‘Imagination and the Word’

Posted: January 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

‘Imagination and the Word’

Carl Sagan wrote: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

And inviting us to explore what this imagination might feel like he wrote that: There is a wide, yawning black infinity. In every direction, the extension is endless; the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce.

I want to have a go; first of all to see if I can move imagination from the sphere of the temporary or the fanciful, or of the somehow untrue, and I want to do this by claiming that imagination is something we cannot live without, or in face be human without.

Some time back now I suggested that much of what is known as gnostic literature, is about ‘knowing’, and until recently not considered as worthy of being in the canon. At the core of this rejection, of the idea of knowing, is the suggestion that every spiritual teaching sounds a call from above or outside. And that the central aim of the teaching of Jesus is to sensitize us to the above that calls to us. Whereas Gnostic literature invites us to consider that the immensity of Christianity takes its interior meaning as a sign of an immensity within the self of every human being. As a path of inner awakening, as a path of deep self-knowledge (in other words, gnosis), it invites and supports the inner struggle to attend, to “hear and obey” one’s own Self, God in oneself. As Jean-Yves Leloup suggests, this is the intimate meaning of Anthropos: to be fully human oneself, is the incarnation of God. This is an unknown teaching in recent Christian teaching — not in the philosophical or theological sense, nor in the sense that it has never been said before, but in the sense that our ordinary thoughts and feelings can never really penetrate it. It seems too complex and emotional and too new-age-like. And it is unknown in the sense that we live our lives on the surface of ourselves, not knowing the one thing about our own being that it is necessary for us to know and that would bring us every good we could seriously wish for. The fitness industry says get fit and find it, the business industry says plan for it and know it, the personalisation says believe in yourself and know it as success. But in the end, we are speaking of an unknown part of ourselves, which is at the same time the essential part of ourselves: the Teacher within, our genuine identity. The way — and it is surely the way that is offered by all the spiritual traditions of the world— it is the practice, and the community supporting the practice, that opens a relationship between our everyday sense of self and the Self, or Spirit. I would suggest here that imagination becomes part of this relationship between self and Spirit and between self and world. We are told, this is made possible through the inner cultivation of a specific quality of conscious attention and intelligence that in the gnostic tradition is referred to by the Greek term nous, or higher mind. The danger here is to retain the incarnation within the inner world rather than recognize that what it might be more than that. What it might be is the realm of intermediate attention and of mediating conscious forces in the cosmos that are mythologized as the angelic realms in the esoteric traditions of the world’s religions. A bit of a mouthful but it is in this miraculous yet lawful mediating contact between the higher and the lower within ourselves that the deeper, intimate experience of conscious love is given— a conscious love for our starved and confused self that is at the same time love for our neighbour whose inner condition is identical to our own. And I suggest it is the imagination that applies this consciousness to in the world. You will need to give some time to this suggestion I am making because it is in the arena of theory and speculation and it is after all my attempt to shift imagination into being a vital aspect of everyday human life, rather than something only some have more of than others..

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is that the more it shows us about the meaning of Christianity, the more the mystery deepens. This paradox is due, surely, to the fact that, like every truly spiritual communication, it speaks to us both on the surface and at deep unconscious levels at the same time. While at the intellectual level it points to the resolution of apparent contradictions that sometimes drive us away from belief in the objective existence of the Good, it at the same time opens the heart to a silent recognition of homecoming— the joy of what we knew without words all along, but had all but given up hope of finding.

No mystery is greater or more welcome than this— that above our minds, in the depths of silence, we may be given to know ourselves as Being and as created to serve the good both for God and our neighbour. All it needs is the vehicle of imagination.

So having perhaps added confusion and mystery I want to see if I can bring us back to the everyday.

John Shea wrote the following story to assist us to shape our expectations as we enter this space called imagination;

A woman went into a marketplace, looked around, and saw a sign that read: ‘God’s Fruit Stand.’ “Thank goodness.  It’s about time,” she said to herself.

She went inside and she said, “I would like a perfect banana, a perfect cantaloupe, a perfect peach and six perfect strawberries.” God, who was behind the counter, shrugged and said, “I’m sorry.  I sell only seeds” (Shea 1997:53).

One of the first contemporary biblical theologians to recognise the importance of imagination and story in the tradition of the Christian faith was American, Amos N Wilder.

Way back in the 1960s he said this: “Jesus’ speech had the character not of instruction and ideas but of compelling imagination, of spell, of mythical shock and transformation” (Wilder 1964/71:84).

Wilder identified that it is through imagination and story that God ‘speaks’. That Christianity is a religion of imagination and the word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance… Not a word of instruction and ideas.
But a word of compelling imagination.

So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery, the storyteller says ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’.

In poetic terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, “oblivious of any concern for transcription” (Wilder 1964/71:13) or written record.

Jesus was: “a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1964/71:13).

Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is argued I think by the Jesus Seminar who in its quest for the historical Jesus is now in search of his voice print. Writing things down has about it the risk of over emphasis on a sense of permanence while at the same time helpfully presupposing continuity and a future.

One risk of this is that the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken. What we call the ‘gospel’ arose out of a radical break, when old customs and continuities were undermined. And for storyteller Matthew that ‘radical break’ is contained
in the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’.

Most biblical scholars now days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the work of the author of Matthew’s gospel,
(at least from Chapter 3 onwards… to the first two chapters were written by someone else…) place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another Moses, in particular.

Jesus, like Moses, goes up to the mountain and sits as he speaks, demonstrating his authority, like that of Moses, as a teacher. The question often asked about the Beatitudes and other teachings on the mount is, what did they mean for Jesus’ followers in the age after his death? And what do they mean for us in the present age? If the Beatitudes are seen as new laws given by Jesus or as defining the in and the out, even defining difference then one set of propositions follow. However, if the Beatitudes are the gospel, the good news, then they can be seen differently. They can be sees as a gift – a re-imagining. A gift to expand the limits of word. A re-imagining that invites our response in favour of those who are adversely affected by the goings-on, of the ‘empire’. A response that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, and or imprisons others.

I don’t know about you but for me, I favour the later. The Beatitudes are not a new set of laws, but following the metaphor of the opening story, seeds are offered as a gift of Creativity God. God does not offer perfection – or perfect fruit. God offers the seeds and invites and lures us to plant them… And then constantly care for them as they become complete. Imagination enables us to see the more, to picture hope, it encourages us to engage in a life that is a blip in cosmic timing and yet a hugely valuable lifetime of purpose and meaning. In our openness to this God or the sacred, we become a constant unfolding, a never-ceasing development. Life is a journey.

