Archive for July, 2016

A Matter of Justice

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 9C 17.07.2016

Luke 10: 25-37

A Matter of Justice


The churches discussions around the place of women in society, the place of women in the church and the obvious need for equality and justice have led to this story being a crucial one in the life of the church and I want to revisit it again today both as a matter of justice and an example of justice. The context of this passage in Luke is that it follows the Good Samaritan and precedes the Lord’s Prayer, it is in the presence of the disciples, not necessarily the 12 as it may include the 72. I want to ask that you hang on to that context right through the story because I want to suggest that underlying the story is a message about justice. The story has two major players, Martha and Mary but the audience is the disciples.

In the traditional presentation of the story, Mary seems to be the ideal disciple because she spends her time in devotion instead of activity; Martha seems to be the more emotional even hysterical woman who has lost perspective; and Jesus seems to be someone who takes all of his provisions for granted. It’s a bit like the preacher who goes on and on about not working too hard in order to take time to listen to Jesus, only to go home and sit at the dinner table without any thought as to how much work went into preparing the dinner which is on the table.

Because hospitality is an important virtue in Middle East culture we need to approach this text with a little more sympathy for Martha and what she is experiencing. In the end, the story makes it clear that it is Mary whom has chosen the good and necessary part. But, does that mean that sitting is better than serving? Is the issue of this passage the question about the value of the contemplative listener or the dutiful activist or is there something else at play here? I want to suggest there might be. I wonder if it is about doing what is needed in the moment. Having just argued for the radical response of a ‘Good Samaritan’ an upside down response to culture, in fact an advocating of a religiously dangerous response, we need to ask; is the writer now removing the abstract nature of the story and bringing the reader down to the everyday and interpreting a further development of the justice issues surrounding equity of status. Putting them into the context of the hospitality mode or situational justice sometimes we need to listen, to be Mary and sometimes we need to act, the Good Samaritan, and Martha?

The story here pits women against each other as if there is a choice to be made, but is there? If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever.  This suggests there is a time to go and do, and there is a time to listen and reflect.  Knowing which and when is a matter of discernment. Here we have the nature of Justice unfolding as a living everyday matter. Being in the moment is about looking beyond the presenting, looking beyond the issues of duty and routine for a way of being just, looking beyond the presenting need for closure based on retribution and seeking justice. Seeing revenge for what it is, just another round in the right verses wrong cycle, rather than reaching a point of justice. Justice in its seeing beyond, uncovers the injustice, holds it up to scrutiny within its context and provides a way through. In so doing it breaks down social, religious, economic and political issues to do what is needed.

Another way of putting this is to say that the message the disciples are hearing in this story is that breaking down social barriers is required to do what is needed.  In that culture women were not allowed to sit at the feet of teachers, but in the story Martha does, because that is what was needed at that moment. Faith is not about being the perfect host- which Martha is – it is about being open to relationship. Hospitality is more than invitation into the house- it is invitation into the soul. Hospitality is about a willingness to listen and be changed by that relationship.

The other point to consider here is that Justice is not sitting out there waiting to be found. Just as revenge struggles to provide closure as opposed to a continuation of the pain so Justice is like the words “God” or “love,” the term “justice” does not explain, but must be explained. All three words, in fact, share something of the same fate, insofar as each is taken as foundational to human social life and language even though there is little consensus of what any the terms mean. Each describes something universally familiar, yet fundamentally inexplicable. D J Hall in his book ‘Feasting On The Word” says something about this need for situational focus. He might say, of Mary that, ‘Activism without contemplation ends in aimless “doing” and that that doing usually aggravates existing difficulties…On the other hand, of Mary, “only the unthinking could fail to recognize the myriad ways in which thought—including very serious biblical, theological, and other scholarship—regularly serves the duplicitous purposes of those who, their rhetoric notwithstanding, simply do not wish to ‘get involved.’” Neither response is complete in itself, both responses need a purpose beyond themselves. Alternatively we can see that a triangulation is going on as Martha is not focused on being hospitable or serving, she is rather focused on what her sister is not doing and Martha does not address the issue directly to Mary, but instead triangulates with Jesus who refuses to participate.

Justice seems to be a desirable state as well as the enactment of ideals. But let’s return to the suggestion that the issue of our story is less about the different response of the two women and more about the balance or the outcome of the story a sense of justice perhaps? Let’s also remember that in spite of the ambiguities justice is a commonly used word with lots of meanings. We hear of bringing people to justice as if it is a place, Justice Kennedy as if it is a person, senior justice writer as if it is a condition and tipping the scales of justice as if it is a balancing act. We also hear of rallies for justice as if it is a deficiency that needs rectification, we hear of people anticipating justice as if it is some sort of retribution.

In short justice is a concept upon which many things exist. It is invoked by politicians and people. It is utilized by religious adherents and secular atheists. It is spoken by victims, perpetrators, and legal representatives. It takes place within families and in prisons. It restores and it punishes. It is demanded by people at the margins and it is touted by those in the center of power. The question is how can such a word be utilized meaningfully in all of these contexts?

One approach is to see our passage as tipping the scales towards some expressions rather than others. In this case Mary’s approach is preferred. If there is such a thing as divine justice then there can be a differing approach to notions of retributive and distributive justice, normative ethics, social contract theory, social justice, among others. I think our text rather than seeking a uniform definition, has the aim of developing a functional approach based on the need to ask questions that discern just what someone might intend (and not intend) in a particular use of the word “justice.” This is the only way perhaps to value the scales which allow for a weighted-ness to lower or raise the outcome, the outcome being a just response.

