Prayer on the Edge of Time.

One of the first things I found myself doing when preparing for parish ministry was to collect as many books and resources I could about prayer and the examples of what prayers contained. I stood in awe of ministers who could spout off huge long prayers without reading them. I knew I could never be like them for two reasons. One was that I never trusted my memory to be so rich in vocabulary and two I was never a fan of extemporary prayer because It seemed so readily available that it lost its depth of sincerity for me. I have never been a fan of repetitive rites.

Before I set out on this new and rather daunting experience of Parish Ministry, I. gathered together some resources to help me. In my day it was that each of the denominations had its own so called ‘Prayer Book of Book of Common Prayer and there were a smattering of others who had written books with examples of prayers for all occasions.

One of the challenges for me at that time was the idea that “Prayer… is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Its concern is not with exact description, as that of prose so often is, but with reality itself and with the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off: it has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt.”  (Davies 1956:6)

In all my thinking about and struggling with, prayer, those words have become the basis of prayer for me, It is less about an exhortation to converse properly with God and more about a song of the heart.

Under the strain of difficult conditions, or in severe loss or bereavement, or when emotionally moved by a scene of natural beauty, there is something within us that cries out for expression. Prayer is a natural thing.  It is essentially and expression in sound the heartfelt connection with the sacred that is to be found in the midst of ordinary life and in the natural world. That is the purpose of prayer and what makes it special is not the words but rather it is “something more than ourselves in which we ‘live and move and have our being’… It is what poetry attempts to do, to reach beyond the mind and heart and to find that place of connection with the other…and that which in various ways, calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence” (Peters 2008: 12).

Having given prayer this task we come to today’s gospel story by the bloke we call John, as a very small part of the tradition which was circulating about Jesus’ prayers or prayer life. The tone of this rather long-winded prayer is very personal. He addresses God as someone whom he knows very intimately indeed, and as someone whom he trusts implicitly. It is classic ‘theism’.

But it is also more than that.

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a father and his son journey through the ruins of a post-apocalyptic earth. The world has been reduced to a dismal landscape drained of color. Nothing can grow on earth. No crops for food. The ghastly nature of survival has reduced people to cannibalism. The father struggles to protect his young son from cold, sickness, starvation and evil men. As his health deteriorates, we sense that the father is a doomed man. He’ll eventually die and have to send his son up the road without him. It’s a grueling, but simple and powerful story- the depth of a father’s love, and the depths of hell he will go through in order to keep his son alive.  

In the gospel reading, Jesus’ life and ministry are rapidly coming to a brutal end. For John, He’s going back to the father, and he prays on behalf of his disciples. Like the father in The Road, he’s sending his disciples on up the road without him. He guarded them up to this point, and loves them greatly, but now they have to further the ministry of the kingdom and step out on their own. He asks God to protect them from the evil one. He asks that they be sanctified in truth. In a world hostile to the values of the Kingdom of God, they will need the clarity of truth and the comfort of Jesus’ words.  Here we have the idea a dualisms atonement and the personification of evil. 

Our tradition steps in here and says that it’s not just the disciples Jesus prays for, but us as well. He sends us out into the world and prays for us, asking the father to protect us from the evil one and to sanctify us in the truth of his love and grace. We journey up the road as witnesses to his gospel. Jesus goes back to the Father, but his spirit is with us. He goes through hell for us, and with us, and then sends us up the road sanctified in the purity of his truth, to reach others in sacrificial love.

And in this prayer John has Jesus weaving together the past, the present and the future into a kind of timelessness, which he suggests is available for all. This particular prayer is quite different from the ‘The Abba Prayer’. Which I guess, shows there are many different types of prayer and many different approaches to prayer. So, in spite of some advice to the contrary there is no one way which is either right or wrong.

Prayer which somebody leads in church or in a prayer group on behalf of others, is quite different from private prayer. On the other hand, prayer may be just a couple of words; or a waiting in silence. Whatever the sort of prayer you prefer,
there does need to be some time for silence…

The deeper you get into prayer the more it tends to be listening prayer or a song, or poem rather prose or a speaking prayer. That silence may be when you’re outside gardening, or enjoying a bush or beach view, or looking at a picture, or out for a brisk morning walk in winter. It may also be while you’re ironing, or painting the shed, or washing the car. Or it may be in deliberate meditation.

Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, has become an inspirational figure for many around the world. He died or rather was killed some time ago now, but his work of solidarity on behalf of the poor and exploited will long be remembered. He once wrote some words on prayer to the people of his diocese, at a time when they were enduring horrific suffering. He talked of payer as; “putting our ear to the ground” in order to hear the Divine voice…  to recognise that God always is by our side, even when in our agony we are silenced and unable to think at all.

“Put your ear to the ground
and listen,
hurried, worried footsteps,
bitterness, rebellion.

“Hope hasn’t yet begun.
Listen again.
Put out your feelers.
The Lord is there.  (Camara 1984)

Peter Millar from the Iona Community offers this perspective on Camara’s prayer:
“Is this not the essence of prayer – to see the One who is always near, and who is constantly inviting us, in gentle compassion, to come back to our inheritance as a human being made in the divine image?” (Millar 2000:37)

Another perspective on prayer, especially how ‘it works’, comes from Christine Robinson.  She suggests that prayer ‘works’: “on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear our own wisdom, to reroute habits and habitual responses, to help us adjust to and find good in all that we cannot change, and see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they are, in our lives” (C Robinson. First Unitarian, Albuquerque web site, 2007).

Prayer ‘works’ not because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural being who just happens to be listening, waiting for our orders. It ‘works’ because our lives and our world are porous to new and creative re-imagined possibilities. Prayer ‘works’ in the re-creation of the one who prays.  (Wieman 1946)

Finally let’s acknowledge that this sermon has been words on prayer. But words on prayer should also share in a prayer. Powell Davies has just such a prayer: a short prayer on prayer, It is a short, soft-theistic prayer which addresses the ‘sacred, or the ‘divine’ in personalistic ways:  ‘Help us, O God, lest we make our prayers a substitute for what we should do with our lives; what our prayers begin, may our lives continue’.

I want to conclude today with a comment my colleague and friend Rex Hunt concluded a sermon with. Borrowing from his theology mentor, Henry Nelson Wieman: he said; “Religion, with wisdom born of centuries of experience, tells us that qualities of mind and heart, rather than physical blessings, should be a major concern in our prayer life. That we should pray not for more of the bounties of life, but for more awareness of life; not for more recognition and love from our peers, but for more capacity to give love and recognition. These are some of the things which are truly worth praying for, and they are all within the range of possibility for everyone, of us.”(Wieman 1946) Amen.

Notes:
Davies, A. P. The Language of the Heart. Washington DC. A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee, All Soul’s Church, 1956.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.
Wieman, H. N. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press, 1946.

rexae74@gmail.com

John 15:9-17

Love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb!

One of the most fallible things today is to say I or we have the truth and if you listen to us you will have it too. Why? Because theology can never begin by assuming it already has the answer. And any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest. (Scott 2001)

Biblical scholar and Jesus Seminar Fellow, B. Brandon Scott. Made that statement which is not only challenging to all of us who engage in theological and biblical discussion or study groups, but also personally challenging, to all who would follow the Way of Jesus. One old is quotes as having said, that the first word in religion must always be ‘No’. ‘No’ to all the nonsense that often goes under the name ‘religion’, Why? so that there is space to say ‘Yes’ to the more profound insights, of the best in religions.

And as Brandon Scott also reminds us: “Our faith is not a single moment of coming to faith or conversion, but an ongoing activity or process.  This is not to say that there might be a moment when once can mark a change or an awareness but rather to acknowledge that our faith grows and develops in response to our concrete experience…  The issue is that we don’t know or can’t know what we need faith for.  Faith is in its very nature a gamble about what might be, not what certainly is” (Scott 2001:1148).

But it can be hard to say ‘No’ when the politics and interpretations from the past,
or the church bureaucracy of the present, have framed or shaped a story in a certain way. That’s because for two thousand years there has been this big contradiction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus.

So let me offer a few initial comments about what I mean by that.

The religion of Jesus is found in the things he talked with people about. How to live. How to treat one another. How you can be made whole, here and now. How you can help make the world more whole, here and now. A constant pressing at the margins, for justice and empowerment, as he ate with toll collectors and prostitutes, called the poor blessed, and praised the confessions of common folk.

