Archive for December, 2017

‘Don’t Be Scared Of Life’

Posted: December 27, 2017 in Uncategorized


Christmas 1B, 2017
Luke 2:22-40

‘Don’t Be Scared Of Life’

I want to tell you a few stories and poems today. I hope they might be metaphors of our lives, past, present and future and seeds of hope into the future. There is a theme I hope that builds on the Christmas message that brings hope and richness to the human species followed by the recent past we people of St David’s have experienced and finally a call to love rather than fear the realities of life.

The first is a poem called “Each Birth a Revolution” By Sitar Situmorang.

Each birth is a revolution
whether it happened a thousand years ago
or takes place today,
with each birth the world becomes new.

Some are born in a cottage, some in a field,
but wherever a child is born,
in its eyes the world is reflected,
in its cries – Christ is present.

Christ the son of man
was born to renew the world
like every child in the mother’s womb
is granted by the Lord at its time.

The second is another poem, this time by Thomas Troeger called ‘Under reconstruction’.

Some said
there had been too much rain
and the roof
long cracked after years of stress
gave way from water seeping in.

Others said
what fell from the heavens
had nothing to do with it,
that the church walls
had pushed out toward the street
so that the massive stained glass window of the Almighty Father
had fallen in and left a hole,
a silhouette of the icon
that used to command the whole church
from high above the nave.

Services now
were held under the God-shaped hole:
prayers said
hymns sung
infants baptised
sermons preached
offerings made
communion celebrated
couples wed
the dead remembered.

Meanwhile reconstruction began,
but it turned out harder than planned.
Some folks had taken home
bits of the original window
as a piece of devotional or historical curiosity,
and when it was discovered
there was not enough left to restore
the original ancient grandeur,
debates erupted if they should even try
to recreate what was lost.

Some said
they should begin and finish the project
as quickly as possible
because people were not coming as they used to
since the window had collapsed.
Others pointed out
new people were entering the church
curious about the place
in a way they never were before.
And these newcomers joined
with those who had always been scared
by the window’s fierce eyes
to suggest they replace the old image
with a new one.

The differences about what to do
broke into conflict
so that for now the construction
was nearly halted,
though some workers
tried to assemble the roof in bits and pieces.

But without an overall plan
nothing would stay put.
Even the stars from another section
that surrounded the hole
began to fall from the ceiling
so that another group of folk arose
suggesting they take down the entire
edifice and start all over anew –

except that the most devout
could not bear to lose
this or that pulpit
or rail where they had prayed so long
and the carpet worn so thin
by the knees of many generations.

So for the time being
all that was done
was to rope off the area beneath
the God-shaped hole
to make sure no one was hit by a piece of falling glass
that would fall from time to time
from a cracked angel or star,
and to pray
that people would keep coming
while the church continued to be,
as the sign alerting those who entered said:

Several years back now we here at St David’s began to take the biggest risk in our congregational life. We began to respond to the call as a congregation to change, to allow ourselves the opportunity to bear pain and to see what might be possible for a church of tomorrow. We began to move forward together’ risking the way of Jesus. We began to ask how to be a people doing ministry and mission in the new millennium, and doing it differently. This was risky not because it was in any way a brave step but because we could not envisage any other option. Our risk taking was tinged with all those fears of survival, change, unknown future and uncomfortable risky stuff. We in our particular historical context were born when change was far from a good thing yet deep down we knew it was necessary and we justified our thinking by hearing in our minds all those sayings. “Change is when life refuses to be embalmed alive.” Alfred North Whitehead. “The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human.” Pablo Casals and “We have a technical name for people who do not change: ——— dead.” Thomas Troeger

We knew and we know that for church to be church, for faith to be faith; it cannot be just more of the same regardless of how painful and unsettling it will be. We also knew like Thomas Hawkins who in his book The Learning Congregation compared the experience of life in both church and community with that of rafting in a permanent white-water situation. ‘Unlike rivers” he said: “we may have travelled in the past, where the occasional experience of white-water is followed by patches of relative calm water, but we are now navigating through an almost perpetual stretch of turbulent white-water.’  (Hawkins 1997)

He goes on to enumerate the different skills needed for white-water rafting when compared with rafting in calmer conditions. These skills include the need to sometimes work ‘counter-intuitively’… to lean in towards the rocks rather than away from them in the swirling river. In other words: don’t just duck the dangers and challenges and hard decisions, but name and face and address them. Change is what it is.  Life refusing to be embalmed alive!

