Lent 1C, 2019
Luke 4:1-13

A ‘Self Affirming’ Lent…

Wednesday 6th February 2019. The date Lent began this year. Did you eat pancakes on Tuesday as the last day of plenty? And did you note Ash Wednesday on the 6th? Its perhaps significant given the fires that are ravaging many countries in the world in these high temperature experiences. There is a lot of ash about as a result of destructive and regenerative fires. Destructive in the fact that they have destroyed many homes and taken too many lives and regenerative in that they have cleared debris and opened the earth to the regenerative elements. A clear and sure understanding of Lent is required at this time when we face the despair and loss and grief that has been raised by the Ash and the understanding must address the regenerative nature of the production of ash.

At our Ash Wednesday services, we produce ash from burnt palm leaves and other flammable branches and that ash is a symbolic invitation to come down to earth. And to wonder at the gift of life, our life with the earth, the shared body of our existence. And which reminds us of our humanity. Today is the first Sunday in Lent when we reflect on the wilderness experience of the one, we call Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, this story of Jesus’ testing ordeal in the desert, is legendary. However, scholars – at least the ones who influence me – claim this story comes from one of the early traditions of the Jesus movement, which the storytellers, including Luke, adopts. They are not considered to be an eyewitness, historical account.

Traditionally, Lent has been the season of abstinence or self-denial. A time of doing without. A time of fasting. Or heaven forbid a time of sacrifice. That unfortunately has been the way according to much of our broad, church tradition. And it appears to have been a strong motivation over the centuries. But I and many others are not so sure about that any more. The regenerative aspect of fire and the production of ash needs to be considered in liturgies and understandings of Lent. We need to rekindle our faith and be blessed, acknowledge our abundance and our blessedness during this period of Lent… Otherwise it remains a ritual or a practice without credibility. We no longer see the fire as only destructive because we know its warmth, we know its comfort and we know it regenerative power. How many of us actually believe that ‘abstinence’ or ‘self-denial’ is anything other than a self-inflicted attempt to satisfy or assuage guilt and inadequacy. Surely our hope is that Lent might become a time of doing with, a doing more, rather than a doing without. Surely it is a time of self-discovery and self-affirmation, as well as a time to claim our connectedness with the whole of the cosmos, rather than a time of self-denial.

A colleague’s personal observation asks; If you have ever gone on a walk with a bird watcher, perhaps you will know what is being suggested here. The bird watcher’s sense of sight and of hearing seems so acute that nothing is missed. It is seemingly in sync with the birds themselves, yet this sight and hearing are acute amid the very ordinary… the sticks, shrubs, grass, trees. What appears to be a jumble of sticks and noises and flashes of colour, to a trained bird watcher can be a small bird, a blending in parrot or a darting fantail. Walking with a bird watcher one discovers how much there is to be noticed. And one’s walks in the park or paddock become so much richer. The ordinary is seen in a new light. What was there all along, is noticed for the first time. Just because something is there does not mean we automatically see it and understand it. Sometimes perception takes practice. So, the suggestion is for Lent to become ‘forty days’ when we can uncover and discover once again our own worth-fulness, our own potential our own connectedness to the earth and the universe. The task of Lent is Self-discovery and connectedness rather than self-denial and isolation. Lent, is to seen as a life affirming discovery rather than life denying, and this says we are not judged by our past, but by the way in which we relate to our past.

This is not a let off nor and easy option because even a gentle review of our own lives
will uncover moments when we have been faced with decision making. Decisions which have shown our neglect of an inner life. Decisions which have required us to shed emotional garbage. And sometimes these decisions can be called a ‘crisis’. Other times the word used may be ‘testing’. All of them are about how we respond, or our ‘being’ in the world. And in Jesus’ case it was to break the culture of violence characterized by a ‘tit-for-tat’ mentality. So, this Lent, let us dare to accept the invitation of a self-affirming ‘forty days’.

To help do this I want to suggest we take a leaf out of the of the ancient Celts. The first is to see God in the ordinary. Every aspect of Celtic life accepted that the mundane is filled with divine presence. The Celts sensed Spirit’s permeating embrace throughout their daily activities, no matter how ordinary. The Book of Kells and other documents are evidence of the vast collection of prayers, hymns, blessings, and folklore infusing Celtic culture with praises of the regular human experience. They sang and prayed while working, fishing, kneading bread, weaving cloth, milking cows, and kindling the hearth. Dawn ‘til dusk, birth ‘til death, they blessed their existence. We can do this too! Just like them we are immersed in mundane daily routines, and our God is in our midst. Our prayers today can revolve around activities like sitting at computers, driving the car, helping the children with homework, preparing dinner, or watching sports.

Our practice might be to do one ordinary thing each day for six weeks be it rising from our bed, brushing our teeth or turning on the computer if we do this with a liturgical intent, a practice of connection will happen. When we do this action our intent will tune us into some questions like what does my body feel right now? How do I let go of that feeling? How do I acknowledge and move on? How do I note the aches and pains and turn to love?

The next practice might be to observe the unfolding of the particular season we are entering next. The Celts were madly in love with the natural world. Love poems were written to the moon, songs to the seals, prayer rituals performed in rivers. They experienced unity with God in green hills, dark caves, deep wells, cheerful birdsong, and countless other parts of creation. Similar to the Hebrew psalms, cosmic images such as stars, the sun, and planets are woven throughout Celtic literature. They celebrate the “musician of bird call”; they wonder at the “awakener of soil,” and they call out to “the hope-bringer in the night.” Most of us today live inside buildings, rarely venturing into nature unless on a special occasion of hiking, beach walk or park. Even people who work outdoors rarely take the time to recognize the sacredness that surrounds us. It takes a deliberate softening of the heart and a desire to notice the wonder intrinsic in creation.

Our practice might be to intentionally spend one moment each day listening to nature. Be attentive to the buds on a branch in Spring, the leaf fall in Autumn the colour change of the leaves. Watch a cloud drifting by or listen to the wind. Nature is always speaking and we might be open to receive the hidden messages. As we note our senses growing in sensitivity, we will know a deeper experience of being safe and at home.

The next practice might be to explore your love of learning. This is rooted in the understanding that life has as its root the desire to know and thus to learn. The practice will seek to express a love of learning based in the idea that Celtic culture was essentially non-cloistered monasticism. Common folk, pagans and Christian alike were absorbed in a regular schedule of spiritual growth. In pre-Christian times the Druids were the first to foster studying by learning about morality through myths and developing wisdom through prayerful daily routines.

What this suggests is that continual learning and open-minded curiosity fuels spiritual growth. It is too easy to neglect feeding our spirits the nourishing soul food it needs to thrive. Many of us abandon poetry, song and storytelling in the face of hectic schedules and deadlines. Many of us don’t understand what music or poetry do for our wellbeing because we get swept up in the temporal, work as the whole of life’s experience. It is easy to starve our souls when life feels full. The Celts’ love of learning reminds us of our inquisitive heart, and welcomes a yearning to grow wiser.

Our practice might be to actively seek to become more tolerant and more loving, it might also be to establish a process whereby we commit to ongoing self-inquiry. In the next six weeks we might read a book about spirituality or find a workshop where we can attend and experience the search for spirituality. If we do this with all the above intent it will not matter what spiritual bent you participate in because you will be critiquing it for yourself. Even your favourite mindfulness practices can contribute when you see lent as an opportunity to make these alternative explorations of yourself.

Many beautiful people gather for hope, inspiration and self-care. When you share your story, other people get great ideas. The message is that we can all thrive together! Share our story and cultivate a supportive community together. We can see lent as a time and place to love.

