Archive for November, 2017

The Return is Here!

Posted: November 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Return is Here!

Mark 13: 24-37

Advent One 3.12.2017

It may seem strange to say the Return is Here at a time of advent given that advent is about an active waiting that leads to agency. This agency is about a particular arrival, an agency that is already underway, an agency that is underway yet still to be fulfilled. There are signs of this already here in our daily adventures. The advent call is to Stay alert! Don’t be confused by promises of a divine rescue operation God is not an interventionist God on a rescue mission. God is almost here and visible in the everyday, unexpected and commonplace. Don’t be led astray by tinny Christmas carols. Don’t be fooled by the loud, obvious and popular they are not the signs. The birth of new life is coming, the signs are here. We have what we need to be faithful.

Sure advent is a season of awe and wonder. It is a time of waiting, not for the metaphor of Jesus’ birth, because that’s already available. It’s a time of waiting for the transformation of our lives and the world. Something is already being born in us and we are waiting for its arrival. This might sound a bit mysterious but not if we see that advent reflects the unfinished nature of creation, the horizon that recedes with each step we take toward it. God brought forth an unfinished universe, requiring our participation in its ongoing history. Jesus the Christ came to earth, healed the sick, shared the vision of Shalom, was executed for his troubles and yet, lives on, and thus his ministry is unfinished, and the world he came into still reflects the ambiguity of beauty and brokenness, salvation and sickness. Jesus has come and we are still waiting.

The one who came as a human child came as an anti-violence advocate, and a Prince of Peace. Come to earth as a healer and yet, as we worship today innocents are being killed in other parts of the world and other innocents are forgotten in the political dance where we taunt each other with threats of nuclear war, accusations of sexual misconduct and harassment. Differences are placarded in the news, politicians play football with humanity’s role in climate change, and our leaders continue to perpetuate the myths of equity and redistribution of wealth making change the bad boy in the piece. The Prince of Peace is among us, a child and yet a ruler, and yet the reality of our dilemma is apparent in polarization, alienation, racism, and violence, often perpetrated in the name of law and order.

We are waiting. Yes, we are waiting to become our deepest selves, to live by love and not fear, to fulfill our dreams and what is called God’s dream of Shalom. We need this creative transformation. But let’s be careful because in Advent, we can be tempted to give up hope for transformation, on the one hand, or claim premature transformation on the other. In our hope for deliverance, we can chart the signs of the times, re-dating them with every mistaken calculation, while waiting for God to solve our problems and delighting in the fact that the “bad news is the good news” and a sign that Jesus will come soon. We can live in expectation of God tearing open the heavens and performing awesome deeds of transformation to liberate us from life’s ambiguities, while we do nothing to solve earth’s problems. When transformation is deferred, we can overemphasize our unworthiness and God’s angry withdrawal from our lives and communities, as Isaiah 64 asserts, we can wallow in our struggle. Or, we can project that blame on others, vilifying them to support our own innocence. As Psalm 80 pleads we need restoration, but has our fear, our need for a quick answer, our keenness to succeed excluded us from what we call God’s grace?

Jeremiah which we didn’t read from today joins the bad news of the present moment with hope in future divine liberation. But that is not what today’s second coming prognosticators would say. The bad news is not a sign of deliverance for Jeremiah; the bad news is bad news, reflecting our faithlessness and the pain it brings to others. God has done great things, but we have turned away and provoked divine anger. Yet, the grounds of our turning is ambiguous. We are left with the question as to whether or not God absented Godself and thus left us to our own devices, our waywardness as persons and as a nation, or have our actions led to divine absence? Well! What if our turning is ambiguous not because God has left us but because we have become senseless of God’s presence in our lives and thus have diminished God’s role in shaping our lives. The scriptures suggest that we make a difference in God’s presence in our lives. We are not observers but rather participants. We are not onlookers but rather co-creators. Our actions condition what God can do in the world if you like. The message of advent is that our waywardness, our being human, has not created an irreparable breach between us and God, and that creative and redemptive love transform.

In Psalm 80 we have a plea for God to return. And we note that the relationship is definitely dialogical, it is a dialogue that unfolds as dynamic and creational and it is relational, it provides the connection, it creates and celebrates the connection. In old language God and humankind shape each other’s responses. This means that our absence limits God, and thus diminishes our experience of divine participation. God is not unchanging in the sense that this dialogue and relationship is dynamic, and it is intimately related to the human condition in a dynamic call and response. Grace abounds, the shepherd seeks us, but will we welcome God’s love when it comes to us.