Like good Christians and especially good Presbyterians we look to the books of the bible for help in facing this journey. We are reminded that not all people do this. Not all people have this privilege and many don’t see it as a privilege. It’s no wonder really because the books are filled with people’s previous struggles and their mistakes as well. Many turn the books into rules and regulations to avoid the problems of literalism and miss the meaning also. But many of us value them because they are stories and metaphor of others who have walked the path we take and we know just how valuable it is to know what others before us have done with the questions of life.

Another important issue we have to note is that the biblical tradition is rich with stories of God calling individuals and nations to change – to be in a new and different place. People are called to embrace change, not only in location, but also in attitude and behaviour. Just some of those are God’s call to Abraham and Sarah. “Leave your native land, your relatives and your father’s home and go to the country that I am going to show you”. Moses and the Hebrew people called to leave Egypt and journey to the promised land of Canaan… Jacob’s wrestling with God who gave him a new name and self-understanding. Jacob the ’deceiver’ becomes ‘Israel’: ‘he who struggles with God’… Israel’s 50-year exile in Babylon before returning to Jerusalem… The call of the disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John who left their nets and followed Jesus… Saul’s Damascus road experience that gave him a new name and self-understanding… Peter’s vision at Joppa that changed his attitude to the Gentiles, and opened the way for their inclusion into early Christianities…

Here we need to be careful because learning from the past is not about accepting it as better than today. Its not about allowing nostalgia to take over. Learning from the past is about critiquing it in the light of what we now know. Its about being reminded of where we’ve come from these past (whatever number of) years. Its about maintaining an openness to possibilities that have never occurred in the culture of this place; and as a way of introduction to another time of change… a time of reconstruction. Looking back is not just about preserving the old but also about critiquing it in the light of the present, learning from it so that we can be in new and different places, and live in perpetual, turbulent, white-water conditions… Knowing how others have wrestled with the questions of life calls us to be alert and responsive, as we seek to share in the reconstruction of the present as an environment friendly to the imagination… Perhaps a very good new years resolution might be to be alert for the opportunity to be part of the reconstruction.

We look again at the stories in the bible and we see examples of being under reconstruction… And we see how the vision of reconstruction energized people. We see stories that reveal a new year imagination, an imagination revealing possibilities within us
far greater than our local, conventional experiences allow. We see that under reconstruction… is a vision that can energize people – today. But there is a catch to this. The vision is about seeing life as a journey of constant change, constant opportunity, constant reconstruction of the past into something new and all this is only of value when we continue to own the five very special words. “Don’t be scared of life”.

Hawkins, T. The Learning Congregation. A New Vision of Leadership Georgia. Westminster John Knox Press. 1997
Troeger, T. H. Preaching While a Church is Under Reconstruction. Nashville. Abingdon, 1999.

An Advent Mary…

Posted: December 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 4B, 2017
Luke 1:26-38

An Advent Mary…

Today is the fourth and final Sunday in the church season we call Advent. And for us the completion of the theme that claims that being religious does not have to rely on a supernatural approach to faith. The mystery we seek to name, define and concretize does not have to rely on a supernatural understanding let alone a superstitious approach. We have even explored how this mystery that we name God or seek to define is very much found in and engaged in through the ordinary. In the spirit of the storyteller we call Mark, we have considered the invitation to ‘stay alert’ to the present-ness of the sacred or God, in the ordinary. We have continually suggested that the ‘good news’ of Advent is to become more aware of, more sensitive to, the God-given moments of grace in us and in our ordinary daily events. Why?  Otherwise we may miss what actually is.

And so once again the hands of those who shaped our Advent lectionary, can be seen in yet another clue: a young woman whom we call Mary. Bishop Jack Spong in his Weekly Letter some time back, said of Mary: “As the Christmas season arrives, the icon of the Virgin Mary enters the consciousness of the Christian world in a significant way.  She is universally recognized with her eyes lowered, the infant Jesus in her arms, and located in a stable… (This) Madonna and child have provided the content for many artists over the centuries” (Spong 15/12,/2005).

