Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Mark 9:31-36

Dancing at the heart of the universe.

The story line seems simple enough. “The earth is in an intricately balanced equilibrium of temperature, ocean currents and weather patterns, and this equilibrium is being distorted.  Massive disruption is going to occur without major corrective measures” (Paul Sheehan, SMH 2006).

The ‘story line’… is the story line in the Al Gore film, ‘An inconvenient truth’. The film is about human-induced global warming. But it is also about one man, Al Gore, former Vice President of the USA, indeed the candidate George W Bush, um… ‘defeated’ for the top job in 2000. And his passion to tell the world about an issue which goes to the very core of who we are, as a species.

This is an important film and all of us should see it.

Support for this film and its moral message is very strong from commentators: “Whether you are convinced by what you see or not, every other subject is trivial by comparison” (Paul Sheehan, SMH 2006). “You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times 2006).

But some don’t get it. Despite the scientific research used to support the thesis of the film
there are those who are sceptical. They claim no matter what we do, global warming is “inevitable”
and instead of thinking we can prevent it or slow it, we should “start figuring out how we’re going to adapt” (Cairncross, Globe & Mail 2006).

Such thinking can result in a paralyzing negativity, especially in the world of global-warming politics, because it makes the problem appear insolvable. Planet Earth’s story is important and all of us should hear it. While it is not surprising to note the negativity in that it is reflected in many areas of life such as anti – vaccinationists, in our Covid ravaged world or an alternative view to almost everything in life driven by an underlying marriage to dualisms as a priori when approaching any subject.

One event that seemed simple enough. Was the return of Pope Benedict xvi to the German University of Regensburg, where he was a theology professor in the 1970s. During his speech to academics, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who regarded some of the prophet Muhammad’s teachings as: “evil and inhuman” (Phillip Coorey, SMH 2006).

While his speech quite rightly condemned religious violence, his biased words implied that only Islamic fundamentalists had ever been guilty of religious atrocities. The Islamic world reacted angrily. Despite a personal and public apology from Benedict during the week, protests continued in the Muslim world, especially in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Iraq.

This is not the first time this pope Benedict caused anger and resentment. At his election in 2005 former Catholic theologian Matthew Fox said this was the election of the “first Grand Inquisitor as Pope” (Fox 2005). While Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff said Ratzinger “a hard man and without compassion,” and he feared that while Pope “an immense hell of hypocrisy will reign in the Church”.

These may seem harsh statements. But what is more significant is that they go to the heart of an out-of-date church and they challenge an authoritarian clergy. Not just in the Roman Catholic tradition but the whole Church. They are important issues and all of us should reflect on them. As issues that still go on in other forms today.

One issue that could be examined today is the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as Governments and communities seek to control and eradicate the global infection. What is the response generating in its wake or in its assumptions or even in its management policy? What effect will the response have on our understanding of what it means to be human in our world today and tomorrow? This is not a protest against what is happening but rather the results of the dualistic and simple approach to combating it?

Another occasion seemed straight forward enough. This one is unpacked by the teller we call Mark.  He says that: An itinerant sage with a group of disciples was walking from one place to another, listening and talking. And that while in a poor, peasant, agrarian society such an occasion was perfectly natural. these disciples were caught up in other issues, preferring to think about prestige and rank in their community, and figuring out how they were going to bring it about.

But this story appears to have been mor e complex than that as the story line is also about the sage Jesus and his passion of inviting others to re-imagine their world: to enlarge their picture of God to include all of humanity, and to enlarge their feelings of self to include the neighbour.

Ian Harris talks about this when writing of the faith journey of Dr Ian Cairns when working his way through Marks Gospel. Ian shows that God is not an unchangeable outsider, but is rather being formed in the processes of human searching and reflecting, and is therefore changing the patterns of human thought. The word ‘God’ symbolizes ‘our highest ideals of well-being, for the universe and for all its species, including the human.

So, in a symbolic act Jesus took a young street child, set the child in front of everyone so they could see, and put his arms around her. To understand the power of Jesus’ symbolic action
we should not think of children simply as loving and innocent. At the time of Jesus children were ‘non-persons’ (John Donahue. American web site 2006).

Where a child was a nobody unless its father accepted it. Where it was commonplace and legal for children to be ‘exposed’ in the gutter or rubbish dump, to die, or to be taken by someone who wished to rear a slave. 

Contrary to the disciples’ desire for positions of power and importance, Jesus is suggesting, it seems to me, that they should be more concerned with honouring into their midst the poor and vulnerable. In other words, re-imagining their world by enlarging their feelings of self to include the neighbour…

To quote Paul Ricoeur when he talked of the hermeneutical imagination: “Are we not ready to recognize in the power of imagination, no longer the faculty of deriving images from our sensory experience, but the capacity for letting new worlds shape our understanding of ourselves. This power would not be conveyed by images, but by the emergent meanings in our language. Imagination would thus be treated as a dimension of language”.

With the Mark story we have a hugely radical way to ignore or push the social boundaries of his society!  To ‘get up the nose’ of those who exercised power to value themselves over others! In acts of caring for vulnerable human beings we are to come face to face with the divine. This, is an important story and everyone should hear it.

Again, in Ian’s work we see Jesus as ‘the human one’ whose authority is of God. Note he is not God but his Authority as Jesus is of God in the sense that he pursues his vision of a world where human beings are freely able to move towards their highest human potential as responsible citizens of the cosmos.

Why? Because the point of Jesus’ life or his ‘ordering vision; is to advance what has been called the Kingdom of God or the reign of God or as Cairns puts it the kin-dom of God. This is not a call to submit to a higher will beyond ourselves but rather to a wholehearted commitment to the ‘common good’, the at-oneness of all things, or a rich quality of life in the here and now, a life ruled by justice and compassion.

What is becoming clear is that in current cultural development we are beginning to recognise that with the corruption of this Jesus ordering vision, essentially by the church itself, a modern ‘material prosperity’ is: harming other creatures, diminishing the functions of ecosystems, and altering our global climate patterns (Peters 2002).

Australian New Testament scholar William Loader suggests that: “Human beings have mostly attributed value to those who have power.  At some levels that has been physical power…  It is equally about having wealth, political power, family power…  They are saying such people are of Or as Cairns puts it, “Faith needs to become an active awareness of the sacred quality inherent in the whole of life, and a wholehearted response to this dimension; and again, ‘a positive determination to wrest meaningfulness from life.

Never before in the history of the world have so many known about so much. The new age dawning is an age of increasing scientific unity. Our living must be set in the context of the larger life we call the universe. And life’s choices are ours to make.

We need to embrace that ‘Spirit’ is a dimension in all of life, a perspective from which all of life may be viewed, and an energy in which all of life may be lived. Once we have heard the cry of the planet, or our neighbour’s cultural or religious pain, or the most vulnerable in our society,
we need to make a choice about what we will do.

Will we dance at the heart of the universe? Will the spirit of compassion and inclusiveness at the heart of Jesus’ life be our response? Will we dance at the heart of the universe? Will the mutual care of a community of faith… be our response? Will we make a difference when we make those decisions?

Amen.

Notes:
Peters, K. 2002.  Dancing with the sacred. Evolution, ecology and God. PA: Harrisburg. Trinity Press International.

Harris, Ian 2021 Hand in Hand, blending secular and sacred tom enlarge the human spirit. The Cuba Press

rexae74@gmail.com

Reclaiming the Humanity of Jesus

Posted: September 8, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 8: 27-38

Reclaiming the Humanity of Jesus

“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee.

He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants

living long enough at subsistence level

to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution.

“He speaks about the rule of God,

and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.”

(John D Crossan)

John Dominic Crossan is the author of those descriptive words about the one called Jesus,

Found in Crossan’s The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. In this book Crossan offers us another lens through which to view Jesus. This lens is one of Jesus as a Jewish peasant. Many have likened this to a similar work on the historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, published more than 80 years ago.

In keeping with the debate we have been having as to insiders and outsiders, those in and those out and the debate around evolution, is the universe fixed and unchangeable or constantly evolving these seems that during the time of Jesus there was two streams of thought within Judaism: one an exclusive Judaism, and two an inclusive Judaism. • Exclusive Judaism sought to preserve the ancient traditions as conservatively as possible. And • Inclusive Judaism sought to adapt the ancient traditions through association, combination and collaboration. The place of interpretation in the process of understanding seems top have been a consistent concern.

Getting a handle on this point seems important for us today also because these two streams

act as background for Jesus’ ministry and belief about God. And they act as foreground for the question Mark has Jesus asking his disciples in today’s gospel story: What are people saying about me? Who do people say I am?

The truth is that we all have our own picture of Jesus. And that picture is shaped by the stories in the gospels and the thinking of several theologians. It is a constructed picture – perhaps more as a painting than a photograph – and we have to admit to have ignored those things we find questionable as does any biblical student or Bible interpretation.

Last week I argued that we have very little evidence for a picture of Jesus of Nazareth but that what we have is significant for a vibrant creative profile for a faith journey. I also raised the issue about the birth and development of a movement called Progressive Christianity based on the work of the Jesus Seminar in the late 1980s/early 1990s. A movement initially comprised of a group of more than 75 internationally recognised theologians and biblical scholars who met to share their thinking and research on the Bible. In their first report, titled The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus, they voted on the authenticity of the stories of the New Testament… using a colour coded legend to express their understanding. They developed the following categories:

When Jesus probably said those words they were coded (Red) When Jesus probably said something like those words they were coded (Pink). When Jesus didn’t say it but it contains his ideas is was coded (Grey) and when Jesus didn’t say it.  And they have been put into his mouth by his followers or the early church they were coded (Black). Why am I saying this? Well when we check today’s gospel story we find that those scholars reckon it falls into the fourth category.

