Archive for August, 2016

Imagine A Counter World..

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 15C, 2016

Luke 14: 1, 7-13

Imagine A Counter World..

From the many stories available within the Jesus tradition, this storyteller we call Luke has selected and imagined and stitched together, a series of stories in order to create the meaning necessary for that particular moment in time. And the hearers participated in these stories in their imagination and worked together with the storyteller to discern the meaning, the reality, the so-called ‘point’ of the telling.

Today’s story is set around a meal… and the accepted protocol which went with such important public events. From previous stories we know that meal times are special times for storyteller Luke and his small community. In this story a common theme running throughout the whole collection, is again given emphasis: Jesus turns everything upside down with respect to the world’s values.

Last week Alyson indicated that one of the things that came out of the recent Hui at Ohope was that there was a growing need for the ‘Progressive’ movement to articulate just what it believed was the Christian Way of being and living. My initial thought was that if one did that one would actually be going against the very position of the ‘Progressive’ which was to resist the creation of creedal statements and fixed doctrines because they always led to the imposition of belief systems and institutionalization of ideas. In other words they ultimately lead to absolutes and an unassailable truth about things. Whereas being ‘Progressive’ means no absolutes and thus no such thing as a single simple metanarrative, or at least a big story that is always questionable. My second thought was that we actually need to articulate what we do value as opposed to what we don’t like and maybe we need to articulate just what it is that we do believe so long as it is always open to reforming. My starting point was to think of some simple statements and work from there. What I found was that even that was difficult but here they are. My first statement was as follows…….

  1. To ask whether God exists or not is the wrong question to ask.

My second statement was that ……

  1. ‘Theism’ and ‘Atheism’ are redundant positions as they have been replaced by ‘anatheism’ or ‘A God after God’.

My third was that…………

  1. God is the ‘Almost’ or the ‘yet to be’.

I then thought it was about time to include Jesus in this as I think I am a follower of the Jesus Way after all…… So my fourth was …….

  1. Jesus was a human being who was a devout Galilean Jew.

And then I thought I should say something about why I follow his Way and so I said ..

  1. Jesus provided a timeless counter-cultural approach to life.

In summary I think I said that my understanding of God is always ahead of me waiting to be discovered yet thankfully never will be.

Now I want to try to fill this out a bit. So first, some history of this God after God?

Some time ago now humanity woke to a new day when God was no longer an explanation. Logic stopped being self-evident proof for the existence of God and the order of society. The very idea of God became unnecessary rather than necessary in the 17th to 19th centuries as God and other religious ideas became subject to critical thinking based on evidence. This change meant that the existence of God or in fact anything else had to be proven not by logic but by demonstration. In turn this meant that without evidence that God existed the default position was that God was no longer necessary in reality. Here we have today’s problem, in other words without evidence God has to become belief rather than logic and believing in God has to be concerned with a blind faith based in the supernatural, and not as logic claimed; the Being behind nature.

The first great reversal was the reversal of God’s status from the assumption of truth, to that which must be proven, thus opening the way for science to replace the authority of religion and God to became a questionable idea that lacked evidence. Along with this change came the one where theology as the study of God stopped being the driver of the sciences and slipped down the academic ladder. More importantly perhaps was the shift in understanding of reality from that which was founded on a logical necessary Being, to a new reality founded on human experience. An example of this is in our own Auckland University where theology struggles to be considered even as a School of thought whereas Philosophy is a full department of study. We need to acknowledge here that the search for a God that is beyond theism and atheism, The very talk of God after God or anatheism as Richard Kearney calls it, could be seen as an attempt to save theology from disappearing even as a philosophical idea.

In our history of thinking Decartes sought to save the idea of God by establishing the power of reason over God, Spinoza sought to retain God as energy or animation of nature by bringing God out of the heavens and into the nature of things. Hume takes human reason as all we have and thus establishes that God is a construct of ideas emerging from the way common and natural impressions play out in the relationship of ideas. So today for many, God has become a complex idea, or as David Galston suggests, the question on our lips now is, does God have a value for human beings and our collective nature?

Here we have a God who is no longer the source of reason but rather a God who is accountable to reason. Galson in his response to this and one I like a lot, introduces and contemplates the future of God who ‘almost’ is. Here we have a shift from God as ‘More than’, Other than’ and I suspect a release from any theisms and a return to an debate as opposed to taking an either/or position. If that is not a counter-cultural approach in this age of personalized slanging matches between strongly held positions then I don’t know what is.

Like all parables, our Lucan story is a counter-cultural story. It is typical in that Jesus ‘revolts’ against the status quo. His language suggests a counter-world, a hoped-for world “that redresses the world as it is and… offers a new world that makes sense”.

In the story Jesus notices the way people choose the places of honour in the seating arrangements. Here we have the culture being set up for change. The expected process of showing respect is to be changed. When you choose a place to sit don’t look after your own status in the scheme of things. The suggested change is expected to disrupt the ideas of who is important and who isn’t and the action of taking the unexpected route is expected to shift the focus from culturally bound expectations to an authentic respect. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

What is quite crucial is that Jesus’ reimagining of a counter world makes sense, but it is not about agreement as not everyone agrees on all issues. What is important is that it makes sense on a collective stage. Here we have the argument that says one doesn’t have to have faith in Jesus as the one who fixes things but one does have to have faith with Jesus as one who shows a way of living that is radically different and yet makes sense.

“In the re-imagined world we stand beside Jesus and trust that his world will work, that it can provide the safe place – that it can in its counter culture reality provide a means of rebuffing and resisting all other empires be they physical, cultural or philosophical.  This makes Jesus our companion on the journey of life, not our Lord and Master. This Jesus is always human in incarnation and here I think we have the idea that our God is truly incarnate as a God who is us in our fullest human sense as companion in life as opposed to a God who has always more than us, supernatural as opposed to natural, a God who has made it to completion, made it to perfection and so on. God is the ‘almost’. I want to suggest to you like David Galston; that a God that is ‘almost’ is a valuable idea that avoids the absolutism of both a God who exists and a God who does not.

I wasn’t at the Hui so I can only go on reports of the Hui and it seemed to me to have been caught in the dilemma of either/or. People on both sides of the debate were caught in the same bind, or as William Butler Yeats puts it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand”. The question for the Hui is I think, ‘what is that revelation?’

I want to suggest a third way or a counter-cultural approach that might get you thinking. I want to suggest that when asked if God exists or not I might say ‘almost’. And what I mean is that almost is being between something and nothing, being partially there but not fully there. I mean that two minutes before arriving here this morning I was an experience of absence and nothingness. I was nowhere in sight. I did not exist but as I was expected there was a trace of my existence in my absence that promised my presence. There was a sign that I will be but am not yet, thus I was ‘almost’.

