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A New Appreciation of the Sacred

Posted: January 31, 2022 in Uncategorized

A New Appreciation of the Sacred

The fishing motif in Luke’s story this morning has traditionally, it seems, been regarded as a kind of recruiting slogan. Apparently, according to someone the US Army had at one time an invitation to be all you can be’. This sounds almost religious today. In traditional churchy language, it is regarded as a ‘call’, or a calling by God I guess to make it sound something special and spiritual. But, I’m not so sure about that anymore because it now seem in church circles to be about recruitment to one’s own congregation, bums on seats that think like me perhaps?

It is interesting to note however that this particular story by Luke doesn’t seem to suggest this recruitment is about ‘follow me’ because these words are only found in the version of the story
by those we call Mark and Matthew. And because we recognise a similar theme in Luke,
as Luke has obviously known about the existence of those stories, we do our own blending of all the stories, into one general story.

So, Luke, it seems to me, is saying something far more radical. Not about ‘call’ or ‘catching’ with all the different images associated with those words. But about coming to a new understanding, being captivated and swept of one’s feet. Being transformed perhaps?

Conversations with this story suggest that Peter and some of his friends are captivated by Jesus.
It’s almost like they are ‘swept off their feet’ by him. Both by being in Jesus’ presence.  And by the life-giving things he is saying. Ian McGilchrist might say that they have been confronted with what they already knew but have become aware and in attendance with ‘aha’ moment. This again is not about recruitment but rather about one’s awareness of what it means to be human and on a higher plane. The ups and downs of life the conflicts of thought, the battle for identity all gelling in the awareness moment of connecting the dots so to speak. This makes different his words “Don’t continue to be afraid. You will be restoring people to life and strength”. Its more than just believing because while belief is required it is not all, while responding the call is obedience or surrender it is not all. You see… for Luke, Jesus was a special human being and we hear more of that in the beautiful birth stories each Christmas. We hear that in this fishing story. And being special made Jesus different. But how was Luke to say that?

There is story by Jack Shea which Rex Hunt has quoted and I think it is worth hearing in this context as we try to get a handle on the Jesus Luke is talking about and trying to convince his readers to meet. The story goes; “Once upon a time, there was a very pious couple. They had married with great love and the love never died. Their greatest hope was to have a child
so their love could walk the earth with joy. Yet there were difficulties.  Since they were very pious, they prayed, and prayed and prayed. With that, along with considerable other efforts, lo and behold the wife conceived. And nine months later there came rumbling into the world, a delightful little boy.  They named him Mordecai. And the sun and the moon were his toys. He was outgoing and zestful, gulping down the days and dreaming through the nights. And he grew in age, and wisdom, and grace until it was time to go to the synagogue and study the Torah, the Law of God.

The night before his studies were to begin his parents sat Mordecai down and told him how important the Word of God was. They stressed that without the Word of God Mordecai would be an autumn leaf in the winter’s wind. He listened wide-eyed. Yet the next day he never arrived at the synagogue. Instead, he found himself in the woods, swimming in the lakes and climbing the trees. And when he came home at night, the news had spread throughout the small village. Everyone knew of his shame. His parents were beside themselves. They did not know what to do. So they called in the behaviour modificationalists who modified Mordecai’s behaviour, so that there was no more behaviour of Mordecai’s that was not modified. Nevertheless, the next day he found himself in the woods, swimming in the lakes and climbing the trees. So they called in the psychoanalysts who unblocked Mordecai’s blockages so there were no more blockages for Mordecai to be blocked by. Nevertheless, the next day he found himself again in the woods, swimming in the lakes and climbing the trees. His parents grieved for their beloved son. There seemed to be no hope. It was at this time that the great Rabbi visited the village. And the parents said, “Ah! Perhaps the Rabbi…” And so they took Mordecai to the Rabbi and told him their tale of woe. And the Rabbi bellowed, “Leave the boy with me, and I will have a talk with him.” Mordecai’s parents were terrified. So he would not go to the synagogue, but to leave their beloved son with this lion of a man… But they had come this far, so they left him. Now Mordecai stood in the hallway
and the Rabbi was in the study and he looked through the door at him and said, “Boy, come here.”

Trembling, Mordecai came forward. And then the great Rabbi picked him up and held him silentlyagainst his heart. His parents came to get him and they took Mordecai home. And the next day, he went to the synagogue to learn the Word of God. And when he was done, he went to the woods. And the Word of God became one with the word of the woods which became one with the word of Mordecai. And he swam in the lake. And the Word of God became one with the word of the lake which became one with the word of Mordecai. And he climbed the trees.
And the Word of God became one with the word of the trees which became one with the word of Mordecai. Mordecai himself grew up and became a great man. And people came to him who were broken inside. And with him they found healing. And people came to him seized with inner panic.
And with him, they found peace. And people came to him who were without anybody.
And with him they found communion. And people came to him, with no exits at all. With him, they found possibilities. And Mordecai often said, “I first learned the Word of God when the great Rabbi held me silently against his heart.”

The recruitment plane failed miserably because it was not aware of the transformation, it manipulated, encouraged, exhorted and belittled but it did not see that Mordecai was special. Nor did the call acknowledge that it is not in some holy or sacred place but in the midst of their ordinary everyday life that awareness happens. In doing what they did most days, sometimes with regular monotony, Peter and some of his friends were captivated by the presence of Jesus.

Just as Jesus was captivated by the Source and Ground of Life, he in his transformation called God. It was what made his story and his message the example of the divine relationship. In our time, with the collapse of belief in the traditional image of God (supernatural, interventionalist),
we have to find and be captivated by the sacred in a new place, in a new way. And the most convincing place of all will be our own human hearts. Not merely in some personal experience, decision or recruitment intervention  because as David Tacey puts it, that is “locked away in the closet of introspection” but perhaps rather the discovery of God in our interiority – heart and mind  
will be the basis for a new appreciation of the sacred in and of the world. Captivated in this way, may we as Michael Morewood puts it. May we always be a blessing to ourselves, and to others.

And may we ever give thanks for the wonderful gift of reflective awareness, the ability to humbly admit we know and now know more. So that we might truly recognise and name the presence of
a Creating Spirit beyond all imagining, in our universe.  (Michael Morwood). Amen.

Fear of life and living?

Posted: January 25, 2022 in Uncategorized

Fear of life and living?

One of the challenging things about parish ministry is captured in the biblical challenge that a prophet is never welcome in his or her home town. Towards the end of his second year of ministry, according to our storyteller Luke, Jesus found this out when he decided to go home to Nazareth for a while. Luke is a great storyteller and this liturgical year we will hear plenty of those stories. So, while this may be a ‘plus’, we also need to acknowledge it can also be a ‘minus’.

One of the pluses about being challenged by one’s home setting is that one own sense of self -importance is checked. The test of one’s faith is what William L Wallace reminds us that “there is no pain greater than not being able to be yourself. That true humility is not the putting down of the self but rather the putting down of roots into the earth, the cultures of the earth and the mystery which we call God. To enter the wilderness is to discover one’s true home. What you are seeking lies within you. No one can give it to you. All you have to do is to own it. The greatest achievement is to learn to be and to rest in that awareness. Abandon yourself to the otherness and you will find yourself in the process. Nurture the mystic within you for she is the guardian of the most sacred mysteries. She alone is the ‘you’ that cannot be destroyed; for her name is compassionate wisdom and her aspect is divinity. When you can see the divine in yourself You will be able to see the divine everywhere. When you reverence the divine in yourself You will be able to reverence the divine everywhere. When you nurture the divine in yourself you will be able to nurture the divine everywhere. Could this be what Luke is wanting us to know?

One reality of parish ministry is that the storyteller’s role is not to preserve historical reality, or facts but rather the role is more complex than that and we meet this in the story today. We might begin to explore this by asking some questions such as ‘What was happening in Luke’s community for this story to be told? And what is happening in our own stories – family, church, nation for us to hear and connect with this story? The encouragement of hermeneutics.

We are assured by biblical scholars there is no reason to doubt that Jesus visited Nazareth from time to time during his public ministry (Greg Jenks. FFF, 2007). It also seems clear that Jesus made Capernaum, a fishing village on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, his “operational base”. (Greg Jenks. FFF web site, 2007). On the other hand, Luke’s knowledge of the area, having never been there himself, was sketchy at best. He says Nazareth was built on a hill. Well, if it was, it has been moved! Actually, it’s on the slope of a hill.

“It was a tiny village clinging to the edge of its one small spring. There was no cliff over which the villagers might throw Jesus. Of course, having never visited the place, Luke was not to know that; just as most of his readers ever since have been unaware of the actual geography of Nazareth” (Greg Jenks. FFF web site, 2007).

We may conclude, then, this story is the product of Luke’s imagination “rather than a memory of some actual event passed on to him by others…” (Greg Jenks. FFF web site, 2007).

So, the first thing we can decern at the beginning of this exploration is that Luke is writing theology rather than geography or history.

Luke’s Jesus decides to return home. When he did, his people, many of them cousins and near relatives. They are people whom you would normally expect to be welcoming and accepting listened, and indeed liked what they initially heard. local boy made good. This could be good for the local tourist trade at least! But when they read between the lines and listened some more, especially when pushed a bit, they decide they can’t accept what he has to say. So, they react. this ordinary bloke, one of us, has great potential. But he comes making unrealistic demands, disturbing our fragile village comfortableness. And anyway, his views do not match our ideas of ‘God’ or ‘religion’. So, who does he think he is! Or more importantly: who the hell does he think we are! Well? Maybe it’s ‘better the domesticated Jesus at their personal disposal than the challenging Jesus let loose, perhaps even out of control! Sounds, very modern. Yet very old.

