28 July 2009

Canberra ACT Australia

Guest preacher:  Dr Val Webb


Most of us can recite by heart the Gospel reading chosen for this afternoon.

When Jesus was asked by a scribe to name the greatest commandment,

he did not simply select one of the famous Ten, as one might expect,

but combined two commandments from the host of Hebrew laws

which included such items as

not using a chisel on a stone altar (Exodus 20: 25);

how long a male slave could be kept (Exodus 21: 2);

and the number of sheep required in payment

for slaughtering someone else’s animal (Exodus 22: 1).

“You shall love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength,” he said.

“The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself.”

This second part was adapted from a commandment

that demonstrated the breadth of neighbourliness for Hebrew people:

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19: 34).

Thus Jesus passed over the moral don’ts: against adultery, theft or falsehood –

and highlighted instead a relational way of living: loving and being loved.

If only those who want the Big Ten hung in schools and public buildings today as the fix-it for everything
 would listen to Jesus on his choice!

But the phrase that struck me as we celebrate Rex Hunt’s exceptional ministry within the Uniting Church,
was the response of the scribe:

“Well spoken, teacher… what you have said is true -- this is far more important than any burnt offerings and sacrifice.”

The scribe recognized what Jesus was doing:

bypassing a host of rules that might have served an ancient nomadic tribe in the past
and opting instead for a way of living in the present.

This is a contextual theologian’s dream text,
permission presumably from the lips of Jesus
to listen to the needs and questions of our particular situation and,

from that perspective, reflect on what might be “good news” for this moment,
 rather than outdated rituals and sacrifices of the past.

Certainly, the scribe said, that makes much more sense than

the slaughter and burning animals.

There is even another contextual twist in this passage:

an evolution of theology within the Bible itself.

The first commandment in Exodus had forbidden the worship

of any other Gods before Yahweh, reflecting the Hebrew context

where Yahweh was one God among many.

By the time of Jesus however, this Hebrew henotheism

had moved to the strict monotheism reflected in Jesus’ reply,

“Listen, Israel, Our God is the one God”,

there is no longer the instruction to obey this God before all others.

So even within the time-frame of the Bible, we have changes

in theological understandings about God.

Jesus would eventually be killed by those in power for disturbing the status quo with his new ideas and,
down the ages, millions of people who have dared to follow Jesus’ example
of re-imagining the traditional message for a changing context,

have likewise been persecuted -- copped a bollocking,

Rex said this morning, for publically telling the family secrets

in a loud voice in order to encourage open dialogue and fresh ideas.

I had planned to say that we have moved beyond actual crucifixions,

but only last month, Dr George Tiller from Wichita, Kansas,

was shot and killed in his church for performing abortions

that were legal in the United States.

The religiously-motivated assassin claimed he was ridding the world

of a heretic who “deserved to die” and we also know that in many countries

beyond our own, the courage of one’s convictions is also a direct path to death.

We are here this afternoon to celebrate such courage and passion to make a difference
and speak out against prevailing strong forces.

Samuel Ryan wrote:  (Gifts of Many cultures, 63)

  A candle-light is a protest at midnight.

It is a non-conformist.

It says to the darkness,

“I beg to differ.”

We celebrate today both Rex and Dylis

because taking a stance becomes a family choice.

it demands mutual support over the long haul and often means

shared wounding under opposition.

In our opening hymn, we sang,

“Sing praise to minds that will fashion our bold new tomorrows,

yesterday's wisdom released from its dogma and credos,

evermore free to live out what we believe.”

I am personally indebted to Rex’s passion for the advancement of progressive theology in Australia.

We met briefly in the ‘80’s when both of us held different roles

within the Uniting Church but both of us, it now seems,

were on a similar theological journey within ourselves.

When I returned to Australia a relative stranger some 20 years later,

I wondered where my theological activity might take me.

It was Rex who tracked me down and slotted me into

the Progressive speaking program here at St James,

then into Common Dreams and consequently,

the wider progressive movement throughout Australia.

Josef Neesima from Doshisha University in Japan wrote,

‘The truth is /Just like a plum blossom./

Dare to bloom/Despite wind and snow.’

Imagine in your mind the extravagant beauty and defiant courage

of a tiny plum blossom, opening its petals
despite the overwhelming possibility of being blown to shreds by a searing wind,
or frozen into fruitlessness

by an unexpected dumping of snow on its branch.

This is also the courage that that takes seriously the words of our Basis of Union -- that the Uniting Church consists of people
“on the way” and prays God “will constantly correct what is erroneous in its life”
and make it “ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds” – in other words,

to bring into full flower new and emerging truths,

despite the fierce winds of inerrant doctrinal claims
and the frozen snow-cover of ancient desert mentality and medieval religious ponderings.

Today marks Rex’s official retirement from this particular role within the Uniting Church,
but we know it is simply a change of scenery.

Already he is deep in organization for next year’s Common Dreams 2,

having been the central player in the first one that brought hope and energy

to unparalleled numbers of religious seekers, doubters and

disenchanted church alumni.

But what about those who remain here in St James and within its wider progressive umbrella?