Yes, we can dwell on the differences between how Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have dealt with Mary. But in the end, they are both attempts to make Mary real and human. The Roman approach can be said to err on the side of the symbolic and get caught up in the process of deification and the Protestant approach can be said to err on the side of the ordinary and become obsessed with refuting the need for deification and lose the opportunity to value the ordinary as other than non-deist. As we said the other week there is a need to hold the symbolic and the ordinary together in a living partnership.

Today we join Luke the storyteller as he weaves his way through the announcement of John the Baptist’s conception (and Elizabeth’s recognition of what God has done for her), through the annunciation of a virgin birth, and on to Mary’s interpretation of what is happening to her, in the Magnificat.

There are, of course, significant differences between the two stories we have. From the settings to the characters to the way the story goes, each account takes its own path to that doorstep, with everyone together, and Mary singing her song of jubilant faith. Whether in Temple or dusty little village, with elderly parents-to-be surprised by joy or a young maiden facing an unexpected and dangerous pregnancy, the story speaks of hope and promise, renewal at the same time as it speaks of unprecedented change social alienation and familial struggle. This invites the hearer to wrestle with the relationship between God and humanity, between pain and joy, between the symbolic and the ordinary. And the answer is to trust in a God at work in their lives in very surprising ways. Put the symbolic and the ordinary together for it is there, that Mystery, or God is found.

Here is also the claim that God is at work on the margins. While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms (“righteous…living blamelessly”), Mary is simply ‘a young woman’. Greeted by an angel of God as “full of grace,” as “favoured one,” Mary is nevertheless not described as extraordinarily holy; in fact, she is an ordinary person like each of us. She’s a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. And then the ordinary meets the holy or the sacred or what I am calling ‘The symbolic’.

Here is where the works of wonder take place. In every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, “on the margins.” Here is where “the extraordinary” happens; everywhere, including “out-of-the-way places” where people live supposedly “unassuming lives” But it’s especially compelling at this point to think of the story of Mary in that little village, far from the Temple, the center of worship and life for her people and their long story with God, and even farther away from Rome, the center of the “known world” of the time, the center of the Empire that kept its cruel heel upon those same people, the people of God.

The next point is that being an “ordinary” girl in a small village brings us a Mary who is somewhat different from the traditional Mary who is meek and mild, essentially perfect, and here we have the suggestion that she is “more fearless and less humble”. When that angel appears before Mary, talking about God being with her and then assuming that she’s afraid, we note that she has a right to be a bit perplexed (who wouldn’t be?): “Give the girl a chance Gabriel! Her question is not an expression of doubt but an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel” (New Proclamation Year B 2005). She is not passive about what is happening for her. And we can understand that. Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to process such information from an unexpected and even uninvited visitor? We read familiar and beloved story (especially to artists), even though it perplexes us, as well. The dialogue is limited, and we never really know for sure what Mary is thinking or feeling, at least until she sings her song of joy at Elizabeth’s house.

The next question that is raised by the story is about the nature of a blessing. What is a blessing? This question is highlighted by the commentators who wrestle with the question of Mary’s acceptance–or was it surrender? And what is Mary accepting: is it an invitation, a request, or simply information about what’s going to happen to her, and is it a good thing that’s about to happen? In a sermon on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, “The angel did not ask her how that sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he told her” (Gospel Medicine).

Gabriel twice recognizes her as “favoured,” but then offers what R. Alan Culpepper calls “a strange blessing.” We thank God for our blessings, although many believe, he says, that those blessings are “the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet here we have Mary, God’s favoured one, being blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Here is the probability that acceptability, prosperity, and comfort and all things nice have never been the essence of God’s blessing” (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible).

Many people might be taken aback, even offended, by Culpepper’s words, as we often hear people say, “I’ve been blessed” when they want to express their gratitude to God for the “good things” of life. Culpepper’s claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary’s life, rich in what is “strange” blessings.

The next question that arises is what is God doing here. In both of these stories from Luke of conception and promise, the focus is really all about God and what God is doing. John like all good prophets, will call the people to repentance in order to ready themselves for what God is about to do, and to prepare the way for the One who is to come. And Jesus, Gabriel says, will be not just a great man but the Son of the Most-High God.

