Archive for October, 2020

Matthew 5: 1-12

David Lose begins a sermon he wrote some years back with reference to a scene in Schindler’s List the movie where Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, is the commandant of a German death camp. Goeth is, in brief, a violent sociopath, prone to kill the Jewish prisoners at his camp indiscriminately. And he believes that his ability to kill is the very essence of power. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a consummate showman and has somehow worked his way into Amon Goeth’s good graces. One evening, Schindler challenges Goeth’s beliefs about power. The ability to kill isn’t power; the ability to have mercy is power. That’s why, Schindler argues, the Emperor was the most powerful person in Rome. Anyone could kill; only the Emperor could pardon a convicted criminal out of mercy. Goeth “tries on” being merciful, pardoning a few people who have annoyed him. It feels good, but he can’t pull it off for long, eventually returning to his brutal ways. Exercising mercy, it turns out, is harder than it looks and proves to be a power that he eludes him as he is drawn back to the ordinary, cultural exercise of violence as power.

The connection with this scene in relation to the Beatitudes is possibly the common mistake we make when reading the Beatitudes which is to see them as a kind of moral check list. Sermons following this interpretative line will typically urge their hearers to live a “beatitudes-kind-of-life” (or employ some other moralistic and simplistic slogan). And let’s admit it this approach is sympathetic to the pull of this reading. This is Matthew, after all, who is prone to defining the Christian life in terms of behaviour. And the beatitudes do indeed lift up particular behaviours – hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful – that are admirable and lend themselves to exhortation. But while we can imagine imploring folks toward some of these ideals, it feels like it makes less sense to urge some other beatitudes as actions – “Go be meek!” – and somewhat ridiculous when it comes to others still – “Be mournful!” So? What do we do with this?

Perhaps we can look past Matthew and his agenda of behaviour modification and  see the Jesus he is talking about as inviting us to imagine what it’s like to live in the realm of God and, by inviting that imagination, drawing a sharp contrast between the realm of God and the realm of the world and challenging our often unconscious allegiance to the latter. Maybe we could see the world as different but not bad as traditional theology has often painted it. Maybe we could notice that the people who Jesus is calling “blessed” are definitely not the people the world culture views as blessed. Those who are mourning rather than happy? Those who are meek rather than strong? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than wealth? That seems absurd does it not. And that holds for pretty much everything on Jesus’ list.

We remember here again that in Matthew’s chronology, Jesus begins his ministry with a summary of all that will unfold in the text before he meets his fate.  What they hear from Jesus is a series of contrasts that are completely counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom: those who “hunger for righteousness” and are currently dismayed by the odds against them will prevail in the end; those who show mercy and make peace even when they are persecuted for their beliefs and actions, following Jesus’ example, will be known as “children of God.”  However, the same old human story relentlessly continues: you can expect to be persecuted “in the same way the prophets who were before you.”

So perhaps Jesus is playing for larger stakes than an improved ethic. Perhaps he’s challenging those who we imagine are being blessed in the first place. Who is worthy of God’s attention? Who deserves our attention, respect, and honour? And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our present culture’s view of pretty much everything. In our culture, blessing equals power. success. the good life. righteousness. What is noble and admirable. What is worth striving for and sacrificing for. You name it. Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.

And one of the big challenges we encounter in this approach is the grapple with our view of those we have loved and lost in the previous year. In doing this we can come against the inadequacy of vocabulary in light of the kingdom or realm Jesus’ proclaims. It is too easy here to leap off into the supernatural or the superstitious when we have not “lost” those who have died. In traditional terms they live now in the nearer presence of God, beyond our immediate reach, yet connected to us through memory, faith, and love. This is the unblessed verses saints when we celebrate All Saints’ – and, indeed, at all memorial services. Maybe we are called to participate in the inversion of the kingdom of the world which believes that all we can see, hold, control, or buy is all there is. When we commend those, we have loved to God’s care, we proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but rather exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Jesus promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring that the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us. Again, not supernatural but rather part of what it means to be human.

Here we have the connection with the scene from Schindler’s List. The other-worldly concept challenging alternative Way that is the possibility of imagining that the path to God is not through might, power over or domination of thought but rather through what might be termed a weak theology, through a worldly foolishness, through doubt, failure and what I have suggested in my book. Through an ‘almost’. Or as John D Caputo suggests, through a God that does not exist but rather insists. In this alternative exercising mercy is more powerful than wielding violence, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy’s is more powerful than being right. The Jesus Way, is suddenly a very this-worldly possibility. But it’s not easy. It takes practice.

Suddenly returning hate for hate, condemning those who do not conform to our expectations or moral categories, and exercising violence against those who will not yield to us seems so clear it becomes hard not to believe they are the only possibilities, whether as participants or victims.  That’s what happens when we ask the hard questions that challenge our social norms and our assumptions of righteousness.

