Luke 14: 25-33

Recognizing the Sacred Where We Are.

Understanding the background and culture of Jesus is very important when we come across stories such as those we have today. How else can we understand Jesus’ comment that his followers must ‘hate’, or more accurately, ‘detach oneself from’, their immediate family members!

On the surface it offends against all the values most people hold dear. But Luke the storyteller has Jesus employing a common rhetorical devise, used by many of the wisdom sages of the day. An approach which would be familiar, even if offensive, to the audience.

And which should also be familiar to us in our 21st century world, brought up on the politician’s speeches and promises during election time!

What do I mean by politician’s speeches? Well first of all they have an undisclosed purpose, an agenda and that is to engender support for a cause, usually the acquiring of enough votes to achieve an appointment. And the second is to get people to like them, agree with them or at least think they know what they are talking about and know what they are doing. Thirdly they are intent on getting their message out as quickly and with maximum impact. Fourthly they want to be seen to give equal measure to empathy, warmth and authority. They want to be seen to be good human beings who people can trust with decisions that effect their lives. Fifthly they want stay in control of this process and they want to exude confidence so that when people are not sure they will place their doubt in the hands of the politician. Sixthly they use repetition to emphasis the points in their speech that they believe will maintain all of the above by keeping it in front of the listener. Seventh, they will link their concerns and issues and points of view to great orators of the past. Biblical quotes do this well.

At one level this seems overly manipulative and even deceitful but it is an acceptable practice in many fields of public discourse. The difference comes when the purpose becomes distorted by the search for personal power. Its here that the fake news label begins. Any commitment to outcomes gets swallowed up by being able to hold ion to power in the face of a lie that got one there. Truth becomes expendable as a part of the power game.

Of course, I am not saying that this game with truth and power has become part of the Gospel but what I am saying is that the literary structures are used by Luke and Luke has Jesus using extremes of language to make a so-called ‘point’. For the object of his concern is, according to William Loader, family power. “Family power and control which will not be released from its womb, but has become a cage, a prison, but more often a comfortable and secure place in which to turn aside from one’s potential and the world’s challenge” (WLoader Web site 2004).

One could suggest at great risk that a blanket policy of returning uplifted children to their families is a requirement that should be occurring but what about when the family is the worst place that child might be? I can use the family idea to gain political support while a child’s life might be at risk if it returns to the family house, Note I said house and not home for a reason.

And Bill Loader goes on: “The voice of Jesus articulates human need…  and calls people to discipleship.  Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth with Jesus as the teacher and God as God, not family” (WLoader Web site 2004).

It might be hard to imagine but, in a society, where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Luke’s Jesus is therefore radical in saying that “hatred of family is a condition of discipleship…  Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core” (Funk & Hoover 1993:353).

So… responding to a possible life-threatening situation for his own small community, Luke the storyteller weaves together a collection of sage-type sayings… Some probably said by the sage Jesus. Some most likely said by other sages. Luke weaves them together and places them before his community with this challenge: to be a disciple of Jesus one must be willing to let go of what one values most – family, possessions, even one’s own life. And I am not suggesting he is saying commit suicide or seek martyrdom. Let go… …. of being possessed by them.  Something else is at stake. Luke seems clear in his mind: let go and be a disciple rather than just a supporter or admirer without critique.

Rex Hunt tells a story that sounded interesting to me on this point about discipleship. The story is that; Clarence Jordan, of Cotton Patch Bible fame, was born in 1912 in west central Georgia, USA, into a race dominated society.

As a young man he became intensely aware of the radical kind of following that is demanded in the Sermon on the Mount. This changed his view on the racial divisions in the American society for good. In 1942 Clarence and his wife established the ‘Koinonia’ farm. A place where people of all races could be taught productive farming. The fact there was a considerable number of African-American people present… And that everyone there joined around a common table… was something the wider community objected against, right from the beginning. The opposition against his venture grew. They were accused of being ‘communists’, ‘race-mixers’, and of threatening the security of their community.

In 1956, threatening phone calls began. Soon the persecution took the form of bombings, shootings at their houses, building-burnings, economic boycotts, and harassment from the infamous KKK. In the early 1950s, it is told, Clarence approached his brother, Robert Jordan, later a state senator and justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, asking him to represent Koinonia farms legally. “Clarence”, Said Robert’ I can’t do that.  “You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got”. “We might lose everything too, Bob.” Said Clarence. “It’s different for you.” Said Robert. “Why is it different?  I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. “I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question, he did you. “He asked me: ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’ And I said: ‘Yes’.  What did you say?” “I follow Jesus, Clarence, – up to a point.” Said Robert. “Could that point by any chance be – the cross?” said Clarence. “That’s right.  I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.” “Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple.  Said Clarence, “You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.” “Well now, said Robert, “if everyone who felt like I do, did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?” “The question,” Clarence said, “is, do you have a church?” (McClendon 1974:127-128)

Did you recognise the political aspirations, and especially the pious, exhortation language. Is your language a Southern Baptist language? Some of that difference we have wrestled with as Progressive Christians that the cross is about Jesus’ integrity, not sacrificial atonement. That God’s love is not about supernatural payment or rescue, but divine sharing in human suffering. That Jesus did not invite the cross but accepted it rather than abandon his vision or glimpse of what the world can really be like when you look at it with God’s eyes.

But in the spirit of the Clarence Jordan’s story let’s return to some of the theological comment we might have picked up along the way. The call to ‘discipleship’ is a call to be on a journey. It is not about the ‘feel good’, ‘flag waving’, ‘happy-clappy’ overly therapy oriented theologies of much of today’s so-called Pentecostal or charismatic aberrations. And it is a real question for those that are business-oriented models of church not because they are responsible economically but because they are prisoners of the political speak of the day. They do not ask themselves if they are true to purpose as opposed to success at all costs. They are redefining success without critiquing it.

Am I being unfair and claiming my way is better? No, I don’t think so because discipleship is also not about accepting 11th century Archbishop Anselm’s idea of salvation. It’s not about the crucifixion of Jesus being willed by God to save the world because humanity’s sinfulness had dishonoured God (Brock 2010), That idea is now called ‘substitutionary atonement theology’.

Discipleship is about an invitation to be engaged in radical inclusive love, just as the call to be ‘church’ is a call of offer a safe place for some depth of theology and reflection and story. A place to connect with and deepen our contemporary experience of God or ‘the sacred’ in public life. A place where we can practice belonging… practice hospitality practice respect practice humility practice conversation and disagreement (Bessler-Northcutt 2004).

And one of the purposes that seems to have been swallowed up by the pace of social movement and political speak and correctness is that of deepening the experience of God, which is to give disciples like you and me, the courage, the knowledge, the will, to go out among people in our community and encourage them to also recognise ‘the sacred’ where they are.

On the good side of this experience we could say that the attempts at historical justice for abused children, Oranga Tamariki’s attempts to get the protection of children right and the whole ecological green movement is an attempt to care for the planet. To recognise the sacred where we are.

And to return to what some of us followers of the Jesus Way doing as disciples; in April 2010, president of The Centre for Progressive Christianity (USA), Revd. Fred Plumer, said:

“… it is time to publicly reject that whole idea of substitutionary or vicarious Atonement theories and repent for the harm this religious relic has caused over the centuries.