Rex Hunt tells of a book he read that said “We are human beings with all the strengths and weaknesses of our species.  Occasionally we reach the heights of heroic self-sacrifice and at other times we sink down into villainous self-serving.  Being aware of the extremes to which we can be drawn is, one of the most important pieces of self-knowledge we will ever possess” (Alsford 2006:140).

As Luke’s Jesus of Nazareth gained an important piece of self-knowledge, we too can face the wilderness experiences of life, often not in any special or heroic way, but simply
as we choose to get up in the morning “and go out into the world to encounter what it has to offer” (Alsford 2006:138).

And in the process, notice the present-ness of the divine or God if you like, right here. In the ordinary. In the everyday. Amen.

Notes:

Alsford, M. 2006.  Heroes and Villains. London: Darton, Longman & Todd.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

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Transfiguration of Jesus

Posted: February 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

Transfiguration of Jesus

Luke 9:28-36

Thick and Thin Places

William Loader from Western Australia says this. He says; ‘Let’s go up the mountain. Let’s go up to the place where the land meets the sky where the earth touches the heavens, to the place of meeting, to the place of mists, to the place of voices and conversations, to the place of listening’… When we read those words many of us will immediately think of Iona and all things ‘celtic’. And one of the things about Iona is that it is a place where one can each day come face to face with the elements: rain, wind, sunshine, thunderstorms and rainbows and beautiful morning mists. Iona… the Hebridean isle to which Columba and his monks travelled over 1400 years ago. And turning their backs on Ireland, commenced a religious community. Iona… regarded by many as a ‘thin place’ between the material and spiritual dimensions of life. What William Loader is doing is picturing a ‘thin place’ in his prayer poem.

With the memory of the Moses story resonating in his mind, and a similar Jesus story as told by Mark some 20 odd years before, Luke weaves his words into a picture-story ‘where the earth touches the heavens, to the place of meeting, to the place of mists, to the place of voices and conversations, to the place of listening’. Lets remember here that none of these stories are recording an historical fact and yet they are saying something true.

I have been reading Elain Pagels autobiography and she writes about her work on the Nag Hammadi documents, especially the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth. She touches on her work on Revelation as well but what fascinated me was her work on the Gospel of Thomas which of course we know to contain a lot of sayings attributed to Jesus.

Video Beyond Belief https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCpXoFPmRFY

Some of the key points she makes are that unlike the Gospel of Mark, Thomas suggests that Jesus was speaking in metaphor when he says “If those who lead you say to you, the kingdom is in the sky, then the birds will get there first. If they say, It is in the sea, then the fish will get there first. Rather the kingdom of God is within you, and outside of you. When you come to know yourselves then you will know that you are the chi9ldren of God”. Here we have Jesus revealing that the kingdom of God is not an actual place in the sky, or anywhere else, or an event expected in human time. Instead, it’s a state of being that we may enter when we come to know who we are, and come to know God as the source of our being. The significant change here is that the ‘good news’ is not only about Jesus, its also about every one of us. This is a direct challenge to our current global obsession with difference and identity. While it may be right and proper to specify how we differ in terms of gender, race. Ethnicity, background and family this saying from Thomas suggests that recognizing that we are children of God requires us to recognize how we are the same. Members of the same family so to speak.

Taking this another step Pagels introduces the poem from the Nag Hammmadi documents entitled ‘Thunder that she worked on and here the unifying thing is the divine energy that links us all. The poem explores the complete mind by not seeing it only in the positive attributes like wisdom, holiness and power but also in terms of negative experiences like foolishness, shame and fear. The following is a short excerpt that gives us a picture of life not as one of sinner in need of redemption, not one of suffering as a result of sinfulness in need of absolution but rather as a holistic one where suffering and struggle are the requirement of life because they empower and affirm that a life of joy and peace is equally available. The poem also reintroduces for the patriarchally driven Jews the required feminine balance…..

I am the first and the last

I am the one who is honoured and the one scorned;

I am the whore and the holy one..

I am the incomprehensible silence and …

the voice of many sounds.

The word in many forms

I am the utterance of my name..

Do not cast anyone out. Or turn anyone away…

I am the one who remains, and the one who dissolves;

I am she who exists in all fear\and strength in trembling

I am she who cries out….

I am cast forth on the face of the earth..

I am the sister of my husband,

And he is my offspring..

But he is the one who gave birth to me

I am the incomprehensible silence

And the thought often remembered

I am the one who has been hated everywhere,

And who has been loved everywhere

I am the one they call Life, and you have called Death

I am the one whose image is great in Egypt

And the one who has no image among the barbarians.

I prepare the bread and my mind within;

I am the knowing of my name..

If our storyteller Luke is one thing, it is that he or she is consistent. Luke has been saying that this Jesus bloke is different, is better, than all the heroes of the past. Luke seems to understand Jesus as a new Moses, who mediates the new ‘law’ to his people and will deliver them out of bondage in a new exodus. It also seems that another of the things being suggested in this ‘thin’ story is, it is saying something important about an experience of God or The Sacred. And that something, is not about any so-called supernatural power or being. The important bit for me, I think, is that when we experience God or The Sacred something like a creative transforming power is released into our lives. We have encountered the thin place in the thick complex environment of life. And this encounter is not brought about by coercion and power over, but rather by lure and suggestion and imagination.

As Jesus was transformed before Peter, James, and John, (as the story goes), God’s so-called ‘will’ is to transform us in the everyday moments of our lives. As another scholar suggests:

  • If your deepest experience is loneliness, it is the will of God to transform you from loneliness to human connectedness.
  • If your deepest feeling is fear and anxiety, then God wishes to move you creatively past that, to love and to trust.

That is, the Source and Creativity of Life we call God, wants to move us beyond the meaninglessness of life to the intensity of living, characterized by joy and by vitality. It is precisely this creative, transforming power of God that moves us from the triviality of our existence to a new level of depth in our existence that will provide joy and zest and empowerment.

Pagels reading of the poem Thunder continues affirming the feminine as the primordial, life-giving energy that brings forth all things and I have taken the liberty of introducing the idea of God as serendipitous creativity. By that I mean that God is the unexpected, uncontainable, ambiguous uncontainable, John D Caputo’s perhaps and my almost. Creativity itself. The involved participatory vitality of possibility, unfolding of the cosmos. The adapted poem continues….

I am

Serendipitous creativity is the thought that lives in the light

It lives in everyone and delves into them all…

Serendipitous creativity moves in every creature..

It is the invisible one in all beings

Serendipitous creativity is a voice speaking softly

A real voice… a voice from the invisible thought It is a mystery….

Serendipitous creativity cries out in everyone

It hides itself in everyone and reveals itself within them,

and every mind seeking it longs for it.

Serendipitous creativity gradually brings forth everything

It is the image of the invisible spirit

The mother, the light, the virgin, the womb, and the voice

Serendipitous creativity puts breath within all things.

The suggestion here I think is that the thin places are to be found in amongst the thick places, in the everyday as well as the time out places. I think this is what the Gospel of Thomas is suggesting as the good news. It is important to take the walks in natural surrounding such as the beach at sunset or the deep lush bush because few of us feel we have ever been in a ‘thin place’ without that because much of our everyday living is done in ‘thick’ places. In the city within concrete and steel landscapes. In the city with its noise and traffic and flashing neon signs. And in ‘thick’ places such as the city we tend not to see paved malls and lawn areas as ‘sacred’ or ‘thin’ space, let alone high-rise buildings or glitzy shopping centers. And amid the mind-blowing achievements “and certainties of technology, it is not difficult to lose our sense of mystery. The challenge of Thomas is that the thin places exist within the everyday life as well. David Tacey, in his book, ‘The spirituality revolution’, cites the 1960s theologian Harvey Cox at a couple of points. “The secular world is the principal arena of God’s work today.  Those who are religious will have to enter more vitally into the secular world if they are to be agents of God’s reconciliation”. And again: “The church… must run to catch up with what God is already doing in the world”. So while it might be a bit hard to hear among all the mythology and storytelling hype, there is more good news in this story of Luke’s.