If this approach to the promised realm that the Jesus Way insists, we engage with is worthy then each week we gather is a gathering with others around One who would have been considered, in almost every conceivable way, an absolute loser and a tragic victim, rejected by the prominent, executed by the powerful. Yet as revelation of the Way becomes in tradition, Jesus the Christ, the one raised from the dead, as vindication of claims about his worth and validating the reality of the life and love to which he lived and loved.

So perhaps the task before us this All Saints’ Sunday, is less to exhort our people to a particular ethical behaviour than it is to recognize the alternative in-breaking promise is that this alternative realm is real and transformative, and it invites creative, creating imaginative construal. Even the slow demise of Christendom conforms that exhortation, rarely works. If it did the church would be growing would it not? And it’s not that we don’t know what we should do, but rather that we cannot see how. And we know that we do not need more rules because it is impossible to make enough. We know that we need a new heart. One that is rooted in the promise of surprise. The surprise of who is blessed, who is loved, and who has been commissioned to exercise the counter-cultural imagination Jesus proclaimed. And that starts with you and me; people who probably don’t feel particularly blessed, loved, or capable, yet if our story is correct it is those whom the Jesus story still calls for just those things.

Let’s be sure here. As traditionally evangelical and emotional as this call may be, it is hard to give what one does not have and this means that the call is not to give a beatitudes-informed list of ethics but rather a beatitudes-created set of eyes capable of seeing the divine as an alternative yet world transforming blessing. The alternative approach this text call us to is the rediscovery of the engagement between the stories of scripture and the whole human experience within the timeless conversation of tradition. If human concerns and questions are recognized and addressed in the biblical texts which know the human condition thoroughly and, simultaneously, bear witness to the holy, then we are to host a “sacred conversation” between all past texts and the present occasion when they are read and interpreted in public.

We can all agree that the world needs saints. And we might also say that saints need you and I to stand in a Jesus’ place and surprise them with the news that they, too, no matter what their circumstances or situation, and whether the world sees them this way or not– and even whether they see themselves this way or not – all are blessed and loved, and linked in this way with all the saints who have gone before us.

For those who would see the concept of saints as elitist and selective Jean-Luis Chretien reminds us that

“Other voices are at once the past and future of our own voice.  The past because they have already called us and even named us, they have already addressed themselves to us, and through their immemorial past, immemorial as far as we are concerned since they preceded the I, they have always already gathered lights, no matter, how obscure, in the place that becomes, little by little, our place.  Future of our voice also, since it is only through them that we can learn to speak and to say something.”

For those who would suggest that the idea of sainthood is an out of date concept and of no further use Ludwig Wittgenstein says:  

“You may say something new and yet it must be old.  In fact you must confine yourself to saying old things– and all the same it must be something new!  Different interpretations must correspond to different applications.  A poet too has constantly to ask himself: ‘but is what I am writing really true?’– and does this necessarily mean: ‘is this how it happens in reality?’  Yes, you have to assemble bits of old material.  But into a building.”

I want to finish with a summary of the above discussion which is that, there always has to be something to make the human connection between human beings and that which we name God, and that something has most often been rooted in human imagination, consisting of words to be sure; after all we humans are speakers and thinkers, as well as artists. Our words of prayers and, sometimes, even the words of our theological doctrines and ideas are but really the frail filament through which the collective consciousness passes.  Without them it would not pass at all, but they are frail nonetheless.” This is the ‘almost’ the process of becoming, the living planet, the cosmic system and very possibly, the realm that Jesus proclaimed as here and yet to come. It is to be seen in the foolishness of the crucifixion and in the weak theology of a ‘crucified God’,

The sainthood revealed in the beatitudes is not about a set of behavioural ethics but rather about the promise of, the possibility of a new transformed world, a world where love changes everything. Amen.

‘Events of Grace’

Posted: October 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Events of Grace’

Matthew 22: 34-46

It matters if someone loves us. It matters that we love ourselves. No human experience is more fundamental than the transforming ‘event of grace’ of being loved. Indeed, there is a considerable body of theological opinion which claims the very heart of the Christian message is that Jesus of Nazareth shows the unconditional and gracious love of God.

Before I go on, I want to explain if I can what I think an event is and make the claim that when we name something as grace or grace-filled we are in fact naming an event that is dynamic, moving and complex. In other words, we are naming that which is our living God as the loving action. A key thing to remember here also is that an event is uncontainable. It is free to transform all that it encounters. This understanding of grace and event for me is what enables a hermeneutical opportunity within which to explore what grace is and how it works. In naming something ‘grace’ we limit it by what we know and restrict it by its relationship to history, circumstance, and setting.

