Archive for October, 2019

A Church Planting Theology?

Posted: October 31, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 21C. 2019
Luke 19:1-10

‘A Church Planting Theology?’

 There are some stories in the Bible that are both a challenge and really good to tell. One such made-up story, is the story of Zacchaeus. According to Luke our storyteller, Zacchaeus was one of those people despised by most yet Jesus seemed to like being around them. Zacchaeus stood barely five feet tall with his shoes off and was the least popular man in Jericho. I was reminded here, of a theory I had when an apprenticed motor mechanic. The theory was that short people drove the biggest, loudest and most ostentatious cars as if trying to compensate for their stature. An Unfair assumption to be sure but often borne out by their actions. Short Zacchaeus was head tax-collector for Rome in the district and had made such a killing out of it that he was the richest man in town as well as the shortest. When word got around that Jesus would soon be passing through, he shinnied up into a sycamore tree so he could see something more than just the backs of other people’s heads, and that’s where he was when Jesus spotted him.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “get down out of there in a hurry. I’m spending tonight with YOU” (Luke 19:5), whereupon all Jericho snickered up their sleeves as if think this guy Jesus didn’t have better sense than to invite himself to the house of a man that nobody else would touch with a ten-foot pole. But Jesus knew what he was doing. Zacchaeus was taken so completely aback by the unexpectedness and for him the honour of the thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised not only to turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he’d extorted from everybody else. Jesus was absolutely delighted. “Today salvation has come to this house,” he said.

The challenge in this story is this is more powerful a statement than much we have heard to date. Here we have a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway. The ultimate in hospitality and as my title suggests the nature of church planting, In traditional speak, it is the sinners who come in, it is the lost, the deprived, the poor and the destitute who are welcomed.

Picking up our scripture we find Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition. We have Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even.

Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too. Why are they treasured? What is it that makes them valued? It sure isn’t for what they do. Maybe we can say at least that these guys are treasured less for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them to be because ultimately, of course; it’s not the world that made them at all. “All the earth is mine!” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein,” adds the Twenty-fourth Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me too.

It’s hard to put a label on Zacchaeus.  Tradition has it that he’s short; he’s rich; he’s probably none too popular with his neighbours. Maybe he was picked on in the school ground when he was a young kid because he was small. Maybe that’s why he so gladly took up the position as a toll collector, working his way to the top of the toll collecting franchise. The bloke who skimmed off the top of those who skimmed off the top!

Let’s go back to our text for a bit. Let’s imagine the scene… There’s a line of people gathered along Main street. The sun is beating down. There’s a rumour that this Jesus from Nazareth has given sight back to the old blind fellow who lives down by the city gate. Zacchaeus, curious, and not wanting to miss the show, looks for some spot where he can get a good look at the procession as it makes its way through Jericho and on up to Jerusalem. He asks a few people if he could squeeze past, but he soon realizes his lack of popularity makes it difficult to request favours for a ring-side seat. There’s no way the crowd is going to let him in even for a quick look-see. He looks around him at the trees that lined the street and runs towards one as fast as he can. He grasps a lower branch firmly in his hands and pulls himself up. As he continues on his climb up the tree he hears someone call out “Hey look at the little bird” followed by bursts of laughter. Someone else calls out that his ‘nose looks like a beak’ and the crowd erupts into more hoots and laughter. Zacchaeus looks down at the faces in the crowd staring up at him. “Peasants” he thinks to himself, as he makes himself comfortable… As comfortable as one can while straddling a branch four meters off the ground.

In a few minutes the Jesus-procession makes its way around a corner. Suddenly, Jesus stops. People bump into one another in surprise as the momentum of the crowd is broken. Jesus looks around him, his brow furrowed. Then he lifts his head skyward, or treeward to be more precise, and aims his gaze directly towards Zacchaeus. “Give him hell preacher!” someone yelled out as Jesus opened his mouth to speak. “Tell him to wise up! “Clean up his act! “Get out of town!” But instead Jesus said: “Hey Zacchaeus, get down here!”

Again the crowd looks up at the little man on his branch. Zacchaeus scans the crowd, taking pride and delight in being singled out by this ‘intelligent’ rabbi. “Indeed, he must be a prophet”, Zacchaeus thinks to himself, “for he has recognised my position and authority in this city over this rabble.” As Zacchaeus tries to scramble down out of the tree, he feels its branches tugging at his cloak. He’s a little self-conscious now. It’s one thing to have all the attention focused on you because of your authority or your wealth. It’s another to have everyone’s attention, and I mean everyone’s attention, directed at you, while you are trying to scramble down a tree.

