The Influence of a Wider Horizon

Posted: July 3, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 5C, 2010
Luke 9:51-62

‘The Influence of a Wider Horizon

Some of you might remember the film The Dead Poet’s Society, that tells the story of a remarkable teacher’s influence on his students in a prestigious boarding school. The teacher, Mr Keating, played by Robin Williams, invites the boys “to jump up and stand on his desk as he has done in his teaching, so they can see things from a different perspective, a wider view… a different horizon – then seize it” (Bausch 1999:239).

It was a film about a teacher who invited his students to view the world differently and that theme resonates with the theme of our story from Luke today. The text is about embodying and following in the way and style of Jesus of Nazareth. We have explored before what the Way of Jesus is all about. It is essentially about an alternative way of living and while we might have concentrated on his way of being in the past and locked ourselves up in the mode of believing as ‘being’ we now think differently. We now think that just being is not enough. We now think that being and doing are part of the same thing, to do is to be and to be is to do. A bit like the shift from Facebook to Instagram. It is less about the need for the visual, the photographic conversation and more about the importance of the 90% of communication through the visual and the embodiment and less about just the mind and the content of the words.

When we look at our Lukan text we see that there are three sets of reactions worth noting. The first is that of the Samaritans, who recognize that Jesus “has set his face to go to Jerusalem” and will not receive him. They apparently recognize that Jesus is on a mission … and they want nothing to do with it. Or perhaps they believe that because Jesus is set on reaching Jerusalem, he will have no time for them, no time to discuss or heal or whatever they may have hoped. In either case, they have expectations of Jesus that he is not meeting and when his resolution to march toward the cross upsets their plans, they reject him.

The disciples, in turn, react to this rejection with a surprising and rather alarming! – request: they want to call down fire from heaven to devour the Samaritans. Of course, this may not be as surprising as we’d like to think. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, the disciples were apparently not above ethnic prejudice, and they knew their biblical history enough to know that Elijah had done something similar years before. They, also, do not like to be thwarted in their plans. They were there to see that Jesus made it to Jerusalem, and anyone and everyone who stood in their way could move out of the way.

The question we might ask here is “Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Or to put it in traditional terms: Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus come first in our plans and do they shape our lives, or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned? I want to suggest here that if we’re honest, many of us will identify with the latter option because we recognize that we harbour a deep-seated desire to be in control, to maintain some semblance of order in a rather chaotic and confusing world. Yet Jesus in this passage is clearly not willing to concede: he demands that his mission comes before all of our plans, even those that seem most reasonable.

Why does he do this? Well maybe because we really aren’t in control, that it’s an illusion, and that a rainstorm, or tornado, or illness, or loss, or tragedy, or any one of a hundred other things might dash our hopes as well as our plans and bring us to ruin. Maybe we aren’t in control and Jesus is telling us to let him be? But wait on a minute! As tempting – and as pious – as that might sound, I’m not sure that the passage in front of us invites the choice between us being in control or Jesus being in control. Think about it: Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem to assume command or take charge. Rather, he goes to Jerusalem to thrust himself fully and completely into people’s out-of-control lives and comes out the other side.

So perhaps that’s the promise of the Gospel – not that we can be in control, or even that God is in control, but rather that God joins us in our out-of-control-ness, holds onto us, and walks with us to the other side. That may not always seem like all that much of a promise, but after a few days without power supply… or a few months on chemo … or a few years of addiction … at least it sounds real and therefore trustworthy.

After all we invest a lot of time, energy, and money in being in control. And plenty of religious folk invite us to invest lots of time, energy, and money to surrender to God’s control. Yet the world is still a terribly chaotic and unsettling place. Does it work is the question? Doing what one has always done but doing it better sounds like a good strategy. So what if the deepest calling of a Christian disciple isn’t to be in control – ourselves or vicariously through God – but rather to give up the illusion, to take some risks, and to throw ourselves into this turbulent life and world God loves so much trusting that God will join us in the adventure, hold onto us through all the ups and downs, and walk with us to the other side.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s a faith journey. Maybe that what being and doing the kingdom thing is all about. And when we, like Jesus’ first disciples, fall short yet again, then all we can do is give thanks that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, entering our chaotic lot and walking in our turbulent lives that we may know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.

In theological parlance, the Way of Jesus is not compartmentalized into belief and non-belief, non-historically factual and existentially mythical. The Way of Jesus is an alternative to the status quo, it is new, a new creation, good news, transforming love, a way of compassion as opposed to rules and law. Or as the late biologist and theologian Charles Birch, suggested: “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). A ‘different horizon’.

As I said last week my reflection on the meeting of Northern Presbytery on Saturday was one of seeing the Presbytery in a huge struggle to find itself in a whole new world.
It struggled with what to be in today’s world and it talked about what it thought it should do in the way of survival. It talked about all the things it had been doing for the last hundred years with todays, words. The received message was that the decline is all the fault of the people who still come to church. The message was that all we were doing was not enough and that we should be doing it better if we wanted to arrest the decline. The trouble with this approach is that despite all those who nostalgically seem to long for church to be like it was in 1944 or 1954 or 1964, that can never be.

