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Luke 3:1-6

The Always, Almost Present-ness of Serendipitous Creativity God

We have begun the advent season and arrive at week two, that of the theme of ‘Peace’. We have participated in the lighting of an Advent candle. The second Advent candle.
The ‘peace’ candle. And in the spirit of ‘Advent’ we are, once again, invited to ‘keep awake!’… or ‘stay alert!’ Ears tuned. Eyes open. Why? Because the God we seek is not that obvious, not that in your face, not that clear. It is as if that God is ‘perhaps’, or ‘almost; here but not quite clear or here but not quite yet. What advent seems to be saying is ‘stay alert’ so that you might together rediscover the God-given “incognito” (John Bell) moments in our ordinary daily living.

This is the heart of the Progressive, down-to-earth theme that continues today as the challenge to our reflection. This morning’s gospel story is built around a bloke we call John. He is only introduced today. And in the lectionary a fuller development is the subject of the story. But we already know that story from all the tradition which has been built up around him. We combine everything we know or remember about John, whenever we hear his name mentioned. Some give him the nickname: ‘dipper’ in recognition of his practice. We think of him and his way-out dress and alternative diet. We assume his particular call for change in universal to faith as we do his call for repentance. Tradition seems to suggest that this assumption became synonymous with the message of Jesus despite his alternative approach to fear and his claims for a peace without violence. We remember John’s gruesome end but pass it by as not significant as message about his theology or his approach to faith.

One commentator, John Meier, describes ‘dipper’ John as one of two historical figures who stands at either end of Jesus’ life, like bookends. The other is Pontius Pilate. Both only as support for claims made of Jesus rather than harbingers of important utterings and views. And none of that is what interests the storyteller we call Luke right now. What interests Luke is setting the scene, appropriately. And it’s a political setting to boot! Its more akin to Pilate than John in that sense. All those characters named in the Gospel reading this morning, are ‘reported’ to be people of power, both political and religious. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and his brother Philip
Lysanias, Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. As to whether they all belong to the same historical time frame, is debatable. But for Luke they are representative. Representative of the use, but more often, the abuse, of power. And here is the alternative challenge that Jesus brings upon the political scene. For Roman imperialism, the ruling over people was achieved through the deeds and the mantra of, ‘war, then victory, then peace’. This time in Roman history, the time of John and Jesus and Pontius Pilate, was the time of Pax Romana the time considered by Rome as the time of peace. The so-called positive effects of the Pax Romana (“the time of Roman peace”), which lasted from around 27 BC until AD 180? Were essentially about Roman control and influence when slavery was abolished, the Colosseum was built, and the empire expanded. A time also when Christianity was banned, the society became classless, and the Colosseum was built. Jewish historian Philo however paints a dark picture of Pontius Pilate: ‘a ruthless despot, by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh… of spiteful disposition and an exceeding wrathful man… the bribes, the acts of violence, the outrages, the cases of spiteful treatment, the constant murders without trial, the ceaseless and most grievous brutality’.

And out of this repressive situation comes a voice of protest.  The voice of John. And he begins to offer the people “who lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:34).

In the public mind, John was a major religious figure in the time of Jesus and we know that Jesus was moved by John’s approach and offered something more and alternative. So, what does Luke’s initial story of John invite us to remember: It invites us to consider that something new is needed. We like Jesus need to think outside the square. Go beyond the understandings, the answers, we have been given or have acquired. And that’s where all this fits into the general lectionary theme of Advent. We are encouraged to discover the God-given “incognito” moments in our ordinary living, especially in those moments which push the boundaries.

Or, to put it another way. Preparing for the coming of God’s realm means washing and evaluating the lenses through which we read the Bible or understand God or church or neighbour, as well as the transformation of life, individually, politically, and as a society, here and now. The challenges of climate change, Covid 19, economic theories, sociological assumptions all need our attention.

We can see past the exclusiveness of sex when we read From Mother Teresa’s  ‘Longing for God’: When she says: ‘We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with Him at this very moment. ‘But being happy with Him now means Loving as He loves,
Helping as He helps, Giving as He gives, Serving as He serves, Rescuing as He rescues, Being with Him twenty-four hours, Touching Him in his distressing disguise’ (Harvey 1996:214.).

Although as religious progressives we do not expect a literal return of Jesus, it is essential to our progressive spirituality that we do expect “continual intimate encounters with (Serendipitous Creativity) God in our personal, social, and political lives” (RPregeant/P&F web site 2006).

So both the liturgical function and spirituality of Advent is to focus on this aspect of life, the always-to-be-expected present-ness of Creativity – ‘God’ in our ordinary living or as I would put it the God that is the “Almost” of our reality. The serendipitous, almost but not yet the sure and potential, the doubt birthed certainty, the finite within the infinity. The “I Am’ of the Hebrew and the hear and the yet to come of the NT Kingdom. And in the flowering Kowhai, the blossoming Pohutukawa.
In the ‘creaking of the tree branches rubbing together in the hot Summer wind. In the scientific imagination of Cosmologists and the single soul looking up at the night sky. “The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful it appears.  It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realise that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we’re here. 

Here is the certain hope, and the peace that passes all understanding we seek. We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever did. We know more than Jesus ever did but I think he knew that we could. That is such an exciting possibility, both for our understanding Of Jesus ad ourselves and it would be such a shame to blow it and end our life not having understood what there is to understand”.

In the birth of one’s first child. In those moments when we choose to live together loving and caring for each other (the Christmas metaphor). Once again, we encounter the Serendipitous Creativity – ‘God’ acting in us and in others, who receive our actions. In the loving, helping, giving, and serving we create the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.

Horsley, R. A. & N. A. Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Harvey, A. (ed). The Essential Mystics. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Doug Lendrum with David W. Williams & Emma McGeorge :Almost: A Otherwise

The Nature of Hope! Relentless, Dynamic and Human.

Each of our readings for today speak of the theme for today. That of hope, Jeremiah gives us a picture of what assurance looks like in the midst of chaos. There is a sense of relentlessness about Hope that is comforting, encouraging and real. Our Contemporary reading gives us a philosophical entry point to the place of suffering in human life and thus a hope beyond the present. There is a timelessness about this hope and it is a living dynamic hope, always ready to respond to need. And our Luke reading calls us to see the world from a different perspective. In the mundane and the ordinary we can find a sense of hope that is sure and steadfast. The significance of the nature of Christian hope is thus a certain hope and not just a wishful one. The evidence is in what it means to be human

Israel was in a unique position during the time of Jeremiah. Assyria was probably at its hight of military and political power and they were situated directly to the North of the Hebrew Nation. To their west and south, they had their ancient enemies of Egypt as their neighbors. As you can imagine, tensions were mounting with every passing day. They could be overrun by Assyrian hoards as they sought to advance their empire or torn apart by an Egyptian skirmish in their efforts to establish a military blockade against the Assyrian threat. This present reality caused the Hebrew kings to lose long-term vision and give way to frantic tunnel vision. 

In this midst of this mounting national panic, Jeremiah prophesied to King Josiah, warning him not to side with Egypt. He rebuked false prophets during Johoiakin’s reign, warning that a failure to obey God would bring the nation of Israel to ruin. He urged King Zedekiah not to go to war against the Babylonians. In the end, no one heeded Jeremiah’s warnings. By the time Jeremiah was around 35 years old and a mature prophet, Assyria was finally defeated by a coalition of peoples including the Babylonians. Things did not go according to the franticly made plan. The coalition of war did not usher in a peaceful time for Judah. Everyone in the northern kingdom was exiled to Egypt, including Jeremiah. 

In the midst of this painful reality, Jeremiah speaks of The Lord’s declaration of fulfilling the gracious promises made towards Judah and Israel. Given Israel’s present turmoil, this would have been as utterly unbelievable as it was utterly needed to be heard. Good prophets always hold out a vision for people to cling to, even when its meaning is not yet able to be grasped. In the midst of leaders allowing present threats to the way things currently are to cause them to lose sight of God’s faithful promises, Jeremiah proclaims both warnings and assurance, in order that God’s people might be alert, maintain clear vision and allow God’s sure and ultimate promise of redemption to keep all things in holy perspective. 

This is a perfect stage for Advent to begin its production among us. We currently live in a society that is tossed about between barbaric acts of violence, hate filled rhetoric, and fear mongering. We are deep in a response to Covid 19 with restrictive practices as a result of a belief that regulation and mass control with manage the situation. The team of 5 million has become the disparate groups that need controlling if we are all to benefit. Once again in our history those that protest suffer the label of disrupter and noisy ones. The cause is swallowed up by judgement based on their noise. Unfortunately, this is not new for our society. We can think back in our recent history when the western world at least responded to the events of September 11th, 2001 with similar fear and panic. It was assumed that war could be declared against murders rather than justice being pursued by different, more diplomatic means. What resulted was war against a nation of people who were suffering just as much under the tyranny of the murders on whom the response sought vengeance. What was the outcome? To be cynical and yet pretty accurate it only lead to more death, more violence, a worse problem then there was to begin with, and continuing war for many. 

The question we might ask in the face of Covid as with any war. What if we kept the big picture in mind rather than give way to panic and fear? What if we responded with extreme forgiveness, making gifts for those affected by the heinous acts of violence? What if we responded in the spirit of forgiveness by sending aid to the destitute? What if we clothed their naked, worked to feed their hungry, and donated towards their education programs? What would hope look like?

Jeremiah it seems, beckons us in the midst of our chaos to stay alert, to not let panic and fear define our journey and our response to our present circumstances. He reminds us that hope is not a wish but a reality in our world. We are called to fix our eyes on the Jesus Way, a Way against all odds yet a way alongside the outcast, the struggling, the poor and disenfranchised. This seems to me to be the incarnational reality revealed to us. It is this realm that is our big picture upon which we remain secularly focused and moving towards. Advent calls us to this.

Our contemporary reading may sound gobbled gook to some because it attempts to talk about things in a dynamic non concrete way. It is perhaps a poor attempt to encourage hope in metaphorical form which is for our western world not easy to do in a world driven by an obsession with the left hemisphere approach to reality. Ian McGilchrist says that “Only the right hemisphere has the capacity to understand metaphor. He also says that at first glance that might not sound too important – like it could be a nice thing if one were going to do a bit of literary critique. But that response he suggests is just a sign of the degree to which our world of discourse is dominated by left-hemisphere habits of mind. Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.” In our challenge to find hope in the reality of human living we need metaphor if we are to find it making sense. Hope is not found in a sensate, reasoned explanation alone.