Kenneth Patton invites us to see this struggle we have when we have something important to share among our own. He says we are to locate our faith in the history of humankind to grasp a man’s his importance. He says: A man once lived who changed his mind about the world. He made a new set of answers about the heavens. He changed the location and the significance of mankind in the scheme of things. His mind was his free world, where he lived unmolested with his new answer’s. He lived in a new world, while all of his fellows lived in the old world still. He was not only wise; he was cagey. He knew that the world of religion and politics was not as free as the world he maintained in his head. He knew that his own mind was a roomier, saner, more charitable world than human society. So he kept his freedom and his answers to himself. His theories were published as he lay dying, when the angry priests and their torturers could not get to him. After all, why should he make himself the victim of other men’s stupidity and cruelty? They raged against him, but he was safe within the fortress of the grave. But while he lived, he maintained his freedom and chance to do his work by living within the fortress of his own mind. Since there was no freedom outside, he kept to his freedom within. His name was Copernicus. We named the universe after him.

Rex Hunt tells of a comment made years ago by one of his colleagues. Pauline Hanson was on the Australian political scene at the time. Quoting a political analyst, he suggested the rise of ‘One Nation’ (as a conservative political party) had a lot to do with the global movement of a ‘politics of anger’. “People are feeling so powerless against forces that seemingly cannot be controlled. Confused by the culture of change, no longer able to recognise the world they once knew, people are turning in anger against their politicians, against their leaders” (Keith Suter, quoted by Roger Wiig 1998).

So, were the actions of those in Luke’s story shaped by a ‘politics of anger’? Perhaps.  Or the more important question: what was happening in Luke’s community for him to decide this imaginative story was important for them to hear? How were they acting when faced with new or different ways of thinking and believing and shaping community?

Again, we can only speculate. Luke is a storyteller not an historian, and he doesn’t help us much. But it could have been something like… The people of Luke’s community, just like the so-called people of Jesus’ hometown, were puzzled and disturbed and anxious by the demands of the new and challenging vision of God’s domain.

This new domain was populated with outsiders, with outcasts, with exiles! It contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out! Its radical theology was that it discerned the holy or the sacred in the everyday! But Luke’s Jesus continues to nudge and persuade: God’s love is inclusive and embracing and universal, not exclusive. And no one, not even the so-called ‘God’s people’ should ever think of themselves as privileged. But were they ready to hear this or were their reactions going to be shaped by a “politics of anger”?

Likewise, an important question in the even broader expression of this story: how are we to be church and express being an inclusive community, today? Or indeed, in the face of the America exposed by the Trump administration: how are we to be an inclusive, multicultural community? It is true that there are many puzzled and agitated people expressing their viewpoints, and sometimes anger, on that broader issue even now! So how can our expression of community – church or family – help in this debate?

Luke’s story suggests a universalism underpinning life. Which could be summed up as:
God is as likely to bless an Imam as an Archbishop or some sort of interfaith symbolic reality. But I want to ask if this is the right way to go. It sounds as good as it has for many years but what of the outcome? What is proposed is a universalism which comes at a cost.  Then and now it cannot break free of its symbolic state.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book ‘The Home we Build Together,’ writes: “Multiculturalism has run its course, and it is time to move on.  It was a fine, even noble idea in its time.  It was designed to make ethnic and religious minorities feel more at home in society, more appreciated and respected, better equipped with self-esteem and therefore better able to mesh with the larger society as a whole.  It affirmed their culture.  It gave dignity to difference… But there has been a price to pay…  Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation” (Sacks 2007:3).

Maybe the Lukan universalism or “extravagant welcome – to all persons” whether in the church or in our wider community really is the only way to experience abundant life and be all that we can be “in our pluralistic and polarized age” (Bruce Epperly. P&F web site, 2007).

Margaret Lee and Brandon Scott offer a translation of the passage from Corinthians 13: 1, 4-8 that I think talks about a biblical universalism that is closer to this abundant life. If I were fluent in human and heavenly tongues, but lacked love, I’d sound like a hollow gong or a crashing cymbal… love takes its time makes itself good and useful  it doesn’t envy it doesn’t boast it doesn’t bluster  t doesn’t make a scene it doesn’t look after its own interests it doesn’t throw fits it doesn’t dwell  on the negative it takes no pleasure in injustice but is delighted by the truth love upholds everything trusts in everything hopes for everything  endures everything love never falls away

Meister Eckhart said “If a man asked life for a thousand years, “Why do you live?” if it could answer it would only say, “I live because I live.” That is because life lives from its own ground, and gushes forth from its own. Therefor it lives without ‘Why’, because it lives for itself. And if you asked a genuine man who acted from his own ground, “Why do you act?” if he were to answer properly, he would simply say, ‘I act because I act’.

It is possible that this universalism could or should be called, stop talking about it and love the world! Maybe this is Luke’s challenge and blessing, to and for us. If we can hear it amid all the other seductive calls and demands in our own backyard to just talk about the mess.

Sacks, J. The Home we Build Together. Recreating Cociety. London: Continuum, 2007.

The Genesis of Hope

Posted: January 17, 2022 in Uncategorized

The Genesis of Hope

The genesis of hope lies in the evolution of human relations and not in the achievement of success.

Despite the nearing end of the sixth extinction. Despite the looming polluted planet we call home. Despite the procrastination of monetarism, greed, power obsessed. Despite the uninformed individualized approach to what it means to be human a woman living in the slum area of a large city can still respond when asked by a news reporter what hope she has, living as she must. She can still point to her children and say: “They are my hope,” (Alves (adapted) 2011)

Kahlil Gibran reminds us of our participation in the evolutionary process of the species  when he says: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday

Born in love is an ideal, born to create the world they are born into the child is both responsible to itself and to its parents from the very beginning and the involvement of parent is primarily to ensure its neurological development is supported and not hindered. This is as both the mother and Gibran suggest crucial for the continuation of the human species.

To put this another way is to say that: a child explores the world with true wonder long before he or she understands what the adults mean by ‘holy’. That child does not need to be told in solemn pious tones ‘only God can make a tree’ before discovering the God-given thrill of climbing it, feeling its rough bark against his or her hands and face, sensing the joy of a new experience. Out of such experiences in the life of a child comes a quickened sense of self-worth, which has important ramifications for all relationships with other persons. This might suggest that the right hemisphere of the child’s brain is awakening before language; maybe even before other senses and that an innate sense of what it means to be human is already present. The imagination is already birthing perhaps. This makes what we do and say as parents is vital for the future of the human race. It also says that the bonding we talk about with child and mother is akin to the bonding between father and child because here is implanted the sense of what love is as opposed to fear, what love is as opposed to what many experience as trauma from the very first breath of life.

To try to put this into a faith journey context we might ask is this perhaps why the peasant sage called Jesus/Yeshu’a was also so affirming of children.

As you read or hear this and in the spirit of this celebration of children, I invite you to come on a journey of re-imagination. The biblical stories of creation and yes there are several, are not literal because they are already imagination driven stories, already shaped by the culture into which they are spoken or read. They are not mythical stories of the creation of the world, but rather mythical stories of the creation of humanity and thus children. I don’t know enough about education but I do think that we do our children a disservice when we impose what we think or believe upon them in ways that ignore, suppress and discredit what they already know about being human. We assume that the cognitive understanding or the left hemisphere is the only important part of being human and we distort their lives. Note I am not saying that many teachers don’t know what they are doing for most do and most are wonderful brilliant educators. What I am saying it that the environment, or the culture or the human systems we have developed can distort the purpose because they are measured within a dominating left hemisphere functioning world.

In a beginning… At the start of every life, an environment must be created favourable to life and not just knowledge or achievement, or success. Otherwise a child’s surroundings would have no form or shape and would be empty and unoccupied. We are adults must be responsible with what we have learned about the frailty of the human species to prepare it for a living child. And God said: ‘Let there be light…’ All through their life, children will be faced with a mixture of light and darkness. The child comes from the darkness of the mother’s body into the world where the light hurts its eyes. But light is good for the baby and all children must have lots of it all their life. Adults must see to it that the lights are turned on so the child’s life will not be lived in the shadows of a darkened world.

And God said: ‘Let there be a dome…’A child must have support when born,
not because they don’t know but because they have yet to know the complexity of applying what they know by instinct, just as the planets must be supported in the sky. And even though a child’s prenatal experience in the mother is a water event, the actual birth sets the child upon the solid earth. They have experienced the sharpness of evolution and this earth, its water and its atmosphere will be the child’s home as long as the child lives. And here is the greatest traumatic event. It is here, on earth, that the child must learn to live just as other forms of life live on the earth and in the sea. Because this earth is the only one we have.

And God said: ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation…’ It is important a child be provided with a total environment favourable to healthy development. This means green grass, plants, trees, and all kinds of fruit, for healthy nourishment. A child’s life cannot mature properly where the world of rivers, lakes and bush lands have all been changed into asphalt and brick, polluted streams and poisoned foods. A total environment must be given every child with nature’s surroundings at their finest and best. Not because it is nice and sensible but because it is crucial for the species. And God said: ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…  Here again within the reality of evolution every child needs to know animals, what their kind is, and put a name on each, as though each were a person. And from this the child will have a ‘reverence for life’ – life of all kinds for this is a part of the world of nature and part of their own nature. Here we have the most important learning for adults today. It is that we need to relearn so we can teach that the reverence for life makes no distinction between more precious and less precious lives.

