St David’s

Posted: November 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

St David’s

When a passionate person interested in saving the Church building from demolition, not that such an act was even discussed by the congregation with any certainty; called St David’s building a Cathedral they exposed the heritage of St David’s to popularism and to the world of marketing. Even though history shows that fewer people value the place of religion, and church in society the idea of preserving historical buildings is a commodity that can be marketed to raise funds. Again, the question of materialism and usury which traditionally the church has warned against is laid aside in the interests of preservation.

In a traditional Presbyterian culture a Presbyterian Cathedral is an oxy-moron at least and an anathema to the founders of The Presbyterian Church at worst. Remember, a Cathedral is reliant on it having a Cathedra or a Bishops Chair, and remember the strong opposition to Church Union due to the desire for Bishops. In calling St David’s a Cathedral one could argue that ecclesiological sensitivity and heritage is in danger of suffering from expediency.

However, in calling the building a cathedral we are reminded of what the congregation of St David’s have been saying repeatedly over the last five or so years. The Church is the people not the building. And they have been saying this not in defence or to make a point of elitism. They have been saying it because the Cathedral was a place where the civic and the religious met in practice. It was and still is in some liturgical sense, the place where ceremony and meaning and service and interaction takes place. Livestock was traded there in many ancient cases, In St David’s historical world Corporate Board members and directors and CEOs rubbed shoulders and discussed the world, tested the morality of their economic and management strategies. Community met there and shared values were developed, people played there, people socialized there. In St David’s world the entrepreneur the social developer, the civic minded, the university academic, the medical professional, the legal professional, the construction industry leaders were all represented and gathered as congregation to talk sing, discuss and play together. The development of the City of Auckland in perhaps a time of its greatest expansion was significantly created by the people who were St David’s congregation.

Through St David’s, people in its history has served many purposes in the civic life of this city and even the country as well as the life of the church. While town commerce and livestock trading may not have taken place in its buildings, civic ceremonial events were held and they have reflected history and culture in a degree heightened by the longstanding role and power which the church has exercised in previous centuries. St David’s has acted like a cathedral and has had space and resources to sponsor and encourage the arts, be it in music, paintings, poetry prose or sculpture as well as theological exploration and the art of praxis. It is also true that whether they are of any architectural significance or not the very buildings are part of St David’s heritage. More so because of their use rather than their existence.

It is also true that many cities would be the poorer without its cathedral and in this case without St David’s, Auckland would have been the poorer for its commitment to those on the very margins of society, street drinkers, drug addicts, the homeless, through its longstanding hosting of organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Ala-non,  Men’s Group and its very effective opportunity Shop St David’s has acted like a Cathedral in many ways sometimes in its Presbyterianism, more effectively than some Cathedrals themselves.

And what is yet to be fully understood St David’s has offered New Zealand society in recent years, a challenging and brave self-critique of church, religion and Christian Faith. Its people have been committed to being a haven for those who are curious about religion, who can slip in and slip out without obligation. It has been a resort for those who flee from their churches if they have become too evangelical or too conservative, too charismatic, too ‘jolly’, too predictable and arrogant. St David’s has been like a cathedral perhaps as a place that in its offering of anonymity seems a safer space than a local church or chapel. St David’s has maintained a degree of a classic Presbyterian way of worship which is measured, ordered, and yet open to innovation of thought. It has sought to offer intelligent and thought-provoking liturgies, sermons, and music which values congregational singing and stimulates theological thinking.

St David’s has throughout its existence as a parish has also displayed a rugged independence of mind. Until recently the parish has called Ministers of note in the wider church that some have suggested maintains an elitism while truth be told, there has been a strong commitment to scholastic rigor and well-read leadership as a way of encouraging a pragmatic practicing faith response. There have been recent examples of contemporary issues where its pragmatism has enabled diversity of opinion to be valued, such as the acceptance of openly gay leadership and acceptance of same sex marriage. One might suggest that St David’s people as a community have tested the doctrinal, creedal literal conservative viewpoints as part of their walking the Jesus Way. It has in recent years been a part of the global movement named Progressive Christianity in its traditional commitment, often unstated, to open, enquiring theology, that enables those who may sit light to the doctrinal claims of Christianity but find in a thinking faith and in both music and art a sense of otherworldliness and self-critique akin to a traditional faith. A commitment to theopoetics as opposed to theology has been something that St David’s has been able to explore within a City Church, Cathedral like setting of anonymity rather than a clubby, chummy church experience for those who prefer a certain sense of detachment from the worldliness.

What has been a downside of the recent heritage building focus of energy has been a deterrence from a radical sense of bringing in the kingdom of God as seen in the life and teachings of Jesus – distortion of a concern for justice and compassion, and added complexity to the desire to transform our society to become a more equal and sustainable world.

St David’s despite the perceptions imposed upon it has always valued a society where those on the margins are brought into the centre. This is not exclusive to St David’s as many churches are engaged in this calling but City Churches like St David’s have always had a pivotal role to play, thanks to their somewhat privileged and traditionally well-resourced position. And here is perhaps is the source of St David’s dilemma. Its traditional member has been a largely white, middle class, middle to older aged congregation, coming in from the wealthier suburbs, with choristers, teachers, elders and leaders often drawn from the city’s private schools, serving a transient local populace and in recent decades an increasingly multi-cultural urban population. To its credit there has been a reaching out across the city but somehow attending a service does seem to be somewhat out of kilter with contemporary life. Many obviously enjoy the pomp of and ceremony provided by the Cathedral model. The processions provided within the anonymity of a larger gathering provide this sense of being part of a larger community and this is borne out by the decline in attendance as the congregation reduces in number as well as in St David’s when the congregation moved away from worship in the brick building. Another example of this might be the decline in ethnic congregational connections, projects and foci of language ministries, while well supported, failed when less anonymity was available. The loss of cultural norms due to the smallness of gathering was detrimental to growth.

So, change is upon us. But what is this change to be and what facilitates it and resources it? The professed desire of St David’s has always been to better serve the urban mix of people in this city and it has been by a wider participation in the needs of the city and there are a number of suggested causes as to why St David’s now faces closure.

One is the closure of the brick building and the loss of communal anonymity that has been its strength does seem to have affected the gathering. It has become more familial and less inclusive as a result, and there are claims of abuse of privilege and bullying of people in leadership. Conflict has been more obvious and thus detrimental. That might sound emotive and exaggerating but in essence a healthy level of conflict has been inherent in the DNA of St David’s. Throughout its history there have been conflicts of thought and interest that have been resolved both arbitrarily and otherwise, such as which side of the Newton Gully to locate the parish, where to build the new church, how much to pay for the organ that some of the congregation wanted to bring back from the dissident group?

How much to pay for the new church building, what to do about the leaking walls, roof and Oamaru Stone around the windows. How to use the manse at the back of the church, Where the office should be and so on. All logical debates within communities one could say but also the logical outcome of a community under siege from difference. In St David’s case it could be said that the pressure to meet heritage values, economic viability issues surrounding property in inner city Auckland as well as wider church strategies has meant closure is an inevitable and logical option. The question remains as to its value as a missional, developmental and future enhancing option. It may be the closure is and was the best one for the future and that will be discovered if human spirituality needs it.

The issue of the future is perhaps even more complex than we think as our traditional form of Christendom has been shown to be no longer an effective vehicle for the sharing and exploration of Spiritualty on a public social construct of an unlimited mass scale, that Congregational fragility has been exposed by Covid-19 and by required levels of critical mass and community capacity. The questions; do congregations have to be of a certain size, do they have to be multicultural or language and culture specific or is there a single definition of mission, have been debated for many years without resolution and do they need resolution is raised as a result of experiments.

Maybe St David’s is once again leading the way? Maybe once again the pragmatism of St David’s is asking the questions about the future of the Christian faith, is Christendom the only mode of being? Is it time to learn from the past and specifically from the days of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth? It is time to put aside the theological isms and remember the power of his example that enabled the living through of an empires demise, a religion’s evolution and a worlds social, economic and political transformation with a certain hope of not just renewal, but a new life of unprecedented outcome.

Maybe it’s time to see the closure not as a sad ending but as a significant opportunity for the new thing. In other words, take out the choir pews but don’t disband the choir. Keep it alongside all your other ideas for music making. Maybe the desire of The Friends Trust or of a potential purchaser to create a performance art centre is worth doing. St David’s people gave much energy to the creation of a learning centre but maybe theopoetics is the way to go. Don’t blame anything on the way things are done but rather be far more creative liturgically than you have been, on all fronts. Use inclusive language, interfaith language and concepts, consider the hundreds of ‘progressive’ hymns and songs which are intelligent, thought provoking and challenging to your theological assumptions. Dare to have as many experimental and different experiences of worship as you possibly can. Be a seedbed of innovation.  Invite discussion that courts controversy and encourage questioning debate. Resist ever being a cloning purveyor of any idea. And above all create a unique place of learning, hope, compassion and commitment to the vision of Jesus for the transformation of his world. Amen.

In our DNA or in Community yet to be?

I want to suggest that in our Matthew’s story for today there is a lot of what we might name ‘ancient DNA’ but very little Jesus storytelling DNA in it. Another thing to consider is whether or not this is actually a parable? If it is this story is a ‘parable’ we are compelled to ask where is the surprise, or the twist in the tale? The Jesus Seminar said this about the story: “It does not cut against the religious and social grain.  Rather if confirms common wisdom: those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… it does not surprise or shock; there is no unexpected twist in the story; it comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254). Another thing this story does is it emphasizes boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again, is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus. So, it might be safe to assume that this story is not a parable but it does have several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes that seem to be running through it.

