A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
This Pause, This Stilling of the Air
December 30, 2007
Christmas 1 Matthew 2:13-23
Well, the wait and the anticipation are over. Gifts have been given and wowed over or not, gargantuan quantities of food has been consumed, lots of good NZ wine drunk and hopefully much laughter and catching up with those people that we have missed during the year yet are an important part of the fabric of our lives. We remember times past nostalgically, we think of Christmases past, we relive and reinforce family traditions, maybe create new ones and think of the changes and losses over the years.
We finally get to relax after all the demands of preparation, and it goes in a flash. For most it is a time of fun, of merrymaking, of joy, of giving – for others, sadly, it accentuates problems and pain – feelings are heightened at this time.
Christmas is a wonderful and strangely human season. At the same time as being the culmination of the secular working year and a time for festivity and celebration, it pre-eminently signifies the beginning of Christianity with the birth of Jesus. It is like a pause, a stilling of the air, an oasis in the everyday stuff of life. One where we unconsciously acknowledge the creative process of birth that reveals our very human vulnerability. This pause or stilling of the air tends to come after all the traditional Christmas day festivities, and seems to hold to New Year. It is like a no-mans land where we are given time to laze, reflect and enjoy quiet streets and wander about in old comfortable gear finishing off the remains of Christmas day, reading that new book, watching that new DVD, or maybe just sleeping whenever we feel like it. Compulsion is gone and this can be a welcome plateau of respite from the daily toil.
To recap the Advent season – it begins with prophetic warnings and calls to repentance, to the profound faith and acceptance of a pregnant woman, to the in-breaking of God – the birth of Jesus into the world, then we go out again to a world that hurts and is glorious at the same time – full of pain and promise, where we are all blessed and broken.
Reading all the biblical texts before Christmas is like waiting for presents as a child – you just know they are coming and its SO exciting because its all out there coming towards you with all the bustle, rustle and expectation – and even though you know about Christmas and the real story too, it is still the most special time, year in and year out
So today’s gospel text brings us back to reality. After all the celebration and bells and angels and singing and sparkly things, it brings a shaft of darkness, a reminder that blessing and tragedy are part of one another, that we see goodness and love always against the backdrop of fear and destruction.
The gospel today speaks of the darkness of the soul of a man who will ruthlessly murder all babies up to the age of two in his attempt to maintain power and glory for himself. It is often observed that this passage in Matthew is a variation on the biblical theme of rescue, this time paralleling the rescue of Moses in the bulrushes when he is escaping the deathly hands of the mighty Pharaoh in Egypt.
But as a wider reading, at heart, it is about all people who hold supreme power and control over others, and how they use it. Herod was part of a cruel dynastic succession of rulers aided by Rome. These represent rulers who become degenerate in their seemingly limitless power and become megalomaniac, jealous and fearful.
For that is what this story indicates: Herod was fearful of being supplanted, jealous of any threat to his power and supremacy – enough to wantonly massacre countless innocent children on the basis of a rumour, in an attempt to head off any challenge to his primacy and absolute power.
This brings me to the shock I felt this week when hearing of the murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. The stilling of the air is rent with gunshots and bombs. Apart from feeling sick about the tragedy, the gravity and the bloody turmoil this action is unleashing, apart from feeling the desperation of those who want a more free and representative society and their sheer anguish at the dashing of these hopes – apart from wanting to strike out at her assassins and the plotters myself in my impotent fury – apart from the fact that she was beautiful, intelligent, fallible and courageous, and was trying to bring some justice, however slight, to her country, apart from all the terrible waste and blighted ignorance.
It all comes back to the threat she posed to someone, somebody, some set of interests, local and/or global, some mad and sad religious misogynist and more.
These people who did not want her, what she represented, her politics and her danger. So now she is dead – a gory bloody public death for trying to do something that threatened the greed of others. So another martyr is created.
I often feel hopeless as I watch from my cosseted place here in New Zealand – the international jockeying for power and control, for resources and wealth. It is obscene and makes degenerates of powerful people, so that life and death are merely part of a statistical analysis, where life is totally expendable, where it is always the lower socio-economic who fight the wars, who suffer and starve, and therefore, die.
This is the world we live in: one of privilege that all our societies appear to rest upon.
For they do – don’t they?
What can we do? How can we be heard? What is it that we must do to stop becoming complacent and seduced by our western consumerist lifestyle that is gobbling up the world and swallowing people’s souls? How do we overcome our fears? Are we to take inspiration from the Berlin Wall and see our thoughts, our actions, our prayers as miniscule contributions to the dismantling of unjust regimes and political ideologies? Do we write, join local and global justice movements?
Give that extra time and effort to try to understand our place and our responsibilities too? Above all, how do we keep our courage and our conviction in front of us, driving us to action, however limited small and pathetic we may perceive it?
A major theme running through this gospel reading is to preserve life amidst death and destruction. We are in that life this very moment, and I think that this period of time between Christmas and New year, “this pause, this stilling of the air” can be a time of deep reflection for all of us, to be used as an intentional respite from everyday demands and to dwell on the sort of world we live in, what it asks of us as Christians personally and communally. Here we can have our own “flight into Egypt” and consider our lives and our choices in a world where alongside the beauty, the potential, and the love, the darkness of Herod is ever present.
Most mornings when I open the doors of the Church there are people sleeping in the porch. They are people who sleep rough and live rough. The porch offers some shelter from the wind and rain.
One morning as I greeted the two whose slumber I had disturbed we fell into conversation. They told me they were travelling. They’d come from down South. They told me they were following a star. They also told me they were on a ‘mission from God’.
I smiled. I thought I might find out back some camels wearing dark glasses. They weren’t smiling though, they were dead-certain serious.
There is a biblical admonition to not discount the insights of those labelled foolish. I wondered whether I was missing the reality of what these sojourners could see. Street dwellers’ reality, albeit affected from time to time by substances and illnesses, offers its own wisdom. Just as my reality, albeit affected from time to time by work and worry, offers its own wisdom too.
I asked the two travellers a little more about the star and the direction it was pointing in. They told me: ‘Stars don’t point’. They also told me, with an eye of suspicion, that it was their star and I needed to find my own. The conversation ended shortly afterwards.
But the point was taken. I, we, need to find our own star, our own guide, into the mystery of the night.
Jesus was the real star of Christmas. Not the baby, but the adult. The two Nativity accounts were the last things written about the man, and are among the least historical. What they do however is to weave the great themes of his life back into his beginning.
He was from a Galilean backwater known for breeding sedition. He was the child of an unmarried mother in a time that presumed the mother’s sexual infidelity or violation or both. He was an outsider. Although the Nativity sprinkles his story with the glitter of Abraham, Moses, and David, including a liberal shower of angels and miracles, Jesus essentially remained beyond religious and political power with the troublesome outsiders.
These outsiders included petty thieves like shepherds. Forget our modern-day version of shepherds on quad bikes whistling at Border Collies, the 1st century Palestinian variety were a rough lot. Jesus the adult would associate with a number of people who were considered law-breakers and immoral – like tax collectors, prostitutes, and soldiers.
These outsiders included Gentiles. These were people who weren’t of the Jewish race, culture, or faith. They didn’t keep the purity laws. They worshipped idols and false gods. They were troublesome pagans. They weren’t to be trusted or believed. Those “three kings from Orient are” who followed the wandering star, bringing their own symbolic gifts, were Gentiles. Jesus the adult regularly associated with such foreigners.
These outsiders included the rebellious. Like the host of angels. Forget the pretty things in white with wings and halos. This hilltop choir were singing politics, songs of the barricades, songs that could get you killed. ‘Saviour’, ‘Lord’, and bringer of ‘Peace’ were titles of imperial proclamation. They were the property of Caesar Augustus, whose empire blanketed Palestine. ‘Messiah’ was a Jewish title associated with political independence from Rome. The angelic band was singing ‘Jesus saves, Caesar sucks’. Despite editorial gloss, there is plenty of evidence that Jesus the adult was a political threat and was killed for it.
Jesus was the real star of Christmas because the Early Church believed that by his light they could see truth. By his light they could see each other more clearly, and the spiritual and political needs of the world. Jesus the adult broke barriers of prejudice, exclusion, and hatred in order that justice, love, and compassion might prevail. He knew he was up against it; for the powerful profit from poverty and trade in human misery.
As I was musing the two rough sleepers who were following their star disappeared into the anonymity of the morning traffic. The city was waking to the jingle of cheap Santas, tinsel, and tunes. They’d gone to find food and then continue their quest.
The early communities who wrote the first Christmas called Jesus ‘Emmanuel’. It means ‘God with and within us’. This was the experience of those communities: Jesus was physically gone but the presence of the God known in him lived on in their midst. The star of Christmas was now in and among them, leading them into Jesus’ vision of radical egalitarianism. That star would lead them into rebellion, struggle, suffering, hope, and freedom.
We don’t have to journey to far off lands. We don’t have to travel at night, be a king or Magi, or learn to ride a camel. We certainly don’t have to seek out pop or cinema stars, or wealthy entrepreneurs elevated to stardom. We don’t even have to camp in church doorways either… though sometimes it helps to meet other outsiders.
As the old words say, “Let us go in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem”. We are to seek with our whole being the vision of Jesus, the real star of Christmas. We are to join with other sojourners, spiritual vagabonds, and troublesome heretics on that quest. As we journey the vision will build among us and grow strong. As we journey we will learn that we are the embodiment of that vision, and unless we shine others won’t see, unless we radiate hope others won’t believe it’s possible, and unless we sing bright freedom the song will be stilled… and the dark hopelessness of tyranny’s prison will prevail.
Let us go therefore, seeking and following the star of Christmas, lead where it may, bring what it will...
There is only one time a year that I miss the King James Bible. Somehow the Christmas story only sounds right in 16th century Elizabethan English (the way God said it). When I hear it I know where I am and what day it is.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
The New Revised Standard Version just doesn’t get me there: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
I would much rather hear the angels proclaim “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord,” than “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” After three Christmases in New Zealand, I’ve learned the NRSV version doesn’t even spell “Saviour” correctly.
My cleaving to the older version is not unlike my daughters’ reaction when I would change the words in their favourite story at bedtime. “Daddy, that’s not how it goes!” said with all the exasperation and disapproval a five-year old can muster.
One Christmas Eve, long ago, I planned to go to a Unitarian Universalist candlelight service. It was my first Christmas since becoming their Administrator, but I did have some trepidation about what it would be like because of their hymnal. It is a fine piece of work with many hymns new to me that I would later grow to love, but there are also many familiar ones or so I thought until I read the words. They had been altered to reflect their progressive and inclusive point of view. I applauded that, but then I discovered nothing was exempt, even the Christmas carols had new words. It turned out I had nothing to fear. Being in candlelight, no one could read the hymnal. The congregation sang all the old familiar words.
Part of what we love about Christmas is the familiarity. That is also the problem.
One of the reasons many say Christmas is for children is our enjoyment of their wonder. We smile as they proudly announce, “I’m a shepherd!” in the Nativity play. We hope the photographer captures their earnestness as they tell Santa at the mall their dearest wishes. We focus on their eyes as we light the tree for the first time. For them, it is all new not familiar. For us, it is all familiar. We may be wistful for Christmas’ past. We may grieve for those no longer here to share in Christmas pudding. Christmas is for “grown-ups” a time of memories – some sweet, some sad, but all familiar.
The familiar traditions of one generation re-lived at this time of year are how we introduce the next generation to the Christmas story. In some ways both win, but in other ways the older generation loses. We have lost the wonder.
It is not all our fault. It is part of the human experience and memory is part of how we survive as a species. In and of themselves memories are not bad. Many I cherish. But it is also true that there are many I wish I could delete from my database.
The problem with memories is that they are about the past and not the now. Memories are about wonder lost.
This Christmas my wish is not for the impossible. My wish is that we not wall ourselves off from wonder. I don’t wish that we might somehow miraculously develop amnesia about Christmases past. Nor is it that we not hope for brighter Christmas futures. My wish is that we all hear the story in whatever translation, as if for the first time. It might help if we put ourselves in the place of those who heard it before it was written down and how they wondered.
They were likely to have been slaves or poor or diseased. They were outcasts blamed for being outcast. They were the unclean, unacceptable; unrighteous and as far from God as you can possibly get. They knew because they were rejected and despised by society. They knew because they were without hope.
Then they heard the Christmas story (sadly for them in Greek or perhaps Aramaic, but not Elizabethan English). Tyranny, judgment, and deprivation were what were familiar to them. What wasn’t familiar was that God also has human form. And not just any human form, but one like theirs. If Jesus had been born in Caesar’s palace, it would’ve been a familiar story to them, but they could not have related. But a bastard born in a stable was something else indeed. Wonder of wonders.
It was their first inkling that God is not to be feared or appeased, but to be discovered in the most unlikely of places – themselves. It was something radically new. Wonder of wonders.
God is not external and disconnected from themselves the story said but part and parcel of who we are. And who you are. Wonder of wonders.
For them this story wasn’t magical or otherworldly. But it wasn’t about the familiar ways of being righteous either: praying the right way or believing the right things or performing the right rituals. What did a baby know about those things? The story is just about the way things are, whether we are born in a stable or in a castle. God is in us. Wonder of wonders.
Since the beginning of time humans have sought to overcome the gap between the gods and themselves. The wonder of the Christmas story is that there never was a gap. We embody the divine. It is revealed in our compassion and love for one another and ourselves. Glad tidings indeed!!
When the familiar blinds us to the essence of this Christmas truth, we let another Christmas go by, wonder lost.
Santa’s sleigh is almost packed. Elves are quickly filling last minute orders sent by text, email and fax. On the other side of the secular-religious divided Mary is ready to give birth and yelling at Joseph between contractions to find accommodations NOW! Tomorrow the world begins celebrating Christmas. If there is something you want for Christmas, you can’t put off asking for it another minute.
Putting together a wish list can be hard work, but fun. It is an opportunity to dream. Even if we don’t find everything on the list under the tree it was fun to hope for it. Any disappointment felt can be soothed by what we did receive. But as we age we can begin to get a little nervous about what we ask for. We have learned there is truth in the old adage, “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it.”
Some of this truth is captured in today’s Gospel. Forget the story as history. Thinking of it that way blinds us to recognising the eternal truths the story tries to evoke within us. Don’t let it bother you that Joseph is a fictional character. He is a reference to an earlier Joseph, son of Jacob, who had dreams that saved Egypt and his family. Joseph, husband of Mary, is portrayed as a righteous man. Legend has always suggested he was a lot older than Mary, perhaps to explain his disappearance early on from the story. That he died is a much better explanation than he divorced Mary or that he was a dead-beat dad who deserted the family.
Being older he may have been pleased to be betrothed to a young woman. He may have felt it was a dream come true. Being righteous he must have felt his Christmas present was ripped from him just after being unwrapped when she turned out to be pregnant, and not by him. As a righteous man he was obliged to decline the gift. Otherwise he would have been unclean by association. It would have been unthinkable for a faithful person to do otherwise, but apparently not for God. In the first of several difficult dreams an angel explained that he should not reject Mary. Her situation was due to the Holy Spirit having conceived a child in her. When he awoke he must have sounded a little like a Tui beer ad – “Yeah, right. If I had a shekel for every time I heard that one.”
It is a classic dilemma. Society, your religion, your friends, your therapist, your own instincts tell you to walk away from a situation. And usually we do and maybe should. But there are time when for reasons not readily apparent we don’t. That is one subtext to this story. Like the proverbial boy shovelling through the manure pile in the barn believing that that there has to be a pony in here somewhere, Joseph believed the divine had to be somewhere in all this muck. His dreams, a channel to his unconscious, told him so. Perhaps like Matthew, he knew God worked through unlikely people – such as Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and Bathsheba. That put him in a sticky situation. His dreams told him that his hopes for a simple married life with a woman who would be acceptable to society were not to be. He could still have that but only by rejecting her, but in doing so could he be rejecting God?
I’m sure he was more than upset. He shouldn’t have to be in this situation. It wasn’t fair. This was a no-win situation for him from his perspective in time and place. And that is precisely the problem. We are caught in our time and place. We do not have the luxury or knowing in advance how our choices will work out. We have no control over most of life. It is what it is. If we have any control at all it is over ourselves and even that is an “iffy” proposition. Controlling our anger, frustration, fears, addictions, envy, jealousy, and selfishness are a full-time job and usually only partly successful and then for only a brief time.
Since the Joseph of our imagination is older, perhaps he is already resigned to the fact that life is not fair, filled with uncertainty and mostly beyond our control.
Perhaps, because he had lived life some, he had learned a little about how to deal with the way life is.
Perhaps, like Confucius he had learned the importance of family. The lessons we learn caring for our parents, partner, siblings and children make our heart larger. A larger heart allows for feeling empathy with more and more people – first with the immediate community and eventually with the entire world. Was it visitors from the East that taught him that holiness was inseparable from altruism. A fulfilled life was nothing more than nourishing the holiness of others, who in return would bring out the sanctity inherent in us. Confucius said this is accomplished by not doing to others what you would not want them to do to you. Did this life learning open Joseph’s heart to a young girl in trouble?
Perhaps a second wise man from the East, one we probably haven’t heard of, Mahavira, informed Joseph or perhaps he had learned it as a carpenter. Mahavira, who founded the faith of the Jains, was concerned with doing no harm. For Jains, non-violence is their only religious duty. Again empathy was the key, but not just with people but also with every living thing. Perhaps working with wood to make useful things helped Joseph know how intimately the world is connected. All must be respected. Violence against one was violence against all. Perhaps, it was this understanding that kept him from dismissing Mary, protecting her from being legally stoned by the righteous residents of Nazareth.
Perhaps a third wise man from the East, told him about the teachings of Gotama, the Buddha, or he simply learned the truth Gotama taught from all the sources of suffering that surrounded him in the backwater of his hometown. No matter where he learned it, he came to understand that there was a place within himself where if he put out the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, he would find both himself and peace. When in that place he was no longer driven hither and yon by conflicting fears and desires. He discovered a surprising strength that came from being correctly centred, beyond the reach of selfishness. This wisdom gave him the fortitude to dismiss the gossip and innuendo in the neighbourhood about him and his intended. It gave him the courage to question the established wisdom of his religion, and take her as his wife.
Tradition says there was a fourth wise man, but perhaps he wasn’t from the East, but the West. Living in a Hellenistic world it would not be surprising if the fourth wise man to inform Joseph was Socrates. Or perhaps he came to the following understanding in lively debates with those working in his shop or with his clients.
In a discussion about courage, Socrates argued that all the terrible things we fear are in the future, and therefore, unknown to us. He pointed out that it is impossible to separate the knowledge of future good or evil from our experience of good and evil in the present and the past. To be truly valiant we must acquire the qualities of justice, wisdom and goodness to move into the unknown. To have one virtue, all the rest must be mastered as well. It takes all those virtues to move through life in a way true to who we are.
Perhaps Joseph took to heart this message knowing that having the courage to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and from Bethlehem to Egypt and from Egypt back to Nazareth was only the beginning of the journey through this life. The most important journey we make is an interior one. We must interrogate our most fundamental assumptions. We must challenge all our certainties. We must question all that we have been taught. We must learn how much we do not know. When Socrates said, “The life that is unexamined is not worth living,” Joseph knew intuitively its truth. To fail to think deeply about meaning was a betrayal of the soul. To betray the soul was to betray God within us.
Perhaps this is why Joseph was able to suspend his disbelief and buy into the improbable idea that the Holy Spirit was guilty of impregnating his fiancée.
The Joseph I describe is like the one Matthew portrays. They are both fictional, of our imagination, but none the less that does not make either any less true. The Joseph I describe has the virtue of being a father who would pass on to his adopted son the wisdom of the ages. That may be why Matthew’s Joseph did not dismiss Mary. There was so much he wanted to teach her son. Doing so against all advice may have been his Christmas wish and his Christmas gift.
This sermon is deeply in debt to Karen Armstrong and her scholarship in “The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions”, Anchor Books, New York: 2006.
Advent has been trivialised as the Santa-says-buy-and-buy-more season, the time for end of year parties, and exuberant feasting. It is the time when Christmas carols blare out from every shop and oxymoronic non-religious Christmas symbols festoon the streets. It is the time when children wait for presents, employees wait for holidays, and many wait for it all to be over. It is a time of stress – for some monetarily, for some in the expectation of family get-togethers, for some in the flood of powerful and grief-producing memories that come with Christmas.
If Advent is about anticipation then there is a lot it around, for good and for ill. If Advent is about preparation then there is much planning, worrying, and buying to do. If Advent is about hope, then many are hoping it will soon be over.
For me Advent has little to do with our cultural appropriation of Christmas. Rather the anticipation of Advent is the deep longing for an end to poverty, abuse, isolation, enmity and despair. It is the longing for help and hope.
The hymns and readings of Advent speak of destruction, pain, and the hope of a divine rescuer swooping in from somewhere above the clouds. This rescuer will sort out the good from the bad, the “wheat from the chaff”, rewarding the former and barbequing the latter. The super saviour has long been the hope of communities weighed down and oppressed by savage governments and their policies.
While destruction, pain, and oppression are unfortunately a part of our global reality, a spaceman saviour is not. We know that, despite our wishes and projections, hope doesn’t come from off the planet. Hope has to be found in our here and now. It has to be worked for, discovered, accepted, and developed. This does not mean that God doesn’t exist, as some would maintain, but rather that God is located within our experience, our struggles, our communities, and our hearts.
Christians believe that God is love. We believe that permeating our lives, our land, our communities, and all that is beyond us there is a powerful love that can touch our lives. That love is on our side, is for us, and can hold us. That love reaches out to us in a neighbour’s smile, the strident concerns of a protester, the smooch of a cat, and in a government handout. It comes in a myriad of ways. Just like hope.
That love called God is also within us. We are sacred, blest, and loved. The Holy Spirit of love is within us, like a seed waiting to grow and flourish. Even in the angriest person, the most arrogant businessman, or the worst murderer, there is a holy seed of love waiting. Just like hope.