And let’s be candid here. God is very good at being almost. For thousands of years the trace of God’s existence in human history and culture has been around but never fully present. No age has been able to fully claim God as fully present. Lots and lots of words have been written and spoken about God promising that God will turn up but God has disappointed and there is a delay. Morning arrives and God is nowhere to be seen. Of course we know that God does not really exist because we know that God is a human creation do we not? It is words about God that remain like a promissory note. If God really did exist there would be no need to ask whether God existed. I am here now so there is no question as to whether I would arrive. My absence has to occur before the question about my presence can be asked. God’s absence has to occur before the question about God’s existence can be asked.

This is one of the ironies of life. We are aware of existence because in the background is non-existence. If there was no non-existence then I could not be conscious of existing. This also says that there is a gap of emptiness that allows me to know that I do exist. There is a gap between thoughts that allows different thoughts and an ability to be aware of thinking. We only know things well when we know the gaps that compose our knowledge. Like Stuart Firestein the scientist argues when he talks about the necessity of ignorance for science to have value, we can argue that the gaps are our ignorance and it is the wise ones who know when to keep silent.

Like the gap between my existence and non-existence is the way in which I know I exist. So the gap that makes wisdom possible accounts for the existence of religion and religion exists only because there is no God but an absence of God. If God were absolutely present, there could be no question about God, no yearning for God, and no belief in God. Only absence raises the question of belief. My argument therefore is that a God that is ‘almost’ is a God more believable, and more likely to exist. This also claims that wisdom is the most likely companion of this God that is ‘almost, firstly because in wisdom teaching God is always sidelined, and never the subject. God is at the edge but never the centre of wisdom. The parables of the historical Jesus, the human culturally aware Jesus hold this quality. The parables are not about God, and God is not present in any parable. They are in fact secular theology which means applied theology or theology acted out in the world. They are concerned for a vision called the basileia of God which has been interpreted as kingdom of God but is also something like the activities or happenings of God within a realm. This means that the parable is empty of God. It may feel like the place of God but God has to be created through imagination for God to be in the parable. Again here is the claim that the parables are not about God but about the Way of God in a counter-cultural setting.

All of that is very technical in a philosophical way but it is important in trying to get a handle on this ‘almost’ sort of God. I want to see if I can now place that thinking in context and I want to ask another question as a way in. The question is; ‘what is it that we believe?

Well, for many Religion is no longer a fact like it used to be and the forms of theology related to religion are no longer self-evident. Religion is no longer necessary to ensure that blessings fall upon a culture and a people. Religion remains a sign only of what used to be and what is now absent. Religion has moved from its authoritative past, when it could explain the nature of things, to a contemplative setting where it is a matter of choice. It belongs to private life where it might be engaged in an effort to overcome anxiety, to achieve self-acceptance, or to cultivate family identities. Some would say that it religion has become therapy.

It does however still express the artistry of life. It still expresses the elements of wonder about life and still inspires acts of human compassion. It defines a culture’s history and expresses its inherited orientation in the world. The struggle it has is how to find ways to be without God, without the old beliefs in supernatural things but still be with religion in the artistic sense of valuing life, history and the expression of beauty.

Well maybe the value of religion is that it has nothing to offer us except everything. It gives us no God, but in handing over God it does give us the possibility of life. Maybe God has a future and it is a human future. Out of nothing religion creates life. Maybe that is its artistic skill, its hidden promise, its value and its vision. Maybe that is the wisdom of religion, to be a religion without God. Or as I might argue, a wisdom with a God who is ‘almost’.

 

And by that I mean:

  • My God is the ‘Almost’ or the ‘yet to be’ that never will be.
  • I am convinced religion has a human value
  • Jesus was a human being who was a devout Galilean Jew.
  • The Jesus Way was a counter-cultural approach to life.
  • I am a follower of the Jesus Way.

 

I am reminded here of the 8 points that define a progressive Christian as written at the beginning of the movement.

They are

  1. I Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus;
  2. I Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
  3. I Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples;
  4. I Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable
  5. I Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe;
  6. I Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty – more value in questioning than in absolutes;
  7. We form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers; and
  8. We recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

Amen.

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

Galston D 2016 Gods Human Future. The struggle to define Theology Today. Salem, Oregon Polebridge Press

Website: TCPC 8 points

 

Pentecost 14C,

21.08.2016 Luke 13: 10-17

A Spiritual Life, Conscientious Objector

Last week we read of a Jesus who was not happy, so much so that he set out to shock his hearers into change. He clarified the process of important change by reminding his hearers that the message he had to give would go against all the assumptions of familial relationships. It would go right to the heart of society’s normalcy. Today we find him in the very heart of the religious home voicing protest about normal practice. He is hitting right at the heart of the rules that govern normal practice by protesting the hypocrisy of those who create rules for others and flout them, themselves.

At one level this is just about practice meeting ideology or practice meeting ones world view and this happens all the time. We know of people in the church who condemn literalism of the bible and yet discriminate against Gay people, or people who are liberal about abortion yet believe that the world was made in 6 days. There was a Hui just last week in our church where people tried to find a way forward on the issue of human sexuality. The focus was on difference in the interests of unity. Seems a strange way of doing things but that is what we do. It is always easier to create rules for others than it is to find a common way forward it seems. Is that what Jesus is on about here in our text? Is the matter about healing on the Sabbath or is it about the futility of creating rules that don’t work, that don’t fit the practice, or is it about an alternative way of living one’s life? Is the religious life about following the rules or is it about loving one another?

John Bennison in his blog quotes one Mitch Albom who said:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

I gave this address the title of ‘A Spiritual life, Conscientious Objector’ because like last week the challenge to life a spiritual life is somehow imbedded in the call to be a conscientious objector. Jesus is showing the life of a spiritual person as being one who challenges the very heart of things, upsets the status quo and goes direct to the heart of things in his objection.

The word Spirituality and what is understood as Spirituality is often an amorphous and bandied about term that too often connotes the merely religious type, as somehow distinct from those who are not. It’s a little like the artificial distinction sometimes made between what is sacred or secular in a world of human experience that is actually infused with the totality of all things, known and unknown. Jesus calls this inability to see the interconnectedness of things hypocrisy.