To understand a certain hope in the midst of human struggle there needs to be a process whereby we return to the experiential world. The parts, once seen, are subsumed again in the whole, as the musician’s painful, conscious, fragmentation of the piece in practice is lost once again in the (now improved) performance. The part that has been under the spotlight is seen as part of a broader picture; what had to be conscious for a while becomes unconscious again; what needs to be implicit once again retires; the represented entity becomes once more present, and ‘lives’; and even language is given its final meaning by the right hemisphere’s holistic pragmatics. So what begins in the right hemisphere’s world is ‘sent’ to the left hemisphere’s world for processing, but must be ‘returned’ to the world of the right hemisphere where a new synthesis can be made.”
Hope that is based in goodness that is distorted and belittled by violence and separation and made hopeless needs to be reunited with reality for human treatment in acts of goodness. This is not to glorify or make sacred suffering but rather to acknowledge its humanness and to enable a certain hope to realize.

One of the markers of hopelessness is the too great an emphasis on the sound and feel of words as ‘things’ separate from their meaning, or alternatively on the meaning as something separate from the sound and feel of the words. This is why poetry and music are so important for human life. Too great a reliance on things destroys poetry and belittles metaphor. The stories and songs and poems of certain hope are part of what it means to be human.

One final note on this attempt to find the nature of hope is to say that in the twentieth century, despite the nature of the philosophic process, themes have emerged from philosophical debate which, unknowingly, corroborate the right hemisphere’s understanding of the world. These include: empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness; the importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention; the implicit or hidden nature of truth; the emphasis on process rather than stasis, the journey being more important than the arrival; the primacy of perception; the importance of the body in constituting reality; an emphasis on uniqueness; the objectifying nature of vision; the irreducibility of all value to utility; and creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.”
A certain hope is found in living it in confidence of its reality.

This brings us to the Lukan readings. All three stories seem to suggest that this hope within hopeless human struggle is to be found in the very human life itself. It is about knowing oneself, knowing human potential and knowing human frailty and having a bigger perspective of its value and importance in the cosmic world. Neuroscience seems to suggest that human perception is at the heart of reality and this both placed huge responsibility on the human species but also places within human hands the very existence of everything and this for our purposes a certain hope. A hope that is more than wishful thinking, more than just an outcome, and more than a mystery.   is a certainty that is vital for human living and this the future of the planet.

If a certain hope is possible then it has to be an experiential metaphor and thus about life and how to imagine it. I would suggest It has to be incarnational, God in us, the post easter Jesus and not just a confessional truth. It is not just about a supernatural belief and how to hold them if at all supernatural. If as tradition claims the covenant is a social bond that seeks to answer questions about our destiny as humanity and define the purposes of our community, then a certain hope is essential and must always engage in working against the idea that we cannot love our enemies nor bring hope to the hopeless with a certain hope, despite the experience of hopelessness and despair. When human beings love things change. When human beings bring certain hope, a hope is made real. The ‘son of man’ has come. It’s Christmas. Amen.

Did Pilate get it right?

Posted: November 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Did Pilate get it right?

Today in the three-year lectionary is Christ the King Sunday or as many today say, the Reign of Christ Sunday or as it used to be known as the Feast of Christ the King, or the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, festival celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church in honour of Jesus Christ as lord over all creation. Essentially a magnification of the Feast of the Ascension, it was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It is not all that young in the liturgical history of the church having no real tradition alongside Lent and holy week and Advent which have been celebrated for more than 1000 years, Christ the King Sunday has only been a part o There is however something that has kept it alive in the lectionary and its coud be thatf the Liturgical calendar since the 1920s and it was added for sort of political reasons. In the fallout of World War One and amidst the Kaisers and Kings and Czars, it felt to the church that it was time to reassert that Czar Ferdinand or Kaiser Wilhelm isn’t king, Christ is king. So some 96 years ago this day was added to the church year. And it has to be said that the idea of “king” and “kingship” have been debated ever since which suggested some value. Its possible that two things keep it around. One is that we believe that God’s alternative reign or kingdom of God is what Jesus was on about, that as human beings potential is always hope-filled and renewal possible and two, that it has a political edge to it that enables us to acknowledge that in human engagement with all of life there is always the political. The challenge of ROC is to see that the politics of the day are involved in the traditional story as they will be in its interpretation for us today. The Reign of God will be culturally, socially politically relevant or it will fail to engage. So perhaps the idea of the kingship of Christ may have meant something in the political climate 90 years ago and now might like the quote at the beginning of this service be about celebrating Christ the CEO or the Mayor, or the prophetic protester Sunday.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

Then Pilate entered into the Praetorium again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the king of the Judeans?”  Jesus answered, “From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?”  Pilate answered, “I am not a Judean, am I?  Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me.  What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not out of this world.  If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans.  But now is my kingdom not from hence.”  Then Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”  Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king.  Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth.”

Unlike the synoptics, the fourth gospel features longer stories with expanded dialog.  We have seen that with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, the man by the pool of Bethsaida, and others.  In chapter 18, it is Pilate’s turn.

Pilate is not identified by any particular title or rank.  Most likely, Pilate’s name was already well known among Christians and the author of the fourth gospel felt no particular need to go into specific identification.  (Pilate’s name appears in the Old Roman Creed, c. AD 200.) 

Pilate was lower nobility, of the equestrian rank.  Not long after Pilate, the title for someone of Pilate’s authority was procuratores Caesaris pro legato–a procurator of Caesar who operates pro legato, meaning that he has the power to command legionaires.  During the time of Pilate, however, his title appears to have been Prefect–praefectus Iudaeae

In verse 28, “they”–presumably representatives of the high priest–take Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters, the praetorion.  The word originally referred to the tent of the Roman praetor in a military camp.  Later, it was used to speak of the headquarters of Roman authority in subjugated territories. 

Pilate kept his permanent residence at Caeserea, not Jerusalem.  When he was present in Jerusalem, however, he most likely took over a former Herodian palace.  The exact location is not known.

When we begin to think about the differences Jesus is talking about or we look at Jesus’ kingdom compared with Rome’s:  Those who bring Jesus to Pilate can’t enter Pilate’s headquarters because of ritual defilement so Pilate goes outside to meet with them.  Pilate wants to know the accusation. 

“They” respond that they wouldn’t have bothered to bring Jesus to Pilate “if this man were not a criminal.”  Pilate suggests they go ahead and judge Jesus by Jewish law, but they reject this option because they are not allowed to impose the death penalty. The fear or what he is proposing seems to be very serious here. The Judean authorities want Jesus gone, and not without reason.  Jesus’ attacks on the Temple elite had been scathing.  One notes, however, that in all four gospels, Jesus was careful not to criticize the Romans directly.  His rare jibes at the Romans were oblique and indirect. 

This response is important in that it was politically deft. It recognises that throughout history most social reformers don’t get very far when they take on the most powerful aspect of the power structure, which, in this case, would be the Roman Army.  Astute reformers instead focus on the power structure’s weakest component, which, in this case, was the Temple elite, an elite already under suspicion and broadly held in low regard. 

My kingdom is not from this world,” says Jesus. And while that seems pretty obvious ir was at the same time, one of the most obscure statements from Jesus. Working for Jesus’ kingdom, praying for “thy kingdom come” is a rather difficult endeavour when it seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind. So, what kind of kingdom does Jesus propose?

Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, kingdom language in John is rare, used only here (John 18:33-37) and in the conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3-5). Interestingly, Jesus’ reference to kingdom in the Gospel of John comes up in dialogue with those who represent the kingdoms of Jesus’ present-day world. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus represents the kingdom of the Jews. As a Roman procurator, Pilate represents the Roman Empire. It seems that the kingdoms of the world as it was known back then are called into question by Jesus who is the Word made flesh loving the world (John 3:16).

One of the most significant issues for us today when approaching this text is to acknowledge that it is not sufficient when preaching on Christ the King Sunday simply to suggest that the negative aspects of today’s kingdoms are therefore made positive in Jesus’ kingdom. Or, to insist that we can name every bad feature in kingdoms of today and turn them around so as to describe adequately the goodness of God’s kingdom. The issue for us is that God’s kingdom is not opposite of our kingdoms, it rather has rather to be more than the opposite. It has to be politically, socially, and religiously more than the current.

Of course, part of the challenge in all of this is the penchant to limit kingdom to location. This is when the “reign of Christ” is a helpful corrective for this festival Sunday, not just for the sake how we talk about Jesus and the titles we give to Jesus, but for the sake of realizing that Jesus’ kingdom is a state of being, a way to live, a commitment to a particular way to view the world.

And in John, Jesus wants us to see that his kingdom is only about place if place indicates the profound and intimate “place” of relationship with God. Jesus’ kingdom is not about amassing additional amounts of control. Jesus’ kingdom is not about his ultimate rule over and above others. Jesus’ kingdom is about relationship. “My kingdom is not from this world” because it is from God. Pilate attempts to construe the boundaries of Jesus’ kingdom in terms of those perpetuated by the kingdom to which he is beholden. But Jesus’ kingdom is from God, just as Jesus is from God (John 1:1) and Jesus is God’s kingdom. The concept of kingdom is radically recalculated in the Gospel of John, from kingdoms that strain and sever relationships to a kingdom that puts relationship at its core. That’s a whole different perspective on kingdom. When kingdom is construed from the truth of relationship and not rule, from the truth of incarnation and not location, from the truth of love and not law, then Jesus as truth will ring true.

This is the truth that the kingdoms of this world cannot see. God’s truth. Jesus as truth. But it is the truth that we can see and that we are called to preach, that we have to preach, not only on Christ the King Sunday, but every Sunday. To love fiercely even in the face of fear (“In the face of fear I will love fiercely,” Jessica Ortner).

Pilate entered back into his headquarters and “called” Jesus inside.  For his part, Jesus expresses no worries about being ritually defiled by being in the praetorion. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Judeans?”  (This question is the same in all four gospels–Mark 15:2, Matthew 27:11, and Luke 23:3–which would indicate a common tradition on at least this much of the passion account.)

