Genesis 28:10-19a Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 Romans 8:12-25 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

‘Imagination, Ambiguity and Grace’

When I reflect on what human life is today I am lost for words. That is at first an admission that my language or my vocabulary is inadequate yet it is also a clam that the world is chock full of divinity.  It’s a claim that we can encounter the holy in the most unlikely places.  Thin places, or in old language the places where the joining heaven and earth, abound for those for whom the doors of perception have opened.  The discovery is that life is messy, but also that it can be spiritually full in all its complexity when we open our senses to divinity within and beyond us.  A way of saying that is to say that God is in all things, and all things are in God! This is that awesome moment when we discover the place of being lost for words.

Like Jacob we might say “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!  How awesome is this place?”  Jacob finds himself in a thin place where heaven and earth are joined and angels ascend and descend on a ladder to the heavens.  It is interesting to note that the angels “ascend” to heaven.  A claim that the Earth is filled with divinity, or that Earth has its own angels.  God is not far off or trapped in a far-off heaven.  Divinity is on earth as it is in heaven.  We don’t need to go to heaven to find God; heaven is in this place!

 

Here is the claim for the value of imagination. We need to acknowledge here that traditionally we have some assumptions about imagination we need to put away. At first touch of imagination we have this idea that it is of the realm of fantasy and it is unreasoned and untrue waffle. It does not appear to have value because it is rooted in the idea that it is a narcissistic illusion, in other words a project of the self and thus tainted and not really sensible or of real value. And this is true as it does include the field of phantasies and images. It evolves out of the mirror stage but that is not all it is. It extends into our relationships with others. It includes pre-verbal structures making it a creative enterprise of unlimited bounds. It takes us beyond the limits of language and creates the unlimited world of creating relationships. If one wanted to give it a description one could say it is the Holy Spirit at work.

In Psalm 139 we find one of the most majestic pieces of spiritual literature.  The Psalmist discovers God everywhere.  No place is without God’s presence.  Even when we run away from God, we run into God’s hands.  In the heights, God is there; in the depths, God is also present.  God knows each of us fully, but God’s knowledge of us is liberating, not judging.

What we might give caution to here is that Psalm 139 is a hymn to divine omnipresence, and the only condition of divine omnipresence is the recognition that God is everywhere and in all things. That is consistent with our claim that God is everywhere and in all things but it introduces a theological claim that Jacob’s encounter with holiness comes by pure grace.  In the same mode we ask did the Psalmist need to cultivate the experience of divine presence through spiritual practices?  And that again, grace simply happens.  But, Damascus Road experiences also emerge – and are grounded for the long haul – through opening to God by prayer, meditation, hospitality, service, worship, and study. Here we have the Roman and Greek influence of the need for structure to one’s practice. Here we see the introduction of spiritual practices to sustain the discovery of God’s intimacy and to defining that intimacy and provide a way of protecting that discovery. Not wring but ultimately a challenge to the boundlessness of imagination.

The reading of Romans 8 continues this hymn to divine omnipresence.  God speaks within us, inspiring us to seek our original wholeness.  God also speaks through every living thing.  All creation lives in hope for transformation, sharing in the same hope for God’s realm of Shalom.  There is no dividing line between God and the world or human or non-human life.  We may be the crown of creation, but we share the breath of life and the movements of the Spirit with all reality.  Inspired by the Spirit, each thing in its own way leans in a God-ward fashion.  Joined in an interdependent ecology of hope, all creation seeks fulfillment in relationship with the Creator. Again, we hear the need for order and structure and liturgy and ritual so as to protect and describe the discovery of God’s intimacy.

There is a clear affirmation of creation theology and nature mysticism within the words of Romans 8.  This is surely God’s world – and all things declare divinity – but only those with eyes to see and ears to hear can discern the holiness embedded in the non-human world.  Yes, we can find God in nature, at the seashore and on starry nights, and this is good.  But, a life of prayer makes such moments of holiness the norm rather than exceptional in our lives.

And here we return to the claim that Jesus upsets the assumptions and raises the question of piety of spirituality. Is all the pomp and ceremony required or not? His parable notes, that growth is ambiguous, whether personal, communal, or global.  The wheat and the tares are mixed: this is not just a matter of righteous and unrighteous persons – the latter being the “evil ones” –  but our own personal righteousness and unrighteousness.  Life is ambiguous and so are we.  We are holy, but also wholly ambivalent and ambiguous at times.  In old language, we would say that we are saints who also are sinners. Spiritual stature comes from recognizing the interdependence of life, and seeking to embrace the whole of our lives in light of what we call God’s grace.  If we destroy the tares, the weeds, the wheat will eventually die.  Our power and wisdom comes from embracing the whole, not denying the parts.  In the spirit of Psalm 139, our darkness can be a vehicle of creative transformation. God is in this place.  God is in the mixture of wheat and tares; flowers and weeds.  God comes to us on the darkest night, when we like Jacob recognize our brokenness.  God cries out in wounded nature.  Wherever we are, God is present; and wherever we are, it is Beth-el, the house of God.

Having I hope made the claim that imagination has been traditionally maligned and alluded to the fact that our concepts of God and God’s activity are synonymous with ours, I want to tell a story of transition in thinking. It is not my story but it does reflect I think, the journey many of us are on today. The story begins…..

Over the last ten years my Christian faith has undergone a dramatic transformation. The beliefs that were once absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the universe and my own existence have been gradually deconstructed. It has been a confusing, unsettling and sometimes painful process, but I now feel I have in some way emerged from that confusion, and am feeling a sense of clarity, hope and excitement about my faith that I have never felt before.

In the early stages of deconstruction, it felt as if the ground beneath my feet was crumbling. The “unshakeable” truths I had been taught to build my life upon were being dismantled one by one – it was exhilarating but terrifying.

I know far less now than I did ten years ago. I have far more questions than answers, and God seems more mysterious and unfathomable than ever.

I used to have everything sorted, organized into boxes and neatly stacked. Now the boxes are torn open and their contents strewn everywhere, but I am learning to live comfortably in the mess. Free from the constraints of my boxes, God seems bigger and more loving than ever, and the life and message of Jesus seems more real, relevant and fundamentally good.

The core message, or ‘Good News’ of Christianity that I learnt growing up went as follows:

God made people, people ‘sinned’ and went against God. God, being perfect and just, cannot stand sin and therefore must punish it with death and eternal torment. However, God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die and take the punishment for our sin so that we can go to heaven and be with God after we die. All we need to do to be saved is become a Christian, which means admitting that we are sinners bound for hell, believing that Jesus died for us and accepting him as our personal Lord and Saviour. Anyone who fails to do this will go to hell and be punished forever.

This message, or something like it, has been central to Christian teaching for a very large chunk of history, and it has only started to be seriously challenged in the last few decades. It is a message based on the threat of eternal punishment, and I would argue that it has survived in this form for so long largely because it is based on and fueled by fear. Questioning and doubting the core Christian beliefs has long been seen as a weakness, as “sinful”, so most people until fairly recently have followed along faithfully, interpreting any doubts as personal problems to be overcome or ignored.

As questioning religious beliefs has become more socially and culturally acceptable, many people have found their faith has been deconstructed to the point where they would no longer call themselves Christians, and have sought other ways to find meaning in life. Through all my own struggles with Christianity and church I have never been able to shake off the sense that there really must be more to life than what we see and experience – science alone cannot explain everything. The life and message of Jesus has continued to captivate me, and the more I have read and thought about it the more I have seen how much his message has been distorted, hijacked and misrepresented over the centuries, often with tragic consequences.

Well known Christian thinkers, speakers and writers who have moved into this new understanding of Christianity have come up against harsh criticism from other Christians. This is to be expected and I really can understand the desire to be conservative, to protect the strong framework of belief that has stood firm for so long. When your whole life and work has been built upon a particular belief system, it is a very unsettling, scary and unpleasant thing to see that system dismantled.