“I have always thought that it was more important for progressive Christians to talk about what we are rather than what we are not.  But I think it is time to publicly repent for the pain and suffering that the whole idea that we as humans are born faulty and unworthy by some vindictive god who demanded that there be some severe punishment to make up for this same god’s mistake.  Therefore, according to creed this God would have to sacrifice his only begotten son, (who is actually himself) to avenge something that really never happened.  Do you have any idea how many people throughout history have suffered in fear, humiliation, doubts, at the hands of sick clergy, mobs, abusive husbands, and anybody into power because of this flawed piece of our theology?  It is way past time to separate ourselves from this delusion to make a clear and public statement for allowing it to go on for so long…

“The atonement story was a myth attached to the Jesus story to give more power to the church and its leadership.  It should never have been there.  But I think if the progressive Christian movement is going to progress, we need to repent for the pain that has caused and clearly separate ourselves from this damaging part of the Christian story.  Simply ignoring it no longer seems like an option.  We need to clean our hard drive of this virus.  And then I have hope that we can experience new life in our progressive churches”.)

My footnote to this is that we need to critique the power of speaking that creates power and control for some and can hide the real issues of justice for those more vulnerable than ourselves. The Jesus Way is the critique the social, religious, economic and political landscape in search of the Way of Love, Justice and Peace. Amen.

Notes:

Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004.  “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in Hoover, R. W. (ed)  The historical Jesus goes to church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Brock, R. N. 2010.  “The question of the cross in ‘Good’ Friday” in The Huffington Post, 3/4/2010.

Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover. 1993.  The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan Publishing.

McClendon, J. W. 1974.  Biography as theology. How life stories can remake today’s theology. TN: Nashville. Abingdon Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

Luke 14:1, 7-14

An Invitation to Creative Interdependence

This week’s lectionary suggests that we cannot thrive, or even survive, without recognizing and acting upon our sense of interdependence with the world around us.  It says that an authentic creation emerges from healthy relatedness, not pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rugged individualism, or them and us, it and me approaches.  In claiming our indebtedness to interdependence and the integrated role of all of us, including and perhaps most especially our understanding of God, our successes at this interdependence role will benefit our families, friends, and social order.  We will put the “law of love” above the “law of self” and discover a world of constant opportunity to see holiness everywhere, and welcome angels in every encounter.

A Father’s Day connection might be that Jeremiah describes the interplay of divine anger and grief.  In words that are almost too human, Jeremiah’s God expresses disbelief that the nation has turned from the divine to follow gods of their own making.  Moreover, they have not only abandoned their loving and protective parent, they have come to believe that they can go it alone without the help of the one who brought them into existence.  They have forgotten the heritage of grace and intimacy, choosing self-reliance and personal and national autonomy over divine-human interdependence.

As a parent and grandparent, the behaviour of Israel reminds us of a toddler who says “I don’t want you” to a parent even though her or his survival and nurture depends on the parent’s love, or a teenager who boldly rebels against his or her parents, proclaiming her or his freedom while using the parents’ financial credit cards and tuition payments.  We know that differentiation is essential to growth, and that interdependence rather than absolute independence or utter dependence is what we seek.  God wants Israel to grow up and become an agent in its own economic and political well-being; but God also knows that healthy growth depends on recognizing the source of your survival and the gifts that enable you to be creative. The oceans are part of how we survive as a species. We are interdependent even though we cannot breathe underwater without artificial means.

The heavens cry out against our worship of false gods, idols of our own making.  Following penultimate realities rather than the ultimate reality says Paul Tillich, eventually leads to personal and corporate destruction.

Freedom and creativity find their fulfillment in the affirmation of our connectedness and dependence on realities beyond us, most especially the intimate yet uncontrollable reality of that which we name God. Economics, politics, religious life, and relationships lived without an affirmation of interdependence and recognition of what we call divine movement in all things, including our own achievements, leads to political and institutional gridlock, social chaos, and planetary destruction.  But the antidote is not a return to passivity before God and others, it’s not about pushing God into some metaphysical form out there above it all. It’s not about forfeiting our divinely-given agency, nor is it about a radical individualism, that takes no account of the role of that which we name God or others in our own creativity and largesse, but rather a creative interplay of gratitude and agency, responsibility and receptivity, and creativity and community.

Psalm 81 continues this theme of divine-human interdependence.  When we turn from God individually or corporately, there are negative consequences.  When we forget that we are part of nature, sharing the Earth with other non-human animals, we reap the whirlwind of ecological destruction and put ourselves, our children, and planetary future at risk.  Still, and here’s the rub. This God is always willing to welcome us home to a great feast, the feast of abundant living in relationship with creation, both human and non-human. Evolution, progression, hope and grace all suggest the invitation is always there.

The reading from Hebrews describes a lifestyle of spiritual interdependence and awareness.  The reading suggests a way of life in which we attend to God’s presence in every relationship.  Every moment can be a divine encounter.  Marriage, conversation, and yes, even business are holy enterprises, challenging us to integrity in everyday life. We may be entertaining angels in disguise, and this reality calls us to treat everyone as an angel in the making. This is also the only way we can discern their value.

Imagine living as if the people you encounter are messengers from God, imagine if everyone is the image of ‘The Christ’ the source of insight and wisdom and the invitation to generosity and care.  How would your life change if you saw every encounter charged with “God’s grandeur?”

Jesus’ “parable” in Luke, highlights relationships and interdependence.  It says that humility is essential in healthy human relationships.  The issue is not that of disgrace if you are told to move to a lesser seat, but the willingness to see yourself in relationship with others, not as special and unique but part of the fabric of human interdependence.  The affluent are often described as “job creators” and given special privileges, unavailable to their employees or the unemployed. They are seen as the few who own everything yet as important as successful business leadership is, no one can be a job creator without employees and customers. Interdependence is the arbiter of justice and ultimately of success.

In the realm of God, the playing field is leveled economically, relationally, and spiritually.  No one has the upper hand, and although some persons may be more successful economically or more awakened spiritually, our growth and success is relational as well as individual.  Our place in society or spiritual leadership depends on the efforts and affirmation of others, and when the interdependence breaks down so does the whole of creation.

Jesus continues the conversation by counseling that we welcome persons who cannot apparently benefit us.  The realm of nuisances and nobodies says, John Dominic Crossan, is also essential to our well-being: we are connected and their achievement and self-affirmation is part of our spiritual evolution and personal growth.  Small encounters, performed with a sense of grace and care, can transform peoples’ lives and inspire them to spiritual transformation.

These stories are implicitly political and economic.   They challenge extreme self-made individualism and the libertarianism of our time.  They reveal the hidden atheism of economics without ethics as inadequate and they challenge the governmental politics that abandon vulnerable members of our society.  In their communitarian approach, these scriptures remind us that achievement depends on the interplay of choice and circumstance, and that we are called to provide a healthy environment, grounded in relational values, to encourage everyone to embrace her or his identity as a beloved child of the divine.   While good choices are not guaranteed by the support of our community, a community that cares for its children and vulnerable members creates a tipping point in which people are more likely to be generous than self-interested and creative than passive.

