Archive for October, 2021

Beneath every sermon there are assumptions that are subjective, personal and reflective of where the writer thinks they are in life, or at least are reflective of what they think is what it is. When thinking about my world and where I see the picture, I came across a phrase that I think speaks of my intent in regard to why theology, why church, why religion and why spirituality matters. It is that when faced with the questions, is God dead? Is religion a thing of the past? Has church had its day? My answers would be a resounding ‘Yes but.” Yes, because I do think that the concepts, we assume reflect these things have outlived their usefulness. This is not a rejection of the any truths but rather an honest appraisal of the efficacy of these terms to express the reality we now understand. In short, we talk about God and it reflects anything from dynamic creative energy to an interventionist man up high somewhere pulling or not pulling strings that dictate what happens.

So, underlying what follows and dare I say it much of what I write is the attempt to hold on to a revisionist, integrationist model of being, that values both the Christian tradition and historical Jesus, scholarship.

Or as my mission statement suggests ‘Honour the Mind’ It is all we have to make sense of things as conscious beings. ‘Live the questions’ not just asking them but apply them to experience as both reflective and transforming activity, and ‘Explore the Adventure of Being Human’ This is our species and it is finite and yet transformative in its participatory purpose. Its task is as some have said, the universe discovering itself and we might now have to say it is that of the cosmos or multi universal reality.

Having introduced the context of thinking I want to begin to tease out the title of this sermon and ask some more questions. Like. ‘What is morality?’ and ‘What is Justice?”  Morality as ‘Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.” And Justice as, ‘The quality of being fair and reasonable’ and I want to see if I can begin with some foundational thinking such as ‘What were some things that our parents often taught us about religion.

Your experience may have been different buy it seems that in general the assumptions of right and wrong or justice were summed up in statements such as “You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet.” It seems that prayer was something that had some sense of coercion built in, “You’d better do this or else?” The underlying assumption to this is that one must obey. “Because, I’m your mother and I said so, that’s why.” Then there was the pastoral assurance of compassion even available to the wayward child. “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.” What is certain about the above is that of resilience building through perseverance, “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables.” But its, not all bad because there is the blessing of receiving- “You’re going to get it when you get home!” and just in case this sounds sexist there is tradition to back this up, “You’re just like your father.” Then comes the education and the goal of being wise about things, “When you get to our age, you’ll understand.” And heaven forbid after all this has sunk in as a moral and just way of behaving there is the promise of a new world ahead, “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”

Of course, that is not the experience of all children but we have to e honest and suspect that a world based on fear begins somewhere. The above is fictional but if we are honest some of the words ring bells for some of us. Boundaries have to be set and children protected from unhelpful influences but the question is what are the consequences for morality and justice?

What we hear and what we believe about life, and learn from significant others, can make a huge difference to us. And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that! I suspect that for us to unlearn the world based on a fearsome and judgmental God will take some undoing and change in assumptions about morality and Justice.

The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story of the ‘widow and the coins’, could be one such example. So join me as we play with this story for a bit.

On its own, which is usually how we hear it every three years, this story lends itself easily to moralising about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, who gave of all she had. But like Rex Hunt I want to suggest there is a broader, and more important story, that Mark is suggesting here. And that broader story seems to be about naming a system which abuses poor people.

Powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows at one end. And an announcement that says you can’t do that and think you can get away with it, at the other end. And in the middle: the story of the ‘widow and the coins’.

Put all these together… and what we hear is Mark, the storyteller, weaving together echoes of the Hebrew scripture’s constant concern for widows and other outcasts. As well as the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment of their day

for exploiting the vulnerable. Not to mention the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders and Jesus’s suggestions that his own tradition was in danger of being swallowed up by the dominant Roman morality of peace through victory and might.

So…  is the ‘widow and the coins’, a story about boundless generosity and self-sacrifice? Or is it more pointed evidence under-girding Mark’s Jesus who judges against an exploiting religio-politic of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story, this widow story is often offered as a model of stewardship to encourage giving to the church. Yet when the stories are stitched together it suggests a very different reading. Nothing short of a radical protest against the use of religion and politics and power to victimize those who are powerless and vulnerable. Oops we might be back with the parents teaching the children about religion and about the fearsome interventionist God who is always watching for opportunities to punish the wayward.

This is a very crucial difference in the way we read this story and it is very challenging. because heard with those ears of protest this story as Ian Cairn’s suggests, becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201). Morality and Justice look different and have different outcomes.

I remember just the other day talking online with a friend when they said they read in the bible where God knows and will sort out the bad from the good and my response was that I don’t know that sort of God and that to read that might mean that the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book. To a literalist bible reader this was a huge challenge, not unlike that of a parent trying to protect their child and instill resilience in the face of a world based on fear.