Careless thoughts

conceived only to fuel

my deranged ramblings

incessant mutterings of a shattering mind

bending backwards, almost breaking,

risking the chance of ever fully mending

hoping and praying

for a sentence that’s pending approval

Whereas the freedom of event enables unfettered, unlimited, unconditional opportunity. Whether the grace of God enjoys a merely passing historical privilege is relative to the event it harbours. It can remain a name if it fails to become an event which brings everything together in meaning, description and practical manifestation.

Allowing the rising of the sun

Paving ways for thriving wishes,

unbarr­ing gates for soaring dreams,

unlocking latches for poetic engagement

relieving the heightening of language

dulling anxieties of grieving hearts.

constantly seeking unshakable utterances,

promising goodness, happiness

and titillating sanity.

Anyway, having I hope given some depth to an event of grace I want to go back to our Matthew text especially to the second commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, section, and I want to draw on a sermon Rex Hunt gave some 40 odd years ago. He notes that his sermon was influenced greatly by Eric Fromm. It was centred on the theme of love, especially the value of self- love and self-acceptance as part of the traditional text expressed in the biblical: ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’.

The first claim Rex made was that it is OK to love others as well as OK, and not a problem or ‘sin’, to love yourself”. The second was that: “love of others and self-love are not mutually exclusive of each other. 

If it is a virtue to love one’s neighbour as a human being of worth, then it must be a virtue, and not a vice, to love oneself, since one is also a human being of worth”. He then went on to suggest that a clue to understanding what love is, is expressed in the saying of Matthew’s Jesus: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

Rex notes here that a better translation might be: ‘love your neighbour, just as you are to love yourself’. And that: “respect and acceptance of our own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of our own self first, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another person”.

One of the challenges here is to move away from an evangelical/fundamentalist position which claims that self-love is selfish love, whereas the radicalness of Jesus’ statement is that self-love is not the same as selfishness. A selfish person is interested only in her or himself and wants everything for him or herself and we have a merging of individuality and narcissism where one needs to be at the centre of everything. A selfish person does not love herself too much, but too little. For selfish persons are incapable of loving others as well as incapable of loving themselves and this confirms what we know about community. No human alone can create community. “Interactions among humans and between humans and the natural world creates communities.” (Peters i2002:36)

Rex notes that he concluded his sermon with these words: “Self-love, the love referred to by Jesus when he said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – requires the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth and freedom, because all are rooted in our capacity to love.  Then, and only then, can we go on to love our neighbour”.

Having briefly affirmed that need for self-love in the process of creating community and of enabling love of one’s neighbour my hope is that one might see that an event of grace or a grace-filled event contains more than just what one does and includes who one is.

I now want to tackle the other stream in the text; that of the image of God.

The first engagement with this task is to ask a question. What is your image of the god you understand as God?  What is the god ‘God’ like for you? Or what picture, if any, do you have when you hear “one of the most complex and difficult [words] in the English language, a word rich with many layers and dimensions of meaning” (Kaufman 2004:1. Here perhaps is God as event as opposed to name, In naming we restrict God to the limits of history and culture, whereas God as event enables the unconditional, the timelessness and I would claim ‘the Almost’.

This is not to say that culture has no part to play in it but it does restrict it to the naming as opposed to the event. This is also not new as traditionally we have always had at least three different strands to the way the word god has been used in English-speaking societies: (i) the biblical strand (ii) the philosophical strand (iii) the popular strand. So, the question we asked at the beginning of this section is a language and cultural question. How do we speak about the god we name God in a way that communicates in our culture?

Rex Hunt says that for him the journey has been changing as his experiences have changed and I think that is the same for me also. Rex suggests that for him he used to think of God as ‘anam cara’ or soul friend as modern Celtic spirituality says.  (O’Donohue 1997) Or as ‘Caring Friend’, as some Process theologians suggest, who nudges, calls, lures, pokes us onward.  I have to admit that process theology has been important for my own journey in this regard. The traditional church or biblical language for ‘anam cara’ is the word ‘love’. And a loving God has always been balanced by a fearsome, in control, all-seeing, God.

In more recent years, I have intentionally, like Rex, added to my thinking and moved away from using human-like metaphors in addressing God, to using more neutral language, such as energy, force, Spirit. Rex has used ‘creativity’. Creativity in cosmic evolution. Creativity in biological evolution. Creativity in cultural/symbolic evolution, and I have in finding that limited have begun to use Serendipitous Creating to designate both the randomness of evolution and the dynamic, event-like process. I have also wrestled with the name of God being ‘Almost’ which combines both name and event. In the end these are attempts to find an understanding and language which can enable us to explore what it means to be religious using insights from Darwinian thought as well as being more appropriate to our newer worldviews and ecological and scientific thinking. As Gordon Kaufman suggested “our God language and God thinking, our ‘theology’ must take into account what we have learned about the evolutionary character of our world and ourselves…”. (Kaufman 2004:123)

