Archive for November, 2020

Rebirthing Christmas In a World hard to Christianize!

A hope-filled look.

Will Christmas survive the demise of Christendom? Will Christendom survive the decline in credibility of institutions? Will there be such a thing as church? What will the world look like in the future? All questions that covid-19 has heightened around the Western World that remind us of an age-old question. How can we sing in a strange land… when the warmth of Christmas is not from some domestic fire in an iron grate, but from the sun high overhead – 38 degrees celsius and rising?  Or when the Spring festival of new life called Easter ‘down under’, comes in Autumn, the season of little deaths when leaves turn gold, fall, and the grass has turned from green to brown? Our strange land is linked to the nature we experience day by day and the metaphor and story are linked as well.

Shaping a distinctive liturgical theology is and has been a recurring problem for us in Australia and New Zealand.  Because it is not as simple as it sounds.  The question has been shelved a little by the survival of some trees in the colder regions, where our national fore mothers and fathers were keen to replicate the English/European countryside.  So the thousands of imported trees do indeed change their colours in some glorious autumn seasons, and after a cold snap or two, lose their leaves by the millions.  But not every tree.  Not the native trees of Australia and New Zealand!

And while there is frost, and sometimes snow in some parts, there is no general closing down of the land. Climate change is also leveling out the differences. Spring, for instance, is not the land celebrating life from a winter-induced death, but rather the beginning of an intensification of colour. An all year round production seems nearer. 

So, as we begin our look at both Advent and Christmas we might think about the Christmas cards we used to send and in some cases still do. Today marks the beginning of the church season that comes before Christmas that we call Advent. It starts again and needs all the encouragement it can get because as with all  myths, stories and metaphor they need to touch ground with today’s cultural norms and the season needs to be Re-Birthed because of the many counter claims for attention in our world in these days.

So what is the ‘spirit’ of this season?  Well! listening to the storyteller we call Mark, the season is inviting all of us to ‘stay alert’, ‘keep awake!’—ears tuned, eyes open—but the question remains; to what?  Is it being awake to the presence of the sacred (or that which we name God) and is the awareness about that sacredness being in the ordinary.

Our text has Jesus saying to the disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. Here the task is being awake to something not realized, something new, something that is not expected. He goes on, talking to the servants left to mind the property; ‘It is like someone traveling abroad, who has gone from home, and left servants in charge, all with their own task, and has told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Here the event is part of the ordinary life patterns of the wealthy taking holidays and the servants left to be security guards looking after the assets. The punch line is then; ‘So stay awake, because you do not know when the owner of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. ‘If the owner comes unexpectedly, you must not be found asleep. What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ Here the return is not unexpected but the need is to be ready to carry on the ordinary servant tasks.

The challenge here is not looking for some so-called spectacular and mythical supernatural end times with a new beginning. The Re-Birthing is of the ordinary in the ordinary and the awareness is to be found in the ordinary as Re-Birthed. Nor is it in some ‘Frosty the Snowman’ pop song imagination.  But it is rather by Re-Birthing the God-given ‘incognito’ moments, in the ordinary. In the ordinary, as in flowering bushes or Pohutukawa. In the ordinary… like the sound of tree branches knocking together in the hot Summer wind. In the ordinary… like the summer rain, and the realisation it is not a singular thing this is a complex age. But rather rain is made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing. Complex is ordinary. In the ordinary… like a young woman called Mary or a bloke called Yeshua in his ordinary human-ness living an ordinary life in his part of the world. It was his ordinariness that contrasted with what impact he had on his world and the radical challenge he brought to his situation, So, much was this challenge about being aware in the ordinary of what he was saying and doing with his life.

In the ordinary… like the lovemaking songs of the cicadas, and the beckoning songs of the native birds we are being challenged to consider the need for a fresh awareness of our creative capacity. Be aware that inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings. The human creative mind continues to explore the boundaries of the ordinary in search of the new and discovering that it is always in the ordinary. In the ordinary we are being asked to be aware of what actually is available. How is one infected or inspired by hope. And not just an optimistic hope, but rather the more rugged hope that sayseven if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right “we will endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us  This call from the ordinary to watch and listen for the ordinary is a kind of hope that requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready outcome.

In today’s ordinary it is what we might call a Serendipitous Creating God who is creator, creation and the creating energy all in motion and it acts in and through the ordinary in other words us and others who receive our actions. The call is to consider the invitation to re-tune our senses to a watchful presence  of a sacredness event in the ordinary, in the every-day, in the outsider, in the new. Advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic invitation to re-imagine the world.

The Christmas we celebrate today might seem like a timeless weaving of customs and feelings; however we need to remember that the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that defines Christmas is little more than 130 years old. There has to have been a reason for the season and there still needs to be.

