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Not Just Spiritual…

Posted: August 20, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 14B, 2018
Psalm 84, John 6: 60-69

Not Just Spiritual…

In the Celtic spiritual tradition, pilgrims often draw a circle around themselves before embarking on a journey. Initially standing still, the pilgrim points her finger outward, and then rotates in a clockwise direction until she completes the circle. During this circling today a contemporary ‘circling’ prayer is said. According to the Process theologian Bruce Epperly it goes like this…….

God protect me on this journey.
Surround me, whether I walk, drive, or fly.
Fill my heart and mind with surprising possibilities.
Remind me that I am always in the circle of your love.
Remind me this day, O Holy Adventure,
that your inspiration guides me in every situation.
Open my eyes to your presence in each meal,
as I turn on my computer,
as I start my car.
Awaken me to possibility and wonder.
Energise me to love and embrace all I meet.  

This practice of faith, the ‘caim’ or ‘encircling’, reminds the traveller that God surrounds him wherever he goes. “While [we] recognize that life is filled with risks and that faith cannot protect us from every threat, [we] also recognize that God is present as a force for wholeness and reconciliation in every situation” (Epperly 2005:80).

Today’s biblical stories, from the Psalms as reconstructed by Francis Macnab, and
from the gospel sermon-story by a bloke we call John, continue to reflect on God’s present-ness in the world, and in our lives.

When we read Francis Macnab, theologian and psychologist, in his presentation of Psalm 84, we see attempts to get into the mind and the experience of the writer
to see if he can discover or reasonable assume “what was bothering this philosopher of life, and what let him to say what he said” (Macnab 2006:ix).And this is what Macnab says he discovered: “I found [the writer] was emphatically and repetitively proclaiming a fairly revolutionary view of the world, creation, his beliefs about God, humanity, the human spirit and human potential. Again and again I found his psychology had long pre-empted our current psychological explorations and research on happiness, optimism, the positive human emotions, and the sense of awe and wonder” (Macnab 2006:ix).

He then says;

O God, from my place in the working world, and in the wide wilderness of life, I long for that sure sense of knowing what it is all about. I yearn for that experience of joy to come to my whole body and soul. I look for your presence as a pathway to life’s fullness (Macnab 2006). 

And then;

“Though we are often wounded and hurt in this fractured world, we discover that this world also has its source of healing. We are all enriched and our hearts are made stronger as we tap into that power that flows into us. The very sight of a spring of water arouses our anticipation of being refreshed and renewed. From all our external involvements, we hear the call of our inner spirits (Macnab 2006).

And finally Macnab says:

God – you stand in front of us when we fear the future. In our dark times you bring the sun to shine again. Out of our troubles you point us to the pathway of our best bliss. And as we receive: we are rich indeed! (Macnab 2006).

What do you think the Psalmist suggesting? Is it?

Experience the divine center in yourselves. In your bodies. In your actions. In your everyday lives? As a progressive Christian I want to agree with that.

But it’s a bit of a different situation when we come to John’s sermon-story. We’ve been wrestling with his concepts on and off for several weeks now. We’ve struggled with the language and the images. In and out of context, metaphorically and literally, communion and everyday meal, hospitality, compassion etc. And now, as a progressive Christian, I think we should challenge John, and reject his apparent denial of the ‘flesh’ or ‘body’ as useless. That has led us to horrific treatment of ourselves and each other as we separate spirit from body and reject the body as just a vessel for the real human. The spiritual and holy part as opposed to the mundane limited vessell.

With our understanding of biology, of language, of the mind and of science we can do better than John was able to. So, maybe we can support process theologian Bruce Epperly’s comments when he says:

“we need to redeem such passages for our time and place.  We can affirm that the spirit gives life, but the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’, it is also ‘embodied’ and ‘incarnational’ (Epperly/P&F web site-06).

This is not to say that John’s position on this hasn’t got a long history. But it is to say that just because it has such a long-standing case for understanding it doesn’t make it free from learnings and changes in understanding. We know that what we usually hear as history is often the winner’s reflection of debates and events but not necessarily the most accurate or even the most widely understood position. It is the popular or the view that enables control of the masses. It is usually the basis for an institutionalized view.

We now believe that the earliest views of people who followed Jesus did not have a single exportable view, in fact there were perhaps as many different Christianity’s as there were communities of Jesus followers. Paul’s letters allude to this as he seeks to export the Jesus Way to the gentile and to be understood is the Roman world. He is about the task of marketing the faith and it is easier to have a single product.

Some of John’s view dates back as a challenge to these early Christian communities, whose theology seemed to prevent them “from seeing Jesus as a God-infused human being (forcing) them rather to perceive him as a divine visitor who came from heaven” (Spong 2005:61). John wants to tell the real story from his point of view.

And some of John’s view has stuck around where as recent as the early 18th century when one, Charles Wesley, “penned his popular ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ which portrayed Jesus as not human at all, but one ‘veiled in flesh’…” (Spong 2005:61). The key thing here is to see that Wesley’s world and John’s world is dualistic. Our world is not. Or at least not as much because we question dualism as a limited approach to the complexities and ambiguities of life as we know it. It is a useful tool but not the only one and it is limited.

So, what do we do next? Well, perhaps a richer understanding comes with the mystics from the past, as well as from process theology in the present. We can pick up a panentheistic approach and say; God is in all things and all things are in God. Rather than God as supernatural miracle worker in the sky who can come (or choose not to come) to our aid in times of need.

As a progressive Christian I want to start with the former rather than the latter: God in all things and all things in God. But equally important for me is, we experience this Creativity we name ‘God’, routinely, quietly, mysteriously, and intimately, evolutionarily and creatively moving through life, our life. Epperly puts it as: “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being” (Epperly/P&F Web site-2005). While it may be easier to handle God as above, beyond and all powerful benefactor and judge it is not the view that Jesus had of God as his view was more akin to father, mother, lover, friend, partner, breath, bread, etc. much more of an incarnated spirit body dynamic.

Yes, we can affirm with John and Paul that the ‘spirit gives life’. It inspires personal creativity and transformation. It lures us to support the well-being of others. It challenges us to look beyond our own interests to an integration of our well-being and the well-being of the planet (Epperly, P&F web site 2006). But the life of the spirit is not just ‘spiritual’.
It is also ‘embodied’, even in the rough and tumble of our everyday world. This is clearly in the biblical stories but it is usually found in the less read pages of sacred text!

Another John, Bishop John Shelby Spong, has some wonderful words in his book, The Sins of Scripture. Where he says:

“I experience God as the source of life calling me to live fully and thus to respect life in every form as embodying the holy. I experience God as the source of love calling me to love wastefully all that God has made, including the earth with its plants and animals. I experience God… as… calling me to be all that I can be and to affirm the sacred being of all that is” (Spong 2005:66).

Then the chapter concludes with these words:

“We have looked upward for a God above the sky for centuries, but we now know that this infinite universe is empty of supernatural invasive deities.  We need to shift our vision to look within – at life, at love, at being” (Spong 2005: 66).

