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“Understanding the Kingdom of God”
Dr. Roger Petry, Reflection at Wesley United Church
Sunday, November 20th, 2016
Readings: Genesis 1: 26-31; Mark 9: 33-37
Jesus often spoke about the “Kingdom of God”. But what is the “Kingdom of God” and why is it an important idea? While we seldom think of kingdoms these days, the question is actually about the nature of rule or governing. It is about our understanding of how God makes change in our own lives and advances God’s larger plans for society and creation, what was traditionally called God’s providence. Our scientific understanding of the world and our mapping out of cause and effect relationships and the laws of our universe at ever smaller and smaller levels likely makes many doubt that any divine action or agency could actually be meaningfully expressed (much less God’s larger plans, promises, and purposes fulfilled). However, I think a route to seeing this possibility involves reflecting on the nature of rule or kingship as understood in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
The first reading for today from Genesis has to do with God giving humans “dominion” or “rule” over plants and animals. If by dominion we mean simply “exercising rule over nature in our own self-interest as a species”, then we have certainly fulfilled that goal. In October of this year the World Wildlife Fund announced that there had been a 58% decline in the number of fish, mammals, birds and reptiles worldwide since 1970.1 Put another way, wildlife around the globe is disappearing at a rate of 2%/year. By 2020, if these numbers are right, we will have lost 2/3 of our wildlife since 1970.1 For some species it is even worse. 1/3 of Africa’s elephants were lost in only 7 years. People have described this as the 6th mass extinction in the planet’s history but unlike natural forces (such as a meteor striking our planet), the unprecedented loss of species is tied to our industrial, cultivation, and living practices. Because these practices were often viewed as “taming” the wilderness or “developing” unproductive land, this scriptural passage has been viewed by some scholars as the root of our ecological crisis.
This may be true. But if it is true, we need to look at this passage more closely. Perhaps we have misread the text. One issue might be whether this notion of “dominion” supports other comments in the Bible about how we should treat nature. It does not. If we read this passage closely we realize that at this point God is only giving plants to humans for food—we are to be vegetarians. Only at a later point does God allow the eating of meat. Some in Jesus' time continued this older law. Jesus' brother James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, was a vegetarian;2 John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey3 (which is almost vegetarian in my books!). Furthermore, according to this passage in Genesis, God has given this plant material for food for all animals (not just humans): beasts, birds, and everything that creeps on the ground (presumably insects). Whatever human dominion might mean, it is restricted by this passage. The key Bible story expressing God's care for all creation, a centre piece story about biodiversity, is the story of Noah and the flood and God's intentional rescue of all species after the flood; God makes a covenant with all living things promising to never destroy the world in such a way again.
We also need to think about the kind of rule suggested in this passage from Genesis. I have been told that the Hebrew word for “dominion” in this passage is not to be understood as the kind of rule exercised by a king but rather that of a shepherd over his sheep. That this would be the kind of rule most familiar to a near east pastoral society is not a surprise. Who were the rulers the Israelites were familiar with: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Amos, and David: all shepherds. Jesus' birth is announced to shepherds. Jesus himself is called the “good shepherd”. Our modern word “pastor” is latin for shepherd. So what do we know about how shepherds rule?
First how didn't shepherds rule. A shepherd did not rule based on prestige and reputation. In fact, at the time of the 2nd temple in Jesus' day, they were outcasts in part because, being out in the fields for lengthy periods, they could not keep the ritual purification practices (including temple participation) that made one a good Jewish person. A shepherd did not rule on the basis of wealth. Their need to constantly move flocks to better pastures meant they could not carry much and the income generated by this livelihood for most was marginal. A shepherd did not rule on the basis of family support and connections.
The occupation was very lonely—isolating oneself from one's family for lengthy periods of time. Even the basics of maintaining an established household would be problematic. When David, the youngest son of Jesse, is to be annointed king by the prophet Samuel, Samuel repeatedly asks whether Jesse has any more sons and finally David is summoned from the fields where he is tending the sheep.4
So if shepherds don't rule on the basis of reputation, wealth, or family relationships, how does a shepherd rule? A shepherd rules by being attentive and actively watching to keep the flock united and protected from danger. The rounded edge or hook of a shepherd's crook is used to pull sheep from danger while the other end is used to goad the herd along with minimal effort. The shepherd's rule is a gentle rule. The bishop's crosier models the shepherd's crook but has a symbolic function: it marks the Bishop as shepherd of the flock in her jurisdiction; it has a hook to symbolically pull us back from straying from a morally good path and a tip at the end to goad the spiritually lazy; both reflect the bishop's traditional teaching authority and ability to rule in Church matters. The shepherd also takes special care of what is weak and vulnerable. We have likely all seen the image of Jesus as the “good shepherd” with a young lamb over his shoulders or welcoming a little child into his arms as in today's second reading.
We also need to reflect briefly on the purpose of rule. Prior to the prophet Samuel appointing Saul as the first king of Israel, the people of Israel had looked to their neighbours who had powerful kings and wanted one too. The prophet Samuel, however, repeatedly warned them that they did not, in fact, want a king, for a king would subjugate, if not enslave them; he also reminded them that God was their only King.5 Yet they insist; Samuel calls this insistence a “wicked thing” that they are doing “in the sight of the Lord”6 yet eventually concedes due to their stubborness. He does not annoint a King (in Hebrew “melekh”), however, a term Samuel rejected, but rather a “Ruler” (in Hebrew “nagid”).7 The second suggests a governor appointed by God; when God selects David as king, it is because David is a person “after his own heart”; that the pursuit of something greater than ourselves is the goal of ruling (versus the self-agrandizement of kingship), reflects other professions or arts. For example, while some become doctors for the money, the true doctor joins the medical profession for a cause beyond herself, namely the improvement of health; at the heart of each profession (whether a scholar, or an artist, or a lawyer) is something beyond the self, in these cases knowledge, beauty, or justice. And this is also true of ruling.
But what is the goal of ruling if its true goal, like other professions goes beyond the self? The second reading for today where the disciples are arguing among them over who is greatest, points to what the goal of rule might be. In the Roman Empire, the purpose of rule was the accumulation of power over others; yet not even as an end to one's own self-interest: it was accumulation of power for power's sake. Carl Jung called this the Roman's “devil worship of power”. For Jesus, however, ruling is a vocation that one is called to in the service of God, one's fellow human beings, and as a steward of God's creation. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he refuses to command the rocks to become bread—despite his hunger, nor to command the heavenly angels to rescue him from the top of the temple, nor to take power over all the kingdoms of the world despite the devil's seductive offer.8 For Jesus, the greatest ruler was the greatest servant—a complete inversion of the Roman notion of power and rule. In his final days, Jesus' “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem is not on the warhorse of a general but on a mule, he himself washes the feet of his disciples, and ultimately he gives up his life on the cross for his followers and all people.
Now a ruler who enjoys rule for the sake of ruling in relation to ethical goals and in the service of others has tremendous freedom. She does not need (nor want) the trappings of power; in many ways, enjoyment of rule itself on God's behalf is tested in circumstances where none of these trappings of power are present. When Jesus said not to make a show of one's prayer in public,9 this was a way of testing one’s own intentions. But this is equally true of power exercised beyond that held by those with high status or positions of high office. In fact, once we understand the kind of rule Jesus was talking about, we can move to seeing truer or different spaces of power where action takes place with humility. This can be in our role as ordinary citizens, as parents, as friends, in public forums, on community committees, or on a day to day basis with our colleagues at work.
I believe God also rules in a similar way without making a show of it. God makes small investments in many areas of our lives that grow into something great. Recall Jesus parable of the mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”10 I was recently in Brazil in the small town of Morretes on the Atlantic coast of Parana state; it is at the foot of the remnants of the great Atlantic Rain forest—now reduced to 7% of its original area. I was fortunate to meet an organic experimental farmer exploring the idea of syntropy; how multiple plants can be seeded at the same time, with each chosen to provide capacity for the other plants to grow: one plant might provide nitrogen for the soil, another wards off insects, another provides shade for smaller plants, one has a sturdy stalk to allow other plants to climb, and so on. He showed how productive it was after only two months, then 1 year, then 5 years. At 5 years there were now towering treas that could be used for wood, cocoa plants, spices, and fruit trees, with each plant growing amidst the others in a harmonious way. But to do this kind of agriculture, you need knowledge of the local species of plants: not just individually, but how they work together and have co-evolved, and how their small seeds can be planted one alongside another to maximize their growth with minimal effort.
It was at that moment that I had an idea. This was Jesus' parable of the mustard seed but on steroids. Assuming God's knowledge vastly dwarfs our own, God could plant “seeds” in individuals or start small organizations and arrange them in certain ways that provided incredible synergies as they grew. We have no knowledge of this power in political science (as far as I am aware) as this knowledge is so specific to place and organizations we never think of as powerful. What of the child who as a boy scout or girl guide later becomes a champion for the environment? Or the young person whose parents take them grocery shopping at the coop at an early age who later becomes a champion of fair trade products or a community development worker? And what of the synergies when many girl guides, boy scouts, or young cooperators come down these paths. If God not only knew these synergies but actively nudged and goaded us in small ways we could achieve great goals. God would then liberate in many unexpected ways where one event creates space for another; ways we could only marvel at in retrospect.
