Archive for August, 2022

Luke 14: 25-33 “Following this guy Jesus is Different”

We note at the beginning that in the lectionary this text is preceded by the parable of the great banquet (14: 15-24).  And that there; those invited to the banquet declined to attend, citing other priorities–care of land, possessions (oxen), and family (newly married). We note also that the use of the word hate is not a call to not love our father, mother, wife and children; it is not a call to harm our family, or wish them ill; it is rather, a call to heed the radical nature of the call Jesus places on those who would follow him, to count the cost and to realize “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple”.  Luke has Jesus using the age-old custom of rhetorical challenge in his presentation. It was not uncommon for such a use of the language to emphasize a point or to awaken attention to what follows.

Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. For the object of his concern is, according to William Loader, family power. “Family power and control which will not release from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge”. (WLoader Web site 2004) And Bill Loader goes on: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family”. (WLoader Web site 2004) In a society where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core”. (Funk & Hoover 1993:353)

This theme of costliness has been building throughout Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus. There is a very real cost to being a follower of Jesus. It will cost the entirety of your being (9:23–27). There is not time to go back and bury the dead (9:60), no time to say farewell (9:61). The cost of discipleship is nothing less than a complete breach with the things of this world. And what are the things of this world in a culture based on the concept of family if not our father, mother, wife, and children? Does this mean that we can have no relationship with our mothers and fathers, our sister and brothers? No, of course not. As we look to the teachings of Jesus on what it means to follow him, we see that it would be impossible to follow him and not have deep meaningful relationships, but it does mean that our relationships are transformed by our relationship with our God when we heed the challenge Jesus offers us. Our relationships with everyone from family to neighbour, happen in light of heeding what Jesus is suggesting. And this relationship, we are assured, will cause discord. What can be promised when the change is clearly understood is that persecution will come to those who follow him; there will be those in the world, those who are counted as friends, and those who are family who will reject us—that is the cost of following Jesus. It does not mean that family will reject one but that the nature of the resistance and the fear of change will be like rejection of family which is in that time and culture the very bedrock of being human. Without the family life would be impossible. The call to love one’s neighbour, to accept the stranger, to invite the outcast into one’s life are all in the similar vein, they are like the cost of loss of family.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other

The truth is that you make my life worthy

Having you around makes my day smooth and easy.

Without you it is hard for me to end a day fulfilled.

The truth is that you make my life worthy

The truth is that you give me reason to love

Without you I cannot say “I’ve loved you since the day I met you.”

I cannot stare at you from afar and know the deep feelings that rend me silent.

The truth is that you give me reason to love

The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

“Great crowds were going along with him.”  This reminds us both that Jesus is still journeying toward Jerusalem, as he has been since 9:51, and that Jesus had a large popular following. In our obsession with individualism, we can easily forget:  Jesus was beloved by many. What he said was universal and not just for the few. He “turned” to address them.  Again, in Luke, this is not unusual.  Jesus is said to “turn” and speak to someone, or some group, on six different occasions, usually with a message of special import.  This one is stark:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, that one is not able to be my disciple.”

This is reminiscent of episodes from Paolo Pasolini’s film, The Gospel according to Matthew.  From the perspective of the camera, the viewer is in the crowd following Jesus.  Most of the time, one can only see his back, though, occasionally, he turns around to deliver a difficult saying, almost as if daring people to continue following him. 

Luke appears to be doing something like that here.  The fundamental message is completely uncompromising.  You are “not able” to be a follower if you place anything, even your own family, even your own life, above following Jesus. Luke has several sayings of Jesus which could be interpreted as “anti-family.”  There are at least six passages thought to be like this. 8: 19-21, 9:59-62, 12:51-53, 14: 26-27, 18:29, 21:16.)  Of these passages, this week’s saying is the most abrupt.  (We note that the parallel saying in Matthew (10:37) says nothing about hate (miseo).  Instead, in Matthew, Jesus cautions against loving family “more than me.”) 

We might also note that “Hate” should be understood in the context of the first-century middle-eastern world.  It is not so much an emotional position, but a matter of honour and shame. In the ancient world…hating one’s family meant doing something that injured them, particularly by disgracing them.  Life was family centered, and the honour of the family was very highly valued.  Every family member was expected to protect the honour of the family.  If some members joined a suspect movement and abandoned their home, this brought disgrace on the family… (p. 235) 

This would have been a real concern particularly at the time Luke was writing.  And we know even today that division within families quite often accompanies the birth of new social or religious movements. Letters survive to this day of some Roman families who complained that their son or daughter had run off and joined some group called the “Christians.”  No doubt some Jewish families also felt the strain of divided loyalties, and no doubt some felt dishonoured by a family member’s participation in the Jesus movement.  Jesus’ saying nevertheless reflects the all-encompassing nature of following him.  The depth of loyalty was akin to giving precedence over family loyalty when journeying with Jesus “on the way”.   

