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Two Visions of Hope

Posted: December 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 11: 2-11

Two Visions of Hope

Here we are at Advent 3…  We are really getting into serious Christmas stuff now. It is almost here. It is hoped for and sure to come. It will arrive and it is ‘Almost’. John the ‘dipper’ or the Baptizer is featured yet again. Despite our nearness to Christmas festivity expectations, realized today’s theme seems to be still about Hope. It might be in particular; where can we find hope when all around us things are crumbling?

Yet again on the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘Christmas’ does it? But again, we are invited to explore this just a little more. We might start again with John. Who was John the Baptizer? Well; Scholars speculate that John was a young man, probably in his late 20s – very early 30s. He had spent most of his youth, maybe as many as 14 years or so, living in the desert wilderness. He was also a young man who was passionate about his cause. Some might say ‘obsessed’. Others have even hinted ‘jealous’. Of his (so-called) cousin, Jesus. So contemporary or pre-runner?

Storytellers and poets on the other hand, give a bit more colourful (and imaginative) picture. Matthew describes him, and in a detail never given to Jesus: “John wore a garment made of camel-hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts with wild honey.”

Jack Shea, in a poem in his book ‘Starlight’, says John was: “…a map of a man…  Unexpected angels were pussycats next to this lion” (Shea 1993:175).

Norman Habel, in a collection of poems and paintings – the latter by Pro Hart – has John’s father, the priest Zechariah, say: “That boy, I said, will blaze the promised track for us to follow through the wilderness and back to God… “A chorus of crows out in the yard echoed my inner pride, ‘God, it’s good to be a father! Yes!  It’s great to have a son!’  (Hart & Habel 1990:18).

So, contemporary of Jesus or prophet, and introducer of Jesus?

Well, we might hear Rabbi David Blumenthal, here. In an article published in Cross Currents Magazine e/edition) pointed out: “Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.  There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God.  Nor does Judaism recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance.  Although the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology and practice” (David Blumenthal, 2010). 

So! If he is right there, is every likelihood the early Christian communities made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus, (including the stories about John!). Their efforts seemed to be designed to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important. Were they contemporary’s or competitive individuals? As we said last week, from all we know (and do not know) about his preaching style, John strongly claimed that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear (or at least change) in the ‘disobedient’ – the so-called insider. This suggests that while similar, John’s preaching style was also in contrast to Jesus’ style. Jesus’ style was based in the premis that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’ – the so-called outsider. The unchosen perhaps.

Here we have two different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation that are still around today so we should not be too surprised when the storyteller we call Matthew
has John asking the question of Jesus:  Who the heck are you – really?

Even to Matthew’s John (and by implication, Matthew’s small community), Jesus did not fit stereotypical ‘messianic’ expectations.

With things constantly getting more difficult between the various developing Jewish communities, not to mention some downright ‘rivalry’ between them, it was proving difficult to maintain everyone’s enthusiasm. We remember here that just like today not everyone believed the same, be it about God or Messiah, or who Jesus was.

One way, Matthew’s community decided to respond to their situation was to look back to some of their earlier experiences to see if they could name something from there. And they remembered the prophet Isaiah and his vision… And remember there is a subtle yet fundamental issue here in looking back It was less about looking back at an historical factual history and more a looking back at the stories as metaphor of immense value in discovering who one was today. So in remembering their past, they hoped it would open a way ahead.

Once again, some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful here: “Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in a new situation.  They learn from both the fulfilments and the disappointments…  They formulate their hope in new ways.”  (P&F Web site, 2007) It’s not about repeating history or the stories of the past and more about making them real for today, the now.

These telling and hopeful words from John Cobb: “From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice…  people were moved by Jesus’ transformation of the way God and the world were understood…  the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire” (P&F Web site, 2007).

And here’s the rub: if one is to advocate ‘the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire’, then, one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation.

Maybe this is what the Advent and Christmas stories are really all about! As Charles Taylor the Quebec-an Philosopher says; the idea of separating politics, religion and nature is a new phenomenon of modernity. In Jesus time that idea did not exist so advent is not just a religious story, it is political and economic at the same time.

So, returning to out advent we have to say that it is good to light Advent candles each year. It, is good to sing Advent songs and Christmas carols. But there is a restlessness and a longing about Advent as well. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert! And a longing for the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love, to become concrete – real – in our lives.

This restlessness may be captured in a bloke called John the Baptizer, or ‘dipper’. He comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. And the people – read: the poor, the powerless, those on the edges of society hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’. Look out. You are heading toward a dead end. Be afraid because it/s coming. And their political situation was such they needed a word of hope. Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line as consolidation and amalgamation was becoming the only sensible way forward. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. But this, is not the message we tend to see on our Christmas cards, is it? And rightly so perhaps. But it is the political context of the first Christmas story, and while both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams, or approaches to generate hope both were seeking to transform their world, and bring an end to war and violence, injustice and oppression.

In one of the gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible, the Gospel of Mary, Peter asks Jesus: what is the sin of the world? Jesus is said to reply: There is no sin.  It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies.

Strangely isn’t it that what we don’t often hear in the church is that ‘there is no sin’. In fact most of us are familiar with church have heard a lot about sin. And more so those of us who are members of the conservative church.

When we think hard about this, we have to consider that for the community of early Christians who appreciated Mary’s Gospel, sin is lack of awareness.  Sin is a fogging over.  Sin is becoming lost in the thoughts, anxieties and desires of our material existence that we live as though we are asleep…” (John Shuck, Who at the time was at First Presbyterian Elizabethton, 2007)

It is good to light Advent candles and sing Advent songs and Christmas carols each year.
But remember, there is also a restlessness and a longing about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert!  Be open! Be aware of the assumptions within one’s own world, one’s own culture, within one’s own belief. Be alert so as to see the complexities, the influences and the alternatives. Be open to the new, the surprising, the challenging and the different. With these postures to the fore, the four traditional themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – can become concrete, can become more likely and certain, can become real, in our lives. Live life with a confidence in the minds ability to be aware, live the alertness that comes from asking the hard questions and explore the adventure of human life that is promise beyond probability and within the possible. This is an Advent born out of two visions of hope. Amen.

Notes:
Hart, P. & N. Habel. Outback Christmas. Adelaide. Lutheran Publishing House, 1990.
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. Third edition. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 1993.