Bennison suggests that we might enter this discussion through an understanding of human consciousness and being conscious. He suggests that human consciousness is the awareness of a personal conscience; where conscience is a core dimension with which we have the innate capacity to take account of ourselves. He also suggests that one’s conscience, is not simply about adherence to an external set of beliefs about what is “right” or “wrong;” which can — and do – change, both cross-culturally and over time. Rather, it is something intrinsic within every human being, and is universal when it comes to our common humanity. Ultimately, it has to do with meaning and purpose.

It is also similar to the observation that at the heart of every great religious tradition the same fundamental positions on purpose and meaning are espoused; with ways of wisdom practiced as expressions of those positions. In this sense, the human conscience is not only that spiritual home from which we can wander; but from which we can often lose the way of return, as well. One would have to say that our Christian faith tradition is a good example of just such a journey.

Bennison suggests that there was a time when human consciousness was free of the rule about what was good and what was bad. A time before Human Consciousness became “Spiritualized” he quotes a text from The Gospel of Thomas.

 

“The (Father’s) imperial rule is within you and it is outside you. … If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas, 113:4, 70

It is the bringing forth of that which is within is the catalyst for meaning and not the rules that are created after about what is right or wrong or who is in or who is out.

From what little we know, the historical Jesus was an itinerant 1st century Galilean sage, teacher from Jewish peasant stock. Later he was also sometimes referred to as a “spirit” person. I think this was likely because of the Greek and or Roman experience of the movement. But put another way, he was also a person of conscience, with a keen awareness of the human condition in all its consequence and magnificence.

While his teachings were life changing for his followers, they were also soon affiliated with what quickly became a legendary figure; and to which a messianic title was subsequently attributed by a religious sect that arose in the years following his human demise.

In the decades and centuries that followed, a whole set of beliefs about his divinity overshadowed his teachings. Furthermore, it’s worth noting those teachings now considered most historically authentic were noticeably void of any religious language, but richly and colloquially descriptive of his full humanity. When we examine our own time and culture we see people called ‘progressives’ critiquing tradition, protesting literalism, conscientiously objecting to claims for practice that have no meaning, no link into the unity of humanity.

Central to those teachings was the fundamental notion that there was not only an inherent dimension within every person that was connected to the source of all being-ness; but that it also required an awakening, of sorts, for those who had “eyes” to see, and “ears” to hear. Any notions of such religiously laden ideas like salvation or redemption — that were subsequently overlaid and instituted — originated from a transformative process that first arose within the individual.

Harry Emerson Fosdick the American Baptist Theologian years ago when talking about movements like the ‘progressives’ of today said; “that there is a widespread, deep seated, positive desire on the part of many Christians in all the churches to recover for our modern life, for its personal character and its social relationships, the religion of Jesus as distinguished from the accumulated, conventionalized, largely inadequate and sometimes grossly false religion about Jesus”.

Of course as we know, the early Christian movement quickly constructed a hierarchical structure with ecclesiastical authority, dispensing certain orthodoxies (right belief) and heresies (wrong beliefs). The role for the human conscience as the source of “spiritual” awareness and practice was replaced by conformity to those external doctrines called Church teachings; along with the proprietary claim that personal salvation was mediated solely through the divinity of Jesus, as the Christ.

In contrast, Jesus the wisdom teacher directed his earliest followers to look within themselves, and each other. As such, Jesus was not “the way,” but a companion in the way each person has the capacity to travel, to move, to grow, and develop; given the conscious awareness of that path, and the choice to venture wherever it leads.

So, if consciousness and conscience are the way of being are they actually the “Spiritual” Path we talk about?

Bennison suggests that we look around at the world in which we live with all our faults and foibles and we can perhaps see that we seem to be hard-wired as human beings, but soft-wired whenever we try to describe or imagine ourselves to be so-called spiritual beings. As physical, finite beings, we find it hard to remain unaware of outward human frailties, successes and excesses. But to become aware of anything more — or other — than what is empirical, verifiable and (consequently) believable, is commonly considered to be a venture into the intangible, ethereal realm of “spirituality.” Our soft-wired side can’t seem to stand up to the harsh realities with which we are confronted and challenged in today’s world of disruption, chaos, and sheer seeming madness.

When our “spiritual” side is invoked or employed, it’s typically in some religious context or tradition; that is, as often as not, seen to be in a battle over whose “god” is greater, and whose religious convictions possess the “truth.”

This sort of dualistic approach means that whenever a crack of doubt is introduced into any set of staunchly held beliefs, two options present themselves.

One can shut one’s eyes, squeeze them tightly, and endlessly repeat, “I believe, I believe, I believe _____ (fill in the blank).” The world around us then becomes filled with competing rules, ideals and principles; all representing ways we should behave, as well as what we should think and believe. It is as if the devil perches on one shoulder, an angel on the other, both whispering in our ear. Such religious constructs become morality plays, depicting the battle between the forces of good and evil; typically tinged with the illusory promise of something better when our hard-wired selves ultimately wear out.

The other option is the option I think Jesus is advocating in the synagogue. One can acknowledge a conscious awareness of something new and revelatory stirring within oneself, beckoning one to see with new eyes. However, this spiritual wellspring is not some external divine, but something just as worthy of being revered as sacred; namely, the human conscience. It is the awareness one might liken to an internal “divining rod” of what is right or wrong. And one which supersedes any external moral constructs of right and wrong, and instead instigates compassionate acts for a common good; yielding to a sense of personal purpose, and a kind of conversion or transformation worthy of any reputable “spiritual” quest for a meaningful life.

Right about now if all of this has your head swimming, I want to give you two “secular” examples Bennison quotes. They are examples of transformative power of human conscience, or lack thereof. The first is about the Whistleblower Edward Snowden who was a former security analyst contractor with the NSA. He made the conscious decision to breach the confidentiality agreement he had with the government, flee the country with sensitive documents, and then disclose the evidence government officials were flat out lying to the American public about the massive level of surveillance being indiscriminately conducted on the citizenry.

Snowden violated U.S. law by his conduct, jeopardized military information gathering practices and was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. When asked why he did so, he explained it as a matter of conscience; where his actions were essentially the result of competing external values and the importance he placed upon himself of one over the other. He has said he was willing to accept the consequences of his actions, and that no matter what happened to him, he felt good about what he did. For him, one might say, it was a self-redemptive act.  It gave him a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s also worth noting that two years later, a bill was introduced in Congress to overhaul the Patriot Act, curtailing the metadata collection program exposed by Snowden.

A second example: The late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL known as the American sniper, was a renowned killing machine; credited with saving his comrades time and again in Iraq. “After the first kill, the others come easy,” he wrote in his best-selling memoir. “I don’t have to psych myself up, or do something special mentally — I look through the scope, get my target in the cross hairs, and kill my enemy, before he kills one of my people.”

