Archive for February, 2021

Discipleship.

Posted: February 24, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 8:31-38

Discipleship.

Why another sermon on Discipleship? Isn’t it obvious that discipleship is about sharing the Good News and that good news is what Jesus was making known in his lifetime? Yes of course it is but what does make known mean today? Is it about telling those who don’t know what to think, how to act, and what not to do> Is it about telling people they have to measure up and give up all they have and follow the path we think we should? Sure discipleship, can be seen simply as following Jesus, but what does follow mean and who is the Jesus we are following and another question is how do we do this thing called discipleship?

In technical English John D Caputo reminds of where we find ourselves when facing the call. He reminds us that we have to deal with the accusative if we are to respond to the call of the divine. He calls that divine the ‘Perhaps’ I call it the ‘Almost’ that is insisting we embrace the Good News and this means that God’s existence relies upon our engaging in discipleship to bring about God’s existence. God insists and we bring about existence. Discipleship then is a crucial activity for life. It is the act of making known, making real and creating the existence of the Good News. Caputo reminds us that we are faced with the accusative and that literally relates to the act of showing cause’.

Another situation we need to think about is that Jesus said that “God rains on both the righteous and the unrighteous” And Mark twain said that “The rain is famous for falling on the just and the unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors, I would drown him.

This suggests to me that discipleship is not about the recipients needs and rather about the life a follower of Jesus is called into and that demands that we need to get this Jesus guy sussed or at least as well as we can before talking about discipleship. Who is this guy that we are following: What is he saying and more importantly why?

When talking of Jesus as Itinerant Artisan and Sage” Charles W Hedrick said he was an

itinerant artisan who had a marketable skill related to a building trade of some sort. That

he was neither formally educated nor lettered beyond what training he may have received for his craft. Nevertheless, he had an uncommon knowledge of human behaviour based on shrewd observation of life in Galilean villages; and he was able to

recreate what he observed in memorable realistic secular narratives, which he recounted as audiences presented themselves to listen. His discourse was in the language of the secular world, and his ideas put him at odds with the prevailing religious

and secular powers, and even human self-interest. Because of his abilities, however, he came to be regarded as a wise man. Certainly, he was not a professional scribe or sage,

but in regarding him as wise he came to be included among those holy souls into whom the spirit of wisdom was thought to pass in every generation—men and women who became friends of God

What he gave is what we believe changed his world and will change ours for the better and that is simply the Good news that love, peace and justice are names for the good news. As Robert Miller wrote in the latest Fourth R Magazine; While “Few might imagine that those ancients listening to the words of Jesus would be as cynical as Mark Twain, and in fact many were, the religious significance of rain in the fraught relationship of God and Israel would have leapt to mind as Jesus spoke of it falling alike on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Many of Jesus listeners would have been thinking more along the lines of Twain’s management of such affairs, an found what Jesus had to say challenging. The social, political and military environment would have been the obvious target of his words. How do you maintain order without the simple clear black and white rules? How do you find justice without an enemy? Especially when God rains for both good and bad?

And let’s remember, he disregarded many religious boundaries of his own religious faith. He did not believe in some of the interpretations of scripture. He publicly associated and ate with sinners, he reached across the critical religious rules of his day. He ignored the prescribed handwashing, he prioritized interpersonal morality over Temple worship which place being in right relationship with people over that with God. He crossed the line between sacred and mundane and upset the special days rules. He was not saying they were wrong but that they were not the only way and, in his time, they were not working or not necessary because they stigmatized, separated off and created an environment of fear as opposed to love. Here we have a challenge to consider when we plan discipleship let alone a program of evangelism.

This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a tough call. It is a call to discipleship. And mixed in with that call are several fragments on other issues. Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin. Suffering and persecution. The cross. Death. But I guess the primary thing we hear in the story are the words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Now, if read out of context, and with our post-modern western ears tuned in, this particular invitation to discipleship can be heard as a glorification of suffering, docility especially by women), and an encouragement to become a victim. Indeed, this is the way many people in the not-too-distant past, were encouraged to interpret this story. Because such a way of life is or was an imitation of ‘Christ’ So let me along with many today state in a stark categorical sense: that such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story.  Period.

