Archive for March, 2021

Mark 11: 1-11

Palm Sunday: Not a Retreat from Life…

Today in the Lectionary is a different kind of day. It is the only day in the church calendar where we can celebrate two different events. Today we are given a choice to celebrate either: The Liturgy of the Branches (Palm Sunday), or The Liturgy of the Passion (Passion Sunday). On no other Sunday does a similar system of choice prevail.

Over recent years I have found myself choosing the liturgy of the branches choice because of a growing disquiet with the violence of the Passion story. For me this violent crucifixion of a person has contributed to a world of fear driven responses to reality as opposed to an approach based in the energy of love and loving which for me is what Jesus was encouraging hos people to embrace against the violence of Rome and its peace based on victory approach to life. I make no apology for not wanting to focus on the death of Jesus as it leads to an atonement doctrinal position that does not align with a loving God who would sacrifice a beautiful created being to prove a point. And so, most of my comments today will be in sympathy with and support of that theme. This doesn’t mean that the liturgy of the Passion has nothing to say but rather what it says is more about human experience than about Jesus’ message.

The first thing to note is that the story from our religious tradition called Palm Sunday is a remarkable fictional story full of contradictions. It’s a story about a moral hero without an ending. This might suggest that the story is about the beginning of something new and not yet complete. It’s a story set around a Jewish religious festival which celebrates liberation, even as the people are prisoners of Roman imperialism. This suggests that History repeats itself and that while the obvious is before us we often can’t see it. It’s today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. The earliest writing, we have considered as a gospel of Jesus the Christ.

When we get into the detail, we find there are the ‘geographical’ inconsistencies in this story. The branches can hardly be palm branches since palm trees are not common in Jerusalem. And if we use modern jargon from the media world, there is the ‘beat up’ which the Jesus Movement gave this story. Remember that many of us believe that Jesus did not set out to start a movement let alone a church. And that story has to start somewhere. In our story every devoted pilgrim who entered Jerusalem during the main religious festivals, was greeted with a similar salutation, as our tradition says, was given to Jesus. As I have indicated in previous Palm Sunday sermons the ‘real’ procession would have already happened when the Roman Prefect who governed Palestine arrived “to make sure that the celebration remained focused on the past, not the present or future.” (Patterson 2004/28) The clanking of steel on steel and the sound of leather creaking and groaning and the sound of hooves and armour intimidating the hearer with sounds of might and power and force and violence over the foolish clip clop of the ass on the stones. The story of the palms begins with the ordinariness of the preparation for the so-called ‘triumphal entry’ and the great enthusiasm of the people, which ends up coming to nothing. Here is my argument for a weak theology of God as opposed to an almighty victorious one. At the top of our liturgy there is the image of Christmas that has the infant Jesus as symbol of the weak divine. An authentic faith based not upon an almighty supernatural God but rather on the subjectivity and fragility of the human species that with language and mind creates the vision of reality that we live within.

And we note also that there are the many differences about this story as told by the other storytellers Matthew, Luke and John. A problem for us is that we have heard these stories so often, or been hoodwinked by the likes of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, that we now usually combine all of them together into one big Palm Sunday story, forgetting the uniqueness of each. For instance, in Mark there is no weeping over Jerusalem. The idea of a destruction of Jerusalem or its place in the lives of Hebrew people was not contemplated. That’s in another story. A story which Mark probably didn’t even know. Only Mark mentions the ‘procession’ going to the entrance of the city. And only Mark says Jesus went alone into Jerusalem and into the temple, not to occupy it,
not to cleanse it, but to check it out. And then to leave it and the city, retiring with the Twelve to Bethany.

Yet the early Jesus Movement in general, and Mark and his small group in particular,
saw something in this story which was important for them.

It seems that they might have found Mark hinting at bits of Hebrew teaching; that he was suggesting Jesus was the promised Messiah; and that Jesus was not just a spectator or visitor, but was really in control of things. He had a bigger picture that had all the parts connecting.

All these things would probably have ‘rung bells’, as we say, with Mark’s so-called branch of the Jesus Movement. But we need to be aware that we are not so sure they would ‘ring bells’ for us!

