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Pentecost 23 C, 2019
Isaiah 65:17-25

Turning Probability into Possibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rexae74@gmail.com

 

2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5

‘When Do We Admit We have it wrong?   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the former, Crossan is again helpful: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with divine presence” (Crossan 2007:230-231).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rexae74@gmail.com

 

A Church Planting Theology?

Posted: October 31, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 21C. 2019
Luke 19:1-10

‘A Church Planting Theology?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pentecost 20C, 2019
Luke 18: 9-14

Challenging the Social and Religious Boundaries

One of the most interesting things that arises from much recent research on Jesus and his environment or situation in life is that his attitudes towards his world have become more human as they have been released from the boundaries of the created myths, the institutional controls and the insatiable search for the meta narrative and the absolute truth. The result being that Jesus is allowed to be more human than God and this in turn has opened the stories to be more applicable to human limitations and become what might be termed ‘more real’.

Marcus Borg put it this way. He said “The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good).
Rather, his teachings and behaviour reflect an alternative social vision
Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system. He was a critic of the domination system itself”

Here, is my title. That as a critic of the domination system he was placing a direct challenge to the social and religious boundaries of his day. Today’s scripture is one of those areas of social order that he challenged. One of the interesting things we need to consider as we approach this text is that there is a subtle difference between Tax collectors and toll collectors and that there were good and bad toll collectors. This suggests that when we come to our text we need to hold this in mind to remind ourselves that like most things in life labelling them is often too simplistic.

Rex Hunt some years back searched his Mother’s family history and engaged in some of his family’s stories. He discovered that all the stories seemed to have strong connections with Scotland, Ireland, and England. With just a touch of Italy and Malta on his father’s side, thrown in for good measure. When researching the Dickson cum Dixon/Lampard mob – his mother’s side, he made a couple of interesting discoveries:

  1. the family can trace its tree back to a Richard Keith, son of Harvey de Keith, Earl Marshall of Scotland in the early 1400s – hence the surname Dick son.
  2. a James Dickson, sixth child of James Dickson, grandson of James Dickson, great grandson of James Dickson (he noted a pattern developing here!), was born on 5 August 1807; and later was to become the Toll keeper of the Lamberton Tollhouse in Mornington, Berwick-on-Tweed. He then did what many others do… he checked out Wikipedia to see what he could find out about the tollhouse. Apart from collecting road taxes and protecting some royal ’dalliances,’ he also read: “The now demolished Old Toll House at Lamberton, situated just across the border in Scotland [on the Great North Road], was notorious for its irregular marriages. From 1798 to 1858 keepers of the Toll, as well as questionable men-of-the-cloth used to marry [run-away] couples…” As researcher of the family history, Rex was taken aback by this discovery, and its added comments: such as “The public associated these marriage houses with images of irate fathers chasing errant daughters and their boyfriends determined to elope… [but] records show the majority of couples to have lived within 30 miles… Roughly a third were Scots”. And all of this tickled Rex’s fancy, and he wondered why this was never spoken about at family gatherings because it would have added much hilarity to proceedings if it had. All this suggests that history is often written within the expectations of culture and social norms of the day.

Taking this to out text we perhaps need to begin by acknowledging that Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian.  He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech that we are told was disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers. In fact, more than that; one only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble! The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14) Again, this reminds us to take care when we label and generalize and assume it is simple. The strong likelihood was that the society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically. Like today the focus on difference and identity and separation was present. In other words, boundaries were all the go.

On top of this was the religious boundaries also those inside verses those outside, the good and the not so good, the proper and the improper were the subject of Toll keepers and they all lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations,
would have been nothing short of enormous, and the haves and have nots would have been a consuming matter. A tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful families
lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land.

As several scholars have recorded, the purpose of taxation was not social well-being
but enhancement of the position of elites. Period. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180)

Named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as toll collectors. Jews regarded toll collectors as collaborators who profited by preying on the countrymen on behalf of the Roman Empire. The storyteller we call Luke even has a story about them.
Actually there are two stories about them. The first is the Jesus story. Short. Sharp. Leaving little other than questions. The second is the Luke adaptation of that Jesus story some 50 years after the original. And his conclusion: Pharisees are smug, self-seeking, judgmental. We heard the latter as the Gospel reading for today.