He reaches the ground and brushes himself off, trying to straighten himself out so as to appear with some dignity. “Come on, let’s go,” Jesus commands with good humour. “We’re hungry.” That’s when everything went quiet. A buzz went around the crowd. “For a smart young preacher, he sure doesn’t know much about people!” “He can’t be serious! “There isn’t a bigger crook in the country!  But he was serious.  This was no joke.  It caused a scandal. We do an injustice to the story if we reduce it to the cheap category of a wonder conversion. This story is not about a so-called ‘soul being saved’, as one popular biblical translation puts it, but about transformation with revolutionary implications… It was a scandal because it spoke to people who cried out for justice, and it was heavily biased towards compassion and change. Barry Robinson in his sermon The gospel in sycamore, puts it this way:  He says: “What bothered the good people of Jericho was not so much what Jesus had to say… but the way he said it. “It is one thing to believe in loving your neighbour, to believe in welcoming the lost, to believe in forgiving the guilty; but it is quite another thing to practice what you preach, to actually practice doing it. That’s what bothered people about Jesus. “He not only said that we should love God and one another.  He actually went out and did it.  He didn’t just say God’s embrace was wide enough to welcome everyone, he actually went out and embraced people no one else would. This is what upset the balance.  This is what was too unsettling to the way things were. The labeling of people to define the boundaries was not important to Jesus. He was more interested in welcoming people aboard the Way. Jesus was about: finding and rejoicing and making whole. So, come down from your isolation. Come beyond your boundaries. Stand on table tops, climb trees, and go out on a limb so that you can see where to be. Where to join the kin-dom. Perhaps that’s the nature of church planting. Amen.


Pentecost 20C, 2019
Luke 18: 9-14

Challenging the Social and Religious Boundaries

One of the most interesting things that arises from much recent research on Jesus and his environment or situation in life is that his attitudes towards his world have become more human as they have been released from the boundaries of the created myths, the institutional controls and the insatiable search for the meta narrative and the absolute truth. The result being that Jesus is allowed to be more human than God and this in turn has opened the stories to be more applicable to human limitations and become what might be termed ‘more real’.

Marcus Borg put it this way. He said “The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good).
Rather, his teachings and behaviour reflect an alternative social vision
Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself”

Here, is my title. That as a critic of the domination system he was placing a direct challenge to the social and religious boundaries of his day. Today’s scripture is one of those areas of social order that he challenged. One of the interesting things we need to consider as we approach this text is that there is a subtle difference between Tax collectors and toll collectors and that there were good and bad toll collectors. This suggests that when we come to our text we need to hold this in mind to remind ourselves that like most things in life labelling them is often too simplistic.

Rex Hunt some years back searched his Mother’s family history and engaged in some of his family’s stories. He discovered that all the stories seemed to have strong connections with Scotland, Ireland, and England. With just a touch of Italy and Malta on his father’s side, thrown in for good measure. When researching the Dickson cum Dixon/Lampard mob – his mother’s side, he made a couple of interesting discoveries:

  1. the family can trace its tree back to a Richard Keith, son of Harvey de Keith, Earl Marshall of Scotland in the early 1400s – hence the surname Dick son.
  2. a James Dickson, sixth child of James Dickson, grandson of James Dickson, great grandson of James Dickson (he noted a pattern developing here!), was born on 5 August 1807; and later was to become the Toll keeper of the Lamberton Tollhouse in Mornington, Berwick-on-Tweed. He then did what many others do… he checked out Wikipedia to see what he could find out about the tollhouse. Apart from collecting road taxes and protecting some royal ’dalliances,’ he also read: “The now demolished Old Toll House at Lamberton, situated just across the border in Scotland [on the Great North Road], was notorious for its irregular marriages. From 1798 to 1858 keepers of the Toll, as well as questionable men-of-the-cloth used to marry [run-away] couples…” As researcher of the family history, Rex was taken aback by this discovery, and its added comments: such as “The public associated these marriage houses with images of irate fathers chasing errant daughters and their boyfriends determined to elope… [but] records show the majority of couples to have lived within 30 miles… Roughly a third were Scots”. And all of this tickled Rex’s fancy, and he wondered why this was never spoken about at family gatherings because it would have added much hilarity to proceedings if it had. All this suggests that history is often written within the expectations of culture and social norms of the day.

Taking this to out text we perhaps need to begin by acknowledging that Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian.  He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech that we are told was disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers. In fact, more than that; one only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble! The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14) Again, this reminds us to take care when we label and generalize and assume it is simple. The strong likelihood was that the society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically. Like today the focus on difference and identity and separation was present. In other words, boundaries were all the go.

On top of this was the religious boundaries also those inside verses those outside, the good and the not so good, the proper and the improper were the subject of Toll keepers and they all lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations,
would have been nothing short of enormous, and the haves and have nots would have been a consuming matter. A tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful families
lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land.

