Archive for September, 2019

It All Depends

Posted: September 19, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 16: 1-8a

It All Depends.

Jesus is talking to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his manager was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? At least is it seems, that Jesus is giving the guy the benefit of any doubt, or is he? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Oops it seems as though the jury has returned already. Guilty as charged without trial. Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. Loosing the job means back to labouring or worse. I have decided what to do so that, There is no way I can defend myself here so I had better see if I can make it as good as can be for my future. One plus is that when I am not a manager I will be welcome in peoples homes so I will ensure as many of them are available by sorting out their debts.  So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And it seems that the householder or  master knew what was going on and commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

That story we have just heard from storyteller Luke this morning about the actions of an absentee householder and a manager, is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables  On top of that, its strangeness has not made it any easier to understand as it has created confusion,  controversy, and embarrassment, not just for modern interpreters but apparently from very early times.

There are a number of things in this story that contribute to its difficulty and I want to have a look at some of those as an introduction. First is the title. Although not in the story itself
nor in the New RSV, many Bible translations give this story the title ‘The unjust steward’ The New RSV goes a little way and makes its title ‘The Dishonest Manager; and both these titles straight away prejudges one of the characters. Perhaps a more accurate title would be the first line from the story itself: ‘A rich man who had a manager’ or maybe even to describe the man a little it would be ‘A householder or master who had a manager.

Remembering that a Rich man is most likely to be what was known as a ‘Householder’ Not just the owner but a person of familial standing. Rich in status, familial power and responsibility and thus rich in terms of the society. He was in many cases the owner of slaves who could be his steward, or manager. The next difficulty is when we begin to contextualize and see the story as a metaphor or an analogy. Many of us assume the householder is God. And when we do that, we create more difficulty. We then must find some way to make the householder’s praise or commendation of seemingly wrongdoing as acceptable. After all, there’s something in the human psyche which revolts at seeing so-called ‘badness’ in any form rewarded.

The next issue to consider is the gossip that has been going around to the point that the householder has heard it and feels the need to check it out. After all it seems to be that the householder’s manager is acting inappropriately. ‘What is this that I hear about you?’

Is he suspicious of the gossip and struggling to believe that his manager could be doing something wrong or is he beyond suspicion and believing the gossip as true and that his manager is bad? Could it be that people with other issues have been spreading lies about the manager and now the householder, his master, believes the lies? If the latter is true then the story has a very different feel to it.

And for another issue we have the economic system. Again, many of us unconsciously assume the economic system implied in the story is capitalism. But this can obscure the social and economic structure of that day even when there is a whiff of ‘rogue trader’ about the manager. It seems that we have a structure where there is a clear hierarchy of control and power. It is ok to have slaves and exploit those with less. It may be a question of whether or not the manager is bad or very clever, so, what’s the point of the gossip?

Where are we with this very different story?

Well, let’s revisit it and see if we can find a way through given the questions we have just raised. We can maybe agree that this story is a riddle.  But we need to be wary because solving the riddle might take us in an unexpected direction. Maybe there should be a health warning label, something like: ‘beware – solving this story could prove fatal to the life we now find rather comfortable… maybe there needs to be a warning statement before we hear this parable.

Both the characters in this story, the householder and the manager do not seem to conform to the standard of behaviour that is generally thought appropriate to the realm or empire of God. That is, when dismissed from his job, the manager or steward goes to those who owe a debt to his master and with some fancy insider trader’ footwork, drastically reduces their debt.

“But the manager’s master or the householder is no saint either,” suggests Brandon Scott. The master has long been profiting from the manager’s shrewdness… with interest rates to boot. So, siding with one against the other is not all that helpful. What then, is Luke’s Jesus doing in this story?

Well, we know, or we are pretty sure that Jesus in his parables is offering a vision of a counter world. ‘The kingdom of God is like’ We have a “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential” (Heaney 2001) as one scholar has described it, or an alternative expansive vision of what’s possible as I claimed last week.

Another way of saying this could be that: Jesus is creating a safe place for all those who were left out, cheated, robed of their land and livelihood, unable to cope with the human system, declared unclean due to illness or orientation, those who have no hope… This safe place is where the Roman Empire, and the powerful, the ruthless, the religious zealots, the monied, or what or whom-ever “could not intrude and dominate” (Scott 2001:144).

