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Epiphany 3B
Mark 1:14-20

Beyond the Heresy Called Complacency

The title today suggest that complacency is a heresy and that it is possible to see through it and find something that is beyond it. In short, the implication is that it is possible to see beyond a theory or a doctrine that is supported and confirmed by established beliefs, and customs. It also suggests that complacency as a point of self-satisfaction or a smugness about the present situation needs to be challenged so as to ensure there is an awareness of any potential danger lurking ahead. Last week we spoke of discipleship as being akin to physical engagement and a shared journey of discovery centered on the character and teachings of the wandering sage we call Jesus of Nazareth.

In the traditional teachings of the church, there is little doubt that following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has become an important theme in church life. In a world where membership and attendance of traditional forms of church are in decline, evangelism and encouraging others to join is a major question being faced. At face value today’s story by the storyteller we call Mark, is one such story. The calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John. And by implication, the commencement of a movement which centered on the character and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

What we do believe is that Jesus had followers, and last week we argued that conversation, engagement and shared development of thought and understanding played a significant part on the growth of the movement. We also believe that this engagement, conversation and shared journey included both men and women, despite patriarchal assumptions both outside and within the movement. We argued last week that the person to person contact was one of the most common ways in which teaching and learning took place in the time. And while we can learn something of the roles men took in this process, from the various stories in our biblical tradition, the role women took goes almost unnoticed until we read the Gospel of Mary – which didn’t make it into the biblical collection.

It is worth noting here that when we talk about a Jesus movement we believe that it was not ever an intention of Jesus to take any initiative in carrying out a recruitment drive. We do not believe he had any intention of organizing a movement. As we said last week the issue was always a person to person engagement without a party manifesto or a strategic organizational plan. It can be said that this personalization has worked against the movement in modern and postmodern times, because it accommodates diverse thinking and this works against a unified mass evangelism, not unlike our political experiences today we all need to be heard, to have our say, to be understood and this means we have to deal with differing views on almost everything. If we look at recent church history we see attempts to move beyond the personal and we find personality cults and short-lived personality driven programs. One might say that Constantine set us on a wrong path when he made Christianity a state religion because it gave us both a false sense of hope in a unified movement and established a model of institution that was doomed to failure because it was dependent upon sameness and a common understanding. The global ecumenical movement and the Church union events all show the difficulty of transitioning from personal to collective faith. Because I tend to agree with those who claim Jesus was a wandering or itinerant sage without organisational intentions, and a person who never intended to found a movement much less a church, I wonder why and how the movement developed, other than as a response to social, cultural, economic and political events of the time. For the movement to have as much popularity in the early centuries the sense of freedom from institutionalization must have played a significant part in its growth as a movement.

This I think leaves us with a Jesus who was thoroughly consumed in the religious/political concerns of his own time and place, and a Jesus whose focus was not on some mystified realm beyond time, or on some present world which we simply appreciate or accept. His focus had to be on a new realm of God here and now, and ready to emerge. This means that what we have in this particular story this morning, is more in the hands of the storyteller Mark or more focused on a particular community, he thinks he knows and a community he thinks he knows the needs of. What we have then is less likely to be a record of one of the actual deeds of Jesus.

So, with this limited information, we find a storyteller who seems to have a collection
of stories and sayings and theological reflections, some probably written fragments, but most retold and remembered from oral telling, and the storyteller is adapting and weaving them together with a particular purpose in mind. From what we can discern the reason for the storyteller’s writing is, so that a small community can honour Jesus in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, hear a link between “Jesus’ ministry and John’s preceding one” (Cairns 2004:16) and, hear and understand, remember and be empowered as people of the Way. The authority of Jesus in a mass setting without him is of concern to the writer. How does one walk the Jesus Way today is the question being asked even then?

In the traditional teachings of the church, following Jesus or ‘discipling’ has also been associated with the evangelical missionary endeavour of ‘saving souls’. This today is suspect because it implies that something needs saving without saying from what or for what. It also struggles because of thinking around what a soul is. Do we have one? What is it in relation to scientific thinking? What does neurology say about the existence of a soul?

Today’s text gives us a metaphor that is at similar risk. Certainly, our text in its metaphorical form is how many preachers have treated it. They have concluded that it was spoken exclusively to Simon and Andrew: ‘make you fishers of men’ or the more inclusive, ‘…people’, fishers of people. But this metaphor is not only very tired and outdated, it is also, some of us would say, a misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Why do we say this? Well because the evidence of his intention to build a movement is a major question. Why the need for an evangelical approach if one if not building a movement. So, we need to consider some other options. Scholar Ched Myers, in his comments on this story, offers an important and different interpretation, which suggests that phrases like ‘fishers of men’ and ‘hooking of fish’ are actually euphemisms for judgement upon the rich given by ancient Hebrew Prophets. They are more about what this new kingdom will remove than about bringing more people to follow the Jesus Way.

Myers says initially: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”. He later goes on to say that: “…following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. We know this idea has merit because we know the Christianity is always an ‘in the world’ religion as opposed to an ‘out of the world’ one. Culture, is the operating ground for human endeavour. It is the connection with sociology, politics and psychology. Jesus is advocating that the first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple… To transform it and this is not a call to reach an ‘out’ of the world existence, but rather a call ‘into an alternative social practice.’ (Myers 2008: 132-133)

Those words by Ched Myers resonate with me. because they suggest to me that being a disciple in the 21st century requires us to engage in both social analysis as well as theological reflection. To be political, not in a partisan way or a mass control or manipulation sense but in the recognition that the person is not alone, the person is the person because of the person to person relationships one has. Individuals count because they are in relationship. The cultural, sociological concern is an engagement of the person in the science or art of government, be it family, clan, tribe, village, city, nation, world. This suggests that we need to remind ourselves when we read the biblical test and the extra-biblical stories and study and speculate about them, they are less about earthly stories with heavenly meanings, and more earthy stories with heavy meanings! So, returning to our title for today; the question is what does this doctrinally induced, industrialization created complacency look like?

Rex Hunt wrote on his website some time back about the American celebration called Martin Luther King Day, ‘which by the way’, was last Monday the 15th January. It is a celebration more at home in America than anywhere else, but the reason for it is common to all of us. Hunt recalls that a journalist named James Carroll, wrote an article called ‘The Dream and its Enemies’. In it he suggested that while the outright racism of white supremacists was one of King’s enemies, “almost equally infuriating to King was the complacency of the vast majority of Americans that allowed inequality to thrive.” (Carroll. ‘Globe’, a New York Times Co. 2008)

Carroll went on: “This nation honours Martin Luther King Jr because of what he forced on it.  Recognitions that followed his challenge have taken on the character of rock-solid truth.  Segregation by race is deeply wrong, and the institutions of government that supported it were indefensible.  What happened was that King’s work freed whites as well as blacks from the prison of an inhuman perception, but, in fact, few white people ever came to see things as he did.” (Carroll) One has to ask; was it treated like a call out of this world rather than a call into an alternative social practice… One can also ask similar questions of all our political parties, all of our concerns for justice. Are they calls out of this world, calls susceptible to an unworkable complacency or are they calls into an alternative social practice?

