‘Theopoetics, Prayer, Words beyond Words?’

Today is one of those times in the lectionary when the topic is prayer and one wonders whether there is anything new to say about prayer. So given all that I thought we might begin by placing the challenge in the search for the theopoetics of prayer and the words beyond the words perhaps and just touch into some theological wanderings through the prayer I think is the most used and dare I say it, the prayer we spend the least time on analyzing what it is that we are saying when we recite it out of habit.  Am of course talking about ;The Lord’s Prayer.

Rex Hunt gave some thought to this that I found interesting and so I thought we might see what he says as we explore. Like me he reminds us that most analysis of prayer begins with what prayer is and what it isn’t.

Rex says; that, prayer was not some Harry Potter-style magic where you and say certain words and specific things happen. Neither is it Santa Claus–style bargaining… Be good and you get what you ask for. Be bad and you don’t. Instead he suggested that prayer was more akin to the ‘language of the heart’… Rex suggests that prayer is more like a conversation with oneself than one with a higher power, more an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life – and the “always present God” rather than “an elsewhere God” (Morwood 2003:8).

He suggests that the characteristics of this kind of praying would include listening in silence which I think is like taking one’s mind to a place where no words or concepts or anything is required, just a conscious attempt to note all the things swirling around in ones mind as if waiting for a sign or something to take up and still the swirling. A silence that shuts the outer world out and attempts to still the inner one.

He suggests another characteristic is one of giving insights into ourselves and possibly others, and by this I think he is suggesting that the discovery of this silence, this nothingness highlights the fact that we are unique, nothingness is only nothingness when confronted by somethingness perhaps,  there is a self that fills the space, and when we get there we realize that all human beings are alike in this commonality of what it means to be human, sure we know that genetics and environment and relationships all impact on who we are but that commonality is clear and it doesn’t wipe out our uniqueness or our particular input into the wider world, it enhances and clarifies it.

Rex highlights another characteristic as connecting us to each other and here I think he is exploring the world of mirror neurons, of environmental and genetic cause or why do we need to be a particular species. What is being human and why is it important in the greater scheme of things? What is our relationship with the trees and plants and other animals? What is our connection with the planet and the cosmos. I was watching a couple of movies this week. One was Tomorrowland about the insatiable desire of humankind to find another futuristic world and Interstellar about the end of this civilization and the desire of humans to find another planet to live on.

What his this got to do with prayer, well maybe that desire to be connected to one another both at a personal and procreative imperative level and at a planetary survival of the species level. We know instinctively that we need each other yet we spend so much time fighting for our individuality. Is this not at the seat of prayer conditioned by consciousness?

But all this is psychological wandering and its not all that has been said about prayer and its ability to change things. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once commented: ‘prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays’. Others have refined that a bit, to: ‘Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things’. Henry Nelson Wieman went further and suggested that prayer ‘works’ with the: “re-creation of the one who prays, of [the] appreciable world, and of [their] association with others, so that the prayerful request is fulfilled in the new creation” (Wieman 1946:282).

Here we leap to my favourite approach to this. Prayer is about ‘Reimagining the world!  Reimagining relationships!  Reimagining possibilities!

Returning to our text we see that the focus of today’s Lectionary story is again on ‘prayer’.
In particular what we have called The Lord’s Prayer. And our storyteller says the context of the story is a request from the disciples for Jesus to teach them how to pray. And so we are given Luke’s version of that prayer.

If we are honest at this point, we have to says that there is a fair amount of doubt as to whether Jesus actually taught anybody how to pray, let alone a group called the disciples. Recent 21st century scholarship now suggests this prayer comes from a group of people called the Q People… One of several groups of people who make up the early Jesus movements. Their particular ‘claim to fame’ was they were only interested in the teachings of Jesus “and not on the person of Jesus or his life and destiny” (Mack 1993:1).

It is suggested that during their life together as a community they began to develop a series of strategies to help them survive. Those strategies were:

  • they started writing their wisdom down,
  • they began to claim Jesus as their founder,
  • they began to compose and write down angry sayings, condemning those who rejected them, and
  • they began to institutionalize prayer as a response to their situation.

And the outcome of one of those strategies was what we have come to identify
as the Jesus Prayer or The Lord’s Prayer. Named that way because they took bits and pieces of his teachings and wove them together, so every time they said these words, it reminded them of Jesus, their founder. It was a brilliant strategy!

This short prayer showed they believed Jesus prayer life was, and as a result, their prayer life needed to be, basic and broadly focused, “and more broadly focused than that of many religious people today” (Taussig 1999:98)

One of the challenges of this stuff is what I suggested at the beginning when I suggested what prayer might be. All this latter approach to prayer acknowledges the sociological and psychological evolution of human thinking but it is very easily lost as just ‘head’ stuff rather than ‘heart’ stuff. So, what do we do with this? Well, again Rex offers us an option. He tells of a group of refugees in El Salvador where they too have taken the Jesus or Lord’s Prayer and earthed it in their experiences of living in this world. And here is the result of their reflection on this prayer.

Abba/Father…
As God’s children may we build a new earth of sisterhood and brotherhood,
not a hell of violence and death.

may your name be holy

That in God’s name, let there be no abuse, no oppression and no manipulation of the conscience and liberty of your children.

May your rule take place

Not the rule of fear, force or money, of seeking peace through war.

Give us each day our daily bread

The bread of peace, so we can sow our maize and beans, watch them grow and share them together as a family.

Pardon our debts, for we ourselves

pardon everyone in debt to us.

May our relationships not be based on self-interest.

And do not bring us to trial into a trying situation

Let us change lament for songs of life, clenched fists for outstretched hands, and the weeping of widows and orphans for smiles…

This is not some reciting of some well-known words in auto-pilot, like so much of the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in its traditional form, today is. This is basic existence, real life, stuff.

And so is the story which Luke adds to this prayer story. The arrival of an unexpected guest seeking hospitality. Only for the host to have no food in the family larder.
So a neighbour is asked to help out. As Bruce Prewer observes: “…[Luke’s] Jesus is talking about basics.  Good food, not luxuries for the over pampered.  Fish and eggs were the main source of protein in the common person’s diet.  Not snapper or rainbow trout, but plain stubby little fish from Lake Galilee; the ones now called St Peter fish.  And eggs; not caviar but common hen’s eggs.  Basics” (BPrewer web site, 2001). It is for the needs of others that we are told to ask, seek and knock on God’s ‘metaphorical’ door.

That’s what makes this Lukan story, important. That’s what makes the refugees’ reflection, important. That’s what makes the Q peoples’ prayer, important. That’s what makes what we do and say every week, important. Amid the basics of life, and remembering others needs, it invites us to reimagining the world, reimagining relationships, reimagining possibilities. Not for our benefit.  But for theirs, because ‘prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things.

Paul Alan Laughlin, who’s prayer we will recite in today’s liturgy said in an article some years back that he describes his take on the Jesus/Lord’s Prayer as A Mystical Lord’s Prayer.

“The first and perhaps most important thing that sets this version of the Lord’s Prayer off from the others is its theology, which dispenses entirely with the personal, parental Father-Sky-God of the original, and replaces “Him” with a non-personal, immanent power-presence (or source-force), an infinite one (or One) that is none other (or non-Other) than the spiritual core of the person or persons reciting or singing the prayer.  The implicit theology of this prayer, then, is not monotheism but monism…

“The second distinctive feature of this version of the Lord’s Prayer follows from the first; for having eliminated a personal divine Other above, this Lord’s Prayer… has no petitions for any intercessory acts on behalf of a human individual or group.  In their stead are strong affirmations of how we are already emboldened from within ourselves to become better persons and to accomplish ever-greater things.  This “Lord’s Prayer,” then, can properly be regarded as a daily reminder of our full human potential-miraculous and praiseworthy in its own right-to be good and do good.

“Thus, he says; my Lord’s Prayer is not an invocative device, but an evocative (psyche) exercise in self-realization-or perhaps Self-realization, if the ego-self is to be distinguished from one’s deepest and truest identity, as it is in most mystical traditions.  For humanists, this “within” may be seen differently: as our rational and empirical faculties, perhaps after the fashion of Plato, who equated the human “soul” with the intellect.  In either case, what we have here is an acknowledgement of a mysterious and in some sense sans divine Immanence (versus Eminence) – a reference to the indwelling mysterious Presence and Power that (at least for mystics) permeates or infuses the cosmos, and that (for humanists as well, though probably the capitals) abides in nature, human nature, and therefore ourselves” (Reprinted from The FourthR, Vol 22, No. 6. Nov-Dec 2009

Edouard Glissant, long recognized in the French and francophone world as one of the greatest writers and thinkers of our times wrote in his book; Poetics of Relation, that the concrete particulars of reality turn into a complex, energetic vision of a world in transformation. He argues that the writer can tap the unconscious of a people and apprehend its multiform culture to provide forms of memory capable of transcending “nonhistory,” Glissant defines his “poetics of relation”—both aesthetic and political—as a transformative mode of history, capable of enunciating and making concrete a reality with a self-defined past and future. Glissant’s notions of identity as constructed in relation and not in isolation are germane to discussions of our understanding of multiculturalism. In Glissant’s view, we come to see that relation in all its senses — telling, listening, connecting, and the parallel consciousness of self and surroundings — and this is the key to transforming mentalities and reshaping societies. The power of prayer perhaps as that which is beyond yet dependent upon the words.

In closing I want to offer you another translation this one from the Aramaic language. And the reason I do this is because in translation we often reduce, simplify it, and miss some of the richness of thought that is expressed in ancient language. So here is a summarized version of what Jesus’ own language might have conveyed.

O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos,

 Focus your light within us – make it useful;

Create your reign of unity now –

Your one desire then acts with ours as in all light, so in all forms.

Grant what we need each day in bread and insight,

Loose the chords of mistakes binding us,

as we release the strands we hold of other’s guilt.

Don’t let surface things delude us,

But free us from what holds us back,

From you is born all ruling will,

the power and the life to do,

the song that beautifies all,

from age to age it renews.

Truly power to these statements –

may they be the ground from which all my actions grow,

Amen.

‘Who Is the Last Person You Want to be Helped by?   

Jesus is travelling in the north for several weeks and turns south making his way along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. It was a dangerous route since much of it was through a rocky wilderness that sheltered many bands of thieves or robbers.

He is of course not alone. Our story tradition says he traveled with companions and the curious, who were interested in hearing something of what this strange Jewish cynic-like sage had to say about the nature of human life and its prospects.

Jericho, Jerusalem, and a road. Our story is probably the most known and best loved story in our biblical tradition. The story of the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’ seems to have touched into something that many identify with in some way or another. It is a great story, that is without doubt but herein is its problem. Because it is so well known and so well loved it has been domesticated applied to many situations as a metaphor and we miss that it is first and foremost a parable… By that I mean it is a story which turns our ideas and values and worldview upside down. It is perhaps an active metaphor that locates it in our time and in our place with a disturbing element.

