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Faith Unleashed

Posted: September 30, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 17: 5-10

Faith Unleashed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Luke 16:19-31

Thinking, Feeling, Behaving, Sacred Tasks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It All Depends

Posted: September 19, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 16: 1-8a

It All Depends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we with this very different story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An Alternative, Expansive Vision

Posted: September 13, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 15:1-10

‘An Alternative, Expansive Vision’

John Shea, the American priest, theologian and storyteller wrote in his book, The Challenge of Jesus’ that; “Jesus does not call people into their sins but out of them…
The judgement of Jesus is not a police-like searching out and punishing of evil acts”.  His comment, which at first glance seems simple and obvious is actually a fundamental shift and challenge to what has been the orthodox view or practice for many years. It is doubly important because it speaks to the very heart of one’s spirituality. It aligns into sin with an acceptance that life is always being policed, always in trouble seeking a way out, always less than perfect and in need of help to get out. It does not deny the presence of not being sure, or not getting things right, or that life contains struggles but it claims that the Way of Jesus to hear the call he makes upon one’s life and to act upon it. In my title I have called this an alternative expansive vision that calls us out of sin. It is the certainty, the possibility of, the likelihood of ‘out of them’ that matters more than being able to describe the sins and count them. It is about human desire, human flourishing: the possible out of the impossible. Sin is only there to reveal the possible, reveal the alternative, reveal the expansion of the environment. There is nothing that cannon be achieved in the Christ so to speak.

And that mini sermon brings us to the texts of today. I think it was important because I think it touches at the heart of this morning’s stories. In the ‘nitty gritty’ of contemporary biblical theology today, all the major scholars agree that Jesus’ primary identity was that of a sage. Some put more emphasis on the mystic nature of his work and others the political and social. But all seem to agree that he was a sage or wisdom teacher, interested both in understanding life, and in communicating that understanding. But as a sage, Jesus was not simply just a teacher. And certainly no ‘blackboard-and-chalk’ type teacher. “He spent at least as much time in figuring things out himself… seeking wisdom… as in communicating the understanding he came to…  And the best place to gain wisdom, according to Jesus the sage, was right in the midst of ordinary life” (Taussig 1999: 14).

I would suggest that he took time out to test his thinking on this by going to the quiet places as well as expressing what he believed in the midst of ordinary life. We might think of him sitting on a couch in the corner of some tavern, wine mug in hand, and soldiers and business folk. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. His listeners would laugh. Maybe scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own.

In the midst of ordinary life…  This concentration on ordinary life, according to New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, meant that Jesus as a sage: did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom.  He did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and he did not promote an other-worldly emphasis.

Hal Taussig suggests that: “The real energy of his teachings is found in their expansiveness of vision and in their critique, not in the defence, of religion…  And his favourite place to teach was probably at dinner” (Taussig 1999: 17, 18).

Here again we see the concentration on sin and all things that weigh us down as defensive, negative introspection from which there is no escape other than to embrace an alternative expansive vision.

As a sage, we can accept that Jesus told many stories. A number of those stories were about being lost and found. And in many of them, that which was lost had nothing whatever to do with their finding. We have two such stories, called parables, today. The story of ‘A man with a hundred sheep’. The story of ‘A woman with ten drachmas’. Luke’s Jesus seems clear. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin contributed in any way to their finding. Sin has nothing to do with the outcome. Neither the sheep nor the coin was punished or lectured for being lost. Concentration on sin is not helpful. There weren’t any inquests conducted in any of these stories. Nothing at all changed after the finding.

The whole focus of both Luke’s stories is not on the repentance of the sheep or the coin, but the seeking and finding by their respective owners. The acceptance of the alternative hope-filled vision. And when that which was lost was found, the finder threw a party.
Perhaps even spending the coin or committing the sheep to the proceeds of the party!

Sin can have a use but only as resource for joy, an alternative expansive vision. Thus, the call of Luke’s Jesus is not ‘repent’ but rather ‘rejoice’. But there’s more!

