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Clear the Pathway!

Posted: December 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

Clear the Pathway!

Before I begin this sermon, I want to acknowledge Thomas and Laura Truby whose thinking is encompassed in what follows. This suggests I think that sometimes what one wants to say has already been said and all one can do is try to put it into one’s own words and thinking in an attempt to include others. Tall order but if we accept the gospels, we read then its ok. Today we find that the writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us what the book is about in the first sentence.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Very orthodox in its brevity it accepts the positive approach of Jesus the Gospel is good news) and the Romanization of the emperor. (The use of ‘Son of God; as descriptor). The first sentence is not even a complete sentence however as it is often noted that it is a “fragment, consider rewriting.”

It is however a clear statement.  The author is coming from a particular place.  There is no ambiguity about what he believes.  Right-off-the-bat we know this person, or this community for which he writes, have centered their lives in a relationship with a particular human being, Jesus Christ as “The Son of God.” 

It has the modern thinking as it sounds as though “Christ” is Jesus’ last name but we know that it really “Messiah” in the ancient Greek language, the language our author is using in his story.  So, we have a story, a gospel about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.  The people who wrote this story have experienced their relationship with Jesus as full of good news and the writer wants us to discover it.  We can wonder what this good news is and what it means for us to incorporate it into our thinking and consequently into our lives. 

Our sentence fragment says it is the “beginning.”  If it is the beginning what is the end?  It promises an answer and it suggests that this answer will be strange to our ears.  The end is the death and resurrection of Jesus and we are the beneficiaries of that end.  The story is about how this all came to be and how it already has and always will impact us.  

When the author wrote “the beginning” of the good news the reader already knew about the end.  It is all of one piece.  In the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end.  The metaphor is that the cradle and cross are made of the same wood.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are all dimensions of this gospel good news and we are about to hear the story of how this all works. 

In year B, the year we are just beginning, we study Mark’s gospel and we look forward again to exploring all that we might learn from reading it. We have an entire year to absorb its wisdom and consequently be changed by its perspective.  The lectionary will have us focusing on the Gospel of Mark with a sprinkling of the Gospel of John from now until the end of November, 2021.  The hope is that we will have an even fresher and more vital understanding of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, or the story of Yeshua of Nazareth who retold the story of humanity with promise, hope and an alternative way of living in the divine Way.  In the coming year I encourage you to read Mark’s gospel again and again.  Bathe yourself in its imagery and allow it to penetrate your imagination.

The second sentence after the “beginning of the good news” quotes Isaiah 40.  “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  The writer of Mark starts his story with a road straightener, a highway leveler; someone who goes ahead of the One coming, and pushes aside all artificial differences used to separate the high and mighty from the despised and lowly.

Here is the suggestion that there is always a time before, a different scene, We need to be careful here not to see it as a bad time about to be good for that is to reduce it to a behaviour story and it is more than that.

John the Baptizer, living outside, on the edge, recognizes no distinctions between people.  He is a wild man who wears camel hair clothing and a leather belt.  He eats grasshoppers and wild honey.  He is a combination of Crocodile Dundee and Billy Graham holding rallies in the wilderness, and people from the whole Judean countryside and lots of people of Jerusalem go out to him.  Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins he baptizes hordes of people in the River Jordan.  All of them confessing their sins and wanting to start life anew. He appeals to the people who struggle. And John the Baptist appears to be a powerful attracter.  People are moved to try harder in their effort to straighten out their lives.  They want to be different than what they are and think that hooking their star to this fierce and rugged outsider will accomplish this.  They allow John to baptize them and hope their actions will move them toward a new day.  Even as we hear this story, we know how it ends, and it does not end well for either John or Jesus.

Then John makes a statement that seems strange with his success. He makes a proclamation: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Even John the Baptist doesn’t understand the full import of what he is saying.  He knows he doesn’t have it in him to bear the full weight of all these people wanting to follow him.  Someone far stronger is needed; someone with a new way and a clearer vision.  He has given them all that he but more is needed. 

He thinks the “moreness” has to do with power—power defined in the usual way of being able to impose one’s will on another.  He cannot imagine any other kind of force in this cruel world.  The thought of power through weakness and the strength to forgive does not enter his mind.  It is beyond and outside his view.  He is aware that his view is limited and he thinks the new guy has something. He suggests that this guy Jesus will reveal it. For John it will have to be an outside intervention.

Somehow John the Baptist knows that trying harder doesn’t get you where you want to go even though this has been the message he has been proclaiming!  Something more, something different is needed.  He goes ahead of Jesus and clears his way by decisively showing that trying harder doesn’t make it.  It can temporarily change actions but it does not get to the heart.  It temporarily curbs desire but does not reshape it at its effervescent source. 

So how do we change desire?  How do we claim certainty for our future? John’s, answer, “Someone more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” he will know how to change desire, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  The difference here is that John is about changing behavior, but Jesus is about changing the heart.  And Jesus changes the heart not by the same force of power but by something different, a power of love that is a weak power, a foolishness of power over and he suggests this might be in the forgiving of, the giving of, the service of,

John baptizes with water but this One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  What is this Holy Spirit? Well! It will take the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to reveal it.  Its clearest expression will be from the cross when the Messiah, the saviour, the answer to everything is totally vulnerable to extinction and he says “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”  The Holy Spirit is this way of weak power, this vulnerability, this desolate soul, in forgiveness. It is the way of weakness, that is the pathway of God’s power.

When we are “in the spirit” so to speak we live a life of constantly letting go of the hurts and revengeful impulses precisely because Jesus showed us how and did it himself in relation to us.  Yes, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, the spirit of forgiveness.   Forgiveness has the capacity to change our hearts.  With the Holy Spirit within, we want to forgive for we know the depth to which we have been forgiven.  The artificial differences cease mattering.  We have freedom to live without worry, not because it doesn’t exist but because it can become turned around.

An attitude of forgiveness is when we feel forgiven and thus in tune with the universe and with that which we name God. This state of being anticipates the divine purpose.  It clears the pathways of our hearts.   Below is a poem written on Thanksgiving Day after clearing a path through the fallen maple leaves in front of a house.   The poet called it:  To a Passer-By on Thanksgiving Day in the USA. The poem explains what the author was doing with his heart when he cleared the sidewalk. 

Gentle Reader,

It is good that you have paused

Along your way, accepting

The silent invitation of these lines

For it was you I had in mind

When I sat to write these words,

You, holding a paper cup

Of lukewarm dark roast coffee

And a satchel filled with groceries,

Or you, clutching the dog’s leash

In one hand, with the other

Pushing a stroller around the corner,

And even you, whom I had not imagined in such precise terms

For you I drew my pen across the empty page

As earlier I drew my garden rake

Again and again through withered grass

And over the buried front walk,

Metal tines clawing wet concrete

Gathering sodden maple leaves,

Potent gift of high summer sun

Turning then returning now to earth

For you I cleared a solitary path

Prepared the way for your lonely passage

So that a mere moment of your journey

Through the detritus of this world

Might be blessed by an open space

Awaiting your arrival,

Conspicuous in its care,

This page inscribed in answer

To the ground now scraped bare.

In my memoir entitled “Almost” I explore this anticipation, this clearing the way as avoiding the potential of being trapped in a place of a fear driven power over world. I suggest that often naming something such as forgiveness, or love traps us in what is the current perception and the alternative image of the diving is more dynamic, living and time free than that. Below is my poem about the divine being found in the ‘Almost’ or perhaps in the spirit of what forgiveness seeks. The wonder beyond wonder so to speak. If one replaces the word almost with the word God or the words The Divine one sees the hope of walking a different path from what is, a more dynamic, moving, living way.

Almost is about something that is not yet

It is about to be but not yet

Its promise is in it’s all but

And its approximately

Almost is around and as good as

It is bordering on and close to

Always close upon and essentially about

for all practical purposes it is

and for the greatest part too.

Almost is in effect

And in the neighbourhood of

Assured to be in the vicinity of

Yet also just about and mostly

It is much to consider as

near to, nigh and not far from

Almost is not quite yet

on the brink of and at the edge of

It teeters on the point of

on the verge of practically and pretty near

relatively speaking it roughly describes

It substantially and virtually reveals

The well-nigh and within sight of

Mark has his story clearing a pathway for us, and this is just the beginning of the good news! Amen.

Rebirthing Christmas In a World hard to Christianize!

A hope-filled look.

Will Christmas survive the demise of Christendom? Will Christendom survive the decline in credibility of institutions? Will there be such a thing as church? What will the world look like in the future? All questions that covid-19 has heightened around the Western World that remind us of an age-old question. How can we sing in a strange land… when the warmth of Christmas is not from some domestic fire in an iron grate, but from the sun high overhead – 38 degrees celsius and rising?  Or when the Spring festival of new life called Easter ‘down under’, comes in Autumn, the season of little deaths when leaves turn gold, fall, and the grass has turned from green to brown? Our strange land is linked to the nature we experience day by day and the metaphor and story are linked as well.

Shaping a distinctive liturgical theology is and has been a recurring problem for us in Australia and New Zealand.  Because it is not as simple as it sounds.  The question has been shelved a little by the survival of some trees in the colder regions, where our national fore mothers and fathers were keen to replicate the English/European countryside.  So the thousands of imported trees do indeed change their colours in some glorious autumn seasons, and after a cold snap or two, lose their leaves by the millions.  But not every tree.  Not the native trees of Australia and New Zealand!

And while there is frost, and sometimes snow in some parts, there is no general closing down of the land. Climate change is also leveling out the differences. Spring, for instance, is not the land celebrating life from a winter-induced death, but rather the beginning of an intensification of colour. An all year round production seems nearer. 

So, as we begin our look at both Advent and Christmas we might think about the Christmas cards we used to send and in some cases still do. Today marks the beginning of the church season that comes before Christmas that we call Advent. It starts again and needs all the encouragement it can get because as with all  myths, stories and metaphor they need to touch ground with today’s cultural norms and the season needs to be Re-Birthed because of the many counter claims for attention in our world in these days.

So what is the ‘spirit’ of this season?  Well! listening to the storyteller we call Mark, the season is inviting all of us to ‘stay alert’, ‘keep awake!’—ears tuned, eyes open—but the question remains; to what?  Is it being awake to the presence of the sacred (or that which we name God) and is the awareness about that sacredness being in the ordinary.

