Concepts of God

Posted: March 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Luke 13:1-9

Concepts of God

Today’s sermon is an attempt to continue our alternative look at Lent as a reminding period within a lectionary that seeks to take the reader through the gospel claims and revelations. It continues the look at Lent as a time for a new look at discipleship and what it means and today, we attempt to look at the need for another look at our unspoken traditional assumptions.

I am thankful one again to Rex Hunt of whose website I read on regular occasion. He reminds us that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, can be said to have believed in a God who punished the bad people and rewarded the good. He goes on to say that they went so far as to say:

  • if you live in poverty or have a bad accident or disease, you are revealed by God as a sinner;
  • if you are healthy and prosper you are revealed by God as a righteous person.

He also suggests that while that interpretation was in vogue back then it no longer is, despite the fact that many today still fall back on such a view.

He tells a modern story to try to give us focus.

A minister… he gives the name Diana, rushed around to the home of friends
where a small child has suddenly died. She was met at the door by the distraught father, who was a senior lecturer in mathematics at the local university, who usually was most composed.

“Thanks for coming, he said.  It’s a nightmare. You know, I have not been reading my Bible much these days.” At first Diana was confused by her friend’s opening remark. What had reading the Bible to do with a little child’s death?

Later, after she had thought the issue through, she was able to help untangle the poor father’s anguish. The father’s first reaction had been to feel guilty.  Years before, when he had been confirmed, he had promised to ‘diligently study the scriptures.’ And he hadn’t.

In the anguish of the new grief, the ancient fear that the death was for him a punishment from God, had broken loose. Someone had to be at fault. And it must be him. His mind came up with a broken vow to justify that question. Normally, that man would have logically dismissed the idea of a child’s death as divine retribution, as rubbish. All, he had learned and knew was that it was not right yet in the grief crisis, the ancient superstition had got the jump on him. It gave him answers.

His reaction is not unique nor is it confined to church goers. In all of us, primitive stuff like that lies semi-hidden. It’s like the ghosts of old gods that refuse to completely go away. In all of us, hidden away in the murkier parts of our psyche,
are irrational fears and superstitions that need a scapegoat when we are hurting or confused or simply afraid of thinking. These are a hangover from the not so ancient, primitive past of homo sapiens.

One of these superstitions is that we may be the guilty cause of accidents and disease to ourselves or those whom we love dearly. This is rooted it seems in a simplistic reliance on the belief that we are responsible for the problems we face and while that is true? we need to have the bigger context of evolution and the living evolving planet and also our own evolutionary reality. A fixed doctrine and concept of who are what God is and how God does or does not work is tied to our understanding of what our planet is and how it is a planet. The mathematics lecturer knew this yet when it came to an unexpected event he fell back on an old interpretation. Further proving that God or the energy of deity we call God is intimately apart of the evolving creativity that gives and sustains life. Not as an old man who created the creation and then stepped back to police it but as part of its evolving living reality. If it is language and our energy that can alter the trajectory of our planet then a retributive God is no longer viable. We need a distributive cosmic approach to who are how our God works.

There are of course some religious people in the world today who are still committed to that ancient concept of God. Their God is one of anger and retribution for the unrighteous, and of the reward of good health and prosperity for the righteous. Bruce Prewer, a retired Uniting Church minister and author of many books which help shape an Australian spirituality, considered this situation in one of his sermons a few years back He said:“One of the most recent statements of this unhappy dogma, was exhibited recently by an evangelist (so called!).  It was offering time at a big gathering and the announcement was made before the offering: ‘We all know bad economic times are coming.  There will be a great collapse of the markets and people will lose everything they own. But those who give well to God this day will be among the few who will do well and prosper in the bad times that must come.’” And to quote Bruce Prewer at the end he said: “Yuk!” (Prewer web site 2004)

Others, such as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan and Sallie McFague, are also at the forefront of putting old theological superstitions a bed.

One of the interesting learnings that we might consider is that with the coming together of science and religion the use of old outdated concepts for God are pushing many to reject the church and religion. Not because of its marriage with science but because the marriage is forcing us to change our understanding of God. The church in the past rejected science and now that is no longer possible, In science an assertion that cannot be proven wrong is an assertion of interest whereas one that can be is false. A concept of God that can be proven wrong is not worth repeating. Remember I am not saying that God needs to be proven right just that one that can be proven wrong is worthless. This is an argument that demands our concepts be credible, scientifically as well as psychologically and biologically. There was an interesting fictional movie I was watching recently that explored this phenomenon so the questions are out there.

The truth is that happiness or misery cannot be simply equated with goodness and badness. Reality is not like that. The old superstition is a lie. And the old gods of retribution and reward who lurk in the dark corners of our minds, are false gods. We are called to dismiss the superstition, and in face if we think about it we seem to have Jesus’ word on it. When he is attributed as saying: ‘Do not pretend that the good or evil that we do does not matter’. Both actions by human beings changes things. Of course accidents, massacres, disease, are not God’s punishments. But if we don’t watch our step, we can all end up with another kind of disaster… you will likewise perish. Not as bodies, but as persons we can decay and perish. This approach to God and to evolution and mathematics and science is also part of the current ‘climate change’ debate.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes: “Global warming is not just another important issue that human beings need to deal with; rather, it is the demand that we live differently.  We cannot solve it, deal with it, given our current anthropology. We do not understand culture and society as our  forebears did, we do not understand the cosmos or our planet as the ancients did? This concentration on climate change is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are and who or what we think God is.  This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioral change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis.” (McFague 2008:44).

As individuals, as a world, we are all capable of perishng… disintegrating as persons. None of us are exempt. I was talking with my scientist son just the other day about the sustainability of the planet and our anthropological wellbeing.

He reminded me that we seem to be making some small changes in the overpopulation crisis and what it is important is that the change is coming from freely taken responsible people. The figures show that as wellbeing increases in a population the birthrate diminishes. Suggesting that we need to address the global questions of economic equity and the fact that the few are getting richer and the poor poorer. Despiite the flattening out of the middle class the gap at the extremes is getting out of hand. This will affect our sustainability. And what’s more important is that a retributive God will not be able to address the issues we face.

So, what does this have to do with Lent? Well maybe Lent might be a good time for us to do a couple of ‘life-affirming’ things. One might be to update the thinking which shapes our faith and beliefs. and change our minds and hearts about God and the other might be to look for the life-affirming clues all around us – the tender care that is being distributed without reward, without recompense, without payback. Maybe we can start a trend where the wellbeing of all people regardless of their status, contribution, culture, social acceptability etc etc, is our calling. Maybe life is always a vocation and the social, economic, political and cultural concerns are about equity for the givers as opposed to the earners. Sounds radical left socialistic rubbish but remember, politics is not about taking sides good and bad left or right but rather about the good of all.

Notes: McFague, S. A New Climate for Theology. God, the world, and global warming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.

rexae74@gmail.com

Discipleship.

Posted: February 24, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 8:31-38

Discipleship.

Why another sermon on Discipleship? Isn’t it obvious that discipleship is about sharing the Good News and that good news is what Jesus was making known in his lifetime? Yes of course it is but what does make known mean today? Is it about telling those who don’t know what to think, how to act, and what not to do> Is it about telling people they have to measure up and give up all they have and follow the path we think we should? Sure discipleship, can be seen simply as following Jesus, but what does follow mean and who is the Jesus we are following and another question is how do we do this thing called discipleship?

In technical English John D Caputo reminds of where we find ourselves when facing the call. He reminds us that we have to deal with the accusative if we are to respond to the call of the divine. He calls that divine the ‘Perhaps’ I call it the ‘Almost’ that is insisting we embrace the Good News and this means that God’s existence relies upon our engaging in discipleship to bring about God’s existence. God insists and we bring about existence. Discipleship then is a crucial activity for life. It is the act of making known, making real and creating the existence of the Good News. Caputo reminds us that we are faced with the accusative and that literally relates to the act of showing cause’.

Another situation we need to think about is that Jesus said that “God rains on both the righteous and the unrighteous” And Mark twain said that “The rain is famous for falling on the just and the unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors, I would drown him.

This suggests to me that discipleship is not about the recipients needs and rather about the life a follower of Jesus is called into and that demands that we need to get this Jesus guy sussed or at least as well as we can before talking about discipleship. Who is this guy that we are following: What is he saying and more importantly why?

When talking of Jesus as Itinerant Artisan and Sage” Charles W Hedrick said he was an

itinerant artisan who had a marketable skill related to a building trade of some sort. That

he was neither formally educated nor lettered beyond what training he may have received for his craft. Nevertheless, he had an uncommon knowledge of human behaviour based on shrewd observation of life in Galilean villages; and he was able to

recreate what he observed in memorable realistic secular narratives, which he recounted as audiences presented themselves to listen. His discourse was in the language of the secular world, and his ideas put him at odds with the prevailing religious

and secular powers, and even human self-interest. Because of his abilities, however, he came to be regarded as a wise man. Certainly, he was not a professional scribe or sage,

but in regarding him as wise he came to be included among those holy souls into whom the spirit of wisdom was thought to pass in every generation—men and women who became friends of God

What he gave is what we believe changed his world and will change ours for the better and that is simply the Good news that love, peace and justice are names for the good news. As Robert Miller wrote in the latest Fourth R Magazine; While “Few might imagine that those ancients listening to the words of Jesus would be as cynical as Mark Twain, and in fact many were, the religious significance of rain in the fraught relationship of God and Israel would have leapt to mind as Jesus spoke of it falling alike on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Many of Jesus listeners would have been thinking more along the lines of Twain’s management of such affairs, an found what Jesus had to say challenging. The social, political and military environment would have been the obvious target of his words. How do you maintain order without the simple clear black and white rules? How do you find justice without an enemy? Especially when God rains for both good and bad?

