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John 10: 1-10

The Good Shepherd as the Voice That Soothes

Call it the desire for life or the impulse of creation, or perhaps the human spirit, inside each of us there appears to be a deep, congenital restlessness. It is as if we are less about being restful beings who sometimes get restless, and more about being restless beings who occasionally experience rest. Karl Rahner, might have had it right when he said that we do not have souls that get restless, but that our souls themselves are lonely caverns thirsting for the infinite, deep wells of restlessness that make us ache to sleep with the whole world and all that is beyond. I don’t want to get into whether or not we have souls here but just to accept that there is something about the human condition that suggests we do. John O’Donohue suggests that we do and that it is perhaps a place where life begins.

The soul… is the place where the imagination lives.
The imagination is the creative forces in the individual.

It always negotiates different thresholds and
releases possibilities of recognition and creativity
which the linear, controlling, external mind will never even glimpse.

The imagination works on the threshold that runs between
light and dark,
visible and invisible,
quest and question,
possibility and fact.

The imagination is the great friend of possibility.
Where the imagination is awake and alive
fact never hardens or closes but remains open,
inviting you to new thresholds of possibility and creativity.

John O’Donohue.

Because of this inner restlessness we can find it difficult to concentrate during the day and to sleep at night. We go through life feeling like we are missing out on something, that life is more exciting and fulfilling for others than it is for us. Our achievements rarely satisfy us because we are always aware of what we haven’t achieved, of missed chances and failed possibilities. Always too, it seems that we are inadequate to the task, that we disappoint those we love.

Ultimately, we reach a point in life when there is an ache and a sadness inside us that no one can still and comfort. For many of us the negative is the first thing we see. It is so obvious it is part of the DNA so to speak. While this is not so for all it does seem pervasive in society. We are always a bit dissatisfied. As Henri Nouwen puts it, in this life it seems that there is no such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy, but that even our happiest moments come with a shadow, a fear, a jealousy, a restlessness. Inside us, no matter what our age, we are always somewhat lost and full of a sadness that we don’t quite know what to do with. Henry David Thoreau the American essayist, poet, and philosopher. was right, it seems. We do live lives of quiet desperation. What are we meant to do with that?

An analogy might help us here: we might be able to learn something valuable, by comparing these feelings to what a baby feels, at a certain moment, in the presence of a baby-sitter in the absence of its mother. As many a frustrated baby-sitter has learned, there can come a moment, usually later in the evening, when the baby grows tired of being titillated by flashy toys, extra sweets, and the continued cooing of the baby-sitter. The baby becomes irritated, cranky, weepy, and finally disconsolate. At this point nothing will soothe its aches, except the voice and the touch of the mother herself. The baby needs to hear the mother’s voice and the mother’s voice alone. No attempt by the baby-sitter to replace the mother or even to imitate the mother are of much avail. The baby will not be fooled, there comes a moment when only the mother can soothe and comfort. The baby’s disquiet will disappear only when she again hears the mother lovingly call her name.

It’s no different for us really, as adults, when trying to come to grips with our congenital restlessness. We can distract ourselves for a while, be titillated by flashy toys, be soothed and lulled by sympathetic voices, and momentarily even be content in the absence of our real mother. We have done this in these last few weeks as we have filled our isolation and social distancing with on line activities, music playing and emails and texts. But there will come a time, usually a little later on in the proceedings when we are a bit more tired and cranky, when these things will soothe no more. We will begin to miss, in the very depths of our souls, the one voice and one presence that can ultimately bring us rest. We may have even noticed this in our shutdown situation. Our patience is shorter, our willingness to engage in conversation is either stilted or we are less tolerant of differences, more ready to put our point of view. Rumi, the Sufi Mystic calls this “Divine Dancing”
and suggests it is a place where we feel out of sync perhaps with the divine dance of life.

When you dance
the whole universe dances.

The world dances around the Sun.
The morning light breaks,
Spinning up with delight.

How could anyone
Touched by your love
Not dance like a weeping willow?

Today I spin wildly
throughout the city;
I am the cup-bearer,
My head is the cup.
Perhaps a scholar will see me
and drop his books.
Perhaps the world will see me
and forget all its sorrows.

Father Ron Rolheiser the Catholic Author of many books suggests that “Of course, the one voice that can soothe, the one voice that we search for among all the others, is the voice of God, as the primordial Mother. Ultimately, he says; we reach a point in life when there is an ache and a sadness inside us that no one can still and comfort, other than the one who ultimately brought us to birth. Like the baby frustrated with its baby-sitter, we too need to hear our mother lovingly pronounce our names.

Here we have the Emmaus road event, the Resurrection event, the Conversion event so to speak as the moment of awareness. It was always there awaiting conscious expression, a soul in its unveiling perhaps. Or as the writer of John puts it ‘The good shepherd opens the gate and calls, and we respond.

The Gospel of John also opens very differently than the other Gospels. There are no infancy narratives. Right at the beginning we already meet the adult Jesus or the Messiah (Christ in Greek) and the first words he speaks are a question: “What are you searching for?” John’s whole Gospel then tries to answer that, but the full answer is given only at the very end, by Jesus himself.

What are we ultimately searching for? Why the restlessness? What’s its purpose?

A Shepherd playing with the sheep.

The shepherd is so constantly with his sheep that sometimes his life with them becomes monotonous. Therefore, he will occasionally play with them. He does this by pretending to run away from his sheep, and they will soon overtake him, and completely surround him, gamboling with great delight.

On the morning of the resurrection, Mary Magdala meets the newly-risen Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him. He approaches her and asks (in words that repeat his question at the opening of the Gospel): “What are you searching for?” She explains that she is searching for the body, the dead body, of Jesus. He says just one word to her in response: “Mary.” He calls her by name and, in that, she not only recognizes him, but she hears precisely what a disconsolate baby cannot hear in the voice of her baby-sitter, the voice of the mother, lovingly pronouncing her name.

In Jesus’ response to Mary Magdala, we learn the answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions: what do we ache for? Why the restlessness? Yes; it is crucial for human living but what is it that we want? Ultimately, it seems all our aching is for one thing, to hear what we name as God call us by name, for this Good Shepherd thing to break through the sea of negativity, and restlessness and to find it as lovingly empowering and individually valuing. There comes a moment in the night for each of us when nothing will console us other than this, hearing our names pronounced by the mouth of God so to speak.


Eating Together in a time of Covid-19 lockdown.

“What a wonderful story!  It celebrates Easter. It invites participation.  It is in the best sense a faith legend… Whatever actual experience may lie behind the story, it is now an invitation.  It invites us to join the journey.” (Wm Loader Web site, 2005)

So suggests Bill Loader, the Uniting Church theologian from Western Australia. And I reckon the ‘Road to Emmaus’ story is indeed a wonderful, original story by the storyteller we call Luke imagining, sharing, celebrating, teaching. Especially ‘imagining’, because imagination never numbs us with description but coaxes us into a new situation.

As the story is told and the plot revealed we can find ourselves engaged in the questions and the possibilities of the story, as a different re-imagining of the world dawns. This is what makes this a great story. But a ‘metaphorical story’ not ‘history remembered’, as Marcus Borg nudges us and reminds us.  (Borg 2001:44)

To set the scene in what we know of history we are reliably informed that scholars have speculated as to where Emmaus actually was. Four places seem to have been suggested: The first was Amwas, near Latrun – approx. 20 miles from Jerusalem; The second was Abu Ghosh – approx. 7.5 miles from Jerusalem; The third was Qubelba – approx. 7 miles from Jerusalem, and the fourth was Moza – approx. 4 miles from Jerusalem) So we can deduce it was as close as 4 and as far as 20 miles from Jerusalem. In travel time this could have been between 1 and 5 days walk from Jerusalem

We also note that many have heard and interpreted this story differently. For instance, some commentators seek to explain aspects of this story in terms of an ‘interventionist’ God. That on the road back home toward Emmaus, God intervened deliberately, and kept Cleopas (and his wife?) from ‘seeing’ Jesus, so Jesus could explain the scriptures to them. On the other hand, others see the work of a ‘super-naturalist’ God in this story. When Jesus suddenly appears spirit-like, and then later on, is suddenly whisked away. And when Jesus can no longer be ‘seen’ with eyes because he had gone from this world to the ‘Father’, this new world evades our senses.

When I think about my own faith journey, I can see that I too, wandered in and around and wondered about these approaches.  I’m not sure for all of you, but today none of these attempts resonate with me all that well. Especially the theology that those suggestions raise, indeed, they become little more than brainteasers and can kill off the story for me.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to unravel and appreciate the context of the story. And to that, I would now like to offer some comments which I hope might be helpful as well as imaginative.

Holding St David’s mission statement in mind especially the ‘honouring of the Mind bit one has to agree that our consciousness and especially our language ability and its importance in our humanity demands that we take all stories as being are very concrete. Not perhaps eternal because they ‘live’ within a particular context. It is this context that makes them real and concrete. Andin applying this to our in the context of our text it suggests that this story’s context may have been some debates about how Gentile Jesus followers could sense the present-ness of the Post-Easter Christ
after the death of Jesus.

Luke tells a story about the most common and important community occasion these followers had experienced. The experience is of a meal in community rather than an ‘out-of-this-world’ experience. This is a strong suggestion that this is a meal story and a bonding story. Maybe the storyteller Luke is grounded enough to know we become what we eat!

