John 10:11-18

Restore Dignity and Push Boundaries

For us in this country today is a combination of what is traditionally known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and Anza Day. And this makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The remembrance of lives dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of nation.  It is also about brave heroes who sacrificed their lives for others and of simple animals of huge significance to a culture. Traditionally the images have been of gallant behaviour in horrific conditions, and of a good shepherd with flowing robes, cuddling a tiny lamb, while other sheep lie peacefully at his feet.

The shepherd scene is idyllic.  Probably conjured up in an urban environment.
And nourished, no doubt, by someone’s infant recollections of a favourite ‘teddy’ or ‘Pumpkin Patch kid’. By contrast, the tough shepherd image of one forced to live outdoors and on the fringes of society as an outcast, with an ‘honesty’ and ‘trustworthy’ 1st century reputation on a par with 21st century used car salesmen/women, has all but been lost. Everything and everyone seem to have been sanitized and sentimentalized. Some might say that of Anzac Day also but it would be definitely not PC to say so. So, this morning, out of all the kitsch, let’s see if we can pick up something which is helpful and hopeful.

To begin with, we might hear what West Australian biblical theologian William Loader has to say. He says; “The ancient shepherd of Palestine or Asia Minor had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, frequently amid danger from wild animals and sheep stealers, and, above all, had to protect the flock, especially at night…  John 10 reflects this less than idyllic world.  The bland teddy bear image gives way to a picture of tension: positively, a shepherd doing his job to the utmost; negatively, dangers which threaten the sheep… and which will kill him.  Life and death dance together.” (WLoader web site, 2006)

And to counter the shepherd/used car salesmen jibe I made earlier on, there was a comment from a car salesman who said: “the most untrustworthy people are those who are trading in cars.” (Stoffregen/CrossMarks web site 2006)

Some of you might also remember the DVD series called ‘Eclipsing Empire’, produced by Living the Questions. It features two biblical scholars: Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg, and their time in Turkey ‘in the footsteps’ so-to-speak, of Paul.

Very quickly in the series one discovers Turkey (like Greece and Italy) teeming with
sites and sights of historic and architectural interest, not the least of which is the ruins of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the cathedral of Divine Wisdom, built in the early years of the Byzantine Empire.

A modern-day visitor describes this site as: “Here in this vast space are columns in the form of trees reaching skyward supporting the dome of heaven suspended high overhead.  The building itself is a model, a template, of paradise here on earth.  Lines across the floor, dividing the building into quadrants, represent the four rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden.  Many of the magnificent mosaics that once adorned the walls and ceiling were concealed or defaced after it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.  Those that remain portray Jesus and his mother, Mary, John the Baptist and early emperors of Byzantium.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

Dr Barry Andrews goes on: “But none of these depict the most familiar image of Jesus, namely the crucifix.  Throughout Turkey, the birthplace of Christianity as we know it, what one finds are mosaics, wall paintings and figurines showing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, tending his sheep in a pastoral setting, and not the customary Christ on the cross, atoning in his own suffering and death for our sinful ways.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

It is fascinating to find that the first crucifix appears in Germany in the 10th century.
Prior to that the symbolism of the church was very different.  As Val Webb says in her book Stepping Out with the Sacred, “While Western art was absorbed with images of a twisted body on the cross as a bloody sacrifice, Eastern icons focused on Christ victorious over suffering and death, the serenely noble GOD- an.” (Webb 2010:157-58)

Initially it is easy to think that the burden of this story might be the rural images
of shepherd and sheep, which for urban folk like us, are just not part of our everyday experiences, apart from a visit to the meat department of the local supermarket! But maybe there are a couple of other things which can be said
about this story and the image of ‘shepherd’.

Two things stand out for me.  Those are: (One) Pastoral, and (Two) Power. In one we have the tough ‘good shepherd’ of the biblical stories who loved the ‘sheep’ enough to restore their dignity to them by ignoring the rules about who belonged or didn’t belong! And we reckon he did this by helping peasant families and workers and other ‘outsiders’, to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the
taxation, farming policies, and religious codes had labelled them. (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)

In a well-ordered society, people know their places. In Jesus’ world the “few very rich and the many very poor.” (Funk 2002:46) knew very well their places. But in Jesus’ re-imagined realm of God those ‘places’ were reversed. That’s the pastoral bit.

In the second we have John’s tough ‘good shepherd’ – Galilean, peasant sage -who appears not to be afraid to push boundaries. Be they Family boundaries.
Life boundaries. or Empire boundaries.

Perhaps the most dramatic biblical story of boundary-pushing (according to some) is the one which a couple of biblical storytellers tell… The action of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.

We might have already explored this story through the eyes and ears of the storyteller we call Mark, as well as via a few contemporary biblical scholars. But there is an interesting comment by classics scholar, Richard Horsley.

“… in healing withered limbs and casting out demons from possessed Galilean peasants, fishermen, and workers, Jesus was acting as a prophet to help the People of Israel regain control over their lives and livelihoods…  Whether or not Jesus understood exactly how profitable the Temple services were for the few families that controlled them… few would have mistaken what he was doing.” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:78) That’s the power bit.

On ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and on Anzac Day we can very easily slip into looking for, and discovering, a sanitized and sentimentalized Jesus, who cuddles sheep and a glorified sacrificial ideal of lives given to a cause without critique of its wisdom.  In the fair dinkum department, to use an Australian quip we have to say that is an unhelpful response. On the other hand, the challenge of this day
is to see and hear the humanity of Jesus and he humanity of soldiers behind the many stories and different images. To see him pointing to something he calls the realm of God, where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world, demand to be considered, especially by the Empire, and by the need for political and economic control.

To hear this Shepherd inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries which always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity. (Spong 2001:131)

As Dr Greg Jenks, currently Bishop of Grafton Cathedral in Australia has suggested in his The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes: “It is perhaps ironic that some of Jesus’ best-known teachings, derive not from the lips of Jesus but from the hearts of his followers as they reflected on Jesus’ own actions.

  • Jesus did not claim to be the divine/good shepherd; he simply gave himself to others.
  • Jesus did not contrast himself to the hired hand; he simply acted differently.
  • Jesus did not his talk up his intimacy with God; he simply lived as one intimate with God.
  • Jesus did not describe his death as bringing life to others; he simply embraced death as God’s will for him at that time.” 

(Faith Futures web site, The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes, 2012)

Pastoral and power. Restoring dignity. Pushing boundaries

Perhaps this is how we might give due honour to ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday today, and to Anzac Day in recognition of the contributions toward a peaceful world made by those who gave their lives in conflict Amen.

Bessler-Northcutt, J. “Learning to see God – Prayer and Practice in the Wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover (ed). The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A. Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. New York. Putnam, 1997.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Webb, V. Stepping Out With The Sacred. Human Attempts to Engage the Divine. New York. Continuum, 2010

Easter 3B, 2021
Luke 24: 36b-48

Life Matters More in The Afterglow of Easter

As you already know this year the gospel story emphasis is on the storyteller we call Mark.
But if you do just a brief skim of the set gospel readings since Lent, there has only been four of Mark’s stories selected. And it seems there won’t be any more until we move into the season After Pentecost. That’s four stories out of a possible 16! When we wonder why this might be we hear that it is because Mark’s stories don’t add up to much – volume wise. Mark’s gospel is so short that we need to supplement his stories with the stories of others, to fill up the whole year. The problem is that one in four is not a supplement.  It is take-over! And the other is that the importance of Mark is that it is the shortest and thus the one most likely to be the most accurate in its portrayal of the man Jesus. So for me it is important to not give up on Mark’s Easter too soon.

First of all the storyteller we call Mark has the earliest Easter story in the whole of the New Testament. It is thought to have been written close to the time of the Temple destruction so its backdrop would have been all the turmoil of a Jerusalem losing its status as a Hebrew centre and a religious one to boot. For many of Jesus’ followers and this might have been less than 10,000 this was and is really a surprising story. The first surprise is: Mark’s story is so brief.  Eight verses to be exact. If we compare this with the other gospel storytellers: Matthew’s story has 20 verses, John’s story has 56 verses, while Luke’s story has 53 verses. It is amazing because it was so brief when most important stories were much larger.

The second surprise is: Mark does not have any so-called ‘appearance’ stories. This is a very significant g thing to remember when we come to the other gospels. All the appearance stories are found in the other, much later, gospel accounts thus they are likely to be additions and creations of the movement rather than being present at the time of Mark. What Mark does have is the indication that the disciples will see/experience/be aware of, Jesus in Galilee.

And the third surprise is: Mark’s Easter story ends very abruptly. The women fled from the tomb. “They didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified…” (Mark 16:8 Scholars Version). Such a surprise and puzzling ending was deemed “unsatisfactory as early as the second century, when a longer ending was added to Mark (16:9-20)” (Borg & Crossan 2006:196).