Our text has Jesus saying to the disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. Here the task is being awake to something not realized, something new, something that is not expected. He goes on, talking to the servants left to mind the property; ‘It is like someone traveling abroad, who has gone from home, and left servants in charge, all with their own task, and has told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Here the event is part of the ordinary life patterns of the wealthy taking holidays and the servants left to be security guards looking after the assets. The punch line is then; ‘So stay awake, because you do not know when the owner of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. ‘If the owner comes unexpectedly, you must not be found asleep. What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ Here the return is not unexpected but the need is to be ready to carry on the ordinary servant tasks.

The challenge here is not looking for some so-called spectacular and mythical supernatural end times with a new beginning. The Re-Birthing is of the ordinary in the ordinary and the awareness is to be found in the ordinary as Re-Birthed. Nor is it in some ‘Frosty the Snowman’ pop song imagination.  But it is rather by Re-Birthing the God-given ‘incognito’ moments, in the ordinary. In the ordinary, as in flowering bushes or Pohutukawa. In the ordinary… like the sound of tree branches knocking together in the hot Summer wind. In the ordinary… like the summer rain, and the realisation it is not a singular thing this is a complex age. But rather rain is made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing. Complex is ordinary. In the ordinary… like a young woman called Mary or a bloke called Yeshua in his ordinary human-ness living an ordinary life in his part of the world. It was his ordinariness that contrasted with what impact he had on his world and the radical challenge he brought to his situation, So, much was this challenge about being aware in the ordinary of what he was saying and doing with his life.

In the ordinary… like the lovemaking songs of the cicadas, and the beckoning songs of the native birds we are being challenged to consider the need for a fresh awareness of our creative capacity. Be aware that inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings. The human creative mind continues to explore the boundaries of the ordinary in search of the new and discovering that it is always in the ordinary. In the ordinary we are being asked to be aware of what actually is available. How is one infected or inspired by hope. And not just an optimistic hope, but rather the more rugged hope that sayseven if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right “we will endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us  This call from the ordinary to watch and listen for the ordinary is a kind of hope that requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready outcome.

In today’s ordinary it is what we might call a Serendipitous Creating God who is creator, creation and the creating energy all in motion and it acts in and through the ordinary in other words us and others who receive our actions. The call is to consider the invitation to re-tune our senses to a watchful presence  of a sacredness event in the ordinary, in the every-day, in the outsider, in the new. Advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic invitation to re-imagine the world.

The Christmas we celebrate today might seem like a timeless weaving of customs and feelings; however we need to remember that the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that defines Christmas is little more than 130 years old. There has to have been a reason for the season and there still needs to be.

As a ‘pre-Christian’ festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life and work situations.  As a Christian celebration, the ‘Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until sometime in the 4th century and then only as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals, political expediency, and the removal of thinking tagged ‘heresy’.

The ordinary seemed to have got lost in this development and the institutionalisation of Christendom got swallowed up in the need to control and hold sway over the collective conscious. The ordinary had to be sidelined so that a single movement of the collective could be sustained.

In the history of Australia and New Zealand the Christendom movement struggled and Mission from the North was required to tell the story. It as we know forgot about the ordinary and imported Northern cultural symbols and practices which were out of sinc with the natural seasons and thus the ordinary. In reality, Christianity was in the main rejected by the locals and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years.  This is born out by what is written of the history. There was a need to celebrate the victories over the ordinary and matters like the Treaty settlements were celebrations over the ordinary. Which has led some to conclude that in Australia and New Zealand, Christianity has always been rather a casual affair.  At best, “the Australian nation was only ever superficially christianised” (Wilson 1982:6).  By contrast to the European settlement of America, Australia was not in the main settled by religious refugees on a mission of hope, but rather was a gaol for criminals and social outcasts—an ordeal of exile. New Zealand may have had more religious focus in its settlement perhaps induced by its size, and population and its people’s tribal culture.

In early days of the Australian colony at least Christmas held little importance.  Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, a holiday was not declared.  The day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican Church parade.  If punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.  Indeed, it would appear that on the first Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested and, because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150!  At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.

Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the Australian colony, in the latter part of the 1800s, like of the movement in New Zealand it appears to have been mostly through ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.  Old customs and symbols were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.  These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and New Zealandised and became increasingly nationalistic.

While American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s some enterprising Australian artists a few years later attempted a re-birthing by giving him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh. An attempt at defining the ordinary perhaps?

In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas can be found in the nativity stories by the anonymous storytellers we call Matthew and Luke, in the Bible.  That is, people of early Christendom felt something novel had occurred with the birth of Jesus. 

Two stories that are very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content

Luke 2:1-7 (Inclusive Text)

Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census

of the whole world to be taken.

This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,

and everyone went to their own town to be registered.

So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee

and travelled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem,

since he was of David’s House and line,

in order to be registered with Mary,

his betrothed, who was with child.

While they were there, the time came for her to have her child,

and she gave birth to a son, her first-born.

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger

because there was no place for them at the inn…

Matthew 2:1-3 (Scholars Edition)

Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king.

Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem just then.

“Tell us,” they said, “where the newborn king of the Judeans is.

We have observed his star in the east

and have come to pay him homage.”

When this news reached King Herod, he was visibly shaken,

and all Jerusalem with him…

Both came rather later in the biblical tradition—probably anything from around 85 CE – 125 CE.  And in spite of the modern tendency to homogenise them into one classic tale, they are very different.  As a theological seminary professor once wrote:

“… Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background.  The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded.  Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale.  Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting” (Griffin 1982:55).

Of these two stories (or “fairytales” as another calls them (Ranke-Heinemann 1994)), one, Luke’s birth story of Yeshua bar Yosef has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.

For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story.  The story brings together the imperial power of the divine saviour Augustus, lowly shepherds, and angels from heaven—all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home.  The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendour of a chorus of angels are strong storyteller clues as to how the story’s listeners are to make sense of this story.

Again we find the story being told in the setting of the ordinary of the day but why these stories?  Scholars suggest there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories. 

To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people, the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.  Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:

(i)  a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,

(ii)  an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,

(iii)  an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,

(iv)  a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and

(v)  praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor (McGaughy 1992).

In general terms these elements can be found in the biblical infancy stories.  Yet it wasn’t until after Emperor Constantine “consciously chose Christianity as his Empire’s new civil religion” (Kennedy 2006:221) —in 313 CE—that there was a significant change in both attitude and authority surrounding Christianity, its stories and developing doctrines. The institutionalisation and the control of the ordinary as opposed to the control of the alternative story begins.

Having been oppressed and persecuted by Rome for some 300 years, Christianity suddenly came into imperial favour, even becoming the official religion of the empire:

“… bishops, of disparate schools of thought, once targets for arrest, torture, and execution, now received tax exemptions, gifts from the imperial treasury, prestige, and even influence at court, [while] their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence” (Pagels 1988:xxv).

Then another extraordinary event happened 12 years later—in 325 CE, when Emperor Constantine stepped in to resolve an internal church dispute threatening civil strife.  Constantine took the unprecedented step of calling what was to be the first general council meeting of the church, in Nicea.

Representatives came from all over: Antioch, North Africa, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and Northern Italy.  The Council of Nicea was about merging the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith—or as it has been called, implementing the ‘divinity test’.  It was also about solidifying or standardising the beliefs and liturgies of the church.  And of course, its flip side: excluding those who taught or believed or did, something different. The ordinary became contained and the evolution of thinking with it.

Also worth noting: the establishment of the Christmas feast first appears on the liturgical calendar in Rome in 336 CE, 10 years after Nicea.  Prior to that Epiphany (or ‘old Christmas’ celebrated on 6 January) was seen as more important than Nativity (celebrated on 25 December).  The conflict was finally smoothed over with a decision to combine Christmas with Epiphany, which liturgically became know as the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’.

So the development goes like this: from birth of a human person, a brother; to the transcendence and distance of God “modelled after an exalted royal emperor” (Roll 1995:177) —Jesus of history to Christ of faith.  Or as one of my mentors has put it: Jesus the iconoclast to Christ the icon (Funk 1996:44).  Now that has to be some shift!

The question we are left with is that as storytellers, interpreters, poets, composers, liturgists and artists, how can we approach the Re-Birthing of Christmas ‘down under’ in the 21st century?

In New Zealand we have been called by the creative genius of Shirley Erena Murray.

Carol Our Christmas

Carol our Christmas,

an upside down Christmas;

snow is not falling and

trees are not bare.

Carol the summer, and

welcome the Christ Child,

warm in our sunshine and

sweetness of air.

Sing of the gold and the

green and the sparkle,

water and river and lure

of the beach.

Sing in the happiness

of open spaces,

sing a nativity summer

can reach!

Shepherds and musterers

move over hillsides,

finding, not angels,

but sheep to be shorn;

wise ones make journeys

whatever the season,

searching for signs of the

truth to be born.

Right side up Christmas belongs

to the universe,

made in the moment

a woman gives birth;

hope is the Jesus gift,

love is the offering,

everywhere, anywhere,

here on the earth (SEMurray)

And:

Star-Child, Earth-Child

Star-Child, earth-Child

go-between of God,

love Child, Christ Child,

heaven’s lightning rod,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Street child, beat child

no place left to go,

hurt child, used child,

no one wants to know,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Grown child, old child,

mem’ry full of years,

sad child, lost child,

story told in tears,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Spared child, spoiled child,

having, wanting more,

wise child, faith child

knowing joy in store,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Hope-for-peace Child,

God’s stupendous sign,

down-to-earth Child,

star of stars that shine,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive! (SEMurray)

On the song ‘Star Child’ Shirley Murray writes:

“The whole thrust of ‘Star-Child’ is for the entire world to experience Christmas, from street kids to the forgotten elderly, and this has to be expressed in language we now relate to.  Hence [such language]… represents an attempt to make our imaginations work in the present world rather than the unreal past….

In the ordinary

And again:

“Maybe our re-awareness of the full humanity of Jesus, rather than his divinity, is the point which allows us to move from Church language to ‘secular’ language…  I’m thinking of the impact of the parables (people stuff, ‘everyday’ language), as well as the fierce arguments of Jesus with the religious lot in more ‘religious’ language.  ‘Telling the story’ is a ‘secular’ thing, while preaching the doctrine the Church thing”.

While the religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth may have come to provide the fundamental rationale for the festival within the Christian Church, for the most part and for most people, they no longer function as determinative.  Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration, which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own.  And for many people today Christmas is just that… Christmas!  Something to be entered into and enjoyed, if possible.