And God said: ‘Let us make humankind in our image… A person is not ‘made’ all at once but is ‘grown’ from a baby. Each child is born with a creative potential which becomes known as the child develops talents and abilities to apply what they already know. And while this earth and everything in it is the child’s domain, each child must see to it that the balance of nature is maintained; food is provided for all earth’s people, and life be made better for all living creatures.

As adults we must see to it that all children are given this birthright and this heritage – to be able to live life fully, and to develop their capabilities to the fullest, ever mindful of the responsibilities, since we all walk this earth – its future and the future of God is in our hands.

We have evidence now that the early stages of life are seldom entirely outgrown. Rather, they become the platforms on which further stages of development are built. The challenge is that they seem to need to be supplemented by overlays of new levels of information that will shape the patterns of life. And that we today as adults are involved in work that is more important than we thought. The task for us is to count it a privilege to walk with our children and grandchildren,
our nieces and nephews. Sure we can offer to shape their beliefs but never as absolute truth because we know that our beliefs will also be reshaped by them. As Gibran reminds us “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you…” (Gibran 1926/1969:20)

The wise among us call that wisdom. And let us enable our children to wonder… “out of the mouths of babes”. “We are collections of long-nurtured solutions that have worked. It took a long time and a lot of editing to make every one of our molecules. As offspring of such a long streak of inspiring successes, let’s allow ourselves and our children and grandchildren to live as humans.

Rex Hunt tells of a poem he found in 2005. It is called: “A Short But True Story of You”. And I have adapted it slightly to make it a daily prayer to a child.

You are made of star-stuff.
You are related to every other living thing on Earth.

You breathe out a gas that gives life to plants,
and plants breathe out a gas that gives life to you.

You are part of a wonderful web of life on a planet spinning in space.
When you die, someday, the elements of your body
will become a part of clouds and crystals,
seas and new living things.

You can think and wonder, love and learn.
You have the gift of life. 

Let you and I remember all children and commit ourselves to
their growth and safety,
their health and education,
their uniqueness and
their unfolding beauty.


Alves, R. Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture. Eugene. Wipf & Stock, 2011.
Anderson, L. & C. Brotman. Kid’s Book of Awesome Stuff. Biddeford. Brotman Marsh-Field Curriculums, 2004.
Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013.
Gibran, K. The Prophet. London. Heinemann, 1926/1969.

“When the Beer Runs Out”

Posted: January 10, 2022 in Uncategorized

“When the Beer Runs Out” or the Wedding as an Expression of Community Love”

The Epiphany season of the church year, as we shared last week, traditionally celebrates the ‘showing forth’ of Jesus. In our everyday contemporary language we could say we have come to the time to return to work, Covid willing that is? We could also say that the time of partying is almost done and we could say that Epiphany is about ‘going on a journey, searching’. During Epiphany we often hear a collection of stories: of the Magi or Eastern Intellectuals arriving to broaden one’s horizons. It is already the time of the baptism of Jesus, the marriage feast of Cana, and the so-called calling of the first disciples. The Cana story is surely one of the most charming in all the Bible. And let’s remember that John is the only one to tell this story. The wedding itself would have been a great social occasion. A celebration probably for the whole community. We don’t know how many days the party had been celebrating when the wine ran out. Weddings were traditionally occasions for festivities lasting a week or more. Relatives sometimes traveled great distances, and friends and neighbours poured in. It was a communal event in the life of the community. All the usual one-up-man ships etc etc. And the groom’s father usually paid the bill!

So how did the story survive in the tradition till the time of John’s gospel? Why did not one of the other evangelists pick it up? How indeed does it fit in John’s gospel? Well! There are no easy answers to any of these questions, though perhaps all one has to say is that it is a great story, so why not use it. The question is just what meaning can we give to it?

A lot of theological ink and perspiration has been spilled on that subject. Perhaps the most obvious but not always offered meaning we can give it, is: Jesus by his attendance at the feast endorsed feasting and singing and dancing and human sexual love. And just in case I am opening some doors here let’s remember that the puritans, prudes, and party-poopers will try to tell us otherwise, Their Jesus was a no- human saint after all it seems. Andrew Greely would say they; “have never been to a Jewish wedding.” For others, such a meaning is just too human. They claim we should take this story as written testimony to Jesus’ powers over the laws of nature. He has somehow miraculously violated the laws of fermentation and instantaneously turned plain old tap water into wine of the best available vintage. And on the surface maybe this would be enough for this story. But! And here’s the rub. John never calls any of the signs Jesus performs ‘miracles’. This is in spite of what some English translations of the Bible would have us believe!

To John, these are ‘signs’ not nor natural events, and signs are objects or gestures with one meaning that suggests another. They are signals of the coming metaphor. In the story of the wedding feast at Cana we meet Jesus celebrating… Yes, celebrating the joyous human event of marriage with a young couple, their family and friends and neighbours. So, it is with us.
We will continue to meet Jesus in every ordinary event in our lives. Good and bad. Joy filled or grief stricken. And when true love travels on a gravel road it is an all-inclusive loving, no one is excluded and love is a real human event of living. Yes, it is the celebration of sexuality and it is withing the context of being fully human, Beer runs out! Rex Hunt shared a moment when reading a colleague‘s comment on this passage. His interest was sparked when at the conclusion to the story of the Prodigal Father, his colleague commented on the wedding feast at Cana and he was surprised and intrigued!  Remember… in the story of the Prodigal Father, the father pleads with the older son to join in the celebration, and the son replies: ‘Listen!  For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so I might celebrate with my friends’ (Luke 15:29).  This colleague then suggests: “We can safely assume the son is not lying.  If our Christian life has the character of ‘working like a slave’, ‘never disobeying’, never being able to celebrate with our friends, what have we made Christianity into?  Not only do those outside miss out on the celebrations, we too have lost what is the essence of our faith”.

This is a very big challenge to some fundamentals of our faith. Relying on belief systems, or belief itself. Accepting that fear is a valid driver of a loving world, identifying the Jesus Way as an exclusive way and indoctrinating our faith is in question is it not? We are told by John that this was Jesus’ first sign… A sign of how and what God through Jesus is ever trying to show us. That grace-type events are everywhere. Divine spirituality is even in common or unlikely places. Love and grace are meant to overflow freely for everyone. Not just is some rarified New Age sacredness or fundamentalist religion. Not just is some ‘totally’ other. But also lurking in the midst of the grace-full events of secular human life that ordinary people enjoy. James Taylor and Ian Harris might argue that the events of secular life are in face the divine events. That a spirituality of the secular might be better understood as what Incarnation is all about. Incarnation’ is when grace overflows freely for everyone, and it is said people come running…

To tell another Rex Hunt story. “It was about 2.30 in the morning. A young minister – first year out of college – called Tony, was still struggling with his sermon… He just couldn’t get his thoughts together. “I’ve just got to have a break”, he said. So, he went for a walk to a local roadhouse to get a cup of coffee. As he sat finishing his coffee at the counter, three blokes – three homeless blokes – came in. One of them in a kind of half-drunk voice said to the others: “Tomorrow’s my birthday”. One of his mates responded sarcastically: “So what?” And they had a cup of coffee and left. Tony found out from the roadhouse owner, Harry, that these blokes came to the roadhouse every night at the same time, and the chap celebrating a birthday was named Rob. Tony asked Harry if he would help set up a birthday party for Rob. Harry agreed. Early the following morning, the roadhouse was filled with party decorations. Even a birthday cake. Several other people had heard about the party and had come in off the street.

When Rob and his mates came in, everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to him. And when the candles on the cake were lit, he was speechless. When it came time to cut the cake, Rob asked to take the cake with him to admire. No one had ever given him a cake before in his life. After the party was over, there was an interesting conversation. Harry leaned on his elbow on the counter  and looked across at Tony and said: “I bet you belong to some church”. Tony replied: “I belong to the church that celebrates birthday parties for bums at 2.30 in the morning”. Harry looked at him and said: “If I could find such a church, I’d join it in the morning.” When the beer runs out!!


Imagination as the Art of Truth

Posted: January 3, 2022 in Uncategorized

Mary Oliver gives us a poem titled ‘What Can I Say’ that I think talks about the Art of imagination

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

This brief exploration I have called a sermon is based on the following assumptions: That; ‘Imagination’ is the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses. That ‘Art’ is the primary concern with human creativity and that ‘Truth’ is the state of being real, whatever real means? Already a few words come to mind such as ‘Almost’, ‘as far as’ ‘I think’ ‘for now anyway’. These words highlight the idea of imagination as the way in which we transcend history, culture and time and come to the stories like todays with integrity, openness and confidence that the hermeneutic or our interpretation is an act of imagination and creativity that is the ultimate task of humanity as it participates in creation so to speak. I might say this is the creative spirit sharing in the individuation of God and humanity as Jung might have indicated and as John Caputo introduces as insistence.

The image of the wise men from the East kneeling before the infant child, offering their gifts, has been an inspiring symbol of worship for countless generations. ‘As with gladness men of old…’‘We three kings of orient are…’ The story, itself, has always fascinated people because it links Jesus to the wider world of the orient and to the mysteries of the heavens. Yet it is only the storyteller Matthew who tells for us the story of the Magi who come to visit Jesus.

This story has been richly embellished over the years. The number of the Magi is not given in Matthew’s story. In Christian imagination they have ranged from two to a whole cohort. But in most of nativity art, from earliest times to the present, there are three. Which seems natural that three gifts should have three carriers! And anyway! could all those crib sets be wrong?