Because we are so used to top-down forms of power and heavy handed rulers, we can’t even imagine that there could be a kind of rule as service, that respecting ways of life allows nature to become radically resilient and abundant. How abundant might a prairie ecosystem be if we knew the secrets of these new forms of planting methods? And if a prairie ecosystem could be that resilient and productive, what about a prairie people? If God’s knowledge of the synergies of plants extends to the synergies of planting people alongside one another, we might be in for many positive surprises.
But even here, would God impose this kind rule whose benefits mature gradually over time without God first being invited? Likely not—for God would want to respect our dignity and only partner in our plans if we wanted to. Saskatchewan, however, is a strange place. Where elsewhere political leaders run from crisis to crisis and plan for maybe two or three years in advance, and then, only for their own populations or their elites, we have had bold ethical and spiritual leaders in our not so distant past who have differed and said very strange things. The Métis leader Louis Riel claimed to be a prophet of the new world and that Saskatchewan was to be “a new Rome”; the Baptist Minister turned premier, Tommy Douglas, repeatedly called for a “new Jerusalem” to be built in this green and pleasant land. If they were here today I would say be careful what you wish for: are there any two historical cities that have had more anguish than Jerusalem or more heartache than Rome? But what would God make of it? In the absence of other offers, he might very well take us up on it. But, if so, how would we recognize God’s rule?
Just as Jesus sent his disciples in two's in a non-threatening manner yet as a witness to God's divine rule, God’s rule comes into our lives in small ways yet with growing persistence. As a sheep can hear and recognize a particular shepherd’s voice even when mixed with another flock, we too can learn to recognize God's voice amidst the many other louder and pressing voices calling us.
So God’s rule, if it begins at the level of a seed through small interventions will be difficult to see; yet a good farmer can pick up a seed and recognize what kind it is without waiting for the harvest; similarly we each know our own lives well and we are each instruments of power and rule; so if God is acting in your life or calling you to act, the signs would be tailored to you and be recognizable by you—and maybe have no meaning for anyone else. And this might be a good thing, for as Jesus said, “do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing”;11 a good strategist keeps his power veiled from others just as a good card player keeps her cards concealed from other players. It may be we only see God's plan much later on without any specific signs in our lives. And that is OK too. But we should not despair that there is no plan—for our world makes it entirely possible.
Let us pray. God, you are the ruler of all and your rule is gentle, patient, and kind. Help us to be attentive to your rule, take part in that rule, and delight in your rule. Amen.
2 See Eusebius, History of the Church. Book 2:23 (citing Hegesippus, Memoirs, book 5).
3 Matthew 3:4.
4 1 Samuel 16:11.
5 1 Samuel 12:12.
6 1 Samuel 12:17.
7 The Jewish Study Bible, Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) First Samuel 9, note 15-16, p. 577.
8 Matthew 4.
9 See Matthew 6:5-8 and Mark 12:40 (!).
10 Matthew 13:31-32.
11 Matthew 6:3.
REFLECTION BY JOHN WHYTE
Rainer Maria Rilke, I Believe in All That Has Never Yet Been Spoken (1899)
I believe in
all that has never yet been spoken.
If this is
arrogant, God, forgive me,
May what I do
flow from me like a river,
Then in these swelling
and ebbing currents,
REFLECTION ON CHRISTIAN NON-THEISM
Atheists believe that there is no God. Non-theists believe that belief in God’s existence is not compelling, other than as trope or metaphor. More significantly, belief in God is not foundational to religion, or to being a religious person – a person who believes that spirituality is a vibrant and present part of being human. And, Christian non-theists think that Christianity does not necessarily entail belief in God. For them, it is not God that is at the heart of being a religious person, or a Christian, but the embracing of human spirituality.
Spirituality is not easily defined, but it can be hinted at. It is the sense that there is a ground of one’s being, or a guiding star, to which one turns to find an uplifting and selfless spirit, one that helps form a bond – a meaningful common purpose – with others. Spirituality is the sense of deep interpersonal connections. It is the feeling of powerful and immanent feelings – like mercy, like compassion, like sympathy, like a burning passion to have all people and all of creation treated with justice and respect. It is recognition that the way we can best connect to others is through the light of a love that comes without reason or reward, or calculation or exchange. Spirituality is found in the sense of a transcendent awareness of others. Spiritual experience has a numinous character which is the sensing of something not entirely rational and usually deeply moving. It supports our sense that there are values that all can recognize as good and that lead to a kinder and more merciful world – a world of acceptance, respect for everyone’s humanity and generosity in lifting people out of need, despair and loss. While this love is, of course, not always or universally preferred or practised, it is a spirit that is right here, within the recognition of all and the grasp of all.
Where does the ground of spiritual connection come from? It comes, I believe, simply from being human. Humankind, as we all know, is not unique in having deep attributes and capacities that are remarkable and that go beyond our expectation and understanding. Are we not constantly surprised by the depths of adaptation in other species? We are filled with awe as we learn of the secrets of other parts of creation – the secrets of survival, protection, endurance, communication, migration and regeneration. The world is full of life’s phenomena that we cannot understand and that scientists penetrate only slowly and tentatively. Creation is a marvel; its progress is a mystery. Of course, we do constantly know more about life on earth, including more about how humans connect and communicate, but our truest understanding may be the vastness of the mysteries not yet penetrated.
Humans, too, possess these remarkable and surprising qualities, including the quality that we describe as spiritual, or holy, or sacred. And we are right to adopt such words of awe to describe this mysterious part of ourselves. Rightly do we try to organize our thoughts and insights into a religious frame; it is a powerful way to acknowledge our deepest elements – our ability to gain wisdom and find peace, to know good, to act for good, and to love. These are aspects of the mystery of being human. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “I want to free what waits within me … streaming through widening channels into the open sea.”
The numinous qualities of spontaneous love and connection for others are what Jesus, over and over again, asked us to see in ourselves and bring into being through the merciful actions of our real lives – the real lives we lead with children, with the bereaved, with the scorned, with the Canaanite woman and, today, with the followers of Islam. This is what I think is at the centre of being a Gospel people, of being followers of Jesus.
Does God have to be removed from this spirituality? Of course not. In truth, there is no sign that God is being expelled from the human stage. As for me, though, it is not the idea of God that lies at the centre of spirituality or that draws me into spiritual engagement. In my view, that sense of an underlying bond with creation, both its mystery and beauty, is neither dependent on belief in God nor God given. The ideas and connections, grace, and spiritual feelings are inevitably experienced through human consciousness. It may be harmless to attribute these experiences to a separate divine agency (although too often it is not harmless) but it is not an essential truth about human spirituality.
I want to offer three perspectives on this choice. The first is this. The world – its physics, science, history, medicine, culture, social organization, geological development and technological advances – are all a challenge to grasp. Yet seeking to understand the world and how it bears on us, and how we bear on it, is what most of us work at a lot of the time, and gaining some part of that understanding is what most of us depend on. “I just want to understand”, we say, whether we are speaking of our iPad or our loved one’s anxiety disorder. In this search to understand we largely follow settled ways of enlightenment – we search out accurate data, plausible analyses and provable causes and effects. This is the process that we hope pharmaceutical companies follow, bridge builders adopt and surgeons steep themselves in. I know that many believe that this route to acquiring knowledge is too restrictive and too often in error. And that has been a fair criticism. But in the great human project of understanding our world and ourselves, I put myself in the schools of science, social research, rational analysis and evolutionary study and not under an anomalous explanation based on God’s active agency in the world. John Shelby Spong is right; the Bible’s account of how things in the world happen cannot survive the second millennium’s re-construction of reality.
My second perspective is this. Our God tradition is built on two distinct God narratives. In the Jewish Bible, God is an agent of direct action. In the New Testament, God is more of a distant metaphysical agent who leaves pursuing godly purposes to human representatives. The first narrative form means that the God story is akin to myth. As you know, myth is a vital instrument for understanding human motivations, needs and relations. Describing the lives of the gods is not the fundamental focus of these narratives. God narratives provide background and create contexts for human relations and human struggles, and the purpose lying behind myths is to enlighten ourselves about ourselves. Our stories and myths, as Joseph Campbell tells us, are first and foremost, attempts to tell truths about the human condition.
Let us look at the stories of Abraham and Isaac. They are ancient stories, recounted for more than a millennium before being written. They reveal deep realities – deep religious realities – about ourselves. Abraham’s story tells us that a good part of humankind’s struggle is the unavoidability of processing the competing presence of good and bad, and of finding a way for living rightly amid such confusion. Good and bad are constant elements of human society and they are a constant challenge to our sense of well-being. They create uncertainty in us that makes us question the value of virtue. We wonder if good can prevail. This story tells us that the bad does not expunge the good, although it can corrupt the good and cause many to perish. However, Abraham’s brave and merciful bargaining on behalf of good tells us that when goodness persists so that there is still the presence of good, and the idea of good is being kept alive and is being defended, we can know that the concept of good will not be vanquished. This story says that good cannot be expunged by evil, that the presence of good is the reason to be good and to stand up for good. This insight keeps us from sinking into despair when evil seems to surround us. The point of this story is not to show Yahweh’s activism, but to teach that the human struggle for good is justified.
