Archive for June, 2016

The Experience of Awareness

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

The Experience of Awareness

Luke 8: 26-39

Pentecost 5C 19.06.2016

 

When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus* had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. It seems that the man with the demons was not happy that Jesus might send them away. The change in his world was bound to be huge and it frightened him. A world without demons for him was a paradigm shift filled with unknown complexity. According to some scholars, if we want to consciously shift into any new paradigm there are two human capacities we need to pay particular attention to. The first is awareness. The second is our capacity to identify things. The man with demons may have been aware of the changes needed or about to eventuate but he was certainly unable to be sure of his capacity to survive the change.

In our prayer of awareness this morning I implied that awareness is in the first instance an inner spirit thing. That if we are to be aware of something it is always a new thing and it is always a journey that begins inside us. This may seem like being too self-centred or inward looking and it is but not in any selfish way but rather that it is scientifically supported and a basic requirement of being human. I think that awareness is the point where consciousness takes shape as experience, where complex biological and physical processes unfold across brain, body, and environment on which they depend. We might understand this at the conscious level as the difference between wakeful awareness and dreamless sleep. Consciousness meets the non-conscious perhaps.

I want to suggest that like the man with the demons being aware of the possibility of being without demons; being aware has always been a part of religion in that one has always set out to meet with, touch and understand the presence of a God or the divine whatever. This I suggest means that awareness, that state if you like of being aware, has always been part of religion and it is only recently with questions about the truth of things or the reality of things that we have begun to expand and integrate the disciplines of science, religion, anthropology and philosophy in our search for this truth.

It is now far too simplistic to suggest that science and religion are poles apart. In some ways they are different approaches but the two can, and will eventually be, united; and their meeting point is very likely to be human consciousness. At one level neuroscience and consciousness are already in conversation. The man was afraid of the demons leaving because of what might happen to his world and even the demons begin to speak for the man indicating just how deep this fear can be.

Our reaction is to remind ourselves that the most obvious fact of our existence is that we are conscious beings. Indeed, all we ever know are the thoughts, images, and feelings arising in our consciousness. Yet as far as Western science is concerned, there has been nothing more difficult to explain and it has been left to religion to deal with. Unfortunately Religion has not kept up with the evolution of psychology and neuroscience nor with science as a whole.

One question we are confronted with is why the complex processing of information in the brain leads to an inner personal experience? Why doesn’t it all go on in the dark, without any awareness? And why do we have any inner life at all?

This paradox – the undeniable existence of human consciousness, is set against the absence of any satisfactory scientific account for it. What this means is that there is much debate still about what consciousness is. It is also true however that we all seem to know what it is. We know that consciousness is lost when falling into a dreamless sleep (or undergoing general anesthesia), and it is what returns the next morning on waking up (or coming round). More generally, consciousness implies a continuous (but interruptible) stream of phenomenal senses or experiences – a technicolour, multimodal, fully immersive and wholly personalized movie perhaps, playing to an audience of one.

Some scientists assume that consciousness emerges in some way or other from insentient matter. But the reality is that no one really knows yet so perhaps we could consider an alternative worldview. There is a world view to be found in many spiritual traditions be they metaphysical or not. There, consciousness is held to be an essential component of the cosmos, as fundamental as space, time, and matter. Maybe that’s still a step too far for some of us but the universal idea pulls us back to saying that religiously, scientifically, philosophically we believe that awareness is one of the most fundamental aspects of our experience. We are ready and waiting to be aware. We perceive things. We don’t just live life. And then we put awareness together with living and we experience it. The fact that we are aware – that we experience – is what allows us to respond to the world. It is what allows the world to affect us. This is not new because we have always religiously thought that being aware through awe, devotion, ritual and celebration we can experience God in our lives.

It was common in the West until only a few hundred years ago to assume that only human beings were truly aware. Even what we now consider to be the most intelligent animals were assumed to be merely automated, mechanistic, instinctual beings without any real inner capacity to know or feel. At the same time there have always been those who believed that everything is aware. In the Western philosophical canon individuals like Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead are two examples of individuals who saw the universe as alive and infused throughout with intelligence and feeling. This view is apparently known as Panpsychism and it is something we now believe to be considered more seriously.

One can see behind this journey in thinking a sense of an evolutionary purpose or cause. The paradigm we have been brought up in has seen the universe as essentially inanimate empty space populated by things a few of which are alive and intelligent beings. The more intelligent person has been seen as the one with more excuse to dominate and manipulate and see as the world as resource for the use of. The new paradigm however, will recognize that the universe we live in is awake. Our awareness is an awakening to the fact that we are not an intelligent thing living in a dead universe. We are more a part of the universe and our intelligence is more an extension of the intelligence of the universe itself. We are an organ of perception of a living universe. Here we again have an allusion to religion, perception, prayer, the other is an awareness of that which is beyond us. Our faith makes us well. Our search for truth empowers our perception and our prayer changes things. “Arise your faith has made you well” “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” etc etc.

