‘Beyond Moral Obligation’

Posted: November 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 12: 28-34

 ‘Beyond Moral Obligation’  

Back in about 2005 or so Ian Lawton an Australian Colleague who was for a time Priest at St Mathews in the city wrote some notes about what some parents taught their children about religion. While we might recognize some of these moments from the past they are not indictments on parenting as they held within them some elements of wisdom and practicality but they also held within them some religious belief as well. They are sort of tongue in cheek and they are also indicative of some religious belief.

The first is a comment on prayer- it goes “You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet.” The second is on Obedience- ” Because I’m your mother and I said so, that’s why.” The third is Compassion- “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

The fourth is on Perseverance- “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables.”

The fifth is on the blessing of receiving- “You’re going to get it when you get home!” The sixth is about Tradition- “You’re just like your father.” Seventh Wisdom- “When you get to our age, you’ll understand.” and eighth is Justice- “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”

While these comments might seem a bit harsh as an indication of what we believe about life they are significant in that they are learnt from significant others, and can make a huge difference to us. And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that! The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story of the ‘widow and the coins’, can be one such example. And we shall unpack this a bit.

On its own, which is usually how we hear it every three years, this story lends itself easily to moralizing about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, who gave of all she had. But I want to suggest there is a broader, and perhaps more important story, that Mark is suggesting here. And that broader story seems to be about naming a system which abuses poor people.

We approach this by suggesting that at one end of this system we have powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows and an announcement that says you can’t do that and think you can get away with it, at the other end. And in the middle we have the story of the ‘widow and the coins’. Put all these together… and what we hear is Mark, the storyteller, weaving together echoes of the Hebrew scripture’s constant concern for widows and other outcasts. This is not new because we hear also the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment of their day for exploiting the vulnerable. We also bring to mind the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders.

So…  is the ‘widow and the coins’, a story about boundless generosity and self- sacrifice? Or is it more pointed evidence under-girding Mark’s Jesus who judges against an exploiting religio-politic of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story, this widow story is often offered as a model of stewardship to encourage giving to the church. Yet when the stories are stitched together it suggests a very different reading. Nothing short of a radical protest against the use of religion and politics and power to victimize those who are powerless and vulnerable. As Ian Cairns says; That’s different.  And that’s very challenging. Because heard with those ears this story becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201).

One of the difficulties with this is that it seems to suggests that the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book. This makes it difficult to use when working with younger children as it makes the line between just telling the bible stories and telling what you think they mean for today difficult to discern. Theories of child development and readiness for the metaphorical and the morals of a story get complex. I suspect this is why Bible in Schools is fraught in today’s environment of knowledge and understanding.

One position I think we as progressive liberals might take is to suggest something like this… When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories we need to be very careful how we do that. Because our general tendency is to: (i) take the stories or quotes out of context, or (ii) over-spiritualize or domesticate them. To hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories often means we will have to unlearn much of what we have been taught.

And for some folk that can be really threatening. But that’s what many contemporary biblical scholars are calling for. Seek out the broader context. But also listen with a healthy dose of skepticism. And this is even from those of the evangelical end of the church. In this telling comment one scholar, from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, a certain William O’Brien says: “The scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing.  Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity….” And he goes on: “the Word…  must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths.  To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible” (WO’Brien. Web site /The Other Side).

The truth is that a system which keeps people in poverty is evil.  Period. But to that one person, their poverty and their hunger is just that. Very real hunger and poverty, every day. And that’s the ‘hard’ saying, and its tension shouldn’t be ‘softened’. Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable, especially if they had no sons to protect them.

Both the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘widow’ come from word roots that suggest ‘helplessness’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘being forsaken’. And what all these people have in common is their “isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness” (JDonahue, 2000, <americamagazine.org>).

The Old Testament and Process Theology scholar Robert Gnuse suggests that the term ‘scribe’ in the ancient world, was more than likely used, not to described a religious group or party, but more likely “[was] a general term for affluent landowners, probably urbanites, who could manipulate the poor brutally in order to make more wealth” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). This is a challenge to the more sanitized reference to scholar or learned sect. Gnuse suggests that we live so well because we import cheap goods from overseas made by people in factories who sometimes are brutally underpaid.  We live well because they live poorly.  We thus should identify ourselves… with the scribes in this passage, not the widows” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). So rather than our story being a moralising story about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, it is really a story about the need for a fair distributive justice.

And to test this we hear a comment from another scholar named Beth Quick. In her sermon for this day (in 2003) she writes: “… perhaps you have heard it said that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this world.  Or that the top 1 or 2 percent own or hold a huge disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth.

Now, we have all heard these statistics, and shaken our heads in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by so few.  But when we get past the figures what really shocks us is that we are in the top 1 percent. To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, one simply needs a household income similar to ours.  This suggests that Jesus is speaking about (most of) us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” (BQuick 2003/ <www.bethquick.com>).

I was trolling through stuff on my phone the other day when I came across a video report posted by Action Station Aotearoa claiming we have a justice system that is broken because it fails to ask the hard questions about systemic issues like colonization and its underlying effect on the numbers and ethnicities of those in prisons. It claims this because of the list of countries which have the most indigenous people in prisons and these countries are all countries that have been colonized. And by that I think it is meant not those who have been subject to historic movements of people migrating but those countries that have in their history a clear historical period that was linked to an intentional colonization period by another more superior country. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Get beyond the blame game and address the systemic issue beneath.

And let’s be clear, it is not easy to hear that we belong to a privileged grouping and when it comes to our Christian faith we are confronted with unlearning much of what we’ve been taught if we are to understand these claims. In our case it is especially hard to hear that the destruction of the way we have been brought up on the Bible stories needs to be relearned. It is hard for us to understand that to change our thinking is an exciting and challenging experience. That sharing in that experience with a group of equally open-minded people is a positive and empowering and liberating experience. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Look beyond the injustice faced by the widow and see why widows find themselves among the poor, look beyond the Maori of Pacific Islander in prison and see why they number among the most incarcerated.

Get beyond the moral obligation as one of the few privileged and see the system at work beneath.