This question of numbers may seem to be a bit of trivia reserved for Trivial Pursuits evenings and dining with pious clerics. But the conversation definitely heats up when someone suggests that the number was zero! That the story of the Magi is only ‘legendary’.

We may even remember the names that Christian imagination has given them. I can tell you now they were called: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Astrologers, magicians, philosophers?
Philologists and storytellers hold differing opinions. One tradition has it that the name Gaspar comes from Persian and means something like “treasure keeper” or “treasurer”. Gaspar is often depicted in images as an African with dark skin colour and presents myrrh as a gift. Myrrh is a symbol for humanity and is in some interpretations also associated with the later suffering of Jesus. Melchiorre is a Jewish name and stands for “King of Light”. He has European characteristics and brings gold as a gift. Gold is considered the most precious commodity worthy of a king, the Son of God. The name Balthasar also comes from Hebrew and means “God save his life” or “God will help””. Translations of the name from Ancient Syrian also read “God save the king. It is associated with an Asian origin. He carries incense, which is considered a divine symbol.

However; returning again to our nativity cribs and Christmas cards, there is no suggestion as to the mode of transportation is offered in the Matthew story. Contemporary storyteller and Catholic theologian John Shea, suggests: “The Magi may be dubious as historical facts, but in the Christian tradition they have been credible bearers of rich insights into strange ways of faith…  The story became more a springboard for the imagination than an anchor for sober reflection” (Shea 2003:130).

Indeed, he goes on to further suggest that the Magi of popular poetry and story do not claim to be authentic interpretations of Matthew…  Yet they do try to tell the truth about some of the common patterns of our lives.  They try to make good on the Isaiah promise that is connected with the feast of the Epiphany. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone’.” Our imagination is tempted again to address the question of just what concepts, images and thoughts are these ‘Magi of popular poetry and story’ inviting?

G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay on three modern wise men. In it they journeyed to a city of peace, a new Bethlehem, where they offered their gifts. The first would offer gold suggesting it could buy the pleasures of earth. The second would offer the modern scent of chemistry –
the power to drug the mind, seed the soil, control the population. The third would offer myrrh in the shape of a split atom – the symbol of death for anyone who opposed the ways of peace. When they arrived, they met Joseph, but he refused them entrance. They protested; “What more could we possibly need to assure peace? “We have the means to provide affluence, control nature and destroy enemies?” Joseph whispered in the ear of each individually. They went away sad.  He told them they had forgotten the child.

There is another legend that the Magi were three different ages. Gaspar was a young man.
Balthasar in his middle years. Melchior a senior citizen. When they approached the cave in Bethlehem they first went in one at a time. Melchior found an old man like himself.
They spoke together of memory and gratitude. The middle-aged Balthasar encountered a teacher of his own years. They spoke passionately of leadership and responsibility. When Gaspar entered, a young prophet met him with words of reform and promise. The three met outside the cave and marveled at how each had gone in to see a new-born child, but each
had met someone of his own years.

And Black poet Langston Hughes plays upon the theme of racial unity in “Carol of the Brown King”. “Of the three Wise Men Who came to the King, One was a brown man, So they sing.

“Of the three Wise Men Who followed the star One was a brown king
From afar… And the last verse: “Three Wise Men One dark like me –
Part of His Nativity.”

The imaginative stories around the Magi bring us opportunities across the depth and breadth of interpretation and through imagination offer us an opportunity to share in the remembering and celebrating as well as the concerns which is the season of Epiphany. From the ‘aha’ moments of awakening surprise and amazement to the challenging earthshattering confusions. This change, things are not always as they seem, there is always an alternative, absolutes are elusive.

Thanks to the poets among us, those legendary foreigners from the East can be our spiritual guides today.  For they crossed the boundaries of geography, ethnicity,
class, economics, and religion, to follow their star. We have all been given our own star or, better still, each of us has a “personal legend”. As others have said… we embody God’s dream for the world in a unique and singular manner… “We acknowledge this awesome mystery embodied in every human person, aware that each gives God unique and personal expression” (Morwood 2003:20).

Epiphany calls us to follow that dream into unlikely places and to see that dream in unlikely and ordinary persons. To see our imagination as the serendipitous opportunity to enter the sacred activity of celebrating what it means to be human and loving. Amen.

Morwood, M. 2003.  Praying a New Story. Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Shea, J. 1993.  Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad

God Lives and Comes to Expression in Us.

Shepherds, angels, wise men, virgins giving birth to sons of god… How do we hear these stories?
Stories from a different world to the one we live in. It’s not often we run into shepherds, angels, kings (or many wise men!) in our daily lives. And if we do, they don’t seem to live in the same world. Many of us de know or knew people who farmed sheep – indeed, many New Zealanders have family links to a sheep farm somewhere in their historical circle.

But how many of us know shepherds who actually live in their paddocks with the flock. Doesn’t mean there weren’t or aren’t any but most of us just don’t run into them in our daily rounds to the supermarket or the local watering hole. Even if we might believe in angels there is a vast number of beliefs about what they are and how one might recognize them. The certainty is that I don’t think I have met very many, except in the romantic sense perhaps! But angels bounding about to and fro, in and out of heaven, proclaiming things in lights, is and has not been part of my experience.

I haven’t met any kings either. Shepherds, angels, wise men, virgins giving birth to sons of god…
These are characters from an age long past. I was reminded in a Westar Article just recently of the understanding at the time of Jesus and before about the universe, it being a three tiered one with the firmament firmly flat and in the middle of two tiers of waters below and waters above. and the subsequent shift to an understanding of the firmament being the sky but still three tiered. We haven’t lived in their world for a long time.  If ever. Yet we repeat these stories year after year.

What does it mean, if anything, today? How do we hear these stories? In contrast to Matthew and Luke, who are the storytellers charming us at Christmas with Lectionary stories about angels and shepherds and wise men and virgin births, John plays the theologian. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word was made flesh and lived among us…” Well, theologian John certainly is as he seeks to articulate his God-expressions. But, I’m not sure I am ready to be confronted with this heavy theological treatise! The trouble is that neither do I want to just piously nod a slumbering holiday approval, for John’s words bristle with possibilities that need to be appreciated. They are an approach to what an incarnate God might be.

 The first of these is what we would now call a radical, postmodern approach in that the God of John the theologian has us repeatedly encounter a multi-moving, acting God. A ‘verb’ rather than a ‘noun’ is the way it is often described. God is a doing word as opposed to a naming one. The Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly to asks: “Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun?  Why not a verb – the most active and dynamic of all?  …The anthropomorphic symbols for God may be intended to convey personality, but they fail to convey that God is Be-ing.” Here I would suggest again my word ‘Almost’ is about belonging rather than be-ing a being. Indeed, the new church season we are about to move into next week, called Epiphany, unveils and celebrates the dynamic, present-ness of this lively, innovative God, in everyday life. Not a presence but a present-ness, or as old philosophy might have said, a horse-ness as opposed to a horse.

The second thing is that Theologian John uses dynamic and relational words and images. And in general terms so too does the whole of the biblical tradition: bringing, gathering, consoling, leading, understanding, granting, scattering, choosing, forgiving.

In these multiple actions, God is always ‘acting’, and in all these many ways, creation is always the subject of God’s great demonstrations of affection. But I think we get a bit stuck when we hear the English translation, ‘word’. In English, ‘word’ is usually given the meaning of sounds or its representation in letters put together for oral or written communication. Printed word. Radio word. But the Hebrew for ‘word’ is ‘dabhar’ which means divine creative energy. The word that gave birth. Those of you who are right-brain thinkers will probably have already resonated with this and made a connection. For the Hebrew ‘dabhar’ is about the creative, the imaginative, the heart, the feeling.

The third thing is that this divine creative energy is more than just a concept. The Season of Epiphany also reminds us that the ‘word’ is made flesh. It lives among us.  Moves within and among all things. Inspiring us to think and sing and dance with integrity and historical and intellectual honesty. As Lily Tomlin reminds us in her play Search for intelligent life in the universe… We need to be aware of the goose-bump experiences of life. We need to practice ‘awe-robics’.

The great challenge of Christmas is that it is the season when we celebrate God-with-us. Traditionally this is called ‘incarnation’. But ‘incarnation’ is more than just ‘Christmas’. Most of us can sense this Creative God-with-us Present-ness in the immensity of our evolving universe, in the incredible display of evolving life-forms on this planet. Most of us can sense this evolving, living, life force, this energy, this present-ness in the evolving society and in our psyche and thus in our daily living as a human being. All our collected human wisdom, using that word as the goal of human intellectual evolution, is a visible expression of this God-with-us Present-ness, active for millions of years in human development, active in all places, at all times, in individuals and cultures, seeking expression in the positive betterment of humanity.

What is distinctive in the Judeo-Christian world is that John the theologian makes the incredible claim that the one called Jesus of Nazareth can be discerned in this Present-ness. At this time of the year, and as progressive Christians, we rejoice in the birth of Jesus. In him we see the fullness of human possibility: to make God visible in our lives. In him we have seen this Present-ness come to expression in human form. In him life makes sense. And we rejoice that this same Jesus led people to discover the sacred in the ordinary: in the crowd, in the lowly, in everyday life, in human yearnings to be better people, and in being neighbour to one another. But unlike some traditional Christian thinking the work of God-with-us, of incarnation, is not over. The divine, the sacred, the present-ness we understand as God continues to be embodied today, as we live in God and God lives and comes to wonderful expression in us, and our world. This story is about the incarnate, present-ness, the dynamic human expression of God-ness.

