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‘Life Beyond Complacency’

Posted: January 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘Life Beyond Complacency’       

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has become an important theme in church life. In fact, it could be said that it is in the very fabric or DNA of the church and this makes it hard to conceptualize any other way of being. But I want to try because I think the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth is calling us to do so.

The first place I want to start is with an assumption, and that is that we need to defend the faith so to speak. This defense has become so ingrained that we have lost sight of what the historical Jesus was on about. I don’t think he was on about saving Judaism, his faith, but rather about challenging it to move away for its assumptions and its complacency and arrogance. We might visit what is known as Apologetics (from Greek meaning, “speaking in defense”. Apologetics is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. Early Christian writers (c. 120–220) who defended their beliefs against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called Christian apologists. In 21st-century usage, apologetics is often identified with debates over religion and theology. Another claim is that apologetics is the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.

One might say ‘Through zealous advocacy or support of a particular cause. I arrived in a state of high evangelism” In Christianity, evangelism is the commitment to or an act of publicly preaching the gospel with the intention to propound the message and teachings of Jesus Christ. … In addition, Christian groups who encourage evangelism can be referred to as evangelistic. Just look at the recent debacle in the USA as the credibility of the Christian Gospel has been the servant of political power.

And the irony of it all is that no one is unreachable when it comes to seeking Jesus’ love, grace and hope. Having a God or a Jesus-confidence doesn’t mean we need to have everything figured out. Just like being a Christian doesn’t mean we won’t struggle, in life. it means we won’t struggle alone. Because we are human and we should not deny that or seek to escape from it. The Gospel is surely to enable us to live it more abundantly or as Jack Spong puts it, ‘Love wastefully”.

This morning’s story by the storyteller we call Mark, is one such story.
The calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John is an evangelism event. A calling event. And by implication, the commencement of a movement which centred on the character and teachings of the wandering sage we call Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus certainly had followers.  Both men and women. It was one of the most common ways in which teaching and learning took place. The call was not as we have intensely made it about converting others to believe as we do but rather as calling people to walk the way, to live life free from complacency, free from the prisons of institutionalisation, free from culture assumptions. Not to deny their existence or banish them from one’s mind like some magic exorcism but to creatively live them differently.

And one of those assumptions we note is that while we can learn something of the roles men took in this process, from the various stories in our biblical tradition, the role women took goes almost unnoticed until we read the Gospel of Mary – which didn’t make it into the biblical collection. Is another assumption that only a male approach to spreading the good news is appropriate? Is there a feminine approach to spreading the good news?

What we do seem to admit is that we doubt whether Jesus actually took the initiative and carried out a recruitment drive, with the intention of organising a movement. I tend to agree with those who claim Jesus was a wandering or itinerant sage without organisational intentions, and who never intended to found a movement much less a church.

He was I think a Jesus who was thoroughly consumed in the religious/political concerns of his own time and place. He knew his Judaism, he knew his culture and its place in the world. He knew the power points in his society and he saw an alternative way of being in this world.

I think he was a Jesus whose focus was not on some mystified realm beyond time,
nor on some present or future world which we simply appreciate or accept. Rather, he was a man whose focus was on a new realm of God here and now, and ready to emerge.  (Coverston 2005)

So, what we have in this particular story this morning, is more the hand of the storyteller Mark or a particular community, rather than a record of one of the actual deeds of Jesus.

Either way, storyteller Mark seems to have a collection of stories and sayings and theological reflections, some probably written fragments, but most retold and remembered from oral telling, and is weaving all of them together.  Adapting and weaving them together with a particular purpose in mind. That purpose being for that small community he was speaking to could honour Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets… That they could hear a link between “Jesus’ ministry and John’s preceding one” (Cairns 2004:16) and that they could hear and understand, remember and be empowered as people of the Way.

Not an alternative religion because that would lead to defense of it but rather a new Way.

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has also been associated with the evangelical missionary endeavour of ‘saving souls’. Certainly, that is how many preachers have understood the metaphor, spoken exclusively it would seem to Simon and Andrew: ‘make you fishers of men’ or the more inclusive, ‘…people’. But this metaphor is not only very tired and outdated,
it is also, I suggest, a misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and teachings.

I wonder if you might consider a few suggestions on all this?

Scholar Ched Myers, in his comments on this story, offers an important and different interpretation, which suggests phrases like ‘fishers of men’ and ‘hooking of fish’ are (Hebrew prophets) euphemisms for judgement upon the rich.

Myers says initially: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”.

And again: “…following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple… This is not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice.” (Myers 2008: 132-133)

Not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice. Those words by Myers resonate with me. Because they suggest to me that being a disciple in the 21st century requires us to engage in both social analysis as well as theological reflection. And in so doing, to be reminded that the biblical and extra-biblical stories we hear and study and speculate about, are not just earthly stories with heavenly meanings, but earthy stories with heavy meanings!

Last week I spoke a little about the American celebration called Martin Luther King Day, a celebration more at home in America.

Some years back, journalist James Carroll, wrote an article called ‘The Dream and its Enemies’. In it he suggested that while the outright racism of white supremacists was one of King’s enemies, “almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.” (Carroll. ‘Globe’, a New York Times Co. 2008)

Carroll went on: “This nation honours Martin Luther King Jr today because of what he forced on it.  Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth.  Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible.  King’s work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.” (Carroll)

Not a call ‘out’ of the world, but ‘into’ an alternative social practice… One wonders if New Zealand’s approach to equality and justice can also become a call into an alternative social practice? The numbers of Maori in prisons and in gangs suggests we are not doing all that well. We have either become trapped in the world of complacency or blinded to any alternatives by lack of faith.

Discipling, as the storyteller we call Mark suggests, is about accepting the urgent invitation to ‘break with business as usual’.  To re-imagine the world, both personal and communal. In our time might it not also suggest that complacency, in all its forms, is the last thing we should fall into.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. New Zealand: Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Coverston, H. S. “Ears to Hear? Who is my Neighbour? Preaching with Integrity and Moral Reasoning”. Seminar Papers, Westar Institute, Fall. Santa Rosa, 2005.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.

rexae74@gmail.com

‘I Have a Dream!’

Posted: January 12, 2021 in Uncategorized

John 1:43-51

‘I Have a Dream!’

About this time of the year many Americans celebrate a national holiday in honour of the black Baptist preacher and civil rights leader, Revd. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Many will again remember his 1963 March on Washington, and the magnificent oratory of “I have a dream!” delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 28 August 1963…

Many will remember the recent political event on Capitol hill that killed a young woman protester that will sully the celebrations and highlight the destructive segregation that exists in our communities.


Kings words: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood…  I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… 

(MLKing).

While both the man and that moment merit celebration, it is obvious to many that there has been for several years now, a difference of opinion surrounding the celebrating and the remembering. There was a comment some years ago now, that said:
“Brother Martin spent a fair amount of time in jail, but his worst imprisonment may be how his own nation has frozen him in that moment in 1963.  Our national memory wants that triumphant, sun-drenched hero to stay right there, static, bound to the podium before the adoring crowds.  We want to be lulled into contentment by his beautiful words, his familiar cadences.  We want to keep him safely, unthreateningly, on a pedestal”

(Harding 2001)

And the American poet Carl Wendell Homes, Jr. who was only in his 20s when King was assassinated, articulated this domestication of King eloquently: “Now that he is safely dead Let us praise him build monuments to his glory sing hosannas to his name. “Dead men make such convenient heroes: They cannot rise to challenge the images we would fashion from their lives. “And besides, it is easier to build monuments than to make a better world.”

There is something of an indictment for us in those words “It is easier to build monuments than to make a better world…” So, what is a dream and how does it work? Well, I trolled the internet and found this;

dream is a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. The content and function of dreams are not fully understood, although they have been a topic of scientific, philosophical and religious interest throughout recorded history.

Another comment is that dreams seem to speak into and from and about  ‎’Cultural meaning’  · ‎’Neurobiology’ and ‘Function’.

And still another and one I think I prefer.

‘Dreams are drifts of the imagination, as if one imagines imaginary clouds in the sky. And Visions are scripted efforts to effect change. Dreams and Visions occur personally and organizationally’.

I think I like the third one because it encompasses the others and provides the spiritual connection with imagination, and allows the claim that love changes things. If that which we name God is the energy that sustains everything then dreams are involved at both a conscious level and a non- conscious level, or better still ‘they are a pathway at the interaction between the individual consciousness and the collective consciousness. Of course, I could be wrong and better minds than mine might say it differently.

It might seem a bit strange to the reader also but in thinking about the efficacy of dreams I began to think about what it means to be human and subsequently to the future of the human species.one aspect of which is called ‘transhumanism. I found David Galston’s, book entitled God’s Human Future’ helpful here. He explores, the theological concerns by suggesting that transhumanism might be a new posthumanism that takes the form of the Psalmist’s great question from centuries ago, “what are humans” (Psalm 8:4)? He reminds us that the Psalmist’s question is not about an individual but about the human family. It is a question about God’s creation as a whole and the human place in the whole. From antiquity the Psalmist poses a question about futurity. To what extent ought human beings manipulate the image of God, which is who they are? Like any person who faces this question, a theologian will hold hesitancy, be unsure, fear, but also hope. Is our collective posthuman future something to celebrate or something to worry about?

‘Galston’ suggests that the “image of God” as a metaphor offers some guidance. In traditional Christian philosophy, the “image” is the purpose (the aim of the form) of human creatures. Remember, a “form,” from Plato, is the perfect image of a material thing. Everything that exists in the world is imperfect, but everything that exists, that is seen, participates in its form, its unseen perfection. In Christian philosophy, traditionally stated, the image of God is the form God created for human beings. The image of God is what we are meant to be perfectly in our everyday imperfections.

In the Bible, of course, the philosophical understanding of the image is not present. For biblical writers, the image of God is more active than passive. It is the way God forms human beings. It is the life or breath that God gave human beings to make them human. All human beings are brothers and sisters because all alike are the image of God, the life of God’s creative act. All human beings, we could say, are divine soul-bearers or energy-bearers, according to the Bible.

The image of God, understood philosophically or biblically, is important to theology and to the question of transhumanism because it asks to what extent does the human experience with technology alter the image of God in human beings? There is no single answer to this question. Insofar as technology enhances life, then it enhances the “image of God,” which, biblically speaking, is the energy of life. But if technology destroys life, then it destroys the “image of God” in life. When we think of it this way, we are delivered back to the classical humanist value of autonomy: to what extent are human being responsible for their own future?