“King” is a political title, and Pilate focuses on the political question.  Pilate had no interest in religion or theology.  He is a practical and matter-of-fact kind of person.  His objective is the maintenace of Roman law and Roman control.  It is clear from the entire conversation–18:33-19:16–that Pilate wants to free Jesus, or, at least, he would rather free Jesus than free the anti-Roman terrorist, Barabbas.

To Pilate’s question, Jesus responds with an impertinent retort that unmasks Pilate’s collusion with others:  “From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?”  Both of them well know that “others” have spoken to Pilate about him.

Pilate, thrown on the defensive, responds, “”I am not a Judean, am I?”  This, frankly, is not a particularly good riposte.  Just because he is not a Judean does not mean that he didn’t collude with Judeans. 

Yet, on another level, Pilate is a Judean.  In the fourth gospel, anyone aligned with the Temple establishment and its worldview is a Judean.  In doing the bidding of the Judean authorities, Pilate has become a Judean. 

Pilate continues:  “Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me.  What have you done?”  Note that Pilate does not say Jesus’ own religion has delivered him over, but that his own nation has.  Again, Pilate uses political words.  Also, he specifically identifies those who have “delivered over” Jesus.  They are the “chief priests,” the highest level of Temple, and Judean, authority.

Pilate asks what Jesus has done, but Jesus ignores this question and returns to idea of kingship.  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Indeed, it is not.  Jesus’ kingdom is not “of this world” of political calculation, accusation, and contending interests. 

This does not mean, however, that Jesus’ kingdom is only in heaven and has nothing to do with life on earth.  This new realm is incarnational, it is God’s on earth. The two kingdoms–“this world” and Jesus’–occupy the same temporal space.  One is not here while the other is off in the wild blue yonder.  They are both here.  The difference is one of attitude and worldview. 

Jesus makes this clear when he says, “If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans.  But now is my kingdom not from hence.” 

“This world” kingdoms are about fighting and struggle (agonizomai).  Jesus’ kingdom is about the dignity and equality of all.

Jesus nuanced response is seemingly lost on Pilate.  Pilate retreats to what is, for him, the central question.  He asks, “Then you are a king?”  He reasons:  You speak of your kingdom, therefore you must be a king.  Jesus’ answer is the same as in all four gospels–su legeis, “you say.”  The fourth gospel adds:  “…that I am a king.”

Jesus continues:  “Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth.”  Note the distinction between being “born” and “coming into the world.”  The Greek gegennemai accents creation–to be brought into being.  In the theology of the fourth gospel, the Word became flesh, eternity entered time, the essential entered existence.  All that is subsumed in the meaning of “born.” 

Being born is one thing, but for what purpose?  Jesus “came into the world” so that he “might witness to the truth.”  That is his purpose and mission, a theme stated in John 1.  He will present light to darkness, identifying what really is, and comparing that truth with the way things appear to be in “this world.” Again, this kingdom or realm creation is incarnational, politically social and religiously transformational.

As a community of Jesus followers seeking to create, unfold and celebrate one’s faith, the boundaries of imagination can limit us more than anything. Thankfully, imagination also liberates us and carries us—by God’s grace—toward new realities.

This “prophetic imagination,” to use Hebrew Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann’s words, is critical to replacing the corporate media images of the way things supposedly are and will remain with visions of an emerging new world. The necessary “alternative consciousness,” writes Brueggemann in his book The Prophetic Imagination, is both “critical” and “energizing.”

So, while critiquing “wars and rumours of wars” (Mark 13:7) in a day when the minimum wage is as inadequate as it is, we are energized by the declarative statements of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi that “your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16), and of Jesus to the disciples that “you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31, emphasis added).

The forms and styles introducing that alternative consciousness vary through these weeks, from the nurturing conversations of Naomi to the songs of Hannah and the psalmists. Jesus remains both critical (“beware of the scribes!”) and energizing (“the poor widow has put in more”). This is a time to consider our lineage; we are born of a people of faith, yet we are also birthing a world in God’s providential care. Every day. We are incarnational in intent and we are about to celebrate that as Christmas.


‘Terror Matched by Hope Beyond Description’

Today is the last week we will hear the gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. The last, for three years, that is. This year I have preempted this a bit in that last week I spoke on the Reign of Christ Last week which is normally the pre-curser to Advent. Next week is the end of this liturgical Year B. Then after that we enter a new Church year and a new season – Advent. And the cycle begins all over again. There is a sense of sadness about this in that with this year, coming to the end of Year B, Mark – it feels a bit different.

I suspect like some other progressives that Mark’s stories are good down-to-earth stories which preserve the Jesus Movement’s memory of Jesus. They seem to be stories that are not only the earliest stories but also because there is less ‘layering’ onto these stories. That is, there seems to be more of an honest Jesus than a church Christ in these stories. And that has become an important difference for me. I think it was the Jesus Seminar scholars Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan who alerted me and several other theological discussions to the important difference between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. That is, when we take the stories about the post-Easter Christ as historical reporting about the pre-Easter Jesus, Borg pointed out: Jesus becomes an unreal human being, and we lose track of the utterly remarkable person he was.

Third, and this was another new experience which was to discover the Jewish structure of Mark’s stories. The liberating experience is to view these stories through Jewish eyes. Bishop John Shelby Spong some time back lectured on Mark, as a Midrash storyteller, telling the Jesus story based on the Hebrew scriptures and organised around the liturgical year of the Jews from Rosh Hashanah (New Year) to Passover. Spong claimed it was inevitable that the first members of the Jesus Movement, who were Jewish people, would: interpret Jesus, organize their memory, and shape their religious life based on their Jewish religious heritage, which was the only tradition they knew.

 In hind sight it seems so logical and obvious that one wonders how one missed it but what it did was stimulated one’s curiosity as both a storyteller and a liturgist. It stood in contrast to the suggestion by Narrative theologians who argued that Mark’s stories are modelled on the parable of The Sower. We remember that story where some seeds fall on a hard pathway, some seeds fall on rocky ground, some seeds fall among thorns and are choked, some seed fall on good soil. Narrative theologians might say that as we journey through Mark we hear this story in the various and many other stories… The rich young man. The healing of a man with an unclean spirit. The widow and the coins. And many more. People heard, but only some responded. For some the words have fallen on a hard pathway, on rocky ground, among thorns. All through Mark, according to this theological vision of sown seed and productive and unproductive earth.

However, with progressive challenges to this and the discovery of the Jewishness of Jesus we have become more sensitive to the stories about outsiders and outcasts in Mark… And to Jesus as an outsider. Robert Funk, of Westar said: “Jesus apparently regarded himself as an outsider.  He was in exile from his hometown, from his friends and neighbours… he was a guest, a traveler, a stranger, an alien in most contexts. ” (Funk 2002:45-46).

Jesus appears to have ignored the social boundaries of his time. He embraces the beggars, the poor, the hungry.  He becomes known as a friend of toll collectors and prostitutes. All these, fall outside the boundaries of his society in the most radical manner.

Again, Funk was pivotal to this new awareness: He said: “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts…  No wonder Jesus auditors were puzzled by his vision of… God’s domain – it contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out.” (Funk 2002:55)

So, what are we to make of this final story from Mark? Today’s story by the one we call Mark is a pretty scary story. Historically it probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple many years after the death of Jesus. Theologically it probably warns of those who offered the small Jesus Movement false hopes through dubious signs and wonders.

Either way there would be real human memories: the brutality of war, the rape and pillaging, the burning and torture, the killing and mutilation. The Jesus of Mark takes us into this world of terror and offers a vision of hope. A defiant hope. A hope centred on the vision of the domain of  God where inclusiveness is its rule. And a passionate concern for others fires imaginations and compassionate acts. Terror beyond description is being matched by hope beyond description, is the way William Loader describes it. Perhaps this is all we can say about this story. I trust it is enough. If it is, then we too can also be blessed.  Perhaps we can see its simple message as a challenge to look beyond all the doom and gloom and end times images we are being given by science, media, and society in this time of global crisis we seem to be living. May be the challenge is to look beyond and find the hope that comes with a new perspective.

It won’t be easy but if Mark’s Jesus has anything to say to us it is that the terror is matched by a hope beyond description. Amen.

Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Discovering the Possibilities…

Posted: November 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Discovering the Possibilities…

This coming Sunday we celebrate in the church lectionary year a day which is supposed to be seen as the culmination of the whole year’s stories and sermons… We are of course invited to focus on the reign of Christ, or, as Christ the King, or in John Shuck’s words: Jesus the Nobody. Yet the so-called ‘real’ world is not listening.  Neither does it seem to care anymore. I was at an interesting meeting this week where a group of people from various social organizations and interested church people discussed how best to be church? How best to use a particular piece of plant and how to make an impact on bettering people lives as well as giving the church a sense of purpose and dare I use that word, ‘Mission’. We talked at length about what We are even asking thought the community needed and were challenged to ask whether or not the community wanted that. Maybe the Beatles were right. They (and other entertainers) are more popular than Christ! But even they have had to suffer the time passing and like that group of people this week we too have to say we don’t know what to do to serve the world. We are even asking. “What can religion do? And maybe that is a $64million question, isn’t it! (Where did that saying come from? I think its older that the 64million dollar man movie?)

The truth is that while we were wrestling with what to do in terms of mission and management of resource, we were exploring that big question. And we were not the first nor will we be the last. One major issue is the major shift in thinking that needs to take place if we are to succeed in turning this huge ocean liner of myth and practice onto another course. It is already true that many have tried over the last 100 years and it is also true that many have been resisted. And some of them have been replaced by new names and fellow explorers in contemporary thinking.

Just one of those who recently died, Bishop John Shelby Spong has said we need a new God-definition that resonates with the humanity of Jesus. “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).

Biblical scholar Marcus Borg observed: “Our preoccupation with believing is because many of the central teachings of Christianity have come into question in the modern world.  Thinking of the Christian life as being primarily about believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus is thus a modern mistake, with profound consequences” (Borg 1999:240).

On the other hand, David Tacey, an Australian university lecturer who provided courses on Spirituality, says; with the collapse of belief in the traditional image of God “we have to find God in a new place, and the most convincing place of all will be our own human hearts.” He continues with this suggestion: “This does not mean that God will be a merely personal experience, locked away in the closet of introspection, but rather the discovery of God in our interiority will be the basis for a new appreciation of God in the world” (Tacey 2003:193).