As a ‘pre-Christian’ festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life and work situations.  As a Christian celebration, the ‘Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until sometime in the 4th century and then only as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals, political expediency, and the removal of thinking tagged ‘heresy’.

The ordinary seemed to have got lost in this development and the institutionalisation of Christendom got swallowed up in the need to control and hold sway over the collective conscious. The ordinary had to be sidelined so that a single movement of the collective could be sustained.

In the history of Australia and New Zealand the Christendom movement struggled and Mission from the North was required to tell the story. It as we know forgot about the ordinary and imported Northern cultural symbols and practices which were out of sinc with the natural seasons and thus the ordinary. In reality, Christianity was in the main rejected by the locals and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years.  This is born out by what is written of the history. There was a need to celebrate the victories over the ordinary and matters like the Treaty settlements were celebrations over the ordinary. Which has led some to conclude that in Australia and New Zealand, Christianity has always been rather a casual affair.  At best, “the Australian nation was only ever superficially christianised” (Wilson 1982:6).  By contrast to the European settlement of America, Australia was not in the main settled by religious refugees on a mission of hope, but rather was a gaol for criminals and social outcasts—an ordeal of exile. New Zealand may have had more religious focus in its settlement perhaps induced by its size, and population and its people’s tribal culture.

In early days of the Australian colony at least Christmas held little importance.  Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, a holiday was not declared.  The day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican Church parade.  If punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.  Indeed, it would appear that on the first Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested and, because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150!  At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.

Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the Australian colony, in the latter part of the 1800s, like of the movement in New Zealand it appears to have been mostly through ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.  Old customs and symbols were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.  These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and New Zealandised and became increasingly nationalistic.

While American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s some enterprising Australian artists a few years later attempted a re-birthing by giving him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh. An attempt at defining the ordinary perhaps?

In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas can be found in the nativity stories by the anonymous storytellers we call Matthew and Luke, in the Bible.  That is, people of early Christendom felt something novel had occurred with the birth of Jesus. 

Two stories that are very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content

Luke 2:1-7 (Inclusive Text)

Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census

of the whole world to be taken.

This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,

and everyone went to their own town to be registered.

So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee

and travelled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem,

since he was of David’s House and line,

in order to be registered with Mary,

his betrothed, who was with child.

While they were there, the time came for her to have her child,

and she gave birth to a son, her first-born.

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger

because there was no place for them at the inn…

Matthew 2:1-3 (Scholars Edition)

Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king.

Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem just then.

“Tell us,” they said, “where the newborn king of the Judeans is.

We have observed his star in the east

and have come to pay him homage.”

When this news reached King Herod, he was visibly shaken,

and all Jerusalem with him…

Both came rather later in the biblical tradition—probably anything from around 85 CE – 125 CE.  And in spite of the modern tendency to homogenise them into one classic tale, they are very different.  As a theological seminary professor once wrote:

“… Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background.  The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded.  Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale.  Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting” (Griffin 1982:55).

Of these two stories (or “fairytales” as another calls them (Ranke-Heinemann 1994)), one, Luke’s birth story of Yeshua bar Yosef has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.

For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story.  The story brings together the imperial power of the divine saviour Augustus, lowly shepherds, and angels from heaven—all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home.  The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendour of a chorus of angels are strong storyteller clues as to how the story’s listeners are to make sense of this story.

Again we find the story being told in the setting of the ordinary of the day but why these stories?  Scholars suggest there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories. 

To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people, the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.  Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:

(i)  a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,

(ii)  an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,

(iii)  an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,

(iv)  a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and

(v)  praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor (McGaughy 1992).

In general terms these elements can be found in the biblical infancy stories.  Yet it wasn’t until after Emperor Constantine “consciously chose Christianity as his Empire’s new civil religion” (Kennedy 2006:221) —in 313 CE—that there was a significant change in both attitude and authority surrounding Christianity, its stories and developing doctrines. The institutionalisation and the control of the ordinary as opposed to the control of the alternative story begins.

Having been oppressed and persecuted by Rome for some 300 years, Christianity suddenly came into imperial favour, even becoming the official religion of the empire:

“… bishops, of disparate schools of thought, once targets for arrest, torture, and execution, now received tax exemptions, gifts from the imperial treasury, prestige, and even influence at court, [while] their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence” (Pagels 1988:xxv).

Then another extraordinary event happened 12 years later—in 325 CE, when Emperor Constantine stepped in to resolve an internal church dispute threatening civil strife.  Constantine took the unprecedented step of calling what was to be the first general council meeting of the church, in Nicea.

Representatives came from all over: Antioch, North Africa, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and Northern Italy.  The Council of Nicea was about merging the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith—or as it has been called, implementing the ‘divinity test’.  It was also about solidifying or standardising the beliefs and liturgies of the church.  And of course, its flip side: excluding those who taught or believed or did, something different. The ordinary became contained and the evolution of thinking with it.

