Archive for January, 2021

‘Life Beyond Complacency’

Posted: January 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘Life Beyond Complacency’       

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has become an important theme in church life. In fact, it could be said that it is in the very fabric or DNA of the church and this makes it hard to conceptualize any other way of being. But I want to try because I think the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is calling us to do so.

The first place I want to start is with an assumption, and that is that we need to defend the faith so to speak. This defense has become so ingrained that we have lost sight of what the historical Jesus was on about. I don’t think he was on about saving Judaism, his faith, but rather about challenging it to move away for its assumptions and its complacency and arrogance. We might visit what is known as Apologetics (from Greek meaning, “speaking in defense”. Apologetics is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. Early Christian writers (c. 120–220) who defended their beliefs against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called Christian apologists. In 21st-century usage, apologetics is often identified with debates over religion and theology. Another claim is that apologetics is the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.

One might say ‘Through zealous advocacy or support of a particular cause. I arrived in a state of high evangelism” In Christianity, evangelism is the commitment to or an act of publicly preaching the gospel with the intention to propound the message and teachings of Jesus Christ. … In addition, Christian groups who encourage evangelism can be referred to as evangelistic. Just look at the recent debacle in the USA as the credibility of the Christian Gospel has been the servant of political power.

And the irony of it all is that no one is unreachable when it comes to seeking Jesus’ love, grace and hope. Having a God or a Jesus-confidence doesn’t mean we need to have everything figured out. Just like being a Christian doesn’t mean we won’t struggle, in life. it means we won’t struggle alone. Because we are human and we should not deny that or seek to escape from it. The Gospel is surely to enable us to live it more abundantly or as Jack Spong puts it, ‘Love wastefully”.

This morning’s story by the storyteller we call Mark, is one such story.
The calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John is an evangelism event. A calling event. And by implication, the commencement of a movement which centred on the character and teachings of the wandering sage we call Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus certainly had followers.  Both men and women. It was one of the most common ways in which teaching and learning took place. The call was not as we have intensely made it about converting others to believe as we do but rather as calling people to walk the way, to live life free from complacency, free from the prisons of institutionalisation, free from culture assumptions. Not to deny their existence or banish them from one’s mind like some magic exorcism but to creatively live them differently.

And one of those assumptions we note is that while we can learn something of the roles men took in this process, from the various stories in our biblical tradition, the role women took goes almost unnoticed until we read the Gospel of Mary – which didn’t make it into the biblical collection. Is another assumption that only a male approach to spreading the good news is appropriate? Is there a feminine approach to spreading the good news?

What we do seem to admit is that we doubt whether Jesus actually took the initiative and carried out a recruitment drive, with the intention of organising a movement. I tend to agree with those who claim Jesus was a wandering or itinerant sage without organisational intentions, and who never intended to found a movement much less a church.

He was I think a Jesus who was thoroughly consumed in the religious/political concerns of his own time and place. He knew his Judaism, he knew his culture and its place in the world. He knew the power points in his society and he saw an alternative way of being in this world.

I think he was a Jesus whose focus was not on some mystified realm beyond time,
nor on some present or future world which we simply appreciate or accept. Rather, he was a man whose focus was on a new realm of God here and now, and ready to emerge.  (Coverston 2005)

So, what we have in this particular story this morning, is more the hand of the storyteller Mark or a particular community, rather than a record of one of the actual deeds of Jesus.

Either way, storyteller Mark seems to have a collection of stories and sayings and theological reflections, some probably written fragments, but most retold and remembered from oral telling, and is weaving all of them together.  Adapting and weaving them together with a particular purpose in mind. That purpose being for that small community he was speaking to could honour Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets… That they could hear a link between “Jesus’ ministry and John’s preceding one” (Cairns 2004:16) and that they could hear and understand, remember and be empowered as people of the Way.

Not an alternative religion because that would lead to defense of it but rather a new Way.

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has also been associated with the evangelical missionary endeavour of ‘saving souls’. Certainly, that is how many preachers have understood the metaphor, spoken exclusively it would seem to Simon and Andrew: ‘make you fishers of men’ or the more inclusive, ‘…people’. But this metaphor is not only very tired and outdated,
it is also, I suggest, a misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and teachings.