Discipling, as the storyteller we call Mark suggests is about accepting the urgent invitation to ‘break with business as usual’. To re-imagine the world, both personal and communal. It has to start with the person because that is the foundation of being in this world and of it at the same time. It’s also the way we keep the heresy of complacency at bay. One can’t re-imagine and be trapped in the same old, same old at the same time. Amen.

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



“Come and see for yourself”

Posted: January 8, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 2B


John 1:43-51

 “Come and see for yourself”

Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”

The text appears to tell us how it works: Jesus found Phillip and said to him ‘Follow me”. The Christian faith is passed from person to person. It is a meeting of people. That’s how it started with Jesus, and that’s how it’s been for 2,000-plus years. But what was it about Jesus that caused people to believe in him and follow him with no evidence? This is an important issue for us some thousands of years after his death. How can we replicate this sort of meeting today? We need to know what it was about Jesus that made people follow him. Well of course we don’t know. Had Philip and Nathanael known him before? Had Philip heard about him from Andrew and Peter, since they lived in the same town? The text doesn’t say. It only says that Philip followed Jesus straightaway, then told Nathanael that “we” had found the one promised in the Old Testament. Was the “we” Philip spoke of actually, other people who were following Jesus? We don’t know that either.

When Nathanael expressed skepticism about anything good coming out of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, Philip simply says, “Come and see for yourself.” When Jesus tells Nathanael that he saw him already Nathanael is so impressed that he impetuously calls him the “Son of God” and the “King of Israel.” What was there about Jesus to have this kind of effect on people? The New Testament gives us a slight hint. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew concludes with the observation, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes,” a phrase repeated in the other gospels (Matthew 7:29, also Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32,36, John 5:27 and others). What was this authority? What was it that made it different from the scribes?

About now it’s probably important to remember that we are reading from John’s Gospel and not one of the synoptic gospels. John is considered the foundational gospel for Christian dogma. It is the foundation of the lectionary in that there is no year of John in the three-year cycle because it undergirds the lectionary and fills the gaps in every year. It is also the gospel where the questions of the historical Jesus are not addressed. The Jesus of John is already the Christ, the Messiah in new form. The consistencies are that the world view is still pre-scientific. The earth is flat with a three-tier universe and earth is the sole recipient of God’s attention. As in the synoptic gospels John’s God is inclined to intervene in earthly affairs but goes one step further when it comes to God. For John God embeds Godself in the body of his Son whom John identifies as a Jewish man from the Galilee region of Palestine. John’s gospel gives a huge amount of stimulus to the development of the ‘Christ’ of the fourth century doctrine. We see here perhaps the question of authority being raised alongside this gift of empathetic engagement Jesus has. The answer to the mystery of why Jesus has such effect on people is of course because he is God.

Without doubt there was something about Jesus that drew people to him but was it limited to the mystery that is God? When British biblical scholar J.B. Phillips translated the Gospels, he was struck by the personality of Jesus and how he drew others to himself. He concluded that there must have been something extraordinary about his person that affected those with whom he came into contact. He described his own reaction in his 1967 book Ring of Truth, that there must have been something magnetic about Jesus’ personality to have such an immediate effect on people.

We can read the Gospels and note the profound effect Jesus has when he meets people: the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28), the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), the Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10), the woman at the Pharisee’s home (Luke 7:36-50), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the woman at the well (John 4), the sick man at the Bethesda pool (John 5:1-9), the thief crucified next to Jesus (Luke 23:40-43), and the centurion at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:39, Luke 23:47) — to name only a few.

People meet Jesus, and they are changed. Whatever their deepest need was, Jesus meets it. Then they tell others what happened.

And that’s how it has worked ever since. One person says to another, “I follow Jesus and invite you to do so too.” Later on, as the church grows, parents bring their infant children to Jesus in baptism and then bring them up to follow him.

It’s always person-to-person and this makes the question more important for us in our age of social media, of electronic communication that enables us to met so to speak across thousands of miles and in an instant across time spans. How do we meet Jesus today might be our question?

When we follow the story throughout the New Testament we find an Ethiopian eunuch is puzzled by a passage in the Old Testament, and Philip “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Peter went to the household of the Roman centurion Cornelius and told them about Jesus, and “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (Acts 19:44). Here we seem to have the breakthrough of the Christian faith to the Gentile world. The spread of the Christian church across the world is the person-to-person story of the thousands of people who fanned out across the globe to tell the story about Jesus and what Jesus had done for them. What was it about Jesus that this happened?

It seems that people became Christians because they saw what the Christian faith had done for those whom they knew. The saying passed down from the early years of the church still seemed to ring true: “See those Christians, how they love one another.” We have also the story of one person who came to faith by reading about a Christian, in this case C.S. Lewis’ account of his own conversion, Surprised by Joy. But it could be said that, that too was person-to-person, merely through the medium of the printed page.

We could also say that the Old Testament lesson carries the same message — but with a twist. The boy Samuel was “ministering to the Lord” under the priest Eli, probably the equivalent of our youth training to be leaders. God called him, “Samuel, Samuel,” and the boy naturally assumed it was Eli. When it happened again, Eli realized it was God calling and instructed the boy to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” When Samuel heard God’s call the third time he responded as Eli had instructed, and God told him what message to deliver to Eli. The pattern in the story is still person-to-person, this time God to Samuel, with Eli as the middleman so to speak, with Samuel then delivering God’s message back to Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20).

One of the learnings in all this is that our task as followers of Jesus is not to “prove” the truth of the Christian faith, although many scholars have written persuasively of the truth of Christianity and we have lived through a time influenced by the idea that reason is truth. Our task is not even to persuade others to think like we do. Our task is to say, “Come and see.” Come and join the journey of discovery. Come and walk the Way and see what happens. Philip could have given Nathanael some of his own opinions. He could have said, “This Jesus knows a lot about the Bible.” Or he might have said, “There is something about this man Jesus that draws me to him.” Even when Nathanael expressed skepticism about “anything good coming out of Nazareth,” Philip might have listed some successful people from Nazareth.

But no: Philip simply said, “Come and see,” as if to say, “You don’t need me to advertise for Jesus; come and see for yourself.” Nathaniel came and saw for himself. That now becomes our task, to suggest that people, “Come and see.” Come and see what Jesus is doing for you!

What we have here our text for the day is the unmistakable invitation to participate, not as a blind follower but as a discerning student of the signs of Jesus authority. Our text is the first of seven signs identified by scholars and the first of ten that Lorraine Parkinson argues for in her book “Made of Earth.” The first is that Jesus knows Nathanael, the second Jesus turning water into wine, the third the cleansing of the temple. The fourth is Jesus knowing about the woman at the well. The fifth; Jesus curing the dying boy. Sixth: the healing of the sick man, seventh; the feeding of the five thousand, eighth; Jesus walking on the sea, ninth; Jesus giving sight to the blind man, and tenth; the raising of Lazarus from the dead. We note here that the tenth is not in the other Gospels and it is John’s ultimate indication of Jesus’ divine credentials. For John, Lazarus might represent Jews who did not believe in Jesus as Messiah and as a result have been destroyed in the Jewish War. Thus, the sign is speaking to Jews who have not yet believed that Jesus is the Messiah let alone the Son of God.