As challenging as it can be to suggest that for years we have got it wrong, or missed the point, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical stories as if we’ve never heard them before. We are called to • Probe for fresh aspects. • Listen for new voices, including the silent voices. • and be surprised. This is what is known as separating the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus! See the agenda in the text so as to find the real story so to speak. This is why self-awareness is so important. This is why awareness of the big picture is so important. That’s the journey the Spongs and the Scotts and the Funks and the Herzogs of our day are calling us to share in. To take a lead in. To empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different, post-modern world. One where fewer people find themselves in prisons, where fewer people are among the widows because of culture, and if any congregation can do that, this congregation can! And continue to do it well! And I can’t resist the opportunity to suggest that our attempt as a private Christian school was and is an attempt to tell the bible stories beyond the moral obligation, beyond the bias of the elite and the privileged that we are. An attempt to empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different and new world. Amen.

Notes:

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

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Possible In The New…

Posted: October 24, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 23B, 2018
Mark 10: 46-52

Possible In The New…

Ian Cairns’ writes: “Mark [the storyteller] also wishes to stress that faith, rightly understood, is not dependence-inducing, but rather is eliciting of a sturdy independence.  Faith is choosing to trust that life’s kindliness does not support us, however circumstances seem to contradict this…”.

The Jesus of the Marcan story we just read, saw and heard Bartimaeus and did something about it. He offered some simple words and ordinary caring. Jack Spong says that “In Jesus we have met a presence of God… come among us offering life, love, and being to this world” (J S Spong. 2003).

The question we have now is; is this what blind Bartimaeus saw in Jesus? Did he see a God presence offering life, love and being? Tom Boomershine, an Australian storyteller when working with this story, says: “Jesus response is a word of affirmation and encouragement in which he gives permission for Bartimaeus to act on the power implicit in his own faith” (Boomershine 1988:128).

If we put this scene into our context today we might get a bit confused given that our environment seems to be caught up in the loss of absolute truth and the power of perception and the importance of rhetoric. The wild debates around what is and is not PC or politically correct and just scuttlebutt. Where is common sense in all this, in fact what is common sense anymore. Our human systems of order seem to be in some chaotic meltdown process and it is hard to discern where to from here. In the context of our story, who is the nobody in the world’s eyes? It might be the gullible, or the naïve or even the sensible.

On the perhaps more positive side of this picture is the concern for education, and the concern for mental health. Sir Ken Robinson says that “Given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed — it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.” This needs good teachers and good teachers are teachers for whom teaching is a vocation not a job, it is not an exchange of offering for reward, it is a valuing of a gift, a making an authentic place for an offering of love for humanity. Pay is part of it but only when it is alongside a true valuing of the person.

Here we have a nobody in the world’s eyes, a sidelined person, a blind beggar sitting in the dust. And then, suddenly, and to the surprise of all, he becomes the hero of the story. When he raised his voice, when he spoke out, when he challenged the culturally expected people were quick to remind him he was a nobody. Hey! Shut up! Be quiet! No-one wants to listen to you! Get back in the closet! But then with the persistence which can characterize the desperate, the deviant, the different he doesn’t shy away from being a nuisance… I am not odd, I am not stupid, I am not a case to be handled, I am not a need to be met. I’m a person, not a discounted person or a person to be discounted. Mark’s Jesus responds, hears his request, and, we are told, makes him whole.

William Loader, the Australian biblical scholar, suggests this is storyteller Mark at his subversive best. “Mark can do this because he knew such stories.  Jesus did not sideline people. Jesus responded to what were seen as the ‘hopeless cases’ of his day” (William Loader/Web site-2003). This is a central theme to the ministry of Jesus and here again “Whether at the symbolic level or at a literal level, the story illustrates an approach to people which is central to Jesus’ teaching” (WLoader/Web site-2003).

About now you might be saying yes; we recognize this theme. It’s a familiar one in almost all of Marks stories We hear this ‘inclusive’ theme in Mark as we hear of children, legalism, Toll collectors, Lepers, Purity Rules and women. “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers, and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts.  They are exiles from their native social, political, economic and religious traditions.

One of the reasons perhaps as to why we hear these themes often is that they are humanity’s most likely areas of neglect. We remember also that much of Jesus’ energy in controversy is with his fellow Jews. He spent lots of his energy trying to show that scripture needed to be interpreted in a way which sees its priority as concern for human well-being.

In responding as he did to Bartimaeus as he did Jesus is giving him permission to express and act on the power implicit in their own faith or religious journey, especially when others want to say to them: shut up! His action is an affirmation of courage and faith and encouragement which allow that faith or religious journey to be fully lived out… offering life, love and being. The challenge is also to see the shut up, get back in your closet response is born in the fear of change, the fear of having to integrate a huge change of world view. That’s the clear defining characteristic of a life lived out of fear. It sees the loss of fear as a life of chaos, of frightening openness. A life of so much choice it is akin to madness. It is threatened by the possible in the new.

Another dimension to this dilemma is what might be termed neo-liberalism or trickle-down theory. Leave it to the free market to provide. This seems to have ignored the fact that human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. One has to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface waiting to be turned into money. One has to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” One has to listen and I mean really listen to Bartimaeus. No good just paying lip-service. Co-creators must participate, take responsibility for one’s role, act in God’s image if you like.

I want to interject a note on systemic, archetypal and mythical suggestion here in that I think we are at a point in time where we need to listen to Bartimaeus again. Not to argue for the replacement of neo-liberalism by state control or some sort of socialist expression but rather to suggest that most of us who hold power in the world in all areas of human endeavour are facing obsolescence on a big scale if we don’t listen hard enough. Get beyond our partisan positions and listen to the big picture that underlies the voice of our Bartimaeus. Our particular world in our particular part of history was created in the interests and images of industrialism. In many ways, we reflect the culture our world was designed to support. Our systems are based on the principles of the assembly line and the efficient division of labour and our economies are exchange based. We do this in exchange for that, we provide this in exchange for that. Our knowledge is a commodity to be valued monetarily and we divide it up into specialist segments in order to impose a value on it.: We arrange our days in standard units of time, marked out by the clocking on and off, or the amount of product we produce. Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. Our super schemes are related to age in the workforce, thus the debate about superannuation being paid for by one’s tax contribution. What I think the voice of Bartimaeus is saying here is “Hey, I am here, its my worth you are talking about, am I of any value?” ‘Just because I can’t see do this mean that I am of no value?” Just because I can’t till fields, make mats, herd sheep, build houses, doesn’t mean I can’t sing songs, tell stories, teach and participate in human flourishing. What if the world was based on the assumption that what I as one of billions of persons bring to the world is of value? What if what I did was of value not for what it gets in return but just for what I give?

