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When Life Matters

Posted: April 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

Easter 3B, 2018. Luke 24: 36b-48

When Life Matters

The first thing I want to say today is that while this year in the lectionary year is the year of Mark we are yet to get into Mark properly. In the case of Lent there was only four of Mark’s stories selected and there will not be any more until we move into Pentecost. While this may not seem to be too important we need to remember that we think Marks gospel came first and the others followed. This is an argument that Mark’s is more likely to be unembellished than the others because of human propensity to add rather than detract. If that is so then what Mark has to say or not say has significance. First as the earliest story in the new testament and as such more likely to be a surprising story. The first surprise is that Mark’s story is so brief.  Eight verses to be exact. The second surprise is: that Mark does not have any so-called ‘appearance’ stories. All the appearance stories are found in the other, much later, gospel accounts. What Mark does have is the indication that the disciples will see/experience/be aware of, Jesus in Galilee. And the third surprise is that Mark’s Easter story ends very abruptly. The women fled from the tomb. “They didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified…” (Mark 16:8 Scholars Version).

Just how surprising the story was, is borne out when it was considered as early as the second century, when a longer ending was added to Mark (16:9-20)” (Borg & Crossan 2006:196). Then we note that it is on to this story, Mark’s story, that the other storytellers – Matthew and John and Luke – expanded and changed. Our reading from Luke is centered on Jerusalem combined with a commissioning. It is here that Borg and Crossan remind us that the Gospels are the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus’ followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death.

And bringing us back to today we could say with Rick Marshall from his web site that we are “still in the shadow, or afterglow, of the resurrection at Easter” We have wrestled with an understanding of doubt as a positive catalyst for re-examination, of good healthy skepticism, of the need for a healthy critique and we have seen the empty tomb as the invitation to explore meaning, to seek a culturally authentic resurrection understanding rooted in all the realities of human living.

What I think we have been doing is what Richard Kearney would say is, reimagining the sacred, finding God after God. Manley Hopkins calls this finding poetic epiphany, meaning that certain deep experiences can be followed by periods of disenchantment, after which one returns to a primal experience in a new light; one returns over and over. As a religious poet Hopkins is speaking of what could be said to be sacred reimagining.

Here we are now at the aftermath of Easter and we are seeking the sacred reimagining and when speaking of serendipitous creativity last week, I think we began this task. I and others have suggested that it is no longer helpful to think of God as Creator of the heavens and the earth because we are now in receipt of knowledge that challenges that.

Just the widespread serendipitous creativity manifest in the cosmos as conceived today challenges the Creator, Created approach. The very notion of cosmic, evolutionary, and historical trajectories or directional movements have shown us activity we have not known before. These phenomena have emerged spontaneously in the universe at large and on planet Earth in particular and through the consequences we have seen a divine creative activity in the world that has newly become visible to us humans. Climate change for instance, not in its normal cycles but in its evolutionary vulnerability to human interaction. and then there is genetic modification that has been around for a while but the results of its implementation have shown us another perspective on God.

Kaufmann suggest we might use the term serendipitous creativity as a means to thinking about God in this new environment. Why should we consider this way of thinking? Maybe its because some scholars in the past have suggested that in a pluralist universe the divine is finite not as of the whole of things but only of the ideal tendency of things. In this view of the universe God signifies a reality that is finite in both knowledge and power but calls forth an active human response. Humans can co-operate with God in effecting changes in the world. The problem with this view is that Quantum theory brought an end to the mechanistic worldview of Newtonian physics and thus encouraged the development of notions of God as in process. In contrast to the emphasis of traditional theism on the divine simplicity that entails immutability and infinity, the process theisms of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) distinguish between the abstract essence of God (as absolute, eternal, unchangeable) and God’s concrete actuality, which is temporal, relative, changing, and dependent on decisions made by finite actualities. Humans are creators not just the created creatures.

Hartshorne, moreover, claims his language about God is more biblical and personal than that, evoking the God of classical theism. In Whitehead’s understanding, God offers to each “actual occasion” that possibility which would be best but does not control or determine the finite occasion’s self-actualizing; God works by persuasion and is not in total control of the events of the world. Again; humans are co-creators not just created creatures.

In these and other similar developments as you can hear, there is a continual crisscrossing of popular and reflective images and conceptions nurturing and fertilizing each other, giving birth to widely different ways of speaking and thinking of God. So the meaning(s) of the word “God” have expanded in many directions, producing rich new possibilities for its employment but also much disagreement about how it is to be used, and many have begun to wonder whether it can any longer be usefully employed.

The challenge for us here and now is that the power of this symbol still remains great in our popular culture, despite the complexity of meanings and theologians and philosophers of quite diverse commitments will continue to struggle with its meaning for human life in today’s world. I would want to say that this is a healthy sign that reimagining of the sacred is possible and that seeing God as serendipitous creativity is a good place to start.

So, given all the above what can we say of all this?  Can we say that Jesus lives? Maybe we can say that he is among the living. Just as for the early followers, His spirit “was still coursing through their veins” (Patterson 2004:4). Can we say that serendipitous creativity has said ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the powers who executed him. Stephen Patterson suggests that “The followers of Jesus did not believe in him because of the resurrection.  They believed in the resurrection because they first believed in him and in the spiritual life he unleashed among them” (Patterson 2004:121). It is true, that his death mattered to them.  But only because his life mattered more… So they began to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And they came to see he stood for something so important he was willing to give his life for it (Patterson 2004:127). And every indication is that that something was his passion or vision of life called the empire of God.

And we can say that slowly they came to reaffirm their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds. They believed that “in his words were God’s words” (Patterson 2004:127). And that his vision of a new empire, cultivated by him among them long before he died, no executioner or cross could kill.

Likewise, when we believe in this vision of a possible new empire, we too can reaffirm our commitment to the values and vision, and a ‘resurrection’ invitation, to live life deeply and generously. And we do this by reimagining the sacred beginning by seeing God as serendipitous creativity. What makes this important is not just a philosophical exercise or a head trip but rather a practical application of understanding. To be embraced by life, and not scared of it is the challenge. In all its particularity life is participation in the serendipitous reality. Life cannot remain visionary! It must be concretely practiced.

And for our gospel storyteller this morning, Luke, “to fulfil the hope of the resurrection is to tell the story of Jesus.  That means telling what he did, how he was rejected and then vindicated; and it is at the same time to live it by the power of the same Spirit, by doing good and bringing liberation for all” (WLoader web site, 2003). The ‘truth’ of the resurrection stories are not about their historical factuality. Their ‘truth’ is rooted in the Source of Life we name as Serendipitous Creativity, and which lives on as such for us and through us and among us, today. Our God is the free randomness that makes things happen in ways we do not expect, cannot fully contain yet things that only happen when we live our lives.

After this service today we will be asked to make a decision about our future as a Congregation, and if what I have suggested today is correct it will be a decision about what we believe about God or who or what God is for us. Will God be the omnipotent God of recent tradition who intervenes and makes things bad or good dependent upon our behaviour? This means that if we get it wrong that God might either bless our work as a pleased God or cause all sorts of problems that suggest its too big a risk, or its too grand an ideal for us. This sort of God’s actions will be proven by what happens. And it will be a hindsight revelation for us.

Or will God be a Serendipitous Creativity rooted deep in the bio-history of this planet, as the source of the dynamism of the human intellect, which in its striving to unify experience is taken to be the source of our ideas of God? How does the proposed project reflect our participation in the serendipitous evolutionary reality of our lives?