The nature of this authority that Jesus has or in our words the connection he makes is the intention of these signs. It is always person to person that his authority, his ability to influence, his transforming presence takes place. Sort of rings true does it not when as we get older we realize more and more that what really matters is the relationships we have and maintain. And being the age that we are the challenge is how to understand the authority and the nature of a relationship one has in the age of social media. What con it deliver? What do we need to be aware of in its nature in order to give it the person to person value it needs to be authentic, honest and an invitation to walk together the Way of Jesus? How do we ‘Come and see for ourselves’? “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” Amen.

‘Powerful Love’

Posted: January 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 1. 7.1.2018

Genesis 1:1-5            Mark 1:4-11;
‘Powerful Love’

Mark the writer of the first Gospel looks back from his time which is after the Jewish War in 70 CE to the time of Jesus in search of an understanding of a Messiah amidst the destruction of the Temple priestly system and the redundancies of religious and scriptural ideas that supported it. Judaism was in a period of transition from a Temple based understanding of a God to whom one made sacrifices to a Torah based religion based in synagogue communities inside and outside of Judea. One can imagine that for Mark the type of Messiah, the character of the Messiah and the place of the Messiah in society was crucial. Superheroes are fun but they need to have deep roots in society and they need to have longevity if they are remain important.

I don’t know about you but we played superheroes often when I was young. I think the choice of superhero was based on which was the latest comic to be on the shelves. Superman and Batman were the key superheroes that I remember. We hadn’t heard of Spiderman and some of the others back then, let alone wonder-woman but we would make up stories of daring rescues and fighting bad guys. I can remember sometimes making other superheroes. One of my favourites was Rob Roy McGregor, mainly because my mother was a scot and wearing my mother’s old tartan skirt as a kilt was a bit of a novelty. I am sure others were also enlisted as superheroes on occasion but at times we confused things a bit. On our slide there were people who technically were not superheroes. Hercules is there and he is one of the Greek gods and not a superhero in its purest sense. It seems that many of us played Hercules, too, and just like superheroes.

Here’s the thing that I want to wonder about that. Do we think about gods like superheroes? Hercules for the Greeks of Jesus’ time, believed in Hercules like a superhero. He would make daring rescues of people in trouble. He would fight the bad guys and win. I sometimes think we think about our God that way, too.

But in Jesus we see someone different. We have in recent times developed a belief system that makes Jesus an untouchable God, a superhero that always wins, but we have also dramatized and sanctified what is the most important thing he did, which was to die on the cross. We have made the suffering of execution a commendable sacrifice, a gift rather than a horrific suffering and death. Deprived, alienated and ridiculed he died a human death. He suffered like us. He was not a superhero who always wins. The stories about Jesus are very different than the ones about Hercules or Superman or any of the superheroes. We need to keep that in mind, because it’s possible that Jesus reveals a different kind of God than we tend to think about, a God who rescues us in different ways than the superheroes and one of those ways is the topic for today. That of healing. What is this healing that is different?

Healing has always been bound up with religion. Even with modern medicine, which is largely a secular affair, I suspect many alternative health theories are attempts to find a more wholistic understanding and often people of faith will make prayer a part of their efforts to receive healing. But I’d like to keep in mind our beginning this morning: when we pray for healing is it for a superhero sort of rescue from our sickness? Or do we in Jesus see a different sort of God and a different sort of path to healing.

Just as Mark uses scripture to shape up his messiah so we use our resources to paint the workable picture beyond superhero and Geek God. The myth of Jesus and the cross and resurrection shows us a God who is fundamentally different from the superhero versions of gods. Superheroes always win the day. They always save us from our situations of suffering. And they especially never ask for help. It’s pretty hard to think of a time when Superman needed the help of the person he or she was saving? They wouldn’t be super if they needed the help of the rescued. With the God of Jesus Christ, that isn’t quite the case. Yes, he was an amazing healer. Some of his healing miracles are so startling that we may be tempted to think of him in terms of a superhero. But in Mark’s story of Jesus, after a fantastic start as a healer, Jesus starts talking a lot about healing. And the disciples he has called seem to want to see him as a superhero. So, when in the middle of Mark’s story, Jesus speaks numerous times about the Son of Man undergoing suffering and death, and then in three days rise from the dead, they simply couldn’t hear him. They couldn’t imagine that sort of fate for their superhero or they felt the resistance to see Jesus as superhero.

And what’s even more challenging is that Jesus started talking about his followers picking up their crosses and suffering, too. Jesus wasn’t coming to rescue them from all suffering after all. In fact, in some respects, he was coming to lead them into more suffering. What was this all about? Well, we aren’t going to be able to answer all our questions here and now, or solve all the mysteries about the healing we receive from the God of Jesus. But we can take a few moments to introduce some themes about healing that we see in the sacrament of baptism, both through John’s baptism of Jesus that we remember today, but also in our subsequent practice of it that we share each time we participate in a baptism. Paul J. Nuechterlein has three points as a reflection on healing that we might find helpful.

One, is his bottom line: It is that God’s Spirit of love in Jesus Christ is a different power than the one we humans usually look for in our gods or superheroes. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” says God’s voice to Jesus. It is the same powerful spirit of love that we are all baptized with., We know about this love, as something that nurtures the best in us. The struggle we have is that for us it gets mixed in with the power that tries to force things. In following Jesus, we see and know this Spirit of love as a power that never uses force and always makes room for freedom. Here we have an important clue to explaining the mystery of suffering, not all of it but because this kind of love allows the freedom to use the power of force instead of the power of love. It thrives on the ambiguity established by its acceptance of force and it is clarified by that action as well. No force, no suffering it seems. We rely so much on the power of force that we hardly recognize love as a more important power. the truest power if you like. Even John begins his Gospel by restating the first several verses of Genesis, so that the reader will know that this power we see and experience in Jesus, the word made flesh, is the power behind life itself.

To number two now: in baptism we see not just a cleansing, a washing, but also drowning, a dying and rising, a suffering of a loss that leads to gain. Nuechterlein sees this as the death we always need to undergo to see our reliance on the power of the superheroes, a superior firepower that’s stronger than the other guy’s power of force. He suggests that faith or reliance on the power of force is so ingrained in us that we need to suffer it as loss. And Jesus teaches his followers that we will always find his powerful Spirit of love residing with those who lose out to the powers of force. When human beings rely on a politics of the powers of force, there are always losers. And Jesus himself took his place with those losers on the cross, in order that we might see the true power of love behind life itself. So, our standing with those who suffer, those who are losers to this world’s kind of power, brings a dying and rising to new life, a participating in the real power of God’s love.

No to point number three: Baptism, the promise of God’s powerful love for our lives, doesn’t create or rely on superheroes in any usual sense. Jesus himself submits to the baptism of John along with others; he doesn’t exceptionalize himself. In fact, as we just said, Jesus took and takes his place with the losers to this world’s power. You and I, as followers of Jesus, appear more as anti-superheroes, the opposite of superheroes. It is normal, everyday people of faith that Jesus needs to help bring healing to this the world he cherishes.