Theology places the “image of God” into the question of futurity Galston says. Theology says that the transhumanist effort to form a posthuman future must be a communal question because the “image of God” is a question about the value of the human family. It is not a question about the value of technology.

Bringing this back to dreams and dreaming it has to be said that dreams are ‘the stuff of life’  In their interwoven connection with imagination they are involved it life at its very core. They give life to, monitor and manage along with imagination what is and what is to be.

In 2011 I think it was, America was preparing to unveil a 30 foot granite statue of King
in the National Mall honouring African Americans, only to cancel the unveiling at the last minute
due to the approaching Hurricane Irene. (The 28 August 2011 marked the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic speech).

About the monument one newspaper report said: “The MLK Monument is meant to encourage the visitor to move, literally, from despair toward hope.  The design is clearly based on the quote from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that reads: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”   With this in mind, the visitor approaching the monument is forced to pass through the Mountain of Despair, which stands like two forbidding sentinels, or to my mind, two sides of the threatening Red Sea, parted by God as Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage” (Huffington Post, 8/2011).

The making of a different and better world, verses the making of a national monument! King’s ‘dream’ was not a cosy, sweet, abstract idea. It grew out of and flowed back into the practical, active work and struggle for social inclusion and transformation.

Indeed, ‘dreaming’ helped inspire an African-American seamstress called Rosa Parks, to refuse to give up her seat to a white man on a bus that December day back in 1955… A courageous act which triggered a 381-day black boycott of the bus system and ignited the modern civil-rights movement led by King.

The nature of the dream is highlighted by the fact that 53 years later this same ‘dreaming’, it is claimed, helped elect America’s first black man Barak Obama to the US presidency and it  also helped the election of Donald Trump as well.

Our story today from the biblical text is the storyteller John with his story about a dreamer.  A bloke called Nathanael. And his dream of ascending and descending angels is reminiscent of another story – the story of Jacob’s ladder. So what’s this all about?

New Testament scholar William Loader has looked at this puzzling story and offered this comment: “Jesus doesn’t want the big crowds running after him… he wants to lead them, as he led Nathanael, beyond amazement at miracles… to wonder at what they symbolise, the life he offered and now made universally available… through the witness of the community of faith and its action”

(WLoader/Website 2009).

My experience at the Theological Hall when training for Ministry led me to be sceptical about Johns Gospel because of its heavy post Easter Jesus and its Roman and Greek influence on thinking. I have to say that subsequent reading has cast it in a different light. Like many Jack Spong’s book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, has softened opposition somewhat. Upon reflection on this I suspect I have always felt more of a closeness to the ‘historical’ Jesus (when that is possible) in the Synoptics and Thomas, than to the 1st century symbolic and deep Christological – even Gnostic – theology of John. I have to admit that I have a new appreciation of the Gnostic material these days.

Theologian Walter Brueggermann’s, claim that John often reveals the “counter-imagination of Jesus”, certainly interests me. That I can relate to. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Jesus. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Barack Obama. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Rosa Parks. The ‘counter-imagination’ of Martin Luther King, Jr. makes sense. So it seems that there’s more to this ‘dreaming’ than meets the eye!

What is clear is that the collective conscious, is a fascinating filed of discovery. The question we ask is ‘what is it that haunts the minds of dreamers? I admit it is a big question and too big for this brief sermon.

A story and a poem Rex Hunt shared in a sermon some years back now might help ground that question in our common experiences. What is in the mind of dreamers?

First the story.

A neighbourhood church, well established, had been around for at least 40 years. Then a new congregation of the same denomination started about five klm away, in another suburb. Within five years, the new congregation had grown larger than the 40 year established congregation,
and had completed a building program, which they expanded just a few years later.

A major difference between the two congregations was the new congregation was a ‘progressive’ niche church, always pushing theological boundaries, and looking for the new and different things they could do as a congregation.

The older congregation, called an ‘established’ or ‘traditional’ church tended to look to the past and the good things they had done ‘back then’ as a congregation.

In her Report to the Synod office the Intentional Interim minister wrote about the traditional church: “It is hard to move them into the future when their ‘dreaming’ is always looking backwards”.

And now the poem

“Some day
when nobody
expects it,
when the world
is busy
doing worldly things
and not really watching
the edges of creation,
on some wonder day
shall
love be born
again.

“And on that
Beautiful Day
the promise
shall be fulfilled,
that now haunts
the minds
of
dreamers.”  

Bill Comeau/LP.

On that day the promise shall be fulfilled, that now haunts the minds of dreamers… On that day when the ‘counter-imagination’ of Jesus of Rosa of Martin, of Barack – shall be fulfilled.

When love, inclusiveness, community, are born again on the edges. Is that not what haunts all dreamers? And what of us.  Do we also dare to say… when the ‘counter-imagination’ of our faith community as a niche, progressive church, shall be fulfilled? If not, why not?  The time is ripe!

So, The invitation is to ponder and more importantly, ‘to dream”.

Notes:
Bill Comeau. “Some Beautiful Day. A Rock Celebration of the Life of a Dreamer named Jesus.” New York. Avant Garde Records

David Galston. +God’s Human Future The Struggle To Define Theology Today .Polebridge Press 2016

rexae74@gmail.com

Recognising the Sacred

Posted: January 7, 2021 in Uncategorized

Recognising the Sacred

We have all seen them. Walking briskly with briefcase and mobile phone in tow,
weaving in and out of pedestrians along the footpath as they go from appointment to appointment. Company representatives. Sales people. Public servants. Even ministers of religion. With bible in hand its spine cupped in the hand as if a natural appendage belonging to the carrier.

Rex Hunt tells a story of a group of computer salesmen going from Newcastle to Sydney to take part in their annual State one-day sales meeting. They assured their spouses they would be home in plenty of time for dinner. But, with one thing or another, the meeting ran over time so they had to run to Central Station, tickets in hand.

As they rushed through the ticket terminal area, one man inadvertently crashed into a table supporting a display of fruit. Without stopping they all reached Platform No. 10 and the train – just, and boarded it with a sigh of relief. All but one. He paused, got in touch with his feelings, and experienced a twinge of compunction for the youth whose fruit stand they had caused to almost collapse.

He stepped off the train, waved goodbye to his companions and returned to the ticket area where he helped pick up the scattered fruit. He was glad he did.  The youth was blind. As he picked up the fruit he noticed several of the peaches and pears were bruised. He reached into his coat pocket, took out his wallet, pulled out some money and said to the youth: “Here, please take this $20 for the damage we did. “I hope it didn’t spoil your day too much”.

As he started to walk back towards the platform to wait for another train, the bewildered youth called out to him: “Are you Jesus, or something?”

Mark the gospel storyteller has told his story this morning.  And we have accepted his invitation and told another story in reply. In that story Mark invites his listeners to see the present-ness of the sacred, of G-o-d, in Jesus…  He says: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” But Mark is not here and we are a different people in a different time.

Our challenge now is to ask the question: How can we translate that into a daily recognition of the present-ness of the sacred in every person? For most of us, that can be a bit hard. And It is my suggestion that one of the factors in our difficulty is that the church since Augustine’s time has been in error in the way it has portrayed the humanity of Jesus. The Orthodox Christian expression of Christianity has made him significant because he died rather than lived. The Christ of faith in essence has denied the humanity of Jesus to the point that we have become dependent upon the supernatural and a Theism that denies any questioning of the deity of Jesus at the expense of the connection with the Jesus of history. This has the effect of separating humanity from the divine potential and thus making it difficult to see the sacred in everyday life and in each other.

Another story. This one from the Roman tradition. It is time for the evening service to take place and Freddy is sitting in the church very drunk. He sits in the church alone, abusing our loud. Nobody else is there yet but shortly after they begin to arrive for the evening service. Freddy becomes more abusive and aggressive so that it is inappropriate to begin the service. Conversation swells and consensus is that Freddy has to go.

Things were proceeding fairly well and Father Ernie is coaxing Freddy to the door. They are almost there when ‘all hell breaks loose’ and foul language is directed at the priest;
threatening to hit him and kick him, blaming him for so many things and finally, spitting at him.

“Through all this,” said Fr Ernie Smith, “I remained externally calm. Inwardly I felt both angry and a little frightened. “What a relief it was when Freddy left the church and I closed the side door behind him. Now, on with the service.”

Crash.  Freddy has returned and started to kick in the door of the recently restored   church. “Now I showed my anger externally”, Fr Smith said. “A bit of a chase ensued and then he was gone again. “It was difficult to compose myself after this.”

Ernie reflects that this was the grog presenting a facade. The dignity of the man was hidden. “I saw him later,” Fr Smith said, “and gently reminded him of this episode, but he had no memory of it”(Smith 1994).

The question we are left with is ‘how can we translate that into a daily recognition of the present-ness of the sacred in every person?

At a macro and theological level I think that we need to challenge the assumptions we have built up over many years about the humanity of Jesus. He is significant for faith not because he died, not because of Easter and a post Easter priority but rather a Christmas or an incarnational priority. He was born as one of us, Emmanuel – God with us- priority and not a God who is supernatural and beyond our humanity. If you are wondering about making God in our image about here then you might be missing the sacred in every person.

At a micro and individual Freddy level this means breaking down the façade that keeps us from seeing the God-given dignity of every person, and recognising the present-ness of the sacred in others – especially those who are suffering.  When you shake hands with the heroin addict or the street prostitute can you see the Christ in them?

“Hey Wally, what are you doing down here tonight?” After all, he isn’t well and he has a room in one of the Mission houses. Here he is out on the street. “You’ve got a room to go to, so get yourself into gear and go home”. This is crazy that he should be out on a cold night. “Come on, get home.”

And then he gets a chance to speak. “I can’t go home, Father.  Frank’s crook and he as nowhere to stay, so I’ve given him my room for the night. “I’ll be right” (Smith 1994).

The Jesus of history does not have to return as God because he is already present in the sacred in every person…. as the parables tell us. It is in the poetry of the human Jesus’ parables and we should not reduce them to silence and lock them up in our rituals of salvation. See the sacred in the person and the incarnation make real sense. Amen.