As for Jacob, all of us seek to live in a state of blessing. Every obituary carries two fundamental ideas – that the person who has died was blessed in life – by marriage, by children, by a meaningful life and by a capacity for joy – and, second, that every person’s life was a blessing to others. If we do not feel the blessing of life, we are lost. If we cannot see the blessing of others’ lives our spirit is destitute. How is it that we receive that blessing? Well, from struggle of course – from overcoming hardships, exercising courage, meeting challenges and setting aside those past acts that linger in our hearts telling us that we do not really deserve blessing. These struggles are hard and, of course, they can make us lame. Jacob had stolen his initial blessing from Esau, so hurt was certainly his due, but, as it is for every one of us, a blessing was still right there – and still available. What we take from this story is the realization that all of us need to be blessed and that blessing is there when we seek it.
These Bible stories were told, not to create enthrallment to God, but to create wisdom in us.
The third perspective on not putting God at the apex our spirituality is that the gospel message so profoundly brings God out of a distant realm and right down to earth. God is transformed from a distant inexplicable force to a present reality – to our reality – to us. This is the Incarnation, to be sure. And that is the point. That which is God, and that which we have come to know as God’s true nature, are here, with us now, because in truth God’s reality is present in our human reality. The God of the New Testament is our aspiration and the model that matches our best human nature. The Kingdom of God is here. God is here. The Incarnation tells us what it ultimately means to be human and to live the reality that lies within our ideas of God.
In the Gospel of John being the Word, and bringing the Word into being, are what it means to be human. It is the translation of God into human consciousness, human experience and into humanity’s moment. This humanization could be seen as just the creative moments of developing language, but it must also include the great moment of coming to an understanding of our being that allows for spiritual relationship with each other and with creation.
Then there is, from the letter of John, the idea that God is love. Well, yes, that is exactly what God is – God is the one thing we know as, and experience to be, uplifting, humanizing, completing, fulfilling and whole-making – and that is our emotion of love. In this passage God is simply and directly connected to our humanity at its most spiritual part.
And, as for the commandment on which the whole of social life (“The Law and the Prophets”) is based, it starts with ”Love God” and then comes the commandment that is like unto it, and, in these words of Jesus, is explicitly made its equivalent, “Love your neighbour.” There can be no clearer declaration of the commonality between God and persons, there can be no stronger equivalence between the idea of God and the idea expressed in this commandment – to be alive here, now, in this world, with love and mercy. The message of this passage, and of the New Testament generally, is that God has become us.
I am not suggesting that God should be thrown out as an idea that has now served its purpose. Clearly God hasn’t finished serving important spiritual purposes for many, many people. We should not take away ideas and beliefs that lift humanity. But neither is it a heretical breach with our spiritual tradition to locate our spiritual bearings without resort to God.
1. Genesis, chapter 18
Abraham and Sarah were in Canaan, in keeping with the covenant made with Yahweh – the covenant to found, in a new land, a new people who would live under Yahweh’s blessing.
In the story, Yahweh arrived at their tent with two others. In their honour, cakes were made, a calf slaughtered and a meal prepared. Yahweh told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son ensuring the continuation of Abraham’s line. But, there was something else on Yahweh’s mind – the sinfulness of the people of Sodom, the city of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Yahweh had resolved to do something about this sinfulness – something drastic. Abraham went with Yahweh and the two men toward Sodom until they came to a place where they looked down on that city. Here is what happened:
Abraham drew near to the Lord and said, “Would you really destroy good and bad together? Suppose there are fifty good people, would you sweep away everyone and not save the city for the sake of the fifty who are good? Would you make the good suffer the same fate as the bad? Should not the Judge of all the earth do that which is just?” The Lord said, “If I find fifty who are good I will save the city for their sake.” Abraham then said, “Forgive me, Lord, I am mere dust and ashes, but suppose there are just five short of the fifty who are good? Would you destroy the city for want of five good persons?” The Lord said, “If I find there are forty-five who are good, I shall not destroy it.” Abraham said, “Suppose forty who are good can be found.” The Lord said, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” “Suppose there are thirty”, said Abraham, and the Lord said, “If there are thirty there who are good I will not destroy the city.” “Lord,” said Abraham, “May I presume to speak again? Suppose twenty are found.” The Lord said, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy Sodom”. And Abraham said, “Please, Lord, do not be angry, but if ten good people are found …?” “Then I would not destroy the city,” replied the Lord. Abraham and the Lord then parted and Abraham returned home.
2. Genesis, chapter 32
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had taken his elder brother Esau’s birthright in an unjust trade and then, by trickery, received from his father, Isaac, the blessing and the inheritance that is due to the elder son. To escape Esau’s wrath Jacob had fled to Haran where he married Leah and then Rachel. After many years, he decided to return to Canaan. When he was almost there, and his entourage had already entered into Canaan, this happened:
Jacob was alone, and a man came and wrestled with him until dawn. When the man saw that he could not overcome Jacob he struck him in his hip so that it was dislocated. Then the man said, “Day has come, let me go.” Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man said, “What is your name?”, and he replied, “Jacob.” The man said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Jacob said, “Tell me your name.” He replied, “Why do you ask my name?” and he gave him his blessing. Jacob called the place Peniel because, he said, “I have seen God face to face and my life has been spared.”
3. Gospel of John, chapter 1
When all things began the Word then was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was the Word was. The Word was with God at the beginning, and through Him all things came to be; no thing was created without Him.
4. First Letter of John, chapter 4
God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him. We love because we were loved first; if a person says “I love God” while hating a brother or sister, that person lies.
5. Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22
The Pharisees seeking to discredit Jesus, said to him, “Which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” He said, “You must love your Lord with all your heart and soul and mind. That is the first commandment; the second is like it. You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these the whole of the Law and the Prophets depends.”
As Dan said when he read the scripture, many of the 10 commandments were pretty basic. Don’t kill your neighbour. That’s not exactly radical stuff. But it’s a good rule. Let’s not kill each other. And I’m all for setting boundaries as part of community formation. Rules help us navigate the differing relationships that make up a community. But we must be careful. When the Christian faith has been expressed as a rules based religion it has caused harm to the world. It has made life harder for indigenous peoples, for people of colour, for newcomers, for queer and trans folk for people with disabilities, for women. Christianity’s best practices cannot include a requirement to follow a set of rules as a path to the salvation of the world. You can’t become a Christian through adhering to a set of rules.
Now, Judaism as is hinted at today pays much more attention to a set of laws in their practice of their religion. And though our tradition is based in the Jewish tradition the teachings of both Jesus and Paul tell us that becoming Christian should be based in expressions of love and compassion as to following rules. Please not that I am not saying that any past or current expression of Judaism is not as good as Christianity. As a Christian I am not qualified to make judgments on other religions. All I am doing is lifting up one of the aspects of becoming Christian.
That’s why it is important to remember that Israelites upheld the law of the Torah not out of obligation but out of a joy of being in relationship with God. In following the Mosaic Law they were joyously reminded of God’s presence. They felt God’s love and care for them and viewed the Law as response which would deepen the intimacy of their relationship with God. Their practice of the law brought them joy.
Furthermore, many of the laws were good laws such as do not kill, do not steal, give everyone a day off each week. The Sabbath day was actually one way in which the Mosaic law was innovative. The Israelites were one of the first peoples to embrace a Sabbath and especially at such a high frequency. And we can see the Sabbath day as an expression of joy and love and compassion ion the world.
The Sabbath was a day of rest not only for Israelites, but anyone who worked for them including the animals they owned. In proclaiming the Sabbath God names all of creation including animals and non-Israelites. The Sabbath is for everyone and all of creation. God relates God’s own participation in creation and how after creating the universe and all the creatures in six days God took the seventh day and just basked in the wonder and joy of creation. We are reminded of God’s love for all creation and that all of creation, all of it, is very good. We are reminded of all that is good, all that is beautiful and all that brings us joy. And this joy brings us back to beginning, to the joy of creation.
Because, in the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth and the earth was tohu vabohu, and darkness was upon the face of deep and the ruach Elohim, the breath of God, was vibrating upon the face of the waters. And God said let there be light and there was light. Over the next six days God created everything, the earth, the plants and the animals. And after creating it all, on the seventh day rested. And while resting surveyed all of creation and rejoiced that it is good!
But there’s another creation story and it goes like this: In the beginning, 13.8 billion years ago, all matter in the universe was contained in a single point. It was unimaginably dense and hot. No one really knows what it was like. It’s a mystery. All we do know is that at some point in time the universe was expanding tohu vabohu and still the universe is expanding to this day! Some say that there was a big bang and the universe exploded spilling scads of subatomic swirls of protons and neutrons and electrons and in a few moments molecules formed and thousands of years later stable molecules formed. All the time the universe was tohu vabohu and expanding, ever expanding. Each and every moment the universe is different from the way it was the previous moment because in that moment the universe has expanded further. It is different than it was before. It is not a replication or a rearrangement. If something becomes, it is not what it was before. It is something different, an unfinished narrative.