These stories are parables and a parable are a story with a twist in the tail, which turns our world views upside down. So where is the twist? Well! If we play some more we might ask ‘Why a sheep?  Why a woman?’ In the society of Jesus’ day, both shepherds and women, along with many other classes of people, existed on the margins of society. There was what we might today find extreme cultural differences. The sheep and women of society, the nobodies were not included in the ‘A’ social guest list. They had no status, were landless and poor, and not to be trusted. Certainly not candidates for ‘the kingdom’.

And by naming them, Luke indicates they were indeed part of the general group
called ‘toll collectors and sinners’… Collaborators with the oppressive system and those who were sinners. For Luke they were the unlikely ones who were seeking the company of Jesus. They were those the pharisees and the scribes, if we accept Luke’s comments or bias, apparently complained about and rejected. So, for Luke some tension seems to be highlighted in these stories. Along with some overriding negative feelings,often overlooked or ruled out by other  commentators.

And unravelling the stories further… The world of the parable, is in the midst of ordinary everyday life. Sheep go missing. Women lose coins. Sons get angry. Stewards cheat. A judge cares little about justice. A harvest is only average. The stories themselves are about things of little intrinsic value in the ordinariness of life. One sheep. One coin.

And then the twist in the tale, so, too is the kingdom or realm or empire of God. The realm of God is less grand, and less than anticipated. Less than sinless, less than a bed of roses. It includes those who are usually or always, excluded. So, we have a couple of stories which say: Beware! We are unable to predict the outcome when the resolution is always unexpected. Pretty ordinary, really! Life is more about ambiguity, and serendipity and uncertainty is it not? I invite you to ponder that some more.

John Donahue says that “Surprise, extravagance, and joy characterise these parables (Donahue 1988:150). Likewise, “Jesus’ teachings about God’s reign were fresh and surprising,” he says. Theologian Hal Taussig again also says, “His teachings were so striking that usually his hearers were inspired, shocked, or actively puzzled.

I dream of my sermons being like that one day, haha! When Jesus spoke, the clever social involvement of his teachings called people to self-examination and new relationships”; suggests Hal Taussig. Like Jesus, the people who effectively invite us to change our world view of events or people or relationships, are not the televangelists or the fundamentalists who often scream about other people’s ‘sin’, or the politicians who preach fear and insecurity in the hope of re-election. I don’t know if any of you saw the TV program on Monday evening last where a researcher was highlighting the fact that in New Zealand politics the percentage of promises actually delivered was extremely low if almost non-existent. Promises are about getting votes and not about freeing the people from the declared sin.

Jesus proclaimed an alternative.  A new vision of what could be. And that requires living without reservation into a completely open future. One example of this need for an alternative is what Rabbi Arthur Waskow said on an anniversary some years back now…. He said: “The Inquisition burned the Talmud.  Nazis, on 10 May 1933, burned thousands of books – among them the works of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Maxim Gorki, George Grosz, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Helen Keller. And now we have amongst us in America some who call themselves Christians, who have called for burning the Quran, and who have chosen September 11 as the day to do so. “The great German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansor: ‘Where they burn books, they will finally also burn people’.” (Rabbi Arthur Waskow. 1/9/2010. The Shalom Centre)) The focus on being called into sin, fear and failure of the new will lead to self-destruction rather than that which Jesus showed by his life. There is an alternative, expansive vision should you accept the call. Amen.

Donahue, J. R.1988.  The Gospel in Parable. Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia. Fortress Press.
Taussig, H. 1999. Jesus Before God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Shea, J. 1984.  The Challenge of Jesus. Thomas More Association.

Luke 14: 25-33

Recognizing the Sacred Where We Are.

Understanding the background and culture of Jesus is very important when we come across stories such as those we have today. How else can we understand Jesus’ comment that his followers must ‘hate’, or more accurately, ‘detach oneself from’, their immediate family members!

On the surface it offends against all the values most people hold dear. But Luke the storyteller has Jesus employing a common rhetorical devise, used by many of the wisdom sages of the day. An approach which would be familiar, even if offensive, to the audience.

And which should also be familiar to us in our 21st century world, brought up on the politician’s speeches and promises during election time!