When talking about the scales of justice, like the story of the two women and their different yet valid approaches to hospitality the scales have a deeper place in our thinking. Lady Justice is the only cardinal virtue to be memorialized in stone and paint. While her cousins Temperance, Prudence, and Fortitude primarily inhabit the pages of myth, Lady Justice adorns classroom walls, lurks on album covers, and oversees courtrooms. In ancient Egypt, Lady Justice was known as Maat, a philosophical hieroglyph meaning levelness or evenness that evolved to a personification of the “interrelated order of rightness” (Karenga 2004, 7). The Egyptian Book of the Dead presents Maat as the “goddess of unalterable laws” depicted in female form with her signature feather (Budge [1960] 1990, 185). Egyptian funerary art depicts the heart of an individual being weighed against the feather of maat—a role later delegated to Isis—as the measure of one’s participation in a harmonious order, determining if one passes to the world beyond.

In Greece she became the goddess Themis, consort and counselor to Zeus, and the original oracle at Delphi, commanding social assembly, inner balance, and ecological order. “Her very name means an ancient, divine law, a right order established by nature itself for the living together of gods and humans (Donleavy and Shearer 2008, 1). The Romans combined the story of Themis with her daughter Dike together to form Justitia, or righteousness, immortalized today often with blindfold, sword, and scales. Sometimes she is accompanied “by a dog (for fidelity), a snake (for hatred) . . . [and] an ostrich, whose supposed ability to digest anything was seen by the ancients as a useful attribute for the machinery of justice” (Kennedy, online).

Among these images of dogs, swords, and feathers, is the question just what precisely do the scales balance for us now? Maat and Themis weighed the individual heart and mind against the interrelated and “eternally consistent” harmony of nature (Hall [1928] 2003, 130). Popular contemporary definitions place truth in one side and fairness in the other. In today’s judicial system a blindfolded Lady Justice promises impartial decision, free of whims and prejudice, weighing evidence of support or opposition in a given case. But that is merely one form of institutional justice. The scales invite other comparisons between punishment and mercy, between what one offers the world and what is received, and between inherent value and distributed goods. When we call for justice in the streets or in our communities, what exactly are we seeking to balance?

Most contemporary explanations suggest that the truths of society rest in one scale and fairness—or the attempts to fairly enact those truths—rests in the other. But what is the content of and source for these foundational truths?

Majid Khadduri suggests in The Islamic Conception of Justice that the scales and contents of justice are relative based on values of a given society. For example, the Prophet Muhammad sought to reform specific tribal norms by improving the status of women, the treatment of slaves, and prohibiting infanticide (Khadduri 8-9). The New Testament challenges a different set of norms that marginalized women, foreigners, and the sick; Jesus also critiques the rich, imagines uplift of the poor, and seeks to extend merciful care to those in need (Foster, n. p.).

Whatever the relative values, Khadduri invites us to consider two important categories for these sources of justice: one human, and one transcendent. The first “assumes that men [sic] are capable of determining their individual or collective interests” and thus able to “establish a public order under which . . . scales of justice are likely to evolve by tacit agreement or by formal action” (Khadduri 1). The second “presupposes that man [sic] is essentially weak and therefore incapable of rising above personal failings,” thus “a superhuman or divine authority is invoked to provide either the sources or the basic principles of the public order under which a certain standard of justice is established” (Khadduri 2).

In his analysis of justice in Jewish tradition, Haim Shapira suggests that the Torah and Talmud put hybridize (275) Divine justice and human judgment. Here, certain human judgments represent divine decision such as casting lots or trials by ordeal to determine guilt without human intervention (277-284). If you were thrown into a river, for instance, and survived, you proved your innocence according to the judgment of God (283). In human judgment, courts and judges (not prophets and priests) heard cases according to laws and evidence. God was implicit, rather than explicit, in this legal system; God did not decide guilt or innocence, yet a judge must be fair as a delegate of the Divine, and a judge might consult God for help with a decision (287-289).

Still another example of transcendent justice is that of karma or a natural law of cause of effect “governing physical laws such as gravity, but also as a moral law governing action” held in various forms by many Indian/Asian philosophical systems (Long 1). According to Jeffery Long, “If one engages in actions that are violent, or motivated by hatred, selfishness, or egotism, the universe will respond in kind, producing suffering in the one who is causing suffering to others” (1). He goes on: “Similarly, if one engages in actions that are benevolent, pure, and kind, the universe will respond benevolently, and one will have pleasant experiences” (1). Karma offers a form of transcendent, universal justice without a deity that seeks to explain why there seems to be so much injustice in the world. What one has done in a past life bears karmic consequences or benefit in this life, and how we act toward others today determines the quality of our future. Justice is somewhat self-inflicted in this natural causal matrix.

Transcendent and human sources are regularly conflated in our language about justice (putting one’s hand on a Bible in a court of law or the retributive adage “what goes around comes around”), obscuring the sources and norms that we claim to strive for or lack. It is important to identify these multiple sources that lurk within contemporary images of or calls for justice. If the truths, or normative ideals, of a society are in one side of the scales, it is imperative to identify the content and the source of those norms.

In other words we can return to our story and see that the choices between the two women’s approaches to hospitality suggest that foundational social values that become central in a specific context (who does what and which way is better?) can provide justice or injustice as notions of inherent dignity (who has it; who does not) and context-specific morality emerges and evolves. This happens in Jewish, Islamic, and Christian communities in which there is an abundance of injustice. One might again say our motto that, honouring the mind acknowledges the context, living the questions acknowledges the ambiguities and exploring the adventure of humanity creates a just response.

In the face of our apparent inability to get it right and alongside our best efforts to be careful and to listen to experience, the traditions we carry with us maintain a transcendent or ‘more than’ judge, that will somehow dole out the punishments and rewards people really deserve. One might argue that religious systems hybridize divine and human judgment yet retain a link between the two that is similar to that which is challenged by a social contract theory that necessitates a higher opinion of human capabilities to understand and agree upon mutually principles to govern a functioning, fair society.

Maybe then to summarize the challenges of the story of Mary and Martha we might hear what Immanuel Kant suggested when he wrote. “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end”. One cannot love the sinner while condemning the sin. Mary and Martha were right in their actions. As my title inferred; it is a matter of Justice. Amen.

What Is Life All About?

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 8C, 2016 Luke 10:25-37

What Is Life All About?

