Archive for November, 2018

Advent, is ‘Waiting for What’?

Posted: November 30, 2018 in Uncategorized

Advent, is ‘Waiting for What’?

For most of us Christmas has begun. For some it is already the Christmas Rush! Like a front row of an All black scrum, the season is bound and set, poised to roll over us with all its demands, distractions, details, dilemmas, delights and duties. For many retailers, it’s a “make-or-break” time of year. Or maybe it’s make-and-break, because the more exhausted and overworked they become, the better their business is doing. They make it business-wise by getting broken physically and spiritually. For children, it’s deciding what to put on a list, where to hang the decorations, and who will take them to the mall.

For teachers and parents, it’s the challenge of keeping a gaggle of fidgety children focused on their schoolwork while arranging some special programs and projects that will honour the season. For some of us us at church, it’s a time for arranging frantic rehearsals, for getting all the decorations out, for extra activities, and services that are hopefully fuller than ever.

Are we prepared for all of this? Is your master list ready with everything you will need to do and buy over the next month? But before you go off down that path adding stress to your lives take a minute to ask yourself what you think Advent is all about. In Christian terms that is. Paul in Thessalonians, the text we didn’t read today urges the people to “Abound in Love,” we might ask how? How does one abound in love?

We speak of Advent as a time for preparing to welcome Jesus into our hearts at Christmas. Is that perhaps how we abound in love? By welcoming Jesus into our hearts? That is of course while acknowledging that he might already be there as well. Paul talks a lot about Christ living in him, and he in Christ. Something about this intimacy is what all the Advent/Christmas language is about so maybe to abound in love is to welcome the one who comes to bring us God’s love. This also seems to fit with the neo-orthodoxy that in Jesus, the Christ event is encountered. In theological language the Word of God breaks into history from outside as the incarnation. In traditional parlance, the only thing that matters is the judgement of God on humanity by way of the Word of God descending upon us. Or using a metaphor from Jeremiah that Karl Barth loved so much, the Word of God as Christ-event hits humanity like a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces. Here we have a theology, powerful, during the time of the Second World War when Christianity was in danger of losing its independence by accommodating itself too closely to political ideologies and nationalism especially that of Nazi Germany. In that context the Word of God breaking in from the outside was the critical, counter-cultural act of prophetic witness. This provides us an interesting challenge even today with the idea that United States American Christians align themselves to a political party. The religious right with the republicans and the liberal left with the democrats. The challenge is not that Christians take politics seriously because we should, but rather that they do so without questioning the ideologies. After all, as Walter Wink has argued ‘God is human” and David Galston has argued here in this Church a couple of years ago ‘It is God’s human future that matters’.

The quote from Walter Wink, a theologian and thinker is this: And this is the revelation: God is HUMAN…It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness—which is to say, we are capable of becoming human. (Walter Wink, The Human Being, p 26)

I think he is implying here that as a species we are yet to become complete, that evolution is still an unfolding event, that as unfinished we are still filled with potential. God’s image is what we seek to be. In fact, it is a co-creative evolution or as others have said we are on the individuation of God journey. There is an immeasurable hope in this approach, why; because the advent story says so. It attempts to unfold this journey for our use.

David Galston reminds us that Religion is philosophy beyond technical philosophy. Technical philosophy studies wisdom out of love by asking questions about human knowledge, religion, philosophy involves living out wisdom in the practices of economic and social relationships. John D Caputo in his review of David’s book writes; “Religion is the issue of human wisdom, not of a superhuman invasion that descends upon us from on high, like an avatar, to steer us through the choppy waters of time. If we don’t understand that, religion will make us miserable.”

The key is that religion is the issue of human wisdom and this is why religion is involved in politics because it is imbedded in societal practices and it is after all a history of systems concerning how to be in the world. Religion is a lifestyle and in our current form, a set of beliefs that can be conditioned by superstition and I would claim a fear driven, standing over awe that needs to be challenged.

And talking about a set of beliefs we remind ourselves here that orthodoxy claims that God becoming Man or Jesus being God’s Son, is a claim that only a Jesus as Christ, as the event of the incarnation, can break in from heaven as the Word of God? Whereas progressive Christianity claims that Jesus would never have thought that of himself That as a human, Jesus can only ever be the same as everyone else?