Given our current worldwide disillusionment with politics, international relationships, economic uncertainty and chaotic diplomacy Mark’s story about a bloke called Bartimaeus is an important story. Especially in our religious tradition, at this time as we need to listen to all the Bartimaeus’. Jesus had to hear him and enable him to transform his place in the society. Human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And we cannot predict the outcome of human development. What we are called to do is to create the conditions under which the oppressed may begin to flourish.” We need to listen to all the voices that speak up against injustice, apathy, ignorance and assumption. For when we do listen, we know they affirm the journey we are all on. We invite them into the sacred conversation and enable their voice to share in the journey of transformation. And in that journeying which we might call life or living we and others are blessed. Amen.

Notes:
Bausch, W. A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications, 1998.
Boomershine, T. E. Story Journey. An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling. Nashville. Abingdon Press, 1988.
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books., 2004
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

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Pretending to be asleep?

Posted: October 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 22B, 2018
Mark 10:35-45

Pretending to be asleep?

I want to begin today with a paraphrase of our text from Mark. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” In other words we are worried and maybe even a bit afraid so how about you help? And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words we want the assurance you have. We want to know that we will be ok in the future so can you keep us close to you in this realm of God you talk about. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In other words, do you really know what you are asking? Have you thought this through as my life is at risk because I have taken on the world that we know and live in. By joining me in my baptism there is only one way this will end. Baptism is a whole of life journey. They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; In other words ok you will come with me. but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” In other words ‘coming with me on this journey is a commitment to leave everything worthwhile behind and risk your very existence. You will only know you have arrived when you get there. When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. Now look what you have done, you have made it impossible for all of us. You have caused the setting of entry standards beyond our reach. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” See its not about getting on the coattails of God, hedging one’s bets on the journey being comfortable. It’s about participating as a servant of good, in fact its about service itself, serving as an orientation for living, a doing for others, not as an unthinking obedient slave but as a collective corporate existence.

We have just finished our General Assembly in Christchurch and we await the uplifting, confident encouragement that our church is in mission. It is no longer consumed by debates and rulemaking about who’s in or out, who’s eligible to be a leader in our church or who’s not. It is no longer consumed with its decline in income and what to do with its growing value in assets. Its no longer hell bent on telling the world how to think and how to behave as if the world will listen. Our hope is that it has in traditional fashion, listened to its people explaining where the world is at and what the world is saying and it has with the help of all those present found how to encourage, resource and facilitate, mission initiatives among the people of the world. Surely the business of the church is about enabling mission as opposed to more efficiently managing the decline. As was said to me the other day about the current plan for strategic management of the church’s property portfolio, it is good for the institution, it will focus on the efficiency of the management but it will have little to offer mission. Having your seat on the left or right of Jesus is not the issue. It is about risking the alternative, about the leap of faith, about the stepping out beyond the frontier, it is about God’s mission which you know exists but have little idea of how to secure your seat. It’s in the risk of Baptism and not the security of appointment to power. It’s about moving with God’s Spirit, and that is best understood when wrestling with it and engaged in that wrestling together. It is not about finding out how to avoid it.

There’s a prayer by a J Wood that could be helpful at this point. The prayer seems to give insight into what a Session, Presbytery and General Assembly might do at its meetings, consider as motivation for its gathering and remember when it is caught up in seeking to claim its place alongside Jesus. It goes like this….

Galilean Jesus,
on hills and near beaches you called people
around you for reflection, explanation and resolution.

So now we reflect together, knowing that
we will hear wise words if only we listen intently.

We each bring some knowledge and some understanding
and we bring our faith,
incomplete,
sometimes uncertain, but willing.

Help us to complete our task together
and to be resolute in gospel action.
Amen. J Wood

The challenge in that prayer is that the only role General Assemblies, Presbyteries and Sessions have is not to meet, as if that is a committee’s or council’s reason for existence is to manage, but rather, “to be resolute in gospel action”. The challenge in business language might be to not expect to sell your ice blocks to eskimos but rather to feed the hungry. The question we ask today is how did our General Assembly go? There seems to have been a lot of words said and discussion had and there may have been some resolution passing. But was there any theology debated? Was there any social justice action planned? Was there any theological exploration into why fewer people call themselves religious let alone Christian? Was there any theological and sociological discussion about why fewer people see the worth of a faith journey? And I don’t mean wallowing in the church’s decline and finding reasons that justify our reasons for doing nothing, that is just the church looking at itself through its own lens and it is a good way of avoiding the real questions. If you and I believe so strongly that the Jesus Way is a convincing call to live our lives in that manner why is it that others do not? Why are people not flocking to call themselves followers of Jesus? Its more than ‘they just haven’t heard that truth’, and its more than’ we haven’t told them our story yet’. The story is already out there and they seem to be rejecting it. I wonder why?

I often think that this dilemma is the one that lies at the heart of St David’s frustration about an educational project as our mission. Show us how it will provide a congregation. Show us how it will add success to the institution; show us how it will not have a detrimental effect on other church schools. All these seem to be focused on the survival of the institution as opposed to the gospel in action. Maybe they think we don’t know what the gospel is, or maybe its because there is some confusion around what it is so let’s not do anything. Or maybe its because St David’s are thinking too far out of the institutional theological boundaries. I might agree with this last critique but I rather think its because no theology is being done because it might rock the institutional boat.

On the Presbyterian Website it says that there are thirteen schools with associations to the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. It also says that each school has its own story, valued traditions and current flavour but they all share the special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. My question is a mission question and it is; what is the special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian, Reformed tradition? What does it mean and what is it about St David’s proposal that is outside that reformed tradition?

I want to now switch tack a bit and explore some reasons for what I think is our dilemma as a church. In the mid-1980s Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.” And I think this might be a charitable reason to consider.

Our church has been virtually paralysed by more than 30 years of debate and dispute
over human sexuality and falling attendance numbers. Led by the fundamentalists, ultraconservatives, and many liberals our Church has shown itself to be too anxious about these issues to risk perceived additional losses at the hands of, what might be termed, theological reform. Even the liberals were limited in their concern for deconstruction and universality and afraid to embrace constructive theological reform. Today at least among thinking people the message is clear. What is perhaps a ‘progressive’ Christian grassroots movement is loud and clear: that theological and liturgical reform is the much -needed root of ‘gospel action’ today. As we at St David’s have explored this desired reform should include as Hal Taussig said in 2006:

  1. a spiritual vitality and expressiveness,
  2. an insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity,
  3. a transgression of traditional gender boundaries,
  4. the belief that Christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion, and
  5. (v) strong ecological and social justice commitment.