As theologian Karl Peters suggestively says: “The divine is continually present churning up the waters of life.  If we are in tune with… the Word that signifies the hidden structures of life’s possibilities, we will discover… new ways of acting, thinking, and feeling.  These will add to the richness of our lives in a continuing evolving world” (Peters 2002:59). This if is huge also in that it entails the human mind, the human choice, the human possibility, the incarnate incarnation so to speak.

So, Christmas in a progressive sense is to celebrate the gift of our full humanity, and network together for a more loving communion with that which we name Serendipitous Creating or God, as verb, and to take time to celebrate that this is a living dynamic embodiment that comes about in our be-ing, with each other. Amen.

Peters, K. E. “Confessions of a practicing naturalistic theist” in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science 40, 3, 701-720, 2005.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. PN: Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002.

A Real Christmas Story, ‘Almost’, an Infatuation with the Possible.

The end of a Christian year, or the beginning of a new one or the whole story in one event? Most of us struggle with the idea that belief is an acceptance of and a need to defend some sort of fixed un-challengeable truth, a once and for all matter upon which to stand, but what if belief is just one part of a dichotomy?  What if belief is one half of that which is belief and unbelief and that without one, we do not have the other? What happens to truth then? If the Christmas story is not about how God became Jesus or how Jesus became God but rather about how human beings create God, are as the story goes how human beings are made in the image of God. I apologize for dumping such a huge topic on the reader but I do think we need to do our theology if we are to understand Christmas. For me theology signifies a passion in which everything is at stake, and so is always challenging, always radical as the logos of a passion, the logos of a desire for God, the logos of a prayer. The desire for God—that I think is the root of the trouble all theologians bring upon themselves. They take God, the name of God, what is happening in the name of God, as their subject matter. Theology I suggest is with or without religion or what ordinarily passes for theology is important because the name of God is too important to leave in the hands of the special interest groups. I think as I hope my memoir illustrates; I own up to a theological desire and a “desiring theology,” which is undeniably a desire for God, for something astir in the name of God, a desire for something I know not what, for which I pray night and day. I think I am praying for an event that is the ‘Almost’ that the naming points tom but cannot deliver. It is not enough to say I believe; I am a follower of Jesus, I am a Christian; one has to live it, one has to think it in to existence, one has to understand the so-called kingdom of God as a Way of living, a Way or being more fully human. I think Jung called this the individuation of God and of humankind. I might say it as doing one’s theology is living it as a dynamic creative event that is our participation in the cosmic evolutionary process or event in a way that is the uncontrollable, unconditional dynamic event that is God. The ‘I am in Hebrew, The Messianic Christ in Greek.

Like Jack Caputo I too think that this God, divine/human event is not found in the recent traditional almighty, omnipotent, omnipresent, God nor is the nature influenced pantheistic approach but is hinted at in the panentheistic one. By that I mean God is not everything but closer in understanding to being God is in everything. Here again we have what I think is the need for one to do their theology as its task is to release what is happening in that name, to set it free, to give it its own head, and thereby to head off the forces that would prevent the event. The way I think we might approach this task is theology and the event, a theology of the event, and a prayer for the event of theology. Obviously, then, everything turns on explaining what we mean by an “event” and how it is related to a name. However, I want to suggest that at the core of the event we name God is its Uncontainability and thus its vulnerability and what is termed its unconditional love. In Christmas terms the serendipitous fragile, unpredictable vulnerable and thus weakness of human creation as the image of God’s serendipitous fragile, unpredictable and thus weak existence. If we do nor create the name God the event of God will not exist but it will insist, the human desire of God will not be on the path to individuation or completion. The ‘Almost’ will remain as that which might be and not that which is about to be.

But back to the weakness that is our God. Like others I want to caution the reliance upon classical theology and philosophy that gives us the fundamental structure of the objective being, and makes exclusive claim to interpretation as being of a weak thought. It relies on method as attaining certitude and dismisses weakness as wishy washy, open ended and heralds black and white, absolute or relativist, or my way is right frame of mind and belittles serendipitous, perception and flexible insight as unhelpful. What of ambiguity, uncertainty, wholistic thinking, insightful complexity the unexpected and the unconditional are more important or at least as important. What if a weak God is more akin the humanity and vice versa? What if the miraculous birth of a human child in the baby Jesus with all its precipitous existence as a human child is the message of the image of a God? As the cartoon goes: How does a benevolent God allow his Son to die so that the rest of us sinners can live, and why the heck did he have to die to save God’s creation in the first place? The only explanation has to be that this that which we call God is weak like us in the first place and the story is about that weakness as where we find this thing, we call the realm of this God. Again; maybe this weakness is the ‘Almost-ness’ the unconditional eternal divinity that is the desire or the insistence that is human life.

This idea of a weak God is a big task to grasp in itself but its strength of argument is in its un-containability. Names contain events and give them a kind of temporary shelter by housing them within a relatively stable nominal unity. Events, on the other hand, are uncontainable, and they make names restless with promise and the future, with memory and the past, with the result that names contain what they cannot contain. Names belong to natural languages and are historically constituted or constructed, whereas events are a little unnatural, eerie, ghostly thing that haunt names and see to it that they never rest in peace. Maybe that’s why names can never give all there is to know about something or someone. They are events and as such are never containable by a name. An event is distinguished from a simple occurrence by reason of its polyvalence, complexity, and undecidability, by its endless name-ability by other names equally eventful. Names are endlessly translatable, whereas events are what names are trying to translate, not in the sense of an inner semantic essence to be transferred, but in the sense of carrying (ferre) themselves toward (trans) the event, like runners.

Another way of thinking about this weakness I am on about it the horrible results of the world as it tries to deal with the extremes in thinking. The extremes in their objectivism create an either/or dilemma and resolution invariably is seen as a reluctant compromise or a destructive win by the more powerful on the other. What that, reveals are that the so-called absolutes that win have an identifiable pedigree, that is that they are always conditioned constructions trying to pass themselves off as have been dropped form the sky as divine righteousness. They must be right because they won is born out of the fear of weakness and relativism whereas evidence shows that the worst violence ensues, not from hermeneutics, but rather from resisting hermeneutics or when someone confuses themselves with God which weak thought would discourage on the grounds that it is a very dangerous illusion. When one thinks one has a handle of God, God disappears. One might say that the Easter story is the reminder that the high and mighty God dies on the human cross of violence and the Christmas story is the reminder that the sense of freedom, equality, incarnate the divine life in the birth of a human child born into the world tent, in the world, in the depths of ethical and political life, where the world is busy making the name of God come true in the event of life. And here is the hard one. This world this so-called secular world is the realization of the kingdom of God. The secular is not the obliteration of the kingdom but rather the theology of the age.

In simple terms I can justify this position for theology by saying that Jesus in his time did his theology, in his temple experience he serves as a model for growing up and growing in wisdom. One overseas colleague puts it like this: “On the verge of adulthood, Jesus retreats to the temple for theological reflection and questioning…  (His) three days in the temple were a pivotal point in his spiritual evolution.  Jesus grew in spiritual stature by claiming his faith tradition faithfully and then extending its experiential and theological boundaries to new horizons” (BEpperly. P&F Lectionary web site, 2006).

So, the Christmas story invites us in our imaginations for a moment. The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably… And to do so the biblical storytellers tell us very little other than implying that Jesus managed to complete the complex, intricate, mostly mysterious process of growing up. From being a helpless baby, he progressed to adulthood, where he was capable of holding down a job, making and keeping friends, theorizing about the origins of things, separating fancy from fact, getting angry without having to hurt others, caring for others without needing to possess them (Purdy 1993). In him both nature and nurture did their necessary work. “The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably…”

And Jesus discovered that a fool and his money are soon parted, the love of money is the root of many evils, you cannot tell a book by its cover. He learned that power corrupts, that an army marches on its stomach, and if you would teach a hungry man, first you had better feed him (Purdy 1993). He learned that sin and sickness are not necessarily the two sides of the same coin, that the devil can quote scripture, and a smile sometimes is a mask for hate. Through all this “The child Jesus grew into a mature adult, filled with wisdom, and God regarded him favourably…”

Our storyteller Luke is very sketchy on the detail. Indeed, we have only the barest of fragments or outline. We have to fill in that outline with what we know about childhood. Because the only childhood truly accessible to us is our own. To live life to the full to love wastefully. To be all that we can be… paraphrasing Bishop Jack Spong, can be challenging and risky business. Yet we are reminded by British theologian and (another) retired bishop, John Tinsley, when he wrote in one of his pastoral letters more than 20 years ago: “A lot of our endeavour (as church) has gone into taking the risk out of faith… We try to create a hideout for faith where we can be unperturbed” (Tinsley 1990:438-39).  Ny implication we can say that our congregations can become hideouts for some of us. They can enable us to forget that we always live on the edge of something new. That is the risk and the weakness that is our strength. That’s the risk of a misconception of power as might, control, certainty. It disallows the serendipitous, the ambiguous, the unexpected, the surprising and ultimately the unconditional nature of love. To live on the edge of something new is the Christmas story. How we meet that ‘risk’ or that ‘new’ is an important interpretation of the Christmas story.