Another way of saying this might be to speak of a new ‘empire’ protocol. Where the normal order of things is reversed: the exalted are humbled and the humble are exalted, the first are last, and the last are first. Sound familiar? This is subversive wisdom from a radical Jesus inviting us to see the alternative, turn things upside down. And that’s one of the shocks in this story today. There are others like eating together and sharing food “in a society constantly threatened by hunger and famine” (Scott 2001:129). This meant that that it was often a competition just to be at the table. And those who run empires, be they the Roman empire or the New Zealand or the empire of China, or the USA, know it is better for people to compete against each other than it is for people to co-operate together. Competition divides allowing weaknesses to emerge and by used.  Co-operation unites. Its strong and cannot be divided.

So once again we hear the radical Jesus behind Luke’s Jesus. Share.  Don’t hoard.  Co-operate.  Be more interdependent and imagine the results. Of an abundant and more holistic and sacred world. A radical Jesus who can become loaded with a heap of emotional garbage. A radical who’s revolt takes on a special form.  “He revolts in parable” says Brandon Scott.  He says: “I see no evidence that Jesus was leading a political revolution or that he had a social program in mind. He clearly affected the lives of people, but he was not a social organizer or activist” (Scott 2001:138).

He revolts in story – especially in that special story called parable. His language suggests a counter-world, a hoped-for world “that redresses the world as it is and… makes sense”. (Scott 2001:140). Let me repeat that.  Re-imagines a counter world that makes sense. That’s what people said about the vision of religion suggested by Bishop Jack Spong, and turned out in their thousands to hear him. That’s what people say about proposals to lessen greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, or remove pollution from all our waterways.

That it makes sense!

Of-course not everyone agrees on any of these issues and that’s a reality. So, ultimately it all comes down to one simple invitation: gather at the table, explore the communal, be together on the journey have faith with Jesus rather than faith in Jesus.

Again, Brandon Scott is helpful, on this radical statement: “In the re-imagined world of the parables we stand beside Jesus and trust that his world will work, that it can provide the safe place – the empire of God – that resists all other empires.  Jesus is our companion on the journey, not our Lord and Master… Like Jesus we can be faithful to the vision of the parable” (Scott 2001:149). Faithful to the re-imagined vision of the story. With Jesus. Amen.

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

rexae74@gmail.com

Beyond the Rules

Posted: August 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 11C, 2019
Luke 13: 10-17

Beyond the Rules…

What does it mean to be a Protestant in 2019? We have a few years under the belt now that suggests being a protestant was being a non-Roman Catholic but is it still that? I don’t think it does, in that it has to be said that the difference between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant is no longer as cut and dried. Even the recent Popes have had to rethink what it means to be a Christian in today’s world and it has to be said that in almost every congregation there would be such diversity of theology that it is hard to distinguish what the differences are. Sure, the practice, the way we do things, still has some difference but essentially in terms of theology, and belief there is little difference. We might all be confused or alternatively more divers in our thinking. This is a remarkable shift given that it is only a little more than 500 years since the Protestant Way emerged. There is however one difference still evident and that is that to be Protestant is to protest, even if many protestants don’t do it. I would suggest that just as there was a need for Luther to challenge his church and to challenge what would have been considered fundamental truths there is the same need today. Like the Roman Catholic Church in those times the institutional church today is in need of revolution, and like then I think it is in the areas of belief and practice, not in the sense of the previous practice being wrong but, rather, in its need to be relevant in its engagement with culture and human need. The need to be contextual is today a world of huge diversity and of rapid change.

In terms of human need I suggest that our cosmic beliefs and our ecological practices need to be spoken to, spoken for and critiqued with our theological, justice and peacemaking beliefs and practices. As I indicated last week, we cannot be moderate’s any more. We need to be protestants again, We need to provide some resistance to the injustice of today. The ecocide that is evident, the apathetic approach to responsible management of the planet needs the resistance of protest. One might even say that the current mess in Hong Kong is a very good example of the breakdown in our society and this need. Is it appropriate for a dominant ordering institutional ideological and political evolution and practice? Is it that expectations have not been heeded and protest without transformation is doomed to be squashed by superior powers? In the end will justice suffer at the hands of might. I think this sort of resistance is risky today because it can very easily be sidelined by political propaganda paid for by the mighty, but then again it might sew some seeds of change in the way that power is applied.

When we think about this in terms of being religious protestant we acknowledge that resistance of injustice as a response to God’s “justification by grace through faith” sparked the Protestant movement in 1517, and such a commitment to protest continued to function as a foundational and prominent organizational tactic. For example, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 – essentially an imperial parliament – the established order sought to reduce conflict by suspending the 1521 Edict of Worms, which had declared Luther as a heretic and banned his writings. Many Lutherans interpreted the 1526 decree as a victory, but after the Emperor annulled the Diet’s decision of 1526, in 1529 a group of princes and representatives refused to accept the imperial revocation. What was significant in that earlier time was that those allied with the new resistance movement, refusing to be bound by worldly authorities, became known as “Protestants”.

When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a “supreme power” that is destroying “true religion”, may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience.

Protestant meant those who protest matters of faith and those matters of faith were about the wellbeing of society, and that wellbeing was dependent upon faith.

Looking back, we see that while also filled with its own errors and abuses, Protestantism served an important and positive social function and has done so for hundreds of years, both religiously and politically, by advocating for systems and structures that resist various manifestations of tyranny and promote diverse expressions of freedom. The question being asked by such protest as that in Hong Kong is not should one protest; but rather, does protest still have a place and if so, what form does that protest take.

There are currently hundreds of millions of Protestants in the world let alone those Catholics who question the power of the institution. These children of the Reformation possess the capacity to spark massive and life-giving social change if somehow united and organized. While there are clear and often conflicting variations in theological and political belief, that which does bind Protestants together, is a common heritage of responding to God’s grace with protest against injustice.

This commitment to personal and public renewal is meant to benefit all people of good will, regardless of religious and political identity. So, the question becomes: When existing authorities seek to reduce ethical constraints, misappropriate funds for personal gain, legitimize lies, and establish forms of hierarchical rule that exploit and conquer through dishonourable policies, will Protestants honour their heritage and serve their prophetic vocation in society? Five-hundred years after Luther bravely protested as an expression of faith, will the caretakers of his legacy now allow a world order that is defined by division and manipulation of that diversity? Will Protestants be seduced by apathy and complexity and by a debilitating use of difference as a tool for the wealthy, the politically manipulative dominant malaise of our day and age? Or will we instead resolve to “bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”?

In religion, politics, education, economics, and countless other facets of life, the mass protests of 1517 had a dramatic impact upon the past 500 years. This is most certainly true. Whether or not Protestants accept the responsibility of resistance in 2019 may define the next 500 years. Can those of us who still dare to identify as Protestant, take comfort in the belief that God will love and forgive us regardless of what we do. This will require courage, determination and long term thinking for those of us Protestants who also still dare to call ourselves citizens, because we know that history may not be so gracious.

