Archive for December, 2020

John 1:1-14

Epiphany: ‘Almost” The Life-Force in Every-Day Life.

Sometimes I label myself as an ‘Anatheist’ which for me means that I am someone who is no longer satisfied that Theism or Atheism are concepts that point to a helpful way of understanding God in this contemporary age, The path I want to take to understand who what or if God is occupies my mind.  I have come to a number of conclusions and the first is to affirm the stance that God is and that naming God, with the name God is no longer adequate. It has led me to a place where the name ‘Almost’ for God is a possible way of moving on from what to me seems to be the prison of the name God. God is more than this and those of us who use Words like Force, source and Spirit or Energy are indicative of the need to find emphasis on the is-ness, or the living evolutionary dynamic that we understand life to be. This my title for today ‘Almost’ or freed from the prison of existence to become timeless, formless and living and as Life force this means in every moment of that which we call life, not as mentor, or judge or even helper but rather the very dynamic life-throb of all things.

When I think about this and articulate them I find myself excited about what it means to be human and to explore the possibilities of consciousness. For me they paint a vibrant picture of what a lot of the current God-talk could be about and what the Season of Christmas is all about and when it comes to Epiphany it is about the discovery for oneself what this does for living one’s life. One sees that love does change everything and that our world could be a place of honesty, integrity and where peaceful adventuring takes place.

And here we are in our liturgical or lectionary journey. We have moved through the 12 days of the Festival of Christmas into the Season of Epiphany. Traditionally, Epiphany has been tied to the visit of the international Wise Ones. But it is much broader than that.
Epiphany is also about celebrating the experience of God’s present-ness in all things.  From the daily tasks of parenting, working, relaxing, to remarkable experiences of insight and wonder… And the mystery of the universe: why there is anything at all, rather than nothing (Goodenough 1998:11).

In Religious Naturalism/Process Theology terms, in the Season of Epiphany, we open ourselves to divine omni-presence and divine omni-activity. In my attempt at theology the ‘Almost’ is the divine experience of real human living which is within ambiguity, uncertainty, chance unexpectedness which I encapsulate in the word serendipity reflecting the randomness of the arrival of the cosmic world and the randomness of human existence. Without to serendipity of life there is no life as we know it and ‘Almost’ depicts this event as that which John D Caputo says is not existence but rather insistence. Naming seems to assist with existence and thus becomes like us and insistence seems to assist with a calling to life. God insists and life responds. Rex Hunt calls this Creativity God and I call it Serendipitous creating, an ‘Almost’. Almost encourages a response and our existence as human is a response. In the presence of Almost or serendipitous creating we are gently persuaded in every encounter to live this wonderful life.

One could say that the God of John the storyteller, while more sophisticated theologically than by either Luke or Matthew or Mark, is dynamic and relational. In the God of John the storyteller we repeatedly encounter a multi-moving, acting God. A ‘verb’ rather than a ‘noun’. Here we have the acknowledgement that language is what we use to create our world.

This has encouraged Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly to ask:  Why must ‘God’ be a noun?  Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all?  …The anthropomorphic symbols for God may be intended to convey personality, but they fail to convey that God is Be-ing and not a being. It can then be said that Epiphany unveils and celebrates the present-ness of this lively, innovative Creativity in everyday life. God or “Almost’ is the life-throb of all things. Almost in language suggests the certainty of an arrival, the random reality of that arrival and the dynamic yet to be and promise in that arrival. It also suggests potential where there is the discovery of the already there and here, the cyclical, linear, reality of naming a timelessness.

Borrowing again from Rex Hunt’s work is the story of Luke Skywalker, the young super hero of Star Wars, who is putting on his flight gear for the climactic battle with the Death Star that threatens to destroy the last remains of a brave rebel force.

His somewhat cynical friend, Han Solo, who is packing a space freighter to escape before the uneven battle, pauses for a moment and then says with a kind of awkward voice,
‘May the Force be with you!’

This phrase has become well know and used ever since the movie come out some years ago now and used in many circumstances. May the Force be with you, assumes there is a force and that it can be known by the recipient as if there is a touching on a truth which we in the church have either lost or have never known. Maybe be we have trapped it in the naming of it as God the noun, whereas we might have seen it as an event, a moving complex dynamic living event. A verb as opposed to a noun. A sense of the dynamic that is not seen or heard in most of the traditional words in addressing God or the Sacred.

The storyteller John uses dynamic and relational (be they anthropomorphic) words and images.  And in general terms so too does the whole of the biblical tradition:
bringing, gathering, consoling, leading, understanding, granting, scattering, choosing, forgiving. Maybe the western obsession with reason and literalism has taken from the words the living nature of the divine and made it something we want to own, and claim as opposed to that which enlivens. In these multiple dynamic actions, God is always affirming, and in all these many ways, creation is always the subject of God’s great demonstrations of affection. As Loving God changes everything and Almost depicts this as a living dynamic event. Creation itself.