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Who We Are To Be

Posted: December 3, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 3:1-12

Who We Are To Be…

Last week, when the season of Advent commenced in our Lectionary readings I suggested, that we were starting with a problem in that the set readings had little or nothing to do with Advent or the coming season called Christmas. Well! We could say the same for todays readings also. This time we start with the tradition that for some time we Christians have understood today’s stories from Isaiah and Matthew, as prophecies of Jesus. But… the question is; is this really the case?

Process theologian John Cobb, says: ‘Not really’. When he suggests: “Jesus did not fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah in the way Isaiah expected….  For Isaiah the main point was about kingly succession… And whatever Jesus’ ancestry was, he was not what Isaiah expected.  He did not engage in royal judgement, administering justice to the poor.  Neither did he kill the wicked.”  (John Cobb, P&F Web site, 2007)

But, does this mean Christians have been wrong in seeing the Isaiah passage as an anticipation of Jesus? Well! Again, John Cobb continues: He says “In part, of course, they have erred.  But it is not wrong to view Jesus as a partial fulfilment of, the hopes that Isaiah expressed.” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2007)

So, the best, or maybe the more honest things we can do or say, is: we can affirm that we can see in Jesus some of what Isaiah hoped for, and we can assert that Jesus was also different from what Isaiah considered ideal.

So here we are now…. into the Second Sunday in Advent. And Matthew, jumping 30 years or so in time in a matter of only a couple of short story chapters, introduces John the Baptizer, the so-called final prophet of Jesus’ coming, and places him center stage for a moment. In John the Baptizer then, what have we got? Well referring back to what I have said of John earlier we see that in John’s preaching the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear in the disobedient – the insider. Whereas, in Jesus’ preaching the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘common ones’ – the outsider.

Here we have two very different visions by which to re-imagine a nation. A judgement to inspire fear. And an invitation to inspire hope. I am sure this sounds very familiar to those who have been following my recent sermons and their link to my and others recent experience. I would say that both this congregation and I have been recipients of the former vision. But let’s be clear here. Both visions have been used in the past (and the not-so past), by Christians. I would also suggest or perhaps even claim that only one of those visions has the capacity to re-imagine new possibilities for the world. Only the one which does not bombard people with issues of personal morality and sanctions called ‘sin’, has the capacity to re-imagine new possibilities for the world.

Having said all that I want to tell a parallel story that gives another context for the very same challenge of fear or hope.

Ukraine was in the middle of an election. And, trouble was erupting out on the streets, as the result was being disputed. Not unlike the Hong Kong situation perhaps but different political motivation. The regular evening TV news was on air, coming from the government, controlled TV station.

A presenter was reading the script. Another was ‘signing’ so the deaf could also ‘hear’ the news. But the news was what those in power wanted to say, rather than it being an account of what was actually happening. There was no mention of the protests or challenges to the validity of the voting system, being mentioned. In a moment of madness, some say, the signer stopped translating the set script. And instead, started to give her account of all the other events that were also happening.

She said she knew she would be sacked because of her actions, but felt she could no longer put up with the government’s lies and propaganda.

Immediately following the broadcast all the members of the news room came to her, not only to support her actions, but also to join the struggle against the government and it’s lies.

Stopping there we have to ask what has this story to do with advent? Why tell this story as an ‘advent’ story? Well! Because it sought to re-imagine new possibilities for the country. And it began when the deaf – the outsiders – when they were given the opportunity and the respect to ‘overhear’ what was going on! Likewise, today, we could suggest, Matthew is inviting his small Jewish community to ‘overhear’ some things, through the ‘signage’ called John the Baptizer.

Developing along-side of and often in conflict with developing Jewish communities,
it can’t have been easy for this small community. All groups were trying to form or reshape
their own identities and allegiances among the people. As I and others have suggested before the social, political and economic environment is one of disparate groups seeking identity, and place in a diverse and often intolerant society. Empire is making itself felt at all levels of society and the religious are feeling threatened and entering survival modes.

Remembering that Matthew is a storyteller, he lets the community ‘overhear’ John talking,
hoping they might see and hear themselves in these conversations. In the hearing, they (and we) might sense something new and different is afoot. As one of Shirley Erena Murray’s hymns suggest: “Now the star of Christmas shines into our day. This points a new direction: change is on the way -there’s another landscape to be traveled through, there’s a new-born spirit broadening our view” (Shirley Erena Murray/hos)

I want to play a song now and I would like you to hear the challenges being alluded to in the words and what might lie behind them. The song is perhaps a very personalized question but it rises out of something that is being lost, something that at a deeper level needs to be questioned.

Video

I hope you were able to make the connections out of the song but in returning to the lectionary we still have a problem, especially the purpose or theology behind the shaping of it. And I want to suggest that it is with the underlying purpose which is based on presenting a mythical ‘Christ of faith’ – often called the “Easter barrier” – which has overpowered the ‘historical Jesus’. I have often suggested that we need to stay with the pre-Easter Jesus as opposed to the post Easter Jesus. The perhaps greater challenge is to see the post-Easter Jesus as one who has been distorted by a culture of political, economic and social distortion. This is not a new claim in that it has been around for hundreds of years and it lies beneath much of traditional theology today. And for some of us that’s a shame.  A crying shame. Because what we are often left with is a mere shell called the God/man Jesus.

Personally, I support those scholars who call for a demotion of Jesus. Nor because I don’t think he challenges us with the divine, but because a fully-fleshed demoted Jesus “becomes available as the real founder of the Christian movement… Along with Bob Funk I can say that “He is no longer… its mythical icon, embedded in the myth of the descending/ascending, dying/rising lord of the pagan mystery cults, but one of substance with us all.”  (Funk 1996:306)

So, this Advent journey I invite you to go beyond the Lectionary parameters and consider a few things…

  1. Consider the need for a fresh awareness of your creative capacity. For inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings.
  2. Consider the option of becoming a person infected or inspired by hope rather than fear for it is ‘creativity God’ who acts in us.  And God in other people, who receive our actions.
  3. Thirdly, consider what sort of God or Jesus might be more God-like. A God or Jesus who is the essence of a society unafraid to be vulnerable, to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek and to lead others into a new and impossible future. Is it a God who reminds us to watch out or one that invites us to be awake?