Also worth noting: the establishment of the Christmas feast first appears on the liturgical calendar in Rome in 336 CE, 10 years after Nicea.  Prior to that Epiphany (or ‘old Christmas’ celebrated on 6 January) was seen as more important than Nativity (celebrated on 25 December).  The conflict was finally smoothed over with a decision to combine Christmas with Epiphany, which liturgically became know as the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’.

So the development goes like this: from birth of a human person, a brother; to the transcendence and distance of God “modelled after an exalted royal emperor” (Roll 1995:177) —Jesus of history to Christ of faith.  Or as one of my mentors has put it: Jesus the iconoclast to Christ the icon (Funk 1996:44).  Now that has to be some shift!

The question we are left with is that as storytellers, interpreters, poets, composers, liturgists and artists, how can we approach the Re-Birthing of Christmas ‘down under’ in the 21st century?

In New Zealand we have been called by the creative genius of Shirley Erena Murray.

Carol Our Christmas

Carol our Christmas,

an upside down Christmas;

snow is not falling and

trees are not bare.

Carol the summer, and

welcome the Christ Child,

warm in our sunshine and

sweetness of air.

Sing of the gold and the

green and the sparkle,

water and river and lure

of the beach.

Sing in the happiness

of open spaces,

sing a nativity summer

can reach!

Shepherds and musterers

move over hillsides,

finding, not angels,

but sheep to be shorn;

wise ones make journeys

whatever the season,

searching for signs of the

truth to be born.

Right side up Christmas belongs

to the universe,

made in the moment

a woman gives birth;

hope is the Jesus gift,

love is the offering,

everywhere, anywhere,

here on the earth (SEMurray)


Star-Child, Earth-Child

Star-Child, earth-Child

go-between of God,

love Child, Christ Child,

heaven’s lightning rod,


This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Street child, beat child

no place left to go,

hurt child, used child,

no one wants to know,


This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Grown child, old child,

mem’ry full of years,

sad child, lost child,

story told in tears,


This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Spared child, spoiled child,

having, wanting more,

wise child, faith child

knowing joy in store,


This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Hope-for-peace Child,

God’s stupendous sign,

down-to-earth Child,

star of stars that shine,


This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive! (SEMurray)

On the song ‘Star Child’ Shirley Murray writes:

“The whole thrust of ‘Star-Child’ is for the entire world to experience Christmas, from street kids to the forgotten elderly, and this has to be expressed in language we now relate to.  Hence [such language]… represents an attempt to make our imaginations work in the present world rather than the unreal past….

In the ordinary

And again:

“Maybe our re-awareness of the full humanity of Jesus, rather than his divinity, is the point which allows us to move from Church language to ‘secular’ language…  I’m thinking of the impact of the parables (people stuff, ‘everyday’ language), as well as the fierce arguments of Jesus with the religious lot in more ‘religious’ language.  ‘Telling the story’ is a ‘secular’ thing, while preaching the doctrine the Church thing”.

While the religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth may have come to provide the fundamental rationale for the festival within the Christian Church, for the most part and for most people, they no longer function as determinative.  Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration, which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own.  And for many people today Christmas is just that… Christmas!  Something to be entered into and enjoyed, if possible.

Christmas has always been an extremely difficult festival or holiday to christianise!  No matter how vehemently preachers or theologians or ordinary churchgoing folk might decry the fact, or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus, or try to establish who influenced whom for what purposes,

“the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment…  Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment” (Roll 1995:257, 269).

Christmas is the most human and loveable, and easily the most popular, festival of the year involving nearly all the population.  It would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today

“unless it had struck deep folk roots… and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response” (Roll 1995:271).

Why?  Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and our modern popular culture celebrations are essentially life-affirming.  They say ‘yes’ to life.  For life is not a great ready-made thing out there.  Life is ourselves, and what we make it.  “Life is a buzz that we generate around ourselves.  It includes everything and excludes nothing” (Cupitt 2003).

It is our ordinary.

Such a view stands in shape contrast to many church-going Christians with their unchanging Sky God, and who still are “pessimistic as regards this earth, and value it only as a place of discipline for the life to come” (Miles 1912/76:25).  No wonder the ordinary gets a bad name!

At its best, Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be.  Where we see ourselves moved by generosity, inspired by hope, and uplifted by love, not only for ourselves but for the whole evolving universe.  Not only a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also an invitation “to assume responsibility for this sacred birth happening in and through us” (Sanguin 2010: 18).

