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“Hope in a Weak God”

Posted: November 8, 2022 in Uncategorized

“Hope in a Weak God”

There comes a time to break the silence created by liberal thought. A time to move beyond fear. A time to speak one’s truth, even if it will not be welcome. There comes a time
for all to call into question what has gone before. There is a time for the singing of a new song, for the claiming a new understanding of power, where we find courage, and dare to know who we are. There is a time when out of the cosmos, out of earth, out of ourselves, there rises an irresistible Spirit from within us.  This is our calling as followers of the man named Yeshua.

To no longer seek the might of God on our side but rather to acknowledge that that God does not exist because that God is too small and seek the God that insists the God that empowers us and the God that we find in the event of loving.

The Dalai Lama reminded us that “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. You always have this choice”

The many years of relying on might to illumine who we are and how God is in relation with us have ended, they no longer satisfy us as a species within a cosmic evolutionary reality. The lack of hope, the decline of the church the rising inequity situation and the loss of absolutes and the level of intolerance all suggest that what we believe and how we understand reality need our courage and our compassion to become our mode of being.

If we believe that the Jesus way is about living a radical love with a lavish generosity. If we believe that an extravagant forgiveness and an inclusive hospitality are the compassionate actions required as an image of the sacred life then we need to support a selfless service along with a passion for justice within a creative nonviolent society as to provide the event of a simple safe living for everyone.

The idealism, the foolishness, the alternative that the Yeshua story gives us is not the success of the mighty, the sorted ones, the clever an but where is the d in-control ones and here I would read the most efficient, effective evidence based successful. Yes, they are needed for today’s economically prioritized world but there is a need for a better balance. How to do things is crucially important but we need to know why we do things also. We have become very good at making things happen efficiently, we have become manipulators of our cosmic reality but we are destroying ourselves because we have not asked ourselves why we need to do this. In our Christian tradition we have been saying that God is in control as we have been destroying ourselves, we have been saying Yeshua has saved us from destruction yet now we know this has not happened. We have been saying our hope lies in a God who exists and is in charge and yet fewer of us believe this than ever before. So, something is not right and we have spent years trying to figure out how to be followers of the guy Yeshua and all we have left it seems is that we care for ourselves better. Sing the right hymns, say the right prayers, make sure our members know we care for them.

All credible so -called Christian acts but where is the radical love defined, where is the inspiration for lavish generosity resourced and inspired? What does forgiveness look like? Who receives the hospitality in other words who is the stranger? Who is the other? Is service just doing things for people or is it about changing their world. What does Sacred Justice look like and how do we make the paradigm shift required for a nonviolent simple life?

As John D Caputo puts it; The weakness of God is that God does not exist, the folly of God is that God leaves existence up to us, and we have the choice to either make God exist or not. So, does God exist? The answer is we don’t know yet because history is not over yet. We are still making it and that has to mean that what we name as God is insisting and calling us to participate in the making of the New Jerusalem that the old Judaic prophets called for and the Kingdom of God that Yeshua called for. Our call might be to participate in the caring for the planet and thus the creation of the cosmos. Our hope is in the shared writing of the poem of human existence, the writing of the song of the universe not as a task to be done but as an event to be lived now and forever. Read the symbols, interpret the depths and breadths of human existence and write the story we find in the poor the disadvantaged and the outcast for there we understand the weak power of God.

I like the challenge of the history that claims that under Constantine the Empire did not convert to Christianity but that Christianity converted to the Empire. We still live with the results of a Christianity that feigns supremacy, that is antagonistic to the poor and the outcast. We hang on to the charitable kudos as justification while being soft on its sustenance of the status quo and we hide behind strategic theories and feel-good politics in a delusion that might is right and that the only options are the instinctive and primitive fight or flight options. They have got us again and again to the brink of nuclear annihilation and an industry of diplomacy that is self-sustaining rather than shifting the paradigm. Yes, I am being harsh and dismissive in my comments but when addressing systemic abuse and complacency one needs to be. If the church is to survive as a human organization it must change or die and I am far from the first to say that. The truth is that any form of fundamentalism is not theology. On theoretical grounds it has nothing to stand on philosophically or theologically and is a pathology, a profound fear that the ground is shaky and it is. It can only exist in literalism and denies that “Christianity” is a process, a movement or the Spirit in time. Like Joshua they are asking that their God stops the course of the sun across the sky. A quote I read is that it’s like Donald Trump screaming, “Stop Counting, if you keep counting, I’m going to lose” We might say “If God exists, he is just resting at the moment”. As Caputo suggests, when Jesus departed and Left his Spirit behind its s as if he were saying “I have done my part, the rest is up to you.”

Last week I wrote a little about the effect of the theory of Humanism, which in its modern sense, arose in the seventeenth century and consists of placing value on autonomy, reason, and science. And I suggested that since God is not a conclusion of evidence-based reason, Today I would claim that while we might be in a time of the rise of posthumanism it too relies on the tradition of humanism and on humanist values like evidence-based reason, the importance of education, and the autonomy of the individual. Posthumanism, though, seeks to break the boundary that traditional humanism assumes between the human and natural worlds. Humanism, in its classic expression, casts nature, through the use of science, as an object of human manipulation. Posthumanism blurs the boundaries between human beings and nature. This makes evolution a value in posthumanism because to affirm evolution means to affirm that human beings are a natural process of the earth. The fundamentalist religious reaction to posthumanism is creationism. Not only is creationism bad science, it is also a reading of posthumanism as a threat which is bound by almighty, supernatural priori for God.

As I have argued earlier this claim is no longer tenable and should be discarded in favour of a Weak God and a God of insistence as opposed to existent. This enables us as Christians to talk into the climate change, global warming care for creation debates as genuine participants in the hope we all seek rather than as holders of irrelevant beliefs and outdated intellectual and scientific contributions. Even the Dalai Lama has said that spirituality and quantum physics are companion searches, not rivals. One has to say that we live in the most hope-filled of times, so long as we stay in the discussions. Amen.

Valuing the power of the mind, the use of controversy and the influence of perception.

This sermon is an attempt to stand outside the story, acknowledge the context of the reader and the creative use of context and the hermeneutics of the authors.

Humanism as the intro to today’s context.

Humanism, in its modern sense, arose in the seventeenth century and consists of placing value on autonomy, reason, and science.

‍Humanism is not anti-religion, but it is portrayed this way because, when compared to traditional religious beliefs, it appears radically atheist. Autonomy means that human beings are responsible for their own actions. No god has placed us in our station for a purpose. Life is an individual gift, and what we make of it is the action of our autonomy.

‍Reason is the guide for life. In humanism, a good life is a life that corresponds to the best judgements possible about the real world, and this judgement rests on the use of reason. Reason makes education a humanist value.

‍Science is the method of humanism. Reason cannot flourish if its content holds little or no corresponding truth. Corresponding truth means that a truth claim holds a consistent relationship to reality, and the vehicle of such a relationship is evidence. The age of science is the age of evidence-based reason.

Since God is not a conclusion of evidence-based reason, and since evidence-based reason is a humanist value, it is often concluded that humanism is atheism. This, however, is not true. Humanism can appreciate mystery and can value mysticism. Mystery and mysticism in humanism, though, are not religious confessions; rather, they identify the edges of human knowledge and open up the religious experience of wonder.

Posthumanism as today’s context

Posthumanism relies on the tradition of humanism and on humanist values like evidence-based reason, the importance of education, and the autonomy of the individual. Posthumanism, though, seeks to break the boundary that traditional humanism assumes between the human and natural worlds. Humanism, in its classic expression, casts nature, through the use of science, as an object of human manipulation. Posthumanism blurs the boundaries between human beings and nature. This makes evolution a value in posthumanism because to affirm evolution means to affirm that human beings are a natural process of the earth. The fundamentalist religious reaction to posthumanism is creationism. Not only is creationism bad science, it is also a reading of posthumanism as a threat.

The Power of the mind;

The text  as Translation of Luke 20: 27-38

Some of the Sadducees, the ones saying there is no resurrection, came to question him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote to us that, if a man’s brother dies, having a woman and he without children, that his brother might take the woman and raise up seed to his brother.  There were, therefore, seven brothers, and the first took a woman; he died without children–and the second and the third took her, and, in like manner, the seven also; and they left no children and they died, and afterward, the woman died.  Therefore, in the resurrection, whose woman of them is she?  For the seven had her a wife.

The Context/Differences

Background and situation:  This event happens during the early part of passion week.  Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem on a wave of public support, and, at the same time, tweaked the nose of the Roman authorities by mocking their own triumphal (military) procession. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey as the crowds wave palm branches and shout “hosanna.”  This is in stark contrast to the Roman triumphal procession of soldiers, horses, military standards, the clank of metal swords, and the silence of a cowed and resentful people. After entering Jerusalem, Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the temple.  Some of Jerusalem’s wealthy families had franchise agreements with their cronies in the Temple to provide money changing “services” for people who had to change their Roman money into Temple coin, a “service” they performed at exorbitant rates.  Jesus’ attack on the moneychangers was revolutionary.  It struck at the economic power of the Temple elite and their wealthy supporters.