Christmas has always been an extremely difficult festival or holiday to christianise!  No matter how vehemently preachers or theologians or ordinary churchgoing folk might decry the fact, or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus, or try to establish who influenced whom for what purposes,

“the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment…  Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment” (Roll 1995:257, 269).

Christmas is the most human and loveable, and easily the most popular, festival of the year involving nearly all the population.  It would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today

“unless it had struck deep folk roots… and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response” (Roll 1995:271).

Why?  Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and our modern popular culture celebrations are essentially life-affirming.  They say ‘yes’ to life.  For life is not a great ready-made thing out there.  Life is ourselves, and what we make it.  “Life is a buzz that we generate around ourselves.  It includes everything and excludes nothing” (Cupitt 2003).

It is our ordinary.

Such a view stands in shape contrast to many church-going Christians with their unchanging Sky God, and who still are “pessimistic as regards this earth, and value it only as a place of discipline for the life to come” (Miles 1912/76:25).  No wonder the ordinary gets a bad name!

At its best, Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be.  Where we see ourselves moved by generosity, inspired by hope, and uplifted by love, not only for ourselves but for the whole evolving universe.  Not only a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also an invitation “to assume responsibility for this sacred birth happening in and through us” (Sanguin 2010: 18).

Likewise, I suggest, the problem with Christmas is not ‘commercialisation’.  The problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. No longer stands out in the ordinary. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant.  There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety.  As one scholar has suggested:

“The dynamic is similar to the difficulty we have seeing rainbows and smelling roses.  Rarely do we experience beauty in depth.  Instead we move on to something else, distracted just enough to miss that which is most important and immediate” (Frazier 1992:71).

Both Advent and Christmas through a southern hemisphere lens, are best seen as we are open and receptive to their simple mystery amongst the ordinary:  being sensitive to and surprised by, opportunities from the present moment when an incognito God is in the midst of ordinary daily events.  When both are parables, in which everyday, ordinary events, take completely unexpected turns.

(As an aside… it is interesting that both Christmas and Easter are related to the cycles of the earth rather than to any actual dates of Jesus’ birth and death.  We do not know when in the year Jesus was born.  We do know when he died.  Christianity tied his birth to the northern hemisphere winter solstice, and his death to the northern hemisphere spring equinox, the latter being a ‘moveable feast’—anywhere between 22 March and 25 April—tied to the moon cycle as well as that of the earth.  Christianity is a latecomer to the elemental rituals and celebrations of humanity!)

It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history so maybe it’s time to Re-Birth Christmas.

Notes:

Blainey, G. 1987. “Sydney 1877” in (ed.) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788. NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates.

Breward, I. 1988. Australia. The Most Godless Place under Heaven. VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.

Cupitt, D. 2003. Life, Life. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Frazier, R. T. 1992. “Christmas should be softly spoken” in Quarterly Review 12, 4, 69-74.

Funk, R. W. 1996. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover (ed.). The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. McMillan.

Geering, L. G. 1998. Does Society Need Religion? NZ: Wellington, St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society.

Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Griffin, G.  1982.  “The colour of joy” in Nigel Watson. (ed.) Jesus Christ for Us. Reflections on the Meaning of Christ appropriate to Advent and Christmas. VIC: Melbourne. JBCE.

Inclusive Readings. Year C. 2007. QLD: Toombul. Inclusive Language Project. In private circulation.

Kaufman, G. D. 1993. In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology. MA: Cambridge. Harvard University Press.

Kennedy, J. 2006. The Everything Jesus Book. His Life, his Teachings. MA: Avon. Adams Media.

McGaughy, L. 1992.  “Infancy narratives in the ancient world” in The Fourth R 5, 5, 1-3.

Miles, C. A. 1912/76. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. NY: New York. Dover Publications.

Pagels, E. 1988. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. NY: New York. Vintage Books/Random House.

Rank-Heinmann, U. 1994. Putting Away Childish Things. Translated by Peter Heinegg. NY: New York. HarperCollins.

Roll, S. K. 1995. Toward the Origins of Christmas. The Netherlands: Kampen. Kok Pharos Publishing House.

Sanguin, B. 2010. If Darwin Prayed. Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Canada: Vancouver. ESC Publishing.

Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed.) The Shape of Belief. Christianity in Australia Today. NSW: Homebush. Lancer Books.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘Awaken Us to What is Already Among Us and Do It’

How radical is this story from Matthew? What is it about what he says, that is radical? I think it was radical to say that our love for others enriches God’s experience. And it was radical to say that the differences between sheep and goats is reversible. God truly is, as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claims, the fellow sufferer who understands. There is a change that comes about when we love someone and the differences remind us that the opportunities to care for the vulnerable are endless. These things have to be radical because if what we do truly shapes the quality of the divine experience, then ethics involves, in part, the questions: Will our actions bring greater beauty or ugliness to God’s experience? Will we open the door to greater influx of divine activity by actions that bring wholeness, beauty, and justice to the world?

There is judgment for the complacent and unconcerned in this because while the gulf between the sheep and the goats is not irreversible, the gulf between them can remain and the pain felt by the goats involves an awareness of this radical promise of love being already here. The removal of pain is in the recognizing of missed opportunities to care for the vulnerable and thus contribute something of beauty to the divine experience. Perhaps, the pain will be redemptive and they too will be restored to companionship with God and the vulnerable.

John Cobb and David Griffin have called this radical awareness a “creative-responsive love.” God’s love for the world is intimate. The Christmas story reminds us of the intimacy in its metaphor of incarnation. The birth of a human Child is as if the divine and human combine on earth. The divine gives life to all things and receives the experiences of the creaturely world. There is a oneness about this divide between sheep and goat. There is learning and acceptance and there is a response that is holy and good. The intimate response to the joy and sorrow of creation, seeks to bring beauty out of life’s imperfections and ambiguities. The intimacy of co-creative engagement in creation is revealed as a dynamic living relationship.

Here we have a gospel story that says a culture that supports the rich and comfortable but cannot come up with a dollar’s worth of sugar and salt for the poor is in for one heck of a shock. C S Lewis, has made this anthropological, but none-the-less interesting comment: He says; “When we get to heaven, there will be three surprises: First, we will be surprised by the people we find there, many of whom we surely had not expected to see. Second, we will be surprised by the people who are absent. The ones we did expect to see but who are not there. And the third surprise, of course, will be that we’re there”. The presence of the divine is not what we expect. The most radical shock of our story is, that the presence of the divine is hidden in the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned. And Matthew says; this present-ness in basic human need goes unrecognized by both groups of people. Neither the ‘righteous ones’ nor the ‘unrighteous ones’ recognised this present-ness. Both were looking for the divine in other places and other events. And both were shocked. Thus, if we are to recognise the present-ness of the divine in basic human need, we need to foster a compassionate consciousness. We need to awaken to what is already among us, and do it.

It seems evident Jesus taught love of God and neighbour and lived compassion. It also seems evident that when Jesus was speaking about God’s realm, he was saying that God’s realm equals compassion. That the realm of God means the coming of compassion. Do not confuse the godly realm of compassion, Jesus seems to be saying, with a place or rungs on a ladder. God’s realm is not a place or an object or a noun. It is a verb… ‘among you, in your midst,’ Jesus says.

Matthew Fox suggests this is less about ‘within-ness’ and more about ‘among-ness’ being the key to the kingdom”, “And the messianic age, the age of salvation for all, is now here.  Compassion is at hand”.  (Fox 1979: 25-33) This seems to be a way of keeping anthropocentrism at bay while still claiming an intimacy like no other between God and human. Likewise, Bishop John Shelby Spong in one of his books says that we need a new God-definition that resonates with the humanity of Jesus. He writes; “What I see is a new portrait of Jesus…  I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered…  I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny our access to a deeper humanity” (Spong 2001:131). The differences between sheep and goats disappears in the divine intimacy.

Professor Joe Bessler-Northcutt, from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, said in a sermon in Australia some years back that from a theological perspective, this is the most radical text in the New Testament. Viewed as a test of faith, one has to notice there is no dogmatic text here, no inquiry about the catechism or right belief. In fact, one doesn’t even need to recognize the King, or believe in the King, so, this is remarkable. He noted also that we get this story wrong every time.  His example was that ‘he frequently hears during the ‘announcements’ in church: ‘we’re taking dinner to the homeless shelter this Thursday night; why don’t you join us as we bring Christ into their lives’.” But he said; that’s not what the story says. The king isn’t present in the one giving the water or the clothing. The king is present in the one in need. We go to them to be changed not to change them.

He also said that this story doesn’t ‘predict’ a literal final judgment. It’s actually a wisdom story, about what ‘finally’ matters. Again; he said: “And as I thought about this text in light of coming to Australia, I’ve found thinking of this story as a text of desire and asking myself: ‘what does this text long for; what is this text dreaming about?’” He then went on to say: “Matthew’s story dreams of a deep bond of God and humanity: For every need an adequate response.  That beautiful back and forth movement between I and you depict this; I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was naked and you clothed me… What we have is a rhythm of need and response; an economy of abundance, or at least enough.  God is in the midst of humanity, and not lording it over everyone with the powerful, but rather, hidden, as a dream would have it…

“But as the nightmare is the flip side of the dream, those who failed to respond to human need cannot, by definition, enter the intimacy of the common good… Instead of the former harmony that we find in the intimacy of the incarnation, bond of the co-creative relationship, we hear this discordant, out of balance ‘no’ response to every need…

“But; and this is a crucial motive to Matthew’s story, or dream: there need not be an economics of scarcity; even in the midst of actual scarcity we can still choose to act out of a logic of abundance – we can still choose to respond to the face of the other.

“This ‘dream’ is Matthew’s attempt to convince his own community of hearers and readers of a common dream… If those hearing the story can learn from it, then we can all get it right – it is in our power, says Matthew, to create a community that attends to the common good.” This suggests that Matthew’s story or dream is about what finally matters. I want to leave you with a poem by Christine Fry, that has the same thing in mind. She wrote this back in 2004:

You’ve asked me to tell you of The Great Turning,
of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.


We turned.

For hundreds of years we had turned away as life on earth grew more precarious.
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets,
the stench from the river,
the children orphaned in Iraq,
the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.

We turned away because that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain,
from the hurt in another’s eyes,
from the drunken father
or the friend betrayed.

Always we were told, in actions louder than words,
to turn away, turn away.

And so, we became a lonely people caught up in a world moving too quickly,
too mindlessly towards its own demise.