Likewise, I suggest, the problem with Christmas is not ‘commercialisation’.  The problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. No longer stands out in the ordinary. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant.  There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety.  As one scholar has suggested:

“The dynamic is similar to the difficulty we have seeing rainbows and smelling roses.  Rarely do we experience beauty in depth.  Instead we move on to something else, distracted just enough to miss that which is most important and immediate” (Frazier 1992:71).

Both Advent and Christmas through a southern hemisphere lens, are best seen as we are open and receptive to their simple mystery amongst the ordinary:  being sensitive to and surprised by, opportunities from the present moment when an incognito God is in the midst of ordinary daily events.  When both are parables, in which everyday, ordinary events, take completely unexpected turns.

(As an aside… it is interesting that both Christmas and Easter are related to the cycles of the earth rather than to any actual dates of Jesus’ birth and death.  We do not know when in the year Jesus was born.  We do know when he died.  Christianity tied his birth to the northern hemisphere winter solstice, and his death to the northern hemisphere spring equinox, the latter being a ‘moveable feast’—anywhere between 22 March and 25 April—tied to the moon cycle as well as that of the earth.  Christianity is a latecomer to the elemental rituals and celebrations of humanity!)

It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history so maybe it’s time to Re-Birth Christmas.


Blainey, G. 1987. “Sydney 1877” in (ed.) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788. NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates.

Breward, I. 1988. Australia. The Most Godless Place under Heaven. VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.

Cupitt, D. 2003. Life, Life. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Frazier, R. T. 1992. “Christmas should be softly spoken” in Quarterly Review 12, 4, 69-74.

Funk, R. W. 1996. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover (ed.). The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. McMillan.

Geering, L. G. 1998. Does Society Need Religion? NZ: Wellington, St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society.

Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Griffin, G.  1982.  “The colour of joy” in Nigel Watson. (ed.) Jesus Christ for Us. Reflections on the Meaning of Christ appropriate to Advent and Christmas. VIC: Melbourne. JBCE.

Inclusive Readings. Year C. 2007. QLD: Toombul. Inclusive Language Project. In private circulation.

Kaufman, G. D. 1993. In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology. MA: Cambridge. Harvard University Press.

Kennedy, J. 2006. The Everything Jesus Book. His Life, his Teachings. MA: Avon. Adams Media.

McGaughy, L. 1992.  “Infancy narratives in the ancient world” in The Fourth R 5, 5, 1-3.

Miles, C. A. 1912/76. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. NY: New York. Dover Publications.

Pagels, E. 1988. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. NY: New York. Vintage Books/Random House.

Rank-Heinmann, U. 1994. Putting Away Childish Things. Translated by Peter Heinegg. NY: New York. HarperCollins.

Roll, S. K. 1995. Toward the Origins of Christmas. The Netherlands: Kampen. Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Sanguin, B. 2010. If Darwin Prayed. Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Canada: Vancouver. ESC Publishing.

Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed.) The Shape of Belief. Christianity in Australia Today. NSW: Homebush. Lancer Books.

‘Awaken Us to What is Already Among Us and Do It’

How radical is this story from Matthew? What is it about what he says, that is radical? I think it was radical to say that our love for others enriches God’s experience. And it was radical to say that the differences between sheep and goats is reversible. God truly is, as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claims, the fellow sufferer who understands. There is a change that comes about when we love someone and the differences remind us that the opportunities to care for the vulnerable are endless. These things have to be radical because if what we do truly shapes the quality of the divine experience, then ethics involves, in part, the questions: Will our actions bring greater beauty or ugliness to God’s experience? Will we open the door to greater influx of divine activity by actions that bring wholeness, beauty, and justice to the world?

There is judgment for the complacent and unconcerned in this because while the gulf between the sheep and the goats is not irreversible, the gulf between them can remain and the pain felt by the goats involves an awareness of this radical promise of love being already here. The removal of pain is in the recognizing of missed opportunities to care for the vulnerable and thus contribute something of beauty to the divine experience. Perhaps, the pain will be redemptive and they too will be restored to companionship with God and the vulnerable.

John Cobb and David Griffin have called this radical awareness a “creative-responsive love.” God’s love for the world is intimate. The Christmas story reminds us of the intimacy in its metaphor of incarnation. The birth of a human Child is as if the divine and human combine on earth. The divine gives life to all things and receives the experiences of the creaturely world. There is a oneness about this divide between sheep and goat. There is learning and acceptance and there is a response that is holy and good. The intimate response to the joy and sorrow of creation, seeks to bring beauty out of life’s imperfections and ambiguities. The intimacy of co-creative engagement in creation is revealed as a dynamic living relationship.