Joy Cowley’s version of the Magnificat picks up this notion of the seed within us, coming to birth. ‘The light of the Holy One is within us.’ We don’t have to search in holy places around the world, or in the scriptures and traditions of faiths, or in the worship practices and prayers of believers. No, it is within us. That is the place to look. Places, books, and practices are simply aids for us in that quest.
The quest is often a lonely one though. It is good to be with others and feel their strength. It is good to worship, pray, eat, and laugh together. These things strengthen us and help us to re-focus on our quest for hope. Most helpful of all though is someone to believe in us. Someone who believes that despite all the crap that we dish out, all the screw-ups we’ve made, all the people we’ve hurt, there is within us something beautiful, something holy, and something precious.
I wrote recently: “Poverty by means of the cocktail of anxiety, violence, and depression can destroy the spiritual heart. Escaping poverty involves more than having money, though money helps. Critical to escaping is having a friend who believes in you.”
Money can be a source of hope to those in poverty. Programmes to assist people to find meaningful work and support are very important, as is practical and financial assistance. But to journey out of poverty there are two things more critical. One is having someone who believes in you. The other is believing in yourself.
Hope is not a mental exercise. We don’t in our misery sit down on a rock and decide that we are going to be hope-filled. Rather hope is the result of a combination of encounters with others, our personal receptivity, and our awareness of the spiritual power of love that infuses all of life.
I wrote sometime ago in SMACA, our online magazine, about Joe, a 14 year old who slept in a car up the street and scavenged during the day. A friend and I invited him to sleep on our couch, and thus invited him into our lives. Somehow, sometime, in those years on the couch something changed. The seed was probably always there. I remember the milestones: getting his driver’s licence, attending Outward Bound, getting his heavy truck licence, leading a youth group, and becoming a gym instructor. The physical support things made a difference – a bed, food, and the like. But more importantly it was the friendship that helped him. We believed in him and it helped him believe in himself.
Self-belief doesn’t just happen. Although there is a seed within us, divinely planted, that seed needs fertile or fertilised ground. It needs to be watered and nurtured. In a person who has been raised in an environment of anxiety, violence, and depression that seed often is so shrivelled it is as if it doesn’t exist. Indeed to find it you have to go digging. This is what Advent theme of ‘preparation’ means. It means tending the hope-filled seeds within so people can flourish.
The tending process is done in a myriad of ways. Firstly the person concerned has to be receptive. Watering a seed that has a concrete covering will not be effective. Secondly the person needs all those little moments of support and love – that environment that gives praise, honour, and thanks. Church at its best is one of those environments. Thirdly the person needs someone who knows them and believes in them. This is what a friend is. Lastly the seed will only grow to its potential if it becomes aware of the deep stream of love that interlinks all life. A stream that I call God.
I listened to a man the other day who in his early twenties came to the point of utter despair. He was ready to take his own life. He had been deeply betrayed and pain was so great he would do anything to end it. He fell asleep. In his sleep he experienced the voice of what he later called God telling him he was loved. He awoke and turned his life around.
There is love all around, yet we don’t let it nurture us. It doesn’t seem to seep through the prison in which that shrivelled seed is dying. It stays removed from us. In his sleep that man reached out subconsciously for what he needed, took hold of it, and let it transform his life. In his sleep the power of love, God, which is like a deep stream in our deserts reached out to him and gave him what he needed.
This Advent let us work for and build hope. Let us prepare for Christmas not by shopping but by tending the hope-filled seeds within each other. Let us anticipate the coming of Christ by opening our eyes to the Christ growing within everyone of us. Let us long together for the day when we will believe in each other, believe in ourselves, and justice and healing will flow in and through all communities and nations. Let us acknowledge that at the heart of our universe there is a power of love that reaches out to us, believes in us, and sustains us. And that power is God.
Now you see her and now you don’t. There you are sitting in an aircraft and the person you are talking to in the next seat just disappears – whoosh – vanishes in an instant – dissolves into thin air. You come home and realize you have been “left behind” as your spouse or your family has been snatched up into the air, heaven-bound, and you are left all alone. Driverless cars crash all over the road; food burns with no one attending to it. These images represent what has commonly become understood as the “Rapture” and our gospel reading today from Matthew echoes what has become rapture theology. It is a bizarre sort of theology grown mainly in America, and is promoted and fictionalised in the “Left Behind” books by Tim Le Haye. There are twelve books in the series and they have sold over 60 million copies worldwide. These books are based on the fear of being bad and condemned by God, of being left behind on earth; and conversely, on being good and desirable to God and being whisked away to heaven. They invest heavily in the notion of being saved or damned, and portray the world as a sordid sort of waiting place till the self-proclaimed righteous escape to heaven, leaving the rest behind to suffer.
This objectionable sort of theology, based on a literal reading of apocalyptic or ‘end times’ writings like today’s Gospel, is divisive, adversarial and is about judgment, fear and death. That old notion of God’s elect – the chosen few, comes to mind. I can’t help thinking; where is God in this? More specifically – what sort of God is this? Where is the unconditional love and hope?
In spite of the popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books, most of the Americans I have met are rational and reasonably aware, pretty much like you and me. Live and let live you could say. Often they are people I like to talk and eat and share ideas with. I even work with a couple. However, it appears that the views carried in these books may encourage or perhaps have emerged alongside misguided conservative policies.
Bernard Shaw said; “A nation armed for war can no more help going to war than a chicken can help laying an egg.” If he is right, then America, an avowedly Christian nation, with all its massive military might is a nation predicated on war, further legitimised by this lethal and aggressive fundamentalism.
This might help to explain why the powerful, in that potentially and sometimes magnificent country, continue on what is seen by much of the world as a course of intimidation, violence and domination.
It encourages a demonizing of “the other,” or anyone or anything that is alien or outside the chosen, the elect or the saved that we see typified in rapture theology. It seems that the most powerful nation on earth reflects a theology that is life-denying and hostile to the world – a theology that takes no account of the beauty and complexity of creation, and has no particular interest in preserving it. This is a sad and chilling vision; one that I desperately hope is not true.
This brings me to today’s gospel from Matthew where we hear about the “parousia” or the second coming. It speaks of the end of time, and the breaking in of a new time with the second coming of Jesus. It also alludes to the story of Noah and the Flood, where, yet again, all the sinful are rejected and swept away to their doom.
For the person who lives and engages openly and freely in a 21st century pluralist world it is impossible to take this sort of reading literally, so it is important to examine context and worldviews. Matthew is written for a largely Jewish audience in the 1st century, many of whom live into a strand of Jewish thought based on the apocalyptic expectation of the coming of the Messiah and the end of history. Here this Jewish notion is transferred and adapted to the gospel, and consequently to the imminent and cataclysmic return of Christ.
So, in a literal sense, this small band of followers is urged to live faithfully in difficult and unsafe times. They don’t know exactly when Jesus will come again so the admonition, the message, is to be awake, to be aware and prepared.
For us today, while we are celebrating the beginning of Advent, looking towards the birth and coming of Christ as saviour of the world, we are also reading in this passage in Matthew about the second coming of Christ as judge of the world.
Our reading from Isaiah appears to tell a very different story. Overtly the hope here is for peace and concord amongst all people. From a loose confederation of tribes where people lived in communities, Israel had become a nation with a monarchy and a temple. Lots of foreign and domestic enemies assailed Israel, so war was an ongoing reality.
While this outwardly reads as a beautiful passage of hope and justice, the God of Isaiah, Yahweh, is still a primitive God of war. It contains the same external and punitive God of apocalyptic writing as in Matthew, a God who zaps and acts from on high in savage fashion to magically rescue Judah.
Isaiah is writing in the time of transition of Yahweh being the local God of the Jews, to the only, the one God of All, a God who will vanquish Judah’s enemies. Yahweh will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. It is somewhat reminiscent of America believing that their brand of democracy is the only way for all people, and that those who demur are wrong and evil. This is an external and dictatorial God – a God based on might and victory.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent and we are entering a period of life pregnant with the coming of Jesus. This is the gift; that we are made whole from within as we enter more deeply into the life of Christ. We do not need nor want an external and judgmental God that underpins our readings today.
Just like those disciples and the faithful in our passage from Matthew we are waiting. But our visions and expectations are vastly different.
We don’t necessarily live into the firm belief that Jesus will suddenly pop up again any minute and rid the world of ugliness, pain, mortality and fear, – however attractive the notion may be.
We have realized that it is the Christ who resides within and between us, the Christ who inspires and teaches us through encountering each other, through our prayer and our worship, our mistakes, our fears and our tears, our joys, and through our often very frail ordinariness. We welcome the Jesus who embodies compassion and forgiveness, who speaks of love and peace, and who comes to rid the world of life-denying literalist theologies and bring life, laughter and generous love.
Advent is about anticipation and new life, and the coming of love among us.
It reveals the gift of vulnerability and connectedness, and asks us to prepare afresh time after time for something special and wondrous. Our rapture, our delight that can be the growing awareness of this particular joy, awakened in us over advent. Like Mary, we too are pregnant with the mystery that is the Christ within and we wait and we hope.
God swells inside our hearts and minds and we are transformed inwardly so to see our oneness with “the other.” Free to dream of a world where all spears and swords are beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks.
This particular Sunday begs pausing to reflect on journeys. Where we have been and where we are going and what do we seek? In the life of the church it is New Year’s Eve. Next Sunday Advent begins. A new journey along that ancient road from cradle to cross will begin anew.
This Sunday is also Aotearoa Sunday. It is a day to reflect on the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. It is a time to ponder from where we have come and to where we are going. What is our mission? What is our gift to the world?
Today is also a milestone for one of our own. Yesterday, the church acknowledged her priesthood and today Denise will consecrate for the first time bread and wine with words that are 2000 years old. In her journey, all our journeys are intertwined in te taura tangata, the powerful Maori image describing the people of this land as a plaited rope. In the rope each of us as strands are strengthened and give strength – Maori, Pakeha, lay, ordained, male, female. It is for me the ultimate image of journey for it encompasses all of our journeys connecting us to all who have come before and to all who will come after.
Yes, it is a perfect day to use that rope to tie up our wakas, our canoes, and have a Hui, a conversation about journeys.
Journeys are complicated. Sometimes the destination is not clear, but the need to journey is. Lewis Carroll captured this element in a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat:
Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where –" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't much matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"– so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if only you walk long enough."
Journeys are more than a need; they are a fact of life. Frankly, in this life there is nothing else to do with our time. A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but it also begins while standing still. Even a couch potato is on a journey to nowhere.
As we have no choice but to be on a journey, like Alice, most of us want it to take us somewhere, but not just anywhere.
When I was a boy we were on a family trip that took us through a particularly desolate part of the state of Washington. There was little besides sagebrush and an occasional tumbleweed to amuse me mile after mile. I looked on the map to see what was ahead. Perhaps I could convince my parents to get me a treat at the next stop. The map showed the next town still an hour a way was George. My 12-year-old self thought it hilarious that people lived in George, Washington. I couldn’t wait to see it. I hoped they had a place I could get an ice cream. It was hot and the next town after George was hours away. Finally we approached George. It was a trailer park. There were no trees. There were no lawns. There was no ice cream. But there was a billboard. It said in big smug letters, “If you lived in George, you’d be home now.” Hot, tired and bored, and with many hours still to go, living in George didn’t sound as bad as it looked.
From this I learned that caring where we want to go is important, if we don’t want to end up in the middle of nowhere. As journeys can be exhausting, full of hardship and dangerous, not pursuing a longing, a promise, a dream can lead to a place of desolation with only blisters on our souls to show for the effort. We may not have a choice about being on a journey, but we do have the power to choose a direction and walk with a purpose that lengthens our stride. But it is best to carry that purpose lightly for there can be many a surprise along the way we wouldn’t want to miss.
Maori legend tells us that Kupe, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first immigrant, did not travel from his distant home seeking this gem of a land his forbear, Maui, was said to have fished up from the sea. He was simply chasing a giant wheke, an octopus that had been eating all the fish back home. He caught up with the monster at the northern tip of South Island. Discovering a new land had not been his purpose, but without a pursuit it would not have been found.
It is pursuit that it is at the heart of the church year. Each year, Sunday after Sunday, we take a journey with Jesus. We follow the star to the stable. We wander in the wilderness. We join him at the Jordan for his baptism. We pursue him through the rural backwater of Palestine. We watch incredulous as he heals outcasts and offends authorities. We hang on every word of his parables and sermons. And finally, we share a last meal before he is betrayed, arrested, tried and executed.
Making this journey every year may seem like we are covering old ground. We know the plot. But while the story may seem the same we are not the same person this year who began the journey last year, for the journey itself transforms us. Someone new will be walking in our shoes as we set off to walk it again. This time what will we see? What will we hear? How will we react? While the external itinerary is the same, within each of us, the journey will take us deeper into unexplored territory. So while we know the plot, the ending remains a mystery.
While we know not where it leads, it is a journey filled with hope. Our hope is to discover within us the power Jesus revealed is there. A power rooted in love and compassion exercised with a forgiving hand. A power that does not fear how long or arduous our individual journey from birth to death might be; a power that transforms us, and in doing so makes the world a little more gentle; a little more just. A power that is synonymous with living life abundantly, no matter how disappointing and full of suffering.
It would be nice if we could just hear about this power and claim it, but it is a power beyond words. It must be experienced. To claim it, it must be exercised on a journey. On this Aotearoa Sunday we reflect on our unique way of exercising it as a church in this land. We continue Kupe’s voyage of discovery seeking to slay the nga wheke of racism and sexism; homophobia and xenophobia; violence and poverty, mindful that like Maui we might also pull up from the depths a whole new land.
As a national church we are choosing to approach this daunting task with a power that is counter-intuitive to the world’s idea of how it should be acquired and exercised. It began in a surprising way. Contrary to the advice of some lawyers, who said the predominantly European Pakeha Church would be subject to the tyranny of the minority, the Pakeha church, rich in numbers, power and resources, gave up sole power to govern. Voluntarily those in power accepted the governance structure where Pakeha, Maori and Pacific Islander streams of the church had equal power. All must agree; any one of the three can veto. At the time, fear of the consequences of the loss of Pakeha majority power was quelled for the sake of justice and a Three Tikanga church was born. What has been learned since is that letting go of our death-grip on power made all of us more powerful. Fear and suspicion are being subdued; mutual respect and honour are growing deep roots. It has also led to unexpected places like having bishops from each of the Three Tikangas share the role of Primate, a unique arrangement in Anglicanism. This, too, has led to greater justice. When the Pakeha primate, David Moxon supported by the other two Tikangas, recently denounced the on-going and inexcusable incarceration of Ali Panah, it led to his release. When Maori primate, Brown Turei, demanded an apology from the government for raids on the Tuhoe tribe on the grounds of terrorism, he did it with the full support of the Pakeha and Polynesian Tikangas. Such strong moral authority impacts upon and helps shape political change, in this case having those arrested released and terrorism charges dropped.
Yesterday the church in this land on its journey for justice intersected with Denise’s journey to ordination, and both are forever changed. When the bishops and representatives of the clergy laid hands on her head, sacramentally acknowledging her as a priest, we all extended to her the power and authority normally identified by a collar. She is now forever woven into the church’s te taura tangata.
Here at St Matthew’s Denise brings all her effervescent passion for life, her raves and rants, her Maori and Pakeha DNA, her deep love of God, her past successes and failures, her desire for community, her gender, her diverse life experience, and all the power her love and compassion affords her and we are weaving her into who we are, have been and will be. She and we are no longer the same. We are transformed and transforming. As te taura tangata, a rope of individual journeys woven tightly together in shared power, we will continue our pursuit of gna wheke, and in the process may fish up from the depths a new land, perhaps not of milk and honey, but one filled with peace and justice.
Before we return to our canoes to take up the pursuit, take a moment to remember where we were last year at this time. We were just recovering from a U2charist, an innovative new Eucharist composed by Glynn with U2 music played by a rock band. We were still anticipating blessing Teddy Bears, hosting Bishop Spong and inaugurating a virtual church on the web. Because of that journey we are not the same church we were then and now with Denise aboard it is certain we will not be the same church next year. I’m not sure exactly where we will be a year from now. Our journey may be demanding, difficult and even discouraging, but I’m pretty sure we won’t end up in George.
Biblical scholars have for many decades made a helpful distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The former refers to the historical man and what might be known about him. The latter refers to the projections of his editors and what it might be like to follow him. For shorthand purposes I call the former ‘Jesus’ and the latter ‘his editors’. The Gospels are a blend of both, and differentiating them is akin to dissecting a banana and berry smoothie.
The reading this morning reflects this blend. Jesus was theologically more aligned with the Pharisees than he was with the Sadducees. Jesus’ origins were in hillbilly, impoverished Galilee. An end-time resurrection was an expression of the hope that God would vindicate the poor and deal to the rich. Conversely the Sadducees being urbane and wealthy had no time for an end-time judgemental God who would reverse their fortunes.
In this episode the Sadducees, being clever dicks, have a great story to trap Jesus with, namely the woman who outlived seven husbands. The wags might say, ‘Well thank God in heaven she got a reprieve!’ Culturally, of course, re-marrying was the social security that her original husband’s family were obligated to provide.
Luke and/or his Jesus uses this opportunity to make some claims about heaven – namely that there is no marriage, plenty of angels, and is only for “the worthy.” He then goes on to base an argument on the present tense continuous. The words “I am” from the Moses bushing bush theophany, infer that God continues in the present to be the God of those who have died. The argument says therefore that those who are dead are still alive in the sense that God is alive. I suspect this was a standard Pharisaic argument for the resurrection.
Jesus and/or Luke believed in a life after death, a marriage-less heaven for “the worthy,” and intermediary heavenly beings called angels. The interesting thing of course is that many Christians, like me, don’t believe what Jesus and/or Luke believed.
I’m agnostic about life after death. I hope there is, but my faith isn’t shattered if there isn’t. I am though very sceptical about a heaven for “the worthy”. Determining who is “worthy” has always been a political game. At its best the Church has said that’s God’s call and God’s call alone. However, the Church being the institution it is can’t resist the temptation of judging others. It has damned anyone and everyone who doesn’t fit with the beliefs, morality, or authority structure of the ruling ecclesiastical elite. I personally think that if an afterlife exists everyone is going to be there. For some that will be heaven, for others it will be hell.
If we don’t believe what Jesus and/or his editors believed does that make us non-Christians or heretics? When it comes to Jesus are some of his beliefs optional for us? Did he get it wrong about some things? Are there central beliefs of his that every Christian should hold to, and peripheral beliefs that can be ignored?
Let me sketch some things about the historical Jesus. Firstly, he was Jewish. He was a Jewish rabbi no less, of the Pharisaic tradition – albeit a liberal critic within Pharisaism. The idea of his followers departing from the Jewish faith would have been anathema to him. Jesus’ editors, and the writings of Paul, try to disguise this inconvenient truth. Although much is made of Jesus’ liberal interpretation of the Torah, the total departure of the Church later on from the Torah is something else again.
In a similar vein I think it would be a mistake to imagine that Jesus saw no difference between Jews and Gentiles. The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman where Jesus says to her, ‘Why should I take the Jewish children’s food and throw it to you Gentile dogs?’ indicates some of the common racial prejudice that existed. Whilst Jesus was inclusive for his time and culture, to assume he was without prejudice is a statement of conjecture.
Thirdly there is his maleness. Although he was critical of the patriarchal family and the denigration of those who transgressed the purity laws, to say he was a believer in the equality of men and women is a fanciful reading into the text. Again, like with his relationship to Gentiles, in his time and place he crossed cultural and gender boundaries, and thus modelled for us an imperative to do likewise. But he was not your non-sexist, mutuality-committed, pro-equality male that we fathers all want our daughters to marry.
Then there is his theology. Jesus had a personal, male god whom he called daddy. Further this anthropomorphic deity lived above the clouds, in the top tier of the universe, called heaven. The second tier of the universe was the earth, and the third hell. We might like to imagine that he thought of these metaphorically, but I doubt it. Jesus also believed that he was going to ‘come again’ during the lifetime of the disciples. Of course as a good Jew he wouldn’t have had any truck with the Trinity, or the great schemes of sanctification that involved his literal blood making God accept and love people.
Some of Jesus’ theology we might resonate with and some we might be repelled by. A personal daddy god doesn’t do much for me. A three-tier universe doesn’t literally exist. Jesus didn’t come again during his disciples’ lifetime. However the complicated formulas of the Trinity and sanctification devised in the first four centuries of the Church don’t do a lot for me either.
Can I then still call myself a Christian?
I find the description of Jesus by the writer of Hebrews [12:2] as the ‘author’ or ‘pioneer’ of our faith helpful. The Jesus of history was a trailblazer, an exemplar, and a model for us. However as with all authors and pioneers of social change and radical thought we need to be selective about what we wish to emulate. He wasn’t perfect. The love he preached and lived in his context might have been, but in our context revision is needed.
This is where the writer of the 4th Gospel is helpful in telling us that the Spirit of Jesus will lead us into all truth. ‘Spirit of’ as distinct from ‘the man’. Truth was not fixed in 1st century Palestine. It was not fixed in a male Jewish rabbi. It is something that continues to enfold as we engage with our context in the light of what he taught.
This is where the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Catholic tradition are helpful in asserting the interpretative function of the Church to be more important than the literal words of the Bible. And conversely, the Protestant tradition of Anglicanism is helpful in acknowledging the Church’s tendency to be corrupted by its own interests, and its need to be critiqued again and again by the biblical texts. In other words there is an ongoing dialogue between text and interpretation, between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
The Christ of faith, unlike the Jesus of history, is not dead. Earlier I called the Christ of faith ‘the editors’. Well Christ is more than that. It’s the animating Spirit that lives on in every age within and among us, interpreting and editing and living the wisdom of the Church, the Bible, and our changing world. The Christ Spirit at times brings to mind the example of the historical Jesus and at other times ignores him. And so it has always been. There are things about Jesus, and passages of Holy Scripture, that are best ignored.
It is an honour to be asked to visit you here at St Matthews. I bring greetings from All Saints, Howick, where we have recently celebrated our beginnings, 160 years ago (in 1847), just 8 years ahead of St Matthews!