But as an unrepentant skeptical progressive liberal who thinks that a revisionist integrationist model of religion is the way to go what I was suggesting, and continue to suggest, is something like this… When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories we need to be very careful how we do that. Because our general tendency is to do at least two things; (i) take the stories or quotes out of context and impose a culture upon them, or (ii) over-deify or domesticate them within a cultural time and place. Concretize them and make them unavailable to relevance.

The challenge of, the revisionist model is to hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories and unlearn much of what we have been taught. This for some folk that can be really threatening. But that’s what many contemporary biblical scholars are calling for. Seek out the broader context. But also listen with a healthy dose of scepticism.

In this telling comment one scholar, not from the ‘progressive’ movement, but from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, William O’Brien said: “The scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing.  Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity….”

And he goes on: “the Word…  must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths.  To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible” (WO’Brien. Web site /The Other Side).

The issue of today’s story is that any system which keeps people in poverty is evil.  Period. But to that one person, their poverty and their hunger is just that. Very real hunger and poverty, every day. And that’s the ‘hard’ saying, and its tension shouldn’t be ‘softened’.

Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable, especially if they had no sons to protect them. Both the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘widow’ come from word roots that suggest ‘helplessness’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘being forsaken’.

And what all these people have in common is their “isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness” (JDonahue, 2000, <>).

While the term ‘scribe’ in the ancient world, was more than likely used, not to described a religious group or party, but more likely was a general term for affluent landowners, probably urbanites, who could manipulate the poor brutally in order to make more wealth” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006).

Indeed, Old Testament and Process Theology scholar, Robert Gnuse says: “…we live so well because we import cheap goods from overseas made by people in factories who sometimes are brutally underpaid.  We live well because they live poorly.  We thus should identify ourselves… with the scribes in this passage, not the widows” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006).

So rather than being a story about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, it is really a story about

the need for of morality of compassion and ‘fair distributive justice. And to finish with, there is the challenge of this week’s story in our context.

We hear quite often today that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this world.  Or that the top 1 or 2 percent own or hold a huge disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth.  I am sure you have heard the statistics, and shaken your head in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by the wealthy.  But what if maybe you and I are in the top 1 percent.  To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, according to some pundits you simply need a household income of about not much more than $23,000 a year.  In this view true or not because to argue about stats is not the intension the top 10% for the globe earn around $8,000 and up…   Regardless of the figures the trend toward inequality and the state of inequity of today’s world is a major concern and one of morality and justice. And in interpretation Jesus speaks about most of us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” (BQuick 2003/ <>).

Unlearning much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible can be an exciting and challenging experience but sharing in that experience with people of equally open-minded people is a positive and empowering and liberating experience. As challenging as it can be, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical stories as if we’ve never heard them before. The call is to • Probe for fresh aspects. • Listen for new voices, including the silent voices. • Be surprised. And yes, separate the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus!

And remember that’s the journey the Spongs, and the Scotts and the Funks and the Besslers, and the Caputo’s and the growing number of thinkers of our day are calling us to share in. To take a lead in. To empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different, post-modern world. I can attest to this because I was fortunate enough to be in a congregation at St David’s in Auckland who braved that pathway of morality and Justice. Amen.


Cairns, I. J. 2004. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton: Fraser Books.

The See What is Possible in Looking Again.

The world watched as the officer knelt on the neck of a man until the life went out of him. He cried for his mother and complained that he could not breathe. The mob member misjudged the initiation requirements and a member of the other gang died with a bullet in his chest. The initiate knew there would be retaliation so brazenly went on as if nothing had happened. The community watched as the mighty made an example of him as a means of keeping the peace and maintaining control. The executed him in the public scene so as to maintain the level of fear and sustain their empirical control. They had support as the colleagues looked on, as the clan put up the defence of their own, as his friends hid and his communities of allegiance sought their own safety in the realm.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters.

What seems to strike a cord, in the similarity of the stories above is that the crucifixion was a sanitized murder within systemic violence. Another approach might be to say that because such things can happen in our human community there has to be a communal, social disfunction that perpetrates a systemic injustice that hinders a just response because it seems to be socially unacceptable to make waves, or question why such things happen. Put it down to bad people, original sin or some sort of parental irresponsibility but don’t question the system. In so doing we sanitize the reality and like the disciples of Jesus, the fellow policeman on the scene and the other gang members watching find cover just in case. They don’t question their own actions because they are too busy saving themselves.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore. It has transcended space and time perhaps and is in our very faces, it is happening now. The violence like the poor seems always with us, even if the evidence that there is less than there used to be, the world after all is a more peaceful place overall and it is communication advances that enable us to see what was hidden before and not the level of global violence expanding. It is just more visible rather than growing. We use the big picture to justify our individual dilemma.