Those who have pioneered this rethinking process are often accused of not taking the Bible seriously. This thinking comes from people who read the Bible as if it were a scientific text book or an instruction manual for life – directly spoken from God to us, and therefore flawless and to be interpreted literally. With this mindset, taking the Bible seriously means taking individual passages, often entirely out of context, and applying them to our lives now. Theological discussions with people whose faith is based on this understanding of the Bible don’t get very far as the answer is always “because the Bible says so”. However, I am yet to meet anyone who takes the whole Bible seriously in this way – it is just not possible to interpret everything literally. So, whether they admit it or not, even the most conservative Christians have projected their own views and opinions onto the Bible, and are being selective about which parts to take seriously.

I have come to see the Bible as a family history – a rich and varied collection of texts spanning over a thousand years, telling the story of how God has interacted with people. It is written by many different people and includes eyewitness accounts, letters, poetry, songs and folklore, all inspired by people’s experiences of God. In understanding our family history, we gain a sense of who we are and who God is, and in that sense the Bible is sacred, useful and relevant today. With this understanding, taking individual verses and passages out of context and applying them to our lives makes no sense whatsoever. We need to understand the cultural background, the intention of the writer and what it would have meant to people at the time. When this is done seriously, it can often change the meanings entirely.

By taking bits of the Bible out of context and interpreting them literally, Christians have justified a whole range of atrocities and injustices that most of us would now consider to be completely wrong. The Crusades, slavery and the oppression of women are just a few examples. The overarching story of the Bible is one of love, hope and reconciliation, but by taking bits out of context we have managed to construct belief systems based on fear, guilt and oppression.

Having grown up interpreting the Bible in this literal manner, I now see it as at best narrowminded and misguided, and at worst downright dangerous. In my mind, viewing the Bible in this way is not taking it seriously enough.

The result of the deconstruction of my belief framework is that I am more passionate than ever about my Christian faith. For a while I felt like I was ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – in weeding out the bad bits I was also losing all the good, reassuring, comforting and inspiring aspects of my faith that had once been so central to my life. For a number of years, I was confused and angry, and church was a place of frustration and bitterness. I was mourning the loss of the security I had in my neat and tidy belief framework, whilst feeling frustrated that others weren’t thinking the same as me.

I now feel like I am “the other side of angry”, as a friend recently put it; I have regained the hope and security I once felt but the whole thing seems so much bigger and better, and makes so much more sense. The ‘Good News’ seems far, far better than it did before.

I feel that the Christian message as I was taught it massively and devastatingly missed the point, and I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to realise this.

My summary of this personal story is that the story is a story of wheat and tares held together on the way toward harvest. Amen.

Pentecost 6A 2017 Matthew 13:24-30

Don’t Weed!  Make Space To Heal…

We have just heard a story. A story – or parable – about wheat and weeds. A parable we have all heard many times and rather than dissect the parable in search of learning I want to take the genre and tell stories myself in the hope that from them we might discover learnings. The first is a story from New Zealand and specifically from a Children’s home.

Once upon a time there was a children’s softball team that inherited a tradition of losing almost all the games of a season. The other teams were supported each week by their parents, they had uniforms, coaching staff and it was clear that they had after school training. The kids from the home didn’t have a coach or uniforms and not all the staff turned up to support. The children were obviously talented, but untrained. Then one day a young man watched them stumble through practice. ‘Can I help?’ he asked them. By this time the team was ready to accept help from anyone.

‘You fellas are the best,’ he said.  ‘There’s no reason you can’t win the premiership. But you have to practice, you be confident in yourselves, and most of all you have to be good friends. ‘No more fighting among yourselves or with me if I’m going to be your unofficial coach’. The kids agreed.

The first thing the coach taught them was how be friends and play together with one another. Then he told them, training session after training session, how good they were. Finally he made them work, work, work. And you know what happened? They went on from there undefeated and won the premiership. When asked what had caused the turnaround in their fortunes they said; ‘He made us believe in ourselves’. The next year the parents hired a “real coach” and the team finished last on the ladder. (A Greeley web site).

What sort of story was that? It was nothing out of the ordinary. It was one we have heard before but was it a spiritual story. What makes it a spiritual story? Well maybe was because it not only critiqued and subverted the status quo, it also re-imagines a world that could be? It took hold of individualism and created community, it took competition and turned it into a force for identity, community and self-worth. What we need to be careful of however, is that in spiritualizing the story we risk making it a pious story either as an “earthly story with heavenly meanings” or seeing it only as a ‘nice story’. The challenge is to avoid what we do to many parables. We make them into simple stories with trite meanings. We often lift them out of their social and historical context and reshape them into theological or moralistic fables bereft of any political or economic edge or consequence. B Brandon Scott, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, and a student of the study of the parables, says: ‘The parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living, of being in the world.  They are not just religious, not just about God, although they are that too… they are multifaceted re-imaginings of life, of the possibilities of life’ (Scott 2001:6).

So he says that if we opt rather for the ‘critique’ and the ‘re-imagining’ then we will have grasped Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ purpose: which was to get his hearers to see the world differently. And that can be summed up in this phrase… God’s reign is not an, other-worldly proposition.

Just taking a brief glance at recent history we could say that the world is radically different since 11 September 2001 and we not be wrong. It might be simplistic to say that but we could understand why it is said. And one of those differences is perhaps evident as the great polarity that now exists between Christian and Muslim, Jew and Muslim, Hindu and Muslim. The daily news of suspected terrorist attacks – the enemy called ISIS and stories of nations banning some religious groups in favour of others all speak of this tension and the sad part about it is that it takes hope away and tries to convince us that human cleverness is about spying on the enemy, having the smartest weapons, and living in constant suspicion of strangers, and that this way of living can save us. Good healthy skepticism becomes suspicion and fear.

If this is the case then how do we as followers of the Jesus Way respond to this?

The first difficulty is that right now doesn’t seem to be a good time for hope, for reason, or for patience. Right now doesn’t seem to be a time to allow both ‘wheat’ (the good blokes) and ‘weeds’ (the bad blokes) to grow together. Right now one is seen as having worth. And the other is seen as being worthless.

Bill Loader makes a comment and it is that in this situation there is a sense that there is an enemy and this sense marks many societies, religious and otherwise.  It is almost as though we need an enemy, an, other, against whom to define ourselves.  Renee Gerard calls this a mimetic scapegoat, and this need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for our survival…  A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning.  There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’.  The simpler, the better.  This is the stuff of prejudice and sadly, Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’ (WLoader/web site).

I want to just spend a moment on this mimetic desire that the French thinker René Girard has helped us with. The argument is that, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. And just in case we want to blame others for everything we are reminded that the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the outcome most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each, others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus was on about in our text last week in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

And when it comes to community and society Girard reminds us that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us within and that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. The question we are left with by the challenge of the weeds in the wheat is, can we accept the yoke Jesus offers, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

I think Thomas Merton writes about the depth of this need for a scapegoat when he says:

Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly. God may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly and in that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural toil.

 Here, in the light of Matthew’s parable, Merton names our tendency to introduce toxins into our inner soil through our fear, anxiety, and selfishness. These toxins poison the seeds that God is sowing in our lives and inhibit our growth.  Secondly Merton indicates that there are big toxic systems of government, prejudice, and corruption that deeply affect us, and our inner soil, but that are also out of our direct control because these toxic systems are so large and pervasive.  But if we are to have any hope of redeeming these toxic systems, even in part, we must begin with tilling our own soil. As Mother Theresa also said, “Before you try to love the entire world, start by loving one other person.  You can save only one at a time.  We can love only one at a time.”