  • God is not aloof and detached.
  • God’s present-ness is like that of an expert weaver, using the fibers of our lives, weaving them into beautiful, powerful garments of love, empowering us for living and our continuing theological journeys.
  • God is present in both ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ places: in the beauty around us, in the close encounters with death, in a special way during a period of suffering, in cities of concrete and sandstone, in rain forests and church liturgies.

Don’t ignore or throw away these imaginative and mysterious experiences. Don’t let go of those things you don’t understand or cannot explain. Rather, meditate on them. Delight in them. Become a public voice for them. Use them as imaginative power that vitalizes your faith… And as a source of strength for living in both the valley and on the mountain top. In both ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ places. For Serendipitous Creativity God is up to something larger more complex and more refined than we seem able to imagine. Amen.

Radical Social Reversal

Posted: February 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

Radical Social Reversal

Genesis 45: 3-15       Luke 6: 27-38

Joseph suggests that his brothers who committed the most heinous deed of selling him off to their enemies should not wallow in their guilt but rather reconcile and combine energies for the future. Joseph’s task in life was to forgive his brothers restore the familial relations and combine together for the sake of the people. His task is to redeem the bigger picture and their horrific deed pales into insignificance before the needs of the people.

Luke’s Jesus calls us to look at thigs a different way too. He says “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” “Bless those who curse you” and here we remember the meaning of bless as ‘to kneel’ God blesses, God kneels, to bless is to kneel. Here we have blessing as a forgiveness of the horrific act’. And then it gets into harder territory. Jesus is asking us to be passive toward those who strike you, allow those who steal from you to have what they have stolen. Give it away, allow bad to happen to you and do it without expectation of revenge or recognition. Sounds not only impossible but also wrong to do this. We note here that many preachers avoid this text because if they do try to preach on it they feel as though they are walking on eggshells.

 

Why? Because in every congregation there are people who are fragile at various points in their lives, and this story can come like a vicious stomp. A revisiting of the trauma, a dragging it all up again. There are people who hear this story as “Love your rapist.” Or bless those who screwed up your life so badly that every relationship you have ever had has been a painful struggle. “There are women, some men and children who have fled from their homes to escape the drunken rampages of a perpetually violent person, mostly it seems, who have been told by their churches, for God’s sake, they need to turn the other cheek and go back and love him or her.  And some of those partners and children are now dead because of a callous and gutless misuse of this story”.

The first big misuse of this story is to see it as being addressed to the individual. These words of Luke’s Jesus, such as: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
present the other cheek… are not addressed to individual people who have been
the victims of cruel abuse.  Period. They are addressed to those who have power. The power to take effective action for good or harm over another person. They are meaningless if directed to those who don’t have any power in a situation. They link the acts of the perpetrator to culture, social accepted-ness, systemic corruption. Kneel before those alienated by the power of others, collective others as well as individual others. Those with the real power to change things. What follows is a Yes Minister skit that makes fun out of the power game at the level of international politics. Under the script is the question of where the real power lies.

Yes Minister Video

‘Love your enemies’ John Donahue, a Catholic New Testament scholar says this of them; “A true meaning of the love command is not acquiescence to evil and violence, but imitation of God’s love by freeing enemies of their hatred and violent destructiveness…”  (Donahue, 2001, America, online weekly Catholic magazine). 

Jesus’ vision of a radical social reversal was both ‘good news’ and a call to people to do that good in actual practice. Robinson says it is a “call to people to do that good in actual practice… “not [be] seen as human virtues, but rather as God acting through those who [trusted God]” (Robinson 2002:16).

Rex Hunt tells the story of Martin Luther King whom he cites as having done this well.

Martin Luther King Jr’s home was burned down one night by a group of white men
who did not like his message about the equality of the races. The situation after the fire was extremely dangerous. African Americans, under the leadership of King were becoming more confident of themselves, and less willing to be oppressed and neglected by society. And they were angry… Angry about how they had been treated for years by white society. Angry in particular that night that their leader’s home had been destroyed.

A crowd of King’s friends and supporters gathered outside the shell of the burnt-out house. Some talked of getting guns. Others talked about getting petrol and setting fire to the homes of all the white people in the area so they could suffer as the black people had suffered. The crowd wanted to hurt those who had hurt them. They wanted to hurt those who had burned Dr King’s home. They wanted to hurt their enemies. Indeed they wanted to destroy them. That night however did not end up that way. Instead the crowd left their enemies in peace and they went home determined to win the victory with votes instead of with guns, with politics instead of with fire, with love instead of hate.

One of the things Martin Luther King Jr told the crowd that night was this: When you live by the rule ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, you end up with a nation of blind and toothless people. Martin Luther King Jr was a person who tried to live the gospel of radical social reversal.

Bishop Desmond Tutu, twice Nobel Peace Prize and recipient and chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when asked why his country chose to set up the Commission and work the way it did, replied: ‘To be human, we have to live in community, we have to restore community and in the end, only forgiveness will achieve that.  A person is a person through other persons.  Your humanity is caught up in my humanity. If you are de-humanized, then inexorably I am de-humanized. For me to be whole, you have to be whole. If you are a perpetrator, a torn and broken human being who has lost your humanity, then I too am less than whole.’ Desmond Tutu is a person who tries to live the gospel of radical social reversal.

We may not be able to match a King or a Tutu, but we can, and must, give it a go. The current environment in South Africa might be indicating that there is a renewal of turning the other cheek needed because maintaining such a love requires an ongoing commitment. Radical Social reversal is always needed. While we are not likely to be held accountable ‘if there was a reckoning ahead of us’, to why we were not a Martin Luther King or a Desmond Tutu it is more likely that we asked why we didn’t take the modest risks in our situation and push ourselves to our limit, to give life to the stranger, to our neighbour? So, what might be Jesus’ word to us today, as we work our way through thr current world social scene?

https://youtu.be/AoR2lWyngFk

At the root of this day’s challenge is the call to live our lives out of an alternative vision of reality that reverses the values of the dominant culture, especially the ‘values’ of the ruling Empire. The invitation is to nourish our entire life with integrity. Be empowered with compassion, so that we might live a new kind of life in this world.

Notes:
Robinson, J. M. 2002. “What Jesus had to say” in R. W. Hoover, (ed) Profiles of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

Luke 4:21-30

Fall in Love with the World and You Can Never Go Home

Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly aware of just what it means to be saying things close to home, especially those things that can be taken and distorted or used against one when the need arises. So, the challenge in our text is to choose your words carefully if you preach to the people back home!

Towards the end of his second year of ministry, according to our storyteller Luke, Jesus found this out when he decided to go home to Nazareth for a while. Luke is a great storyteller. And this liturgical year we will hear plenty of those stories. So, while this may be a ‘plus’, we also need to acknowledge it can also be a ‘minus’. Why is it a minus? Because, the storyteller’s role is not to preserve historical reality, or facts. A storyteller has a different role. And we meet this in the story today.