Notes:
Crotty, R. E Smith. 1994. Voices From The Edge. Mark’s Gospel in our World. Melbourne. CollinsDove.

Galston, David 2016 God’s Human Future The struggle to Define Theology Today. Polebridge Press

rexae74@gmail.com

John 1:1-14

Epiphany: ‘Almost” The Life-Force in Every-Day Life.

Sometimes I label myself as an ‘Anatheist’ which for me means that I am someone who is no longer satisfied that Theism or Atheism are concepts that point to a helpful way of understanding God in this contemporary age, The path I want to take to understand who what or if God is occupies my mind.  I have come to a number of conclusions and the first is to affirm the stance that God is and that naming God, with the name God is no longer adequate. It has led me to a place where the name ‘Almost’ for God is a possible way of moving on from what to me seems to be the prison of the name God. God is more than this and those of us who use Words like Force, source and Spirit or Energy are indicative of the need to find emphasis on the is-ness, or the living evolutionary dynamic that we understand life to be. This my title for today ‘Almost’ or freed from the prison of existence to become timeless, formless and living and as Life force this means in every moment of that which we call life, not as mentor, or judge or even helper but rather the very dynamic life-throb of all things.

When I think about this and articulate them I find myself excited about what it means to be human and to explore the possibilities of consciousness. For me they paint a vibrant picture of what a lot of the current God-talk could be about and what the Season of Christmas is all about and when it comes to Epiphany it is about the discovery for oneself what this does for living one’s life. One sees that love does change everything and that our world could be a place of honesty, integrity and where peaceful adventuring takes place.

And here we are in our liturgical or lectionary journey. We have moved through the 12 days of the Festival of Christmas into the Season of Epiphany. Traditionally, Epiphany has been tied to the visit of the international Wise Ones. But it is much broader than that.
Epiphany is also about celebrating the experience of God’s present-ness in all things.  From the daily tasks of parenting, working, relaxing, to remarkable experiences of insight and wonder… And the mystery of the universe: why there is anything at all, rather than nothing (Goodenough 1998:11).

In Religious Naturalism/Process Theology terms, in the Season of Epiphany, we open ourselves to divine omni-presence and divine omni-activity. In my attempt at theology the ‘Almost’ is the divine experience of real human living which is within ambiguity, uncertainty, chance unexpectedness which I encapsulate in the word serendipity reflecting the randomness of the arrival of the cosmic world and the randomness of human existence. Without to serendipity of life there is no life as we know it and ‘Almost’ depicts this event as that which John D Caputo says is not existence but rather insistence. Naming seems to assist with existence and thus becomes like us and insistence seems to assist with a calling to life. God insists and life responds. Rex Hunt calls this Creativity God and I call it Serendipitous creating, an ‘Almost’. Almost encourages a response and our existence as human is a response. In the presence of Almost or serendipitous creating we are gently persuaded in every encounter to live this wonderful life.

One could say that the God of John the storyteller, while more sophisticated theologically than by either Luke or Matthew or Mark, is dynamic and relational. In the God of John the storyteller we repeatedly encounter a multi-moving, acting God. A ‘verb’ rather than a ‘noun’. Here we have the acknowledgement that language is what we use to create our world.

This has encouraged Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly to ask:  Why must ‘God’ be a noun?  Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all?  …The anthropomorphic symbols for God may be intended to convey personality, but they fail to convey that God is Be-ing and not a being. It can then be said that Epiphany unveils and celebrates the present-ness of this lively, innovative Creativity in everyday life. God or “Almost’ is the life-throb of all things. Almost in language suggests the certainty of an arrival, the random reality of that arrival and the dynamic yet to be and promise in that arrival. It also suggests potential where there is the discovery of the already there and here, the cyclical, linear, reality of naming a timelessness.

Borrowing again from Rex Hunt’s work is the story of Luke Skywalker, the young super hero of Star Wars, who is putting on his flight gear for the climactic battle with the Death Star that threatens to destroy the last remains of a brave rebel force.

His somewhat cynical friend, Han Solo, who is packing a space freighter to escape before the uneven battle, pauses for a moment and then says with a kind of awkward voice,
‘May the Force be with you!’

This phrase has become well know and used ever since the movie come out some years ago now and used in many circumstances. May the Force be with you, assumes there is a force and that it can be known by the recipient as if there is a touching on a truth which we in the church have either lost or have never known. Maybe be we have trapped it in the naming of it as God the noun, whereas we might have seen it as an event, a moving complex dynamic living event. A verb as opposed to a noun. A sense of the dynamic that is not seen or heard in most of the traditional words in addressing God or the Sacred.

The storyteller John uses dynamic and relational (be they anthropomorphic) words and images.  And in general terms so too does the whole of the biblical tradition:
bringing, gathering, consoling, leading, understanding, granting, scattering, choosing, forgiving. Maybe the western obsession with reason and literalism has taken from the words the living nature of the divine and made it something we want to own, and claim as opposed to that which enlivens. In these multiple dynamic actions, God is always affirming, and in all these many ways, creation is always the subject of God’s great demonstrations of affection. As Loving God changes everything and Almost depicts this as a living dynamic event. Creation itself.

But returning to our text its is so that we have become a bit stuck when we hear the English translation, ‘word’. In the beginning was the Word… The Word was with God…
The Word was made…

In English, ‘word’ has often been given the meaning of sounds or its representation in letters put together for oral or written communication. Printed word. Radio word. But the Hebrew word for ‘word’ is ‘dabhar’ which, according to Matthew Fox and others, means divine creative energy (Fox 1995). The storied word. The word that gave birth. Those of you who are right-brain thinkers will probably have already resonated with this and made a connection. For the Hebrew ‘dabhar’ is about the creative, the imaginative, the heart, the feeling.

And this divine creative energy is more than just a concept. Epiphany also reminds us that the ‘word’ is made flesh. It lives among us. Moves within and between and among all things. Inspiring us to think and sing and dance with integrity and historical honesty.

As we begin a new year together, and in the spirit of this divine creative mystery, we call God and I call ‘Almost’ there are some observations that were first inspired by ‘Jesus Seminar’ theologian, the late Robert Funk, which I wish to echo and own (FourthR).

I like many others am encouraged by those ordinary Christians who are unwilling to continue to indulge in theological double-talk, by preferring to address the real questions that perplex all of us…

• I am embarrassed by any pronouncement that does no more than reaffirm the absolute superiority of the Christian religion over all other forms of religious expression, and even refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of other Christian churches…

• I am worried by the failure of the scholarship of other religions in an age where learned people do not counter unfounded claims to truth and domain.

• I am alarmed by those who endorse, in the name of Christianity, the misunderstanding of religious experience called fundamentalism and literalism (MFallon), which leads ultimately to intolerance, the unfettered use of legislation, and war to enforce its convictions…

And I endorse the truly energetic creative word of God, ‘dabhar’, which will not be imprisoned, will not be locked up. And maybe even allow the word ‘Almost’ to be a credible extension in the use of language to depict this dynamic relational creating event that is our human life.

Our universe (or Creation, to use the traditional) is as ongoing as we are. As vast as our experience of it.  Ursula Goodenough writes: “Emergence is inherent in everything that is alive, allowing our yearning for supernatural miracles to be subsumed by our joy in the countless miracles that surround us” (Goodenough 1998:30).

Our task, I would suggest, like my friend Rex Hunt has argued is to get out of its way enough that we might be filled with it and go about our task of healing, celebrating, and co-creating. As for the new year, we can only wish for peace:  in the world, and in our lives. See! ‘Almost’ (God) is the life-throb of all things. Amen.

Notes:
Fallon, M. 1993. Fundamentalism. A Misunderstanding of Religious Experience. Eastwood. Parish Ministry Publications.
Fox, M. 1995. Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality. New York. Harper & Row.
Goodenough, U. 1998. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York. Oxford University Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Doug Lendrum 2020 ‘Almost’, A Memoir -Otherwise Publishing

A Church Under Construction

Posted: December 21, 2020 in Uncategorized

Luke 2:22-40

A CHURCH ‘UNDER RECONSTRUCTION’…

Rex Hunt of whom I quote often tells a poem called ‘Under reconstruction’ written by Thomas Troeger. That reminded me of much of the talk around St David’s old church building when we were trying to plan its long-term future. While the fabric of the church in the poem may not be the same the story does ring bells of similarity and even the reconstruction phase that has yet to begin suggested similar experiences were in store. Maybe even the God Shaped Hole might be the even older wooden church.

Some said
there had been too much rain
and the roof
long cracked after years of stress
gave way from water seeping in.

Others said
what fell from the heavens
had nothing to do with it,
that the church walls
had pushed out toward the street
so that the massive stained glass window of the Almighty Father
had fallen in and left a hole,
a silhouette of the icon
that used to command the whole church
from high above the nave.

Services now
were held under the God-shaped hole:
prayers said
hymns sung
infants baptised
sermons preached
offerings made
communion celebrated
couples wed
the dead remembered.

Meanwhile reconstruction began,
but it turned out harder than planned.
Some folks had taken home
bits of the original window
as a piece of devotional or historical curiosity,
and when it was discovered
there was not enough left to restore
the original ancient grandeur,
debates erupted if they should even try
to recreate what was lost.

Some said
they should begin and finish the project
as quickly as possible
because people were not coming as they used to
since the window had collapsed.
Others pointed out
new people were entering the church
curious about the place
in a way they never were before.
And these newcomers joined
with those who had always been scared
by the window’s fierce eyes
to suggest they replace the old image
with a new one.

The differences about what to do
broke into conflict
so that for now the construction
was nearly halted,
though some workers
tried to assemble the roof in bits and pieces.

But without an overall plan
nothing would stay put.
Even the stars from another section
that surrounded the hole
began to fall from the ceiling
so that another group of folk arose
suggesting they take down the entire
edifice and start all over anew –

except that the most devout
could not bear to lose 
this or that pulpit 
or rail where they had prayed so long
and the carpet worn so thin
by the knees of many generations.

So for the time being
all that was done
was to rope off the area beneath
the God-shaped hole
to make sure no one was hit by a piece of falling glass
that would fall from time to time
from a cracked angel or star,
and to pray
that people would keep coming
while the church continued to be,
as the sign alerting those who entered said:

Under Reconstruction.  (Edited. Tom Troeger)

In thinking about the future of the church buildings I reflected on the attempts over the years to renew the church, on the face of it most meant the organisation we call the church with a smattering of ecclesiastical images of the church universal and the ‘Body 0f Christ’. That which one was baptised into which is more that just what you see.