But returning to our text its is so that we have become a bit stuck when we hear the English translation, ‘word’. In the beginning was the Word… The Word was with God…
The Word was made…

In English, ‘word’ has often been given the meaning of sounds or its representation in letters put together for oral or written communication. Printed word. Radio word. But the Hebrew word for ‘word’ is ‘dabhar’ which, according to Matthew Fox and others, means divine creative energy (Fox 1995). The storied word. The word that gave birth. Those of you who are right-brain thinkers will probably have already resonated with this and made a connection. For the Hebrew ‘dabhar’ is about the creative, the imaginative, the heart, the feeling.

And this divine creative energy is more than just a concept. Epiphany also reminds us that the ‘word’ is made flesh. It lives among us. Moves within and between and among all things. Inspiring us to think and sing and dance with integrity and historical honesty.

As we begin a new year together, and in the spirit of this divine creative mystery, we call God and I call ‘Almost’ there are some observations that were first inspired by ‘Jesus Seminar’ theologian, the late Robert Funk, which I wish to echo and own (FourthR).

I like many others am encouraged by those ordinary Christians who are unwilling to continue to indulge in theological double-talk, by preferring to address the real questions that perplex all of us…

• I am embarrassed by any pronouncement that does no more than reaffirm the absolute superiority of the Christian religion over all other forms of religious expression, and even refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of other Christian churches…

• I am worried by the failure of the scholarship of other religions in an age where learned people do not counter unfounded claims to truth and domain.

• I am alarmed by those who endorse, in the name of Christianity, the misunderstanding of religious experience called fundamentalism and literalism (MFallon), which leads ultimately to intolerance, the unfettered use of legislation, and war to enforce its convictions…

And I endorse the truly energetic creative word of God, ‘dabhar’, which will not be imprisoned, will not be locked up. And maybe even allow the word ‘Almost’ to be a credible extension in the use of language to depict this dynamic relational creating event that is our human life.

Our universe (or Creation, to use the traditional) is as ongoing as we are. As vast as our experience of it.  Ursula Goodenough writes: “Emergence is inherent in everything that is alive, allowing our yearning for supernatural miracles to be subsumed by our joy in the countless miracles that surround us” (Goodenough 1998:30).

Our task, I would suggest, like my friend Rex Hunt has argued is to get out of its way enough that we might be filled with it and go about our task of healing, celebrating, and co-creating. As for the new year, we can only wish for peace:  in the world, and in our lives. See! ‘Almost’ (God) is the life-throb of all things. Amen.

Fallon, M. 1993. Fundamentalism. A Misunderstanding of Religious Experience. Eastwood. Parish Ministry Publications.
Fox, M. 1995. Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality. New York. Harper & Row.
Goodenough, U. 1998. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York. Oxford University Press.

Doug Lendrum 2020 ‘Almost’, A Memoir -Otherwise Publishing

A Church Under Construction

Posted: December 21, 2020 in Uncategorized

Luke 2:22-40


Rex Hunt of whom I quote often tells a poem called ‘Under reconstruction’ written by Thomas Troeger. That reminded me of much of the talk around St David’s old church building when we were trying to plan its long-term future. While the fabric of the church in the poem may not be the same the story does ring bells of similarity and even the reconstruction phase that has yet to begin suggested similar experiences were in store. Maybe even the God Shaped Hole might be the even older wooden church.

Some said
there had been too much rain
and the roof
long cracked after years of stress
gave way from water seeping in.

Others said
what fell from the heavens
had nothing to do with it,
that the church walls
had pushed out toward the street
so that the massive stained glass window of the Almighty Father
had fallen in and left a hole,
a silhouette of the icon
that used to command the whole church
from high above the nave.

Services now
were held under the God-shaped hole:
prayers said
hymns sung
infants baptised
sermons preached
offerings made
communion celebrated
couples wed
the dead remembered.

Meanwhile reconstruction began,
but it turned out harder than planned.
Some folks had taken home
bits of the original window
as a piece of devotional or historical curiosity,
and when it was discovered
there was not enough left to restore
the original ancient grandeur,
debates erupted if they should even try
to recreate what was lost.

Some said
they should begin and finish the project
as quickly as possible
because people were not coming as they used to
since the window had collapsed.
Others pointed out
new people were entering the church
curious about the place
in a way they never were before.
And these newcomers joined
with those who had always been scared
by the window’s fierce eyes
to suggest they replace the old image
with a new one.

The differences about what to do
broke into conflict
so that for now the construction
was nearly halted,
though some workers
tried to assemble the roof in bits and pieces.