So, on this first Sunday of Advent we begin our wait for the arrival of the Human One. It is a hope filled wait because it is a hope beyond the supernatural, beyond the dependence upon a miracle. It is a hope of a full revelation of what it means to be human, and for those of us who follow Jesus, we wait with hope for the revelation as to how his life, his contribution shows us how this becoming human is possible.

We start our preparation with an assessment of our need, an inventory of the challenges that face us. In the symbolic language of the heart we read, “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves.” We say these things, knowing that they are poetic ways of saying that life will be operating out of patterns; unprecedented, unpredictable, and unnerving patterns. They are not magic, supernatural events but rather events that well up from the deep, like uncontrollable forces welling up and causing the sea to roar and the waves to surge. There are human limits to this because the human heart is the place of the deep. Rivalry, vengeance, hatred, chaos, and dark moods spill from the depth where they have been out of sight, out of mind and out of consciousness. They surprise us with their crudeness, barbarism and attractiveness.

We think here of improbable political campaigns and a popularity that seems to baffle all the experts. How can people speak so arrogantly, despising almost everyone else and flaunting their own glory, and still be taken seriously? How can people ridicule the weak, handicapped and female and not plummet in the poles? Our wisest observers keep predicting it will never last but it goes on. We ask what is it about us that creates this? What dark place in our psyche is being manipulated?

We think also of the terrorist groups, the extremists that attract many lonely, lost and angry young people and enlist them in a cause they believe gives them purpose. Committed to purifying the world as their purpose they blow up the relics of ancient civilizations, treat women as abused property and they glory in cruelty; competing with one another for who can be the cruelest. And they do all this in the name of God. Where do these dark impulses come from? What is it about the human heart that makes indiscriminate revenge more valuable to them than life itself?

We think of the front edge of technology and the development of artificial intelligence, of robots who no longer need human involvement. We think of fear based systems of control, of governance, of CCTV surveillance of our every move, of individual tracking and analysis of what we do, why we do it and where, and then the intimate management of our every moment of life. And we ask what does religion have to say to this? What would Jesus say about this?

“The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” To me this is saying confidence in the future as that which flows from the present and the past will be shaken resulting in fear and foreboding. Isn’t that the elephant in the room? The challenges we face look different to us than those we have ever faced before. We don’t know quite what to do.

When we ask ourselves what is a Christian Peace we put aside the complexity, the systemic and simplify our response. At this level we are beginning to suspect what we already knew. That is that our violence in response to another’s violence will only create more and deeper violence in the long run. Look at the Ukraine this last week or so.

And when we look at the birthplace of Christianity, we see a similar experience. Every time we intervene it only seems to make it worse and creates more enemies that we then must subdue. And what we do in other places seems to somehow infect us in ways we had not anticipated. Our own lonely and disaffected young people catch the violent spirit and turn it on ourselves in random ways that make us all afraid. We hear stories of soldiers who come home broken and unable to sustain families and careers in the years ahead of them. How do we pay for all of this and still maintain our own educational and transportation infrastructure? This is our world of early Advent, but our text doesn’t stop there.

“Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendour.” The Human One is coming! Tradition says he is coming from another place, not this place where everything seems so crazy. Tradition says that his power will be convincing and self-evident, nonviolent and full of truth. It will be so obvious, attractive, radiant and splendid that we will wonder why we had never seen it before. Our imitative souls will begin imitating kindness, gentleness, generosity, compassion and love, all seen in the Human One who comes toward us, visible to all as though on a cloud.

The Advent world is the world where these things are beginning to happen but we are not all the way there yet. If you know how to look you see little signs; messages of hope breaking in through the television, behaviour in young people that evidence caring for the earth and the beaten down people who live on it, new ways of thinking that question the age-old equation of violence equaling order. When you see these things happening, stand up straight, and raise your heads, your redemption is near. I don’t know about you, but I see these signs everywhere. The trick is that you have to know where to look and you have to choose to see them.

“Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.’” If you want to see these signs you have to look on things that are living. Rocks don’t sprout leaves and neither do rifles or bayonets or bombs. If you watch where life is happening, where cells are vital and green, where people have hope and care for one another, where laughter and smiles can be seen even when in the midst of challenge and distress; well then you can see for yourself that summer is near. “In the same way,” Jesus said, “when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.” You see, God’s kingdom is that place wherein full-humanness gets lived-out. This is the place where full-humanness is not just glimpsed but finds expression in the political, economic, environmental and social way humans live together.

