Love, actually (again)

Easter 5C
Christchurch Cathedral, Grafton
19 May 2019

 

[ video ]

 

 

Love, actually (again)#

# “again”, because on 23 December 2018 I preached a sermon with the same title.

 

There is a famous story—probably apocryphal—of a new priest who surprised her parishioners when the sermon she delivered on her first Sunday in the parish was simply to say: “Love one another”. She then sat down and the service continued. People were surprised, but thought they could cut her some slack as it was her first week. The following week she went up  into the pulpit and repeated the same brief statement: “Love one another”. There was some rumbling among the faithful over their coffees after the service, but things came to a head on the third Sunday morning when the new priest repeated the same brief message: “Love one another”. Next day the Churchwardens met with the priest to ask what was going on? She listened quietly to their concerns and then replied as follows: “Yes, I have other things to say. When I can see that people have understood my first point then I shall move on to my second point!”

 

The Gospel today was from John’s account of the last supper.

He tells the story rather differently from the other three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. The main event in the story is not the meal, but Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. In the comments made by Jesus after that symbolic action, Jesus unpacks what it was all about (and what our faith as Christians is all about), in the words we just heard read:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

There are three big ideas in that short statement, so let’s just unpack them a little bit this morning as we prepare to baptise Cruz.

 

A new commandment: love one another.

Jesus did not give many commands. He was invitational rather than dictatorial.

But among the early Jesus people who created the Gospel of John he was especially remembered as giving is followers one simple instruction: Love one another.

I am often asked about the beliefs of various people and groups. My default response is that I do not care all that much what a religion believes, so long as they are not hurting other people.

So the first and most important thing about the faith into which we are baptising Cruz this morning is that it is all about love, about treating other people properly.

We are not required to believe this or that.

We are not required to pray in this way or some other way.

We are not required to attend worship, donate money, go on a pilgrimage, or observe any particular religious practices.

Yes, there are things we do and believe—and we want to get them right; but only one thing matters: LOVE.

Imagine how different the church would be and the world would be if we all lived by that new commandment.

 

The benchmark: Just as I have loved you

The second point to note is the benchmark that Jesus sets.

The measure for our loving actions is nothing less than the example of Jesus himself.

Well, that takes the pressure off, eh?

All we have to do is treat people the way Jesus treated them.

Easy peasy.

Kindness to those in need, and fierce opposition to those in power.

What could go wrong with a plan like that?

Are we surprised that such an attitude got Jesus into strife with the rich and powerful?

But that is the benchmark set by Jesus: copy me!

 

 

The outcome: everyone will know that you are my disciples

How we do prove our authentic Christian identity?

By acting with compassion.

By acting out of love, not fear.

By saying “No” to hatred and suspicion.

By assuming that our neighbours are decent people even when their food smells different or their skin is a different colour or their religion is not the same as ours.

How sad that such a simple statement even needs to be made, but as we have seen again this week even here in Grafton there are too many people—perhaps not many, but too many even if just a small percentage of the community—who are racist and driven by fear.

In the aftermath of a federal election we have a chance as a community to make a fresh start, irrespective of who forms government.

Today we launch Cruz into a life centred around the power of love to transform his life, our lives and the whole world.

Today we say YES to God, YES to love and NO to fear.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | Leave a comment

The Fourth R

For years now educators have reminded us of the need to address the “three R’s”: Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic.

At the same time, Religion scholars and especially those of us engaged critical biblical studies have been warning people not to neglect the ‘fourth R’—religious literacy.

Religious literacy might be defined as that set of knowledge, attitudes and skills which enable people to navigate successfully the contested religious landscape.

Doubtless, there are several components of religious literacy:

  • an appreciation of the role religion plays in the lives of individuals and communities
  • appreciation of diversity among religious communities
  • recognition of commonalities that cross religious and cultural boundaries
  • knowledge about and skills in engaging with key religious practices relevant to particular faith communities
  • role of sacred texts within religious communities
  • impact of religion on public health
  • the interface of religion and violence
  • the capacity for religion to be toxic and ‘best practice’ to avoid that outcome
  • fundamentalism as a dynamic that crosses religious boundaries

 

For many people of Christian faith, including people whose most significant cultural context has been some form of Christianity even they do not practice any faith, biblical literacy seems to be a pivotal element of wider religious literacy.

 

Biblical Literacy

The following comments on biblical literacy are extracted from my lecture Reading the Bible as a Charter for the Human Spirit at the Festival of Wild Ideas sponsored by the Mosman Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council on 5 May 2019.

Biblical literacy has numerous elements, including at least the following:

  • It requires attention to how written texts function as acts of communication between and among authors and readers. This is an unremarkable literacy skill in other areas of modern life, including media studies and genre analysis at school. Yet it seems oddly and sadly lacking in many Christian churches. Meaning is always negotiated between the author and reader, with all the power being in the hands of the reader who is the one constructing meaning out of the process. The author can seek to shape the form of those negotiations, but the reader is the one ultimately creating meaning from the communication process. As text the Bible is subject to those same dynamics. We determine what it means. It does not determine our meaning.

 

  • Typical literacy also requires us to pay attention to the nature and function of language as we create, share, adopt, implement and adapt human knowledge between individuals and across generations. This is essential as we seek to use the Bible authentically.

 

  • Biblical literacy further requires that we pay some attention to what may reasonably be known about the composition of those texts that we now value as sacred Scripture. They did not drop out of heaven and they were not dictated by the Holy Spirit. Despite years of teaching biblical studies in seminaries around Australia and elsewhere, I was still shocked the other day to see a Christian leader quote from Psalm 51 as part of his argument against abortion, with the claim that the Psalm represents the direct words of God. This is, of course, nonsense.

 

  • In addition to paying attention to how the text may have originally been composed, we also need to pay attention to the process of reception for certain texts which were accepted as sacred while other texts from the same period were excluded from those documents authorised to be read in church or consulted to settle theological disputes. In other words, both the formation of the canon and the history of the interpretation of the canonical texts have a part to play in genuine biblical literacy.

 

  • What we have learned about using these texts from the accumulated experience more than 2,500 years of continuous interpretation within communities of spiritual practice must also be brought into the discussion. We are not the first people to read these texts and people of goodwill have been wrestling with them for centuries, constructing life-giving ways of reading the text as a charter for human flourishing in different cultural and social contexts. We ignore that wisdom at our peril.

 

  • An essential element of biblical literacy — or perhaps simply religious literacy — is that we consider what impact our new insights into the physical and social realities of being human in our kind of universe have on our contemporary reception and interpretation of these ancient texts. Since we no longer think we live on a flat earth or in an earth-centric universe, we will necessarily construct a different vision of life as we read these texts.

 

  • Finally, there is our own lived experience. This informs us as we reflect on past and contemporary interpretations of these venerated ancient texts. When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit is surely as much in the life of the reader and the listening community as it is in the texts themselves. Such a view of inspiration would certainly be consistent with our understanding of how meaning is constructed when a text is being read.

 

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The Good Shepherd

Easter 4C / Mothers’ Day
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
12 May 2019

[ video ]

It is a beautiful accident that our secular Mothers’ Day this year coincides with the Fourth Sunday of Easter, with its theme of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Like a mother whose ear is attuned to the call of her own infant, or an infant whose ears are attuned to the sound of its mother’s voice, Jesus describes his sheep as those persons who have an ear for the wisdom he both speaks and embodies:

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
(John 10:27–28 NRSV)

Palestinians-shepherds-Bethlehem

Normally I focus my sermon on the Gospel, since our core task as Christians is to listen to the wisdom of  Jesus. However, today I want us to reflect together on the meaning of the Twenty-Third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd”.

You have the text of the Psalm in the bulletin (or on page 243 of the Prayer Book, if you prefer). If you are keeping an eye on the APBA version, you may notice that it differs slightly from the translations found in the Bible.

