Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Celebrating Earth in Spring.

Posted: September 16, 2020 in Uncategorized

Celebrating Earth in Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that note we might need to catch up with evolution is that Bid Bang might be a misleading term really, in that it is posited that there wasn’t really an explosion, but rather an expansion. Noun to verb maybe? Or as John D Caputo writes God doesn’t exist but rather insists.

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

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

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

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

We are yet to learn from basic biology. We are yet to learn that humans must cooperate with nature’s processes, and if we can do that, then we can develop purposes less likely to be frustrated by nature. We are yet to learn that a debate between people who actually know stuff
and people who just don’t like what the experts have to say, is not a ‘balanced’ debate. It’s a waste of time.

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

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

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

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

There is also a need for all religious traditions to appreciate that the primary sacred community is the universe itself, and that every other community becomes sacred by participation in this primary community.

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

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

Spring shows us that nature-kind and humankind are continually in relationship. Spring reminds us and calls us forward to a ‘new’ religious sensitivity. To transcend the isolated self. To reconnect.  

To know ourselves to be at home.

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

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

Today a woman is planting flowers in her garden. Her activity is more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She is digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging, under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination. Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little bulbs and seeds will explode into daffodils, tulips, irises, freesias, geraniums, pansies, daises and sunflowers. A war will have been won by soft and coloured things. The yellow eyes of asters, the purple tongues of irises, and the crayola pansies have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. It is Spring. If there were a heaven, the gods would abandon it just for the chance to see this woman in her garden.

The gospel of the natural present moment. Amen.

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

rexae74@gmail.com

Living with the Land.

Posted: September 9, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 18: 23-34

Living with the Land.

In recent times we have been repeatedly informed and awakened to the state of the land on a global scale. There have been numerous articles published about the state of the global environment.

In part and in many forms the articles have said: “Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of the earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.  They have gone on to say that the provision of food, fresh water, energy and materials to meet the needs of a growing population has come at considerable cost to the complex system of plants, animals and biological processes that make the planet habitable” 

Such warnings were and are not new. And, they continue to be debated, and challenged by scientist, politician and by nearly every government on earth. They have risked the advent of the tall poppy syndrome, the bury the head response, and the lets get real challenge and they have prevailed. They are now supported by the pandemics ability to travel the globe at an alarming rate despite being challenged by the not as bad as or little worse than brigade. Rationalist and statistician have been empowered. But do we really see and heed the warnings? Or do we dismiss them because we don’t believe the science. Or do they just massage us, washing over us, because we feel too powerless to go beyond simple acts? Do we really have faith in the individual action?

Today we continue our journey into the Season of Creation. The Season of Creation is an addition to the Lectionary. Traditionally the church calendar or Lectionary is shaped around three years. Each year has seven main seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Lent. And the rather long general time, called After Pentecost or Ordinary Time.

Having said that I am aware that not all that many people bother with the lectionary or see it as just the tool of preachers who use it to be careful not to get caught up on pone’s own hoppy horse and end up preaching one’s own bias or prejudice. I want to spend a little time justifying a lectionary approach, both as a helpful discipline and as a concern for a collective liturgy or teaching structure to each week. One could say that a lectionary approach to the global dilemma re environment might be helpful as a way of keeping the debate resourced and the collective responsibility for action alive.

This additional season of Creation to the liturgical year claims some of that After Pentecost time by designating the Sundays in September (the southern hemisphere Spring) as the Season of Creation.

I wonder if the following might help. The main seasons are as said above and including Creation, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Creation and Lent. In thinking about the lectionary approach I have explored the possibility of naming the seasons with a less traditional and more contemporary way. Advent being Looking for the possibility of the new, Christmas being establishing the basis for Cocreation, Epiphany being Awareness of the challenges, Easter being taking Responsibility, Pentecost being Inspiration and the call to be inspiring, Creation being the physical dimension and Lent being the human dimension and Economy.

The year would look like a call to reflect on the seasons of Enlightening, Collaborating, Awakening, Responding, Inspiring, Creating and Distributing.

To add to this is the idea that Each season could have a number of designations as subjects for use such as the four Sundays of Creation being given a theme. This year’s themes are: Forest, Land, Outback and River and in St Andrews case Outback has become Rainbow Sunday.

Today is Land Sunday.  A time to reflect on the land on which we walk, live, grow things,
plough and mine, are usually buried in, and unfortunately, often pollute.

For some time now we in New Zealand have been made aware of a different understanding of land. It is an awareness which comes from the Maori people and it and has been deep religious links with the land. In a very deep and real sense land belongs to the people and the people to the land. One can see the very communal and collective understanding of the relationship with the land and its subsequently very difference from individual ownership of the land.

As an explanation of their myths and historical stories tell us: “The great ancestral creative beings, who journeyed across the great oceans, established the land boundaries between different groups and the sacred and tribal sites.  Carrying out ritual obligations at these sites and performing religious ceremonies are the way by which Maori feel bound to their land and protective towards it. Like the Aboriginal people of Australia Maori people do not live on the land. They live with the land. They are bound to it by spiritual as well as practical links. The Whare Nui (The big or main home)is the place of the tribal relationship with the land the tribal womb, the place of the Tangata Whenua (created people) and the Marae is the place when the relationship is cherished, taught, heard and maintained by rituals that reflect the culture of the tribe and its relationship with the land.

And we also know that behind the so-called Maori wars the policy of terra nullius, or ‘empty land belonging to no one’, was in effect and precipitated the Treaties that were an attempt to marry the two essentially different understandings of ownership and collective responsibility that existed.

There is still much we should know and do and work towards. justice, fairness and equality of people in New Zealand as more and more people are disenfranchised by prevailing attitudes and the exercise of power. Value systems that are based on exchange value and the maximization of individual profit need to be debated, Politics caught up in the partisan at all costs dilemma and the equality verses equity discussion is vital in the interests of harmony cooperation and collaboration in a rapidly contracting social era. The fluctuations in the housing debate mirror those of that – governments and people – have over ownership of land’ and our history of state verses private.

On a Sunday when the theme is ‘Land’ thoughts on reconciliation between peoples need to be pondered some more, and continuing dialogue and such things as truth and reconciliation and compensation, encouraged recognizing that the presenting issues are reflections of a deeper understanding.

Perhaps there is an echo of all this in Matthew’s Lectionary story we heard this morning In the difficult story/parable of the ‘Unforgiving slave’. But we will not hear this echo if we spiritualise it, or fail to hear it as a story about power! Rex Hunt’s reflection on this text  suggests that the ‘slave’ or high-ranking bureaucrat has power over other subordinates. He is responsible for collecting tribute from them, as they are from others. And he has done this very well, using calculating and cunning tactics.

Like-wise the bureaucrat’s ‘ruler’ or master, in a pure display of unfettered power, threatens to totally destroy him because he has overreached himself and can’t pay what is immediately due the master. This scenario is then played out a second time. But between the bureaucrat and one of his subordinates.

Having been shamed before the master he must gain some prestige by exerting power over a subordinate. That’s our story. There are several ‘twists’ or surprises in this story. The first ‘twist’ comes when the master, in quite an extraordinary act for any agrarian ruler,
waves a debt of unimaginable proportions.

A second ‘twist’ comes when the bureaucrat, in a similar situation, does not act as his master does and therefore brings shame on his master who now must act to save face. For all the strength shown in the master’s earlier decision, the ‘system’ which supports all of them, is unable to show mercy. So, the ‘system’, says the parable, is not the place to look for a hopeful solution. Which I guess, is a different interpretation than that usually offered this parable!

However, another ‘twist’ reflected in the story is the storyteller himself and the story’s openness.  Loyal Rue, professor of philosophy and religion at Luther College, Iowa, in his book Religion is not about God, suggests that religion is not about God but about us.

He argues that successful religions are narrative or myth traditions that influence human nature so we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively.

Rue writes: “Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.  Religions have always been about this business of adaptation, and they will always remain so” (Rue 2006:1).or

In this day and age when religion is not considered as a helpful approach one has to ask where this work be done now? But back to our story and we don’t find it much different. The third ‘twist’ is the storyteller doesn’t invite the hearer (then or now) to take sides.  To blame someone. Instead that storyteller seems to have Jesus drawing his hearers (and us?) into wrestling with the larger social and economic inequalities that embrace us all.

We may be willing to ‘bash’ the Banks and business for their aggressive push for profits. But are we also able to recognise how we so often live off the poverty of ‘sweatshops’ and cheap labour?

Here is I think the reminder that we are to act in ways that are good for us both individually and collectively. So, maybe we just need to ponder this story a bit more.

Most oppressed or disadvantaged people feel the ‘system’ does not fill them with hope in the matter of ‘land rights’. Eve after extensive and often divisive legislation change in New Zealand communities and some individuals have had neither the resources nor access to the judicial process, to assert their claims in the courts. I personally found this in a claim for natural justice within the church recently when then church system and its legislation failed and the high court system was caught up in protecting law as opposed to providing justice.

Because, as we heard echoed in Matthew’s story, justice questions come from below, not from above. They are raised by communities and individuals who do not have
social power or a voice within the social system.

If the matter of ‘land’ is to be resolved it seems clear that solutions will not come from a legal decision, but from a political one, initiated by the people and collectively.

I can remember when saying ‘Sorry’ was certainly the hardest word of all to say for many who were reluctant to agree to the moving of their  perceptions of power – both political and economic. I remember the changes in the churches, where one addressed the justice issues by distributing the power over resources on an ethnic basis, another gave power of veto to a minority and another establish a committee with autonomy within the conciliar system. All differing ways of maintaining primary power in the dominant system.

But fortunately for the church these approaches to justice were made so as to reflect as best as was able that grace is the only basis for reconciliation as we saw and experienced a helpful response. It is only dad that due to the significant decline of the church concern for survival dominates issues of justice.

Justice, honesty and genuine reconciliation is the result when we have respect and honour for one another and for the land. Amen.

Notes:
Gondarra, D. 1988.  Father, You Gave Us The Dreaming. Darwin: Published privately.
Hill, M. 1993. Australian Aboriginal Culture. Canberra: AGPS.
Rue, L. 2005.  Religion Is Not About God. How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Matthew 18:15-20

Theopoetics and the search for a Community of Grace.

Some scholars are suggesting that the time of theology as a primary approach to the search for an understanding of God is over and that a theopoetic approach offers a way forward. But what is theopoetics? Well we can start with a simple one that says theo equals God and Poetics equals the fine arts of poetry, song and metaphorical prose. Or we can grapple with a poem I compiled to help me.

Before you do it might be helpful to say that I am no brilliant English language scholar but I think this approach puts things like rationality, belief, creed and doctrine into a back seat and seeks to find the cadence and the flow and meter of the text in what I think is a different form or structure.

God as Art

A theopoetic definition

An expanded understanding of primary text

it goes beyond what is written

it embraces music, visual art, poetry, once bitten

 sculpture, film, dance as lived experience next

the natural world takes life a-smitten

 its primary goal is both art and written

many ways of knowing its primary text.

be it verbal, mathematical, or musical,

kinesthetic, empathic, bodily, introspective, 

imaginative, contemplative

no privilege it gives to verbal knowing alone as primary analytical.

socially engaged it seeks its own transformation imperative

the creation of creative, compassionate, communities to live

to be participatory, humane to animals, and ecological.

Some thirty years ago, the first in a series of movies was released. It is entitled “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” It is a clever comedy yet with profound messages. One of the stories in the film is about an African tribe that lives in the Kalahari Desert in the southern part of the continent. This tribe is a community in collaboration and cooperation with one another. The tribe lives well in its work, play, and prosperity. This life is attributed to the favour from the gods from above. Favour from God is both undeserved and unearned and called Grace. From a traditional Christian and Western viewpoint, one may describe this tribe as having attributes of a community of grace.

inclusive of diversity, and spiritually satisfying

it leaves no one behind. 