On the other side, the power of Protestantism has seen a change in the attitude toward War. Global strategies for world war will not be easy to implement other than by use of massive destructive weapons by a few. The idea that huge numbers of people can be motivated to join a cause for war is thankfully more remote than it was. During the late 1960s, many university students, sat in the gutters and registered their protest against the Vietnam War. Many of us can remember the controversy which such actions aroused. Many of us hear of the Vietnam vets and the treatment they received because of what that war did to them and to others. It was seen as a war of the ego for some. I can remember at the time being confused. Being anti the protestors as well as for them. There were those who cheered any effort, no matter what form the protest took. There were those who were more cautiously behind the principles of anti-war, but who were totally opposed to the demonstrations because they were illegal. Not unlike the Springbok tour in NZ and the advent of the Cavaliers rugby team. All silenced perhaps by the rise of Mandala. There were all shades of opinion in between. Many people in the time of the Vietnam War fell into the category, of those who thought they might be opposed to the war, but who were horrified by the actions of the demonstrators. Nobody, they said, especially not students, should consider themselves above the law. Action was OK, but should always be within the law. Similar things were said during the demonstrations against the war in Iraq. Similar thoughts are being expressed about Hong Kong today.

 

The truth is that whenever so-called ‘illegal actions’ have been taken to heighten the consciousness of the general public towards a particular issue, there has been controversy. And in today’s traditional gospel story by the anonymous storyteller we call Luke, we find an imaginative, rather than an historical story, of Jesus supposedly breaking the law. Luke says Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when he saw a ‘bent-over’ woman, and he immediately stopped what he was doing, called the woman, and heals her. We have heard this story many times in our life-time, but can we imagine the woman in this story.

 

One reflection on this story goes like this. “18 years she had been growing smaller, into herself, face down, 18 years she had been bound by this spirit and made quite unable to stand up.  And here she was, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, bent and all, but close enough to the front to catch his eye. “She must have longed for something, otherwise she would not have come, would not have tried, would not have risked meeting the eyes of this man.  Was there still hope in her somewhere?  A tiny wisp of a hope, that could have been blown away very easily?  Was there still the un- bendable conviction that somehow she was worth more than being the woman weighed down by sorrow and pain?” Then the words, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment’.

 

The reflection continues; “What did those words, those hands do?  Did they awaken anger and revolt in her that had been slumbering inside her all along?  Or did they make a jolt of electric energy course through her, making her, suddenly, realise that she was alive and that she wanted to live… tall?… What was it? “Was it a coaxing ‘you can do it’ or was it a commanding ‘come on woman, get yourself together’ type of statement that made something inside her decide that it had been enough, that she would stand tall, that she would unfold herself, unbend and open herself to him and to the world?

 

Luke’s story says the leader of the synagogue was indignant, and has him rebuking Jesus for healing her, against the Law, on the Sabbath. Overhearing such a rebuke did it tempt the woman, urge her, “to roll up in a tight ball again…

 

What is so threatening about her?  Is it the tales she might tell or is it the eyes they don’t want to meet because they know what bent her in the first place?…

 

“How did the people around her react to the look in her eyes, the tallness that suddenly stood over them, the power and strength that seemed to ooze out from somewhere deep inside her.  Did they like the new woman?  Or would they have preferred the curled up version?

 

Luke continues to craft his story by having Jesus respond to the leader’s complaints by attacking. The story’s crowds and Luke’s congregation, would have been delighted. There’s nothing people enjoy more than seeing a pompous and pious official put in their place. But the untold bit of this story is: Jesus gained another enemy. For virtuous public officials don’t take kindly to being humiliated. And Luke weaves this clue into another story later on.

 

What statement was Luke intending Jesus to make by his actions in this story? That people are always more important than the law? That if through the application of the law some innocent human being comes in for unnecessarily harsh treatment, then that law should be ignored? Is this a call for protest? Perhaps too he was saying something about the interpretation of law. That laws are often capable of wide interpretation, and should always be interpreted for the good of individuals. Is this a call for protest?

 

Here’s the point, for my title of ‘Beyond the rules’… Despite all the hoo-har often reported in the media, being a follower of Jesus, walking the Jesus Way isn’t about keeping the rules, not the moral rules, not the so-called biblical rules… It works in a totally different ball-park. It’s about giving of oneself in love and compassion, and if that challenges someone else’s rules, go with the love and break the rules. It’s about risking oneself and one’s reputation, if that should become necessary. It’s about standing up for people, even if the rules sometimes condemn those people. The most powerful and life-giving action Jesus took was to give the ‘bent-over’ woman a new sense of who she was. After years of being beaten down with the belief that she was of no value, Jesus affirms her whole sense of being. What a gift! What a ‘miracle’! But I wonder if our storyteller called Luke also went on to re-imagine the woman.

 

In his storyteller’s heart, did she also discover “that once you have started to unfurl, once you have set foot on the path of healing there is no way back and there is no stopping either. It will protest, it will fight itself free, rip things open, tear the bonds asunder, and it will hurt?” Amen.

rexae74@gmail.com 2007).

 

Luke 12:49-56

‘Why I Have Difficulty Being A Moderate Christian’…

It was a challenge to hear that being a moderate Christian was providing the context for biblical literalism and violence, because I thought being balanced in everything meant being a moderate. I struggled to get my head around how being balanced was an act of violence.

Sam Harris in his book ‘End of Faith; said that; “The greatest problem facing civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.  I read ‘not merely; to mean that while extremism is indicative of or the outcome of, the conflict, moderate Christian’s like I liked to think of myself as are responsible for the conflict. He said that Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed”. He names scriptural literalism as the prison of non-violence. Violence cannot be eradicated because moderates allow literalism and the violence it perpetuates to exist. Pretty harsh and directed words for a moderate to hear.

I want to suggest that they are harsh words to hear in the face of our text for today also. Our challenge here is to hear what the text is saying to us and to resist the easy acceptance of a literalist reading. Listen again to the text as found in the New RSV and this time try to see it the writer taking the place of God making sense of an intimate involvement in peoples lives as well as acknowledging that life is always complex, never black and white and filled with opportunities to get it wrong as well as get it right. Imagine the text being heard in a patriarchal tribalistic, familial cultural environment and add in to that context a people who have long been and constantly are slaves, citizens and survivors of an oppressed and conquered world.

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so, it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

It is a bit of a shock when we read these words because this isn’t the gentle and long-suffering and peaceful and approachable Jesus many of us have traditionally come to expect. This sounds like a harsh, despairing outburst from someone near the end of his tether. And now having heard this story again, I feel somewhat anxious, about preaching from it, because it paints such a dark picture, and because history has proved it true in so many ways.

Let’s take the ‘peace and conflict’ bit of the story. And let’s take a look at it from what could be said to be a not- literalist view and what I want to call a radical non-orthodox view. The scholars belonging to the Jesus Seminar write in their notes on this story: “Jesus is the kind of sage that did introduce new thinking into family relationships, for example, in his suggestion that followers should forgo obligations to parents in order to become disciples” (Funk & Hoover 1993:343).