“I assure you,” Jesus continues, “that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened.” This generation does not refer to those living at the time Jesus lived. It refers to the time between Jesus of Nazareth living among us as a human we cannot imagine. And in this time we can find our way out of our early Advent darkness toward light we, as a species, often prefer to avoid or we can destroy ourselves as a species?

We don’t know yet. All we know is that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but we also think that Jesus’ words will not” In the meantime, while we wait, the advice is that we focus on the signs of spring, allowing those to energize us and keep us positive. Look for the good things happening in the world and contribute to them. “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.”

When things are seemingly going wrong, we find ourselves knowing that and thinking that knowing it isn’t very effective. Acknowledging it is ok but taking it as the whole picture tends to lead to depression, draggy hung-over mornings, and influencing the outcome by supporting poor calculations on any necessary preparation. “Don’t let the day fall upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth.” All religions, all races, all ethnic divisions and classes are going to see this happen.

We just remembered how a world war supported an influenza pandemic. With modern communications and rapid mass transportation it’s getting easier to imagine an event that simultaneously impacts every human being on the earth.

And finally, “Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.” Why stay alert, praying for strength? Because advent reminds us that when we look hard at what is we meet the Human One who turns out to be our God, made visible in Jesus, the one with who we create and work with in the journey toward full humanity. Amen.

Terror or Hope

Posted: November 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 13:1-8

Terror or Hope

For followers of the three-year lectionary as I am and I guess you are as listeners; today is the last week we will hear a gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. Last, Next week is the end of this liturgical Year B with Christ the King Sunday. Then after that we enter a new Church year and a new season of Advent. And the cycle begins all over again.

One of the things I have noticed within myself is a degree of sadness at two things. One being that; with all that I have read and with my growing understanding of who Jesus is for me I have come to value Mark more as one of the earliest of the gospels we have, and two; I think the lectionary short changes him as one of the most valuable gospels when looking for the most important stories of Jesus spoken by the early Christian movement. It does this by leaving out a lot of what it says and by replacing it with other gospel content.

I tend toward this response because the lectionary misses out many of Mark’s good Down-to-earth stories. Stories which preserve the Jesus Movement’s memory of Jesus. And because those stories demand great respect, not only because they are some of the earliest in our gospel storytelling tradition, but also because there is less ‘layering’ onto these stories. In other words; there seems to be more of an honest Jesus than a church Christ in these stories. And as a follower of Jesus, that has become an important difference for me.

When I think about where this began, I remember a colleague who suggested the book by the late Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg “Seeing Jesus again for the first time’ was a good place to begin. Especially when going “Against the Stream” in theological bible study discussion. It wasn’t long after that I began to grasp the important difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ.

The key point being that when we take the stories about the post-Easter Christ
as historical reporting about the pre-Easter Jesus, Jesus becomes an unreal human being, and we lose track of the utterly remarkable human person he was.

The next learning was with the arrival of John Shelby Spong on the set of my journey and my having to reassess the Jewishness of Jesus and discover the Jewish structure of Mark’s stories. While some people find this discovery of the human Jesus and his Jewishness a threat to their faith and don’t want to go there, I found this a liberating experience.

Jack Spong has written and lectured on Mark, as a Midrash storyteller, telling the Jesus story based on the Hebrew scriptures and organised around the liturgical year of the Jews from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Passover. He has claimed that it was inevitable that the first members of the Jesus Movement, who were Jewish people, would: interpret Jesus, organize their memory, and shape their religious life based on their Jewish religious heritage, which was the only tradition they knew.

On reflection I recognize that his Jewishness had always been implied but only as a problem and not as a human, cultural and historical setting for his life. The Post Easter Jesus was always prevalent in my mind dismissing or conditioning this reality and I have never seen the need to explore what it meant until recent years. So, from the Borg and Spong engagement my curiosity as both a storyteller and a liturgist was aroused and excited.

This stood in contrast to the suggestion by my teachers who had shaped my prior thinking.
Where, as Rex Hunt suggests, Mark’s stories were modelled on the parable of The Sower (Mark 4). We remember that story where… some seeds fall on a hard pathway, some seeds fall on rocky ground, some seeds fall among thorns and are choked, some seed fall on good soil. It is claimed that with this story as background we journey through Mark and the other stories like the rich young man. The healing of a man with an unclean spirit. The widow and the coins. And many more, hearing the stories but only responding because for some of the words have fallen on a hard pathway, on rocky ground, among thorns. All through Mark, according to some is this theological vision of sown seed and productive and unproductive earth. The challenge has been to become more sensitive to the stories about outsiders and outcasts in Mark… And Jesus as an outsider.