It partakes of the prophetic imagination as kind

saying “no” to injustice and “yes” to compassion edifying

 an ultimate hope of ecological civilization to find

a beloved community with ecology an added bind.

multiple forms of spirituality and emotional wisdom a-plying. 

It affirms the subjective worlds of emotion and feeling

They being at the heart of lived experience. 

It understands “spirituality” and is the activity of becoming beyond expedience

fully alive and awake, in the immediacy of ordinary life appearing

it recognizes many different spiritual modes of appearance

attention, beauty, and being present adherence

compassion, connection, devotion, enthusiasm, faith and meaning.

However, one day a glass bottle is thrown from an airplane and falls unbroken to the ground. In the movie, the bottle is found among the tribe. Initially, the bottle is seen as a gift from the gods, albeit a strange artifact. However, it quickly becomes a tool in the tribe. The bottle is used in cooking, working, and even play. Nonetheless, this tool becomes a temptation. Since there is only one bottle to go around, there begins competition for use of this tool. This leads to difficult experiences for the tribe. They succumb to moments of envy, jealousy, anger, enmity, and even violence. The tool becomes an evil thing. Their community of grace is threatened with turmoil and trouble.

forgiveness, grace, gratitude, hope, hospitality and imagination,

joy, justice, kindness, listening, love and nurturing,

openness, peace, play, questing, reverence, occurring

welcoming of shadow, silence and transformation,

unity, vision, wonder, mysterious X-factor and yearning,

self-affirmation and zest for life burning

materiality and physicality in affirmation.

Affirming of the material and physical side of life

the bodies of people and animals, hills and rivers, trees and stars 

interfaith theopoetics no distinction between body and spirit as pars

but instead sees body in spirit and spirit in body in unity rife. 

open to the possibility of life in a multi-dimensional universe of avatars

in which “spirits” and “ancestors” are more than pillars

 a continuing journey after death becomes possible as fife.

we understand “body” very widely as respectfully confessional

yet beyond it can be uniquely Christian, or uniquely Jewish,

or uniquely Muslim, or uniquely Buddhist, or uniquely Hindu-ish

or uniquely “Spiritual but not Religious positional

an interfaith theopoetics understands that we live in a world awash

with multiple wisdom traditions no trash

all included in beloved community processional

our wisdom traditions include humanism, secularism,

and spiritual independence as well

as traditional forms of religious affiliation do tell

its reflective side, experimental and exploratory prism

imaginative and sometimes playful, not didactic an argumentative sell

it welcomes and explores different ways of thinking about God and hell

personal and transpersonal it includes all forms of ism.

  open to the horizontal sacred of felt relationships

as well as the vertical sacred of something more

​it is practiced by academics and non-academics who implore

and by many different people from many walks of life and kinships

of various ages, genders, races, religions, and sexualities explore

a definition and a poem to adore

theopoetics as the art of craftsmanship.

The protagonist in the movie, Xi, offers to take the evil thing and throw it off the edge of the earth. Xi sets off on a quest. With bottle in hand, he is exposed to more of Western culture than just a glass container. One sees his experiences and observations from his viewpoint. Xi learns a number of lessons about the outside world, himself and his tribe. 

Jesus offered teachings as lessons to the disciples and the crowds. Jesus teaches that discipleship is to build a community of grace. What does it take to build a community of grace? Matthew 18:15-20 addresses difficult circumstances that confront the life of a community and calls those who follow Jesus to respond when there appears a strange artifact, such as a bottle, which threatens to harm the community.

forgiveness, grace, gratitude, hope, hospitality and imagination,

joy, justice, kindness, listening, love and nurturing,

openness, peace, play, questing, reverence, occurring

welcoming of shadow, silence and transformation,

unity, vision, wonder, mysterious X-factor and yearning,

self-affirmation and zest for life burning

materiality and physicality in affirmation.

Affirming of the material and physical side of life

the bodies of people and animals, hills and rivers, trees and stars 

interfaith theopoetics no distinction between body and spirit as pars

but instead sees body in spirit and spirit in body in unity rife. 

open to the possibility of life in a multi-dimensional universe of avatars

in which “spirits” and “ancestors” are more than pillars

 a continuing journey after death becomes possible as fife.

we understand “body” very widely as respectfully confessional

yet beyond it can be uniquely Christian, or uniquely Jewish,

or uniquely Muslim, or uniquely Buddhist, or uniquely Hindu-ish

or uniquely “Spiritual but not Religious positional

an interfaith theopoetics understands that we live in a world awash

with multiple wisdom traditions no trash

all included in beloved community processional

There were plenty of bottles in first century Palestine. Jesus the Teacher names the misused bottles in order to break their power over the people.

“If another member of the church (i.e. if someone in your community) sins against you…,” follow these instructions. Jesus refers to a previous source of education known as the Old Testament, the Torah, and specifically the books of Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Jesus confirms and fulfills the teachings of the Hebrew Testament for those who follow his words.

“Sins against you…” The word sin is transliterated in the New Testament Greek that describes sin as that which Judas does when he betrays, A translation of the Greek word for sin in this case is ‘Miss the mark’ and it is a mission of the mark that leads to difficult circumstances in the life of a community. Miss the mark is a translation for that which threatens a community of grace. Here sin may manifest itself as misguided beliefs and misdirected behaviour. A miss in life! Miss the boat. Miss the bus. Miss the Appointment. Miss the ball. Miss the shot. Misunderstand. Miscommunicate. Miss you! Missing! Miss!

Matthew 18:15-20 encourages us to ask the question, “What have I missed?” What is my bottle? What quest do I take? The quest or journey is usually walked one step at a time.

It is said that there are five R’s to address missing the mark in a community of grace. They are Repentance, Resolution, Redemption, Reconciliation and Restoration. These five R’s are a spiritual path to build a community of grace. We might note here that they are not actions to be taken systematically to do away with anything, they are tools to build community, in this case a community of grace and not one of right belief. I might even go as far as to say that they can be tools toward forgiveness which in its nature highlights the simplicity of grace.

Everyone one of us has missed something. The teaching of Matthew 18 is to look inward and examine our conscience in order to build community of grace.

our wisdom traditions include humanism, secularism,

and spiritual independence as well

as traditional forms of religious affiliation do tell

its reflective side, experimental and exploratory prism

imaginative and sometimes playful, not didactic an argumentative sell

it welcomes and explores different ways of thinking about God and hell

personal and transpersonal it includes all forms of ism.

Then take the residue in a bottle and throw it off the edge of the earth and let Heaven reign. Lift up your hands, Lift High the Cross, Lift up the Name of Jesus, Lift up the Community of Grace.

In conclusion I want to go to another story or two and to our African one.

Dietrick Bonhoeffer of whom many of us have heard taught at an underground seminary during the rise of Nazi Germany. In 1939 he wrote a book entitled Life Together. Life Together is a way to describe Community of Grace. Life Together in the early Christian church was named Koinonia in the Greek language. In his book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer wrote: “Nothing could be more-cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing could be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a sister/brother from the path of sin.” Consigning one to sin as a sinner destroys a community of grace. Being compassionate toward one who misses the mark is through accountability to the community of Grace.

The next story is of a mother in her 80th decade of life and who had had, little formal education was very wise. In her wisdom she always took care of anything that could hurt her family. Whenever one of her eight children had a bottle issue she would employ some of the principles of Matthew 18. When two had a tussle, she would admonish them to deal with it themselves. If needed, the bottle was brought to her for resolution. If necessary, it was to be taken that when their father came home from work then everyone in the family would know about this. The spiritual motivation for the two warring children was to find resolution and restoration before Dad came home! In this way Mom kept bottles of a very large family from missing the mark!

In the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” Xi returns from his quest. He comes back illumined about the Western world. He learns some difficult lessons about dress, trucks, property, law, and what he sees as dependence upon “strange magic.”  Xi returns to his tribe with gratitude and celebration for he knows a Community of Grace.

We who are disciples in Jesus have a labour for our lives. Our life and labour is to build Community of Grace that we have called the church but know as the Kingdom Kindom or Realm. This Community of Grace is not founded on strange magic but on the bountiful mystery of God.

To build a Community of Grace may be trying, yet ultimately rewarding; it may be challenging to understand, yet finally satisfying; it may be difficult, yet in the end joyful.

open to the horizontal sacred of felt relationships

as well as the vertical sacred of something more

​it is practiced by academics and non-academics who implore

and by many different people from many walks of life and kinships

of various ages, genders, races, religions, and sexualities explore

a definition and a poem to adore

theopoetics as the art of craftsmanship.

Amen.

Matthew 16: 21-28

Is the search for an explanation of consciousness dependent upon self-denial and a taking up of the cross? Can we escape the limitations of being human or at least perhaps expand the boundaries of limitation? Is self-denial required to take up the one’s cross and is one’s cross the limits of understanding?

I was attending a service recently when the preacher suggested that imagination was the product of a cognitive process; that if we did not think about something it could not be imagined and while I thought this was reductionist of imagination it got me to thinking about the current debate about what consciousness is and how it relates to us as living human beings.

What consciousness is and where it emanates from has stymied great minds in societies across the globe since the dawn of speculation. In today’s world, it’s a realm tackled more and more by physicists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists than it is by theologians. I am reading Karen Kings book about the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and am fascinated by the Gnostics of that time. I rightly or wrongly think that the Gnostics were an example of an exploration of consciousness in that time in human history.  Self-denial as part of taking up one’s cross.

There are a few prevailing theories today about consciousness; one of which is that consciousness emanates from matter, in our case, by the firing of neurons inside the brain. But the question remains; what if this is a limited view?

A view more often chosen by traditional theologians is the theory of mind-body dualism. This is perhaps more often recognized in religion or spirituality. In this case consciousness is separate from matter. It is a part of another aspect of the individual, which in religious terms we might call the soul. It might also be claimed that this approach might be the Western approach to life that errs on the side of the left hemisphere obsession that Iain McGilchrist speaks about at the expense of the bigger picture or a more balanced approach, might take. A question here is; Is this dualism view too anthropocentric? Is this not self-denial enough?

I am going to suggest that another way to approach this question might be to see the option of what is called panpsychism as a way the theologians and scientists might debate together. Start with the bigger picture perhaps? The key connection in this approach is that the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness and a handful of scientists are starting to warm to this theory, but it’s still a matter of great debate. Truth be told, panpsychism sounds very much like what the Hindus and Buddhists call the Brahman, the tremendous universal Godhead of which we are all a part. In Buddhism for instance, consciousness is the only thing that exists. But what if this is the ‘More’ that Marcus Borg spoke of or the ‘Mystery’ that Gordon Kaufmann wrote about? It might also be the Serendipitous Creativity of Kaufmann. What I would rather call the more verb-like ‘Serendipitous Creating’, or maybe consciousness is the ‘perhaps’ that Caputo writes of and I would call the ‘Almost in my own bumbling exploration of an evolutionary life that is both noun and verb. This seems more like self-denial and taking up one’s cross to me.

Another approach to this question might be through the famous Zen koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This reminds us as Lloyd Geering has been reminding us for some time, that one must come to the realization that everything we experience is filtered through and interpreted by our mind. Without it, the universe doesn’t exist at all or at least, not without some sort of consciousness observing it. In some physics circles, the prevailing theory is some kind of proto-consciousness field. Some sort of original source of consciousness? I am currently wrestling with the possibility that a shift from theology to theopoetics might be a way of ‘de-westernizing’ this approach. If there is such a word? Some sort of way of entering or exploring the nature of consciousness. The question is I think; Is consciousness derived from an invisible field that inhabits our universe? Or not? Is this really picking up one’s cross?