In fact, 13.8 billion years the universe exploded sending subatomic swirls swarming into stardust, the stardust that forms the stars that we see on a clear prairie night. That stardust has formed our galaxy and the Sun and the earth and indeed us; for we are stardust. We are a part of the ever expanding universe. We are part of the stardust that exploded 13.8 billion years ago. And who knows where the ruach Elohim, the breath of God, was at that moment of creation?
But we know where the ever-present tohu vabohu is. The tohu vabohu is commonly translated as a formless void. However I am inspired by Catherine Keller to understand it in a new way. Keller suggests that that this so-called formless void was not a void in the sense of nothingness but was formless in the sense that it was a hodgepodge. It was a pile of possibilities. Keller suggests that the tohu vabohu is a source of chaos bringing new life. You know how I am always referring to the Chaosmos – a made up word from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake – I use chaosmos instead of cosmos because cosmos refers to an orderly system where I want to embrace the novelty of chaos. In fact, a perfectly orderly system is definition would be a stagnant system a system doomed to remaining as it is, growth is ended, the story is written.
However, in the chaosmos, in the tohu vabohu in chaos there is new life. Chaos offers us new possibilities. Keller says that the chaosmos is “a chaos-in-cosmos, an ordered disorder, where the tension between the order and chaos is set in a delicate balance that allows the system to generate new and unforeseen effects”. In fact “certain optimal state of chaos must be an ingredient in a system if the system is to be productive.”
This celebration of chaos is not inconsistent with scientific understandings. In fact Keller draws on chaos theory to inform her theology. Furthermore, the expanding universe almost insists on this kind of thinking. In its expansion the universe is become new each and every moment. Change is part of reality. If something becomes, it is not what it was before. In becoming the universe, an unfinished narrative of new possibilities abound.
And this is how we participate in the becoming of the universe. Each and every moment as the universe is expanding, becoming different, becoming something new, presenting us with new possibilities. And we can participate in the new creation of the expanded universe these possibilities, this novelty in the choices we make on a moment by moment basis. When presented with a new possibility we can choose the one that is most loving, most beautiful, that brings the most joy to the most people.
Each and every moment we are presented with new possibilities and I believe that God is in the presentation of possibilities or perhaps God is the possibilities. I also believe that in the novel possibilities with which we are presented God is inviting us into what is most joyous. God is luring us to make the decisions that are the most loving, the most just, that bring the most joy to the most people in the world. God does not and indeed cannot force us into these choices. God is persuasive but never coercive.
And so, as God invites us to take a Sabbath day, perhaps God is inviting to take the time to celebrate our lives and the lives of our friends and family and indeed all of creation in this ever expanding universe. And whether we do this in company or in solitude perhaps we can become in greater tune with the ever-expanding universe so that we might be able to participate in the creation of a more loving, more beautiful, more just, more joyous universe. Let us take the time to step away from our busy lives and take part in the love and joy that is creation. Amen.
Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, (New York: Routledge), 2003.
The Exodus. Freedom from slavery. Moses standing up to the Pharaoh and saying, “Let my people go!” The 10 plagues that God visited upon Egypt each time the Pharaoh’s heart hardened and he refused to release the Israelite slaves: the locusts, the frogs, the darkness, the storms of fire and all the rest. Eventually the pharaoh relents and agrees to let the Israelites go. They gather everything can, their clothes and and pots and pans and livestock anything they can carry and flee en masse. Of course, we know that the Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them until he has the Israelites trapped against the shores of the Red Sea which takes us to the story from scripture that we heard today where even when things appear most bleak, there is hope. We will not be forgotten. The Red Sea parted and there is deliverance.
It is easy to see why this passage, this epic story of freedom for the Israelite slaves, has become the central story for liberation theologies. Liberation theology refers to a variety of contextual theologies that seek to challenge systemic oppressions each in its particular contexts. The term Theology of Liberation was coined by the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Guttierrez in a response to the grinding poverty present in Latin America in mid-part of the 20th century.
It is important to understand that there are liberation theologies. That is, several different liberation theologies that explore different contexts. There is a Black Theology and a Feminist Theology and because black women felt unheard in both, there became a Womanist Theology. Similarly Latina women developed a Mujerista Theology and Koreans Minjung Theology.
One of the main slogans of liberation theologies are that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. They point to the Gospel of Luke, where right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he quotes for Isaiah and says,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim Jubilee!
Jesus is proclaiming good news for the poor and the oppressed. Jesus is proclaiming Jubilee. Now Jubilee is the Israelite practice that every fifty years prisoners are freed and debts are forgiven. The land that your family once had would be returned you. It would be like a reboot where everyone starts again at square one. Every fifty years we would start over with everyone at the same point. Of course it is doubtful that Jubilee was every actually practiced but it captures the sentiment that everyone is important. That we are all worthy and we all deserve healing and wholeness. It captures the sentiment of liberation.
So it is easy to see why the story of the exodus is so important to theologies of liberation. It is an amazing story of hope in the face of despair. Even when the Israelites are trapped with Red Sea to once and the Egyptian Army bearing down on the other there is still hope. The slaves go free! No matter how grim things are there is the chance of liberation! There is hope! God is with us and wants what is best for us.
But even in the midst of this very real hope in the face of despair there is something about this unsettling about this story. There is a glee and a glory with the rejoicing at the death of the Pharaoh and his army. Perhaps this is understandable. Celebrating the demise of your former oppressors who were about to massacre you may be the appropriate response. But there is zeal to the violence that is uncomfortable to read.
Moreover, it is as if this violence is part of a desire for domination. The Israelites are relieved that they are free from slavery but rather than resist the systems that promote slavery they rejoice in a reversal for fortune. The liberation doesn’t lead to transformation of the Israelites. They don’t reject violence and control. They simply rejoice that it worked to their advantage this time.
This desire for domination and control is evident when take the Exodus story in its larger context. The Exodus doesn’t end immediately on the right side of the Red Sea. There’s the 40 years of wandering in the desert and the establishment of the Mosaic Law before they reach the Promised Land. In fact, Moses only gets to see the Promised Land and never sets foot on it. It is Joshua who leads the Israelites into the Promised Land. There is one problem however. The problem is that the Promised Land was occupied. Promised Land, also known as Canaan was filled with Canaanites. The desire for domination rears its ugly head here as well and the book of Joshua begins with the genocide of the Canaanites.
This is the argument made by Robert Warrior, an enrolled member of the Osage nation, in his germinal critique of liberation theology, “Canaanite, Cowboys and Indians.” In fact, Warrior identifies the indigenous people of Turtle Island with the Canaanites. When the Israelites stream into the Promised Land Warrior as an indigenous person does not identify with the Israelites but rather he identifies with the Canaanites. The upshot is, Warrior believes that the use of Exodus as the motif for the liberation of the oppressed is misguided in that in the Exodus story liberation is too tightly intertwined with conquest and domination.
In the end, Warrior believes that looking to Liberation Theology or indeed wisdom from the Christian Tradition for ways to liberate the indigenous peoples is misguided. Rather, Warrior believes the liberation of the first peoples must be grounded in Indigenous systems of knowledge and values. In fact, I tend to agree with Warrior that the solution requires an indigenous lens. And whether or not you agree with Warrior and me I think it is a defensible position. One can make that argument that liberation of native peoples requires engagement with indigenous systems of thought and practice.
However, I don’t think that this is contradictory to the most important themes of the bible. The task in reading the bible is not defending every sentence or phrase. The violent imagery and the desire for conquest pointed out by Warrior are problematic to say the least. But even if indigenous liberation needs more than liberation theology I think it is important that we review our history and our tradition from all kinds of points of view both inside and outside of our tradition.
From outside the tradition we have critiques such as Robert Warrior’s. From inside our tradition we have the prophets and the ministry of Jesus. What is redeemable from the story pf the Exodus is that God is with us. The joy of the story of the story of the parting of the red sea was that in the greatest moment of despair God is with us. God is with us and God cares.
And while I believe that Warrior offers a valid critique on Liberation Theology I disagree with him when he says that even if we try to interpret the bible in more liberatory way the “text itself will never be altered by interpretations of it.” While Warrior is not taking the bible literally he is saying its meaning is unchangeable. He is saying that the meaning of the text is set in stone.
Andrea Smith points out that in recent years religious scholars have engaged postructuralist theory in reading the bible. Poststructuralism holds that a text doesn’t have an intrinsic meaning so much as it has a meaning that comes to life through a community. A text, any text does not have a fixed meaning but is always subject to contestation.
One way to contest the desire for domination present in the exodus story is through the lens of Jubilee. I spoke earlier of the Levitical concept of Jubilee where every 50 years there should be a reboot where we all start over. This is what Jesus proclaimed as central to his ministry. And maybe we should be proclaiming Jubilee. But we know it’s not practical. We can’t give the land back. It just wouldn’t work. It’s impossible.
