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
The Wisdom of following a Star
December 28, 2008
Christmas 1 Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Luke 2:22-40
Three Kings came riding from far away,
Melchior and Caspar and Balthazar;
Three Wise Men out of the East were they,
And they traveled by night and they slept by day,
For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star…
Henry Wadsorth Longfellow
The exotic entrance of the mysterious Magi adds colour and class to the manger scene. Our imaginations are fired. We love to conceive the wise ones, adorned in sparkly splendour, riding the hills on humps, then alighting to offer their obscure gifts to the wee babe.
Have you ever wondered why they were called “wise”? You don’t hear, for example, about the wise shepherds, or wise angels, or the wise Mary or Joseph? Why are the Magi considered to have a monopoly on wise?
By faith they were Zoroastrians – worshippers of the god of light, Ahura Mazda. They believed that every great person had a guiding light in heavens, which appeared as a star; and the greater the person, the brighter the star. So when they supposedly saw this great star out west, it’s no wonder they went looking.
Being religious is no guarantee of being wise. Indeed often religion can bring its own form of ignorance. Faith, however, is about risk. These Zoroastrians dropped whatever they were doing and ventured forth across the borders of race, culture, and religion. That took great courage.
Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.
By culture and race they were Iraqi or Iranian. They probably would have been incarcerated for a couple of years if they’d come knocking at New Zealand’s door, especially when they told their story. “You followed a star?... yeah right.” Foreigners are often the subject of fear, suspicion, and hostility. It was no different in Jesus’ day.
Stars are not like neon-lit helicopters hovering a couple of kilometres above the ground. The nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.1 light years away. So, the notion of the star stopping over the Bethlehem stable is an intuitive notion at best. It is a hunch, a feeling. The Magi’s quest was not so much about eying a star in the sky, but rather seeing with the inner eye, the eye of imagination, mystery, and wonder. It was about trusting their feelings.
Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.
There is no indication in the Bible that the Magi were converts to Judaism or Christianity. They were strangers to the culture and religion of Jesus was foreign to them. Yet they were generously prepared to acknowledge that God, that extraordinary and mystifying presence, could exist outside their borders. They realized they didn’t have a monopoly on God. There was more, beyond their reach, beyond their horizons.
Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.
Every religion, like every culture, has a strong conservative element. It wants to keep things as they are, stable and predictable. God is co-opted as the one who provides stability and predictability. God becomes a parochial deity, captured like air in a balloon, and blown to the size of people’s expectations.
Yet right at the beginning of the Jesus story we have these Magi who come from outside, deliver their gifts, and return to the outside never to be heard of again. They come and go. The balloon of self-imposed theological and cultural isolation is popped.
This would be the story of Jesus’ life – crossing borders of class, race, and gender to be with people who were different and despised. Pricking the consciences, egos, and closed minds of those about him. Is it any wonder that the Church created the Magi story after encountering Jesus?
The Magi almost blew it. They went looking for a newborn king in a palace. Logical I suppose. “Excuse me Mr Herod Sir, great wondrous bloated brute that you are. We’re looking for a baby king. Had any kids you know of lately? No? Oh. Are there any other kings around here? No? Oh. Do we like out heads attached to our necks? Hmmm. Yes. Would you excuse us a moment please?
Apart from the obvious comedy there is also a lesson about wisdom. Contrary to popular opinion, the wise do make mistakes. They do blow it. The difference however between the wise and the rest, is that the wise keep going. They don’t let discouragement deflate them. Confusing power with wisdom, as the Magi did, is a common mistake. Yet they kept going, kept opening themselves to the unexpected, kept pushing on...
Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.
Compare the Magi, for a moment, with the shepherd story. The shepherds are told everything. An extremely talkative angel encounters them on a hillside, and gives them all the details: where the child is, how to get there, and who will be there. When the shepherds arrive at the manger, the angel appears again to verify the place [This is it guys! That’s a baby]. And when the shepherds return home they are guided by a whole gang of serenading angels.
So these shepherds have no doubts, no questions, no problems, no persecutors, and no mystery. They didn’t have to seek information. It was handed to them: faith on a plate.
This is not, by and large, our experience. The easy-come, easy-go shepherds are not for us. Our experience is more like the struggling Magi. We, like them, are searchers. We have difficulty with the large questions of life. We are harassed by our modern Herods who seek to destroy our children and our souls with consumerism, greed, and indifference. We worry about terrorism, AIDS, death, poverty, and war. Yes, we too would like heavenly messengers and divine assurances such as the shepherds got, but the fact is that we experience neither. No, no doubt about it, it’s the Magi – the struggling band crossing a hot desert without a cold beer in sight – that resonate with us. They’re our kind of people. The kind who struggle with their faith.
The bottom line is that the Magi were searchers and so are we. Maybe that’s why they were called ‘wise’.
I have to confess, it’s tricky preaching at Christmas. There are a number of reasons. It is impossible to say anything new about it, so I no longer try. Preparing a Christmas sermon when I still have shopping to do is stressful. I also fear sounding as trite as a sentimental Christmas card. But mostly because I think there is an expectation by the church that I put on the armour of righteousness and go fight the battle for Christmas waving the banner, “Put Christ back in Christmas.” But in this is a war I’m a pacifist.
There are plenty of preachers, however, who do take up the standard. You will know them by their insistence that Jesus is the reason for the season while chastising those in their congregations who come only once a year to hear about him. They will rant about consumerism and the commercialisation of Christmas, as if boosting the economy wasn’t the modern reason for the season. They even go so far as “dissing” Santa. These soldiers for Christ view the culture as a threat to the true spirit of Christmas. But I do wonder if the true spirit of Christmas really requires bashing others for not celebrating it the way we do?
I got a reminder of this mentality first hand recently. St Matthew’s is blessed to be the pro bono client of a major advertising firm. Their gift to us is to create the billboards displayed throughout the year outside the church on Hobson Street. These billboards are intended to be provocative yet fun. The most successful ones take the Mickey out of religion, turning pre-conceived notions about what Christianity is on their head. A little self-mocking and a dash of irreverence are important ingredients to this enterprise.
Most of the time the creative team behind them is quite successful but the Christmas billboard is always challenging for them. This team of young adults are not “into” religion, yet they assume that because we are a church we are at war with the secular culture over Christmas. Every year I have to reject a number of their ideas because they mock the fun aspects of Christmas the culture infuses into the holiday. They forget the most important piece of their brief: If most ministers would be happy to put their idea up in front their church, it doesn’t belong in front of St Matthew’s. This year they wanted to put up heresy – a billboard denying Santa’s reality. I said no way, put up the one from a few years ago instead with Santa and two elves sitting in the back pew of St Matthew’s. We are an inclusive church; Santa is especially welcome here.
This year’s battle of the Christmas billboard caused me to reflect more deeply on why I’m put off by the battle for Christmas. At some level I feel that I am being asked to be an accomplice in the domestication of Christmas by the powerful. Except for the first 300 years of the church’s history, when Christmas as a holiday didn’t exist yet, the church has been intimately a part of the power structure. After becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Church began domesticating Jesus out of its own self-interest. The preacher of the Beatitudes was way too radical for the newly respectable church. They began transforming him from a rebel who opposed social injustice in the here and now into a sweet Jesus who promoted justice, but only in the next life and then only for those who submitted docilely to its authority. Domesticated, he became a useful tool for keeping the rabble in line. If the church was willing to domesticate Jesus for the sake of power, I don’t have to ask, would it have any qualms about domesticating Christmas? I think not. At some deep level I know intuitively that if I aid and abet their efforts I am somehow undermining Jesus’ vision.
An American historian, Stephen Nissenbaum, has validated my intuition in his history of Christmas, The Battle for Christmas.
Nissenbaum’s thesis is that throughout history Christmas has been at the centre of a class struggle.
For thousands of years in its pre-Christian phase the holidays around the Winter Solstice were celebrations of the harvest. Saturnalia was one such celebration, a week-long feast in honour of the God of agriculture and harvest, Saturn. This was serious party-time, with plenty of food and drink being available to all. Even slaves were given time off. But what made it spiritually important is that it was a time to invert the social hierarchy, masters were expected to share their wealth with, and even wait on, their servants. It was time when the world was turned upside down.
Around the fifth century the church, now being respectable, began trying to Christianise these “pagan excesses.” I can hear the bishops now protecting the entrenched the social order: “It is all well and good for people to let off a little steam now and then. Keeps the peasants manageable, but inverting the social order sounds a little too much like the Beatitudes. If it catches on it could be a problem. Let’s diffuse it by attaching a new holy day, Christmas, to their festival. Celebrating the birth of God in a humble manger captures the inversion of the social order idea but spiritualises it without having to live it.” The bishops however didn’t succeed. Remembering Jesus birth instead of giving thanks for the harvest did catch on, but did little to dampen excessive celebrating in the centuries that followed. Nor did it stop the inversion of the social order.
By the Middle Ages the inversion had become personified. Each Christmas the peasantry would draw lots to be the Master of Misrule. The title was highly sought for the Master could turn ordinary rules on their head for his appointed time. He was given full licence to do as he desired, and lead others down the same merry path of dalliance and delight. Boundaries were tested and social hierarchy inverted as the poor made demands on the rich. Wren boys, wassailing, carolling are all very old traditions that included plenty of drink, naughty escapades, and aggressive begging – it was not just a case of the rich giving alms to the poor, but the poor demanding gifts.
To those wishing to celebrate Jesus’ birth in a pious manner, this was an abomination, but they were never in the majority, so they never manage to control how the holiday was celebrated. The old traditions were too deeply rooted in popular culture and in the human psyche, and the Church never succeeded in significantly changing them.
So the midwinter revelry and the Christian holy day continued to live uneasily side by side, sometimes openly clashing – with bishops banning pagan practices like the use of evergreens. With the Reformation the battle was intensified; celebrations were even outlawed for a time. Cromwell had Parliament make the holiday illegal, as it was “papist and pagan”. Christmas, declared the reformed Church, was corrupted: a holiday of misbehaviours. The sixteenth-century bishop Hugh Latimer, puts it most succinctly: "Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”
This attitude travelled with the Puritans to America, who also suppressed Christmas, even forbidding it in New England. However, the Master of Misrule made the journey on the Mayflower too. Colonial Christmas was carnival time, with public displays of eating and drunkenness. Wassailing continued – meaning lower-class workers, mainly men, would lay siege to the homes of the well-off, demanding free drink and food. Some church doors opened in the hope of bringing order to the Yuletide chaos, but to no avail: religion again failed to dampen the public’s desire to party on or to give the poor power over the holiday.
But where the church failed to control Christmas, the emerging middle class in America and England succeeded. They weren’t so concerned about Christianising Christmas as making it respectable and non-threatening to middle and upper classes. Through the likes of Washington Irving and Clement Moore, who wrote ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas,’ a new Christmas was literally invented. They did it by using Santa instead of Jesus to change it. It takes place in the house, and does not involve opening the doors if you are rich. It excludes the outside world. Instead of centring on the poor and lower classes it focused on children, in a structural way it replicated old patterns: people in authority still give gifts to their inferiors; not along the lines of class but within the family. In the 19th century, children would have spent their time hanging around with the servants, and really belonged on the bottom of the social scale. There is a duplication of the old structure, no longer rich to poor, but still powerful to powerless. Psychologically this seems to have satisfied the old need without the threat of opening one’s doors to the riff-raff.
Irving and Moore were not alone in their efforts to shape a new festival more in tune with the industrial era. The emergence of a middle-class and wage earners produced a new type of society in Victorian England. The new middle classes brought the Christmas tree in to their sitting rooms in the nineteenth century, it signalled an effort to shape a new kind of ordered, disciplined and above all respectable holiday. The ruling classes could no longer afford to have their servants taking December off to drink and be merry, but wanted them to show up sober and deferential to work every day of every month, and especially on Christmas to serve dinner. And so Boxing Day was born. However while both made strides to contain and change the holiday, it was the Americans who saw its potential to modern capitalism.
As you could not give children what you gave beggars – they already eat your best food! – you had to go shopping, and spend. Christmas created a new consumer society—the Christmas present was born. The essence of the Christmas present is that it cannot be a necessity. When you are giving inside the family it needs to be something special, a luxury item. This was the way the consumer economy got created. Even in times of depression we feel we must buy something nice, some luxury for our own dear ones. The only people we still give necessities to at Christmas to are the poor!
I wonder what the undomesticated Jesus would think of Christmas as it now is. I think there are parts of it he would like very much. He certainly would be at all the parties. He would look forward to having a few drinks around the barbie with his family and mates on Christmas Day. I think he would approve of Santa and a culture that focuses on giving generously. I’m sure he would enjoy singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as much as Silent Night. I’m certain he wouldn’t restrict the guest list to his birthday party only to Christians. As someone who welcomed children to come unto him, he would have no problem with the focus of Christmas being on children. I don’t even think he would have a problem with the commercialisation as it benefits society economically, making fewer people poor. I do think he would have misgivings about Christmas becoming respectable to middle class mores. I do think he would have a problem with his being used by the church to take the fun out of Christmas or to bash those who don’t dance to the church’s tune. And I believe with all my heart he would be most concerned that we have lost a lot of the emphasis on empowering the poor and powerless. For Jesus, that would be the reason for the season.
Jesus liked surprises. He never though had a Christmas stocking, or a Christmas tree, or even a Christmas dinner. This is to be expected given that Jesus was Jewish and Christmas hadn’t evolved. But he did give and receive gifts, and he did like surprises.
Most of his stories contained a surprise. The Prodigal Son has the surprise of a father who though deeply insulted by his sons continues to love and include them. The Good Samaritan has the surprise of the rescuing hero being a reviled outsider. The story of the Canaanite woman rebuking Jesus has the surprise of a male being bested and thus belittled by a woman. The story of feeding the 5,000 has the surprise of a young child having the faith that initiates the event.
All the surprises challenge the cultural assumptions of the audience – assumptions like wrongdoers should be punished, foreigners are not to be trusted, men are superior to women, and children don’t have real faith. Such assumptions, explicitly or implicitly, persist even today.
Each story also contains a gift. The gift of a father’s embrace, the gift of a stranger’s hand, the gift of a woman’s courage, and the gift of a boy’s costly generosity. These were all expensive gifts. Yet none can be bought at a department store, and none would fit easily into a Christmas stocking.
It was not unexpected then that when writers 50 or so years after Jesus’ death constructed two evocative narratives purportedly describing his birth they consistently included the themes of surprise and gift.
It was a surprise that the mother was a peasant not a princess. It was a surprise he was born in a barn not a palace. It was a surprise that he was a refugee in his early years. It was a surprise that his first visitors were thieving shepherds and not the ministers and minions of a royal household. It was a surprise that astrologers from the East paid him homage when their race and religion were not welcome.