What is also significant here is that neither Spong, Borg or Tacey claim to have ‘the’ answer to my $64million dollar question. But they are a few of the torch lights seeking out a new pathway. Seeking, that is, as traditional church structures and those who control them, debate whether to even allow the search to continue. Little regard is given to the institutional survival energy that arises when one’s belief system is questioned and it is easier to build walls than to allow the gospel to speak of new possibilities.

Many who do raise questions face vitriol, discrimination and in many cases expulsion from their tradition. Rex Hunt tells the story where one family’s ‘seeking’ was seen as too much of a threat for a representative of conservative religion. The Ordained cleric informed them they are no longer welcome to receive communion because of their so-called ‘radical’ beliefs.  His theology was not able to embrace either their questioning or their vision. Instead, his God must be protected and defended by his possession of the infinite truth. And their continued nurturing as people ‘on the way’ must be retarded or denied. The challenge to this fundamentalism has to be said is a denial of the Reign of Christ! A reign dependent upon absolutes doesn’t look like the one Jesus was espousing. One where, inclusion, acceptance, loving one’s adversaries, non-violence etc. were virtues central to this new realm.

One of the hopeful things happening in this transitional movement of thinking is that it is becoming a bit clearer as to what celebrating the Reign of Christ is all about. Both at a social and religious level the values of this new realm are developing. Some of these came out in our collective discussion on how to be church and how to uses assets in the interests of this new realm. Things like recapturing and revitalizing in the common mind the idea of ‘the commons’, a place not dependent upon a monetarist system but rather on the vale of usage for and by people. A very high level of shared space, or efforts in common, or practical equity.

Rex also suggests some preliminary comments that are not about, accepting a number of basic required beliefs and sub-beliefs, as claimed by conservative and fundamentalist religion… otherwise God will punish you, or you could be kicked out of the church, or be ostracized if you stay. Neither is it about being ‘converted’ or becoming all ‘holy’. Nor is it about demanding the status quo be maintained so as to preserve the last remnants of an outmoded supernatural religion. Rather he suggests; it is about our need to continue to revise our appreciation of the role of religion in everyday life. And to continue to revise what we believe. To continue to revise what form ‘church’ will take to be a meaningful, helpful presence in people’s lives. This needs to be the Sunday sermon and we need to continue to revise what it means to be a congregation… Why isn’t this a vigorous gathering of people, demonstrating care and compassion, healing and justice, integrity and intellectual honesty. And not a group of people defending a story that no one wants or needs. One of the things that came up in our conversation was that the primary task of a group of Jesus following people was to provide hope and especially in the realm where young people will be making the decisions about the planet, the lifestyles the wellbeing and the nurturing of the future. Where is their hope in this time of transition and seemingly hopelessness in regard to the future of our planet and our species?

So, I guess I am suggesting that the celebration of the Reign of Christ is about recognising a credible Jesus and a credible religion and a credible church in this the early years of the 21st century. And like Rex I suggest that some of the words and images which may help shape this credibility, are:

Acceptance –                                       a marvelous non-judgmental humanitarian compassion.

Relationship –                                      an evolving new way of being.

Loving wastefully –                             being freed from hang-ups and hostilities that cripple and conflict our existence.

Spiritual presence or creativity –         discovering something new about ourselves, about life.

Behaving ethically –                            learning what is appropriate behaviour in our changing environments.

The task is to rediscover these possibilities on this day, when the Lectionary invites us to celebrate and reflect on the season of the Reign of Christ.

Borg, M. J. & N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus. Two Visions. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.
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.
Tacey, D. The Spirituality Revolution. The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality. Pymble. HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

Beneath every sermon there are assumptions that are subjective, personal and reflective of where the writer thinks they are in life, or at least are reflective of what they think is what it is. When thinking about my world and where I see the picture, I came across a phrase that I think speaks of my intent in regard to why theology, why church, why religion and why spirituality matters. It is that when faced with the questions, is God dead? Is religion a thing of the past? Has church had its day? My answers would be a resounding ‘Yes but.” Yes, because I do think that the concepts, we assume reflect these things have outlived their usefulness. This is not a rejection of the any truths but rather an honest appraisal of the efficacy of these terms to express the reality we now understand. In short, we talk about God and it reflects anything from dynamic creative energy to an interventionist man up high somewhere pulling or not pulling strings that dictate what happens.

So, underlying what follows and dare I say it much of what I write is the attempt to hold on to a revisionist, integrationist model of being, that values both the Christian tradition and historical Jesus, scholarship.

Or as my mission statement suggests ‘Honour the Mind’ It is all we have to make sense of things as conscious beings. ‘Live the questions’ not just asking them but apply them to experience as both reflective and transforming activity, and ‘Explore the Adventure of Being Human’ This is our species and it is finite and yet transformative in its participatory purpose. Its task is as some have said, the universe discovering itself and we might now have to say it is that of the cosmos or multi universal reality.

Having introduced the context of thinking I want to begin to tease out the title of this sermon and ask some more questions. Like. ‘What is morality?’ and ‘What is Justice?”  Morality as ‘Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour.” And Justice as, ‘The quality of being fair and reasonable’ and I want to see if I can begin with some foundational thinking such as ‘What were some things that our parents often taught us about religion.

Your experience may have been different buy it seems that in general the assumptions of right and wrong or justice were summed up in statements such as “You’d better pray that stain comes out of the carpet.” It seems that prayer was something that had some sense of coercion built in, “You’d better do this or else?” The underlying assumption to this is that one must obey. “Because, I’m your mother and I said so, that’s why.” Then there was the pastoral assurance of compassion even available to the wayward child. “Keep crying, and I’ll give you something to cry about.” What is certain about the above is that of resilience building through perseverance, “You’ll sit there until you’ve eaten all those vegetables.” But its, not all bad because there is the blessing of receiving- “You’re going to get it when you get home!” and just in case this sounds sexist there is tradition to back this up, “You’re just like your father.” Then comes the education and the goal of being wise about things, “When you get to our age, you’ll understand.” And heaven forbid after all this has sunk in as a moral and just way of behaving there is the promise of a new world ahead, “One day you’ll have kids, and I hope they turn out just like you.”

Of course, that is not the experience of all children but we have to e honest and suspect that a world based on fear begins somewhere. The above is fictional but if we are honest some of the words ring bells for some of us. Boundaries have to be set and children protected from unhelpful influences but the question is what are the consequences for morality and justice?

What we hear and what we believe about life, and learn from significant others, can make a huge difference to us. And sometimes we have to unlearn much of that! I suspect that for us to unlearn the world based on a fearsome and judgmental God will take some undoing and change in assumptions about morality and Justice.

The traditional interpretations given to Mark’s story of the ‘widow and the coins’, could be one such example. So join me as we play with this story for a bit.

On its own, which is usually how we hear it every three years, this story lends itself easily to moralising about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, who gave of all she had. But like Rex Hunt I want to suggest there is a broader, and more important story, that Mark is suggesting here. And that broader story seems to be about naming a system which abuses poor people.

Powerful people who financially exploit vulnerable widows at one end. And an announcement that says you can’t do that and think you can get away with it, at the other end. And in the middle: the story of the ‘widow and the coins’.

Put all these together… and what we hear is Mark, the storyteller, weaving together echoes of the Hebrew scripture’s constant concern for widows and other outcasts. As well as the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment of their day

for exploiting the vulnerable. Not to mention the early Jesus movement’s hassles with the Temple leaders and Jesus’s suggestions that his own tradition was in danger of being swallowed up by the dominant Roman morality of peace through victory and might.

So…  is the ‘widow and the coins’, a story about boundless generosity and self-sacrifice? Or is it more pointed evidence under-girding Mark’s Jesus who judges against an exploiting religio-politic of his day?

Preached once every three years and told and heard as a single story, this widow story is often offered as a model of stewardship to encourage giving to the church. Yet when the stories are stitched together it suggests a very different reading. Nothing short of a radical protest against the use of religion and politics and power to victimize those who are powerless and vulnerable. Oops we might be back with the parents teaching the children about religion and about the fearsome interventionist God who is always watching for opportunities to punish the wayward.

This is a very crucial difference in the way we read this story and it is very challenging. because heard with those ears of protest this story as Ian Cairn’s suggests, becomes an “exposition of the ‘politics of compassion’” (Cairns 2004:201). Morality and Justice look different and have different outcomes.

I remember just the other day talking online with a friend when they said they read in the bible where God knows and will sort out the bad from the good and my response was that I don’t know that sort of God and that to read that might mean that the Bible is both a dangerous book and an adults-only book. To a literalist bible reader this was a huge challenge, not unlike that of a parent trying to protect their child and instill resilience in the face of a world based on fear.

But as an unrepentant skeptical progressive liberal who thinks that a revisionist integrationist model of religion is the way to go what I was suggesting, and continue to suggest, is something like this… When we tell, or listen to, or quote from, biblical stories we need to be very careful how we do that. Because our general tendency is to do at least two things; (i) take the stories or quotes out of context and impose a culture upon them, or (ii) over-deify or domesticate them within a cultural time and place. Concretize them and make them unavailable to relevance.

The challenge of, the revisionist model is to hear beyond the ‘domestication’ of biblical stories and unlearn much of what we have been taught. This for some folk that can be really threatening. But that’s what many contemporary biblical scholars are calling for. Seek out the broader context. But also listen with a healthy dose of scepticism.

In this telling comment one scholar, not from the ‘progressive’ movement, but from the ‘radical evangelical’ side, William O’Brien said: “The scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing.  Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity….”

And he goes on: “the Word…  must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths.  To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible” (WO’Brien. Web site /The Other Side).

The issue of today’s story is that any system which keeps people in poverty is evil.  Period. But to that one person, their poverty and their hunger is just that. Very real hunger and poverty, every day. And that’s the ‘hard’ saying, and its tension shouldn’t be ‘softened’.

Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable, especially if they had no sons to protect them. Both the Hebrew and Greek terms for ‘widow’ come from word roots that suggest ‘helplessness’, ‘emptiness’ or ‘being forsaken’.

And what all these people have in common is their “isolation from the web of love and support, and a deep sense of powerlessness” (JDonahue, 2000, <>).

