Pentecost 7C, 2019
Luke 10:25-37

Who Is the Neighbour We Will Allow?

Jesus is travelling in the north for several weeks and turns south making his way along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It was a dangerous route since much of it was through a rocky wilderness that sheltered many bands of thieves or robbers.

He is of course not alone. Our story tradition says he traveled with companions and the curious, who were interested in hearing something of what this strange Jewish cynic-like sage had to say about the nature of human life and its prospects.

Jericho, Jerusalem, and a road. Our story is probably the most known and best loved story in our biblical tradition. The story of the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’ seems to have touched into something that many identify with in some way or another. It is a great story, that is without doubt but herein is its problem. Because it is so well known and so well loved it has been domesticated applied to many situations as a metaphor and we miss that it is first and foremost a parable… By that I mean it is a story which turns our ideas and values and worldview upside down. It is perhaps an active metaphor that locates it in our time and in our place with a disturbing element.

Theologically speaking, for years and years the church’s interpretation turned this parable into an ‘example story’. Into a story of two so-called bad blokes and one good bloke. But an ‘example story’ is what this parable isn’t. This demands that we explore a little why we do that.

If the thrust of the story was about good blokes verses a bad bloke, or as an illustration of love of neighbour, or even a diatribe against heartless religious leaders, the offer of aid by a Jewish lay person would have been sufficient. Remember that Samaritans are Jewish people with a differing theology about the place of the temple. They are remnants of the Northern Kingdom, maybe liberals among conservatives perhaps but still Hebrew people. Or at least not too different in world view.

In this the offer of a lay Jewish person would be enough of a challenge to deal with and likewise, according to John Dominic Crossan: “If Jesus wanted to… inculcate love of one’s enemies, it would have been radical enough to have a Jewish person stop and assist a wounded Samaritan…  [But] the internal structure of the story and the historical setting of Jesus’ time agree that… the whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what is a contradiction in terms: Good-Samaritan” (Crossan 1992:62).

And that’s a major shock. Because it challenges the hearers. It challenges them and us and their and our, understanding of God and of whom God approves. The Samaritan, who is both a lay person and an outsider, embodies the true interpretation of the Jewish tradition: to show compassion.

Two people who help us appreciate a much broader understanding of what ‘compassion’ is, are Matthew Fox and John Donahue. Matthew Fox suggests that: “Compassion is not pity…  It is not feeling sorry for someone.  Compassion is about feelings of togetherness. It is about all those risks to self and exposing one’s vulnerability. Turning the other cheek is not just about looking away, not judging, and accepting difference. It is about being prepared to be changed, to see things anew. And it is this awareness of kinship or togetherness that urges us to seek after justice and do works of mercy (Fox 1979:2, 4). Like Matthew Fox was saying last week compassion is not only about caring for each other as fellow human beings it is about deeply caring for the whole of creation, about all the relationships. Each piece of plastic in the ocean is our concern, each decision about the survival or extinction of any microbe, animal, and atom is in need of compassion.

John Donahue also views compassion as something more than just concern for or awareness of. He describes ‘compassion’ like this: He says: “Compassion is that divine quality which, when present in human beings, enables them to share deeply in the sufferings and needs of others and enables them to move from one world to the other: from the world of helper to the one needing help; from the world of the innocent to that of the sinner”   (Donahue 1988:132). So, who is my neighbour? Well we could say that from our experience as a biblical storyteller, when people have heard this story of the good Samaritan many of them ask that same question and then identify with the Samaritan.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osfQg4yKtq8

But it’s not as easy being a ‘good’ Samaritan as it seems at first sight! The stories told by our cultural storyteller – television, and experience – tells us people continue to pass by on the other side. The story doesn’t seem to be all that powerful a catalyst for change in our behaviour.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqO3cmoFoQg

So, let’s listen to the story again, but this time we will try to imagine it from the injured person’s point of view. Why didn’t they stop and help me? I thought a minister was supposed to help others. And that church worker… Bet she was only going to another flower roster committee meeting. She could have been just a bit late… Wait on; here comes someone else. Maybe he will stop and… Oh no. Not one of them!

Wait on, I mustn’t be so pessimistic. Here’s one. Oh dear, he’s a Samaritan, this is not supposed to happen. Why a Muslim… Anyone but him really. Perhaps it would be better if you kept going? Please, don’t stop. Keep going. Don’t touch me. O God, don’t let him touch me…

The late Robert Funk spent many years studying this parable. He asked this question:
“Who in the audience wanted to let himself or herself be helped by a Samaritan? This is the primary challenge because the appearance of the Samaritan makes sense on no other basis” (Funk 1996:176). Who among you would want to be helped by someone you didn’t respect or have time for or rubbed you up the wrong way? Who among you when you were in dire straits, vulnerable, and at risk would welcome someone you didn’t like to help you?

Funk then went on to suggest that had the victim in the ditch been a Samaritan and the hero an ordinary Judean, a different question would have had to have been asked. The question would be: who in the Judean audience wanted to play the role of hero to a Samaritan victim? What makes this question challenging is that, the role of the victim is the inferior role. The role of the helper is the superior one. And who doesn’t want to be the hero?

Who is my neighbour? That’s the supposed context of this story and the most common question asked by those who hear it. It is about the challenge of identifying one’s neighbour as the one in need but there is another contextual question in this story as well. Another ‘word’ which must also be considered if this story is to be a parable rather than just an example story.

And that can also be shaped into a question: The question is ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?” On this question, Megan McKenna’s comment is very suggestive: “If we were in the ditch in that condition, who is the last person we would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives, especially if acknowledging the debt would cause us to be outcast and associated with that group by everyone in our current world?  Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about?  Would we rather die than face the fact that this person or these people are our neighbours? (McKenna 1994:149).

That is one heck of a challenge and makes this parable very disruptive of our comfort. It does not allow us to sideline the challenge by putting is aside under the cloak of a story of a good bloke verses a bad one. Our honest answer to the question that risks our integrity, our commitment to justice and our willingness to die for it, gets close to the heart of this parable. And our answer just might really surprise us as well. I know it does for me in my current circumstances as minister of St David’s facing questions about my behaviour, and I know it could for those of you who care about St David’s as well as for me. Who is our neighbour? And Whom will I allow to be my neighbour? These are questions we ask of ourselves when we seek to be compassionate for all people and our planet with whom and for which we share this life. Amen.