So, when going to our text for today we might ask; Why should we favour this view of the beatitudes as gift?  Well! Maybe because it is both realistic and hopeful in the same breath. It recognizes limit, incompleteness and failure. And yet it refuses to absolutize these states.  There is always the lure forward. The seed may or may not become completed that is the risk of creation and evolution. As gift it enables us to rise above or work through, in other words to re-imagine a wonderful bountiful world. The Beatitudes remind us that our Serendipitous Creativity God – is doing something new and unexpected in our midst and we can ill afford to ignore it. Change is life and life refuses to be embalmed alive!

And another joy of this serendipitous, creative and unexpected life is agelessness, and thus timeless. We can be 25 or 85 or 65… we always have the possibility of striking out on a new path. Why? Because we are a seed burgeoning toward a ripeness never achieved but always in the process of achieving. We are one with the divine serendipitous creativity that we might name “Almost”. We are a product of ‘Almost’s’ fruit stand, becoming, in this moment and in every moment to come. Amen.’

‘Affirm Human Dignity in the Face of the Indifferent’

Rex Hunt tells a mythical story from the Middle Ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven. As she left, she was told that if she would bring back the gift that is most valued by God, she would be welcomed back. She brought back many gifts: drops of blood from a dying patriot; some coins a destitute widow had given to the poor; dust from the shoes of a missionary labouring in a remote wasteland. But she was turned back repeatedly. One day she saw a small boy playing by a town fountain. A man rode up on horseback and dismounted to take a drink. The man saw the child and suddenly remembered his boyhood innocence. Then, looking in the fountain and seeing the reflection of his hardened face, he realised what he had done with his life. And tears of repentance welled up in his eyes and began to trickle down his cheeks. The young woman took one of these tears back to heaven and was received with joy and love.

To change her status from expulsion, rejection and casting out she had to discern what God valued most and to bring such a gift back to God to regain membership or access to heaven. In a word used widely in the church she was expected to repent and earn grace. For many folk, this call to ‘repent’ is one of the foundational phrases of the church. Yet surprisingly it is very infrequently heard on the lips of Jesus, and usually put there by the storytellers themselves. When Matthew has Jesus using it, it is not a call to any person in particular, but the context of a general invitation to others, such as those named this morning: Peter, James, John and Andrew, are to become wandering and homeless companions, cutting family ties, and relying on the support of local sympathizers.  It seems that repentance here means to join the struggle, to join the movement that will change the world, to answer the call as an invitation which would also bring them into relationship with the likes of Herod Antipas and the political powers of this world (Sarah Dylan Breuer, 2005). No promise of a good outcome here, just an opportunity to wrestle with the world.

And surprisingly, when it is not used as an invitation, it is most often directed towards the religious people of Jesus’ day. Those who worried about other people’s so-called sins, they needed to repent – not the sinners. Likewise, the conversion experience of Paul was not to turn away from a life of so-called ‘sin’ to living a life of everlasting moral purity. It was to stop persecuting others in the name of God and religion. So, the call to ‘repent’ is a call to live life in all its fullness.

This is a key problem for us today because we have inherited a faith that seems driven by fear of being wrong, fear of being vulnerable, fear of being doubtful. And it is because we fail to hear this alternative way of understanding repentance that we  and fail to communicate this call to live life in all its fullness to others. The truth is that the world hears the word ‘repent’ and assumes we are saying: “Become religious like us…” Become good like us when if anything it should be heard as the opposite of this:  “Be accepting of others…”

As I think about this I wonder if this is not one of the reasons I am wary of being called a “Christian” these days. (I prefer ‘Follower of Jesus’, or ‘walker of the Jesus Way) not just because it seems to have been captured by the conservative fundamentalist wing of the church but because I see the Bible being miss used and doctrines being used to denigrate others.

We are on dangerous ground when we do that. Especially with the Bible. Because many modern assumptions about the Bible are just incorrect:

  • the Bible did not encourage slavish conformity; it keeps reminding us to interpret for ourselves, It offers us alternative pathways of thinking and discernment.
  • the Bible has been suspicious of orthodoxy since the time of the prophets; why else would it include challenges to people’s central practices and religious assumptions
  • the modern habit of quoting proof-texts to legitimize policies and rulings
    is out of key with its interpretive tradition. One can’t categorically say that this or that is the answer and encourage an interpretive approach to the text itself. It is someone else’s legitimate, heartfelt story and thus it cannot demand a truth that transcends thousands of years.

Tomorrow most of us will be celebrating Auckland Anniversary Day. It is interesting to ask why we do this? Is it just to find something to celebrate? Is it really about the anniversary of the establishment of a Colony or is it about the beginning of a province called Auckland? Or is it just a day to celebrate Auckland’s wonderful weather with one of the largest one-day regatta in the world. Or is it just a day off. It seems to be a celebration of mixed blessings, really.

Like many other experiences of colonization part of the settling was to also win the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity. However, like many other experiences instead of it being a “search for a feeling of re-connection to a healthy kind of wholeness” (Loehr 2000:2), Religion was seen as a “useful package of warnings and admonitions that supplemented the control of the people justification for the prison cell, chains, lash, the gallows, or the rewards and remissions for good conduct”  (Blainey 1987:429).

Hence Christianity was in the main rejected by the people and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years. This has led some historians to conclude that like Australia, Christianity in New Zealand has always been rather a casual affair. It has been claimed that despite popular assertion by the church here the nation at best was only ever superficially Christianized.

And one of the things New Zealanders are particularly averse to, are “religious” people: those who pray over you, quote the Bible at you, and talk about God, as if they had access to God’s personal diaries! Generally speaking, the majority of New Zealanders have little interest whatsoever in becoming religious like that. Not I said religious like that. The interest in things spiritual is not included in that statement. If we as the church have only as our goal, the making of others “religious” like we have traditionally then it is no wonder people are simply not interested. It is no wonder that mainstream is in decline., and dare I say it despite the examples of revival of form so is the rest of the Christendom based model of church.

And quite frankly I don’t blame them at all. I don’t like being told what to do let alone what to think. It seems we have lost the point. We don’t like what under-girded the celebration of a colony and we opt for a boat race instead. We have missed the point, because we haven’t been brave enough to ask the hard questions of ourselves. We prefer to repent and thus pass it away rather than take responsibility for each other. What is a nation if it is not the people who love each other?

So, the call to repent then is not to say we are not measuring up to the standards ‘others’ or ‘God’ expects of us. It is a call to be accepting of other people, in their faith or their lack of faith., and it can be an Islamic faith or a Christian Faith or any faith at all. If it is not about loving relationship it is already lost.