That has to be good news if you are on the margins of church, of society, of the commercial, or political systems whatever the time in history. But to be honest the parable continues to intrigue and mystify. No agreed solution to the riddle has been found totally acceptable. And that can be bad news if you want security, if you want a religion with answers, a clear set of rules, or dare I say it if you want a top down, economical unit that is fits the expectations of being a financially sound, growing in numbers sort of parish where people come every Sunday for their reward. It needs to be a safe place for the alternative, for the misfit, for the left out, disadvantaged and the struggling. How we imagine or re-imagine the world is the fundamental question that separates church from any other form, and maybe that’s why it is in decline. Because it is seen as the answer to everything rather than the Way to live with the reality that seems so confusing and confused.

At the end of the day, chances are we will find ourselves standing in the householder’s shoes more than once in our life time. The better we are at working the system the more likely and that is when we need the alternatives, because we have choice and power. Not in or as a successful adaption to the world but rather in our ability to be where several outcomes or endings are possible To be where the most confused are. There is always a risk.  It all depends. Life is often an unsolved riddle.

Our call is to travel with Jesus and have faith with him that his re-imagined view – his glimpsed alternative – of the world, is the Way of God.

Notes:
Heaney, S. 1995.  The redress of poetry. NY: New York. Schocken Books.
Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagine the world. An introduction to the parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

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An Alternative, Expansive Vision

Posted: September 13, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 15:1-10

‘An Alternative, Expansive Vision’

John Shea, the American priest, theologian and storyteller wrote in his book, The Challenge of Jesus’ that; “Jesus does not call people into their sins but out of them…
The judgement of Jesus is not a police-like searching out and punishing of evil acts”.  His comment, which at first glance seems simple and obvious is actually a fundamental shift and challenge to what has been the orthodox view or practice for many years. It is doubly important because it speaks to the very heart of one’s spirituality. It aligns into sin with an acceptance that life is always being policed, always in trouble seeking a way out, always less than perfect and in need of help to get out. It does not deny the presence of not being sure, or not getting things right, or that life contains struggles but it claims that the Way of Jesus to hear the call he makes upon one’s life and to act upon it. In my title I have called this an alternative expansive vision that calls us out of sin. It is the certainty, the possibility of, the likelihood of ‘out of them’ that matters more than being able to describe the sins and count them. It is about human desire, human flourishing: the possible out of the impossible. Sin is only there to reveal the possible, reveal the alternative, reveal the expansion of the environment. There is nothing that cannon be achieved in the Christ so to speak.

And that mini sermon brings us to the texts of today. I think it was important because I think it touches at the heart of this morning’s stories. In the ‘nitty gritty’ of contemporary biblical theology today, all the major scholars agree that Jesus’ primary identity was that of a sage. Some put more emphasis on the mystic nature of his work and others the political and social. But all seem to agree that he was a sage or wisdom teacher, interested both in understanding life, and in communicating that understanding. But as a sage, Jesus was not simply just a teacher. And certainly no ‘blackboard-and-chalk’ type teacher. “He spent at least as much time in figuring things out himself… seeking wisdom… as in communicating the understanding he came to…  And the best place to gain wisdom, according to Jesus the sage, was right in the midst of ordinary life” (Taussig 1999: 14).

I would suggest that he took time out to test his thinking on this by going to the quiet places as well as expressing what he believed in the midst of ordinary life. We might think of him sitting on a couch in the corner of some tavern, wine mug in hand, and soldiers and business folk. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. His listeners would laugh. Maybe scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own.

In the midst of ordinary life…  This concentration on ordinary life, according to New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, meant that Jesus as a sage: did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom.  He did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and he did not promote an other-worldly emphasis.

Hal Taussig suggests that: “The real energy of his teachings is found in their expansiveness of vision and in their critique, not in the defence, of religion…  And his favourite place to teach was probably at dinner” (Taussig 1999: 17, 18).

Here again we see the concentration on sin and all things that weigh us down as defensive, negative introspection from which there is no escape other than to embrace an alternative expansive vision.