Theologically speaking, for years and years the church’s interpretation turned this parable into an ‘example story’. Into a story of two so-called bad blokes and one good bloke. But an ‘example story’ is what this parable isn’t. This demands that we explore a little why we do that.

If the thrust of the story was about good blokes verses a bad bloke, or as an illustration of love of neighbour, or even a diatribe against heartless religious leaders, the offer of aid by a Jewish lay person would have been sufficient. Remember that Samaritans are Jewish people with a differing theology about the place of the temple. They are remnants of the Northern Kingdom, maybe liberals among conservatives perhaps but still Hebrew people. Or at least not too different in world view.

In this the offer of a lay Jewish person would be enough of a challenge to deal with and likewise, according to John Dominic Crossan: “If Jesus wanted to… inculcate love of one’s enemies, it would have been radical enough to have a Jewish person stop and assist a wounded Samaritan…  [But] the internal structure of the story and the historical setting of Jesus’ time agree that… the whole thrust of the story demands that one say what cannot be said, what is a contradiction in terms: Good-Samaritan” (Crossan 1992:62).

And that’s a major shock. Because it challenges the hearers. It challenges them and us and their and our, understanding of God and of whom God approves. The Samaritan, who is both a lay person and an outsider, embodies the true interpretation of the Jewish tradition: to show compassion.

Two people who help us appreciate a much broader understanding of what ‘compassion’ is, are Matthew Fox and John Donahue. Matthew Fox suggests that: “Compassion is not pity…  It is not feeling sorry for someone.  Compassion is about feelings of togetherness. It is about all those risks to self and exposing one’s vulnerability. Turning the other cheek is not just about looking away, not judging, and accepting difference. It is about being prepared to be changed, to see things anew. And it is this awareness of kinship or togetherness that urges us to seek after justice and do works of mercy (Fox 1979:2, 4). Like Matthew Fox was saying last week compassion is not only about caring for each other as fellow human beings it is about deeply caring for the whole of creation, about all the relationships. Each piece of plastic in the ocean is our concern, each decision about the survival or extinction of any microbe, animal, and atom is in need of compassion.

John Donahue also views compassion as something more than just concern for or awareness of. He describes ‘compassion’ like this: He says: “Compassion is that divine quality which, when present in human beings, enables them to share deeply in the sufferings and needs of others and enables them to move from one world to the other: from the world of helper to the one needing help; from the world of the innocent to that of the sinner”   (Donahue 1988:132). So, who is my neighbour? Well we could say that from our experience as a biblical storyteller, when people have heard this story of the good Samaritan many of them ask that same question and then identify with the Samaritan.

But it’s not as easy being a ‘good’ Samaritan as it seems at first sight! The stories told by our cultural storyteller – television, and experience – tells us people continue to pass by on the other side. The story doesn’t seem to be all that powerful a catalyst for change in our behaviour.

So, let’s listen to the story again, but this time we will try to imagine it from the injured person’s point of view. Why didn’t they stop and help me? I thought a minister was supposed to help others. And that church worker… Bet she was only going to another flower roster committee meeting. She could have been just a bit late… Wait on; here comes someone else. Maybe he will stop and… Oh no. Not one of them!

Wait on, I mustn’t be so pessimistic. Here’s one. Oh dear, he’s a Samaritan, this is not supposed to happen. Why a Northerner or maybe a Muslim… Anyone but him really. Perhaps it would be better if you kept going? Please, don’t stop. Keep going. Don’t touch me. O God, more importantly; don’t let him touch me…


The late Robert Funk spent many years studying this parable. He asked this question:
“Who in the audience wanted to let himself or herself be helped by a Samaritan? This is the primary challenge because the appearance of the Samaritan makes sense on no other basis” (Funk 1996:176). Who among you he said; would want to be helped by someone you didn’t respect or have time for or rubbed you up the wrong way? Who among you when you were in dire straits, vulnerable, and at risk would welcome someone you didn’t like to help you?

Funk then went on to suggest that had the victim in the ditch been a Samaritan and the hero an ordinary Judean, a different question would have had to have been asked. The question would be: who in the Judean audience wanted to play the role of hero to a Samaritan victim? What makes this question challenging is that, the role of the victim is the inferior role. The role of the helper is the superior one. And who doesn’t want to be the hero?

Who is my neighbour? That’s the supposed context of this story and the most common question asked by those who hear it. It is about the challenge of identifying one’s neighbour as the one in need but there is another contextual question in this story as well. Another ‘word’ which must also be considered if this story is to be a parable rather than just an example story.

And that can also be shaped into a question: The question is ‘whom will I allow to be my neighbour?” On this question, Megan McKenna’s comment is very suggestive: “If we were in the ditch in that condition, who is the last person we would want to be indebted to for the rest of our lives, especially if acknowledging the debt would cause us to be outcast and associated with that group by everyone in our current world?  Is there anyone or any group that we feel that way about?  Would we rather die than face the fact that this person or these people are our neighbours? (McKenna 1994:149).

That is one heck of a challenge and makes this parable very disruptive of our comfort. It does not allow us to sideline the challenge by putting is aside under the cloak of a story of a good bloke verses a bad one. Our honest answer to the question that risks our integrity, our commitment to justice and our willingness to die for it, gets close to the heart of this parable. And our answer just might really surprise us as well. I know it does for me in my current circumstances as minister of St David’s facing questions about my behaviour, and I know it could for those of you who care about St David’s as well as for me. Who is our neighbour? And Whom will I allow to be my neighbour? These are questions we ask of ourselves when we seek to be compassionate for all people and our planet with whom and for which we share this life. Amen.

‘A No Frills Jesus’

Posted: June 29, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘A No Frills Jesus’

Did you know that Saturday the 7th day of the 7th month on the year 2007 and at 7 minutes past 7am was the day the world ended. Of course, it was off the mark because we are still here! But in reality, there have been over many years several ‘visions’ or predictions as to when the ‘end of the world’ or the Second Coming of Christ, is to occur. One of the most famous of these predictions goes back to an American, called William Miller, a farmer and layman of the Baptist church, and a person who was one of those instrumental in establishing the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

Beginning with a strictly literal reading of the ages of people mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis, and the dating of other events mentioned in Daniel and Revelations, “Miller believed that precise calculations were possible and one could predict the second coming of Christ and the inauguration of the Millennial kingdom… somewhere around 1843” (Wikipedia). Actually, the 22 October 1844, was the date commonly accepted throughout the Millerite, movement, although it has been said Miller himself was uncertain as to the exact day. The topic was discussed in the newspapers as well as in theological journals. “New Testament eschatology competed with stock market quotations for front-page space…”  (Wikipedia).

But when we go back to our numerical patterns. We find that in a sample poll conducted towards the end of 2006, again in America, it showed that one in four Americans anticipated the second coming of Christ in 2007. Indeed, 11 percent said it is “very likely” that Jesus will return to Earth in 2007! 

William Miller and his followers not only tapped into a long tradition, they have also added to and expanded that tradition. And as we now know, it is from within the Millennial or Rapture or Armageddon fundamentalist traditions that much of the so-called ‘religious right’ in the western world seek to influence governments on foreign policy issues.  We might take for instance the relations in the volatile Middle East. We might ask how can there ever be a negotiated solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, when fundamentalist Christians continue to lobby politicians while claiming that: “Peace and peace plans in the Middle East are a bad thing… because they delay the countdown to Christ’s return” (Quoted in Crossan 2007:201) Domonic Crossan reminded us of this in 2007. The problem is that vote scared politicians continue to listen to them!

So, let me be quite clear about what I think: “The 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 divine presence” and let me say that I am not alone in this thinking. Domonic Crossan said as much in 2007. (Crossan 2007:230-231).

Returning to our text we see that over the last two weeks our gospel storyteller whom we call Luke, has been setting out his agenda, his vision, for cooperating with divine presence. Foxes have holes, but have nowhere to lay your head… Leave the dead to bury the dead… Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals…. Salute no one on the road… Take what food and drink is offered you…

It has to be that these stories about these short, sharp sayings, are important  – both then and now. Contemporary biblical scholarship suggests they are either from, or have been influenced by, the code of the Q Movement… The texts we take as from an unknown source used by the gospel writers. The important collection or memory of Jesus sayings, which in their earliest state, are very close to the Cynic’s style of making social critique.

And we can also now speculate that those same Q people were not only part of a very lively Jesus movement in Galilee, remembering and shaping just the sayings tradition of Jesus, but that their ‘voice’ is probably the best record we have of the first 40 years of the Jesus movements.

When we look at some of the basic conventions of the time we see that by conventional common sense standards of the everyday word, a home was necessary; the streets were unsafe, a son must honour the family above all else, especially in death, money and clothes and provisions are about living – and status, respect given and received was what made the world go around, only clean or organic food is what one should always eat.

Popular tradition has it that the Cynics always challenged their listeners by their dress and their sayings, to re-imagine the world away from the everyday world of common sense. Now this is where an important bit comes in. So too does the link to all that stuff I said at the beginning: about Millennial or Rapture or Armageddon fundamentalist traditions, usually called the ‘apocalyptic’ tradition. An apocalyptic or ‘end world’ theory doesn’t exist in any of these sayings, despite what some, including some scholars, want to claim. Neither does a blue print for modern world missions. This is why mission is usually not defined. It is God’s mission and thus does not fit man’s definitions which are culturally bound. And when it is defined it seems limited to programs or schemes to ensure social success.

What does exist is a new counter-culture tradition that simply suggests:  don’t jump to hasty conclusions, consider the human condition or circumstances of all. And when you take account of that kind of in-depth thinking, something different can be accomplished, now. This is what I was suggesting last week and the week before. Good news is about the new, the radically alternative and different. A change of attitude or behaviour is a simple response but only part of it. A new vision of what it means to be human on equal terms based in love on love and for love. Being alive to the present moment in all of its possibilities, positive and negative. What makes me suggest some of this? When a ‘no-frills’ Jesus used imaginative language to call into question his received life/everyday world, in favour of the life world that emerges in his parables and short sayings (aphorisms),  (Patterson 2007) then he and we, are getting close to what it means to live with divine presence – both then and now.

We can catch hold of that presence when our eyes are wide open… “capable of catching a glimpse of what lies beyond the reigning view of the world” (Funk 2002:28).

Like I have said before, the Roman Empire, like all empires then and now, and what seems to permeate our culture even today is that empires, institutions based on a power over are base in the premis that they will change the world through victory after war. Note that peace is dependent upon victory and only comes after war. The ‘end-of-the-world’ advocates say we’ll save the world by destroying it. Jesus seems to have said: let’s re-imagine the world differently by considering the human condition of all. That is now our ‘no frills’ journey, where-ever it takes us. Amen.

A Different Journey?’

Posted: June 21, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘A Different Journey?’

The film The Dead Poet’s Society, tells the story of a remarkable teacher’s influence on his students in a prestigious boarding school. The teacher, Mr Keating, played by Robin Williams, invites the boys “to jump up and stand on his desk as he has done in his teaching, so they can see things from a different perspective, a wider view… a different horizon – then seize it” (Bausch 1999:239).