As background to our reading and a little glimpse of the context for today’s reading we recall that Jesus travelled quite a bit in the north. Towards the end of his life story he turned south again, making his way along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. When we see the road in its context of the mountainous desert we can see that it was a dangerous route since much of it was through a rocky wilderness that sheltered many bands of thieves or robbers. The Romans even had a fortress on the road for that reason. To protect the travelers. To get an idea we see that the road rises some 3,300ft in 14 miles or 22 Kilometers. It is quite a climb from Jericho which was below sea level.

The road from Jericho to Jerusalem also has a significant historical message in the life of the Hebrew people in that it was the scene of various biblical events. From David’s escape from the clutches of his son Absalom, to the story of the “Good Samaritan” and even trips that Jesus made including one when he healed the blind man Bartimaeus. His healing in the text is at a place before the road climbs up the ridge between residential Jericho and municipal Jericho on the road to Jerusalem. It might also be interesting to know that the walk from Jericho to Jerusalem is an 8 to 9 hr walk. The stories tell us that Jesus was not alone as he traveled with companions and the curious, who were interested in hearing something of what this strange Jewish cynic-like sage had to say about the nature of human life and its prospects.

This Jericho to Jerusalem road is the scene of what has been said to be one of the most known and best loved stories in our biblical tradition. The story of the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’. And it is a great story for sure.  But herein is its problem also. Because it is so well known and so well loved it has been domesticated and we miss that it is indeed a parable… And we know parables to be subversive stories, and challenges to the status quo. They are stories which turn our ideas and values and worldview upside down.

Theologically speaking, for years and years the church’s interpretation turned this parable into an ‘example story’. Into a story of two so-called bad blokes and one good bloke. Now we no longer believe the story to be an example story. It is not a story about morality or about how to be nice. If the thrust of the story was about good blokes verses a bad bloke, or as an illustration of love of neighbour, or even a diatribe against heartless religious leaders, the offer of aid by a Jewish lay person would have been sufficient. One did not need a ‘Good Samaritan’ to give the story its impact.

Likewise, according to John Dominic Crossan: “If Jesus wanted to inculcate love of one’s enemies, it would have been radical enough to have a Jewish person stop and assist a wounded Samaritan…  Whereas the internal structure of our story and the historical setting of Jesus’ time agree that, the whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what in fact is a contradiction in terms: Good-Samaritan”  (Crossan 1992:62). This is what we might call an oxymoron. There could not be a Good Samaritan in non-Samaritan eyes. And that’s a major shock. Because it challenges the hearers’ – then and now – in their understanding of God and of whom God approves. The story’s challenge is that the Samaritan, who is both a lay person and an outsider, embodies the true interpretation of the Jewish tradition: to show compassion. Again a challenge in that such compassion is more than being nice to. It is an acceptance of difference, an acceptance and not just a tolerance.

Matthew Fox suggests: “Compassion is not pity…  It is not feeling sorry for someone.  Compassion is about feelings of togetherness.  And it is this awareness of kinship or togetherness that urges us to seek after justice and do works of mercy (Fox 979:2, 4). Again, the challenge is not about doing the right thing, showing care for; it is more than that. A ‘Good Samaritan’ says that.

John Donahue describes ‘compassion’ like this: He says that “Compassion is that divine quality which, when present in human beings, enables them to share deeply in the utterings and needs of others and enables them to move from one world to the other: from the world of helper to the one needing help; from the world of the innocent to that of the sinner”   (Donahue 1988:132).

Who is my neighbour? That’s the question we ask when we read this story and then many of us identify with the Samaritan. But it’s not as easy being a ‘good’ Samaritan as it seems at first sight! The stories told by our cultural storyteller – our televisions – tell us people continue to pass by on the other side.

David Galston eludes to this when he claims that when one stands in front of an artist’s great work and asks what does it mean? We are engaging in the very nature of art which is interpretation. The craft of the artist is not formula but rather vision and every vision, to be effective must engage others be it an individual or a community and that engagement is about the question of meaning. The vision only exists in so far as it is imagined by the beholder. The parable is the work of the poet Jesus. Jesus has placed his artistic vision into words that play out the imaginative game of existence and non-existence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness. This means that the poem is never really about the poem but mostly about the experience of the poem. The bringing to life of the images and feelings the poem invokes. Its truth is in the experience of those who read or hear it. And here is the great challenge for us today. A poem exists in a way that is lost in literalism but comes to life in imagination. It is the awakened imagination which is something to be lived as opposed to being seen as an object.

So here we have a mystic poet whose form of poetry was the artful and invocative parable, a product of his imagination. Parables set in his everyday world that was his life experience. For his poem to work it had to include common everyday events. Just as poems are really not about the poem so the Samaritan who cares for the one who fell among bandits is severely bland if it is only about how to be nice. Parables are much more than that. They are the way Jesus cast human life out on the horizon to behold, to wonder about, and to re-image. What does life mean? What liberties have human beings to think and act differently? In what ways do we get caught up in life and its struggles such that we forget it’s free? These are the sorts of questions raised by the parables, they are not moral advice, and just like good poems, the vision the parables cast against the horizon speaks even to their creator. I remember here Gordon Nicholson telling me that when he asked Max Gimblett what the meaning was of one of his paintings Max replied; ‘what do you think it means’. This I suggest is another way of saying; ‘I don’t know because its meaning is what you make it to be’. Even Jesus wondered about the meaning of the parables and then on top of all this we have the writers who have preserved the parables for us. They too had to interpret the parables, seeking a deeper meaning or a secret, if not a colourful explanation. Primarily the writers assumed the parables were allegories because of their need to find the so-called ‘hidden messages for believers’. For the writer or writers of Matthew the parables are about end times and how to get into or be kept out of the building. For Luke the parables are to inspire us to care for the poor. David Galston suggests that the writers have answered the question posed by the parables and in so doing have closed them off from us. We need to read them for ourselves in the light of their context.