Finally, maybe we might consider the invitation to re-tune our senses to a watchful present-ness of the sacred in the ordinary in the every-day in the outsider in the new. Let us enjoy and be blessed by our Advent journey this year. Amen.

Notes:
Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. New York. HaprerCollins, 1996.
(HoS) Hope is Our Song. New hymns and songs from Aotearoa New Zealand. Palmerston North. New Zealand Hymnbook Trust, 2009.

rexae74@gmail.com

Hope

Posted: November 27, 2019 in Uncategorized

Hope!

In a world where the best can come out of the worst

and the worst can come out of the best!

 

Here we are again. It is again the first Sunday in Advent. The season of waiting is upon us. The season of anticipation occupies our minds. We are again asked to recognize the present-ness of God in nature and in the one called Jesus of Nazareth – the human face of the one we name God. But unlike most of the northern hemisphere of our world, where the church liturgical calendar was first shaped, our today is the first official day of Summer. And Summer in New Zealand is a natural time for celebration. Even in times of drought or flash flood or grass fire. Even in the face of these there is new life and new growth to be seen, ripeness and richness, as plant and bush and tree display their many colours against the browning of our rich yet shaky isles. Nature is a gift in Summer in New Zealand with its continuous and reachable shoreline of warm sands and living inspiring seas. And we anticipate it’s arrival eagerly. Our Hope is real and certain and inviting.

 

In the church lectionary which I use as a challenge to my subjectivity and as a basis for granting the scriptures their due attention and integrity today is the first Sunday in Advent, yet the readings set down in the Lectionary for today have nothing whatsoever to do with our perceptions of either Advent or the coming season called Christmas. For instance, if we approach Matthew as a narrative, today’s reading comes about 9/10th of the way through the book… Closer to the end of the complete story than to the beginning. This suggests that they come to us totally out of context.

 

Secondly, as we know with most of the stories from the scriptures the readings paint diverse pictures of a world quite different from ours today. This alone, demands that we see these stories or readings as not being directed to a time thousands of years later – into our time. as seems to be assumed by some who shaped the Lectionary. A far better place to start would be the beginning of Matthew, the genealogy of Jesus. Where the best can come out of the worst. the worst can come out of the best! Having said that we now have to ask what if anything are we to make of these stories?

 

A few years back now process theologian John Cobb made some suggestions that might help. He says that those who have selected these passages “understand Advent to be the season of anticipation, of expectancy, and hope generally… And in all the texts the hope is grounded in faith in God.” (Cobb. P&F Web site, 2004)

 

So continuing to listen to John Cobb for a few more moments, we ask what can we learn from and hear in, these stories? Well! We can acknowledge that we human beings are not good at predicting the future. We can appreciate that the actual course of history is far more ambiguous than are the visions that lure us forward. We can realise that an interventionist God does not control the future or know just what will happen. And we can hear also that the hope which keeps us going is far deeper and more fundamental to our faith than we realise. “Hope has survived repeated disappointments in the past.  It will survive many more in the future.  It will do so as long as we believe in the biblical God.” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004) A God not made in our image.

 

It is true that such a statement needs clarification because such a statement presupposes that God’s working in history does not displace the working of human beings and that can be a bit of a shock to those who believe God is all-powerful! That all-powerful God could ‘do something’ in various situations so what happened?

 

John Cobb explains his comment a bit more. The quote is a bit detailed so we need to listen carefully. “God works in hope for peace and justice, but the world turns to violence and oppression.  Still God’s work is not futile.  Here and there it succeeds, encouraging the hope for wider and more inclusive success.  That success depends on our response to God’s invitation to share in the achievement of God’s purposes.  And our hope depends on the assurance that God does not give up on us” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004).

 

Here I would suggest we think about hope as having an active meaning as opposed to a passive one or maybe a meaning closer to trust as opposed to a benign wishful thought.

There is a subtle certainty to the sort of hope I suggest, just like that of my suggestion that another word for ‘God’ is ‘Almost’.

 

Despite frustration and disappointment, we are still called to be a people of hope. For hope is what is handed down from mother to daughter to son, not merely as a package passed from one generation to another. But as hope which is alive in mother and daughter and which now lives in the child of the third generation.

 

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. A time of waiting… a time of change… a time of hope.

In none of the Three-Year Lectionary stories set for the first Sunday during the season of Advent, are there stories “of babies or shepherds or stars or lullabies, but maybe these stories are saying that the world, as we know it, is about to change.  Maybe their message is ‘wake up, pay attention, get ready… Strange words, but maybe we need something jarring to lift us out of our complacency and wake up to something new” (ETigner. “Twilight time. A sermon” First Cong. Church web site, 2009). So, in the face of waiting, of change, yet in the continuation of hope itself I want to tell you a story. Some of you will have heard it before but I hope it will engage you again.

 

The story is that in Dresden, the German city that was devastated by the fire-bombing at the end of the World War 2, was the place of a wonderful discovery. They found in the ruins a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation. It was the score to Albinoni’s ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.

In the midst of this devastation of war – the very worst that we do to each other – there survived something of the most beautiful that we create for each other.

 

The Albinoni piece became a sign of hope. And it has been used that way. During the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War, the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in the middle of them. Twenty-two people were killed. Innocent people. Hungry people.  Wanting to buy bread.

A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned-out bakery, a man named Vedran Smailovic placed a chair, and began to play his cello.

 

For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people who had been killed at that spot. That gesture itself was considered wonderful. Just the playing music. But what gave it deeper significance is the music he played each day was ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’.

Slide

Play Sarajevo’s Adagio…

In the very worst that we do to each other hope says that there is something of the most beautiful that we create for each other.

 

Another way of understanding the nature of hope is another story that goes like this….

This story is a tongue in cheek one that contains both the traditional understand of God and one that supports the answer I gave to Gordon’s question about the claim that we are the Christ.

 

It is said that when God finished with Creation, she had a desire to leave behind, just a small piece of divinity and wholeness so humans could experience this delight. But God was a bit of a trickster too, so she didn’t want this to be too easy for human beings. She wasn’t sure, at first, where to put this special something, so she asked the other living things in creation. And someone suggested in the stars and God replied, No, I have this feeling that one-day humankind will explore space and they will find it. Someone else suggested hiding it in the depths of the ocean. God thought about it for a moment and answered, No. She also had a feeling that some-day humankind would explore the deepest places in the seas – that was also too easy. Then suddenly, God had it. “I know where I’ll put this special something, a place where they will never look.
I’ll hide it in them, they will never look there.” And so, it was. And so, it has been (FJMuir 2001:114).