When we explore some of the territory around this Lukan story, we find a number of questions that set the scene so to speak. The first is what was happening in Luke’s community for this story to be told? Our experience in life is that there is no such thing as an original thought and that without a context or a reason we are less likely to interpret what the story is about. The second is what is happening in our own stories – family, church, nation – for us to hear and connect with this story? We know that we come to all things with a subjective position. We cannot extract ourselves from anything and out response is always out of what and who we are at the time.

When we apply this thinking to the text, we find that a number of biblical scholars suggests there is no reason to doubt that Jesus visited Nazareth from time to time during his public ministry (GJenks. FFF, 2007). It also seems clear that Jesus made Capernaum, a fishing village on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, his “operational base” (GJenks. FFF web site, 2007).

On the other hand, Luke’s knowledge of the area, having never been there himself, was sketchy at best. He says Nazareth was built on a hill. Well, if it was, it has been moved!
Actually it’s on the slope of a hill.

“It was a tiny village clinging to the edge of its one small spring. There was no cliff over which the villagers might throw Jesus. Of course, having never visited the place, Luke was not to know that; just as most of his readers ever since have been unaware of the actual geography of Nazareth” (G Jenks. FFF web site, 2007).

We may conclude, then, this story is the product of Luke’s imagination “rather than a memory of some actual event passed on to him by others…” (G Jenks. FFF web site, 2007). So, let’s remember when we engage with this text that Luke is writing theology rather than geography or history.

Luke’s Jesus decides to return home. When he did, his people, many of them cousins and near relatives – those whom you would normally expect to be welcoming and accepting – listened, and indeed liked what they initially heard. A local boy made good. This could be good for the local tourist trade! But when they read between the lines and listened some more, especially when pushed a bit, they decide they can’t accept what he has to say. So, they react. This ordinary bloke, one of us, has great potential. But he comes making unrealistic demands, disturbing our fragile village comfortableness.

His story, his claim is much more challenging than we thought. He is actually advocating tat we turn our religious understandings upside down, he is even advocating huge changes to out political, social and economic reality. And really! His views do not match our ideas of ‘God’ or ‘religion’. So, who does he think he is! Or more important: who the hell does he think we are!

The religious institution is alarmed and in response it defends itself. Better the domesticated Jesus at our personal disposal than the challenging Jesus let loose, perhaps even out of control! Sounds very post-modern, it needs to be questioned.

You might remember a few years back when Pauline Hanson appeared on the Australian political scene. Apparently, a political analyst of the time suggested the rise of ‘One Nation’ (as a conservative political party) had a lot to do with the global movement of a ‘politics of anger’. He said that “People are feeling so powerless against forces that seemingly cannot be controlled. Confused by the culture of change, no longer able to recognise the world they once knew, people are turning in anger against their politicians, against their leaders” (KSuter, quoted by R Wiig 1998). With all the changes that the world is facing and the influence of social media all suggest that there is a global disquiet or a loss of hope in a settled world that permeates peoples collective thinking today.

So. were the actions of those in Luke’s story shaped by a ‘politics of anger’? Perhaps.  Or the more important question: what was happening in Luke’s community for him to decide this imaginative story was important for them to hear? How were they acting when faced with new or different ways of thinking and believing and shaping community? The challenge Jesus was bringing the world they knew was huge and life changing. The Romans of Jesus time knew this, the religious leaders of Jesus time knew this so what where the readers of Luke’s time thinking?

Again, to be honest, we can only speculate. Luke is a storyteller not an historian, and he doesn’t help us much. But it could have been something like… What we can suggests is that the people of Luke’s community, just like the so-called people of Jesus’ hometown, were puzzled and disturbed and anxious by the demands of a new and challenging vision of God’s domain. We think that Luke was probably writing in the latter decades of the first century, probably in a thoroughly Hellenistic environment. Scholars speculate on whether the gospel was written in Antioch, which would have been a significant Hellenistic city, or in Asia Minor, in places like Ephesus or Smyrna. In either case, Luke would have been in touch with, and very heavily in dialogue with, Hellenistic culture broadly conceived.

One of the major concerns that the composite work of Luke and Acts addresses is whether Christians can be good citizens of the Roman Empire. After all, their founder was executed as a political criminal, and they were being associated with the destruction of Jerusalem, and some people would have thought of them as incendiaries, as revolutionaries. And Luke in his portrait wants to show that Jesus himself taught an ethic that was entirely compatible with good citizenship of the empire. And that despite the fact that one of the heroes of the Book of Acts was himself executed, namely Paul, although that was a serious mistake and had nothing to do with the political program, it wasn’t in any way dangerous…. The difficulties for the gentile world were the same as for the Jewish Roman world of Jesus.

It was populated with outsiders, with outcasts, with exiles! And it would have contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out! In other words, it discerned the holy or the sacred in the everyday! But Luke’s Jesus continues to nudge and persuade: God’s love is inclusive and embracing and universal, not exclusive.

And no one, not even the so-called ‘God’s people’ should ever think of themselves as privileged. But were they ready to hear this? Or were their reactions going to be shaped by a “politics of anger”? Likewise, an important question in the even broader expression of this story: how are we to be church and express being an inclusive community, today?

How are we the Presbyterian Church in Auckland going to deal with the fact that we are an aging church, that we are becoming smaller? Will we try to ensure the institution survives by redistributing the assets or shifting the governance power towards the center? Will we plan strategies that ensure the survival of what we are and have? Will we engage in a politics of anger based in our fear of disappearing or will we change the world of the poor, destitute and hungry? Not only in the sense of a goal of equity but a transformation of thinking. How are we to be a community driven by an abundant love? What do we need to do to influence a global transformation in the interests of compassion?

And let’s be honest that right now there are many puzzled and agitated people expressing their viewpoints, and sometimes anger, on that broader issue right now! That is the question that we as a congregation are grappling with. How can our expression of community – church or family – as a congregation help in this global debate? This is our acute up-front mission field.

Returning to our text we find that Luke’s story suggests a universalism underpinning life.

This immediately raises a problem for us in that we very quickly relate universalism to assimilation, sameness, suppression of the individual and a dictatorial socialism. In recent years we have seen societies attempt to find a way through the global refugee issues, the breakdown of nationalisms and dare I say it Trump is an example of an attempt to preserve a nationalism that works. Our own country seems to be experiencing a move away for a neo-liberal experiment by introduction of a well-being approach that uses the best of other ideologies. Is it perhaps an attempt to find a workable universalism? More importantly is what does the gospel have to say into this context? What does the Jesus story have to say to us? What would Luke write today?

Luke’s audience seems to be a much more cultured literary kind of audience. His Greek is the highest quality in style of anything in the new testament. It reads more like a novel in the Greek tradition, rather than Mark’s gospel, which has a kind of crude quality at times to the Greek grammar. So, anyone on the street of a Greek city picking up Luke’s gospel would have felt at home with it if they were able to read good Greek…. He’s often called Luke the physician which means he’s portrayed as a kind of educated person from the Greco-Roman world….

When we get to the environment, he is writing into we see that the concerns of Luke’s gospel are a little different. There are political as well as social concerns that we see in the way the story is told precisely because it’s writing for this much more cultured kind of audience. We perhaps can make a connection with this in our time and situation.