It is on to this story, Mark’s story, that the other storytellers – Matthew and John and Luke – expanded and changed. Indeed; each storyteller has his own collection of different stories. Matthew’s stories are set in the garden and in Galilee. Luke’s stories are centred on Jerusalem combined with a commissioning – our gospel story today. John’s stories combine garden and Jerusalem.

It seems that even given the propensity for interpretation a storyteller did not expect his or her local audience to pick up the other storyteller’s text and ‘fill in the gaps’, so to speak. Neither are all the stories easily reconcilable. Of them perhaps this is all that can be said: “(They) are the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus’ followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death” (Borg & Crossan 2006:198).

Today in the church calendar is known as Easter 3, we are “still in the shadow, or afterglow, of the resurrection at Easter” (Rick Marshall P&F web site 2006). So, what can we say of all this?  Perhaps these claims.

The first is that Jesus lives and we need to remember here that resurrection is not about an individual return to life. Resurrection in the traditions of the time are universal and mass return oriented. It is a resurrection of all at a future date and time. Here the significance is that Jesus is not among the dead, but among the living. His spirit “was still coursing through their veins” (Patterson 2004:4). We have a timelessness of Jesus similar to that of the Passover meal. The meal is not a remembrance of, not a ceremonial re-enactment but an actual reliving of the history of liberation. Palm Sunday comes in here too and becomes a political social and economic threat. Is it any wonder Pilate felt he had to control the people?

The second is that God has vindicated Jesus. God has said ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the powers who executed him. Stephen Patterson has what could be an important comment here:  He says: “The followers of Jesus did not believe in him because of the resurrection.  They believed in the resurrection because they first believed in him and in the spiritual life he unleashed among them” (Patterson 2004:121). Again the shortness of Mark is important in its omission of the resurrection. True, his death mattered to them.  But only because his life mattered more…

So they began to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And they came to see he stood for something so important he was willing to give his life for it (Patterson 2004:127). Here we have a significant inclusion in who this man is. He is the Messiah Judaism is waiting for and in fact it is God’s realm that was his passion or vision of life. A new life focused not on their plight, not on social and military control and power over but rather something called the empire of God where an alternative approach to life is possible.  And it is significant that Jesus followers were a diverse group of people who came to reaffirm their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life
by his words and deeds. They believed that “in his words were God’s words” (Patterson 2004:127).

And we also remember here that Jesus’ vision of a new empire was cultivated by him among them long before he died, It has been proven that no executioner could kill this vision. Likewise, when we believe in this vision of a possible new empire or realm, we too can reaffirm our commitment to the values and vision, and a ‘resurrection’ invitation,
to live life deeply and generously.

We agree to be embraced by life, not scared of it. In all its particularity.  Because life cannot remain visionary! It must be concretely practiced. And for our gospel storyteller this morning, Luke, “to fulfil the hope of the resurrection is to tell the story of Jesus.  That means telling what he did, how he was rejected and then vindicated; and it is at the same time to live it by the power of the same Spirit, by doing good and bringing liberation for all” as William Loader reminds us. (WLoader web site, 2003).

The ‘truth’ of the resurrection stories are not about their historical facuality. Their ‘truth is rooted in the Source of Life we name as God, and which lives on for us and through us and among us, today.

I wonder if we are on the cusp of something today when many churches are facing closure and it seems that what we call religion and Christianity is on the wane and fewer people are joining the church or even coming to what we call worship. To whom do we tell the story of Jesus? Is the way we tell it the way to go? How do we tell it to people who have never heard of it? In this day and age when sacrifice is just life and saviour’s don’t exist and sin is an antiquated concept. How do we as Church people of old become participants rather than spectators remaining on the sidelines?

We still believe that Church places such as this place are important in our religious world so why don’t others recognize this? Church places such as this provide a valuable counterpoint to current and prevailing points of view. So why don’t more people want to share in that.

So, perhaps in the spirit of what Jesus was passionate about, and in the spirit of the wider Easter stories by several storytellers, we might need to again be captivated by the vision of a new world. And this vision seems to have some contextual nuances to it in that the God we envisage is not a God who sits outside of creation and manipulates it. What seems to stand out is that for us today the Jesus story is an invitation into a way of life which was reflected in his own’ own life – in his words and deeds. Before the movement or the church began to grow. Marks time at least where Jesus says that “God is supremely within reach. God or that which we call God is at hand, as Jesus said God’s realm, God’s way, Gods’ world is in our hands “Perhaps this is why God might prefer a good atheist
to a wicked believer” (Benedikt 2007:13). What if the secular and the sacred are the same thing? What is Jesus vision in todays context?

Benedikt, M. 2007. God is the Good we Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books.
Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week. A day-by-day account of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem.The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. 1993. . New York. MacMillan Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minniapolis. Fortress Press.

Afraid of Death or Terrified of Life?

What the ancients new about story telling long before the advent of written text was the importance of metaphor and painting pictures with words. The Bible is filled with poetry and metaphor and I think it is because it is far more accurate that text. Text requires greater interpretation and communication elements that a picture that goes straight to the heart. I like the idea also of going to nature for some of the best word pictures and I want to try that today.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes of a rose that helps me place the death of Jesus into a context of loving adoration and the loss of one’s hero, saviour and mentor. The sense of value of Jesus and the loss at his execution is awakened.

A Dead Rose by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

O Rose! who dares to name thee?
No longer roseate now, nor soft, nor sweet;
But pale, and hard, and dry, as stubble-wheat,—
Kept seven years in a drawer—thy titles shame thee.

The breeze that used to blow thee
Between the hedgerow thorns, and take away
An odour up the lane to last all day,—
If breathing now,—unsweetened would forego thee.

The sun that used to smite thee,
And mix his glory in thy gorgeous urn,
Till beam appeared to bloom, and flower to burn,—
If shining now,—with not a hue would light thee.

The dew that used to wet thee,
And, white first, grow incarnadined, because
It lay upon thee where the crimson was,—
If dropping now,—would darken where it met thee.

The fly that lit upon thee,
To stretch the tendrils of its tiny feet,
Along thy leaf’s pure edges, after heat,—
If lighting now,—would coldly overrun thee.

The bee that once did suck thee,
And build thy perfumed ambers up his hive,
And swoon in thee for joy, till scarce alive,—
If passing now,—would blindly overlook thee.

The heart doth recognise thee,
Alone, alone! The heart doth smell thee sweet,
Doth view thee fair, doth judge thee most complete,—
Though seeing now those changes that disguise thee.

Yes, and the heart doth owe thee
More love, dead rose! than to such roses bold
As Julia wears at dances, smiling cold!—
Lie still upon this heart—which breaks below thee!


We arrive today at the brink of; ”It is finished”

It is the evening of the first day of the week, and the doors are closed. Locked.

The anxious and fearful disciples are shut tightly inside.
The suspicious world is shut tightly outside.

The fear of loss and isolation and confusion is palpable

What next? What are we to do now? Will it happen to us next?

Fear is a very powerful thing in our lives. It prompts us to seek protection in times of very real danger. It motivates us into needed changes and surprising adventures.
It serves as a constant reminder that we are fragile, limited, human. On the other side of these impulses, we know fear also prompts us to ‘close the doors of our lives’ from the mystery and wonder of the unknown and run into places of isolated hiding. Very few emotions are stronger than fear.

Then, all of a sudden, defying locked doors,
locked hearts,
locked vision…
A dead faith is re-created.  A dead hope is born again.

Remember the collection of traditional Easter stories… Empty tomb.  Grave clothes.  A voice in the garden.  Doors closed for fear. We can’t help wondering whether Jesus’ followers, then, were afraid of death or terrified of life!

Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian from Brazil, helps us understand why resurrection life is the wonderful and terrifying thing that it is. In one of his articles he says: ‘Wherever, in mortal life, goodness triumphs over the instincts of hatred, wherever one heart opens to another, wherever a righteous attitude is built and room is created for God, there the Resurrection has begun’.

And retired Melbourne Uniting Church minister, Dr Francis Macnab, offers this Easter prayer: “

God, on this Easter morning, help us to say
Yes to life,
Yes to a new beginning,
Yes to the presence that gives us courage
for whatever is ahead of us.” (Macnab 1996: 75)

And as if responding to Macnab’s prayer, English philosopher and founder of Sea of Faith, Don Cupitt, writes: “We should say ‘Yes’ to life in all its contingency because it is the accidentalness of life that makes happy accidents possible, and that makes innovation and creativity possible.  We wouldn’t wish the self-replication of DNA always to proceed with precise accuracy, because without all the slippage and the accidents there would not have occurred the favourable mutations on which evolution depends – and so it is also in the realm of… personal life.” (Cupitt 2003: 16-17)

I wrote a poem that attempts to highlight how fear and doubt have been too corruptive of the human spirit.