But without an overall plan
nothing would stay put.
Even the stars from another section
that surrounded the hole
began to fall from the ceiling
so that another group of folk arose
suggesting they take down the entire
edifice and start all over anew –

except that the most devout
could not bear to lose 
this or that pulpit 
or rail where they had prayed so long
and the carpet worn so thin
by the knees of many generations.

So for the time being
all that was done
was to rope off the area beneath
the God-shaped hole
to make sure no one was hit by a piece of falling glass
that would fall from time to time
from a cracked angel or star,
and to pray
that people would keep coming
while the church continued to be,
as the sign alerting those who entered said:

Under Reconstruction.  (Edited. Tom Troeger)

In thinking about the future of the church buildings I reflected on the attempts over the years to renew the church, on the face of it most meant the organisation we call the church with a smattering of ecclesiastical images of the church universal and the ‘Body 0f Christ’. That which one was baptised into which is more that just what you see.

Some might remember some of those campaigns such as Church Life Renewal, Church Growth, and a myriad of conferences, gatherings retreats seeking to change things. Some might remember the top-down attempts at implementing change, The Mission Resource Board, The Co- Directors of Mission, of which I was one actually. Strategies to revive the church as more and more people identified in the census that they were non-religious. Saddly the days of centrally funded work was struggling as people found other priorities for their funds.

Even the naming of new ventures was tried such as moving for NCUC (National Council of Uniting Churches) To Churches together, to Forum of Ventures to UCANZ (Uniting Churches of Aotearoa NZ). All I suspect are attempts to not only reflect the changes in thinking about the networking but also searches for renewal that recognise fewer and fewer people now consider church as part of their lives. Those who remain loyal still seek to be the kind of people who do ministry and mission in the new millennium, and they know it has to be done differently no matter how much some may have wished it was otherwise.

We talk about our lives and change as part of our existence. “Change is just part of life.

Life refuses to be embalmed alive.” Alfred North Whitehead

“The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human.” Pablo Casals.

“We have a technical name for people who do not change: dead.” Thomas Troeger

Church gatherings have declared that “it cannot be just more of the same.”
And we admit that that can be painful and unsettling.

Thomas Hawkins reinforces this invitation in his book The Learning Congregation. He compared the experience of life in both church and community with that of rafting in a permanent white-water situation. ‘Unlike rivers we may have travelled in the past,’ says Hawkins, ‘where the occasional experience of white-water is followed by patches of relative calm water, we are now navigating through an almost perpetual stretch of turbulent white-water.’  (Hawkins 1997)

He goes on to enumerate the different skills needed for white-water rafting when compared with rafting in calmer conditions. These skills include the need to sometimes work ‘counter-intuitively’…
to lean in towards the rocks rather than away from them in the swirling river. In other words:
do not just duck the dangers and challenges and hard decisions, but name and face and address them. Change is when life refuses to be embalmed alive!

Often today I think that the church has no longer any faith in itself. It has put up the shutters of survival and shut the world out. Churches are closing and no one knows what to do about it. It spends its time wrestling with questions of territory, “How can we maintain presence in that area or at least keep some property for future use? How can we do mission there? What is our mission?

We acknowledge that the task is daunting in its scale and its need of resources. It is also fragile and can be soul destroying. Do we ask the question. ‘Why is this way?’ I am not sure we ask because the answer is one of community, mass and the collective conscious perhaps and therefor a big picture question in a church world that no longer thinks big picture.

We are reminded that the biblical tradition is rich with stories of God calling individuals and nations to change – to be in a new and different place, but we can’t quite grasp what that means in a declining church or as I discovered when trying to get a congregation to ask questions about its theological assumptions, in other words why it needs a saviour? And does an ‘Almighty God have any authenticity today? They immediately found themselves in defence mode without thinking what it was they were defending. And to be fair many of us will find this ourselves.

What is perhaps forgotten is that biblical people were called to embrace change, not only in location, but also in attitude and behaviour. Some suggested examples;

• God’s call to Abraham and Sarah. “Leave your native land, your relatives and your father’s home and go to the country that I am going to show you”…

• Moses and the Hebrew people called to leave Egypt and journey to the promised land of Canaan…
• Jacob’s wrestling with God who gave him a new name and self-understanding. Jacob the ’deceiver’ becomes ‘Israel’: ‘he who struggles with God’…

• Israel’s 50 year exile in Babylon before returning to Jerusalem…

• The call of the disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John who left their nets and followed Jesus…
• Saul’s Damascus road experience that gave him a new name and self-understanding.

• Peter’s vision at Joppa that changed his attitude to the Gentiles, and opened the way for their inclusion into early Christianities…

If we can see the above not as nostalgic reflections but rather as a reminder of where we’ve come from. As an encouragement to maintain an openness to possibilities that have never occurred in the culture of this place; and as a way of introduction to another time of change… of reconstruction. We might just be taking a step forward rather than treading water while the ocean dries up.