Stephen Patterson is a biblical scholar and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, whose book
Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus which talks about this. In it, Patterson suggests that to understand the stories around the death of Jesus on what we call Good Friday, the other bit of the bookend called Palm Sunday, we must first have some realistic idea of what happened to Jesus. And that can be difficult for Christians.
Because, as mentioned earlier, we have heard the story read time and again from pulpit bibles in the smallest of churches to the greatest of cathedrals. And we have seen the events portrayed in Hollywood films, Sunday School pageants and bedtime story books.

The story plot is similar in all: Jesus comes to Jerusalem to challenge his enemies. His enemies are the chief priests and scribes who have all along plotted his demise, Jesus deliberately plays right into their hands, because he knows his fate before-hand. He is betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, crucified and after three days rises from the dead.

As Patterson reminds us, the common perception is: “It is all part of God’s plan to save us from our sins…  Thus… in this mixture of text and tradition, the death of Jesus is not a calamity, or even a surprise.  It is the result of a well-executed, successful plan to create what we know today as the Christian religion.” (Patterson 2004: 5)

So developed a significant change in what we now call theology. And that change was away from the events surrounding a particular person: in whose company others came to experience God, who said and did certain things, and who stood for something so important, he was willing to give his life for… Away from real human events, to  an abstract mythic event “connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life… (all part) of a great cosmic battle with the forces of God arrayed against the armies of the evil one.” (Patterson 2004:127-28)

Likewise, when later writers and storytellers talked about the ‘passion’ of Jesus, they always understood it as ‘passion’ equals ‘suffering’. And so, in the second set of readings in our Revised Common Lectionary also set down for today, the planners do just that.

But that particular understanding has now been seriously challenged. From passion as ‘suffering’, to passion as “consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment.” (Borg & Crossan 2006)

And Jesus’ passion as we have also heard many, many times, was “the kingdom of God declared in terms of God’s justice… and the fact that such declaration was seen, despite Jesus’ nonviolence, as a threat to the system of domination by Rome and its wealthy Jewish collaborators, led to his suffering.” (Olson 2006 ALA/Amazon review)

Palm Sunday at one end, and Good Friday at the other end, reminds us life is not an escape from reality. It draws us into the reality of this world. Here again is the support for a weak theology as opposed to a mighty one and for the claim that God does not exist but rather insists. We as humans exists while God insists, or calls into being that which is our reality.

Jesus, who is human as we are, and Jesus who is a ‘gateway to God’ (Spong), confronts and submits to the worst human beings can do, in order to remain faithful to a vision, a passion, of what the best human beings can be.

This Palm Sunday may we once again reaffirm that religion is not a retreat from life
where we ponder the things not of this world… Religion in general, and Palm Sunday in particular, enables us, with insight and wisdom and power, to meet courageously and creatively the current issues of our ordinary, everyday living. And to carry with us into that everyday living what is precious: reverence for all life, beauty that displays itself in love, and deep, abiding peace. Amen.

Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

Our Harvest, is the Sum of Knowledge of the Universe Itself.

In his book, On the Origin of Species…, published in November 1859. Darwin wrote:
“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” (Darwin 2008:362)

And so, it began. The debate it ignited not only led to the denial of the creation stories of the western religious tradition, it gave us the beginnings of an immensely richer, longer, more complex ‘story’, rooted not in “the history of a single tribe or a particular people”, but one “rooted in the sum of our knowledge of the universe itself”.

A scientific ‘doctrine of incarnation’ as one person has described it, which suggests “that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in humming birds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing.”  (Bumbaugh 2003)

It is a religious story because it invites us to awe and wonder; and that in turn demands a vocabulary of reverence. We might note that as religion has declined in the lives of many so too has the destruction of our planet expanded. This is not to say that that which we have named religion needs saving because one might also say that it has failed us in its inability to evolve. Stuck in doctrine and creed and myth that has become concretized.

Prior to the rise of modern science most people followed a literal interpretation of the biblical Genesis stories, believing a flat earth was created about 4,000 years before the Middle Eastern itinerant peasant sage, Yeshua. Or, if they followed some people it all started at 9.00am on 3 October 4004 BCE.