One of the sub-themes might be that of community life where communal life is a feature. The second theme might be that of a second coming, an immanent, return of the messiah and the third theme might be that of marriage.

Community Life and Communal Care in a society where there is limited amount of wealth, and where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, the actions of the so-called five wise young women raises the questions: How do we deal with issues of scarcity in our community? How do we deal with issues of privilege, distribution of power, resources and difference? The examples of economic instability reflected in business failures, home foreclosures, and uncertainty, and in these particular times we might ask why is it that “choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response?” Is it ok that the few control most of the resources?

Process theologian Bruce Epperly, asks is this acceptable when this life is a journey?  “What would have happened, if the [women] had pooled their resources?  Would they all have been excluded from the party or rewarded for their quest to be generous?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) How does the distribution of resources play out in a kingdom almost here and certain to come? Does an inequity of power and resources constitute being alert and ready?

The theme of the second Coming of Jesus that arises out of the fear of being left out, or left behind and missing out on a supernatural expectation of the messiah. When hearing ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do we do so because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others, where the message of ‘stay alert’ and be ready’, along with ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasised.

We know as Dom Crossan has commented “the so-called Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231) Again, the story is that this new community that we seek is not only the now but also that which is certain to be. It is about the building of, the creation of, and the entering into; the manifestation of the kingdom of realm of God that we are called into.

A keen scholar of Paul Tillich suggested that “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent” In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focused so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God. Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.

The third theme is that of Marriage and here we are asked to enter the historical context without all the information and that only goes so far because we have already experienced our own cultural assumptions about the place of the rite, the concept and the institution within which we might expect to be of the new realm of God.

Recent attempts to explain the place and purpose of marriage in our present community have engendered charges brought against some ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, by those who disagree with both this action, and any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church. The basis of the claims is usually presented by this who depend upon a literalized text as ‘contrary to scripture’.

These claims along with others are then supported by a list of scripture passages identified by those prosecuting the charge, as relating in some way to marriage and the marital relationship. This is often coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’. This latter action is skating on very thin ice indeed! There is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage. Indeed, we have very limited, if any, information on first century Palestinian Jewish wedding customs.

What we can glean from a range of sources, seems to be: (i) marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was an arrangement made “by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192); (ii) the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and (iii) the marriage was arranged and ratified by the fathers/mothers, but the negotiated the terms. The wedding then took place in two stages:

(i) a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then

(ii) a transfer of the young bride, often no more than 12 – 13 years of age, to the home of her husband.

Our story by Matthew opens at the conclusion of the negotiations, with the bridegroom coming to collect the bride. “The [young] women are relatives and friends of the groom.  They are not bridesmaids… The bride is never mentioned in the [story]” (Reid 2001:193). We might say ‘young women’ rather than following many orthodox scholars who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, and we say that because the word used to designate them is the same word used in the story of Jesus’ birth, which has also been translated as ‘virgin’. The word does not mean virgin but rather ‘a young woman of marriageable age’.

Having spelt out the themes that arise and asking the ‘authentic’ question we are left with one and that is that of a parable concern which is what this new Kingdom or Realm of God might look like if and when it comes and this is akin to our first theme of community life and communal care as it might touch our life experiences. We can also resonate with this especially in light of the growing economic instability home foreclosures and the economic uncertainty in our time. We can also resonate with it in the post covid-19 world that lies ahead. As we prepare to protect what we now have, how do we balance this concern, with a concern for the needs of others, especially those who are now most vulnerable to almost total loss? This question is not new for back in the 1960s we were told that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity, our intimate beliefs about reality needed to be lived out in our society, and not be restricted just to the individual reality. In other words, this new realm; new kingdom; is not just about money, it is about the whole of life as and in community. It is not just about political ideology but rather about human flourishing.

So maybe we might ask how we all might react if the minister in the next suburb along the Valley, was to suggest that our congregations might commit themselves “to sacrificial giving in order to support persons in [other] congregations who lose their jobs or are threatened with foreclosure?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) Are we just a group of unrelated individuals or the interdependent body of Christ seeking the indwelling of the realm of our God?

What do we do to the poor and needy when we raise the value of houses in their area? What do we do for the poor and needy when we raise interest rates? Are these not but 2 questions we should ask when asking how we might make decisions that enhance human flourishing?

Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Minnesota. The Liturgical Press.

Matthew 5: 1-12

David Lose begins a sermon he wrote some years back with reference to a scene in Schindler’s List the movie where Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, is the commandant of a German death camp. Goeth is, in brief, a violent sociopath, prone to kill the Jewish prisoners at his camp indiscriminately. And he believes that his ability to kill is the very essence of power. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a consummate showman and has somehow worked his way into Amon Goeth’s good graces. One evening, Schindler challenges Goeth’s beliefs about power. The ability to kill isn’t power; the ability to have mercy is power. That’s why, Schindler argues, the Emperor was the most powerful person in Rome. Anyone could kill; only the Emperor could pardon a convicted criminal out of mercy. Goeth “tries on” being merciful, pardoning a few people who have annoyed him. It feels good, but he can’t pull it off for long, eventually returning to his brutal ways. Exercising mercy, it turns out, is harder than it looks and proves to be a power that he eludes him as he is drawn back to the ordinary, cultural exercise of violence as power.

The connection with this scene in relation to the Beatitudes is possibly the common mistake we make when reading the Beatitudes which is to see them as a kind of moral check list. Sermons following this interpretative line will typically urge their hearers to live a “beatitudes-kind-of-life” (or employ some other moralistic and simplistic slogan). And let’s admit it this approach is sympathetic to the pull of this reading. This is Matthew, after all, who is prone to defining the Christian life in terms of behaviour. And the beatitudes do indeed lift up particular behaviours – hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful – that are admirable and lend themselves to exhortation. But while we can imagine imploring folks toward some of these ideals, it feels like it makes less sense to urge some other beatitudes as actions – “Go be meek!” – and somewhat ridiculous when it comes to others still – “Be mournful!” So? What do we do with this?

Perhaps we can look past Matthew and his agenda of behaviour modification and  see the Jesus he is talking about as inviting us to imagine what it’s like to live in the realm of God and, by inviting that imagination, drawing a sharp contrast between the realm of God and the realm of the world and challenging our often unconscious allegiance to the latter. Maybe we could see the world as different but not bad as traditional theology has often painted it. Maybe we could notice that the people who Jesus is calling “blessed” are definitely not the people the world culture views as blessed. Those who are mourning rather than happy? Those who are meek rather than strong? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than wealth? That seems absurd does it not. And that holds for pretty much everything on Jesus’ list.

We remember here again that in Matthew’s chronology, Jesus begins his ministry with a summary of all that will unfold in the text before he meets his fate.  What they hear from Jesus is a series of contrasts that are completely counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom: those who “hunger for righteousness” and are currently dismayed by the odds against them will prevail in the end; those who show mercy and make peace even when they are persecuted for their beliefs and actions, following Jesus’ example, will be known as “children of God.”  However, the same old human story relentlessly continues: you can expect to be persecuted “in the same way the prophets who were before you.”

So perhaps Jesus is playing for larger stakes than an improved ethic. Perhaps he’s challenging those who we imagine are being blessed in the first place. Who is worthy of God’s attention? Who deserves our attention, respect, and honour? And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our present culture’s view of pretty much everything. In our culture, blessing equals power. success. the good life. righteousness. What is noble and admirable. What is worth striving for and sacrificing for. You name it. Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.

And one of the big challenges we encounter in this approach is the grapple with our view of those we have loved and lost in the previous year. In doing this we can come against the inadequacy of vocabulary in light of the kingdom or realm Jesus’ proclaims. It is too easy here to leap off into the supernatural or the superstitious when we have not “lost” those who have died. In traditional terms they live now in the nearer presence of God, beyond our immediate reach, yet connected to us through memory, faith, and love. This is the unblessed verses saints when we celebrate All Saints’ – and, indeed, at all memorial services. Maybe we are called to participate in the inversion of the kingdom of the world which believes that all we can see, hold, control, or buy is all there is. When we commend those, we have loved to God’s care, we proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but rather exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Jesus promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring that the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us. Again, not supernatural but rather part of what it means to be human.

Here we have the connection with the scene from Schindler’s List. The other-worldly concept challenging alternative Way that is the possibility of imagining that the path to God is not through might, power over or domination of thought but rather through what might be termed a weak theology, through a worldly foolishness, through doubt, failure and what I have suggested in my book. Through an ‘almost’. Or as John D Caputo suggests, through a God that does not exist but rather insists. In this alternative exercising mercy is more powerful than wielding violence, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy’s is more powerful than being right. The Jesus Way, is suddenly a very this-worldly possibility. But it’s not easy. It takes practice.

Suddenly returning hate for hate, condemning those who do not conform to our expectations or moral categories, and exercising violence against those who will not yield to us seems so clear it becomes hard not to believe they are the only possibilities, whether as participants or victims.  That’s what happens when we ask the hard questions that challenge our social norms and our assumptions of righteousness.

If this approach to the promised realm that the Jesus Way insists, we engage with is worthy then each week we gather is a gathering with others around One who would have been considered, in almost every conceivable way, an absolute loser and a tragic victim, rejected by the prominent, executed by the powerful. Yet as revelation of the Way becomes in tradition, Jesus the Christ, the one raised from the dead, as vindication of claims about his worth and validating the reality of the life and love to which he lived and loved.

