“Be Uprooted And Planted In The Sea”

Posted: November 14, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 20C, 2016 Luke 17: 5-10

“Be Uprooted And Planted In The Sea”

‘Unleash Your Faith’

Last week we finished a series focused on finding the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary on the sacred and at the end the question of the afterlife was raised and some very interesting points were discussed. So I thought I would try to explore what that might mean. You need to know here, that I don’t know what I am talking about and in the end I am not sure we will know any more anyway.

This is my way of agreeing with Brandon Scott when he says: “Theology can never begin by assuming that it already has the answer. Any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest”  (Scott 2003).

And so this address is based in the argument that where there is radical doubt, there is also the possibility of new beginnings, of imagination, of hope. Of change.  Or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: Life refuses to be embalmed alive!

I do however want to see if I can put this concern for the afterlife, into the context of eschatology.

Our text says that the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ and he replies that someone with faith the size of a mustard seed could say to a tree “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey them. In other words the apostles were asking Jesus to intervene and make them feel more comfortable, more with it, more in tune with the Jesus Way and he says if you want more faith then get on with it, uproot it from your comfort zone, unleash it from the boundaries you have locked it into, live it.

Henry Nelson Wieman, says that “(faith) is not a verbal statement.  It is a way of life”. And Andrew Greeley, poet, priest and sociologist says: “There is no such thing as a little faith anymore than there is a little pregnancy. Faith is an overwhelming power no matter how weak it may seem”.

What is interesting is that they didn’t say anything about a set of beliefs or affirmations… even though they would both say that honest theological thinking is important. They didn’t say anything about providing answers to a set of questions… even though they would both say that an intelligent religion is more healthy than an unbelievable one. They didn’t say anything about smiting God into the hearts of others; words that we so often experience from the mouths of many evangelical Christians… But their comments do claim however that we can recognise and acknowledge the presence of a God already there!

This is a suggestion that faith is not something we have, or possess, or own. It is never ours and maybe even the word faith itself is redundant in that it has been captured by an old concept linked to a supernatural event managed by a supernatural master being. Maybe it’s time we stopped using the word Faith and this would mean describing our journey not as one of a Christian Journey of Faith and more as a Jesus Way of living a life of trust. And remember; this trust is not a guarantee of anything, it is not a vehicle for security, but rather a way of living with uncertainty, accepting the incomplete, being challenged about the important.

Being uprooted is about leaving the comfort of one’s roots, one’s safety nets and being planted in the sea is about a transformation of world view, Life in a new world, life as one has never experienced it. Unleashing one’s faith is not about hiding that which is hard to understand in the supernatural. It is rather about uncovering the gem, about freeing one’s living from the control of fear, and from the prisons we build into it, and build with it, such as cultural assumptions and doctrinal constructs. And why does this make sense?

It makes sense because the realities of our lives show that it’s almost impossible to find any supernatural claim that is taken seriously today. Many people still talk about there being a realm of supernatural diagnoses and healings beyond the powers and resources of modern science-based medicine, but very few accept that it’s probable. It remains at best in the possible. Some seek healing and resources outside of medicine and the search for alternative substances and therapies indicates this but this is rather the extension of medicine as opposed to seeking solace in the supernatural. And we would have to say that the eschatological world, the world to come is almost gone as well. Very few talk about the second coming anymore and even the last Trump has faded away. Maybe someone should tell the candidate for the American Presidency he needs to change his name.

All joking aside we might look to what is going on in the political world and there too we see that a Faith that is grounded in what one has and what is coming soon, is under huge challenge. Both American main party candidates no longer have inspirational future oriented visions and both use fear as their main vehicle for change. Trump uses the fear of being overrun by immigrants with less patriotism and America being led by someone who is expedient with the truth and Clinton uses the fear of being run by a narcissist, bigot, and a person with no acumen for politics and leadership of a country. (Those are not my words by the way,) The point is that both use fear as a means to manipulate people’s choice.

Don Cupitt, in a recent article suggested that a shift in thinking on a global scale arrived in the 1960s when the final secularization of western thought occurred and almost the whole of the old eschatology vanished. On the evidence of contemporary funeral services the beliefs in the old ‘particular judgement’ of the individual after death and his or her consignment to purgatory have also disappeared. After death nothing further happens, or can happen to us. This suggests that the old eschatology has been secularized but apparently some of it still remains. The old feeling that our time is running out, that life is too short, that a great dark cloud hangs over us, and that we should consider changing our lives before it is too late, still remains with us even if in new and secular forms.