And let’s remember, he disregarded many religious boundaries of his own religious faith. He did not believe in some of the interpretations of scripture. He publicly associated and ate with sinners, he reached across the critical religious rules of his day. He ignored the prescribed handwashing, he prioritized interpersonal morality over Temple worship which place being in right relationship with people over that with God. He crossed the line between sacred and mundane and upset the special days rules. He was not saying they were wrong but that they were not the only way and, in his time, they were not working or not necessary because they stigmatized, separated off and created an environment of fear as opposed to love. Here we have a challenge to consider when we plan discipleship let alone a program of evangelism.

This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a tough call. It is a call to discipleship. And mixed in with that call are several fragments on other issues. Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin. Suffering and persecution. The cross. Death. But I guess the primary thing we hear in the story are the words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Now, if read out of context, and with our post-modern western ears tuned in, this particular invitation to discipleship can be heard as a glorification of suffering, docility especially by women), and an encouragement to become a victim. Indeed, this is the way many people in the not-too-distant past, were encouraged to interpret this story. Because such a way of life is or was an imitation of ‘Christ’ So let me along with many today state in a stark categorical sense: that such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story.  Period.

Two of Mark’s issues seem to be the place of suffering and the other is the Cross. Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering. Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se. But what he does indicate is that one particular cause of suffering is persecution by the powers-that-be if you become a challenge to their authority, is a very real possibility. And something we need to bear in mind when being a disciple.

And for those who have chosen to be disciples and follow in the way of the humble Galilean, Mark’s call to them is to remain faithful to that way, and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution. Again, we might think about this as the outcome of good discipleship. Not in the sense of avoiding the persecution by confidence or strong persuasion but by humility of grace and peace. Remember here also that the Roman Theology is Victory first then peace and justice whereas I think Jesus was advocating peace and love as the instigators of justice.

The fact is that first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. It is something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible. Even down to the Panadol-a-day to keep the headache away! But ancients viewed suffering as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life. It was part of the human lot, of everyday existence. And why wouldn’t it be! I view change different from my parents and my children and why not? 

With at least 80% of the population living at subsistence level or below, with hunger and disease or being sold off into slavery, common experiences, high taxation a daily occurrence, and families in constant danger of losing their land to cover rising debt…a

“That is how Rome managed it”, comments Stephen Patterson, New Testament scholar, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar “Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces, was to suck up as many of the province’s resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether.  It slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.” (Patterson 2002:201)

No wonder the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now, train their children to be able to endure suffering, for it becomes an important survival skill! So, Mark’s message that the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth, painting Jesus and his followers as having the power to end suffering and bring health, life and safety for all, was certainly very attractive. Do you get a feel for discipleship from this? It is certainly not about telling anyone what we have and they need to live a better life. They already know that. Even today.

Now with Easter almost upon us we will have to deal with the story of the Cross, the crucifixion of the criminal by the ruling authority with the help of his peers.  The Cross.

Let’s be sure that the cross or crucifixion, was a cruel, shameful, and legal means of execution. Anyone questioning Roman authority was, from the empire’s perspective, a potential and unnecessary troublemaker. And political authorities then, as many still do today, believed in pre-emptive action against all possible threats. We today watch with interest how governments impose mandate on vaccine consumption in order to protect their people. Will a health measure become a cultural rule by stealth? Those against vaccinations struggle with this point under the cover of fear of its efficacy. And one would have to say that rightly so because it is fraught with assumptions of justice based on compliance as opposed to freely chosen.

It is pretty obvious that the ancients would never have sung: “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died…” That’s 17th/18th century middle-class piety.

Neither would they have said: “It is her cross to bear”. “God has given him a heavy cross”. “You just have to accept it: it’s your cross”. The reality was to take up your cross was specifically to pick up the cross beam and carry it out to the place of your execution, where you would be nailed or tied to it, and then hoisted up on to the upright pole or on to an olive tree stump.

As another overseas writer has said: “No ancient audience could miss the reference to execution, or think of the cross as a general reference to all human suffering…  Following Jesus (was) both blessing – the ending of much human suffering – and incurring new suffering at the hands of those who will do their best to destroy Jesus’ followers.” (Joanna Dewey. LookSmart Web site, 2009)

So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general. Violence destroys life. It is not even an installation of a symbol for the much later ‘Christian’ congregations.

That didn’t happen until early in the 5th century and then thanks to Constantine, not Mark. And neither is it about sacrificial atonement or supernatural rescue. That is, when the cross is seen as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, God is implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. (Shea 1975:179)

What ‘Taking up thy cross’ seems to me to be a general exhortation to remain faithful to the way of Jesus, and as Joanne Dewey says: “in the face of persecution and even execution, by political authorities.  That is “the all-absorbing   par excellence!” as a good man I liked when training Ian Cairns wrote.  

It has to be noted that the call to discipleship back then was a tough call. Your life could depend on it. Whereas the call to discipleship now, while also being a tough call. it is a call to be on a journey, Recognising the place language and culture have, living with questions rather than with answers, and that means living with ambiguities, and uncertainty and because it is always good news that drives discipleship exploring what it means to be human in this age when cloning of all examples of life forms, robotics, artificial intelligence and life ruled by algorithms is with us. Theology, spirituality and discipleship cannot be out of date or it will disappear and the Jesus story will disappear.

And where that demands honesty and candor. At the core of discipleship is the call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy) or what one should believe, as important. It is a call to make forgiveness reciprocal without exacting penalties or promises. And it is a call to accept an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love of one’s neighbour.

Mark’s 1st century story may have offered us some indicators – even resources – for our 21st century struggle to be disciples, to be the church, in our time. But in reality, we will have to work it out for ourselves, together. That’s the challenge and the blessing of discipleship.  Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Patterson, S. J. “Dirt, Shame, and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association, 1975.

rexae74@gmail.com

Caputo J.D The insistence of God A theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press 2013

Flowers of the Desert

Posted: February 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Flowers of the Desert

William Blake wrote that:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

That sounds to me very much like an invitation to dream, imagine and create pictures and images that enrich life with depth, colour and meaning. It inspired me to read you a poem I wrote in search of the dive that is revealed in that imaginative yet very real place. We talk about theology as art and we talk about metaphor and imagination as ways of making accessible the great mysteries of life. language is a wonderful thing when we treasure its ability to create life as we might see it. I want to offer you the poem as a way of recognizing the power it has to give an image of this God we are in the image of. I have given it the title of Serendipitous Presence to highlight the randomness of life as a wonderful gift and the way we best might imagine the dynamic creating presence of what we might name as the Spirit of God. A Serendipitous Presence, A Lenten calling.

A Serendipitous Presence

Words are without completion

too small for the task that eludes all.
How can we speak of a gentleness within,
the warmth of heart in response to call?

How can we know you, ocean of love,
Words fail to be enough, this we know true,

strong as forever, soft as a dove.
living within and without is our clue.

We know times of spiritual blindness,
when excess and pain distort our sight.
Something within and without us,
shows us how darkness can turn into light.

Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.

Words are creative completion

small and yet enough, for the task of call.
They speak of the gentleness within,
and warm the heart in response to the call.

This week saw the commencement of the traditional religious season called Lent.

It began a few days ago… on Wednesday 17th February. Interestingly it fell after last Sunday which was St Valentine’s Day. Traditionally… at least, in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. Traditionally, also, well, since the year 1000CE, Ash Wednesday got its name from the act of being marked with ashes – previous year’s burnt palm branches – when worshippers gather and are reminded of their sinfulness and mortality. Interesting isn’t it that Love and sin are on the same day!!

Lent is also associated with the story of the Jewi wsh Galilean sage called Yeshu’a/Jesus,
and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness. The story says it happened at the beginning of his brief public activity in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire, sometime between the years 26-36CE.

Having given a brief introduction I want to think about ‘desert’, ’Lent’ and ‘God; and I want to think about what desert means in NZ as opposed to Australia because the image we have of a desert can influence how we embrace the world of Jesus.

Did you know that Australia has ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia. It is over 800 kilometres wide and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometres. In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometres or 18% of the Australian mainland.  But that’s not all because approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain
it is effectively desert.  The result is that Australia has been called the driest continent on earth.

Whereas the desert in NZ is the Rangipo desert around the central plateau in the North Island. It is a barren desert-like environment, located in the Ruapehu District on the North Island Volcanic Plateau; to the east of the three active peaks of Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu, and to the west of the Kaimanawa Range.

It IS also a desert like environment only because of its harsh environment and not because of its dryness or sand covered world, It gets quite significant rainfall but very poor soil and frequent strong winds mean that anything less hardy than tussock doesn’t survive except in very sheltered areas. It’s at quite a high elevation and winters in this area are pretty brutal with frequent heavy rain, high winds and snow. The closest we might get to a “traditional” desert is the semi-arid area of Central Otago, especially around Alexandra, but even then irrigation has made this a remarkably fertile area, especially for stone fruit. Summers are scorching, and winters will make you wish you had packed your thermal undies.

Australia’s deserts however are known for their distracting lure of the shimmering mirage, their “parched earth cracks and groans under the blazing sun across the wide spaces. The perception of what is a desert wilderness area, varies greatly. They still vary  as it depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’.