A Prisoner Of Doubt

This prisoner is not bound by bars of steel,
but the barriers to freedom, remain just as real.
There is no judge that can free one on bail,
and no able lawyer that can keep one from jail.
It started so simply, just a concern here and there,
or maybe a bad memory, that grew in thin air.

One started to repeat, things already said,
offering faint clues as to the negative ahead.
One slowly grows worse, as the stories flash by
One knows something is wrong, but not what, nor why.
To try to go anywhere becomes such a task,
for over and over, the same questions I’d ask.

Then comes the times when how and why become true,
I beg: “Please help me!” and weep a world of blue.
Now’s the time doubt becomes the bus,
and every day is a dilemma to be had and such a big fuss.

The answers we give seem like assurances no one can receive.
Slowly, but surely, the doubting shuts doors we believe.

Now we can see, the beginning of the end.
What is this illness, with no hope to be found?
Doubt as a prisoner of fear

Has no place in a faith that is dear

Doubt as an opportunity to be without fear is connection

A blessing of hope and resurrection.

In the face of this we can’t help wondering sometimes whether Jesus’ followers, now,
are afraid of death or terrified of life! Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding.

Some time ago Rex Hunt told the story of the boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a seaside Brazilian village. In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral. As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger. He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses.
His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder. His hands… they were big.  Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body.

The women laughed” and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning… their bodies alive again.”  (Alves 1990: 23)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have. And they thought about the dreams they had never had… Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding.

Which, I guess, brings us back to what I reckon is the central focus of all of John’s writings: 
Life! Hopeful life! Abundant life!

John’s celebration of the Easter message points to life as its message. Before and after Easter it is still life. Indeed, in John’s story, Easter it seems, coincides with Pentecost.
The post-Easter Jesus appears, breathes, sends and commissions – all in one burst of ‘holy energy’. The change is, now there are new bearers of that life.

The Spirit given without measure to Jesus (to use traditional language), now operates without measure among the disciples and makes Jesus’ presence real to them. So they came to reaffirm their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life
by his words and deeds.

The good news of Easter according to storyteller John, is not just the final scene as it is in fairy tales that say everyone ‘lives happily ever after’. It is good news in the sense that the unexpected, the unforeseen, the serendipyous and the ambiguous. The death on the cross is not about taking away human sin but rather calling us to a new understanding of vulnerability, of ambiguity of uncertainty of doubt as times of resurrection, times of new direction, new life, a new heaven and a new earth, not in death but in life.

Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future. Or as Michael Benedikt says in another of his meditations: “God is practiced, like dance, like music, like kindness, like love… theopraxy.” (Benedikt 2007:4)

Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding. See doubt as a door to peace and understanding and new life. Amen.

Alves, R. The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1990.
Benedikt, M. God is the Good We Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books, 2007.
Cupitt, D. Life, Life. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Macnab, F.  Hope: The Deeper Longings of the Mind and Heart. Richmond. Spectrum Publications, 1996.

Resurrection as Healing and Humour’

Easter Day – today – is regarded as the most important day in the liturgical life of the church. Theologically speaking, Christmas doesn’t hold a candle to Easter. It is the day in which we celebrate the mystery of resurrection. Notice that.  I said ‘mystery’ of resurrection, not the ‘fact’ of resurrection (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 2007).

My recent reading of the world views of millennials and people of the future, we modern folks like facts. Did this happen? Did this not happen? What are the facts? But as the reading has pointed out, correctly I think, the problem with religious symbols such as resurrection is, they are not fact-friendly (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog, 2007)

So; this day, as part of the ‘mystery’ of resurrection, we celebrate life over death. This day we celebrate the moments of life that make up the span of our lives. This day we celebrate changed possibilities. The serendipitous moments, the creative moments. And we give thanks for the Spirit of Life visible in Jesus of Nazareth, visible in each one of us, visible in people in all walks of life… As we celebrate, we also acknowledge that all we have, are the stories, shaped and reshaped and told orally, by people of faith from generation to generation. No logical, scientific proof of a ‘bodily’ resurrection. No videotape of an empty tomb. No seismograph of an Easter earthquake.  Just the stories. But significant stories of life, hope, promise and revelation.

The stories tell us that in the midst of brokenness, healing stirs. That in the midst of darkness, a light, shines. That in the midst of death, life is breaking forth. That when all seems gone, hope springs eternal. We are convinced that, Jesus’ death mattered to all those early storytellers. But only because his life mattered more. So, they spoke of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And to be embraced by life, not scared of it. This is the invitation to us all today. The ‘resurrection’ invitation today is similar: be embraced by life, not scared of it? Then there is this suggestion that talks about what this might look like. These stories have a touch of humour.

David Henson writes: “[Jesus] is no longer doing miracles for the masses. He’s no longer directly confronting the Powers that Be. He’s no longer teaching in synagogues, or leading a movement, or marching on Jerusalem. He’s just doing a few simple things, slowly: gardening, walking, eating, laundry, and cooking.

“The first thing he does is to fold up the shroud neatly and to take care with his linen grave clothes… And then, in the final verses of the final chapter in [John’s] gospel we realize that Jesus, for all his talk of feeding, for all his multiplication of loaves and fish, for all the times he feasted with sinners, tax collectors, and Pharisees, has apparently never cooked a meal of his own, at least not one worth remembering, until he’s resurrected.

“Meals feature so heavily throughout the gospels. Jesus presided over many feasts and meals. But he apparently didn’t take the time to cook them himself. He certainly took the time to criticize those like Martha who did spend so much time cooking, but we never see him actually cooking a meal in the gospels.

“But here, the last thing Jesus does on earth is cook a meal, his first recorded one, and then he commands Peter to feed his sheep. In the resurrection, it seems, Jesus institutes the sacrament of housework and everyday chores”.  (

It is good to be reminded of these very human activities. Especially in the midst of so much super-natural stuff! So, says Rex Hunt, “let me offer some other suggestions (religious sounding perhaps) you might like to ponder sometime:”

  • How do we care for each other interpersonally in ways which do not suffocate and oppress? 
  • How is the well-being of our neighbour pursued in the complex problem of global hunger and international war?
  • How are communities developed positively around respect and care for each person, rather than around a common enemy?
  • How are the systemic causes of non-love eliminated? All human issues to be viewed in the light of the resurrection stories… Bishop John Shelby Spong has offered a comment which is also worth pondering:
  • Loving God… means that people do not treat the legitimacy of their own spiritual path as a sign that every other spiritual path is somehow illegitimate.
  • Loving your neighbour… means treating all people – regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, nationality, ethnicity or economic class – as holy, as having been made in God’s image.
  • Loving ourselves… means basing our lives on the faith that in Jesus as the Christ all things are made new and all people are loved by God (Spong Newsletter, 23/3/06).

All of the above have implications for us here in NZ with the horrific execution of people of faith in Christchurch. How do we be a Jesus follower in the light of what has taken place?

To live with these questions and their implications coursing in our veins, is to live in the spirit of the sage we call Jesus, it is to embrace life, not be scared of it. Because ‘resurrection’ can and does happen every day!  Love says so, Love demands it, Love resources it.

Peter Rollins, author of The Orthodox Heretic, puts it another way. He has this to say about ‘the’ resurrection: “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ…  I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.  However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are.  I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed” (Rollins 2009).

According to Irish-born Rollins, you can believe all the things you want.
You can even be as religious as the Pope (Francis i) or your favourite TV evangelist.
But unless you can “cry for those who have no more tears left to shed”,
the resurrection means little to nothing.  Amen.

Mark 11: 1-11

Palm Sunday: Not a Retreat from Life…

Today in the Lectionary is a different kind of day. It is the only day in the church calendar where we can celebrate two different events. Today we are given a choice to celebrate either: The Liturgy of the Branches (Palm Sunday), or The Liturgy of the Passion (Passion Sunday). On no other Sunday does a similar system of choice prevail.

Over recent years I have found myself choosing the liturgy of the branches choice because of a growing disquiet with the violence of the Passion story. For me this violent crucifixion of a person has contributed to a world of fear driven responses to reality as opposed to an approach based in the energy of love and loving which for me is what Jesus was encouraging hos people to embrace against the violence of Rome and its peace based on victory approach to life. I make no apology for not wanting to focus on the death of Jesus as it leads to an atonement doctrinal position that does not align with a loving God who would sacrifice a beautiful created being to prove a point. And so, most of my comments today will be in sympathy with and support of that theme. This doesn’t mean that the liturgy of the Passion has nothing to say but rather what it says is more about human experience than about Jesus’ message.