A Prayer Book for Australia, Liturgical Psalter

1 The Lord is my shepherd:
therefore can I lack nothing.
2 He will make me lie down in green pastures:
and lead me beside still waters.
3 He will refresh my soul:
and guide me in right pathways for his name’s sake.
4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil:
for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.
5 You spread a table before me
in the face of those who trouble me:
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup shall be full.
6 Surely your goodness and loving-kindness
will follow me all the days of my life:
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

 

Bible (New Revised Standard Version)

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; [Heb waters of rest]
3 he restores my soul. [Or life]
He leads me in right paths [Or paths of righteousness]
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, [Or the valley of the shadow of death]
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely [Or Only] goodness and mercy [Or kindness] shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. [Heb for length of days]

For the sake of comparison in the web version of the sermon I am also providing the New International Version translation:

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
forever.

 

Just to keep you all awake, I am going to work with the translation from the Jewish Publication Society so that we hear the sense of these ancient words with their original Jewish accent.

1         The LORD is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
2         He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3         He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
4         Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
5         You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
6         Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.

 

The variations in the same Psalm across these different translations invite us to move beyond the literal words and imagine how we might hear these words with fresh ears, ears and hearts attuned to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.

So let’s work our way through the six verses of this well-known psalm.

 

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.

“The LORD” is the conventional way to represent the ancient sacred name of God, which in the Hebrew Bible is written with just its four consonants: YHVH. This “Tetragrammaton” survives as the “Jeho/Jehu” and/or “iah/jah” syllables in many names for individuals and places in the Old Testament: Jehoshaphat, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, etc.

It may once have been pronounced as “Yahweh”, but during the second century BCE it became customary to avoid saying the sacred name. Instead, other synonyms were used: ‘Adonai (Hebrew for “My Lord”), Kyrios or Theos (Greek terms for “Lord” and “God” respectively). In many anceint Hebrew biblical texts the vowels of ‘Adonai were written with the consonants of the Tetragrammaton to create an unpronounceable word as a reminder for readers not to say the sacred name.

In later Christian use that was entirely misunderstood, and the term “Jehovah” was thought to be God’s name.

This mistake survives in classic hymns such as “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”; and in the theological gibberish that is propagated by the so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This ancient covenant God is understood by the psalmist as his existential shepherd: guiding, protecting and sustaining the person of faith. With such a shepherd god, we never fear anything. We can never be in want. We lack nothing good.

 

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;

In the marginal pastoral lands of Palestine, finding a good supply of green pasture was (and remains for the Bedouin even now) a core responsibility. Along with fresh pasture, the sheep need water in a dry and rugged environment.

The second verse of Psalm 23 draws on this familiar reality to describe the gentle presence of God in our lives.

 

3 He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths as befits His name.

The familiar words—“my soul he doth restore again”—are better translated in the Jewish Publication Society version.

The divine shepherd renews our life, fresh every morning, and guides in the right paths: the tracks that suit our needs and which lead us to the green pastures and the waters of repose.

The track God chooses for me is the perfect path for me to follow.

 

4 Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

The “valley of the shadow of death” has been one of the most evocative phrases in the traditional version of the Twenty-Third Psalm. Notice how the Jewish translation represents that line.

In our darkest moments, whatever they may be, the divine Shepherd is always with us. We are never alone. Never abandoned. Never bereft of hope.

A Palestinian shepherd typically carried a club (rod) to fend off wild animals and a crook (staff) to guide the flock in his care.

Fierce protection and gentle care are the hallmarks of the God who is always with us. Emmanuel.

 

5 You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.

It is generally agreed that the final two verses of the Psalm involve a change of metaphor from “sheep” in the care of its shepherd to “guests” in the house of the LORD, with a place at the table of God

This metaphor especially resonates with Christians because of the centrality of the Table of Jesus in our faith and practice.

We gather at the Table of the Lord. The Table which Jesus has prepared for us and where Jesus is the host. The Table where we are anointed with oil: the oil of gladness, the oil of healing, the oil of discipleship. This is the Table where we drink the same cup as Jesus drank, the cup which renews us with the life of Jesus. His life poured out for others. Our lives poured out in grateful service.

 

6 Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years.

Psalm 23 concludes with a flourish.

The love of the divine Shepherd and the generosity of the divine host will never fail us.

Notice that is is not an affirmation of life after death, but rather an expression of hope for God’s blessing here in this life.

Here in this life we are guests at the Table of Lord and already living in the Lord’s House.

The earth is not a consolation prize nor a place of exile from which to escape when we can finally go “home”. This is our home. It is the house of the Lord. And it is a good place to be.

 

So let’s hear this Pslam one more time:

1         The LORD is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
2         He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
3         He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
4         Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.
5         You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my drink is abundant.
6         Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long years.

 

Posted in Bible Study, Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

Sarcasm as a ​rhetorical​ tool

The axiom, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence”, is usually attributed to Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright who lived in the second half of the 1800s.

That attribution may not be accurate, but the axiom itself is usually misquoted (stopping at the mid-point) and mostly misunderstood as implying that using sarcasm is evidence of low intelligence. What the axiom perhaps seeks to express is that sarcasm fails as humour, but can reflect an acute intelligence.

Whatever may be the case for sarcasm as an index of intelligence it is a dangerous tool to wield in public debate. It is more likely to offend than persuade, and it can even reverberate with unfortunate consequences for the polemicist who draws that tool from the debating toolkit.

This may indeed have been the fate of a well-known Anglican blogger in Sydney whose delight in deploying sarcasm to attack a media release by the Bishop of Grafton has quite possibly exposed the folly of our blogger’s own worldview.

In attempting to undermine the statement by Bishop Murray Harvey, the Revd David Ould stoops to sarcasm as if that strategy will deflect and rebut the sound spiritual wisdom to be found in the statement by Bishop Harvey:

Here at davidould.net we want to suggest that Dr Harvey should issue some more press releases because there are people out there making bigger threats than Folau. For instance, this guy should get a rocket:

Luke 13:1   Now there were some present on that occasion who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 He answered them, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered these things? 3 No, I tell you! But unless you repent, you will all perish as well! 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower in Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who live in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!”

LUKE 13:1-5 (NET)

Now there’s a threat if ever I saw one. He doesn’t just have a small list like the narrow-minded Apostle Paul in 1Cor. 6:9-10 (which Folau quotes in his post along with Gal. 5).

No, whoever that hater is in Luke 13 … well he just used hate speech to threaten and vilify everyone.

EVERYONE!

That’s the last thing a Christian should do. Someone should find out who he is and tell him to change his attitude and send a positive message about his faith and promote social inclusion (although what could be more socially inclusive than including all of society in your “threat”?).

As for community well-being, surely telling people that they will perish if they don’t repent can’t be good for anyone. Someone tell Dr. Harvey so he can sort this dangerous bigot out.

 

What this somewhat reckless rhetorical missile has done is simply to expose a serious problem with the biblical texts themselves. Sometimes—indeed quite often—the Bible says things which are indefensible, incomprehensible or just gutter talk. When the Bible descends to the gutter that does not justify us in doing the same, nor are we obliged to believe or practice anything in particular just because it happens to be written in the Christian scriptures.

In his exaggerated journalesque mode, Mr Ould inadvertently illustrated precisely the core issue with the ugly social media posts by Israel Folau as well as the point correctly—albeit gently—made by the Bishop of Grafton.

The Bible endorses and even commands a range of beliefs and practices which most people of faith would these days find abhorrent. The catalogue of nasties includes (but is not limited to) capital punishment, ethnic cleansing, the willful destruction of fauna and flora, patriarchy and sexism, totalitarian rule by absolute monarchs claiming divine approval, and slavery.

When even a modicum of biblical literacy is applied to the task of biblical intepretation, a much more nuanced reading of Scripture results. But Mr Ould and Mr Folau are not ones for nuance, it seems. It is all so simple and so black and white. Just read the words from the ancient text. No need for brains to be engaged at all.

There is, of course, ‘a more excellent way’ than this mindless recital of ancient words, but it requires us to read the text with some critical awareness of how texts work (and the power of the reader to determine what a text means), how these particular sacred texts were composed and received, how little actual historical credibility the biblical texts really have, and at least some awareness of what we now know to be true about the scale of the universe and the complexity of our shared DNA.