Two of Mark’s issues seem to be the place of suffering and the other is the Cross. Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering. Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se. But what he does indicate is that one particular cause of suffering is persecution by the powers-that-be if you become a challenge to their authority, is a very real possibility. And something we need to bear in mind when being a disciple.

And for those who have chosen to be disciples and follow in the way of the humble Galilean, Mark’s call to them is to remain faithful to that way, and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution. Again, we might think about this as the outcome of good discipleship. Not in the sense of avoiding the persecution by confidence or strong persuasion but by humility of grace and peace. Remember here also that the Roman Theology is Victory first then peace and justice whereas I think Jesus was advocating peace and love as the instigators of justice.

The fact is that first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. It is something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible. Even down to the Panadol-a-day to keep the headache away! But ancients viewed suffering as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life. It was part of the human lot, of everyday existence. And why wouldn’t it be! I view change different from my parents and my children and why not? 

With at least 80% of the population living at subsistence level or below, with hunger and disease or being sold off into slavery, common experiences, high taxation a daily occurrence, and families in constant danger of losing their land to cover rising debt…a

“That is how Rome managed it”, comments Stephen Patterson, New Testament scholar, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar “Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces, was to suck up as many of the province’s resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether.  It slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.” (Patterson 2002:201)

No wonder the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now, train their children to be able to endure suffering, for it becomes an important survival skill! So, Mark’s message that the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth, painting Jesus and his followers as having the power to end suffering and bring health, life and safety for all, was certainly very attractive. Do you get a feel for discipleship from this? It is certainly not about telling anyone what we have and they need to live a better life. They already know that. Even today.

Now with Easter almost upon us we will have to deal with the story of the Cross, the crucifixion of the criminal by the ruling authority with the help of his peers.  The Cross.

Let’s be sure that the cross or crucifixion, was a cruel, shameful, and legal means of execution. Anyone questioning Roman authority was, from the empire’s perspective, a potential and unnecessary troublemaker. And political authorities then, as many still do today, believed in pre-emptive action against all possible threats. We today watch with interest how governments impose mandate on vaccine consumption in order to protect their people. Will a health measure become a cultural rule by stealth? Those against vaccinations struggle with this point under the cover of fear of its efficacy. And one would have to say that rightly so because it is fraught with assumptions of justice based on compliance as opposed to freely chosen.

It is pretty obvious that the ancients would never have sung: “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died…” That’s 17th/18th century middle-class piety.

Neither would they have said: “It is her cross to bear”. “God has given him a heavy cross”. “You just have to accept it: it’s your cross”. The reality was to take up your cross was specifically to pick up the cross beam and carry it out to the place of your execution, where you would be nailed or tied to it, and then hoisted up on to the upright pole or on to an olive tree stump.

As another overseas writer has said: “No ancient audience could miss the reference to execution, or think of the cross as a general reference to all human suffering…  Following Jesus (was) both blessing – the ending of much human suffering – and incurring new suffering at the hands of those who will do their best to destroy Jesus’ followers.” (Joanna Dewey. LookSmart Web site, 2009)

So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general. Violence destroys life. It is not even an installation of a symbol for the much later ‘Christian’ congregations.

That didn’t happen until early in the 5th century and then thanks to Constantine, not Mark. And neither is it about sacrificial atonement or supernatural rescue. That is, when the cross is seen as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, God is implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. (Shea 1975:179)

What ‘Taking up thy cross’ seems to me to be a general exhortation to remain faithful to the way of Jesus, and as Joanne Dewey says: “in the face of persecution and even execution, by political authorities.  That is “the all-absorbing   par excellence!” as a good man I liked when training Ian Cairns wrote.  

It has to be noted that the call to discipleship back then was a tough call. Your life could depend on it. Whereas the call to discipleship now, while also being a tough call. it is a call to be on a journey, Recognising the place language and culture have, living with questions rather than with answers, and that means living with ambiguities, and uncertainty and because it is always good news that drives discipleship exploring what it means to be human in this age when cloning of all examples of life forms, robotics, artificial intelligence and life ruled by algorithms is with us. Theology, spirituality and discipleship cannot be out of date or it will disappear and the Jesus story will disappear.