In taking the leap now to St David’s today we might ask how did I come to the conclusion that a decision about our mission direction and our school project was actually a decision about our understanding of God? Well I think it came about because I think that the distinctive image of Christianity is that it is a faith, or a way of living that is always relevant, always a theological application, always a faith in action. What we believe dictates what we do. The challenge for us is to recognize that for some 400 years we Christians have become comfortable with our stories. We have tied them up all nice and neat so that we can say this is the truth only to find that today, truth no longer makes that sort of exclusive claim about itself. The line between truth and non-truth is blurred now, Fake news is one way we talk about this blurring.

What is crucial for us as we look to our future is to look into the unknown and on the basis of what we understand today, prepare our children for all eventualities. Has a world based on truths shown itself in the rise in mental illness and depression, has a world based on fear shown itself in a growing disparity between the intellectual and the practical, between the poor and the rich. Has preaching the gospel replaced living the gospel? This modern development in the idea of God as serendipitous creativity has opened the door for historical studies and the sociology of knowledge to call attention to the sacred – in connection with their exploration of the social and linguistic character of all human knowing. Gordon Kaufmann says that he has no memory of a specific moment when “God;’ became an issue for him but he notes a perpetual perplexity from his home and childhood community that has been with him as far back as he can remember, sometimes becoming quite strong, sometimes receding, but always there. He says that the “God is dead” theological movement of the 1960s sharply focused this question for him, and from that point on he felt increasingly driven to address it directly. It became clear to him in the mid-sixties that the so-called neo-orthodox theology that had been dominant in his country needed to change.

His proposal is that the traditional metaphors of creator, lord, and father- on the basis of which the Western image/concept of God has been largely constructed- be replaced by the metaphor of serendipitous creativity, as we seek to construct a conception of God more appropriate to today’s understandings of the world and of our human existence in it. Later today we will make decisions to continue to make an investment in this congregation. To make an investment of energy. An investment of financial support, and most importantly, an investment of personal spirit. You see; to really be a member of St David’s is to participate, rather than watch and wait or stop for a while because it is too big a risk. In fact, the too-big a risk, is to be a spectator remaining on the sidelines. And let’s be clear that St David’s is a rare place in the religious community of today. I am not just saying this because it’s what people say of us. St David’s is a place that provides a challenge, a valuable counterpoint to current and prevailing points of view. So, in the spirit of what Jesus was passionate about, and in the spirit of the wider Easter stories by several storytellers, let us again be captivated by the vision of a new empire. Let us be an invitation into a way of life which was reflected in Jesus’ own life – in his words and deeds. Our God is within reach, our God is at hand, as Jesus said the Kingdom always was. And just in case anyone thinks we are too progressive or non-traditional we might say with Benedikt that “Perhaps this is why God prefers a good atheist to a wicked believer” (Benedikt 2007:13). Amen.

Notes:
Benedikt, M. 2007. God is the Good we Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books.
Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week. A day-by-day account of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minniapolis. Fortress Press.

Gordon D. Kaufman. In the Beginning Hardcover (Kindle Locations 19-21). Kindle Edition.

rexae74@gmail.com

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Yes! To Life…

Posted: April 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Easter2B, 2018
John 20:19-23

Yes! To Life…

It is the evening of the first day of the week, and the doors are closed.
Locked. The anxious and fearful disciples are shut tightly inside. The suspicious world is shut tightly outside. Then, all of a sudden, defying locked doors, locked hearts,
locked vision… A dead faith is re-created.  A dead hope is born again. Is it all over? Is he dead? What of his message now that he is gone? What next?

We can recognize these questions as questions born out of fear and we know that fear is a very powerful thing in our lives. It prompts us to seek protection in times of very real danger. It saves us from harm and it motivates us into needed changes and surprising adventures. It serves as a constant reminder that we are fragile, limited, human beings.

On the other side of these impulses, we also know fear also prompts us to ‘close the doors of our lives’ to hide from the mystery and wonder of the unknown and to run into places of isolated hiding. Here is the challenge to see that doubt and questioning is motivated by fear, fear of the unknown and fear of the mysterious and the different. Fear if the stranger who challenges the status quo or the comfortable. There are very few emotions that are stronger than fear. And we know that the response is not to banish fear itself because we can’t but it is about what we do next. It is how we handle fear that matters.

We are in the period of Easter, the period in our Christian year when we confront the tragedy of the cross, not as a wonderful gift of sacrifice by one who died for our sin but as a wonderful person of insight, understanding and compassion and then we come to the empty tomb, the horrible truth of execution, of cultural extermination, of social and corporate power is replaced by utter fear for the future. The grave clothes prove he is forever gone. What next? Voices from beyond arrive and the doors are closed for fear of the unknown. We are left wondering whether Jesus’ followers, were afraid of death
he is gone, or terrified of life, what next? Is this resurrection both a wonderful and a terrifying thing?

Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian from Brazil, in one of his articles says:
‘Wherever, in mortal life, goodness triumphs over the instincts of hatred, wherever one heart opens to another, wherever a righteous attitude is built and room is created for God, there the Resurrection has begun’. And retired Melbourne Uniting Church minister, Dr Francis Macnab, offers this Easter prayer: “God, on this Easter morning, help us to say
Yes to life, Yes to a new beginning, Yes to the presence that gives us courage
for whatever is ahead of us.” (Macnab 1996: 75)

And as if responding to Macnab’s prayer, English philosopher and founder of Sea of Faith, Don Cupitt, writes: “We should say ‘Yes’ to life in all its contingency because it is the accidentalness of life that makes happy accidents possible, and that makes innovation and creativity possible.  We wouldn’t wish the self-replication of DNA always to proceed with precise accuracy, because without all the slippage and the accidents there would not have occurred the favourable mutations on which evolution depends – and so it is also in the realm of… personal life.” (Cupitt 2003: 16-17) Watch out for fear in case it closes the doors of life, remains trapped in tragedy and in the language of bitterness and hopelessness. Find the fear of not embracing the doubt, the opportunity, the resurrection and be motivated for goodness. Be afraid of death but not to the detriment of life. Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors
and leave our places of hiding. Put fear behind us and risk exposure as a human being.

In fact I want to go a step further by suggesting that the Easter story with its cross and empty tomb is a call to acknowledge the limitedness of the human species not as a means of acknowledging its sinfulness but rather the limitedness of its grasp of reality, its situation in life, politically culturally psychologically and physically. We are an evolutionary species subject to serendipitous creativity and this means letting go of our fear of ambiguity, and the comfort of concrete-ness and absolute truth.

To get a bit of a handle on this struggle to come to grips with reality I found Gordon D. Kaufman helpful where he writes of God as creativity rather than creator (more recently he has refined this as God being serendipitous creativity). He suggests that it is impossible-in this age of cosmological and evolutionary thinking, which emphasizes an understanding of our universe as having come into being in and through a Big Bang some 14 or 15 billion years ago- to make sense of the traditional defining idea of God as `creator of the heavens and the earth:’ By 1975, he says he had come to the conclusion that all theological ideas-including the idea of God- could best be understood stood as products of the human imagination, when employed by men and women seeking to orient themselves in life. This he says freed him to experiment with a variety of ways of thinking of God, humanity, and the world more congenial to modern/postmodern consciousness about these matters than were the more traditional formulations. I know I too have been on about God as serendipitous creativity, and it is because of its exciting possibilities. Creativity God as Creativity itself, source, existence and purpose of all life and this also suggests that Creativity may have existed in the beginning. That through Creativity the planet earth might have emerged through various random events (the serendipitous nature of creativity) that left us with a moon, oceans of water, and a gradual process of shifting landmasses to form the continents as we know them.