In so doing he invites his students to view the world differently and that theme resonates with the theme of our story from Luke today. The text is about embodying and following in the way and style of Jesus of Nazareth. We have proposed before what the Way of Jesus is essentially about an alternative way of living and while we might have concentrated on his way of being in the past and locked ourselves up in the mode of believing as ‘being’ we now think differently. We now think that just being is not enough.

We now think that being and doing are part of the same thing, to do is to be and to be is to do. A bit like the awareness that online engagement there is a limitation of communication that online cannot deliver. We realize that communication is more than a need for the visual, the photographic conversation and more about the importance of the 90% of communication that comes through body language or through the embodiment and less about just the mind and the content of the words.

When we look at our Lukan text, we see that there are three sets of reactions worth noting. The first is that of the Samaritans, who recognize that Jesus “has set his face to go to Jerusalem” and they will not receive him. They apparently recognize that Jesus is on a mission … and they want nothing to do with it. Or perhaps they believe that because Jesus is set on reaching Jerusalem, he will have no time for them, no time to discuss or heal or whatever they may have hoped. In either case, they have expectations of Jesus that he is not meeting and when his resolution to march toward the cross upsets their plans, the Samaritans reject him.

The disciples, in turn, react to this rejection with a surprising and rather alarming! – request: they want to call down fire from heaven to devour the Samaritans. Of course, this may not be as surprising as we’d like to think. Jews and Samaritans did not always get along, While both of Jewish descent the ‘Northerner’s’ (The Samaritans) thought differently. The disciples were apparently not above ethnic prejudice, and they knew their biblical history enough to know that Elijah had done something similar years before. They, also, do not like to be thwarted in their plans. They were there to see that Jesus made it to Jerusalem, and anyone and everyone who stood in their way could move out of the way.

The question we might ask here is “Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Or to put it in traditional terms: Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus come first in our plans and do they shape our lives, or do we shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned? I want to suggest here that if we’re honest, many of us will identify with the latter option because we recognize that we harbour a deep-seated desire to be in control, to maintain some semblance of order in a rather chaotic and confusing world. Yet Jesus in this passage is clearly not willing to concede: he demands that his mission comes before all of our plans, even those that seem most reasonable.

Why does he do this? Well maybe because we really aren’t in control, that it’s an illusion, and that a rainstorm, or tornado, or illness, or loss, or tragedy, or any one of a hundred other things might dash our hopes as well as our plans and bring us to ruin. Maybe we aren’t in control and Jesus is telling us to let him be? But wait on a minute! As tempting – and as pious – as that might sound, I’m not sure that the passage in front of us invites the choice between us being in control or Jesus being in control. Think about it: Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem to assume command or take charge. Rather, he goes to Jerusalem to thrust himself fully and completely into people’s out-of-control lives and he comes out the other side as foolish lost and dead.

So perhaps that’s the promise of the Gospel – not that we can be in control, or even that God is in control, but rather that God joins us in our out-of-control-ness, holds onto us, and walks with us to the other side. Maybe this thing we name certainty and truth and fact is an illusion? Maybe the efficacy of that which we name God is not in the ‘Almighty’, the most powerful, the omnipotent, omnipresent unassailable deity we have created? And that may not always seem like all that much of a promise, but after a few days without power supply… or a few months on chemo … or a few years of addiction … or a life as an outcast and a poor individual, at least it sounds more realistic and real and therefore more trustworthy than a God who leaves one out of his good deeds. And let’s face it, we invest a lot of time, energy, and money in being in control. And plenty of religious folk invite us to invest lots of time, energy, and money to surrender to God’s control. Yet the world is still a terribly chaotic and unsettling place. Does it work is the question? Doing what one has always done but doing it better sounds like a good strategy. So what if the deepest calling of a Christian disciple isn’t to be in control – ourselves or vicariously through God – but rather to give up the illusion, to take some risks, and to throw ourselves into this turbulent life and world God loves so much trusting that God will join us in the adventure, hold onto us through all the ups and downs, and walk with us to the other side.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s a faith journey. Maybe that what being and doing the kingdom thing is all about. And when we, like Jesus’ first disciples, fall short yet again, then all we can do is give thanks that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, entering our chaotic lot and walking in our turbulent lives that we may know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.

In theological parlance, the Way of Jesus is not compartmentalized into belief and non-belief, non-historically factual and existentially mythical. The Way of Jesus is an alternative to the status quo, it is new, a new creation, good news, transforming love, a way of compassion as opposed to rules and law. A way of collaboration as opposed to a n individual gift. An honouring of the reality of evolution and serendipity randomness and ambiguity as opposed to some sort of supernatural rescue. Or as the late biologist and theologian Charles Birch, suggested: “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). A ‘different horizon’.

I have said before and I say it again that the church today is in a huge struggle to find itself in a whole new world. It struggles with what to be in today’s world and it talks about what it thinks it should do in the way of survival and not in the way of faith. It talks about all the things it has been doing for the last hundred years with new words and todays, words. But the received message is that the decline is all the fault of the people who still come to church. The message is that all we were doing was not enough for sure but it also says we should be doing it better if we wanted to arrest the decline. The trouble with this approach is that despite all those who nostalgically seem to long for church to be like it was in 1944 or 1954 or 1964, that can never be. The evolution of thinking has moved on, we no longer need or want to be saved from the world. We need to love it, care for it, and save it from ourselves.

The truth is that the church is now only one of several institutions or organizations offering a view of the world and a purpose for living. It cannot claim exclusiveness nor some sort of divine truth. It seems that the church is no longer listening to Jesus. The church is, if you like, in a supermarket situation in which many people feel no need to buy its products at all and the church’s answer is to try to do what it has been doing for years but do it better believing that people will go back to an earlier way of thinking and being.

According to those who do research on these matters the major challenge the church faces is in being able to identify and name the presence of God or the sacred in our often-fragmented life-worlds. Jesus spoke to his world with such effect that a whole new religious movement was established so why can’t we? There are some who are taking the risk but they are being seen by the church as difficult or wrong and unfaithful. I can attest to that because I have been called unchristian by my own church. Others mostly beyond the church are exploring just that. And they are often coming up with different and competing answers which can cause some of us to be a bit shocked because we fear the church no longer has, if it ever did, a monopoly on things spiritual or sacred or God stuff. As I have said before. What if beyond the God we think we know is something new? What if the secular is the new spirituality? What if beyond the secular is the new religious age?

One who has written on this subject, Australian David Tacey, says: “What has been brewing inside the soul is a new spirituality that will surprise both the secular establishment and the official religious tradition… The miracle is that the secular keeps giving birth to the sacred, often against its will and in spite of its own judgement” (Tacey 2000:252,253). Richard Kearney’s work on a post atheism God or ‘Anatheism’ and Caputo’s work on the Weak God ask us to go beyond the status quo of a supernatural, theistic almighty God and to see the human Jesus in his culture and setting before we make him fit our supernatural needs.

As you know I have a view on all of this, which I know has been and is still a challenge for some. I want to suggest that maybe because these comments are not the traditional ones there are some who want to hear them. Not as stumbling blocks or even challenges to their faith but as alternatives that enable a clearer examination of what they do believe and will work in the lives as they know life. Last week I argued for the church to consider creating space for open honest and safe exploration of this area of thinking. That the church might become a safe place for divergence and difference to be spoken of freely in the interests of creating a culture of grace and peace as opposed to right and assimilation and unresolvable difference.

A very difficult part to this is that one needs to have or cultivate a ‘high’ view, about the place of change. Being open to new perceptions, and not clinging to established or inherited ways of thinking about things is always an alternative to be explored. For us as church the challenge is not to cling onto a theology that does not fit our 21st century understanding. In other words, the kingdom of God is about now, that’s why we question the concept of kingship.

We need to let go of the medieval understanding of kingship and the current understanding of Empire as a system of governance and we need to find an alternative that relegates the old ideas persistent and historically repeatable they may be. Kingdom is less about an area of the earth controlled by a monarchy and more about a life that an alternative way is lived in a complimentary way, a compassionate way, a way that celebrates human flourishing rather than controls its behaviour.

Simply perhaps, the church needs to ensure it frees folk to go on the journey that Jesus chartered, rather than to worship the journey of Jesus (WWink). And while that might sound easy it is as radical a change as the one Jesus advocated in his time!

If we go back to this week’s particular story the tradition is not clear concerning Jesus’ intentions, as he approached the Samaritan village. We also see that whatever they were, he was not able to carry them out, because the village folk denied him and his friends, hospitality. Many scholars have speculated on why they acted this way. Theological reasons and cultural reasons have been offered but maybe it was just that the people had heard about this Cynic-like bloke and were cautious of losing the status quo.

There was a German New Testament theologian called Willie Marxsen, who seemed to be always pointing out that not everyone who met or heard Jesus had positive reactions! Some said: ‘This bloke’s a nutter!’ Others said: ‘This is good teaching.  Admirable.  Interesting.’ Still others said: ‘In this person’s words and deeds I have experienced God’s very own presence in my life.’

I can attest to having engendered such results on occasion when been told I am too academic, not down to earth enough or to radical in thought and sometimes when I am told I am onto something. According to the various biblical storytellers, Jesus encountered opposition
to his perception of reality from the authorities of the day, but just how hostile this opposition was, is a matter of speculation. On the other hand, those same storytellers say that many ordinary people were attracted to him and his re-imagined worldview.

Another challenge not addressed by today’s church is that people didn’t go to the synagogue to meet with, or listen to, him. They met him on the hills and by the lake. While they were hanging about in the marketplace. Or while they were mending their fishing nets. They ate with him and held parties for him. They invited him into their homes.

There’s no indication whatsoever in the gospel stories that the synagogues ever had any more worshippers because of Jesus. Perhaps the church’s mission depends upon its people being people of the Jesus Way. And while not wanting to fall into the ‘literalist’ trap, nevertheless those who chose to listen and take on board his comments, experienced what he said as ‘good news’. “What they learned from Jesus and experienced in his presence was not just a good teaching or a good way of life – it was not an ethic… Rather, it was an expression of who they would claim God to be” (Patterson 2002:222). It was then up to them whether or not they felt free enough to go on the journey Jesus was chartering.

Engaging in the Kingdom of God was less about creating a place where everything was right and good and more about a place where people could be fully human as Charles Birch’s comment said “The way Jesus offered was one of being open to surprise and new perceptions, not clinging to established guidelines and inherited patterns” (Birch 1993: 79). It is important to live in this day and time rather than being caught in the past and that’s the first invitation to us all. Let go where we have to. The second invitation is, to follow Jesus up onto the desks and chairs… in true Keating/Robin Williams style: to jump up and stand on desks and chairs and table tops and ladders, so that we all can see things from a different perspective, a wider view, a different horizon. And then seize that opportunity to be different. If we can do that together, then we will know what being in the kingdom is all about. As for the Church, it might be to put down what worked in the past, put down what is not working now and get up on the table of risk and the new and the alternative and maybe we can be in for an exciting and different journey!

Amen.