When explaining how he’d managed to kill one insurgent from an incredible distance, he was quoted saying, “God blew that bullet and hit him.” Kyle went on to say he performed his duty with the values he held to be most important to him, and with a “clear conscience.”

At the same time, Kyle subsequently suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his military service. The bitter irony is that he himself was shot and killed at point blank range at a shooting range by another troubled veteran suffering from PTSD.

Now, we may all have our own opinions and labels for who is the hero, the villain, the patriot, or the traitor. But once consciously aware of what they were doing or had done, it might be said it became for both of these individuals a wrestling match with their better natures. They struggled to reconcile their hard-wired self with their soft-wired conscience; each in their own redemptive quest.

Our own small lives may not be as dramatic as these examples. But for those of us who may have previously simply relegated the idea of spiritual transformation to the religious life, as opposed to our everyday life might consider what we would identify as our own conscience, when and how we become consciously aware of it, and how we apply it to the manner in which we live our life. Is it good enough to take a position on something that is incongruent with what we believe to be the meaning of human life? Is the diversity we seek and exclusion of another? Is our position of human sexuality Just, inclusive, accepting, non-discriminatory, and is it loving, empowering, encouraging and does it embrace what it means to be human together. Or as Bennison might put it; How does your soft-wired side within inform and direct your hard-wired world in ways that give real meaning and purpose to your life? Jesus brought about a healing by challenging the rules, despite their institutional legitimacy, despite their potential for disruption. He was transforming the spirit of life by his conscious, conscientious objection. Amen.

http://thechristianprogressive.com/ John William Bennison,

Pentecost 13C, 2016 Luke 12:49-56

Violence, Faith, and Reconstruction

Last week I think I argued for a need to revisit our concepts of life, of Religion and of God and I think I suggested that we should examine our assumptions and the limits of our imagination. I think I also suggested that our obsession with reason and belief as primary modes of engagement with truth could be questioned. I don’t think I left much untouched and maybe left you with a world too complex to deal with. I don’t think that feeling is anything new but rather just the normal human response to the future. It is always more complex, more detailed, and more confusing than the present, let alone the past. No wonder we prefer things the way they were. It was easier, more certain, and simpler or so we think. I am not sure my parents didn’t say the same about the future in their perspective.

Just taking a look at the present as people who call ourselves ‘Christian’ we might suggest like Sam Harris does in his book ‘The End Of Faith’; that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed” (Sam Harris. End of Faith/45).

Harris is here placing the world we have today in the hands of the religious moderate and I for one found that hard to take. I place myself among those moderates because as a liberal and inclusive and peace advocating person I according to Harris have allowed scriptural literalism to flourish and religious violence to have legitimacy. This is an interesting challenge in that some in the progressive movement in NZ are trying to find a place for dialogue with the Presbyterian Fundamentalists and I hope they don’t compromise the progressive position in the interests of harmony. The theological difference is crucial real and needs to be as our text suggests.

Our text for today tells it how it is. In the words attributed to Jesus we hear of the struggle to deal with the realities of being human in an environment where violence is a legitimate response. Hey, look he says; My task is to stir you up and disrupt your world, turn it inside out in fact. The disruption will be transformative of your very familial system, of all your assumptions about what’s right and wrong!! This is huge when we realize that the familial system is at the very root of the society they know. Why can’t you see this he says; It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

We read the text;

49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son    and son against father, mother against daughter    and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

Interpreting the Time

54 He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

When we read this Lucan story and really hear the words we have to admit to getting a bit of a shock.  This isn’t the gentle and long-suffering and peaceful and approachable Jesus many of us have traditionally come to expect. This sounds like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone near the end of his tether. And it is a text with a deeper message we have to dig out?

Hearing the story again, we can still feel somewhat anxious, because it paints such a dark picture, and then we realize that it is a dark story because history has proved it true in so many ways. When we take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit we find that the scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar in their notes on this story, write that “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce into family relationships, the suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

Immediately we begin to wrestle with the idea of a peaceful existence being the result of familial breakup. It make sense because we know that not all families are good places to be and we know that some of the most bitter rivalry exists in families, Not all marriages work and not all families are good places to be when siblings differ in their wants, needs, and world views. About now I hear the West Australian theologian Bill Loader saying; “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”

But then he goes on to say, “…or is it?  ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The peace is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts which are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity.  Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes.  At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo.  For many people Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly.  The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spirituality” The gospel becomes an unworkable dream or aspiration at worst and a simple human feel good therapy at best. Maybe that’s what our text is on about?

It is also true that Religion has been the cause of many wars and conflicts, and has divided families. The most long running one for many of us is the Northern Ireland conflict. It seems that even though we think we have reached a lasting peace it still goes on at some levels, not unlike that of the women’s equality enterprise or the racial questions in the States.

The text seems to make sense in this so-called reality we know yet in another way we can find this story… comforting. Comforting that Jesus not only knew what stress was, but that he responded to it in exactly the way human beings have always responded to it. Despite his regular habit of going into lonely places to pray and to restore his own space and equilibrium, he still experienced stress and tiredness and perhaps a degree of depression, and he reacted to it.

And again as I suggested last week some of us will find these words difficult to hear… and that’s maybe, because we often tend to see Jesus as not really a real human and so it isn’t always easy to realize how his chosen way of action, must have got Jesus down at times.

In his short few years he set out to change the socio- political, and religious worlds. Is it any wonder he needed time out occasionally or that he lost his cool sometimes? We often tend to think of Jesus as some superhuman being who doesn’t feel things. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the storyteller we call Luke it speaks to us of a very human Jesus and of the lifelong nature of the world changing task we are called to embark on.

The truth is that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. For us today our world is a world that is often rocked with religious violence. A world where people bomb and kill other people all in the name of God. Yes we know that media plays a huge role in placing the blame in the hands of the religious but in the end we allow that. I am aware that moderate Muslims in NZ are afraid to speak out because of fear of being put upon by fundamentalists and even though the media might be caught up in terrorists causes by accepting their claims to be Muslim or Christian Militia, or a particular movements recruits, all this seems supportive of the claim that moderate’s allow this violence to continue. The question we are left with is whether or not there is there something in our religious tradition that encourage acts of violence? And if there is, what are we doing about it?

Even moderates do not believe that it is God’s will for hundreds of people to die in the bomb explosions and even if we think that the horrific attacks on people and property are wake up calls for us to realize just what our alliances are perpetrating in the name of control and even peace. And to ask ourselves just what our responsibility is, to remain true to our progressive journey in faith we cannot and do not want to say that this violence is from God.

