Pentecost 4A, 2017 Matthew 10:40-42

Alive In Our Pictures Of God’

In 1926, the English/American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote these words: “Today there is but one religious dogma in debate:  What do you mean by ‘God’…”  (Quoted in Pittenger 1982:1). This morning we have heard two Lectionary stories. One, about Abraham, from the Hebrew scriptures. And one, about Jesus, from the experiences of the Jesus Movement. Both stories have within them images or pictures, of God. There is the image of God as a great and all-controlling power manifested in the unusual and the extraordinary. And there is the image of God as known in acts of compassion and love, present and active in human interaction.

These are of course, summary statements that are an over-simplification. They are also not meant to be seen as set one over against the other as if one is ‘good’ or ‘right’ and the other ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. However I want to suggest that to a modern progressive mind, one story, one picture, does seem to be repugnant.

Uniting Church Minister Bruce Prewer talks about the story of Abraham and the near slaying of Isaac, and says; ‘I can still remember (my Sunday school teacher’s) picture book from which she read the story…  That scene was the stuff from which nightmares are constructed.  It troubled me greatly.  I was left with the question; Would my father kill me if God asked him to?

‘One evening, after dinner when his father was sitting in his favourite chair, and Bruce was sitting on his dad’s knee, he plucked up the courage to ask his father if he would be like Abraham if God asked him.  Looking back Bruce now feels for his father who was totally unprepared for that question.  Torn between his desire to uphold the Bible and his love for Bruce, his father made a mess of answering his child.

Bruce reflects; ‘I did not know the word prevaricate then, but that is what he did.  I took his response as a grim warning.  It did not do much to alleviate nightmares’  (Prewer.www site 2002).

If I asked you to describe how you picture God now today, I wonder what you might say? If you think about the almighty, all powerful, always seeing, vengeful God that we read about your picture might just be almost too intimate, too threatening to share. Or perhaps some of you might push those images away and replace them with Jesus as the shepherd, or the gentle one, or the reflective one, Or maybe some of you may feel you have little pictures or images to share. I want to suggest that if you can’t find and image that works for you then you might still be in the process of moving away from what you have taken for granted for most of your life, taken for granted that the most central events reported in the Bible really happened. I am not saying that you are caught in fundamentalism but perhaps it might be a kind of ‘natural’ or ‘soft’ literalism. I am not suggesting that your thinking is stuck in Sunday School images, nor am I suggesting that you are avoiding change and an alternative approach but I am suggesting that we are struggling with the extremes of difference. We choose to be either fundamental, traditional, liberal or radical when it comes to our models of belief. All of us can be very suspicious of another’s picture of God especially when they do not match our own sense of ‘theological correctness’. Yet, we inherently know that the way we understand or picture God is very important.

They are important not because we are religious and need our pictures of God but rather because they are in danger of not being alive within us, shaping our approach to life. Sure, we can replace them with rugby, racing and beer but if we do we will remain passive consumers of a second-hand culturally immature faith, a faith of our Sunday School years. We will become the ‘couch potatoes of the spiritual world’ as Katharine Henderson described it.

When we read the scripture we see that both Abraham (if he was indeed ‘historical’) and Jesus, were alive with pictures of God. And their pictures of God are shaped, indeed, edited, in the stories we read in the Bible. Many of us can admit to reading these biblical stories as one who sees the Bible as a human product… Stories told as a response by these two ancient communities to their experience of God or the Sacred. That’s what makes us liberal or non-fundamentalist. Or as one scholar of the biblical tradition puts it; it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves’ (Borg 2001:22-23).

Out of all of this I think I am suggesting that God has an image problem. Or at least much of the church has a problem with the way it speaks about God. Both in the pictures it holds on to and the way in which it responds to these different images. In a digital, visual culture that we find ourselves in today this is even more crucial.

The traditional way of speaking about God has for so long been about a God above and beyond us. And who for the most part, simply sits as a threatening presence to reward or punish us for the way we have lived. The prevailing thing that comes to mind when God is mentioned is about something up there, out there in charge making things happen. Even if we have to do some mental gymnastics to deal with a God who lets bad things happen to good people. It is easier to just move on and not deal with the intellectual problems. It is also thought that we generally believe in that kind of God, often sung about in traditional hymns and contemporary choruses, that has many people today rejecting the church. The challenge of this is that the problem is not just theirs.  It is ours.

As Morwood and Spong and Borg and many others have claimed, we need to rethink our image, our picture, of God. Even those pictures of God that have sentimental significance for us from childhood days and happier times. And on that note, I want to borrow from a sermon by Rex Hunt where he talks about a couple of most unlikely theologians. Both feature in Alice Walker’s book (and later the film), The Colour Purple

The first theologian is called Celie.  She says: ‘When I found out that God was white and a man I lost interest.’ Celie is not alone in her thinking. As long as traditional Christianity emphasizes a white, male puppeteer God who favours the privileged, then many people will continue to lose interest. This comment is borne out here in our own congregation where more than one young person has said that they come to our community because we understand their struggle for a God that they can picture and image in their living. While this may be seen to be patting ourselves on the back it is a significant affirmation.

God is but one of the names given to the mysterious ‘Source’ of life so what sense does it make to limit the imagery to imagery that limits our imagination of this mystery or, what sense does it make not to search for a God who is God for us. And it seems that in our time this imagery needs to reflect that God is in all and all is in God. A God that reflects what we believe. This imagery needs to reflect and invite one to understand and value that which is interconnected, interdependent, dynamic, holistic.  Serendipitous creativity, perhaps?

The second theologian Rex notes is called Shug.  She says: ‘One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me: that I was a part of everything, not separate at all.  I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed.  And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house.  I knew just what it was.  In fact when it happens you can’t miss it… ‘I think it annoys God if you walk by colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…  People think pleasing God is all God cares about.  But any fool living in the world can see it’s always trying to please us back…’ Maybe our imagery need to reflect this co-creative, present, relational God

Rex suggests that Celie and Shug, as theologians, have found the immanency or the present-ness of God in the midst of ordinary daily events. Not as a person. Nor as a supernatural, intervening, celestial being. But as that creativity within us and within all life which makes it possible for us to love, to act compassionately, to offer even a cup of water…  in a style after Jesus.

To conclude my proposition today I think this call to rethink is a challenge to see difference differently. To see it as a challenge to move on, to think again and to create images that work today, to get past the debate about the negatives that difference evokes, not to deny them but rather to see them as contributions to shaping our own pictures of what God is for us. The question of Abraham’s motives and action, Bruce’s question of his father need to be asked because they are the sorts of questions that encourage us to make this kind of shift in our seeing and thinking and talking. It is the kind of God-talk that may help us think again about God, and how we can help others to a new picture of God.

Notes: Borg, M. Reading the Bible Again For The First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Pittenger, W. N. Picturing God. London. SCM Press, 1982.


Pentecost 3A, 2017 Matthew 10: 24-39

Wellbeing Is More Than Economic ‘Security’

Matthew the storyteller tells us a lot about his own particular community and how they worked and lived and created a sense of community to keep God’s dream and immanency or present-ness alive among them. And he does this is various ways. In Matthew we hear the story of the sending out of the apostles with the invitation to acquire and embrace new habits of seeing, and new habits of being. And we see that as far as we can make out, or guess, that ‘sending out’ was to be shaped by the broad gospel context of compassion. Com-passion. Feeling with. From the very depths of their person.

