Integrity is Recognising ‘The Sacred’ Where We Are

Posted: September 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 16C, 2016

Luke 14: 25-33

Integrity is Recognising ‘The Sacred’ Where We Are

One of the most important things that has arisen from the enlightenment is the need to understand the background and culture of Jesus as the most important thing to consider when we come across stories such as those we have today. Without a cultural setting we cannot hope to understand Jesus’ comment that his followers must ‘hate’, or more accurately, ‘detach oneself from’, their immediate family members! Sure we can probably skim past this need because we live in a time when the idea of family means a lot of things. A large percentage of young people’s experiences of family are widely varied. The rosy nuclear family unit is undergoing huge change with the growth of blended families and more communal family models so leaving the family is no great thing and often considered an advancement in terms of valuable relationships, but it was not the environment of Jesus. For a start the idea of a nuclear unit did not exist and secondly the family was an integral part of the way a society existed. Without a familial connection one struggled to even exist in society and the idea of individual human rights was rare.

On the surface the call of Jesus to leave one’s family for the gospel still offends against all the values most people hold dear even if today family is not so rosy.

I want to jump a little now, still holding to the context as vital but exploring the use of language in a context. In other words take a literary critique as a way of contextualizing the text. I want like Bill Loader the Australian Theologian suggest that in our reading level Luke the storyteller has Jesus employing a common rhetorical device, used by many of the wisdom sages of the day.

One of the key aspects is that the approach Jesus uses would be familiar, even if offensive, to the audience. Rex Hunt suggests this sort of speech should be familiar to Australians who were brought up on the writings of Banjo Paterson. I want to read you one of these writings as example… It’s a poem called ‘A Bush Christening’ published in 1893.

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few, And men of religion are scanty, On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost, One Michael Magee had a shanty.

Now this Mike was the dad of a ten year old lad, Plump, healthy, and stoutly conditioned; He was strong as the best, but poor Mike had no rest For the youngster had never been christened.

And his wife used to cry, `If the darlin’ should die Saint Peter would not recognise him.’ But by luck he survived till a preacher arrived, Who agreed straightaway to baptise him.

Now the artful young rogue, while they held their collogue, With his ear to the keyhole was listenin’, And he muttered in fright, while his features turned white, `What the divil and all is this christenin’?’

He was none of your dolts, he had seen them brand colts, And it seemed to his small understanding, If the man in the frock made him one of the flock, It must mean something very like branding.

So away with a rush he set off for the bush, While the tears in his eyelids they glistened — `’Tis outrageous,’ says he, `to brand youngsters like me, I’ll be dashed if I’ll stop to be christened!’

Like a young native dog he ran into a log, And his father with language uncivil, Never heeding the `praste’ cried aloud in his haste, `Come out and be christened, you divil!’

But he lay there as snug as a bug in a rug, And his parents in vain might reprove him, Till his reverence spoke (he was fond of a joke) `I’ve a notion,’ says he, `that’ll move him.’

`Poke a stick up the log, give the spalpeen a prog; Poke him aisy — don’t hurt him or maim him, ‘Tis not long that he’ll stand, I’ve the water at hand, As he rushes out this end I’ll name him.

`Here he comes, and for shame! ye’ve forgotten the name — Is it Patsy or Michael or Dinnis?’ Here the youngster ran out, and the priest gave a shout — `Take your chance, anyhow, wid `Maginnis’!’

As the howling young cub ran away to the scrub Where he knew that pursuit would be risky, The priest, as he fled, flung a flask at his head That was labelled `MAGINNIS’S WHISKY’!

And Maginnis Magee has been made a J.P., And the one thing he hates more than sin is To be asked by the folk, who have heard of the joke, How he came to be christened `Maginnis’!

One has tom agree that people in 1893 might have thought such language an affront to religion, while underneath the rhetoric is the challenge to the efficacy of baptism and a question about the place of ritual in real life.

As I was reading this I thought of a New Zealand example that might be helpful. I can remember when James K Baxter was a controversy in NZ and I can also remember my responses which were a struggle to rejoice at the critique he was making of our society while at the same time hearing older folk around me and their view of a worthless hippie bludging on the taxpayer.

This is a poem by James K Baxter called ‘The Maori Jesus’ and I have to admit that as I read it I found the engagement with culture easier. I am not an Australian it seems.

I saw the Maori Jesus Walking on Wellington Harbour. He wore blue dungarees, His beard and hair were long. His breath smelled of mussels and paraoa. When he smiled it looked like the dawn. When he broke wind the little fishes trembled. When he frowned the ground shook. When he laughed everybody got drunk. The Maori Jesus came on shore And picked out his twelve disciples. One cleaned toilets in the railway station; His hands were scrubbed red to get the shit out of the pores. One was a call-girl who turned it up for nothing. One was a housewife who had forgotten the Pill And stuck her TV set in the rubbish can. One was a little office clerk Who’d tried to set fire to the Government Buldings. Yes, and there were several others; One was a sad old quean; One was an alcoholic priest Going slowly mad in a respectable parish. The Maori Jesus said, ‘Man, From now on the sun will shine.’ He did no miracles; He played the guitar sitting on the ground. The first day he was arrested For having no lawful means of support. The second day he was beaten up by the cops For telling a dee his house was not in order. The third day he was charged with being a Maori And given a month in Mt Crawford. The fourth day he was sent to Porirua For telling a screw the sun would stop rising. The fifth day lasted seven years While he worked in the Asylum laundry Never out of the steam. The sixth day he told the head doctor, ‘I am the Light in the Void; I am who I am.’ The seventh day he was lobotomised; The brain of God was cut in half. On the eighth day the sun did not rise. It did not rise the day after. God was neither alive nor dead. The darkness of the Void, Mountainous, mile-deep, civilised darkness Sat on the earth from then till now.