But it is also what John Caputo calls “The Impossible.” Caputo contends that “the impossible” is actually something for which we pray and weep and long for with a restless heart. In fact, as we lose our grip (or better still, let go) we are transformed. For the impossible is what makes experience to be Experience with a capital E: an occasion that really happens! As Caputo triumphantly puts it, the impossible is what gives life its salt. It follows, then, that Experience itself has a religious character and edge. When we read this text of Jesus framing his ministry through the impossible and exotic act of Jubilee perhaps we can participate in liberation.
One way we might participate in liberation in relation to our indigenous neighbours is through our Treaties. You may have noticed that every Sunday during the welcome I acknowledge that we are on Treaty 4 land and that we are treaty people. When I say we are a treaty people I am acknowledging that the treaties between indigenous and settler people are a fundamental part of the formation of Canada. Our country is at least in part based in the nature of the treaties ad how we live out the commitment made in them.
Perhaps Jesus’ call to Jubilee might help us in living out these treaties. Not that we can practically return the land every 50 years but that impossible call to Jubilee might always be in our minds and in hearts as we try to live up to the treaties. Perhaps if we commit to living in relation with the First Peoples of Turtle Island in the Spirit of Jubilee, perhaps in that impossible spirit perhaps we can be transformed and the world in which we live can be transformed and perhaps liberation is possible. Amen.
I remember when I started here at Wesley a year ago sitting down with Kim Antosh, one of our former ministers who, sadly, is now on long term disability. At the time I could probably name less than 10 members of the congregation and so I was asking Kim about some of the people here at Wesley. I wanted to know what they did, what they volunteered for and things like that. Over and over again Kim would say about this person or that person, “and this so and so, they’re the salt of the earth.” Over and over Kim would tell me that someone was salt of the earth. Kim really loves the people at Wesley.
Of course, “salt of the earth” is a biblical phrase. It was during the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus tells the crowds listening to him that they are the salt of the earth and their saltiness is an important aspect of who they are. It is an interesting metaphor telling us that we are the salt of the earth. It makes you wonder what it is about being like salt that Jesus thinks should be such a compliment.
One of the interesting aspects about salt is how it enhances flavor; we add salt to all sorts of foods not just to make foods taste more salty, even though that is super yummy. But using a pinch of salt when we make something sweet like brownies or bake a cake brings out the flavors of the brownies. It brings out and enhances the sweetness of the brownies. When you think about it, this is really illogical and even absurd. Somehow adding salt to something sweet like brownies doesn’t make the brownies salty but instead makes the inherent sweetness come out. This is counterintuitive to say the least.
Counterintuitive might be a way to describe the story we heard about Abraham and Sarah a few moments ago. Now, the story of the call of Abram and Sarah is the story that Jewish people point to as the first formation of their people. Throughout scripture we hear God referred to as the God of Abraham. The Jewish people looked to Abraham as the progenitor of their peoples. When this covenant was made and God promised to make a great nation of Abraham and Sarah leads the Jewish peoples to claim that Abraham and Sarah are the first Jewish persons.
It is this story of God choosing Abraham and Sarah to reconcile the world that leads our Jewish neighbours to refer themselves as “The Chosen People.” It is easy to hear chosen people as some kind of claim to supremacy; that Jewish people believe themselves somehow to be better than other peoples. And there might to be some truth to this notion that some Jewish folk have interpreted this that they are indeed somehow superior to others, which is troubling to say the least. How can we understand a good God choosing one people over another? It’s kind of like a parent choosing one child over another which wouldn’t portray that parent the best light. Likewise imagining a God who designates a certain people as chosen, imagining God choosing one nation over another is, at best disturbing. This would not be charact6eristic of a loving God.
But I don’t think the meaning of the story is that God prefers one people over another, one nation over another. There is another way took at this. If we look more closely at the text we can see another meaning. We see that God makes several promises to Abraham and Sarah. God not only tells them that they will be a great nation, a great name. God also promises to bless them and the God says, and this is the part that I want to focus, that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” What is happening is that God is choosing Abraham and Sarah to be a blessing for everyone, a blessing for the entire world. Being a chosen people doesn’t mean that the chosen ones are better than anyone else. Rather being a chosen people means that God has somehow initiated a relationship with the people of Israel so that they can be a blessing to the world, so that the world can be saved through them.
Remember that I am trying lift up the notion that God is trying save the world. So in choosing the Jewish people God is trying to reconcile the world through the Jewish people. The important part of being chosen is not attaining some special status in the eyes of God. Rather, the important part is that God is trying to save the world through Abraham and Sarah and through them the Jewish people. Let’s not focus on some kind of competitive status but instead let’s of focus on what on what God is trying to do when God chooses Abraham and Sarah. And what God is trying to do is save the world, is reconcile the world, so that instead of world based in selfishness and violence and greed we might transform the world into a world based in love, kindness, equity and well-being for all. Being chosen does not confer some special status but rather calls us to action that will participate in the salvation of the world. Being chosen is a call to look outward not inward.
This call to look outward not inward is something we need to hear today. In these days of anxiety about decline of mainline Protestantism and shrinking congregations and shrinking budgets we need to remember God’s call to look outward and not inward. It is our calling as Christians to be a blessing for the world. As Jacqueline E. Lapsley writes, “The church is not just about perpetuating itself, maintaining its own survival; it is about being a blessing to the world and a blessing for the world.”
Again this is not to confer some kind of special status on us because we are Christians. Being Christian does not make us better than anyone else or anything like that. Being Christian doesn’t mean that God chose us as some kind of special people or that we have a special relationship to God. Instead being Christian means that means that we are committed to the salvation of the world, that we are committed to loving our neighbour that we are committed to the well-being those our considers last and least that we are committed to building a world based on love and compassion. Being Christian means that we choose to be chosen, that we choose be a party of God’s plan for the reconciliation of the world. Being Christian is a choice and we choose to be chosen. And in choosing to be chosen we choose to be a blessing for the world.
And I think this is what Jesus as telling us when he said we are the salt of the earth. As salt gives flavor to food we are to be a blessing for the world. We are not here to dominate the world but to blessing for the world. As salt releases flavor into food we are to release love and compassion into the world. Being the salt of the earth means that we are committed to be a blessing for the world right here, right now, in this time and in this place. When we choose to be chosen we are committed to be a blessing for the world, for Canada, for Regina for the neighborhoods of Hillsdale. We can be the salt that releases love and justice into Hillsdale that spreads to Regina, to Saskatchewan and to the entire world. If we choose to be chosen we can be the salt that participates in the salvation of the world.
And if we, here at Wesley United Church really choose to be chosen we can be the salt that releases love, compassion and justice into the world. And if we choose to be chosen it is that very release of love, compassion and justice will grow and build the community here at Wesley United Church. The well-being of our community in a practical, day to day kind of way will be more likely if choose to be chosen. Our health as a community will be enhanced if we commit to being the salt of the earth, if we commit to being a blessing to the world.
And I have complete confidence that we have the resources here at Wesley to be such a blessing. When I stand up here and speculate or preach or blather away or whatever you want to call what I do up here, but when I stand up here and look out I see so many gifted, passionate committed people that I know that we can be that blessing that can change the world. There are so many talented people who are imbued with love and compassion that I know we can be the salt of the earth that release love and justice into our neighborhood and into to the wider world. We have the resources right here. All we need is to choose. All we need is to choose to be chosen. Amen.
We are stories and water. That is what a friend mine who blogs under Black Coffee Poet said when I told him that our worship committee had approved moving to the Narrative Lectionary. The Narrative Lectionary was developed by some folks from Luther College in Minneapolis a few years ago because the Revised Common Lectionary, which we have been using until now, doesn’t capture the flow of the story of the Bible. It tends to be episodic and makes it difficult for us to know our stories. And we are stories and water. Stories are important. Our stories form us and our world and it is important that we know them.
Thomas King, the Cherokee writer and activist in his book The Truth About Stories tells us that the truth about stories is that is all we are. King quotes the Okanagan storyteller Jeanette Armstrong who says, “Through my language I understand I am being spoken to, I’m not the one speaking. The words are coming from many tongues and mouths of Okanagan people and the land around them. I am a listener to the language’s stores, and when my words form I am merely retelling the same stories in different patterns.”
When I tell a story I’m not just painting a picture of some events that either happened or didn’t happen. When I tell a story I am channeling all the other people who told the story before me. I am channeling all the cultural events that contrived to make the story what it is. Or more accurately all the cultural events that contrived to make the story possible. Stories form who we are as individuals and as a community and as a society.
It’s not just biblical stories either. We have stories about the formation of our country, about western civilization, about the Roughriders and the Banjo Bowl, even about Wesley. I wonder what our stories would tell us about ourselves. And all these stories are important. Stories are important.
In western European culture we have lost some of the respect that I believe we should have for stories. Thomas King had a professor who told him that you could not have a dependable literature without writing it down; that an oral Literature is a lesser literature. When we pair this notion with the story that Indigenous peoples don’t have any history writing we can see how this privileging of the written word could be damaging. Not all stories are good stories. The one about indigenous cultures being limited to oral literature is not a good story. It is not even based in truth. There are many examples of hieroglyphics being used to keep records.The Aztecs had a library to rival the library at Alexandria until it was burned down by Spanish Conquistadors. So you see, it is possible to have written literature and oral literature thrive side by side. But in the west we have denigrated oral literature and lionized the written word.