As all the biblical storytellers remind us, as they collected the fragments of sayings remembered by the early Jesus movement: Jesus’ own experiences with the marginalised and fragmented world of peasant villagers, had moved him in his ‘guts’, his ‘gizzards’, another way of saying this deep place of motivation is to say that he was moved in his ‘womb’, his very place of emergent being.

In the book ‘The Historical Jesus Goes To Church’, Bessler -Northcutt suggest that Com-passion, feeling with, is about helping those same peasant families and workers to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the taxation, farming policies, and religious purity codes had labelled them. And it is there that God’s presence and not Rome’s presence was fully established. It is in that engaging, empathetic relationship that God is present and not just in the removal of the shame and worthlessness. It is more than the ideology, more than the system, more than the culture. Changing the theory, the policy, and providing a new economic structure or ideology does not change things. It is in reaching the gut level, the empathetic level that enables the irrational, nonsense connection that is love at its best. This level of awareness and sensitivities had to become shaping factors in individual lives.

This week we hear some more of those instructions in our gospel story. But we also hear something new – a warning: ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Here I think we have the message about politics, social justice movements and even being the church, or engaging in community building, or ministry, or wellbeing activities. Be wise about getting into these activities, be innocent meaning don’t be judgmental or negative about these activities because they don’t ignore the individual self-commitment but they do challenge the dominant power structures of a society or group and like Jesus found out challenging these can be very risky business.

There was an interesting debate on talk back radio this week talking about the young southern MP who had put the election results at risk at one level and sullied all politicians at the other. I wondered if he was so new to the world of fake news or politics propensity for a non-absolute truth that he had made a mistake. He secretly recorded his staff and heard some not so nice comments about himself. He took those comments personally and used his political connections to deal with his dilemma. The discussion on radio was about his having been dishonest or lied to cover up his mistake but I wondered if it was just that he had little experience of the world of politics, and was naïve about the world of politics where truth is less about absolutes and more about public perception. We can be negative about political spin and political speech but it is the system where absolute truth is something to be wary of. One can be negative and say it is all lies and speaking a lot of words and saying nothing but that is the nature of a system that seeks to satisfy everyone at once. The contributors to talk back spoke about the MP being young and inexperienced, it was even suggested that his mother and family had pleaded for a fair-go because he was a good man. Again, I think we have the conflict between the individual and the structural or communal. It is what might be called the battle between situational ethics and political accomplishment. It very easily leads to individual banishment and political expediency, the person resigns and the blame shifts around till it dissipates.

But getting back to the general argument it is interesting to note, that living out a ‘dream’ is not easy, especially one which seeks to address the violations of human rights resulting from racism, poverty, poor housing, inadequate education and health care, let alone widespread apathy and indifference, and a lack of freedom. We know that living such a dream can and will shake any ruling elite to its core.

The dream in our story is that there is a place where politicians never stretch the truth, where economic theory or religious adherence can exist but only in the service of everyone. The reality is that when this is close to achievement there will be aggressive, abusive name calling and even violent responses. We even have parliamentary protection to enable this, and we expect the spin of politicians and play at holding them accountable to this impossible dream.

But to get to our specific topic for a bit we want to first enter that space that Rex Hunt calls the space where wise serpents and innocent doves reside, and we want to attempt to explore that space between economic theory and society’s wellbeing which comes from “being connected and engaged, from being enmeshed in a web of relationships and interests. This place between theory and practice perhaps, that gives meaning to our lives.”

There is a claim that despite all that governments say about economic theory, tax cuts, fiscal policy etc, evidence shows the focus on wealth creation as the foundation for raising wellbeing, is not all it proports to be. That claim says that “The relentless drive for greater economic efficiencies, which are needed to maintain high growth rates, has been accompanied by increasing inequality, sustained levels of unemployment, the growth in under- employment and overwork, pressures on public services such as health and education, and the geographic concentration of disadvantage, leading to deeper and more entrenched divisions within society.” It is acknowledged that the rise in technology contributes but there is the question as to what the technological advance is for that needs analysis. And just to take a little side track we read that certain words can and will influence artificial Intelligence because some words are naturally negative and others are positive and facial expression will become AI responses. In other words a grumpy person’s self-drive car might not start or an angry persons car might pull over and stop and wait till the occupant has calmed down.

Just as Jesus’ claim about an alternative society, an alternative social system to that which was based on a Roman view of human behaviour would end up getting him executed so the claim about an alternative to the common is without doubt powerful, and disturbing stuff! As we close in on our election this claim could even unsettle our own political persuasions and personal core values. Our system fluctuates between ideological extremes but does not raise alternatives from an economic centrality and an alternative would be upsetting to some. The challenge of an alternative criticizes our entrenched assumptions because it claims that our collective wellbeing or ‘happiness’ is improved if we live in a peaceful, flourishing, and supportive society, rather than if we have more money and more of the things money buys.

The title of my sermon presupposes the possibility of an alternative way of being holistically well, and I think it is because all of our human systems regardless of whether they are political, economic or social, are under pressure to change from the priori of an economic focused world. What if there is something other than socialism, capitalism, communism and all the isms? What if there was a way of shifting our systems to be more focused on outcomes that provide wellbeing as opposed to relying on economic theory and thus a profit motivated system that assumes wellbeing? If we want to retain the word economy then could it be seen as more about the disposition or regulation of the parts or functions of any organic whole? The regulation of an organized system or method as opposed to its most common interpretation, which is that economy means ‘the prosperity or earnings of a place or person?


The questions we would face then are how do we do this thing rather than what resources do we need to do this thing? How do we provide fulfilling work without money? Is it people doing something as opposed to being paid well? How do we reclaim, reprioritize our time? Is it by being paid more for less work or is it about doing more regenerative things for each other? How do we protect the environment? Is it less about making the environment work for us as opposed to working more with the environment? How do we ensure education contributes to our wellbeing? Is it about perfection and outcome for the individual or is it about experience and interpretation for each and every one? Is it about creating certainties and knowing facts or is it about living with uncertainties without absolutes? And so the questions go on. How do we invest in early childhood, discourage materialism and promote responsible advertising? How do we build communities and relationships, create a fair society and measure what matters?

What we do know is that widening disparities in incomes and access to services create resentment and disharmony, and we know that resentment and disharmony are time consuming engagements. Instead of blaming the victims of the systems we run, we should perhaps acknowledge that some people are left behind by the so-called market driven economy and do something about it rather than hold our hands up and say they are the product of their own making. They have a choice. The question is do they?

One of the startling outcomes of recent years is that we have become more self centered as nations and overseas aid has become a burden rather than an opportunity to care for each other. In recent years we have extended this to keeping refugees to a minimum and only allowing the movement of people if they can contribute to the particular nations economic theory. Maybe there is another way of ensuring more public funds go to overseas aid to help the poor in developing countries escape from poverty and destitution. It was interesting to see that one of the key issues that came out of the recent interactive TV program ‘What Next’ was that the eradication of poverty is a priority for us as a nation. And that is something that we no longer have a viable economic definition for, yet we know exists. What if poverty is the loss of an ability to participate in being well rather than being unable to participate in the economic system?