Today, as most of you know very well, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the Earth’s age is approximately 4.5+ billion years. While the observable universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…”  (Gillette 2006:1) is approximately 14 billion years old, all let loose during an event called the Big Bang.

On that note we might need to catch up with evolution is that Bid Bang might now be a misleading term really, in that it is posited that there wasn’t really an explosion, but rather an expansion. Noun to verb maybe?

While careful not to over-estimate the reach and power of the natural sciences, it is modern science that provides the foundation for this ‘other’ story. It has been called ‘the epic of evolution’, ‘the odyssey of life’, ‘the immense journey’ and most recently, Thomas Berry named it, the ‘Great Story’.

Sure, there was an initial outcry that scientific cold reason was killing wonder, but for the most part those days are long past. Now science has become the source rather than the nemesis of wonder. Modern science is now saying “the history of the Universe is in every one of us. Every particle in our bodies has a multibillion-year past, every cell and every bodily organ has a multimillion-year past, and many of our ways of thinking have multi-thousand-year pasts.”  (Primack & Abrams 2007)

Each of us is a collection of unfinished stories, within other stories. We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality. We do not live in straight lines. We truly do exist in a web, a network, a maze… Everything in the universe is genetically cousin to everything else. Which is why a growing number of people around the world are beginning to recognise that our modern life-style and poll-driven politicians are harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns. We are treating life as a straight line and it is destroying the very networks we rely on.

Biology 101 teaches us that if amoebas are inserted into a drop of water, their numbers will expand, until they become so densely populated, they deplete their essential nutrients, and die en masse. The drop of water again becomes uninhabited and sterile We humans are doing the same thing on planet Earth.

We are yet to learn from basic biology. We are yet to learn that humans must cooperate with nature’s processes, and if we can do that, then we can develop purposes less likely to be frustrated by nature. We are yet to learn that a debate between people who actually know stuff
and people who just don’t like what the experts have to say, is not a ‘balanced’ debate. It’s a waste of time. The combative debate mode is not beneficial because it is no based on collaboration.

One of the biggest challenges that faces us is to come to a place in our thinking where there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions. When we let go of the does God exist debate and the theism vs atheism dualism, we might discover that living with ambiguity, uncertainty and the insistence or the calling of God might mean a more authentic relationship with nature, the planet and the universe.

We do not need to think the sacred is a separate ‘supernatural’ sphere of life, driven by blinding-light revelations from outside. “Positing an incomprehensible, invisible, ‘Other’ does nothing to explain the incomprehensible ‘other’ that is palpably present, and that we actually encounter every second within and round us”.  (Fleischman 2013:188)

There is a hymn in the Unitarian Universalist hymn book Singing the Living Tradition, called “Seek Not Afar for Beauty”.  It’s first verse claims this ‘other’: Seek not afar for beauty; lo! it glows in dew-wet grasses all about your feet; in birds, in sunshine, childish faces sweet, in stars and mountain summits topped with snows. If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred, surely, we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognised as sacred…

It seems that what we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship, but worship with the trees. An acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.  (Jerome Stone)

There is also a need for all religious traditions to appreciate that the primary sacred community is the universe itself, and that every other community becomes sacred by participation in this primary community. The world, the planet, the universe is our harvest and the proper care of it, the proper relationship with it is the true harvest. Nurturing the fruits of the earth and distributing it for all is the immediate goal because it contributes the wellbeing of the whole.

Let’s be sure here that we are not saying that all is rosy and sorted. Nature is a violent and dangerous place, extinction is possible and ‘Almost probable. In moments of wonder we simultaneously contain a search for truth, an openness to reawakening, and a delight in what is. When we lose our sense of awe and wonder, we objectivize the Earth as a thing that can be used and abused at our consumeristic whim. Wonder has within it an acknowledgement that existence is always serendipitous, always fragile and always alive.

When a new season arrives and washes away the clouds of the last, do we also see the Earth and “worms crawling…” and “new living things”, as we begin to start again to ‘grow’ and ‘bloom’.

A new season shows us that nature-kind and humankind are continually in relationship. We are reminded and called forward to a ‘new’ religious sensitivity. To transcend the isolated self. To reconnect. To know ourselves to be at home.