While the term ‘scribe’ in the ancient world, was more than likely used, not to described a religious group or party, but more likely was a general term for affluent landowners, probably urbanites, who could manipulate the poor brutally in order to make more wealth” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006).

Indeed, Old Testament and Process Theology scholar, Robert Gnuse says: “…we live so well because we import cheap goods from overseas made by people in factories who sometimes are brutally underpaid.  We live well because they live poorly.  We thus should identify ourselves… with the scribes in this passage, not the widows” (RGnuse, P&F web site, 2006).

So rather than being a story about the heroic sacrifice of a poor widow, it is really a story about

the need for of morality of compassion and ‘fair distributive justice. And to finish with, there is the challenge of this week’s story in our context.

We hear quite often today that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this world.  Or that the top 1 or 2 percent own or hold a huge disproportionate percentage of the world’s wealth.  I am sure you have heard the statistics, and shaken your head in dismay at the offensive wealth displayed by the wealthy.  But what if maybe you and I are in the top 1 percent.  To be in the top percent, to be among the richest people in this entire globe, according to some pundits you simply need a household income of about not much more than $23,000 a year.  In this view true or not because to argue about stats is not the intension the top 10% for the globe earn around $8,000 and up…   Regardless of the figures the trend toward inequality and the state of inequity of today’s world is a major concern and one of morality and justice. And in interpretation Jesus speaks about most of us as he speaks about the scribes, not as he speaks of the widow” (BQuick 2003/ <>).

Unlearning much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible can be an exciting and challenging experience but sharing in that experience with people of equally open-minded people is a positive and empowering and liberating experience. As challenging as it can be, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical stories as if we’ve never heard them before. The call is to • Probe for fresh aspects. • Listen for new voices, including the silent voices. • Be surprised. And yes, separate the ‘gospel’ of Jesus from the gospel’s Jesus!

And remember that’s the journey the Spongs, and the Scotts and the Funks and the Besslers, and the Caputo’s and the growing number of thinkers of our day are calling us to share in. To take a lead in. To empower people to shape a new and open and honest theology and spirituality for a different, post-modern world. I can attest to this because I was fortunate enough to be in a congregation at St David’s in Auckland who braved that pathway of morality and Justice. Amen.


Cairns, I. J. 2004. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton: Fraser Books.

The See What is Possible in Looking Again.

The world watched as the officer knelt on the neck of a man until the life went out of him. He cried for his mother and complained that he could not breathe. The mob member misjudged the initiation requirements and a member of the other gang died with a bullet in his chest. The initiate knew there would be retaliation so brazenly went on as if nothing had happened. The community watched as the mighty made an example of him as a means of keeping the peace and maintaining control. The executed him in the public scene so as to maintain the level of fear and sustain their empirical control. They had support as the colleagues looked on, as the clan put up the defence of their own, as his friends hid and his communities of allegiance sought their own safety in the realm.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters.

What seems to strike a cord, in the similarity of the stories above is that the crucifixion was a sanitized murder within systemic violence. Another approach might be to say that because such things can happen in our human community there has to be a communal, social disfunction that perpetrates a systemic injustice that hinders a just response because it seems to be socially unacceptable to make waves, or question why such things happen. Put it down to bad people, original sin or some sort of parental irresponsibility but don’t question the system. In so doing we sanitize the reality and like the disciples of Jesus, the fellow policeman on the scene and the other gang members watching find cover just in case. They don’t question their own actions because they are too busy saving themselves.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore. It has transcended space and time perhaps and is in our very faces, it is happening now. The violence like the poor seems always with us, even if the evidence that there is less than there used to be, the world after all is a more peaceful place overall and it is communication advances that enable us to see what was hidden before and not the level of global violence expanding. It is just more visible rather than growing. We use the big picture to justify our individual dilemma.

What seems to be developing alongside this is an awareness that we are sleeping if we miss this example of crucifixion under our very eyes, it seems too complex and too far away from me as an individual to really make any difference. Like the disciples I need to make sure I am around after all this noise dies down. I need to put this crucifixion into perspective and make sure I continue to be able to tell true story. I don’t really want to ask the hard question. Is this the crucifixion all over again? Is this the systemic violence that executed Jesus.

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore. But be careful here, if you agree with this then you have to think that Jesus dying for our sins is as Brandon Scott suggests, Jesus dying for our sins if a theological way to avoid what Paul says is the scandal of Jesus. Execution. That scandal being that the Jewish expectation of Gods power standing up for good doesn’t work nor does the Greek expectation of the divine wisdom sorting important things out. Crucifixion says that Rome won, the Roman system won and Jesus lost. Empire triumphs and it always does and it always will. And the best response to this inevitability is to deny its brutality and its violence. Call it conspiracy theory or wacky backy thinking. In fact evidence suggests that the followers of Jesus in the 1st century stylized the story and so began the development of the crucified Christ in a wooden cross as symbol of salvation. The brutality and violence was sanitized into a good Friday event. And take note that Jesus suffering and agony becomes some sort of divine gift. There are attempts to liturgically raise a Holy Saturday and note the suffering as a vigil, a recognition of the suffering Christ, but it is the deified Jesus that suffers, It is God’s son that suffers not humanity. The deification of Jesus bar Joseph is completed. Over time and the systemic violence is sanitized as our fault. Note I am not denying the crucifixion, just trying not to deny the horrific violence and brutality of a system trying to defend itself against change and loss of power.

When the centurion supervising Jesus; execution sees Jesus die he says. “This man really was God’s Son!” The author of this in Mark intends Jesus’ last words to be provocative and confrontational. It is a sarcastic comment that says You must be joking to think that this guy is a son of God! You can imagine the officer with his knee on the neck saying that ‘You must be joking if you think this guy doesn’t deserve this” and you can imagine the mobster saying that you have got to be joking is you think this is not a justifiable rite of passage that confirms loyalty and support and inclusion. The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction. It stays with us. It matters. The crucifixion is not an historic event anymore.

So, what about the resurrection? Can we say the same about that?

The shocked family was standing on the footpath in front of their house, watching the firemen swarming in and out. A grease fire had severely damaged the kitchen and smoke was saturating everything they owned. They felt deeply the probable loss of treasured items and they wondered how bad it could be. They watched in dismay as the fire was put out.  They saw the holes in the walls. The scorched ceilings. The broken crockery. Their home was a real mess and they tried not to think about the cleanup job that awaited them.

Suddenly a pizza delivery car pulled up next to the curb, and a young bloke jumped out carrying
one of those large pizza delivery bags. The father of the family looked puzzled: “Sorry mate! He said; you must have the wrong address. None of us ordered a pizza, and besides, my wallet was in my coat pocket – in the kitchen”. The delivery bloke smiled, shock his head and said:
“Yea, I know you didn’t order this.  But I saw you all just standing there and I had to do something.
“There’s no charge.  Just take it easy and have something to eat”. And with that he jumped back into his car and sped off as the astonished family watched.  (A story adapted from William Bausch)

 The crucifixion was there before them and how many of them saw the fire, shook their heads, and drove on? How many saw the people in need? Saw the brutal blow to their family and their friends. How many saw the brutality of the devastation perpetrated by the destructive event and didn’t jump to conclusions about poor maintenance, accidental use of volatile materials mismanaged, or unfortunate accident and drove on? One young bloke saw and decided to do something about it. The ‘doing’ was not some heroic firefighting or lifesaving risk taking. It was some simple words and ordinary caring.

It was similar to that of the Jesus of the Mark story who saw and heard Bartimaeus and,
as the storyteller says, did something about it. He offered some simple words and ordinary caring.

The story of Bartimaeus, clearly created by the storyteller Mark, is an interesting and important story. In the metaphor of the resurrection. There is a nobody in the world’s eyes, a sidelined person, a blind beggar sitting in the dust, suddenly, and to the surprise of all, becomes the hero of the story. When he raised his voice, people were quick to remind him he was a nobody.

Shut up you; they said! Be quiet! No-one wants to listen to you! Get back in the closet! Yet with the persistence which can characterise the desperate, he does not shy away from being a nuisance… He says; “I am not odd, or stupid, I am not a case to be solved, a need to be met. I’m a person, and not a discounted person or a person to be discounted.

Mark’s Jesus responds, hears his request, and, we are told, and makes him whole. William Loader, the Australian biblical scholar, suggests this is storyteller Mark at his subversive best.
“Mark can do this because he knew such stories.  Jesus did not sideline people. Jesus responded to what were seen as the ‘hopeless cases’ of his day” (William Loader/Web site-2003).

And again: “Whether at the symbolic level or at a literal level, the story illustrates an approach to people which is central to Jesus’ teaching” (WLoader/Web site-2003). Again the resurrection is lifted out of its historical time prison and becomes a living example.

I am sure you will recognise this ‘inclusive’ theme as a familiar one in Mark’s stories.
If you have been following this lectionary year of Mark you will note the inclusive focus on Children. Legalism. Toll collectors. Lepers. Purity rules, and Women. “The invisible domain of God is populated with the poor, the destitute, with women and unwanted children, with lepers, and toll collectors, all considered under some circumstances to be the dregs of society.  They are outsiders and outcasts.  They are exiles from their native religious tradition” (Funk 2002: 55).

Much of Jesus’ energy is in controversy with his fellow Jews and was spent trying to show that we must interpret scripture in a way which sees its priority as concern for human well-being some theory. The systemic battle highlighted by the execution and murder of Jesus is overturned by love, inclusion of the outcast, respect for the other and commitment to the alternative. The resurrection is the process of reconciliation, of renewal and of restoration of the realm of God.

There is another story that might signal resurrection too and it was one told by Bishop John Shelby Spong when he was in Australia some years back. We note also his recent death in the States. His story Was in what was a sharing of a theological vision for, and call to, the church. The whole event – sponsored by The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought – proved to be  a rewarding, 
challenging, and an inspirational experience for nearly everyone of the 650 people concerned.

Only one person, when 649 others were giving Spong a standing ovation, indicated a ‘thumbs down’ response.

Like the story of Bartimaeus, Jack Spong said during his Tuesday morning presentation:
“In Jesus we have met a presence of God… come among us offering life, love, and being to this world” (J S Spong. 2003).

The question we are reminded of is. “Is this what blind Bartimaeus saw in Jesus?” Was it a resurrection experience? A God presence offering life, love and being?  Another biblical storytelling person Tom Boomershine, when working with this story, says: “Jesus response is a word of affirmation and encouragement in which he gives permission for Bartimaeus to act on the power implicit in his own faith” (Boomershine 1988:128).