That of words being put into his mouth and this suggests Jesus is in an atypical situation.

What we have is that apart from John’s Gospel, which was maybe written as much as 100 years after the life of Jesus, Jesus does not initiate a dialogue with his own identity as the focus. Does this matter? Does this make it difficult in finding a Jesus profile? I don’t think it does if we are careful. We can still see Jesus as a young man, going to see his cousin John, and being baptised by John. We can see that Jesus began his ministry with a sense of inadequacy. He went to the Jordan to be empowered, for he knew his imperfection. We can also be pretty sure of his character and intent from the story of the so-called ‘calling’ of his intimates. He chose as those who would be close to him humble folk fisherfolk labourers. We can also glean more of his intent by the sense of his love of and compassion for, people. Around him thronged sick people hopeless people common people, and he gave a special place to those who society condemned: scoundrels, harlots widows mentally ill… the lost sheep and not the flock that was safely in the fold.

The picture we get of Jesus is of one who invites all to become people of value, of importance, of greatness even and we are invited to enlarge our picture of God to include humanity, self and to include neighbour and to seek and discover the sacred in ordinary life.

Another part of this picture of Jesus is also of one who taught ‘good humanism’… a turn the other cheek and walk the second mile humanism, a give to others more than they ask. Love one’s enemies and show endless patience. What is significant here is that it is in the ‘humanistic’ side of Jesus we find all are members of one common natural family, no matter what their other pretensions may be.

What we might take carefully here is a conservative reaction to the deconstruction of the sacred or the humanization of Jesus and thus of religious faith. We might remember that religious orientation includes spiritual responses, which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy at the wonder of being alive. It also includes moral responses, involving values rooted in nature—to seek justice and cooperation among social groups and balance in ecosystems. Wonder, although not the only possible response when contemplating the immense scale of matter, space, and time, is surely appropriate once we realise we belong to something so very far beyond us. Such naturalistic wonder and awe counts as deeply spiritual.

Professor of Theology Michael Hogue gathers up these characteristics and suggests, in part, that religious naturalism“…is a humble religious path that decentralizes the human species within the infinitely broader metaphysical and aesthetic rhythms of the Universe. It is a way of knowing that reveres the wisdom of collective human experience and reason more highly than any single sacred book or tradition. It is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come: from the symbols, myths and rituals of the world’s diverse religious traditions, from literature and the arts, from the intricate splendors of indigenous knowledges to the mind-bending ways of the modern sciences.” (Michael Hogue)

What seems to be developing is an understanding that Nature and naturalism are for us today ‘a main game’ for any progressive spirituality despite the continuing influence of neo-orthodoxy.  If we think back over the past two centuries and recount the ways scientific knowledge has impacted our lives, what would top the list? With the growth of interest in Climate and Global Warming, and the cosmic view it can be suggested that the recognition that nature is constitutive of who and what we are as human beings. “Whether or not we believe that there is something more”, writes Jerome Stone, “nature is so significant that all our beliefs must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.” (Jerome Stone)

And given a chance, the cosmogenesis (cosmic evolution)story is too compelling, too beautiful, too edifying, and too liberating to fail in captivating the imagination of a vast majority of humankind.
“For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, and an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself.”  (Thomas Berry)

The human story and the universe story are the same story. We are not encapsulated, separated, isolated beings. Whatever we are, the universe is. “The reality inside of us and the reality outside of us are ultimately one reality. In us the universe dreams its dreams. In us the universe struggles for a moral vision. In us the universe hopes for new possibilities. In us the universe strives for self-understanding. In us the universe seeks the meaning of existence.” (David Bumbaugh) 

Do you not think that Jesus of Nazareth might have been on to something and that that something was why what little he did say made huge sense? And we have been trying to understand him ever since? Amen.

Notes:

Crossan, J. D. 1991. The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. VIC: Nth Blackburn. CollinsDove.

Funk, R. W.; Hoover, R. W. (ed) 1993.  The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. McMillan Publishing.

Loomer, B. M. 1976.  “S-I-Z-E is the measure” in  (ed) H James; B. Lee. Religious experience and process theology. The pastoral implications of a major modern movement. Paulist Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘Celebrating Evolution as a Reality Where People Matter’

“He had the ability to teach us startlingly new perspectives with a gentle touch. His calm, inviting delivery let us see what he was suggesting about our fundamental understanding of the historical Jesus. We were able to see how he modelled critical thinking and reflection. He made us comfortable with our discomfort at relinquishing cherished notions and opinions. He taught me that when we think critically, no one has to suffer, no one has to be made the enemy.”
David Dykes

Those words were from an online tribute to Marcus Borg. A leader within progressive Christianity, for whom we who seek to emulate his ability to offer us a way of following Jesus in our time and place honour his integrity, scholarship, and personal character.

Last week we engaged with the human propensity for the creation of exclusive circles and the insider’s and outsider’s debate and we touched on the post liberal theological journey within Christianity. I make no apology for singling out what I think is the most significant attempt to evolve the approach to a contemporary theology and a relevant Christianity and a relevant walking of the ‘Jesus Way’.

Today we have another interesting and different story from our gospel tradition. And a response guided by the thinking of Rex Hunt. It is a single-entry story (Mark 7:24-30) that not only paints Jesus in a not-so-positive light, but also seems to question the very spirituality that initially shaped him. Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in a previous story, the anonymous storyteller we call Mark now has Jesus challenged (and by implication, the Markan community somewhere in Syria) to put that teaching into practice by ministering to those often seen as ‘unclean’—or just different.

Or as we might say in our everyday language…  Take the time to look beyond external factors like nationality, religious heritage, or social position, which by their nature often exclude. So, to use a Borg saying: what ‘lens’ did the storyteller use and why? What ‘lens’ can we use to hear this story with twenty-first century ears?

Rex tells of being on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, several years ago, attending the 4th National Gathering of The Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia/NZ. We know that Queensland is a northern state in Australia with summer temperatures perhaps ‘similar’ to Arizona… Often very high with Desert to the West, channel country and some rain forests in the middle, and the famous, but diminishing, Great Barrier Reef along the Eastern coast.
For years its tourist catch-cry was: ‘Beautiful one day. Perfect the next’.

The Keynote speaker at the Gathering was feminist theologian and Catholic religious, Miriam Therese Winter. And for many especially the men it was a truly wonderful and stimulating experience. It was also an awakening experience for many of them as they began to hear some of the biblical stories through the eyes and ears — or through the ‘lens’ — of women.

Rex’s comments are made in that spirit as he reflects on Mark’s story. The storyteller’s ‘lens’—a Phoenician woman—and her unconventional behaviour as determined by social convention, bested Jesus. If we believe the storyteller, it caught him on the hop, so to speak. What initially draws the dominant culturally conditioned male’s wrath by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness, eventually subverts that discomfort into agreement. Such is the power of an authentic alternative and one might say the motivation for Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need. Now, Mark suggests, Jesus is faced with having to learn that social conventions, ingrained in his spirituality, should not do so either. And if it was good enough for Jesus to have a change of heart, then what seems implied in this story, is: why shouldn’t it be also good enough for others, especially Mark’s own community, to be so challenged?

On the surface the story is presented as one about healing. But if we dig a little deeper, we will find Mark intended it to be a story of inclusion and distributive justice. And where a woman becomes the lead actor or ‘lens’ in the interaction. The storyteller’s teaching moment seems to be: that people matter most. No one can be excluded. None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’. None! The restoration of the individual is thus sacramental of the restoration of society. Not as a preference but as a contribute to the indwelling of the reign of God. We remember here the ‘perfect generosity that we spoke of last week as the sight or ideal and manifestation of the reign of God that Jesus sought in the outworking of his vision.

Recalling last week, we saw that the search for the historical Jesus has taken us to a place where we have very little evidence but that that evidence is very compelling and that we can know Jesus by his profile, voice print and we can discern what is called his ordering vision or what his intent was and how he saw the vision unfolding as the reign of God, the alternative world the spoke of and sought.

The first two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer express the view that when God’s name is truly revered, God’s Kingdom comes and that this happens when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And the man who sells everything he owns to gain an exquisite pearl is a disaster as a businessman, but an exemplar of the singlemindedness that God’s reign calls for. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is about properly valuing goodness, not about prudently valuing property. This ‘perfect generosity that characterizes God’s reign is depicted in the father’s acceptance of his prodigal son and in contrast to the older son’s ungenerous calculations.

Having argued for an understanding of the paucity of evidence and for what we have as being significant and suggesting that we might approach our understanding by looking through a lens let me change the ‘lens’ a little. Arthur Dewey is an author, a progressive theologian and a Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar. You have no doubt heard of them
even if you haven’t heard of him.

In one of his many articles, he explores the possibility of viewing Jesus through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman. Why? Dewey reckons this could help us work out what Jesus was about. He writes:

“It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision…? What can we make of those words?”

How does Dewey suggest Jesus went about crafting his words? He goes on:

“Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision.”

So, what might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audiences?  Rex Hunt suggests the following suggestions and invites the reader to ponder them some more:

(i) dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality;

(ii) admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal immigrants – whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’;

(iii) challenge all to reshape their social categories, especially those of others, formed by fears and rumours and innuendo.

How could this happen? Dewey suggests:

… can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply.

In short Rex suggests we might: practice ‘ubantu’. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explained as meaning of this Zulu word:

We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I de-humanize you, I inextricably de-humanize myself. The solitary human is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.

There are still many in our communities who know what it is like to be without a voice, to be flattened, to be destroyed. And when Christian politicians and pastors — we know the kind — we find them in Legislative Assemblies and all over Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter… When these seek to change laws to enable the church or businesses, to exclude or denigrate minority groups,
it is no wonder others in the community think it natural to also treat asylum seekers,
gay, lesbian, and transgender folk, and the homeless in a degenerating way.

