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Luke 12:49-56

‘Why I Have Difficulty Being A Moderate Christian’…

It was a challenge to hear that being a moderate Christian was providing the context for biblical literalism and violence, because I thought being balanced in everything meant being a moderate. I struggled to get my head around how being balanced was an act of violence.

Sam Harris in his book ‘End of Faith; said that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.  I read ‘not merely; to mean that while extremism is indicative of or the outcome of, the conflict, moderate Christian’s like I liked to think of myself as are responsible for the conflict. He said that Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed”. He names scriptural literalism as the prison of non-violence. Violence cannot be eradicated because moderates allow literalism and the violence it perpetuates to exist. Pretty harsh and directed words for a moderate to hear.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit of the story. And let’s take a look at it from what could be said to be a not- literalist view and what I want to call a radical non-orthodox view. The scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar write in their notes on this story: “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce new thinking into family relationships, for example, in his suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

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

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

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

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

Very often we can think of Jesus as some sort of superhuman being. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the story-teller we call Luke, it makes sense. We know in our bones that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. Moreover, our world at the moment, it seems, is one that is rocked with religious violence. We have moved from nations pitted against nations to now include isolated yet persistent violence in the name of causes with underlying or over-arching religious tone. People bomb and kill other people all in the name of God, and we are now stretching what we mean by the name of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May those who are moderates have the courage to go on that (reconstruction) journey.

Amen.

Notes:
Harris, S. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf, 2006.
Harris, S. The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton, 2004.
Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”.  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost12.htm
McFague, S. Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press, 1987.
McLennan. S. Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan, 2009.
Rick Marshall.   < http://www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/YearC/2009-2010/2010-08-15.shtml&gt;
Susan Nelson.  <www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/Year

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

rexae74@gmail.com

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What Are You Afraid Of?

Posted: August 6, 2019 in Uncategorized

What Are You Afraid Of?

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20       Luke 12: 32-40

 Today’s readings describe what seems impossible possibilities. Hope amidst hopelessness, a life of love that rebuffs a life of fear.  Isaiah challenges the people to go from apathy to awareness and transform their worship from ritual to justice-seeking.  Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah following God’s promises that, although they are childless, they will become the parents of a nation.  Jesus asks his followers to stay awake in every season of life, and sell their possessions to have resources to give to the poor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are immediately left with the question: Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so good? Well! perhaps it’s because Luke knows that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, and we often prefer our old, familiar, certain ways. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth. This is what advertising is based on, our feel-good factor. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future. It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again.

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

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

But wait a minute! The, people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. Maybe its too easy for us to see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. But can we recognize our own?

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

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

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

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

A God of Wrath vs A God of Love?

Hosea 11:1-11 Luke 12: 13-21

Hosea 11: verses 1 to 11 is an Old Testament text that preaches beautifully; full of God’s parental love and patience with a wayward and disobedient child. And we are pretty sure that Hosea was writing from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  We are also of the view that Hosea was writing from Israel after the split between the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  The Assyrian empire was invading and much of Hosea’s prophecy revolved around the theological implications of the fall of the Northern Kingdom. This period in Israel and Judah’s history was marked with a great deal of political intrigue and instability, and it was at a time when stability was needed to defend Israel from Assyrian attack. Local Canaanite religious practices seemed to have made their way into Jewish practice, particularly of the god Baal. The Canaanite god, Baal, was the storm god and was associated with rain and fertility. It seemed that Israelites were turning to, or perhaps syncretistic incorporating, Baal worship. This suggests that the text is wrestling with two things at least. One being the understanding of just who this God is and how this God operates and two what does this God want from his people?

In a classic text on the prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts that the prophet’s passion is energized by her or his vision of the divine pathos. The prophetic God is passionate for justice and God’s passion for justice is grounded in God’s intimate care for the world in all its wondrous messiness. God not only loves humankind, God loves individual persons and grieves when one of God’s children is homeless, abused, unjustly treated, or neglected. God is equally passionate in God’s response to those who commit injustice. God still loves them, but God’s passion may sound like what Hosea describes as a lion roaring in the wilderness.

Hosea’s words epitomize the divine pathos. God’s people are bone of God’s bone and flesh of God’s flesh. God mourns, laments, struggles with mixed feelings of love and rage, and vows to be faithful to God’s people despite their infidelity. God sees the people suffering as a result of their injustice and mourns for them, knowing how painful the consequences of injustice will be for them.

In effect, Hosea’s God is literally mad as hell at these wayward people. But, love tempers God’s anger at their behaviour. Like a parent whose child has gone astray, God is angry and anguished, but this cannot nullify God’s love. While we may have more “rational” and “dispassionate” understandings of God’s love, we need to ask ourselves imaginatively questions such as “What would anger God about our nation’s behaviour? Where have we brought pain to God?” We must ourselves, “Where are we turning away from God? Where are we oblivious to God’s call through the experience of those persons who, to use Howard Thurman’s words, have their backs against the wall due to poverty and injustice.

Hosea is speaking to the nation, and of course this also includes individual decisions as well. We are the nation and we cannot evade – those of us who “have” – our complicity in our nation’s waywardness. The prophetic God would be rightly angered by the vast gulf between the rich and the poor, our destruction of the environment, our abandonment of children, our voicing family values and yet supporting business policies that destroy family life, our failure to provide sufficient incomes for the working poor, and the institutionalized injustice inspired by prison systems driven by profit rather than human wellbeing motives.

Nichole Torbitzky a university teacher comments that she hears regularly from her undergraduates about the unfortunate comparison between the ‘wrathful’ God of the Old Testament and the ‘loving’ God of the New Testament. She actually enjoys this discussion because it gives her the perfect teaching moment to correct a theological mistake. Implied in this observation is that two different gods are at work here and almost always, the student will backtrack and clarify that what was really meant is that God is the same God in both testaments, just that God became more loving and forgiving in the New Testament. This is when Torbitzky refers to our passage for this Sunday from Hosea.