The first thing to note is that the story from our religious tradition called Palm Sunday is a remarkable fictional story full of contradictions. It’s a story about a moral hero without an ending. This might suggest that the story is about the beginning of something new and not yet complete. It’s a story set around a Jewish religious festival which celebrates liberation, even as the people are prisoners of Roman imperialism. This suggests that History repeats itself and that while the obvious is before us we often can’t see it. It’s today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark. The earliest writing, we have considered as a gospel of Jesus the Christ.

When we get into the detail, we find there are the ‘geographical’ inconsistencies in this story. The branches can hardly be palm branches since palm trees are not common in Jerusalem. And if we use modern jargon from the media world, there is the ‘beat up’ which the Jesus Movement gave this story. Remember that many of us believe that Jesus did not set out to start a movement let alone a church. And that story has to start somewhere. In our story every devoted pilgrim who entered Jerusalem during the main religious festivals, was greeted with a similar salutation, as our tradition says, was given to Jesus. As I have indicated in previous Palm Sunday sermons the ‘real’ procession would have already happened when the Roman Prefect who governed Palestine arrived “to make sure that the celebration remained focused on the past, not the present or future.” (Patterson 2004/28) The clanking of steel on steel and the sound of leather creaking and groaning and the sound of hooves and armour intimidating the hearer with sounds of might and power and force and violence over the foolish clip clop of the ass on the stones. The story of the palms begins with the ordinariness of the preparation for the so-called ‘triumphal entry’ and the great enthusiasm of the people, which ends up coming to nothing. Here is my argument for a weak theology of God as opposed to an almighty victorious one. At the top of our liturgy there is the image of Christmas that has the infant Jesus as symbol of the weak divine. An authentic faith based not upon an almighty supernatural God but rather on the subjectivity and fragility of the human species that with language and mind creates the vision of reality that we live within.

And we note also that there are the many differences about this story as told by the other storytellers Matthew, Luke and John. A problem for us is that we have heard these stories so often, or been hoodwinked by the likes of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, that we now usually combine all of them together into one big Palm Sunday story, forgetting the uniqueness of each. For instance, in Mark there is no weeping over Jerusalem. The idea of a destruction of Jerusalem or its place in the lives of Hebrew people was not contemplated. That’s in another story. A story which Mark probably didn’t even know. Only Mark mentions the ‘procession’ going to the entrance of the city. And only Mark says Jesus went alone into Jerusalem and into the temple, not to occupy it,
not to cleanse it, but to check it out. And then to leave it and the city, retiring with the Twelve to Bethany.

Yet the early Jesus Movement in general, and Mark and his small group in particular,
saw something in this story which was important for them.

It seems that they might have found Mark hinting at bits of Hebrew teaching; that he was suggesting Jesus was the promised Messiah; and that Jesus was not just a spectator or visitor, but was really in control of things. He had a bigger picture that had all the parts connecting.

All these things would probably have ‘rung bells’, as we say, with Mark’s so-called branch of the Jesus Movement. But we need to be aware that we are not so sure they would ‘ring bells’ for us!

Stephen Patterson is a biblical scholar and a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, whose book
Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus which talks about this. In it, Patterson suggests that to understand the stories around the death of Jesus on what we call Good Friday, the other bit of the bookend called Palm Sunday, we must first have some realistic idea of what happened to Jesus. And that can be difficult for Christians.
Because, as mentioned earlier, we have heard the story read time and again from pulpit bibles in the smallest of churches to the greatest of cathedrals. And we have seen the events portrayed in Hollywood films, Sunday School pageants and bedtime story books.

The story plot is similar in all: Jesus comes to Jerusalem to challenge his enemies. His enemies are the chief priests and scribes who have all along plotted his demise, Jesus deliberately plays right into their hands, because he knows his fate before-hand. He is betrayed by one of his own, arrested, tortured, crucified and after three days rises from the dead.

As Patterson reminds us, the common perception is: “It is all part of God’s plan to save us from our sins…  Thus… in this mixture of text and tradition, the death of Jesus is not a calamity, or even a surprise.  It is the result of a well-executed, successful plan to create what we know today as the Christian religion.” (Patterson 2004: 5)

So developed a significant change in what we now call theology. And that change was away from the events surrounding a particular person: in whose company others came to experience God, who said and did certain things, and who stood for something so important, he was willing to give his life for… Away from real human events, to  an abstract mythic event “connected to the universal problem of death and the mysterious and frightening end of human life… (all part) of a great cosmic battle with the forces of God arrayed against the armies of the evil one.” (Patterson 2004:127-28)

Likewise, when later writers and storytellers talked about the ‘passion’ of Jesus, they always understood it as ‘passion’ equals ‘suffering’. And so, in the second set of readings in our Revised Common Lectionary also set down for today, the planners do just that.

But that particular understanding has now been seriously challenged. From passion as ‘suffering’, to passion as “consuming interest, dedicated enthusiasm, or concentrated commitment.” (Borg & Crossan 2006)

And Jesus’ passion as we have also heard many, many times, was “the kingdom of God declared in terms of God’s justice… and the fact that such declaration was seen, despite Jesus’ nonviolence, as a threat to the system of domination by Rome and its wealthy Jewish collaborators, led to his suffering.” (Olson 2006 ALA/Amazon review)

Palm Sunday at one end, and Good Friday at the other end, reminds us life is not an escape from reality. It draws us into the reality of this world. Here again is the support for a weak theology as opposed to a mighty one and for the claim that God does not exist but rather insists. We as humans exists while God insists, or calls into being that which is our reality.

Jesus, who is human as we are, and Jesus who is a ‘gateway to God’ (Spong), confronts and submits to the worst human beings can do, in order to remain faithful to a vision, a passion, of what the best human beings can be.

This Palm Sunday may we once again reaffirm that religion is not a retreat from life
where we ponder the things not of this world… Religion in general, and Palm Sunday in particular, enables us, with insight and wisdom and power, to meet courageously and creatively the current issues of our ordinary, everyday living. And to carry with us into that everyday living what is precious: reverence for all life, beauty that displays itself in love, and deep, abiding peace. Amen.

Patterson, S. J. 2004.  Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

Our Harvest, is the Sum of Knowledge of the Universe Itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On that note we might need to catch up with evolution is that Bid Bang might now be a misleading term really, in that it is posited that there wasn’t really an explosion, but rather an expansion. Noun to verb maybe?

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

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

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

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

We are yet to learn from basic biology. We are yet to learn that humans must cooperate with nature’s processes, and if we can do that, then we can develop purposes less likely to be frustrated by nature. We are yet to learn that a debate between people who actually know stuff
and people who just don’t like what the experts have to say, is not a ‘balanced’ debate. It’s a waste of time. The combative debate mode is not beneficial because it is no based on collaboration.

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

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

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

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

There is also a need for all religious traditions to appreciate that the primary sacred community is the universe itself, and that every other community becomes sacred by participation in this primary community. The world, the planet, the universe is our harvest and the proper care of it, the proper relationship with it is the true harvest. Nurturing the fruits of the earth and distributing it for all is the immediate goal because it contributes the wellbeing of the whole.

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

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

A new season shows us that nature-kind and humankind are continually in relationship. We are reminded and called forward to a ‘new’ religious sensitivity. To transcend the isolated self. To reconnect. To know ourselves to be at home.

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

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

In tune with the season a woman is planting vegetable seeds in her garden. Her activity is more than a hobby, even more than a pleasure. She is digging, dirtying, straining, mulching and lugging, under the power of plants which do not yet even exist, but whose images have taken up residence in the atoms and cells within her imagination. Weeks or months will elapse before her labour is fulfilled. Patience and faith will sustain her until, under the majesty of Earth’s dominion, the unprepossessing little seeds will explode into lettuces, onions, tomatoes, carrots and much more. A war will have been won by the fragility of soft and flavoursome things. The green leaves of herbs, the purple of the cabbages, and the yellow and orange citrus have raised their banners above the turrets of Earth’s soil to defy the dark cold space that pervades almost all of everything else. It is a new season, a new day. And if there were a heaven, the gods would abandon it just for the chance to see this woman in her garden. Our harvest, the gospel of the natural present moment. Amen.

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

Concepts of God

Posted: March 3, 2021 in Uncategorized

Luke 13:1-9

Concepts of God

Today’s sermon is an attempt to continue our alternative look at Lent as a reminding period within a lectionary that seeks to take the reader through the gospel claims and revelations. It continues the look at Lent as a time for a new look at discipleship and what it means and today, we attempt to look at the need for another look at our unspoken traditional assumptions.