It is sad but we can hear it today in the management of the covid invasion. The move towards legislation for punishment of the fearful the protester, the alternative thinker is a knife edge away from this non-Christian response.

Australian author Tim Winton said in his 2015 Palm Sunday address when talking about the response to the so-called boat people:

We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening.

Social commentator Hugh Mackay called this attitude ‘disengagement’. In a newspaper article he wrote: 

We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed… We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices.

While we might have moved on from that localized crisis, we still avoid the plight of others. We still think that ‘trickle-down economics’ is the answer to every question. Even it seems, if the planet burns itself up as a result of our obsession with wellbeing and so-called freedoms.

Until a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her, gives the ignored or the forgotten, a voice that is. We need to remember that prophets come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t look the way you would expect. Every generation must work out its values and its faith responses
to changing circumstances, just as those who preceded us were required to do. The world is always evolving and not everything passed down has the same value for life in the modern world.

We need to take seriously the nature of our discrimination and yes, we need to discriminate but we need to ask what lens we are using. And that goes for science, for politics, for education, and for religion. Change is what change is. This is an evolving world and we must evolve or destroy ourselves.

Perhaps another way of saying this is to say that when all is said and done, we actually live in a new present, every moment and that new present is qualitatively different from any of our human pasts. In this present, as we think about ourselves and others, how do we
find the energy to nurture a creative and compassionate lifestyle?

Sir Lloyd Geering suggests we need to take with radical seriousness the following:

• An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.

• An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.

• An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.

• An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.

• Responsibility for the care of one another.

• Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.

• Its value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.

I think that’s a pretty good ‘ordering vision’ in keeping with the one Jesus had.

Geering goes on to say:

In developing a spirituality for today’s secular world, we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves…  Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet.

As we ponder further on all this, thus completing this sermon, may our creative imaginations
become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways — a new lens — to be a human community in the world. Especially when everything around us seems fragile and unsure. And especially when we might be facing the transition of what has been called the sixth extinction of civilization.

To reiterate last week’s conclusion it has to be said that the reign of God at the heart of the Jesus Way of being was an ideal kingdom in his ordering vision and thus an ideal goodness that informs but ultimately transcends the moral virtue attained or is attainable by any individual or by any society. It was and is a goodness that transcends what is realizable in history when it offers our life in history a sense of direction. As a Christian today we are still faced with the challenge of discerning how to respond to an aspiring, enabling, but impossible ideal. That is why it can never be a journey marked by concrete doctrine or creed or absolutes that would deny evolution. It is a living dynamic ever changing faith journey. Amen.

Bibliography:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-Realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Clayton, P. “Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity”. 27/01/2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com
Dewey, A. J. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Geering, L. G. Coming Back To Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2008.
Hunt, R. A. E. Against the Stream. Progressive Christianity between Pulpit and Pew. Preston. Mosaic Press, 2013. (Re-issued by Morning Star Publishing, 2014)

rexae74@gmail.com

Drawing Exclusive Circles…

Posted: August 25, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 7:1-8

Drawing Exclusive Circles…

The problem an authentic progressive Christianity seeks to address is what I call an applied theology or a relevant incarnational theology and what is commonly the strongest criticism of Christians, that of being hypocrites. Not doing as we say.

Twenty-five or so years ago no one had heard the term ‘Progressive Christianity? It used to be expressed as ‘liberal’ terminology so fuzzy and ‘anything goes’ it was for many almost meaningless. Then along came ‘The Centre of Progressive Christianity in the United States and an organization was born. Churches around the world began to identify themselves as ‘Progressive’ St David’s Khyber Pass Rd in Auckland was one of maybe three in Auckland who signed up to the movement and subsequently became part of the ‘Common Dreams Conference group based In Australia. Throughout New Zealand small groups of people still watch video series ‘Living the Questions’ produced by the Centre, and Marcus Borg’s book ‘Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time’ is still hailed as an entry book to read.

Rex Hunt quotes the following story the German theologian, Ernst Kasemann. wrote in his book from 1969 Jesus means freedom. It begins; The scene is a parish in Amsterdam, Holland, where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore, the keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened on Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive. The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish and set them to do the necessary work, if that meant profaning the Sabbath? Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction in order to honour the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the Church Council to consult and decide. The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God’s will.  God… can always perform a miracle with the wind and the waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death. The pastor tried one last argument: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath? Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: I have always been troubled, pastor, by something that I have never ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it.  I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was a bit of a liberal.

Having completed a long and complicated tour through some of the sermon-stories of John, this morning the lectionary returns to the stories of the earlier storyteller we call Mark. And this particular story, with all its different layers and subsequent interpretations,
raises this important question: How do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’?

The vehicle our storyteller Mark uses, is a supposed encounter between Jesus, some pharisees, and his own disciples, over the entrenched purity laws and the traditions which encased them. Even though many scholars now agree such a debate, if it happened at all, probably took place among branches of early Christianity itself – between Christian what did it look like? Jews and Christian Gentiles – long after Jesus’ death. Through the tradition of purity laws and the symbolic action of ritual washing, Mark appears to show a liberal or progressive Jesus, claiming such Torah provisions and associated inherited traditions, must be set aside. A liberalization perhaps? The question we are left with is Why? Why the liberalization and what was the growing conservatism that Jesus and Mark were referring to?


As for Mark it’s possibly that he knows such inherited religious traditions always need to be critiqued. Maybe this debate is not about health issues or hygiene – and must be re-imagined and rethought in new situations. Maybe Mark knows that such inherited religious traditions can create enormous ‘power’ tensions between those who seek to include, and those who seek to exclude. And as such, maybe, just maybe, Mark captures Jesus’ priorities, correctly. Maybe even some so-called ‘biblical injunctions’ should be disregarded because they can pollute the human heart and destroy social relationships. Maybe Biblical traditions should never take precedence over what is compassionate and caring! Mark in focusing on attitudes of the heart and resultant behaviour, Mark invites his hearers and his readers to begin reimagining and rethinking.

Let me just backtrack a little and ask just how much we actually know about the historical Jesus? Can we identify, with any probability, which of the teachings and deeds attributed to Jesus are based on accurate memories of him and which are the embellishments or inventions of the preachers and storytellers among his earliest followers? And what I think is more important. How can we discern the ‘vision’ or foundational insights that inspired and informed his individual teachings and actions? And then having caught a glimpse of that vision how can that vision rooted in the particular time and place of Jesus still speak to us today? And this is even more difficult in that it is too easy to get caught up in squabbles over ‘truth’ and ‘real’ and not focus on what the vision was that has taken millions of followers on the path till today and what it is that that vision says to us here now and today?

Perhaps we might start by acknowledging that we cannot know as much as we would want about the historical Jesus but we can be clear that we have quite a bit of data none-the-less. Then we might acknowledge that we can identify with appropriate nuance, his authentic sayings and deeds. Roy Hoover and Robert Millar in a recent article in “The Fourth R” magazine suggest that profiles of Jesus can and have been discerned that will be sufficient to sustain a valuable historical Jesus of faith.

What can be said is that Jesus did not think that the world would come to a catastrophic end in his lifetime and be succeeded by a new age brought into being by divine intervention, nor did he say that he had come into the world to give his life as a ransom for many. This is a foundational change for many of us today because One: it asks, if an apocalyptic hope or an eschatological expectation was not part of Jesus’ ordering vision and not the view that furnished coherence to his teaching and guided his course of action, what was? And if it was not his aim to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, what was he trying to do?  This claims that his ordering vision, his driving motivation, his aim in life, has to be based on what we do believe we know about him as the ‘authentic words of Jesus” and they appear to be from the work done of ‘The Five Gospels” in 1993. That work asked the questions” What can we discern in the aphorisms and parables and is there a unifying theme that holds them together? Is there a coherent point of view that characterised Jesus’s teaching as a whole and guided his course of action?

The second question was that if there is such a thing as an ordering vision or characteristic, and coherent point of view, what was he trying to do? Roy Hoover suggests that Jesus’ ordering vision is most clearly expressed in two clusters of authentic sayings` preserved by Matthew’s Gospel as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Hoover suggests that these two clusters of text hold the vision of Israel’s religious ideal. He suggests that the Essenes specifically through the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, the Pharisees, and John the Baptist, all embraced what they regarded as Israel’s religious ideal as the remedy for the wrongs that plagued religion and society for Israel in their time. Each had a particular and characteristic view of the Temple establishment in Jerusalem that was consistent with their vision of Israel’s religious ideal. Jesus; teaching and activity can be seen as his own version of such a quest and carried with it his own view of Jerusalem’s Temple.

Hoover also suggests that Jesus’ aim was to persuade all who could hear him to embrace his vision and to accept the challenge to actualize this ideal, to live this vision. He believed that by actualizing this ideal among themselves and by proclaiming it as good news about the reign of God, they could change the life of their whole society from the way it was to the way it ought to be. If that were done, what was wrong in his country would be righted and its people would come to know the good life in their own experience. Is this not a relevant vision for us today, for our whole world as it faces the questions of the very survival of the planet and our civilization? Why is it that few people see that Jesus vision can be theirs today?

Maybe the questions we face today are “How do we address issues which, if not addressed, will destroy us?  And how do we treat those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’? As Mark is saying.

Maybe we could heed Edwin Markham’s simple religious poem:

He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win;

We drew a circle that took him/her in!

Maybe we can discern Jesus’ vision in the two blocks of text from Matthew’s Sermon of the Mount.

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil, when someone slaps you on the right cheek turn the other as well. When someone want to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to one who begs from you. And don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you.

