Archive for September, 2018

The Integrity of the Cross

Posted: September 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 17B, 2018
Mark 8:27-36

The Integrity of the Cross

The cross is a primary symbol of traditional and modern Christian faith even if it may not be the first symbol. It is a symbol that grew in the 4th Century AD. In our tradition it is seen to represent the suffering of the Holy in the midst of humanity. It is also true that multiple meanings are given to it and multiple effects come from those meanings. It seems also too obvious to say that the cross is the nerve center of today’s gospel story by Mark.
But what does that mean?

What most progressives understand today is that the cross is a symbol of traditional Christianity ‘par excellence. It has been around a long time and it is universally known as a Christian symbol especially since the time of Constantine’s reign in the 4th century. And the rest, they say, is history. Looking back on history we can see how the cross became the emblem of Christian triumphalism, forged in the fires of the late Roman empire, in the process of a military victory” (Funk 2002:141). And prime among those ‘fires’ in days past, were the Crusades in and following 1096, the Inquisition in 1232 onwards, and Auschwitz in the 1940s. Prime among those ‘fires’ in the past 10 years or so, are Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, and the ‘religious right’, of several persuasions.

We can say that under the banner of the cross and Constantine’s motto: ‘in this sign conquer’, the ground was laid for murder and mayhem. We acknowledge that the hymn ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ was shaped, and a creedal Christianity developed which left
a human Jesus completely out of the picture! What we cannot abide with is that cruelty and a terrifying death, are part of the so-called plan or purpose of ‘God’, because we know that they are the doings of human beings. And sometimes, totally depraved human beings at that.

If all the above is true then we must ask; can the symbol of the cross be freed from
its triumphalist associations and evil overtones? Can the symbol of the cross be freed from the thinking that says the ‘cross’ means ‘blood’ and Jesus dying for our sins? Some would say it has to, others that it cannot and others that it can but it means a new view and understanding of God and who Jesus was and is for us today.

While I am sure I will not be able to answer those questions today I want to have a go at starting such a quest. In fact, it is probably more about putting into words what is already under way. What might be possible is looking to see if we can make just a small beginning at weaving another possible way of looking at the symbol of the cross.

I think the first thing we need to do is acknowledge a predominant portrayal of the Cross is an unhelpful one in that it is ingrained in our thinking and thus a large challenge when it comes to thinking alternatively. John Shea suggests that when the cross is portrayed as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, then God in implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. And as a starting point for our thinking it is at best unfortunate. These are sharp words but it is the primary point in our change in thinking. It is true that Jesus’ death mattered to his friends, but only because his life mattered more. As S J Patterson suggests, what they did was begin to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life and they came to see he stood for something so important that he was willing to give his life for it.

This I suggest is a fundamental and very important difference because there is a certain human-ness and integrity about it, which is absent from so much of the other ways of thinking. And as Rex Hunt notes there are three threads at work here. The first is that the cross is about Jesus’ integrity; The second is that God’s ‘love’ is not about supernatural payment or rescue from sin, but rather divine sharing in human suffering; and the third is that Jesus did not invite the cross, but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world is really like when you look at it with God’s ‘eyes’.

Another way of looking at this is to say that Jesus saw beyond his present, he saw the integrated bigger picture and he sought to pass his glimpse along, and he did this not by telling stories about how it was and stories about how it could be but rather by using common everyday idioms, images and metaphor through sayings. aphorisms and parables. We call this the unconventional wisdom of a sage.

We know that it is not possible to discover one uniformed view of Jesus, otherwise why has there been so many attempts to discover the historical Jesus but New Testament scholar Dom Crossan offers one helpful re-imagined response:

“He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants…  They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession.  What, they really want to know, can this (realm) of God do for a lame child, a blind parent, a demented soul screaming its tortured isolation among the graves that mark the edges of the village?”

As Bob Funk said ‘This human Jesus did not write a definitive essay or publish a book. And the classic creeds from ages past seldom help, because they are preoccupied “with the status of Jesus rather than with God’s domain”. By contrast, we could say that Jesus’ efforts were more like that of a painter who uses broad strokes in both the political
and the social spheres of Galilean village life. And those strokes offer a picture which
enlarge God to include humankind, and enlarge the self to include the neighbour.