And to finish I want to ask what difference does our being a (progressive) Christian congregation make in the lives of others? Are suffering and marginalised people better off… Are the poor and homeless finding their lives improved… Do children have a brighter global future… Is this the case because we are on the journey which Jesus first chartered?

What I think is that throughout history the various sages and prophets have all counselled that wellbeing of the individual and as a community, is not a goal but a consequence of how we live. And this means that the changes I have implied are gospel imperatives can inspire healthier communities, stronger personal relationships, happier workplaces, a better balance between work and home, less commercialization, and greater environmental protection.

Likewise, by continuing on the journey which Jesus first chartered rather than worshipping that journey… And re-imagining the kingdom or realm or empire of God from the perspective of gospel compassion… we can all keep alive the dream and immanency or present-ness of God.

As Andrew Hamilton, Jesuit priest and editor of Eureka Street once said in an editorial, “Steady and decent public policies [by Governments] in which we can take pride actually build confidence.  — High human confidence is not only useful.  It is also valuable” (Eureka Street. 16 June 2008).

Notes: Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in A. Dewey. ed., The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press



Consider The Lilies Of The Field’

Isaiah 49:13-16a                 Matthew 6:25-31, 33-34.

A call to contemplation/mindfulness with imagination

Way back in the 1960s and early 70s, a contemporary theologian named Amos Wilder claimed that Jesus’ speech had the character, not of instruction and ideas, but of compelling imagination. (Wilder 1971). He claimed that Christianity is a religion of imagination and the oral word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

His ground-breaking scholarship was that Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance. This reminds us that as far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery where, ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’. In secular terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, oblivious of any concern for transcription or written record.

Less romantically we might say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is because writing things down has about it a sense of permanence. It presupposes continuity and a future. But the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken.  As Wilder said: “Jesus was a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1971:13).

Tradition has it, that one of the most important pieces of ‘Jesus voice’ is the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’, and the bits and pieces of sayings that the author of Matthew’s gospel puts after this collection, such as today’s sayings:

  • Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
  • Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
  • Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Generally speaking, most biblical scholars now days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the editorial work of the author of Matthew’s gospel, to place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another great teacher like Moses, in particular. However, many of those same scholars reckon that the particular everyday sayings which follow in the next chapter, and make up today’s Lectionary sayings, indicate every possibility that we have before us “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus” (Funk & Hoover 1993:152). So let us stay with this scholarly suggestion for a moment.

The biblical stories frequently have Jesus drawing his figures of speech from the everyday world around him. “The need for food calls the birds to mind, the need for clothing the lilies…” (Funk & Hoover 1993:153). Plus… as the 1950s Scottish theologian William Barclay helpfully said, Jesus was not advocating a thoughtless, improvident attitude to life, “but was warning against a care-worn, worried, fearful way of living each day” (Millar 2000:175).

That’s why many scholars claim Jesus was a secular sage, (Hunt 2007:6). He made no theological statements. Neither did he set out to establish a new religion. He belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism. That said, these particular sayings:

  • are addressed to people who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence, rather than with the broader political situation;
  • challenge common attitudes towards life, and
  • and of course they are exaggerations
  • and they do fit with some other sayings also attributed to Jesus.


In another but similar context, theologian Arthur Dewey says of Jesus’ sayings, they:

  • dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality,
  • admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal boat people/immigrants—whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’,
  • challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.

And the implications of these sayings and this vision? Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion: “…can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply” (Dewey 2002:80).

What is important about all these sayings is, the imagination bit. They make it possible for us to see the world, the everyday world in which we live, not only as it is, but also as it can be. To re-imagine. To move us to new places. To turn us into new people. And to lure a response from us that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, imprisons, others. And this brings us to the contemplation/mindfulness bit.

Clyde Reid in his book “Celebrate the Temporary’ wrote;

Celebrate the simple things: enjoy the butterfly embrace the snow run with the ocean delight in the trees or a single lonely flower

Go barefoot in the wet grass

Don’t wait until all the problems are solved or all the bills are paid You will wait forever

Eternity will come and go and you will still be waiting

Live in the now with all its problems and its agonies with its joy and its pain…

There is joy and beauty today It is temporary Here now and gone

So celebrate it while you can

I read this as a call to take time out, to engage more fully, waste a moment so that whet come next will have meaning. Consider the Lillies of the field. But just before we get into that we need to get some sort of working definition for mindfulness, which in today’s world is the discipline that psychiatry, psychology and counselling is suggesting as a means of dealing to depression, anxiety and many things listed under the term mental illness. Mindfulness is it seems the tool for a non-pharmaceutical approach to healing the mind.

Hold in your minds the idea that mindfulness is another mane for contemplation and that the wisdom tradition, the monastic tradition, the gnostics perhaps were all attempts to explore the wholistic human being. Being able to explore the imagination, the silence, the depths of thought were all ways of healing humankind. But to return to today we find that Dan Siegal summarizes mindfulness as “being aware, on purpose and non-judgmentally, of what is happening as it is happening in the present moment”.

Tara Brach defines is ‘The quality of awareness that recognizes exactly what is happening in our moment -to-moment experience”.

James Austin tries to capture the one-of-a-kind nature of mindful awareness when he speaks of ‘being mindfully attuned to the fresh individuality of each present moment as it evolves into the next one, and then the next one”

Jon Kabat-Zinn when speaking of lovingkindness meditation suggests mindful awareness is focused on someone you love. This is a blending of mindfulness into the experience of the relationship itself.

It is not surprising then that mindfulness/or contemplation as it is understood above involves the very areas of the brain that are involved in the creation of our capacity for compassion and intersubjectivity. In other words how my subjectivity, (the fact that I cannot ever get outside myself) interacts with your subjectivity (Out of which you cannot get either). It is by the practice of mindfulness that enables us to let go of judgmental processes and stay more ‘present.’ Meditation or contemplation can change the brain to become more empathetic and attuned to everything.

I want to show you a short video now that talks about this place that we might enjoy by being mindful through contemplation. But just before I do that I want to remind you about Eric Fromm’s 5 points about living a spiritual life.

  • He says that people who have a spiritual life believe there is a hierarchy of values – Love and compassion are seen as more important than distain for the Oxford comma.
  • That people who have a spiritual life know that life is not filled with simple answers, but that life is a series of questions that expand us.
  • That people who are engaged in a spiritual life know that life is about being transformed.
  • That people who have a spiritual life know that life is not about the self, but it is about transcending the self we think our selves to be. We need to free ourselves from our selves so we can be ourselves.
  • And that people who have a spiritual life know that there is an inter-connectedness of humanity and with one another.

I think that here we have the key to mindfulness as a discipline that does not abdicate the cognitive, reasoned world in favour of silence or nothingness, but rather through the awareness of self and the subjectivity of the self in tension with the other provides an experience that is birthed in the questioning of our devotion to our self and provides a willingness to be transformed in love and connectedness. Lets watch the video as I think Watts talks about this place of knowing or being mystical and engaged.