Some want to argue that the intelligence we express as human beings is not ours. Traditionally we might have said that it is the intelligence of our God that we express. Today some want to say that it is the intelligence of the universe expressing itself through us. I am not so sure about that as I need to do some more thinking about such a big narrative. I am not yet ready to give up on the objective existence of God, even if I no longer see God as the ground of being, or believe that everything is always subjective. I can and do go along with the claim that the universe is a living universe understood though our conscious awareness but I want to think about the character of this awareness. The reason I want to think about is that the awareness that emerges through something as complex as a human being has a wide range of perceptual possibility and also some extraordinary capacities and that seems to be enough for me to grapple with at present. To give away all human responsibility for intelligence and the exclusivity of awareness as a human ability is a bit much for me as of now.

In attempting to analyse the character of awareness the most obvious component is the ability to identify things. As humans we not only experience things, we identify them. We create concepts that amalgamate a set of experiences into one experience.

An example of this might be like this. Let’s play a little game. We know there is someone sitting next to us, it doesn’t matter how close or how far, just think about the person who is next to you. We see the shape of their body and we know that they are a person. We don’t see their whole body because we are looking from one side of course. We can only see part of them, but through the power of conceptualization we add all this up, fill in any gaps, and identify them as a person. In our mind’s eye they look like a person.

This suggests that our experience of any identified thing is not an experience of the thing itself. It is an amalgamation of numerous experiences that we recognize. Of course this is not a simple one way process but rather a more complex compilation and an evolutionary process. Our experience of the person next to us is a living development as are all of the conceptual things that we identify becoming real. One of the things in this process that we identify is ourselves. We can identify ourselves, in the same way that we identify the person next to us. There are a certain set of experiences that we have of ourselves that we amalgamate into our identity. In other words we need to know what others think of us to know ourselves. This identity is what we call our self, or our ego.

My claim this morning is that this journey of illumination is the journey of awareness and it is a religious journey as well as a scientific and psychological development. We know that in many mystical schools, the journey from the identity level of self, or ego, to the source of self as a universal awareness is a religious journey. Our conversion experiences, our ‘aha’, moments, bring us into contact with the source of awareness.

The man with the demons was converted by his awareness that the impossible was possible, that he could be rid of the demons, and the work he had still to do was to build a perception of how and what that journey toward wholeness would be like. His problem was that he had little experience of what was possible and thus his ability to identify a life without demons was limited. He had little upon which to base his perception and thus struggled to identify the outcome.

The man with demons also reminds us that our current way of identifying ourselves as human defines a range of perceptual possibilities. We can only be aware of so much in our current form. Our inability to deal effectively with many of the global or complex challenges we face is telling us that our current range of perceptual possibility is not vast enough. We simply do not have the imagination to envision the solutions we are looking for. This also opens up the area of public prayer and its efficacy or how a prayer for others on the other side of the world works but because there are quite a few more sermons in this I will stop here and let you ask questions, make comments or whatever…… I know all this sounds technical and complex but it isn’t actually. It is only putting words to what you already know. The difference is that I am claiming that what is scientific, psychological and biological is also religious……. Amen.

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The Power of Compassion

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

The Power of Compassion

 

Luke 7:11–17

Pentecost 3C 05.06.2016

 

If I was to say to you that “The church is dead. Long live the church!” You would think I am being a bit rash. Deep down you might have already thought that and any thinking person would but then you would begin to ask yourself whether or not you are being too harsh, That maybe just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean I am right. Maybe the church exists but I can’t see it yet. The fact is though that the church many of us grew up with is dying right before our eyes. If not dead, it barely lives. On countless street corners squats the shabby specter of these once vibrant places. Church buildings are on lockdown most of the time, haunted hulks of vaulted ceilings, empty pews, and bygone glory. Inside are dusty storage closets full of idle angel wings, boxes of unused hymnals, and once bright nurseries now draped in cobwebs. All that’s left is the ghost of Christmas’ past.

But, hang on a moment we said the church is dead and the church as we know it is dead, but what about the second part of the statement, the more intriguing part where we said “Long live the church!” This seems to suggest that there is still a case to be made that even though old ways of being church are indeed dead or dying, the spirit of the Beloved Community never dies? This is indeed a more difficult challenge. This suggests that something went wrong and that we might be a part of the problem. Long live the church suggests that maybe the church isn’t dead and that perhaps we are the ones who are dead, and the cause of death is amnesia. Perhaps we are the ones who have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong. So what does this challenge look like? We see that organized religion in the West seems to be at once both lifeless and pregnant with possibility. Maybe ours is the age of the ecclesiastical “in between”— as if one long breath of 400 years has gone out like a sigh, but the next 2000 breath has yet to be drawn. To some it feels like Good Friday, but what if it was already Advent. What if we are standing around like hesitant physicians afraid to tell the truth to a dying patient who needs to hear it. And what if the spirit remains, as stubborn as any human longing. And what if we are so hardwired to tradition that we would rather seek transcendence as a means of avoidance rather than address the reality of life. Of course we mean well. We sing our hearts out. We pray long prayers. But none of it can finally compensate for the fact that as a change agent, we have all but disappeared. Instead of leaven, we are like chameleons for Christ, absorbed into the very dominant culture we are called to critique and resist. As Robin Meyers has said; Who thinks of the church any more as a defiant community? Or faith itself as embodied resistance to the principalities and the powers? Whatever else may be said of the Jesus Movement, it was born in opposition to the status quo. Now it largely sanctifies the status quo. Its founder constituted an unacceptable risk to the Roman Empire, and that resistance seemed so counterintuitive and subversive that even his mental health was questioned. And lets be clear here I think resistance is less about complaining about the past and how we got here and more about facing up to, acknowledging that we have sanitized and watered down faith to the point where people say ‘ho-hum’.