From all that we are now discovering about early Christian culture, meals played an important role in both community life, and in the Jesus tradition. In fact, community meals in the sense of a group of people gathering came before Christianity had even become a movement of note. This is thought to be how diverse and often groups with conflicting views of who Yeshua was began to congregate. It was a meal together that was the seed.

It is thought that ‘Christians’ regularly ate together, even before they began to conduct worship services. And Jesus seems so closely associated with meals that one of the criticisms levelled against him, you will remember, was as a ‘glutton and drunkard’.  (Matt 11:19)

Returning to our text it is fair to say that Luke had heard some of those stories, re-imagined them, as well as having shared in some of the meals. He knew the power of story. So, he tells a meal story at a crucial point in this local community’s history. And if we continue to accept the findings of modern biblical scholarship, then we can affirm that:

  • Jesus regularly accepted invitations to attend meals, but as a guest rather than as a host,


  • Jesus used these occasions for re-imagining and ‘indirect’ teaching,
    rather than the so-called ‘whiteboard and text’ kind.

“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) For around a meal, food is shared not hoarded, friendships are made and relationships strengthened.  And “experimentation, adventure and innovation lure us toward new horizons.” (O’Donohue 2003:146)

It is also safe to assume that the continued celebration of meals by the early movement developed a code that both identified and protected the gatherings and this code was that the gatherings were called ‘breaking of bread’. This code being motivated primarily by the needs of community, rather than establishing or remembering the so-called ‘upper room’ meal event.

So, this suggests that this story is not a forerunner to, or about, Holy Communion. And it certainly has got nothing to do with the Catholic doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’! But on the other hand, because all religious language is metaphorical… When bread and wine and BBQs are eaten, they become body and blood. Our body and blood. When body and blood are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. Our compassionate deeds. When compassionate deeds are eaten, they become as Christ in our neighbour.

“Since the beginning of time,” author Robert 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…  Every time we 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)

In these times of Covid-19 one has to admit that the above metaphor is being stretched or perhaps limited by our need to be in our bubble or to be at a physical distance. What does it mean be deeply connected and to share food together as a sign of our relationship? How can we shake hands let alone hold them and say grace, bless a glass and eat in peace and grace together? Sure we can express the metaphor in out bubble if we have one with more than ourselves in it, but is that safe when one or others in our bubble go out of it for supplies?

Well maybe a return to level three or two will enable the metaphor again? But what about relationships? Are they limited to the physical? Does the metaphor not allow for and in fact encourage going beyond the physical? What about the spirit of relationship? How is that manifest without the physical?

The storyteller Luke knows we become what we eat! And his Easter stories are an invitation to share, to journey, and to celebrate. And as his Emmaus story particularly notes, “hospitality is the open door to creative transformation and an expanded vision of possibilities.”  (Bruce Epperly P&F web site, 2008)

Do we need a new metaphor or can we enlarge our understanding of its gift to language and to our ability to be hospitable? Can out language and our concepts of care, compassion, hospitality and love reach beyond the need for the physical and hear the cries of despair beyond the words, beneath the words and no longer accessible though reading body language. Can we tell the stories in a Covid-19 world?

Two stories that speak of our shared experience under Covid-19

Just a Pinch

by Jim Burklo

A pinch of yeast within the flour
A treasure hidden in the ground
We know not the day nor hour
When the pearl is finally found
Secrets held in mustard seeds
Salty grains give food its worth
All our small but loving deeds
Show your presence in the earth

Scenes in the Kitchen

One night I had a dream.

I dreamed I was walking across the room with my God. 

Across my mind flashed scenes from my earlier life.

For each scene, I noticed the presence of my spouse going about tasks.

One scene belonged to me beyond time another to my God.

When the final scene flashed before me,

I looked back at kitchen floor

and I noticed that many times I had walked across the kitchen

there was only one scene to be had.

I also noticed that it happened

at the very lowest and saddest times in my life.

This really bothered me and I asked my God

why it was that once I had decided to follow the Way

my God would walk with me all the way,

but that during the most troublesome times in my life,

there is only one scene with the one I love within it?

I said that I didn’t understand why

when I needed it most I would be left alone

My God replied,

As love we have never left you.

Perhaps during your times of trial and suffering,

when you see only one scene of your loved one,

 it was a time when we were together.


Alves, R. 1990.  The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press.
Borg, M. J. 2001.  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally.  New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Fulghum, R. 1995.  From Beginning to End. The Rituals of our Lives. Moorebank. Bantam Press.
O’Donohue, J. 2003.  Divine Beauty. The Invisible Embrace. London. Transworld Publishers/Bantam Press.

John 20:19-31

Easter: An Open-ended Future, Alive!

We have all heard it, or at least all of those who have some affiliation with the church and the Christian faith. I am of course talking about the story about Thomas. It is a very familiar story.  Too familiar, perhaps. And therein is one of its problems. We hear it every year at this time, the first Sunday after Easter, that is, if ministers and preachers follow the set lectionary. And because we tend to hear it every year it is a difficult story to tell or preach on, because everyone, preacher and listener, reckons they know the ending, and often we all jump ahead to ‘our’ endings and miss the story itself.

So, this year hopefully with our Zoom meeting up and running I now invite you all to tell the story as you remember it. What do you remember about it? And remember you don’t have to get it right because what you remember is right anyway.

(General sharing/telling of the story)

Thank you.

What we might have gleaned from that exercise (if we did have a discussion) is that there are many interpretations of this story. But there are some similarities and the first is that it is often titled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, yet we are told there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! Another is that it is as if asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and evidence of faithlessness!

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who blew that latter criticism right out of the water for many of us when in his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, Tillich claimed that an authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but a willingness to take faith seriously. And others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Val Webb in her excellent book of some years back: In Defence of DoubtAn Invitation to Adventure. And latterly, the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions. You might recall here St David’s Mission Statement at the beginning of the Liturgy pew-sheet, Honour The Mind, Live the questions and Explore the Adventure of Humanity that seeks to encapsulate the call to recognise our ability to make language say what we want, the inherent need to embrace a life of doubt as a positive and enlightening opportunity and that such a life is an adventure that brings the novel as safe, encouraging and life enhancing.

So perhaps we can sense some of the dilemma we face each year as this story comes around in the lectionary. Despite that however, if we are true to what has just been said about doubt there have to be new things to be heard in its retelling.

One of the things might be that the storyteller we call John sets his interpreted story within a particular community which was experiencing debates on mission strategy, leadership issues, and discipleship. This sounds like it might be helpful for Northern Presbytery does it not? And how often have we heard those words in the last few years as the City parishes face a new world driven by business models, uniform expectation and top down management? This makes more sense when we can we hear that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement?

Some of us have felt this concern in the last few years have we not?

For me, hearing this from our text was an unexpected realisation.

Second, our storyteller John seems to be making it fairly clear that the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others rather than a personal experience of the Christ.  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008) In other words, it is in the place of doubting that is the place where we can practice belonging, practice hospitality, practice respect, practice humility, practice conversation and disagreement. (Bessler-Northcutt 2004). This also suggests that doubt provides a safe place in the company of others, and that in doubting we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

Greg Jenks from Faith-Futures Foundation, puts it this way: He says: “Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.”  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008) Maybe some of us haven’t heard it being put like that before in this story.

And the third thing we might have heard is what some claim is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories we experience the creative, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life. As doubt is so much a part of our lives so is the transforming power of our God, our serendipitous creativity. Often subtle.  Unpredictable.  Evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

I like those images because they introduce both an alternative way of seeing things as well as a hint of humour as a vital component of life

And talking for a minute on laughter; Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox, in his book The Feast of Fools, suggests that the “comic spirit is somehow closer to Christianity than is the tragic”.  (Cox 1969:150) Then 18 years later, in April 1987, he published in the journal Christianity and Crisis, an article called “God’s Last Laugh”. In it he suggested: “God laughs, it seems, because God knows how [Easter] all turns out in the end.” Cox went on to say: “On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil. But, without a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?”  (Cox 1987)

He had in mind, no doubt, the custom found in some Orthodox churches, where members meet in the church – usually on the Monday after Easter (through to the following Saturday), and called ‘Bright Monday/Week’ – for a feast and festival. Games would be played. And there would be much laughter, dancing and joke telling. Why? Because, they said, it was the most fitting way to celebrate the ‘big joke’ God pulled on Satan in the resurrection. That has to tickle one’s fancy does it not! But it leaves us with the over-all question: Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our religious life?

Returning to our test we come to the realization that to know the reality of resurrection is to experience it. Not as some doctrine which involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb. Or an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical stories. We all experience it “by simply being alive, and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death”.  (Epperly, P&F Web site, 2008)

The good news of Easter, then, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future. A moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again. That sounds like a pretty good message from and Easter during our Covid-19 experience. Yes; the world will be different and while we might doubt our ability to recover, our doubting contains the possibility of remaking the world. Amen.

Alves, R. 1990.  The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press.
Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press
Webb, V. 1995.  In Defense of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press.

Easter Hope During Covid-19

Posted: April 11, 2020 in Uncategorized

Easter Hope During Covid-19

1 Corinthians 1: 22-25

On Friday I spoke of a Crucified God and while it was a slight confirmation of what has traditionally been the norm for Good Friday it was an attempt to make it align with a ‘Progressive’ understanding of where or thinking on God might be today. The reality of the human condition as binary, or good verses bad or right vs wrong assumptions was challenged. I suggested that events such as the Covid-19 virus that is sweeping the world was the result of an excess or can be termed as an evil event as a result of excess and that such an excess was when humanities creative responsibilities overtook evolutionary limitations. When scientists go too far too fast, when human expectations and actions put the whole creation at risk. When human aspirations overtake common sense and social responsibility. When human imagination escapes moral responsibilities.