You Tube- Waiting for magic -Alan Watts

Emilie Townes, Professor of African American Religion and Theology, at Yale Divinity School, made a presentation to the ‘Voices of Sophia’ conference of Presbyterian women in the USA… Her oral presentation was shaped around a theme: What will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are. She didn’t offer a highly academic speech. Neither did she suggest she was talking about what makes any of us, perfect. What she did say was: “I’m talking about what we call in Christian ethics, the everydayness of moral acts… It’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action” (Townes 2006.

Using ordinary rather than so-called ‘holy’ language, reminiscent of the one we call Jesus, Townes lists her everyday moral acts which her listeners, and now us, are invited to identify with:

  • the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk, to hear what they are saying;
  • the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh us through prayer or meditation;
  • the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths;
  • the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives; the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking;
  • the everydayness of sharing a meal;
  • the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment;
  • the everydayness of joy and laughter;
  • the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere, or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them;
  • the everydayness of blending head and heart;
  • the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.

It is in this everydayness, Townes says, that we are formed. Boundaries and differences are irrelevant. And in the everydayness of the Jesus imagination: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance. Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W. & R. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan, 1993. Hunt, R. A. E. 2007. “Progressive Christianity: New moves in Christian thinking and practice”. A presentation to Christian Jewish Dialogue ACT, 4 February 2007. Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000. Reid, C. Celebrate the Temporary. New York. Harper & Row, 1972. Wilder, A. N. Early Christian Rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1971. Dewey, A. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan”, in R. W. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Trinity A. 2017 Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity: A Theology And A Holiday..

It is Trinity Sunday today and once again we revisit the doctrine and ask what it is, what it’s use is and do we need it. But as always, I have tried to find something new to say and I have to say that it is getting harder every year.

John Robinson, the English 1960s radical bishop of Honest to God fame, said it had become a formula as arid and as unintelligible as E=MC2 that Einstein said was the clue to the physical universe.

Going back even further we find that Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century theologian and mystic, imaged it in grand metaphorical style: A brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire. And the three are one.

In more recent times we find in an article by Sean Kelly, Professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies, that Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, who are perhaps our most well-known cosmologists, apart from Carl Sagan perhaps, have provided another approach to the idea of Trinity. In his brief overview of the evolution of “the consciousness of the universe and its current crisis as humanity continues to destroy the life-support system of Earth, Kelly claims that, just as the collaborative effort of natural scientists and other researchers have revealed the outlines, at least, of a comprehensive cosmology, we find ourselves plunged into a maelstrom of unparalleled planetary madness. The madness: being a runaway catastrophic climate change, an accelerating mass extinction of species and generalized ecological deterioration, and a brutal, empire-driven regime of planetary apartheid”.

The wisdom of the article is the suggestion that the “Big History” type ‘grand narrative’ is a story that encompasses the mysterious origin in a “primal flaring forth” (popularly referred to as the Big Bang), “a growing, if perhaps never complete, understanding of the main stages of cosmic evolution, the complexities of embodied intelligence, the main thresholds of human history and the varieties of cultural expression, a sense of the lure or telos of the evolutionary adventure, and a prescient sense of growing planetary crisis. Complex yet trinitarian in nature, even if perhaps not traditionally sequential”. To be traditional it would be Father, Son and Holy Spirit = Big Bang, embodied intelligence and adventurous flaring forth. But then we must always remember what Bishop Jack Spong said: in one of his newsletters. “No one can ultimately define God, not even as the Holy Trinity.  The height of human arrogance is to suggest otherwise.  All any of us can do is define not God, but our experience with God. There is a vast difference between those two things. And this is the invitation to explore what our experience actually is. “The Trinity is a definition of our experience, nothing more.  Those that make this definition of our experience the definition of God, and call it the ‘bedrock belief of Christianity’ are not well informed” (Spong Newsletter, 2008).

In response to Spong there are those who argue that any person, who wants alternative names for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should be declared enemies of the church, or heretics, but I want to see if we can transcend that simplistic, ‘them and us’ approach and to do that I want to spend a bit of time following down the Sean Kelly path with Swimme and Berry.

Kelly starts with what he calls a cosmological wisdom that Swimme and Berry seek in their argument. They argue for a threefold “cosmogenetic principle,” or as he prefers to call it, a trinity of cosmogenetic principles. By cosmogenetic he is referring to the generating beginning, These cosmogenetic principles are —differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion— and they “refer to the governing themes and the basal intentionality of all existence” and can be said to reveal the deep structure of cosmogenesis. They are three mutually implicated dimensions or moments of the emergence, persistence, and evolution of form “throughout time and space and at every level of reality”. Swimme and Berry invoke these principles to help us understand the integral nature of cosmic evolution, from the primal flaring forth (with the mysterious relation between the original singularity—if indeed there was a singularity—and the initial break in symmetry, with its perfect, fine-tuned calibration between gravitation and the forces of expansion or spatiation and also among the four fundamental forces), through the emergence of particles, atoms, galaxies, stars (especially our own Sun), and planets (especially Earth or Gaia), to the emergence of life, human societies, and civilizations.

In all cases they underline how the three principles “are themselves features of each other.” In fact, as they say, if were there no differentiation, “the universe would collapse into a homogenous smudge; were there no subjectivity [which Swimme and Berry associate with autopoiesis], the universe would collapse into inert, dead extension; were there no communion, the universe would collapse into isolated singularities of being” Here I suggest they might just be talking about the doctrine of the Trinity the need for the distinctive threesome that reveals the interdependence of the three in the one or the need for a relational reality. To be relational one needs the differentiation.

Swimme and Berry state that their understanding of the triadic principle is based on the manifest cosmos rather than on some a priori metaphysical (whether philosophical or theological) concept or doctrine. At the same time, however, it must be conceded that this principle is remarkably coherent with expressions of the nature of wisdom in triadic form found in the world’s great metaphysical traditions (see Kelly, 2010). We know that, before turning to scientific cosmology, Berry had undertaken a deep study of Asian traditions, particularly Neo-Confucianism. This study discerned a tripartite patterning or principle that culminated in a state of harmony or balance.

We note here that the Confucianism was influenced by the earlier “original enlightenment” school of Buddhism, where we find the notion of the “threefold contemplation in one mind” that is, the integral nature of the three truths of – emptiness, conventional existence, and the middle. The forms of all things exerting their functions and arising in dependence upon conditions, is, without transformation, the threefold contemplation in its totality. (Stone, 178)

Kelly is not suggesting that the three cosmogenetic principles of autopoiesis, differentiation, and communion are identical with the Neo-Confucian triad but rather that all three triads participate in the same archetypal complex, or “cultural invariant”, to use Raimon Panikkar’s term, which he calls the “radical Trinity.” “I may also use a consecrated name:” he writes, “advaita [“not twoness”], which is the equivalent of the radical Trinity. Everything is related to everything but without monistic identity or dualistic separation.” (Panikkar, 2010, 404) The most encompassing expression of the radical Trinity is the integral or non-dual “theanthropocosmic” intuition of “Reality comprising the Divine, the Human, and the Cosmic in thoroughgoing relationality.” (xviii) “We are together with other Men,” Pannikkar observes, “on a common Earth, under the same Sky, and enveloped by the Unknown.” (268) These three terms remind us of the traditional Chinese triad of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. In Panikkar’s case, however, though deeply informed by both the non-dualism of Hindu advaita vedanta and the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising, which he translates as “interindependence”), the deeper source is speculative Christian Trinitarian theology (with which Berry was obviously also familiar, despite his lack of formal training in theology and his self-designation as a “geologian”). The key insight here is the “perichoretic”, or mutually generating, relation among the three “persons” of the Trinity.