Most scholars would I think agree that, both ‘process’ and ‘creativity’ are the metaphors we most often use today when we want to speak about or address, God. And with that change in language has come a host of other changes, all of them away from the traditional g-o-d language of much of our upbringing. But both life and religious issues are not only answered intellectually. They are also answered “with our whole being, with the way we live our lives”.  (Peters 2002:92)

Karl Peters says many people today are asking: What kind of person do I want to be? Reflecting on this question, he says he wants to be friendly, loving, caring, compassionate, curious, open to new possibilities, intelligent, and, in so far as is possible, wise.  What has now become good for me he says, is not so much what I can acquire.  It has become what I can be”.  (Peters 2002:92)

What I think he is suggesting is, that we can become ‘events of grace’ when things come together in unexpected ways “and give rise to new relations of mutual support.” (Peters 2007.) And, that, I think, is pretty close to the self-love and love of others – that we are called to be as ‘events of grace’ as expressed in the saying: ‘love your neighbour, just as you are to love yourself’. It matters if someone loves us.  It matters that we love ourselves. It matters that we live in a web of relationships with others and with nature.

Almost is about something that is not yet

It is about to be but not yet

Its promise is in it’s all but

And its approximately

An event of grace is something that is not yet but insists that it is about to be. Its promise is in its serendipitous creating and not in its naming, in its dynamic living process as opposed to its identifiable result. Or as John D Caputo might say, it does not exist but rather insists. Its efficacy is in its transforming as grace-filled event. Amen.

Fromm, E. The Art of Loving. London. George Allen & Unwin, 1957.
Kaufman, G. In The Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
O’Donohue, J. Anam Cara. London. Bantam Books, 1997.
Peters, K. E. Dancing With The Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press, 2005.

‘Two Empires or One Kingdom?’ 

Once again, we have another story of a challenge and confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders and elites. In this case, the Pharisees and those who supported Herod as King (that is, as vassal King of the real rulers – the Romans), or is it more than that?

The scene is set. Here we are gathering in a space where differing views can be expressed in a degree of safety. Probably on a mound outside of town where people can gather and listen as well as escape if it becomes boring or too radical. It has to be pretty safe because we have a few Chief Priests and a bunch of Pharisees and Jesus and his followers. We are told that the reason the Chief Priests are there is because they have heard about the parables attributed to Jesus and being the scholars and church-men they are they have realised he is speaking about them in somewhat challenging ways. They obviously discuss this and decide that action is required and they see in the Herodians an ally in their task of defending themselves in the face of what is being said about them.

The interesting thing about this alliance is that these two groups were not natural allies.  The Herodians are people who supported the rule of Herod and who cooperated with the Roman rulers and because of that cooperation were given authority by Romans.  The Pharisees on the other were the legalists among the Jewish leaders who believed that their interpretation of the Law was the one to be obeyed.  When they spoke of the law of course they specifically meant Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They were the protectors of the faith, the boundary keepers and of course the bunch that held the power of clergy within the community. This was a creative yet fragile alliance pulled together to address a common enemy. In this case Jesus who was obviously being listened too, maybe even at the expense of the regular attendance at the synagogue and politically challenging those who were leading a comfortable life in the lap of the Romans.

Then this alliance discussed their common enemy and devised a way to entrap Jesus in what he was saying. Not the Pharisees didn’t go themselves but rather sent their disciples. Maybe Jesus would get too much status if they themselves fronted up. It might look like they were afraid of him and they might get their hands dirty if they were seen in their robes and elaborate dress to be giving Jesus too much kudos?

And when the opportunity to engage arrives they unfold their trap.

‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for a person’s rank means nothing to you. ‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

What does Jesus do? He doesn’t lie down or respond passively. He; being aware of their malice, of their political alliance in the interests of power and he says:

‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

He then addresses their weapon, the paying of taxes to Rome;

Show me a coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then Jesus said to them: ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’

They answered: ‘The emperors.’

Then Jesus said to them: ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’

We remind ourselves that the aim of the question is not to get an answer but to trap Jesus.  So, what does it mean to give to Caesar a Roman coin? The Pharisees in defense of their faith would have regarded these Roman coins as idolatrous.  The contained an image of Tiberius, Caesar, who would have been considered as divine by the Romans.  The point Jesus makes about them being hypocrites can be made by the group of Pharisees simply producing the coin in the temple as they had shown themselves up as hypocrites in their stance. Whereas it is more than likely that the Herodians had no problem with the Roman coin, after all they have allied themselves with Rome.

So, we are left with the question, should they pay tax?  I wonder if you can see the trap.  If Jesus says yes what will the Pharisees say?  If he says no what will the Herodians say?  Jesus who is known to always speak the truth to that simple question will be caught out. He will be backed into a corner so that whatever his answer Jesus would get in strife with the authorities. This was the clever question devised by both Pharisee and Herodian.