The English Standard Translation of our Corinthian Text reads “At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God’s Anointed crucified! This is an offense to the Jews, nonsense to the nations; but to those who have heard God’s call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God’s power and God’s wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.”— 1 Cor 1:22–25, SV trans.

“This is a theology that begins in atheism,” Caputo says, but he also says that this is just that—a starting point. Caputo’s statement needs to be understood by drawing upon Paul Tillich’s idea of atheism, where God is “always that which precedes this division [of subject and object].” When something becomes real to us, it enters subject-object relations, but we need to resist this tendency when it comes to God because it naturally leads to misguided attempts to “prove” God’s existence or nonexistence. When a theology begins in atheism the question of whether God exists or not is a question of no value. Another way I think of putting this is to say like Richard Kearney suggests that There is Theism illumined by atheism and then there is ana-theism, God after that God, God of the death of God if you like or maybe even a call to look for Easter Sunday, a God of the empty tomb.

The concept of a supreme being, an entity among entities, is unavoidable as history has shown us yet is also half-blasphemous and mythological. The concept of God a supreme being projects an idea of God as somebody like us, only bigger, better, smarter, who out-knows us, out-wills us, and out-wits us at every turn, a God who casts an eternal, relentless eye on us. It’s no wonder that we grow up understanding fear better than love when as an infant we are often told that God is watching over us all the time. This notion of God is almost impossible to avoid and yet it’s theologically spurious! It anthropomorphizes and finitizes God. It renders nature as uninformative, and it encourages a dominion over, irresponsible exploitation such as it seems has created the Covid-19 virus. No one is suggesting that the arrival of Covid-19 was sitting around waiting for an opportunity to act on us. The proper theological and religious response to this “God on high” is atheism, but as Our text reminds us, that’s the beginning of theology, not the end. There is ana-theism, a God after that God, there is the Easter Sunday Hope of a new heaven and a new earth. As Caputo puts this is a Good Friday context when he says; For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.

The Easter Sunday message, the resurrection story or at least the beginning of the story has the Gospels being far from clear as to just what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had been rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have got there before anybody else. There was a man she thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that there were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of “fear and great joy.” Confusion was everywhere. There is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did he say? What did he do?

This is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it—the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs—have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. It’s not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. Here we have the challenge of another way of seeing weakness or ambiguity and uncertainty. The story doesn’t have the ring of great drama. But somehow it does have has the ring of truth to it. It sounds like life as we know it. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt. How or why the Covid-19 virus came upon the world is not certain, yet at least because we hear all the speculation, but the fact that it is here and that it coming was unimaginable is without doubt.

This reminds us that the symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He was not in the tomb. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face. This is the Easter story of Hope. This is the story of an emptiness to be filled, an end to what is and the birth of a new Heaven and a new earth. Covid-19 is an evil unimaginable event the ramifications of which is an emptiness waiting to be filled with a new way of being. It was unexpected, unwanted and confusing and it brings an emptiness waiting to be filled. This is the hope of Easter. God does not exist but the insistence of God is calling us to live a Kingdom- life.

One of the helpful approaches to this change in thinking is to remind ourselves that we don’t want to lose the unlimited depth of God. If we’ve got a problem with something, change the metaphor, Tillich says. In this case, we need to think of God not as on high over and above but rather in the depths. Think of God as the womb, or the ‘Almost’. Tillich uses the word “unconditional” to describe God. Caputo, in response, goes as far as to say this: “If God exists, that would ruin everything. If God exists, that would ruin what we mean by the Kingdom of God. He says that the unconditional demands that God not exist. For God to be God, God must not, should not, ought not exist, not if the Kingdom of God is worth pursuing.”

Ok! Now we might say that if God doesn’t “exist” the way an object exists, then we might need to think of God as “unconditional,” but what do we mean by that? Well1 Maybe we need to consider it from two different directions.

The first is from the point of view that there is an out there, a reality that can be spoken of. Starting there suggests that the unconditional from “out there” breaks in and seizes us without giving us any say in the matter. There’s no compromise or barter. It’s coming at us without our invitation and maybe even against our wishes. This is not a projection from us but a projectile coming at us. We might even like it to go away! It wakes us up in the middle of the night and it won’t let us get back to sleep.

The second is from the point of view of the self; that suggests that the unconditional in this sense is something we affirm. We hope for this if we’re worth the oxygen we are breathing. This is the sort of thing for which there is no small print. A good example of this is the ideal of welcoming the other. The unconditional is about welcoming the other and being hospitable in the best sense of the word—not how we normally do it, inviting only people we like and need and who somehow serve us. What would it be like to welcome the Other? An excerpt from a poem I wrote might suggest something about the unconditional nature of this welcoming the other.

………… The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

Maybe we wouldn’t use the word “invitation” when thinking about the empty tomb and its challenge to us but rather the word “visitation”—it’s the emptiness, the open, unencumbered nothingness that invites us to enter, it’s the knock of the door in the middle of the night that invites us to open ourselves to risk, to chance a new future or a new tomorrow. Is it a stranger in need of a cup of cold water, and the challenge is to not miss the message by thinking that there might be someone there to do you harm? The risk of genuine hospitality is irreducible. If there’s no risk, it’s all about welcoming the same. This means that, yes, whether we like it or not, the unconditional includes disaster and unforeseeable harm and evil. Nothing guarantees that it is good. But if you play it safe without opening yourself to this moment, if you’ve taken every precaution to remove every possibility of danger, you’ve also drained life of its vitality. It we allow the Covid-19 situation to fall into the vibes of a supreme, almighty, untouchable, God then we have denied the ‘Almost’, we have denied the Crucified, vulnerable ambiguous, unexpected God of the empty tomb.

One other way to put the “unconditional,” drawing from Jacques Derrida, is the “impossible.” What we mean by God may indeed be just this—in the phenomenological sense, not the logic of P and not-P. We go through life with a horizon of expectations. When we turn the corner, we expect to see the old familiar place, not a sea of nothing! Such predictability in life is necessary to our survival. We work with what is possible within a range of expectations. Again, here I might suggest is the ‘Almost’ as God. Nobody wants to gainsay the importance of the possible in this sense. We foresee what is likely to come, the ‘almost’ and we make preparations along the terms of the relatively stable world in which we live.

When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do. The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming. Here is the challenge of the Covid-19 virus; will the rules that helped us manage the virus become the norm or influence the rules we adopt. And yes, there’s also a relative instability to be acknowledged. It’s possible to turn the corner and discover that the place we know has been torn down. Something can shatter our horizon of expectation. If it weren’t, life would be same-old, same-old. When something shatters our horizon, it forces us to reconsider everything from the ground up. When we have been betrayed by someone we trusted unconditionally. When someone breaks all the rules, we don’t know what to do! The rules come after the event because nobody saw this coming. This distinction between the horizon of expectations and the in-breaking of surprise cuts into all aspects of life.

We depend upon the relative stability of life, life is not a bed of roses, life is very much like good Friday and the cross, we all bear it often but we also need the open-endedness, the absolute surprise, the challenge of the invitation to be unconditional, to love the other.. Though we want stability of the world put right, we also want a certain amount of chaos, the open, empty tomb, what James Joyce called “chaosmos.” The name of God is the name of the great “perhaps”—I again would say the name of the great ‘almost’ not in the sense of vacillation or not yet or even the probability but in the sense of a possibility, of the impossible, a newness never before known. This is a miraculousness to life that can’t be discounted. This is the Kingdom, Kin-dom, Realm of a life of promise

In summary then, we don’t need to get rid of God, but we need to rethink what we mean by God. We don’t stop at the literal meaning of a text (if we can even find it); we start there. We ask ourselves what the meaning of Christianity is and we remind ourselves that we don’t need it to be calcified. Trapped in fear of the unknown or the unknowable, nor does it need to be trapped in the fears that are created by those who would make us think like them. Christianity is the ongoing living activity of the tradition. The name of God is the deep deposit of that tradition that invites and in fact insists that we live a post Easter life.

And what is the Kingdom of God? It is the very works of compassion that are the living spirit of it, not the result of a rewards and punishments system, not based on an exchange value system. The Kingdom of God is incarnate in the people who are naked, hungry, and imprisoned and is enacted in administering works of compassion. That’s what it is, if it is at all—and, in fact, it is not or it is ‘almost’ to the extent that people remain naked, hungry, and imprisoned without being administered to. That’s why the Kingdom of God is always becoming, the Kingdom for which we hope and dream and pray. The Kingdom does not exist, but insists. It calls and it is ‘almost’ Amen.

You might like to hear the above in another way. If so, you might like to watch the video below

What Could a Progressive Good Friday Look Like?