Luke’s audience seems to be predominantly gentile…. when they talk about the story of Jesus there’s more of an emphasis on the political situation of Jesus in their day. Jesus is less of a rabble rouser, and so is Paul, for that matter, in these stories. And this suggests something about the situation of the audience, that they are concerned about the way that they will be perceived, the way that the church will be perceived by the Roman authorities. It’s sometimes suggested that Luke’s gospel should be seen as a kind of an apologetic for the beginnings of the Christian movement, trying to make its place in the Roman world, to say, “we’re okay, don’t worry about us, we are just like the rest of you: we keep the peace, we’re law abiding citizens, we have high moral values, we’re good Romans too.” … This suggests that the story may not be directly applicable to our situation given that we live in a larger more complex and diverse global culture.

But maybe Luke would still write that his idea of universalism or “extravagant welcome – to all persons” whether in the church or in our wider community really is the only way to experience abundant life and be all that we can be “in our pluralistic and polarized age” (BEpperly. P&F web site, 2007).

Indeed, such a universalism could be called, falling in love with the world! So, maybe Luke’s challenge and blessing, to and for us is just that. If we can hear it amid all the other seductive calls and demands in our own New Zealand backyard, at this time and in our day. Maybe when we face the church pressures to comply with institutional survival and with compliance with measurement and standards and control being imposed by an institution in decline, we might hear Luke’s call to find the collective, the collaborative, the including way of being and doing. Amen.

Notes:
Sacks, J. The Home we Build Together. Recreating Cociety. London: Continuum, 2007.

rexae74@gmail.com

Children: The Genesis of Hope

Posted: January 24, 2019 in Uncategorized

Children: The Genesis of Hope

A woman living in the slum area of a large city
was asked by a news reporter what hope she has, living as she must.
She points to her children: “They are my hope,” she says. (Alves 2011)

Last week we explored the love that the Wedding story raised and we argued that the marriage relationship is one that can be applied across all relationships. A love that is wholistic and goes the extra mile. Today our Luke reading introduces us to a young Jesus who punches above his weight. He is wise beyond his years and is given the task not only of handling the precious scrolls but also of interpreting them. This raises ideas of intellectual growth and of education. Given that our nation’s children are soon to return to school for the year its appropriate to spend time on them.

One of the best ways of doing this would have been to have a discussion between teachers, parents and pupils because experience is probably the best indicator of where things are at. We can all agree that education is important: be it for adults or children and that there is also much we could learn from a closer observation of and listening to children. A child explores the world with true wonder long before he or she understands what the adults mean by ‘holy’. It seems that a child does not need to be told in solemn pious tones that ‘only God can make a tree’ before discovering the God-given thrill of climbing it, feeling its rough bark against her hands and face, sensing the joy of a new experience. Out of such experiences in the life of a child comes a quickened sense of self-worth, which has important ramifications for all relationships with other persons.

Perhaps this is why the peasant sage called Jesus/Yeshu’a was also so affirming of children. It is also perhaps the reason why the office of the Children’s Commissioner completed a study in 2015 when they asked a number of primary school children what changes are needed to the Education Act 1989. They asked the children a number of questions about what education should be about and at the core of the answers they got was that it should prepare children for the future and equip them with skills and knowledge they need to thrive as adults. Future preparedness was not only defined in terms of employment, but also in terms of gaining skills, fulfilling potential, and learning to learn.

Before we look at what the responses were I want to suggest that the questions asked have a very strong bearing on what the answers will be and I think this is borne out by this study. While it might be pedantic it is a claim that when asked the question; What should the goals for education be? One already has the assumption that there are such things as goals and they are indicative of a linear and measurable process of change.

When asked what the goals of education should be the students replied

 

  • To help students in the best way to learn and to help them achieve their goals and dreams.”
  • “[Education is] important for your brain so you can learn in the future.”
  • “[Education] helps prepare for the future and for life situations, and you get a better chance of getting a job. And it helps you to be confident and avoid conflict.”
  • “To teach children life skills and knowledge that they can use for life.”
  • “So you can get a job and be able to succeed in life.”
  • “To turn the students into young people who can take over.”

 

The answers are interesting in that the second part of he answers is the most informative. Affirm and value dreams, continue to understand the evolving future, be confident in life and avoid conflict, learning has to be able to be applied to real life, it has to enhance human life and it has to empower people to take responsibility for life.

While the answers suggest that any student-centred purpose statement for the Education Act needs to be sufficiently holistic they reduced their learning to the answers being oriented toward “achievement.” They admitted that achievement was not a theme that emerged strongly from the students’ responses, but it was not inconsistent with their views, as long as achievement is defined widely enough to encapsulate their diverse expectations. To address this they asked the students to define what “achievement” meant to them. It was clear that they all aspire to achieve and succeed, but this is not defined in terms of attaining particular qualifications or standards. Rather, the most common thread in the children’s responses defined achievement in terms of setting and completing of goals. It was generally expressed as an intrinsic value, rather than something externally bestowed, and something which produces a state of happiness or satisfaction.

When asked what achievement meant the students replied as follows:

 

 

  • “[Achievement is] when you’re really happy because you were determined to do something, and you reach it. And then you set another goal and work hard.”
  • “It means knowing you can do whatever you want. You know it inside even if others don’t know it.”
  • “To complete something that makes me happy to the best of my abilities.”
  • “The completion of doing something well.”
  •  

Again it is interesting that there is a desire towards a process of integrity, of application to task, and to dealing with reality constructively. It is also clear that there is a need to value and honour instinct and imagination and experience. It is also clear that there is value the self. The commission concluded that there is a need for a wide definition of achievement that incorporates concepts of wellbeing, goal-setting, and fulfilment of individual potential. And that national education priorities should reflect what children themselves want from the education system.

So in the spirit of this humble journey of seeking the act in responsible ways to the lives and needs of children I want to invite you to come on a journey of re-imagination. It’s a journey I owe much to Rex Hunt an Australian Colleague and to some people of his congregation and with a little modification for our use here it is…..

We have heard from the story of creation in Genesis Chapter 1 and remembering that story, we now re-imagine it not as a mythical story of the creation of the world, but as a mythical story of the creation of children.

In a beginning…

At the start of every life, an environment must be created favourable to life. Otherwise a child’s surroundings would have no form or shape and would be empty and unoccupied.

So we who know the sights, sounds and dangers of inadequacy and excess, must move over the face of such a world to prepare it for a living child. We must seek the wellbeing of the child and the world.

And G-o-d said: ‘Let there be light…’


All through their life, children will be faced with a mixture of light and darkness. The child comes from the darkness of the mother’s body into the world where the light hurts its eyes. But light is good for the baby and all children must have lots of it all their life.

  • We must see to it that the lights are turned on so the child’s life will not be lived in the shadows of a darkened world. We must also ensure the benefits of the darkness in its contribution to light.

And G-o-d said: ‘Let their be a dome…’

A child must have support when born, just as the planets must be supported in the sky. And even though a child’s prenatal experience in the mother is a water event, the actual birth sets the child upon the solid earth.

  • This earth, its water and its atmosphere will be the child’s home as long as the child lives. And it is here, on earth, that the child must learn to live just as other forms of life
    live on the earth and in the sea. Because this earth is the only one we have.

And G-o-d said: ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation…’

It is important a child be provided with a total environment favourable to healthy development. This means green grass, plants, trees, and all kinds of fruit, for healthy nourishment.

A child’s life cannot mature properly where the world of rivers, lakes and bush lands have been overcome by asphalt and brick, let alone polluted streams and poisoned foods.

  • A total environment must be given every child with nature’s surroundings at their finest and best.

And G-o-d said: ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures…

Every child needs to know animals, what their kind is, and put a name on each, as though each were the value of a person. And the child will have a ‘reverence for life’ – life of all kinds for this is a part of the world of nature and part of their own nature.