Until it seemed as if there was no safe place to turn.
No place, inside or out, that did not remind us
of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.

Yet on one of those days someone did turn.
Turned to face the pain.
Turned to face the stranger.
Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes.
Turned to face himself, herself.

And then another turned.
And another.
And another.
And as they wept, they took each other’s hands.

Until whole groups of people were turning.
Young and old, gay and straight.
People of all colours, all nations, all religions.

Turning not only to the pain and hurt but to beauty, gratitude and love.
Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts…



Notes:
Fox, M. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row, 1979.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

St David’s

Posted: November 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

St David’s

When a passionate person interested in saving the Church building from demolition, not that such an act was even discussed by the congregation with any certainty; called St David’s building a Cathedral they exposed the heritage of St David’s to popularism and to the world of marketing. Even though history shows that fewer people value the place of religion, and church in society the idea of preserving historical buildings is a commodity that can be marketed to raise funds. Again, the question of materialism and usury which traditionally the church has warned against is laid aside in the interests of preservation.

In a traditional Presbyterian culture a Presbyterian Cathedral is an oxy-moron at least and an anathema to the founders of The Presbyterian Church at worst. Remember, a Cathedral is reliant on it having a Cathedra or a Bishops Chair, and remember the strong opposition to Church Union due to the desire for Bishops. In calling St David’s a Cathedral one could argue that ecclesiological sensitivity and heritage is in danger of suffering from expediency.

However, in calling the building a cathedral we are reminded of what the congregation of St David’s have been saying repeatedly over the last five or so years. The Church is the people not the building. And they have been saying this not in defence or to make a point of elitism. They have been saying it because the Cathedral was a place where the civic and the religious met in practice. It was and still is in some liturgical sense, the place where ceremony and meaning and service and interaction takes place. Livestock was traded there in many ancient cases, In St David’s historical world Corporate Board members and directors and CEOs rubbed shoulders and discussed the world, tested the morality of their economic and management strategies. Community met there and shared values were developed, people played there, people socialized there. In St David’s world the entrepreneur the social developer, the civic minded, the university academic, the medical professional, the legal professional, the construction industry leaders were all represented and gathered as congregation to talk sing, discuss and play together. The development of the City of Auckland in perhaps a time of its greatest expansion was significantly created by the people who were St David’s congregation.

Through St David’s, people in its history has served many purposes in the civic life of this city and even the country as well as the life of the church. While town commerce and livestock trading may not have taken place in its buildings, civic ceremonial events were held and they have reflected history and culture in a degree heightened by the longstanding role and power which the church has exercised in previous centuries. St David’s has acted like a cathedral and has had space and resources to sponsor and encourage the arts, be it in music, paintings, poetry prose or sculpture as well as theological exploration and the art of praxis. It is also true that whether they are of any architectural significance or not the very buildings are part of St David’s heritage. More so because of their use rather than their existence.

It is also true that many cities would be the poorer without its cathedral and in this case without St David’s, Auckland would have been the poorer for its commitment to those on the very margins of society, street drinkers, drug addicts, the homeless, through its longstanding hosting of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Ala-non,  Men’s Group and its very effective opportunity Shop St David’s has acted like a Cathedral in many ways sometimes in its Presbyterianism, more effectively than some Cathedrals themselves.

And what is yet to be fully understood St David’s has offered New Zealand society in recent years, a challenging and brave self-critique of church, religion and Christian Faith. Its people have been committed to being a haven for those who are curious about religion, who can slip in and slip out without obligation. It has been a resort for those who flee from their churches if they have become too evangelical or too conservative, too charismatic, too ‘jolly’, too predictable and arrogant. St David’s has been like a cathedral perhaps as a place that in its offering of anonymity seems a safer space than a local church or chapel. St David’s has maintained a degree of a classic Presbyterian way of worship which is measured, ordered, and yet open to innovation of thought. It has sought to offer intelligent and thought-provoking liturgies, sermons, and music which values congregational singing and stimulates theological thinking.

St David’s has throughout its existence as a parish has also displayed a rugged independence of mind. Until recently the parish has called Ministers of note in the wider church that some have suggested maintains an elitism while truth be told, there has been a strong commitment to scholastic rigor and well-read leadership as a way of encouraging a pragmatic practicing faith response. There have been recent examples of contemporary issues where its pragmatism has enabled diversity of opinion to be valued, such as the acceptance of openly gay leadership and acceptance of same sex marriage. One might suggest that St David’s people as a community have tested the doctrinal, creedal literal conservative viewpoints as part of their walking the Jesus Way. It has in recent years been a part of the global movement named Progressive Christianity in its traditional commitment, often unstated, to open, enquiring theology, that enables those who may sit light to the doctrinal claims of Christianity but find in a thinking faith and in both music and art a sense of otherworldliness and self-critique akin to a traditional faith. A commitment to theopoetics as opposed to theology has been something that St David’s has been able to explore within a City Church, Cathedral like setting of anonymity rather than a clubby, chummy church experience for those who prefer a certain sense of detachment from the worldliness.

What has been a downside of the recent heritage building focus of energy has been a deterrence from a radical sense of bringing in the kingdom of God as seen in the life and teachings of Jesus – distortion of a concern for justice and compassion, and added complexity to the desire to transform our society to become a more equal and sustainable world.

St David’s despite the perceptions imposed upon it has always valued a society where those on the margins are brought into the centre. This is not exclusive to St David’s as many churches are engaged in this calling but City Churches like St David’s have always had a pivotal role to play, thanks to their somewhat privileged and traditionally well-resourced position. And here is perhaps is the source of St David’s dilemma. Its traditional member has been a largely white, middle class, middle to older aged congregation, coming in from the wealthier suburbs, with choristers, teachers, elders and leaders often drawn from the city’s private schools, serving a transient local populace and in recent decades an increasingly multi-cultural urban population. To its credit there has been a reaching out across the city but somehow attending a service does seem to be somewhat out of kilter with contemporary life. Many obviously enjoy the pomp of and ceremony provided by the Cathedral model. The processions provided within the anonymity of a larger gathering provide this sense of being part of a larger community and this is borne out by the decline in attendance as the congregation reduces in number as well as in St David’s when the congregation moved away from worship in the brick building. Another example of this might be the decline in ethnic congregational connections, projects and foci of language ministries, while well supported, failed when less anonymity was available. The loss of cultural norms due to the smallness of gathering was detrimental to growth.

So, change is upon us. But what is this change to be and what facilitates it and resources it? The professed desire of St David’s has always been to better serve the urban mix of people in this city and it has been by a wider participation in the needs of the city and there are a number of suggested causes as to why St David’s now faces closure.

One is the closure of the brick building and the loss of communal anonymity that has been its strength does seem to have affected the gathering. It has become more familial and less inclusive as a result, and there are claims of abuse of privilege and bullying of people in leadership. Conflict has been more obvious and thus detrimental. That might sound emotive and exaggerating but in essence a healthy level of conflict has been inherent in the DNA of St David’s. Throughout its history there have been conflicts of thought and interest that have been resolved both arbitrarily and otherwise, such as which side of the Newton Gully to locate the parish, where to build the new church, how much to pay for the organ that some of the congregation wanted to bring back from the dissident group?

How much to pay for the new church building, what to do about the leaking walls, roof and Oamaru Stone around the windows. How to use the manse at the back of the church, Where the office should be and so on. All logical debates within communities one could say but also the logical outcome of a community under siege from difference. In St David’s case it could be said that the pressure to meet heritage values, economic viability issues surrounding property in inner city Auckland as well as wider church strategies has meant closure is an inevitable and logical option. The question remains as to its value as a missional, developmental and future enhancing option. It may be the closure is and was the best one for the future and that will be discovered if human spirituality needs it.

The issue of the future is perhaps even more complex than we think as our traditional form of Christendom has been shown to be no longer an effective vehicle for the sharing and exploration of Spiritualty on a public social construct of an unlimited mass scale, that Congregational fragility has been exposed by Covid-19 and by required levels of critical mass and community capacity. The questions; do congregations have to be of a certain size, do they have to be multicultural or language and culture specific or is there a single definition of mission, have been debated for many years without resolution and do they need resolution is raised as a result of experiments.

Maybe St David’s is once again leading the way? Maybe once again the pragmatism of St David’s is asking the questions about the future of the Christian faith, is Christendom the only mode of being? Is it time to learn from the past and specifically from the days of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth? It is time to put aside the theological isms and remember the power of his example that enabled the living through of an empires demise, a religion’s evolution and a worlds social, economic and political transformation with a certain hope of not just renewal, but a new life of unprecedented outcome.

Maybe it’s time to see the closure not as a sad ending but as a significant opportunity for the new thing. In other words, take out the choir pews but don’t disband the choir. Keep it alongside all your other ideas for music making. Maybe the desire of The Friends Trust or of a potential purchaser to create a performance art centre is worth doing. St David’s people gave much energy to the creation of a learning centre but maybe theopoetics is the way to go. Don’t blame anything on the way things are done but rather be far more creative liturgically than you have been, on all fronts. Use inclusive language, interfaith language and concepts, consider the hundreds of ‘progressive’ hymns and songs which are intelligent, thought provoking and challenging to your theological assumptions. Dare to have as many experimental and different experiences of worship as you possibly can. Be a seedbed of innovation.  Invite discussion that courts controversy and encourage questioning debate. Resist ever being a cloning purveyor of any idea. And above all create a unique place of learning, hope, compassion and commitment to the vision of Jesus for the transformation of his world. Amen.

In our DNA or in Community yet to be?

I want to suggest that in our Matthew’s story for today there is a lot of what we might name ‘ancient DNA’ but very little Jesus storytelling DNA in it. Another thing to consider is whether or not this is actually a parable? If it is this story is a ‘parable’ we are compelled to ask where is the surprise, or the twist in the tale? The Jesus Seminar said this about the story: “It does not cut against the religious and social grain.  Rather if confirms common wisdom: those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… it does not surprise or shock; there is no unexpected twist in the story; it comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254). Another thing this story does is it emphasizes boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again, is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus. So, it might be safe to assume that this story is not a parable but it does have several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes that seem to be running through it.

One of the sub-themes might be that of community life where communal life is a feature. The second theme might be that of a second coming, an immanent, return of the messiah and the third theme might be that of marriage.

Community Life and Communal Care in a society where there is limited amount of wealth, and where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, the actions of the so-called five wise young women raises the questions: How do we deal with issues of scarcity in our community? How do we deal with issues of privilege, distribution of power, resources and difference? The examples of economic instability reflected in business failures, home foreclosures, and uncertainty, and in these particular times we might ask why is it that “choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response?” Is it ok that the few control most of the resources?