This does not belittle the word “hate” because it is laden with emotion in our cultural context.  It suggests repulsion at a visceral level.  In this case, however, in the context of first century middle-eastern culture, to “hate” one’s own self means that the person disconnects from everything that has heretofore defined that person. To put it another way, one’s past no longer defines who they are.  One’s identity is no longer formed by one’s former allegiances, nor one’s experiences in life, nor even one’s genetics.  These are part of the old world which is giving way to the new world of a God centered existence. Followers of Jesus are not defined by the past, but by their work in the present and their future hope. And then Luke has another go, this time with what could be termed a haymaker punch He says: “Whoever does not bear their cross and come after me is not able to be my disciple.”  Followers of Jesus live with the expectation that they may meet the same fate as will Jesus. Like the short-lived lives of prophets throughout Judaism so too are those who follow the guy Jesus, destined for rejection and very likely by those closest to one.

And again, what is the nature of this rejection? How does one measure this cost? ‘Which of you, wanting to build a tower, does not first sit (and) count the cost, if he has (enough) to complete? –that lest perhaps, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish, all the ones seeing might begin to mock him, saying, ‘This person began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first to deliberate if he is able with ten thousand to meet with twenty thousand coming upon him?  And if not, yet being far from him, he sent a message asking for peace.

A Prisoner of Doubt

This prisoner is not bound by bars of steel,
but the barriers to freedom, remain just as real.
There is no judge that can free one on bail,
and no able lawyer that can keep one from jail.
It started so simply, just a concern here and there,
or maybe a bad memory, that grew in thin air.

One started to repeat, things already said,
offering faint clues as to the negative ahead.
One slowly grows worse, as the stories flash by
One knows something is wrong, but not what, nor why.
To try to go anywhere becomes such a task,
for over and over, the same questions I’d ask.

Then comes the times when how and why become true,
I beg: “Please help me!” and weep a world of blue.
Now’s the time doubt becomes the bus,
and every day is a dilemma to be had and such a big fuss.

The answers we give seem like assurances no one can receive.
Slowly, but surely, the doubting shuts doors we believe.

Now we can see, the beginning of the end.
What is this illness, with no hope to be found?
Doubt as a prisoner of fear

Has no place in a faith that is dear

Doubt as an opportunity to be without fear is connection

A blessing of hope and resurrection.

The two (semi)-parables of our lectionary suggest making reasonable assessments of success–or failure–before embarking on a task.  What if one gets started building a tower, or conducting a war, only to find out that their resources are not sufficient to complete it?  The result will be shame–“all the ones seeing might begin to mock him”–which, as mentioned above, was a weighty matter in a culture where issues of honour and shame were paramount.  Jesus’ would-be followers are to consider quite thoroughly whether or not they have the intestinal “resources” to follow Jesus.

The lection concludes with a summary statement:  “So, therefore, any one of you who does not forsake (apotasso) all that he has is not able to be my disciple.”  This is the third time in this short lection that Jesus has proposed that a person is “not able to” do something.  The phrase is ou dunatai einai–“not able to be” my disciple. 

First, anyone who puts close relationships before Jesus is “not able to be” his disciple.  Second, anyone who does not bear their cross is “not able.”  Third, anyone who does not forsake “all that he has” is “not able.”

We saw it coming in the parable of the great banquet.  The first invitees all had business (or new wives) to attend to.  In this lection, which follows immediately upon that one, we see that all of one’s past–possessions, land, family, assets, “all that he has”–is not able to deliver.  They are all provisional, but walking the Jesus Way, following This Guy Jesus is ultimate. Amen.

‘Creative Interdependence’

Posted: August 23, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Creative Interdependence’

This week’s lectionary suggests that we cannot thrive, or even survive, without recognizing and acting upon our sense of interdependence with the world around us.  It says that an authentic creation emerges from healthy relatedness, not pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rugged individualism, or them and us, it and me approaches.  Even the business world of today is concerned about the interrelatedness of its activity; the bottom line is already quadrupole in its aims as a result. cultural, economic, environmental and social. In claiming our indebtedness to interdependence and the integrated role of all of us, and perhaps most especially our understanding of God, our successes at this interdependence role will benefit our families, friends, and social order.  The aim is to put the “law of love” above the “law of self” and discover a world of constant opportunity to see holiness everywhere, and welcome angels in every encounter.

Jeremiah describes the interplay of divine anger and grief.  In words that are almost too human for the God talk of his day, Jeremiah’s God expresses disbelief that the nation has turned from the divine to follow gods of their own making.  Moreover, they have not only abandoned their loving and protective parent, they have come to believe that they can go it alone without the help of the one who brought them into existence.  They have forgotten the heritage of grace and intimacy, choosing self-reliance and personal and national autonomy over divine-human interdependence. One of the challenges we face is that our God has been distanced from humanity so much that many of us no longer consider our God relevant.

As a parent and grandparent, the behaviour of Israel reminds us of a toddler who says “I don’t want you” to a parent even though her or his survival and nurture depends on the parent’s love, or a teenager who boldly rebels against his or her parents, proclaiming her or his freedom while using the parents’ financial credit cards and tuition payments.  We know that differentiation is essential to growth, and that interdependence rather than absolute independence or utter dependence is what we seek.  God wants Israel to grow up and become an agent in its own economic and political well-being; but that which we name God also knows that healthy growth depends on recognizing the source of our survival and the gifts that enable us to be creative. The oceans are part of how we survive as a species. We are interdependent even though we can no longer breathe underwater without artificial means. This will be the same for us when we are surrounded by Robots empowered by artificial intelligence. Our interdependence with them will be the topic of the day.