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Pentecost 6C. 2019
Luke 10:1-10

A Cynic Like, No Frills Jesus,

Today is the 7th Day of the 7th Month 2019 a date that is other than the date of this day today, of little significance. Well that’s probably untrue in that there is no doubt the fact that this day, this date for someone has some significance. It has to be someone’s birthday of anniversary of some event. There was a date similar but not the same that had significance and that was Saturday the 7th day of the 7th month on the year 2007 and at 7 minutes past 7am on that day the world ended.

Of course, it was off the mark because we are still here! But in reality there have been over many years several ‘visions’ or predictions as to when the ‘end of the world’ or the Second Coming of Christ, is to occur. One of the most famous of these predictions goes back to an American, called William Miller, a farmer and layman of the Baptist church, and a person who was one of those instrumental in establishing the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Beginning with a strictly literal reading of the ages of people mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis, and the dating of other events mentioned in Daniel and Revelations,
“Miller believed that precise calculations were possible and one could predict the second coming of Christ and the inauguration of the Millennial kingdom… somewhere around 1843”  (Wikipedia). Actually, the 22 October 1844, was the date commonly accepted throughout the Millerite, movement, although it has been said Miller himself was uncertain as to the exact day. The topic was discussed in the newspapers as well as in theological journals. “New Testament eschatology competed with stock market quotations for front-page space…”  (Wikipedia).

But when we go back to our numerical patterns. We find that in a sample poll conducted towards the end of 2006, again in America, it showed that one in four Americans anticipated the second coming of Christ in 2007. Indeed, 11 percent said it is “very likely” that Jesus will return to Earth in 2007!

William Miller and his followers not only tapped into a long tradition,
they have also added to and expanded that tradition. And as we now know, it is from within the Millennial or Rapture or Armageddon fundamentalist traditions that much of the so-called ‘religious right’ in the western world seek to influence governments on foreign policy issues.  We might take for instance the relations in the volatile Middle East.
We might as how can there ever be a negotiated solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict,
when fundamentalist Christians continue to lobby politicians while claiming that:
“Peace and peace plans in the Middle East are a bad thing… because they delay the countdown to Christ’s return”  (Quoted in Crossan 2007:201) Domonic Crossan reminded us of this in 2007. The problem is that vote scared politicians continue to listen to them!

So, let me be quite clear about what I think: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with divine presence” and let me say that I am not alone in this thinking. Domonic Crossan said as much in 2007. (Crossan 2007:230-231).

Returning to our text we see that over the last two weeks our gospel storyteller whom we call Luke, has been setting out his agenda, his vision, for cooperating with divine presence. Foxes have holes, but have nowhere to lay your head… Leave the dead to bury the dead… Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals…. Salute no one on the road…
Take what food and drink is offered you…

It has to be that these stories about these short, sharp sayings, are important  – both then and now. Contemporary biblical scholarship suggests they are either from, or have been influenced by, the code of the Q Movement… The texts we take as from an unknown source used by the gospel writers. The important collection or memory of Jesus sayings,
which in their earliest state, are very close to the Cynic’s style of making social critique.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3F4BCzN5D8

And we can also now speculate that those same Q people were not only part of a very lively Jesus movement in Galilee, remembering and shaping just the sayings tradition of Jesus, but that their ‘voice’ is probably the best record we have of the first 40 years of the Jesus movements.

When we look at some of the basic conventions of the time we see that by conventional common sense standards of the everyday word, a home was necessary; the streets were unsafe, a son must honour the family above all else, especially in death, money and clothes and provisions are about living – and status, respect given and received was what made the world go around, only clean or organic food is what one should always eat.

Popular tradition has it that the Cynics always challenged their listeners by their dress and their sayings, to re-imagine the world away from the everyday world of common sense. Now this is where an important bit comes in. So too does the link to all that stuff I said at the beginning: about Millennial or Rapture or Armageddon fundamentalist traditions, usually called the ‘apocalyptic’ tradition. An apocalyptic or ‘end world’ theory doesn’t exist in any of these sayings, despite what some, including some scholars, want to claim. Neither does a blue print for modern world missions. This is why mission is usually not defined. It is God’s mission and thus does not fit man’s definitions which are culturally bound.

What does exist is a new counter-culture tradition that simply suggests:  don’t jump to hasty conclusions, consider the human condition or circumstances of all. And when you take account of that kind of in-depth thinking, something different can be accomplished, now. This is what I was suggesting last week and the week before. Good news is about the new, the radically alternative and different. A change of attitude or behaviour is a simple response but only part of it. A new vision of what it means to be human on equal terms based in love on love and for love. Being alive to the present moment in all of its possibilities, positive and negative. What makes me suggest some of this? When a ‘no-frills’ Jesus used imaginative language to call into question his received life/everyday world, in favour of the life world that emerges in his parables and short sayings (aphorisms),  (Patterson 2007) then he and we, are getting close to what it means to live
with divine presence – both then and now.

We can catch hold of that presence when our eyes are wide open… “capable of catching a glimpse of what lies beyond the reigning view of the world” (Funk 2002:28).

Like I have said before, the Roman Empire, like all empires then and now, and what seems to permeate our culture even today is that empires, institutions based on a power over are base in the premis that they will change the world through victory after war. Note that peace is dependent upon victory and only comes after war. The ‘end-of-the-world’ advocates say we’ll save the world by destroying it. Jesus seems to have said: let’s re-imagine the world differently by considering the human condition of all. That is now our ‘no frills’ journey, where-ever it takes us. Amen.

Notes:
Crossan, J. D.  2007. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W.  2002. A Credible Jesus: Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Patterson, S. J.  2007. “Report from the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins” in The Fourth R 20, 1, 16-20.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

Pentecost 5C, 2010
Luke 9:51-62

‘The Influence of a Wider Horizon

Some of you might remember the film The Dead Poet’s Society, that tells the story of a remarkable teacher’s influence on his students in a prestigious boarding school. The teacher, Mr Keating, played by Robin Williams, invites the boys “to jump up and stand on his desk as he has done in his teaching, so they can see things from a different perspective, a wider view… a different horizon – then seize it” (Bausch 1999:239).

It was a film about a teacher who invited his students to view the world differently and that theme resonates with the theme of our story from Luke today. The text is about embodying and following in the way and style of Jesus of Nazareth. We have explored before what the Way of Jesus is all about. It is essentially about an alternative way of living and while we might have concentrated on his way of being in the past and locked ourselves up in the mode of believing as ‘being’ we now think differently. We now think that just being is not enough. We now think that being and doing are part of the same thing, to do is to be and to be is to do. A bit like the shift from Facebook to Instagram. It is less about the need for the visual, the photographic conversation and more about the importance of the 90% of communication through the visual and the embodiment and less about just the mind and the content of the words.

