Pentecost 7A 2014. St James Day
Matthew 13: 3 - 33, 44 - 48
Preached at The Uniting Church of St James, Canberra on the occasion of their 50th Anniversary, 27 July 2014
IT’S A LIFESTYLE NOT A SET OF BELIEFS OR ECONOMIC VALUE
His appearance at the Royal Commission in Sydney four months ago was awaited
with much interest and received such publicity.
But even more significant than Cardinal George Pell’s personal appearance,
it exposed a set of priorities and strategies within the Catholic Church
that viewed sexually abused victims as a threat to the
financial wellbeing of the Sydney Catholic Church.
“The disturbing consequence of this strategy”, wrote Andrew Hamilton,
Consulting editor of Eureka Street online magazine…
"is that Catholic leaders effectively accepted that human worth can be measured by economic price. They accepted that the priority of the Church lay in the market where its task was to preserve and enhance its financial resources" (Hamilton 2014).
There is much more we all need to seriously ponder in this article.
Especially the financialisation of religious care and concern.
But too few people join all the dots. We should.
Especially, I reckon, as a Congregation celebrates its 50th Anniversary.
He and his younger brother were nicknamed ‘Sons of Thunder’.
Which probably meant they were a little headstrong, hot-tempered, and impulsive!
They were fisher-folk from the area around Capernaum, an unwalled town
of twelve hundred people, with no sign of planning in the layout of streets,
no gates, no defensive fortifications,
and no channels for running water or sewage disposal.
Not a sought-after spot, quips Dom Crossan, but a good place to get away from,
with easy access across the Sea of Galilee to any side (Crossan 2001:81).
As a community it was struggling to survive in what we would call
a ‘third world’ situation, but with considerable ingenuity
in making the most of limited resources 1.
It is also a sad reminder of what peasant life was like:
• where only about one in every hundred people could read and only about
one in every thousand could write, and
• when Herod Antipas promoted his unjust imperial ‘ideological blueprint’
of romanisation by urbanisation for commercialisation.
Tradition has it James (called the Greater), who became a companion of Jesus,
was the first Apostle to be martyred, stabbed with a sword by Herod Agrippa,
in Jerusalem, around the year 42 to 44 of the Common Era.
Various legends have also sprung up around him including
when the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones,
James scored Spain.
Sometime after his death his body was finally buried at Compostela,
where his supposed burial place became a major site
of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.
James is the patron saint of hat makers, rheumatoid sufferers,
blacksmiths, labourers, pharmacists, and pilgrims.
And hundreds of congregations!
In the main, all very ordinary people, (apart from a few exceptions!).
There is much still to learn from ordinary people and their experiences.
Especially, I reckon, as a Congregation celebrates its 50th Anniversary
and shares some of the stories and photos out of its past communal life.
He was a homeless, homeland Palestinian Jew, a native of the Galilee.
Unfortunately for many traditional Christians, the Jewishness of Jesus
lies on the remote margins of Christian imagination.
As a result they are inclined to miss his ethnicity, his religion,
his economic status, and his political situation (Jenks 2014:124).
Probably born during the final years of Herod the Great, he too lived
under the broken bodies and crushed spirits of Roman Imperial rule.
A wandering Cynic-like sage, teaching about
the deception of wealth, the appeal to nature, and
the extolling of simplicity,
shows Jesus belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism.
He spent at least as much time figuring things out himself, seeking wisdom,
as in communicating the understanding he came to.
And according to him, the best place to be both wise and holy
was right in the midst of ordinary life.
I have this mental picture of him sitting on a couch in the corner of some
“Life of Brian” tavern, wine mug of ‘rough red’ in hand,
overhearing the conversations of
peasant farmers and fisher-folk and day labourers.
Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story.
His listeners would laugh.
Maybe scratch their heads.
Or interrupt with a quip of their own.
“Rather than pointing to traditional texts”, suggests NT scholar Hal Taussig,
"Jesus pointed to the birds of the air, the employment practices of farmers, the goings on in the marketplace, the work of women in the household, and the social life of the peasant, as the real sources of wisdom and authority" (Taussig 1999:15-16).
So it is highly probable that Jesus did not walk about ancient Palestine
thinking about himself as the incarnate Son of God
or the second Person of the Trinity! (Jenks 2014b:49)
Generally speaking, the ‘historical’ human Jesus can be re-discovered in our time,
through some of the most challenging critical work
being done in New Testament scholarship today.
Coupled with honesty about that knowledge from the pulpit.
As a result of some of that scholarship we now know
there are at least two forms of ‘wisdom’ sayings
that characterise the Jesus voiceprint:
(i) aphorism (short sayings) and (ii) parable (narratives whose endings poke).
My first comment then, is: parables and aphorisms are about ‘lifestyle’.
They are about hearing and doing, rather than believing and venerating.
And they are about the present.
Today’s Gospel reading echoes some of the fragments of this Jesus voiceprint.
So how can we hear these particular fictional mini-parables?
My second comment is: as ‘red flags’ waving at us.
Surprise! Don’t expect God’s domain will be what you reckon or want it to be!