Is this the good news we are waiting for? Is it about how God is doing such wonderful and seemingly impossible things here in this story about Mary and an angel’s astonishing announcement. Here we note that the story is introducing another deist concept. The story moves from ” Request,” or “Invitation,” to “The Annunciation.” And we traditionally leap to the idea that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God. But is that the right leap? What if this humble but earth-shaking conversation tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008). The sacred takes place in and through the ordinary, and this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary’s story our own, and it is our story, our ordinariness that makes her story something we can understand much better.

Here again we have God’s mysterious ways. In this quietly marvelous story, we find intersection between Mary’s life and our own, for in each person’s life, “God takes part in the unfolding of human existence from before the moment of conception.” This is a staggering thought, not because of the before the moment of conception issue but because of the co-created-ness of our living. The ordinary in sync with the symbolic. The imagination in sync with reality. And here’s the challenge. The fact that we need this story suggests that this task of unifying is not easy. We are not always so keenly aware–or perhaps accepting–of God’s hand at work in our lives; we need to stay alert because we foolishly think we will lose our individuality or our sense of who we are if we admit to our interdependence. It is as if we are afraid of vulnerability (or invulnerability). Maybe our experience of more or less agency and/or powerlessness in our lives makes us feel afraid of being in sync. On the plus side pastoral care is enriched by the insight, that, like Mary, we need “time to adjust to astonishing news, to question whether or not trials and tragedies, or God’s magnificent promises, are for real, and to contemplate potential repercussions. The query ‘How can this be?’ is a reverberating refrain that shapes our faith by reminding us…how much we have yet to discover. But maybe the exclamation of these words might signify the nearness of God”. “How can this be” as a question demands the nearness of God. Otherwise why ask the question at all? In hospital waiting rooms, at the bedside of the dying, or in hearing a good report from the doctor, in a hundred different settings of human life where we are especially aware of “the nearness of God,” these words express our conviction that God is involved in our lives in ways that are mysterious indeed, just as God’s ways were mysterious to Mary that day and every day that followed.

Barbara Brown Taylor, addresses with great insight the question of Mary’s “choice,” her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation, and our freedom as well. Taylor has said that the angel announced the impending birth and didn’t ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, “whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to defend herself against it however she could.” We have a similar choice between possibilities in our own lives, Taylor says, to say “yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not….” is our choice. We can say no to our life, Taylor says, “but we can rest assured that no angels will trouble us ever again.” And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: “We can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. We can put the symbolic and the ordinary together, We can see God as existing in every human life, co-creating the universe. We can honour the mind both conscious and non-conscious, We can live the questions and keep alive the possible and we can bring the sacred and the ordinary together as an adventure of humanity. And as the Mary story says We can agree to smuggle God into the world inside our own body” We can become “Mothers of God” by asking ourselves how are we bearing God in this world?

Luke might have believed that a supernatural virgin birth or virgin conception was required but his story also says that, it should never be used as a disqualification of Mary’s humanity or womanhood, or for that matter, Jesus’ humanity or manhood. Amen.

Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. The First Christmas. What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Birth. New York. HarperOne, 2007.
Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Ludemann, G. Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and her Son Jesus. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 1998.
Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Preston. Mosaic Press 2013; Morning Star Publishing, 2014


Advent 3B, 2017
John 1: 6-8, 19-23

John: A Man of The Ordinary and The Symbolic…

Because Mark’s gospel is seen by several scholars as being the most confrontational and to contain a number of questions for the readers such as who they stand with, what they believe in and how they will act. This makes it worthy of much study but since it is such a short gospel, the church throughout Year B in the Lectionary (the church year we are now in) often borrows from John’s gospel – similarly aggressive and sure in its tone – however not about the Jesus of history, but rather about the Christ of faith. And that is a very big difference that we can’t take lightly.

Whereas Mark’s writing was the earliest gospel to be written, it tends to be sharp, to the point, in its talk about Jesus and his teachings… John’s writing on the other hand, comes after many years of deep theological reflection. The sentences are longer and the images more contrived. And the ‘cosmic’ post-Easter Christ rather than the ‘earthy’ pre-Easter Jesus, seems all important to him. That is a really different theology!

Why mention this? Well; because just when we were starting to get into the swing of Mark’s stuff in this new church year, we now leave all that behind. We won’t have another reading/story from Mark until early January. This adds a level of complexity to the theme for the year alongside what is already far from simple with the complex claims for advent as it is.