Perhaps G. K. Chesterton was right when he said that “Christianity is not a faith that has been tried and found wanting, but a faith that has been wanted and never tried.” When it comes to analyzing the decline of organized religion in the West, there is plenty of blame to go around. Western culture is a culture of hyper-individualism and mindless performance. The spiritual life requires a moral imagination, and not relativism because that leaves very little left to imagine. Responding is all that is left to us and the “imaging” is all done for us by technology and the media. The discerning mind, the intellectual critique and the heart-felt compassion, are now blurred by apathy and neglect. The moral imagination, the most deeply human of all endeavour must work well if we are to love well. Sure, we are “connected” to our “friends” through the “social network.” Our handheld devices have bowed our heads, but not in prayer. Rather, we walk through the world in a bubble of disembodied messages from our approved list of contacts. Emoticons replace emotions; push the like button if it moves you and the new meaning of “text” has nothing to do with canon and everything to do with solitude, isolation, and the false gift of individualism, which is to take our individuality and all its differences and its richness and its morality and its imagination and bury it in an electronic pulse.

The videos of cats doing surprising and cute things rushes around the world with millions of likes pretending to celebrate our humanity and advertisements flood our hand held phones with the pornography of the market place. Buy more and live a better life, joint the consumerism bandwagon and find solace.

The sad truth is that much of the church today is a harmless non-interesting handmaiden of the corporate machine, clinging nostalgically to a gospel that is as unacceptable in practice now as it was in the beginning. We confuse performance with ministry, beliefs with faith, and charity with justice. I like Robin Meyers’ phrase where he says our demise of church is the result of the abandonment of our peculiar witness to the upside-down instructions left to us by a God-intoxicated misfit. Christians can survive almost anything, save the loss of distinctiveness.

We can make our share of mistakes, but we cannot be a mistake. The very definition of what it means to be a Christian must be salvaged now, taken back, by force if necessary, from those who domesticated a way of life and turned it into a quarreling quagmire of noisy “believers.”

I suggested on Trinity Sunday that we needed to stop fiddling around with the meaning of the Trinity, because the present-day Rome is burning. The experience of relationship was being destroyed. The empire of traditional orthodox Christianity is being consumed in our comfort making and we are being made bereft of our imagination. While we mumble our prayers for the poor, their poverty and pain increase by the hour, hidden by our social networking. While we huddle together in apathy lamenting the number of industries that ravage the earth for energy and then market death to us disguised as comfort, the very conscience of the faithful is euthanized by public relations campaigns that make us swoon with gratitude for the humanitarian altruism of the few wealthy. The question we face is where are the holy fools for God today?

Our text for today is about the widow of Nain and here we see the counter-cultural nature of Christian ministry. It screams that there is nothing remotely ordinary about Jesus. He’s the charismatic fool from Galilee who transforms lives. He associates with the outcast and changes their lives. He is the one the widow of Nain puts her faith in.

Luke talks about the “large crowd” that accompanied Jesus and his disciples. He uses the same Greek word to describe how when they entered the town gate, they met another “large crowd” that was leaving the village. It was a funeral procession. They were leaving Nain because ritual purity prohibited burials inside the city walls. And so the two “large crowds” met at the town gate — the followers of Jesus and the mourners of Nain. The corpse was “the only son of his mother,” which meant that this woman faced double jeopardy. She had been a widow, and now she was childless. As if her fragile life wasn’t hard enough, she fell further down the economic scale of protection and provision. All she had to live for and to live by was gone. Perhaps the “large crowd” that accompanied her was indicative of the depth of her tragedy.

When the two crowds met and Jesus encountered the widow, “his heart went out to her” in a spontaneous act of compassion. No one had asked him to do anything. No one had recognized him. But the sights and sounds were too much for Jesus. Moved to compassion, he told her, “Don’t cry.” He then touched the coffin, raised the man to life, and “gave him back to his mother.” Here at once we have a picture of what compassion looks like. It is foolishness in that it has no reward, no ego serving result. It is counter-cultural in that it goes against the accepted norms of society. It is economical subversive-ness in that it re-instates the widow to a place of worth and value in society. It is dangerous to the orthodoxy and how does it do this? It does it through the unexpected, the ridiculous idea of compassion, of giving without expectation, of spending without return, of giving and giving and giving again.