“Growing in wisdom and stature calls us to take our faith seriously enough to study scripture, wrestle with traditional theological doctrines, explore new images of God, Christ, and salvation, and spend time in prayer, meditation, and service.  A growing faith is not accidental, but requires going to our own spiritual ‘temple’ regularly to listen, ask, and share. Even Jesus was unfinished and incomplete” (B Epperly. P&F Lectionary web site, 2006).

So here it is the first Sunday after Christmas reflecting on its meaning and seeing it as a reminder to greet the new horizons in this coming year and in our own particular situations,
to see the ‘Almost’ in anew light. To see the almost as an invitation to join in the event that it reveals, he opportunity to be infatuated with the possible” without which our congregational and personal life is just unthinkable. And then maybe it can be said of us all: These people… these congregations, grew into a mature adulthood, filled with wisdom, and God regarded them favourably…

Cox H. 1964.  On Not Leaving it to the Snake. New York. Macmillan
Purdy J C. 1993.  God with a Human Face. Louisville. Westminster/John Knox.
Tinsley J. 1990. Tell it slant. The Christian Gospel and its Communication. Bristol. Wyndham Hall Press.

Luke 1:39-45

‘The Need for Love in a Post Christian World’

At long last we have arrived at the end of Advent. The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected present-ness of a Serendipitous Creativity that we call God in our ordinary living. I would add here that this awareness is not just about naming that which we call God but also about making authentic language about how we might perceive this that we call God and ultimately if we are to be true to our heritage that God is Love then Love needs to have a context that is authentic, embodied and not just an idea. I have a whole lot of questions in mind but we will not have time today to do more than allude to them. My hope is that we might leave today in the days before we celebrate the birth of the guy Jesus as being significant for humanity and thus culturally applicable and explainable in common language. A tall order but I think you will make sense of it even if at first it seems too complex.

There are some basic issues we need to be able to talk about what love is in our context. Love will need to be understood in today’s context if it is to have the worth we need it to. So despite the many ways of talking about our context Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their book War and Anti-War said “we are witnessing the sudden eruption of a new civilization on the planet, carrying with it a knowledge-intensive way of creating wealth that is trisecting and transforming the entire global system today. Everything in that system is now mutating, from its basic components … to the way we interrelate … to the speed of their interaction …. To the interests over which countries contend … to the kinds of wars that may result and which need to be prevented.?

The second thing we need to hold on to is what Moltmann wisely points out some years back. He says: “we cannot know whether modern society has any future and we must not know. If we knew that humanity is not going to survive we should not do anything more for our children but would say, ‘after us; the deluge;. If we knew that humanity is going to survive, we should not do anything either ….. Because we cannot know whether humanity is going to survive or not, we have to act today as if the future of the whole of humanity were dependent on us. This suggests we need to make a difference between the idea of accepting t retaining the idea that God, Religion and Spirituality don’t exist and an objective Creator that is in charge of everything. Jack Caputo helped me here when he introduced the idea of God that does not exist but rather insists and that only exists when we human beings make it exist. That idea appeals in that it addresses the idea that

 David Galston talks about as the Future of God being in Human hands.

Another comment Moltmann makes that speaks to this issue is as follows. I like it because it gives a clear place for love as a dynamic divine creativity that is anthropomorphically grounded. Moltmann says: “ the most exciting breakthoughs if the 21st Century will occur not because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. Humanity will probably not be rescued by a deus ex machina either in the form of a literal Second Coming or by friendly spaceships. Though we will be guided by a revived spirituality, the answers will have to come from us. Apocalypse or Golden Age, The choice is ours” I like this because it suggests that the future in in the hands of human love, purely because is it always in the positive mode of human functions/ As that song goes, ‘Love Changes Everything’.

So when seeking the context we might hold in our minds when we think of love, what it is, what it does and how important it is in the future of human life. What is love in this world we find ourselves in? Why? Because without context love is destroyed because the data without context needs to return to the whole picture if it is to have human meaning beyond just idea.

The world is just a pile of dissonant bits of information when it is not put into the context of the whole big picture. The why questions are not asked without this return of the data to the big picture. Essentially the primary question is who are we, what is the we as a human being, what is the self we talk about so easily? And the hard part about this is being able to step outside oneself because when we do we find that there is something missing. Without stepping outside of our selves and wrestling with the importance of the other then Love and non-love are the same, caught in the battle between good and bad rather than applied in the whole. Love does not deal with the dichotomy of the general and the particular, the in and the out. Dr Ian McGilchrist calls this rationalization important but it should not be the dominant position, rather it is the resistance that makes available the opposite. About now I sense we are departing our focus on the theme of Love and becoming enamored with the whole.

So, what is this thing we talk of as love? One approach is to say that Love might be the strengths and virtues of being human such as Creativity, Curiosity, Open-mindedness, Love of Learning, Perspective, Bravery, Persistence, Integrity, Vitality, Kindness, Social Intelligence, Citizenship, Fairness, Leadership, Forgiveness, Humility, Prudence, Self-control, Appreciation, Gratitude, Hope, Humour and Spirituality. Another way of putting all tis into a context is in the following story.

Greg Manning could see from the terrace of his apartment that the jet had struck near the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald where his wife worked as a senior vice president and partner. For  the next half hour he paced frantically, stopping only to pound the wall and cry out her name. He was certain that his vibrant and beautiful Lauren was dead, but he was wrong. That morning she had lingered saying goodbye to their 10-month-old son, Tyler, and as a result arrived at the World Trade Centre a few moments later than usual. She had just entered the lobby of tower one when a fireball descending through an elevator shaft propelled her back into the street, totslly engulfed in flames. A bond salesman who witnessed this raced over, put out the fire that was consuming her, and remained at her side until an ambulance arrived. At the hospital, her face swollen beyond recognition, she told Greg the pain was so excruciating she had been praying to die but then out of love fore him and Tyler made the decision to fight for her life. Within a few minutes she slipped into a drug-induced coma that would last many weeks. Her parents came immediately from their home in Georgia to alternate bedside and babysitting duties with Greg. During his hospital shafts, Greg ignored Lauren’s unconscious state, reading poetry to her and playing her favourite CDs, all the while reassuring her that she was loved, that he would take care of her, that everything would be ok. During his home shifts he took Tyler to birthday parties and play dates, read and sang to him, and documented his development on videotape for Lauren’s future viewing. Remarkably, he also found time each day to send e-mail updates on her condition to friends and family. Saving Lauren meant replacing more than 80% of her skin, often multiple times. Some f the grafts used synthetic or donor skin, and from the outset were considered temporary, whereas others that were hoped to be permanent simply did not take. To compound the horror, part of her left ear was destroyed, and several fingers of her left hand required partial amputation. Although Greg would sob in the arms of friends, he never wavered in his devotion to Lauren or hos confidence that she would pull through. Exactly 3 months after admission to the hospital Lauren saw her new, scarred face for the first time. The predictable shock and sadness were tempered by the fact that her husband had prepared her through repeated reminders that she always had been and always would be his soul mate, and in his eyes was a beautiful as ever. Six months after that terrifying morning against the slimmest of odds, Greg Manning took his wife home. Those closest to the case agree that Lauren survived through a combination of grit and Love. Again, Love Changes things.

Our Gospel stories for today might be seen to be talking about Love but in this case the love that is rooted in loving one’s enemies, the challenge of love.

Two pregnant women meet.  Cousins, tradition tells us later. Two named pregnant women, with speaking parts, meet. Mary. Elizabeth. Like all the other stories told by Luke, and this one is no different, the teller has a ‘theological’ reason for the story: The first is to confirm the miracle promised by the angel, and the second, to establish the superiority of Jesus to John even before they are born. Most scholars also agree Luke is not telling a realistic story. While the trip itself is the first of two unrealistic trips to be undertaken by Mary while she is pregnant. Causing one female scholar to suggest: these stories could only have been told by a male! Yet this fictional story of this meeting of the two women has shaped Christian imagination and inspired Christian art through the centuries. Artistically, their meeting is often depicted “with these two women in a wordless embrace, sharing, like all mothers-to-be, the mystery of new life within themselves, and with a sense of mutual awe over what God has done.” (JDonahue. America web site, 2006).

On the other hand, perhaps the most famous artistic Mary presentation is in the great Pieta, where Mary as mother, is cradling the broken body of her son. (A love not unlike that of our earlier story perhaps)  People who are oppressed and cannot speak out because they’ll be imprisoned, or shot, or retribution will be made against their families, say they understand this Mary.

While for many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our society, Mary “an unwed mother in an extremely traditional society.” (MBrown. ‘Out in scripture’ web site, 2009). understands what it feels like to carry the awful burden of ‘otherness’. But unlike many LGBT people, however, tradition suggests Mary does not see her otherness as a reason for despair.
“She sees through the identification, this stigma, and recognizes that God is working through her otherness to transform the social structures that dominate the world.”  (MBrown. ‘Out in scripture’ web site, 2009). A courageous, protesting love as a love that battles exclusion perhaps.

Perhaps the most contemporary artistic rendering of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth occurs in Michele Zackheim’s 1985 art work called The Tent of Meeting.

It is a 400 square meter art work in the form of a Bedouin style tent whose canvas walls are  covered with historic imagery from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Describing this work, the late professor of Christianity and the Arts, Doug Adams, said: “An appropriate surprise appears at the top… where the hand of God appears above the pregnant figures of Mary and Elizabeth meeting. The surprise is that we see God’s left hand instead of God’s right hand.”  (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003).