To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty. A place without life. But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, for instance, beyond Charleville, it has a compelling fascination, as a place vibrant with life. The spinifex are blue grey with amber glints. They look soft but they are prickly and hard. They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal can eat them out or destroy their roots. It may look as if nothing can live in the desert, but underneath the spinifex, the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand. No life stirs all day, but come night… lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

This brief look at deserts suggests that things are not always as they seem and that perception is important. Not just as an awareness of nature and its complexity but also as metaphor for faith. Jesus withdrawing for space to pray and think, his use of the desert as a place to reflect and contemplate what to do, is a seeding place for ideas of an alternate way of seeing things.

When we take this idea and place it in a Lenten time we can see that Lent  might be a very real time when we can once again, in an intentional way, seek out the present-ness of the sacred lurking in the most unlikely of places, waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced. If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentlessness… where people face despair and animals die of thirst, the desert experience will always be an alien danger. It is tantamount to living in fear all one’s life. Sadly many people do this when the focus of lent is on sacrifice, sin and, a self-abasing repentance and this seeps through into our Autumn days as well.

A Zen teacher said to his students: ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes, but the elders furrow their brows. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes, but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust. We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

Echoing the words of William Blake, the former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests: “To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

 of dust is to stir up goodness, struggle for justice, speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power, band together to stand resolutely and non violently before evil and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it.

Traditionally for many of us Christians Lent is a time of sorry self-deprecation. A perspective I have little time for these days I have to say. From a progressive perspective, Lent can be a time when, in positive and intentional ways, our focused actions can enable others to flourish. Lent can be a time when our selfless actions seep into the world ‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’… encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, and strengthening the bonds of community.

We actually don’t have a lot of historical knowledge of Yeshu’a/Jesus, but we can surmise pretty strongly that he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom, forcing his hearers to take a second look at the traditions that helped them make their way in the world. He was a devout Jew and his controversy was in that he questioned his own faith and suggested it needed to change. And he was able, with a storyteller’s imagination, to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life.

And the point of this is that none of it makes Yeshu’a supernatural. Or divine. Or No. 2 in the Trinity. Just human, insightful and willing to ask the hard questions of himself and his faith.

Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, noted for publishing books
that ‘strain relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians’, writes:
“Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…”

Whatever conclusion one might end up with about him, it must be a possible Yeshu’a/Jesus and not a hugely incredible one. And a possible Jesus is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances “and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.”  (David Galston)

The desert is a place where one does not expect to find life. Let alone things of beauty such as flowers. It is a god-forsaken place we might say.

This Lent, in the wilderness of our 21st century cities, furrowed by freeways and overshot by motorways shaded by skyscrapers we might remember that in our dry seasons that seem to be increasing are time s and places where there are tiny seeds, at rest and waiting, dormant yet undefeated. There are Desert flowers waiting to show us a beauty we understand. “The desert is beautiful,” writes Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian, psychoanalyst, author, and poet, “because it hides, somewhere, a garden.” And that might be why Jesus went there so often.

‘Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.’

Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The ProphetEmbracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. . Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
Johnson, E. “Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished”UNIFAS ConferenceThe Colony. A History of Early Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, 7-14 July 2010. <https://sgfp.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/deep-incarnation-prepare-to-be-astonished/&gt; Accessed 4 October 2016
Karskens, G. . Crows Nest. Allen & Unwin, 2009.
McRae-McMahon, D. Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
Winton, T.  The Land’s Edge. Sydney. Picador, 1993.

rexae74@gmail.com

Mark 1:40-45

Why is a sermon on evolution important? Well I think it is important because having an integral philosophy is essential in todays world This is a claim that the evolution of consciousness is a central factor in the process of evolution overall. The attempt of a sermon in examining the historic texts is itself an acknowledgement that it is important to have a perspective on what constitutes an evolutionary life.

The use of the word ‘cantor’ is an attempt to claim that each one of us is an integral part of the evolutionary process, in other words our song, our solo has an integral place in the evolutionary process as a catalyst, a participant in the evolution.

The biblical world our readings arise from was a very different time to the one we find ourselves in today. The readings may seem to stand in contrast and that’s because they do. They are shaped by thinking hundreds of years old, and from a time without the benefit or not of both the natural science world of the 19th century CE and of today. The readings also offer us an idea of the ways many religious people think today when the differences are highlighted. Some ideas have evolved considerable and others very little and this is possible only when there is little or no integral philosophy to challenge the thinking.

Leprosy, in the time of Jesus, was sometimes regarded as divine punishment for sin.
It embraced a wide range of disorders, including rashes, acne, eczema and other forms of dermatitis. It made people ‘unclean’.  Dirty. And when you were dirty you offended God’s standards. Indeed, there was an explicit connection between being clean and being holy. When you were ‘unclean’ you weren’t ‘holy’! This was the culture into which Jesus was born. This was the culture that was learned and cultivated. In a string of stories commenced a week or two back, Mark’s Jesus is confronted with a series of ‘unclean’ people usually captured by ‘unclean’ spirits. As modern 21st century people, who both accept and rely on modern medical science, even if reluctantly we find it very difficult to believe in the existence of unclean spirits or demons, even though there are some moderns as there were ancient folk, who do. Much thinking these days goes into the connections between one view and another and nobody is sure enough to make exclusive claims these days.

So, what are we to make of this and other stories? Following the thoughts of some scholars whether Jesus was or was not a genuine shaman“ or whether he simply embraced the company of the unclean, the meaning of his memory is the same: in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community” (Patterson 2002:210).

And I come to a similar conclusion as a result of modern critical biblical study, established some 300 years ago, and given exposure in the late 20th century through the pioneering work of the Westar Institute and its founder, Robert W. Funk. Also by reading many scholars who are writing about the developing human mind, and integral spirituality as well as scientist who are seeking the overall meaning of human life and existence.

The second point to make also is that today is Evolution Sunday and once again
many of us continue to be a signatory to The Clergy Letter, now in three variations, which supports the validity and merit of evolutionary science as “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.  To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children” (UUA Clergy Letter. www.evolutionweekend.org).

And while the term ‘evolution’ was in use dating from 1647, and there were certainly others with similar views, it is English-born Charles Darwin who is now recognised as the ‘founder’ of the theory of evolution, leading the way to the modern study of genetics and molecular biology. Charles Darwin, whose father once said of him: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” (Wilson 1998:16).

Charles Darwin, who first studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but left after only 18 months “partly because of the barbarity of 19th century surgery long before the days of anaesthetics” (Wilson 1998:18) and went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, because his father determined that he should ‘become a clergyman’. Charles Darwin, who graduated in 1831 from Cambridge – in natural history and geology! Charles Darwin, who, as resident naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands on the HMS Beagle, where he encountered evidence “of great diversity between animals of the distant past and those of the present” (www.progressivetheology.org).

It was following this trip and as a result of him unable to reconcile his fundamentalist beliefs with his speculations about the origins of species, that “…in the months following his return… his new scientific theory was born and his faith in religion was dead” (Birch 2008:116).

Charles Darwin, born 206 hundred years ago (1809), who gave us his most famous major work called ‘On the Origin of Species’, “a treatise providing extensive evidence for the evolution of organisms and proposing natural selection as the key process determining its course” (Ayala 2007: 61) which Darwin published 156 years ago – on 24 November 1859.

In that book Darwin introduced what lies at the heart of an evolutionary world view. He suggested that the world or universe was:

(i) unfinished and continuing ;

(ii) involved chance events and struggle, and

(iii) natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint” (Birch 1965:29).

I would say today that the power of ‘fear’ in pour religious response is misplaced at best and horribly disabling of participating in a relationship of value with our planet. Evolution theory says that the whole universe is alive and changing, continually co-creating with each of us, new possibilities of life. Change is! Evolution and if you like you can use my idea of a serendipitous creating as the biological, philosophical and real world we live in. The unexpected, ambiguous serendipitous opportunity is our engagement in life.

Or put another way, change is the core of: cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).

What we do know and believe is that in every age the worlds of theology and religion interact with the cultural and scientific worldviews of that day. Such interaction between the two, in the words of feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, “is essential to make religious faith both credible and relevant within a particular generation’s view of the world and how it works” (Johnson 2007:286).

But Johnson goes on:  She says “In sum, theological reflection today should endeavour to speak about God’s relation not to an ancient nor medieval nor Newtonian world, but to the dynamic, emergent, self-organizing universe that contemporary natural and biological sciences describe” (Johnson 2007:287).

Scientists tell us the ‘Great Story’ as we understand it today, begins with the ultimate mystery of the Big Bang (this is now perhaps a misleading term. Current thinking is that there wasn’t really an explosion but an ‘expansion’, some 13-15 billion years ago.

We also think that life on earth originated some four billion years ago. Homo habilis (our ancestors) began using tools 2.5 billion years ago. Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago.

One of the things I need to tell myself is that I emerged just over 74 years ago – or about 27,375 days ago. Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us. The ancestral stars are a part of our genealogy. “Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space”
writes American Unitarian poet, Robert L Weston (Weston 1993)

I wrote the following in an attempt to say just how important an understanding of one’s own place in the cosmos and also how fragile, agile and alive an evolutionary world might be.

A Pale Blue Dot

It enters as a pale blue dot

Incredibly beautiful against the dark it inhabits

Both lost in contrast and confirmation of its place

a perspective of scale emerges

the pale blue dot takes its rightful place

the evolution of visual wonder

It enters as a pale blue dot

Carrying with it our existence

In the shared blue dot is the product

our bodies the outcome of an alchemy,

forged in stars billions of years ago.