The Jesus of Matthew, in telling this parable, suggests an alternative to the norm in his time. But with our tendency to domesticate parables we can give Matthew’s point and circumstance less attention than it deserves. So what is Matthew’s circumstance? Possibly a division in the Syrian synagogue between those Jews who seek to follow the ‘way’ of Jesus and those who don’t. We reflect here that both early Christians and Muslims know of Jesus and give him an authority. And what is Matthew’s so-called ‘point’ of the story? He says Don’t weed!  Deal inclusively. And Why? Because it is in the midst of the mess of conflictive coexistence that God is also revealed. Not in some hypothetical situation where ‘good seed’ or ‘bone fide, truly Presbyterian Congregations’ or ‘real Christians’ – usually champions of right – grow in pure isolation. There is no such thing as that good seed or right-thinking exclusivity.

This does not suggest confrontation should be advocated or created. But it does mean that where there is confrontation: one must never cease to act graciously or to have compassion, never write people off, never uproot people in your mind or attitude by treating them as no longer of any worth. And let’s be honest here, that sort of inclusiveness in reality, can be somewhat difficult at times.

David Ranson an Australian Catholic priest in an article in the publication Eremos, on reconciliation, recorded a comment by the Buddhist Dalai Lama. When asked did he hate the Chinese, the Dalai Lama replied ‘no’. ‘He remarked that the Chinese were indeed dominant and that he had no possibility of overthrowing them by might.  Were he to hate them therefore no change would occur in the Chinese. But change would certainly occur within him.  His own heart would become more tense, bitter and rigid.  The only way forward then was to let go of the hateful feelings that might arise. In the space that ensued perhaps there was a greater possibility for peace’ (Ranson 2002:7).

This says that parables are in no way earthly stories with heavenly meanings, but what they are is earthly stories with heavy meanings? When one thinks about this, one has to say that such an approach fits better with what we believe about the Ministry of Jesus…There is a possible alternative and it is not adversarial nor is it passive. It is inclusive of all, aware of all and different from all else. Amen.

Notes: Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.

Pentecost 5A, 2017 Matthew 11:25-30

  New Habits Of Seeing and Doing..

Last week I talked about the need for us to shift our thinking in terms of our images of God. How do we talk about a non-theistic, non-supernatural God in a world where truth is an indication of uncertainty as opposed to certainty, a world where the planet earth image has moved from a large singularity in the galaxy into being just one place among millions and that human consciousness, specifically the minds part in it, is about a level of co-creative birthing of reality and that reality is a work in progress. A daunting, exciting opportunity or the herald of an immanent end of all things. This week I want to say the same thing in a different way. I want still to acknowledge that in the old language of faith, God is separated from us. God is a master, a king, a supernatural being, separated from common or ordinary folk. And that as a result, much of our own understanding until recently, was influenced by this kingly and removed character of God. This way of thinking is often called ‘neo-orthodoxy’. And I want to say that when we examine the language of Jesus in our context, we see that God is liberated from this kind of thinking. And so are common or ordinary people. This leberation is for me the gospel in a nutshell. The Jesus’ ‘yoke’ enabled the invisible people to be liberated,- those who didn’t know the law or were poor, landless peasants – to stand up, to be counted, to be seen as having value. And as such, to be preserved. This is the timeless gospel and it is our invitation as 21st century Christians.

I want now to tell you a story that says something about this gospel timelessness. There was a parish minister in Chile who was distributing food for the poor of his village. At the time it was a village caught in the crossfire of civil war and he was distributing the food which he had been given by friends in North America. He was arrested for doing this and sent to a prison in Santiago. The prison was overcrowded.  There were about 150 men were living there in a room that wasn’t big enough to let them all lie down at the same time. The parish minister took over the role of chaplain and held daily devotions and bible study for his fellow-prisoners.

It came time for his release and just before that took place the other prisoners wrote their names on his back with burnt matches. It was November and the weather was warm and as he left the compound he was fortunate enough not to be stripped and searched. So when he turned up at the local Peace Committee meeting most of the names – names of people who were listed as having ‘disappeared’ – were still legible. The men had returned; their names being written with burnt matches on a prisoner’s back. The hour of silence was at an end… The names written in black charcoal, became signs of hope. And this hope was a hope which could not be blotted out by the threat of torture, The names had already faced that fear and persisted. Nor was it a hope erased by the terror of silence or even by the softer terror of oblivion. The names had had already survived that assault.

There are many other such events in our own Western history which tell of one group seeking to devalue or enslave or silence, another group. One perhaps in our Scottish tradition as Presbyterians was the Disarming Act of 1746 which outlawed anyone in defined parts of Scotland from having in his or their custody, use or bearing of, a broad sword or targe, poignard, whinger or durk, side pistol, gun or other warlike weapon, unless authorised.

This disarming of the highland clans was followed that same year by the Act of Proscription known also as ‘the dress act’, which read….

That from and after the first day of August, One thousand, seven hundred and forty-six, no man or boy within that part of Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, shall, on any pretext whatever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper coats, and if any such person shall presume after the said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garment or any part of them, every such person so offending … For the first offence, shall be liable to be imprisoned for 6 months, and on the second offence, to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.

This act had significant impact on the clans as dress was the main symbol of distinction and difference for a family, tribe or community and its outlawing went straight to one’s identity. For 36 years before the Dress Act was repealed thousands of men were transported. Many to Tasmania. Others were transported for bearing arms and for other reasons and between the years of 1803 to 1853 it is thought that 160,000 people were sentenced to transportation to Australia and these people ranged in age from a nine year old chimney sweep to an 82 year old woman. An horrific story of people who we devalued, imprisoned. silenced. And thus offered no hope!

This morning Matthew’s ‘socially-active’ Jesus story, reminds us that Jesus would have none of that. And neither should we. Matthew’s Jesus stands opposed to the common belief of his day that God loved some and not others. That some people had rights and others did not. That some people had value and others did not. That some people mattered and others did not. We cannot escape the challenge that in our own economic climate this is the case for many today. The God of Jesus, Matthew seems to be saying, does not saddle anyone with that kind of yoke. As with the challenge last week we are being invited to acquire new habits of seeing, and new habits of being… beyond the stained-glass images of an almighty benevolent God or a ‘meek and mild’ Jesus, we are to keep on liberating. To keep on naming the lost, the disadvantaged and the oppressed. To keep on supporting, nurturing and tending one another, with compassion. In other words to be signs of hope.

In our text Matthew is concerned about the real. How can you tell a true prophet from a false one?  Matthew says you can tell by their “fruit,” by what they do and what they produce (7: 15).  In today’s lection, God’s wisdom, which created the world, is justified by Jesus’ actual “works” in the world.

A translation of the text from verse 25 to 30 is as follows:  In that time, Jesus answered (and) said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you hid these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to children.  Yes, Father, for in this manner gracious purpose happened before you.  All things have been delivered over to me by my father.  And no one knows the Son except the Father, (and) no one knows the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son might wish to reveal.”

“Come to me, all the ones who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you will find rest for your lives, for my yoke is lovingkindness and my burden is light.”

The few verses left out of the lectionary I think give some context to the afore mentioned and perhaps even to the extent of their plight when they express condemnation toward cities which opposed the Jesus movement–Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum. The hiddenness being why some would oppose the movement and a suggestion that such opposition could contribute to the plight of those who engage in such activity.

In the face of this opposition, however, we have a kairotic moment.  “At that time,” Matthew says.  The word for time here is kairos, which means special time, the important moment, the time of God.  In a moment of special revelation, Jesus speaks.

He says I thank you and the words uses are not just an act of gratitude but convey a sense of celebration and joyous affirmation. In essence he is saying, “I give and am being given joyous affirmation of the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth.” “For you have hidden these things from the wise–sofown–and intelligent, and revealed–apocalypto–them to children.”  True wisdom, as we have seen, issues in following the Way of Jesus.  This way has been “hidden” from those who are “wise and intelligent,” but “revealed” to the insignificant.