This kind of thinking has caused harm to us as individuals and the communities we live in. This is what is called the Tyranny of the Written Word. It has been especially harmful in reading the bible. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading and I love reading the bible. And much of the bible lends itself to be written down. The Poetry of Psalms, Job and Isaiah and the prophets is dependent on clever wordplay, double entendre and metaphor as it cries out for justice in this world. Also lending itself to be written down are the laws and lists. But stories are another matter.
Our stories didn’t lend themselves to being written down, at least not as a replacement to telling them. We have taken stories that some level need to be spoken and written them in the proverbial stone. What the words say must not and cannot be changed. They story is frozen in time and space. For example, it is perpetually Adam’s rib that is removed to generate grow eve like an alien in a science fiction story. But wait, when I told the story to the children I didn’t use a rib. Rather, I had God manually divide Adam into two beings, Adam and Eve. Who gave me the right to do that? Well, I didn’t make it up. In fact I was referring to a particular Midrash. Midrash is a method that Rabbis have long used to try to explicate biblical stories. A Midrash will tell the story differently or tell another story that will shed new light on the original story. The purpose is to understand the story and the world better, through the practice of storytelling.
In fact, I think one of the most beautiful things about stories is that they in fact do change. They change to reflect and to affect the changing world in which we live. King starts every chapter in The Truth About Stories with the same paragraph. In this much repeated paragraph he tells us that every time he hears a story it is a little different. Sometimes it is in the voice of the storyteller, sometimes it is in the details, sometimes it is in the interaction with the audience. There are always changes. But some part of the stories remains unchanged. While there are changes there is also constancy as well.
When I tell biblical stories to the children I change them for them for the theology. I want the children to know that God is good all the time. And I want the children to know that they are loved. They are loved no matter what because they are inherently lovable. There can be changes but some constancy is required. And foremost in constancy is the presence and importance of love in the world. So both change and constancy are important to stories.
In the first creation story I told the children I tried to amalgamate the first creation story in Genesis and the story of the Big Bang. I was trying to tell the story in light of scientific knowledge so that the children might learn to value only facts and scientific knowledge also a sense of wonder. I’m not sure how well this worked but that’s OK. Stories are permeable and malleable. And in the Noah story, I pictured God not as interventionist who tries to save the world by destroying the whole world but as a God of love who never do something like that. I tried picture a God who cares for us and our well-being and the well-being all creation. A God of love who only wants best for us and all the animals and the plants and all of creation. That is how I imagine God to be: a God of love who is never coercive but always persuasive; consistently calling us to act in the way that most engenders love, justice, beauty and adventure.
Stories are important. We are stories and water. They help us to understand ourselves and the world. And the story we heard today, the flood story wrestles with the existence of horrible, horrible evil that exists to this day. Massive floods like Katrina that destroyed so many people’s lives still occur. And evil perpetrated by human beings exists as well. For example, the scientists tell us of a looming environmental crisis that might make floods like Katrina a common occurrence. In fact, our children may face an environmental disaster of our making that could conceivably tip their world in to mob rule. There is a chance that children born today will not live out their full lives but that their lives will be shortened by the destruction of the planet. But our stories say something different. And perhaps with the help of our stories we can have a different world.
Today we have heard parts of two creation stories. Actually the first creation story was two stories interwoven or perhaps smushed together so that is three creation stories. And, I’m not making this up some scholars think that the flood story may have been first told as a creation story. We can at least hear it as a re-creation story. So that’s four. And all of the ancient creation stories tell us that creation is good.
In the first creation story it is only when God looks at all of creation, all the plants and animals and birds and the creeping things and even human beings and proclaims that it is very good. All of it. All of creation is very good. The Noah story echoes this sentiment when God promises all of creation not just human beings but all of creation that God would never try to destroy the world. For God so loves the world. And this promise, heard in the light of wrestling with the existence of massive evil of the world shows us how God chooses to relate with world. God resists the evil in the world. God desires the well-being for all of creation. God desires the salvation of the world.
In fact, one of the most important themes of our scripture is the salvation of the world. From the flood story to the, to the story of the Hebrew peoples to the prophets to the live ministry and resurrection of Jesus the Christ the bible is always asking the question: How can the world be saved? I know salvation has become a dirty word in many liberal united churches because of Substitutionary Atonement Theology that has done great harm to the church and the world. Substitutionary Atonement holds that we are inherently evil and that we can only be saved through belief on Christ. That has contributed to the rampant individualism and exclusion of people of different faiths and indeed all of creation. I am not advocating some kind of personal salvation that harms and excludes.
But Substitutionary Atonement is an attempt, even though a poor and damaging one, to answer the question: what does salvation look like? What I think is that salvation looks like the salvation of the world. If you read scripture through the lens of the Gospels, through the stories of Jesus then you almost have to think of salvation of the world including the end of poverty the end of hunger, the end of suffering. I think this is what the salvation of the world means. A world where hunger and suffering are no more.
I know that seems impossible but we are still called to try. That means that our decisions should be made in the interests of reducing the suffering of the world. I know you have to pick up the kids at dance and pay the bills and all that. But as Christians all our decisions, all of our lives should be pointed to the reduction of suffering of the world.
And even though we may be overwhelmed and think that we are doomed perhaps we can take courage in today’s stories. Perhaps we can see God promising us that there is hope. When God proclaimed that all of creation is good, when God proclaimed God will never destroy the world, God promised that God will always be with us.
And as sign of this covenant God placed a rainbow in the sky. The rainbow is the sign that God is with us; a sign that there is hope. Hope that we can create a better world, a world without suffering and despair. Maybe when we look at a rainbow we remember the promise that God has made. That death and destruction are not inevitable. That a just and righteous world is possible. Maybe when we look at a rainbow we can hope. Amen.
Thomas King, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, (Toronto : House of Anansi Press Inc.), 2003.
As we plow through the book of Acts like a John Deere on the Saskatchewan prairie, in the second half of Acts we turn to the story of Paul as he travels around the Mediterranean 2000 years ago. As I said last week, Paul certainly evangelized in a way that would make most United Church folk uncomfortable. I mean, I don’t know of any churches that have an evangelizing committee. Probably any evangelizing committee is doomed to failure. This might not be such a bad thing. The history of Christian evangelism is checkered at best. While there can be something beautiful about sharing your deepest beliefs about love and the universe and what it means to be a follower of The Way it is impossible to dissociate the practice from colonialism and subjugation. Perhaps that is not was intended or practiced by Paul. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Paul for the ways in which the church has evangelized.
Still and all, it might be with some trepidation that we hear of Paul going down to the praying place when he arrives in Philippi. Paul, Timothy and Silas make their way down the dusty path to the river, water being a source of life and a source of the sacred. So Paul makes his way down to the “praying place” where he encounters Lydia. Now, Lydia is already a worshipper of God, so we might presume that she is, like Paul, Jewish. Remember that at the time the book of Acts was written the Jewish people and their religion as in flux. A generation or two earlier in the 70th year of the Common Era the Romans had had enough of the constant political turmoil in Palestine and had sent in the legions to destroy the Temple which was the center of the Jewish religion. Not only did they raze the Temple but they dispersed the Judeans through the Roman Empire. The Jewish religion, without the Temple was forced to change radically. This change took several forms, including Rabbinic Judaism, Gnosticism and Paul’s understanding of Christianity. So Lydia, down by the riverside, was convinced by Paul’s enthusiasm and agrees to become a follower of The Way and is baptized along with her household.
And the first thing Lydia did as a follower of the way was invite Paul, Timothy and Silas to stay at her home. This passage is touted as a beacon of Hospitality, a venerable Christian tradition. Hospitality is the practice of inviting people into your home and treating them like family or whatever is better than family. Lydia is lifted up as a paragon of hospitality. Of course hospitality isn’t exclusive to Christianity. It is an ancient Jewish practice but it is central to many religions. It is by no means limited to religions. Many secular communities and organizations do it as well or better than many religions. My point is that hospitality is a central practice of Christianity and Lydia is held up as a shining example.
But Lydia’s hospitality is not what is most peculiar about her and I am fascinated by the peculiar. No, what is most peculiar about Lydia is that she is the leader of a household. Under the Roman Empire, this would have been outrageous. The Roman Household, which was central the structure of Roman, society was exclusively led by men who were granted pretty much total control of everyone in the household, even their younger brothers, in fact all the younger males. Households were complex hierarchies which varied depending upon the size of the household but the head of the household was always the Patron, a man.
But here is Lydia, a woman, leading the household. The text says that, “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us. Lydia is a woman at the head of a household. Scholars differ about how well off she was. Some point out that she is a dealer of purple cloth and purple is the colour of Royalty. Surely, Lydia must have earned a fine living selling fine purple cloth to the Roman elite. Others aren’t so sure. Ivoni Reimer Richter questions the “evidence that the production and sale of purple goods ever played an important economic role in Philippi”; and that such production was in fact considered both “dirty work” and “the work of women.” She therefore speculates that Lydia and her household ran a small-scale, subsistence-level operation, near the river, since water was needed in the process, where the cloth was both made and distributed.”
