our culture? I don’t know about you but over the years I have noticed my God-thinking and God-language changing as my experiences have changed. I think I have thought about God as ‘anam cara’ or soul friend as modern Celtic spirituality says.  Or as ‘Caring Friend’, as some Process theologians suggest, a caring friend who nudges, calls, lures, pokes me onward. The traditional church or biblical language for ‘anam cara’ is the word ‘love’ and in recent years I have intentionally added to my thinking. I have found myself going away from using human-like metaphors in addressing God, to using more neutral language, such as ‘creativity’. Creativity in cosmic evolution. Creativity in biological evolution. Creativity in cultural/symbolic evolution.

I have seen this as a priority and in keeping with former theologian Gordon Kaufman suggestion that our God language and God thinking, our ‘theology’ “must take into account what we have learned about the evolutionary character of our world and ourselves”. So, like many progressives, both ‘process’ and ‘creativity’ are the metaphors to use when speaking about or addressing God. And with that change in language has come a host of other changes, all away from the traditional God language
of our upbringing. As I said above both life and religious issues are not only answered intellectually. They are as Karl Peter’s says, answered “with our whole being, with the way we live our lives”.  And that means when we ask: What kind of person do I want to be? We can answer ‘I want to be friendly, loving, caring, compassionate, curious, open to new possibilities, intelligent, and, in so far as is possible, wise. That may not sound new but what undergirds that quest is that it is not so much what I can acquire but rather what I can be”.

What I think he is saying here is that we can become ‘events of grace’ and by an ‘Event of Grace’ I am saying that it is when things come together in unexpected ways “and give rise to new relations of mutual support.” That, I think is pretty close to the self-love and love of others. An event of grace is when one ‘loves a neighbour, just as one loves oneself. Amen.

Notes:
Fromm, E. The Art of Loving. London. George Allen & Unwin, 1957.
Kaufman, G. In The Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
O’Donohue, J. Anam Cara. London. Bantam Books, 1997.
Peters, K. E. Dancing With The Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press, 2005.

Carl L.Jech Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs. Resource Publications 2013

What Really Matters

Posted: October 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

What Really Matters

Exodus 33: 12-33.  Matthew 22:15-22

“I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen“ The message from God to Moses is that things are not as one might seem and there will always remain the element of mystery. God’s face will not be seen.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This is one of the sayings that the Jesus Seminar Scholars judged as distinctive, unlike any known contemporary Jewish saying yet both memorable and fully consistent with the overall teaching of Jesus. It remains today one of Jesus’ most memorable statements, familiar even to people who know little about the New Testament. It’s familiar, yes, but what does it mean? We tell ourselves that there are two things that are certain in life. One is death and the other taxes, but that assumes that there exists a desire to work against that assumption because we are not comfortable with certainty.

What if we can avoid death? Maybe a supernatural God can get us past death. Or what if we can find a way to do without taxes? Change the way we fund the collective society, make it all user pays, maybe that’s the answer? We find it easier to divide the two certainties and seek a way of combating the certainty they both claim. And in doing so we miss the message that Jesus gives. His suggestion that to each their rights. Caesar and God are due their allegiance, God and the state are due a measure of allegiance, though of course our allegiance to God necessarily comes first.

Let’s just stay with the metaphor for a bit and hear Jesus says that if the state demands something that does not conflict with one’s allegiance to God, his followers should fulfill the demand. Another perhaps un fortunate but seemingly necessary corollary of this statement is that church and state should be kept separate so that people can more easily distinguish between the call of God and the call of the state. This is the way we deal with the experience that when the state begins either supporting or opposing a particular religion, or religion in general, it interferes with religion’s task of serving God, and it potentially puts religious adherents at odds with both church and state. The question is does it really do this or is this what comes with the separation? This I think is an outcome of the reformation when with Luther the religious world tried to value imagination and called it justification by faith. There has since the separation of church and state an attempt to chip away at the wall of separation be ween church and state probably because it has led to confusion about legislation, about the freedom of people to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, and about the government’s support or opposition to particular religious groups. We are still fighting Luther’s battle.

