The Authority of Jesus

Posted: August 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

The Authority of Jesus

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Matthew 14:22-33

This week’s readings are about the safekeeping of fallible, wayward, and mortal humanity. In the world of theism, belief and literalism God responds to all who call upon God. Here we have a God who wishes to save persons in distress; and it is in this claim that we can have faith. It is still the case that with this almighty God we must ponder the circuitous routes of salvation and wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered. We wrestle with the idea that a loving God allows or perpetrates violence that takes the lives of innocents, often through the machinations of religious zealots; young children die of cancer; homes are foreclosed forcing families to depend on the mercy of strangers; and pleas for rescue from domestic violence are unnoticed.

In a world that challenges theism, atheism and a limited understanding of being it is the human who responds to the insistence of God. Here we have a God that acts through human beings to save persons in distress and it is in this insistence that we can have faith. In this the matter of salvation and wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered more simply. This God is never other than within humanity and the violence that takes the lives of innocents is always within human the imagination, and the yet incomplete human species. The human response to the insistence of God is always within the potential, always ‘Almost’ the revelation of compassion, hope and renewal. The realities of the human species are encompassed within the understanding of an “Almost’ God which is certain to be and always becoming and within the world of human transforming creativity. God and humanity are in a relationship of responsible serendipitous creating of reality as we know it.

When approaching the text for today with the above in mind we are introduced to Jacob and his dysfunctional family which is headed by a narcissistic parent. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel can’t help it; but the child of his later years is his favourite. He treats him with greater affection and gives him more opportunities to shine and grow than his brothers, and they are rightfully angry. Perhaps, Jacob/Israel sees himself in his youngest son; Joseph has an intuitive sense that mirrors his father’s experiences of the Holy and a cocky attitude that mirrors his own youthful self-confidence. To make matters worse, Joseph knows he is the favourite, and lacks the maturity to filter his dream sharing as they relate to his brothers.

The brothers conspire to kill the favoured son. But, they don’t. Selling him into slavery is evil; however, it is preferable to killing Joseph. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that God’s aim in any given situation is the “best for that impasse” and this “best” may not always be very good. Contextually, sometimes our level of previous choices, spiritual maturity and ethical understanding limits our possible courses of action. With a God that is always in charge, always incorruptible no truly good decision is possible; simply the least damaging one. Jacob survives and eventually saves his family. He grows through his experiences and overcomes his alienation. As Paul notes in Romans 8 “In all things God works for good,”. God was moving through this less than optimal decision to bring forth future decisions and actions by Jacob, such that what his brothers aimed for evil, God turned to good. (Genesis 50:20)

This week’s gospel begins with Jesus at prayer. Action leads to contemplation in the rhythm of faith and personal well-being. After transforming – by what means we don’t know – a few loaves and fish into a banquet and a day of preaching and teaching, Jesus retires to a quiet place to commune with God. Our worship involves the private and public aspects of faith. We need to gather as a community and to reach out to the world; we also need to be still and listen for God’s voice in stillness, in the still small voice, as well as maelstrom of daily events. From silence Jesus goes into action, riding the waves to meet his followers. Once again, they are afraid of the storm. Jesus reassures them that all will be well, inspiring Peter to jump out of the boat. As long as Peter looks to Jesus, he can walk on water. The moment he is overcome by fear, he sinks. When he cries out, seeking salvation, Jesus rescues him, without judgment or recrimination. “Help” is sometimes all we need to say to receive the guidance we need.

Today’s readings invite us to look to God for our salvation, deliverance, and wholeness. As followers of the Jesus Way we are entreated to keep our eyes on Jesus, to gain a perspective on life and see the storms and trials of life in terms of God’s movements in our lives. We are never alone. Our prayers touch the heart of God within and transform our response in the midst of life’s often challenging and difficult moments. Opening to this God within gives us faith that a way will be made and that even in situations we cannot change, God is with us and enable transformation of the evils that beset us.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Translation:  “And immediately, he compelled the disciples to cast into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side while he dismissed the crowds.  Dismissing the crowds, he went up into the mountain and by himself to pray.  When evening happened, he was alone there.  But now, the boat was many stadia away from the land, tortured by the waves, for they were against the wind.  But at the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking on the sea.  But the disciples, seeing him walking on the sea, were troubled, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out from fear.  But immediately, Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart, I am.  Do not be afraid.'”

Background and situation:  We are in “book four” of Matthew’s gospel, a section which is concerned with the Jesus movement and it’s at times controversial diversity.  (The book of Matthew has five sections, modeled on the five books of Torah.  Throughout Matthew, we are confronted with the authority of Jesus and Jesus is presented as the “new Moses,” an authoritative teacher.)

Book four began with the death of John the Baptist (14:1-13), which was followed by the first feeding story in Matthew (14:14-21).  Our lection follows.  Mark is the source for Matthew 14: 22-27–the parallel is Mark 6: 45-50.  The remainder of the passage is Special Matthew. 

Several Peter stories, which appear nowhere else in the four gospels, are contained in this section.  This seems curious:  In Mark’s gospel, the disciples, and especially Peter, never do anything right.  In Matthew’s gospel, which generally follows Mark quite closely, Peter looks a lot better.  In fact, it is in “book four” of Matthew that Peter is acclaimed the “rock” and given “the keys to the kingdom.”  In the leadership struggles of the early movement, it appears that Matthew has done an about-face from his primary source, Mark, and is promoting a pro-Petrine point of view.

“Walking on the sea”:  In this week’s lection, Jesus compels the disciples to get into the boat and go ahead to “the other side.”  Jesus then goes to a mountain, by himself, to pray.  Jesus apparently stayed on the mountain through the night and into the early morning.

One notes a stunning turn of events behind the texts. John the Baptist has been killed.  His head winds up on a silver platter at an extravagant banquet held by Herod Antipas.  The people turn to Jesus for leadership (14: 13-21).  Jesus likewise hosts an extravagant banquet, though a much different one that that provided by Herod–his for the many, Herod’s for the few, not unlike his of love, Herod’s of violence.

The feeding of the many is a paradigm for the new life offered by Jesus, one that is in marked contrast with the old ways of Herod.  The feeding also helps to establish Jesus’ authority in the wake of John’s death.  

Keeping that context in mind, note that three things are mentioned twice in our short lection of 11 verses: (1) dismissing the crowds, (2) praying on the mountain, and (3) walking on the sea.

Dismissing the crowds is an act of authority.  Not just anybody had standing to do so.  That dismissal of the crowds is mentioned twice is a way of underlining the authority of Jesus with the crowds.  He tells them what to do, and they do as he says.  

Mountains are a place of special revelation in Matthew’s gospel.  That Jesus is said to be there twice adds to his mystique as a spiritual leader–he is close to God–and accentuates the particular difficulty of operating in the wake of the death of the Baptist.  Jesus needed time to think and pray.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is said to be in prayer only here and at Gethsemane (26: 36-44).  Both times were fraught with special dangers.

Likewise, the phrase “walking on the sea” is mentioned twice.  This recalls Psalm 77: 19:  “Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”  Jesus appears “lordly” and in charge.  Indeed, in the verses immediately following our lection, one could be healed merely by touching the fringe of his coat (14:36).    

Holding the allegory of the Christian movement latter known as the church: In this heavily symbolic story, the disciples are out in the boat when a storm comes up, and they are “tortured”–basanizominon–by the waves.  The boat is a symbol of the movement or church.  (Navis is where we get our word for both “nave”–the sanctuary of a church–and “navy.”)  The boat of the church faces difficulty from evil, which is represented by the tormented sea in the middle of the night.  The church was “sailing against the wind.”

If Matthew was writing AD 80-85–which is the general consensus–that may have been how Matthew saw the situation facing the Jesus movement at that time.  The land was trying to recover from the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.  In AD 80, the movement was still rather small and fragile, facing threats both internal and external.  Feeling adrift in the “waters of chaos” would make sense for a nascent movement in that situation.  In AD 80, the church truly was “sailing against the wind.” One has to think of today’s world being a lot like the early days of the movement as decline becomes a prevalent direction.

The image of the restless sea, buffeted by winds and rain, was a rich one in ancient Israel.  The Book of Genesis describes chaos in the beginning of creation–the creation was “without form and void.”  Ancient Israel had a primordial fear of the “waters of chaos” which, they feared, might again engulf the world.  They believed that this chaos was always a threat to return and undo the order that God had imposed upon creation.

During the “fourth watch,” which was from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.–the deepest part of the night, in other words–Jesus came walking on the sea toward the beleaguered church.  

The disciples were “agitated”–etaraxthesan, or “troubled,” “disturbed”–and they believe they’re seeing a ghost–Fantasma estin!  They “screamed because of fear.”  It is at this point, when fear in the face of difficulty threatens to overtake the church, that Jesus lets them know that it is him.  Tharseite–“Take heart,” or perhaps “Have courage,” Jesus says.

Why should they “take heart”?  Because, Jesus says, “Ego eimi“–“I am,” which is the Greek version of the Hebrew tetragrammaton, YHWH, which is the divine name of God (Ex 3: 14).  The Lord God took control of the “waters of chaos.”  By walking on the water, Jesus likewise demonstrates his power over the forces of nature.  The power of Jesus is the same as God’s power.  Therefore, church:  “Do not be afraid.”   

28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So, Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind,* he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Translation:  “But Peter answered him, saying, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”   But he said, ‘Come.’  And going down from the boat, Peter walked upon the water and he came to Jesus.   Discerning the mighty wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me.’  And immediately, Jesus stretched forth the hand, taking hold of him, and saying to him, ‘You little faith, why did you doubt?’  And when they went up into the boat, the wind ceased.  The ones in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are son of God.'”

To this point, Matthew has been following Mark (6: 45-50).  Now, he switches to his own source, generally called “Special Matthew,” i.e. the stories only Matthew tells. 

Peter addresses Jesus as “Lord”–kyrie.  Peter wants to be able to do what Jesus does, and he asks to be commanded to do it.  Jesus says simply, “Come.”  Peter climbs down out of the boat, and the text straight-forwardly says that Peter did indeed walk on the water.

Even then, however, it is not quite the same as what Jesus had done.  Peter walks on water–udata–while Jesus walks on the sea–thalassan.  Matthew is being careful to put Peter at least at one remove from what Jesus himself is capable of doing.

Then, in a poetic and insightful phrase, Peter “sees”–blepone–“the mighty wind,” succumbs to fear, and starts to sink.  Allegorically, in the face of difficulty, the Christian becomes afraid, begins to be engulfed, and cries out to Jesus.  (See also 8: 23-27, also a story of a storm on the lake, where, likewise, the disciples cry out, “Lord, save us.”)

Immediately, Jesus “stretched forth the hand,” which is reminiscent of YHWH in Psalm 18: 16–“He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters”–and Psalm 144: 7:  “Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters.”

Jesus then calls Peter a “person of little faith,” one who becomes fearful in the face of crisis.  In Matthew’s gospel, the disciples are referred to as being “people of little faith” five times. 

Compare that with the story of the Canaanite woman in the next chapter (15: 21-28).  Matthew resurrects the word “Canaanite”–the word had not been used for hundreds of years.  Matthew wants to associate the foreign woman as being an ancient enemy of Israel.  Yet, by the end of the story, Jesus calls her faith “great.”  What a contrast between the “great” faith of the foreign woman and the “little” faith of the church!

When Jesus and Peter get back into the boat, the wind ceased.  Here is the message that all is safe when Jesus is present with his movement in times of difficulty.  The disciples worshipped and said, “Truly, you are son of God.”

When we read the story of Jesus walking on the sea, it is not particularly surprising to us, because Christendom theology calls Jesus the Son of God, a term that in creedal and doctrinal thinking incorporates the idea of divinity. If Jesus is divine, what’s the big deal about him walking on the water? What is surprising in the story is that Peter walks on the water, too, at least for a little while. Peter gets scared when he sees the wind and the waves around him, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out his hand and saves him, then he offers a mild rebuke: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” It’s true that Peter had only a little faith, but the fact of the matter is that his faith was sufficient to get him started in the right direction. While the other disciples were cowering in the boat, Peter went over the side into the deep. Peter may have begun to sink, but only after he took some steps on the surface of the water as though it were dry land. Peter was brash and boastful, hot-tempered and impulsive, but he was also a man who acted on his faith. Sure, he made mistakes under his tutelage with Jesus. He publicly disagreed with Jesus when he began to speak of his impending doom in Jerusalem. He cut off a man’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. He denied Jesus three times the night before he was crucified. But when we look at those stories again, we see that when Peter argued with Jesus over his determination to go to Jerusalem, he clearly didn’t grasp the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross, but he understood better than the other disciples that Jesus had a great destiny. When Peter cut off the man’s ear, he was acting rashly and against Jesus’ wishes, but at least he was acting, while the other disciples stood around in fear. It’s written that Peter denied Jesus three times, but he was only disciple who dared to enter the courtyard of the temple in order to see what would happen to Jesus. Yes, Peter was imperfect in many ways, but he was also a man of action. He was a person who always had faith, even if it was only a little faith, and he lived his life by acting on his faith. Sometimes he misunderstood God’s will, but he never doubted that God had called him to Jesus’ side, and he was always willing to act according to his best understanding of the situation. After the Day of Pentecost, Peter became one of the main leaders of the fledgling movement. He still made mistakes, as we see in his conflict with Paul at Galatia (told from Paul’s perspective, of course), but over all his ministry was a great success. Under the leadership of Peter and others, the gospel spread from Judea and Galilee to Samaria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Italy, and further east and west in Peter’s own lifetime. Ultimately Peter ended up in Rome, where he died after living a life that had many more successes than failures. A good argument for a humble “little faith” like Peter’s!