This is dangerous stuff because resisting orthodoxy, will set off the ancient alarms of heresy. The truth is that the first followers of Jesus were resisting not just oppressive hierarchies and purity codes of their religion and their society, but the very definition of religion itself. The “principalities and the powers” were not limited to the Roman Empire. They included the religious establishment itself, whose legalistic maze brokered access to God and “devoured widow’s houses.” Just as the church does today by its very existence. To be a disciple of the resister from Nazareth is to challenge more than individual sin. It is to resist theological perversions as well. In our scene this is to honour the mind, live the questions and explore the adventure of humanity. Encourage the imagination as a gift of mindfulness, ask the hard questions regardless of their effect or perceived effect, and participate with integrity the complexity and the promise that being human offers. This can sound seductively exciting, of course, without sounding appropriately dangerous. What can happen is that when a phrase like “resisting the principalities and the powers” rolls off the tongue it can make someone believe that all we need to do is hit the streets, or storm the barricades, or maybe lie down in front of a tank. What I think we might think about here is that the need for resistance is perhaps better explained as the need for resurrection and by that I mean more than civil disobedience or political rebellion. They are of course required as counter-cultural activities in some cases, but what is required is   being subversive for the cause of love and this requires a new life, a new paradigm a new birth. It requires resurrection and that is not about an individual rebirth, it is the coming alive of all the faithful. Let’s be clear about the nature of this resistance. It is always personal, a rebirthing of the ego. It is always theological, as it is always spiritual and it is always cultural in that it has to take note of the dynamics of contextual change. In simple terms resurrection, and resistance are about pushing back against the idea that Christianity is an orthodox belief system with the view that being Christian is about being unorthodox.

I like the challenge Robin Meyers gives us when he reminds us that resistance against orthodoxy is not just about signing on to do battle with some perceived enemy, because sadly the ethos of the warrior and the righteous battle dominates Western culture. Anne Lamott reminds us that “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Sadly the orthodoxy of today’s church is saturated with the language of righteous warfare, calling Christians to “put on the whole armour of God” and circle the wagons against a culture that we are told wishes to destroy Christianity by persecuting and marginalizing its true practitioners. When in fact the issues we face are far more dangerous than that.

The issues we face with the demise of the church are more dangerous than right or wrong doctrine, more dangerous than any fears about Gay marriage and abortion, because this resurrection promise is like the widow’s in our text. It is wholly life transformative, it is radical theology that challenges all our assumptions. It requires us to sweep aside that which we cannot yet see, to turn the other cheek in the face of a slap, to go the extra mile when there is nothing but muddy path ahead. It is a willingness to embrace a faith born of wonder, or “radical amazement.” It is a faith that welcomes doubt because that welcomes human reasoning and challenges that which has been divinely revealed. It is not arrogant to believe that human reasoning can be brought to bear on that which is immutable, and thus trans-rational, because doubt cannot disassemble anything that human reason has not previously assembled, so it is healthy, and in fact imperative to doubt orthodoxy in fact it is dangerous not to. Amen.

Meyers, Robin. Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance Yale University Press.

Faith Born Out Of Weakness!

Posted: June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 2C 2016

Luke 7: 1-10

 

Faith Born Out Of Weakness!

The stories tell us that Jesus developed a challenging reputation. From being a charismatic Galilean, in other words a person of little significance in the scheme of things to the guy who spends most of his time with the wrong kind of people. He eats with the grungy and despised of the world. He associates with the worst among us. He reaches out to the poor, the broken, and the marginalized. This doesn’t mean he didn’t rub shoulders with people of means and influence and it is most likely that he found himself among the purported enemies of Israel and it is very likely in fact almost certain that he dared to praise them when he had the opportunity. What we have in the stories is an expansive vision of hope that is always political, always challenging the status quo and it is with this expanded counter-cultural vision that the gospel reaches its full potential.

What this means is that, following the Jesus Way shows up in unexpected ways. It is always contextual and always counter-cultural. In Luke 7, Jesus is approached by a centurion seeking his help. The centurion had a deeply cherished slave who was ravaged by illness. The centurion sees something in Jesus. He believes that somehow, someway, this Galilean subject of Rome, this mere peasant, might be able to do the impossible: that Jesus might be able to heal the sick and stave off the forces of death.

Oddly, the centurion and Jesus never meet face-to-face. All their interactions occur through the means of intermediaries. First, it is the local Jewish leaders who ask for Jesus’ help. The centurion, they say, “is worthy of having you do this for him” (7:4). Hearing this, Jesus sets out apparently without much hesitation. Now, no one would have blamed him for having some suspicions. After all, entering the house of a Gentile could potentially make Jesus unclean. Here in the lack of first hand contact we have a suggestion that this Jesus Way of doing things included others he may not have first-hand influence with and knowledge of.

Even more, a centurion is not your typically friendly neighbour. Centurions are the sharp edge of Rome’s power, a cruel force that has dominated the people of Israel. Later, this very same empire will order the execution of Jesus. Jesus then, has a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion even when he is commended by the local leaders. From the perspective of many of Jesus’ neighbours, this centurion represents everything that is wrong about the world. And yet, Jesus accompanies them. He is willing to see this centurion. We don’t learn why Jesus is so eager to help this Roman soldier; we only learn that Jesus does not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. But, on his way, another set of intermediaries enters the scene.

The centurion has sent friends to stop Jesus from coming into his house. Here we have the suggestion that the centurion is recognizing that he is perhaps unworthy to host this Jesus. This again is a rather extraordinary display of humility and submission for a Roman military soldier who is used to having his orders followed and not questioned. Again it is a counter-cultural situation.

The further challenge here is that we know humility and power over, usually don’t mix well. Just a quick glance at some current political leaders in our world is proof positive of this. Power over is an insidious character-altering force. Our experience is that many people endowed with power over others are not used to taking on postures of humility, especially if that power has been theirs to exercise for too long.