And where that demands honesty and candor. At the core of discipleship is the call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy) or what one should believe, as important. It is a call to make forgiveness reciprocal without exacting penalties or promises. And it is a call to accept an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love of one’s neighbour.

Mark’s 1st century story may have offered us some indicators – even resources – for our 21st century struggle to be disciples, to be the church, in our time. But in reality, we will have to work it out for ourselves, together. That’s the challenge and the blessing of discipleship.  Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Patterson, S. J. “Dirt, Shame, and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association, 1975.

rexae74@gmail.com

Caputo J.D The insistence of God A theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press 2013

Flowers of the Desert

Posted: February 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Flowers of the Desert

William Blake wrote that:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

That sounds to me very much like an invitation to dream, imagine and create pictures and images that enrich life with depth, colour and meaning. It inspired me to read you a poem I wrote in search of the dive that is revealed in that imaginative yet very real place. We talk about theology as art and we talk about metaphor and imagination as ways of making accessible the great mysteries of life. language is a wonderful thing when we treasure its ability to create life as we might see it. I want to offer you the poem as a way of recognizing the power it has to give an image of this God we are in the image of. I have given it the title of Serendipitous Presence to highlight the randomness of life as a wonderful gift and the way we best might imagine the dynamic creating presence of what we might name as the Spirit of God. A Serendipitous Presence, A Lenten calling.

A Serendipitous Presence

Words are without completion

too small for the task that eludes all.
How can we speak of a gentleness within,
the warmth of heart in response to call?

How can we know you, ocean of love,
Words fail to be enough, this we know true,

strong as forever, soft as a dove.
living within and without is our clue.

We know times of spiritual blindness,
when excess and pain distort our sight.
Something within and without us,
shows us how darkness can turn into light.

Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.

Words are creative completion

small and yet enough, for the task of call.
They speak of the gentleness within,
and warm the heart in response to the call.

This week saw the commencement of the traditional religious season called Lent.

It began a few days ago… on Wednesday 17th February. Interestingly it fell after last Sunday which was St Valentine’s Day. Traditionally… at least, in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. Traditionally, also, well, since the year 1000CE, Ash Wednesday got its name from the act of being marked with ashes – previous year’s burnt palm branches – when worshippers gather and are reminded of their sinfulness and mortality. Interesting isn’t it that Love and sin are on the same day!!

Lent is also associated with the story of the Jewi wsh Galilean sage called Yeshu’a/Jesus,
and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness. The story says it happened at the beginning of his brief public activity in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire, sometime between the years 26-36CE.

Having given a brief introduction I want to think about ‘desert’, ’Lent’ and ‘God; and I want to think about what desert means in NZ as opposed to Australia because the image we have of a desert can influence how we embrace the world of Jesus.

Did you know that Australia has ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia. It is over 800 kilometres wide and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometres. In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometres or 18% of the Australian mainland.  But that’s not all because approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain
it is effectively desert.  The result is that Australia has been called the driest continent on earth.

Whereas the desert in NZ is the Rangipo desert around the central plateau in the North Island. It is a barren desert-like environment, located in the Ruapehu District on the North Island Volcanic Plateau; to the east of the three active peaks of Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu, and to the west of the Kaimanawa Range.

It IS also a desert like environment only because of its harsh environment and not because of its dryness or sand covered world, It gets quite significant rainfall but very poor soil and frequent strong winds mean that anything less hardy than tussock doesn’t survive except in very sheltered areas. It’s at quite a high elevation and winters in this area are pretty brutal with frequent heavy rain, high winds and snow. The closest we might get to a “traditional” desert is the semi-arid area of Central Otago, especially around Alexandra, but even then irrigation has made this a remarkably fertile area, especially for stone fruit. Summers are scorching, and winters will make you wish you had packed your thermal undies.

Australia’s deserts however are known for their distracting lure of the shimmering mirage, their “parched earth cracks and groans under the blazing sun across the wide spaces. The perception of what is a desert wilderness area, varies greatly. They still vary  as it depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’.