When read with cognitive modesty and some critical awareness, the Christian Bible—like all the sacred texts from the great religions—can be a catalyst for human liberation, rather than manacles on the collective human spirit. I made precisely that point when giving a public lecture in Sydney this past weekend for the Mosman Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council.

Posted in Bible, Reflections | 1 Comment

Reading the Bible to promote human flourishing

The Bible as a Charter for the Human Spirit: Reading the Bible to Promote Human Flourishing

Gregory C. Jenks

Festival of Wild Ideas, Sydney, 5 May 2019

 

[ video | PPT Presentation | PDF Handout]

Let me begin by acknowledging the Kuringgai people, the indigenous owners and custodians of the land where we are gathered this afternoon. If we were inclined to add up all the dates in the Bible, as Archbishop Ussher tried to do just over 300 years ago, we would come up with a story that reaches back around 6,000 years. The first people of this ancient land have a story that stretches back some 60,000 years. Their story dwarfs the biblical narrative and invites us to look at Scripture differently.

So we honour their elders past and present, as well as the emerging elders of the first nations of the land and especially of this place where we meet today.

I want to thank those responsible for this opportunity to explore with you some of the ways in which the Christian Scriptures can serve as a charter for the human spirit, rather than as manacles for humanity. What I hope will happen this afternoon, is that we shall have a conversation around those issues. In preparation for that conversation, my goal in the next 45 minutes or so is to provide some stimulus material to assist us in beginning that conversation and perhaps also to provide some parameters for it.

In considering what I was going to say here today, I was conscious of the need to choose a topic that is clearly relevant to the life and mission of churches, but also relevant for the public square: a topic that is relevant to the life and mission of the church, and which has some ecumenical dimensions to it, as well as being a topic which might be relevant to the wider community or have some significance for the voice of faith in the public square.

My role is not that of a politician nor indeed a senior figure in the life of the churches nor even a leading ecumenical contributor. My personal background is that I have spent most of my adult life as a religion scholar specialising in biblical studies. My particular interests are the historical origins of the Bible and especially historical Jesus research. These days I am a priest responsible for a cathedral in a small regional town on the north coast of New South Wales about 100 km away from where I was born, so life has been something of a circle.

What I hope we can do in our time together this afternoon is to explore the role of the Bible inside but also beyond those communities of spiritual practice which we call churches.

 

Core proposition

I can sum up my core ideas for this afternoon’s presentation as follows:

The immense cultural and spiritual significance of the scriptures lies precisely in their capacity to inspire us to move beyond earlier expressions of humanity and to reach new levels of awareness courage and compassion; in short, to be more fully human than ever before. I want to suggest that this is true at both the individual and the collective level. I would also want to suggest that this truth is not limited to the Christian Bible — in all its variations — but also applies to the sacred texts of all the great spiritual traditions. However, as a Christian scholar I will limit my comments to the role of the Christian Bible.

In reviewing some earlier work recently, I realised that this concept has been on my mind for some years.

  1. The Bible was mostly written by ancient Jews, a few of whom were followers of Jesus although probably none of them had ever seen or heard Jesus during his lifetime.
  2. Most of the Bible was prepared for oral presentation via live performance in community gatherings for worship and mutual support (and not for close study by literate and highly educated individuals).
  3. The Bible has very little to do with history even though some historical elements are embedded in it.
  4. Decisions on which texts to include in the Bible were mostly determined by political needs of Jewish communities after Alexander the Great and of emerging Catholic Christianity in the third and fourth centuries ce.
  5. While the Bible has been used to validate prejudice and oppression of various kinds, it can also be used in ways that enhance humanity and encourage respect for the Earth.
  6. The Bible is best read in the company of other people, so that we benefit from the wisdom of others as we seek to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

Those words were drafted on 9 May 2009, so almost exactly ten years ago. I was especially interested to read #5, and I look forward to exploring that key insight with you all this afternoon.

 

Relevance

Perhaps the first thing to be considered is the relevance of my chosen topic. It seems fairly clear that the topic is indeed relevant for the life and mission of the church, whether as separate faith communities or as an ecumenical movement. However, I think it is also highly relevant for the wider community in the place of religion in the public square.

A few examples may suffice to make the point:

The marriage equality debate in which we have been engaged for the past couple of years has seen substantial progress, but there remains considerable unfinished business. This is particularly so with regards to the reception of marriage equality within the life of the churches as well as equality for transgender persons in the wider society.

The pressure coming from conservative Christian groups for their ‘religious freedom’ to be protected is another of the reasons why this topic may be relevant for us this afternoon. The kinds of protections which seem to be desired nowadays are protections born of a looming awareness of the futility of traditional theological positions and their well-earned disrepute in the more general community.

One further and more recent example: Israel Folau.

Folau-Instagram

The recent media storm around his online comments threatening the fires of hell for those whose beliefs or personal lifestyles do not conform with ultraconservative Christian perspectives is just the latest example of why this topic matters.

So, I suggest we explore whether the role of Scripture is to protect the past and regulate the present, or to inspire us in the present to create a more human future?

 

Process

If we are going to engage in this conversation, we going to have to set aside common pious and devotional concepts about the Bible and indeed about the nature of Christianity. I am sure you will be up for that challenge if you have chosen to participate in the program this weekend.

What I will be asking you to consider is the ‘real-world’ spiritual value of the Bible. In other words, what practical value does the Bible have for the way we live our everyday lives? We may be people of Christian faith, we may be people who identify as spiritual but not religious, we may be people of other faiths or people without faith, or we may simply be considering the value of the Bible for the secular Australian Commonwealth to which we all belong and in whose future well-being our own well-being is to be found. No matter where we are coming from in this conversation, the focus is much the same: what is the practical value of the ancient Christian Scriptures for the kind of society we aspire to be and become?

 

Using the Bible faithfully

The phrase ‘taking the Bible seriously but not literally’ has become quite well-known in progressive religious circles. That is certainly the exercise in which we will be engaged this afternoon, but I want to up the ante a little bit and raise the stakes for our conversation.

I am proposing that taking the Bible literally is not simply one valid theological option among several. On the contrary, I consider a literal view of the Bible to be a serious theological mistake. This mistake—common though it be in many Christian circles—has inevitable toxic consequences for people of faith, for the church, for the wider society; and indeed for our whole fragile biosphere. We may want to tease out some of these issues in the conversation which will follow shortly.

My goal then, is to speak plainly about matters of deep theological significance and to avoid mealy-mouthed theological terms that fudge things up to the point where nobody can take offence. While I am not seeking to offend, I will not be upset if you are. This is, after all, a festival of wild ideas, is it not?

We are giving ourselves permission to ask questions, to push boundaries, as we seek to gain a sense of the way forward from where we are now to where we need to be in the future. That is one reason why we meet in a public space rather than in church property. Our venue invites us to think outside traditional theological boundaries for the benefit of us all.

 

Exhibit A: slavery

These days no church would entertain a proposal to reintroduce slavery into our economy and our family structures. At least I hope that is the case. And yet slavery is good for business and it has strong biblical support.

Perhaps you can already guess where I am going with this?

During the US Civil War, the church was split over the slavery issue and indeed some of those divisions have not yet been healed.

The campaign to abolish slavery provides an example of the Bible inspiring a few activists and social advocates to develop new ideas that were controversial, radical, overturned millennia of unbroken tradition, and involved setting aside some parts of the Bible itself for the sake of a deeper truth. No wonder it was controversial.

Perhaps this sounds familiar?

Yet, when we consider the biblical basis for slavery it is actually quite extensive and in no sense a superficial element of the tradition:

We find slavery embedded in the social structures of countless narratives through both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The institution of slavery includes the sexual exploitation of female slaves by their male owners.

The Hebrew slaves in Egypt were set free by their God, but slavery itself was not condemned. Remarkably, the desert constitution for the future Israelite society includes provisions for the institution of slavery, including both Hebrew slaves and Gentile slaves.

Slavery features in the parables of Jesus and is never condemned by him.

Indeed, slavery becomes a favourite term in the New Testament to describe the relationship of the believer or the disciple to Jesus. These days with our sensitivity around slavery, we tend to translate the Greek term doulosas ‘servant’, but its natural interpretation in context is simply ‘slave’.