The most important outcome of this is the constant call for Christians to heed Jesus’ clarion call to distinguish between what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God. We think we are hard done by death and taxes but our hard done by is peanuts to what environment Jesus was talking into. Yes, we have to admit that tax collectors have never been popular.  Not in biblical times. Not in the medieval world. And not today! Yes; we need to debate the pros and cons of the tax system, because all systems need to be interpretive of needs, relevant and responsive as opposed to tools of control, taxes for taxes sake, social manipulation or ideological entrenchment, but I’m not sure that’s the point in Jesus’ words. He was advocating examination of the tax system and this we think was because the Galilee of Jesus’ time was an agrarian economy where it is likely 2 percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the wealth. Those at the top of this society were required to be two faced to achieve their wealth. They had to give allegiance to Rome and they had to buy the right to levy the required tribute and they had to maintain control of the peasantry to ensure their income because this was the basis of their business. The Roman allegiance was symbolized by the Imperial Tax.  There were a variety of taxes levied on the people of the empire, but this was the most despised of all taxes. In essence, Rome levied a tax on the people to pay for the Roman legions that controlled the region. As you might expect, occupied people never like paying the salaries of their occupiers. The tax collectors had to cover the costs of this imperial tax make a profit and maintain a business and this meant that they made loans to the heavily taxed peasants at rates that could never be met and ultimately gained ownership by default of the lands, becoming either brokers or landowners. A bit like car dealers in the 60s in this country who leased cars to people at rates they could not sustain so regaining ownership time and time again and making money of the same care over and over again. Or today’s example where rich and powerful countries topple leaders and support replacements that serve their needs and thus gain control of resources they need. Like members of the economically dominant they participate in a process designed to transform prior injustice into seeming justice. As system that rips of the peasant is justified by the outcomes for the clever, The ones who lose are the cause of their own demise whereas the ones who win are doing what all should do. Everyone deserves what they get.

In Matthew’s narrative, we are nearing the end of the journey to the cross. Jesus has already entered the city. The contest between him and his opponents in the religious and political elite is ratcheting up.  He is seen as a radical who threatens the status quo. Not because has a huge army massing against the military might, not because he has a NZ First sort of political influence but because the elite then and now fear an uprising by those living on the margins. And I am not suggesting that NZ First is on the margins but rather that the 2 percent who hold the resources are fearful of the fact that the control of the 50% of the resources will not be enough to hold off a revolution. In our text Jesus’ threat confused the Pharisees by his appeal to give both Caesar and God their due.

A group representing the Pharisees (we’re told that these were students) and the Herodians (a party that supported the client royal family, and therefore would have supported the tax system) raises the issue of paying taxes with Jesus. Note how they approach Jesus – offering him a degree of “respect” that they in reality didn’t accord him. It is assumed, that flattery will get a favourable response. They obviously knew that if he said that they should pay taxes then he would alienate his base, which included many nationalists and people just fed up with Roman occupation in general.  If he responds by saying they shouldn’t pay taxes he would put himself in hot water with the Romans (thus the reason for the presence of the Herodians).  It’s a good tactic, but Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. He simply offers an enigmatic statement about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God.  In one sense he puts their challenge back in their lap.  It appears that he is not going to say one way or the other, but like all Jesus words there is, something subversive about his answer. Paying taxes to the Romans wasn’t something people enjoyed, but the people had little hope of overturning Roman rule. Jesus understood that, which is why he didn’t appear to follow the messianic predilections of at least some of his followers. Jesus may have had Zealots among his followers, but nothing in the biblical record suggests that he was one himself. Instead, he took a very different path. This made him very difficult to pigeon hole or categorize. And as we have said on other occasions his approach wasn’t a “spiritual” one as opposed to a “political” one, but it was one that was secular and realistic.  He pursued a path of bringing wholeness at a people level to the neighbourhood, inaugurating the kingdom through his preaching and through his healing actions even if he knew that the forces gathering against him would not be happy. We talked about kingdom language the other week and it might be more accurate to talk about the empire of God in this context. There was an understanding of empire and it was a Roman empire and God’s empire was a challenge to its very existence.