Hope.  We have it.  Without it, we cannot live. Advent hope calls to us, lures us, to breathe another n\breath, to pause for another look, it offers us another alternative, it shakes off the doldrums – and in banishes fear. For this Advent hope, first announced by angels to shepherds, “means that despite appearances people of violence are no longer in control of history… that those who would seek to determine history’s outcome through violence will never succeed… That love and peace are more powerful than might and strength. Hope claims that love changes things, that love overcomes evil. When the angels announced the coming of Christ to the shepherds their first words are ‘fear not'” (Northcott 2010:17). Fear not. Hope is more than wishful thinking because it says step into the mystery of life, the whole of life. Amen.

Notes:
Muir, J. J. Heretics’ Faith. Vocabulary for Religious liberals. Annapolis: F. J. Muir, 2001.
Northcott, M. S. Cuttlefish, Clones and Cluster Bombs. Preaching, Politics and Ecology. London: DL&T, 2010.

Isaiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-43

Christ the King, Reign of Christ, Or?

At first glance, there is something anachronistic about claiming Christological superiority in a postmodern age of seekers, multiple faiths, and self-described spiritual but not religious persons.  What does it mean to talk of Kings when there is very little understanding of what that meant, means or could mean? Do we need to use such language today to talk about the presence of a man who dies thousands of years ago? Do we need to all think the same in order to preserve some sort of story or truth? Do we need to use such language to contribute to an understanding of the way God’s presence or the presence of the sacred is with us?

Well! I do think we need some sort of myth, some sort of story or myth to provide us with life. We are conscious beings who cannot be without the conscious exercise. The question I think we might ask is do we need universality, some sort of collective vision to help us question things like custom, and culture, and institution, and organization and assumption. And the answer again is yes, I think we do so long as we can maintain the scepticism, maintain the questioning so as to critique the inevitable imperialism. That comes. The theological question is ‘Can we claim universality in terms of God’s presence in the ministry and mission Jesus of Nazareth in a world of multiple truth claims?  Again, my answer is yes but only if the universal can be balanced by the particularity of our own faith perspective? It is always in tension and that is good.

The reality is that every religious tradition claims a type of universality.  Buddhists assert albeit humbly that Buddhist practices can, in principle, be transformative for everyone.  The Jewish vision of God, even apart from the Christian incarnational understanding of Jesus, cannot just be restricted to the Jewish people, but must have applicability, in principle, to all people.  The reality is that the world’s many faith or wisdom traditions affirm different things.  The world’s religions are not the same, nor do they claim to lead to the same destination by similar practices. Here we have the inevitability of human consciousness. This diversity does not need to lead to a concrete wall between faiths, but rather to an evolving interdependence of faith positions, growing alongside one another and learning from each other. The fear of losing one’s uniqueness is transformed in the joint hermeneutic walk. We interpret together pooling greater diversity in thought and the result is a more real and true outcome.

Jeremiah speaks of divine shepherding and by that he introduces the idea that God does not dominate but serves.  The God of all things cares for each thing: God’s companionship casts away all fear and renews all things.  God appoints caregivers not to “lord it over” the laity but to heal and reconcile all people.  God seeks wholeness for all creation, and God’s spokespersons have the same responsibility, to gather together, to seek unity, and nurture new life and creativity. Note the need for diversity, the need for difference that requires the walk together, the sharing of difference in the interests of the new.

Psalm 46, today’s psalm we didn’t read continues the theme of divine wholeness.  God is our refuge and strength; God helps us in challenging times.  In the maelstrom, we discover that we are not alone but that God is with us. Here we have the together requirement, the engagement with ‘the other’ the need for the hermeneutic, the sharing of the interpretation.  But, to experience divine wholeness, and by this we might mean the engagement we make with the sacred. One of the aspects of this engagement is that we need to “be still” or “pause awhile.” God or the divine or the sacred speaks in the maelstrom of life: a still small voice whispers through the storm and gives guidance and courage to those who stop long enough to listen.  Awareness begins with a small seed within consciousness. God is on our side, giving protection and strength, in times of trial.  But we must let go of frenetic activity and anxiety to experience holiness in the center of the cyclone.

We are called to Honour the Mind.

Stillness awakens us to the larger perspective.  Mindfulness takes us to the place beyond judgement, a place of vulnerable openness and we discover that our personal and social upheavals are part of a larger more orderly and creative fabric of divine care.  The upheavals are important but not all-dominating when we recognize that that which we name God is with us. John Caputo might say we encounter the God who is the insistent call. A Creed from the United Church of Canada which is theistic says “We are not alone, we live in God’s world; In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.  We are not alone.” I might say the same thing in non-theistic language as “We are not alone, we participate in the creation of the divine world. In life, in death, in life beyond death, what is divine is manifest in our becoming”

Today’s lectionary passage from Colossians joins the universal and intimate.  In Christ, all things are created. Christ is the impersonal, timeless everlasting insistence where God’s fullness dwells: the fully alive post Easter Jesus or the fully active faith of Jesus is a catalyst for our own personal and institutional creative transformation.  God’s glory does not dominate but nurtures our own agency, creativity, and responsibility.  Through the Christ, the divine insistence reconciles all things.  In reconciling all things, Christ reconciles each thing and that means each one of us.  The ever-present divine is present in the here and now, in our life, and in our community, always seeking Shalom.

The words I have just used are an attempt to articulate that which Colossians argues as joining cosmology and personality.  What touches all things heals each thing.  The One who moves though all things also moves through each of our lives, seeking abundant life and wholeness for all of us, one person at a time. The systems and society we live in is always too complex, too busy, to belittling, too hopeless, yet in this Christ we are talking about the individual, the small, the insignificant is imbedded within everything.

We are called to Live the questions.

Luke sees Calvary as the center of sacred space-time.  Jesus forgives the people right in front of him:  the crowd and the political leaders are dominated by fear and egocentricity; they cannot see beyond their own alienation and consequent need to dominate and destroy. They choose which side of the equation to stand and fight, inclusion or separation, difference or sameness and Jesus is used as the projection – the scapegoat – intended to ease their anxiety and alienation; The Christ is conditioned as the only way out and can become locked in creedal form or concrete infallible truth that denies his humanity. He becomes perfect and untouchable. But this projection fails to limit or dominate the post Easter Jesus, The Christ. He freely claims his relationship to God’s Shalom within the maelstrom of violence.