I really warmed to what Robert Funk has said: “Jesus apparently regarded himself as an outsider.  He was in exile from his hometown, from his friends and neighbours… he was a guest, a traveler, a stranger, an alien in most contexts.” (Funk 2002:45-46).

Jesus appears to have ignored the social boundaries of his time. He embraces the beggars, the poor, the hungry. He becomes known as a friend of toll collectors and prostitutes. All these, fall outside the boundaries of his society in the most radical manner.

While this seems obvious the level of importance in my walk and I am sure most of us is significant. The new awareness is as I argued for a few weeks ago, that, “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts…  No wonder Jesus auditors were puzzled by his vision of… God’s domain – it contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out.” (Funk 2002:55)

I think this might explain why I feel a sense of sadness at coming to the end of the Mark lectionary year. There is a clear sociological challenge in the pre-Easter Jesus not only because of Marks focus on the radicalness of the social change and the place of the poor and destitute, alienated and excluded but also because of the evident change in direction the Jesus movement seems to take as the gospel, the Jesus story, is taken to the gentiles and especially into the Greek and Roman worlds. The cultural expectations of those worlds affect the story, so much so that it becomes institutionalized, and we are then on a path of who is in or out on a different scale. So, maybe this is why I am a bit disappointed that Mark’s year is coming to an end. Then again maybe it’s even deeper than that.

Maybe my difficulty in letting go of Mark is because controversy in the church is seldom about biblical exegesis and theological formulations. It is more about creating social differences rather than address the theological issues underlying the problem. Today’s story by the one we call Mark is a pretty scary story. Historically it probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple many years after the death of Jesus. Theologically it probably warns of those who offered the small Jesus Movement false hopes through dubious signs and wonders. Either way there would be real human memories: the brutality of war, the rape and pillaging, the burning and torture, the killing and mutilation. Historically in the late 1980s the PCANZ began the vilification of gay people by creating the social differences, the unnatural, the non-procreational and the minority value as human beings as opposed to the theological arguments of their being a child of God, and a stranger needing welcome and inclusion, it us not isolation and identification that is justifiable in theology.

The Jesus of Mark takes us into this world of terror and offers a vision of hope.
A defiant hope. A hope centered on the vision of the domain of God. Where inclusiveness is its rule. And a passionate concern for others fires imaginations and compassionate acts. Love cannot be obtained by being right and pure and being defined as different. William Loader goes further when he says that Marks world is a “Terror beyond description being matched by hope beyond description.

I want to leave you with a question today and it is to ask ‘if we opened the gates to a real theological debate, would we be prepared to contemplate and discuss theological ideas? And let’s be sure about the response. It would be that we are abandoning every aspect of traditional Christianity. That is because we would say that despite whether or not one wanted to start new or make change without losing the goodness of tradition, we have to ask whether or not the Christianity we have inherited needs to be abandoned. Spong says he is not ready to surrender Christianity to a secular future nor is he willing to abandon the Christ experience. He would say however that the words traditionally used to describe that experience no longer translate meaningfully in our day. He says that he is willing to sacrifice all claims to possessing a literal bible, literal creeds or historical liturgies in the Christianity he seeks to create. This is rooted in his conviction that there is something real that draws him beyond himself which he calls God. This is also why he claims membership of a church that has courage to seek after the truth of God, come whence it may, cost what it will.

Spong cites Luther as believing that institutional Christianity had ceased to be ‘the body of Christ’ service the world and instead had become a profitable business, designed in such a way as to increase and even enhance the church’s worldly power. In order to finance its institutional need the Vatican had endorsed the practice of selling indulgences. A sinner could purchase one such indulgence and thereby forgo the need to repent. Like Jesus in the temple Luther was challenging the practice and, in his view striking a blow to the economic well-being of the Christian Church of his time. The significance of this was the challenge to all the authority claims being made by the church on its journey through history. And remember that by the sixteenth century the power of the Christian church was so deeply entrenched in the life of Europe’s culture that any challenge to its authority to define truth was regarded as an act of heresy.