Some might remember some of those campaigns such as Church Life Renewal, Church Growth, and a myriad of conferences, gatherings retreats seeking to change things. Some might remember the top-down attempts at implementing change, The Mission Resource Board, The Co- Directors of Mission, of which I was one actually. Strategies to revive the church as more and more people identified in the census that they were non-religious. Saddly the days of centrally funded work was struggling as people found other priorities for their funds.

Even the naming of new ventures was tried such as moving for NCUC (National Council of Uniting Churches) To Churches together, to Forum of Ventures to UCANZ (Uniting Churches of Aotearoa NZ). All I suspect are attempts to not only reflect the changes in thinking about the networking but also searches for renewal that recognise fewer and fewer people now consider church as part of their lives. Those who remain loyal still seek to be the kind of people who do ministry and mission in the new millennium, and they know it has to be done differently no matter how much some may have wished it was otherwise.

We talk about our lives and change as part of our existence. “Change is just part of life.

Life refuses to be embalmed alive.” Alfred North Whitehead

“The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human.” Pablo Casals.

“We have a technical name for people who do not change: dead.” Thomas Troeger

Church gatherings have declared that “it cannot be just more of the same.”
And we admit that that can be painful and unsettling.

Thomas Hawkins reinforces this invitation in his book The Learning Congregation. He compared the experience of life in both church and community with that of rafting in a permanent white-water situation. ‘Unlike rivers we may have travelled in the past,’ says Hawkins, ‘where the occasional experience of white-water is followed by patches of relative calm water, we are now navigating through an almost perpetual stretch of turbulent white-water.’  (Hawkins 1997)

He goes on to enumerate the different skills needed for white-water rafting when compared with rafting in calmer conditions. These skills include the need to sometimes work ‘counter-intuitively’…
to lean in towards the rocks rather than away from them in the swirling river. In other words:
do not just duck the dangers and challenges and hard decisions, but name and face and address them. Change is when life refuses to be embalmed alive!

Often today I think that the church has no longer any faith in itself. It has put up the shutters of survival and shut the world out. Churches are closing and no one knows what to do about it. It spends its time wrestling with questions of territory, “How can we maintain presence in that area or at least keep some property for future use? How can we do mission there? What is our mission?

We acknowledge that the task is daunting in its scale and its need of resources. It is also fragile and can be soul destroying. Do we ask the question. ‘Why is this way?’ I am not sure we ask because the answer is one of community, mass and the collective conscious perhaps and therefor a big picture question in a church world that no longer thinks big picture.

We are reminded that the biblical tradition is rich with stories of God calling individuals and nations to change – to be in a new and different place, but we can’t quite grasp what that means in a declining church or as I discovered when trying to get a congregation to ask questions about its theological assumptions, in other words why it needs a saviour? And does an ‘Almighty God have any authenticity today? They immediately found themselves in defence mode without thinking what it was they were defending. And to be fair many of us will find this ourselves.

What is perhaps forgotten is that biblical people were called to embrace change, not only in location, but also in attitude and behaviour. Some suggested examples;

• God’s call to Abraham and Sarah. “Leave your native land, your relatives and your father’s home and go to the country that I am going to show you”…

• Moses and the Hebrew people called to leave Egypt and journey to the promised land of Canaan…
• Jacob’s wrestling with God who gave him a new name and self-understanding. Jacob the ’deceiver’ becomes ‘Israel’: ‘he who struggles with God’…

• Israel’s 50 year exile in Babylon before returning to Jerusalem…

• The call of the disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John who left their nets and followed Jesus…
• Saul’s Damascus road experience that gave him a new name and self-understanding.

• Peter’s vision at Joppa that changed his attitude to the Gentiles, and opened the way for their inclusion into early Christianities…

If we can see the above not as nostalgic reflections but rather as a reminder of where we’ve come from. As an encouragement to maintain an openness to possibilities that have never occurred in the culture of this place; and as a way of introduction to another time of change… of reconstruction. We might just be taking a step forward rather than treading water while the ocean dries up.

Its about here that I introduce the idea that what makes the church more than an organisation is in fact its myth, its theological basis for existence and the energy or force that we call divine. It is more than, different from, and organisational different in that it is cross cultural, and inclusively unique. I like some others want to say that God does not exist because that is the human task. To materialize the divine or in this case the church whereas God insists, It is the calling out of the status quo, the survivalist mode, he organizational structures that we need to listen for. The God whom we say ‘calls people’ – calls us – to change, to be in new and different places, and to live in perpetual, turbulent, white-water conditions… and it also calls us to be alert and responsive,
as we seek to share in the reconstruction or I like to say the re-orientation of the church as an environment friendly to, encouraging of, and authentically valuing the human imagination… as a way to bring the seen and the unseen into view.

Advent is a perfect time liturgically to broach this need for living change and it provokes the questions we might ask ourselves such as “Does the decline in church attendance mean we are doing something wrong rather than good enough?

It is perhaps still possible that “Under reconstruction” is a vision that energized people in previous times and places. And it is very likely that it will today but perhaps its less about re-constructing the organisation and more about reconstructing our story.

Under reconstruction might also be a new year imagination, revealing possibilities within us
far greater than our historical local, conventional experiences will allow. Under reconstruction…
might be a vision that can energize people – today that might be to be unafraid of telling the Jesus story differently, perhaps in a way that is less about giving responsibility for joy, happiness and goodness to a theistic deity out there above all watching over us and more about exploring an ‘Emmanuel’ God; a God with us in our humanness.

Maybe its time we asked five very special words that someone saw sewn into a tapestry on a wall in a nursing home: “Don’t be scared of life”. This is a world of grace and grace is where there is salvation but only for an instant as is the claim of a weak theology as opposed to a strong one. A theology of the weak God that calls the human to step forward in certain hope in the co-creative task of manifesting the transcendence that only exists this side of death. Amen.

Notes:
Hawkins, T. The Learning Congregation. A New Vision of Leadership Georgia. Westminster John Knox Press. 1997
Troeger, T. H. Preaching While a Church is Under Reconstruction. Nashville. Abingdon, 1999.

rexae74@gmail.com

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

Luke 1:26-38

Born of a Young Woman; Mary’s Child

Today is the fourth and final Sunday in the church season we call Advent, and one has to admit to it being a season that needs all the encouragement and attention it can get, Under the mantle of commercialization lie many counter claims for our attention. I can remember in my childhood the questions of what does Christmas mean? Was it true? Did it really happen? And in a rest home recently I heard the lament of a person asking why the Christmas tree they say was covered in sneakers instead of the normal Christmas decorations. One could say that the why question is still with us or it could be that Christmas as a human story has run its course.

Underneath all this search for meaning, authenticity and search for a human story that speaks to our time, we have our 3 year lectionary which through-out the whole of this season, calls us to the spirit of the storyteller we call Mark, We have been in this advent time talking about the need to ‘stay alert’ in particular to the present-ness of the sacred or God, in the ordinary.

Through-out the whole of this season, and in the spirit of the storyteller we call Mark, we have continually tried to see that the ‘good news’ of Advent is about becoming more aware of, more sensitive to, the moments of grace in us and in our ordinary daily events. And the reason this has been important is that if we fail to see and value the ordinary as filled with opportunity, promise, hope, through the mundane, day t day activity and thought we will miss what actually is the grace that sustains the human species. One could say that this grace has the characteristics of Serendipity; unknown yet fiiled with possibility Creating; participation in the living breath of the planet we call home in the universe.

And so once again the hands of those who shaped our Advent lectionary, can be seen in yet another clue: the conscious creative conceptual entry point is through a maternal feminine story. Through a young woman whom we call Mary.

Bishop Jack Spong in his Weekly Letter some time back, says of Mary: “As the Christmas season arrives, the icon of the Virgin Mary enters the consciousness of the Christian world in a significant way.  She is universally recognized with her eyes lowered, the infant Jesus in her arms, and located in a stable… (This) Madonna and child have provided the content for many artists over the centuries” (Spong 15/12/2005).

Those who have been nurtured in Roman Catholicism and remember the Madonna statues in Catholic churches, will perhaps recognize this more readily. One could say that the protestant aversion to iconography and symbolism has sidelined the Mother archetype for many. Or maybe pushed it away into the supernatural realm of thinking. There is another famous statue may that perhaps has resisted that deification and that is Mary in the great Pieta, holding the broken body of her son. An image more akin to the reality of human existence, the fragile nature of human life, the precariousness of life on a moving shaking, evolving planet depicted in the human condition and the human concept of the need to procreate and the planet’s ability to house us all.

Generally speaking, those of us who are traditional Protestants seem to have a bit of a hang up about Mary. Or if not about Mary, then about what is often seen as the exaggerations of the Church of Rome, about Mary. The need for a divine son to have a divine mother so that the relationship between God and man can make sense. What if a supernatural son is not required and Mary, a young woman within her culture birthing a human child is the most religious and divine story one can find?

It can be said that Mary is important for both Protestant and Catholic and we shouldn’t just bring her out at the end of Advent and pack her up again with the Christmas tinsel and wrapping paper on the 26th!  From all we do and do not know (which sometimes is not much), a young girl, maybe as young as 12 or 13 or 14 years of age, – maybe the daughter of a peasant farmer who would have arranged the marriage – is betrothed (probably married) to a much older man, probably a widower, and suddenly finds herself pregnant. And that would have been one heck of a shock!

From all we do and do not know, Mary lived in occupied territory and during a world-wide demonstration of Roman imperial might, under the oppressive authority of the ‘divine saviour’ Augustus. This is a long way from the nativity-scene peasant-hood we find many wanting to erect in shopping centres and church foyers, at this time of the year. Maybe this is why the tree has sneakers on it?

Mar will have known what the Palestinians know today. Segregation. A minority place, and what it was to be a woman.

Maybe, instead of getting caught up in the modern fundamentalist debate and about the so-called historical factualness of a ‘virgin birth’, for instance, we might abandon it as a debate that ends up demeaning rather than honouring Mary. Supporting submission and surrender as the place of women and the romanitised paragon of compliance that has the potential of abuse.