Again here we are being reminded of the historical ministry of Jesus.  He was leading a non-violent peasant-based movement–a “childrens’ crusade,” after a certain manner of speaking–and he was opposed by the rich and powerful.  It is also apparently true for the community of Matthew in AD 80.  At that time it is still a peasant-based movement.

Despite the opposition they face, the sense of Jesus’ speech is joyous.  “All things have been delivered over to me by my Father,” he says.  The “Lord of heaven and earth” has delivered over “all”–panta, everything, the entire universe and everything in it–to Jesus. Jesus then goes on to say that “no one knows the son except the father, and no one knows the father except the son.”  The word “know” is ginosko, which means intimate knowledge.  The challenge here is to note that this kind of exalted, mystical “knowing” is reminiscent of the fourth gospel, and so we are asked if the author of the fourth gospel was somehow acquainted with the author of Matthew?

This close identification of son and father comes to human beings by revelation–“to whomever the son reveals.”  As in the fourth gospel, the intimate knowledge between Father and Son is not exclusive to the Father and the Son, but may also be shared with the children.  From that position, Jesus issues his appeal: “Come to me”:  The closing two verses are unique to Matthew, though there is a passage that is vaguely similar in Sirach (51: 26-27).  As noted above, there is a partial parallel in Thomas, verse 90. Most of our translations seem to over-spiritualize this passage.  Jesus is specifically addressing those who are over-worked and carrying a heavy load.  In first century Israel, that group consisted of poor people in a condition of political and religious oppression. He encourages them to take up his “yoke.”  “Yoke” was a common image for Torah and the Mosaic Law.  Instead of Torah, however, we are encouraged to take up Jesus’ yoke and “learn” from him.  (The word is mathete, from which comes the word for “disciple.”)  The “yoke” of Jesus is to learn his Way and follow it.  In marked contrast to earthly rulers, both political and religious, Jesus is “meek and lowly of heart.” The NRSV adds “and you will find rest for your souls.”  The problem with that addition is that for many it sounds too pious and too passive for the Greek which appears also in verse 28, and means not only rest, but sabbath rest, the kind of rest that puts a person on the road to recovery.  It has a sense not only of rest, but also refreshment.

Also, one of the Greek words refers to the essence of a person’s life.  It is more than “soul,” which, in any case, calls to mind images more related to Greek philosophy than Christian theology, which was almost surely not Matthew’s intent.  Another perhaps more accurate translation might be “…and you will find rest for your lives…”  Following the Way of Jesus—through open table fellowship, etc.–will set you on a path of true life. “For my yoke is lovingkindness.”  The word lovingkindness is a way of pulling together the concepts expressed in the Greek –“goodness, benevolence, pleasant, worthy, loving, kind,” or, even better, “active benevolence in spite of ingratitude.” Lovingkindness seems to capture all that. The claim here is that this truly wonderful text should not be pietized into worship of Jesus as if he were some kind of idol.  It thoroughly intends to encourage people along the Way of Jesus, to “learn” that Way and follow it, from which will come a truer and better life.

It is also a claim that egalitarian living is “lighter” than heirarchical living.  Living in light of the freedom and dignity of every person, and especially the poor, is not a “burden” but is, in fact, the way of true rest and true refreshment. The inference is that this is what counts as the gospel. This is what constitutes having wisdom. Jesus did that in his time.  We are invited to do no less today. To go on the journey which he first chartered and re-imagine the kingdom or realm of God from the perspective of gospel compassion and hospitality rather than biblical law/ In our day “to be a disciple of Jesus”, writes 1960s radical theologian Harvey Cox, “means not to emulate or mimic him but to follow his ‘way’, to live in our era the same way he lived in his – as a sign and servant of the reign of God.” And then there is the most important revelation of all “To follow Jesus requires us not to choose 12 disciples or to turn water into wine but to take his life project – the making the coming of God’s reign of Shalom real and immediate – making it our own” (Cox 1998/Religion-online).

Liberating people for this Way keeps alive the dream and presentness of God in the ordinary, be they the people in the transportation cells of Tasmania, the prison cells of Chile or the poor of Auckland. Be they the political demonizing of opposing points of view in government or industrial relations, left verses right or unions verses employers, or in places with asylum seekers. This is the call of the gospel and the challenge of our everyday.

Notes: Solle, D. Choosing Life. London. SCM Press, 1981.

 

Pentecost 4A, 2017 Matthew 10:40-42

Alive In Our Pictures Of God’

In 1926, the English/American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote these words: “Today there is but one religious dogma in debate:  What do you mean by ‘God’…”  (Quoted in Pittenger 1982:1). This morning we have heard two Lectionary stories. One, about Abraham, from the Hebrew scriptures. And one, about Jesus, from the experiences of the Jesus Movement. Both stories have within them images or pictures, of God. There is the image of God as a great and all-controlling power manifested in the unusual and the extraordinary. And there is the image of God as known in acts of compassion and love, present and active in human interaction.

These are of course, summary statements that are an over-simplification. They are also not meant to be seen as set one over against the other as if one is ‘good’ or ‘right’ and the other ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. However I want to suggest that to a modern progressive mind, one story, one picture, does seem to be repugnant.

Uniting Church Minister Bruce Prewer talks about the story of Abraham and the near slaying of Isaac, and says; ‘I can still remember (my Sunday school teacher’s) picture book from which she read the story…  That scene was the stuff from which nightmares are constructed.  It troubled me greatly.  I was left with the question; Would my father kill me if God asked him to?

‘One evening, after dinner when his father was sitting in his favourite chair, and Bruce was sitting on his dad’s knee, he plucked up the courage to ask his father if he would be like Abraham if God asked him.  Looking back Bruce now feels for his father who was totally unprepared for that question.  Torn between his desire to uphold the Bible and his love for Bruce, his father made a mess of answering his child.

Bruce reflects; ‘I did not know the word prevaricate then, but that is what he did.  I took his response as a grim warning.  It did not do much to alleviate nightmares’  (Prewer.www site 2002).

If I asked you to describe how you picture God now today, I wonder what you might say? If you think about the almighty, all powerful, always seeing, vengeful God that we read about your picture might just be almost too intimate, too threatening to share. Or perhaps some of you might push those images away and replace them with Jesus as the shepherd, or the gentle one, or the reflective one, Or maybe some of you may feel you have little pictures or images to share. I want to suggest that if you can’t find and image that works for you then you might still be in the process of moving away from what you have taken for granted for most of your life, taken for granted that the most central events reported in the Bible really happened. I am not saying that you are caught in fundamentalism but perhaps it might be a kind of ‘natural’ or ‘soft’ literalism. I am not suggesting that your thinking is stuck in Sunday School images, nor am I suggesting that you are avoiding change and an alternative approach but I am suggesting that we are struggling with the extremes of difference. We choose to be either fundamental, traditional, liberal or radical when it comes to our models of belief. All of us can be very suspicious of another’s picture of God especially when they do not match our own sense of ‘theological correctness’. Yet, we inherently know that the way we understand or picture God is very important.

They are important not because we are religious and need our pictures of God but rather because they are in danger of not being alive within us, shaping our approach to life. Sure, we can replace them with rugby, racing and beer but if we do we will remain passive consumers of a second-hand culturally immature faith, a faith of our Sunday School years. We will become the ‘couch potatoes of the spiritual world’ as Katharine Henderson described it.

When we read the scripture we see that both Abraham (if he was indeed ‘historical’) and Jesus, were alive with pictures of God. And their pictures of God are shaped, indeed, edited, in the stories we read in the Bible. Many of us can admit to reading these biblical stories as one who sees the Bible as a human product… Stories told as a response by these two ancient communities to their experience of God or the Sacred. That’s what makes us liberal or non-fundamentalist. Or as one scholar of the biblical tradition puts it; it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves’ (Borg 2001:22-23).