The people of Israel had broken their end of the covenant with God by worshipping Baal and other Canaanite gods alluded to throughout the book of Hosea. Hosea sees this as a refusal to trust in God to protect them from the invading Assyrians. The Northern Kingdom’s lack of trust in God could also be seen in the many political intrigues that marked this period (see 2 Kings 14–17).

In the midst of all of this unfaithfulness, Hosea used parental imagery to describe God’s faithfulness. God appeared as a parent-figure who calls, loves, teaches, heals, leads with kindness, embraces/hugs, bends, and feeds. Even in the face of the people’s disobedience and unfaithfulness, God’s heart cannot bear to punish, but grows warm and tender. This is not a picture of a wrathful God. Contrary to popular belief Hosea depicted a loving and forgiving God, who invites reconciliation.

Today’s passage provides a huge amount of rich material. Not only does Hosea’s image of God reveal the constancy and loving compassion God has toward humanity throughout the Bible, but he also highlights that the truth about the nature of God is so important to a view of the human-divine relationship. For Christianity and for process thinkers in particular, this passage from Hosea highlights the truth that God never promises individuals, groups, or nations, that they will never have to deal with adversity and hardship. Rather it claims that hardship is real. Adversity is unavoidable (especially when we are making foolish decisions). The other truth is that God is Love and love never abandons us even in our hardship and adversity, and poor decision-making. Love does not negate our hardship and adversity but rather acknowledges it as part of living.Even at our lowest, even when we are forgetful, fearful, and unfaithful, our God is with us, calling and directing us toward the path of the divine life, the divine pathos.

When we read our New Testament text for today we see that back at the end of chapter 10, Jesus visits Martha and Mary, who are most often said to be located in the town of Bethany (John 11), about two miles southeast of Jerusalem. Jesus goes from there to pray, have dinner with some Pharisees, and to cast out a demon. No mention is made of the specific geographical location since Martha and Mary’s house, but it is probably safe to say that he is in Judea during the events of our text for this Sunday.

When we look at the background for this text we see the Laws of inheritance: In our story, a man in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene on his behalf in a question of inheritance. The man requests, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Here are some of the assumptions that we usually make around this passage

  1. This is a younger brother making the request.
  2. The younger brother is getting no inheritance at all and is asking for ‘his’ half.
  3. There are no other brothers.
  4. There are no sisters.
  5. There is no mother.
  6. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son.
  7. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son as a matter of ‘birthright.’

It would be fair to say that most of us have made these assumptions when reading this text and perhaps we might have been challenged to ask if these assumptions are that accurate. For example, it appears that ‘birthright’ inheritance is not set in stone in Jewish law and certainly not in Roman law. Why? Because Jesus, it seems, is quick to see past the assumptions to the possible complications and mitigating factors in inheritance squabbles. He doesn’t ask if the man has a right to half of the inheritance, nor does he try to get to the bottom of whether or not it is fair that a man should get half of the inheritance.

So, what if the man is asking Jesus to choose laws of Israel over the laws of Rome or vice versa. This would not be the only place in the gospels where someone tried to trick Jesus into making a declaration that could be used as evidence of sedition. Perhaps that is what is going on here. But, then again, it was not unusual in Jesus’ day to seek the opinion of a learned and respected Rabbi on matters such as this. (we have our lawyers and our theologians present,) The Talmud (the book of Jewish legal interpretations) is full of questions and opinions to help settle matters just like this. Perhaps the man in the story is simply looking for this popular, young, charismatic rabbi to shake things up regarding inheritance law. Jesus has, after all, just been denouncing the Pharisees (see Luke 11:37-12:3). He did have a way of upending conventional wisdom. Just a few sentences back he exhorted his listeners to “not fear those who kill the body” (Luke 12:4). Considering all of this, perhaps the man in the crowd is not crazy or hiding ulterior motives when he asks this question.

Maybe the man is not completely crazy, but he certainly does not get the truth Jesus is there to speak. Jesus’ response is quick and one might say; delicious. He, responds to this question with a question, “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you” (Luke 14)? Jesus is clearly not interested in getting involved in these kinds of squabbles. The next question we come to is “why not?” Why does he not have anything to say about inheritance rules? Jesus has had a lot to say about the treatment of the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast, and the marginalized. Why would he not have something to say about ensuring that inheritance is used for those same ends? Why would he not take this opportunity to upend the inheritance rules of both Roman and Jewish societies that tended to favour the oldest son? Why not proclaim that inheritance should be split equitably between all of the children, including the daughters? Why not proclaim that an inheritance should not be claimed until the mother passes away too, to protect widows? Frankly, we would not have been surprised if Jesus had made these kinds of prescriptions for life in the coming Kingdom. Some of us even treat the bible as though it does.

Rather than answer the man’s question directly, as he so often does, Jesus tells a story as an answer. The story is commonly called the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In this parable, a rich man, who just got richer, decides he needs to build bigger barns to store his grain and riches. The Rich Fool tells himself, ‘then I will be happy, and relax.’ And to be honest, this doesn’t seem all that foolish. Most of us don’t think we have a great deal of wealth. And because of this the wealth we do have, we want to protect. Would it not be foolish of us to fail to protect that which we have worked so hard to gain and save, in hope of one day retiring and enjoying the fruits of our labour and maybe passing a little onto our children (or at least not being a financial burden to them at the end)? To our mind, that is an important part of the dream. So far, the man in the parable seems pretty level headed. So, what is the problem?

Just as the Rich Fool was settling down with his plans and his dreams of retirement, God intervenes and upends these well-laid plans (as this so-called interventionist God is wont to do it seems). God’s words for this man are not what we would have expected. God does not tell him, ‘Well done, wise and faithful servant! You sowed and reaped, managed and saved, and even though tonight is the night your life is demanded of you, you have left a worthy legacy!” Instead, he is reprimanded for his greed and foolishness. God demands, ‘who will gain from all of this stuff you have stored up!?” In the context of this passage, the answer naturally is his heir, probably his oldest son, for the most part.