The heavens might still cry out against our worship of false gods, idols of our own making and that is good.  Following penultimate realities of so-called absolute status rather than the ultimate ambiguous reality suggests Paul Tillich, eventually leads to personal and corporate destruction. (My words).

Individual freedom and creativity find their fulfillment in the affirmation of our connectedness and dependence on realities beyond us, most especially the intimate yet uncontrollable reality of that which we name God. Economics, politics, religious life, and relationships lived without an affirmation of interdependence and recognition of what we call divine movement in all things, including our own achievements, leads to political and institutional gridlock, social chaos, and planetary destruction. One might suggest that we have become stuck in the reasoned reductionist mode, but the antidote is not a return to passivity before God and others, it’s not about pushing God into some metaphysical form out there above it all. It’s not about forfeiting our divinely-given agency, nor is it about a radical individualism, that takes no account of the role of that which we name God or others in our own creativity and largesse, but rather a creative interplay of sacred and divine, gratitude and agency, responsibility and receptivity, and creativity and community.

Psalm 81 continues this theme of divine-human interdependence.  When we turn from God individually or corporately, there are negative consequences.  When we forget that we are part of nature, sharing the Earth with other non-human animals, we reap the whirlwind of ecological destruction and put ourselves, our children, and planetary future at risk.  Still, and here’s the rub. This God is always willing to welcome us home to a great feast, the feast of abundant living in relationship with creation, both human and non-human. Evolution, progression, hope and grace all suggest the invitation is always there. Something in this interdependence suggests that our vocabulary, our perception, our truth and our knowing is always to be. This is where I have suggested a naming of God as ‘Almost’ might be a better option. ‘Almost’ suggests that there is always more, always potential, always hope in the complexity and the seeming lack of order or predictability that we live with today A definition of entropy suggests that the gradual decline into disorder and ultimately the defeat of a supernatural or metaphysically bound God faces is inevitable. There is a need to rename and redefine that which we name God and the question is, is this because we have lost sight of our interdependent nature?

The reading from Hebrews describes a lifestyle of spiritual interdependence and awareness.  The reading suggests a way of life in which we attend to God’s presence in every relationship.  Every moment can be a divine encounter.  Marriage, conversation, and yes, even business are holy enterprises, challenging us to integrity in everyday life. We may be entertaining angels in disguise, and this reality calls us to treat everyone as an angel in the making. This is also the only way we can discern their value.

Imagine living as if the people you encounter are messengers from God, and I am not using imagination here lightly but that’s another sermon or three. Imagine if everyone is the image of ‘The Christ’ the source of insight and wisdom and the invitation to generosity and care.  How would your life change if you saw every encounter charged with “God’s grandeur?”

Jesus’ “parable” in Luke, highlights relationships and interdependence.  It says that humility is essential in healthy human relationships.  The issue is not that of disgrace if you are told to move to a lesser seat, but the willingness to see yourself in relationship with others, not as special and unique but part of the fabric of human interdependence.  The affluent are often described as “job creators” and given special privileges, unavailable to their employees or the unemployed. They are seen as the few who own everything yet as important as successful business leadership is, no one can be a job creator without employees and customers. Interdependence is the arbiter of justice and ultimately of success.

In the realm of God, the playing field is leveled economically, relationally, and spiritually.  No one has the upper hand, and although some persons may be more successful economically or more awakened spiritually, our growth and success is relational as well as individual.  Our place in society or spiritual leadership depends on the efforts and affirmation of others, and when the interdependence breaks down so does the whole of creation.

Jesus continues the conversation by counseling that we welcome persons who cannot apparently benefit us.  The realm of nuisances and nobodies says, John Dominic Crossan, is also essential to our well-being: we are connected and their achievement and self-affirmation is part of our spiritual evolution and personal growth.  Small encounters, performed with a sense of grace and care, can transform peoples’ lives and inspire them to spiritual transformation.

These stories are implicitly political and economic.   They challenge extreme self-made individualism and the libertarianism of our time.  They reveal the hidden atheism of economics without ethics as inadequate and they challenge the governmental politics that abandon vulnerable members of our society.  In their communitarian approach, these scriptures remind us that achievement depends on the interplay of choice and circumstance, and that we are called to provide a healthy environment, grounded in relational values, to encourage everyone to embrace her or his identity as a beloved child of the divine.   While good choices are not guaranteed by the support of our community, a community that cares for its children and vulnerable members creates a tipping point in which people are more likely to be generous than self-interested and creative than passive.