Love your enemies and pray for your persecution. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they? So be ‘perfect’ just as your heavenly Father is ‘perfect’. Matthew 5: 39 – 48

No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account. That’s why I tell you: Don’t fret about your life – what you’re going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn’t there? Take a look at the birds of the sky; they don’t plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow; they don’t slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t God care for you even more, you also who trust God. Matthew 6: 24-30

In the commentary on these passages Robert Funk notes that the three aphorisms in Matthew 5: 39 – 41 forms ‘an exceedingly tight series’ and that they seem never to have circulated as individual sayings. “These cleverly worded aphorisms provide essential clues to what Jesus really said. Funk suggests that these passages convey to us a sense of Jesus; ordering vision, in other words that view of things that furnished his teaching with its coherence and guided his course of action.He also says that these two clusters could bridge the distance between the authentic Jesus traditions in the gospels and the historical figure about whom they were written. They take us as close as we can every be to the voice of the Jesus of history. In these clusters of sayings Jesus urges his hearers to have a total trust in the generosity and care of the Father in Heaven and to be single minded in their commitment to do God’s Will by imitating the divine generosity. To do this is to live under God’s reign. Here we have the centrality of the message as the manifestation of the kingdom of God in Jesus life and work and we have the claim that it is through love that it shall be manifest. Have faith means to trust the divine process and as Spong suggests Love wastefully is the means of revealing the reign of God already come. Jesus’ vision seems to be saying that there is a vision of life under God’s reign that invites the hearer to abandon the accepted, ingrained habits of dealing with life on the basis of self-defense and self -interest. See things a new way, imagine and act out a way of life that trusts God’s care absolutely and imitates God’s justice unconditionally. Scary, life changing stuff as it is radical challenge to the economic, social religious and political norms of the day yet it was understood by those who caught his vision of God’s reign. Are we not in this time of planetary change, social, economic and political turmoil not in need of such a vision?

But and there is a big but in here. Be careful not to make do with a singular focus on social justice, – doing good works look for the hyperbole that exposes the literal and look out for the tactical answer. The idea of the reign of God is more than a ploy to bring about social and cultural change, it is more than a strategy to modify the economic system, it is more than a new way of being church or religious, it is also an ideal to realize. It is always to come, always an ‘Almost’ but not yet. It is not about supporting the destitute the discarded by society it is about banishing self-interest, about a real generosity of soul, of meeting the other in in a fullness, it is a Way of living.

And when we come to the loving one’s enemies it is the indiscriminate generosity of that which we call God that confronts us. There is no prayer for or appeal to the immanent end of history and the creation of a new age by divine intervention as grounds for showing one’s enemies unusually generous considerations. Only God’s generosity is in play here and that is through the sun rising each day.

God’s behaviour is perfect according to Matthew, Compassionate according to Like. The key here is that God’s behaviour cannot be improved upon. It is the ideal. In Jesus’ vision it is always the call to do the right thing, always to imitate and trust in God’s goodness. Love your enemies. Not in terms of having affection for but rather an unconditional good will, that is revealed as the Way of Jesus. How one reveals their love of humankind, how one manifests friendship in a reciprocal way. The love one seeks to emulate is unilateral, grounded in an unlimited goodness far beyond the mutuality of the likeminded this love of God is a generosity that transcends all differences between people and peoples.

To sum up for now is to say that we have little historical evidence but we have enough to be able to share in Jesus’s vision for humanity, the planet and be relevant in the evolutionary progressive world that reflects the divine agency and purpose. The unfinished nature of our profiles of Jesus reflects the potential not the problem and the unfinished character of Jesus’ work in effect invites anyone so inclined to ‘complete; what he began as one’s own work. Again, I suggest an incarnational theology. Amen.

Notes: and drink – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. Thwer
Kasemann, E. Jesus Means Freedom. London. SCM, 1969.
White, L. 1967.  “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”.
McFague, S. Super, Natural Christians. How We Should Love Nature. Kindle edition, 2000. rexae74@gmail.com

The Quest for Spiritual Life.

Posted: August 17, 2021 in Uncategorized

The Quest for Spiritual Life.

Last week we looked briefly at communion, community and things common as the bread of life and this week we continue the theme by looking a little more closely at that which we call Spirituality. This week I suspect those of us with some Celtic in our heritage will enjoy the meandering.

.

It is said that in the Celtic spiritual tradition, pilgrims often draw a circle around themselves
before embarking on a journey. Initially standing still, the pilgrim points her finger outward, and then rotates in a clockwise direction until she completes the circle. Noy wanting to evaluate this I wonder if most of us do this in some ritual form of preparation for leaving home, some sort of list of things to do before we leave. We don’t think of it as a spiritual exercise but maybe it is?

Again, in the Celtic tradition what is called a circling a prayer is often said and Bruce Epperly offers the following as a contemporary circling prayer;

God protect me on this journey.
Surround me, whether I walk, drive, or fly.
Fill my heart and mind with surprising possibilities.
Remind me that I am always in the circle of your love.
Remind me this day, O Holy Adventure, 
that your inspiration guides me in every situation.
Open my eyes to your presence in each meal,
as I turn on my computer,
as I start my car.
Awaken me to possibility and wonder.
Energize me to love and embrace all I meet.  (Epperly 2005:80)
.

This practice of faith, the ‘caim’ or ‘encircling’, reminds the traveler that God surrounds him wherever he goes. “While we recognize that life is filled with risks and that faith cannot protect us from every threat, We also recognize that God is present as a force for wholeness and reconciliation in every situation” (Epperly 2005:80).

Today’s biblical stories, I think are opportunities for us to explore what we mean by personhood and divinity and thus are about spirituality. A Spirituality that is the experience of living in the moment of human interactions that are bristling with virtues and values..

The Psalms as reconstructed by Francis Macnab, and from the gospel sermon-story by a bloke we call John, we continue to reflect on God’s present-ness in the world, and in our lives. Francis Macnab, theologian and psychologist, in his presentation of Psalm 84, that we read as our contemporary reading today attempts to get into the mind and the experience of the writer
to see if he can discover or reasonable assume “what was bothering this philosopher of life, and what let him to say what he said” (Macnab 2006:ix).

Steven Prasinos; I think puts this another way when looking through the lens of psychology sees religious experience as a reality that is part of consciousness. We embody this reality as ‘subjective energy field’ that exists within us and around us. A living, unseen, subjective field that flows and vibrates, And within that subjective dimension is meaning, or significance, what matters, what motivates, and emerges into an experiential field. We are ceaselessly operating within meaning structures or as I might put it a serendipitous creativity. John in his theme of living bread explores this also.

What Macnab says he discovered is this. He says;: “I found [the writer] was emphatically and repetitively proclaiming a fairly revolutionary view of the world, creation, his beliefs about God, humanity, the human spirit and human potential. Again and again I found his psychology had long pre-empted our current psychological explorations and research on happiness, optimism, the positive human emotions, and the sense of awe and wonder” (Macnab 2006:ix).

Listen again to some of how Macnab tells Psalm 84:

O God, from my place in the working world,
and in the wide wilderness of life,
I long for that sure sense of knowing what it is all about.

I yearn for that experience of joy
to come to my whole body and soul.

I look for your presence as a pathway to life’s fullness (Macnab 2006).

He goes on to say: Though we are often wounded and hurt in this fractured world,
we discover that this world also has its source of healing. We are all enriched and our hearts are made stronger as we tap into that power that flows into us. The very sight of a spring of water
arouses our anticipation of being refreshed and renewed. From all our external involvements,
we hear the call of our inner spirits(Macnab 2006).

And then in the words of his tradition he says: God – you stand in front of us when we fear the future. In our dark times you bring the sun to shine again. Out of our troubles you point us
to the pathway of our best bliss. And as we receive: we are rich indeed!(Macnab 2006).

It seems to me that what the Psalmist is suggesting, is that we are to experience the divine centre in yourselves. In our bodies. In our actions. In our everyday lives.

As a progressive Christian I want to agree with that. but it’s a bit of a different situation when we come to John’s sermon-story. We’ve been wrestling with his concepts on and off for several weeks now. We’ve struggled with the language and the images.

The problem is that now, as a progressive Christian, I want to challenge John, and reject his apparent denial of the ‘flesh’ or ‘body’ as useless. Somehow I am not comfortable with this rejection of what is after all  a wonderfully created creature. Somehow I think we can do better than this.

I like a growing number of people want to support process theologian Bruce Epperly’s comments when he says: “we need to redeem such passages for our time and place.  We can affirm that the spirit gives life, but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’, it is also ‘embodied’ and ‘incarnational’ (Epperly/P&F web site-06).

Sure, John’s position has a long history. Some of it, as we have heard, dating back to the early Christian communities, whose theology seemed to prevent them “from seeing Jesus as a God-infused human being and convincing them rather to perceive him as a divine visitor who came from heaven” (Spong 2005:61).

And some of it as recent as the early 18th century when one, Charles Wesley, “penned his popular ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ which portrayed Jesus as not human at all, but one ‘veiled in flesh’…” (Spong 2005:61).

Wesley’s world and John’s world is dualistic. Our world is not. Or at least not as much. I touched on this last week also with my concerns about a fixation on dualisms. Life is not just black and white, right and wrong. So perhaps a richer understanding comes with the mystics from the past,
as well as from process theology in the present. Maybe God is in all things and all things are in God, rather than God being a supernatural miracle worker in the sky who can come (or doesn’t come) to our aid in times of need.

As a progressive Christian I want to own the former Epperly comment rather than the latter as a simple entry to a more comprehensive and complex way into the subject of the existence of God.  God in all things and all things in God. seems to me to be a more authentic approach.