Controversy stories follow.  First, the chief priests raise the issue of authority.  Who are you to challenge us?  In response, Jesus invokes John the Baptist, reminding his interrogators that they had opposed John, who continued to be a popular figure among the people.  Then, he tells the parable of the tenants in the vineyard, a particularly violent story, and one of particular poignance in light of John the Baptist’s death.

Jesus does two important things here:  (1)  He “allies” himself with the popular John in the public mind, and (2) he accuses the chief priests of having a hand in imperial violence.  Jesus is ratcheting up the pressure. The Temple elite has not been able to do much about any of this because of Jesus’ overwhelming support among the people.  They were helpless when he drove out the moneychangers because “all the people were spellbound by what they heard.”  They couldn’t stop Jesus because “they feared the people.”  (20:19)  Next, they try to get him on taxes.  “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  If he says “yes,” he loses public support.  (People paid up to 50% of their meager income in taxes of one kind or another.)  If he says “no, don’t pay taxes” he could be arrested for treason.

Jesus dodges the question by asking for a coin, a coin with Caesar’s picture plastered on it, along with designations such as “divi et rex”–“god and king.”  Jesus says, basically, “If Caesar is so insecure he needs to go around plastering his picture on things, then let him have the dumb coin,” or words to that effect.

Enter the sadducees–the concentrated power, you might say, of the Temple elite.  The sadducees represented both the heart of Temple power and Temple corruption.  They lived high on the hog in the Temple complex.  The Romans made sure this Temple elite had access to the “finer things of life” in exchange for their help in facilitating Roman power and control. The sadducees were staunchly conservative in their theology.  For the sadducees, the Torah consisted of only the written text of the pentateuch.  The pharisees–the “liberals” of their day, in a certain manner of speaking–took a broader view of Torah.  For them, Torah included the oral interpretation of the written text.  Even though the pharisees and sadducees were both opponents of Jesus, they were also opponents of each other.   The sadducees would naturally have reacted against any idea which threatened the status quo, particularly a new-fangled idea like resurrection, a concept which had probably originally filtered into northern Israel from Persia in the period 200-300 BC, and one which, moreover, was associated with justice and righteousness.  (During the Maccabean revolt, c. 160 BC, the question arose as to how God could allow good and righteous people who stood for God and God’s law to die violent and horrible deaths.  What would God do about such a clear case of injustice.  Answer?  God would raise them.)


In order to undermine the idea of resurrection, the sadducees pose the question of levirate marriage, the whole idea of which was to continue the name and lineage of a man who died childless.  He could still have children after he was dead if his widow married his brother.  Their children would be considered the legal and religious heirs of their mother’s first husband. Another “what if?” question:  “What if,” ask the sadducees, “a man dies and his widow marries his brother, but then he dies, then another, then another, and the woman never has children by any of them, who would she be married to in your supposed resurrection?”  The issue is framed around children, with its relationship to lineage, and the woman as property–“whose woman will the woman be?”  In effect, the sadducees played the “family values” card.  If we listen to you, they say, the whole structure of society would become absurd.  You are undermining the traditional family!  

Ironic aside:  In this, the Temple was following the “family values” policy of the previous Roman government headed by Caesar Augustus, who was married three times, each one of them for political reasons.  Augustus made adultery a public crime, although he himself had committed adultery with Livia, his third wife, during her previous marriage, and he continued to commit adultery with numerous other women after they were married.  Hypocrisy on the question is not a new thing. Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.


Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and are given to marry, but the ones considered worthy to obtain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage;  for they cannot die any more, for they are equal to angels and they are children of God, being the children of the resurrection. Marriage is an institution of “this age.”  Marriage was instituted to deal with the problem of death.  It was a way of providing offspring who would continue a man’s name and lineage into the future.

In the resurrection from the dead, Jesus says, people will be “like angels,” who do not die.  There will be no need to try to extend one’s self beyond their death because there will be no death.  (Notice Jesus does not say that people will be angels.  Rather, they will be equal to angels (isangeloi) in the sense that, like angels, we will no longer die.) The important thing is not becoming parents, but rather children–“children of God” and therefore “children of the resurrection,” which obviates the need for both offspring and marriage.  Furthermore, in the resurrection, relationships will no longer need to be guarded by exclusive bonds.

Jesus includes both men and women in this–“those who marry and are given in marriage”–which was unusual in a time where marriage had to do with male property rights.  Neither men nor women will need to marry to have an identity because their fundamental identity, which supercedes all others and casts all others into irrelevance, is the designation of “children of God, children of the resurrection.”  The owning of people will be over.  All relationships will be transfigured and equalized.

And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’


Now that the dead are raised, and Moses showed at the bush, as he called the Lord God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob, and he is God not of the dead, but of the living, for to him all of them are living.”  Jesus invokes the story of Moses at the burning bush where God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  By the time of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had all been dead for a long time, yet the Lord God refers to these patriarchs as if they were alive.  Therefore, Jesus reasons from the Torah, they are alive.  If they were still dead, God would be God of the dead, which would mean he is the God of nothing at all. But God is a God of life, “for to him all of them are alive.”  The NRSV inserts “of them,” but this is missing in the Greek text, and, in my view, should not be included.  “For to him, all are alive”–a striking note of universality.

The sadducees, however, couldn’t really quibble since Jesus had made his argument on the basis of a creative use of sadducee-acknowledged Torah, Exodus 3.  This is why “they no longer dared to ask him another question.” (v. 40)

The embodiment of the Image of God

The “image of God” as a metaphor offers some guidance. In traditional Christian philosophy, the “image” is the purpose (the aim of the form) of human creatures. Remember, a “form,” from Plato, is the perfect image of a material thing. Everything that exists in the world is imperfect, but everything that exists, that is seen, participates in its form, its unseen perfection. In Christian philosophy, traditionally stated, the image of God is the form God created for human beings. The image of God is what we are meant to be perfectly in our everyday imperfections. In the Bible, of course, the philosophical understanding of the image is not present. For biblical writers, the image of God is more active than passive. It is the way God forms human beings. It is the life or breath that God gave human beings to make them human. All human beings are brothers and sisters because all alike are the image of God, the life of God’s creative act. All human beings, we could say, are divine soul-bearers or energy-bearers, according to the Bible.

Posted by John Petty on November 04, 2019 at 10:53 AM in Bible, History, Lectionary, Liturgy, Religion, Theology | Permalink

Faith and Belief in Translation

Posted: October 27, 2022 in Uncategorized

Faith and Belief in Translation

Many of us hold to the belief that we can name a sacred power within and around us. That this power is a divine spirit that we call by many names and experience in many ways. It is a power that empowers and heals, that calls us forth. Many of us hold to the belief that we can claim a creativity, a making and transforming of beauty out of words and notes, images and colours, lines and pictures and silence. Many of us hold to a belief that it is justice that compels and empowers us to risk whatever we must risk to create a climate in which all people can be who they are.

Many of us hold to a belief that our imagination and our dreams are the way we experience the world as it is, in both its ugliness and its beauty, and we see what it can become. A peace that is based on openness, honesty and compassion. Many of us hold to a belief that we can expect change to continue to occur in our world. This is our hope that we rely on to inspire our courage to continue to bring about these changes. Many of us hold to a belief in the power of love. Some see this as a weak power that overcomes might, a passionate love within and around us that laughs and cries, challenges and comforts, a healing love that perseveres.

Many of us know who we are and our potential, painful as that can be at times, yet we continue to call each other to become more of who we are. We celebrate, we remember and we commemorate. We create rituals. We play and dance, and sing and love well. Many of us value our diversity and we affirm our many shapes and sizes, colours and traditions,
emotions and thoughts, differences and similarities, recognizing this as life that wells up within
and flows out of us like a streaming fountain as the good and the holy. Many of us hold to the belief that we are good and holy as a sacred part of all creation. (Inspired by Susan Kramer)

Bernard Brandon Scott reminds us that ‘Faith” is a problematic word, so problematic that at times I think we should abandon its use. It’s a weasel word he says, with so many and varied meanings that what it means often is difficult to know. Given the importance of faith in religious discourse, the varied meanings have significant implications and ramifications. Scott posits that we are trapped between the use of “faith” in English and “faith” as a translation for the Greek word pistis in the New Testament. They are different and so make understanding both the New Testament and our own usage difficult.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives as its first definition (1a) “allegiance to duty or a person” with the gloss “Loyalty.” Then follows an example usage: “lost faith in the company’s president.” Within this first definition there is a second sense (1b) with two subsenses. “(1) fidelity to one’s promises” and then “(2) sincerity of intentions • acted in good faith.

This first definition of faith, secular in character, understands faith as loyalty or allegiance and lays stress on relationship, “allegiance to duty or a person”. Except for 1b(2) this understanding of faith would work well for the New Testament. Here are three different examples.

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

This “how much more” argument, common in Rabbinic literature, contends, “if God cares for this little thing, how much more in your case.” So, God’s great care is contrasted with little allegiance or faith to God. The author of Matthew’s gospel is chiding the readers about their little loyalty to God.