An evolution of an incarnational beauty

It enters as a pale blue dot

a special planet that is evolving
a dynamic, living event
at once our home and yet fragile

it demands reverence, care, and respect.

An evolution the is serendipitous and participatory.

It enters as a pale blue dot

Reveals its part in the ageless cosmos,
offering reason for our standing in awe and reverence
inviting our participation in the process

which lured and shaped its evolution,
an evolution, wherein our existence has purpose

It enters as a pale blue dot

streaking through space at a great rate

joined with galaxy and the solar system.
It loops around the sun.
It moves through sunlight, around and around,

An evolution of revolutions and revelations

It enters as a pale blue dot

north to south to north It spins, wobbles, and tilts…

a wonderful moving kaleidoscope. earth.
Our world.
And this world invites our endless wonder.

an evolution of call, insistence and beauty.

.

“Everything in the universe is related.  Can you feel that umbilical cord to the  cosmos?  Can you feel the strands of connectedness – the interpendent web – of all existence, even with all human beings?” writes Mary Louise DeWolf in her 2008 Evolution Sunday sermon (DeWolf 2008).

When it comes to valuing the past ideas we have proposed as human beings we have to see that “The traditional model of life with God as king and ruler, described as omnipotent, sustaining the world’s development through pre-programed attributes, and 
intervening miraculously from the outside when and wherever, is “less and less seriously imaginable” (Johnson 2007:291).

On the other hand, Alfred North Whitehead, the Anglo-American process philosopher and mathematician, describes life as an adventure.  He felt that: “novelty and surprise made life interesting.  The open-endedness of life provides opportunities for the exercise of creative freedom, which gives life meaning” (Christ 2003:171).

I agree with him and that is why at the beginning of every service I write the threefold statement is the prelude.

In honouring the mind, we begin the journey toward Christian wholeness with a life-changing recognition of the power of one’s own choices.”, In “Living the Questions we are revisiting the questions to apply them to the Christian present and increasing the measure of freedom so that one can live more fully. And in “Exploring the adventure of Humanity we are about enjoying an unshakable Christian love, walking with confidence into the future and doing it in divine intimacy.

That is also why I have encouraged the celebration of Evolution Sunday, for some years now. It is also why I continue to:

• think of God as the creative process or ‘serendipitous creating’, rather than a being who creates and watches, and

• search for non-personal metaphors and verb-like descriptions for God rather than personal, anthropocentric ones. My theology of ‘Almost’ in my book summarizes this exploration.

As contemporary progressive theology reminds us time and time again, G-o-d or the Sacred does not reside in some other place called ‘heaven’. Nor is heaven our goal.  The world is our true home. Indeed, our only home. It is our co-creation that we participate in and that is a responsible co-activity we are responsible for.

“This life is meant to be enjoyed,” writes Carol Christ. and “To enjoy life is to cherish the beauty of each living thing, to be interested in diversity and difference in the web of life…”  (Christ 2003:116).

So, we can say that we read the story of the one who renders impotent the power of dirt
to keep the ‘unclean’ outside the human community… And we share in that activity with the Cosmic Christ. And the story of the ones who discovered the whole universe is alive and changing, continually, enables us to see what that means for us today and that the novelty and surprise of evolving makes life interesting, rich and purposeful.

As McIntosh writes: “When we begin to appreciate evolutions larger meaning, this does not replace or invalidate the teachings of existing spiritual tradition; rather it it conforms much of what these traditions have been teaching all along, while also refining and improving their essential message.”

I think that’s important why a sermon that claims our task as a ‘Cantor’ of the universe is important for an evolutionary life. Amen.

Listening to Life

Posted: February 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Listening to Life

Epiphany Five

It seems to me that there is something we need to do when we approach the healing Jesus spent much of his life engaged in. At the first approach we might remember and hold on to the fact that his message was affirming of the view that life was about the wellbeing of society, of the collective, of family and tribe and people and all people of the world. This view is consistent with the understanding of the resurrection being a general resurrection as opposed to an individual one. Consistent with Hebrew understanding. This means for us that we need to hold a priory for interpretation towards the collective or the community or society as opposed to the well-being and healing of the individual. I think that for Jesus the issue was that the individual was a vital part of the system and the healing that was required began with the individual but that its impact was upon the whole of society and one had to have an understanding of one’s worth in the big picture. This is not to say that the individual came second or is not vital to society but rather that the message was to for and with the society where he saw change was needed. It was to the political, social, and religious assumptions and culture he spoke strongly as in need of change.

I want to hold on to that collective priori as we work with today’s text from Mark My title listening to life is an attempt to suggest that healing is about listening to life. Paying attention to one’s life is about paying attention to what is happening for oneself, to the people with whom one is closest, to the things that happen to one. This, I think is at the seat of all healing and is the best, and most authentic, way to experience oneself being in tune with and participating in a divine life. That which we have traditionally understood as being at one with our God

Someone once said that “You never know what may cause healing. The sight of the Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. We can never be sure. But of this we can be sure. Whenever we find tears in our eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention for healing is taking place. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

This suggests that healing or that which restores healthy engagement with life is right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives…trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.

This healing that Jesus was performing is embodied in “the persistent presentiment that Something is trying to get through in the midst of the muddle of our day-to-day lives.

“…the persistent presentiment that Something is trying to get through in the midst of the muddle of our day-to-day lives.

But perhaps, as Fredrick Buechner claims, the most important place to listen is deep within the quiet in ourselves. He writes; “I have written at length about the way God speaks through the hieroglyphics of the things that happen to us, and I believe that is true. But I have come to believe more and more that God also speaks through the fathomless quiet of the holy place within us all which is beyond the power of anything that happens to us to touch although many things that happen to us block our access to it, make us forget even that it exists. I believe that this quiet and holy place in us is God’s place and what it is what marks us as God’s. Even when we have no idea of seeking it, I think various things can make us fleetingly aware of its presence – a work of art, beauty, sometimes sorrow or joy, sometimes just the quality of a moment that apparently has nothing special about it at all like the sound of water over stones in a stream or sitting alone with your feet up at the end of a hard day”

In his second memoir, Buechner writes that: “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Our lectionary Psalm is an exhortation to praise God for the way God restores those who have been exiled and broken, for the way God provides for God’s people and for the creatures of earth, and for the way God treasures those who honour God. Healing is about the restoration of a nation of a people, of people.

Our Mark reading has Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law and this is the catalyst for many sick and demonized people come to be healed. Healing again is about the many people, the collective, the community, the nation. Jesus tries to go off alone to pray, because he senses his message might be becoming too personalised but Simon and others track him down. Then he leads them off to other towns to preach and heal. It is about towns and communities again.

All of the readings seek to give comfort to the reader and they speak about God’s compassion and grace in healing, restoring and strengthening God’s people. They name these people as those who wait on and honour God. It is about the bigger relationship, the purpose for life perhaps. In each reading there is a clear indication of the way God meets us at our point of need in order to transform our lives. A very traditional understanding of who God was, is and how God operates in relationship. Today we recognise a more cosmic non-interventionist supernatural God but the common connection in thinking is that the divine relationship is first a systemic collective and perhaps less conscious one. In the famous song of Isaiah 40, God’s saving power is praised and the weary exiles are reminded that God will restore and strengthen them if they will just turn to God in hope. The exiles will be restored as a nation In the Psalm, God’s gracious restoration and provision for God’s people, and for all of creation, is praised. Here it is about the restoration of the planet, the creation itself. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he explains how he strives to meet every person where they are in order to bring them to Christ, becoming as they are so that he can share the Gospel with them. Listen to life so that one might be restored as Messiah, the saviour of the nation of a way of life. Finally, in one of those wonderful moments of particular care, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. But, then, immediately the Gospel moves to a wider focus, as Jesus heals and restores the many who come to him, and then, seeks to travel throughout Galilee to preach and heal. The amazing grace of the God is for all at a point of need and restores and reveals a truly celebratory opportunity for restoration, and one might say resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth.

I want to finish with a touch on how I think this collective application of message works. Over the last few decades the emphasis of human development teachers and spiritual gurus has moved away from self-sacrifice and towards self-actualization. This quest to “be true to oneself”, while it has brought some measure of healing and growth to some, it has also been used to justify all kinds of destructive behaviour, from the breaking of marriages and committed relationships in favour of “my needs,” to the militant and violent defence of materialistic and consumerist “ways of life” in wealthy nations. I think this is in danger of building a cult such as the cult of selfishness which is the exact opposite of both this realm of God that Jesus claims and of the interventionist God who comes as personalised in a supernatural Jesus with the surname Christ. This is not the cosmic Christ that the gospels try to reveal. The Scriptures offer us a startling vision of a God who is willing to go out of God’s way to meet us where we are – a God who would be incarnated and suffer death in order to draw humanity into God’s Reign. The problem with this personalised view is that the Reign of God which is established by the self-sacrificial Christ, also calls its citizens to follow in this sacrificial life by “becoming all things to all people” in order that they too may know God’s grace. This development and revelation of God’s gracious glory is a huge challenge challenge to every human system at work in our world – It sadly alienates humanity from a point of true healing and restoration by pushing the gracious God beyond human engagements and removes the human pathway to healing. In its distancing of the dive from the human it envcourages the careless consumption of planetary resources, and if we are to understand the American situation at all it has to suggest that this personalised God has given support to the power games played in national and international government, from the self-interest of big business and political and religious lobby groups to the violence that all too easily erupts between factions, ethnic groups and countries who refuse to share.