So perhaps the task before us this All Saints’ Sunday, is less to exhort our people to a particular ethical behaviour than it is to recognize the alternative in-breaking promise is that this alternative realm is real and transformative, and it invites creative, creating imaginative construal. Even the slow demise of Christendom conforms that exhortation, rarely works. If it did the church would be growing would it not? And it’s not that we don’t know what we should do, but rather that we cannot see how. And we know that we do not need more rules because it is impossible to make enough. We know that we need a new heart. One that is rooted in the promise of surprise. The surprise of who is blessed, who is loved, and who has been commissioned to exercise the counter-cultural imagination Jesus proclaimed. And that starts with you and me; people who probably don’t feel particularly blessed, loved, or capable, yet if our story is correct it is those whom the Jesus story still calls for just those things.

Let’s be sure here. As traditionally evangelical and emotional as this call may be, it is hard to give what one does not have and this means that the call is not to give a beatitudes-informed list of ethics but rather a beatitudes-created set of eyes capable of seeing the divine as an alternative yet world transforming blessing. The alternative approach this text call us to is the rediscovery of the engagement between the stories of scripture and the whole human experience within the timeless conversation of tradition. If human concerns and questions are recognized and addressed in the biblical texts which know the human condition thoroughly and, simultaneously, bear witness to the holy, then we are to host a “sacred conversation” between all past texts and the present occasion when they are read and interpreted in public.

We can all agree that the world needs saints. And we might also say that saints need you and I to stand in a Jesus’ place and surprise them with the news that they, too, no matter what their circumstances or situation, and whether the world sees them this way or not– and even whether they see themselves this way or not – all are blessed and loved, and linked in this way with all the saints who have gone before us.

For those who would see the concept of saints as elitist and selective Jean-Luis Chretien reminds us that

“Other voices are at once the past and future of our own voice.  The past because they have already called us and even named us, they have already addressed themselves to us, and through their immemorial past, immemorial as far as we are concerned since they preceded the I, they have always already gathered lights, no matter, how obscure, in the place that becomes, little by little, our place.  Future of our voice also, since it is only through them that we can learn to speak and to say something.”

For those who would suggest that the idea of sainthood is an out of date concept and of no further use Ludwig Wittgenstein says:  

“You may say something new and yet it must be old.  In fact you must confine yourself to saying old things– and all the same it must be something new!  Different interpretations must correspond to different applications.  A poet too has constantly to ask himself: ‘but is what I am writing really true?’– and does this necessarily mean: ‘is this how it happens in reality?’  Yes, you have to assemble bits of old material.  But into a building.”

I want to finish with a summary of the above discussion which is that, there always has to be something to make the human connection between human beings and that which we name God, and that something has most often been rooted in human imagination, consisting of words to be sure; after all we humans are speakers and thinkers, as well as artists. Our words of prayers and, sometimes, even the words of our theological doctrines and ideas are but really the frail filament through which the collective consciousness passes.  Without them it would not pass at all, but they are frail nonetheless.” This is the ‘almost’ the process of becoming, the living planet, the cosmic system and very possibly, the realm that Jesus proclaimed as here and yet to come. It is to be seen in the foolishness of the crucifixion and in the weak theology of a ‘crucified God’,

The sainthood revealed in the beatitudes is not about a set of behavioural ethics but rather about the promise of, the possibility of a new transformed world, a world where love changes everything. Amen.

‘Events of Grace’

Posted: October 20, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Events of Grace’

Matthew 22: 34-46

It matters if someone loves us. It matters that we love ourselves. No human experience is more fundamental than the transforming ‘event of grace’ of being loved. Indeed, there is a considerable body of theological opinion which claims the very heart of the Christian message is that Jesus of Nazareth shows the unconditional and gracious love of God.

Before I go on, I want to explain if I can what I think an event is and make the claim that when we name something as grace or grace-filled we are in fact naming an event that is dynamic, moving and complex. In other words, we are naming that which is our living God as the loving action. A key thing to remember here also is that an event is uncontainable. It is free to transform all that it encounters. This understanding of grace and event for me is what enables a hermeneutical opportunity within which to explore what grace is and how it works. In naming something ‘grace’ we limit it by what we know and restrict it by its relationship to history, circumstance, and setting.

Careless thoughts

conceived only to fuel

my deranged ramblings

incessant mutterings of a shattering mind

bending backwards, almost breaking,

risking the chance of ever fully mending

hoping and praying

for a sentence that’s pending approval

Whereas the freedom of event enables unfettered, unlimited, unconditional opportunity. Whether the grace of God enjoys a merely passing historical privilege is relative to the event it harbours. It can remain a name if it fails to become an event which brings everything together in meaning, description and practical manifestation.

Allowing the rising of the sun

Paving ways for thriving wishes,

unbarr­ing gates for soaring dreams,

unlocking latches for poetic engagement

relieving the heightening of language

dulling anxieties of grieving hearts.

constantly seeking unshakable utterances,

promising goodness, happiness

and titillating sanity.

Anyway, having I hope given some depth to an event of grace I want to go back to our Matthew text especially to the second commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, section, and I want to draw on a sermon Rex Hunt gave some 40 odd years ago. He notes that his sermon was influenced greatly by Eric Fromm. It was centred on the theme of love, especially the value of self- love and self-acceptance as part of the traditional text expressed in the biblical: ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’.

The first claim Rex made was that it is OK to love others as well as OK, and not a problem or ‘sin’, to love yourself”. The second was that: “love of others and self-love are not mutually exclusive of each other. 

If it is a virtue to love one’s neighbour as a human being of worth, then it must be a virtue, and not a vice, to love oneself, since one is also a human being of worth”. He then went on to suggest that a clue to understanding what love is, is expressed in the saying of Matthew’s Jesus: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

Rex notes here that a better translation might be: ‘love your neighbour, just as you are to love yourself’. And that: “respect and acceptance of our own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of our own self first, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another person”.

One of the challenges here is to move away from an evangelical/fundamentalist position which claims that self-love is selfish love, whereas the radicalness of Jesus’ statement is that self-love is not the same as selfishness. A selfish person is interested only in her or himself and wants everything for him or herself and we have a merging of individuality and narcissism where one needs to be at the centre of everything. A selfish person does not love herself too much, but too little. For selfish persons are incapable of loving others as well as incapable of loving themselves and this confirms what we know about community. No human alone can create community. “Interactions among humans and between humans and the natural world creates communities.” (Peters i2002:36)

Rex notes that he concluded his sermon with these words: “Self-love, the love referred to by Jesus when he said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – requires the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth and freedom, because all are rooted in our capacity to love.  Then, and only then, can we go on to love our neighbour”.

Having briefly affirmed that need for self-love in the process of creating community and of enabling love of one’s neighbour my hope is that one might see that an event of grace or a grace-filled event contains more than just what one does and includes who one is.

I now want to tackle the other stream in the text; that of the image of God.

The first engagement with this task is to ask a question. What is your image of the god you understand as God?  What is the god ‘God’ like for you? Or what picture, if any, do you have when you hear “one of the most complex and difficult [words] in the English language, a word rich with many layers and dimensions of meaning” (Kaufman 2004:1. Here perhaps is God as event as opposed to name, In naming we restrict God to the limits of history and culture, whereas God as event enables the unconditional, the timelessness and I would claim ‘the Almost’.

This is not to say that culture has no part to play in it but it does restrict it to the naming as opposed to the event. This is also not new as traditionally we have always had at least three different strands to the way the word god has been used in English-speaking societies: (i) the biblical strand (ii) the philosophical strand (iii) the popular strand. So, the question we asked at the beginning of this section is a language and cultural question. How do we speak about the god we name God in a way that communicates in our culture?

Rex Hunt says that for him the journey has been changing as his experiences have changed and I think that is the same for me also. Rex suggests that for him he used to think of God as ‘anam cara’ or soul friend as modern Celtic spirituality says.  (O’Donohue 1997) Or as ‘Caring Friend’, as some Process theologians suggest, who nudges, calls, lures, pokes us onward.  I have to admit that process theology has been important for my own journey in this regard. The traditional church or biblical language for ‘anam cara’ is the word ‘love’. And a loving God has always been balanced by a fearsome, in control, all-seeing, God.

In more recent years, I have intentionally, like Rex, added to my thinking and moved away from using human-like metaphors in addressing God, to using more neutral language, such as energy, force, Spirit. Rex has used ‘creativity’. Creativity in cosmic evolution. Creativity in biological evolution. Creativity in cultural/symbolic evolution, and I have in finding that limited have begun to use Serendipitous Creating to designate both the randomness of evolution and the dynamic, event-like process. I have also wrestled with the name of God being ‘Almost’ which combines both name and event. In the end these are attempts to find an understanding and language which can enable us to explore what it means to be religious using insights from Darwinian thought as well as being more appropriate to our newer worldviews and ecological and scientific thinking. As Gordon Kaufman suggested “our God language and God thinking, our ‘theology’ must take into account what we have learned about the evolutionary character of our world and ourselves…”. (Kaufman 2004:123)

Most scholars would I think agree that, both ‘process’ and ‘creativity’ are the metaphors we most often use today when we want to speak about or address, God. And with that change in language has come a host of other changes, all of them away from the traditional g-o-d language of much of our upbringing. But both life and religious issues are not only answered intellectually. They are also answered “with our whole being, with the way we live our lives”.  (Peters 2002:92)

Karl Peters says many people today are asking: What kind of person do I want to be? Reflecting on this question, he says he wants to be friendly, loving, caring, compassionate, curious, open to new possibilities, intelligent, and, in so far as is possible, wise.  What has now become good for me he says, is not so much what I can acquire.  It has become what I can be”.  (Peters 2002:92)

What I think he is suggesting is, that we can become ‘events of grace’ when things come together in unexpected ways “and give rise to new relations of mutual support.” (Peters 2007.) And, that, I think, is pretty close to the self-love and love of others – that we are called to be as ‘events of grace’ as expressed in the saying: ‘love your neighbour, just as you are to love yourself’. It matters if someone loves us.  It matters that we love ourselves. It matters that we live in a web of relationships with others and with nature.