Again; why would storing up all of this stuff for one’s heir be a problem? That seems only right. And, here is the part where we fall in love with Jesus all over again. Jesus is talking to a guy who is moaning about inheritance inequities as he sees them. And Jesus implies that inheritance laws are a problem. They are problematic because they cause enmity in households, because they leave out the vulnerable, because they are a testimony to the greed that causes one to think only of himself, but they are not “rich toward God.” (Right about now you might be thinking about the family that has had big trouble over what is ‘fair’ when Mom and Dad passed away.) Our current concern in NZ might suggest that the marriage split fairness is an issue in the forefront of our time and needs to be dealt with.

Implied in this condemnation is that being rich is both a spiritual and a very real material and financial commitment to the Realm of God. But wealth hoarded, is foolish. Life is short, and one never knows when their day has come. Wealth shared, bellies filled, lives changed for the better, is wise. It is the Jesus Way. It is faithful to God.

So, Does God Want Us to be Wealthy? What I have just said is deeply unpopular with many good people in many good churches. And this suggests that we have to think very carefully about what it means to be rich toward God. We have to be very careful not to let ourselves off of the hook too easily. An appropriate sermon illustration for today may come from a Bloomberg article about the super-wealthy who promised huge donations to the Notre Dame Cathedral rebuild. According to the Bloomberg article, at the time of its writing, no actual funds had come from these mega-wealthy donors. Instead, all of the money that had been received at that point had come from small donors, particularly donors from the US and from the French government. The ethical questions around giving vast amounts of money to rebuild a building rather than feed the poor or house the homeless is worth spending some time on. We too here at St David’s have wrestled with this ethic that supports making our building an A category building. Is this the Jesus Way? Is the restoration of our lovely building what God would want? Of course, it is. But is it really?

In terms of process thought about God, we can see an easy argument for the idea that God wants us to be wealthy. It goes like this: 1. God wants the best possible for every occasion. 2. It is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy. 3. Since it is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy, it is the best possible outcome for mission. 4. Therefore, God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous.

But, let’s stop and take a moment to inspect these assumptions. As Marjorie Suchocki aptly pointed out in The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), sometimes the best possible for a situation is something we would deem morally bad. At this point, it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole that justifies disproportionate wealth as making the best of a bad situation. Besides, the rationalization continues, how are we to judge what God deems ‘best’ . . . maybe it is best for a few people to control most of the wealth in the world while the rest suffer and struggle. Here is where we come to assumptions #2 and #3. Since I benefit from prosperity and wealth, surely it is the best possible for me to be wealthy and prosperous.

The parable for this week calls out this way of thinking and answers any questions about God’s judgment on wealth and prosperity. How do we judge what God thinks is best concerning wealth? This is surely, no secret. God has already told us: do not store up treasures for yourself, be rich toward God (vs. 21). Jesus tells us that, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (vs. 15). God pretty clearly states that what we, like to tell ourselves is beneficial, God calls greed. Because assumptions 2 and 3 are false, the conclusion that God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous cannot stand.

Ok Then; if God does not want us to be prosperous and wealthy, what does God want? Maybe God wants us to realize that Faithfulness and blessing are not reflected in our material security. And that, God’s best possible for us does not consist of an abundance of possessions. Instead, Jesus directs us to be rich toward God. But what does that look like? For the man in the crowd, perhaps that would look like dropping the squabble with his brother. For the wealthy would-be Notre Dame donors, perhaps it would look like using their money to truly tackle food, housing, and health care insecurities in their country. For us, for you and me? Well here is a few ideas:

  1. What about thinking about how we as a congregation can help others to budget including a line or two for that who have no idea how to? Not because they need it but because it might help them feel normal, included and valued and us feel we are normal too.
  2. What about thinking how we as a congregation can help people work through the inheritance issues. We don’t know what the man in this story did, but a clear implication of Jesus’ teachings is that inheritance is a tricky thing and maybe because it always will be, we need to pay attention to our and our society’s expectations. After all, its not about equal shares, its, about fairness.
  3. What about spending some time looking at the bigger picture that included the possible outcomes of giving. Maybe giving to sound and effective ministries and organizations has some long-term values for a better society.
  4. And lastly, what about not being afraid to talk about money. Jesus wasn’t. And maybe we can be more critical of ideologies and assumptions about wealth, and its management. As we are told the poor will always be with us, so what are we doing about that beyond the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff?

Amen

Does Prayer Change Things?

Posted: July 25, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 11:1-13

Does Prayer Change Things?

Today is one of those times in the lectionary when the topic is a repeat of other readings in the year. This time it is the subject of prayer and one wonders whether there is anything new to say about prayer. So given all that I thought we might just touch into some theological wanderings through the prayer I think is the most used and dare I say it the prayer we spend the least time on analyzing what it is that we are saying when we recite it out of habit.

Rex Hunt gave some thought to this that I found interesting and so I thought we might see what he says as we explore. Like me he reminds us that most analysis of prayer begins with what prayer is and what it isn’t. Rex says; that, prayer was not some Harry Potter-style magic where you say certain words and specific things happen.

Neither is it Santa Claus–style bargaining… Be good and you get what you ask for.
Be bad and you don’t. Instead he suggested that prayer was more akin to the ‘language of the heart’… Rex suggests that prayer is more like a conversation with oneself than one with a higher power, more an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life – and the “always present God” rather than “an elsewhere God” (Morwood 2003:8).

He suggests that the characteristics of this kind of praying would include listening in silence which I think is like taking one’s mind to a place where no words or concepts or anything is required, just a conscious attempt to note all the things swirling around in ones mind as if waiting for a sign or something to take up and still the swirling. A silence that shuts the outer world out and attempts to still the inner one.

He suggests another characteristic is one of giving insights into ourselves and possibly others, and by this I think he is suggesting that the discovery of this silence, this nothingness highlights the fact that we are unique, nothingness is only nothingness when confronted by somethingness perhaps,  there is a self that fills the space, and when we get there we realize that all human beings are alike in this commonality of what it means to be human, sure we know that genetics and environment and relationships all impact on who we are but that commonality is clear and it doesn’t wipe out our uniqueness or our particular input into the wider world, it enhances and clarifies it.