I am no scientist but I read that in quantum mechanics, particles don’t have a definite shape or specific location, until they are observed or measured. Is this a form of proto-consciousness at play? According to the late scientist and philosopher, John Archibald Wheeler, it might. He’s famous for coining the term, “black hole.” In his view, every piece of matter contains a bit of consciousness, which it absorbs from this proto-consciousness field. He called his theory the “participatory anthropic principle,” which posits that a human observer is key to the process. Of this Wheeler said, “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago.” In his view, much like the Buddhist one, nothing exists unless there is a consciousness to apprehend it.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is another supporter of panpsychism. Koch says that the only theory we have to date about consciousness is, it’s a level of awareness about one’s self and the world. Biological organisms are conscious because when they approach a new situation, they can change their behaviour in order to navigate it, in this view.

Dr. Koch is if he has not already, attempting to see if he can measure the level of consciousness an organism contains. He planned to run some animal experiments. In one, he planned to wire the brains of two mice together. Will information eventually flow between the two was his question? Will their consciousness at some point become one fused, integrated system? If these experiments are successful, he could plan to wire up the brains of two humans.

U.K. physicist Sir Roger Penrose is yet another supporter of panpsychism. Penrose in the 80’s proposed that consciousness is present at the quantum level and resides in the synapses of the brain. He is famous for linking consciousness with some of the goings on in quantum mechanics. He doesn’t go so far as to call himself a panpsychist. In his view, “The laws of physics produce complex systems, and these complex systems lead to consciousness, which then produces mathematics, which can then encode in a succinct and inspiring way the very underlying laws of physics that gave rise to it.”

Veteran physicist Gregory Matloff of the New York City College of Technology, says he has some preliminary evidence showing that, at the very least, panpsychism isn’t impossible. Dr. Matloff told NBC News, “It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify.”

Theoretical physicist Bernard Haisch, in 2006, suggested that consciousness is produced and transmitted through the quantum vacuum, or empty space. Any system that has sufficient complexity and creates a certain level of energy, could generate or broadcast consciousness.

Dr. Matloff got in touch with the unorthodox, German physicist and proposed an observational study, to test it. What they examined was Parenago’s Discontinuity. This is the observation that cooler stars, like our own sun, revolve around the center of the Milky Way faster than hotter ones. Some scientists attribute this to interactions with gas clouds. Matloff took a different view. He elaborated in a recently published piece, in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research.

Unlike their hotter sisters, cooler stars may move faster due to “the emission of a uni-directional jet.” Such stars emit a jet early on in their creation. Matloff suggests that this could be an instance of the star consciously manipulating itself, in order to gain speed. This has to be taking up one’s cross, or at least for a struggling mind like mine.

Observational data shows a reliable pattern anywhere Parenago’s Discontinuity is witnessed. If it were a matter of interacting with gas clouds, as is the current theory, each cloud should have a different chemical makeup, and so cause the star to operate differently. So why do all of them act in exactly the same way? Dr. Matloff went on to posit that the presence of a proto-consciousness field could serve as a replacement for dark matter, but that is probably another sermon.

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes a slightly different take on panpsychism, called integrated information theory. Here, consciousness is a manifestation with a real, physical location, somewhere in the universe. We just haven’t found it yet. Perhaps this heavenly body radiates out consciousness as our sun radiates light and heat. Dr. Tononi has actually put forth a metric for measuring how much consciousness a thing has. The unit is called phi. This translates into how much control a being can enact over itself or objects around it.

The theory separates intelligence from consciousness, which some people assume are one in the same. Take AI or artificial intelligence, for example. It can already beat humans in all kinds of tasks. But it has no will of its own. A supercomputer which can enact change in the world outside of a programmer’s commands, would therefore be conscious. Many futurists from Ray Kurzweil to Elon Musk believe that day is coming, perhaps in the next decade or so, and that we should prepare. I think our text today might apply here too. Deny self and take up the cross. Amen.

Website – BigThink.com. Article by Phillip Berry

You might want to watch the video linked below to here Sir Roger Penrose speak of the above.

Matthew 15:21-28

Living Boldly, to Live a Normal Productive Life

The Election campaigning has begun again. The three-year cycle is here again, The party politic is gearing up into competitive mode and the potential partisan mud-slinging is poised waiting its opportunity. Vote securing is the purpose of the rhetoric. And low and behold we might have Matthew’s story indulging us too.

We might want to deny that politics is not a gospel concern but truth be told one cannot extract politics from text just as one cannot extract context from text. This time we have the politics of some of the early Christianity movements, as heard in Matthew’s story, be it a risky one, which at some points has no other parallel in the rest of the New Testament.

We might back up just a little to put this story in context.

The world we know now is but the walls of limitation

Of you and me and those who love to team

There is no other scheme left to be

But universal love, from timeless dream

Waking to you and I where we be

There is our joy’s invitation.

Change was happening all around Matthew and his small Syrian ‘Jesus Movement’ community. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Judaism was beginning to be reshaped. A bloke called Paul was gaining both Jewish and ‘god-fearers’ converts to his personal “mystical experience” (Wilson 2008:126) Christ Movement.

The Movement as Matthew saw it, expressed in Peter’s then James’ leadership, was having battles on all fronts. And so with an early copy of what we call the Gospel of Mark in front of him, along with some other writings we now call The ‘Q’ Gospel, and maybe
even some comments out of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Matthew sets out to tell his version of the story, some 50 years after the ‘new Moses’, called Jesus, and some 20+ years after Paul.

We walk around on carpets in conference

Of love at large with tree and flower and stream,

Of love within at risk of madness usurper

And list the Tui descant upon our theme,

Heaven’s musical accepted worshipper.

There is our peace in ponderance.


Internal political maneuverings were beginning to take shape. “One branch… aimed its evangelistic efforts at the Judean community in Palestine.  This branch was led by Peter, then later by [the other] James, the brother of Jesus.  Paul, on the other hand, understood his missionary work to be focused on pagans and gentiles” (Funk & Hoover 1993:204).

In the ‘fair dinkum’ department, Paul and Peter did not get on together! For instance, in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the mob of whom Paul says was “perverting the gospel of Christ” (Gal.1:7b), some scholars now suggest, was the Jewish Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. Secondly, Paul’s mission strategy was to visit Roman provincial capital cities
and approach the so-called in-between group, known as “god fearers”, who were pagans, not Jews, but who were attracted to some of the teachings of Judaism.

For Matthew as for his Syrian community in Antioch, this action by Paul was definitely seen as ‘poaching’.  And they resented it. On the other hand, there is also an underside to Matthew.

Matthew wasn’t too fussed about the ‘continuing’ Jews either, and that gets expressed in “undistilled anger and hostility” (Wilson 2008:194) towards Judaism, the Torah, and the Jewish leaders. So, the gospel we call Matthew is, simultaneously “the most ‘pro-Jewish’ gospel we have, as well as the most ‘anti-Jewish’ one.  The former aspect was evident in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the new Moses…  The anti-Jewish side, however, comes out in his sustained attack on the Jewish leaders of his time” (Wilson 2008:182).

Perhaps theologian Bill Loader’s comments will help: “A sense that there is an enemy, marks many societies, religious and otherwise.  It is almost as though we need an enemy, another, against whom to define ourselves.  This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival…  There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’.  This is the stuff of prejudice.  Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place” (Loader website)

The St David’s Khyber Pass Rd people experienced this first hand need for an enemy during the struggle for control of its decision making in regard to its old buildings. Those who wanted to memorialize the building needed an enemy against whom to mount a campaign and so they created an enemy by painting the congregation as demolitionists seeking to destroy heritage so as to gain sympathy and monetary support for their cause. A ‘them and us’ creation to define themselves against as saviour, protectors and worthy of support.

Our smile outfaces all illness and banishes the old feud

To things beyond and squashed in our truce;

With nature now dearly within us endued

And shame beyond the pondering excuse,

Frowns forgotten and antics subdued,

We kindly grow to be renewed.

Now to this morning’s ‘them’ and ‘us’ story.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Matthew’s story puts Jesus right in the middle of a very tense scene, which portrays Jesus expressing a racist stance, only to abandon it when put under pressure. To add complexity to the risks Matthew is taking, he does what we heard of last week and repeats the designation of ‘Canaanite’, it being a people not heard of for centuries, maybe to safeguard himself or Jesus or as a safe example for what is a them and us, racist story. Canaanites have been a race long ago in history and in fact a defeated race.

The ‘Gentile’ ‘Canaanite’ labeled, woman who was doing all the pestering, was from a group of despised, diminished and dispirited people, much evident in the society of the times. Unfortunately, in our day we too might have used disparaging words… like ‘weirdo’ or foreigner’ or ‘savage’ to describe her. When Matthew’s Jesus does make a response, he uses the word, ‘dogs’.

Again, Bill Loader offers a comment here: “It is hard not to draw the conclusion that [Matthew’s] Jesus… had to make a transition, had to learn” (Loader/web site, 2008). He too is part of the culture, his too are the concepts used to describe difference and he too needs to be aware of what he is saying and doing. So, lets look again at this story, this time as Rex Hunt suggests we might look at it around three issues.

First, this story doesn’t show Jesus in too gracious a light.

Traditionally we have been encouraged to think of Jesus as caring, compassionate, responding and sensitive. And there is not much of that here. We might ask Bill Loader’s question: “Is it embarrassing that Jesus was human, too?  Does it make the gospel any less valid if the historical Jesus also had to struggle to come to terms with the negative in his upbringing? (Loader/web site, 2008). Does he have to be perfect in order to bring hope, understanding and a new way of being?

Secondly, perhaps we can sympathise with Jesus.

The woman was determined to be heard – persisting, pestering, hanging in, bugging. All of us know or have persons like that we would like to avoid, evade. Sometimes we too will try anything not to have to be in their company. When people are desperate to improve or change their lot and get right into your face persistently they cab be hard to take. Does, this make us less human?

Thirdly, the heroine of this story is not Jesus, but the woman.

The persisting, pestering, hanging in, bugging, woman. As one commentator puts it: “The story reminds us that members of despised or oppressed groups must be bold in seeking relief of their misery.  The woman is not content to be ignored, because she is convinced her daughter deserves to be given a chance at living a normal, productive life.  Her persistence, based on her faith in a God who can change things for the better, is rewarded” (D Hare. Commentary on Matthew. Pg: 179. Quoted on B Stoffregen’s CrossMarks web site, 2008).

Perhaps this is why people seeking what we have will risk everything, and continue to try to find a better life, a more just way of living, a more just society? Even if it costs them everything. A student in training for ministry complained because she had to read Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus at Chapel, – all that ‘someone-begat-someone-else’ stuff. ‘What good is all this’, she moaned. Her New Testament professor responded: ‘This is a great story.  Because it shows the best can come out of the worst.  And the worst can come out of the best’. There is another way of looking at this.

Think about it! Perhaps this is also part of how we should ponder this story and our relationships with others, especially those who, are convinced their children, like ours, deserve to be given a chance, any chance, at living a normal, productive life. Maybe this is the tolerance needed for party politics, for competitive party-political campaigning? Listen for the voice seeking justice. Listen for the needs of people with no voice, or the voice that is marginalized, oppressed, hidden by the rhetoric. Amen.

Notes:
Funk, R. W.; R. Hoover. 1993.  The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan.
Wilson, B. 2008.  How Jesus Became Christian. Canada: Toronto. Random House.

rexae74@gmail.com

The Authority of Jesus

Posted: August 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

The Authority of Jesus

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Matthew 14:22-33

This week’s readings are about the safekeeping of fallible, wayward, and mortal humanity. In the world of theism, belief and literalism God responds to all who call upon God. Here we have a God who wishes to save persons in distress; and it is in this claim that we can have faith. It is still the case that with this almighty God we must ponder the circuitous routes of salvation and wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered. We wrestle with the idea that a loving God allows or perpetrates violence that takes the lives of innocents, often through the machinations of religious zealots; young children die of cancer; homes are foreclosed forcing families to depend on the mercy of strangers; and pleas for rescue from domestic violence are unnoticed.