John the baptizer, comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. Indeed, his voice is so dominate this young local bloke is regarded by many as a ‘prophet of doom’. Still, the people of his day seem to take hold of what he has to say. And as you will remember from last week’s story from Mark, they go out to listen to him. Even Jesus was there, and despite the fear filled approach John takes people and by people we mean, the poor, the powerless ones, those on the edges of society and they hear something in John’s message which we might call ‘hope’.

This reminds us that theirs was a situation that needed a word of ‘hope’. Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent. And life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. That’s the historic setting as well we know it and on top of that we have the story teller John’s world where it seems there is some strife within the early Jesus movements
over the place and importance of John the baptizer.

Some were arguing that John the baptizer had a religious insight not unlike that of Jesus of Nazareth. So, for them he was as important as Jesus.  And they claimed that his thinking should be given more attention. John the storyteller despite this controversy gives him a major reference. And like most church debates we can imagine that they became a bit heated at times. Some scholars reflecting on these debates have suggested Jesus started out as a follower or disciple of John. But, they conclude, John was seen by Jesus as too much of an alarmist. So, he, Jesus, left when he chose to follow a different dream.

It is poet and theologian John Shea who, by the way, captures this feeling well in his poem about John: The Man who was a Lamp. “John expected an axe to the root of the tree and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it. He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire and along came a singing seed scatterer. He welcomed wrathful verdicts, then found a bridegroom on the bench.”  (Shea 1993:177)

It seems John was a man of passionate devotion to the honour of God. He was a person of forceful words and not easily pigeonholed. He was a person who attempted to address people’s fear in living by using what we would suggest risks credibility in his use of language. This we think might contribute to the difference between him and Jesus. Fear as both environment and motivation for change as opposed to fear as environment that is transformed by love.

We might dwell a little on the use of language and its influence be it forceful or meek language. Our experience is that God-talk is often arrogant or seems to be and one thought is that it is often seen this way because it has set itself the task of trying to be the most comprehensive, mind-bending, language -stretching venture we can undertake. We are reminded of Gordon Kaufman’s observation that ‘God’ is the symbol we use as ‘the ultimate point of reference for understanding everything, every value, every experience, every desire, every act of imagination.’ Another way of saying’ the attempt to talk about the un-talk-about-able.’ God language is an attempt to encounter and engage the ultimate Mystery of Life, so it is bound to be inadequate, mind boggling, or paradoxical.

In our world today, theism based language stands out as out of touch, dated and sometimes irrelevant because it is bound up with a personified God as opposed to divinity as being expressed most fully in the lives of loving human persons. When there is a meeting of the ordinary and the symbolic there is a fully developed human consciousness of eternity and of love in all its dimensions that opens us up to face the realities of life and death, eating, drinking and being merry, both because tomorrow we die and because today we are alive.

In most ways the world of John and of Jesus is far from our 21st century world. And this needs to be acknowledged and taken into account every time we turn to the biblical stories, and especially during Advent.

Firstly, we do not live in a theocracy, despite the desires of the Religious Right. We do not have a country run by priests and bishops. In fact, things religious are symbolic only and this is why we can change the words of state prayers. This means that in the time of the storytellers, God was perceived as directly involved in the personal and especially the social affairs of the people. Today, in NZ at least, religion is not so pervasive. For most of us religion simply stands side by side with other factors of life… Sunday might still hold some sort of theocratic value as a worship day but that is slowly changing.

Secondly, the ordinary person’s concern today is about coping with life.  Making ends meet. Striving to create some small window of time out from just coping. The millions of dollars spent on lotto tickets and games of chance indicate this striving. God is not immediate to us unless there is some want or need, or tragedy interrupts. Even the symbolic struggles as indicated by the prolific use of the sign of amazement on people’s lips OMG! Is no longer an expression of the nearness of God as opposed to a meaningless expression of surprise. The constant consciousness of God is gone. And God is no longer in the language of our greetings and partings. To hear ‘God bless New Zealand is at best tied to the symbolic use of a National anthem but would be totally strange to our ears in common language.

Thirdly, there is a tendency in our times to relate to religion as magic or superstition. This is especially true when it comes to the unexplainable or uncomfortable… Sickness. Death. Family breakup. Natural disaster, all as a result of some sort of God that plays with reality as if it is subject to whim or design or plan.