The religion about Jesus is about believing a certain story, often aimed at frightening people into accepting agendas such as: hating gays, or independent women, or the sanctioning of torture against so-called ‘middle-eastern terrorists’. Coupled with the promise that if you do ‘believe’, you’ll be ‘saved’ after you die.

It is my opinion and of many people today that Jesus would have hated that story. He, would have said ‘No’ to that ‘about’ story.

Today we have one of those ‘in process’ stories as our gospel story. And you will have recognised it is a story about ‘love’. But not the ‘Women’s Day’ or ‘New Idea’ celebrity love story. Or the Hallmark card, sentimental, love story. Yet it is a love story which has inspired our storyteller to both tell it and to wrap it around the name of Jesus. And more importantly for my claim today, a story where where ‘love’ isn’t a noun, but rather a verb.

I want to share with you a love story and a prayer written by Davidson Loehr.
and quoted by Rex Hunt more recently. Both are about love as a verb. Not as a noun.

The story…

A monk, Friar Bernard, lamented in his cell on Mount Cenis, the crimes of mankind.

Rising one morning before daybreak from his bed of moss and dry leaves, he

gnawed his roots and berries, drank of the spring, and set forth to go to Rome to reform the corrupt people there.

On his way he encountered many travelers who greeted him courteously. And the cabins of peasants and the castles of lords supplied his few wants. When he came at last to Rome, his piety and good will easily introduced him to many families of the rich.

On the first day he saw and talked with mothers with babes at their breasts. They told him how much love they bore their children, and how they were perplexed in their daily walk lest they should fail in their duty to them.

“What!” he said, “and this on rich embroidered carpets, on marble floors, surrounded by expensive sculpture, and carved wood, rich pictures, and piles of books about you? “You’re rich Roman pagans, not even Christians! How can you be good people?”

“Look at our pictures, and books,” they said, “and we will tell you, good Brother, how we spent last evening. “These books are full of stories of godly children and holy families and sacrifices made in old or in recent times, by great and not mean persons. “And last evening, our families were all gathered together, and our husbands and brothers spoke sadly on what we could save and give to others in the hard times.”

Then the men came in, and they said, “Greetings, good Brother!  Does your monastery want gifts? Let us share with you.”

Then Friar Bernard went home swiftly with other thoughts than he had brought, saying, “Their way of life is wrong – they are not even poor, and they are not Christians! “Yet these Romans, whom I prayed God to destroy, are lovers. They are lovers.  What can I do?”

That’s the story.

Davidson Loehr offers this comment: “Friar Bernard has a couple choices.  He can try to forget what he’d just seen and felt, and return to his comfortable beliefs, or he can realize that his beliefs are too small to hold life, or even to serve it in a way that isn’t a curse to others.” (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2006)

Now the prayer and it is a little edited.

We pray to the angels of our better nature and the still small voice that can speak to us when we feel safe enough to listen. Help us to love people and causes outside of ourselves, that we may be enlarged to include them… Help us remember we can, if we will, invest ourselves in relationships, institutions and causes that transcend and expand us. Help us guard our hearts against those relationships and activities that diminish us and weaken our life force. And help us give our hearts to those relationships that might, with our help, expand our souls and our worlds. We know every day, both life and death are set before us.
Let us have the faith and courage to choose those involvements that can lead us toward life, toward life more abundant… May we see more clearly in these matters. May we have the will to hold to those relationships that demand, and cherish, the very best in us. Just that.  Just those.  Amen. (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2006).

The question we are left with is “what does it take to let love get lived?” I think as others do that Love, of the kind our gospel storyteller is talking about, is a verb rather than a noun.

This love creates – a dynamic, living whole, a strong harmony, a deep unity, which does not diminish or weaken, but rather expands our life force, encouraging a response in expressions of joy. And it is greeted in open and honest ways that can lead us toward life more abundant.

Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian reformer of early 19th century America, once wrote near the end of his life: “I have had great powers and have only half used them.” We all have great powers that we have only half used, suggests Davidson Loehr. “Isn’t that one reason we come here to church – to keep being exhorted to develop the other half of our great powers, and to use them to help ourselves and our world come alive?  We come seeking wholeness, and so often we don’t want to admit that we can have it.” (DLoehr. First UU Church, Austin, web site, 2008). It is as if we would rather wallow in self-pity or hide from the fear we have created.We lock in the idea that we are not good enough to love wastefully in rules about belief, and creeds and literal prisons of certainty that we can never achieve, and we maintain myth as an untruth, as opposed to a liberating ground from which to live.We make Love an unassailable noun when in fact it is a verb.

Like faith it is not in the conversion event that we grow but in the living of it. It is in the loving that love exists not the other way round. Love as a noun is that which we escape from by giving it all sorts of meanings from romance to blind acceptance but as a verb it is clearly an action that changes things. Nothing is ever the same after an experience of loving and being loved. Look at that which happens between almost every parent’s experience, be careful here not to fall back into the noun, Love as a verb is unconditional. Amen.

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

rexae74@gmail.com

Claiming the Deep, Invisible Bonds of Community’.

This morning I want to acknowledge that with the arrival of Covid 19 the world has changed. And particularly with what we mean by community, churches and gatherings have been curtailed in the interests of stopping the spread of the virus, not I said spread and not getting rid of the virus because even though they might be one and the same I suspect we will have a form of the virus with us long into our future as a human species. Just like many other viruses we have learned to live with. Don’t get me wrong there is still a need to ensure human safety from a killer virus but managing it has always been our approach. What I am concerned with today is the effect this global example has had on human community and what that means and how we maintain it. ‘Tacey’ an Australian theologian says that:

“The art of community is the art of the soul, and community is what happens
when deep, invisible bonds are shared…” 
(Tacey 2003:217).

This suggests that community is more that just being together for events or collective gatherings. Rex Hunt tells the following story when talking about our Gospel reading for this morning. He speaks of the vine as the metaphor followers of Jesus might have seen his activity as depicting. In speaking about a vine Rex says: When Tarzan swung from them, they were a mode of jungle transportation. When he and his mate were asked to dig one out from the front garden of a home in suburban Epping, it was nothing short of a pain in the proverbial. The image of a vine, played with by the storyteller we call John in this morning’s gospel story, is also a rich source of reflection and comment on community’.

We might see the story as John having taken the image of a vine, an organic also e ‘sacred’ as beneath and around us, rising up, rather than above us, condescending. (William Loader web site, 2009)

And also, a bit more. That relationship is what matters, and what flows from those relationships. Now we know that much of this is not new. Either to this week’s gospel story or to the Jesus story as a whole. But the inclusion of this story might mean that in John’s world. There might have been a question around the loss of community. And this prompts us to ask; what about our modern, secular world and our sense of community, our sense of society.

We might also ask is this challenge about community new? Is Covid 19 the only wake up call we as a species need? And where might all this, concern about community touch the raw edges of our everyday, 21st century, life.?

Maybe the vine or ‘organic’ metaphor is a strong challenge for us today? Is it a challenge to those contemporary Western corporate and political leaders of society who tend to argue that: “the well-being of society as a whole will be maximized only through a corporation’s self-interested me-first pursuit of profit.” (Lerner 2006:104)

What the challenge highlights is that this opinion is not only a difference of opinion about what constitutes ‘society’ or ‘community’, but also a clash of values as well, as is that which came upon us in the recent economic ‘crash’. One set of values, based on ‘consumerism’ and modern individualism, sometimes now known as materialism believes that:

  • all persons should be responsible for themselves and look after their own interests;
  • help given to others for nothing in return only diminishes the initiative of such people and leads them into a permanent state of dependency;
  • efficiency is the key to a healthy economy, and
  • competition is one of the chief techniques for promoting efficiency so competition must be increased. 

The other set of values, based on respect for the sacred in the other, calls for: 

  • co-operation instead of competition;
  • a vision which says look after others as much as ourselves;
  • a recognition that we have a common destiny or no destiny at all; and
  • justice and fairness in all our dealings.

Now of course, as many others have pointed out quite clearly, and New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering being one of them, – it is much easier to name the social values we need than to put them into practice. And just as it is much easier to analyse the situation than it is to change it. The main question we might be left with is has do we live as ‘community’ for the common good.