‘Demonic Possession by Todays Experience?’

Our text from Luke today is a story of an exorcism that Luke has taken from Mark (5:1-20).  In Luke’s gospel, this is the only incident where Jesus ministers outside of Jewish territory.  There is confusion, however, on account of the textual variations as to the exact name of the place: “the country of the Gerasenes” or “Gadarenes” or “Gergesenes.”  The common understanding is that it can be said to be “opposite Galilee” (v. 26), that is, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  

In the Synoptic gospels, Mathew Mark and Luke Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as engaging in exorcisms as a regular part of his ministry.  We today might have trouble with the notion of “demonic possession” but it was a standard feature of ancient belief.  Probably the closest modern analogue we have to such a phenomenon is severe mental and emotional illness.  In whatever way we understand it today, our text presents Jesus as restoring a tormented person to his right mind (v. 35). In this respect, exorcisms served the overall purpose of Jesus’ healing ministry.

The demon-possessed man is depicted as living outside the pale of civilized society: he wore no clothes and lived among the tombs (v. 27).  This means that the man suffering from demonic possession is also marginalized and in need of reintegration into ordinary society.  We are informed that the man is possessed of many demons.  Indeed, their name is “legion,” meaning “a multitude” or ‘great in number.”  Andrew King’s poem, ‘I Am Legion” gives us a personal picture of what this means for the individual. 

I AM LEGION
I am the lost one trapped in depression;
I am the broken one trapped in my rage;
I am the hurting soul chained to addiction;
I am self-harmer abused at young age –

I am the many-name victim of madness,
my humanness naked, nowhere to hide;
drowning like flotsam in cold seas of sadness,
wracked by despair until bits of me die;

haunted by fear, or strange inner voices;
tortured by dark thoughts in pitiless tide . . .
Blame me? Shame me? And what other choices –
fear me? Ignore me and let my needs slide?

Gerasene brother, when you met the Christ
who banished the illness into the swine,
your healing came without judgment or price;
mercy itself helped bring rightness of mind.

But note still the fear of those who kept score,
finding you clothed, sitting calm and at peace.
Madness is feared, but is mercy feared more?
It’s Christ, not Legion, who’s asked there to leave

But, is the demonic only of the individual or is it the collective? Like the Hebrew and early Christian understanding of resurrection as a general resurrection as opposed to an individual one? New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has made a very provocative suggestion for how we are to interpret the motif of Jesus sending the demons into the herd of swine (vv. 32-33).  First, he finds it to be telling that the demons give their name as “legion” which is the name of a Roman military unit.  He also thinks it is noteworthy that pigs are considered “unclean” animals according to Jewish food laws.  He reminds us, moreover, that the broader political context of the New Testament is that Palestine (the Land of Israel) was under Roman political and military occupation at the time of Jesus.  Hence, Crossan asks whether we might not discern “a connection between colonial oppression and forms of mental illness easily interpreted as demonic possession?”  This is a very insightful way of considering things in this passage of scripture.

Crossan explains: “An occupied country has, as it were, a multiple-personality disorder.  One part of it must hate and despise the oppressor, but the other must envy and admire its superior power.  And…if body is to society as microcosm to macrocosm, certain individuals may experience exactly the same split within themselves.”  With respect to our specific text, then, Crossan writes: “An individual is, of course, being healed, but the symbolism is also hard to miss or ignore.  The demon is both one and many; is named Legion, that fact and sign of Roman power; is consigned to swine, that most impure of Judaism’s impure animals; and is cast into the sea, that dream of every Jewish resister.”  Crossan admits that he does not take this story to reflect an actual incident in the life of the historical Jesus; still, he does think that this story “openly characterizes Roman imperialism as demonic possession.”[  It’s hard not to be impressed with Crossan’s brilliance in seeing this connection in our text.  Accordingly, Jesus’ ministry, including his exorcisms, had a political dimension which we should not underestimate nor get caught up in the personalization of the story. It is essentially a community or a collective or an empirical story.

Whatever sense we make of the phenomenon that was interpreted by ancient people as demonic possession, the fact remains that many people, today as then, live under the domination of evil forces and are trapped by them, be it as personal control or systemic oppression.  Salvation for them thus requires liberation from evil.  In an earlier comment on another passage of scripture, I spoke of the prevalence of addiction in our society.  People under the power of an addiction feel that they have lost the freedom they once had to control their lives and they know no other way out of the situation.  This experience of addiction can be likened to that of possession by an external demonic power.  We also speak today of “systemic evils” such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.  These are structural or collective evils from which individuals suffer.  So, however we name the evil in our midst, it is part of the church’s mission to exorcise it from the lives of people, just as Jesus once did. 

I want to play you a video now that I think alerts us to a demonic possession today. Not is the sense of creating an image of a devil or a particular identity of evil but in terms of that which we create for ourselves as system, culture, through unquestioned progress or what at many levels seems good for us but might have hidden implications that we can name as insidiously evil because they fool us into complacency and comfort. The video is an introduction to a day seminar that we do not have on video but the introduction I think alerts us to ask questions about why things like Brexit has been so fraught, Why Donald Trump got elected and why we seem to roll from conflict into conflict like that of the Ukraine or in many cases with small conflicts we opt for legalism and revenge rather than seek grace, forgiveness and peace.

Some of you may have seen this video before but I want you to think of what the role of the church might be in this new environment. I have to admit it is why I invite open critique of anything I say in what I consider to be a safe place which is among you. It is you who need to feel that same and accept my invite. The video is an argument for this sort of church community.

Watch Video

It’s Not Through Formula…

One of the key elements of the Trinity idea is the focus on relationship it has. The doctrine assumes an intra dependence that is easily mistaken as inter dependence and objectifies what is the vital element it seeks to portray. The three in one becomes the priori as opposed to the one in three perhaps. I think the human richness the doctrine seeks is less about that in between differences and more about that which is within the differences or the relationship is less about the different and more about the harmony within the juxtaposition.   

I have to admit that when I started parish ministry Trinity Sunday was the dreaded Sunday when one had to avoid explaining it because it was too complicated. Today its not too much different in that the only thing one can say about Trinity with any credibility is the focus of relationship. Trinity is no longer about the three that make up the one and more about the way in which the one is the example of unity.

Having said that there are a number of ways of looking at this. Gordon D Kaufman in his book “Jesus and Creativity” has some different comments on ‘trinity’.  He says it is very much tied to the traditional or orthodox ministry/death/resurrection/ascension-to-heaven story about Jesus… he says; “… the traditional trinitarian claim is that the three persons of the trinity all co-inhere in each other… and are all equally involved in everything in which any one of them is involved – and thus equally involved in everything throughout the cosmos.  He also says that; The doctrine of the trinity may be faulted here on two counts:

  • in its lifting a human being (Jesus) up into full deity, it makes the creativity throughout the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic and anthropocentric; and
  • this sort of move seems to re-suppose some version of the old two-worlds cosmology (Pg:55).

Kaufman’s response is to acknowledge as quoted earlier that;

“… Most of the vast universe, as we think of it today, is in no way at all affected by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; it is only the human project and its evils, on planet Earth, to which the Jesus-story – because of the healing and new life that it has brought – is pertinent… (Pg:55).

He says: “We need to recognize that from the very beginning of specifically Christian thinking about God, all the major issues that needed addressing involved human choices… It was through choices made by various followers of Jesus that the affirmations and claims that eventually developed into ministry/death/resurrection/ascension-to-heaven story about Jesus; it was the choices of councils of bishops that eventuated in the understanding of

what would be regarded as ‘orthodox’ in the churches – including the doctrine of the trinity –

and what would be regarded as ‘heresy’; and it has been repeated choices over the centuries – by bishops and popes, by congregations, by reformers of various sorts as well as other individual women and men – that have determined in every new present whether those earlier choices should still be regarded as of central importance in orienting and ordering life” (Pg:55-56). This reminds us of Lloyd Geering’s claims about human language and recent claims that we are co=creators of our reality.

Kaufman says that: “We in the twenty-first century are the heirs of many different ways of understanding and interpreting Jesus: Which (if any) should we commit ourselves to and seek to develop further?  Which should we ignore or discard?…  When the churches in the early centuries of Christianity accepted or consented to the notion of orthodoxy, the range of options for Christians was significantly narrowed… (Pg:56).

“[Contemporary Jesus study] actually brings us a number of significantly different Jesuses to which should we… commit ourselves?  Here again we are confronted with a matter of choice or at least consent: Which Jesus, if any, really ‘grabs’ us?  Which makes sense to us?  Which will help us grow in important new directions?  Whatever we regard as of unique significance in the complex of events ‘surrounding and including and following upon the man Jesus’ will largely determine the version of the Jesus-story that we choose as we seek to discern what light that story might throw on human life and death today” (Pg:57).

All of that sounds pretty good to my mind. It seems to have logic and make sense intellectually but I wonder if there is something else going on here as well. Maybe Trinity Sunday does symbolize all the failures of institutionalized Christianity. Maybe Trinity Sunday has become an ‘empty cocoon’ -empty, because the life which shaped it has long since departed. Or is it still a metaphor of value to our understanding today?

Indeed, we are reliably informed that the great 20th century Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear from Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom would not even notice its absence!

I quoted Rex Hunt three years ago when he suggested that for him, the Doctrine of the Trinity has become a mathematical formula, much like and as arid as, E=MC2 that Einstein told us was the clue to the physical universe. Today however we read that some of the more creative biblical scholars of our day, think that the doctrine was ‘created’ to describe, define and safe-guard an experience. But in the process of time, the ‘experience’ seems to have been drained right out, and what we have left is just the formula – as if this was what being a Christian is. Believe in the Trinity or you cannot be Christian. There is still a hint of that around even today but when pressed that idea falls down.

But when we stop and look back for a moment we see the originating events of our faith and we see what these events suggest to us. A man by the name of Jesus or Yeshua, who was landless and probably worked as an ‘odd-jobs’ man for some years, changed jobs in mid-stream, and became an itinerant teacher, healer and storyteller – respected as a sage. And during one to three years (depending on which storyteller is in charge of the story), he seemed to attract a mixed group of people, usually from the fringes of his society. Including as much modern discovery reminds us contain many women of significant note and influence since excluded by patriarchy.

With these people he was able to share himself so completely that over time and after a lot of struggle they became new people – gripped with a new creative imagination. In this becoming, the thoughts and feelings and stories of each other, resonated with the thoughts and feelings and stories of others. But here’s the catch; this was not something which Jesus himself did. It was something that happened when he was present, like a catalytic agent. One theologian has put it like this: “…something about this man Jesus broke the atomic exclusiveness of those individuals so that they were deeply and freely receptive and responsive each to the other…  Notice the challenges here. As an intra event it was an atomic exclusiveness. It was an exclusiveness that had huge power. And the breaking of it transformed their minds, their personalities. They no longer saw things in the way of the popular, accepted norms.  Their appreciable world was forever changed, as was their community with one another and with all people. Their experience was such that when he died, despair gripped this group of people so much so that they could not see any good in him. He was not the messiah they had expected or hoped for. He could not have been the messiah at all. He became a symbol of the weakness of God not the strength akin to military power and might or to the power of empire.