Adams explained: “Michele Zackheim has presented God’s left hand to include and affirm what has often been excluded or viewed negatively.  Traditionally, God’s right hand has been featured in art but not God’s left hand.  In social as well as religious rituals and stories, the right hand has been associated with the clean or the saved while the left hand has been associated with the dirty or the damned.  Such associations have been based on social customs arising from use of the left hand to wipe ones rear end in the days before toilet paper…” (DAdams. PSR web site, 2003)

In another comment Adams indicates that the artist’s intention is to say God reverses all our assumptions. Love Changes Things. God includes those whom we often exclude. And then this short but telling comment: “We need to develop eyes to see the unexpected in Advent.” (DAdams, PSR web site, 2003). Yet it is not the artistic depictions which have grabbed me so much this year. What has stayed with us perhaps is the way our storyteller has chosen to play
with a whole series of parallels or contrasts. We don’t hear them all in the Mary and Elizabeth story. But they are there when you read great slabs of Luke’s story. Such as these contrasting emphases:

• the play between light and darkness,

• the supernatural with the ordinary,

• the role of women – and that spirituality is not men’s business alone,

• the plight of the powerless rather than the position of the powerful,

• Jesus and John,

• and between Caesar’s empire and God’s empire.

All of these things come full front-stage this year. In the drama of the unexpected present-ness of Serendipitous Creativity ‘G-o-d’ introduced by the storyteller, they have leading roles. So… today is Advent 4, the last day in the Season of Advent. The season of preparation where we have been invited to ‘stay awake’ to the unexpected present-ness of Creativity ‘G-o-d’, in the ordinary human business of living, and specifically in the living out of love. The human divine act of loving. Why?
Because human business is holy business. Frequently a messy business. But holy business none-the-less. (WLoader web site, 2009).

There is no indication in Luke’s story that Mary should be seen as less than human or more than human, less than woman or more than woman. What she is, is ‘blessed… among women’. And that’s the provocative challenge and the promise of Advent. Engage meaningfully in life.
Love wastefully. Be all that we can be. Because Advent and the sacred are rooted in our everyday experiences of love. Amen.

Being in the World Differently

Posted: December 6, 2021 in Uncategorized

One of the questions asked of John and Jesus is did Jesus of Nazareth share a similar vision
of the expected ‘kingdom of God’ with that of John the Baptiser? A response might be yes because Jesus was baptised by John or yes because Jesus was a follower of John at least for a while? Generally speaking, we might ask, what was John’s vision or worldview? And tradition has it, that it was a vision shaped by the themes of personal crisis, judgment, and renewal, coupled with the belief of an imminent divine intervention. Sound familiar? And isn’t this thinking which seems to be in line with the tradition of Israel’s prophets, such as Zechariah, Daniel, but especially Elijah?

On the other side of this debate are those who claim that Jesus’ worldview was significantly different in that his view concentrated not on the future, whether near or distant, but rather on “God’s present but collaborative kingdom” here and now. This is the view of some eminent post- modern Scholars such as Dominic Crossan. It is also a view I think is sound in that it explains for me why the Jesus message is in many ways timeless as opposed to John’s which had a short shelf life.

Opinion continues to be divided however and sometimes even heatedly divided! The ‘orthodox’ view, taught in theological colleges and from most pulpits, is that the apocalyptic or ‘end times’ Jesus is the real Jesus.  Period. I prefer to think like Rex Hunt and many others that the apocalyptic Jesus is not the real Jesus. This is a real change in thinking too because people like Albert Schweitzer and Bart Ehrman would disagree. The question we are left with is “who was John the Baptiser?

From all that we know and do not know, scholars suggest John was a highly visible and influential Jewish folk hero “whose charismatic reputation almost certainly preceded and overshadowed the public career of Jesus.”(Smith 2002:109). He seems to have spent most of his youth living in the desert wilderness, along the Jordan River. He offered baptism as a cleansing from sin in that river location, which, according to Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan, “baptism and message went together as the only way to obtain forgiveness of one’s sins before [God’s] fire storm came.”(Crossan 1991:235).

Or, put another way, this radical preacher from a conservative priestly family, was very upfront by claiming in both word and deed, the temple’s costly monopoly on the forgiveness trade had come to an end. Storytellers and poets, both modern and biblical, have always presented him in colourful terms. And it is poet and theologian John Shea who captures this ‘colour’ well in his poem

The Man Who Was a Lamp’:

“John expected an axe to the root of the tree

and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.

He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan

and a fire and along came a singing seed scatterer.

He welcomed wrathful verdicts,

then found a bridegroom on the bench.” 

(Shea 1993:177).

So, rests my view as it seems we are left with two different worldviews. One rooted in fear and the struggle to reject it and the other rooted in love and the certain hope in spite of and in and through the struggle. In today’s theme of Joy, the difference is the alternative that releases one from all the bondage of mind body and soul and provides the opportunity to celebrate life in all its fullness and to love wastefully.

Today is the third Sunday of Advent. Advent comes before the celebration we call Christmas.
Indeed, Advent has become “a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas.” (Gomes 2007:214). In traditional Christian language, Christmas is about the birth of a baby we call Jesus/Yeshua.

As historian Clement Miles observed more than 50 years ago: “The God of Christmas is no fear of ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished…” (Miles 1912/76:157).

As such Christmas even as an incarnational metaphor is the most human, and easily the most popular festival of the year, involving nearly all the population. And the baby is the most loveable! But much of the thought that eventually shaped Christianity did not come from the human Jesus. It came from Greek thinking centred on a divine Christ as defined by the emperor and various church councils. With all that we know today we are challenged to understand the message

So, what happens when the human Jesus meets Christianity? According to many of those who call themselves ‘progressive’— and they don’t mince their words—there is a crisis!  In a world that thinks differently. This is the crisis and not one of an irrelevant message; but rather one of an old interpretation in our age. This so-called crisis has identified several barriers that prevent an honest understanding of Jesus.  Barriers such as: fear, ignorance, and an idealistic simplicity that is more of a prison itself. Even popular images of Jesus perpetuate this crisis. He was a middle eastern human being. The gospels as inerrant and infallible have gone the way of certainty, truth and the concrete. All these are now products of perception and still as true as they ever were but in a different form. Being ejected is a self-serving church and clergy. The creation of secularism has changed the form of spirituality to be rooted in the social collective consciousness and Spirituality is no longer acceptable as self-indulgence.

Rex Hunt suggests two brief suggestions of what might be signposts in the human Jesus/divine Christ collision which the worldview of ‘John’ and ‘Jesus’ highlights. The first signpost is credibility. In the face of the current world this could be also said to be the offering of an authentic Jesus. David Galston says that “whatever conclusion one might come to about Jesus, “it must be a possible Jesus and not an incredible one.” Jesus was human like anyone. He was a homeland Jew not a Christian. And he never rejected his Jewish roots.

So a possible Jesus “is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.” (Galston 2012). And says Galson, “there is still some unresolved issues associated with all this.  That’s for sure’. “It is never possible to reach absolute conclusions about antiquity because the sources are fragmentary, varied, and come from a world no modern person has or ever can visit.” (Galston 2012). However! We can still be certain that whatever happened was possible, not incredible. “This simple foundation is the honesty involved in the search for the historical Jesus” (Galston 2012).

The second signpost is methodology. That is, what makes the best sense of the available data.

And those of you who have been engaging in progressive Christianity discussions and seminars and conferences, will know we use various ’tools’ in our search for the historical or human Jesus.
Tools such as Source Criticism, Redaction Criticism, and Rhetorical Criticism. Such tools enable us to realise, for instance, that the gospel writers were a few generations removed from the human Jesus. They already inhabited a different cultural setting and worldview and we know the influence of subjectivity, time and perception. So put simply, an honest progressive methodology is: “check out things for yourself, make sure you interpret things correctly, and learn for yourself.  Instead of jumping to conclusions about a subject or about other people, first ensure you are reading the situation correctly.” (Galston 2012).

The message John and Jesus give us today is the challenge of attuning oneself to the question of this human or historical Jesus and that means developing a mature, critical mind that no longer employs the methodology of believing “the biblical narratives literally—narratives that… were not intended ‘literally’ in the first place.” (Galston 2012).

In spite of the defensive fear driven conservationist thinking that hides behind a supernatural, non critical mindset the question we must engage with is how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped by the story of Jesus of Nazareth. And again, David Galston’s comments are helpful, here: “Once this credible ‘authentic Jesus tradition’ is identified, the point will be to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity.” (Galston 2012).

Carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement…
Or as another has said: “…go on the journey that Jesus charted rather than to worship the journey of Jesus.” (Wink 2000:177).

Let’s return to John for a bit to tease out his similarities to Jesus in terms of his human-ness also.

From what we can make out the human John is not pretty. He is not always reassuring.
His is a voice of challenge and protest. Yet it does seem John offered the people who
“lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation, a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives.” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:34).

His great invention if you like, was to introduce “a new, inexpensive, generally available, divinely authorized rite of baptism effective for the remissions of sins” (Crossan 1991:231).

I want to return to our theme for today again and to do this I want to offer an excerpt I read in an article by Lara Freidenfelds who in reading of Elizabeth, mother of John, suggested we need to bring back our understanding of quickening in the story of childbirth. She argues that it would clarify the original depth and meaning in Elizabeth’s story, levels of meaning that were shared among scripture readers and listeners until the past century or so. When Luke says that John the Baptist “leaped for joy,” in the womb he was not signifying simple happiness. He intended to signify the joy of life itself. The Catholic Church eventually decided that the significance of John’s leaping was that John was cleansed of original sin. But says ‘Freidenfelds’, the miracle described in the text as understood in its original context goes even deeper.