Maybe it is time for use to expect the claim of heretic being levelled upon us. And this might mean challenging to Nicene Creed adopted by Christian leaders in Council in 325 ce, It was the essence of the Christian faith for all time and the church had the sole right to interpret the sacred scriptures. Shades of this claim still exist today among some traditionalists trapped in a literalized faith and remember that most lay people learned the stories of the bible by looking at paintings painted by artists whos, biblical knowledge was often minimal.

God was portrayed as a supernatural all-seeing figure who lived above the clouds, watching human behaviour. This God wrote down the deeds and misdeeds of all the people in the ‘Book of Life’ which would determine the eternal destiny of each individual soul. The difference between heaven and hell was enormous and espoused regularly in sermons week after week and in paintings depicting ‘judgement day’. Guilt was the coin of the church’s realm to ensure the number of sinners existed to sustain the story and add value to the indulgences. The time in purgatory was the commodity sold by the church.

Perhaps all we can say about this story in Mark is that it is a challenge that asks us ‘Can the Christ experience be separated from the dying explanations of the past? The reality is that if we can’t then Christianity is doomed to continue its relentless journey into declining state of irrelevance. If we can separate the Christ experience from the past then there will be a need for a reformulation of Christianity that is so radical that Christianity as we know it may dye in the process. As Jesus challenged his time with the need for an alternative social, cultural; and religious world so he does to us today The status quo suggests that we will die in boredom and the alternative offers controversy, maybe even a new reformation. Maybe Mark is the last opportunity to find the pre-Easter Jesus? Maybe Mark is freer from the influences of institutionalized Christianity than even Paul, given that his chosen task was to bring the Jesus story to other cultures i.e. gentiles.


Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Spong; J S. Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today. Kindle.

‘Beyond Moral Obligation’

Posted: November 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Mark 12: 28-34

 ‘Beyond Moral Obligation’  

Back in about 2005 or so Ian Lawton an Australian Colleague who was for a time Priest at St Mathews in the city wrote some notes about what some parents taught their children about religion. While we might recognize some of these moments from the past they are not indictments on parenting as they held within them some elements of wisdom and practicality but they also held within them some religious belief as well. They are sort of tongue in cheek and they are also indicative of some religious belief.

The first is a comment on prayer- it goes “You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet.” The second is on Obedience- ” Because I’m your mother and I said so, that’s why.” The third is Compassion- “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

The fourth is on Perseverance- “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables.”

The fifth is on the blessing of receiving- “You’re going to get it when you get home!” The sixth is about Tradition- “You’re just like your father.” Seventh Wisdom- “When you get to our age, you’ll understand.” and eighth is Justice- “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”

While these comments might seem a bit harsh as an indication of what we believe about life they are significant in that they are learnt from significant others, and can make a huge difference to us. And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that! The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story of the ‘widow and the coins’, can be one such example. And we shall unpack this a bit.

On its own, which is usually how we hear it every three years, this story lends itself easily to moralizing about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, who gave of all she had. But I want to suggest there is a broader, and perhaps more important story, that Mark is suggesting here. And that broader story seems to be about naming a system which abuses poor people.

We approach this by suggesting that at one end of this system we have powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows and an announcement that says you can’t do that and think you can get away with it, at the other end. And in the middle we have the story of the ‘widow and the coins’. Put all these together… and what we hear is Mark, the storyteller, weaving together echoes of the Hebrew scripture’s constant concern for widows and other outcasts. This is not new because we hear also the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment of their day for exploiting the vulnerable. We also bring to mind the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders.

So…  is the ‘widow and the coins’, a story about boundless generosity and self- sacrifice? Or is it more pointed evidence under-girding Mark’s Jesus who judges against an exploiting religio-politic of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story, this widow story is often offered as a model of stewardship to encourage giving to the church. Yet when the stories are stitched together it suggests a very different reading. Nothing short of a radical protest against the use of religion and politics and power to victimize those who are powerless and vulnerable. As Ian Cairns says; That’s different.  And that’s very challenging. Because heard with those ears this story becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201).

One of the difficulties with this is that it seems to suggests that the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book. This makes it difficult to use when working with younger children as it makes the line between just telling the bible stories and telling what you think they mean for today difficult to discern. Theories of child development and readiness for the metaphorical and the morals of a story get complex. I suspect this is why Bible in Schools is fraught in today’s environment of knowledge and understanding.

