Archive for November, 2019

Pentecost 23 C, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25

Turning Probability into Possibility

At the risk of repeating myself I want to suggest that what I was claiming last week was that I believe our church is making it more difficult to honour and accept the different, Different in social standing, different in world view and different in theological development. It seems that in order to be responsible with money and property we must all think the same and have the same view of what the church is and how it engages in mission. I may be paranoid and limited in my thinking also but it seems that in its concentration on survival and efficiency it is closing doors and excluding people. It seems that it is no longer appropriate for one to hold, or live by, a theological position or vision in our church. Unless of course, it is the neo-evangelical middle of the road position. By neo-evangelical I mean that which seeks to wipe out any sense of ecumenism, and any sense of liberal thought as being anti-gospel.

I admit that in saying that I am being simplistic, and generalizing but that is the message I think is being given by a church that says worship can only take place in one form and that is the gathering of a certain amount of people on a Sunday who give enough to sustain the model. Yes, there are groups beyond the model but they are not authenticated as equal opportunities as that of the traditional parish, congregational model. Yes, there is an accommodating of some alternatives but even those are bound by a fiscal model. What I am trying not to do is to say the way we do church is wrong but rather that is seriously flawed if it is the only way. Nor am I saying that attempts to change the direction have not been made in the past. What I am saying though is that that there is a qualified support for what I am suggesting but that it falls into the too hard basket in a world that is driven by fear and by an authenticity based in economic compliance. It is in my view rather sad that the church has become afraid to risk being confronted by its very own gospel.

The neo-evangelical approach is not only frightened of extinction, it has flattened out its proclamation of orthodoxy and made one-dimensional, the role of both theologian and prophet, in the life of the church. The only authentic prophet listened to is that one who espouses the party line, the traditional and the comfortable. The only theologians acceptable to read are those that don’t rock the boat.

However, if we take a look at this morning’s story from the prophet Isaiah, we see that he will have none of that. Instead, through the use of vivid picture language, Isaiah offers a vision, or states a position, which reminds us “of the ideals for which we hope and for which we believe God strives.  The ‘new heavens’ and ‘new earth’ the prophet foresees signify the possibilities for human society when we open ourselves to God’s transforming power” (RPregeant, P&F web site, 2007). The task of becoming more fully human in the image of God is always radical, new and holistic. New heavens.  New earth.  New possibilities for human society, now. There are some commentators who would suggest this is a most appropriate passage as we move towards the end of the Christian year, and national elections.

Rex Hunt suggests there is one group of Australian biblical scholars comment that might be useful reflect on this passage. They have interpreted this as saying “All that has prevented creation from being what God intended will be removed.  The disasters we see in the world about us every day are not what will determine the future of God’s creation.  Neither terrorist activity nor the exercise of military power will hold sway in God’s order of things. I would like to add that neither the church’s decline or extinction of current form will succeed. They go on to say that political deception will have no place, nor will abuse within the family or workplace.  The selfish exploitation and neglect of nature will be recognised… This is what the writer(s) of Isaiah 65 looks toward.  They look not just to the making new of the physical world, as to the renewing of the relationships and interconnections within the world which maintain life in its physical, spiritual, social and other dimensions.  That is the Christian hope” (HWallace et al. web site, 2007).

New heavens.  New earth.  Possibilities for human society, now.

Those of you who were here last Sunday may remember we touched on some so-called ‘apocalyptic’ talk as a basis for human transformation rather than ‘end-of-the-world’ stuff.

I also suggested something was required of us when we encounter this sort of end times talk. It is to read and study the biblical stories seriously, not literally, and know that we, even if only in a small way, are called upon to participate in the transformation of the world.

So, what is the apocalyptic talk in today’s text? I and others suggest that there is an echo to be heard in this week’s passage. And again, it is about re-imagining rather than end-of-world stuff.

So, how do we re-imagine the church?  Well! I am not sure my imagination is good enough but I want to make some suggestions. The first is that we might examine one, or two ways others have sought to re-imagine the world, through human transformation.

The first is an example of a very small way that we might participate in re-imagining the world. The topic is about British supermarket practices, from a few years back that in all intent and purpose could be applicable here too.

A Church of England bishop warned that the big supermarket chains in Britain were putting farming livelihoods at risk by forcing down prices through their buying power. His report said that: “The business practices of the major food retailers have placed considerable stress on the farming community through the use of methods which we believe to be unfair and of which consumers seem to be unaware,” said Bishop Michael Langrish of Exeter.