But here's the rub: if we really hear the voice of the historical Jesus,
the chances are we will not like him (Galston 2005:16).
Parables are very deceptive.
They are about recasting the world according to a vision.
Let me be clear. The realm of God in the teachings of Jesus
"was not an apocalyptic or heavenly projection of an otherworldly desire. It was driven by a desire to think that there must be a better way to live together than the present state of affairs" (Mack 1995:40).
The early followers of Jesus did not make claims about him because they sensed
in him a difference essence, or saw a halo circling his head!
They made claims about him because
"they had heard him say and seen him do certain things. They experienced him acting in their lives. And what they experienced in the company of this person… moved them deeply" (Patterson 1998:53).
The 4th century Nicene Creed tells us what to believe about Jesus
but says nothing about what Jesus taught.
We confess, “…born of the Virgin Mary,” but we don’t say,
“…taught us to love our enemies” (Galston 2012:112 Note 2).
His public years leave no mark on the creeds and confessions (Jenks 2014c).
Creeds control God while putting Jesus to sleep by abstraction!
Stories about ‘lifestyle’ invite us to hear and re-imagine the present world differently,
by considering the human condition of all,
not just the condition of our own race, family, or nationality.
Jesus was an observer of people and of life.
His life bore witness to the re-imagined world of the parables.
He challenged and debunked convention.
He poked and prodded.
"He seemed to assume that if one called into question old habits and norms, something far more fresh and powerful could be unveiled" (Taussig 1999:19).
Now twenty centuries later, we are being poked and prodded.
Not to be shaped by the silly question: ‘what would Jesus do?’
That’s to be preoccupied with triviality.
Rather, by becoming who we are and doing what we do.
• Freed to go on the journey Jesus chartered,
instead of worshipping the journey (Wink 2000:177).
• Freed to change the way we view ‘limits’.
Especially so when a Congregation celebrates its 50th Anniversary,
paying attention to the particular context of that Congregation.
So, after all the study and all the talk such study usually invokes,
how might living in our contemporary situation be shaped
by the human ‘historical’ Jesus?
When I was last here 15 months ago, asking the same question,
I shared some wisdom from Canadian theologian, David Galston.
In one of his comments he said our task is:
"… to carry forward into the contemporary world the momentum of the Jesus movement: grasping the style of the teacher, capturing the spirit of his words, and living out the implications of these words in our own time with our own creativity" (Galston 2012:53).
I hope these words—prophetic and challenging—uttered yet again,
might be helpful to a Congregation celebrating its 50th Anniversary,
charting a new hoped-for future for itself, while
persistently concerned about broader humanity.
We are all on the edge of time—right now.
It has taken nearly fourteen billion years to bring us,
and everything else, to this moment.
All things connected in one large natural family
in which all share the energy of the universe, the matter created in stars, and the resources of our planet (Peters 2008:129).
How mysterious and amazing the sacred creative process
that has brought us all into being!
Think about that for a moment.
In humans, the universe has become conscious of itself!
Being on the edge of time, we are always going into the future.
It is an unknown future. Yet it is a future upon which our thinking
and actions will make a difference… (Peters 2008:3).
What kinds of new possibilities for existence are we being called to enable?
What kind of story are we being called to live as we help create our future?
What a responsibility!
A progressive Congregation can discern a way forward for itself.
It has the history and the critical scholarship necessary to the task.
It needs to carefully manage this inheritance,
its strongest asset (Vosper 2008:306).
This doesn’t mean it will be a Congregation where everything is tidy,
and all the questions have been neatly answered and stuck in a box, labeled ‘Faith’.
But it will be one where the challenge, the hope, and the vision
of creating a new sense of community from the momentum
of the ‘historical’ Jesus, is taken with radical seriousness.
May it be so during the next 50 years!
Crossan, J. D. & J. L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Galston, D. Embracing the Human Jesus. A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2012.
--------------, "Postmodernism, the Historical Jesus, and the Church" in The Fourth R 18, 5, September-October 2002, 11, 14-18.
Hamilton A. “Church Honours Market over Gospel in Abuse Cases” in Eureka Street eZine, Vol 24, No. 6. 2 April 2014.
Jenks, G. C. Jesus Then and Jesus Now. Looking for Jesus, Finding Ourselves. Preston: Mosaic Press, 2014.
--------------. “Encountering God in Jesus of Nazareth” in N. Leaves (ed). Encountering God: Face to Face with the Divine. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2014b.
--------------. “Jesus then and Jesus now. A sermon”. Preached at St Mary’s in Exile, Brisbane, 25 May 2014c.
Mack, B. L. Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
Patterson, S. J. The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1998.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations. Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. MN: Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress, 2008.
Taussig, H. Jesus Before God. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999.
Vosper, G. With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is More Important than What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins, 2008.
Wink, W. ‘The Son of Man the Stone that Builders Rejected” in The Jesus Seminar. The Once and Future Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2000.
1. The discovery of a first century fishing boat in 1986, during a drought that lowered the water level, confirms this impression (JDCrossan).