Traditionally… that story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, due to an incorrect translation of the word ‘telones’. It should be Toll Collector… “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

Traditionally… that story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: One; the arrogant and the humble…

Traditionally… that story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

All these traditional readings of the parable are, very likely, unfortunate misnomers.
All these traditional readings ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an allegory or example story, rather than hearing the raw, blunt edge of the original. All these traditional readings are full of literary traps for unwary readers and listeners!

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story. Not always obvious.

The sad bits…The Pharisee, a member from the faction of moral entrepreneurs and rule-creation, stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (read: ’sinner’) – those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. His ‘standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. The Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation was because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sort to be inconspicuous.

The radical bits…A Toll Collector (and here we hear ‘sinner’). A Toll Collector in the Temple grounds was unheard of! And the hearers of this story – so-called fellow sinners- would have drawn that conclusion before the story’s end. Both he and they were excluded, despised, ruled and taxed over.

So, what do we have? The actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure. He never rebuts the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo, “but he speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words [prayer] have created, and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… He claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

Here we have it, God listening and speaking outside official channels! A ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: Include me in! Make an atonement for me! This is an astonishing assumption, Wow!!!!! How radical can you get?

This radical; Jesus had a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. All, brokered religion (and remember that priestly mediators are the necessary link between God and the individual) is at an end here. God’s domain has no brokers. Everyone has direct access to the Holy One. Petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: He says, “A brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… It is a passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131)

It is no wonder then that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, are always under suspicion because they were Galilean. It was logical to think of him as a threat to their welfare. So much so as to be even mentally unstable! It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then, heard a voice that shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities!
It is no wonder that when the muted ones begin to speak, as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”.  (Brueggemann 1989:51) It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers then and now, who consider brokered Christianity (and here we hear: ‘orthodoxy’) simply incredible, are shunned and considered heretics!

And just in case you missed that: a non-brokered Christianity, the Christianity that we progressives articulate, goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! Then the the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation, rather than the faith that enabled boundaries to be challenged and changed. A colleague is more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church when  he said: “It is as if Jesus was the subject of a corporate takeover, where the new company retained his name and reputation but the values and aspirations of what he started were replaced by a totally different corporate ethos and agenda that have nothing identifiable to do with him”. (Horsfield 2015:290)

The early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different 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, empowered and moved them deeply. (Patterson 1998:53)

The life to which he called his followers involved a reversal of ordinary social and political, cultural – and too often – religious standards.

These words of Canadian Bruce Sanguin ring true when he says: “Jesus was proclaiming the end of one era for humanity and the dawning of a new one – one person at a time… His very being was a proclamation of what the new human looked like… In his teachings he conveyed new spiritual wisdom, which if adhered to, effectively overturned the world of conventional wisdom”. (Sanguin 2015)

If Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles…He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge. (Dewey 2015:4)

 The radical challenge of distributive justice. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, and religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus misses all this. So too does the spiritualized Jesus of traditional or ‘orthodox’ interpretation. But, says Walter Wink; “ we can rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177)

So, today’s invitation is to accept the challenge to ponder some more creditable alternatives. Both about the human sage called Jesus. And about those we or our church or government exclude for political, cultural or religious reasons.

As the former outspoken advocate for the environment, Thomas Berry, has lamented:
“To learn how to live graciously together would make us worthy of this unique beautiful blue planet that was prepared for us over some billions of years, a planet that we should give over to our children with the assurance that this great community of the living will nourish them, guide them, heal them and rejoice in them as it has nourished, guided, healed, and rejoiced in ourselves”. (Berry 2014: 190) Amen.