Out of all of this I think I am suggesting that God has an image problem. Or at least much of the church has a problem with the way it speaks about God. Both in the pictures it holds on to and the way in which it responds to these different images. In a digital, visual culture that we find ourselves in today this is even more crucial.

The traditional way of speaking about God has for so long been about a God above and beyond us. And who for the most part, simply sits as a threatening presence to reward or punish us for the way we have lived. The prevailing thing that comes to mind when God is mentioned is about something up there, out there in charge making things happen. Even if we have to do some mental gymnastics to deal with a God who lets bad things happen to good people. It is easier to just move on and not deal with the intellectual problems. It is also thought that we generally believe in that kind of God, often sung about in traditional hymns and contemporary choruses, that has many people today rejecting the church. The challenge of this is that the problem is not just theirs.  It is ours.

As Morwood and Spong and Borg and many others have claimed, we need to rethink our image, our picture, of God. Even those pictures of God that have sentimental significance for us from childhood days and happier times. And on that note, I want to borrow from a sermon by Rex Hunt where he talks about a couple of most unlikely theologians. Both feature in Alice Walker’s book (and later the film), The Colour Purple

The first theologian is called Celie.  She says: ‘When I found out that God was white and a man I lost interest.’ Celie is not alone in her thinking. As long as traditional Christianity emphasizes a white, male puppeteer God who favours the privileged, then many people will continue to lose interest. This comment is borne out here in our own congregation where more than one young person has said that they come to our community because we understand their struggle for a God that they can picture and image in their living. While this may be seen to be patting ourselves on the back it is a significant affirmation.

God is but one of the names given to the mysterious ‘Source’ of life so what sense does it make to limit the imagery to imagery that limits our imagination of this mystery or, what sense does it make not to search for a God who is God for us. And it seems that in our time this imagery needs to reflect that God is in all and all is in God. A God that reflects what we believe. This imagery needs to reflect and invite one to understand and value that which is interconnected, interdependent, dynamic, holistic.  Serendipitous creativity, perhaps?

The second theologian Rex notes is called Shug.  She says: ‘One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me: that I was a part of everything, not separate at all.  I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed.  And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house.  I knew just what it was.  In fact when it happens you can’t miss it… ‘I think it annoys God if you walk by colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…  People think pleasing God is all God cares about.  But any fool living in the world can see it’s always trying to please us back…’ Maybe our imagery need to reflect this co-creative, present, relational God

Rex suggests that Celie and Shug, as theologians, have found the immanency or the present-ness of God in the midst of ordinary daily events. Not as a person. Nor as a supernatural, intervening, celestial being. But as that creativity within us and within all life which makes it possible for us to love, to act compassionately, to offer even a cup of water…  in a style after Jesus.

To conclude my proposition today I think this call to rethink is a challenge to see difference differently. To see it as a challenge to move on, to think again and to create images that work today, to get past the debate about the negatives that difference evokes, not to deny them but rather to see them as contributions to shaping our own pictures of what God is for us. The question of Abraham’s motives and action, Bruce’s question of his father need to be asked because they are the sorts of questions that encourage us to make this kind of shift in our seeing and thinking and talking. It is the kind of God-talk that may help us think again about God, and how we can help others to a new picture of God.

Notes: Borg, M. Reading the Bible Again For The First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Pittenger, W. N. Picturing God. London. SCM Press, 1982.

 

Pentecost 3A, 2017 Matthew 10: 24-39

Wellbeing Is More Than Economic ‘Security’

Matthew the storyteller tells us a lot about his own particular community and how they worked and lived and created a sense of community to keep God’s dream and immanency or present-ness alive among them. And he does this is various ways. In Matthew we hear the story of the sending out of the apostles with the invitation to acquire and embrace new habits of seeing, and new habits of being. And we see that as far as we can make out, or guess, that ‘sending out’ was to be shaped by the broad gospel context of compassion. Com-passion. Feeling with. From the very depths of their person.

As all the biblical storytellers remind us, as they collected the fragments of sayings remembered by the early Jesus movement: Jesus’ own experiences with the marginalised and fragmented world of peasant villagers, had moved him in his ‘guts’, his ‘gizzards’, another way of saying this deep place of motivation is to say that he was moved in his ‘womb’, his very place of emergent being.

In the book ‘The Historical Jesus Goes To Church’, Bessler -Northcutt suggest that Com-passion, feeling with, is about helping those same peasant families and workers to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the taxation, farming policies, and religious purity codes had labelled them. And it is there that God’s presence and not Rome’s presence was fully established. It is in that engaging, empathetic relationship that God is present and not just in the removal of the shame and worthlessness. It is more than the ideology, more than the system, more than the culture. Changing the theory, the policy, and providing a new economic structure or ideology does not change things. It is in reaching the gut level, the empathetic level that enables the irrational, nonsense connection that is love at its best. This level of awareness and sensitivities had to become shaping factors in individual lives.

This week we hear some more of those instructions in our gospel story. But we also hear something new – a warning: ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Here I think we have the message about politics, social justice movements and even being the church, or engaging in community building, or ministry, or wellbeing activities. Be wise about getting into these activities, be innocent meaning don’t be judgmental or negative about these activities because they don’t ignore the individual self-commitment but they do challenge the dominant power structures of a society or group and like Jesus found out challenging these can be very risky business.

There was an interesting debate on talk back radio this week talking about the young southern MP who had put the election results at risk at one level and sullied all politicians at the other. I wondered if he was so new to the world of fake news or politics propensity for a non-absolute truth that he had made a mistake. He secretly recorded his staff and heard some not so nice comments about himself. He took those comments personally and used his political connections to deal with his dilemma. The discussion on radio was about his having been dishonest or lied to cover up his mistake but I wondered if it was just that he had little experience of the world of politics, and was naïve about the world of politics where truth is less about absolutes and more about public perception. We can be negative about political spin and political speech but it is the system where absolute truth is something to be wary of. One can be negative and say it is all lies and speaking a lot of words and saying nothing but that is the nature of a system that seeks to satisfy everyone at once. The contributors to talk back spoke about the MP being young and inexperienced, it was even suggested that his mother and family had pleaded for a fair-go because he was a good man. Again, I think we have the conflict between the individual and the structural or communal. It is what might be called the battle between situational ethics and political accomplishment. It very easily leads to individual banishment and political expediency, the person resigns and the blame shifts around till it dissipates.

But getting back to the general argument it is interesting to note, that living out a ‘dream’ is not easy, especially one which seeks to address the violations of human rights resulting from racism, poverty, poor housing, inadequate education and health care, let alone widespread apathy and indifference, and a lack of freedom. We know that living such a dream can and will shake any ruling elite to its core.

The dream in our story is that there is a place where politicians never stretch the truth, where economic theory or religious adherence can exist but only in the service of everyone. The reality is that when this is close to achievement there will be aggressive, abusive name calling and even violent responses. We even have parliamentary protection to enable this, and we expect the spin of politicians and play at holding them accountable to this impossible dream.

But to get to our specific topic for a bit we want to first enter that space that Rex Hunt calls the space where wise serpents and innocent doves reside, and we want to attempt to explore that space between economic theory and society’s wellbeing which comes from “being connected and engaged, from being enmeshed in a web of relationships and interests. This place between theory and practice perhaps, that gives meaning to our lives.”