What do I mean by politician’s speeches? Well first of all they have an undisclosed purpose, an agenda and that is to engender support for a cause, usually the acquiring of enough votes to achieve an appointment. And the second is to get people to like them, agree with them or at least think they know what they are talking about and know what they are doing. Thirdly they are intent on getting their message out as quickly and with maximum impact. Fourthly they want to be seen to give equal measure to empathy, warmth and authority. They want to be seen to be good human beings who people can trust with decisions that effect their lives. Fifthly they want stay in control of this process and they want to exude confidence so that when people are not sure they will place their doubt in the hands of the politician. Sixthly they use repetition to emphasis the points in their speech that they believe will maintain all of the above by keeping it in front of the listener. Seventh, they will link their concerns and issues and points of view to great orators of the past. Biblical quotes do this well.

At one level this seems overly manipulative and even deceitful but it is an acceptable practice in many fields of public discourse. The difference comes when the purpose becomes distorted by the search for personal power. Its here that the fake news label begins. Any commitment to outcomes gets swallowed up by being able to hold ion to power in the face of a lie that got one there. Truth becomes expendable as a part of the power game.

Of course, I am not saying that this game with truth and power has become part of the Gospel but what I am saying is that the literary structures are used by Luke and Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. For the object of his concern is, according to William Loader, family power. “Family power and control which will not be released from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge” (WLoader Web site 2004).

One could suggest at great risk that a blanket policy of returning uplifted children to their families is a requirement that should be occurring but what about when the family is the worst place that child might be? I can use the family idea to gain political support while a child’s life might be at risk if it returns to the family house, Note I said house and not home for a reason.

And Bill Loader goes on: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family” (WLoader Web site 2004).

It might be hard to imagine but, in a society, where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore radical in saying that “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core” (Funk & Hoover 1993:353).

So… responding to a possible life-threatening situation for his own small community, Luke the storyteller weaves together a collection of sage-type sayings… Some probably said by the sage Jesus. Some most likely said by other sages. Luke weaves them together and places them before his community with this challenge: to be a disciple of Jesus one must be willing to let go of what one values most – family, possessions, even one’s own life. And I am not suggesting he is saying commit suicide or seek martyrdom. Let go… …. of being possessed by them.  Something else is at stake. Luke seems clear in his mind: let go and be a disciple rather than just a supporter or admirer without critique.

Rex Hunt tells a story that sounded interesting to me on this point about discipleship. The story is that; Clarence Jordan, of Cotton Patch Bible fame, was born in 1912 in west central Georgia, USA, into a race dominated society.

As a young man he became intensely aware of the radical kind of following that is demanded in the Sermon on the Mount. This changed his view on the racial divisions in the American society for good. In 1942 Clarence and his wife established the ‘Koinonia’ farm. A place where people of all races could be taught productive farming. The fact there was a considerable number of African-American people present… And that everyone there joined around a common table… was something the wider community objected against, right from the beginning. The opposition against his venture grew. They were accused of being ‘communists’, ‘race-mixers’, and of threatening the security of their community.

In 1956, threatening phone calls began. Soon the persecution took the form of bombings, shootings at their houses, building-burnings, economic boycotts, and harassment from the infamous KKK. In the early 1950s, it is told, Clarence approached his brother, Robert Jordan, later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, asking him to represent Koinonia farms legally. “Clarence”, Said Robert’ I can’t do that.  “You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got”. “We might lose everything too, Bob.” Said Clarence. “It’s different for you.” Said Robert. “Why is it different?  I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. “I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question, he did you. “He asked me: ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’ And I said: ‘Yes’.  What did you say?” “I follow Jesus, Clarence, – up to a point.” Said Robert. “Could that point by any chance be – the cross?” said Clarence. “That’s right.  I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.” “Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple.  Said Clarence, “You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.” “Well now, said Robert, “if everyone who felt like I do, did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?” “The question,” Clarence said, “is, do you have a church?” (McClendon 1974:127-128)

Did you recognise the political aspirations, and especially the pious, exhortation language. Is your language a Southern Baptist language? Some of that difference we have wrestled with as Progressive Christians that the cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement. That God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but divine sharing in human suffering. That Jesus did not invite the cross but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world can really be like when you look at it with God’s eyes.