The call to repent is not to write people off because they do not profess the faith in our particular terms, or live the same sort of life we try to do.

The call to repent is a call to respect all people. For there is in fact much goodness in all sorts of people. In religious and non-religious people. In Christians and Jews and Muslims. And those of all sorts of faith.

In a Review of a book by the radical English theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt he said: “Religion [is] a way of affirming the value of human life, from the first breath to the very last.  It is up to us to give it that value: to affirm human dignity in the face of the indifferent universe”.

Listening to his comment in light of what we have been thinking this morning ‘Repent’ is not the call of the church to the world. It is not about telling the world even a better way because that is already to remain aloof from seeing the worth and the beauty in all.

A different approach seems to be offered in a Michael Leunig prayer which was written for the commencement of 2008. Like Rex Hunt I want to share it. It is called “We shall be careful”:

We pray for the fragile ecology
of the heart and the mind.
The sense of meaning
So finely assembled and balanced and so
easily overturned.  The careful, ongoing
construction of LOVE.

As painful and exhausting as the struggle for truth
and as easily abandoned.

Hard fought and won
are the shifting sands of this sacred ground,
this ecology.

Easy to desecrate and difficult to defend,
this vulnerable joy, this exposed faith,
this precious order.  This sanity.

We shall be careful.
With others and with ourselves.

Blainey, G. 1987. “Sydney 1877” in (ed) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788.Australia. The most godless place under heaven  NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates.
Breward, I. 1988. . VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books.
Loehr, Davidson. 2000. “Salvation by character. How UU’s can find the religious center” in Journal of Liberal Religion 1The shape of belief. Christianity in Australia today, 2, 1-14 (PDF file).
Wilson, B. 1982. “The church in a secular society” in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed) . NSW:  Homebush. Lancer Books.
Dylan’s Lectionary Blog. Sarah Dylan Breuer. 2005


Nurtured and Enlivened

Posted: January 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 3:13-17

Nurtured and Enlivened

Here we are again at the first Sunday after Epiphany and at the edge of the river Jordan with Jesus and John, During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post-Christmas ritual of disassembling the Christmas tree and the putting away the cards and decorations for another year. The fairy lights and decorated wreaths have been packed away and Jesus wants to be baptized, but John is reluctant to agree: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”  But Jesus insists, receives John’s baptism of repentance, and experiences a moment of divine revelation as he comes up out of the water.

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek, “epiphaneia,” meaning “appearing” or “revealing.”  During this brief liturgical season between Christmas and Lent, we’re invited to leave miraculous births and angel choirs behind, and seek the love, majesty, and power of God in seemingly mundane things.  Rivers.  Voices.  Doves.  Clouds.  Holy hands covering ours, lowering us into the water of repentance and new life.  In the Gospel stories we read during this season, God parts the curtain for brief, shimmering moments, allowing us to look beneath and beyond the ordinary surfaces of our lives, and catch glimpses of the extraordinary.  Which is perhaps another way of describing the sacrament of baptism, one of the thin places where the “extraordinary” of God’s grace blesses the ordinary water we stand in.

About now the home cupboards and the hideaways under beds have once again received their annual ‘gifts’ and will not be invaded for another 11 months, or at least till a birthday or an anniversary gives reason for their extraction. It’s back to reality time! Time to get back into the public demands of commuting and work and all that. So, in the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’ we might ask a couple of questions. How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight? And how do we act once we are out in the public view?

Parties, media releases and performances are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view. But something doesn’t seem adequate about this approach. Rex Hunt raises this question and called to mind an article he read in a 1970s copy of On the Move – a magazine produced by the then Joint Board of Christian Education – and written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.

The query was; how can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations, to include those important special stages of life – such as applying for a first job, or leaving home to go to university, or heading off overseas for 12 months? Another way is to ask what does the season of epiphany have to say to this getting back to reality or this nurturing and enlivening of entry engagement in the world beyond the celebrations? Or what rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate, as those among us step out into the public spotlight in these ‘first time’ public events?

We are left with the conclusion that we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that yet.
Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate. On the other hand the church has been reasonably successful in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry. In mine and others cases, for instance, the ritual was ordination. The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew, is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus into the public spotlight, or as we might say stepping into reality. And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself, others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so. For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ or ‘stepping into’ is of the one who will “establish justice upon the earth”.. through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story. For instance, only Matthew:  includes a conversation between John the baptizer and Jesus. Only Matthew recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request;
Only Matthew stresses the public character of the baptism – the ‘voice’ addresses everyone. And we know that the baptism of Jesus was a very controversial subject. John was not the first to baptize people. Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptize other Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew: “No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism…” (Barclay 1956:52-53).

We also remember here that Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports’ but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community. A community that was clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptizing Jesus, and we note here that the John baptism was not a Christian baptism! It is also important to note that grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is a tricky business.  There is no consistent New Testament view of Baptism so that understanding should be abandoned.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities. Especially the debate around the different style and theology of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptizer!

John Dominic Crossan also puts this in context for us: He says; “The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful” (Crossan 1991:232). Here we have a difference between Conservatives and progressives. We have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life. Like us, but not one of us. So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise by setting a good public example?

Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. He was content to be identified along with the tax collectors, the lowly, the outsider. Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister, says: “Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons…  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so-called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity…”  (BPrewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue.  In Matthew’s era and in our era there have been differences of opinion. And no doubt all of you will have your own opinion on this issue as well. We can be pretty sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively and aware of the raging debates of his time. But we can also be inclined to take the view that the reason he told this story was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’ to the life of the man Jesus whos’ vision would enlarge their experiences of God.

Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus, or as I prefer, ‘the stepping into reality that was: Jesus’ baptism. And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism. For the refreshing waters of baptism enlivens, and nurtures us each new day. But more than that, it reminds us that we live in God and that Creativity God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us. And surely that’s worth ‘coming out of sacred exclusion’ or stepping into reality and celebrating our enlivening.

Someone once wrote that on the day they were baptized, they had no felt sense that they were giving themselves over to something larger, older, wiser, and more capacious than their own one-on-one with Christianity.  Baptism, she thought, was all about her effort, her obedience, her responsibility.  So much depended on her!  There were so many ways she could mess up and she had no idea that her “personal decision to love God,” important though it is, pales in significance to God’s cosmic decision to love her — and the whole of humanity and creation along with her.  She didn’t know that God was ushering her into a Story — a huge, sprawling Story that began eons before she showed up in church with tiny fistfuls of belief.