So, on this storm-tossed night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals himself uniquely as the one endowed with the power of the creator God, the one to whom he has prayed all night, and in whose strength, he now walks on water. Here is the authority Matthew seeks for Jesus and it is none other than the divine power of Matthew’s God who overcomes the chaos of the deep, turbulent waters and is totally unafraid of the raging of the sea. The disciples find themselves in the divine presence, encountering the divine power in all its strength and protection. On one level, the words of Jesus, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid’ are the words of a leader taking command. But on another level, the words invoke the divine name of God, the great ‘I am’ creator of the heavens and earth. It is little wonder that the disciples, like the wise men at his birth, respond to Jesus, the one who walks on water, by worshipping him. Exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed, they make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’

But the story doesn’t end there. The evangelist Matthew presses on, introducing something new. Peter asks if he can walk on water too, and Jesus encourages him to try. Leaving the safety of the boat, Peter ventures out on the waves, makes some progress, and then loses his nerve. As he plunges down into the water, he cries out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus stretches out his hand and rescues him. Peter’s action is not just that of an impetuous friend. Rather the evangelist is demonstrating that the divine power revealed in Jesus is not just to be confined to God, but is to be shared by God with those who follow Jesus.

In his inaugural sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, encouraged the church to be like Peter and to get out of the safety of the boat. “We are called to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ.” Archbishop Welby was in no doubt that what Christians need most today is courage: “the present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.”. One could make that claim today as the world wrestles with Covid-19.

With faith and confidence in God, the chaos of life’s stormy ups and downs, the demons of disappointment, setback, injustice and evil, can be overcome. Though as a world we might feel weak, broken and vulnerable, and facing very real dangers, the divine power of God, revealed in Jesus, and available to all, is there for us to draw on. We will flounder, but as Jesus stretches out his hand to rescue Peter, we are reminded that ‘God reached out and took me; I was drawn out of mighty waters. Delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity and was my support. I was brought out into a broad place.

There are times in our lives when we may feel overwhelmed, when we may be out of our depth, when we feel we are drowning under a multitude of problems. The message is don’t lose heart for it is at times like these that walking the Jesus Way will draw us out of our turbulence and calm the storms of our life. As we near the end of our lives, you and I will have to step out from family and friends and walk through the waters of death.

The virtuoso pianist and composer, Franz Lizst, for the most part was not religious. But towards the end of his life, that changed. Lizst was particularly drawn to the story of St Francis of Paolo–a story which in turn was inspired by Jesus walking on the water. St Francis had hoped to get a boat across the Straits of Messina from the coast of Italy to Sicily. But he had no money, and the boatman refused to grant him any favours. Indeed, he taunted him and told him to make his own way across the strait. Francis put his cloak on the water and stepping onto it, began to walk. In 1863, Lizst composed his piano piece, St Francis Walking on the Water–a piece of music that remains a great challenge to any emerging classical pianist. It is a profoundly spiritual work: a strong melodic hymn begins the piece; but then the whole piano is gradually and frighteningly caught up in a ferocious storm, through rushing scales and tremolos. Gradually, tentatively, the hymn of faith fights back, resolutely walking on the waters of this terrible storm and finally emerges in a glorious fortissimo of victory. Faith, justice and love have triumphed over the infernal elements unleashed against them.

Walking on water? A human impossibility. But with faith and courage both as an individual and as Jesus movement, one can ‘move mountains and walk on water’! When the storms of life assail us, we draw ourselves out of the waters that engulf us, and find the safe harbour of love through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Amen. 

Face to Face, An Attitude?

Posted: July 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Genesis 32:22-31 

Face to Face, An Attitude?

As I searched for inspiration and topic for this week’s sermon, I began to focus on want people have been saying over the Covid-19 period of time in the life of this planet. On-line conference video meetings have sprung up and services have been put up on You tube and people have been gathering in this way to maintain continuity of community and ‘keep in touch’. One of the common comments is that people who are church attenders like the people contact and miss the face to face gathering. On-line just doesn’t seem to cut it completely. It seems that even the ability to see each other is not enough, we need the touchy-feely possibility even though just shaking hands is often felt to be a step too far by some, or is this just a culture thing? Are young people better able to make real connections on-line than the older generations? I wonder if it is an attitude thing? And by attitude, I mean ‘A position of the body indicating a particular mental state’. Maybe an online gathering of church goers is people gathering in an attitude of loss of physical presence of others and thus always going to feel the gathering to be short lived, temporary and not quite the real thing?

In approaching the texts for today I began to wonder if this thing about attitude might be worth thinking about. What if when reading a familiar text one needs to be aware of an attitude awareness because whenever we focus on an overly familiar passage from the Bible, it may be only natural to dread the feeling of boredom with “that same old story,” or of frustration at trying to say something new or different about it.

Our particular narrative from Genesis might also provoke confusion about what a passage filled with so much ambiguity really means, and perhaps even a measure of discomfort with the imagery of assault, physical or otherwise, employed by the author. And then there’s that problem of Jacob, the patriarch who hardly qualifies for sainthood, to put it mildly. One part of us may be repelled by the way he lies and cheats his way to success and wealth, but another part of us may feel strangely drawn toward him, and might even see something of ourselves in him.

The dramatic story of Jacob wrestling with a stranger—be it God or an angel, –on that riverbank long ago has been an irresistible subject for artists: painters (Rembrandt, Delacroix, Gauguin and Chagall, among others), sculptors, novelists, poets (like Rainier Maria Rilke), modern playwrights (like Tony Kushner, in “Angels in America”), and even musicians like the group U2, in their song, “Bullet in the Sky.”

Psychologists, both professional and amateur, love to “wrestle” with this text as well, or maybe put it to rest too quickly and too simply by saying that Jacob is struggling with the inner demons of a guilty conscience. One might suggest that this so-called “modern” approach, is inadequate for the text before us. But an important challenge for lectionary preachers is putting this text in the context of Jacob’s larger story, as well as Israel’s story, and our own, in order to do it justice, to bring it to life. Preaching and Bible study differ in some ways, but as ‘Progressive thinkers bible study is no longer an alternative to preaching both in sketching out that larger picture, and linking this story and its echoes to the stories before and after it. One has to study the text to ensure the attitude adjustment required to use the text in its fullest sense and avoid what is known as eisegesis, ‘the importation of ones own subjective interpretation’. An attitude adjustment is important here and spending time with the whole story Genesis 25:19-34, 26:34-33:20, and 35:1-15 of Jacob’s late-night struggle on the edge of returning home to the land he had been promised, and the future that he hoped still lay ahead:. can surprise us.

For example, in these passages we learn that this isn’t the only time Jacob has heard from God, or the first or only time he’s named a place, or, for that matter, the first time he’s been asked who he is. And even though we may ‘as we discovered last week’, think of him as cunning and sly, Jacob surprises us in the earlier part of this same chapter 32, when he first returns home and starts sweating about facing his brother’s understandable and long-standing wrath.

Here, almost home with the use of quite poignant words, he being so full of longing, offers a humble prayer, asking God to protect him, and admitting that he’s “not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant” (v. 10a).

It has been noted by some scholars that this prayer of Jacob’s is the longest prayer in Genesis. Maybe it’s a prayer born of fear, but it does endear Jacob to us a little bit, if we can get it out of our heads that he has sent the women and children and animals on ahead, where they may face Esau’s wrath first. Nice move for a chauvinist perhaps.

Earlier in the story we read another familiar excerpt from the passages, about the night Jacob was on the run from home and from Esau’s anger, when he had the sweet spiritual experience of dreaming about a ladder to heaven, and of hearing God’s voice making those promises of land and descendants and blessing, and most of all, of God’s presence and protection with him, always.

Frederick Buechner calls this “not the nightmare of the guilty but a dream that nearly brings tears to the eyes with its beauty.”  It was an “awesome” experience.

There, at the gate of heaven and the house of God (28:17), Jacob made some promises, too, to be faithful to God and to tithe all that he received, that is, if God would promise to keep him safe and give him food and clothing, and someday bring him home in peace. Sounds like an exchange value world there too doesn’t it. Or contract verses covenant world perhaps. Most of us, of course, have lists like this one, for God: we can almost hear the lists unspoken beneath our own prayer words at times.

Jacob also named the place of this “awesome” experience: Bethel, or House of God. Ancient stories often explained where and how places got their names, and this is one of several about Jacob naming a place out of his own experience.

In the first fifteen verses in chapter 35, we read of God sending Jacob to Bethel again, and we hear several reminders that this had been where Jacob encountered God while on the run from Esau, and where God answered him in his distress, and where God made promises to “keep” him and provide many descendants for him, and where God gave him a new name.

We also read once again that Jacob had sense enough to raise a pillar to mark the holy place, to give it a name, too. This act of naming or attitude to a place makes me think of what John D Caputo says about names and why they are important as event. His explanation of naming or at least my interpretation of what he says is that ‘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. Names can accumulate historical power a worldly prestige and have very powerful institutions erected in or under their name, getting themselves carved in stone, whereas the voice of events is ever soft and low and is liable to be dismissed, distorted, or ignored. Although a name contains an event, an event cannot in principle be contained by a name, proper or common. In short, the name God contains the event we know as the sacred which is always dynamic and emerging and evolving or as Caputo might say, insisting rather than existing.

This I think can be applied to the naming of Bethel as the place of God. This week’s passage is between those two Bethel bookends in the story of Jacob: here, he is in-between but also on-the-edge, just on the outside, a bit like ‘Almost’. The drama of his flight from home is matched by the full happiness of his later establishment at Bethel, along with wives, “maids” and children, servants, flocks, and assorted possessions, and those promises, and the new name, as well.

Here, though, on this dark and scary night, in spite of the passage of many years, the accumulation of vast wealth, and the success of besting his clever and calculating uncle, Jacob is shaking in his proverbial boots. He is alone, in the deep of the night. He has sent ahead herds and herds of gifts to his brother, hoping to ease his way home by softening Esau up, but he doesn’t know that it will work. Now, here he is, on the bank of the river, all alone in the deep of the night.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes something of Jacob’s state of mind, as he anticipates Esau’s anger: “He had changed,” she writes, “but he could not imagine that Esau had” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine). Perhaps Jacob has developed enough of a conscience to realize that his brother has every right to feel fresh anger at the return of the one who has stolen everything from him.

But then a disturbing encounter. Rather than a sweet dream, Jacob is visited by a stranger who wrestles with him all night long. We assume that stranger was God, or at least an angel of God, but there are ancient roots in this story of another kind of being. Ambiguity enters the scene.

Gene Tucker explains that the fact that Jacob’s “opponent fears the daylight and refuses to divulge his name, suggests a nocturnal demon,” and therefore it’s possible that “the narrator has taken over an ancient, pre-Yahwistic tradition…reinterpreted it as a confrontation between Israel’s God and her ancestor.” It could also be that of a non-event or a non-naming, a God caught between existing and not existing.

The significance of insisting on knowing the entity’s name is ancient as well, because even we know (and feel) that names have a kind of power, as does Caputo’s explanation, and in those days when words meant even more, Tucker says that knowing that demon’s (or deity’s) name “was to obtain a measure of control over it.” Something we do with the naming of ‘God’, we seek to control our God in the world of our thinking.

Frederick Buechner describes this more poetically in his sermon on this text: “The faith of Israel goes back some five thousand years to the time of Abraham, but there are elements in this story that were already old before Abraham was born, almost as old as humankind itself. It is an ancient, jagged-edged story, dangerous and crude as a stone knife. Maybe there is more terror in it or glory in it than edification” (“The Magnificent Defeat” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons).

“Already old before Abraham was born….” Just think of that: what strange beauty this story begins to have, after all. Jacob and his visitor wrestle all night long, almost till dawn, without a clear winner. The visitor resorts to crippling Jacob by striking his hip, and still Jacob will not let go.

Terence Fretheim sees a different meaning in “the man’s” insistence on leaving before the light of day, not because the daylight is a problem for him, but because of the awful risk to Jacob of seeing God face to face (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Seeing God, face to face is an event, or an awesome moment of extraordinary power. And yet that is what happens, if we are to believe Jacob: he names the place “Peniel” (“The face of God”) because, he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30). At least he uses the passive voice, rather than saying that he himself succeeded in this remarkable thing. Ironically, while Jacob counts himself lucky or blessed just to have survived, his opponent declares him the winner, or at least the one who prevailed.

In either case, at least this was, as Hank J. Langknecht puts it, “finally a fair fight. No taking advantage of a hungry brother or a blind father or having to outsmart a wily father-in-law. Here it is Jacob wrestling to an honest draw” (New Proclamation Year A 2008).

Both Jacob and the place of this struggle are given new names, and Jacob’s is given as well to his descendants, who also will struggle with God. By the time these stories were fashioned into the narrative of God’s people, Gene Tucker writes, “The people of Israel, like their patronymic ancestor, had striven with powers both human and divine and, in the time of the monarchy, knew that they had prevailed and been blessed” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

However, while Dennis Olson agrees that “Jacob’s limping becomes a metaphor or paradigm of Israel’s life with God,” he also reminds us that Esau represents Israel’s eastern neighbour, Edom, and that the two nations had a testy relationship after Edom helped Babylon conquer Judah (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

We read and remember and paint pictures of short stories like today’s passage, but we rarely read Chapter 36 of Genesis, which might impress on us a greater sense of the importance of Esau and Edom, since it provides a long list of the sons of Esau and the clans and kings that descended from them.

Several themes unfold in this face-to-face encounter between Jacob and God. Commentators like Terence Fretheim emphasize the initiative and active engagement of God in our lives, even though that isn’t always a pleasant or comforting experience. The way this story is told, God is the one who gets things started, not with a dream or a vision but with an embodied struggle, Fretheim says, “more than a dark night of the soul.” Fretheim also suggests that this is one of the ways God seeks out “openings” in our lives, in order “to enhance the divine purpose” and to get us in shape, so to speak, for the challenges that lie ahead: “To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life.”