These surprises all point to the gift of the adult Jesus who would be a peasant, familiar with poverty and oppression, and critical of the amassing of power and wealth. They point to the gift of the adult Jesus who would welcome and include the sanctimonious and the criminal, the familiar and the foreign, and those of his faith and those deemed heretical. They point to the gift of the adult Jesus who honoured nuisances and nobodies, the lowest and the least, as manifestations of God among us.
Of course the historical accuracy of these birth narratives - angels, a virgin conceiving, exotic visitors, et al – is highly suspect. Their truth is not in the literal events, but in the messages they convey. We need to just enjoy these stories as creative theological constructions and listen for the truths within.
The earliest writer in the Christian Scriptures, Paul, understood Jesus to be the very ‘image of God’. Paul gives his birth narrative in one short phrase: ‘[Jesus] came in the form of a slave’ .
It was not unusual or unexpected that God would be in a human form. There is plenty of historical evidence in Greco-Roman times of God being in such a form. That form was the emperor – like Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, or Nero. That form was adult, male, militarily powerful, and rich. Such a God was a penetrating conqueror, demanding submission and tribute. In return that God offered a stable social order - a ladder of privilege, class, and gender distinction. At the bottom of the ladder were slaves.
Two political and spiritual tectonic plates were grinding against each other in the second half of the 1st century. One was the gospel of Caesar – male power, a stratified society, offering what it called ‘peace and salvation’ [code for a stable status quo]. The other was the gospel of Jesus – a freedom for those on the lower rungs, equality and mutuality among all, offering what it called ‘peace and salvation’ [code for freedom and justice for the marginalized].
They each offered different visions of good news. Paul’s Jesus as ‘slave’ lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the form of God should act. The form of God being a slave was foolishness in their eyes, but to Paul it was God’s wisdom.
From the parables and stories about the adult Jesus, and with the insights of early theologians like Paul, the Church created the Christmas stories. At every turn there is a surprise.
Maybe the biggest surprise and gift at Christmas was that God was seen as incarnated in a baby. Babies are unknown quantities. They mess when you don’t want mess. They cry when you want to sleep. They change your life. We don’t know what they will be like when they grow up – we don’t know whether they will be handsome, intelligent, considerate, wise, or spiritual. That’s why the Romans believed God was incarnated in adult emperors, offering power, might, and certainty. The Christian God, on the other hand, who is here in a baby, was seen as a playful giggling God, undisciplined, and weak. With this God there is vulnerability and uncertainty.
Given this legacy of surprise and gift we need to ask how God might be for us today. Is our experience of God that which challenges the elitist assumptions of society, the ladders of success and honour, and lampoons them? Is our experience that God sides with despised and the destitute when markets plunge and there isn’t enough to share? Is our experience that God surprises us when we least expect it – broadening our mind to be more generous, more accepting, and more loving towards all people everywhere.
A parent’s heartfelt hug is a Christmas present, especially when he or she ignores the wounds previously inflicted on their pride. A stranger’s smile and assistance is a Christmas present, especially when the foreigner is ignoring or over-riding their fear of rejection. A woman’s bravery in the face of disapproval is a Christmas present – one can get bloodied trying to crack glass ceilings. A boy’s gift, given knowing that he would suffer its loss, is a Christmas present. Often such small powerful gifts like these lie close at hand, waiting wrapped up within those who are already part of our lives and within ourselves.
When you or I give a little, or smile a little, or speak up a little, or care a little, or help a little something happens. We release into the matrix of our community a little bit of God. We give a gift. This gift mingles with other such gifts. Giving begets giving. Grace begets grace. Hope begets hope. And we express this magical and mysterious experience by using the metaphor that Christ has been born again among us this Christmas.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and then executed by the Nazis said “a prison cell in which one waits, hopes and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside is not a bad picture of Advent.
Advent points to what God does in the shape of a baby born to a struggling young couple on the run and to the surprising discovery of God’s presence, when we least expect it, among the joy and pain of living. It also means waiting. Habakkuk gives us the Picture of the prophet at his watch post, stationing himself on the rampart, watching to see what God will say to him. It’s not a popular message.
In today’s busy world Advent does not get much of a look in. People are not prepared to wait. Yet there is a certain wistfulness, an echo that things need not be like this. In the midst of the tinsel and the celebrations and the staff parties it’s almost as if people are saying, “I don’t believe in God but I sure miss him.”
So hard edged, realistic hope that combines with a sense of trust and expectancy is in short supply. It worries me that in November our vote at the election was determined as much by our fears as by our hopes. Tapu Misa wrote in the NZ Herald of growing opposition to policies that benefit the poor, cynicism about welfare and support for more aggressive controls of an underclass perceived to be disorderly, drug prone, violent, dangerous and Polynesian and living in South Auckland.
She also pointed out that half of those in our prisons are mentally distressed and around half have alcohol or drug addictions. To Tapu Misa this suggested that health and social support had failed rather than these people were inherently bad.
I live in the leafy suburb of Remuera where householders build high fences and install security gates. There seems to be a need to feel safe by locking the world out. Nobody plays on the streets any more. And yet one of the principals of a finance company that crashed in a spectacular fashion and who is now facing charges in the court, lives half a mile away. The sad truth is violence takes many forms.
It’s too easy and it’s dangerous to categorise people as either bad or mad. I am a patron of the Mental Health Foundation, which over the past thirty years has made us confront divisive stereotypes born out of ignorance and fear. In a recent publication they quoted Sir Nathaniel Lee who said, “they called me mad and I called them mad and damn them they outvoted me.”
Some of us, idealistically perhaps, prefer to believe in what we call the common good. Progress comes when citizens realise that what is good for their neighbours must ultimately be good for them as well, when difference and diversity are seen not as sources of division and distrust but of strength and inspiration. Christians live by trust, hope, grace. We take risks and the road of faith leads through uncertainty. Rabbi Lionel Blue says that many think, “that the more religious you are, the more you should say no to people. But life is already difficult enough and religion is there to help people solve problems, not to make things more difficult.”
We should not get hung up on the issue of what religion is or is not. Even though I get frustrated sometimes, I love the liturgy and worshipping together but I don’t rate well on personal prayer and devotion. My spirituality such as it is comes through study and trying to be compassionate. My wife will tell you how sell I score in that regard. We get fixated and worried about belief but it’s not where I place my energy. I always regard the creed as a poem, not a legal document, a meditation on the mystery of God born out of the controversies of the early church. The essence of religious experience is showing compassion towards other living creatures, sharing our differences lovingly and developing our relationship with God.
It is compassion that will bring you to what we call a state of transcendence by dethroning you from the centre of your world and putting another in your place. That sounds like the common good, which I believe, we must all seek.
But if I think about it, I’m sure that meet God as a dear friend. That does not sound very profound, it may be an inadequate description but it works for me. Spirituality is not an easy word because it seems to describe something technical done by experts or an experience way out of our grasp.
Well here is the real test. Whatever is important to you, as you try to live faithfully, you must decide whether it is genuine and changes you for the better. Ask yourself does it make you kinder, does it make you more generous and does it help you learn more about yourself? If it does, then go for it.
Today we give thanks to God for Saint Thomas the patron saint of the vibrant community that once worshipped in Freeman’s Bay. We also have a thurible to dedicate to the memory of Douglas Miller, Vicar of St. Thomas’ and his wife Eleanor.
Douglas once told me that a certain bishop said, “Miller I can’t understand your mind.” Douglas replied, “I would be surprised if you could.” Douglas was a man of faith and great scholarship but for a moment let’s ponder on Thomas, one of the twelve. Doubting Thomas we call him because he was not around when Jesus reappeared to the other disciples after his resurrection.
Thomas wanted physical proof before he could believe this far fetched story. But Thomas was really better than that. When Jesus reappeared saying, “Peace be with you” and held out his hands, Thomas’ response was not to tick the box labelled “now I see,” but to express his faith, “My Lord and my God.” Doubt led to faith.
Contrast Thomas with Tarore the young girl asleep with a copy of Luke’s Gospel under her pillow when she was killed by a warring party near Matamata in 1836. It was an incident that persuaded Maori to ask for missionaries to live among them in Otaki and tell them of the God they read about in the book found under the girl’s pillow. Tarore’s grave is in a farmer’s field and to visit it is a moving experience. People put flowers on the grave and if they were like us they would pray for the health of our nation and the Maori people. It is Tarore’s innocence and trust which is at the heart of her faith that is so powerful even today.
Faith may seem simple but can also be complicated because it arises out of who we are. We can all feel a kinship with the doubting Thomas and with the unsuspecting Tarore.
Spiritually we are all like rivers, connected to our source and our destination as we travel through the world. The sense of trust that the entire journey is held in God’s hands runs deep within us.
In the words of Joy Cowley,
Life is like a river that flows towards the sea and deep inside my mind,
the call of love grows stronger as I leave each day behind…
We’re moving with the current of this unseen mystery…
Each Sunday with another candle lit, Advent moves relentlessly towards the Feast of the Incarnation. First hope, then peace; today joy as we light the rose candle. Tradition calls this Gaudete Sunday, which translated means Rejoicing Sunday. We are rejoicing that the one we have been waiting for is no longer off in the distance or in the unknown future awaiting a return engagement. This Sunday John the Baptiser hints mysteriously that among us now stands one whom we do not know but who is the one we have been waiting for. The author of the Fourth Gospel uses John to validate his theological idea that the divine word has become flesh in Jesus Christ. It is a radical, if not scandalous, up-is-down notion. Radical because it transformed how humanity views itself. A view in which are the seeds of empathy, democracy and social justice.
Furthering this upside down notion we get, as Glynn put it last week, another sprig of Isaiah – only this time it’s more like a branch. Our lesson from Hebrew Scriptures contains the passage Jesus reads in the synagogue to inaugurate his ministry according to Luke:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”
Listening to the Baptiser and Isaiah, I feel a little like Alice falling through the rabbit-hole into Wonderland. She was convinced that she had fallen right through the earth and was destined to come out where people would be upside down. The world is definitely upside down when God is no longer only beyond us, but discovered within and between us. The world is definitely upside down when the world’s rejects are found not to be the cursed of God but the ones through whom God shows us new possibilities for abundant life. The impossible is now not only possible but plausible.
Having our world turned topsy-turvy sometimes is exhilarating like unexpectedly falling in love or winning the Lotto, but more often it feels less than positive, kind of like the way the world is feeling now as global markets melt down or how most feel when a parent or partner dies. But either way it is disorienting.
Alice called such reversals Antipathies. She wasn’t sure that was the right word, but she was on target when it came to identifying the way we feel when our world is turned upside down.
When she finally landed at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice discovered she had to change to enter a new world.
The Third Sunday of Advent invites us into a world of reversals, a world where the captives are freed, where the hungry are filled and where the rich are sent away empty. But to enter the mysterious new world that lies before us, like Alice, we need to change.
No! Not change, we shudder. Deliver us from change. Why can’t things stay the way they are? Things may not be perfect, but at least I understand who I am in the midst of my adversity. Besides I have Christmas to give me a diversion from life’s challenges. Parties, pretty lights, Christmas carols; retail therapy all allow me to escape the ways the world and I are still oppressed, bound, and imprisoned. I’d rather use Christmas to escape not change.
Yet thanks to John and Isaiah we find ourselves at the bottom of this damn rabbit hole and the only way to move on is to change. What has to change is not who we are but how we see ourselves.
Like Isaiah and Jesus, Advent invites us to understand that the Spirit of God is upon us as well. Both the word Messiah and Christ mean anointed. When we were baptised we were anointed with oil as a metaphorical acknowledgment that part of what it means to be human is to be part of the divine order--part of and connected to something greater than ourselves. That is ultimately the message behind the Christmas story.
When it fully sinks in, that no less than Jesus, we are God’s anointed, it still seems inconceivable. Our first reaction may be like John the Baptist denying we are the one and pointing to someone else. But such denial is to avoid our unmistakable calling. We are not only the ones in need of abundant life, we are the ones anointed to bring it into being. That may sound like good news on the face of it, but is it? Doesn’t it mean seeing ourselves in a brand new light, which might be quite different from how we have grown comfortable seeing ourselves?
If the spirit of God is upon us, can we still excuse not living fully because life has dealt us some admittedly harsh blows? Can we still give in to despair or simply mark time when our hopes and expectations have not been met? Can we hide from our status of being anointed in addiction and obsession? Can we excuse our denial because life is unfair? Can God’s anointed really be victims?
If the spirit of God is upon us, can we use feeling powerless to avoid bringing good news to the dispossessed and broken-hearted? It is such a useful excuse and very plausible. How is little ol’ me going to stop the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and their minions? Global warming, terrorism, war, genocide, disease, famine, family violence, poverty, racism, homophobia; homelessness are too great for one person to impact we argue. Yet, if we really are awaiting the birth of the Word of God as a baby in a manger, how can we really believe that? While the church has distorted his message and perpetrated many horrors over the centuries in his name that does not change the fact that an itinerant preacher in the backwater of the Roman Empire changed the world for the better simply by how he was present in it. Living as if powerless denies not only our own capacity, but the work of Jesus, Paul, a whole lot of saints we know about and a whole lot we don’t. Would we really want to stick to our claim of powerlessness were we face-to-face with Gandhi, Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King? Can God’s anointed really be powerless?
If the spirit of God is upon us, how can we avoid loving wastefully in a world desperate for it? How can we not embrace those in need, those who are despised; those who are vulnerable? Perhaps the answer is we feel unworthy to love or be loved so deeply. Perhaps we are so aware of our own failings and frailties we feel no one would want our unconditional love? Yet, what makes us believe anyone has fewer failings and frailties than we do? How arrogant is it to believe we screw up more than anyone else? Do we really believe our capacity to fail is more powerful than the spirit that is upon us? Can God’s anointed really be unworthy?
Rejoicing Sunday is in our face challenging our self-image; telling us it is time to turn it around. Being anointed is our calling. Sure, we didn’t fully choose it any more than we chose our personal DNA or family of origin. But it is what it is. We really can’t escape it in victimhood, powerlessness, or unworthiness. If we embrace being God’s anointed we discover we are already capable of changing our circumstances and making the world look a little more like God’s domain.
There is one more hurdle to pass once we quit denying who we are and of what we are capable, and that might be shame or embarrassment that we have taken so long to get it, especially those of us with more than a few years under our belt. We might begin thinking of all the times we might have made a difference for others or ourselves if we had not been in denial of our true nature and calling. Let me suggest that such thinking does not move us on. It disengages us from a world crying out for our good news. The transformation we are being offered does not change the past that has brought us to this point, it only changes the present and the future where that which we call God is one step ahead of us.