Whatever we may choose to believe or not believe about a supernatural virgin birth or virgin conception, the world is not the phantom’ world of the traditional 19th century carols, even, and hers’s the rub, even if Luke believed it –

Like the deification of Jesus it should never be used as a disqualification of Mary’s humanity or womanhood, or for that matter, Jesus’ humanity or manhood.

So using the imagination of a storyteller, as did Mark before him when he spoke of John the ‘dipper’, Luke tells this story to give more status and honour to this ordinary woman, which in turn, gives even more honour and status and significance to Jesus.

Jesus… a child born of ‘middle-eastern appearance’, and from the moment of his conception a life is at risk because of cultural and religious issues. This is where the Jesus story hits home in all cultures and in all times. The world we create needs an awareness of our human ability to shape our world. A Christmas story that doesn’t need sneakers on its trees because it transcends those trees as part of the culture that needs questioning.

So at the end of this season called Advent, we ask again the question we implied on the first Sunday of this season: where is the ‘good news’? What is the Gospel for us today?

The numbers of people abandoning the church would suggest that the good news is not to be found in the spectacular, the dramatic, the supernatural but rather where it has always been: in us. In ‘ordinary’ us. In those like us.  And not like us. In the ordinary ways ordinary people can be someone through whom something serendipitous, creative, sustaining, and transformational, enters anxiety and stress and renews it.

This is the provocative challenge and the promise of Advent. A call to engage meaningfully in life. To Love wastefully. And to Be all that we can be. (John S Spong)

And that is an Advent word.  That is a word of courage, trust, peace and hope! Because Advent is rooted in our everyday experiences. With an incognito God I like to call a serendipitous creating, that sustains, renews and loves.

May we then, continue to be blessed, and be a blessing to others. And fall in love with life, again. Amen.

Notes:

Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. The First Christmas. What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Birth. New York. HarperOne, 2007.

Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.

Ludemann, G. Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and her Son Jesus. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 1998.

Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.

Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Preston. Mosaic Press 2013; Morning Star Publishing, 2014

rexae74@gmail.com

The Ordinary and the Symbolic

Posted: December 7, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 1: 6-8, 19-23

The Ordinary and the Symbolic

Of all the gospels in our religious tradition, Mark’s gospel is seen by several scholars as the most confrontational. It is full of questions which demands the reader decide. Who we stand with. What we believe in. How we will act. In its brevity, challenge to the status quo and its human story we are held to that old adage that short is best, more accurate and less encumbered by historical cultures.

But since it is such a short gospel, the church throughout Year B in the Lectionary (the church year we are now in) often borrows from John’s gospel – similarly aggressive and sure in its tone – not about the Jesus of history, but about the Christ of faith. And that is a very big difference. Especially in a western world where the fixation on the left hemisphere outcomes has led us to undervalue the symbolic, and short change what meaning means and can provide.

Whereas Mark’s writing was the earliest gospel to be written, it tends to be sharp, to the point, in its talk about Jesus and his teachings… John’s writing on the other hand,
comes after many years of deep theological reflection. Sadly the story of the Christian faith has opted to literalize and concretize the symbolic and this in turn seems to have locked it in a historical prison, unable to be questioned, interpreted and thus made applicable to all cultures and all time.

In John the sentences are longer and the images more contrived. And the ‘cosmic’ post-Easter Christ rather than the ‘earthy’ pre-Easter Jesus, seems all important to him. In  coming to John’s Gospel one has to accept here that that is a really different theology!

All of that is worth mentioning because, just when we were starting to get into the swing of Mark’s stuff in this new church year, we now leave all that behind. Indeed, we won’t have another reading/story from Mark until early January.

Having said all that; we now need to see if we can make something of today’s story. And where all this might touch on the season called Advent. Because Advent needs all the encouragement and attention it can get, and that it seems is because of the many counter claims for attention that consumes community at any given time.

John the ‘bather’, or ‘dipper’’ ‘as many seem to call him these days’ comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. Indeed, his voice is so dominate this young local bloke is regarded by many as a ‘prophet of doom’.

Still, the people of his day seem to take hold of what he has to say and as you might remember from reading of last week’s story from Mark, they go out – some 25 miles at least over several days – to listen to him. And for ‘these people’ we might read: the poor, the powerless ones, those on the edges of society – and it seems they hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’.

Theirs was a situation that needed a word of ‘hope’ as rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, was evident, and meant the crisis of debt and dispossession was growing deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. But we must also be honest and say that by the time John – the gospel writer was writing his stuff, there appears to have been some strife within the early Jesus movements over the place and importance of John the baptiser. Indeed some argued he had a religious insight not unlike that of Jesus of Nazareth. So, he was as important.  And his thinking should be given more attention.
Not so, claimed others. John the storyteller gives him a major reference.

We can imagine these debates became a bit heated at times. Like many church meetings can be! Some scholars reflecting on these debates have suggested Jesus started out as a follower or disciple of John. But, they conclude, John was seen by Jesus as too much of an alarmist. So, he, Jesus, left when he chose to follow a different dream.

It is poet and theologian John Shea who, by the way, captures this feeling well in his poem about John: The Man who was a Lamp.       

“John expected an axe to the root of the tree
        and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
        He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
        and along came a singing seed scatterer.
        He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
        then found a bridegroom on the bench.”

  (Shea 1993:177)

It seems John was a man of passionate devotion to the honour of God. A person of forceful words and not easily pigeonholed. A person who also attempts to address people’s fear in living. But in most ways the world of John and of Jesus is far from our 21st century world. And this difference needs to be acknowledged and taken into account every time we turn to the biblical stories, but especially during Advent.

First, we do not live in a theocracy, despite the desires of the Religious Right. This means that in their time God was perceived as directly involved in the personal and especially the social affairs of the people.

Today, in the western world at least, religion is not so pervasive. For most of us religion simple stands side by side with other factors of life… Sunday maybe is worship day. Monday is washing day. Thursday is shopping day, and so on. We plan out our lives to a rhythm of efficiency. Second, the ordinary person’s concern today is coping with life and making ends meet. The importance of reason means the more planning the better one has control over the complexity of life it seems? This means that God is not immediate to many of us unless there is some want or need, or tragedy interrupts. The constant consciousness of God is gone. Here again I suspect it is our literalization and concretization of Johns gospel that creates this. And God is not in the language of our greetings and partings. To hear ‘God bless New Zealand outside of the anthem would seem strange. to our ears. Thirdly, there is a tendency in our times to relate to religion as magic or superstition. Without the balancing of metaphor as legitimate portrayal of truth within our language this is especially true when it comes to the unexplainable or uncomfortable… Better to project it onto a being out there in charge rather than seek to explore it’s meaning. Sickness. Death. Family breakup and natural disaster, are pushed away as supernatural phenomenon. Finally, for many, religion is looked upon for its practical ‘DIY’ value. It is seen as useful for living an orderly and sometimes, peaceful life. But when it ceases to be practical, it can be discarded and called too theological, too scholarly and academic, too specialized.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent. Our Lectionary readings have been shaped in such a way we are now being confronted by a bloke called John the Baptiser. And he is no doubt a bit strange… John Shea in his poem goes on to say of him:

“a map of a man… 

Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion… 

(John Shea 1993:175)

A bloke called John.  An ordinary bloke. A bloke who relates best to other ordinary people.

But while it appears his voice is loud and his manner rough, on the simple face of it he seems driven by fear but his message is still essentially heard as one of hope: God wants to do great things – with ordinary people. For it is in the ordinary that we can sense the present-ness of God. In the ordinary that I spoke about a few weeks ago… In the ordinary… like the red orange glaze of a low-sunk sun. In the ordinary… like a rough diamond called John the ‘dipper’. 

Today, this third Sunday in Advent, so, let us remember that the creativity and wisdom we name ‘G-o-d’ is not concretized, not literalized, perhaps is better spoken of as ‘almost’, that which is living, yet to be, dynamic and filled with potential ‘almost’. And this God is not bound to a need to exist but rather manifests as insistence. This God insists, calls, invites, encourages and awakens and persuades, so great things can be achieved -through ordinary people like us. Maybe this is an Advent word. Maybe that is a word of hope! The human child Jesus born at the edge of society, a challenge to all that is transforms the world, not in it supernatural form but in its ordinariness. Ordinary and symbolic but not held apart by its name but insisting that the event of living must be paramount. The hope of advent is not bound by the existence of God but rather revealed by the living engagement of a God who insists, loves and lives within each of us so that the world of peace and life in all its abundance may exist.

God is no thing,

nothing,

without being

God is in everything

At the edge
God is every edge of choice

God does nothing
God does everything

God is freedom to do
God is urge to act

God does not exist
God is existence itself

God is change,
God is flow,
God is relationship:
In, with, and through.

God is love:
silently attracting,
never compelling.

God does not have power
God is power.

Unforced force

God is potential
transformation
God is in all relationships.

In the flow in all things,

even those that stand still

To know God is to see what is behind and within everything
To know God is to feel the allure of what could be,
To know God is to explore what is latent in the wonder of what is.

Doug Lendrum

Amen.

Notes:
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroads Publishing, 1993.

rexae74@gmail.com

Clear the Pathway!

Posted: December 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

Clear the Pathway!

Before I begin this sermon, I want to acknowledge Thomas and Laura Truby whose thinking is encompassed in what follows. This suggests I think that sometimes what one wants to say has already been said and all one can do is try to put it into one’s own words and thinking in an attempt to include others. Tall order but if we accept the gospels, we read then its ok. Today we find that the writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us what the book is about in the first sentence.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Very orthodox in its brevity it accepts the positive approach of Jesus the Gospel is good news) and the Romanization of the emperor. (The use of ‘Son of God; as descriptor). The first sentence is not even a complete sentence however as it is often noted that it is a “fragment, consider rewriting.”

It is however a clear statement.  The author is coming from a particular place.  There is no ambiguity about what he believes.  Right-off-the-bat we know this person, or this community for which he writes, have centered their lives in a relationship with a particular human being, Jesus Christ as “The Son of God.” 

It has the modern thinking as it sounds as though “Christ” is Jesus’ last name but we know that it really “Messiah” in the ancient Greek language, the language our author is using in his story.  So, we have a story, a gospel about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.  The people who wrote this story have experienced their relationship with Jesus as full of good news and the writer wants us to discover it.  We can wonder what this good news is and what it means for us to incorporate it into our thinking and consequently into our lives. 