As several scholars have recorded, the purpose of taxation was not social well-being
but enhancement of the position of elites. Period. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180)

Named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as toll collectors. Jews regarded toll collectors as collaborators who profited by preying on the countrymen on behalf of the Roman Empire. The storyteller we call Luke even has a story about them.
Actually there are two stories about them. The first is the Jesus story. Short. Sharp. Leaving little other than questions. The second is the Luke adaptation of that Jesus story some 50 years after the original. And his conclusion: Pharisees are smug, self-seeking, judgmental. We heard the latter as the Gospel reading for today.

Traditionally… that story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, due to an incorrect translation of the word ‘telones’. It should be Toll Collector… “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

Traditionally… that story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: One; the arrogant and the humble…

Traditionally… that story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

All these traditional readings of the parable are, very likely, unfortunate misnomers.
All these traditional readings ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an allegory or example story, rather than hearing the raw, blunt edge of the original. All these traditional readings are full of literary traps for unwary readers and listeners!

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story. Not always obvious.

The sad bits…The Pharisee, a member from the faction of moral entrepreneurs and rule-creation, stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (read: ’sinner’) – those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. His ‘standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. The Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation was because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sort to be inconspicuous.

The radical bits…A Toll Collector (and here we hear ‘sinner’). A Toll Collector in the Temple grounds was unheard of! And the hearers of this story – so-called fellow sinners- would have drawn that conclusion before the story’s end. Both he and they were excluded, despised, ruled and taxed over.

So, what do we have? The actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure. He never rebuts the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo, “but he speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words [prayer] have created, and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… He claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

Here we have it, God listening and speaking outside official channels! A ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: Include me in! Make an atonement for me! This is an astonishing assumption, Wow!!!!! How radical can you get?

This radical; Jesus had a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. All, brokered religion (and remember that priestly mediators are the necessary link between God and the individual) is at an end here. God’s domain has no brokers. Everyone has direct access to the Holy One. Petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: He says, “A brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… It is a passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131)

It is no wonder then that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, are always under suspicion because they were Galilean. It was logical to think of him as a threat to their welfare. So much so as to be even mentally unstable! It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then, heard a voice that shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities!
It is no wonder that when the muted ones begin to speak, as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”.  (Brueggemann 1989:51) It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then and now, who consider brokered Christianity (and here we hear: ‘orthodoxy’) simply incredible, are shunned and considered heretics!

And just in case you missed that: a non-brokered Christianity, the Christianity that we progressives articulate, goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! Then the the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation, rather than the faith that enabled boundaries to be challenged and changed. A colleague is more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church when  he said: “It is as if Jesus was the subject of a corporate takeover, where the new company retained his name and reputation but the values and aspirations of what he started were replaced by a totally different corporate ethos and agenda that have nothing identifiable to do with him”. (Horsfield 2015:290)

The early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, or saw a halo circling his head! They made claims about him because they had heard him say and seen him do certain things. They experienced him acting in their lives. And what they experienced in the company of this person, empowered and moved them deeply. (Patterson 1998:53)

The life to which he called his followers involved a reversal of ordinary social and political, cultural – and too often – religious standards.

These words of Canadian Bruce Sanguin ring true when he says: “Jesus was proclaiming the end of one era for humanity and the dawning of a new one – one person at a time… His very being was a proclamation of what the new human looked like… In his teachings he conveyed new spiritual wisdom, which if adhered to, effectively overturned the world of conventional wisdom”. (Sanguin 2015)

If Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles…He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge. (Dewey 2015:4)

 The radical challenge of distributive justice. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, and religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus misses all this. So too does the spiritualized Jesus of traditional or ‘orthodox’ interpretation. But, says Walter Wink; “ we can rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177)

So, today’s invitation is to accept the challenge to ponder some more creditable alternatives. Both about the human sage called Jesus. And about those we or our church or government exclude for political, cultural or religious reasons.

As the former outspoken advocate for the environment, Thomas Berry, has lamented:
“To learn how to live graciously together would make us worthy of this unique beautiful blue planet that was prepared for us over some billions of years, a planet that we should give over to our children with the assurance that this great community of the living will nourish them, guide them, heal them and rejoice in them as it has nourished, guided, healed, and rejoiced in ourselves”. (Berry 2014: 190) Amen.

Berry, T. “Spirituality and Ecology: A Sermon” in M. E Tucker & J. Grim (ed) Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. New York. Orbis Books, 2014Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28, 1, 4. 2015. Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Kelowna. CopperHouse /Wood Lake Publishing, 2015. Wink, W.  “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.