Like others I want to suggest that today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, touches on this matter of ‘gospel action’ or ‘mission’. It does this in that it seeks to empower its listeners. It appears Jesus was experienced as powerful, but in an empowering way. His life did not require him to seek power for his own sake, but to own the power he had in compassion and in self-giving. His call was to model a new kind of being in the world. Not to be served but to serve. Not to be about maintenance, or in-reach, but to be at mission, at outreach, at risk taking stuff, or as suggested, at ‘gospel action’. The challenge to us is to stop pretending to be asleep and get on with God’s Mission. Amen.

It Was A Test

Posted: October 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 10: 2-16

It Was A Test

I don’t think the reading this morning has anything to do with Divorce. Not only because the text actually relates to marriage but also because I don’t think the text is addressed to individuals. It is in my view more likely to be a descriptive of and a helpmate to community. I am here suggesting that we approach this text in a different way to the traditional literalist way and a way different from an intensely personal way. This will not be all that easy because most of us will have had some contact with divorce, be it personal experience of family experience or someone close to you. What such an experience does is influence us to hear this passage as addressed to particular individuals and feeling ashamed or angry or hurt or embarrassed, and that’s totally understandable. Especially if Jesus imagined these words being addressed to individuals.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think he did. I don’t think this text is anything to do with the personal but rather is about the communal. We note, for instance, how Mark sets up this scene: “Some Pharisees came and to test him, said ‘Is it lawful…. Here we have the suggestion that this isn’t a casual – or even intense, conversation about love, marriage, and divorce. It’s a test. And not even a test about divorce, but rather about the law. We remember here that there were, in that time, several competing schools of thought about the legality of divorce. Not so much about whether divorce was legal – everyone agreed upon that – but rather under what circumstances. And with this question of test, the Pharisees are trying to pin Jesus down, trying to label him, trying to draw him out and perhaps entrap him so that they know better how to deal with him. I felt a little like Jesus might have felt at a recent Auckland Council hearing where the issue was about Church verses buildings and the Council was trying to test my understanding of heritage in a lawful sense.

But Jesus was having none of this. He deflects their question away from matters of the law and turns it instead to relationship and, in particular, to God’s hope that our relationships are more than legal matters but instead help us to have and share more abundant life. Hence the turn to Genesis: questions of marriage and divorce, he argues, aren’t simply a matter of legal niceties, but rather are about the Creator’s intention that we be in relationships of mutual dependence and health.

In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable. When a woman was divorced she lost pretty much everything – status, reputation, economic security, everything – so how can they treat this as a convenience, Jesus asks, let alone a debating topic. The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter. One could also say that when we literalize this text, when we see it as about the legalities of marriage and divorce we are placing the law before the people as opposed to the people before the law.

The thing to see here is that Jesus isn’t speaking to individuals, he’s instead making a statement about the kind of community we will be. In fact, he’s inviting us to imagine communities centered in and on real relationships; relationships, that are founded on love and mutual dependence, fostered by respect and dignity, and pursued for the sake of the health of the community and the protection of the vulnerable. Marriage and divorce in his time was a time when women were chattels, vehicles for the man’s child. Procreation was the primary purpose for women’s existence. There are several brief articles from the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible about this text.  First, the article on divorce (IDB, I, 859) reveals that “something objectionable” (NRSV) in Deut. 24:1 was very loosely defined.  Indeed there were two schools of thought as to what this meant:  “The Hillel school viewed this as a general term, and the Shammai school took it to mean adultery only.”  A woman’s inability to bear children was a common reason for divorce.  The article on marriage is also instructive (IDB, III, 278f).  We note the following:  “The husband has the power over his wife…She has rights and freedoms only within the context of this authority…  The husband may even revoke a vow that his wife made to God, if he sees fit. (Num 30:10-13)…” Finally, the article on woman is also revealing:  “The father received a bride price for his daughter and thus engaged in a contract with the prospective husband to make her sexuality available to him.  This transaction, however, was not a transfer of chattel property.  Rather it was the surrender of authority over a woman by one man to another.” (IDB, IV, 864f) All of this reveals why Jesus viewed wives as “the little ones” (in other words; vulnerable ones needing protection).  In his critique of law, Jesus was championing the cause of women who would be living in abject poverty, without support, if dismissed by their powerful husbands.

The background to this world was a past where female children were exterminated at birth, and despite the fact that we now think that women played a significant and founding role in the Jesus movement, in fact may have been instrumental in the survival of the movement, Jesus here was challenging all the historical cultural assumptions by challenging the use of marriage and divorce as a tool for the law when trying to protect their world view.

The interesting part about this is that even though the discussion has been about divorce, I don’t think that’s really the heart of what’s going on here. We can be grateful the lectionary includes the next verses describing the reaction of Jesus’ disciples to those bringing children to Jesus to bless and, more importantly, Jesus’ reaction to the same.

We go back to the context and remember that Jesus has announced his intention to go to Jerusalem to probably or maybe die and, in response, his disciples argue about who is the greatest. Jesus in turn tells them that to be great is to serve, and that the very heart of the kingdom he proclaims is about welcoming the vulnerable. In fact, he says that whenever you welcome and honour a child – one who had the least status and power in the ancient world – you were actually welcoming and honouring Jesus. Now, on the heels of this conversation about the purpose of the law, some folks bring their children to be blessed and the disciples try to keep them away. And Jesus intervenes, forcefully, saying that welcoming the kingdom pretty much means welcoming children, that is, the vulnerable, those at risk, and those in need.

This suggests that this whole passage, is about community. But it’s not the kind of community we’ve been trained to seek. It’s not, that is, a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. Rather, this is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community, in other words, of those who know their need and seek to be in relationship with each other because they have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.

Here we have the seeds of what a church might be about – in traditional language, a place for all those who have been broken by life or rejected by the powerful and who come to experience God through the crucified Jesus as the One who met them precisely in their vulnerability, not to make them impervious to harm but rather open to the brokenness and need of those around them. And let’s be very honest here. This is not easy to remember! The Church is not for us who have made it. Even Paul speaking into the movement before it became known as Church had to remind the Corinthians of this.