Lydia and her friends had created an “Alternate Space” by creating a discrete societal unit that differed so radically from the norm: a household of women headed by a woman. It is easy to see the motivation behind the creation of such spaces. Women living under the Roman Empire would have an extremely limited level of freedom. You can see the draw of these alternative spaces.
The lure of Alternative Spaces exists to this day. As you may have noticed the council at Wesley has approved the starting of the process of becoming an Affirming Ministry. Of course Sunset has been an Affirming Ministry for many years and I know that Whitmore Park, like Wesley has an inclusive marriage policy. But a few folks from Wesley have wondered about entering into the process of becoming an Affirming Ministry. And if we enter into the process authentically, with a curiosity and with love then we may encounter some alternative spaces because they exist in the queer community.
One such alternative space that has fascinated me is the Trans Lady Picnic which was started by Red Durkin in Brooklyn New York. Durkin is a comedian and activist who noticed and experienced how difficult it can be for trans ladies to make friends. Even in queer communities it is hard. For some reason Trans Ladies often seem to get squeezed to the margins and there is a tendency for trans women toward isolation. Of course, this is part of the challenges that trans women face. Making friends is an important part of a healthy life. But I don’t want to turn this into a pity party because Trans Lady Picnics are supposed to be fun. They are supposed to be a casual fun space to meet people and make friends.
Durkin tells us that, “The Trans Ladies Picnic is not a structured meeting or support group. Name tags are not required. Sitting in a circle is not required. Roll call, getting-to-know-you games, and structured sharing are not required. TLP is also not an accountability circle, a space for group processing, a play party, a dating service or a symposium on trans theory. All that stuff’s great, but Trans Ladies Picnics are for organic, casual socializing. Leave your drama at the door, do your processing afterward, have accountability before you get there. TLP should be fun!” So I am not complaining how hard it is for trans women. That’s not what I want to do today. I just want to acknowledge a problem and an interesting fun way to address the problem.
One of the integral practices of the Trans Lady Picnic is that attendance is limited to trans women or other trans people who were designated to be male when they were born. No allies, or friends or partners or trans men or non-trans women. It is a space for trans women or other Trans people who were designated to be male when they were born. On the other hand you should never police people’s genders. If someone arrives who you think looks like a man and says their name is Susan the only to you the only possible response is “Nice to meet you Susan, the salads go over there and the pop and the chips are over by the barbecue.” Durkin days that if you make your intentions clear and trust that people will respect your wishes and if all else fails have fun anyway. She says it has NEVER been a problem.
As a trans lady, the idea of a trans lady picnic sounds awesome. I love its simplicity and creating a trans lady only space is important. It removes a ton of pressure and allows people to simply be. Of course, in a way, limiting attendance to trans ladies inhibits the hospitality. The exclusivity negates it. All are NOT welcome. But there is a reason for this. Part of the reason this is necessary because there is a hierarchy to hospitality. The person giving the hospitality has an advantage. They are offering something, whether it is space, a meal or even companionship. There are power dynamics at play which make hospitality difficult.
Durkin has taken other steps to alleviate and reduce these power differentials. She insists that the picnics should be free. Not pay what you can or free will donation. Make it a potluck with perhaps chips and pop supplied. This serves to flatten out the hierarchies that invade communities. She even says, “specifically they are meant to serve as an active disruption from the model in which trans women can only have what is provided and approved for them.” They are created by trans women for trans women so that trans women have control over their own community. Hospitality, with its inherent hierarchies, is not the model here.
Susan Kennel Harrison identifies another problem with hospitality. She acknowledges that it is an “important practice but she says that we can offer hospitality without commitment to one another. Instead she advocates friendship which she says, offers a kind of glue that has more staying power than hospitality. Hospitality may serve as the bridge to develop a friendship, but it does not bind us to one another in any concrete way. It may give us the window to discover and begin to understand each other as religious communities, as tribes, as different cultures, as nations, but if things get tense or uncomfortable there is nothing holding us in relationship, nothing that makes us return to one another.”
Friendship and hospitality are part of the Christian tradition. As is evangelism. However if I was at a trans lady picnic and Paul, Timothy and Silas showed up looking for converts then I would be more than little nervous. I’d be reaching for my mace. When they asked if I knew Jesus: Sssssssssst. I’m just joking. I don’t have any mace. I’ve stopped carrying it ever since the incident. Again, that’s just a joke. Honestly, given the history of the way the church has acted toward trans women and other queer folk I’d be silly not to be suspicious. Evangelism is not the answer.
Hospitality with its inherent hierarchies is insufficient as well. Perhaps friendship is the answer. But friendship must be offered without demanding a return. We must not offer friendship in place of evangelism but, instead, offer friendship for its own sake. The very act of the offering must be sufficient for us. And if friendship is offered authentically and in love, without reservation or expectation of return then maybe, just maybe the actual offering may be part of the healing of the world.
Susan Kennel Harrison, http://www.stateofformation.org/2014/07/hospitality-or-friendship/
SUNDAY MORNING STUDY GROUP SERVICE, WESLEY UNITED CHURCH,
MAY 25, 2014
The May 25the service was led by members of the Sunday Morning Study Group. Five members of the Study Group delivered reflections, readings or prayers. All but one of these – Catherine Maloney’s reflection on hope – are reproduced below. The Study group is now in summer recess, but will begin meeting again on September7. Please consider joining us.
I. REFLECTION: THE WORD MADE FLESH JOHN WHYTE
The gospel attributed to John starts with these words: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And later, it says, “And the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
The notion of Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is not as much of a mystery as, at first glance, it might seem. The Word is the force behind creation. It is the spirit of creation, the ideal on which creation was formed. It is the power of blessing or grace that formed the world and all that is in it. It is, if you like, the wisdom and power of God.
Flesh is what we have, what is here. It is the material reality of our world. It is our actions and our choices. It is often the place of our strivings, our ambitions and our fears. The John gospel starts by fusing two realms that seem distinct but, in fact, are not – the first is the realm of creativity and blessedness, of awareness and memory, spirit and hope, some say the realm of divine presence. The other realm is the material world that we live in, and experience and negotiate with every day – and all of the time. The joining of these is profound. It is the central point of Christianity and, I believe, it is a lesson that flows from all religions. It brings into lives of action and relationship the grace of goodness. It encourages our understanding of how we can realize the promise, the love and the hope of the Word. Religion’s hope is that the spirit of blessed creation will show us how our lives can reflect creation’s fullness, generosity and love.
For Christians, the idea of God’s incarnation in the form of Jesus is a particularly powerful way of linking the holiness of creation to the way we choose and act. God is with us and is a part of us. Flesh – the materiality of the world – has becomes imprinted by, and made part of, the Word. That is also why Christians pay such attention to the gospels – their message is that Jesus has pointed, through his remarkable words and deeds, how our lives should reflect creation’s spirit of love.
It is also revealing, I think, that the metaphor for the holy wisdom that lies behind creation is the Word – or words – or language. There is nothing so contingent, nothing so mediated by our experience, our knowledge, our understanding, our wisdom, and our values, as our language. Jews may understand this better than Christians; it is a more openly interpretive religion than ours often seems to be. You know how the gospels stories are always painting rabbis and layers, Pharisees and scribes as disputatious and challenging. What they are being challenging about is the meaning of texts. It is a struggle over words. This is a not a bad thing, and certainly not a stupid thing. All text is contingent. All text has to make sense in relation to all we know. One generation’s ideas about the meaning and purposes of a text can never serve as the answer to the next generation’s questioning. In our lives and in society we live by eminent texts – love letters and constitutions, anthems and the Bible, political slogans and poetry – and we need constantly to search for the meanings of all of these that resonate fully and deeply with what we, with our critical brains and instincts, have come to know and understand.
By the placing of the mystery of creation within the fluidity of language, we are invited to an on-going interpretive engagement with that holy source. Our own capacity for naming and understanding this is affirmed. Our faith is, indeed, our faith.
So that’s a general introduction to the things that we, as active Christians try to think about. We try to understand what living faithfully actually means – what we have learned from the Christian tradition, its theological writings, the Bible – especially the gospels – about how to live faithfully. Like all of you, we seek the way to connect the Christian idea of holy living with the things that we do, that our businesses do, and that our governments do, in a world of actual events, actual conflicts, and actual needs. And in doing this we do well to read the works of others who open our hearts and minds to the interpretations of Christian faith that bring our understanding of it out of the context in which the Bible was written and into the world that we struggle with today. In short, we are engaged in the inevitable human business of seeking a connection between a world of spiritual awareness and the world that we live in and are an active part of – between the Word and Flesh.
II. REFLECTION ON KAREN ARMSTRONG’S TWELVE STEPS TO A COMPASSIONATE LIFE MILDRED HARPER
About three years ago copies of a “Charter for Compassion” were circulated in this church, as it was in many places of faith and secular centres around the world. I read it at the time and thought to myself – what nice warm, fuzzy, motherhood words - and just about as meaningless. However, a couple of years ago the group that gathers here most Sunday mornings decided to read, think about and discuss Karen Armstrong’s book ”Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” written about this very same Charter. Given that Karen Armstrong has been described as “one of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world”, and is also a skillful writer with a razor-sharp mind, it was clearly time to pay attention.