May it be so with us in all our living. Amen.

Notes:
John B. Cobb, Jr., Bruce G. Epperly, & Paul S. Nancarrow. 2005.  Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World. Claremont. P&F Press.
Macnab, F. 2006.  A Fine Wind is Blowing. Psalms of the Bible in Words That Blow You Away. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Spong, J. S. 2005. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York HarperSanFrancisco.

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No Fast Food Here…

Posted: August 20, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 13B, 2012
John 6: 51-58

No Fast Food Here…

Staying with the theme of Jesus as the Bread of life theme I want to share some little stories that speak to what this might mean. The first is a quotation from a book by Robert Fulghum, supported by some notes from a Brazilian Rubem Alves and another from My Australian mate Rex Hunt’s daughter.

Robert Fulghum writes…..

“Once upon a time, somewhere far back in ancient human history
– so far back that personal survival was the only concern –
a defining event must have taken place.
Someone didn’t eat what he found when he found it,
but decided to take it back to the cave to share with others.
There must have been a first time.
A first act of community – call it communion –
in the most elemental form” (Fulghum 1995:79).

He also writes….. When my first son was in kindergarten, I was a parent volunteer
who visited the school once a week to teach folk songs to the children.
Singing came between rest-time and snack-time.

Regularly I was invited to stay after singing and join the class for milk and scones.
I gladly stayed. Not because I was particularly hungry, but because  I enjoyed watching the children carry out this ordinary task with such extraordinary care.

Two children set the table with serviettes and cups. Two others arranged the chairs.
Others went to the refrigerator for cartons of milk, while two more fetched the scones from the kitchen and arranged them neatly on plates.

One child was responsible for placing something in the middle of the table to talk about during the snack – a sort of ‘show and tell’. For half the class, their job for the day was being good ‘guests’. The other half were the ‘hosts’. Each ‘host’ took a scone off the plate, broke it in half, and gave it to a ‘guest’ before eating the other half.

During this snack-time, they discussed the ‘show and tell’ object in the centre of the table.

After the scones and milk were consumed, the children who had played ‘guests’ for the day cleaned up and put away everything, before they went out to play.

It was a high-point of my week.  For me, Fulghum writes … it was communion.

Fulghum then goes on to add some comments… He says; “the sacraments are often defined by the church as ‘outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace’”.

Scones and milk with those children became a sacrament he says. Grace was clearly present. It was a ritual reminder that civilization depends on sharing resources
in a just and humane fashion.

We understand that Jesus often talked about, or is represented as talking about, food.
And as he moved from place to place, the various storytellers declared he would seek rest in a house. Rumour has it once there he would make his way to the cooking space
because there he knew he could find food to transform his weariness into new energy and purpose. I was reminded here of the visit to the Marae. In my early ministry when I was wondering what to do when going on to a Marae and aware that the establishment of a relationship with the people of the Marae was the most important thing I asked a Maori colleague what to do. His reply was, “the first thing you should do is head for the kitchen and wash dishes.

Robem Alves suggests it is the cooking space – the kitchen – that is the place of transformations. “Nothing is allowed to remain the same.  Things come in raw, as nature produced them.  And they go out different, according to the demands of pleasure.” (Alves 1990:79). The raw must cease to exist for something different to appear. “The hard must be softened.  Smells and tastes which were dormant inside are forced to come out: cooking is a magic kiss which wakes up sleeping pleasures…  Everything is a new creature.  Everything is made anew.” (Alves 1990:79).

And here’s the link with my title. Jesus often talked about food, but it was always slow food rather than fast food. And we know that the gospel storytellers often put words in the mouth of Jesus to have him speak about food and eating. Bread and wine.
Body and blood. But Jesus was no literalist.  No fast food here …. And we know that religious language is primarily metaphorical or poetic.

Robert Fulghum suggests milk and scones at kinder snack-time is communion. Milk and Scones is grace enacted. “Since the beginning of time,”

Fulghum writes, “people who trust one another, care for one another, and are deeply connected to one another have shared food as a sign of and a reaffirmation of their relationship… (Pg 81).

“Every time we greet, get to know, hold hands and say a blessing before a meal, every time we lift a glass and say fine words to one another, every time we eat in peace and grace together, we have celebrated the covenants that bind us together.” (Pg 81-82

In other words, Jesus spoke so words would be eaten. I have said this already in the last few weeks but I say it again. When bread and wine are eaten, they become body and blood. When body and blood are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. When compassionate deeds are eaten, they become as the Holy One in our neighbour.

Rubem Alves suggests that we are what we eat; that “One eats and one’s body is resurrected.” (Alves 1990:86).

Traditionally, this morning’s gospel story from John has been given strong sacramental overtones. Holy Communion or Eucharist overtones, that is. We remind ourselves that this is the institutionalized development, this is the need for a transportable ritual, a common story that could travel across cultures and find a place in empire and an ordered church. It was not a true reflection of what took place in Jesus community but it was a ritual to preserve the essence of what it meant and how it was expressed. This does not diminish its value but rather but very much reflects John’s community many years after the life of Jesus. When things were getting organized and rules – dos and don’ts – were being put in place. But whatever the sacrament of Holy Communion is, “it is an act that arises out of our humanity, not organized religion.”

So we are again reminded that it is in the mundane, every-day basic need of humanity, the need to eat to survive, to nourish our bodies, that we find what drew the earliest followers of Jesus followers to gather together over food and it was not fast food, it was the bread of life sort of food common to our shared humanity and this is what we experience again when we eat together and this is what we remind ourselves of when we celebrate community in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We need to get beyond the literal and re-engage with the metaphoric and poetic to value the ritual as a reminder that as we share bread and the wine, civilization depends on sharing resources in a just and humane fashion.

And perhaps to contextualize sharing the bread and wine we conclude with the story from Rex’s daughter. It is a story of her invitation to a friend’s place where each guest was to prepare their favourite dish as the gift. She decided that her gift would be to share her feelings of food and cooking in a personal story to her friend…

She said to her friend; “Food and cooking has been a major influence in my life, from childhood until now.  My mother worked with food and preparation, so meals in my house were from all origins and always a feast.

As a child, my mother had us cooking in the kitchen, learning and creating – of course, back then we thought of it as a game, not knowing the importance until we were much older.

As a teenager growing up in Sydney, I learned very quickly that not everyone has the same ‘Apple Pie’ family.  Every friend who walked through our doorway was greeted with home cooked smells – some they had never smelt before – and learnt that home-made Lasagne was a great afternoon snack.

When I moved out of home at 20, my mother gave me her Woman’s Weekly recipe card box.  Back in the 70s she collected those tokens to get the complete set.  It was important to her back then so I knew how important it was to pass onto me.  It took me 10 years, but I cooked every dish on those cards (except the odd scary meatloaf).  It’s funny, cooking for myself every night made me feel so independent.

My feelings on cooking have changed again.  I now have a wonderful man to double my portions for.