To a conflict-ridden community at Corinth, Paul proclaims that the Corinthians have everything they need, individually and corporately, to be faithful. These words are addressed to our congregations as well when we are tempted to live by scarcity rather than divine abundance. Having just gone through our annual budget setting we have witnessed yet another deficit budget, This says that we know how easy it is to live by scarcity and we can easily assume that our best years are gone by. It is easy to give up hope in the future. Yes, the world has changed and young families seldom stream into our churches. We are aging and wonder about the future with every funeral. As congregations, we must be realistic financially and make adjustment in budget and in our stewardship as well as in our energy. Our costs of daily operation often disguise the wonderful generosity of peoples gifts. We see what we don’t have and we miss the signs of giftedness in our midst. The challenge of advent is for us to remember that we live in an open system in which new energies and possibilities are always emerging in our lives and communities. We are, as Paul proclaims, enriched in every way and graced by a love beyond our imagination. We have every spiritual gift we need, whether our community is flourishing or diminishing numerically. Advent reminds us that we respond to the grace we’ve received in our particular time and place and with our particular gifts and limits.

Jesus’ words have inspired many to search for the signs of the times. And sadly many still look for a Second Coming, for a deliverance from on high which will clearly separate the sheep from the goats, the saved and unsaved, the favoured and the lost, but we heard last week that its not about the differences but about the relationship between that gives possibilities and hope. When the hour comes part of our great joy, some have averred, will be to see the chaos and suffering of the world from our privileged place of deliverance! But, is such a deliverance “heaven” or “hell” if it means destroying this beautiful planet? Jesus does not want us to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good! Nor does Jesus want us to sacrifice this lifetime – this planet – for a Second Coming that simply does not come. We are not to wait for a divine rescue operation – our ideal is not “Waiting for God to do it – advent says that we are to be partners in a new creation and salvation or transformation in the here and now.

Jesus’ seems to be suggesting a different approach to this waiting game. He seems to be suggesting that we take our eyes of heaven and look at earth, don’t get trapped in passivity and turn to activity. In invoking the fig tree as our guide to discerning the signs of the times, Jesus is suggesting that the transformation we yearn for will come through the natural world, the world of orderly causation, of seedtime and harvest, and not by subverting what we count on to live our daily lives. Transformation may be abrupt at times, but like the fig tree’s growth, the signs of transformation are all around us and within us. It may seem as if the sky is falling, but the meteorological changes, represented by darkened sun and falling stars are part of a divine economy in which the largest environment still remains dependable.

Jesus is cautioning us about claiming esoteric knowledge about the end times. Beware of end-time preachers who know when the divine call comes. Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good. Don’t look so far ahead that you fail to see God moving in this very moment of time. Jesus counsels us to be alert and to stay awake. Yes, there may be a dramatic moment in our lives and communities. We may be called upon to take a leap of faith into what appears to be an abyss of uncertainty. We may experience seismic spiritual shifts. But, God is faithfully moving in this moment, giving us clues and hints of transformation. We can live in God’s new age right now if our spiritual and physical senses are open to God’s coming in every event.

How does one know the difference between signs? One of the clearest messages Fredrich Buechner has woven into his many books is to pay attention – to your life, to the people with whom you are closest, to the things that happen to you. This, according to Buechner, is the best, and most authentic, way to experience yourself and God. “You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

How do we know the return is here? To see the signs as trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. Trust that “the persistent presence of something trying to get through in the midst of the muddle of our day-to-day lives.” Listen deep within the quiet in ourselves. Accept that the divine speaks through the fathomless quiet of the holy place within us all which is beyond the power of anything that happens to us to touch us because many things that happen to us block our access to it, make us forget even that it exists. Seek the quiet and holy place in us as the divine place and find what marks you as God’s. Even when we have no idea of seeking it, various things can make us fleetingly aware of its presence – a work of art, beauty, sometimes sorrow or joy, sometimes just the quality of a moment that apparently has nothing special about it at all like the sound of water over stones in a stream or sitting alone with your feet up at the end of a hard day.” In his second memoir, entitled Now and Then, Christian author Fredrich Buechner expresses that listening to your life is the true essence and legacy of his writings: “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” Amen.

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Awaken Us to What is Already Among Us and Do It…

Matthew 25: 31-46

How radical is this story from Matthew? What is it about what he says, that is radical? I think it was radical to say that our love for others enriches God’s experience. And it was radical to say that the differences between sheep and goats is reversible. God truly is, as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claims, the fellow sufferer who understands. There is a change that comes about when we love someone and the differences remind us that the opportunities to care for the vulnerable are endless. These things have to be radical because if what we do truly shapes the quality of the divine experience, then ethics involves, in part, the questions: Will our actions bring greater beauty or ugliness to God’s experience? Will we open the door to greater influx of divine activity by actions that bring wholeness, beauty, and justice to the world?

There is judgment for the complacent and unconcerned in this because while the gulf between the sheep and the goats is not irreversible, the gulf between them can remain and the pain felt by the goats involves an awareness of this radical promise of love being already here. The removal of pain is in the recognizing of missed opportunities to care for the vulnerable and thus contribute something of beauty to the divine experience. Perhaps, the pain will be redemptive and they too will be restored to companionship with God and the vulnerable.

John Cobb and David Griffin have called this radical awareness a “creative-responsive love.” God’s love for the world is intimate. The Christmas story reminds us of the intimacy in its metaphor of incarnation. The birth of a human Child is as if the divine and human combine on earth. The divine gives life to all things and receives the experiences of the creaturely world. There is a oneness about this divide between sheep and goat. There is learning and acceptance and there is a response that is holy and good. The intimate response to the joy and sorrow of creation, seeks to bring beauty out of life’s imperfections and ambiguities. The intimacy of co-creative engagement in creation is revealed as a dynamic living relationship.