Mark 5 relates a story of woman from the crowd who reaches out and touches Jesus. When he asks who touched him, she comes forward in fear and trembling. Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Her persistence or bravery in coming forward signals her “faith.” It’s her allegiance to Jesus that has healed her.

A final example is from Paul who uses “faith” extensively. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). (Rom 4:16–17 NRSV)

“Faith” in this passage refers to Abraham’s loyalty to God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations. “The faith of Abraham” takes us to Merriam-Webster’s second definition which is religious in nature. 2a (1) defines faith as “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” which would seem to perfectly fit “faith of Abraham.” So why give the faith of Abraham as an example of 1b, the secular usage? First the distinction between the first definition and the second is not a matter of meaning but of usage, which is what a dictionary definition is supposed to do. So, this second definition is really an elaboration of the first. The meaning does not change, but the usage does.

A second subsense (2) pushes the definition even further in a religious vein: “belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion.” The fact that this is a subsense of 2a indicates that Merriam-Webster’s editors see these two as very close in English usage. But pistis (faith) in this sense is not used in the New Testament.

There are two notable items in the subsense.

  • Belief
  • Doctrines

“Belief” and “faith” are often interchangeable in English and “beliefs” and “doctrines” are likewise synonymous. The first definition of belief in Merriam-Webster indicates a shift. “state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” “Mind” is the important word, because belief introduces an aspect of mental activity which was absent in our examination of faith. “Faith” involves a relationship.

The belief/faith correlation is an English issue, not Greek. Greek does not make this distinction. The problem arises because the Greek root pist- can be formed into a noun, a verb, and an adjective. English has a noun, “faith,” and an adjective, “faithful,” but no verb. “He faiths God” is impossible in English; instead, one must say, “she believes in God” or “he has faith in God.” “Has faith” makes “faith” a noun object, not an action. “She trusts God” is different from “he believes in God.”

The belief/faith dynamic is further complicated by the Council of Nicaea (325). One of Constantine’s objectives was to unify Christianity, which was divided and diverse. The Nicene Creed aimed to solve this problem. This shifted Christianity from a religion of praxis, in which it’s what you do that counts, to a religion of belief or faith, in which it’s what you believe that counts. Notice what is missing from the Creed—the life of Jesus. There are no ethics in the Creed. Faith now has an intellectual content, a set of beliefs. The meaning of faith has moved very far indeed from the New Testament.

The ‘b’ part of the second definition offers another feature: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Paul’s use of the faith of Abraham falls into this category. Abraham has faith, allegiance or trust, that God will be faithful to the promise to make Abraham the father of many nations. That fact that Sarah is barren mocks this promise. Paul plays up this aspect of faith in Romans 4.It is important to notice that Paul’s use of this argument is not anti-reason, but rather that faith is loyalty or allegiance to God’s promise in spite of the fact that it has not yet come true. (See my The Real Paul, chapter 9)The North African Tertullian in On the Flesh of Christ (about 203–206) pushed this argument in a slightly different direction.

The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.

Tertullian was a strong backer of reason and his argument that “it is certain, because impossible” is following Aristotle’s objection that the apparent unbelievability of a report can be an argument for its truth. If the witness was making it up, why would the witness not make up something more credible? It is a version of the criterion of dissimilarity.

After languishing for centuries, Tertullian’s statement came alive in the seventeenth century, when the English polymath Thomas Browne gave Tertullian’s statement a new twist. “Methinks there be not impossibilities enough in Religion for an active faith.” He argued that the more impossible something was to believe, the more it strengthened one’s faith. Voltaire defined faith as “believing things because they are impossible,” a riff on Tertullian, and later he referred to Augustine as saying “I believe because it is absurd, I believe because it is impossible.” Augustine, of course, never said any such thing.

Subsequently the phrase was translated back into Latin, Credo quia absurdum, giving it the authenticity and gravitas of an ancient language, and was applied to all religious belief and has become part of the standard argument against religious belief. “I believe because it is absurd” goes back to neither Tertullian nor Augustine and is a creation of the eighteenth century. (See Peter Harrison’s ”’I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme” for an excellent tracing of the history of this quote.)This checkered history does not absolve faith of the charge but should serve as a warning. The situation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had drastically changed from the middle ages. Religion was the science of the Middle Ages, but the Enlightenment and rise of science challenged that dominance by demonstrating that Genesis as science had failed. Religious faith resisted science. Philip Kitcher, Living with Darwin, chapter 2, is especially good on this aspect. The spoof in Alice in Wonderland is well placed.

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Merriam-Webster spins out a third sense of faith: “3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs • the Protestant faith”.

This third sense identifies “faith” with a particular set of religious beliefs. This is a Western and Christian understanding of religion. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism are not beliefs or faiths, but practices, as Christianity was before Constantine and the Nicene Creed. These religions often accommodate to our understanding and refer to themselves as faiths, but that is only a form of cultural colonialism masquerading in English usage.

This understanding of “faith” is absent from the New Testament.

Those using “faith” in speech and writing frequently do not make the careful distinctions of the editors of Merriam-Webster. The distinctions are jumbled together and not carefully parsed. This causes a problem in reading the New Testament because the range of meaning of the English word “faith” exceeds the Greek word pistis, traditionally translated “faith.”

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matt 6:30 KJV)

In this saying “little faith” fits definitions 1a and 2a(1). But if an English reader should slot in sense 3, that Jesus was chiding them for not adhering to Christian faith as a system, or sense 2a(2), the traditional doctrines, then the saying would go awry. In this way it could be understood as not having enough faith in Jesus.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34 NRSV)

Again 1a and 2a(1) work, but this one can easily in English be understood as 2a(2), “belief in the traditional doctrines of religion.” Thus, it could be and frequently has been understood as her faith in Jesus healed her.

Because the English word “faith” is so liable to mislead a reader of the New Testament, the translators of The Complete Gospels and The Authentic Letters of Paul opted to translate pistis and its cognates as “trust” (Complete Gospels) or “confidence” (Authentic Letters) to enable a reader to more fully understand what the New Testament authors were trying to convey. Our three example texts make this shift evident.

He said to her, “Daughter, your trust has cured you. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction.” (Mark 5:34)

If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and is thrown into an oven tomorrow, won’t you even more, you with your meager trust? (Matt 6:30)

That’s why becoming heirs results from putting confidence in and relying upon God, so that the promise is entirely a matter of free gift and is guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, not only to those who claim to be heirs by virtue of covenant law, but to those who share Abraham’s confidence and reliance upon God. (Roms 4:16)

To attempt to banish the use of the word “faith” is tilting at windmills. Religious folk seem attached to the word, view it as essential. But we do need at least to be clear about what we mean when we use the word and not use is as Scott suggests; ‘a weasel word’ to avoid knowing what we mean? So, maybe we can try using “trust” or “confidence” in the New Testament, and in the other meaning be precise.

And just in case you think I have wandered too far from our text, Barry Robinson in his eMail sermon The gospel in sycamore, puts it this way: “What bothered the good people of Jericho was not so much what Jesus had to say… but the way he said it. “It is one thing to believe in loving your neighbour, to believe in welcoming the lost, to believe in forgiving the guilty; but it is quite another thing to practice what you preach, to actually practice doing it. That’s what bothered people about Jesus. “He not only said that we should love God and one another.  He actually went out and did it.  He didn’t just say God’s embrace was wide enough to welcome everyone, he actually went out and embraced people no one else would. “It upset the balance.  It was too unsettling to the way things were”. Maybe we have lost the meaning of faith in translation away from praxis in favour of the supernatural intellectual definition?

For more, check out:

‘I believe because it is absurd’: Christianity’s first meme,” by Peter Harrison

Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faithby Philip Kitcher

The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challengeby Bernard Brandon Scott

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionariesby Kory Stamper

Progressive Christianity

Posted: October 21, 2022 in Uncategorized

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

Progressive Christianity

Challenging the Status Quo and Ugly Inhumanities

Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian (Galilean) Jew. He was not a Christian. He never rejected his Jewish ‘family tree’ roots. His spoken language was a Galilean dialect of Aramaic, an identifiable accent and manner of speech disdained by the religious elite and urban dwellers. Indeed, more than that. One only needed to come from Galilee or be in a group of Galileans to arouse suspicion and cause trouble!  The dialect could prove to be deadly. (Horsfield 2015:14)

There is growing evidence that the society he and his family were born into was diverse and highly stratified socially, economically, and religiously. Boundaries and differences were all the go. And they all lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of compulsory offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, taxes to Herodian landlords, and tribute to their Roman conquerors. The sum total of taxes levied upon the people, including religious obligations, was nothing short of enormous. A tiny percentage of wealthy and powerful families lived comfortably in the cities from the tithes, taxes, tribute, and interest they extracted from the vast majority of people, who lived in villages and worked the land.