It might also be said that through serendipitous creativity the conditions for life on the planet fell into place, and evolution entered the story bringing with it the dynamic interchange between law and random occurrence, between finitude and infinity, the generation of novelty, and from that the emergence of life and the human. It might also be said that through serendipitous creativity this thing called reality emerged as the outcome. Process or becoming is thus revealed as the description for the essential quality of reality that exists from the beginning. The process of evolution defines this dynamism and among others, three important principles can be observed interacting in the evolutionary process.

At first, contingency and randomness elicit development. The yet to be, the almost here and the serendipitous give birth to an outcome. The universe cannot be fully rationalized; and because of its complexity the interactivity of events cannot be predicted. Meteorological events offer a good example of this randomness. Then, unexpected random events operate within a set of relatively stable chemical and physical laws and systems. Systems always exist in larger environments that interact with them. Thus, system and isolated events do not negate each other; they coexist and interact with each other. Then, this interactive process extends over the long period of time that was indicated earlier. It is difficult to adopt a neutral or object framework of time outside a human point of reference. But to imagine the age of the universe is to notice that cosmic development and evolution have had an enormous framework of time and space to work their way.

That’s the big picture with a touch of science but there is a small picture as well that we might explore a little. By small picture I mean the human existence within the cosmos. Within the constitutive dimensions of human existence there is the serendipitous reality that we create and are a part of. One might suggest that there is a basic level of the response of human freedom or human spirit to the world in which it exists and it may be characterized as sheer openness to it and dependence upon it. Some neuroscientists suggest this is a world of what is called mirror neurons. Rene Gerard I think spoke of this as the mimic factor of human behavior. A reflective human consciousness always understands the self in the here and now, as in this world and differentiated from it. There is no need to build a subject– object dualism to recognize that we are always selves in the world, open to the world and influenced by the world. However, to be a person here and now implicitly entails an open subjectivity that stands in relation to the world.

A person gains a sense of self-possession both by being defined by the space-time world in which one is, and by standing over against the world as something other than the self. Here lie the grounds by which one is able to “enter into oneself,” reflect on oneself, take stock of one’s self, and speak of “self-possession.” Such self-possession is actually enabled by one’s being in relation to the world, the other, the non-self. At this elemental level of human freedom, one can think of self in metaphors like a “clear space,” or an “expanding self,” or a “transparency.” There is of course the element of choice in this as well and this is necessary to avoid the pitfalls of narcissism when we elevate the self too far.

Self-consciousness, self-knowledge, and self-control all presume and rest on being in an open relation to non-self and world. Another level of freedom consists in what is ordinarily called choice, or free choice. In much of the debates about the nature of freedom the focus rests on choice. This was especially so in the historical debates about the role of human freedom in the process of salvation from God mediated by Jesus Christ. The question we have today is; without the supernatural interventionist God what is freedom? Here, freedom refers to the ability to choose among options. Everyday life teems with choices; the human person who lives an active life constantly makes choices; to be free is to be able to choose. At this point one measures the degree of freedom precisely by a lack of either internal or external constraint. Culture, environment serendipitous circumstance all intervene as doubt and can turn into fear if not challenged by that which is socially constituted, and seemingly challenged by the radical question of meaning. This question, about what is freedom, is implicit in the human phenomenon.

When talking about the self and the individual, the most serious challenge to any idea of personal autonomy comes from a recognition of the psychic and intellectual solidarity of human existence. From the very beginning of conscious life, the human person is given language and, with it, a social code of meaning and value. Each individual is thus socially constituted as an individual being in his or her actual consciousness. An individual becomes his or her autonomous self by socialization in a community’s set of meanings. The worldview and the set of values of any particular individual and at any given time are always constituted by the common meanings and the ideals that are carried by and channeled through the community.

But particularity does not necessarily entail idiosyncrasy. Particularity and individuality do not have to be a trap; this or that language creates a social platform and provides leverage for creativity. Thus, the social creates, supports, and complements individual initiative. And the longer-term effectiveness of individual creativity depends on its social effects, on bringing others into a common strategy of meaning and value. Marx wrote that “Consciousness, is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.”

Today the insights of the sociology of knowledge are presupposed in the academy and more generally in public discourse: people are well aware that anyone who seeks to persuade always has a background and an agenda that largely account for their views. You can always be assured that when I preach it is because it is where my thinking is at and while it may be made up of others thinking it is no one else’s thoughts.

It is true that the relatedness of thought to temporal particularities raises the question of relativism, but most people appreciate that the partiality of particular points of view can be reconciled with some elementary contact with reality that can be known and shared. Some of the things I say make sense. In fact, this represents the general condition of human knowledge, and it is not relativistic. But once again, the feigned autonomy of individualism surrenders all hope of getting at the truth, because important truths can be approached only gradually through conversation. That’s why we have our discussion time, because without that they would remain more subjective and further from the truth than they need be. The phrase “spiritual solidarity” might be used to describe the way individuals can choose their communities and create bonds of community across the lines of material, psychic, or intellectual boundaries.

Now having said all that technical stuff we return to our text and to what we think is the central focus of all of John’s writings:  Life! Hopeful life! Abundant life! John’s celebration of the Easter message points to life as its message. Before and after Easter it is still life. Indeed, in John’s story, Easter it seems, coincides with Pentecost. The post-Easter Jesus appears, breathes, sends and commissions – all in one burst of ‘holy energy’. The change is, now there are new bearers of that life. The Spirit given without measure to Jesus (to use traditional language), now operates without measure among the disciples
and makes Jesus’ presence real to them. So they came to reaffirm their own commitment
to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds.

The good news of Easter according to storyteller John, is not just the final scene as it is in fairy tales that say everyone ‘lives happily ever after’.For John, Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future. Or as Michael Benedikt says in another of his meditations: “God is practiced, like dance, like music, like kindness, like love… theopraxy.” (Benedikt 2007:4) Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding. Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1990.
Benedikt, M. God is the Good We Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books, 2007.
Cupitt, D. Life, Life. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Macnab, F.  Hope: The Deeper Longings of the Mind and Heart. Richmond. Spectrum Publications, 1996.

 

Easter/April Fool’s Day, 2018

Mark 16: 1-8

Fools Day vs Poetry of Transcendence

Paul R. Fleischman in his book “Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Gives us our starting point for today when he says “The universes underpins and permits life, of which we are a local manifestation”.

‘A pinch and a punch for the first of the month’. ‘Rabbits. Rabbits. Rabbits’. Or if you are Irish: ‘White Rabbits’. Today is a ‘first of the month’ day. It is 1st April —April Fool’s Day —sometimes called All Fool’s Day. One of the most light-hearted days of the year. It has to be said also that the history of April Fools’ Day is particularly blurry, as there are several competing claims for the invention.  But whatever its origins, April Fool’s Day appears it received its name from the custom of playing practical jokes on this day. You no doubt will have either been the brunt of an April Fools joke or participated in creating one. There are also many stories of significant April Fools Day jokes perpetrated.

One such practical joke occurred in 1957. The BBC current affairs programme Panorama hoaxed the nation with a report about the annual spaghetti harvest. The report showed Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees and laying the strands out to dry. Numerous viewers were fooled. Among those hoaxed included the then-BBC Director General, Sir Ian Jacob. Newspapers were split over whether this was a great joke or a terrible hoax on the public.

