Pentecost 2A. 2008
CELEBRATING THE TEMPORARY, WITH IMAGINATION...
One of the first contemporary biblical theologians to recognise
the importance of imagination and story in the tradition of the Christian faith
was American, Amos Wilder.
Way back in the 1960s and early 70s, Wilder claimed that Jesus’ speech
had the character, not of instruction and ideas,
but of compelling imagination (Wilder 1971).
He caimed Christianity is a religion of imagination and the oral word.
And behind the particular gospel stories and images
lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.
Let me share some of Wilder’s ground-breaking scholarship.
Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers
broke into the world of speech and writing of their time,
with a novel and powerful utterance.
So far as we know Jesus never wrote a word,
except on that occasion when,
in the presence of the woman taken in adultery,
‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’.
In secular terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing,
oblivious of any concern for transcription or written record.
Less romantically we can say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone
has its own theological significance.
For writing things down has about it a sense of permanence.
It presupposes continuity and a future.
But the spoken word is temporary.
The words are gone as they are spoken. As Wilder said:
“Jesus was a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1971:13).
Now tradition has it, that one of the most important pieces of ‘Jesus voice’
is the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’, and the bits and pieces of sayings
that the author of Matthew’s gospel puts after this collection,
such as today’s sayings:
• Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
• Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
• Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…
Generally speaking, most biblical scholars now days believe
there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount.
In reality, they say, it was the editorial work of the author of Matthew’s gospel,
to place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general,
and as another great teacher like Moses, in particular.
However, many of those same scholars reckon that
the particular everyday sayings which follow in the next chapter,
and make up today’s Lectionary sayings,
indicate every possibility that we have before us
“the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus” (Funk & Hoover 1993:152).
So let me stay with this scholarly suggestion for a moment.
The biblical stories frequently have Jesus drawing his figures of speech
from the everyday world around him.
“The need for food calls the birds to mind, the need for clothing the lilies…” (Funk & Hoover 1993:153).
Plus... as the 1950s Scottish theologian William Barclay helpfully said,
Jesus was not advocating a thoughtless, improvident attitude to life,
"but was warning against a care-worn, worried, fearful way of living each day" (Millar 2000:175).
That’s why I (along with many others) claim Jesus was a secular sage (Hunt 2007:6).
He made no theological statements.
Neither did he set out to establish a new religion.
He belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism.
That said, these particular sayings:
• are addressed to people who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence, rather than with the broader political situation;
• challenge common attitudes towards life, and
• of course they are exaggerations.
And they do fit with some other sayings also attributed to Jesus.
In another but similar context, theologian Arthur Dewey says of Jesus' sayings, they:
(i) dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality,
(ii) admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal boat people/immigrants—whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’,
(iii) challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.
And the implications of these sayings and this vision? Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion:
“…can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply” (Dewey 2002:80).
they make it possible for us to see the world,
the everyday world in which we live,
not only as it is, but also as it can be.
To move us to new places.
To turn us into new people.
And to lure a response from us that will want to do away with that which
About five years back Emilie Townes,
Professor of African American Religion and Theology, at Yale Divinity School,
made a presentation to the ‘Voices of Sophia’ conference of Presbyterian women in the USA…
Her oral presentation was shaped around a theme:
What will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are.
She didn’t offer a highly academic speech.
Neither did she suggest she was talking about what makes any of us, perfect.
What she did say was:
“I’m talking about what we call in christian ethics, the everydayness of moral acts… It’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action” (Townes 2006. www.voicesofsophia.org)
Using ordinary rather than so-called ‘holy’ language,
reminiscent of the one we call Jesus, Townes lists her everyday moral acts
which her listeners, and now us, are invited to identify with:
• the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk, to hear what they are saying;
• the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh us through prayer or meditation;
• the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths;
• the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives;
• the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking;
• the everydayness of sharing a meal;
• the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment;
• the everydayness of joy and laughter;
• the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere, or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them;
• the everydayness of blending head and heart;
• the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.
It is in this everydayness, Townes says, that we are formed.
Boundaries and differences are irrelevant.
And in the everydayness of the Jesus imagination:
love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance.
I admit it! Born in the 1940s, I am a child shaped by the exciting 60s theology.
(With a little reshaping in the 90s and beyond...)
Another ‘child’ of the 60s is Clyde Reid.
He wrote a book called Celebrate the temporary.
I have hung on to this book all these years, not because I am a disciple,
but because its message continues to interrupt and challenge
the mundane and the comfortable and the anxious in my life.
Here is just a smiggin of what, in the imagination of the Jesus sayings, Reid says:
Celebrate the temporary
Don’t wait until tomorrow, live today
Celebrate the simple things:
enjoy the butterfly
embrace the snow
run with the ocean
delight in the trees
or a single lonely flower
Go barefoot in the wet grass
until all the problems are solved
or all the bills are paid
You will wait forever
Eternity will come and go
and you will still be waiting
Live in the now
with all its problems and its agonies
with its joy and its pain…
There is joy and beauty today
It is temporary
Here now and gone
So celebrate it while you can
Celebrate the temporary (Reid 1972).
Celebrate the temporary, and... remembering the everydayness
of the Jesus imagination and utterances:
love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance.
Funk, R. W; R. Hoover. 1993. The Five Gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan.
Hunt, R. A. E. 2007. “Progressive Christianity: New moves in Christian thinking and practice”. A presentation to Christian Jewish Dialogue ACT, 4 February 2007. Available from my web site: <www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/articles>
Millar, P. 2000. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God's Presence in the World. GtB: Norwich. Canterbury Press
Reid, C. 1972. Celebrate the Temporary. NY: New York. Harper & Row.
Wilder, A. N. 1971. Early Christian rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel. MA: Cambridge. Harvard University Press.
Dewey, A. 2002. "Jesus as a peasant artisan", in R. W. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.