Thankyou Glynn for the invitation to speak about some aspect of Islam and its relationship with Christianity. My interaction with Muslims began in earnest 20 years ago, with the migration to NZ of significant numbers of people of faiths other than Christian, and particularly in the wake of political unrest in Fiji.
Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs who had previously been few in number, and mostly seen only in our larger cities, began to be much more visible. Our religious landscape was changing rapidly, and that posed a very great theological challenge to the Christian majority, many of whom had no experience outside their Christian monoculture.
For the past 10 years, I have had the privilege being part of the Council of Christians and Muslims, whose inaugural AGM was held in this church in March 1998.
CCM has amongst its aims, the promotion of mutual understanding and respect between Muslims and Christians, and a commitment to work for the elimination of religious prejudice and racism in our society. Two things we agree to avoid: polemics & proselytism.
What I’d like to share this morning is some thoughts on what we, as Christians, can learn from Islam. I am not an expert on that great religion. If you want good information about Islam, you should talk with one who practises the faith. Rather, I want to share something of what has personally challenged me in my own faith, as I have come to know and respect and love the followers of the Islamic faith with whom I relate.
THE ONE-NESS OF GOD
There is no god but God
That’s one of the two great shahadah (testimonies of faith) of Islam;
The other, immediately following it, is that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Whoever professes these two shahadah is a Muslim; whoever denies them is not.
To say There is no god but God is a not unfamiliar proposition for us, as Christians. It sits very comfortably with the first of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God – you shall have no other gods before me,
Similarly with the opening phrases of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth
The challenge for me comes with Islam’s utter clarity and uncompromising insistence upon the oneness of God. As a Christian, I carry with real discomfort, the legacy of nearly 2000 years of Trinitarian speculation about God’s nature. Now I am not a Unitarian – I don’t want to ditch our Trinitarian understanding of God. But I am very, very uncomfortable about what Muslims are quick to perceive as Christian Tri-theism. A belief in not one God but three!
We need only to look around at various parts of the church, and to listen to how they pray, to share that impression – the preoccupation with the Holy Spirit as the be-all and end-all, or the elevation of Jesus as synonymous with God, or that fashionable but shallow new religion of ‘inter-faith-ism’, which agrees with everything but is committed to nothing in particular.
When Muslims enter into dialogue with Christians, they expect to meet a Christian clarity and a Christian commitment even if they disagree with it. They do not want us to bend over backwards to accommodate every shade of opinion with some vague, eclectic mish-mash. The clarity of Islam challenges my Christian lack of clarity.
It’s not that I want to have everything carefully defined and in a water-tight box. But I find myself pushed to differentiate between those things I need to be very clear about, and that about which I need to remain open-ended.
THE UNITY OF FAITH AND ACTION
This time last year I was packing my bags for a week’s visit to Iran. It was a great privilege to be invited to speak at an Islamic conference in the beautiful city of Isfahan, south east of Teheran. Isfahan is famous for its superb turquoise domes within the enormous Town Square. Built in the early 17thC by Shah Abbas, when he relocated the capital to Isfahan.
That Square, now known as Imam Square, in honour of Ayatollah Khomeini, was originally known as Naghsh e Jahan (= Portrait of the World). The huge rectangular area of gardens, fountains and pathways is surrounded by a continuous line of buildings: largest of all, and dominating one end, is the Great Imam Mosque. On one side, a smaller mosque, and opposite it there is the Shah’s palace. And linking all three is the continuous intricate façade of the bazaar.
Here we see religious, political and commercial life holding hands; in bricks and mortar, we have an eloquent statement of the profound Islamic belief in the unity of praying and doing, of the spiritual and the physical. It is indeed a portrait of the interconnected world, as conceived by Islam.
Of course, Islam doesn’t have a monopoly on this way of seeing the world. It is very biblical. The Hebrew scriptures present a similarly holistic idea of body, mind and spirit, of the heavenly and the earthly. And Christianity, at its heart, agrees with this. But through the centuries we have been so deeply influenced by the early dualisms of Greek thinking and, more recently, the pervasive secularism which has relegated the ‘spiritual’ to a separate and largely irrelevant category. We have come through decades of theological dismantling, & we have tossed some babies out with the murky bath-water. But I feel heartened that through all this turmoil and change, we are now recovering the treasures of our faith in new and credible ways; we are reclaiming that profound sense of the divine presence within and between us; within all that we experience through our senses, our relationships, our thinking and our hoping.
For the devout Muslim, the phrase Insh’allah, is often added to a sentence – ‘God willing’. For him or her, God is involved in every aspect of life – there is no distinction between sacred & secular. And for us, having tossed out the bath water and recovered the baby, we are regaining a more wholistic sense of that divinity within the whole of life. A God no longer confined to the chapel or the upper stratosphere, but one who is present in the board-room and laboratory, the bed-room and the playground.
THE SHARING OF COMMON GROUND
The history of Christian-Muslim relationships through 1500 years is largely a sad story of competitiveness, suspicion and fear, with frequent episodes of violent confrontation. Day by day in the news we hear more and more of the same. The media seem to love to keep the fires burning in their choice of lead stories, and their placing of words in juxtaposition, like Islamist and Muslim, jihadist, militant, insurgent.
This continuous bombardment of negative images and word associations leads to deeply ingrained stereotypes. It becomes difficult for many of us to hear the world ‘Muslim’ without adding connotations of ‘fanaticism’ and ‘suicide bombing’. The same thing, of course is happening in the opposite direction.
While in Iran, I was subjected to many media interviews, and the dominant questions revealed some clear stereotyping of the West in general, and Christians in particular.
It was rather assumed that I was hand-in-glove with President Bush and his policies. For that is what the Christian West is like, according to the Iranian media machine – to say nothing of gross materialism and sexual perversion.
On both sides of the divide, there is the great temptation to compare the worst of the other side with the best of one’s own. Christianity is wonderful, because we are all about love and forgiveness, whereas Islam is dark and evil with its suppression of women & its cutting off of hands. From a biblical point of view we are in grave danger of breaking the 9th Commandment – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
Yet, in spite of all the agro between the two faiths, both today and in the past, there have been, and still are, some wonderful signs of hope. Where Muslim and Christian are willing to sit together, to speak and to listen with open hearts and minds, we find we have a great deal in common in our scriptures, in our basic beliefs and values, and in our hopes for the world we share.
I want to close by drawing to your attention a very recent document which, I believe, is a God-given opportunity to work together for a better future. It is entitled A Common Word between Us and You.
Some of you may already know of it – it can be accessed on a web-site of the same name. Just google A Common Word. The title comes from the third Sura (chapter) of the Holy Qur’an, where Muslims are exhorted to seek common ground with Christians and Jews. In this open letter, produced just last month, 138 Muslim leaders, scholars and theologians have called on the leaders of all the Christian churches to look closely at the heart of our faith and theirs.
In a careful examination of Qur’an and Bible, they show the centrality of the two great injunctions to love God and to love our fellow human beings. It is a plea that is both simple and profound, and all the more remarkable that it comes from such a diverse group of Muslims (both Sunni & Shi’a) and that it comes so graciously, at a time when Muslims in much of the world are feeling under siege from the West. Its opening paragraph says this: Muslims and Christians together make up well over half the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians
Today’s Bible readings present two visions of the future: Isaiah 65 describes a time to come when violence and injustice will end, when tears will be wiped away, and life will be lived in the fullness and the flourishing that God intended.
Luke 21 presents a very different prospect of turmoil and bloodshed, famines and persecution. We have choice about our future, like that which Joshua presented to the Children of Israel:
Today I place before you life or death;
In the light of these starkly contrasting visions, I urge you to access and to read the Open Letter: A Common Word between us and You. And, having read it, to say, as we do so often in our liturgies, Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
I have discovered there is a downside to being a non-theist Christian besides not having a heaven to go to. It makes preparing a progressive Christian sermon for All Saints’ Sunday a challenge.
While my non-theist view rejects the idea of an external all-powerful, all-knowing father figure residing in heaven mulling over whether or not to answer my prayers, All Saints’ Sunday is predicated on this theology. Today’s reading of Daniel gives a graphic picture of such a God.
While the first use of the word “saints” within the church was by Paul addressing all the living members of the church, by the third century it was a reference to those who had been martyred for their faith. Before long their relics – hair, clothing, bone – became sources of spiritual power. Not only spiritual, they were a source of economic wealth. Saints attracted devotees who built shrines and sanctuaries to attract pilgrims, who like all tourists spent money. Perhaps the most notable is in Rome, where Peter is said to be buried. It is not surprising that it didn’t hurt business if the Saint was shown to have special powers and could intervene with God in heaven on the supplicant’s behalf, especially if the supplicant was suitably generous. Saints became personal lobbyists and it is not too late to have your own. Relics are being auctioned on both eBay and TradeMe. On TradeMe right now those of you who are third order Franciscans might want to bid for a relic of St Francis contained in an ebony wood cross. If you win the auction you also get as a gift relics of St Clare of Assisi, St Anthony of Padua and St Terese of the Infant Jesus. Opening bid $100.
By the Reformation, deliberately celebrated the day before All Saints’, the veneration of the Saints was rejected as corrupt and unbiblical. Luther believed that our works could not save us and no one could intercede on our behalf, no matter how righteous they had been in their own lives. Only belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross could save us. Even our Anglican 39 Articles condemns the “Romish Doctrine concerning… the Invocation of Saints.” This didn’t stop parishes from naming their sanctuaries after them or members giving saints’ names to their children. In our defence, we tend only to give biblical figures the honorific title.
My difficulty with the saints extends beyond having to accept a worldview of a God in heaven. I also object to those in power defining who are appropriate role modes of orthodox belief, piety and righteous behaviour. When we say, “She is a saint,” we are saying more about ourselves than the person we are honouring. It reflects our own values and beliefs, if not our behaviour. When the church declares it, it is an exercise in power. It is a statement that that person’s beliefs, values and behaviour are to be emulated. Defining good versus bad, it becomes a subtle form of coercion. If you doubt it, why is the Catholic Church in such a rush to canonise John Paul II? Why are they violating their own standard that it takes generations to give someone the title of “Saint”? Could it be to strengthen his conservative imprint on the Church? On the other hand, it might be most fitting. He holds the record for making the most new saints at least in the 20th Century. During his pontificate 476 Catholics were so honoured. While not saying they weren’t worthy people, they clearly represented his political, theological and pastoral agenda.
This is not just a Roman Catholic phenomenon. While Anglicans have forsaken the beatification and canonisation process, that requires amongst other things the proof of miracles performed, they still honour the faithful of the past by giving them a feast day. Those who get a day reflect the values and theological agendas of the institutional church at the time they were added to the list.
Is that a bad thing? Is it wrong to uphold people of faith as examples? Not necessarily. Role models and heroes we respect individually can be invaluable and inspiring. I’m just on my guard when I’m told who they should be, especially by the church.
Ultimately my problem with saints is that they perpetuate the idea that the church is a club. The concept of sainthood feeds our inclination to be exclusive. Who are named saints says a lot about who is a member. I might change my mind if Gene Robinson is ever given a feast day in our lectionary, but until that day I will maintain my position that venerating people as saints is divisive. To make my point, if I were to give you a word association test asking you to give me the first word that comes into your mind, I suspect most of us would respond with the word “sinner” to the word “saint.” Sainthood is about dividing the world into the acceptable and unacceptable. I grant you that this seems to be a human trait, even Jesus is said to have done it in Luke’s story of the Sermon on the Plain, which Jesus begins with the Beatitudes.
The difference is that when Jesus does it is he throws the acceptable out of the club and opens the doors to the riff-raff. He cuts right to the chase. Those we usually think of as cursed, he says are blessed. The new members are the poor, hungry, grieving and despised, which throws out most of us here today who are not. Most of us get blackballed on economic grounds alone. “If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep...you are richer than 75 percent of this world of ours. If you have money in the bank, cash in your wallet and spare change in a dish someplace...you are among the top 8 percent of the earth's wealthiest people.”
In case we might miss what a radical message this is Luke tells us from the start that instead of looking down on his congregation from the pulpit, he looks up at them from the plain. Even in his posture he changes the rules. It reminds me of when Groucho Marx declared he wouldn’t “join any club that will have me as a member.”
While Jesus doesn’t mention saints, his sermon offers a helpful counterpoint to the concept. He challenges the popular view that the righteous are those who live morally pure lives prescribed by the Law and are suitably rewarded. It is not about being acceptable to our neighbours. It is about neighbours being acceptable to us. It is about being transformed by the divine love and compassion instilled within us and which, Jesus revealed. Ultimately it is not about being blessed but being a blessing.
Well, I don’t just want to whinge about the problems with All Saints’ Day for progressives. It isn’t going away. We like the hymns too much even if we find the theology troubling. So what would a saint’s job description look like in a non-theist worldview? What would be the qualifications necessary to attain the position?
Needed: All people anywhere of any faith who are willing to make contact with the transcendent energy of love within themselves and others and convert it into active compassion for themselves, their neighbours and the planet. Must be willing to do so in every corner of their heart and the world. Every one is qualified; no one is ineligible. However, a high tolerance for ambiguity, chaos, relativism, cultural differences, disappointments and one’s own failings is a must. Must be willing to seek truth, lead where it may, cost what it will. Must never claim to have found it. Patience is a must.
The successful candidate must not apply. We will know you by the relics of your lives. A world where diversity is a little more accepted and honoured. A world that is a little less impoverished economically and spiritually. A world that is a little more aware that when one of us is cursed by poverty, hunger, grief, or oppression, all of us are. A world that is a little less fearful and more loving.
Number of positions to fill: Approximately six billion and growing.
Successful candidates will not be notified of their appointment.
Compensation: An abundant life.
The Virtue of Original Sin
October 28, 2007
The sermon was preached at the Auckland Unitarian Church.
It is a pleasure to be back with you this morning. There is a certain feeling of coming home when I attend a UU service. In fact, in anticipating coming here today I wondered why is it I’m not a UU? If you go online to Beliefnet.com you can take a test to find out with what faith group you have the most in common. I took it years ago while administering a UU congregation and again a few weeks ago two years after returning actively to the Anglican ministry. The results were the same. I had a 100% match with those who attend UU congregations.
In this Internet age it is not possible to keep one’s theology private anymore. Mine is digitally carved in cyberspace for all to see. My detractors take great delight in “outing” me on websites as a Unitarian. I don’t know whether they wish to offend or discredit me. It doesn’t do either in my eyes. When this sermon goes online, we’ll see if it gives them more fuel for my burning.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that many don’t recognise that denominational labels no longer define a person’s theology. The most they say about us is something about our faith story of choice or whether we like our chalice filled with wine, grape juice or fire. Like in so many areas, Unitarian Universalists were ahead of the curve regarding this development in the religious world. While your individual theological perspectives may vary from humanist to pagan and everything in between, you find unity around the UUs’ Seven Principles. I, and most Christians who would label themselves “progressive,” would have little problem subscribing to them as well.
Unitarian icon Theodore Parker put to poetry a view of religion that unites progressives of any denomination or faith:
“Be ours a religion which,
like sunshine, goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, living.”
Which brings me back to why I am not a UU? The answer is I would be preaching to the choir. I think a preacher’s job is to challenge his or her listeners. When there is so much agreement between us that task on a regular basis would be quite difficult. I have chosen the easier path. It is a piece of cake being a heretic amongst Anglicans. But once a year I’m willing to see if I can find a topic that UUs might find heretical. I think I’ve come up with something. What I’d like to challenge you with is that Original Sin is alive and well, and well it should be.
The idea of original sin has been around for a long time. It is rooted ultimately in our desire to explain evil. While natural disasters are traumatic and deadly, they are not evil unless it is true, as some believe, they are acts of God. In that case God is evil. In nature, natural selection and survival of the fittest would be barbaric if performed by rational beings, but they are not, so they do not reach the bar of being evil. When a female praying mantis kills her mate by eating his head after copulation, it is not a pleasant thought for those of us with Y-chromosomes but it is not evil. No, evil does not exist in nature. It exists only in human society.
The ancient Jews tried to explain it in the story of Adam and Eve. Evil began in disobedience to God. Paul reflected on this in Romans to explain his doing not “what I want, but…the very thing I hate.” [Rom 7:15] His reason was “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin.” [Rom 5:12-14].
However, it was Augustine of Hippo who took a Hebrew creation myth and Paul’s attempts at self-analysis to formulate a theological doctrine as evil as what it was trying to explain. His doctrine of Original Sin has probably caused more heartache and harm than any religious doctrine in church history. It is still doing so.
Augustine believed that like blue eyes or skin colour the disobedience of Adam was passed on to each new generation. Therefore, each human is born in a state of sin – that is separate from God. The only cure was baptism. Baptism brought us into the body of Christ and through Christ’s sacrifice our separation from God was overcome. Anyone who died before being baptised went to hell. This argument certainly gave the church some serious power. But the harm was greater than that.
First, as sex was the transmitter of this “sin-disease,” it was suspect. Regrettably it was a necessary evil for the propagation of the species. For Augustine that was the only legitimate purpose of sex. It was not a sinful act if for the purpose of procreation. However, if you enjoyed it even when doing it for its sanctioned purpose it was a sin. Birth control was clearly a sin as procreation was no longer the goal. As procreation as the goal, sex outside of marriage and homosexuality never had a chance of being acceptable. Thanks to Augustine, Original Sin became the first sexually transmitted disease. Today we have the spread of AIDS, overpopulation, sexual dysfunction, and homophobia for which to thank him. But the greatest disservice of his doctrine was to keep Christians in a state of child-like dependence on the church and her sacraments.
But personally, my biggest beef with Augustine is that his ideas were taken up with a vengeance by the reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin. In particular, Augustine’s thinking was the foundation of Calvin’s Doctrine of the “Total Depravity of Man,” “For our nature is not only utterly devoid of goodness,” Calvin said, “but so prolific in all kinds of evil, that it can never be idle…” In his eyes, we are so damaged by Original Sin “we are obnoxious to God, for we lust for everything except God.”
Kind of makes you just want to crawl back into mum’s womb and never come out, especially when you learn that for Calvin baptism wasn’t enough. Salvation was limited only to some, God’s elect. There was nothing you could do to be the elect for God had already predestined who were the winners and who were the losers. Since the booby prize was an eternity burning in hell, people were quite focused about looking for signs that they were amongst the heavenly number. To improve their odds they enjoyed scratching their neighbours off the list – justifying making them outcasts. If God doesn’t love them, why should we? One wonders how many lives have been made miserable; how much human potential for good has been stifled by such a negative and damaging view of our humanity?
This is where Unitarians enter the picture in the person of Michael Servetus. It will surprise you to know Servetus is best known as a unifier. No one I know did a better job of bringing the Roman Catholics and Reformers together. He so ticked both off with his antitrinitarian views and rejection of child baptism that these natural enemies colluded to get rid of him. Calvin set him up to be tried by the Inquisition and later, after Calvin had him executed, the Inquisition executed him again in effigy.
What is not usually focused on is that Servetus also rejected the doctrine of Original Sin and the entire theory of salvation based on it. He disagreed with Calvin that we are totally depraved. Instead he thought all of humanity susceptible to or capable of improvement and justification. He did not restrict the benefits of faith just to Calvin’s elect, but to everyone. Nor did Servetus describe, as did Calvin, an infinite chasm between the divine and mortal worlds. He held that God was present in and constituted the character of all creation.
This feature of Servetus' theology was especially annoying to Calvin. At his trial Calvin asked Servetus, "What, wretch! If one stamps the floor would one say that one stamped on your God?" Then Calvin asked if the devil was part of God. Servetus laughed and replied, "Can you doubt it? This is my fundamental principle that all things are a part and portion of God and the nature of things is the substantial spirit of God. 
It is one of the great ironies in religious history that all the movements of modern Unitaritanism honour Servetus, but all of them developed historically from the reformed tradition of John Calvin.
Our view of human nature seemed to improve after Servetus, thanks to the Enlightenment, for which Sertvetus served as a bellwether. Jean-Jacques Rousseau deserves the credit for changing western thought about our human nature. Instead of seeing us born of sin, we were born in freedom and in our natural state were neither good nor bad. It was not our nature but society that limited our capacity to reach our potential. In other words, the chasm wasn’t between God and humankind, but humankind and society (which, of course, included the church).
When Rousseau’s thought began to seep into Christianity we see the beginning of the Social Gospel movement, the precursor of those of us who would be progressive.
Henry David Thoreau, who intellectually was clearly one of Rousseau’s sons, fed this vision. He saw in nature the idyllic state and each human as a ripening seed bursting with creative genius and potential within it.  It is only when we are separate from nature do we lose our way – certainly, a far cry from total depravity.
Our thinking about the nature of humanity had come 180 degrees from Augustine, when Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian and Universalist minister, observed, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.” Original Sin definitely seemed headed to the rubbish bin of outdated ideas – and good riddance.
It was a heady time for progressive Christians who played a major role in ending slavery, promoting suffrage and education, and fighting poverty and disease. With the growing technology of the Industrial Age and a God of Love Social Gospel Christians began create heaven on earth. But then came two world wars with the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Original Sin was back on the table.
Niebuhr may be someone you have heard of, but probably know little about. Yet, few have influenced modern thought more about the nature of humankind.
He was initially a product of the Social Gospel movement. His first parish was in Detroit where he took on Henry Ford and the dehumanising impact of the assembly line. He was an anti-war pacifist and a socialist until the beginning of WWII, when he began to reformulate his theology, which he tempered with his political experiences. He articulated it as “Christian Realism.” In forming it he drew heavily from Augustinian and Calvinist thought. In his experience he found the Social Gospel movement naïve. Reclaiming Original Sin was the antidote. In 1940 at Edinburgh University in a series of lectures entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man he articulated his views. They began with the proposition that the nature of humankind is to be selfish and impulsive. He thought Original Sin was as good a way of putting it as any other. In Niebuhr’s non-inclusive language, “Original sin is that thing about man which makes him capable of conceiving of his own perfection and incapable of achieving it.”