Almost is about something that is not yet

It is about to be but not yet

Its promise is in it’s all but

And its approximately

An event of grace is something that is not yet but insists that it is about to be. Its promise is in its serendipitous creating and not in its naming, in its dynamic living process as opposed to its identifiable result. Or as John D Caputo might say, it does not exist but rather insists. Its efficacy is in its transforming as grace-filled event. Amen.

Fromm, E. The Art of Loving. London. George Allen & Unwin, 1957.
Kaufman, G. In The Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
O’Donohue, J. Anam Cara. London. Bantam Books, 1997.
Peters, K. E. Dancing With The Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press, 2005.

‘Two Empires or One Kingdom?’ 

Once again, we have another story of a challenge and confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders and elites. In this case, the Pharisees and those who supported Herod as King (that is, as vassal King of the real rulers – the Romans), or is it more than that?

The scene is set. Here we are gathering in a space where differing views can be expressed in a degree of safety. Probably on a mound outside of town where people can gather and listen as well as escape if it becomes boring or too radical. It has to be pretty safe because we have a few Chief Priests and a bunch of Pharisees and Jesus and his followers. We are told that the reason the Chief Priests are there is because they have heard about the parables attributed to Jesus and being the scholars and church-men they are they have realised he is speaking about them in somewhat challenging ways. They obviously discuss this and decide that action is required and they see in the Herodians an ally in their task of defending themselves in the face of what is being said about them.

The interesting thing about this alliance is that these two groups were not natural allies.  The Herodians are people who supported the rule of Herod and who cooperated with the Roman rulers and because of that cooperation were given authority by Romans.  The Pharisees on the other were the legalists among the Jewish leaders who believed that their interpretation of the Law was the one to be obeyed.  When they spoke of the law of course they specifically meant Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They were the protectors of the faith, the boundary keepers and of course the bunch that held the power of clergy within the community. This was a creative yet fragile alliance pulled together to address a common enemy. In this case Jesus who was obviously being listened too, maybe even at the expense of the regular attendance at the synagogue and politically challenging those who were leading a comfortable life in the lap of the Romans.

Then this alliance discussed their common enemy and devised a way to entrap Jesus in what he was saying. Not the Pharisees didn’t go themselves but rather sent their disciples. Maybe Jesus would get too much status if they themselves fronted up. It might look like they were afraid of him and they might get their hands dirty if they were seen in their robes and elaborate dress to be giving Jesus too much kudos?

And when the opportunity to engage arrives they unfold their trap.

‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for a person’s rank means nothing to you. ‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

What does Jesus do? He doesn’t lie down or respond passively. He; being aware of their malice, of their political alliance in the interests of power and he says:

‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

He then addresses their weapon, the paying of taxes to Rome;

Show me a coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then Jesus said to them: ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’

They answered: ‘The emperors.’

Then Jesus said to them: ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’

We remind ourselves that the aim of the question is not to get an answer but to trap Jesus.  So, what does it mean to give to Caesar a Roman coin? The Pharisees in defense of their faith would have regarded these Roman coins as idolatrous.  The contained an image of Tiberius, Caesar, who would have been considered as divine by the Romans.  The point Jesus makes about them being hypocrites can be made by the group of Pharisees simply producing the coin in the temple as they had shown themselves up as hypocrites in their stance. Whereas it is more than likely that the Herodians had no problem with the Roman coin, after all they have allied themselves with Rome.

So, we are left with the question, should they pay tax?  I wonder if you can see the trap.  If Jesus says yes what will the Pharisees say?  If he says no what will the Herodians say?  Jesus who is known to always speak the truth to that simple question will be caught out. He will be backed into a corner so that whatever his answer Jesus would get in strife with the authorities. This was the clever question devised by both Pharisee and Herodian.

But they have underestimated Jesus as he cleverly avoids the trap yet at the same time confronts his adversaries with a conundrum in terms of their loyalties. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

As this weekend is general election weekend and our society is at risk of change both for the better and for ill, it is pertinent to ask the question about the relationship between religion and politics. We can see in some reports from the United States of America the mess that an ignorance of this relationship can result in when the desire for power is underestimated or manipulated for partisan influence. The question they needed to ask was “did you give to Caesar what is Caesar’s or to God what is God’s?” The questions we might ask ourselves are; Did you separate religion from politics? Did you agree that we should pay our tax but not let our spirituality impact our political decisions?  For you did religion and politics mix or not?  Did your views on abortion and the sanctity of life wrestle with the euthanasia referendum. Did your care for others influence your vote on the cannabis referendum? And finally do you sense that those questions are about to trap you in some way?

It is pretty much agreed that in the scriptures the intermingling of religion and politics is constant.  In the Old Testament again and again we read of how God ascribed political power to even the foreign rulers and enemies.  They ruled because God made it so. 

Jesus himself was incredibly immersed in challenging the political powers and the social structure of his day. This understanding has become more and more narrowed down with the paucity of original text and recent discoveries. The New Testament scholar N.T.Wright says of Jesus whatever else he wasn’t, Jesus was a politician. 

All this strongly suggests that this passage can be wrongly interpreted to mean that politics and religion don’t mix. Keep what is Caesars away from what is God’s. What is evident is that this assumption that is made by many in our post-enlightenment world has arisen out of teachings and understandings that have emerged since the time of at least the Reformation. 

It is true that this phrase, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s” is one of the better-known quotes of Jesus and very possibly one of the worst understood.  In trying to see behind Jesus words what should be patently clear very quickly is that Jesus believed everything belonged to God, all things were derived from God, even political power. There was no such thing as a difference or a division between faith and politics.

Around 500 years ago Martin Luther argued for a distinct line to be drawn between the spiritual and political realms. One could suggest that the ascendancy of the left hemisphere of the brain became more evident. In this development it seems that the distinction between spiritual and political has been wrongly understood as saying the two don’t mix.  Without going into too much of the history of the situation the issue for Luther was who and how that power was being exercised.

Another factor to consider is that alongside the rejection of the spiritual in favour of a secular understanding the enlightenment has served to deceive us into thinking that our faith somehow should not have a political edge. The American experience and the rise in political Christian parties in NZ can be seen as an attempt to restore this relationship but the problem is that the differential mindset is still strong. It is more of a takeover bid for the political sphere rather than an integrated relationship.

If we consider that all things belong to God, including the way in which we structure our society then as people of the Jesus Way we need to live as though life is a spiritually inclusive life. Then who we vote for, what issues we choose to fight for, are both the political and religious outworking of our faith. And dare I say it this means that we need to live at though life is a living journey of co-creation made real and meaningful by loving one another and especially those who disagree with us.

Even what we choose to pray for, or even more importantly not pray for, in our prayers for the world indicates both a political and religious stance!  The words we use, the phrases indicate our alliances to that which we name God.  After all, when we seek as Jesus sought, a society of peace and love, it was for a new realm where political, social, economic and religious change had been achieved.

So, on this weekend of election of our next government the issue is not whether or not your particular party wins, It is not whether or not Christian values win through. Its rather that whatever one’s political allegiance might be, and I know some of you are card carrying members of various parties, one’s first allegiance is to Gospel that Jesus of Nazareth gave his energy and life to which is an alternative society of non-violence, non-discriminatory, acceptance and inclusion of the different and the establishment of a dynamic and integrated process of co-creation.

My own recent experience of this failure of integration of politics and faith has been a Presbytery caught up in the legal world of the book of order and has been unable to find the spirit of grace, compassion, and truth because it has lost the ability to hold together politics and faith and thus like the Pharisees and the Herodians become thrown into a defensive mindset that reflects inability to hold together politics and faith. In this case the law being included has been the law of the land and not the Torah. Even the conscience vote was nullified by the process.

Not unlike the Presbyterian Church and its support for commissioners as opposed to delegates sometimes in parliament they have what is called a conscience vote.  This is a time when politicians are allowed by their parties to vote based on their personal moral, philosophical or religious stance on an issue because of its moral content.  In a sense this misses the point that every single decision made by any parliament is a decision that has moral content and has religious or faith implications. It almost seems that all decisions in parliament should be made in this way but then maybe that’s not enough?

Sometimes the Presbyterian Church makes decisions and advocates in the community for particular issues.  Sometimes you may agree, sometimes not, sometimes you may get the impression that the Church is taking sides in politics.  Whilst this may appear to be the case I believe that in these situations men and women of faith like yourselves are seeking to discern what it might mean to proclaim support or ‘the kingdom come’ in terms of specific issues confronting our community. Here in this community just a few weeks ago I heard it said that the demise of the public questions committee was a result of our church’s ability to bridge the growing gap between politics and faith.