When we look at our Lukan text we see that there are three sets of reactions worth noting. The first is that of the Samaritans, who recognize that Jesus “has set his face to go to Jerusalem” and will not receive him. They apparently recognize that Jesus is on a mission … and they want nothing to do with it. Or perhaps they believe that because Jesus is set on reaching Jerusalem, he will have no time for them, no time to discuss or heal or whatever they may have hoped. In either case, they have expectations of Jesus that he is not meeting and when his resolution to march toward the cross upsets their plans, they reject him.

The disciples, in turn, react to this rejection with a surprising and rather alarming! – request: they want to call down fire from heaven to devour the Samaritans. Of course, this may not be as surprising as we’d like to think. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, the disciples were apparently not above ethnic prejudice, and they knew their biblical history enough to know that Elijah had done something similar years before. They, also, do not like to be thwarted in their plans. They were there to see that Jesus made it to Jerusalem, and anyone and everyone who stood in their way could move out of the way.

The question we might ask here is “Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Or to put it in traditional terms: Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus come first in our plans and do they shape our lives, or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned? I want to suggest here that if we’re honest, many of us will identify with the latter option because we recognize that we harbour a deep-seated desire to be in control, to maintain some semblance of order in a rather chaotic and confusing world. Yet Jesus in this passage is clearly not willing to concede: he demands that his mission comes before all of our plans, even those that seem most reasonable.

Why does he do this? Well maybe because we really aren’t in control, that it’s an illusion, and that a rainstorm, or tornado, or illness, or loss, or tragedy, or any one of a hundred other things might dash our hopes as well as our plans and bring us to ruin. Maybe we aren’t in control and Jesus is telling us to let him be? But wait on a minute! As tempting – and as pious – as that might sound, I’m not sure that the passage in front of us invites the choice between us being in control or Jesus being in control. Think about it: Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem to assume command or take charge. Rather, he goes to Jerusalem to thrust himself fully and completely into people’s out-of-control lives and comes out the other side.

So perhaps that’s the promise of the Gospel – not that we can be in control, or even that God is in control, but rather that God joins us in our out-of-control-ness, holds onto us, and walks with us to the other side. That may not always seem like all that much of a promise, but after a few days without power supply… or a few months on chemo … or a few years of addiction … at least it sounds real and therefore trustworthy.

After all we invest a lot of time, energy, and money in being in control. And plenty of religious folk invite us to invest lots of time, energy, and money to surrender to God’s control. Yet the world is still a terribly chaotic and unsettling place. Does it work is the question? Doing what one has always done but doing it better sounds like a good strategy. So what if the deepest calling of a Christian disciple isn’t to be in control – ourselves or vicariously through God – but rather to give up the illusion, to take some risks, and to throw ourselves into this turbulent life and world God loves so much trusting that God will join us in the adventure, hold onto us through all the ups and downs, and walk with us to the other side.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s a faith journey. Maybe that what being and doing the kingdom thing is all about. And when we, like Jesus’ first disciples, fall short yet again, then all we can do is give thanks that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, entering our chaotic lot and walking in our turbulent lives that we may know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.

In theological parlance, the Way of Jesus is not compartmentalized into belief and non-belief, non-historically factual and existentially mythical. The Way of Jesus is an alternative to the status quo, it is new, a new creation, good news, transforming love, a way of compassion as opposed to rules and law. Or as the late biologist and theologian Charles Birch, suggested: “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). A ‘different horizon’.

As I said last week my reflection on the meeting of Northern Presbytery on Saturday was one of seeing the Presbytery in a huge struggle to find itself in a whole new world.
It struggled with what to be in today’s world and it talked about what it thought it should do in the way of survival. It talked about all the things it had been doing for the last hundred years with todays, words. The received message was that the decline is all the fault of the people who still come to church. The message was that all we were doing was not enough and that we should be doing it better if we wanted to arrest the decline. The trouble with this approach is that despite all those who nostalgically seem to long for church to be like it was in 1944 or 1954 or 1964, that can never be.

For one thing, church is now only one of several institutions or organizations offering a view of the world and a purpose for living. It seemed to me that the church is no longer listening to Jesus. The church is, if you like, in a supermarket situation in which many people feel no need to buy its products at all and the church’s answer is to try to do what it has been doing for years but do it better.

According to those who do research on these matters the major challenge the church faces is in being able to identify and name the presence of God or the sacred
in our often-fragmented life-worlds. Jesus spoke to his world with such effect that a whole new religious movement was established so why can’t we? There are some who are taking the risk but they are being seen by the church as difficult or wrong and unfaithful. Others mostly beyond the church are attempting just that. And they are often coming up with different and competing answers which can cause some of us to be a bit shocked because we fear the church no longer has, if it ever did, a monopoly on things spiritual or sacred or God stuff. As I have said before. What if beyond the God we know, beyond the secular was the new religious age?

One who has written on this subject, Australian David Tacey, says: “What has been brewing inside the soul is a new spirituality that will surprise both the secular establishment and the official religious tradition… The miracle is that the secular keeps giving birth to the sacred, often against its will and in spite of its own judgement” (Tacey 2000:252,253). Richard Kearney’s work on a post atheism God or ‘Anatheism’ and Caputo’s work on the Weak God ask us to go beyond the status quo of a supernatural, theistic almighty God and to see the human Jesus in his culture and setting before we make him fit our supernatural needs.

As you know I have a view on all of this, which I know has been and is still a challenge for some. I want to suggest that maybe because these comments are not the traditional ones there are some who want to hear them. Not as stumbling blocks or even challenges to their faith but as alternatives that enable a clearer examination of what they do believe and will work in the lives as they know life.

A very difficult part to this is that one needs to have or cultivate a ‘high’ view, about the place of change. Being open to new perceptions, and not clinging to established or inherited ways of thinking about things is always an alternative to be explored. For us as church the challenge is not to cling onto a theology that does not fit our 21st century understanding. In other words, the kingdom of God is about now, that’s why we question the concept of kingship. We need to let go of the medieval understanding of kingship and the current understanding of Empire as a system of governance and we need to find an alternative that relegates the old ideas. Kingdom is less about an area of the earth controlled by a monarchy and more about a life that an alternative way is lived in a complimentary way, a compassionate way, a way that celebrates human flourishing rather than controls its behaviour.