As a sage, we can accept that Jesus told many stories. A number of those stories were about being lost and found. And in many of them, that which was lost had nothing whatever to do with their finding. We have two such stories, called parables, today. The story of ‘A man with a hundred sheep’. The story of ‘A woman with ten drachmas’. Luke’s Jesus seems clear. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin contributed in any way to their finding. Sin has nothing to do with the outcome. Neither the sheep nor the coin was punished or lectured for being lost. Concentration on sin is not helpful. There weren’t any inquests conducted in any of these stories. Nothing at all changed after the finding.

The whole focus of both Luke’s stories is not on the repentance of the sheep or the coin, but the seeking and finding by their respective owners. The acceptance of the alternative hope-filled vision. And when that which was lost was found, the finder threw a party.
Perhaps even spending the coin or committing the sheep to the proceeds of the party!

Sin can have a use but only as resource for joy, an alternative expansive vision. Thus, the call of Luke’s Jesus is not ‘repent’ but rather ‘rejoice’. But there’s more!

These stories are parables and a parable are a story with a twist in the tail, which turns our world views upside down. So where is the twist? Well! If we play some more we might ask ‘Why a sheep?  Why a woman?’ In the society of Jesus’ day, both shepherds and women, along with many other classes of people, existed on the margins of society. There was what we might today find extreme cultural differences. The sheep and women of society, the nobodies were not included in the ‘A’ social guest list. They had no status, were landless and poor, and not to be trusted. Certainly not candidates for ‘the kingdom’.

And by naming them, Luke indicates they were indeed part of the general group
called ‘toll collectors and sinners’… Collaborators with the oppressive system and those who were sinners. For Luke they were the unlikely ones who were seeking the company of Jesus. They were those the pharisees and the scribes, if we accept Luke’s comments or bias, apparently complained about and rejected. So, for Luke some tension seems to be highlighted in these stories. Along with some overriding negative feelings,often overlooked or ruled out by other  commentators.

And unravelling the stories further… The world of the parable, is in the midst of ordinary everyday life. Sheep go missing. Women lose coins. Sons get angry. Stewards cheat. A judge cares little about justice. A harvest is only average. The stories themselves are about things of little intrinsic value in the ordinariness of life. One sheep. One coin.

And then the twist in the tale, so, too is the kingdom or realm or empire of God. The realm of God is less grand, and less than anticipated. Less than sinless, less than a bed of roses. It includes those who are usually or always, excluded. So, we have a couple of stories which say: Beware! We are unable to predict the outcome when the resolution is always unexpected. Pretty ordinary, really! Life is more about ambiguity, and serendipity and uncertainty is it not? I invite you to ponder that some more.

John Donahue says that “Surprise, extravagance, and joy characterise these parables (Donahue 1988:150). Likewise, “Jesus’ teachings about God’s reign were fresh and surprising,” he says. Theologian Hal Taussig again also says, “His teachings were so striking that usually his hearers were inspired, shocked, or actively puzzled.

I dream of my sermons being like that one day, haha! When Jesus spoke, the clever social involvement of his teachings called people to self-examination and new relationships”; suggests Hal Taussig. Like Jesus, the people who effectively invite us to change our world view of events or people or relationships, are not the televangelists or the fundamentalists who often scream about other people’s ‘sin’, or the politicians who preach fear and insecurity in the hope of re-election. I don’t know if any of you saw the TV program on Monday evening last where a researcher was highlighting the fact that in New Zealand politics the percentage of promises actually delivered was extremely low if almost non-existent. Promises are about getting votes and not about freeing the people from the declared sin.

Jesus proclaimed an alternative.  A new vision of what could be. And that requires living without reservation into a completely open future. One example of this need for an alternative is what Rabbi Arthur Waskow said on an anniversary some years back now…. He said: “The Inquisition burned the Talmud.  Nazis, on 10 May 1933, burned thousands of books – among them the works of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Maxim Gorki, George Grosz, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Helen Keller. And now we have amongst us in America some who call themselves Christians, who have called for burning the Quran, and who have chosen September 11 as the day to do so. “The great German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansor: ‘Where they burn books, they will finally also burn people’.” (Rabbi Arthur Waskow. 1/9/2010. The Shalom Centre)) The focus on being called into sin, fear and failure of the new will lead to self-destruction rather than that which Jesus showed by his life. There is an alternative, expansive vision should you accept the call. Amen.