  • We will need to relearn so we can teach that the reverence for life makes no distinction
    between more precious and less precious lives.

And G-o-d said: ‘Let us make humankind in our image…

A person is not ‘made’ all at once but is ‘grown’ from a baby. Each child is born with a creative potential which can only become known as the child develops talents and abilities. And while this earth and everything in it is the child’s domain, each child must see to it that the balance of nature is maintained; food is provided for all earth’s people,
and life be made better for all living creatures.

  • We must see to it that all children are given this birthright and this heritage – to be able to live life fully, and to develop their capabilities to the fullest, ever mindful of the responsibilities, since we all walk this earth – its future in our hands.

The early stages of life are seldom entirely outgrown. Rather, they become the platforms on which further stages of development are built. They must be supplemented by overlays of new levels of information that will shape the patterns of life. So what this day celebrates is indeed important work!

Let us count it a privilege to walk with our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews. et us offer to shape their beliefs. But always allow our beliefs to be reshaped by them.

The wise among us call that wisdom. And let us enable our children to wonder…
“We are collections of long-nurtured solutions that have worked. It took a long time and a lot of editing to make every one of our molecules. As offspring of such a long streak of inspiring successes, let’s allow ourselves [and our children and grand children] just a brief, momentary, ‘Yeaaaay!’ (Fleischman 2013:255)

Rex offers a poem to finish with.

It is called:                               “A Short But True Story of You”.

You are made of star-stuff.
You are related to every other living thing on Earth.

You breathe out a gas that gives life to plants,
and plants breathe out a gas that gives life to you.

You are part of a wonderful web of life on a planet spinning in space.
When you die, someday, the elements of your body
will become a part of clouds and crystals,
seas and new living things.

You can think and wonder, love and learn.
You have the gift of life. (Anderson & Brotman 2004)

Let us remember all children and commit ourselves to
their growth and safety,
their health and education,
their uniqueness and
their unfolding beauty.

Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture. Eugene. Wipf & Stock, 2011.
Anderson, L. & C. Brotman. Kid’s Book of Awesome Stuff. Biddeford. Brotman Marsh-Field Curriculums, 2004.
Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013.
Gibran, K. The Prophet. London. Heinemann, 1926/1969.

rexae74@gmail.com

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The Wedding Dream

Posted: January 18, 2019 in Uncategorized

The Wedding Dream

John 2:1-11

The Cana story is surely one of the most charming in all the Bible.
And John is the only one to tell this story. The wedding itself would have been a great social occasion. A celebration probably for the whole community. It would have been a significant event in the life of a community. This makes the fact that the wine ran out a matter of significance also. What bad planning it must have been, or there was a serious under-estimation of how much was needed. What we don’t know is how many days the party had been celebrating when the wine actually ran out but we do know that weddings were traditionally occasions for festivities lasting a week or more. Relatives sometimes traveled great distances, and friends and neighbours poured in. The groom’s father usually paid the bill!

Some of the questions we might ask at the beginning is; How did the story survive in the tradition till the time of John’s gospel? Why did not one of the other evangelists pick it up? And how indeed does it fit into John’s gospel? And perhaps the most important question; What is the real focus of this story? Is it the Wedding or what came later? The central issue was it seems the running out of the wine.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but it is a great story so it’s worth exploring what meaning we might give to it, so let’s have a go.

First of all we might start with the Gospel of John itself and suggest that like so much of the Gospel of John, the story of the wedding at Cana has a curious luminousness about it, the quality almost of a dream where every gesture, every detail, suggests the presence of meaning beneath meaning, where people move with a kind of ritual stateliness, faces melting into other faces, voices speaking words of elusive but inexhaustible significance.

And let’s remember here that we are not talking about miracles. The issue is not about Jesus turning water into wine but rather John’s concern to suggest that it is the sign that matters. For some there is a claim that we should take this story as written testimony to Jesus’ powers over the laws of nature. That he has somehow miraculously violated the laws of fermentation and instantaneously turned plain old tap water into wine of the best available vintage. But John never calls any of the signs Jesus performs miracles.
To John, these are ‘signs’, and signs are objects or gestures with one meaning that suggests another. John has a concern with events that show who Jesus is and what his ministry is about. These events some have called miracles are actually signs, doors into, indicators of something more and not supernatural examples.

So, what is the sign here? We note that it is on the third day that the wedding takes place; the third day that Jesus comes to change the water into wine, and in the way of dreams the number 3 calls up that other third day when just at daybreak, in another way and toward another end, Jesus came and changed despair into rejoicing. Water into wine would say that the party can go on and that has to be good. There are also the six stone jars, and we might wonder why six? Is there some sort of echo half-heard of the six days of creation perhaps, the six days that preceded the seventh and holiest day, God’s day? God breathed into and it was good.

And then the cryptic words that Jesus speaks to his mother with their inexplicable sharpness. Were they, a fore-shadowing of an hour beyond this hour in Cana of astonished gladness and feasting, of a final hour that was yet not final? But beyond the mystery of what it means, detail by detail, level beneath level, maybe the most important part of a dream is the part that stays with you when you wake up from it.

It can be a sense of revulsion at some hidden ugliness laid bare. It can be a kind of aching homesickness for some beauty that existed only in the dream. There are dreams which it is impossible to remember anything about at all except that they were good dreams and that we are somehow the better for having dreamed them. But taking this story in John as a dream, I think that what we carry from it most powerfully is simply a feeling for the joy of it—a wedding that almost flopped except that then this strange, stern guest came and worked a miracle and it turned out to be the best wedding of all. Certainly, it is because of the joy of it that it is remembered in the marriage service.

But joy or no joy, people also cry at weddings. It is part of the tradition. Women are said to cry especially, all dressed up in their white gloves and their best hats with the tears running down, but I have known grown men to cry too and sometimes even the minister forgets to worry about whether his robe is straight and whether the best man has remembered the ring and has to hold tight to his prayer book to keep down the lump in his own throat. Just the sheer joy at the commitment of two people to a relationship that is seen as the most significant one in one’s life is heart moving and often brings tears to the fore. Sometimes the tears are good tears, tears as a response to the mystery not only of human love but of human finitude, the seemingly idiotic faith placed in a human decision, the transience of things.

But more often than not, I suspect, the tears that are shed at weddings are not to be taken too seriously because they are mainly sentimental tears, and although I suppose that they do little harm, I would be surprised to hear that they ever did much good. To be sentimental is to react not so much to something that is happening as to your own reaction to something that is happening, so that when a person cries sentimentally, what he or she is really crying at very often is the pathos of his own tears. When we shed tears at a wedding, our tears are likely to have a great deal less to do with the bride and groom than with all the old dreams or regrets that the bride and groom have occasioned in us.

In our sentimentality, we think, “How wonderful that they are going to live happily ever after,” or “How terrible that they are never going to be so happy again,” and then we relate it all to our own happiness or our own lost happiness and weep eloquently at ourselves. It is all innocent enough, surely, except that it keeps us just one step further than we already are, and God knows that is far enough, from the reality of what is going on outside our own skins; and the reality of what is going on outside our own skins is the reality of other people with all their dreams and regrets, their happiness, the pathos not of ourselves for once but of them.