But they have underestimated Jesus as he cleverly avoids the trap yet at the same time confronts his adversaries with a conundrum in terms of their loyalties. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

As this weekend is general election weekend and our society is at risk of change both for the better and for ill, it is pertinent to ask the question about the relationship between religion and politics. We can see in some reports from the United States of America the mess that an ignorance of this relationship can result in when the desire for power is underestimated or manipulated for partisan influence. The question they needed to ask was “did you give to Caesar what is Caesar’s or to God what is God’s?” The questions we might ask ourselves are; Did you separate religion from politics? Did you agree that we should pay our tax but not let our spirituality impact our political decisions?  For you did religion and politics mix or not?  Did your views on abortion and the sanctity of life wrestle with the euthanasia referendum. Did your care for others influence your vote on the cannabis referendum? And finally do you sense that those questions are about to trap you in some way?

It is pretty much agreed that in the scriptures the intermingling of religion and politics is constant.  In the Old Testament again and again we read of how God ascribed political power to even the foreign rulers and enemies.  They ruled because God made it so. 

Jesus himself was incredibly immersed in challenging the political powers and the social structure of his day. This understanding has become more and more narrowed down with the paucity of original text and recent discoveries. The New Testament scholar N.T.Wright says of Jesus whatever else he wasn’t, Jesus was a politician. 

All this strongly suggests that this passage can be wrongly interpreted to mean that politics and religion don’t mix. Keep what is Caesars away from what is God’s. What is evident is that this assumption that is made by many in our post-enlightenment world has arisen out of teachings and understandings that have emerged since the time of at least the Reformation. 

It is true that this phrase, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” is one of the better-known quotes of Jesus and very possibly one of the worst understood.  In trying to see behind Jesus words what should be patently clear very quickly is that Jesus believed everything belonged to God, all things were derived from God, even political power. There was no such thing as a difference or a division between faith and politics.

Around 500 years ago Martin Luther argued for a distinct line to be drawn between the spiritual and political realms. One could suggest that the ascendancy of the left hemisphere of the brain became more evident. In this development it seems that the distinction between spiritual and political has been wrongly understood as saying the two don’t mix.  Without going into too much of the history of the situation the issue for Luther was who and how that power was being exercised.

Another factor to consider is that alongside the rejection of the spiritual in favour of a secular understanding the enlightenment has served to deceive us into thinking that our faith somehow should not have a political edge. The American experience and the rise in political Christian parties in NZ can be seen as an attempt to restore this relationship but the problem is that the differential mindset is still strong. It is more of a takeover bid for the political sphere rather than an integrated relationship.

If we consider that all things belong to God, including the way in which we structure our society then as people of the Jesus Way we need to live as though life is a spiritually inclusive life. Then who we vote for, what issues we choose to fight for, are both the political and religious outworking of our faith. And dare I say it this means that we need to live at though life is a living journey of co-creation made real and meaningful by loving one another and especially those who disagree with us.

Even what we choose to pray for, or even more importantly not pray for, in our prayers for the world indicates both a political and religious stance!  The words we use, the phrases indicate our alliances to that which we name God.  After all, when we seek as Jesus sought, a society of peace and love, it was for a new realm where political, social, economic and religious change had been achieved.

So, on this weekend of election of our next government the issue is not whether or not your particular party wins, It is not whether or not Christian values win through. Its rather that whatever one’s political allegiance might be, and I know some of you are card carrying members of various parties, one’s first allegiance is to Gospel that Jesus of Nazareth gave his energy and life to which is an alternative society of non-violence, non-discriminatory, acceptance and inclusion of the different and the establishment of a dynamic and integrated process of co-creation.

My own recent experience of this failure of integration of politics and faith has been a Presbytery caught up in the legal world of the book of order and has been unable to find the spirit of grace, compassion, and truth because it has lost the ability to hold together politics and faith and thus like the Pharisees and the Herodians become thrown into a defensive mindset that reflects inability to hold together politics and faith. In this case the law being included has been the law of the land and not the Torah. Even the conscience vote was nullified by the process.

Not unlike the Presbyterian Church and its support for commissioners as opposed to delegates sometimes in parliament they have what is called a conscience vote.  This is a time when politicians are allowed by their parties to vote based on their personal moral, philosophical or religious stance on an issue because of its moral content.  In a sense this misses the point that every single decision made by any parliament is a decision that has moral content and has religious or faith implications. It almost seems that all decisions in parliament should be made in this way but then maybe that’s not enough?

Sometimes the Presbyterian Church makes decisions and advocates in the community for particular issues.  Sometimes you may agree, sometimes not, sometimes you may get the impression that the Church is taking sides in politics.  Whilst this may appear to be the case I believe that in these situations men and women of faith like yourselves are seeking to discern what it might mean to proclaim support or ‘the kingdom come’ in terms of specific issues confronting our community. Here in this community just a few weeks ago I heard it said that the demise of the public questions committee was a result of our church’s ability to bridge the growing gap between politics and faith.