When we look to the authentic letters of Paul, and particularly the brief letter to Philemon, we find a fascinating triangle between Paul, Philemon (a Christian slaveowner) and Onesimus (a runaway slave and convert to Christianity). At no stage is slavery called into question.

Looking further afield in the New Testament, including the Deutero-Pauline letters, we find a systemic acceptance of slavery and explicit guidelines within the household codes for relationships between masters and slaves.

We should also note that while the New Testament endorses slavery, it condemns slave traders; which is an interesting distinction to make.

If we were to summarise the biblical position on slavery it would be as follows: slavery is assumed, it is regulated by divine laws, it is widely practised and continues to be accepted even into the New Testament itself. Slavery provides a core metaphor for the personal faith and for major leadership roles within the church, and it is even embraced by Jesus as a metaphor for his own mission and purpose.

All of this is more than that can be said for several other cultural practices that acquire theological significance in the Bible and within later Christian tradition, including: marriage, divorce, and celibacy. In short, anything involving sex or gender. Little is said about those subjects relative to the broad acceptance of slavery.

 

Biblical literacy

responsible-service-alcohol

 

We are all aware of the responsible service of alcohol provisions these days, but I want to suggest that we need a similar program for the responsible service of Scripture.

Biblical Literacy Graphic

Indeed, there is such a program, it is called biblical literacy.

Biblical literacy has numerous elements, including at least the following:

  • It requires attention to how written text function as acts of communication between and among authors and readers. This is an unremarkable literacy skill in other areas of modern life, including media studies and genre analysis at school. Yet it seems oddly and sadly lacking in many Christian churches. Meaning is always negotiated between the author and reader, with all the power being in the hands of the reader who is the one constructing meaning out of the process. The author can seek to shape the form of those negotiations, but the reader is the one ultimately creating meaning from the communication process. As text the Bible is subject to those same dynamics. We determine what it means. It does not determine our meaning.
  • Typical literacy also requires us to pay attention to the nature and function of language as we create, share, adopt, implement and adapt human knowledge between individuals and across generations. This is essential as we seek to use the Bible authentically.
  • Biblical literacy further requires that we pay some attention to what may reasonably be known about the composition of those texts that we now value as sacred Scripture. They did not drop out of heaven and they were not dictated by the Holy Spirit. Despite years of teaching biblical studies in seminaries around Australia and elsewhere, I was still shocked the other day to see a Christian leader quote from Psalm 51 as part of his argument against abortion, with the claim that the Psalm represents the direct words of God. This is, of course, nonsense.
  • In addition to paying attention to how the text may have originally been composed, we also need to pay attention to the process of reception for certain texts which were accepted as sacred while other texts from the same period were excluded from those documents authorised to be read in church or consulted to settle theological disputes. In other words, both the formation of the canon and the history of the interpretation of the canonical texts have a part to play in genuine biblical literacy.
  • What we have learned about using these texts from the accumulated experience more than 2,500 years of continuous interpretation within communities of spiritual practice must also be brought into the discussion. We are not the first people to read these texts and people of goodwill have been wrestling with them for centuries, constructing life-giving ways of reading the text as a charter for human flourishing in different cultural and social contexts. We ignore that wisdom at our peril.
  • An essential element of biblical literacy — or perhaps simply religious literacy — is that we consider what impact our new insights into the physical and social realities of being human in our kind of universe have on our contemporary reception and interpretation of these ancient texts. Since we no longer think we live on a flat earth or in an earth-centric universe, we will necessarily construct a different vision of life as we read these texts.
  • Finally, there is our own lived experience. This informs us as we reflect on past and contemporary interpretations of these venerated ancient texts. When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit is surely as much in the life of the reader and the listening community as it is in the texts themselves. Such a view of inspiration would certainly be consistent with our understanding of how meaning is constructed when a text is being read.

 

Living with theological difference

Binary gender stereotyping is an issue of wider cultural interest as we are well aware. We saw it in the marriage equality debate and we see it persisting in the culture wars around gender diversity and sexual orientation. It is particularly a controversial topic within the churches at the present time, but there is nothing new about the churches living with profound controversy and conflict.

At other times and in other places different issues have also been very divisive and continue to be so in some cases including: questions of shared meals between Gentiles and Jews, demands for male circumcision for Gentile converts to Christianity, Christian opposition to military service, the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, non-traditional music in worship, icons and images of various kinds, and (as we have seen) slavery.

 

Biblical and wider theological grounds for same-sex marriage

As we prepare for our discussion after the conclusion of my presentation, I want to suggest a series of basic hermeneutical principles which are particularly relevant to the question of same-sex marriage.

The first is the limits of Biblicism.

By that term I mean an excessive expectation of the authority of Scripture within the life of the church and of individual believers. So, I suggest that we ask the question: What kind of authority does the Bible actually have? And just how is that authority exercised? Is the authority of the Bible prescriptive or descriptive?

When we speak of the truth of the Bible, is that literal truth or metaphorical truth? And what are the extra-biblical considerations that drive our use of the Bible to settle theological debates in the first place? Why are some biblical statements prescriptive but others able to be set aside as cultural requirements or even as ritual texts?

I note, for example, that a famous rugby player who is opposed to homosexuality has tattoos covering his arms despite the explicit ban on such practices in the same Bible that he cites in opposition to same-sex relationships. Surely culture both presupposes and reinforces doctrine, and to dismiss a passage as merely ‘ritual’ is already to have some prior theological assumptions about the place and the value of ritual.

The second set of issues relates to the marginal nature of questions about marriage and gender and sexuality within the Bible more generally and particularly within the Gospels. And in passing, let me say that I do not accept the argument apparently quite popular in this part of the country, that the gospels are descriptive while the letters of Paul are prescriptive. What a convenient distinction. Every part of the Bible is canonical, but we can be very creative in generating strategies to evade those portions which do not suit our cultural and theological perspectives.

When we do find issues relating to marriage or gender or sexuality occurring in the New Testament, they mostly occur as examples where Jesus or his followers are exercising freedom to modify ancient traditions typically found in what we call the Old Testament.

Jesus, for example, (1) opposes divorce even though it is very biblical, (2) he chooses not to marry or have children despite the biblical commands to marry and reproduce, and (3) he welcomes women with unconventional sexual histories into the company of his disciples.

Likewise, the authentic letters of Paul challenge gender stereotypes, encourage celibacy and discourage traditional marriage commitments by calling for sexual abstinence even between married couples. When we get to the Deutero-Pauline letters and the Pastoral Epistles we see that the Pauline school is adopting a more traditional view of marriage and other domestic relationships than either Paul or Jesus, as Christianity becomes more conservative in the early decades of the second century.

Significantly, such matters are peripheral issues and not central to the gospel except when transgressing traditional purity codes becomes a sign of the kingdom of God active among us. Interesting.

Thirdly, there is a whole set of issues relating to marriage in the Bible. As is well known, biblical views of marriage and intimate relationships are diverse and in many respects they contradict mainstream Christian views of family values.

The Bible describes and reinforces particular ancient cultural practices relating to food and to sex. These practices include male domination, female subjugation, levirate marriage, ethnic taboos, concubinage, rape, and the sexual exploitation of vulnerable persons. These cultural views are integral elements of a social system that also included capital punishment, slavery, and ethnic cleansing; but are no longer widely accepted by Christians.

Fourthly, creation theology. A theology which takes seriously the significance of creation, that is God’s activity as creator, also affirms that gender diversity is good and represents a wholesome feature of God’s creation. In such a theological framework gender diversity is not an abomination, deviant or sinful.

It is instructive to note that the original earthling—‘adamin Hebrew, correlating to the term ‘adamah (ground)—was a non-gendered human creature, neither male nor female, in Genesis 2. God was pleased with her workmanship and saw no need for gender difference within humanity, but created gender—according to one of the creation narratives—as a way of addressing loneliness.

As an aside, that story in Genesis 2 tends to suggest that the point of gender and sexual differentiation is companionship rather than reproduction; a point largely overlooked in traditional interpretations of sexuality and marriage.