In a world that challenges theism, atheism and a limited understanding of being it is the human who responds to the insistence of God. Here we have a God that acts through human beings to save persons in distress and it is in this insistence that we can have faith. In this the matter of salvation and wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered more simply. This God is never other than within humanity and the violence that takes the lives of innocents is always within human the imagination, and the yet incomplete human species. The human response to the insistence of God is always within the potential, always ‘Almost’ the revelation of compassion, hope and renewal. The realities of the human species are encompassed within the understanding of an “Almost’ God which is certain to be and always becoming and within the world of human transforming creativity. God and humanity are in a relationship of responsible serendipitous creating of reality as we know it.

When approaching the text for today with the above in mind we are introduced to Jacob and his dysfunctional family which is headed by a narcissistic parent. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel can’t help it; but the child of his later years is his favourite. He treats him with greater affection and gives him more opportunities to shine and grow than his brothers, and they are rightfully angry. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel sees himself in his youngest son; Joseph has an intuitive sense that mirrors his father’s experiences of the Holy and a cocky attitude that mirrors his own youthful self-confidence. To make matters worse, Joseph knows he is the favourite, and lacks the maturity to filter his dream sharing as they relate to his brothers.

The brothers conspire to kill the favoured son. But, they don’t. Selling him into slavery is evil; however, it is preferable to killing Joseph. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that God’s aim in any given situation is the “best for that impasse” and this “best” may not always be very good. Contextually, sometimes our level of previous choices, spiritual maturity and ethical understanding limits our possible courses of action. With a God that is always in charge, always incorruptible no truly good decision is possible; simply the least damaging one. Jacob survives and eventually saves his family. He grows through his experiences and overcomes his alienation. As Paul notes in Romans 8 “In all things God works for good,”. God was moving through this less than optimal decision to bring forth future decisions and actions by Jacob, such that what his brothers aimed for evil, God turned to good. (Genesis 50:20)

This week’s gospel begins with Jesus at prayer. Action leads to contemplation in the rhythm of faith and personal well-being. After transforming – by what means we don’t know – a few loaves and fish into a banquet and a day of preaching and teaching, Jesus retires to a quiet place to commune with God. Our worship involves the private and public aspects of faith. We need to gather as a community and to reach out to the world; we also need to be still and listen for God’s voice in stillness, in the still small voice, as well as maelstrom of daily events. From silence Jesus goes into action, riding the waves to meet his followers. Once again, they are afraid of the storm. Jesus reassures them that all will be well, inspiring Peter to jump out of the boat. As long as Peter looks to Jesus, he can walk on water. The moment he is overcome by fear, he sinks. When he cries out, seeking salvation, Jesus rescues him, without judgment or recrimination. “Help” is sometimes all we need to say to receive the guidance we need.

Today’s readings invite us to look to God for our salvation, deliverance, and wholeness. As followers of the Jesus Way we are entreated to keep our eyes on Jesus, to gain a perspective on life and see the storms and trials of life in terms of God’s movements in our lives. We are never alone. Our prayers touch the heart of God within and transform our response in the midst of life’s often challenging and difficult moments. Opening to this God within gives us faith that a way will be made and that even in situations we cannot change, God is with us and enable transformation of the evils that beset us.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Translation:  “And immediately, he compelled the disciples to cast into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side while he dismissed the crowds.  Dismissing the crowds, he went up into the mountain and by himself to pray.  When evening happened, he was alone there.  But now, the boat was many stadia away from the land, tortured by the waves, for they were against the wind.  But at the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking on the sea.  But the disciples, seeing him walking on the sea, were troubled, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out from fear.  But immediately, Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, I am.  Do not be afraid.'”

Background and situation:  We are in “book four” of Matthew’s gospel, a section which is concerned with the Jesus movement and it’s at times controversial diversity.  (The book of Matthew has five sections, modeled on the five books of Torah.  Throughout Matthew, we are confronted with the authority of Jesus and Jesus is presented as the “new Moses,” an authoritative teacher.)

Book four began with the death of John the Baptist (14:1-13), which was followed by the first feeding story in Matthew (14:14-21).  Our lection follows.  Mark is the source for Matthew 14: 22-27–the parallel is Mark 6: 45-50.  The remainder of the passage is Special Matthew. 

Several Peter stories, which appear nowhere else in the four gospels, are contained in this section.  This seems curious:  In Mark’s gospel, the disciples, and especially Peter, never do anything right.  In Matthew’s gospel, which generally follows Mark quite closely, Peter looks a lot better.  In fact, it is in “book four” of Matthew that Peter is acclaimed the “rock” and given “the keys to the kingdom.”  In the leadership struggles of the early movement, it appears that Matthew has done an about-face from his primary source, Mark, and is promoting a pro-Petrine point of view.

“Walking on the sea”:  In this week’s lection, Jesus compels the disciples to get into the boat and go ahead to “the other side.”  Jesus then goes to a mountain, by himself, to pray.  Jesus apparently stayed on the mountain through the night and into the early morning.

One notes a stunning turn of events behind the texts. John the Baptist has been killed.  His head winds up on a silver platter at an extravagant banquet held by Herod Antipas.  The people turn to Jesus for leadership (14: 13-21).  Jesus likewise hosts an extravagant banquet, though a much different one that that provided by Herod–his for the many, Herod’s for the few, not unlike his of love, Herod’s of violence.

The feeding of the many is a paradigm for the new life offered by Jesus, one that is in marked contrast with the old ways of Herod.  The feeding also helps to establish Jesus’ authority in the wake of John’s death.  

Keeping that context in mind, note that three things are mentioned twice in our short lection of 11 verses: (1) dismissing the crowds, (2) praying on the mountain, and (3) walking on the sea.

Dismissing the crowds is an act of authority.  Not just anybody had standing to do so.  That dismissal of the crowds is mentioned twice is a way of underlining the authority of Jesus with the crowds.  He tells them what to do, and they do as he says.  

Mountains are a place of special revelation in Matthew’s gospel.  That Jesus is said to be there twice adds to his mystique as a spiritual leader–he is close to God–and accentuates the particular difficulty of operating in the wake of the death of the Baptist.  Jesus needed time to think and pray.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is said to be in prayer only here and at Gethsemane (26: 36-44).  Both times were fraught with special dangers.

Likewise, the phrase “walking on the sea” is mentioned twice.  This recalls Psalm 77: 19:  “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”  Jesus appears “lordly” and in charge.  Indeed, in the verses immediately following our lection, one could be healed merely by touching the fringe of his coat (14:36).    

Holding the allegory of the Christian movement latter known as the church: In this heavily symbolic story, the disciples are out in the boat when a storm comes up, and they are “tortured”–basanizominon–by the waves.  The boat is a symbol of the movement or church.  (Navis is where we get our word for both “nave”–the sanctuary of a church–and “navy.”)  The boat of the church faces difficulty from evil, which is represented by the tormented sea in the middle of the night.  The church was “sailing against the wind.”

If Matthew was writing AD 80-85–which is the general consensus–that may have been how Matthew saw the situation facing the Jesus movement at that time.  The land was trying to recover from the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  In AD 80, the movement was still rather small and fragile, facing threats both internal and external.  Feeling adrift in the “waters of chaos” would make sense for a nascent movement in that situation.  In AD 80, the church truly was “sailing against the wind.” One has to think of today’s world being a lot like the early days of the movement as decline becomes a prevalent direction.

The image of the restless sea, buffeted by winds and rain, was a rich one in ancient Israel.  The Book of Genesis describes chaos in the beginning of creation–the creation was “without form and void.”  Ancient Israel had a primordial fear of the “waters of chaos” which, they feared, might again engulf the world.  They believed that this chaos was always a threat to return and undo the order that God had imposed upon creation.

During the “fourth watch,” which was from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.–the deepest part of the night, in other words–Jesus came walking on the sea toward the beleaguered church.  

The disciples were “agitated”–etaraxthesan, or “troubled,” “disturbed”–and they believe they’re seeing a ghost–Fantasma estin!  They “screamed because of fear.”  It is at this point, when fear in the face of difficulty threatens to overtake the church, that Jesus lets them know that it is him.  Tharseite–“Take heart,” or perhaps “Have courage,” Jesus says.

Why should they “take heart”?  Because, Jesus says, “Ego eimi“–“I am,” which is the Greek version of the Hebrew tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is the divine name of God (Ex 3: 14).  The Lord God took control of the “waters of chaos.”  By walking on the water, Jesus likewise demonstrates his power over the forces of nature.  The power of Jesus is the same as God’s power.  Therefore, church:  “Do not be afraid.”   

28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind,* he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Translation:  “But Peter answered him, saying, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”   But he said, ‘Come.’  And going down from the boat, Peter walked upon the water and he came to Jesus.   Discerning the mighty wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me.’  And immediately, Jesus stretched forth the hand, taking hold of him, and saying to him, ‘You little faith, why did you doubt?’  And when they went up into the boat, the wind ceased.  The ones in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are son of God.'”

To this point, Matthew has been following Mark (6: 45-50).  Now, he switches to his own source, generally called “Special Matthew,” i.e. the stories only Matthew tells. 

Peter addresses Jesus as “Lord”–kyrie.  Peter wants to be able to do what Jesus does, and he asks to be commanded to do it.  Jesus says simply, “Come.”  Peter climbs down out of the boat, and the text straight-forwardly says that Peter did indeed walk on the water.

Even then, however, it is not quite the same as what Jesus had done.  Peter walks on water–udata–while Jesus walks on the sea–thalassan.  Matthew is being careful to put Peter at least at one remove from what Jesus himself is capable of doing.

Then, in a poetic and insightful phrase, Peter “sees”–blepone–“the mighty wind,” succumbs to fear, and starts to sink.  Allegorically, in the face of difficulty, the Christian becomes afraid, begins to be engulfed, and cries out to Jesus.  (See also 8: 23-27, also a story of a storm on the lake, where, likewise, the disciples cry out, “Lord, save us.”)

Immediately, Jesus “stretched forth the hand,” which is reminiscent of YHWH in Psalm 18: 16–“He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters”–and Psalm 144: 7:  “Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters.”

Jesus then calls Peter a “person of little faith,” one who becomes fearful in the face of crisis.  In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are referred to as being “people of little faith” five times. 

Compare that with the story of the Canaanite woman in the next chapter (15: 21-28).  Matthew resurrects the word “Canaanite”–the word had not been used for hundreds of years.  Matthew wants to associate the foreign woman as being an ancient enemy of Israel.  Yet, by the end of the story, Jesus calls her faith “great.”  What a contrast between the “great” faith of the foreign woman and the “little” faith of the church!

When Jesus and Peter get back into the boat, the wind ceased.  Here is the message that all is safe when Jesus is present with his movement in times of difficulty.  The disciples worshipped and said, “Truly, you are son of God.”

When we read the story of Jesus walking on the sea, it is not particularly surprising to us, because Christendom theology calls Jesus the Son of God, a term that in creedal and doctrinal thinking incorporates the idea of divinity. If Jesus is divine, what’s the big deal about him walking on the water? What is surprising in the story is that Peter walks on the water, too, at least for a little while. Peter gets scared when he sees the wind and the waves around him, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand and saves him, then he offers a mild rebuke: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s true that Peter had only a little faith, but the fact of the matter is that his faith was sufficient to get him started in the right direction. While the other disciples were cowering in the boat, Peter went over the side into the deep. Peter may have begun to sink, but only after he took some steps on the surface of the water as though it were dry land. Peter was brash and boastful, hot-tempered and impulsive, but he was also a man who acted on his faith. Sure, he made mistakes under his tutelage with Jesus. He publicly disagreed with Jesus when he began to speak of his impending doom in Jerusalem. He cut off a man’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. He denied Jesus three times the night before he was crucified. But when we look at those stories again, we see that when Peter argued with Jesus over his determination to go to Jerusalem, he clearly didn’t grasp the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross, but he understood better than the other disciples that Jesus had a great destiny. When Peter cut off the man’s ear, he was acting rashly and against Jesus’ wishes, but at least he was acting, while the other disciples stood around in fear. It’s written that Peter denied Jesus three times, but he was only disciple who dared to enter the courtyard of the temple in order to see what would happen to Jesus. Yes, Peter was imperfect in many ways, but he was also a man of action. He was a person who always had faith, even if it was only a little faith, and he lived his life by acting on his faith. Sometimes he misunderstood God’s will, but he never doubted that God had called him to Jesus’ side, and he was always willing to act according to his best understanding of the situation. After the Day of Pentecost, Peter became one of the main leaders of the fledgling movement. He still made mistakes, as we see in his conflict with Paul at Galatia (told from Paul’s perspective, of course), but over all his ministry was a great success. Under the leadership of Peter and others, the gospel spread from Judea and Galilee to Samaria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and further east and west in Peter’s own lifetime. Ultimately Peter ended up in Rome, where he died after living a life that had many more successes than failures. A good argument for a humble “little faith” like Peter’s!