In other words, she didn’t know the paradoxical power of coming out of or stepping into.  Of giving herself over to something deeper and more trustworthy than the shifting sands of her own opinions, creeds, and doctrines: an ancient cloud of witnesses.  A worldwide community of the faithful.  A liturgy that endures.  A created universe that whispers, laughs, and shouts God’s name from every nook and corner.

John Dominic Crossan reminds us again that, Jesus’s baptism story was an “acute embarrassment” for the early Church, precisely because of this coming out of the sacred or stepping into reality.  Why would God’s Messiah place himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John the Baptist?  Why would God’s incarnate Son receive a baptism of repentance?  Repentance for what?  Wasn’t he perfect? Why on earth would he wade into the murky waters of the Jordan, aligning himself with the great unwashed who teemed into the wilderness, reeking of sin?  Worse, why did God the Father choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son beloved?  A moment well before all the miracles, the healings, the exorcisms, the resurrections?  A moment long before Jesus accomplished a thing worth praising?

Why, indeed?  And yet this is the baffling, humbling, awe-inspiring story we’ve inherited as Christ’s followers. Unbelievable though it may seem, Jesus’s first public act was an act of stepping into his humanity in the fullest, most embodied way.  “Let it be so,” he told John, echoing the radical consent of his mother, Mary, who raised him in the faith.   Let it be so at the hands of another, he decided, as he submitted to John the Baptizer, because what Jesus did and still does with the power of his story is to freely surrender it, share it, give it away.  Let it be so here, he said, in the Jordan River rich with sacred history.  The Jordan where once upon a time his forbears, the ancient Israelites, entered the land of Canaan.  The Jordan where the prophet Elijah ended his prophetic ministry, and his successor Elisha inaugurated his.  The Jordan which flowed under the same “opened” sky God first opened “in the beginning,” at the very dawn of Creation.

In other words, in this one moment, in this one act, Jesus stepped into the whole Story of God’s work on earth, and allowed that story to resonate, deepen, and find completion.

So.  What part of this story is hardest for us to take in?  That God appears by means so unimpressive, so familiar, we often miss him?  That Jesus enters joyfully into the full messiness of the human family?  That our baptisms bind us to all of humanity — not in theory, but in the flesh — such that you and I are kin, responsible for each other in ways we fail too often to honour?  That as Christians we are called into radical solidarity, not radical separateness?  We have nothing to say that demands others listen, nothing to say that needs to be heard, nothing to demand for a better world. Rather, the message we live is that we are always and already God’s Beloved — not because we’ve done anything to earn it, but because God’s very nature, inclination, and desire is to love?

To embrace the biblical baptism story is to embrace the core truth that we are united, interdependent, connected, and one.  Our baptism is the challenge to sit with the staggering reality that we are deeply, deeply loved.  Can we bear to embrace these mind-bending truths without flinching away in self-consciousness, cynicism, suspicion, or shame?

We might well be coming to terms with the truths of our baptism; and we might keep doing so for as long as we live.  But we don’t need to have angst about belief as we used to; We believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day, and yet the efficacy of our baptism holds.  That is the point — we are held.  Not by our own profession of faith, but by the nurturing and enlivening power of the sacred that holds history, time, earth and sun and wind and sky, and holds you and me.  The sacred who parts the clouds, blesses the water, and calls us a beloved child.

Baptism — we might understand now — is all about coming out of the closeted safety of the old story and stepping into reality, and it is all about surrender to a vulnerability, all about finding the holy in the course of our ordinary, mundane lives within the family of God.  Which means we must choose Epiphany.  Choose it, and then practice it.  The challenge is always before all of us: look again.  Look harder.  See freshly.  Stand in the place that looks utterly ordinary, and regardless of how scared or jaded we might feel, cling to the possibility of a surprise that is God. Listen to the ordinary, and know that it is infused with divine mystery.  Epiphany is deep water — we can’t just dip our toes in it.  We must take a deep breath and plunge.  Why? Because baptism promises new life, but it always drowns before it resurrects.

And if all this is about the love of the one, we name God, what about Jesus? What reason for Christian hope, then?  What shall we hang onto in this uncertain season of light and shadow? Well! For me Jesus is still the centre of my faith and I cannot do without him. For me he is hope itself. He’s the one who shows that the barriers can be opened, and he’s the one who shows us the God we long for.  He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear the only Voice that will tell us who we are and in whose likeness whose we are. Here it is; Emmanuel! God with us!

And the nurturing nature of this God within claims that we are all God’s chosen and God’s children cannot do without God.  God’s own.  Even in the deepest, darkest water, we are always and ever the Beloved. Amen.

Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.

(Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.

Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.

Debie Thomas: debie.thomas1@gmail.com



 Towards a Theology of Incarnation’

“In the beginning was the performance; not the word alone,
not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked
with the other forever”
(John Crossan 1991:xi)

Today’s sermon is an attempt to look at the doctrine of incarnation by listening to two stories. Bothe are stories by a John. The first is John Dominic Crossan who is a leading, progressive, biblical scholar. Depending on one’s theological persuasion, some would say, ‘the best’! Others don’t or won’t even mention his name. In his 500+ page book on the ‘historical’ Jesus, published 25 years ago, (and usually referred to as ‘big Jesus’, because his second book on Jesus was a much slimmer publication, known as ‘little Jesus’) he weaves this story…

Crossan’s story….

“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee.  He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants living long enough at subsistence level to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution.  He looks like a beggar, yet his eyes lack the proper cringe, his voice the proper whine, his walk the proper shuffle.

He speaks about the rule of God, and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.  They know all about rule and power, about kingdom and empire, but they know it in terms of tax and debt, malnutrition and sickness, agrarian oppression and demonic possession” (Crossan 1991:xi).

This Crossan story helps I hope to enter the texts for today especially the one from the Gospel we call the Gospel of John. For a lot of the time following modernity and In the circles of the liberals this gospel was left alone because it didn’t quite fit with modernity and the ascendency of reason in scholarly priorities. One might suggest that John’s Gospel was too mystical for liberal academics as it didn’t fit well with the historical critical method that was the popular method if approaching the scriptures. I with Marcus Borg might suggest that John’s Gospel was written in building Christendom as an empire of God, a post Easter Jesus at its core, the image of The Christ is birthed and the supernaturalism is created to met the differences between Hebrew world view and Roman and Greek world view. Today’s biblical storyteller, a bloke we also call John, has told his similar sounding, yet different, story:

John’s story

“He came in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.

“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13, NRSV).