This upside down Sunday prepares us to receive the Christmas gift of new possibilities by wiping our slates clean. Songwriter Carrie Newcomer captures the power of lives wiped clean in these simple lyrics:
The empty page
The open book
Redemption everywhere I look.
With the spirit of God upon us we are free to be born anew in a stable on Christmas Day. Let us rejoice and welcoming our transformation. And then move on with Alice into the Wonderland of God’s domain.
The Vision of John the Baptist and the Vision of Jesus
December 7, 2008
Advent 2 Isaiah 40:1-11 Mark 1:1-8
John the Baptist believed that an avenging warrior messiah would come from the clouds with blade and fire to smite the Romans and establish the kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t share that belief. He didn’t believe in swords and fire and descending saviours. Rather he believed God’s domain was among us already, if only we had eyes to see. In the first century after Jesus’ death however the Church rekindled the message of John the Baptist and developed an end-time theology whereby Jesus would ‘come again’, descending in glory and power to rule the world.
This morning I want to look at who John the Baptist was and what was his message, and explain the differences between John and Jesus. I also want to make some comments about how the Church in time elevated John’s vision and God, at the expense of Jesus’.
John had an avenging God, an axe wielding forester who slashed and burned. This God had two categories, good and bad, and it was up to us to choose and choose quickly, for ‘the Saviour’ was coming.
How do oppressed people, like the 1st century Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine, react to overwhelming cultural, political and military domination? One way is simply to fight and lose, fight and lose, and fight and lose again. And many did. Each insurrection in Palestine was led by a messianic claimant, blending the religious, cultural and political hopes.
Another way was apocalyptic prophets. They simply announced the end was nigh for the Romans and a heavenly messiah with a heavy sword would shortly make mincemeat of the invaders. Such prophets often formed large movements. John was one such prophet.
The references to the Jordan and to the wilderness are not references to water and desert. Rather they are pointers to the historical and political works and words of Moses and Joshua. They are about crossing over the Jordan from the wilderness and taking by conquest the Promised Land. John and others of his ilk were proposing a similar conquest or re-conquest of Israel.
John’s strategy was different from other apocalyptic prophets. He was forming a giant system of sanctified individuals, a huge web of end-time expectations, a network of ticking time bombs of resistance all over the Jewish homeland. These individuals were to wait until the shining avenger arrived, and then they would join his army. Herod Antipas killed John for being a political threat rather than for upsetting his family.
Jesus was a disciple of John. He joined the John movement, and then later left it taking with him some of John’s adherents. The Christian tradition has long been uncomfortable about this. The ideas of John being superior, as a master is to a disciple, and Jesus repenting of his sins in John’s baptism, were disdainful. The Christian authors rewrote the script trying to make John’s prophesies point to Jesus and his baptism an anointing by God.
Yet it doesn’t work. Any Sunday School graduate can read John’s prophesies and see the dissonance with Jesus’ mission and ministry. Whoever John was prophesying about it certainly wasn’t Jesus.
At this Advent time of year the tradition serves up John the Baptist, with a sprig of Isaiah on the side, as part of a ‘get-ready-the-King-is-coming’ platter. The valleys and hills being filled and brought low are references to imperial road works, preparation before an army comes to town. The imagery is full of war, kings, and conquering.
It is a stark contrast to that which is served up on Christmas day: a baby, born illegitimate in a barn. He was a peasant. No royal robes or crown adorned his head. No army, angelic or other, waited in the wings. As St Paul says ‘he came in the form of a slave’ . And that has been very difficult for the Church with all its aspirations for power and glory to swallow.
Realizing that Jesus didn’t fit John’s expectations, or the expectations of many in the nascent Church , a ‘second coming’ theology was developed. Mark and Matthew were influenced by the fear and politics of the 60s culminating in the Romans destroying the Jerusalem Temple in 70. In the midst of the turmoil they encouraged their fellow disciples with the hope that Jesus would literally come again. But this time he wouldn’t come as a suffering slave but as a conquering king. They still wanted the physical kingdom restored to Israel and for the disciples to be seated at King Jesus’ right or left controlling admission and favours.
Second coming theology is still unfortunately alive and well. Taken literally the ‘coming again in glorious majesty’ sentiments are pious platitudes, more reflective of John’s theology than Jesus’. Taken metaphorically, as the well-known Advent hymns do, to refer to the triumph of Jesus’ vision they fail to use that vision’s non-hierarchal language and concepts. We would be better off without this theology.
John was baptizing in the wilderness, inviting people to repent and prepare themselves for the Coming One whom they would join in the slaughter of the foreign overlords. Jesus however did not follow where John led. Jesus did not want to wait for a future kingdom but enter a present one here and now.
God’s domain for Jesus was something already present. It was also something to be celebrated because it embraced everyone – Jew, gentile, slave, free, male, female… Circumcision, kosher and Sabbath observance were extraneous. Everyone had equal and immediate access to God, anywhere and anytime. The brokerage system, having to go through priests and temples to get admission to and favours from God, was obsolete.
This Jesus had nothing to say about himself, other than he had no permanent address, and no respect on his home patch. He did not ask his disciples to convert the world and establish a church. He did not believe the world was going to end in the near future, unlike John the Baptist. Jesus apparently did not even call on people to repent, and he did not practice baptism. 
For Jesus God’s domain was not a royal or political kingdom such as the Israelites had under David and Solomon. God’s domain was not an apocalyptic creation with an external saviour. God’s domain was not something at the end of time when the bad would be punished, the good rewarded, and the saviour would rule. Rather God’s domain was a set of relationships between people, and between people and God. These relationships were political, social, and spiritual. I use the word ‘domain’ purposefully for kingdom presupposes a king and there wasn’t one in Jesus’ vision. Instead this was a domain of nuisances and nobodies, a domain of reversals and surprises, a domain of grace.
Jesus was not directly critical of John the Baptist and the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. He just developed and exhibited an alternate reality. The parable of the Good Samaritan is one example. Not only does Jesus portray priests and Levites in a bad light he elevates to fame a despised half-breed, a social and religious other, the Samaritan. For the marginalized, those who identify with the man in the ditch, help does come. That is a miracle in itself. That it comes from a surprising and unexpected source, the Samaritan, is more amazing still. This is the essence of God’s domain.
There is no super saviour descending with a sword, there is only the tainted Samaritan. There are no streets of gold and subsidiary thrones for male apostles, there is only unexpected help for those in the ditch of life. There is no burning of bad guys, wailing and gnashing of teeth, while the good guys feast up large. There is only the risky grace of breaking bread and breaking boundaries of class, race, gender, and power. This is God’s domain if only we could open our eyes to see it and our hearts, priorities, and wallets to live it.
 Philippians 2:7
 Acts 1:6b
 P.41-42 Funk, Robert Honest To Jesus
Further reading: Crossan, J. D. A Revolutionary Biography and Funk ibid.
Christ the King? Sunday Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Matthew 25:31-46
If there is one thing that every scholar agrees on about Jesus it is this: he was no king, had no pretensions to kingship, and would have been absolutely dumbfounded and dismayed by the Church’s regal elevation of him in the centuries after his death.
‘Christ the King’ is stirring stuff in Handel’s Alleluia Chorus, but it hardly fits with the gospel picture of Jesus the man who wouldn’t be king. Instead of singing “King of Kings, Lord of Lords”, it would be much more accurate to sing ‘Rebel of rebels, misfit of misfits’.
In the centuries following his death, Jesus’ followers attached a number of honorifics to his name and then weaved those titles into the gospels. Jesus became ‘Son of God’, ‘Son of Man’, ‘Prince of Peace’, ‘Lord’, ‘Light of the World’, and ‘Word of God’ to name just a few. None of these names were used by Jesus or about him during his lifetime. They are attempts to translate the meaning of his life into the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures and to address theological issues in the late 1st and early to mid 2nd centuries.
What we can piece together of the historical Jesus tells us that he lived and preached an antithetical vision fundamentally opposed to the accumulation of power, wealth, and privilege symbolized by monarchy. Jesus was a social deviant, a religious reformer, and a political rebel.
His social deviancy centred around two counter-cultural practices. Firstly he challenged the patriarchal family system. This system entrenched biological privilege [the basis of any class system] and male privilege. He did this by creating a new extended ‘family’ which included lepers, tax collectors, women, children, enemies, and even priests and Pharisees. The clean and unclean, the righteous and unrighteous, the polluted and the pure were all in this new ‘family’. Not that Jesus was seen as a supporter of the family, quite the opposite: he was seen as its destroyer. The patriarchal family was the social glue that held society together.
His other practice was that he refused to build up a patron/client relationship with the populace. Normally a religious leader and healer would establish a base of operations and be the patron to those who sought assistance from him. The disciples would be the brokers. As a US president is located in the White House and has a number of minions whom normal people have to go through in order to have an audience, so it was with a first century patron and their clientele. This system made sure the patron’s power would grow and the clientele would always be dependent.
Instead Jesus was deliberately itinerant. He kept moving so his power and others’ dependency did not grow. Healings came free. His vision was that people did not need a brokered relationship in order to relate to God or to each other. His vision was radically egalitarian.
Of course this social deviancy of Jesus’ was after a few decades ‘corrected’ by the Church. Christianity was refashioned to be supportive of ruling classes, class structure, and male heads. Christianity instituted bishops and priests to be brokers and control people’s relationships with one another and with God.
Jesus was also a religious reformer. His religiously promiscuous dining practice was both visionary and confrontational. The encouragement for anyone to come in off the streets to his table breached the purity codes that were deemed essential for personal holiness. What food you ate, who you touched or were in close proximity with, who you spoke to, was believed to affect not just your health and social standing but also your relationship with God. To dine with say a woman was to lower you to her inferior spiritual status. It was similar with a leper, or child, or tax collector. Jesus was challenging the rules about holiness.
Likewise Jesus challenged the rules around Sabbath practice and the role of the Temple. Jesus was a free spirit who deliberately flouted the boundaries of his faith.
Jesus parables are full of parties and celebration. He had a confidence in God and God’s affection and goodness. He didn’t see himself as the go-between for people to get to God. He had confidence that everyone could access the Divine like he did, and have a personal relationship with God.
In this way he challenged the sin/forgiveness system. People didn’t have to buy or beg forgiveness. Rather they had to forgive others and forgive themselves. To experience forgiveness they had to freely give it. They didn’t need to go through religious hoops, sacrifice pigeons or lambs, fast and use sackcloth, keep saying sorry, build holy shrines, put money in the plate, or do good works. There wasn’t a God waiting to punishment them.
Jesus thus undercut the theology, economics, and power of a religious system that divided people and places into holy and unholy, privileged and plebeian. By word and deed he broke the boundaries. No wonder they wanted to break him.
Of course in time the Church reconstructed a system of boundaries in order to give its elite power over people’s lives. Holiness once again required that we bend our heads to the heavenly, earthly and religious Lords, respect their palaces and temples of power, associate only with our peers, party only when approved, and feel unforgiven and pay for it. Holiness required control.
Lastly, Jesus was a political rebel. He was born at a time when the Roman Empire had subjugated Palestine, and in a region whose spirit refused to be subjugated. The Empire was brutal. Sepphoris, the town 7 km down the road from Nazareth, was razed in 4 BCE and its inhabitants enslaved. Any dissent or unrest was ruthlessly suppressed. Despite this there was a variety of protest – from armed gangs and resistance movements, to refusing to pay tax or plant seed.
Jesus was a covert rebel. He first withdrew his consent-to-be-ruled from the usurpers of power and counselled others to be the same. He pointed out how the system of imperial domination afflicted the poor. He was militantly non-violent. Jesus’ Kingdom of God was a vision for how this world would run if God, not Caesar, sat on an imperial throne. Jesus had a utopian dream in which both material and spiritual goods, political and religious resources, economic and heavenly favours were equally available to all without interference from intermediaries. The well-known and well-misunderstood maxim ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’ is an example of his political teaching. Far from it being a division of property or responsibility, every Jew knew that the whole land of Israel belonged to God even if Caesar thought an idolatrous coin belonged to him.
The imperial overlords executed Jesus. Romans and the Roman Procurator were not the lackeys of the Jewish religious authorities. The Romans killed for one reason only: to eliminate dissent and keep ‘the peace’. The Jewish authorities had their own methods of killing people. Crucifixion was Roman. The reason Jesus was killed was the incendiary remarks made and actions taken regarding the Temple during the Passover season. He symbolically negated all that it stood for. The peasant riots of past Passovers had been brutally suppressed and their leaders executed. So it was with the provocative prophet Jesus. It was no accident, misunderstanding, or priestly plot.
When the Gospels were written some 40 or more years after Jesus’ death the authors were concerned to not invite the ire of Rome. They tried to dress up Jesus message in politically neutral colours. When the Church cuddles up to the powerful it is very convenient to disguise Jesus’ politics and paint him as an other-worldly spiritual leader concerned about individual piety and family values. ‘His kingdom is not of this world’ they say, and quietly mutter, ‘and long may it be that way’. Elevating this egalitarian political rebel to spiritual kingship in heaven has maintained the power of the kings of this earth.
There is a very sober quote from Eusebius describing the assembling of the bishops for the Council of Nicaea in 325. This Council would produce a creed that ignored the ministry, vision, and challenge of Jesus. He writes:
“Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table… One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth…”
The table of Jesus was now all male, all bishops, politically neutered, reclining with all the best wishes and weaponry of the Empire.
Clay preached the following sermon as the guest preacher at the Auckland Unitarian Church.
I have a confession to make. I am the world’s worst dinner guest. Contrary to commonly accepted etiquette, I welcome any opportunity to talk about religion and politics, even in polite society. As I am passionate about both requiring little encouragement to voice my opinion, the host and hostess by the end of the evening are happy to see the back of me. Their horror is magnified if they are National blue or Republican red. I am uncompromisingly progressive in my politics, which is a direct result of my equally progressive theology. I may believe strongly in the separation of church and state, but religion and politics not only go hand in hand, they are inextricably woven together.
So for someone like me the last two years has been as close to heaven on earth as one could imagine. Obsessive would be a kind way of describing my attention to every aspect and nuance of the American campaign trail. The Huffington Post threatened to charge me rent, accusing me of living on their website. The cause of such obsession was the first truly progressive candidate in forty years to have a shot at getting elected in spite of being black.
While Obama was my choice since he spoke at the 2004 Democratic Convention, reading his books and observing how he conducted himself and his campaign only deepened my commitment and my amazement. My amazement was that the McCain-Palin ticket had any support at all. I was even more amazed that they got 46% of the vote. My amazement led me to ask, “Why isn’t everyone a progressive?”