Here we have a gospel story that says a culture that supports the rich and comfortable but cannot come up with a dollar’s worth of sugar and salt for the poor is in for one heck of a shock. C S Lewis, has made this anthropological, but none-the-less interesting comment: He says; “When we get to heaven, there will be three surprises: First, we will be surprised by the people we find there, many of whom we surely had not expected to see. Second, we will be surprised by the people who are absent. The ones we did expect to see but who are not there. And the third surprise, of course, will be that we’re there”. The presence of the divine is not what we expect. The most radical shock of our story is, that the presence of the divine is hidden in the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned. And Matthew says; this present-ness in basic human need goes unrecognized by both groups of people. Neither the ‘righteous ones’ nor the ‘unrighteous ones’ recognised this present-ness. Both were looking for the divine in other places and other events. And both were shocked. Thus, if we are to recognise the present-ness of the divine in basic human need, we need to foster a compassionate consciousness. We need to awaken to what is already among us, and do it.

It seems evident Jesus taught love of God and neighbour and lived compassion. It also seems evident that when Jesus was speaking about God’s realm, he was saying that God’s realm equals compassion. That the realm of God means the coming of compassion. Do not confuse the godly realm of compassion, Jesus seems to be saying, with a place or rungs on a ladder. God’s realm is not a place or an object or a noun.
It is a verb… ‘among you, in your midst,’ Jesus says.

Matthew Fox suggests this is less about ‘within-ness’ and more about ‘among-ness’ being the key to the kingdom”, “And the messianic age, the age of salvation for all, is now here.  Compassion is at hand”.  (Fox 1979: 25-33) This seems to be a way of keeping anthropocentrism at bay while still claiming an intimacy like no other between God and human. Likewise, Bishop John Shelby Spong in one of his books says that we need a new God-definition that resonates with the humanity of Jesus. He writes; “What I see is a new portrait of Jesus…  I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered…  I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny our access to a deeper humanity” (Spong 2001:131). The differences between sheep and goats disappears in the divine intimacy.

Professor Joe Bessler-Northcutt, from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, said in a sermon in Australia some years back that from a theological perspective, this is the most radical text in the New Testament. Viewed as a test of faith, one has to notice there is no dogmatic text here, no inquiry about the catechism or right belief. In fact, one doesn’t even need to recognize the King, or believe in the King, so, this is remarkable. He noted also that we get this story wrong every time.  His example was that ‘he frequently hears during the ‘announcements’ in church: ‘we’re taking dinner to the homeless shelter this Thursday night; why don’t you join us as we bring Christ into their lives’.” But he said; that’s not what the story says. The king isn’t present in the one giving the water or the clothing. The king is present in the one in need. We go to them to be changed not to change them.

He also said that this story doesn’t ‘predict’ a literal final judgment. It’s actually a wisdom story, about what ‘finally’ matters. Again; he said: “And as I thought about this text in light of coming to Australia, I’ve found thinking of this story as a text of desire and asking myself: ‘what does this text long for; what is this text dreaming about?’” He then went on to say: “Matthew’s story dreams of a deep bond of God and humanity: For every need an adequate response.  That beautiful back and forth movement between I and you depicts this; I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was naked and you clothed me… What we have is a rhythm of need and response; an economy of abundance, or at least enough.  God is in the midst of humanity, and not lording it over everyone with the powerful, but rather, hidden, as a dream would have it…

“But as the nightmare is the flip side of the dream, those who failed to respond to human need cannot, by definition, enter the intimacy of the common good… Instead of the former harmony that we find in the intimacy of the incarnation, bond of the co-creative relationship, we hear this discordant, out of balance ‘no’ response to every need…

“But, and this is a crucial motive to Matthew’s story, or dream: there need not be an economics of scarcity; even in the midst of actual scarcity we can still choose to act out of a logic of abundance – we can still choose to respond to the face of the other.

“This ‘dream’ is Matthew’s attempt to convince his own community of hearers and readers of a common dream… If those hearing the story can learn from it, then we can all get it right – it is in our power, says Matthew, to create a community that attends to the common good.” This suggests that Matthew’s story or dream is about what finally matters.

I want to leave you with a poem by Christine Fry, that has the same thing in mind. She wrote this back in 2004:

You’ve asked me to tell you of The Great Turning,
of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.

We turned.

For hundreds of years we had turned away as life on earth grew more precarious.
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets,
the stench from the river,
the children orphaned in Iraq,
the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.

We turned away because that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain,
from the hurt in another’s eyes,
from the drunken father
or the friend betrayed.

Always we were told, in actions louder than words,
to turn away, turn away.

And so we became a lonely people caught up in a world moving too quickly,
too mindlessly towards its own demise.

Until it seemed as if there was no safe place to turn.
No place, inside or out, that did not remind us
of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.