Finally, for many, religion is looked upon for its practical ‘DIY’ value. If it can’t make me feel better or be more in control of my life then it has little use. Sure, religion is seen as useful for living an orderly and sometimes, peaceful life. But when it ceases to be practical, it can be discarded.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent and our Lectionary readings have been shaped in such a way as to confront us with a bloke called John. And he is no doubt a bit strange… John Shea in his poem goes on to say of him: “a map of a man…  Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion… (John Shea 1993:175)

A bloke called John.  An ordinary bloke. A bloke who relates best to other ordinary people. But while it appears his voice is loud and his manner rough, even though his message comes in frightening language it is still essentially heard as one of hope:

In John’s world God wants to do great things – with ordinary people. For it is in the ordinary that we can sense the present-ness of God. In the ordinary… like the love-making songs of the birds and insects, in the ordinary… In the daily red orange glaze of a setting sun or the rising glow of the morning moon. In the ordinary… like a rough diamond called John the ‘baptizer’.

Today, this third Sunday in Advent, let us remember that the creativity and wisdom we call ‘God’ still encourages and awakens and persuades, so great things can be achieved through ordinary people like us. Not because of a theistic God decides this but because we understand that our sacred eternity, our spirituality, our religion is a creative consummate art form that celebrates human values, especially those we know as myriad contingent relationships.

If you want to name this day with an advent word it would be a word of hope! The hope that motivates language and the hope that is found in the unity of the symbolic and the ordinary. In Ken Wilber’s the mystic’s words John and Jesus were riding the edge of a light beam racing toward the rendezvous with God. I like that as a theme for the hope of advent, a life filled with the risk of the possible, moving toward enlightenment and the union of the ordinary and the symbolic, or God if you need a word. Amen.

Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroads Publishing, 1993

Carl L Jech, Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs EU Oregon; Resource Publications.

Website, R A. E. Hunt.


Ordinary or Symbolic or Both?

Posted: December 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 2B, 2017
Mark 1:1-8

Ordinary or Symbolic or Both?

Today we continue our journey into the season of Advent. The season which began last Sunday with our revisiting of the message that the second coming was a metaphor for God being already here and today we continue that theme with a look for the ordinary and the symbolic as a common sign of incarnation. Advent is symbolic and a revelation of God’s presence in humanity and it is why we structure our church year to remind ourselves that we live the story all the time. We here in the southern hemisphere still wrestle with the northern hemisphere flavour of Christmas and with its ancient cosmology and seasonal irrelevance, yet we have started on this short journey of waiting, preparing, seeing, understanding. We also note that this new church year lectionary did not start with a celebration of something that had happened. Such as stories of a birth or a resurrection. Instead it started with a strange ordinariness – even emptiness. What is to come is more important, different so stay alert.

Last week we also showed how the designers of the Lectionary delved their way into the collection of stories by the storyteller we call Mark. And there they found, and grabbed, a certain kind of story. A story often regarded by many interpreters as an apocalyptic warning about the end times. And they dropped this so-called end times story right at the beginning of the season and the year. Stay awake!  Keep alert! Why did they do this? Well! One could say that theologically, it is due to the fact many scholars and church leaders claim Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker. I among many others do not accept this anymore. Maybe his life can now be seen to be a revelation but then he did not fit the same role that is given John the Baptist.

Rex Hunt suggests that story-wise we need to be careful not to miss what actually is a message about the signs of God’s presence and God’s present-ness. The signs of an incognito God in the midst of ordinary events. The other reason for not accepting the lectionary assumption is that we might miss the storyteller Mark’s line of thought:
we might miss the importance of the ending of his story, because the beginning clues become locked into our brain literalized and personalized.

Two of the storyteller’s early clues that support this approach are that we have a human messiah, and a bloke called John. From what we know we can figure out that the storyteller we call Mark, writing some 40 years at least after Jesus, and after the fall of Jerusalem, saw that Jesus was indeed ‘messiah’, even a political messiah, but not a nationalistic zealot messiah. With this we can see that the hope for a Jewish human messiah was given new impetus around the time of Jesus’ birth. Not because of his birth, but because of the death of one ruthless ruler, Herod the Great.