Brian McLaren, in a recent essay, tells this story about his home congregation, a church not unlike, St David’s. He writes: Under the guise of “ministry as usual,” positive things are afoot. I feel it. I believe it. I felt it a few weeks ago in my home church on a typical Sunday. The music was good, as usual, and the sermon was thought-provoking and inspiring, as usual. The prayers were solid and meaningful, as usual, and the people were warm and welcoming, as usual. What stood out for me was the family seated next to me, a dad, a mom, a daughter, and a son whom I didn’t recognize. Based on the boy’s movements and the attentions given him by his mother and sister, the son seemed to have some form of autism, maybe Asperger’s syndrome.

His foot and leg were bouncing almost constantly, calming only momentarily when his mother gently touched his knee, which she did every five or ten minutes. Before and after communion, he crossed himself repeatedly. He sang with more enthusiasm than musical ability, but if one must choose, enthusiasm’s the one to have

The moment that really touched me says McLaren, came at the offering. He didn’t have money, but when I handed him the basket, he bowed toward it. At first, I thought he was reverencing the basket as if it were an icon or some other holy thing. But then he leaned forward even more, placing the basket on his knees and nearly touching his forehead into the checks, bills, and envelopes inside. His family didn’t intervene, as if this were his normal routine. Then he sat up again and handed the basket to his mother.

Suddenly, it dawned upon me: he was putting himself in the offering basket, diving in head-first, if you will. And this must be what he does every week, his own self-made ritual. And at that moment, I was awash in a baptism of grace. Yes, there are many things in our churches that are easy targets for criticism. Yes, some of our churches and some of our Christianities are part of the problem. But be careful, as the old parable says (Matthew 13:24-30): if you try to pull up all the weeds, you’ll dislodge some of the wheat too . . . the tender shoots of faith and devotion growing up in truly important people like that special boy.

McLaren, who speaks to Christians all around the world concludes: “I feel it week after week, speaking in congregations across the country that include people so sincere and bright and ready to go that you can’t care how many or few they are, how rich or poor, how old or young, or how influential or marginal. You just know that people like this have what our world needs, that they’re part of the solution. You know that their spark is going to catch fire and spread, and that what is in them — faith, hope, love, wisdom, humility — can heal what ails us, and will heal it, as long as they don’t lose heart.”

So, people of St David’s, let us not lose heart, let us rather, leave here with the healing that this hurting world needs. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein Sermon Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI, January 8, 20121. Brian McLaren, “The Church and the Solution,” an essay at

Lorraine Parkinson, “Made on Earth’ How gospel writers created the Christ Spectrum Publications 2015


‘Don’t Be Scared Of Life’

Posted: December 27, 2017 in Uncategorized


Christmas 1B, 2017
Luke 2:22-40

‘Don’t Be Scared Of Life’

I want to tell you a few stories and poems today. I hope they might be metaphors of our lives, past, present and future and seeds of hope into the future. There is a theme I hope that builds on the Christmas message that brings hope and richness to the human species followed by the recent past we people of St David’s have experienced and finally a call to love rather than fear the realities of life.

The first is a poem called “Each Birth a Revolution” By Sitar Situmorang.

Each birth is a revolution
whether it happened a thousand years ago
or takes place today,
with each birth the world becomes new.

Some are born in a cottage, some in a field,
but wherever a child is born,
in its eyes the world is reflected,
in its cries – Christ is present.

Christ the son of man
was born to renew the world
like every child in the mother’s womb
is granted by the Lord at its time.

The second is another poem, this time by Thomas Troeger called ‘Under reconstruction’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several years back now we here at St David’s began to take the biggest risk in our congregational life. We began to respond to the call as a congregation to change, to allow ourselves the opportunity to bear pain and to see what might be possible for a church of tomorrow. We began to move forward together’ risking the way of Jesus. We began to ask how to be a people doing ministry and mission in the new millennium, and doing it differently. This was risky not because it was in any way a brave step but because we could not envisage any other option. Our risk taking was tinged with all those fears of survival, change, unknown future and uncomfortable risky stuff. We in our particular historical context were born when change was far from a good thing yet deep down we knew it was necessary and we justified our thinking by hearing in our minds all those sayings. “Change is when life refuses to be embalmed alive.” Alfred North Whitehead. “The main thing in life is not to be afraid to be human.” Pablo Casals and “We have a technical name for people who do not change: ——— dead.” Thomas Troeger

We knew and we know that for church to be church, for faith to be faith; it cannot be just more of the same regardless of how painful and unsettling it will be. We also knew like Thomas Hawkins who in his book The Learning Congregation compared the experience of life in both church and community with that of rafting in a permanent white-water situation. ‘Unlike rivers” he said: “we may have travelled in the past, where the occasional experience of white-water is followed by patches of relative calm water, but we are now navigating through an almost perpetual stretch of turbulent white-water.’  (Hawkins 1997)

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

Like good Christians and especially good Presbyterians we look to the books of the bible for help in facing this journey. We are reminded that not all people do this. Not all people have this privilege and many don’t see it as a privilege. It’s no wonder really because the books are filled with people’s previous struggles and their mistakes as well. Many turn the books into rules and regulations to avoid the problems of literalism and miss the meaning also. But many of us value them because they are stories and metaphor of others who have walked the path we take and we know just how valuable it is to know what others before us have done with the questions of life.

Another important issue we have to note is that the biblical tradition is rich with stories of God calling individuals and nations to change – to be in a new and different place. People are called to embrace change, not only in location, but also in attitude and behaviour. Just some of those are God’s call to Abraham and Sarah. “Leave your native land, your relatives and your father’s home and go to the country that I am going to show you”. Moses and the Hebrew people called to leave Egypt and journey to the promised land of Canaan… Jacob’s wrestling with God who gave him a new name and self-understanding. Jacob the ’deceiver’ becomes ‘Israel’: ‘he who struggles with God’… Israel’s 50-year exile in Babylon before returning to Jerusalem… The call of the disciples Simon, Andrew, James and John who left their nets and followed Jesus… Saul’s Damascus road experience that gave him a new name and self-understanding… Peter’s vision at Joppa that changed his attitude to the Gentiles, and opened the way for their inclusion into early Christianities…

Here we need to be careful because learning from the past is not about accepting it as better than today. Its not about allowing nostalgia to take over. Learning from the past is about critiquing it in the light of what we now know. Its about being reminded of where we’ve come from these past (whatever number of) years. Its about maintaining an openness to possibilities that have never occurred in the culture of this place; and as a way of introduction to another time of change… a time of reconstruction. Looking back is not just about preserving the old but also about critiquing it in the light of the present, learning from it so that we can be in new and different places, and live in perpetual, turbulent, white-water conditions… Knowing how others have wrestled with the questions of life calls us to be alert and responsive, as we seek to share in the reconstruction of the present as an environment friendly to the imagination… Perhaps a very good new years resolution might be to be alert for the opportunity to be part of the reconstruction.