Yet on one of those days someone did turn.
Turned to face the pain.
Turned to face the stranger.
Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes.
Turned to face himself, herself.

And then another turned.
And another.
And another.
And as they wept, they took each other’s hands.

Until whole groups of people were turning.
Young and old, gay and straight.
People of all colours, all nations, all religions.

Turning not only to the pain and hurt but to beauty, gratitude and love.
Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts…

Notes:
Fox, M. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row, 1979.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being

The loss of Trust’

Posted: November 14, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost27A.2005

Matthew 25:14-30

The loss of Trust’

The story commonly named ‘The parable of the talents’ is one of those stories that has left its mark on our language and culture in a big way. Indeed, so much has it become part of our everyday vocabulary that we tend to miss the ‘fang’ hidden in its tail. And that’s a pity.

Richard Ford in his book The Parables of Jesus and the Problems of the World challenges us to look again at the parables and this morning we look at the so-called parable of the talents with another critique.

Remember that all the parables are proffered as being about the realm of God as opposed to the realm of the present or in Jesus case the realm of the Roman Empire. This parable about talents is like many of Jesus’ long parables such as the Wicked tenants, the Vineyard Workers, The Unforgiving slave, the Dishonest Steward and the Prodigal Son. All these involve the entrusting of money or property across the gaps of inequality. And here we have the source of today’s title. The breakdown of trust that is endemic to such inequality makes these stories descriptions of how powerful people, perpetrating larger systemic injustice under the guise of law actually break apart the fragile integrity of those subjected to exploitation and they without being held accountable, deepen the tragic fissures in human relatedness. The breakdown in trust, isolates, categorizes and marginalizes people who already have very little. And what is particular about today’s story is that it explores the breakdown of trust that occurs within those who seek to bring about change from within or who go along because of apathy or a desire not to make waves.

In all these stories Jesus as a peasant is not so much addressing his own so much as those members of the Jewish retainer class still able to maintain a reasonable living due to their enslavement to the powerful. In our story of the talents we explore the idea that Jesus’ superb artistry enables him to develop a metaphor for the agrarian empire of Rome as it both images and mimics the very imperialist structures it subverts. It images empire by evoking its polarities and thereby framing its vacant middle, namely the absence of any law to intervene. Its claim to fame as a system is that it is the most efficient and there is no other better. Master and slavish subordinates, accurately capture the two complimentary groupings essential for effecting the imperial transfer of wealth from the control of the many to the control of the few. The banks, the money men are in charge because that is the way it is. The exploiting slave master and the well-appointed slaves represent both the Roman overlords and the Jewish aristocracy who include the needed retainer class of bureaucracy and the military. What is implied but not articulated in the parable itself is the mass of exploited peasants required to create the expropriated wealth. The aristocracy then justifies its own dominance by imposing self-serving rationalizations into those unable to fight back. The powerful maintain their carefully constructed belief system and work endlessly to silence the oppressed. A relationship of distrust between those who have and those who have not unfolds.

Those without “are lazy, they could do better if they only tried harder, they have the opportunity to succeed if only they got off their backsides” and so on. The strong steadfastly press their versions of reality into the weaker and then with equal tenacity resist experiencing or even acknowledging the painful consequences of what they have imposed. ‘There is no actual poverty only what someone has created”, they say. The poor are better off today than they have ever been”. They say.

This parable is clever as it mimics this aristocratic imposition of its own self-aggrandizing, self- justifying reality. The master’s uncritical description of his personal behaviour stands as an unchallenged summary of imperial ideology. ‘I reap” he says, “where I did not sow. And I gather where I did not scatter”. What is lawful is controlled by the slave master thus the message is that the aristocratic minority are entitled to whatever they can take from the vast majority. As in the empire itself, so in the parable all other alternatives are ruthlessly excluded. Like the middle class in many societies today, the absent middle ground produces the third slave who is an exploited member of the retainer class and he is called upon to exploit. Play the game or get left behind. Middle management is the third slave doomed if he does and doomed if he doesn’t. Even his refusal though dangerous is by necessity both constricted and disguised. Appearing to be inept he is hiding behind a façade of cowardliness in order to affect a covert opposition. The parable then proceeds to take listeners on a journey to suppose, then to probe, and finally to identify the actual sources of this third slave’s disguised behaviour. What they find is the covered-over and nearly hidden footsteps of a seeming uncertain yet strikingly courageous resistor. The one who wants to change things from the inside, the one who opts for incremental change.

We remind ourselves again that first century Palestine was part of the increasingly commercialized and monetized agrarian empire of Rome. An agrarian empire of any era can be conceptualized as a complimentary hierarchy of exploiters and exploited. Within a misshapen pyramid, resources are sucked up from the large base toward the miniscule apex. It is suggested that some 2 percent of the population probably received a quarter of the national income and the governing class and ruler together received not less than half. This came about because it was believed that the state is a piece of property which its owner can use within broad and ill-defined limits. And that property consists of rights and not of things. Specifically access to the rights of things which are in short supply.