What seems to be developing alongside this is an awareness that we are sleeping if we miss this example of crucifixion under our very eyes, it seems too complex and too far away from me as an individual to really make any difference. Like the disciples I need to make sure I am around after all this noise dies down. I need to put this crucifixion into perspective and make sure I continue to be able to tell true story. I don’t really want to ask the hard question. Is this the crucifixion all over again? Is this the systemic violence that executed Jesus.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore. But be careful here, if you agree with this then you have to think that Jesus dying for our sins is as Brandon Scott suggests, Jesus dying for our sins if a theological way to avoid what Paul says is the scandal of Jesus. Execution. That scandal being that the Jewish expectation of Gods power standing up for good doesn’t work nor does the Greek expectation of the divine wisdom sorting important things out. Crucifixion says that Rome won, the Roman system won and Jesus lost. Empire triumphs and it always does and it always will. And the best response to this inevitability is to deny its brutality and its violence. Call it conspiracy theory or wacky backy thinking. In fact evidence suggests that the followers of Jesus in the 1st century stylized the story and so began the development of the crucified Christ in a wooden cross as symbol of salvation. The brutality and violence was sanitized into a good Friday event. And take note that Jesus suffering and agony becomes some sort of divine gift. There are attempts to liturgically raise a Holy Saturday and note the suffering as a vigil, a recognition of the suffering Christ, but it is the deified Jesus that suffers, It is God’s son that suffers not humanity. The deification of Jesus bar Joseph is completed. Over time and the systemic violence is sanitized as our fault. Note I am not denying the crucifixion, just trying not to deny the horrific violence and brutality of a system trying to defend itself against change and loss of power.

When the centurion supervising Jesus; execution sees Jesus die he says. “This man really was God’s Son!” The author of this in Mark intends Jesus’ last words to be provocative and confrontational. It is a sarcastic comment that says You must be joking to think that this guy is a son of God! You can imagine the officer with his knee on the neck saying that ‘You must be joking if you think this guy doesn’t deserve this” and you can imagine the mobster saying that you have got to be joking is you think this is not a justifiable rite of passage that confirms loyalty and support and inclusion. The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore.

So, what about the resurrection? Can we say the same about that?

The shocked family was standing on the footpath in front of their house, watching the firemen swarming in and out. A grease fire had severely damaged the kitchen and smoke was saturating everything they owned. They felt deeply the probable loss of treasured items and they wondered how bad it could be. They watched in dismay as the fire was put out.  They saw the holes in the walls. The scorched ceilings. The broken crockery. Their home was a real mess and they tried not to think about the cleanup job that awaited them.

Suddenly a pizza delivery car pulled up next to the curb, and a young bloke jumped out carrying
one of those large pizza delivery bags. The father of the family looked puzzled: “Sorry mate! He said; you must have the wrong address. None of us ordered a pizza, and besides, my wallet was in my coat pocket – in the kitchen”. The delivery bloke smiled, shock his head and said:
“Yea, I know you didn’t order this.  But I saw you all just standing there and I had to do something.
“There’s no charge.  Just take it easy and have something to eat”. And with that he jumped back into his car and sped off as the astonished family watched.  (A story adapted from William Bausch)

 The crucifixion was there before them and how many of them saw the fire, shook their heads, and drove on? How many saw the people in need? Saw the brutal blow to their family and their friends. How many saw the brutality of the devastation perpetrated by the destructive event and didn’t jump to conclusions about poor maintenance, accidental use of volatile materials mismanaged, or unfortunate accident and drove on? One young bloke saw and decided to do something about it. The ‘doing’ was not some heroic firefighting or lifesaving risk taking. It was some simple words and ordinary caring.

It was similar to that of the Jesus of the Mark story who saw and heard Bartimaeus and,
as the storyteller says, did something about it. He offered some simple words and ordinary caring.

The story of Bartimaeus, clearly created by the storyteller Mark, is an interesting and important story. In the metaphor of the resurrection. There is a nobody in the world’s eyes, a sidelined person, a blind beggar sitting in the dust, suddenly, and to the surprise of all, becomes the hero of the story. When he raised his voice, people were quick to remind him he was a nobody.

Shut up you; they said! Be quiet! No-one wants to listen to you! Get back in the closet! Yet with the persistence which can characterise the desperate, he does not shy away from being a nuisance… He says; “I am not odd, or stupid, I am not a case to be solved, a need to be met. I’m a person, and not a discounted person or a person to be discounted.