My favourite pass time of all, is throwing dinner parties.  The food has to be exciting, for me too, and always different.  I plan for weeks and can’t wait to start the prep.  Then I get to share it all with my friends as I watch them having a good time, knowing my little dishes of love have put them all in the same room as me.

So to add to your collection is a Donna Hay magazine.  I’ve been collecting them for years.  She is my favourite cook, as she has similar traits that I recognise – food symbolising comfort and love, and bonds of family… friends… lovers.

My wish for you is that you experience how important you make others feel through your cooking… the first lesson I learned from my mum”.

No Fast food there…..Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. The Edward Cadbury Lectures Philadelphia. Trinity Press International, 1990

Fulghum, R. From Beginning to End. The Rituals of our Lives. Oxford. Ivy Books, 1995.

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All About Perception

Posted: August 7, 2018 in Uncategorized

All About Perception

Pentecost 12B

John 6: 35, 41-51

I chose the title for today because it suggests that the way we view the world can either limit our horizons or it can expand them to eternity. It also touches on the dilemma we face today as we wrestle with the nature of truth as being less about certainty than it used to be. We begin our look at this with the story in John about Jesus being the bread of life and along the way I want to show you a comic clip that I think suggests why perception is important to consider and how it influences our world view. We begin with the gospel where the crowd that surrounded Jesus became angry at what they perceived as arrogance, if not blasphemy, on his part.

How dare he call himself the bread of life? The way they saw him didn’t fit with this claim. Wasn’t this the kid that grew up down the street? Wasn’t he the same one we used to have to run home when it was supper time? You know, the one who was so smart. Wasn’t this that carpenter Joseph’s son? How can he satisfy us? Do you remember that time he got lost in Jerusalem? How is he making such a claim? After all, he is one of us. In John’s story he told of himself as the bread of life, something that would last far longer than the bread we eat or the bread that had been fed to the multitude, something that satisfies the hungers of our souls. But they couldn’t see it. Do we have the right perception?

This talk of having come down from heaven only confused them. They had seen him grow up like us all, though he had been born during that oppressive census the Romans took that made people scatter all over to the cities of their heritage. They thought he had a mother and a father just like all of them. If they had seen more than the carpenter’s son, they might have heard and understood the depth of the good news. The challenge is that when we limit our world to what we know or have experienced, we can miss the vastness of God’s grace. Karl Barth wrote, “Were we to hear only of a god who measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do for ourselves without him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told us of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. I wonder if that’s why the western church is in decline? Is that why people are not coming to church anymore? Because of our perception perhaps? And it seems to be happening despite our radical daring, our yearning for the living God that will not be denied.” How can we find the bread that will satisfy?

I want to show you a video clip now that I think asks us to examine a perception that might be getting in the road. As you watch notice the feelings that you have about its appropriateness, about what it is saying about God and Jesus and what it is showing of their nature and of their humanity.

Watch video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz2TM1dA_FY

In the lectionary letter to the church at Ephesus for today, there is a challenge at the first of the fifth chapter that sets a high standard:

“Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice for God.”

There is an ancient legend of a man with a scarred face who in trying to hide his scars had a mask made to cover his face. It appeared as a saint. He falls in love in the legend. Years later his past is revealed, and an attempt to reveal what he really looked like was made by ripping the mask away. His face had taken on the form of the saint’s face.

This is a claim that we become what we habitually imitate. We become what we make ours just as the bread we eat. The thoughts that fill our minds, the loves that fill our souls–these are creating who we are. If we fill our hearts and minds with the trivial, the faddish, the debase, we’re making ourselves a smaller person. When we accept without question the perceptions that drive us we risk developing the wrong ideas about ourselves and our potential as human beings. That is why it’s so important for what role models we choose for ourselves and our children. If the all blacks are the only role models we will benefit from the value of sport and good sportsmanship but we will also accept a high level of physical on life as a norm. We will become the patterns by which we live. Alternatively, if we fill our hearts and minds with the Jesus Way and attempt to love as he loved and to care as he cared, we are creating a perception based on values that can seek with confidence a peace filled world and a world where love is the motivator, vehicle and purpose of life. We get a glimpse of eternity, a glimpse of the possibility of the impossible. We becoming imitators of God. And I would say co-creators with God. We become one with a Creativity God

John Wesley once wrote, “First let us agree what religion is. I take religion to be, not the mere saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or private, but a constant ruling habit of the soul, a renewal of our beings in the image of God, a recovery of the Divine likeness, a self-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy redeemer.” The week before last I suggested we are what we eat and again today that fits. We have come to make some hard choices that fill our days and thus fill our hearts and minds. We have to be selective about what will be the bread on which we feast. It is one thing to survive, to just get by…like the manna that got the children of Israel through the wilderness. It is another to feast on that which will last forever.

We have to ask, “What is our perception of God and Jesus and how does that perception shape our world view and how does that perception influence our thinking? What do we have to change to move out for God to move in?

In our letter to the church in Ephesus–in the chapter before the challenge to imitate God we find a list of things not compatible to God being the bread on which we feed. In verse 25 we read, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours….” But what is this truth. In Jesus time it would have been less about literal certainty and more akin to perception. They did not have such an obsession with certainty as we have. Such certainty was not likely let along expected.

I suspect that when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He was speaking less about himself and more about a perception of what he was. It is the Way, the common and eternal and the purpose of living that he is on about. We are first of all challenged to deal honestly about what we know, think and do. Truth or humility, authenticity and integrity or if you like faith or trust that builds humanity and is the bond that makes community possible. Mark Twain put it well, saying, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” In other words, say you don’t know, that’s the truth. Anne Lindbergh wrote, “The most exhausting thing in life is to be insincere.” I want to suggest that to be absolutely certain is to be dead.

In verse 27 of that fourth chapter of Ephesians, we read, “Do not make room for the devil.” The challenge is that if we will fill up our lives ahead of time with the right things, we’re answering the questions in advance. This need for certainty can hide the truth.

There is the old story of the farmer and his mule. In order to save money, he tried mixing in sawdust with oats. About one-fourth seemed to work. Then he tried half. That seemed to work, so then he tried three-quarters, which seemingly had no effect. The farmer went to all sawdust. Two days later the mule died. The farmer commented, “That mule ate himself to death.” We need to be cautious on what is filling our lives. At first it may not seem to matter, but what we are filled with will be what we are.

Søren Kierkegaard told a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God had given the ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go. With those wings they could soar. Shouts of “Amen!” were quacked throughout the duck congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left commenting on the message and waddled back home. But they never flew. The perception of what souring was and needed was limiting fulfillment.

The challenge is also to realize the power of our words in creating our perception. Our words have the power to tear down or build up. Jesus used his words when he saw something of value in others. He saw stability in old Simon, a disciple in Mary Magdalene, a friend in Zacchaeus, and he say these things as build their self-esteem.

The power of words to encourage, to show appreciation, to express care–these same words can be twisted to tear down, to hurt, even to destroy. And, of course, the way to control the words is to make sure we are filled with the right things. We need to feast on the bread of life and to remember to build the loving, the measure of which we are filled with will show in our lives.