As a professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary from 1928 until 1960 he influenced a wide-ranging group of people: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., presidential candidate Barach Obama, and the neo-cons responsible for Iraq. I should also mention me. Many of my seminary faculty were his students and my ethics exam for ordination required analyzing his famous work, Moral Man and Immoral Society. He certainly nurtured my passion for both theology and politics. They were both worlds he was equally comfortable in.
So let me turn to politics to make my point that Original Sin is alive and well and an idea progressives need to come to acknowledge.
One of the curses of those who profess new ideas or repackaged old ones is you have little control over how they are used or distorted. The hope is you die before you find out as Niebuhr did. For Niebuhr would be horrified to learn that his theology of Christian Realism is the cornerstone of America’s neo-cons’ justification for war with Iraq and the “War on Terror.”
Prior to Niebuhr, America’s foreign policy-makers were most influenced by the Social Gospel. They did not accept the doctrine of original sin; they didn’t think people are inherently doomed to be selfish and unreasonable. They assumed that the vast majority of people, if treated decently and given decent living conditions, will respond by being decent people. For them, order and stability were not as important as human growth, creativity, and transformation. The key to a better world is not strength and dominance, but sharing and cooperation. They assumed – or at least hoped – that the long-term trend of history is leading to that better world, a view that is rooted in the biblical hope for redemption.
However, Niebuhr’s new realism in the face of fascism, communism and terrorism eventually won the day amongst the intellectuals (even the Jewish ones). Today, the neo-cons take comfort in Niebuhr’s world where all people are marked by selfishness and impulsiveness. They liked it so much they extended it beyond people to nations.
This premise leads them to the conclusion that religion is supposed to control those impulses in individuals and nations to preserve the social fabric. However, due to moral relativism and secular humanism, religion is failing in its mission. America, founded “under God” in their view must take up religion’s role. America must find the moral will to control a world full of selfish and impulsive nations, with force if necessary. Their world is a jungle where evildoers, who are all around, must be hunted down and destroyed. Our might and being on the side of God will bring order and security to the world.
Today even Americans can see what most of the rest of the world saw from the beginning, that Iraq and the theology that got us there are a disaster. No one is anymore secure. But in that recognition there is a new opportunity.
In America, failure is bringing together strange bedfellows. The liberal left with its vestiges of the Social Gospel and Conservatives with their commitment to Niebuhr’s realism find themselves at the same crossroad. Liberals never thought war was the way to go. All people everywhere are in the image of God. They were the first to arrive. Conservatives have now met them there. Many conservatives now acknowledge where they went wrong was not understanding that all nations, even the US, like all people, are marked by Original Sin. Different views of humankind and the world, but the same conclusion: America’s imperialist policies based on the myth of the Lone Ranger will not make her or anyone else more secure.
What happens now is up to the progressives and the conservatives. Up to now they have played a blame game. Each side has had easy targets. The left has had Bush, Cheney, Haliburton, and the Religious Right. The right has had anyone that disagreed with them. Dividing the world into good guys versus bad guys is a myth that will never resolve our serious, planet-threatening problems. We are all responsible for the problems and we are all responsible for resolving them. Blaming others for their existence is just our instinctual way of avoiding the responsibility.
I think the first step might be for you and me to open ourselves to the possibility that Niebuhr was right, Original Sin exists. No, we don’t have to forsake our belief that we bear the image of the transcendent by whatever name. No, we don’t have to deny every person’s ripe potential. No, we don’t have to deny creation’s basic goodness. What we have to accept is that we are separated, for ultimately that is what the myth of Original Sin is about. It is not a doctrine, but an existential reality. Our separation is not from the God you may or may not believe in. It is not from society. It is not from nature. Original Sin is our separation from one another.
Recognising that truth is not an occasion for blaming others and ourselves as selfish and impulsive. I suspect that particular human characteristic has had a lot to do with the survival of the species in the past, just as it is a threat to it in the future.
We cannot work toward the kind of world progressive people of faith would like to see unless we accept the existence of Niebuhr’s view of Original Sin. It points us in the direction of our salvation. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his justification for non-violent resistance describes for me what our salvation is.
His first premise was that no matter how bad a person’s behaviour, “the image of God is never totally gone.” So we, and the government that represents us, must serve everyone, everywhere. No one can be written off as a monstrous evildoer, sinful beyond redemption. In King’s world we would no longer act out the myth of good versus evil. We would not demonize a bin Laden or Saddam – or a Bush or Cheney. We would recognize that when people do bad things, their actions grow out of a global network of forces that we ourselves have helped to create. He put it this way: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Our mutuality was a moral certainty for which King was willing to die, but not kill. 
His certainty is embraced in the seventh Unitarian principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Now that we know what salvation is, how do we achieve it against the forces of Original Sin. A magical view of baptism won’t do it. I doubt personal enlightenment, as good as it is, will do it. Force only generates fear and bitterness and its successes are at best short term.
I think the answer lies in Original Sin itself.
You are certainly aware of the fires burning in Southern California. I know the area well and have at least one friend who has lost his home. Having lived there I know that wildfires are inevitable at this time of year. If not arson, accidents or lightening will ignite them and the desert wind will whip them into an inferno. While water helps put them out, it is fire, ironically, that helps prevent them or limit their damage. By doing controlled burns when weather conditions are less risky, many homes and lives have been saved. Literally they fight fire with fire.
I would like to suggest that the same strategy would work with Original Sin to form the beloved community King sought and which the Sixth Principle describes, a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. We must begin to focus on satisfying our self-interests, by understanding that they will never be met unless the self-interests of all are met as well.
While Niebuhr is probably correct that we will never achieve the perfection we can conceive, we can come closer by acknowledging Original Sin’s existence and using it for a more perfect world.
 Jerome Friedman, Michael Servetus: A Case Study in Total Heresy: 1978
 The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, 14 volumes, ed. B. Torrey and F. Allen, entry dated 1/5/56, New York: Dover, 1962.
 I am indebted to the work of Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder for his insights on Niebuhr and American foreign policy and the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The road to a place called justice is long, dusty, and windy. It’s a rough road, that the best prepared find jarring. For those who like to arrive quickly it is very frustrating, and they often turn back. Others stop en route, to mend a tyre or share some lunch, weighing whether to carry on. Friends and enemies alike criticise those who take the road to justice. Travellers often say the same thing over and over again. Their determined single-mindedness is unwelcome in our Kiwi culture that entertains passionate conviction only on the sport’s field.
In 1974 the Vicar of St Matthew’s, Morris Russell, and his curate, John Bluck, with the blessing of Bishop Gowing, invited gay, lesbian, and transgender Christians to meet for an evening Bible study. A group gathered, and have continued to gather for the past 33 years. They became known as the Auckland Community Church. The mere fact that homosexual Christians exist, are welcome in a church, and structure their own worship, was enough to cause offence to many in the wider Church and society. One of their gifts to St Matthew’s has been to set us on this particular road to justice, a road which we are still on.
Slowly, painfully, the obstacles to justice have been removed. The Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed in 1986, the New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993, and the Civil Union Act and Relationships (Statutory References) Bill 2005. These pieces of legislation in essence were about giving the homosexual neighbour the same dignity and rights that the heterosexual majority expect. All of the legislation passed along with significant opposition from conservative Christians.
Society has changed largely because our common knowledge has changed. Slowly the insights from the medical and psychological communities, beginning in the 1970s, have filtered through into popular consciousness. For me as a parent I cringe when I read of the injustice and stupidity of trying to get left-handed children to operate right-handedly. Two of my four children are left-handed and in the not-so-distant past would have been subjected to correction programmes. As I remember the history of trying to change those who are labelled different, I feel again my anger at the injustice and torment suffered by many gay and lesbian people in behavioural correction programmes. Such programmes still exist around the world.
In the Anglican Church, while legislatively silent, there has come a gradual recognition that society is changing and the Church must too. A number of clergy who in the past would have kept their sexual orientation quiet have bravely come out. Some of those who have come out have same-sex partners. Some are vicars, archdeacons, and bishops.
Yet the forces of conservatism remain very strong. I cannot name one same-sex couple in New Zealand living in a vicarage, deanery, or bishopscourt. I can name experienced and talented clergy who have been refused employment opportunities because a parishioner or two have objected to their sexual orientation. I can name people who have had their desire to be ordained stifled because of their orientation.
Currently the Anglican world is gripped by fear. It fears that if it permits justice – the dignity and rights of being treated as an equal – to gay and lesbian Christians it will ostracize those of a conservative persuasion, particularly the huge number of Christians in the central African Provinces. It doesn’t want to make a choice between siding with justice and siding with conservatism. It values the unity of the Church more than the rights of its people.
The status quo is of course a choice, and it is a choice for perpetuating centuries of injustice against gay and lesbian people. It is a choice to live in fear of being disapproved of by vocal conservatives. It is a choice not to make clear and forthright God’s love and embrace of all. It is a choice to erect barriers of exclusion.
The Bible has long been used as a barrier to prevent gay and lesbian people feeling beloved of God and welcome in the Church. Using verses in particular from the books of Leviticus and Romans Church authorities have condemned homosexuality.
However scholars in the 1970s and 1980s looked again at the texts. They found that none of the passages addressed the permissibility of consensual committed love in a same-sex relationship. Rather most of the passages were concerned about the violation of hospitality, rape, and pederasty. The texts were written within a patriarchal culture obsessed with purity. It tried to regulate for example what went into and out of the body, the latter including menstrual fluid and semen. Wasting semen was a crime whereas sleeping with multiple wives, concubines, and prostitutes was not.
These scholars also noted that Jesus made no reported comment on homosexuality. He was though critical of the patriarchal family, and what that institution did to those it rejected. He also talked about the importance of love and how we treat one another.
Conservative scholars have tried to counter these arguments. In short they argue that because the Bible is silent on committed same-sex relationships does not mean it permits them. The Bible endorses a heterosexual perspective, albeit within an ancient patriarchal context that most today would not want to wholly replicate. They think the Church needs to be very careful in how far it deviates from the literal words of various biblical texts.
In the end, I believe, it comes down to us making a choice. We can choose to follow a God who wants us to conform to one particular way of being human, as defined by heterosexual norms. This God stands opposed to the direction of Western democracies as they seek to acknowledge the human rights of all their citizens. There are a number of biblical passages and preachers that will endorse this choice. Or we can choose to follow a God who in the name of love breaks through the barriers of prejudice and leads us on the road to justice. There are a number of biblical passages and preachers that will endorse this choice too.
Making a choice regarding biblical texts and moral direction is nothing new. The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, a man not known for his liberal tendencies, was faced with a problem. The Bible’s unequivocal denunciation of usury, i.e. earning interest on money, was preventing the economic development of Europe. Whereas originally these texts were framed to stop the poor falling into debt-slavery, they were in the 16th century preventing people from borrowing to finance enterprise. Calvin reasoned that although these verses made sense when they were written, times and understandings had changed, and the texts needed to be ignored. Further he regarded the moral principle of equity as taking precedence over these biblical texts. In other words Calvin, the great pioneer of Protestantism, and champion for many modern-day conservatives, blatantly disregarded the clear teaching of Holy Scripture and gave preference to the principle of equity.
We need to have the courage of Calvin today to set aside biblical prohibitions that stand in the way of people flourishing. This was the same courage that Jesus showed in setting aside biblical texts regarding the Sabbath, women, lepers, tax-collectors, dining, and adultery.
We need to choose which road to travel. There is a narrow conservative road that requires conformity to one understanding of Scripture and faith. You won’t have to think too much – it will do it for you. This road denies that any other road is Christian.
Then there is a broad highway littered with churches and bishops that is designed to keep everyone happy. In the name of unity dissension must be avoided. It is risk-averse. It tries to be tolerant. Those who don’t fit with the majority however are discounted.
Then there is the difficult road to justice that St Matthew’s is travelling. On this road unity does not precede justice, but follows it. On this road the Bible does not precede truth, but serves it. On this road God’s will is not frozen in the 1st century but is unfolding among us. This is the road that I and many of my predecessors have chosen. And we still have a long way to go.
It’s a familiar story. A widow, living in poverty, with no resources save her voice, petitions a wealthy and powerful judge. She wants justice where justice has been denied. Probably her late husband’s estate has denied her support. There is no other support – no widow’s benefit, no WINZ office, no nothing. She cries out to the judge. The judge treats her as a nuisance and ignores her.
It’s a familiar story. Poverty is not just something that happened in the first century, in Palestine. It is something that happens in every century and in every place. It happens because we don’t feel intimately connected with each other. If our left arm was freezing or malnourished we would do something about it. We would do something about it because our whole body would be affected by the state of our arm. We don’t care for those who are cold and hungry because we see them as separate from us, needing to stand on their own two feet. We don’t see our physical and spiritual health stitched together with that of the whole community.
The judge in the story is not a God-fearing man. He might live in a nice house, say nice words to his friends, have gone to good schools, and looks after for his own family, but he cares not one iota for those who are poor. He couldn’t care less about the widow. In Jewish thought he therefore couldn’t care less about God either. For God’s heart has made room for the widow, orphaned and persecuted. God embraces the whole community, and cares especially for the least. To ignore the least is to ignore God.
The judge was also one of those impervious individuals who didn’t care less what others thought of him. He didn’t care what the press said – ‘they’re always wrong you know’. He didn’t care what the priests’ said – ‘religious do-gooders know nothing’. He didn’t care what the public said – ‘ignorance breeds ignorance’. He didn’t even care what his judicial colleagues said – ‘professional rivalry’. He cared about one thing and one thing only: himself.
In 1st century Jewish legal practice a judge was required to give priority to a widow’s or orphan’s case. The judge’s initial response to the woman therefore has led some to surmise that the beneficiaries of her late husband’s estate have bribed the judge to ignore her, or the woman was too poor to bribe the judge to hear her case. Others think the judge was just a right sod.
The judge in our story is a caricature of heartless and powerful bureaucracy that is more concerned with its own needs rather than the needs of others. Every society creates institutions that administer the social and structural apparatus of the state. These bureaucracies, staffed largely by competent and well-meaning people, have minimal effect on the lives of the well-fed and relatively affluent citizenry. They have, however, inordinate influence in the lives of people who aren’t well-fed and who struggle. Their power is huge.
Bureaucracies in time cultivate cultures that reward what they perceive to be efficiency, and therefore consciously or subconsciously prefer dealing with matters that are straight-forward, easy to understand, and resolvable. They don’t cope well with multiple languages, ethnicities, complex problems, and non-resolvable issues. However the poorer you are, the longer poverty has shaped your life, the more likely you fall into the category of those bureaucracies call ‘difficult’. Negative assumptions will be made about you. So despite individual goodwill from a staff person the poorer you are the harder it is for the bureaucracy to relate to you as an equal.
For those who work for a bureaucracy there is an ongoing need to de-institutionalize your mind. To keep yourself compassionate you need continual training in understanding others – particularly those who feel foreign to you. You need to develop a spirituality that embraces the whole of human existence, that sees all life intertwined, and understands management, justice, and care to be inseparable. For at the end of the day to believe in the equality of all people is an act of faith, not a reflection of reality.
One of the amazing things in our story of the judge and the widow is that the woman did relate to him as an equal. She says to him, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” She doesn’t say, “My Lord, please hear me, there is no other possibility but to turn to you, if you would be so kind…” She doesn’t use ingratiating language. She doesn’t use the expected language of one from a lower and impoverished social class. She doesn’t use honorific titles. Instead she uses strong and direct language, as one would with an equal.
The other amazing thing about the woman, and the main point of the story, is that even in the face of such heartless indifference from the judge she doesn’t give up. If the judge is obstinate, she is doubly so. If the judge is determined to ignore, she is more than determined to be heard. She is persistent, insistent, in her call for justice to be done. She may have a hunger pain in her stomach, but she is for the judge a right pain in the neck.
I find it interesting that the Greek word used by the judge to describe the woman’s effect on him, translated as ‘wear me out’, is more accurately translated as ‘batter me down’. It is highly unlikely that she physically assaulted him. Rather it is an indication that the judge is losing perspective. He is interpreting her assertiveness as aggression. He is hearing her call for justice as an injustice against his own person. He is magnifying the threat to himself.
The great irony of the story is that the mighty judge who fears neither God nor cares less about what others think of him comes to fear a lowly widow, the weakest member of society. While this would have created a smile on the faces of the audience and maybe on our faces today, we need to remember not the judge who finally acquiesced but the widow who finally prevailed.
Will we persist in the pursuit of justice for those in poverty? Or will we be rebuffed by the reasonable sounding arguments of those who wish to maintain the status quo? Will we see our spiritual and physical health interwoven with the health of all members of society, and do something about it?
At its best our society is one great patchwork quilt. But it’s been torn and unpicked. It hasn’t been convenient, efficient, or profitable to have us stitched together. Some patches have been discarded as useless, smelly, or ill-fitting. Our task, the task of all, widows and judges, church goers and rough sleepers … is to sew it back to together. And the thread is Aroha.
Back in 1961 a book entitled Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein became a cult classic overnight. It was controversial because of its challenge to the standard mores of the day particularly regarding sexuality and gender. Today it hardly raises an eyebrow. But that wasn’t why it took hold of my generation and has never been out of publication since. Its popularity is due primarily to identification with being a stranger in a strange land. It wasn’t until much later when studying the Bible I learned that Heinlein had nicked the title from Abraham, although at the time I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t the other way around. Kiwis with their fondness for having an Overseas Experience are quite familiar with the feeling, but even those who have not had an OE know the experience of feeling out of place in their own land. I felt it in the US after 9/11 when most of my fellow Americans seemed to think Osama attacked our country when in truth he attacked all of humanity. It is often forgotten that people from around the world died that day and the world grieved with us. When Bush ignored this to justify a pre-emptive, immoral war and then was re-elected, I never felt more alone in an alien land.
We have numerous options at such moments in our lives. And we might not always choose the same one each time we face it. Sometimes our inclination is to separate ourselves from it; sometimes, to attack it; sometimes, to adapt to it; and sometimes, to embrace it.
For instance, in my own journey from strange land to stranger land, I began by fighting back against the administration politically. When that failed, my choice was to make a statement by leaving a country whose ideals I admired, but whose behaviour appalled me. In coming here I was once again a stranger in a strange land. I thought I spoke the language. I’m still amazed I got this job. I only understood every third word at the interview. But soon I adapted and could use such terms as “bloody” and “bugger” properly in a sentence and spell centre and programme correctly. In short order I knew “She’ll be right” in this strange land that had warmly welcomed me in spite of who my president is. I knew I had embraced her back last Sunday. While watching the first 30 minutes of the rugby World Cup game against France I realised I kind of knew what was going on and was actually getting excited. It was confirmed when I joined in the mourning after the final outcome, taking only small comfort in Australia’s loss.
My journey is not an unusual one, especially for people of any faith perspective. In one way or another every faith perspective calls its adherents to be in the world and not of it. Part of it, yet separate. But how to deal with the differences between our faith and our culture is not always clear.
Today’s reading is a letter Jeremiah writes to Jews in exile after the fall of Jerusalem. He tells them to resist those who tell them to be separate from the Babylonians. They argued for separation, for soon God will return them to their homeland. Jeremiah argues for adaptation. He says prepare for the long haul. Continue living. Marry, have children, enjoy your grandchildren. Trust that eventually Jerusalem will be rebuilt. But it won’t happen right away. It will not happen in your lifetime. In the meantime live.
He did not mean, of course, that Jews should embrace Babylonian beliefs and religious practices. They should remain faithful to their God. But they could do so even in a foreign land. As it turned out the Jews did establish in Babylon a community that remained for centuries a major centre of Jewish thought and life. After Babylon fell to Persia, a few in the Jewish community did return to Palestine and rebuilt Jerusalem. Most however stayed. Jeremiah turned out to be wrong about the Jews not embracing many aspects of their new land. That is revealed in Genesis, as most of it was written during the Babylonian captivity. Parts of it adapt Babylonian myths such as the story of the flood. But Jeremiah’s strategy turned out ultimately to be a good one. His call to be in the world but not of it has worked well for Judaism throughout its history of living in mostly hostile Christian lands.
The Christian story of how to be a stranger in a strange land has been a little different and not as positive. The first generation of Christians took the position of the false prophets Jeremiah rails against. Because they expected Jesus’ Second Coming to be imminent, they chose to live in opposition to the culture. This shows up in the role of women. Women had played an important role in Jesus’ ministry contrary to their role in the culture. In the early church they had a role in its leadership. However, it became clearer to second and third generation Christians that it might be awhile before Jesus established his reign on earth. They began to see it as necessary to accommodate themselves to the patriarchal culture and women soon heard that they should be silent in church.
By the fourth century Christians were quite good at adapting to and embracing the culture. The church structured itself along the lines of the Emperor’s court. Transforming the culture was no longer the church’s business. Power became its focus. Bishops developed a fondness for wearing Caesar’s purple. After Rome fell, this appeared to have been a good strategy. For the next 1000 years the church was the culture.
Post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-Darwin this is no longer the case. Power has slipped away and we are once again strangers in a strange land. We once again have to decide whether to attack or adapt, separate or embrace the culture. You may have noticed that Christians are not of one mind as to the appropriate strategy. As the turmoil in the Anglican Communion reveals, there are deep divisive differences.
Conservatives in the Communion, thanks to the large number of African Anglicans, are by far the majority. They long for the good old days when the church was the culture. They see the Enlightenment-shaped Western culture as a threat to be attacked and rejected. From my perspective it is a power trip wrapped in a cloak of being Scripturally faithful. Within this predominantly conservative Communion a minority of the faithful see benefits to adapting and even embracing the strange land we find ourselves in. They don’t see things quite so black and white. They reject that purity of belief is next to Godliness. They don’t see science as a threat to their faith, or the faith of others either. They consider diversity a good thing and that all aspects of creation are endued with the divine not just Scripture. While they are as tempted as any human to claim and use power, on their better days they are more interested in transformation – their own and the culture’s.