Right about now you might be asking what the heck I am talking about and you could be right in asking that because it sounds to me like an argument for the doctrine that seems to be swallowed up in technical concepts and clever language. It seems like I am advocating for the Trinity and if that’s what it sounds like it probably is, so I shall try to round it off by accepting the trinitarian approach as a structure, is helpful in that it is consistent with not fully knowing, consistent with a subjective truth and inexhaustibly generative, from which arises form and determination, “being” in the sense of what can be concretely perceived and engaged with; that form itself is never exhausted, never limited by this or that specific realization, but is constantly being realized in the flux of active life that equally springs out from the source of all. Between form, “logos”, and life, “spirit”, there is an unceasing interaction. The Source of all does not and cannot exhaust itself simply in producing shape and structure; it also produces that which dissolves and re-forms all structures in endless and undetermined movement, in such a way that all form itself is not absolutized but always turned back toward the primal reality of the Source. (xviii)

Echoing Swimme and Berry’s statement quoted above regarding the mutual implication of the three cosmogenetic principles, Pannikar states: “God without Man is nothing, literally ‘no-thing’. Man without God is exclusively a ‘thing’ not a person, not a really human being, while the World, the Cosmos, without Man and God is ‘any-thing without consistency and being; it is sheer non existing chaos. The three are constitutively connected.’” (Panikkar, 1979, quoted in Sabetta) Like Panikkar’s “cosmotheanthropic” vision, Swimme and Berry see their cosmogenetic principles active throughout the entire universe story. It is in our middle realm of Earth however, that we see the principles in action most clearly and consequentially.

It is good that we can have a healthy discontent with the doctrine of the Trinity because what is important is as Marcus Borg’s book reminds us, it is The God We Never Knew, or a Catching Water in a Net that Val Webb writes about that keeps us human. This tension between one and three is a healthy response because as both Webb and Borg suggest the Latin and Greek words translated as ‘person’ do not mean what ‘person’ most commonly means in English. For us, ‘person’ means separate being. But ‘person’ in the ancient texts refers to the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman theatres. “To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God in known to us wearing three different ‘masks’… in three different roles” (Borg 1997:98). The Trinity not as doctrine but as creative concept and inviting of imagination is a welcome idea.

Here we have the image of a multifaceted sacredness creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing. Cumulatively speaking, Borg suggests that when we step away from a literalist understanding, ‘Trinity’ shows that: God is not a distant being but is near at hand. God is not primarily a lawgiver and judge but the compassionate one. And the religious life is not about requirements, but about relationship. Relationship between all things.

So, why have I given you the struggle with language and concepts of cosmology? Why have I tried to place the Trinity in the Big Picture? Well, I think it is because I believe that the more we can think progressively theologically then the more we can welcome honesty, be enriched by theological freedom, and spend less time on articulating literalistic doctrines that keep us focused on defining rules that limit God as opposed to exploring in a creative and imaginative way, seeking what a new human life can be. The way we imagine or understand God makes a difference. And anyway, in the words of Irish priest and theologian, Diarmuid O’Murchur: “How precisely the relatedness of Jesus differs from that of the Father and Spirit may well be one of the most meaningless questions ever asked” (O’Murchur 2005:52).

To finish off then, what’s with the holiday? Well its simply that all this Trinity stuff is not about defining God or Jesus or The Holy Spirit but rather about recognising the ever present-ness of God or the sacred, in all of our ordinary living. Then maybe thinking about God can suddenly become a whole lot more fun. Trinity Sunday and a holiday weekend perhaps. Maybe we could weave together these seemingly unrelated and in some ways, perhaps contradictory events…. After all the Trinity has for many people, become one of the more complicated of doctrines… Obscure. Abstract. And far too serious. Maybe a three-day holiday weekend with football or rugby and meals together, might just help. Having a holiday weekend with Trinity Sunday in the middle, could allow us to emphasize certain aspects of God’s nature we are likely to ignore when we take our creed-driven neo-orthodox theologies so seriously! Having a holiday at this time of the year could remind us that simply getting together as a family for dinners and family gatherings and taking delight in each other and in the world around us…

These suggestions, echo and reflect something of the spirit of God in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. That there is wisdom to be found in merely being playful. Having a mid-winter party, or barn dance or whatever. And we are expressing something of God’s own nature. The mystery of the livingness of God in a wondrous community…a creative energy beyond, a compassionate traveler with, and an empowering friendship within, connecting ‘all creation’ together.

Maybe… just maybe, this is really what the storyteller Matthew is on about. That the essence of God is to be in mutual relation… A mystery of dynamic communion of connectedness. A dancing and celebrating emmanuel at a party. Rather than the literal and liturgical interests of the ‘church fathers’ who set this lectionary story for this Sunday with its tenuous links to the so-called doctrine of the Trinity.

Notes: Borg, M. J. The God We Never Knew. Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York. HarperCollins, 1997. O’Murchu, D. Catching Up With Jesus. A Gospel Story for our Time. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 2005. Webb, V. Like Catching Water in a Net. Human Attempts to Define the Divine. New York. Continuum Press, 2007.

Kelly Sean Cosmological Wisdom and Planetary Madness


Pentecost A, 2017 John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-4

Pentecost: A Moment In The Life Of …

In recent tradition there have been congregations celebrating Pentecost with drama that has wind and flames and a cacophony of languages! Many congregations today, especially those with children will be celebrating with balloons and flamboyant speech! Great drama will ensue! And many will claim it as the birthday party of the church! This is a clear suggestion that what ‘Pentecost’ is, is a script full of symbolism which just cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event may or may not lay behind this story.

The very different biblical stories of the first Pentecost experience, are told in the most expansive and descriptive ways imaginable and when we look them up we find first the story told by the accepted author of The Acts of the Apostles, who is called Luke. The story is dramatic in that we have a heavenly sounding like that of a rushing wind. We have descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame. We have patterns of transformed speech allowing everyone to hear what was being said in all kinds of languages. We have a moment of conversion resulting in thousands of people being added to a tiny community of faith.

Then we have the story told by the storyteller John, and this story is personal in that the Spirit of God is brooding in the hearts and minds of people. It broods over the face of waters in the story of creation. Another difference is that what storyteller Luke describes as happening over 50 days, storyteller John suggests it all happened on the same day! Here I think we have the challenge not to try and combine or debase them into some simple chronological event but to see them as different symbolism about the same event. Ever since the so-called first Pentecost, this day has been regarded as a birthing or pregnant moment in the life of the church and a day of celebration.

But, is there more to this symbolism? Just how important is it in communicating meaning? Rex Hunt suggests a way into this question by asking us to think back to our own Sunday School days. That is of course if you did go to Sunday school and recall if you can what you were taught about the Spirit of God. Can you remember what you were taught was the emblem of the Spirit of God. I can’t remember myself but many of you might remember the Spirit of God being like the dove, in fact, the dove of peace. If you had any ecumenical experience you might remember the Methodist Church having the dove in its emblem. If you had Australian experience you might recall the Uniting Church in Australia emblem, where the designers of the new churches emblem believing that this new church was a Pentecost church, included both the dove and the flames on their UCA emblem… (All done in the significant colours of red, white and black!) You might remember many church bulletins including the dove as the symbol for Pentecost… the “sweet heavenly dove” of the Holy Spirit.