While, West Australian theologian Bill Loader says: “This is not a text one would choose for a sermon on ecumenism…”. But Loader is not finished.  He goes on: “…or is it?  He suggests that ‘Harmony’ is one of those soft words which people sometimes use to plea for peace.  The danger here is that the peace they mean is often a shallow calm of suppressed fears and conflicts and we are well aware that such suppressed issues are bound to emerge from under their marshmallow captivity.  Orderliness and harmony were great Stoic themes.  At worst it meant everyone in their place, an unchanged and unchanging status quo.  Sadly, for many people Christian peace is still seen as that kind of harmony, if not achievable outwardly, then at least achievable inwardly.  The gospel then takes up its stall beside all the others offering serenity of life and ‘feel good’ spiritualities” (Loader web site, 8/2010). That has to be a challenge to being moderate surely?

History says that religion has been the cause of many wars and conflicts, and has divided families. In Northern Ireland, such conflict has a long history and we sense that it lies close to the surface still. And yet in another way we can find this story from Luke comforting. Comforting that Jesus not only knew what stress was, Comforting, too, in that he responded to it in exactly the way human beings have always responded to it.

Despite his regular habit of going into lonely places to pray and to restore his own space and equilibrium, he still experienced stress and tiredness and perhaps a degree of depression, and he reacted to it.

Some of us find these words difficult to hear… Because being Christian is a Way of living that offers freedom from, power over and space for peace, and comfort and we often tend to see Jesus as not really a real human and so it isn’t always easy to realise how his chosen way of action, must have got Jesus down at times.

Very often we can think of Jesus as some sort of superhuman being. But here in today’s story is a very human glimpse of a very human being. Someone who’s exhausted, frustrated, and who suddenly erupts in an angry outburst. Even if it is a fictional story made up by the story-teller we call Luke, it makes sense. We know in our bones that the world we live in, like the so-called ‘biblical’ world of the prophets and apostles, can be an angry and violent one. Moreover, our world at the moment, it seems, is one that is rocked with religious violence. We have moved from nations pitted against nations to now include isolated yet persistent violence in the name of causes with underlying or over-arching religious tone. People bomb and kill other people all in the name of God, and we are now stretching what we mean by the name of God.

And while much of the present religious violence that catches the media’s attention might seem to be acts of terrorists claiming to be Muslim, we know that naming them thus raises the fact that Christianity also has a tradition of violence against others (infidels, heretics) all in the name of God. We now have debates about the moderate position taking place in the form of deliberations about the meaning of words and when is violence and what do we mean by Muslim of Christian? One wonders if we are seeking to find the extremist to blame it on rather than how to make peace?

Susan Nelson on her web site asks an important question when she says “Is there something in our religious traditions that encourages acts of violence? (SNelson. P&Fweb site,12/2003) Do we really want to think, for instance, that it was God’s will for hundreds of people to die in bomb explosions? We might ask the same question of the Christchurch Mosque attack. Even though we may interpret these as acts of violence, and wake up calls for Western Christians to confess their responsibility in the miseries of the world, do we really want to say this violence is from God? Do we need to have the violence of God in order to hear the ‘good news’?

Does it make any difference if the ‘fire’ or ‘conflict’, is for the so-called ‘bad people’ rather than the so-called ‘good people? Or can the ‘good news’ itself be a lure to see the inadequacy of our ways, whatever they are, and change them? Continuing the questions of Susan Nelson, fellow process theologian Rick Marshall, asks: “Why do many Christians, pastors, and churches support the use of violence?” Why indeed!  Marshall goes on: “… is it that the King of Peace is not as appealing as a King of War who uses coercion and violence, revenge and retribution to do God’s will?  Maybe the image of Jesus the Messiah embodying persuasive power is not ‘strong enough.’ I and John D Caputo would agree here and suggest that the problem might be with the so called ‘strong omnipotent interventionist, in control, God to start with and the weak God that is found in the ‘perhaps’ or the ‘almost’, the ‘yet to be’ and ‘uncompleted’ God is an approach free of the dangers of extremism and the apathy inherent in the moderate approach. Being confident of God as a weak vulnerable God cannot be a perpetrator of violence.

And then we move to the important issue of ‘power’: “The fundamental issue here is raised by the question: What kind of power does God have?  Is it coercive and manipulative, or persuasive and loving? Does it generate compassion or a need for survival? Is it like imposed social engineering and thus coercive or is it an enticing invitation to participate? Another, important question is this: What kind of power should the church emulate, embody, and deploy in service of the Kingdom of God?  Another question: What does it mean to win or conquer?” .(RMarshall.P&Fweb site,8/2010)

We don’t need to be university historians to know of the triumphal Christian church behind Constantine’s sword “the bloody Crusades in which Roman Catholics slaughtered Orthodox Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the use of Christian just war doctrine to rationalize countless conflagrations, including [politicians] justifications of the war in Iraq” (McLennan 2009:115-16).

So how can we hear the words of Luke’s Jesus, today. Perhaps a couple of suggestions.

Like my response to a question about different Christian denominations recently, firstly, we need to hear them in context. And that context seems to have been an expectation, wrongly, that the world was coming to an imminent end.

So, people were required to live ‘in the proper way’ even when parents or friends or one’s spouse may have held a different religious orientation. Second, we need to hear these words within the dominant Jesus message, usually summed up in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. Third, we can listen to the critics of religion.  And listen well

Sam Harris says there is ‘good religion’.  He writes: “We must find ways to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death – without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality…  Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways.” (Harris 2006:88, 90).

Meanwhile theologian Sallie McFague in her book Models of God, has suggested that each age must look at how its images for God, function. And if some images work for death, it is appropriate, even necessary, to find the new ones that work for life.  All of life.

One might say that the omnipotent, interventionist all powerful, almighty God needs to become the God who is imagination, creativity, energy, insistence, ambiguity, vulnerability etc. is more attuned to a God that is love than a right, powerful overlord is.

To sound like an old academic, I might suggest that thinking theologically might help, so long as thinking theologically means more than just interpreting our given ‘orthodox’ biblical tradition and creedal statements. It also means being willing to think differently now than in the past. We are beyond acceptance and deconstruction. We are now in the reconstruction phase which is not about just restating with old words.

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

May those who are moderates have the courage to go on that (reconstruction) journey.

Amen.

Notes:
Harris, S. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York. A. A. Knopf, 2006.
Harris, S. The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New York. W. W. Norton, 2004.
Wm Loader. “First thoughts… Pentecost 12C”.  http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkPentecost12.htm
McFague, S. Models of God. Theology for an ecological nuclear age. London. SCM Press, 1987.
McLennan. S. Jesus was a Liberal. Reclaiming christianity for all. New York. Palgrave/Mavmillan, 2009.
Rick Marshall.   < http://www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/YearC/2009-2010/2010-08-15.shtml&gt;
Susan Nelson.  <www.processandfaith.org/lectionary/Year

Caputo, John D, The Insistence of God A Theology of Perhaps Indiana University Press 2013

rexae74@gmail.com

What Are You Afraid Of?

Posted: August 6, 2019 in Uncategorized

What Are You Afraid Of?

Isaiah 1: 1, 10-20       Luke 12: 32-40

 Today’s readings describe what seems impossible possibilities. Hope amidst hopelessness, a life of love that rebuffs a life of fear.  Isaiah challenges the people to go from apathy to awareness and transform their worship from ritual to justice-seeking.  Hebrews tells the story of Abraham and Sarah following God’s promises that, although they are childless, they will become the parents of a nation.  Jesus asks his followers to stay awake in every season of life, and sell their possessions to have resources to give to the poor.