Here we have a gospel story that says a culture that supports the rich and comfortable but cannot come up with a dollar’s worth of sugar and salt for the poor is in for one heck of a shock. C S Lewis, has made this anthropological, but none-the-less interesting comment: He says; “When we get to heaven, there will be three surprises: First, we will be surprised by the people we find there, many of whom we surely had not expected to see. Second, we will be surprised by the people who are absent. The ones we did expect to see but who are not there. And the third surprise, of course, will be that we’re there”. The presence of the divine is not what we expect. The most radical shock of our story is, that the presence of the divine is hidden in the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned. And Matthew says; this present-ness in basic human need goes unrecognized by both groups of people. Neither the ‘righteous ones’ nor the ‘unrighteous ones’ recognised this present-ness. Both were looking for the divine in other places and other events. And both were shocked. Thus, if we are to recognise the present-ness of the divine in basic human need, we need to foster a compassionate consciousness. We need to awaken to what is already among us, and do it.

It seems evident Jesus taught love of God and neighbour and lived compassion. It also seems evident that when Jesus was speaking about God’s realm, he was saying that God’s realm equals compassion. That the realm of God means the coming of compassion. Do not confuse the godly realm of compassion, Jesus seems to be saying, with a place or rungs on a ladder. God’s realm is not a place or an object or a noun. It is a verb… ‘among you, in your midst,’ Jesus says.

Matthew Fox suggests this is less about ‘within-ness’ and more about ‘among-ness’ being the key to the kingdom”, “And the messianic age, the age of salvation for all, is now here.  Compassion is at hand”.  (Fox 1979: 25-33) This seems to be a way of keeping anthropocentrism at bay while still claiming an intimacy like no other between God and human. Likewise, Bishop John Shelby Spong in one of his books says that we need a new God-definition that resonates with the humanity of Jesus. He writes; “What I see is a new portrait of Jesus…  I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered…  I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny our access to a deeper humanity” (Spong 2001:131). The differences between sheep and goats disappears in the divine intimacy.

Professor Joe Bessler-Northcutt, from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, said in a sermon in Australia some years back that from a theological perspective, this is the most radical text in the New Testament. Viewed as a test of faith, one has to notice there is no dogmatic text here, no inquiry about the catechism or right belief. In fact, one doesn’t even need to recognize the King, or believe in the King, so, this is remarkable. He noted also that we get this story wrong every time.  His example was that ‘he frequently hears during the ‘announcements’ in church: ‘we’re taking dinner to the homeless shelter this Thursday night; why don’t you join us as we bring Christ into their lives’.” But he said; that’s not what the story says. The king isn’t present in the one giving the water or the clothing. The king is present in the one in need. We go to them to be changed not to change them.

He also said that this story doesn’t ‘predict’ a literal final judgment. It’s actually a wisdom story, about what ‘finally’ matters. Again; he said: “And as I thought about this text in light of coming to Australia, I’ve found thinking of this story as a text of desire and asking myself: ‘what does this text long for; what is this text dreaming about?’” He then went on to say: “Matthew’s story dreams of a deep bond of God and humanity: For every need an adequate response.  That beautiful back and forth movement between I and you depict this; I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was naked and you clothed me… What we have is a rhythm of need and response; an economy of abundance, or at least enough.  God is in the midst of humanity, and not lording it over everyone with the powerful, but rather, hidden, as a dream would have it…

“But as the nightmare is the flip side of the dream, those who failed to respond to human need cannot, by definition, enter the intimacy of the common good… Instead of the former harmony that we find in the intimacy of the incarnation, bond of the co-creative relationship, we hear this discordant, out of balance ‘no’ response to every need…

“But; and this is a crucial motive to Matthew’s story, or dream: there need not be an economics of scarcity; even in the midst of actual scarcity we can still choose to act out of a logic of abundance – we can still choose to respond to the face of the other.

“This ‘dream’ is Matthew’s attempt to convince his own community of hearers and readers of a common dream… If those hearing the story can learn from it, then we can all get it right – it is in our power, says Matthew, to create a community that attends to the common good.” This suggests that Matthew’s story or dream is about what finally matters. I want to leave you with a poem by Christine Fry, that has the same thing in mind. She wrote this back in 2004:

You’ve asked me to tell you of The Great Turning,
of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.

We turned.

For hundreds of years we had turned away as life on earth grew more precarious.
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets,
the stench from the river,
the children orphaned in Iraq,
the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.

We turned away because that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain,
from the hurt in another’s eyes,
from the drunken father
or the friend betrayed.

Always we were told, in actions louder than words,
to turn away, turn away.

And so, we became a lonely people caught up in a world moving too quickly,
too mindlessly towards its own demise.

Until it seemed as if there was no safe place to turn.
No place, inside or out, that did not remind us
of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.

Yet on one of those days someone did turn.
Turned to face the pain.
Turned to face the stranger.
Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes.
Turned to face himself, herself.

And then another turned.
And another.
And another.
And as they wept, they took each other’s hands.