Then as we further tease out this living the way of Jesus we see that as we fill ourselves with the bread of life, we develop a skill of forgetting and forgiving. We can’t move on until you unload. Bitterness and wrath and wrangling leaves little room for God. Arguing over the certainty of something is unhelpful.

In the book The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom recounts the moment when the experience of such forgiving came to her. It happened in a church in Munich where she was the guest speaker. Out of nowhere there stood before her a former Nazi SS agent who had guarded the shower floor at the prison camp where she and her friends had been processed and exposed to many indignities and cruelties. The man reached out his hand to shake hers as he expressed his appreciation for her message, but Corrie ten Boom kept her hand at her side. Angry feelings surged through her, but she realized how wrong they were. She prayed, tried to smile, struggling to raise her hand but nothing happened. She breathed a silent prayer, “Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.” She described what happened. “As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that overwhelmed me. And so, I discovered that it’s not on our own forgiveness that the world’s healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

I think I would want to say that she discovered that when we love our enemies we discover the depth of love that forgiveness invites. And thus, we are both forgiven and forgiver, challenged to be kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.

Jesus’ promise in our Gospel from John today is if we will eat of such bread, if we question our perception, if we avoid the trap of a certainty that is oblivious to perception we will live forever. Amen.

Pentecost 10B, 2018
John 6:1-21
Food sharing – Becoming What We eat!

An average New Zealand household throws out $563 worth of food annually,
according to a 2008 study by the NZ Government – and that figure doesn’t take into consideration how much is thrown out by shops and businesses. The study claimed that 1,048,993 tonnes of waste was generated by the residential sector and that equates to an average of 260 kg per person, over 44% of which was organic waste.

But what is the significance of this for a faith community, for followers of the Jesus Way?
Well! From all that we now seem to know about biblical culture, meals played an important role in both community life, and in the Jesus Movement tradition. Scholars tell us that Christian Jews regularly ate together, even before they began to conduct worship services. We are also told that Jesus himself was closely associated with meals and that one of the criticisms leveled against him was, of his being a ‘glutton and drunkard’ (Matt 11:19).

Our story this morning of the feeding of people appears in all four gospels. All slightly different, but the plot is very similar in all. This says that there was a strong ‘storytelling’ tradition about it. It is also fair to imagine that all the biblical storytellers had heard some of these meal stories, often from what we now call the Q Source, and re-imagined or re-invented them. They knew the power of a good story. “Words and food are made out of the same stuff”, writes Rubem Alves. “They are both born of the same mother: hunger” (Alves 1990:77).

One very popular New Testament Scholars a before my time was the Scottish scholar William Barclay. I remember coming across the red-backed paperback commentaries on minister’s bookshelves. He set out three ways folk have heard or responded to this story.
One: as a supernatural event of bread being multiplied. Two; as a sacramental meal, where each got a small piece of bread. And three; a different kind of ‘miracle’ where people’s hearts rather than bread, were changed. I suspect that for those of us who call themselves ‘Progressives’ the third option is the preferred option. This would see the story as not about an interventionist supernatural God, or as a forerunner to Holy Communion,
or the Catholic doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’, but rather, everything to do with re-imagining the world and our relationships with others. And this implies an understanding that says that around a meal, food is shared not hoarded, friendships are made, and
relationships strengthened. And the work of the prophet, as Jesus was identified by John’s version of this story, is to encourage folk to see that and live by that.

In simple terms, the stories told about Jesus and in the words attributed to him, Jesus presents the realm of God as a new or alternate possible reality, to the world in which many found themselves trapped in. It contradicted the normal notions of who belonged and who did not, of who was worthy and who was not. It’s contradiction was given expression by the way people lived – that is, open to being changed by the ‘worth’ of the other, rather than the perceived ‘worthlessness’ of the other. So as in this morning’s story, we see and hear Jesus inviting ordinary folk to join him in the struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege. To imagine and experience a different kind of world.

And one of the first steps in re-imagining a different kind of world to the existing dominant social order, was to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciples. This is the point I want to spend a bit of time on today. The world of the disciples and I want to equate it with what we understand as the church of today. Over the last few months I have been challenged to think more about this need than ever. We have embarked on the task of imagining the future for St David’s and we have spent huge amounts of time and energy on grasping a school as a means or a vehicle for our mission focus. We have done this because we are convinced that education is the best way in which we can affect change in culture be it political, economic or religious. Asking questions about what something means, how it has been applied and how it might be applied differently into the future seems consistent with the message Jesus gave us. There is an alternative and it needs to be liberating, transformative and love and compassion based.
When the disciples said tell the hungry to go and buy some food for themselves, Jesus said no, tell them to sit down and let’s share what we already have. When bread is shared and eaten, it becomes body. Our body. When bread is shared and eaten, it becomes compassionate deeds. Our compassionate deeds. When bread is shared and eaten, compassionate deeds become as God in our neighbour. Or put another way, what we believe about God and neighbour and relationships, can make a huge difference to how we care for each other interpersonally. Especially if our local communities can be developed positively around respect and care and worth for each other, rather than around fear of a so-called ‘enemy’.

I want to suggest today that our focus on a school is our response to the call to overturn our religious world or in other wards to change the way we think about church, about how we do church and what the church might look like in the future. The world of the disciples needs to be overturned. Stop avoiding the hard questions and share what we have.

Rex hunt tells a story that says something about what that might look like. He tells of a family that went out for dinner one evening. Menus were passed to all including Kathy, the eight-year old daughter. The conversation started up around the table and it was an ‘adult’ one, so much so that Kathy sat ignored. And when the waiter took orders, he came to Kathy last. “And what do you want?” he asked. “A hamburger and a coke,” she said.
“No,” said her grandmother, “she’ll have the roast chicken, carrots, and mashed potatoes.” “And milk to drink,” chimed in her father. “And what kind of sauce would you like on your hamburger?” asked the waiter. As he walked away, taking the parents aback.
Kathy called out “Tomato,”. She then turned to her family and added, “You know what? He thinks I’m real!”

This self-examination, self-challenge to share what we have, is about being real as opposed to just going along with what seems confident and logical and expected. It’s what sets Mission and faith apart from ordered, logical and rational. It’s what says that “people who trust one another, care for one another, and are deeply connected to one another, have shared food as a sign of and a reaffirmation of their relationship…

“Every time we share the peace by welcoming another to our table, hold hands and say a blessing before a meal, every time we lift a glass and say fine words to one another, every time we eat in peace and grace together, we have celebrated the covenants that bind us together” (Fulghum 1995:81-82). The gospel storytellers know we become what we eat! So what does this mean for us today in our school project? What is the challenge to re-imagine and to celebrate. And in so doing, to be blessed, as we seek to go on the journey first chartered by the Galilean sage we call Jesus.