Its about here that I introduce the idea that what makes the church more than an organisation is in fact its myth, its theological basis for existence and the energy or force that we call divine. It is more than, different from, and organisational different in that it is cross cultural, and inclusively unique. I like some others want to say that God does not exist because that is the human task. To materialize the divine or in this case the church whereas God insists, It is the calling out of the status quo, the survivalist mode, he organizational structures that we need to listen for. The God whom we say ‘calls people’ – calls us – to change, to be in new and different places, and to live in perpetual, turbulent, white-water conditions… and it also calls us to be alert and responsive,
as we seek to share in the reconstruction or I like to say the re-orientation of the church as an environment friendly to, encouraging of, and authentically valuing the human imagination… as a way to bring the seen and the unseen into view.

Advent is a perfect time liturgically to broach this need for living change and it provokes the questions we might ask ourselves such as “Does the decline in church attendance mean we are doing something wrong rather than good enough?

It is perhaps still possible that “Under reconstruction” is a vision that energized people in previous times and places. And it is very likely that it will today but perhaps its less about re-constructing the organisation and more about reconstructing our story.

Under reconstruction might also be a new year imagination, revealing possibilities within us
far greater than our historical local, conventional experiences will allow. Under reconstruction…
might be a vision that can energize people – today that might be to be unafraid of telling the Jesus story differently, perhaps in a way that is less about giving responsibility for joy, happiness and goodness to a theistic deity out there above all watching over us and more about exploring an ‘Emmanuel’ God; a God with us in our humanness.

Maybe its time we asked five very special words that someone saw sewn into a tapestry on a wall in a nursing home: “Don’t be scared of life”. This is a world of grace and grace is where there is salvation but only for an instant as is the claim of a weak theology as opposed to a strong one. A theology of the weak God that calls the human to step forward in certain hope in the co-creative task of manifesting the transcendence that only exists this side of death. Amen.

Hawkins, T. The Learning Congregation. A New Vision of Leadership Georgia. Westminster John Knox Press. 1997
Troeger, T. H. Preaching While a Church is Under Reconstruction. Nashville. Abingdon, 1999.

John D Caputo The Insistence of God. A Theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press Bloomington Indiana 2013

Luke 1:26-38

Born of a Young Woman; Mary’s Child

Today is the fourth and final Sunday in the church season we call Advent, and one has to admit to it being a season that needs all the encouragement and attention it can get, Under the mantle of commercialization lie many counter claims for our attention. I can remember in my childhood the questions of what does Christmas mean? Was it true? Did it really happen? And in a rest home recently I heard the lament of a person asking why the Christmas tree they say was covered in sneakers instead of the normal Christmas decorations. One could say that the why question is still with us or it could be that Christmas as a human story has run its course.

Underneath all this search for meaning, authenticity and search for a human story that speaks to our time, we have our 3 year lectionary which through-out the whole of this season, calls us to the spirit of the storyteller we call Mark, We have been in this advent time talking about the need to ‘stay alert’ in particular to the present-ness of the sacred or God, in the ordinary.

Through-out the whole of this season, and in the spirit of the storyteller we call Mark, we have continually tried to see that the ‘good news’ of Advent is about becoming more aware of, more sensitive to, the moments of grace in us and in our ordinary daily events. And the reason this has been important is that if we fail to see and value the ordinary as filled with opportunity, promise, hope, through the mundane, day t day activity and thought we will miss what actually is the grace that sustains the human species. One could say that this grace has the characteristics of Serendipity; unknown yet fiiled with possibility Creating; participation in the living breath of the planet we call home in the universe.

And so once again the hands of those who shaped our Advent lectionary, can be seen in yet another clue: the conscious creative conceptual entry point is through a maternal feminine story. Through a young woman whom we call Mary.

Bishop Jack Spong in his Weekly Letter some time back, says of Mary: “As the Christmas season arrives, the icon of the Virgin Mary enters the consciousness of the Christian world in a significant way.  She is universally recognized with her eyes lowered, the infant Jesus in her arms, and located in a stable… (This) Madonna and child have provided the content for many artists over the centuries” (Spong 15/12/2005).

Those who have been nurtured in Roman Catholicism and remember the Madonna statues in Catholic churches, will perhaps recognize this more readily. One could say that the protestant aversion to iconography and symbolism has sidelined the Mother archetype for many. Or maybe pushed it away into the supernatural realm of thinking. There is another famous statue may that perhaps has resisted that deification and that is Mary in the great Pieta, holding the broken body of her son. An image more akin to the reality of human existence, the fragile nature of human life, the precariousness of life on a moving shaking, evolving planet depicted in the human condition and the human concept of the need to procreate and the planet’s ability to house us all.