Until whole groups of people were turning.
Young and old, gay and straight.
People of all colours, all nations, all religions.

Turning not only to the pain and hurt but to beauty, gratitude and love.
Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts…

Fox, M. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row, 1979.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

St David’s

Posted: November 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

St David’s

When a passionate person interested in saving the Church building from demolition, not that such an act was even discussed by the congregation with any certainty; called St David’s building a Cathedral they exposed the heritage of St David’s to popularism and to the world of marketing. Even though history shows that fewer people value the place of religion, and church in society the idea of preserving historical buildings is a commodity that can be marketed to raise funds. Again, the question of materialism and usury which traditionally the church has warned against is laid aside in the interests of preservation.

In a traditional Presbyterian culture a Presbyterian Cathedral is an oxy-moron at least and an anathema to the founders of The Presbyterian Church at worst. Remember, a Cathedral is reliant on it having a Cathedra or a Bishops Chair, and remember the strong opposition to Church Union due to the desire for Bishops. In calling St David’s a Cathedral one could argue that ecclesiological sensitivity and heritage is in danger of suffering from expediency.

However, in calling the building a cathedral we are reminded of what the congregation of St David’s have been saying repeatedly over the last five or so years. The Church is the people not the building. And they have been saying this not in defence or to make a point of elitism. They have been saying it because the Cathedral was a place where the civic and the religious met in practice. It was and still is in some liturgical sense, the place where ceremony and meaning and service and interaction takes place. Livestock was traded there in many ancient cases, In St David’s historical world Corporate Board members and directors and CEOs rubbed shoulders and discussed the world, tested the morality of their economic and management strategies. Community met there and shared values were developed, people played there, people socialized there. In St David’s world the entrepreneur the social developer, the civic minded, the university academic, the medical professional, the legal professional, the construction industry leaders were all represented and gathered as congregation to talk sing, discuss and play together. The development of the City of Auckland in perhaps a time of its greatest expansion was significantly created by the people who were St David’s congregation.

Through St David’s, people in its history has served many purposes in the civic life of this city and even the country as well as the life of the church. While town commerce and livestock trading may not have taken place in its buildings, civic ceremonial events were held and they have reflected history and culture in a degree heightened by the longstanding role and power which the church has exercised in previous centuries. St David’s has acted like a cathedral and has had space and resources to sponsor and encourage the arts, be it in music, paintings, poetry prose or sculpture as well as theological exploration and the art of praxis. It is also true that whether they are of any architectural significance or not the very buildings are part of St David’s heritage. More so because of their use rather than their existence.

It is also true that many cities would be the poorer without its cathedral and in this case without St David’s, Auckland would have been the poorer for its commitment to those on the very margins of society, street drinkers, drug addicts, the homeless, through its longstanding hosting of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Ala-non,  Men’s Group and its very effective opportunity Shop St David’s has acted like a Cathedral in many ways sometimes in its Presbyterianism, more effectively than some Cathedrals themselves.

And what is yet to be fully understood St David’s has offered New Zealand society in recent years, a challenging and brave self-critique of church, religion and Christian Faith. Its people have been committed to being a haven for those who are curious about religion, who can slip in and slip out without obligation. It has been a resort for those who flee from their churches if they have become too evangelical or too conservative, too charismatic, too ‘jolly’, too predictable and arrogant. St David’s has been like a cathedral perhaps as a place that in its offering of anonymity seems a safer space than a local church or chapel. St David’s has maintained a degree of a classic Presbyterian way of worship which is measured, ordered, and yet open to innovation of thought. It has sought to offer intelligent and thought-provoking liturgies, sermons, and music which values congregational singing and stimulates theological thinking.

St David’s has throughout its existence as a parish has also displayed a rugged independence of mind. Until recently the parish has called Ministers of note in the wider church that some have suggested maintains an elitism while truth be told, there has been a strong commitment to scholastic rigor and well-read leadership as a way of encouraging a pragmatic practicing faith response. There have been recent examples of contemporary issues where its pragmatism has enabled diversity of opinion to be valued, such as the acceptance of openly gay leadership and acceptance of same sex marriage. One might suggest that St David’s people as a community have tested the doctrinal, creedal literal conservative viewpoints as part of their walking the Jesus Way. It has in recent years been a part of the global movement named Progressive Christianity in its traditional commitment, often unstated, to open, enquiring theology, that enables those who may sit light to the doctrinal claims of Christianity but find in a thinking faith and in both music and art a sense of otherworldliness and self-critique akin to a traditional faith. A commitment to theopoetics as opposed to theology has been something that St David’s has been able to explore within a City Church, Cathedral like setting of anonymity rather than a clubby, chummy church experience for those who prefer a certain sense of detachment from the worldliness.