I want to start with a few assumptions that I think have authenticity in the bigger picture.
1. The first is that the church in New Zealand is in decline and that decline could be seen to be exponential in nature. In other words, the decline is getting faster with every year that passes.
2. The second is that certain doctrines, interpretations and teachings that we no longer subscribe to as followers of the Jesus Way. In other words, we think that what we believe, think and value needs to be real, applicable to today’s living.
3. The third is that we have been brought up in a church that has hidden the human Jesus behind a façade of supernaturalism, fear management and intellectual simplicity. In other words, We have been hoodwinked by a faith rooted in a story of a Jesus with the surname Christ as opposed to a Jesus who’s life depicted a Messiah, a liberator, a transformer of lives, culture and an understanding of what it means to be a child of God and a good human being.
4. The fourth is that Spirituality is not dead but just being serviced outside the church, in other words, where and what is the purpose of the church? Does it still have one? Can it again be the nurture of spirituality? Does it need to think differently about what it is, who it is, and how it is what it is?
5. The fifth and last assumption for today is that very little of what the church is doing, saying and offering has any value, in other words people are no longer joining the church to follow the Way of Jesus because what is being said about that Way cannot be sustained in today’s world. People no longer see the need for what is being offered despite our strong conviction that all they have to do is understand what we understand and make the decisions we have made.

Maybe its time we the disciples need to sit down and share what we have amongst ourselves? Look at it, ask questions about it, find out what it is saying to those outside the church. Maybe we need to discover what Spirituality is still alive without the church.
Do we need to think differently about the nature of God, of course we do, God is no longer seen in our image and we have lost sight of what it means to be made in God’s image.

Maybe we need to tell the Jesus story as it was before the church arrived? Maybe we need to become the moral compass of society, not as a keeper of the truth or an owner of the only story but rather as those concerned about human flourishing. Maybe we need to see that in the past the church, built hospitals, schools and universities. Maybe we need to celebrate that many of these functions have been taken over by the state or business and we might need to avoid being in competition with what has been created. Maybe the church has been so successful that it has lost sight of its purpose and become complacent in a role that just focuses on personal salvation without critiquing the existing culture? Maybe church has become just a place where people can go for an our to opt out of life, or be entertained, or feel good.

If this is the case then maybe the church has outlived its usefulness? And on top of that what I personally think is the crucial issue is that many of us who are disciples of Jesus accept uncritically many church teachings because we don’t want to have to reconcile them with our experience outside our religious life. We compartmentalize our faith so that we don’t have to live it. This either works or we leave the church.

And just in case you think I am being negative about this, I think that the church has an ethical, empowering and healing role to play in the 21st century and beyond but to do so it has to focus on the character of the message. It has to be intellectually satisfying, authentic as well as a place of comfort, fellowship and service. It has to be a table for 5 thousand where empathy and compassion are actions consistent with the Jesus Way. In other words, it is about salvation within this life, about a story that we can enthusiastically support and a welcoming of doubt as a means of sharing the nurturing meal. What do you think? Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. A. 1990. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. PA: Philadelphia. Trinity Press International.
Fulghum, R. 1995. From Beginning to End. The Rituals of Our Lives. NSW: Moorebank. Bantam Books.
Lucien Alperstein. “Dumster Diver” in Sunday Life, 17 June 2012, 12-13.
Gould, Sam. 2017. Being Christian in the Twenty-First Century. WIPF & STOCK Eugene, Oregon
rexae74@gmail.com

Find the Spaces

Posted: July 16, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 9B, 2018
Mark 6:30-34

Find the Spaces

In 1st Corinthians we read; “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong-doing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

In another writing we read; “Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music”.

I am sure you have heard Kahlil Gibran’s meditation called ‘Speak to us of marriage’, from his popular book, The Prophet, as it is much loved by folk wishing to be married, and who are looking for a reflection or reading that is not biblical. In fact, it may be that this particular meditation is as well known, if not more so, than some biblical passages.

Further on in this meditation Gibran writes: “Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music”.

Then towards the end: “And stand together yet not too near together:
for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not
in each other’s shadow.

All of this seems to speak very clearly to what we experience in a sound marriage. Each one valued greatly as an individual within a covenantal relationship that enables individuals to contribute complimentary to, with and for the relationship. But one of the things we might miss is the call to stand apart to renew oneself. This is not an opting out of the togetherness but an insertion of spaces as Gibran says, to “let the winds of the heavens dance between you”. All of us need ‘spaces’ – physically, emotionally, spirituality – in our busy lives. And getting married is not a bad time to be reminded of this.

It is also salutary for us to recognize that, according to storyteller Mark, Jesus was encouraging of the disciples/others to desist, to care for themselves, to reflect, and not to feel they must respond to every ‘squeaky door’ or appeal for assistance.

They were not God. They were not the saviour of the world. They were limited human beings who needed space. Like we heard from Giraud last week, “We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness”. Like the disciples we need time to be able to sort out what is important.

New Zealander Ian Cairns’ comment is another good reminder of this need: He says “This brief passage… gives us a fleeting but appealing insight into the natural rhythm of the lifestyle of Jesus and the circle around him: times of intense effort are succeeded by moments of unwinding, and of quiet relaxation.  The fact that the intention on this occasion was frustrated, detracts nothing from the attractiveness of the ideal” (Cairns 2004:87).

Ian Cairns asked; Do you have a ‘space’ – a place of peace and rest in the “natural rhythm” of your life, where you retreat for silence and re-creation? So, asks Bruce Epperly, co-author of The Call of the Spirit. Our so-called ‘space’ or ‘quiet place’ can be anywhere. Doesn’t this sound familiar and hasn’t it been said hundreds of times? It has and I wonder of that is because we find it so hard to do. To insert spaces into our lives? And then I wonder why it is so hard when it seems so easy?

We often hear people say of retirement that they have rediscovered the joy and peace of walking along the beach, on the sand, at water’s edge. Feeling the texture of both against the soles of my feet. Even on a cool and cloudy, winter’s day this time out, this space insertion seems to have some value so why is that we don’t take it often enough? Maybe we need to revisit what we mean by space or time out?

Epperly says ‘space’ places could include: a favourite chair or study, a meditation room in your home, a park, or the bush, and yes, the seashore. “The divine center is everywhere. That deals with the idea of space and place but we know that wherever our adventure of ideas or geography take is, God is our adventurous companion” and in his web site article Epperly says: “Your quiet place can also be a rejuvenating activity – gardening, walking, stargazing, journaling, meditating, praying, writing poetry, or driving in your car by yourself.  He says that health of body, mind, spirit, and relationships requires stillness as well as action, space as well as intimacy.  Even the most intimate friends and couples require time alone” (Epperly P&F web site, 2006).

Many advisors call this ability to create ‘spaces’ in our lives, ‘boundary setting’.
Indeed Epperly suggests today’s gospel story is just about that. “Jesus took time apart with his followers.  His ‘no’ to work, even the good work of healing and teaching, said ‘yes’ to spiritual growth and self-care.  His ‘yes’ to compassion was grounded in inter-connectedness with God and his followers” (Epperly P&F web site, 2006).

