Archive for June, 2018

Pentecost 4B

June 17th 2018

Mischievous Mustard Seed Satire

 If we start with all the stuff we have previously heard about this parable, there is a good chance many of us have heard it said this is a story about contrast. About a tiny mustard seed that grows into the greatest of all shrubs. The trouble is that botanically speaking “mustard does not grow to be the greatest of all shrubs, nor is it the smallest of all seeds. Which says that; hyperbole is used to drive home a contrast. On the other hand, wild mustard, an annoying weed, is almost impossible to eradicate once it has infested a paddock or vegetable garden. When you get it in your paddock, like ‘ring fern’ or Scotch thistle’, your paddock is ‘unclean’. So what might the storyteller be suggesting?

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar suggest: “Jesus’ audience would probably have expected God’s domain to be compared to something great, not something small.” (Funk 1993:59) And then this interesting point: “As the tradition was passed on, it fell under the influence… of the mighty cedar of Lebanon as a metaphor for a towering empire… In his use of this mustard seed metaphor, Jesus is understanding the image for comic effect.” (Funk 1993: 484)

Having said that let’s take a moment to reflect on what the satire might be alluding to given that all the parables are thought to be comments on the realm of God that Jesus is hailing as present and unfolding. The kingdom come perhaps. Lets also take a moment to reflect on how satire is used today.

John Bennison in a sermon on this invites us to start by remembering that radical religious extremists with a distorted view of Islam committed a horrific act of terror a few years ago, executing the staff of a small satirical French publication. The satirists had dared to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoon caricature; all the while lampooning those misbegotten adherents who in turn regard such irreverent acts as blasphemous. The Western world reacted with outrage and defiance to such an affront. World leaders joined a million, person protest and unity marched through the streets of Paris, chanting “Je Suis Charlie,” in defense of freedom of speech, and on behalf of the publication’s name. When the modest magazine ran its next issue a week later, the printing presses couldn’t keep pace with consumer demand.

We note that anti-blasphemy laws are common in countries where there are a majority of Muslims. At the same time, it is notable that nearly ninety countries in the world, including France, have laws against the defamation of religion and public expression of hate against religious groups. In the U.S. there are laws that prohibit “hate speech,” where it pertains to words that “offend, threaten, or insult groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” We have recently debated the Australian rugby player, Israel Filau’s comments about homosexuality in the context of hate speech and rights to religious freedom.

While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, more profound underlying questions remain. Once the dust settles and more thoughtful discussion ensues, we are left with what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression? What one might consider merely irreverent, others might regard as not only offensive, but blasphemous and in violation of established law, whether religious or secular. In an attempt to take it out of the legal domain we begin to talk about what is PC and what is not. We talk about false news and political truth as descriptions that almost legitimize dishonesty. When should freedom of expression be curtailed if, and when, it leads to deliberate or even unnecessary provocation? What meaningful purpose might blasphemous satire serve, justifying its use as being of greater importance than the negative consequences that may result? We need strong leaders, or benevolent dictators is the cry. Was it a slip of the tongue or deliberate satire when Fox news announced the meeting of Trump and Kim Jong Un, as the meeting of two dictators?

Again, we are left with a question; While a clear distinction might be drawn between the use of words and the vehement reactions they may incite, … what constitutes the differences between hate speech and freedom of expression?

In the faith that was the faith of Jesus, the religiously observant person was forbidden from even pronouncing the name of their god, let alone seeing the face of the divine; hence they had the tetragrammaton YHWH commonly pronounced ‘Yahweh’ in English as an acknowledgment that even the utterance of the name was forbidden, and thus the word Adonai (“Lord”) is often substituted. To do otherwise could be considered blasphemous. In the Torah, it states that he that blasphemes the name of the LORD “shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 24:16)

In the canonical gospels of the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ antagonists are continually portrayed condemning the Galilean peasant preacher’s words and actions as blasphemy. The gospel author’s construct their stories to include the gradual, but cumulative, effect of tension and controversy surrounding Jesus. Moreover, they show Jesus as continuously breaking the rules, healing on the Sabbath, usurping God’s exclusive right to pronounce absolution, and making use of political satire in his depictions of the reign of god; until the mounting evidence is sufficient to condemn the offender as deserving death. Here is the collaboration of the Roman empire politically afraid of the Jesus movements political aspirations and the religious afraid of his corruption of their orthodoxy.