Our powerpoint slide alludes to one of these jokes a bit closer to home… Last year, 2017, Ikea the multinational furniture company unveiled plans to launch the world’s first non-stop flight from Australia to Sweden, as part of its plans to launch a low-cost airline,
aptly named Flikea. “Using a fleet of five custom-fit aircraft,” the media release said,
“the single-class airline will launch in 2019 and will use the five dimensions of Democratic Design unique to IKEA to reduce aircraft weight and fuel requirements, resulting in a dramatically reduced transit time, lower ticket price, and cutting out the need for any stopovers.”

Not to be outdone, Virgin Australia announced it was introducing a world-first Canine Crew service. “Hundreds of dogs have been specially trained at a new purpose built canine crew training facility over the past few months in preparation for their introduction to service on all Boeing 737, Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 aircraft in the Virgin Australia fleet.” Virgin even posted a video on social media showing the said Canine Crew in training.

And… Gelatissimo posted online they were launching the world’s first artisan gelato
“that treats sensitive teeth. The company has worked with leading Australian dentists to create a flavour that is clinically proven to relieve the symptoms caused by tooth sensitivity.”

What we do know is that April Fool’s Day is not a religious festival. However, some traditions have tried to link the celebrations to the medieval Christianity’s Feast of Fools,
which took place each January, particularly in France. Popular belief holds that the Feast of Fools was “a disorderly, even transgressive Christian festival, in which reveling clergy elected a burlesque Lord of Misrule, who presided over the divine office wearing animal masks or women’s clothes, sang obscene songs, swung censers that gave off foul-smelling smoke, played dice at the altar, and otherwise parodied the liturgy of the church.” It has to be said that such belief—even fostered by Encyclopaedia Britannica—
is highly exaggerated if not deliberately misreported.

According to more recent scholarly accounts,“The Feast of Fools developed in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (1 January). Celebrating the biblical principle that ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise’ (1 Cor. 1:27), the feast allowed low-ranking subdeacons to assume leadership roles in worship, usually reserved for the bishop or the cantor.” (Max Harris)

What this does exhibit is that there were aspects of merriment, humour, and festivity ‘inside’ the church, even if people in power don’t always have a sense of humor about their power being questioned… The challenge of April Fools Day being Easter Day is an indication of just how important festivity is for faith. To celebrate is to live out “the universal assent to the world as a whole. Easter Day as April Fools Day is a special time when we affirm all of life by saying a joyous yes to part of life. Easter Day And April Fools Day is a real celebration, rather than a retreat from the reality of injustice and evil. The celebration, occurs most authentically where these negative realities are recognised and tackled, not where they are avoided, where laughter and humour challenge the piety. An antiseptic religion shies away from guilt and terror as well as eros and mirth. Its world becomes flat and anemic.”  (Harvey Cox)

Rex Hunt reminds us in his sermon for today of an article by Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox’s entitled ‘God’s Last Laugh’. He points to a paragraph that stands out that reads: “On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday, Crucifixion becomes resurrection. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil.

A particular challenge of April Fools Day as Easter Day is the introduction of humour, or the practical joke. Not wanting to even introduce a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Harvey Cox asks; Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?”  And again, near the end of the article, Cox suggests; Rightly rendered, the comic spirit transcends tragedy. It steps outside the probability tables and enables us to catch a fleeting glimpse of what might be, even of what ultimatelyalready is.” In the end is not all this that so seriously attempts to tell the truth of it all, just a human language construct? One has to laugh at oneself in the end.

Whether any of this aligns with your personal theology or not, it has to be said that both Easter and April Fool’s humour are about affirming life. A call to be embraced by life, not scared of it. A call to its ambiguous particularity. A call to practise humour and to anchor it concretely in everyday life. A call to make ‘Faith’ a ‘way of life’.

Rex suggests some thoughts that might help us practise an Easter Faith. He says that maybe the ‘way of life’ could be a way of living shaped by the following thoughts;

  • How do we care for each other interpersonally in ways which do not suffocate and oppress?
  • How is the well-being of our neighbour pursued in the complex problem of global hunger and threats of international war?
  • How are communities developed positively around respect and care for each person rather than around a common enemy?
  • How are the systemic causes of non-love eliminated?

To live with these particularities coursing in our veins, Rex says; is to live in the spirit of the one called Jesus.

We note here that the suggestion of these thoughts is to look beyond oneself, to think of others as a way of shaping one’s own life. It is to care for each other. Concern ourselves with the wellbeing of our neighbour, care about how our communities develop and seek out the alternatives to systems that work against love.

Here we have the claim that resurrection is not a selfish event but rather a communal one. And this is borne out by Dominic Crossan when he reminds us that when we look at Eastern Christianity’s images, either for the great feasts of the liturgical year or for traditional events in Jesus’ life, they are all — save one — quite recognizable to Western as to Eastern eyes. They are in common. The great exception he says, is how Eastern Christianity portrays the “Resurrection,” that is, in Greek, the “Anastasis,” of Jesus. Across vast stretches of time, place, art, and tradition, icons and illustrations, frescoes and mosaics show always a communal and not an individual resurrection for Jesus. We can watch that magnificent tradition develop across half a millennium — from 700 to 1200 — before its varied elements and successive stages are fully established.

The call to live in the spirit of Jesus is a required practise because Easter is not just a collection of religious stories about a so-called once-only event in the past. Nor is it a story locked away in ancient cultural understandings or in medieval doctrinal or creedal form, it is an evolutionary, dynamic story of human living that is alive now.

Easter can and does happen every day when we are: “moved by sacred hope and convinced of the profound significance of each person as an infinitely precious being… Easter is the transformative, transcendent moment that happens when we dream and plan and implement positive change to enhance the well-being of self, others, and the whole of creation… It happens also while we are embracing and dealing with the reality of our imperfections and their impact on ourselves, others, and creation.” (Gretta Vosper)

On that note we acknowledge that copious amounts of ink and blood, sweat, and tears, have been spilt over ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ considered to be the real Easter story, and of course, what is meant by ‘resurrection’. We also note that Brandon Scott the New Testament Scholar said that …the trouble with resurrection is that
conservative forces within church orthodoxy have literalized it, narrowed and constricted it, “turned it into a creedal belief, and in the process have forfeited its great claim and hope.” (Brandon Scott)

Here, Crossan reminds us that Eastern Christianity’s tradition of the resurrection of Jesus reminds our Western Christian imagination that only poetry — be it verbal or visual — speaks to our profoundest hopes, deepest dreams, and greatest insights. It also reminds us that theology is — no more and no less — the poetry of transcendence.

So… here we are on this April Fool’s Day and Easter Day, faced with a choice to consider, either for the first time, or yet again:

  • Does Easter remind us that we are called into deeper community?
  • Does life invite us to be challenged by Easter or scared by it.
  • Is Resurrection an escape from death, or an invitation to live life with zeal?
  • Are we alone in this life of faith?

And remember when you answer that;

  • Life is renewable.
  • The human spirit is indomitable.
  • A loving, caring existence is stronger than death itself.
  • Amen.