Another way of saying this might be to speak of a new ‘empire’ protocol. Where the normal order of things is reversed: the exalted are humbled and the humble are exalted,
the first are last, and the last are first. Sound familiar? This is subversive wisdom from a radical Jesus inviting us to see the alternative, turn things upside down. And that’s one of the shocks in this story today. There are others like eating together and sharing food
“in a society constantly threatened by hunger and famine” (Scott 2001:129). This meant that that it was often a competition just to be at the table. And those who run empires, be they the Roman empire or the New Zealand or the empire of China, or the USA,
know it is better for people to compete against each other than it is for people to co-operate together. Competition divides allowing weaknesses to emerge and by used.  Co-operation unites. Its strong and cannot be divided.

So once again we hear the radical Jesus behind Luke’s Jesus. Share.  Don’t hoard.  Co-operate.  Be more interdependent and imagine the results. Of an abundant and more holistic and sacred world. A radical Jesus who can become loaded with a heap of emotional garbage. A radical who’s revolt takes on a special form.  “He revolts in parable” says Brandon Scott.  He says: “I see no evidence that Jesus was leading a political revolution or that he had a social program in mind. He clearly affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organizer or activist” (Scott 2001:138).

He revolts in story – especially in that special story called parable. His language suggests a counter-world, a hoped-for world “that redresses the world as it is and… makes sense”. (Scott 2001:140). Let me repeat that.  Re-imagines a counter world that makes sense. That’s what people said about the vision of religion suggested by Bishop Jack Spong, and turned out in their thousands to hear him. That’s what people say about proposals to lessen greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, or remove pollution from all our waterways. It makes sense!

Of-course not everyone agrees on any of these issues and that’s a reality. So, ultimately it all comes down to one simple invitation: gather at the table, explore the communal, be together on the journey have faith with Jesus rather than faith in Jesus.

Again, Brandon Scott is helpful, on this radical statement: “In the re-imagined world of the parables we stand beside Jesus and trust that his world will work, that it can provide the safe place – the empire of God – that resists all other empires.  Jesus is our companion on the journey, not our Lord and Master… Like Jesus we can be faithful to the vision of the parable” (Scott 2001:149). Faithful to the re-imagined vision of the story. With Jesus. Amen.

Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagining the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Beyond Rules…

Posted: August 17, 2022 in Uncategorized

Beyond Rules…

What does it mean to be a follower of Yeshua of Nazareth in 2020? We have a few years under the belt now that suggests being a Christian is less about being a Protestant or a Catholic or being a Presbyterian as opposed to a Methodist, but is it still that? I don’t think it is, in that it has to be said that the difference these designations try to portray are already consumed by irrelevance redundancy and have become concepts of the past that no longer contribute to the world as it is now. While it might be said and with some justification that denominationalism and an institutionalism of the industrial world has had its day there is still a human need for gathering as a collective group of people for taking stock of what it means to think then act, to acknowledge that we don’t yet know it all and that its ok to enjoy being a responsible human being. There are signs that this awareness is happening, even amongst the increasing divisions and intolerance of diversity that seem at time s to control the world. The world is shrinking as we humans become more global and less national, more cosmic than local. Globalization of economies and partnerships is inevitable. The commercial world is interdependent for materials and trade partnerships that demand the collective and the collaborations. Interdependence is real and the relevance of differences are torn between individualism and the collective but only at a personal and superficial political and social level. Suspicions of the power and influence of the corporate bring a focus on the individual and sadly the individual loses sight of how to work collectively. The relevance of religion and subsequently of Christianity is a real question that the church seems reluctant to acknowledge or has put in the too hard basket. Even the recent Popes have had to rethink what it means to be a Christian in today’s world and it has to be said that in almost every congregation there would be such diversity of theology that it is hard to distinguish what the differences are. Sure, the practice, the way we do things, still has some difference but essentially in terms of theology, and belief there is little difference. Our theological task has become a battle for difference and thus something we should not do for the sake of harmony. I suspect that the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in its attempt to revisit the question of unity and the impact its decisions around diversity and sexuality have had on its unity are just examples of a church in survival mode as opposed to mission. Is this just waving the flagpole without a flag? The world has taken over the issue of diversity and subjugated it to the realm of chaos as opposed to order. We might all be more confused or alternatively more diverse in our thinking but is that because we have failed to keep up with change? This is a remarkable shift given that it is only a little more than 500 years since the Catholic verses Protestant Way emerged. I would suggest that just as there was a need for Luther to challenge his church and to challenge what would have been considered fundamental truths there is the same need today. Like the Roman Catholic Church in those times the institutional church today is in need of revolution, if it is already not too late, and like then I think it is in the areas of belief and practice, not in the sense of the previous practice being wrong but, rather, in its need to be relevant in its engagement with culture and human need. The need to be contextual is today being relevant in a world of huge diversity and of rapid change.