Process theologian Bruce Epperly, asks is this acceptable when this life is a journey?  “What would have happened, if the [women] had pooled their resources?  Would they all have been excluded from the party or rewarded for their quest to be generous?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) How does the distribution of resources play out in a kingdom almost here and certain to come? Does an inequity of power and resources constitute being alert and ready?

The theme of the second Coming of Jesus that arises out of the fear of being left out, or left behind and missing out on a supernatural expectation of the messiah. When hearing ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do we do so because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others, where the message of ‘stay alert’ and be ready’, along with ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasised.

We know as Dom Crossan has commented “the so-called Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231) Again, the story is that this new community that we seek is not only the now but also that which is certain to be. It is about the building of, the creation of, and the entering into; the manifestation of the kingdom of realm of God that we are called into.

A keen scholar of Paul Tillich suggested that “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent” In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focused so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God. Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.

The third theme is that of Marriage and here we are asked to enter the historical context without all the information and that only goes so far because we have already experienced our own cultural assumptions about the place of the rite, the concept and the institution within which we might expect to be of the new realm of God.

Recent attempts to explain the place and purpose of marriage in our present community have engendered charges brought against some ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, by those who disagree with both this action, and any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church. The basis of the claims is usually presented by this who depend upon a literalized text as ‘contrary to scripture’.

These claims along with others are then supported by a list of scripture passages identified by those prosecuting the charge, as relating in some way to marriage and the marital relationship. This is often coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’. This latter action is skating on very thin ice indeed! There is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage. Indeed, we have very limited, if any, information on first century Palestinian Jewish wedding customs.

What we can glean from a range of sources, seems to be: (i) marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was an arrangement made “by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192); (ii) the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and (iii) the marriage was arranged and ratified by the fathers/mothers, but the negotiated the terms. The wedding then took place in two stages:

(i) a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then

(ii) a transfer of the young bride, often no more than 12 – 13 years of age, to the home of her husband.

Our story by Matthew opens at the conclusion of the negotiations, with the bridegroom coming to collect the bride. “The [young] women are relatives and friends of the groom.  They are not bridesmaids… The bride is never mentioned in the [story]” (Reid 2001:193). We might say ‘young women’ rather than following many orthodox scholars who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, and we say that because the word used to designate them is the same word used in the story of Jesus’ birth, which has also been translated as ‘virgin’. The word does not mean virgin but rather ‘a young woman of marriageable age’.

Having spelt out the themes that arise and asking the ‘authentic’ question we are left with one and that is that of a parable concern which is what this new Kingdom or Realm of God might look like if and when it comes and this is akin to our first theme of community life and communal care as it might touch our life experiences. We can also resonate with this especially in light of the growing economic instability home foreclosures and the economic uncertainty in our time. We can also resonate with it in the post covid-19 world that lies ahead. As we prepare to protect what we now have, how do we balance this concern, with a concern for the needs of others, especially those who are now most vulnerable to almost total loss? This question is not new for back in the 1960s we were told that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity, our intimate beliefs about reality needed to be lived out in our society, and not be restricted just to the individual reality. In other words, this new realm; new kingdom; is not just about money, it is about the whole of life as and in community. It is not just about political ideology but rather about human flourishing.

So maybe we might ask how we all might react if the minister in the next suburb along the Valley, was to suggest that our congregations might commit themselves “to sacrificial giving in order to support persons in [other] congregations who lose their jobs or are threatened with foreclosure?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) Are we just a group of unrelated individuals or the interdependent body of Christ seeking the indwelling of the realm of our God?

What do we do to the poor and needy when we raise the value of houses in their area? What do we do for the poor and needy when we raise interest rates? Are these not but 2 questions we should ask when asking how we might make decisions that enhance human flourishing?

Notes:
Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Minnesota. The Liturgical Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Matthew 5: 1-12

David Lose begins a sermon he wrote some years back with reference to a scene in Schindler’s List the movie where Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, is the commandant of a German death camp. Goeth is, in brief, a violent sociopath, prone to kill the Jewish prisoners at his camp indiscriminately. And he believes that his ability to kill is the very essence of power. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a consummate showman and has somehow worked his way into Amon Goeth’s good graces. One evening, Schindler challenges Goeth’s beliefs about power. The ability to kill isn’t power; the ability to have mercy is power. That’s why, Schindler argues, the Emperor was the most powerful person in Rome. Anyone could kill; only the Emperor could pardon a convicted criminal out of mercy. Goeth “tries on” being merciful, pardoning a few people who have annoyed him. It feels good, but he can’t pull it off for long, eventually returning to his brutal ways. Exercising mercy, it turns out, is harder than it looks and proves to be a power that he eludes him as he is drawn back to the ordinary, cultural exercise of violence as power.

The connection with this scene in relation to the Beatitudes is possibly the common mistake we make when reading the Beatitudes which is to see them as a kind of moral check list. Sermons following this interpretative line will typically urge their hearers to live a “beatitudes-kind-of-life” (or employ some other moralistic and simplistic slogan). And let’s admit it this approach is sympathetic to the pull of this reading. This is Matthew, after all, who is prone to defining the Christian life in terms of behaviour. And the beatitudes do indeed lift up particular behaviours – hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful – that are admirable and lend themselves to exhortation. But while we can imagine imploring folks toward some of these ideals, it feels like it makes less sense to urge some other beatitudes as actions – “Go be meek!” – and somewhat ridiculous when it comes to others still – “Be mournful!” So? What do we do with this?

Perhaps we can look past Matthew and his agenda of behaviour modification and  see the Jesus he is talking about as inviting us to imagine what it’s like to live in the realm of God and, by inviting that imagination, drawing a sharp contrast between the realm of God and the realm of the world and challenging our often unconscious allegiance to the latter. Maybe we could see the world as different but not bad as traditional theology has often painted it. Maybe we could notice that the people who Jesus is calling “blessed” are definitely not the people the world culture views as blessed. Those who are mourning rather than happy? Those who are meek rather than strong? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than wealth? That seems absurd does it not. And that holds for pretty much everything on Jesus’ list.

We remember here again that in Matthew’s chronology, Jesus begins his ministry with a summary of all that will unfold in the text before he meets his fate.  What they hear from Jesus is a series of contrasts that are completely counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom: those who “hunger for righteousness” and are currently dismayed by the odds against them will prevail in the end; those who show mercy and make peace even when they are persecuted for their beliefs and actions, following Jesus’ example, will be known as “children of God.”  However, the same old human story relentlessly continues: you can expect to be persecuted “in the same way the prophets who were before you.”

So perhaps Jesus is playing for larger stakes than an improved ethic. Perhaps he’s challenging those who we imagine are being blessed in the first place. Who is worthy of God’s attention? Who deserves our attention, respect, and honour? And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our present culture’s view of pretty much everything. In our culture, blessing equals power. success. the good life. righteousness. What is noble and admirable. What is worth striving for and sacrificing for. You name it. Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.

And one of the big challenges we encounter in this approach is the grapple with our view of those we have loved and lost in the previous year. In doing this we can come against the inadequacy of vocabulary in light of the kingdom or realm Jesus’ proclaims. It is too easy here to leap off into the supernatural or the superstitious when we have not “lost” those who have died. In traditional terms they live now in the nearer presence of God, beyond our immediate reach, yet connected to us through memory, faith, and love. This is the unblessed verses saints when we celebrate All Saints’ – and, indeed, at all memorial services. Maybe we are called to participate in the inversion of the kingdom of the world which believes that all we can see, hold, control, or buy is all there is. When we commend those, we have loved to God’s care, we proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but rather exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Jesus promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring that the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us. Again, not supernatural but rather part of what it means to be human.

Here we have the connection with the scene from Schindler’s List. The other-worldly concept challenging alternative Way that is the possibility of imagining that the path to God is not through might, power over or domination of thought but rather through what might be termed a weak theology, through a worldly foolishness, through doubt, failure and what I have suggested in my book. Through an ‘almost’. Or as John D Caputo suggests, through a God that does not exist but rather insists. In this alternative exercising mercy is more powerful than wielding violence, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy’s is more powerful than being right. The Jesus Way, is suddenly a very this-worldly possibility. But it’s not easy. It takes practice.

Suddenly returning hate for hate, condemning those who do not conform to our expectations or moral categories, and exercising violence against those who will not yield to us seems so clear it becomes hard not to believe they are the only possibilities, whether as participants or victims.  That’s what happens when we ask the hard questions that challenge our social norms and our assumptions of righteousness.

If this approach to the promised realm that the Jesus Way insists, we engage with is worthy then each week we gather is a gathering with others around One who would have been considered, in almost every conceivable way, an absolute loser and a tragic victim, rejected by the prominent, executed by the powerful. Yet as revelation of the Way becomes in tradition, Jesus the Christ, the one raised from the dead, as vindication of claims about his worth and validating the reality of the life and love to which he lived and loved.

So perhaps the task before us this All Saints’ Sunday, is less to exhort our people to a particular ethical behaviour than it is to recognize the alternative in-breaking promise is that this alternative realm is real and transformative, and it invites creative, creating imaginative construal. Even the slow demise of Christendom conforms that exhortation, rarely works. If it did the church would be growing would it not? And it’s not that we don’t know what we should do, but rather that we cannot see how. And we know that we do not need more rules because it is impossible to make enough. We know that we need a new heart. One that is rooted in the promise of surprise. The surprise of who is blessed, who is loved, and who has been commissioned to exercise the counter-cultural imagination Jesus proclaimed. And that starts with you and me; people who probably don’t feel particularly blessed, loved, or capable, yet if our story is correct it is those whom the Jesus story still calls for just those things.

Let’s be sure here. As traditionally evangelical and emotional as this call may be, it is hard to give what one does not have and this means that the call is not to give a beatitudes-informed list of ethics but rather a beatitudes-created set of eyes capable of seeing the divine as an alternative yet world transforming blessing. The alternative approach this text call us to is the rediscovery of the engagement between the stories of scripture and the whole human experience within the timeless conversation of tradition. If human concerns and questions are recognized and addressed in the biblical texts which know the human condition thoroughly and, simultaneously, bear witness to the holy, then we are to host a “sacred conversation” between all past texts and the present occasion when they are read and interpreted in public.