Notes:
Cox, H. “God’s Last Laugh” in Christianity and Crisis, 6 April 1987. Reproduced on Religion Online.
—————, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1969
Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013.
Harris, M. Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. Ithaca. Cornell University Press, 2011.
Johnson, D. & S. Ross. “The Uncertain Origins of a Foolish Day.” <https://www.infoplease.com/calendar-holidays/major-holidays/april-fools-day-origin-and-history>  Accessed 13 January 2018.
Laskow, S. “The New Year’s Feast that transforms Fools into Popes and Kings”. 29 December 2017. <https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/feast-of-fools-medieval-tradition> Accessed 14 January 2018.
Pieper, J. In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965.
Real Life. “The Best April Fool’s Day jokes around Australia”. 2017. <news.com.au>
Scott, B. B. The Trouble with Resurrection. From Paul to the Fourth Gospel. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2010.
Vosper, G. “Easter Day Liturgy”. Direct from the author, 2004.

rexae74@gmail.com

A New Covenant

Posted: March 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

A New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains dimensions that typically pass unrecognized, but which provide a rich description of an ideal polity. This prophetic vision can serve as a powerful counterpart and companion to more conventional expectations and idealized societies. This leads me into St David’s aspirations to transform itself into a school. The questions that undergird the school vision is how do we honour the minds of children? How do we provide an environment where it is safe to ask questions and not expect answers or at least expect only answers for now or answers that will change? And how do we empower our children to seize the opportunity to become more fully human.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The new covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31 is the dawn that will pierce the grueling night of a shattered people. As they face the destruction of their nation and the prospect of a long and bitter exile, God presents his people with assurance of restoration, lodging the seed of a glorious future hope in the cold, hard soil of Israel and Judah’s winter.

Walter Brueggemann identifies a number of elements to the new covenant promised here. First, there will be a new ‘solidarity’: the separation occasioned by Israel and Judah’s sin will be overcome and YHWH will identify himself as their God and them as his people. By implication, the division within the kingdom itself will end and Israel and Judah will once again be united as a single people (cf. Ezekiel 37:15-28).

Second, there will be a new ‘knowledge’ of YHWH. Brueggemann maintains that this is a reference both to the people’s knowledge of the saving tradition within which YHWH revealed himself (cf. 2:6-8) and to obedience to his ‘commands for justice’ (cf. 22:15-17). The reconstituted nation evinces both a new acquaintance with YHWH’s identity and memory of his work and displays a new loyalty and obedience to him.

Third, the new relation will no longer be characterized by intermediation and the distance that maintained between YHWH and the majority of the people. Middle men with privileged access and knowledge, brokering relations between God and his people, will no longer be necessary. Rather, from the poorest to the richest, the youngest to the oldest, all will enjoy access to God and be acquainted with his truth. ‘All know the story, all accept the sovereignty, and all embrace the commands.’

All of these elements of the new covenant relation are founded upon a great act of divine initiative, an initiative which breaks the ‘vicious cycle of sin and punishment’ within which Israel had become trapped and opens a new page. This initiative takes the form of forgiveness. This involves a re-membering of the people’s broken history, made possible by the fact that YHWH will no longer bring their sin to mind. To this point the people’s history has been a bitter burden, a tale of squandered blessings and the fear of a forfeited birthright. The popular proverb of Jeremiah’s day, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ describes the fatalist sense of a people imprisoned by their past. To this demoralized people, YHWH declares a release from all debts, reigniting their guttering hope. Within the past to which they once were shackled—whose weight had threatened to drag them down to the abyss—they will now discover the liberating realization of the promised new covenant knowledge of the forgiving God.

Christian appropriations of this prophetic passage have often been inattentive to its political dimensions, exhausting their applications of it within discussions of the spiritual renewal of individuals and vocational ecclesiologies. The new birth of the individual and the rebirth of the church have used up our energies to no avail.

I want to show you a short video featuring John D Caputo a Roman Catholic Theologian and philosopher. I hope that you might see this clip as an introduction to the idea of what a new covenant might look like for us today.

Video 1.                      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xBMYzPuDtQ

The covenant introduced by Jeremiah addresses the situation they find themselves in and the promise extended to those within its sphere of influence. The prophecy is declared to a riven polity, the history recalled is one of national constitution and declension; not unlike our globalization and the decline of our societies, the predicament answered is national judgment and exile, the sins forgiven are those of kingdoms, and the promised new covenant is to be made with political bodies—the houses of Israel and Judah. This new covenant is about nationhood, about society, and about the people’s future.

I want to show you a second video now and this one is about the value of education and about what a new look at its purpose and the vision that lies behind it might look like. I invite you now to see what St David school might look like as a new covenant example.

Video 2.          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY5v2lyycfs

Embedded within the Jeremiah prophecy is a fecund vision of a sort of utopian polity, a polity where social and political authority is the possession of all, where each person is the trusted bearer of the national identity, where our past is restored to us and we are furnished with a future, released from the crushing debts accumulated through past failures. It presents challenges to certain prevailing political and educational notions, not least those which present an antipathy between law and freedom, control and choice: in Jeremiah’s new covenant, the fullness of freedom arrives through the internalization of the law. The placing of the law in the heart and mind equips and empowers us freely to provide appropriate responses to God’s world, expressing his rule within his creation in loving wisdom and delight.

We have honoured the mind of our children, we have established the environment that is based on the generation of questions and we are ready to explore the adventure of humanity.

One, David Bentley Hart in an article, describes the difference between two sorts of political visions that we encounter as we look back on our human history.’ The first vision he says, ‘hovers tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages’ and in the futile pursuit of them we can all be led to our deaths. The second, visions, however, are like ‘cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.’

Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant requires the addition of a further category to this and it is that of an espied promised land. As in pursuing Hart’s mirages, our premature attempts to enter into the reality of such a vision in our political life are doomed to perish deep within the wilderness of human weakness and wickedness unless we handle them carefully. Handled carefully, such a vision can provide benefits such as seeing the limitations of our realities, and thus protecting us from misrecognition of the relativities within our polities with more absolute ones, in other words we can critique our aspirations and discard the unhelpful directions, while being inspired to aim higher. Unlike, unlike both of Hart’s visions, this third way, this espied promised land declares the temporariness of our history and, to those with faith to receive, a rich burden of the new alterative affords a foretaste of that future hope. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 293-294

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics [Second Edition] (Leicester: Apollos, 1994) 24-26.

Discipleship

Posted: February 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lent 2B, 25.02.2017
Mark 8:31-38

Discipleship

This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a call to discipleship and it follows on to our last week’s attempt to find an alternative theology of Sin and evil. Last week I think I tried to suggest that self-deprecation and sacrifice and the doctrine of original sin were unhelpful when seeking a definition of sin for today and that acknowledging human limitation might be a better approach. Today we search the idea of suffering and we begin by saying that a call to follow Jesus is no easy thing. A response to the call requires intention, courage, determination and commitment, all those traditional things, and one of the things that makes this no easy matter is that over time and personal circumstance our understanding of what is easy or difficult has been to either a greater or a lesser degree part of our daily living. This says that mixed in with the call are several fragments on other issues. Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin. Suffering and persecution. The cross, and ultimately, death. The summary of what we hear in the call and in the stories of the calling can be heard in the words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

One of the outcomes of a tradition based on sacrifice and atonement is that with our post-modern western ears we read things out of context, and in, this particular invitation to discipleship we hear it as a glorification of suffering, and a docility of character. Without an accurate critique of the patriarchal setting of the text we slide into assigning blame to women, and an encouragement of the role of victim. Discipleship becomes a life of perpetual suffering especially for women and that’s ok because that’s how it is for followers of Jesus. Indeed, this is the way many people in the not too distant past, were encouraged to interpret this story. Because such a way of life is or was considered an imitation of ‘Christ’.