To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty. A place without life. But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, for instance, beyond Charleville, it has a compelling fascination, as a place vibrant with life. The spinifex are blue grey with amber glints. They look soft but they are prickly and hard. They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal can eat them out or destroy their roots. It may look as if nothing can live in the desert, but underneath the spinifex, the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand. No life stirs all day, but come night… lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

This brief look at deserts suggests that things are not always as they seem and that perception is important. Not just as an awareness of nature and its complexity but also as metaphor for faith. Jesus withdrawing for space to pray and think, his use of the desert as a place to reflect and contemplate what to do, is a seeding place for ideas of an alternate way of seeing things.

When we take this idea and place it in a Lenten time we can see that Lent  might be a very real time when we can once again, in an intentional way, seek out the present-ness of the sacred lurking in the most unlikely of places, waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced. If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentlessness… where people face despair and animals die of thirst, the desert experience will always be an alien danger. It is tantamount to living in fear all one’s life. Sadly many people do this when the focus of lent is on sacrifice, sin and, a self-abasing repentance and this seeps through into our Autumn days as well.

A Zen teacher said to his students: ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes, but the elders furrow their brows. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes, but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust. We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

Echoing the words of William Blake, the former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests: “To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

 of dust is to stir up goodness, struggle for justice, speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power, band together to stand resolutely and non violently before evil and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it.

Traditionally for many of us Christians Lent is a time of sorry self-deprecation. A perspective I have little time for these days I have to say. From a progressive perspective, Lent can be a time when, in positive and intentional ways, our focused actions can enable others to flourish. Lent can be a time when our selfless actions seep into the world ‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’… encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, and strengthening the bonds of community.

We actually don’t have a lot of historical knowledge of Yeshu’a/Jesus, but we can surmise pretty strongly that he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom, forcing his hearers to take a second look at the traditions that helped them make their way in the world. He was a devout Jew and his controversy was in that he questioned his own faith and suggested it needed to change. And he was able, with a storyteller’s imagination, to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life.

And the point of this is that none of it makes Yeshu’a supernatural. Or divine. Or No. 2 in the Trinity. Just human, insightful and willing to ask the hard questions of himself and his faith.

Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, noted for publishing books
that ‘strain relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians’, writes:
“Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…”

Whatever conclusion one might end up with about him, it must be a possible Yeshu’a/Jesus and not a hugely incredible one. And a possible Jesus is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances “and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.”  (David Galston)

The desert is a place where one does not expect to find life. Let alone things of beauty such as flowers. It is a god-forsaken place we might say.

This Lent, in the wilderness of our 21st century cities, furrowed by freeways and overshot by motorways shaded by skyscrapers we might remember that in our dry seasons that seem to be increasing are time s and places where there are tiny seeds, at rest and waiting, dormant yet undefeated. There are Desert flowers waiting to show us a beauty we understand. “The desert is beautiful,” writes Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian, psychoanalyst, author, and poet, “because it hides, somewhere, a garden.” And that might be why Jesus went there so often.

‘Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.’

Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The ProphetEmbracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. . Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
Johnson, E. “Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished”UNIFAS ConferenceThe Colony. A History of Early Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, 7-14 July 2010. <https://sgfp.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/deep-incarnation-prepare-to-be-astonished/&gt; Accessed 4 October 2016
Karskens, G. . Crows Nest. Allen & Unwin, 2009.
McRae-McMahon, D. Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
Winton, T.  The Land’s Edge. Sydney. Picador, 1993.

rexae74@gmail.com

Mark 1:40-45

Why is a sermon on evolution important? Well I think it is important because having an integral philosophy is essential in todays world This is a claim that the evolution of consciousness is a central factor in the process of evolution overall. The attempt of a sermon in examining the historic texts is itself an acknowledgement that it is important to have a perspective on what constitutes an evolutionary life.

The use of the word ‘cantor’ is an attempt to claim that each one of us is an integral part of the evolutionary process, in other words our song, our solo has an integral place in the evolutionary process as a catalyst, a participant in the evolution.

The biblical world our readings arise from was a very different time to the one we find ourselves in today. The readings may seem to stand in contrast and that’s because they do. They are shaped by thinking hundreds of years old, and from a time without the benefit or not of both the natural science world of the 19th century CE and of today. The readings also offer us an idea of the ways many religious people think today when the differences are highlighted. Some ideas have evolved considerable and others very little and this is possible only when there is little or no integral philosophy to challenge the thinking.