Noel Preston an Australian sought an answer and suggested that we could make sense not only of Jesus’ own, individual life, and also make sense of this life lived in relationship with many others. In a kind of personal credo, Noel Preston offers these thoughts on, or characteristics of, a renewed 21st century faith. He says focus on;

  1. An Eco-centric and not anthropocentric world view

That means to reject human-centred theology, which subtly endorses our species’ destructive dominance of nature, in favour of a view which takes seriously the intrinsic value of all life. I look at this a bit differently. I don’t agree about the need for a new non-human centred approach but rather I think we do need a new theology of the human place in the wholistic interdependent world. We need to acknowledge the anthropocentric world view as the only way we can meet the required responsibility for the planet and that the key thing is that we need to acknowledge that is a life time task of keeping ourselves humble, sceptical of easy stories and ensure we participate fully and responsibly in shaping our world. The second foci he says is to be;

  • Inclusive and not exclusive

Not just in a gender, race or species sense, but also, in recognising that the truth to live by may be revealed in varying and multiple ways. The richness of ecology, biology and cosmology is that it is always serendipitous, always random, always different, always organic That was why Jesus was able to say there is an alternative way of being, a new way, an alternative to the economic, social and religious way he lived with and had the insight to see.. The third foci is that this alternative way of being human is that it is:

  • Mystical rather than literalist

That a new way of looking at this is to see that it centres on an experience of the sacred in the midst of not alongside of or over but as life’s uncertainties This ‘community” is a dynamic event seemingly fragile but triggered more by cosmic connectedness with other creatures than by codified religious institutions or social or economic forms. Community is rooted in;

  • The goodness of life rather than its undeniable tragedy

This suggests that we do not need to fix the horrible negative things of the world with programs of repentance and restructuring and new directions in theory. Yes we need to live the questions but ‘Life’s purpose’ is less about putting right or fixing things and more about celebrating original goodness rather than seeking salvation from original sin. Stop at the last words in the stanza of the first creation story, “And it was good” Don’t go on to the second story where the bad in the world, has to be a human fete accompli.

Noel Preston’s vision and mine is that of a renewed 21st century faith being based on a sense of community built around the ideal of love. Is the response to make and it invites being understood in political, economic and social terms “as community of eco-justice.” (Preston 2006:296)

While some argue such a faith is too removed from traditional or fundamentalist, religious thought, or that it is too trendy; as if that is a negative? It seems to me that it is not far from the re-imagined sense of community, the Galilean sage from Nazareth inspired in a storyteller we call John.  For him community is what happens when deep, invisible bonds, like that of a vine, are embraced and shared, rising up around, among, within us, where. “the well-being of others contributes directly to the well-being of oneself.” (Birch & Cobb 1981:277)

And to return to what this understanding of community is based upon is the “Road not taken” by Robert Frost that reminds us that we might look again and discover that there is a choice that we are being asked to make, Listen, to the sage of Nazareth or to the clanging cymbal that is making the loudest noise.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,”

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

And in closing the challenge is to keep the vision of community based on ‘Love’, alive for it is never too late to seek a new world and a new heaven, or as Tennyson said.
“Come, my friends.  ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” (Tennyson, quoted in Preston 2006:307) Amen.

Notes:
Birch, L. C. & J. B. Cobb Jr. The Liberation of Life. From the Cell to the Community. New York. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Lerner, M. The Left Hand of God. Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
Preston, N. Beyond the Boundary. A Memoir Exploring Ethics, Politics and Spirituality. Burleigh. Zeus Publications, 2006.
Tacey, D. J. The Spirituality Revolution. The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality. Sydney. HarperCollins, 2003.

rexae74@gmail.com

John 10:11-18

Restore Dignity and Push Boundaries

.

For us in this country today is a combination of what is traditionally known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and Anza Day. And this makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The remembrance of lives dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of nation.  It is also about brave heroes who sacrificed their lives for others and of simple animals of huge significance to a culture. Traditionally the images have been of gallant behaviour in horrific conditions, and of a good shepherd with flowing robes, cuddling a tiny lamb, while other sheep lie peacefully at his feet.

The shepherd scene is idyllic.  Probably conjured up in an urban environment.
And nourished, no doubt, by someone’s infant recollections of a favourite ‘teddy’ or ‘Pumpkin Patch kid’. By contrast, the tough shepherd image of one forced to live outdoors and on the fringes of society as an outcast, with an ‘honesty’ and ‘trustworthy’ 1st century reputation on a par with 21st century used car salesmen/women, has all but been lost. Everything and everyone seem to have been sanitized and sentimentalized. Some might say that of Anzac Day also but it would be definitely not PC to say so. So, this morning, out of all the kitsch, let’s see if we can pick up something which is helpful and hopeful.

To begin with, we might hear what West Australian biblical theologian William Loader has to say. He says; “The ancient shepherd of Palestine or Asia Minor had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, frequently amid danger from wild animals and sheep stealers, and, above all, had to protect the flock, especially at night…  John 10 reflects this less than idyllic world.  The bland teddy bear image gives way to a picture of tension: positively, a shepherd doing his job to the utmost; negatively, dangers which threaten the sheep… and which will kill him.  Life and death dance together.” (WLoader web site, 2006)

And to counter the shepherd/used car salesmen jibe I made earlier on, there was a comment from a car salesman who said: “the most untrustworthy people are those who are trading in cars.” (Stoffregen/CrossMarks web site 2006)

Some of you might also remember the DVD series called ‘Eclipsing Empire’, produced by Living the Questions. It features two biblical scholars: Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg, and their time in Turkey ‘in the footsteps’ so-to-speak, of Paul.

Very quickly in the series one discovers Turkey (like Greece and Italy) teeming with
sites and sights of historic and architectural interest, not the least of which is the ruins of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the cathedral of Divine Wisdom, built in the early years of the Byzantine Empire.

A modern-day visitor describes this site as: “Here in this vast space are columns in the form of trees reaching skyward supporting the dome of heaven suspended high overhead.  The building itself is a model, a template, of paradise here on earth.  Lines across the floor, dividing the building into quadrants, represent the four rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden.  Many of the magnificent mosaics that once adorned the walls and ceiling were concealed or defaced after it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.  Those that remain portray Jesus and his mother, Mary, John the Baptist and early emperors of Byzantium.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

Dr Barry Andrews goes on: “But none of these depict the most familiar image of Jesus, namely the crucifix.  Throughout Turkey, the birthplace of Christianity as we know it, what one finds are mosaics, wall paintings and figurines showing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, tending his sheep in a pastoral setting, and not the customary Christ on the cross, atoning in his own suffering and death for our sinful ways.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

It is fascinating to find that the first crucifix appears in Germany in the 10th century.
Prior to that the symbolism of the church was very different.  As Val Webb says in her book Stepping Out with the Sacred, “While Western art was absorbed with images of a twisted body on the cross as a bloody sacrifice, Eastern icons focused on Christ victorious over suffering and death, the serenely noble GOD- an.” (Webb 2010:157-58)

Initially it is easy to think that the burden of this story might be the rural images
of shepherd and sheep, which for urban folk like us, are just not part of our everyday experiences, apart from a visit to the meat department of the local supermarket! But maybe there are a couple of other things which can be said about this story and the image of ‘shepherd’.

Two things stand out for me.  Those are: (One) Pastoral, and (Two) Power. In one we have the tough ‘good shepherd’ of the biblical stories who loved the ‘sheep’ enough to restore their dignity to them by ignoring the rules about who belonged or didn’t belong! And we reckon he did this by helping peasant families and workers and other ‘outsiders’, to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the taxation, farming policies, and religious codes had labelled them. (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)

In a well-ordered society, people know their places. In Jesus’ world the “few very rich and the many very poor.” (Funk 2002:46) knew very well their places. But in Jesus’ re-imagined realm of God those ‘places’ were reversed. That’s the pastoral bit.

In the second we have John’s tough ‘good shepherd’ – Galilean, peasant sage -who appears not to be afraid to push boundaries. Be they Family boundaries.
Life boundaries. or Empire boundaries.

Perhaps the most dramatic biblical story of boundary-pushing (according to some) is the one which a couple of biblical storytellers tell… The action of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.