We can resonate with that comment. And we can also be bold enough to suggest this is what John Shelby Spong did. He gave people permission to express and act on the power implicit in their own faith or religious journey, especially when others want to say to them: shut up! The daily engagement between faith and life is relived constantly as a resurrection event.

The thoughts and words and ideas of Jack Spong are an affirmation of courage and faith and encouragement which allow that faith or religious journey to be fully lived out… offering life, love and being. Where Spong and those who respond to his vision of religion usually fall foul of conservative or evangelical church folk, is the fear of people who choose not to, or are unable to, see or hear the value of the individual in the systemic driven environment. Their resistance seems to be because of a fear of the systemic nature of the human need to be socially responsible because that will mean personal change. And we know that a life lived in fear can never bear to face the need for change, or to see the possible in looking again from a different perspective.

So, I hope you can see why Mark’s story about a bloke called Bartimaeus might be an important story in our religious tradition, at this time in human history. Perhaps we need to listen to all the Bartimaeus’ when they speak up! Maybe we need to hear then as affirming the resurrection journey we are on?

The Jesus story evolves in its context yet remains the same in the face of violence and destruction as well as peace and love and the indwelling of the realm of God. The story stays with us. It matters. Amen.

Bausch, W. A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications, 1998.
Boomershine, T. E. Story Journey. An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling. Nashville. Abingdon Press, 1988.
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books., 2004
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

‘Are We Pretending to be Asleep?’     

With the appearance of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic there is now broad general recognition that we have entered an emergency century, a crux in human history. The variables of global weather patterns are becoming disrupted, the magnet poles are shifting at a greater rate, the sun spots are more prevalent and appear to be more influential on the earth’s crust and the planet is warming at an exponential rate. The absolutes that provided certainty as a balance to all this apparent chaotic development are no longer viable. Does God exist is almost a redundant question at least outside the church it is and that is an ever-increasing number of people. Christianity is becoming a label many no longer want because of historic activity that is coming to light about the church’s behaviour over the last 1000 years at least.

Whether we respond well or poorly to these things will have an effect, even if we bury our heads and do nothing. The world is changing like it or not and how we respond will have huge ramifications for future generations of people and for the biosphere at large. Do nothing to curb the wholesale destruction of the ecosystem by unbridled production of a product alien to the organic, sustainability of the planet and from our current moment we could be contributing to a mass extinction event that will hammer the biosphere and civilization both, or we could by making significant, challenging and difficult change be starting the process of establishing a prosperous and just global society that will be sustainable over the long haul of the centuries to come. The radical disparity of these possible futures, the sheer range of them—but with a kind of excluded middle, in that if we trend in one direction or other that trajectory is likely to prevail—is part of the feeling of our time, which could be characterized as a general sense of danger, dread, and fear, mixed with a battered but still strong feeling of hope that our rapidly increasing scientific knowledge and technological capability, and a rising awareness of our global collective fate, and our ultimate reliance on Earth’s biosphere will combine to usher in a new and better era in human interactions with the planet and other people.

Some of us will remember when Covid 19 arrived some people were saying that there is an opportunity here to make the changes in human behaviour for the better, if we took the opportunity. There have been snippets of hope expressed in people’s compassionate response to students and rugby clubs without encouragement hit the streets to help people stricken by earthquake damage and the loss of life. The value of community was also seen after the Mosque attacks and the recent floods. The truth is we live in this curious mixture of fear and hope; probably this has always been the case for humanity, but now it has bloomed into an obvious existential and historical crisis. The problems we face now are immense and numerous. We are a global society, but we are ruled by a nation-state system in which many still regard national interests as overriding any global considerations. The emphasis on a monetarist-based trade system has had us play with a controlled tariff-based system and more recently a free trade model where again the monetarist focus has been kept as if sacrosanct. Challenge or change to this thinking has been seen to be impossible or unwise. And we have agreed to rule ourselves and run our affairs by way of a political economy that is unsustainable, extractive, and unjust, and yet is massively entrenched in national laws and international treaties. Even the idea of democracy is challenged but put in the too hard basket. So, we are left with a nation-state system that is insufficient, and yet all we have; and neoliberal capitalism has been seen to be cruel and destructive, and yet it is still the world’s current overriding system of laws.

So how do we proceed from here?  The first thing in my opinion is to ask the question of what Jesus di in his time when his people were faced with the magnitude of change facing his people. Get over the dualistic way of thinking because that just gets us stuck in the he right she’s wrong, that’s good and that’s bad way of thinking. We do however have to use the tools at hand, at the same time see them as suspect or questionable because they could actually be a big part of the problem. Own the fact that it’s a dilemma but it is one of language, concept and not a concrete unassailable fact.

One thing that may help to start our thinking here is the simple principle that what can’t happen, won’t happen. This is to invoke the reality principle in the form of the facts of science that are incontrovertible. Magic doesn’t work, so magical thinking is not going to be sufficient; physically impossible things are not going to happen in this century or any other, and so we are not going to be conducting our civilization as we have been into the future, because that isn’t physically possible. The planet’s biosphere doesn’t produce the resources we need at the rate we are using them, nor is it capable of disposing of the toxic wastes we are producing at the rate we are producing them. So, change will be coming, one way or another, and because the current situation is so very untenable, the changes coming are going to be profound. We are now already in the time of change. So, in this very perilous situation, we need plans. That’s the most important task the church can be doing.

And let’s not be sucked into the idea that the complex is a problem, that once we have got control it will be ok, This, change is not like that. This change is from a structured management model that is based on exponential growth where the most competitive wins and equality is pitted against equity and distorted under the guise of freedom. The reality is that there are solutions specific to sectors of our society and each will need a vision of change for the better. As the general problem is a wicked problem, in the technical sense of being multiplex and intractable, the solutions are therefore going to be complex.

What the pandemic has revealed is the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of imbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. As one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.” Ultimately, there is no going back to normal because normal no longer exists—except perhaps in the guise of messages of the mainstream media and politicians who seek to keep the public in a consensus mode while a small elite sucks the wealth out of human communities and natural ecosystems, all in the name of the dominant ideology of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has been a part of global mainstream discourse since the 1980s. It propagates the fiction that humans are essentially individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and as a result, unrestrained, free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have transformed the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labour. Neoliberalism is the logical outcome of a worldview based on separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and nature itself is no more than an economic resource. And just in case you think I am sounding like a leftist socialist or communist, those categories are all failed political labels. It has to be evident that the value system built on this foundation is the ultimate cause of the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond to climate breakdown, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.

In short, I think I agree with many commentators struggling with these issues when they say we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. And let’s be very honest here such a change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It is said that if our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behaviour on a similar scale. The question might be what does this change look like? What sort of vision do we need to move in the right direction?

Well, given that this is a sermon based on the Christian and Judaic scriptures what do they suggest as a response, or better still what does the life of Jesus have to say about such a need? It is certainly not more of the same. It is certainly an alternative way of being and doing what it means to be human. Religiously, socially, economically, and politically the world has to change. On the economic terms it is to be a non-violent, and equitable. Note I said equitable not equal because it is not a world where the majority is subject to the few like our current systems and it is also a world where nature and natural organisational principles and structures are valued above those that are fabricated. Systems, values and actions need to support an ecological civilization based on core principles that sustain living systems in natural ecologies. Over billions of years on Earth, life has evolved resilient processes that allowed it to spread in rich profusion and stunning diversity into virtually every nook and cranny of the planet. As a result, if left undisturbed by human depredation, natural ecosystems can persist in good health for millions of years. A key learning is that living systems are characterized by both competition and cooperation. However, the major evolutionary transitions that brought life to its current state of abundance were all the results of dramatic increases in cooperation. The key to each of these evolutionary steps—and to the effective functioning of all ecosystems—is symbiosis: the process by which both parties in a relationship give and receive reciprocally, reflecting each other’s abilities and needs. With symbiosis, there is no zero-sum game; the contributions of each party create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. An important result of symbiosis is that ecosystems can sustain themselves almost indefinitely. Energy from the sun flows seamlessly to all the constituent parts. The waste of one organism becomes the sustenance of another. In contrast to our current civilization, which built its wealth by extracting resources and letting waste accumulate, nature has a circular economy where nothing is squandered.

So, what do we as the remnant church do? Well, there’s not enough time left to include it in this sermon which has been mainly about the why change question. The church can be part of this change but it needs to be focused on what it does best or at least what it used to do without much effort, and which in my view has led to its apparent irrelevance. It can play a part in the complex interconnection of different organisms in a symbiotic network and contribute to what is an important foundational principle of nature: that of harmony. Harmony doesn’t mean bland agreement. On the contrary, it arises when different elements within a system express their own needs so that the system as a whole is enriched. Harmony arises when the various forces of the system are in balance. This can manifest as balance between competition and cooperation; between the system’s efficiency and its resilience; or between growth, maturation, and decline. I think the church can be a place where harmony is sought in the search for the change that is required. A prayer by a J Wood has been used at a number of church meetings and it is probably a good place to start when arguing that the church is a place where alternative approaches can be debated. The prayer goes like this:

Galilean Jesus,

on hills and near beaches you called people around you

for reflection, explanation and resolution.

So now we reflect together,

knowing that we will hear wise words if only we listen intently.

We each bring some knowledge and some understanding

and we bring our faith, 

incomplete, sometimes uncertain, but willing.

Help us to complete our task together

and to be resolute in gospel action.
Amen. J Wood

That last line of the prayer sums up the humble faithful courage required of the church or rather followers of the Jesus Way, in order to respond to the change that is required of us all. “To be resolute in gospel action” as a contribution to the harmony required in the new civilization emerging. We can no longer just see our role as the place of social action. Of course, that is required but it only contributes to harmony when it is about the elimination oof the need for it, Peace and justice are perpetual goals because we will always have the poor with us, it is part of what it means to be human, it is not acceptable because it is part of an inequitable reality that requires our participation for fairness, goodness and a harmonious equitable reality.

At the root of ‘gospel action’ today. Is a demand that any such reform will include a spiritual vitality and expressiveness. It will include an insistence on a Jesus and Christ centred faith with intellectual integrity. It will support a transgression of traditional gender boundaries. It will claim that a person can be a follower of Jesus and be a faithful follower without claiming to be of the best or the only true faith. 