The reality of the bride and groom, which is also their joy, is of course that they love each other; but whereas sentimentality tends to stop right there and have a good cry, candor has to move on with eyes at least dry enough to see through. They love each other indeed, and in a grim world their love is a delight to behold, but love as a response of the heart to loveliness, love as an emotion, is only part of love and of what a Christian wedding celebrates, and beyond it are levels that sentimentality cannot see. Because the promises that are given are not just promises to love the other when the other is lovely and lovable, but to love the other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, and that means to love the other even at half-past three in the morning when the baby is crying and to love each other with a terrible cold in the head and when the bills have to be paid. From my own experience it is the love that enables the relationship to continue when a partner is lost to Alzheimer’s or to death. The love that is affirmed at a wedding is not just a condition of the heart but an act of the will, and the promise that love makes is to will the other’s good even at the expense sometimes of its own good—and that is quite a promise. It is what makes one return again and again to an abusive relationship and to being there till any need of the other is removed.

Whether the bride and groom are to live happily ever after or never to be so happy again depends entirely on how faithfully, they are able to keep that promise, not to obey and bury self in service of the other but rather as a willingness to seek the relationships wellbeing. Just as the happiness of us all depends on how faithfully we also are able to keep such promises, and not just to a husband or a wife, but to each ‘other’ we encounter in life. Because, selfless love when it is limited to that can become finally just another kind of self-centeredness with two selves in the center instead of one and all the more impregnable for that reason. The loving relationship between two people cannot be sustained in isolation. It has to engage in the world.

Dostoevsky describes Alexei Karamazov falling asleep and dreaming about the wedding at Cana, and for him too it is a dream of indescribable joy, but when he wakes from it, he does a curious thing. He throws himself down on the earth and embraces it. He kisses the earth and among tears that are in no way sentimental because they are turned not inward but outward, he forgives the earth and begs its forgiveness and vows to love it forever. And that is the heart of it, after all, and matrimony is called holy because this brave and fateful promise of a man and a woman to love and honour and serve each other through thick and thin looks beyond itself to more fateful promises still and speaks mightily of what human life at its most human and its most alive and most holy must always be.

A dream is a compression of time where the dreamer can live through a whole constellation of events in no more time than it takes a curtain to rustle in the room where he sleeps. In dreams, time does not flow on so much as it flows up, like water from a deep spring. And in this way every wedding is a dream, and every word that is spoken there means more than it says, and every gesture—the clasping of hands, the giving of rings—is rich with mystery. Part of the mystery is that beyond the limits of our imagination Jesus as the Messiah or The Christ is there as he was in Cana once, and the joy of a wedding, and maybe even sometimes the tears, are the miracle. In this story when the wedding feast was over, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and started out for the hour that had not yet come but was to come soon enough, the hour when he too was to embrace the whole earth and water it with more than his tears. Again, we have in this dream the depth and breadth of this marriage relationship, this relationship with each other.

And so, it was also, we hope, with the bride and groom at Cana and with every bride and groom and let’s not forget, all human relationships — that the love we bear one another and the joy we take in one another may help us grow in love for this whole troubled world where in the end our loving transforms things and where children seek to absorb this love as the means of life.

The created world is in itself a wondrous splendour and it is our freedom to destroy it or not. Participation in this created splendour is the beginning and the end of all our lives, but ours are our lives themselves, to hoard in misery and to indulge with anxiety and fear or to give away in joy. The revelation of goodness is the gift of power and the glory, but ours is the ear that is deaf to its manifestation, the tongue that is mute in its transformation and the eye that is blind to its beauty. The sign is that the love of the Christ is ours to share and we can either leave it on the cross are share it with each other.

Turning water into wine is about loving the unlovable, the bitter and the lonely. It is about caring for the very slow, and the very old. It is about unleashing the forgotten and the joyless and opening ourselves to the new born and the dying. Amen.

Liberation of Life

Posted: January 8, 2019 in Uncategorized

Baptism of Jesus C, 2019

Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Liberation of Life

Here we are again. At the beginning of another calendar year and already into Epiphany of the Christian year. As is the custom we are in the week after the day of Epiphany and as is required in the lectionary into the Baptism of Jesus. This time it is in the Luke year and we began introducing John a couple of weeks ago when we spoke of John as the cousin of Jesus in their particular mother’s womb. I have also on occasion suggested that John and Jesus were similar in faith but different in approach or different in theology. For John, it was a sad world and one that is fear driven whereas I suggested that Jesus’ world was potential-filled and love driven.

Today I want to begin by asking some questions and then suggest a way forward. One of the options by way of theme for today is Baptism but what I don’t want to do is build a case for what I think Baptism is or what it does but rather begin by accepting it as a rite that says more than its practice reveals. I want to start my thinking on the basis that Jesus offers an alternative to a fear-based life. Not in the sense of ignoring the fact that struggle is a part of human living. Not everything is smooth sailing. But rather, there is a life driven not by a response to evil or to all the negative things that make up life or seem to dominate it on many occasions and I think that this is what Jesus is on about. I want to see if I can find an alternative mode of living that I think Jesus is advocating.

I know this is perhaps idealistic and may even seem unrealistic because it seems that evidence is against a love-driven world. Our road toll goes up more than down, our prisons are full and we need more, debates about lock them up and throw away the keys battle with the costs and efforts required for rehabilitation and restorative justice. The punitive approach seems to fail us even when we do it in the cause of public safety. Even community safety seems elusive and so we add more rules and regulations to living seeking this eldorado that always seems to elude us.

I told a story some years back after 9/11 where a man at an airport checkpoint had simply forgotten to take the loose change out of his pockets and had set off one of the metal detectors. Unaware he had done this, he kept on walking toward the gate lounge. It was nothing really.  No big deal. But when the security officer shouted “Stop!” everybody in the whole area froze, and the airport grew deathly silent. You could almost touch the fear in the air. Upon reflecting an observer said: “You know, I think the old world where we thought we were safe and secure is gone forever.

What happened back there suggests that a major transformation in thinking is required. It also suggests that we don’t know what’s going to happen next in the world, and this makes us anxious and afraid. The fact of the matter is, we were already afraid and after 9/11 more afraid than we used to be. John the Baptist’s message was different from Jesus’. Interestingly, for the most part, John’s message was one of fear!

Returning to our text in Luke and his story, we remember that Jesus was about 30 when he went to hear John the Baptizer, preach and on one of those occasions, it seems to be more implied than actually said – Jesus was baptized. Luke doesn’t say where Jesus was baptized. Neither does Luke say who baptized Jesus. However, tradition has it that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan and that the agent of that baptism was John. We note here that this interpretation comes for a blending of stories from the other gospels. Not from Luke.

So, allowing for what really was probably an embarrassment for the early Jesus/Christian movements… we focus on two questions: • What might there have been in John’s message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism? • And what might have he experienced during his baptism and days spent in the wilderness that reportedly followed?

According to John Beverley Butcher in the introduction to his book, An uncommon lectionary, the evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Butcher suggests:

“Without Jesus’ baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history!  The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently” (Butcher 2002). For Butcher, this event was of “pivotal significance… in the life of Jesus”. For storyteller Luke, it too was a significant moment. But one that has got him and others in the early Jesus-cum-Christian movement, into a fair amount of trouble, it seems.

And just in case you think assigning a fear-based motivation to Johns approach to life is simplistic and perhaps over-done, another commentator, Bruce Epperly, (Epperly 2007) tells this story that I think builds on my case for a fear-driven fixation by offering a more positive approach. Epperly says that: “The North African Desert Mothers and Fathers tell the story of a monk who came to his spiritual guide with a question about the next steps in his spiritual journey.  The monk described his monastic solitude and daily rituals and then asked what more he could to in order to experience God in his life.  His spiritual guide simply responded with the words, ‘Become fire!’” And then he goes on to offer this comment: “Today’s scriptures invite progressive and mainstream Christians to ‘become fire.’  This is the heart of John the Baptist’s response…  While the meaning of John’s affirmation is unclear, -and here I think Epperly is questioning John’s fear-based approach, ‘fire’ surely points to the energetic nature of God’s presence in our spiritual lives.  Our faith journey is meant to embody the energy of the ‘big bang’ or ‘big birth’ of the cosmos.  God’s energy flows through our lives in each moment.  We are the children of cosmic stardust and cosmic energy, who are meant… not only to live but to live well and live better” (Epperly P&F website, 2007). A fire-based approach to life is not a fear based one.