Why” Because it is equally important for me is, that experience this creativity we name ‘God’,
routinely, quietly, mysteriously, and moving through life, our life. not as being but as essence insistence and purpose. This way in “is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly again, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being” (Epperly/P&F Web site-2005).

And I want to remember that well into the twentieth century many people thought that the air was filled with spirits of the dead, angels, and demons. Most Christians though of the Spirit as a Ghost and it was only with the biblical translations that change it to the Holy Spirit rather than Holy Ghost that people began to shift.

Yes, we can affirm with John and Paul that the ‘spirit gives life’ It inspires personal creativity and transformation. It lures us to support the well-being of others. It challenges us to look beyond our own interests to an integration of our well-being and the well-being of the planet (Epperly, P&F web site 2006)

.

The big challenge of today is the understanding of Spirit in a Covid rent world. W can accept that God is Spirit that humans are Spirit but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’. It is also ‘embodied’, even in the rough and tumble of our everyday world. The issue is that such an understanding is in the biblical stories but it is usually found in the less read pages of sacred text!

Bishop John Shelby Spong, has some wonderful words in one of his books, ‘The Sins of Scripture’ that might be helpful. He writes: “I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made, including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God… as… calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is” (Spong 2005:66).

Then the chapter concludes with these words: “We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities.  We need to shift our vision to look within – at life, at love, at being” (Spong 2005: 66).

May it be so with us in all our living. Amen.

Notes:
John B. Cobb, Jr., Bruce G. Epperly, & Paul S. Nancarrow. 2005.  Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World. Claremont. P&F Press.
Macnab, F. 2006.  A Fine Wind is Blowing. Psalms of the Bible in Words That Blow You Away. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Spong, J. S. 2005. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York HarperSanFrancisco.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘Communion in a Fast-Food World’

“Once upon a time, somewhere far back in ancient human history
– so far back that personal survival was the only concern –
a defining event must have taken place.
Someone didn’t eat what he found when he found it,
but decided to take it back to the cave to share with others.
There must have been a first time.
A first act of community – call it communion –
in the most elemental form” (Fulghum 1995:79).

I haven’t read Robert Fulghum’s writings but Rex Hunt of whom I quote often has high regard for his writing and today’s story comes from Rex’s musings on Fuighum and Brazillian Rubem Alves writing along with a bit of my thinking.

In another story Fulghum’s writes, “When my first son was in kindergarten, I was a parent volunteer who visited the school once a week to teach folk songs to the children.
Singing came between rest-time and snack-time. Regularly I was invited to stay after singing
and join the class for milk and scones. I gladly stayed. Not because I was particularly hungry, but because I enjoyed watching the children carry out this ordinary task with such extraordinary care.

Two children set the table with serviettes and cups. Two others arranged the chairs. Others went to the refrigerator for cartons of milk, while two more fetched the scones from the kitchen
and arranged them neatly on plates. One child was responsible for placing something in the middle of the table to talk about during the snack – a sort of ‘show and tell’. For half the class, their job for the day was being good ‘guests’. The other half were the ‘hosts. Each ‘host’ took a scone off the plate, broke it in half, and gave it to a ‘guest’ before eating the other half. During this snack-time, they discussed the ‘show and tell’ object in the centre of the table. After the scones and milk were consumed, the children who had played ‘guests’ for the day cleaned up and put away everything, before they went out to play. It was a high-point of my week.  For me, it was communion.

Fulghum then goes on to add some comments… He says: The sacraments are often defined by the church as ‘outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace’. Scones and milk with those children became a sacrament for me. Grace, was clearly present. It was a ritual reminder that civilization depends on sharing resources in a just and humane fashion. It’s strange how things come back in that this story reminded me of my dissertation when finishing my degree in Theology. I was sent a copy on my retirement from the church library. I think it was my copy that I had left in St David’s when I retired.

What was significant was that on reading it again I am aware that for me Fulghum’s story was the same as my dissertation. The sacrament was in the ordinary, in the commonplace and in the very living of life. I argued that God is in the Garage, my previous job was as a motor mechanic and that what I was engaged in was holy work and that the elements I worked with were the elements of communion.

They were the common elements that conveyed the sacred. Somewhere between transubstantiation and symbol. The wheel cylinder was the bread, and the brake fluid was the wine as in their use they tended to the needs of the people in the vehicle. In their use as well as their state they activated the safety of the occupants and cared for them. They were the common cup and the sacrament. I know this was then as difficult a theology as it is now. I nearly didn’t get my licensing approved by my Presbytery because it was too radical, too unorthodox and it was only with the support of my professor and my colleagues that I am here today. But enough about me it is the theology of bread as John tries to talk about it that is our topic. We continue the theme of the bread of life in the lectionary.

Jesus often talked about, or is represented as talking about, food. And as he moved from place to place, the various storytellers declared he would seek rest in a house. Rumour has it once there he would make his way to the cooking space because there, he knew he could find food to transform his weariness into new energy and purpose. For it is the cooking space – the kitchen – which is the place of transformations.

As we touched on last week in the lectionary Rubem Alves. suggests that in the cooking space “Nothing is allowed to remain the same.  Things come in raw, as nature produced them.  And they go out different, according to the demands of pleasure.” (Alves 1990:79).

The raw must cease to exist for something different to appear. “The hard must be softened.  Smells and tastes which were dormant inside are forced to come out: cooking is a magic kiss which wakes up sleeping pleasures…  Everything is a new creature.  Everything is made anew.” (Alves 1990:79).

I want you to think about the possibility that Jesus might have been talking about fast food when he talked about food. Was he suggesting that fast food is a problem? Not just in its nutritional value but in its symbol of the sacred. Was it about Slow food rather than fast food?

And remember that the gospel storytellers often put words in the mouth of Jesus to have him speak about food and eating. About Bread and wine. Body and blood. And remember that Jesus was no literalist. Religious language was primarily metaphorical or poetic. In other words, Jesus spoke so words would be eaten. When bread and wine are eaten, they become body and blood. When body and blood are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. When compassionate deeds are eaten, they become as the Holy One in our neighbour. We are what we eat, suggests Rubem Alves. “One eats and one’s body is resurrected.” (Alves 1990:86).

Robert Fulghum suggests milk and scones at kindergarten snack-time is communion. Is grace enacted. “Since the beginning of time,” Fulghum writes, “people who trust one another, care for one another, and are deeply connected to one another have shared food as a sign of and a reaffirmation of their relationship… (Pg. 81). “Every time we hold hands and say a blessing before a meal, every time we lift a glass and say fine words to one another, every time we eat in peace and grace together, we have celebrated the covenants that bind us together.” (Pg. 81-82). 

I suggest that every time we handle the elements of our daily work and walk-through life we celebrate the incarnation, we celebrate the gift of grace and we enact the sacraments that remind us of the efficacy of grace in our living community. God in the Garage, God in the classroom, God in the kitchen, the garden etc. etc.

Traditionally, this morning’s gospel story from John has been given strong sacrament overtones. Holy Communion or Eucharist overtones, that is. If that is indeed the case then it very much reflects John’s community many years after the life of Jesus. Remember the other week when John is warning his community not to become too literalized. The total truth is not in just the literal but rather in the metaphorical, the symbolic and the de-concretized. Fulghum reminds us that when things were getting organised and rules, the dos and don’ts – are being put in place we need to be careful of literalism. He says; Whatever the sacrament of Holy Communion is, “it is an act that arises out of our humanity, not organized religion.” (Fulghum 1995: 82).

So maybe next time we partake in the celebration of holy communion or Eucharist, or Agape meal we might remember that it is our common and shared humanity that we celebrate in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is not something special in itself, or in its literalism but rather a ritual reminder that, as we share the bread and share the wine, civilization depends on the sharing of resources in a just and humane fashion. The metaphor, the poetic and the musical truth is the timeless and integrated reality.

To close, I want to remind you of two quotes that I think undergird the interpretation I am offering you today. The first is our quote for today from Gordon Kaufman where he writes “In interpreting the world, in all its diversity, grandeur, and richness, as the expression of serendipitous creativity at every point, we put into place the first building block of a conception of God for today”.

And the second is when he writes: “The real test of the validity and significance of a configuration of theological proposals is to be found in the success with which their methods and patterns of interpretation help mediate the meaning of Christian faith for the ongoing lives of persons and communities, non-Christian as we as Christian”. Bread as an act of community, bread as community, bread as community life? In the kitchen space, in the play room, in the workplace.

Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. The Edward Cadbury Lectures.  Philadelphia. Trinity Press International, 1990
Fulghum, R. From Beginning to End. The Rituals of our Lives. Oxford. Ivy Books, 1995.

Gordon D Kaufman In Face of Mystery, A Constructive Theology Harvard Unity Press 1995

‘Exploring the Mysteries and Questions of Life.’

Seeds;

it’s the word of confidence to a 9-year-old
which one day leads to the winning goal in a World Cup match;

it’s the extra practice sessions after school,
going over word after word,

which bolsters a young girl at the Spelling Bee Nationals;

it’s the gentle touch of a mother
in the terror of a midnight thunderstorm
which leads a child into nursing;

in a world which idolizes success, greatness, biggie-sized achievements,
we are called to remind ourselves of those mustard seeds
planted deep within us
by so many over the years,
which help to shape us into the people we are meant to be,
© 2006 Thom M. Shuman (adapted)

They were complaining to one another about Jesus, because he had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven. ‘Surely’ they said; this is Jesus the son of Joseph and Mary’, we know his father and mother so how can he now say: ‘I have come down from heaven?’ Jesus said in reply, ‘Stop complaining to one another. You cannot understand what I am saying unless your view of who and what your God is, is bigger. and in your last days you will understand.