Simply perhaps, the church needs to ensure it frees folk to go on the journey that Jesus chartered, rather than to worship the journey of Jesus (WWink). And while that might sound easy it is as radical a change as the one Jesus advocated in his time! If we go back to this weeks particular story the tradition is not clear concerning Jesus’ intentions, as he approached the Samaritan village. We also see that whatever they were, he was not able to carry them out, because the village folk denied him and his friends, hospitality. Many scholars have speculated on why they acted this way. Theological reasons and cultural reasons have been offered but maybe it was just that the people had heard about this Cynic-like bloke and were cautious of losing the status quo. There was a German New Testament theologian called Willie Marxsen, who seemed to be always pointing out that not everyone who met or heard Jesus had positive reactions! Some said: ‘This bloke’s a nutter!’ Others said: ‘This is good teaching.  Admirable.  Interesting.’ Still others said: ‘In this person’s words and deeds I have experienced God’s very own presence in my life.’

According to the various biblical storytellers, Jesus encountered opposition
to his perception of reality from the authorities of the day, but just how hostile this opposition was, is a matter of speculation. On the other hand, those same storytellers say that many ordinary people were attracted to him and his re-imagined worldview.

Another challenge not addressed by today’s church is that people didn’t go to the synagogue to meet with, or listen to, him. They met him on the hills and by the lake.
While they were hanging about in the marketplace. Or while they were mending their fishing nets. They ate with him and held parties for him. They invited him into their homes.

There’s no indication whatsoever in the gospel stories that the synagogues ever had any more worshippers because of Jesus. St David’s Mission does not depend upon its buildings. It depends upon its people being people of the Jesus Way.

And while not wanting to fall into the ‘literalist’ trap, nevertheless those who chose to listen and take on board his comments, experienced what he said as ‘good news’.
“What they learned from Jesus and experienced in his presence was not just a good teaching or a good way of life – it was not an ethic… Rather, it was an expression of who they would claim God to be”  (Patterson 2002:222). It was then up to them whether or not they felt free enough to go on the journey Jesus was chartering.

Engaging in the Kingdom of God was less about a place where everything was right and good and more about a place to be fully human as Charles Birch’s comment said “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). It is important to live in this day and time rather than being caught in the past and that’s the first invitation to us all. Let go where we have to. The second invitation is, to follow Jesus up onto the desks and chairs… in true Keating/Robin Williams style: to jump up and stand on desks and chairs and table tops and ladders, so that we all can see things from a different perspective, a wider view, a different horizon. And then seize that opportunity to be different. If we can do that together, then we will know what being in the kingdom is all about. As for the Presbytery it might be to put down what worked in the past, put down what is not working now and get up on the table of risk and the new and the alternative and maybe we can be in for an exciting and different journey!

Amen.

Today’s Demon

Posted: June 17, 2019 in Uncategorized

‘Today’s Demon’

 Our text from Luke today is a story of an exorcism that Luke has taken from Mark (5:1-20).  In Luke’s gospel, this is the only incident where Jesus ministers outside of Jewish territory.  There is confusion, however, on account of the textual variations as to the exact name of the place: “the country of the Gerasenes” or “Gadarenes” or “Gergesenes.”  The common understanding is that it can be said to be “opposite Galilee” (v. 26), that is, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

In the Synoptic gospels, Mathew Mark and Luke Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as engaging in exorcisms as a regular part of his ministry.  We today might have trouble with the notion of “demonic possession” but it was a standard feature of ancient belief.  Probably the closest modern analogue we have to such a phenomenon is severe mental and emotional illness.  In whatever way we understand it today, our text presents Jesus as restoring a tormented person to his right mind (v. 35). In this respect, exorcisms served the overall purpose of Jesus’ healing ministry.

The demon-possessed man is depicted as living outside the pale of civilized society: he wore no clothes and lived among the tombs (v. 27).  This means that the man suffering from demonic possession is also marginalized and in need of reintegration into ordinary society.  We are informed that the man is possessed of many demons.  Indeed, their name is “legion,” meaning “a multitude” or ‘great in number.”  Andrew King’s poem, ‘I Am Legion” gives us a personal picture of what this means for the individual.

I AM LEGION
I am the lost one trapped in depression;
I am the broken one trapped in my rage;
I am the hurting soul chained to addiction;
I am self-harmer abused at young age –

I am the many-name victim of madness,
my humanness naked, nowhere to hide;
drowning like flotsam in cold seas of sadness,
wracked by despair until bits of me die;

haunted by fear, or strange inner voices;
tortured by dark thoughts in pitiless tide . . .
Blame me? Shame me? And what other choices –
fear me? Ignore me and let my needs slide?

Gerasene brother, when you met the Christ
who banished the illness into the swine,
your healing came without judgment or price;
mercy itself helped bring rightness of mind.

But note still the fear of those who kept score,
finding you clothed, sitting calm and at peace.
Madness is feared, but is mercy feared more?
It’s Christ, not Legion, who’s asked there to leave.

The New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has made a very provocative suggestion for how we are to interpret the motif of Jesus sending the demons into the herd of swine (vv. 32-33).  First, he finds it to be telling that the demons give their name as “legion” which is the name of a Roman military unit.  He also thinks it is noteworthy that pigs are considered “unclean” animals according to Jewish food laws.  He reminds us, moreover, that the broader political context of the New Testament is that Palestine (the Land of Israel) was under Roman political and military occupation at the time of Jesus.  Hence, Crossan asks whether we might not discern “a connection between colonial oppression and forms of mental illness easily interpreted as demonic possession?”  This is a very insightful way of considering things in this passage of scripture.  Crossan explains: “An occupied country has, as it were, a multiple-personality disorder.  One part of it must hate and despise the oppressor, but the other must envy and admire its superior power.  And…if body is to society as microcosm to macrocosm, certain individuals may experience exactly the same split within themselves.”  With respect to our specific text, then, Crossan writes: “An individual is, of course, being healed, but the symbolism is also hard to miss or ignore.  The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power; is consigned to swine, that most impure of Judaism’s impure animals; and is cast into the sea, that dream of every Jewish resister.”  Crossan admits that he does not take this story to reflect an actual incident in the life of the historical Jesus; still, he does think that this story “openly characterizes Roman imperialism as demonic possession.”[  It’s hard not to be impressed with Crossan’s brilliance in seeing this connection in our text.  Accordingly, Jesus’ ministry, including his exorcisms, had a political dimension which we should not underestimate.