The significance of this is further supported when Jesus is dazzled by this centurion’s faith, marveling that such faith is not even found among God’s chosen people. This response by Jesus is in itself a challenge to us. Why would Jesus praise a foreigner, a Gentile, a centurion and do it so highly?

Imagine for a moment if Jesus were to walk into this gathering and declare our enemies more faithful than we are. Remember, enemies are those that we despise, we are afraid of, and who make our lives a horrific experience. And here they are more faithful than we are.

Imagine for a moment if Jesus were to declare our oppressors more faithful than us. Again, our oppressors are those who limit our lives, who take away our rights and privileges, those who keep us imprisoned in some way. And here they are more faithful than we are.

Imagine for a moment if Jesus declared an ISIS terrorist more faithful than us, or a child murderer more faithful than us. This is an example of how shocking Jesus’ declaration would have been. But then, if we’ve been paying attention to the Gospel of Luke, we shouldn’t be so surprised. The foreigner and the stranger and our worst enemy are as welcome at God’s table as anyone else. In fact there is a challenge to see them as an opportunity for inclusion at the very core of our living. They are more than welcome they are imperative to our lives. When corrupt tax collectors ask what they should do, how they should repent, they are not told to stop being tax collectors. They are told to stop taking advantage of their neighbours. It is not the fact that they are tax collectors that is the issue, it is what they do with the power and influence they have as tax collectors that is the concern. A good person will be known not by their title but by what they do.

What then was the content of the centurion’s faith? What was it about the centurion’s actions that was the challenge? What was this faith that Jesus saw in him? The centurion recognized that Jesus was onto something. Something in the way Jesus went about his life showed the centurion another way of looking at the political, economic and social structures and he saw that structure, and cultures driven by domination, might, and elitism were not the only way things could be done. The centurion saw that the healing ability of this Jesus Way of living could save lives. He may not have thought about it in those terms but that is what he saw.

As a military officer, he likely understood well how powerful raw force could be. He knows how swords and masses of trained men can create massive destruction in their wake. He recognizes that Jesus understands this power too and he sees that this is because he offers something completely the opposite as a far greater power. There is a difference in this Jesus power, a difference the centurion believes can make all the difference in the world. He knows from experience that military might cannot heal the sick or raise the dead. That an army can’t heal his faithful servant. He knows that imperial power cannot gain the affections of a people, because it is grounded in the creation of fear and domination. Jesus’ power is unlike that wielded by Rome or any other empire. Jesus’ power heals peoples and communities; it brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.

Here we have it. This Jesus power turns the world upside down and inside out. This is what makes the story remarkable. Here we have a centurion recognizing an alternative form of power and a power that is the very essence of faith. Faith in this instance is seeing the world differently, a faith not bound by the inevitable inequity between people, or a peace based on the absence of violence between nations, but rather a faith or more correctly, a trust birthed in possibility, in what might be, a peace that is lasting, a peace beyond the absence of violence. The possibility of a world renewed by love and grace filled living. And in the Roman Empire worldview the possibility of a peace dependent upon justice rather than victory.

But that isn’t the end of the story. This story isn’t just about a centurion and his slave. Luke seems to understand this alternative sort of power that the story invites the reader to consider and he gives us a hint with the second story that comes right after the centurion story. In this second story, Jesus sees a widow accompanying her son’s body to the grave. In her life, her son’s death is her death. In an economic system where men generally carried all financial power her son’s death has disastrous consequences. Jesus sees her from a distance and has compassion for her. Like the centurion she never speaks to Jesus. She never asks for his help. She doesn’t confess like the centurion any great belief in the power Jesus wields. Instead, Luke notes that Jesus had compassion on her and gives her son back to her. And that’s it.

At first glance, there’s not much there, but if we look more carefully and read these two stories together, something marvelous becomes clear. The anatomy of this alternative Jesus power becomes clearer. What binds these two stories together is the nature of this alternative view of power. What begins to emerge is a power born out of and grounded within what we might call weakness. The Sermon on the Mount becomes clearer and the phrases like; turn the other cheek, and if you lose your shirt give them your coat become more possible as game changers when we see and begin to understand the Jesus power as the power of weakness. The approach becomes one of clear alternatives and they do this because they reveal a power far greater than dominance and power over, and the might of the sword become impotent, wasteful and wrong. Just like the lamb and the lion at rest together perhaps.

What binds these two stories together is that God’s promise of life is fulfilled in surprising ways, and salvation arrives in unexpected and unwarranted ways. Simply said, we can’t understand the centurion view if we don’t have in mind a weeping widow. On one side, we have a powerful centurion, even one who has support from the local Jewish community, yet still a symbol of the invading Roman force. In his story we hear of a faith that through humility, great risk, and in countercultural style exhibits an alternative anatomy of power. Power through weakness. Then, we learn of a grieving widow. Nowhere is her faith highlighted by Luke or by Jesus, only her grief. But here again in this picture of weakness, of no justification or action there is as much faith as the centurion had. In both cases, Jesus restores life where death and illness prevail. In both cases, unexpected individuals receive these free gifts by exhibiting their weakness. Here is at last the core of my message this morning. Essentially it is that it is that the power of God is a weak power and it is through weakness that cultures are encountered and changed. Another way of saying this is to say that the very power of God itself is counter-cultural. To understand God as a weak power is to abandon the almighty-ness, the sovereignty and the interventionist God.