We might have already explored this story through the eyes and ears of the storyteller we call Mark, as well as via a few contemporary biblical scholars. But there is an interesting comment by classics scholar, Richard Horsley.

“… in healing withered limbs and casting out demons from possessed Galilean peasants, fishermen, and workers, Jesus was acting as a prophet to help the People of Israel regain control over their lives and livelihoods…  Whether or not Jesus understood exactly how profitable the Temple services were for the few families that controlled them… few would have mistaken what he was doing.” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:78) That’s the power bit.

On ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and on Anzac Day we can very easily slip into looking for, and discovering, a sanitized and sentimentalized Jesus, who cuddles sheep and a glorified sacrificial ideal of lives given to a cause without critique of its wisdom.  In the fair dinkum department, to use an Australian quip we have to say that is an unhelpful response. On the other hand, the challenge of this day is to see and hear the humanity of Jesus and he humanity of soldiers behind the many stories and different images. To see him pointing to something he calls the realm of God, where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world, demand to be considered, especially by the Empire, and by the need for political and economic control. To hear this Shepherd inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries which always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity. (Spong 2001:131)

As Dr Greg Jenks, currently Bishop of Grafton Cathedral in Australia has suggested in his The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes: “It is perhaps ironic that some of Jesus’ best-known teachings, derive not from the lips of Jesus but from the hearts of his followers as they reflected on Jesus’ own actions.

  • Jesus did not claim to be the divine/good shepherd; he simply gave himself to others.
  • Jesus did not contrast himself to the hired hand; he simply acted differently.
  • Jesus did not his talk up his intimacy with God; he simply lived as one intimate with God.
  • Jesus did not describe his death as bringing life to others; he simply embraced death as God’s will for him at that time.” 

(Faith Futures web site, The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes, 2012)

Pastoral and power. Restoring dignity. Pushing boundaries

Perhaps this is how we might give due honour to ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday today, and to Anzac Day in recognition of the contributions toward a peaceful world made by those who gave their lives in conflict Amen.

Notes:
Bessler-Northcutt, J. “Learning to see God – Prayer and Practice in the Wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover (ed). The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A. Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. New York. Putnam, 1997.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Webb, V. Stepping Out With The Sacred. Human Attempts to Engage the Divine. New York. Continuum, 2010

rexae74@gmail.com

John 10:11-18

Restore Dignity and Push Boundaries

For us in this country today is a combination of what is traditionally known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and Anza Day. And this makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The remembrance of lives dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of nation.  It is also about brave heroes who sacrificed their lives for others and of simple animals of huge significance to a culture. Traditionally the images have been of gallant behaviour in horrific conditions, and of a good shepherd with flowing robes, cuddling a tiny lamb, while other sheep lie peacefully at his feet.

The shepherd scene is idyllic.  Probably conjured up in an urban environment.
And nourished, no doubt, by someone’s infant recollections of a favourite ‘teddy’ or ‘Pumpkin Patch kid’. By contrast, the tough shepherd image of one forced to live outdoors and on the fringes of society as an outcast, with an ‘honesty’ and ‘trustworthy’ 1st century reputation on a par with 21st century used car salesmen/women, has all but been lost. Everything and everyone seem to have been sanitized and sentimentalized. Some might say that of Anzac Day also but it would be definitely not PC to say so. So, this morning, out of all the kitsch, let’s see if we can pick up something which is helpful and hopeful.

To begin with, we might hear what West Australian biblical theologian William Loader has to say. He says; “The ancient shepherd of Palestine or Asia Minor had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, frequently amid danger from wild animals and sheep stealers, and, above all, had to protect the flock, especially at night…  John 10 reflects this less than idyllic world.  The bland teddy bear image gives way to a picture of tension: positively, a shepherd doing his job to the utmost; negatively, dangers which threaten the sheep… and which will kill him.  Life and death dance together.” (WLoader web site, 2006)

And to counter the shepherd/used car salesmen jibe I made earlier on, there was a comment from a car salesman who said: “the most untrustworthy people are those who are trading in cars.” (Stoffregen/CrossMarks web site 2006)

Some of you might also remember the DVD series called ‘Eclipsing Empire’, produced by Living the Questions. It features two biblical scholars: Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg, and their time in Turkey ‘in the footsteps’ so-to-speak, of Paul.

Very quickly in the series one discovers Turkey (like Greece and Italy) teeming with
sites and sights of historic and architectural interest, not the least of which is the ruins of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the cathedral of Divine Wisdom, built in the early years of the Byzantine Empire.

A modern-day visitor describes this site as: “Here in this vast space are columns in the form of trees reaching skyward supporting the dome of heaven suspended high overhead.  The building itself is a model, a template, of paradise here on earth.  Lines across the floor, dividing the building into quadrants, represent the four rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden.  Many of the magnificent mosaics that once adorned the walls and ceiling were concealed or defaced after it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.  Those that remain portray Jesus and his mother, Mary, John the Baptist and early emperors of Byzantium.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

Dr Barry Andrews goes on: “But none of these depict the most familiar image of Jesus, namely the crucifix.  Throughout Turkey, the birthplace of Christianity as we know it, what one finds are mosaics, wall paintings and figurines showing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, tending his sheep in a pastoral setting, and not the customary Christ on the cross, atoning in his own suffering and death for our sinful ways.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

It is fascinating to find that the first crucifix appears in Germany in the 10th century.
Prior to that the symbolism of the church was very different.  As Val Webb says in her book Stepping Out with the Sacred, “While Western art was absorbed with images of a twisted body on the cross as a bloody sacrifice, Eastern icons focused on Christ victorious over suffering and death, the serenely noble GOD- an.” (Webb 2010:157-58)

Initially it is easy to think that the burden of this story might be the rural images
of shepherd and sheep, which for urban folk like us, are just not part of our everyday experiences, apart from a visit to the meat department of the local supermarket! But maybe there are a couple of other things which can be said
about this story and the image of ‘shepherd’.

Two things stand out for me.  Those are: (One) Pastoral, and (Two) Power. In one we have the tough ‘good shepherd’ of the biblical stories who loved the ‘sheep’ enough to restore their dignity to them by ignoring the rules about who belonged or didn’t belong! And we reckon he did this by helping peasant families and workers and other ‘outsiders’, to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the
taxation, farming policies, and religious codes had labelled them. (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)

In a well-ordered society, people know their places. In Jesus’ world the “few very rich and the many very poor.” (Funk 2002:46) knew very well their places. But in Jesus’ re-imagined realm of God those ‘places’ were reversed. That’s the pastoral bit.

In the second we have John’s tough ‘good shepherd’ – Galilean, peasant sage -who appears not to be afraid to push boundaries. Be they Family boundaries.
Life boundaries. or Empire boundaries.

Perhaps the most dramatic biblical story of boundary-pushing (according to some) is the one which a couple of biblical storytellers tell… The action of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.

We might have already explored this story through the eyes and ears of the storyteller we call Mark, as well as via a few contemporary biblical scholars. But there is an interesting comment by classics scholar, Richard Horsley.

“… in healing withered limbs and casting out demons from possessed Galilean peasants, fishermen, and workers, Jesus was acting as a prophet to help the People of Israel regain control over their lives and livelihoods…  Whether or not Jesus understood exactly how profitable the Temple services were for the few families that controlled them… few would have mistaken what he was doing.” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:78) That’s the power bit.

On ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and on Anzac Day we can very easily slip into looking for, and discovering, a sanitized and sentimentalized Jesus, who cuddles sheep and a glorified sacrificial ideal of lives given to a cause without critique of its wisdom.  In the fair dinkum department, to use an Australian quip we have to say that is an unhelpful response. On the other hand, the challenge of this day
is to see and hear the humanity of Jesus and he humanity of soldiers behind the many stories and different images. To see him pointing to something he calls the realm of God, where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world, demand to be considered, especially by the Empire, and by the need for political and economic control.

To hear this Shepherd inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries which always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity. (Spong 2001:131)

As Dr Greg Jenks, currently Bishop of Grafton Cathedral in Australia has suggested in his The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes: “It is perhaps ironic that some of Jesus’ best-known teachings, derive not from the lips of Jesus but from the hearts of his followers as they reflected on Jesus’ own actions.