I am thankful one again to Rex Hunt of whose website I read on regular occasion. He reminds us that many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, can be said to have believed in a God who punished the bad people and rewarded the good. He goes on to say that they went so far as to say:

  • if you live in poverty or have a bad accident or disease, you are revealed by God as a sinner;
  • if you are healthy and prosper you are revealed by God as a righteous person.

He also suggests that while that interpretation was in vogue back then it no longer is, despite the fact that many today still fall back on such a view.

He tells a modern story to try to give us focus.

A minister… he gives the name Diana, rushed around to the home of friends
where a small child has suddenly died. She was met at the door by the distraught father, who was a senior lecturer in mathematics at the local university, who usually was most composed.

“Thanks for coming, he said.  It’s a nightmare. You know, I have not been reading my Bible much these days.” At first Diana was confused by her friend’s opening remark. What had reading the Bible to do with a little child’s death?

Later, after she had thought the issue through, she was able to help untangle the poor father’s anguish. The father’s first reaction had been to feel guilty.  Years before, when he had been confirmed, he had promised to ‘diligently study the scriptures.’ And he hadn’t.

In the anguish of the new grief, the ancient fear that the death was for him a punishment from God, had broken loose. Someone had to be at fault. And it must be him. His mind came up with a broken vow to justify that question. Normally, that man would have logically dismissed the idea of a child’s death as divine retribution, as rubbish. All, he had learned and knew was that it was not right yet in the grief crisis, the ancient superstition had got the jump on him. It gave him answers.

His reaction is not unique nor is it confined to church goers. In all of us, primitive stuff like that lies semi-hidden. It’s like the ghosts of old gods that refuse to completely go away. In all of us, hidden away in the murkier parts of our psyche,
are irrational fears and superstitions that need a scapegoat when we are hurting or confused or simply afraid of thinking. These are a hangover from the not so ancient, primitive past of homo sapiens.

One of these superstitions is that we may be the guilty cause of accidents and disease to ourselves or those whom we love dearly. This is rooted it seems in a simplistic reliance on the belief that we are responsible for the problems we face and while that is true? we need to have the bigger context of evolution and the living evolving planet and also our own evolutionary reality. A fixed doctrine and concept of who are what God is and how God does or does not work is tied to our understanding of what our planet is and how it is a planet. The mathematics lecturer knew this yet when it came to an unexpected event he fell back on an old interpretation. Further proving that God or the energy of deity we call God is intimately apart of the evolving creativity that gives and sustains life. Not as an old man who created the creation and then stepped back to police it but as part of its evolving living reality. If it is language and our energy that can alter the trajectory of our planet then a retributive God is no longer viable. We need a distributive cosmic approach to who are how our God works.

There are of course some religious people in the world today who are still committed to that ancient concept of God. Their God is one of anger and retribution for the unrighteous, and of the reward of good health and prosperity for the righteous. Bruce Prewer, a retired Uniting Church minister and author of many books which help shape an Australian spirituality, considered this situation in one of his sermons a few years back He said:“One of the most recent statements of this unhappy dogma, was exhibited recently by an evangelist (so called!).  It was offering time at a big gathering and the announcement was made before the offering: ‘We all know bad economic times are coming.  There will be a great collapse of the markets and people will lose everything they own. But those who give well to God this day will be among the few who will do well and prosper in the bad times that must come.’” And to quote Bruce Prewer at the end he said: “Yuk!” (Prewer web site 2004)

Others, such as John Shelby Spong and John Dominic Crossan and Sallie McFague, are also at the forefront of putting old theological superstitions a bed.

One of the interesting learnings that we might consider is that with the coming together of science and religion the use of old outdated concepts for God are pushing many to reject the church and religion. Not because of its marriage with science but because the marriage is forcing us to change our understanding of God. The church in the past rejected science and now that is no longer possible, In science an assertion that cannot be proven wrong is an assertion of interest whereas one that can be is false. A concept of God that can be proven wrong is not worth repeating. Remember I am not saying that God needs to be proven right just that one that can be proven wrong is worthless. This is an argument that demands our concepts be credible, scientifically as well as psychologically and biologically. There was an interesting fictional movie I was watching recently that explored this phenomenon so the questions are out there.

The truth is that happiness or misery cannot be simply equated with goodness and badness. Reality is not like that. The old superstition is a lie. And the old gods of retribution and reward who lurk in the dark corners of our minds, are false gods. We are called to dismiss the superstition, and in face if we think about it we seem to have Jesus’ word on it. When he is attributed as saying: ‘Do not pretend that the good or evil that we do does not matter’. Both actions by human beings changes things. Of course accidents, massacres, disease, are not God’s punishments. But if we don’t watch our step, we can all end up with another kind of disaster… you will likewise perish. Not as bodies, but as persons we can decay and perish. This approach to God and to evolution and mathematics and science is also part of the current ‘climate change’ debate.

Theologian Sallie McFague writes: “Global warming is not just another important issue that human beings need to deal with; rather, it is the demand that we live differently.  We cannot solve it, deal with it, given our current anthropology. We do not understand culture and society as our  forebears did, we do not understand the cosmos or our planet as the ancients did? This concentration on climate change is not simply an issue of management; rather, it demands a paradigm shift in who we think we are and who or what we think God is.  This is certainly not the only thing that is needed, but it is a central one, for without it we cannot expect ourselves or others to undertake the radical behavioral change that is necessary to address our planetary crisis.” (McFague 2008:44).

As individuals, as a world, we are all capable of perishng… disintegrating as persons. None of us are exempt. I was talking with my scientist son just the other day about the sustainability of the planet and our anthropological wellbeing.

He reminded me that we seem to be making some small changes in the overpopulation crisis and what it is important is that the change is coming from freely taken responsible people. The figures show that as wellbeing increases in a population the birthrate diminishes. Suggesting that we need to address the global questions of economic equity and the fact that the few are getting richer and the poor poorer. Despiite the flattening out of the middle class the gap at the extremes is getting out of hand. This will affect our sustainability. And what’s more important is that a retributive God will not be able to address the issues we face.

So, what does this have to do with Lent? Well maybe Lent might be a good time for us to do a couple of ‘life-affirming’ things. One might be to update the thinking which shapes our faith and beliefs. and change our minds and hearts about God and the other might be to look for the life-affirming clues all around us – the tender care that is being distributed without reward, without recompense, without payback. Maybe we can start a trend where the wellbeing of all people regardless of their status, contribution, culture, social acceptability etc etc, is our calling. Maybe life is always a vocation and the social, economic, political and cultural concerns are about equity for the givers as opposed to the earners. Sounds radical left socialistic rubbish but remember, politics is not about taking sides good and bad left or right but rather about the good of all.

Notes: McFague, S. A New Climate for Theology. God, the world, and global warming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.


Posted: February 24, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 8:31-38


Why another sermon on Discipleship? Isn’t it obvious that discipleship is about sharing the Good News and that good news is what Jesus was making known in his lifetime? Yes of course it is but what does make known mean today? Is it about telling those who don’t know what to think, how to act, and what not to do> Is it about telling people they have to measure up and give up all they have and follow the path we think we should? Sure discipleship, can be seen simply as following Jesus, but what does follow mean and who is the Jesus we are following and another question is how do we do this thing called discipleship?

In technical English John D Caputo reminds of where we find ourselves when facing the call. He reminds us that we have to deal with the accusative if we are to respond to the call of the divine. He calls that divine the ‘Perhaps’ I call it the ‘Almost’ that is insisting we embrace the Good News and this means that God’s existence relies upon our engaging in discipleship to bring about God’s existence. God insists and we bring about existence. Discipleship then is a crucial activity for life. It is the act of making known, making real and creating the existence of the Good News. Caputo reminds us that we are faced with the accusative and that literally relates to the act of showing cause’.

Another situation we need to think about is that Jesus said that “God rains on both the righteous and the unrighteous” And Mark twain said that “The rain is famous for falling on the just and the unjust alike, but if I had the management of such affairs I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but if I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors, I would drown him.

This suggests to me that discipleship is not about the recipients needs and rather about the life a follower of Jesus is called into and that demands that we need to get this Jesus guy sussed or at least as well as we can before talking about discipleship. Who is this guy that we are following: What is he saying and more importantly why?