There is a claim that despite all that governments say about economic theory, tax cuts, fiscal policy etc, evidence shows the focus on wealth creation as the foundation for raising wellbeing, is not all it proports to be. That claim says that “The relentless drive for greater economic efficiencies, which are needed to maintain high growth rates, has been accompanied by increasing inequality, sustained levels of unemployment, the growth in under- employment and overwork, pressures on public services such as health and education, and the geographic concentration of disadvantage, leading to deeper and more entrenched divisions within society.” It is acknowledged that the rise in technology contributes but there is the question as to what the technological advance is for that needs analysis. And just to take a little side track we read that certain words can and will influence artificial Intelligence because some words are naturally negative and others are positive and facial expression will become AI responses. In other words a grumpy person’s self-drive car might not start or an angry persons car might pull over and stop and wait till the occupant has calmed down.

Just as Jesus’ claim about an alternative society, an alternative social system to that which was based on a Roman view of human behaviour would end up getting him executed so the claim about an alternative to the common is without doubt powerful, and disturbing stuff! As we close in on our election this claim could even unsettle our own political persuasions and personal core values. Our system fluctuates between ideological extremes but does not raise alternatives from an economic centrality and an alternative would be upsetting to some. The challenge of an alternative criticizes our entrenched assumptions because it claims that our collective wellbeing or ‘happiness’ is improved if we live in a peaceful, flourishing, and supportive society, rather than if we have more money and more of the things money buys.

The title of my sermon presupposes the possibility of an alternative way of being holistically well, and I think it is because all of our human systems regardless of whether they are political, economic or social, are under pressure to change from the priori of an economic focused world. What if there is something other than socialism, capitalism, communism and all the isms? What if there was a way of shifting our systems to be more focused on outcomes that provide wellbeing as opposed to relying on economic theory and thus a profit motivated system that assumes wellbeing? If we want to retain the word economy then could it be seen as more about the disposition or regulation of the parts or functions of any organic whole? The regulation of an organized system or method as opposed to its most common interpretation, which is that economy means ‘the prosperity or earnings of a place or person?

 

The questions we would face then are how do we do this thing rather than what resources do we need to do this thing? How do we provide fulfilling work without money? Is it people doing something as opposed to being paid well? How do we reclaim, reprioritize our time? Is it by being paid more for less work or is it about doing more regenerative things for each other? How do we protect the environment? Is it less about making the environment work for us as opposed to working more with the environment? How do we ensure education contributes to our wellbeing? Is it about perfection and outcome for the individual or is it about experience and interpretation for each and every one? Is it about creating certainties and knowing facts or is it about living with uncertainties without absolutes? And so the questions go on. How do we invest in early childhood, discourage materialism and promote responsible advertising? How do we build communities and relationships, create a fair society and measure what matters?

What we do know is that widening disparities in incomes and access to services create resentment and disharmony, and we know that resentment and disharmony are time consuming engagements. Instead of blaming the victims of the systems we run, we should perhaps acknowledge that some people are left behind by the so-called market driven economy and do something about it rather than hold our hands up and say they are the product of their own making. They have a choice. The question is do they?

One of the startling outcomes of recent years is that we have become more self centered as nations and overseas aid has become a burden rather than an opportunity to care for each other. In recent years we have extended this to keeping refugees to a minimum and only allowing the movement of people if they can contribute to the particular nations economic theory. Maybe there is another way of ensuring more public funds go to overseas aid to help the poor in developing countries escape from poverty and destitution. It was interesting to see that one of the key issues that came out of the recent interactive TV program ‘What Next’ was that the eradication of poverty is a priority for us as a nation. And that is something that we no longer have a viable economic definition for, yet we know exists. What if poverty is the loss of an ability to participate in being well rather than being unable to participate in the economic system?

And to finish I want to ask what difference does our being a (progressive) Christian congregation make in the lives of others? Are suffering and marginalised people better off… Are the poor and homeless finding their lives improved… Do children have a brighter global future… Is this the case because we are on the journey which Jesus first chartered?

What I think is that throughout history the various sages and prophets have all counselled that wellbeing of the individual and as a community, is not a goal but a consequence of how we live. And this means that the changes I have implied are gospel imperatives can inspire healthier communities, stronger personal relationships, happier workplaces, a better balance between work and home, less commercialization, and greater environmental protection.

Likewise, by continuing on the journey which Jesus first chartered rather than worshipping that journey… And re-imagining the kingdom or realm or empire of God from the perspective of gospel compassion… we can all keep alive the dream and immanency or present-ness of God.

As Andrew Hamilton, Jesuit priest and editor of Eureka Street once said in an editorial, “Steady and decent public policies [by Governments] in which we can take pride actually build confidence.  — High human confidence is not only useful.  It is also valuable” (Eureka Street. 16 June 2008).

Notes: Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in A. Dewey. ed., The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press

Website; http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/.

 

Consider The Lilies Of The Field’

Isaiah 49:13-16a                 Matthew 6:25-31, 33-34.

A call to contemplation/mindfulness with imagination

Way back in the 1960s and early 70s, a contemporary theologian named Amos Wilder claimed that Jesus’ speech had the character, not of instruction and ideas, but of compelling imagination. (Wilder 1971). He claimed that Christianity is a religion of imagination and the oral word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

His ground-breaking scholarship was that Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance. This reminds us that as far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery where, ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’. In secular terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, oblivious of any concern for transcription or written record.

Less romantically we might say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is because writing things down has about it a sense of permanence. It presupposes continuity and a future. But the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken.  As Wilder said: “Jesus was a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1971:13).

Tradition has it, that one of the most important pieces of ‘Jesus voice’ is the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’, and the bits and pieces of sayings that the author of Matthew’s gospel puts after this collection, such as today’s sayings:

  • Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
  • Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
  • Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Generally speaking, most biblical scholars now days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the editorial work of the author of Matthew’s gospel, to place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another great teacher like Moses, in particular. However, many of those same scholars reckon that the particular everyday sayings which follow in the next chapter, and make up today’s Lectionary sayings, indicate every possibility that we have before us “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus” (Funk & Hoover 1993:152). So let us stay with this scholarly suggestion for a moment.

The biblical stories frequently have Jesus drawing his figures of speech from the everyday world around him. “The need for food calls the birds to mind, the need for clothing the lilies…” (Funk & Hoover 1993:153). Plus… as the 1950s Scottish theologian William Barclay helpfully said, Jesus was not advocating a thoughtless, improvident attitude to life, “but was warning against a care-worn, worried, fearful way of living each day” (Millar 2000:175).

That’s why many scholars claim Jesus was a secular sage, (Hunt 2007:6). He made no theological statements. Neither did he set out to establish a new religion. He belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism. That said, these particular sayings:

  • are addressed to people who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence, rather than with the broader political situation;
  • challenge common attitudes towards life, and
  • and of course they are exaggerations
  • and they do fit with some other sayings also attributed to Jesus.

 

In another but similar context, theologian Arthur Dewey says of Jesus’ sayings, they:

  • dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality,
  • admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal boat people/immigrants—whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’,
  • challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.

And the implications of these sayings and this vision? Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion: “…can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply” (Dewey 2002:80).

What is important about all these sayings is, the imagination bit. They make it possible for us to see the world, the everyday world in which we live, not only as it is, but also as it can be. To re-imagine. To move us to new places. To turn us into new people. And to lure a response from us that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, imprisons, others. And this brings us to the contemplation/mindfulness bit.

Clyde Reid in his book “Celebrate the Temporary’ wrote;

Celebrate the simple things: enjoy the butterfly embrace the snow run with the ocean delight in the trees or a single lonely flower

Go barefoot in the wet grass

Don’t wait until all the problems are solved or all the bills are paid You will wait forever

Eternity will come and go and you will still be waiting

Live in the now with all its problems and its agonies with its joy and its pain…

There is joy and beauty today It is temporary Here now and gone

So celebrate it while you can

I read this as a call to take time out, to engage more fully, waste a moment so that whet come next will have meaning. Consider the Lillies of the field. But just before we get into that we need to get some sort of working definition for mindfulness, which in today’s world is the discipline that psychiatry, psychology and counselling is suggesting as a means of dealing to depression, anxiety and many things listed under the term mental illness. Mindfulness is it seems the tool for a non-pharmaceutical approach to healing the mind.