Rex highlights another characteristic as connecting us to each other and here I think he is exploring the world of mirror neurons, of environmental and genetic cause or why do we need to be a particular species. What is being human and why is it important in the greater scheme of things? What is our relationship with the trees and plants and other animals? What is our connection with the planet and the cosmos. I was watching a couple of movies this week. One was Tomorrowland about the insatiable desire of humankind to find another futuristic world and Interstellar about the end of this civilization and the desire of humans to find another planet to live on.

What his this got to do with prayer, well maybe that desire to be connected to one another both at a personal and procreative imperative level and at a planetary survival of the species level. We know instinctively that we need each other yet we spend so much time fighting for our individuality. Is this not at the seat of prayer conditioned by consciousness?

But all this is psychological wandering and its not all that has been said about prayer and its ability to change things. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once commented: ‘prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays’. Others have refined that a bit, to: ‘Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things’. Henry Nelson Wieman went further and suggested that prayer ‘works’ with the: “re-creation of the one who prays, of [the] appreciable world, and of [their] association with others, so that the prayerful request is fulfilled in the new creation” (Wieman 1946:282).

Here we leap to my favourite approach to this. Prayer is about ‘Reimagining the world!  Reimagining relationships!  Reimagining possibilities!

Returning to our text we see that the focus of today’s Lectionary story is again on ‘prayer’.
In particular what we have called The Lord’s Prayer. And our storyteller says the context of the story is a request from the disciples for Jesus to teach them how to pray. And so we are given Luke’s version of that prayer.

If we are honest at this point, we have to says that there is a fair amount of doubt as to whether Jesus actually taught anybody how to pray, let alone a group called the disciples. Recent 21st century scholarship now suggests this prayer comes from a group of people called the Q People… One of several groups of people who make up the early Jesus movements. Their particular ‘claim to fame’ was they were only interested in the teachings of Jesus “and not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny” (Mack 1993:1).

It is suggested that during their life together as a community they began to develop a series of strategies to help them survive. Those strategies were:

  • they started writing their wisdom down,
  • they began to claim Jesus as their founder,
  • they began to compose and write down angry sayings, condemning those who rejected them, and
  • they began to institutionalise prayer as a response to their situation.

And the outcome of one of those strategies was what we have come to identify
as the Jesus Prayer or The Lord’s Prayer. Named that way because they took bits and pieces of his teachings and wove them together, so every time they said these words, it reminded them of Jesus, their founder. It was a brilliant strategy!

This short prayer showed they believed Jesus prayer life was, and as a result, their prayer life needed to be, basic and broadly focused, “and more broadly focused than that of many religious people today” (Taussig 1999:98)

One of the challenges of this stuff is what I suggested at the beginning when I suggested what prayer might be. All this latter approach to prayer acknowledges the sociological and psycological evolution of human thinking but it is very easily lost as just ‘head’ stuff rather than ‘heart’ stuff. So what do we do with this? Well, again Rex  offers us an option. He tells of a group of refugees in El Salvador where they too have taken the Jesus or Lord’s Prayer and earthed it in their experiences of living in this world. And here is the result of their reflection on this prayer.

 Abba/Father…
As God’s children may we build a new earth of sisterhood and brotherhood,
not a hell of violence and death.

may your name be holy

That in God’s name, let there be no abuse, no oppression and no manipulation of the conscience and liberty of your children.

May your rule take place

Not the rule of fear, force or money, of seeking peace through war.

Give us each day our daily bread

The bread of peace, so we can sow our maize and beans, watch them grow and share them together as a family.

Pardon our debts, for we ourselves 

pardon everyone in debt to us.

May our relationships not be based on self-interest.

And do not bring us to trial into a trying situation

Let us change lament for songs of life, clenched fists for outstretched hands, and the weeping of widows and orphans for smiles…

This is not some reciting of some well-known words in auto-pilot, like so much of the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in its traditional form, today is. This is basic existence, real life, stuff.

And so is the story which Luke adds to this prayer story. The arrival of an unexpected guest seeking hospitality. Only for the host to have no food in the family larder.
So a neighbour is asked to help out. As Bruce Prewer observes: “…[Luke’s] Jesus is talking about basics.  Good food, not luxuries for the over pampered.  Fish and eggs were the main source of protein in the common person’s diet.  Not snapper or rainbow trout, but plain stubby little fish from Lake Galilee; the ones now called St Peter fish.  And eggs; not caviar but common hen’s eggs.  Basics” (BPrewer web site, 2001). It is for the needs of others that we are told to ask, seek and knock on God’s ‘metaphorical’ door.

That’s what makes this Lukan story, important. That’s what makes the refugees’ reflection, important. That’s what makes the Q peoples’ prayer, important. That’s what makes what we do and say every week, important. Amid the basics of life, and remembering others needs, it invites us to reimagining the world, reimagining relationships, reimagining possibilities. Not for our benefit.  But for theirs, because ‘prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things.

Paul Alan Laughlin who’s prayer we recited in today’s liturgy said in an article some years back that he describes his take on the Jesus/Lord’s Prayer as A Mystical Lord’s Prayer.

The first and perhaps most important thing that sets this version of the Lord’s Prayer off from the others is its theology, which dispenses entirely with the personal, parental Father-Sky-God of the original, and replaces “Him” with a non-personal, immanent power-presence (or source-force), an infinite one (or One) that is none other (or non-Other) than the spiritual core of the person or persons reciting or singing the prayer.  The implicit theology of this prayer, then, is not monotheism but monism…

“The second distinctive feature of this version of the Lord’s Prayer follows from the first; for having eliminated a personal divine Other above, this Lord’s Prayer… has no petitions for any intercessory acts on behalf of a human individual or group.  In their stead are strong affirmations of how we are already emboldened from within ourselves to become better persons and to accomplish ever-greater things.  This “Lord’s Prayer,” then, can properly be regarded as a daily reminder of our full human potential-miraculous and praiseworthy in its own right-to be good and do good.