Leprosy, in the time of Jesus, was sometimes regarded as divine punishment for sin.
It embraced a wide range of disorders, including rashes, acne, eczema and other forms of dermatitis. It made people ‘unclean’.  Dirty. And when you were dirty you offended God’s standards. Indeed, there was an explicit connection between being clean and being holy. When you were ‘unclean’ you weren’t ‘holy’! This was the culture into which Jesus was born. This was the culture that was learned and cultivated. In a string of stories commenced a week or two back, Mark’s Jesus is confronted with a series of ‘unclean’ people usually captured by ‘unclean’ spirits. As modern 21st century people, who both accept and rely on modern medical science, even if reluctantly we find it very difficult to believe in the existence of unclean spirits or demons, even though there are some moderns as there were ancient folk, who do. Much thinking these days goes into the connections between one view and another and nobody is sure enough to make exclusive claims these days.

So, what are we to make of this and other stories? Following the thoughts of some scholars whether Jesus was or was not a genuine shaman“ or whether he simply embraced the company of the unclean, the meaning of his memory is the same: in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community” (Patterson 2002:210).

And I come to a similar conclusion as a result of modern critical biblical study, established some 300 years ago, and given exposure in the late 20th century through the pioneering work of the Westar Institute and its founder, Robert W. Funk. Also by reading many scholars who are writing about the developing human mind, and integral spirituality as well as scientist who are seeking the overall meaning of human life and existence.

The second point to make also is that today is Evolution Sunday and once again
many of us continue to be a signatory to The Clergy Letter, now in three variations, which supports the validity and merit of evolutionary science as “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.  To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children” (UUA Clergy Letter. www.evolutionweekend.org).

And while the term ‘evolution’ was in use dating from 1647, and there were certainly others with similar views, it is English-born Charles Darwin who is now recognised as the ‘founder’ of the theory of evolution, leading the way to the modern study of genetics and molecular biology. Charles Darwin, whose father once said of him: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” (Wilson 1998:16).

Charles Darwin, who first studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but left after only 18 months “partly because of the barbarity of 19th century surgery long before the days of anaesthetics” (Wilson 1998:18) and went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, because his father determined that he should ‘become a clergyman’. Charles Darwin, who graduated in 1831 from Cambridge – in natural history and geology! Charles Darwin, who, as resident naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands on the HMS Beagle, where he encountered evidence “of great diversity between animals of the distant past and those of the present” (www.progressivetheology.org).

It was following this trip and as a result of him unable to reconcile his fundamentalist beliefs with his speculations about the origins of species, that “…in the months following his return… his new scientific theory was born and his faith in religion was dead” (Birch 2008:116).

Charles Darwin, born 206 hundred years ago (1809), who gave us his most famous major work called ‘On the Origin of Species’, “a treatise providing extensive evidence for the evolution of organisms and proposing natural selection as the key process determining its course” (Ayala 2007: 61) which Darwin published 156 years ago – on 24 November 1859.

In that book Darwin introduced what lies at the heart of an evolutionary world view. He suggested that the world or universe was:

(i) unfinished and continuing ;

(ii) involved chance events and struggle, and

(iii) natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint” (Birch 1965:29).

I would say today that the power of ‘fear’ in pour religious response is misplaced at best and horribly disabling of participating in a relationship of value with our planet. Evolution theory says that the whole universe is alive and changing, continually co-creating with each of us, new possibilities of life. Change is! Evolution and if you like you can use my idea of a serendipitous creating as the biological, philosophical and real world we live in. The unexpected, ambiguous serendipitous opportunity is our engagement in life.

Or put another way, change is the core of: cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).

What we do know and believe is that in every age the worlds of theology and religion interact with the cultural and scientific worldviews of that day. Such interaction between the two, in the words of feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, “is essential to make religious faith both credible and relevant within a particular generation’s view of the world and how it works” (Johnson 2007:286).

But Johnson goes on:  She says “In sum, theological reflection today should endeavour to speak about God’s relation not to an ancient nor medieval nor Newtonian world, but to the dynamic, emergent, self-organizing universe that contemporary natural and biological sciences describe” (Johnson 2007:287).