One position I think we as progressive liberals might take is to suggest something like this… When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories we need to be very careful how we do that. Because our general tendency is to: (i) take the stories or quotes out of context, or (ii) over-spiritualize or domesticate them. To hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories often means we will have to unlearn much of what we have been taught.

And for some folk that can be really threatening. But that’s what many contemporary biblical scholars are calling for. Seek out the broader context. But also listen with a healthy dose of skepticism. And this is even from those of the evangelical end of the church. In this telling comment one scholar, from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, a certain William O’Brien says: “The scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing.  Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity….” And he goes on: “the Word…  must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths.  To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible” (WO’Brien. Web site /The Other Side).

The truth is that a system which keeps people in poverty is evil.  Period. But to that one person, their poverty and their hunger is just that. Very real hunger and poverty, every day. And that’s the ‘hard’ saying, and its tension shouldn’t be ‘softened’. Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable, especially if they had no sons to protect them.

Both the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘widow’ come from word roots that suggest ‘helplessness’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘being forsaken’. And what all these people have in common is their “isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness” (JDonahue, 2000, <>).

The Old Testament and Process Theology scholar Robert Gnuse suggests that the term ‘scribe’ in the ancient world, was more than likely used, not to described a religious group or party, but more likely “[was] a general term for affluent landowners, probably urbanites, who could manipulate the poor brutally in order to make more wealth” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). This is a challenge to the more sanitized reference to scholar or learned sect. Gnuse suggests that we live so well because we import cheap goods from overseas made by people in factories who sometimes are brutally underpaid.  We live well because they live poorly.  We thus should identify ourselves… with the scribes in this passage, not the widows” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006). So rather than our story being a moralising story about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, it is really a story about the need for a fair distributive justice.

And to test this we hear a comment from another scholar named Beth Quick. In her sermon for this day (in 2003) she writes: “… perhaps you have heard it said that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this world.  Or that the top 1 or 2 percent own or hold a huge disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth.

Now, we have all heard these statistics, and shaken our heads in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by so few.  But when we get past the figures what really shocks us is that we are in the top 1 percent. To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, one simply needs a household income similar to ours.  This suggests that Jesus is speaking about (most of) us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” (BQuick 2003/ <>).

I was trolling through stuff on my phone the other day when I came across a video report posted by Action Station Aotearoa claiming we have a justice system that is broken because it fails to ask the hard questions about systemic issues like colonization and its underlying effect on the numbers and ethnicities of those in prisons. It claims this because of the list of countries which have the most indigenous people in prisons and these countries are all countries that have been colonized. And by that I think it is meant not those who have been subject to historic movements of people migrating but those countries that have in their history a clear historical period that was linked to an intentional colonization period by another more superior country. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Get beyond the blame game and address the systemic issue beneath.

And let’s be clear, it is not easy to hear that we belong to a privileged grouping and when it comes to our Christian faith we are confronted with unlearning much of what we’ve been taught if we are to understand these claims. In our case it is especially hard to hear that the destruction of the way we have been brought up on the Bible stories needs to be relearned. It is hard for us to understand that to change our thinking is an exciting and challenging experience. That sharing in that experience with a group of equally open-minded people is a positive and empowering and liberating experience. Get beyond the moral obligation and look for the systemic issue beneath. Look beyond the injustice faced by the widow and see why widows find themselves among the poor, look beyond the Maori of Pacific Islander in prison and see why they number among the most incarcerated.

Get beyond the moral obligation as one of the few privileged and see the system at work beneath.

As challenging as it can be to suggest that for years we have got it wrong, or missed the point, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical stories as if we’ve never heard them before. We are called to • Probe for fresh aspects. • Listen for new voices, including the silent voices. • and be surprised. This is what is known as separating the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus! See the agenda in the text so as to find the real story so to speak. This is why self-awareness is so important. This is why awareness of the big picture is so important. That’s the journey the Spongs and the Scotts and the Funks and the Herzogs of our day are calling us to share in. To take a lead in. To empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different, post-modern world. One where fewer people find themselves in prisons, where fewer people are among the widows because of culture, and if any congregation can do that, this congregation can! And continue to do it well! And I can’t resist the opportunity to suggest that our attempt as a private Christian school was and is an attempt to tell the bible stories beyond the moral obligation, beyond the bias of the elite and the privileged that we are. An attempt to empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different and new world. Amen.


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