I want to take a leaf out of his book now and show you a big picture and use a modern idiom, or video to lay it out before you. As you watch think about the neighbour who potentially, an enemy! And hold fast to the idea that the death of something matters but only in that life matters more and that the challenge is to express a more absolute, uncompromising integrity as the true meaning of the cross. It might seem a bit of a stretch but I suspect that the result is what Mark’s, or his community’s, theological reflection.

And the challenge is that we will be able to hear this meaning only when, in an act of generosity, we keep our eyes open and our hearts hurting, and walk with those who, for whatever reason, carry unbearable crosses.

Video – The Next Revolution

Crossan, J. D. 1991.  The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. VIC: North Blackburn. CollinsDove.
Funk, R. W. 2002.  A credible Jesus. Fragments of a vision. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the passion. Rethinking the death and life of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Shea, J. 1975.  The challenge of Jesus. IL: Chicago. Thomas More

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People Matter

Posted: September 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 16B, 2018
Mark 7:24-30

People Matter

What we have to explore today is an interesting and different story from our gospel tradition. It is a single-entry story (Mark 7:24-30) that not only paints Jesus in a not-so-positive light, but also seems to question the very spirituality that initially shaped him. Jesus is seen as being critical of a gentile woman’s social behaviour and a judgmental temperamental exorcist. Feed the children first rather than throwing the food to the dogs. Then accepting her claim that the dogs eat the children’s crumbs he casts out the demons, first of the daughter and then the deaf man.

Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in last week’s story, the storyteller we call Mark now has Jesus challenged (and by implication, the Markan community somewhere in Syria) to put that teaching into practice by ministering to those often seen as ‘unclean’—or just different. We might say in our everyday language… Take the time to look beyond external factors like nationality, religious heritage, or social position, which by their nature often exclude. In the language of ‘Marcus Borg’ we are asked; what ‘lens’ did the storyteller Mark use and why? What ‘lens’ can we use to hear this story with twenty-first century ears?

Rex Hunt talks of a gathering he attended several years ago in Queensland at which a keynote speaker was feminist theologian and Catholic religious, Miriam Therese Winter.
He speaks of the experience as a stimulating and awakening experience for many of the males present as they began to hear some of the biblical stories through the eyes and ears—through the ‘lens’—of women. Again, this reminds us of the importance of the lens through which we look at the text. So. In that spirit we might explore a couple of comments on Mark’s story.

It seems that through the storyteller’s ‘lens’ we have a Phoenician woman, and her unconventional behaviour as determined by social convention, and we have her getting one over Jesus and if we believe the storyteller, it caught him on the back foot, so to speak. What initially draws the dominant male’s wrath by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness, eventually subverts that discomfort into agreement. Mark’s Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need. Now, Mark suggests, Jesus is faced with having to learn that social conventions, ingrained in his spirituality, should not do so either. And if it was good enough for Jesus to have a change of heart, then what seems implied in this story, is: why shouldn’t it be also good enough for others, especially Mark’s own community, to be so challenged?

On the surface the story is presented as one about healing. But if we dig a little deeper we can will find Mark intended it to be a story of inclusion and distributive justice. And it is a story where a woman becomes the lead actor or ‘lens’ in the interaction. The storyteller’s teaching moment seems to be as our title suggests: people matter most. No one can be excluded. None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’. None! Like I argued in our discussion last week; the restoration of the individual is sacramental of the restoration of society and like that which undergirds our communion this week; what we do at the table when we intentionally take our selves to the table we restore society together.

Changing tack a bit and changing the ‘lens’. We might look through the lens Arthur Dewey author, progressive theologian and Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar takes In one of his many articles he explores the possibility of viewing Jesus through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman. Why? Because Dewey reckons this could help us work out what Jesus was about.

He writes: It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision… What can we make of those words?

In answering this Dewey goes on: “Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision.”

So, what might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audiences that Jesus is speaking to? Well! We, can probably say that there are some common sociological realities that we can identify in his audience.

  1. There will be disputes where the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality; Look after oneself first and so on.
  2. There will be a need to admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal and perhaps even legal immigrants – whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’;
  3. There will be the challenge to all to reshape one’s social categories, especially those of others, formed by fears and rumours and innuendo. Who is in or out, who is appropriate or not.