Hold in your minds the idea that mindfulness is another mane for contemplation and that the wisdom tradition, the monastic tradition, the gnostics perhaps were all attempts to explore the wholistic human being. Being able to explore the imagination, the silence, the depths of thought were all ways of healing humankind. But to return to today we find that Dan Siegal summarizes mindfulness as “being aware, on purpose and non-judgmentally, of what is happening as it is happening in the present moment”.

Tara Brach defines is ‘The quality of awareness that recognizes exactly what is happening in our moment -to-moment experience”.

James Austin tries to capture the one-of-a-kind nature of mindful awareness when he speaks of ‘being mindfully attuned to the fresh individuality of each present moment as it evolves into the next one, and then the next one”

Jon Kabat-Zinn when speaking of lovingkindness meditation suggests mindful awareness is focused on someone you love. This is a blending of mindfulness into the experience of the relationship itself.

It is not surprising then that mindfulness/or contemplation as it is understood above involves the very areas of the brain that are involved in the creation of our capacity for compassion and intersubjectivity. In other words how my subjectivity, (the fact that I cannot ever get outside myself) interacts with your subjectivity (Out of which you cannot get either). It is by the practice of mindfulness that enables us to let go of judgmental processes and stay more ‘present.’ Meditation or contemplation can change the brain to become more empathetic and attuned to everything.

I want to show you a short video now that talks about this place that we might enjoy by being mindful through contemplation. But just before I do that I want to remind you about Eric Fromm’s 5 points about living a spiritual life.

  • He says that people who have a spiritual life believe there is a hierarchy of values – Love and compassion are seen as more important than distain for the Oxford comma.
  • That people who have a spiritual life know that life is not filled with simple answers, but that life is a series of questions that expand us.
  • That people who are engaged in a spiritual life know that life is about being transformed.
  • That people who have a spiritual life know that life is not about the self, but it is about transcending the self we think our selves to be. We need to free ourselves from our selves so we can be ourselves.
  • And that people who have a spiritual life know that there is an inter-connectedness of humanity and with one another.

I think that here we have the key to mindfulness as a discipline that does not abdicate the cognitive, reasoned world in favour of silence or nothingness, but rather through the awareness of self and the subjectivity of the self in tension with the other provides an experience that is birthed in the questioning of our devotion to our self and provides a willingness to be transformed in love and connectedness. Lets watch the video as I think Watts talks about this place of knowing or being mystical and engaged.

You Tube- Waiting for magic -Alan Watts

Emilie Townes, Professor of African American Religion and Theology, at Yale Divinity School, made a presentation to the ‘Voices of Sophia’ conference of Presbyterian women in the USA… Her oral presentation was shaped around a theme: What will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are. She didn’t offer a highly academic speech. Neither did she suggest she was talking about what makes any of us, perfect. What she did say was: “I’m talking about what we call in Christian ethics, the everydayness of moral acts… It’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action” (Townes 2006.  www.voicesofsophia.org)

Using ordinary rather than so-called ‘holy’ language, reminiscent of the one we call Jesus, Townes lists her everyday moral acts which her listeners, and now us, are invited to identify with:

  • the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk, to hear what they are saying;
  • the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh us through prayer or meditation;
  • the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths;
  • the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives; the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking;
  • the everydayness of sharing a meal;
  • the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment;
  • the everydayness of joy and laughter;
  • the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere, or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them;
  • the everydayness of blending head and heart;
  • the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.

It is in this everydayness, Townes says, that we are formed. Boundaries and differences are irrelevant. And in the everydayness of the Jesus imagination: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance. Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W. & R. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan, 1993. Hunt, R. A. E. 2007. “Progressive Christianity: New moves in Christian thinking and practice”. A presentation to Christian Jewish Dialogue ACT, 4 February 2007. Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000. Reid, C. Celebrate the Temporary. New York. Harper & Row, 1972. Wilder, A. N. Early Christian Rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1971. Dewey, A. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan”, in R. W. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Trinity A. 2017 Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity: A Theology And A Holiday..

It is Trinity Sunday today and once again we revisit the doctrine and ask what it is, what it’s use is and do we need it. But as always, I have tried to find something new to say and I have to say that it is getting harder every year.

John Robinson, the English 1960s radical bishop of Honest to God fame, said it had become a formula as arid and as unintelligible as E=MC2 that Einstein said was the clue to the physical universe.

Going back even further we find that Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century theologian and mystic, imaged it in grand metaphorical style: A brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire. And the three are one.

In more recent times we find in an article by Sean Kelly, Professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies, that Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, who are perhaps our most well-known cosmologists, apart from Carl Sagan perhaps, have provided another approach to the idea of Trinity. In his brief overview of the evolution of “the consciousness of the universe and its current crisis as humanity continues to destroy the life-support system of Earth, Kelly claims that, just as the collaborative effort of natural scientists and other researchers have revealed the outlines, at least, of a comprehensive cosmology, we find ourselves plunged into a maelstrom of unparalleled planetary madness. The madness: being a runaway catastrophic climate change, an accelerating mass extinction of species and generalized ecological deterioration, and a brutal, empire-driven regime of planetary apartheid”.

The wisdom of the article is the suggestion that the “Big History” type ‘grand narrative’ is a story that encompasses the mysterious origin in a “primal flaring forth” (popularly referred to as the Big Bang), “a growing, if perhaps never complete, understanding of the main stages of cosmic evolution, the complexities of embodied intelligence, the main thresholds of human history and the varieties of cultural expression, a sense of the lure or telos of the evolutionary adventure, and a prescient sense of growing planetary crisis. Complex yet trinitarian in nature, even if perhaps not traditionally sequential”. To be traditional it would be Father, Son and Holy Spirit = Big Bang, embodied intelligence and adventurous flaring forth. But then we must always remember what Bishop Jack Spong said: in one of his newsletters. “No one can ultimately define God, not even as the Holy Trinity.  The height of human arrogance is to suggest otherwise.  All any of us can do is define not God, but our experience with God. There is a vast difference between those two things. And this is the invitation to explore what our experience actually is. “The Trinity is a definition of our experience, nothing more.  Those that make this definition of our experience the definition of God, and call it the ‘bedrock belief of Christianity’ are not well informed” (Spong Newsletter, 2008).

In response to Spong there are those who argue that any person, who wants alternative names for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should be declared enemies of the church, or heretics, but I want to see if we can transcend that simplistic, ‘them and us’ approach and to do that I want to spend a bit of time following down the Sean Kelly path with Swimme and Berry.

Kelly starts with what he calls a cosmological wisdom that Swimme and Berry seek in their argument. They argue for a threefold “cosmogenetic principle,” or as he prefers to call it, a trinity of cosmogenetic principles. By cosmogenetic he is referring to the generating beginning, These cosmogenetic principles are —differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion— and they “refer to the governing themes and the basal intentionality of all existence” and can be said to reveal the deep structure of cosmogenesis. They are three mutually implicated dimensions or moments of the emergence, persistence, and evolution of form “throughout time and space and at every level of reality”. Swimme and Berry invoke these principles to help us understand the integral nature of cosmic evolution, from the primal flaring forth (with the mysterious relation between the original singularity—if indeed there was a singularity—and the initial break in symmetry, with its perfect, fine-tuned calibration between gravitation and the forces of expansion or spatiation and also among the four fundamental forces), through the emergence of particles, atoms, galaxies, stars (especially our own Sun), and planets (especially Earth or Gaia), to the emergence of life, human societies, and civilizations.