What has been a downside of the recent heritage building focus of energy has been a deterrence from a radical sense of bringing in the kingdom of God as seen in the life and teachings of Jesus – distortion of a concern for justice and compassion, and added complexity to the desire to transform our society to become a more equal and sustainable world.

St David’s despite the perceptions imposed upon it has always valued a society where those on the margins are brought into the centre. This is not exclusive to St David’s as many churches are engaged in this calling but City Churches like St David’s have always had a pivotal role to play, thanks to their somewhat privileged and traditionally well-resourced position. And here is perhaps is the source of St David’s dilemma. Its traditional member has been a largely white, middle class, middle to older aged congregation, coming in from the wealthier suburbs, with choristers, teachers, elders and leaders often drawn from the city’s private schools, serving a transient local populace and in recent decades an increasingly multi-cultural urban population. To its credit there has been a reaching out across the city but somehow attending a service does seem to be somewhat out of kilter with contemporary life. Many obviously enjoy the pomp of and ceremony provided by the Cathedral model. The processions provided within the anonymity of a larger gathering provide this sense of being part of a larger community and this is borne out by the decline in attendance as the congregation reduces in number as well as in St David’s when the congregation moved away from worship in the brick building. Another example of this might be the decline in ethnic congregational connections, projects and foci of language ministries, while well supported, failed when less anonymity was available. The loss of cultural norms due to the smallness of gathering was detrimental to growth.

So, change is upon us. But what is this change to be and what facilitates it and resources it? The professed desire of St David’s has always been to better serve the urban mix of people in this city and it has been by a wider participation in the needs of the city and there are a number of suggested causes as to why St David’s now faces closure.

One is the closure of the brick building and the loss of communal anonymity that has been its strength does seem to have affected the gathering. It has become more familial and less inclusive as a result, and there are claims of abuse of privilege and bullying of people in leadership. Conflict has been more obvious and thus detrimental. That might sound emotive and exaggerating but in essence a healthy level of conflict has been inherent in the DNA of St David’s. Throughout its history there have been conflicts of thought and interest that have been resolved both arbitrarily and otherwise, such as which side of the Newton Gully to locate the parish, where to build the new church, how much to pay for the organ that some of the congregation wanted to bring back from the dissident group?

How much to pay for the new church building, what to do about the leaking walls, roof and Oamaru Stone around the windows. How to use the manse at the back of the church, Where the office should be and so on. All logical debates within communities one could say but also the logical outcome of a community under siege from difference. In St David’s case it could be said that the pressure to meet heritage values, economic viability issues surrounding property in inner city Auckland as well as wider church strategies has meant closure is an inevitable and logical option. The question remains as to its value as a missional, developmental and future enhancing option. It may be the closure is and was the best one for the future and that will be discovered if human spirituality needs it.

The issue of the future is perhaps even more complex than we think as our traditional form of Christendom has been shown to be no longer an effective vehicle for the sharing and exploration of Spiritualty on a public social construct of an unlimited mass scale, that Congregational fragility has been exposed by Covid-19 and by required levels of critical mass and community capacity. The questions; do congregations have to be of a certain size, do they have to be multicultural or language and culture specific or is there a single definition of mission, have been debated for many years without resolution and do they need resolution is raised as a result of experiments.

Maybe St David’s is once again leading the way? Maybe once again the pragmatism of St David’s is asking the questions about the future of the Christian faith, is Christendom the only mode of being? Is it time to learn from the past and specifically from the days of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth? It is time to put aside the theological isms and remember the power of his example that enabled the living through of an empires demise, a religion’s evolution and a worlds social, economic and political transformation with a certain hope of not just renewal, but a new life of unprecedented outcome.

Maybe it’s time to see the closure not as a sad ending but as a significant opportunity for the new thing. In other words, take out the choir pews but don’t disband the choir. Keep it alongside all your other ideas for music making. Maybe the desire of The Friends Trust or of a potential purchaser to create a performance art centre is worth doing. St David’s people gave much energy to the creation of a learning centre but maybe theopoetics is the way to go. Don’t blame anything on the way things are done but rather be far more creative liturgically than you have been, on all fronts. Use inclusive language, interfaith language and concepts, consider the hundreds of ‘progressive’ hymns and songs which are intelligent, thought provoking and challenging to your theological assumptions. Dare to have as many experimental and different experiences of worship as you possibly can. Be a seedbed of innovation.  Invite discussion that courts controversy and encourage questioning debate. Resist ever being a cloning purveyor of any idea. And above all create a unique place of learning, hope, compassion and commitment to the vision of Jesus for the transformation of his world. Amen.

In our DNA or in Community yet to be?