Mark’s Jesus responds, hears his request, and, we are told, and makes him whole. William Loader, the Australian biblical scholar, suggests this is storyteller Mark at his subversive best.
“Mark can do this because he knew such stories.  Jesus did not sideline people. Jesus responded to what were seen as the ‘hopeless cases’ of his day” (William Loader/Web site-2003).

And again: “Whether at the symbolic level or at a literal level, the story illustrates an approach to people which is central to Jesus’ teaching” (WLoader/Web site-2003). Again the resurrection is lifted out of its historical time prison and becomes a living example.

I am sure you will recognise this ‘inclusive’ theme as a familiar one in Mark’s stories.
If you have been following this lectionary year of Mark you will note the inclusive focus on Children. Legalism. Toll collectors. Lepers. Purity rules, and Women. “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers, and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts.  They are exiles from their native religious tradition” (Funk 2002: 55).

Much of Jesus’ energy is in controversy with his fellow Jews and was spent trying to show that we must interpret scripture in a way which sees its priority as concern for human well-being some theory. The systemic battle highlighted by the execution and murder of Jesus is overturned by love, inclusion of the outcast, respect for the other and commitment to the alternative. The resurrection is the process of reconciliation, of renewal and of restoration of the realm of God.

There is another story that might signal resurrection too and it was one told by Bishop John Shelby Spong when he was in Australia some years back. We note also his recent death in the States. His story Was in what was a sharing of a theological vision for, and call to, the church. The whole event – sponsored by The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought – proved to be  a rewarding, 
challenging, and an inspirational experience for nearly everyone of the 650 people concerned.

Only one person, when 649 others were giving Spong a standing ovation, indicated a ‘thumbs down’ response.

Like the story of Bartimaeus, Jack Spong said during his Tuesday morning presentation:
“In Jesus we have met a presence of God… come among us offering life, love, and being to this world” (J S Spong. 2003).

The question we are reminded of is. “Is this what blind Bartimaeus saw in Jesus?” Was it a resurrection experience? A God presence offering life, love and being?  Another biblical storytelling person Tom Boomershine, when working with this story, says: “Jesus response is a word of affirmation and encouragement in which he gives permission for Bartimaeus to act on the power implicit in his own faith” (Boomershine 1988:128).

We can resonate with that comment. And we can also be bold enough to suggest this is what John Shelby Spong did. He gave people permission to express and act on the power implicit in their own faith or religious journey, especially when others want to say to them: shut up! The daily engagement between faith and life is relived constantly as a resurrection event.

The thoughts and words and ideas of Jack Spong are an affirmation of courage and faith and encouragement which allow that faith or religious journey to be fully lived out… offering life, love and being. Where Spong and those who respond to his vision of religion usually fall foul of conservative or evangelical church folk, is the fear of people who choose not to, or are unable to, see or hear the value of the individual in the systemic driven environment. Their resistance seems to be because of a fear of the systemic nature of the human need to be socially responsible because that will mean personal change. And we know that a life lived in fear can never bear to face the need for change, or to see the possible in looking again from a different perspective.

So, I hope you can see why Mark’s story about a bloke called Bartimaeus might be an important story in our religious tradition, at this time in human history. Perhaps we need to listen to all the Bartimaeus’ when they speak up! Maybe we need to hear then as affirming the resurrection journey we are on?

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction as well as peace and love and the indwelling of the realm of God. The story stays with us. It matters. Amen.

Bausch, W. A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications, 1998.
Boomershine, T. E. Story Journey. An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling. Nashville. Abingdon Press, 1988.
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books., 2004
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

‘Are We Pretending to be Asleep?’     

With the appearance of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic there is now broad general recognition that we have entered an emergency century, a crux in human history. The variables of global weather patterns are becoming disrupted, the magnet poles are shifting at a greater rate, the sun spots are more prevalent and appear to be more influential on the earth’s crust and the planet is warming at an exponential rate. The absolutes that provided certainty as a balance to all this apparent chaotic development are no longer viable. Does God exist is almost a redundant question at least outside the church it is and that is an ever-increasing number of people. Christianity is becoming a label many no longer want because of historic activity that is coming to light about the church’s behaviour over the last 1000 years at least.