Jesus’ promise to his companion on the cross goes from clock time to a timeless, risen life.  “Today you will be with me in paradise” suggests a relationship of wholeness in the midst of dying and death.  Jesus doesn’t describe what he means by paradise, but he opens the door to a larger space-time perspective that embraces the vision of heaven and the communion of saints.  We can experience this everlasting life now: we can experience the sacred vision amid the ordinary moments and tragic conflicts of life. Our life is part of a grand adventure that goes beyond our physical deaths.  Death does not limit God’s love.  Rather God continues God’s aim at wholeness in any future adventures we might have.

We are called to Explore the adventure of Humanity.

This realm of Christ, this divine world, this pre and post Easter world is intended for healing and affirmation.  In the divine-human, divine-creaturely, call and response, that which we name God identifies with our deepest needs and the deepest needs of the planet (and beyond) and does all that can be done to bring health to the body, cell by cell and soul by soul.  The divine we name God insists that we be expressions of the creation, agents of the creativity that manifests the purpose and the meaning and enactment of the universe.

Let go of the language of Kings and realms with boundaries. Let go of the limited view of differences and the fear of the universal and be The Christ today. Amen.

 

Pentecost 23 C, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25

Turning Probability into Possibility

At the risk of repeating myself I want to suggest that what I was claiming last week was that I believe our church is making it more difficult to honour and accept the different, Different in social standing, different in world view and different in theological development. It seems that in order to be responsible with money and property we must all think the same and have the same view of what the church is and how it engages in mission. I may be paranoid and limited in my thinking also but it seems that in its concentration on survival and efficiency it is closing doors and excluding people. It seems that it is no longer appropriate for one to hold, or live by, a theological position or vision in our church. Unless of course, it is the neo-evangelical middle of the road position. By neo-evangelical I mean that which seeks to wipe out any sense of ecumenism, and any sense of liberal thought as being anti-gospel.

I admit that in saying that I am being simplistic, and generalizing but that is the message I think is being given by a church that says worship can only take place in one form and that is the gathering of a certain amount of people on a Sunday who give enough to sustain the model. Yes, there are groups beyond the model but they are not authenticated as equal opportunities as that of the traditional parish, congregational model. Yes, there is an accommodating of some alternatives but even those are bound by a fiscal model. What I am trying not to do is to say the way we do church is wrong but rather that is seriously flawed if it is the only way. Nor am I saying that attempts to change the direction have not been made in the past. What I am saying though is that that there is a qualified support for what I am suggesting but that it falls into the too hard basket in a world that is driven by fear and by an authenticity based in economic compliance. It is in my view rather sad that the church has become afraid to risk being confronted by its very own gospel.

The neo-evangelical approach is not only frightened of extinction, it has flattened out its proclamation of orthodoxy and made one-dimensional, the role of both theologian and prophet, in the life of the church. The only authentic prophet listened to is that one who espouses the party line, the traditional and the comfortable. The only theologians acceptable to read are those that don’t rock the boat.

However, if we take a look at this morning’s story from the prophet Isaiah, we see that he will have none of that. Instead, through the use of vivid picture language, Isaiah offers a vision, or states a position, which reminds us “of the ideals for which we hope and for which we believe God strives.  The ‘new heavens’ and ‘new earth’ the prophet foresees signify the possibilities for human society when we open ourselves to God’s transforming power” (RPregeant, P&F web site, 2007). The task of becoming more fully human in the image of God is always radical, new and holistic. New heavens.  New earth.  New possibilities for human society, now. There are some commentators who would suggest this is a most appropriate passage as we move towards the end of the Christian year, and national elections.

Rex Hunt suggests there is one group of Australian biblical scholars comment that might be useful reflect on this passage. They have interpreted this as saying “All that has prevented creation from being what God intended will be removed.  The disasters we see in the world about us every day are not what will determine the future of God’s creation.  Neither terrorist activity nor the exercise of military power will hold sway in God’s order of things. I would like to add that neither the church’s decline or extinction of current form will succeed. They go on to say that political deception will have no place, nor will abuse within the family or workplace.  The selfish exploitation and neglect of nature will be recognised… This is what the writer(s) of Isaiah 65 looks toward.  They look not just to the making new of the physical world, as to the renewing of the relationships and interconnections within the world which maintain life in its physical, spiritual, social and other dimensions.  That is the Christian hope” (HWallace et al. web site, 2007).

New heavens.  New earth.  Possibilities for human society, now.

Those of you who were here last Sunday may remember we touched on some so-called ‘apocalyptic’ talk as a basis for human transformation rather than ‘end-of-the-world’ stuff.

I also suggested something was required of us when we encounter this sort of end times talk. It is to read and study the biblical stories seriously, not literally, and know that we, even if only in a small way, are called upon to participate in the transformation of the world.

So, what is the apocalyptic talk in today’s text? I and others suggest that there is an echo to be heard in this week’s passage. And again, it is about re-imagining rather than end-of-world stuff.

So, how do we re-imagine the church?  Well! I am not sure my imagination is good enough but I want to make some suggestions. The first is that we might examine one, or two ways others have sought to re-imagine the world, through human transformation.

The first is an example of a very small way that we might participate in re-imagining the world. The topic is about British supermarket practices, from a few years back that in all intent and purpose could be applicable here too.

A Church of England bishop warned that the big supermarket chains in Britain were putting farming livelihoods at risk by forcing down prices through their buying power. His report said that: “The business practices of the major food retailers have placed considerable stress on the farming community through the use of methods which we believe to be unfair and of which consumers seem to be unaware,” said Bishop Michael Langrish of Exeter.

He was speaking at the launch of a report, ‘Fair trade begins at home: Supermarkets and the effect on British farming livelihoods’ written by two members of the church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. A small way, are called upon to participate in the transformation – re-imagining – of the world.

Secondly, Michael Lerner, a progressive Jewish Rabbi in America, wrote a powerful book called The Left Hand of God. In the book Lerner challenges both the political ‘right’ and the political ‘left’ to re-imagine the way society is organised by presenting what he calls a new “spiritual vision… a whole different level of discourse, not something narrowly instrumental that is basically about winning an election” (Lerner 2006:5, 18).