But in the spirit of the Clarence Jordan’s story let’s return to some of the theological comment we might have picked up along the way. The call to ‘discipleship’ is a call to be on a journey. It is not about the ‘feel good’, ‘flag waving’, ‘happy-clappy’ overly therapy oriented theologies of much of today’s so-called Pentecostal or charismatic aberrations. And it is a real question for those that are business-oriented models of church not because they are responsible economically but because they are prisoners of the political speak of the day. They do not ask themselves if they are true to purpose as opposed to success at all costs. They are redefining success without critiquing it.

Am I being unfair and claiming my way is better? No, I don’t think so because discipleship is also not about accepting 11th century Archbishop Anselm’s idea of salvation. It’s not about the crucifixion of Jesus being willed by God to save the world because humanity’s sinfulness had dishonoured God (Brock 2010), That idea is now called ‘substitutionary atonement theology’.

Discipleship is about an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love, just as the call to be ‘church’ is a call of offer a safe place for some depth of theology and reflection and story. A place to connect with and deepen our contemporary experience of God or ‘the sacred’ in public life. A place where we can practice belonging… practice hospitality practice respect practice humility practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004).

And one of the purposes that seems to have been swallowed up by the pace of social movement and political speak and correctness is that of deepening the experience of God, which is to give disciples like you and me, the courage, the knowledge, the will, to go out among people in our community and encourage them to also recognise ‘the sacred’ where they are.

On the good side of this experience we could say that the attempts at historical justice for abused children, Oranga Tamariki’s attempts to get the protection of children right and the whole ecological green movement is an attempt to care for the planet. To recognise the sacred where we are.

And to return to what some of us followers of the Jesus Way doing as disciples; in April 2010, president of The Centre for Progressive Christianity (USA), Revd. Fred Plumer, said:

“… it is time to publicly reject that whole idea of substitutionary or vicarious Atonement theories and repent for the harm this religious relic has caused over the centuries.

“I have always thought that it was more important for progressive Christians to talk about what we are rather than what we are not.  But I think it is time to publicly repent for the pain and suffering that the whole idea that we as humans are born faulty and unworthy by some vindictive god who demanded that there be some severe punishment to make up for this same god’s mistake.  Therefore, according to creed this God would have to sacrifice his only begotten son, (who is actually himself) to avenge something that really never happened.  Do you have any idea how many people throughout history have suffered in fear, humiliation, doubts, at the hands of sick clergy, mobs, abusive husbands, and anybody into power because of this flawed piece of our theology?  It is way past time to separate ourselves from this delusion to make a clear and public statement for allowing it to go on for so long…

“The atonement story was a myth attached to the Jesus story to give more power to the church and its leadership.  It should never have been there.  But I think if the progressive Christian movement is going to progress, we need to repent for the pain that has caused and clearly separate ourselves from this damaging part of the Christian story.  Simply ignoring it no longer seems like an option.  We need to clean our hard drive of this virus.  And then I have hope that we can experience new life in our progressive churches”.)

My footnote to this is that we need to critique the power of speaking that creates power and control for some and can hide the real issues of justice for those more vulnerable than ourselves. The Jesus Way is the critique the social, religious, economic and political landscape in search of the Way of Love, Justice and Peace. Amen.


Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in Hoover, R. W. (ed)  The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Brock, R. N. 2010.  “The question of the cross in ‘Good’ Friday” in The Huffington Post, 3/4/2010.

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

McClendon, J. W. 1974.  Biography as theology. How life stories can remake today’s theology. TN: Nashville. Abingdon Press.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

An Invitation to Creative Interdependence

This week’s lectionary suggests that we cannot thrive, or even survive, without recognizing and acting upon our sense of interdependence with the world around us.  It says that an authentic creation emerges from healthy relatedness, not pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rugged individualism, or them and us, it and me approaches.  In claiming our indebtedness to interdependence and the integrated role of all of us, including and perhaps most especially our understanding of God, our successes at this interdependence role will benefit our families, friends, and social order.  We will put the “law of love” above the “law of self” and discover a world of constant opportunity to see holiness everywhere, and welcome angels in every encounter.