Fifthly, bias to the poor. In Scripture God especially cares about the poor.

While the poor typically do not have many assets, it is not their wealth but rather their lack of access to the common weal that constitutes their poverty. The poor and the marginalised are victims of the powerful and privileged classes in Western society and in biblical society.

If we pay attention to the biblical witness of God’s preference for the poor, we cannot ignore the reality that LGBTQI are among the poor and marginalised in our society and in our churches. Of course, they are not the only victims, but they are typically among the victims.

Sixthly, WWJD.

Actually, we know a fair bit about what Jesus would do. It is clear from the gospel records that Jesus deliberately violated sacred Jewish rules, including biblical laws, relating to purity and social intimacy at meals. In addition to his own practice as a deviant Jew who refused to marry and raise a family, there is a total absence of any reference to marriage issues in his teaching, other than his extremely strict views on divorce and remarriage; which many contemporary Christian communities choose to set aside.

In this context, I suggest we do well to recall the tradition of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Her personal life had apparently been a series of relationship disasters, and yet the focus of her discussion with Jesus is not her moral imperfections but the theological differences between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus does not lecture her about her relationship status but invites her into the generosity of God expressed in his own ministry.

Finally, we have the sensus fidelium. The sensus fidelium evolves over time. It is effectively what the faithful have come to understand as the meaning of the faith for them in their situation at that time in history. It can be defined as what has been believed by everybody at all times and in all places, but that is to take a very rough grade of sandpaper and to remove the bumps and the wrinkles of historical reality from the theological systems of the church.

The mind of the faithful does indeed change. It evolves over time. And in our time the mind of the faithful is moving to a more generous and affirming attitude towards LGBTI persons and their intimate relationships. This is not just whistling in the dark. The remarkably high vote in favour of changes to marriage law in Australia during the postal ballot of 2017 demonstrates that most Christians — and specifically most members of those churches affiliated with the National Council of churches in Australia — are in favour of same-sex marriage.

Explicit opposition to the full inclusion of LGBTQI persons in the life of the church, including solemnising their marriages, is increasingly limited to fundamentalist and ultraconservative faith communities as part of the so-called culture wars in Western society. We know how those wars will end as do the Conservatives, which is why they are desperately seeking special laws to protect their right to discriminate.

 

Conclusion

When we use Scripture in ways that respect the nature of the documents, the history of their composition and reception, and the lived experience of people of faith over thousands of years, there seems no convincing reason to deploy Scripture as a tool of exclusion and oppression. Rather than serving as manacles on humanity, I propose that the Bible can indeed serve as a charter for human flourishing.

So, with all that as background information, now let’s have a discussion about the usefulness or otherwise of the Bible in our lives today.

 

© 2019 Gregory C Jenks

Posted in Bible Study, Lecture or seminar | 2 Comments

Imagine a church without Paul

Easter 3C
St Luke’s Church, Mosman
5 May 2019

Thank you to Fr Max for the opportunity to be with you this morning and especially for the privilege of serving as preacher at this service. To lead the gathered people of God as we break open the Word and discern what the Spirit might be saying to the church is indeed an awesome and precious opportunity. So thank you.

Greetings from Christ Church Cathedral in Grafton, it is good to be here with you this morning and to sense the bonds of faith and liturgy that we share as Anglicans across time and place.

Greetings also from the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. As a Canon emeritus of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and a former Dean of the College there, it is always my privilege to bring greetings from our sisters and brothers in the Holy Land.

 

On the road to Damascus

For the past couple of weeks we have been parsing the early Easter experience of those people who found themselves picking up the pieces after Good Friday, and trying to make sense of the weird rumours that the one who had certainly been dead was somehow alive, with God and yet also with them.

We find it hard to make sense of those stories after 2,000 years, but imagine how hard it must have been for the small group of people who did not abandon their hope that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, even though many of them had failed Jesus at his most critical time.

For them there was no long tradition of Christian faith and practice to look back upon and from which to draw some credible basis for faith.

Like the dedicated branch members in Isaacs, Lyons and Melbourne and Wills, those first disciples saw their hopes and dreams evaporate. Then the rumours started. There was no social media, but word was passing from one person to another that Jesus was not dead after all.

Not exactly back to his old self, so to speak.

Not walking the dusty roads of Palestine, teaching the crowds and healing the sick.

But spotted here and there, and most often when his disciples gathered to break the bread and to seek strength from God for the world-transforming work to which God had called both Jesus and them.

Instead of dispersing after the death of Jesus, his followers were hanging together and even growing in numbers.

Like the broomstick in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the problem seemed to be getting worse with every attempt to deal with the ‘problem’ of the Jesus people.

The authorities began to arrest and kill the followers of Jesus, but they just seemed to multiply.

No longer limited to a few villages in Galilee and a handful of houses in Jerusalem, this sect was now to be found in many parts of the country and was even spreading to regional cities like Antioch and Damascus.

A plan emerges: send young Saul to Damascus with letters of authority to arrest these crazy people and drag them back to Jerusalem for punishment. This nonsense must be stopped.

Another broken broomstick …

Saul will become Paul, the greatest and most influential follower of Jesus that the world has ever seen.

Our first reading in today’s lectionary is the classic tale from Acts 9 of Saul’s “Damascus road” experience as he encounters the risen Lord: Acts 9:1-6.

This is the first of three versions of the call/conversion of Saul/Paul in Acts, and they each tell the story a wee bit differently: chapters 9, 22 and 26.

These variations form part of the narrative art of the author of Luke-Acts, and it is not clear that Paul would have agreed with the ways in which his own “Easter moment” was being portrayed. He was adamant that his ‘gospel’ came direct from God and without any human third parties involved. Acts gets there by the third iteration, but along the way portrays Paul as being nurtured by local runaway Christians in Damascus as he makes sense of his own encounter with the risen Lord.

We have Paul’s own account in his own words in his letter to the Galatians, a region in southern Turkey. This may be the first piece of Christian literature to have survived and is commonly described as the first of Paul’s letters. It may be dated to 49/50 CE, just 20 years after Easter.

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:13–17 NRSV)

 

Can you imagine a church without Paul?

It seems that God could not, and for sure the church we now are is deeply indebted to this mercurial figure who was not a follower of Jesus and yet became the most influential of the Apostles.

The story of Paul encapsulates the Easter miracle, so we can be glad that the lectionary committee has chosen the passage from Acts 9 for us to reflect upon today.

Of course, as we rejoice in the legacy of Paul, we are reminded that God may be waiting to ambush us—or our church.

The God of Easter, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God who called Paul to serve as the greatest exponent of Christ is also the God calls us to live bravely into the future rather than defend the past.

A disturbing God.

The God of Easter.

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The eternal dance of doubt​ and faith

Earth Sunday / Easter 2C
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
28 April 2019

[ video ]

 

Already it has been a week.

It seems a lot longer, doesn’t it since Easter? Was that really just a week ago? It has been an odd kind of week with ANZAC Day in between and all the other stuff that has happened. It seems a lot longer than just a week ago.

Like the disciples in the first week of Easter we have made our way through our first week of Easter, wondering how we make sense of it all and what difference—if any—it makes to our lives anyway.

As we gather in church today to reflect on all that, three major spiritual streams are converging:

Earth Sunday
Easter 2
Baptism

And all of this in the context of a Eucharist when we gather around the Table of Jesus, take bread made from grain which the earth has given us and drink wine made from the vine sustained by Earth herself.

 

Gathering at the Table of Jesus also features in the Gospel readings that we hear during these first weeks after Easter Day.

The Table of Jesus is a place of identity: who we are is on display here.

The Table of Jesus is a place of transformation: things of Earth become sacraments of heaven.

The Table of Jesus is a place of encounter: The earliest disciples recognised Jesus alive among them in the breaking of the bread.

The Table of Jesus is also a place where faith and doubt dance eternally: They are not either/or choices, but the dynamic of discipleship as we seek to discern and embrace the risen Lord active in our midst.