As individuals and as a local community of faith it could be said that the challenge of being Jesus followers is to seek to discern how we might live out every aspect of our lives and the separation of concerns is not the way to achieve this. Objectification without a responsive interconnection is destructive and maybe even violent towards a loving community.

Living the Jesus Way heralds a new realm. When we pray ‘your kingdom come’ we are making a political statement as much as a religious one.  As we walk the Jesus Way and witness to a transformative love the challenge is to not deceive ourselves: the political decisions that we make are faith decisions, our lifestyle choices are faith decisions; in fact. all of our decisions are faith decisions.  So whatever or whomever we vote for we need to take a moment to consider the decisions we have made or are making. Ask ourselves, what does it mean for me and for others ‘do my choices contribute to a Jesus Way of living or just to a better political outcome? Are they both and spiritual and political? Amen.

Matthew 22:1-14

A Feast Where Only Strangers Come?

Here he goes again; speaking to his followers in parable form about the shape, nature and content of the so-called Kingdom of God or the realm of God or the nature of the new world that is just around the corner, yet to come while at the same time already arriving. He supposedly chooses to tell the story by way of a reasonable common social event, a wedding feast. This time it is a Royal Wedding which seems to suggest that it will have considerable pomp and ceremony and maybe even hold the status of being a divine event if we bring in the Roman and Greek theology whereby great men are also Gods.

The story goes on to suggest that the king may not be one who engenders much loyalty for the invited guests find excuses not to come and even after a follow up invitation some send their servants along and others commit acts of violence in response to the invite. The king gets angry and I guess in response invites anyone off the streets to come so shaming the invited in return.

And then there is another twist to this tale. We have all the people off the street as guests and the King picks on one who didn’t find a wedding robe to wear and tosses him into the outer darkness. We are not sure what that is except that maybe the king is getting all theological at this point. But we are not sure why some poor soul who was on for a free dinner but couldn’t find the right clothes to wear should become the means by which the king can make his philosophical statement about many being called and few chosen.

About now we are wondering what Matthew was on about in telling the story this way let alone what he is trying to say about Jesus. The story of the ‘Rich Ruler’s Feast’, as told by Matthew, is full of twists and turns and at times almost totally incomprehensible. So much so that it might be easier to just pass by and fond another one.

But just before we do maybe we can try to see a bit more of it. Firstly, this story is told in our broad biblical tradition in three different versions. We can say that the voice and different layers of Matthew is very evident! But the original story appears lost. Secondly, we might see that it really is a secular story about the use and misuse of power that is reshaped by Matthew, into something ‘religious’ that he can use against the Jewish leaders. Matthew seems to be saying that they had their chance and blew it. He seems to say that God has looked elsewhere for a righteous community – hence his church community. And thirdly as you may have already formed an opinion, this story is not a ‘pleasant Sunday afternoon’ story. While some don’t include it in their “terrible texts” listing, it does seem to be a terror story with all its violence and revenge motivated action. It recalls the most savage of Hebrew and Gentile rulers in a frightening, and at times terrifying, world where old scores can be settled by savage, destructive means.

So, we are faced with Matthew’s story and traditionally most commentators seem to accept that he has reworked another story or stories where the important bit is in the end statement… The story of salvation: The first will be last and the last first; and Be alert! Be prepared!

The way Matthew seems to tell his story… The Rich Ruler = God. The son = Jesus.
Those who are ‘out’ = the Jews/Israel. The killed slaves = the Prophets. The guest without the wedding garment = God’s divine judgement. This, method or style of storytelling come interpretation, is called Allegory. But is it?

According to the British scholar, C H Dodd: “In the traditional teaching of the Church for centuries (parables) were treated as allegories, in which each term stood as a cryptogram for an idea, so that the whole had to be decoded term by term.” (Dodd 1961:13) For many years we have been this ‘decoding’ style of interpretation. We have received this in our Sunday Schools and churches for years and years: in pictures and in words and in stained glass windows. As Rex Hunt notes; the history of interpretation of parables has been a long and winding gravel road!

But much of that has now changed. With the development of literary criticism and other lines of enquiry we ask again “So what can we make of this parable?” With a broader understanding of what a parable might be rather than looking for a story that supports the traditional theistic, religious theme we have been taught, are we now asking of the text; what is there in this parable that is a story which turns our experienced world upside down? Rather than an allegory that gives a story that fits what is there about this that demands and alternative? What is the twist in the tail of this account?