We look again at the stories in the bible and we see examples of being under reconstruction… And we see how the vision of reconstruction energized people. We see stories that reveal a new year imagination, an imagination revealing possibilities within us
far greater than our local, conventional experiences allow. We see that under reconstruction… is a vision that can energize people – today. But there is a catch to this. The vision is about seeing life as a journey of constant change, constant opportunity, constant reconstruction of the past into something new and all this is only of value when we continue to own the five very special words. “Don’t be scared of life”.

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

An Advent Mary…

Posted: December 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 4B, 2017
Luke 1:26-38

An Advent Mary…

Today is the fourth and final Sunday in the church season we call Advent. And for us the completion of the theme that claims that being religious does not have to rely on a supernatural approach to faith. The mystery we seek to name, define and concretize does not have to rely on a supernatural understanding let alone a superstitious approach. We have even explored how this mystery that we name God or seek to define is very much found in and engaged in through the ordinary. In the spirit of the storyteller we call Mark, we have considered the invitation to ‘stay alert’ to the present-ness of the sacred or God, in the ordinary. We have continually suggested that the ‘good news’ of Advent is to become more aware of, more sensitive to, the God-given moments of grace in us and in our ordinary daily events. Why?  Otherwise we may miss what actually is.

And so once again the hands of those who shaped our Advent lectionary, can be seen in yet another clue: a young woman whom we call Mary. Bishop Jack Spong in his Weekly Letter some time back, said of Mary: “As the Christmas season arrives, the icon of the Virgin Mary enters the consciousness of the Christian world in a significant way.  She is universally recognized with her eyes lowered, the infant Jesus in her arms, and located in a stable… (This) Madonna and child have provided the content for many artists over the centuries” (Spong 15/12,/2005).

Yes, we can dwell on the differences between how Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have dealt with Mary. But in the end, they are both attempts to make Mary real and human. The Roman approach can be said to err on the side of the symbolic and get caught up in the process of deification and the Protestant approach can be said to err on the side of the ordinary and become obsessed with refuting the need for deification and lose the opportunity to value the ordinary as other than non-deist. As we said the other week there is a need to hold the symbolic and the ordinary together in a living partnership.

Today we join Luke the storyteller as he weaves his way through the announcement of John the Baptist’s conception (and Elizabeth’s recognition of what God has done for her), through the annunciation of a virgin birth, and on to Mary’s interpretation of what is happening to her, in the Magnificat.

There are, of course, significant differences between the two stories we have. From the settings to the characters to the way the story goes, each account takes its own path to that doorstep, with everyone together, and Mary singing her song of jubilant faith. Whether in Temple or dusty little village, with elderly parents-to-be surprised by joy or a young maiden facing an unexpected and dangerous pregnancy, the story speaks of hope and promise, renewal at the same time as it speaks of unprecedented change social alienation and familial struggle. This invites the hearer to wrestle with the relationship between God and humanity, between pain and joy, between the symbolic and the ordinary. And the answer is to trust in a God at work in their lives in very surprising ways. Put the symbolic and the ordinary together for it is there, that Mystery, or God is found.

Here is also the claim that God is at work on the margins. While Luke describes Zechariah and Elizabeth in glowing terms (“righteous…living blamelessly”), Mary is simply ‘a young woman’. Greeted by an angel of God as “full of grace,” as “favoured one,” Mary is nevertheless not described as extraordinarily holy; in fact, she is an ordinary person like each of us. She’s a small-town girl, with her life moving along the quiet, ordinary path of an arranged marriage. And then the ordinary meets the holy or the sacred or what I am calling ‘The symbolic’.

Here is where the works of wonder take place. In every place, at the centers of power and in distant corners, “on the margins.” Here is where “the extraordinary” happens; everywhere, including “out-of-the-way places” where people live supposedly “unassuming lives” But it’s especially compelling at this point to think of the story of Mary in that little village, far from the Temple, the center of worship and life for her people and their long story with God, and even farther away from Rome, the center of the “known world” of the time, the center of the Empire that kept its cruel heel upon those same people, the people of God.

The next point is that being an “ordinary” girl in a small village brings us a Mary who is somewhat different from the traditional Mary who is meek and mild, essentially perfect, and here we have the suggestion that she is “more fearless and less humble”. When that angel appears before Mary, talking about God being with her and then assuming that she’s afraid, we note that she has a right to be a bit perplexed (who wouldn’t be?): “Give the girl a chance Gabriel! Her question is not an expression of doubt but an effort to understand the extraordinary words of the angel” (New Proclamation Year B 2005). She is not passive about what is happening for her. And we can understand that. Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to process such information from an unexpected and even uninvited visitor? We read familiar and beloved story (especially to artists), even though it perplexes us, as well. The dialogue is limited, and we never really know for sure what Mary is thinking or feeling, at least until she sings her song of joy at Elizabeth’s house.

The next question that is raised by the story is about the nature of a blessing. What is a blessing? This question is highlighted by the commentators who wrestle with the question of Mary’s acceptance–or was it surrender? And what is Mary accepting: is it an invitation, a request, or simply information about what’s going to happen to her, and is it a good thing that’s about to happen? In a sermon on this text, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, “The angel did not ask her how that sounded to her and whether she would like to try out for the role; he told her” (Gospel Medicine).

Gabriel twice recognizes her as “favoured,” but then offers what R. Alan Culpepper calls “a strange blessing.” We thank God for our blessings, although many believe, he says, that those blessings are “the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet here we have Mary, God’s favoured one, being blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Here is the probability that acceptability, prosperity, and comfort and all things nice have never been the essence of God’s blessing” (Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible).

Many people might be taken aback, even offended, by Culpepper’s words, as we often hear people say, “I’ve been blessed” when they want to express their gratitude to God for the “good things” of life. Culpepper’s claim directly contradicts prosperity theology, but then, so does Mary’s life, rich in what is “strange” blessings.

The next question that arises is what is God doing here. In both of these stories from Luke of conception and promise, the focus is really all about God and what God is doing. John like all good prophets, will call the people to repentance in order to ready themselves for what God is about to do, and to prepare the way for the One who is to come. And Jesus, Gabriel says, will be not just a great man but the Son of the Most-High God.

Is this the good news we are waiting for? Is it about how God is doing such wonderful and seemingly impossible things here in this story about Mary and an angel’s astonishing announcement. Here we note that the story is introducing another deist concept. The story moves from ” Request,” or “Invitation,” to “The Annunciation.” And we traditionally leap to the idea that God could have chosen to save the world, to fulfill God’s promises of old all on God’s own; after all, nothing is impossible with God. But is that the right leap? What if this humble but earth-shaking conversation tells us that God wants humanity to be part of the effort, even if it makes things much more complicated and even difficult (which it does): As Brian K. Peterson writes, “God apparently is not willing to do this behind our backs or without our own participation” (New Proclamation Year B 2008). The sacred takes place in and through the ordinary, and this is what, in some mysterious way, makes Mary’s story our own, and it is our story, our ordinariness that makes her story something we can understand much better.