Jacob responds well, Fretheim notes, and he receives a new name that recognizes “who he has been and presently is, not what he becomes in this moment,” that is, “Jacob’s strength and capacity for struggling well” (Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Obviously, we too struggle with God, individually and communally. One thinks, for example, of  the terrible suffering of the slaves who were carried off, sold, and considered “property” by “good,” Bible-reading Christians; or those who have suffered at the hands of religious institutions that lose sight of the heart of God’s justice and compassion and focus instead on their own power and preservation.

We struggle in our own personal lives with illness and financial uncertainty, with personal disasters and broken relationships, and most of all, with the suffering of those we love. In times fraught with poisonous political divisions globally and a raging pandemic that is exacting an enormous physical and economic toll, we have our communal questions for God as well.

Indeed, we witness the suffering and deaths of people most vulnerable to the coronavirus, which disproportionately ravages communities of people of colour, the elderly, the poor. We watch, helpless ourselves (it seems), as those most vulnerable in our midst suffer needlessly. Observers note soberly, and perhaps ironically, that the powerful, wealthy countries are brought to its knees by this disease.

Of course, the “same old” problems persist as well: racism and hatred, violence and injustice, prejudice and the abuse of power, militaristic posturing and environmental destruction (some of these all swirled together in a toxic brew) churn through our shared lives and shape them in ways we deplore.

We hear, for example, of the distress of families torn apart by the deportation of a desperate parent who saw a country as their best hope for a decent life. We are dismayed by the way our political life has been torn apart, often splitting people into two opposing camps and increasing the numbers who have no voice, and making the solutions to our problems seem more far away than ever.

Each day the split grows ever wider and uglier, and we are perplexed by how we will ever address the challenges with which we must struggle, including the suffering of the earth itself and its creatures, at our mercy but receiving very little of it.

Beyond the suffering caused by human action, accident, and neglect, we are aware of the suffering of those whose lives are devastated by wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters–and the compounding of that anguish by human indifference and inadequate response, with a loss of interest once the story fades from the headlines. Questions of blame and mismanagement of resources become prevalent and we have to ask; are we better now?

We are encouraged by our faith “to give voice to anguished questions about justice or war,” for “Christians are also free to strive with God” and we do so not with detached consideration but up close, face to face, with deep consternation. When we think about the call to preach, we are reminded that “It is the speaking of truth that allows suffering to be heard.” It is an authentic faith and not a fairytale that understands the pain of God’s children and that God’s creation will keep us awake at night, and struggling with God.

Richard Pervo asks “What kind of god will get into a nighttime brawl with a mortal and come out no better than even? From the perspective of spirituality, the answer is: the kind of God we need” A God that is not perfect, not complete, not super-naturalized but rather a God that lives our life.

Indeed, Jacob’s larger story, not just this week’s short excerpt from it, is persistently about blessing. In addition to the blessings God promises him, Jacob has already stolen one from his brother, and now demands yet another from this stranger, and gets it.

James Newsome suggests that, “even in the midst of our struggles with God and with self, the most enduring word is a word of God’s grace,” and he describes grace in the “ultimate irony” that “being confronted with the mirror that God held before beleaguered Jacob, a mirror that reflected a flawed and sinful Jacob, Jacob saw also Peniel, the face of God” (Texts for Preaching Year A).

And Dennis T. Olson brings all of this together beautifully in his commentary on the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau (33:4-11) that follows Jacob’s night of struggle with God, for Jacob’s gifts to Esau are described as a “blessing” or berakah, “the same word used for what Jacob originally stole from Esau.”

Jacob then sees the face of God, again, this time, in his brother, his former enemy, who accepts and forgives him: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (v. 4).

Jacob’s response, seeing in Esau “the face of God” (v. 10), shows just how far he has come: “As Jacob had seen the face of God in the struggle and reconciliation with the wrestler,” Olson writes, “so Jacob sees the face of God in the face of his reconciled enemy/brother who had sought to kill him. In both cases Jacob encounters the beloved enemy, one divine and one human, and emerges from the struggle with greater blessings and a more abundant life” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).

Taylor helps us to see Jacob as more like us, presenting God with our “conditions for our belief in God,” and we “persist in telling God what it means to be with us–to keep us safe, to feed and clothe us, to preserve our lives in peace,” while the God of covenant provides a very different answer to that prayer, one that involves struggle, and questions that aren’t always answered, and yet always a blessing that promises God’s presence with us every step of the way. Here we have what I name ‘Almost’.

Taylor describes Jacob’s obsession with holding onto the visitor most beautifully when she writes “According to the Midrash,” the visitor “must go because he sings in the morning choir before God’s throne, but Jacob is unsympathetic. He has got hold of someone who smells of heaven, and he simply will not let him go” (“Striving with God” in Gospel Medicine). Awesome, indeed. Amen.

The Way, is not a set of beliefs nor an economic value.

“Wisdom is not just special knowledge about something. Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” (John O’Donohue)

Jim Burklo talks about wisdom in his poem The Wise Man’s Confession. For me he personalises this way of being as a dynamic sort of engagement with reality. I think he just before the moment of awareness as he asks what is it that I see? What is this that is transforming me?

What wisdom I have

Awakens me to my blindness.

I cannot see light itself:

What I know of light

Is only an alluring shadow

Of what it is and does.

From billions of years away in space-time,

Through darkness intervening,

At its inconceivable speed

The light of an exploding star passes

Through the dark seas of my eyes,

Illuminating the dark curves of their retinas.

But I cannot see the glow of their cells:

I can only perceive the messages they send

To my brain, and from there to my soul.

Thus Hope passes,

Unseen and undetected,

Through this dark world.

What retina receives and translates it

Into Joy and Wonder?

An eye comes into the world:

A retina I cannot perceive

That will see for me,

Beyond my dark despair.

A star in the East!

This eye tells me

To follow it

All the way to the Source

Of the truer Wisdom

That is Love.

For me this way of being, this way of inhabiting the world, this beauty of wisdom that O’Donohue is talking about and Burklo is asking questions of is summed up in the poem I wrote about the moment of awareness. The poem speaks to the moment of belonging, the moment when one discovers wisdom as the moment when beauty, harmony and action become one and the Way.

O eternal moment of awareness

in you the whole creation

is one inter-woven garment,

sensuous, seamless, filled with peace and delight.

But beyond that moment life’s path skirts

between illusory dichotomies and visionless monotony,

between celebratory songs and liquid lamentations.

O God of orbiting imagination,

of atomic minuteness and universal immensity,

may the transitory moment become a way of life

until wonder’s pulsating womb

becomes my permanent abode.

In short, wisdom comes in one’s participation in that which we call life. That which we call the Way of being, or more correctly the Way of becoming. The Jesus Way as opposed to what one believes. Walking the Jesus Way is what life is all about. Nothing to do with believing a set of rules, facts or set of doctrinal creedal statements. Participating in life recognizing that literalism, and belief are not good bedfellows because they integrate and we miss so much. We get stuck in word analysis, measuring outcomes and we miss the poetics. We can however fall into the trap of using too many words because we are trying to paint word pictures rather than articulate statements. And the more words, the more hue there is. We are however attempting to escape the prison of belief without losing the place for ‘belief’ in daily living.

What is the problem that we struggle with? It is that we can see how we lock ourselves into a very cognitive belief system with clear boundaries of black and white and we know that this is a limited view while at the same time relish its simplicity, its logic and its ability to quell the fears we have about change and the unknown. We become rooted in creed and doctrine and statement. And that is very sad. We then become afraid when we see that belief is a present moment that it is fleeting and fragile. We struggle to see that that’s a positive thing.

Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000), Israel’s most celebrated poet, whose works have been translated into 40 languages, speaks to this prison of belief and its propensity for creedal and doctrinal prison making.

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled


Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.

Our title suggests that there is an either or in relation to belief, economic value and the following argument is that it takes wisdom to discern this. That seeing the Way of Jesus as a way of being is about re-imagining the world and that the parables, in being about the Kingdom or the realm of wise living are not about believing a set of rules or about a culture based on economic values. They are an approach through wisdom about seeing the new realm or way of being that is possible when one walks the Yeshua Way.

Our tradition has it that James the Greater was chosen by Jesus to be one of the 12 apostles.
One of the inner circle of intimates, James is called The Greater to distinguish him from another younger (and shorter?) apostle, also named James. James the greater was one of the sons of Zebedee and Salome, brother of St John the Apostle, and together, James and John were known by the nickname: “sons of thunder”. Tradition says James was the first Apostle to be martyred, stabbed with a sword by King Herod Agrippa, in Jerusalem around the year 42-44 CE. His Memorial day, was the 25 July.

Legends have sprung up that James evangelised Spain. After his death his body was taken to Spain and buried at Compostela (a town the name of which is commonly thought to be derived from the word “apostle”). His supposed burial place there was a major site of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. And today… as some of you have trekked that way. But many of these stories have little basis in historical fact and that includes many of the imaginative biblical stories as well.

James is the patron saint of: hat makers, rheumatoid sufferers, blacksmiths, labourers,
pharmacists, and pilgrims. He is represented by the colours blue and gold/yellow, and the symbols: a cockle shell, a pilgrim’s staff, or most fittingly, an elderly, bearded man, wearing a hat with a scallop shell…

Tradition also tells us he and others did not always appreciate what this itinerant sage Yeshua was on about with his invitation to re-imagine the world. And this is where this morning’s collection of mini parables come in. Where ‘James’ and ‘parable’ meet.

Matthew 13: 3 – 33, 44 – 48

And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

The Purpose of the Parables

Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

The Parable of the Sower Explained

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

The Parable of the Yeast

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Three Parables

‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

Matthew’s Jesus says the reign of God is… like a mustard seed, like leaven like finding treasure and hiding it in a field, like looking for fine pearls, like a dragnet cast into the sea. But we know by now, I hope, that these are a special type of story called ‘parable’. And parables as you will have heard on many occasions turn our assumptions and conclusions upside down They specialize in revealing the unexpected, offering hints only, subverting the normal and traditional, and casting out certainty to make room for hope. So how is our common sense or traditional assumptions turned up-side-down to invite the unexpected in this collection of mini parables as offered by Matthew’s Jesus? They require wisdom when approaching them and remember here what O’Donohue says about wisdom. “Wisdom is a way of being, a way of inhabiting the world. The beauty of wisdom is harmony, belonging and illumination of thought, action, heart and mind.” 

For James there was no indication that this was the day his life would change. The dawn for him was not the bright beginning of a new day, but the end of a long fruitless night of fishing. As he sat mending his nets in the boat with his brother John and his father Zebedee, was he shocked when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew walk away from their trade at a word from Jesus? As he watched Jesus walk toward him followed by Simon and Andrew, did he feel curiosity, fear, hope, envy? Yet when Jesus called James and his brother John to do just what Simon and Andrew had done, they too left behind their boat, their business and their family. Four Galilean fisherman, and an itinerant preacher with a re-imagined world.  For the time being it was enough (Adapted from Donald Burt & John Shea’s stories…).

But, what about economic value? How does that effect what is real and what is out way of being?

Well if one looks hard at many of the decisions being made today regardless of what industry or sector of the culture one can see a set of priorities and strategies that view the abused marginalized and poor as a threat to the financial wellbeing of the society or the institution. The removal of homeless from sheltered spaces around the city or church buildings is one example of this economic value imposition.

The disturbing consequence of this strategy is that leadership effectively accepts that human worth can be measured by economic price. They accept that the priority of society is to preserve and enhance its financial resources. What about human wellbeing? What about human flourishing?

James and his younger brother were nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’. Which probably meant they were a little headstrong, hot-tempered, and impulsive!  They were fisher-folk from the area around Capernaum, an unwalled town of twelve hundred people, with no sign of planning in the layout of streets, no gates, no defensive fortifications, and no channels for running water or sewage disposal. Not a sought-after spot, quips Dom Crossan, but a good place to get away from, with easy access across the Sea of Galilee to any side (Crossan 2001:81).

As a community it was struggling to survive in what we would call a ‘third world’ situation, but with considerable ingenuity in making the most of limited resources. It is also a sad reminder of what peasant life was like:

• where only about one in every hundred people could read and only about one in every thousand could write, and

• when Herod Antipas promoted his unjust imperial ‘ideological blueprint’ of romanisation by urbanisation for commercialisation.

Yeshua was a homeless, homeland Palestinian Jew, a native of the Galilee. Unfortunately for many traditional Christians, the Jewishness of Jesus lies on the remote margins of Christian imagination. As a result they are inclined to miss his ethnicity, his religion, his economic status, and his political situation (Jenks 2014:124).  Probably born during the final years of Herod the Great, he too lived under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of Roman Imperial rule. A wandering Cynic-like sage, teaching about the deception of wealth, the appeal to nature, and the extolling of simplicity, shows Jesus belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism. He spent at least as much time figuring things out himself, seeking wisdom, as in communicating the understanding he came to. And according to him, the best place to be both wise and holy was right in the midst of ordinary life. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. His listeners would laugh. Maybe scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own.

“Rather than pointing to traditional texts”, suggests NT scholar Hal Taussig, “Jesus pointed to the birds of the air, the employment practices of farmers, the goings on in the marketplace, the work of women in the household, and the social life of the peasant, as the real sources of wisdom and authority” (Taussig 1999:15-16).

So, it is highly probable that Jesus did not walk about ancient Palestine thinking about himself as the incarnate Son of God or the second Person of the Trinity! (Jenks 2014b:49)

Generally speaking, the ‘historical’ human Jesus can be re-discovered in our time, through some of the most challenging critical work being done in New Testament scholarship today. Coupled with honesty about that knowledge from the pulpit.

As a result of some of that scholarship we now know there are at least two forms of ‘wisdom’ sayings that characterise the Jesus voiceprint:

  • aphorism (short sayings) and
  • parable (narratives whose endings poke).