How different might our world be if leaders sought to be “all things to all people” and if they, like the cosmic Christ, were willing to meet people at their point of need, and spread the good they do as far and wide as possible? How different might our world be if the Christ followers, rather than trying to manipulate the world’s systems according to their own agendas, were more willing to serve and restore the systems of well-being for all others irrespective of differences in belief, conviction, morality and association? The question of what healing is and can do in our world might be to put down our own interests and commit to being true followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and if there is to be a sacrifice it is to put aside our own interests and agendas in favour of the greater good of the people who would heal the divine human relationship for it is our world.  This is our global pilgrimage.

On another kevel it is both shocking and disturbing that, in many segments of society, Christianity has been used as an excuse for an attitude of entitlement. The way the Gospel has been presented has left many outside of the Church feeling coerced and manipulated and rejected. It’s like we’re saying that, rather than us meet others where they are, they must change to become like us. Rather than touch and heal the sick and demonized, we have told them that they have no place among us, while we have refused to acknowledge our own demons. Rather than become “all things to all people” we have tried to make all people become like us. Rather than inviting people to be restored and saved by God’s grace, we have used the Bible as a club to break people down when they believe or live differently from us. In this way the divine restoration has been hidden from the world, rather than being reflected through us. In this way the Christ has become for many a false prophet rather than a true reflection of the glory and grace of God. This week, while we can celebrate that God meets us where we are and offers us healing and restoration, we must also acknowledge that we need to change to become those who give of themselves and put aside – our own needs, our own desires, beliefs and agendas – in favour of the wholeness, justice and goodness of others. If we are to embody the Realm of God which Jesus preached and demonstrated we need to release our self-interest and begin to step into the shoes, and the worlds of those who seek to experience God’s love. This will mean letting go of our need to be right, and our need to be comfortable and our need to control the world and replace it with our responsibility for the world we create. And this means the planet itself, its place in the universe and it will also lead us even deeper into that which we call God’s grace and love as we are to experience the divine working in us and through us even more. Amen.

Mark 1: 21-28

Authority, Authenticity and the ‘Messiah’ complex!

If we take a moment to think about leadership and the worlds needs it is no surprise that we despair for the world. The almost world-wide support for New Zealand’s Prime Minister suggest that there is a dearth of what might be considered good leadership. That is not to suggest that Jacinda is not a good leader in fact it is the opposite. What ist does say though is that we are less sure about what leadership is and what makes a good leader in the current world scene. It is true that social media has exposed their vulnerability to public opinion and ultimately the need to be popular. No one can know how to manage the presenting façade anymore and this in turn has meant that more and more lobby and manipulation goes on at a hidden level. Speaking with authority, authenticity and the avoidance of becoming caught up in a messiah complex is much more difficult. By Messiah complex I mean being seduced into a a state of mind in which one holds the belief that they are destined to become a saviour today or in the near future. Why else would people like Trump and some others think they can ride rough shod over convention, history and the standing of the office they were elected to serve and protect. Why else would clergy see their role as imperative for the future if not having convinced themselves that they are indispensable saviour. Is this leadership with authority and authenticity?

This leads us to the question as to whether or not there is an ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’ crisis, and whether or not this is about authenticity? Is there an authentic Gospel being preached anymore? This is not a new crisis because even when I was in training in the early eighties the debate was about the authenticity of the theological seminaries. Were they too liberal and not biblical enough? I suspect it was a debate around whether or not the scholarship focus on historical criticism was in conflict with biblical literalism?

And much of this crisis, at that time it is argued, was centred around the schools, including schools of theology, the courts – especially judges and magistrates – Politics and multiculturalism. Because we live in a pluralistic society with a multiplicity of life styles, some people, perhaps many people, were feeling very insecure with life. And looked for scapegoats in those they saw as leaders.

Sadly even today many are looking for a set of instant, ‘quick fix’ answers. Or some authoritative figure to tell them what to do. It is recognized that in times of rapid social change people look for a ‘messiah’!  It is often said that in times of crisis more people attend church. Not sure this is the case today because even the church is suffering from lack of authenticity issues let alone the lack of any authority to speak on any issue of concern these days.

According to this morning’s gospel anecdote, created by the storyteller Mark to express his notion of the mission of Jesus, when Jesus spoke people found something powerful happening to their psyches. ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority… The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant.  Here is a teaching that is new’. The people are astonished not that Jesus taught, but at the authority by which he taught.

But what did they mean? Did he rant and rave or shout? Was he persuasive in argument or an adept storyteller? We can only speculate. Because we only have fragments of a vision. One such speculative re-imagining is offered by John Dominic Crossan: ‘He was an illiterate peasant, but with an oral brilliance that few of those trained in literate and scribal disciplines can ever attain.’ At best, we can guess a credible Jesus taught about the kingdom or realm or domain of God, which was everywhere present but not demonstrable. He focused on some central themes like celebration, compassion, and inclusiveness.  As well as illustrating the realm and activity of God “by focusing his hearers’ attention on the observable behavior of phenomena in the physical world around them rather than by reporting his own personal mystical visions…” (Smith 2008:79).

And another thing to note was that he drew on common life experiences, trading in the trivial, the ordinary, rather than interpreting scripture. He was in fact a secular sage! Not yet seen as a Son of God let alone God in human form.

This approach to leadership is important in that his personal style had the effect of shifting the power base of knowledge from the experts (in scripture, scribes) to the common people. It was a very different way of doing theology. It was theology because it was about the task of interpreting a vision God might have for God’s world. But it was fresh and good news!

What is clear is that classical theology and traditional authority do not allow this kind of a position. They both want a return to the ‘good old days’… capital and corporeal punishment, Christian instruction in schools, fixed laws on moral conduct, longer custodial sentences, and direct lines of external authority: parent, teacher, boss, bishop, pope, prime minister.

‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority….

In the stories told about him and the words attributed to him Jesus presents God’s domain as a new or alternate possible reality, to the world in which many found themselves trapped in. We heard some of this last week in Ched Myers comments on the phrase ‘fishers of men’.  Where he suggested that a phrase like ‘fishers of men’ was a (Hebrew prophets) euphemism for judgement upon the rich.

He said that: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”…  (And) the first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple…” (Myers 2008: 132-133).

Last week I also indicated that the evangelical priority or better still the apologetic priority is in need of sound critique in terms of its impact on thinking and thus leadership and ultimately the future of the church let alone Christianity. The first step: dismantling the dominant ‘world’ of the disciple! Is a huge challenge that will require brave leadership at all levels because the old reality is tenacious. It has a powerful grip on people, because fear of change, heightened anxiety, or terrorism – perceived or actual, it is supported by many in our own and other communities. The threat is powerful. Its influence of ‘pull’ is exceptionally strong.

We are reminded here that Jesus, it seems, opened up the world anew and invited folk to modify the way they saw reality. and he spoke with authority, provided authenticity and it was indeed, new authority. Even though in the main; and here’s the rub, it may not have been new teaching.

This may sound weird but I think, we – you and me – living in the early part of the 21st century, have a chance as never before, to facilitate a new ‘religious’ authority. And for me the pulse of that new authority comes from an authentic applicable reimagining of the gospel stories that articulate and encourage a critical thinking approach to truth, certainty and the priory of belief over doubt. Belief is dependent upon having a strong and questioning doubt not as opposites but as crucial for an authentic gospel. Our traditional approach to the bible as literal and the holder of absolute truth is killing the church and ultimately the Christian Way.

None of the studies being provided today by the likes of the Westar Institute and its various Seminars are new in terms of the questions they are asking but they are enabling them to be asked in today’s world which is a long way from that of Jesus of Nazareth. For 2000 years, Jesus of Nazareth has been represented to the world “in terms of later inferences drawn from his sayings and deeds, rather than in terms of what he himself did and said”  (Hedrick 2004: 98). But now with the new ‘uncovering’ work being done by scholars on both the extra canonical material (The gospels of Thomas, Mary and others), as well as that on the early Christian movements, we have an opportunity to draw our own  inferences about Jesus from a host of newer or different sources.

And when you think about that we live in truly incredible times! “The only other time in history that this was possible was in the first century” (Hedrick 2004: 99).

Staying with this thought a bit we reflect that throughout the last 500 year or so history of the church, people have wrestled with the clash between the Bible and modern science. And many have coped by a ‘suspension of disbelief’ for an hour or two each week. More an more people are saying to me that they can no longer leave their brain at the door and this suggests to me that there is an authenticity problem close by.

But what happens when those same people decide they can no longer live with the inconsistencies of tired metaphors and a belief known “to be patently false”? (Hedrick 2004) They leave.  Welcome the ‘church alumni’ association! And the centres for progressive religion and/or Christianity beyond Christendom. And other safe places which openly push theological boundaries.

The urgent question for the church right now, in the 21st century is: How long can it – you and me – count on suspended disbelief to shore up its outworn myths?  (Hedrick 2004)

And I want to stop there a moment and suggest that that is the kind of argument Jesus had with the authorities of his day. That is why imagining another possible way of being in the world, was, and can be, fresh news. And it also suggest that even the apostles found this transition hard. It may have been part of the reason they struggled after his crucifixion. The Messiah complex part of their commitment was let down. They had not understood just how radical and alternative the gospel Jesus wqs advocating.

And if we can take this to heart, and see it as the good news that it is, we will appreciate why those in the audience that day were so astonished. ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them…’ So the next time we read in the Church Notices that a study opportunity is planned, maybe we should put our hand up to be part of that experience. It is not our ready-made answers that will count. It is our openness to new possibilities that will be life-changing.