Bibliography:
Berry, T. “Spirituality and Ecology: A Sermon” in M. E Tucker & J. Grim (ed) Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. New York. Orbis Books, 2014Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28, 1, 4. 2015. Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Kelowna. CopperHouse /Wood Lake Publishing, 2015. 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.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

Faith Unleashed

Posted: September 30, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 17: 5-10

Faith Unleashed

Is the church on the decline or is it not? Is the Christian Faith going to disappear or not? Is religion going to survive into the future? All these are big questions that currently seem to be driven by a level of fear uncovered by the census and by attendance numbers at churches around the Western World. One might suggest that our obsession with Rugby and the importance of sport in the human psyche while perhaps providing a sort of control of the masses phenomenon and the expending of competitive energy in a helpful way is out of sync with the rising anxiety within the populace and the increasing resort to winning at all costs and to the closure through some sort of violence over dominance of expectation. Is protest allowed to include a justifiable violent act? Is Rugby allowed to equal physical assault upon another? The administrators and the referees at this world cup are facing this question. What sort of tackle is too assault like and warranting of a Red Card.?

When the apostles ask Jesus to adjudicate on the assault on faith, they perceive his answer is to say ‘Increase your faith’ because your questions are born out of a lacking of it. Its not about expecting your faith to remain strong and comforting, you have to go the extra mile, you have to live as though it is beyond question and you will know.

There was an Australian social commentator named Hugh Mackay who was writing for various newspapers some years back, around 2004, and in one of his columns he wrote about the Australian experience of this paradox between sport and anxiety. This suggests that it might be a Western problem as opposed to just a NZ one. He quoted from a survey published… by Edith Cowan University that said; See how chirpy, sports mad and easy going we all are?  Well, yes, but see how anxious and insecure we are, too”.  There is this paradox at work that I suggest is clouding our thinking or making it harder to really know what is going on.

We are in the throws of local body elections and politicians wanting to be re-elected (or elected), tend to play on that sense of anxiety. Reading all their desired contributions and what they intend to do. What they promise. One would have to say that in many cases they are caught up in this game of paradox. How do they win your vote as an ideal person to maintain the ideals of democratic leadership, collective interests as well as frighten us into thinking that they will control all the ills of sector interests, profiteering corporations and runaway institutional greed and corruptible power? They count on us wanting to seek out security and comfort, rather than risking the so-called stresses and challenges of change and they do this by promising to alleviate perceived burdens of high rates, high pollution, traffic congestion accurate measurement and strong audit principles etc.

Similarly, Luke the storyteller has the disciples of Jesus in the first part of today’s reading, making a ‘comfort’ or ‘security’ request of him: ‘make our faith greater’ they ask. But, the storyteller says, Jesus’ replies: unleash, expend, use… the faith you already have. Faith is a style by which life and work are done. It’s not a fossil fuel, that must be hoarded and marketed. Faith is the eradication of probabilities says Johnathon Sacks, and the championing of possibilities. It is not about escapism in sport or a redirection of concern. It is not about legalizing marijuana and providing another mind-altering drug. It is about increasing faith, increasing trust, increasing a realistic engagement with the truth. It’s a way of seeing and a way of being.

Reflecting on my own religious journey, I have to admit that there were times when I understood ‘faith’ as a collection of knowledge, beliefs, affirmations, and memorized Bible verses. That was my biggest fear in fact because I have never been able to rote learn much at all so quoting bible verses draws a blank from me. Looking back, I think I probably understood ‘faith’ as something that could be measured by volume. If I studied hard or worked diligently or impressed my bible class teacher, I could increase my faith. Trouble was I could never study hard enough.

I have to say I was relieved somewhat when I heard that faith is not dependent upon a certain belief but rather a way of life. Andrew Greeley, poet, priest and sociologist said:
“There is no such thing as a little faith any-more than there is a little pregnancy. Faith is an overwhelming power no matter how weak it may seem”. Nothing was said by Andrew and others, about faith being about a set of beliefs or affirmations… even though honest theological thinking is important. Nothing was said about faith being the provision of answers to a set of questions… even though an intelligent religion is more-healthy than an unbelievable one. Nothing was said about shooting God into the hearts of others with some sort of wonderful life changing set of words called a sermon. Proclamation has become an active political tool that expects something that mirrors someone else’s idea of ecstatic revelation. We are all supposed to know what evangelism feels like and looks like. Rather, the comments of those who invite us to question this need to have faith are inviting us to recognise and acknowledge the present-ness of God already here or there!