Notes:
Donahue, J. R.1988.  The Gospel in Parable. Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia. Fortress Press.
Taussig, H. 1999. Jesus Before God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Shea, J. 1984.  The Challenge of Jesus. Thomas More Association.

rexae74@gmail.com

Luke 14: 25-33

Recognizing the Sacred Where We Are.

Understanding the background and culture of Jesus is very important when we come across stories such as those we have today. How else can we understand Jesus’ comment that his followers must ‘hate’, or more accurately, ‘detach oneself from’, their immediate family members!

On the surface it offends against all the values most people hold dear. But Luke the storyteller has Jesus employing a common rhetorical devise, used by many of the wisdom sages of the day. An approach which would be familiar, even if offensive, to the audience.

And which should also be familiar to us in our 21st century world, brought up on the politician’s speeches and promises during election time!

What do I mean by politician’s speeches? Well first of all they have an undisclosed purpose, an agenda and that is to engender support for a cause, usually the acquiring of enough votes to achieve an appointment. And the second is to get people to like them, agree with them or at least think they know what they are talking about and know what they are doing. Thirdly they are intent on getting their message out as quickly and with maximum impact. Fourthly they want to be seen to give equal measure to empathy, warmth and authority. They want to be seen to be good human beings who people can trust with decisions that effect their lives. Fifthly they want stay in control of this process and they want to exude confidence so that when people are not sure they will place their doubt in the hands of the politician. Sixthly they use repetition to emphasis the points in their speech that they believe will maintain all of the above by keeping it in front of the listener. Seventh, they will link their concerns and issues and points of view to great orators of the past. Biblical quotes do this well.

At one level this seems overly manipulative and even deceitful but it is an acceptable practice in many fields of public discourse. The difference comes when the purpose becomes distorted by the search for personal power. Its here that the fake news label begins. Any commitment to outcomes gets swallowed up by being able to hold ion to power in the face of a lie that got one there. Truth becomes expendable as a part of the power game.

Of course, I am not saying that this game with truth and power has become part of the Gospel but what I am saying is that the literary structures are used by Luke and Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. For the object of his concern is, according to William Loader, family power. “Family power and control which will not be released from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge” (WLoader Web site 2004).

One could suggest at great risk that a blanket policy of returning uplifted children to their families is a requirement that should be occurring but what about when the family is the worst place that child might be? I can use the family idea to gain political support while a child’s life might be at risk if it returns to the family house, Note I said house and not home for a reason.

And Bill Loader goes on: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family” (WLoader Web site 2004).

It might be hard to imagine but, in a society, where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore radical in saying that “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core” (Funk & Hoover 1993:353).

So… responding to a possible life-threatening situation for his own small community, Luke the storyteller weaves together a collection of sage-type sayings… Some probably said by the sage Jesus. Some most likely said by other sages. Luke weaves them together and places them before his community with this challenge: to be a disciple of Jesus one must be willing to let go of what one values most – family, possessions, even one’s own life. And I am not suggesting he is saying commit suicide or seek martyrdom. Let go… …. of being possessed by them.  Something else is at stake. Luke seems clear in his mind: let go and be a disciple rather than just a supporter or admirer without critique.

Rex Hunt tells a story that sounded interesting to me on this point about discipleship. The story is that; Clarence Jordan, of Cotton Patch Bible fame, was born in 1912 in west central Georgia, USA, into a race dominated society.

As a young man he became intensely aware of the radical kind of following that is demanded in the Sermon on the Mount. This changed his view on the racial divisions in the American society for good. In 1942 Clarence and his wife established the ‘Koinonia’ farm. A place where people of all races could be taught productive farming. The fact there was a considerable number of African-American people present… And that everyone there joined around a common table… was something the wider community objected against, right from the beginning. The opposition against his venture grew. They were accused of being ‘communists’, ‘race-mixers’, and of threatening the security of their community.