Notes:
Hedrick, C. W. “The ‘good news’ about the historical Jesus” in A. Dewey. (ed) The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.
Smith, M. H. “Ears to Hear. Learning to Listen to Jesus” in C. W. Hedrick. When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journey. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘Life Beyond Complacency’

Posted: January 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘Life Beyond Complacency’       

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has become an important theme in church life. In fact, it could be said that it is in the very fabric or DNA of the church and this makes it hard to conceptualize any other way of being. But I want to try because I think the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is calling us to do so.

The first place I want to start is with an assumption, and that is that we need to defend the faith so to speak. This defense has become so ingrained that we have lost sight of what the historical Jesus was on about. I don’t think he was on about saving Judaism, his faith, but rather about challenging it to move away for its assumptions and its complacency and arrogance. We might visit what is known as Apologetics (from Greek meaning, “speaking in defense”. Apologetics is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. Early Christian writers (c. 120–220) who defended their beliefs against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called Christian apologists. In 21st-century usage, apologetics is often identified with debates over religion and theology. Another claim is that apologetics is the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.

One might say ‘Through zealous advocacy or support of a particular cause. I arrived in a state of high evangelism” In Christianity, evangelism is the commitment to or an act of publicly preaching the gospel with the intention to propound the message and teachings of Jesus Christ. … In addition, Christian groups who encourage evangelism can be referred to as evangelistic. Just look at the recent debacle in the USA as the credibility of the Christian Gospel has been the servant of political power.

And the irony of it all is that no one is unreachable when it comes to seeking Jesus’ love, grace and hope. Having a God or a Jesus-confidence doesn’t mean we need to have everything figured out. Just like being a Christian doesn’t mean we won’t struggle, in life. it means we won’t struggle alone. Because we are human and we should not deny that or seek to escape from it. The Gospel is surely to enable us to live it more abundantly or as Jack Spong puts it, ‘Love wastefully”.

This morning’s story by the storyteller we call Mark, is one such story.
The calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John is an evangelism event. A calling event. And by implication, the commencement of a movement which centred on the character and teachings of the wandering sage we call Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus certainly had followers.  Both men and women. It was one of the most common ways in which teaching and learning took place. The call was not as we have intensely made it about converting others to believe as we do but rather as calling people to walk the way, to live life free from complacency, free from the prisons of institutionalisation, free from culture assumptions. Not to deny their existence or banish them from one’s mind like some magic exorcism but to creatively live them differently.

And one of those assumptions we note is that while we can learn something of the roles men took in this process, from the various stories in our biblical tradition, the role women took goes almost unnoticed until we read the Gospel of Mary – which didn’t make it into the biblical collection. Is another assumption that only a male approach to spreading the good news is appropriate? Is there a feminine approach to spreading the good news?

What we do seem to admit is that we doubt whether Jesus actually took the initiative and carried out a recruitment drive, with the intention of organising a movement. I tend to agree with those who claim Jesus was a wandering or itinerant sage without organisational intentions, and who never intended to found a movement much less a church.

He was I think a Jesus who was thoroughly consumed in the religious/political concerns of his own time and place. He knew his Judaism, he knew his culture and its place in the world. He knew the power points in his society and he saw an alternative way of being in this world.

I think he was a Jesus whose focus was not on some mystified realm beyond time,
nor on some present or future world which we simply appreciate or accept. Rather, he was a man whose focus was on a new realm of God here and now, and ready to emerge.  (Coverston 2005)

So, what we have in this particular story this morning, is more the hand of the storyteller Mark or a particular community, rather than a record of one of the actual deeds of Jesus.

Either way, storyteller Mark seems to have a collection of stories and sayings and theological reflections, some probably written fragments, but most retold and remembered from oral telling, and is weaving all of them together.  Adapting and weaving them together with a particular purpose in mind. That purpose being for that small community he was speaking to could honour Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets… That they could hear a link between “Jesus’ ministry and John’s preceding one” (Cairns 2004:16) and that they could hear and understand, remember and be empowered as people of the Way.

Not an alternative religion because that would lead to defense of it but rather a new Way.

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has also been associated with the evangelical missionary endeavour of ‘saving souls’. Certainly, that is how many preachers have understood the metaphor, spoken exclusively it would seem to Simon and Andrew: ‘make you fishers of men’ or the more inclusive, ‘…people’. But this metaphor is not only very tired and outdated,
it is also, I suggest, a misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and teachings.

I wonder if you might consider a few suggestions on all this?

Scholar Ched Myers, in his comments on this story, offers an important and different interpretation, which suggests phrases like ‘fishers of men’ and ‘hooking of fish’ are (Hebrew prophets) euphemisms for judgement upon the rich.

Myers says initially: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”.

And again: “…following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple… This is not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice.” (Myers 2008: 132-133)

Not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice. Those words by Myers resonate with me. Because they suggest to me that being a disciple in the 21st century requires us to engage in both social analysis as well as theological reflection. And in so doing, to be reminded that the biblical and extra-biblical stories we hear and study and speculate about, are not just earthly stories with heavenly meanings, but earthy stories with heavy meanings!

Last week I spoke a little about the American celebration called Martin Luther King Day, a celebration more at home in America.

Some years back, journalist James Carroll, wrote an article called ‘The Dream and its Enemies’. In it he suggested that while the outright racism of white supremacists was one of King’s enemies, “almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.” (Carroll. ‘Globe’, a New York Times Co. 2008)

Carroll went on: “This nation honours Martin Luther King Jr today because of what he forced on it.  Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth.  Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible.  King’s work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.” (Carroll)

Not a call ‘out’ of the world, but ‘into’ an alternative social practice… One wonders if New Zealand’s approach to equality and justice can also become a call into an alternative social practice? The numbers of Maori in prisons and in gangs suggests we are not doing all that well. We have either become trapped in the world of complacency or blinded to any alternatives by lack of faith.

Discipling, as the storyteller we call Mark suggests, is about accepting the urgent invitation to ‘break with business as usual’.  To re-imagine the world, both personal and communal. In our time might it not also suggest that complacency, in all its forms, is the last thing we should fall into.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. New Zealand: Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Coverston, H. S. “Ears to Hear? Who is my Neighbour? Preaching with Integrity and Moral Reasoning”. Seminar Papers, Westar Institute, Fall. Santa Rosa, 2005.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘I Have a Dream!’

Posted: January 12, 2021 in Uncategorized

John 1:43-51

‘I Have a Dream!’

About this time of the year many Americans celebrate a national holiday in honour of the black Baptist preacher and civil rights leader, Revd. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Many will again remember his 1963 March on Washington, and the magnificent oratory of “I have a dream!” delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 28 August 1963…

Many will remember the recent political event on Capitol hill that killed a young woman protester that will sully the celebrations and highlight the destructive segregation that exists in our communities.


Kings words: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood…  I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… 

(MLKing).

While both the man and that moment merit celebration, it is obvious to many that there has been for several years now, a difference of opinion surrounding the celebrating and the remembering. There was a comment some years ago now, that said:
“Brother Martin spent a fair amount of time in jail, but his worst imprisonment may be how his own nation has frozen him in that moment in 1963.  Our national memory wants that triumphant, sun-drenched hero to stay right there, static, bound to the podium before the adoring crowds.  We want to be lulled into contentment by his beautiful words, his familiar cadences.  We want to keep him safely, unthreateningly, on a pedestal”

(Harding 2001)

And the American poet Carl Wendell Homes, Jr. who was only in his 20s when King was assassinated, articulated this domestication of King eloquently: “Now that he is safely dead Let us praise him build monuments to his glory sing hosannas to his name. “Dead men make such convenient heroes: They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives. “And besides, it is easier to build monuments than to make a better world.”

There is something of an indictment for us in those words “It is easier to build monuments than to make a better world…” So, what is a dream and how does it work? Well, I trolled the internet and found this;

dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. The content and function of dreams are not fully understood, although they have been a topic of scientific, philosophical and religious interest throughout recorded history.

Another comment is that dreams seem to speak into and from and about  ‎’Cultural meaning’  · ‎’Neurobiology’ and ‘Function’.

And still another and one I think I prefer.

‘Dreams are drifts of the imagination, as if one imagines imaginary clouds in the sky. And Visions are scripted efforts to effect change. Dreams and Visions occur personally and organizationally’.

I think I like the third one because it encompasses the others and provides the spiritual connection with imagination, and allows the claim that love changes things. If that which we name God is the energy that sustains everything then dreams are involved at both a conscious level and a non- conscious level, or better still ‘they are a pathway at the interaction between the individual consciousness and the collective consciousness. Of course, I could be wrong and better minds than mine might say it differently.

It might seem a bit strange to the reader also but in thinking about the efficacy of dreams I began to think about what it means to be human and subsequently to the future of the human species.one aspect of which is called ‘transhumanism. I found David Galston’s, book entitled God’s Human Future’ helpful here. He explores, the theological concerns by suggesting that transhumanism might be a new posthumanism that takes the form of the Psalmist’s great question from centuries ago, “what are humans” (Psalm 8:4)? He reminds us that the Psalmist’s question is not about an individual but about the human family. It is a question about God’s creation as a whole and the human place in the whole. From antiquity the Psalmist poses a question about futurity. To what extent ought human beings manipulate the image of God, which is who they are? Like any person who faces this question, a theologian will hold hesitancy, be unsure, fear, but also hope. Is our collective posthuman future something to celebrate or something to worry about?