Martin Goodman in writing about the first Jewish revolt suggests the relentless aristocratic aggrandizing of wealth lay behind the 66-73 CE revolt. Reaping where they had not sown was the reason, and this was done by means of taxation and then land appropriation being achieved through defaults on high interest loans and the natural vagaries of agricultural production. The overall view of the Herodian period is that elites coerced an increasing peasant alienation from the land. Goodman sees the economic stresses as much more intense in Judea as opposed to Galilee, maybe because of the Galilean access to a fishing industry. This could also go toward the reasoning that Jesus was not observing a level of injustice so blatant as to provoke both rebellion and the consequent Roman retaliation.

The challenge of this parable for us is about our perceptions of the Master and what we see as the message. How did the peasants in Jesus time see the Master? To them he would have been criminal because he chokes off any peasant protest, then he raises his single, powerful voice to impose his own, self- assured entitlement, and then, through his seemingly authoritative denigration of the whistle-blower, proceeds to mislead listeners down through the ages. The question we face or the twist in the tail of this parable is, ‘how is it that we have become so unable to recognize the precision with which Jesus here represents the endless process of elites and their co-opted retainers accumulating wealth at the expense of the vast majority from whom they take?’ How is that we so readily locate ourselves on the side of those who steal?

Richard Q Ford in his book on these parables suggests that we should look carefully at how Jesus has constructed this parable. We should then see that he biased his narrative in favour of our not recognizing. With an artistry he imitates elitist control and his parable functions in exactly the same way as did the aristocracy of his day. It elevates the voice of the oppressor. It obliterates the voice of the oppressed. It supports the aristocrat definition. It allows into awareness no other perspective. It admires the masters final crushing of dissent. What better evidence he says could be had of the effectiveness of the parables mimicry of imperial control? How better to envelop us in the irony of our own identification with the very persons who oppress us?

To further explore this is to see the metaphor ‘slave’ as representing both the Jewish aristocracy and the Jewish retainer class, the latter consisting of bureaucrats, scribes, soldiers, tax collectors, and other prospering clients of the elite. Lured by financial and social rewards this group had relinquished the egalitarian understandings of land distribution and debt alleviation inherent in the values of ancient Israel. The linchpin of empire is the collaboration of the retainer class, because without them the governance could not function. Dominic Crossan suggests that peasant resistance, lacking retainer leadership cannot succeed. In creating this parable, where the first two of these retainers are unabashed collaborators but the third is not, Jesus is concentrating precisely on the line between those who owed their loyalty to the authority of the existing government and those who owed their loyalty to the authority of divine mandate. In devising the character of the third slave, Jesus appears to be addressing those Jewish retainers in urban Galilee who might still possess some allegiance to the social egalitarianism so central to ancient Israel’s values.

The third slave, along with those listeners who are willing to follow him, appears to move either uncertainly or deftly within a disguised resistance that aptly reflects the imperial domination of definition. His constricted, perhaps deliberately inarticulate, perhaps skillfully hidden, seemingly cowardly, apparently mocking, and always dangerous resistance becomes a necessarily misleading, but nonetheless precise and courageous counterpoint to the dominating strategies so fundamental to the functioning of empire. Each of his subordinate’s confusing moves in turn reflects varied threats to the integrity of imagination and to the wholeness of body – threats that can so readily distort, disorganize, or even destroy independent thought and action. By choosing to locate themselves either against or with the third slave, parable listeners themselves adopt these same distorting strategies so essential to imperial control.

Barbara Reid puts it this way: She says: “From this perspective, the man who expects his money to be increased is the wicked one, one who is unfettered in his greed…  The third servant, then, is not wicked (or incompetent), except in the eyes of those who are greedy and making acquisitions or those who are co-opted by them, as are the first two servants.  The third (servant) is the one who acted honourably by blowing the whistle on the wickedness of the (owner)…  The parable is a warning to the rich to stop exploiting the poor and is one that encourages poor people to take measures that expose such greed for the sin that it is” (Reid 2001:207-208).

I would add; it is one that also highlights just how complex collaboration with evil can be and how without critique we can all sustain a destructive empire, human system, and ideology that maintains oppression. Some questions that arise out of this challenge are; Is the church a collaborator or a challenger? When we stay silent are we supporting that which oppresses? Sometimes another reading can turn what is thought to be a reasonably OK treatise, upside down! Parables are stories which turn our world views upside down because which world we view can make all the difference to how we live in the present and claim the future. Amen.

Notes:
Reid, B. E. 2001.  Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.

Ford, R. Q. 2016 The Parables of Jesus & The Problems Of The World Cascade Books Oregon

 

The Unexpected

Posted: November 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 23A, 2017
Matthew 25:1-13

The Unexpected

One of the things I had to do when I was preparing to go to Dunedin and start training as a Minister was to write down what I thought parables were and which stories in the Bible I thought were parables. I have often wondered since what the faculty thought of my response. What I am certain of now is that I didn’t have a clue what was and wasn’t a parable when I wrote my response. And that is confirmed every day since as I am constantly finding new things about the scriptures. The most obvious question that comes up about our reading from Matthew today is “if it is a ‘parable’ then where is the surprise? There is no twist in the tale, no unexpected surprise. The Jesus Seminar said this about the story: that “It does not cut against the religious and social grain.  Rather if confirms common wisdom that says that those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… The story comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254). The story also emphasizes boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again, is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus. So here we have to accept that this story is not a parable and thus there may not be much of Jesus in the story. But we don’t have to discard it just yet. There are several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes that seem to be running through it.