  • Jesus did not claim to be the divine/good shepherd; he simply gave himself to others.
  • Jesus did not contrast himself to the hired hand; he simply acted differently.
  • Jesus did not his talk up his intimacy with God; he simply lived as one intimate with God.
  • Jesus did not describe his death as bringing life to others; he simply embraced death as God’s will for him at that time.” 

(Faith Futures web site, The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes, 2012)

Pastoral and power. Restoring dignity. Pushing boundaries

Perhaps this is how we might give due honour to ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday today, and to Anzac Day in recognition of the contributions toward a peaceful world made by those who gave their lives in conflict Amen.

Notes:
Bessler-Northcutt, J. “Learning to see God – Prayer and Practice in the Wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover (ed). The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A. Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. New York. Putnam, 1997.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Webb, V. Stepping Out With The Sacred. Human Attempts to Engage the Divine. New York. Continuum, 2010

rexae74@gmail.com

Easter 3B, 2021
Luke 24: 36b-48

Life Matters More in The Afterglow of Easter

As you already know this year the gospel story emphasis is on the storyteller we call Mark.
But if you do just a brief skim of the set gospel readings since Lent, there has only been four of Mark’s stories selected. And it seems there won’t be any more until we move into the season After Pentecost. That’s four stories out of a possible 16! When we wonder why this might be we hear that it is because Mark’s stories don’t add up to much – volume wise. Mark’s gospel is so short that we need to supplement his stories with the stories of others, to fill up the whole year. The problem is that one in four is not a supplement.  It is take-over! And the other is that the importance of Mark is that it is the shortest and thus the one most likely to be the most accurate in its portrayal of the man Jesus. So for me it is important to not give up on Mark’s Easter too soon.

First of all the storyteller we call Mark has the earliest Easter story in the whole of the New Testament. It is thought to have been written close to the time of the Temple destruction so its backdrop would have been all the turmoil of a Jerusalem losing its status as a Hebrew centre and a religious one to boot. For many of Jesus’ followers and this might have been less than 10,000 this was and is really a surprising story. The first surprise is: Mark’s story is so brief.  Eight verses to be exact. If we compare this with the other gospel storytellers: Matthew’s story has 20 verses, John’s story has 56 verses, while Luke’s story has 53 verses. It is amazing because it was so brief when most important stories were much larger.

The second surprise is: Mark does not have any so-called ‘appearance’ stories. This is a very significant g thing to remember when we come to the other gospels. All the appearance stories are found in the other, much later, gospel accounts thus they are likely to be additions and creations of the movement rather than being present at the time of Mark. What Mark does have is the indication that the disciples will see/experience/be aware of, Jesus in Galilee.

And the third surprise is: Mark’s Easter story ends very abruptly. The women fled from the tomb. “They didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified…” (Mark 16:8 Scholars Version). Such a surprise and puzzling ending was deemed “unsatisfactory as early as the second century, when a longer ending was added to Mark (16:9-20)” (Borg & Crossan 2006:196).

It is on to this story, Mark’s story, that the other storytellers – Matthew and John and Luke – expanded and changed. Indeed; each storyteller has his own collection of different stories. Matthew’s stories are set in the garden and in Galilee. Luke’s stories are centred on Jerusalem combined with a commissioning – our gospel story today. John’s stories combine garden and Jerusalem.

It seems that even given the propensity for interpretation a storyteller did not expect his or her local audience to pick up the other storyteller’s text and ‘fill in the gaps’, so to speak. Neither are all the stories easily reconcilable. Of them perhaps this is all that can be said: “(They) are the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus’ followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death” (Borg & Crossan 2006:198).

Today in the church calendar is known as Easter 3, we are “still in the shadow, or afterglow, of the resurrection at Easter” (Rick Marshall P&F web site 2006). So, what can we say of all this?  Perhaps these claims.

The first is that Jesus lives and we need to remember here that resurrection is not about an individual return to life. Resurrection in the traditions of the time are universal and mass return oriented. It is a resurrection of all at a future date and time. Here the significance is that Jesus is not among the dead, but among the living. His spirit “was still coursing through their veins” (Patterson 2004:4). We have a timelessness of Jesus similar to that of the Passover meal. The meal is not a remembrance of, not a ceremonial re-enactment but an actual reliving of the history of liberation. Palm Sunday comes in here too and becomes a political social and economic threat. Is it any wonder Pilate felt he had to control the people?

The second is that God has vindicated Jesus. God has said ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the powers who executed him. Stephen Patterson has what could be an important comment here:  He says: “The followers of Jesus did not believe in him because of the resurrection.  They believed in the resurrection because they first believed in him and in the spiritual life he unleashed among them” (Patterson 2004:121). Again the shortness of Mark is important in its omission of the resurrection. True, his death mattered to them.  But only because his life mattered more…

So they began to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And they came to see he stood for something so important he was willing to give his life for it (Patterson 2004:127). Here we have a significant inclusion in who this man is. He is the Messiah Judaism is waiting for and in fact it is God’s realm that was his passion or vision of life. A new life focused not on their plight, not on social and military control and power over but rather something called the empire of God where an alternative approach to life is possible.  And it is significant that Jesus followers were a diverse group of people who came to reaffirm their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life
by his words and deeds. They believed that “in his words were God’s words” (Patterson 2004:127).

And we also remember here that Jesus’ vision of a new empire was cultivated by him among them long before he died, It has been proven that no executioner could kill this vision. Likewise, when we believe in this vision of a possible new empire or realm, we too can reaffirm our commitment to the values and vision, and a ‘resurrection’ invitation,
to live life deeply and generously.

We agree to be embraced by life, not scared of it. In all its particularity.  Because life cannot remain visionary! It must be concretely practiced. And for our gospel storyteller this morning, Luke, “to fulfil the hope of the resurrection is to tell the story of Jesus.  That means telling what he did, how he was rejected and then vindicated; and it is at the same time to live it by the power of the same Spirit, by doing good and bringing liberation for all” as William Loader reminds us. (WLoader web site, 2003).

The ‘truth’ of the resurrection stories are not about their historical facuality. Their ‘truth is rooted in the Source of Life we name as God, and which lives on for us and through us and among us, today.

I wonder if we are on the cusp of something today when many churches are facing closure and it seems that what we call religion and Christianity is on the wane and fewer people are joining the church or even coming to what we call worship. To whom do we tell the story of Jesus? Is the way we tell it the way to go? How do we tell it to people who have never heard of it? In this day and age when sacrifice is just life and saviour’s don’t exist and sin is an antiquated concept. How do we as Church people of old become participants rather than spectators remaining on the sidelines?

We still believe that Church places such as this place are important in our religious world so why don’t others recognize this? Church places such as this provide a valuable counterpoint to current and prevailing points of view. So why don’t more people want to share in that.

So, perhaps in the spirit of what Jesus was passionate about, and in the spirit of the wider Easter stories by several storytellers, we might need to again be captivated by the vision of a new world. And this vision seems to have some contextual nuances to it in that the God we envisage is not a God who sits outside of creation and manipulates it. What seems to stand out is that for us today the Jesus story is an invitation into a way of life which was reflected in his own’ own life – in his words and deeds. Before the movement or the church began to grow. Marks time at least where Jesus says that “God is supremely within reach. God or that which we call God is at hand, as Jesus said God’s realm, God’s way, Gods’ world is in our hands “Perhaps this is why God might prefer a good atheist
to a wicked believer” (Benedikt 2007:13). What if the secular and the sacred are the same thing? What is Jesus vision in todays context?

Notes:
Benedikt, M. 2007. God is the Good we Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books.
Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week. A day-by-day account of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem.The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. 1993. . New York. MacMillan Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minniapolis. Fortress Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Afraid of Death or Terrified of Life?

What the ancients new about story telling long before the advent of written text was the importance of metaphor and painting pictures with words. The Bible is filled with poetry and metaphor and I think it is because it is far more accurate that text. Text requires greater interpretation and communication elements that a picture that goes straight to the heart. I like the idea also of going to nature for some of the best word pictures and I want to try that today.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes of a rose that helps me place the death of Jesus into a context of loving adoration and the loss of one’s hero, saviour and mentor. The sense of value of Jesus and the loss at his execution is awakened.