 

So here we are, like the disciples in that Gospel reading which we have just heard, gathered around the Table of Jesus a week after Easter.

We are a mixed mob. So were they.

Some of us have faith that is so strong it seems nothing could ever break it. Some of us have doubts that are so strong that faith seems unreasonable. Most of us, perhaps, are somewhere in the middle: partners in the eternal dance of doubt and faith.

Some of us will think that baptising Jace and Rylee is one of the most important things we can do for them. Others may think it is a quaint old family custom that cannot do much harm. Most of us—myself included—are somewhere in between. We are a mix of doubt and faith, anxiety and hope, strength and weakness; all at the same time, and always.

It was like that in the Upper Room at Jerusalem as the disciples gathered around the Table of Jesus and wondered what sense to make of the weird rumours they had been hearing all week.

Yes, Jesus had been dead.

There was no doubt about that. They saw him on the cross and the Romans did not allow anyone to be rescued before they were dead.

At least they had been allowed to remove the body of Jesus after he was dead. The Romans did not keep him on the cross as food for the birds and as a warning to other people not to step out of line.

Seems it was bad luck for the Temple to have dead men on their crosses during Passover.

Dead and buried, even if done hastily and without all the proper rituals.

No doubt about that.

But then the weird stories started.

Mostly the women. Of course. Always more inclined to drama and fairy tales.

But then Peter said he had seen Jesus too. Crusty old fisherman Pete. The Rock.

And James, the brother of Jesus who was not even one of the disciples.

Then Cleopas and his wife from Emmaus.

Mary Magdalene was on a campaign. She had always loved Jesus, but now she was insisting he still alive even though everyone knew he was dead.

Thomas was a tough nut to crack. No women’s gossip for him. He was not going to believe all this Easter stuff until he could see Jesus for himself and touch the wounds from the crucifixion.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:26–29 NRSV)

 

I love that ancient Christian story.

It reminds me that doubt is a healthy part of faith. Indeed, it reminds me that faith without any questions or doubt may not be very healthy at all.

That is the eyes-wide-open kind of religion into which we baptise Jace and Ryle this morning.

Parents and godparents are promising to teach them the steps in the dance of doubt and faith, listening for the sacred music at the heart of the universe, and moving their lives in harmony with the God who says, “Here I am. Come and play.”

The Cathedral has a part to play in the dance, but the most important roles are those performed by the parents, godparents and extended family.

How you look at the world will become the way they look at the world.

How you manage your doubts and your beliefs will become their way as well.

 

Being Earth Sunday, we are reminded that this is not just about us and it is certainly not about buying fire insurance to get human souls out of hell.

At the heart of everything is the fact that the world exists.

Not only is the Earth here, but Earth has developed the capacity to be aware of itself and to know that it is here.

We are the Earth coming to conscious awareness.

Life is not about us over here and Earth over there.

We are Earthlings, and what counts for us as salvation is also salvation for all of creation: for the Earth itself and the universe as a whole.

Easter is not just for humans, but for God’s whole created universe.

At Christmas we celebrate God among us—Emmanuel‚ as sacred Spirit becomes human person; the Creator becomes Earthling.

At Easter we celebrate the transformation of reality that God’s dance makes possible.

Again, we find the dance of doubt and faith drawing us into the future, into God herself.

Have we got this all figured out? No way.

But this too is what we will be sharing with Jace and Rylee in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

 

So, let’s head down to the font and get this dance started …

 

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | Leave a comment

Religion is no cloak for hate speech

The media has recently been awash with stories about the hateful comments made online by Australian Rugby Union star, Israel Folau, about various classes of people being destined for hell unless they repent and conform to a set of beliefs (and related lifestyle choices) promoted by extremely conservative Christians.

His original Instamgram post then reinforces his threats of damnation in the fires of hell with a series of citations from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.

To be fair, similar claims can be heard at almost any Anglican Church in the Sydney area, as well as in many other congregations around the country where ultra-traditional religious views survive to this day.

Such views are abhorrent, no matter who makes them. They also reflect a profound ignorance of the Bible and of biblical hermeneutics.

Now we find Des Houghton—a Courier-Mail columnist and opinion writer—arguing that criticism of Folau for his hateful views is really an attack on Christianity, and perhaps on all forms of religious faith.

This is going too far.

Religion is neither an excuse for hate speech nor a protection for those who engage in it.

Condemning people to the fires of hell because of their beliefs or their lifestyle—like claiming divine approval for slavery, ethnic cleansing and patriarchy—is an element of Christian faith that progressive believers have long since laid aside as inappropriate; along with burning peoople at the stake and interrogating them under torture.

These are indeed among the darker elements of Judaism and Christianity, but are no longer practices that we can endorse or defend.

Just as polygamy and female genital mutilation are not permitted under Australian law despite their status as traditional religious practices, hate speech that threatens people with hellfire cannot be excused as ‘protected religious activity’.

Sadly our religious leaders—bishops and moderators alike—have been strangely silent in response to the hateful social media posts by Israel Folau [but see the Media Statement by the Bishop of Grafton]. For sure some will secretly agree with him although they mostly do not speak so openly about their views these days. Most have simply been silent, and perhaps thereby were mistakenly assumed to agree with his views.

The Bible does not justify hate speech even when the Scriptures themselves descend to the gutter in the heat of some particular conflict.

Our society has moved on and the views promoted by people such as Israel Folau serve best when they remind us of how far we have come. Theocracies are one of the most dangerous forms of human society, as we see daily in both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The best response to such extremist nonsense is perhaps ridicule rather than prosecution. Laugh them off the stage and move your discretional spending to other recreational pursuits.

In two weeks time I will be in Sydney to speak at the Festival of Wild Ideas, an event sponsored by the Mosman/Neutral Bay Inter-Church Council. My topic for that address is:  Reading the Bible to promote human flourishing.

The proposal at the core of my presentation is that the immense cultural and spiritual significance of the Scriptures lies precisely in their capacity to inspire us to move beyond earlier expressions of humanity and to reach new levels of awareness, courage and compassion; in short to be more fully human than ever before.

Needless to say I will use the Bible very differently from Mr Folau and I shall come to very different conclusions about God’s desire to bless us profoundly across all of our diversity as humans.

A full text of that address will be posted here after the event.

 

 

 

Posted in Reflections, Theology | 3 Comments

Morsels 2019 March

An archive of previous “Daily Morsels” published on the Cathedral app. Please note that these versions of the messages are not formatted to reflect line breaks or separate paragraphs, as they are purely an archival set. They also tend not to have any embedded web links from the original Morsel. To receive these message direct to your mobile phone or tablet each day, please download the Cathedral app.

 

 

SUN – 190331

Title

Spiritual roots

Body

Today will be observed as Mothering Sunday in many Anglican Churches around the world. Originally a day halfway through Lent when servants were allowed a weekend off to go home for worship in their home church, it continues to be widely observed in the UK as their version of Mothers’ Day. Where is your home church? Maybe it is the same one you attend these days, but for many of us it will be in another town or even another country. Mine has been sold and turned into an antique shop. It feels odd to enter that space and see it used in such a different way. And it feels smaller than when I was a child. Today may be a good time to pause and reflect on our spiritual roots in those communities and places where our journey of faith began.