Now any thinking person has to see that such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story.  Period. And this demands of us a teasing out of the text in an alternative way. Taking just two key themes in our text from Mark we find two issues. One is Suffering and the second is ‘The Cross’ but when we look carefully we see that Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering. Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se. What he does indicate is that one particular cause of suffering,
is persecution by the powers-that-be if you become a challenge to their authority, suffering is a very real possibility when one challenges the status quo and for those who have chosen to follow in the way of the humble Galilean, Mark’s call is to remain faithful to that way, and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution.

We need to remember here that the first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. We should not suffer at all is our expectation. It is something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible. Even down to the Panadol-a-day to keep the headache away! But ancients viewed suffering as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life. It was part of the human lot, of everyday existence. And why wouldn’t it be! With at least 80% of the population living at subsistence level or below, with hunger and disease or being sold off into slavery, common experiences, high taxation a daily occurrence, and families in constant danger of losing their land to cover rising debt…

“That is how Rome managed it”, comments Stephen Patterson, New Testament scholar, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. “Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces, was to suck up as many of the province’s resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether.  It slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.” (Patterson 2002:201)

It is no wonder that the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now, train their children to be able to endure suffering, even to sacrifice it for a cause, for it becomes an important survival skill! To be able to die in the cause of living with it. So, Mark’s message that the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth, painting Jesus and his followers as having the power to end suffering and bring health, life and safety for all, was certainly very attractive. What story do we need to deal with suffering today? What is it anyway?

A brief look at the cross or crucifixion, is a look at a cruel, shameful, and legal means of execution. Anyone questioning Roman authority was, from the empire’s perspective, a potential and unnecessary troublemaker. And political authorities then, as many still do today, believed in pre-emptive action against all possible threats. The Iraq invasion could be claimed to be a good example of a preemptive strike poorly justified.

And let’s be clear the people of Jesus time would never have sung: “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died…” That is 17th/18th century middle-class piety. Neither would they have said: “It is her cross to bear”. Or that “God has given him a heavy cross”. Or that “You just have to accept it: it’s your cross”.

The reality was to take up your cross was specifically to pick up the cross beam and carry it out to the place of your execution, where you would be nailed or tied to it, and then hoisted up on to the upright pole or on to an olive tree stump. As Joanna Dewey has said on her website; “No ancient audience could miss the reference to execution, or think of the cross as a general reference to all human suffering…  Following Jesus (was) both blessing – the ending of much human suffering – and incurring new suffering at the hands of those who will do their best to destroy Jesus’ followers.”

So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general. Why not? Because all forms of violence destroy life. Suffering and the cross as symbol was not even considered until much later for ‘Christian’ congregations. That didn’t happen until early in the 5th century and then thanks to Constantine, not Mark. And neither is it about sacrificial atonement or supernatural rescue. That is, when the cross is seen as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, In Marks time God is implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. (Shea 1975:179)

What this claim is that the meaning of suffering and the cross are a general exhortation to remain faithful to the way of Jesus, in the face of persecution and even execution, by political authorities.  (Joanne Dewey) And that is Ian Cairns says is “the all-absorbing commitment par excellence!” (Cairns 2004:123)

The call to discipleship that Mark is talking about was a tough call because one’s life could depend on it. It is still a tough call but today it is more a cerebral call to participate in a journey that is composed of questions rather than with answers. Application of an educated mind is vital. A call to live with questions that demands integrity, honesty and candour. It’s a call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy). This is a call where what one believes but its demand is that what one believes is vitally important as it leads to practice. When one extrapolates that, it is a call to make forgiveness reciprocal without exacting penalties or promises. And it is a call to accept an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love of one’s neighbour.

Let’s be clear here; Mark’s 1st century story may have offered us some indicators – even resources for our 21st century struggle to be disciples, to be the church, in our time. But in reality, we will have to work it out for ourselves, and we have to do it together.

The challenges of discipleship for us today are tough not because we could face execution or banishment, it is tough because the human environment we live within is one where the answers are so complex and demand of us a more flexible understanding of order in what is now a collective systemic complexity. Our choices are greater than ever before in terms of what we do and how we do it, so much so that we cannot even contemplate including everything, if we ever could anyway, and this complexity and choice is going to become even more complex in the future. The challenge for us is that there is harmony, hope, peace and human enrichment in this scene if we want to look. The challenge and the blessing of discipleship is real and we cannot but find the sacred in this if we are to walk the Jesus Way.

One example of this complexity facing discipleship is what John Spong challenges the church with. He argues that religion is a business and it is used as a control mechanism We might see this happening in some places as the rise of Islamophobia. Islam has been turned into a scapegoat, a target at which we can direct all our fears and anger, and an excuse to invade other countries and create a more intense global national security state. But the truth is, just as Christianity can claim of itself, Islam has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. These manufactured fears are all part and parcel of a faithless response or as it is now called ‘false flag’ terrorism, which we can read more about on Facebook, in newspapers and many debates about the future if we are unfamiliar with the concept.

Spong affirms that “religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand. It’s in the guilt producing control business.” You will remember we spoke about that last week with that story about Mission in South America years ago when discovering a people who knew no fear about their living meant that fear had to be manufactured for the Christian mission of evangelization to even begin.

Spong also describes the problem with organization. Many churches still claim that there is something such as the true church, and along with that goes some ultimate authority. Many of us would accept that the idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system by any human creed by any human book, is almost beyond imagination for us. For us God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu a Buddhist; all of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. Most of us would also say that using fear to coax people into a certain way of life or belief system, has been part of our tradition and we are not comfortable with that.

Spong’s understanding of discipleship is that people need to accept responsibility for the world. If we simply leave global change in the hands of God, we remove our own responsibility and agency in this world. If we want to change the world, we have to do it. The Dalai Lama expressed this as well, arguing that it’s not enough to just pray. We must take responsibility for our planet.

One of the challenges we face is how we use the bible because we know we are dealing with texts that are very old, and when we consider what we do know about them and that there are multiple versions of various texts, all of which have likely been manipulated, changed, and distorted over the years, it becomes difficult to accept any one without question. Hence the challenge to live the questions as opposed to searching for answers.

Another point that is important for discipleship is hypocrisy. Many people claim ties to their faith yet know very little about its tenets, choosing rather to accept a popular leave it to God approach that denies critique and thus questions. This makes it easy to ignore the hard bits and choose the easy, not thinking approach, under the guise of an authentic supernatural faith. This is commonly seen within many so-called ‘spiritual’ movements as well, which can be seen as another form of religion in itself.

When it comes to religion, it is clear that we have to do your own research; we have to read the books and examine the teachings for ourselves. Use our own head and find what resonates with us instead of allowing ourselves to be indoctrinated and letting someone else do our thinking for us. The texts are open to interpretation and it’s up to us to find meaning in them and apply it to our life. I don’t think this is about whether there is a God or not because we can still believe in God and not be religious. What we are doing however is recognizing that Religion is a man-made construct. And, that has to be good!

We are also recognizing that Religions as organizations are going to have to change. New discoveries are constantly being made that are challenging long-held belief systems. We cannot grow if we refuse to have an open mind and accept new possibilities about the nature of reality, and it’s childish to hold on to old belief systems just because they are familiar. I want to leave it here with a quote that says; “It’s a mark of an educated person to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” And my adaption which is; that, it is the mark of a disciple to be seen to be humble, determined and committed to the building of a more complete humanity. Amen.