So, it is incumbent upon us to challenge the parochial and limited claims of traditional religions
with the enlarging and enriching and reverent story that is our story and their story: The Universe Story.

From an attitude of reverence, we can then act with a morality that nurtures rather than destroys creation. Religious naturalist and cell biologist Ursula in her evocative book The Sacred Depths of Nature, writes: “Once we have our feelings about Nature in place, then I believe that we can also find important ways to call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Taoists, or Hopi, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists. Or some of each…”  (Goodenough 1998:173)

In tune with the season a woman is planting vegetable seeds in her garden. Her activity is more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She is digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging, under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination. Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little seeds will explode into lettuces, onions, tomatoes, carrots and much more. A war will have been won by the fragility of soft and flavoursome things. The green leaves of herbs, the purple of the cabbages, and the yellow and orange citrus have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. It is a new season, a new day. And if there were a heaven, the gods would abandon it just for the chance to see this woman in her garden. Our harvest, the gospel of the natural present moment. Amen.

Bumbaugh, D. “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence”. Boulder International Humanist Institute, 22 February 2003.
Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London. Arcturus Publishing, 2008.
Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. 2004.
Goodenough, U. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 
Primack, J. R. & N. E. Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007
Singing the Living Tradition. Boston: The Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993/2000.
Stone, J. A. “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-pagans: Obstacles to Appropriating the Old Ways” in (Ed). C. D. Hardwick & D. A. Crosby. Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty. New York. Peter Lang, 1997.
Tucker, M. E. & J. Grim (Ed). Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2014.

Concepts of God

Posted: March 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Luke 13:1-9

Concepts of God

Today’s sermon is an attempt to continue our alternative look at Lent as a reminding period within a lectionary that seeks to take the reader through the gospel claims and revelations. It continues the look at Lent as a time for a new look at discipleship and what it means and today, we attempt to look at the need for another look at our unspoken traditional assumptions.

I am thankful one again to Rex Hunt of whose website I read on regular occasion. He reminds us that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, can be said to have believed in a God who punished the bad people and rewarded the good. He goes on to say that they went so far as to say:

  • if you live in poverty or have a bad accident or disease, you are revealed by God as a sinner;
  • if you are healthy and prosper you are revealed by God as a righteous person.

He also suggests that while that interpretation was in vogue back then it no longer is, despite the fact that many today still fall back on such a view.

He tells a modern story to try to give us focus.

A minister… he gives the name Diana, rushed around to the home of friends
where a small child has suddenly died. She was met at the door by the distraught father, who was a senior lecturer in mathematics at the local university, who usually was most composed.

“Thanks for coming, he said.  It’s a nightmare. You know, I have not been reading my Bible much these days.” At first Diana was confused by her friend’s opening remark. What had reading the Bible to do with a little child’s death?

Later, after she had thought the issue through, she was able to help untangle the poor father’s anguish. The father’s first reaction had been to feel guilty.  Years before, when he had been confirmed, he had promised to ‘diligently study the scriptures.’ And he hadn’t.

In the anguish of the new grief, the ancient fear that the death was for him a punishment from God, had broken loose. Someone had to be at fault. And it must be him. His mind came up with a broken vow to justify that question. Normally, that man would have logically dismissed the idea of a child’s death as divine retribution, as rubbish. All, he had learned and knew was that it was not right yet in the grief crisis, the ancient superstition had got the jump on him. It gave him answers.

His reaction is not unique nor is it confined to church goers. In all of us, primitive stuff like that lies semi-hidden. It’s like the ghosts of old gods that refuse to completely go away. In all of us, hidden away in the murkier parts of our psyche,
are irrational fears and superstitions that need a scapegoat when we are hurting or confused or simply afraid of thinking. These are a hangover from the not so ancient, primitive past of homo sapiens.

One of these superstitions is that we may be the guilty cause of accidents and disease to ourselves or those whom we love dearly. This is rooted it seems in a simplistic reliance on the belief that we are responsible for the problems we face and while that is true? we need to have the bigger context of evolution and the living evolving planet and also our own evolutionary reality. A fixed doctrine and concept of who are what God is and how God does or does not work is tied to our understanding of what our planet is and how it is a planet. The mathematics lecturer knew this yet when it came to an unexpected event he fell back on an old interpretation. Further proving that God or the energy of deity we call God is intimately apart of the evolving creativity that gives and sustains life. Not as an old man who created the creation and then stepped back to police it but as part of its evolving living reality. If it is language and our energy that can alter the trajectory of our planet then a retributive God is no longer viable. We need a distributive cosmic approach to who are how our God works.