So, he sets out what he calls a ‘Spiritual Covenant with America’. “We invite our fellow Americans”, he writes, “to join us in building a society based on (a) new bottom line” (Lerner 2006:229). He suggests there are eight areas or issues are covered by the Covenant, and they include: 1. families, 2. personal responsibility, 3. social responsibility, 4. values-based education, 5. health care, 6. environmental stewardship, 7. building a safer world, and finally. 8. the separation of church and state and science.

We don’t have time to go into details of Lerner’s Covenant other than to offer some words from his Conclusion, because they could ring bells in our context as well: One of the things that evangelicals liberals and progressives can agree on is that; “There is an enormous spiritual hunger in the world at this time. From the sprouting up of new traditionally framed congregations to untitled groups of interest it seems that there is a yearning for a new way to think and a new way to live.  The challenge is to see that we have been trapped into thinking that fulfillment comes from achieving material success.  Bigger buildings with more people thinking and doing the same thing. I think our church has been caught up in this too and I think it is because we have stopped our theological questioning for too long.

This yearning could be because as the globalized economy makes accessible more and more material goods at prices that can be afforded, and more people have more commodities – more computers, cell phones, DVDs, cars, boats, televisions, and other gadgets – we find ourselves reaching for something else, something that cannot be satisfied by a new purchase.  We want meaning to our lives…”

Learner puts the two images of Right Hand and Left Hand of God, into context:
“The Right Hand of God is embraced by the powerful… [and] used to provide legitimacy to an empire and a competitive and unjust economic marketplace…  The Left Hand of God emphasizes the need to build a world based on love, kindness, compassion, generosity, mutual cooperation, recognition of the spirit of God in every other human being and an awareness of our interdependence with others…  (Lerner 2006:358). I might want to say as I have said earlier that the concentration of the left hemisphere of the brain where function and outcomes are sourced as opposed to the right hemisphere where purpose and meaning are developed is a reason. Remembering here that the right hand of logic and function power is influenced by the right brain and vice versa and this seems to support this proposal.

Throughout history, as well as within each of us, we can find elements in our life experiences that identify with the vision of the Right Hand of God. And similarly, there are also signs in both our individual and society lives that come under the influence of the vision of the Left Hand of God. It has been suggested that when social energy flows more toward hope, and promise we find ourselves supporting policies that are more generous, more oriented toward establishing peace and justice.

On the other hand, when social energy flows more toward fear, we find ourselves supporting policies that seek to dominate others, and to build institutions based on the assumption there is not enough in the way of material goods to go around. (Lerner 2006:358-59. I watched a move recently about the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa that showed just how hard it is to bridge this gap between world views.  Practicing reconciliation and peace is harder after a regime of segregation, where difference and fear have been the mainstays of society.

The good news from Isaiah and from Jesus is: the world can be re-imagined; can be transformed. And what is our role in all this?  It is to challenge the powerful voice of fear.
Be it in the church or in society in general. If we believe that the church has anything to say anymore. we must engage in apocalyptic work. Not about a second coming, or a pie in the sky idealism but rather to bear witness to the reality and the ramifications of the vision of Isaiah and Michael Langrish and Michael Lerner and others. The followers of the Jesus Way must free themselves from the fear that holds them back from re-imagining the New Heavens and the New Earth. Amen.

Notes:
Lerner, M. 2006.  The Left Hand of God. Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.  New York. HarperCollins.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

‘When Do We Admit We have it wrong?   

William Loader on his web site back in 2007 wrote that “There are many ways in which we as Christians can make themselves look silly, and when we look at some of those who have been up front as Christians, we have to admit that its perhaps more often these days than ever. If a Christian makes the news its usually about some misdemeanor or some horrible act. And in between this is all the orthodox fundamentalists who spout forth fear enticing, blood curdling oaths that alienate us from normal upright people. Its no wonder that we are sometimes aligned with the story about a bloke who was always having bad luck. Once he found a magic lamp, rubbed it, and a genie appeared and gave him the Midas touch. For the rest of his life, everything he touched turned into a muffler!  (Bausch 1998:390). This brings me to our biblical story this morning from the pseudo-Pauline letter called 2nd Thessalonians’, which also needs some serious critique. But first some contextual stuff.

There are very few reputable biblical scholars who agree that this so-called Pauline letter, was written by Paul. The evidence points to someone using Paul’s name to claim authority, while writing sometime after Paul. John Dominic Crossan (Crossan & Reed 2004:105), probably the leading biblical scholar of our time, is clear. There are authentic Paul letters and there are pseudo Paul letters. The authentic letters can be named: as Romans, 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon. The inauthentic or post Pauline letters, attributed to Paul but not written by Paul, include: Ephesians Colossians 2nd Thessalonians 1st & 2nd Timothy and Titus.

To make things even more complex I spoke some time back about research on Paul that suggested we had at least Three Paul’s, painted by the text. The first being the radical Paul who as a devout Jew followed closely the efforts of Jesus to transform Judaism and include other nations. The second Paul being the accommodating Paul who sought to justify and include the Roam and Greek cultures and the third Paul who was the Paul who argued for Roman culture as being the orthodox faith. In brief we have the critique of empire, the accommodation of empire and the Paul who embrace empire as the true context for faith. If we go along with this analysis of the Paul, we know, then we have a hermeneutic challenge. Some people we know have their favourite Paul bits. The question is do these favourite bits of Paul belong in the authentic Paul basket or in the pseudo Paul basket? It can make a lot of difference, because we are extracting them from a particular context with a particular purpose.

Another point we need to recognise is that, not only are there pseudo Paul letters, but some of those letters are anti Paul letters, as evidenced by much of the content of Ephesians and Timothy. The challenge here is that some of these texts are relied on by fundamentalists and neo-orthodox these days, for their ‘anti’ causes! Paul says; so, its truth and biblically warranted. So why do we have the anti-Paul letters?  Well, Crossan suggests, they are an “attempt by compilers and authors to sanitize a social subversive, to domesticate a dissident apostle, and to make Christianity and Rome safe for one another” (Crossan & Reed 2004:106). Perhaps like so much so-called ‘fake news today, they seek to push a particular cause, which kind of brings us back to today’s biblical story.