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

Patterson, S. J. “Dirt, Shame, and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (Ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association, 1975.

rexae74@gmail.com

Article by Arjun Walia ‘Collective Evolution American Bishop Explains How Religion is Made-Up & Used to Control People

‘A Journey Inwards’

Posted: February 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

Lent 1

‘A Journey Inwards’ 

William Blake wrote;

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

On Wednesday 14 February we began the Lenten period in the Church calendar. On Wednesday the 14th we noted that it was also St Valentine’s Day and it is said that in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. For us as Christians since about the year 1000CE Ash Wednesday has been a day when people were marked with ashes of palm trees burnt the previous year. Ash Wednesday has been a day when worshippers gathered and were reminded of their sinfulness and mortality. The practice was not part of the protestant church practice for many years being swallowed up in the rejection of anything depicting iconography symbolic or not sustainable in reasoning.

The challenge we have this year is the timing. As Rex Hunt puts it; we have Love and sin all on the same day!! One might say ‘That’s life”. Life is all about choice, about discernment and decision, about the richness and beauty always at risk of the choices we make in our attempts to understand and live within the randomness of existence. Lent for the Christian church is associated with the story of the Jewish Galilean sage called Jesus, and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness. The location of this event upon which the tradition is based happened at the beginning of his brief public activity in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire, sometime between the years 26-36CE.

Today we are challenged to reflect on what we are symbolically alluding to in the period we call lent and we as Progressive Contemporary followers of Jesus do this by not accepting a simple call to public self-abasement, as the means of acknowledging our struggle with the paradoxical juxtaposition of love and sin. We do not see that an act of sacrifice is a loving act because we struggle with the idea that that sort of exchange is what Jesus lived for. We want to acknowledge our limitedness as a human being but we also want to find a way of unfolding what that means without having to accept that we are now all bad and in need of outside intervention to make us good. That idea might be a means of projecting away what we have traditionally called our sinfulness, or the result of original sin but it does not give priority to the belief that a human being is essentially good and the task is to live that goodness as opposed to spending all our efforts on dealing with our sinfulness. Note that original sin comes after the creation of goodness so perhaps someone couldn’t deal with the fact that humans are essentially good so we have to explain the things we do wrong. It has to be said however that we progressives are still trying to get our heads around the same question. We all accept that we are biological animals and that we have a finite life span, but we don’t really like it, so having original sin as a panacea we can blame our death on our behaviour.

Leaping back to our story of Jesus and his response which was to go into the desert for 40 days, I think, maybe his trip was to get his head around this question of human purpose and human response, to think about his world where Roman world view was dominant and his people’s response was consumed with its ability to deal with this oppressive living existence. Reconcile with what it means to be human, reflect on what responses were manifesting and repentance or more correctly turn around the juggernaut of the popular responsive mode of being might have been his need. He is faced with a Culture that is not based in love but rather fear, nor in a responsible confidence but rather a fear driven responsibility. And what does this action that he took look like? He is said to have gone into the desert. What does that mean? His location is very easily imaged as being all desert with some small pockets of vegetation. What was the difference between their town and the desert? There must have been some distinction between desert and non-desert that was significant. But having accepted that our image might not be completely accurate we can for the sake of some idea look at our contemporary understanding of a desert and what better than just next door in Australia.

They have ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia. It is over 800 kilometers wide and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometers. In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometers or 18% of the Australian mainland and approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain it is effectively desert.

So, taking that image and exploring the experience of Jesus in the wilderness we look for the evidence of utter isolation and uninhabitable place and our image of a parched earth with its cracks and its groaning under the blazing sun across the wide land. And we find the desert in its colours and in Australia’s case its redness, we find it in its fickle dust that permeates everything we touch. We breathe it, taste it and it enters every personal space including our eyes. It takes over our lives.

However, there is another picture here as well. The perception of what a desert wilderness area is, varies greatly. It depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’. To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty. A place without life. But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, it has a compelling fascination, as a place vibrant with life.

The spinifex which we have sung about in some hymns out of Australia, are blue grey with amber glints. They look soft but they are prickly and hard. They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal can eat them out or destroy their roots. Here is the seed of a picture that says that it may look as if nothing can live in the desert, but underneath the spinifex, the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand. Life may not stir all day, but come night… lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

One of the learnings is that a desert is what one sees at first glance but at another look it is transformed. What seems barren, uninhabited, desolate – even hostile because it lacked the visible plants and animals of our experience can be seen differently. Seen differently the wilderness environment can be ‘very romantic, beautifully formed by nature’
as well as ‘the worst country in the world’: “… an ‘alien landscape’, where nature was ‘upside down’ and flora and fauna were so unnervingly weird”.

This raises the contradiction of perspective, first glance, and of time for reflection. So, when it comes to lent there is the suggestion that it is a very real time where we can once again, in an intentional way, seek out the present-ness of the sacred lurking in the most unlikely of places, the sacred is waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced. If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentless isolation and a place where people face despair and animals die of thirst, then the desert experience will always be an alien danger. So too our expectations of lent and of any intentional reflection and of any intentional cleaning out of the cupboard of our past.

A Zen teacher said to his students: ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes, but the elders furrow their brows. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes, but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust. We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

And echoing the words of William Blake, a former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests: “To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

Rex Hunt suggests that our Zen teacher probably had a different thought in mind. To raise a speck of dust is to stir up goodness, struggle for justice, speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power, band together to stand resolutely and non-violently before evil and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it. For progressive Christians lent is not a time of sorry self-deprecation. We are not helped by that perspective. For us lent can be a time when, in positive and intentional ways, our focused actions can enable others to flourish. When our selfless actions seep into the world
‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’… encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, and strengthening the bonds of community.

Judging from what we know of Jesus, he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom, strongly encouraging his hearers to take a second look at the traditions that helped them make their way in the world. And with a storyteller’s imagination,
he set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life. Wilderness and thus reality are not what they seem, take time and look again. Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The Prophet. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
McRae-McMahon, D. Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
rexae74@gmail.com

 

Transfiguration B, 2018
Mark 9: 2-9

‘Unsettled into the fulness of Life!’

Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystic proclaimed, ……We are all meant to be mothers of God……… for God is always needing to be born. For those of us nurtured in the patriarchal phase of Christian history that is an unsettling comment. Some of us have moved on to be able to be comfortable with the feminine images and metaphor for God but many of us are still unsettled by it. A few of you noted we had a hymn with the line mothers of God recently. But when you think about where we have been since Christmas the unsettling challenges haven’t stopped. We have not long celebrated Christmas where Holy innocence has led to Jesus being born and 12 days later, on Epiphany, we celebrated his physical arrival, a much-awaited incarnation called forth by ages of invocation and prophecy. Christmas carols lift the refrain, “Christ was born to save!” And then, Eckhart comes along with, “God is always needing to be born.” As 2018 unfolds, this teaching is a prompt for us. What role will we play as mothers of God? The other question I think that lies here is what do we understand as the transfiguration?

The English poet and song writer Sydney Carter in his poem Friday Morning in the mid-1960s wrote, “you can blame it on Adam, you can blame it on Eve, you can blame it on the apple, but that I can’t believe”. This was a very typical reaction to much Christian thinking in the 1960s. This was when people such as Bishop John A T Robinson wrote many popular books on theology in the hope some would see that there was a constant need for fresh formulations of the reality of God. Then, from the late 1980s through to now, this work is being carried on by others like John Shelby Spong, another Anglican bishop.