Today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, touches on this matter of ‘gospel action’ or ‘mission’ as the seeks to empower its listeners. It appears Jesus was experienced as powerful, but in an empowering way. His life did not require him to seek power for his own sake, but to own the power he had in compassion and in self-giving. His call was to model a new kind of being in the world. Not to be served but to serve. Not to be about maintenance, or in-reach, but to be at mission, at ‘gospel action’. So where does Mark’s story now leave us? Well, perhaps close to something like the emotion in a prayer/poem by Tom Shuman called ‘Where you sit’…

we leave our box seats at the symphony or ball park,
and pray you won’t catch our eye as we pass you
sitting with the homeless; we wait for a few minutes at the doctor’s office
to get a $10 shot so we won’t catch the flu,
while half a world away you sit for a week

hoping medicine which will cost you a year’s wages
finds its way to your village;

we sit in our home theatres, watching the latest “reality” on our plasma screens,
while you sit in the darkness, rocking your child asleep,

as she cries from the ache of an empty stomach.

Lord Jesus:
when (like James and John) we want to be at your side in glory:
remind us where you sit. 

 © 2006 Thom M Shuman

Transitioning to an ecological civilization will require fundamentally redesigning our economy. Across the world, the success of political leaders is currently measured by how much they’ve managed to increase their nation’s GDP. However, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, a life-affirming society would emphasize it growth in quality of life, using alternative measures such as the “Gross National Happiness” index established by the state of Bhutan, which assesses qualities such as spiritual wellbeing, health, and biodiversity. Ever since the nineteenth century, most economic thinkers have recognized only two domains of economic activity: markets and government. The great political divide between capitalism and communism arose from stressing one or the other of these two poles (with social democracy somewhere in between). An ecological civilization would incorporate government spending and markets, but—as laid out by progressive economist Kate Raworth—would add two critical realms to the old framework: households and the commons. In particular, the commons would become a central part of economic activity. Historically, the commons referred specifically to shared land that peasants accessed to graze their livestock or grow crops. But in a broader context, the commons refer to any source of sustenance and wellbeing that is not appropriated either by the state or private ownership: the air, water, sunshine, and even human creations like language, cultural traditions, and scientific knowledge. The commons is virtually ignored in most economic discussions because, like household work, it doesn’t fit into the classic model of the economy. But the global commons belong to all of us.

In an ecological civilization, it would once again take its rightful place as a major provider for human welfare. The cumulative common resources that our ancestors have bequeathed to us through untold generations of hard work and ingenuity represent a vast reservoir of wealth—our shared human commonwealth—compared to which the value added by any individual is a drop in the ocean. An ecological civilization, recognizing this, would fairly reward entrepreneurial activity but would severely curtail the right of anyone to accumulate multiple billions of dollars in wealth, no matter what their accomplishments.

On the other hand, it would recognize the moral birthright of every human to share in this vast commonwealth. The transition could effectively be achieved through a program of unconditional cash disbursements to every person alive on the planet, known as universal basic income. The dominant neoliberal view of human nature leads many to assume that free money would cause people to become lazy, avoid work, and exacerbate addictive behaviors. In every test conducted, however, the opposite turns out to be true. Programs consistently report reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, truancy, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol consumption, along with increases in health, gender equality, school performance—and even entrepreneurial activity. For these moral and practical reasons, universal basic income would be integral to the design of an ecological civilization. The transnational corporations that currently dominate virtually every aspect of our global society would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve. Corporations above a certain size would be required to be chartered with the explicit purpose of optimizing not just for shareholder returns, but also for social and environmental outcomes.

There is much more to be said about what is possible for the change to an ecological civilization and this sermon is already too long, so I will finish as I began by saying that let’s remember that the natural world is warning us with pointed urgency that we are on the wrong track. It turns out that our audacious human inventions like the economy, state power, and technology are not autonomous machines that exist outside of history or the natural order. We are actually biological creatures, not just citizens or versions of homo economicus (the economic agent who rationalizes all choices toward economic gain). Let’s acknowledge this as a shock to our consciousness because, as moderns, we do not readily acknowledge that we are profoundly interdependent on other organisms. We thus face a new existential challenge: How can we make our modern, materialistic culture more compatible with a living, evolving planet? Despite our pretensions as champions of the Enlightenment, human life will not survive unless it moves more fully into sync with the ecological imperatives of the planet. Time to stop pretending we are asleep? Amen.

Taussig, H. A New Spiritual Home. Progressive Christianity at the Grassroots. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2006.

Clayton, Philip. Kelli M Archie, Jonah Sachs, and Evan Steiner The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Mark 10:17-26

The Habit of a Collective Society.

I want to start with a couple of definitions that might help as we go along. The first is ‘individuality or “the quality or character of a particular person or thing that distinguishes them from others of the same kind, especially when strongly marked.” The second is ‘individualism’ or in an interpretation for today’s topic; “a self-centred feeling or conduct; egoism”. Perhaps explained in our case today as a sort of unbridled individuality that threatens the welfare of an orderly community.’

Some commentators have suggested that our text indicates, what could be the first recorded act of modern individualism. The storyteller Mark says an unnamed rich man asks Jesus
what he could do to have a fully satisfying, authentic life. Accustomed to paying a price to achieve his desired ends, this man seems to assume he can attain or buy the quality of life taught and lived by Jesus. For him, life was an achievement. A prize to win. A commodity to be bought.

We can reasonably assume that this man has been looking all his life for such personal fulfilment and satisfaction. So, the thing which very likely crosses our mind is: doesn’t all this sound very familiar and modern?

Rex Hunt reminds us that some 15 or so years ago, American sociologist Robert Bellah edited a couple of books on the American lifestyle. They were called Habits of the Heart and The Good Society. In those books Bellah and his research associates claimed that the desire to get the most out of one’s life – to be the best or achieve the highest – was a hallmark of our time. This sounds logical and almost timeless in its application to human life. Hasn’t it always been like this?

They also suggested we are so intent on fulfilling ourselves and our own destiny, that we put our lives and careers above everything else. This suggests that our individuality matters more to us than the success of any larger group or institution. The question is when does it become ‘individualism’? Or a threat to an orderly community?

In a fear driven world such as that we have, (an assumption I make) we don’t have to go far to get frightened into preparing for a horrible future. similar comments. We are encouraged to save for the future shocks by joining superannuation schemes we are told to save and invest and insure… Personal or family financial security is promoted as a virtue, by taxation accountants, investment advisers, and financial planners. I am not saying this is a bad thing but rather that it could blur further the line between a creative freely given and life enhancing individuality that is collaborative and complimentary and an individualism that is a threat to orderly community. And why is this a problem? Well, I think it might just go to this thing we call ‘the realm of God’. Is this realm not one based on, driven by and expressing a wasteful love rather than order and individual ascendancy? One of the questions being wrestled with today is, ‘where is the line between the rights of an individual not to have a vaccine and the rights of an individual to have a vaccine shot and that’s a question before the argument about the suitability of any one type of vaccine. The question is whether or not it is individuality at stake here or is it individualism taking over be majority choice.

On the other hand, social commentators such as Hugh Mackay in Sydney, some time back claimed that the rise in individualism rather than community, is really driven by the popularist chant: gimme, gimme, gimme! He writes: “Perhaps our desire for more, more, more is a thinly disguised attempt to distract ourselves by constant stimulation, constant change, constant excitement, constant entertainment and the illusion of constant renewal.  But distract ourselves from what?” (Mackay/SMH-9/2/02).

Speak to many leaders of organisations such as community service groups, or Girl Guides, or Meals-on-Wheels, or the local school canteen and they will all say they are suffering today because the majority of us no longer value service above personal success and enjoyment. The golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’ is under threat by an individualism disguised as individuality. Maybe this is why it can be so easy for us Christians in the Western developed world to understand the rich man and to sympathize with him. He is one of us! Individualism is timeless, a basic human attitude. But! Is it?

Like him, we too want to be sure we don’t neglect anything that might improve our personal situation. Like him, most of us are always looking for something to give us an edge, something that will make us more successful, or more competitive or more complete or more secure. And as such, the majority of us live by the logic of the market place, and the encouragement (or fear driven scare tactics) of those with collective influence and power. We hear the response to this as protest, apathy and plain individual ignoring. Everything becomes a commodity to be used and depleted, hoarded or thrown away. And we have the heightened level of destructive change in our environment as a result of this insidious individualism masquerading as individuality.

Some years ago, now a Dr Richard Greene interpreted a local survey on ecology done by a small group of Australians. The survey measured the relative amount of the world’s resources an individual takes up, taking into account how often we use a car, eat meat, whether or not we recycle… that type of thing. Dr Greene said their individual ‘ecological footprint’ averaged out at about 7.6 hectares (or 19 acres) – per person. That means, if everyone in the world lived at the same level of consumption as that small group of Australians did, we would need 4.2 planets to sustain us all!  I don’t know about you but it is not easy to think about our personal impact on the world in those terms. But when you think about it for a bit one can see that everything I do and you do, impacts on others. The problem is clearer when we avoid individualism and stay with individuality. Web the see that some of the ‘others’ have less opportunities less choices less power, to protect themselves from the negative impact of my decisions. Perhaps that is why those who live in the poorer, developing countries, consider anyone who lives in the Westernized developed world as among the earth’s wealthy.

To perhaps make this distinction between individuality and individualism more blurred and I suggest mor important to wrestle with is to tell another story in the spirit of Mark’s story and this elusive thing called eternal life. A parallel story which invites us move beyond the acquisition of things, towards the sharing of compassion.

A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a creek. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.  “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope you can give me something even more precious. “Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

The encouragement is to wrestle with a number of things when coming to this txt about the rich man. The first is to acknowledge that Jesus is not very likely to have said these things that Mark says he did. They do however have a bit of a ‘Jesus’ echo to them. The chances are that Mark or one of Marks contributors had heard of a similar story, reshaped it, and offered it to his small (probably poor peasant) Jesus movement, as they struggled to define their Christian borders and live with neighbours across the road who were different.