Some of the author’s hearers are frightened. They seem convinced that the so-called second coming of Jesus’ is about to happen. So, they have got themselves all into a lather. And their goings-on has divided their small community. Do you think the churches concentration on survival today might be the support of a particular theological position?

The author tries to counter this ‘apocalyptic scenario’, but to no avail. Instead the comments seem to pour oil onto troubled fires. Palpable fear grips the Thessalonians. Such as some politicians hope will happen during an election campaign. Such as members of the PCANZ hope will pool resources, limit diversity and sanitize the gospel.

The trouble is that they might just be hastening their own demise because fear speaks louder than either history or any reasoned debate!

And here is the radical response, the original Pauline response and this the Jesus response. Being progressives, we can dismiss all this ‘apocalyptic’, ‘end-of-the- world’, ‘second-coming-of-Jesus’ stuff as fanciful rubbish. And most of it is.  Or if you prefer Bishop Jack Spong’s evaluation:  he calls it “gobbledygook and complete non-sense” (Spong eLetter, 31.10.07).

Crossan says; ‘Especially the modern writings of Tim LeHaye and the “transcendental snake oil” (Crossan 2007:198) called the Left Behind series. As well as the rantings of many American TV evangelists, and their imitators.

So, it is important to try and go under the apocalyptic veneer in order to get in touch with the real underlying issue. And that real issue is, not about the end of the world or the second coming of Jesus, but about the end of evil and injustice and violence… in this world.

On the former, Crossan is again helpful: “The 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 divine presence” (Crossan 2007:230-231).

On the latter, a professor of religion and philosophy, Russell Pregeant, says we need to get in touch with: “the hope for peace and justice that has led many in our own time, under the influence of liberation theology, to speak of apocalyptic writings as ‘the literature of the oppressed’”  (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007).

And he goes on to say: “[this is] a reminder that God is certainly not satisfied with the unjust structure of the present world… [But] we need neither the outrageous fantasies of the so-called ‘rapture’ nor the grotesque images of millions of souls condemned to eternal torture while the blessed shine like the sun, to ensure that human life has eternal significance” (Pregeant, P&F web site, 2007).

So, what are we left with? We have to say that apocalyptic talk, in our own times, which wants to claim a basis in divine destruction, is unhelpful. We also have to say that apocalyptic talk, in our times, which wants to claim a positive basis in human transformation, is helpful. It is that simple.

But we might now say that we need to get beyond this helpful/unhelpful dichotomy, because something more is required of us.  What we are led to do is to get beyond the dichotomy of wright and wrong and in and out and truth and untruth and. 1. Read and study the biblical stories seriously, not literally, and 2; know that we, even if only in a small way, are called upon to participate in the transformation of the world. Honour the mind and its ability to ask the questions of history, of text and story and remember that if we are only against something, we are doomed to negativity. So too if our actions are only attempts at domesticating dissident voices, making religion and politics safe for one another. If we are concerned with our survival. We will not find success but rather only build walls to protect what’s left.

There is a poor analysis that says that what is transpiring today is the clash of two completely different worldviews. In criticizing the fundamentalists, I am not suggesting that there are only two world views. What I am suggesting is that getting stuck with only two points of view we are entering survival mode and negative the trap of negativity. We allow an accelerated culture of secularism facing off against an aging culture of Christendom.” Which is a false world, or a world of false God’s.

Dare I say it but I think that what is happening today is actually the result of an unthinking orthodox fundamentalist movement, that ingratiated itself into the Western world in the early 400s CE in the interests of empire, control, wealth and organisational strength. This is not to say that such organisational endeavour is wrong but rather that it lacks the ability to be critiqued adequately. And we have now reaped the benefit with a world of polarity as opposed to complementarity. The Christian world ended up in a battle with secularism. A them and us falsehood a right and wrong world. The outcome has been the demise of the church, the reduction in membership, the need for a Northern Presbytery strategy is a result. Sadly, I don’t believe it will address the fact that what is happening is probably one of the greatest capitulations to the bipolar secularity, in our lifetimes.

The fact that fundamentalists and evangelicals talk about the importance of honesty, character, integrity, and ethics in leaders but then throw all that out the window to support their own concerns, is hardly the result of secularism.  It is, however, a surrender to the dichotomy, the binary as if it is some sort of purest, amoral, goal.

What we see happening presently, around the western world is the result of a fundamentalist Christianity, with a truncated and immature view of the Christian narrative, and the world, which far too many evangelicals also bought into when it came to the political. The issue is that we need to quit blaming others and take a look in the mirror. The church has declined while we are members of it. There is something we are not doing with the gospel.

The false God is that one we have created by an attitude that claims truth with such tone and rhetoric that dismisses, discredits, and demonizes the other side. There are not two sides but more. We are told that the other side, the left, or the right, whatever one wants to call it, is guilty of the same.  “However, the same is true for many on both sides.

The point we seem to be missing is that the majority of the world has moved on and the task is not to take sides but rather to make an argument with questions that cannot be dismissed.

It is my suggestion that fundamentalist orthodox Christianity is whistling past the graveyard at this point.  The so-called moderate voices think that they are somehow helping by staying above the fray.  This needs to be challenged. History tells us that those who come out and try to mediate as neutral observers, who try to stay above the fray, who try to tell us both sides are the same (“good people on both sides”), end up helping the oppressors, those whose incivility and intolerance Look what happened to Paul as he became the servant of the system in being transformed from radical into empire saviour. This need for control and survival and the claim to the power of negativity is intrinsic to the fundamentalist movement, philosophy, and existence.

And where is my positive claim for saying this? It is again history. History has not been kind to those voices.  I have the feeling history will see the current voices in the same light.  In their very commendable attempt to promote civility and tolerance, proper stewardship and radical redistribution of resources they miss the gravity of our current moment with their poor and limited analysis of the moment.  In seeking to promote the goodness of the church, they will invariably end up helping those who have decided they will do the very opposite. This who have money and resources will get richer and the poor and struggling will get pushed aside in the interests of the sensible, the logical and the obvious. Elie Wiesel, the Romanian American writer of the play ‘The Trial of God: said “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”. My question is will the church do to us what it has already done to Paul? Amen.