Dewey asks how this change might happen and he suggests it begins with our imagination. He suggests that we imagine ourselves acting differently towards those outside the circle of our people. Not only to re-imagine our response but also to offer our oppressor a chance for a more humane reply.

In the words of Nelson Mandala and Desmond Tutu we are being challenged to practice ‘ubantu’. Tutu explains the meaning of this Zulu word when he says: We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I de-humanize you, I inextricably de-humanize myself. The solitary human is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.

The challenge in looking through another lens is to acknowledge that there are still many in our communities who know what it is like to be without a voice, to be flattened,
to be destroyed. And when we seek to change laws to enable the church or businesses
to exclude or denigrate minority groups, it is no wonder that others in the community think it natural to also treat them: asylum seekers, gay, lesbian, and transgender folk,
the homeless that way.

In our own space right now in this country we are being asked this question of who’s in or who’s out. We have had the lets reduce the number of immigrants and we have without much acknowledgment raised the numbers back up. Economics has overridden the social concerns. The discussion about the correctness of the Prime Minister visiting Nauru is a smoke screen to the question of the abhorrent practice of locking up asylum seeker children in immigration detention centers, often in poor countries outside our own. A former ‘Australian of the Year’, Professor Patrick McGorry, described such places as “factories of mental illness.” And author Tim Winton said in his 2015 Palm Sunday address: “We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatized children. And if they flee their

war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening.”

Here we have the challenge of the text for today, who’s in and who’s out? And right about now the even bigger challenge unfolds. We cannot escape some responsibility as we are social beings, We know we cannot survive as isolated individuals. We know we are at our best when we love, when we care for each other, when we seek justice for each other. Australian social commentator Hugh Mackay called this attitude of sensible avoidance of the issues as ‘disengagement’. In a newspaper article some time back, he wrote: “We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed… We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices”. And the result of this disengagement many, perhaps most of us is that we ignore the plight of others. Just a few years back many of us would have said that ‘trickle-down economics’ is the answer to every question. Even it seems, if the planet burns!

Until as our text reminds us a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her,
gives the ignored or the forgotten, a voice. Prophets come in all shapes and sizes and they don’t look the way you would expect. Don’t tell me who’s in or out, even the out eat the same crumbs.

What this says is that every generation must work out its values and its faith responses
to changing circumstances, just as those who preceded us were required to do. Not everything passed down has the same value for life in the modern word, and we must discern towards Justice. And that goes for science, for politics, for education, and for religion. When all is said and done, we actually live in a new present, that is qualitatively different from any of our human pasts. In this present, as we think about ourselves and others, how do we find the energy to nurture a creative and compassionate lifestyle?

I want to finish this talk with some words for Sir Lloyd Geering, who suggests we need to take a few things with radical seriousness: We need;

  • An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.
  • An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.
  • An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.
  • An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.
  • Responsibility for the care of one another.
  • Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.
  • Its value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.

He goes on to say: “In developing a spirituality for today’s secular world we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves…  Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet”.

It’s time for your creative imaginations to become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways. Look with a new lens to be a human community in the world. Especially when everything around us seems fragile and unsure. Amen.


Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-Realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.

Clayton, P. “Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity”. 27/01/2015.

Dewey, A. J. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.

Geering, L. G. Coming Back To Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2008.

Hunt, R. A. E. Against the Stream. Progressive Christianity between Pulpit and Pew. Preston. Mosaic Press, 2013. (Re-issued by Morning Star Publishing, 2014).[Back To Top]

Drawing Inclusive Circles.

Posted: September 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 14B, 2012
Mark 7:1-8

Drawing Inclusive Circles.

German theologian, Ernst his book, Jesus means freedom, published in 1969, tells this following story.

The scene is a parish in Amsterdam, Holland, when Calvinism had resulted in a high cultish response for people in their sense of duty. Duty came before everything and was the basis of morality. Duty was an obligation sustained by obedience. where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore, to keep the Sabbath holy. The story tells of a time when the place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened and it was a Sunday. If the inhabitants were to survive they would have to repair the dyke on that Sunday or perish.

The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish and set them to do the necessary work,
if that meant profaning the Sabbath? Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction in order to honour the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and so he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide.

The discussion went as one might suppose: “We live to carry out God’s will. God… can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death”. The pastor tried one last argument: “Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath?” Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: “I have always been troubled, pastor, by something that I have never ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it.”