I want to wrestle with the transfiguration idea today because I think that today’s gospel story by Mark is about one of those ‘but that I can’t believe’ incidents, full of myth and pre-modern images. I suggest wrestling because the idea of transfiguration is one idea for which there are very few postmodern images. All the searches I made this week for images to use on the power point ended up with traditional images of Jesus with some sort of halo or burst of light around him. There were a few new age type images but they were all either centered on the human form or on the cosmos. None seemed to speak to me of a postmodern transfiguration whatever that is.

Our story from Mark is a so-called incident in the life of Jesus called the Transfiguration or Shining. As a story it is very imaginative. Storyteller Mark says Jesus and some of his closest friends climb to the top of a mountain. Immediately we hear a connecting link to other existing ‘hero’ stories. Going to the top of a mountain is a common thing in Israel’s stories. Because mountains are regarded as ‘thin places’- when God, the Divine, the Sacred – can be experienced. I happen to like that idea of thin places because it speaks to me of some place that is neither here nor there. It is a least a portal between idea and event. They climb to the top of a mountain. They enjoy the magnificent views. They breathe deeply the fresh air. This experience recharges their flagging spirits and re-sensitizes their imaginations. They are refreshed by Creativity God. Then out of the blue, pious Peter attempts to secure this experience in some tangible way: ‘Let’s build our own chapel, he says and you, Jesus, can be our private chaplain’. But as our storyteller says, a booming voice puts paid to that bad idea. Says something about preserving buildings doesn’t it.

Ched Myers, has an interesting comment: he says “After all, in Mark the true impediments to discipleship have nothing to do with physical impairment, but with spiritual and ideological disorders…”. Or, as another on the Process and Faith website has said: “Because of their relationship with Jesus, Peter, James, and John experience a walk up a mountainside in an exciting and enlivening way.  Because they have allowed themselves to see life through Jesus’ eyes, however fleetingly and partially, they have come to know God in new ways and to see Jesus as the vehicle for that new knowing. Once again, the hand or pen of the storyteller is there. After coming to know God in new ways and of seeing Jesus as the vehicle for that new knowing, the storyteller reminds them and us they are to climb down from the top of the mountain. They are to refresh others as they have been refreshed by God. Or in other words, they are to move from a private refuge (chapel) to a public presence (community).

So, how can we approach this mythical, supernatural story from Mark today? Rex Hunt suggests we can do it two ways. One with a historical question… like ‘How/where did this happen?’ or we can approach it with a theological question… such as ‘What connections can we make to this story?’ For me I think I would want to start close to the second question, but before we do I want to bring in another thought. This time about a transfigured community.

Soong-Chan Rah, a theologian and seminary professor who is committed to freeing spiritual communities from what he calls, “Western Cultural Captivity.” writes, “Lament is honesty before God and each other”. He asks, “should we not be concerned over a church that lives in denial over the reality of death in our midst?”  As readers of “Progressing Spirit,” and earlier posts by Bishop Spong”, he says, “we are not blind to the death around us – the extinction of species, government’s termination of life-affirming policies, and the archetypal display of patriarchy in its last gasps. While so much of labouring to birth God begins inwardly, as individuals, it is what we do together that makes our beliefs visibly alive in the world. This is tough when the dominant system rewards us for our ability to do things without needing any help – some people thrive on this, and some give up entirely, hoping that others will find a magical way forward. But these, “Independence Teachings,” are written nowhere in the sacred texts that we know. Moreover, Earth’s teachings repeatedly show us the brilliant interdependency that sustains us all – trees needing CO2, and mammals needing oxygen – as the most obvious example.

After winter’s snow and ice, rivers of water and muddy, sloppy mush precede the return of firm earth, gardens and leaves. Our communities are only as strong as the transparency and vulnerability we entrust to them. So, we are left with the question: How will our spiritual community resolve, this year, to acknowledge the mess? How will we create a very intentional time and space for lament…and then to mindfully respond? Our knowledge of ourselves says that when our anguish is fully met, we see our passions and convictions more clearly; more love becomes possible. Love = God being born. Mothers of God we become. Unsettled we might be with this and rightly so because as Lauren Van Ham suggests, none of us knows how our story with Earth is to evolve or find its end for that matter; but it is in this paradoxical space of wrestling and finding blessing that our spiritual paths are formed. Somehow, we know the Love that comes from this wrestling with unsettling — the divine Love that is in us, and for us, wants us to be in Love.

As 2018 evolves, we might ask ourselves how we perceive God needing to be born? When we’re clear about what isn’t working, we are asked to imagine what we do want and Van Ham asks us to consider three practices: The first is stopping for Stillness, the second is daring to feel and sharing our Laments in Community, and then the third is Wrestling – not for the perceived reward of winning – but rather to receive the unimaginable flow of Earth’s Love that is in us, for us and beyond us, calling us to God who is always needing to be born!

So What connections can we make to this story. Well I hope we have already made some but let’s go deeper, so to speak. It seems that at least one of things being suggested in this story by the one we call Mark, is that it is saying something important about God. And we have acknowledged that, that something is not about any so-called supernatural power or event. That’ is the 1st century mythical and cultural encompassed story for Marks hearers. The key however is I think, that God is to be ‘experienced’ as a creative transforming presence in ordinary people’s lives. Not by coercion and power over, but rather by lure and suggestion and imagination. As Jesus was transfigured or ‘changed’ before Peter, James, and John, God’s so-called ‘will’ (to use tradition language) is to transform us in the everyday moments of our lives.

So, how does this happen?  In very personal-sounding traditional language one colleague of Rex Hunt suggests: If our deepest experience is loneliness, it is the will of God to transform us from loneliness to human connectedness. If our deepest feeling is fear and anxiety, then God wishes to move us creatively past that, to love and to trust. What he is suggesting is that God wants to move us beyond the meaninglessness of life to the intensity of living, characterized by joy and by vitality. To a new level of depth in our existence that will provide joy and zest and empowerment.

There is good news in this story for 21st century ‘even for post-moderns’ like us,
despite all the mythical baggage. And the good news is, our God or Divine energy is not aloof and detached, but rather works like the new metaphor of an expert weaver. Continuing the metaphor, God uses the fibers of our lives, weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love and creativity. And as it is with us, individually, so too is it with us, as church or faith community. It is the creative transformation of God that wants to move congregations beyond being a cozy club with ‘feel good’ attitudes, to being people at mission who meet and serve others where they are. So, if we are to continue to be the inclusive people of faith we say we are, we might need to be people who are continually and radically open to the creative, transforming present-ness of God…

The Jesus Way is inviting us to a better way of being the church. Not because it has been wrong in the past but because the divine invitation is about our refreshment and it will unsettle us. Once again John Shelby Spong sums this up well: “God, the source of life, calls us to live fully.  God, the source of love, calls us to love wastefully.  God, the Ground of Being, calls us to have the courage to be ourselves.  So, when we live, love, and have the courage to be, we are… expanding our humanity”. What God refreshes, unsettles, and changes, God or The Divine Spirit or Energy does so with and through us.

So, leaving the last word to Jack Spong. “The mission of the Christian Church is not to convert the world, but to call all who are also part of the creation into the fullness of life”

Amen.

Notes:
Myers, C. 2008. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. New York. Maryknoll. Orbis Books.
Spong, J. S. 1999. Why Christianity Must Change or Die. A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Spong, J. S. 2001. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.

rexae74@gmail.com