Dominic Crossan suggested that Jesus proclaimed God in the parables, but the primitive church proclaimed Jesus as the parable of God. In other words when taken as allegory the parable is assumed to be a way of expressing truth in symbolic forms. As Crossan pointed out, the parables of Jesus effectively became symbols of the identity of Jesus and his divine instructions. An example might be in the Humpty Dumpty rhyme. Everybody associates Humpty Dumpty with an egg, probably out of the images of the great fall and how Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together again, but who said Humpty Dumpty was an egg? While the rhyme might remind us of one there is in fact no egg in the rhyme and no reason to assume the rhyme concerned and egg. Our imagination places the egg there and in so doing we add to to story an extra layer about an egg. The non-existent egg becomes other speech for a cryptic moral about carelessness.

This is how allegory works. It places into a story a subject from the outside and then it interprets the story symbolically as an illustration of this new outside subject. In the Humpty Dumpty rhyme the egg is a strange but additional subject that appears for unknown reasons. In the parables of Jesus, God is the additional subject. God never appears in the parable but is assumed.

So what do we do with the good Samaritan parable? Maybe we listen to it again, but this time we can maybe begin with the idea that its overall task is to shake up the contextual assumptions, so it must contain some everyday events that are turned on their head. They invite a new radical way of looking at what human life is all about.

We need to discern what the added subject is and this might be the easily reached idea that it is God that is being alluded to. And then we might exclude the God image and read it as a poem about who our neighbour might be because that is what Jesus is most likely to be asking.

And by exclude the God image I mean do not do as Augustine did. His example is how not to read a parable. He was not a good biblical critic because for him the Samaritan parable dances with metaphysical meaning. Jerusalem represents the peace of heaven. Jericho represents our mortality. The beating of the traveler on the road to Jericho represents the brutal persuasions of sin. The Priest and the Levite are respectively the law and the prophets. The Samaritan is Christ, the inn is the church and the innkeeper is the Apostle Paul. Augustine even adds more; the binding wounds is the sign of the containment of sins and the Samaritan’s pack animal is the Body of Christ. What we have is that Augustine lives after the Council of Nicaea and with the assumption that Jesus Christ is fully divine and of one substance with the Father. Whatever Jesus is doing in his parables for Augustine, he is no artist talking about life. Since Jesus is God his words are signals of the divine drama of the creation, the fall into sin, and the salvation of humankind. Augustine has mistaken an assumption about metaphysics for the vision of Jesus.

Biblical scholar (the late) Robert Funk spent many years studying this parable. He asked a question that I would suggest is based on this new found starting place, reached after working through the historical criticism methodology: “Who in the audience of the writer wanted to let himself or herself be helped by a Samaritan? This he suggests is the primary challenge because the appearance of the Samaritan makes sense on no other basis”  (Funk 1996:176).

Funk then went on to suggest that had the victim in the ditch been a Samaritan and the hero an ordinary Judean, a different question would had to have been asked: who in the Judean audience wanted to play the role of hero to a Samaritan victim?

Let’s face it, the role of the victim is the inferior role. The role of the helper is the superior one. And who doesn’t want to be the hero? Who is my neighbour? That’s the supposed context of this story and the most common question asked by those who hear it. But there is another contextual question in this story. Another ‘word’ which must also be considered if this story is to be a parable rather than just an example story. And that can also be shaped into a question: whom will I allow to be my neighbour?

I suggest that it is here that we have the connection with the underlying reason for parables or poems, or the nature of engagement with human imagination. It is here that my title makes sense. Jesus a mystic poet paints the word picture that uses everyday common images and concepts to expose the possibility of another way of living life. What is life all about is the question the parables evoke. It may not be to exclude those who are different, in fact it is the one we most want to exclude who is the one we need to welcome most strongly.

Then comes the question of critique applied to this particular parable. What in this parable is the heart wrenching tragedy of life in poverty where there lies some comedy in the midst of debt? What is there in life that is brutal and honest in this parable? We have a Jewish person in the ditch in need of assistance. I am going to add that this is a Jerusalem Jew as opposed to a northern Samaritan Jew to add further complexity. Here we have this Samaritan, descendant from Israel the Northern Kingdom follower of the Torah who has it all wrong, the wrong denomination perhaps, maybe the liberal one, but definitely the one who is corrupt in terms of orthodox Judaism.

The question is “If we as this Jerusalem Jew were in the ditch in that condition, who is the last person we would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives, especially if acknowledging the debt would cause us to be outcast and associated with that group by everyone in our current world?

Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about today?  Would we rather die than face the fact that this person or these people are our neighbours? (McKenna 1994:149).

Our honest answer to that question, gets us close to the heart of this parable. And our answer just might really surprise us as well.

Notes: Crossan: J. D. 1992.  In Parables: The Challenge of the historical Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. John R. Donahue. 1988.  The Gospel in Parable. Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia. Fortress Press. Matthew Fox. 1979.  A Spirituality Named Compassion, and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row. Funk, R. W. 1996.  Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Megan McKenna. 1994.  Parables. The Arrows of God. Maryknoll. Orbis Books.

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

The Bible and Our Use Of It

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

The Bible and Our Use Of It

Pentecost 7C July 3, 2016

2 Kings 5:1-14

Psalm 30

Galatians 6:7-16

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


There is a story in the Readers Digest some years back of a Minister who began his Sunday sermon by saying, “I’d like to make three points today. First, there are millions of people around the world who are going to go to hell. Second, most of us sitting here today don’t give a damn about that.” After a lengthy pause, he continued, “My third point is that you are more concerned that I, your Minister, said the word ‘damn’ than you are about the millions going to hell”.

The point of that little intro is that it’s very easy to get our priorities all mixed up. We are likely to treat as major that which is minor and treat as minor that which is crucial.

I wondered if this might be behind the situation the UK finds itself in today, not because of whether they should be in or out of the UE but rather because being in or out of the EU was a minor priority when faced with what would be the likely outcome of having the vote in the first place. Did they really think that a leave decision would be easy?