I hope by now you have twigged that Both stories are interpretations, imaginative reconstructions, of the one we call Yeshua/Jesus and the past. One is mystic, perhaps even gnostic. The other, everyday, ordinary – even what we might call secular if we see that secular is opposed to Christian.

I have to admit that the bloke we might call biblical John, has never been my favourite but he is an interesting theological storyteller. In my youth he was the most quoted biblical writer and it was almost required that to be a Christian one had to quote from John’s Gospel to prove one’s faith. The most quoted phrases seemed to have come from John’s gospel. And it is from biblical John we hear some of the most memorable sayings attributed to, or about, Jesus:

  • God so love the world that he gave his only son…
  • In my Father’s house there are many mansions…
  • I am the Way and the Truth and the Life…

When we read John’s Gospel his audience seems to be mostly made up of Judeans influenced by a multicultural lifestyle shaped by Greek thinking. While his primary purpose in being a storyteller/theologian is to get this audience to think theologically on various God-events. Not having the scientific knowledge we have today, it does make cosmological sense to him and other biblical storytellers “to talk about God or messengers of God coming to Earth to speak to humans in dreams or special religious experiences.  This is the religiously significant universe constructed out of experience and the cultural thought patterns available… two thousand years ago” (Peters 2002:127).

However, unlike in John Crossan’s story, there is little to no ‘historical’ Jesus material in these writings. Instead, Jesus is nearly always presented as ‘divine’. Indeed, according to biblical John, Jesus himself “voices the fully developed Christian conviction about who he is” (Fortna 2002:223).

So that’s the first thing we need to remember when we hear or read biblical John.
It’s the stuff that orthodox or ‘correct’ belief, and the Nicene Creed, are all about.
It is about Jesus being divine!

The second thing we need to remember is, biblical John begins his reconstructed story of Jesus – or of the ‘Christ of faith’ – within the matrix of late first-century Judaism. This is important in context and influence on the thinking of the day. Remember here that the Gospel is thought to have been written between AD95 and AD 130. Depending upon how developed you might think the orthodoxy is you might choose as some recent scholars do that the later dates is more likely. But the key thing to remember is that the writer of John is writing about Jesus at least 95 years after his death and more likely. 130 years after.

John’s Jesus is a religious Jew within a culture dominated by the actions and power of the Roman Empire.

That power and action was military power: with the monopoly or control of force and violence; It was an economic power: with the monopoly or control of labour and production; It was political power with the monopoly or control of organisation and institution; It was also an ideological power with the monopoly or control of interpretation and meaning (Crossan 2007:12-15).

Two things stand out about John Dominic Crossan and they are that he is a good storyteller. He is also a person who deserves great respect for his intellectual honesty.

Crossan’s Jesus is very much ‘human’.  The subtitle of his ‘big Jesus’ book, for instance, is: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Crossan’s human or ‘historical’ Jesus is also more sage-like than priest-like. And certainly not theologian-like. A sage who spent much of his time among the farms and villages of Lower Galilee. A sage whose wisdom is embedded “in his seemingly innocuous observations on the everyday world” (Funk 2002:1).

One dictionary I looked up has a sage as a profoundly wise person and a priest as a person who performs religious ceremonies. This suggests there is a distinct difference and I think one of the key things here is that one might question belief and assumption and the other protect and project faith. The sage might have a worldview that involved experience and practice and not just theory, know a life-style and not just a mind-set.
A sage might hold “Not the word alone, not the deed alone, but both, each indelibly marked with the other forever” (Crossan 1991:xi). I don’t think the difference is about importance or status but rather about a more inclusive, all-encompassing and unifying approach.

I can recall parishes seeking to call ministers who were very good priests and sages at the same time and I am now of the thought that this is because of our institutional view of the church with Parishes, Presbyteries and General Assemblies with paid leadership that the institution expects to be priests and the people expect to be sages. Priests are easier to control by the institution because it is more measurable whereas wisdom is more difficult to evaluate and thus control.

But returning to the text and listening to biblical John’s story through the critical biblical thought of the scholar called John Dominic Crossan, we see that the influence of culture and time we need to shape a new/different ‘religious’ story. Different from the one generally available through the Bible and the Creeds, and which reflects the fact we are living in a scientific, pluralistic age.

The old cosmology of much of the biblical stories, spanning a 1000, years plus more,
and the traditional hymns and prayers shaped by those stories, and their sense of the ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’, is now found wanting in the main. If you sense in my saying that a reaction the suggests we need to protect the gospel or the divine Jesus I suggest that that is a logical and human reaction. If something is important it needs to be protected but that does not say that it cannot be replaced because change is life giving. The death of the old has to take place if we are to experience life. Otherwise why are humans born and die? Why is eternal life so important?

The reality is that our new religious thinking/story must be credible in the light of scientific understandings. Some might say its too late for that. People are no longer religious because that gap has grown too large.

The trouble is that we need to feel at home in our expansive and changing universe.
Yes that means that most of us, apart from a few fundamentalist Christians accept that the proposal given us by scientific research and study that while we are created and nourished by our past, generally speaking, we actually live in the present, and therefore as Gordon Kaufmann wrote in 2006 we need to “come to terms with the major problems we now face if the human race is to survive into the future and flourish in that future” (Kaufman 2006:105).

It is true that today our world community is facing many crises:

  • environmental crises of pollution and climate change;
  • political crises often aided and abetted by terrorist groups;
  • economic crises of unemployment and burgeoning national deficits,
  • not to mention natural disasters…

But on the other hand there are also many positive breakthroughs:

  • breakthroughs in medical science and technology;
  • breakthroughs in new developments in political systems;
  • breakthroughs in exciting new insights as to how to live our lives (Peters 2002:130).

The new has always been seen as bad by some but it is regulated by its ability to affect the world and that is always and always has been within the control of people who care.

Thus, I along with many am firmly of the belief that the old religious story, shaped by the ‘divine’ Jesus, as conveyed by biblical John in the Fourth Gospel, has lost its appeal or authority to shape present-day human lives.

As some religious naturalists have pointed out, regularly, as old myths, religious stories, and other shared narratives of humankind “are increasingly viewed as intellectually implausible and morally irrelevant, they become less likely to fulfill their original purpose. And as I suggested last week its easier to paint ghost, and dragons that what’s real; the human race. The supernatural no longer seems – to give people answers and provide a sense of stability and peace in daily life” (Rue 1999).

On the other hand, I and others are also firmly of the belief that the thoroughly ‘human’ Jesus of much contemporary scholarship, provides us with a Jesus of profound appeal and authority by which we can measure our humanness and humaneness.