So, on this storm-tossed night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals himself uniquely as the one endowed with the power of the creator God, the one to whom he has prayed all night, and in whose strength, he now walks on water. Here is the authority Matthew seeks for Jesus and it is none other than the divine power of Matthew’s God who overcomes the chaos of the deep, turbulent waters and is totally unafraid of the raging of the sea. The disciples find themselves in the divine presence, encountering the divine power in all its strength and protection. On one level, the words of Jesus, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’ are the words of a leader taking command. But on another level, the words invoke the divine name of God, the great ‘I am’ creator of the heavens and earth. It is little wonder that the disciples, like the wise men at his birth, respond to Jesus, the one who walks on water, by worshipping him. Exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed, they make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’

But the story doesn’t end there. The evangelist Matthew presses on, introducing something new. Peter asks if he can walk on water too, and Jesus encourages him to try. Leaving the safety of the boat, Peter ventures out on the waves, makes some progress, and then loses his nerve. As he plunges down into the water, he cries out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus stretches out his hand and rescues him. Peter’s action is not just that of an impetuous friend. Rather the evangelist is demonstrating that the divine power revealed in Jesus is not just to be confined to God, but is to be shared by God with those who follow Jesus.

In his inaugural sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, encouraged the church to be like Peter and to get out of the safety of the boat. “We are called to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ.” Archbishop Welby was in no doubt that what Christians need most today is courage: “the present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.”. One could make that claim today as the world wrestles with Covid-19.

With faith and confidence in God, the chaos of life’s stormy ups and downs, the demons of disappointment, setback, injustice and evil, can be overcome. Though as a world we might feel weak, broken and vulnerable, and facing very real dangers, the divine power of God, revealed in Jesus, and available to all, is there for us to draw on. We will flounder, but as Jesus stretches out his hand to rescue Peter, we are reminded that ‘God reached out and took me; I was drawn out of mighty waters. Delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity and was my support. I was brought out into a broad place.

There are times in our lives when we may feel overwhelmed, when we may be out of our depth, when we feel we are drowning under a multitude of problems. The message is don’t lose heart for it is at times like these that walking the Jesus Way will draw us out of our turbulence and calm the storms of our life. As we near the end of our lives, you and I will have to step out from family and friends and walk through the waters of death.

The virtuoso pianist and composer, Franz Lizst, for the most part was not religious. But towards the end of his life, that changed. Lizst was particularly drawn to the story of St Francis of Paolo–a story which in turn was inspired by Jesus walking on the water. St Francis had hoped to get a boat across the Straits of Messina from the coast of Italy to Sicily. But he had no money, and the boatman refused to grant him any favours. Indeed, he taunted him and told him to make his own way across the strait. Francis put his cloak on the water and stepping onto it, began to walk. In 1863, Lizst composed his piano piece, St Francis Walking on the Water–a piece of music that remains a great challenge to any emerging classical pianist. It is a profoundly spiritual work: a strong melodic hymn begins the piece; but then the whole piano is gradually and frighteningly caught up in a ferocious storm, through rushing scales and tremolos. Gradually, tentatively, the hymn of faith fights back, resolutely walking on the waters of this terrible storm and finally emerges in a glorious fortissimo of victory. Faith, justice and love have triumphed over the infernal elements unleashed against them.

Walking on water? A human impossibility. But with faith and courage both as an individual and as Jesus movement, one can ‘move mountains and walk on water’! When the storms of life assail us, we draw ourselves out of the waters that engulf us, and find the safe harbour of love through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Amen. 

Face to Face, An Attitude?

Posted: July 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Genesis 32:22-31 

Face to Face, An Attitude?

As I searched for inspiration and topic for this week’s sermon, I began to focus on want people have been saying over the Covid-19 period of time in the life of this planet. On-line conference video meetings have sprung up and services have been put up on You tube and people have been gathering in this way to maintain continuity of community and ‘keep in touch’. One of the common comments is that people who are church attenders like the people contact and miss the face to face gathering. On-line just doesn’t seem to cut it completely. It seems that even the ability to see each other is not enough, we need the touchy-feely possibility even though just shaking hands is often felt to be a step too far by some, or is this just a culture thing? Are young people better able to make real connections on-line than the older generations? I wonder if it is an attitude thing? And by attitude, I mean ‘A position of the body indicating a particular mental state’. Maybe an online gathering of church goers is people gathering in an attitude of loss of physical presence of others and thus always going to feel the gathering to be short lived, temporary and not quite the real thing?

In approaching the texts for today I began to wonder if this thing about attitude might be worth thinking about. What if when reading a familiar text one needs to be aware of an attitude awareness because whenever we focus on an overly familiar passage from the Bible, it may be only natural to dread the feeling of boredom with “that same old story,” or of frustration at trying to say something new or different about it.

Our particular narrative from Genesis might also provoke confusion about what a passage filled with so much ambiguity really means, and perhaps even a measure of discomfort with the imagery of assault, physical or otherwise, employed by the author. And then there’s that problem of Jacob, the patriarch who hardly qualifies for sainthood, to put it mildly. One part of us may be repelled by the way he lies and cheats his way to success and wealth, but another part of us may feel strangely drawn toward him, and might even see something of ourselves in him.

The dramatic story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger—be it God or an angel, –on that riverbank long ago has been an irresistible subject for artists: painters (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Gauguin and Chagall, among others), sculptors, novelists, poets (like Rainier Maria Rilke), modern playwrights (like Tony Kushner, in “Angels in America”), and even musicians like the group U2, in their song, “Bullet in the Sky.”

Psychologists, both professional and amateur, love to “wrestle” with this text as well, or maybe put it to rest too quickly and too simply by saying that Jacob is struggling with the inner demons of a guilty conscience. One might suggest that this so-called “modern” approach, is inadequate for the text before us. But an important challenge for lectionary preachers is putting this text in the context of Jacob’s larger story, as well as Israel’s story, and our own, in order to do it justice, to bring it to life. Preaching and Bible study differ in some ways, but as ‘Progressive thinkers bible study is no longer an alternative to preaching both in sketching out that larger picture, and linking this story and its echoes to the stories before and after it. One has to study the text to ensure the attitude adjustment required to use the text in its fullest sense and avoid what is known as eisegesis, ‘the importation of ones own subjective interpretation’. An attitude adjustment is important here and spending time with the whole story Genesis 25:19-34, 26:34-33:20, and 35:1-15 of Jacob’s late-night struggle on the edge of returning home to the land he had been promised, and the future that he hoped still lay ahead:. can surprise us.

For example, in these passages we learn that this isn’t the only time Jacob has heard from God, or the first or only time he’s named a place, or, for that matter, the first time he’s been asked who he is. And even though we may ‘as we discovered last week’, think of him as cunning and sly, Jacob surprises us in the earlier part of this same chapter 32, when he first returns home and starts sweating about facing his brother’s understandable and long-standing wrath.

Here, almost home with the use of quite poignant words, he being so full of longing, offers a humble prayer, asking God to protect him, and admitting that he’s “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (v. 10a).

It has been noted by some scholars that this prayer of Jacob’s is the longest prayer in Genesis. Maybe it’s a prayer born of fear, but it does endear Jacob to us a little bit, if we can get it out of our heads that he has sent the women and children and animals on ahead, where they may face Esau’s wrath first. Nice move for a chauvinist perhaps.

Earlier in the story we read another familiar excerpt from the passages, about the night Jacob was on the run from home and from Esau’s anger, when he had the sweet spiritual experience of dreaming about a ladder to heaven, and of hearing God’s voice making those promises of land and descendants and blessing, and most of all, of God’s presence and protection with him, always.

Frederick Buechner calls this “not the nightmare of the guilty but a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its beauty.”  It was an “awesome” experience.

There, at the gate of heaven and the house of God (28:17), Jacob made some promises, too, to be faithful to God and to tithe all that he received, that is, if God would promise to keep him safe and give him food and clothing, and someday bring him home in peace. Sounds like an exchange value world there too doesn’t it. Or contract verses covenant world perhaps. Most of us, of course, have lists like this one, for God: we can almost hear the lists unspoken beneath our own prayer words at times.

Jacob also named the place of this “awesome” experience: Bethel, or House of God. Ancient stories often explained where and how places got their names, and this is one of several about Jacob naming a place out of his own experience.

In the first fifteen verses in chapter 35, we read of God sending Jacob to Bethel again, and we hear several reminders that this had been where Jacob encountered God while on the run from Esau, and where God answered him in his distress, and where God made promises to “keep” him and provide many descendants for him, and where God gave him a new name.

We also read once again that Jacob had sense enough to raise a pillar to mark the holy place, to give it a name, too. This act of naming or attitude to a place makes me think of what John D Caputo says about names and why they are important as event. His explanation of naming or at least my interpretation of what he says is that ‘Names’ contain events and give them a kind of temporary shelter by housing them within a relatively stable nominal unity. Events, on the other hand, are uncontainable, and they make names restless with promise and the future, with memory and the past, with the result that names contain what they cannot contain. Names belong to natural languages and are historically constituted or constructed, whereas events are a little unnatural, eerie, ghostly thing that haunt names and see to it that they never rest in peace. Names can accumulate historical power a worldly prestige and have very powerful institutions erected in or under their name, getting themselves carved in stone, whereas the voice of events is ever soft and low and is liable to be dismissed, distorted, or ignored. Although a name contains an event, an event cannot in principle be contained by a name, proper or common. In short, the name God contains the event we know as the sacred which is always dynamic and emerging and evolving or as Caputo might say, insisting rather than existing.

This I think can be applied to the naming of Bethel as the place of God. This week’s passage is between those two Bethel bookends in the story of Jacob: here, he is in-between but also on-the-edge, just on the outside, a bit like ‘Almost’. The drama of his flight from home is matched by the full happiness of his later establishment at Bethel, along with wives, “maids” and children, servants, flocks, and assorted possessions, and those promises, and the new name, as well.

Here, though, on this dark and scary night, in spite of the passage of many years, the accumulation of vast wealth, and the success of besting his clever and calculating uncle, Jacob is shaking in his proverbial boots. He is alone, in the deep of the night. He has sent ahead herds and herds of gifts to his brother, hoping to ease his way home by softening Esau up, but he doesn’t know that it will work. Now, here he is, on the bank of the river, all alone in the deep of the night.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes something of Jacob’s state of mind, as he anticipates Esau’s anger: “He had changed,” she writes, “but he could not imagine that Esau had” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine). Perhaps Jacob has developed enough of a conscience to realize that his brother has every right to feel fresh anger at the return of the one who has stolen everything from him.

But then a disturbing encounter. Rather than a sweet dream, Jacob is visited by a stranger who wrestles with him all night long. We assume that stranger was God, or at least an angel of God, but there are ancient roots in this story of another kind of being. Ambiguity enters the scene.

Gene Tucker explains that the fact that Jacob’s “opponent fears the daylight and refuses to divulge his name, suggests a nocturnal demon,” and therefore it’s possible that “the narrator has taken over an ancient, pre-Yahwistic tradition…reinterpreted it as a confrontation between Israel’s God and her ancestor.” It could also be that of a non-event or a non-naming, a God caught between existing and not existing.