Cupitt also suggests that this development has been with us since 1945 when the Western world’s furiously accelerating growth in knowledge, technology, population, and wealth, all crashed violently. Germany was the place of the western world’s highest cultural achievements in thinking, music and art, and this came to an end and the centre of the west shifted to the United States.

We are in the next stage of change as the accelerating growth in science, technology and wealth has spread throughout the remainder of the world. A case in point is the place of NZ in the video gaming arena. It leads the world apparently, huge growth in income from this industry is expected.. Eschatology has become secularized at a global level at the same time as it has become personalized. At a global level it is manifest in the fear of global annihilation with the triggers now in the hands of almost all nations. The Facebook phenomenon, may be a global movement of the individual voice in the face of secularization. And there is a trace of a collective belief in life after death and the supernatural surviving in some funerals. ‘We shall be together one day’.

I suspect that the NZ focus on the sacrifice of soldiers, who lost their lives and the concern with the loss of old buildings, are also grounded in an awareness of transience. “Change is happening too fast”, “we are losing too much of the past”, what does it mean to be a New Zealander? We are all soon to die, and death is final and simple cessation, so what can we do to refute this? We can make sure that we leave a mark, both on the psyche and the landscape, as a gift toward what is to come. We can save things beyond our living.

At the individual level the eschatology is also in the enhanced awareness of transcience. Cupit says: “I am soon to die, and death is final and simple cessation. I may possibly know one day very soon that I am dying, but I’ll never know that I am dead. I can be aware that I am getting close to that invisible frontier, but I’ll never be aware of actually crossing it. But I am acutely aware, already, that I am doing many things for the last time, and I shall never again walk easily, or near the end be able to think and concentrate intensely and with a clear head. I know all the time that I am going downhill toward the invisible cliff-edge”.

Cupitt says that he knows he must love life and savour its poignant transience to the full. He suggests that one might savour the sight of the first Brimstone butterfly one sees each spring. It appears in early spring but its emergence from hibernation is variable and he remembers that all its beauty has never been seen, because it never sits alive with its wings spread open. Cuptt notes that he has loved it all his life because of its colour it was the original butterfly. He goes on in the article to talk about this awareness of transitoriness being already very common in seventeenth-century English poetry. Time is short he says, and I must try to make something of what little I may have left, while I can. That is the modern return of the old eschatological urgency. Life itself demands that we live it to the full. While we still can.

That was a long exploration of the first part of our text and I promise to summarize the second part more quickly. This second part is about slaves or servants and we need to get past our 21st century sensibilities for a bit.

What this saying by Luke does is reflect the social conservatism of Christianity around the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. We might suggest also that it comes from the same period that we get the psuedo-Pauline Pastoral Epistles – Timothy and Titus – with their household codes that exhort Christians to reflect proper respect to those above them in the social order:  wives to husbands, children to Fathers, slaves to masters. Gregory Jenks suggests that in these collections as in this Lukan saying the radical vision of Jesus has given way to the collective instinct that traditional values should not be challenged (Jenks. FaithFutures web site, 2010).

And once again the link between the story and the saying can be found in the contemporary call of politicians wanting to be elected or re-elected, with their claims for “family values” and faith-based engagement in party politics. He then asks the question that underlies this whole address: Are Gospel values to be found in historical expressions of human society, or in a prophetic critique of any and every human institution that claims ultimate value?  (Jenks. FaithFutures web site, 2010)

He also argues that theology should always seek the questions rather than the answers when he says; “Conservatives opposed to homosexuality appeal to the Bible as if it provided timeless truths free of the cultural conditioning of its authors and original audiences.  To their chagrin, progressives also appeal to the counter-cultural instinct of the faith tradition that birthed the Bible in the first place…”

But he goes on to make what I reckon is a very important comment: “The Bible does not serve either side well in such disputes.  It is a flawed text insofar as it assumes and promotes such things as slavery, demon possession, ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, a three-tiered universe, and the subordination of women.  Such realities should be an embarrassment to traditionalists and progressive alike.  The Bible does not fit neatly with our cultural assumptions…  The immense spiritual value of the Bible may lie more in its capacity to empower our human quest than its ability to (re)solve our immediate challenges”  (Jenks. FaithFutures web site, 2010).

So back to the claim we made at the start of this address. It is that we find out what life is all about through the living of it. We are always becoming. To be alive is to be becoming. It is a trusting living. And this is what faith is all about. We don’t own it, or possess it because it is a way of living, an attitude, a vision, that creates us daily.

Like good cheese or good wine, to trust is to engage in a gradually maturing process. So even if your trusting is like a small seed particle you have within your grasp a potent life force. Unleash it! Amen.

Notes: Scott, B. B. 2003.  “Father knows best! Where is fundamentalism taking us? In private circulation from the author.

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