Whether we respond well or poorly to these things will have an effect, even if we bury our heads and do nothing. The world is changing like it or not and how we respond will have huge ramifications for future generations of people and for the biosphere at large. Do nothing to curb the wholesale destruction of the ecosystem by unbridled production of a product alien to the organic, sustainability of the planet and from our current moment we could be contributing to a mass extinction event that will hammer the biosphere and civilization both, or we could by making significant, challenging and difficult change be starting the process of establishing a prosperous and just global society that will be sustainable over the long haul of the centuries to come. The radical disparity of these possible futures, the sheer range of them—but with a kind of excluded middle, in that if we trend in one direction or other that trajectory is likely to prevail—is part of the feeling of our time, which could be characterized as a general sense of danger, dread, and fear, mixed with a battered but still strong feeling of hope that our rapidly increasing scientific knowledge and technological capability, and a rising awareness of our global collective fate, and our ultimate reliance on Earth’s biosphere will combine to usher in a new and better era in human interactions with the planet and other people.

Some of us will remember when Covid 19 arrived some people were saying that there is an opportunity here to make the changes in human behaviour for the better, if we took the opportunity. There have been snippets of hope expressed in people’s compassionate response to students and rugby clubs without encouragement hit the streets to help people stricken by earthquake damage and the loss of life. The value of community was also seen after the Mosque attacks and the recent floods. The truth is we live in this curious mixture of fear and hope; probably this has always been the case for humanity, but now it has bloomed into an obvious existential and historical crisis. The problems we face now are immense and numerous. We are a global society, but we are ruled by a nation-state system in which many still regard national interests as overriding any global considerations. The emphasis on a monetarist-based trade system has had us play with a controlled tariff-based system and more recently a free trade model where again the monetarist focus has been kept as if sacrosanct. Challenge or change to this thinking has been seen to be impossible or unwise. And we have agreed to rule ourselves and run our affairs by way of a political economy that is unsustainable, extractive, and unjust, and yet is massively entrenched in national laws and international treaties. Even the idea of democracy is challenged but put in the too hard basket. So, we are left with a nation-state system that is insufficient, and yet all we have; and neoliberal capitalism has been seen to be cruel and destructive, and yet it is still the world’s current overriding system of laws.

So how do we proceed from here?  The first thing in my opinion is to ask the question of what Jesus di in his time when his people were faced with the magnitude of change facing his people. Get over the dualistic way of thinking because that just gets us stuck in the he right she’s wrong, that’s good and that’s bad way of thinking. We do however have to use the tools at hand, at the same time see them as suspect or questionable because they could actually be a big part of the problem. Own the fact that it’s a dilemma but it is one of language, concept and not a concrete unassailable fact.

One thing that may help to start our thinking here is the simple principle that what can’t happen, won’t happen. This is to invoke the reality principle in the form of the facts of science that are incontrovertible. Magic doesn’t work, so magical thinking is not going to be sufficient; physically impossible things are not going to happen in this century or any other, and so we are not going to be conducting our civilization as we have been into the future, because that isn’t physically possible. The planet’s biosphere doesn’t produce the resources we need at the rate we are using them, nor is it capable of disposing of the toxic wastes we are producing at the rate we are producing them. So, change will be coming, one way or another, and because the current situation is so very untenable, the changes coming are going to be profound. We are now already in the time of change. So, in this very perilous situation, we need plans. That’s the most important task the church can be doing.

And let’s not be sucked into the idea that the complex is a problem, that once we have got control it will be ok, This, change is not like that. This change is from a structured management model that is based on exponential growth where the most competitive wins and equality is pitted against equity and distorted under the guise of freedom. The reality is that there are solutions specific to sectors of our society and each will need a vision of change for the better. As the general problem is a wicked problem, in the technical sense of being multiplex and intractable, the solutions are therefore going to be complex.

What the pandemic has revealed is the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of imbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. As one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.” Ultimately, there is no going back to normal because normal no longer exists—except perhaps in the guise of messages of the mainstream media and politicians who seek to keep the public in a consensus mode while a small elite sucks the wealth out of human communities and natural ecosystems, all in the name of the dominant ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been a part of global mainstream discourse since the 1980s. It propagates the fiction that humans are essentially individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and as a result, unrestrained, free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have transformed the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labour. Neoliberalism is the logical outcome of a worldview based on separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. And just in case you think I am sounding like a leftist socialist or communist, those categories are all failed political labels. It has to be evident that the value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond to climate breakdown, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.

In short, I think I agree with many commentators struggling with these issues when they say we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. And let’s be very honest here such a change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It is said that if our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behaviour on a similar scale. The question might be what does this change look like? What sort of vision do we need to move in the right direction?