Whether it is the religious institution or the Empire of Rome, both the question and consequences may be the same. What useful and greater purpose might “blasphemous” satire serve, to make it worth the risk? When thinking about a ‘Purposeful Satire’ we might acknowledge that at Harvard University each autumn, the Ig Nobel Prizes are apparently awarded for the most esoteric, trivial or simply off-the-wall kinds of scientific research imaginable. As a parody of the prestigious Nobel Prizes, winners of the ignoble (hence the name of the awards) achievements of the last year might include researchers who study how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears; as well as others who investigate whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat; and still others seeking to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. And this is serious stuff, not unlike the debate about the Proctor’s right to ban and remove the Otago University Student publication from circulation.

The award ceremony at Harvard is organized by a science publication that goes by the name of Annals of Improbable Research. It considers itself a humorous, even satirical, magazine. It’s all meant to be good-hearted fun by those who take scientific inquiry very seriously.

Since the Enlightenment and Age of Reason it has long been suggested that scientific theory and empirical evidence is the religion of choice for those moderns, or now post-moderns, who have left primitive cosmologies and mythic theologies behind. We as progressive Christians might be considered as such people but why do we treat serious matters with the use of satire?

Well I don’t think we have time for a full answer to that question but we can offer an observation about the purposeful use of satire, regardless of its possible consequences. Religiously motivated types we might call fundamentalists, or radical extremists, or fanatical adherents of a warped interpretation of their religious convictions for their own purposes, all have a common response it seems. They all consider satire, lampooning, or mocking their deepest held beliefs to be intolerable blasphemy. And, since many religious traditions have a satire component to their text, it asks where does one draw the line, or cross it?

Was Jesus a Satirist and Blasphemer? Well at Harvard the stated purpose of the Ig Nobel prizes has always been to “honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” While the awards are sometimes thinly veiled criticism and gentle satire, they are also used to point out that even the most seemingly absurd can result in new and useful ways of seeing things.

So too, there may be no better way to describe Jesus’ use of satire in what are considered some of the most authentic sayings attributed to him in what we know as the parables. The idea of a good Samaritan, or a foolhardy shepherd who’d forsake an entire flock for one, dumb sheep, or a woman who’d turn her house upside down in search of a single coin are all examples of the kinds of absurd little stories with a bite sufficient to make one first laugh, then think more deeply. This brings us to today’s text of the parable of the mustard seed as another example.

All three synoptic gospels include their own variation on a somewhat briefer and probably earlier version found in the “sayings” of the Thomas gospel: The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.” He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.” (Thomas 20:2)

When Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed — how from the tiniest planted seed such tremendous and specular growth is possible — any motivational speaker or campaigning politician could adapt such a hopeful message out of context to suit their own agenda. Jesus’ original listeners, however, would have thought it was a joke; as in, “Did you hear the one about the mustard seed that thought it was a mighty tree? …” In fact, the mustard bush was a fast-growing weed that – once it took hold – could become so large it was almost impossible to eradicate. With echoes of the Ezekiel text from the Jewish prophetic tradition about the mighty cedar tree providing shelter and shade, Jesus’ image of the reign of God being compared to a mustard bush that could be equated with — or replace – the mighty cedar might well have made his listeners both laugh and cringe.

Perhaps when the evangelists chose to include and adapt this parable for their own purposes in what later became the New Testament canon, they wanted to encourage their fledgling congregations to put their shoulder to the gospel plow and assure them that everything was possible with God. Just plant the seeds and watch the good news spread. But those who first heard the parable may have first gasped, then chuckled uncomfortably and nervously shifted in their seats when they were invited to imagine the divine as an irascible weed. With a little biting humour, Jesus was poking fun of their traditional image of the reign of God; while prompting them to think differently about it.

As already mentioned, the parable of the mustard seed is only one of a number of such challenging little stories. Almost a folk tale, set in ordinary, every-day secular settings, typically irreligious, they also often portrayed the religious authorities in a less than favourable light and they had a challenging twist about them. Jesus had to be deliberately poking people in the posterior with a sharp stick. Is it any wonder he paid the price when his satirical critiques hit too close to home for the institutional hierarchy.