Notes:
Bausch, W. J. 1998.  A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications.
Crossan, J. D. 2007.  God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now in Search of Paul. How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. New York. HarperCollins.
Crossan, J. D. & J. L. Reed. 2004.. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

A Church Planting Theology?

Posted: October 31, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 21C. 2019
Luke 19:1-10

‘A Church Planting Theology?’

 There are some stories in the Bible that are both a challenge and really good to tell. One such made-up story, is the story of Zacchaeus. According to Luke our storyteller, Zacchaeus was one of those people despised by most yet Jesus seemed to like being around them. Zacchaeus stood barely five feet tall with his shoes off and was the least popular man in Jericho. I was reminded here, of a theory I had when an apprenticed motor mechanic. The theory was that short people drove the biggest, loudest and most ostentatious cars as if trying to compensate for their stature. An Unfair assumption to be sure but often borne out by their actions. Short Zacchaeus was head tax-collector for Rome in the district and had made such a killing out of it that he was the richest man in town as well as the shortest. When word got around that Jesus would soon be passing through, he shinnied up into a sycamore tree so he could see something more than just the backs of other people’s heads, and that’s where he was when Jesus spotted him.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “get down out of there in a hurry. I’m spending tonight with YOU” (Luke 19:5), whereupon all Jericho snickered up their sleeves as if think this guy Jesus didn’t have better sense than to invite himself to the house of a man that nobody else would touch with a ten-foot pole. But Jesus knew what he was doing. Zacchaeus was taken so completely aback by the unexpectedness and for him the honour of the thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised not only to turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he’d extorted from everybody else. Jesus was absolutely delighted. “Today salvation has come to this house,” he said.

The challenge in this story is this is more powerful a statement than much we have heard to date. Here we have a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway. The ultimate in hospitality and as my title suggests the nature of church planting, In traditional speak, it is the sinners who come in, it is the lost, the deprived, the poor and the destitute who are welcomed.

Picking up our scripture we find Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition. We have Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even.

Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too. Why are they treasured? What is it that makes them valued? It sure isn’t for what they do. Maybe we can say at least that these guys are treasured less for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them to be because ultimately, of course; it’s not the world that made them at all. “All the earth is mine!” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein,” adds the Twenty-fourth Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me too.

It’s hard to put a label on Zacchaeus.  Tradition has it that he’s short; he’s rich; he’s probably none too popular with his neighbours. Maybe he was picked on in the school ground when he was a young kid because he was small. Maybe that’s why he so gladly took up the position as a toll collector, working his way to the top of the toll collecting franchise. The bloke who skimmed off the top of those who skimmed off the top!

Let’s go back to our text for a bit. Let’s imagine the scene… There’s a line of people gathered along Main street. The sun is beating down. There’s a rumour that this Jesus from Nazareth has given sight back to the old blind fellow who lives down by the city gate. Zacchaeus, curious, and not wanting to miss the show, looks for some spot where he can get a good look at the procession as it makes its way through Jericho and on up to Jerusalem. He asks a few people if he could squeeze past, but he soon realizes his lack of popularity makes it difficult to request favours for a ring-side seat. There’s no way the crowd is going to let him in even for a quick look-see. He looks around him at the trees that lined the street and runs towards one as fast as he can. He grasps a lower branch firmly in his hands and pulls himself up. As he continues on his climb up the tree he hears someone call out “Hey look at the little bird” followed by bursts of laughter. Someone else calls out that his ‘nose looks like a beak’ and the crowd erupts into more hoots and laughter. Zacchaeus looks down at the faces in the crowd staring up at him. “Peasants” he thinks to himself, as he makes himself comfortable… As comfortable as one can while straddling a branch four meters off the ground.

In a few minutes the Jesus-procession makes its way around a corner. Suddenly, Jesus stops. People bump into one another in surprise as the momentum of the crowd is broken. Jesus looks around him, his brow furrowed. Then he lifts his head skyward, or treeward to be more precise, and aims his gaze directly towards Zacchaeus. “Give him hell preacher!” someone yelled out as Jesus opened his mouth to speak. “Tell him to wise up! “Clean up his act! “Get out of town!” But instead Jesus said: “Hey Zacchaeus, get down here!”

Again the crowd looks up at the little man on his branch. Zacchaeus scans the crowd, taking pride and delight in being singled out by this ‘intelligent’ rabbi. “Indeed, he must be a prophet”, Zacchaeus thinks to himself, “for he has recognised my position and authority in this city over this rabble.” As Zacchaeus tries to scramble down out of the tree, he feels its branches tugging at his cloak. He’s a little self-conscious now. It’s one thing to have all the attention focused on you because of your authority or your wealth. It’s another to have everyone’s attention, and I mean everyone’s attention, directed at you, while you are trying to scramble down a tree.

He reaches the ground and brushes himself off, trying to straighten himself out so as to appear with some dignity. “Come on, let’s go,” Jesus commands with good humour. “We’re hungry.” That’s when everything went quiet. A buzz went around the crowd. “For a smart young preacher, he sure doesn’t know much about people!” “He can’t be serious! “There isn’t a bigger crook in the country!  But he was serious.  This was no joke.  It caused a scandal. We do an injustice to the story if we reduce it to the cheap category of a wonder conversion. This story is not about a so-called ‘soul being saved’, as one popular biblical translation puts it, but about transformation with revolutionary implications… It was a scandal because it spoke to people who cried out for justice, and it was heavily biased towards compassion and change. Barry Robinson in his sermon The gospel in sycamore, puts it this way:  He says: “What bothered the good people of Jericho was not so much what Jesus had to say… but the way he said it. “It is one thing to believe in loving your neighbour, to believe in welcoming the lost, to believe in forgiving the guilty; but it is quite another thing to practice what you preach, to actually practice doing it. That’s what bothered people about Jesus. “He not only said that we should love God and one another.  He actually went out and did it.  He didn’t just say God’s embrace was wide enough to welcome everyone, he actually went out and embraced people no one else would. This is what upset the balance.  This is what was too unsettling to the way things were. The labeling of people to define the boundaries was not important to Jesus. He was more interested in welcoming people aboard the Way. Jesus was about: finding and rejoicing and making whole. So, come down from your isolation. Come beyond your boundaries. Stand on table tops, climb trees, and go out on a limb so that you can see where to be. Where to join the kin-dom. Perhaps that’s the nature of church planting. Amen.