He was speaking at the launch of a report, ‘Fair trade begins at home: Supermarkets and the effect on British farming livelihoods’ written by two members of the church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. A small way, are called upon to participate in the transformation – re-imagining – of the world.

Secondly, Michael Lerner, a progressive Jewish Rabbi in America, wrote a powerful book called The Left Hand of God. In the book Lerner challenges both the political ‘right’ and the political ‘left’ to re-imagine the way society is organised by presenting what he calls a new “spiritual vision… a whole different level of discourse, not something narrowly instrumental that is basically about winning an election” (Lerner 2006:5, 18).

So, he sets out what he calls a ‘Spiritual Covenant with America’. “We invite our fellow Americans”, he writes, “to join us in building a society based on (a) new bottom line” (Lerner 2006:229). He suggests there are eight areas or issues are covered by the Covenant, and they include: 1. families, 2. personal responsibility, 3. social responsibility, 4. values-based education, 5. health care, 6. environmental stewardship, 7. building a safer world, and finally. 8. the separation of church and state and science.

We don’t have time to go into details of Lerner’s Covenant other than to offer some words from his Conclusion, because they could ring bells in our context as well: One of the things that evangelicals liberals and progressives can agree on is that; “There is an enormous spiritual hunger in the world at this time. From the sprouting up of new traditionally framed congregations to untitled groups of interest it seems that there is a yearning for a new way to think and a new way to live.  The challenge is to see that we have been trapped into thinking that fulfillment comes from achieving material success.  Bigger buildings with more people thinking and doing the same thing. I think our church has been caught up in this too and I think it is because we have stopped our theological questioning for too long.

This yearning could be because as the globalized economy makes accessible more and more material goods at prices that can be afforded, and more people have more commodities – more computers, cell phones, DVDs, cars, boats, televisions, and other gadgets – we find ourselves reaching for something else, something that cannot be satisfied by a new purchase.  We want meaning to our lives…”

Learner puts the two images of Right Hand and Left Hand of God, into context:
“The Right Hand of God is embraced by the powerful… [and] used to provide legitimacy to an empire and a competitive and unjust economic marketplace…  The Left Hand of God emphasizes the need to build a world based on love, kindness, compassion, generosity, mutual cooperation, recognition of the spirit of God in every other human being and an awareness of our interdependence with others…  (Lerner 2006:358). I might want to say as I have said earlier that the concentration of the left hemisphere of the brain where function and outcomes are sourced as opposed to the right hemisphere where purpose and meaning are developed is a reason. Remembering here that the right hand of logic and function power is influenced by the right brain and vice versa and this seems to support this proposal.

Throughout history, as well as within each of us, we can find elements in our life experiences that identify with the vision of the Right Hand of God. And similarly, there are also signs in both our individual and society lives that come under the influence of the vision of the Left Hand of God. It has been suggested that when social energy flows more toward hope, and promise we find ourselves supporting policies that are more generous, more oriented toward establishing peace and justice.

On the other hand, when social energy flows more toward fear, we find ourselves supporting policies that seek to dominate others, and to build institutions based on the assumption there is not enough in the way of material goods to go around. (Lerner 2006:358-59. I watched a move recently about the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa that showed just how hard it is to bridge this gap between world views.  Practicing reconciliation and peace is harder after a regime of segregation, where difference and fear have been the mainstays of society.

The good news from Isaiah and from Jesus is: the world can be re-imagined; can be transformed. And what is our role in all this?  It is to challenge the powerful voice of fear.
Be it in the church or in society in general. If we believe that the church has anything to say anymore. we must engage in apocalyptic work. Not about a second coming, or a pie in the sky idealism but rather to bear witness to the reality and the ramifications of the vision of Isaiah and Michael Langrish and Michael Lerner and others. The followers of the Jesus Way must free themselves from the fear that holds them back from re-imagining the New Heavens and the New Earth. Amen.

Lerner, M. 2006.  The Left Hand of God. Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.  New York. HarperCollins.


2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

‘When Do We Admit We have it wrong?   