John Caputo in his book ‘The Weakness of God: reminds us that the move towards a post biblical metaphysical theology we have to abandon the theology that has undergirded what we call Christianity for a few hundred years now, the theology that has become a problem for us, in that it contributed to a highly hierarchical power story that confuses us. How can an almighty, interventionist God who is Love allow bad things to happen? Caputo suggests that this interventionist view belittles the dust of the earth, it rides on the back of fear and the mainstream orthodox tradition has distorted our discussion about everything in order to make way for a story of creation from nothing. What this theology does give us however is a cleaner cutoff, it gives us everything as black and white, and the story provides us with a concretized foundation. The theological tradition we have thinks that God comes out ahead this way, that God is even greater and mightier, and that God is a greater giver of gifts as if God’s gift-giving were complete. The problem with this view is that there is no room for human influenced climate change, no room even for the evolution of the cosmos and it makes form and matter into dead absolutes. Nothing can change without God so why do we bother? And while we can agree this tradition increases the power component in God’s rule, we are left the fact that there is always a loss that outweighs the gain. Why is it that good people die? Why do infants die? And so on. In this tradition God cannot give a true gift because God cannot give up or give over completely and expose Godself to risk, or make Godself vulnerable.

The church bin NZ is declining, people are not going to church in the same numbers as before. So why has this omnipotent, all powerful all-knowing God not sorted this out? Well! As Jurgen Moltmann says, God cannot love if God cannot make Godself vulnerable. Without the desert and the deep, God remains in such total absolute control of what God makes, and God has to retain so much possession of what God gives. The challenge here is to see that for God to let the world be the world God has to let the world go. It is also a challenge to see that when we idealize God into an ideal observer who knows and sees everything past, present, and coming, we leave behind the biblical narrative in which Yahweh lets himself in for a future that he had not planned on and in which he comes to regret his decision.

And why is this counter-cultural? Because with a metaphysical God constantly in the battle with a reason centric view the horizon of the narratives is dramatically and disproportionately shifted away from that of beauty, goodness, and life and given over to the mightiness of power and to the power of being. They are turned into explanations of why the world is there, instead of proclamations that what is there is beautiful and good. In the metaphysical domain the stories are captured by the priori of ‘being’ whereas they are not about being at all — being is already there, a given, mute, and barren— whereas the stories are about bringing being to life. The centurion’s faith is less about being a better centurion and more about living a compassionate Way. The widow’s faith is less about believing well and more about living a life of trust.

My hope is that we might be brave enough to go deep into why we think the way we do when we are trying to get a handle on the power of a weak God. And to see that this weak God is ever more powerful than an almighty one. I with John Caputo want to suggest that an absolute omnipotence is a religious and metaphysical fantasy that contains and displaces a powerful core truth, which is that by “God” we mean the possibility of the impossible. We are talking about the power of God and I am suggesting that it is a weak power as against an almighty power.

What, is true I think is that the name of God is powerful not because God has it all sorted but rather because it is the name of our hope in what will be, what is possible. In the Bible’s first creation story, all things that are made are good. When Elohim calls them “good,” they are already there. When Elohim breathes the life of the good over them they are already there. Goodness does not come from nothing, nor does its naming which is its birthing.

When we talk about God we are naming an event, not the event of our unswerving belief but rather the event of our trusting in the transformability of things, change can happen in the most improbable and impossible things, so that life is never closed in, the future is never closed off, the horizon is never finite and confining. The name of God opens what is closed, breathes life where there is desolation, and gives hope where everything is hopeless. The power of a foolish and weak event. The event of Humility, compassion, love and acceptance of the stranger, and the outcast is the opening of this weakness of God.

And let’s be clear. This is a huge and wonderful image of God and we need to be careful not to lose God into the fantastic sense, as if God were a super-hero who arrives in the nick of time to save us from the brink of danger or a mighty power that turns back the advancing army of our enemy, nor by resuscitating those who are dead.

The truth is that if the power of God were a strong force, it would possess worldly sovereignty, and whenever injustice reared its head in the world God would send in the army. But if the name of God is the name of a promise, something that is yet to be then God is the name of a weak force, and not a worldly power. The word of God does not have an army to keep the peace because as we know that approach almost always makes things much worse. It is an outright blasphemy to say that God has some mysterious divine purpose when an innocent child is abducted, raped, and murdered. That is not a mystery but rather a misconception about God and about the power of God. God’s power is without a doubt, invocative, provocative, and evocative, seductive and educative, luring and alluring, because it is the power of a call, the power of a word. A word, of an affirmation or promise and not a word of mighty power. If religion indulges itself in the fantasy of omnipotent power, then we are always unable to call the world “good,” because bad things happen.

The centurion asks not from a place of military power but rather from a place of extreme hopelessness despite the cultural, economic, social and spiritual chasm that exists and he does it with humility, at great risk. He does it as a weak act.

The widow’s faith is rocked by grief and sorrow. She is at the deepest point of despair, her whole world, socially, economically and culturally is at risk. Her hope is muted, dampened by the loss of both husband and son. Her weakness unleashes an unconditional compassion. Her faith which is born out of weakness transforms her life. Amen.