While our text is a reality check as a reminder that our decisions and what we support matters it is not a claim that we need to have the violence of God in order to hear the ‘good news’?

But let’s just wrestle with the so-called ‘reality’ for a bit. Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Is the reality about the fact that bad people get their deserts or is it rather that the ‘good news’ itself is a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Here I think of the difference between retributive justice and distributive justice, revenge and justice or the world’s justice and God’s justice perhaps.

Continuing this line of thinking process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” He then answers his question. He says “… is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will?  Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not ‘strong enough.’

Here again we return to the discussion last week where we talked about the anatomy of power. We ask “What kind of power does God have?  Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving?  Is it power found in some sort of power over or a power found in weakness, a turn the other cheek, love your enemies sort of weakness? What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God?  Another question might be: What does it mean to win or conquer?” Can both parties win?

The truth is that we don’t need to be university historians to know of the triumphal Christian church behind Constantine’s sword “the bloody Crusades in which Roman Catholics slaughtered Orthodox Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the use of Christian just war doctrine to rationalize countless conflagrations, including politicians justifications of the war in Iraq” (McLennan 2009:115-16).

So how can we hear the words of Luke’s Jesus, today? Rex Hunt has a couple of suggestions. He says: First, we need to hear them in context. And that context seems to have been an expectation, wrongly, that the world was coming to an imminent end.

With an imminent end coming people were required to live ‘in the proper way’ even when parents or friends or one’s spouse may have held a different religious orientation.

Second, we need to hear these words within the dominant Jesus message, usually summened up in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount.

Third, we can listen to the critics of religion.  And listen well. Sam Harris says there is ‘good religion’.  He writes: “We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality…  Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways” (Harris 2006:88, 90).

Sallie McFague in her book Models of God, has suggested that each age must look at how its images for God function. And if some images work for death, it is appropriate, even necessary, to find the new ones that work for life.  All of life. I think this is what undergirded my sermon last week about the need for our concept of God to be real to where we are at in our world view.

It is also affirming of my claim last week that thinking theologically, is more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past. To reconstruct, rather than just restate. The challenge of today then, is to get on with that reconstruction journey. Amen.

 

Notes: Harris, S. 2006.  Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf. Harris, S. 2004.  The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton. Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”.  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost12.htm McFague, S. 1987.  Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press. McLennan. S. 2009.  Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan. Rick Marshall.   < http://www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/YearC/2009-2010/2010-08-15.shtml&gt; Susan Nelson.  <www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/Year

Almost

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

‘ALMOST’

Pentecost 12C 7.8.2016

The story goes that Jesus has died on the cross for our sins, and this we knew because the Bible told us so. This world was a cozy world, theologically speaking, without doubt, without confusion, without critical thinking. For some of us however that all changed when we went to school or when we matured. We began to learn about alternatives. Throughout our lives some of us no longer tender, accepting of everything we hear and see as true and absolute, even if we are sometimes a little more confused, we are definitely more critical. Of course there are some who have resisted this development because it seems to shake the foundations too much. Much easier to hang on to a childhood truth than venture into the unknown.

When we think about how our view of the world changes we realize that its very hard to know where through the years one thought morphed into another, where the boundary line was between thinking this way and then that. The other thing also is that it seems even more confusing today. Science continues to cross new frontiers almost every day. China is building a huge factory to clone cows. Biologists are splicing genes into the appropriate place to cure disease. Hubble telescope sends pictures of distant galaxies. On and on……

Meanwhile, in our religious world, it seems that fundamentalists who have successfully co-opted the name “Christian”, picket and attack abortion clinics, wail about taking Jesus out of Christmas, proclaim the bible as the infallible word of god, and even take over the infrastructure of political parties. For those of us who are non-fundamentalist in theology we struggle with where we want to be in all this.

Those of us who are comfortable with the idea of critique and questioning pretty much believe that Jesus was not born of a virgin, did not walk on water, and did not leave a tomb empty. God did not dictate the bible, does not interfere in nature, is not omnipotent, does not sit on a throne, and will not cure you of your disease. Sounds a bit like we know what we don’t want but do we know what we do want? Well I think that we do believe and it is just that, what we believe is always open, inclusive and arguable, it is not limited by fact, logic, reason or imagination and it is always open to interpretation, always fluid, always seeking the alternative because our belief is always functional in our living. It has to always fit with what we have come to believe. Put the Hubble pictures of outer space in front of us, or try to convince us that reality is a probability curve, or that particles on opposite sides of the universe affect one another instantly, and what to believe becomes a bit more uncertain, and by being uncertain it enters the realm of almost, that which is still to be and the possible. It is understandable that it is easier to believe in a bearded god sitting on a throne than to believe in what appears to be more grounded in speculation and philosophical wanderings .But believe it we must, at least some of it. That’s what I want to try to touch on today and to do it in a 15 minute sermon.

I want to see if I can touch on some realities that demand our attention, no matter who we are or what we think. Some of this will be from science, some from the social sciences, but all of it impacts us and asks us to reflect upon it. Keep in mind that I am not trying to convince anybody of anything. It is just that there appears to be some facts that need to be accepted, and that there are a variety of ways in which we can react to those facts. The key to doing this exercise is that I think theology has something to say and that I think the facts impact our belief in god.

The first fact is cosmology or more correctly what we can know about the Universe. We can know that the universe is incredible, literally. With the help of land-and satellite-based telescopes, mathematics and astro-physics we are presented with a universe that stretches our imagination. Start with a star and its planetary system. Add to that a couple of hundred billion comparable systems in a rather limited area of space, and call that a galaxy. Gather a hundred billion or so such galaxies, and call that a cluster. I’m not sure how many clusters or cluster groups there are, but even they are connected by long wispy strings of inter-galactic gas.

When one looks at any object in space, what is seen is the light that has taken a long time to reach us. Sunlight, for example, that warms the earth, actually left the sun about 8 minutes previously. When we look at some galaxy, we can measure the distance to it through light spectrum analysis, and we know that what we are seeing is what was there long, long ago. We are not seeing an object as it now is in our time, but as it was when that light first left it. With a formula we created we have measured the distance, and we know the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, so it’s simple division to determine the time. And the age of galaxies turns out to be measured in billions of years. The other thing about this universe is that it is expanding. Everything is moving further away from everything else. Someone said that watch a raison muffin cook is a bit like the universe. Imagine a blob of raisin muffin dough placed in an oven. As the dough rises, all the raisins become further apart from one another. Just like an expanding universe.