This suggests then, that: parables and aphorisms are about ‘lifestyle’. They are about hearing and doing, rather than believing and venerating. And they are about the present.

They are fragments of this Jesus voiceprint that ask us to hear these particular fictional mini-parables as ‘red flags’ waving at us and saying to us; don’t expect God’s domain or the realm of God to be what you reckon or want it to be! If you really hear the voice of the historical Jesus,
the chances are you will not like him (Galston 2005:16).

Parables are very deceptive. They are about recasting the world according to a vision. The realm of God in the teachings of Jesus “was not an apocalyptic or heavenly projection of an otherworldly desire. It was driven by a desire to think that there must be a better way to live together than the present state of affairs” (Mack 1995:40).

The early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed in him a difference essence, or saw a halo circling his head! They made claims about him because “they had heard him say and seen him do certain things. They experienced him acting in their lives. And what they experienced in the company of this person… moved them deeply” (Patterson 1998:53).

The 4th century Nicene Creed tells us what to believe about Jesus but says nothing about what Jesus taught. We confess, “…born of the Virgin Mary,” but we don’t say,“…taught us to love our enemies” (Galston 2012:112 Note 2).

His public years leave no mark on the creeds and confessions (Jenks 2014c). Creeds control God while putting Jesus to sleep by abstraction!  Whereas, stories about ‘lifestyle’ invite us to hear and re-imagine the present world differently, by considering the human condition of all, not just the condition of our own race, family, or nationality.

Jesus was an observer of people and of life. His life bore witness to the re-imagined world of the parables. He challenged and debunked convention. He poked and prodded. “He seemed to assume that if one called into question old habits and norms, something far more fresh and powerful could be unveiled” (Taussig 1999:19).

Now twenty centuries later, we are being poked and prodded. Not to be shaped by the silly question: ‘what would Jesus do?’ That’s to be preoccupied with triviality. Rather, by becoming who we are and doing what we do.

• Freed to go on the journey Jesus chartered, instead of worshipping the journey (Wink 2000:177).

• Freed to change the way we view ‘limits’. Especially so when a Congregation celebrates its 50th Anniversary, paying attention to the particular context of that Congregation.

So, after all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes, how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped by the human ‘historical’ Jesus? Canadian theologian, David Galston. In one of his comments he said our task is: “… 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 2012:53).

Let us be wise. Amen.


Crossan, J. D. & J. L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.

————–, “Postmodernism, the Historical Jesus, and the Church” in The Fourth R 18, 5, September-October 2002, 11, 14-18.

Hamilton A. “Church Honours Market over Gospel in Abuse Cases” in Eureka Street eZine, Vol 24, No. 6. 2 April 2014.

Jenks, G. C. Jesus Then and Jesus Now. Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves. Preston: Mosaic Press, 2014.

————–. “Encountering God in Jesus of Nazareth” in N. Leaves (ed). Encountering God: Face to Face with the Divine. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2014b.

————–. “Jesus then and Jesus now. A sermon”. Preached at St Mary’s in Exile, Brisbane, 25 May 2014c.

Mack, B. L. Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Patterson, S. J. The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998.

Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations. Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. MN: Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress, 2008.

Taussig, H. Jesus Before God. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999.

Vosper, G. With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is More Important than What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins, 2008.

Wink, W. ‘The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.

1. The discovery of a first century fishing boat in 1986, during a drought that lowered the water level, confirms this impression (JDCrossan).

Pentecost 7A, 2020

Gen 28: 10-19a Matthew 13:24-30

‘Don’t Weed! Make Space to Deal Inclusively’

When being asked explain why I liked to cause a stir or always look to find the alternative I used to respond by saying ‘Well I’m like a weed, because you can’t kill weeds they just keep coming up”. In the light of today’s texts, I wonder if the weeds suffer a bad name unfairly? Is Jacob like a weed that reveals things about the realm of God and maybe the weeds assist with the definition of the wheat?

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

The book of Genesis makes no attempt to conceal the fact that Jacob was, among other things, a crook. Twice he cheated his perhaps slow to understand brother, Esau, out of what was coming to him. At least once he took advantage of the blindness of his old father, Isaac, and played him for a sucker. He outdid his double-crossing father-in-law, Laban, by conning him out of most of his livestock and, later on, when Laban was looking the other way, by sneaking off with not only both the man’s daughters, but just about everything else that wasn’t nailed down including his household gods. Jacob was never satisfied. He wanted everything. But then one day he learned a marvelous lesson in a marvelous and unexpected way.

It happened just after he’d ripped Esau off for the second time and was making his getaway into the hill country to the north. When sunset came and nobody seemed to be after him, he decided that it was safe to camp out for the night and, having either left home in too much of a hurry to take his pillow with him, tucked a stone under his head and prepared to go to sleep. You might think that what happened next was that he lay there all night bug-eyed as a result of his guilty conscience or, if he did finally manage to drop off, that he was tormented by conscience-stricken dreams, but neither of these was the case. Instead, he dropped off like a baby in a cradle and dreamed the kind of dreams you would have thought were reserved for the high saints.

He dreamed that there was a ladder reaching up to heaven and that there were angels moving up and down it with golden sandals and rainbow-colored wings and that standing somewhere above it was God godself. And the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected, but something altogether different. God told Jacob that the land he was lying on was to belong to him and his descendants and that someday his descendants would become a great nation and a great blessing to all the other nations on earth. And as if that wasn’t enough, God then added a personal P.S. by saying, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

It wasn’t holy hell that God gave him, in other words, but holy heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can’t get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.

Jacob didn’t have to climb his ladder to get a hold of everything, even if that had been possible, because everything looked like peanuts compared to what God and the angels were using the ladder to hand down to him for free.

Another part of the lesson was that, God doesn’t just love people because of who they are, but rather because of who or what God is. “It’s on the house” is one way of saying it and “It’s by grace” is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, but the many-times great-grandfather of  Nations and peoples to come. Not a bad outcome for someone who doesn’t fit the norms. A weed among the wheat in the big picture is what holds all together.

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

We have just heard two stories about what good and bad might contribute to. A story about the one who doesn’t follow the rules, who behaves in less acceptable ways and a story about- or parable – about wheat and weeds. The message seems to be that one needs to deal inclusively with these unacceptable alternatives, these cons and weeds.

There’s another story or a parallel story that goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a Warriors League Team that had inherited a tradition of losing almost all the games of a season. The other teams were supported by their communities with uniforms, coaching staff, special skills training. The guys from The Warriors didn’t have a coach or uniforms or very much fan support. They were talented, but untrained. Then one day a young man watched them stumble through practice. ‘Can I help?’ he asked them.
The team was ready to accept help from anyone.

‘You guys are the best,’ he said.  ‘There’s no reason you can’t win the premiership. But you have to practice, be confident in yourselves, and be good friends. ‘No more fighting among the team or with me if I’m going to be your unofficial coach’. No more competing with each other for the MIP (most improved player) or the POD (Player of the Day) The Guys agreed. The first thing the coach taught them was how be friends and play together with one another. Then he told them, training session after training session, how good they were. Finally he made them work, work, work, at fitness, and skills.

And guess what happened?  They went on from there undefeated and won the premiership. ‘He made us believe in ourselves’, the guys said. The next year the management hired a “real coach” and the team finished last on the ladder.

Is this a nice so-called spiritual story you can tell in church? Or is it a story which not only critiques and subverts the status quo, but re-imagines a world that could be? What is success, or failure? And how do both have value? What would that sort of world look like?

If we believe this football story, or this parable attributed to Jesus by Matthew, are to be ‘spiritualized’ – I think it is traditionally explained as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings” then we will more than likely opt for the ‘nice story’ tag. And we won’t be alone.  Much of the church treats parables this way. Simple stories with trite meanings. Often lifted out of their social and historical context and reshaped into theological or moralistic fables bereft of any political or economic edge or consequence.

Which is somewhat disappointing because that is not what parables are. B Brandon Scott, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, and a student of the study of the parables, says: ‘The parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living, of being in the world. They are not just religious, not just about God, although they are that too… they are multifaceted re-imaginings of life, of the possibilities of life’ (Scott 2001:6).

So if we opt rather for the ‘critique’ and be intentionally skeptical about the common view or that acceptable norm as well as valuing the imagination and the ‘re-imagining’ of what’s possible then we will have grasped Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ purpose: To get his hearers to see the world differently. To seek the alternative inclusive, dynamic interdependent realm. And that can be summed up in this phrase… That God’s reign is not an, other-worldly proposition. Most of us say that the world as we know it has changed since 11 September 2001. Since the Christchurch attack on mosques and the same is now being said as a result of Covid-19. And we are sure it is. Just one of those differences is the great polarity that now exists between Christian and Muslim, Jew and Muslim, Hindu and Muslim, African American and American, and skin colour differences. This is not to say they did not exist prior but rather that the polarity has been more openly displayed. The daily news of suspected terrorist attacks – the dissatisfaction with collective and community management due to Covid-19 has contributed to the unrest. The enemy which in these cases is difference, inequality and distinctiveness fueled by economic, social and political circumstances and- takes hope away and tries to convince us that human cleverness…  better spying on the enemy, more public exposure and having better and smarter weapons as well as living in constant suspicion of strangers, can save us. Jacob should be imprisoned, the Warriors coach should be registered as a therapist rather than a coach and weeds need to be exterminated.

None of this seems to be a good time for hope, for reason, for patience. To allow both ‘wheat’ (the good blokes) and ‘weed’ (the bad blokes) to grow together. One is seen as having worth. One is seen as being worthless.  In this context Bill Loader’s comment is, I feel, telling: ‘A sense that there is an enemy, marks many societies, religious and otherwise.  It is almost as though we need an enemy, an, other, against whom to define ourselves.  This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for survival…  A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning.  There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’.  The simpler, the better.  This is the stuff of prejudice.  Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’ (W Loader/web site).

The Jesus of Matthew, in telling this parable, suggests another position. But with our tendency to domesticate parables we can give Matthew’s point and circumstance less attention than it deserves.

So, what is Matthew’s circumstance? Possibly the division in the Syrian synagogue between those Jews who seek to follow the ‘way’ of Jesus and those who don’t. And what is Matthew’s so-called ‘point’ of the story? Don’t weed!  Deal inclusively.

Why? Because it is in the midst of the mess of conflictive coexistence that we find the spiritual, the divine and the one we call God. Not in some hypothetical situation where ‘good seed’ or ‘good healthy congregations’ or so-called ‘real Christians’ – usually champions of right – grow in pure isolation, fighting the bad and offering walled sanctuaries to hide in. This does not suggest confrontation should be advocated. But it does mean that where there is confrontation: never cease to act graciously or to have compassion,
never write people off, never uproot people in your mind or attitude
by treating them as no longer of any worth.

And let’s not be fooled because in reality, acting alternatively can be somewhat difficult at times. Buddhist Dalai Lama when asked if he hated the Chinese, replied ‘no’.
‘He remarked that the Chinese were indeed dominant and that he had no possibility of overthrowing them by might.  Were he to hate them therefore no change would occur in the Chinese. But change would certainly occur within him.  His own heart would become more tense, bitter and rigid.  The only way forward then was to let go of the hateful feelings that might arise. In the space that ensued perhaps there was a greater possibility for peace’ (Ranson 2002:7).

So, parables are not earthly stories with heavenly meanings? They are more likely to be earthly stories with heavy meanings? That seems to be more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus does it not?

Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001

Frederick Buechner Centre  The Frederick Buechner Center <>

In a recent article in the 4th R the Westar magazine, Lloyd Geering wrote about the decline of God since the end of the Nineteenth century when Friedrich Nietzche discerned that “God is dead and we humans have killed him”. This is not to say that the idea of God was destined to suffer an instant death from then on but rather to herald the fact that the idea of God was and has been changing forever. Lloyd suggests that the thought-world that humans participate in is always fluid and moving. Some have been preserving they suppose something they call tradition, traditional values and things to maintain but others have been moving on from the very idea of God convinced that the concept of God has become obsolete and it is no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’.

While in our language today we often hear the words “Oh my God” and read the letters “OMG” the concept behind them has completely changed. This is as Lloyd suggests indicative of the fact that the “God” concept has been retired from daily speech. A brief journey the concept of God has been on might be ‘Wind or Breath” in a ‘Spiritual’ world where breath was evidence of the spiritual world that surrounded everything, thru the birth of gods, imagined to identify and explain natural phenomena, much the same as we use  electron, neutron and quark today.

The key difference is that the God concept moved to include the idea that the forces of nature attributed to those gods transcended human power and control thus introducing the idea that humans in order to survive needed to obey and respect these gods. Each tribe or ethnic group had their own names for these gods and what areas they looked after such as fertility, birth, death, war, peace, love and so on. This concept of God being adaptable stayed around for a long time and we still name our days of the week after them.

We remember here also that the ancients explained natural phenomena through the medium of stories about the gods which we now call myths or stories. The telling of stories was the way of expressing knowledge, much like we now call philosophy and science. At the core of these stories was the idea that one could talk about these gods by anthropomorphic means, in other words these gods were given human attributes and behaviour while being immortal, most of them in charge and to be feared. Humanity was at mercy of the unseen powers of most of the gods.

The other phenomena we should heed before entering our text today is the arrival of the idea of Monotheism. Between about 1000 and 400BCE Israel’s prophets urged their people to abandon all gods except Yahweh, very likely a storm god. Polytheism becomes henotheism (choosing one of many) then along comes the biblical prophets and this message becomes embedded in the Moses story and between 567 and 540 BCE monotheism is settled in. The Jews from exile in a polytheism world escape to a monotheism world (The Holy Land) in the Genesis story.

As Lloyd reminds us the first chapter of Genesis marks the crossing of a very significant threshold in the evolution of human culture. The assertion that at the beginning of time it was God who created everything introduced a powerful cultural invention that remained unquestioned until about 500BCE.