“In this understanding of Jesus,” suggests former Harvard theologian, the late Gordon Kaufman, “…no supernatural authority or extra-human power… is invoked to compel our attention… The important point to note is that if we decide to order our lives in terms of the [human] Jesus-model whether as churches and communities or as individuals, it will be we who do the deciding, and we who take – or fail to take – the steps to carry out that decision… Only in this way will we be living and acting with a proper openness to, as well as accountability for, not only the religious and cultural pluralism of today’s human existence but the human future as well” (Kaufman 2006:32-34).

This suggests that this year 2020; is going to be a watershed year in the life of progressive religion/Christianity! It will be a year confronted with pollution and climate change; political crises that empower terrorism, economic concerns with unemployment and burgeoning national deficits, and as the world works out a new system that enables a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, and how it deals with natural disasters that disrupt those systems and cost the lives of people on a planet under stress of production and distribution. It is also a year where much new and exciting is due to burst forth. The breakthroughs in medical science and technology; are mind boggling in their reach into the unknown artificial intelligence is on the brink of engagement that both frightens and excites us with its ability to transform lives. The ability of technology to make life so different is huge that it too is scary and exciting. There is also much being done in developing new political systems; The Wellbeing approach to policy development is filled with promise and at the sane time fraught with skepticism. It has to be said that with the pace of change 2020 is a watershed year like every year but specific in its content as new insights as to how to live our lives unfolded.

Today’s theme I think is to invite you to continue the ‘progressive’ journey, courageously.

Stories for both Johns ask us to remember that we are on that journey. And another story from the Jesus of the so-called ‘heretical’ text, The Gospel of Mary is reported to have said: ‘The child of true humanity exists within you’. Hopefully, that is inspiration enough for us to keep on asking the big questions. Amen.

Crossan, J. D. God and Empire. Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991/1993.
Fortuna R. T. “The Gospel of John and the Historical Jesus” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Holy Bible. NRSV. Nashville. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress, 2006.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press International, 2002.
Rue, L. Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution. New York. State University of New York Press, 1999.


‘The Reason for the Season’

Posted: December 25, 2019 in Uncategorized

‘The Reason for the Season’

Once upon a time there was a famous painter. He lived at court part of the year, and alone in his hermitage the other part. He loved to paint, everything and anything. He painted for nobles and politicians, for farmers and army commanders and children and royalty, usually whatever they wanted or desired.

He had an uncanny ability to depict things so realistically, his drawings and paintings took your breath away. One day someone asked him: “What are the hardest things to draw and paint?” Unhesitatingly, he answered, “Horses, dogs, cats, insects, and most especially faces of the old and children.”

Those who were listening to the conversation were very surprised. Someone asked: “Well, what is the easiest?” His answer was, “Ghosts, monsters, and especially dragons.”

They were dumbfounded.  A voice piped up, “But why?”

The painter was serious and responded, “Think about it.  What do you see all the time? Common animals, birds, plants and people.  We’re used to them.  They are as familiar as our own hands, and any defect in the drawing is glaringly obvious.  We see it right away.

“Because no one really knows what ghosts and monsters and dragons really look like, I can paint them wildly, fantastically, grotesquely, even amusingly, and everyone is pleased. They have no definite shape. They are loose in our minds. “But people – they are so hard to paint truthfully.”

Here’s another story.

At Christmas, all the rules change. All of us have thought we knew what God looked like. We hear it when people talk following a tragic death of a loved one. We hear it in prayers, and church debates. When the Sallies did their outdoor preaching, we heard it on street corners. We can read it in pamphlets stuffed in our letter boxes by churches using todays media tools in search of people who think like them.

The God we hear of is often, as fantastical, whimsical, or without definite shape, as there are minds to imagine the sacred. At Christmas though, we are given sight of God and or the Sacred, and this God is different and when we dig under all the later trappings we find that this God looks like every mother’s child, every woman and every man ever born. Tradition ally we equate this familiarity with the Roman and Greek Gods who were men given the status and powers of a God. Their prowess be it military or intellect or wisdom was seen to be Godlike so they were therefor Gods. This was gradually rejected by Christianity as the need to differentiate between God’s and a God with greater distance between what was God and what was man became more acceptable and understandable. Today however I want to suggest that the decline in the Christian Church is the rejection of a God that is untouchable, too distant and too supernatural. Perhaps tom much like a ghost or a dragon. Too easy to paint and thus hang on the wall to look at when passing.

The great mystery we are grappling with now is that because God is so familiar, because God looks like every one of us, it is hard to tell who God is. The God who doesn’t deliver has become the God who is too much like us. We are no longer sure whether we are made in God’s image or God is made in ours and we are not sure how to respond to the dilemma. I suggest this might why we are so obsessed with church survival as opposed to expounding the message of Christmas. New rules have arrived and that’s the reason for the season. And to make it more complex these rules don’t just apply to a theological concern; they are about a way of living that flows out of that revelation of difference.

Sometimes discovering the God given moment in ordinary people and daily events can be difficult. The sayings such as ‘see Christ in the face of the poor” “be Christ to those in need” suggest that this unity of God and Human is possible yet they are easier to paint than live it seems

I wonder if the fact that many of us have been taught to expect God  in the spectacular, in the dramatic, in the supernatural might not be part of the dilemma.

If this is how we have been nurtured, then we have to admit, a Christmas which invites us to see an incognito God in the midst of ordinary people and daily events, might be more disturbing of our faith than comforting. When this unknown, unknowable, untouchable God is so intimately close the questions about the importance of belief, the corruptibility of God and the efficacy of humanity tend to emerge

It is here that I think we need to re-visit our understanding of incarnation. Freed from a constructed supernatural verses natural connection we might just move away from a simplistic Sunday school understanding and be able to engage in a more durable, actionable faith journey. This is, perhaps what is meant by incarnation. Perhaps this is God’s justice and peace. Maybe this is God’s presence among us, now.

Let’s come at this another way now.

American theologian Sallie McFague suggests that Christianity is “…the religion of the incarnation par excellence.  Its earliest and most persistent doctrines focus on embodiment”. Incarnation is embodiment. Australian David Tacey concludes, the new spirituality brewing within society at the moment, will “…truly be revealed as the mystery and silence at the heart of everything we do and feel.  God will not be proud, haughty or exalted but, rather, every-day, horizontal and earthly”.

While just for good measure… historian Clement Miles suggests: “The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished.  Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life, affection and comradeship, eating and drinking and merry-making…”

And let’s not presume that this challenge to rethink the incarnation is anything new. More than 600 years ago, a male Catholic Christian mystic and theologian asked: “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”

The mystic was Meister Eckhart and he was certainly not a fundamentalist. His theology was a way of talking about lively realities. He was also talking metaphorical, not only about “son of God,” but also and startlingly about “give birth.”