Luke 23:1-32

Here we are again. It is Good Friday and we are at the foot of the cross so to speak. One could say that it is more than metaphor to say that given the state of the world in the throws of a Covid19 pandemic. Maybe Good Friday is more important than ever before in our lifetime. But what do we with a Good Friday and the Cross when we’ve abandoned the doctrine of substitutionary atonement and the divine necessity of Jesus’ death? What do we do with the ‘mantra’ “Jesus died for our sins,” or “Jesus died so that we might have eternal life and escape God’s wrath,” or, “Jesus paid the price for our salvation,” and “sin deserves death and Jesus stood in our place.”  With the increasing number of non-religious in the Western World at least, one has to think that the above mantra, have been abandoned by most. What about the many 21st century Christians, who without reflecting regularly use iPods, ponder photos from the Hubble telescope, go to Sikh and Hindu doctors, and believe that humankind emerged from a multi-billion-year process of evolution. What about those of us who assume without thinking that human sin brought death into the world. That we are born steeped in this original sin. That human sin deserves divine punishment. And what about those of us who as Christians assume that Jesus came to break our bondage to sin. That in fact Jesus’ death was foreordained and that he lived his adult life knowing he was going to die on the Cross. And what about those of us who assume that Jesus’ death is God’s way of securing our salvation. And that only a divine sacrifice can free us from sin and insure eternal life, rather than eternal damnation. And lastly what about those who assume that the only pathway to salvation is a personal relationship with Jesus, demonstrated by an explicit affirmation of our sin and the sole salvation of Jesus Christ.

And let’s be clear here. These “orthodoxies” have provided assurance for us once upon a time, but to many of us today they no longer make sense, nor do we believe in a God who requires the death of “his” son to secure our salvation. We can also see divine grace operating in other religious traditions and in the experience of faithful agnostics.  Still, many of us attend Good Friday services; some of us even preach at such services, despite our theological and liturgical reservations.  The question here is; can we as progressives “redeem” Good Friday in a way that affirms the interplay of divine love, human creativity, and human brokenness, while avoiding dubious theologies that assume salvation requires violence, including the predestined death of God’s only Child?

Here again is St David’s statement. How can we ‘Honour the mind, Live the questions and Explore the adventure of Humanity and beneath that statement or within it is the demand for an authentic ‘Good Friday’.

We do not need to celebrate divine violence on Good Friday or any occasion, but we live in a world characterized by implicit and explicit violence against the Earth, child and adult slavery and sex trafficking, the political scene gridlocked by its own design, disparity between the wealthy and the vulnerable, and in many places political scrambling in the face of Covid19. Nor do we need to celebrate disruption and violence as the world faces the results of Covid19. We are only too aware, when we open the doors of perception, not only of the beauty of the Earth but of our precarious situation as a result of human decision-making and the machinations of powers and principalities.

Despite this we can creatively remember Good Friday in ritual and retreat by reflecting on the interplay of our personal and institutional shortcomings and the co-creative companionship. We cab see that “Were You There When They Crucified by Lord?” is the quintessential Good Friday hymn.  Of course, none of us were there physically. But, we are all part of an ambiguous history that persecutes prophets and promotes celebrities.  On Good Friday, we can ponder all the little crucifixions going on right now in our world, often unnoticed, but very real – death dealing actions that lead to melting polar icecaps, global climate change and the potential cataclysm that awaits our children and children’s children, complacency at mass starvation and genocide, apathy at sex trafficking and human slavery, our addiction to oil and weapon ownership, the Changed world due to Covid19, and the list goes on, even before we explore our own personal ambiguities and culpability in the subtle violence of everyday life.

Even though Jesus’ death was neither foreordained nor necessary to appease some God’s wrath, we can recognize that we are no better morally and spiritually than many of those who shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion, stood idly by doing nothing to prevent it, and implicitly sentenced Jesus by their involvement in political and religious institutions.  Are our political leaders – and we as voters – any more moral than Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders?  We also operate out of self-interest and are willing for many to suffer or die for the “NZ way of life.”

Good Friday also affirms the tragic beauty of the divine relationship with the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the vantage point of a prison cell, proclaims that only a suffering God can save and Alfred North Whitehead speaks of God as the fellow sufferer who understands. Last week I wrote of the need for a Weak Theology, ‘A Crucified God’ and I have argued before for a theology of ambiguity, uncertainty and an approach to an alternative way of speaking of God as the ‘Almost’.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have debated the doctrine of patripassianism, the belief that God the Father suffers on the Cross with the Son, Jesus.  While patripassianism, or divine suffering, has been labeled a heresy, based on the belief that the divine nature is incapable of suffering and that Jesus’ suffering touched his humanity but left his divinity unsullied, many believe that the deeper heresy is the belief that God does not suffer with the world.  A changeless, unfeeling, and apathetic God can neither heal nor save.  In contrast to a passionless deity, a meaningful vision of Good Friday proclaims that our God suffers with us – in terms of the Cross it is the whole of our God that suffers – on the cross and thus in every moment of creaturely suffering.

Difficult as it is to admit our complacency and culpability, we can on Good Friday answer “yes” to the question, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”  We can also say “yes” to the grace that feels our pain and regret, the pain of those broken by the world’s greed and complacency, and live in the hope that the one who feels also forgives and transforms, and enables us to rise up with new energies for global healing.

When stripped of the orthodoxies that birthed the questions, we began with today it is possible to see the obvious. Jesus’ work is done; he is now history.  But, our personal history is always unfinished and subject to transformation at the hands of others.  Jesus’ work is objective in its “facticity,” as a person of history but the moment they began sharing stories about the Teacher, Healer, and Saviour, new histories began.  Jesus’ ministry lives on in resurrection moments when the words and wisdom he spoke transform us and when his Spirit moves through our spirits, initiating a new creation and making a pathway within the wilderness of experience.

When we revisit Good Friday the words “it is finished” can be a relief.  They can suggest that our suffering can end and we can enter into what has traditionally been termed ‘the rest of the saints’.  Even here, our death remains unfinished for we live on in memory, DNA, spiritual impact, and grief. Our lives may perish but they live forever more in life’s memory and the ongoing history of the universe.

Jesus’ words both those most likely to have been his and those from the mouths of later comers, come from the recognition that our existence from moment to moment is contingent on forces beyond ourselves, such as what it means to participate in the evolutionary truth.  They also reveal a trust in a power within and beyond us that brought us into life and will receive us upon our deaths.  This is an act of trust, and not a description of everlasting life.  We can’t intuit the “furniture of heaven” based on Jesus’ confession.  The most we can do is – and perhaps this is more important than any postmortem knowledge – is to place the whole of our lives in their temporality into a reality that we can never know a completion of, and we might call it a divine caring, a serendipitous creativity.  This may be the ultimate healing, the sense of peace that comes when life is unfixable, uncontrollable, uncertain, risk filled and where death is all around, and a cure eludes us.  We are not alone; it is not completed, it is ‘Almost’ and we belong to that which we call our ‘Almost’ and nothing – abandonment, thirst, or cross experience – can separate us from the face we cannot look at, the ‘I Am’ and in traditional words ‘God’s love’. Amen.


A Crucified God, A Weak Theology,

1 Corinthians

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short;

from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none,

and those who mourn as though they were not mourning,

and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing,

and those who buy as though they had no possessions,

and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.

For the present form of this world is passing away.

 If these were “ordinary” times, we’d be continuing to spend hours together in our respective churches each Sunday.  Today, we’d wave palm branches, shout “Hosanna,” and read in unison the story of Jesus’s death and burial.  Those of us who follow tradition may have planned to gather on Maundy Thursday, to share a Passover meal, wash each other’s feet, and strip the altars bare.  On Good Friday, we might have gathered and planned to keep vigil in our pews, walk the Stations of the Cross, and listen to homilies on the Last Seven Words of Christ.  On Holy Saturday, we might wait, drained and tired, perhaps, with a full anticipation that Easter would bring its many joys. But these aren’t ordinary times.  Most of us are confined to our homes, and our church families are not gathering in person.  Some of us have lost our jobs, our paychecks, our savings are expected to go a long way, our futures are more in limbo than they were.  Some of us are numb and disassociated, unable to process the scope of what’s happening around the world.  Some of us are depressed.  Anxious.  Lonely. Some even terrified by the unknown.  Some of us are sick.  Some of us are grieving our dead.  Some of us — before this pandemic is over — may and probably will die.

Now that I have your attention, I will try to suggest a way of looking at the situation from a faith-based approach. This will I hope not answer the questions but rather provide others that might address what lies in their asking. What is there to say in perilous times like these?  What does our faith offer us?  On this Palm and Passion Sunday, I think it offers us a core truth, a healing truth, a paradoxical and shocking truth: And that is that only a suffering God can help.  And a suffering God —shown to us in the traditional Easter stories – a crucified, broken, desolate God — is the suggestion we have. I know and accept that there’s so much to be, pondered, and debated about the theological meanings of the cross.  What did his crucifixion accomplish?  What can we know for sure about sin, sacrifice, death, atonement, and eternity in light of Christ’s death? These are all essential questions, and wise, probing minds have considered them for centuries.  But right now, what strikes me most is not the theology.  What strikes me is the story itself, bare and unadorned.  The story of betrayal, denial, and abandonment.  The story of cruel, unjust trials, false accusations, and Jesus’s mysterious silence.  The story of floggings.  The story of thorns.  The story of bloody wounds and oxygen-deprived lungs.

Here we have in summary a story of what happens when the God we want to intervene and a God we think we know doesn’t show up, and another God — an inefficient, non-aggressive God, — shows up instead.  So often, we think we know exactly what kind of God we need.  This God will make swift repairs of wrongs, the intervention will be supernatural, in other words not of nature nor of the natural expectations, somehow this God will be a tangible presence without the limitations of being tangible, there will be a butter soft landing for our belief system.  But here’s the thing: that God is not Jesus, not is that God our God..