The Conservatives have made it clear that they must separate themselves from this minority group in the wake of the American bishops’ refusal to recant. The American position that gays and lesbians are called to be fully a part of the church as anyone else does not fit their culture-shaped biases. Most Conservatives will not be attending Lambeth, the most visible sign of our being in Communion. They are busy creating new governance structures in their own image. I will not rail at them like some 21st century Jeremiah. I reluctantly, yet with some relief, wish them God’s speed.
I can do this because I take comfort in today’s Gospel. Ten lepers approach Jesus. They are the very definition of strangers in a strange land. They must by law separate themselves from society calling out that they are lepers when anyone draws near. They are despised for bearing God’s judgment according to the powers that be. They are unclean and forbidden to embrace the righteous. Jesus responds to their cries for mercy, not by giving them a handout as they expect, but by curing them. Nine of them rush off to the Temple to be certified as once again acceptable to the power structure. They can be forgiven their eagerness after being in such a hopeless state. But one, the Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus. He could’ve returned to his house of worship in Samaria for the same purpose as the other nine, but something about Jesus reveals he doesn’t need society’s approval to be whole. He is transformed by the event and knows this is even better than not being a leper. He is healed, not just cured. He will never again be a stranger in a strange land. He has found his connection to the world in the God within him. He adapts to this new revelation and embraces himself and the world in his thanksgiving.
Yes, the Anglican Communion will be diminished by the Conservatives departure, both in numbers and influence, but transformation has never required numbers, only a willingness to go faithfully into a strange land. Abraham did it and established a great people. Only a few left the comforts of Babylon to return to a country they never knew to rebuild Jerusalem. In today’s story of Jesus curing the ten lepers, nine went off to resume life as accepted members of the power structure. Only one sought to be transformed. We who remain in the Anglican Communion may find the odds against us in our efforts to see a more inclusive and just church and world, but still nine to one odds aren’t bad. They were good enough for Jesus.
The Story of Jack
October 7, 2007
Animals are a wonderful part of creation. Apart from having the odd semi-feral cat on the farm as I was growing up I didn’t really have much to do with animals as companions until I had a home of my own. I do remember a lamb that I tried to nurse back to health that mysteriously disappeared when I was at school one day – my parents were practical rather than emotional but it still stays with me that this animal I had cared for had died without me.
As my children were growing up we had some great cats that I remember with much love and affection, one amazing ginger tom called Reggie who we loved to bits, but it wasn’t until I had a dog that I became really smitten.
My children were getting to that age when they thought they were too old for a babysitter and while I agreed with them I was still wary of leaving them alone for the evening. So it was off to the SPCA to get a dog. My reasoning was that a dog barks and sounds fierce and would warn any potential baddies off the property. I saw lots of lovely dogs, many abandoned because they had grown too big or perhaps were unwanted anymore. It is pretty heartbreaking.
There were a few dogs in a cage together barking away like mad making a great sound – they all quietened down and then a lone barker started up. I glanced across and was amused at this dog who chimed in late and seemed to want a bit of notice. Well, he got mine anyway. He was about the right size and I quite liked the look of him and that ruffly bit around his throat.
The next day I took my 2 children out there and they got the dog and put him into the enclosure where prospective owners can check the dog out. Of course Jack (that is what they called him after picking him up off the road badly injured) happily waltzed up to us, gave us a welcoming bark, a grin (and yes – I do believe dogs smile) and was just SO happy to be around us.
I thought he looked OK – sort of like a sheep dog – the kids thought he was ‘cool.’
Then the attendant sidled up and mumbled under his breath that this particular dog had been there for the mandatory holding time (I think around 2 weeks) and his time was up – tomorrow night – no Jack.
Well – that was it – we had found our dog.
In my blissful ignorance I assumed we would just pay them a bit of money and Jack was ours to take home. No such luck – evidently Jack had lived real rough, been bitten by other dogs and had growths over scars which needed to be cut out and he had to be neutered/speyed. OK I said – do the stuff and we will come and get him later – a few days later.
Excitedly my daughter and I went to fetch our dog Jack. We had been telling all our friends about him and how cute and cool he was – that crazy bark and that lovely ruffle around his neck. We couldn’t wait.
And then out he comes. Our hearts dropped – he had drip tubes hanging all over him, enormous shaved patches and worst of all, the ruffle was gone. He looked like a large rat. And he even seemed forlorn too.
Quietly we took him and out him into the car – our first proud dog owning moment was very subdued. But still – we had hope and we knew that he was pretty neat really but it was still a bit of a shock. As people came to see our new dog we had to make all sorts of excuses as they looked in amazement at this large dripping rat-like animal.
Well – about eleven years have gone by and Jack is about fourteen now. He has seen boyfriends and girlfriends come and go, a marriage, lots of parties and eaten everything from bananas to beetroot. He loves cream.
There is a corner of the dining room that doesn’t smell too good sometimes and hair all over that lounge suite he is not allowed to lie on. He owns the place really and gets away with things that my children wouldn’t have. Jack has seen a lot of life.
Like all animals we love and live with he is so much more than an animal – he is the heart of the home. He has taught us all how to love in a different way – I think all animals help us to grow emotionally – for me with Jack by sharing his unconditional love and devotion, his enthusiasm and patience. Jack has enlarged my life and taught me so much about compassion and companionship.
Biblically we are the caretaker of animals, we are to care for them, and it is wonderful to be here amongst all of you who live that dream and have your lives enriched and made so much deeper with the love you share with your animal.
I know we all have our pet stories but as I was talking to a friend the other day about her dog she told me wide-eyed that she rescued him from the SPCA – he was about to be euthanased the next day. I thought – tell me about it.
Sometimes a children’s story contains a great truth:
“Grasshopper was walking along the road. He saw a sign on the side of a tree. The sign said MORNING IS BEST. Soon Grasshopper saw another sign. It said THREE CHEERS FOR MORNING. Grasshopper saw a group of beetles. They were singing and dancing. They were carrying more signs.
“Good morning,” said Grasshopper.
“Yes,” said one of the beetles. “It is a good morning. Every morning is a good morning!” The beetle carried a sign. It said MAKE MINE MORNING.
“This is a meeting of the ‘We Love Morning Club’,” said the beetle. “Every day we get together to celebrate another bright, fresh morning. Grasshopper do you love morning?”
“Oh yes,” said Grasshopper.
“Hooray!” shouted all the beetles. “Grasshopper loves morning!”
“I knew it,” said the beetle. “I could tell by your kind face. You are a morning lover.” The beetles made Grasshopper a wreath of flowers. They gave him a sign that said MORNING IS TOPS.
“Now,” they said, “Grasshopper is in our club.”
“When does the clover sparkle with dew?” asked a beetle.
“In the morning!” cried all the other beetles.
“When is the sunshine yellow and new?” asked the beetle.
“In the morning!” cried all the other beetles. They turned somersaults and stood on their heads. They danced and sang.
“M-O-R-N-I-N-G spells morning!”
“I love afternoon too,” said Grasshopper.
The beetles stopped singing and dancing. “What did you say?” they asked.
“I said that I loved afternoon,” said Grasshopper.
All the beetles were quiet.
“And night is very nice,” said Grasshopper.
“Stupid,” said a beetle. He grabbed the wreath of flowers.
“Idiot,” said another beetle. He snatched the sign from Grasshopper.
“Anyone who loves afternoon and night can never ever be in our club!” said a third beetle.
“UP WITH MORNING!” shouted all the beetles. They waved their signs and marched away.
Grasshopper was alone. He saw the yellow sunshine. He saw the dew sparkling on the clover. And he went on down the road.” 
Every community places boundaries around itself. It creates a sense of identity and belonging. It delineates between insiders and outsiders. Even the most inclusive community in the world has boundaries. The art of inclusion though is to recognize that your community does not have a monopoly on truth, love, God, beauty, and knowledge, and neither does any other community; and to keep the boundaries you have as porous as possible so that the challenge and love of God may freely flow through.
The beetle club had created meaning and borders around their enjoyment of the morning. Their allegiance to their club identity blinded them to the truth that was beyond their borders. That morning club could be a sports club. Or it could be a club of common ethnicity. Or it could be a club of common nationality. Or it could be a church.
It is not hard to mistake the Church for a club. It’s a group that meets weekly, eats together, socializes, cares for each other, and does charitable deeds. It tries to cater for young and old. It has volunteers and paid staff. There are branches of the club in other towns, across the country, and internationally.
When you think of the parables of shepherd and sheep, in addition to their other limitations, they are primarily based on a club understanding. The shepherd looks after the members, the sheep, and keeps the wolves at bay. The fold cares for those who are signed up, and for those who might. Evangelism is about getting more sheep in the fold.
Many of us have been nurtured by this understanding of the Church. Church clubs have provided the social and educational sustenance we have needed on our faith journey. At their best they are places of acceptance, nurture, and challenge.
However Jesus offered us another image to put alongside the club understanding of Church – namely the parable of the mustard seed: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in their garden.” Mustard grew wild in Palestine. It was a weed - the oxalis of the ancient world.
In the parable the person plants the mustard weed in their garden. Apart from being a stupid thing to do, it violated the law of diverse kinds in Leviticus 19:19. This law was designed to maintain order and separation, keeping plants in their proper place and not mixing them. Normally mustard was sown in small patches on the edge of a field. It was prohibited to plant it in a garden because it would result in mingling. By planting it in the garden, the planter makes the garden “unclean”.
Jesus was inviting his hearers to imagine God’s reign to be very different from their religious club. The Jewish purity regulations were a result of needing club boundaries. All clubs need boundaries in order to create safe cultures. Jesus however was saying that God violates boundaries, violates biblical principles, disregards common botanical sense, and makes a mess of good order.
It didn’t take long for the early Church to try to domesticate the wildness of God’s reign as envisioned by Jesus and call itself the Kingdom of God. Constantine made an empire out of it. All theistic religions have a tendency to want to own God and declare their institutions God’s creation. Jesus in his day was trying to help his Pharisaic colleagues to broaden their thinking, see the divine even in the weeds, in the impure as well as the pure, and above all not to imagine that they could domesticate God. God doesn’t fit comfortably in any club.
Today we remember St Francis of Assisi who flouted the boundaries of his class and culture in order to connect with the truth and divinity of those who were excluded. The story of Francis being embraced by a leper is foundational in Franciscan literary history. Like Jesus, Francis was questioning and challenging the club mentality that restricted God’s love to the limits of our love. It was a mentality that sanctioned certain people and behaviours, and ostracized others.
Similarly we too need to continually remind ourselves that God's love is unlimited. God's embrace is not restricted by the extent of our embrace. God's boundless grace is not limited by the boundaries of our club. The church throughout its history has constructed a God who rejects whatever the church rejects. In almost every instance, it was fed by ignorance and prejudice. Left-handed people were called "the devil's children" by church leaders. People who committed suicide were refused burial within the walls of the church. Mental illness made people different and, therefore, feared and rejected. Divorced persons were refused Holy Communion. Committed love between homosexual people is still not celebrated by the Church at large. And on and on...
However, thankfully, an ever-deepening understanding of God's love has time and again challenged and dismantled those barriers of exclusion. God has pushed us to see truth and beauty in the evenings as well as in the mornings, in the weeds as well as in the flowers, in the impure as well as the pure, in the lepers as well as in the holders of privilege.
 A. Lobel, Grasshopper On The Road, London : Windmill, 1979, p.8ff.
Pet Blessing Homily
October 7, 2007
OPENING WELCOME TO THE PET BLESSING
Welcome to all those with paws and claws,
With wings and who can sing,
To those with smiles and hands
and with hope in their hearts.
Welcome to this celebration of St. Francis and William Wilberforce’s dream:
Animals and humans together making this world
a kinder, compassionate and more accepting place.
Let us now acknowledge God, the power of love,
the beginning of all possibilities
Gentle of heart
Kind of Spirit
You are in and through us all, the furred and unfurred,
The two-legged, the four-legged, the six-legged.
Open our eyes that we may see you in friend and stranger
Open our ears to hear you in the barks, the squawks, the voices and the silence,
Open our lips that we may drink in the delight and wonder of life.
Open our hands that we may reach out to one another, so that our world may be a kinder, compassionate and more accepting place.
BEYOND THE CLUB
Sometimes a children’s story contains a great truth:
“Grasshopper was walking along the road. He saw a sign on the side of a tree. The sign said MORNING IS BEST. Soon Grasshopper saw another sign. It said THREE CHEERS FOR MORNING. Grasshopper saw a group of beetles. They were singing and dancing. They were carrying more signs.
“Good morning,” said Grasshopper.
“Yes,” said one of the beetles. “It is a good morning. Every morning is a good morning!” The beetle carried a sign. It said MAKE MINE MORNING.
“This is a meeting of the ‘We Love Morning Club’,” said the beetle. “Every day we get together to celebrate another bright, fresh morning. Grasshopper do you love morning?”
“Oh yes,” said Grasshopper.
“Hooray!” shouted all the beetles. “Grasshopper loves morning!”
“I knew it,” said the beetle. “I could tell by your kind face. You are a morning lover.” The beetles made Grasshopper a wreath of flowers. They gave him a sign that said MORNING IS TOPS.
“Now,” they said, “Grasshopper is in our club.”
“When does the clover sparkle with dew?” asked a beetle.
“In the morning!” cried all the other beetles.
“When is the sunshine yellow and new?” asked the beetle.
“In the morning!” cried all the other beetles. They turned somersaults and stood on their heads. They danced and sang.
“M-O-R-N-I-N-G spells morning!”
“I love afternoon too,” said Grasshopper.
The beetles stopped singing and dancing. “What did you say?” they asked.
“I said that I loved afternoon,” said Grasshopper.
All the beetles were quiet.
“And night is very nice,” said Grasshopper.
“Stupid,” said a beetle. He grabbed the wreath of flowers.
“Idiot,” said another beetle. He snatched the sign from Grasshopper.
“Anyone who loves afternoon and night can never ever be in our club!” said a third beetle.
“UP WITH MORNING!” shouted all the beetles. They waved their signs and marched away.
Grasshopper was alone. He saw the yellow sunshine. He saw the dew sparkling on the clover. And he went on down the road.”
The beetle club had created meaning and borders around their enjoyment of the morning. Their allegiance to their club identity blinded them to the truth that was beyond their boundaries. They needed to expand their minds and hearts to recognize that they did not have a monopoly on truth, love, beauty, or God; and neither did any other club. That morning club could be a sports club, church, or a club of common ethnicity or nationality.
One of the great things about William Wilberforce who founded the SPCA in 1824 was that he pushed at the club boundaries of his class and culture. He dared to think that black slaves were human beings of similar status to white Europeans. He dared to think that animals should be treated humanely and compassionately.
Another great thing about Wilberforce was his persistence. For 18 years he brought his anti-slavery bill before the House of Parliament. It was the same bill every year for 18 years. Gradually, painstakingly, he tried to shift public opinion. Similarly in his advocacy for animals. The rights of the animal clashed with what was perceived as the rights of the owner. And of course owners voted and animals did not. But Wilberforce persisted resolutely in his belief of creating a cruelty-free world.
The challenge to us is expand our hearts and policies to include the excluded, to love the unloved, to befriend those who don’t speak like we do, and to challenge the artificial boundaries of the club mentality that condone discrimination and prejudice. For the sake of our animals, for the sake of our world, let us spread our arms wide to embrace and cherish all manner of life.
In his second talk at St Matthew-in-the-City's Conference for Progressive Religion Bishop Spong demonstrates that the Gospels were written from the Jewish perspective with Matthew viewing Jesus the Jew as the new Moses and Luke showing him as the new Elijah and Elisha.
After a welcome to the Conference for Progressive Christianity by Glynn Cardy and an introduction by Clay Nelson, Bishop Spong gives his first of three talks on Rescuing Jesus from the Church. In his first address he looks at Jesus the man. He begins by establishing that he was historical person and not a myth, although myth has been imposed upon him.
After a welcome by Glynn Cardy and an introduction by a former priest in his diocese, Clay Nelson, Bishop Spong takes to his topic with humour, passion, and a lifetime of scholarship. While holding a deep love of scripture he challenges the church's label that it is "The Word of God."
This week in the New York Times there was a report on the work of Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist. He is examining where our moral rules come from? Philosophers argue reason; theologians argue God. However, biologists are beginning to say evolution.
As natural selection and survival of the fittest make up the engine that runs evolution this seems an odd conclusion. They seem to reward only selfish values so how can they be the source of morals? Biologists respond by pointing out that as social animals we have had to learn how to curb selfishness if there is to be any payoff for living together.
Haidt argues that because of evolution and our social nature we each contain two moral systems within us. In evolutionary time, one developed before humans had language and one after. Simplifying greatly his arguments, the one before language is our gut response, controlled by our primitive brain. The second system that required language was moral judgement. In our day-to-day lives we have gut responses immediately and then the second moral system kicks in to offer a plausible rationalization for why we feel that way. His scientific way of trying to differentiate the two systems was to probe the emotion of disgust. He would propose situations that caused a reaction of disgust in his subjects. He was looking for situations that his subjects knew were wrong, but couldn’t say why. He calls it moral dumbfounding. 
Well, Jesus was way ahead of him in his research. Our parable today of the Unjust Steward is a case of moral dumbfounding. It disgusts our moral sensibilities. Clearly the steward is a self-serving sleaze. Before being in trouble with the boss for mismanagement he rips off the farmers. When he learns he is going to be fired he rips off his rich boss. Surely if right is right and wrong is wrong, Jesus is going to condemn him for his immorality. Instead, he shocks us by telling us the boss commends him for his shrewdness. And then tells us to do likewise.
Luke is the only Gospel writer to include this dumbfounding story, but then he tries to rationalize it with red herrings about being faithful in little, so as to be faithful in much and reminding us we can’t serve the two masters of God and money. While true, they have nothing to do with the parable. They fail to rationalize our disgust with the steward or Jesus’ injunction.
The parable has confounded theologians throughout the history of the church. Some even choosing to live in denial like Augustine who said, “I can’t believe this story came from the lips of my lord.”
New Testament scholars while having many diverse and often conflicting explanations for the parable, all agree it is the toughest one Jesus ever gave us. It is tough because we can’t rationalise it easily. We can’t put it on that shelf in our brain where we keep everything we have made up our mind about. For that reason I think Augustine was wrong. Jesus told parables and never explained them to open our minds to greater self-knowledge, not to give us a list of moral injunctions that we can confidently refer to. Jesus wasn’t about giving us rules; he came to give us entry into the Kingdom of God he was describing.
Every three years in the church’s lectionary we have to ask how this parable belongs on the key ring to the kingdom?
Rather than offer you a nice neat explanation – as if I had one – I’d like to share my reaction to it. I think it is a parable that suggests in the Kingdom morality isn’t about keeping score. Too often morality is used to exercise power over one group by another. In these instances, morality seems to be about winners and losers.
Here’s how I got there. The rich landowner is used to winning—he’s rich after all, but he is not getting the return on his investment he expects. So he plans to fire his steward, who is clearly going to be the loser in this situation. The steward, who up until news of his impending dismissal, has been winning at the expense of the farmers. They have clearly been the losers on his scorecard. Because the steward abhors hard labour and fears it will be hard to find employment in what he is good at – being a scheming scumbag – decides if he is going to win in this situation, everyone has to win. He wipes out the score by generously reducing the farmers’ debts. They now think the rich landowner is not a bloodsucking oppressor after all, but a hero of the people. The landowner, who has been given honour, is trapped. He can’t very well fire his steward now. He’d lose the farmers’ high opinion of him. If he sacks him, everyone loses; if he keeps him on, everyone wins. If everyone wins, why keep score?
That idea in itself is dumbfounding. Morals matter. Life is all about following the rules and keeping score. Of course, it is inconvenient to remember that who is being moral and who is being immoral is a matter of perspective. In Israel the morals game is played by a Palestinian youth outraged by the conditions in his refugee camp throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli troop carrier, and the government responding to his immoral act by bulldozing his parent’s home. Hamas responds with a suicide bomber in a marketplace. Israel invades Lebanon. It’s the way of the world. It’s all about scorekeeping. On a global level it is or has been true in Ireland, Iraq, and India and just about anywhere else we can think of. We don’t like it, but it is a tit for tat world. It shows up in all aspects of our lives. Just listen to a session of Parliament or to a conversation over the dinner table. We have to keep score because we have to look out for ourselves and keep the ledger in balance. How else are we to protect our self-interest? We have to keep the self-interest of others in check. We seek power to do so, and defining what is moral is one of the arrows in our quiver.
In this kind of world Jesus’ unjust steward is an outrage – not because he once took advantage of the poor, but because he undermined the powerful to save his neck.
I think Jesus is trying to shake up this kind of world. He confounds us by suggesting that morals may be better enforced with our vulnerability than power. It is a vulnerability born of recognizing we all have the same needs and they are all legitimate. How we get them met is the problem.
A developmental psychologist, Abraham Maslow, supports this idea. At the base level we all need water, food, clothing and shelter to survive. Until we have those we aren’t aware of any other needs. But once they are assured we need security in a family or tribe that protects us from hunger and violence. When we feel that need is met we discover we have other needs. We need to be loved. We need friendship and a sense of belonging. Those fortunate enough to have that then are aware of the need for self-respect and to be esteemed by others. But even that isn’t enough. Never underestimate our capacity to need. Esteemed, we then need meaning and purpose in our lives and a feeling that we are living up to our potential. Surprisingly enough, that isn’t the end of our needs. Once we find meaning and purpose, Maslow says we then have a need to be “self-actualised.”  I guess if I ever get up that far on his pyramid I might fully understand what that is, but I think of it as living under God’s reign: a place I will feel fully integrated and connected, at peace with my neighbour, my environment, my God, and myself. It might even be a place where there are no higher needs. John’s Gospel calls it “having abundant life.”
Jesus’ parable tells us we all have the same needs to get to the kingdom but we are in different places in the journey at any given moment. The farmers are focused on the very essentials of life: food and shelter. The steward is focused on needing job security. The landowner, who has acquired many of the more basic needs, looks for esteem and honour.
When Jesus tells us to do as the shrewd steward – seek to meet everyone’s needs, it is reminiscent of the aphorism that reminds us, “While climbing the ladder of success, be careful of whom you step on. You may meet them on the way back down.”