A progressive’s world would be at peace recognising that all creation is an interconnected web. Nations would work together to resolve issues of disease, poverty, terrorism and global warming. The basic needs of food, housing, health care, access to education and freedom for all would be universal goals. Governments would serve and protect, yet be accountable to the people. What could be more reasonable?
While Barack Obama ran as a progressive, which made my heart glad, he didn’t win because he was one. It was more a case of being the only viable alternative to the total failure of Bush administration policies. And in spite of how disastrous those policies were, McCain might still have won if the financial markets had not gone into meltdown. Hope and “Change we can believe in” might not have been enough to put him over the top without fear of lost jobs and retirement accounts.
My hunch is that the actual number of political progressives is still quite small, just as the number of religious progressives is. Exit polls do tell us that Obama did get the overwhelming support of that latter group. Among those voters who attend church weekly, when asked how they interpret the Bible, only 17% of Obama’s most religious voters believe “The Bible is the literal word of God,” compared to 58% of McCain’s religious voters.
While struggling to answer the question of why more of us aren’t progressive, I was made aware of a book by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. The book, entitled The Political Mind: Why you can't understand 21st-century American politics with an 18th-century brain, attempts to give us some answers to this question and offers an approach for making more progressives.
In reading reviews by other linguists and neuro-scientists his ideas are not widely held, but that does not mean his work is not thought-provoking. At least I, not being either a linguist or cognitive scientist, found it so.
Let me summarise some of his ideas from his work:
If you believe in the 18th century Enlightenment view of the mind – that reason is conscious, literal, logical, unemotional, disembodied, universal, and functions to serve our interests – you will look and act wimpy. You will think that all you need to do is give people the facts and the figures, and they will reach the right conclusion. You will think that all you need to do is point out where their interests lie, and they will act politically to maximize them… [But if you believe this you are] dead wrong. You will be ignoring the cognitive unconscious; you will not be stating your deepest values; you will be suppressing legitimate emotions; you will be accepting the other side’s frames as if they were neutral; you will be cowering with fear at what they might call you [you know, the “L” word]; you will be refusing to frame the facts so that they can be appreciated. In a word, you – and all the other progressives who believe in Enlightenment reason – will be wimpy. Conservatives operate under no such restraints and consciously or intuitively have a much better idea of how brains and minds work. That’s why they have been more effective.
What they understand is the power metaphors play in our thinking. For example, from the beginning, Judeo-Christianity has made use of a primary metaphor – pastoralism – which most of us have never thought to question: pastoralism, with its images of sunlight, grassy fields, happy sheep, and a watchful, protective shepherd. We still use the word “pastor” and “pastoral duties” to describe our religious leaders and their roles in shepherding their “flocks.” Traditional religions still speak of the Lord as “my shepherd” who “maketh me lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside the still waters.” They still speak of Jesus as “the sacrificial lamb” and “the lamb of God.” They cite the gospel of John, where Jesus himself told the disciples to “feed my lambs” and “take care of my sheep.” And they know that when Jesus said this, he wasn’t referring to literal animals.
But have you ever pondered this metaphor as a metaphor? I certainly have, especially because I’ve always thought sheep were incredibly stupid. Lately I’ve read that they’re not really as dumb as I thought, that they rank in intelligence just below the pig and are about even with cattle. Even so, though, sheep are timid, nervous, and easily frightened. They’re also defenceless against predators, except for a highly-developed instinct for running away.
Given this information about actual sheep, how well does the image of sheep and shepherds work for you as a religious metaphor? It apparently worked very well in Biblical times, when so many people were shepherds, and when everyone else in the culture depended on sheep for their milk, meat, and wool, but what about today? How would our understanding of God and Jesus be altered if we substituted, for sheep, the similar image of cattle or goats? “I’ve been washed in the blood of the calf,” we might pray. Or, “the Lord is my goatherd; I shall not want.” I don’t mean to sound frivolous (well, maybe I do), but my point here is that the pastoral metaphor is clearly outworn as an accurate one for modern people. And yet – this would be George Lakoff’s point – it’s so much a part of our brains that we hardly notice, much less question its accuracy.
This is true of any number of other unquestioned metaphors common in human language. As just one of hundreds of examples, consider the metaphor he uses to explain moral accounting. “He paid his debt to society,” we say; “I’m going to make you pay for that”; “You owe me”; “I’m in your debt”; and on and on. When we use phrases like this, we don’t consciously think about money. The metaphor is unconscious; it’s imprinted in our brains. The implications of that are profound in religion – and they’re even more profound in the world of politics. To illustrate this, I want to concentrate in this sermon on three metaphors in particular. The first is the metaphor of the nation as a family. The second is the metaphor of a left-to-right scale in the political spectrum. And the third is the metaphor of war. How has our unconscious acceptance and use of these three common metaphors hurt us as religious and political progressives, and how can understanding that help us?
So let’s tackle these one at a time. First, there’s the metaphor of the nation (or the governing institution) as a family. Russians speak of Mother Russia; Germans speak of the Fatherland; American’s speak of the Founding Fathers and of George Washington as the Father of the Country. Catholics call their priests “Father.” Christian Science is governed by the Mother Church. When we go to war we say that we are sending our sons and daughters, even when we don’t mean our literal children. After 9/11, Congress created the Office of Homeland Security to protect the national family. You call this building, this religious institution, your “church home.” As progressives, you feel “at home” here.
Much more significantly, though, for both religion and politics, we unconsciously assume two different models, two different versions of what the ideal family should be. Whether we’re talking of how best to raise children or about what kind of government we want, conservatives and progressives have two very different models in mind – one big reason why we have such trouble communicating, because each model is largely unconscious on both sides.
What are the two different models? For conservatives it’s the Strict Father model; for progressives it’s the Nurturing Parent model.
If the Strict Father model of family is branded into your brain, you value and advocate authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment. You see the Father of the family as its moral leader, and as the authority who must be obeyed. You need a Strict Father to teach you the difference between right and wrong, and you learn this through discipline and punishment. When you grow up, you’re then ready to enter the marketplace as an independent person, and to oversee your own Strict Father family unit.
Now it all falls into place. Now we see why conservatives focus so much on authority, obedience, discipline, and punishment. A Strict Father has earned, and deserves, his authority – and so, in this model, do the corporate bosses who make all that money. Competition builds character; beating out your competitor is a sign that you have good character, that you merit what you’ve won. This model is also why political conservatives are so often fundamentalist Christians as well. God himself is a Strict Father. Obey him, and you’ll go to heaven; disobey him, and you’ll go to hell. Of course, if you say, “I’ve been bad, I’m so sorry,” and mean it, he’ll give you a second chance – but only if from now on you bend to his absolute authority. You’ve been “born again” into the Strict Father family of the religious conservative.
Think, too, of the implications, in a Strict Father family, of gay marriage, or of abortion, or even of women in the professions. You can’t have gay people or career women in such a family because distinct gender roles are too important. And you can’t be pro-choice because that’s disobeying the male prerogative, both familial and divine, to be the decider.
But there’s another model for the ideal family, the Nurturing Parent model. If this model is branded into your brain, a good family, to you, is one that includes two equally responsible parents (it doesn’t matter what gender) or one parent, female or male. Either way, the parental role is to nurture the children and to raise them to nurture others. There is discipline, yes, but it’s administered in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and that means that restitution is preferred over punishment. A Nurturing Parent’s primary goals are instilling empathy, providing protection, and facilitating empowerment.
And of course progressive political views mirror these same Nurturing Parent values: empathy, protection, empowerment, and community. In this model, the proper role of both the church and the government as to protect and empathise, not to exert authority and dispense punishment.
Once we become aware of these two different family models, what can we learn from them? One thing, at least: that as progressives we should be talking more than we are about our moral worldview – about caring, about hope, about being responsible. As progressives, we should be aware of recent neurological studies that tell us that the human capacity for empathy seems to be hard-wired into the normal brain. And when we propose our progressive ideas, we should realize that the more we can arouse the empathic response, the more support we will gain. We’re talking about morality here, Lakoff writes, “about whose moral system will rule.”
This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and here’s just one example. All of us, progressives no less than anyone else, have an easily frightened child deep inside. So when McCain challenged Barack Obama’s readiness to be President on the grounds that he lacks experience, it triggers a collective (and largely unconscious) fear: the fear that, in the face of a national crisis, we need a Strict Father who’ll know what to do and who’ll protect us from harm. What’s essential, therefore, is to bring this to consciousness and to recognize it for the deeply rooted wish that it is: the wish to be safe, whatever the cost. Knowing this, we can go on to reiterate and re-emphasize the values progressives hold dear: equality, freedom, and empathy.
The second metaphor I want to consider today is, according to Lakoff, both an inaccurate and a dangerous one: the metaphor of a left-to-right scale on the religious and political spectrum. In that conservative ideas are touted as “mainstream” ideas, and progressive ideas are maligned as “liberal” or “leftist,” the left-to-right metaphor “empowers conservatives and marginalizes progressives.” There’s no such thing as a mainstream population with a unified worldview! People are actually conservative in some ways and liberal in others, depending on the issue. You might be conservative on family values and gun control, for example, but progressive on the importance of protecting the environment. You might be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. One problem with the metaphor is that it assumes a consistent worldview that puts each of us in a fixed place on a scale, with a “centre” between two “extremes.” And if you’re on the fictional left of that fictional centre, you’re labelled a leftist extremist.
Similarly, we can’t assume some solid, “orthodox” centre or mainstream when we speak about religion – a centre that puts religious progressives on the left and agnostics and atheists on the farthest, most radical fringes. Yet that image is in people’s brains. “My job,” Lakoff writes, “is to make you think twice about it, and then stop using it. If you can. But it won’t be easy. Overcoming misleading metaphors that are physically present in your brain never is.”
And finally we turn to the metaphorical image of war.
“The War on Terror,” Lakoff points out, is a perfect example of how a dishonest and ruinous notion can take root at times of national trauma – because trauma of any kind alters brain synapses more easily and radically than usual – and then be repeated so often that it’s in the brain forever after and won’t disappear. I was hardly aware, until I read Lakoff’s book, that for the first few hours after the towers fell on 9/11, the Bush administration described the attack as a “crime.” Had America stuck to this idea – that terrorists are criminals – they could have used international crime-fighting technique, as Britain has done with considerable success. If they’d stuck to this language, Iraqis themselves might have seen the attackers as criminals instead of as noble soldiers. However, the Bush administration almost immediately substituted a consciously-chosen war metaphor for it original criminal one. Now, instead of a being seen as the criminal act that it was, the attack was deliberately re-framed, for political reasons, as an act of war.
Actual wars, Lakoff writes, are fought against physical armies of other nations. But terror is an emotional state. Since you can’t defeat it on a battlefield or sit down at a treaty table with it, “war on terror” therefore means a war that will never end. The very word “war” activates a fear-response in the brain that in turn activates a conservative worldview: that of a powerful Father who uses domination and strength to make sure we’re “secure.” And of course “war on terror” is a metaphor intentionally chosen to provoke just such a response and to cut off objections. Progressives fell into the trap just like everyone else., and so when people who represented by views argued against giving the president total authority, we made ourselves vulnerable to labels like “defeatist,” “unpatriotic,” and even “treasonous.” The metaphor put us completely on the defensive, always the weaker position.
The “war on terror” metaphor has succeeded on the domestic front, too. It has returned Bush to the White House, gotten right-wing judges appointed, disemboweled social programs, despoiled the environment, robbed Americans of their constitutional protections, sucked the economy dry, and used taxpayer money to further enrich corporations.
Yet how many politicians or political commentators can you name who have ever criticized the war-on-terror metaphor as a metaphor? John Edwards came closest in 2007, when he confronted Conservatives about their framing of terrorism as a war. “The war on terror is a slogan designed only for politics, not a strategy to make America safe,” Edwards said. “It’s a bumper sticker, not a plan. It has damaged our alliances and weakened our standing in the world. As a political ‘frame,’ it’s been used to justify everything from the Iraq war to Guantanamo to illegal spying on the American people. It’s even been used by this White House as a partisan weapon to bludgeon their political opponents… But the worst thing about this slogan is that it hasn’t worked to defeat terrorism. The so-called ‘war’ has created even more terrorism, as we have seen so tragically in Iraq.”
The worst of it is that the war metaphor is still intensely alive and politically powerful. “We are still removing our shoes at airports,” writes Lakoff, and pouring out bottled water. We’re still hearing “War on Terror” from every Republican politician up to and including John McCain. “What conservatives did was to use language, ideas, images, and symbols repeatedly to activate the conservative mode of thought and inhibit the progressive mode of thought in individuals who had both,” he goes on. We can’t just erase such ideas. But we can employ the same tactics: using progressive language, ideas, images, and symbols, repeatedly, to activate progressive modes of thought and inhibit conservative ones in those who have both. And, just as important, we can initiate a discussion of the war metaphor as a metaphor, one that’s deliberately designed to arouse fear and to cement conservatives’ power.
Is there anything else we can do? Lakoff has quite a list. First, we can still do all the tried-and-true, practical things: write letters, contribute to causes, volunteer to work for candidates, talk to our neighbours and friends. But we need to do more. Lakoff has a dream of “Congress, the citizenry, and the press rising up and shouting, “Wait a minute! [The ‘war on terror’] is a metaphor that doesn’t fit! You don’t go to war on an inappropriate metaphor!”
Further, we need to insist on discussing any policy’s empathic consequences. How will it affect us? How will it affect others? Will it make us more, or less, free? How does it affect nature – is it sustaining, or harmful? How will it affect life in the future? “What, if anything, makes it beautiful, healthful, enjoyable, fulfilling?”
Let me conclude with five guidelines from Lakoff to buoy you up in this effort.
* Remember that an idea introduced under conditions of trauma, then repeated again and again, is in our synapses forever.
* Remember the need to repeat things yourself, to say them not once but over and over. “Brains change,” Lakoff says, only “when ideas are repeatedly activated.”
* Remember that if you’re not careful, you’ll fall back into conservative framing traps. We must be like Barack Obama in his response to Wolf Blitzer when, during the 2007 presidential debate, Blitzer told the candidates to raise their hands if they believed that English should be the official language of the U.S. “This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us,” Obama replied. “When we get distracted by those kind of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people.”
* Remember not to assume that others share our definitions of words like freedom, equality, fairness, and opportunity; all these words come in conservative and progressive packages. We must work to keep the progressive version of each concept uppermost during discussions.