A Father’s Day connection might be that Jeremiah describes the interplay of divine anger and grief.  In words that are almost too human, Jeremiah’s God expresses disbelief that the nation has turned from the divine to follow gods of their own making.  Moreover, they have not only abandoned their loving and protective parent, they have come to believe that they can go it alone without the help of the one who brought them into existence.  They have forgotten the heritage of grace and intimacy, choosing self-reliance and personal and national autonomy over divine-human interdependence.

As a parent and grandparent, the behaviour of Israel reminds us of a toddler who says “I don’t want you” to a parent even though her or his survival and nurture depends on the parent’s love, or a teenager who boldly rebels against his or her parents, proclaiming her or his freedom while using the parents’ financial credit cards and tuition payments.  We know that differentiation is essential to growth, and that interdependence rather than absolute independence or utter dependence is what we seek.  God wants Israel to grow up and become an agent in its own economic and political well-being; but God also knows that healthy growth depends on recognizing the source of your survival and the gifts that enable you to be creative. The oceans are part of how we survive as a species. We are interdependent even though we cannot breathe underwater without artificial means.

The heavens cry out against our worship of false gods, idols of our own making.  Following penultimate realities rather than the ultimate reality says Paul Tillich, eventually leads to personal and corporate destruction.

Freedom and creativity find their fulfillment in the affirmation of our connectedness and dependence on realities beyond us, most especially the intimate yet uncontrollable reality of that which we name God. Economics, politics, religious life, and relationships lived without an affirmation of interdependence and recognition of what we call divine movement in all things, including our own achievements, leads to political and institutional gridlock, social chaos, and planetary destruction.  But the antidote is not a return to passivity before God and others, it’s not about pushing God into some metaphysical form out there above it all. It’s not about forfeiting our divinely-given agency, nor is it about a radical individualism, that takes no account of the role of that which we name God or others in our own creativity and largesse, but rather a creative interplay of gratitude and agency, responsibility and receptivity, and creativity and community.

Psalm 81 continues this theme of divine-human interdependence.  When we turn from God individually or corporately, there are negative consequences.  When we forget that we are part of nature, sharing the Earth with other non-human animals, we reap the whirlwind of ecological destruction and put ourselves, our children, and planetary future at risk.  Still, and here’s the rub. This God is always willing to welcome us home to a great feast, the feast of abundant living in relationship with creation, both human and non-human. Evolution, progression, hope and grace all suggest the invitation is always there.

The reading from Hebrews describes a lifestyle of spiritual interdependence and awareness.  The reading suggests a way of life in which we attend to God’s presence in every relationship.  Every moment can be a divine encounter.  Marriage, conversation, and yes, even business are holy enterprises, challenging us to integrity in everyday life. We may be entertaining angels in disguise, and this reality calls us to treat everyone as an angel in the making. This is also the only way we can discern their value.

Imagine living as if the people you encounter are messengers from God, imagine if everyone is the image of ‘The Christ’ the source of insight and wisdom and the invitation to generosity and care.  How would your life change if you saw every encounter charged with “God’s grandeur?”

Jesus’ “parable” in Luke, highlights relationships and interdependence.  It says that humility is essential in healthy human relationships.  The issue is not that of disgrace if you are told to move to a lesser seat, but the willingness to see yourself in relationship with others, not as special and unique but part of the fabric of human interdependence.  The affluent are often described as “job creators” and given special privileges, unavailable to their employees or the unemployed. They are seen as the few who own everything yet as important as successful business leadership is, no one can be a job creator without employees and customers. Interdependence is the arbiter of justice and ultimately of success.

In the realm of God, the playing field is leveled economically, relationally, and spiritually.  No one has the upper hand, and although some persons may be more successful economically or more awakened spiritually, our growth and success is relational as well as individual.  Our place in society or spiritual leadership depends on the efforts and affirmation of others, and when the interdependence breaks down so does the whole of creation.

Jesus continues the conversation by counseling that we welcome persons who cannot apparently benefit us.  The realm of nuisances and nobodies says, John Dominic Crossan, is also essential to our well-being: we are connected and their achievement and self-affirmation is part of our spiritual evolution and personal growth.  Small encounters, performed with a sense of grace and care, can transform peoples’ lives and inspire them to spiritual transformation.