From a study of the ‘historical’ Jesus it seems he recognised the presence of faith in the most unlikely of places. Why? Because faith is an action rather than a commodity. You can’t have it but you can do it. And in most cases, it is an action, a launching out, a moving on against what appears to be overwhelming odds. Is the church in decline? What is the decline in attendance telling us? Is it about the demise of the church or is it about seeing it through faith-filled eyes? Is it already here in another form? Is it rather that our questions are missing the mark? I like New Testament scholar Brandon Scott’s comment:
“Theology can never begin by assuming that it already has the answer. Any theology that does not begin with radical doubt is basically dishonest” he says. (Scott 2003). I like that!

For where there is radical doubt, there is also the possibility of new beginnings, of imagination, of hope. Probabilities become possibilities. Of change.  Because as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: Life refuses to be embalmed alive!

But this is only the first part of today’s story. An important part to be sure because it gives us the challenge to our assumptions about faith and truth and it provides us with another way of seeing. The second part – the bit about slaves or servants is a little different. It jars our 21st century sensibilities in that Luke reflects the social assumption of Christianity around the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. We might call them conservative but it could also be the rise of literalism and the influence of Greek and Roman thinking. For us it is also from this same period that we get the pseudo-Pauline Pastoral Epistles – Timothy and Titus – with their household codes that exhort Christians to reflect proper respect to those above them in the social order: wives to husbands, children to fathers, slaves to masters. I say pseudo because the social, political and religious assumptions are seeking to legitimize Christianity within the culture making it more palatable with Greek and Roman thinking, not unlike what we do when we export the gospel. Think like me because it is better. We take with us the basic myth and we manipulate the contextualization of it in order to win votes or increase attendance.

In these collections as in this Lukan saying the radical vision of Jesus has given way to the collective instinct that traditional values should not be challenged (Jenks. Faith Futures web site, 2010). And once again the link between the story and the saying can be found
in the contemporary call of politicians wanting to be elected or re-elected, with their claims for “family values” and faith-based engagement in party politics. Greg Jenks, Australian progressive biblical scholar, asks: Are Gospel values to be found in historical expressions of human society, or in a prophetic critique of any and every human institution
that claims ultimate value?  (Jenks. Faith Futures web site, 2010)

He writes: “Conservatives opposed to homosexuality appeal to the Bible as if it provided timeless truths free of the cultural conditioning of its authors and original audiences. I would tend to agree but condition it by saying that the term conservative is no longer able to be so clearly defined. Some conservatives value context above concrete creed. To their chagrin, progressives also appeal to the counter-cultural instinct of the faith tradition that birthed the Bible in the first place…” We wouldn’t have the bible if some didn’t want to preserve the truth as they saw it. But he goes on to make what I reckon is this important comment: “The Bible does not serve either side well in such disputes.  It is a flawed text insofar as it assumes and promotes such things as slavery, demon possession, ethnic cleansing, racial superiority, a three-tiered universe, and the subordination of women.

Such realities should be an embarrassment to traditionalists and progressive alike.  The Bible does not fit neatly with our cultural assumptions…  The immense spiritual value of the Bible may lie more in its capacity to empower our human quest than its ability to (re)solve our immediate challenges” says Jenks. (Jenks. Faith Futures web site, 2010).

And here’s the link with part one of our text. We find out what life is all about through the living of it. We are always becoming. To be alive is to be becoming. And this is what faith is all about: a way of living, an attitude, a vision, that creates us daily. Like good cheese or good wine, a matured faith is a gradually maturing process. So even if your faith is like a small seed particle you have within your grasp a potent life force. So just do it, get on with it. Love, love and love again/ Unleash your faith.

Notes:
Scott, B. B. 2003.  “Father knows best! Where is fundamentalism taking us? In private circulation from the author.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

 

 

Luke 16:19-31

Thinking, Feeling, Behaving, Sacred Tasks

In the last few weeks and days, millions of young people around the world have been pouring into the streets of their respective cities, demanding action on climate change.  From San Francisco to Christchurch, New Delhi to London, Berlin to Nairobi, and Karachi to Warsaw, kids have been out in force, insisting that their elders see what they see.  Namely, that the planet is in crisis, that time is running out, that the most vulnerable are already suffering, and that our long-established practice of valuing profit over people, and selfishness over stewardship, must end now.