Another reason to bring back our understanding of quickening she says is that it reminds modern readers of an important insight that was a truism in earlier times: Pregnancies are precarious in their early months. Before the modern understanding of embryology, people appreciated quickening as a medically significant indication of a successful pregnancy, and as a spiritually significant indication that it was time to experience oneself as pregnant with a baby and to expect the birth of a child. Today, we have the technology to detect conceptions less than two weeks after they take place. But of those conceptions, about 30 percent miscarry, mostly in the early months of pregnancy. From the point of modern embryology, quickening may be arbitrary, but from the perspective of a person experiencing pregnancy, it can make sense to look to quickening, rather than a positive home pregnancy test, for reassurance that a baby is on the way. And then, at quickening, we can remember Elizabeth, and joyfully appreciate the miracle that is new life. This has to be the root of a Joy to the World does it not.

That might seem the end of the story too, but there is in the story of baptism linked to this Joy of Christmas. For baptism we only need water. Any water.  Anywhere.  But… we note that the nature of this joy is linked to a desert location and a baptism in the Jordan, precisely the Jordan, and this Jordan had overtones… of political subversion.  …Desert and Jordan, prophet and crowds, were always a volatile mix calling for immediate preventive strikes.” (Crossan 1991:235).

Although the historian Josephus would have us believe both John and Jesus were put to death by a ‘reluctant’ civil authority we take the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, seriously,  and ask how might we capture the spirit of both his particular interpretation of John and by comparison, his take on Jesus?

In the case of John’sthinking: It will require a truly creative change or transformation, in both our thinking as well as in our doing.  And to hearing his voice as one of hope rather than fear.

In the case of Jesus’ thinking: While he originally accepted and even defended John’s vision
“of awaiting the apocalyptic God… as a repentant sinner.” (Crossan 1991: 237)that vision was deemed inadequate.

The significant difference and what I term as the reason for the Way of Jesus is that for Jesus his thinking changed from waiting for the kingdom to being in the kingdom. His message was not about the future but rather about the present. The call is not to be in a different world, but being
in this world differently.

So, here it is; living out the implications of the Jesus vision in our own time, with our own creativity, is still before us. It is still our challenge despite 2 000 years. And in terms of the theme for today, that of Joy. This joy is found in this life, living this life and not in that which might come.

I am like many progressives firmly of the belief that the old-religion story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus or Christ, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives. And that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.

One thing’s for sure. The world in these early years of the twenty-first century, requires that we think differently about the questions of what it means to be Christian, about what Christianity is, and who decides. If we decide to order our lives in terms of the human Jesus it will be wewho do the deciding, and we who take, or fail to take, the steps to carry out that decision. Not some supernatural authority or extra-human power. And in the theme of today the Joy of the world is found in the quickening of humankind because that is how we know what is true. Amen.

Crossan, J. D. The Greatest Prayer. Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
—————- The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn: CollinsDove, 1991.
Funk, R. W. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for the New Millennium. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Kindle Edition. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.
Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom. How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Miles, C. A. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. New York: Dover Publications, 1912/76..
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracles All Year Long. New York: Crossroads, 1993.
Smith, M. H. “Israel’s Prodigal Son. Reflections on Re-imagining Jesus” in Hoover, R. W. ed., Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Wink, W. “The Son of Man. The Stone that Builders rejected” in The Jesus Seminar (ed) The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

Luke 3:1-6

The Always, Almost Present-ness of Serendipitous Creativity God

We have begun the advent season and arrive at week two, that of the theme of ‘Peace’. We have participated in the lighting of an Advent candle. The second Advent candle.
The ‘peace’ candle. And in the spirit of ‘Advent’ we are, once again, invited to ‘keep awake!’… or ‘stay alert!’ Ears tuned. Eyes open. Why? Because the God we seek is not that obvious, not that in your face, not that clear. It is as if that God is ‘perhaps’, or ‘almost; here but not quite clear or here but not quite yet. What advent seems to be saying is ‘stay alert’ so that you might together rediscover the God-given “incognito” (John Bell) moments in our ordinary daily living.

This is the heart of the Progressive, down-to-earth theme that continues today as the challenge to our reflection. This morning’s gospel story is built around a bloke we call John. He is only introduced today. And in the lectionary a fuller development is the subject of the story. But we already know that story from all the tradition which has been built up around him. We combine everything we know or remember about John, whenever we hear his name mentioned. Some give him the nickname: ‘dipper’ in recognition of his practice. We think of him and his way-out dress and alternative diet. We assume his particular call for change in universal to faith as we do his call for repentance. Tradition seems to suggest that this assumption became synonymous with the message of Jesus despite his alternative approach to fear and his claims for a peace without violence. We remember John’s gruesome end but pass it by as not significant as message about his theology or his approach to faith.

One commentator, John Meier, describes ‘dipper’ John as one of two historical figures who stands at either end of Jesus’ life, like bookends. The other is Pontius Pilate. Both only as support for claims made of Jesus rather than harbingers of important utterings and views. And none of that is what interests the storyteller we call Luke right now. What interests Luke is setting the scene, appropriately. And it’s a political setting to boot! Its more akin to Pilate than John in that sense. All those characters named in the Gospel reading this morning, are ‘reported’ to be people of power, both political and religious. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and his brother Philip
Lysanias, Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. As to whether they all belong to the same historical time frame, is debatable. But for Luke they are representative. Representative of the use, but more often, the abuse, of power. And here is the alternative challenge that Jesus brings upon the political scene. For Roman imperialism, the ruling over people was achieved through the deeds and the mantra of, ‘war, then victory, then peace’. This time in Roman history, the time of John and Jesus and Pontius Pilate, was the time of Pax Romana the time considered by Rome as the time of peace. The so-called positive effects of the Pax Romana (“the time of Roman peace”), which lasted from around 27 BC until AD 180? Were essentially about Roman control and influence when slavery was abolished, the Colosseum was built, and the empire expanded. A time also when Christianity was banned, the society became classless, and the Colosseum was built. Jewish historian Philo however paints a dark picture of Pontius Pilate: ‘a ruthless despot, by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh… of spiteful disposition and an exceeding wrathful man… the bribes, the acts of violence, the outrages, the cases of spiteful treatment, the constant murders without trial, the ceaseless and most grievous brutality’.

And out of this repressive situation comes a voice of protest.  The voice of John. And he begins to offer the people “who lived under the shadow of Rome and under the burden of Herodian control and taxation a new way to end the pain and uncertainty that plagued their daily lives” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:34).

In the public mind, John was a major religious figure in the time of Jesus and we know that Jesus was moved by John’s approach and offered something more and alternative. So, what does Luke’s initial story of John invite us to remember: It invites us to consider that something new is needed. We like Jesus need to think outside the square. Go beyond the understandings, the answers, we have been given or have acquired. And that’s where all this fits into the general lectionary theme of Advent. We are encouraged to discover the God-given “incognito” moments in our ordinary living, especially in those moments which push the boundaries.

Or, to put it another way. Preparing for the coming of God’s realm means washing and evaluating the lenses through which we read the Bible or understand God or church or neighbour, as well as the transformation of life, individually, politically, and as a society, here and now. The challenges of climate change, Covid 19, economic theories, sociological assumptions all need our attention.

We can see past the exclusiveness of sex when we read From Mother Teresa’s  ‘Longing for God’: When she says: ‘We all long for heaven where God is, but we have it in our power to be in heaven with Him at this very moment. ‘But being happy with Him now means Loving as He loves,
Helping as He helps, Giving as He gives, Serving as He serves, Rescuing as He rescues, Being with Him twenty-four hours, Touching Him in his distressing disguise’ (Harvey 1996:214.).

Although as religious progressives we do not expect a literal return of Jesus, it is essential to our progressive spirituality that we do expect “continual intimate encounters with (Serendipitous Creativity) God in our personal, social, and political lives” (RPregeant/P&F web site 2006).

So both the liturgical function and spirituality of Advent is to focus on this aspect of life, the always-to-be-expected present-ness of Creativity – ‘God’ in our ordinary living or as I would put it the God that is the “Almost” of our reality. The serendipitous, almost but not yet the sure and potential, the doubt birthed certainty, the finite within the infinity. The “I Am’ of the Hebrew and the hear and the yet to come of the NT Kingdom. And in the flowering Kowhai, the blossoming Pohutukawa.
In the ‘creaking of the tree branches rubbing together in the hot Summer wind. In the scientific imagination of Cosmologists and the single soul looking up at the night sky. “The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it the more beautiful it appears.  It is an immensely exciting experience to be born in the world, born in the universe, and look around you and realise that before you die you have the opportunity of understanding an immense amount about that world and about that universe and about life and about why we’re here. 

Here is the certain hope, and the peace that passes all understanding we seek. We have the opportunity of understanding far, far more than any of our predecessors ever did. We know more than Jesus ever did but I think he knew that we could. That is such an exciting possibility, both for our understanding Of Jesus ad ourselves and it would be such a shame to blow it and end our life not having understood what there is to understand”.

In the birth of one’s first child. In those moments when we choose to live together loving and caring for each other (the Christmas metaphor). Once again, we encounter the Serendipitous Creativity – ‘God’ acting in us and in others, who receive our actions. In the loving, helping, giving, and serving we create the peace that passes all understanding. Amen.

Horsley, R. A. & N. A. Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Harvey, A. (ed). The Essential Mystics. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Doug Lendrum with David W. Williams & Emma McGeorge :Almost: A Otherwise