These stories are implicitly political and economic.   They challenge extreme self-made individualism and the libertarianism of our time.  They reveal the hidden atheism of economics without ethics as inadequate and they challenge the governmental politics that abandon vulnerable members of our society.  In their communitarian approach, these scriptures remind us that achievement depends on the interplay of choice and circumstance, and that we are called to provide a healthy environment, grounded in relational values, to encourage everyone to embrace her or his identity as a beloved child of the divine.   While good choices are not guaranteed by the support of our community, a community that cares for its children and vulnerable members creates a tipping point in which people are more likely to be generous than self-interested and creative than passive.

Another way of saying this might be to speak of a new ‘empire’ protocol. Where the normal order of things is reversed: the exalted are humbled and the humble are exalted, the first are last, and the last are first. Sound familiar? This is subversive wisdom from a radical Jesus inviting us to see the alternative, turn things upside down. And that’s one of the shocks in this story today. There are others like eating together and sharing food “in a society constantly threatened by hunger and famine” (Scott 2001:129). This meant that that it was often a competition just to be at the table. And those who run empires, be they the Roman empire or the New Zealand or the empire of China, or the USA, know it is better for people to compete against each other than it is for people to co-operate together. Competition divides allowing weaknesses to emerge and by used.  Co-operation unites. Its strong and cannot be divided.

So once again we hear the radical Jesus behind Luke’s Jesus. Share.  Don’t hoard.  Co-operate.  Be more interdependent and imagine the results. Of an abundant and more holistic and sacred world. A radical Jesus who can become loaded with a heap of emotional garbage. A radical who’s revolt takes on a special form.  “He revolts in parable” says Brandon Scott.  He says: “I see no evidence that Jesus was leading a political revolution or that he had a social program in mind. He clearly affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organizer or activist” (Scott 2001:138).

He revolts in story – especially in that special story called parable. His language suggests a counter-world, a hoped-for world “that redresses the world as it is and… makes sense”. (Scott 2001:140). Let me repeat that.  Re-imagines a counter world that makes sense. That’s what people said about the vision of religion suggested by Bishop Jack Spong, and turned out in their thousands to hear him. That’s what people say about proposals to lessen greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, or remove pollution from all our waterways.

That it makes sense!

Of-course not everyone agrees on any of these issues and that’s a reality. So, ultimately it all comes down to one simple invitation: gather at the table, explore the communal, be together on the journey have faith with Jesus rather than faith in Jesus.

Again, Brandon Scott is helpful, on this radical statement: “In the re-imagined world of the parables we stand beside Jesus and trust that his world will work, that it can provide the safe place – the empire of God – that resists all other empires.  Jesus is our companion on the journey, not our Lord and Master… Like Jesus we can be faithful to the vision of the parable” (Scott 2001:149). Faithful to the re-imagined vision of the story. With Jesus. Amen.

Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagining the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Beyond the Rules

Posted: August 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 11C, 2019
Luke 13: 10-17

Beyond the Rules…

What does it mean to be a Protestant in 2019? We have a few years under the belt now that suggests being a protestant was being a non-Roman Catholic but is it still that? I don’t think it does, in that it has to be said that the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant is no longer as cut and dried. Even the recent Popes have had to rethink what it means to be a Christian in today’s world and it has to be said that in almost every congregation there would be such diversity of theology that it is hard to distinguish what the differences are. Sure, the practice, the way we do things, still has some difference but essentially in terms of theology, and belief there is little difference. We might all be confused or alternatively more divers in our thinking. This is a remarkable shift given that it is only a little more than 500 years since the Protestant Way emerged. There is however one difference still evident and that is that to be Protestant is to protest, even if many protestants don’t do it. I would suggest that just as there was a need for Luther to challenge his church and to challenge what would have been considered fundamental truths there is the same need today. Like the Roman Catholic Church in those times the institutional church today is in need of revolution, and like then I think it is in the areas of belief and practice, not in the sense of the previous practice being wrong but, rather, in its need to be relevant in its engagement with culture and human need. The need to be contextual is today a world of huge diversity and of rapid change.