I wonder if you might consider a few suggestions on all this?

Scholar Ched Myers, in his comments on this story, offers an important and different interpretation, which suggests phrases like ‘fishers of men’ and ‘hooking of fish’ are (Hebrew prophets) euphemisms for judgement upon the rich.

Myers says initially: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”.

And again: “…following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple… This is not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice.” (Myers 2008: 132-133)

Not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice. Those words by Myers resonate with me. Because they suggest to me that being a disciple in the 21st century requires us to engage in both social analysis as well as theological reflection. And in so doing, to be reminded that the biblical and extra-biblical stories we hear and study and speculate about, are not just earthly stories with heavenly meanings, but earthy stories with heavy meanings!

Last week I spoke a little about the American celebration called Martin Luther King Day, a celebration more at home in America.

Some years back, journalist James Carroll, wrote an article called ‘The Dream and its Enemies’. In it he suggested that while the outright racism of white supremacists was one of King’s enemies, “almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.” (Carroll. ‘Globe’, a New York Times Co. 2008)

Carroll went on: “This nation honours Martin Luther King Jr today because of what he forced on it.  Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth.  Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible.  King’s work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.” (Carroll)

Not a call ‘out’ of the world, but ‘into’ an alternative social practice… One wonders if New Zealand’s approach to equality and justice can also become a call into an alternative social practice? The numbers of Maori in prisons and in gangs suggests we are not doing all that well. We have either become trapped in the world of complacency or blinded to any alternatives by lack of faith.

Discipling, as the storyteller we call Mark suggests, is about accepting the urgent invitation to ‘break with business as usual’.  To re-imagine the world, both personal and communal. In our time might it not also suggest that complacency, in all its forms, is the last thing we should fall into.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. New Zealand: Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Coverston, H. S. “Ears to Hear? Who is my Neighbour? Preaching with Integrity and Moral Reasoning”. Seminar Papers, Westar Institute, Fall. Santa Rosa, 2005.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘I Have a Dream!’

Posted: January 12, 2021 in Uncategorized

John 1:43-51

‘I Have a Dream!’

About this time of the year many Americans celebrate a national holiday in honour of the black Baptist preacher and civil rights leader, Revd. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Many will again remember his 1963 March on Washington, and the magnificent oratory of “I have a dream!” delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 28 August 1963…

Many will remember the recent political event on Capitol hill that killed a young woman protester that will sully the celebrations and highlight the destructive segregation that exists in our communities.


Kings words: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood…  I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… 

(MLKing).

While both the man and that moment merit celebration, it is obvious to many that there has been for several years now, a difference of opinion surrounding the celebrating and the remembering. There was a comment some years ago now, that said:
“Brother Martin spent a fair amount of time in jail, but his worst imprisonment may be how his own nation has frozen him in that moment in 1963.  Our national memory wants that triumphant, sun-drenched hero to stay right there, static, bound to the podium before the adoring crowds.  We want to be lulled into contentment by his beautiful words, his familiar cadences.  We want to keep him safely, unthreateningly, on a pedestal”

(Harding 2001)

And the American poet Carl Wendell Homes, Jr. who was only in his 20s when King was assassinated, articulated this domestication of King eloquently: “Now that he is safely dead Let us praise him build monuments to his glory sing hosannas to his name. “Dead men make such convenient heroes: They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives. “And besides, it is easier to build monuments than to make a better world.”

There is something of an indictment for us in those words “It is easier to build monuments than to make a better world…” So, what is a dream and how does it work? Well, I trolled the internet and found this;

dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. The content and function of dreams are not fully understood, although they have been a topic of scientific, philosophical and religious interest throughout recorded history.

Another comment is that dreams seem to speak into and from and about  ‎’Cultural meaning’  · ‎’Neurobiology’ and ‘Function’.

And still another and one I think I prefer.

‘Dreams are drifts of the imagination, as if one imagines imaginary clouds in the sky. And Visions are scripted efforts to effect change. Dreams and Visions occur personally and organizationally’.

I think I like the third one because it encompasses the others and provides the spiritual connection with imagination, and allows the claim that love changes things. If that which we name God is the energy that sustains everything then dreams are involved at both a conscious level and a non- conscious level, or better still ‘they are a pathway at the interaction between the individual consciousness and the collective consciousness. Of course, I could be wrong and better minds than mine might say it differently.