Generally speaking, those of us who are traditional Protestants seem to have a bit of a hang up about Mary. Or if not about Mary, then about what is often seen as the exaggerations of the Church of Rome, about Mary. The need for a divine son to have a divine mother so that the relationship between God and man can make sense. What if a supernatural son is not required and Mary, a young woman within her culture birthing a human child is the most religious and divine story one can find?

It can be said that Mary is important for both Protestant and Catholic and we shouldn’t just bring her out at the end of Advent and pack her up again with the Christmas tinsel and wrapping paper on the 26th!  From all we do and do not know (which sometimes is not much), a young girl, maybe as young as 12 or 13 or 14 years of age, – maybe the daughter of a peasant farmer who would have arranged the marriage – is betrothed (probably married) to a much older man, probably a widower, and suddenly finds herself pregnant. And that would have been one heck of a shock!

From all we do and do not know, Mary lived in occupied territory and during a world-wide demonstration of Roman imperial might, under the oppressive authority of the ‘divine saviour’ Augustus. This is a long way from the nativity-scene peasant-hood we find many wanting to erect in shopping centres and church foyers, at this time of the year. Maybe this is why the tree has sneakers on it?

Mar will have known what the Palestinians know today. Segregation. A minority place, and what it was to be a woman.

Maybe, instead of getting caught up in the modern fundamentalist debate and about the so-called historical factualness of a ‘virgin birth’, for instance, we might abandon it as a debate that ends up demeaning rather than honouring Mary. Supporting submission and surrender as the place of women and the romanitised paragon of compliance that has the potential of abuse.

Whatever we may choose to believe or not believe about a supernatural virgin birth or virgin conception, the world is not the phantom’ world of the traditional 19th century carols, even, and hers’s the rub, even if Luke believed it –

Like the deification of Jesus it should never be used as a disqualification of Mary’s humanity or womanhood, or for that matter, Jesus’ humanity or manhood.

So using the imagination of a storyteller, as did Mark before him when he spoke of John the ‘dipper’, Luke tells this story to give more status and honour to this ordinary woman, which in turn, gives even more honour and status and significance to Jesus.

Jesus… a child born of ‘middle-eastern appearance’, and from the moment of his conception a life is at risk because of cultural and religious issues. This is where the Jesus story hits home in all cultures and in all times. The world we create needs an awareness of our human ability to shape our world. A Christmas story that doesn’t need sneakers on its trees because it transcends those trees as part of the culture that needs questioning.

So at the end of this season called Advent, we ask again the question we implied on the first Sunday of this season: where is the ‘good news’? What is the Gospel for us today?

The numbers of people abandoning the church would suggest that the good news is not to be found in the spectacular, the dramatic, the supernatural but rather where it has always been: in us. In ‘ordinary’ us. In those like us.  And not like us. In the ordinary ways ordinary people can be someone through whom something serendipitous, creative, sustaining, and transformational, enters anxiety and stress and renews it.

This is the provocative challenge and the promise of Advent. A call to engage meaningfully in life. To Love wastefully. And to Be all that we can be. (John S Spong)

And that is an Advent word.  That is a word of courage, trust, peace and hope! Because Advent is rooted in our everyday experiences. With an incognito God I like to call a serendipitous creating, that sustains, renews and loves.

May we then, continue to be blessed, and be a blessing to others. And fall in love with life, again. Amen.


Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. The First Christmas. What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Birth. New York. HarperOne, 2007.

Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.

Ludemann, G. Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and her Son Jesus. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 1998.

Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.

Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Preston. Mosaic Press 2013; Morning Star Publishing, 2014

The Ordinary and the Symbolic

Posted: December 7, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 1: 6-8, 19-23

The Ordinary and the Symbolic

Of all the gospels in our religious tradition, Mark’s gospel is seen by several scholars as the most confrontational. It is full of questions which demands the reader decide. Who we stand with. What we believe in. How we will act. In its brevity, challenge to the status quo and its human story we are held to that old adage that short is best, more accurate and less encumbered by historical cultures.

But since it is such a short gospel, the church throughout Year B in the Lectionary (the church year we are now in) often borrows from John’s gospel – similarly aggressive and sure in its tone – not about the Jesus of history, but about the Christ of faith. And that is a very big difference. Especially in a western world where the fixation on the left hemisphere outcomes has led us to undervalue the symbolic, and short change what meaning means and can provide.

Whereas Mark’s writing was the earliest gospel to be written, it tends to be sharp, to the point, in its talk about Jesus and his teachings… John’s writing on the other hand,
comes after many years of deep theological reflection. Sadly the story of the Christian faith has opted to literalize and concretize the symbolic and this in turn seems to have locked it in a historical prison, unable to be questioned, interpreted and thus made applicable to all cultures and all time.