“Thus, he says; my Lord’s Prayer is not an invocative device, but an evocative (psyche) exercise in self-realization-or perhaps Self-realization, if the ego-self is to be distinguished from one’s deepest and truest identity, as it is in most mystical traditions.  For humanists, this “within” may be seen differently: as our rational and empirical faculties, perhaps after the fashion of Plato, who equated the human “soul” with the intellect.  In either case, what we have here is an acknowledgement of a mysterious and in some sense sans divine Immanence (versus Eminence) – a reference to the indwelling mysterious Presence and Power that (at least for mystics) permeates or infuses the cosmos, and that (for humanists as well, though probably the capitals) abides in nature, human nature, and therefore ourselves” (Reprinted from The FourthR, Vol 22, No. 6. Nov-Dec 2009

Paul’s Mystical Lord’s Prayer which we will recite latter is as follows:

O presence and pow’r within us,
Being and Life of all.
How we are filled, how we o’erflow
with infinite love and gladness!

We shall this day sow grace and peace,
and show mercy to all,
and gentle loving-kindness.

And we shall be not so self-serving,
but a constant source of giving.

For ours is the essence,
and the wholeness,
and the fullness forever.

Notes:
“Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer” by a group of Refugees, El Salvador, in G. Duncan. (ed) 2005.  Entertaining Angels. A Worship Anthology on Sharing Christ’s Hospitality. London. Canterbury Press.
Mack, B. 1993.  The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q and Christian OriginsPraying a New Story. New York. HarperCollins.
Morwood, M. 2003.  . Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Taussig, H. 1999.  Jesus before God. The Prayer Life of the Historical JesusThe Source of Human Good. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Wieman, H. N. 1946.  . Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

Pentecost 7C, 2019
Luke 10:25-37

Who Is the Neighbour We Will Allow?

Jesus is travelling in the north for several weeks and turns south making his way along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It was a dangerous route since much of it was through a rocky wilderness that sheltered many bands of thieves or robbers.

He is of course not alone. Our story tradition says he traveled with companions and the curious, who were interested in hearing something of what this strange Jewish cynic-like sage had to say about the nature of human life and its prospects.

Jericho, Jerusalem, and a road. Our story is probably the most known and best loved story in our biblical tradition. The story of the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’ seems to have touched into something that many identify with in some way or another. It is a great story, that is without doubt but herein is its problem. Because it is so well known and so well loved it has been domesticated applied to many situations as a metaphor and we miss that it is first and foremost a parable… By that I mean it is a story which turns our ideas and values and worldview upside down. It is perhaps an active metaphor that locates it in our time and in our place with a disturbing element.

Theologically speaking, for years and years the church’s interpretation turned this parable into an ‘example story’. Into a story of two so-called bad blokes and one good bloke. But an ‘example story’ is what this parable isn’t. This demands that we explore a little why we do that.

If the thrust of the story was about good blokes verses a bad bloke, or as an illustration of love of neighbour, or even a diatribe against heartless religious leaders, the offer of aid by a Jewish lay person would have been sufficient. Remember that Samaritans are Jewish people with a differing theology about the place of the temple. They are remnants of the Northern Kingdom, maybe liberals among conservatives perhaps but still Hebrew people. Or at least not too different in world view.

In this the offer of a lay Jewish person would be enough of a challenge to deal with and likewise, according to John Dominic Crossan: “If Jesus wanted to… inculcate love of one’s enemies, it would have been radical enough to have a Jewish person stop and assist a wounded Samaritan…  [But] the internal structure of the story and the historical setting of Jesus’ time agree that… the whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what is a contradiction in terms: Good-Samaritan” (Crossan 1992:62).

And that’s a major shock. Because it challenges the hearers. It challenges them and us and their and our, understanding of God and of whom God approves. The Samaritan, who is both a lay person and an outsider, embodies the true interpretation of the Jewish tradition: to show compassion.

Two people who help us appreciate a much broader understanding of what ‘compassion’ is, are Matthew Fox and John Donahue. Matthew Fox suggests that: “Compassion is not pity…  It is not feeling sorry for someone.  Compassion is about feelings of togetherness. It is about all those risks to self and exposing one’s vulnerability. Turning the other cheek is not just about looking away, not judging, and accepting difference. It is about being prepared to be changed, to see things anew. And it is this awareness of kinship or togetherness that urges us to seek after justice and do works of mercy (Fox 1979:2, 4). Like Matthew Fox was saying last week compassion is not only about caring for each other as fellow human beings it is about deeply caring for the whole of creation, about all the relationships. Each piece of plastic in the ocean is our concern, each decision about the survival or extinction of any microbe, animal, and atom is in need of compassion.

John Donahue also views compassion as something more than just concern for or awareness of. He describes ‘compassion’ like this: He says: “Compassion is that divine quality which, when present in human beings, enables them to share deeply in the sufferings and needs of others and enables them to move from one world to the other: from the world of helper to the one needing help; from the world of the innocent to that of the sinner”   (Donahue 1988:132). So, who is my neighbour? Well we could say that from our experience as a biblical storyteller, when people have heard this story of the good Samaritan many of them ask that same question and then identify with the Samaritan.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=osfQg4yKtq8

But it’s not as easy being a ‘good’ Samaritan as it seems at first sight! The stories told by our cultural storyteller – television, and experience – tells us people continue to pass by on the other side. The story doesn’t seem to be all that powerful a catalyst for change in our behaviour.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqO3cmoFoQg

So, let’s listen to the story again, but this time we will try to imagine it from the injured person’s point of view. Why didn’t they stop and help me? I thought a minister was supposed to help others. And that church worker… Bet she was only going to another flower roster committee meeting. She could have been just a bit late… Wait on; here comes someone else. Maybe he will stop and… Oh no. Not one of them!