In terms of human need I suggest that our cosmic beliefs and our ecological practices need to be spoken to, spoken for and critiqued with our theological, justice and peacemaking beliefs and practices. We cannot afford to be moderate’s any more. We need to be protestants again perhaps. We need to provide some resistance to the injustice of today. The ecocide that is evident, the apathetic approach to responsible management of the planet needs the resistance of protest and the application of compassion, responsibility and collective action. Otherwise, we might have war to do it for us. One might even say that Cameron’s Brexit, Trumps election and Putin’s War in Ukraine are examples of the breakdown in our society and this need for a global responsibility. A new understanding of neighbour and a new responsibility of co-creator of society. And I am not talking of global parliament or a single administration. I am talking about attitude and purpose and practice, and ultimately a new theology perhaps of a weak power, a turn the other cheek power, a shared vulnerability that invokes a compassionate response, a theology that acts as though it believes that love changes things and that grace and forgiveness are societal imperatives not just choices. Is it appropriate for a dominant ordering institutional ideological and political evolution and practice? Is it that expectations have not been heeded and protest without transformation is doomed to be squashed by superior powers? In the end will justice suffer at the hands of might. And let’s not be naive here, this sort of resistance is risky today because it can very easily be sidelined by political propaganda paid for by the mighty, but then again it might sew some seeds of change in the understanding of a gospel power and the way that power is applied.

When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a “supreme power” that is destroying “true religion”, may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience.

Is it not time for a protest against religious apathy and its theological bases of salvation through fear and its reliance on the theory of original sin and its doctrines of atonement and penance as those things that are destroying religion and is it not time to challenge the assumptions of absolutes that lie in the way we talk and be the church. Protestant meant those who protest matters of faith and those matters of faith were about the wellbeing of society, and that wellbeing was dependent upon faith.

In today’s traditional gospel story by the anonymous storyteller, we call Luke, we find an imaginative, rather than an historical story, of Jesus supposedly breaking the law. Luke says Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when he saw a ‘bent-over’ woman, and he immediately stopped what he was doing, called the woman, and heals her. We have heard this story many times in our life-time, but can we imagine the woman in this story.

One reflection on this story goes like this. “18 years she had been growing smaller, into herself, face down, 18 years she had been bound by this spirit and made quite unable to stand up.  And here she was, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, bent and all, but close enough to the front to catch his eye. “She must have longed for something, otherwise she would not have come, would not have tried, would not have risked meeting the eyes of this man.  Was there still hope in her somewhere?  A tiny wisp of a hope, that could have been blown away very easily?  Was there still the un- bendable conviction that somehow, she was worth more than being the woman weighed down by sorrow and pain?” Then the words, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment’.

The reflection continues; “What did those words, those hands do?  Did they awaken anger and revolt in her that had been slumbering inside her all along?  Or did they make a jolt of electric energy course through her, making her, suddenly, realise that she was alive and that she wanted to live… tall?… What was it? “Was it a coaxing ‘you can do it’ or was it a commanding ‘come on woman, get yourself together’ type of statement that made something inside her decide that it had been enough, that she would stand tall, that she would unfold herself, unbend and open herself to him and to the world?

Luke’s story says the leader of the synagogue was indignant, and has him rebuking Jesus for healing her, against the Law, on the Sabbath. Overhearing such a rebuke did it tempt the woman, urge her, “to roll up in a tight ball again… 

What is so threatening about her?  Is it the tales she might tell or is it the eyes they don’t want to meet because they know what bent her in the first place?…

“How did the people around her react to the look in her eyes, the tallness that suddenly stood over them, the power and strength that seemed to ooze out from somewhere deep inside her.  Did they like the new woman?  Or would they have preferred the curled-up version?

Luke continues to craft his story by having Jesus respond to the leader’s complaints by attacking. The story’s crowds and Luke’s congregation, would have been delighted. There’s nothing people enjoy more than seeing a pompous and pious official put in their place. But the untold bit of this story is: Jesus gained another enemy. For virtuous public officials don’t take kindly to being humiliated. And Luke weaves this clue into another story later on.

What statement was Luke intending Jesus to make by his actions in this story? That people are always more important than the law? That if through the application of the law some innocent human being comes in for unnecessarily harsh treatment, then that law should be ignored? Is this a call for protest? Perhaps too he was saying something about the interpretation of law. That laws are often capable of wide interpretation, and should always be interpreted for the good of individuals. Is this a call for protest?

Here’s the point, for my title of ‘Beyond rules’… Despite all the hoo-ha often reported in the media, being a follower of Jesus, walking the Jesus Way isn’t about keeping the rules, not the moral rules, not the so-called biblical rules… It works in a totally different ball-park. It’s about giving of oneself in love and compassion, and if that challenges someone else’s rules, go with the love and break the rules. It’s about risking oneself and one’s reputation, if that should become necessary. It’s about standing up for people, even if the rules sometimes condemn those people. The most powerful and life-giving action Jesus took was to give the ‘bent-over’ woman a new sense of who she was. After years of being beaten down with the belief that she was of no value, Jesus affirms her whole sense of being. What a gift! What a ‘miracle’!

But I wonder if our storyteller called Luke also went on to re-imagine the woman. In his storyteller’s heart, did she also discover “that once you have started to unfurl, once you have set foot on the path of healing there is no way back and there is no stopping either. It will protest, it will fight itself free, rip things open, tear the bonds asunder, and it will hurt because it is beyond the rules?” Amen.