In our case; what Jesus did was ask for a coin. Then he asked the inquirers whose image lay upon the coin (a denarius). Of course, they said – Caesar’s. Coins of the realm were all stamped with the Emperor’s image, along with a statement hailing the Emperor as son of God. Of course, coins have always born the images of those who rule. Our own coinage bears the image our Queen but even these hold a certain sacredness. They are produced by the government and made available to us so that we can participate in an exchange value culture by buying and selling what we need to survive.

Since the government produces the money, they have the right to ask for something back so they can provide the services we desire. Give to Caesar what is Caesars and God what is God’s. Yes; we know that not everyone is exactly happy about the way the government spends its money. There are those who resent having to spend money to pay for some aspects of social welfare, especially that which makes people dependent or enables people to avoid their shared responsibility. There are others in some counties who are outraged that they have to pay for a military that they believe is illegitimate and unnecessary.  The fact is we don’t get to individually choose which programs our taxes pay for. Parliament and an elected government make those kinds of decision. We note here of course that in our case we can vote for or against these representatives whereas Jesus’ and his hearers couldn’t. Their economic environment was much more oppressive than ours. But more important for us is the second half of the response – giving to God what belongs to God. To whom does our allegiance ultimately belong? Even if you believe, as I do, that governments have a legitimate purpose and therefore one should expect to pay taxes to support such a government, as followers of the Jesus Way, the government doesn’t have our ultimate allegiance. Long before Constantine it seems that Jesus followers believed that they were good citizens, they just couldn’t worship Caesar. Paul affirmed the legitimacy of government (Romans 13) as did the Second Century Fathers. And even though I think that the Church Fathers were drawn into error about the constitution of a doctrinal approach, they also understood that they stood under a higher law. Peter said to the Sanhedrin, one has to obey God rather than human authority when the two come into conflict (Acts 4:19-20). The challenge is the when, where, and how we do this. and this is our task. Not to advocate that people not pay taxes where taxes are due but rather to carefully consider whether the tax system is the best way of caring for each other. As a human system there is always room for improvement.

So what belongs to God?  Well, I don’t think it’s about belonging to, but rather about responsibility for, or stewardship of. The question is how do we use what we have? Maybe the key to the answer is the issue of image. The coin bears Caesar’s image. That which bear’s image is the human creation (Genesis 1:28). Humanity has been created in the image of God, and therefore humanity is part of God. And God and humanity have a responsibility – to steward creation, or be creative as engaging in creation. Perhaps in the sense of Jesus’ words, humanity as image of God already has a higher place than Caesar.

And if talking about allegiance, and I am not always comfortable with using that word, then our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, to the mystery, the I am, or the No name, or the face that is never seen; then what does that mean for the way we live our daily lives. How do we live in this world and yet not be defined by its rule?  In the Constantinian system there has long been an assumption that membership in the church is the equivalent to citizenship in the state. While NZ has never had an official state church/religion, we have had an assumed reliance on the Church of England as our Civil Religion and this means that we have not been considered a Catholic Nation as opposed to a Protestant one. There was a time in my childhood that we were considered the second most secular nation in the world after the Netherlands. But we have always to my knowledge been considered a Christian nation.  Our anthems etc confirm this assumption despite attempts to change the words of parliamentary prayers etc. swearing oaths on the Bible, express this vision.