About here I remember that my own family’s coat of arms has a white dove holding an olive branch in its beak standing on a green mound. The family motto being’ The Peace” We might also remember the rumour about a dove bearing an olive branch that flew back to old Noah on his Ark, signaling the good news of dry land after the great flood. We also read that the Spirit of God descends “like a dove” upon Jesus at his baptism, according to Luke’s gospel story.

A nice white dove suggests innocence, purity and peace and in medieval times they used to release hundreds of them in the cathedrals on Pentecost day. The story goes that they stopped that practice when the doves rained down on the congregation more than light and grace! Such action was contrary to the symbol where the dove is gentle, graceful, and seductive… Like most symbols it was limited and as the storyteller William Bausch said “It’s too sweet and sentimental and, finally, wrong’  (Bausch 1998:474).

Another legend has it that the Irish had it right when it came to Pentecost emblems. It has been claimed (and disputed) that in old Celtic traditions the Holy Spirit was not represented as a white dove – tame and pure – but by a wild goose. And here the story changes. Geese are not controllable.  They make a lot of noise and have a habit of biting those who try to contain them. Geese fly faster in a flock than on their own. And they make excellent ‘guard dogs’.

Ian Bradley, former lecturer in practical theology at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, might be historically accurate when he says he can’t find any evidence to substantiate such a tradition in Celtic folklore beyond the creative imagination of George Macleod of Iona fame… But maybe the Spirit of God is like a ‘wild goose’. It comes not in quiet conformity but demanding to be heard. Its song is not sweet to many. It drives people together, demanding they support and travel with one another. It shouts a truth many with power would rather not hear. And it often forces those on whom it rests to become noisy, passionate, and courageous people of the gospel.

Patricia de Jong of Berkeley College suggests that Paul did not have the benefit of Hallmark Cards, which thinks doves are just like love-birds, billing and cooing come Valentine’s Day.  But Paul knows for sure, that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is love – not the love sold to us by Hollywood and the greetings card industry, but the love of God which is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, binding an aggregate of different and unlikely people together, creating new community on new common ground in the Body of Christ”.

Pentecost in this symbol is not the nice presenting dove that has the character of a love bird, it is not the lovely aspiration, the symbol of all things sweet and nice. The wild goose is the symbol of an agitator, the whistle blower, the serendipitous challenger of the norm, it is the one who sticks around like a bad smell, it is the meals-on-wheels provider, the hospital visitor, the political protester, and those seeking to reform welfare and education and employment opportunities.

With this symbol it is not surprising, that as we gather to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God at Pentecost, our biblical readings have nothing to do with the innocence and purity and peace, associated with the Spirit as dove. Our readings suggest that they “this Spirit is the living energy, the creative vitality that stirs the waves and whispers in the wind, that warms the sun and eroticizes the moon, that vibrates in the sounds of nature, begetting novelty in every realm of [the universe]”.  (O’Murchu 2005:96)

Another approach to this exploration of symbols and their communication is perhaps to take the line John D Caputo does in his book, ‘What Would Jesus Deconstruct?’ where he reminds us that over the ages the spiritual masters have described spiritual life as a journey, that to be religious is to be a searcher, one who lives in search of something as opposed to being satisfied with the reality that sits under our noses, content with the present. He reminds us that Bobby Kennedy used to say that; “there are those who look at things the way they are, and ask, why….. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not? Caputo says that Kennedy was speaking with a religious heart. That religious people are the people of the ‘why not?’ the people of the promise, of the hope against hope. They are people who restlessly search for something, for a certain sort of ‘transcendence, which means to be on the go, making the crossing, trying to get somewhere else. They are people on the Way, never content with where they are, always on the way. Paradoxically the annoying goose is more apt because a follower of Jesus is never satisfied with reality as it is always seeking to be find the real beyond the real.

The challenge then of these two symbols is to see that we are on a spiritual journey that we call a journey of faith and this means that when we think we know we have achieved we have put our lives on automatic pilot. We have become knowers who have taken ourselves out of the game. We have become travelers who can’t move without our four wheel drives and our air conditioned cars. We are the ones who only stay in five star hotels. We forget that Jesus is not the way unless we are lost nor is he the answer unless we have a question.

One of the things that I like about the people of St David’s is that you are like this symbol of the wild goose. You act as though the spirit of Pentecost is alive in this place! Not because you are kind, gentle and loving folk because you are definitely that, but because you are realists, ready to embrace new and different ways of worshipping and thinking theologically. Not because you are captured by the despair of age or the prospect of a decaying building but because live like there is more than one way of walking the way. In being more like geese you reflect the challenging and unique diversity of Creativity God in the world.

As we celebrate Pentecost let us celebrate the Spirit of play and wonder in this place. Let us care for one another, as we push old theological boundaries, and go about the life of this congregation. And let us continue to embrace the dreams and visions of the future which we believe makes this place both unique and important. This is a safe place for the different, the novel and the alternative. It is a place where one can set out for a shore that one can never reach, or be exposed to a secret one can never explore. As Caputo asks: “What is that if not a description of a proper path to God?”

Our circumstances what with an aging congregation and the challenge of our much loved and cherished building has not been real to us as the white dove of peace descending from above but rather as the wild goose pushing and pulling at the fabric of our lives and our assumptions. We could rest in nostalgia and our past, especially our last 10 years. We could also approach the realities of planning for a new beginning, only with our conclusions firmly ensconced in our plans. Our ideas of what a sacred building should be, what the future congregation will need and what we think should be preserved but in the end, we know that Pentecost is something more than a so-called past event, or a hope for the realization of what we think. It is the story of God’s continuing present-ness, God’s here and now-ness experienced again and again.“… The amazing story of Pentecost is of people coming to awareness through reflection on the life of Jesus and the realization that the same Spirit that moved in him moved in them.”  (Morwood 2003:84) The sweetness and light of the peaceful dove arriving with gentle touch is challenged by the wild goose that arrives with a boldness, agitating, disrupting and squawking challenge to change.

This Spirit is becoming incarnate in all of us. Incarnate as people dream dreams and see a vision of justice and compassion in the world. Incarnate in the everyday living as people engage with each other. There in that place, event, experience, is the Creativity God involving and engaging us.

Notes: Bausch, W. J. A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Mystic. Twenty-Third Publications, 1998. Morwood, M. Praying a New Story. Melbourne. Spectrum, 2003. O’Murchu, D. Catching up with Jesus. A Gospel Story for our Time. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 2005.

Caputo J, D What Would Jesus Deconstruct, The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church Baker Academic Baker Publishing Group Grand Rapids 2007


Easter 7A, 2017 John 17:1-11

Imagination And The Womb of God…

Here we are at the end of the Season of Easter. After some 50 days, following an agenda primarily set by the storyteller Matthew, even though the majority of gospel stories have been told by the theologian/storyteller we call John, we have run out of Easter type stories, and not only that we have run slap-bang into a one-day Season, called Ascension Sunday. Ascension Sunday is a season which uses lots of ‘up there’ mythical language “as naively as any passage in the New Testament” to quote 1960s ‘Honest to God’ John Robinson (Robinson 1967:76). So what are we now to make of the Ascension story in 2017?