However, this is not the end of the story. After a while, when the numbness and the shock
began to wear away, something happened… They began to see the effects of that transforming creativity previously known only in fellowship with Jesus, as reaching beyond his death. It began to work again. It had risen from the dead. The enthusiasm began to spread like wildfire and to empower those who needed to assimilate and make universal through order and a common mind. The intra became the inter and we have struggled with difference ever since. Those who experienced community as a means to self-worth, and organizations as cooperation developed and the various communities began to express and value their diversity of culture, language and ideas at the expense of community. The sad part of this evolution was that the church around the 4th century seeking control and power created the doctrine of the Trinity, it was in a climate of dissension and so-called heresy, the Trinity idea was to safe-guard an experience… It was a way of placating the differences in thinking with an experience as ideal. An experience, not too dissimilar with the resurrection experience. An experience of calm among the dissention, replacing the focus on the battle of words with an experience or complacency. An experience of life over death, of making new and alive, by that which was dead in their lives… On the plus side what was created was an experience which pointed to Creativity God in the world, and in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. And that Creativity God is not limited to only one form or style of self-revelation because it is always relational and not confined just to the rational even though this thinking has been suppressed by the church’s need for power and control.

What makes us truly human, and thus more credible as being Christian, is not accepting superstition or what can or can’t be believed, nor accepting what can only be presented in some kind of arid formula. The positive note about the Trinity is not in its doctrinal form but rather in its invitation to value experience as what makes us truly human. Context is key to understanding. With or without God, to be truly human is being able to live in relationship with the other. Not, to alienate or objectify the other but to live in relationship with another. The relationship is what constitutes our existence and our wholeness, not the efforts to formulate and analyse and rationalize a belief. We are all webs and we are part of a web to use the internet analogy or we are a constituent of as an integral component of an orbital spectrum perhaps to use a New Copernican idea. We are in relation to everyone and everything as part of the spectrum. Its why we have created climate change and as some say destroyed our world.

I wonder if we can be a little practical here. I want to ask you a question and then invite you to ponder it for a moment – The question is ‘what are your best moments?  Your really best moments?’ Think about it for a moment. I am not asking you to answer out loud but you can if you want to.

As an example; I think my best moments are when I am in relationship. When a member of my family hugs me. An example of this is when I visit my wife in the care home, her smile and her desire to hug me reach across her struggle with Alzheimer’s and we are in relationship that is more than anything going on in the day. Nothing else exists. After attending a colleague’s funeral some time back I was standing outside when the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church gave me a hug and said thanks Doug you guys held our church together. He was referring to the role the colleague David Grant played as a mission consultant and the role I played when I was a co-director of the Mission Board of our church. I was in relation with him, with the colleague and with my church across time and space.

The best Trinitarian moment, the relational moments, are when friendship is valuable and touchable and strong…I remember those moments when I was and am in relation as my best moments. Don’t you?

But what’s really going on here? What’s the so-called ‘point’ of all this?  Well! The fact is that these experiences are universal experiences that tell us about ourselves. They tell us that not only do we exist (a web exists) but that we exist in relationship (we are the webs). Relationship is what makes us what we truly are. And the trinity as experience reminds us that what makes G-o-d God, is that relationship We are cocreators with the sacred. Using anthropocentric language, relationship is what God is about, and therefore it is no wonder that we, who are made in God’s image and likeness, are also essentially about creative relationship.

So those are my comments: Trinity Sunday is about me and you, and it’s about Creativity God and it’s about relationship. The Trinity is not a mathematical question. It’s not even a theological question. And any reference to it is only found once in the entire Bible and then scholars tell us, it was a very late addition. At best the Trinity is a symbol of relationship. Amen.

‘Beyond Boundaries’

Posted: May 31, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Beyond Boundaries’

I think that our readings today are that we need to listen the Pentecost Spirit more keenly. That what our present religious situation calls for first of all is not a set of updated creedal affirmations, like new statements of faith, or new phrases to govern our thinking by but rather something prior: something like an unconditional commitment to veracity, and to authenticity and to what, to the best of our knowledge, corresponds with our reality. Our theology and response to the call of the sacred needs to be contextual and real on the ground of living. That is the most pertinent answer, (for those who are inclined to ask,) to the question, “What would Jesus do?” His parables and aphorisms are expressions of his own vision of reality and of what that reality implied for him and his contemporaries and called upon them to do about the way they think and the way they live. Basing our faith and life on what is our reality is, in that sense, to do what Jesus would do, even if that leads us to understand ourselves and our world in ways that never occurred to him. An unconditional commitment to veracity and authenticity is the narrow gate that will admit us to terrain where we will be able to identify the meaning that can nourish our spirits in a new axial age. We need to manifest the bizarre hope of the gospel not as a recitation of statements or a protection of some sort of historical truth. The gospel and the church and the faith community doesn’t need protection it needs risking within this time and place

Richard Dawkins says it is the root of all evil. Christopher Hitchens says it poisons everything. Both were talking about religion. And they are not alone in their ‘evangelical nontheistic’ comments. Alongside this is another approach and that is one that I have argued for. It is in John Seel’s, book on the millennial generation called the New Copernicans. His argument is  that the Atheistic argument is just one position amongst a bigger picture. That, if one is to examine the history of Christian thought and practice one would see that at least over the last two thousand and more years there have been indications that thinking has evolved; not in a linear fashion but in a more spherical, spiral or chaotic manner. I think this is an indication of how that which we name God works for us. Some traditional and ancient thinking has prevailed and been modified and other thinking has been super-ceded and cast aside. Most scholars today will have a list of people they cite as resource for their thinking. There have also been many popular books written about preaching these positions. My attempt back in 2019, with the New Copernican series was to argue that the complexity of thought is best addressed by accepting that experience has and is a major influence upon what we think. In other words to choose one truth is to buy into an unhelpful extremism. As one Australian newspaper columnist said some time back now; “The swelling of atheist literature is a reaction to a worldwide rise in fundamentalist religion. But in kicking back at extremism, the bestselling atheists don’t discriminate between mainstream faith and the loony fringe.  It’s religion itself they object to”. Being in the so-called religion business we need to be aware of these author’s thoughts because reality is not that simple. It is not governed by pluralistic either-or notions.  Thought is more complex in its nature and cannot be contained within simple boundaries. Look at the most recent discoveries are propositions that the brain works in multi universal networking. Think about the impact on our understanding of collective consciousness and pan psychism this can have.

Today, in the traditional lectionary of the church, we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. The so-called ‘birthday’ of the Christian church, even though scholars of any repute would claim the traditional story is the result of Luke’s own literary imagination, rather than an historical report. On the other hand, today in progressive church circles Pentecost also carries another title: That of Pluralism Sunday. A day that is given over to being thankful for religious diversity.

We might note here that in the emerging approach to sacred and secular as dichotomies’ the secular world, can be said to be a world of inclusive spirituality, pluralism itself is almost a non-event. In the so noted decline in belief of God is a rise in the search for an authentic spirituality. While less and less people attend church mor and more appear to believe in that which we name God. The main issue is that it is not just two paths it is multi path environment. Meta narratives and common thinking is no longer of value.

This brings me to the core challenge in this sermon, that of the exclusive boundaries we have established as children of our tradition, our past and some might say the exclusiveness of the closed transcendent position or the exclusive fixed supernatural position I spoke of in the series on the New Copernicans. Remember this is a challenge to the super – natural claims not the God is real or not issue. I want to again challenge our thinking by introducing the science faith connection, the imagination verses real dilemma and lastly but not least, the John D Caputo’s suggestion that God does not exist but rather insists and I acknowledge Caputo’s work in developing what is known as a weak theology, or a God who is to be found in the weak and not the strong, in the vulnerable and not the mighty, in the inverse power of vulnerability and perhaps in the foolishness of the cross or the folly of loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek and so forth. This is a big challenge because we find it hard to let go of the transcendent or more importantly to re-imagine it as less about over and above, and outside and in control of and more about a God in and through everything in and outside of reality. A new sort of panentheism. I do however deviate from J D Caputo when he suggests we need to create a theology of ‘perhaps’ in that I prefer the word ‘almost’ because I want to express and make a claim for a somewhat less benign and more positive hope filled stance. God is the ‘almost’ which to me means God exists but not in the traditional way we think and that God is found as the ‘almost; the not yet, but the sure to be, the weak, vulnerable God at the mercy of humanity and the serendipitous and randomness reality of evolution. Yet the God that is surely in the ‘almost’. The hope of the God with us is to be found in the God who may not arrive but is almost here. Here I think also is the New Testament Kingdom of God that is yet to come and is also within you. About now I am wondering if you sense the exclusive boundaries, I am asking you to examine and look beyond?

Last week I spoke a little three years ago and last week about prayer and after the service three years ago a person asked me “Then why do we pray?” My reply was that we pray because we are human and we need to put into language our thinking. J D Caputo in answering a similar question suggested that his book could be thought of a faithful prayer to God. So, what if our God as ‘almost’ is actually an element of prayer? What if we believe in prayer, we are people of prayer? We are praying all the time and we are deadly serious about this because while we don’t think prayer is a conversation with a theistic interventionist all powerful transcendent God, we do pray to be able to honour the serendipitous chance of an event, event being what the name invokes. Event as the dynamic relational energy or ground of the sacred. We are praying for the possibility of the impossible, the ‘perhaps’ as Caputo puts it and the ‘almost’ that I prefer. Prayer is the precariousness itself it is an engagement with the unexpected and we invoke prayer and grace in the name of God and sure, our language and vocabulary might challenge the traditionally pious because of the lack of religious jargon because it is always necessary to have an ‘almost’ when it comes to God. It has to have a cloud of unknowing and uncertainty over all divine matters if we are to move out of the closed transcendent limitedness. And to put it bluntly, there is no God except insofar as there is a chance of an event, which we cannot see coming and I would add has the expectation of an ‘almost’. One could say that God is the unforeseeable come-what-may which may be the grace of a new beginning. Here we also have the insistence of God as the insistence of the event or the serendipitous chance of the event and the corresponding faith that God can happen anywhere at any-time. I know God can exist because I know I am involved in that existence. God is always almost here. Always insisting.

To finish today we might take another look at the interfaith issue. It is the case that in recent years two American based groups have been at the forefront of the church’s attempt at keeping up with this change in thinking. One, is the Westar Institute Known initially as the Jesus Seminar and the other, The Centre for Progressive Christianity. In an interview back in 2006/7 the coordinator of a Progressive Project, Revd Jim Burklo, said there were three general ways in which religions relate to each other: The first is (i) Exclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is correct, and all other religions are wrong, at best, and evil, the worst… The second is (ii) Inclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is the only true one, but yours is interesting. So we should tolerate each other’s religions and find ways to cooperate and communicate… And the third is (ii) Pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me. I quote Jim Burklo: “pluralism is the concept that there are multiple loci of truth and salvation among the religions. [It] does not imply that all religions are the same or that all religions are equal; but it does recognize the possibility that my way is not the only way and that my religion is not necessarily superior to yours” (Burklo. TCPC web site, Pluralism Sunday, 2007).