William Loader on his web site back in 2007 wrote that “There are many ways in which we as Christians can make themselves look silly, and when we look at some of those who have been up front as Christians, we have to admit that its perhaps more often these days than ever. If a Christian makes the news its usually about some misdemeanor or some horrible act. And in between this is all the orthodox fundamentalists who spout forth fear enticing, blood curdling oaths that alienate us from normal upright people. Its no wonder that we are sometimes aligned with the story about a bloke who was always having bad luck. Once he found a magic lamp, rubbed it, and a genie appeared and gave him the Midas touch. For the rest of his life, everything he touched turned into a muffler!  (Bausch 1998:390). This brings me to our biblical story this morning from the pseudo-Pauline letter called 2nd Thessalonians’, which also needs some serious critique. But first some contextual stuff.

There are very few reputable biblical scholars who agree that this so-called Pauline letter, was written by Paul. The evidence points to someone using Paul’s name to claim authority, while writing sometime after Paul. John Dominic Crossan (Crossan & Reed 2004:105), probably the leading biblical scholar of our time, is clear. There are authentic Paul letters and there are pseudo Paul letters. The authentic letters can be named: as Romans, 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon. The inauthentic or post Pauline letters, attributed to Paul but not written by Paul, include: Ephesians Colossians 2nd Thessalonians 1st & 2nd Timothy and Titus.

To make things even more complex I spoke some time back about research on Paul that suggested we had at least Three Paul’s, painted by the text. The first being the radical Paul who as a devout Jew followed closely the efforts of Jesus to transform Judaism and include other nations. The second Paul being the accommodating Paul who sought to justify and include the Roam and Greek cultures and the third Paul who was the Paul who argued for Roman culture as being the orthodox faith. In brief we have the critique of empire, the accommodation of empire and the Paul who embrace empire as the true context for faith. If we go along with this analysis of the Paul, we know, then we have a hermeneutic challenge. Some people we know have their favourite Paul bits. The question is do these favourite bits of Paul belong in the authentic Paul basket or in the pseudo Paul basket? It can make a lot of difference, because we are extracting them from a particular context with a particular purpose.

Another point we need to recognise is that, not only are there pseudo Paul letters, but some of those letters are anti Paul letters, as evidenced by much of the content of Ephesians and Timothy. The challenge here is that some of these texts are relied on by fundamentalists and neo-orthodox these days, for their ‘anti’ causes! Paul says; so, its truth and biblically warranted. So why do we have the anti-Paul letters?  Well, Crossan suggests, they are an “attempt by compilers and authors to sanitize a social subversive, to domesticate a dissident apostle, and to make Christianity and Rome safe for one another” (Crossan & Reed 2004:106). Perhaps like so much so-called ‘fake news today, they seek to push a particular cause, which kind of brings us back to today’s biblical story.

Some of the author’s hearers are frightened. They seem convinced that the so-called second coming of Jesus’ is about to happen. So, they have got themselves all into a lather. And their goings-on has divided their small community. Do you think the churches concentration on survival today might be the support of a particular theological position?

The author tries to counter this ‘apocalyptic scenario’, but to no avail. Instead the comments seem to pour oil onto troubled fires. Palpable fear grips the Thessalonians. Such as some politicians hope will happen during an election campaign. Such as members of the PCANZ hope will pool resources, limit diversity and sanitize the gospel.

The trouble is that they might just be hastening their own demise because fear speaks louder than either history or any reasoned debate!

And here is the radical response, the original Pauline response and this the Jesus response. Being progressives, we can dismiss all this ‘apocalyptic’, ‘end-of-the- world’, ‘second-coming-of-Jesus’ stuff as fanciful rubbish. And most of it is.  Or if you prefer Bishop Jack Spong’s evaluation:  he calls it “gobbledygook and complete non-sense” (Spong eLetter, 31.10.07).

Crossan says; ‘Especially the modern writings of Tim LeHaye and the “transcendental snake oil” (Crossan 2007:198) called the Left Behind series. As well as the rantings of many American TV evangelists, and their imitators.

So, it is important to try and go under the apocalyptic veneer in order to get in touch with the real underlying issue. And that real issue is, not about the end of the world or the second coming of Jesus, but about the end of evil and injustice and violence… in this world.

On the former, Crossan is again helpful: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with divine presence” (Crossan 2007:230-231).

On the latter, a professor of religion and philosophy, Russell Pregeant, says we need to get in touch with: “the hope for peace and justice that has led many in our own time, under the influence of liberation theology, to speak of apocalyptic writings as ‘the literature of the oppressed’”  (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007).

And he goes on to say: “[this is] a reminder that God is certainly not satisfied with the unjust structure of the present world… [But] we need neither the outrageous fantasies of the so-called ‘rapture’ nor the grotesque images of millions of souls condemned to eternal torture while the blessed shine like the sun, to ensure that human life has eternal significance” (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007).