While Baxter appears to have been more philosophical one can still feel the context of the writing as a critique of the place of religion in everyday life. Baxter was a Catholic and a New Zealander and one can sense the Maori experience of life at the time.

I hope you by now have been able to engage with this sort of language that is part of a culture yet at the same time challenges the integrity of that culture. Another example of this sort of speech might be that of politicians speeches and promises during election time. They seek to find the support for their election by exploring the culture of the time and tell their story of how they will react to it.

Bill Loader suggests that Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. He suggests that Luke’s concern is the power of family. “A Family power and control which will not release from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge” (WLoader Web site 2004).

One could think here perhaps of the Family First group that uses a concept of family to articulate and some might say impose their morality on others. What is the family that they espouse and assume to be the best place to be? Should that family be promoted?

And Bill Loader goes on: he says: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family” (WLoader Web site 2004).

In a society where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore saying that “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core” (Funk & Hoover 1993:353).

So… responding to a possible life-threatening situation for his own small community,

Luke the storyteller, weaves together a collection of sage-type sayings… Some probably said by the sage Jesus. Some most likely said by other sages. Luke weaves them together and places them before his community with this challenge: to be a disciple of Jesus one must be willing to let go of what one values most – family, possessions, even one’s own life. Let go… of being possessed by them.  Something else is at stake. Luke seems clear in his mind: let go and be a disciple rather than just a supporter or admirer. I might say in the context of this address that he is saying let go of the assumptions and face up to the outcomes of what blind acceptance does. It locks life away in a sinful place, a place of imprisoned human expression.

Now I want to offer you another example of this sort of counter-cultural, challenge and again I want to say that it is at one and the same time of our present culture and yet also a challenge to it. Here it is.

Jesus did not die for our sins, because they are our responsibility. He did not die as a sacrifice for us, because his living is more important to us. It is his living concept of God, and God’s involvement in human life that is important rather than in his dying a human death. If his acceptance of death has anything to say it is that he believed he could not compromise his vision of what the world could really be like when looked at through God’s eyes. Sure sin exists but only as that which separates us from living a life in God and being forgiven our sin is not about being freed from being fully human, just as being a follower of Jesus is not about feeling good, having huge resources or escaping the real world. It us about living fully human in the real world without fear but with the greatest integrity. In other words the journey of a God-like life is to be committed to the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished. And reality is about seeking to maintain the integrity of the journey which is an adhering to moral and ethical principles always birthed in a soundness of moral character and with honesty. We all know how to be good regardless of what good means.

Rex Hunt in the magazine of the NSW Synod of the Uniting Church once wrote something similar. He wrote that;

  • The cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement.
  • God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but divine sharing in human suffering.
  • Jesus did not invite the cross but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world can really be like when you look at it with God’s eyes.

And when talking about the call to ‘discipleship’ Rex affirmed that it is a call to be on a journey. It is not about the ‘feel good’, ‘flag waving’, ‘happy-clappy’ theologies of much of some Pentecostal or charismatic aberrations. Neither is it about accepting 11th century Archbishop Anselm’s idea of salvation: that the crucifixion of Jesus was willed by God to save the world because humanity’s sinfulness had dishonoured God (Brock 2010).

Anselm’s idea is now called ‘substitutionary atonement theology’ but the call today is about an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love. On the other hand, the call to be ‘church’ is a call of offer a safe place for some depth of theology and reflection and story. The ‘church may not exist in its present form but it can be a place to connect with and deepen our contemporary experience of God or ‘the sacred’ in public life. A place where we can practice belonging… practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004).

And during his presentation to the Common Dreams 2 Conference in Melbourne in 2010, president of The Centre for Progressive Christianity (USA), Revd Fred Plumer, said: “…that “The atonement story was a myth attached to the Jesus story to give more power to the church and its leadership.  It should never have been there.  But I think if the progressive Christian movement is going to progress, we need to repent for the pain that has caused and clearly separate ourselves from this damaging part of the Christian story.  Simply ignoring it no longer seems like an option.  We need to clean our hard drive of this virus.  And then I have hope that we can experience new life in our progressive churches”. Some challenging speeches there are for our contemplation and interpretation. Time for another Baxter perhaps. Amen.

Notes:

Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in Hoover, R. W. (ed)  The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Brock, R. N. 2010.  “The question of the cross in ‘Good’ Friday” in The Huffington Post, 3/4/2010.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover. 1993.  The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan Publishing.

McClendon, J. W. 1974.  Biography as theology. How life stories can remake today’s theology. TN: Nashville. Abingdon Press.

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