All this suggests there is an art and a discipline to finding ‘spaces’. It also takes practice. So Epperly offers some suggestions how we can create these ‘spaces’.

  • Sabbath time. Take a few hours a week, a day, a month, for silence, for retreat, for prayer. This might be a conversation with the mystery or the more.
  • Breathing prayers.  Breathing in.  Breathing out.  Remembering God’s present-ness, and centering in God’s companionship. Getting in touch with the wonderful mechanics of life.
  • Keeping meals sacred.  Install and use an answer phone. Feeding the body is an act of valuing community. Family and togetherness.
  • Cultivate intimate relationships.  Relationships take time and require leisure. The primary act of intimacy is to listen.
  • Distinguish the important from the trivial. Ask the question to discern the valuable.
  • Learn to say ‘no’. The no is not a negative when it makes a space for what’s valuable.

The storyteller Mark was clearly impressed with what he was told about the beginnings of the Jesus movement. Part of his story this morning describes in summary what he saw was the impact of Jesus’ ministry. For Mark, it seems the nature of the Jesus’ ministry was to offer leadership in teaching, and in acts of compassion that brings healing and sets people free from what oppresses them. The storyteller depicts Jesus as having spent a surprising amount of time healing people. Although, like the author of Job before him, he specifically rejected the theory that sickness was God’s way of getting even with sinners (John 9:1-3), he nonetheless seems to have suggested a connection between sickness and sin, almost to have seen sin as a kind of sickness. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;” he said. “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17).

This is entirely compatible, of course, with the Hebrew view of the human being as a psychosomatic unity, an indivisible amalgam of body and soul in which if either goes wrong, the other is affected. It is significant also that the Greek verb sо̄zо̄ was used in Jesus’ day to mean both “to save” and “to heal” and sо̄tēr could signify either “saviour” or “physician.” Jesus’ ministry was, it seems one of being there for others and the need for spaces is a recognition that such an orientation is intense, self-draining and energy sapping. It is demanding work. People who give of themselves get tired. They need time out. They are not God. They are not the only saviour of the world. They are ordinary human beings who need ‘space’ to continue on.

There needs to be spaces in our togetherness, our living, our busyness. Even our ‘good and helpful’ busyness. My own reflection on this is that the type of spaces required are often linked to one’s own personality and impacted by one’s chosen path or journey. The type of spaces for some are within one’s business and don’t always require physical extraction from tasks while for others only a physical separation works. So, this morning Mark’s story is not about the so-called ‘biggies’… such as feeding the 5,000, or walking on water, or grain that produces at the rate of 100 times, for example. It’s not about the sensational miracle but rather the everyday life integrated one. What we get from this story is an ‘OK’ for the very human need for ‘space’ in our lives. And the task is to learn how to create ‘spaces that work’ and to learn to use them well.

Kahlil Gibran when talking about self-knowledge says that our hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights, but our ears thirst for the sound of our heart’s knowledge. I think he is saying that we need to take time to find the spaces where our conscious activity is silent enough for our heart to speak and then as he says; our words will reflect what we know deep down and we will be able to touch with our fingers the naked body of our dreams.

 

In terms of Rene Giraud and our acceptance of the incompleteness of our humanity and our hope-filled engagement in this journey toward being fully human is a journey we are called to engage in with enthusiasm, with hope and a confidence that comes with taking spaces to reflect, re-engage with nature, with our spirit and as Gibran says: It is well you should. The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea; And the treasure of your infinite depths would be revealed to your eyes. But let there be no scales to weigh your unknown treasure; And seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line. For self is a sea boundless and measureless. Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.” Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.” For the soul walks upon all paths. The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself like a lotus of countless petals.

 

Mark wrote that Jesus said to them “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Gibran wrote “…for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow” (Gibran 1969). I think, healing takes place when we find the spaces. Amen.

Notes:
Cairns, I. J. 2004.  Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. NZ: Masterton. Fraser Books.
Gibran, K. 1926/1969.  The Prophet. GtB: London. Heinemann.
Cobb, Jr, J. B.; B. G. Epperly, P. S. Nancarrow. 2005. The Call of the Spirit. Process Spirituality in a Relational World. CA: Claremont. P&F Press.

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Who Does God Say We Are?

Posted: July 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

2 Samuel 6:1-19

Ephesians 1:3-14

Who Does God Say We Are?

Paul is writing to the little struggling church in Ephesus. This is nothing new and we can empathize with Paul because we have plenty of evidence that in every age and in every place at some tome or other churches struggle, and their issues and challenges are often very similar, even in very different times and very different circumstances. The commentators make this clear: empire, in one form or another; the surrounding culture, with its many and powerful messages; our drive to divide and be divided; and the questioning human spirit, longing to understand our lives, both individually and communally tells us that struggles are not just personal they are communal, tribal, national and in every form of human gathering.

I recall meeting with two presbytery people a couple of weeks ago, who wanted to know what I thought about establishing a network of parishes in the inner city and when I had finished one of them said to me; and what hopeful thing do you have to say? I was surprised that I had sounded so negative and I think it was because he only saw the struggle as a problem without hope, whereas for me it was more about realism and openness and honesty when facing questions of change in a human environment. No point in going into a task with one’s blinkers on. Perhaps this was not unlike the little church in Ephesus, note it’s a little church in the bustling metropolis of Ephesus. Paul’s letter to this struggling church would have raised the reality of their struggle and yet in this case the heady mix of reality lead them to experience Paul’s exuberant poetry as an uplifting message of both meaning and hope because it fixed them firmly on the sure foundation of God’s own purposes and love.

One of the challenges when confronting this text is to avoid seeing it as solely a catechism or a systematic statement of beliefs. It is not this because it is heart language as much as head language, as poetry and praise ought to be. Like all of our talk about God, it is partial, too, for our human comprehension is limited. Lewis Donelson says that Paul’s “propositions are flashes of insights into the being of God. They might be true as far as language is true, but God is still transcendent”

I am reminded here of a quote from Rene Giraud when he wrote; “It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human”. Paul’s, propositions are flashes of insights into the being of God. They might be true as far as language is true, but God is still transcendent”

This approach invites us think about context and even do a little exegesis in approaching this text. Who wrote it? Paul probably might be the nearest we get so to whom was it written? Again, the best choice is that may have either been a letter written specifically to the church in Ephesus or as a circular letter written for many churches eager to receive further teaching and guidance. The latter reason suggests it might be speaking to a common theme among struggling churches. And this might also suggest that it has something to say to us.

So, if this passage is poetic, it’s task is first and foremost inspirational, motivational and heart moving. It’s like our school vision that is both inspirational, motivational and seemingly so logical that one wonder why others can’t see its worth. Our text is a burst of exuberance from Paul where he gets wound up and launches into his writing. His sense of gratitude and wonder at everything God has done, is doing, and has promised yet to do, leads him to soaring heights of praise in which he acknowledges God as both blessed and blessing. How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! In fact, this text is so beautiful, especially in Eugene Peterson’s version in ‘The Message’ which makes the passage much more accessible and moving as well. He puts the text like this. He says “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone”. Again, it is less about an argument for a divine Jesus and more about a poetic rendition of the timeless presence of the Mystery we call Creativity God. Long before us. Long before our involvement, human life was part of the mysterious purpose.