 

Genesis 11: 1-9       John 14: 8-17

Pentecost 1 15.5.2016

 

The Beautiful Risk of Creation:

 

Twenty-six attempts preceded the present genesis,

all of which were destined to fail.

The world of man has arisen out of the chaotic heart of the preceding debris;

he too is exposed to the risk of failure, and the return to nothing.

 

‘Let us hope it works’ exclaimed God as he created the world,

and this hope,

which has accompanied the subsequent history of the world and mankind,

has emphasized right from the outset that this history

is branded with the mark of radical uncertainty. (Talmud)

 

That introduction is the compilation of a couple of quotes from Jewish thinkers and the Talmud and I want to explore them a bit today. In doing so I am taking on a huge subject and foolishly trying to make a single sermon of it. To do this I want to just throw up some huge topics as background in the hope that you will be able to link what I say back to these topics without a lot of detail. Of course I am happy to try to answer any questions along the way should you want to interrupt.

The first assumption is that there are two ways of talking about the power of God. One being the almighty power of God, the interventionist absolute God and two, the weak force of God, the God who is not ‘being’ but rather that which is to be, the God who is not in charge but rather the God ‘within’ who shares all the struggles, risks and joys that we do. This is not a new argument but in this instance is centred on the issue of power.

This also is a huge ask because you and I live within the world of a God that is intrinsically linked to powerful images. One of the most powerful images in Western literature, and one of the most memorable verses in world literature for anyone who can read, is surely the majestic opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Out of nothing, simple as that. Where there was nothing, now there is something or rather everything in an instant. Here we have sheer, clean, lean, perfect, stunning, uninhibited power. We have absolute archical omni-power, perfect sovereign power, pure and simple. Fiat!

The task for this sermon is to come up against this huge claim and to say that there such a thing as “sacred anarchy” and it suggests that the force of God is a “weak force”

The challenge is to explore a theology that goes against the mighty display of cosmic power on the part of the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth? That is the biblical music this sermon faces, so it is with a degree of fear and trembling, that I ask the questions. I do not claim to know the truth but I will try to ask the question that a number of you have asked me before. Is it possible to create something out of nothing or should there be something before that? I will try to follow John Caputo’s deconstructive process through our reading from Genesis and grapple with his take on Derrida’s analysis that says that “before the ‘world,’ before creation, before the gift and before being, there is a perhaps.

The first thing to say is that we must read the text literally without falling into the trap that many evangelicals and fundamentalists do. Such a reading should only give access to the site of the events harboured by the words.

In the beginning, things had already begun. That is easily forgotten in all the use this text has gotten over the centuries. In the beginning, something was always already there, before the beginning began. As translations of these texts the NRSV proposes In the beginning, when God created, when God began to create as two alternatives. These alternatives, which ultimately go back to the Middle Ages, especially to the suggestion of Rabbi Rashi, a medieval rabbinic commentator, have gained the ascendancy in the literature. Caputo offers a translation by Catherine Keller in her book ‘Face of The Deep’ where she reads it as “When God began to create”: in medias res, in the midst, not of “things,” exactly, for that is what God was beginning to create. at that time. She continues suggesting that it is best understood that the earth was something desolate, like a desert, something arid, barren, uninhabited, and more abstractly as an emptiness. Here we have the suggestion that it actually “has nothing to do with ‘chaos’ and simply means ‘emptiness’ and refers to the earth which is an empty place.” Caputo goes on to suggest that this sounds a bit like the “wild” in English, but a barren wild, not wildlife. It is not the opposite of creation but the not-yet inhabited earth, and it is not quite a desert either because it seems to be covered by the waters of the deep. ‘And darkness covered the tehom, the deep, the ocean, the face of the churning salty waters, over which a wind (ruach) swept, and then God said, “Let there be light.” Thus, in the beginning, things had already begun. As the rabbis like to point out, the Tanach does not open with the first letter “A” (aleph, alpha) but with the second letter “B” (bet, beta), bereshit, “in the beginning,” something was already there. Even in English, “beginning” begins with a “b” not an “a.” Something has already eluded the “bereshit,” got there before it. As André Neher writes, history is open not only on this end, as we head into the future, but on the other end as well, in the beginning, stretching back to time immemorial. So if this is correct, Genesis does not begin at an absolute beginning.

Elohim begins. Elohim the Priestly author’s God’, begins where he finds himself, with co-everlasting but mute companions: a barren earth, lifeless waters, and a sweeping wind. Elohim has to play the cards he is given, to work with the materials at hand, after which it will turn out he will even need a rest. He must work with these elements, with wind and water and wilderness, first to differentiate and then to populate them. So first he separates off the empty expanse of earth and sky and water, and then he fills them up with living things. And Caputo makes the claim that time was also already there— not the time of day and night, of course, but the primeval time of the immemorial ticktock when God presided over the elements, when he began to create, according to this grammar of creation. The beginning had always already begun, before the first verse of Genesis began. One begins where one is, in the middle of a context, and there is no outside-the-context, even for the Creator God of Genesis. The pure beginning, an absolute “origin,” is an ever-receding horizon;

Caputo then offers us a mythopoetic scene to consider. In the beginning, ‘they’ are there, wind and waters and land, barren and lifeless, the wind sweeping over the deep, everywhere darkness, like the dark side of some distant desolate planet. There they are, just there, without a word, the only noise being the heaving of the seas, the blowing of the wind. It is almost as if they are sleeping, as if they are laid out like some great giant, some massive body whose only sounds and movements are the heaving and sighing of a sleeper, and Elohim seems to be just watching them sleep. Then Elohim was moved to speak to them, and by addressing them to bring them to life, to awaken life in them, to make life stir through their massive limbs the way one calls a sleeper to awake. He calls them into life; he does not bring them into being, because the whole point is that they were there all along, from time out of mind, in a drowsy state deeper and more dreamless than any sleep we can imagine.