Whatever sense we make of the phenomenon that was interpreted by ancient people as demonic possession, the fact remains that many people, today as then, live under the domination of evil forces and are trapped by them.  Salvation for them thus requires liberation from evil.  In an earlier comment on another passage of scripture, I spoke of the prevalence of addiction in our society.  People under the power of an addiction feel that they have lost the freedom they once had to control their lives.  This experience of addiction can be likened to that of possession by an external demonic power.  We also speak today of “systemic evils” such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.  These are structural or collective evils from which individuals suffer.  So, however we name the evil in our midst, it is part of the church’s mission to exorcise it from the lives of people, just as Jesus once did.

I want to play you a video now that I think alerts us to a demonic possession today. Not is the sense of creating an image of a devil or a particular identity of evil but in terms of that which we create for ourselves as system, culture, through unquestioned progress or what at many levels seems good for us but might have hidden implications that we can name as insidiously evil because they fool us into complacency and comfort. The video is an introduction to a day seminar that we do not have on video but the introduction I think alerts us to ask questions about why things like Brexit has been so fraught, Why Donald Trump got elected and why we seem to roll from conflict into conflict or that we opt for legalism and revenge rather than seek grace, forgiveness and peace.

Show Video                 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wy8aY_-JLBA&t=323s

Discussion

John 16:12-15

In Relationship, Not Through Formula…

Last week Glenys asked where Pluralism had come from as a day of celebration in the church calendar and my reply was that I thought it had grown in the Progressive church movement in the USA in an attempt to both raise questions about the place of church festivals and to recognise that those festivals may no-longer be enough when it comes to expressing our faith. I have to admit that when I started parish ministry Trinity Sunday was the dreaded Sunday when one had to avoid explaining because it was too complicated. Today its not too much different in that the only thing one can say about Trinity with any credibility is to focus of relationship. Trinity is no longer about the three

That make up the one and more about the way in which the three relate as a unity.

Having said that there are a number of ways of looking at this. Gordon D Kaufman in his book “Jesus and Creativity” has some different comments on ‘trinity’.  He says it is very much tied to the traditional or orthodox ministry/death/resurrection/ascension-to-heaven story about Jesus… he says; “… the traditional trinitarian claim is that the three persons of the trinity all co-inhere in each other… and are all equally involved in everything in which any one of them is involved – and thus equally involved in everything throughout the cosmos.  He also says that; The doctrine of the trinity may be faulted here on two counts: (i) in its lifting a human being (Jesus) up into full deity, it makes the creativity throughout the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic andanthropocentric; and (ii) this sort of move seems to re-suppose some version of the old two-worlds cosmology (Pg:55).

“… Most of the vast universe, as we think of it today, is in no way at all affected by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; it is only the human project and its evils, on planet Earth, to which the Jesus-story – because of the healing and new life that it has brought – is pertinent… (Pg:55).

He says: “We need to recognize that from the very beginning of specifically Christian thinking about God, all the major issues that needed addressing involved human choices… It was through choices made by various followers of Jesus that the affirmations and claims that eventually developed into ministry/death/resurrection/ascension-to-heaven story about Jesus]…; it was the choices of councils of bishops that eventuated in the understanding of what would be regarded as ‘orthodox’ in the churches – including the doctrine of the trinity – and what would be regarded as ‘heresy’; and it has been repeated choices over the centuries – by bishops and popes, by congregations, by reformers of various sorts as well as other individual women and men – that have determined in every new present whether those earlier choices should still be regarded as of central importance in orienting and ordering life” (Pg:55-56).

He says that: “We in the twenty-first century are the heirs of many different ways of understanding and interpreting Jesus: Which (if any) should we commit ourselves to and seek to develop further?  Which should we ignore or discard?…  When the churches in the early centuries of Christianity accepted or consented to the notion of orthodoxy, the range of options for Christians was significantly narrowed… (Pg:56).

“[Contemporary Jesus study] actually brings us a number of significantly different Jesuses to which should we… commit ourselves?  Here again we are confronted with a matter of choice or at least consent: Which Jesus, if any, really ‘grabs’ us?  Which makes sense to us?  Which will help us grow in import new directions?  Whatever we regard as of unique significance in the complex of events ‘surrounding and including and following upon the man Jesus’ will largely determine the version of the Jesus-story that we choose as we seek to discern what light that story might throw on human life and death today” (Pg:57).

All of that sounds pretty good to my mind. It seems to have logic and make sense intellectually but I wonder if there is something else going on here as well. Maybe Trinity Sunday does symbolize all the failures of institutionalized Christianity. Maybe Trinity Sunday has become an ‘empty cocoon’ -empty, because the life which shaped it has long since departed.

Indeed, we are reliably informed that the great 20th century Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear from Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence!

Rex Hunt suggests that for him, the Doctrine of the Trinity has become a mathematical formula, much like and as arid as, E=MC2 that Einstein told us was the clue to the physical universe. Today however we read that some of the more creative biblical scholars of our day, think that the doctrine was ‘created’ to describe, define and safe-guard an experience. But in the process of time, the ‘experience’ seems to have been drained right out, and what we have left is just the formula – as if this was what being a Christian is. Believe in the Trinity or you cannot be Christian. There is still a hint of that around even today but when pressed that idea falls down.

But when we stop and look back for a moment we see the originating events of our faith and we see what these events suggest to us. A man by the name of Jesus or Jeshua, who was landless and probably worked as an ‘odd-jobs’ man for some years, changed jobs in mid-stream, and became an itinerant teacher, healer and storyteller – respected as a sage. And during one to three years (depending on which storyteller is in charge of the story), he seemed to attract a mixed group of people, usually from the fringes of his society.

With these people he was able to share himself so completely that over time and after a lot of struggle they became new people – gripped with a new creative imagination. In this becoming, the thoughts and feelings and stories of each other, resonated with the thoughts and feelings and stories of others. But here’s the catch; this was not something which Jesus himself did. It was something that happened when he was present, like a catalytic agent. One theologian has put it like this: “…something about this man Jesus broke the atomic exclusiveness of those individuals so that they were deeply and freely receptive and responsive each to the other…  Notice the challenges here. It was an atomic exclusiveness. It was an exclusiveness that had huge power. And the breaking of it transformed their minds, their personalities. They no longer saw things in the way of the popular, accepted norms.  Their appreciable world was forever changed, as was their community with one another and with all people. Their experience was such that when he died, despair gripped this group of people so much so that they could not see any good in him. He was not the messiah they had expected or hoped for. He could not have been the messiah at all.