With regard to Jesus’ response to his inquisitors, in his answer, he offers us a way of navigating our present realities. He reminds us that our alliances are always temporary, dictated perhaps by the demands of the circumstances, but ultimately directed by our relationship with the creation and in that image that we share. This means that following Jesus’ counsel is always a matter of discernment, prayer, and confession, always a matter of interpretation. The passage seems to be saying; think about what it means to live as a follower of Jesus and as a citizen of a nation-state. What “compromises” are required of us? Where do we draw the line regarding our engagement in the public square? Do we separate ourselves from worldly affairs, or do we (even as church) engage with it, do we challenge it in our pursuit of the common good?  Amen.

‘Kingdom or Folly, Fear or Love?’

Pentecost 18 8.10.2017

Exodus 20: 12 -21 Matthew 25: 37 – 39

Last week we looked briefly at what being a Christian in today’s world might look like and we explored briefly what some guides might be that we could use to undergird what the behaviour of a progressive Christian might look like. We talked about humility, and what a familial and communal approach might be. We talked about the place of scripture as conversation stimulation about the function of forgiveness and healing as selfish acts in the process of transformation and we talked about language, and action as service and renewal. We also talked about compassion as suffering with and not just doing our bit. We talked about prayer being a conversation with ourselves that takes seriously the power of awareness and the call to pray without ceasing. And then finally we talked about a simple life as less about what one needs, to live as a Christian, and more about how one lives one’s life here and now.

After last week’s service Gordon raised the question of charitable works. I might be wrong but I think he was asking what the place of ‘doing’ good things has when ‘being’ was so important in being Christian. I revisited last week’s sermon and in partial response to Gordon, I think the last suggestion of a ‘simple life’ touches on where I want to go today and that is, to explore the idea of the kingdom or the realm or the collective that we name as God’s world. Not as somewhere to go or be but rather as perhaps as an example of life.

Perhaps we might begin by touching base with some of our traditional ideas and assumptions about God’s kingdom and then see the differences that Jesus seems to be suggesting. In church tradition, the kingdom of God has meant God’s Rule, (basileia regnum, imperium) The kingdom has been a place where God is our pilot, where God has been at the controls and where the world has been subject to the rule of God. It has been implied that God makes our enemies our footstools. There has been no doubt that the Kingdom is the domain of the high and mighty where God steps in and takes over when needs be and the powers and the principalities are scattered, brought to their knees, and made to rue the day they were so foolish as to take on the Almighty.

This means that the coming of the kingdom means that the tables are turned on a world that is made up of fools and it is God who holds all the cards. But what if that is not so? What if the turning of tables that Jesus was on about is that very world? What if the world is not made up of fools, and what if God doesn’t hold the cards? What if the ‘rule of God is a kind of divine irony in itself that does not hold with the almighty idea or with any form of violence or power over? What if the business of the kingdom is conducted according to the logic of the cross? What if the kingdom is actually a folly in terms of the powers of the world. Paul seems to be saying this in his first letter to the Corinthians 1: 18-25.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

19 For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,

23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,

24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

What if the kingdom is foolishness rather than what counts as a kingdom in today’s world?

In this idea of the kingdom the folly of God is something unconditional and without sovereignty. When we speak of God we are speaking in terms of a weak force with no army or if you like as John D Caputo says the powerless power of the kiss, not of the power of the sword. And let’s be clear hear we are talking about both the kingdom and God differently. Another kind of kingdom. A kingdom without a king; a kingdom subject to the soft sway of something unconditional without power as we understand it. This is not the power of achievement or winning and weakness is not a strategy to be used by God to make the winning move.

And let’s not fool ourselves here. To shift our thinking to the view of a weak God or a kingdom that is folly is not easy when the opposite is so deeply grounded in our culture and one might even say our very way of being. The issue of this approach is that the kingdom of God does not need God and maybe even having a supreme being at all is dangerous. Not dangerous because without God we have nothing but rather that without God we have to go beyond God into the mystery itself. In this approach it is a waste of time to ask whether or not God exists because that question cannot be answered. It is more important to ask what is beyond theism, atheism. What is the coming of the kingdom about if it is not the arrival of someone in charge with all the control and power. What if is about understanding the powerless power of something unconditional yet without power as the world knows power?