As several scholars have recorded the purpose of taxation was not social well-being but enhancement of the position of elites. Period. Leadership was concerned with plundering rather than with developing! (Herzog 1994:180) Named among those who were despised and hated because of their abusive behaviour against the poor, were representatives of the Temple as well as toll collectors. Jews regarded toll collectors as collaborators who profited
by preying on the countrymen on behalf of the Roman Empire.

The storyteller we call Luke even has a story about them. Actually there are two stories about them.

(a) The Jesus story. Short. Sharp. Leaving little other than questions.

(b) The Luke adaptation of that Jesus story some 50 years after the original.

And his conclusion: Pharisees are smug, self-seeking, judgmental.

We heard the latter (this morning) as the Gospel reading.

(i) that story has been called the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, due to an incorrect translation of the word ‘telones’.

It should be Toll Collector… “normally Jews who had become tax-farmers for the Romans – or in Galilee for Herod Antipas”. (Funk 2002:50)

(ii) that story has been read as a contrast between two types of oppositional piety: the arrogant and the humble…

(iii) that story has been interpreted by some as a story about prayer: being persistent and humble…

It is now suggested that all these traditional readings of the parable are unfortunate misnomers. That all these traditional readings ‘spiritualise’ the story, or make it an allegory or example story, rather than hearing the raw, blunt edge of the original. That all these traditional readings are full of literary traps for unwary readers and listeners!

There is something both sad and radical about this particular Lucian Jesus story. The first sad bit being the Pharisee, a member from the faction of moral entrepreneurs and rule-creation, stood apart. He did not want to risk contacting uncleanness from brushing the garment of an ‘earth-worker’ (we might read here: ’sinner’) – those who failed to observe the rules of purity laws. His ‘standing apart’ it seems, was to emphasize his self-importance, his prominence, and his power over others. The Toll Collector’s ‘standing apart’ from the congregation was because “he was a deviant shunned by the faithful”. (Herzog 1994:185) He was hated. He didn’t belong. And he knew it! He sought to be inconspicuous.

And the radical bits…  A Toll Collector (hear again ‘sinner’). A Toll collector in the Temple grounds was unheard of!  And the hearers of this story – so-called fellow sinners – would have drawn that conclusion before the story’s end. Both he and they were excluded, despised, ruled and taxed over.

So what have we… The actions of the Toll Collector were outside the negative prescribed script. He refused to accept the limitations imposed on him by the religious pure.
He never rebuts the Pharisee’s shaming nor his efforts to reinforce the status quo,
“but [he] speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisee’s words have created, and by his actions, challenges the Pharisee’s reading of God’s judgments… He claims God’s ear for himself”. (Herzog 1994:192)

God listening speaking outside official channels! A ‘sinner’ at the Temple praying: Include me in! Make an atonement for me! How radical can you get? This radical!  This radical Jesus had a positive regard for toll collectors and all who were outside the social and religious boundaries of others. Not only that, all brokered religion in other words the need for priestly mediators as the necessary link between God and the individual; is at an end. God’s domain has no brokers. Everyone has direct access to the Holy One. Petitioners are their own brokers.

One progressive scholar takes all this to its logical end: “A brokered religion produces a cyclical understanding of the faithful life: sin, guilt, forgiveness – the latter at the hands of the church and priest… In addition, it tends to produce a passive relation to the Christian life… A passivity carried over into the social, economic, and political realms as well”. (Funk 2002:131) It is no wonder that Jesus’ Galilean family and friends, are always under suspicion because they were Galilean, they and he were thought of as threats to others welfare. Sometimes even mentally unstable! (Brueggemann 1989:51) Jesus’ voice shattered settled reality and opened up questions and new possibilities! And, when the muted ones began to speak, as shown so often in the Book of Psalms, their speech was funded by “the burdens of rage, alienation, resentment, and guilt. These burdens had been reduced to silence over the years of a settled captivity to Rome, but now they are mobilized in their full power and energy”.  It is no wonder that Jesus’ hearers who consider brokered Christianity (and we hear: ‘orthodoxy’) were considered simply incredible, and were shunned and considered heretics! And just in case you missed that: a non-brokered Christianity goes against nearly everything Christianity has structured and theologically claimed, since the early fourth century! And Some might say began as early as the second century. As the key focus became the worship of Jesus as the sole divine bearer of salvation. The mythical, traditional cross cultural change agent of society had begin to become the exclusive structured absolutist faith that people no longer believe.

Someone is also said to have been more pointed in his comments about the fourth century church: “It is as if Jesus was the subject of a corporate takeover, where the new company retained his name and reputation but the values and aspirations of what he started were replaced by a totally different corporate ethos and agenda that have nothing identifiable to do with him”. (Horsfield 2015:290)

It is increasingly clear that the early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a different essence, not a divinity like that claimed of Roman Ceasar’s, not that claimed of traditional Messiahs but a promised humanity beyond that status, a halo circling his head suggests that What Jesus brought was something more than the divine role they had come to understand! They made claims about him because they had heard him say 
and seen him do certain things that seemed like beyond the natural they knew. They experienced him acting in their lives in unknowable ways. And what they experienced in the company of this person, a sense of empowerment that moved them deeply. The life to which he called his followers involved a reversalof ordinary social and political, cultural – and too often – religious standards.

The words of Canadian Bruce Sanguin suggest this when he said : “Jesus was proclaiming the end of one era for humanity and the dawning of a new one – one person at a time… [His] very being was a proclamation of what the new human looked like… In his teachings he conveyed new spiritual wisdom, which if adhered to, effectively overturned the world of conventional wisdom”. (Sanguin 2015)

If Jesus is continued to be remembered, it will no longer be because people give him divine titles… Words are not enough unless they evolve and express this that is not super natural, not super anything but rather poetic, and musical and mindful beyond and including reason.

He will be remembered as long as his words offer an abiding challenge, Dewey says. The radical challenge of distributive justice that Dominic Crossan speaks of. The empowering challenge to move forward from the ugly inhumanities “in which we seem to be trapped toward reconciliation of contending peoples, nations, cultures, [and] religions”. (Kaufman 2006:113)

Luke’s Jesus misses all this. So too does the spiritualized Jesus of traditional or ‘orthodox’ interpretation. But we can “rescue Jesus from the cloying baggage of Christological beliefs unnecessarily added by the church”. (Wink 2000:177)

Progressive thought invites us to accept the challenge to ponder some more creditable alternatives. Both about the human sage called Jesus. And about those we or our church or government exclude for political reasons. As the former outspoken advocate for the environment, Thomas Berry, has lamented: “To learn how to live graciously together would make us worthy of this unique beautiful blue planet that was prepared for us over some billions of years, a planet that we should give over to our children with the assurance that this great community of the living will nourish them, guide them, heal them and rejoice in them as it has nourished, guided, healed, and rejoiced in ourselves”. (Berry 2014: 190) Amen.

Berry, T. “Spirituality and Ecology: A Sermon” in M. E Tucker & J. Grim (ed) Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. New York. Orbis Books, 2014

Brueggemann, W. Finally Comes the Poet. Daring Speech for Proclamation.. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.

Dewey, A. “Editorial: Testing the Atmosphere of God” in The Fourth R 28 A, 1, 4. 2015.

Funk, R. W. Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Herzog 11, W. R. Parables as Subversive Speech. Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Horsfield, P. From Jesus to the Internet. A History of Christianity and Media. New York. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.

Patterson, S. The God of Jesus. The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998. 
Sanguin, B. The Way of the Wind: The Path and Practice of Evolutionary Christian Mysticism. Kelowna. CopperHouse/Wood Lake Publishing, 2015.
Wink, W.  “The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

The Fragility of Heart and the Weakness of God

It is true that millions of people around the world grow flowers in their gardens. We give flowers as gifts on special occasions, whether as a simple thank you for an invitation to dinner,
or as a sign of congratulations, or as an acknowledgement of bereavement. We associate flowers with love, with joy, with sympathy, with sorrow, with death. I can remember my Father in Law who brought a bunch of flowers to his wife every Friday evening for every year of their marriage, Flowers and their symbolic power in our lives is immense…

The important thing about flowers that affect us deeply, is that they are given to us by nature. They are the products of evolution and play their own role in the great web of life. This role is independent of human feelings. Flowers are what they are. Humanity breeds many varieties of flowers to make them yet more affecting to us, but they are nature’s creation, not our own. Another significant factor is that most flowers are at the most vulnerable end of the natural spectrum. They are mostly fragile and susceptible to damage and destruction. There is a fragility about them that suggests that beauty is like things of the heart, they are fragile and susceptible to damage. They are of the most vulnerable and not unlike the crucified God, or the God that is at the whim of human need vulnerable to human use. They are at the whim of acceptance, and ultimately love.

Many decades ago, in the spring of 1936, while waiting for his beloved to arrive from London for their wedding, “and germinating the ideas that would bloom into Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell (1903-1950) planted some roses in the garden of the small sixteenth-century cottage that his suffragist, socialist, bohemian aunt had secured for him in the village of Wallington.