How do we know the universe is expanding? Well, I read that we know the elements that constitute a star. And each of these elements gives off a certain spectrum of light. When the source of any light is moving away from us, the wavelength of that light moves closer to the red light end of the spectrum, a process called red-shifting. And every distant star in the universe is red-shifting, proof that they are moving away, becoming more distant, and that the universe is expanding. Stars have a life; they do not exist forever as a hydrogen to helium fireball. Eventually, their energy becomes manifest as atoms of heavier elements, and the fireball creative process diminishes. A recent scholarly inventory of stars shows that stars are not as bright as they used to be. So we have the argument that the universe is expanding and star energy is being transformed into inert elements.

Here we encounter the idea that the universe is dying and at this point I want to suggest that we meet this idea that God that is the ‘almost’, or the yet to be. This God is found in the area of the possible, not unlike that of the Kingdom or Realm of God that Jesus suggests is to come yet already come. Far yet near, Why do I suggest this? Because of the cosmic example we have. Only 4% of the stuff of the universe is what is called ordinary matter. How do we know this? Certain gravitational effects on stars and galaxies can be measured, and the ordinary matter is insufficient to produce the observed effects. The conclusion is that there is more than ordinary matter at play here, and even though we cannot see it, it’s real, and it comes in two forms, matter and energy. So-called dark energy makes up 76% of our universe, dark matter 20%, and we don’t know anything about them other than that they exist. Perhaps a God that we cannot prove exists by any calculation yet a God we know exists. We also think that this unknowable energy is the very force driving the expansion: it is a gravity that is repulsive rather than attractive, an alternative allowed by Einstein’s general theory of gravity. Repulsive gravity! And of course there are problems here that lead to other questions, of course, and that is where, some would argue, it really gets interesting. Inflation of the universe, acceleration of the expansion, more than one universe, multiverses, string theory, a process that led to the Big Bang, Hawking’s belief in self creation out of nothing. If this isn’t a suggestion that if religion or Christian faith is to be more than a social or psychological therapy and that we need to move on from our Sunday School understanding, then I don’t know what is.

The god that many of us thought about as a child was the proverbial old man in the sky. And let’s be honest about this, it’s really a difficult image to erase. Because our understanding effects every part of our living and becomes vice versa. Prayers were always directed toward somebody that could do something, be it bless the food or have Santa bring us a new bike for Christmas. If god can’t DO something, what good is God? The truth is that most of us think of god this way even though we won’t admit it. And most of us don’t believe in this God anyway. The god that atheists reject is usually this God. That’s why when the first Russian cosmonaut circled the earth he reported that he found no god up there. The situation is even more dramatic today. Pictures from outer, outer space that show us the immensity and beauty of the far corners of our universe, do not yet engage with an image of god that fits in with our everyday living. The three tiered universe of biblical times, where heaven was up, sheol was down, and we walked in between, is no longer a tenable option. We know this yet when we analyze our image of God we have to agree that much of engagement in thought clings to this tiered approach.

There are other options that we use of course. One is deism, which basically says that god created the universe, got it started, and then disappeared to somewhere else, having nothing more to do with it. We are now not clear what difference this god might make. Pantheism, in its most basic iteration, asserts that everything is god. One might ask of pantheism how god differs from matter. The same question can be put to a third option called panentheism, which asserts that god is everywhere, in everything, but also different. I have to admit that my most recent fundamentalism was to waffle around panentheism where God is said to transcend the universe. Just how god “transcends” or differs from the universe is a bit difficult to figure out. Paul Tillich, one of the great theologians of the last century, tried to describe this transcendent god as the Ground of Being or Being-Itself. I like others find that a limitation of God.

Another approach is to identify god as the consciousness or mind of the universe. This approach has a certain attraction about it. After all, we as humans like to believe that we have a mind, a self-consciousness that inhabits our body, a spirit, a soul, so shouldn’t god be the soul of the universe? An offshoot of this approach places god’s consciousness in the evolution of ours. That is, in the history of the universe, the universe has become self-conscious, and that self-consciousness is manifest in homo sapiens. I suppose that a corollary of this option is that when we die off, so does god.

Another and rather inventive theology comes out of string theory. String theory postulates that everything is made up of vibrating strings, so infinitesimally tiny that, by definition, they can never be observed, only theorized. To make the math “work” (according to mathematicians), there have to be eleven dimensions. Not just the three that we’ve all come to know and love, but eleven, hiding right next to us, totally unseen. God, one might say, is hiding in one of these dimensions. There is a certain attraction to this model as well: it literally makes a place for god that surrounds us but transcends us at the same time in the same place. As a bonus, it can never be proven or disproven. No cosmonaut will ever give us a report.

The easiest way to react to the apparent infinity of space, is probably just to accept it and wash the dishes. But where did it all come from??? I’m one of those people that postpones the dishes and asks that question. It’s all very confusing, and I need a simple answer.

So instead of beginning with the infinite universe, I, as an inadequate Christian theologian, begin with history, and ask a simple question. Where did Christianity begin? And what was it all about? Some people might answer by saying: Christianity began when Jesus was born in a manger, or when god decided to become a man, or when the crucified Jesus came back to life. But the answer is: none of the above. What is clear is that when this real person named Jesus was walking around talking to people, some responded with an enthusiasm that went way beyond the ordinary. We call them the disciples. The male dominated church of later decades and centuries limited those disciples to twelve men, but the record tells us about at least an equal number of women were incredibly taken with this Jesus and followed him in his travels. There were about 25 disciples, men and women who discovered something rather special in Jesus, and if they had never discovered that, no one would have paid any attention to him. He would have gone on to lead the life of a first century Galilean, and that would have been the end it. So the encounter between Jesus and his disciples was the beginning. Their initial experience is the foundation upon which were built the later gospel stories, the edifice of the Christian church, and all the dogma and doctrine, orthodox and heretical, that has occupied theologians for two millennia. It seems to me that we should pay serious attention to that experience. And we’re still talking history, not faith, and we are still talking a human Jesus and not a Christ or a transcendent Messiah of any sort.

To answer what Christianity was is not as easy as we might think. No reporters, no video cams, not even any first edition books. We do however have the a library of notes that grew out of oral reports and assumed their final form sometime between 60-120 CE, but there are no direct quotes, only intimations of what probably was going on. The consensus of scholarship leads us to conclude that the disciples’ experience with Jesus falls into two categories: according to their testimony, they discovered what it meant to be a fulfilled human being, and they discovered who god was for them.