The significance of insisting on knowing the entity’s name is ancient as well, because even we know (and feel) that names have a kind of power, as does Caputo’s explanation, and in those days when words meant even more, Tucker says that knowing that demon’s (or deity’s) name “was to obtain a measure of control over it.” Something we do with the naming of ‘God’, we seek to control our God in the world of our thinking.

Frederick Buechner describes this more poetically in his sermon on this text: “The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story that were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as humankind itself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife. Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification” (“The Magnificent Defeat” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).

“Already old before Abraham was born….” Just think of that: what strange beauty this story begins to have, after all. Jacob and his visitor wrestle all night long, almost till dawn, without a clear winner. The visitor resorts to crippling Jacob by striking his hip, and still Jacob will not let go.

Terence Fretheim sees a different meaning in “the man’s” insistence on leaving before the light of day, not because the daylight is a problem for him, but because of the awful risk to Jacob of seeing God face to face (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Seeing God, face to face is an event, or an awesome moment of extraordinary power. And yet that is what happens, if we are to believe Jacob: he names the place “Peniel” (“The face of God”) because, he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30). At least he uses the passive voice, rather than saying that he himself succeeded in this remarkable thing. Ironically, while Jacob counts himself lucky or blessed just to have survived, his opponent declares him the winner, or at least the one who prevailed.

In either case, at least this was, as Hank J. Langknecht puts it, “finally a fair fight. No taking advantage of a hungry brother or a blind father or having to outsmart a wily father-in-law. Here it is Jacob wrestling to an honest draw” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Both Jacob and the place of this struggle are given new names, and Jacob’s is given as well to his descendants, who also will struggle with God. By the time these stories were fashioned into the narrative of God’s people, Gene Tucker writes, “The people of Israel, like their patronymic ancestor, had striven with powers both human and divine and, in the time of the monarchy, knew that they had prevailed and been blessed” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

However, while Dennis Olson agrees that “Jacob’s limping becomes a metaphor or paradigm of Israel’s life with God,” he also reminds us that Esau represents Israel’s eastern neighbour, Edom, and that the two nations had a testy relationship after Edom helped Babylon conquer Judah (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

We read and remember and paint pictures of short stories like today’s passage, but we rarely read Chapter 36 of Genesis, which might impress on us a greater sense of the importance of Esau and Edom, since it provides a long list of the sons of Esau and the clans and kings that descended from them.

Several themes unfold in this face-to-face encounter between Jacob and God. Commentators like Terence Fretheim emphasize the initiative and active engagement of God in our lives, even though that isn’t always a pleasant or comforting experience. The way this story is told, God is the one who gets things started, not with a dream or a vision but with an embodied struggle, Fretheim says, “more than a dark night of the soul.” Fretheim also suggests that this is one of the ways God seeks out “openings” in our lives, in order “to enhance the divine purpose” and to get us in shape, so to speak, for the challenges that lie ahead: “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.”

Jacob responds well, Fretheim notes, and he receives a new name that recognizes “who he has been and presently is, not what he becomes in this moment,” that is, “Jacob’s strength and capacity for struggling well” (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Obviously, we too struggle with God, individually and communally. One thinks, for example, of  the terrible suffering of the slaves who were carried off, sold, and considered “property” by “good,” Bible-reading Christians; or those who have suffered at the hands of religious institutions that lose sight of the heart of God’s justice and compassion and focus instead on their own power and preservation.

We struggle in our own personal lives with illness and financial uncertainty, with personal disasters and broken relationships, and most of all, with the suffering of those we love. In times fraught with poisonous political divisions globally and a raging pandemic that is exacting an enormous physical and economic toll, we have our communal questions for God as well.

Indeed, we witness the suffering and deaths of people most vulnerable to the coronavirus, which disproportionately ravages communities of people of colour, the elderly, the poor. We watch, helpless ourselves (it seems), as those most vulnerable in our midst suffer needlessly. Observers note soberly, and perhaps ironically, that the powerful, wealthy countries are brought to its knees by this disease.

Of course, the “same old” problems persist as well: racism and hatred, violence and injustice, prejudice and the abuse of power, militaristic posturing and environmental destruction (some of these all swirled together in a toxic brew) churn through our shared lives and shape them in ways we deplore.

We hear, for example, of the distress of families torn apart by the deportation of a desperate parent who saw a country as their best hope for a decent life. We are dismayed by the way our political life has been torn apart, often splitting people into two opposing camps and increasing the numbers who have no voice, and making the solutions to our problems seem more far away than ever.

Each day the split grows ever wider and uglier, and we are perplexed by how we will ever address the challenges with which we must struggle, including the suffering of the earth itself and its creatures, at our mercy but receiving very little of it.

Beyond the suffering caused by human action, accident, and neglect, we are aware of the suffering of those whose lives are devastated by wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters–and the compounding of that anguish by human indifference and inadequate response, with a loss of interest once the story fades from the headlines. Questions of blame and mismanagement of resources become prevalent and we have to ask; are we better now?

We are encouraged by our faith “to give voice to anguished questions about justice or war,” for “Christians are also free to strive with God” and we do so not with detached consideration but up close, face to face, with deep consternation. When we think about the call to preach, we are reminded that “It is the speaking of truth that allows suffering to be heard.” It is an authentic faith and not a fairytale that understands the pain of God’s children and that God’s creation will keep us awake at night, and struggling with God.

Richard Pervo asks “What kind of god will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even? From the perspective of spirituality, the answer is: the kind of God we need” A God that is not perfect, not complete, not super-naturalized but rather a God that lives our life.

Indeed, Jacob’s larger story, not just this week’s short excerpt from it, is persistently about blessing. In addition to the blessings God promises him, Jacob has already stolen one from his brother, and now demands yet another from this stranger, and gets it.

James Newsome suggests that, “even in the midst of our struggles with God and with self, the most enduring word is a word of God’s grace,” and he describes grace in the “ultimate irony” that “being confronted with the mirror that God held before beleaguered Jacob, a mirror that reflected a flawed and sinful Jacob, Jacob saw also Peniel, the face of God” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

And Dennis T. Olson brings all of this together beautifully in his commentary on the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau (33:4-11) that follows Jacob’s night of struggle with God, for Jacob’s gifts to Esau are described as a “blessing” or berakah, “the same word used for what Jacob originally stole from Esau.”

Jacob then sees the face of God, again, this time, in his brother, his former enemy, who accepts and forgives him: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4).

Jacob’s response, seeing in Esau “the face of God” (v. 10), shows just how far he has come: “As Jacob had seen the face of God in the struggle and reconciliation with the wrestler,” Olson writes, “so Jacob sees the face of God in the face of his reconciled enemy/brother who had sought to kill him. In both cases Jacob encounters the beloved enemy, one divine and one human, and emerges from the struggle with greater blessings and a more abundant life” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

Taylor helps us to see Jacob as more like us, presenting God with our “conditions for our belief in God,” and we “persist in telling God what it means to be with us–to keep us safe, to feed and clothe us, to preserve our lives in peace,” while the God of covenant provides a very different answer to that prayer, one that involves struggle, and questions that aren’t always answered, and yet always a blessing that promises God’s presence with us every step of the way. Here we have what I name ‘Almost’.

Taylor describes Jacob’s obsession with holding onto the visitor most beautifully when she writes “According to the Midrash,” the visitor “must go because he sings in the morning choir before God’s throne, but Jacob is unsympathetic. He has got hold of someone who smells of heaven, and he simply will not let him go” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine). Awesome, indeed. Amen.

The Way, is not a set of beliefs nor an economic value.

“Wisdom is not just special knowledge about something. Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” (John O’Donohue)

Jim Burklo talks about wisdom in his poem The Wise Man’s Confession. For me he personalises this way of being as a dynamic sort of engagement with reality. I think he just before the moment of awareness as he asks what is it that I see? What is this that is transforming me?

What wisdom I have

Awakens me to my blindness.

I cannot see light itself:

What I know of light

Is only an alluring shadow

Of what it is and does.

From billions of years away in space-time,

Through darkness intervening,

At its inconceivable speed

The light of an exploding star passes

Through the dark seas of my eyes,

Illuminating the dark curves of their retinas.

But I cannot see the glow of their cells:

I can only perceive the messages they send

To my brain, and from there to my soul.

Thus Hope passes,

Unseen and undetected,

Through this dark world.

What retina receives and translates it

Into Joy and Wonder?

An eye comes into the world:

A retina I cannot perceive

That will see for me,

Beyond my dark despair.

A star in the East!

This eye tells me

To follow it

All the way to the Source

Of the truer Wisdom

That is Love.

For me this way of being, this way of inhabiting the world, this beauty of wisdom that O’Donohue is talking about and Burklo is asking questions of is summed up in the poem I wrote about the moment of awareness. The poem speaks to the moment of belonging, the moment when one discovers wisdom as the moment when beauty, harmony and action become one and the Way.

O eternal moment of awareness

in you the whole creation

is one inter-woven garment,

sensuous, seamless, filled with peace and delight.

But beyond that moment life’s path skirts

between illusory dichotomies and visionless monotony,

between celebratory songs and liquid lamentations.

O God of orbiting imagination,

of atomic minuteness and universal immensity,

may the transitory moment become a way of life

until wonder’s pulsating womb

becomes my permanent abode.

In short, wisdom comes in one’s participation in that which we call life. That which we call the Way of being, or more correctly the Way of becoming. The Jesus Way as opposed to what one believes. Walking the Jesus Way is what life is all about. Nothing to do with believing a set of rules, facts or set of doctrinal creedal statements. Participating in life recognizing that literalism, and belief are not good bedfellows because they integrate and we miss so much. We get stuck in word analysis, measuring outcomes and we miss the poetics. We can however fall into the trap of using too many words because we are trying to paint word pictures rather than articulate statements. And the more words, the more hue there is. We are however attempting to escape the prison of belief without losing the place for ‘belief’ in daily living.

What is the problem that we struggle with? It is that we can see how we lock ourselves into a very cognitive belief system with clear boundaries of black and white and we know that this is a limited view while at the same time relish its simplicity, its logic and its ability to quell the fears we have about change and the unknown. We become rooted in creed and doctrine and statement. And that is very sad. We then become afraid when we see that belief is a present moment that it is fleeting and fragile. We struggle to see that that’s a positive thing.

Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000), Israel’s most celebrated poet, whose works have been translated into 40 languages, speaks to this prison of belief and its propensity for creedal and doctrinal prison making.

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Orthodoxies

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.

Our title suggests that there is an either or in relation to belief, economic value and the following argument is that it takes wisdom to discern this. That seeing the Way of Jesus as a way of being is about re-imagining the world and that the parables, in being about the Kingdom or the realm of wise living are not about believing a set of rules or about a culture based on economic values. They are an approach through wisdom about seeing the new realm or way of being that is possible when one walks the Yeshua Way.

Our tradition has it that James the Greater was chosen by Jesus to be one of the 12 apostles.
One of the inner circle of intimates, James is called The Greater to distinguish him from another younger (and shorter?) apostle, also named James. James the greater was one of the sons of Zebedee and Salome, brother of St John the Apostle, and together, James and John were known by the nickname: “sons of thunder”. Tradition says James was the first Apostle to be martyred, stabbed with a sword by King Herod Agrippa, in Jerusalem around the year 42-44 CE. His Memorial day, was the 25 July.

Legends have sprung up that James evangelised Spain. After his death his body was taken to Spain and buried at Compostela (a town the name of which is commonly thought to be derived from the word “apostle”). His supposed burial place there was a major site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. And today… as some of you have trekked that way. But many of these stories have little basis in historical fact and that includes many of the imaginative biblical stories as well.