When we pray saying ‘let your kingdom come’ what are we asking for? Is it for the Supreme Being to intervene in history, to come to our aid and do something here below in space and time, to make something happen? Are we then left in suspense waiting for a response? Is the mystery we name God or the kingdom to come at some future date set by the Supreme Being? Our question might be ‘how does this make sense when we no longer believe that myth? What if the kingdom we are seeking is one that would actually be impeded by such a coming? If the Supreme Being turned up in all his glory, surrounded by his angels, seated on his throne with all the nations arrayed before him would it not be bad news because such a kingdom is what Jesus most feared and spoke against.

The folly is that the kingdom calls unconditionally, without the power to enforce its call or to reward or threaten its responders. As Caputo says, “The ikon of the God in the kingdom of God is an unjustly crucified man who forgave his executioners and whose disciples scattered in the moment of maximum peril. There is no greater folly than that.” In this sense the call of the kingdom is a call to itself. The coming of the kingdom is the call, the promise of something ‘to come’, while our come is the response, the hope, the prayer, the dream of a form of life that lures us on its own and not form above, beyond or from on high. The kingdom of God is within us and not a powerful force from without. We could say it runs or operates under the impulse of the events that already pulse through it and not ruled from above by a strong if invisible hand. It is always to come, always almost come, but not as a state of affairs, It is the certainty of the almost already begun thus already here, and already soliciting us. It is found every time the displaced are given shelter and the hungry are fed, every time the poor are comforted, every time the imprisoned are visited.

It is here that I want to say that as I was writing this I was encouraged to hear that a fellow Presbyterian had told a ‘St David’s Friends’ supporter they were missing the boat. The call of the kingdom was not to preserve buildings but rather to provide spaces and places where community could gather and find support. The Church needs places where community meets and supports itself, church only needs a chapel to celebrate but it needs to be a place where community is created, valued, enhanced and encouraged. His comment was that with the changes in the living environments and the intensification of living it is even more important that the church is involved in space for community connections such as a school where families can be families.

To return to my argument, it has to be said that the kingdom to come is not about a future presence but rather the weak force of a call for something coming. The rule of God takes place by way of the gentle provocation of a poetics, without a powerful metaphysical theology to back it up; without a Supreme ruler who dispatched a heavenly host of warrior angels to come to our aid; without an apologetic theology to defend God’s rule against its detractors, and without a worldwide system of divinity schools and seminaries to work out its logic and train and commission its emissaries. The rule of God is more unruly, more disarmed, more like an outright folly.

Perhaps I could end here today by saying that the kingdom is like love. It is a weak force, not one of the principalities that threaten reprisal if it is not headed and promises a reward if it is. The works of the kingdom and love are performed without the ‘why’.

This means that the weakness of God requires our strength and courage to make God whole and the folly of God is to let so much depend on us. The folly of God requires our courage to take a risk on God, our courage to let go of control, safety, security, certainty, and absolutes and to risk engagement in the weakness of God. Unconditional loving calls us into the weakness that is the nothing is guaranteed place, the place where nothing says the worst will not happen. The place where there is no invisible hand ensuring a good outcome. A weakness where there is nothing that says the good will triumph or that evil will be overcome. To pray for the coming of the kingdom is an exercise of hope and the kingdom is sustained best if at all, when it abides by the searing, searching, and simple account of the unconditional in Matthew 25: 37-39.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

Amen.

John D Caputo, ‘Does The Kingdom Of God Need God?’ Fourth R Volume 30 Number 5 September/October 2017.