No matter how one looks at it. Be it through fear driven eyes that have lost sight of any hope or through hope filled eyes that see beyond the doom and gloom we have to admit that we live in rather tenuous times. Many people rightly or wrongly feel violated and outraged that the peace we once reckoned we enjoyed, is gone. And, most of us, if we believe opinion polls, want a target as a focal point of our collective frustration – even bile.

Litigation seems to be the only way out. Revenge is the expectation of closure, and peace is seen as that which comes after winning. I guess I have a personal stake in this issue and as Gordon pointed reminded me last week ‘there are no winners in this sort of world. So, where does tolerance and compassion and ‘new possibilities’ fit into our living?

We might start with our children and young people as our resolve and hope, and we might admit that our generation (and the generations preceding ours) have so epically failed our young people.  The reality is that we have left them a world entrenched in fear and we have left them to face and try to dismantle old, powerful, and deeply entrenched systems of greed, apathy, denial, and laziness.  And on top of that we have made them tired. Why?  Because it’s tiring to acknowledge how bad things really are.  It’s exhausting to stay engaged in a world full of risk, loss, brokenness, and suffering. Look what has happened to our small community with the advent of the earthquake, building closures and strategic planning that threatens to remove us from the list of Congregations.  It hurts to see what God wants us to see it seems.

Which is why, perhaps, the unnamed “rich man” in our lectionary reading this week chooses not to see what’s right in front of him.  In the parable Luke’s Jesus tells, a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, “feasts sumptuously every day,” while Lazarus, starved and covered in sores, languishes at the rich man’s gate.  Though Lazarus is perfectly visible — he longs to gather even a crumb or two from the rich man’s ornate dining table — the rich man neither acknowledges Lazarus’s presence, nor alleviates his suffering.  In fact, the neighbourhood dogs show the poor man more compassion than his wealthy human counterpart; they at least come and lick his sores.

Eventually, both men die.  Lazarus is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham,” while the rich man ends up in Hades, where the hot flames leave him parched and desperate.  In a perfect reversal of his earthly circumstances, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus “far away,” enjoying every comfort.

So, he asks “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus over with some cool water to soothe his burning tongue, or, barring that, to send Lazarus as a messenger to his wealthy brothers, who are still alive on earth.  “Let Lazarus warn them,” he pleads, so that they’ll change their ways before it’s too late.

But Abraham refuses both requests.  The ‘earthly gap’ separating Lazarus from the rich man is removed — no one can cross over.  And the brothers?  The brothers have Moses and the prophets; they have everything they need in order to repent.  If they won’t listen to the wisdom already embedded within their spiritual tradition, Abraham says, “even someone rising from the dead will not convince them.”

Needless to say, this is a grim story.  A dire story.  But what we can appreciate most is that it’s an urgent story.  It doesn’t mince words about what’s at stake.  It doesn’t pretend that our years are limitless and our options infinite.  This is a story about time running out.  About alternatives closing down.  This is a story for us.

On its face, the parable is about wealth.  Jesus has a great deal to say about wealth in the Gospels, and none of it is pretty.  But the message here is not about that. That issue is removed in the beyond whereas the key danger Jesus identifies in the worldly pursuit of material comforts and riches — is the danger of blindness.  Of moral apathy and indifference.  Of a fundamental inability to see human need, human suffering, human dignity, and human worth — as real.

The unnamed rich man in Luke’s story was a man of considerable style. He was a member of the ruling urban elite; he wore a contented smile and dined each day on a feast. However, as far as we know he was not violent or uncharitable. He didn’t kick the poor man, named Lazarus, every time he went in or out of the gate. But his challenge was that of apathy and neglect which widened the chasm between rich and poor. He was blind to the person and blind to the need. His pursuit of great wealth, so the storyteller implies, had taken over his life.