Wait on, I mustn’t be so pessimistic. Here’s one. Oh dear, he’s a Samaritan, this is not supposed to happen. Why a Muslim… Anyone but him really. Perhaps it would be better if you kept going? Please, don’t stop. Keep going. Don’t touch me. O God, don’t let him touch me…

The late Robert Funk spent many years studying this parable. He asked this question:
“Who in the audience wanted to let himself or herself be helped by a Samaritan? This is the primary challenge because the appearance of the Samaritan makes sense on no other basis” (Funk 1996:176). Who among you would want to be helped by someone you didn’t respect or have time for or rubbed you up the wrong way? Who among you when you were in dire straits, vulnerable, and at risk would welcome someone you didn’t like to help you?

Funk then went on to suggest that had the victim in the ditch been a Samaritan and the hero an ordinary Judean, a different question would have had to have been asked. The question would be: who in the Judean audience wanted to play the role of hero to a Samaritan victim? What makes this question challenging is that, the role of the victim is the inferior role. The role of the helper is the superior one. And who doesn’t want to be the hero?

Who is my neighbour? That’s the supposed context of this story and the most common question asked by those who hear it. It is about the challenge of identifying one’s neighbour as the one in need but there is another contextual question in this story as well. Another ‘word’ which must also be considered if this story is to be a parable rather than just an example story.

And that can also be shaped into a question: The question is ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?” On this question, Megan McKenna’s comment is very suggestive: “If we were in the ditch in that condition, who is the last person we would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives, especially if acknowledging the debt would cause us to be outcast and associated with that group by everyone in our current world?  Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about?  Would we rather die than face the fact that this person or these people are our neighbours? (McKenna 1994:149).

That is one heck of a challenge and makes this parable very disruptive of our comfort. It does not allow us to sideline the challenge by putting is aside under the cloak of a story of a good bloke verses a bad one. Our honest answer to the question that risks our integrity, our commitment to justice and our willingness to die for it, gets close to the heart of this parable. And our answer just might really surprise us as well. I know it does for me in my current circumstances as minister of St David’s facing questions about my behaviour, and I know it could for those of you who care about St David’s as well as for me. Who is our neighbour? And Whom will I allow to be my neighbour? These are questions we ask of ourselves when we seek to be compassionate for all people and our planet with whom and for which we share this life. Amen.

Pentecost 6C. 2019
Luke 10:1-10

A Cynic Like, No Frills Jesus,

Today is the 7th Day of the 7th Month 2019 a date that is other than the date of this day today, of little significance. Well that’s probably untrue in that there is no doubt the fact that this day, this date for someone has some significance. It has to be someone’s birthday of anniversary of some event. There was a date similar but not the same that had significance and that was Saturday the 7th day of the 7th month on the year 2007 and at 7 minutes past 7am on that day the world ended.

Of course, it was off the mark because we are still here! But in reality there have been over many years several ‘visions’ or predictions as to when the ‘end of the world’ or the Second Coming of Christ, is to occur. One of the most famous of these predictions goes back to an American, called William Miller, a farmer and layman of the Baptist church, and a person who was one of those instrumental in establishing the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Beginning with a strictly literal reading of the ages of people mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis, and the dating of other events mentioned in Daniel and Revelations,
“Miller believed that precise calculations were possible and one could predict the second coming of Christ and the inauguration of the Millennial kingdom… somewhere around 1843”  (Wikipedia). Actually, the 22 October 1844, was the date commonly accepted throughout the Millerite, movement, although it has been said Miller himself was uncertain as to the exact day. The topic was discussed in the newspapers as well as in theological journals. “New Testament eschatology competed with stock market quotations for front-page space…”  (Wikipedia).

But when we go back to our numerical patterns. We find that in a sample poll conducted towards the end of 2006, again in America, it showed that one in four Americans anticipated the second coming of Christ in 2007. Indeed, 11 percent said it is “very likely” that Jesus will return to Earth in 2007!

William Miller and his followers not only tapped into a long tradition,
they have also added to and expanded that tradition. And as we now know, it is from within the Millennial or Rapture or Armageddon fundamentalist traditions that much of the so-called ‘religious right’ in the western world seek to influence governments on foreign policy issues.  We might take for instance the relations in the volatile Middle East.
We might as how can there ever be a negotiated solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict,
when fundamentalist Christians continue to lobby politicians while claiming that:
“Peace and peace plans in the Middle East are a bad thing… because they delay the countdown to Christ’s return”  (Quoted in Crossan 2007:201) Domonic Crossan reminded us of this in 2007. The problem is that vote scared politicians continue to listen to them!

So, let me be quite clear about what I think: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with divine presence” and let me say that I am not alone in this thinking. Domonic Crossan said as much in 2007. (Crossan 2007:230-231).

Returning to our text we see that over the last two weeks our gospel storyteller whom we call Luke, has been setting out his agenda, his vision, for cooperating with divine presence. Foxes have holes, but have nowhere to lay your head… Leave the dead to bury the dead… Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals…. Salute no one on the road…
Take what food and drink is offered you…

It has to be that these stories about these short, sharp sayings, are important  – both then and now. Contemporary biblical scholarship suggests they are either from, or have been influenced by, the code of the Q Movement… The texts we take as from an unknown source used by the gospel writers. The important collection or memory of Jesus sayings,
which in their earliest state, are very close to the Cynic’s style of making social critique.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3F4BCzN5D8

And we can also now speculate that those same Q people were not only part of a very lively Jesus movement in Galilee, remembering and shaping just the sayings tradition of Jesus, but that their ‘voice’ is probably the best record we have of the first 40 years of the Jesus movements.

When we look at some of the basic conventions of the time we see that by conventional common sense standards of the everyday word, a home was necessary; the streets were unsafe, a son must honour the family above all else, especially in death, money and clothes and provisions are about living – and status, respect given and received was what made the world go around, only clean or organic food is what one should always eat.