In 1956, threatening phone calls began. Soon the persecution took the form of bombings, shootings at their houses, building-burnings, economic boycotts, and harassment from the infamous KKK. In the early 1950s, it is told, Clarence approached his brother, Robert Jordan, later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, asking him to represent Koinonia farms legally. “Clarence”, Said Robert’ I can’t do that.  “You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got”. “We might lose everything too, Bob.” Said Clarence. “It’s different for you.” Said Robert. “Why is it different?  I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. “I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question, he did you. “He asked me: ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’ And I said: ‘Yes’.  What did you say?” “I follow Jesus, Clarence, – up to a point.” Said Robert. “Could that point by any chance be – the cross?” said Clarence. “That’s right.  I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.” “Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple.  Said Clarence, “You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.” “Well now, said Robert, “if everyone who felt like I do, did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?” “The question,” Clarence said, “is, do you have a church?” (McClendon 1974:127-128)

Did you recognise the political aspirations, and especially the pious, exhortation language. Is your language a Southern Baptist language? Some of that difference we have wrestled with as Progressive Christians that the cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement. That God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but divine sharing in human suffering. That Jesus did not invite the cross but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world can really be like when you look at it with God’s eyes.

But in the spirit of the Clarence Jordan’s story let’s return to some of the theological comment we might have picked up along the way. The call to ‘discipleship’ is a call to be on a journey. It is not about the ‘feel good’, ‘flag waving’, ‘happy-clappy’ overly therapy oriented theologies of much of today’s so-called Pentecostal or charismatic aberrations. And it is a real question for those that are business-oriented models of church not because they are responsible economically but because they are prisoners of the political speak of the day. They do not ask themselves if they are true to purpose as opposed to success at all costs. They are redefining success without critiquing it.

Am I being unfair and claiming my way is better? No, I don’t think so because discipleship is also not about accepting 11th century Archbishop Anselm’s idea of salvation. It’s not about the crucifixion of Jesus being willed by God to save the world because humanity’s sinfulness had dishonoured God (Brock 2010), That idea is now called ‘substitutionary atonement theology’.

Discipleship is about an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love, just as the call to be ‘church’ is a call of offer a safe place for some depth of theology and reflection and story. A place to connect with and deepen our contemporary experience of God or ‘the sacred’ in public life. A place where we can practice belonging… practice hospitality practice respect practice humility practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004).

And one of the purposes that seems to have been swallowed up by the pace of social movement and political speak and correctness is that of deepening the experience of God, which is to give disciples like you and me, the courage, the knowledge, the will, to go out among people in our community and encourage them to also recognise ‘the sacred’ where they are.

On the good side of this experience we could say that the attempts at historical justice for abused children, Oranga Tamariki’s attempts to get the protection of children right and the whole ecological green movement is an attempt to care for the planet. To recognise the sacred where we are.

And to return to what some of us followers of the Jesus Way doing as disciples; in April 2010, president of The Centre for Progressive Christianity (USA), Revd. Fred Plumer, said:

“… it is time to publicly reject that whole idea of substitutionary or vicarious Atonement theories and repent for the harm this religious relic has caused over the centuries.

“I have always thought that it was more important for progressive Christians to talk about what we are rather than what we are not.  But I think it is time to publicly repent for the pain and suffering that the whole idea that we as humans are born faulty and unworthy by some vindictive god who demanded that there be some severe punishment to make up for this same god’s mistake.  Therefore, according to creed this God would have to sacrifice his only begotten son, (who is actually himself) to avenge something that really never happened.  Do you have any idea how many people throughout history have suffered in fear, humiliation, doubts, at the hands of sick clergy, mobs, abusive husbands, and anybody into power because of this flawed piece of our theology?  It is way past time to separate ourselves from this delusion to make a clear and public statement for allowing it to go on for so long…

“The atonement story was a myth attached to the Jesus story to give more power to the church and its leadership.  It should never have been there.  But I think if the progressive Christian movement is going to progress, we need to repent for the pain that has caused and clearly separate ourselves from this damaging part of the Christian story.  Simply ignoring it no longer seems like an option.  We need to clean our hard drive of this virus.  And then I have hope that we can experience new life in our progressive churches”.)

My footnote to this is that we need to critique the power of speaking that creates power and control for some and can hide the real issues of justice for those more vulnerable than ourselves. The Jesus Way is the critique the social, religious, economic and political landscape in search of the Way of Love, Justice and Peace. Amen.

Notes:

Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in Hoover, R. W. (ed)  The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Brock, R. N. 2010.  “The question of the cross in ‘Good’ Friday” in The Huffington Post, 3/4/2010.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover. 1993.  The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan Publishing.

McClendon, J. W. 1974.  Biography as theology. How life stories can remake today’s theology. TN: Nashville. Abingdon Press.

rexae74@gmail.com