Well! I thought we might explore what mythical language might offer us in an age when perception is truth, life is probability and purpose is creative imagining. And I want to start with the Gospel of Mary that we have been touching into the last few weeks As you will know the gospel of Mary is what is known as gnostic literature, it is about knowing and until recently not considered as worthy of being in the canon. At the core of this is the idea that every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above. But, as the present text announces and demonstrates, the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that calls to us from within ourselves. Gnostic literature invite us to consider that the immensity of Christianity takes its interior meaning as a sign of an immensity within the self of every human being. As a path of inner awakening, as a path of deep self-knowledge (in other words, gnosis), it invites and supports the inner struggle to attend, to “hear and obey” one’s own Self, God in oneself. As Jean-Yves Leloup suggests, this is the intimate meaning of Anthropos: to be fully human oneself, the incarnation of God. This is an unknown teaching in recent Christian teaching — not in the philosophical or theological sense, nor in the sense that it has never been said before, but in the sense that our ordinary thoughts and feelings can never really penetrate it. It seems too complex and new agie. And it is unknown in the sense that we live our lives on the surface of ourselves, not knowing the one thing about our own being that it is necessary for us to know and that would bring us every good we could seriously wish for. The fitness industry says get fit and find it, the business industry says plan for it and know it, the personalization says believe in yourself and know it as success. But in the end we are speaking of an unknown part of ourselves, which is at the same time the essential part of ourselves: the Teacher within, our genuine identity. The way — and it is surely the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world— it is the practice, and the community supporting the practice, that opens a relationship between our everyday sense of self and the Self, or Spirit. This interior relationship between self and Spirit, we are told, is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in this tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. It is the realm of intermediate attention and of mediating conscious forces in the cosmos that are mythologized as the angelic realms in the esoteric traditions of the world’s religions. It is in this miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower within ourselves that the deeper, intimate experience of conscious love is given— a conscious love for our starved and confused self that is at the same time love for our neighbour whose inner condition of metaphysical poverty is identical to our own.

As Jean-Yves Leloup shows us, this is the love that is spoken of in the words of Jesus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It is a love that cannot be commanded, but that we are obliged to recognize as the defining attribute of our essential Self.

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is that the more it shows us about the meaning of Christianity, the more the mystery deepens. This paradox is due, surely, to the fact that, like every truly spiritual communication, it speaks to us both on the surface and at deep unconscious levels at the same time. While at the intellectual level it points to the resolution of apparent contradictions that sometimes drive us away from belief in the objective existence of the Good, it at the same time opens the heart to a silent recognition of homecoming— the joy of what we knew without words all along, but had all but given up hope of finding.

No mystery is greater or more welcome than this— that above our minds, in the depths of silence, we may be given to know ourselves as Being and as created to serve the good both for God and our neighbour.

Applying this thinking to our John text we have to acknowledge with Bruce Epperly that there is every possibility that some of those who first heard or read the story of Jesus being ‘raised in glory’ (like one of the ancient Greek heroes) 70 -90 years after the life of Jesus, could have actually believed he ascended to a literal heaven and would return from God’s throne ‘someplace up there’ at the end of time  (Epperly P&F Web site 2005).

That is how they could have made sense of their world. But that is not how we understand our world and that invites us to see the Ascension story as a bit of a test case of our ability to cope with strange language, and primitive cosmology. As Rex Hunt says, “The challenge for us is to find new ways and new phrases of contemporary significance beyond the traditional literal images of ancient knowledge for the telling of both the Jesus stories and the God story. It also says that story and poetry and imagination and image are important in this journey.

In light of the ‘otherworldly’ interpretations many congregations will hear today, we need to be quite clear that the heart of this particular Jesus story is not about some pre-scientific form of space travel… Neither is it about a past moment in time, nor about some possible future event, usually called the Second Coming. It is a story about our calling as Christians to heal and transform the world. This world. To live faithfully in this life on the journey that Jesus chartered. Likewise, when we are engaged in our God-talk it too needs to go beyond our traditional literal images.

Two people who have attempted this are Shirley Murray and Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan. Both are contemporary composers whose work invites us to imagine God or the sacred, differently, and to experience faith with some different accents.

We know of some of Shirley’s creativity as we have sung a number of here contemporary hymns in our services. But Richard’s work is likely to be new to many of us, and it is one of his songs, “Ground And Source Of All That Is“, that I want to focus on today. I want to read three verses of the song that I think invites us to imagine.

The first verse invites us to see that there is a possible big picture and it proposes a shape to all things interconnected and offers a meta-narrative to approach. The second verse invites us to see that this picture is not about sameness, or a bland oneness but rather one that is rich in its diversity and one that explores the mystery of beauty. The third verse invites us to see that while human life has some constants to it these constants are about the nature of life within this big picture.

Ground and source of all that is, one that anchors all our roots, Being of all ways and forms, deepest home and final truth. We live and move in you We live and move in you…

Lover of ten thousand names, holy presence all have known, Beauty ever welcoming, Mystery to stir the soul.  We live and move in you We live and move in you…

Nature by whose laws we live, author of our DNA, All compelling call to life, drawing one and all the same. We live and move in you We live and move in you… 

We might also be reminded of the creative work of Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and theologian. Her continuing invitation like the Gospel of Mary to us all is to consider the feminine image of God. Not in some cheap Hallmark Mother’s Day card theology, but addressing God in relational ways. In one of her many reflections she offers this:

The God of history, The God of the Bible. is One who carries us in Her arms after carrying us in Her womb, breastfeeds us, nurtures us, teaches us how to walk, teaches us how to soar upward just as the eagle teaches its young to stretch their wings and fly, makes fruitful, brings to birth, clothes the lilies of the field, clothes Eve and Adam with garments newmade, clothes you and me with skin and flesh and a whole new level of meaning with the putting on of Christ… (Winter 1987:20).

These are different ways of thinking theologically and imagining God? Yet they do not contain everything new, because the feminine image of God, has been around for generations; it was just successfully buried by church patriarchy as ‘pagan’. When we think theologically about the biblical stories of the Ascension as we are required to do, we see that this means more than just interpreting our given orthodox biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means as Sallie McFague has said, about being willing to think differently now than in the past!  And let’s not be naïve here, this can and very likely will be dangerous stuff. Jesus proclaimed good news yet this was in the main, rejected. Not because it was good, or bad, but because it was new!

So this day, as the season which celebrates new or changed life comes to a close, maybe we could imagine the ‘womb’ of God birthing us to be wonderful, creative, and caring human beings… As Jacob Needleman, from the Department of Philosophy, San Francisco State University, says; it is in the miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower within ourselves that the deeper, intimate experience of conscious love is given— a conscious love for our starved and confused self that is at the same time love for our neighbour whose inner condition of metaphysical poverty is identical to our own. Or as Rex hunt says; We are born in the image of the One who has borne us. Pilgrims along the way – on a not-so-easy journey which Jesus first chartered.

Notes: Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Book, 1967. Winter, M. T. Woman Prayer Woman Song. Resources for Ritual. Oak Park. Meyer Stone, 1987.