I want to suggest that in our Matthew’s story for today there is a lot of what we might name ‘ancient DNA’ but very little Jesus storytelling DNA in it. Another thing to consider is whether or not this is actually a parable? If it is this story is a ‘parable’ we are compelled to ask where is the surprise, or the twist in the tale? The Jesus Seminar said this about the story: “It does not cut against the religious and social grain.  Rather if confirms common wisdom: those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… it does not surprise or shock; there is no unexpected twist in the story; it comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254). Another thing this story does is it emphasizes boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again, is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus. So, it might be safe to assume that this story is not a parable but it does have several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes that seem to be running through it.

One of the sub-themes might be that of community life where communal life is a feature. The second theme might be that of a second coming, an immanent, return of the messiah and the third theme might be that of marriage.

Community Life and Communal Care in a society where there is limited amount of wealth, and where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, the actions of the so-called five wise young women raises the questions: How do we deal with issues of scarcity in our community? How do we deal with issues of privilege, distribution of power, resources and difference? The examples of economic instability reflected in business failures, home foreclosures, and uncertainty, and in these particular times we might ask why is it that “choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response?” Is it ok that the few control most of the resources?

Process theologian Bruce Epperly, asks is this acceptable when this life is a journey?  “What would have happened, if the [women] had pooled their resources?  Would they all have been excluded from the party or rewarded for their quest to be generous?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) How does the distribution of resources play out in a kingdom almost here and certain to come? Does an inequity of power and resources constitute being alert and ready?

The theme of the second Coming of Jesus that arises out of the fear of being left out, or left behind and missing out on a supernatural expectation of the messiah. When hearing ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do we do so because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others, where the message of ‘stay alert’ and be ready’, along with ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasised.

We know as Dom Crossan has commented “the so-called 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 its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231) Again, the story is that this new community that we seek is not only the now but also that which is certain to be. It is about the building of, the creation of, and the entering into; the manifestation of the kingdom of realm of God that we are called into.

A keen scholar of Paul Tillich suggested that “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent” In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focused so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God. Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.

The third theme is that of Marriage and here we are asked to enter the historical context without all the information and that only goes so far because we have already experienced our own cultural assumptions about the place of the rite, the concept and the institution within which we might expect to be of the new realm of God.

Recent attempts to explain the place and purpose of marriage in our present community have engendered charges brought against some ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, by those who disagree with both this action, and any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church. The basis of the claims is usually presented by this who depend upon a literalized text as ‘contrary to scripture’.

These claims along with others are then supported by a list of scripture passages identified by those prosecuting the charge, as relating in some way to marriage and the marital relationship. This is often coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’. This latter action is skating on very thin ice indeed! There is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage. Indeed, we have very limited, if any, information on first century Palestinian Jewish wedding customs.

What we can glean from a range of sources, seems to be: (i) marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was an arrangement made “by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192); (ii) the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and (iii) the marriage was arranged and ratified by the fathers/mothers, but the negotiated the terms. The wedding then took place in two stages:

(i) a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then

(ii) a transfer of the young bride, often no more than 12 – 13 years of age, to the home of her husband.

Our story by Matthew opens at the conclusion of the negotiations, with the bridegroom coming to collect the bride. “The [young] women are relatives and friends of the groom.  They are not bridesmaids… The bride is never mentioned in the [story]” (Reid 2001:193). We might say ‘young women’ rather than following many orthodox scholars who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, and we say that because the word used to designate them is the same word used in the story of Jesus’ birth, which has also been translated as ‘virgin’. The word does not mean virgin but rather ‘a young woman of marriageable age’.

Having spelt out the themes that arise and asking the ‘authentic’ question we are left with one and that is that of a parable concern which is what this new Kingdom or Realm of God might look like if and when it comes and this is akin to our first theme of community life and communal care as it might touch our life experiences. We can also resonate with this especially in light of the growing economic instability home foreclosures and the economic uncertainty in our time. We can also resonate with it in the post covid-19 world that lies ahead. As we prepare to protect what we now have, how do we balance this concern, with a concern for the needs of others, especially those who are now most vulnerable to almost total loss? This question is not new for back in the 1960s we were told that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity, our intimate beliefs about reality needed to be lived out in our society, and not be restricted just to the individual reality. In other words, this new realm; new kingdom; is not just about money, it is about the whole of life as and in community. It is not just about political ideology but rather about human flourishing.

So maybe we might ask how we all might react if the minister in the next suburb along the Valley, was to suggest that our congregations might commit themselves “to sacrificial giving in order to support persons in [other] congregations who lose their jobs or are threatened with foreclosure?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) Are we just a group of unrelated individuals or the interdependent body of Christ seeking the indwelling of the realm of our God?

What do we do to the poor and needy when we raise the value of houses in their area? What do we do for the poor and needy when we raise interest rates? Are these not but 2 questions we should ask when asking how we might make decisions that enhance human flourishing?

Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Minnesota. The Liturgical Press.