As individuals and as a local community of faith it could be said that the challenge of being Jesus followers is to seek to discern how we might live out every aspect of our lives and the separation of concerns is not the way to achieve this. Objectification without a responsive interconnection is destructive and maybe even violent towards a loving community.

Living the Jesus Way heralds a new realm. When we pray ‘your kingdom come’ we are making a political statement as much as a religious one.  As we walk the Jesus Way and witness to a transformative love the challenge is to not deceive ourselves: the political decisions that we make are faith decisions, our lifestyle choices are faith decisions; in fact. all of our decisions are faith decisions.  So whatever or whomever we vote for we need to take a moment to consider the decisions we have made or are making. Ask ourselves, what does it mean for me and for others ‘do my choices contribute to a Jesus Way of living or just to a better political outcome? Are they both and spiritual and political? Amen.

Matthew 22:1-14

A Feast Where Only Strangers Come?

Here he goes again; speaking to his followers in parable form about the shape, nature and content of the so-called Kingdom of God or the realm of God or the nature of the new world that is just around the corner, yet to come while at the same time already arriving. He supposedly chooses to tell the story by way of a reasonable common social event, a wedding feast. This time it is a Royal Wedding which seems to suggest that it will have considerable pomp and ceremony and maybe even hold the status of being a divine event if we bring in the Roman and Greek theology whereby great men are also Gods.

The story goes on to suggest that the king may not be one who engenders much loyalty for the invited guests find excuses not to come and even after a follow up invitation some send their servants along and others commit acts of violence in response to the invite. The king gets angry and I guess in response invites anyone off the streets to come so shaming the invited in return.

And then there is another twist to this tale. We have all the people off the street as guests and the King picks on one who didn’t find a wedding robe to wear and tosses him into the outer darkness. We are not sure what that is except that maybe the king is getting all theological at this point. But we are not sure why some poor soul who was on for a free dinner but couldn’t find the right clothes to wear should become the means by which the king can make his philosophical statement about many being called and few chosen.

About now we are wondering what Matthew was on about in telling the story this way let alone what he is trying to say about Jesus. The story of the ‘Rich Ruler’s Feast’, as told by Matthew, is full of twists and turns and at times almost totally incomprehensible. So much so that it might be easier to just pass by and fond another one.

But just before we do maybe we can try to see a bit more of it. Firstly, this story is told in our broad biblical tradition in three different versions. We can say that the voice and different layers of Matthew is very evident! But the original story appears lost. Secondly, we might see that it really is a secular story about the use and misuse of power that is reshaped by Matthew, into something ‘religious’ that he can use against the Jewish leaders. Matthew seems to be saying that they had their chance and blew it. He seems to say that God has looked elsewhere for a righteous community – hence his church community. And thirdly as you may have already formed an opinion, this story is not a ‘pleasant Sunday afternoon’ story. While some don’t include it in their “terrible texts” listing, it does seem to be a terror story with all its violence and revenge motivated action. It recalls the most savage of Hebrew and Gentile rulers in a frightening, and at times terrifying, world where old scores can be settled by savage, destructive means.

So, we are faced with Matthew’s story and traditionally most commentators seem to accept that he has reworked another story or stories where the important bit is in the end statement… The story of salvation: The first will be last and the last first; and Be alert! Be prepared!

The way Matthew seems to tell his story… The Rich Ruler = God. The son = Jesus.
Those who are ‘out’ = the Jews/Israel. The killed slaves = the Prophets. The guest without the wedding garment = God’s divine judgement. This, method or style of storytelling come interpretation, is called Allegory. But is it?

According to the British scholar, C H Dodd: “In the traditional teaching of the Church for centuries (parables) were treated as allegories, in which each term stood as a cryptogram for an idea, so that the whole had to be decoded term by term.” (Dodd 1961:13) For many years we have been this ‘decoding’ style of interpretation. We have received this in our Sunday Schools and churches for years and years: in pictures and in words and in stained glass windows. As Rex Hunt notes; the history of interpretation of parables has been a long and winding gravel road!

But much of that has now changed. With the development of literary criticism and other lines of enquiry we ask again “So what can we make of this parable?” With a broader understanding of what a parable might be rather than looking for a story that supports the traditional theistic, religious theme we have been taught, are we now asking of the text; what is there in this parable that is a story which turns our experienced world upside down? Rather than an allegory that gives a story that fits what is there about this that demands and alternative? What is the twist in the tail of this account?

We can as Rex says ask with the view that Jesus never offered any ‘in principle’ statements. That it just wasn’t his style. He told stories to people about people in real, live, contexts. And most of his stories were told to those who lived in the back streets of a village or city… The tanners, the toll collectors, the prostitutes, the beggars, the homeless, the day labourers. Those who lived on the edges, rather than at the centre of the village or city. And in narrow, unpaved streets which were “chocked with refuse and frequented by scavenging dogs, pigs, birds and other animals.  (And where) shallow depressions in the streets allowed some drainage, but also acted as open sewers.” (Reid 2001:183)

So, despite all the moralising and spiritualising that has taken place with this story over the years we might try to maintain the original one, or the ‘voice’ of Jesus, if it could be heard, through what was a very secular story. Quoting from a sermon on this story, ‘A parable for today, if not tomorrow…’ it tells of the “domestic misbehavior of the powerful and the victimizing of the powerless, of war and retaliation.” (www/Berrigan 2001)

And let’s remember it is set within the then culture of shame and honour. Whatever the Rich Ruler’s strategy, the feast he ends up with “is very different from the one he planned.  It is now a (feast) of the dishonorable, and he is shamed” (Scott 2001:116).

So, if we reimagine this Jesus’ story, we might see that the reign of God is not about a feast where only the rich and the powerful are invited, it is not a feast that is about the host or his heir being ‘honoured’… It might be seen that the reign of God will strike us as being as nonsensical as a feast thrown by a powerful ruler, but where all his powerful 
“friends [are] absent and only strangers are present.” (Crossan 1975:119)

And what might have been the response of the hearers of Jesus. “Come on! you’ve got to be joking? The real world of power and politics and global warming and terrorists and law and order, is not like that at all! How is it that there is a place where those who are in, are out, and those who are out, are in! That’s not possible. The challenge her is to work out whether one is being ‘threatened’ or ‘saved’ by those who suggest our life should be turned upside down!   

And now for a postlude. What is Jesus did not teach to make anyone religious, righteous, morally correct or even moral, or orthodox. What if he didn’t say anything about protecting that which is religious or sacred or spiritual? What if church affiliation is destined to be a thing of the past? Maybe it has served its purpose well and outlived its usefulness? What if the secular is the new religious? We might ask how many of us can see a spirituality beyond that which has been taught and perhaps even one that is inclusive of all faith stories? What if what we currently believe or think is no longer useful to human life as we know it?

Do you sense if? That desire in you to save things? To protect a divine Jesus or a supernatural God or a wonderful kingdom? Or even a Christendom existence? Jesus’ story is that he interacted and told stories to offer a re-imagined view of the world, this world. Where every person can live life to the full. Where every person can love wastefully. Where every person can be all they can possibly be. And as Jack Spong said: to be the God-bearers of the world.

“The only way that God can be with us now and through the ages is for each of us to allow God to live and love through us, through our humanity” (Spong 2005:298). But in a world where many of the world’s politicians can expect “overwhelming support” to anti-terrorism measures “with scarcely a glance in the direction of civil liberties, and little recognition of the irony involved in abandoning some of the legal safeguards that define the very way of life we are supposed to be defending…”  (Mackay SMH/1/10/05, 31) In a world where more and more oversight and control of our world is acceptable what is the parable to be heard? Where is the twist in the tail of this logic? Driven by the need to control the minority under the myth of safety? Where is the surprise of a (divine) feast where only powerless strangers rather than the rich and powerful ‘movers and shakers’ are present? According to the Jesus story this is not out of the equation! Amen.

Crossan, J. D. The Dark Interval. Towards a Theology of Story. Niles. Argus Communications, 1975.
Dodd, C. H.  The Parables of Jesus. London. Fontana, 1961.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.
Spong, J. S. The Sins of Scripture. Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. New York. HarperCollins, 2005.

Violence… and the Shuffling of Boots

Matthew 21:33-46

What an unholy mess this parable is from Matthew! The story line is full of violence carried out under extreme provocation: people beating and killing and stoning servants, then killing the land owner’s son. And to top it off we read what other dissatisfied storytellers felt they had to add to make it even worse when we read the bit where the owner wrecks vengeance on the tenants.

All in all, there is plenty of murder, revenge, and blood in this so-called parable of the wicket tenants. Many scholars do not believe was a parable of Jesus and that it was very likely reflecting a local issue faced by Matthew’s community.

So, on that basis we look at the parable and we ask questions of its purpose and the first thing we say is that the parable can be interpreted on many levels. Matthew, for instance, has already offered an interpretation: that of an allegory. That is, the parable was immediately relevant for Matthew and his community because (we think) they were having problems with the synagogue across the road!

Like many Presbyterian Sessions and or Parish Councils, and I hasten to add some Body Corporates an ‘in-house’ conflict was present and, in their case getting out of hand. They had as Jews who say the Jesus Way as a desperately needed reinterpretation of Judaism and or a new and vibrant response to God had been struggling, without success, to position themselves as the new leaders of Israel’s faith and were being increasingly driven to the margins by resurgent Pharisaic intent. So, Matthew took some of the key elements of this story and applied them: Vineyard = Israel, God = the land owner, Messengers/servants = the prophets, Son = Jesus, Son’s death = Jesus’ crucifixion. What we might call today, ‘Creative Writing’.