In John the sentences are longer and the images more contrived. And the ‘cosmic’ post-Easter Christ rather than the ‘earthy’ pre-Easter Jesus, seems all important to him. In  coming to John’s Gospel one has to accept here that that is a really different theology!

All of that is worth mentioning because, just when we were starting to get into the swing of Mark’s stuff in this new church year, we now leave all that behind. Indeed, we won’t have another reading/story from Mark until early January.

Having said all that; we now need to see if we can make something of today’s story. And where all this might touch on the season called Advent. Because Advent needs all the encouragement and attention it can get, and that it seems is because of the many counter claims for attention that consumes community at any given time.

John the ‘bather’, or ‘dipper’’ ‘as many seem to call him these days’ comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. Indeed, his voice is so dominate this young local bloke is regarded by many as a ‘prophet of doom’.

Still, the people of his day seem to take hold of what he has to say and as you might remember from reading of last week’s story from Mark, they go out – some 25 miles at least over several days – to listen to him. And for ‘these people’ we might read: the poor, the powerless ones, those on the edges of society – and it seems they hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’.

Theirs was a situation that needed a word of ‘hope’ as rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, was evident, and meant the crisis of debt and dispossession was growing deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. But we must also be honest and say that by the time John – the gospel writer was writing his stuff, there appears to have been some strife within the early Jesus movements over the place and importance of John the baptiser. Indeed some argued he had a religious insight not unlike that of Jesus of Nazareth. So, he was as important.  And his thinking should be given more attention.
Not so, claimed others. John the storyteller gives him a major reference.

We can imagine these debates became a bit heated at times. Like many church meetings can be! Some scholars reflecting on these debates have suggested Jesus started out as a follower or disciple of John. But, they conclude, John was seen by Jesus as too much of an alarmist. So, he, Jesus, left when he chose to follow a different dream.

It is poet and theologian John Shea who, by the way, captures this feeling well in his poem about John: The Man who was a Lamp.       

“John expected an axe to the root of the tree
        and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
        He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
        and along came a singing seed scatterer.
        He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
        then found a bridegroom on the bench.”

  (Shea 1993:177)

It seems John was a man of passionate devotion to the honour of God. A person of forceful words and not easily pigeonholed. A person who also attempts to address people’s fear in living. But in most ways the world of John and of Jesus is far from our 21st century world. And this difference needs to be acknowledged and taken into account every time we turn to the biblical stories, but especially during Advent.

First, we do not live in a theocracy, despite the desires of the Religious Right. This means that in their time God was perceived as directly involved in the personal and especially the social affairs of the people.

Today, in the western world at least, religion is not so pervasive. For most of us religion simple stands side by side with other factors of life… Sunday maybe is worship day. Monday is washing day. Thursday is shopping day, and so on. We plan out our lives to a rhythm of efficiency. Second, the ordinary person’s concern today is coping with life and making ends meet. The importance of reason means the more planning the better one has control over the complexity of life it seems? This means that God is not immediate to many of us unless there is some want or need, or tragedy interrupts. The constant consciousness of God is gone. Here again I suspect it is our literalization and concretization of Johns gospel that creates this. And God is not in the language of our greetings and partings. To hear ‘God bless New Zealand outside of the anthem would seem strange. to our ears. Thirdly, there is a tendency in our times to relate to religion as magic or superstition. Without the balancing of metaphor as legitimate portrayal of truth within our language this is especially true when it comes to the unexplainable or uncomfortable… Better to project it onto a being out there in charge rather than seek to explore it’s meaning. Sickness. Death. Family breakup and natural disaster, are pushed away as supernatural phenomenon. Finally, for many, religion is looked upon for its practical ‘DIY’ value. It is seen as useful for living an orderly and sometimes, peaceful life. But when it ceases to be practical, it can be discarded and called too theological, too scholarly and academic, too specialized.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent. Our Lectionary readings have been shaped in such a way we are now being confronted by a bloke called John the Baptiser. And he is no doubt a bit strange… John Shea in his poem goes on to say of him:

“a map of a man… 

Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion… 

(John Shea 1993:175)

A bloke called John.  An ordinary bloke. A bloke who relates best to other ordinary people.

But while it appears his voice is loud and his manner rough, on the simple face of it he seems driven by fear but his message is still essentially heard as one of hope: God wants to do great things – with ordinary people. For it is in the ordinary that we can sense the present-ness of God. In the ordinary that I spoke about a few weeks ago… In the ordinary… like the red orange glaze of a low-sunk sun. In the ordinary… like a rough diamond called John the ‘dipper’. 