Well, given that this is a sermon based on the Christian and Judaic scriptures what do they suggest as a response, or better still what does the life of Jesus have to say about such a need? It is certainly not more of the same. It is certainly an alternative way of being and doing what it means to be human. Religiously, socially, economically, and politically the world has to change. On the economic terms it is to be a non-violent, and equitable. Note I said equitable not equal because it is not a world where the majority is subject to the few like our current systems and it is also a world where nature and natural organisational principles and structures are valued above those that are fabricated. Systems, values and actions need to support an ecological civilization based on core principles that sustain living systems in natural ecologies. Over billions of years on Earth, life has evolved resilient processes that allowed it to spread in rich profusion and stunning diversity into virtually every nook and cranny of the planet. As a result, if left undisturbed by human depredation, natural ecosystems can persist in good health for millions of years. A key learning is that living systems are characterized by both competition and cooperation. However, the major evolutionary transitions that brought life to its current state of abundance were all the results of dramatic increases in cooperation. The key to each of these evolutionary steps—and to the effective functioning of all ecosystems—is symbiosis: the process by which both parties in a relationship give and receive reciprocally, reflecting each other’s abilities and needs. With symbiosis, there is no zero-sum game; the contributions of each party create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. An important result of symbiosis is that ecosystems can sustain themselves almost indefinitely. Energy from the sun flows seamlessly to all the constituent parts. The waste of one organism becomes the sustenance of another. In contrast to our current civilization, which built its wealth by extracting resources and letting waste accumulate, nature has a circular economy where nothing is squandered.

So, what do we as the remnant church do? Well, there’s not enough time left to include it in this sermon which has been mainly about the why change question. The church can be part of this change but it needs to be focused on what it does best or at least what it used to do without much effort, and which in my view has led to its apparent irrelevance. It can play a part in the complex interconnection of different organisms in a symbiotic network and contribute to what is an important foundational principle of nature: that of harmony. Harmony doesn’t mean bland agreement. On the contrary, it arises when different elements within a system express their own needs so that the system as a whole is enriched. Harmony arises when the various forces of the system are in balance. This can manifest as balance between competition and cooperation; between the system’s efficiency and its resilience; or between growth, maturation, and decline. I think the church can be a place where harmony is sought in the search for the change that is required. A prayer by a J Wood has been used at a number of church meetings and it is probably a good place to start when arguing that the church is a place where alternative approaches can be debated. The prayer goes like this:

Galilean Jesus,

on hills and near beaches you called people around you

for reflection, explanation and resolution.

So now we reflect together,

knowing that we will hear wise words if only we listen intently.

We each bring some knowledge and some understanding

and we bring our faith, 

incomplete, sometimes uncertain, but willing.

Help us to complete our task together

and to be resolute in gospel action.
Amen. J Wood

That last line of the prayer sums up the humble faithful courage required of the church or rather followers of the Jesus Way, in order to respond to the change that is required of us all. “To be resolute in gospel action” as a contribution to the harmony required in the new civilization emerging. We can no longer just see our role as the place of social action. Of course, that is required but it only contributes to harmony when it is about the elimination oof the need for it, Peace and justice are perpetual goals because we will always have the poor with us, it is part of what it means to be human, it is not acceptable because it is part of an inequitable reality that requires our participation for fairness, goodness and a harmonious equitable reality.

At the root of ‘gospel action’ today. Is a demand that any such reform will include a spiritual vitality and expressiveness. It will include an insistence on a Jesus and Christ centred faith with intellectual integrity. It will support a transgression of traditional gender boundaries. It will claim that a person can be a follower of Jesus and be a faithful follower without claiming to be of the best or the only true faith. 

Today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, touches on this matter of ‘gospel action’ or ‘mission’ as the seeks to empower its listeners. It appears Jesus was experienced as powerful, but in an empowering way. His life did not require him to seek power for his own sake, but to own the power he had in compassion and in self-giving. His call was to model a new kind of being in the world. Not to be served but to serve. Not to be about maintenance, or in-reach, but to be at mission, at ‘gospel action’. So where does Mark’s story now leave us? Well, perhaps close to something like the emotion in a prayer/poem by Tom Shuman called ‘Where you sit’…

we leave our box seats at the symphony or ball park,
and pray you won’t catch our eye as we pass you
sitting with the homeless; we wait for a few minutes at the doctor’s office
to get a $10 shot so we won’t catch the flu,
while half a world away you sit for a week

hoping medicine which will cost you a year’s wages
finds its way to your village;

we sit in our home theatres, watching the latest “reality” on our plasma screens,
while you sit in the darkness, rocking your child asleep,

as she cries from the ache of an empty stomach.

Lord Jesus:
when (like James and John) we want to be at your side in glory:
remind us where you sit. 