But before we engage in that discussion we might see if we can orient the text in its own time. We find ourselves with Matthew toward the end of the first century C.E. Followers of Jesus who are Jewish are spreading out beyond Jewish influence and in some cases the differences have meant a separation from synagogue worship. The increasing acceptance of Gentile membership in the Jesus movement has meant that the belief systems were beginning to make distinctions between Rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus movement. On top of this the return of Jesus was taking too long for many and for others the nature of its meaning was changing. His return was increasingly metaphorical and thus more culturally universal. We find ourselves with Matthew addressing himself to a Jewish audience as they struggled with these new social realities. Sad about their loss of the past and uncertain about their readiness for the future.

At one level the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins deals with the trepidation and aimlessness that many of the audience may have felt. The simple logical message is the importance of preparedness. In the story, five of the bridesmaids were ready for the coming of bridegroom’s party, and five were not. Alongside the lesson concerning the need for preparation, another idea deals with the fact that no one can prepare someone else for all the eventualities of life. Much as we would like to prepare our children, our families, or our friends, we can’t do it completely, we just have to get on with doing as much as we can. Show them the ropes, and lead by example. At another level the three sub-themes are developing. What is a Jesus community like? What is this communal care like? What does the second coming of Jesus really mean and indicating a cultural change coming; what is happening to the core social institution of marriage?

What is this communal care like?

In a society where there is limited amount of wealth, and where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, the actions of the so-called five wise young women raises the question: How is the issue of scarcity in a community dealt with? Process theologian Bruce Epperly asks; “What would have happened if the women had pooled their resources?  Would they all have been excluded from the party or rewarded for their quest to be generous?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) With perhaps a growing economic instability and uncertainty, choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response, but is it the only way, or even the right way? When one prepares to protect what one has how is this concern balanced with the concern for the needs of others, especially those who are most vulnerable to almost total loss? It has been claimed before that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity, our intimate beliefs about reality need to be lived out in our society, and not restricted to the individual realm. As an aside there is an interesting issue here when it comes to our ability to change St David’s. If we struggle with the idea that we need to dissolve and join with another congregation is it our belief, that is getting in our road to becoming more authentic? Should we commit ourselves to change in order to support people in other congregations who are struggling to maintain themselves?” Are we as a church just a group of unrelated individuals or are we an interdependent body of Christ?

What does the second coming of Jesus mean?

Those who hear ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do so because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others, where the message of ‘stay alert’ and ‘be ready’, and ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasized. He is addressing the issue that Jesus hasn’t arrived yet. Dom Crossan addresses this well I think when he says that “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)

It appears that a theme dear to Matthew’s heart is the theme of the anticipation of coming judgment. It is important for him to emphasize to his community two things with regard to Jesus’ return. One is that they don’t know when it will come, so speculation is futile. The second is that it will come, so preparation is crucial. In the story of the Faithful or Unfaithful Slaves that directly precedes the story of the closed door, the Master comes back sooner than the slave anticipated and found him abusing his powers. In this week’s story, the Bridegroom comes later than the foolish bridesmaids anticipated and they had not gathered the provisions needed to welcome him.

The truth is that we are often unprepared for what comes next in life, despite our constant preoccupation with the future. Sometimes a premature ending takes us by surprise. At other times, we are unprepared for something to take longer than we had anticipated. In the former case, we think we have all the time in the world, to mend a relationship, to achieve an important goal, to discontinue a bad habit or begin a good one, to take care of ourselves, to read important books, to take a stand, to show we care. How often do we hear people say they wish they had done or said something sooner? We had all the time in the world to spend time with our kids. Except somebody sped up the clock, and now their rooms are empty and we get the sinking feeling that our ship has sailed.

Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, “Repent one day before your death.” One of them then asked, “How will we know when that day is?” To which he replied, “All the more reasons to repent today, lest you die tomorrow.” In the story of the closed door, the problem was not the surprisingly quick return of the master, but his surprising delay. The bridesmaids, the 5 foolish ones anyway, were not prepared for the long haul. Even though life and the world may seem to go on forever, a day is coming when there will be no more second chances to do certain things or to cease doing others.

What is happening to marriage?

This is too big a subject for part of a sermon except to note that many churches have yet to sort out what it means. We have some that persecute or restrict ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, others that disagree with both this action, and indeed, any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church. What is significant is that the basis of the claims is usually presented as ‘contrary to scripture’.
This and other claims are then supported by a list of scripture passages
identified by those prosecuting the charge, as relating in some way to marriage and the marital relationship. Coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’. The trouble is that there is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage. In fact, we have very limited, if any, information on first century Palestinian Jewish wedding customs. What we can glean from a range of sources, seems to be:

  1. that marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was rather an arrangement made “by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192). 2. That the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and 3. that the marriage was arranged and ratified on negotiated terms.