Here again we have God’s mysterious ways. In this quietly marvelous story, we find intersection between Mary’s life and our own, for in each person’s life, “God takes part in the unfolding of human existence from before the moment of conception.” This is a staggering thought, not because of the before the moment of conception issue but because of the co-created-ness of our living. The ordinary in sync with the symbolic. The imagination in sync with reality. And here’s the challenge. The fact that we need this story suggests that this task of unifying is not easy. We are not always so keenly aware–or perhaps accepting–of God’s hand at work in our lives; we need to stay alert because we foolishly think we will lose our individuality or our sense of who we are if we admit to our interdependence. It is as if we are afraid of vulnerability (or invulnerability). Maybe our experience of more or less agency and/or powerlessness in our lives makes us feel afraid of being in sync. On the plus side pastoral care is enriched by the insight, that, like Mary, we need “time to adjust to astonishing news, to question whether or not trials and tragedies, or God’s magnificent promises, are for real, and to contemplate potential repercussions. The query ‘How can this be?’ is a reverberating refrain that shapes our faith by reminding us…how much we have yet to discover. But maybe the exclamation of these words might signify the nearness of God”. “How can this be” as a question demands the nearness of God. Otherwise why ask the question at all? In hospital waiting rooms, at the bedside of the dying, or in hearing a good report from the doctor, in a hundred different settings of human life where we are especially aware of “the nearness of God,” these words express our conviction that God is involved in our lives in ways that are mysterious indeed, just as God’s ways were mysterious to Mary that day and every day that followed.

Barbara Brown Taylor, addresses with great insight the question of Mary’s “choice,” her freedom to respond in this most unusual situation, and our freedom as well. Taylor has said that the angel announced the impending birth and didn’t ask Mary for her assent, but there is a choice for Mary, “whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or whether to defend herself against it however she could.” We have a similar choice between possibilities in our own lives, Taylor says, to say “yes or no: yes, I will live this life that is being held out to me or no, I will not….” is our choice. We can say no to our life, Taylor says, “but we can rest assured that no angels will trouble us ever again.” And then she takes a bold turn that calls for courage on our part, if we say yes to our lives: “We can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. We can put the symbolic and the ordinary together, We can see God as existing in every human life, co-creating the universe. We can honour the mind both conscious and non-conscious, We can live the questions and keep alive the possible and we can bring the sacred and the ordinary together as an adventure of humanity. And as the Mary story says We can agree to smuggle God into the world inside our own body” We can become “Mothers of God” by asking ourselves how are we bearing God in this world?

Luke might have believed that a supernatural virgin birth or virgin conception was required but his story also says that, it should never be used as a disqualification of Mary’s humanity or womanhood, or for that matter, Jesus’ humanity or manhood. Amen.

Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. The First Christmas. What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Birth. New York. HarperOne, 2007.
Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Ludemann, G. Virgin Birth? The Real Story of Mary and her Son Jesus. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 1998.
Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Preston. Mosaic Press 2013; Morning Star Publishing, 2014


Advent 3B, 2017
John 1: 6-8, 19-23

John: A Man of The Ordinary and The Symbolic…

Because Mark’s gospel is seen by several scholars as being the most confrontational and to contain a number of questions for the readers such as who they stand with, what they believe in and how they will act. This makes it worthy of much study but since it is such a short gospel, the church throughout Year B in the Lectionary (the church year we are now in) often borrows from John’s gospel – similarly aggressive and sure in its tone – however not about the Jesus of history, but rather about the Christ of faith. And that is a very big difference that we can’t take lightly.

Whereas Mark’s writing was the earliest gospel to be written, it tends to be sharp, to the point, in its talk about Jesus and his teachings… John’s writing on the other hand, comes after many years of deep theological reflection. The sentences are longer and the images more contrived. And the ‘cosmic’ post-Easter Christ rather than the ‘earthy’ pre-Easter Jesus, seems all important to him. That is a really different theology!

Why mention this? Well; because just when we were starting to get into the swing of Mark’s stuff in this new church year, we now leave all that behind. We won’t have another reading/story from Mark until early January. This adds a level of complexity to the theme for the year alongside what is already far from simple with the complex claims for advent as it is.

John the baptizer, comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. Indeed, his voice is so dominate this young local bloke is regarded by many as a ‘prophet of doom’. Still, the people of his day seem to take hold of what he has to say. And as you will remember from last week’s story from Mark, they go out to listen to him. Even Jesus was there, and despite the fear filled approach John takes people and by people we mean, the poor, the powerless ones, those on the edges of society and they hear something in John’s message which we might call ‘hope’.

This reminds us that theirs was a situation that needed a word of ‘hope’. Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent. And life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. That’s the historic setting as well we know it and on top of that we have the story teller John’s world where it seems there is some strife within the early Jesus movements
over the place and importance of John the baptizer.

Some were arguing that John the baptizer had a religious insight not unlike that of Jesus of Nazareth. So, for them he was as important as Jesus.  And they claimed that his thinking should be given more attention. John the storyteller despite this controversy gives him a major reference. And like most church debates we can imagine that they became a bit heated at times. Some scholars reflecting on these debates have suggested Jesus started out as a follower or disciple of John. But, they conclude, John was seen by Jesus as too much of an alarmist. So, he, Jesus, left when he chose to follow a different dream.

It is poet and theologian John Shea who, by the way, captures this feeling well in his poem about John: The Man who was a Lamp. “John expected an axe to the root of the tree and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it. He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire and along came a singing seed scatterer. He welcomed wrathful verdicts, then found a bridegroom on the bench.”  (Shea 1993:177)

It seems John was a man of passionate devotion to the honour of God. He was a person of forceful words and not easily pigeonholed. He was a person who attempted to address people’s fear in living by using what we would suggest risks credibility in his use of language. This we think might contribute to the difference between him and Jesus. Fear as both environment and motivation for change as opposed to fear as environment that is transformed by love.

We might dwell a little on the use of language and its influence be it forceful or meek language. Our experience is that God-talk is often arrogant or seems to be and one thought is that it is often seen this way because it has set itself the task of trying to be the most comprehensive, mind-bending, language -stretching venture we can undertake. We are reminded of Gordon Kaufman’s observation that ‘God’ is the symbol we use as ‘the ultimate point of reference for understanding everything, every value, every experience, every desire, every act of imagination.’ Another way of saying’ the attempt to talk about the un-talk-about-able.’ God language is an attempt to encounter and engage the ultimate Mystery of Life, so it is bound to be inadequate, mind boggling, or paradoxical.

In our world today, theism based language stands out as out of touch, dated and sometimes irrelevant because it is bound up with a personified God as opposed to divinity as being expressed most fully in the lives of loving human persons. When there is a meeting of the ordinary and the symbolic there is a fully developed human consciousness of eternity and of love in all its dimensions that opens us up to face the realities of life and death, eating, drinking and being merry, both because tomorrow we die and because today we are alive.

In most ways the world of John and of Jesus is far from our 21st century world. And this needs to be acknowledged and taken into account every time we turn to the biblical stories, and especially during Advent.