Three and a half years after he planted them, and after thirteen seasons of tending to them, Orwell’s roses were struggling to bloom for the first time. World War II had just begun. Orwell recorded in his diary: “Cut down the remaining phloxes, tied up some of the chrysanthemums which had been blown over. Difficult to do much these afternoons now it is winter-time. The ‘chrysanths’ now in full flower, mostly dark reddy-brown, & a few ugly purple & white ones which I shan’t keep. Roses still attempting to flower, otherwise no flowers in the garden now…”

This man. most famous for his scrutiny of totalitarianism and propaganda, and an unyielding political vision, had planted roses!  “That a socialist or a utilitarian or any pragmatist or practical person might plant fruit trees is not surprising,” wrote author Rebecca Solnit. “They have tangible economic value and produce the necessary good that is food even if they produce more than that. But to plant a rose — or in the case of this garden he resuscitated in 1936, seven roses early on and more later — can mean so many things…”

If war and injustice and power and destruction have an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks, and gardens.”

Yesterday a woman was planting flowers in her garden. Her activity was more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She was digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging,
under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination.

Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little bulbs and seeds will explode into daffodils, tulips, irises, freesias, geraniums, pansies, daises, and sunflowers.

A warlike pathway will have been won by soft and coloured things. The yellow eyes of asters, the purple tongues of irises, and the crayola pansies have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. (Fleischman 2013)

It is Spring. Hosanna! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This. (Goodenough 1998) Today, in the spirit of persistent women as presented in the biblical ‘justice’ scenario we read of and patience and faith experiences captured through beauty and nature, independent of the gospel story, yet somehow embodied in the metaphor we honour the spirit of flowers, of wonder, and of beauty. “Beauty… transforms like no other encounter and sets us squarely in the realm of the sacred…. Justice in the face of absurdity, beauty enlarges, transforms, and embraces the whole complexity that is life.  Beauty prefers to feel all and feel deeply, thereby participating in the divine act of creative transformation.” The challenge of flowers featuring in church Harvest Festivals, is always that it is not enough to express fully our gratitude for the beauty we encounter in the visions, smells and placements of those flowers. Nor in the beauty of the transformation that justice reveals.

Our story today is generally known as the parable of the importunate widow, or the parable of the unjust judge.  The text is unique to Luke.  Jesus is speaking to the disciples, though throughout this section, the pharisees are still within earshot. 

The passage follows immediately upon 17: 22-37, a major theme of which is the suffering and rejection of Jesus, which provokes an eschatological crisis, out of which comes the New Day of the Lord–“the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Humanity be in his day” (17:24). 

The judge did not fear God (phobos) or have respect (entrepomenos) for people.  Entrepomenos is an unusual word.  It can mean “to shame” or, in the passive, “to be ashamed.”  It can also mean “reverence,” though this is the third meaning. The judge not only felt no “reverence” for people, but also had no sense of “shame” in how he treated them– a typical Roman judge it is easily said, in other words.  Roman judges had vast power within their jurisdiction.  If they wanted to, they could decide cases based on personal whim alone.  The judge in this story is just such a judge–one with no concern for justice.

But there was an importunate widow in that city, and she was coming to him, saying, ‘Avenge me from my opponent,’ and he was not willing for a time. The stage of the parable is set by the contrast between, on the one hand, a powerful magistrate who can do whatever he feels like doing, and, on the other, a poor widow who must take what she can get. That the woman appears by herself in court means that she has no male relative to speak for her.  She is indeed powerless and poor.  On the “power scale,” the judge is at one end and the widow at the other.

We remember here that the Hebrew scriptures are replete with injunctions to consider the needs of widows, orphans, and strangers.  Perhaps these injunctions are so frequent because the people of Israel needed continual reminding and, as it could be construed, to little effect! 

By the time of Jesus, the powerful and unscrupulous were still preying on widows.  Jesus will later say that the Temple elite “devour widows’ houses” (20:47), such as when the Temple bureaucrats swooped in upon the death of the husband and “managed” the estate, taking a sizable cut for themselves.  It should not be surprising that a judge who does not fear God would likewise not care about God’s demonstrated concern for the weak and vulnerable.  If he does not fear God, why would he respect people?

The widow says, literally:  “Avenge me from my opponent (antidikos).”  The widow, normally a sympathetic figure in Jesus’ stories, seems to expect that she may actually get justice in this kangaroo court.  She thinks she might yet come out a winner.  For all its well-known corruption, she still believes in the system! This certainty for the widow could be her belief that she has faith in it being in Gods tine that she would receive justice….

“For a while he refused” literally, but it seems that the woman’s faith was in Gods “inbreaking time”, if you will.  According to “regular time,” the judge has no use for the widow but in God’s time she would. In God’s time will come justice (though justice will be defined in a surprising and unusual way, as we shall see).  “God’s time” is not something that happens after chronological time ends.  “God’s time” is any time in which the reign of God breaks in.  It can be right now. It might be a stretch but for me here is the place of the vulnerable beauty of the fragile flower the fragility of the heart in the face of might, the fragile beauty of the flower in the  face of wind and rain and storms of all kinds.

In his speech to himself, the judge openly acknowledges what had originally been said about him, i.e., that he doesn’t fear God or respect people.  This tells us that he has had no internal change.  He remains the same person he was when first identified. Nevertheless, he decides to change his approach regarding the widow:  “Though I am not fearing God nor respecting human beings, yet because this widow gives me trouble, I will avenge her, so that she might not come (and) give me a black eye unto the end.” 

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates hupopiaze as “wear me out.”  This seems weak.  The word comes from the world of boxing and refers to striking someone under the eye.  “Give me a black eye” is not only faithful to the Greek, but paints a rather startling and humorous picture of the poor widow battering the powerful judge.

Such is the power of beauty and the fragile and the heart in the face of rules and regulations, and expectations. The weak goodness or love is akin to the fragility and vulnerability of the beauty of nature. What’s more, she will “give me a black eye unto the end (telos).”  The word telos is a special word in the scriptures.  It means the goal, the consummation, the gathering of all into all.  If the widow keeps battering him with her appeals, her desire for justice just may make the judge look bad through all eternity.  To avoid this fate, the judge rules in the widow’s favour.

Their vindication will be soon–en taxei–but not, however, by making the poor widow come out a winner through the judicial process.  Quite the contrary.  The vindication that is approaching “soon” is the death of Jesus.  The woman’s “justice,” and all true justice, will come when the beauty of the flower consumes everything. Amen. 

What is a Good Life?

Posted: October 5, 2022 in Uncategorized

What is a Good Life?

Rex Hunt the Australian cleric I often quote from tells a story in a sermon on our topic a few years back. The story goes like this and you will no doubt have heard such stories often;

A man in his early 30s was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had a wife and young children and a promising career. Suddenly all of that was swept away from him. He could barely talk or walk. He was in constant agony. His friends and his family, except for his wife and mother, avoided him. The doctors shook their head. It was too bad. He was a nice bloke and deserved a longer life. But there was nothing they could. Finally, he went to a famous surgeon who offered to operate on him, even though everyone else said the tumour was inoperable. The surgeon warned the patient could very well die during the operation, though he (the surgeon) was pretty sure he would survive and return to health. They decided to take the risk. After nine hours of surgery, the surgeon came into the waiting room, grinned at the man’s wife and said, “Got it!” The man recovered and went on to a happy and successful life. Twenty years later the surgeon died. “We should go to the funeral,” the man’s wife said. “I’d like to,” her husband replied. “But it’s on the weekend and I have an important golf tournament.”  (Adapted/Andrew Greeley.web site, 2004)

Traditionally the story by Luke of the Ten healed lepers/outcasts, is used as an object lesson for ‘thankfulness’. Very much like the story of the man with a brain tumour. But what if it wasn’t about thankfulness? What if it was about the new Jerusalem or the new Kingdom of God or the realm of God that Jesus was keen to challenge people with its concept. What if the tenth Leper is a symbol of this new realm this new way of being that Jesus was on about? Maybe this story has some hidden codes within it and we need to break them. Perhaps. Allowing for some general problems with Luke’s lack of geographic knowledge, ten ‘lepers’ spotted Jesus from the distance they were forced to keep between themselves and other people. They called out to him, presumably in desperation, for there was little to no hope for lepers, for the unclean, in those days. Jesus also kept his distance and did nothing. But Luke says he told them to go and show themselves to the priests. And as they rushed off, they were made whole. At that point one of them, a Samaritan, a foreigner, stopped in his tracks. Instead of going to the priests and giving thanks in the ‘traditional’ way, as set down in the rules and regulations, turned back.

He (we presume it was a ‘he’) didn’t do what was expected. He didn’t do what Jesus asked him to do. He didn’t follow the others, with whom he had probably lived for years. Instead, he stood alone ‘against the stream’ and followed his heart And in search of this code we note the words Luke’s Jesus says: your faith has made you whole. Not my faith has made you whole! Nor is it God has made you whole! The healing presumedly emanated from within the power of the outcast. All the other nine (and we read: Judeans) wanted, was to be made well. To go back home and start all over again, doing what everybody else was doing. To lead a normal life… driving to work on Mondays, doing the shopping on Thursdays, attending synagogue on Friday night if nothing more interesting was on, dining on the occasional kosher Big Mac,
meeting someone and maybe starting a family of nice, normal, ordinary kids? And who would blame them?