Scientists tell us the ‘Great Story’ as we understand it today, begins with the ultimate mystery of the Big Bang (this is now perhaps a misleading term. Current thinking is that there wasn’t really an explosion but an ‘expansion’, some 13-15 billion years ago.

We also think that life on earth originated some four billion years ago. Homo habilis (our ancestors) began using tools 2.5 billion years ago. Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago.

One of the things I need to tell myself is that I emerged just over 74 years ago – or about 27,375 days ago. Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us. The ancestral stars are a part of our genealogy. “Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space”
writes American Unitarian poet, Robert L Weston (Weston 1993)

I wrote the following in an attempt to say just how important an understanding of one’s own place in the cosmos and also how fragile, agile and alive an evolutionary world might be.

A Pale Blue Dot

It enters as a pale blue dot

Incredibly beautiful against the dark it inhabits

Both lost in contrast and confirmation of its place

a perspective of scale emerges

the pale blue dot takes its rightful place

the evolution of visual wonder

It enters as a pale blue dot

Carrying with it our existence

In the shared blue dot is the product

our bodies the outcome of an alchemy,

forged in stars billions of years ago.

An evolution of an incarnational beauty

It enters as a pale blue dot

a special planet that is evolving
a dynamic, living event
at once our home and yet fragile

it demands reverence, care, and respect.

An evolution the is serendipitous and participatory.

It enters as a pale blue dot

Reveals its part in the ageless cosmos,
offering reason for our standing in awe and reverence
inviting our participation in the process

which lured and shaped its evolution,
an evolution, wherein our existence has purpose

It enters as a pale blue dot

streaking through space at a great rate

joined with galaxy and the solar system.
It loops around the sun.
It moves through sunlight, around and around,

An evolution of revolutions and revelations

It enters as a pale blue dot

north to south to north It spins, wobbles, and tilts…

a wonderful moving kaleidoscope. earth.
Our world.
And this world invites our endless wonder.

an evolution of call, insistence and beauty.

.

“Everything in the universe is related.  Can you feel that umbilical cord to the  cosmos?  Can you feel the strands of connectedness – the interpendent web – of all existence, even with all human beings?” writes Mary Louise DeWolf in her 2008 Evolution Sunday sermon (DeWolf 2008).

When it comes to valuing the past ideas we have proposed as human beings we have to see that “The traditional model of life with God as king and ruler, described as omnipotent, sustaining the world’s development through pre-programed attributes, and 
intervening miraculously from the outside when and wherever, is “less and less seriously imaginable” (Johnson 2007:291).

On the other hand, Alfred North Whitehead, the Anglo-American process philosopher and mathematician, describes life as an adventure.  He felt that: “novelty and surprise made life interesting.  The open-endedness of life provides opportunities for the exercise of creative freedom, which gives life meaning” (Christ 2003:171).

I agree with him and that is why at the beginning of every service I write the threefold statement is the prelude.

In honouring the mind, we begin the journey toward Christian wholeness with a life-changing recognition of the power of one’s own choices.”, In “Living the Questions we are revisiting the questions to apply them to the Christian present and increasing the measure of freedom so that one can live more fully. And in “Exploring the adventure of Humanity we are about enjoying an unshakable Christian love, walking with confidence into the future and doing it in divine intimacy.

That is also why I have encouraged the celebration of Evolution Sunday, for some years now. It is also why I continue to:

• think of God as the creative process or ‘serendipitous creating’, rather than a being who creates and watches, and

• search for non-personal metaphors and verb-like descriptions for God rather than personal, anthropocentric ones. My theology of ‘Almost’ in my book summarizes this exploration.

As contemporary progressive theology reminds us time and time again, G-o-d or the Sacred does not reside in some other place called ‘heaven’. Nor is heaven our goal.  The world is our true home. Indeed, our only home. It is our co-creation that we participate in and that is a responsible co-activity we are responsible for.

“This life is meant to be enjoyed,” writes Carol Christ. and “To enjoy life is to cherish the beauty of each living thing, to be interested in diversity and difference in the web of life…”  (Christ 2003:116).

So, we can say that we read the story of the one who renders impotent the power of dirt
to keep the ‘unclean’ outside the human community… And we share in that activity with the Cosmic Christ. And the story of the ones who discovered the whole universe is alive and changing, continually, enables us to see what that means for us today and that the novelty and surprise of evolving makes life interesting, rich and purposeful.