Genesis is not about being, but about life. Bare barren being is there, it was what was already there. The astonishing thing is that God brings being to life. That is the wonder, and that life that God breathes in them is what God calls “good,” which goes a step beyond being.

In the sharpest contrast to what a later metaphysical theology would say, the primeval elements have been there from the beginning, from time immemorial, from time out of mind. “Anonymously,” by which is meant that they do not speak, that while the deep has a face, it is only a surface (face), not a countenance (visage). Hence, while there is a kind of rumble or roar of the wind, or the chopping of the sea, there is no language there. In these narratives, the elemental stuff of the world is there, like it or not. “There is.” It always was. No one disputes that, certainly not Elohim. The elements are his everlasting, aboriginal companions, silent partners, wordlessly pre-given, presupposed, from time out of mind. God is not responsible for the fact that the elements are there, but for making them stir, making them live, by staking out great expanses that God fills up with living things.

This, suggests Caputo, that Creation is not a movement from non-being to being —but from being to beyond being, from a mute expanse of being to the bustle of living things, from barrenness to the bloom of life, from silence to the word that makes the empty full and the barren buzz with life. Where there was once a dumb factuality, now there is meaning, signification, interpretation, valuation, differentiation, and above all— life. Where there were facts, now there is an articulation and an interpretation.

What is significant here is that this is a reclaiming of the literal approach to the text but one without the metaphysical overlay. It is a huge challenge in that the official story the so-called theological orthodoxy that Catherine Keller calls the “power discourse of creation from nothingness,” which has, alas, taken these narratives and turned them into a tale told by a metaphysician. Metaphysical theology has turned this Hebrew narrative into the tale of a pure, simple, clean act of power carried out on high by a timeless and super-sensible being. She suggests this is a very Hellenic story that also goes along with a top-down social structure of imperial power flowing down from on high. There is order and majesty here no doubt, but the story is, upon closer reading, “much messier,” as Keller says, more complicated — not creation as a single clean powerful act, but a concert of forces, one active and formative and the other more open-ended, free-floating, fluid and unformed. A poetics of creation from primal, untamed, unwieldy, watery elements, as wily as the wind and as slippery as water, elements that tend to resist fixed order. In all, a tricky business. It took twenty-six tries to make it stick, the Talmudic author quips, and even then, all God could do was hope for the best.

And Caputo reminds us that with the classical account of strong theology, Jesus was just holding back his divine power in order to let his human nature suffer. He freely chose to check his power because the Father had a plan to redeem the world with his blood. But if his Father had changed his mind, those Roman soldiers would rue the day they were born, as they will certainly rue it in eternity.

This seems to confirm for me at least, the idea of God as a weak force, vulnerable and intimately present. It also seems to confirm that Jesus was being actually crucified, not holding back anything; he was nailed there and being executed very much against his will and the will of God. And let’s remember that he had never heard of Christianity’s novel idea that he was redeeming the world with his blood. His approach to evil was forgiveness, not paying off a debt due the Father, or the devil, with suffering or with anything else. His suffering was not a coin of the realm in the economy of the kingdom. Further still, the kingdom is not an economy, and God is not in attendance at this scene as an accountant of divine debts or as a higher power watching the whole thing from up there and freely holding in check his infinite power to intervene.

This also claims that the need for an interventionist God is fantasizing about an orgasm of power— if not power now, then power later, when we can really get even with those hateful Romans. Let’s be careful here also. The weakness of God is not a deferred power that will be visited upon one’s enemies at a later time. God is in attendance as the weak force of the call that cries out from Calvary and cries out from every corpse created by every cruel and unjust power. The logos of the cross is a call to renounce violence, not to conceal and defer it.

The effect of situating God on the side of vulnerability and unjust suffering is not, of course, to glorify suffering and misery, but to prophetically protest it, to give divine depth and meaning to resistance to unjust suffering, to attach the coefficient of divine resistance to unjust suffering, which is why suffering is the stuff of dangerous memories. The call, the cry, the plaint that rises up from the cross is a great divine “no” to injustice, an infinite lamentation over unjust suffering and innocent victims. God is with Jesus on the cross, not as a gesture of sympathy or some sort of friendly committment, and God is standing with Jesus rather than with the imperial power of Rome, God stands with an innocent persecuted for calling the powers that be to task. The name of God is the name of a divine “no” to persecution, violence, and victimization. Accordingly, as we have just argued, God’s traditional top-down “transcendence” must be reconceived in such a way that all of its resources are deployed on behalf of lowliness and the despised. The effect of speaking of God’s transcendence is not to support and top off presence with a hyper-presence, but to disturb presence with difference and to allow the lowliest to rise in divine splendour. Amen.

 

Caputo, John D The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) Indiana University Press.