In saying that I think it is almost redundant to say what I just quoted. Redundant in the sense that the focus on differences has been part of our culture for some years now and we have moved on because we are now asking if it is important to recognize the difference in order to reach harmony and just an acceptance of the differences or is it time to recognize the things that hold us together, the things that are as far as we can tell intrinsically human. It is also a challenge to change when differences become the primary goal of the search for a way forward together. Again the issue is not whether god exists or not but rather about the definition of the sacred or the God we create.  This is about authenticity and not about fact or absolutes.

We might ask what some churches have been doing on pluralism Sunday and we might see that some years back First Congregational Church, Long Beach: has had an Islamic leader as the preacher; Christ Community Church, Spring Lake: had studied the book ‘The faith club’ – a book by three women, a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian – They sought to find common ground on which to share their faiths; University Place Christian Church, Enid: had used multiple languages to express the wisdom of different world religions in worship; And Mizpah United Church of Christ and Beth Shalom (Reformed Jewish), Minneapolis:  had a ‘pulpit’ exchange between faiths. Some years back at St David’s in Auckland we too had an Islamic scholar preach but the question might be; what has this done for interfaith relations in our daily lives?

Some years back now His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan Buddhists, visited Canberra and the people were told that the Dalai Lama advises his lamas who travel to different countries not to emphasize the teaching of Buddhism too much,
as trying to convert people may not only fail but could also weaken their faith in their own religion. He said that it’s better to encourage those who believe in something, to deepen their own faith. “The point isn’t to convert people, but to contribute to their well-being” (Ian Lawton. 3C/Christ Community Church web site, 2007).

The Dalai Lama said that he didn’t go to the West to make one or two more Buddhists, but simply to share his experiences of the wisdom that Buddhism has developed over the centuries.  He said that if you find anything, I’ve said useful, make use of it.  Otherwise just forget it” (Quoted in Ian Lawton, Christ Community Church, 2007).

In response, someone said: “Now there’s a balanced attitude to east/west dialogue.  I can just hear a new form of Christian evangelism – which states ‘This is our tradition.  This is what it has meant for us.  If you find it useful, use it.  If Christianity contributes to the well-being of people, and contributes to world peace by inter-faith relations, then take and apply it.  Otherwise, just forget it…” (Ian Lawton).

And then Ian Lawton who was vicar at St Matthews in Auckland some years back concludes, “This is the attitude which will give Christianity a bright future. It should come as no surprise to us.  This was also the way of Jesus” (Ian Lawton). While another wrote: “In a time of religious tension, and in what I see as increasing tribalism, when Christians think the only way to peace is to convert Muslims to Christianity and when Muslims think the only way to peace is to convert Christians to Islam, I think Jesus would shout: ‘Enough!  Convert yourselves!  Listen and discover the better way’” (John Shuck. Shuck&Jive blog site, 2007)

And again that same cleric says; “I am a Christian.  Christianity is unique and it has much to offer our world.  But being unique does not necessarily mean being right or being the only way to be.  Hinduism is also unique, as is Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, Native [Aboriginal] religions, you name it.  We all have truths and shortcomings.  We all have something to offer.  We all have something to learn from one another.  Maybe Pentecost is a great day to listen to the Spirit’s voice present in other traditions as well as our own” (John Shuck)

So here we are celebrating Pentecost, saying that we need to break through exclusive boundaries and embrace not only other religions and honour them at a deep level of respect and openness but also and perhaps more importantly, break through the exclusive boundaries that separate us from the secular and worldy world or ambiguity, uncertainty of serendipity and discover the weak power of that which we name God the foolish power of the cross perhaps. The boundaries we have erected over time do not exist as immovable unhealthy support systems unless we leave them unchallenged. Pluralism Sunday is about letting the world of newspaper columnists and TV producers and the neighbours with whom you chat over the back fence, know there are Christians who are unafraid of uncertainty, unafraid to live humbly, unafraid of the hard questions, and there are Christians who challenge the exclusive dogmatism of fundamentalism be they conservative or liberal or even radical.and the churches who claim Christianity is religiously superior.

The challenge of this is that there is a way to be authentically and particularly religious, involved and immersed in a religious culture, and to practice a specific religion and path, but…“if you go all the way with that, you will discover that we all end up on the top of the same mountain [with]… brothers and sisters of other faiths who have done the same sort of thing” (Burklo, TCPC). If the exclusive boundaries remain un-challenged we will all fit in one box and be shelved. It is just possible that the church decline is due to our conformity, apathy and blind fear of difference.

So, let us this Pentecost, commit ourselves to a honouring each other’s minds, asking the hard questions of each other, and together explore what the human potential might look like. Let us seek an authentic faith path which both encourages participation in the Way with others who think differently from us. They are our neighbours. Amen.

’Sacred Like Us?’

Posted: May 24, 2022 in Uncategorized

’Sacred Like Us?’

The Revised Common Lectionary reading from John this week gives us a portion of a prayer by Jesus. It is thought to be the culmination of his farewell discourse to his disciples In the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday.  Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, foreseen Judas’s betrayal, predicted Peter’s denial, promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, and suggested that it might be that time is running out. 

In the final moments before his arrest, he “looks toward heaven and prays.”  This prayer is commonly known as part of the high priestly prayer and by some as the other Lord’s Prayer — the one we haven’t memorized and recited on Sunday mornings.  It’s certainly not polished and poetic like the “Our Father.”  It doesn’t flow, or cover its bases efficiently.  It’s long, rambling, and rather hard to follow.  And though the disciples are meant to overhear the words, Jesus’s tone has an urgency and passion that is achingly private.  It seems that here Jesus isn’t engaging in a teaching moment with this Prayer; he’s rather rending his heart.

A Debbie Thomas of a blog called Journey with Jesus wrote that she sat with the words of this lectionary reading for a long time waiting to see what words and phrases would stand out. She says that she didn’t expect anything to come and was surprised when the words ‘I ask’ leapt out at her. I was reminded as I read this that that is the way Jesus lived. He asked the questions, His answer to many requests was another question. He very seldom gave an answer and if he did it was always followed up with a question.

In Debbie’s case the question she was encouraged to ask was “What does it mean that Jesus spends his final moments with his friends in humble, anxious supplication?”  We have the Jesus who healed the sick and fed the hungry and raised the dead, and we might ask; “What does it mean that that same Jesus ends his ministry by asking into uncertainty?  Hoping into doubt?  Trusting into danger?

It seems that in an outpouring of words and emotions, Jesus asks God to do for his followers what he himself cannot do.  To be for people in spirit what he can no longer be for us in body. “May they be in us,” he prays. May they all be one.  May they know the love that founded the world.  May they see the glory of God. This is less about calling for a supernatural God above, to do the magic Jesus can’t do and more about his acknowledgement that in and through the unity of humankind the more than, the Spirit and source of transformation is in the admitting of one’s limitations and accepting the life of uncertainty.

In his book entitled, Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams, describes the strangeness and wonder of this Jesus who prays: “Yes, Jesus is a human being in whom God’s action is at work without interruption or impediment.  But wait a moment: the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is someone who prays, who speaks of putting his will and his decisions at the service of his Father.  He is someone who is in a relationship of dependence on the one he prays to as Father.  In him there is divine purpose, power, and action; but there is also humility, responsiveness, and receptivity.” Williams is acknowledging the importance of Jesus as revelation of divine purpose and power and action and he is a human being who lives with humility and uncertainty. Is tis an example of his working out the ‘I am” or “the yet to be” or as I might say, “the Almost” or God as verb rather than noun?

Do we know this Jesus, the one who pleads so earnestly?  We can very likely say that we know the Jesus who teaches, heals, resurrects, and feeds because our tradition has developed this, over hundreds of years.  But do we know this Jesus?  This vulnerable one who in this passage does the single hardest thing a friend, a lover, a spouse, a parent, a child, a teacher, a pastor ever does? It sounds harsh but in recognizing his limitations, his humanity this Jesus sends his cherished ones into a treacherous, divisive, broken world on nothing but a hope and a prayer?  Another way of saying this is to say that he entrusts the treasures of his heart to the vast mystery that is intercession? Is this another way of saying “living the resurrection”? or “invoking the Holy Spirit”?

Put yourself in Jesus place and you might be saying to your God, “I don’t know what you will do with my asking.  I don’t know how or when or if you will answer this prayer.  I can’t force your hand.  But I am staking my life and the lives of my loved ones on your goodness, because there’s literally nothing more I can do on my own. I have come to the end of what this aching love of mine can hold and guard and save.  I am asking how this love of mine can become the embodiment of that love”.

To me this seems to be asking us to ask what role prayer plays in our world, a world rife with tragedy, injustice, and oppression? Is this prayer of Jesus in his circumstances, the immanent arrival of his possible demise or imprisonment, reminding us to ask the hardest questions we can think of about God — questions we don’t know how to answer. Does God intervene directly in human affairs? Does his intervention — or lack of it — depend in any way on our asking? Is this God actually an interventionist God? Can prayer “change” God? Big questions yet questions that need to be asked if we are to be responsible human beings. But let’s put those down for a bit and return to the place Jesus finds himself in.

We have in traditional words “the immanence of Christ taking leave of the Apostles”. This is the situation of our text meaning and as many could perhaps say our beliefs about prayer have changed a lot over the years. Many of us were raised to believe that God intervenes very directly in human affairs, and that intercessory prayer has powerful and undeniable “real world” effects. As a child, we might have believed with all our heart that prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far-away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, and “stops the bad guys.”

As a teen and young adult for many of us, much of that certainty collapsed under the weight of life experience — some diseases didn’t get better, car accidents happened, we have nightmares, babies starved, young people died, and “bad guys” won the day.  When we asked our elders to explain these discrepancies, some gave us two answers: The first is that we need to pray with more faith, and the second is that sometimes God’s answer is no. Both of those answers might have struck us then — and now — as too simple to be true or alternatively pretty lame. Intellectual credibility or the lack of it is emptying the pews.

Today, we live along the borders of a more complicated world. we have friends and family members who pray for parking spots, lost house keys, Rugby victories, and Grammar Zone admissions for our children. But we also have friends who avoid intercessory prayer on principle, convinced that the true purpose of prayer has nothing to do with asking God “for stuff.” In their words: “He’s God.  Not Santa Claus.” While not perhaps making that dualistic response, I can identify with the questions about intercessory prayer. I remember being challenged at Knox that intercessory prayer should not contain requests for what i think other people need. That made interceding for others very difficult.

It seems that the challenge of intercessory prayer is that it’s subjective. What looks like God’s “yes” in our eyes might easily look like God’s “no,” God’s silence, or even God’s non-existence in other eyes. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “The meaning we give to what happens in our lives is our final, inviolable freedom.” When is an “answer to prayer” really an answer? When is it coincidence? Randomness? A trick of the light? The truth is that we can’t say for sure. Not in this lifetime at least. Not without losing our freedom to avoid a simplistic answer.