In other words and perhaps with a bigger vision of life Isaiah challenges us to explore a holistic spirituality.  Prayer and praise are important as is living through the liturgical year, but our most dynamic worship is fruitless if we turn our back on the poor.  Holistic worship is concrete, and seeks to love God by loving creation, including both the non-human and human world.  All worship must be grounded in grace but inspire prophetic action.  The meaning of “prophetic” will differ from community to community and congregation to congregation.  Still, it must touch base with the real suffering in our neighbourhood and the world around us.  The challenge is to become aware that sadly, too much worship implicitly supports injustice and ecocide by its apathy.  If our hymns and our words, drown out the cries of the poor, we are likely to experience a famine on hearing the divine word, despite our apparent piety.

The Epistle to the Hebrews portrays Abraham and Sarah’s faith as involving trusting God with the unseen and unknown.  They launch out – you might say recklessly – with no promises and few guarantees.  They don’t even know where they are going.  This foolish faith is an anathema to those who consult Google Earth or set their GPS for a five mile drive toward somewhere new. The narrative of Abraham and Sarah invites us to be risk takers, willing to go forth with only a dream to guide us toward God’s far horizons. Do not be afraid. This elderly couple gives up everything secure to follow a promise.  By comparison, most us are far too prudent and careful.  Many of us will take solace in an interventionist God and leave it alone as magic. At the very least, we need to consider becoming prudent risk takers, open to setting aside certainty to follow the divine call.

And, then, there’s Jesus.  It’s all about our personal and communal treasures.  What is truly most important to us?  Are we willing to let go of everything to do the great work God calls us toward?  Jesus promises a realm that is unending and with a new definition of satisfying.  Entry into this realm, however, requires attentiveness, willingness to launch out on a moment’s notice, and the possibility that we have to become downwardly mobile for the sake of following this vision.  Look out for fear though because we will very likely feel conflicted as we read Jesus’ admonition.  We want enough security in this lifetime and we have obligations to family, congregations, and institutions.  If we join the way of Jesus, we may have to get up and go to respond.

I don’t know what this is saying to you but for me it says I am not off the hook, and I too need to confront my own desire for security – financial, vocational, doctrinal, and liturgical, first, and I need to do this before placing undue burdens on anyone else.  For starters, this text – and the others – calls for an examination of conscience to determine what is truly important to us.  The hour and moment of this opportunity’s coming may or may not conflict with our other responsibilities.  It may not represent a sharp break, but it will call us to perceive our responsibilities from a different perspective.  The homeless and hungry must simply wait for any direct or indirect action on our part.  Choices must be made moment by moment and fidelity may involve caring for our families first and insuring their well-being before putting ourselves at risk or devoting hours and days to a cause in our community.  The issue is not one of “either-or” but God’s call in the moment, given our various responsibilities and personal gifts. Here is Luke’s Jesus saying ‘do not be afraid’ as introduction to the good news.

He has a habit of prefacing good news with the exhortation “Do not be afraid.” This seems a bit odd since we’re more likely to think that it’s the delivery of bad news which requires a little no-fear pep talk. But over and over Luke’s pronouncements about God’s generous ways of working in the world—about the good news of the kingdom—are preceded by the words “Do not be afraid”: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.”
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”

In this week’s reading from Luke 12, it’s Jesus, who says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

We are immediately left with the question: Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so good? Well! perhaps it’s because Luke knows that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, and we often prefer our old, familiar, certain ways. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth. This is what advertising is based on, our feel-good factor. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future. It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again.

The book of Isaiah opens with dire warnings for those unwilling to do this, those caught up in empty ritual —“solemn assemblies with iniquity”—whose “hands are full of blood.” Here we can perhaps make something of a connection between fear and violence. Luke’s repetitive, rhetorical preface to the gospel’s good news — “Do not be afraid”—reminds us that fear, unchecked, can lead to the worst forms of oppression, intimidation, and brutality.

The prophet Isaiah tells the people that such evil is at work “even though you make many prayers.” On behalf of Yahweh he gives the necessary instructions: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

But wait a minute! The, people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. Maybe its too easy for us to see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. But can we recognize our own?

The grace that God offers—evident in Isaiah and in Luke—is that judgment is always tempered with mercy. We need not fear because the One who speaks to his “little flock” is the Shepherd who guides and feeds, who leads and supplies, giving us all that we need to bear witness to the kingdom. He tells us to “be dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.” 

That words Do not be afraid remind us that the words that startle and unsettle us need to be taken seriously, not run away from or denied by fooling ourselves. Isaiah wasn’t kidding around and neither was Jesus. The good news of God’s way of working in the world is also disturbing news. But the words need not undo us. Do not be afraid. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

But let’s not start to chastise ourselves here by admitting we will never quite make this required transition in our lives. The truth is that we are not all social activists or prophets, and yet we must insure that our faith communities are not apathetic when it comes to the well-being of our community’s, nation’s, and planet’s most vulnerable citizens.  At the very least, we all need to be pastoral prophets, caring first, but also challenging. We must be willing to balance care for our family, the health of our communities, and social concern.  The task isn’t easy; if the world is saved one person at a time, we must hold all these callings in contrast, putting some ahead of others and then placing the calling of one moment in the background when other callings appear.  Sometimes we must care for our own grandchildren before other peoples’ children, but our love for our own family eventually must bear fruit in seeking well-being for the planet’s children.  We are all in this together and even a small act can be catalytic.

Today’s readings remind us to seek God’s realm in and beyond our daily responsibilities, be not afraid, and to consider constantly the need to give up certain types of security to be faithful to God’s presence in the persons in front of us and across the globe.  We may have an uneasy conscience at times and this is good news, be not afraid. It is the uneasiness that invites us to mindfulness and intentionality, and reflection on what is truly important in the course of a day and a lifetime. Amen.

A God of Wrath vs A God of Love?

Hosea 11:1-11 Luke 12: 13-21

Hosea 11: verses 1 to 11 is an Old Testament text that preaches beautifully; full of God’s parental love and patience with a wayward and disobedient child. And we are pretty sure that Hosea was writing from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  We are also of the view that Hosea was writing from Israel after the split between the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  The Assyrian empire was invading and much of Hosea’s prophecy revolved around the theological implications of the fall of the Northern Kingdom. This period in Israel and Judah’s history was marked with a great deal of political intrigue and instability, and it was at a time when stability was needed to defend Israel from Assyrian attack. Local Canaanite religious practices seemed to have made their way into Jewish practice, particularly of the god Baal. The Canaanite god, Baal, was the storm god and was associated with rain and fertility. It seemed that Israelites were turning to, or perhaps syncretistic incorporating, Baal worship. This suggests that the text is wrestling with two things at least. One being the understanding of just who this God is and how this God operates and two what does this God want from his people?

In a classic text on the prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel asserts that the prophet’s passion is energized by her or his vision of the divine pathos. The prophetic God is passionate for justice and God’s passion for justice is grounded in God’s intimate care for the world in all its wondrous messiness. God not only loves humankind, God loves individual persons and grieves when one of God’s children is homeless, abused, unjustly treated, or neglected. God is equally passionate in God’s response to those who commit injustice. God still loves them, but God’s passion may sound like what Hosea describes as a lion roaring in the wilderness.