As long as morality is rationalized with power over others, we will have to keep score. The world will always be about winners and losers. If we are as vulnerable as the steward recognizing our mutual needs and our fragile place on the pyramid, we can throw away the scorecard.
Yes, it is tough parable. It is even dumbfounding, but not because it is that hard to rationalize, but because it is hard to trust our gut, that it is better to be vulnerable even in a world still ruled by power. Yet to live abundantly, we must. Jesus reminds us that if a scumbag can pull it off, so can we.
“Once there was a tow truck driver who on his way to a lucrative crash site saw an old guy fall into the gutter. So he stopped to help. He chose compassion over cash. God is like that tow truck driver.”
Many of us have low opinions of tow truck drivers. While convenient at times, they seem to be mostly into money not mercy, ‘stand over’ rather than ‘hand up’, making life miserable rather than better. We wouldn’t be surprised to learn of gang affiliations and shady deals. Would you trust a tow truck driver?
Luke 15:1-7 casts God in the role of a shepherd, the first century Palestinian equivalent of a tow truck driver. Forget the gentle, loving look of the longhaired saint in the recently laundered robe. Shepherds were low life, petty thieves, and not to be trusted. Calling God a shepherd was offensive in Jesus’ day.
Likewise calling God a woman was intended to offend. A woman in those days was either her father’s property or her husband’s, or she was a slave, or on the street. Every day the orthodox men prayed, “Thank God I wasn’t born a woman.” Women’s role was to have kids, cook, clean, and earn money.
The story of God as a sweeping woman was offensive. The inferior and subservient gender was being elevated to the heavens, there to reign over men. After all everyone knew God was male, otherwise God would be weak and lacking in authority and power.
We need to read these Jesus stories not only as tales of compassion for the disoriented and lost, but also as tales subversive of normative religion and cultural expectations.
Another key concept in both stories is that of repentance. To repent is to turn from the direction one is heading in. Sin, guilt, and sorrow may be involved, but the key is turning. Turning is what unlocks hope.
Who though is being exhorted to repent?
The scene is set in verses 1 and 2. Tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus and he was welcoming and dining with them. Tax collectors were bullying thugs, Roman lackeys hated by the Jewish public. Sinners were all those who fell outside of the strictures of the purity regulations. The lame, blind, poor, prostitutes, gentiles all fell within this genre. Jesus ate with them all.
The anthropologists Farb and Armelagos write:
In all societies eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships… Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among society’s members…
Jesus transgressed his society’s boundaries about who ate with whom. He did not exercise discretion. All those labels – like tax collector and sinners – were derogatory terms for those with whom association should be avoided. Jesus ignored them. He had a vision of a non-discriminating society that he enacted by practicing a non-discriminating table.
His critics, the religiously righteous and the lawyers, wanted him to repent. Jesus replied with stories, beginning with the stray sheep and missing coin.
On a casual reading it seems from verses 7 and 10 that it is the stray or missing who is doing the repenting. However, on closer inspection, the wandering sheep hasn’t done any turning. Rather it is the shepherd who has lifted it up and carried it – the language denoting care and concern rather than rebuke or scolding. More obviously in the story of the sweeping woman it is nonsense to consider that the lost coin repented or turned in a new direction. Rather, like the sheep, it was found and cherished.
The missing sheep and coin haven’t sat down and thought how bad they are, or how they miss the other sheep and coins, or even how they could possibly have got lost. Rather these stories are of an unlikely God seeking them out, finding them, cherishing them, and reconnecting them to the whole community. The strays aren’t asked to change their ways or confess their wrongdoings.
However there is one group who are being asked to repent – namely the grumblers. The text calls them ‘Pharisees and Scribes’. The term Pharisee is a very broad brush. Like the word Anglican it encompasses a range of religious views. Pharisaism was a widespread reform movement that sought to personalize Judaism, bringing God into every village, home, and heart. Jesus was a part of this movement. All scribes, or legal lawyers, likewise cannot be assumed to be critics of Jesus. Therefore it is more accurate to say these grumblers were religious fundamentalist nitpickers.
The power of the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin is that Jesus is re-imaging God as an impure outsider – that is a sinner. The sinner God exercises mercy not judgement in Her relationships with those who are vilified. The sinner God includes those who are lost, tenderly owns them, and rejoices in their presence. The sinner God and Her actions are anathema to the religiously righteous. Jesus says these grumblers are the ones who need to turn, to repent, and face the truths of this offensive God.
Today we have become timid in our imaging of God. We think it is radical and risqué to even call God Her. Our images of God as loving and inclusive do not do justice to the sinner God who is offensive to the keepers of the status quo, religious or secular. Indeed the concepts of God as transforming love or divine energy unless earthed in risky imagery and stories are a diluted insipid version of the offensive God Jesus was shoving into the faces of his opponents.
We also need to rethink our vision of inclusive love – not that tolerance, justice, and understanding between peoples, races, religions, genders and orientations is not a worthwhile goal. Yet the vision often has an underlying premise of us, the powerful, letting the powerless in; or us, the powerless, wanting the powerful to invite us in. To use the metaphor of a non-discriminating dining table with us all sitting around together: Where is this table located, and who has set the menu?
Or put another way, where and to whom is the sinner God gonna run to? This God leaves the 99 well-feed and respectable church and business leaders, and goes AWOL. This God doesn’t do normal, or expected, or civilised.
This God could be found on the banks of the Brisbane River three weeks ago when a group of gay friends grieving a young man’s death threw high heels into the water. God threw one of Hers too.
This God was blowing raspberries at the back of a meeting of the ruling council of the Northern Irish Free Presbyterian Church when they ousted this week their founder Ian Paisley for his tolerance of Gay Pride marches. She also danced for joy that such a dogged hardliner as Paisley could change, albeit a little.
Will we turn and face this offensive God? We will overcome the objections of grumblers, and the grumbling inside ourselves, to find and be found by this sinner God and Her wild ways?
Opening prayer: Te Atua, tohu e, aroha mai ra, ki to whanau, kotahi, ko matou enei e. Amine.
Preaching to you this morning is a momentous personal occasion for me, because this is the last liturgical act I will perform in New Zealand, before heading back to the US to begin my semi-retirement. I’ve been here 15 years now, and for a variety of reasons, it is time, on the eve of my 63rd birthday, for me to leave. Excited as I am about where I’ll be a few months from now, I also am aware that there will be an enormous sadness about leaving this country. NZ has been very good to me over the past 15 years, and I hope I am correct in claiming that I have been good to NZ in return.
I’m also reminded that this is the third parish in which Glynn has invited me to preach. I preached for him at St. Mary’s Glen Innes, St Andrew’s Epsom, and now St Matthew-in-the-City. Glynn, you and your family have been good friends to me, and you’re among the many whom I will miss.
I was pleased to find Jeremiah 18 appointed as one of the lessons for this morning, because that text would offer me a chance to do what I most enjoy doing, both in the pulpit and in the classroom – to “muse” broadly across the fields of Biblical studies, rabbinic literature, psychology, gender, and popular culture.
I was raised in the 1950s in a traditional, though not very conservative, congregation in small-town Oklahoma – where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. As a child I was a romantic, and yet very uncomfortable in my own skin. I drew a lot of comfort from singing hymns in church, including two that make direct reference to Jeremiah 18:
“Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way, Thou art the potter, I am the clay,” and “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me, Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.” The metaphor of God as a potter who moulds and shapes us into something that is God-pleasing has been part of my spiritual life for a long long time. Indeed, it’s a relatively common metaphor for God in the Bible, for we find it not only in Jeremiah, but also in Isaiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Psalms, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, Matthew, and Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I suspect that the potter metaphor wouldn’t be quite so popular in the Bible if you and I hadn’t started off as Dirt. That’s what the word Adam means: Dirt. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all three tell the traditional story that we human beings started out as dirt, or dust, and God spit into us, making us into clay, and then moulded us as male and female. It’s only a short leap from God’s moulding us out of dirt and spittle, to a potter at the potter’s wheel, shaping a lump of clay. But a potter can’t make just anything out of clay; the potter can only make what the clay allows. As Biblical scholar John Bright points out, “The quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it, so the quality of a people determines what God will do with them.”  Who we are as individuals, and communities, depends both on God’s intention, and the raw material God has to work with. I’ll return to that point later.
The Hebrew word which lies behind our English translation of “potter” is “yotzer’.  A yotzer is anyone who forms or fashions something, and quite literally means a “maker”. A maker, as metaphor or in real life, can be a man (yotzer) or a woman (yotzeret), and in fact, either of those terms can also be translated as “sacred potter”. The Biblical text uses only the masculine form, though in modern Hebrew the feminine form has become more common. In fact, there are modern Jewish prayers that refer to God as “yotzeret ha’adam”, the (female) creator of humanity. This whole conversation about God’s gender easily falls into what we call the “anthropomorphizing” of God, the imaging of God in human terms, because it is so difficult for us, as human beings, to think outside of human terms and descriptions. What is perhaps even more interesting is the way that the Biblical potter is anthropomorphized emotionally. God as potter is alternatively angry, mischievous, or deeply caring.
In the Testament of Naphtali, one part of an Aramaic document written in Syria about one-hundred years before Jesus, called the “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” the image of God as a potter is expanded upon. For just as a potter knows the pot, how much it holds, and brings clay for it accordingly, so also the Lord forms the body in correspondence to the spirit, and instills the spirit corresponding to the power of the body. And from one to another here is no discrepancy, not so much as a third of a hair, for all the creation of the Most High was according to height, measure, and standard. And just as the potter knows the use of each vessel and to what it is suited, so also the Lord knows the body to what extent it will persist in goodness, and when it will be dominated by evil. For there is no form or conception which the Lord does not know, since he created every human being according to his own image. 
Now, this passage clearly anthropomorphizes God as one who thinks, evaluates, and measures, just as we humans do. This God is quite intellectual, perfect, controlled and controlling. Perhaps that’s why this God is called a masculine yotzer, rather than a feminine yotzeret! But it’s quite hard to imagine this yotzer making a mistake. And in fact, the metaphorical potter-God in the Bible apparently doesn’t make mistakes, because if the potter is unhappy with the pot, he simply destroys it, returning it to shards, or even to lifeless dust. Jeremiah favours that metaphorical picture, of an angry potter, one who changes his mind, who plucks up, breaks down, and destroys.
Sometime relatively soon after Jesus, the early rabbis argued for a different kind of potter: one who could make a mistake. The rabbis introduce a decidedly feminine image of a potter as a woman giving birth – perhaps the ultimate “maker” – by interpreting the two stones, the obayaim, which comprise a potter’s wheel as being like two thighs. In Tractate Sotah 11b, in the Babylonian Talmud, it is written: Another [teacher] explains [the word ‘obayaim’] in accordance with what is written. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he wrought his work on the wheels. As in the case of a potter, there is a thigh on one side, a thigh on the other side, and the wooden block in between, so also with a woman there is a thigh on one side, a thigh on the other side, and the child in between.
Elsewhere in rabbinic literature (Tractates Berakhot 31b-32a and Sukkah 52b), the rabbis argue that God despairs of the fact that he or she included the capacity to sin within the act of creating human beings. They argue this by combining three verses of Scripture. The first is Micah 4:6 – And whom I have wronged, a reference to the privilege of human beings to act insolently in God’s presence. The second is Jeremiah 18:6 – that we are clay in the hands of the Maker, and so the Maker bears the responsibility for “making” us come out right. The third is Ezekiel 36:26 – And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh, meaning that even if God accidentally gave us the capacity to sin, God also has the power to remove that characteristic from us. This, then, is a potter who makes mistakes from time to time, who can be held accountable for those mistakes, who only mistakenly would ever put human beings to the kind of test that could result in being unloved, and who maintains a distinctly self-corrective relationship with humanity.
But a potter can also be mischievous. In the soundtrack from the movie Brokeback Mountain, pop crooner Rufus Wainwright sings a song called “The Maker Makes”.
One more chain I break
To get me closer to you,
One more chain does the maker make
To keep me from busting through
One more smile I fake
And try my best to be glad,
One more smile does the maker make,
Because he knows I'm sad
Oh Lord, now I know
Oh Lord, now I see
That only can the maker make
A happy man of me. 
This “maker,” in Wainwright’s theological statement, seems to be one who sometimes thwarts our desires, simply because he or she can, and in order to help us maintain a sense that we cannot make alone ourselves happy. But this Maker is also one who replaces our fake smiles with genuine ones. Only God can make “a happy man of me” sings Wainwright.
These three interpretations of “the maker” form a kind of theological anthropology. A lump of clay does not choose to fall into the Maker’s hands. The initiation for making comes only from the Maker. Or, as Mary Shelley cited in the introduction to Frankenstein, echoing the words of Paradise Lost: “Did I request thee, Maker from my clay, to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?” Yet, as John Bright points out, the meaning of our passage this morning from Jeremiah is that “The quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it…” Even the air quality in a potter’s studio affects what happens with the clay. We might, then, view this metaphor of God as potter and us as clay not as a situation in which we are passive recipients, to be broken, melted, moulded, and filled, but rather in some sense we co-participate with God in the creation of who we are. And just as a fine piece of pottery takes a lot of time, and a lot of loving caressing to make, so do we humans. We start out as a lump of dirt and spittle, burst forth from the straining thighs of the wheel, and are slowly slowly become something that pleases the critical eye of God. With God, and over a life-time, we co-create beauty in our lives, and meaning within a community of faith.
When I am working in my other capacity, as a psychotherapist in private practice, I sit in intimate conversation with clients, and together, we attempt to find new ways to make meaning out of the events of their lives – meanings which will open up new possibility, and greater health. I’m a bit hesitant to apply the metaphor of “therapist” to God, though in then end, “therapist” simply means “healer,” and that is certainly one of the attributes of God, and for that matter, of one of God’s sidekicks, the archangel Raphael, which simply means “God’s healer”. Healing happens when power is shared in the therapy room. It doesn’t happen when I impose my interpretation of a client’s problems onto the client, and it doesn’t happen when the client is resistant to what I am saying. Healing happens “relationally,” when a client and I work together within the relational space to find new interpretive meanings that allow the client to heal and to move forward in life.
But there’s another important aspect of healing in therapy. When I was a small child, I believed that I could only bring my “good parts” to God. Fearing to make God angry, I was tempted to hide things from God. The God I knew as a child wasn’t nearly as smart as Santa Claus, who “knows when you’ve been bad or good.” I was so frightened of letting God know when I’d been bad, so I could stand in church and sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” and not mean a word of it!
I ask my therapy clients to try to bring all of themselves into the counseling room. For many, that takes a long time. Most human beings have secrets of some kind that they don’t easily reveal in the midst of important relationships. Yet therapy, like God-work, is only effective when we’ve brought the good parts of ourselves, AND the bad parts of ourselves, into the relationship, to try to make more constructive meaning out of it all. A potter uses the clay as it is. A potter works with the clay’s flaws and inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. The potter-God that we Christians believe in can take all of those things, the good and the bad, and turn them into something beautiful, but only if we have presented all the parts of us within a relationship of trust. Like therapy, this takes quite a while for most of us – perhaps even much of a lifetime. As John Denver says in his song “Potter’s Wheel,” “The potter’s wheel takes love and caring, skill and patience, fast and slow.”  With patience, the potter and the clay can, together, create something that both find pleasing, and that each offers to the other. One of the many lessons I have learned in the past ten years of practice as a psychotherapist is that clients mostly want to be as healthy as they are capable of being, but the specific definition of that health is much more determined by them, the clay, than it is by me, the potter.
Yet the old images of the potter and the clay remain. Built into them is a sense of domination and oppression – the potter has all the control, and the clay can only remain passive, molded only as the potter wishes, and even destroyed as the potter wishes. This is one type of Christian theology, but I no longer believe it is a healthy Christian theology. Yet it persists, even here in New Zealand:
In 2002, New Zealand pop singer Brooke Fraser released her first CD, a “mini” recording that had just a few songs on it. One of those songs was called “Pliable.” Today, she tops the charts in New Zealand on a regular basis, and many of our students at the University are fans of hers. Brooke Fraser’s lyrics in “Pliable” take us, in a sense, full circle back to the old hymns “Have thine own way, Lord” and “Spirit of the living God.” I’m fascinated that a young woman in New Zealand thinks of herself in relation to God just the way that I did over fifty years ago. She sings:
I’m working to be pliable
Taken me in your hands and mould me
I’m yours, that’s undeniable
But I am weak, so take me in and hold me. 
John Bright’s claim, that the product which a potter attempts to make out of clay is determined as much by the nature of the clay as it is by the potter’s skill, takes us in a very different direction than Brooke Fraser’s lyric, that she is so weak that all she can aspire to is to be pliable in the hands of God. Such a claim might be typical of late-Victorian theology, which in a former American prayerbook taught us to pray at every eucharist: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.” I no longer believe this phrase, nor do I even think it is psychologically or spiritually healthy to teach people to pray in this manner. If we share God’s image, which is one of the foundational claims of the Bible, then we surely share God’s power. If we share God’s image, then we surely share God’s dignity. If we are God’s clay, we bring our own individual strengths and properties to the potter, and together work with the potter to co-produce a product of beauty. And if I cannot see the beauty in every human being I encounter, in the therapy room, a congregation, or a University classroom – in Darfur and Kabul, in Pyongyang and Teheran, in Suva and at the Sydney APEC conference, in Otara and Moerewa – then how can I stand in love and solidarity with those who inhabit this fragile and increasingly-interdependent world in which we live? In other words, I believe that the radical hope which Christian faith offers to the world is dependent upon our seeing the strength and beauty of the clay, as much as we see the power and skill of the potter.
Perhaps this has been one of the greatest gifts this country has given me during my 15 years here – to be able to see the beauty of all Creation through new experiences. Living here has given me the opportunity to admire not only
• the beauty of native trees and plants, but also the degree to which we go here to protect the potter’s inspiration;
• the dignity and indigenous wisdom of South Pacific cultures, but also the lengths to which many people in this country go to preserve and honor them;
• the curiosity inherent in the intellectual life of this country, but also the bravery that so many people express in exploring new ideas and ways of doing things for the health of all;
• the willingness of people here to take social issues seriously, but also the capacity so many people of this land seem to have to chuckle out loud at ourselves, and to show such genuine affection for one another.
These are rare qualities among the nations of the world. These are expressions of power, dignity, and beauty. I believe you have co-created these things with the Maker, out of your own strengths. I am a lucky man to have been invited to abide under your roof for so long, and to have become part of this beautiful vessel of the Pacific.
O Potter God, what a wonderful world you have made out of wet mud, and what beautiful men and woman. And we thank you, God, for initiating the co-creation of this marvelous world with us. As your hands twirl us round and round and touch us everywhere, shape us to be the most beautiful creation we can be, so that together, we and you, can model for others how wonderful it can be to be the work of your hands. Amen.
 The words for this hymn were written in about 1930 by Adelaide Pollard, a young woman from Iowa. She desperately wanted to go to Africa as a missionary, but was unable to raise the necessary funds. In these words, she is asking whether she is too proud and self-willed for God to use. Some years later, she did receive the funding to go to Africa to witness to her faith in God.
 The text and music for “Spirit of the Living God” were written in 1926 by Daniel Iverson (1890-1977), a Presbyterian minister. About this hymn William J. Reynolds wrote: “During January and February of 1926, the George T. Stephans Evangelistic Party conducted a city-wide revival in the tabernacle in Orlando, FL. Daniel Iverson, a Presbyterian minister from Lumberton, NC, spent several days in Orlando visiting with the Stephans’ team. The day he arrived, he was greatly impressed by a message on the Holy Spirit given Dr. Barron, a physician from Columbia, SC. Later that day Iverson went to the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, sat down at the piano, and wrote this song. Miss Birdie Loes, the pianist for the Stephans’ team, wrote it out on manuscript paper. E. Powell Lee, the team song leader, was immediately impressed, and taught it to the people that evening in the tabernacle, and used it throughout the campaign (Reynolds, 1976, 199).” It first appeared in print in Revival Songs, 1926. In subsequent years it was erroneously attributed to B.B. McKinney in Songs of Victory, 1937, and the initial printing of the Baptist Hymnal, 1956. Due to the efforts of E. Powell Lee in around 1960, Iverson’s name was restored as the rightful composer.
 John Bright, Jeremiah, in The Anchor Bible series, Garden City: Doubleday, 1965, p. 125.
 William Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, edited by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951, p. 427.
 H. C. Kee, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, Garden City: Doubleday, 1983, p. 811.
 Words and music by Rufus Wainwright, from the movie soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain.
 Words and music by Bill Danoff, as recorded by John Denver.
 Lyrics by Brooke Fraser, from her 2002 single “Better”. For more information about Brooke Fraser, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooke_Fraser; http://www.myspace.com/brookefraser; and http://www.brookefraser.com/featuredinfo/home.do. Other songs that might be used to illustrate this theme are “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed,” by Prince, “Gypsy,” by Suzanne Vega, and “Only You,” from “Starlight Express” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” If we really were a Christian nation this would be a fitting motto. Perhaps because we live down under everyone else, there is something appealing about down being up and up being down. Have you noticed, it shows up in our banknotes? We put Edmund Hillary who climbed to earth’s highest heights on the $5 note – our lowest denomination. And then, in a country that has a very low view of anything nuclear, we put the man who first split the atom, Ernest Rutherford, on the $100 note – our highest denomination.
Ironic? Yes. Coincidence? I think not. I first learned about our national obsession with humility while still in the States reading up on my soon to be adopted country. Like Jesus, we consider it bad manners to exaggerate our own importance. From far away it seemed quite charming. Certainly it was egalitarian. It wasn’t until I got here that I understood that humility wasn’t a self-imposed Kiwi discipline. Anyone getting too full of themselves can expect a joke at their expense to cut them down to size. An example of Kiwi humour would be the farmer who when his donkey died called his local councilman, who told him he would have to bury it himself. He said, “Oh, I know that, I’m calling to offer my condolences to his relatives.”
In reflecting on the Gospel and Kiwi humour I wondered if it was also a coincidence that humility, humour and humanity share the same root. It isn’t. It is from the mother of language, Sanskrit, and means humus. All three are interestingly enough related to rotting kitchen garbage and autumn leaves.
