Pentecost 15B, 2015
A Liturgy is also available
Preached at The Fountains UMC, Phoenix, AZ
CELEBRATING THE REALITY THAT PEOPLE MATTER
He had the ability to teach us startlingly new perspectives with a gentle touch.
His calm, inviting delivery let us see what he was suggesting
about our fundamental understanding of the historical Jesus.
We were able to see how he modelled critical thinking and reflection.
He made us comfortable with our discomfort at relinquishing
cherished notions and opinions.
He taught me that when we think critically, no one has to suffer,
no one has to be made the enemy.
If you haven’t already guessed, that was an online tribute to Marcus Borg.
A leader within progressive Christianity, Marcus died in January this year.
I honour his integrity, scholarship, and personal character.
I dedicate this sermon to his memory.
What an interesting and different story from our gospel tradition.
A single-entry story (Mark 7:24-30) that not only paints Jesus in a not-so-positive light,
but also seems to question the very spirituality
that initially shaped him.
Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in a previous story,
the anonymous storyteller we call Mark now has Jesus challenged
(and by implication, the Markan community somewhere in Syria)
to put that teaching into practice
by ministering to those often seen as ‘unclean’—or just different.
Or as we might say in our everyday language…
Take the time to look beyond external factors like
nationality, religious heritage, or social position,
which by their nature often exclude.
So to use a Borg saying: what ‘lens’ did the storyteller use and why?
What ‘lens’ can we use to hear this story with twenty-first century ears?
I invite your active listening.
Several years ago I was on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia,
attending the 4th National Gathering of
The Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia/NZ.
Queensland is a northern state in Australia with summer temperatures
perhaps ‘similar’ to Arizona… [Highest ever summer temperature recorded
was 49.5 degrees C (121.1 degrees F) in Birdsville in 1972…]
Desert to the West, channel country and some rain forests in the middle,
and the famous, but diminishing, Great Barrier Reef along the Eastern coast.
For years its tourist catch-cry was:
‘Beautiful one day. Perfect the next’.
Keynote speaker at the Gathering was feminist theologian
and Catholic religious, Miriam Therese Winter.
It was a truly wonderful and stimulating experience.
It was also an awakening experience for many of us males
as we began to hear some of the biblical stories through
the eyes and ears—through the ‘lens’—of women.
So in that spirit let me offer a couple of comments on Mark’s story.
The storyteller’s ‘lens’—a Phoenician woman—and her unconventional behaviour
as determined by social convention, bested Jesus.
If we believe the storyteller, it caught him on the raw, so to speak.
What initially draws the dominant male's wrath
by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness,
eventually subverts that discomfort into agreement.
Mark’s Jesus has already taught others that religious customs
should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need.
Now, Mark suggests, Jesus is faced with having to learn that social conventions,
ingrained in his spirituality, should not do so either.
And if it was good enough for Jesus to have a change of heart,
then what seems implied in this story, is:
why shouldn’t it be also good enough for others,
especially Mark’s own community, to be so challenged?
On the surface the story is presented as one about healing.
But if we dig a little deeper I reckon we will find
Mark intended it to be a story of inclusion and distributive justice.
And where a woman becomes the lead actor or ‘lens’ in the interaction.
The storyteller’s teaching moment seems to be: people matter most.
No one can be excluded.
None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’.
The restoration of the individual is thus sacramental of the restoration of society.
Let me change the ‘lens’.
Arthur Dewey is an author, a progressive theologian
and a Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar.
You have no doubt heard of them
even if you haven’t heard of him.
In one of his many articles he explores the possibility of viewing Jesus
through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman.
Why? Dewey reckons this could help us
work out what Jesus was about.
It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision… What can we make of those words?
How does Dewey suggest Jesus went about crafting his words?
He goes on:
Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision.
So what might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audiences?
I offer these suggestions and invite you to ponder them some more:
(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 immigrants – whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’;
(iii) challenge all to reshape their social categories, especially those of
others, formed by fears and rumours and innuendo.
How could this happen? Dewey suggests:
… 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.
In short: practise ‘ubantu’.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu I believe, explains the meaning of this Zulu word:
We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I dehumanise you, I inextricably dehumanise myself. The solitary human is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.
There are still many in our communities who know what it is like
to be without a voice,
to be flattened,
to be destroyed.
And when Christian politicians and pastors—you know the kind—you find them in Legislative Assemblies and all over FaceBook, YouTube, and Twitter…
When these seek to change laws to enable the church or businesses
to exclude or denigrate minority groups,
no wonder others in the community think it natural to also treat them:
gay, lesbian, and transgender folk,
the homeless—that way.
Back home in Australia we have a federal government that has adopted
the abhorrent practice of locking up asylum seeker children
in immigration detention centres,
often in poor countries outside Australia.
Those same detention centres have been described by former ‘Australian of the Year’,
Professor Patrick McGorry, as “factories of mental illness.”
Back home is Australia, author Tim Winton said in his 2015 Palm Sunday address:
We have an irrational phobia. We're afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We're even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they're twice as threatening.
Back home in Australia, social commentator Hugh Mackay
calls this attitude ‘disengagement’. In a newspaper article some time back, he wrote:
We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed... We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices.
As a result many, perhaps most, ignore the plight of others.
Or think that ‘trickle-down economics’ is the answer to every question.
Even it seems, if the planet burns!
Until a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her,
gives the ignored or the forgotten, a voice.
Prophets come in all shapes and sizes.
They don’t look the way you would expect.
Every generation must work out its values and its faith responses
to changing circumstances, just as those who preceded us were required to do.
Not everything passed down has the same value for life
in the modern word, and we must discriminate.
And that goes for science, for politics, for education, and for religion.
When all is said and done, we actually live in a new present,
that is qualitatively different from any of our human pasts.
In this present, as we think about ourselves and others, how do we
find the energy to nurture a creative and compassionate lifestyle?
A progressive colleague from New Zealand, Sir Lloyd Geering,
suggests we need to take with radical seriousness:
• An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.
• An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.
• An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.
• An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.
• Responsibility for the care of one another.
• Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.
• Its value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.
He goes on to say:
In developing a spirituality for today's secular world we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves... Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet.
As you ponder further on all this, thus completing this sermon,
may your creative imaginations
become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways—a new lens—
to be a human community in the world.
Especially when everything around us seems fragile and unsure.
Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-Realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Clayton, P. “Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity”. 27/01/2015. www.huffingtonpost.com
Dewey, A. J. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Geering, L. G. Coming Back To Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2008.
Hunt, R. A. E. Against the Stream. Progressive Christianity between Pulpit and Pew. Preston. Mosaic Press, 2013. (Re-issued by Morning Star Publishing, 2014).