‘It is written in the prophets: They will all be taught by God, and to hear the teaching of God, 
and learn from it, is to come to me. Not that anybody has ever seen God, except the one who comes from God. ‘I tell you most solemnly, everybody who trusts has eternal life. As the metaphor says; “I am the bread of life”.

Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert and they are dead, but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat it and not die. The truth is in the metaphor “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

Jesus often talked about food. And gospel storytellers often put words in the mouth of Jesus
to have him speak about food and eating. Today’s difficult and complex gospel story is one of those occasions. Of having words put into the mouth of Jesus. It also continues the Lectionary sub theme commenced last week about food, or more specifically, about bread. Yes, a difficult and complex story for a couple of reasons, not least of which we are required to put it into words for ourselves. To interpret the metaphor and resist literalizing it.

First, we have to know a lot more about the Hebrew people and the stories which shaped their lives than we do or can ever know. – especially the claim about food called ‘manna’ in the desert to fully understand some of the references in this story we need to know more.

Second, aspects of this story by John, often considered the odd-man-out, contradicts similar stories by Matthew and Luke about Jesus’ family origins, and the early traditions of where he was born, for instance. So where does all this leave us! Well, that’s a complex question too big for the likes of a sermon. All we can do is make a brief speculative comment on this story.

We are on a visit to a village, probably not that far from his home town, when Jesus attempts to offer a new level of teaching -he talks about what is a re-imagined world. And to help his audience make this transition the storyteller John has him referring to a story from their own tradition. But problems arise. Jesus is no literalist.  His language is imaginative and poetic. Remember… mustard seeds become great plants. Water becomes wine. Five loaves and two fishes feed a multitude.

But like last week’s suggestion the hearers seem stuck in the literalist mode of understanding. They seem unable to hear the words behind the words. So, Jesus gets a kick in the pants for his efforts, as some decide his teaching isn’t orthodox or meaningful enough. They leave. It happens then as it still does today when literalism has become imbedded.

However, as Rex Hunt comments on this there are a few comments that invite a more intriguing situation… We might have the storyteller John contradicting, or in generous mood – not knowing the other earlier and different story traditions around Jesus. To do so, and guided by help from an overseas colleague, Jerald M Stinson, Rex makes these comments looking through the lens called the Gospel of Thomas.  We know that this Gospel didn’t make it into our biblical Canon tradition even though many scholars now reckon it is right up there, date wise, with the early writings of the ‘Q’ Community and the storyteller we call Mark. Increasingly we have also the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Judas and others being uncovered.

Discovered in 1945 in an ancient clay jar at the base of a cliff along the Nile River, by an Arab peasant, the Gospel of Thomas is probably the best known of all the Nag Hammadi texts. So, what is this Gospel?  It is less a story like the well know gospels because it is a collection of short, pithy sayings or proverbs, attributed to Jesus, half of which are not found in any other gospel, and especially not in John’s gospel. John’s Jesus specializes in long, rambling, and repetitious speeches.

On the other hand, but equally important, The Gospel of Thomas has no stories of Jesus’ life – especially no ‘passion’ stories. We ask ourselves; “Why should all this matter”? And we say to ourselves; Well, the Gospel of Thomas, along with other recent discoveries such as the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and the Gospel of Judas, “help us understand the differences between the Gnostic churches and churches tied to Paul.” (Jerry Stinson, First UCC  web site 2006).

They remind us that there were many different communities of Christian faith and they had as their resourcing tracts differing expressions of who the Jesus was and what his message was to a particular community. This is significant in that the Christianity of the time did not have one belief, it did not have one doctrine or creed or a single narrative upon which to base one’s faith journey. What Jesus was, was, the glue that held the visioning together. A bit like churches that have all walks in life as membership yet they all gather in a collective form that accepts all their different faith stories or reasons for being a follower of the Jesus Way but there is no single belief but rather there is a single trust in being on the journey together.

We now know, there was not just ‘one’ early version of Christianity, but many. And remember this was also the case before the word Christian was in common use. Even when the word Christian was used there was diverse beliefs and practices. And lets also remember that then acknowledgement of such reality is only now being taken seriously.

Jesus, for the so-called ‘Gnostics’, was a gifted teacher who opened up a different intuitive way of knowing, combining mind and heart. What we might call now a Left and right brain hemisphere approach to reaching an understanding of Jesus. For the Gospel of Thomas and his community, Jesus is simply called Jesus. Not messiah, nor Son of God. This Jesus responds to very concrete questions of life: what is the world like what are people like what is wisdom what will happen in the future.  (Jerry Stinson, First UCC web site 2006). A very human Jesus we might say.

And it was a world where ‘salvation’ had nothing to do with Jesus dying for the sins of the world.  Instead: “salvation meant understanding Jesus, knowing what he knew… understanding (his) words… as (they) sought wise, deep mystical and intuitive insights.” (Jerry Stinson, First UCC web site 2006) For these Gnostics this human Jesus was their guide as they attempted to make their way through the mysteries and questions of life. And let’s be very clear here. All of this, according to scholars, was significantly different to the theology of the bloke we call Paul.

In Paul’s churches:  God was totally other, and pictured in male images… Jesus was Lord and Son of God… Jesus’ death saved people from what became known as ‘original sin’… They had clergy, bishops and creeds, guarding the ‘true faith’.  Out of this grew the idea that one was called to defend the faith and we know where that leads.

In Thomas’ and in many other gnostic communities: There is divinity in each of us… Both male and female images of God were often used… Salvation was about enlightenment overcoming illusion… They didn’t have clergy.  And they pushed theological boundaries. So, what can we learn from the Gospel of Thomas’ sayings that can take us beyond John’s complex and rambling arguments?

Rex Hunt offers some suggestion we might use. First, the Thomas community centred around shared, mutual learning. And much as we might like to compartmentalize and control thinking, learning must be at the heart of our community life today. Where else in our society can we ask questions about the meaning of life? Where else can we relate the teachings of Jesus and the morality of our faith to the difficult issues of our day: War Terrorism Immigration Environmental degradation including the contemporary assault on fact and truth and things common.

Second, the Thomas community members were deeply committed. Commitment must also be at the heart of our community life today. That’s the price, or the responsibility one must engage in despite the call for more and different and choice.

It means getting involved rather than staying on the edges. Attending adult education classes. Signing petitions. Reaching out to others. Giving time and talent and financial support. Keep telling the stories and using the sayings enabling them to become common sense.

Third, the challenge of the Thomas community in general is to see and hear, today, the humanity of Jesus behind the many sayings and different images. To see him pointing to something the other gospels call the ‘realm of God’, where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world, – a new bottom line, if you like – demands to be considered.

And to hear him inviting his committed followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries which “always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity.” (Spong 2001: 131).

Notes:
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

rexae74@gmail.com

Is Truth Hidden in Literalism or in Front of Our Eyes?

Last week for those who follow the lectionary the text took us to Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5000 This week we continue the stories about ‘bread’, but I have returned to the storyteller we call John. This week, the crowd respond with the cry: ‘More sir!’.

Indeed, this Lectionary theme of ‘bread’ will continue for several more weeks yet. So, I want to start with the premise that these stories are familiar to all of us.  The people eat their fill of bread. Yet John indicates they are not satisfied. Why?  Well maybe we can think about some of the things we face today for a clue.

How do we, in the 21st century world, receive and interpret the stories from our biblical tradition. This can be a very frightening question to ask and many don’t want to face these questions. I was just at a memorial service for the closing of St David’s Khyber Pass Rd in Auckland and if I was being critical, I would have to say it was head in the sand, scared of the future sort of stuff. Not in the closing but in the unwillingness to ask the hard questions about the future of the church. The proceeds of sale were to be spent on trying to do what was done in the1870s and while it succeeded then it has failed in the 1990s

For me and for many progressive and thinking people this is an important question.
Because the competing answers are so different, it can be very frightening to face the reality of today and it is easier to just fall back on the traditional and the one time successful but it is a denial of the present and thus the future.

In this and the other stories on ‘bread’, all the storytellers have Jesus trying to get the people to look beyond the literal to the meaning and world view the teller is inviting them to consider. But like many of us they either refuse or are unable to do so. So, expressing a degree of frustration, John’s Jesus says: ‘you are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat’.

Jesus has just fed them. They were hungry because of staying on the hills and listening to his words, and he had compassion for them. But they continue to want the actual thing – the literal answer. Like many of us they wanted the renewal of the past. And like today there is no literal answer given, because Jesus argues that it leaves everyone just as hungry as before. They are unable to look beyond the words. That is too complex.
Too difficult. Too stressful. They settle only for what they see and taste and touch.

Like many progressives I think John’s Jesus is a realist. He knows these people are looking for actual food that fills the hungry stomach. They want miracles that will make their lives easier in a rural peasant culture. A culture;

• where food is not always plentiful,

• where peasant farmers had been forced off their land, crushed by the rich and powerful,
• where people are persecuted because of their beliefs… magic or miracles are easier and more welcome than the grind of daily reality.

Let’s be careful here not to label them as backward, dumb or wrong. The last thing we should do is suggest that somehow these people deserve their plight or are responsible for it, or if they only prayed harder, or had more faith, their situation would change.

What John is trying to suggest through this story, maybe 60+ years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, is for them to look, listen, hear, imagine beyond the literal words. This is an indication that as the gospel took hold on minds across the world literalism began to take over from a metaphorical world view and the fundamentalisms of today would suggest that there is a need for John’s message again today, if we are to understand spirituality, religion and its place in our societies today.