‘Galston’ suggests that the “image of God” as a metaphor offers some guidance. In traditional Christian philosophy, the “image” is the purpose (the aim of the form) of human creatures. Remember, a “form,” from Plato, is the perfect image of a material thing. Everything that exists in the world is imperfect, but everything that exists, that is seen, participates in its form, its unseen perfection. In Christian philosophy, traditionally stated, the image of God is the form God created for human beings. The image of God is what we are meant to be perfectly in our everyday imperfections.

In the Bible, of course, the philosophical understanding of the image is not present. For biblical writers, the image of God is more active than passive. It is the way God forms human beings. It is the life or breath that God gave human beings to make them human. All human beings are brothers and sisters because all alike are the image of God, the life of God’s creative act. All human beings, we could say, are divine soul-bearers or energy-bearers, according to the Bible.

The image of God, understood philosophically or biblically, is important to theology and to the question of transhumanism because it asks to what extent does the human experience with technology alter the image of God in human beings? There is no single answer to this question. Insofar as technology enhances life, then it enhances the “image of God,” which, biblically speaking, is the energy of life. But if technology destroys life, then it destroys the “image of God” in life. When we think of it this way, we are delivered back to the classical humanist value of autonomy: to what extent are human being responsible for their own future?

Theology places the “image of God” into the question of futurity Galston says. Theology says that the transhumanist effort to form a posthuman future must be a communal question because the “image of God” is a question about the value of the human family. It is not a question about the value of technology.

Bringing this back to dreams and dreaming it has to be said that dreams are ‘the stuff of life’  In their interwoven connection with imagination they are involved it life at its very core. They give life to, monitor and manage along with imagination what is and what is to be.

In 2011 I think it was, America was preparing to unveil a 30 foot granite statue of King
in the National Mall honouring African Americans, only to cancel the unveiling at the last minute
due to the approaching Hurricane Irene. (The 28 August 2011 marked the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic speech).

About the monument one newspaper report said: “The MLK Monument is meant to encourage the visitor to move, literally, from despair toward hope.  The design is clearly based on the quote from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that reads: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”   With this in mind, the visitor approaching the monument is forced to pass through the Mountain of Despair, which stands like two forbidding sentinels, or to my mind, two sides of the threatening Red Sea, parted by God as Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage” (Huffington Post, 8/2011).

The making of a different and better world, verses the making of a national monument! King’s ‘dream’ was not a cosy, sweet, abstract idea. It grew out of and flowed back into the practical, active work and struggle for social inclusion and transformation.

Indeed, ‘dreaming’ helped inspire an African-American seamstress called Rosa Parks, to refuse to give up her seat to a white man on a bus that December day back in 1955… A courageous act which triggered a 381-day black boycott of the bus system and ignited the modern civil-rights movement led by King.

The nature of the dream is highlighted by the fact that 53 years later this same ‘dreaming’, it is claimed, helped elect America’s first black man Barak Obama to the US presidency and it  also helped the election of Donald Trump as well.

Our story today from the biblical text is the storyteller John with his story about a dreamer.  A bloke called Nathanael. And his dream of ascending and descending angels is reminiscent of another story – the story of Jacob’s ladder. So what’s this all about?

New Testament scholar William Loader has looked at this puzzling story and offered this comment: “Jesus doesn’t want the big crowds running after him… he wants to lead them, as he led Nathanael, beyond amazement at miracles… to wonder at what they symbolise, the life he offered and now made universally available… through the witness of the community of faith and its action”

(WLoader/Website 2009).

My experience at the Theological Hall when training for Ministry led me to be sceptical about Johns Gospel because of its heavy post Easter Jesus and its Roman and Greek influence on thinking. I have to say that subsequent reading has cast it in a different light. Like many Jack Spong’s book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, has softened opposition somewhat. Upon reflection on this I suspect I have always felt more of a closeness to the ‘historical’ Jesus (when that is possible) in the Synoptics and Thomas, than to the 1st century symbolic and deep Christological – even Gnostic – theology of John. I have to admit that I have a new appreciation of the Gnostic material these days.

Theologian Walter Brueggermann’s, claim that John often reveals the “counter-imagination of Jesus”, certainly interests me. That I can relate to. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Jesus. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Barack Obama. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Rosa Parks. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Martin Luther King, Jr. makes sense. So it seems that there’s more to this ‘dreaming’ than meets the eye!

What is clear is that the collective conscious, is a fascinating filed of discovery. The question we ask is ‘what is it that haunts the minds of dreamers? I admit it is a big question and too big for this brief sermon.

A story and a poem Rex Hunt shared in a sermon some years back now might help ground that question in our common experiences. What is in the mind of dreamers?

First the story.

A neighbourhood church, well established, had been around for at least 40 years. Then a new congregation of the same denomination started about five klm away, in another suburb. Within five years, the new congregation had grown larger than the 40 year established congregation,
and had completed a building program, which they expanded just a few years later.

A major difference between the two congregations was the new congregation was a ‘progressive’ niche church, always pushing theological boundaries, and looking for the new and different things they could do as a congregation.

The older congregation, called an ‘established’ or ‘traditional’ church tended to look to the past and the good things they had done ‘back then’ as a congregation.

In her Report to the Synod office the Intentional Interim minister wrote about the traditional church: “It is hard to move them into the future when their ‘dreaming’ is always looking backwards”.

And now the poem

“Some day
when nobody
expects it,
when the world
is busy
doing worldly things
and not really watching
the edges of creation,
on some wonder day
shall
love be born
again.

“And on that
Beautiful Day
the promise
shall be fulfilled,
that now haunts
the minds
of
dreamers.”  

Bill Comeau/LP.

On that day the promise shall be fulfilled, that now haunts the minds of dreamers… On that day when the ‘counter-imagination’ of Jesus of Rosa of Martin, of Barack – shall be fulfilled.

When love, inclusiveness, community, are born again on the edges. Is that not what haunts all dreamers? And what of us.  Do we also dare to say… when the ‘counter-imagination’ of our faith community as a niche, progressive church, shall be fulfilled? If not, why not?  The time is ripe!

So, The invitation is to ponder and more importantly, ‘to dream”.

Notes:
Bill Comeau. “Some Beautiful Day. A Rock Celebration of the Life of a Dreamer named Jesus.” New York. Avant Garde Records

David Galston. +God’s Human Future The Struggle To Define Theology Today .Polebridge Press 2016

rexae74@gmail.com

Recognising the Sacred

Posted: January 7, 2021 in Uncategorized

Recognising the Sacred

We have all seen them. Walking briskly with briefcase and mobile phone in tow,
weaving in and out of pedestrians along the footpath as they go from appointment to appointment. Company representatives. Sales people. Public servants. Even ministers of religion. With bible in hand its spine cupped in the hand as if a natural appendage belonging to the carrier.

Rex Hunt tells a story of a group of computer salesmen going from Newcastle to Sydney to take part in their annual State one-day sales meeting. They assured their spouses they would be home in plenty of time for dinner. But, with one thing or another, the meeting ran over time so they had to run to Central Station, tickets in hand.

As they rushed through the ticket terminal area, one man inadvertently crashed into a table supporting a display of fruit. Without stopping they all reached Platform No. 10 and the train – just, and boarded it with a sigh of relief. All but one. He paused, got in touch with his feelings, and experienced a twinge of compunction for the youth whose fruit stand they had caused to almost collapse.

He stepped off the train, waved goodbye to his companions and returned to the ticket area where he helped pick up the scattered fruit. He was glad he did.  The youth was blind. As he picked up the fruit he noticed several of the peaches and pears were bruised. He reached into his coat pocket, took out his wallet, pulled out some money and said to the youth: “Here, please take this $20 for the damage we did. “I hope it didn’t spoil your day too much”.

As he started to walk back towards the platform to wait for another train, the bewildered youth called out to him: “Are you Jesus, or something?”

Mark the gospel storyteller has told his story this morning.  And we have accepted his invitation and told another story in reply. In that story Mark invites his listeners to see the present-ness of the sacred, of G-o-d, in Jesus…  He says: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” But Mark is not here and we are a different people in a different time.

Our challenge now is to ask the question: How can we translate that into a daily recognition of the present-ness of the sacred in every person? For most of us, that can be a bit hard. And It is my suggestion that one of the factors in our difficulty is that the church since Augustine’s time has been in error in the way it has portrayed the humanity of Jesus. The Orthodox Christian expression of Christianity has made him significant because he died rather than lived. The Christ of faith in essence has denied the humanity of Jesus to the point that we have become dependent upon the supernatural and a Theism that denies any questioning of the deity of Jesus at the expense of the connection with the Jesus of history. This has the effect of separating humanity from the divine potential and thus making it difficult to see the sacred in everyday life and in each other.

Another story. This one from the Roman tradition. It is time for the evening service to take place and Freddy is sitting in the church very drunk. He sits in the church alone, abusing our loud. Nobody else is there yet but shortly after they begin to arrive for the evening service. Freddy becomes more abusive and aggressive so that it is inappropriate to begin the service. Conversation swells and consensus is that Freddy has to go.

Things were proceeding fairly well and Father Ernie is coaxing Freddy to the door. They are almost there when ‘all hell breaks loose’ and foul language is directed at the priest;
threatening to hit him and kick him, blaming him for so many things and finally, spitting at him.

“Through all this,” said Fr Ernie Smith, “I remained externally calm. Inwardly I felt both angry and a little frightened. “What a relief it was when Freddy left the church and I closed the side door behind him. Now, on with the service.”

Crash.  Freddy has returned and started to kick in the door of the recently restored   church. “Now I showed my anger externally”, Fr Smith said. “A bit of a chase ensued and then he was gone again. “It was difficult to compose myself after this.”