So, what are we left with? We have to say that apocalyptic talk, in our own times, which wants to claim a basis in divine destruction, is unhelpful. We also have to say that apocalyptic talk, in our times, which wants to claim a positive basis in human transformation, is helpful. It is that simple.

But we might now say that we need to get beyond this helpful/unhelpful dichotomy, because something more is required of us.  What we are led to do is to get beyond the dichotomy of wright and wrong and in and out and truth and untruth and. 1. Read and study the biblical stories seriously, not literally, and 2; know that we, even if only in a small way, are called upon to participate in the transformation of the world. Honour the mind and its ability to ask the questions of history, of text and story and remember that if we are only against something, we are doomed to negativity. So too if our actions are only attempts at domesticating dissident voices, making religion and politics safe for one another. If we are concerned with our survival. We will not find success but rather only build walls to protect what’s left.

There is a poor analysis that says that what is transpiring today is the clash of two completely different worldviews. In criticizing the fundamentalists, I am not suggesting that there are only two world views. What I am suggesting is that getting stuck with only two points of view we are entering survival mode and negative the trap of negativity. We allow an accelerated culture of secularism facing off against an aging culture of Christendom.” Which is a false world, or a world of false God’s.

Dare I say it but I think that what is happening today is actually the result of an unthinking orthodox fundamentalist movement, that ingratiated itself into the Western world in the early 400s CE in the interests of empire, control, wealth and organisational strength. This is not to say that such organisational endeavour is wrong but rather that it lacks the ability to be critiqued adequately. And we have now reaped the benefit with a world of polarity as opposed to complementarity. The Christian world ended up in a battle with secularism. A them and us falsehood a right and wrong world. The outcome has been the demise of the church, the reduction in membership, the need for a Northern Presbytery strategy is a result. Sadly, I don’t believe it will address the fact that what is happening is probably one of the greatest capitulations to the bipolar secularity, in our lifetimes.

The fact that fundamentalists and evangelicals talk about the importance of honesty, character, integrity, and ethics in leaders but then throw all that out the window to support their own concerns, is hardly the result of secularism.  It is, however, a surrender to the dichotomy, the binary as if it is some sort of purest, amoral, goal.

What we see happening presently, around the western world is the result of a fundamentalist Christianity, with a truncated and immature view of the Christian narrative, and the world, which far too many evangelicals also bought into when it came to the political. The issue is that we need to quit blaming others and take a look in the mirror. The church has declined while we are members of it. There is something we are not doing with the gospel.

The false God is that one we have created by an attitude that claims truth with such tone and rhetoric that dismisses, discredits, and demonizes the other side. There are not two sides but more. We are told that the other side, the left, or the right, whatever one wants to call it, is guilty of the same.  “However, the same is true for many on both sides.

The point we seem to be missing is that the majority of the world has moved on and the task is not to take sides but rather to make an argument with questions that cannot be dismissed.

It is my suggestion that fundamentalist orthodox Christianity is whistling past the graveyard at this point.  The so-called moderate voices think that they are somehow helping by staying above the fray.  This needs to be challenged. History tells us that those who come out and try to mediate as neutral observers, who try to stay above the fray, who try to tell us both sides are the same (“good people on both sides”), end up helping the oppressors, those whose incivility and intolerance Look what happened to Paul as he became the servant of the system in being transformed from radical into empire saviour. This need for control and survival and the claim to the power of negativity is intrinsic to the fundamentalist movement, philosophy, and existence.

And where is my positive claim for saying this? It is again history. History has not been kind to those voices.  I have the feeling history will see the current voices in the same light.  In their very commendable attempt to promote civility and tolerance, proper stewardship and radical redistribution of resources they miss the gravity of our current moment with their poor and limited analysis of the moment.  In seeking to promote the goodness of the church, they will invariably end up helping those who have decided they will do the very opposite. This who have money and resources will get richer and the poor and struggling will get pushed aside in the interests of the sensible, the logical and the obvious. Elie Wiesel, the Romanian American writer of the play ‘The Trial of God: said “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”. My question is will the church do to us what it has already done to Paul? Amen.

Bausch, W. J. 1998.  A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications.
Crossan, J. D. 2007.  God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now in Search of Paul. How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. New York. HarperCollins.
Crossan, J. D. & J. L. Reed. 2004.. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.