A Dead Rose by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

O Rose! who dares to name thee?
No longer roseate now, nor soft, nor sweet;
But pale, and hard, and dry, as stubble-wheat,—
Kept seven years in a drawer—thy titles shame thee.

The breeze that used to blow thee
Between the hedgerow thorns, and take away
An odour up the lane to last all day,—
If breathing now,—unsweetened would forego thee.

The sun that used to smite thee,
And mix his glory in thy gorgeous urn,
Till beam appeared to bloom, and flower to burn,—
If shining now,—with not a hue would light thee.

The dew that used to wet thee,
And, white first, grow incarnadined, because
It lay upon thee where the crimson was,—
If dropping now,—would darken where it met thee.

The fly that lit upon thee,
To stretch the tendrils of its tiny feet,
Along thy leaf’s pure edges, after heat,—
If lighting now,—would coldly overrun thee.

The bee that once did suck thee,
And build thy perfumed ambers up his hive,
And swoon in thee for joy, till scarce alive,—
If passing now,—would blindly overlook thee.

The heart doth recognise thee,
Alone, alone! The heart doth smell thee sweet,
Doth view thee fair, doth judge thee most complete,—
Though seeing now those changes that disguise thee.

Yes, and the heart doth owe thee
More love, dead rose! than to such roses bold
As Julia wears at dances, smiling cold!—
Lie still upon this heart—which breaks below thee!

Amen.

We arrive today at the brink of; ”It is finished”

It is the evening of the first day of the week, and the doors are closed. Locked.

The anxious and fearful disciples are shut tightly inside.
The suspicious world is shut tightly outside.

The fear of loss and isolation and confusion is palpable

What next? What are we to do now? Will it happen to us next?

Fear is a very powerful thing in our lives. It prompts us to seek protection in times of very real danger. It motivates us into needed changes and surprising adventures.
It serves as a constant reminder that we are fragile, limited, human. On the other side of these impulses, we know fear also prompts us to ‘close the doors of our lives’ from the mystery and wonder of the unknown and run into places of isolated hiding. Very few emotions are stronger than fear.

Then, all of a sudden, defying locked doors,
locked hearts,
locked vision…
A dead faith is re-created.  A dead hope is born again.

Remember the collection of traditional Easter stories… Empty tomb.  Grave clothes.  A voice in the garden.  Doors closed for fear. We can’t help wondering whether Jesus’ followers, then, were afraid of death or terrified of life!

Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian from Brazil, helps us understand why resurrection life is the wonderful and terrifying thing that it is. In one of his articles he says: ‘Wherever, in mortal life, goodness triumphs over the instincts of hatred, wherever one heart opens to another, wherever a righteous attitude is built and room is created for God, there the Resurrection has begun’.

And retired Melbourne Uniting Church minister, Dr Francis Macnab, offers this Easter prayer: “

God, on this Easter morning, help us to say
Yes to life,
Yes to a new beginning,
Yes to the presence that gives us courage
for whatever is ahead of us.” (Macnab 1996: 75)

And as if responding to Macnab’s prayer, English philosopher and founder of Sea of Faith, Don Cupitt, writes: “We should say ‘Yes’ to life in all its contingency because it is the accidentalness of life that makes happy accidents possible, and that makes innovation and creativity possible.  We wouldn’t wish the self-replication of DNA always to proceed with precise accuracy, because without all the slippage and the accidents there would not have occurred the favourable mutations on which evolution depends – and so it is also in the realm of… personal life.” (Cupitt 2003: 16-17)

I wrote a poem that attempts to highlight how fear and doubt have been too corruptive of the human spirit.

A Prisoner Of Doubt

This prisoner is not bound by bars of steel,
but the barriers to freedom, remain just as real.
There is no judge that can free one on bail,
and no able lawyer that can keep one from jail.
It started so simply, just a concern here and there,
or maybe a bad memory, that grew in thin air.


One started to repeat, things already said,
offering faint clues as to the negative ahead.
One slowly grows worse, as the stories flash by
One knows something is wrong, but not what, nor why.
To try to go anywhere becomes such a task,
for over and over, the same questions I’d ask.


Then comes the times when how and why become true,
I beg: “Please help me!” and weep a world of blue.
Now’s the time doubt becomes the bus,
and every day is a dilemma to be had and such a big fuss.

The answers we give seem like assurances no one can receive.
Slowly, but surely, the doubting shuts doors we believe.

Now we can see, the beginning of the end.
What is this illness, with no hope to be found?
Doubt as a prisoner of fear

Has no place in a faith that is dear

Doubt as an opportunity to be without fear is connection

A blessing of hope and resurrection.


In the face of this we can’t help wondering sometimes whether Jesus’ followers, now,
are afraid of death or terrified of life! Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding.

Some time ago Rex Hunt told the story of the boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a seaside Brazilian village. In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral. As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger. He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses.
His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder. His hands… they were big.  Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body.

The women laughed” and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning… their bodies alive again.”  (Alves 1990: 23)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have. And they thought about the dreams they had never had… Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding.

Which, I guess, brings us back to what I reckon is the central focus of all of John’s writings: 
Life! Hopeful life! Abundant life!

John’s celebration of the Easter message points to life as its message. Before and after Easter it is still life. Indeed, in John’s story, Easter it seems, coincides with Pentecost.
The post-Easter Jesus appears, breathes, sends and commissions – all in one burst of ‘holy energy’. The change is, now there are new bearers of that life.

The Spirit given without measure to Jesus (to use traditional language), now operates without measure among the disciples and makes Jesus’ presence real to them. So they came to reaffirm their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life
by his words and deeds.

The good news of Easter according to storyteller John, is not just the final scene as it is in fairy tales that say everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. It is good news in the sense that the unexpected, the unforeseen, the serendipyous and the ambiguous. The death on the cross is not about taking away human sin but rather calling us to a new understanding of vulnerability, of ambiguity of uncertainty of doubt as times of resurrection, times of new direction, new life, a new heaven and a new earth, not in death but in life.

Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future. Or as Michael Benedikt says in another of his meditations: “God is practiced, like dance, like music, like kindness, like love… theopraxy.” (Benedikt 2007:4)

Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding. See doubt as a door to peace and understanding and new life. Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1990.
Benedikt, M. God is the Good We Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books, 2007.
Cupitt, D. Life, Life. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Macnab, F.  Hope: The Deeper Longings of the Mind and Heart. Richmond. Spectrum Publications, 1996.

rexae74@gmail.com

Resurrection as Healing and Humour’

Easter Day – today – is regarded as the most important day in the liturgical life of the church. Theologically speaking, Christmas doesn’t hold a candle to Easter. It is the day in which we celebrate the mystery of resurrection. Notice that.  I said ‘mystery’ of resurrection, not the ‘fact’ of resurrection (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 2007).

My recent reading of the world views of millennials and people of the future, we modern folks like facts. Did this happen? Did this not happen? What are the facts? But as the reading has pointed out, correctly I think, the problem with religious symbols such as resurrection is, they are not fact-friendly (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 2007)

So; this day, as part of the ‘mystery’ of resurrection, we celebrate life over death. This day we celebrate the moments of life that make up the span of our lives. This day we celebrate changed possibilities. The serendipitous moments, the creative moments. And we give thanks for the Spirit of Life visible in Jesus of Nazareth, visible in each one of us, visible in people in all walks of life… As we celebrate, we also acknowledge that all we have, are the stories, shaped and reshaped and told orally, by people of faith from generation to generation. No logical, scientific proof of a ‘bodily’ resurrection. No videotape of an empty tomb. No seismograph of an Easter earthquake.  Just the stories. But significant stories of life, hope, promise and revelation.

The stories tell us that in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs. That in the midst of darkness, a light, shines. That in the midst of death, life is breaking forth. That when all seems gone, hope springs eternal. We are convinced that, Jesus’ death mattered to all those early storytellers. But only because his life mattered more. So, they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. This is the invitation to us all today. The ‘resurrection’ invitation today is similar: be embraced by life, not scared of it? Then there is this suggestion that talks about what this might look like. These stories have a touch of humour.

David Henson writes: “[Jesus] is no longer doing miracles for the masses. He’s no longer directly confronting the Powers that Be. He’s no longer teaching in synagogues, or leading a movement, or marching on Jerusalem. He’s just doing a few simple things, slowly: gardening, walking, eating, laundry, and cooking.