We can all agree that the world needs saints. And we might also say that saints need you and I to stand in a Jesus’ place and surprise them with the news that they, too, no matter what their circumstances or situation, and whether the world sees them this way or not– and even whether they see themselves this way or not – all are blessed and loved, and linked in this way with all the saints who have gone before us.

For those who would see the concept of saints as elitist and selective Jean-Luis Chretien reminds us that

“Other voices are at once the past and future of our own voice.  The past because they have already called us and even named us, they have already addressed themselves to us, and through their immemorial past, immemorial as far as we are concerned since they preceded the I, they have always already gathered lights, no matter, how obscure, in the place that becomes, little by little, our place.  Future of our voice also, since it is only through them that we can learn to speak and to say something.”

For those who would suggest that the idea of sainthood is an out of date concept and of no further use Ludwig Wittgenstein says:  

“You may say something new and yet it must be old.  In fact you must confine yourself to saying old things– and all the same it must be something new!  Different interpretations must correspond to different applications.  A poet too has constantly to ask himself: ‘but is what I am writing really true?’– and does this necessarily mean: ‘is this how it happens in reality?’  Yes, you have to assemble bits of old material.  But into a building.”

I want to finish with a summary of the above discussion which is that, there always has to be something to make the human connection between human beings and that which we name God, and that something has most often been rooted in human imagination, consisting of words to be sure; after all we humans are speakers and thinkers, as well as artists. Our words of prayers and, sometimes, even the words of our theological doctrines and ideas are but really the frail filament through which the collective consciousness passes.  Without them it would not pass at all, but they are frail nonetheless.” This is the ‘almost’ the process of becoming, the living planet, the cosmic system and very possibly, the realm that Jesus proclaimed as here and yet to come. It is to be seen in the foolishness of the crucifixion and in the weak theology of a ‘crucified God’,

The sainthood revealed in the beatitudes is not about a set of behavioural ethics but rather about the promise of, the possibility of a new transformed world, a world where love changes everything. Amen.

‘Events of Grace’

Posted: October 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Events of Grace’

Matthew 22: 34-46

It matters if someone loves us. It matters that we love ourselves. No human experience is more fundamental than the transforming ‘event of grace’ of being loved. Indeed, there is a considerable body of theological opinion which claims the very heart of the Christian message is that Jesus of Nazareth shows the unconditional and gracious love of God.

Before I go on, I want to explain if I can what I think an event is and make the claim that when we name something as grace or grace-filled we are in fact naming an event that is dynamic, moving and complex. In other words, we are naming that which is our living God as the loving action. A key thing to remember here also is that an event is uncontainable. It is free to transform all that it encounters. This understanding of grace and event for me is what enables a hermeneutical opportunity within which to explore what grace is and how it works. In naming something ‘grace’ we limit it by what we know and restrict it by its relationship to history, circumstance, and setting.

Careless thoughts

conceived only to fuel

my deranged ramblings

incessant mutterings of a shattering mind

bending backwards, almost breaking,

risking the chance of ever fully mending

hoping and praying

for a sentence that’s pending approval

Whereas the freedom of event enables unfettered, unlimited, unconditional opportunity. Whether the grace of God enjoys a merely passing historical privilege is relative to the event it harbours. It can remain a name if it fails to become an event which brings everything together in meaning, description and practical manifestation.

Allowing the rising of the sun

Paving ways for thriving wishes,

unbarr­ing gates for soaring dreams,

unlocking latches for poetic engagement

relieving the heightening of language

dulling anxieties of grieving hearts.

constantly seeking unshakable utterances,

promising goodness, happiness

and titillating sanity.

Anyway, having I hope given some depth to an event of grace I want to go back to our Matthew text especially to the second commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, section, and I want to draw on a sermon Rex Hunt gave some 40 odd years ago. He notes that his sermon was influenced greatly by Eric Fromm. It was centred on the theme of love, especially the value of self- love and self-acceptance as part of the traditional text expressed in the biblical: ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’.

The first claim Rex made was that it is OK to love others as well as OK, and not a problem or ‘sin’, to love yourself”. The second was that: “love of others and self-love are not mutually exclusive of each other. 

If it is a virtue to love one’s neighbour as a human being of worth, then it must be a virtue, and not a vice, to love oneself, since one is also a human being of worth”. He then went on to suggest that a clue to understanding what love is, is expressed in the saying of Matthew’s Jesus: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

Rex notes here that a better translation might be: ‘love your neighbour, just as you are to love yourself’. And that: “respect and acceptance of our own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of our own self first, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another person”.

One of the challenges here is to move away from an evangelical/fundamentalist position which claims that self-love is selfish love, whereas the radicalness of Jesus’ statement is that self-love is not the same as selfishness. A selfish person is interested only in her or himself and wants everything for him or herself and we have a merging of individuality and narcissism where one needs to be at the centre of everything. A selfish person does not love herself too much, but too little. For selfish persons are incapable of loving others as well as incapable of loving themselves and this confirms what we know about community. No human alone can create community. “Interactions among humans and between humans and the natural world creates communities.” (Peters i2002:36)

Rex notes that he concluded his sermon with these words: “Self-love, the love referred to by Jesus when he said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – requires the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth and freedom, because all are rooted in our capacity to love.  Then, and only then, can we go on to love our neighbour”.

Having briefly affirmed that need for self-love in the process of creating community and of enabling love of one’s neighbour my hope is that one might see that an event of grace or a grace-filled event contains more than just what one does and includes who one is.

I now want to tackle the other stream in the text; that of the image of God.

The first engagement with this task is to ask a question. What is your image of the god you understand as God?  What is the god ‘God’ like for you? Or what picture, if any, do you have when you hear “one of the most complex and difficult [words] in the English language, a word rich with many layers and dimensions of meaning” (Kaufman 2004:1. Here perhaps is God as event as opposed to name, In naming we restrict God to the limits of history and culture, whereas God as event enables the unconditional, the timelessness and I would claim ‘the Almost’.

This is not to say that culture has no part to play in it but it does restrict it to the naming as opposed to the event. This is also not new as traditionally we have always had at least three different strands to the way the word god has been used in English-speaking societies: (i) the biblical strand (ii) the philosophical strand (iii) the popular strand. So, the question we asked at the beginning of this section is a language and cultural question. How do we speak about the god we name God in a way that communicates in our culture?

Rex Hunt says that for him the journey has been changing as his experiences have changed and I think that is the same for me also. Rex suggests that for him he used to think of God as ‘anam cara’ or soul friend as modern Celtic spirituality says.  (O’Donohue 1997) Or as ‘Caring Friend’, as some Process theologians suggest, who nudges, calls, lures, pokes us onward.  I have to admit that process theology has been important for my own journey in this regard. The traditional church or biblical language for ‘anam cara’ is the word ‘love’. And a loving God has always been balanced by a fearsome, in control, all-seeing, God.

In more recent years, I have intentionally, like Rex, added to my thinking and moved away from using human-like metaphors in addressing God, to using more neutral language, such as energy, force, Spirit. Rex has used ‘creativity’. Creativity in cosmic evolution. Creativity in biological evolution. Creativity in cultural/symbolic evolution, and I have in finding that limited have begun to use Serendipitous Creating to designate both the randomness of evolution and the dynamic, event-like process. I have also wrestled with the name of God being ‘Almost’ which combines both name and event. In the end these are attempts to find an understanding and language which can enable us to explore what it means to be religious using insights from Darwinian thought as well as being more appropriate to our newer worldviews and ecological and scientific thinking. As Gordon Kaufman suggested “our God language and God thinking, our ‘theology’ must take into account what we have learned about the evolutionary character of our world and ourselves…”. (Kaufman 2004:123)

Most scholars would I think agree that, both ‘process’ and ‘creativity’ are the metaphors we most often use today when we want to speak about or address, God. And with that change in language has come a host of other changes, all of them away from the traditional g-o-d language of much of our upbringing. But both life and religious issues are not only answered intellectually. They are also answered “with our whole being, with the way we live our lives”.  (Peters 2002:92)

Karl Peters says many people today are asking: What kind of person do I want to be? Reflecting on this question, he says he wants to be friendly, loving, caring, compassionate, curious, open to new possibilities, intelligent, and, in so far as is possible, wise.  What has now become good for me he says, is not so much what I can acquire.  It has become what I can be”.  (Peters 2002:92)

What I think he is suggesting is, that we can become ‘events of grace’ when things come together in unexpected ways “and give rise to new relations of mutual support.” (Peters 2007.) And, that, I think, is pretty close to the self-love and love of others – that we are called to be as ‘events of grace’ as expressed in the saying: ‘love your neighbour, just as you are to love yourself’. It matters if someone loves us.  It matters that we love ourselves. It matters that we live in a web of relationships with others and with nature.

Almost is about something that is not yet

It is about to be but not yet

Its promise is in it’s all but

And its approximately

An event of grace is something that is not yet but insists that it is about to be. Its promise is in its serendipitous creating and not in its naming, in its dynamic living process as opposed to its identifiable result. Or as John D Caputo might say, it does not exist but rather insists. Its efficacy is in its transforming as grace-filled event. Amen.

Notes:
Fromm, E. The Art of Loving. London. George Allen & Unwin, 1957.
Kaufman, G. In The Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
O’Donohue, J. Anam Cara. London. Bantam Books, 1997.
Peters, K. E. Dancing With The Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press, 2005.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘Two Empires or One Kingdom?’ 

Once again, we have another story of a challenge and confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders and elites. In this case, the Pharisees and those who supported Herod as King (that is, as vassal King of the real rulers – the Romans), or is it more than that?

The scene is set. Here we are gathering in a space where differing views can be expressed in a degree of safety. Probably on a mound outside of town where people can gather and listen as well as escape if it becomes boring or too radical. It has to be pretty safe because we have a few Chief Priests and a bunch of Pharisees and Jesus and his followers. We are told that the reason the Chief Priests are there is because they have heard about the parables attributed to Jesus and being the scholars and church-men they are they have realised he is speaking about them in somewhat challenging ways. They obviously discuss this and decide that action is required and they see in the Herodians an ally in their task of defending themselves in the face of what is being said about them.

The interesting thing about this alliance is that these two groups were not natural allies.  The Herodians are people who supported the rule of Herod and who cooperated with the Roman rulers and because of that cooperation were given authority by Romans.  The Pharisees on the other were the legalists among the Jewish leaders who believed that their interpretation of the Law was the one to be obeyed.  When they spoke of the law of course they specifically meant Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They were the protectors of the faith, the boundary keepers and of course the bunch that held the power of clergy within the community. This was a creative yet fragile alliance pulled together to address a common enemy. In this case Jesus who was obviously being listened too, maybe even at the expense of the regular attendance at the synagogue and politically challenging those who were leading a comfortable life in the lap of the Romans.