Popular tradition has it that the Cynics always challenged their listeners by their dress and their sayings, to re-imagine the world away from the everyday world of common sense. Now this is where an important bit comes in. So too does the link to all that stuff I said at the beginning: about Millennial or Rapture or Armageddon fundamentalist traditions, usually called the ‘apocalyptic’ tradition. An apocalyptic or ‘end world’ theory doesn’t exist in any of these sayings, despite what some, including some scholars, want to claim. Neither does a blue print for modern world missions. This is why mission is usually not defined. It is God’s mission and thus does not fit man’s definitions which are culturally bound.

What does exist is a new counter-culture tradition that simply suggests:  don’t jump to hasty conclusions, consider the human condition or circumstances of all. And when you take account of that kind of in-depth thinking, something different can be accomplished, now. This is what I was suggesting last week and the week before. Good news is about the new, the radically alternative and different. A change of attitude or behaviour is a simple response but only part of it. A new vision of what it means to be human on equal terms based in love on love and for love. Being alive to the present moment in all of its possibilities, positive and negative. What makes me suggest some of this? When a ‘no-frills’ Jesus used imaginative language to call into question his received life/everyday world, in favour of the life world that emerges in his parables and short sayings (aphorisms),  (Patterson 2007) then he and we, are getting close to what it means to live
with divine presence – both then and now.

We can catch hold of that presence when our eyes are wide open… “capable of catching a glimpse of what lies beyond the reigning view of the world” (Funk 2002:28).

Like I have said before, the Roman Empire, like all empires then and now, and what seems to permeate our culture even today is that empires, institutions based on a power over are base in the premis that they will change the world through victory after war. Note that peace is dependent upon victory and only comes after war. The ‘end-of-the-world’ advocates say we’ll save the world by destroying it. Jesus seems to have said: let’s re-imagine the world differently by considering the human condition of all. That is now our ‘no frills’ journey, where-ever it takes us. Amen.

Notes:
Crossan, J. D.  2007. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W.  2002. A Credible Jesus: Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Patterson, S. J.  2007. “Report from the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins” in The Fourth R 20, 1, 16-20.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

Pentecost 5C, 2010
Luke 9:51-62

‘The Influence of a Wider Horizon

Some of you might remember the film The Dead Poet’s Society, that tells the story of a remarkable teacher’s influence on his students in a prestigious boarding school. The teacher, Mr Keating, played by Robin Williams, invites the boys “to jump up and stand on his desk as he has done in his teaching, so they can see things from a different perspective, a wider view… a different horizon – then seize it” (Bausch 1999:239).

It was a film about a teacher who invited his students to view the world differently and that theme resonates with the theme of our story from Luke today. The text is about embodying and following in the way and style of Jesus of Nazareth. We have explored before what the Way of Jesus is all about. It is essentially about an alternative way of living and while we might have concentrated on his way of being in the past and locked ourselves up in the mode of believing as ‘being’ we now think differently. We now think that just being is not enough. We now think that being and doing are part of the same thing, to do is to be and to be is to do. A bit like the shift from Facebook to Instagram. It is less about the need for the visual, the photographic conversation and more about the importance of the 90% of communication through the visual and the embodiment and less about just the mind and the content of the words.

When we look at our Lukan text we see that there are three sets of reactions worth noting. The first is that of the Samaritans, who recognize that Jesus “has set his face to go to Jerusalem” and will not receive him. They apparently recognize that Jesus is on a mission … and they want nothing to do with it. Or perhaps they believe that because Jesus is set on reaching Jerusalem, he will have no time for them, no time to discuss or heal or whatever they may have hoped. In either case, they have expectations of Jesus that he is not meeting and when his resolution to march toward the cross upsets their plans, they reject him.

The disciples, in turn, react to this rejection with a surprising and rather alarming! – request: they want to call down fire from heaven to devour the Samaritans. Of course, this may not be as surprising as we’d like to think. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, the disciples were apparently not above ethnic prejudice, and they knew their biblical history enough to know that Elijah had done something similar years before. They, also, do not like to be thwarted in their plans. They were there to see that Jesus made it to Jerusalem, and anyone and everyone who stood in their way could move out of the way.

The question we might ask here is “Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Or to put it in traditional terms: Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus come first in our plans and do they shape our lives, or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned? I want to suggest here that if we’re honest, many of us will identify with the latter option because we recognize that we harbour a deep-seated desire to be in control, to maintain some semblance of order in a rather chaotic and confusing world. Yet Jesus in this passage is clearly not willing to concede: he demands that his mission comes before all of our plans, even those that seem most reasonable.

Why does he do this? Well maybe because we really aren’t in control, that it’s an illusion, and that a rainstorm, or tornado, or illness, or loss, or tragedy, or any one of a hundred other things might dash our hopes as well as our plans and bring us to ruin. Maybe we aren’t in control and Jesus is telling us to let him be? But wait on a minute! As tempting – and as pious – as that might sound, I’m not sure that the passage in front of us invites the choice between us being in control or Jesus being in control. Think about it: Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem to assume command or take charge. Rather, he goes to Jerusalem to thrust himself fully and completely into people’s out-of-control lives and comes out the other side.

So perhaps that’s the promise of the Gospel – not that we can be in control, or even that God is in control, but rather that God joins us in our out-of-control-ness, holds onto us, and walks with us to the other side. That may not always seem like all that much of a promise, but after a few days without power supply… or a few months on chemo … or a few years of addiction … at least it sounds real and therefore trustworthy.

After all we invest a lot of time, energy, and money in being in control. And plenty of religious folk invite us to invest lots of time, energy, and money to surrender to God’s control. Yet the world is still a terribly chaotic and unsettling place. Does it work is the question? Doing what one has always done but doing it better sounds like a good strategy. So what if the deepest calling of a Christian disciple isn’t to be in control – ourselves or vicariously through God – but rather to give up the illusion, to take some risks, and to throw ourselves into this turbulent life and world God loves so much trusting that God will join us in the adventure, hold onto us through all the ups and downs, and walk with us to the other side.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s a faith journey. Maybe that what being and doing the kingdom thing is all about. And when we, like Jesus’ first disciples, fall short yet again, then all we can do is give thanks that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, entering our chaotic lot and walking in our turbulent lives that we may know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.