According to Ian Cairns, an old New Testament lecturer of mine, wrote that Mark’s vision of ‘messiah’ was about creating a commonwealth of people who were seeking “harmony with themselves, with the whole human species, and with the total social and natural environment.” (Cairns 2004:6) We note also that the storyteller’s use of the word ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ has about it the older Roman political sense of ‘victory in battle’, although later on it also becomes influenced by Greek sensibilities and tends to refer to life stories of heroic figures. So, says Cairns that; combining ‘messiah’ and ‘good news’ we can perhaps say: “Mark sees the Jesus story as laying the foundations for a new humanitarian attitude of people toward people, and of society towards its members.” (Cairns 2004:7)

Secondly, from all we do and do not know (which sometimes is not much), John the baptizer, simply appears as having had spent some 14 years in the desert wilderness and when he emerged, he came as a somewhat wild, austere man, dressed in animal skins, and eating kosher locusts, which he washed down with gulps of wild honey. For many people, including our storyteller Mark and the latter one called Luke, John was a prophet.  Indeed, not just any ordinary prophet, but the ‘reincarnation’ of the prophet Elijah. Teasing this out a bit, John Shelby Spong says this about Mark’s John: “When [Mark] introduces John the Baptist for the first time it is clear that John has already been interpreted as the Old Testament figure of Elijah, who in the expectations of the Jews had to precede the coming of the messiah.  John is clothed… in the raiment of Elijah, camel’s hair and a girdle around his waist.  He is placed in the desert where Elijah was said to dwell.  He was given the diet of locusts and wild honey that the Hebrew Scriptures said was the diet that Elijah ate.” (John S Spong Newsletter, 1/4/2010).

For us, John is primarily remembered for his ‘baptisms’, and for his preaching – repentance’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’. But not, it is important to note not, ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ as modern-day fundamentalists claim. Ian Cairns is helpful here, when he writes: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins means inviting the hearers-readers to make tangible if symbolic expression of their willingness to embrace a new way of looking at things, and commit themselves to a new vision of ‘commonwealth’…” (Cairns 2004:9)

So, in understanding how Mark views John’s role in all this, we need to hear and understand just how important the prophets and the desert wilderness was in Israel’s foundational stories. One suggestion is that the desert wilderness was the place, in the time of Moses, where the Israelites believed they had met God, so it was the place where they learned about their role as a holy people. It was also a divine message to a people. Another is that the desert wilderness was a place of testing. A place of preparation.  A place of vulnerability where a person was stripped of all pretensions and found out for what he or she was really like. Another was that the desert wilderness was a place of appalling danger and deprivation. All these suggestions are claims that wilderness is where one meets God, the meeting with God is always a challenge of some sort and this meeting with God is one where one is exposed for who they are. All requirements of life. All requirements of divine encounter.

So, the storyteller Mark links his John to the Jewish past, and not just any past as it was an important past and it was so that he is also seen to be a present-day forerunner of the future. In Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Liberating the Gospels, he writes:
“John was thus created or, perhaps more accurately, shaped to be the Elijah type messenger and forerunner.  John became the life that the Christians believed was foretold (in the Hebrew scriptures).”  (Spong 1996:195) But, our storyteller Mark has something else in mind as well. He is not claiming that John is mere prophet he is a prophet with a difference. He is concerned about contributing to the future in that while everything that he says about John seems to bolster John’s status as a prophet.
And, therefore, his honour.

So, when Mark has John say: ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…’ we can also hear John’s concern to honour the difference in status he believes he has from the one to follow. He says; ‘This someone who is more powerful, more-worthy, deserves our honour more than I do.’ Here he is saying that the one who follows will be different and more recognizable in the lives of the people.

So, in the hands of Mark, storyteller; John the baptizer is both a prophet in his own right, and one who becomes the precursor to Jesus, another more honourable prophet. In linking John and Jesus Ian Cairns’ is again helpful. He says; “Just as John’s baptism symbolized the willingness to commit oneself to the vision of ‘commonwealth’, so Jesus by his teaching and example, and by the inspiring impact of his personality, will make available the dynamic required for commitment… For Mark and his community, the ministry of Jesus makes this enduring dynamic accessible is a new way.” (Cairns 2004:10) ‘Follow me for I will make you fishers of men”.