When we consider our own call to walk the Jesus Way, in hindsight we could say that not many of us were wise by human standards, not many of us considered ourselves powerful, not many of us were of noble birth. There is a sense that we were foolish and weak and were chosen to shame the wise; chosen as weak in a world to shame the strong. Perhaps we were not chosen as low and despised in the world but chosen because we are vulnerable in the face of something like the law. Not in the sense of woe is me, not as a need to reduce to nothing things that are real, but rather as one who is vulnerable to the systems and intentions of a world that can alienate, isolate and destroy the very fabric of life.

We are reminded that part of being human is to be insecure, to be aware of our need and, in light of the cultural preference for strength, power, and independence, to maybe even be embarrassed by our need. For this reason, Paul, following Jesus, reminds us that to be broken isn’t something to be ashamed of. Rather, to be foolish, unfinished, incomplete and broken is, in fact, to be human. And to be human is to be loved by God and drawn together into relationship with all the others that God loves. Which means that our gatherings on Sundays are local gatherings of the broken and loved, of those who are hurting but also healing, of those who are lost but have also been found, of those that know their need and seek not simply to have those needs met but have realized that in helping meet the needs of others their own are met in turn.

The challenge today is to look at our text, not so much as instructions about divorce but instead as an invitation to see our communities as those places where God’s work to heal and restore the whole creation is ongoing, not by taking away all our problems but surrounding us with people who understand, and care, and help us to discover together our potential to reach out to others in love and compassion? We can tell people that we are communities of the broken, but we are those broken whom God loves and is healing and, indeed, using to make all things new?

We are then, in short, communities of the broken and blessed. And let’s be honest here, that can be a hard message to hear because it runs contrary to conventional wisdom about strength and security. To be strong is to be blessed. To be in control is to be blessed whereas we are seen in today’s environment as people in therapy, in need of religion to get through life. Dependent on an old story. We are seen as foolish, but we know it can also be life-giving, not only to those who know themselves to be broken and wonder if this is a place to them, but also to those in denial, seeking relentlessly to make it on their own, even if it kills them. Our text rather than being about those who have failed in marriage or whose ideals are foolish and unattainable, is rather about how one might discover God’s life-giving grace, love, and mercy. Amen.

Outsiders

Posted: September 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 9:38-50

Outsiders

Demons and hell and self-mutilation! This is pretty heavy stuff. While the violence of this language is particularly striking after the immediately preceding portrait of Jesus gently taking a child into his arms, the harshness of these sayings affirms the absolute seriousness of Jesus’ message. The pericope as a whole instructs the disciples to remove whatever barriers stand before the Kingdom of God, but the surprising news is that it is often the disciples themselves who are the ones in the way.

We need to be careful here not to dismiss the exorcism as in the land of witches and warlocks because even as late as 90 CE we had Jewish Exorcists using Solomon’s Methods in conducting an exorcism. Josephus that great Jewish historian reminds us that

God helped Solomon learn the technique to heal and treat men against demons. He also composed incantations by which spiritual disorders are remedied. Solomon left behind methods of exorcism by which the possessor will drive out demons so that they never return. Josephus talks about the method as being a very powerful therapy where one would hold a ring that had one of those roots prescribed by Solomon under its seal to the nose of the demoniac; then, when he smelled (it), the demon came out through the (victim’s) nostrils. And when the man collapsed on the spot, the demon was made to swear never to enter him again. The healer would invoke Solomon and recite incantations Solomon had composed. Sometimes to prove the therapy a bowl of water was placed nearby and order the demon to upset the bowl as evidence that it had actually left the man.

In Mark the problem with the unauthorized exorcist is not that he has failed to show himself as a follower of Jesus but that he is not following “us.” Once again, the disciples grapple with the issues of identity and authority, but Jesus’ response is clear: “Do not stop him.” This command and the following instruction call the disciples to respond to believers outside of their community in a way that does not hinder them. By recognizing the legitimacy of the exorcist’s work, the disciples are forced to acknowledge that Jesus’ transformative power extends beyond their own inner circle. The knowledge that others are effectively engaging in ministry invites the disciples to consider the existence of a broad Christian fellowship marked only by belief in Jesus. One can sense here the world where the gospel was going beyond the devout Jew to include other Jewish sects and variations of Judaism. Perhaps a hangover from the demise of the Northern Kingdom and then the overthrow if Judah. The gospel was needing to include the so-called outsiders if it was to retain authenticity.

This revelation in turn alerts the disciples to the nature of their own ability to pursue ministry. Clearly the source of the disciples’ capacity to accomplish any work is found in Jesus alone rather than either in the disciples themselves or in their status in any particular group. Verse 42 reinforces the injunction against interfering with the mission of those outside of the disciples’ inner circle and initiates a block of text warning the disciples against placing similar stumbling blocks before themselves.

The metaphors of hand, foot, and eye invite the disciples to evaluate the totality of their existence to discern any behaviour, self-conception, or world view that hinders the attainment of a fuller relationship with God. The issue here does not seem to be one of actions in this life that lead to eternal reward or punishment in a life to come. Instead, the kingdom is so presently accessible that the disciples need only remove any stumbling blocks of their own making that obstruct an otherwise open path. By identifying and eliminating any self-destructive resistance, the disciples are drawn into the life of the Kingdom of God and are released from the hell that is separation from God.

The closing sayings about salt instruct the disciples to purify themselves by removing whatever contaminant hinders the effectiveness of their mission. This metaphor of purification complements the metaphor of cutting away that which causes one to stumble. Again, the disciples are commanded to adopt a rigorous self-discipline that leads to greater effectiveness in ministry.

What we might think about here is that this text invites communities to identify the self-constructed stumbling blocks that prevent flourishing. In other words, are there subtle ways in which the church sabotages its very own ministries? Are the goals of committees in conflict with each other? Is the ministry of the church controlled by a select few whose needs and interests do not represent the larger body? Is the church clinging to a self-identity that no longer reflects its membership or a vision that no longer holds relevance? What’s keeping the church from discerning the will of God and pursuing Christ’s ministry? How can the church become Spirit-led rather than ego-driven? All questions that ask how we make sense of how to deal with the insider, outsider dilemma.