In regard to our text for today the above is a crucial background to the interpretation of what is being said and proposed by the text. In terms of the assumptions of God that lie beneath the text the understanding of those being spoken to and the message the text is conveying. Who or what is the God Jesus would be talking about? What is the message he wants to convey?

On this last question scholars suggest that one of the most important things Jesus wants to say is that there needs to be a change in the way we think about the kingdom or realm or social, political and economic environment that exists.

Our text for today is what is known as the parable of the sower and taking all of the above into account we see that the parable is about this creator God, creating the kingdom or realm:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

A translation:  

On that day, Jesus went out of the house (and) was sitting alongside the sea, and great crowds were gathered together to him so that he entered into a ship to sit down and all the people stood upon the shore.  And he spoke much to them in parables, saying, “Behold!  The sowing one went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some indeed fell beside the way, and the birds came to eat them.  But others fell upon stony places where they were not having much soil, and immediately they sprung up because they did not have depth of soil.  But when the sun rose, they were scorched and, because they did not have a root, they were withered.  But others fell among the thorns, and the thorns climbed up and choked them.  But others fell upon the good earth, and they were giving fruit, some indeed a hundredfold, but some sixty, but some thirty.  The one having ears, let that one hear.”

It has been suggested that the parable of the sower is the touchstone of all the parables.  That it has primacy of place is in all three synoptics.  Even the gnostic Gospel of Thomas includes the parable of the sower. 

In Matthew, the parable of the sower is the first of a string of parables that follow one after another in chapter 13.  The parable of the sower sets the stage for all the parables that follow.

The lection begins with Jesus leaving the house.  He “goes out” to the sea just as the sower would soon “go out” to sow.  This would apparently be his own house, and the same one where he had just refused entrance to his own relatives (12: 46-48). 

At the sea, “great crowds” flock around Jesus.  The word is sunago, and means that the people “gathered together” around Jesus.  He is at the center of the people.  This is not surprising.  Jesus had significant support in the region of the Sea of Galilee.  The people loved Jesus and thrilled to his message.  He is presented as a “man of the people.” 

Then, he gets into a boat.  The stated reason is that Jesus needs a place to sit.  He needs to sit in order to assume the posture of a teacher.  This gives Jesus a bit of distance from the crowd which continues to stand on the beach.  Matthew has moved Jesus from being “man of the people” to being “authoritative teacher.” 

This is seen to be a deft piece of political theater.  Jesus is sitting in a fishing boat, which is, quite literally, on the sea.  In a sense, Jesus is speaking to and for all the people who try to make a living from the Sea of Galilee.  (It’s not for nothing that fishermen were some of Jesus’ first supporters.)  

Jesus may have had a home at Capernaum, perhaps the most important harbour city on the entire Sea of Galilee, which also made it an important communications center for the region.  He also traveled to many other towns and villages that lie on the sea, including Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, his frequent companion.

In the intervening verses, 10-17, Jesus tells the disciples that they get to hear “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” but others do not.  Jesus says that he speaks in parables, but no one understands. 

This suggests that, far from being easy to understand, the parables are so contrarian that they are difficult to hear.  The reason Jesus so often encouraged people with ears to hear is because what he was saying was so counter-intuitive, so formed by an alternative paradigm, that people were having a hard time comprehending what he was saying.  

In verse 18, Jesus calls the story “the parable of the sower.”  Suggests that this is a parable about the God they hold dear, and about the kingdom they put their faith in.  It’s the parable of the sower, and it is a kingdom of complexity with not one but four kinds of soil.  It’s about the relationship between the sower and the soils, the God-human relationship, in other words the Kingdom, realm, interconnection, interdependence that needs reimagining. It is not about a powerful creator God in charge of evil, dominated, powerless people.

To conclude this exploration today we remember that it was not until a number of Christian theologians in the 1960s acknowledged the truth of Nietzsche’s announcement and declared that the concept of God had become so obsolete that it was no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’ as a being who created and ruled over the universe. As J Macquarrie reminded us in the 1980s, whatever life God had formerly enjoyed in the thought world of believers has been slowly ebbing away in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, The sower is no longer the God scattering seeds like a creator but rather we are the sowers and the kingdom, realm we are part of is diverse, complex and like the universe as we understand it today, a realm of unexpected serendipity. That is, until we come to accept that it is like avatar within multiple universes and unlimited dimensions. Or as I think Lloyd is suggesting, the doctrine of the incarnation takes on emerging concepts, that we will understand the parable for us today. And as Roy W Hoover says in the same magazine as Lloyd’s article – “A modern faith requires a modern conceptuality and language that can make clear to us in what respects our religious situation is discontinuous with our religious past”. Or as Gordon Kaufmann has said: “ Our inherited symbolism no longer fits the overall cast of life as it is lived, understood, and experienced in today’s world. So, it must change, and change in decisive ways, if it is not to die out.”. It has been my personal claim  that this is the challenge the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa faces if it wishes to remain alive. The issue the church needs to avoid is getting caught up in the battle between incremental and catastrophic because the change is already underway, the church’s task is to articulate the thought world it lives in. To listen for the God concept of today and to incarnate it through language and experience.  Amen.

The Fourth R Volume 33 Number 3 May-June 2020 ‘The Life of God from Conception to Death in the human Though-World. Westar Institute Farmington MN

Romans 7:15–25

Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30

Someone once wrote that, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” And others have suggested things that resonate with me. They have suggested that failure is a prerequisite of invention, which requires risk taking. Failure provides insights that aren’t normally gained from success. This is interesting in that it elevates failure from that purely negative realm to one of ambiguity, inclusivity and questions the dualistic simplicity of good verses bad. Failure can be both when one sees it in the macro or big picture.

It’s one thing for leaders within institutions and systems to address failure at the abstract level of corporate policies and these days hear of systemic failure, often as an answer to the fact that no one knows why so it has to be a systemic something. But it is quite another to acknowledge failure at the personal level. For most employees, personal failure is an enormous threat that portends embarrassment, shame, and even the loss of one’s job. Worst of all, the stigma of failure breeds fear and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and accelerate the very thing one fears.

The quote I began with suggests that failure-tolerant peoples move beyond simplistic definitions of success and failure, where the former is always positive and the latter is always negative. Maybe there is such a thing as “successful failure.” Good leaders keep things in perspective. When one speaks with Rugby coaches, they say that they “didn’t get consumed by losses and didn’t get overwhelmed by successes.” Failure-tolerant leaders empathize with employees by sharing their own failures and by accepting the mistakes of others. Sometimes the others cant’s admit theirs and this slows the process somewhat. Finally, the failure-tolerant replaces a corporate culture of fierce competition with a culture of collaboration. We might call this humility as the transforming agent and togetherness or unity as the movement forward.

This all sounds a bit logical or ‘liberal’ and ‘new age’ and it asks what a “failure-tolerant Christian” might look like. After all, some of the most significant people in God’s story of redemption experienced extraordinary failures. Moses killed, David became an adulterer, Jesus died a criminal, Peter denied even knowing Jesus, while Paul described himself as the “chief among sinners” for trying to destroy the developing church.

In this week’s epistle, Paul describes a fierce struggle in his deeply divided self. He does things that he hates, and fails to do the good. He experiences covetous desires and sinful passions of every sort. Rather than doing the good he desires to do he commits the evil he detests. With exasperation he describes a “war” within himself that makes him a “prisoner,” and confesses, “I do not understand what I do” (Romans 7:15, 23). Paul’s struggle is so intense that some interpreters think that he’s describing his pre-conversion life rather than a Christian experience.

So; what does one do with this inner struggle that seems to be there for many of us? It seems that more people are asking these sort of questions today and that is manifest as the increased interest in the inner self. People are doing Yoga, going on retreats, taking up Tai Chi, doing meditation, exploring Buddhism and following Indian Guru’s in search of enlightenment. In the end much of this is the search for a workable spirituality.

I found a reflection on one such a journey that might be of interest in regard to our topic of failure tolerance. I will call him John as a way of relating this story.

John started reading the fourth century monastics who fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. Before he read the desert mothers and fathers, he had thought of them as Christian super-heroes. After he had read them, he realized that he couldn’t have been more wrong.

He admired the desert dwellers because they were practitioners of healing, not abstract theoreticians. They sought personal transformation, not theological information. Although the desert monastics might seem a little strange today, John saw that we misunderstand them if we construe their asceticism as a spirituality of superficial techniques.

John admired the desert monastics most of all for their profound humanity. They modeled what was called a “spirituality of imperfection” in which one is not ashamed or embarrassed to acknowledge and embrace one’s brokenness, wounds, darkness, and inner demons. For them, intense struggle is a necessary component of Christian maturity.

The desert mothers and fathers tell stories that illuminate Paul’s interior struggle. With remarkable candor, brutal realism, unqualified empathy, and wry humor, they describe how they experienced in the vast nothingness of the Egyptian desert a cacophony of voices in the interior geography of the heart. They sought wholeness but discovered brokenness. In the famous words of St Anthony the Great (251–356) considered as the father of monasticism, they concluded that we should “expect trials until your last breath.” Their reports from the front lines of spiritual battle reveal a disarming transparency about human failure and frailty.

As John reviewed (360-435) Institutes and Conferences, he found a sampling of their self-diagnosis as “lethargy, sleeplessness, dark dreams, impulsive urges, self-justification, seething emotions, sexual fantasies, pious pretense that masked as virtue, self-deception, clerical ambition and the desire to dominate, crushing despair, confusion, wild mood swings, flattery, and the dreaded “noonday demon” of acedia, Here it seemed was a ‘wearied or anxious heart” that suggests close parallels to clinical depression.

And it got worse. They seemed to admit that “there are [also] many things that lie hidden in the conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to them. John read of many questions arising such as “why does a monk who joyfully renounced great wealth later succumb to intense possessiveness over a tiny pen knife, needle, or book? Why did monks give each other the “silent treatment.” What provoked a brother’s anger at a dull stylus? Or why is it “that superfluous thoughts insinuate themselves into us so subtly and hiddenly when we do not even want them, and indeed do not even know of them, and to find that it is very difficult not only to cast them out but even to understand them and to catch hold of them?” Where, in other words, was the off-switch for a psyche in overdrive?

John seems to be onto something here about the power of failure in its effect on the human psyche or at least our inability to dislodge ourselves from its potential. Maybe we give failure too much importance or too much authority. I offer you this poem below as an example of this inner juxtaposition of failure and success in the task of loving another. I hope you might see the inner struggle with failure and success and the need for it in the successful encounter.

To Love You

To even perceive that you are there to be loved by me

Is to reduce you to the object of my affection

To trap you in a moment of objectivity that cannot be

To suppose that you are there for my affliction

Is to perceive that it is possible to remove you from the free

And hold you as the other as if you were dead.

To see my love as a condition of truth…

caught in the condition of objectivity.

is to see my relation to the ‘other’ becoming a trial aloof

and the real in relation to you as other risks becoming senility

alluding and encompassing before I have it proofed

It does not await my notarized ability.

When it comes to my theology of love

I am the bravest of hearts,

to concede the contingency and revisability of your responding dove

my real lies open to the dream of what is to come in parts

the one I have to deal with is neither here nor above

and being in love with the real is never a past.

If love is for me the precarious,

what is more precarious than the cosmic dice game

of which you and I are the outcome various

what is more precarious than the cosmic flame

when love is never for me the nefarious

contemporary cosmologist’s terrain

What is more a matter of pure chance or pure contingency,

almost of perhaps or serendipity,

than the fact that I can love with agency

I serve at the pleasure of cosmic elements and validity,

hanging on by a risk of flagrancy,

my love mere prayer dependent upon, yet free of pity.

My love is for you as the ‘other’ is not anybody for anything,

which is how deconstruction defined a literal grace

my love is the purist of gifts, gratuity beyond and description offering,

 and pure grace is the transport of love apace

my love, freely and astronomically proffering

from a heart of almost cosmic scope here in this place.

To Love You

And when we read of Paul, we see that a failure tolerant approach is a positive response to changes. Paul and the desert monastics encourage us to embrace our struggles and failures rather than to suppress or deny them. The acceptance of failure and its welcoming can be difficult when our communities don’t allow us to fail in the first place, or if they do, the price of failure is condemnation rather than consolation. Just looking at the recent changes at St David’s Khyber Pass Rd Grafton Auckland and the Presbytery Commission’s agreement with many of us that closure is a helpful option, we can see that failure here is required in the sense of a long history of a congregation in order that something new and more in tune with the needs of the day is required. The decline in membership has been going on for some 60 years and one could say in denial of the church’s organisational failure. Closure as failure is in this instance life giving, even if there is never the same sort of gathered congregation to replace it. One wonders if the attempt to start a new congregation on the premises is not another denial of failure. All this sounds defeatist does it not? But if one takes seriously the search for spirituality that exists in our society then what is being done in the name of church is failing and maybe the time has come for a change the church will struggle to make.

And while this might sound more like a last-ditch justification for failure; maybe it is not? Why? Because Christians are famous for throwing failures under the bus. Paul, writing from his own experience, reminds us that we all carry the gospel treasure in fragile vessels, and that none of us is worthy of or adequate to the task (2 Corinthians 2:16, 4:7). James says that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2).

And so, Paul asks: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The gospel for this week points us to Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, from I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:25–30).

In other words; why don’t you learn from Jesus. He was gentle in the face of violence, resolute about what he knew in the face of institutional and systemic success and tolerant of failure because he knew it held more. Here Paul is placing failure-tolerance as a gateway to a durable, long lasting and richer success. Not one of us are worthy so follow the Way of Jesus who has turned death and failure into success, not as a denial of or an escape from death but as a Way to live it.