 © 2006 Thom M Shuman

Transitioning to an ecological civilization will require fundamentally redesigning our economy. Across the world, the success of political leaders is currently measured by how much they’ve managed to increase their nation’s GDP. However, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, a life-affirming society would emphasize it growth in quality of life, using alternative measures such as the “Gross National Happiness” index established by the state of Bhutan, which assesses qualities such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity. Ever since the nineteenth century, most economic thinkers have recognized only two domains of economic activity: markets and government. The great political divide between capitalism and communism arose from stressing one or the other of these two poles (with social democracy somewhere in between). An ecological civilization would incorporate government spending and markets, but—as laid out by progressive economist Kate Raworth—would add two critical realms to the old framework: households and the commons. In particular, the commons would become a central part of economic activity. Historically, the commons referred specifically to shared land that peasants accessed to graze their livestock or grow crops. But in a broader context, the commons refer to any source of sustenance and wellbeing that is not appropriated either by the state or private ownership: the air, water, sunshine, and even human creations like language, cultural traditions, and scientific knowledge. The commons is virtually ignored in most economic discussions because, like household work, it doesn’t fit into the classic model of the economy. But the global commons belong to all of us.

In an ecological civilization, it would once again take its rightful place as a major provider for human welfare. The cumulative common resources that our ancestors have bequeathed to us through untold generations of hard work and ingenuity represent a vast reservoir of wealth—our shared human commonwealth—compared to which the value added by any individual is a drop in the ocean. An ecological civilization, recognizing this, would fairly reward entrepreneurial activity but would severely curtail the right of anyone to accumulate multiple billions of dollars in wealth, no matter what their accomplishments.

On the other hand, it would recognize the moral birthright of every human to share in this vast commonwealth. The transition could effectively be achieved through a program of unconditional cash disbursements to every person alive on the planet, known as universal basic income. The dominant neoliberal view of human nature leads many to assume that free money would cause people to become lazy, avoid work, and exacerbate addictive behaviors. In every test conducted, however, the opposite turns out to be true. Programs consistently report reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, truancy, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol consumption, along with increases in health, gender equality, school performance—and even entrepreneurial activity. For these moral and practical reasons, universal basic income would be integral to the design of an ecological civilization. The transnational corporations that currently dominate virtually every aspect of our global society would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve. Corporations above a certain size would be required to be chartered with the explicit purpose of optimizing not just for shareholder returns, but also for social and environmental outcomes.

There is much more to be said about what is possible for the change to an ecological civilization and this sermon is already too long, so I will finish as I began by saying that let’s remember that the natural world is warning us with pointed urgency that we are on the wrong track. It turns out that our audacious human inventions like the economy, state power, and technology are not autonomous machines that exist outside of history or the natural order. We are actually biological creatures, not just citizens or versions of homo economicus (the economic agent who rationalizes all choices toward economic gain). Let’s acknowledge this as a shock to our consciousness because, as moderns, we do not readily acknowledge that we are profoundly interdependent on other organisms. We thus face a new existential challenge: How can we make our modern, materialistic culture more compatible with a living, evolving planet? Despite our pretensions as champions of the Enlightenment, human life will not survive unless it moves more fully into sync with the ecological imperatives of the planet. Time to stop pretending we are asleep? Amen.

Taussig, H. A New Spiritual Home. Progressive Christianity at the Grassroots. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2006.

Clayton, Philip. Kelli M Archie, Jonah Sachs, and Evan Steiner The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Mark 10:17-26

The Habit of a Collective Society.

I want to start with a couple of definitions that might help as we go along. The first is ‘individuality or “the quality or character of a particular person or thing that distinguishes them from others of the same kind, especially when strongly marked.” The second is ‘individualism’ or in an interpretation for today’s topic; “a self-centred feeling or conduct; egoism”. Perhaps explained in our case today as a sort of unbridled individuality that threatens the welfare of an orderly community.’

Some commentators have suggested that our text indicates, what could be the first recorded act of modern individualism. The storyteller Mark says an unnamed rich man asks Jesus
what he could do to have a fully satisfying, authentic life. Accustomed to paying a price to achieve his desired ends, this man seems to assume he can attain or buy the quality of life taught and lived by Jesus. For him, life was an achievement. A prize to win. A commodity to be bought.

We can reasonably assume that this man has been looking all his life for such personal fulfilment and satisfaction. So, the thing which very likely crosses our mind is: doesn’t all this sound very familiar and modern?

Rex Hunt reminds us that some 15 or so years ago, American sociologist Robert Bellah edited a couple of books on the American lifestyle. They were called Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. In those books Bellah and his research associates claimed that the desire to get the most out of one’s life – to be the best or achieve the highest – was a hallmark of our time. This sounds logical and almost timeless in its application to human life. Hasn’t it always been like this?