 

 

Sat – 190330

Title

The heart of faith

Body

In Jewish tradition, the Shema’ (Hebrew for “Hear”) is a key statement of faith: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5 NRSV) In Christian practice, from the Gospels to Anglican prayer books, we find this proclamation being repurposed within a trinitarian outlook: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Jesus said: ‘This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ And in Islam, we have a parallel tradition in the Adhan (“Hear” in Arabic): God is the greatest. I acknowledge that there is no deity but God. I acknowledge that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Hasten to the prayer Hasten to the salvation. Prayer is better than sleep. God is greatest. There is no deity but God. Equally significant differences between Christians and Jews as between Christians and Muslims, and yet so much that we have in common as we each seek to respond to our experience of ‘amazing grace’.

https://youtu.be/zBNUdeWw-wE

 

 

Fri – 190329

Title

Days of obligation

Body

Here we are on another Friday, this one occurring two weeks after the massacre at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Since participation in collective prayers seems to have almost disappeared from Christianity in the West, our renewed awareness of Friday as the day of prayer for Muslims may also be a moment to rethink our commitment to prayer, to gathering, and to our collective identity as people of faith. We are, in the spirit of the Life of Brian, all individuals; many of us increasingly choosing to lives as solitary persons whose connections with others are very weak. The ‘road less travelled’ is not the Way of Jesus. He gathered an intentional community of disciples and taught them to pray as well as to engage collectively in compassionate action (preaching, healing, exorcising). Maybe our Muslim sisters and brothers can evangelise us afresh, so that we take our obligation to form and sustain intentional communities of religious practice more seriously?

https://youtu.be/KHbzSif78qQ

 

Thr – 190328

Title

Lenten disciplines, 3: Give, or engagement

Body

The third attribute of a balanced Lent program is that we give personal resources to some project beyond our own life. For most people that means a financial contribution to some worthwhile project, but for some people it may mean getting involved to help make something good happen in our local community. As we give away money or time to help someone else we are engaging in God’s own work to make the world a better place. We are becoming part of the answer to our own prayer: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven …’

 

Wed – 190327

Title

Lenten disciplines, 2: Pray, or mindfulness

Body

Prayer is a time to pay attention to life and to the quiet presence of God at the very heart of the universe. aka: mindfulness Set yourself some goals for praying. It may be time alone to reflect and be mindful of your situation. It might mean a visit to the Cathedral during the week to light a candle for someone you care about. It may be a good time to resume a personal habit of attending Sunday worship, our group spiritual fitness workout session. Just do it … (as the saying goes)

 

Tue – 190326

Title

Lenten disciplines 1: Fasting, or embracing

Body

As we get close to the midway point for Lent, it may be timely to pause and reflect on our we have been spending this time. The three great spiritual disciplines are fasting, praying, and giving. Fasting If we seek better physical fitness we do something extra, while maybe also cutting back on some unhealthy habits. Our spiritual discipline can be much the same. There may be some bad habits we need to give up. These are more likely to be negative attitudes than chocolate or alcohol. Let go of fear and embrace love. Reinforce those personal habits that make you a more loving person and cut back on the habits that make you a mean-spirited person.

 

Mon – 190325 Lady Day

Title

Lady Day

Body

An angel whispers new possibilities

surprising developments indeed

to a young woman

in a small Galilean village:

Nazareth.

 

An unknown place

an unknown maiden

an unknown future:

a future not defined by the past.

 

The girl said, Yes.

The angel was pleased.

God smiled.

Now we all call her, Blessed:

Mary of Nazareth,

mother of Jesus.

 

We had best listen to the angels more carefully.

Who knows what new thing they are whispering into our ears?

—Gregory C. Jenks, 25 March 2019

 

SUN – 190324

Title

Come and get it …

Body

Sacred Wisdom calls us to her table: 1 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. {Isaiah 55:1–3]

 

Sat – 190323

Title

A prayer for election day

Body

Today voters across New South Wales will vote today to elect the 57th Parliament, including all 93 seats in the Legislative Assembly and 21 of the 42 seats in the Legislative Council.

 

WE GIVE THANKS …

for our robust democracy,

for all who are standing for public office, and

for the dedication of our polling officials.

 

WE PRAY …

for those who will be elected to office,

for those who will form government, and

for those who lose their seats.

 

WE COMMIT OURSELVES …

to pray for those elected to our parliament,

to reconcile with those from whom we differ, and

to help build a resilient and compassionate community.

 

 

Fri – 190322

Title

Reconciliation

Body

Lord God, bring us together as one, reconciled with you and reconciled with each other. You made us in your likeness, you gave us your Son, Jesus Christ. He has given us forgiveness from sin. Lord God, bring us together as one, different in culture, but given new life in Jesus Christ, together as your body, your Church, your people. Lord God, bring us together as one, reconciled, healed, forgiven, sharing you with others as you have called us to do. In Jesus Christ, let us be together as one. Amen. — A Prayer Book for Australia

 

Thr – 190321

Title

A prayer for the nation

Body

God of hope, in these times of change, unite our nation and guide our leaders with your wisdom. Give us courage to overcome our fears, and help us to build a future in which all may prosper and share; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. —from the Church of England

 

Wed – 190320

Title

The Peace Prayer

Body

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life. —Attributed to St Francis of Assisi

 

Tue – 190319

Title

We have two choices

Body

The modern Jewish philosopher and social critic, Noam Chomsky, calls us to make a choice about how we spend (invest) our lives: “We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up, and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist, and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.”

 

Mon – 190318

Title

A more excellent way …

Body

If it is true that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), then this beautiful hymn to love from 1 Corinthians 13 has much to teach us about living without fear: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1Corinthians 13:4–8 NRSV)

 

SUN – 190317

Title

Their sacrifices were mingled with their blood

Body

Today’s Gospel, begins with Jesus responding to news of two recent catastrophes: “… there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. … Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ ” [Luke 13:1–5] Suffering and catastrophe occur in the lives of undeserving people … but Jesus looks beyond the misfortune of the individuals to the underlying sickness (sin) that fuels the violence, nd calls on his listeners to repent. This passage has always troubled me, but in the light of the massacre of Muslim worshippers in the mosques of Christchurch it seems to make more sense. From what do we need to repent if more innocent people are not to find their sacrifices mingled with blood? Fear of the other … delusions of cultural, racial and religious supremacy … religious extremism … rejection of scientific evidence … populist ideology … Turn from hate, turn to the light. Repent.

 

Sat – 190316

Title

The line between good and evil

Body

In light of the mass killings at mosques in Christchurch yesterday, these words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn come to mind: “And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts” (Archipelago Gulag II, 615).

 

Fri – 190315

Title

The home town crowd

Body

They know us better than anyone else. Probably better than we know ourselves. If we are truly blessed, they love us despite knowing us so well. They are the home town crowd, or simply our family and friends. Fresh from his spiritual challenges in the wilderness, Jesus heads home to Nazareth and goes to the synagogue for worship on Shabbat. It does not go well. The home crowd is a tough gig. Jesus reflects somewhat ruefully on a dynamic known across the centuries: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” That is one of the rare sayings of Jesus which is is found in all four Gospels. Another temptation perhaps? Living with criticism from those we love?

 

Thr – 190314

Title

Until next time …

Body

“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13) Spiritual victories are never complete. There is always next time. Jesus was not given a green pass after his successful completion of the inaugural testing regime. There would be other opportunities to fail. Other moments of vulnerability. There always are. The authentic life is a commitment to persistent and recurring faithfulness, not an easy jog to the finish line after some early successes. We are in this for the long haul. So is the dark one. But so is God.

 

Wed – 190313

Title

At the temple’s edge

Body

Temptation three … Now things are getting a little weird. Let’s see what you are made of Jesus; and whether God really cares about you at all. Come over here to the very edge of the temple in Jerusalem and throw yourself from the highest point. You will be fine, eh? After all, you are special. God will look after you. Jesus would be offered that wrong choice another time: when hanging on the cross. The clergy from the temple say to one another: “Let’s wait and see if God will rescue him, since he claims to be God’s son.” None of us would ever fall for that one, right? We would never think that God exists to keep us safe from our own stupid choices or the hostile actions of other people? We would never treat the planet like it exists for our sake, rather than the other way around? We would never take advantage of other people for our own short term satisfaction? Selfishness may be the worst temptation of them all.

 

Tue – 190312

Title

Look at what could be yours

Body

The second temptation … Come with me to an imaginary mountain from which one can survey the entire world, stretching out in all its immense flatness before us. As far as the eye can see, and then some … Let’s cut a deal. I can make you successful, and powerful. One of a kind. All you need to do is play by my rules. Power is seductive, but Jesus would never take that route. He chooses the path that leads to a cross in the garbage pit outside the walls of Jerusalem, rather than the highway that leads to power. We are not called to be powerful, or successful. It is enough to be faithful.