I want to shift the focus of this question a bit and look at what we might be prioritizing in terms of our future as a Christian Church and I want to try to do this within the debate about religion verses spirituality and religion as a human requirement and religion as a human organization. It is true that Religion is a controversial topic, it always has been as I can remember my father saying that there are three things people should not talk about to friends, religion, sex and politics.

I think I disagree with that advice in that its focus is to remove conflict rather that find a way of reducing its affect by identifying it and using it creatively for the better. We will always have conflict born out of differences and isn’t it better to acknowledge and creatively use difference for the betterment of all? Our problem is not with the faith of Jesus but with what the church has done with it. I suspect it is here that the interpretation of what religion is has developed. Many today say that they reject religion and embrace spirituality. I suspect again that it may be too late to save religion as an idea and it will certainly be a limitation for any religious organization. When this happens we can very easily see that religion as an organization has been used as a means of control, in many cases, to pit people against each other, and to incite terror and war. Religion in this context serves the purposes of many various global elitist agendas and many political as well..

This understanding of religion may even be further confusing in that within several different religions exist different ‘sects,’ each with their own teachings and version of the so-called ‘truth’ and how to live one’s life. With all this diversity, religion as an organization of order and control has nowhere to go other than as a search of a unifying ‘truth’. The richness of diversity, the breadth of complexity and the community of balance are all lost to an ideology of simplistic idiocy. In the non-religious world we see this as the EU setting an official length for a banana and other like rules of compliance. One might even be cheeky enough to say that NZs new health and safety regulations border on the same as an attempt to legislate what is culturally created human behaviour. I am not sure that there should be legal regulation and fines for picking one’s nose or having ones elbows on the table but there is probably a good argument for that. The point I am making here is that religion as an organization has become the policeman with a bible rather than the liberator that Jesus was.

Now we come to the seat of the problem for us and it is the bible or more correctly what we think it is and how we use it based on what we think it is. The sad part about this is that many of us in the western world have been led along a path that claims the bible to be a single book of truth and authority. If it is the bible it must be right, it must be true, it can be applied literally to our behaviour today without interpretation and it must be obeyed as irrefutable fact and thus truth.

All of this gives the bible role as a symbol of integrity it cannot sustain. In actually reading the bible the real contexts we encounter betray its humanity in both its beautiful and its disparaging prose. Yes there are stories of forgiveness, courage, compassion and of justice seeking and peace but there are also stories of horrible prejudice and activity that are tragic and when taken too seriously as supernaturally revealed truth cause many modern tragedies. It is true that some biblical writers convey the narrow mindedness of their time, and others rise above their time to express images of inspiration.

The reality is that the bible is not a book, it is a library or a collection of writings. Paul would be astounded that his everyday letters are used as some sort of canon for today. The bible is a human creation, a library of writings that became a long developing amalgamation over centuries. In doing this it mixes ancient poetry with epic narratives, wisdom writing and prophetic announcements. The writers would have been horrified to learn that the context of their words are given absolute and timeless authority.

The religious organization in its efforts to so-called protect the scriptures has imposed its view of the need for control of the collection and this is perhaps my point about priority. Is the priority the bible being right or is it about living with the reality of diversity, complexity and honouring the context? This collection is not a retelling of historical fact, nor is it a record of biological information. It is an amalgamation of genres. Another challenge of this priority thing is to ask if our problem is what we have done to the bible alone or is that a minor priority and there is a more major one to consider.

Our reality today is that we live our lives out of our history of this need for order and the unity of things, out of this authoritarian approach to the collection and out of this environment of a religious organization overseeing us. It is also influenced by contemporary culture which is highly literalistic due to our constant use of technology based on numerical patterns, expected repetitions and reliance on automation. How many times do we hear the complaint ‘yes there is chaos and it is because you have people involved.

It is true that technology has existed from the ancient times but today the level of it is conditioned by our understanding of relativity, quantum mechanics or string theory. Literalism was very likely influenced into becoming even more defensive and literal by this introduction of more and more chaotic reality and less and less certainty.

For the writers of the collection we call the bible there was no such thing as gravity or an expanding universe and as a consequence they did not have the assurances of predictability or of anything being able to automate the recurrence of things. This is a significant priority for us in that the ancients could not take things literally. There was no such thing as a travel timetable beyond perhaps the day. One could take a trip but one could not rely on knowing how long it would usually take. Life was shorter, harder, and in the large part outdoors. It is our priority to see that life was largely a life full of risk, each day an adventure of the unknown as things were hidden, unseen, unchanging and unambiguous. The task for the writers of the collection was to convey this unseen world that was their world, their context, by relying on different kinds of writing. Their task was to open up the horizon of the unseen and this meant presenting it in forms unlike that of the contemporary idea of facts. Moses may well have lived but not as an historical figure but rather as a hero in whose mouth was placed speeches that relay the writers theology, that is their theo-centric view of the world. The writers use stories to open up the different views of the horizons, where they were positive promises of a peaceful world or about the vengeance of an angry God. This is the call to get one’s priorities right.

John Shelby Spong suggests that religion is a business and it is used as a control mechanism (and he’s not the first insider to do so). We can see this happening most clearly in the rise of Islamophobia. Islam has been turned into a scapegoat, a target at which we can direct all our fears and anger, and an excuse to invade other countries and create a more intense global national security state. But the truth is, Islam has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. These manufactured fears are all part and parcel of what has been called ‘false flag’ terrorism.

When I read this I thought of the NZ attempt to change the flag. Was this an example of giving in to the fear of false flag terrorism? I must admit to not getting a handle on why we even sought a new flag. Where did the need to change the flag come from? What was John Key’s motivation and was it a minor priority response or a major one. Was it a nationalistic response or a brand exercise? Was it about cohesion of the NZ character or a psychology exercise? Sponge says that “religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand. It’s in the guilt producing control business.” My question is whether or not there is any justification of a guilt producing control?