Then this alliance discussed their common enemy and devised a way to entrap Jesus in what he was saying. Not the Pharisees didn’t go themselves but rather sent their disciples. Maybe Jesus would get too much status if they themselves fronted up. It might look like they were afraid of him and they might get their hands dirty if they were seen in their robes and elaborate dress to be giving Jesus too much kudos?

And when the opportunity to engage arrives they unfold their trap.

‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for a person’s rank means nothing to you. ‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

What does Jesus do? He doesn’t lie down or respond passively. He; being aware of their malice, of their political alliance in the interests of power and he says:

‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

He then addresses their weapon, the paying of taxes to Rome;

Show me a coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then Jesus said to them: ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’

They answered: ‘The emperors.’

Then Jesus said to them: ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’

We remind ourselves that the aim of the question is not to get an answer but to trap Jesus.  So, what does it mean to give to Caesar a Roman coin? The Pharisees in defense of their faith would have regarded these Roman coins as idolatrous.  The contained an image of Tiberius, Caesar, who would have been considered as divine by the Romans.  The point Jesus makes about them being hypocrites can be made by the group of Pharisees simply producing the coin in the temple as they had shown themselves up as hypocrites in their stance. Whereas it is more than likely that the Herodians had no problem with the Roman coin, after all they have allied themselves with Rome.

So, we are left with the question, should they pay tax?  I wonder if you can see the trap.  If Jesus says yes what will the Pharisees say?  If he says no what will the Herodians say?  Jesus who is known to always speak the truth to that simple question will be caught out. He will be backed into a corner so that whatever his answer Jesus would get in strife with the authorities. This was the clever question devised by both Pharisee and Herodian.

But they have underestimated Jesus as he cleverly avoids the trap yet at the same time confronts his adversaries with a conundrum in terms of their loyalties. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

As this weekend is general election weekend and our society is at risk of change both for the better and for ill, it is pertinent to ask the question about the relationship between religion and politics. We can see in some reports from the United States of America the mess that an ignorance of this relationship can result in when the desire for power is underestimated or manipulated for partisan influence. The question they needed to ask was “did you give to Caesar what is Caesar’s or to God what is God’s?” The questions we might ask ourselves are; Did you separate religion from politics? Did you agree that we should pay our tax but not let our spirituality impact our political decisions?  For you did religion and politics mix or not?  Did your views on abortion and the sanctity of life wrestle with the euthanasia referendum. Did your care for others influence your vote on the cannabis referendum? And finally do you sense that those questions are about to trap you in some way?

It is pretty much agreed that in the scriptures the intermingling of religion and politics is constant.  In the Old Testament again and again we read of how God ascribed political power to even the foreign rulers and enemies.  They ruled because God made it so. 

Jesus himself was incredibly immersed in challenging the political powers and the social structure of his day. This understanding has become more and more narrowed down with the paucity of original text and recent discoveries. The New Testament scholar N.T.Wright says of Jesus whatever else he wasn’t, Jesus was a politician. 

All this strongly suggests that this passage can be wrongly interpreted to mean that politics and religion don’t mix. Keep what is Caesars away from what is God’s. What is evident is that this assumption that is made by many in our post-enlightenment world has arisen out of teachings and understandings that have emerged since the time of at least the Reformation. 

It is true that this phrase, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” is one of the better-known quotes of Jesus and very possibly one of the worst understood.  In trying to see behind Jesus words what should be patently clear very quickly is that Jesus believed everything belonged to God, all things were derived from God, even political power. There was no such thing as a difference or a division between faith and politics.

Around 500 years ago Martin Luther argued for a distinct line to be drawn between the spiritual and political realms. One could suggest that the ascendancy of the left hemisphere of the brain became more evident. In this development it seems that the distinction between spiritual and political has been wrongly understood as saying the two don’t mix.  Without going into too much of the history of the situation the issue for Luther was who and how that power was being exercised.

Another factor to consider is that alongside the rejection of the spiritual in favour of a secular understanding the enlightenment has served to deceive us into thinking that our faith somehow should not have a political edge. The American experience and the rise in political Christian parties in NZ can be seen as an attempt to restore this relationship but the problem is that the differential mindset is still strong. It is more of a takeover bid for the political sphere rather than an integrated relationship.

If we consider that all things belong to God, including the way in which we structure our society then as people of the Jesus Way we need to live as though life is a spiritually inclusive life. Then who we vote for, what issues we choose to fight for, are both the political and religious outworking of our faith. And dare I say it this means that we need to live at though life is a living journey of co-creation made real and meaningful by loving one another and especially those who disagree with us.

Even what we choose to pray for, or even more importantly not pray for, in our prayers for the world indicates both a political and religious stance!  The words we use, the phrases indicate our alliances to that which we name God.  After all, when we seek as Jesus sought, a society of peace and love, it was for a new realm where political, social, economic and religious change had been achieved.

So, on this weekend of election of our next government the issue is not whether or not your particular party wins, It is not whether or not Christian values win through. Its rather that whatever one’s political allegiance might be, and I know some of you are card carrying members of various parties, one’s first allegiance is to Gospel that Jesus of Nazareth gave his energy and life to which is an alternative society of non-violence, non-discriminatory, acceptance and inclusion of the different and the establishment of a dynamic and integrated process of co-creation.

My own recent experience of this failure of integration of politics and faith has been a Presbytery caught up in the legal world of the book of order and has been unable to find the spirit of grace, compassion, and truth because it has lost the ability to hold together politics and faith and thus like the Pharisees and the Herodians become thrown into a defensive mindset that reflects inability to hold together politics and faith. In this case the law being included has been the law of the land and not the Torah. Even the conscience vote was nullified by the process.

Not unlike the Presbyterian Church and its support for commissioners as opposed to delegates sometimes in parliament they have what is called a conscience vote.  This is a time when politicians are allowed by their parties to vote based on their personal moral, philosophical or religious stance on an issue because of its moral content.  In a sense this misses the point that every single decision made by any parliament is a decision that has moral content and has religious or faith implications. It almost seems that all decisions in parliament should be made in this way but then maybe that’s not enough?

Sometimes the Presbyterian Church makes decisions and advocates in the community for particular issues.  Sometimes you may agree, sometimes not, sometimes you may get the impression that the Church is taking sides in politics.  Whilst this may appear to be the case I believe that in these situations men and women of faith like yourselves are seeking to discern what it might mean to proclaim support or ‘the kingdom come’ in terms of specific issues confronting our community. Here in this community just a few weeks ago I heard it said that the demise of the public questions committee was a result of our church’s ability to bridge the growing gap between politics and faith.

As individuals and as a local community of faith it could be said that the challenge of being Jesus followers is to seek to discern how we might live out every aspect of our lives and the separation of concerns is not the way to achieve this. Objectification without a responsive interconnection is destructive and maybe even violent towards a loving community.

Living the Jesus Way heralds a new realm. When we pray ‘your kingdom come’ we are making a political statement as much as a religious one.  As we walk the Jesus Way and witness to a transformative love the challenge is to not deceive ourselves: the political decisions that we make are faith decisions, our lifestyle choices are faith decisions; in fact. all of our decisions are faith decisions.  So whatever or whomever we vote for we need to take a moment to consider the decisions we have made or are making. Ask ourselves, what does it mean for me and for others ‘do my choices contribute to a Jesus Way of living or just to a better political outcome? Are they both and spiritual and political? Amen.

Matthew 22:1-14

A Feast Where Only Strangers Come?

Here he goes again; speaking to his followers in parable form about the shape, nature and content of the so-called Kingdom of God or the realm of God or the nature of the new world that is just around the corner, yet to come while at the same time already arriving. He supposedly chooses to tell the story by way of a reasonable common social event, a wedding feast. This time it is a Royal Wedding which seems to suggest that it will have considerable pomp and ceremony and maybe even hold the status of being a divine event if we bring in the Roman and Greek theology whereby great men are also Gods.

The story goes on to suggest that the king may not be one who engenders much loyalty for the invited guests find excuses not to come and even after a follow up invitation some send their servants along and others commit acts of violence in response to the invite. The king gets angry and I guess in response invites anyone off the streets to come so shaming the invited in return.

And then there is another twist to this tale. We have all the people off the street as guests and the King picks on one who didn’t find a wedding robe to wear and tosses him into the outer darkness. We are not sure what that is except that maybe the king is getting all theological at this point. But we are not sure why some poor soul who was on for a free dinner but couldn’t find the right clothes to wear should become the means by which the king can make his philosophical statement about many being called and few chosen.

About now we are wondering what Matthew was on about in telling the story this way let alone what he is trying to say about Jesus. The story of the ‘Rich Ruler’s Feast’, as told by Matthew, is full of twists and turns and at times almost totally incomprehensible. So much so that it might be easier to just pass by and fond another one.

But just before we do maybe we can try to see a bit more of it. Firstly, this story is told in our broad biblical tradition in three different versions. We can say that the voice and different layers of Matthew is very evident! But the original story appears lost. Secondly, we might see that it really is a secular story about the use and misuse of power that is reshaped by Matthew, into something ‘religious’ that he can use against the Jewish leaders. Matthew seems to be saying that they had their chance and blew it. He seems to say that God has looked elsewhere for a righteous community – hence his church community. And thirdly as you may have already formed an opinion, this story is not a ‘pleasant Sunday afternoon’ story. While some don’t include it in their “terrible texts” listing, it does seem to be a terror story with all its violence and revenge motivated action. It recalls the most savage of Hebrew and Gentile rulers in a frightening, and at times terrifying, world where old scores can be settled by savage, destructive means.

So, we are faced with Matthew’s story and traditionally most commentators seem to accept that he has reworked another story or stories where the important bit is in the end statement… The story of salvation: The first will be last and the last first; and Be alert! Be prepared!

The way Matthew seems to tell his story… The Rich Ruler = God. The son = Jesus.
Those who are ‘out’ = the Jews/Israel. The killed slaves = the Prophets. The guest without the wedding garment = God’s divine judgement. This, method or style of storytelling come interpretation, is called Allegory. But is it?