Our sentence fragment says it is the “beginning.”  If it is the beginning what is the end?  It promises an answer and it suggests that this answer will be strange to our ears.  The end is the death and resurrection of Jesus and we are the beneficiaries of that end.  The story is about how this all came to be and how it already has and always will impact us.  

When the author wrote “the beginning” of the good news the reader already knew about the end.  It is all of one piece.  In the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end.  The metaphor is that the cradle and cross are made of the same wood.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are all dimensions of this gospel good news and we are about to hear the story of how this all works. 

In year B, the year we are just beginning, we study Mark’s gospel and we look forward again to exploring all that we might learn from reading it. We have an entire year to absorb its wisdom and consequently be changed by its perspective.  The lectionary will have us focusing on the Gospel of Mark with a sprinkling of the Gospel of John from now until the end of November, 2021.  The hope is that we will have an even fresher and more vital understanding of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, or the story of Yeshua of Nazareth who retold the story of humanity with promise, hope and an alternative way of living in the divine Way.  In the coming year I encourage you to read Mark’s gospel again and again.  Bathe yourself in its imagery and allow it to penetrate your imagination.

The second sentence after the “beginning of the good news” quotes Isaiah 40.  “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  The writer of Mark starts his story with a road straightener, a highway leveler; someone who goes ahead of the One coming, and pushes aside all artificial differences used to separate the high and mighty from the despised and lowly.

Here is the suggestion that there is always a time before, a different scene, We need to be careful here not to see it as a bad time about to be good for that is to reduce it to a behaviour story and it is more than that.

John the Baptizer, living outside, on the edge, recognizes no distinctions between people.  He is a wild man who wears camel hair clothing and a leather belt.  He eats grasshoppers and wild honey.  He is a combination of Crocodile Dundee and Billy Graham holding rallies in the wilderness, and people from the whole Judean countryside and lots of people of Jerusalem go out to him.  Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins he baptizes hordes of people in the River Jordan.  All of them confessing their sins and wanting to start life anew. He appeals to the people who struggle. And John the Baptist appears to be a powerful attracter.  People are moved to try harder in their effort to straighten out their lives.  They want to be different than what they are and think that hooking their star to this fierce and rugged outsider will accomplish this.  They allow John to baptize them and hope their actions will move them toward a new day.  Even as we hear this story, we know how it ends, and it does not end well for either John or Jesus.

Then John makes a statement that seems strange with his success. He makes a proclamation: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Even John the Baptist doesn’t understand the full import of what he is saying.  He knows he doesn’t have it in him to bear the full weight of all these people wanting to follow him.  Someone far stronger is needed; someone with a new way and a clearer vision.  He has given them all that he but more is needed. 

He thinks the “moreness” has to do with power—power defined in the usual way of being able to impose one’s will on another.  He cannot imagine any other kind of force in this cruel world.  The thought of power through weakness and the strength to forgive does not enter his mind.  It is beyond and outside his view.  He is aware that his view is limited and he thinks the new guy has something. He suggests that this guy Jesus will reveal it. For John it will have to be an outside intervention.

Somehow John the Baptist knows that trying harder doesn’t get you where you want to go even though this has been the message he has been proclaiming!  Something more, something different is needed.  He goes ahead of Jesus and clears his way by decisively showing that trying harder doesn’t make it.  It can temporarily change actions but it does not get to the heart.  It temporarily curbs desire but does not reshape it at its effervescent source. 

So how do we change desire?  How do we claim certainty for our future? John’s, answer, “Someone more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,” he will know how to change desire, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  The difference here is that John is about changing behavior, but Jesus is about changing the heart.  And Jesus changes the heart not by the same force of power but by something different, a power of love that is a weak power, a foolishness of power over and he suggests this might be in the forgiving of, the giving of, the service of,

John baptizes with water but this One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  What is this Holy Spirit? Well! It will take the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to reveal it.  Its clearest expression will be from the cross when the Messiah, the saviour, the answer to everything is totally vulnerable to extinction and he says “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”  The Holy Spirit is this way of weak power, this vulnerability, this desolate soul, in forgiveness. It is the way of weakness, that is the pathway of God’s power.

When we are “in the spirit” so to speak we live a life of constantly letting go of the hurts and revengeful impulses precisely because Jesus showed us how and did it himself in relation to us.  Yes, Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, the spirit of forgiveness.   Forgiveness has the capacity to change our hearts.  With the Holy Spirit within, we want to forgive for we know the depth to which we have been forgiven.  The artificial differences cease mattering.  We have freedom to live without worry, not because it doesn’t exist but because it can become turned around.

An attitude of forgiveness is when we feel forgiven and thus in tune with the universe and with that which we name God. This state of being anticipates the divine purpose.  It clears the pathways of our hearts.   Below is a poem written on Thanksgiving Day after clearing a path through the fallen maple leaves in front of a house.   The poet called it:  To a Passer-By on Thanksgiving Day in the USA. The poem explains what the author was doing with his heart when he cleared the sidewalk. 

Gentle Reader,

It is good that you have paused

Along your way, accepting

The silent invitation of these lines

For it was you I had in mind

When I sat to write these words,

You, holding a paper cup

Of lukewarm dark roast coffee

And a satchel filled with groceries,

Or you, clutching the dog’s leash

In one hand, with the other

Pushing a stroller around the corner,

And even you, whom I had not imagined in such precise terms

For you I drew my pen across the empty page

As earlier I drew my garden rake

Again and again through withered grass

And over the buried front walk,

Metal tines clawing wet concrete

Gathering sodden maple leaves,

Potent gift of high summer sun

Turning then returning now to earth

For you I cleared a solitary path

Prepared the way for your lonely passage

So that a mere moment of your journey

Through the detritus of this world

Might be blessed by an open space

Awaiting your arrival,

Conspicuous in its care,

This page inscribed in answer

To the ground now scraped bare.

In my memoir entitled “Almost” I explore this anticipation, this clearing the way as avoiding the potential of being trapped in a place of a fear driven power over world. I suggest that often naming something such as forgiveness, or love traps us in what is the current perception and the alternative image of the diving is more dynamic, living and time free than that. Below is my poem about the divine being found in the ‘Almost’ or perhaps in the spirit of what forgiveness seeks. The wonder beyond wonder so to speak. If one replaces the word almost with the word God or the words The Divine one sees the hope of walking a different path from what is, a more dynamic, moving, living way.

Almost is about something that is not yet

It is about to be but not yet

Its promise is in it’s all but

And its approximately

Almost is around and as good as

It is bordering on and close to

Always close upon and essentially about

for all practical purposes it is

and for the greatest part too.

Almost is in effect

And in the neighbourhood of

Assured to be in the vicinity of

Yet also just about and mostly

It is much to consider as

near to, nigh and not far from

Almost is not quite yet

on the brink of and at the edge of

It teeters on the point of

on the verge of practically and pretty near

relatively speaking it roughly describes

It substantially and virtually reveals

The well-nigh and within sight of

Mark has his story clearing a pathway for us, and this is just the beginning of the good news! Amen.

Rebirthing Christmas In a World hard to Christianize!

A hope-filled look.

Will Christmas survive the demise of Christendom? Will Christendom survive the decline in credibility of institutions? Will there be such a thing as church? What will the world look like in the future? All questions that covid-19 has heightened around the Western World that remind us of an age-old question. How can we sing in a strange land… when the warmth of Christmas is not from some domestic fire in an iron grate, but from the sun high overhead – 38 degrees celsius and rising?  Or when the Spring festival of new life called Easter ‘down under’, comes in Autumn, the season of little deaths when leaves turn gold, fall, and the grass has turned from green to brown? Our strange land is linked to the nature we experience day by day and the metaphor and story are linked as well.

Shaping a distinctive liturgical theology is and has been a recurring problem for us in Australia and New Zealand.  Because it is not as simple as it sounds.  The question has been shelved a little by the survival of some trees in the colder regions, where our national fore mothers and fathers were keen to replicate the English/European countryside.  So the thousands of imported trees do indeed change their colours in some glorious autumn seasons, and after a cold snap or two, lose their leaves by the millions.  But not every tree.  Not the native trees of Australia and New Zealand!

And while there is frost, and sometimes snow in some parts, there is no general closing down of the land. Climate change is also leveling out the differences. Spring, for instance, is not the land celebrating life from a winter-induced death, but rather the beginning of an intensification of colour. An all year round production seems nearer. 

So, as we begin our look at both Advent and Christmas we might think about the Christmas cards we used to send and in some cases still do. Today marks the beginning of the church season that comes before Christmas that we call Advent. It starts again and needs all the encouragement it can get because as with all  myths, stories and metaphor they need to touch ground with today’s cultural norms and the season needs to be Re-Birthed because of the many counter claims for attention in our world in these days.

So what is the ‘spirit’ of this season?  Well! listening to the storyteller we call Mark, the season is inviting all of us to ‘stay alert’, ‘keep awake!’—ears tuned, eyes open—but the question remains; to what?  Is it being awake to the presence of the sacred (or that which we name God) and is the awareness about that sacredness being in the ordinary.

Our text has Jesus saying to the disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. Here the task is being awake to something not realized, something new, something that is not expected. He goes on, talking to the servants left to mind the property; ‘It is like someone traveling abroad, who has gone from home, and left servants in charge, all with their own task, and has told the doorkeeper to stay alert. Here the event is part of the ordinary life patterns of the wealthy taking holidays and the servants left to be security guards looking after the assets. The punch line is then; ‘So stay awake, because you do not know when the owner of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. ‘If the owner comes unexpectedly, you must not be found asleep. What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ Here the return is not unexpected but the need is to be ready to carry on the ordinary servant tasks.

The challenge here is not looking for some so-called spectacular and mythical supernatural end times with a new beginning. The Re-Birthing is of the ordinary in the ordinary and the awareness is to be found in the ordinary as Re-Birthed. Nor is it in some ‘Frosty the Snowman’ pop song imagination.  But it is rather by Re-Birthing the God-given ‘incognito’ moments, in the ordinary. In the ordinary, as in flowering bushes or Pohutukawa. In the ordinary… like the sound of tree branches knocking together in the hot Summer wind. In the ordinary… like the summer rain, and the realisation it is not a singular thing this is a complex age. But rather rain is made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing. Complex is ordinary. In the ordinary… like a young woman called Mary or a bloke called Yeshua in his ordinary human-ness living an ordinary life in his part of the world. It was his ordinariness that contrasted with what impact he had on his world and the radical challenge he brought to his situation, So, much was this challenge about being aware in the ordinary of what he was saying and doing with his life.