This is something we failed to do last week in New Zealand. While I believe America still has a long way to go to become a progressive nation, I believe New Zealand already is one, in spite of the last election. A country that was first in the world to give women the vote, resisted apartheid during the Springbok Tour, has attempted to make restitution to the Maori for past abuses, has stood up to American militarism, has given civil rights to the gay and lesbian community, seeks to provide quality health care to all its citizens, provides a safety net to its most vulnerable citizens, maintains a military suitable only for peace-keeping, makes education widely available to all, has taken steps to protect children against parental abuse and has even provided protection to prostitutes may not be as progressive as the Netherlands (we can’t smoke dope legally yet), but by American standards, is pretty bloody progressive. However, those who resist such a progressive world have made headway in recent years by reframing our country as a “nanny state.” It is the patriarchal strict parent saying we are feminine and weak. The last election is a warning that if we want to continue to be a progressive nation we must pay attention to such metaphors in both politics and religion. They are dangerous to our well-being.
St Matthew’s and the Auckland Unitarian Church are a pretty small slice of religious New Zealand, which is small anyway, but our progressive views are a public voice of support for those seeking to overcome their fears to be the empathetic beings we are hardwired to be. They may not know it but they count on us, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “to speak to the better angels of our nature.”
I am happy to be here this morning. If things had gone differently in the US this week it could’ve been otherwise. Instead of feeling like an anvil has been removed from my chest, I might be instead in a psychiatric ward on suicide watch or, more likely, in the back of my closet in a foetal position sucking my thumb. The only good thing about that is I wouldn’t have been alone. Looking at footage of people around the world celebrating the 4th of November, Barack Obama isn’t just America’s new president. It would’ve been a crowded ward or closet if the change we were waiting for had been not this time.
However, as happy as I am, I wish I wasn’t the preacher this morning because I’ve drawn another of Matthew’s (quote) parables (unquote) to preach on. With the world a very different place than it was last week, it is a little difficult to get excited about ten virgins worrying about a first century energy crisis while waiting for the same bridegroom. In such times, how irrelevant can the Gospel be? When was the last time anyone here lit an oil lamp? For that matter when was the last time you went to a wedding that had even one virgin? Frankly, it sounds a little like the beginning of a bad joke: “Ten virgins walk into a bar…”
There are other problems with Matthew’s parable. First, unlike some of his others where he at least bases the story on one Jesus might have told, Jesus never told this one nor would he have ever told it. It was not his style. Matthew is obsessed with the end times and all the wonderful divine wrath and judgment that come with it. He portrays Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet carrying a placard on street corners telling people to repent. But Jesus was into the fierce urgency of now not later. The kingdom of heaven is at hand was more his style. Carpe diem was his battle cry. Grab it. It is here for the taking. Matthew and some in the early church seemed to think he was speaking of a worldly kingdom, and since the Romans were still occupying their land a generation after Jesus’ death, they had to choose between Jesus being wrong or put a spin on his words. Matthew chooses to spin like right-wing Fox News, attributing the parable of the ten virgins to him. In truth it was either Matthew’s own literary invention or he appropriated it from the common folklore of the region. Its purpose was to reassure his readers, anxious for freedom from oppression, God’s kingdom was coming.
There are other reasons we know Jesus didn’t tell this parable. His were WAY better. He used humour, exaggeration and paradox. Think camels going through the eye of a needle. Matthew’s is mundane, unimaginative and moralistic. His message of “being prepared is a virtue” is hardly groundbreaking and headline grabbing. Every Boy Scout knows that.
But the most important reason Jesus had nothing to do with this parable is that it is a story that applauds building barriers. Matthew’s story creates insiders and outsiders. The closed door to the unwise virgins is a definitive boundary. Jesus’ whole ministry was about breaking down social and religious boundaries, not creating them. He was about “good” Samaritans and welcoming back errant children with fatted calves. He wasn’t into dividing people into paddocks of sheep or goats (one of Matthew’s favourite past-times). This parable is an illustration of Matthew’s gospel not Jesus’ vision of God’s realm.
If Jesus were to edit Matthew he would start by tossing this parable or better yet he would use it as a foil to tell a better one. He might begin this way, “You have heard from Matthew that I think the kingdom of heaven is worth waiting for, but that is old thinking used to control and manipulate you with fear and shame. Shame that you might not be worthy and fear that you will miss out if you don’t do as you are told.
But I tell you the kingdom of heaven is exactly the opposite. Once there was a skinny black man who was half white who felt called to be president in a land that feared his colour and foreign name. But because he had been blessed with big ears and a golden tongue, he decided to give it a go anyway.
His was the most powerful country in the world, but followers of Matthew ruled it. They used bigotry and even religion to divide the people against one another. Hatred and fear flourished in the land. They became a warlike people and built an empire despised around the world in the name of their God, greed. And darkness was on the face of the earth and the people despaired.
Using his big ears to listen before opening his mouth, he let loose his golden tongue to light a small lamp. He asked the people to hope. Hope because as bad as it is it could change. It could change because we are all accountable for the way things are. If we change, the world changes. “We are the change we seek,” he suggested. It was a small, but audacious lamp but others began lighting their small lamp as well. And if some were out of oil, others shared theirs and the darkness was pushed back, powerless against it.
The Mattheans tried to extinguish the lamps by asking, “What kind of change is he offering? Be afraid, change is scary.” In their desire to cling to power, they did not notice that the people were growing less afraid, less angry; less divided and more compassionate, more respectful, more peaceful; more hopeful. So the unthinkable happened. They lost.
And the skinny black man with big ears and a golden tongue, in accepting the presidency, told the Mattheans, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand and always has been, you just have to light your lamp to see it.” He then added with a wry but kind smile, “I will be your president too.”
A long time ago I cut a pithy saying out of a newspaper. I can’t recall the exact words but the central message was that we are shaped by our attitudes. It said that we are 90% attitude and 10% talent and that people who succeed in life have an abundance of the right attitude.
Talent, beauty, strength, brilliance – all take a back seat to attitude in the way our lives develop.
Since then I have read and heard all sorts of similar takes on how to live and be from spiritual teachers and business gurus in expensive books, to Dear Marge columns in weekly magazines that cost just a few dollars. They all reinforce the notion that the vision for our life is determined by our attitudes, – how we face our own lives, our relationships, our problems and worries, how we see the world, how we see and experience the ultimate mystery that we call God. Everything is directed and coloured by our attitudes. As the famous saying goes ‘two men looked through prison bars, one saw mud and the other saw stars.’
You can call it the ‘power of positive thinking’ or ‘living in the now’ or perhaps the ‘power of prayer,’ maybe transcendental meditation does it for you - whatever method or practice we employ or discover works for us is usually informed by a desire to achieve the best and most harmonious lives for ourselves and those we love.
However, often I feel we are not even aware of our attitudes. Originally they are shaped by our environment, particularly our families and communities and later our peers. As we grow, break away and forge deeper and hopefully wider relationships with others outside our childhood gamut we continue to carry and morph these formative attitudes that have shaped us. Sometimes they are so injurious to seem to be insurmountable and here at St Matthews we often see this in devastated lives that bring people to the City Mission. This can be especially hard as often people have wretched and cruel lives through no fault of their own, and tragically are unable to dream or attempt anything different.
In today’s gospel from Matthew we listened to the Beatitudes or blessings. These Blessings begin the Sermon on the Mount which runs from chapter five to chapter seven. It is these two chapters that made Mahatma Gandhi a lover of Jesus – a Christian alongside being a Hindu and more from within his varied spiritual background. Gandhi narrates in his autobiography that on reading the Bible he plodded through the Old Testament without the “least interest or understanding.” But when he reached the Sermon on the Mount it went straight to his heart. For Gandhi it was the whole of Christianity wrapped up and is what endeared Jesus to him.
Crucially it was the moral or ethical teachings it contained that resonated with him. Abstract theological concepts like the Trinity or the atonement do not feature in these central teachings of Jesus – they are practical rather than dogmatic, about right conduct rather than belief.
The beatitudes are universal and although ostensibly addressed to a Jewish audience of the disadvantaged, the oppressed and wounded they contain profound wisdom that applies to all people everywhere of whatever persuasion. They are indeed a recipe of how to live a good and joyful life, and a life directed towards the God of all life that all people carry within.
The language can seem somewhat outdated. When I think of blessing the poor in spirit I think of humility which is about unpretentiousness and being utterly human alongside the next person. ‘There for the grace of God go I” we might say. Humility that brings deep thankfulness for small things, for unexpected generosity, for the unasked care of others, for the wonder of this planet, for the mystery of consciousness, for the gifts of love and trust in spite of pain, treachery and loss that often dog our lives. The kingdom of heaven rests in that openness and trust.
Blessed are those who mourn speaks of our inner awareness of how we betray and hurt ourselves and those we love through rash unexamined actions and words that we wish had never been uttered. It is about how our hearts hurt and cry and the comfort and strength we can find if we seek and rest in the God within.
Meek has craven connotations; gentle is a much better word. Blessed are the gentle, the peaceful and the kind. If the world returns to us what we are then the gentle will be peace for themselves and for others. The hostility of the world will not touch their core.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This is about goodness and intensely wanting honesty and integrity to mark one’s life. If we want these things and hold them fast in our hearts then we will live them and they become part of us.
Blessed are the merciful. This is about compassion and forbearance. It is about recognizing that we all fail and make mistakes, and suffer for it. About not pointing the finger in haste and recognizing the truth in the old Indian saying of not judging till we have ‘walked a mile in his or her shoes.’ This demands a generous spirit and silence.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. For me this is the crux of these verses and speaks of attitudes and motives. As we prayed in our prayer for the day it concerns sincerity of heart, a longing for goodness, and a wholeness that comes with an integration of our outer and inner worlds. We have to take time, to still our busy minds and lives to hear the ‘still small voice’ where the God who dwells within is allowed to claim our consciousness and to give us insight. Only then do we, as the verse says, hear and see the ground of our being which is divine. Only then are we whole. Without this our lives are lived on the surface and we risk the opposite of wholeness – the tyranny of a divided self racing hither and thither without rest.
As the Sufi’s say “You yourself are the veil that stands between you and God.”
Blessed are the peacemakers, the reconcilers who bring us closer and help us to see the God in each other, and blessed are those who suffer for goodness and love as they remain whole and find the kingdom of heaven within.
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. I’m not sure I know what this means in real terms, but to hazard a guess I think it is about all those people who, over eons of time, have journeyed through life in the pursuit of finding a way to their own true sense of or union with the divine. Perhaps some embodied and consciously lived more of the beatitudes than us, and then perhaps not. But it holds that in choosing a spiritual path these universal blessings of Jesus ask for ways of being and attitudes that ennoble, enrich and deepen our humanity, making possible our hopes and dreams for ourselves and those who surround us. All of us, all people, saints in the making, all the world over.
Artists over the centuries have had a grand time with heaven. Usually there are lots of white fluffy clouds, cherubic figurines in Greco-Roman garb, and a male God, aged and chubby, lounging about. As a 14 year old once remarked: “Who’d want to live there!!?”
Our liberal Anglican tradition has shied away from being too specific about the after-life. Rather we have said that just as in life we are in God, so in death. Heaven is where God is. And God is everywhere, even here. In other words the tradition is somewhat agnostic about life after death – acknowledging that there is no certainty about it. Yet, it also affirms that God breaks the boundaries of normal and may break this one too.
The Bible is fuzzy on the specifics of what happens after death. Rather the writers paint verbal pictures of what it might be like.
Revelations 21, for example, describes a heavenly city, Jerusalem the Golden, walled with wonderful gates of precious stones. The streets are made of gold. The yellow brick road captures our imagination. There is something quite decadent about walking on wealth. The gates are always open. All are welcome to come or go.
For the poor and impoverished this vision of the after-life was very appealing. There was welcome and wealth. They might have imagined that this was God’s justice, making up for all their earthly hardships.
Another picture is John 14:2 “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Heaven is envisioned as a huge hotel. There is room there for everyone, and everyone has a room. God cares for each individual person, providing them with their own suite. It also allows for diversity – we don’t all have to fit, be squeezed, into the same room. Physically, spiritually, and sexually we can be different, we can be ourselves.
For those who are homeless, who have never had a room of their own, who have been pushed about by government policies and sardined into the schemes of others… such a vision of space and respect has great appeal. Again they might have thought that God was making up for their earthly sufferings and giving them happiness they hadn’t previously known.
A third biblical picture of heaven is of a party. Isaiah 25: “On this mountain [God] will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines... and [God] will swallow up death and wipe away the tears.” This is a celebration. God has saved the people and now they are partying. Here the wealth is evident in the food and its abundance. Here all peoples are welcome, akin to the hotel picture. Here, unlike the former two pictures, there are people connecting with other people. Here food for the stomach and soul are shared.
There are other pictures of heaven presented in the Bible: the throne room, singing, white robes, judgement, and angels. The point is that the Bible doesn’t have one view of heaven as if someone had been to a literal place and taken snapshots. Instead the Bible includes different and various pictures in order to implicitly criticise the validity of any one picture. It is saying that the “dwelling” of God is bigger than our ideas of it, the canvas bigger than what we can possibly paint.
The vision of heaven as hope for the impoverished, homeless, and hungry has had an appeal down through the ages. Yet the vision was always broader than physical needs. As in Revelations 21, John 14, and Isaiah 25 it included welcome, individual respect and space, and connection with others. Happiness required more than the money, housing, and food.
The academic discipline called the School of Positive Psychology agrees with this. They have done numerous studies searching for the ingredients of happiness and have come up with three staples.
The first is that which caters for our body, appetites, and feelings of wellbeing. This is family, friends, relationships, money, cars, holidays, parties, sport, wine, overseas travel, good food, and coffee. It is the sensation of hearing beautiful music or skiing down a mountain. It is also the sensation of being loved and valued.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that this is all there is to happiness. ‘With wealth, health, relationships, and opportunities anyone and everyone will be happy.’ Well, they are certainly ingredients but not the whole cake.
The second staple of happiness is altruism. By that I mean being a part of something and contributing to something beyond our individual or familial needs. It is about doing something for the good of others and being part of something bigger than ourselves. In those slightly antiquated words like ‘service’ and ‘charity’ there is an important ingredient in our quest to find meaning and happiness. When we give, when we do something for others, when we nurture the wellspring of generosity within us, we nurture our own soul.
The third staple of happiness is purpose. The person who has a goal and the drive to fulfil it experiences another particular type of happiness. That purpose might be to create a supportive family, or build a house, or achieve in sport, or develop a project, or discover a cure. It is achievement focussed. Of course when a person has multiple goals, as many of us do, then frequently the time demands of the goals conflict – like being successful at work and successful at parenting. There is also the necessity and art of continually setting new goals and finding new purpose, such as around the time of retirement from paid work.