James is the patron saint of: hat makers, rheumatoid sufferers, blacksmiths, labourers,
pharmacists, and pilgrims. He is represented by the colours blue and gold/yellow, and the symbols: a cockle shell, a pilgrim’s staff, or most fittingly, an elderly, bearded man, wearing a hat with a scallop shell…

Tradition also tells us he and others did not always appreciate what this itinerant sage Yeshua was on about with his invitation to re-imagine the world. And this is where this morning’s collection of mini parables come in. Where ‘James’ and ‘parable’ meet.

Matthew 13: 3 – 33, 44 – 48

And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

The Purpose of the Parables

Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

The Parable of the Sower Explained

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

The Parable of the Yeast

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Three Parables

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

Matthew’s Jesus says the reign of God is… like a mustard seed, like leaven like finding treasure and hiding it in a field, like looking for fine pearls, like a dragnet cast into the sea. But we know by now, I hope, that these are a special type of story called ‘parable’. And parables as you will have heard on many occasions turn our assumptions and conclusions upside down They specialize in revealing the unexpected, offering hints only, subverting the normal and traditional, and casting out certainty to make room for hope. So how is our common sense or traditional assumptions turned up-side-down to invite the unexpected in this collection of mini parables as offered by Matthew’s Jesus? They require wisdom when approaching them and remember here what O’Donohue says about wisdom. “Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” 

For James there was no indication that this was the day his life would change. The dawn for him was not the bright beginning of a new day, but the end of a long fruitless night of fishing. As he sat mending his nets in the boat with his brother John and his father Zebedee, was he shocked when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew walk away from their trade at a word from Jesus? As he watched Jesus walk toward him followed by Simon and Andrew, did he feel curiosity, fear, hope, envy? Yet when Jesus called James and his brother John to do just what Simon and Andrew had done, they too left behind their boat, their business and their family. Four Galilean fisherman, and an itinerant preacher with a re-imagined world.  For the time being it was enough (Adapted from Donald Burt & John Shea’s stories…).

But, what about economic value? How does that effect what is real and what is out way of being?

Well if one looks hard at many of the decisions being made today regardless of what industry or sector of the culture one can see a set of priorities and strategies that view the abused marginalized and poor as a threat to the financial wellbeing of the society or the institution. The removal of homeless from sheltered spaces around the city or church buildings is one example of this economic value imposition.

The disturbing consequence of this strategy is that leadership effectively accepts that human worth can be measured by economic price. They accept that the priority of society is to preserve and enhance its financial resources. What about human wellbeing? What about human flourishing?

James and his younger brother were nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’. Which probably meant they were a little headstrong, hot-tempered, and impulsive!  They were fisher-folk from the area around Capernaum, an unwalled town of twelve hundred people, with no sign of planning in the layout of streets, no gates, no defensive fortifications, and no channels for running water or sewage disposal. Not a sought-after spot, quips Dom Crossan, but a good place to get away from, with easy access across the Sea of Galilee to any side (Crossan 2001:81).

As a community it was struggling to survive in what we would call a ‘third world’ situation, but with considerable ingenuity in making the most of limited resources. It is also a sad reminder of what peasant life was like:

• where only about one in every hundred people could read and only about one in every thousand could write, and

• when Herod Antipas promoted his unjust imperial ‘ideological blueprint’ of romanisation by urbanisation for commercialisation.

Yeshua was a homeless, homeland Palestinian Jew, a native of the Galilee. Unfortunately for many traditional Christians, the Jewishness of Jesus lies on the remote margins of Christian imagination. As a result they are inclined to miss his ethnicity, his religion, his economic status, and his political situation (Jenks 2014:124).  Probably born during the final years of Herod the Great, he too lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of Roman Imperial rule. A wandering Cynic-like sage, teaching about the deception of wealth, the appeal to nature, and the extolling of simplicity, shows Jesus belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism. He spent at least as much time figuring things out himself, seeking wisdom, as in communicating the understanding he came to. And according to him, the best place to be both wise and holy was right in the midst of ordinary life. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. His listeners would laugh. Maybe scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own.

“Rather than pointing to traditional texts”, suggests NT scholar Hal Taussig, “Jesus pointed to the birds of the air, the employment practices of farmers, the goings on in the marketplace, the work of women in the household, and the social life of the peasant, as the real sources of wisdom and authority” (Taussig 1999:15-16).

So, it is highly probable that Jesus did not walk about ancient Palestine thinking about himself as the incarnate Son of God or the second Person of the Trinity! (Jenks 2014b:49)

Generally speaking, the ‘historical’ human Jesus can be re-discovered in our time, through some of the most challenging critical work being done in New Testament scholarship today. Coupled with honesty about that knowledge from the pulpit.

As a result of some of that scholarship we now know there are at least two forms of ‘wisdom’ sayings that characterise the Jesus voiceprint:

  • aphorism (short sayings) and
  • parable (narratives whose endings poke).

This suggests then, that: parables and aphorisms are about ‘lifestyle’. They are about hearing and doing, rather than believing and venerating. And they are about the present.

They are fragments of this Jesus voiceprint that ask us to hear these particular fictional mini-parables as ‘red flags’ waving at us and saying to us; don’t expect God’s domain or the realm of God to be what you reckon or want it to be! If you really hear the voice of the historical Jesus,
the chances are you will not like him (Galston 2005:16).

Parables are very deceptive. They are about recasting the world according to a vision. The realm of God in the teachings of Jesus “was not an apocalyptic or heavenly projection of an otherworldly desire. It was driven by a desire to think that there must be a better way to live together than the present state of affairs” (Mack 1995:40).

The early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a difference essence, or saw a halo circling his head! They made claims about him because “they had heard him say and seen him do certain things. They experienced him acting in their lives. And what they experienced in the company of this person… moved them deeply” (Patterson 1998:53).

The 4th century Nicene Creed tells us what to believe about Jesus but says nothing about what Jesus taught. We confess, “…born of the Virgin Mary,” but we don’t say,“…taught us to love our enemies” (Galston 2012:112 Note 2).

His public years leave no mark on the creeds and confessions (Jenks 2014c). Creeds control God while putting Jesus to sleep by abstraction!  Whereas, stories about ‘lifestyle’ invite us to hear and re-imagine the present world differently, by considering the human condition of all, not just the condition of our own race, family, or nationality.

Jesus was an observer of people and of life. His life bore witness to the re-imagined world of the parables. He challenged and debunked convention. He poked and prodded. “He seemed to assume that if one called into question old habits and norms, something far more fresh and powerful could be unveiled” (Taussig 1999:19).

Now twenty centuries later, we are being poked and prodded. Not to be shaped by the silly question: ‘what would Jesus do?’ That’s to be preoccupied with triviality. Rather, by becoming who we are and doing what we do.

• Freed to go on the journey Jesus chartered, instead of worshipping the journey (Wink 2000:177).

• Freed to change the way we view ‘limits’. Especially so when a Congregation celebrates its 50th Anniversary, paying attention to the particular context of that Congregation.

So, after all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes, how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped by the human ‘historical’ Jesus? Canadian theologian, David Galston. In one of his comments he said our task is: “… to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity” (Galston 2012:53).

Let us be wise. Amen.

Notes:

Crossan, J. D. & J. L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.

————–, “Postmodernism, the Historical Jesus, and the Church” in The Fourth R 18, 5, September-October 2002, 11, 14-18.

Hamilton A. “Church Honours Market over Gospel in Abuse Cases” in Eureka Street eZine, Vol 24, No. 6. 2 April 2014.

Jenks, G. C. Jesus Then and Jesus Now. Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves. Preston: Mosaic Press, 2014.

————–. “Encountering God in Jesus of Nazareth” in N. Leaves (ed). Encountering God: Face to Face with the Divine. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2014b.

————–. “Jesus then and Jesus now. A sermon”. Preached at St Mary’s in Exile, Brisbane, 25 May 2014c.

Mack, B. L. Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Patterson, S. J. The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998.

Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations. Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. MN: Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress, 2008.

Taussig, H. Jesus Before God. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999.

Vosper, G. With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is More Important than What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins, 2008.

Wink, W. ‘The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

1. The discovery of a first century fishing boat in 1986, during a drought that lowered the water level, confirms this impression (JDCrossan).

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Pentecost 7A, 2020

Gen 28: 10-19a Matthew 13:24-30

‘Don’t Weed! Make Space to Deal Inclusively’

When being asked explain why I liked to cause a stir or always look to find the alternative I used to respond by saying ‘Well I’m like a weed, because you can’t kill weeds they just keep coming up”. In the light of today’s texts, I wonder if the weeds suffer a bad name unfairly? Is Jacob like a weed that reveals things about the realm of God and maybe the weeds assist with the definition of the wheat?

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

The book of Genesis makes no attempt to conceal the fact that Jacob was, among other things, a crook. Twice he cheated his perhaps slow to understand brother, Esau, out of what was coming to him. At least once he took advantage of the blindness of his old father, Isaac, and played him for a sucker. He outdid his double-crossing father-in-law, Laban, by conning him out of most of his livestock and, later on, when Laban was looking the other way, by sneaking off with not only both the man’s daughters, but just about everything else that wasn’t nailed down including his household gods. Jacob was never satisfied. He wanted everything. But then one day he learned a marvelous lesson in a marvelous and unexpected way.

It happened just after he’d ripped Esau off for the second time and was making his getaway into the hill country to the north. When sunset came and nobody seemed to be after him, he decided that it was safe to camp out for the night and, having either left home in too much of a hurry to take his pillow with him, tucked a stone under his head and prepared to go to sleep. You might think that what happened next was that he lay there all night bug-eyed as a result of his guilty conscience or, if he did finally manage to drop off, that he was tormented by conscience-stricken dreams, but neither of these was the case. Instead, he dropped off like a baby in a cradle and dreamed the kind of dreams you would have thought were reserved for the high saints.

He dreamed that there was a ladder reaching up to heaven and that there were angels moving up and down it with golden sandals and rainbow-colored wings and that standing somewhere above it was God godself. And the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected, but something altogether different. God told Jacob that the land he was lying on was to belong to him and his descendants and that someday his descendants would become a great nation and a great blessing to all the other nations on earth. And as if that wasn’t enough, God then added a personal P.S. by saying, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

It wasn’t holy hell that God gave him, in other words, but holy heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can’t get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.

Jacob didn’t have to climb his ladder to get a hold of everything, even if that had been possible, because everything looked like peanuts compared to what God and the angels were using the ladder to hand down to him for free.

Another part of the lesson was that, God doesn’t just love people because of who they are, but rather because of who or what God is. “It’s on the house” is one way of saying it and “It’s by grace” is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, but the many-times great-grandfather of  Nations and peoples to come. Not a bad outcome for someone who doesn’t fit the norms. A weed among the wheat in the big picture is what holds all together.

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

We have just heard two stories about what good and bad might contribute to. A story about the one who doesn’t follow the rules, who behaves in less acceptable ways and a story about- or parable – about wheat and weeds. The message seems to be that one needs to deal inclusively with these unacceptable alternatives, these cons and weeds.

There’s another story or a parallel story that goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a Warriors League Team that had inherited a tradition of losing almost all the games of a season. The other teams were supported by their communities with uniforms, coaching staff, special skills training. The guys from The Warriors didn’t have a coach or uniforms or very much fan support. They were talented, but untrained. Then one day a young man watched them stumble through practice. ‘Can I help?’ he asked them.
The team was ready to accept help from anyone.

‘You guys are the best,’ he said.  ‘There’s no reason you can’t win the premiership. But you have to practice, be confident in yourselves, and be good friends. ‘No more fighting among the team or with me if I’m going to be your unofficial coach’. No more competing with each other for the MIP (most improved player) or the POD (Player of the Day) The Guys agreed. The first thing the coach taught them was how be friends and play together with one another. Then he told them, training session after training session, how good they were. Finally he made them work, work, work, at fitness, and skills.

And guess what happened?  They went on from there undefeated and won the premiership. ‘He made us believe in ourselves’, the guys said. The next year the management hired a “real coach” and the team finished last on the ladder.