Ernie reflects that this was the grog presenting a facade. The dignity of the man was hidden. “I saw him later,” Fr Smith said, “and gently reminded him of this episode, but he had no memory of it”(Smith 1994).

The question we are left with is ‘how can we translate that into a daily recognition of the present-ness of the sacred in every person?

At a macro and theological level I think that we need to challenge the assumptions we have built up over many years about the humanity of Jesus. He is significant for faith not because he died, not because of Easter and a post Easter priority but rather a Christmas or an incarnational priority. He was born as one of us, Emmanuel – God with us- priority and not a God who is supernatural and beyond our humanity. If you are wondering about making God in our image about here then you might be missing the sacred in every person.

At a micro and individual Freddy level this means breaking down the façade that keeps us from seeing the God-given dignity of every person, and recognising the present-ness of the sacred in others – especially those who are suffering.  When you shake hands with the heroin addict or the street prostitute can you see the Christ in them?

“Hey Wally, what are you doing down here tonight?” After all, he isn’t well and he has a room in one of the Mission houses. Here he is out on the street. “You’ve got a room to go to, so get yourself into gear and go home”. This is crazy that he should be out on a cold night. “Come on, get home.”

And then he gets a chance to speak. “I can’t go home, Father.  Frank’s crook and he as nowhere to stay, so I’ve given him my room for the night. “I’ll be right” (Smith 1994).

The Jesus of history does not have to return as God because he is already present in the sacred in every person…. as the parables tell us. It is in the poetry of the human Jesus’ parables and we should not reduce them to silence and lock them up in our rituals of salvation. See the sacred in the person and the incarnation make real sense. Amen.

Notes:
Crotty, R. E Smith. 1994. Voices From The Edge. Mark’s Gospel in our World. Melbourne. CollinsDove.

Galston, David 2016 God’s Human Future The struggle to Define Theology Today. Polebridge Press

rexae74@gmail.com

John 1:1-14

Epiphany: ‘Almost” The Life-Force in Every-Day Life.

Sometimes I label myself as an ‘Anatheist’ which for me means that I am someone who is no longer satisfied that Theism or Atheism are concepts that point to a helpful way of understanding God in this contemporary age, The path I want to take to understand who what or if God is occupies my mind.  I have come to a number of conclusions and the first is to affirm the stance that God is and that naming God, with the name God is no longer adequate. It has led me to a place where the name ‘Almost’ for God is a possible way of moving on from what to me seems to be the prison of the name God. God is more than this and those of us who use Words like Force, source and Spirit or Energy are indicative of the need to find emphasis on the is-ness, or the living evolutionary dynamic that we understand life to be. This my title for today ‘Almost’ or freed from the prison of existence to become timeless, formless and living and as Life force this means in every moment of that which we call life, not as mentor, or judge or even helper but rather the very dynamic life-throb of all things.

When I think about this and articulate them I find myself excited about what it means to be human and to explore the possibilities of consciousness. For me they paint a vibrant picture of what a lot of the current God-talk could be about and what the Season of Christmas is all about and when it comes to Epiphany it is about the discovery for oneself what this does for living one’s life. One sees that love does change everything and that our world could be a place of honesty, integrity and where peaceful adventuring takes place.

And here we are in our liturgical or lectionary journey. We have moved through the 12 days of the Festival of Christmas into the Season of Epiphany. Traditionally, Epiphany has been tied to the visit of the international Wise Ones. But it is much broader than that.
Epiphany is also about celebrating the experience of God’s present-ness in all things.  From the daily tasks of parenting, working, relaxing, to remarkable experiences of insight and wonder… And the mystery of the universe: why there is anything at all, rather than nothing (Goodenough 1998:11).

In Religious Naturalism/Process Theology terms, in the Season of Epiphany, we open ourselves to divine omni-presence and divine omni-activity. In my attempt at theology the ‘Almost’ is the divine experience of real human living which is within ambiguity, uncertainty, chance unexpectedness which I encapsulate in the word serendipity reflecting the randomness of the arrival of the cosmic world and the randomness of human existence. Without to serendipity of life there is no life as we know it and ‘Almost’ depicts this event as that which John D Caputo says is not existence but rather insistence. Naming seems to assist with existence and thus becomes like us and insistence seems to assist with a calling to life. God insists and life responds. Rex Hunt calls this Creativity God and I call it Serendipitous creating, an ‘Almost’. Almost encourages a response and our existence as human is a response. In the presence of Almost or serendipitous creating we are gently persuaded in every encounter to live this wonderful life.

One could say that the God of John the storyteller, while more sophisticated theologically than by either Luke or Matthew or Mark, is dynamic and relational. In the God of John the storyteller we repeatedly encounter a multi-moving, acting God. A ‘verb’ rather than a ‘noun’. Here we have the acknowledgement that language is what we use to create our world.

This has encouraged Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly to ask:  Why must ‘God’ be a noun?  Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all?  …The anthropomorphic symbols for God may be intended to convey personality, but they fail to convey that God is Be-ing and not a being. It can then be said that Epiphany unveils and celebrates the present-ness of this lively, innovative Creativity in everyday life. God or “Almost’ is the life-throb of all things. Almost in language suggests the certainty of an arrival, the random reality of that arrival and the dynamic yet to be and promise in that arrival. It also suggests potential where there is the discovery of the already there and here, the cyclical, linear, reality of naming a timelessness.

Borrowing again from Rex Hunt’s work is the story of Luke Skywalker, the young super hero of Star Wars, who is putting on his flight gear for the climactic battle with the Death Star that threatens to destroy the last remains of a brave rebel force.

His somewhat cynical friend, Han Solo, who is packing a space freighter to escape before the uneven battle, pauses for a moment and then says with a kind of awkward voice,
‘May the Force be with you!’

This phrase has become well know and used ever since the movie come out some years ago now and used in many circumstances. May the Force be with you, assumes there is a force and that it can be known by the recipient as if there is a touching on a truth which we in the church have either lost or have never known. Maybe be we have trapped it in the naming of it as God the noun, whereas we might have seen it as an event, a moving complex dynamic living event. A verb as opposed to a noun. A sense of the dynamic that is not seen or heard in most of the traditional words in addressing God or the Sacred.

The storyteller John uses dynamic and relational (be they anthropomorphic) words and images.  And in general terms so too does the whole of the biblical tradition:
bringing, gathering, consoling, leading, understanding, granting, scattering, choosing, forgiving. Maybe the western obsession with reason and literalism has taken from the words the living nature of the divine and made it something we want to own, and claim as opposed to that which enlivens. In these multiple dynamic actions, God is always affirming, and in all these many ways, creation is always the subject of God’s great demonstrations of affection. As Loving God changes everything and Almost depicts this as a living dynamic event. Creation itself.

But returning to our text its is so that we have become a bit stuck when we hear the English translation, ‘word’. In the beginning was the Word… The Word was with God…
The Word was made…

In English, ‘word’ has often been given the meaning of sounds or its representation in letters put together for oral or written communication. Printed word. Radio word. But the Hebrew word for ‘word’ is ‘dabhar’ which, according to Matthew Fox and others, means divine creative energy (Fox 1995). The storied word. The word that gave birth. Those of you who are right-brain thinkers will probably have already resonated with this and made a connection. For the Hebrew ‘dabhar’ is about the creative, the imaginative, the heart, the feeling.

And this divine creative energy is more than just a concept. Epiphany also reminds us that the ‘word’ is made flesh. It lives among us. Moves within and between and among all things. Inspiring us to think and sing and dance with integrity and historical honesty.

As we begin a new year together, and in the spirit of this divine creative mystery, we call God and I call ‘Almost’ there are some observations that were first inspired by ‘Jesus Seminar’ theologian, the late Robert Funk, which I wish to echo and own (FourthR).

I like many others am encouraged by those ordinary Christians who are unwilling to continue to indulge in theological double-talk, by preferring to address the real questions that perplex all of us…

• I am embarrassed by any pronouncement that does no more than reaffirm the absolute superiority of the Christian religion over all other forms of religious expression, and even refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of other Christian churches…

• I am worried by the failure of the scholarship of other religions in an age where learned people do not counter unfounded claims to truth and domain.

• I am alarmed by those who endorse, in the name of Christianity, the misunderstanding of religious experience called fundamentalism and literalism (MFallon), which leads ultimately to intolerance, the unfettered use of legislation, and war to enforce its convictions…

And I endorse the truly energetic creative word of God, ‘dabhar’, which will not be imprisoned, will not be locked up. And maybe even allow the word ‘Almost’ to be a credible extension in the use of language to depict this dynamic relational creating event that is our human life.

Our universe (or Creation, to use the traditional) is as ongoing as we are. As vast as our experience of it.  Ursula Goodenough writes: “Emergence is inherent in everything that is alive, allowing our yearning for supernatural miracles to be subsumed by our joy in the countless miracles that surround us” (Goodenough 1998:30).

Our task, I would suggest, like my friend Rex Hunt has argued is to get out of its way enough that we might be filled with it and go about our task of healing, celebrating, and co-creating. As for the new year, we can only wish for peace:  in the world, and in our lives. See! ‘Almost’ (God) is the life-throb of all things. Amen.

Notes:
Fallon, M. 1993. Fundamentalism. A Misunderstanding of Religious Experience. Eastwood. Parish Ministry Publications.
Fox, M. 1995. Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality. New York. Harper & Row.
Goodenough, U. 1998. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York. Oxford University Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Doug Lendrum 2020 ‘Almost’, A Memoir -Otherwise Publishing