His question is as sound and as solid as I could imagine, even these long centuries later. Because Eckhart’s query is about birthing new qualities into a waiting world that needs them. Not through some other source on its own, but also through us, in the place we each uniquely are.

I think this is both the promise and the provocative challenge of Christmas. So maybe this Christmas, amid the wrapping paper we are filling the rubbish bins with and the ham, chicken and turkey bones we are wrapping and discarding and the empty wine bottles we are recycling we might become sensitive to the opportunities in each present moment, when our God is in the midst of ordinary people and daily events.

Maybe then we might encourage the Loving God who acts in us, and the God in other people who receive our loving actions.

And the challenge might be to see that a God in us cannot but love the God in the other, and this is the reason for the season. Amen.

Hope Gets in Everywhere!

Posted: December 25, 2019 in Uncategorized

‘Hope Gets in Everywhere!’        

Today we conclude Advent and put down both our ‘preparation’ and our ‘anticipation’. That is of course if we have prepared. We might have anticipated, been alert to or considered what Christmas will mean to us but have we prepared?

I want to tell you two stories that I think might help with both a preparation for Christmas and what anticipation might look like.

The first is a story from storyteller John Shea about a simple event he experienced.

Shea was in a rush three days before Christmas and found himself in the parking lot of the local supermarket when a woman was hoisting bags of groceries out of the shopping trolley into the boot of her car.

The woman was muttering away to herself: I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it.

As he passed her, John Shea smiled and being positive and a bit cheeky said to her: You’re going to make it. You’re going to make it.

He was a little proud of his double assurance of success, countering her double prediction of defeat with a positive double assurance.

To his surprise the woman’s head came out of the car boot and she stared at Shea with a ‘what-the-hell-would-you-know-mate’ kind of look. And then in a voice as adamant as a stamped foot, she said: I’m not going to make it.

Chastened by her adamant rejection of his positivity Shea hurried on into the supermarket, got the few items he needed and proceeded to the checkout. When he got to the checkout lines he found that even the ‘under 12 items’ line had 20 people in it and he wondered if he was going to make it!  (Shea 1993:19)

For many of us, I suspect this is our story too. Our ‘preparation’ during Advent is more about surviving pre-Christmas busyness and anxiety than about being ready. But what about our ‘anticipation’?

The second story is actually a poem by Mary Oliver. I think it speaks about how to anticipate Christmas, the coming of Jesus, the incarnation of divinity. Its called ‘The Sun”

The Sun

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–

do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

– Mary Oliver

Listening the theologian, John Cobb, of whom we have quoting these last weeks he suggests: “The temperature of anticipation in many of our churches… in Advent, is low.  Many Christians expect very little.  They expect to go through some enjoyable experiences, receive some gifts, sing some carols, and then get on with their routine lives.”  (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2008)

Advent may be a time of preparation and anticipation. But in the ‘fair dinkum department’ how can that be for us?

Much of the gospel story this Fourth Sunday in Advent centres on Matthew’s rather sketchy outline surrounding the birth of Jesus. And I am sure you will have recognised
that between Matthew’s version – which we heard today, and Luke’s version – which we traditionally hear around this time of the year from all sorts of places, there is a fair degree of difference.

The thing is that they are very different.  And despite attempts to the contrary by both the church and the many ‘Carols by Candlelight’ events, they can’t be harmonized into one grand, neat story. Much as we pretend they do.

In artistic terms, Luke’s picture is full of bright primary colours. A cheerful story. A buoyant, hopeful, joyous story. Matthew’s picture, on the other hand, is a picture using a darker palette.

The colours are more somber darker hues.  A gothic story even – disturbing, disquieting.

Actually, on second thoughts, Matthew’s story does not actually narrate the birth of Jesus at all. It is implied. Meanwhile, much theological ink and energy has been wasted
on the debate surrounding the matter of virgin birth or virgin conception. For the record many of us happen to believe that, despite what many English translations of the Bible say: Matthew did not believe in a virgin birth. Neither did Paul. But Luke probably did.

The Hebrew text of Isaiah which Matthew quotes clearly has nothing to do with virginity. At most it means only that a young woman, who is now a virgin, will become pregnant.  No ‘miracle’ is intended.

What has fueled the debate goes back nearly 60 years or so. When in the 1950s the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible properly translated the Isaiah words with ‘young woman’, “some fundamentalists were so upset that they sponsored public burnings of [it]. The official Catholic translation, the New American Bible, uses ‘virgin’ in (Isaiah) because bishops overruled the Catholic scholars and demanded that it be mistranslated.”  (Miller 2003:95)

So where in the midst of all this, is our hope?  The ground of this Advent season? And how can we be empowered to live fully, to love wastefully, and dare be all we can possibly be, as Jack Spong urges us?

The reality is that very few of us if any anticipate that Jesus will come, or come again, in any literal sense. Our hope today is shaped by a ‘progressive theological’ understanding of incarnation: Our God, however we understand God acts in the world in and through our actions. As we are open to our God’s working within us, Jesus comes. Metaphorically but no less true and real.

As we seek to serve God, we are never alone. As we experience again and again, Emmanuel, our God-is-with-us, so, during these closing days of Advent and in the rapidly approaching season of Christmas, we can anticipate God’s renewing and transforming present-ness, now, even as we explore and remember God’s focused ‘coming’ in Jesus in the past. And in hope we can encourage others to also recognise ‘the sacred’ where they are. Because, our hope is directed to what God is doing. And what we believe, with God, we can do and will do in the days and years ahead.

So this Advent and this Christmas, let us manifest that hope in all the nooks and crannies of our various communities, let’s get it in everywhere. Amen.

Miller, R. J. Born Divine. The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Shea, J. Starlight: Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroad, 1993.


Two Visions of Hope

Posted: December 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

Matthew 11: 2-11

Two Visions of Hope

Here we are at Advent 3…  We are really getting into serious Christmas stuff now. It is almost here. It is hoped for and sure to come. It will arrive and it is ‘Almost’. John the ‘dipper’ or the Baptizer is featured yet again. Despite our nearness to Christmas festivity expectations, realized today’s theme seems to be still about Hope. It might be in particular; where can we find hope when all around us things are crumbling?