For those of us who’ve grown up in the church, it might very well be the case that the actual horror of Jesus’s death has faded into over-familiarity. We’re used to worshiping in front of ornate, flower-strewn or purple-cloth draped crosses.  We’ve seen so many icons of Christ Crucified that we barely notice them. Maybe that’s why a crucifix with the body of Jesus on it is better than one without.  But what would happen if we could shake ourselves out of this familiarity for a few minutes, and see the story with fresh eyes?  What if we could look at the cross and see what Jesus’s first followers saw?  Scandal?  Humiliation?  Godlessness?  Shame?  The cross as Covid19 virus. Careful here I am not saying that the Virus is God nor am I saying that Jesus died to save us from the virus either.

In the context of our current pandemic, the story of the cross calls us to have trust in the very midst of the loss and terror. This trust means accepting that we will die — if not now then later — and trusting that our living will be ok.   It means speaking back to our own trembling hearts, which so often prioritize self-protection over everything else that matters in this life.  It means stepping away from the vicious cycles of denial and fear that seek to cheat death, but in fact rob us of the abundant life the Jesus story offers us.

I’ll be honest: like many of you, I come to this Holy Week a bit tired, uncertain, and afraid.   Who knows how many deaths lie waiting around the corner?  How many sorrows, disappointments, farewells, and jagged endings we will face before resurrection comes home to stay?  I can’t imagine most of it, and sometimes I can’t bear any of it.  I find myself crying and asking that if anything in the Christian story is true, then this must be true as well. A suffering God makes sense and this suffering God will not leave me alone.  There is no death we will die, small or big, literal or figurative, that cannot be overcome by the reality of it, the stark truth of what it means to be human. Not is the sense of some sort of supernatural escape from it but rather in that the story of the cross is my story, it is the human story.

Others are telling us that God has taken this terrible occasion to remind us that we are all sinners and that what is happening is that our God is dishing out some much-needed and justifiable punishment upon the human race. Tell that to the family who watched from 2 meters away as their loved one died a slow death asphyxiated by a virus that on one can see coming, and then they could not say goodbye as her body was burned. Tell that to the mother whose daughter returned from her overseas exploration to die in isolation in a local hospital. Those are blasphemous images of God for me, clear examples of the bankruptcy of thinking of God as a strong force with the power to intervene upon natural processes like shifting the crustal plates around the Pacific rim like some toys. What about the fact that as our planet slowly cools so the crust has to move? And why should the decision of who gets the virus and who doesn’t depend upon what suits some sort of divine plan. What about the horrific, horrible story of the crucifixion demanding of us that we think of God otherwise?

If evil exists then it has to be such a thing as the virus, not only in its existence but in its impact on humanity Using John D Caputo’s idea of event one could say that our current world is an event of evil and as such an excess and while events are both good and bad the excess of an event is not necessarily good news. It is an excess in that it has taken over the ability of evolution to control itself. Evil, which we can describe as irreparably ruined time, without the possibility of compensation, also exhibits this excess. There are no guarantees about the course that events follow. An event is not an inner essence, or an essential being of a thing that is unfolding more or less inevitably in time, but it is the endless possibilities of linking of which the name is capable. Events such as Covid19 set off a chain or series of substitutions, not a process of essentialization or essential unfolding.

The evil or the excess did not have to happen. It was a perhaps and not a certainty. An event can result in a disintegrating destabilization and a diminished recontextualization just as well as it can create an opening to the future. Nothing guarantees the success of the event either way. Do you see here the ‘almost’? This virus can be beaten as its links are not assured of asymptotic progress toward some goal. The promise is also a threat to the virus, and the event to come can be either for better or for worse. Some have said that the virus is a threat to democracy and that is true but what is also true is that the promise of the democracy to come is menaced by the threat of the National Socialism to come. The event of the future that is not yet here is not an essence unfolding but a promise to be kept, it is not an inevitable certainty but rather a call or a solicitation to be responded to, a prayer to be answered, a hope to be fulfilled. Man-made or not the virus is an event that is subject to all the contingencies of time and tide, of chance and circumstance, of history and power, of decision and indecision—in short, to all the forces of the world that conspire to prevent the event, to contain its disruption, to hold in check its bottomless disseminative disturbance, to betray its promise an event refers neither to an actual being or entity nor to being itself, but to an impulse or aspiration simmering within both the names of entities and the name of being, something that groans to be born, something that cannot be constricted to either the ontic or ontological order at all. It is the ‘almost’ released by the perhaps.

In less philosophical and more traditional terms here we have the crucified God, the weak theology, the turn the other cheek demand so as to offer the other to the risk. The strength of a weak theology so to speak rightly understood, demands that the possibility event overflows any entity; it does not rest easily within the confines of the name of an entity, but stirs restlessly, endlessly, like an invitation or a call, an invocation (“come”) or a provocation, a solicitation or a promise, a praise or benediction. The insistence of God as opposed to the certainty of God’s power and presence.

When we take the insistence of God and apply it to human life we are challenged to move away from God as a Highest Being. Or God as a steady hand at the wheel of the universe, ordering all things to good purpose, or God who has the spanning providential eye overseeing all. Those ideas have had their time So.  Welcome to Holy Week.  Here we are, and here is our suffering, sorrowing, saving God.  Here are our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry.  Here is the cross upon which we stand.  Blessed is the One who comes to die so that we will live.

me and place in human history but in our postmodern condition we acknowledge the instability of traditional foundations, the ambiguities of the old absolutes, and the complexity of endlessly linking systems without closure. The “internet” is very postmodern. The world is neither a neat, divinely run cosmos nor pure chaos but what James Joyce called so prophetically “chaosmos,” a dance of probabilities sometimes producing improbable results. That fits with biblical creation: in the Beginning, at the time God was creating the world, the elements were already there, as old as God.

Faith then is not a noun but a verb, faith is not a commodity but a way of life, faith is not a safe harbour but rather risky business. God is not a warranty for a well-run world, but the name of a promise, an un-kept promise, where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet in a remote corner of the universe. We are asked to not believe in the existence of God but rather in God’s insistence. We like Caputo then do not say God “exists,” but that God calls—God calls upon us, like an unwelcome interruption, a quiet but insistent solicitation. The truth of God may or may not come true. The work of theology is not to spell out the bells and whistles adorning a heavenly monarch but to meditate upon everything we are here called to, everything we are trying to recall, in and under the name (of) “God.” In a postmodern world, this monotheistic name does not have a monopoly. God emerges here and there, often under other names, not in the bound volumes of theology but in loose papers that describe a more underlying and insecure faith, a more restless hope, a more deep-set but unfulfilled promise or desire, a desire beyond desire that is never satisfied. We can say ‘I do not know what I desire when I desire God’, where that non-knowing is not a lack but the open-ended venture in the human adventure, the promise/risk, the very structure of hope and expectation, not this Messiah or that, but a messianic expectation not immune from secretly hoping the Messiah never shows up. God does not bring closure but a gap. A God of the gaps is not the gap God fills, but the gap God opens. The name of God makes the present a space troubled by an immemorial past and an unforeseeable future. Good, good, indeed very good. ‘Almost’. That is not a declaration of fact but a promise on which we are expected to make good, an insistence whose existence we are expected to deliver. And nobody is guaranteeing anything. That is The Way, The truth and The Life.

So.  Welcome to Holy Week.  Here we are, and here is our suffering, sorrowing, crucified and saving redeeming God.  It is in our hosannas, broken and unbroken, hopeful and hungry that is our response to the insistence. They or our ‘almost’ our yes, thank God. Here is the cross upon which we stand so that we may live Blessed is the One who comes in the Name of God. Amen.

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion). Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

Caputo, John D. The Weakness of God (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) (p. 6). Indiana University Press. Kindle Edition.

Below is the link to a video that I think might help explain the use of ‘Almost’ as a way to understand how God insists as opposed to exits.


Seeing Beyond

Posted: March 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 26: 6-13

Seeing Beyond

Rex Hunt of whom I have often spoken and referred to or quoted noted a poem called “Contact lenses” that he thought spoke as contemporary context to today’s gospel story as told by the teller we call Matthew.

“Lacking what they want to see
makes my eyes hungry
and eyes can feel
only pain.

“Once I lived behind thick walls of glass
and my eyes belonged
to a different ethic
timidly rubbing the edges
of whatever turned them on.
Seeing usually
was a matter of what was
in front of my eyes
matching what was
behind my brain.
Now my eyes have become
a part of me exposed
quick risky and open
to all the same dangers.

“I see much
better now
and my eyes hurt.”

(E S Fiorenza).

Rex also noted that he had never preached on this biblical story as told by Matthew. Whereas the rendition of this story, as told by Luke, he has. He went on to note the differences Matthew offers as opposed to Luke

Matthew says the story happened in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, just before Jesus’ death whereas Luke says it all happened in the home of Simon the pharisee, in Galilee. Luke says it was Simon who objected to the unnamed woman’s actions.
In Matthew, it was ‘the disciples. In Matthew, the objection revolves around the extravagance of the anointing. In Luke, Simon’s objection centres on the woman’s so-called ‘sinful past’.

Rex also notes that for many reasons, the whole of biblical narrative tradition seems to have been adversely influenced by Luke’s story conclusion. The sinfulness of the woman.