George Herbert (1593–1633)

Affliction (IV)

Broken in pieces all asunder,

Lord, hunt me not,

A thing forgot,

Once a poor creature, now a wonder,

A wonder tortur’d in the space

Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,

Wounding my heart

With scatter’d smart,

As wat’ring pots give flowers their lives.

Nothing their fury can control,

While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife,

Quitting their place

Unto my face:

Nothing performs the task of life:

The elements are let loose to fight,

And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot

Kill them and me,

And also thee,

Who art my life: dissolve the knot,

As the sun scatters by his light

All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers, which work for grief,

Enter thy pay,

And day by day

Labour thy praise, and my relief;

With care and courage building me,

Till I reach heav’n, and much more, thee.

For those of you who might like to see what today’s spirituality might look like or hint at, below is a video you might find interesting in relation to a contemporary search for human spirituality. And we are left with the question; ‘where is the church?’ Still denying failure? Amen.

Look Again for The Sprig of Hope

Gen 22: 1-14, Ps 13, Rom 6: 12-23, Mt 10: 40-42

Since the beginning of history humanity has been trying to prove whether or not God exists and one has to wonder if the questions being used are the wrong ones or being asked in the wrong way. What if as John D Caputo proposes God does not exist but rather insists. In other words, God as a single being called the creator doesn’t work because we get trapped in a question for which there is no answer or at least one that is always in search of an answer in a world where answers are absolutes and final outcomes. What if the very act of insistence or the process of insisting is in fact God. Over the last few years, I have tried to explore this and have postulated like Gordon Kaufmann that we might see God as the Serendipitous Creativity or the empowering force that is seen in the evolution of all things. In recent times I have suggested that we might join the dynamics of language and see this Serendipitous Creativity as ‘Almost’ and that there is something that is not quite yet something, that the something is always in motion, on the way to, has potential for, thus that the something we call God is more like a motion, a movement, dynamic, and fluid, or simply, ‘always living’. I don’t see these two ‘names’ for God as exclusive in that Serendipitous Creativity suggests the randomness of perpetual evolution, the ever-changing nature of things as transformation, and the living as motion, developing, becoming, unfolding, new, unexpected and unforeseen. This God seems to sustain belief in the face of the 21st century scientific thinking and maintain the personal responsibility and unknown of what being human means and it maintains the question of what the purpose of being human might be as well. Whether or not we are one universe among many, a species on a trajectory of multiple civilizations or individuals living in our global sociological culture God as ‘Almost suggests there is still hope when human beings have compassion for each other and live life as if God or the I am is love. The primary questions become more like why is it that as a species we are living longer than ever before, and what is the species trying to achieve?

But what does all this have to do with our texts for today? Well maybe it suggests that metaphor is closer to unveiling truth than fact and maybe it suggests we should look closer at the metaphor of the text than try to match the literal text with historical record (of which we have very little) and trust the metaphor to speak to us.

But let us be careful when accepting the metaphor without critique.  Looking at our texts today we see that the controlling metaphor of Genesis 22: 1-15 appears to be child sacrifice and yet maybe this could be in question because it might rather be the abhorrence of it. The controlling metaphor of Romans 6:12-23 is slavery and it might rather be the abhorrence of it and an historic social critique is required, and the controlling metaphor of Matthew 10: 40-42 is welcoming in order to be righteous and it might rather be a cry for ‘unconditional love’. Psalm 13s inclusion as a prayer for God to be revealed in action to rescue the psalmist in distress even when God’s face is hidden, might be a cry to see differently as the psalmist still affirms “I put my trust in your mercy”; that trust is fulfilled with the appearance of “saving help,” whereupon the psalm can end with a burst of praise, “I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt with me richly.” The trajectory of the psalm parallels Abraham’s experience in the Genesis passage, from the perplexity of his dilemma to the final affirmation that the Lord will provide.

Like all biblical text our Genesis text presents us with more questions than it answers. We have questions about its origin, its context, its meaning and its content, but what we can very likely agree is that it is most likely to be a legend or myth that has the purpose of passing on the story because of its importance to those who might come later. The Sacrifice of Isaac narrated in Genesis 22:1-14 probably originated as an etiological legend. An etiological legend is one where the story is told to explain something by giving a cause or reason for it, often in historical or mythical terms. In this case the story explains why the People of Israel do not practice child sacrifice.

It is believed that Sacrifice of children was known throughout the Ancient Near East, and it has been documented in many different religious texts, histories, and archeological finds. It is referred to several times in the Hebrew Scriptures, though there is today considerable scholarly debate as to its actual practice by Israelites, either as worship of other gods or as worship of YHWH.

Heath D. Dewrell says simply, “There is a general consensus that child sacrifice did indeed take place in ancient Israel, although there is little agreement on the extent to which the practice occurred. However it is clearly the stance of the scriptures themselves that child sacrifice, and specifically the sacrifice of the firstborn, is not to be practiced in God’s name, even if some subgroups among the people were reputed to have resorted to it at one time or another.

Representative of this claim is the commandment in Exodus 34:19-20, that states: “All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.” The basic position that the firstborn belongs to God, adjusted with a statute to redeem that firstborn son with a lamb, is given narrative background, as it were, in this near-sacrifice story. 

All of the above is well and good for a scholarly understanding of the text. But when the text is simply read on its own, as presented in the lectionary, and is given without preamble or footnote as a live performance before a listening congregation, it is not the prevention of child sacrifice that we hear. What we today notice first and foremost is the horror of child sacrifice. What kind of a God could demand such a thing? What kind of a father could even contemplate granting such a demand? How could anyone with a conscience consent to worship a God who would put a believer to such an abhorrent “test”? 

So, is there a way to reconcile the two perspectives? Some commentators might argue that reconciliation is not the point, that any attempt to reconcile would simply paper over the deep flaws of the original text, and that a contemporary preacher would do best to look at this story and simply say “God is not like that” and move on. That is an option that I suggest is addressed by an understanding of God as ‘Almost’ and Serendipitous Creativity. The issue is not the existence of slavery but rather what is true because of the serendipitous creative nature of an ‘Almost’ yet ‘becoming’, God.

This thinking is akin to process theology that is valuable in making the attempt, at least, to move from contradiction to contrast, to find a larger set of prehensions or points of view that will hold together the apparent opposites of scholarly explanation and moral outrage. We are outraged by the beginning of the story, which poses the entire episode as a “test,” as if it were some sort of evaluative exercise posed by a disconnected and uncaring God to determine whether a believing follower is willing to abase himself enough. What if we were to focus on the end of the story, when Abraham finds a way out of his dilemma because God has allowed him to see something he did not see before? 

For whatever reason, whether by direct command from God or because it was a pervasive cultural practice in his environment, Abraham feels he must acknowledge God as the source of life by returning his firstborn to that source. This is not easy or unemotional for him. The narrative does not describe Abraham’s emotional state directly, there are no adjectives marking Abraham as “sad” or “angry” or “resigned”; but the story is told with deep pathos. There is a lack of overt emotion suggesting an almost depressive condition, and bitter irony when Abraham says “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” knowing that Isaac is precisely what God has provided.

This is not something Abraham wants to do, yet it is something Abraham must do. He is trapped in that dilemma, unable to find a way out and unable to allow himself to feel his own distress — until God stays his hand, affirms the totality of Abraham’s commitment, and opens Abraham’s eyes to see the ram caught in the thicket nearby. God provides for Abraham a new possibility, a way to honour God as the source of life both by returning life to God and by protecting and nurturing the life of the son given him by God. By receiving and actualizing this new possibility in his own occasion of action, Abraham learns yet more deeply that “the Lord will provide,” in this and in all situations. 

Part of our present difficulty with this passage is our inheritance from Enlightenment thinking that God must be at least as rational as we are, at least as moral as we would try to be. Since we would find it wrong or repugnant to test or be tested by another human being in this way, we would not want to believe that God would act in this way. If we see God as Serendipitous Creativity and as ‘Almost’ we don’t need to make the correlation and therefor ask that question.

The ancient author(s) of this story however, had no such compunction; to them it was axiomatic that God’s ways are mysterious, that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord,” and that often we cannot know what God is doing until the thing is done and the meaning can be revealed in retrospect. If we can, for an interpretive moment, ‘Almost’ allows us to set aside our desire for God to be like us because God is manifest in our response to God’s insistence or calling us, and we can move beyond our outrage at the notion of divine testing, what could we see in this passage of the promise of a God who reveals ways we can take ourselves out of the painful dilemmas in which we find ourselves?

If we are caught in a dilemma between honouring life by practicing social distancing in a time of pandemic, and honouring life by restoring economic activity and meaningful work to people who need to support themselves — then what new possibility might we be able to see an ‘Almost’ God offer? If we experience dilemma between doing what seems socially correct and accepted, and a deep commitment that there are better ways to honour life than current custom — then what new possibility might we be able to see our God offer? In what way might we be able to look at the seemingly impossible choices of our own moment and yet trust that “the Lord will provide”? 

The controlling metaphor of Romans 6:12-23 is slavery, and that presents a considerable challenge to preaching on the text today. While it is certainly true that “slavery” in the Hellenistic culture for which Paul wrote was very different, it is inevitable that a contemporary congregation will hear the word as reflecting racially based subjugation of entire peoples, and the continuing injustices and inequities suffered by communities of colour as a consequence of the history of enslavement in their nation. Becoming “slaves of righteousness,” even if it is admitted to be a concessional “speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations,” is not an acceptable way today to speak of the liberating work of God. 

So, perhaps we can get past the repugnant metaphor as well as avoid the sanitization of slavery by moving to the more genuine meaning by remembering that “slavery” in Hellenistic society was often a matter of being bound to a particular household. In functional terms, what Paul is attempting to describe here is leaving one sort of household or system of interpersonal relations, in order to join another. The Roman converts at one time belonged to a system of social interactions defined by sin, by patterns of distorted relationships characterized by taking and manipulating and greed. The Roman motto of Victory before peace comes to mind here. Such patterns are codified in the law; the purpose of the law, and as Paul has previously argued, the task is to condemn such patterns; and by drawing attention to them, the law paradoxically gives these patterns more power. Some people suggest that NZ Presbyterianism is too legally oriented with the Book of Order being used as a book of law for everything rather than a book of process..

Grace, on the other hand, frees one from the burdensome awareness of the law, and gives the believer the opportunity to join another household, to participate in a system of relationships in the society of the church. It almost seems a waste of time talking about church these days in that it has little respect today and it is no longer a system characterized by receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude. It’s about financial sustainability and economic viability of communities of maximum mass. As participants in this new social system, believers can “present your members,” their concrete bodily actions, “to God as instruments of righteousness,” that is, as enactments of divine ideals for right-relationship in genuinely mutual well-being. Because you do it like us you are righteous. Entering into a co-creative relationship with God and neighbours in the social system of faith, has believers engage a process of “sanctification,” in which believers’ enactments of divine aims in concrete moments give God more to work with, as it were, in offering even greater aims in succeeding moments. However for Paul sanctification is not simply a personal accomplishment, won by the believer’s own effort, but it is “the free gift” of grace that comes from God’s ever-widening offering of new possibilities, extending the individual life into “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  For an insistent and ‘Almost’ God this would be seen the manifestation of love as revealed in service to for and with or in solidarity with the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

Frederick Buechner suggested an image of discipleship that always came to his mind in connection with our text from Matthew. The image is of a magnet with paper clips. Holding this image in mind as one reads the text such as “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” Jesus is saying be like the paper clip taken up into my magnetic field, so that you also become magnetic and can pick up a second clip, which then also becomes magnetic, and so on. In this sense the disciples not the magnet but rather the participants in Jesus’ field of force, insofar as they re-enact in themselves Jesus’ own pattern of receiving and offering; and Jesus participates in the divine field of force, in that Jesus re-enacts in his human life the pattern of receiving and offering. Anyone who receives the disciples on their preaching mission, anyone who receives the disciples’ preaching and healing and offers in turn their own heart to the Good News, participates in the disciples’ field of force, which is also Jesus’, which traditionally is seen as also God’s. The “reward” of participation in divine life always begins in “welcome,” in receiving openly and honestly and with a genuine appreciation of the other’s gifts and needs and identity.

God does not accept a person because of anything that person has done to “earn” or “deserve” God’s love, but only because a person is open to welcome God’s love. For that reason, one “receives a prophet’s reward” not for achieving the rank of prophet, in other words being better than the last, but for welcoming a prophet and participating in the proclamation. One “receives the reward of the righteous” not for scoring righteousness points, but for welcoming a righteous person and participating in right-relationship. And the first step of discipleship and its promise of participation in Jesus’ Way of life is as simple as welcoming a disciple and giving them a cup of cold water, a simple gesture of hospitality and refreshment, in basic compassion for the “little ones.” This kind of “welcome” represents a receiving of divine ideals of right-relationship, and an offering of personal action to embody those ideals — and in an ‘Almost and Serendipitous Creativity world, that welcoming process is an inaugural and foundational participation in the pattern of life exemplified through disciples from Jesus through God. Such fully-lived life is the disciple’s “reward.”. 

The promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason, it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham. When he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised. Therefor Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Amen.

Pentecost 3A. 2020
Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19          Matthew 7:21-29

The Authority of the Historical Jesus ‘The Sprig of Hope’

Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, ”Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh–birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth–so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So, Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families. 

Matthew 7:21-29

Concerning Self-Deception

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Hearers and Doers

‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The story of Noah could be seen as a story of civilizations undergoing their extinction and renewal.

A paraphrase of the story might be simply a good man selected by God to bridge the extinction and provide continuity while God cleans out the old to provide a clean basis for the next civilization. It is ironic that the ancient legend about Noah survives in our age mainly as a children’s story. Maybe as a child you might even have had a Noah’s ark made of wood with a roof that came off so that you could take the animals out and put them in again, and yet if you stop to look at it at all, this is really as dark a tale as there is in the Bible, which is full of dark tales. It is a tale of God’s terrible despair over the human race and his decision to visit them with a great flood that would destroy them all except for this one old man, Noah, and his family. One wonders why we give it to children to read? Is it because we older folk don’t want to read it because it is too close to home?