Why is the church in decline? It certainly is because less people are attending as the statistics tell us, but is it because people no longer see the need for a guilt producing institution and is that institution seen as religion? Has religion as an organization had its time because it is no longer seen to be playing its part of human life? And here is today’s question. Is the priority about getting more people to make up the numbers or is it about understanding the collection of writings in a way that speaks to and in today’s literal context.

The writings are not a book of truths, nor is it a book of historical fact. It is poetry, it is mythical narrative, it is song and it is contextual story and so maybe it should not be seen in the first instance as authoritative truth or rule book to live by. It can be these things but only after it is read as what it is. Read the collection by understanding genres and being aware of sources. What are the sources the writer uses to write in the genre they wrote in? Biblical scholars today have over 250 years of hard work behind them when identifying sources used by ancient writers of the collection. It is also a challenge to discover and approach the New Testament not only as a collection of writings of different sorts but also that the gospels as we know them were not written by one person but rather are an amalgam of sources used to create a theology. The names given to the gospel are only given for the sake of convenience because in fact no one knows who compiled them. What we do know is that each gospel addresses the concerns of a different community and each of those communities drew from preexisting sources.

This demands of us those questions of discernment I spoke of. Simply put perhaps the challenge we have is to Take the Jesus story as a theology, ask what are the signs in that theology that tell us who Jesus was that are important today. What did the human Jesus look like? What signs did they need to tell who he was for them? They did not need truth but rather applicable signs. What signs do we need to tell our time who he is for us? The resurrection is not about a supernatural event, miracles do not need questions about fact. They need questions about their meaning to the hearer. What are the symbols that will convince us to want to tell the story to others in our time? Their theological rendition was compelling so what are ours? The other thing we need to remember is that we only have the consequences of the writer’s choices. We don’t know why they chose the sources they did but we can ask questions about what their choices represent.

Behind all this is the question about the authority of the collection. Does it have any given that it is only a collection of writings? The answer is no it does not as a policy manual or a set of bylaws about life. The answer is yes as well because it is symbolic of the virtues of a particular cultural experience. With the rise of Modernity and its priority for reasoning, with the rise of nation states and of citizen’s rights, the authority of the bible as a document representing human knowledge and divine power has passed away along with the centrality of Christianity. Technical science has replaced the bible as official ‘knowledge’ and the bible can hardly be raised up to science anymore. Still this does not mean that the power of the bible as a symbol has passed away. It still represents in spite of its content, the honour of truth, commitment and integrity. It never had nor should it have authority over normative human behaviour. If it contains rules for ancient behaviour it is because people did things they ought not to. There is no need to have laws for things that nobody does, not then nor now. This makes interpretation for now and action for now the priority over doing what the bible says.

The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system by any human creed by any human book, is almost beyond imagination. God is not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist; all of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God.

The challenge for us today is to see the difference between religion as a human priority and religion as a human organization. Using fear or selling guilt to coax people into a certain way of life or belief system, may be a common practice in nearly every religion, today and the challenge is for us to see beyond that, to see the major priority as opposed tt the minor ones that cloud our thinking. Our first priority is to accept responsibility for the world. If we want to change the world, then we have to do it.

Because we have many texts that are very old, and considering there are multiple versions of various texts, all of which have likely been manipulated, changed, and distorted over the years, Our response has to be to take them all seriously rather that choose the ones that make it easy for us to isolate our identity.

Again, we honour the mind relying on it to act with integrity, we live the questions recognizing that there are many paths to follow and we explore the adventure of humanity because that exploration is the sign the collection we call the bible gives us. Amen.

A Critical Hope

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

A Critical Hope

Luke 7: 36 – Luke 8: 3

Pentecost 4C 12.6.2016

The title of today’s address is A Critical Hope and it is my attempt to give an understanding of hope that is not about something that is tentative and more about something that is rooted in the possibility of the impossible, less in the individual and more in the collective and less about what if and more about certainty. I want to suggest that a critical hope is a hope that is deeper than desire, broader than the individual and contains the transformative power to change suffering, injustice, evil and apathy into meaning. A tall order not in terms of what hope can do or be but rather in our ability to think beyond dualisms, or either-ors. I want to suggest that we might see the opportunity to fuse hope and fear, and even suffering into the courage to be able to live out the prophetic role of active love.

Research says that hope is based in our belief in our ability to reach a goal. It is more than a maybe. It says that we understand our ability as that which is based on our past history, the perception of our own skill level, and the amount of motivation or agency we have. Our past, our perception and our providence. This suggests that the idea that we can get somewhere in our thinking or in our action is based on whether or not we can see a way of getting there. It also suggests that we distinguish the difference between hope and optimism by the way in which we deal with failure and mistake. Optimists often distance themselves from failure while those who hope are willing to admit mistakes and failures. In other words, optimism pushes aside mistakes and failures and hope enables them to be opportunities for learning and growth.

Two stories I want to link to hope this morning are an event that happened in the UK and our reading from Luke.

The first story is about Drummer Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and when he was attacked by two men as he walked back to his barracks in Woolwich, South London a few years back.

Rigby was hit by a car before being attacked by knives, and dragged into the road where he died of his extensive injuries. Amongst all the sorrow of the day, one of the most iconic images that remains is that of the three women who confronted the two men who attacked Drummer Rigby. They went to his aid, they went to be with him. It’s possible that it would have been dangerous for any men to have attempted this but the compassion and courage shown by those three women is beyond description.

Their courage and compassion is made even more incredible because many in this world would have walked by on the other side. I am sure that we can all recall some little incident or time when we have walked by, It is also possible that we have looked on with envy as others display selfless acts of faith and generosity. Sometimes we might even realize that we can avoid embarrassment by wallowing in our own self-pity or in our self-imposed busyness.