Many years ago, I was part of a work group that went to Bolivia to help the local Methodist Church
do some much needed repairs. 

At the end of a few wonderful weeks of hospitality,
our Bolivian coordinator said in his speech of thanks,

“You have left big footprints in our hearts and soil.”

Rex has left big footprints in this place. 
“How beautiful upon the mountains,” the prophet said, “are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news” (Is 52: 7).  Notice what is beautiful – the feet that bring good news.

Although Rex’s message has been life-restoring for so many, it is also the courage

and passion to take the first steps towards change;

to place your feet in less than safe, friendly places;

to refrain your feet from running when others might deem it advisable;

and even to stamp your prophetic foot when those in power

try to silence you and your message.

Frederick Buechner once said (Wishful Thinking),

“If you want to know who you really are as distinct from who you would like to think you are, keep an eye on where your feet take you.”

These big footprints offer a huge challenge to those who remain,

who have benefited from Rex’s courage in preaching,
passion in reform and energetic modelling of a faith fit for tomorrow.

The responsibility rests with you to ensure that ‘progressive’

continues to be the character of your ministry and life together.

Over the centuries, many progressive challenges have been made to religious institutions
that have controlled creative thought through creeds, confessions and doctrinal statements,
as if they were dropped unedited from heaven
rather than created in different times and contexts by ordinary, limited people like ourselves.

One only has to read the history of the formation of the church’s creeds
over many decades and councils in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries to realize that they too were struggling,
as we do at National Assemblies, to define some basics for their time and place,
influenced, not simply of calm theological discussion
but also by power structures, financial restraints and fierce lobby groups.

I am certain these ancient creed-makers did not imagine that these creeds
would last for thousands of years – with the sort of controversy, vacillation and intrigue,
even to death, that surrounded these creeds,
they were probably more worried about them lasting a few decades!

Yet, while the philosophical concerns and ancient worldviews on which these creeds
were based has been abandoned today, some people insist we strenuously hold on to them intact,
as if applicable for all time, such that many of us can no longer say “I believe” to them
and many others simply cross their fingers behind their backs.

The composing of the Basis of Union was a similar struggle
fraught with walk-outs, stand-offs, accusations and political pressure.

Many of us know personally some of the framers of this document

and also remember the process, hardly claimed at the time as infallible

and not open to evolution – in fact, it was actually written into the Basis of Union
that we recognize it as a document for its time.

Yet already, if you read letters to the editor in our church newspapers,

some within the church are already using it as a weapon,
a bench-mark of true doctrine and faithful adherence
rather than a guide on our evolving journey during which the Spirit may well surprise us.

Some who attack progressives as going against the Church’s Basis of Union

are the same people who called the Basis of Union a sell-out to the liberals in the 70’s!   

I think progressives have a particular challenge in this and perhaps, Rex,

this is the ideal retirement project for you.

We need to claim the progressive language of journey and openness
to more truth that is in our Basis of Union and shape some progressive theology

around it so that the Uniting Church as a whole can see progressive ideas,
 not as threatening, but as part of the journey

we have all pledged to take together.

Reform rarely happens because someone holding power suddenly decides

over their breakfast cereal to make radical changes.

Instead, it comes from a long struggle by many people

urging for change against all odds.

The progressive movement located here in St. James is already deep into this

with the Canberra Affirmation, a statement of vision

for the Twenty-First Century inviting those within and outside the church

to live abundantly with the wisdom of a Jewish sage as guide and inspiration.

Yet this Affirmation also invites you into conflict with those who would

perpetuate the centuries of theological baggage

overlaying the radical significance of this man,

such that his courage and wisdom became lost by the Fourth century

in tales of original sin, cosmic battles with the Devil and

substitutionary sacrifices to appease an offended God.

Many people have simply abandoned the struggle by leaving churches

to find a spiritual home elsewhere, but for those of us who remain,

believing that there is still hope for transformation,

we can take comfort in the words of one of Catholicism’s greatest women theologians, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.

When asked why she stays in her church after all it has done to her and women in general, she says,

“I will not leave the naming of God and theology to others who will name it against women – or in our case, against progressive thinking.”

Thanks to Rex and people like him, progressive religious thought

now has solid representation across Australia
with internal links and combined gatherings such that each group will not remain simply a bead without a string
and thus vulnerable to isolation, exhaustion and extinction.

Our challenge is to find every opportunity to offer these fresh ways of thinking as a prophetic voice to the Australian church,
such that it speaks to the hidden doubts and questions of so many, especially laity,
who sit in pews not knowing there are ways to think
beyond unpalatable dogmas and patronizing platitudes.

We need to be apologists for the man Jesus and his message of

abundant living and loving, so that his voice becomes authentic once again.

Like the scribe who said of Jesus’ command to love God and neighbour,
“this is far more important than any burnt offerings and sacrifice,”
may we also discern with intelligence and courage
which are the culturally limited and time-warped burnt offerings and sacrifices we perpetuate
and what constitutes the call to live a life of loving God and our neighbour
in this context and this moment in history.

Thank you, Rex and Dylis.