Ken Wilber of Integral Spirituality fame offers a way of approaching this with a simple method. He offers an idea from the process of integral thinking, turning attention to three critical principles: ‘Everyone is right’ This is a non-exclusion setting of the scene. The second principle is that ‘Some are more-right than others’ This is an inclusion of difference as a richness. And the third principle is If you want to know this, do that. This is the practical application to any matter under discussion.

These terms originate from Ken’s Integral Methodological Pluralism framework, a robust meta-paradigmatic scaffolding that seeks to honour, include, and integrate multiple paradigms and methodologies and practices across all domains of human knowing. But while these three principles are intended to help people make their particular fields of knowledge more expansive, comprehensive, and complete, they can also be taken more generally as three essential qualities of the integral mind, and can be used as an ongoing micro-practice to help us see more fully, communicate more skillfully, and discover the best and most effective solutions to whatever problems we happen to be facing. In other words, they can be an effective way of dealing with the inclusion, exclusion, insiders, outsiders issue.

I am sure we can all think of instances where members of a congregation in extreme cases loved to compartmentalize or isolate the church across the street. Although they never bothered to visit this congregation, they probably considered their community to be everything that theirs was not. They prided ourselves on their high liturgy and lofty intellectualism, and they condemned the others for worshipping in a manner they considered insubstantial and for attracting a membership they deemed infantile. They even complained about the increased traffic resulting from heavy attendance at their services!

Instead of responding to the success of the neighboring church with a re-evaluation of their own programs, they clung to their old habits. They increased only in bitterness and self-righteousness rather than in membership and ministry. One wonders what opportunities were missed because they, like the disciples, considered those Christians outside their community to be competition rather than partners in Christ’s service.

Returning again to the text, this time in the everyday setting of a congregation we revisit the insider outsider scenario. It was just an off-hand comment, an aside to a friend at church about how so-and-so made a fool of herself in the Sunday School meeting. She thought no one else was listening. She didn’t realize that the target of her comment was around the corner hearing every word.

He didn’t intend to scare off the worship guests, the young couple who sat down timidly and fumbled with the bulletin. But they were in his seat. He glared at them through the entire service.

In these and many other ways we put stumbling blocks before other people. We trip them up and create obstacles along their journey of faith by our labeling and isolating activity.

We also remember that we too are in many cases the outsider. We too stumble. Jesus condemns those who lead other followers astray, and he also warns against stumbling ourselves. He points to our own hands, feet, and eyes causing us to stumble (vv. 43, 45, 47). As the headlines, office gossip, and neighbourhood rumours demonstrate, there are often other body parts involved as well. There is something deeper than the missteps of the hand, foot, and eye, though. Stumbling is a condition of the heart. It’s trusting the desires of the things we touch and hold, the places we go, and the things we see more than trusting in our God.

And thirdly we confront the outcome of this unfortunate dualism, this either or pathway, this insider, outsider approach. Jesus is clear that trusting in and indulging the flesh, whether the hand, foot, eye, or another part of the body, only leads to one end: disaster. (vv. 43, 45, 57). When the desires of our bodies and our hearts are so strong, and the temptation to put a stumbling block in a believer’s path is so great, no one is exempt from the possibility of ending up in disaster. We cannot avoid this outcome if we go down that pathway. We can’t self-amputate and declare ourselves forgiven, even if we follow Jesus’ command to cut off our hand or foot, or tear out our eye (vv. 43, 45, 47). Disaster is the only outcome. Here Mark doesn’t hold back. He has Jesus letting loose on how he describes disaster. It’s a place where “their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (v. 48).

And what’s the prognosis? Well! It seems that there is hope. There is a way of addressing difference that is not about one being inside while the other is outside. There is this thing called everlasting life and it is a promise or a reward that reaches through the stumbling and struggling that makes up normal living. Amid all of the warnings against stumbling and causing others to stumble, Jesus points out a promise, or as it he calls it here, “the reward” (v. 41). There is a way to be saved from the punishments of human reality, not in terms of a removal of struggle because it cannot be accomplished by a stumble-free life. And because of human reality, there is no such thing as a denial of or an escape from. We receive the reward, we are saved from disaster, and we are given the gift of life through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It is a whole of life engagement. Jesus gave up everything, even life itself, so that we might see what life is about. Despite their actions and the condition of their hearts, those who stumble are able to “enter life” (vv. 43 & 45) and “enter the kingdom of God.”

Then we have the idea of restored saltiness. When the heart trusts, the heart no longer stumbles by being tripped up by its own motives and desires. Instead, it soars. To use another image that Jesus uses in this text, the heart becomes “salty” (v. 50), since it has been transformed. When one has salt in oneself (v. 50), others can’t help but notice. Instead of throwing up a stumbling block in someone else’s path, one’s saltiness acts like an invitation. One’s saltiness attracts others to the richness and depth of life that comes from trusting and opening one’s hands to receive the gift of salvation again not salvation from but rather salvation within.

And finally, we have the impact of this openness and inclusive approach to life. When one embraces “the reward” and “bears the name of the Jesus Way (v. 41), then instead of relationships being wrecked, the various parts of the body can be used in awe-inspiring “deeds of power” such as the giving to fellow travelers “a cup of water to drink” (v. 41) we can extend our hands, feet, and eyes in service so that others also may turn away from disaster and embrace the realities of life. And as a parting shot I would suggest the above is a challenge to the Augustinian view that he created when generalizing his own emotional struggles by creating a split self and a sundered soul that led the Catholic Church down the path of its doctrine of human nature, which deemed all souls fallen and broken and in need of an external supernatural redemption. Amen.

Children

Posted: September 20, 2018 in Uncategorized

Children

I don’t need to tell you about the need for children’s and youth work in relation to the future of any congregation in the PCANZ. Many of us have been avid supporters of ‘Kid’s Friendly’ and many other programs around children’s work. As a congregation we have employed people to provide children’s ministry and by in large they have been successful ventures. The primary challenge being that children grow up and the energy needed to maintain an ever-changing ministry has been a challenge. In the interests of contemporary theological development we have purchased new children’s work curriculum material in preparation for the future, and most importantly we have given the last 8 years of our focus to establishing children’s work in our parish, namely through a school on our site.