And here we recall the opening scene of Jesus’ public ministry, when he appears before his home synagogue gathering, the storyteller Luke has Jesus using the words of Isaiah

to describe the significance of this baptism event. Surprisingly, baptism is not a word or call to the mission, sending him into the future. It is about the delight of God in this beloved, this chosen, this person called by name. We read this as baptism not be a calling to ‘do’. But a calling to ‘be’… and it is this calling that liberates for life. One does not have to ‘do’ anything as a result of baptism. One has to be this chosen one, this transformed person, this reoriented one as a result of an awareness of one’s preciousness in the eyes of God.

I want to take this idea of being a bit further and see it as the outcome of life as a progressive Christian. A follower of the Jesus Way as opposed to one who somehow is a better person because of a belief. I think this has something to do with how one avoids doing in order to be good and the being good.

Two distinct threads of interest that have dominated my thinking in recent years and the first is my evolving Christian faith as a progressive Christian, In this question, are all the challenges of what it means to be a non-theist, non-literalist Christian and what is belief and what do I believe? and the second is mental health, what is fully human life when one has Alzheimer’s or dementia or some sort of mental struggle. I always saw these two threads as separate, but recently they have become more and more intertwined. As strange as it may sound, both threads have led me to ask questions about mindfulness and mindfulness seems to be more about being than doing.

But is mindfulness just an evolution of yoga? Is it another way of saying meditation? Or is it something different. Is it perhaps contemplative ministry evolving into the 1st Century? Is meditation a combination of mindfulness and cognitive therapy? What is true is that a focus on mindfulness has a lifeline for some people with something like depression, and in some cases, techniques like these have become a matter of survival. Others have found that whatever the situation, mindfulness can give them a better perspective and leave them feeling more alive, awake and present.

So, what do we mean by mindfulness? A definition that seems ok to me says that the basic principles of mindfulness are very simple and yet utterly counter-intuitive. Mindfulness is about intentionally bringing our awareness to the present moment by paying attention to the sensations, sights and sounds around us, and calmly noticing – without judgment – the thoughts and feelings that arise. The aim is to interrupt the mind’s natural tendency to be somewhere other than here and now, and to recognize that our thoughts and emotions are products of our minds and do not necessarily represent reality. Observing and interacting with our own thoughts in this counter-intuitive way allows us to take control of our minds and improve our experience of life. I am not sure that the space between conscious and unconscious is a simple as that nor do I think it challenges the fear-based thinking but it is a very good cognitive approach, I think. And it does base itself in the assumption that a non-fear-based approach is possible. It may even support my contention that goodness has a natural priory and that doing or attempting to do can get in the road of being.

In regard to the mindfulness being explored today we need to recognize that it while being largely secularized, many Christians still feel uneasy about its Buddhist roots. Many of us were taught when growing up, that Christianity and Buddhism were in opposition to one another. But as a progressive, they both offer valuable insights into what it means to be fully human and fully alive, and as far as we can see are entirely compatible. We acknowledge also that within Christianity itself there is a rich tradition of practices very similar to mindfulness, but in modern western Protestantism, these have largely been forgotten or at least sidelined by an exclusively belief driven agenda. Experience has been assigned to the emotional charismatic movement whereas contemplative Christianity contains within it much of the same mind-training principles that are found within mindfulness. There are differences, but the basic approach is very similar.

But what happens when beliefs no longer provide an anchor in one’s faith? What happens when one’s skeptical being thrives? Well! First of all we might see Christianity as offering a revolutionary way of being in the world rather than living life in response to a concrete set of beliefs. And let’s be clear here, this is not easy but it seems to have integrity if one is on a Faith Journey, if one is on a pilgrimage. I for one have thought of life as a journey but have not always held this view about belief. My recent life has been about my experience of “deconstructing” the static belief system I was taught to hold above all else, I was fortunate not to have had a strong literalized biblical faith from which to evolve but I do recognize my literalism, my dogmatism, my reliance on creeds, and my exclusive cognitive world. I recognize my arrogance; bullying nature and I lament the obnoxious righteousness of my behaviour as one who has the answers. I also recognize the struggle in dealing with the confusion, grief and existential chaos this process of deconstruction and rebuilding has entailed.

During the last 20 years, I have effectively tried to think my way through what felt like one long “crisis of faith”, looking for solid answers to construct a new belief system I could hold onto. I eventually realized there would be no end to this search. I saw that this desire for answers was less about being human and more about being culturally on top of things.

I discovered I would have to learn to be at peace with uncertainty, or my thinking would become increasingly obsessive and unhealthy. I discovered I would have to embrace ambiguity or I would burn out in the face of a never-ending test. I have yet to find out for myself but many say that mindfulness helps them to find that peace. Rather than forever trying to understand and explain everything, one can focus on what is actually going on around them and allow their authenticity to become part of the picture of the mind. With contemplation, one can be more awake to everyday experiences, more present with other people, and more appreciative of the beauty of it all. I had a recent experience of this when telling my personal story, I got the sense of it being too introspective, too much all about me and I began to ask questions of the others in the room. Questions as to who they were, and not what they do.

I still have beliefs and hopes about God and the spiritual aspects of life, but they are no longer my anchor. I can say I don’t believe in the traditional God yet believe there is a Serendipitous Creativity that I might name God. I can jokingly say I don’t think God exists, yet say that what I name God does. I can say that I am a follower of Jesus but not of the person with the surname Christ. I can say I question all that is said about the post-Easter Jesus while affirming a single starting point of the pre-Easter Jesus. So, when beliefs shift, as they inevitably do, One, need not be as disorientated as they once were. Our anchor is this moment, this breath. we cannot control the nature of God or the reliability of biblical texts, but we can control how we respond to life in each moment. I for one, am finding this to be a much healthier way to be, and indeed a more authentic Christian way. We can be centered, calm and fully alive without feeling the need to understand everything. So, here’s a vote for mindfulness, here’s also a vote for what it can say to the church as a means of awakening to the divine presence.

The main difference between contemplative prayer and mindfulness is that the aim of prayer has a focus on being and seeks the union with the divine rather than simply bringing your attention to the present moment. It reminds us also of the authentic engagement with one’s context, environment and with all of the natural world. Baptism asks the questions about how to be and contemplative mindfulness reveals where one might be. Where better to seek divine engagement than in the beauty of nature and the gift of each breath? Where better to seek the divine engagement than in the coolness of the breeze, the sound of laughter or the faces of those we pass by on the street?

Nothing provokes a sense of awe and gratitude like being fully awake and present to the world in front of my eyes. It can feel a lot like the presence of that which we name God. Amen.

Notes:

Bradley, I. 2000.  Colonies of Heaven. Celtic models for today’s church. London: D L & T.

Butcher, J. B. 2002.  An Uncommon Lectionary. A companion to Common Lectionaries. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

Ludemann, G. 1998. Virgin Birth? The real story of Mary and her son Jesus. Translated: John Bowden. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International

Miller, R. J. 2003.  Born Divine. The births of Jesus and other sons of God. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press.

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