The fact of this story is that it is raining tears the day Drummer Rigby died and the three women understood the relationship between suffering and hope and they acted out the critical hope that motivated them. This story also reminds us that this critical hope is more than the individual. Victor Frankl likens suffering to a gas that is released in a jar. If there is a small amount of gas it will still become distributed throughout the jar though in a smaller concentration than it might if more gas were placed in the jar. So it is with suffering. Though we may not have experienced the degree of suffering Rigby or the women experienced, we have experienced it and we know its ability to impact our lives. It is not the amount of suffering we endure that matters but rather our awareness of it and what we do with that suffering. The other thing to note here is that the women’s actions, in experiencing Rigby’s suffering confirm the importance of relationships and community in finding and maintaining hope. They affirm that community is an important aspect of being human. Psychological studies show that involvement in communities may be essential to the act of hoping. That as individuals we learn hopefulness within the context of community. The three women received by being three the confirmation that their brave act, their courage, was hope-filled by being a threesome. Collective motivation provides agency toward a shared goal. Together they could make a difference.

The second story the one from Luke’s gospel is as fantastic. It too is hard to read because it is also challenging, convicting, and courageous. Could I do it? Probably not? And would I be brave enough? One thing we can be certain of is that faith grows. It develops. It flourishes. It dies back. It revives. It changes. It goes in new directions. It is always alive and changing. The challenge is that our faith seems always, to be still, only a short way into the journey. That’s why we can be glad that faith, hope and grace walk hand in hand. And that so often it is women who lead the way!

I want to approach this story from Luke, a little differently by giving you a summarized version….

  • An alabaster jar!
  • What an extravagant item for a “woman of the city” to possess!
  • Was she rich?
  • Or did she sell all for this mysterious anointing?
  • This was no spontaneous act, “having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house.”
  • It doesn’t take a prophet to surmise from her weeping, feet kissing, and hair wiping that she’s not your average dignified matron. “Her sins were many.” Neither does it take a prophet to sense that she “loves much.”
  • Where did the tears come from?
  • Can you cry easily? Can you turn on the tap when needed?
  • Or do tears need to come spontaneously and from a genuine place beyond self control?
  • The woman’s strong emotion is undeniable.
  • But tears of repentance?
  • Perhaps.
  • But think about her careful preparations: the alabaster jar, the purchase of expensive ointment, the planning it took to insinuate herself into the dinner party.
  • Is her deep emotion because she wants to be forgiven or that she knows she has been forgiven? “Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
  • But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves,
  • ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’
  • And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
  • This last word seems like it is meant as a clarification for Simon, for the murmurers at the party, for the woman, and for those of us listening in on the scene all these centuries later.
  • “Your faith has saved you.”
  • Your faith has saved you, not now, on the floor kissing my feet, but this morning when you bought the alabaster jar as a sacrifice of gratitude.


Critical hope is a hope that moves from desire towards action, from idea to outcome, from law to love. A critical hope is living out love relationally through our actions. The woman’s hope of transformation is lived out by her extravagance, -an Alabaster Jar filled with expensive oils no less! Her hope is critical in that it challenges the status quo, -your sins are forgiven. It goes against the expectations of the society as placed upon a women, -a woman of the city? was she rich?. It unveils right living in that it motivated forgiveness, -your faith has saved you, go in peace. It reveals an equitable living in the extravagant giving, – an Alabaster Jar filled with expensive oils!


What is the church for, if it is not to enact this hope? The church is the ideal location for enacting this critical hope, an ideal place to live as though one lives with and in a certain hope. The church’s task is to form communities of critical hope and in so doing it invites others to engage in this adventure. In combining this theory of critical hope with liberation pedagogy and with political theology the church can create a positive direction.


In other words a hope that is deeper than desire, broader than the individual and contains the transformative power to change suffering, injustice, evil and apathy into meaning will create a better world. It is about being willing to fuse hope and fear, and even suffering into the courage to live out the prophetic role of active love.


The challenge of these two stories is that we must replace a theology of orthodoxy with a theology of orthopraxy, theology is of little value unless it is applied in action, and action is of little value if it is not undergirded by theology. The task then, is to fuse futility into utopia in such a way as it becomes a meaningful, embodied hope, and this is to fill lives with purpose, develop and enrich relationships, create and sustain community, and embrace a critical hope as a way of living. Amen.

A Cynic-like, Human Jesus…

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 6C. 2016 Luke 9:51-62

A Cynic-like, Human Jesus…

What is it that is holding us firm to the received traditions?  What are the exciting discoveries of progressive theology that take us further into renewed faith communities of expression and practice? Robin Meyers suggests that it is the chicken livered ministers that are holding the church back. He suggests they pretend to respect parishioners yet sanctimoniously hide behind the suggestion that ‘their people won’t understand’ or ‘don’t want to hear the truth’. Gretta Vosper suggests that the task of contemplating church doctrine has outranked the task of contemplating life itself. In practical terms it could be said that this is where the two theological worldviews are in conflict. The truth about what is true belief is in conflict with what is true life.

Over the past couple of weeks we have been looking at the material from the anonymous storyteller whom we call Luke. He has been laying out his program, via a collection of short Jesus sayings. Foxes have holes, but have nowhere to lay your head… Leave the dead to bury the dead… Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals…. Salute no one on the road… Take what food and drink is offered you…

The first thing here is that the sayings are perhaps the most important parts of the text. These short, sharp sayings are important because contemporary biblical scholarship suggests they are either from, or have been strongly influenced by, the code of the Q Movement… Q thought to be the important collection or memory of Jesus’ sayings, which in their earliest state, echo the cynic’s style of making social critique.

While we might speculate about the idea of Qs existence and some scholars do their existence and importance is based in the Thomas Gospel which has gained considerable credibility. Subsequently, we can now also speculate that those same Q people were not only part of a very lively Jesus movement in Galilee, but that their ‘voice’ is probably the best record we have of the first 40 years of the Jesus movement.

First we have the assumption that the best Jesus we can have is a credible one. The Jesus of the movement has to be a credible as possible, He has to make sense given what we know. So here’s the first speculation as to why these sayings are important. First is the claim that they shed some light on a credible human Jesus.