As McIntosh writes: “When we begin to appreciate evolutions larger meaning, this does not replace or invalidate the teachings of existing spiritual tradition; rather it it conforms much of what these traditions have been teaching all along, while also refining and improving their essential message.”

I think that’s important why a sermon that claims our task as a ‘Cantor’ of the universe is important for an evolutionary life. Amen.

Listening to Life

Posted: February 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Listening to Life

Epiphany Five

It seems to me that there is something we need to do when we approach the healing Jesus spent much of his life engaged in. At the first approach we might remember and hold on to the fact that his message was affirming of the view that life was about the wellbeing of society, of the collective, of family and tribe and people and all people of the world. This view is consistent with the understanding of the resurrection being a general resurrection as opposed to an individual one. Consistent with Hebrew understanding. This means for us that we need to hold a priory for interpretation towards the collective or the community or society as opposed to the well-being and healing of the individual. I think that for Jesus the issue was that the individual was a vital part of the system and the healing that was required began with the individual but that its impact was upon the whole of society and one had to have an understanding of one’s worth in the big picture. This is not to say that the individual came second or is not vital to society but rather that the message was to for and with the society where he saw change was needed. It was to the political, social, and religious assumptions and culture he spoke strongly as in need of change.

I want to hold on to that collective priori as we work with today’s text from Mark My title listening to life is an attempt to suggest that healing is about listening to life. Paying attention to one’s life is about paying attention to what is happening for oneself, to the people with whom one is closest, to the things that happen to one. This, I think is at the seat of all healing and is the best, and most authentic, way to experience oneself being in tune with and participating in a divine life. That which we have traditionally understood as being at one with our God

Someone once said that “You never know what may cause healing. The sight of the Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. We can never be sure. But of this we can be sure. Whenever we find tears in our eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention for healing is taking place. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

This suggests that healing or that which restores healthy engagement with life is right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives…trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.

This healing that Jesus was performing is embodied in “the persistent presentiment that Something is trying to get through in the midst of the muddle of our day-to-day lives.

“…the persistent presentiment that Something is trying to get through in the midst of the muddle of our day-to-day lives.

But perhaps, as Fredrick Buechner claims, the most important place to listen is deep within the quiet in ourselves. He writes; “I have written at length about the way God speaks through the hieroglyphics of the things that happen to us, and I believe that is true. But I have come to believe more and more that God also speaks through the fathomless quiet of the holy place within us all which is beyond the power of anything that happens to us to touch although many things that happen to us block our access to it, make us forget even that it exists. I believe that this quiet and holy place in us is God’s place and what it is what marks us as God’s. Even when we have no idea of seeking it, I think various things can make us fleetingly aware of its presence – a work of art, beauty, sometimes sorrow or joy, sometimes just the quality of a moment that apparently has nothing special about it at all like the sound of water over stones in a stream or sitting alone with your feet up at the end of a hard day”

In his second memoir, Buechner writes that: “If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Our lectionary Psalm is an exhortation to praise God for the way God restores those who have been exiled and broken, for the way God provides for God’s people and for the creatures of earth, and for the way God treasures those who honour God. Healing is about the restoration of a nation of a people, of people.

Our Mark reading has Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law and this is the catalyst for many sick and demonized people come to be healed. Healing again is about the many people, the collective, the community, the nation. Jesus tries to go off alone to pray, because he senses his message might be becoming too personalised but Simon and others track him down. Then he leads them off to other towns to preach and heal. It is about towns and communities again.

All of the readings seek to give comfort to the reader and they speak about God’s compassion and grace in healing, restoring and strengthening God’s people. They name these people as those who wait on and honour God. It is about the bigger relationship, the purpose for life perhaps. In each reading there is a clear indication of the way God meets us at our point of need in order to transform our lives. A very traditional understanding of who God was, is and how God operates in relationship. Today we recognise a more cosmic non-interventionist supernatural God but the common connection in thinking is that the divine relationship is first a systemic collective and perhaps less conscious one. In the famous song of Isaiah 40, God’s saving power is praised and the weary exiles are reminded that God will restore and strengthen them if they will just turn to God in hope. The exiles will be restored as a nation In the Psalm, God’s gracious restoration and provision for God’s people, and for all of creation, is praised. Here it is about the restoration of the planet, the creation itself. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he explains how he strives to meet every person where they are in order to bring them to Christ, becoming as they are so that he can share the Gospel with them. Listen to life so that one might be restored as Messiah, the saviour of the nation of a way of life. Finally, in one of those wonderful moments of particular care, Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. But, then, immediately the Gospel moves to a wider focus, as Jesus heals and restores the many who come to him, and then, seeks to travel throughout Galilee to preach and heal. The amazing grace of the God is for all at a point of need and restores and reveals a truly celebratory opportunity for restoration, and one might say resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth.