We can as Rex says ask with the view that Jesus never offered any ‘in principle’ statements. That it just wasn’t his style. He told stories to people about people in real, live, contexts. And most of his stories were told to those who lived in the back streets of a village or city… The tanners, the toll collectors, the prostitutes, the beggars, the homeless, the day labourers. Those who lived on the edges, rather than at the centre of the village or city. And in narrow, unpaved streets which were “chocked with refuse and frequented by scavenging dogs, pigs, birds and other animals.  (And where) shallow depressions in the streets allowed some drainage, but also acted as open sewers.” (Reid 2001:183)

So, despite all the moralising and spiritualising that has taken place with this story over the years we might try to maintain the original one, or the ‘voice’ of Jesus, if it could be heard, through what was a very secular story. Quoting from a sermon on this story, ‘A parable for today, if not tomorrow…’ it tells of the “domestic misbehavior of the powerful and the victimizing of the powerless, of war and retaliation.” (www/Berrigan 2001)

And let’s remember it is set within the then culture of shame and honour. Whatever the Rich Ruler’s strategy, the feast he ends up with “is very different from the one he planned.  It is now a (feast) of the dishonorable, and he is shamed” (Scott 2001:116).

So, if we reimagine this Jesus’ story, we might see that the reign of God is not about a feast where only the rich and the powerful are invited, it is not a feast that is about the host or his heir being ‘honoured’… It might be seen that the reign of God will strike us as being as nonsensical as a feast thrown by a powerful ruler, but where all his powerful 
“friends [are] absent and only strangers are present.” (Crossan 1975:119)

And what might have been the response of the hearers of Jesus. “Come on! you’ve got to be joking? The real world of power and politics and global warming and terrorists and law and order, is not like that at all! How is it that there is a place where those who are in, are out, and those who are out, are in! That’s not possible. The challenge her is to work out whether one is being ‘threatened’ or ‘saved’ by those who suggest our life should be turned upside down!   

And now for a postlude. What is Jesus did not teach to make anyone religious, righteous, morally correct or even moral, or orthodox. What if he didn’t say anything about protecting that which is religious or sacred or spiritual? What if church affiliation is destined to be a thing of the past? Maybe it has served its purpose well and outlived its usefulness? What if the secular is the new religious? We might ask how many of us can see a spirituality beyond that which has been taught and perhaps even one that is inclusive of all faith stories? What if what we currently believe or think is no longer useful to human life as we know it?

Do you sense if? That desire in you to save things? To protect a divine Jesus or a supernatural God or a wonderful kingdom? Or even a Christendom existence? Jesus’ story is that he interacted and told stories to offer a re-imagined view of the world, this world. Where every person can live life to the full. Where every person can love wastefully. Where every person can be all they can possibly be. And as Jack Spong said: to be the God-bearers of the world.

“The only way that God can be with us now and through the ages is for each of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity” (Spong 2005:298). But in a world where many of the world’s politicians can expect “overwhelming support” to anti-terrorism measures “with scarcely a glance in the direction of civil liberties, and little recognition of the irony involved in abandoning some of the legal safeguards that define the very way of life we are supposed to be defending…”  (Mackay SMH/1/10/05, 31) In a world where more and more oversight and control of our world is acceptable what is the parable to be heard? Where is the twist in the tail of this logic? Driven by the need to control the minority under the myth of safety? Where is the surprise of a (divine) feast where only powerless strangers rather than the rich and powerful ‘movers and shakers’ are present? According to the Jesus story this is not out of the equation! Amen.

Crossan, J. D. The Dark Interval. Towards a Theology of Story. Niles. Argus Communications, 1975.
Dodd, C. H.  The Parables of Jesus. London. Fontana, 1961.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Spong, J. S. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York. HarperCollins, 2005.

Violence… and the Shuffling of Boots

Matthew 21:33-46

What an unholy mess this parable is from Matthew! The story line is full of violence carried out under extreme provocation: people beating and killing and stoning servants, then killing the land owner’s son. And to top it off we read what other dissatisfied storytellers felt they had to add to make it even worse when we read the bit where the owner wrecks vengeance on the tenants.

All in all, there is plenty of murder, revenge, and blood in this so-called parable of the wicket tenants. Many scholars do not believe was a parable of Jesus and that it was very likely reflecting a local issue faced by Matthew’s community.

So, on that basis we look at the parable and we ask questions of its purpose and the first thing we say is that the parable can be interpreted on many levels. Matthew, for instance, has already offered an interpretation: that of an allegory. That is, the parable was immediately relevant for Matthew and his community because (we think) they were having problems with the synagogue across the road!

Like many Presbyterian Sessions and or Parish Councils, and I hasten to add some Body Corporates an ‘in-house’ conflict was present and, in their case getting out of hand. They had as Jews who say the Jesus Way as a desperately needed reinterpretation of Judaism and or a new and vibrant response to God had been struggling, without success, to position themselves as the new leaders of Israel’s faith and were being increasingly driven to the margins by resurgent Pharisaic intent. So, Matthew took some of the key elements of this story and applied them: Vineyard = Israel, God = the land owner, Messengers/servants = the prophets, Son = Jesus, Son’s death = Jesus’ crucifixion. What we might call today, ‘Creative Writing’.