So, what might this say about Advent this year? Well I think we might say what we inferred last week; It is a time to stay awake, stay alert, look for the clues of this incognito, community-building God who is all around you. And look within oneself, the relationships we have, the everyday events that make up our daily lives. Today we might say as well that advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic as we re-imagine the world. Here we have the point of difference. The ordinary and the symbolic are held together as a new way. It is when we cherish and honour this understanding of intimacy with the divine that we contribute to the future. It is when we discover the God-given moments in our ordinary daily events: in the clacking and screeching sounds of two branches knocking and rubbing together in the wind, … in the realisation that rain is not a singular thing but also made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing… in the flares of a friend’s passion to shape justice with a new vision of ‘commonwealth’… that we participate in advent moments as sacred moments. It is our sensing of the present-ness of God in the ordinary and the symbolic.

And why this place for the symbolic? Well this is a bit more complex but only because of our recent Christian history. Perhaps as example we might look at our current struggles with what to do with our church buildings. What we hear as heritage are questions of “who built it, what with?” What was it called? And nostalgia for a past that is no longer touchable becomes a reason for concern. My great grandmother was married in it is a common theme used to justify keeping the building at all costs. I happen to think that Heritage is more than just symbolic in a Christian sense because it says something more than all that. I found Carl L Jech helpful in this in his book, Religion as Art Form, where he brings together humanities and art by quoting Karen Armstrong’s observations. She wrote that “human beings are spiritual animals…. They created religions at the same time as they created works of art.” She went on …. “in an important sense, God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring”. She said ‘It should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty, the cause of our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion. This says to me that church buildings are symbolic but are they practical or are they both? We know It is their use that gives them Heritage value not just the bricks and mortar yet we are bullied into silence on this because the symbolic overrides the ordinary. Church is not just about buildings, it is rather about how people bring together the ordinary and the symbolic. The defining factor is that a Church building exists for the wholistic wellbeing of people. Perhaps like the old roles of Cathedrals being both market place and spiritual and physical sanctuary.

This suggests that the difference between religion as art form and other forms of art is in the degree to which it is practical and intends to affect our morality, our ethical behaviour. A heritage concern for a church building is not about the building itself but rather its symbolic intent and its contribution to moral and ethical behaviour. A heritage architect the other day allude to this when she said the material condition of our church building is not the concern of heritage architecture it is rather the historic value it originally brought and brings to the present and the future. It also suggests that the reason the original architect had for designing a church building is not important unless it is used for moral and ethical concerns. Yes, it can meet the symbolic concerns but unless it is an active church it cannot be practical and thus speak to the world. In other words, perhaps, the heritage value of our church buildings is their continued use in the interest of moral and ethical outcomes. This is not an argument that an artist’s creation cannot be indifferent to their work because they are free to do so but it is about what heritage value a building has when its use is for the work of moral and ethical enhancement. A church building is a church building and no other and this is what makes it not just a building. Ordinary and symbolic if you like, and both, at the same time.

The task for us is not to take sides on either the ordinary or the symbolic but to see the moral and the ethical concerns as ordinary day to day concerns, the symbolic use of language, material and religious concern as art for and integrated; our particular desert wilderness is what to do with our buildings and our John the Baptist is suggesting we need to focus on our point of difference as religious people and our Mark is suggesting that as followers of Jesus we need to heed this as symbolic and thus an invitation to be creative and imaginative in the interests of people. Why? Because God language is always metaphorical and mythic. It may not be empirically true, it may defy the laws of logic, but a good myth will tell us something valuable about the human predicament.

And like any work of art, a myth will make no sense unless we open ourselves to it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us. Karen Armstrong also says that “the truths of religion require the disciplined cultivation of a different mode of consciousness. Christians are called out to move beyond the norm in more ways than one. Be alert, stay awake and see the alternative approach and if you have to have a direction may it be between the popular, the status quo, the obvious, and primarily focused on the enhancement of ethical and moral behaviour. It is important to understand what you value but putting them into practice is the call to difference. Yes, it is fraught with all sorts of questions brought by pluralism, sectarianism and buildings verses church arguments, and a popular understanding of heritage value as opposed to religious value but as John said; someone better is to come after me. So, may we have the wisdom to see and honour, understand and celebrate the ordinary, and the symbolic, this Advent! Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004
Spong, J. S. Liberating the Gospels. Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York. HarperCollins, 1996.

Jech, Carl L Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs, Eugene OR Wipf and Stock 2013