Leloup, Jean-Yves. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene Inner Traditions/Bear & Company.


Easter 6A, 2017 John 14:15-21

God Lives A Wonderful Expression In Us. 

Last week are claimed that the words ‘I am the Way the Truth and the Life’ were put into the mouth of Jesus by the storyteller John, and the interpretation I offered, I am sure was challenging to some of you. The claim was counter -cultural in the extreme in that those words have for many years been at the core of transmitting Christianity as the only true faith and that while other faiths were clearly of value they missed the boat considerably. For years we have been brought up on an exclusive Christianity. Even our interfaith dialogue has not been able to break completely free of the exclusivity. Of course this has its roots in a literal understanding of the scriptures, and doctrines and creeds have been piled on to confirm and build on that view. With a claim of certainty the gospel has been delivered with a level of almost arrogance and at the expense of other faith’s validity.

But what I said last week was not what some of you have read or heard others say before. What I hoped was that you might have begun to view a world where the Christian Way was just another approach to the questions about what it means to be human and what our purpose might be. For those of you who were not here last week I should perhaps recap just a little. The starting point was to ask how we could make sense of the claim: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’. I suggested by using Rex Hunts recollection that traditionally, these words have often been used, and come across, as exceedingly exclusive. As if Jesus, in the guise of a benevolent but first century ‘Terminator’, is making an ambit claim against other religions. I know that when wanting to share one’s faith one has to seem enthusiastic and the difficulty is in being enthusiastic without being exclusive of other points of view. But I think I want to say that there is a Way of claiming the Jesus Way as worth exploring without saying that anything else if wrong.

I claimed last week that Jesus is not the way in the sense of a moral guide or a model of leadership but rather. He is the path-way into the depths of the God-self-neighbour relationship… It is looking ahead to the possible rather than getting hung up on identity. I also suggested last week that the introduction of the Gospel of Mary brought the feminine argument into sharper relief, restoring a balance so to speak and enabling relational thinking to contribute to logical thinking. Or as I suggested into the mystery of our common existence.

I also suggested that Jesus is the truth about that common existence. Not in the sense of some unchallengeable doctrinal fact but rather in the sense of uncovering what is hidden, and bringing to light another dimension of human existence. Jesus is the truth in the sense that he encourages the possibility of an alternative path. Jesus is the truth about what it means to be human.

I suggested that Jesus is life because he is the way and truth by which God, self, and neighbour, break their isolation and flow into each other. Here is the core of relationship. It is found in the mysterious interaction that is what motivates us for life. All the struggles and challenges we know as our lives make sense when we discover that others have been there, others are there and others will be there. Jesus is the life because we recognize it as a life we know and experience in relationship with each other and with our God.

So the challenge for those of us who live comfortably with the title ‘progressive’, (and that’s not everyone who call themselves progressive) is not the existence of other faiths claims. For the most part, most of us happily embrace religious pluralism and spiritual diversity. The challenge, it seems is our surrendering of the Christian story to exclusive cults and preaching gurus, to fundamentalists and members of the ‘religious right’, and to the new neo-conservative evangelicals.

But all of that was last week so we had better get on to this week before time runs out.

I want to suggest that this week gospel is a natural sequel to last week even though some consider it complicated. It is John’s prelude to Pentecost –  and it is a bit complicated but it is about the continuing presentness of God. I want to try now to briefly suggest that this text is about that which my title suggests. God’s expression in us. Firstly I want to say that an entry point is the differences between the religion of Jesus, and the religion about Jesus.

The religion of Jesus is found in the echoes of the sayings he spoke and the stories he told, not as law, but about how to live, how to treat one another, how to re-imagine the world. His healing actions were not about supernatural manipulations of nature, they were healings in the truest sense, that of enabling people to live the fullest of lives that they could. They were about freeing the mind to see possibilities rather than restrictions. His teaching was about seeing the ordinary everyday life in anew light. About seeing the possibility of peace in a culture of military aggression.

The religion about Jesus has often been the religion of literalism and fundamentalism. And when it has, it is believing a certain story about an interventionist God, with the promise that if you do believe, you’ll be saved some day after you die. The religion about Jesus was dependent upon unquestioning loyalty to an idea and that idea was that humanity was totally dependent upon supernatural means. There was no point is seeking a true peace because it was beyond one’s control.

This means that the religion of Jesus is not a ‘supernatural’ story.  It is about how one can be made more whole, here and now, and how one can help make the world more whole, here and now. From our very best guesses (thanks to the work of amateur sleuths and scholarly critics), we can say the message of the religion of Jesus was one of liberation and empowerment and compassion. Of providing new or different pathways to experiencing and serving God in daily life, this life.

And from all we have puzzled over and learned, we can also say the message from the religion about Jesus was one too often aimed at frightening or controlling people, hating gays or assertive women, or supporting a war against people somewhere.

We could say that the religion about Jesus emphasizes the ‘noun’. While the religion of Jesus emphasizes the ‘verb’. Someone said that the religion about Jesus is ‘Easter’.  The religion of Jesus is ‘eastering’. “It’s about the miracle of new life coming from old, life out of death, right here and now.  Nothing supernatural, even though it feels so magical when it happens…  Life is about honouring that spirit of life that comes and goes as it likes, but when it comes our way it can make all the difference between feeling dead and feeling alive…” (Davidson Loehr UUAustin Web site, 2008). 

The story we heard this morning from John, I want to suggest, was more about ‘eastering’ than ‘easter’. They are not about bigger miracles or stricter commandments or watertight creeds. They are about a dynamic, creative, evolving ‘presentness’ in our midst. True, they are conditioned and shaped by the language of their day: flat earth, sin causes sickness, Their God may have seemed all powerful and yet distant, but so are our stories conditioned and shaped by the language and imagination of our day.

So, why should it not be that we can claim: that God is ‘not far from each one of us.’ Present and active everywhere on earth… – in the slow development of human cultures and societies, – in the growth of knowledge, – in the constant search for meaning as women and men tell stories and sharing their connectedness, and in the urging of us to love graciously and generously, to break down barriers between people, and to put an end to religious elitism and religious wars.

Why can’t the Jesus Way be an imagining of a better and more creative and vulnerable humanity. And a rejoicing in the knowledge that God lives and comes to wonderful expression – in us. And speaking of a vulnerable humanity I am reminded of Paul’s weakness of God and of John D Caputo’s weak God as the authentic God because the almighty all powerful God doesn’t seem to have it right yet.

And just to finish with a bit of a challenge. What if the Jesus Way is to reimagine the world, to honour the mind, in other words; to grasp the liberty of human thought, to live the questions, and to express the joy or gratuity of life in the midst of it all; in other words; to explore the adventure of humanity. The truth that is Jesus is the invitation to be a work of art which is to challenge, be playful and creative, to be a parable perhaps and thus the life Jesus is not spent looking for answers but rather but rather one spent asking how in the moments of fleeting life and changing history, human experience   van hold value. The challenge of looking at life this way is to see that giving meaning to experience is an interpretive act. No piece of art and no poem is understood if viewed simply as fact. I am the Way is an interpretation, I am the Truth is an expression and I am the life is an experience like no other. It is as Gordon Nicholson says when I ask him how he is, “Full of Joy” Amen.