However, this is not the end of the story. After a while, when the numbness and the shock
began to wear away, something happened… They began to see the effects of that transforming creativity previously known only in fellowship with Jesus, as reaching beyond his death. It began to work again. It had risen from the dead. The enthusiasm began to spread like wildfire and to empower those who experienced community as a means to self-worth, and organizations developed and the various communities began to express and value their diversity of culture, language and ideas. Then when the church around the 4th century created the doctrine of the Trinity, it was in a climate of dissension and so-called heresy, the Trinity idea it was to safe-guard an experience… It was a way of placating the differences in thinking with an experience as ideal. An experience, not too dissimilar with the resurrection experience. An experience of calm among the dissention, replacing the focus on the battle of words with an experience. An experience of life over death, of making new and alive, that which was dead in their lives… An experience which pointed to Creativity God in the world, and in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. And Creativity God is not limited to only one form or style of self-revelation because it is always relational and not rational.

What makes us truly human, and thus truly Christian, is not accepting superstition or what can or can’t be believed, nor accepting what can only be presented in some kind of arid formula. The positive about the Trinity is not in its doctrinal form but rather in its invitation to value experience as what makes us truly human. With or without God, to be truly human is being able to live in relationship to the other. Not, to alienate or objectify the other but to live in relationship with another. The relationship is what constitutes our existence and our wholeness, not the efforts to formulate and analyse and rationalize a belief. We are all webs and we are part of a web to use the internet analogy or an orbital spectrum perhaps to use a New Copernican idea. We are in relation to everyone and everything as part of the spectrum.

I wonder if we can be a little practical here. I want to ask you a question and then invite you to ponder it for a moment – The question is ‘what are your best moments?  Your really best moments?’ Think about it for a moment. I am not asking you to answer out loud but you can if you want to.

As an example; I think my best moments were when I was in relationship. When a member of my family hugged me. An example of this is when I visit my wife in the care home, her smile and her desire to hug me reach across her struggle with Alzheimer’s and we are in relationship that is more than anything going on in the day. After attending a colleague’s funeral last week I was standing outside when the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church gave me a hug and said thanks Doug you guys held our church together. He was referring to the role David Grant played as a mission consultant and when I was a co-director of the Mission Board of our church. I was in relation with him, with the colleague and with my church.

Best Trinitarian moment, relational moments are when friendship is valuable and touchable and strong…I remember those moments when I was and am in relation as my best moments. Don’t you?

But what’s really going on here? What’s the so-called ‘point’ of all this?  Well! The fact is that these experiences are universal experiences that tell us about ourselves. They tell us that not only do we exist (a web exists) but that we exist in relationship (we are the webs). Relationship is what makes us what we truly are. And the trinity as experience reminds us that what makes G-o-d God, is relationship. Using anthropocentric language, relationship is what God is about, and therefore it is no wonder that we, who are made in God’s image and likeness, are also essentially about creative relationship.

So those are my comments: Trinity Sunday is about me and you, and it’s about Creativity God and it’s about relationship. The Trinity is not a mathematical question. It’s not even a theological question. And any reference to it is only found once in the entire Bible and then scholars tell us, it was a very late addition. At best the Trinity is a relationship. Amen.

Notes:
Wieman, H. N. 1946.  The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Pluralism C, 2019
Luke 6: 20-21, 24-25

Going Beyond Exclusive Boundaries

Richard Dawkins says it is the root of all evil. Christopher Hitchens says it poisons everything. Both are talking about religion. And they are not alone in their ‘evangelical atheistic’ comments. Alongside this is another approach and that is one that I have argued for in John Seel’s book and the New Copernicans series we have just finished. That is that Atheistic argument is just one position amongst a bigger picture. That if one is to examine the history of Christian thought and practice one would see that at least over the last 2015 years there have been indications that thinking has evolved not in a linear fashion but in a more spherical, spiral or chaotic manner. Some traditional and ancient thinking has prevailed and been modified and others have been super-ceded and cast aside. Most scholars today will have a list of people they cite as resource for their thinking. There have been many popular books written preaching these positions. My attempt with the New Copernican series was to argue that the complexity of though is best addressed by accepting that experience has and is a major influence upon what we think. To choose one truth is to buy into an unhelpful extremism. As one Australian newspaper columnist said some time back now; “The swelling of atheist literature is a reaction to a worldwide rise in fundamentalist religion. But in kicking back at extremism, the bestselling atheists don’t discriminate between mainstream faith and the loony fringe.  It’s religion itself they object to”. Being in the so-called religion business we need to be aware of these author’s thoughts because reality is not that simple. It is not governed by pluralistic notions.  Thought is more complex in its nature and cannot be contained within boundaries.

Today, in the traditional lectionary of the church, is Pentecost Sunday. The so-called ‘birthday’ of the Christian church, even though scholars of any repute would claim the traditional story is the result of Luke’s own literary imagination, rather than an historical report. On the other hand, today in progressive church circles also carries another title: That of Pluralism Sunday. A day that is given over to being thankful for religious diversity.

We might note here that the secular world, the world of inclusive spirituality this is almost a non-event.

This brings me to the core challenge in this sermon, that of the exclusive boundaries we have established as children of our tradition, our past and some might say the exclusiveness of the closed transcendent position we spoke of in the series on the New Copernicans. I want to further challenge our thinking by introducing the science faith connection, the imagination verses real dilemma and lastly but not lest John D Caputo’s suggestion that God does not exist but God does insist and his work in developing what is know as a weak theology, or a God who is to be found in the weak and not the strong, perhaps in the foolishness of the cross or the folly of loving ones enemies, turning the other cheek and so forth. This is a big challenge because we find it hard to let go of the transcendent or more importantly to re-imagine it as less about over and above, and outside and more about a God in and through everything in and outside of reality. I do deviate from J D Caputo when he suggests we need to create a theology of perhaps in that I prefer the word ‘almost’ because it I want to express and claim for a somewhat positive hope filled stance. God is the ‘almost’ which to me means God exists but not in the traditional way we think and that God is found as the almost, the not yet but the sure to be, the weak, vulnerable God at the mercy of humanity and yet the God that is almost here. The hope of the God with us is to be found in the God who may not arrive but is almost here. Here I think also is the New Testament Kingdom of God that is yet to come and is also within you. Do you sense the exclusive boundaries I am asking you to examine and look beyond?