In theological parlance, the Way of Jesus is not compartmentalized into belief and non-belief, non-historically factual and existentially mythical. The Way of Jesus is an alternative to the status quo, it is new, a new creation, good news, transforming love, a way of compassion as opposed to rules and law. Or as the late biologist and theologian Charles Birch, suggested: “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). A ‘different horizon’.

As I said last week my reflection on the meeting of Northern Presbytery on Saturday was one of seeing the Presbytery in a huge struggle to find itself in a whole new world.
It struggled with what to be in today’s world and it talked about what it thought it should do in the way of survival. It talked about all the things it had been doing for the last hundred years with todays, words. The received message was that the decline is all the fault of the people who still come to church. The message was that all we were doing was not enough and that we should be doing it better if we wanted to arrest the decline. The trouble with this approach is that despite all those who nostalgically seem to long for church to be like it was in 1944 or 1954 or 1964, that can never be.

For one thing, church is now only one of several institutions or organizations offering a view of the world and a purpose for living. It seemed to me that the church is no longer listening to Jesus. The church is, if you like, in a supermarket situation in which many people feel no need to buy its products at all and the church’s answer is to try to do what it has been doing for years but do it better.

According to those who do research on these matters the major challenge the church faces is in being able to identify and name the presence of God or the sacred
in our often-fragmented life-worlds. Jesus spoke to his world with such effect that a whole new religious movement was established so why can’t we? There are some who are taking the risk but they are being seen by the church as difficult or wrong and unfaithful. Others mostly beyond the church are attempting just that. And they are often coming up with different and competing answers which can cause some of us to be a bit shocked because we fear the church no longer has, if it ever did, a monopoly on things spiritual or sacred or God stuff. As I have said before. What if beyond the God we know, beyond the secular was the new religious age?

One who has written on this subject, Australian David Tacey, says: “What has been brewing inside the soul is a new spirituality that will surprise both the secular establishment and the official religious tradition… The miracle is that the secular keeps giving birth to the sacred, often against its will and in spite of its own judgement” (Tacey 2000:252,253). Richard Kearney’s work on a post atheism God or ‘Anatheism’ and Caputo’s work on the Weak God ask us to go beyond the status quo of a supernatural, theistic almighty God and to see the human Jesus in his culture and setting before we make him fit our supernatural needs.

As you know I have a view on all of this, which I know has been and is still a challenge for some. I want to suggest that maybe because these comments are not the traditional ones there are some who want to hear them. Not as stumbling blocks or even challenges to their faith but as alternatives that enable a clearer examination of what they do believe and will work in the lives as they know life.

A very difficult part to this is that one needs to have or cultivate a ‘high’ view, about the place of change. Being open to new perceptions, and not clinging to established or inherited ways of thinking about things is always an alternative to be explored. For us as church the challenge is not to cling onto a theology that does not fit our 21st century understanding. In other words, the kingdom of God is about now, that’s why we question the concept of kingship. We need to let go of the medieval understanding of kingship and the current understanding of Empire as a system of governance and we need to find an alternative that relegates the old ideas. Kingdom is less about an area of the earth controlled by a monarchy and more about a life that an alternative way is lived in a complimentary way, a compassionate way, a way that celebrates human flourishing rather than controls its behaviour.

Simply perhaps, the church needs to ensure it frees folk to go on the journey that Jesus chartered, rather than to worship the journey of Jesus (WWink). And while that might sound easy it is as radical a change as the one Jesus advocated in his time! If we go back to this weeks particular story the tradition is not clear concerning Jesus’ intentions, as he approached the Samaritan village. We also see that whatever they were, he was not able to carry them out, because the village folk denied him and his friends, hospitality. Many scholars have speculated on why they acted this way. Theological reasons and cultural reasons have been offered but maybe it was just that the people had heard about this Cynic-like bloke and were cautious of losing the status quo. There was a German New Testament theologian called Willie Marxsen, who seemed to be always pointing out that not everyone who met or heard Jesus had positive reactions! Some said: ‘This bloke’s a nutter!’ Others said: ‘This is good teaching.  Admirable.  Interesting.’ Still others said: ‘In this person’s words and deeds I have experienced God’s very own presence in my life.’

According to the various biblical storytellers, Jesus encountered opposition
to his perception of reality from the authorities of the day, but just how hostile this opposition was, is a matter of speculation. On the other hand, those same storytellers say that many ordinary people were attracted to him and his re-imagined worldview.

Another challenge not addressed by today’s church is that people didn’t go to the synagogue to meet with, or listen to, him. They met him on the hills and by the lake.
While they were hanging about in the marketplace. Or while they were mending their fishing nets. They ate with him and held parties for him. They invited him into their homes.

There’s no indication whatsoever in the gospel stories that the synagogues ever had any more worshippers because of Jesus. St David’s Mission does not depend upon its buildings. It depends upon its people being people of the Jesus Way.

And while not wanting to fall into the ‘literalist’ trap, nevertheless those who chose to listen and take on board his comments, experienced what he said as ‘good news’.
“What they learned from Jesus and experienced in his presence was not just a good teaching or a good way of life – it was not an ethic… Rather, it was an expression of who they would claim God to be”  (Patterson 2002:222). It was then up to them whether or not they felt free enough to go on the journey Jesus was chartering.

Engaging in the Kingdom of God was less about a place where everything was right and good and more about a place to be fully human as Charles Birch’s comment said “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). It is important to live in this day and time rather than being caught in the past and that’s the first invitation to us all. Let go where we have to. The second invitation is, to follow Jesus up onto the desks and chairs… in true Keating/Robin Williams style: to jump up and stand on desks and chairs and table tops and ladders, so that we all can see things from a different perspective, a wider view, a different horizon. And then seize that opportunity to be different. If we can do that together, then we will know what being in the kingdom is all about. As for the Presbytery it might be to put down what worked in the past, put down what is not working now and get up on the table of risk and the new and the alternative and maybe we can be in for an exciting and different journey!

Amen.