‘Being Christian Today’

Posted: September 26, 2017 in Uncategorized

‘Being Christian Today’

Micah: 6: 6-8            Matthew 21: 23-32

Over the last few weeks we have been engaged in a liturgical season known as the Creation Season and most of the season has been focused on the creation of what we know as Christianity. We have look at the scriptures as a whole and we have conformed our understanding of them as a library or a collection of writings developed from an oral culture and that the topic of these writing has been a search for the historical Jesus. We have looked at the earliest known writings and asked of them questions about what Jesus might have said and done that set in motion what we now know as Christianity. In that brief journey, we have discovered that we do not know a lot about Jesus and what he said and did but we have also discovered again that what he said and did resonated so strongly with the people of his time that they shaped their lives on his sayings and actions. We have also discovered that in doing this they set in place amazing opportunities for people to take his story and make it their own, sometimes they read too much into the story and at other times not enough but what has been enduring is that they gleaned motivation, were encouraged to engage in life and were convinced that change was possible with confidence, conviction and dignity.

Our reading from Micah is interesting in that Micah was one of the minor Prophets of Ancient Judaism whose stories fluctuated between prophesies of doom and gloom and prophesies of restoration. Our reading is one of those where Micah questions the efficacy of making a sacrifice. He asks whether or not the offering of a new born calf or thousands of rams and lots of oil are enough when what he understands as important is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. There is something in there about what is important, tradition, doing it right, being a strong church organization as opposed to doing justice, loving kindness as a primary value and living life with humility.

Our reading from Matthew seems to be saying also that it is more important to get on with living the values as opposed to arguing which are right and wrong. We could say that its more important to live as though goodness and kindness and love are the way of living as opposed to defining who is good or bad and who is kind and loving. The new reformation is that ‘being a Christian’ is the outcome of a liberating, transforming community and not because one is identifiable as a member of an organization.

Last week we watch a short clip where Richard Rohr, a Catholic Franciscan invited us to see that this reformation is a reformation in understanding and it is already taking place. I think he was saying that this new understanding of spirituality is underway and what was needed was a new organizational and social construct of community and that this community was to be non-denominational, non-traditional and functional as opposed to structural. Perhaps a way of saying this better would be to say that new models of ministry anchored in and born out of a liberating, transformative faith community are what will bring about a reformed Jesus Way.

What he said was what we have been saying for some time but perhaps without wanting to prescribe the new as much. We have said that we need a new understanding of what might be termed the ‘Eternal Reality we call God’, a new meaning of community that is not simply the gathering of people but the gathering of ideas, the idea of what gathering means that includes the social media gatherings in the ether, and valuing the cohesion of ideas in new ways. This will include the reconstruction of language and symbols used in communication. Perhaps the idea of a language that differentiates between what is fake and what has been verified and how it has been verified?

All of the above sounds far too complex to get one’s head around so I have borrowed from an article by Les Switzer a journalist, academic clergyperson who has written books, articles and essays on expressions of faith community. He suggests 9 things that might be helpful in defining what it means to be Christian today. These nine things are not definitions but rather approaches to their use. Approaches or actions of humility, storytelling, meaning, forgiving and healing, speaking. discipling. empowering praying and simplifying. I will try to fill these out a little so that we can talk about them more.

Religious humility – No one person has all the answers and no one religious system can encompass the Eternal. In other words, humility is about living the questions, about living with uncertainty, knowing that the difference we find in our reality are not to be feared because all is of the divine, the each of us is a reflection of the divine. If our understanding is that to be human is to be the universe seeing itself, then as followers of the Jesus Way is to emulate the divinely human Jesus in the idioms of today’s culture. Or in other words, love oneself, love one’s enemies and emulate God who is love. Walk humbly with God.

Religious narrative – The important narratives in life are not the biggest ones nor the smallest ones, they are not the ones about faith or belief, they are about being the good shepherd, being the manifestation of loving, and this narrative or story is not about being literally true or untrue but rather about enhancing, unfolding and displaying the complexity of living. And at the core of the purpose of these narratives is being good for family, friendship, community and good for those who don’t seem to fit our preferences. In other words, the literal is a tool of narrative as opposed to the authority of it. The more important aspect of the narrative may be the metaphorical, poetic, and the imaginative.