Last week I spoke a little about prayer and after the service one of you asked me “Then why do we pray?” My reply was that we pray because we are human and we need to. J D Caputo in answering a similar question suggested that his book could be thought of a faithful prayer to God so what if our God as almost. Our ‘almost is actually an element of prayer? I believe in prayer, I am a man of prayer. I am praying all the time and I am dead serious about this because while I don’t think prayer is a conversation with a theistic closed transcendent God, I do pray for the serendipitous chance of an event, I am praying for the possibility of the impossible, the perhaps as Caputo puts it and the almost as I prefer. Prayer is the precariousness and we invoke prayer and grace in the name of God and my language and vocabulary might challenge the pious because of the lack of religious jargon because it is always necessary to have an ‘almost’ when it comes to God. It has to have a cloud of unknowing and uncertainty over all divine matters if we are to move out of the closed transcendent limitedness. And to put it bluntly, there is no God except insofar there is a chance of an event, which we cannot see coming and I would add yet have the expectation of an almost. One could say that God is the unforeseeable come-what-may which may be the grace of a new beginning. Here we also have the insistence of God as the insistence of the event or the serendipitous chance of the event and the corresponding faith that God can happen anywhere at any-time.

As this is pluralism Sunday in many progressive churches it might be helpful to apply all of the above to the interfaith challenges, we face with the movement of people ll around the world. In recent years two American based groups have been at the forefront of the church’s attempt at keeping up with this change. One, the Institute for Progressive Christianity, and the other, The Centre for Progressive Christianity. In an interview back in 2006/7 the coordinator of the Project, Revd Jim Burklo, said there were three general ways in which religions relate to each other: The first is (i) Exclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is correct, and all other religions are wrong, at best, and evil, the worst… The second is (ii) Inclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is the only true one, but yours is interesting. So we should tolerate each other’s religions and find ways to cooperate and communicate… And the third is (ii) Pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me. I quote Jim Burklo: “pluralism is the concept that there are multiple loci of truth and salvation among the religions. [It] does not imply that all religions are the same or that all religions are equal; but it does recognize the possibility that my way is not the only way and that my religion is not necessarily superior to your” (Burklo. TCPC web site, Pluralism Sunday, 2007).

In saying that I think it is almost redundant to say what was just quoted in that the focus on differences has been part of our culture for some years now already and I wonder if we have moved on because we are now asking if it is important to recognize the difference in order to reach harmony and just acceptance of the differences or is it time to recognize the things that hold us together, the things that are as far as we can tell intrinsically human.

We might ask what some churches have been doing on pluralism Sunday and we might see that some years back First Congregational Church, Long Beach: has had an Islamic leader as the preacher; Christ Community Church, Spring Lake: has studied the book ‘The faith club’ – a book by three women, a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian – who sought to find common ground on which to share their faiths; University Place Christian Church, Enid: has used multiple languages to express the wisdom of different world religions in worship; And Mizpah United Church of Christ and Beth Shalom (Reformed Jewish), Minneapolis:  has had a ‘pulpit’ exchange between faiths. Some of you might remember that we too had an Islamic scholar preach in St David’s but what has this dome for interfaith relations in our daily lives?

Some years back now His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetian Buddhists, visited Canberra and the people were told that the Dalai Lama advises his lamas who travel to different countries not to emphasize the teaching of Buddhism too much,
as trying to convert people may not only fail but could also weaken their faith in their own religion. He said that it’s better to encourage those who believe in something, to deepen their own faith. “The point isn’t to convert people, but to contribute to their well-being” (Ian Lawton. 3C/Christ Community Church web site, 2007).

The Dalai Lama said that he didn’t go to the West to make one or two more Buddhists, but simply to share his experiences of the wisdom that Buddhism has developed over the centuries.  He  said that if you find anything I’ve said useful, make use of it.  Otherwise just forget it” (Quoted in Ian Lawton, Christ Community Church, 2007).

In response, someone said: “Now there’s a balanced attitude to east/west dialogue.  I can just hear a new form of Christian evangelism – which states ‘This is our tradition.  This is what it has meant for us.  If you find it useful, use it.  If Christianity contributes to the well-being of people, and contributes to world peace by inter-faith relations, then take and apply it.  Otherwise, just forget it…” (Ian Lawton).

And then Ian Lawton who was vicar at St Matthews in the city some years back  concludes:, “This is the attitude which will give Christianity a bright future. It should come as no surprise to us.  This was also the way of Jesus” (Ian Lawton). While another wrote:
“In a time of religious tension, and in what I see as increasing tribalism, when Christians think the only way to peace is to convert Muslims to Christianity and when Muslims think the only way to peace is to convert Christians to Islam, I think Jesus would shout: ‘Enough!  Convert yourselves!  Listen and discover the better way’” (John Shuck. Shuck&Jive blog site, 2007)

And again that same cleric says; “I am a Christian.  Christianity is unique and it has much to offer our world.  But being unique does not necessarily mean being right or being the only way to be.  Hinduism is also unique, as is Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, Native [Aboriginal] religions, you name it.  We all have truths and shortcomings.  We all have something to offer.  We all have something to learn from one another.  Pentecost is a great day to listen to the Spirit’s voice present in other traditions as well as our own” (John Shuck)

So here we are on the day of Pentecost  saying that we need to break through exclusive boundaries and embracing not only other religions and honouring them at a deep level of respect and openness but also break through the exclusive boundaries that separate us from the secular and worldy world. Those boundaries do not exist as immovable unhealthy support systems unless we leave them unchallenged. Pluralism Sunday is about letting the world of newspaper columnists and TV producers and the neighbours with whom you chat over the back fence, know there are Christians who are unafraid of humility, of the hard questions and Christians who challenge the exclusive dogmatism of the fundamentalist churches who claim Christianity is religiously superior.

There is a way to be authentically and particularly religious, involved and immersed in a religious culture, and practice a specific religion and path, but…“if you go all the way with that, you will discover that we all end up on the top of the same mountain [with]… brothers and sisters of other faiths who have done the same sort of thing” (Burklo, TCPC).

So let us this Pentecost, commit ourselves to a deeper pluralism which both encourages and allows us to: enrich our own faith, as well as celebrate with those who think differently from us; our neighbours. Amen.

On Behalf of All of Us

Posted: June 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

On Behalf of All of Us

June 2, 2019

John 17:20-26

The Revised Common Lectionary reading from John this week gives us a portion of a prayer by Jesus. It is thought to be the culmination of his farewell discourse to his disciples In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday.  Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, foreseen Judas’s betrayal, predicted Peter’s denial, promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, and suggested that it might be that time is running out.