Once these were met the wedding then took place in two stages: 1st a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then 2ndly a transfer of the young bride, often no more than 12 – 13 years of age, to the home of her husband.

Our story by Matthew opens at the conclusion of the negotiations, with the bridegroom coming to collect the bride. “The young women are relatives and friends of the groom.  They are not bridesmaids… The bride is never mentioned in the story” (Reid 2001:193). Note I have said ‘young women’ rather than following some scholars who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, because the word used to designate them is the same word used in the story of Jesus’ birth, which has also been translated as ‘virgin’. The trouble with this is that the word does not mean that. It means ‘a young woman of marriageable age’. Here I think we have an example of the need to preserve a particular orthodoxy and override modern scholarship.

In conclusion then, the story of the Ten Maidens appears only in Matthew’s Gospel. Certain features of the wedding it describes seem realistic, others are strange. In ancient Palestinian weddings the marriage feast was at night; the bridegroom was met with lamps, and the bridegroom was expected to delay coming for the bride. Certain details are not realistic. They include the length of the delay, the midnight arrival and the supposition that the shops would have been open for the sleeping maidens to buy oil (Luke 11:5-8). This suggests that the story is already an allegory of the delay of Christ’s return in Matthew’s community. The five foolish maidens are not foolish because they slept, but because their lamps are not lit. Light in the story symbolizes good deeds done in response to God’s gracious initiative.

The return of Christ for Matthew will be a time that separates the good from the bad (13:36-43; 26:31-46). The five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins represent these two groups.

If one takes the view that all these stories like the sayings of Jesus are about the nature of the kingdom of God. Then one has to say that: “It shows up where you least expect it.” In this case, it is the vision of a door slammed in our faces and permanently locked. Every shattering of the illusion of endless time, every reminder of the ticking clock and our mortality is where the kingdom of God beckons.

As we live out our lives in what seems often to be an imperfect, troubled world, this story suggests we should take action in response to injustice while effective action is still possible. We should participate now. In this parable Matthew retains the urgency of the return of Christ in his community, while also acknowledging that it is not necessarily imminent. As Jesus followers we have the responsibility to continue in good deeds in the extended present, in the knowledge that the time will come when we will lose the opportunity for proper action. The servants in the story of the unfaithful and faithful servants failed because they abused the time of waiting in doing evil deeds. The maidens in this story fail by inactivity. They presume a gracious future without preparing for it by active discipleship. This is the definition of foolish for Matthew. Amen.

Notes:
Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Minnesota. The Liturgical Press.

Craig L. Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (Baker Academic Press, 2004).

Madeline Boucher The Parables: Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1981)

John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parables (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

Pentecost 21A

Matthew 23:1-12

All Saint’s Leadership; a Matter of Integrity

Two of the readings assigned to this week by the lectionary mirror each other, one from I Thessalonians and the other from Matthew 23. In the case of the Mathew one where Jesus’ description of the religious leaders, the suggestion is that their errors come from a number of areas. The first being separating themselves from others, and the second from claiming a special position in relationship with God, and thirdly from assuming a type of authority that is beyond human reach. Here is the challenge that comes with being charged with a teaching and influencing role like sharing the good news, we need to share it with humility and for the well-being of others and not our self-aggrandizement or ego-boosting. We are mere mortals, and yet we have been entrusted with a message that joins, rather than separates us, from others, its task is a binding together in brokenness and healing. It does imply however in raising the error that we can as Thessalonians and the words of Jesus suggest, mediate the good news through words of wisdom and love, and this should be our goal, whether teaching, preaching, or sharing with one another. Sharing the gospel is not about telling others what we have but rather inviting others to walk the journey with us. Let the gospel speak for itself as opposed to telling others what we think it is.

Is this leadership challenge just about the minister or is it all of us? When we talk about leadership is it leadership by the Saints for the saints? I think that we need to put down the status issue for a bit and see the challenge of leadership being a challenge to all people. To see that leadership is not just about some being out front but also about all being up front, leadership is not just about introducing the new and novel but also about making it stand on the old and become something new, not just about assuming the risk associated with something new but also about deconstructing the risk. Not just about presenting the Way of Jesus but making it authentic, Leadership of all the Saints is a matter of integrity. My claim for this view is that the Greek word behind leadership concept is simply leader which is more likely to be a reference to anyone in a position of authority. The problem that Jesus is addressing in this passage is not the specific words that we use to address those in authority over us. But rather how leaders of one kind or another act towards people over whom they have authority. Jesus is not calling us to avoid having leaders, he is calling us to have leaders–and to be leaders–who are humble, who have the best interests of others in mind at all times, and who are constantly listening for the voice that ask the question, ’Who benefits from this claim, suggestion, assumption or invitation? This is very likely a timely text for the church today as we wrestle with what the gospel is that we share, what is the good news we want to share? And if we think we have a handle on that how do we go about getting others to walk that path with us?