In the ordinary… like the lovemaking songs of the cicadas, and the beckoning songs of the native birds we are being challenged to consider the need for a fresh awareness of our creative capacity. Be aware that inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings. The human creative mind continues to explore the boundaries of the ordinary in search of the new and discovering that it is always in the ordinary. In the ordinary we are being asked to be aware of what actually is available. How is one infected or inspired by hope. And not just an optimistic hope, but rather the more rugged hope that sayseven if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right “we will endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us  This call from the ordinary to watch and listen for the ordinary is a kind of hope that requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready outcome.

In today’s ordinary it is what we might call a Serendipitous Creating God who is creator, creation and the creating energy all in motion and it acts in and through the ordinary in other words us and others who receive our actions. The call is to consider the invitation to re-tune our senses to a watchful presence  of a sacredness event in the ordinary, in the every-day, in the outsider, in the new. Advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic invitation to re-imagine the world.

The Christmas we celebrate today might seem like a timeless weaving of customs and feelings; however we need to remember that the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that defines Christmas is little more than 130 years old. There has to have been a reason for the season and there still needs to be.

As a ‘pre-Christian’ festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life and work situations.  As a Christian celebration, the ‘Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until sometime in the 4th century and then only as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals, political expediency, and the removal of thinking tagged ‘heresy’.

The ordinary seemed to have got lost in this development and the institutionalisation of Christendom got swallowed up in the need to control and hold sway over the collective conscious. The ordinary had to be sidelined so that a single movement of the collective could be sustained.

In the history of Australia and New Zealand the Christendom movement struggled and Mission from the North was required to tell the story. It as we know forgot about the ordinary and imported Northern cultural symbols and practices which were out of sinc with the natural seasons and thus the ordinary. In reality, Christianity was in the main rejected by the locals and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years.  This is born out by what is written of the history. There was a need to celebrate the victories over the ordinary and matters like the Treaty settlements were celebrations over the ordinary. Which has led some to conclude that in Australia and New Zealand, Christianity has always been rather a casual affair.  At best, “the Australian nation was only ever superficially christianised” (Wilson 1982:6).  By contrast to the European settlement of America, Australia was not in the main settled by religious refugees on a mission of hope, but rather was a gaol for criminals and social outcasts—an ordeal of exile. New Zealand may have had more religious focus in its settlement perhaps induced by its size, and population and its people’s tribal culture.

In early days of the Australian colony at least Christmas held little importance.  Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, a holiday was not declared.  The day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican Church parade.  If punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered.  Indeed, it would appear that on the first Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested and, because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150!  At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.

Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the Australian colony, in the latter part of the 1800s, like of the movement in New Zealand it appears to have been mostly through ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings.  Old customs and symbols were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December.  These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and New Zealandised and became increasingly nationalistic.

While American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s some enterprising Australian artists a few years later attempted a re-birthing by giving him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh. An attempt at defining the ordinary perhaps?

In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas can be found in the nativity stories by the anonymous storytellers we call Matthew and Luke, in the Bible.  That is, people of early Christendom felt something novel had occurred with the birth of Jesus. 

Two stories that are very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content

Luke 2:1-7 (Inclusive Text)

Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census

of the whole world to be taken.

This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,

and everyone went to their own town to be registered.

So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee

and travelled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem,

since he was of David’s House and line,

in order to be registered with Mary,

his betrothed, who was with child.

While they were there, the time came for her to have her child,

and she gave birth to a son, her first-born.

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger

because there was no place for them at the inn…

Matthew 2:1-3 (Scholars Edition)

Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king.

Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem just then.

“Tell us,” they said, “where the newborn king of the Judeans is.

We have observed his star in the east

and have come to pay him homage.”

When this news reached King Herod, he was visibly shaken,

and all Jerusalem with him…

Both came rather later in the biblical tradition—probably anything from around 85 CE – 125 CE.  And in spite of the modern tendency to homogenise them into one classic tale, they are very different.  As a theological seminary professor once wrote:

“… Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background.  The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded.  Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale.  Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting” (Griffin 1982:55).

Of these two stories (or “fairytales” as another calls them (Ranke-Heinemann 1994)), one, Luke’s birth story of Yeshua bar Yosef has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.

For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story.  The story brings together the imperial power of the divine saviour Augustus, lowly shepherds, and angels from heaven—all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home.  The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendour of a chorus of angels are strong storyteller clues as to how the story’s listeners are to make sense of this story.

Again we find the story being told in the setting of the ordinary of the day but why these stories?  Scholars suggest there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories. 

To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people, the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards.  Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:

(i)  a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,

(ii)  an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,

(iii)  an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,

(iv)  a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and

(v)  praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor (McGaughy 1992).

In general terms these elements can be found in the biblical infancy stories.  Yet it wasn’t until after Emperor Constantine “consciously chose Christianity as his Empire’s new civil religion” (Kennedy 2006:221) —in 313 CE—that there was a significant change in both attitude and authority surrounding Christianity, its stories and developing doctrines. The institutionalisation and the control of the ordinary as opposed to the control of the alternative story begins.

Having been oppressed and persecuted by Rome for some 300 years, Christianity suddenly came into imperial favour, even becoming the official religion of the empire:

“… bishops, of disparate schools of thought, once targets for arrest, torture, and execution, now received tax exemptions, gifts from the imperial treasury, prestige, and even influence at court, [while] their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence” (Pagels 1988:xxv).

Then another extraordinary event happened 12 years later—in 325 CE, when Emperor Constantine stepped in to resolve an internal church dispute threatening civil strife.  Constantine took the unprecedented step of calling what was to be the first general council meeting of the church, in Nicea.

Representatives came from all over: Antioch, North Africa, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and Northern Italy.  The Council of Nicea was about merging the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith—or as it has been called, implementing the ‘divinity test’.  It was also about solidifying or standardising the beliefs and liturgies of the church.  And of course, its flip side: excluding those who taught or believed or did, something different. The ordinary became contained and the evolution of thinking with it.

Also worth noting: the establishment of the Christmas feast first appears on the liturgical calendar in Rome in 336 CE, 10 years after Nicea.  Prior to that Epiphany (or ‘old Christmas’ celebrated on 6 January) was seen as more important than Nativity (celebrated on 25 December).  The conflict was finally smoothed over with a decision to combine Christmas with Epiphany, which liturgically became know as the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’.

So the development goes like this: from birth of a human person, a brother; to the transcendence and distance of God “modelled after an exalted royal emperor” (Roll 1995:177) —Jesus of history to Christ of faith.  Or as one of my mentors has put it: Jesus the iconoclast to Christ the icon (Funk 1996:44).  Now that has to be some shift!

The question we are left with is that as storytellers, interpreters, poets, composers, liturgists and artists, how can we approach the Re-Birthing of Christmas ‘down under’ in the 21st century?

In New Zealand we have been called by the creative genius of Shirley Erena Murray.

Carol Our Christmas

Carol our Christmas,

an upside down Christmas;

snow is not falling and

trees are not bare.

Carol the summer, and

welcome the Christ Child,

warm in our sunshine and

sweetness of air.

Sing of the gold and the

green and the sparkle,

water and river and lure

of the beach.

Sing in the happiness

of open spaces,

sing a nativity summer

can reach!

Shepherds and musterers

move over hillsides,

finding, not angels,

but sheep to be shorn;

wise ones make journeys

whatever the season,

searching for signs of the

truth to be born.

Right side up Christmas belongs

to the universe,

made in the moment

a woman gives birth;

hope is the Jesus gift,

love is the offering,

everywhere, anywhere,

here on the earth (SEMurray)

And:

Star-Child, Earth-Child

Star-Child, earth-Child

go-between of God,

love Child, Christ Child,

heaven’s lightning rod,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Street child, beat child

no place left to go,

hurt child, used child,

no one wants to know,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Grown child, old child,

mem’ry full of years,

sad child, lost child,

story told in tears,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Spared child, spoiled child,

having, wanting more,

wise child, faith child

knowing joy in store,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive!

Hope-for-peace Child,

God’s stupendous sign,

down-to-earth Child,

star of stars that shine,

Refrain:

This year, this year,

let the day arrive,

when Christmas comes

for everyone,

everyone alive! (SEMurray)

On the song ‘Star Child’ Shirley Murray writes:

“The whole thrust of ‘Star-Child’ is for the entire world to experience Christmas, from street kids to the forgotten elderly, and this has to be expressed in language we now relate to.  Hence [such language]… represents an attempt to make our imaginations work in the present world rather than the unreal past….

In the ordinary

And again:

“Maybe our re-awareness of the full humanity of Jesus, rather than his divinity, is the point which allows us to move from Church language to ‘secular’ language…  I’m thinking of the impact of the parables (people stuff, ‘everyday’ language), as well as the fierce arguments of Jesus with the religious lot in more ‘religious’ language.  ‘Telling the story’ is a ‘secular’ thing, while preaching the doctrine the Church thing”.

While the religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth may have come to provide the fundamental rationale for the festival within the Christian Church, for the most part and for most people, they no longer function as determinative.  Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration, which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own.  And for many people today Christmas is just that… Christmas!  Something to be entered into and enjoyed, if possible.

Christmas has always been an extremely difficult festival or holiday to christianise!  No matter how vehemently preachers or theologians or ordinary churchgoing folk might decry the fact, or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus, or try to establish who influenced whom for what purposes,

“the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment…  Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment” (Roll 1995:257, 269).

Christmas is the most human and loveable, and easily the most popular, festival of the year involving nearly all the population.  It would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today

“unless it had struck deep folk roots… and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response” (Roll 1995:271).

Why?  Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and our modern popular culture celebrations are essentially life-affirming.  They say ‘yes’ to life.  For life is not a great ready-made thing out there.  Life is ourselves, and what we make it.  “Life is a buzz that we generate around ourselves.  It includes everything and excludes nothing” (Cupitt 2003).

It is our ordinary.