“The first thing he does is to fold up the shroud neatly and to take care with his linen grave clothes… And then, in the final verses of the final chapter in [John’s] gospel we realize that Jesus, for all his talk of feeding, for all his multiplication of loaves and fish, for all the times he feasted with sinners, tax collectors, and Pharisees, has apparently never cooked a meal of his own, at least not one worth remembering, until he’s resurrected.

“Meals feature so heavily throughout the gospels. Jesus presided over many feasts and meals. But he apparently didn’t take the time to cook them himself. He certainly took the time to criticize those like Martha who did spend so much time cooking, but we never see him actually cooking a meal in the gospels.

“But here, the last thing Jesus does on earth is cook a meal, his first recorded one, and then he commands Peter to feed his sheep. In the resurrection, it seems, Jesus institutes the sacrament of housework and everyday chores”.  (pathos.com/blog)

It is good to be reminded of these very human activities. Especially in the midst of so much super-natural stuff! So, says Rex Hunt, “let me offer some other suggestions (religious sounding perhaps) you might like to ponder sometime:”

  • How do we care for each other interpersonally in ways which do not suffocate and oppress? 
  • How is the well-being of our neighbour pursued in the complex problem of global hunger and international war?
  • How are communities developed positively around respect and care for each person, rather than around a common enemy?
  • How are the systemic causes of non-love eliminated? All human issues to be viewed in the light of the resurrection stories… Bishop John Shelby Spong has offered a comment which is also worth pondering:
  • Loving God… means that people do not treat the legitimacy of their own spiritual path as a sign that every other spiritual path is somehow illegitimate.
  • Loving your neighbour… means treating all people – regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, nationality, ethnicity or economic class – as holy, as having been made in God’s image.
  • Loving ourselves… means basing our lives on the faith that in Jesus as the Christ all things are made new and all people are loved by God (Spong Newsletter, 23/3/06).

All of the above have implications for us here in NZ with the horrific execution of people of faith in Christchurch. How do we be a Jesus follower in the light of what has taken place?

To live with these questions and their implications coursing in our veins, is to live in the spirit of the sage we call Jesus, it is to embrace life, not be scared of it. Because ‘resurrection’ can and does happen every day!  Love says so, Love demands it, Love resources it.

Peter Rollins, author of The Orthodox Heretic, puts it another way. He has this to say about ‘the’ resurrection: “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ…  I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.  However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are.  I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed” (Rollins 2009).

According to Irish-born Rollins, you can believe all the things you want.
You can even be as religious as the Pope (Francis i) or your favourite TV evangelist.
But unless you can “cry for those who have no more tears left to shed”,
the resurrection means little to nothing.  Amen.

Mark 11: 1-11

Palm Sunday: Not a Retreat from Life…

Today in the Lectionary is a different kind of day. It is the only day in the church calendar where we can celebrate two different events. Today we are given a choice to celebrate either: The Liturgy of the Branches (Palm Sunday), or The Liturgy of the Passion (Passion Sunday). On no other Sunday does a similar system of choice prevail.

Over recent years I have found myself choosing the liturgy of the branches choice because of a growing disquiet with the violence of the Passion story. For me this violent crucifixion of a person has contributed to a world of fear driven responses to reality as opposed to an approach based in the energy of love and loving which for me is what Jesus was encouraging hos people to embrace against the violence of Rome and its peace based on victory approach to life. I make no apology for not wanting to focus on the death of Jesus as it leads to an atonement doctrinal position that does not align with a loving God who would sacrifice a beautiful created being to prove a point. And so, most of my comments today will be in sympathy with and support of that theme. This doesn’t mean that the liturgy of the Passion has nothing to say but rather what it says is more about human experience than about Jesus’ message.

The first thing to note is that the story from our religious tradition called Palm Sunday is a remarkable fictional story full of contradictions. It’s a story about a moral hero without an ending. This might suggest that the story is about the beginning of something new and not yet complete. It’s a story set around a Jewish religious festival which celebrates liberation, even as the people are prisoners of Roman imperialism. This suggests that History repeats itself and that while the obvious is before us we often can’t see it. It’s today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. The earliest writing, we have considered as a gospel of Jesus the Christ.

When we get into the detail, we find there are the ‘geographical’ inconsistencies in this story. The branches can hardly be palm branches since palm trees are not common in Jerusalem. And if we use modern jargon from the media world, there is the ‘beat up’ which the Jesus Movement gave this story. Remember that many of us believe that Jesus did not set out to start a movement let alone a church. And that story has to start somewhere. In our story every devoted pilgrim who entered Jerusalem during the main religious festivals, was greeted with a similar salutation, as our tradition says, was given to Jesus. As I have indicated in previous Palm Sunday sermons the ‘real’ procession would have already happened when the Roman Prefect who governed Palestine arrived “to make sure that the celebration remained focused on the past, not the present or future.” (Patterson 2004/28) The clanking of steel on steel and the sound of leather creaking and groaning and the sound of hooves and armour intimidating the hearer with sounds of might and power and force and violence over the foolish clip clop of the ass on the stones. The story of the palms begins with the ordinariness of the preparation for the so-called ‘triumphal entry’ and the great enthusiasm of the people, which ends up coming to nothing. Here is my argument for a weak theology of God as opposed to an almighty victorious one. At the top of our liturgy there is the image of Christmas that has the infant Jesus as symbol of the weak divine. An authentic faith based not upon an almighty supernatural God but rather on the subjectivity and fragility of the human species that with language and mind creates the vision of reality that we live within.

And we note also that there are the many differences about this story as told by the other storytellers Matthew, Luke and John. A problem for us is that we have heard these stories so often, or been hoodwinked by the likes of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, that we now usually combine all of them together into one big Palm Sunday story, forgetting the uniqueness of each. For instance, in Mark there is no weeping over Jerusalem. The idea of a destruction of Jerusalem or its place in the lives of Hebrew people was not contemplated. That’s in another story. A story which Mark probably didn’t even know. Only Mark mentions the ‘procession’ going to the entrance of the city. And only Mark says Jesus went alone into Jerusalem and into the temple, not to occupy it,
not to cleanse it, but to check it out. And then to leave it and the city, retiring with the Twelve to Bethany.

Yet the early Jesus Movement in general, and Mark and his small group in particular,
saw something in this story which was important for them.

It seems that they might have found Mark hinting at bits of Hebrew teaching; that he was suggesting Jesus was the promised Messiah; and that Jesus was not just a spectator or visitor, but was really in control of things. He had a bigger picture that had all the parts connecting.

All these things would probably have ‘rung bells’, as we say, with Mark’s so-called branch of the Jesus Movement. But we need to be aware that we are not so sure they would ‘ring bells’ for us!

Stephen Patterson is a biblical scholar and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, whose book
Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus which talks about this. In it, Patterson suggests that to understand the stories around the death of Jesus on what we call Good Friday, the other bit of the bookend called Palm Sunday, we must first have some realistic idea of what happened to Jesus. And that can be difficult for Christians.
Because, as mentioned earlier, we have heard the story read time and again from pulpit bibles in the smallest of churches to the greatest of cathedrals. And we have seen the events portrayed in Hollywood films, Sunday School pageants and bedtime story books.

The story plot is similar in all: Jesus comes to Jerusalem to challenge his enemies. His enemies are the chief priests and scribes who have all along plotted his demise, Jesus deliberately plays right into their hands, because he knows his fate before-hand. He is betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, crucified and after three days rises from the dead.

As Patterson reminds us, the common perception is: “It is all part of God’s plan to save us from our sins…  Thus… in this mixture of text and tradition, the death of Jesus is not a calamity, or even a surprise.  It is the result of a well-executed, successful plan to create what we know today as the Christian religion.” (Patterson 2004: 5)

So developed a significant change in what we now call theology. And that change was away from the events surrounding a particular person: in whose company others came to experience God, who said and did certain things, and who stood for something so important, he was willing to give his life for… Away from real human events, to  an abstract mythic event “connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life… (all part) of a great cosmic battle with the forces of God arrayed against the armies of the evil one.” (Patterson 2004:127-28)

Likewise, when later writers and storytellers talked about the ‘passion’ of Jesus, they always understood it as ‘passion’ equals ‘suffering’. And so, in the second set of readings in our Revised Common Lectionary also set down for today, the planners do just that.