According to the British scholar, C H Dodd: “In the traditional teaching of the Church for centuries (parables) were treated as allegories, in which each term stood as a cryptogram for an idea, so that the whole had to be decoded term by term.” (Dodd 1961:13) For many years we have been this ‘decoding’ style of interpretation. We have received this in our Sunday Schools and churches for years and years: in pictures and in words and in stained glass windows. As Rex Hunt notes; the history of interpretation of parables has been a long and winding gravel road!

But much of that has now changed. With the development of literary criticism and other lines of enquiry we ask again “So what can we make of this parable?” With a broader understanding of what a parable might be rather than looking for a story that supports the traditional theistic, religious theme we have been taught, are we now asking of the text; what is there in this parable that is a story which turns our experienced world upside down? Rather than an allegory that gives a story that fits what is there about this that demands and alternative? What is the twist in the tail of this account?

We can as Rex says ask with the view that Jesus never offered any ‘in principle’ statements. That it just wasn’t his style. He told stories to people about people in real, live, contexts. And most of his stories were told to those who lived in the back streets of a village or city… The tanners, the toll collectors, the prostitutes, the beggars, the homeless, the day labourers. Those who lived on the edges, rather than at the centre of the village or city. And in narrow, unpaved streets which were “chocked with refuse and frequented by scavenging dogs, pigs, birds and other animals.  (And where) shallow depressions in the streets allowed some drainage, but also acted as open sewers.” (Reid 2001:183)

So, despite all the moralising and spiritualising that has taken place with this story over the years we might try to maintain the original one, or the ‘voice’ of Jesus, if it could be heard, through what was a very secular story. Quoting from a sermon on this story, ‘A parable for today, if not tomorrow…’ it tells of the “domestic misbehavior of the powerful and the victimizing of the powerless, of war and retaliation.” (www/Berrigan 2001)

And let’s remember it is set within the then culture of shame and honour. Whatever the Rich Ruler’s strategy, the feast he ends up with “is very different from the one he planned.  It is now a (feast) of the dishonorable, and he is shamed” (Scott 2001:116).

So, if we reimagine this Jesus’ story, we might see that the reign of God is not about a feast where only the rich and the powerful are invited, it is not a feast that is about the host or his heir being ‘honoured’… It might be seen that the reign of God will strike us as being as nonsensical as a feast thrown by a powerful ruler, but where all his powerful 
“friends [are] absent and only strangers are present.” (Crossan 1975:119)

And what might have been the response of the hearers of Jesus. “Come on! you’ve got to be joking? The real world of power and politics and global warming and terrorists and law and order, is not like that at all! How is it that there is a place where those who are in, are out, and those who are out, are in! That’s not possible. The challenge her is to work out whether one is being ‘threatened’ or ‘saved’ by those who suggest our life should be turned upside down!   

And now for a postlude. What is Jesus did not teach to make anyone religious, righteous, morally correct or even moral, or orthodox. What if he didn’t say anything about protecting that which is religious or sacred or spiritual? What if church affiliation is destined to be a thing of the past? Maybe it has served its purpose well and outlived its usefulness? What if the secular is the new religious? We might ask how many of us can see a spirituality beyond that which has been taught and perhaps even one that is inclusive of all faith stories? What if what we currently believe or think is no longer useful to human life as we know it?

Do you sense if? That desire in you to save things? To protect a divine Jesus or a supernatural God or a wonderful kingdom? Or even a Christendom existence? Jesus’ story is that he interacted and told stories to offer a re-imagined view of the world, this world. Where every person can live life to the full. Where every person can love wastefully. Where every person can be all they can possibly be. And as Jack Spong said: to be the God-bearers of the world.


“The only way that God can be with us now and through the ages is for each of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity” (Spong 2005:298). But in a world where many of the world’s politicians can expect “overwhelming support” to anti-terrorism measures “with scarcely a glance in the direction of civil liberties, and little recognition of the irony involved in abandoning some of the legal safeguards that define the very way of life we are supposed to be defending…”  (Mackay SMH/1/10/05, 31) In a world where more and more oversight and control of our world is acceptable what is the parable to be heard? Where is the twist in the tail of this logic? Driven by the need to control the minority under the myth of safety? Where is the surprise of a (divine) feast where only powerless strangers rather than the rich and powerful ‘movers and shakers’ are present? According to the Jesus story this is not out of the equation! Amen.

Notes:
Crossan, J. D. The Dark Interval. Towards a Theology of Story. Niles. Argus Communications, 1975.
Dodd, C. H.  The Parables of Jesus. London. Fontana, 1961.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Spong, J. S. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York. HarperCollins, 2005.

rexae74@gmail.com

Violence… and the Shuffling of Boots

Matthew 21:33-46

What an unholy mess this parable is from Matthew! The story line is full of violence carried out under extreme provocation: people beating and killing and stoning servants, then killing the land owner’s son. And to top it off we read what other dissatisfied storytellers felt they had to add to make it even worse when we read the bit where the owner wrecks vengeance on the tenants.

All in all, there is plenty of murder, revenge, and blood in this so-called parable of the wicket tenants. Many scholars do not believe was a parable of Jesus and that it was very likely reflecting a local issue faced by Matthew’s community.

So, on that basis we look at the parable and we ask questions of its purpose and the first thing we say is that the parable can be interpreted on many levels. Matthew, for instance, has already offered an interpretation: that of an allegory. That is, the parable was immediately relevant for Matthew and his community because (we think) they were having problems with the synagogue across the road!

Like many Presbyterian Sessions and or Parish Councils, and I hasten to add some Body Corporates an ‘in-house’ conflict was present and, in their case getting out of hand. They had as Jews who say the Jesus Way as a desperately needed reinterpretation of Judaism and or a new and vibrant response to God had been struggling, without success, to position themselves as the new leaders of Israel’s faith and were being increasingly driven to the margins by resurgent Pharisaic intent. So, Matthew took some of the key elements of this story and applied them: Vineyard = Israel, God = the land owner, Messengers/servants = the prophets, Son = Jesus, Son’s death = Jesus’ crucifixion. What we might call today, ‘Creative Writing’.

Or we could even bring it closer to home and spend some time reflecting on our much more subtle ways of ‘beating up’ God’s messengers who call us to become involved in the issues of the day.

We all know that ‘Loving’ is a challenge we very often savage or sabotage, whether at a personal or a community level. Somehow love seems to awaken our fear of becoming a scapegoat, or being seen to be weak and ineffectual so we respond defensively.

So, in dealing with the text today I want to take the advice of a certain William Bausch and focus on the violence contained in the story. For this is, as we all sadly know, a timely topic. Given the race riots, fear driven street battles, Blaming and scapegoating that the Covid 19 has fostered in many communities around the world. It is as if Violence forms a subtext of our daily lives.
as Nations. Peoples and Individuals of all ages – even youngsters in primary school. All are routinely hurting, maiming, threatening and killing one another. This intolerance, and violence has become so common place in a hurting world. Social commentators have said that the fear of violence and the concern for personal safety has become a major preoccupation among the people over recent years…Especially for those in the oldest and youngest age groups.

So, we might ask what is it that is behind this proliferation of violence in our world? Rex Hunt of whom I quote on accession said that part of the problem and only part of it is a shocking lack of empathy for other people, for victims. And an inability to feel what those who are hurt are feeling. An inability to understand and share the feelings of another. I want to share a poem I wrote about  our human need for empathy in recognising the importance of other people, even those we don’t get along with.

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.

Doug Lendrum

The claim is that many lack this ‘empathy’ because many have divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’… in our excess we have turned individuality into alienation an us and then distinction that was high on Jesus’ list of what was horribly and terribly evil in the world. No Samaritan and Jew. No northern and southern Irish. No Israeli or Palestinian. No black or white. No straight or gay. No Aucklander and the rest. No ‘them’ and ‘us’. Its what loving is all about. Its what loving one’s enemy is about, its what democracy is about. Its what makes the corporate, the collective, the committee and the community work. Yet more and more, a sense of empathy is evaporating. We saw in the beginning a glimpse of this when we became united with the victims of the Christchurch massacre and with the response to Covid 19. But now we are back to the verbal violence of partisan politics as the desire to win becomes a them or us. And sadly, with this loss comes an inability to be compassionate. And when there is no empathy and no compassion, there is easy violence.

And dare I say it. Matthew’s treatment of this parable with his allegorical overlay, has produced tragic consequences for Jewish-Christian relationships over the centuries.

So, like many I agree with the Jesus Seminar when they say that this overlay did not originate with Jesus. But is rather the work of the storyteller, Matthew. However, its inclusion in the text is an opportunity for us to contextualize it for ourselves.

To do this I want to tell you a story Rex Hunt has used when addressing this text. A story this time which comes out of the Second World War.

The war was still in progress but it seemed the nation was in need of a morale boost, and to rally the country, the leaders in Russia decided to stage a march of 20,000 German prisoners through the streets of Moscow.

The footpaths swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women – Russian women. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son, killed by the Germans.

They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the parade was to come. At last they saw it.

The generals marched at the head of the column. Proud, their chins stuck out, lips folded.
An air of superiority about them.

The women clenched their fists. They shouted their hate. Then all at once something happened to the women. They saw German soldiers thin, unshaven, wearing dirty bloodstained bandages,
hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades. The soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent. The only sound was the shuffling of boots, the thumping of crutches.

Then an elderly woman in broken-down boots pushed herself forward, past the soldiers and police. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief, and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread.

She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a German soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And then suddenly, from every side, women were running towards the soldiers. They pushed into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

William Bausch, who shared this story, goes on to suggest: “When the women saw the men hobbling through the streets, they were no longer the enemy; they were no longer those who killed their relatives. They were just victims, and the women felt for them. There was an outpouring of empathy and compassion. The violence they intended was no longer in their hearts.” (Bausch 2000:205) Its very likely that Jesus the storyteller would approve!

I want to conclude today with a verse of a poem I wrote which I think is about the nature of the compassion we seek from empathy. I think it talks about the importance of the ‘other’ in our lives and of the unconditional love that emits form a loving heart of cosmic proportion.

My love is for you as the ‘other’ is not anybody for anything,

which is how deconstruction defined a literal grace

my love is the purist of gifts, gratuity beyond and description offering,

 and pure grace is the transport of love apace

my love, freely and astronomically proffering

from a heart of almost cosmic scope here in this place.

Doug Lendrum

Amen.

Notes:
Bausch, W. J. The Word In and Out of Season. Homilies for Preachers. Reflections for Seekers. Mystic. Twenty-third Publications, 2000.

rexae74@gmail.com