They also suggested we are so intent on fulfilling ourselves and our own destiny, that we put our lives and careers above everything else. This suggests that our individuality matters more to us than the success of any larger group or institution. The question is when does it become ‘individualism’? Or a threat to an orderly community?

In a fear driven world such as that we have, (an assumption I make) we don’t have to go far to get frightened into preparing for a horrible future. similar comments. We are encouraged to save for the future shocks by joining superannuation schemes we are told to save and invest and insure… Personal or family financial security is promoted as a virtue, by taxation accountants, investment advisers, and financial planners. I am not saying this is a bad thing but rather that it could blur further the line between a creative freely given and life enhancing individuality that is collaborative and complimentary and an individualism that is a threat to orderly community. And why is this a problem? Well, I think it might just go to this thing we call ‘the realm of God’. Is this realm not one based on, driven by and expressing a wasteful love rather than order and individual ascendancy? One of the questions being wrestled with today is, ‘where is the line between the rights of an individual not to have a vaccine and the rights of an individual to have a vaccine shot and that’s a question before the argument about the suitability of any one type of vaccine. The question is whether or not it is individuality at stake here or is it individualism taking over be majority choice.

On the other hand, social commentators such as Hugh Mackay in Sydney, some time back claimed that the rise in individualism rather than community, is really driven by the popularist chant: gimme, gimme, gimme! He writes: “Perhaps our desire for more, more, more is a thinly disguised attempt to distract ourselves by constant stimulation, constant change, constant excitement, constant entertainment and the illusion of constant renewal.  But distract ourselves from what?” (Mackay/SMH-9/2/02).

Speak to many leaders of organisations such as community service groups, or Girl Guides, or Meals-on-Wheels, or the local school canteen and they will all say they are suffering today because the majority of us no longer value service above personal success and enjoyment. The golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’ is under threat by an individualism disguised as individuality. Maybe this is why it can be so easy for us Christians in the Western developed world to understand the rich man and to sympathize with him. He is one of us! Individualism is timeless, a basic human attitude. But! Is it?

Like him, we too want to be sure we don’t neglect anything that might improve our personal situation. Like him, most of us are always looking for something to give us an edge, something that will make us more successful, or more competitive or more complete or more secure. And as such, the majority of us live by the logic of the market place, and the encouragement (or fear driven scare tactics) of those with collective influence and power. We hear the response to this as protest, apathy and plain individual ignoring. Everything becomes a commodity to be used and depleted, hoarded or thrown away. And we have the heightened level of destructive change in our environment as a result of this insidious individualism masquerading as individuality.

Some years ago, now a Dr Richard Greene interpreted a local survey on ecology done by a small group of Australians. The survey measured the relative amount of the world’s resources an individual takes up, taking into account how often we use a car, eat meat, whether or not we recycle… that type of thing. Dr Greene said their individual ‘ecological footprint’ averaged out at about 7.6 hectares (or 19 acres) – per person. That means, if everyone in the world lived at the same level of consumption as that small group of Australians did, we would need 4.2 planets to sustain us all!  I don’t know about you but it is not easy to think about our personal impact on the world in those terms. But when you think about it for a bit one can see that everything I do and you do, impacts on others. The problem is clearer when we avoid individualism and stay with individuality. Web the see that some of the ‘others’ have less opportunities less choices less power, to protect themselves from the negative impact of my decisions. Perhaps that is why those who live in the poorer, developing countries, consider anyone who lives in the Westernized developed world as among the earth’s wealthy.

To perhaps make this distinction between individuality and individualism more blurred and I suggest mor important to wrestle with is to tell another story in the spirit of Mark’s story and this elusive thing called eternal life. A parallel story which invites us move beyond the acquisition of things, towards the sharing of compassion.

A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a creek. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.  “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope you can give me something even more precious. “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

The encouragement is to wrestle with a number of things when coming to this txt about the rich man. The first is to acknowledge that Jesus is not very likely to have said these things that Mark says he did. They do however have a bit of a ‘Jesus’ echo to them. The chances are that Mark or one of Marks contributors had heard of a similar story, reshaped it, and offered it to his small (probably poor peasant) Jesus movement, as they struggled to define their Christian borders and live with neighbours across the road who were different.

The other thing to remember is that we can only imagine what Mark or his contemporary had in the back of their mind when they edited and offered this story some 35 to 40 years after Jesus? Maybe their reasoning went something like this: “Jesus’ challenge… was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. Admirable as his effort had been, he had missed the point of the commandments. Jesus’ challenge exposed what was missing: a sense of compassion for the poor.” (Bill Loader/web site).