It might seem a bit strange to the reader also but in thinking about the efficacy of dreams I began to think about what it means to be human and subsequently to the future of the human species.one aspect of which is called ‘transhumanism. I found David Galston’s, book entitled God’s Human Future’ helpful here. He explores, the theological concerns by suggesting that transhumanism might be a new posthumanism that takes the form of the Psalmist’s great question from centuries ago, “what are humans” (Psalm 8:4)? He reminds us that the Psalmist’s question is not about an individual but about the human family. It is a question about God’s creation as a whole and the human place in the whole. From antiquity the Psalmist poses a question about futurity. To what extent ought human beings manipulate the image of God, which is who they are? Like any person who faces this question, a theologian will hold hesitancy, be unsure, fear, but also hope. Is our collective posthuman future something to celebrate or something to worry about?

‘Galston’ suggests that the “image of God” as a metaphor offers some guidance. In traditional Christian philosophy, the “image” is the purpose (the aim of the form) of human creatures. Remember, a “form,” from Plato, is the perfect image of a material thing. Everything that exists in the world is imperfect, but everything that exists, that is seen, participates in its form, its unseen perfection. In Christian philosophy, traditionally stated, the image of God is the form God created for human beings. The image of God is what we are meant to be perfectly in our everyday imperfections.

In the Bible, of course, the philosophical understanding of the image is not present. For biblical writers, the image of God is more active than passive. It is the way God forms human beings. It is the life or breath that God gave human beings to make them human. All human beings are brothers and sisters because all alike are the image of God, the life of God’s creative act. All human beings, we could say, are divine soul-bearers or energy-bearers, according to the Bible.

The image of God, understood philosophically or biblically, is important to theology and to the question of transhumanism because it asks to what extent does the human experience with technology alter the image of God in human beings? There is no single answer to this question. Insofar as technology enhances life, then it enhances the “image of God,” which, biblically speaking, is the energy of life. But if technology destroys life, then it destroys the “image of God” in life. When we think of it this way, we are delivered back to the classical humanist value of autonomy: to what extent are human being responsible for their own future?

Theology places the “image of God” into the question of futurity Galston says. Theology says that the transhumanist effort to form a posthuman future must be a communal question because the “image of God” is a question about the value of the human family. It is not a question about the value of technology.

Bringing this back to dreams and dreaming it has to be said that dreams are ‘the stuff of life’  In their interwoven connection with imagination they are involved it life at its very core. They give life to, monitor and manage along with imagination what is and what is to be.

In 2011 I think it was, America was preparing to unveil a 30 foot granite statue of King
in the National Mall honouring African Americans, only to cancel the unveiling at the last minute
due to the approaching Hurricane Irene. (The 28 August 2011 marked the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic speech).

About the monument one newspaper report said: “The MLK Monument is meant to encourage the visitor to move, literally, from despair toward hope.  The design is clearly based on the quote from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that reads: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”   With this in mind, the visitor approaching the monument is forced to pass through the Mountain of Despair, which stands like two forbidding sentinels, or to my mind, two sides of the threatening Red Sea, parted by God as Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage” (Huffington Post, 8/2011).

The making of a different and better world, verses the making of a national monument! King’s ‘dream’ was not a cosy, sweet, abstract idea. It grew out of and flowed back into the practical, active work and struggle for social inclusion and transformation.

Indeed, ‘dreaming’ helped inspire an African-American seamstress called Rosa Parks, to refuse to give up her seat to a white man on a bus that December day back in 1955… A courageous act which triggered a 381-day black boycott of the bus system and ignited the modern civil-rights movement led by King.

The nature of the dream is highlighted by the fact that 53 years later this same ‘dreaming’, it is claimed, helped elect America’s first black man Barak Obama to the US presidency and it  also helped the election of Donald Trump as well.

Our story today from the biblical text is the storyteller John with his story about a dreamer.  A bloke called Nathanael. And his dream of ascending and descending angels is reminiscent of another story – the story of Jacob’s ladder. So what’s this all about?