When purpose becomes purely the creation of wealth, and wealth is purely for personal enjoyment, then the potential for happiness is reduced. Happiness requires us to have or find meaning that is more than the satisfaction of our appetites.
The proponents of positive psychology say that we need all three ingredients in order to be happy. We need good feelings, to give to others, and to have purpose. This is why religions – which seek to do all three – are important in society.
It is also why discipline and self-restraint are important. Popular TV shows usually promote self-gratification. It’s all about body, booty, and babes. Yet happiness requires the discipline of giving your resources to a cause much bigger than ourselves and the discipline of focussing on a purpose. To feed the world we need to constrain our appetites.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote in reference to Western Society ‘one almost never sees voluntary restraint… Left without electric power for a few hours only all of a sudden crowds of citizens start looting and creating havoc. [This indicates] a social system quite unstable and unhealthy.’
In the political life of our nation it is timely to contemplate upon these things. ‘What can the Government give me?’ is not the only question. Nor is the question ‘What can I give to others?’ There are also questions about what is our communal purpose, what might we offer the world, and what might we have to do differently – even give up – in order to achieve it? I listen for what any politician or party might be saying about these important questions of vision, meaning, and ultimately happiness.
The biblical visions of heavenly happiness; of having a home, income, and food; of having respect, space, and connection with each other; continue to inform our vision of earthly happiness. Yet these need to be placed alongside the life of Jesus. For in him we see a life filled with friendship and fellowship, with generosity and self-giving, and with purpose and its discipline.
To the 14 year old who disdains the idea of a cloudy, white, heavenly after-life I offer the meaning, variety, and well-being of a Jesus-life for the now and any hereafter.
I would like to share something of my spiritual and theological journey this morning in relation to the scripture reading from Luke 4:14-21. In particular the quote from Isaiah 61 where Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It’s interesting to note that Jesus chose both Galilee and the local synagogue to commence his teaching. Galilee was an area north of Palestine. The name itself means circle. It was called this because it was encircled by a diverse range of cultures and nationalities. As a result of this it had a progressive reputation amongst the more conservative parts of Palestine. The population at the time of Jesus was similar to that of New Zealand today. The Galileans themselves were the Highlanders of Palestine. As a group of people they enjoyed change and were always ready to follow innovative leaders.
This is the land in which Jesus started his ministry. He began in the synagogue. The synagogue was the real centre of religious life in Palestine. Although there was only one Temple, the law stated that wherever there were ten Jewish families there must be a synagogue. The Temple was designed for sacriﬁce; the synagogue for teaching. The synagogue service combined three different aspects. The worship part in which prayer was offered, the reading of the scriptures which was translated from the original Hebrew into either Aramaic or Greek and the teaching part which was shared by members of the congregation. It was here that Jesus took the opportunity to express the intention of his ministry.
The scripture passage talks about how Jesus was praised by everyone. The event took place prior to the controversy later associated with his radical teaching. However, once Jesus started to imply that God had favour for the Gentiles as well as the Jews he met plenty of opposition within the congregation and ended up having to leave town to avoid being inﬂicted with some serious physical harm.
Although the people had welcomed some of the new teaching of Jesus, which they had given him praise for, they weren’t ready to accept or tolerate some of the extremes of this teaching. Jesus seemed to be implying that the concept of God’s love was for everyone. And not only love for everyone, but an unconditional love which did not favor or exclude. What a thought!
When I think about my own past, there was a time when I would have been clearly in the same camp as this angry congregation which confronted Jesus about his extreme and somewhat inclusive teaching. My conservative Christian background taught me very clearly that the Christian message was primarily for those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. It was for those who were prepared to renounce the evils of their sinful nature to embrace the purity and holiness of God. This could only be gained from following the explicit teachings of Jesus. However, I have now come to appreciate that the interpretation of these teachings of Jesus were very selective. My church clearly believed that they could only be interpreted through the eyes of an Armenian, Wesleyan theology.
When I look at this passage of Scripture today I see it through different eyes. I think one interpretation of it could be that the good news to the poor is about social justice and giving a voice to those who have been excluded and condemned by the religious conservatives. To proclaim release to the captives could be about freeing up the restrictions placed upon spiritual belief by the so called authorities within the wider church. Recovery of sight to the blind might be about opening our eyes to the truths of the gospel message rather than the contrived separatist notions of Evangelical Christians. And to let the oppressed go free, could be about giving people permission to explore their own spiritual pathway without the conﬁnes of having to adhere to or believe the dogma and doctrine of any particular religious authority.
When did this theological journey start to change for me? I think it has been over a period of years. However, there have been some signiﬁcant events in my life that created opportunities for a shift in thinking. One of these took place at the start of this new millennium. Our church leadership had concerns about the continuing decline in attendance and membership of our churches throughout the country. As a result of this Patricia and I were given the opportunity from our leadership to establish and develop a new church centre as a strategy of growth. We were exited about this prospect and our vision was that this new church would be a place of safety for those who wanted to explore the whole concept of faith and God within an open environment. It would be place that would allow us to engage with the surrounding community without sensing the need to convert people to our way of thinking or believing. Our leadership had allocated a large budget to this venture and it appeared that we had their permission to explore different ways of doing and being church. These were exiting times for us.
As part of my preparation for embarking on this new venture I had been going to a professional supervisor who was in the process of exploring different and more creative ways of delivering her service. She had grown up in a fairly conservative Christian home, her father the local minister of a Methodist church. However, over the years she had grown tired of what she perceived as the shallowness of Christian thinking and had moved away from organised religion to explore her own spiritual pathway. When I met her she was about to embark on a different way of doing supervision. Her concept was to invite three separate groups of people, from a diverse range of professional backgrounds, to be involved in a combination of individual and group supervision.
Each group was made up of six people and her idea was that we would meet with her once a month for individual professional supervision and once a month for group supervision. The six people involved in my group included two psychologists, a university lecturer, a natural health provider, a massage therapist and myself. I was the only minister and the only person involved in any form of organized religion. In fact, the others in the group hadn’t had much formal or social contact with church clergy before.
I must confess that initially, I saw this as a golden opportunity to share my interpretation of the gospel message to these non-churched professionals. Although I enjoyed the company and open discussion with my fellow group members, I would often feel the need to enlighten them to the truths of the Christian gospel. However, during the following months, I began to appreciate the diverse range of spiritual journeys experienced and expressed by these interesting and gifted people. What had been a form of tolerance of other faith journeys for me became an appreciation and acceptance of other ways of thinking and being.
As a group we would spend two or three weekends a year staying at a place called Castle Hill on the West Coast of the South Island. It was a beautiful location surrounded by mountains, streams and native bush. Together, and individually we discovered many ways of experiencing God in this magniﬁcent environment. This overall enriching experience was an invaluable aspect my preparation for someone about to explore a new concept of church.
Throughout the four years Patricia and I were involved in this new church development, my theological thinking changed a great deal. I no longer placed much importance on the concept of sin, or non-believer, or in fact, on the whole notion of salvation as interpreted by my church leadership. This, I believe, was one of the contributing factors in my leadership loosing some conﬁdence in my ability to carry out this project in a way that would suit their expectations. Over time our funding for the project was dramatically reduced to a stage that made it almost impossible to resource. The end result was closure of the venture after a relatively short space of time.
However, despite this major disappointment, my theological journey didn’t stop. I had only just begun. It was to further develop when we came to Auckland. After running a local church and community centre in West Auckland we transferred to the Bridge Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Mt Eden. A part of my responsibility here was to help set up a new Rehabilitation Centre in Manukau. This included establishing contacts with other agencies and groups within the South Auckland community. One of the outcomes from discussions within these community groups was to identify the need to establish a place where people from various backgrounds, particularly those in recovery from alcohol and drugs, could meet to explore the whole concept of spirituality and faith. This was the place where my new understanding of Luke 4:18 was to ﬂourish: the poor... the captives... the blind and the oppressed were responding to an interpretation of the reported words of Jesus that began to heal the wounds of their childhood church battering.
Like other groups of people within the community, many of the clients we were working with in the Bridge Programme had harmful experiences of organised religion and church. They weren’t opposed to the concept of a God, just opposed to those people who claimed exclusive ownership of God. As I had responsibility for leading and teaching the Spirituality component of the Bridge Programme at Manukau I saw this as a great opportunity to again explore and develop a different concept of church. The Mt Eden Bridge Centre had been running a Recovery Church for a number of years which gave us some idea of a starting point for this venture.
Our vision for the new church was that it would be a place where people could come along and explore the idea of a God and faith without getting bogged down with doctrine and dogma. We promoted the idea that this church would be a place where you could belong before you believed.
A number of clients who had recently completed the programme, helped me create such an environment. The worship style was fairly contemporary and the theological teaching quite open-ended. It didn’t take long for the church to grow as people found it to be a safe place to explore God and spirituality, without having to adhere to any particular form of Christian doctrine. I enjoyed being involved, and appreciated the freedom I felt in developing such an open church. However, the strategy of the leadership within the church began to focus more on getting people saved and converted to a more conservative form of Christianity.
Although this new recovery church continued to grow, I started to feel more restrained in my exploration and development of a more liberal theology.
In this regard, one of the crunch points for me was to attend a spiritual retreat arranged by our church for leaders currently involved in social work activities. The retreat involved a week’s teaching relating to the writings and theology of a Bible scholar who lived and practiced his ministry in the late 1800’s in England and the USA. I found the teaching to be outdated and irrelevant to today’s context. One of the only redeeming features of the week was the opportunity each of the attendees had to share something of their own spiritual journeys. I found these sharing times interesting and encouraging.
When it came to my turn to share I didn’t hold back any of my progressive thinking in relation to faith and my experience of God outside of the context of an Armenian Wesleyan theology. Although I had a real sense of freedom about sharing my theological journey I sensed that the leadership within the organization felt very uncomfortable with my liberal views. Again, I think there was a growing lack of conﬁdence from the movement’s leadership in my ability to carry out my responsibilities within an appropriate theological context. The end result for Patricia and I was an offer from the leadership to lead a small local church and centre in a remote setting on the West Coast of the South Island. Out of harms way! Although some aspects of this offer were a little tempting for me, it just wasn’t practical or appropriate for us as a family to accept the appointment. So we resigned from this stage of our journey.
During the months prior to our resignation I had been reading a number of books from such writers as John Spong, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Lloyd Geering and other heretical scholars and teachers. These people, along with my increased involvement at St Matthew's, have contributed to my progressive theological journey, which is still in process. I think that it would be fair to say that I have become increasingly comfortable with the uncomfortableness of uncertainty. As the words in our liturgy describe, we leave behind the certainties of the past.
In Marcus Borg’s book entitled ‘The Heart of Christianity’ he talks about two forms of Christianity today. Firstly, he describes what he calls an earlier paradigm of thinking which has been shared by most Christians in Western culture. This form of Christianity views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees Christian life as centred in believing now for the sake of salvation later – believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus as the way to heaven. Christianity is seen as the only true religion. Borg then describes what he calls the ‘emerging paradigm’ of Christian thinking which is the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism, and cultural diversity.
Like Marcus Borg, the earlier way of thinking and believing no longer works for me. It’s time to move on and to share a gospel message that demonstrates love and encourages hope. For me, the words of Jesus in Luke 4:18 give new meaning to the idea of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, giving recovery of sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. I think that any organization that calls itself a church, but attempts to prohibit our progress in this journey of faith, needs to re-evaluate the true meaning of church. I look forward to moving on in my faith journey in this sacred and inclusive environment of free spiritual exploration. In the words of Marcus Borg’s wife, Marianne, I am a ‘lover of faith, seeking a faith to love.’ (Borg, M. 2003)
Borg, M. (2003) The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of faith. New York: Harpers
In recounting his own spiritual journey Barack Obama describes his mother’s scepticism about religion: “For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb or piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.” [The Audacity of Hope, p 203].
When I listen to Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet, I can appreciate her view. Matthew has Jesus telling about a king who prepares a lavish wedding feast for his son, but the guests don’t show up. Miffed, he sends his soldiers to kill them. He then invites the hoi poloi off the streets. However, one shows up dressed inappropriately. When challenged by the king about why, he remains silent. The king responds by having him unceremoniously tossed from the party into the outer darkness where he is expected to weep and gnash his teeth. This Matthew says is the kingdom of heaven.
In the US many restaurants have a sign on the front door: “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” Matthew’s parable posts a similar sign on the pearly gates: “No shirt, no shoes, no salvation.” It certainly doesn’t sound heavenly to me.
This parable an example of all that is wrong with religion. Because I can’t remember ever hearing a good sermon on it I went online to see if I had just been unlucky. After reading half a dozen more, I had to stop. I was having trouble controlling my gag-reflex. I wish I could assure you that this sermon will turn the tide, but I fear as I grow older I’m becoming more like McCain – grumpier and crankier about the institution I’ve devoted my life too. I see in this parable the seeds of my church’s demise.
But I’m using language too loosely. This parable really isn’t a parable. It is an allegory. Jesus didn’t tell allegories, but Matthew loved them. What’s the difference? For Jesus a parable is an extended metaphor. It is a short narrative usually raising a single spiritual point. It is intended to be less an answer than an intriguing glimpse of a hidden reality. His parables are often surprising and paradoxical. He tells them to break us out of our preconceived and life-sapping notions. Matthew, on the other hand, had a theological axe to grind. For him a good allegory slightly veiled was a useful rhetorical device to argue his point. An allegory uses a fictional story to represent a specific situation, with the intention of arguing a moral to the story. It is intended to tell us how to think and behave, while a parable opens up our thinking that we might creatively pursue abundant life.
Matthew’s allegory of the wedding banquet is fictionalising a real conflict going on while he is writing his Gospel. Jews who were following the radical teachings of the Nazarene were increasingly suspect by the orthodox. To their way of thinking Jesus’ followers were undermining the social structure by challenging the purity laws. They were threatening the neighbourhood by being open to receiving Gentiles. The result was the Nazarenes were being cast out of the synagogues and condemned as heretics. Matthew was one of those Nazarene’s. He responds to rejection by castigating his fellow Jews (planting the seeds of the church’s later anti-Semitism), and claiming the outcast Nazarenes are the new Israel.