Firstly, we do not live in a theocracy, despite the desires of the Religious Right. We do not have a country run by priests and bishops. In fact, things religious are symbolic only and this is why we can change the words of state prayers. This means that in the time of the storytellers, God was perceived as directly involved in the personal and especially the social affairs of the people. Today, in NZ at least, religion is not so pervasive. For most of us religion simply stands side by side with other factors of life… Sunday might still hold some sort of theocratic value as a worship day but that is slowly changing.

Secondly, the ordinary person’s concern today is about coping with life.  Making ends meet. Striving to create some small window of time out from just coping. The millions of dollars spent on lotto tickets and games of chance indicate this striving. God is not immediate to us unless there is some want or need, or tragedy interrupts. Even the symbolic struggles as indicated by the prolific use of the sign of amazement on people’s lips OMG! Is no longer an expression of the nearness of God as opposed to a meaningless expression of surprise. The constant consciousness of God is gone. And God is no longer in the language of our greetings and partings. To hear ‘God bless New Zealand is at best tied to the symbolic use of a National anthem but would be totally strange to our ears in common language.

Thirdly, there is a tendency in our times to relate to religion as magic or superstition. This is especially true when it comes to the unexplainable or uncomfortable… Sickness. Death. Family breakup. Natural disaster, all as a result of some sort of God that plays with reality as if it is subject to whim or design or plan.

Finally, for many, religion is looked upon for its practical ‘DIY’ value. If it can’t make me feel better or be more in control of my life then it has little use. Sure, religion is seen as useful for living an orderly and sometimes, peaceful life. But when it ceases to be practical, it can be discarded.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent and our Lectionary readings have been shaped in such a way as to confront us with a bloke called John. And he is no doubt a bit strange… John Shea in his poem goes on to say of him: “a map of a man…  Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion… (John Shea 1993:175)

A bloke called John.  An ordinary bloke. A bloke who relates best to other ordinary people. But while it appears his voice is loud and his manner rough, even though his message comes in frightening language it is still essentially heard as one of hope:

In John’s world God wants to do great things – with ordinary people. For it is in the ordinary that we can sense the present-ness of God. In the ordinary… like the love-making songs of the birds and insects, in the ordinary… In the daily red orange glaze of a setting sun or the rising glow of the morning moon. In the ordinary… like a rough diamond called John the ‘baptizer’.

Today, this third Sunday in Advent, let us remember that the creativity and wisdom we call ‘God’ still encourages and awakens and persuades, so great things can be achieved through ordinary people like us. Not because of a theistic God decides this but because we understand that our sacred eternity, our spirituality, our religion is a creative consummate art form that celebrates human values, especially those we know as myriad contingent relationships.

If you want to name this day with an advent word it would be a word of hope! The hope that motivates language and the hope that is found in the unity of the symbolic and the ordinary. In Ken Wilber’s the mystic’s words John and Jesus were riding the edge of a light beam racing toward the rendezvous with God. I like that as a theme for the hope of advent, a life filled with the risk of the possible, moving toward enlightenment and the union of the ordinary and the symbolic, or God if you need a word. Amen.

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

Carl L Jech, Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs EU Oregon; Resource Publications.

Website, R A. E. Hunt.


Ordinary or Symbolic or Both?

Posted: December 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 2B, 2017
Mark 1:1-8

Ordinary or Symbolic or Both?

Today we continue our journey into the season of Advent. The season which began last Sunday with our revisiting of the message that the second coming was a metaphor for God being already here and today we continue that theme with a look for the ordinary and the symbolic as a common sign of incarnation. Advent is symbolic and a revelation of God’s presence in humanity and it is why we structure our church year to remind ourselves that we live the story all the time. We here in the southern hemisphere still wrestle with the northern hemisphere flavour of Christmas and with its ancient cosmology and seasonal irrelevance, yet we have started on this short journey of waiting, preparing, seeing, understanding. We also note that this new church year lectionary did not start with a celebration of something that had happened. Such as stories of a birth or a resurrection. Instead it started with a strange ordinariness – even emptiness. What is to come is more important, different so stay alert.

Last week we also showed how the designers of the Lectionary delved their way into the collection of stories by the storyteller we call Mark. And there they found, and grabbed, a certain kind of story. A story often regarded by many interpreters as an apocalyptic warning about the end times. And they dropped this so-called end times story right at the beginning of the season and the year. Stay awake!  Keep alert! Why did they do this? Well! One could say that theologically, it is due to the fact many scholars and church leaders claim Jesus was an apocalyptic thinker. I among many others do not accept this anymore. Maybe his life can now be seen to be a revelation but then he did not fit the same role that is given John the Baptist.

Rex Hunt suggests that story-wise we need to be careful not to miss what actually is a message about the signs of God’s presence and God’s present-ness. The signs of an incognito God in the midst of ordinary events. The other reason for not accepting the lectionary assumption is that we might miss the storyteller Mark’s line of thought:
we might miss the importance of the ending of his story, because the beginning clues become locked into our brain literalized and personalized.

Two of the storyteller’s early clues that support this approach are that we have a human messiah, and a bloke called John. From what we know we can figure out that the storyteller we call Mark, writing some 40 years at least after Jesus, and after the fall of Jerusalem, saw that Jesus was indeed ‘messiah’, even a political messiah, but not a nationalistic zealot messiah. With this we can see that the hope for a Jewish human messiah was given new impetus around the time of Jesus’ birth. Not because of his birth, but because of the death of one ruthless ruler, Herod the Great.

According to Ian Cairns, an old New Testament lecturer of mine, wrote that Mark’s vision of ‘messiah’ was about creating a commonwealth of people who were seeking “harmony with themselves, with the whole human species, and with the total social and natural environment.” (Cairns 2004:6) We note also that the storyteller’s use of the word ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ has about it the older Roman political sense of ‘victory in battle’, although later on it also becomes influenced by Greek sensibilities and tends to refer to life stories of heroic figures. So, says Cairns that; combining ‘messiah’ and ‘good news’ we can perhaps say: “Mark sees the Jesus story as laying the foundations for a new humanitarian attitude of people toward people, and of society towards its members.” (Cairns 2004:7)

Secondly, from all we do and do not know (which sometimes is not much), John the baptizer, simply appears as having had spent some 14 years in the desert wilderness and when he emerged, he came as a somewhat wild, austere man, dressed in animal skins, and eating kosher locusts, which he washed down with gulps of wild honey. For many people, including our storyteller Mark and the latter one called Luke, John was a prophet.  Indeed, not just any ordinary prophet, but the ‘reincarnation’ of the prophet Elijah. Teasing this out a bit, John Shelby Spong says this about Mark’s John: “When [Mark] introduces John the Baptist for the first time it is clear that John has already been interpreted as the Old Testament figure of Elijah, who in the expectations of the Jews had to precede the coming of the messiah.  John is clothed… in the raiment of Elijah, camel’s hair and a girdle around his waist.  He is placed in the desert where Elijah was said to dwell.  He was given the diet of locusts and wild honey that the Hebrew Scriptures said was the diet that Elijah ate.” (John S Spong Newsletter, 1/4/2010).