New Testament scholar William Loader has looked at this puzzling story and offered this comment: “Jesus doesn’t want the big crowds running after him… he wants to lead them, as he led Nathanael, beyond amazement at miracles… to wonder at what they symbolise, the life he offered and now made universally available… through the witness of the community of faith and its action”

(WLoader/Website 2009).

My experience at the Theological Hall when training for Ministry led me to be sceptical about Johns Gospel because of its heavy post Easter Jesus and its Roman and Greek influence on thinking. I have to say that subsequent reading has cast it in a different light. Like many Jack Spong’s book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, has softened opposition somewhat. Upon reflection on this I suspect I have always felt more of a closeness to the ‘historical’ Jesus (when that is possible) in the Synoptics and Thomas, than to the 1st century symbolic and deep Christological – even Gnostic – theology of John. I have to admit that I have a new appreciation of the Gnostic material these days.

Theologian Walter Brueggermann’s, claim that John often reveals the “counter-imagination of Jesus”, certainly interests me. That I can relate to. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Jesus. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Barack Obama. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Rosa Parks. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Martin Luther King, Jr. makes sense. So it seems that there’s more to this ‘dreaming’ than meets the eye!

What is clear is that the collective conscious, is a fascinating filed of discovery. The question we ask is ‘what is it that haunts the minds of dreamers? I admit it is a big question and too big for this brief sermon.

A story and a poem Rex Hunt shared in a sermon some years back now might help ground that question in our common experiences. What is in the mind of dreamers?

First the story.

A neighbourhood church, well established, had been around for at least 40 years. Then a new congregation of the same denomination started about five klm away, in another suburb. Within five years, the new congregation had grown larger than the 40 year established congregation,
and had completed a building program, which they expanded just a few years later.

A major difference between the two congregations was the new congregation was a ‘progressive’ niche church, always pushing theological boundaries, and looking for the new and different things they could do as a congregation.

The older congregation, called an ‘established’ or ‘traditional’ church tended to look to the past and the good things they had done ‘back then’ as a congregation.

In her Report to the Synod office the Intentional Interim minister wrote about the traditional church: “It is hard to move them into the future when their ‘dreaming’ is always looking backwards”.

And now the poem

“Some day
when nobody
expects it,
when the world
is busy
doing worldly things
and not really watching
the edges of creation,
on some wonder day
shall
love be born
again.

“And on that
Beautiful Day
the promise
shall be fulfilled,
that now haunts
the minds
of
dreamers.”  

Bill Comeau/LP.

On that day the promise shall be fulfilled, that now haunts the minds of dreamers… On that day when the ‘counter-imagination’ of Jesus of Rosa of Martin, of Barack – shall be fulfilled.

When love, inclusiveness, community, are born again on the edges. Is that not what haunts all dreamers? And what of us.  Do we also dare to say… when the ‘counter-imagination’ of our faith community as a niche, progressive church, shall be fulfilled? If not, why not?  The time is ripe!

So, The invitation is to ponder and more importantly, ‘to dream”.

Notes:
Bill Comeau. “Some Beautiful Day. A Rock Celebration of the Life of a Dreamer named Jesus.” New York. Avant Garde Records

David Galston. +God’s Human Future The Struggle To Define Theology Today .Polebridge Press 2016

rexae74@gmail.com

Recognising the Sacred

Posted: January 7, 2021 in Uncategorized

Recognising the Sacred

We have all seen them. Walking briskly with briefcase and mobile phone in tow,
weaving in and out of pedestrians along the footpath as they go from appointment to appointment. Company representatives. Sales people. Public servants. Even ministers of religion. With bible in hand its spine cupped in the hand as if a natural appendage belonging to the carrier.

Rex Hunt tells a story of a group of computer salesmen going from Newcastle to Sydney to take part in their annual State one-day sales meeting. They assured their spouses they would be home in plenty of time for dinner. But, with one thing or another, the meeting ran over time so they had to run to Central Station, tickets in hand.

As they rushed through the ticket terminal area, one man inadvertently crashed into a table supporting a display of fruit. Without stopping they all reached Platform No. 10 and the train – just, and boarded it with a sigh of relief. All but one. He paused, got in touch with his feelings, and experienced a twinge of compunction for the youth whose fruit stand they had caused to almost collapse.