Or we could even bring it closer to home and spend some time reflecting on our much more subtle ways of ‘beating up’ God’s messengers who call us to become involved in the issues of the day.

We all know that ‘Loving’ is a challenge we very often savage or sabotage, whether at a personal or a community level. Somehow love seems to awaken our fear of becoming a scapegoat, or being seen to be weak and ineffectual so we respond defensively.

So, in dealing with the text today I want to take the advice of a certain William Bausch and focus on the violence contained in the story. For this is, as we all sadly know, a timely topic. Given the race riots, fear driven street battles, Blaming and scapegoating that the Covid 19 has fostered in many communities around the world. It is as if Violence forms a subtext of our daily lives.
as Nations. Peoples and Individuals of all ages – even youngsters in primary school. All are routinely hurting, maiming, threatening and killing one another. This intolerance, and violence has become so common place in a hurting world. Social commentators have said that the fear of violence and the concern for personal safety has become a major preoccupation among the people over recent years…Especially for those in the oldest and youngest age groups.

So, we might ask what is it that is behind this proliferation of violence in our world? Rex Hunt of whom I quote on accession said that part of the problem and only part of it is a shocking lack of empathy for other people, for victims. And an inability to feel what those who are hurt are feeling. An inability to understand and share the feelings of another. I want to share a poem I wrote about  our human need for empathy in recognising the importance of other people, even those we don’t get along with.

The truth is that I need you as the other

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

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

The truth is that I need you as the other

The truth is that you make my life worthy

Having you around makes my day smooth and easy.

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

The truth is that you make my life worthy

The truth is that you give me reason to love

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

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

The truth is that you give me reason to love

The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

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

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

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

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

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

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

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

Doug Lendrum

The claim is that many lack this ‘empathy’ because many have divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’… in our excess we have turned individuality into alienation an us and then distinction that was high on Jesus’ list of what was horribly and terribly evil in the world. No Samaritan and Jew. No northern and southern Irish. No Israeli or Palestinian. No black or white. No straight or gay. No Aucklander and the rest. No ‘them’ and ‘us’. Its what loving is all about. Its what loving one’s enemy is about, its what democracy is about. Its what makes the corporate, the collective, the committee and the community work. Yet more and more, a sense of empathy is evaporating. We saw in the beginning a glimpse of this when we became united with the victims of the Christchurch massacre and with the response to Covid 19. But now we are back to the verbal violence of partisan politics as the desire to win becomes a them or us. And sadly, with this loss comes an inability to be compassionate. And when there is no empathy and no compassion, there is easy violence.

And dare I say it. Matthew’s treatment of this parable with his allegorical overlay, has produced tragic consequences for Jewish-Christian relationships over the centuries.

So, like many I agree with the Jesus Seminar when they say that this overlay did not originate with Jesus. But is rather the work of the storyteller, Matthew. However, its inclusion in the text is an opportunity for us to contextualize it for ourselves.

To do this I want to tell you a story Rex Hunt has used when addressing this text. A story this time which comes out of the Second World War.

The war was still in progress but it seemed the nation was in need of a morale boost, and to rally the country, the leaders in Russia decided to stage a march of 20,000 German prisoners through the streets of Moscow.

The footpaths swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women – Russian women. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son, killed by the Germans.

They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the parade was to come. At last they saw it.

The generals marched at the head of the column. Proud, their chins stuck out, lips folded.
An air of superiority about them.

The women clenched their fists. They shouted their hate. Then all at once something happened to the women. They saw German soldiers thin, unshaven, wearing dirty bloodstained bandages,
hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades. The soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent. The only sound was the shuffling of boots, the thumping of crutches.

Then an elderly woman in broken-down boots pushed herself forward, past the soldiers and police. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief, and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread.

She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a German soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And then suddenly, from every side, women were running towards the soldiers. They pushed into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

William Bausch, who shared this story, goes on to suggest: “When the women saw the men hobbling through the streets, they were no longer the enemy; they were no longer those who killed their relatives. They were just victims, and the women felt for them. There was an outpouring of empathy and compassion. The violence they intended was no longer in their hearts.” (Bausch 2000:205) Its very likely that Jesus the storyteller would approve!

I want to conclude today with a verse of a poem I wrote which I think is about the nature of the compassion we seek from empathy. I think it talks about the importance of the ‘other’ in our lives and of the unconditional love that emits form a loving heart of cosmic proportion.

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.

Doug Lendrum


Bausch, W. J. The Word In and Out of Season. Homilies for Preachers. Reflections for Seekers. Mystic. Twenty-third Publications, 2000.

The Living Earth!

Posted: September 23, 2020 in Uncategorized

The Living Earth!

Exodus 17: 1-7

Water from the Rock

From the wilderness of Sin, the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So, Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

How often do we take for granted the significance of rivers in our lives? How often do we as New Zealanders stand at the riverbank, be it in the bush or in the city and almost feel the gentle or the awesome power and the wonder of the river. There is something about a river that seems to offer a connection to all the emotions, hope, fear, comfort and alienation. The river is beautiful, even those that seem to go by with the bottom on the top in their colour and density. The debri and the loose land that travels to the ocean and the life-giving fruit of the precipitation cycle. Rivers reflect our very own life cycle as a living event in the time and space world.

Most of us as New Zealanders live within a few kms of a river, on a group of islands in the Southern Ocean. We take for granted the living moving source of dynamic, creativity that we live within and we are slowly awakening to the fact that everything we do for ourselves has an effect on that creativity and on the outcome of that creativity. We are also slowly growing aware that every thing we as individuals do contributes to that change. We are beginning to understand that what is sacred is less about what we have and more about what we do. That to live life with a living planet we need to see the depth of the relationship we have with it rather than how we live on it.

One of the reasons New Zealanders enjoy rivers is that we find there a beauty that seems primal and life-enhancing.

To stand in a bush stream with the sun’s light

dancing through the overhanging leaves.

To feel the gentle cold trickle of life

as it passes by one’s ankle shimmering in sunlit movement

as it welcomes and leaves one’s legs,

the sound of its intent flickering bright

In sound it becomes intimate

in its promise of life

and in its leaving for bigger things.

Our ears moved by its beautiful cadence

at once to hear its beauty and lose it contrite

to the life of its purpose, beyond, downhill and ocean bound,

a promised return in its song.

Suppose it dried up tomorrow?

Why should I care as I cannot swim?

Its here today and gone tomorrow and will come again aright.

Who needs the river they say

Can they be serious?

dry up the rivers

and there wouldn’t be anybody around to miss them

for without the river, there would be no life – alright!

It doesn’t matter where on Earth we live because everyone is utterly dependent on the existence of that lovely, living water be it saltwater or fresh water.
And here’s the important rub. There may be plenty of water in the universe without life,
but nowhere is there life without water…’ ‘No blue, no green.’ So, in line with today’s Season of Creation theme of ‘Rivers’ we might reflect that we are living in a scientific, pluralistic age.

And unless we have been living with heads in the sand, we will also be aware of the current universal debates about how our modern life-style is harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering our global climate patterns. It could be claimed that the very planet is in peril, at least of the extinction of the species that inhabit it. If all of creation is suffering then it would be fair to say that rivers are in danger within their cycle.  The oceans that rivers depend upon are drowning in plastic pollution and that must affect the cycle. The deforestation of the land that is in huge swathes in places taking place, invade the cycle to deposit additional soil into the cycle that changes the constitution of the water and again affects the cycle of renewal and refreshment of the land mass.

While rivers pale into insignificance when faced with the global volume of the aceans and science informs us that approximately 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean. As a continuous body of water, the ocean is a mass that is required through a smaller mass of rivers to feed the land and all the species that depend on their relationship with the land. Rivers are crucial lifeline in the cycle of life.

Rivers are a part of the oceans effect on the biosphere. In that oceanic evaporation is a phase of the water cycle, and thus they are part of the source of most rainfall and along with ocean temperatures they determine both climate and wind patterns that affect life on land. Rivers are primary distributors of life in that they are a crucial part of the life cycle.

Rex Hunt tells an indigenous Australian story from the Yuin Nation from the South Coast of New South Wales, that goes like this:

“Grandmother Moon, she comes up and shines down her light upon us.  She pulls the tides of the sea. She has that much strength she can pull water up into the sky and hold it, until it’s time to water her garden, Mother Earth. Mother Earth, Father Sky, Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun have the major roles to play in all life. “Water is connected to Mother Earth and to Father Sky. Water is also connected to Grandmother Moon, as she can lift the water and drop it down through Father Sky. Mother Earth then takes the water and she distributes it through rivers, streams and lakes. Father Sky holds many stories; through time he has led the way water for us to navigate over water and land. He’s there for us, he helps us find our way.”

For the people of the Yuin Nation the ocean is called Gadu – “the source of all waters that bring life to Mother Earth.” (Morgan & Garrett 2018:70-71,74)

Rex Hunt quotes a Bill McKibben author and founder of the environmental organizations Step It Up and 350.Organd was considered one of the first to warn of the dangers of global warming. He raises some interesting and challenging points that I think are pertinent to our theme today. They are as follows; “The oceans… are distinctly more acid and their level is rising; they are also warmer, which means the greatest storms of our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful” (McKibben 2010:45).