The idea that the world might be in trouble because of us is not an easy one to deal with and it will take a long process to put it right so let’s give it to those who have more time. The trouble is that it may become just a fairy tale which is more difficult to take seriously, and it might encourage black jokes about disease and death so that we can laugh instead of weep at them; just the way we translate murder and lust into sixth-rate television melodramas, which is to reduce them to a size that anybody can cope with; just the way we take the nightmares of our age, the sinister, brutal forces that dwell in the human heart threatening always to overwhelm us and present them as the Addams family or monster dolls, which we give, again, to children.

Gulliver’s Travels is too bitter about humankind, so we make it into an animated cartoon; Moby Dick is too bitter about God, so we make it into an adventure story for boys; Noah’s ark is too something-or-other else, so it becomes a toy with a roof that comes off so you can take the little animals out.

This is one way of dealing with the harsher realities of our existence, and since the alternative is, by facing them head on, to risk adding more to our burden of anxiety than we are able to bear, it may not be such a bad way at that. But for all our stratagems, the legends, the myths persist among us, and even in the guise of fairy tales for the young they continue to embody truths or intuitions that in the long run it is perhaps more dangerous to evade than to confront.

So, what, then, are the truths embodied in this tale of Noah and his ark? Let us start with the story itself more particularly let us start with the moment when God first spoke to Noah, more particularly let us start with Noah’s face at that moment when God first spoke to him. 

When somebody speaks to us, we turn our face to look in the direction the voice comes from; but if the voice comes from no direction at all, if the voice comes from within and comes wordlessly, and more powerfully for being wordless, then in a sense we stop looking at anything at all. Our eyes become unseeing, and if someone were to pass a hand in front of them, we would hardly notice the hand. If we can be said to be looking at anything then, we are probably looking at, without really seeing, something of no importance whatever, like the branch of a tree stirring in the wind or the frayed cuff of our shirt where our arm rests on the windowsill. Our face goes vacant because for the moment we have vacated it and are living somewhere beneath our face, wherever it is that the voice comes from. So, it was maybe with Noah’s face when he heard the words that he heard, or when he heard what he heard translated clumsily into words: that the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, filled with violence and pain and unlove—that the earth was doomed.

Maybe the story’s challenge is for us to examine our face when we hear that the sixth extinction is upon us, or the world is in a political, social mess, or unless we do something drastic, world shattering and world -wide we might disappear as a species. Do those wealthy folks who are building bunkers in Queenstown know something? Are they accepting that all is going to end and they want to be tomorrows Noah? Have they suddenly decided their children’s talk was more than a fairy tale after all?

It was presumably nothing that Noah had not known already, nothing that any of us who have ever lived on this earth with our eyes open have not known. But because it came upon him sudden and strong, he had to face it more squarely than people usually do, and it rose up in him like a pain in his own belly. And then maybe, like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, Noah asked whether it was God who was speaking or only the pain in his belly; whether it was a vision of the glory of the world as it first emerged from the hand of the Creator that led him to the knowledge of how far the world had fallen, or whether it was just his pathetic human longing for a glory that had never been and would never be. If that was his question, perhaps a flicker of bewilderment passed across his vacant face—the lines between his eyes deepening, his mouth going loose, a little stupid. A penny for your thoughts, old Noah.

But then came the crux of the thing because the voice that was either God’s voice or an undigested matzoh ball shifted from the indicative of doom to the imperative of command and it told him that, although the world was doomed, he, Noah, had a commission to perform that would have much to do with the saving of the world.

“Make yourself a cause if the voice proceeded not from the mystery of the human belly but from the mystery and depth of life itself, then Noah had to obey, and Noah knew it. And out of common humanity this is the point to shift our gaze from his face, because things are happening there that no stranger should be allowed to see, and to look instead at his feet, because when we have to decide which way we are going to bet our entire lives, it is very often our feet that finally tell the tale.

There are Noah’s feet—dusty, a little slew-footed, Toonerville trolley of vessels, clouted from side to side by the waves and staggering like a drunk. It was not much, God knows, but it was enough, and it stayed afloat, and granted that it was noisy as hell and stank to heaven, creatures took comfort from each other’s creatureliness, and the wolf lay down with the lamb, and the lion ate straw like the ox, and life lived on in the ark while all around there was only chaos and death.

Then finally, after many days, the little sprig of hope in this message of extinction and destruction. Noah sent forth a dove from the ark to see if the waters had subsided from the earth, and that evening she returned, and lo-and-behold, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf once again, for the last time, the place to look, I think, is Noah’s face. The dove stands there with her delicate, scarlet feet on the calluses of his upturned palm. His cheek just touches her breast so that he can feel the tiny panic of her heart. His eyes are closed, the lashes watery wet. Only what he weeps with now, the old clown, is no longer anguish, but wild and irrepressible hope. That is not the end of the story in Genesis, but maybe that is the end of it for most of us—just a little sprig of hope held up against the end of the world.

All these old tales are about us, of course, and I suppose that is why we can never altogether forget them; that is why, even if we do not read them anymore ourselves, we give them to children to read so that they will never be entirely lost, because if they were, part of the truth about us would be lost too. The truth, for instance, that, left to ourselves, as a race we are doomed—what else can we conclude? —doomed if only by our own insatiable lust for doom. Despair and destruction and death are the ancient enemies, and yet we are always so helplessly drawn to them that it is as if we are more than half in love with our enemies.

Even our noblest impulses and purest dreams get all tangled up with them just as in many conflicts, in the name of human dignity and freedom, the bombs are falling on both the just and the unjust and we recoil at the horror of little children with their faces burned off, except that somehow that is the way the world has always been and is, with nightmare and noble dream all tangled up together. That is the way we are doomed—doomed to be what we are, doomed to seek our own doom. And the turbulent waters of chaos and nightmare are always threatening to burst forth and flood the earth.

We hardly need the tale of Noah to tell us that. The Newspapers tell daily, and our own hearts tell us well too, because chaos and nightmare have their little days there also. But the tale of Noah tells other truths as well.

It tells about the ark, for one, which somehow managed to ride out the storm. God knows the ark is not much—if anybody knows it is not much, God knows—and the old joke seems true that if it were not for the storm without, you could never stand the stench within. But the ark was enough, is enough. Because the ark is wherever human beings come together as human beings in such a way that the differences between them stop being barriers—the way if people say, of someone they both love, all the differences of age between them, all the real and imagined differences of colour, of wealth, of education, no longer divide them but become for each a source of strength and delight, and although they may go right on looking at each other as very odd fish indeed, it becomes an oddness to gladden the heart, and there is no shyness anymore, no awkwardness or fear of each other. Sometimes even in a church service we can look into each other’s faces and see that, beneath the differences, we are all of us outward bound on a voyage for parts unknown.

The ark is wherever people come together because this is a stormy world where nothing stays put for long among the crazy waves as last week’s sermon invited us to celebrate the temporary and where at the end of every voyage there is a burial at sea. The ark is where, just because it is such a world, we really need each other and know very well that we do. The ark is wherever human beings come together because in their heart of hearts all of them—white and black, believer and unbeliever, hippie and square—dream the same dream, which is a dream of peace—peace between the nations, between the races, between the brothers—and thus ultimately a dream of love. Love not as an excuse for the mushy and innocuous, but love as a summons to battle against all that is unlovely and unloving in the world. The ark, in other words, is where we have each other and where we have hope.

And finally let’s remember when it seems too hard that Noah looked like a fool in his faith, but he saved the world from drowning. The story of the sprig of hope in the complexity of a world seemingly on the path of self-destruction invites us, to remember the man named Yeshua  who also looked like a fool spread-eagled up there, cross-eyed with pain, who gives the world a sprig of hope wherever we meet and touch in something like love, it is because he also is there, brother of us all that we too can build our arks with love and ride out the storm with courage and know that the little sprig of green in the dove’s mouth betokens a reality beyond the storm more precious than the likes of us can imagine. Amen.

Celebrating the Temporary, with Imagination

• 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…

Taken literally those words seem to contradict everything we know about good health, after all one does have to take seriously what one eats, drinks and wears otherwise one will probably become unwell at some point. And birds do seem to carry seeds around and propagate many species of plants etc and lastly while it is beneficial to take time out to connect with nature and its beauty, sitting watching flowers grow works only for a while and life is more than time out.

I think that the problem might be about the literal approach to this. Sure, it is the literal descriptions that invite us to engage with the text but it seems we are to then put pictures and shapes and colours to the words so that we can explore the meaning. I think this has something to do with the need for imagination, not the naming of the colours but the putting them together into a story form to provide a deeper and richer meaning. We need to imagine what it could look like to hear the story in our minds eye.

It is said that one of the first contemporary biblical theologians to recognise the importance of imagination and story in the tradition of the Christian faith was American, Amos Wilder. Way back in the 1960s and early 70s, Wilder claimed that Jesus’ speech had the character, not of instruction and ideas, but of compelling imagination (Wilder 1971). He claimed 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.

He suggested 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. So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’. Of course, he must have known how to write but it is that he preferred conversation and speaking as a way of communicating. In a society growing  from an oral culture conversation would have been the common choice. In secular terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, oblivious of any concern for transcription or written record. Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is a crucial point in determining the culture of the time as 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. Recording devices did not exists for Jesus. As Wilder said: “Jesus was a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1971:13).

Now 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-a-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).

Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz wrote a book titled The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In in 2019 which reflects the most recent advances in biblical scholarship, seeking to present an understanding of the Bible, God, and Jesus that people can believe in with integrity.

He reminds us as if we needed reminding that in recent decades, the traditional church has experienced significant decline.  He wrote the book because he was concerned about how the Bible, God, and Jesus are presented in the local church.  The book notes that when we read the Bible in a non-literal way, the rich stories and messages of the Bible begin to open up to us in meaningful and personally transformative ways.  The book affirms how viewing the Bible as the inerrant, infallible word of God is simply inadequate to our modern experience.

As an expression of progressive Christianity, the book emphasizes a number of things:

  • We are to not take the Bible literally; rather, read in light of its historical context and mostly as metaphorical narrative.
  • Free God from the bonds of supernatural theism.
  • View Jesus not as divine but as fully human.

He provides the reader with a modern view of the Bible, God, and Jesus that is believable while, at the same time, providing integrity to our beliefs. It also raises the questions surrounding the debate in the time of the Council of Nicea and the claims of Arius we spoke about last week.

So, if we stay with this scholarly suggestion for a moment, we find that 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). Beware of a mindless acceptance of the status quo and the insidiousness of negativity and a life driven by fear.

That’s why many of us today 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, the particular sayings from our reading do have a particular focus:

  • They are addressed to people who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence, rather than with the broader political situation;
  • They challenge common attitudes towards life, and


  • 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 that they:

  • The sayings 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,
  • The sayings admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegals/immigrants— the common theme is those who are different whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’, In our western world and increasingly around the world we see this alienation being manifest as racism rising its ugly head.
  • The sayings challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.

And when we examine the implications of these sayings and this vision. Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion: He asks “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 seems important about all these sayings is, 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. They offer us the chance 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, and imprisons others.

About five years back 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 situational 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 006.

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, and we 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.

As a person born in the 1940s I have to admit to being shaped by the exciting 60s theology when peace movements and alternative movements clashed with a post war suspicion of anything new.. The different seemed off the edge and reckless and sometimes weird. There is however a very important learning that has prepared me for post-modernist thinking and in part it is reflected in a book by Clyde Reid. He wrote a book called Celebrate the Temporary. And it was and is significant because its message continues to interrupt and challenge the mundane and the comfortable and the anxious in our lives.

Reid says:

Celebrate the temporary Don’t wait until tomorrow, live today.- 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 – Celebrate the temporary  (Reid 1972).

I want to suggest we might get a bit more of a handle on the value of protest about differences that we consider unjust or simply not Christian when we see that protest and apologetic preaching use homiletics (the art of preaching -the art of protest) as their vehicle to reach the public. You will note I am aligning protest with preaching and so calling it an art form too. I have spoken before about the Event as a living describable happening and I want to suggest that the call of God upon our lives, the call Jesus makes in his sayings is a homiletic event, an art form. It is a living unfolding evolving thing, it is an event where certain words are astir with events, are swollen with the possibility of the impossible, are restless with elemental powers, with immemorial powers that make it impossible to forget, with promissory powers that make it impossible to be content with what is present and that long to be brought forth, yearning to be born. These are the stimulants for imagination (that which is not quite there for the senses) it seems. Some of these words are words like “justice” and “democracy,” “gift” and “forgiveness,” “friendship” and “hospitality.”

The power of these words, or rather of the events that are astir in these words, is what “calls” us, solicits us, making our hearts restless like a pregnant deconstructive mother eager to deliver. The power of that call, we might say, is the first yes, a solicitous yes, the yes that calls for confirmation. We in turn confirm, respond, answer. That is the second yes. But let’s be careful here because with all this talk of the stirring of the event it is easy to become stirred with expectations of a controlling power, whereas an event is a more, wispy, and willowy thing, a whisper or a promise, a breath or a spirit, not a mundane force. The event is a stimulant of the imagination. An imagination that is crucial even more so today in this modern world of uncertainty, headless politics and unclear solutions. What might protest, challenge of the status quo, and clarity of thought look like?

How might the Call of Jesus and of God resonate not only with those who believe in God, but especially with those who aren’t quite sure what to make of God, or perhaps don’t believe in God at all?  John D Caputo suggests a few things that might be characteristics of a homiletic of call and response in today’s world, and I want to suggest that a protest is not a proclamation of metaphysical Truth, but rather a communal proclamation of prayer and praise for the advent of the wholly other—which is to say, for the event harboured in the name of God.