When talking of Jesus as Itinerant Artisan and Sage” Charles W Hedrick said he was an

itinerant artisan who had a marketable skill related to a building trade of some sort. That

he was neither formally educated nor lettered beyond what training he may have received for his craft. Nevertheless, he had an uncommon knowledge of human behaviour based on shrewd observation of life in Galilean villages; and he was able to

recreate what he observed in memorable realistic secular narratives, which he recounted as audiences presented themselves to listen. His discourse was in the language of the secular world, and his ideas put him at odds with the prevailing religious

and secular powers, and even human self-interest. Because of his abilities, however, he came to be regarded as a wise man. Certainly, he was not a professional scribe or sage,

but in regarding him as wise he came to be included among those holy souls into whom the spirit of wisdom was thought to pass in every generation—men and women who became friends of God

What he gave is what we believe changed his world and will change ours for the better and that is simply the Good news that love, peace and justice are names for the good news. As Robert Miller wrote in the latest Fourth R Magazine; While “Few might imagine that those ancients listening to the words of Jesus would be as cynical as Mark Twain, and in fact many were, the religious significance of rain in the fraught relationship of God and Israel would have leapt to mind as Jesus spoke of it falling alike on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Many of Jesus listeners would have been thinking more along the lines of Twain’s management of such affairs, an found what Jesus had to say challenging. The social, political and military environment would have been the obvious target of his words. How do you maintain order without the simple clear black and white rules? How do you find justice without an enemy? Especially when God rains for both good and bad?

And let’s remember, he disregarded many religious boundaries of his own religious faith. He did not believe in some of the interpretations of scripture. He publicly associated and ate with sinners, he reached across the critical religious rules of his day. He ignored the prescribed handwashing, he prioritized interpersonal morality over Temple worship which place being in right relationship with people over that with God. He crossed the line between sacred and mundane and upset the special days rules. He was not saying they were wrong but that they were not the only way and, in his time, they were not working or not necessary because they stigmatized, separated off and created an environment of fear as opposed to love. Here we have a challenge to consider when we plan discipleship let alone a program of evangelism.

This morning’s story by the one we call Mark, is a tough call. It is a call to discipleship. And mixed in with that call are several fragments on other issues. Renouncing of one’s family, one’s kin. Suffering and persecution. The cross. Death. But I guess the primary thing we hear in the story are the words: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’

Now, if read out of context, and with our post-modern western ears tuned in, this particular invitation to discipleship can be heard as a glorification of suffering, docility especially by women), and an encouragement to become a victim. Indeed, this is the way many people in the not-too-distant past, were encouraged to interpret this story. Because such a way of life is or was an imitation of ‘Christ’ So let me along with many today state in a stark categorical sense: that such a reading or hearing is a distortion of the story.  Period.

Two of Mark’s issues seem to be the place of suffering and the other is the Cross. Mark does not glorify either subservient behaviour or suffering. Neither is he issuing a general call to embrace suffering per se. But what he does indicate is that one particular cause of suffering is persecution by the powers-that-be if you become a challenge to their authority, is a very real possibility. And something we need to bear in mind when being a disciple.

And for those who have chosen to be disciples and follow in the way of the humble Galilean, Mark’s call to them is to remain faithful to that way, and to the reign of God, in the face of persecution. Again, we might think about this as the outcome of good discipleship. Not in the sense of avoiding the persecution by confidence or strong persuasion but by humility of grace and peace. Remember here also that the Roman Theology is Victory first then peace and justice whereas I think Jesus was advocating peace and love as the instigators of justice.

The fact is that first century folk viewed suffering quite differently than we do. We reject suffering as a normal, everyday part of life. It is something to be changed or overcome as soon as possible. Even down to the Panadol-a-day to keep the headache away! But ancients viewed suffering as a normal, if unpleasant, part of life. It was part of the human lot, of everyday existence. And why wouldn’t it be! I view change different from my parents and my children and why not? 

With at least 80% of the population living at subsistence level or below, with hunger and disease or being sold off into slavery, common experiences, high taxation a daily occurrence, and families in constant danger of losing their land to cover rising debt…a

“That is how Rome managed it”, comments Stephen Patterson, New Testament scholar, and Fellow of the Jesus Seminar “Rome’s purpose, especially in the provinces, was to suck up as many of the province’s resources as it could without provoking it into revolt or killing it off altogether.  It slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.” (Patterson 2002:201)

No wonder the ‘expendables’ (poor parents), then and now, train their children to be able to endure suffering, for it becomes an important survival skill! So, Mark’s message that the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth, painting Jesus and his followers as having the power to end suffering and bring health, life and safety for all, was certainly very attractive. Do you get a feel for discipleship from this? It is certainly not about telling anyone what we have and they need to live a better life. They already know that. Even today.

Now with Easter almost upon us we will have to deal with the story of the Cross, the crucifixion of the criminal by the ruling authority with the help of his peers.  The Cross.

Let’s be sure that the cross or crucifixion, was a cruel, shameful, and legal means of execution. Anyone questioning Roman authority was, from the empire’s perspective, a potential and unnecessary troublemaker. And political authorities then, as many still do today, believed in pre-emptive action against all possible threats. We today watch with interest how governments impose mandate on vaccine consumption in order to protect their people. Will a health measure become a cultural rule by stealth? Those against vaccinations struggle with this point under the cover of fear of its efficacy. And one would have to say that rightly so because it is fraught with assumptions of justice based on compliance as opposed to freely chosen.

It is pretty obvious that the ancients would never have sung: “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died…” That’s 17th/18th century middle-class piety.

Neither would they have said: “It is her cross to bear”. “God has given him a heavy cross”. “You just have to accept it: it’s your cross”. The reality was to take up your cross was specifically to pick up the cross beam and carry it out to the place of your execution, where you would be nailed or tied to it, and then hoisted up on to the upright pole or on to an olive tree stump.

As another overseas writer has said: “No ancient audience could miss the reference to execution, or think of the cross as a general reference to all human suffering…  Following Jesus (was) both blessing – the ending of much human suffering – and incurring new suffering at the hands of those who will do their best to destroy Jesus’ followers.” (Joanna Dewey. LookSmart Web site, 2009)

So… the cross is not an exhortation to suffering in general. Violence destroys life. It is not even an installation of a symbol for the much later ‘Christian’ congregations.

That didn’t happen until early in the 5th century and then thanks to Constantine, not Mark. And neither is it about sacrificial atonement or supernatural rescue. That is, when the cross is seen as the preordained means by which humankind is redeemed, God is implicated in the death of Jesus not as fellow sufferer but as executioner. (Shea 1975:179)

What ‘Taking up thy cross’ seems to me to be a general exhortation to remain faithful to the way of Jesus, and as Joanne Dewey says: “in the face of persecution and even execution, by political authorities.  That is “the all-absorbing   par excellence!” as a good man I liked when training Ian Cairns wrote.  

It has to be noted that the call to discipleship back then was a tough call. Your life could depend on it. Whereas the call to discipleship now, while also being a tough call. it is a call to be on a journey, Recognising the place language and culture have, living with questions rather than with answers, and that means living with ambiguities, and uncertainty and because it is always good news that drives discipleship exploring what it means to be human in this age when cloning of all examples of life forms, robotics, artificial intelligence and life ruled by algorithms is with us. Theology, spirituality and discipleship cannot be out of date or it will disappear and the Jesus story will disappear.

And where that demands honesty and candor. At the core of discipleship is the call to recognise ‘right behaviour’ (orthopraxis) or how one acts, rather than ‘right doctrine’ (orthodoxy) or what one should believe, as important. It is a call to make forgiveness reciprocal without exacting penalties or promises. And it is a call to accept an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love of one’s neighbour.

Mark’s 1st century story may have offered us some indicators – even resources – for our 21st century struggle to be disciples, to be the church, in our time. But in reality, we will have to work it out for ourselves, together. That’s the challenge and the blessing of discipleship.  Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Patterson, S. J. “Dirt, Shame, and Sin in the Expendable Company of Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Shea, J. The Challenge of Jesus. Chicago. Thomas More Association, 1975.

Caputo J.D The insistence of God A theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press 2013

Flowers of the Desert

Posted: February 16, 2021 in Uncategorized

Flowers of the Desert

William Blake wrote that:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an Hour…”
(William Blake)

That sounds to me very much like an invitation to dream, imagine and create pictures and images that enrich life with depth, colour and meaning. It inspired me to read you a poem I wrote in search of the dive that is revealed in that imaginative yet very real place. We talk about theology as art and we talk about metaphor and imagination as ways of making accessible the great mysteries of life. language is a wonderful thing when we treasure its ability to create life as we might see it. I want to offer you the poem as a way of recognizing the power it has to give an image of this God we are in the image of. I have given it the title of Serendipitous Presence to highlight the randomness of life as a wonderful gift and the way we best might imagine the dynamic creating presence of what we might name as the Spirit of God. A Serendipitous Presence, A Lenten calling.

A Serendipitous Presence

Words are without completion

too small for the task that eludes all.
How can we speak of a gentleness within,
the warmth of heart in response to call?

How can we know you, ocean of love,
Words fail to be enough, this we know true,

strong as forever, soft as a dove.
living within and without is our clue.

We know times of spiritual blindness,
when excess and pain distort our sight.
Something within and without us,
shows us how darkness can turn into light.

Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.

Words are creative completion

small and yet enough, for the task of call.
They speak of the gentleness within,
and warm the heart in response to the call.

This week saw the commencement of the traditional religious season called Lent.

It began a few days ago… on Wednesday 17th February. Interestingly it fell after last Sunday which was St Valentine’s Day. Traditionally… at least, in 18th-century England, St Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards. Traditionally, also, well, since the year 1000CE, Ash Wednesday got its name from the act of being marked with ashes – previous year’s burnt palm branches – when worshippers gather and are reminded of their sinfulness and mortality. Interesting isn’t it that Love and sin are on the same day!!

Lent is also associated with the story of the Jewi wsh Galilean sage called Yeshu’a/Jesus,
and his 40-day stay or testing in the desert wilderness. The story says it happened at the beginning of his brief public activity in the north-west corner of the Galilee, in the early Roman Empire, sometime between the years 26-36CE.

Having given a brief introduction I want to think about ‘desert’, ’Lent’ and ‘God; and I want to think about what desert means in NZ as opposed to Australia because the image we have of a desert can influence how we embrace the world of Jesus.

Did you know that Australia has ten named deserts, the largest being the Great Victoria Desert which crosses the border into both Western Australia and South Australia. It is over 800 kilometres wide and covers an area of 348,750 square kilometres. In total the ten deserts cover nearly 1.4 million square kilometres or 18% of the Australian mainland.  But that’s not all because approximately 35% of the Australian continent receives so little rain
it is effectively desert.  The result is that Australia has been called the driest continent on earth.

Whereas the desert in NZ is the Rangipo desert around the central plateau in the North Island. It is a barren desert-like environment, located in the Ruapehu District on the North Island Volcanic Plateau; to the east of the three active peaks of Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Ruapehu, and to the west of the Kaimanawa Range.

It IS also a desert like environment only because of its harsh environment and not because of its dryness or sand covered world, It gets quite significant rainfall but very poor soil and frequent strong winds mean that anything less hardy than tussock doesn’t survive except in very sheltered areas. It’s at quite a high elevation and winters in this area are pretty brutal with frequent heavy rain, high winds and snow. The closest we might get to a “traditional” desert is the semi-arid area of Central Otago, especially around Alexandra, but even then irrigation has made this a remarkably fertile area, especially for stone fruit. Summers are scorching, and winters will make you wish you had packed your thermal undies.

Australia’s deserts however are known for their distracting lure of the shimmering mirage, their “parched earth cracks and groans under the blazing sun across the wide spaces. The perception of what is a desert wilderness area, varies greatly. They still vary  as it depends on the different exposures people have to nature and the ‘great outdoors’.

To a person living on the coast, the desert is often dry and arid and dusty. A place without life. But for desert dwellers in Australia’s ‘outback’, for instance, beyond Charleville, it has a compelling fascination, as a place vibrant with life. The spinifex are blue grey with amber glints. They look soft but they are prickly and hard. They survive tenaciously because no grazing animal can eat them out or destroy their roots. It may look as if nothing can live in the desert, but underneath the spinifex, the desert creatures leave their tracks in the red sand. No life stirs all day, but come night… lizards, mice, and the rare animals of the desert live their delicate but vastly tough lives in this harsh habitat.

This brief look at deserts suggests that things are not always as they seem and that perception is important. Not just as an awareness of nature and its complexity but also as metaphor for faith. Jesus withdrawing for space to pray and think, his use of the desert as a place to reflect and contemplate what to do, is a seeding place for ideas of an alternate way of seeing things.

When we take this idea and place it in a Lenten time we can see that Lent  might be a very real time when we can once again, in an intentional way, seek out the present-ness of the sacred lurking in the most unlikely of places, waiting to be uncovered, found, and embraced. If we only see the desert as a place of harsh, relentlessness… where people face despair and animals die of thirst, the desert experience will always be an alien danger. It is tantamount to living in fear all one’s life. Sadly many people do this when the focus of lent is on sacrifice, sin and, a self-abasing repentance and this seeps through into our Autumn days as well.

A Zen teacher said to his students: ‘If you raise a speck of dust, the nation flourishes, but the elders furrow their brows. If you don’t raise a speck of dust, the nation perishes, but the elders relax their brows.’

If we listen to cosmologists they say we are made from dust—essentially stardust. We are all connected—biologically and spiritually—with planet Earth and with all its ‘other than human’ beings.

Echoing the words of William Blake, the former professor of biology at the University of Washington, John Palka, suggests: “To see a world in a grain of sand—to peer so deeply into the nature of any one thing that the riches of the Universe begin to be revealed—that to me is the essence of science as a quest. Not as a profession or a career, not as a niche in complex modern society, but as a quest for understanding one’s deepest nature.”  (John Palka. 15/11/2015. Nature’s Depths)

 of dust is to stir up goodness, struggle for justice, speak up for those who stutter or do not speak the languages of power, band together to stand resolutely and non violently before evil and refuse to be absorbed into it or intimidated by it.

Traditionally for many of us Christians Lent is a time of sorry self-deprecation. A perspective I have little time for these days I have to say. From a progressive perspective, Lent can be a time when, in positive and intentional ways, our focused actions can enable others to flourish. Lent can be a time when our selfless actions seep into the world ‘like the scent of perfume distilled in the air’… encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, and strengthening the bonds of community.

We actually don’t have a lot of historical knowledge of Yeshu’a/Jesus, but we can surmise pretty strongly that he is remembered as undermining popular religious wisdom, forcing his hearers to take a second look at the traditions that helped them make their way in the world. He was a devout Jew and his controversy was in that he questioned his own faith and suggested it needed to change. And he was able, with a storyteller’s imagination, to set people free from images and ideas and religious practices that bound them into fear, and a false sense of separation from the spirit of all life.

And the point of this is that none of it makes Yeshu’a supernatural. Or divine. Or No. 2 in the Trinity. Just human, insightful and willing to ask the hard questions of himself and his faith.

Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson, noted for publishing books
that ‘strain relations between the church hierarchy and Catholic theologians’, writes:
“Born of a woman… and the Hebrew gene pool, [he] was a creature of earth, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. Like all human beings, he carried within himself the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth…”

Whatever conclusion one might end up with about him, it must be a possible Yeshu’a/Jesus and not a hugely incredible one. And a possible Jesus is a Jesus situated in his historical circumstances “and who did things and said things that a real person could have reasonably believed or done at that time.”  (David Galston)

The desert is a place where one does not expect to find life. Let alone things of beauty such as flowers. It is a god-forsaken place we might say.

This Lent, in the wilderness of our 21st century cities, furrowed by freeways and overshot by motorways shaded by skyscrapers we might remember that in our dry seasons that seem to be increasing are time s and places where there are tiny seeds, at rest and waiting, dormant yet undefeated. There are Desert flowers waiting to show us a beauty we understand. “The desert is beautiful,” writes Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian, psychoanalyst, author, and poet, “because it hides, somewhere, a garden.” And that might be why Jesus went there so often.

‘Nothing we know will be wasted in derision,
all of our living is grounded in grace.
Gently taken down are the walls of division,
leading us on to a larger place.’


Alves, R. A. The Poet The Warrior The ProphetEmbracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Edward Cadbury Lectures. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1990.
Galston, D. . Salem. Polebridge Press, 2012.
Hedrick, C. W. The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church. Eugene. Cascade Books, 2014.
Johnson, E. “Deep Incarnation: Prepare to be Astonished”UNIFAS ConferenceThe Colony. A History of Early Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, 7-14 July 2010. <; Accessed 4 October 2016
Karskens, G. . Crows Nest. Allen & Unwin, 2009.
McRae-McMahon, D. Rituals for Life, Love and Loss. Paddington. Jane Curry Publishing, 2003.
Winton, T.  The Land’s Edge. Sydney. Picador, 1993.

Mark 1:40-45

Why is a sermon on evolution important? Well I think it is important because having an integral philosophy is essential in todays world This is a claim that the evolution of consciousness is a central factor in the process of evolution overall. The attempt of a sermon in examining the historic texts is itself an acknowledgement that it is important to have a perspective on what constitutes an evolutionary life.

The use of the word ‘cantor’ is an attempt to claim that each one of us is an integral part of the evolutionary process, in other words our song, our solo has an integral place in the evolutionary process as a catalyst, a participant in the evolution.

The biblical world our readings arise from was a very different time to the one we find ourselves in today. The readings may seem to stand in contrast and that’s because they do. They are shaped by thinking hundreds of years old, and from a time without the benefit or not of both the natural science world of the 19th century CE and of today. The readings also offer us an idea of the ways many religious people think today when the differences are highlighted. Some ideas have evolved considerable and others very little and this is possible only when there is little or no integral philosophy to challenge the thinking.