Scripture – Scripture or the holy bible is the invitation to meaning and not about historical fact or literal truth. Our interpretation of scripture like our reading of church doctrine and tradition, our personal religious experiences and our rational understanding of these experiences are part of an ongoing, unfinished, incomplete conversation. Just as we have discovered with the bible that began with oral sayings and ended up in a canon all scripture is far from permanent, and infallible. It is a living and in our case a collection of experience.

Forgiveness and healing – First of all we need to forgive for our own sake. True forgiveness is a selfish act. Why? Because it sets us free from the bondage of our past and allows us to get on with our living. It is primarily for us, created by us and serves us in our living. Not as some sort of pretense that nothing is wrong, nor that it provides a new platform from which to begin again but rather because it only becomes real when we discover that we have already absolved our offender, we discover that there is no sufficient reason to hold the other accountable and in that discovery, we see that we have already begun the healing process by letting go of our hurt. We have changed and the transformation of the community has begun. People begin to wonder how, why and their amazement challenges it. This reminds us that one of the components of forgiveness is the intent within it. It its service of the self it engages with the community. Our actions in transforming ourselves transform our community.

Speaking or Language – A crucial part of the co-creative partnership with the divine is what comes out of our mouth. If we believe that human beings are made in the image of God and that God is more than an anthropomorphic creation then we are bound to explore the relationship with the divine and our language becomes a crucial part of creativity. In brief, the divine image resides in part in our ability to speak. How we choose to use this divine power or energy is of ultimate experience. What we say matters and spreading destructive gossip, lies and unsubstantiated rumour, or even false praise, is to belittle conversation as a creative act. The ninth commandment of the Jewish tradition reminds us that this is not new, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’.

Discipling – It is probably risky to use this traditional word because of the traditional baggage it comes with but there is a need to maintain a word or a concept of walking the Jesus Way or following Jesus that is more than just our human action Walking the Jesus Way is more than doing something. It is also being someone, a new being, an alternative expression of what it means to be human. Les Switzer talks about the essence of discipling as letting go of the familiar and walking away, be careful with what you are comfortable with, get outside your zone, read the book that is not where you are at, live in the present but always look for ways to serve others and to help make the world a better place.

Empowering – Here we have perhaps the most difficult response. Difficult because it is perhaps the manifestation of all of the above, the rubber meeting the road, the situation in life. It is also hard because it begins with assumptions. The assumptions that empowering is required because there are powerless who need empowering. There are suffering who need empowering to free themselves. Here is the need for humility to avoid the assumption of knowing it all, the need to listen to empathise, the need to draw together the information that informs the strategy needed, the need to ask who it is that benefits from the empowering, is it the suffering or is it oneself and where is the balance in that? Here is the need for the conversation to put into action all the above and to begin to raise liberating and empowering options. In simple terms, one has to avoid living with a can-do attitude and a can fix it culture because that in itself creates a negative for the powerless and a helpless victim. It re-stigmatises and re-victimizes the suffering. The empowering approach requires the valuing of compassion, not as giving money and time to causes, there is an imbalance in favour of oneself in the benefit of this sort of compassion. We end up with the power rather than the suffering one. We need to go to the root of the word compassion and to begin with the idea that compassion means to suffer with, to embrace the powerlessness of the victim. It is less about doing anything and more about being with and feeling with the one who is suffering.

Two more to go.

Praying – Prayer is a conversation with ourselves, a non-verbal act that is about being open to the God within in silence, in love, in the natural world, and in the sense that we should pray without ceasing. In this way prayer is a contemplative, meditative, engagement not with anything but in oneself, a state of awareness of self, and of one’s engagement with the world.

The last is simplifying – This is more about attitude to life than making it easier or dumbing down. A simple life is that which arises out of living intentionally as if the Kingdom of God, to use traditional words is already here and now. When Micah asks; what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? He is reminding the reader that all of the above can be summed up in that sentence. Justice, kindness and humility and we might say that they are the attributes of a liberating, transforming community that walks the Jesus Way. Amen.