He stepped off the train, waved goodbye to his companions and returned to the ticket area where he helped pick up the scattered fruit. He was glad he did.  The youth was blind. As he picked up the fruit he noticed several of the peaches and pears were bruised. He reached into his coat pocket, took out his wallet, pulled out some money and said to the youth: “Here, please take this $20 for the damage we did. “I hope it didn’t spoil your day too much”.

As he started to walk back towards the platform to wait for another train, the bewildered youth called out to him: “Are you Jesus, or something?”

Mark the gospel storyteller has told his story this morning.  And we have accepted his invitation and told another story in reply. In that story Mark invites his listeners to see the present-ness of the sacred, of G-o-d, in Jesus…  He says: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” But Mark is not here and we are a different people in a different time.

Our challenge now is to ask the question: How can we translate that into a daily recognition of the present-ness of the sacred in every person? For most of us, that can be a bit hard. And It is my suggestion that one of the factors in our difficulty is that the church since Augustine’s time has been in error in the way it has portrayed the humanity of Jesus. The Orthodox Christian expression of Christianity has made him significant because he died rather than lived. The Christ of faith in essence has denied the humanity of Jesus to the point that we have become dependent upon the supernatural and a Theism that denies any questioning of the deity of Jesus at the expense of the connection with the Jesus of history. This has the effect of separating humanity from the divine potential and thus making it difficult to see the sacred in everyday life and in each other.

Another story. This one from the Roman tradition. It is time for the evening service to take place and Freddy is sitting in the church very drunk. He sits in the church alone, abusing our loud. Nobody else is there yet but shortly after they begin to arrive for the evening service. Freddy becomes more abusive and aggressive so that it is inappropriate to begin the service. Conversation swells and consensus is that Freddy has to go.

Things were proceeding fairly well and Father Ernie is coaxing Freddy to the door. They are almost there when ‘all hell breaks loose’ and foul language is directed at the priest;
threatening to hit him and kick him, blaming him for so many things and finally, spitting at him.

“Through all this,” said Fr Ernie Smith, “I remained externally calm. Inwardly I felt both angry and a little frightened. “What a relief it was when Freddy left the church and I closed the side door behind him. Now, on with the service.”

Crash.  Freddy has returned and started to kick in the door of the recently restored   church. “Now I showed my anger externally”, Fr Smith said. “A bit of a chase ensued and then he was gone again. “It was difficult to compose myself after this.”

Ernie reflects that this was the grog presenting a facade. The dignity of the man was hidden. “I saw him later,” Fr Smith said, “and gently reminded him of this episode, but he had no memory of it”(Smith 1994).

The question we are left with is ‘how can we translate that into a daily recognition of the present-ness of the sacred in every person?

At a macro and theological level I think that we need to challenge the assumptions we have built up over many years about the humanity of Jesus. He is significant for faith not because he died, not because of Easter and a post Easter priority but rather a Christmas or an incarnational priority. He was born as one of us, Emmanuel – God with us- priority and not a God who is supernatural and beyond our humanity. If you are wondering about making God in our image about here then you might be missing the sacred in every person.

At a micro and individual Freddy level this means breaking down the façade that keeps us from seeing the God-given dignity of every person, and recognising the present-ness of the sacred in others – especially those who are suffering.  When you shake hands with the heroin addict or the street prostitute can you see the Christ in them?

“Hey Wally, what are you doing down here tonight?” After all, he isn’t well and he has a room in one of the Mission houses. Here he is out on the street. “You’ve got a room to go to, so get yourself into gear and go home”. This is crazy that he should be out on a cold night. “Come on, get home.”

And then he gets a chance to speak. “I can’t go home, Father.  Frank’s crook and he as nowhere to stay, so I’ve given him my room for the night. “I’ll be right” (Smith 1994).

The Jesus of history does not have to return as God because he is already present in the sacred in every person…. as the parables tell us. It is in the poetry of the human Jesus’ parables and we should not reduce them to silence and lock them up in our rituals of salvation. See the sacred in the person and the incarnation make real sense. Amen.

Notes:
Crotty, R. E Smith. 1994. Voices From The Edge. Mark’s Gospel in our World. Melbourne. CollinsDove.

Galston, David 2016 God’s Human Future The struggle to Define Theology Today. Polebridge Press

rexae74@gmail.com