The ancient Hindus, who spoke Sanskrit, apparently had a nice sense of irony. Like Kiwis, they understood the value of humus – rich soil that supports new life, but is created by the degradation of life. Any Kiwi turning their humus pile on a Sunday afternoon understands that earth is both a grave that swallows up and a womb that burst forth. It is the natural order. We are part of that order and nothing we do changes this reality. That doesn’t keep us from trying, but all is vanity. All we can really do is joke about it. When we laugh at our plight we share in the divine laughter. Even though it is an old joke, it brings tears of laughter.
In light of these thoughts I re-read Luke’s story of Jesus attending a Pharisee’s black tie dinner. I wondered if Luke is trying to tell a joke. Now he is no Fred Dagg, our beloved Kiwi comic, but it would read better as a joke. Jesus, a Pharisee and a man with dropsy walk into a bar…
After setting up the joke, Luke has Jesus heal a man with dropsy on the Sabbath. Why “dropsy?” Why isn’t the man blind or deaf or epileptic? While the name itself sounds a little humorous, I thought there had to be more of a reason. Not knowing what dropsy was, I Googled it. It is water retention that gives us puffy eyes in the morning and swollen feet and ankles at night. We call it œdema the curse of mothers-to-be and those who spend their 8-hour day on their feet. While we know it is a symptom and not a disease, in Jesus day they thought it was a disease of having an unquenchable thirst for water. It was a disease of never having enough. We know not having enough isn’t a disease. It is a symptom of the human condition. We all know about wanting more. We invented the concept. Blaise Paschal first touched on why describing a god-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person. This hole leaves us feeling incomplete. Nature abhors a vacuum so we suck in anything we can to fill it. Paschal thought it explained our desire for God. The existentialist Jean Paul Sartre agreed that there was a god-shaped hole in each of us. It was left there when God died. Either way, they agree there is a hole to fill, leaving us seeking more.
Now that the context for the joke is set, Luke’s Jesus teases his hosts. Jesus asks if it is OK to heal on the Sabbath? Jesus knows the Law and he knows the answer and he knows the Pharisees know that he knows. He also knows they are fond of the Law and the Sabbath because they are its enforcers. It works to their benefit. It gives them power and importance protecting God’s will. But he also knows they know that life isn’t always so neat as the Law makes out. Sometimes it is something they value that requires bending the Law to protect. He has caught them in his little trap. They know it and like smart lawyers everywhere they remain silent rather than testify against themselves.
Since everyone loves a lawyer joke (even lawyers), we smile along with the other party guests at how neatly Jesus takes the piss out of them. Only Jesus knows he hasn’t given the punch line yet. He isn’t after just lawyers, but you and me as well. After the guests and we scramble to sit next to him, the guest of honour tells an after dinner story that seems to be about good etiquette, but in truth is a joke about the secret of making good humus. We facilitate the natural order by turning the leaves and garbage. Rotating the top layer to the bottom and the bottom to the top is an act of cooperation with the natural order, be it material or spiritual. All things living are dying from the moment of conception and in death all life is beginning. Nothing is discarded, but it benefits from being rotated. Nothing escapes this truth. That is the way it is. Full stop. Power, wealth, prestige, the addiction of our choice will not deter death. Get a clue he is telling us. When we resist this divine truth, thinking we are too good for the humus pile or to turn it, we are in denial. We are no different than the man with dropsy or the lawyers. The joke is on us.
If he ended here, it would be a cruel joke. All we would be left with is an empty longing in the god-shaped hole in our soul. Our laughter would be hollow.
But the joke isn’t over. What makes a joke good is an unexpected twist at the end. As he proceeds with the joke describing what can happen if we invite ourselves to the head table, he has us squirming uncomfortably in our seats. Then he relieves the tension by encouraging us to throw a party. That sounds good; a nice escape from our reality. But he then tosses a twist into the twist. He says it will be a better party if we invite disposable people – the kitchen garbage of our society – “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” By “throw a party” he means accept that we are part of the humus pile.
We might forget to laugh if we think he is talking about being politically correct, but that is not the case. And for unapologetic liberals like myself he isn’t talking about justice either – at least not directly. He is telling us of a surprising way to fill our god-shaped hole.
In comedy timing is everything. Some times we have to wait for the audience to get it. Jesus waits, wondering if his joke will bomb. Finally, the hush is broken by a few chuckles, “Oh! It isn’t about bad manners, but good earth.” Good earth requires worms and bacteria to do the work of transformation. Our spiritual lives require love and compassion to do the same work. As long as we see society’s scraps as useless garbage different from us, it is we who are useless to the cycle of life. We remain empty focused on death, cut off from the mystery of life it nurtures. Love and compassion are the worms and bacteria that the kitchen scraps offer us. We join them in the humus pile for our sake, not theirs. They are what transform us into something useful and life giving. With enough time we discover the god-shaped hole is filled with good humus and good humour making us fully human, fully alive. “Who would’ve thought,” as we laugh out loud applauding Jesus, the life of the party.
I spent the summers of my erstwhile youth in the Republic of Waiheke. No traffic lights, no fast food, no television, not many adults, and lots of time. It was there, on isolated beaches, surrounded by surf, pohutukawa, and friendship I learnt the prayerful art of making fire. There can be something quite beautiful, and holy, about a fire at night on the beach.
What is holy? How do we know it to be holy? Are some places, words, actions and thoughts always sacred? Like most of us, I call it as I feel it. I can walk into a church and feel nothing holy. It’s just a big barn with a bunch of chairs. I can also walk into a barn and feel something holy. An arena of hay, animals, and dung was and can still be the nativity scene. The ordinary can be extraordinary.
Moses, a young fugitive from the law and from himself, came upon a burning bush. He could have grabbed a bucket of sand and doused it muttering to himself about kids who play with matches. He could have got out his bedroll and barbeque kit and settled down for a nice desert evening. Instead, he saw the fire as holy. He saw the ordinary, fire, as extraordinary.
The holy does not respect our boundaries of place and time. It doesn’t wait until we’re in church, or feeling good. Experiences of the numinous, of awe and wonder happen on beaches and deserts, in kitchens, bedrooms, and boardrooms, in churches, mosques, and synagogues. No place or time has a monopoly on sacredness.
St Matthew’s is one of the few neo-Gothic churches in this country. Here generations of people have experienced something holy. When you talk to people though, even if they can articulate what they mean by holy, it is not consistent. One person will experience the windows as holy, another the welcome as holy, and another the communion. The mystery and power move us in different ways at different times – and sometimes we aren’t moved at all.
A few weeks back I was at the annual Robin Hood Foundation dinner here in St Matthew’s. The pews and parishioners were gone replaced by dinner tables and guests. The Foundation, which encourages businesses to invest creatively in social enterprises particularly geared to those in poverty, was handing out accolades and awards. The Bank of New Zealand, for example, was applauded for their involvement in Preventing Violence in the Home, and The House of Travel for their relationship with Hospice NZ. We sponsored the event.
There is something fundamentally holy about compassion, thinking creatively about fighting poverty, and rewarding those who do. There also can be built a communion amongst those committed to caring for others.
Last Friday night there was another event hosted here with tables, food, and wine. It was Price Waterhouse Cooper’s Emerging Artists. Music, conversation, and awards were on the menu. This was not a charity event. Yet was the holy absent? In talking, listening, laughing… is there not always the possibility of God showing up? Are the sacred and secular neat categories where we can lock God in, and lock others out?
Every moment has the potential for holiness. Every place has the potential for holiness. Within every person is the holiness of God, ready and waiting to guide us in the ways of love, justice, and joy. God doesn’t just fraternize with nice people, or church people, or righteous upstanding people.
As I listened afresh this week to the Lukan story of Jesus and the woman afflicted by degenerative osteoporosis I heard again this struggle over who, what, and when is holy.
In many cultures and religions there seems to be a holiness continuum. Up one end are the saints and down the other are the scumbags. The saint end tends to be dominated by those who follow a rigorous spiritual discipline; and the scumbag end by those who seemingly don’t have much discipline at all. Unfortunately such continuums have historically pushed the sick, the poor, and dissenters towards the scumbag end, and those who keep to the rules towards sainthood.
We need to understand that this Lukan story deliberately characterizes two diametrically opposed understandings of holiness. It is, in that sense, using stereotypes. It would be most inappropriate, in fact, directly offensive, if we were not to see this and to start caricaturing Jewish leaders and Judaism on the basis of this story.
Jesus has an evolving understanding of holiness that makes him wary of presuming. Something in his Jewish background and experience has alerted him to the broader truth that God and holiness are found in the little, the meek, the mediocre, and the marginalized. Holiness is amongst the impure. Holiness is not limited to certain places or people. Holiness can happen at a party, be evident in an enemy soldier, a person of heathen faith, or a woman of ill repute. Piety, on the other hand, made Jesus puke.
Of course God can be found in all sorts of places. God can be found amongst the high and mighty, as well as the low and slimy, in community meetings and backyards, committees and ball games, Cathedrals and brothels, niggling, nudging, and agitating. God can be found in Sydney Diocese and in the words of Bishop John Spong. Banning won’t work. God is not hemmed in by our preconceptions, but is out and about, splashing the world with iconoclastic irreverence and courageous love.
Jesus calls the bent woman a ‘daughter of Abraham’. He calls her an insider, follower of the faith, whereas society has called her an outsider, and has reshaped her with their prejudice. Jesus calls her into community and wellbeing. And he does it on the Sabbath.
Another heir of Abraham objects. ‘Look Jesus, we all like a healing mate, but this is the Sabbath. Couldn’t you have waited until tomorrow?’ Jesus quips, ‘Well, animals need water on the Sabbath.’ ‘Sorry Jesus,’ he might have replied, ‘it’s not a good argument. Animals need water to survive; the woman could have waited until the morrow.’
But this argument is not really about what the texts of scripture definitively say. It is about where the heart lies. The objector, a gate keeper of holiness, wanted compassion and kindness to fit within the rules. Jesus’ God however wasn’t keen on rules. Holiness happens when it happens, just like it happens where it happens, among whom it happens. We can’t stop it. But we can choose not to recognize it or support it.
Texts and traditions, valuable and cherished as they may be, can be used to try to lock God in and lock so-called ‘undesirables’ out. In many parts of the Anglican world today women and gays are locked out of leadership. In many places tight controls are placed around those who can receive sacraments like baptism, communion, and marriage. In many places church buildings can only be used for authorized worship services and Robin Hood wouldn’t be welcome.
I return to the fire on the Waiheke beach. It is warm there, a place rich with memories. I can’t deny the holiness of those encounters. I can’t deny God was there as much as God is here. I can’t deny that in the friendships of those moments there was something holy and precious. Sacred and secular are different from each other but not fixed categories with definitive boundaries. I know this because I have experienced a God who dances and flits where She wills, totally disregarding any fences I’ve tried to erect and laughing at my attempts.
Discerning the Signs of the Times – Reading the Weather
August 12, 2007
Pentecost 11 Luke 12:49- 56
I grew up in a household and within an extended family – where the central thread that held the family together and linked the family down through the generations past was that religion was good, it was necessary, and at the heart of life, because it dealt with issues of ultimate consequence and meaning.
Much later and to my ongoing sorrow I learnt and continue to be acutely aware of, that what made religion good and necessary also made it prone to intolerance and violence.
Religion kills, or more accurately, religion is used to justify killing precisely because issues of ultimate consequence and meaning are understood to be at stake.
The events of September 11th, 2001 which we continue to remember with such vivid mark indeed a bloody and violent beginning to a new century.
God predictably, is understood to be the benefactor of each side in the deadly conflict. The Muslims who flew aeroplanes into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon did so in service to Allah. They understood themselves to be instruments of God’s will, agents of deserved punishments, and bearers of divine justice against enemies sufficiently evil as to do away with the category of innocent civilians. Terrorist actions were for them a faithful response to historic grievances based on a faithful reading of their sacred text.
Equally recourse in violent response justified in relation to faith, God and sacred text, was also evident in the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks. U.S leaders peppered their pronouncements of retaliatory actions – including the relentless bombing of Afghanistan and the broader war against terrorism – with references to God. The rhetoric of President Bush and his advisors post-September 11 was eerily similar to that of Osama bin Laden and his supporters.
Each side poses the conflict as a struggle between good and evil. In response to the depth of evil to be countered, each justifies the death of civilians, whether targeted, or as collateral damage. Each believes the grave depravity of the other can only be countered by lethal violence. Each invokes God’s name to ground the righteousness of their cause.
Andrew Sullivan writing in an article, “This Is a Religious War” in The New York Times Magazine, writes that the “general reluctance” to speak about “the conflict that began on Sept. 11” as a religious war is “admirable” but wrong. The religious dimension is central to its meaning.
This “surely is a religious war,” says Sullivan, yet it is not a war between Islam, Christianity and Judaism but rather “a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.” Sullivan states clearly that the “use of religion for extreme repression, and even terror is not restricted to Islam. For most of its history,” he says, “Christianity has had a worse record.” The Crusades, Inquisition, and bloody religious wars during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries meant that “Europe saw far more blood spilled for religion’s sake than the Muslim world did.” (Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Is Religion Killing Us? New York, Continuum. 2003, 17.)
Jonathon Sacks, Chief Rabbi for the Commonwealth writing in a book entitled, The Dignity of Difference, makes the central claim that, “one belief more than any other is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that that those who do not share my faith, or my race, or my ideology – do not share my humanity. At best they are second-class citizens. At worst they forfeit the sanctity of life itself. They are the unsaved, the unbelievers, the infidel, the unredeemed: they stand outside the circle of salvation.” (45)
If faith is what makes us human, then those who do not share my faith are less than fully human. From this equation flowed the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the jihads, the pogroms, and the blood of human sacrifice through the ages. From it ultimately came the Holocaust, of which the Western world in so many ways continues to seek to work out its redemption.
Religion is about identity and identity excludes. For every ‘we’ there is a ‘them’, the people not like us. The sense of belonging goes back to prehistory. Being part of a group was essential to life itself. Outside it, the individual could not survive. Some of our deepest, genetically coded instincts go back to that time and explain our tendency to form networks, attachments and loyalties. We call these predispositions tribal.
Tribalism has immense power. To surrender the self to something larger, more powerful, more elemental, is one of the deepest instincts of humanity.
Today ends a week of Islam Awareness. The core theme of the week has been ‘Unity in Diversity’ and around the country there have been a variety of opportunities and activities organized for New Zealander’s to consciously increase their awareness of Muslim diversity and beliefs, values and practices.
The supreme religious challenge shared by the three world religions – bound together in a common history – Islam, Judaism, Christianity – is to see God’s image in one who is not our image. That is the opposite of tribalism. But it is also different than universalism. The major difference being that it takes difference seriously. It recognizes the integrity of other cultures, over civilizations, other paths to the presence of God.
The Gospel reading today from Luke 12, in the latter verses 54-56 has Jesus speaking to the crowds about the weather, in particular their ability to give reports of the weather. He notes how accurate they are – it’s going to rain – and it does- the south wind is going to blow and it is hot as predicted. They are skilful weather reporters but in contrast their ability to be able to read in the most discerning way the nature and climate of the times is far from accurate.
My take on seeking to be a perceptive and insightful discerner of the signs of the times is caught up with what I believe is the critical test of any religious order – the mark of whether it is truly good – is the core question – does it make space for otherness? Does it acknowledge the dignity of difference?
I believe and passionately so that this is now the most crucial and central question of the global age. The very future of the global world will depend on how much we deal with ethnic, religious and cultural otherness.
As Sacks maintains, “nothing has proved harder in the history of civilizations than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different colour, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.” (60)
There are and there must be for the future of the next generations, many ways at arriving at this disciplined, gracious, generosity of spirit, and each faith must find its own way.
For me, this committed task of engaging in the possibility of creating a surplus of generosity of spirit lies at the centre of interfaith dialogue, and given the focus of this week around the country must lie at the heart of ongoing dialogue between and around the distinctive faiths of Christianity and Islam.
Let me say a little about my understanding of the task and process of dialogue in order to respectfully make space for otherness.
The etymology of the word “dialogue” is dia in Greek – referring to the act of seeing through.
Dialogue empowers us to ‘see through’ the faith of others, and enable us to reexamine our assumptions of the other based on the other’s definition of itself. Each group is able to better express what it believes and, in the process, to understand more deeply the meaning of what it means to be committed to a particular faith tradition.
The process of self-definition also requires that each group express itself on its own terms and for the partner in dialogue to accept and respect that self-definition. In the process, our preconceived notions of the other are challenged and often dramatically altered. That has certainly been my experience.
This is the first step and a crucial step to moving beyond the stereotypes and misrepresentations of the past.
The purpose of engaging in interfaith dialogue is not to reach doctrinal agreement or at worst – conversion to what I consider to be the one and only ‘true faith’. As the Parliament of the World’s Religions affirmed in Chicago 1993, “The earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of the individual is changed first.”
Dialogue provides access to windows of understanding of how others define themselves and challenges us to grow in our own faith through the experience of the other. It necessitates a shift in paradigm, asking us to embrace those we have previously excluded or demonized. For exclusion is also conjoined with the distortion of rather than simply ignorance of the other. As Miroslav Volf states, “it (exclusion) is a willful misconstruction, not mere failure of knowledge. (Exclusion and Embrace, 76)
Dialogue is the first step toward accommodating or making space within oneself for the other and it is essential that in this first step we move away from defining ourselves over and above and enemy “other.” This is a crucial measure and a disciplined measure in seeking to establish a peaceful relationship.
The will to embrace is a crucial first step in the process of attempting to build conversation. It is a crucial movement towards the possibility of – building a bridge across the divide in order to speak with rather than remain speaking about the other in an objectified manner – continuing to keep an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ at arms length.
As I consider this act of embrace – this willed act of embrace – I recall the beautiful and powerful imagery described by the Jewish novelist writing in his memoirs – former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel.
“In an embrace I also close my arms around the others – not tightly, so as to crush and assimilate them forcefully in myself, for that would not have been an embrace but a concealed power-act of exclusion; but gently – (very light touch) so as to tell them that I do not want to be without them in our otherness. I want them to remain independent and true to their genuine selves, to maintain their identities and as such become part of me so that they can enrich me with what they have and I do not.” (Wiesel…)
Why should I engage in dialogue – Christian to Muslim, to others of different ethnicity, others of different faiths?
Why should I embrace the other? Because the others are part of my own true identity. And I cannot live authentically without welcoming “others,” into the very structure of my being.
Five Smooth Stones
August 12, 2007
Pentecost 11 1 Samuel 17:1-4, 8, 16, 24, 26, 31-32, 38-45, 48-49 Luke 12:32-48
There is little actual, factual history in the account of David and Goliath. David and his band of terrorists after many years of sniping from the wilderness eventually overthrew the king of Israel, Saul, and installed David as the new monarch. They then set about justifying this seizure of power by rewriting both religious and secular history. Those histories found in our Bible tell us that David was attractive to women, men, and religious alike. He was strong, brave, musical, artistic, and, of course, chosen by God. They are 10th century BCE spin doctoring.
The David and Goliath account is part of the spin doctoring. The young, armour-less, yet brave shepherd boy does what all the mighty warriors of Saul cannot. He slays the giant. Rather than a man, Goliath might have symbolized the collective threat of neighbouring Philistia, or might have symbolized the obstacles David needed to overcome in order to usurp King Saul.
Regardless of actual, factual history the story of David and Goliath has a mythological life of its own. It is about the small overcoming the mighty, the weak bettering the strong, and courage besting power. In 1976 when a US nuclear-powered cruiser Long Beach was confronted at the entrance to Auckland Harbour by a flotilla of small yachts and boats, later to be called the Peace Squadron, at least one news report spoke of it as the little David challenging the Goliath of nuclear armaments. As George Armstrong wrote, “It was a deeply religious occasion as some celebrated their deepest feelings, aspirations, and commitments.”
There are large Goliaths that still need confronting, not least the arms industry. There are Goliaths of self-interest, greed, and oppression that continue to favour the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, men over women, and straight over gay. When these Goliaths run amok, or simply are allowed to prosper because good people do nothing, the well-being and spirituality of us all suffers.
David chose from the brook five smooth stones. Today the five stones I would choose for the fight against the Goliaths are wisdom, courage, imagination, gratitude, and compassion.
Wisdom is not simply the acquisition of knowledge, nor its application, nor is it intelligence. You can have all the information of the internet, have memorised every word in every encyclopaedia, and still not be wise. Rather wisdom starts with knowing yourself, where you are from, and the threads that bind you to others and the earth.
We must learn to value stillness, the night, and the soul. Stillness is not disengagement, or retreat. It is listening to the self, the soil, and the unspoken sighs of so many. When its dark and still it is easier to listen… it’s also easier to fall asleep!
Wisdom involves falling in love with our unique identity, and our integration with all of life. If we don’t love ourselves we will find it difficult to love our obstreperous neighbours. If we don’t love our neighbours our self becomes bloated – like an enclosed heart that has nowhere to pump its lifeblood.
Wisdom is about knowing when to stop, and when to move quickly; when to believe and when to be sceptical; when to stick to our guns and when to trade them for the sake of our children; and when to give and when to give until it hurts.
This week Louise Nicholas has epitomised the second smooth stone: courage. Seven times she has stood up in court and repeated the details of her rape and sexual assault. She has endured scorn, disbelief, and ridicule. Louise has stood up against the Goliath of entrenched attitudes regarding women, sex, and male accountability. As she said let’s hope that her trials will make it easier for other women in the future to get some semblance of justice.
There are other types of courage too. There is the courage of those police officers who have longed believed Louise and carefully complied cases against their colleagues. Breaking ranks, particularly for the sake of a woman, is seen as a great male crime.
Courage involves endurance, not being thanked or acknowledged, and, unfortunately, repeatedly loosing. The Bible uses the word kenosis or self-emptying. It means costly persistence for the sake of others.
The third smooth stone is that of imagination. It means thinking creatively, playfully, beyond what is anticipated or expected.