This has been born out of our conviction that an intellectually authentic faith is required if the Jesus story is to continue to add value to life in the future. We may not like the cliché that says the children are our future because we know they are our present, along with our responsibility. And we know we are an aging congregation along with which goes the acknowledgement that our experiences of empathetic relationships with children are conditioned by our ability to relate to the world of the children. It is easy for us to be grandparents and offer a sage like influence but it is hard for us to understand the child’s actual or likely future world view.

Philosophically we know that for us to participate in the unfolding of the future we must offer our children the best possible attitude, equip them with loads of resilience and discernment skills and we know that the first few years of a child’s life is crucial for its ability to navigate their way through their world. This is the need for parental support to young through maternal and paternal experiences.

Theologically we think that our call to participate in God’s Mission is the moral obligation to live lives as though reality is never what it seems and rather than live a life of fear driven reaction there is always an alternative transformative life changing, experience born in and through love. That beyond belief there is a transformation of life available to all who would embrace what we call the divine invitation to live life abundantly and to love extravagantly. Again, we find the challenge to nurture our children, to equip their minds with the tools of discernment, not because they don’t have them, but because our understanding of human development is that life is a journey of discovery about oneself and the world in which we live and have our being. New discoveries tell us just how important it is to honour the mind and intellectual and psychological development. They tell us that the mind exists to give meaning across a miriad of pathways. It is a marvelous creative activity all its own, fed by opportunity and other people interactions.

 

It is not obvious to everyone outside our lives but I think it is a credit to the people of St David’s that you have been prepared to give energy in a hope filled exploration of the -opportunity to offer an unselfish gift to the church and to young people. It is perhaps sad that others in our church fail to understand the depth and breadth of such a response to God’s call. But then again, I must be careful not to impose my lens upon the outworking of history and it is suffice to say that our gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, is about Jesus setting a child down in front of the disciples, and saying: “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me…” This is an affirmation of what we have tried to do to make our decision seem very appropriate, timely, and acceptable.

And for those of us a few years past our childhood years, having also heard that story, from Mark can probably go way, way back in memory… and remember the picture in the children’s Bible we received for good attendance, or the one hanging in the Sunday School room next to the framed Cradle Roll. Just earlier this week I was having my hair cut and the young woman cutting my hair spoke to me about her adult children not attending mass these days and she lamented their not having had her warm and encouraging childhood, when all was right with the world when attending mass regularly was a security. And going along to the children’s catechism classes was part of her life-giving structure, security and purpose for her childhood.

So, this story, at least on the surface, seems to provide us with just the right opening we need to talk about ministry with, and welcoming of, children. Children…  like the little five-year old sitting next to his mum during the prayers? The one who, in the space of three minutes, while you are trying to pray… swings his feet, drops a copy of the liturgy, picks it up, looks under the chairs while on the floor, tries to dislodge a piece of gum stuck to the underside of the seat, uses the pages of the liturgy as a fan, stands, waves to the Smiths who are smiling at him, resumes his seat, holds his legs out stiffly, crosses and uncrosses his legs several times, glances at the ceiling, studies the height, the play of the sun through the windows, lies down on the floor to get a better view of the ceiling, kicks his brother in the process, dodges his brother’s retaliating kick, moves over and stands again to make room for his mum who is now changing places…

Welcoming, those kinds of children, may be one way to start a sermon around this story. But I’m sure that is not what this story by Mark is about. Instead I think it is much closer to a story of a letter discovered in an ancient garbage dump near Cairo, dated 18 June in the year 1 BC.

There we find a letter from a worker writing to his pregnant wife back home, telling her not to worry about his return, and sending her his love: “Hilarion to… Alis. Many greetings… and to (our son) Apollonarion.  Know that we are even yet in Alexandria.  Do not worry if they all come back (except me) and I remain in Alexandria.  I urge and entreat you, be concerned about the child (Apollonarion) and if I should receive my wages soon, I will send them up to you.  If by chance you bear a son, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl cast it out.

“You have said to Aphrodosias, ‘Do not forget me’.  How can I forget you?  Therefore, I urge you not to worry” (Crossan 1994: /63).

Here is a world, light years away from our Sunday School child. (But not so far away from parts of our global world.) A world where a child is a nobody unless its father accepts it. A world where it is commonplace and legal for children to be ‘exposed’ in the gutter or rubbish dump, to die, or to be taken by someone who wishes to rear a slave. A world where the Greek word for a primary school-aged child can also mean ‘slave’ or ‘servant’.

 

Children in general, were not the ‘last’ on the social ladder in the society of Jesus’ time, unless they were slaves. So, following Mark’s story, and Kathleen Corley’s comment on this story, it is quite reasonable to suggest: “…that Jesus’ hearers are told to identify themselves with the enslaved or those in position of servitude.  In fact, the reign of God belongs especially to them…  Surely the statement that young slaves were of God’s kingdom would have been met with surprise or even shock by his hearers, especially the free, even if they were poor.  Any who had been forced to sell children into servitude, however, would have appreciated Jesus’ subversive speech”.

Then Jesus took a young child, one who had been taken into slavery, set this child in front of everyone so they could see, put his arms around her, and said: “Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name, welcomes me…” What a radical way to ignore or push the social boundaries of his society! What a way to ‘get up the nose’ of those who exercised power to value themselves over others!

So, if we do our usual bit of ‘theological thinking’ at this point, we would probably conclude that a 21st century interpretation of Jesus’ saying would be that in acts of caring for vulnerable human beings we come face to face with the divine; That if anyone is wishing to be great, then such caring is a sign of true greatness and power.

A couple of years ago now in Australia The Hon (Justice) Marcus Einfeld, said that: “It is often said that a society’s moral strength is measured by how humanely it deals with the most vulnerable individuals living within its domain.  It has to be said that in recent times there has been a lack of moral fortitude, compassion and understanding of divergent cultures and peoples and this has given rise to a seemingly frenzied almost hysterical reaction to refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers…” We also hear stories of children in detention, children separated from their families, and children spending years in detention centers. In very recent days we have heard of the battle between those who want to eradicate competition from schools seeking viability in an image driven world and those who want to use competition and marketing to seek excellence and quality in education. I don’t want to get caught up in a debate about what is best within the system but rather I want to ask that; given that what happens to children in their early years can impact the whole of their lives what are we doing to the future of our species? And that is alongside the environment we are destroying with our plastic waste. What about our children’s mental and physical health? What about their ability to resist the fabricated environment they must wade through, in their formative years”

Jesus took a young child, one who had been disowned, dumped, even accused of being ‘an illegal’ and a ‘queue jumper’, the lowest of the low, set this child in front of everyone so they could see, claimed this child by putting his arms around her, and said: “Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name, welcomes me… and knows the Holy One is in our midst”. Could it be that both Justice Einfeld and Mark’s Jesus are really saying we need to rediscover the collective soul of our tribe, our community and our nation? Could it be about the future of our species as well as the wellbeing of a struggling child.