 

Mon – 190311

Title

Turn these stones into bread

Body

The first temptation … And what can be wrong about a hungry person turning a few desert stones into warm bread rolls? Nothing in itself, but context is everything. The reply Jesus makes to the Satan figure in this story points to a spiritual crisis from which we mostly avert our eyes: “One does not live by bread alone.” The “daily bread” for which Jesus teaches us to pray is not at stake here, but our insatiable appetite to acquire and consume. We want … more … faster … better … impressive … convenience … And we want it now. We are not defined by the baubles for which we compete. We do not live by “bread” alone …

 

SUN – 190310

Title

40 days and 40 nights

Body

The tradition of Jesus spending some time alone in the wilderness being “tested” (tempted) by Satan is found in three of the four Gospels, but is unknown to the Gospel of John. In the so-called “Q Gospel” material preserved only by Matthew and Luke, this meme is developed into a story with three episodes. Many stories in the western cultural canon have three episodes. It is how we like to tell stories, or even construct sermons. “Forty days” is itself a biblical meme that occurs repeatedly in the Scriptures. It indicates an extended period of time during which major developments may occur. For the anonymous Christian storyteller who shaped this story, this is the time when Jesus undergoes the challenges that any ancient hero was expected to survive in order to demonstrate their character and their skill. This story is not a memory of a historical moment, but a meditation on the deeper truth that Jesus constantly had to choose faithfulness to God’s call on his life, rather than be seduced by second-best; an acceptable action in itself but not what God required of him. That is a challenge we all face every day.

 

Sat – 190309

Title

Love is at the heart …

Body

And one more piece of wisdom from Michael Gerson’s sermon: Fate may do what it wants. But this much is settled. In our right minds, we know that love is at the heart of all things.

 

Fri – 190308

Title

International Women’s Day

Body

Wisdom is telling her story in the midst of her people:

‘I CAME FORTH FROM THE HEART OF THE MOST HIGH,” SHE SAYS.

“Alone I searched for a place to rest.

I LOOKED EVERYWHERE TO FIND A PLACE TO LIVE.

Then the Creator of all things instructed me:

‘PITCH YOUR TENT HERE IN THIS PLACE.’

So in the beloved community I took up residence.

I HAVE TAKEN ROOT IN THESE PEOPLE

I have grown tall as an oak tree,

I HAVE TAKEN ON MANY COLOURS.

I have spread out my branches like a candelabra.

MY BLOSSOMS BEAR THE FRUIT OF OPENNESS AND CARE.

APPROACH AND TAKE YOUR FILL.”

Come, let us seek Wisdom at work in all lives,

AND ESPECIALLY IN THE LIVES OF HER DAUGHTERS!

(Adapted from Ecclesiasticus 24, with echoes of John 1)

 

Thr – 190307

Title

Not a force but a face …

Body

More wisdom from Michael Gerson: This experience of pulling back the curtain of materiality, and briefly seeing the landscape of a broader world, comes in many forms. It can be religious and nonreligious, Christian and non-Christian. We sometimes search for a hidden door when the city has a hundred open gates. But there is this difference for a Christian believer: At the end of all our striving and longing we find, not a force, but a face. All language about God is metaphorical. But the metaphor became flesh and dwelt among us.

 

Wed – 190306 – Ash Wednesday

Title

Ash Wednesday

Body

As we begin Lent it is timely to focus on three spiritual disciplines we are invited to adopt during this time of preparation for Easter: At the heart of Lent is the invitation to fast, pray and give. Fast If we seek better physical fitness we do something extra, while maybe also cutting back on some unhealthy habits. Our spiritual discipline can be much the same. There may be some bad habits we need to give up. This are more likely to be negative attitudes than chocolate or alcohol. Let go of fear and embrace love. Reinforce those personal habits that make you a more loving person and cut back on the habits that make you a mean spirited person. Pray Prayer is a time to pay attention to life and to the quiet presence of God at the very heart of the universe. Set yourself some goals for praying. It may be time alone to reflect and be mindful of your situation. It might mean a visit to the Cathedral during the week to light a candle for someone you care about. It may be a good time to resume a personal habit of attending Sunday worship, our group spiritual fitness workout session. Just do it … (as the saying goes) Give The third attribute of a balanced Lent program is that we give to some project beyond our personal life. For most people that means a financial contribution to some worthwhile project, but for some people it may mean getting involved to help make something good happen in our local community. As we give away money or time to help someone else we are engaging in God’s own work to make the world a better place. We are becoming part of the answer to our own prayer: ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven …’

 

Tue – 190305 – Shrove Tuesday

Title

Mardi Gras

Body

Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French) is also known as Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day or even just Carnival Tuesday. It occurs on the day before the commencement on Lent on Ash Wednesday. This is a day for clearing out the junk: the fat and meat from which people once abstained during Lent, but also the personal junk of spiritual failure and broken relationships. Shrove Tuesday preserve the ancient English custom of making confession prior to the start of Lent, and being forgiven (“shriven”) by the priest. When cleaning out the cupboards don’t forget to sanitise the heart.

 

Mon 190304

Title

Remembering how to live

Body

“Faith, thankfully, does not preclude doubt. It consists of staking your life on the rumour of grace.” Michael Gerson, columnist for the Washington Post [Extract from a sermon at Washington National Cathedral, 17 February 2019. For the complete sermon, see the web link]

https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/02/18/i-was-hospitalized-depression-faith-helped-me-remember-how-live/?utm_term=.ecc4b514a267

 

SUN – 190303

Title

As Epiphany ends …

Body

Today we conclude the Epiphany season, the Sundays between the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January and the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. During those 8 weeks we have been reflecting on different ways in which God becomes known to us: the “epiphany” moments when we discern the deeper reality that we often overlook in our busy schedules. This morning we focus on the transfiguration, a significant epiphany moment for the inner circle of Jesus’ followers as well as for Jesus himself. May your day—your week, your year—be transformed by the quiet presence of the Beloved deep within your innermost self.

 

Sat – 190302

Title

What you give is what you get back

Body

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37–38 NRSV)

 

Fri – 190301

Title

What goes around comes around

Body

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37 NRSV)

 

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The God who says YES

Easter Day
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
21 April 2019

[ video ]

An Easter sermon.

For us the events of the past few days have been a rollercoaster experience, as we have followed Jesus through high moments of success and deep moments of failure and suffering.

 

There were indeed some high points in that final week:

The dramatic entrance to the city and the rapturous welcome from the crowd …

Crowds hanging on every word as Jesus taught in the temple precincts …

The raising of Lazarus and the party a few days later when the family said thank you to Jesus …

The anonymous supporter in the Essene quarter of the city who made available an upstairs room for what turned out to be their final meal together …

Jesus washing their feet …

 

But it had also been a week of setbacks and then the great disaster:

Back room deals to eliminate Jesus

One of the inner circle selling him out …

The arrest in the garden …

A trial process that was corrupt from start to finish …

The crowd choosing Barabbas over Jesus …

The horror and shame of crucifixion …

And not even a chance for a proper burial …

 

Through it all Jesus seemed calm, almost at peace. Not elated by the praise nor dismayed by the opposition.

Jesus was preparing to die in the same way that he lived: always faithful to the God who called, and always ready to say, “Yes. Here I am.”

He was faithful to the end. And what a cruel end.

 

Jesus demonstrated total trust in God even to the point of death.

Never seeking to be a martyr, but always ready to live into whatever God asked of him.

Jesus said YES to God.

 

And God said YES to Jesus.

 

Millennia earlier, God said YES to creation and called our universe into being.

God said YES to freedom and free will.

God said YES to covenant.

God said YES to incarnation.

God said YES to a faithful soul who asked no special favours.

 

In God’s YES is our future and our destiny.

 

In God’s YES, Jesus passed through and beyond death into the very heart of God’s own being.

In God’s YES we are invited to embrace love and reject fear, to choose life.

 

Are we able to say YES to the God who says YES?

Are we able to say YES to all those around us who say YES to God?

With them will we fashion a compassionate community of faith that says YES to life, to hope and to community?

YES, our doors are open. YES, our hearts are open. YES, our minds are open.

YES to God, YES to the future, YES to hope …

 

 

 

 

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