Today, this third Sunday in Advent, so, let us remember that the creativity and wisdom we name ‘G-o-d’ is not concretized, not literalized, perhaps is better spoken of as ‘almost’, that which is living, yet to be, dynamic and filled with potential ‘almost’. And this God is not bound to a need to exist but rather manifests as insistence. This God insists, calls, invites, encourages and awakens and persuades, so great things can be achieved -through ordinary people like us. Maybe this is an Advent word. Maybe that is a word of hope! The human child Jesus born at the edge of society, a challenge to all that is transforms the world, not in it supernatural form but in its ordinariness. Ordinary and symbolic but not held apart by its name but insisting that the event of living must be paramount. The hope of advent is not bound by the existence of God but rather revealed by the living engagement of a God who insists, loves and lives within each of us so that the world of peace and life in all its abundance may exist.

God is no thing,


without being

God is in everything

At the edge
God is every edge of choice

God does nothing
God does everything

God is freedom to do
God is urge to act

God does not exist
God is existence itself

God is change,
God is flow,
God is relationship:
In, with, and through.

God is love:
silently attracting,
never compelling.

God does not have power
God is power.

Unforced force

God is potential
God is in all relationships.

In the flow in all things,

even those that stand still

To know God is to see what is behind and within everything
To know God is to feel the allure of what could be,
To know God is to explore what is latent in the wonder of what is.

Doug Lendrum


Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroads Publishing, 1993.

Clear the Pathway!

Posted: December 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

Clear the Pathway!

Before I begin this sermon, I want to acknowledge Thomas and Laura Truby whose thinking is encompassed in what follows. This suggests I think that sometimes what one wants to say has already been said and all one can do is try to put it into one’s own words and thinking in an attempt to include others. Tall order but if we accept the gospels, we read then its ok. Today we find that the writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us what the book is about in the first sentence.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Very orthodox in its brevity it accepts the positive approach of Jesus the Gospel is good news) and the Romanization of the emperor. (The use of ‘Son of God; as descriptor). The first sentence is not even a complete sentence however as it is often noted that it is a “fragment, consider rewriting.”

It is however a clear statement.  The author is coming from a particular place.  There is no ambiguity about what he believes.  Right-off-the-bat we know this person, or this community for which he writes, have centered their lives in a relationship with a particular human being, Jesus Christ as “The Son of God.” 

It has the modern thinking as it sounds as though “Christ” is Jesus’ last name but we know that it really “Messiah” in the ancient Greek language, the language our author is using in his story.  So, we have a story, a gospel about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.  The people who wrote this story have experienced their relationship with Jesus as full of good news and the writer wants us to discover it.  We can wonder what this good news is and what it means for us to incorporate it into our thinking and consequently into our lives. 

Our sentence fragment says it is the “beginning.”  If it is the beginning what is the end?  It promises an answer and it suggests that this answer will be strange to our ears.  The end is the death and resurrection of Jesus and we are the beneficiaries of that end.  The story is about how this all came to be and how it already has and always will impact us.  

When the author wrote “the beginning” of the good news the reader already knew about the end.  It is all of one piece.  In the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end.  The metaphor is that the cradle and cross are made of the same wood.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are all dimensions of this gospel good news and we are about to hear the story of how this all works. 

In year B, the year we are just beginning, we study Mark’s gospel and we look forward again to exploring all that we might learn from reading it. We have an entire year to absorb its wisdom and consequently be changed by its perspective.  The lectionary will have us focusing on the Gospel of Mark with a sprinkling of the Gospel of John from now until the end of November, 2021.  The hope is that we will have an even fresher and more vital understanding of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, or the story of Yeshua of Nazareth who retold the story of humanity with promise, hope and an alternative way of living in the divine Way.  In the coming year I encourage you to read Mark’s gospel again and again.  Bathe yourself in its imagery and allow it to penetrate your imagination.

The second sentence after the “beginning of the good news” quotes Isaiah 40.  “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  The writer of Mark starts his story with a road straightener, a highway leveler; someone who goes ahead of the One coming, and pushes aside all artificial differences used to separate the high and mighty from the despised and lowly.

Here is the suggestion that there is always a time before, a different scene, We need to be careful here not to see it as a bad time about to be good for that is to reduce it to a behaviour story and it is more than that.

John the Baptizer, living outside, on the edge, recognizes no distinctions between people.  He is a wild man who wears camel hair clothing and a leather belt.  He eats grasshoppers and wild honey.  He is a combination of Crocodile Dundee and Billy Graham holding rallies in the wilderness, and people from the whole Judean countryside and lots of people of Jerusalem go out to him.  Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins he baptizes hordes of people in the River Jordan.  All of them confessing their sins and wanting to start life anew. He appeals to the people who struggle. And John the Baptist appears to be a powerful attracter.  People are moved to try harder in their effort to straighten out their lives.  They want to be different than what they are and think that hooking their star to this fierce and rugged outsider will accomplish this.  They allow John to baptize them and hope their actions will move them toward a new day.  Even as we hear this story, we know how it ends, and it does not end well for either John or Jesus.