This then leads us into todays poetic rendition of truth, life Creativity God. In recent years, for example, we keep learning more and more amazing things about the way the universe works. Something called “the God particle,” that is, the Higgs-Boson particle, has been discovered, but it seems to provoke both wonder and questioning more than clear and firm answers about “the meaning of it all.”

VIDEO- Higgs Boson

It might be a bit of a leap but Paul seems to be in a sense, exploring a similar question when he sings out his praise for “the big picture” of God’s purposes. He’s certainly not taking a scientific approach, or even a philosophical one, to his work. Instead, he sings from deep faith, from intuition that sometimes whispers and suggests, and sometimes bursts out in assured conviction of God’s goodness and mercy, of God’s amazing grace. That’s what this first part of the Letter to the Ephesians is about: God’s amazing grace. It’s about how things are put together in God.

While I might want to question the idea of objectifying human brokenness, Eugene Peterson writes evocatively about the brokenness of our lives and the way God puts things back together, as they should be: Paul “begins with an exuberant exploration of what Christians believe about God, and then, like a surgeon skillfully setting a compound fracture, ‘sets’ this belief in God into our behavior before God so that the bones–belief and behaviour–knit together and heal” (The Message).

In an evolutionary, creativity approach this is what continues to unfold right before our eyes, if we take the time to notice, the great evolutionary reality is about bringing everything together in one marvelous unity, in Paul’s words this is unity in Christ. In every age, in every day, in each of us and all of us, together this great wonder is unfolding. And it is when we seek to understand our God and how our God works, we get a sense of who we are as creatures formed, lovingly, in God’s own image. Again, as Giraud wrote; We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human”.

The timeless nature of this view is that while it may be an ancient one, rooted long before the earth was created, it also stretches forward, too, far into the future, and we have our own place within it, in this moment of history. In honouring the mind, we recognize the human construction of this, in living the questions we live meaningfully in this moment, and in exploring the adventure of humanity we see ourselves not only as heirs, as those who receive these blessings, but as ancestors as well, for the mystery we call creativity God is part of all that will come after us, and with a grace-filled purpose for it all.

Returning again to our text we find Paul singing God’s goodness and it reminds us of our own human response to goodness, of which Paul also sings. We hear often today people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” yet they also speak of their deep longing to find a place and a community of worship where they feel both deeply moved and a sense of belonging. Interestingly, these are people who lead lives that have many marks of discipleship: healing the sick and broken, working for justice, sharing generously, forgiving and seeking reconciliation and peace. But they long for a spiritual community where they can sense, with others, the presence of this motivational, aspirational, comforting, purpose-filled existence in quiet moments in community, in ritual, in music, in worship. They seek a sense of connection with this Creative, evolutionary energy we call God.

What never ceases to surprise me is how many Spiritual but Not Religious folks are actually hungry for traditional ritual and liturgy. Barbara Brown Taylor is one of many writers who draw our attention to our worship life and to our spiritual hunger: in her sermon, “He Who Fills All in All” she wonders if we are offering the spiritually hungry “a place where they may sense the presence of God, among people who show some sign of having been changed by that presence.” And here we have the challenge of evangelism, proselytization, bums on seats, church growth and ultimately community. What is a faith community as opposed to a book club, a classroom or a rugby or netball club?

One Anthony Robinson has written that “People want to experience the divine, the sacred, the holy. They are dying for want of grace, wonder, mystery, and not for want of by-laws, committees, and sign-up lists. At least they don’t want those things instead of God”

What I like to think I do every Sunday is bring these two threads of worship and the unfolding of Creativity God’s great living plan for all things, together, I try to blend the sermon with images of the universe, photographs returned to us by our long-distance spacecraft of the heavens, the stars and the earth, which may inspire awe at times as effectively as our words and music and sanctuaries. And then we can picture our cities and countryside in many different settings, our neighborhoods and the people they hold, nature, including images of the very smallest things, even drawings of particles and other such incomprehensible objects. Such use of the visual and the imagination during our service along with the text, and the music, might make it a bit easier to ponder God’s grand living plan for all things, or in non-religious language, we might find an understanding of evolution and the scientific unfolding of creation.

And finally, and again returning to the text it is clear that Paul is making a case for those who follow the Jesus Way or he is introducing the ethics of discipleship in this letter to the church in Ephesus. Sadly, we Christians today seem to spend far more time talking about the rules than raising the quality of our time in connection with the mystery we name Creativity God. This might be especially true as we follow our passionate commitment to justice and healing for a broken world. It’s a good thing that we work hard on the issues, but we also need to be able to return to a base camp where we can renew our spirits, where we can tap into the deep roots of our tradition, ask questions of the ancient songs of praise and lament, the text and the blessings that we have received and will share with those who come after us.

We have, after all, been brought together not only to work but to pray and praise, to remember and remind, to celebrate and to hope as well. We can draw on that time together and find the courage to hope, as the Letter to the Ephesians will say in two more chapters, for “far more than all we can ask or imagine” (3:20). Amen.

 

Mark 6:1-13

We, The Least Likely Yet Called Out’

Today’s journey in scripture is made up of two quite distinct parts. The first part is Jesus’ visit to his hometown, Nazareth and the second part is Jesus sending his disciples out two by two. These two parts are distinct not only because each is a story unto itself, capable of standing alone, but also because they stand together held is a sort of logical challenge in their vivid contrast to one another. The first is a story of failure. After initial enthusiasm, the people of Jesus’ hometown, turned against him. He was, Mark tells us in verse 5, “unable to do any miracles there.” But the second scene is a story of success. The disciples, again Mark tells us, “cast out many demons, and they anointed many sick people and healed them.”

The odd part about the two stories held together is that Jesus, who up to this point in Mark, had been teaching with power, healing, and casting out demons, could do nothing, while the disciples who are so often missing the point, even missing in action, are powerful and effective. The two parts are so different and their difference so unexpected that it will come as no surprise that many commentators urge the preacher to pick but one of the two stories or parts to preach on — and not both . . . Still, in the text they stand together and maybe the author, Mark was onto something?

Maybe together these two scenes have something to tell us, not only about God and God’s agency, but about our agency in God’s. Together these stories tell us about the efficacy of trusting the Jesus Way and also something about the struggle to understand and make good decisions. Together they tell us something about what happens when ego and pride get in the way–when we get in the way–and what happens when hope, faith and expectation clear the way, in traditional language ‘when God takes central place’.

Two stories, two distinct stories, set cheek by jowl. In one it could be said they thought too small and in the other they saw the big picture. Looking at the first story we find Jesus visiting his hometown where new assume things should go well, the homecoming of a hero, the place where he is known among the wider family, he knows his way around and we imagine that things would go well. We might even assume that here Jesus would be received with joy and affirmation by those who knew him well. And this was probably so, initially he was. The people of Nazareth, those who had known Jesus as a boy and young man were surprised–astonished–by his wisdom and power. But quickly their surprise turned to offense. The tall poppy syndrome kicked in, Hey ‘the know it all’ has returned, and “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son? And they took offense at him.”