To compound this conclusion further, some storytellers and commentators suggest the woman was a prostitute. But there is absolutely nothing in Matthew’s story to confirm or suggest this. And even if you want to push Luke’s story to the extreme edges, his mention of the woman being a ‘sinner’ does not point to her being a prostitute. The New Testament scholar Barbara Reid suggests that “…this woman need only have been ill or disabled or have frequent contact with Gentiles to be considered a sinner” (Reid 2000:97).

“It is remarkable,” she says that neither commentator nor Bible translator “has thought to point the reader to the way Jesus perceives her by entitling [the story]: ‘A woman who shows great love’” (Reid.

So, we ask; what is Matthew’s special take, via his storytelling? I like Rex want to suggests that it is about having a new perspective – on life and others. And that’s what the poem is about.

‘Once I lived behind thick walls of glass…
‘Now my eyes have become a part of me exposed…
‘I see much better now… beyond usually.

Can Matthew’s hearers, and now we…

Can all of us move from behind our ‘thick walls of glass’ that has shaped our seeing and hearing of this story. To ‘see’ the woman’s humanity as well as her great love?
To ‘see’ Jesus’ humanity and his re-imagining of the world?

Generally speaking, women had a leading role in the early Jesus movement. Women had access to financial resources they used for ministering to Jesus. Women journeyed with Jesus. Women were often unnamed. Our Lenten mentor, Jewish new testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, suggests: “Women followed Jesus then, and women follow him now, for the same reasons that men did: because they found something in his person and his message that spoke to their hearts…”  (Levine 2006:143).

But, Levine cautions, while many can and do find that inspirational, you “do not have to construct a negative view of Judaism in order to do so” (Levine 2006: 143). On the other hand, neither do we have to turn Jesus into some misogynist, as some church leaders have done and still do, to support their farcical arguments that women cannot be ordained or have leadership positions, because Jesus (apparently) didn’t appoint any women to his inner circle!

We need to stop bearing ‘false witness’. Such action when it happens must be denounced. And denounced by Christian theology. Especially when such claims come from the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings and opinions. And in a world where right is a commodity to be owned, bought and sold.

But of-course Matthew’s story and our reflection on it, could also have gone beyond ‘women’, and been about asylum seekers, corporate developers’ bribes, homosexuality, the continuing wars around the globe. In this world today in the wake of the Trump election and questions about the social influencing and the social impact, the false news, to wide interpretations of what might be considered truth. And now in the think of a global pandemic where the world is poised to change, be it tighten up on freedoms, abolish privacy monetize humanity or provide space for a new thing a world where common sense banishes hate, intolerance, power seeking, and people live and breathe as though we all matter. Where we do more than give lip service to love and explore the depths of humanity that come from such empathetic, valued individuality and actions.

Matthew’s context for this particular story is not the same as Luke’s more popular one but rather appears in its context to be a lead up to Jesus death. Which also fits in with our current season of Lent. And it also fits without current world situation, poised on the edge of change of apocalyptic proportion. The death of what we have known and the birth of a new age. Jesus’ death mattered to Matthew.  Indeed, to all those early storytellers. But only because his life mattered more. Many spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life (Patterson 2004). And how their own small communities could embrace life, not be scared of it.

So, my invitation to you all today is similar: Do not deny that the situation we find ourselves in is disastrous, death bringing, fearful, life-threatening and deeply horrific. Do not push it away either as God’s punishment of a bad world nor deny it just as part of evolution of the species. But see it as the call of Jesus to embrace life, all of life, and not be scared of it. Step out from behind the thick walls of glass and see much better, now…Step out of the fear and the blaming and the seeking to find who did it and work together in love for each other,

Prayer to an ‘Almost’ God

Just when we think we have it all figured out,
things change again. I am ‘almost’ there.

It is as if the rug is pulled out from under my feet,

I don’t know where to put my foot,

 But I am ‘almost there and I need to take the step.
When will I be able to rest
in the comfort of knowing what comes next?

When will my ‘almost’ become my reaching the ‘next’?

I see the ‘almost’ that transcends all time,
that created the stars and set them in place,

My ‘almost’ is so huge that it belittles and confuses my ‘Almighty’

I see the ‘almost’ that is never there yet already present,

The ‘almost that is ageless yet known in every age,
The ‘almost’ that authenticates ‘promise’ and confirms the grace that accepts
being there but not yet, the changes that are about to invite the freedom and the possible, the almost that is already present in the now.

 The ‘almost enables an emptiness of heart shaped by anxiety,
and fills it instead with wonder and awe, and beauty and possibility and hope.
The ‘almost’ releases me from the maybe and pushes aside the chains of complacency,
and binds us to an ever-present, ever-moving Spirit of transformation by imagination

 The ‘almost’ takes the things I believed to be permanent and stable
and leaves them by the way side as markers of the impossible

That without ‘almost’,

the impossible would founder on the edges of the possible
And keep us away from being enfolded in a quantum like unquenchable love

‘Almost’ reminds us that memory of the dynamic,

ever-moving, evolving, unfolding, emerging is entry into

The possibility of a world without a fear that paralyzes,
and with a way into and out of a grief that cripples us with anger
that imprisons us in a loss of what had been.

‘Almost’ by incarnation becomes angels arriving to gently move us
over that frightening edge into the unknown,
inviting us to enter the realm of trust.

Self-worth, human flourishing, life is grounded because,

‘Almost’ is always eternal. Always enduring and everlasting.

In ‘almost’ restlessness finds peace, meaning finds purpose

And in ‘almost’ evolution, creation, and imagination

Become finite within infinity

Yes! and amen.

Doug Lendrum

Levine, A-J. 2006.  The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. NY: New York. HarperOne.
Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the Passion. Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Reid, B. E. 2000.  Parables for Preachers. Year C. MN: Collegeville. The Liturgical Press.

Now I See

Posted: March 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

Psalm 23        John 9:1-41

Now I See

How quickly the world changes.  Just a few weeks ago the world was going about its business as it always did. Children were attending school in most towns, local businesses were open and thriving, the shelves in the local grocery store were well-stocked, the churches we were attending were gearing up for Holy Week, people and families were enjoying travel abroad and most were experiencing fairly normal workdays, and we had never heard the phrase, “social distancing,” or “self-managed quarantine’.

Now, just days later, schools and universities around the world are closed.  Libraries, restaurants, cafes, and cultural centers are shutting their doors.  Some are finding it hard to find hand sanitiser, bathroom tissue, or other staples at the local grocery.  Some churches will offer worship services online for at least the next month.  Others are flying home, ahead of a nationally mandated travel restriction and in some countries a ban between nations.  Doctors and nurses experiences in the emergency room have drastically changed, and it is suggested we are to maintain a one to two meter distance from every human being we encounter.  We are experiencing the life in the shadow of Covid-19.  Like we said at the beginning, how quickly the world changes.

But wait a minute! Is “change” the right word? It doesn’t seem pandemic enough and isn’t life about change anyway? Maybe we should use the word  “apocalyptic” to describe what life feels like right now, and maybe that’s the better word.  After all, an apocalypse, rightly defined, is an unveiling, a revelation of things previously unseen or unknown.  Maybe the world hasn’t changed that much at all. There have been pandemics before and they have been thought to be natural or man-made, accepted as part of what happens when you have people who are always trying to find things out. Or maybe the world hasn’t changed so much as it has been exposed, uncovered, made plain, laid bare.  Maybe the evolutionary outcomes haven’t been given due attention because we thought we had it all controlled. We did.t account for a God who could be seen to be ambiguous, uncertain, and co-creative. Maybe we were blind to the freedom we actually have or the responsibilities that are ours before, and the time has now come to see.

To see what, exactly?  That we are fragile.  That we are one — interdependent and interconnected.  That our daily choices can have life-and-death consequences for other people and our planet.  Maybe we have been able to project sin and responsibility away onto someone else. And maybe we have forgotten that unselfish love is risky, inconvenient, and essential.  That so much more is at stake in our spiritual lives than our personal safety and comfort and having got it right for me.  Maybe we are supposed to be people of the Cross, long enough to see that we are also people of the Resurrection.

Our Gospel story for this fourth week of Lent is about costly seeing.   Debie Thomas an American facing the changes in America reminded me of a poem I used in my book. “The Place Where We Are Right,” by Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, In my book I used it to challenge the place that orthodoxies have in life. They can lead to a sense of entitlement, privilege and superiority and power over others. They foster communities that are insular, isolated, and exclusive. Debie Thomas puts this simply as being right is a place challenged by the heart of the Gospel’s message:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

In our text from John’s Gospel, Jesus heals a “ruined” man on the Sabbath, a man who has been blind since birth.  When Jesus sees him, he kneels down, spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste with his saliva, rubs the paste on the man’s eyes, and instructs him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.  When the man obeys, his sight is restored.

Traditionally this is a miracle story, but the Gospel writer doesn’t spend too long on the healing itself.  The focus of the lectionary is rather on the religious community’s response, both to the man’s blindness, and to his restored sight.  It is in this response that Amichai’s poem resonates, speaking powerfully to the challenges of our own time and place.  “From the place where we are right,” the poet says, “flowers will never grow in the spring.”  In other words, one of the most barren and desolate places we can occupy as Christians is a place of smugness.  Of rightness.  Of certainty.  The more convinced we are that we have full insight, comprehension, and knowledge, the less we will see and experience what we name God. Here is my claim for a God that is ‘Almost’ not yet complete, not yet here but insistent, coming, becoming, immanent.