Then John makes a statement that seems strange with his success. He makes a proclamation: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Even John the Baptist doesn’t understand the full import of what he is saying.  He knows he doesn’t have it in him to bear the full weight of all these people wanting to follow him.  Someone far stronger is needed; someone with a new way and a clearer vision.  He has given them all that he but more is needed. 

He thinks the “moreness” has to do with power—power defined in the usual way of being able to impose one’s will on another.  He cannot imagine any other kind of force in this cruel world.  The thought of power through weakness and the strength to forgive does not enter his mind.  It is beyond and outside his view.  He is aware that his view is limited and he thinks the new guy has something. He suggests that this guy Jesus will reveal it. For John it will have to be an outside intervention.

Somehow John the Baptist knows that trying harder doesn’t get you where you want to go even though this has been the message he has been proclaiming!  Something more, something different is needed.  He goes ahead of Jesus and clears his way by decisively showing that trying harder doesn’t make it.  It can temporarily change actions but it does not get to the heart.  It temporarily curbs desire but does not reshape it at its effervescent source. 

So how do we change desire?  How do we claim certainty for our future? John’s, answer, “Someone more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” he will know how to change desire, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  The difference here is that John is about changing behavior, but Jesus is about changing the heart.  And Jesus changes the heart not by the same force of power but by something different, a power of love that is a weak power, a foolishness of power over and he suggests this might be in the forgiving of, the giving of, the service of,

John baptizes with water but this One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  What is this Holy Spirit? Well! It will take the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to reveal it.  Its clearest expression will be from the cross when the Messiah, the saviour, the answer to everything is totally vulnerable to extinction and he says “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”  The Holy Spirit is this way of weak power, this vulnerability, this desolate soul, in forgiveness. It is the way of weakness, that is the pathway of God’s power.

When we are “in the spirit” so to speak we live a life of constantly letting go of the hurts and revengeful impulses precisely because Jesus showed us how and did it himself in relation to us.  Yes, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, the spirit of forgiveness.   Forgiveness has the capacity to change our hearts.  With the Holy Spirit within, we want to forgive for we know the depth to which we have been forgiven.  The artificial differences cease mattering.  We have freedom to live without worry, not because it doesn’t exist but because it can become turned around.

An attitude of forgiveness is when we feel forgiven and thus in tune with the universe and with that which we name God. This state of being anticipates the divine purpose.  It clears the pathways of our hearts.   Below is a poem written on Thanksgiving Day after clearing a path through the fallen maple leaves in front of a house.   The poet called it:  To a Passer-By on Thanksgiving Day in the USA. The poem explains what the author was doing with his heart when he cleared the sidewalk. 

Gentle Reader,

It is good that you have paused

Along your way, accepting

The silent invitation of these lines

For it was you I had in mind

When I sat to write these words,

You, holding a paper cup

Of lukewarm dark roast coffee

And a satchel filled with groceries,

Or you, clutching the dog’s leash

In one hand, with the other

Pushing a stroller around the corner,

And even you, whom I had not imagined in such precise terms

For you I drew my pen across the empty page

As earlier I drew my garden rake

Again and again through withered grass

And over the buried front walk,

Metal tines clawing wet concrete

Gathering sodden maple leaves,

Potent gift of high summer sun

Turning then returning now to earth

For you I cleared a solitary path

Prepared the way for your lonely passage

So that a mere moment of your journey

Through the detritus of this world

Might be blessed by an open space

Awaiting your arrival,

Conspicuous in its care,

This page inscribed in answer

To the ground now scraped bare.

In my memoir entitled “Almost” I explore this anticipation, this clearing the way as avoiding the potential of being trapped in a place of a fear driven power over world. I suggest that often naming something such as forgiveness, or love traps us in what is the current perception and the alternative image of the diving is more dynamic, living and time free than that. Below is my poem about the divine being found in the ‘Almost’ or perhaps in the spirit of what forgiveness seeks. The wonder beyond wonder so to speak. If one replaces the word almost with the word God or the words The Divine one sees the hope of walking a different path from what is, a more dynamic, moving, living way.

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

Almost is around and as good as

It is bordering on and close to

Always close upon and essentially about

for all practical purposes it is

and for the greatest part too.

Almost is in effect

And in the neighbourhood of

Assured to be in the vicinity of

Yet also just about and mostly

It is much to consider as

near to, nigh and not far from

Almost is not quite yet

on the brink of and at the edge of

It teeters on the point of

on the verge of practically and pretty near

relatively speaking it roughly describes

It substantially and virtually reveals

The well-nigh and within sight of

Mark has his story clearing a pathway for us, and this is just the beginning of the good news! Amen.