In all cases they underline how the three principles “are themselves features of each other.” In fact, as they say, if were there no differentiation, “the universe would collapse into a homogenous smudge; were there no subjectivity [which Swimme and Berry associate with autopoiesis], the universe would collapse into inert, dead extension; were there no communion, the universe would collapse into isolated singularities of being” Here I suggest they might just be talking about the doctrine of the Trinity the need for the distinctive threesome that reveals the interdependence of the three in the one or the need for a relational reality. To be relational one needs the differentiation.

Swimme and Berry state that their understanding of the triadic principle is based on the manifest cosmos rather than on some a priori metaphysical (whether philosophical or theological) concept or doctrine. At the same time, however, it must be conceded that this principle is remarkably coherent with expressions of the nature of wisdom in triadic form found in the world’s great metaphysical traditions (see Kelly, 2010). We know that, before turning to scientific cosmology, Berry had undertaken a deep study of Asian traditions, particularly Neo-Confucianism. This study discerned a tripartite patterning or principle that culminated in a state of harmony or balance.

We note here that the Confucianism was influenced by the earlier “original enlightenment” school of Buddhism, where we find the notion of the “threefold contemplation in one mind” that is, the integral nature of the three truths of – emptiness, conventional existence, and the middle. The forms of all things exerting their functions and arising in dependence upon conditions, is, without transformation, the threefold contemplation in its totality. (Stone, 178)

Kelly is not suggesting that the three cosmogenetic principles of autopoiesis, differentiation, and communion are identical with the Neo-Confucian triad but rather that all three triads participate in the same archetypal complex, or “cultural invariant”, to use Raimon Panikkar’s term, which he calls the “radical Trinity.” “I may also use a consecrated name:” he writes, “advaita [“not twoness”], which is the equivalent of the radical Trinity. Everything is related to everything but without monistic identity or dualistic separation.” (Panikkar, 2010, 404) The most encompassing expression of the radical Trinity is the integral or non-dual “theanthropocosmic” intuition of “Reality comprising the Divine, the Human, and the Cosmic in thoroughgoing relationality.” (xviii) “We are together with other Men,” Pannikkar observes, “on a common Earth, under the same Sky, and enveloped by the Unknown.” (268) These three terms remind us of the traditional Chinese triad of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. In Panikkar’s case, however, though deeply informed by both the non-dualism of Hindu advaita vedanta and the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising, which he translates as “interindependence”), the deeper source is speculative Christian Trinitarian theology (with which Berry was obviously also familiar, despite his lack of formal training in theology and his self-designation as a “geologian”). The key insight here is the “perichoretic”, or mutually generating, relation among the three “persons” of the Trinity.

Right about now you might be asking what the heck I am talking about and you could be right in asking that because it sounds to me like an argument for the doctrine that seems to be swallowed up in technical concepts and clever language. It seems like I am advocating for the Trinity and if that’s what it sounds like it probably is, so I shall try to round it off by accepting the trinitarian approach as a structure, is helpful in that it is consistent with not fully knowing, consistent with a subjective truth and inexhaustibly generative, from which arises form and determination, “being” in the sense of what can be concretely perceived and engaged with; that form itself is never exhausted, never limited by this or that specific realization, but is constantly being realized in the flux of active life that equally springs out from the source of all. Between form, “logos”, and life, “spirit”, there is an unceasing interaction. The Source of all does not and cannot exhaust itself simply in producing shape and structure; it also produces that which dissolves and re-forms all structures in endless and undetermined movement, in such a way that all form itself is not absolutized but always turned back toward the primal reality of the Source. (xviii)

Echoing Swimme and Berry’s statement quoted above regarding the mutual implication of the three cosmogenetic principles, Pannikar states: “God without Man is nothing, literally ‘no-thing’. Man without God is exclusively a ‘thing’ not a person, not a really human being, while the World, the Cosmos, without Man and God is ‘any-thing without consistency and being; it is sheer non existing chaos. The three are constitutively connected.’” (Panikkar, 1979, quoted in Sabetta) Like Panikkar’s “cosmotheanthropic” vision, Swimme and Berry see their cosmogenetic principles active throughout the entire universe story. It is in our middle realm of Earth however, that we see the principles in action most clearly and consequentially.

It is good that we can have a healthy discontent with the doctrine of the Trinity because what is important is as Marcus Borg’s book reminds us, it is The God We Never Knew, or a Catching Water in a Net that Val Webb writes about that keeps us human. This tension between one and three is a healthy response because as both Webb and Borg suggest the Latin and Greek words translated as ‘person’ do not mean what ‘person’ most commonly means in English. For us, ‘person’ means separate being. But ‘person’ in the ancient texts refers to the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman theatres. “To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God in known to us wearing three different ‘masks’… in three different roles” (Borg 1997:98). The Trinity not as doctrine but as creative concept and inviting of imagination is a welcome idea.

Here we have the image of a multifaceted sacredness creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing. Cumulatively speaking, Borg suggests that when we step away from a literalist understanding, ‘Trinity’ shows that: God is not a distant being but is near at hand. God is not primarily a lawgiver and judge but the compassionate one. And the religious life is not about requirements, but about relationship. Relationship between all things.

So, why have I given you the struggle with language and concepts of cosmology? Why have I tried to place the Trinity in the Big Picture? Well, I think it is because I believe that the more we can think progressively theologically then the more we can welcome honesty, be enriched by theological freedom, and spend less time on articulating literalistic doctrines that keep us focused on defining rules that limit God as opposed to exploring in a creative and imaginative way, seeking what a new human life can be. The way we imagine or understand God makes a difference. And anyway, in the words of Irish priest and theologian, Diarmuid O’Murchur: “How precisely the relatedness of Jesus differs from that of the Father and Spirit may well be one of the most meaningless questions ever asked” (O’Murchur 2005:52).

To finish off then, what’s with the holiday? Well its simply that all this Trinity stuff is not about defining God or Jesus or The Holy Spirit but rather about recognising the ever present-ness of God or the sacred, in all of our ordinary living. Then maybe thinking about God can suddenly become a whole lot more fun. Trinity Sunday and a holiday weekend perhaps. Maybe we could weave together these seemingly unrelated and in some ways, perhaps contradictory events…. After all the Trinity has for many people, become one of the more complicated of doctrines… Obscure. Abstract. And far too serious. Maybe a three-day holiday weekend with football or rugby and meals together, might just help. Having a holiday weekend with Trinity Sunday in the middle, could allow us to emphasize certain aspects of God’s nature we are likely to ignore when we take our creed-driven neo-orthodox theologies so seriously! Having a holiday at this time of the year could remind us that simply getting together as a family for dinners and family gatherings and taking delight in each other and in the world around us…

These suggestions, echo and reflect something of the spirit of God in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. That there is wisdom to be found in merely being playful. Having a mid-winter party, or barn dance or whatever. And we are expressing something of God’s own nature. The mystery of the livingness of God in a wondrous community…a creative energy beyond, a compassionate traveler with, and an empowering friendship within, connecting ‘all creation’ together.

Maybe… just maybe, this is really what the storyteller Matthew is on about. That the essence of God is to be in mutual relation… A mystery of dynamic communion of connectedness. A dancing and celebrating emmanuel at a party. Rather than the literal and liturgical interests of the ‘church fathers’ who set this lectionary story for this Sunday with its tenuous links to the so-called doctrine of the Trinity.

Notes: Borg, M. J. The God We Never Knew. Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York. HarperCollins, 1997. O’Murchu, D. Catching Up With Jesus. A Gospel Story for our Time. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 2005. Webb, V. Like Catching Water in a Net. Human Attempts to Define the Divine. New York. Continuum Press, 2007.

Kelly Sean Cosmological Wisdom and Planetary Madness www.tikkun.org/nextgen/cosmological-wisdom-planetary-madness

http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/