Such a view stands in shape contrast to many church-going Christians with their unchanging Sky God, and who still are “pessimistic as regards this earth, and value it only as a place of discipline for the life to come” (Miles 1912/76:25).  No wonder the ordinary gets a bad name!

At its best, Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be.  Where we see ourselves moved by generosity, inspired by hope, and uplifted by love, not only for ourselves but for the whole evolving universe.  Not only a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also an invitation “to assume responsibility for this sacred birth happening in and through us” (Sanguin 2010: 18).

Likewise, I suggest, the problem with Christmas is not ‘commercialisation’.  The problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. No longer stands out in the ordinary. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant.  There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety.  As one scholar has suggested:

“The dynamic is similar to the difficulty we have seeing rainbows and smelling roses.  Rarely do we experience beauty in depth.  Instead we move on to something else, distracted just enough to miss that which is most important and immediate” (Frazier 1992:71).

Both Advent and Christmas through a southern hemisphere lens, are best seen as we are open and receptive to their simple mystery amongst the ordinary:  being sensitive to and surprised by, opportunities from the present moment when an incognito God is in the midst of ordinary daily events.  When both are parables, in which everyday, ordinary events, take completely unexpected turns.

(As an aside… it is interesting that both Christmas and Easter are related to the cycles of the earth rather than to any actual dates of Jesus’ birth and death.  We do not know when in the year Jesus was born.  We do know when he died.  Christianity tied his birth to the northern hemisphere winter solstice, and his death to the northern hemisphere spring equinox, the latter being a ‘moveable feast’—anywhere between 22 March and 25 April—tied to the moon cycle as well as that of the earth.  Christianity is a latecomer to the elemental rituals and celebrations of humanity!)

It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history so maybe it’s time to Re-Birth Christmas.

Notes:

Blainey, G. 1987. “Sydney 1877” in (ed.) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788. NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates.

Breward, I. 1988. Australia. The Most Godless Place under Heaven. VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.

Cupitt, D. 2003. Life, Life. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Frazier, R. T. 1992. “Christmas should be softly spoken” in Quarterly Review 12, 4, 69-74.

Funk, R. W. 1996. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover (ed.). The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. McMillan.

Geering, L. G. 1998. Does Society Need Religion? NZ: Wellington, St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society.

Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Griffin, G.  1982.  “The colour of joy” in Nigel Watson. (ed.) Jesus Christ for Us. Reflections on the Meaning of Christ appropriate to Advent and Christmas. VIC: Melbourne. JBCE.

Inclusive Readings. Year C. 2007. QLD: Toombul. Inclusive Language Project. In private circulation.

Kaufman, G. D. 1993. In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology. MA: Cambridge. Harvard University Press.

Kennedy, J. 2006. The Everything Jesus Book. His Life, his Teachings. MA: Avon. Adams Media.

McGaughy, L. 1992.  “Infancy narratives in the ancient world” in The Fourth R 5, 5, 1-3.

Miles, C. A. 1912/76. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. NY: New York. Dover Publications.

Pagels, E. 1988. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. NY: New York. Vintage Books/Random House.

Rank-Heinmann, U. 1994. Putting Away Childish Things. Translated by Peter Heinegg. NY: New York. HarperCollins.

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Sanguin, B. 2010. If Darwin Prayed. Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Canada: Vancouver. ESC Publishing.

Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed.) The Shape of Belief. Christianity in Australia Today. NSW: Homebush. Lancer Books.

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‘Awaken Us to What is Already Among Us and Do It’

How radical is this story from Matthew? What is it about what he says, that is radical? I think it was radical to say that our love for others enriches God’s experience. And it was radical to say that the differences between sheep and goats is reversible. God truly is, as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead claims, the fellow sufferer who understands. There is a change that comes about when we love someone and the differences remind us that the opportunities to care for the vulnerable are endless. These things have to be radical because if what we do truly shapes the quality of the divine experience, then ethics involves, in part, the questions: Will our actions bring greater beauty or ugliness to God’s experience? Will we open the door to greater influx of divine activity by actions that bring wholeness, beauty, and justice to the world?

There is judgment for the complacent and unconcerned in this because while the gulf between the sheep and the goats is not irreversible, the gulf between them can remain and the pain felt by the goats involves an awareness of this radical promise of love being already here. The removal of pain is in the recognizing of missed opportunities to care for the vulnerable and thus contribute something of beauty to the divine experience. Perhaps, the pain will be redemptive and they too will be restored to companionship with God and the vulnerable.

John Cobb and David Griffin have called this radical awareness a “creative-responsive love.” God’s love for the world is intimate. The Christmas story reminds us of the intimacy in its metaphor of incarnation. The birth of a human Child is as if the divine and human combine on earth. The divine gives life to all things and receives the experiences of the creaturely world. There is a oneness about this divide between sheep and goat. There is learning and acceptance and there is a response that is holy and good. The intimate response to the joy and sorrow of creation, seeks to bring beauty out of life’s imperfections and ambiguities. The intimacy of co-creative engagement in creation is revealed as a dynamic living relationship.

Here we have a gospel story that says a culture that supports the rich and comfortable but cannot come up with a dollar’s worth of sugar and salt for the poor is in for one heck of a shock. C S Lewis, has made this anthropological, but none-the-less interesting comment: He says; “When we get to heaven, there will be three surprises: First, we will be surprised by the people we find there, many of whom we surely had not expected to see. Second, we will be surprised by the people who are absent. The ones we did expect to see but who are not there. And the third surprise, of course, will be that we’re there”. The presence of the divine is not what we expect. The most radical shock of our story is, that the presence of the divine is hidden in the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned. And Matthew says; this present-ness in basic human need goes unrecognized by both groups of people. Neither the ‘righteous ones’ nor the ‘unrighteous ones’ recognised this present-ness. Both were looking for the divine in other places and other events. And both were shocked. Thus, if we are to recognise the present-ness of the divine in basic human need, we need to foster a compassionate consciousness. We need to awaken to what is already among us, and do it.

It seems evident Jesus taught love of God and neighbour and lived compassion. It also seems evident that when Jesus was speaking about God’s realm, he was saying that God’s realm equals compassion. That the realm of God means the coming of compassion. Do not confuse the godly realm of compassion, Jesus seems to be saying, with a place or rungs on a ladder. God’s realm is not a place or an object or a noun. It is a verb… ‘among you, in your midst,’ Jesus says.

Matthew Fox suggests this is less about ‘within-ness’ and more about ‘among-ness’ being the key to the kingdom”, “And the messianic age, the age of salvation for all, is now here.  Compassion is at hand”.  (Fox 1979: 25-33) This seems to be a way of keeping anthropocentrism at bay while still claiming an intimacy like no other between God and human. Likewise, Bishop John Shelby Spong in one of his books says that we need a new God-definition that resonates with the humanity of Jesus. He writes; “What I see is a new portrait of Jesus…  I see him pointing to something he calls the realm (or kingdom) of God, where new possibilities demand to be considered…  I see him inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond those security boundaries that always prohibit, block, or deny our access to a deeper humanity” (Spong 2001:131). The differences between sheep and goats disappears in the divine intimacy.

Professor Joe Bessler-Northcutt, from Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, said in a sermon in Australia some years back that from a theological perspective, this is the most radical text in the New Testament. Viewed as a test of faith, one has to notice there is no dogmatic text here, no inquiry about the catechism or right belief. In fact, one doesn’t even need to recognize the King, or believe in the King, so, this is remarkable. He noted also that we get this story wrong every time.  His example was that ‘he frequently hears during the ‘announcements’ in church: ‘we’re taking dinner to the homeless shelter this Thursday night; why don’t you join us as we bring Christ into their lives’.” But he said; that’s not what the story says. The king isn’t present in the one giving the water or the clothing. The king is present in the one in need. We go to them to be changed not to change them.

He also said that this story doesn’t ‘predict’ a literal final judgment. It’s actually a wisdom story, about what ‘finally’ matters. Again; he said: “And as I thought about this text in light of coming to Australia, I’ve found thinking of this story as a text of desire and asking myself: ‘what does this text long for; what is this text dreaming about?’” He then went on to say: “Matthew’s story dreams of a deep bond of God and humanity: For every need an adequate response.  That beautiful back and forth movement between I and you depict this; I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was naked and you clothed me… What we have is a rhythm of need and response; an economy of abundance, or at least enough.  God is in the midst of humanity, and not lording it over everyone with the powerful, but rather, hidden, as a dream would have it…

“But as the nightmare is the flip side of the dream, those who failed to respond to human need cannot, by definition, enter the intimacy of the common good… Instead of the former harmony that we find in the intimacy of the incarnation, bond of the co-creative relationship, we hear this discordant, out of balance ‘no’ response to every need…

“But; and this is a crucial motive to Matthew’s story, or dream: there need not be an economics of scarcity; even in the midst of actual scarcity we can still choose to act out of a logic of abundance – we can still choose to respond to the face of the other.

“This ‘dream’ is Matthew’s attempt to convince his own community of hearers and readers of a common dream… If those hearing the story can learn from it, then we can all get it right – it is in our power, says Matthew, to create a community that attends to the common good.” This suggests that Matthew’s story or dream is about what finally matters. I want to leave you with a poem by Christine Fry, that has the same thing in mind. She wrote this back in 2004:

You’ve asked me to tell you of The Great Turning,
of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.


We turned.

For hundreds of years we had turned away as life on earth grew more precarious.
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets,
the stench from the river,
the children orphaned in Iraq,
the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.

We turned away because that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain,
from the hurt in another’s eyes,
from the drunken father
or the friend betrayed.

Always we were told, in actions louder than words,
to turn away, turn away.

And so, we became a lonely people caught up in a world moving too quickly,
too mindlessly towards its own demise.

Until it seemed as if there was no safe place to turn.
No place, inside or out, that did not remind us
of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.

Yet on one of those days someone did turn.
Turned to face the pain.
Turned to face the stranger.
Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes.
Turned to face himself, herself.

And then another turned.
And another.
And another.
And as they wept, they took each other’s hands.

Until whole groups of people were turning.
Young and old, gay and straight.
People of all colours, all nations, all religions.

Turning not only to the pain and hurt but to beauty, gratitude and love.
Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts…



Notes:
Fox, M. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us. New York. Harper & Row, 1979.
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.