In life, it’s very likely that the rich man notices Lazarus.  At the very least, he manages not to trip over the guy each time he leaves his house.  Maybe, and let’s give him some credit; he probably tossed Lazarus the occasional coin, or agonizes (as most of us do) over whether it’s good social policy or bad social policy to give cash to beggars.  Maybe he theorizes about “what kind of poor” Lazarus is.  “Lazy” poor or “deserving” poor?  Down on his luck, or “just” a drunk?  Truly sick, or pretending?  Maybe the rich man says a prayer for Lazarus on the Sabbath.  Maybe, when he’s with his wealthy friends, he brings up “the poor,” and they have an appropriately abstract conversation about “the problem” over dinner.

The problem is, none of this is the seeing Jesus calls us to.  To see is to risk the vulnerability of relationship.  Of kinship.  Of solidarity.  To see is to put aside forever all questions of worthiness, and recognize in the bleeding other one’s own face, one’s own fractured dignity, one’s own pain, one’s own mortality.  To see as Jesus sees is to implicate oneself fully in the stories of other people’s hunger, illness, terror, and shame.

To see Lazarus, the rich man needs to recognize his own complicity in the poor man’s suffering.  He needs to admit that his own inability to say, “I have enough.  I have more than enough.  I have more than enough to share,” is directly responsible for Lazarus’s poverty.  Or perhaps we can be even stronger than that?  Maybe the rich man needs to understand that his incapacity to grieve and rage for Lazarus is a fatal sign of his own impoverishment.  An impoverishment so total, no amount of linen, purple cloth, or fancy food can remedy it.

This is radical seeing.  It is the kind of bold, courageous, and sacrificial seeing that scares us to death — precisely because it asks so much of us.  It asks everything of us, and God forbid! Who among us signed up for that?

What’s amazing about this parable is how much it takes for granted.  The story presumes that Lazarus is righteous and the rich man is not.  The story dignifies the poor man and not the wealthy one with a name. The rich man is only ever ‘the rich man whereas Lazarus has a name. The story leaves no doubt in our minds that the rich man’s lifestyle is directly to blame for Lazarus’s hunger.  In every single way, Jesus reverses the hierarchies we live by.

But here’s the scariest part of the story for us to think about: even after death, the rich man fails to see Lazarus.  Privilege just plain sticks to him — even in Hades!  Though he piously calls on “Father” Abraham, he refuses to see Lazarus as anything other than an errand boy: “Bring me water.”  “Go warn my brothers.”  No wonder Abraham tells him that the “gap” separating the two realms is too great to cross.  Let’s be clear: God is not the one who builds the gap.  We do that all by ourselves.

Perhaps like some of you, I grew up with a version of prosperity theology.  I was never taught consciously that that material comfort is a sign of God’s blessing but it was always implied, God rewards the good. Be good and God will look after you. and while this means doing my part” for those lying outside the gate because that’s what one should, I have no ultimate moral or spiritual responsibility to tear down the gate, to remove the cause.

I spoke about the meaning of ‘To Bless’ as being ‘To kneel’ to make oneself vulnerable on one’s knees, a few weeks back and it takes a bit of thinking to recognize how insidious this notion of “blessing” as reward really is.  How contrary it is to Jesus’s teachings.  When I was growing up, no one ever told me that by locking human suffering out, I was locking myself in.  Locking myself into a life of superficiality, thin piety, and meaninglessness.  As our reading from the epistles puts it this week, the refusal to confront one’s own privilege, the refusal to bear the burdens of those who have less than us, is a refusal “to take hold of the life that really is life.”

What we can learn from the children of the world this month is that the truth hurts.  It hurts to see that we have feasted while others have starved.  It hurts to see that we have lived in ways that imperil the planet.  It hurts to see that we have averted our gaze while the suffering of others — of fleeing immigrants, of refugees, of ethnic bigotry and of religious difference as well as the homeless we pass daily in the streets of our towns. It is a challenge to find regardless of any suspicion about their indoctrination the least powerful among us, our children are the ones leading the effort to avert the global crisis facing us all.  Maybe the vulnerable simply can’t afford to be indifferent.