Yet again on the surface this doesn’t sound very ‘Christmas’ does it? But again, we are invited to explore this just a little more. We might start again with John. Who was John the Baptizer? Well; Scholars speculate that John was a young man, probably in his late 20s – very early 30s. He had spent most of his youth, maybe as many as 14 years or so, living in the desert wilderness. He was also a young man who was passionate about his cause. Some might say ‘obsessed’. Others have even hinted ‘jealous’. Of his (so-called) cousin, Jesus. So contemporary or pre-runner?

Storytellers and poets on the other hand, give a bit more colourful (and imaginative) picture. Matthew describes him, and in a detail never given to Jesus: “John wore a garment made of camel-hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts with wild honey.”

Jack Shea, in a poem in his book ‘Starlight’, says John was: “…a map of a man…  Unexpected angels were pussycats next to this lion” (Shea 1993:175).

Norman Habel, in a collection of poems and paintings – the latter by Pro Hart – has John’s father, the priest Zechariah, say: “That boy, I said, will blaze the promised track for us to follow through the wilderness and back to God… “A chorus of crows out in the yard echoed my inner pride, ‘God, it’s good to be a father! Yes!  It’s great to have a son!’  (Hart & Habel 1990:18).

So, contemporary of Jesus or prophet, and introducer of Jesus?

Well, we might hear Rabbi David Blumenthal, here. In an article published in Cross Currents Magazine e/edition) pointed out: “Judaism does not recognize confession of personal sin to a religious figure as part of the process of sin and repentance.  There is no designated authority to whom one can confess sins; sins are confessed privately, in prayer, before God.  Nor does Judaism recognize penance as a necessary part of the process of sin and repentance.  Although the practice of penances did exist in Jewish life for part of the middle ages, largely under Christian influence, this was never formalized into classic rabbinic theology and practice” (David Blumenthal, 2010). 

So! If he is right there, is every likelihood the early Christian communities made-up the story dialogue between John and Jesus, (including the stories about John!). Their efforts seemed to be designed to show that Jesus, and not John, was the more important. Were they contemporary’s or competitive individuals? As we said last week, from all we know (and do not know) about his preaching style, John strongly claimed that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was a judgement to inspire fear (or at least change) in the ‘disobedient’ – the so-called insider. This suggests that while similar, John’s preaching style was also in contrast to Jesus’ style. Jesus’ style was based in the premis that the nearness of the kingdom or realm or empire of God was an invitation to inspire hope in the ‘ordinary’ – the so-called outsider. The unchosen perhaps.

Here we have two different visions or dreams by which to renew a hurting nation that are still around today so we should not be too surprised when the storyteller we call Matthew
has John asking the question of Jesus:  Who the heck are you – really?

Even to Matthew’s John (and by implication, Matthew’s small community), Jesus did not fit stereotypical ‘messianic’ expectations.

With things constantly getting more difficult between the various developing Jewish communities, not to mention some downright ‘rivalry’ between them, it was proving difficult to maintain everyone’s enthusiasm. We remember here that just like today not everyone believed the same, be it about God or Messiah, or who Jesus was.

One way, Matthew’s community decided to respond to their situation was to look back to some of their earlier experiences to see if they could name something from there. And they remembered the prophet Isaiah and his vision… And remember there is a subtle yet fundamental issue here in looking back It was less about looking back at an historical factual history and more a looking back at the stories as metaphor of immense value in discovering who one was today. So in remembering their past, they hoped it would open a way ahead.

Once again, some words from process theologian John Cobb, might be helpful here: “Those who are wise do not cling to the old forms of hope in a new situation.  They learn from both the fulfilments and the disappointments…  They formulate their hope in new ways.”  (P&F Web site, 2007) It’s not about repeating history or the stories of the past and more about making them real for today, the now.

These telling and hopeful words from John Cobb: “From Jesus we learn that God is to be found in all that makes for life and healing, and for peace and justice…  people were moved by Jesus’ transformation of the way God and the world were understood…  the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire” (P&F Web site, 2007).

And here’s the rub: if one is to advocate ‘the opposite of the order established by the Roman Empire’, then, one’s vision or dream is going to encourage political participation.

Maybe this is what the Advent and Christmas stories are really all about! As Charles Taylor the Quebec-an Philosopher says; the idea of separating politics, religion and nature is a new phenomenon of modernity. In Jesus time that idea did not exist so advent is not just a religious story, it is political and economic at the same time.

So, returning to out advent we have to say that it is good to light Advent candles each year. It, is good to sing Advent songs and Christmas carols. But there is a restlessness and a longing about Advent as well. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert! And a longing for the four traditional themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love, to become concrete – real – in our lives.

This restlessness may be captured in a bloke called John the Baptizer, or ‘dipper’. He comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. And the people – read: the poor, the powerless, those on the edges of society hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’. Look out. You are heading toward a dead end. Be afraid because it/s coming. And their political situation was such they needed a word of hope. Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line as consolidation and amalgamation was becoming the only sensible way forward. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. But this, is not the message we tend to see on our Christmas cards, is it? And rightly so perhaps. But it is the political context of the first Christmas story, and while both John and Jesus chose to follow different dreams, or approaches to generate hope both were seeking to transform their world, and bring an end to war and violence, injustice and oppression.

In one of the gospels that didn’t make it into our Bible, the Gospel of Mary, Peter asks Jesus: what is the sin of the world? Jesus is said to reply: There is no sin.  It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies.

Strangely isn’t it that what we don’t often hear in the church is that ‘there is no sin’. In fact most of us are familiar with church have heard a lot about sin. And more so those of us who are members of the conservative church.

When we think hard about this, we have to consider that for the community of early Christians who appreciated Mary’s Gospel, sin is lack of awareness.  Sin is a fogging over.  Sin is becoming lost in the thoughts, anxieties and desires of our material existence that we live as though we are asleep…” (John Shuck, Who at the time was at First Presbyterian Elizabethton, 2007)

It is good to light Advent candles and sing Advent songs and Christmas carols each year.
But remember, there is also a restlessness and a longing about Advent. A restlessness that says: Be aware!  Be alert!  Be open! Be aware of the assumptions within one’s own world, one’s own culture, within one’s own belief. Be alert so as to see the complexities, the influences and the alternatives. Be open to the new, the surprising, the challenging and the different. With these postures to the fore, the four traditional themes of Advent – hope, peace, joy, and love – can become concrete, can become more likely and certain, can become real, in our lives. Live life with a confidence in the minds ability to be aware, live the alertness that comes from asking the hard questions and explore the adventure of human life that is promise beyond probability and within the possible. This is an Advent born out of two visions of hope. Amen.

Hart, P. & N. Habel. Outback Christmas. Adelaide. Lutheran Publishing House, 1990.
Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. Third edition. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 1993.