I want to finish with a touch on how I think this collective application of message works. Over the last few decades the emphasis of human development teachers and spiritual gurus has moved away from self-sacrifice and towards self-actualization. This quest to “be true to oneself”, while it has brought some measure of healing and growth to some, it has also been used to justify all kinds of destructive behaviour, from the breaking of marriages and committed relationships in favour of “my needs,” to the militant and violent defence of materialistic and consumerist “ways of life” in wealthy nations. I think this is in danger of building a cult such as the cult of selfishness which is the exact opposite of both this realm of God that Jesus claims and of the interventionist God who comes as personalised in a supernatural Jesus with the surname Christ. This is not the cosmic Christ that the gospels try to reveal. The Scriptures offer us a startling vision of a God who is willing to go out of God’s way to meet us where we are – a God who would be incarnated and suffer death in order to draw humanity into God’s Reign. The problem with this personalised view is that the Reign of God which is established by the self-sacrificial Christ, also calls its citizens to follow in this sacrificial life by “becoming all things to all people” in order that they too may know God’s grace. This development and revelation of God’s gracious glory is a huge challenge challenge to every human system at work in our world – It sadly alienates humanity from a point of true healing and restoration by pushing the gracious God beyond human engagements and removes the human pathway to healing. In its distancing of the dive from the human it envcourages the careless consumption of planetary resources, and if we are to understand the American situation at all it has to suggest that this personalised God has given support to the power games played in national and international government, from the self-interest of big business and political and religious lobby groups to the violence that all too easily erupts between factions, ethnic groups and countries who refuse to share.

How different might our world be if leaders sought to be “all things to all people” and if they, like the cosmic Christ, were willing to meet people at their point of need, and spread the good they do as far and wide as possible? How different might our world be if the Christ followers, rather than trying to manipulate the world’s systems according to their own agendas, were more willing to serve and restore the systems of well-being for all others irrespective of differences in belief, conviction, morality and association? The question of what healing is and can do in our world might be to put down our own interests and commit to being true followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and if there is to be a sacrifice it is to put aside our own interests and agendas in favour of the greater good of the people who would heal the divine human relationship for it is our world.  This is our global pilgrimage.

On another kevel it is both shocking and disturbing that, in many segments of society, Christianity has been used as an excuse for an attitude of entitlement. The way the Gospel has been presented has left many outside of the Church feeling coerced and manipulated and rejected. It’s like we’re saying that, rather than us meet others where they are, they must change to become like us. Rather than touch and heal the sick and demonized, we have told them that they have no place among us, while we have refused to acknowledge our own demons. Rather than become “all things to all people” we have tried to make all people become like us. Rather than inviting people to be restored and saved by God’s grace, we have used the Bible as a club to break people down when they believe or live differently from us. In this way the divine restoration has been hidden from the world, rather than being reflected through us. In this way the Christ has become for many a false prophet rather than a true reflection of the glory and grace of God. This week, while we can celebrate that God meets us where we are and offers us healing and restoration, we must also acknowledge that we need to change to become those who give of themselves and put aside – our own needs, our own desires, beliefs and agendas – in favour of the wholeness, justice and goodness of others. If we are to embody the Realm of God which Jesus preached and demonstrated we need to release our self-interest and begin to step into the shoes, and the worlds of those who seek to experience God’s love. This will mean letting go of our need to be right, and our need to be comfortable and our need to control the world and replace it with our responsibility for the world we create. And this means the planet itself, its place in the universe and it will also lead us even deeper into that which we call God’s grace and love as we are to experience the divine working in us and through us even more. Amen.