There are of course some religious people in the world today who are still committed to that ancient concept of God. Their God is one of anger and retribution for the unrighteous, and of the reward of good health and prosperity for the righteous. Bruce Prewer, a retired Uniting Church minister and author of many books which help shape an Australian spirituality, considered this situation in one of his sermons a few years back He said:“One of the most recent statements of this unhappy dogma, was exhibited recently by an evangelist (so called!).  It was offering time at a big gathering and the announcement was made before the offering: ‘We all know bad economic times are coming.  There will be a great collapse of the markets and people will lose everything they own. But those who give well to God this day will be among the few who will do well and prosper in the bad times that must come.’” And to quote Bruce Prewer at the end he said: “Yuk!” (Prewer web site 2004)

Others, such as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan and Sallie McFague, are also at the forefront of putting old theological superstitions a bed.

One of the interesting learnings that we might consider is that with the coming together of science and religion the use of old outdated concepts for God are pushing many to reject the church and religion. Not because of its marriage with science but because the marriage is forcing us to change our understanding of God. The church in the past rejected science and now that is no longer possible, In science an assertion that cannot be proven wrong is an assertion of interest whereas one that can be is false. A concept of God that can be proven wrong is not worth repeating. Remember I am not saying that God needs to be proven right just that one that can be proven wrong is worthless. This is an argument that demands our concepts be credible, scientifically as well as psychologically and biologically. There was an interesting fictional movie I was watching recently that explored this phenomenon so the questions are out there.

The truth is that happiness or misery cannot be simply equated with goodness and badness. Reality is not like that. The old superstition is a lie. And the old gods of retribution and reward who lurk in the dark corners of our minds, are false gods. We are called to dismiss the superstition, and in face if we think about it we seem to have Jesus’ word on it. When he is attributed as saying: ‘Do not pretend that the good or evil that we do does not matter’. Both actions by human beings changes things. Of course accidents, massacres, disease, are not God’s punishments. But if we don’t watch our step, we can all end up with another kind of disaster… you will likewise perish. Not as bodies, but as persons we can decay and perish. This approach to God and to evolution and mathematics and science is also part of the current ‘climate change’ debate.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes: “Global warming is not just another important issue that human beings need to deal with; rather, it is the demand that we live differently.  We cannot solve it, deal with it, given our current anthropology. We do not understand culture and society as our  forebears did, we do not understand the cosmos or our planet as the ancients did? This concentration on climate change is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are and who or what we think God is.  This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioral change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis.” (McFague 2008:44).

As individuals, as a world, we are all capable of perishng… disintegrating as persons. None of us are exempt. I was talking with my scientist son just the other day about the sustainability of the planet and our anthropological wellbeing.

He reminded me that we seem to be making some small changes in the overpopulation crisis and what it is important is that the change is coming from freely taken responsible people. The figures show that as wellbeing increases in a population the birthrate diminishes. Suggesting that we need to address the global questions of economic equity and the fact that the few are getting richer and the poor poorer. Despiite the flattening out of the middle class the gap at the extremes is getting out of hand. This will affect our sustainability. And what’s more important is that a retributive God will not be able to address the issues we face.

So, what does this have to do with Lent? Well maybe Lent might be a good time for us to do a couple of ‘life-affirming’ things. One might be to update the thinking which shapes our faith and beliefs. and change our minds and hearts about God and the other might be to look for the life-affirming clues all around us – the tender care that is being distributed without reward, without recompense, without payback. Maybe we can start a trend where the wellbeing of all people regardless of their status, contribution, culture, social acceptability etc etc, is our calling. Maybe life is always a vocation and the social, economic, political and cultural concerns are about equity for the givers as opposed to the earners. Sounds radical left socialistic rubbish but remember, politics is not about taking sides good and bad left or right but rather about the good of all.

Notes: McFague, S. A New Climate for Theology. God, the world, and global warming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.