Katerina Whitley, a professor of communication at one of the state universities in America,
who has also reflected on these stories, suggests: ‘The words of Jesus, though based on what the people knew from experience, always point to that which is true, to that which does not perish.  But the people clamour for more assurance than that. Like then we too get caught up in the demand for certainty for us rather than the truth that transcends time and culture. Never more so is this need than today in our so-called ‘postmodern’ society.

We live in an age where the ‘literal’ is constantly struggling with the ‘more than’, in a climate where answers have international or global implications. And the literal seems to be winning. Fundamentalists still ask for a sign, an answer, that is firm and unquestionable:
to the sadness of abortion, to the fear of terrorism, to the problem of disobedient children,
to the rapid technological changes, that baffle them.

In our moment of time, indeed for more than 25 years, we are particularly conscious of this ‘firm and unquestionable’ position, in regard to the questions of difference in sexuality. It is easier to retreat from the world and its problems. Most of us want concrete and secure answers. Ambiguity is troubling.  We want definiteness. And literalism, even as it picks and chooses only those portions of the Bible it can manipulate, gives to the fundamentalist this assurance. I can remember the debates at a 1986 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in NZ where biblical texts were thrown around like statements of infallible truth as people sought to impose their truth on the Assembled. All that happened was that scripture lost out to its own ambiguity and contradiction.

Katerina Whitley also points out that: ‘Literal interpretation of what we don’t like gives us permission not to love those who are different from us’ (Worship that works Web site 2003). And that too is very serious!  I happen to agree with many that

This confirms for me the main problem with literalism and it is that it does not reveal truth, in fact it hides it. Literalism comes from a position of fear, and is fueled by what is a misrepresentation of religious experience. And when it comes from within the Christian community it is often all the more dangerous and vitriolic. Bishop John Shelby Spong knows about all that. In his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, he writes: ‘I have had a ‘truth squad’ based at an evangelical theological college in Sydney follow me throughout Australia wherever I lectured, handing out their tracts and publications designed to mute my witness.  I have lectured with guards protecting me in Calgary… (and) endured a bomb threat… in Brisbane.  I have been the recipient of sixteen death threats, all of which came from Bible-quoting ‘true believers’…’ (Spong 1998: xvi).

This all suggests that in taking up Spong’s challenge of a ‘new Reformation’ one, requires courage and will be at some risk. And it has to be said that a lot of thinking people are not prepared to take risks, either for fear they shall be criticised, or dismissed from office, or both. I happen to believe that an ‘honest church’ requires its theologians and ministers to be that – honest as opposed to being right. John’s Jesus was not a literalist. The eating of bread is much more than the mere ingestion of food as nourishment for the body. It is the symbolic sharing of our common humanity, in mutuality with those around us. So, John the storyteller invites his listeners, then (and I reckon, now), to seek the meaning beyond the words, beyond the ‘bread’.

For in the doing of that we are freed to go on the journey chartered by Jesus rather than being caught up in worshipping the journey of Jesus, as do the literalists. Such a ‘Jesus’ theology’ is, I believe, liberating because: it shows us something of what it means to be human, it invites us to find in ourselves the same powers that were manifest in Jesus, and it means we are to be co-creators with God. Now, if we have the courage, that can indeed be a great blessing!

In closing I want to offer something that is not about knocking what was or complaining without offering a way forward and while it is a huge challenge to predict anything I want to suggest a definition of spirituality that might help and make a few suggestions about what that might look like. What if ‘Spirituality’ is the experience of living in the moment of human interactions that are bristling with virtues and values? Spirit is what occurs between souls as we interact with each other, with nature, and with things. It is what happens in our brains when we encounter another person, receive any sensory input and process it, or manipulate tools and materials. Therefore, spirit is the driver of our mental assembly of new responses to what we have seen or heard, or what has happened in our surroundings, and is the cause of all our questions. Spirituality then is the experience of living in the moment of human interactions that are bristling with virtues and values, even if those interactions were in the past, and even if we participate through print or visual media. Many of us would agree here with Dominic Crossan when he says, I can no longer distinguish between prayer and study. If the function of prayer is to allow God to get at you, then scholarship is where that now happens for him. It is where I am at also in facilitating conversation during and after a sermon, it is because I want to explore the idea that the incarnation as a living dynamic theology is to be found in the interactions, in the conversations, in the sharing of being human through language. Sermons should not be a one-way communication event. Why? Because when the right and left hemispheres of our brain clash with one side seeking security and the other growth it is only through the creative use of metaphor that the clash can be transcended. The truth is actually that the whole world is a metaphor for something else. A sermon that explores the ’what if it is like?’ is a healthy sermon. Literalists forget to use ‘it is like’ and we end up in trouble. We need to critique the tradition and we have a growing need for experimental language and thought to explain religious experience so that we can place it in our lives with greater understanding. It must become common sense rather than something to believe or else.

Amen

Notes:
Spong, J. S. 1998.  Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

rexae74@gmail.com

St David’s Closure’

Posted: July 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘St David’s Closure’

Today’s address is conditioned by both sad events and events that are timeless, part of history and hugely significant in terms of creative events. I want in a short, few words introduce a reflection rather than make one. And I do this because your refection is more important or just as important as mine.

When a passionate person interested in saving the 1827 built Church building from demolition called St David’s building a Cathedral, I think they erred as much as they endeared what took place in that building. What they did was to expose the heritage of St David’s to popularism and to the world of marketing. And let’s be clear here, this is not unknown today because even though history shows that fewer people value the place of religion, and church in society the idea of preserving historical buildings as a commodity that can be marketed to raise funds is not unknown. Again, the question of materialism and usury which traditionally the church has warned against is laid aside in the interests of preservation. This is perhaps too harsh a claim to make but in Presbyterian ecclesiology maybe not so.

In a traditional Presbyterian culture, to have a Presbyterian Cathedral is an oxy-moron at least and an anathema to the founders of The Presbyterian Church at worst. Remember, a Cathedral is reliant on it having a Cathedra or a Bishops Chair, and many will remember the strong opposition to Church Union in New Zealand due to the desire for Bishops. In calling St David’s, a Cathedral, one could argue that ecclesiological sensitivity and heritage is in danger of suffering from expediency. One might even say that to do so is to elevate the Presbytery to be the corporate Bishop as opposed to the assembly of teaching and ruling eldership who value the collective polity.

However, in calling the building a cathedral we are reminded of what the congregation of St David’s have been saying repeatedly over many years. The Church is the people not the building. And they have been saying this not in defence of their losing control of their building or to make a point of congregational elitism and control. They have been saying it defence of the place a Presbyterian Congregation has within the society. For them the Cathedral was a place where the civic and the religious meet in practice rather than a place of institutional hierarchy. It was and still is in some liturgical sense, the place where ceremony and meaning and service and interaction all take place at once. In the past livestock was traded in many ancient Cathedrals, it is true that they, were places of commerce and civic interaction. In St David’s historical world as a significant Congregation, Corporate Board members and directors and CEOs rubbed shoulders and discussed the world, tested the morality of their economic and management strategies. Community met there and shared values were developed, people played there, people socialized there. In St David’s world the entrepreneur, the social developer, the civic minded, the university academic, the medical professional, the legal professional, the construction industry leaders were all represented and gathered as congregation to talk sing, discuss and play together. The development of the City of Auckland is perhaps a time of its greatest expansion was significantly created by the people who were St David’s congregation. In this way perhaps it was a role akin to the Cathedral of the Roman and Episcopal tradition created by Presbyterians who were of a differing approach to power and influence.

Throughout its life St David’s people, and its Ministers and Elders have served many purposes in the civic life of Auckland city and even the country as well as the life of the church. As the assembled gave time expertise and energy to the work of the General Assembly they changed the world. While town commerce and livestock trading may not have taken place in its buildings, civic ceremonial events were held and they have reflected history and culture in a degree heightened by the longstanding role and power which the church has exercised in previous centuries. St David’s has acted like a cathedral and has had space and resources to sponsor and encourage the arts, be it in music, paintings, poetry prose or sculpture as well as theological exploration and the art of theological praxis. It is also true that whether they are of any architectural significance or not all the buildings are part of St David’s heritage. Again, in a sense more so because of their use rather than their existence. Maybe that’s why they are in need of repair today.

It is also true that many cities would be the poorer without its cathedral and in this case, Auckland would have been different without St David’s, Auckland would have been the poorer without St David’s, not only for its contribution to the growing of the city but also for its commitment to those on the very margins of society, street livers, addiction sufferers, and the homeless. Through its longstanding hosting of and support for organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Ala-non, and its commitment to prisoner’s aid, refugees, asylum seekers, men’s anger group and its very effective opportunity shop St David’s has acted like a Cathedral in many ways. Sometimes in its Presbyterianism, more effectively than some Ecclesiological Cathedrals themselves.

And what is yet to be fully understood St David’s has over many years offered New Zealand society, a challenging and brave self-critique of church, religion and Christian Faith. It has played its part in all levels of the church by hosting and providing support for its deliberation and action. Its people have been committed to being a haven for those who are curious about the place of religion in life, welcoming those who can slip in and slip out without obligation. Just ask any family about their connection with St David’s and one will find a marriage, a funeral or a bible class connection. It has also been a resort for those who flee from their churches if they have become too evangelical or too conservative, too charismatic, too ‘jolly’, too predictable and arrogant. Too judgmental. St David’s has been like a cathedral perhaps as a place that in its offering of anonymity, seems a safer space than a local church or chapel. St David’s has maintained a degree of a classic Presbyterian way of worship which is measured, ordered, and yet open to innovation of thought. It has sought to offer intelligent and thought-provoking liturgies, sermons, and music that values congregational singing and stimulates theological thinking.