Leprosy, in the time of Jesus, was sometimes regarded as divine punishment for sin.
It embraced a wide range of disorders, including rashes, acne, eczema and other forms of dermatitis. It made people ‘unclean’.  Dirty. And when you were dirty you offended God’s standards. Indeed, there was an explicit connection between being clean and being holy. When you were ‘unclean’ you weren’t ‘holy’! This was the culture into which Jesus was born. This was the culture that was learned and cultivated. In a string of stories commenced a week or two back, Mark’s Jesus is confronted with a series of ‘unclean’ people usually captured by ‘unclean’ spirits. As modern 21st century people, who both accept and rely on modern medical science, even if reluctantly we find it very difficult to believe in the existence of unclean spirits or demons, even though there are some moderns as there were ancient folk, who do. Much thinking these days goes into the connections between one view and another and nobody is sure enough to make exclusive claims these days.

So, what are we to make of this and other stories? Following the thoughts of some scholars whether Jesus was or was not a genuine shaman“ or whether he simply embraced the company of the unclean, the meaning of his memory is the same: in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community” (Patterson 2002:210).

And I come to a similar conclusion as a result of modern critical biblical study, established some 300 years ago, and given exposure in the late 20th century through the pioneering work of the Westar Institute and its founder, Robert W. Funk. Also by reading many scholars who are writing about the developing human mind, and integral spirituality as well as scientist who are seeking the overall meaning of human life and existence.

The second point to make also is that today is Evolution Sunday and once again
many of us continue to be a signatory to The Clergy Letter, now in three variations, which supports the validity and merit of evolutionary science as “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.  To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children” (UUA Clergy Letter.

And while the term ‘evolution’ was in use dating from 1647, and there were certainly others with similar views, it is English-born Charles Darwin who is now recognised as the ‘founder’ of the theory of evolution, leading the way to the modern study of genetics and molecular biology. Charles Darwin, whose father once said of him: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” (Wilson 1998:16).

Charles Darwin, who first studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but left after only 18 months “partly because of the barbarity of 19th century surgery long before the days of anaesthetics” (Wilson 1998:18) and went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, because his father determined that he should ‘become a clergyman’. Charles Darwin, who graduated in 1831 from Cambridge – in natural history and geology! Charles Darwin, who, as resident naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands on the HMS Beagle, where he encountered evidence “of great diversity between animals of the distant past and those of the present” (

It was following this trip and as a result of him unable to reconcile his fundamentalist beliefs with his speculations about the origins of species, that “…in the months following his return… his new scientific theory was born and his faith in religion was dead” (Birch 2008:116).

Charles Darwin, born 206 hundred years ago (1809), who gave us his most famous major work called ‘On the Origin of Species’, “a treatise providing extensive evidence for the evolution of organisms and proposing natural selection as the key process determining its course” (Ayala 2007: 61) which Darwin published 156 years ago – on 24 November 1859.

In that book Darwin introduced what lies at the heart of an evolutionary world view. He suggested that the world or universe was:

(i) unfinished and continuing ;

(ii) involved chance events and struggle, and

(iii) natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint” (Birch 1965:29).

I would say today that the power of ‘fear’ in pour religious response is misplaced at best and horribly disabling of participating in a relationship of value with our planet. Evolution theory says that the whole universe is alive and changing, continually co-creating with each of us, new possibilities of life. Change is! Evolution and if you like you can use my idea of a serendipitous creating as the biological, philosophical and real world we live in. The unexpected, ambiguous serendipitous opportunity is our engagement in life.

Or put another way, change is the core of: cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).

What we do know and believe is that in every age the worlds of theology and religion interact with the cultural and scientific worldviews of that day. Such interaction between the two, in the words of feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, “is essential to make religious faith both credible and relevant within a particular generation’s view of the world and how it works” (Johnson 2007:286).

But Johnson goes on:  She says “In sum, theological reflection today should endeavour to speak about God’s relation not to an ancient nor medieval nor Newtonian world, but to the dynamic, emergent, self-organizing universe that contemporary natural and biological sciences describe” (Johnson 2007:287).

Scientists tell us the ‘Great Story’ as we understand it today, begins with the ultimate mystery of the Big Bang (this is now perhaps a misleading term. Current thinking is that there wasn’t really an explosion but an ‘expansion’, some 13-15 billion years ago.

We also think that life on earth originated some four billion years ago. Homo habilis (our ancestors) began using tools 2.5 billion years ago. Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago.

One of the things I need to tell myself is that I emerged just over 74 years ago – or about 27,375 days ago. Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us. The ancestral stars are a part of our genealogy. “Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space”
writes American Unitarian poet, Robert L Weston (Weston 1993)

I wrote the following in an attempt to say just how important an understanding of one’s own place in the cosmos and also how fragile, agile and alive an evolutionary world might be.

A Pale Blue Dot

It enters as a pale blue dot

Incredibly beautiful against the dark it inhabits

Both lost in contrast and confirmation of its place

a perspective of scale emerges

the pale blue dot takes its rightful place

the evolution of visual wonder

It enters as a pale blue dot

Carrying with it our existence

In the shared blue dot is the product

our bodies the outcome of an alchemy,

forged in stars billions of years ago.

An evolution of an incarnational beauty

It enters as a pale blue dot

a special planet that is evolving
a dynamic, living event
at once our home and yet fragile

it demands reverence, care, and respect.

An evolution the is serendipitous and participatory.

It enters as a pale blue dot

Reveals its part in the ageless cosmos,
offering reason for our standing in awe and reverence
inviting our participation in the process

which lured and shaped its evolution,
an evolution, wherein our existence has purpose

It enters as a pale blue dot

streaking through space at a great rate

joined with galaxy and the solar system.
It loops around the sun.
It moves through sunlight, around and around,

An evolution of revolutions and revelations

It enters as a pale blue dot

north to south to north It spins, wobbles, and tilts…

a wonderful moving kaleidoscope. earth.
Our world.
And this world invites our endless wonder.

an evolution of call, insistence and beauty.


“Everything in the universe is related.  Can you feel that umbilical cord to the  cosmos?  Can you feel the strands of connectedness – the interpendent web – of all existence, even with all human beings?” writes Mary Louise DeWolf in her 2008 Evolution Sunday sermon (DeWolf 2008).

When it comes to valuing the past ideas we have proposed as human beings we have to see that “The traditional model of life with God as king and ruler, described as omnipotent, sustaining the world’s development through pre-programed attributes, and 
intervening miraculously from the outside when and wherever, is “less and less seriously imaginable” (Johnson 2007:291).

On the other hand, Alfred North Whitehead, the Anglo-American process philosopher and mathematician, describes life as an adventure.  He felt that: “novelty and surprise made life interesting.  The open-endedness of life provides opportunities for the exercise of creative freedom, which gives life meaning” (Christ 2003:171).

I agree with him and that is why at the beginning of every service I write the threefold statement is the prelude.

In honouring the mind, we begin the journey toward Christian wholeness with a life-changing recognition of the power of one’s own choices.”, In “Living the Questions we are revisiting the questions to apply them to the Christian present and increasing the measure of freedom so that one can live more fully. And in “Exploring the adventure of Humanity we are about enjoying an unshakable Christian love, walking with confidence into the future and doing it in divine intimacy.

That is also why I have encouraged the celebration of Evolution Sunday, for some years now. It is also why I continue to:

• think of God as the creative process or ‘serendipitous creating’, rather than a being who creates and watches, and

• search for non-personal metaphors and verb-like descriptions for God rather than personal, anthropocentric ones. My theology of ‘Almost’ in my book summarizes this exploration.

As contemporary progressive theology reminds us time and time again, G-o-d or the Sacred does not reside in some other place called ‘heaven’. Nor is heaven our goal.  The world is our true home. Indeed, our only home. It is our co-creation that we participate in and that is a responsible co-activity we are responsible for.

“This life is meant to be enjoyed,” writes Carol Christ. and “To enjoy life is to cherish the beauty of each living thing, to be interested in diversity and difference in the web of life…”  (Christ 2003:116).

So, we can say that we read the story of the one who renders impotent the power of dirt
to keep the ‘unclean’ outside the human community… And we share in that activity with the Cosmic Christ. And the story of the ones who discovered the whole universe is alive and changing, continually, enables us to see what that means for us today and that the novelty and surprise of evolving makes life interesting, rich and purposeful.

As McIntosh writes: “When we begin to appreciate evolutions larger meaning, this does not replace or invalidate the teachings of existing spiritual tradition; rather it it conforms much of what these traditions have been teaching all along, while also refining and improving their essential message.”

I think that’s important why a sermon that claims our task as a ‘Cantor’ of the universe is important for an evolutionary life. Amen.