In the final moments before his arrest, he “looks toward heaven and prays.”  This prayer is commonly known as part of the high priestly prayer and by some as the other Lord’s Prayer — the one we haven’t memorized and recited on Sunday mornings.  It’s certainly not polished and poetic like the “Our Father.”  It doesn’t flow, or cover its bases efficiently.  It’s long, rambling, and rather hard to follow.  And though the disciples are meant to overhear the words, Jesus’s tone has an urgency and passion that is achingly private.  It seems that here Jesus isn’t engaging in a teaching moment with this Prayer; he’s rather rending his heart.

A Debie Thomas of a blog called Journey with Jesus writes that she sat with the words of this lectionary reading for a long time waiting to see what words and phrases would stand out. She says that she didn’t expect anything to come and was surprised when the words ‘I ask’ lept out at her. I was reminded as I read this that that is the way Jesus lived. He asked the questions, His answer to many requests was another question. He very seldom gave an answer and if he did it was always followed up with a question.

In Debie’s case the question she was encouraged to ask was “What does it mean that Jesus spends his final moments with his friends in humble, anxious supplication?”  We have the Jesus who healed the sick and fed the hungry and raised the dead, and we might ask; “What does it mean that that same Jesus ends his ministry by asking into uncertainty?  Hoping into doubt?  Trusting into danger?

It seems that in an outpouring of words and emotions, Jesus asks God to do for his followers what he himself cannot do.  To be for people in spirit what he can no longer be for us in body. “May they be in us,” he prays. May they all be one.  May they know the love that founded the world.  May they see the glory of God. This is less about calling for a supernatural God above, to do the magic Jesus can’t do and more about his acknowledgement that in and through the unity of humankind the more than, the Spirit and source of transformation is in the admitting of one’s limitations and accepting the life of uncertainty.

In his book entitled, Tokens of Trust, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, describes the strangeness and wonder of this Jesus who prays: “Yes, Jesus is a human being in whom God’s action is at work without interruption or impediment.  But wait a moment: the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is someone who prays, who speaks of putting his will and his decisions at the service of his Father.  He is someone who is in a relationship of dependence on the one he prays to as Father.  In him there is divine purpose, power, and action; but there is also humility, responsiveness, and receptivity.” Williams is acknowledging the importance of Jesus as revelation of divine purpose and power and action and he is a human being who lives with humility and uncertainty.

Do we know this Jesus, the one who pleads so earnestly?  We can very likely say that we know the Jesus who teaches, heals, resurrects, and feeds because our tradition has developed this, over hundreds of years.  But do we know this Jesus?  This vulnerable one who in this passage does the single hardest thing a friend, a lover, a spouse, a parent, a child, a teacher, a pastor ever does? It sounds harsh but in recognizing his limitations, his humanity this Jesus sends his cherished ones into a treacherous, divisive, broken world on nothing but a hope and a prayer?  Another way of saying this is to say that he entrusts the treasures of his heart to the vast mystery that is intercession?

Put yourself in Jesus place and you might be saying to your God, “I don’t know what you will do with my asking.  I don’t know how or when or if you will answer this prayer.  I can’t force your hand.  But I am staking my life and the lives of my loved ones on your goodness, because there’s literally nothing more I can do on my own. I have come to the end of what this aching love of mine can hold and guard and save.  I am asking”.

To me this seems to be asking us to ask what role prayer plays in our world, a world rife with tragedy, injustice, and oppression? Is this prayer of Jesus in his circumstances, the immanent arrival of his possible demise or imprisonment,  reminding us to ask the hardest questions we can think of about God — questions we don’t know how to answer. Does God intervene directly in human affairs? Does his intervention — or lack of it — depend in any way on our asking? Can prayer “change” God? Big questions yet questions that need to be asked if we are to be responsible human beings. But lets put those down for a bit and return to the place Jesus finds himself in.

We have in traditional words the immanence of Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles. This is the situation of our text meaning and as many of could perhaps say our beliefs about prayer have changed a lot over the years. Many of us were raised to believe that God intervenes very directly in human affairs, and that intercessory prayer has powerful and undeniable “real world” effects. As a child, we might have believed with all our heart that prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far-away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, and “stops the bad guys.”

As a teen and young adult for many of us, much of that certainty collapsed under the weight of life experience — some diseases didn’t get better, car accidents happened, we have nightmares, babies starved, young people died, and “bad guys” won the day.  When we asked our elders to explain these discrepancies, some gave us two answers: The first is that we need to pray with more faith, and the second is that sometimes God’s answer is no. Both of those answers might have struck us then — and now — as too simple to be true or alternatively pretty lame.

Today, we live along the borders of a more complicated world. we have friends and family members who pray for parking spots, lost house keys, Rugby victories, and Grammar Zone admissions for our children. But we also have friends who avoid intercessory prayer on principle, convinced that the true purpose of prayer has nothing to do with asking God “for stuff.” In their words: “He’s God.  Not Santa Claus.” While not making that dualistic response, I can identify with the questions about intercessory prayer. I remember being challenged at Knox that intercessory prayer should not contain requests for what i think other people need. That made interceding for others very difficult.

It seems that the challenge of intercessory prayer is that it’s subjective. What looks like God’s “yes” in our eyes might easily look like God’s “no,” God’s silence, or even God’s non-existence in other eyes. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final, inviolable freedom.” When is an “answer to prayer” really an answer? When is it coincidence? Randomness? A trick of the light? The truth is that we can’t say for sure. Not in this lifetime at least. Not without losing our freedom.

So why do we pray?  One answer is that we pray because I am compelled to do so. Because something in me cries out for engagement, relationship, attentiveness, and worship. We pray because our soul yearns for connection with an, Other, whom we name God, and it seems that, that connection is best forged in prayer. With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair, prayer holds open the possibility that we are not alone, and that this broken, aching world isn’t alone, either. We pray, as C.S Lewis writes, “because I can’t help myself.” Because “the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping.”

Well, here we have a reasonable answer. But maybe this week’s Gospel reading offers us another one: Maybe we pray because Jesus did.  We ask because Jesus asked.  Asking is perhaps the last thing he did before his arrest.  The last tender memory he bequeathed to his friends.  He didn’t awe them with a grand finale of miracles.  Neither did he contemplate their futures and despair.  In traditional words we might say; He looked towards heaven with a trembling heart, and surrendered his cherished ones to God. He was as uncertain as the rest of us.

A final line this morning might be to say that he asked questions because he loved too much not to.  What better way to walk the Jesus Way than by honouring the minds ability to find the questions that matter, to live the questions because that acknowledges the uncertainty that is only recognised through the questioning and to explore the adventure of being human with humility and courage because that is what Jesus did. Amen.