Hosea’s words epitomize the divine pathos. God’s people are bone of God’s bone and flesh of God’s flesh. God mourns, laments, struggles with mixed feelings of love and rage, and vows to be faithful to God’s people despite their infidelity. God sees the people suffering as a result of their injustice and mourns for them, knowing how painful the consequences of injustice will be for them.

In effect, Hosea’s God is literally mad as hell at these wayward people. But, love tempers God’s anger at their behaviour. Like a parent whose child has gone astray, God is angry and anguished, but this cannot nullify God’s love. While we may have more “rational” and “dispassionate” understandings of God’s love, we need to ask ourselves imaginatively questions such as “What would anger God about our nation’s behaviour? Where have we brought pain to God?” We must ourselves, “Where are we turning away from God? Where are we oblivious to God’s call through the experience of those persons who, to use Howard Thurman’s words, have their backs against the wall due to poverty and injustice.

Hosea is speaking to the nation, and of course this also includes individual decisions as well. We are the nation and we cannot evade – those of us who “have” – our complicity in our nation’s waywardness. The prophetic God would be rightly angered by the vast gulf between the rich and the poor, our destruction of the environment, our abandonment of children, our voicing family values and yet supporting business policies that destroy family life, our failure to provide sufficient incomes for the working poor, and the institutionalized injustice inspired by prison systems driven by profit rather than human wellbeing motives.

Nichole Torbitzky a university teacher comments that she hears regularly from her undergraduates about the unfortunate comparison between the ‘wrathful’ God of the Old Testament and the ‘loving’ God of the New Testament. She actually enjoys this discussion because it gives her the perfect teaching moment to correct a theological mistake. Implied in this observation is that two different gods are at work here and almost always, the student will backtrack and clarify that what was really meant is that God is the same God in both testaments, just that God became more loving and forgiving in the New Testament. This is when Torbitzky refers to our passage for this Sunday from Hosea.

The people of Israel had broken their end of the covenant with God by worshipping Baal and other Canaanite gods alluded to throughout the book of Hosea. Hosea sees this as a refusal to trust in God to protect them from the invading Assyrians. The Northern Kingdom’s lack of trust in God could also be seen in the many political intrigues that marked this period (see 2 Kings 14–17).

In the midst of all of this unfaithfulness, Hosea used parental imagery to describe God’s faithfulness. God appeared as a parent-figure who calls, loves, teaches, heals, leads with kindness, embraces/hugs, bends, and feeds. Even in the face of the people’s disobedience and unfaithfulness, God’s heart cannot bear to punish, but grows warm and tender. This is not a picture of a wrathful God. Contrary to popular belief Hosea depicted a loving and forgiving God, who invites reconciliation.

Today’s passage provides a huge amount of rich material. Not only does Hosea’s image of God reveal the constancy and loving compassion God has toward humanity throughout the Bible, but he also highlights that the truth about the nature of God is so important to a view of the human-divine relationship. For Christianity and for process thinkers in particular, this passage from Hosea highlights the truth that God never promises individuals, groups, or nations, that they will never have to deal with adversity and hardship. Rather it claims that hardship is real. Adversity is unavoidable (especially when we are making foolish decisions). The other truth is that God is Love and love never abandons us even in our hardship and adversity, and poor decision-making. Love does not negate our hardship and adversity but rather acknowledges it as part of living.Even at our lowest, even when we are forgetful, fearful, and unfaithful, our God is with us, calling and directing us toward the path of the divine life, the divine pathos.

When we read our New Testament text for today we see that back at the end of chapter 10, Jesus visits Martha and Mary, who are most often said to be located in the town of Bethany (John 11), about two miles southeast of Jerusalem. Jesus goes from there to pray, have dinner with some Pharisees, and to cast out a demon. No mention is made of the specific geographical location since Martha and Mary’s house, but it is probably safe to say that he is in Judea during the events of our text for this Sunday.

When we look at the background for this text we see the Laws of inheritance: In our story, a man in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene on his behalf in a question of inheritance. The man requests, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Here are some of the assumptions that we usually make around this passage

  1. This is a younger brother making the request.
  2. The younger brother is getting no inheritance at all and is asking for ‘his’ half.
  3. There are no other brothers.
  4. There are no sisters.
  5. There is no mother.
  6. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son.
  7. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son as a matter of ‘birthright.’

It would be fair to say that most of us have made these assumptions when reading this text and perhaps we might have been challenged to ask if these assumptions are that accurate. For example, it appears that ‘birthright’ inheritance is not set in stone in Jewish law and certainly not in Roman law. Why? Because Jesus, it seems, is quick to see past the assumptions to the possible complications and mitigating factors in inheritance squabbles. He doesn’t ask if the man has a right to half of the inheritance, nor does he try to get to the bottom of whether or not it is fair that a man should get half of the inheritance.

So, what if the man is asking Jesus to choose laws of Israel over the laws of Rome or vice versa. This would not be the only place in the gospels where someone tried to trick Jesus into making a declaration that could be used as evidence of sedition. Perhaps that is what is going on here. But, then again, it was not unusual in Jesus’ day to seek the opinion of a learned and respected Rabbi on matters such as this. (we have our lawyers and our theologians present,) The Talmud (the book of Jewish legal interpretations) is full of questions and opinions to help settle matters just like this. Perhaps the man in the story is simply looking for this popular, young, charismatic rabbi to shake things up regarding inheritance law. Jesus has, after all, just been denouncing the Pharisees (see Luke 11:37-12:3). He did have a way of upending conventional wisdom. Just a few sentences back he exhorted his listeners to “not fear those who kill the body” (Luke 12:4). Considering all of this, perhaps the man in the crowd is not crazy or hiding ulterior motives when he asks this question.

Maybe the man is not completely crazy, but he certainly does not get the truth Jesus is there to speak. Jesus’ response is quick and one might say; delicious. He, responds to this question with a question, “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you” (Luke 14)? Jesus is clearly not interested in getting involved in these kinds of squabbles. The next question we come to is “why not?” Why does he not have anything to say about inheritance rules? Jesus has had a lot to say about the treatment of the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast, and the marginalized. Why would he not have something to say about ensuring that inheritance is used for those same ends? Why would he not take this opportunity to upend the inheritance rules of both Roman and Jewish societies that tended to favour the oldest son? Why not proclaim that inheritance should be split equitably between all of the children, including the daughters? Why not proclaim that an inheritance should not be claimed until the mother passes away too, to protect widows? Frankly, we would not have been surprised if Jesus had made these kinds of prescriptions for life in the coming Kingdom. Some of us even treat the bible as though it does.

Rather than answer the man’s question directly, as he so often does, Jesus tells a story as an answer. The story is commonly called the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In this parable, a rich man, who just got richer, decides he needs to build bigger barns to store his grain and riches. The Rich Fool tells himself, ‘then I will be happy, and relax.’ And to be honest, this doesn’t seem all that foolish. Most of us don’t think we have a great deal of wealth. And because of this the wealth we do have, we want to protect. Would it not be foolish of us to fail to protect that which we have worked so hard to gain and save, in hope of one day retiring and enjoying the fruits of our labour and maybe passing a little onto our children (or at least not being a financial burden to them at the end)? To our mind, that is an important part of the dream. So far, the man in the parable seems pretty level headed. So, what is the problem?