‘The Challenge for Progressive Christians’

Conservative Liberal, Radical, Moderate, Traditional, Mainstream, Orthodox, all labels that seek to claim some sort of exclusivity amidst diversity. All valid but perhaps stereotypical in response amidst a reality that is never static or absolutely definitive. Each believing it has the right to be balanced in everything. Given the aforesaid is there any point to claiming anything to define one’s theological approach to reality or at least to one’s own belief system in this increasingly secular age, if that is not also beyond singular definition.

Sam Harris in his book ‘End of Faith; said that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself. This seems to me to be a suggestion that all Christians including ‘Progressive Christian’s like I liked to think of myself as are responsible for the conflict. He said that Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed”. He names scriptural literalism as the prison of non-violence and I tend to agree. Violence cannot be eradicated because any allowance of literalism allows the violence to exist. Pretty harsh and directed words for one to hear.

I want to suggest that they are harsh words to hear in the face of our text for today also. Our challenge here is to hear what the text is saying to us and to resist the easy acceptance of a literalist reading. Listen again to the text as found in the New RSV and this time try to see it the writer taking the place of God making sense of an intimate involvement in people’s lives as well as acknowledging that life is always complex, never black and white and filled with opportunities to get it wrong as well as get it right. Imagine the text being heard in a patriarchal tribalistic, familial cultural environment and add in to that context a people who have long been and constantly are slaves, citizens and survivors of an oppressed and conquered world.

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
    and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
    and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so, it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

It is a bit of a shock when we read these words because this isn’t the gentle and long-suffering and peaceful and approachable Jesus many of us have traditionally come to expect. This sounds like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone near the end of his tether. Having heard this story it does make it a bit difficult to preach from it, because it paints such a dark picture, and because history has proved it true in so many ways.

Let’s take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit of the story. And let’s take a look at it from what could be said to be a non- literalist view and what I want to call a radical non-orthodox view. The scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar write in their notes on this story: “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce new thinking into family relationships, for example, in his suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

While, West Australian theologian Bill Loader says: “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”. But Loader is not finished.  He goes on: “…or is it?  He suggests that ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The danger here is that the peace they mean is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts and we are well aware that such suppressed issues are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity.  Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes.  At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo.  Sadly, for many people non enlightened Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly.  The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spiritualities” (Loader web site, 8/2010). That has to be a challenge to being Progressive surely?

History says that religion has been the cause of many wars and conflicts, and has divided families. In Northern Ireland, such conflict has a long history and we sense that it might lie close to the surface even now. And yet in another way we can find this story from Luke comforting. Comforting that Jesus not only knew what stress was, Comforting, too, in that he responded to it in exactly the way human beings have always responded to it.

Despite his regular habit of going into lonely places to pray and to restore his own space and equilibrium, he still experienced stress and tiredness and perhaps a degree of depression, and he reacted to it.

Some of us find even these words difficult to hear… Because being Christian is a Way of living that offers freedom from, power over and space for peace, and comfort and we often tend to see Jesus as over and above as some sort of super deity and not really a real human and so it isn’t always easy to realise how his chosen way of action, must have got Jesus down at times.

Very often we can think of Jesus as some sort of superhuman being. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the story-teller we call Luke, it makes sense. We know in our bones that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. Moreover, our present world is not one free from religious conflict. While we might have moved from nations pitted against nations and violent outbursts on a global scale might be reduced to isolated yet persistent violence in the name of causes with underlying or over-arching religious tone. People still bomb and kill other people all in the name of God, and we are now stretching what we mean by the name of God.

And while much of the present violence that catches the media’s attention 
might seem to be acts of terrorists claiming to be Religious, we know that naming them thus raises the fact that Christianity also has a tradition of violence against others (infidels, heretics) all in the name of God. We now have debates about the moderate position taking place in the form of deliberations about the meaning of words and when is violence and what do we mean by religious? One wonders if we are seeking to find the extremist to blame it on rather than how to make peace?

Susan Nelson on her web site asks an important question when she says “Is there something in our religious traditions that encourages acts of violence? (SNelson. P&Fweb site,12/2003) Do we really want to think, for instance, that it was God’s will for hundreds of people to die in bomb explosions? We might ask the same question of recent community attacks. Even though we may interpret these as acts of violence, and wake up calls for Christians to confess their responsibility in the miseries of the world, do we really want to say this violence is from God? Do we need to have the violence of God in order to hear the ‘good news’?

Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Or can the ‘good news’ itself be a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Continuing the questions of Susan Nelson, fellow process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” Why indeed!  Marshall goes on: “… is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will?  Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not ‘strong enough.’ I and John D Caputo seem to agree here and suggest that the problem might be with the so called ‘strong omnipotent interventionist, in control, God to start with and the weak God that is found in the ‘perhaps’ or the ‘almost’, the ‘yet to be’ and ‘uncompleted’ God might be an approach free of the dangers of extremism and the apathy inherent in the moderate approach. Being confident of God as a weak vulnerable God cannot be a perpetrator of violence. Or can it given the defensiveness of Christian factions bound to supernaturalism and literalism in a fear of extinction.