Perhaps this is why Jesus — our vulnerable mentor — crosses over the ‘gap’ again and again, offering us a way forward.  A way of selflessness.  A way of sacrifice.  A way of losing our lives in order to gain them.

Like the rich man in the parable, we have everything we need in order to, find grace, and offer healing love to the world.  What does this mean?  It means we are without excuse as we stand inside the gate.  What will we do next?  Where will our gaze linger?  What will we dare to see?

Another example we might wrestle with in search of this call to see is to remember that this month is the anniversary of what is now called ‘911’ we know what it is, an horrific act of terrorism that has been spoken of often in the last few years  as a huge world changing event and for then Western world it was. One American Professor of political science said that, ‘…there is no justification whatsoever for this carnage.  But it behooves us to ask what the terrorists’ anger was about, because it is no doubt shared by millions.  She said; It’s a good guess that it has to do with two things: US foreign policy and the global distribution of wealth… Few want to talk about it, but the grandeur of the World Trade Centre and the concentration of wealth in the United States are symbols of a world divided between the ultra-rich and the miserably poor…’ While it is true that the equity issue is a horrible indictment on our apathy and our indifference it is horrible that and inhumane to introduce draconian measure such sanctions that murder through starvation, and social restrictions than impose mental and physical punishment and life restrictions. Seen as an alternative to bombardment sanctions kill minds, hope, art and imagination. There is no excuse for violent attacks on people with weapons of destruction but nor is there moral justification for collective punishment upon an entire civilian population. Play them at rugby rather than push them off the cliff into oblivion.

And if this sounds complex and too hard to get one’s head around the what if, and the not likely, we are reminded that all living requires energy. As Henry Weiman says “Living might be defined as transformation of energy into activities of thinking, feeling, and behaviour” (Wieman 1930:69).

As my title suggest, I want to claim that religion, progressive religion, is an essential part
of the energy for living – essential to our thinking, feeling, and behaviour.
For progressive religion seeks to transform the individual and the world
so all of us are not blind to the needs of others. And why? Because, Thinking, Feeling, and Behaving, are sacred tasks. Sacred because they are about creating a culture of justice peace and humility where human beings can explore ‘new possibilities. Where that urge and passion to explore and respond and stand in solidarity, can rub off on others. Amen.

Notes:
Mackay, H. 2007.  “Waking up scratchy from the Dreamy Period” in Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend edition, 15-16 September, Pg: 42.
Wieman, H. N. 1030.  The issues of life. NY: New York. Abingdon Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

It All Depends

Posted: September 19, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 16: 1-8a

It All Depends.

Jesus is talking to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that his manager was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? At least is it seems, that Jesus is giving the guy the benefit of any doubt, or is he? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Oops it seems as though the jury has returned already. Guilty as charged without trial. Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. Loosing the job means back to labouring or worse. I have decided what to do so that, There is no way I can defend myself here so I had better see if I can make it as good as can be for my future. One plus is that when I am not a manager I will be welcome in peoples homes so I will ensure as many of them are available by sorting out their debts.  So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And it seems that the householder or  master knew what was going on and commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;

That story we have just heard from storyteller Luke this morning about the actions of an absentee householder and a manager, is one of the strangest and most difficult of Jesus’ parables  On top of that, its strangeness has not made it any easier to understand as it has created confusion,  controversy, and embarrassment, not just for modern interpreters but apparently from very early times.

There are a number of things in this story that contribute to its difficulty and I want to have a look at some of those as an introduction. First is the title. Although not in the story itself
nor in the New RSV, many Bible translations give this story the title ‘The unjust steward’ The New RSV goes a little way and makes its title ‘The Dishonest Manager; and both these titles straight away prejudges one of the characters. Perhaps a more accurate title would be the first line from the story itself: ‘A rich man who had a manager’ or maybe even to describe the man a little it would be ‘A householder or master who had a manager.