So why do we pray?  One answer is that we pray because we are compelled to do so. Because something in us cries out for engagement, relationship, attentiveness, and worship. Albert Moore of Dunedin wrote that five things make up any religious system, Ceremonial, or rites with sacred objects, Devotional, or utterances with experiences, Educational, or stories and discourses, Regulation, or principles with penalties and rewards, Organisational or concerns for origins.

We pray because our soul yearns for connection with an, Other, whom many of us name God, and other just engage with without naming and it seems that, that connection is best forged in prayer. With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair, prayer holds open the possibility that we are not alone, and that this broken, aching world isn’t alone, either. We pray, as C.S Lewis writes, “because I can’t help myself.” Because “the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping.” Tau Malachi might say we pray because only we can as the means of embodying the dive purpose and activity. Being responsible as the co-creating ’I am”.

Well, here we have a reasonable answer. But maybe this week’s Gospel reading offers us another one: Maybe we pray because Jesus did.  We ask because Jesus asked.  Asking is perhaps the last thing he did before his arrest.  The last tender memory he bequeathed to his friends.  He didn’t awe them with a grand finale of miracles.  Neither did he contemplate their futures and despair.  In traditional words we might say; He looked towards heaven with a trembling heart, and surrendered his cherished ones to God. He was as uncertain as the rest of us. He was a very real human being. He was the Son of Man and the Son of God because he was both. Sounds a bit like us does he not?

A final line this morning might be to say that he asked questions because he loved too much not to.  What better way to walk the Jesus Way than by honouring the mind’s ability to find the questions that matter, to live the questions because that acknowledges the uncertainty that is only recognised through the questioning and to explore the adventure of being human with humility and courage because that is what Jesus did. Amen.

‘Sustained by What Could Be’

In recent times it has been evident that some churches have succumbed to human greed and control once again. It would be fair to day that there is evidence that in some cases religion has been captured by the; ‘Blessed are the greedy’ distortion. And we are reminded of Sally McFague’s comment some years back when she said that “Given the many differences among religions on doctrines and practice, it is remarkable to find such widespread agreement at the level of economics”. The blind adherence to modern economic theory has been exposed by crashes and pandemics as fraught with manipulation and assumptions.  Her comments I thought were again an ideal intro into my topic for today which is that having a vision is important but sustaining it is the hard bit and probably the most important bit. It is also an acknowledgement that sustaining it is never easy because it has to battle against the visions that are already in place. Look at the slowness of the world to grasp that climate change is a human responsibility. Look at the recent governments attempt to implement a wellbeing culture. Already such visions are competing with visions of affordable housing, or the dilemma of the construction industry as well as printing money induced inflation. Blessed are the greedy could be battling with blessed are the incompetent or maybe it’s the system that is at fault. These are visions of a better world that seem to be competing.

One of the things that has come to mind in the last few years in the church is the need for a sustainable mission vision. Questions such as why does a congregation exist? What is the church’s purpose have been at the forefront or at the base of our thinking about our future but on the tip of our tongue has been the need for a sustainable vision of what we would like to aspire to. So, it seems to me that it is appropriate and timely that our gospel story this morning, is centered on the importance of being sustained by a vision of what might be. It is appropriate, because as someone once said; “in the absence of a vision there is nightmare; in the absence of compassion there is cancer. I will not say it but it could be said that we might know this well given our experience.

Our biblical storyteller says Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, by the pool or mineral spring of Bethesda. Around the pool, in arcades, lay a variety of invalids. Jesus picked out one particular man who’d been siting there for 38 years or so. And the dialogue goes something like this:

  • What would need to happen for you to proclaim yourself well?
  • Hang on mate. It’s not my fault. There’s no one to help me into the water at the right time.
  • You’re right! Your sickness is not your fault. Pick up your mat and walk.

That’s our biblical story.

The invitation is to ponder the proposition that this is not a story about a so-called physical miracle, but rather a story about a political – economic – religious situation as well as a vision or world view on life. What part does religion play in politics, economics etc. might be questions being faced here?

Being content with, or trapped on, one’s ‘mat’ may seem, after 38 years or so, fairly fixed. fairly secure, authentic, settled and safe, but it is an extremely limited and limiting world view that one gets from that same mat.

The challenge or vision given the man by John’s Jesus was for him to want to move beyond those limits… To want to re-imagine the world from a different perspective, from a different experience, with a different vision. To become whole. And we all know that that was and is a bit of a challenge!

New insight or vision is always at odds with the old way of looking at things. All the more so when those old ways leave people, physically malnourished or hysterically disabled. It is pretty certain that each of you could name someone else for whom it might be beneficial to either hear this sermon or receive a printed or email copy of it. And, while that all may be very well and good, each of us needs to be encouraged to remember these stories are also for us – now. The challenge here is to resist projecting away on to others the challenge we find. How do we do this?

Well maybe we could start with Jesus’ words and his interaction with others. We might see that what he says and does bears witness to a re-imagined world. A new vision. A new consciousness. A new way of being in the world.

We might then see that by connection, we might be being asked to examine when the structures and dominant theology of our wider church helps keep people ‘sick’ or ‘stuck in their condition’ rather than offering new life, a re-imagined world. How might what the church expects of us to be and do removes the risk of re-imagining with Jesus that his world will work, and be a safe place. Brandon Scott put this as having Faith with Jesus rather than faith in Jesus. A traditional way of saying this might be to be about confessing our own sharing in that sickness at times…

Charles Campbell, in his book, The Word Before the Powers, wonders that if one of the ways the Principalities and Powers, the Systems of Domination, keep us under their thumb is by keeping us busy, tired, and diverted. I might add with a non- authentic, non-sustainable vision.

We become numbed to the call of Jesus to serve God and serve the hurting because we don’t have time. We slip into blaming the victim. he or she isn’t taking the opportunities, he or she is lazy, too easily led or can’t help themselves. We come home after work and collapse in front of the TV until it is time to go to bed and repeat the process all over again. Weekends are when we want to get out of town or do something else. They are our escape times. So, we live life to the minimum. And we say we want change when we actually want to remain the same – but the most difficult bit is that we want to feel better about it.

We know that to get up and follow Jesus will involve us in people’s lives in ways we’re not sure we want, because to be whole means to be re-membered, re-connected with the thing we name God and with God’s people and God’s creation. No more isolation. No more living my own private life where no one bothers me. It’s an either-or thing, simple and clear but the trouble is that it’s not based on anything sustainable theologically or spiritually. To be whole means to get off of the couch and get involved. It means to work our buts off, often doing behind the scenes work that is tedious and overlooked. We know that to walk out of the door and say, “Here, am I Jesus! Send me!” is an invitation to maybe getting crucified like Jesus.

As Dan Berrigan has said, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, you had better look good on wood, because that is where you’ll end up.” We know all of that, so maybe our couches and our pallets don’t look so bad.

It is no wonder then that so many churches are still on the pallet. No wonder so many of us are reticent about being made whole. And no wonder we have neither the courage nor the will nor the energy to say, “No!” to the many ways the systems grind us all down. No wonder we are reluctant to say “Yes!” to Jesus who was later seen as the Messiah and of course as the Christ when Greek culture became the basis and when the embodiment of his Abundant Life became the issue of sustainability.

In our story, this man has the guts to be whole. He takes a deep breath and nods to Jesus, “Yes, I want to be whole, healed and well. I know it will take time Jesus. I know it will take work and lots of unlearning old pain-filled habits accumulated over 38 years, and learning new habits. I know it is not going to be easy, but yes, Jesus, make me a whole person.”

And Jesus does. No questions asked. No stipulations. No checking to see if he is truly deserving or not. Jesus just heals him. Grace. And the man picks up his mat and walks out of the door to new life. To wholeness. Jesus gives him a personal vision of a new world, a new future filled with new possibilities.

A prayer for today might be let us likewise be empowered and blessed by the grace that we belong to a wider community of faith that is not static but dynamic; that is not set in concrete, but ever-changing. For such a community reflects the creative and ever-evolving nature of the one we name God4 beyond our feeble church structures, economic theories and strategically and logistically imprisoned visions.

And maybe we could say that such a God is always present in all our faith adventures. John D Caputo might say that that is the insistence that is God at work. But it seems clear that along with those who, with the one we call Jesus, we too can re-imagine the world in an outward embracing of all beings. Even the 38-year member who can’t see the wood for the trees, who can’t see the possibilities of a reimagined life. Can be changed and see a new vision to live by or with.

It is important to be sustained by a vision of what might be. It is also important to check out what shapes that vision. And if what shapes our vision tends to exclude some by benefiting others, or erect walls rather than include all, then maybe that ‘vision’ needs to be questioned. Does our vision for a sustainable church go far enough? Does it in include the poor or just the elite? Is our special character or what we bring, actually healing and supporting and changing the world or is it just about us gaining some benefit?

It has also been said stories can be ‘dangerous’. Whether this biblical story in our text today is of an actual event or the invention of the storyteller, it is a ‘dangerous’ story, because it challenges us at the chore of our being. Are we doing the right thing here in this place and is that right thing for the wellbeing of people or about keeping the organisation going? Is our mission vision sustainable not just in terms of monetary concern but also in terms of community, wellbeing? Will it change things for the better? And we remember, that that challenge also goes for our country’s budget economics, is our wellbeing budget big enough, sustainable enough, does it include as well the possibility of a just and sustainable planet, which incidentally is being hailed as the ‘great’ work of the 21st century to which all human endeavour is called. Or is it going to succumb to the economic theories that are under pressure. Is Pilate here again? Is our vision sustainable in the face of systems that would have it go away because it is dangerous? Dangerous because it will deprive the elite or the ones who have the power and control. Dangerous because it has the ability to change things? Amen.

‘Unexplored Tomorrows’

Posted: May 11, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Unexplored Tomorrows’

When the progressive Christian movement began to pick up a following there was an attempt to define its goals. To their credit they did come up with 8 points of identification that a global organization of Progressives might claim.

I guess by now you will also have gleaned that I have spent some time in my last parish ministry searching for something a progressive congregation might say about itself today. I hope that you have been able to recognise this struggle in the services I take. I am not claiming anything like perfection but I do try to be consistent theologically and to apply the thinking to the fact that while words are transitional in nature the conceptual change and challenge is there.

Despite a loathing for labels, I have said that what makes a Progressive Christian, a PC as opposed to a traditional or mainstream or liberal of conservative or any other definition is that in following Jesus a progressive Christian is able to discern one of many ways in which the sacred might be understood and he or she can see the oneness and unity of all life. A PC can see that while the bible is essential as the story of Jesus, they can draw from many other sources in their spiritual journey. They can see that all people regardless of their differences are to be included in community because they believe that actions toward others are the fullest expression of what we believe.

I wrote a poem that speaks of this that I will share it in the hope that you might feel the essence of this sense of oneness I am talking about.

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.