Why do you think this happened? What happened to turn them? He was one of them–at least he had recently been one of them. Maybe that was the problem: that one who had so recently been just one of them should suddenly now be so far above them. Did that feel like a slight? Remember we are not talking about a huge city of millions of people. Its Jesus home town. “Who does he think he is? Why him and not me?” Just yesterday, it seemed, they had looked down upon him as a boy. But today his words and demeanor asked that they look up to him. Was that hard on their pride?

Maybe there’s a warning here to us all: don’t let an earlier companionship or an earlier understanding or belief get in the road. Don’t let a different relationship blind you, or at a later time you might miss the new message, the new point of view. The new approach.

Maybe the matter at hand goes even deeper than this all-too-human tendency to envy another or to feel slighted by the success of someone whom we knew, or thought we knew, back in the day. Maybe its our understanding of being church, or congregation. Maybe as last week we heard that the Christian Church didn’t exist until the 4th Century and if that’s the case then who was Jesus before then? What was the understanding of the Jesus Way before the church existed? Why did people want to keep the story of him alive and keep gathering to talk about their understanding?

Who do we today think of when we talk about Jesus’ hometown crowd? Who do we think of as his own people today? Maybe, that would be us, the church of today? And does it ever happen that at least sometimes we are those who are blind to God’s presence, indifferent to God’s power? Is it even remotely possible that we who think we know Jesus best may at times honour him least? In his spiritual autobiography “Now and Then,” Frederick Buechner writes of his off-the-beaten-path (at least for a seminary-trained, ordained Presbyterian minister) encounter with Agnes Sanford, a Christian healer.

“The most vivid image she presented,” writes Buechner, “was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back, unable to do any mighty works because the ministers who led the services either didn’t expect him to do them or didn’t dare ask him to do them . . .” Last week we heard of how clergy, me included were not brave enough to share the doubt we had been taught existed, how we had opted for the comfortable easy way and stood Jesus in the corner, untouchable by creative doubt, unassailable by creative questioning, and locked in permanent absolutes of truth.

That’s quite an image: Jesus standing in the church, his hands tied behind his back. Then Buechner like some of us today add their recognition of their kinship with the Jesus in the corner. Is it possible that we in the church, Jesus’ latter-day hometown crowd, are sometimes the least likely to call upon him, the last to turn to him, less likely than many others to be open to his message and promise, his mystery and his grace?

Often today we in the church seem more focused on ourselves–whether our proud accomplishments, our current projects, or our persistent problems–more on these things than on God’s power and truth.  Just think about the energy we here have spent in the last few years on our buildings and our survival rather than the growing need around us.

I want to tell you a story. It’s not about me or you but it could resonate. It’s not about what was done right or wrong, it is just a story that can be applied to many places today.

The story begins when a well-known preacher visited an old once prominent church a church that had for decades been known far and wide as the home of great preachers and a center of great social causes. Like many, however, this church had declined in recent decades as people had moved away and community demographics had changed. When he arrived to give a lecture there, the preacher was met by an officer of the church. And as he was early, the church officer asked if I would like a tour of the grand facility. As they walked the officer told the preacher that twenty years ago he had feared for the future of his church. In fact, he said, “I was pretty sure that by now they would have closed their doors. You see, he said, we were just fifty elderly people left in this great sanctuary.” Then he brightened. “But something happened. Something changed. They were experiencing a kind of renewal, a revival.”

“Really,” the preacher said, “that’s wonderful.” “Yes, said the officer; these days we have four or five hundred people in church. We have new ministries in the community. We are seeing new people, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight.” “How do you explain this?” the Preacher asked. The officer thought for a moment, then he said, “Well, it wasn’t all our new minister, but he has made a difference.” “What’s he done?”

“Well, he got us studying the Bible . . . yes, our minister gives a wonderful Bible Study. In fact, he can give you the entire message of the Bible in just six words.” The preacher inwardly groaned and though Oh dear “Another fast operator?” “And what might those six words be?” he asked skeptically. His host, an older man grinned broadly. “The six words that summarize the entire message of the Bible of course? ‘I am God and you’re not.'” They both laughed. But what was it they were laughing about and why?

“I am God and you’re not.” Sounds very clear and simple at a social or cultural level. It also sounds clear in a sort of fundamentalist theistic level. It speaks of a supernatural God up above in charge yet it rings true in that it speaks of our propensity to bring everything back to ourselves, to make ourselves central to everything that exists. It’s not about you, not about us. It’s about God. I remember Graeme Ferguson often speaking of Mission as God’s Mission and not the churches Mission. One of the sad things about our Church is its obsession with its own mission as opposed to the mission of the gospel. We get so consumed with our survival in a world that seems to no longer need us. The figures scream this at us but we seem to hide behind the idea that the world must be wrong and isn’t listening to us. Maybe we are in our hometown with blinkers on? Maybe our once great church has become so focused on its past glories and singular prominence that we have forgotten, the church officer said; the real source of the church’s power and of its life . . . the power of the living God. Had been given over to their collective pride and ego.

But be careful; listen again to the story. Humbled by their decline yet blessed with the insight that it wasn’t really about them, they had turned to God afresh, calling upon their God who is known in and through the everyday, known in and through the great picture of the universe alive they had acknowledged their own need for healing and for change. They had come to know this divine energy and power in a new way, in a new time. They had taken risks in faith. They had taken the risk of change, the risk of oblivion and they had stepped out two by two.

When Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, he did not–though it must have been painful for him–reject them in turn. He did not take offense. He only sadly shook his head and then moved on. He moved on, sending his disciples out, two by two, to preach, to heal and to teach. He said something interesting to them: they were to travel light, to “take nothing for the journey” but the clothes on their backs. In these times of change and challenge for the church or in times of challenge in our personal lives,

The message might be to “lighten the load,” Let go of some weighty assumptions about how we have always done things. Leave behind those big, bulky suitcases stuffed full of tradition and outdated interpretations. Note I said interpretations and not outdated stories. Maybe we are being asked to surrender some truly heavy stuff. Not only the old conflicts we’ve been bearing or the grudges we’ve been nursing but also the very truths we have not tested before, the very values that have become intrenched in culture so much so that we are afraid of losing our culture.? Maybe we are being asked to strip these things away so that we might travel light again, maybe like going back beyond the 4th Century and looking at what motivated Jesus and his earliest followers, the men and women who heard him not only with their minds but also with their hearts.

Having said all the above I need to say that I do not think you are hometown people. You are two by two sent people on the verge of oblivion. You have bought the lotto ticket and the price has been your faith, a wild, risky faith, bold and trusting faith not is a belief system, not in an institution grounded on creed or doctrine but in a real and incarnate power of God in a Jesus of Nazareth who made all things new. Yours is a transformative world changing faith, Amen.