Remembering that a Rich man is most likely to be what was known as a ‘Householder’ Not just the owner but a person of familial standing. Rich in status, familial power and responsibility and thus rich in terms of the society. He was in many cases the owner of slaves who could be his steward, or manager. The next difficulty is when we begin to contextualize and see the story as a metaphor or an analogy. Many of us assume the householder is God. And when we do that, we create more difficulty. We then must find some way to make the householder’s praise or commendation of seemingly wrongdoing as acceptable. After all, there’s something in the human psyche which revolts at seeing so-called ‘badness’ in any form rewarded.

The next issue to consider is the gossip that has been going around to the point that the householder has heard it and feels the need to check it out. After all it seems to be that the householder’s manager is acting inappropriately. ‘What is this that I hear about you?’

Is he suspicious of the gossip and struggling to believe that his manager could be doing something wrong or is he beyond suspicion and believing the gossip as true and that his manager is bad? Could it be that people with other issues have been spreading lies about the manager and now the householder, his master, believes the lies? If the latter is true then the story has a very different feel to it.

And for another issue we have the economic system. Again, many of us unconsciously assume the economic system implied in the story is capitalism. But this can obscure the social and economic structure of that day even when there is a whiff of ‘rogue trader’ about the manager. It seems that we have a structure where there is a clear hierarchy of control and power. It is ok to have slaves and exploit those with less. It may be a question of whether or not the manager is bad or very clever, so, what’s the point of the gossip?

Where are we with this very different story?

Well, let’s revisit it and see if we can find a way through given the questions we have just raised. We can maybe agree that this story is a riddle.  But we need to be wary because solving the riddle might take us in an unexpected direction. Maybe there should be a health warning label, something like: ‘beware – solving this story could prove fatal to the life we now find rather comfortable… maybe there needs to be a warning statement before we hear this parable.

Both the characters in this story, the householder and the manager do not seem to conform to the standard of behaviour that is generally thought appropriate to the realm or empire of God. That is, when dismissed from his job, the manager or steward goes to those who owe a debt to his master and with some fancy insider trader’ footwork, drastically reduces their debt.

“But the manager’s master or the householder is no saint either,” suggests Brandon Scott. The master has long been profiting from the manager’s shrewdness… with interest rates to boot. So, siding with one against the other is not all that helpful. What then, is Luke’s Jesus doing in this story?

Well, we know, or we are pretty sure that Jesus in his parables is offering a vision of a counter world. ‘The kingdom of God is like’ We have a “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential” (Heaney 2001) as one scholar has described it, or an alternative expansive vision of what’s possible as I claimed last week.

Another way of saying this could be that: Jesus is creating a safe place for all those who were left out, cheated, robed of their land and livelihood, unable to cope with the human system, declared unclean due to illness or orientation, those who have no hope… This safe place is where the Roman Empire, and the powerful, the ruthless, the religious zealots, the monied, or what or whom-ever “could not intrude and dominate” (Scott 2001:144).

That has to be good news if you are on the margins of church, of society, of the commercial, or political systems whatever the time in history. But to be honest the parable continues to intrigue and mystify. No agreed solution to the riddle has been found totally acceptable. And that can be bad news if you want security, if you want a religion with answers, a clear set of rules, or dare I say it if you want a top down, economical unit that is fits the expectations of being a financially sound, growing in numbers sort of parish where people come every Sunday for their reward. It needs to be a safe place for the alternative, for the misfit, for the left out, disadvantaged and the struggling. How we imagine or re-imagine the world is the fundamental question that separates church from any other form, and maybe that’s why it is in decline. Because it is seen as the answer to everything rather than the Way to live with the reality that seems so confusing and confused.

At the end of the day, chances are we will find ourselves standing in the householder’s shoes more than once in our life time. The better we are at working the system the more likely and that is when we need the alternatives, because we have choice and power. Not in or as a successful adaption to the world but rather in our ability to be where several outcomes or endings are possible To be where the most confused are. There is always a risk.  It all depends. Life is often an unsolved riddle.

Our call is to travel with Jesus and have faith with him that his re-imagined view – his glimpsed alternative – of the world, is the Way of God.

Notes:
Heaney, S. 1995.  The redress of poetry. NY: New York. Schocken Books.
Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagine the world. An introduction to the parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

rexae74@gmail.com