Limiting ourselves to the absolute bare minimum that can be affirmed historically with near certainty, as homo sapiens of two thousand years ago, the disciples learned:

  • that the extremely limited individual and parochial world that they had created for themselves could be overcome and their eyes could be opened
  • that their lives had meaning, as opposed to emptiness
  • that the sense of a transcendent something that they experienced in moments of encounter with Jesus was the same transcendent something that encountered them in the special moments experienced every day
  • that they needed one another.

The question here is what more do we need?

 

Do we need a supernatural Jesus to discover who God is for us today?

 

Do we need a God who is limited by human capabilities or human limitations?

 

Or do we need a God that engages in our experience which has changed immensely from that of the time Jesus lived.

After Jesus had been executed, the disciples gathered together and came to a startling conclusion: that the man Jesus who was dead was now alive in their midst as spirit. Which was not that of a resuscitated corpse. Despite all the hoopla about Jesus walking out of the tomb that is not at all what those people believed. The disciples, according to the writers, despite the fact that Jesus had been crucified, now believed that he was still alive in their midst, enough so that they were willing to face death themselves in proclaiming this experience as truth.

Not a resuscitated corpse, because their respect for nature and its place would not allow that, and not “just” spirit either because that thinking was an added development that came with the spread of the Jesus movement toward the east. I want to suggest that Jesus, alive as spirit, was, for them, a new manifestation of reality that had not been experienced before. There were no tools with which to conceptualize this Jesus. That is very likely why the church spent so much time and energy trying to? The later library of stories spoke of appearances and an empty tomb, but they were still but pointers to the resurrection, not the thing itself.

What did this experience indicate about god? About the universe? What do we learn here? The resurrection, understood in this way, as a new reality, helped the disciples to believe quite simply that the evil manifest at the crucifixion was not the last word, The oppressive Empire would not succeed. This resurrection was a divine affirmation that love is the essence of all that is, and that god does not act through brute force but acts through the power of this love. These are two huge statements. And they are statements, now not of history, but faith.

Having said that love is the essence of all that is it is not at all obvious that love wins. In fact, the opposite seems more likely true. If thinking of god philosophically is something of a dead end, thinking of a loving god in a world replete with evil seems to be a road with no beginning. I suspect that about now you will be asking for a sermon on sin and what it might be but I will resist that path for another time. For now, I want to put on the table the faith statement that for Christian theology the impossible resurrection of Jesus is a message and it is that the opposite is possible, that goodness and love are the driving forces of the cosmos. The point is not that there was a factual bodily resurrection. The point is that goodness and love drive the universe.

Having said that, we have to say that the experience of the disciples does not give us license to talk about all those concepts that Christian theology has loved to talk about, of which there are many. For example, from the gospel of John, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and the word was god…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us…” For as wonderful and comforting as this may be, it is pure speculation. Jesus ascended into heaven and became the second person of the trinity. Again, pure speculation. Jesus died for our sins. Pure speculation. The disciples did not experience any of this; it came later as people started to reflect on that original experience.

This is not to say that that which is speculated is necessarily wrong, but we should realize that it is speculative in nature. It is I suggest ‘almost’ or yet to be’. We might say that from the resurrection of Jesus, the early disciples came to believe that it is love that in the final analysis guides all that is. Although I’m willing to bet that many humanists would agree, this is a statement that is unavailable to both cosmology and evolution.

As I suggested earlier, for me personally, believing in god and a universe of love is no more difficult than believing in the expanding universe, a multiverse, reality as a probability curve, or the entanglement of particles. One might also say that what science today sets forth as reality is about as bizarre as an active god sitting on a heavenly throne. We can no longer say that there is proof that the science is true and that there is no proof that god is real. One might suggest that truth and reality are now in the same world. One might also argue that those moments that we all experience in our daily lives lead us to suspect that there is ‘almost’ there is a ‘yet to be’ perhaps a cosmic Spirit, ‘behind’ or ‘within’ or ‘about’ those experiences. Maybe there is a yet to be, an almost come, in other words a ‘Holy intuition that there is more to life and reality than meets the eye? This I think leads us toward an exploration of what we mean by evolution but that’s another sermon or two for another day. That question might be ‘What do we mean about a God who is ‘almost’ or ‘yet to be’ when changes are due simply to random mutation and adaptation’?

Amen.

The Prayer

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 9C. 2016 Luke 11:1-13

THE PRAYER

PRAYER CHANGES PEOPLE AND PEOPLE CHANGE THINGS

One of the most perplexing and yet most valued practices in progressive Christian thinking is prayer and I want to spend share some thinking as my sermon this morning. Notice I said share some thinking, I did not say provide a definition or give any answers as to what prayer is or how it works, but in the thinking there is a hint of what it might be. There is a significant clue in my title for today’s discussion in that it can be about a prayer, a particular prayer and it can also be about the prayer, the person or persons who are praying. It is always a noun but has two forms, one as the object the prayer or the set of words and the other as the user of that object, the person who is praying the prayer. Its source is Middle English out of Old French and Latin from around the 12 to 14 hundreds. What I want to explore today is that ambiguity or that relationship between object and function because I think that somewhere in there is theology or as I understand theology to be; Saying an emphatic ‘Yes’ to life expressed as art within the context of the threats, the mystery, the amazingly full and yet amazingly empty nature of the cosmos. The yes is of course due to acts of interpretation that create meaning and value as the art of being alive, and it is here that we bother to pray because in exploring the imagination , praying as though something new is possible in the impossible. In expecting the unknown outcome, the unanswerable prayer to be answered there is a confidence based in trust, there is a trust rooted in the interpretation, in the artful expression. Just as a poem makes sense to the hearer who listens beyond the words so the prayer changes things. It is here that joy is the emotional expression of the courageous yes to what it truly means to be human.

And let’s also acknowledge that this is at the very core of what the Bible is. We explored that a couple of weeks ago when we explored the nature of what the Bible is and isn’t. And if theology is the art of saying yes to life, then life has to be about finding meaning in the emptiness of the universe. The writer of Ecclesiastes talks about the vanity of vanities and refers to momentary vapour that fades to nothing like a frosty breath on a winter’s morning. This is what gives theology its wild but creative affirmation of meaning and saying yes to meaning is an act, as David Galston suggests it is a human-creating act. Sadly Christianity has since the earliest years of the movement sought to push away the need for trust and courage and even joy and replaced them with final judgements and closed answers like dogmatic creeds. As an aside here it interesting to see that our debates about human sexuality are less about sexuality and more about our need to preserve, keep pure, and remove all possibility of debate. Truth is less about the discovery of something and more about its imprisonment. One has to say here that such action is the denial of theology, destruction of the interpretive task, the hermeneutic that is the very core task of theology. To arrive at an irrefutable truth is to close the questioning and end the task of religion. And in our own churches approach which has historically been as a Church with a Confessional focus as opposed to a sacred or a salvational one, our church has had a philosophical link to the medieval God as a necessary being. It also holds on to the primary being as perfect and unchanging. Again in relation to prayer this means that one has to be in a conversation with something as opposed to seeking and acting out the thoughts as acts of poetic enactment of the imagination trusting in their own efficacy to change things.