St David’s has throughout its existence as a parish also displayed a rugged independence of mind. Some have suggested that this maintained an elitism while truth be told, there has been a strong commitment to scholastic rigor and well-read leadership as a way of encouraging a pragmatic practicing faith response. There have been recent examples of contemporary issues where its pragmatism has enabled diversity of opinion to be valued, such as the acceptance of openly gay leadership and acceptance of same sex marriage, as well as a willingness to explore, non-theistic, non-doctrinal ecclesiology. One might suggest that St David’s people as a community have tested the creedal literal conservative viewpoints as part of their walking the Jesus Way with integrity. It has in recent years been a part of the global movement named Progressive Christianity in its traditional commitment, often unstated, to open, enquiring theology, that enables those who may sit light to the doctrinal claims of Christianity but find in a thinking faith and in both music and art a sense of otherworldliness and self-critique akin to a traditional faith. A commitment to theopoetics as opposed to literalism has been something that St David’s has been able to explore within a City Church, Cathedral like setting of anonymity rather than a clublike, familial church experience for those who prefer a certain sense of detachment from the worldliness. Yes, it has meant that St David’s is not a touchy feely sort of place but it has preferred and given respect to honesty, faithfulness and integrity.

Sadly, what has been a downside of the heritage building focus in recent years as energy has been consumed it has resulted in a deterrence from a radical sense of bringing in the kingdom of God as seen in the life and teachings of Jesus – a distortion of a concern for justice and compassion, along with the growth of intolerance and an added complexity to the desire to transform our society to become a more equal and sustainable world. In short it has taken away energy that could have been directed at people.

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

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

The first thing to recognise is that closure of St David’s began in the 1960s, at the very peak of its growth. And that there have been many reasons for that change. One very recent change was the closure of the brick building. Not in its closure but rather in the loss of communal anonymity that has been part of St David’s strength. The gathering community became more familial and possibly seen to be less inclusive as a result, the other was a rise in the levels of intolerance. Since the building closure conflict has been more obvious and thus detrimental. That might sound emotive and exaggerating but in essence a healthy level of conflict has always been inherent in the DNA of St David’s. The issue is in the level of that conflict and its effect on an increasingly fragile community.

Throughout its history there have been conflicts of thought and interest that have been resolved both arbitrarily and otherwise, such as which side of the Newton Gully to locate the parish, where to build the new church, how much to pay for the organ that some of the congregation wanted to bring back from the dissident group? How much to pay for the new church building, what to do about the leaking walls, roof and Oamaru Stone around the windows. How to use the manse at the back of the church, Where the office should be and so on. All logical debates within communities one could say but also the logical outcome of a community under siege from difference. In fact, many of these issues were not addressed but rather shelved for later. They have come to rest now.

In St David’s case it could be said that in recent times the pressure to meet heritage values, and economic viability issues surrounding property in inner city Auckland as well as wider church survival strategies has meant closure is an inevitable and dare, I say it a logical option.

However, despite the closure of the congregation the question remains as to St David’s value as a missional, developmental and future enhancing place within the Presbytery. It may be that the closure is and was the best approach for the future and that will be discovered if and when human community and spirituality needs it.

The issue of the future is perhaps even more complex than we think as our traditional form of Christendom has been shown to be no longer an effective vehicle for the sharing and exploration of Spiritualty as a public social construct or as a congregation as an ever -growing mass expression of community. Congregational fragility has been further exposed by Covid-19 and by required levels of critical mass and community capacity. The questions faced might be; do congregations have to be of a certain size tied to an economic model? Do they have to be multicultural or language and culture specific and is there a single cultural definition of mission? These questions have been debated for many years without resolution which begs the question as to whether they need resolution?

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

Maybe it’s time to see the closure not as a sad ending but as a significant opportunity for the new thing. I for one shall treasure the opportunity my call to be a Minister of St David’s congregation gave me to make the best out of life until I no longer can. Thank you.

Let there be Spaces

Posted: July 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 6:30-34

Let there be Spaces

The storyteller we call Mark was clearly impressed with what he was told about the beginnings of the Jesus movement. Part of his story this morning describes in summary what he saw was the impact of Jesus’ ministry. For him, it seems the nature of the Jesus’ ministry was to offer leadership in teaching, and in acts of compassion that brings healing and sets people free from what oppresses them.

This is more significant than it sounds, especially when one reflects on just how complex and energy sapping and big picture driven as an enterprise. Jesus had to be an extraordinary insightful thinker and not only that, have the skill to put his vision and ideas into practical application in his culture and situation.

And we know this can be demanding work. People get tired. They need time out and the prayer time and the wilderness retreats of Jesus tell us this. They are not Gods who can supernaturally avoid being human much as we would like them to be freed from what we know about life in its biological and psychological nature. They are not the saviour’s of the world. They are ordinary human beings who need ‘space’ to continue on.

Kahlil Gibran’s meditation called ‘Speak to us of marriage’, from his popular book, The Prophet, is much loved by folk wishing to be married, and who are looking for a reflection or reading that is not biblical. I am sure you have heard it.

“Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea
between the shores of your souls” (Gibran 1969).

It may be that this particular meditation is as well known, if not more so, than some biblical passages.  And good on it, because it resonates with what we know of an idealistic love that cannot face the realities of human living and loving.

Further on in this meditation Gibran writes:

“Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone,
even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music”.

Then towards the end:

“And stand together yet not too near together:
for the pillars of the temple stand apart,
and the oak tree and the cypress grow not
in each other’s shadow.

Some clergy I know add a small rider to the end just in case people miss the message in the poetry. They add or repeat with an adaption:


“…let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you”.

This is in recognition of the fact that all human beings need ‘spaces’ – physically, emotionally, spirituality – in our busy lives. There is so much to do and think of that we need time to stop and discern a response. And perhaps the popularity of the quote says that getting married is not a bad time to be reminded of this.

It is also salutary for all those involved in ministry, to recognise that, according to storyteller Mark, Jesus was encouraging of the disciples/others to desist, to care for themselves, to reflect, and not to feel they must respond to every ‘squeaky door’ or appeal for assistance. They were not God. They were not the saviours of the world. They were limited human beings who needed space. They needed time out so as to be able to continue on. To sort out what was important.

Our very own New Zealander Ian Cairns of whom I had the privilege of knowing during training and whose daughter is a good friend made a comment as another good reminder of this need:
“This brief passage…he says…  gives us a fleeting but appealing insight into the natural rhythm of the lifestyle of Jesus and the circle around him: times of intense effort are succeeded by moments of unwinding, and of quiet relaxation.  The fact that the intention on this occasion was frustrated, detracts nothing from the attractiveness of the ideal” (Cairns 2004:87).

He asks; Do you have a ‘space’ – a place of peace and rest in the “natural rhythm” (Cairns 2004: 87) of your life, where you retreat for silence and re-creation?


So asks Bruce Epperly, co-author of The Call of the Spirit. When he says; “Our so-called ‘space’ or ‘quiet place’ can be anywhere.”

One of the things I am beginning to cherish in retirement is a re-discovering of the joy and peace of the beach, the sand, at water’s edge. And the sounds and smells of nature. It’s like feeling the texture of nature as I did when a young person, playing on the beach and walking the Waitakere’s.
Even on a cool and cloudy, Central NZ winter’s day. There is a timeless connection. And Epperly also says that other ‘space’ places could also include: a favourite chair or study, a meditation room in your home, a park, or the bush, and yes, the seashore. “The divine center is everywhere.  Wherever our adventure of ideas or geography take us, God is our adventurous companion” he says. (Epperly 2005:79).

And in his web site article:

“Your quiet place can also be a rejuvenating activity – gardening, walking, stargazing, journaling, meditating, praying, writing poetry, or driving in your car by yourself.  Health of body, mind, spirit, and relationships requires stillness as well as action, space as well as intimacy.  Even the most intimate friends and couples require time alone” 

(Epperly P&F web site, 2006).

Many advisors call this ability to create ‘spaces’ in our lives, ‘boundary setting’. Indeed, Epperly suggests today’s gospel story is just about that. He says that;

“Jesus took time apart with his followers.  His ‘no’ to work, even the good work of healing and teaching, said ‘yes’ to spiritual growth and self-care.  His ‘yes’ to compassion was grounded in interconnectedness with God and his followers” (Epperly P&F web site, 2006).

But it is clear also that there is an art and a discipline to finding ‘spaces. It needs to be intentional and it also takes practice. Epperly offers some suggestions as to how we can create these ‘spaces. He lists some as;


• Sabbath time.  Or Take a few hours a week, a day, a month, for silence, for retreat, for prayer.
• Breathing prayers.  Breathing in.  Breathing out.  Remembering God’s present-ness, and

  centering in God’s companionship.
• Keeping meals sacred.  Install and use an answer phone.
• Cultivate intimate relationships.  Relationships take time and require leisure.
• Distinguish the important from the trivial.
• Learn to say ‘no’.

So maybe Mark’s lesson is – Let there be spaces in your togetherness, your living, your busyness. Even your ‘good and helpful’ busyness. Maybe this morning Mark’s story is not about the so-called ‘biggies’… such as feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, or grain that produces at the rate of 100 times, for example. Rather it is about getting an ‘OK’ for the very human need for ‘space’ in our lives.

Maybe we are encouraged to learn to create ‘spaces. And let us all learn to use them well.


“…for the pillars of the temple stand apart,
and the oak tree and the cypress grow not
in each other’s shadow” (Gibran 1969).

Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. 2004.  Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. NZ: Masterton. Fraser Books.
Gibran, K. 1926/1969.  The Prophet. GtB: London. Heinemann.
Cobb, Jr, J. B.; B. G. Epperly, P. S. Nancarrow. 2005. The Call of the Spirit. Process Spirituality in a Relational World. CA: Claremont. P&F Press.

rexae74@gmail.com