In his allegory of the wedding banquet those who reject the invitation of the king are the Jews. The king, in case you missed it, is God and the bridegroom’s Jesus. The servants that he sends to convince them to come are the prophets and finally Jesus, who in an earlier allegory we heard last week is the cornerstone the builders rejected. When the king destroys the Jews he is destroying Jerusalem. The B-guest list who are subsequently invited to the feast are those the purity laws excluded, the poor. The invitation itself is God’s grace offered the undeserving, the good and the bad alike. It is less clear who is the unfortunate guest tossed for bad fashion sense. If he represents the poor, Matthew does not explain how he was supposed to get a black tie for the event. But most scholars suggest that the guest is an allegorical figure for those who after receiving God’s grace are judged as not living a life reflective of the kingdom. For Matthew it is all about being saved and there are no second chances. Those who don’t accept Jesus are killed. Those who accept him but don’t wear a cloak of righteousness are tossed into hell. Matthew was quite fond of describing Hell as involving lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. He was also big on judgment.
Down through the centuries the church has shown a fondness for this allegory. God as judge and king are favoured metaphors of the divine and the church has only been too happy to serve as God’s fashion police. Matthew has been used to justify the Crusades, the Inquisition, burning heretics and, less dramatically, excommunication.
As the sermons I scanned online will attest many preachers are still fond of the allegory as well. They wax poetic about God’s grace offered to everyone, but then with relish turn their attention to those who are not convinced by their rhetoric. They pronounce judgment with as much zeal as Matthew’s King-Judge God. The only difference between Matthew and them is that the fashions have changed. The cloak of righteousness now belongs to those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb and proclaim Jesus as Lord and Saviour. They are not too concerned about what is beneath the cloak. A Sarah Palin gets to stay at the party no matter how vile and racist her campaign remarks. A Barack Obama gets tossed no matter how “Christian” he “claims” to be because he does not condemn people of other faiths or lifestyles the Palin Christians find objectionable.
Is there any wonder that Christianity is losing its appeal in developed countries? Using Jesus to bash and judge just doesn’t draw the numbers it once did.
Two years ago at the Diocesan Synod a strategic plan for growing the Anglican Church in Auckland was proposed and passed. It is a startling document that focuses on what the diocese must do to respond to the anticipated population growth in the area. It cites projections that the area will grow by 400,000 over the next 20 years.
The document reassures us that people will still need the Gospel. In words that sound more like someone whistling past the graveyard, it asserts bravely, “We should not expect its demise or failure.” The reason we should be confident is that we have various resources, property, money, experience and our traditions. Lastly, we have good intentions and are capable of being intentional. How should we be intentional? Buy land, train more clergy (yeah right, just what we need), close or merge underperforming congregations, partner with other Tikanga or denominations; coach parishes in trouble in the latest church growth methods are amongst the suggestions. If we do all that, it says without irony, we might get 1.5% or 6000 of that 400,000 who are coming to Auckland.
This pathetic goal is the fruit of Matthew’s allegory. The Gospel has gotten lost in judgment. I would have more hope for diocesan growth if at least somewhere in its 30 pages it suggested we had to rediscover the Gospel message of love and acceptance and develop ministries that offered it to all 400,000 newcomers whether or not they ever sit in an Anglican pew. I don’t base that opinion on my bleeding heart liberal views but on a statistic that is not in the report. While St Matthew’s doesn’t have the biggest budget in the diocese and comes nowhere close to having the largest Sunday attendance, no Anglican parish comes close to us in the number of weddings or, more importantly, baptisms we celebrate annually. There is only one reason. We have no preconditions to being married or baptised. All are welcome, just as all are welcome at Communion. Maybe there is something to our focus on inclusive grace rather than righteous judgment. Allegorically speaking, we seek to be one of Jesus’ parables; not one of Matthew’s allegories.
We justify our position on Jesus’ parable of the banquet that Matthew has reshaped. There are two other existing versions of the parable, one in Luke and one in the Gospel of Thomas. Theirs are quite different from Matthew’s. Less allegorical they focus on the point that the heavenly banquet table is open to all without condition.
There is also a third version no one wrote down – the one Jesus told. By comparing the three, scholars believe we can begin to uncover what might have been in Jesus’ original parable. In his there would have been no king; he’s only in Matthew’s. Those who refused to come would not have been killed. That’s only in Matthew’s. No one would’ve been tossed. Again, that unfortunate guest only goes to Matthew’s banquet. What would have remained is simply this, people are free to choose to come to the party or not, but all are invited to share in abundant life, especially those who society rejects. So, if Jesus had included in his parable the guest without black tie, he would’ve welcomed him to the banquet table, contrary to Matthew. That is a message worth proclaiming and building a church upon. Maybe even Obama’s mama might attend such a church.
Spring 2008 has been a disturbing time from the global to the local. And it continues to be. We are warned of dire global shockwaves if a financial meltdown is allowed to happen in America. Even an obscene bail-out does not reduce the fury or the apprehension over such blatant greed and misuse of power. Locally we witness sheer goodness being rewarded with an ignominious, pointless and tragic death in the street. One stab is all it took.
Our anxieties rise as we consider the supposed fall out and we discuss and condemn an economic system gone ballistic or should I say bankrupt. The spectre of the Great Depression of the 1930’s is invoked and we remember our parents speaking of it with grave and sombre voices.
We wonder if we would rush to help someone in distress anymore and we worry about a society where random acts of murder are becoming more commonplace. It could so easily have been a member of our own family – someone we love. What are we to make of it all?
We have just listened to the 10 commandments – ancient edicts given so a people can live together and flourish. ‘Given that the people may believe, walk in them and be blessed thereby’ as one commentator puts it. Belief in God is primary and personal – upon which all else hinges.
The first four commandments are about our obligations to God and the second six are about our obligations to our neighbour. Mostly they continue to underpin our 21st century relationships, our society and culture just as they did then. In all the commandments love is the overriding motive - directed in a way that prohibits those things that warp or destroy love. They apply to all areas of life and fall into three main categories. These are the moral which appeals to our individual hearts and minds, the civic – how we live together equably and administer justice, and third is religious – how we live our relationship with God and how this underpins all life.
The two commandments that speak to the local and global events expressed are those that enjoin us not to murder and not to covet. Murder is the most extreme contempt for the sanctity of life. Covetousness is a deep craving for that which does not belong to a person and surfaces in acts of murder. It underpins the insatiable greed which led to the current financial crisis in America.
Underscoring both events is gross limitless and psychotic self-interest. Both are about death – the death of goodness, the death of love, the death of God.
Our world is wildly diverse, crazy and wonderful, and increasingly shrill and worrisome. Bombarded as we are with media and the restless immediacy it brings, issues get lost and we roll over as the next one appears on the horizon. We live our lives as well as possible and we try to have a good time. But sometimes things happen that cause enough shock and dismay to make us stop and think longer and more deeply as these two events have.
We are presented with a society become shallow, based upon accumulation and greed and the fallout from that – murder in the streets maybe. That’s not new – it has happened since time immemorial, but in today’s world it is much more lethal. It also rejects God.
Post-modernity and the way in which everything is made relative to this or to that, has, in a way, made mush of us all – we also can become shallow by diminishing our own Christian faith, in our desire to include other faiths. We have largely assumed a bystander’s point of view in matters other than ecclesial and personal much of the time. We don’t actually assert much other than our desire for peace and love. We don’t really hustle for justice or scream for truth, or tell people they need God in their lives.
Over these last couple of weeks, alongside being a pluralist hands-off liberal or progressive Christian, I have moved towards thinking that I must strongly profess the goodness and truth of my own faith perspective and be vigilant in what I perceive as public debate from that standpoint. As many people have asserted, Christian fundamentalism (by that phrase I mean those who understand the Bible as literal truth and believe the world is divided into the saved and the damned) has dominated the Christian airwaves for too long. We cannot be passive any longer. The world needs all the help it can get and we really say very little.
On the bright side, however, I must admit to being surprised and pleased when I heard on BBC radio that Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York both strongly condemned the repugnant and deathly greed in America that led to the virtual collapse of the market.
But, they didn’t say we need God or any such thing did they, and that’s because God and anything spiritual has been sort of privatized. Most rational good Christian people are reticent about what makes their world turn, and in the wake of our modern world God has got lost for the vast majority. And perhaps – perhaps this loss of God has taken away an anchor that held things in check. That kept people ethical and concerned. That pricked our consciences when we let things slide. That held us true to a credo, a person, a spiritually inspired hope that we could believe in.
On a personal level and as a single woman some rather hilarious experiences have happened to me since becoming a Priest. There I am looking sharp at a party and this guy and I get chatting and we laugh over common points of interest and everything is hunky-dory. Then I casually mention I am a priest and – all of a sudden he starts talking about moral issues and gets all righteous about things … amazing! But I also realize that his perspective on Christianity is the old-school control/fear/judgement/hell stuff that our more fundamentalist brethren tend to promote. So instead of yawning next time I am going to give him or her a blast.
What am I going to blast them with? I guess I shall talk about what are experiential realities for me. I need God. I’m not sure whether God needs me or even what God is really. But I know that I have an inward space, a relationship with something infinitely mysterious and greater than me that draws me to truth and love and justice and all those bedrock values that make life good and worth living.
To return to the commandments I also know that I have awful weaknesses and ugly bits too – and often I glimpse them in my family history. Our sentence for the day reiterates this when it says we will be punished for the iniquity of the parents and so on – reflecting the legacy we all receive in our different ways from within our families. I suffer hugely when I do something mean and regret dogs my footsteps for days. As our prayer states – this is a function of love.
The commandments all turn on the first. “I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other Gods but me.” To me this asks us to look towards something infinitely greater than we are, something quite cosmic that rests in goodness and love and mutuality. It asks us to turn inwards to find the space and time for the God who inexplicably dwells within. Without that life can indeed become shallow, and desire twists and snakes into greed – the greed of men who amass sordid fortunes on the turn of a wheel, who trade in death.
When we lose sight of the first commandment the rest become merely rules and rules are, as some wits like to say, ‘made to be broken.’ And in doing so we break ourselves, our families, our societies and our world. That is the message of the commandments.
125th Anniversary of the SPCA A Service of Thanksgiving and Blessing
Welcome, welcome, welcome especially to our furry, woolly, feathered and scaly friends who make this annual service so lively. And I want to reassure any wolves, moose or caribou in the congregation, that while I’m an American, you are perfectly safe. I am neither from Alaska nor a Republican.
And welcome also to those of you who love them enough to bring them to a special service of thanksgiving and blessing. A service of thanksgiving for the 125 years the Auckland SPCA has devoted to their care and protection, sadly from humans, and a service of blessing to thank our animal friends for the many ways they enrich our lives.
For instance we could hardly describe ourselves as human without them. She works like a dog. He eats like a pig while she eats like a bird. Trying to lead a congregation is like herding cats, because we don' t want to be "a pack of lemmings" or even a flock of sheep. Those who annoy us get our goat. The incompliant are stubborn as a mule or just bull-headed. The fearful are timid as a mouse. We lionise the brave. Those who evade responsibility are slippery as an eel. A-type personalities are busy as bees. The clever are cunning as a fox. The meek are cowed, the rambunctious horse around and only the dogged ferret out the truth. Without them, even Jesus could not have advised his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Aside from providing useful metaphors for our human nature, we all know we couldn’t survive without our non-human friends. They provided covering for our fragile skins, food for our empty bellies, bones for tools, oil for light, free labour for our fields and farms, and subjects for scientific experiments that have benefited you and me.
While humans aren’t always the sharpest tack in the box of animal species, 20,000 years ago we figured out how useful they could be. Dogs we discovered could be useful in hunting. Seven thousand to 9000 years ago we learned to keep livestock and dogs were useful in protecting them. We began breeding them to improve on their usefulness beyond hunting and guarding. For instance the poodle was bred to find valuable truffles buried in the ground for the royal dinner table. Poodles were apparently much easier to manage than wild boars who are equally adept at finding them.
Thinking about the usefulness of animals, I began to wonder about who was using whom. This occurred to me because whatever else I am, I am a boy with a dog.
Not just any dog: His name is Zorro. As a puppy he had a black mask, which has faded with age. But his swashbuckling nature has not. He is somewhat famous in Auckland because he rides on my back as I commute to the church over the Harbour Bridge on my Vespa. He has logged 25,000 kilometres with his ears flying and tongue hanging. Countless tourists, one photojournalist and two motorcycle cops have snapped his picture. When he arrives each morning he is eager to greet his workmates and to assume his duties of checking out all who visit St Matthew’s. I confess though that today is not his favourite day of the year. He is a little overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of so many non-humans invading his territory. While St Matthew’s prides itself on its inclusiveness, Zorro is not convinced.
Zorro and I have known each other since he was one week old. While his is a rare breed from Madagascar, he’s a Yank from Santa Barbara. You can tell by his accent.
He began training me from the moment his eyes opened. I didn’t fully appreciate that fact until I took him to obedience school as a yearling because of his stubborn nature. I was surprised to learn that the school was not for him. It was for me so I could communicate with him better. He has been patient with me these seven years since and I am getting more obedient every day.
He has been a wonderful mentor over these years, teaching me more than I have time to share this morning. But let me offer one instance.
While the Bible puts humankind in charge of the animal kingdom that is really only wishful thinking on our part. In truth there is much more mutuality than the Bible suggests. Zorro has taught me that animals don’t exist for our exploitation. He reminds me daily that they are here for us and we are here for them.
When Zorro was only weeks old I suffered a painful neck injury that nearly immobilised me and made it impossible to sleep. Zorro never left my side, welded to my hip. Today I remember his comfort more than the pain. Seven years later calcification in his neck pinched nerves making it difficult for him to walk. Remembering his love, compassion and faithfulness, I sought to return it in his time of need. I hope he, too, remembers the comfort more than the pain.
Throughout our relationship there have been many experiences that have blurred the lines of who is master and who is pet. As a result Zorro and I are neither. We are companions.
I suspect animals always understood this but we are just catching on. Besides leading the blind, companion dogs are everywhere. They let the deaf know when the phone or door bell ring, dispense love to the elderly in rest homes, aid the healing process by visiting the sick in hospitals, reassure children learning to read, and protect us from ourselves on the streets as K-9 cops working hand and paw with their human partners.
While this part of my learning is typical of any boy and his dog story, I would like to take it to another level. Zorro has patiently taught me that one of us is not dominant over or more important than the other. In doing so he has trained me to be more sensitive to and respectful of all creation not just because it is the nice thing to do or politically correct but because it is essential to the well-being, if not survival, of human and animal alike. Creation, he reminds me, is a web in which we are all inter-connected. It is in that connection I experience whatever it is I mean by God.
Sometimes I think that he sees his task as teaching me to be a better human being. It is because of him I care about the treatment of animals raised to feed me. I now buy range-free meat and dairy. It is because of him I eat less meat. It is because of him I squish fewer bugs. It is because of him I support politicians committed to protecting the environment. It is because of him I treat others of my species better than I might otherwise. He has taught me well that we are all companions on the way. Because of that I consider myself blessed. Look around and know you are as well.