When the gospel story depicts him “setting his face to Jerusalem,” along with everything that would await him there (Matt. 19:1; Mark 9:30-32; Luke9:51-56), Jesus may well have known his satirical jabs would not only be considered irreverent but judged to be blasphemous.

To his credit, however, it seems clear his use of satire was always used to serve a deeper purpose than a quick laugh. Namely, to think more deeply about the nature about what he called the reign of God. With the stakes so high, he did not seem interested in simply exercising his right to mock, ridicule or castigate those whom he regarded as having lost their way. Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press, 1993.
Geering, L. G. Christianity Without God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Reid, B. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Mark. Year B. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 1999.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Toronto. Evans & Sanguin, 2015.

John William Bennison http://www.wordsnways.com/

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A New Way of Being Human

Posted: June 8, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 3B

Genesis 3: 8-15         Mark 3: 20-35

A New Way of Being Human

Along with the age-old way of being human based on the personalized and anthropocentric approach to God, so too is the idea of God casting out Satan, no longer the way of working toward being human. Up until now, such ideas of God and evil have been essential to our species survival. These ideas have, at the very least given us a relative peace within our own groups in geographical and cultural distinctiveness but now we have a new world and a new opportunity to travel that path towards being more human. For us as followers of the Jesus Way this is the path that Jesus offers us. He said or is recorded as having said; “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Jesus seems to be saying that we have, in fact, been a house divided. Our recent review of human history suggests that human beings have always found ways to divide ourselves based on what was called the satanic way of accusation. Tradition has also said that, that way of being human has come to end in the cross, and Jesus’ new way of forgiveness is the only true way forward.

But what does that mean in terms of our understanding of God. This is important it seems because you and I are called to be part of this new order, this new alternative This new humanity. The old alternative is that older way of seeing salvation as an escape from a world that will forever remain divided and subject to violence and the primary question has been; which way of salvation do you want to be part of? One suggestion is that in order to see the choice more clearly, we have to raise our level of discourse to that of anthropology: that Jesus comes to invite us into a whole new way of being human. But again; what does that mean?

I think it means doing more of what we’ve been doing which is calling our community to treat each other as interdependent, be it family, village, town or community, especially when it comes to the least of us, “we shall always have the poor with us” and those different from us, ‘we are neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor master, gay nor straight, or different in skin colour. I think it means doing more as children of God, good citizens, faithful people etc. The task we are called to is to engage in the bridging of the gaps of this partisan polarity. We are called to be part of the solution in a world that is captured by violence in all its forms, from physical abuse of another to the sustaining of systems seeking to avoid the critique of its influence on the human path to flourishing.

In our Genesis reading there are a number of tantalizing phrases in this familiar passage from the Creation story. One could emerge from this text, taking a number of different directions: God searching for us, the nakedness of shame, the pervasive nature of blame, or the relational impact of curse. The theme that seems to be most harmonious with the themes presented in our Gospel passage are the resolution of the relational curses in the person and work of Jesus, “their sins will be forgiven them,” and also the pervasive nature of blame, “a house divided against itself shall not stand.”

It is also hard to resist dwelling on the beauty of the passage about God searching for Adam and Eve “at the time of the evening breeze but,” why that narrative elaboration? Well maybe; the evening breeze on a beautiful evening is an invitation to discern what could be the purpose in this text telling us that God was heard walking in the garden “at the time of the evening breeze.” Often the sounds on that occasion are magnificently alive because we’ve grown accustomed to the alternative sounds perhaps. In the sounds of the rain and storms of winter we miss the sound of the insects that can only be heard in the stillness. We miss the sound of silence and the sound of nature breathing and moving. I think these are the sounds of creativity that arise out of the silence of imagination that we miss when consumed with the business of the now.

The worldview of a Creativity God, with its strong affirmation of God’s immanence in the world, is not as threatened by the picture of God walking around in the garden “in the evening breeze” as our classical theistic forebears might claim. They took issue with such a passage of scripture because their theological concept of God was one of an utterly transcendent and impassible Gods.

Process Theology, proclaims the immanent God who is concerned about the whereabouts of a couple who were created free — free enough to hide from God even in the Garden of Eden. And thus, any mention of “breeze” in the scriptures invites us to clue into this translation as connoting the same Spirit that is involved in the Creation narrative in the first creation story, as well as elsewhere throughout the Bible. The Ruach, (wind, breeze, breath, Spirit) is one way that we might be able to translate the meaning of what is happening in this text to hearers who might be unwilling to let go of the idea of an omniscient God walking around searching for Adam and Eve.