For one thing, church is now only one of several institutions or organizations offering a view of the world and a purpose for living. It seemed to me that the church is no longer listening to Jesus. The church is, if you like, in a supermarket situation in which many people feel no need to buy its products at all and the church’s answer is to try to do what it has been doing for years but do it better.

According to those who do research on these matters the major challenge the church faces is in being able to identify and name the presence of God or the sacred
in our often-fragmented life-worlds. Jesus spoke to his world with such effect that a whole new religious movement was established so why can’t we? There are some who are taking the risk but they are being seen by the church as difficult or wrong and unfaithful. Others mostly beyond the church are attempting just that. And they are often coming up with different and competing answers which can cause some of us to be a bit shocked because we fear the church no longer has, if it ever did, a monopoly on things spiritual or sacred or God stuff. As I have said before. What if beyond the God we know, beyond the secular was the new religious age?

One who has written on this subject, Australian David Tacey, says: “What has been brewing inside the soul is a new spirituality that will surprise both the secular establishment and the official religious tradition… The miracle is that the secular keeps giving birth to the sacred, often against its will and in spite of its own judgement” (Tacey 2000:252,253). Richard Kearney’s work on a post atheism God or ‘Anatheism’ and Caputo’s work on the Weak God ask us to go beyond the status quo of a supernatural, theistic almighty God and to see the human Jesus in his culture and setting before we make him fit our supernatural needs.

As you know I have a view on all of this, which I know has been and is still a challenge for some. I want to suggest that maybe because these comments are not the traditional ones there are some who want to hear them. Not as stumbling blocks or even challenges to their faith but as alternatives that enable a clearer examination of what they do believe and will work in the lives as they know life.

A very difficult part to this is that one needs to have or cultivate a ‘high’ view, about the place of change. Being open to new perceptions, and not clinging to established or inherited ways of thinking about things is always an alternative to be explored. For us as church the challenge is not to cling onto a theology that does not fit our 21st century understanding. In other words, the kingdom of God is about now, that’s why we question the concept of kingship. We need to let go of the medieval understanding of kingship and the current understanding of Empire as a system of governance and we need to find an alternative that relegates the old ideas. Kingdom is less about an area of the earth controlled by a monarchy and more about a life that an alternative way is lived in a complimentary way, a compassionate way, a way that celebrates human flourishing rather than controls its behaviour.

Simply perhaps, the church needs to ensure it frees folk to go on the journey that Jesus chartered, rather than to worship the journey of Jesus (WWink). And while that might sound easy it is as radical a change as the one Jesus advocated in his time! If we go back to this weeks particular story the tradition is not clear concerning Jesus’ intentions, as he approached the Samaritan village. We also see that whatever they were, he was not able to carry them out, because the village folk denied him and his friends, hospitality. Many scholars have speculated on why they acted this way. Theological reasons and cultural reasons have been offered but maybe it was just that the people had heard about this Cynic-like bloke and were cautious of losing the status quo. There was a German New Testament theologian called Willie Marxsen, who seemed to be always pointing out that not everyone who met or heard Jesus had positive reactions! Some said: ‘This bloke’s a nutter!’ Others said: ‘This is good teaching.  Admirable.  Interesting.’ Still others said: ‘In this person’s words and deeds I have experienced God’s very own presence in my life.’

According to the various biblical storytellers, Jesus encountered opposition
to his perception of reality from the authorities of the day, but just how hostile this opposition was, is a matter of speculation. On the other hand, those same storytellers say that many ordinary people were attracted to him and his re-imagined worldview.

Another challenge not addressed by today’s church is that people didn’t go to the synagogue to meet with, or listen to, him. They met him on the hills and by the lake.
While they were hanging about in the marketplace. Or while they were mending their fishing nets. They ate with him and held parties for him. They invited him into their homes.

There’s no indication whatsoever in the gospel stories that the synagogues ever had any more worshippers because of Jesus. St David’s Mission does not depend upon its buildings. It depends upon its people being people of the Jesus Way.

And while not wanting to fall into the ‘literalist’ trap, nevertheless those who chose to listen and take on board his comments, experienced what he said as ‘good news’.
“What they learned from Jesus and experienced in his presence was not just a good teaching or a good way of life – it was not an ethic… Rather, it was an expression of who they would claim God to be”  (Patterson 2002:222). It was then up to them whether or not they felt free enough to go on the journey Jesus was chartering.

Engaging in the Kingdom of God was less about a place where everything was right and good and more about a place to be fully human as Charles Birch’s comment said “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). It is important to live in this day and time rather than being caught in the past and that’s the first invitation to us all. Let go where we have to. The second invitation is, to follow Jesus up onto the desks and chairs… in true Keating/Robin Williams style: to jump up and stand on desks and chairs and table tops and ladders, so that we all can see things from a different perspective, a wider view, a different horizon. And then seize that opportunity to be different. If we can do that together, then we will know what being in the kingdom is all about. As for the Presbytery it might be to put down what worked in the past, put down what is not working now and get up on the table of risk and the new and the alternative and maybe we can be in for an exciting and different journey!

Amen.

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