But one, a Samaritan (read: unclean? heretic? Northern Jew or even Muslim perhaps for a conservative exclusive Christian?) rather than a Judean (and here we read: clean? holy? And even Christian perhaps?) comes back. And Luke’s Jesus gently lifts the man to his feet and affirms him. It’s all right. Remember this moment of faithing.

No brokers were needed. Not even for those whom others considered outside the paddock of God’s love and acceptance. Luke’s Jesus had a lot of time for those who dared to risk being themselves… we recall the likes of the unjust steward or the devious manager we remember the prodigal son, to name just a few. Likewise, many of those whom Luke’s Jesus singled out for special attention, where others considered them unacceptable, unclean, beyond consideration. Yet they were the ones who risked themselves in more ways than those who were the so-called ‘averagely good’.

The ‘averagely good’ are safe, because they don’t take too many risks.  They always keep the right side of any rules. And they don’t step out of line in case that’s a bad thing to do. The ‘averagely good’ people mostly remain just that. ‘Averagely good’ for the rest of their lives. But those who follow their heart and continue to work at being themselves, know that sometimes risks must be taken. Those that know reality is not what it seems, that loving is more powerful than fear, that the weak power of goodness is more transformative than the strong power of rule and dominance and control. Their faithing is making them whole. And we remember another Lukan story – the so-called Good Samaritan, where the question was changed from ‘who is my neighbour?’  to ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?’… (Robert Funk)

Maybe the question from this story is not ‘where are the other nine?’  but ‘where is the tenth?’… Where is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions as Barbara Brown Taylor asks?

Maybe faith is not about how to live a ‘normal’ or ‘averagely good’ life. Nor is it slavishly doing as Jesus says, down to the last biblical letter. But maybe it’s to go on the journey that Jesus chartered. And to have faith with Jesus in the re-imagined world of the story/parable. To transcend the boundaries we erect around ourselves, and as I suggested a few weeks ago maybe its about joining Jesus in the reimagination of the opportunities in the face of the plight of being a leper facing exclusion or an averagely good person facing irrelevance. Maybe its time to realise how much we, and all on this fragile earth, are accepted, and affirmed by a right relationship with our planet. Being Christian today is not about being right or being better than or even being average, it is about joining the Jesus model of breaking through the systemic and the assumed boundaries that are supported by fear and control and the norm and having faith in the transforming power of weakness, of exclusion, of forgiving, of turning the other cheek, of giving up one’s comfort whatever that is in terms of complacency, fitting in, empire building, financial elitism, all for the sake of the other. The power of the cross is after all about being finished, being eliminated by the power of might. Even if one still believes in the traditional Supernatural nature of Jesus or God it is the weak power that works. The Romans and the empire hade the might power but it crumbles in the face of the weak power of the crucified one. Remember we are talking metaphor. Just as the tenth leper is the one who gets it right by not doing what Jesus says might be that the outcast of today gets it better. And in the political climate of Jesus’ time, as in our own, such a claim surely is something to think about? Is the challenge to re-imagine and thus recreate? Is it time to admit that doing theology is not about claiming that it is dealing with hard conceptual knowledge but rather interpreting imaginative and poetic figures. Is it not time to demystify, pare away supernaturalism and thus render meaning to people who do not think that religion means crucifying our intelligence after all are not the traditions bound up by their culture, language and historical time and place in which they grow and as we are experiencing today wither away or lose their symbolic power. Is it not time for the tenth leper to shake up the world. Amen.

What Time Is It?

Posted: September 27, 2022 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 17C, 2022
Luke 17: 5-10

What Time Is It?

Is the Christian Faith going to disappear or not? Is any form of religion going to survive into the future? All these are big questions that currently seem to be driven by a level of fear uncovered by the examples all around the world. One might suggest that our obsession with self and the importance of individualism and personal place in the human psyche is in need of examination. It is beginning to seem as though the age of reason is over and the age of personalization is becoming stretched by the need for collaboration and collective approaches to life.  Control of the masses seems to be too complex to understand and the expending of competitive energy seems to be struggling as; out of synch with the rising anxiety within the populace and there is an increasing resorting to winning at all costs and to the closure through some sort of violence over dominance of expectation. Is protest allowed to include a justifiable violent act? Is Rugby allowed to equal physical assault upon another? Is the game about exterminating the other by any means. The administrators and the referees seem to be the targets in the face of their attempts to protect individuals. Is this a reaction to the futility of violence? Is it an attempt to sanitize the direction  society is moving?

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

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

We are in the throws of local body elections and politicians wanting to be re-elected (or elected), tend to play on that sense of anxiety. Reading all their desired contributions and what they intend to do. What they promise. One would have to say that in many cases they are caught up in this game of paradox. How do they win your vote as an ideal person to maintain the ideals of democratic leadership, collective interests as well as frighten us into thinking that they will control all the ills of sector interests, profiteering corporations and runaway institutional greed and corruptible power? They count on us wanting to seek out security and comfort, rather than risking the so-called stresses and challenges of change and they do this by promising to alleviate perceived burdens of high rates, high pollution, traffic congestion, proper ecological policies, accurate measurement and strong audit principles etc. I am not saying this is wrong or not to be expected but rather calling for an awareness of the nature of fear-based change. We read of the like in our Hebrew Scripture from Lamentations, The city the nation, the faith are under pressure for change and they feel it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s the link with part one of our text. We find out what life is all about through the living of it. It is always the new that matters, time is a measurement we don’t need right now but rather later because we are always becoming. To be alive is to be becoming. And this is what faith is all about: a way of living, an attitude, a vision, that creates us daily. Like good cheese or good wine, a matured faith is a gradually maturing process. So even if your faith is like a small seed particle you have within your grasp a potent life force. So just do it, get on with it. Love, love and love again/ Unleash your faith now. Its time. Amen.

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

‘Storm as Precursor to Life and the Call of Imagination’

Honour the Mind, Live the questions and Explore the Human adventure

Was Jesus of Nazareth the Storm that brought about change?

A poem to start our thinking.

‘Amidst the discordant noises of the day we hear the Spirit calling;
We stumble as we tread Earth’s way; asking that we be kept from falling.

Our eyes are open but often they cannot see for the gloom of night:
We can no more than lift our hearts but for an inward light.

The wild and fiery passion of our youth consumes our soul; 
In agony we turn to God for truth and self-control.

For Passion and all the pleasure it can give will die the death;
But this of us eternally must live, it is for sure God’s borrowed breath.

‘Amidst the discordant noises of the day we hear the Spirit calling;
We stumble as we tread Earth’s way; asking that we be kept from falling.

One of the stark warnings we seem to be hearing today as science warns us of the Anthropocene and the ending of the sixth civilization, we are currently experiencing is that if we don’t risk hoping, if we don’t change directions we are going to end up where we are headed. When John Steinbeck wrote. ”The dawn came, but no day” and of dusk slipping “back toward darkness,” he was bearing witness to the cruel reality that hope is hard work and delayed hope is risky ground. He was highlighting that more tragic than the loss of security that comes with the loss of hope is in fact the loss of the capability to imagine the totality as something that could be completely different. My proposal today under the title of Storm as the precursor to imagination or as the catalyst for imagination is a claim that the violence of some storms is an awakening of the crucial importance of an awareness of the crucial part imagination platys in the life of the planet, our life on it and our relationship with it. We can no longer imagine human life as superior to or independent of all other life forms that constitute a living planet. And why do I think imagination of so important? It is because imagination is required to bring order to, to remember, to orientate, to re-construct, to make one aware of, to story, to appraise both our past and our present. To imagine is to engage in shaping the future, the possibilities yet unmade, to make real what is otherwise absent. To engage in imagining is about a hope as yet unrealized it is always marked with risk, with self-deception and even the possibility of self-destruction. We know this because of where we are in our relationship with the universe now. Charles Peguy writes;

“it is she (Hope), this little one, who carries everything,

For faith only sees what is,

But hope, she sees what will be.

Charity only loves what is

But hope, she loves what will be.

Faith sees that which is.

In time and in Eternity.

Hope see that which will be.

In time and for all Eternity.

And Victor Havel reminds us that Hope is a dimension of the soul and not dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. It is an orientation of the spirit, of the heart. My claim today is that imagination is no longer mere imitation of imitations. It is no longer a part of the world of fiction or fantasy. It is rather akin to that of Hannah Arendt’s claim in that imagination is ‘The prerequisite of understanding”. It is the coupling between thinking and judging. She also goes on to claim that commitment to human community calls forth a responsibility to attend to the important relationship between understanding and imagination and that imagination is indispensable for achieving the possibility of any shared meaning at all. One must be able to imagine the world from the other’s perspective or community remains impossible.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other ………

……… 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.