I owe the story about Justice Einfied to a colleague Rex Hunt in Australia and it is interesting to note that in the years after Rex’s sermon in 2003 the then Justice Einfeld was convicted of making a false statement under oath and for attempting to pervert the course of justice – all over a traffic infringement notice.  He was sentenced to three years in prison.  His commission as a Queen’s Counsel was also been revoked.

I sometimes wonder if a similar conviction awaits us as members of St David’s maybe because we too have disturbed complacency, challenged control, upset the logical economics and made the system uncomfortable with the truth. God’s mission is as Jesus said; “Anyone who welcomes one of these children in my name, welcomes me.”. But then, we may be paranoid, emotional, fanciful or unreasonable. Amen.

Notes:

Crossan, J. D. 1994.  Jesus: A revolutionary biography. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

Corley, K. E. 2002.  Women and the historical Jesus. Feminist myths of Christian origins. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

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The Integrity of the Cross

Posted: September 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 17B, 2018
Mark 8:27-36

The Integrity of the Cross

The cross is a primary symbol of traditional and modern Christian faith even if it may not be the first symbol. It is a symbol that grew in the 4th Century AD. In our tradition it is seen to represent the suffering of the Holy in the midst of humanity. It is also true that multiple meanings are given to it and multiple effects come from those meanings. It seems also too obvious to say that the cross is the nerve center of today’s gospel story by Mark.
But what does that mean?

What most progressives understand today is that the cross is a symbol of traditional Christianity ‘par excellence. It has been around a long time and it is universally known as a Christian symbol especially since the time of Constantine’s reign in the 4th century. And the rest, they say, is history. Looking back on history we can see how the cross became the emblem of Christian triumphalism, forged in the fires of the late Roman empire, in the process of a military victory” (Funk 2002:141). And prime among those ‘fires’ in days past, were the Crusades in and following 1096, the Inquisition in 1232 onwards, and Auschwitz in the 1940s. Prime among those ‘fires’ in the past 10 years or so, are Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, and the ‘religious right’, of several persuasions.

We can say that under the banner of the cross and Constantine’s motto: ‘in this sign conquer’, the ground was laid for murder and mayhem. We acknowledge that the hymn ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ was shaped, and a creedal Christianity developed which left
a human Jesus completely out of the picture! What we cannot abide with is that cruelty and a terrifying death, are part of the so-called plan or purpose of ‘God’, because we know that they are the doings of human beings. And sometimes, totally depraved human beings at that.

If all the above is true then we must ask; can the symbol of the cross be freed from
its triumphalist associations and evil overtones? Can the symbol of the cross be freed from the thinking that says the ‘cross’ means ‘blood’ and Jesus dying for our sins? Some would say it has to, others that it cannot and others that it can but it means a new view and understanding of God and who Jesus was and is for us today.

While I am sure I will not be able to answer those questions today I want to have a go at starting such a quest. In fact, it is probably more about putting into words what is already under way. What might be possible is looking to see if we can make just a small beginning at weaving another possible way of looking at the symbol of the cross.

I think the first thing we need to do is acknowledge a predominant portrayal of the Cross is an unhelpful one in that it is ingrained in our thinking and thus a large challenge when it comes to thinking alternatively. John Shea suggests that when the cross is portrayed as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, then God in implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. And as a starting point for our thinking it is at best unfortunate. These are sharp words but it is the primary point in our change in thinking. It is true that Jesus’ death mattered to his friends, but only because his life mattered more. As S J Patterson suggests, what they did was begin to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life and they came to see he stood for something so important that he was willing to give his life for it.

This I suggest is a fundamental and very important difference because there is a certain human-ness and integrity about it, which is absent from so much of the other ways of thinking. And as Rex Hunt notes there are three threads at work here. The first is that the cross is about Jesus’ integrity; The second is that God’s ‘love’ is not about supernatural payment or rescue from sin, but rather divine sharing in human suffering; and the third is that Jesus did not invite the cross, but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world is really like when you look at it with God’s ‘eyes’.

Another way of looking at this is to say that Jesus saw beyond his present, he saw the integrated bigger picture and he sought to pass his glimpse along, and he did this not by telling stories about how it was and stories about how it could be but rather by using common everyday idioms, images and metaphor through sayings. aphorisms and parables. We call this the unconventional wisdom of a sage.

We know that it is not possible to discover one uniformed view of Jesus, otherwise why has there been so many attempts to discover the historical Jesus but New Testament scholar Dom Crossan offers one helpful re-imagined response:

“He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants…  They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession.  What, they really want to know, can this (realm) of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village?”

As Bob Funk said ‘This human Jesus did not write a definitive essay or publish a book. And the classic creeds from ages past seldom help, because they are preoccupied “with the status of Jesus rather than with God’s domain”. By contrast, we could say that Jesus’ efforts were more like that of a painter who uses broad strokes in both the political
and the social spheres of Galilean village life. And those strokes offer a picture which
enlarge God to include humankind, and enlarge the self to include the neighbour.

I want to take a leaf out of his book now and show you a big picture and use a modern idiom, or video to lay it out before you. As you watch think about the neighbour who potentially, an enemy! And hold fast to the idea that the death of something matters but only in that life matters more and that the challenge is to express a more absolute, uncompromising integrity as the true meaning of the cross. It might seem a bit of a stretch but I suspect that the result is what Mark’s, or his community’s, theological reflection.

And the challenge is that we will be able to hear this meaning only when, in an act of generosity, we keep our eyes open and our hearts hurting, and walk with those who, for whatever reason, carry unbearable crosses.

Video – The Next Revolution

Notes:
Crossan, J. D. 1991.  The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. VIC: North Blackburn. CollinsDove.
Funk, R. W. 2002.  A credible Jesus. Fragments of a vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the passion. Rethinking the death and life of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Shea, J. 1975.  The challenge of Jesus. IL: Chicago. Thomas More Press.rexae74@gmail.com

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