 

We are very aware that in our time, in this particular period of human history the church is in a time of transition, a time where many are feeling dissatisfied with the interpretation of the Gospel message that satisfied previous generations. Many no longer participate in what we know as Church. And among those who do participate many feel that the church needs to drastically rethink its theology and mission. Alongside both those groups is the group that fears such rethinking as ‘watering down’ Biblical truths and consequently condemning ourselves and our world. The reality is however that whatever camp one is in there is a dramatic shift underway and the common question is ‘what does it mean to be a Christian.

As good strong Presbyterians we are also aware that how we read the Bible is key to how we understand our faith. If you take the Bible to be directly and literally applicable to our lives today, you have to either take the whole thing literally (which most of us would agree causes a LOT of problems), or we have to pick and choose the bits we think are relevant (which then means we have interfered with God’s literal word and so caused a lot more problems). Alternatively the Bible can be seen as a collection of historical documents – poetry, folklore, songs, stories, historical accounts – making up a rich and fascinating history of God relating to people. Those who still hold to a theistic interventionist God can hold on to this selection of writings can be God-breathed, inspired and relevant but never intended to be an instruction manual for life. Those of us who question a theistic interventionist God can still value the bible as material depicting the thoughts and aspirations of the time of their writing as they interpreted who Jesus was for them and what the gospel was. And we can take responsibility for what he means to us and what the gospel is that we share and today. And with today’s text we can find a way to show leadership in this scenario.

Matthew as storyteller is quite blunt about how to go about leadership, he does not tolerate fools easily, and he will not countenance smugness and elitism. He has Jesus passing comment on some of the Jewish leaders of the day: “do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach”. Matthew’s Jesus, says that leadership is a matter of integrity where one’s inner life and external behavior are in synch. Or as one commentator has put it: “Without orthopraxis [right action], orthodoxy [right belief] is of little value.” (Epperly.P&F web site, 2005)

And like all challenges Jesus left with his people and subsequently with us nothing is easy. Clarity about what to do always underestimates the nature of change. We here in the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand had an inkling of this when we remember what welcome Lloyd Geering got when he asked the church to look at the story differently. And Australians learnt this when Francis Macnab, called for ’a new faith for the 21st century’, “a faith beyond orthodox Christianity”. We here in the New Zealand church put Lloyd on trial while the uniting Church wrote pastoral letters and called for the parish to withdraw its advertising on the grounds that ‘it gave offense to Jews, and many Christians’. It didn’t offer any proof that offence had been taken but then being right transcended having integrity. Phrases like “outside the teachings of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, and “contrary to the scriptures” were used and isn’t it interesting that similar phrases have been used to ban gay and lesbian from Ministry in our church. Again the gospel is built on a fallible status given to the bible. One that disallows interpretation in favour of manipulation. In essence the shame of it all is that both the theological student and the thinking lay person has been denied any option other than conservative orthodoxy.

Last week in the lectionary Sunday was reformation Sunday and it was in September 1965 that Lloyd Geering wrote an article for Outlook for Reformation Sunday where he asked the question: “Is the Christian faith inextricable bound up with the world-view of ancient mankind, which has now been superseded, or can the substance of it be translated into the world-view of twentieth century mankind? (Geering 2006:131)

 

Some readers heard this and reckoned what he said was ‘the word of God for our age!’

But it was the second article six months later, on ‘the resurrection’ which had others reacting furiously! Even the editor of the mag Outlook, on receiving the original article, felt uneasy. So much so that not only did he seek advice from his Board, he also sent a copy of the article to Professor William Barclay in Scotland, to obtain his opinion. Barclay wrote back that Geering’s article “largely represented his own views, but that he would never dare say so publicly in Scotland!” (Geering 2006:134)

And here we have it, the question of leadership that Jesus addresses through Matthew Never dare say so publicly… Even though one of his university colleagues, Gregor Smith, had just published a book called Secular Christianity, with similar views, and the book “never caused so much as a ripple in Scotland.” (Geering 2006:134) Another note of interest was that when the NZ Moderator issued a Pastoral Letter to the Church membership back then, he confessed: by saying what Lloyd had said; ‘the gap between the pulpit and pew in the understanding of the Bible has been too great for too long.’ (Geering 2006:134)

For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity. For Macnab, Geering, and many, many others leadership and integrity and honesty must all be in synch. Anyone who believes that the Christian faith is a pre-packed and unalterable teaching, doesn’t get it! For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity. And so it should be for us. Amen.

Notes:

Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne. Abacada Press, 1971.

Geering, L. Wrestling With God. The Story of my Life. Exeter. Imprint Academic, 2006.

PS: A colleague, John W Smith and I, have edited a book, published by Polebridge Press. The book’s title is: Why Weren’t We Told! A Handbook on Progressive Christianity. This book contains an interesting chapter written by Paul Alan Laughlin on ‘progressives’ reclaiming the ‘heretics’.