At the same time research is showing the earth’s ice caps and glaciers are melting with “disconcerting and unexpected speed.” (McKibben 2010:45) We have already raised the temperature nearly a degree Celsius. “…the ocean is more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years.” (McKibben 2010:10)

And again. Name a major feature of the earth’s surface and you’ll find massive change.” (McKibben 2010:5) And perhaps the most challenging quote “The earth that we knew – the only earth that we ever knew – is gone.”  (McKibben 2010:27)

It is fair to say that what all this means is that we can be numbed by all the figures and percentages. We can say the scientists are probably overstating our woes. And we can accept that the anticipated future can be paralysed by our fears. Indeed, it’s hard to brace ourselves “for the jump to a new world when we still, kind of, live in the old one… We’re so used to living with a philosophy of growth and linear progress that we can’t imagine alternatives; at best we embrace the squishy sustainable, with its implied claim that we can keep on as before.” (McKibben 2010:102)

But is it all doom and gloom? Does the fact that we have permanently lost ground in our relationship with the planet mean that there is no hope, that extinction of the species is immanent and not changeable. McKibben himself is not all negative and alarmist about this He does offer some suggestions – some words or metaphors – for change. And those five words are: Durable, Sturdy, Stable, Hardy, Robust. He suggests that for of us it means reshaping our society:

• from big to smaller,

• from growth to maintenance,

• from expansion to scale down,

• from global to neighbourhood.

But will we do this when it seems we will lose something we think we have gained? Human beings, especially in the so-called ‘West’, have historically been reluctant to consider themselves as part of the web of nature. Even as a web within a web has been difficult to grasp. And when it comes to countries even clean green New Zealand has been found wanting. Look at our waste. Look at our land development.

Governments since the early 1990s have all adopted a strategy of more-or-less do little to nothing at home and work hard to prevent others from taking major action.

So there has been an encouragement of community apathy. Time will tell whether or not as a result of Covid-19 governments will take the opportunity to change direction enough to halt the destructive process.

If our biblical tradition in its historical expression suggests anything, human beings are part of nature. The problems come when Christians – usually fundamentalists – claim that the mythical stories of Genesis 1 and 2, are more ‘true’ or more ‘factual’ than science and evolution. So in many quarters there is a raging attack on ‘progressive’ religion:

• from fundamentalists who don’t believe one can accept evolution and be religious, and

• from the ‘new atheists’ who caricature all people of religion as fundamentalists. (Michael Zimmerman The Clergy Letter Project, 22/5/2010).

But modern science is saying and has been saying, again and again: the universe must be regarded as a whole; It is of intrinsic value, and each part, galaxy, organism, individual atom, participates in that intrinsic value as each part participates in this wonderful web of life. Each part… rather than one species or organism separating itself out as more important than the rest. It is time for radical change.  It is urgent. To recall the words of a long-haired, locust eating desert sage: ‘The axe is at the root of the tree.’

As we face this election the demand needs to be that we live differently. And that demand is for a paradigm shift in who we think we are.  (McFague 2008:44)

And to finish with another quote; Let us see ourselves and rivers as part of the “whole complex, interrelated and interacting unitary universe of matter-energy in space-time, a universe of which humans are an integral part…” (Gillette 2006:1) Amen.

Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. (An online journal), 2006
Hamilton, C. Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change. Melbourne. Black Inc, 2007
Morgan, J.  & G. Garrett.  On The Edge: A-Way with the Ocean. Reservoir. Morning Star Publishing, 2018
McFague, S. A New Climate for Theology. God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.
McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Melbourne. Black Inc., 2010
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002

Celebrating Earth in Spring.

Posted: September 16, 2020 in Uncategorized

Celebrating Earth in Spring.

In his book, On the Origin of Species…, published in November 1859. Darwin wrote:
“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” (Darwin 2008:362)

And so it began. The debate it ignited not only led to the denial of the creation stories of the western religious tradition, it gave us the beginnings of an immensely richer, longer, more complex ‘story’, rooted not in “the history of a single tribe or a particular people”, but one “rooted in the sum of our knowledge of the universe itself”.

A scientific ‘doctrine of incarnation’ as one person has described it, which suggests “that the universe itself is continually incarnating itself in microbes and maples, in humming birds and human beings, constantly inviting us to tease out the revelation contained in stars and atoms and every living thing.”  (Bumbaugh 2003)

It is a religious story because it invites us to awe and wonder; and that in turn demands a vocabulary of reverence. We might note that as religion has declined in the lives of many so to has the destruction of our planet expanded. This is not to say that that which we have named religion needs saving because one might also say that it has failed us in its inability to evolve, Stuck in doctrine and creed and myth that has become concretized.

Prior to the rise of modern science most people followed a literal interpretation of the biblical Genesis stories, believing a flat earth was created about 4,000 years before the Middle Eastern itinerant peasant sage, Yeshu’a. Or, if they followed some it all started at 9.00am on 3 October 4004 BCE.

Today, as most of you know very well, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the Earth’s age is approximately 4.5+ billion years. While the observable universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…”  (Gillette 2006:1) is approximately 14 billion years old, all let loose during an event called the Big Bang.

On that note we might need to catch up with evolution is that Bid Bang might be a misleading term really, in that it is posited that there wasn’t really an explosion, but rather an expansion. Noun to verb maybe? Or as John D Caputo writes God doesn’t exist but rather insists.

While careful not to over-estimate the reach and power of the natural sciences, it is modern science that provides the foundation for this ‘other’ story. It has been called ‘the epic of evolution’, ‘the odyssey of life’, ‘the immense journey’ and most recently,Thomas Berry named it, the ‘Great Story’.

Sure, there was an initial outcry that scientific cold reason was killing wonder, but for the most part those days are long past. Now science has become the source rather than the nemesis of wonder. Modern science is now saying “the history of the Universe is in every one of us. Every particle in our bodies has a multibillion-year past, every cell and every bodily organ has a multimillion-year past, and many of our ways of thinking have multi-thousand-year pasts.”  (Primack & Abrams 2007)

Each of us is a collection of unfinished stories, within other stories. We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality. We do not live in straight lines. We truly do exist in a web, a network, a maze… Everything in the universe is genetically cousin to everything else. Which is why a growing number of people around the world are beginning to recognise that our modern life-style and poll-driven politicians are harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns.

Biology 101 teaches us that if amoebas are inserted into a drop of water, their numbers will expand, until they become so densely populated they deplete their essential nutrients, and die en masse. The drop of water again becomes uninhabited and sterile We humans are doing the same thing on planet Earth.

We are yet to learn from basic biology. We are yet to learn that humans must cooperate with nature’s processes, and if we can do that, then we can develop purposes less likely to be frustrated by nature. We are yet to learn that a debate between people who actually know stuff
and people who just don’t like what the experts have to say, is not a ‘balanced’ debate. It’s a waste of time.

One of the biggest challenges that faces us is to come to a place in our thinking where there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions. When we let go of the does God exist debate and the theism vs atheism dualism we might discover that living with ambiguity, uncertainty and the insistence of God might mean a more authentic relationship with nature, the planet and the universe.

W do not need to think the sacred is a separate ‘supernatural’ sphere of life, driven by blinding-light revelations. “Positing an incomprehensible, invisible, ‘Other’ does nothing to explain the incomprehensible ‘other’ that is palpably present, and that we actually encounter every second within and round us”.  (Fleischman 2013:188)

There is a hymn in the Unitarian Universalist hymn book Singing the Living Tradition, called “Seek Not Afar for Beauty”.  It’s first verse claims this ‘other’: Seek not afar for beauty; lo! it glows in dew-wet grasses all about your feet; in birds, in sunshine, childish faces sweet, in stars and mountain summits topped with snows. If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred, surely we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognised as sacred…

It seems that what we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship  but worship with the trees. An acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.  (Jerome Stone)

There is also a need for all religious traditions to appreciate that the primary sacred community is the universe itself, and that every other community becomes sacred by participation in this primary community.

Lets be sure here that we are not saying that all is rosy and sorted. Nature is a violent and dangerous place, extinction is possible and ‘Almost probable. In moments of wonder we simultaneously contain a search for truth, an openness to reawakening, and a delight in what is. When we lose our sense of awe and wonder, we objectivise the Earth as a thing that can be used and abused at our consumeristic whim. Wonder has within it an acknowledgement that existence is always serendipitous.

When Spring arrives and washes away the clouds of Winter fear, do we also see the Earth and “worms crawling…” and “new living things”, as we begin to start again to ‘grow’ and ‘bloom’.

Spring shows us that nature-kind and humankind are continually in relationship. Spring reminds us and calls us forward to a ‘new’ religious sensitivity. To transcend the isolated self. To reconnect.  

To know ourselves to be at home.

So, it is incumbent upon us to challenge the parochial and limited claims of traditional religions
with the enlarging and enriching and reverent story that is our story and their story: the Universe Story.

From an attitude of reverence, we can then act with a morality that nurtures rather than destroys creation. Religious naturalist and cell biologist Ursula in her evocative book The Sacred Depths of Nature, writes: “Once we have our feelings about Nature in place, then I believe that we can also find important ways to call ourselves Jews, or Muslims, or Taoists, or Hopi, or Hindus, or Christians, or Buddhists. Or some of each…”  (Goodenough 1998:173)

Today a woman is planting flowers in her garden. Her activity is more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She is digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging, under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination. Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little bulbs and seeds will explode into daffodils, tulips, irises, freesias, geraniums, pansies, daises and sunflowers. A war will have been won by soft and coloured things. The yellow eyes of asters, the purple tongues of irises, and the crayola pansies have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. It is Spring. If there were a heaven, the gods would abandon it just for the chance to see this woman in her garden.