Just as the Rich Fool was settling down with his plans and his dreams of retirement, God intervenes and upends these well-laid plans (as this so-called interventionist God is wont to do it seems). God’s words for this man are not what we would have expected. God does not tell him, ‘Well done, wise and faithful servant! You sowed and reaped, managed and saved, and even though tonight is the night your life is demanded of you, you have left a worthy legacy!” Instead, he is reprimanded for his greed and foolishness. God demands, ‘who will gain from all of this stuff you have stored up!?” In the context of this passage, the answer naturally is his heir, probably his oldest son, for the most part.

Again; why would storing up all of this stuff for one’s heir be a problem? That seems only right. And, here is the part where we fall in love with Jesus all over again. Jesus is talking to a guy who is moaning about inheritance inequities as he sees them. And Jesus implies that inheritance laws are a problem. They are problematic because they cause enmity in households, because they leave out the vulnerable, because they are a testimony to the greed that causes one to think only of himself, but they are not “rich toward God.” (Right about now you might be thinking about the family that has had big trouble over what is ‘fair’ when Mom and Dad passed away.) Our current concern in NZ might suggest that the marriage split fairness is an issue in the forefront of our time and needs to be dealt with.

Implied in this condemnation is that being rich is both a spiritual and a very real material and financial commitment to the Realm of God. But wealth hoarded, is foolish. Life is short, and one never knows when their day has come. Wealth shared, bellies filled, lives changed for the better, is wise. It is the Jesus Way. It is faithful to God.

So, Does God Want Us to be Wealthy? What I have just said is deeply unpopular with many good people in many good churches. And this suggests that we have to think very carefully about what it means to be rich toward God. We have to be very careful not to let ourselves off of the hook too easily. An appropriate sermon illustration for today may come from a Bloomberg article about the super-wealthy who promised huge donations to the Notre Dame Cathedral rebuild. According to the Bloomberg article, at the time of its writing, no actual funds had come from these mega-wealthy donors. Instead, all of the money that had been received at that point had come from small donors, particularly donors from the US and from the French government. The ethical questions around giving vast amounts of money to rebuild a building rather than feed the poor or house the homeless is worth spending some time on. We too here at St David’s have wrestled with this ethic that supports making our building an A category building. Is this the Jesus Way? Is the restoration of our lovely building what God would want? Of course, it is. But is it really?

In terms of process thought about God, we can see an easy argument for the idea that God wants us to be wealthy. It goes like this: 1. God wants the best possible for every occasion. 2. It is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy. 3. Since it is beneficial for us to be prosperous and wealthy, it is the best possible outcome for mission. 4. Therefore, God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous.

But, let’s stop and take a moment to inspect these assumptions. As Marjorie Suchocki aptly pointed out in The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), sometimes the best possible for a situation is something we would deem morally bad. At this point, it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole that justifies disproportionate wealth as making the best of a bad situation. Besides, the rationalization continues, how are we to judge what God deems ‘best’ . . . maybe it is best for a few people to control most of the wealth in the world while the rest suffer and struggle. Here is where we come to assumptions #2 and #3. Since I benefit from prosperity and wealth, surely it is the best possible for me to be wealthy and prosperous.

The parable for this week calls out this way of thinking and answers any questions about God’s judgment on wealth and prosperity. How do we judge what God thinks is best concerning wealth? This is surely, no secret. God has already told us: do not store up treasures for yourself, be rich toward God (vs. 21). Jesus tells us that, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (vs. 15). God pretty clearly states that what we, like to tell ourselves is beneficial, God calls greed. Because assumptions 2 and 3 are false, the conclusion that God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous cannot stand.

Ok Then; if God does not want us to be prosperous and wealthy, what does God want? Maybe God wants us to realize that Faithfulness and blessing are not reflected in our material security. And that, God’s best possible for us does not consist of an abundance of possessions. Instead, Jesus directs us to be rich toward God. But what does that look like? For the man in the crowd, perhaps that would look like dropping the squabble with his brother. For the wealthy would-be Notre Dame donors, perhaps it would look like using their money to truly tackle food, housing, and health care insecurities in their country. For us, for you and me? Well here is a few ideas:

  1. What about thinking about how we as a congregation can help others to budget including a line or two for that who have no idea how to? Not because they need it but because it might help them feel normal, included and valued and us feel we are normal too.
  2. What about thinking how we as a congregation can help people work through the inheritance issues. We don’t know what the man in this story did, but a clear implication of Jesus’ teachings is that inheritance is a tricky thing and maybe because it always will be, we need to pay attention to our and our society’s expectations. After all, its not about equal shares, its, about fairness.
  3. What about spending some time looking at the bigger picture that included the possible outcomes of giving. Maybe giving to sound and effective ministries and organizations has some long-term values for a better society.
  4. And lastly, what about not being afraid to talk about money. Jesus wasn’t. And maybe we can be more critical of ideologies and assumptions about wealth, and its management. As we are told the poor will always be with us, so what are we doing about that beyond the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff?

Amen

Does Prayer Change Things?

Posted: July 25, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 11:1-13

Does Prayer Change Things?

Today is one of those times in the lectionary when the topic is a repeat of other readings in the year. This time it is the subject of prayer and one wonders whether there is anything new to say about prayer. So given all that I thought we might just touch into some theological wanderings through the prayer I think is the most used and dare I say it the prayer we spend the least time on analyzing what it is that we are saying when we recite it out of habit.

Rex Hunt gave some thought to this that I found interesting and so I thought we might see what he says as we explore. Like me he reminds us that most analysis of prayer begins with what prayer is and what it isn’t. Rex says; that, prayer was not some Harry Potter-style magic where you say certain words and specific things happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

may your name be holy

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

May your rule take place

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

Give us each day our daily bread

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

Pardon our debts, for we ourselves 

pardon everyone in debt to us.

May our relationships not be based on self-interest.

And do not bring us to trial into a trying situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul’s Mystical Lord’s Prayer which we will recite latter is as follows:

O presence and pow’r within us,
Being and Life of all.
How we are filled, how we o’erflow
with infinite love and gladness!

We shall this day sow grace and peace,
and show mercy to all,
and gentle loving-kindness.

And we shall be not so self-serving,
but a constant source of giving.

For ours is the essence,
and the wholeness,
and the fullness forever.

Notes:
“Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer” by a group of Refugees, El Salvador, in G. Duncan. (ed) 2005.  Entertaining Angels. A Worship Anthology on Sharing Christ’s Hospitality. London. Canterbury Press.
Mack, B. 1993.  The Lost Gospel. The Book of Q and Christian OriginsPraying a New Story. New York. HarperCollins.
Morwood, M. 2003.  . Richmond. Spectrum Publications.
Taussig, H. 1999.  Jesus before God. The Prayer Life of the Historical JesusThe Source of Human Good. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Wieman, H. N. 1946.  . Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press.

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