In a world faced with the matter of things, such as the ending of the sixth extinction or the Anthropocene, escatology and the hermeneutics of imagination are important for understanding. The art of religion, the art of Imagining, the art of poetry are no longer alternatives to reality they are intrinsic to it. One way of thinking about imagination is to see it as a way of thinking, responding and acting shot through the whole array of our human engagement with reality. This means we need to challenge any distinction between ‘being imaginative’ and deploying ‘reason’ because to do so is unhelpful. To further support this is the recent studies of McGilchrist and Johnson who claim that this relationship between imagining and reasoning is far deeper than we ever thought is interesting in that the most basic conceptual and linguistic units that we use to think or speak about anything at all are not produced by reason but are rather products of acts of imagination. They require right hemisphere activity as well as Left and maybe even a right hemisphere priority.

Such is the storm upon our sensibilities and upon truth in this age of post covid, impending extinction increasing interdependence politically and socially and the heightened awareness of our part in the change to our climate, that it is imperative that we employ our whole human capabilities in response. As Dr Lowe reminded Wellingtonians recently, this world is almost over, almost about to be different, almost new and we must imagine a new Jerusalem.

Imagine if you will that the word God is a verb not a noun, an action not a thing perhaps loving rather than love itself. Imagine this dynamic action of loving is called ….

The Almost Moment

The ‘Almost Moment is always meditating

until the fingertips of work touch,

embracing the possibility of the impossible,

and living the poetics of the possible,

The ‘Almost” moment is the hyphen,

The hyphen in the im-possible

The hyphen is the proximity of our distance,

and the distance in our proximity.

The ‘Almost’ moment is the moment

The moment of reconciliation,

the deeper, richer, more mature

concretization of moments

The ‘Almost’ moment, taken by itself

is one-sided and abstract.

theism–atheism and anatheism;

losing the ‘Almost’ to simplicity.

The ‘Almost’ moment, taken by itself

As faith–doubt–second faith;

position, opposition, composition.

Is lost in the different

The ‘Almost’ moment, when taken by itself

Loses the other to the question

Both become limited by error 

and the ‘Almost’ moment becomes a negative one

The ‘Almost’ moment held together with others

displaces positions before they arrive

not as higher or better, but decomposed

each one in its place of health-filled ambiguity but not of need

The ‘Almost’ moment when before and beneath

as opposed to after or above

enables deconstruction without destruction

undecidability and the weak become truth with authenticity

The ‘Almost’ moment is more than positive

Affirmation displaces the dividing distinction

Not as arbitrary relativism

But in the name of authentic affirmation

In the Almost’ moment the divine becomes victim

The divine, crucified, humiliated and weak

Become the ‘Almost’ and the moment becomes truth

a weak force, weak strength, of uncompromising forgiveness.

The ‘Almost’ moment is when its empty yet power-filled’

An empty power more sovereign than might

A potent weakness that acquires actuality

The ‘Almost’ moment humanized and real.

Unconditional loving.

And just in case your imagining is being tested and teased by reasoning about now and some materialisation might help? Another poem….

A Serendipitous Presence

Words are without completion

too small for the task that eludes all.
How can we speak of a gentleness within,
the warmth of heart in response to call?

How can we name you ‘Storm’ and understand?

How can we know you, ocean of love,
Words fail to be enough, this we know true,

strong as forever, soft as a dove.
living within and without is our clue.

We know times of spiritual blindness,
when excess and pain distort our sight.
Something within and without us,
shows us how darkness can turn into light.

Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
yet all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.

Words are creative completion

small and yet enough, for the task of call.
They speak of the gentleness within,
and warm the heart in response to the call.

Being confused is ok because as Iris Murdoch said: ‘The world is not given to us on a plate, it is given to us as a creative task. We work and make something of it” So let us “Honour the Mind, Live the questions and Explore the Human adventure” Amen.

What does Lost mean?

Posted: September 8, 2022 in Uncategorized

What does Lost mean?

Oh, dear here we go again! A sermon on the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin? Isn’t the story so clear that there is no need to preach on it? Doesn’t everyone already know the message here? Isn’t the message clear that the love of God is amazing? It is inclusive of all, aware of the persecuted, the outcast, the lost one among millions?

I remember when one of my daughters went missing at the shopping mall. I was devastated thinking that I had lost her. Where had she got to? How could I have lost her? Would I find her again? What would I say to her when I found her? Why had she wondered off? Was it her intention? What would her mom say to me?

Maybe that would be my introduction to the sermon about the two parables we have this morning as text. The story highlights how serious the lostness is and so gives rise to the emotions one might find in the text of how important to lost one is be it a sheep or a coin in our monetarist society of today. Maybe the rest would be about how I tie the story to the text? Maybe I could tie the parable of the lost sheep to the idea that people are truly saved from eternal torment, or separation from God for time-everlasting. Maybe the lost one sets the value of the stories for us? Maybe the lost sheep is the daughter from my story and maybe Jesus is the searching father, but the trouble is then who is God the Father, is God the abductor? And yes, I could be literalizing the text but how else am I supposed to understand the story? It is for sure not an analogy, so much because it is a parable. It is a distinct literary creation and is always contextual. The trouble is I don’t know enough about the context let alone the culture, the mores, the situation?

And, after all what other interpretation can I have if I want to affirm a substitutionary atonement theory? The trouble is I have to believe that Jesus is God but because he is man also the God bit has to step aside for a while so that we can see how the God bit sacrifices his human bit to save the human bits. Oh Well!!!!! Moving on . . .

Now, if you thought that part was difficult wait for the next part. As one story goes there are many reasons when one can agree that eternal hell exists. One of those is to say that it doesn’t make logical sense Not to believe in eternal hell and here is the gist of that one: if there is north/south, and west/east, then there must be heaven/hell (hell as eternal torment). Make sense?  Well, it might help if we believe heaven is “up there” and hell is “down there,” then perhaps a north/south analogy would be a decent one. But who believes that today? It also means we would be dealing with like things, locales or directions in this instance. When discussing any notion of heaven and hell though, north and south analogies don’t seem to work, as heaven and hell are not simply different and opposite locales, or something remotely similar even, but are so weighted, that they carry with them ethical, theological, philosophical, Christological, soteriological, eschatological, anthropological, and psychological ramifications. So, this subject simply cannot be properly analogized by opposite directions. And even if we wanted to, in this model, it seems to be a glaring non-sequitur or illogical response, to suggest that because the opposite direction of north is south, then the opposite of everlasting life in heaven is everlasting life in spiritual and/or physical torment. That is to say, we would be making an illogical jump from one thing to the other, and thus our analogy falls apart. Why is the opposite of everlasting life in heaven not simply death? It seems that would be a closer and more fitting comparison to make. The other problem I have with that particular worldview that it’s a highly dualistic way of thinking about things! And again, this ads complexity because life is not black and white, it is not just certainty and uncertainty, it is rather shades of grey or more complex than just being dualistic. Sure, we know that a crucial way of measuring and authenticating and discussing and in fact making sense of reality is to reduce things to their parts and having two clear parts is required it is always only among many other parts, here’s what I mean by this. First concede and say that we indeed use our dualistic mind to traverse the world around us. For example, in order to make it safely to my friend’s house for our Thursday night chats, I need to make the correct combination of left and right turns, and in order for my child to understand what tall is she needs to conceptualize what short is. But when we start getting dualistic about our ultimate destinations, things start making very little sense because we know that that is an illogical reduction of options.

First, how does this even work? If God is One and holds the universe together, uni meaning one? How can one be eternally separated from God in the way most Christians contend? We are talking about God as that which holds all of creation together, aren’t we? And not God as a deity like Zeus or Odin even. So how does the true God, in order for people to live in perpetual torment, separate God’s self from them? What, then, holds this space together if not the One God? Could this not be considered, then, polytheism, as hell would either have to hold itself together, and thus be in and of itself a god, or be held together by yet another god. I suppose that God himself could hold hell together but aren’t we then at a different definition for hell, since it is no longer eternal separation from God?

Second, where does this belief in hell as eternal separation come from? Certainly not Judaism! We read of the psalmist of Psalm 139:7–12, who writes: Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

It seems that for the psalmist there is no “eternal separation from God.” Not even Sheol, or, the “abode of the dead,” could separate a person from God. Now, Sheolcould be thought of as a place where people do in fact receive punishment, but to suggest one can either remove himself or be removed by God from God’s presence, doesn’t seem to be an option according to this passage. And if we take a look at when Jesus talks about “hell,” or Gehenna, we would be hard pressed to make the case that he even hints at the fact that all those who are there are metaphysically removed from God’s presence, yet still continue to exist. But this seems to be what many of us followers of Jesus believe about hell.

Now, the last thing that I’ll say about this particular response to the meaning of the parables of the lost is about how this “justification by contract,” if you will I will approach attributed to God or even barter is in fact “good news.” Frankly, I’m not sure how the news that Jesus saves us from a place God designed—or, didn’t design since it exists apart from him? — can be called “good news/gospel.” The first problem is that it doesn’t actually sound like good news. The better news is that Jesus the Christ supernatural or not saved us by example, not that we have to enter into an economy of exchange model of soteriology so that we don’t go to a place of metaphysical separation from an “omnipresent” God. That sounds a bit absurd!