What this suggests is that our construct of prayer is what is threatened by the evolution of our thought about what thought is and about what its part in our lives is. Contemporary philosophical theology no longer upholds the ontological argument as it was expressed in the middle ages. For progressives God is no longer seen as meta physical, or greater than physical, other than physical, God is particle in empirical science or maybe that what the hope is, and for progressives God is a reasonable assumption within the experience of being, no longer being in itself. Galston suggests that reason cannot prove that God exists but reason can prove that it is not possible to prove God does not exist. Caputo and others prefer to say that God exists as that which is to be or that which is almost. This can be seen to be a way forward for us as a church because it is confessional in nature. It attempts to force human reason into admitting that God’s existence is entirely credible and in regard to our topic for today it legitimates the claim that prayer changes things. It makes prayer a credible activity.

In simple language then prayer is as Michael Morwood suggests ‘the language of the heart’. It is an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life and the always present God rather than an elsewhere God. So taking all this I want to round of today by walking us through two ‘Community’ prayers or alternative ‘Lord’s Prayers’ The first is a prayer written by a Paul Alan Laughlin who wrote what he calls a Mystical Lord’s Prayer.

Laughlin introduces the prayer by saying that the first and perhaps most important thing that sets his version of the Lord’s Prayer off from the others is its theology, which dispenses entirely with the personal, parental Father-Sky-God of the original, and replaces “Him” with a non-personal, immanent power-presence (or sourceforce), an infinite one (or One) that is none other (or non-Other) than the spiritual core of the person or persons reciting or singing the prayer.  The implicit theology of this prayer, then, is not monotheism but monism…

“The second distinctive feature of his version of the Lord’s Prayer follows from the first; for having eliminated a personal divine Other above, this Lord’s Prayer… has no petitions for any intercessory acts on behalf of a human individual or group.  In their stead are strong affirmations of how we are already emboldened from within ourselves to become better persons and to accomplish ever-greater things.  This “Lord’s Prayer,” then, can properly be regarded as a daily reminder of our full human potential-miraculous and praiseworthy in its own right-to be good and do good.

“Thus he says his Lord’s Prayer is not an invocative device, but an evocative (psyche) exercise in self-realization-or perhaps Self-realization, if the ego-self is to be distinguished from one’s deepest and truest identity, as it is in most mystical traditions.  For humanists, this “within” may be seen differently: as our rational and empirical faculties, perhaps after the fashion of Plato, who equated the human “soul” with the intellect.  In either case, what we have here is an acknowledgement of a mysterious and in some sense sans divine Immanence (versus Eminence) – a reference to the indwelling mysterious Presence and Power that (at least for mystics) permeates or infuses the cosmos, and that (for humanists as well, though probably the capitals) abides in nature, human nature, and therefore ourselves”

After that explanation we hear the words of his Mystical Lord’s Prayer.

O presence and pow’r within us, Being and Life of all. How we are filled, how we o’erflow with infinite love and gladness!

We shall this day sow grace and peace, and show mercy to all, and gentle loving-kindness.

And we shall be not so self-serving, but a constant source of giving.

For ours is the essence, and the wholeness, and the fullness forever.

My critique of his prayer is to suggest that while I applaud the attempt to do what the explanations suggests and to recognize the anthropomorphic boundaries I feel that he has overdone that at the expense of the cosmic environment of the human species. Of course when you again read my attempt there are excess words in an effort to express the macro and the micro as well as the anthropomorphic in tension. Anyway let’s just hear my rationale and you can make your own. This is after all a poetry excursion in search of meaning.

Our eternal life which is in all creation

Known through the life of Jesus, the anointed one;

 

Here we have the timelessness of the evolutionary story. In the beginning stuff that is expressed again in the now, outside of any created boundary such as time. However all this eternal and all the creation is only ever as we humans picture it, imagine it, describe it and think it into being. Jesus the one like us is special because his life makes connections with ours beyond the limits of time and space. He is a human being be it a very special and insightful one.

 

Let the divine will be done in us and all creatures.

Help us as we long for a life of wisdom,

 

We recognize that this way of thinking about the purpose and the place of human life gives a sacredness, a specialness and a divine nature to all that lives. Life is what we seek to understand because it is so wonderful and it draws us forward in our search as creatures that strive for greater understanding about everything. That is why education is so important.

and awaken us to our blindness. Enable us to forgive ourselves and others,

for we cannot see the light; other than as alluring shadow.

 

This is an attempt to recognise that freedom to create brings with it responsibilities of due care and while traditionally we might have called this sin and human potential to sin the concepts of fallen nature and sinfulness have been tools of fear producing programs that we seek to change. The words recognize that human beings can be blind to things that are deeper in our culture and they recognize the need for a reconciliation process such as forgiveness.

 

Help us see that our billions of years

are the universe in all its glory.

Let the divine light at inconceivable speed

illuminate the dark curves of our sight,

 

These words acknowledge the vastness of our cosmic environment and that it is the human measurement of time and space that gives us the means of indentification and interpretation. We can see ourselves as a species with a history, and evolutionary path and a longevity within the billions and in the face of that which is in the realm of imagination there is the hope of illumination and thus understanding.

 

and show us the glow of our cells. Travel with us as we walk the star path

all the way to the Source of Wisdom that is Love.

For ever and ever Amen.

 

Here is again the dichotomy, the complexity and the wonder of the human creature, the subject around, for and though who the cosmos exists a simple small almost unidentifiable organism on the wondrous journey toward that which is the source of all that is. The vast indescribable organism is what it is in the act of love. Amen.

Notes: “Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer” by a group of Refugees, El Salvador, in G. Duncan. (ed) 2005.  Entertaining Angels. A Worship Anthology on Sharing Christ’s Hospitality. London. Canterbury Press. Mack, B. 1993.  The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q and Christian Origins. New York. HarperCollins. Morwood, M. 2003.  Praying a New Story. Richmond. Spectrum Publications. Taussig, H. 1999.  Jesus before God. The Prayer Life of the Historical Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Wieman, H. N. 1946.  The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.

Galston D 2016 God’s Human Future, The struggle to define Theology Today Salem Oregon Polebridge Press