The alternative claim to an omniscient God is that the Breeze blowing might just be one and the same of “God walking” and “God speaking” to Adam and Eve, who know they have trespassed upon God’s commandments. As Sally McFague has stated in Models of God, this Pneuma/Ruach/Spirit might be a good way of conceptualizing God in a way that connects humans to non-human creation and to a Creativity God, as was outlined in the Trinity Sunday sermon a couple of weeks ago. I called it Serendipitous Creativity but the serendipity can be assumed as the acknowledgement of the evolutionary component in creativity. Furthermore, the fact that God is portrayed as searching for Adam and Eve is a description of a divine relationship with humanity in which it could be said that God is actively involved in the pursuit of a humanity fulfilled. Creativity God is concerned with our well- being, our location in life, and this offers us the best possible outcome of relationship.

In this week’s Mark reading Jesus has been gleaning some wheat for a snack and then healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. After that, he is then pictured healing a multitude of people, such that he had to escape for fear of being crushed (3: 9-10), hushing up some impure spirits (3:11), then deciding to delegate the power of exorcism to twelve apostles (3:13-19). After this whirlwind of activity, Jesus returns home (3:20), where he is met with suspicion. His family seems somewhat embarrassed, since the word around town is that Jesus has lost his mind, and the scribes have an even more scandalous charge. He’s filled with the Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, since according to their logic, only the ruler of demons can cast out demons.

Jesus has the decency to entertain the charges of the scribes, and counters their logic with his own, woven into parables. “If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand, and if a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand, and if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. Note here that “his end has come”. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” Process theology speak says we can take this phrase as a lure to speak about our prevalent divisive cultural and adversarial political climate though the comparison here between a “kingdom” and “Satan’s kingdom” as implied by Jesus.

Jesus’ parable puts him and his followers on the side of the plunderers, making their way into the house of the “Strong man,” and binding him, so that he and his followers can plunder the property. We look at our world today and we see examples of the resurgence of the “strong man” story around the world. Look at United States, Russia, The Philippines and many other places and we see political electorates which seem enamored with the possibility that such a “strong man” might provide salvation for a group of people politically engineered to feel victimized and hunkered down in a bunker mentality. Perhaps it is of interest to us that Jesus quite clearly positions himself on the side of the plunderers in this parable. How might an exorcist with a plan to “bind the strong man and plunder the property” be the torchbearer of followers of Christ in this political climate?

My summary to date is that the creation story and the gospel or the Jesus Way challenges us to see ourselves as part of the creativity, part of the culture building, part of the meaning development and one might say, part of the problem, and that when we see and understand this we are able to understand what forgiveness, freedom and the alternative Jesus Way, looks and feels like, and discover a new way of being human.

And on that note, I want to suggest that after service today we will engage in that very challenge. We will be asked to think about a name for our school; not our umbrella name because I think there is adequate justification being voiced that says St David’s Centre is where the location, heritage, legend and traditional, is valued and expressed. In other words that name says where we have come from and what we value as we step into the future, and now we are ready to engage in providing a name for our school. This will express what we think is distinctive, forward thinking and invites those who have no understanding of our spirituality, our aspirations as a sacred community of faith and how we think we might go about encouraging the development of young human beings to be spiritually aware, authentically driven and leaders of our world in a future which is beyond our imagination. In short what sort of world do we think the future might be, should be and how do we prepare others for it, even if we are not sure of what it might look and feel like.

What we do know is that it will be a world where our children will benefit from being multi-lingual, technologically astute, self-aware, and innovatively driven. A world where fear as a driver of violence, uncertainty, ambiguity is no longer valid and where society is based on an understanding of the efficacy of love and compassion. A new way of being human.

Genesis portrays the emergence of fear and sin in the human story. The Gospel portrays Jesus as declaring that all sins are forgiven and that love is the vehicle that replaces fear. Jesus is here, relating the sin to his own experience of feeling debased by the scribes who are describing his work and words and ministry as arising out of an unholy Spirit. If God is searching for us and comes walking in the evening breeze, which way the wind blows is important for our living as human beings, in other words what we say about ourselves to those who do not know us or what we believe is important. So, what are the words in naming our school that say who we are and what we believe we are aspiring to? Amen.