And then we move to the important issue of ‘power’: “The fundamental issue here is raised by the question: What kind of power does God have?  Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving? Is it punitive or rehabilitative? Does it generate compassion or a need for survival? Is it like imposed social engineering and thus coercive or is it an enticing invitation to participate? Another, important question is this: What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God?  Another question: What does it mean to win or conquer?” .(RMarshall.P&Fweb site,8/2010)

We don’t need to be university historians to know of the triumphal Christian church behind Constantine’s sword “the bloody Crusades in which Roman Catholics slaughtered Orthodox Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the use of Christian just war doctrine to rationalize countless conflagrations, including [politicians] justifications of the war in Iraq” (McLennan 2009:115-16).

So how can we hear the words of Luke’s Jesus, today. Perhaps a couple of suggestions.

Like my response to a question about different Christian denominations recently, firstly, we need to hear them in context. And that context seems to have been an expectation, wrongly, that the world was coming to an imminent end.

So, people were required to live ‘in the proper way’ even when parents or friends or one’s spouse may have held a different religious orientation. Second, we need to hear these words within the dominant Jesus message, usually summed up in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. Third, we can listen to the critics of religion.  And listen well

Sam Harris says there is ‘good religion’.  He writes: “We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality…  Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways.” (Harris 2006:88, 90).

Meanwhile theologian Sallie McFague in her book Models of God, has suggested that each age must look at how its images for God, function. And if some images work for death, it is appropriate, even necessary, to find the new ones that work for life.  All of life.

One might say that the omnipotent, interventionist all powerful, almighty God needs to become the God who is imagination, creativity, energy, insistence, ambiguity, vulnerability etc. is more attuned to a God that is love than a right, powerful overlord is.

To sound like an old academic, I might suggest that thinking theologically might help, so long as thinking theologically means more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past. We are beyond acceptance verses deconstruction. We are now in the reconstruction phase which is not about just restating with old words. And at the risk of being literal,

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

May those who are Progressives have the courage to go on that (reconstruction) journey despite all odds.


Harris, S. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf, 2006.
Harris, S. The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton, 2004.
Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”.
McFague, S. Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press, 1987.
McLennan. S. Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan, 2009.
Rick Marshall.   <;
Susan Nelson.  <

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

Are We Afraid of Hopelessness?

Today’s readings describe what seems impossible possibilities. Hope amidst hopelessness, a life of love that rebuffs a life of fear.  Todays, world is in a place in time it has never been before. Despite the fact that it has experienced 5 extinctions of its civilizations the planet is still here. It still lives. We are left with the question as to what about us in the nearing end of the sixth extinction and especially what of our faith? What does it have to say to us in what seems like an exponetial race toward an end? What are we afraid of and more so where do we find hope in these days of human history? Big questions and the importance of ‘Do not be afraid’ goes straight to ‘Where is our hope?’ What is the ‘good news?’

Isaiah challenges the people to go from apathy to awareness and transform their worship from ritual to justice-seeking.  Today in a world racing towards the completion of secularization and abandonment of ‘religion where is this thing called hope” What does it look like? Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah following God’s promises that, although they are childless, they will become the parents of a nation.  Jesus asks his followers to stay awake in every season of life, and sell their possessions to have resources to give to the poor.

In other words, and perhaps with a bigger vision of life Isaiah challenges us to explore a holistic spirituality.  Prayer and praise are important as is living through the liturgical year, but our most dynamic worship is fruitless if we turn our back on the poor.  Holistic worship is a living evolving expression, and seeks to love God by loving creation, including both the non-human and human world.  All worship tries to be grounded in grace and to inspire prophetic action.  The meaning of “prophetic” will differ from community to community and congregation to congregation.  Still, the prophetic tries to touch base with the real suffering in our neighbourhood and the world around us.  The challenge is to become aware that sadly, too much worship implicitly supports injustice and ecocide by its apathy.  If our hymns and our words of praise and excitement, drown out the cries of the poor, we are likely to experience a famine on hearing the divine word, despite our apparent piety.

The Epistle to the Hebrews portrays Abraham and Sarah’s faith as involving a trusting of the sacred with the unseen and unknown.  They launch out – you might say recklessly – with no promises and few guarantees.  They don’t even know where they are going.  This foolish faith is an anathema to those who consult Google Earth or set their GPS for a five-mile drive toward somewhere new. The narrative of Abraham and Sarah invites us to be risk takers, willing to go forth with only a dream to guide us toward God’s far horizons. ‘Do not be afraid’ is about taking risks and living in a risk-taking world. The elderly couple gives up everything secure to follow a promise.  By comparison, most us are far too prudent and careful.  Many of us will take solace in an interventionist God and leave it alone as magic. Faith becomes a noun that we can hide in and not be afraid, but is this not trading one fear for another? At the very least, we need to consider becoming prudent risk livers, open to setting aside certainty to follow the divine call.