Many years ago there was a gentleman who upon his death divided his camels between his three sons. To the first he left half his camel herd, to the second a third of his camels, and to the last born a ninth. The problem was however that he left in total 17 camels and apart from killing and chopping up an animal or two, and thus reducing the value of the bequest, the sons couldn't see a way to follow their father's will. They decided to consult a priest. He simply lent them a camel. Now with 18 camels in total the eldest son took his half – 9 beasts; the second born took his third – 6 beasts; and the last born took his ninth – 2 beasts. In total that came to 17 camels; and they gave the 18th camel back to the priest.
Apart from being a fun story for those of a mathematical bent, the 18th camel is a metaphor for imaginative problem solving. To help people through the impasse of their circumstances we need to offer not only novel ideas, but also something of ourselves. There is a cost to creativity. In this story the camel was returned but in my experience it is usually used to pay the lawyer who settled the estate, and the creative solution itself will quickly become an idea that the brothers dreamed up themselves.
The fourth smooth stone is gratitude. Being thankful doesn’t come naturally. It needs to be both cultivated and practiced. It needs to be spoken, and acted out in gift-giving to others.
I have a little coffee coaster that says, “Don’t forget to pause and thank God for everything”. We hesitate around the word ‘everything’. There are many things in our lives we are not thankful for, and nor should we be. The Goliaths of this world – systems, structures, and powers – trample on many of the things we hold precious and dear.
Yet there is a deep wisdom in exercising a thankful spirit. That spirit is about the beauty that is ours to find, the sun that breaks through the clouds, and the smile that we can elicit from one another. It is the power of recovery after the fall. It is the power of hope. It is the power of a small stone to fell the oppressive Goliaths.
The last stone I choose is that of compassion. It is the exercise of hospitality and goodwill towards both friend and stranger. It is taking the risk of that hospitality, and defending the person who is different when others want to exclude him or her. It is noticing who is not present, who is overlooked or discounted. It is speaking up to counter prejudicial attitudes. It is forgiving what seems to be harm done to yourself. It is putting up with difficult people. It is giving clothes, food, and money away. It is consoling the sad, and going to neighbours’ funerals. It is the love for the many, aroha nui. It is believing that that human community is joined at the heart.
In the final analysis the Goliaths of this world don’t understand the heart. They don’t understand the love that is not selfish, greedy, or oppressive. They don’t understand the spirit of giving with no return. They don’t understand listening to the stillness and cherishing it. They don’t understand courage where there is no gain, but just lots of cost. They don’t understand gratitude when there is seemingly nothing to be grateful for. They don’t understand valuing insignificant people.
What they don’t understand they don’t plan for. What they don’t plan for they don’t expect. What they don’t expect is what will destroy them. David had five smooth stones, but only one was necessary to slay the giant.
August 5, 2007
Ordinary Sunday 18 Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23 Luke 12:13-21
Last Sunday I left you with the notion that prayer was seeking the divine in our daily lives and being willing to be transformed by it. Like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable who talks to himself, I spent the week having an internal dialogue. “Nice thought Nelson, but how do we know when we have found the divine? Seems like an important question don’t you think, if our transformation is at stake?
It’s a challenge because we don’t have a picture of the divine. But that has not stopped human ingenuity from trying to create one that we can wrap our limited minds around. We do it by separating the world into sacred and profane: Things or people that are of the divine and things or people that are not. That sounds easy enough on the face of it: Mother Theresa sacred, Paris Hilton not; the parish church sacred, the local casino profane. We consider knowing what is sacred a little like distinguishing art from pornography? We know it when we see it.
But do we? Mother Theresa, who since her death is on the fast track for sainthood, had and has her critics. Not wanting to speak ill of the future Saint Theresa, I’ll just suggest that you google the phrase “criticism of Mother Theresa.” I got 1.25 million hits.
Well, if Mother Theresa is not as clearly sacred as we thought, surely we can safely say Paris Hilton is profane. Yes, certainly her well-publicised behaviour is. But after her recent stay in jail, like many before her, she claims to have found God. Well, maybe. Far be it from me to say God is not there. Time will tell if she has been transformed by the encounter.
Ok, so determining sacred and profane in people is less black and white than we thought, but certainly it is clearer with things. Certainly we can determine the church as sacred and the casino profane. Again, its not as easy as we might think. St Matthew’s is used about 15 hours a week on average for what we would normally call sacred activities: worship, weddings, funerals and baptisms. However, the community used it for secular activities at least 30 hours this past week alone, which is not unusual. I know the activities were secular because the Prime Minister was here for two of them.
All right then, Sky City Casino, which profits primarily on human hedonism, is certainly profane. Well again, let’s not be so quick. Sky City caters some of those profane activities that take place at St Matthew’s helping us financially to achieve our mission. Its community trust has given millions to churches, schools, cultural centres, and non-profits to benefit the community. When St Matthew’s was falling apart they gave substantial sums for it restoration. They have done the same for St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Considering how fuzzy the line between them is, I’m not sure I trust community consensus or myself to determine what is sacred and what is not.
Today’s lessons make the same point. The rich farmer thought having responsibly gathered enough wealth was sacred. Having done so entitled him to finally “eat, drink and be merry”, until God, doubling as the Angel of Death, announces he is a fool. As he will be dying that very night, he will be leaving his sacred wealth behind as well as his opportunity to live an abundant life. He discovers at the last moment but too late what that cynic of all cynics, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, harps on repeatedly, “All is vanity and the chasing after wind.”
Remember the 1980 film The God’s Must Be Crazy? To refresh your memory it is the story of Xi, a bushman living in South Africa. His tribe lives well off the land. They are happy because the Gods have provided plenty of everything, so no one in the tribe has unfilled wants. But everything changes with their first encounter with the outside world. One day an empty Coke bottle discarded by the pilot of a light aircraft drops into their midst. At first Xi’s people see it as a good gift of the Gods. He and his people find many uses for it. But unlike anything that they have had before, there is only one bottle to share among all members of the tribe. They soon find themselves bickering amongst themselves, experiencing something they never had before: envy, hatred, even violence. They come to see it as “the evil thing” and resolve that it must be returned to sender, a task Xi volunteers to do. He travels to a distant place that looks very much like the edge of the world – a high cliff above the clouds covering the valley below. There he throws the bottle back to the Gods for the good of his people.
When first released Western audiences thought it was a comedy having fun with the simplicity of the “Noble Savage:” Finding humour in their thinking a Coke bottle sacred. The debate the film stirred up resulted in humility for some. Are we any different in our attempts to constrict the divine by seeing the world in terms of sacred and profane. What humanity has found sacred is as diverse as humanity itself. Recent news from England reminds us that some think cows are sacred. That didn’t prevent scorn being heaped on authorities that took their time being sensitive to those beliefs before destroying a bull sacred to Hindus that suffered bovine tuberculosis. But what do those who heaped scorn find sacred: ancient religious texts; reason and science; a fertilised ovum; the free market; people wearing collars, pointy hats, or saffron robes? The list is endless. For some, the sacred could even be revealed in something so profane as common bread and wine or water poured thrice over the head of a child.
All of which makes the case for how difficult it is to know when in prayer we have encountered the holy and not divinity of our own choosing.
As difficult as it is all peoples everywhere and through all time according to archaeologists and sociologists have sought to define the sacred.
The reason why is in the ancient riddle of the Sphinx: What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? This description of human life from infancy to infirmity reminds us that our lives are transitory. That we know the answer to the riddle is a reminder of the curse of human consciousness – we know we have a beginning and an end.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes poetically reminds us that our mortality causes us to desire immortality. Aware of our limited humanity, we long for unlimited divinity. Reminded daily that all is fleeting, we pray for permanence. All of which is to say that in this journey from four legs to three legs we seek clarity of meaning and purpose in the face of certain death.
Our problem is we think determining meaning and purpose is up to us. We respond by trying to give ourselves value, importance, security, pleasure, power, and wisdom.
But both the Teacher and Jesus in his parable of the rich fool point out similarly that such endeavours are to chase the wind, a waste of a perfectly good life.
Better, they might argue, to let the sacred claim and define us.
An image I would offer for this approach to our transitory lives is walking the labyrinth. The labyrinth is an ancient symbol of wholeness, the most famous of which is in Chartres Cathedral. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. It is not a maze; a puzzle that has to be solved. A labyrinth has only one path; it just has to be walked. And just like life itself, there is only one way into it and one way out of it. To walk it is a journey of self-discovery.
Today, we are baptising Molly at the beginning of her sacred journey. In doing so we are not making sacred the profane. We are not purifying her to make her acceptable. We are celebrating the mysterious reality of her presence amongst us. Her baptism is a recognition that she does not have to seek what the divine claim has already granted her: value and importance. How that reality will define her will unfold in her journey.
But define her it will. Each step along the way will remind her that our divine life encompasses change, growth, discovery, movement, and transformation. Each step along the way will continuously expand her vision of what is possible; teach her to see more clearly and deeply and to hear more profoundly. Our hope for her is that along the way she will grow less concerned about reaching the destination than revelling in the journey itself no matter what it brings or how long it is. For it is in the journey she will discover the sacred within and beyond her. That is the marvel. That is the measure of meaning. Living it boldly is her purpose.
As much as I would like to avoid preaching on prayer, it can’t be avoided this week. Certainly not with Abraham negotiating with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah or with Jesus teaching his disciples to pray. All the same, I’d much prefer reflecting on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for which I sacrificed considerable sleep this week to finish before someone could spoil the ending for me.
My reticence to preach on prayer should not suggest that I am reticent to pray. My avoidance behaviour is similar to how I feel about the American flag. Years ago it was hijacked by political and religious conservatives. They used it to package themselves and their often-hateful ideals. The result is I feel too self-conscious and embarrassed to display it, even at appropriate times.
Thanks to poets, Gospel singers and televangelists, the popular understanding of prayer makes me embarrassed to talk about my prayer life. I particularly cringe when it is spoken of in sentimental terms. One thing prayer isn’t is sentimental. Spare me the violins swelling to tug at my heartstrings. One phrase that rolls my eyeballs is the “power of prayer.” It suggests that prayer is a thing, like an amulet or perhaps one of Harry’s Hallows that protects us from life’s more unpleasant aspects. Prayer is not a flotation device thrown to a drowning man. It is not an incantation that bends God to our will.
For me prayer is chicken and barley soup.
When I was preparing to leave seminary my primary task was to find a cure. That’s church-speak for an entry-level job. In the US, someone had to want you to be their priest before you could be ordained, even if you were at the top of your class. So, even if an undistinguished parish in a suburb of Buffalo in the heart of the snow belt wanted to interview you in the middle of winter, you accepted the invitation. As luck would have it, the oldest parish in the US offered me an impressive position two days before the interview, but I deferred accepting until I had met my obligation to talk to the Buffalo parish. I don’t remember much about the visit except my shock at hearing myself accept the position while walking on water. The lake near the church was frozen solid. The reason I accepted was Kathleen Riley O’Grady.
I first saw her at a reception with parish leaders during my interview weekend. She was sitting in a corner with a foot elevated and with what I mistook as a dour look on her face. Putting her off to last, I finally ran out of excuses not to sit and speak with her. I learned the dour look was in truth discomfort. She had “the gout.” She was in her seventies she informed me. A former teacher of Latin turned social worker. She had six kids and countless grandchildren and was now widowed. She grew up in South Buffalo, one of two children of Irish immigrants. Her sibling was a Jesuit missionary in the Philippines. She left the Catholic Church because the Latin pronunciation of the priests during the Mass was painful to her ears. “Enough about me,” she finally said. “We are avoiding the issue dear. Why don’t you want to come here?” I tried to politely demure, but she interrupted saying she had been reading people a long time and I was doing a lovely job interviewing but just going through the motions. I confessed to having the other position in my pocket. She smiled broadly revealing her bad teeth. She admitted the other position was a great career move, but if I wanted to become a priest come to Buffalo for her chicken and barley soup.
To my astonishment, I did. I found out later I wasn’t the only one who found it impossible to say no to Kathy. If you look up “matriarch” in the dictionary, it is her picture you will see.
For the next two years, once a week, at least, I had her chicken and barley soup, on occasion followed up with a wee dram of whiskey. I later came to understand these lunches as prayer meetings, even though little formal praying was done except over the soup. Sometime her agenda included some gentle correcting of my stuff ups committed in the past week. She regretted that one of the gifts God gave her was pulling clergy up short when required, but since it was God-given she was obliged to use it. I took comfort in knowing that the Vicar and, on several occasions, the Bishop were also summoned to her modest home for correction over soup.
But, I was more than just another ordained person to be sorted out. I was her prayer partner. Most of our lunches were spent reflecting on what life was handing us at the moment and how we were dealing with it. The language was plain speaking and sometimes earthy. It was never sentimental or remotely “religious” or pious. We would question God’s judgment as well as our own. Dark humour and silly laughter punctuated the conversations. Sadness, joy, fears, doubts, and confidence were expressed and shared. The more soup we shared over time, the more vulnerable we became, not just to one another, but to something more. In sharing the ordinary aspects of life we kept encountering the sacred. When I made that observation on one occasion, she pronounced me a priest. She confessed that the secret to making chicken and barley soup was simmering a chicken carcass and barley long enough so it becomes divine. That is also the secret of prayer.
So contrary to what I think is common belief, prayer is not about being consoled or finding relief from life’s difficulties for others or ourselves. Prayer doesn’t give us security and assurance. It is not a tool for climbing the ladder of success or escaping life’s trials and tribulations by appeasing God. It is not about having our heart’s desire answered, no matter how selfless and well meaning. If prayer was about answers every little girl in New Zealand would have a pony and every little boy would become an All Black and every grown-up would win the lotto. If prayer was magic, hospitals would be empty, undertakers would be unemployed, and relief workers would have no hungry to feed or refugees to house.
In today’s Gospel Jesus appears to disagree with me. It sounds like it when he says, “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)
Notice he didn’t say, "Ask and you will get what you ask for." What he said was something more like, "Ask and you will receive something good." The second thing is harder to notice, because it gets lost in translation. In Greek he doesn’t say " Ask, and it will be given you," he says "ask and keep on asking...search and keep on searching...knock and keep on knocking." The Greek verb implies ongoing action. Jesus is saying prayer is about simmering.
Prayer isn’t something we do. Prayer is about a way of being. It is about seeking. Looking for the sacred in life and willing to be transformed by it. Now, that may sound cool, but if it is, why isn’t prayer more popular? Why do all the ways we are offered to escape life consume so much of our time and resources?
Abraham gives us some insight as to why. Prayer, seeking the sacred, leads to faith – faith the verb, not the noun. Faith isn’t about having right beliefs. Abraham, worshipped the pagan God he found in Canaan, Elohim (which literally means many Gods), but was still judged as righteous. Being righteous doesn’t mean being morally superior. Abraham passed off his wife as his sister to the King of Egypt to both save his skin and for personal gain; sent his firstborn son and his mother, into the desert to die when they became inconvenient, and when God told him to kill his heir, was willing to do so without whimper or objection. Abraham’s story instead, defines faith as being willing to cut ourself off from the past and move towards God even if the destination is unclear and the promise unlikely. It is about being willing to be shaped by the sacred. The result for Abram of Ur was becoming Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrews. That faith didn’t make his life any easier or more secure; in fact, it was quite the opposite. It did, however, bring him closer to the sacred. So close, that he felt no reluctance to do what he should’ve done for Isaac, negotiate with God to save innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Karen Armstrong suggests that faith requires imagination.  I agree. Imagination leads to overcoming fear to engage the sacred which we sometimes call love. Finding love leads to losing self in service to others. Service leads to justice. Justice leads to finding our oneness with the divine, what Scripture calls the Kingdom of God. Beware! It all begins with prayer. It’s not our easiest option, but can you smell the soup?
 Armstrong, Karen, In the Beginning: A new reading of the Book of Genesis. HarperCollinsPublishers: 1996. P. 58.
I don’t believe in the Devil, Satan, or demons. Horny little guys with pitchforks are a product of the imagination and always have been.
I can understand the power and seemingly tangible presence of evil. I can also understand why some have moulded their feelings about evil into a supernatural being. But in any literal or ontological sense the Devil doesn’t exist.
When we read that Mary Magdalene, whom we celebrate today, was afflicted by demons we need to understand them as code for things and circumstances that restrict our spirit’s freedom. Such ‘demons’ might have been abusive men, societal sexism, or religious intolerance. The important thing is that Mary emerged from her past as a powerful woman and one of pre-eminent apostles of the early Church.
In Holy Scripture the Devil is a literary device. It’s a way of saying that those feelings or systems that we are in conflict with are powerful enough to seem like an actual being. Satan is a religious personification of destructive feelings and systems.
The Devil though has a history. It isn’t just a harmless belief that can be left to the makers of horror movies. The Devil has been used, and is still being used, to stigmatise those who for whatever reason are disliked. When a religious group decides that they alone have a monopoly on truth they tend to smear their opponents as “corrupted by the Devil”. It’s the same phenomenon of building nationalistic spirit by creating an enemy.
Whenever I hear a religious leader using devil language I wait to hear whom he’s aiming at. Will it be solo mums? Will it be gays? Will it be Jews? Will it be Muslims? Or will it, this time, be me? Dividing the world into black and white, right and wrong, my God and heretics, is bad enough without demonising your opponents. For it is a short step between demonising the opposition, making them less than human, and ‘freeing’ the conscience to cage and mistreat them like a laboratory rats. The odour of Auschwitz is never far away.
The Devil hasn’t always been about. He seems to have popped up with the brand name ‘Satan’ around the 6th century BCE. In the Book of Numbers and Job Satan appears, not as an evil seducer, but as one of God’s obedient servants – an angel who has an adversarial role. Note the Satan was a role, not a character.
As a literary device Satan’s presence in a narrative could help account for unexpected obstacles or reversals of fortune. Take the story of Balaam – a man who had decided to go where God had ordered him not to. Balaam saddled his ass and set off, but in Numbers 22, v.22 “God’s anger was kindled... and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his Satan” – i.e. as his adversary or obstructer. In the Book of Job Satan likewise has this adversarial role – with God authorizing Satan’s testing of Job.
However, around the same time as Job was written [550 BCE], other Biblical writers began to use the concept of Satan to explain division in Israel. 1st Chronicles suggests that a supernatural foe had managed to infiltrate the House of David and lead the King into sin. Zechariah depicted the Satan inciting factions among the people. These writers paint the Satan as sinister and the role begins to change: from Satan as God’s agent to Satan as God’s opponent.
Four centuries later, 168 BCE, internal conflicts within Israel are even more acute. The problem was how to accommodate the cultural and religious traditions of foreigners who now lived in Israel. Some promoted tolerance and integration, others the opposite. Following the Maccabean Revolt, when foreigners were expelled, the internal divisions remained extreme. Separatist groups emerged who used the concept of Satan to demonise their Jewish opponents. Satan was not just the enemy without [foreigners] but also the enemy within [fellow Jews]. These separatist groups also constructed stories of Satan’s origin – one of the more common ones being that he was a princely angel who through lust or arrogance fell from grace.
Of course other Jewish writers tried to stem the tide of racist and religious xenophobia. Daniel, for example, while concerned about ethnic identity never uses Satan language to demonise his opponents.
The Gospels were undoubtedly affected by the views of the separatists. They, by and large, depicted Satan not as a servant of God but as a force subverting the will of God. Mark writes the Devil into the opening scenes of his gospel and goes on to characterize Jesus’ ministry as a continual struggle between God’s spirit and Satan’s demons.
In particular Mark downplays Roman responsibility for Jesus’ execution and instead names Jesus’ Jewish opponents, fired by Satan, as the real culprits. The deadly mix of blaming Jews for killing Jesus, and then characterising them as ‘servants of Satan’, has continued down through the ages in anti-Semitic literature and acts of violence.
Matthew and Luke largely follow Mark’s lead, escalating the conflict with Jesus’ opponents to the level of cosmic war. These opponents are the enemy within, the Pharisees. This reaches a crescendo in John’s Gospel. Satan is incarnated in Judas Iscariot, then in the Jewish authorities, and finally in those he simply calls ‘the Jews’. The gospels reflect the increasing conflict between groups of Jesus’ followers and their opponents from 68 to 120 CE.
The division of the divine sphere into goodies verses baddies has continued down to the presence day. Christians first demonised Jews, then pagans, then dissident Christians [labelled heretics], then independent women [labelled witches], and so on, and on, and on…
Last week a correspondent to my blog told me that my dismissal of a literal devil was proof that my words came from the devil himself. This is a time-tested way of plugging one’s ears to truth other than one’s own. It is also though a strange experience to be labeled a spokesman of the Devil. Like a scene from The Crucible nothing I say can counter it.
Theologically Jews and Christians are monotheists. There is only one God. There is not a good God and a bad God. There is no cosmic war with God and the angelic armies on one side and the Devil and demonic hordes on the other. Apocalyptic literature created such a war to fortify its own position. Nowadays such thinking should be left to J. K. Rowling and Harry Potters.
Within the Christian Scriptures, thank God, there are also more healthy ways of understanding one’s opponents. Think of Matthew’s text [5:23-24] about leaving your gift at the altar and going to reconcile yourself with your brother or sister; or the famous text [5:43-44] about loving your enemies. St. Paul too was big on reconciliation.
Many Christians from the first century through Francis of Assisi in the 13th and Martin Luther King in the 20th have believed that they stood on God’s side without having to demonise their opponents. Their religious vision inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as evil while praying for the reconciliation – not the damnation – of those who opposed them. Sadly though, for the most part, over the centuries Christians have taught and acted upon the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption.
Now, maybe more than ever before, we need to learn how to respond to our opponents firmly but respectfully, robustly but hospitably, ever aware of the dignity of each and every human being, and the limitations of our own knowledge and opinions. Then the Devil and his demons might be exorcised for good, and the world a better place.
Joan Chittister, OSB, former prioress of the St Benedictine convent in Erie, Pa; internationally celebrated author and speaker on spirituality, and strong advocate for women and peace, used the three lessons to challenge us to be transfigured into people of love working for compassion, peace and justice in the world.