Anyway, this has already raised too many questions for one sermon and it is very short on answers to even consider it as a sermon. It makes no claim to be other than a beginning of the challenge to a literalism that has taken years to develop and will not change overnight, in fact some suggest that only with the death of a Christianity based on such a developed myth will there be change. The primary failure of this treatise is not a call to go out and preach a Gospel that encourages people to become lost so that they can be saved. Sorry, but again, that doesn’t seem Christocentric enough for my liking. I think I am suggesting we go preach the Gospel that Jesus the Christ saved us and that we are free from ourselves and our death-dealing self-created power systems.

Have peace!

Or better still

Shalom and Salaam.

Luke 14: 25-33 “Following this guy Jesus is Different”

We note at the beginning that in the lectionary this text is preceded by the parable of the great banquet (14: 15-24).  And that there; those invited to the banquet declined to attend, citing other priorities–care of land, possessions (oxen), and family (newly married). We note also that the use of the word hate is not a call to not love our father, mother, wife and children; it is not a call to harm our family, or wish them ill; it is rather, a call to heed the radical nature of the call Jesus places on those who would follow him, to count the cost and to realize “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple”.  Luke has Jesus using the age-old custom of rhetorical challenge in his presentation. It was not uncommon for such a use of the language to emphasize a point or to awaken attention to what follows.

Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. For the object of his concern is, according to William Loader, family power. “Family power and control which will not release from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge”. (WLoader Web site 2004) And Bill Loader goes on: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family”. (WLoader Web site 2004) In a society where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core”. (Funk & Hoover 1993:353)

This theme of costliness has been building throughout Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus. There is a very real cost to being a follower of Jesus. It will cost the entirety of your being (9:23–27). There is not time to go back and bury the dead (9:60), no time to say farewell (9:61). The cost of discipleship is nothing less than a complete breach with the things of this world. And what are the things of this world in a culture based on the concept of family if not our father, mother, wife, and children? Does this mean that we can have no relationship with our mothers and fathers, our sister and brothers? No, of course not. As we look to the teachings of Jesus on what it means to follow him, we see that it would be impossible to follow him and not have deep meaningful relationships, but it does mean that our relationships are transformed by our relationship with our God when we heed the challenge Jesus offers us. Our relationships with everyone from family to neighbour, happen in light of heeding what Jesus is suggesting. And this relationship, we are assured, will cause discord. What can be promised when the change is clearly understood is that persecution will come to those who follow him; there will be those in the world, those who are counted as friends, and those who are family who will reject us—that is the cost of following Jesus. It does not mean that family will reject one but that the nature of the resistance and the fear of change will be like rejection of family which is in that time and culture the very bedrock of being human. Without the family life would be impossible. The call to love one’s neighbour, to accept the stranger, to invite the outcast into one’s life are all in the similar vein, they are like the cost of loss of family.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other

The truth is that you make my life worthy

Having you around makes my day smooth and easy.

Without you it is hard for me to end a day fulfilled.

The truth is that you make my life worthy

The truth is that you give me reason to love

Without you I cannot say “I’ve loved you since the day I met you.”

I cannot stare at you from afar and know the deep feelings that rend me silent.

The truth is that you give me reason to love

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.

“Great crowds were going along with him.”  This reminds us both that Jesus is still journeying toward Jerusalem, as he has been since 9:51, and that Jesus had a large popular following. In our obsession with individualism, we can easily forget:  Jesus was beloved by many. What he said was universal and not just for the few. He “turned” to address them.  Again, in Luke, this is not unusual.  Jesus is said to “turn” and speak to someone, or some group, on six different occasions, usually with a message of special import.  This one is stark:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, that one is not able to be my disciple.”

This is reminiscent of episodes from Paolo Pasolini’s film, The Gospel according to Matthew.  From the perspective of the camera, the viewer is in the crowd following Jesus.  Most of the time, one can only see his back, though, occasionally, he turns around to deliver a difficult saying, almost as if daring people to continue following him. 

Luke appears to be doing something like that here.  The fundamental message is completely uncompromising.  You are “not able” to be a follower if you place anything, even your own family, even your own life, above following Jesus. Luke has several sayings of Jesus which could be interpreted as “anti-family.”  There are at least six passages thought to be like this. 8: 19-21, 9:59-62, 12:51-53, 14: 26-27, 18:29, 21:16.)  Of these passages, this week’s saying is the most abrupt.  (We note that the parallel saying in Matthew (10:37) says nothing about hate (miseo).  Instead, in Matthew, Jesus cautions against loving family “more than me.”) 

We might also note that “Hate” should be understood in the context of the first-century middle-eastern world.  It is not so much an emotional position, but a matter of honour and shame. In the ancient world…hating one’s family meant doing something that injured them, particularly by disgracing them.  Life was family centered, and the honour of the family was very highly valued.  Every family member was expected to protect the honour of the family.  If some members joined a suspect movement and abandoned their home, this brought disgrace on the family… (p. 235) 

This would have been a real concern particularly at the time Luke was writing.  And we know even today that division within families quite often accompanies the birth of new social or religious movements. Letters survive to this day of some Roman families who complained that their son or daughter had run off and joined some group called the “Christians.”  No doubt some Jewish families also felt the strain of divided loyalties, and no doubt some felt dishonoured by a family member’s participation in the Jesus movement.  Jesus’ saying nevertheless reflects the all-encompassing nature of following him.  The depth of loyalty was akin to giving precedence over family loyalty when journeying with Jesus “on the way”.   

This does not belittle the word “hate” because it is laden with emotion in our cultural context.  It suggests repulsion at a visceral level.  In this case, however, in the context of first century middle-eastern culture, to “hate” one’s own self means that the person disconnects from everything that has heretofore defined that person. To put it another way, one’s past no longer defines who they are.  One’s identity is no longer formed by one’s former allegiances, nor one’s experiences in life, nor even one’s genetics.  These are part of the old world which is giving way to the new world of a God centered existence. Followers of Jesus are not defined by the past, but by their work in the present and their future hope. And then Luke has another go, this time with what could be termed a haymaker punch He says: “Whoever does not bear their cross and come after me is not able to be my disciple.”  Followers of Jesus live with the expectation that they may meet the same fate as will Jesus. Like the short-lived lives of prophets throughout Judaism so too are those who follow the guy Jesus, destined for rejection and very likely by those closest to one.

And again, what is the nature of this rejection? How does one measure this cost? ‘Which of you, wanting to build a tower, does not first sit (and) count the cost, if he has (enough) to complete? –that lest perhaps, after he has laid the foundation and cannot finish, all the ones seeing might begin to mock him, saying, ‘This person began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first to deliberate if he is able with ten thousand to meet with twenty thousand coming upon him?  And if not, yet being far from him, he sent a message asking for peace.

A Prisoner of Doubt

This prisoner is not bound by bars of steel,
but the barriers to freedom, remain just as real.
There is no judge that can free one on bail,
and no able lawyer that can keep one from jail.
It started so simply, just a concern here and there,
or maybe a bad memory, that grew in thin air.

One started to repeat, things already said,
offering faint clues as to the negative ahead.
One slowly grows worse, as the stories flash by
One knows something is wrong, but not what, nor why.
To try to go anywhere becomes such a task,
for over and over, the same questions I’d ask.

Then comes the times when how and why become true,
I beg: “Please help me!” and weep a world of blue.
Now’s the time doubt becomes the bus,
and every day is a dilemma to be had and such a big fuss.

The answers we give seem like assurances no one can receive.
Slowly, but surely, the doubting shuts doors we believe.

Now we can see, the beginning of the end.
What is this illness, with no hope to be found?
Doubt as a prisoner of fear

Has no place in a faith that is dear

Doubt as an opportunity to be without fear is connection

A blessing of hope and resurrection.

The two (semi)-parables of our lectionary suggest making reasonable assessments of success–or failure–before embarking on a task.  What if one gets started building a tower, or conducting a war, only to find out that their resources are not sufficient to complete it?  The result will be shame–“all the ones seeing might begin to mock him”–which, as mentioned above, was a weighty matter in a culture where issues of honour and shame were paramount.  Jesus’ would-be followers are to consider quite thoroughly whether or not they have the intestinal “resources” to follow Jesus.

The lection concludes with a summary statement:  “So, therefore, any one of you who does not forsake (apotasso) all that he has is not able to be my disciple.”  This is the third time in this short lection that Jesus has proposed that a person is “not able to” do something.  The phrase is ou dunatai einai–“not able to be” my disciple. 

First, anyone who puts close relationships before Jesus is “not able to be” his disciple.  Second, anyone who does not bear their cross is “not able.”  Third, anyone who does not forsake “all that he has” is “not able.”

We saw it coming in the parable of the great banquet.  The first invitees all had business (or new wives) to attend to.  In this lection, which follows immediately upon that one, we see that all of one’s past–possessions, land, family, assets, “all that he has”–is not able to deliver.  They are all provisional, but walking the Jesus Way, following This Guy Jesus is ultimate. Amen.