There are some theological ideas and doctrines that we think are plainly wrong. They don't fit with our experience of God and life. We often find Christians who hold to such ideas difficult to converse with, although we try to be understanding and tolerant.
Then there are some theological ideas and doctrines that over time prove to be plainly silly. They are examples of ancient ‘common sense’ or metaphors wrapped in God language that now in hindsight and with greater scientific knowledge make no sense.
And then there are some theological ideas and doctrines that are just plainly dangerous. Like asbestos they need to carefully extricated from all teaching and preaching and destroyed. Tolerance is not an option. Hell is one such doctrine.
We can laugh about hell, sell pizzas on the strength of it, but the sad fact is that it’s beyond a joke. There is a significant and horrific history in the Church of imprisonment and torture premised on the supposed existence of hell. Bishops palaces, like Lambeth, had their own torturer and torture chamber. They believed that by threat or the administration of pain someone who was deemed heretical – and all the current and most of the past clergy of St Matthew’s would be included – could not only be made to recant but would have their spiritual wellbeing and post-life prospects improved. By inflicting pain in this life the torment of hell in the next life might be avoided.
The logic of such cruelty was that in order for us to be good and holy there had to be a deterrent. As God has a torture chamber called hell to scare us into prayer, so the Church also is justified in inflicting pain. It is an anti-gospel of coercion and violence.
If you think this logic belongs back in Tudor England or in the dark recesses of medieval Europe then read in the latest Taonga the views of a leading New Zealand evangelical Anglican, the Revd Dr Peter Carrell. I quote, “All those who are not saved from their sin… are headed for hell.” And again he writes, “If it did not exist, hell as a place of punishment would be invented.”
Dr Carrell seems to understand hell as essential for three reasons: Firstly, ‘our response to the Gospel matters’. Meaning, I suppose, that if we choose not to accept it we will get smacked over by God’s horny assistants. Secondly, ‘God’s justice is real’. Meaning, I suppose, that justice requires offenders to be slowly roasted in the hell-fire. Lastly, he argues that without the motivation to avoid hell the need to preach and share the Good News in Jesus would be diminished. ‘Hell underlines urgency’. Meaning, I suppose, that people wouldn’t share their relationship with Jesus without a good dose of fear.
Hell is premised upon a God of reward and punishment, a God who is modeled on a feudal king with throne, court, and dungeon. When the feudal-king-God is blended with the intimate loving-parent-God that Jesus favoured problems arise.
Humanity is always in a childlike position with this reward-and-punishment deity. The relationship is marked by servitude not friendship. A behavioral modification approach, albeit modified from ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’, might be considered suitable for younger children in this reward-and-punishment parenting style but not for an adult’s relationship to his or her parent. It is hoped an adult relates his or her parents in an adult-to-adult way without threats, coercion, guilt, judgement, and punishment. Friends don’t threaten each other.
A second problem with this reward and punishment God is that instilling fear and threatening eternal torture are not what most parents and child welfare agencies consider good or appropriate parenting methods. Parents don’t send their children to eternal torment no matter what they’ve done. As the Scripture says, ‘Would a parent give their child a snake?’ [Luke 11:11] Rather parents want their children to flourish, to grow up psychologically strong without fear and threats, and in time to relate to them as friends. Of course fear has its own consequences including ill-health, dysfunction, and insecurity.
There is a quote attributed to Orlando Bloom, “How can you be in hell if you are in my heart?” It is central to the Gospel that the God-in-Jesus loves everyone unconditionally and holds all humanity in his/her heart. If this loving-parent-God has any integrity then there can’t be anyone in hell and neither can it exist.
But it gets worse. Hell also portrays God as a bully. It says, ‘If you don’t behave then God who is bigger and stronger and always right will use his boys with the pitchforks to physically and psychologically work you over. It’s for your own good of course. So, come to Church, raise your voices, pray… or suffer the consequences. There’s nothing like a good threat or toasting to assist your spiritual growth.’ Yeah, right.
So, the first foundational theological doctrine hell contaminates is the integrity of God as an intimate loving parent.
The second foundational theological doctrine hell contaminates is the traditional doctrine of omnipresence. If hell is a place without God, a place of separation, pain, and torment, then the notion that God is unbounded, infinite, and everywhere is plainly wrong.
There are numerous stories of gross evil happening throughout history, and maybe the one we are most familiar with is the Jewish Holocaust. The gas chambers, the inhumanity, the suffering, are seared upon the conscience of the Western Christian world. Was God absent? Yes. [Big pause]. And no. The God of power, might, and justice was absent. But time and again those who were there talk of glimpsing a god who was suffering alongside them.
As St Paul so powerfully said, ‘What can separate us from the love of God?’ [Romans 8:28] And he answers, ‘Nothing in all creation.’ There is nowhere where God is not. There is no three-tiered universe with heaven on top, middle earth, and hell on the bottom. Heaven is simply a symbolic way of talking about the presence of God. The reference in the Apostles Creed to Christ’s descent into hell is simply a symbolic way of saying there is no one nowhere outside of God-in-Jesus’ love. Death cannot separate us from the love of God. The alleged existence of hell creates a boundary around the love of God and therefore is anti-gospel.
Is there then no judgment and no justice? The Gospels don’t talk about hell but they do talk about judgment. While Christians differ over divine involvement in consequences there is a ‘reap what you sow’ maxim that pervades. There are rights and wrongs, good decisions and bad, and all have consequences. Like a stone in a pond a good deed or a bad one ripples out affecting the environment around.
Can there be judgment and justice without prisons and torture? For those who say ‘there must be a strong deterrent’ then on a theological level the same thinking creates a hell. However there are others of us who say that prisons and torture have never been an effective deterrent and indeed deny our common humanity. We believe there are other more effective ways of restoring people and protecting society. In this life or the next we don’t need a hell in order for there to be justice.
I think post-life judgement is just wishful projection – hoping we will be okay and others won’t. Hell of course has always been a convenient place to put those who are politically and theologically threatening to one's worldview. The post-life heaven that makes sense to me is one where we will all be there. For some that will be ‘heaven’ for others ‘hell’.
I think this-life judgement is along the lines of ‘reap what you sow’. The nasty, rich and famous neighbour might get all the accolades but his nastiness in time breeds nasty relationships around him. His judgement is living with himself. Now I know that this understanding of judgement sounds sort of lame compared to a full-on eternal rotisserie Dante barbeque. Yet I think Christians have to make a choice between either a God of reward and punishment who burns and tortures the baddies in hell or a God who is unconditional love and empowerment. You can’t have both. For fear is the antithesis of love.
Hell as an instrument of fear has contaminated Christianity for too long. As a literal or metaphorical place its effects are still the same: undermining the integrity and omnipresence of a God who is unfathomable and inexhaustible love. Hell has fostered an infantile spirituality of rewards and punishment. Hell has bred generations of preachers and churches who made their profits through fear. Hell needs to be extricated from Christianity. It is dangerous theological and psychological asbestos. It is anti-gospel. For as the writer of II Timothy wrote long ago, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and of a sound mind.” [II Timothy 1:7] May we then bravely cast out the entire doctrine and mythology of hell until our great grandchildren will only ever think it was once a pizza company.
Like blowflies to a carcass of raw meat, religion always attracts an unsavoury element. Ideologues, legalists, and the narrow-minded swarm in turning ancient sayings, customs, and understandings into ecclesial laws and moral dictates, submerging the spiritual beneath their own needs to control and be controlled. Reformers like Jesus spend a lot of their time trying to swat them away.
It is amazing that the carcass of religion survives and can be taken, cleaned, prepared, cooked, and served to feed the spiritual desires and hopes of normal people.
St Matthew’s is part of religion. It offers a spiritual space you can get pleasantly lost in. It offers liturgies and music, people and events, thoughts and writings. It is a place of spiritual refreshment, a well for the thirsty rather than a club for the well-heeled.
When you are not part of a church, or have had a bad experience of it, it is difficult often to see past the blowflies religion attracts. Their noise and activity obscures all the good you hope is there
One of the concepts that Christianity talks about is sin. Rather than a list of what we think is naughty, bad, or evil the Bible offers a brief but profound description: ‘that which separates us from God’. For some there seems to be a great chasm between them and God. Sin is a big deal. For others, like me, it seems like acknowledging the air we breathe. God is and has always been very close even when I’m unaware. Nothing I can do will change that closeness. God is unconditional love. And unconditional means unconditional.
Blowflies love the notion of sin. They have turned it into an industry. They have compiled and graded huge lists of sins. They have devised complex methods of trying to diffuse God’s supposed wrath and earn approval. Judgement, guilt, misery, and ecclesial power mongers are the maggots produced.
The message of Jesus and St. Paul is that God doesn’t feel that separation between the divine and human. Their message is ‘You are forgiven, so live free’. Whether you understand that this is the result of the death and resurrection of Jesus [like Paul did], or whether you understand that this has always been the nature of the God called Love [like Jesus did], the message is the same: ‘Forget sin. Forget the things you think are blocking you from God. Sure get your relationships with other people as right as you can, but don’t think God has a list of grievances against you.’
When liturgies say week by week “Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world have mercy on us”, and “I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under your table”, I think God weeps. Blowfly thinking and blowfly readings of Scripture have triumphed. By our words we are saying that we don’t believe that God has taken away the sins of the world. We don’t believe that God has forgiven anything that ever needs to be forgiven. We don’t trust God. We don’t believe the 16th century Reformers understanding of ‘the once and for all’ nature of grace. We don’t believe we are loved unconditionally. We prefer to listen to that blowfly in our mind that continues to say we are not worthy.
As retired Bishop John Bluck once said about such theology, ‘It is like the cream doughnuts we had as kids. We know the taste and like it. We also know that it kills our hearts.’
God wants us to live free. God doesn’t see us as two-year olds who need constant scrutiny and control. God trusts us as adults. It is hard to spread a spiritual message of hope – a message that everyone is unconditionally loved, the Divine is known in that love, and together we can make the world a better place – when we don’t believe it. Or at least I think we don’t believe it. The authorised liturgies of the Anglican Church that thousands recite weekly declare our corporate disbelief in the power of God’s love and the enduring, atoning work of Jesus.
This is a large part of the reason our Worship Committee and I have been proactive, especially over the last year, in writing new liturgies that take God’s love seriously. It’s not a case of change for change’s sake, but change for integrity’s sake.
While all of us need to reflect on and examine our lives, our successes and failures, good things and bad, there is a huge difference between seeing our actions or even ourselves as ‘sinful’ and imagining that God sees us similarly. ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God.’ This is the theological reality of the Gospel. We have been and always will be forgiven. God isn’t interested in the scratches we get when we fall off the bicycle of life. God wants us to get back on it, and live, love and pedal free. The blowflies want us to stay looking down at our bloody knees and forget the liberty of God.
As part of her service of installation a few weeks ago the Bishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, prostrated herself before the altar and reportedly stayed there flat on the floor for some minutes. This is an old symbolic rite of unworthy subjects humbling themselves before a mighty king. It is also blowfly theology.
To use parental language for God: ‘Is this what a parent wants of their children? Is submission what a parent values, desires, and needs?’
Well, this is exactly what one sort of parent does want: the insecure parent. This is the parent who never wants their children to grow up. This is the parent who doesn’t want their children to become adults, make their own choices, and live their own lives. This is the parent who wants their children always to be dependent because they are frightened of losing them.
Maybe the greatest blasphemy is that blowflies have made us believe that God is insecure. That God needs us to be obedient submissive children rather than creative powerful adults. That God needs us to prostrate ourselves rather than stand tall, proud, and answer back. That God needs us to say every day that we are weak and God is strong. That God needs us to be insecure in order to disguise God’s own insecurity and fear.
And what we also know about insecure parents and the insecure children they produce is they are risk adverse. They won’t venture into new ways of thinking and acting. If we are going to heal this world, to thwart the violence and the greed that feeds it, we need to find new ways to think and act. That will involve taking risks.
I believe in a God whose love is secure. I believe in a God whose freedom is grounded in that love. I believe in a God who wants us to be secure and revel in the knowledge that we are loved and that we are free. Only then can we build relationships that express a selfless love and a courageous freedom.
I have used the metaphor of blowflies but it has this inadequacy: there are significant, powerful, religious and political interests in keeping people fettered, sinful, and spiritually insecure. They should not be underestimated. I call them blowflies, but remember they managed to kill Jesus. They managed to corrupt his message. They managed to instil in Christians the need for continuous repentance. They managed to promote and have widely accepted a view of humanity as untrustworthy. The Gospel of unconditional grace and empowerment has been turned into a rulebook of earned love and servitude.
This Church of St Matthew is named after a man who followed the grace and freedom of Jesus. He didn’t beat himself up every day of the week saying ‘Woe is me a sinner.’ Instead he moved on from being so defined and therefore so restricted. He left the bad things of his past behind. Let us likewise trust God, trust the message of Jesus, and get on with living loved, living free, and living powerfully in order that all may be loved, free and powerful.
The parting of the Red Sea – remember or imagine the impossibly high walls of water with the motley band of Israelites walking through to safety and the Egyptian army with horses and chariots being deluged and drowned – every last one of them. I think it was Cinemascope and one of the first movies I remember vividly from my childhood. When I look back I think that the rash of biblical movies in the 1950s and 1960s did as much to tell me important stories of the bible as Sunday school ever did. They were laced with lollies, and if I was lucky some hot chips to eat on the way home while still reliving what I had just seen. The Ten Commandments will always be Charlton Heston as Moses, the strong staunch leader who has a hotline to God and does miracles – remember the staff turning into a snake – now that was really freaky. In that era we didn’t question the story – it was part of our Christian heritage and just reinforced what we heard at Sunday school. Our God saved our good ancestors from the baddies who were out to get them and they were all killed. Just as it should be we understood. Life was uncomplicated.
We grow up and life bites and kisses, satisfies and infuriates, challenges and stabs, and along the way we find out a bit about ourselves. Quite a lot if it is our intention to live what is called the “examined life.” We learn that not everybody is like us and that they can do mean and horrible things that hurt us, make us cry and we never want to see them again, and maybe we dream that something really awful will happen to them. Then they’ll be sorry! Good job – they had it coming we might think secretly.
There is a difference about how we live individually and collectively that is reflected in the two readings today. Our world is governed by a largely retributive justice system where a person pays for their wrongdoing. Their crime is examined and the damage assessed, the life and record of the perpetrator may be taken into account and judgement is passed. Justice is seen to be done.