Pentecost 4C, 2007/2016
John 15:1-5; 7-8
A Liturgy is also available
‘TIS NOT TOO LATE TO SEEK A NEWER ‘CHURCH’…
When Tarzan swung from them, they were a mode of jungle transportation.
When my mate Bob asked Ross and I to dig it out
from the front garden of his home in suburban Epping,
that ivy vine was nothing short of a pain in the... back.
But the image of a vine, played with by the storyteller we call John is,
I want to suggest, an organic image about community, about society.
To say life or society is about interrelationship, mutuality, and wellbeing.
And... that such an image invites us to sense the ‘divine’ or the ‘sacred’
as beneath and around us, rising up,
rather than above us, condescending.
But that’s a bit about John’s world and his use of image.
What about in our modern, secular world and our sense of community.
Where might all this touch the raw edges of our everyday, 21st century, life.
Let me offer a comment or two you might like to consider.
The vine or ‘organic’ metaphor is a strong challenge to those contemporary Western leaders of society
(especially in Britain, America and Australia) who tend to argue that the
“well-being of society as a whole will be maximized only through a corporation’s self-interested me-first pursuit of profit” (Lerner
Federal Treasurers in an election year call it ‘economic management’.
But from a religious point of view such a claim sets up a clash of values.
One set of values, based on ‘consumerism’ and modern individualism, believes that:
• all persons should be responsible for themselves and look after their own interests;
• help given to others for nothing in return only diminishes the initiative of such people and leads them
into a permanent state of dependency;
• efficiency is the key to a healthy economy, and
• competition is one of the chief techniques for promoting efficiency, so competition must be increased.
The other set of values, based on respect for the sacred in the other, calls for:
• co-operation instead of competition;
• a vision which says look after others as much as ourselves;
• a recognition that we have a common destiny or no destiny at all; and
• justice and fairness in all our dealings.
Now of course, as many have pointed out quiet clearly,
it is much easier to name the social values we need
than it is to put them into practice.
So from where can we get help?
Exactly 12 months ago this week, The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought,
welcomed to Canberra, the Revd Dr Noel Preston,
theologian, ethicist, political advisor, and social justice advocate.
Noel had just published his memoirs (Preston 2006).
And as you can probably imagine, the book covers a lifetime of events,
celebratory and wounding, as one man sought to
make sense not only of his own, individual life, but also to
make sense of this life lived in relationship with many others.
In a kind of personal credo, Noel Preston offers these thoughts on,
or characteristics of, a renewed 21st century faith:
1. Eco-centric and not anthropocentric
That is, it rejects human-centred theology, which subtly endorses our species’ destructive dominance of nature,
in favour of a view which takes seriously the intrinsic value of all life.
2. Inclusive not exclusive
Not just in a gender, race or species sense, but also, in recognising that the truth to live by
may be revealed in varying and multiple ways.
3. Mystical rather than literalist
That is, it centres on an experience of the sacred in the midst of life’s uncertainties,
triggered more by cosmic connectedness with other creatures
than by codified religious forms.
4. The goodness of life rather than its undeniable tragedy
This suggests that life’s purpose is more about celebrating original goodness
rather than seeking salvation from original sin.
While some argue that Noel Preston’s vision of a renewed 21st century faith
is too removed from traditional or fundamentalist religious thought, as if that was a negative,
I reckon it is not too far from the re-imagined sense of community,
the Galilean sage from Nazareth inspired in a storyteller we call John.
For community is what happens when deep, invisible bonds,
like that of a grape vine, are embraced and shared,
rising up around, among, within us.
Today (2016) we celebrate 39 years of The Uniting Church in Australia.
Much has happened during those years.
But much also could have happened that didn’t.
Amid all the official triumphalism of this day, I reckon we still need
to be reminded of one basic thing that has not been done well:
the empowering of lay people to ‘think theologically’.
For all of my 39 year journey within the Uniting Church, there has been
a common chorus from many lay people: why weren’t we told?
They are not asking why they weren’t told about the Regulations or Constitution.
They are not asking why they weren’t told about the committee structures.
They are asking why they weren’t told about, and trusted with,
the tools of biblical and theological thinking.
Some ministers and congregational ‘gate keepers’ have let them down!
True, there have been some efforts. But selective efforts only.
The true ‘radicalness’ of much of current theological and biblical thinking
has not been entrusted with them.
When theological college lecturers and parish ministers are so afraid
of the fundamentalist and conservative bullies they can't help congregations understand
the historical roots of their own religious stories, then we get
a dishonest church struggling with petty problems.
So on this day (2007), and to you the people of this congregation,
I renew my commitment to travel with you for a few more years,
the ‘progressive’ theological journey.
To nourish you. And to stretch you. You, your children and your grandchildren.
One body and many members.
One spirit and many gifts.
But I also invite you to continue to travel with me,
that together we might learn from a bloke called Tennyson:
“... come, my friends ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world” (Quoted in Preston 2006:307).
Lerner, M. The Left Hand of God. Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
Preston, N. Beyond the Boundary. A Memoir Exploring Ethics, Politics and Spirituality. Burleigh. Zeus Publications, 2006.