For us, John is primarily remembered for his ‘baptisms’, and for his preaching – repentance’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’. But not, it is important to note not, ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ as modern-day fundamentalists claim. Ian Cairns is helpful here, when he writes: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins means inviting the hearers-readers to make tangible if symbolic expression of their willingness to embrace a new way of looking at things, and commit themselves to a new vision of ‘commonwealth’…” (Cairns 2004:9)

So, in understanding how Mark views John’s role in all this, we need to hear and understand just how important the prophets and the desert wilderness was in Israel’s foundational stories. One suggestion is that the desert wilderness was the place, in the time of Moses, where the Israelites believed they had met God, so it was the place where they learned about their role as a holy people. It was also a divine message to a people. Another is that the desert wilderness was a place of testing. A place of preparation.  A place of vulnerability where a person was stripped of all pretensions and found out for what he or she was really like. Another was that the desert wilderness was a place of appalling danger and deprivation. All these suggestions are claims that wilderness is where one meets God, the meeting with God is always a challenge of some sort and this meeting with God is one where one is exposed for who they are. All requirements of life. All requirements of divine encounter.

So, the storyteller Mark links his John to the Jewish past, and not just any past as it was an important past and it was so that he is also seen to be a present-day forerunner of the future. In Bishop John Shelby Spong’s book, Liberating the Gospels, he writes:
“John was thus created or, perhaps more accurately, shaped to be the Elijah type messenger and forerunner.  John became the life that the Christians believed was foretold (in the Hebrew scriptures).”  (Spong 1996:195) But, our storyteller Mark has something else in mind as well. He is not claiming that John is mere prophet he is a prophet with a difference. He is concerned about contributing to the future in that while everything that he says about John seems to bolster John’s status as a prophet.
And, therefore, his honour.

So, when Mark has John say: ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…’ we can also hear John’s concern to honour the difference in status he believes he has from the one to follow. He says; ‘This someone who is more powerful, more-worthy, deserves our honour more than I do.’ Here he is saying that the one who follows will be different and more recognizable in the lives of the people.

So, in the hands of Mark, storyteller; John the baptizer is both a prophet in his own right, and one who becomes the precursor to Jesus, another more honourable prophet. In linking John and Jesus Ian Cairns’ is again helpful. He says; “Just as John’s baptism symbolized the willingness to commit oneself to the vision of ‘commonwealth’, so Jesus by his teaching and example, and by the inspiring impact of his personality, will make available the dynamic required for commitment… For Mark and his community, the ministry of Jesus makes this enduring dynamic accessible is a new way.” (Cairns 2004:10) ‘Follow me for I will make you fishers of men”.

So, what might this say about Advent this year? Well I think we might say what we inferred last week; It is a time to stay awake, stay alert, look for the clues of this incognito, community-building God who is all around you. And look within oneself, the relationships we have, the everyday events that make up our daily lives. Today we might say as well that advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic as we re-imagine the world. Here we have the point of difference. The ordinary and the symbolic are held together as a new way. It is when we cherish and honour this understanding of intimacy with the divine that we contribute to the future. It is when we discover the God-given moments in our ordinary daily events: in the clacking and screeching sounds of two branches knocking and rubbing together in the wind, … in the realisation that rain is not a singular thing but also made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing… in the flares of a friend’s passion to shape justice with a new vision of ‘commonwealth’… that we participate in advent moments as sacred moments. It is our sensing of the present-ness of God in the ordinary and the symbolic.

And why this place for the symbolic? Well this is a bit more complex but only because of our recent Christian history. Perhaps as example we might look at our current struggles with what to do with our church buildings. What we hear as heritage are questions of “who built it, what with?” What was it called? And nostalgia for a past that is no longer touchable becomes a reason for concern. My great grandmother was married in it is a common theme used to justify keeping the building at all costs. I happen to think that Heritage is more than just symbolic in a Christian sense because it says something more than all that. I found Carl L Jech helpful in this in his book, Religion as Art Form, where he brings together humanities and art by quoting Karen Armstrong’s observations. She wrote that “human beings are spiritual animals…. They created religions at the same time as they created works of art.” She went on …. “in an important sense, God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring”. She said ‘It should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty, the cause of our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion. This says to me that church buildings are symbolic but are they practical or are they both? We know It is their use that gives them Heritage value not just the bricks and mortar yet we are bullied into silence on this because the symbolic overrides the ordinary. Church is not just about buildings, it is rather about how people bring together the ordinary and the symbolic. The defining factor is that a Church building exists for the wholistic wellbeing of people. Perhaps like the old roles of Cathedrals being both market place and spiritual and physical sanctuary.

This suggests that the difference between religion as art form and other forms of art is in the degree to which it is practical and intends to affect our morality, our ethical behaviour. A heritage concern for a church building is not about the building itself but rather its symbolic intent and its contribution to moral and ethical behaviour. A heritage architect the other day allude to this when she said the material condition of our church building is not the concern of heritage architecture it is rather the historic value it originally brought and brings to the present and the future. It also suggests that the reason the original architect had for designing a church building is not important unless it is used for moral and ethical concerns. Yes, it can meet the symbolic concerns but unless it is an active church it cannot be practical and thus speak to the world. In other words, perhaps, the heritage value of our church buildings is their continued use in the interest of moral and ethical outcomes. This is not an argument that an artist’s creation cannot be indifferent to their work because they are free to do so but it is about what heritage value a building has when its use is for the work of moral and ethical enhancement. A church building is a church building and no other and this is what makes it not just a building. Ordinary and symbolic if you like, and both, at the same time.

The task for us is not to take sides on either the ordinary or the symbolic but to see the moral and the ethical concerns as ordinary day to day concerns, the symbolic use of language, material and religious concern as art for and integrated; our particular desert wilderness is what to do with our buildings and our John the Baptist is suggesting we need to focus on our point of difference as religious people and our Mark is suggesting that as followers of Jesus we need to heed this as symbolic and thus an invitation to be creative and imaginative in the interests of people. Why? Because God language is always metaphorical and mythic. It may not be empirically true, it may defy the laws of logic, but a good myth will tell us something valuable about the human predicament.

And like any work of art, a myth will make no sense unless we open ourselves to it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us. Karen Armstrong also says that “the truths of religion require the disciplined cultivation of a different mode of consciousness. Christians are called out to move beyond the norm in more ways than one. Be alert, stay awake and see the alternative approach and if you have to have a direction may it be between the popular, the status quo, the obvious, and primarily focused on the enhancement of ethical and moral behaviour. It is important to understand what you value but putting them into practice is the call to difference. Yes, it is fraught with all sorts of questions brought by pluralism, sectarianism and buildings verses church arguments, and a popular understanding of heritage value as opposed to religious value but as John said; someone better is to come after me. So, may we have the wisdom to see and honour, understand and celebrate the ordinary, and the symbolic, this Advent! Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004
Spong, J. S. Liberating the Gospels. Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York. HarperCollins, 1996.

Jech, Carl L Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs, Eugene OR Wipf and Stock 2013