Even before Jesus heals the blind man, the disciples assume that his blindness is his own fault.  So they ask Jesus who has sinned and incurred God’s displeasure — the man himself, or his parents.  But Jesus rejects the entire premise of their question.  There is no relationship between the man’s condition and his sinfulness, Jesus says.  God does not make people sick in order to punish them for wrongdoing.  To step away from our brother or sister’s suffering because we assume it’s divinely ordained, is not righteous.  It’s reprehensible.

In the story John tells, Jesus sees the blind man — a man whom no one else really sees. In the eyes of his peers, the man is contaminated, burdensome, and expendable.  In his community’s calculus of human worth, the blind man barely registers — he’s not a human being; he’s Blindness.  The condition itself, with all of its accumulated meanings.  Which is why, when the man’s sight is restored by Jesus, his own townspeople — the people he has lived and worshipped with for years — don’t recognize him.  They don’t know how to see him without his disability.  To do so would be to recognize a common humanity, a bond, a kinship.  And that would be intolerable.    One could see how damaging this would be, Gosh a woman could even would be a partner in marriage as apposed to a mans wife, a vehicle for his child, a chattel of his household.

So, of course, when the man shows up healed and whole, the community rallies to discredit him.  To restore order, re-establish the social hierarchy, and reinforce the status quo.

But why?  Why does the community feel such an urgent need to silence the healed man?  We know this. We know the core reason is fear.  A fear so primal and so deep, it drives away all compassion, all empathy, all tenderness, all sense of kinship.  If the man’s blindness isn’t a punishment for sin, then what does that mean about how the world works?  Anyone might get sick, or suffer from a disability, or face years of undeserved pain and suffering for no discernible reason whatsoever.  That wouldn’t be fair — would it?  That would be a version of reality the good religious folks can’t control.  A terrifying, destabilizing version.  Who among us can bear to surrender the illusion of control?

Not only does the community’s legalistic approach to faith prevent them from seeing the healed man; it also prevents them from seeing God’s love and power at work in their midst.  No one in the story rejoices when the man is healed.  No one – not even the man’s parents — expresses joy, or wonder, or gratitude, or awe.   No one says, “I am so happy for you!” or asks, “What is it like to see for the first time?  Does the sunlight hurt your eyes?  What are you excited to look at first?”

Instead, the community responds with contempt, its need to preserve its own sense of righteousness more important than celebrating a fellow human being’s restoration to life.  “The place where we are right,” the poem says, is “hard and trampled like a yard.”  Hard and cynical.  Hard and suspicious.  Hard and stingy.

This suggests that vulnerability, softness, curiosity, and openness are essential to real seeing.  A challenge in the face of the Cornid Virus is it not? The Gospels tell us that Jesus’s true identity eludes just about everyone until after his Resurrection.  Even his disciples struggle to understand who and what their Teacher is.   Most of the people who encounter Jesus are too busy seeing what they want to see — a magician, a heretic, a political and military leader, a carpenter’s son, a wise man, a phony, a clerical threat — to notice what the blind man, free of all such filters, discerns by the end of the story.  The blind man alone sees Jesus and calls him, “Lord.”

We might say, then, that this is one of the rare and beautiful moments in the Gospels when Jesus himself is truly seen.  The blind man sees Jesus as wholly and purely as Jesus sees him; the gaze and the recognition in this story are mutual.  Because the healed man has no preconceptions, because the spiritual ground he stands on is soft and supple, he is able to see God as God is.  “Doubts and loves dig up the world, like a mole, like a plow.”  The ‘Almost’ allows the whispers of the divine Spirit to bring forth new life.

Whether we want to or not over the coming weeks, we will face a choice — the choice to see or to turn away.  Will we allow the ground we stand on to remain pliable, or will we harden our stance and refuse to grow and change?

Will we be flexible in the ways we extend love across distances, or will we hunker down in fear and suspicion?  The question is will we dare to be the Church in new ways, even as we practice quarantines and social distancing — or will we forget that we are one body, connected and interdependent, incomplete without each other?  Will we have eyes to see God in our neighbours, regardless of whether they are sick or healthy, insured or uninsured, citizen or foreigner, protected or vulnerable?  Will we be brave enough to look our own vulnerability — our own mortality — in the eye, and trust that our God is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death?  Or will we yield to cynicism, panic, and despair?

Maybe we can take a lift out of our text and be in awe of the trust the healed man has in Jesus by the end of this week’s Gospel story — a trust deep enough to enable him to bear honest, radical witness to his experience, even at the risk of censure and excommunication from his religious community.  In shedding his identity as “the man blind from birth,” the healed man becomes a disciple, a traveler, a pilgrim.  He commits himself without looking back, straining forward instead of clinging to what others tell him is right and true.  He is, in the truest sense, born again.

So maybe during this time we are entering we too, can confess our blindness and receive sight.  May we can also find praise for the one who kneels in the dirt and gets his hands dirty in order to heal us.   May we also soften and prepare the ground we stand on, so that when new life appears in whatever surprising guise ‘Almost’ chooses, we will embrace, cherish, celebrate, and share the good news, too. Amen.

‘A Transforming God’

Posted: March 17, 2020 in Uncategorized

John 4: 5 – 42

‘A Transforming God’

 Jesus arrives at the Samaritan town called Sychar. This town is near the land that Jacob gave to his son Joseph and Jacob’s well is there. Jesus arrives and he is tired by the journey. The first thing he does is to sit down by the well. We are told it is about noon when the Samaritan woman comes to draw water, and Jesus says to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ The Samaritan woman replies and says, ‘What?  You are a Jew and you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?’

Jesus replies to her saying: ‘If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman doesn’t back down at this and says: ‘You have no bucket’, ‘and the well is deep: how could you get this living water? Are you greater than our ancestors Leah, Rachel and Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it with their descendants and flocks?’

Jesus replies: ‘Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside, welling up to eternal life.’

The woman said, ‘Give me some of that water, so that I may never have to come here again to draw water…’ ‘I see you are a prophet.’ said the woman. ‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, while you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.’

Jesus said: ‘Believe me, woman; the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know; for salvation comes from the Jews.  But the hour will come – in fact it is here already – when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper our God wants. ‘God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’

The woman says to Jesus, ‘I know the Messiah is coming – the Anointed One –  who will tell us everything.’

‘I who am speaking to you,’ said Jesus ‘I am that one.’

The dialogue ends and John summarizes and says that many Samaritans of the town had believed in Jesus on the strength of the woman’s testimony when she said, ‘He told me all I have ever done,’ so when the Samaritans came up to Jesus, they begged him to stay with them. Jesus stayed for two days, and when he spoke to them many more came to believe; and they said to the woman, ‘Now we no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard this one ourselves who we know really is the saviour of the world.’

For the purposes of our approach to this text we note that just across the ditch we have one of the driest continents on earth, a place where water is a precious commodity.  In fact, it could be said that water is everything. Water is life… For Australians the logical connections with our Baptism liturgies that focus on the active, dynamic symbol of water ring true whereas it might be harder for us New Zealanders because as a country we are blessed with the gift of water from both the land and the air. The way we use water is more likely to be to add benefit to our land management and or to exchange it for money.

So in returning to our text we need to remember that in our story from the storyteller/theologian we call John the images and practices  are from a land of deserts, and if we can remember for just a moment that we are in the middle of the season called Lent, which begins with stories around a time in the desert, a place of little to no water,we might find today’s story an interesting juxtaposition.

So, we might come to this story with the context in mind This is a land where droughts are just around the corner and some rivers or creeks might only flow once a year.
And in some cases only flow a few times in a century. Numerous travelers may have perished for lack of water. Like Australia no water, no life. Water and life go together. To survive in the desert “is to know the sources of moisture and how to tap into the water-table” (Ferguson & Allen 1990:37).  A dry, hot place.  While Palestine may not have been as arid or huge or perhaps even a place that had to be ‘conquered’ to get anywhere it was a challenge.

On the other hand, the people who lived there would have treasured and memorized every watering hole. From one generation to the next, they would have told stories and sang songs which were like maps of their territory. And in these stories and songs the precious water holes would have been prominent. They treasured water. It meant life.

Taking a quick look at the collection of stories told by John, we can see that he tells several stories using water. Water turned into wine. Water to wash disciple’s feet. Jesus walking on water. And of course, there are all those exciting fishing stories.

Today’s story of a Samaritan woman Jesus met at a well, belongs in this collection. In this story John has Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. Indeed, the conversation between the two, is the longest of any Jesus is supposed to have had with anyone.

Traditionally, the substance of the story is said to be about ‘a very liberal’ Jesus talking to an immoral Samaritan ‘outsider’ woman. And, so this line of interpretation goes, Jesus issues a call to her to: “clean up her act, get right with God, and join the Jesus team to preach God’s word of forgiveness and love”.  (McKinney. PST Web site, 2008)

 But as many scholars have pointed out, this and similar interpretations are an awful misreading of an important story. Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish new testament scholar: reminds us that the woman is not an outsider in the story.  It is the Jewish Jesus who is the outsider. The woman is a Samaritan, and they are on her home turf. Secondly, we see that the woman’s visit to the well is in the daylight, and this is well recognized storyteller’s device about seeing the ‘light’, rather than an indication of social ostracism.