The gospel of the natural present moment. Amen.

Bumbaugh, D. “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence”. Boulder International Humanist Institute, 22 February 2003.
Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London. Arcturus Publishing, 2008.
Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. 2004.
Goodenough, U. The Sacred Depths of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 
Primack, J. R. & N. E. Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007
Singing the Living Tradition. Boston: The Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993/2000.
Stone, J. A. “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-pagans: Obstacles to Appropriating the Old Ways” in (Ed). C. D. Hardwick & D. A. Crosby. Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty. New York. Peter Lang, 1997.
Tucker, M. E. & J. Grim (Ed). Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2014.

Living with the Land.

Posted: September 9, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 18: 23-34

Living with the Land.

In recent times we have been repeatedly informed and awakened to the state of the land on a global scale. There have been numerous articles published about the state of the global environment.

In part and in many forms the articles have said: “Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of the earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.  They have gone on to say that the provision of food, fresh water, energy and materials to meet the needs of a growing population has come at considerable cost to the complex system of plants, animals and biological processes that make the planet habitable” 

Such warnings were and are not new. And, they continue to be debated, and challenged by scientist, politician and by nearly every government on earth. They have risked the advent of the tall poppy syndrome, the bury the head response, and the lets get real challenge and they have prevailed. They are now supported by the pandemics ability to travel the globe at an alarming rate despite being challenged by the not as bad as or little worse than brigade. Rationalist and statistician have been empowered. But do we really see and heed the warnings? Or do we dismiss them because we don’t believe the science. Or do they just massage us, washing over us, because we feel too powerless to go beyond simple acts? Do we really have faith in the individual action?

Today we continue our journey into the Season of Creation. The Season of Creation is an addition to the Lectionary. Traditionally the church calendar or Lectionary is shaped around three years. Each year has seven main seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Lent. And the rather long general time, called After Pentecost or Ordinary Time.

Having said that I am aware that not all that many people bother with the lectionary or see it as just the tool of preachers who use it to be careful not to get caught up on pone’s own hoppy horse and end up preaching one’s own bias or prejudice. I want to spend a little time justifying a lectionary approach, both as a helpful discipline and as a concern for a collective liturgy or teaching structure to each week. One could say that a lectionary approach to the global dilemma re environment might be helpful as a way of keeping the debate resourced and the collective responsibility for action alive.

This additional season of Creation to the liturgical year claims some of that After Pentecost time by designating the Sundays in September (the southern hemisphere Spring) as the Season of Creation.

I wonder if the following might help. The main seasons are as said above and including Creation, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Creation and Lent. In thinking about the lectionary approach I have explored the possibility of naming the seasons with a less traditional and more contemporary way. Advent being Looking for the possibility of the new, Christmas being establishing the basis for Cocreation, Epiphany being Awareness of the challenges, Easter being taking Responsibility, Pentecost being Inspiration and the call to be inspiring, Creation being the physical dimension and Lent being the human dimension and Economy.

The year would look like a call to reflect on the seasons of Enlightening, Collaborating, Awakening, Responding, Inspiring, Creating and Distributing.

To add to this is the idea that Each season could have a number of designations as subjects for use such as the four Sundays of Creation being given a theme. This year’s themes are: Forest, Land, Outback and River and in St Andrews case Outback has become Rainbow Sunday.

Today is Land Sunday.  A time to reflect on the land on which we walk, live, grow things,
plough and mine, are usually buried in, and unfortunately, often pollute.

For some time now we in New Zealand have been made aware of a different understanding of land. It is an awareness which comes from the Maori people and it and has been deep religious links with the land. In a very deep and real sense land belongs to the people and the people to the land. One can see the very communal and collective understanding of the relationship with the land and its subsequently very difference from individual ownership of the land.

As an explanation of their myths and historical stories tell us: “The great ancestral creative beings, who journeyed across the great oceans, established the land boundaries between different groups and the sacred and tribal sites.  Carrying out ritual obligations at these sites and performing religious ceremonies are the way by which Maori feel bound to their land and protective towards it. Like the Aboriginal people of Australia Maori people do not live on the land. They live with the land. They are bound to it by spiritual as well as practical links. The Whare Nui (The big or main home)is the place of the tribal relationship with the land the tribal womb, the place of the Tangata Whenua (created people) and the Marae is the place when the relationship is cherished, taught, heard and maintained by rituals that reflect the culture of the tribe and its relationship with the land.

And we also know that behind the so-called Maori wars the policy of terra nullius, or ‘empty land belonging to no one’, was in effect and precipitated the Treaties that were an attempt to marry the two essentially different understandings of ownership and collective responsibility that existed.

There is still much we should know and do and work towards. justice, fairness and equality of people in New Zealand as more and more people are disenfranchised by prevailing attitudes and the exercise of power. Value systems that are based on exchange value and the maximization of individual profit need to be debated, Politics caught up in the partisan at all costs dilemma and the equality verses equity discussion is vital in the interests of harmony cooperation and collaboration in a rapidly contracting social era. The fluctuations in the housing debate mirror those of that – governments and people – have over ownership of land’ and our history of state verses private.

On a Sunday when the theme is ‘Land’ thoughts on reconciliation between peoples need to be pondered some more, and continuing dialogue and such things as truth and reconciliation and compensation, encouraged recognizing that the presenting issues are reflections of a deeper understanding.

Perhaps there is an echo of all this in Matthew’s Lectionary story we heard this morning In the difficult story/parable of the ‘Unforgiving slave’. But we will not hear this echo if we spiritualise it, or fail to hear it as a story about power! Rex Hunt’s reflection on this text  suggests that the ‘slave’ or high-ranking bureaucrat has power over other subordinates. He is responsible for collecting tribute from them, as they are from others. And he has done this very well, using calculating and cunning tactics.

Like-wise the bureaucrat’s ‘ruler’ or master, in a pure display of unfettered power, threatens to totally destroy him because he has overreached himself and can’t pay what is immediately due the master. This scenario is then played out a second time. But between the bureaucrat and one of his subordinates.

Having been shamed before the master he must gain some prestige by exerting power over a subordinate. That’s our story. There are several ‘twists’ or surprises in this story. The first ‘twist’ comes when the master, in quite an extraordinary act for any agrarian ruler,
waves a debt of unimaginable proportions.

A second ‘twist’ comes when the bureaucrat, in a similar situation, does not act as his master does and therefore brings shame on his master who now must act to save face. For all the strength shown in the master’s earlier decision, the ‘system’ which supports all of them, is unable to show mercy. So, the ‘system’, says the parable, is not the place to look for a hopeful solution. Which I guess, is a different interpretation than that usually offered this parable!

However, another ‘twist’ reflected in the story is the storyteller himself and the story’s openness.  Loyal Rue, professor of philosophy and religion at Luther College, Iowa, in his book Religion is not about God, suggests that religion is not about God but about us.

He argues that successful religions are narrative or myth traditions that influence human nature so we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively.

Rue writes: “Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.  Religions have always been about this business of adaptation, and they will always remain so” (Rue 2006:1).or

In this day and age when religion is not considered as a helpful approach one has to ask where this work be done now? But back to our story and we don’t find it much different. The third ‘twist’ is the storyteller doesn’t invite the hearer (then or now) to take sides.  To blame someone. Instead that storyteller seems to have Jesus drawing his hearers (and us?) into wrestling with the larger social and economic inequalities that embrace us all.

We may be willing to ‘bash’ the Banks and business for their aggressive push for profits. But are we also able to recognise how we so often live off the poverty of ‘sweatshops’ and cheap labour?

Here is I think the reminder that we are to act in ways that are good for us both individually and collectively. So, maybe we just need to ponder this story a bit more.

Most oppressed or disadvantaged people feel the ‘system’ does not fill them with hope in the matter of ‘land rights’. Eve after extensive and often divisive legislation change in New Zealand communities and some individuals have had neither the resources nor access to the judicial process, to assert their claims in the courts. I personally found this in a claim for natural justice within the church recently when then church system and its legislation failed and the high court system was caught up in protecting law as opposed to providing justice.

Because, as we heard echoed in Matthew’s story, justice questions come from below, not from above. They are raised by communities and individuals who do not have
social power or a voice within the social system.

If the matter of ‘land’ is to be resolved it seems clear that solutions will not come from a legal decision, but from a political one, initiated by the people and collectively.

I can remember when saying ‘Sorry’ was certainly the hardest word of all to say for many who were reluctant to agree to the moving of their  perceptions of power – both political and economic. I remember the changes in the churches, where one addressed the justice issues by distributing the power over resources on an ethnic basis, another gave power of veto to a minority and another establish a committee with autonomy within the conciliar system. All differing ways of maintaining primary power in the dominant system.

But fortunately for the church these approaches to justice were made so as to reflect as best as was able that grace is the only basis for reconciliation as we saw and experienced a helpful response. It is only dad that due to the significant decline of the church concern for survival dominates issues of justice.

Justice, honesty and genuine reconciliation is the result when we have respect and honour for one another and for the land. Amen.

Gondarra, D. 1988.  Father, You Gave Us The Dreaming. Darwin: Published privately.
Hill, M. 1993. Australian Aboriginal Culture. Canberra: AGPS.
Rue, L. 2005.  Religion Is Not About God. How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.