And, then, there’s Jesus.  Is the fear all about our personal and communal treasures. Is it about what is truly most important to us?  Is it about us being willing to let go of everything to do the great work God calls us toward?  Jesus promises a realm that is unending and with a new definition of satisfying.  Entry into this realm, however, requires attentiveness, willingness to launch out on a moment’s notice, and the possibility that we have to become downwardly mobile for the sake of following this vision.  Look out for fear though because we will very likely feel conflicted as we read Jesus’ admonition.  We want enough security in this lifetime and we have obligations to family, congregations, and institutions.  If we join the way of Jesus, we may have to get up and go to respond. Like the fishermen we might have to give up a sound sensible livelihood.

I don’t know what this is saying to you but for me it says I am not off the hook, and I too need to confront my own desire for security – financial, vocational, doctrinal, and liturgical comfort found in certainty, and I need to do this before placing undue burdens on anyone else.  For starters, this text – and the others – calls for an examination of conscience to determine what is truly important to us. ‘What is it that I am afraid of?’  The hour and moment of this opportunity’s coming may or may not conflict with our other responsibilities.  It may not represent a sharp break, but it will call us to perceive our responsibilities from a different perspective.  The homeless and hungry must simply wait for any direct or indirect action on our part.  Choices must be made moment by moment and fidelity may involve caring for our families first and ensuring their well-being before putting ourselves at risk or devoting hours and days to a cause in our community.  The issue is not one of “either-or” but rather taking seriously God’s call in the moment, given our various responsibilities and personal gifts.

In our Gospel text for today Luke’s Jesus is saying ‘do not be afraid’ as introduction to the good news. This is another approach to the nature of our fear. Jesus is seen to have a habit of prefacing good news with the exhortation “Do not be afraid.” This seems a bit odd since we’re more likely to think that it’s the delivery of bad news which requires a little no-fear pep talk. But over and over Luke’s pronouncements about God’s generous ways of working in the world—about the good news of the kingdom—are preceded by the words “Do not be afraid”: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”

In this week’s reading from Luke 12, it’s Jesus, who says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

We are immediately left with the question: Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so good? Well! perhaps it’s because Luke knows that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, maybe be even a heralding of the end of a civilization, and we often prefer our old, familiar, certain ways. We hide in a fear of change, a fear of credibility, a fear of the big picture and we hide in the present. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth or a reluctance to recognize that we live on a living planet that has cycles of its own. We reject the idea of a serendipitous reality and hide in our not knowing. We are afraid that we might not understand. We are aided in our fears by the world we have created. Our advertising is based on our feel-good factor and when we feel afraid we opt out in favour of safety and certainty. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed and we shouldn’t be afraid. Or so we tell ourselves.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future. It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again. We need to be contributing, cooperating, collaborating and participating not hiding from, avoiding, and living in fear.

The book of Isaiah opens with dire warnings for those unwilling to do this living, those caught up in empty ritual — “solemn assemblies with iniquity”—whose “hands are full of blood.” Here we can perhaps make something of a connection between fear and violence. Luke’s repetitive, rhetorical preface to the gospel’s good news — “Do not be afraid”—reminds us that fear, unchecked, can lead to the worst forms of oppression, intimidation, and brutality.

The prophet Isaiah tells the people that such evil is at work “even though you make many prayers.” On behalf of Yahweh, he gives the necessary instructions: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

But wait a minute! The, people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. Maybe it’s too easy for us to see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. Is that us avoiding our own fears and projecting it backwards. It’s all the fault of my parents or my upbringing. What am I afraid of?

The grace that God offers—evident in Isaiah and in Luke—is that judgment is always tempered with mercy. We need not fear because the One who speaks to his “little flock” is the Shepherd who guides and feeds, who leads and supplies, giving us all that we need to bear witness to the kingdom. He tells us to “be dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.”

That words ‘Do not be afraid’ remind us that the words that startle and unsettle us need to be taken seriously, not run away from or denied by fooling ourselves. Isaiah wasn’t kidding around and neither was Jesus. The good news of God’s way of working in the world is also disturbing news. But the words need not undo us. Do not be afraid. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But let’s not start to chastise ourselves here by admitting we will never quite make this required transition in our lives. The truth is that we are not all social activists or prophets, and yet we must ensure that our faith communities are not apathetic when it comes to the well-being of our community’s, nation’s, and planet’s most vulnerable reality and thus its citizens. Addressing climate change, pollution and single cycle productions is crucial for the collective human race as well as the living planet. At the very least, we all need to be pastoral prophets, caring first, but also challenging. We must be willing to balance care for our family, the health of our communities, and social and environmental concern.  The task isn’t easy; if the world is saved one person at a time, we must hold all these callings in contrast, putting some ahead of others and then placing the calling of one moment in the background when other callings appear.  Sometimes we must care for our own grandchildren before other peoples’ children, but our love for our own family eventually must bear fruit in seeking well-being for the planet’s children.  We are all in this together and even a small act can be catalytic.

Today’s readings remind us to seek God’s realm in and beyond our daily responsibilities, be not afraid, and to consider constantly the need to give up certain types of security to be faithful to God’s presence in the persons in front of us and across the globe.  We may have an uneasy conscience at times and this is good news, be not afraid. It is the uneasiness that invites us to mindfulness and intentionality, and reflection on what is truly important in the course of a day and a lifetime. Amen.