Or we could even bring it closer to home and spend some time reflecting on our much more subtle ways of ‘beating up’ God’s messengers who call us to become involved in the issues of the day.

We all know that ‘Loving’ is a challenge we very often savage or sabotage, whether at a personal or a community level. Somehow love seems to awaken our fear of becoming a scapegoat, or being seen to be weak and ineffectual so we respond defensively.

So, in dealing with the text today I want to take the advice of a certain William Bausch and focus on the violence contained in the story. For this is, as we all sadly know, a timely topic. Given the race riots, fear driven street battles, Blaming and scapegoating that the Covid 19 has fostered in many communities around the world. It is as if Violence forms a subtext of our daily lives.
as Nations. Peoples and Individuals of all ages – even youngsters in primary school. All are routinely hurting, maiming, threatening and killing one another. This intolerance, and violence has become so common place in a hurting world. Social commentators have said that the fear of violence and the concern for personal safety has become a major preoccupation among the people over recent years…Especially for those in the oldest and youngest age groups.

So, we might ask what is it that is behind this proliferation of violence in our world? Rex Hunt of whom I quote on accession said that part of the problem and only part of it is a shocking lack of empathy for other people, for victims. And an inability to feel what those who are hurt are feeling. An inability to understand and share the feelings of another. I want to share a poem I wrote about  our human need for empathy in recognising the importance of other people, even those we don’t get along with.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other

The truth is that you make my life worthy

Having you around makes my day smooth and easy.

Without you it is hard for me to end a day fulfilled.

The truth is that you make my life worthy

The truth is that you give me reason to love

Without you I cannot say “I’ve loved you since the day I met you.”

I cannot stare at you from afar and know the deep feelings that rend me silent.

The truth is that you give me reason to love

The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

Doug Lendrum

The claim is that many lack this ‘empathy’ because many have divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’… in our excess we have turned individuality into alienation an us and then distinction that was high on Jesus’ list of what was horribly and terribly evil in the world. No Samaritan and Jew. No northern and southern Irish. No Israeli or Palestinian. No black or white. No straight or gay. No Aucklander and the rest. No ‘them’ and ‘us’. Its what loving is all about. Its what loving one’s enemy is about, its what democracy is about. Its what makes the corporate, the collective, the committee and the community work. Yet more and more, a sense of empathy is evaporating. We saw in the beginning a glimpse of this when we became united with the victims of the Christchurch massacre and with the response to Covid 19. But now we are back to the verbal violence of partisan politics as the desire to win becomes a them or us. And sadly, with this loss comes an inability to be compassionate. And when there is no empathy and no compassion, there is easy violence.

And dare I say it. Matthew’s treatment of this parable with his allegorical overlay, has produced tragic consequences for Jewish-Christian relationships over the centuries.

So, like many I agree with the Jesus Seminar when they say that this overlay did not originate with Jesus. But is rather the work of the storyteller, Matthew. However, its inclusion in the text is an opportunity for us to contextualize it for ourselves.

To do this I want to tell you a story Rex Hunt has used when addressing this text. A story this time which comes out of the Second World War.

The war was still in progress but it seemed the nation was in need of a morale boost, and to rally the country, the leaders in Russia decided to stage a march of 20,000 German prisoners through the streets of Moscow.

The footpaths swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women – Russian women. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son, killed by the Germans.

They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the parade was to come. At last they saw it.

The generals marched at the head of the column. Proud, their chins stuck out, lips folded.
An air of superiority about them.

The women clenched their fists. They shouted their hate. Then all at once something happened to the women. They saw German soldiers thin, unshaven, wearing dirty bloodstained bandages,
hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades. The soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent. The only sound was the shuffling of boots, the thumping of crutches.

Then an elderly woman in broken-down boots pushed herself forward, past the soldiers and police. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief, and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread.

She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a German soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And then suddenly, from every side, women were running towards the soldiers. They pushed into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

William Bausch, who shared this story, goes on to suggest: “When the women saw the men hobbling through the streets, they were no longer the enemy; they were no longer those who killed their relatives. They were just victims, and the women felt for them. There was an outpouring of empathy and compassion. The violence they intended was no longer in their hearts.” (Bausch 2000:205) Its very likely that Jesus the storyteller would approve!

I want to conclude today with a verse of a poem I wrote which I think is about the nature of the compassion we seek from empathy. I think it talks about the importance of the ‘other’ in our lives and of the unconditional love that emits form a loving heart of cosmic proportion.

My love is for you as the ‘other’ is not anybody for anything,

which is how deconstruction defined a literal grace

my love is the purist of gifts, gratuity beyond and description offering,

 and pure grace is the transport of love apace

my love, freely and astronomically proffering

from a heart of almost cosmic scope here in this place.

Doug Lendrum


Bausch, W. J. The Word In and Out of Season. Homilies for Preachers. Reflections for Seekers. Mystic. Twenty-third Publications, 2000.