PC people are also people who place more value in asking questions than accepting absolutes not as a denial of absolutes but rather as a recognition of their limited nature, and they are people who strive for a peace created by justice as opposed to victory. Winning and getting revenge are not part of a healthy progressive nature. PCs are a people who seek to restore the integrity of our planet and commit to a life long journey of learning, of acting compassionately and of a selfless loving. Of course these are goals or aspirations that will never be complete, or as my title suggests a people who see life as the experience of unexplored tomorrows.

To that end then, I want to talk about being a progressive, healthy congregation, and I want to do this from what I think is most likely to have come from Jesus of Nazareth.
The reading I have chosen to speak from is a saying from Thomas about ‘new wine’ and old wineskins’, that appears in every gospel – except John.  What is significant is that this is a saying and that it is found in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel most likely to have been earlier as a selection of sayings of Jesus. Biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar, suggest that it is probably the most authentic version of these sayings.

“Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine.  Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil…”

We could embark on a short course in winemaking or wine appreciation but as I have said I want to explore briefly, a metaphorical image about being a congregation. And, I want to claim that saying this raises a very important question: can we leave our communal religious life in old vessels, or do we can embrace new theological understandings and new church practice, as we continue to evolve as a Congregation.

I don’t know about you but I have heard stories that affirm an emerging expression of what we might call church in its first stages of development. It might even be said that it comes out of the work being done by PC people to find the earliest expression of church and begin again but it might also be a quest to find an ecclesiology and a hermeneutical framework for today. What seems to be universal is essentially people gathering to journey together in the search for an understanding of human spirituality and how that is to be expressed in real places where real people co-exist. With the ethnic, religious faith and cultural differences, the world is a place like no other has seen or been before. So much so that it seems absolutely arrogant, insensitive and downright ludicrous to assume that we know what our world needs by way of response. For the church as we know it to say that if only people would join us we could help is a benign statement at best and an alienating pompous arrogance at worst.

I poked my computer nose at the general assembly on line recently and heard a little of our church’s attempt to train leaders for this new world where all the old ideas of what Church is and how to do church are no longer considered helpful. The writing on the wall is clear. The way we do things, the way we do church is not working. The time spent and the struggle of the PCANZ to find a way forward is very sad. The decline is no longer just the result of looking at statistics it has become our way of life, so what is the point of continuing to do it the way we have always done it. The difficulties loom large here also, not least is the question; can we, who are the church make and resource the changes that are needed. Do we have too much invested in the way we are to make the changes required?  Again, in light of my title to this sermon “Unexplored tomorrows”, there are some huge challenges for us to consider.

Just some of those challenges are what do we mean by ‘membership, is the centrality of worship essential, do we need to own property? The assumption that we have a model of community that works, the assumption that the way we manage our lives is helpful but is it? And that’s just to name a few issues we need to consider. And let’s be clear it will not be easy to contribute to this new thing, this emerging church so to speak. I remembered the sermon David Clark gave at my induction to my last parish in 2001. He was eluding to this matter from an institutional aspect but what he was suggesting is unfolding further today. The church world has changed and the task to put it crudely is to change or die. The next question is of course the same as it was then. How? How do we change given that the way we engage with life, the way we value the important, isn’t the way we value our lives bound up in the fact that the way we do things now and where we do it is part of who we are.

Like many other congregations in the Church, many of us are part of a smaller congregation, membership-wise, than we were in the past. Things like ‘heritage’ and ‘nostalgia’, ‘honouring the past people, all come to the fore, but the reality remains. We are not what we were in terms of being a congregation and being involved in the community of our day. The word has changed around us. And like many other congregations we have not stood idle and given up on the future. Most of us are a future oriented people and I think courageous people who have given towards creating a better future. And I am not stroking any backs here, I genuinely believe that people are ready to give their all including their buildings, their hearts and souls into the future. And just like many others they want to do this well. I am encouraged when I hear young people talking about making the world a better place. I was a little saddened to be reminded of an attempt to plant a parish school being lamented by some. It was agreed that this was sadly a vision of the possible that the institution was unable to risk because the change would be too difficult to manage. I sensed a bit of this institutional fear on line at the General Assembly too.

I can remember from many years back meetings talking about innovative learning hubs where the future church could be explored, nurtured, tested and developed free from the rules, regulations and order that our current institution is bound to, shaped by and maintained with. This for me affirmed and encouraged my thinking. We spoke of learning centers and a school was and is seen as an expression of such. The mission statement I still adhere to today is that Mission is expressed as honouring the mind, in other words bringing neuroscience, psychology, biology and theology, together as all products of the human mind and our only way to grapple with questions of God. Living the questions, in other words accepting that life is a journey and not a destination, Eternal life is the state we live in and not something away out ahead that we need to capture for ourselves. Life is not black and white, it is not a collection of absolutes, nor is it from a faith perspective finite. Finite perhaps from a biological view but not theologically. Or finite within infinity. And the third part of the motto or mission statement , Explore the adventure of being human. This is a claim that with our minds and bodies we have a unique and valuable contribution to make to the reality as we see it. Being human is an invitation to evolve and it is an adventure like no other and it has a role to play in the picture we have of that which we name God. Our motto of Honour the Mind, Live the questions and explore the adventure of being human expresses the biblical hope of a promised land, a land shared with our God, It expresses the hope of a new world Jesus opened up with his life, and it expresses the confidence in a more complex and better future.

Progressive Christians, as a congregation has also intentionally decided to become a niche congregation, by making itself open to encouraging progressive religious thought,
and living out of its own space. And here I want to challenge some thinking also. Taking the energy sapping issues around buildings and demolitions and political machinations out of the equation, becoming a so-called progressive congregation has been and can be a successful thing to do. It is well documented in the church that building projects can cause decline, not because of the potential but because of the inevitable conflict that comes with such projects of change. When one takes that factor out of the equation it is probable that an arrest of the decline in membership might happen by attesting to an intellectual creditability and a more real engagement with community. Life is not black and white nor is all bad and in need of redemption. Yes, it is complex and yet it must be lived as it is, and yes, it is a wonderful participatory experience. I want to suggest that we might be able to arrest the decline, even though we will not recognize the outcome because it is hard to see the change and that is because we are subjectively measuring it from an older culture.

Yes, growth might seem small in terms of numbers attending but maybe our influence cannot be measured by old criteria. I can hear all the buts rising up in your minds now but I suggest we might ask those buts where they are coming from?

On the obvious matter of worship… which is a measuring criteria that we use and one that gets in the road of a new thinking we would have to say that the worship service on a Sunday morning is our celebration of Life, and traditionally is the hub of our faith community’s life. Community is when we express our togetherness and it is the place where our vital vibrant differences rub shoulders with the least friction. The essence of a faith community is that all the social, political and cultural differences take a back seat to the common inclusive faith setting. What we struggle with is that with the rise of social media, online everything, and electronic communication we have something that we like, something that makes much sense and something that is inevitable taking place that does not replace the human need for engagement with others and I suggest the all-important empathy creation that is vital for human community. The shape of the community might gather differently but it will gather. I think the quality of community depends on empathy building and this is what online or facebook and twitter type community seeks. The difficulty is an authenticity or a credibility as safe, common and resourceful. If there is one thing we do not do well yet it is the online presence and more importantly the online connections. I heard some years back already that the only growth in the business world was in many cases in the online sales. Something like 80% of sales are online in some cases.

My traditional fears were raised the other day when I heard of the world of avatars and a new economy based on NFTs (NFT is a digital asset that represents real-world objects like art, music, in-game items and videos. They are bought and sold online, frequently with cryptocurrency, and they are generally encoded with the same underlying software as many cryptos.)

I want to make the claim that we can offer people an experience that it helpful by reminding ourselves why we are here. That at the core of this gathering is a progressive, inclusive, ‘familial model of what might be termed a faith journey. The challenge for us is to explore newer ways of inviting people to share our discoveries.

What are those discoveries? They are our ‘progressive’ theological underpinnings.
that we think there is more to know and that this is not easy. It doesn’t mean we all think alike.  We have agreed that we would search the idea of progressive religious thought. That single decision has had a huge effect on how a congregation is perceived. What it does is give others ‘permission’ to follow suit. There is a growing ‘progressive’ movement in New Zealand. Not the doing of any one congregation alone, but in partnership with others. The hub of this movement is already nationwide, and like the movement nationwide the progressive theology it is theological based in biblical scholarship, honesty, and integrity. The challenge is the environment where theology is seen as the domain of the academic elite and not of the common people. This says that thinking theologically is different now than in the past and it requires us to imagine what this new understanding implies for worship, for preaching, for prayer. And while not obvious many of us have personally become committed to that future.

The challenge is that like Christianity’s earliest theologian, Paul, we are standing at the intersection of two eras. We are aware of the difference between old and new wineskins, we recognize that we are old wine and that we would break the new skins if we try to put conditions on the new wine yet we know there is a need for new wine and new skins. This is what Progressive theology means. It means an appreciation that we are products of a past that we have to let go of the present if we hope to have a future of ‘unexplored tomorrows’. In this context congregations of faith are crucial for the future, if they do not exist, it will be necessary to invent them like NFTs because a congregations roll role today is not to teach or critique are to lead the way. It is to fill the imaginary hole between the old and the new, perhaps to hold the old wine in the old skins so that the new wine will be free to mature and the new skins to age. The idea of ‘Unexplored tomorrows’ invites us to approach change with confidence, courage and creativity as a congregation on the move.

As a community of people seeking to be inclusive by searching to discern together the transforming presence of God in the world and in our own lives, we Honour the mind, live the questions and explore the adventure of humanity and we discover what this journey is like through reforming and reformed worship, radical hospitality, and open and vulnerable conversation with care” PCs are a community of people open to unexplored possibilities! We have been focusing our resources both human and financial on the future and while we have a diminishing resource the most important is the investment of personal spirit.

If I was to give you a plea today it would be to ask you to realize your, and your gatherings full potential as an agent of change. We are talking the walk and we need to remember to walk the talk!

Everbody’s future is before them and it is filled with both challenge and possibilities.
Our need is to build upon the strengths of our long history, valuing “the richness of that mature wine.  But we must create new wineskins to hold the new wine” (Stinson 2007, FCC, Long Beach web site).

And let’s be clear about our motivation. “We move into that daunting but exhilarating challenge not because it is the expedient thing to do, but in response to a desire to follow the historical Jesus into [all] arenas of human need…” (Stinson 2007, FCC, Long Beach web site).

And at risk of going on too long I offer another you a poem about an ‘Almost God; that does not exist but rather insists.

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

Almost is around and as good as

It is bordering on and close to

Always close upon and essentially about

for all practical purposes it is

and for the greatest part too.

Almost is in effect

And in the neighbourhood of

Assured to be in the vicinity of

Yet also just about and mostly

It is much to consider as

near to, nigh and not far from

Almost is not quite yet

on the brink of and at the edge of

It teeters on the point of

on the verge of practically and pretty near

relatively speaking it roughly describes

It substantially and virtually reveals

The well-nigh and within sight of

Amen.