In terms of human need I suggest that our cosmic beliefs and our ecological practices need to be spoken to, spoken for and critiqued with our theological, justice and peacemaking beliefs and practices. As I indicated last week, we cannot be moderate’s any more. We need to be protestants again, We need to provide some resistance to the injustice of today. The ecocide that is evident, the apathetic approach to responsible management of the planet needs the resistance of protest. One might even say that the current mess in Hong Kong is a very good example of the breakdown in our society and this need. Is it appropriate for a dominant ordering institutional ideological and political evolution and practice? Is it that expectations have not been heeded and protest without transformation is doomed to be squashed by superior powers? In the end will justice suffer at the hands of might. I think this sort of resistance is risky today because it can very easily be sidelined by political propaganda paid for by the mighty, but then again it might sew some seeds of change in the way that power is applied.

When we think about this in terms of being religious protestant we acknowledge that resistance of injustice as a response to God’s “justification by grace through faith” sparked the Protestant movement in 1517, and such a commitment to protest continued to function as a foundational and prominent organizational tactic. For example, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 – essentially an imperial parliament – the established order sought to reduce conflict by suspending the 1521 Edict of Worms, which had declared Luther as a heretic and banned his writings. Many Lutherans interpreted the 1526 decree as a victory, but after the Emperor annulled the Diet’s decision of 1526, in 1529 a group of princes and representatives refused to accept the imperial revocation. What was significant in that earlier time was that those allied with the new resistance movement, refusing to be bound by worldly authorities, became known as “Protestants”.

When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a “supreme power” that is destroying “true religion”, may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience.

Protestant meant those who protest matters of faith and those matters of faith were about the wellbeing of society, and that wellbeing was dependent upon faith.

Looking back, we see that while also filled with its own errors and abuses, Protestantism served an important and positive social function and has done so for hundreds of years, both religiously and politically, by advocating for systems and structures that resist various manifestations of tyranny and promote diverse expressions of freedom. The question being asked by such protest as that in Hong Kong is not should one protest; but rather, does protest still have a place and if so, what form does that protest take.

There are currently hundreds of millions of Protestants in the world let alone those Catholics who question the power of the institution. These children of the Reformation possess the capacity to spark massive and life-giving social change if somehow united and organized. While there are clear and often conflicting variations in theological and political belief, that which does bind Protestants together, is a common heritage of responding to God’s grace with protest against injustice.

This commitment to personal and public renewal is meant to benefit all people of good will, regardless of religious and political identity. So, the question becomes: When existing authorities seek to reduce ethical constraints, misappropriate funds for personal gain, legitimize lies, and establish forms of hierarchical rule that exploit and conquer through dishonourable policies, will Protestants honour their heritage and serve their prophetic vocation in society? Five-hundred years after Luther bravely protested as an expression of faith, will the caretakers of his legacy now allow a world order that is defined by division and manipulation of that diversity? Will Protestants be seduced by apathy and complexity and by a debilitating use of difference as a tool for the wealthy, the politically manipulative dominant malaise of our day and age? Or will we instead resolve to “bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”?

In religion, politics, education, economics, and countless other facets of life, the mass protests of 1517 had a dramatic impact upon the past 500 years. This is most certainly true. Whether or not Protestants accept the responsibility of resistance in 2019 may define the next 500 years. Can those of us who still dare to identify as Protestant, take comfort in the belief that God will love and forgive us regardless of what we do. This will require courage, determination and long term thinking for those of us Protestants who also still dare to call ourselves citizens, because we know that history may not be so gracious.

On the other side, the power of Protestantism has seen a change in the attitude toward War. Global strategies for world war will not be easy to implement other than by use of massive destructive weapons by a few. The idea that huge numbers of people can be motivated to join a cause for war is thankfully more remote than it was. During the late 1960s, many university students, sat in the gutters and registered their protest against the Vietnam War. Many of us can remember the controversy which such actions aroused. Many of us hear of the Vietnam vets and the treatment they received because of what that war did to them and to others. It was seen as a war of the ego for some. I can remember at the time being confused. Being anti the protestors as well as for them. There were those who cheered any effort, no matter what form the protest took. There were those who were more cautiously behind the principles of anti-war, but who were totally opposed to the demonstrations because they were illegal. Not unlike the Springbok tour in NZ and the advent of the Cavaliers rugby team. All silenced perhaps by the rise of Mandala. There were all shades of opinion in between. Many people in the time of the Vietnam War fell into the category, of those who thought they might be opposed to the war, but who were horrified by the actions of the demonstrators. Nobody, they said, especially not students, should consider themselves above the law. Action was OK, but should always be within the law. Similar things were said during the demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Similar thoughts are being expressed about Hong Kong today.