Is this a nice so-called spiritual story you can tell in church? Or is it a story which not only critiques and subverts the status quo, but re-imagines a world that could be? What is success, or failure? And how do both have value? What would that sort of world look like?

If we believe this football story, or this parable attributed to Jesus by Matthew, are to be ‘spiritualized’ – I think it is traditionally explained as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings” then we will more than likely opt for the ‘nice story’ tag. And we won’t be alone.  Much of the church treats parables this way. Simple stories with trite meanings. Often lifted out of their social and historical context and reshaped into theological or moralistic fables bereft of any political or economic edge or consequence.

Which is somewhat disappointing because that is not what parables are. B Brandon Scott, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, and a student of the study of the parables, says: ‘The parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living, of being in the world. They are not just religious, not just about God, although they are that too… they are multifaceted re-imaginings of life, of the possibilities of life’ (Scott 2001:6).

So if we opt rather for the ‘critique’ and be intentionally skeptical about the common view or that acceptable norm as well as valuing the imagination and the ‘re-imagining’ of what’s possible then we will have grasped Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ purpose: To get his hearers to see the world differently. To seek the alternative inclusive, dynamic interdependent realm. And that can be summed up in this phrase… That God’s reign is not an, other-worldly proposition. Most of us say that the world as we know it has changed since 11 September 2001. Since the Christchurch attack on mosques and the same is now being said as a result of Covid-19. And we are sure it is. Just one of those differences is the great polarity that now exists between Christian and Muslim, Jew and Muslim, Hindu and Muslim, African American and American, and skin colour differences. This is not to say they did not exist prior but rather that the polarity has been more openly displayed. The daily news of suspected terrorist attacks – the dissatisfaction with collective and community management due to Covid-19 has contributed to the unrest. The enemy which in these cases is difference, inequality and distinctiveness fueled by economic, social and political circumstances and- takes hope away and tries to convince us that human cleverness…  better spying on the enemy, more public exposure and having better and smarter weapons as well as living in constant suspicion of strangers, can save us. Jacob should be imprisoned, the Warriors coach should be registered as a therapist rather than a coach and weeds need to be exterminated.

None of this seems to be a good time for hope, for reason, for patience. To allow both ‘wheat’ (the good blokes) and ‘weed’ (the bad blokes) to grow together. One is seen as having worth. One is seen as being worthless.  In this context Bill Loader’s comment is, I feel, telling: ‘A sense that there is an enemy, marks many societies, religious and otherwise.  It is almost as though we need an enemy, an, other, against whom to define ourselves.  This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival…  A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning.  There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’.  The simpler, the better.  This is the stuff of prejudice.  Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’ (W Loader/web site).

The Jesus of Matthew, in telling this parable, suggests another position. But with our tendency to domesticate parables we can give Matthew’s point and circumstance less attention than it deserves.

So, what is Matthew’s circumstance? Possibly the division in the Syrian synagogue between those Jews who seek to follow the ‘way’ of Jesus and those who don’t. And what is Matthew’s so-called ‘point’ of the story? Don’t weed!  Deal inclusively.

Why? Because it is in the midst of the mess of conflictive coexistence that we find the spiritual, the divine and the one we call God. Not in some hypothetical situation where ‘good seed’ or ‘good healthy congregations’ or so-called ‘real Christians’ – usually champions of right – grow in pure isolation, fighting the bad and offering walled sanctuaries to hide in. This does not suggest confrontation should be advocated. But it does mean that where there is confrontation: never cease to act graciously or to have compassion,
never write people off, never uproot people in your mind or attitude
by treating them as no longer of any worth.

And let’s not be fooled because in reality, acting alternatively can be somewhat difficult at times. Buddhist Dalai Lama when asked if he hated the Chinese, replied ‘no’.
‘He remarked that the Chinese were indeed dominant and that he had no possibility of overthrowing them by might.  Were he to hate them therefore no change would occur in the Chinese. But change would certainly occur within him.  His own heart would become more tense, bitter and rigid.  The only way forward then was to let go of the hateful feelings that might arise. In the space that ensued perhaps there was a greater possibility for peace’ (Ranson 2002:7).

So, parables are not earthly stories with heavenly meanings? They are more likely to be earthly stories with heavy meanings? That seems to be more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus does it not?

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

Frederick Buechner Centre  The Frederick Buechner Center <info@frederickbuechner.com>

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In a recent article in the 4th R the Westar magazine, Lloyd Geering wrote about the decline of God since the end of the Nineteenth century when Friedrich Nietzche discerned that “God is dead and we humans have killed him”. This is not to say that the idea of God was destined to suffer an instant death from then on but rather to herald the fact that the idea of God was and has been changing forever. Lloyd suggests that the thought-world that humans participate in is always fluid and moving. Some have been preserving they suppose something they call tradition, traditional values and things to maintain but others have been moving on from the very idea of God convinced that the concept of God has become obsolete and it is no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’.

While in our language today we often hear the words “Oh my God” and read the letters “OMG” the concept behind them has completely changed. This is as Lloyd suggests indicative of the fact that the “God” concept has been retired from daily speech. A brief journey the concept of God has been on might be ‘Wind or Breath” in a ‘Spiritual’ world where breath was evidence of the spiritual world that surrounded everything, thru the birth of gods, imagined to identify and explain natural phenomena, much the same as we use  electron, neutron and quark today.

The key difference is that the God concept moved to include the idea that the forces of nature attributed to those gods transcended human power and control thus introducing the idea that humans in order to survive needed to obey and respect these gods. Each tribe or ethnic group had their own names for these gods and what areas they looked after such as fertility, birth, death, war, peace, love and so on. This concept of God being adaptable stayed around for a long time and we still name our days of the week after them.

We remember here also that the ancients explained natural phenomena through the medium of stories about the gods which we now call myths or stories. The telling of stories was the way of expressing knowledge, much like we now call philosophy and science. At the core of these stories was the idea that one could talk about these gods by anthropomorphic means, in other words these gods were given human attributes and behaviour while being immortal, most of them in charge and to be feared. Humanity was at mercy of the unseen powers of most of the gods.

The other phenomena we should heed before entering our text today is the arrival of the idea of Monotheism. Between about 1000 and 400BCE Israel’s prophets urged their people to abandon all gods except Yahweh, very likely a storm god. Polytheism becomes henotheism (choosing one of many) then along comes the biblical prophets and this message becomes embedded in the Moses story and between 567 and 540 BCE monotheism is settled in. The Jews from exile in a polytheism world escape to a monotheism world (The Holy Land) in the Genesis story.

As Lloyd reminds us the first chapter of Genesis marks the crossing of a very significant threshold in the evolution of human culture. The assertion that at the beginning of time it was God who created everything introduced a powerful cultural invention that remained unquestioned until about 500BCE.

In regard to our text for today the above is a crucial background to the interpretation of what is being said and proposed by the text. In terms of the assumptions of God that lie beneath the text the understanding of those being spoken to and the message the text is conveying. Who or what is the God Jesus would be talking about? What is the message he wants to convey?

On this last question scholars suggest that one of the most important things Jesus wants to say is that there needs to be a change in the way we think about the kingdom or realm or social, political and economic environment that exists.

Our text for today is what is known as the parable of the sower and taking all of the above into account we see that the parable is about this creator God, creating the kingdom or realm:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

A translation:  

On that day, Jesus went out of the house (and) was sitting alongside the sea, and great crowds were gathered together to him so that he entered into a ship to sit down and all the people stood upon the shore.  And he spoke much to them in parables, saying, “Behold!  The sowing one went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some indeed fell beside the way, and the birds came to eat them.  But others fell upon stony places where they were not having much soil, and immediately they sprung up because they did not have depth of soil.  But when the sun rose, they were scorched and, because they did not have a root, they were withered.  But others fell among the thorns, and the thorns climbed up and choked them.  But others fell upon the good earth, and they were giving fruit, some indeed a hundredfold, but some sixty, but some thirty.  The one having ears, let that one hear.”

It has been suggested that the parable of the sower is the touchstone of all the parables.  That it has primacy of place is in all three synoptics.  Even the gnostic Gospel of Thomas includes the parable of the sower. 

In Matthew, the parable of the sower is the first of a string of parables that follow one after another in chapter 13.  The parable of the sower sets the stage for all the parables that follow.

The lection begins with Jesus leaving the house.  He “goes out” to the sea just as the sower would soon “go out” to sow.  This would apparently be his own house, and the same one where he had just refused entrance to his own relatives (12: 46-48). 

At the sea, “great crowds” flock around Jesus.  The word is sunago, and means that the people “gathered together” around Jesus.  He is at the center of the people.  This is not surprising.  Jesus had significant support in the region of the Sea of Galilee.  The people loved Jesus and thrilled to his message.  He is presented as a “man of the people.” 

Then, he gets into a boat.  The stated reason is that Jesus needs a place to sit.  He needs to sit in order to assume the posture of a teacher.  This gives Jesus a bit of distance from the crowd which continues to stand on the beach.  Matthew has moved Jesus from being “man of the people” to being “authoritative teacher.” 

This is seen to be a deft piece of political theater.  Jesus is sitting in a fishing boat, which is, quite literally, on the sea.  In a sense, Jesus is speaking to and for all the people who try to make a living from the Sea of Galilee.  (It’s not for nothing that fishermen were some of Jesus’ first supporters.)  

Jesus may have had a home at Capernaum, perhaps the most important harbour city on the entire Sea of Galilee, which also made it an important communications center for the region.  He also traveled to many other towns and villages that lie on the sea, including Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, his frequent companion.

In the intervening verses, 10-17, Jesus tells the disciples that they get to hear “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” but others do not.  Jesus says that he speaks in parables, but no one understands. 

This suggests that, far from being easy to understand, the parables are so contrarian that they are difficult to hear.  The reason Jesus so often encouraged people with ears to hear is because what he was saying was so counter-intuitive, so formed by an alternative paradigm, that people were having a hard time comprehending what he was saying.  

In verse 18, Jesus calls the story “the parable of the sower.”  Suggests that this is a parable about the God they hold dear, and about the kingdom they put their faith in.  It’s the parable of the sower, and it is a kingdom of complexity with not one but four kinds of soil.  It’s about the relationship between the sower and the soils, the God-human relationship, in other words the Kingdom, realm, interconnection, interdependence that needs reimagining. It is not about a powerful creator God in charge of evil, dominated, powerless people.

To conclude this exploration today we remember that it was not until a number of Christian theologians in the 1960s acknowledged the truth of Nietzsche’s announcement and declared that the concept of God had become so obsolete that it was no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’ as a being who created and ruled over the universe. As J Macquarrie reminded us in the 1980s, whatever life God had formerly enjoyed in the thought world of believers has been slowly ebbing away in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, The sower is no longer the God scattering seeds like a creator but rather we are the sowers and the kingdom, realm we are part of is diverse, complex and like the universe as we understand it today, a realm of unexpected serendipity. That is, until we come to accept that it is like avatar within multiple universes and unlimited dimensions. Or as I think Lloyd is suggesting, the doctrine of the incarnation takes on emerging concepts, that we will understand the parable for us today. And as Roy W Hoover says in the same magazine as Lloyd’s article – “A modern faith requires a modern conceptuality and language that can make clear to us in what respects our religious situation is discontinuous with our religious past”. Or as Gordon Kaufmann has said: “ Our inherited symbolism no longer fits the overall cast of life as it is lived, understood, and experienced in today’s world. So, it must change, and change in decisive ways, if it is not to die out.”. It has been my personal claim  that this is the challenge the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa faces if it wishes to remain alive. The issue the church needs to avoid is getting caught up in the battle between incremental and catastrophic because the change is already underway, the church’s task is to articulate the thought world it lives in. To listen for the God concept of today and to incarnate it through language and experience.  Amen.

The Fourth R Volume 33 Number 3 May-June 2020 ‘The Life of God from Conception to Death in the human Though-World. Westar Institute Farmington MN