And thirdly there is absolutely nothing that indicates she is ‘sinful’ or sexually promiscuous. “The… woman says Levine might be unfortunate, but she is not sinful…  The only ones who condemn her are the biblical scholars.” (Levine 2006:137)

Another person who helps us appreciate this story beyond the traditional, is a bloke called Rick Marshall. He takes John’s image of a well and the rising up of the water, and says: “Who knows where (the water) comes from.  But we drink it and go on living our lives…  That’s how the creative, transforming power of God is:  Who knows where it comes from, but it sustains us and we go on living our lives.  We are called to trust the ‘Living Water’.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005)

It sustains us and we go on living our lives. “We experience the creating, transforming power of God routinely, quietly moving through life, our life.” (Rick Marshall. P&F Web site, 2005) The place of water in the whole of life. Life giving out of and within the arid wanting places in life.

What if this is also what the storyteller, we call John had in mind, when he told the story of Jesus asking a woman for a drink. The Jewish outsider in the land of the Samaritan and I have claimed earlier that Samaritans are Jewish but maybe not Judean Jews. The Judean Jew in the land of a Samaritan at noon asking her for a drink is symbolic of the asking for enlightenment and he is reminded by the woman’s response that he is asking for help as a stranger when their history is a common history. John is perhaps suggesting here that the difference between man and woman, Samaritan and Judean is not the issue here but rather the place that water has in everyday life is. We remember also that Jesus was from Galilee in the northern part of the area that could be an intermixing of the two kingdoms after the two become one. There is a common history here. We might also remember that John is some decades later telling the story of the impact Jesus had on Jewish life, identifying this with the place of water in normal everyday Jewish life.

As you will appreciate with pending retirement coming I have been doing a lot of reflecting on ministry and what I thought I have been doing and whether or not it has been of any value. Anthony de Mello tells a story that I think reflects what I have been trying to do.

The preacher was a great success.  Thousands came to learn wisdom from him.
When they got the wisdom, they stopped coming to his sermons. And the preacher smiled contentedly. For he had attained his purpose, which was to bow out as quickly as possible
for he knew in his heart that he was only offering people what they already had,
if they would only open their eyes and see.  (Anthony de Mello)

Life giving water that flows upon, into and over and beyond one’s life is like the transforming present-ness of the Serendipitous Creativity God. It comes upon us unexpectedly as something too common to take note of, and it comes with both a coolness and warmth depending upon the need and it sustains us as we live our lives, pervasively cleansing and flushing and also quietly moving through life, our life. At once a vehicle for our resurrection, or the five yearly replacing of every cell, and it’s purpose is that we might live life to the full, love wastefully, and be all that we can be.  (John S Spong)

I think I like that story better than the focus of the things that divide us. Promiscuous Samaritan outsider who is admonished by Jesus and told what to believe as opposed to the metaphor of the life-giving water of the everyday that is symbol of the transformation of life that Jesus offers. Amen.

de Mello, A. The Song of the Bird. 10th edition. India: Anand. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1988.
Ferguson, G. & R. Allen. ”Thirsty in a Dry Land: The Migrant Experience of the Absence of God” in G. Ferguson & J. Chryssavgis. The Desert is Alive. Melbourne. JBCE, 1990.
Levine, A-J. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. HarperOne, 2006.

‘Nicodemus:  Protecting the Curious’

The streets were dark and deserted. Not a soul can be seen.  At least he hoped not. There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow, never using the major streets of the town, travelling only in out of the way places, hoping not to be seen. So, what’s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night? He is going to pay a call on Jesus who is staying with friends. He doesn’t want anybody to know that he, one of the leaders of the community, would be going to see this itinerant preacher.

Jesus is roused from his sleep, we presume, and meets Nicodemus.

The image is of strangers in the night… and one of the most common interpretations is that there is something wrong with this guy. He appears to be reduced to the possibility of being a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist, His so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison
is often interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness.
Or as Jack Shea suggests, he is “stranded in twilight.  He is not mesmerized by the signs… He wants a teaching, not another miracle.  But before he can receive a teaching from God, he must receive a teaching about himself”.  (Shea 1998:83-84)

Here is the suggestion that Nicodemus is at first and foremost a curious person. He is curious about this guy Jesus and here I want to suggest that this is the challenge for us. Nicodemus was a Jewish Rabbi curious about a fellow Jewish Rabbi and this suggests there is a need for us to be curious about who Jesus is for us who call ourselves Christians. Being curious is not reserved to those outside the faith but also to those within the faith. We are to question our own claims, assumptions. And doing this is part of a faith journey and not something that will destroy our faith. Our personal theological journey is always on the move.

Let’s take another look at Nicodemus before I try to give shape and form to what I think the challenge is for us in New Zealand today. And let’s do that through the eyes
of both some Jewish and Christian new testament scholars.

Let’s begin by looking at the bible and acknowledging that this is a story composed by the storyteller we call John. We note that we only ever hear of Nicodemus in John’s writings and that much debate centres around this story and the storytellers use of this story at this point in the gospel.

We note also and this is the crux of today’s discussion. Traditional Christianity
appears to have used a Jewish Jesus and a Jewish Nicodemus to support its own ends as opposed to remaining true to history. This is not a new claim nor is it a criticism. It is rather an acknowledgement that this was the norm when passing on the stories. It was permissible and even expected that they be retold in ways that fitted the current culture and world views. The gospel needs to make sense to now and this means that there are huge dangers in literalizing and fixing the story in a time and place. We talk today about the gospel being irrelevant and part of that is the misguided use of text that supports slavery to encourage people to abandon it.

It seems obvious to say that Jesus was a Jew. A first century Galilean Jew whose prayers were Jewish. His thinking was Jewish. His ‘voice’ is thick with Jewish history – personal and cultural. And we miss that when we follow traditional Christianity and convert him into a proto-Christian. We deny also that much ‘Greekness’ has impinged his Jewishness.

Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, has said that: “With the stress in some churches on Jesus’s divine sonship, the cross, the resurrection, and the redemptory role of saving humanity from sin and death, Jesus’s historical connection to Judaism gets lost along with his very Jewish message of the kingdom of heaven”.  (Levine 2006:19)

Levine than goes on to point out that in popular Christian imagination Jesus is presented as: against the Law, against the Temple, against the people of Israel, as the only one to speak with women, as the only one who teaches non-violent responses to oppression, as the only one who cares about the ‘poor and marginalized’.

“It is No wonder that, even today Jesus somehow looks ‘different’ from the ‘Jews’: in the movies and artistic renderings, he’s blond and they are swarthy; he is cute and buff and they need rhinoplasty and Pilates”. (Levine 2006:19)

This ‘divorcing’ of Jesus from Judaism in biblical stories and traditional Christian theology is neither honest nor helpful. Especially when we hear John’s story about Nicodemus.

So, in light of these comments, we might consider some suggestions about the Jewish Rabbi we call Nicodemus, and his encounter with the Galilean sage we call Jesus.

We might hear that Nicodemus was a pilgrim.  A sincere religious seeker. A student who uses his precious study time to “expand his search beyond the standard texts… and distractions of the day”.   ( 2008)

We might also hear Nicodemus, as a member of the religious institution of his day,
as a mover of theological boundaries. Willing to risk leaving behind past ‘truths’ as he and his colleagues have been taught them and known them, in order to explore something new. So instead of questioning his motives, we might see that Nicodemus’ motives need to be recognised as both open and honourable. This says that for Nicodemus, as for us, he must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways
rather than prescribing a single way of thinking or believing.

How else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different?
Not just by re-shaping, but by re-thinking and reconstructing!

Now I want to show you two videos that I think ask us to be curious like Nicodemus and to value the mode of critique, challenge of the status quo and perhaps more importantly ask the hard questions about Nicodemus and of our traditions, creedal assumptions and doctrinal claims.

Video Making Sense Part 1 Iain McGilchrist

I think that challenge of that clip is to ask ourselves what it says about our need to be pilgrims as opposed to passive consumers. If Iain is correct then we have to ask if something about our belief system or our slavish compliance with tradition needs to be challenged.

The other thing we might ask ourselves is what the obsession or imbalance toward the so-called left-brain orientation in the western world is pushing aside? What is that which we are missing out on? Our next video I think suggests that one of the outcomes of this left-hemisphere bias is creating a mindlessness, an environment where we no longer value a huge part of what it means to be human.

Video Making sense Part 2 Ellen Langer

The story of Nicodemus is an invitation to be curious about life. To rethink and re-construct assumptions. Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future through the eyes of new possibility. To be born anew, metaphorically! To consider how life might be different! Nicodemus then could be seen as the Patron saint of the curious.  ( 2008)

The message is to protect the curious in each of us. Put yourself in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers, of whatever faith tradition, whose  openness defines a new community of hope and grace and  have the courage to dare to know this serendipitous creativity God, with all your heart and mind, with courage and strength because traditional theological boundaries have been and are being pushed…

And pushed again, with honesty and originality, wisdom and imagination. Amen.

Lee, B. L. The Galilean Jewishness of Jesus. Retrieving the Jewish Origins of Christianity.  Mahwah. Paulist Press, 1988.
Levine, A. The Misunderstood Jew. The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York. Harper One, 2006.
Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B Robinson (ed). Journey Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Shea, J. Gospel Light. Jesus Stories for Spiritual Consciousness. New York. A Crossroad Book, 1998.