The second assumption is that like David Galston is quoted as saying “It is never possible to reach absolute conclusions about antiquity because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit” The very best speculation is that a search for a credible Jesus is the best path to take and the earliest picture of Jesus is the most likely to be the most credible one. All the study and all the talk and all the sermons we have shared or participated in, or listened to, whatever conclusion one might come to about Yeshua/Jesus, that conclusion must offer a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.

And as far as we can honestly claim is that a possible Jesus is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances of Galilee, Palestine, in the first century under oppressive Roman imperial rule, and who said or did things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done, at that time. This is not to suggest that we can discern nothing true at all about Jesus but rather that we can be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible. As David Galston said; Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point for us will be to carry forward “into the contemporary world, the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity.”

We can safely assume that the sayings are the most like record of what Jesus said, they are most likely foundational of Jesus world view and of his challenge to the status quo. Foxes have holes… Leave the dead to bury the dead… are sayings which go against the conventional common sense wisdom of the everyday world of Galilee, under Roman rule, in the time of Jesus.

So what was the everyday common sense stuff?

We have a country that has a long history, even then of changing regimes. It was a major land route for regional trade and travel. I understand that because of the prevailing winds that the north south travel was quickest by boat across the Mediterranean and by land up around the coast which meant up through what was the north western arm of the fertile-crescent known as Phonecia. This suggests that while the movements were over decades and even centuries there is a history of social, political, religious and economic diversity in it’s past. This also suggests that the institutions of that part of the world would be responsive to that environment. They would seek to exploit and enhance the situation. In this sense things like home, family, community and cohesion are particularly important factors. A bit like the subtle differences between urban and rural. A house and home in a pluralistic society was necessary; the streets were very likely unsafe. A son must honour the family above all else, especially in death. One’s distinctive social identity is also linked to one’s economic wellbeing in a patriarchal world. Women are chattels in need of management. Money and clothes and provisions are about living – and status. Respect given and received was what made the world go around. Without respect the moral system breaks down. Health and safety regulation existed than too. Only clean or organic food is what one should always eat. Kosher or not kosher. Religious systems are social systems when faith and state are one.

Recent progressive biblical scholarship also says that Jesus always challenged his listeners with his sayings… those sayings were sayings that invited those listeners to re-imagine the world away from everyday common sense. Especially those formed by fear and rumour and innuendo. The challenge Jesus makes then is the same as today. Different in context but the same in the form of challenge. Can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people?  Outside your norm, outside your assumptions. Not only can you re-imagine your response but can you offer the other a chance for a more humane reply?

A pilgrim says; I slept in my car the other night as protest against the government housing policies. Jesus says; there are lots of spare rooms around. To another he says move to the regions and the reply was I need to see if I can stay where I am first. Jesus says; Let those who can stay, stay but as for you, go and do what is right for everyone.

This brings us to another reason why these sayings are important. They invite us to re-imagine the world differently by considering the human condition of all, not just the condition of our own race, family, nationality, or football team. This invitation is not be in a in a different world, but rather to be in this world differently. The challenge of this is to move into a values thinking mode. To take account of the kind of in-depth values thinking, means that something different can be accomplished. A change of attitude or behaviour. A new vision of what it means to be human on equal terms. Being right about what to believe or what to do when faced with a dilemma is not as important as being alive to the present moment in all of its possibilities—positive and negative. Jesus didn’t give us, or anyone else, a formal moral code. Neither did he give us a list of things we needed to do to be good, or to avoid so we won’t be bad. He was an observer of people and of life.  He saw the things that people valued.  He challenged assumptions and questioned the norm.

It seems that underneath all this Jesus wanted to point out a truth or three: He wanted to say, yes life is short.  So what are you going to do about it? He wanted to say the fact is that those people you have around you won’t be there forever. So what are you going to do about them? He wanted to say is your goal to make a good living or to make a good life? And do you even know the difference?

On reflection we see that he challenged authoritative structures and conventional wisdom. He exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and the cruelty of those in power. He criticized the economic ideas for the frauds they were. He poked and prodded (Shuck 2011).

Now centuries later, he pokes and prods us today. The problem is that insightful people who poke and prod us are hard to take. Our human tendency is to react to them out of extremes. Just listen to talk back and it doesn’t take long before we hear people respond to someone’s challenge by suggesting they are capitalists or socialists, bludgers or entrepreneurs. In the case of Jesus, he was crucified and we turned him into a god. Easier to put his challenge away in some too hard basket that way. And then to support and control that decision, we invented doctrines and creeds which all are expected to believe and not question…

In this way ‘Orthodoxy’ or ‘right thinking’ has outranked the task of contemplating life itself. But the truth is that most people don’t need or look for biblical or doctrinal persuasion. Their own human condition is enough to move them to compassion and inclusion. They can see the results of a rule driven, oppression based, violence supporting world. And for that they wouldn’t be seen dead in a church!

What this says for the church is that living out the implications of embracing the human Jesus vision in our own time, with our own creativity, is still before us. We still have to get a handle on what the gospel is saying to us today. We still have to do the interpreting. We cannot hide behind a dead myth.

The argument is that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much progressive biblical scholarship provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.

One thing’s for sure. The world in these early years of the twenty-first century requires that we think differently about the questions of: what it means to be Christian; about what Christianity is, and who decides. If we decide to order our lives in terms of the human Jesus and human values it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take, or fail to take, the steps to carry out that decision.

It will not be some supernatural extra-human power, or a set of prescriptive regulations let alone the imposition of an archaic set of rules designed for an earlier time and an earlier social, political and religious era. Think about it! Any attempt by dogmatists to impose fourth century creeds on today’s twenty-first century living, (as is still happening in our church) is an act of abusive power!

In conclusion then: because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit” we must interpret for ourselves in our time. Jesus used sayings to open up new thinking, to encourage imagination and to change the institutional assumptions of his day, so what does that say about the call upon us? Are we to be cynics too? Amen.

Notes: Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012. Shuck, J. “A Sermon”. 2011. Blog site: ReligionForLife. Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins, 2012.