The truth is that whenever so-called ‘illegal actions’ have been taken to heighten the consciousness of the general public towards a particular issue, there has been controversy. And in today’s traditional gospel story by the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, we find an imaginative, rather than an historical story, of Jesus supposedly breaking the law. Luke says Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when he saw a ‘bent-over’ woman, and he immediately stopped what he was doing, called the woman, and heals her. We have heard this story many times in our life-time, but can we imagine the woman in this story.


One reflection on this story goes like this. “18 years she had been growing smaller, into herself, face down, 18 years she had been bound by this spirit and made quite unable to stand up.  And here she was, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, bent and all, but close enough to the front to catch his eye. “She must have longed for something, otherwise she would not have come, would not have tried, would not have risked meeting the eyes of this man.  Was there still hope in her somewhere?  A tiny wisp of a hope, that could have been blown away very easily?  Was there still the un- bendable conviction that somehow she was worth more than being the woman weighed down by sorrow and pain?” Then the words, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment’.


The reflection continues; “What did those words, those hands do?  Did they awaken anger and revolt in her that had been slumbering inside her all along?  Or did they make a jolt of electric energy course through her, making her, suddenly, realise that she was alive and that she wanted to live… tall?… What was it? “Was it a coaxing ‘you can do it’ or was it a commanding ‘come on woman, get yourself together’ type of statement that made something inside her decide that it had been enough, that she would stand tall, that she would unfold herself, unbend and open herself to him and to the world?


Luke’s story says the leader of the synagogue was indignant, and has him rebuking Jesus for healing her, against the Law, on the Sabbath. Overhearing such a rebuke did it tempt the woman, urge her, “to roll up in a tight ball again…


What is so threatening about her?  Is it the tales she might tell or is it the eyes they don’t want to meet because they know what bent her in the first place?…


“How did the people around her react to the look in her eyes, the tallness that suddenly stood over them, the power and strength that seemed to ooze out from somewhere deep inside her.  Did they like the new woman?  Or would they have preferred the curled up version?


Luke continues to craft his story by having Jesus respond to the leader’s complaints by attacking. The story’s crowds and Luke’s congregation, would have been delighted. There’s nothing people enjoy more than seeing a pompous and pious official put in their place. But the untold bit of this story is: Jesus gained another enemy. For virtuous public officials don’t take kindly to being humiliated. And Luke weaves this clue into another story later on.


What statement was Luke intending Jesus to make by his actions in this story? That people are always more important than the law? That if through the application of the law some innocent human being comes in for unnecessarily harsh treatment, then that law should be ignored? Is this a call for protest? Perhaps too he was saying something about the interpretation of law. That laws are often capable of wide interpretation, and should always be interpreted for the good of individuals. Is this a call for protest?


Here’s the point, for my title of ‘Beyond the rules’… Despite all the hoo-har often reported in the media, being a follower of Jesus, walking the Jesus Way isn’t about keeping the rules, not the moral rules, not the so-called biblical rules… It works in a totally different ball-park. It’s about giving of oneself in love and compassion, and if that challenges someone else’s rules, go with the love and break the rules. It’s about risking oneself and one’s reputation, if that should become necessary. It’s about standing up for people, even if the rules sometimes condemn those people. The most powerful and life-giving action Jesus took was to give the ‘bent-over’ woman a new sense of who she was. After years of being beaten down with the belief that she was of no value, Jesus affirms her whole sense of being. What a gift! What a ‘miracle’! But I wonder if our storyteller called Luke also went on to re-imagine the woman.


In his storyteller’s heart, did she also discover “that once you have started to unfurl, once you have set foot on the path of healing there is no way back and there is no stopping either. It will protest, it will fight itself free, rip things open, tear the bonds asunder, and it will hurt?” Amen. 2007).