The other thing to remember is that we can only imagine what Mark or his contemporary had in the back of their mind when they edited and offered this story some 35 to 40 years after Jesus? Maybe their reasoning went something like this: “Jesus’ challenge… was a way of exposing a flaw in the man’s keeping of the commandments. Admirable as his effort had been, he had missed the point of the commandments. Jesus’ challenge exposed what was missing: a sense of compassion for the poor.” (Bill Loader/web site).

“Marriage verses Divorce, or More?”

Mark 10: 2-16

I want to start this exploration of the text from Mark with a translation that I think is helpful for us to put aside some of our assumptions about is and revisit its word to us today. Remember it is a translation but also see it as an attempt to probe beneath the text to seek the context it seeks to convey, the context of the writer and the intent of the writer of which we know very little and make huge assumptions. This does not mean of course that we can’t use the text in this way because our intent is with humility, seeking integrity and an authentic rendition of the story.

We enter the scene: And the pharisees came (and) were asking him if it is permissible (for) a man to release a woman, putting him to the test.  But he answered (and) said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  But they said, “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment, but from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female.  Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”

We note here that there is or are unspoken questions raising the discussion matter. Was there some debate about the authenticity of what Jesus had been saying about marriage or divorce? It they were trying to test Jesus and catch him out why?

And in the house, the disciples again were asking him about this, and he said to them, “Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her.  And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery.” And we note that Jesus answers as a follower of Judaism and as a Jew and he answers with reference to Moses the one who brought his people out of exile. A very core belief for his questioners.

We continue the translation: And they were bringing children to him so that he might touch them, but the disciples were rebuking the ones bringing.  But seeing, Jesus was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.”  And he took them into his arms, was blessing them, laying hands upon them.

Here we note perhaps the reason for the Rabbi’s testing of Jesus? Was he being successful in sharing his ideas of this new way of being he was preaching about? Did the Rabbi’s sense that he was on to something that they had missed? What would it do to their standing? Was there something about this that rung true but would change their world? This realm or kingdom sounds like one that is too accommodating of anything goes, to radically liberalised, and if his success catches on what will happen to tradition, and all the truths that we have put safeguards around. What do we do with all the creeds and doctrines we have agreed to? Maybe this is why they felt the need to test Jesus and maybe the topic of marriage and divorce are just symbols of a bigger threat, that of the very fabric of their social assumptions, What happens to the standing of the patriarchal society? What happens to the peace and harmony our patriarchal society is based upon? What happens to our understanding of community?

Returning to our text we see that it begins at verse 2 of chapter 10.  In verse 1, we had just been told that Jesus has entered into Perea which is on the other side of the Jordan River from Judea.  He is still in the domain ruled by Herod Antipas, but is moving south toward Jerusalem.  We continue:

“The crowds again gathered around him” We note here that this is the only use of the plural “crowds” in Mark’s gospel.  Further, to establish the link with previous teaching, Mark says “as was his custom, he again taught them.”  The mention of crowds also means that there will be a large audience for the rabbinical debate which is about to ensue. This conversation we are about to witness is a biggie and there is a lot of interest in it. Again the reason for the Rabbi’s testing Jesus is heightened.

Looking at the question the writer is addressing, another level of this conversation. We find that Mark has spoken of several controversies involving the pharisees earlier in the scriptures (2:15-17, 2:23-3:6, 7:1-15, 8:11-12) so the mention of pharisees in this context invites interest and suspicion.  These pharisees come to “test” Jesus, as they had also done also in 8:11.  What was the test?  They ask if it was “permissible” for a man to divorce–“release”–his wife. And the test was to place Jesus squarely in the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist being killed.  John had questioned Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias (6:17ff).  “It is not lawful (exestin),” John had said. The Pharisee’s were testing his following of Judaism, not unlike todays progressives face from fundamentalists. The same question John faced is now before Jesus–“is it lawful?” (exestin)–has now been placed before Jesus.  If Jesus agrees with John, that could be interpreted as treason against Herod Antipas.  (Jesus is in Perea, keep in mind, on Antipas’ turf.)

Another significant matter is that Mark has already told us that the pharisees were conspiring with the “Herodians” (3:6).  If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas’ divorce, some of those “Herodians” would no doubt argue that he should deserve the same punishment as that dished out to John. So here we have Mark writing about the relationship between organised state religion and free thinking challenging cultural, social and economic assumptions. There could be an alternative way of being of God’s Kingdom and it might be unsettling to those with power influence and a social standing in a belief system based on control and obedience and a false collectiveness as opposed to true healthy vibrant community based on Love and acceptance and goodness and mercy.

The topic of marriage and divorce is problematical for us in that we come to it with a conditioned social cultural and traditional mindset and its possible we miss the core meaning or purpose of the text. We need to remember that Rabbinical argument, according to Deuteronomy 24, divorce clearly was “permissible”—or “lawful.”  (Deuteronomy 24:1:  “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.  She then leaves his house.”) Maybe the issue of at the heart of the test was not about marriage and divorce but about the very success of the Jesus Way that we frightening the Rabbi’s?

The certificate of divorce in their tradition was called a “get.”  This terminated the marriage and made it possible for the woman to re-marry.  The certificate read:  “You are free to marry any man.”  (France, p. 393) So, Remarriage was not an issue for men because they could marry more than one woman. Again this raises the question of marriage and divorce being more than the initiating topic.

We might also throw into the mix the question of what defined “something objectionable”?  This question was being hotly debated between the two main theological schools of Judaism in that period, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.  The more conservative school of Shammai argued that only adultery was an acceptable reason for divorce.  The school of Hillel argued that almost anything could be considered “objectionable,” such as burning the pot roast, for example.

Jesus responds to the question with a question, which is significant for us in that it is not common practice today but it was a typical rabbinical practice then.  “What did Moses command you?” he asks.  The question is subtle.  Moses had no “command” on this issue.  The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy was, essentially, a concession to the reality of divorce and an attempt to provide structure and guidelines in its wake.   

The pharisees respond that “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  With the understanding that a “permission” is not the same as a “command”, this was true.  Moses had permitted divorce.  The pharisees present an acceptable legal argument based on the book of Deuteronomy. 

Jesus dismisses this permission with a sharp rejoinder.  “For your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce, he says.  This accusation of “hardness of heart”–sklerokardia–is a very serious one.  “Hardness of heart” is associated with resistance to the ways of God (Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7). Almost a rejection of God, a fundamental challenge. Moreover, Pharoah, their ancient enemy, had also had “hardness of heart.”  No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharoah.  Secondly, Pharoah is a representative figure for patriarchy.  Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharoah. 

Having hit the Pharisees as hard as he could theologically by associating divorce with Pharoah and patriarchy, Jesus then switches from the subject of divorce to marriage in general.  In effect, he will base his argument on a broader understanding of Moses–not specific commands or permissions, but a general attitude toward life and relationships based on God’s design of creation. He broadens the discussion to place it firmly in the bigger picture or what the realm of God might be and be seen to be.

Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, he (God) made them male and female.”  The reference is to Genesis 1:27:  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  We not the most significant thing here for us as westernized individualistic focused persons. The “image of God” her for both Jesus and Mark is that it is a corporate–“them”–and includes both male and female. Difference in sex is not part of the discussion. Here we have the strongest challenge for our interpretation of the text. We are asked to put aside our generational, evolved individualism and see the world alternatively. That of the collective, communal, and that in common.

We might note here also that the Essenes used the same text to prohibit divorce.  Contrary to the common assumption, Jesus does not actually “prohibit” divorce in this reading.  What he does do is remove it from being something of a technical issue, and places it in the much broader context of God’s desire for human life.

Jesus continues:  “Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.”  Here, the reference is to Genesis 2:24:  “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Note that the man is to leave his family–that is, he is to leave his own patriarchal tradition, his acceptable cultural understanding, his very assumed way of orienting himself with in society. 

Jesus adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”  Jesus avoids the technical term for divorce (apoluse) and switches instead to “separate” (chorizo).  He does not directly challenge the Mosaic law which allows for divorce, but instead bases his argument on God’s intention in creation which is the unity of marital relationships and the essential equality of male and female. Again it is what male and female, what marriage and divorce are all about. It is the collective, communal the in common.

Jesus goes on to explain adultery and marital relations and in the context of contradicting Jewish law by stating that a woman might divorce her husband.  This was acceptable in Greco-Roman law, but not Jewish law.

Here again we have the concern for the collective bigger picture of this realised alternative kingdom of realm of God. Jesus invokes God’s intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken.  He subverts the dominant patriarchal worldview that only men could get divorces, and only women could commit adultery against her spouse.  His teaching recognizes the profoundly wrenching experience of divorce, as anyone who has been through it can attest, and also recognizes the reality of divorce and the importance of maintaining justice in its application.  

And now to summarize we come to the text that includes the children. This is about receiving the powerless:  Immediately after the teachings on the collective, people were bringing children to Jesus “so that he might touch them.”  The disciples “rebuked” those who were bringing the children, apparently forgetting that Jesus had recently said that whoever welcomed a child also welcomed him, which was the same thing as welcoming God (9:36-37).  The disciples get it wrong again.  

“Rebuked” (epitimao) is a strong word, one often used against demons and demonic powers in Mark.  Seeing the disciples turn the children away, Jesus was “indignant” (aganakteo).  Indignant was also a strong word.  It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus then says, “Do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”  Children represent all the “little ones” cared for by God.  Of these “little ones,” the kingdom of God is constituted. Again the concern is for the realm of God. In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “truly I say to you” occurs 14 times.  It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows.  Then Jesus says, “Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.” The saying is not about the “simple faith” of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.  It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status. We note that 60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.  Indeed, already in Mark, the synagogue leader’s daughter had died of illness (5:21ff.), the syrophoenician woman’s daughter was ill (7:24ff.), and a man’s son was demon-possessed (9:14ff.). Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it.  Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom.  Pharoah oppressed his slaves.  From the point of view of the child, families oppress children. The message here is about the nature of the realm of God which is significantly different from the status quo. It is a radical alternative.

The episode closes with Jesus taking children into his arms, “blessing them”. Again, a strong word used only here in the four gospels. Also; the use of “laying hands on them” is a repetition of the three verbs; taking, blessing, laying hands and it adds force.  Jesus is overtly placing the powerless in the center of the community’s life, at the centre of the realm of God, at the centre of the collective new life. Exactly this collective, way of being where the individual is seen as imperative to community says Mark, is the kingdom of God.  Amen.