We might see here that a homiletic of the event doesn’t preach about God, as if God needs such, but instead preaches after God. Preaching after God can be understood in a variety of ways. At the very least, preaching after God heeds the implications of Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and offers viable possibilities for preaching in the aftermath of metaphysics, especially for progressives who, “don’t do the supernatural well.”

Instead of viewing the standard postmodern critique of metaphysics (which consists in recognizing our inability to ascertain and/or possess objective Truth) as a threat to homiletics, it is better viewed as a gift to homiletics. From another perspective, to preach after God is to be in pursuit of God, giving voice to a desire beyond desire, and a hope against hope, for the event that is harboured in the name of God (which is a God yet to be as distinguished from a supernatural God of Being or Presence), consisting of proclamations of prayer and praise for the advent of the wholly other.

It is a postmodern remix of a restless heart, which is always, relentlessly, with hopes and sighs too deep for words, with prayers and tears, after God—precisely because life is lived in the wake, in the aftermath, of the unconditional, unnamable, affirmative, infinite call that leaves us hoping, sighing and dreaming, holding on for dear life.

What part does imagination play in all this? Well! As the psalmist writes, “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing” (Psalm 34). Why? Because, in the words of Richard Kearney, “such desire is not some gaping emptiness or negation . . . but an affirmative ‘yes’ to the summons of a superabundant, impassioned God.” A homiletic of the event is eschatological in the sense that its hunger for God, its desire for God, suggests an “other” that is always “to come,” what eye has not seen and ear has not heard. In Kearney’s language, it can be understood as desire for the God who may be: “This desire beyond desire I call eschatological to the extent that it alludes to an alterity that already summons me yet is not yet, that is already present yet always absent (Philippians 2:12), A Serendipitous Creativity that seeks me is that which is yet still to come, An ‘Almost’ God perhaps?

To summarize then we might end by saying that with the loss of absolutes and the seemingly impossible complexity of life and inauthenticity of the un-ending opportunities and certainties, concreteness and fixed eternal truths, society seems lost, but the challenge I think is that they are lost only without imagination to provide alternatives, and find this hope and faith and trust in a valued place. We need to celebrate the temporary, and… remember the everydayness of the Jesus imagination and his sayings that spoke to people’s situations, his utterances that provided hope such as: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance. Amen.

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.

Beyond Ecclesiastical Politics

In looking back over previous sermons on Trinity Sunday I noted that it has developed in some quarters as a Sunday when heresy, and even skepticism is raised as negative traits and proposed as against right belief, orthodoxy and even tradition.

This seems to be supported by Robert G Ingersoll who wrote that “Heresy is a cradle; orthodoxy, a coffin” Heresy and skepticism are healthy activities that have as their goal a truth that is workable, understandable and worthy of proclamation.

Like doubt, heresy and skepticism are important means toward an arguable reality and as Richard Holloway says “Truth is rarely simple and seldom obvious, which is why mature institutions recognise the importance of conflict and disagreement. It has to be noted that Christianity was born in conflict, and it has been characterised by conflict ever since. The Church’s obsession with heresy is witness to this fact”

The question we might ask is “Do I consider myself a heretic?”  The answer is I should. Why? Well! One reason might be to look at the history of the word. The ancient Greek word for ‘choice’ is the word we know as ‘heresy’. So, heretics are people of choice.

It was in the late second century or maybe a little earlier that a more negative or sinister interpretation began to be imposed as ‘heresy’. An idea of heresy in its negative sense gained real momentum in the writings of the first important Christian apologist, which is to say ‘defender’ of the faith.

This was Irenaeus (ca. 202 CE), a native of Asia Minor who became the bishop of what is now Lyons, France. He authored a book titled Against Heresies, a vigorous attack upon the perceived threat of Gnosticism to what he regarded as orthodoxy—that is, ‘right belief’.

Irenaeus’ book was so influential, it virtually defined heresy not only among his contemporary defenders of orthodoxy, but among Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant Christians well into modern times, including the 21st century! 

Thus, with the imposition of ‘orthodoxy’, all teachers, particularly those with original minds, were exposed to possible accusations of heresy. So, thanks in large part to Irenaeus, the term “heresy” has been a pejorative…A source of accusation, an indictable charge, and an occasion for censure or some other dire punishment, in many cases including torture and death.

We might ask; ‘What has all this to do with the Trinity? And the possible reason is that in the traditional Christian calendar, today is being celebrated as ‘Trinity Sunday’. Trinity Sunday – or as a version of the Athanasian Creed likes to put it: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible…”

The second reason is that it is also the doctrine around which most ’progressives’ have been charged with heresy. And just to take a little historical journey again. You may or may not be old enough to remember the turbulent 1960s and a couple of challenging heroes: Bishop John A. T. Robinson and German Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner. Both offered ‘heretical’ opinions on the Trinity. Robinson said during the Honest to God debates: “I was once asked a question after one of my talks: ’How would you teach a child the doctrine of the Trinity?’  It was one of the easiest questions I have ever received.  The answer was: ‘I wouldn’t’”. (Robinson 1967:86)

While Rahner, claimed that everyday devotional beliefs of most Catholics “would not change at all if there was no Trinity, so little does the doctrine engage their minds”.  (Freeman 2009:168)

I can remember starting a few sermons on the Trinity with the words that it was the Sunday most preachers would not preach on it out of respect for it. A way of avoiding its divisiveness perhaps?

One hesitates to list off the entire history of heresy but it might be worthwhile to note a few.

The first early heretic to note is Arius (256-336 CE) Alexandria Arius, a priest in the Church of Alexandria, Egypt, is perhaps the most famous (or infamous) heretic in Christian history. He lived at a time in which there was probably a general census among Christians that Jesus had been—and due to the resurrection, still was—divine in some sense, but his precise relationship as Son to the Father, much less to the Holy Spirit, had not yet been officially established.

Arius maintained the Son and the Father were not of the same being or substance (homo-ousios), but merely of similar being or substance (homi-ousios) —a verbal difference of one Greek letter. A “homoousian” in the fourth-century Arian controversy, was a person who held that God the Father and God the Son are of the same substance. Whereas a “homiousian” was a person who held that God the Father and God the Son are of like but not identical substance. Arius was considered as not of the so-called party line but his view gained great popularity throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and became so controversial that the Christian Emperor, Constantine, convened the first ecumenical council – the Council of Nicea – in 325 CE to settle the matter. 

It did, by imperial legislation, and against Arius and the emergent Arianism. He and his followers and their views were pronounced anathema, which by that time meant not only ‘insane and demented heretics’ but dangerous. Their books were burned. Their bishops sacked or murdered. Their churches suppressed by military conquest.

For all intents and purposes the Council of Nicea set the stage for an official Trinitarian doctrine: one Godhead, but three co-eternal and co-equal Persons, under one Name.

But the real tragedy of the imposition of the Nicean trinity and its aftermath lay in the elimination of discussion, not only of spiritual matters, but across the whole spectrum of human knowledge. In its place stood a decision of mind-boggling philosophical complexity “made more bitter and intense by ecclesiastical politics”.  (Freeman 2009:66)           

Because of or as a result of this complex conflict both the term ‘heresy’ and the concept it represents have been used relatively infrequently and mostly rhetorically over the last two centuries. Formal heresy trials have been infrequent and, more importantly, non-lethal. Infrequently yes, but not yet declared obsolete.

Closer to home was against Charles Strong (1844-1942)   An Australian the Rev Charles Strong came to Australia from Scotland and for some today, Strong is regarded as the first genuine theological progressive in Australia, with comparisons to John Shelby Spong. (Gardner 2006)

Ordained into the broad Church of Scotland in 1868, his success as a pastor, preacher, liberal theological teacher and social reformer led to his appointment as minister of Scots Church, Melbourne in 1875. For the next eight years Strong was never far away from controversy. He described his theology as “broad or liberal” which, he said, was “absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel in order to the development of a healthy Christian life”. (Badger 1971:51)

Such a theology had several characteristics:

  • it was fluid, anti-authoritarian, “being bound by neither creed, church, dogma nor council” (Badger 1971:237)
  • thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit
  • God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’
  • love and justice were always working together
  • it allied itself with science, and
  • it is based on human experience rather than an infallible book.  (Badger 1971:285)

Unable to resolve differences with the Presbyterian Church, and with the threat of a charge of heresy for promulgating and publishing heretical and unsound doctrine hanging over his head, Strong resigned, and immediately returned to Scotland. On his return to Australia in 1885, he assisted in founding the Australian Church – a free, non-sectarian, undogmatically-based religious fellowship.

And even closer to home 80 years later in the turbulent 1960s… Lloyd George Geering (1918 -) A New Zealander Born in New Zealand but having lived and taught in both Australia and New Zealand, Rev Professor Sir Lloyd Geering is best remembered for his high-profile 1967 heresy trial within the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. In several sermons preached and articles written between 1965 and 1967 Geering suggested why a new reformation in the church was overdue. “Is the Christian faith inextricably bound up with the world-view of ancient mankind, or can the substance of it be translated into the worldview of twentieth century mankind?”

He claimed the Bible was not literally inerrant, questioned the idea of a physical resurrection, and suggested humans had no ‘immortal soul’.

This can be considered not very revolutionary but a veritable storm erupted.  There was an immediate outbreak of calls for his resignation or at the very least, his dismissal.  So following hours of debate in presbyteries, congregations, and in national newspapers, the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, in heresy-hunting mode, in the full glare of television cameras and journalists, and having listened to both Geering and his detractors, declared that it found “no doctrinal error has been established, dismisses the charges, and declares the case closed.”

Geering had beaten the ‘heresy’ rap much to the disgust of those who brought forward the charge. One resigned and started his own church. The Catholic newspaper Zealander wrote: ‘Where does this leave the Presbyterian church now that it has sold Christianity down the River?’  (Geering 2006:164)

One of the most recent examples is another 50 years on in 2016, and in Canada… Gretta Vosper (1958 -) Canada. Rev Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada ordained minister and founding President of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, who, since 2001, has labeled herself a non-theist or atheist. And this so got up the nose of several of her Toronto Conference colleagues (a second time) —who concluded she was ‘unsuitable’ to be a minister— they petitioned the Assembly asking she be examined to determine if she should continue with the status of ‘minister’ in the church. After more than two years of arguments, meetings and newspaper articles, her ‘trial was set for June 2016.

The first of five questions to her were taken from the church’s ordination vows: ‘Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?’

Some edited comments from her very lengthy response follow.

“IF by “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”…you expressly mean the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world–capriciously or by design–by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions…  no, I do not believe in that at all…”

“What I do believe… … has come to me through a heritage that is rich in church and in the religious denomination into which I was born and raised.  It is rooted in a family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children.  These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings we have called gods…”

“It does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live…  And there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of a god.  Rather, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances…”

Above is just a snippet and in the end, and after more than an estimated $500,000.00 in costs and thousands of words written and spoken, the church and Vosper came to an agreement where the charges were dropped.

That our energy is ancient and original, that our atoms are ancient and original, that our carbon-based chemical skeleton was a product of a grandmother sun’s alchemy, does not necessarily satisfy another aspect of our nature.

We are not only what we are, but who we are.  (Fleischman 2013:164) Many of us are still prepared to say we are religious or spiritual. But not satisfied with the theology we have inherited.

Many are looking for a religion/spirituality that is Earthy. This is how Lloyd Geering talks about such a ‘spirituality’. 

It includes:

  • An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe
  • An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet 
  • An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself 
  • The value to be found in life, in all of its diversity
  • An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears * Responsibility for the care of one another
  • Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.  (Geering 2009:200)

Geering calls such spirituality ‘secular mysticism’. Another, called it ‘mystical naturalism’.

And here’s the rub! such a spirituality of whatever name, is heretical!

One has to ask if it is not high time for those of us who value progressive thought and action to reclaim the many condemned as heretics in the past (and present), and to acknowledge them for what they really are: heroes of faith.

Under different circumstances, their free-thinking might well have enriched religion in their own day, as it may do so for us today, as we appreciate and celebrate what they modelled: “not only the positive role of the intellect, of doubt, of freedom of thought, and of differences of opinion about doctrines, theologies, creeds, and other components, but the specific questions they raised and wrestled [with] as well.  In their honour, we may want to embrace for ourselves the label “heretic” or at least ‘Skeptic’ and its root connotation of freedom of choice, especially in matters of belief, and to take up its banner, not in subversion of the faith, but in support of it.”  (Laughlin 2013:109)

Rex Hunt of whom I quote often, and of whom I am most grateful for the sermon above has chosen to call and celebrate this Sunday ‘All Heretics Day’.


Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne: Abacada Press, 1971.

Fleischman, P. R.  Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant.  Amherst: Small Batch Books, 2013

Freeman, C. A.D. 381. Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. New York: The Overlook Press, 2009

Gardner, A. “What’s in a Name? Strong and Spong.” Part of the Strong Symposium, University of South Australia. The Charles Strong Memorial Trust, 2006

Geering, L. G. “The 1967 Heresy Trial – Forty Years On”.  In private circulation from the author, 2006

Wrestling With God: The Story of my Life. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2006

Coming Back to Earth: From gods, to God, to Gaia. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2009

Laughlin, P. A. “Heretics or Heroes? Reclaiming the Faith’s Free Thinkers” in R. A. E. Hunt & J. W. H. Smith. (ed) Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on ‘progressive’ Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2013

Muir, F. J.  Heretics’ Faith: Vocabulary for Religious Liberals. Annapolis: Muir/Self Published, 2001

Ingersoll, R. G. Heretics and Heresies. eBook. The Gutenberg Project, 2011/2013

Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London: Fontana Press, 1967.

Vosper, G. “Response to the Questions of Ordination.” June 2016. Direct from the author.