But that particular understanding has now been seriously challenged. From passion as ‘suffering’, to passion as “consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment.” (Borg & Crossan 2006)

And Jesus’ passion as we have also heard many, many times, was “the kingdom of God declared in terms of God’s justice… and the fact that such declaration was seen, despite Jesus’ nonviolence, as a threat to the system of domination by Rome and its wealthy Jewish collaborators, led to his suffering.” (Olson 2006 ALA/Amazon review)

Palm Sunday at one end, and Good Friday at the other end, reminds us life is not an escape from reality. It draws us into the reality of this world. Here again is the support for a weak theology as opposed to a mighty one and for the claim that God does not exist but rather insists. We as humans exists while God insists, or calls into being that which is our reality.

Jesus, who is human as we are, and Jesus who is a ‘gateway to God’ (Spong), confronts and submits to the worst human beings can do, in order to remain faithful to a vision, a passion, of what the best human beings can be.

This Palm Sunday may we once again reaffirm that religion is not a retreat from life
where we ponder the things not of this world… Religion in general, and Palm Sunday in particular, enables us, with insight and wisdom and power, to meet courageously and creatively the current issues of our ordinary, everyday living. And to carry with us into that everyday living what is precious: reverence for all life, beauty that displays itself in love, and deep, abiding peace. Amen.

Notes:
Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Our Harvest, is the Sum of Knowledge of the Universe Itself.

In his book, On the Origin of Species…, published in November 1859. Darwin wrote:
“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” (Darwin 2008:362)

And so, it began. The debate it ignited not only led to the denial of the creation stories of the western religious tradition, it gave us the beginnings of an immensely richer, longer, more complex ‘story’, rooted not in “the history of a single tribe or a particular people”, but one “rooted in the sum of our knowledge of the universe itself”.

A scientific ‘doctrine of incarnation’ as one person has described it, which suggests “that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in humming birds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing.”  (Bumbaugh 2003)

It is a religious story because it invites us to awe and wonder; and that in turn demands a vocabulary of reverence. We might note that as religion has declined in the lives of many so too has the destruction of our planet expanded. This is not to say that that which we have named religion needs saving because one might also say that it has failed us in its inability to evolve. Stuck in doctrine and creed and myth that has become concretized.

Prior to the rise of modern science most people followed a literal interpretation of the biblical Genesis stories, believing a flat earth was created about 4,000 years before the Middle Eastern itinerant peasant sage, Yeshua. Or, if they followed some people it all started at 9.00am on 3 October 4004 BCE.

Today, as most of you know very well, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the Earth’s age is approximately 4.5+ billion years. While the observable universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…”  (Gillette 2006:1) is approximately 14 billion years old, all let loose during an event called the Big Bang.

On that note we might need to catch up with evolution is that Bid Bang might now be a misleading term really, in that it is posited that there wasn’t really an explosion, but rather an expansion. Noun to verb maybe?

While careful not to over-estimate the reach and power of the natural sciences, it is modern science that provides the foundation for this ‘other’ story. It has been called ‘the epic of evolution’, ‘the odyssey of life’, ‘the immense journey’ and most recently, Thomas Berry named it, the ‘Great Story’.

Sure, there was an initial outcry that scientific cold reason was killing wonder, but for the most part those days are long past. Now science has become the source rather than the nemesis of wonder. Modern science is now saying “the history of the Universe is in every one of us. Every particle in our bodies has a multibillion-year past, every cell and every bodily organ has a multimillion-year past, and many of our ways of thinking have multi-thousand-year pasts.”  (Primack & Abrams 2007)

Each of us is a collection of unfinished stories, within other stories. We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality. We do not live in straight lines. We truly do exist in a web, a network, a maze… Everything in the universe is genetically cousin to everything else. Which is why a growing number of people around the world are beginning to recognise that our modern life-style and poll-driven politicians are harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns. We are treating life as a straight line and it is destroying the very networks we rely on.

Biology 101 teaches us that if amoebas are inserted into a drop of water, their numbers will expand, until they become so densely populated, they deplete their essential nutrients, and die en masse. The drop of water again becomes uninhabited and sterile We humans are doing the same thing on planet Earth.

We are yet to learn from basic biology. We are yet to learn that humans must cooperate with nature’s processes, and if we can do that, then we can develop purposes less likely to be frustrated by nature. We are yet to learn that a debate between people who actually know stuff
and people who just don’t like what the experts have to say, is not a ‘balanced’ debate. It’s a waste of time. The combative debate mode is not beneficial because it is no based on collaboration.

One of the biggest challenges that faces us is to come to a place in our thinking where there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions. When we let go of the does God exist debate and the theism vs atheism dualism, we might discover that living with ambiguity, uncertainty and the insistence or the calling of God might mean a more authentic relationship with nature, the planet and the universe.

We do not need to think the sacred is a separate ‘supernatural’ sphere of life, driven by blinding-light revelations from outside. “Positing an incomprehensible, invisible, ‘Other’ does nothing to explain the incomprehensible ‘other’ that is palpably present, and that we actually encounter every second within and round us”.  (Fleischman 2013:188)

There is a hymn in the Unitarian Universalist hymn book Singing the Living Tradition, called “Seek Not Afar for Beauty”.  It’s first verse claims this ‘other’: Seek not afar for beauty; lo! it glows in dew-wet grasses all about your feet; in birds, in sunshine, childish faces sweet, in stars and mountain summits topped with snows. If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred, surely, we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognised as sacred…

It seems that what we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship, but worship with the trees. An acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.  (Jerome Stone)

There is also a need for all religious traditions to appreciate that the primary sacred community is the universe itself, and that every other community becomes sacred by participation in this primary community. The world, the planet, the universe is our harvest and the proper care of it, the proper relationship with it is the true harvest. Nurturing the fruits of the earth and distributing it for all is the immediate goal because it contributes the wellbeing of the whole.

Let’s be sure here that we are not saying that all is rosy and sorted. Nature is a violent and dangerous place, extinction is possible and ‘Almost probable. In moments of wonder we simultaneously contain a search for truth, an openness to reawakening, and a delight in what is. When we lose our sense of awe and wonder, we objectivize the Earth as a thing that can be used and abused at our consumeristic whim. Wonder has within it an acknowledgement that existence is always serendipitous, always fragile and always alive.

When a new season arrives and washes away the clouds of the last, do we also see the Earth and “worms crawling…” and “new living things”, as we begin to start again to ‘grow’ and ‘bloom’.

A new season shows us that nature-kind and humankind are continually in relationship. We are reminded and called forward to a ‘new’ religious sensitivity. To transcend the isolated self. To reconnect. To know ourselves to be at home.

So, it is incumbent upon us to challenge the parochial and limited claims of traditional religions
with the enlarging and enriching and reverent story that is our story and their story: The Universe Story.

From an attitude of reverence, we can then act with a morality that nurtures rather than destroys creation. Religious naturalist and cell biologist Ursula in her evocative book The Sacred Depths of Nature, writes: “Once we have our feelings about Nature in place, then I believe that we can also find important ways to call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Taoists, or Hopi, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists. Or some of each…”  (Goodenough 1998:173)

In tune with the season a woman is planting vegetable seeds in her garden. Her activity is more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She is digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging, under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination. Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little seeds will explode into lettuces, onions, tomatoes, carrots and much more. A war will have been won by the fragility of soft and flavoursome things. The green leaves of herbs, the purple of the cabbages, and the yellow and orange citrus have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. It is a new season, a new day. And if there were a heaven, the gods would abandon it just for the chance to see this woman in her garden. Our harvest, the gospel of the natural present moment. Amen.

Bibliography/Resources:
Bumbaugh, D. “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence”. Boulder International Humanist Institute, 22 February 2003.
Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London. Arcturus Publishing, 2008.
Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. 2004.
Goodenough, U. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 
Primack, J. R. & N. E. Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007
Singing the Living Tradition. Boston: The Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993/2000.
Stone, J. A. “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-pagans: Obstacles to Appropriating the Old Ways” in (Ed). C. D. Hardwick & D. A. Crosby. Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty. New York. Peter Lang, 1997.
Tucker, M. E. & J. Grim (Ed). Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2014.

rexae74@gmail.com