“I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal”.

Having completed a long and complicated tour through some of the sermon-stories of John, this morning the lectionary returns to the stories of the earlier storyteller we call Mark. And this particular story, with all its different layers and subsequent interpretations,
raises an important question: How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’? How do we understand the meaning of inclusion and value diversity?

The vehicle our storyteller Mark uses, is a supposed encounter between Jesus, some pharisees, and his own disciples, over the entrenched purity laws and the traditions which encased them. Many scholars now agree such a debate, if it happened at all, probably took place among branches of the early Christian movement itself – between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles – long after Jesus’ death.

Through the tradition of purity laws and the symbolic action of ritual washing, Mark appears to show a liberal or progressive Jesus, claiming such Torah provisions and associated inherited traditions, must be set aside. Why was this important for Mark? Maybe because, Mark knows about these inherited religious traditions and maybe this debate is not about health issues or hygiene at all. Maybe he is saying that this tradition needs to be re-imagined and rethought in new situations. Maybe Mark knows such inherited religious traditions can create enormous ‘power’ tensions between those who seek to include, and those who seek to exclude. This would make the inclusion claim less about all becoming the same or every extreme being acceptable and more about questioning and challenging the cultural, political and religious assumptions about who measures up and who doesn’t, in other words more about valuing the different as authentic in partnership as truth or not. Living the questions perhaps.

Maybe here Mark is capturing Jesus’ priorities, correctly. His radical inverting, alternatives even go as far as some so-called ‘biblical injunctions’ that should be disregarded because they can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. Maybe biblical traditions never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring. This immediately makes the simple inclusion, exclusion question far more complex. By focusing on attitudes of the heart and resultant behaviour, storyteller Mark invites his hearers and his readers to begin reimagining and rethinking the in or out question. We might remember here that only with modernity did the issue of diversity become something that is in tension with unity.

Briefly then, some of the ecological issues which are before us today are the debate surrounding a sustainable ecological environment, and the discussion around artificial intelligence and the discoveries within neuroscience. In one sense these are new discoveries and in another they have been around a long time just off the edge of our imagination. Like I said some weeks back more than 40years ago there was an article that suggested that traditional Christianity’s attack on so-called pagan religion, effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning. It was claimed that Christianity replaced the belief that the ‘sacred’ is in rivers and trees – with the doctrine – that God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.

The author wrote: “By destroying pagan (religions), Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” (White 1967). Here lies the pollution of our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams by the introduction of chemicals, plastics and other pollutants that destroy the balance of evolution. Be careful here to note that I am not condemning the development of chemicals for enhanced production or even the development of genetic enhancement, but what I am suggesting is that when we make sweeping claims about what we don’t know we risk getting it horrible wrong. There is precedent for the extinction of a species and today’s environment would suggest a case for the extinction of that which we call human. It is claimed that we are now well into the sixth great extinction and while the previous five may not have shown a progression in severity ours is likely to become the most horrific and devastating extinction yet. And by devastating, I mean such that the evolution of the human will not be able to adapt quick enough. Simply, we have not yet accepted that Planet Earth is alive, filled with creativity – ‘God’ – and worthy of our respect. And if we want to continue to live on this beautiful yet fragile planet, we will have to take the findings of modern science far more seriously and do it urgently. Some who suggested that it may in fact be too late already might even have it right.

What is crucial is that we must think and feel that we are part of and at one with the whole holy system we call the global ecosystem if we are to continue. To quote Sallie McFague, we need to become “super, natural Christians”. I would suggest as I think Mark says; we need to take seriously the importance of belonging. To put the healing of our world before the need to exploit it.

So, how do we address issues which, if not addressed, will destroy us? How do we treat those who are ‘in’ our zone, our view of our responsibilities? And how do we treat those who are ‘out’ of it? Perhaps we all need to hear again Edwin Markham’s simple religious poem:

He drew a circle that shut me out

– Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him/her in!


What being inclusive means is taking seriously the need to belong and now I want to leave you with a video to consider in that regard.


Show video


Kasemann, E. Jesus Means Freedom. London. SCM, 1969.
White, L. 1967.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”.
McFague, S. Super, Natural Christians. How We Should Love Nature. Kindle edition, 2000.