The challenge she poses, in her own words, is this: “One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, (or) Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule …. Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody – even your enemies … ”
She then points out that the world is now dangerously polarized at the same time as it is more closely bound together than ever before by the electronic media. We are hostage to growing rage fueled by poverty and violence, and by terrorism which threatens us all. All-out war is no longer an option, but what is there?
While the Charter itself and Armstrong’s challenge for the global community are directed to both secular traditions and religious ones, her thinking seems to be that because all world religions put the Golden Rule at the centre of their teaching, all religion has an important role to play in bringing this teaching into practice. Therefore adherents of all religions – including Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity among others – are called to “restore compassion to the center of morality and religion” and to “return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of the scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate.”
Compassion is not to be understood as pity, nor is it self-sacrifice or martyrdom; it is closer to empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to understand what another is feeling and thinking, his or her needs, and how, or if, those needs can be met. We are all familiar with acts of compassion in our own lives having either experienced or heard about them, and we respond with admiration and gratitude. Sometimes these acts are immediate and instinctive, as when a child is pulled out of harm’s way or when, as happened in Sochi, a Russian cross-country skiing competitor broke his pole in a race and a Canadian coach passed him a new pole saying by way of explanation, “This is his country and it was important that he be able to finish the race”. While we know compassion when we see it, and it is rare enough in our personal experience, it is almost non-existent in the public sphere of global interaction.
Two things in Armstrong’s book give me hope. The first is that it recognizes that no one country, race, individual, or any religious, philosophical, or political persuasion has a monopoly on compassion. Her arguments are addressed to all men and women. The twelve steps she outlines are to help us imagine and understand the “others” with whom we share the planet so that we can engage them with respect.
There is no doubt that, as is often pointed out, we are “hardwired” for survival. Our primitive or “reptilian brain” is the source of the strong, basic drives without which the human species could not have survived; we still need them and could not discard them even if we wished. But over many thousands of years a new brain, the neocortex, also developed alongside the reptilian, and this enabled humans to think, reason, reflect, and then to care for others. In other words, our brain is also hardwired for compassion. There are many examples from philosophy, myths, and history that show that, because we are thinking beings, we can moderate our actions; we can work with our primitive brain without letting the old impulses determine our reactions. And this is my other reason to hope – that, while any progress will inevitably be slow and messy, with hard work it may still be possible.
III REFLECTION ON HOPE CATHERINE MALONEY
To be posted at a later date.
IV READINGS ON HOPE ROGER FRY
From Vaclev Havel, “Disturbing the Peace”
Hope is a state of mind, and not of the world. Either we have hope or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world, or estimate of the situation. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. … Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously leading to success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more propitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
From speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
V REFLECTION ON PRAYER AND PRAYER LINDA PRATT
Today I have been entrusted with leading our prayer time.
As we seek to explore and expand our beliefs and practices, questions about prayer arise: "What is prayer, why do we pray, to whom do we pray?" I am not able to answer all of those questions today, but I would like to share my personal approach to prayer.
A number of years ago I realized that my current form for prayer was no longer meaningful for me. Once that happened I spent considerable time wondering about prayer. This has been particularly true as my understanding of the Sacred has moved away from a God who hears and responds to prayers.
Through my contemplation and study I have come to a place where I am comfortable with my personal form of prayer. I use the term "personal" because my prayer arose from a weekend that was devoted to developing an individual prayer for each of the attendees and this is what I am sharing with you today.
I believe that prayer is not about changing the heart or mind of God, but is more about our own transformation. Prayer and meditation give us time apart from words and allow us to travel from our minds to our hearts. For this to happen, our prayers need to include time to listen--time to be silent.
I'd like to explain the content of my simple prayer and how I use it and then I will ask you to join me. I usually pray this prayer at the end of the day, just before sleep and I admit that I don't always get all the way to the end before falling asleep.
The first line of my prayer is: "I am grateful for this day". I then review the day thinking of each of the good things that happened or that existed around me. This includes being grateful for the small, everyday things: I am grateful for a great morning cup of coffee, I am grateful that my partner made me breakfast, I am grateful that I had time to relax and read the morning papers, I am grateful for a sunny day, and so on. I only list positive things, and as I prepare for sleep I am ready for good dreams.
The second line of my prayer is "with my love I surround and support". Here I think about family members, friends and others in the world who need care and support. I think of each of them, one by one, surrounding them with my love. While focusing on an individual I gather the type of energy that I think might be helpful to them and I send it to them. This might be courage for an upcoming challenge, health to face acute or chronic illness, stillness from the pressures of life, love in the presence of grief, whatever is appropriate for their situation.
The next component is a quiet, listening. "In silence I am." Here I am quiet, letting go of the mind's busy thoughts, quietly listening. Of course, my mind doesn't always cooperate in this silence as it seems to always want to be very busy. I notice these thoughts, let them go, and just slowly breathe and with each breath repeat, "In silence, I am, and again, in silence, I am."
From the silence I move to the joy of stating that I am made of stardust – science tells that we are all made of star dust. What a wondrous concept and one I celebrate each day. It truly means that we are one with all of nature – with the whole universe.
The final step is to honour the spirit, or God, if you prefer, in each of us – Namaste .
Now, sit back, relax, and join with me in prayer. I will lead you through each statement followed by silence to allow you to formulate your personal prayer statements. There is no need for you to do anything other than consider your own being, your own situation.
Let us pray:
We are grateful for this day. In silence we list those things for which we are grateful. (Pause).
With our love we surround and support, gather and send healing energy.
In silence I am. (Pause).
Celebrate the thought that each of us is made of stardust and are one with all creation.
Namaste--I honour the spirit, in each of you.
Amen--so be it.
This is the day of Pentecost, an important day on the Christian Calendar. In fact, I believe that after Easter and perhaps Good Friday Pentecost is the most important date for Christians. Pentecost, the Greek word for fiftieth, arrives on the fiftieth day after Easter. There are two common themes that lift up the importance of Pentecost. One is the birth of the church. That is the story of the book of Acts, which is the telling of the first Christian community by the author of Luke. In fact, what we heard in today’s passage from Acts was the first stirrings of that community initiated by tongues of fire and a mighty wind that blows through the house in which the disciples are hiding, blasting them out into the streets in a frenzy.
This brings us to the other symbol of Pentecost which is that it signifies the gift of the Spirit. That is the mighty wind that blows the disciples into action. The Greek word for wind is pneuma, which is also the Greek word for Spirit. So the mighty wind is code for the Spirit which forces the disciples out of hiding and into action. The narrative is that this is the advent of the Spirit, that this when the Spirit comes into the world. That prior to this there was no Spirit and after this event the Spirit was in the world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus explicitly tells the disciples when he breathes on them, to receive the Spirit. Remember that pneuma is also the word for breath. Pneuma is the word for Spirit, it is the word for breath, it is the word for wind. Pneuma. Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
But there is a problem with this notion of the “gift of the Spirit,” there is a problem with the notion that the Spirit is a new thing. The problem is that it privileges the Christian experience, it implies that Christians own the divine or that Christians have a special relationship to the holy. Too much of our history has been replete with Christian exceptionalism that imagines that we are the special people of God. When we first began colonizing Turtle Island there was a feeling that we were bringing God here, that we are the keepers of the divine, which is patently absurd.
The fact is, if you’re the kind of person who believes in facts, the fact is that the Spirit has been around since the dawn of creation. If we go back to the very beginning of the Hebrew bible, if we go back to the first verses of the first chapter of Genesis, if we go back the first creation myth, and I know that it is a myth it’s just that sometimes, well most times actually, I believe that myths are more important than so-called facts, if we go back the beginning we see the presence of the Spirit, the breath of God.
When we read the first verses of Genesis from the NRSV, the most common translation used in the United Church, we read: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” We hear of the wind from God, which in Greek is pneuma but in Hebrew is Ruah. The wind from God, the breath of God. The Ruah.
Catherine Keller offers a more poetic translation filled with transliterations. Listen to this: “When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was tohu vabohu, darkness was upon the face of tehom and the ruach elohim was vibrating upon the face of the waters.” Creator is Elohim, not the old man in the sky, not a being but a beyond-being, a mysterious “they” creating out the tohu vabohu, the pre-existent primal chaos that has been roiling since before time. Darkness was on the face of the tehom, the deep, the recondite roiling rush of ruckus, chaotic and unfathomable. The deep. And the ruah Elohim, the breath of the mysterious divine beyond the beyond, vibrated upon the face the deep, these wild waters, the tehom, the unknowable pre-creation.
Keller suggests that the ruach Elohim vibrated or pulsed over the chaotic deep. The spirit, the breath of God, the ruach Elohim is intrinsic to chaotic deep, the tehom. In the beginning was chaos and the ruah Elohim created out the chaos. The the ruah Elohim did not create order out of chaos per se but ordered some of the chaos into new creation.
Because we don’t have a cosmos, a Greek word privileging some imagined ordered universe. The universe is not a neatly ordered space. Instead we have is what James Joyce called the chaosmos. In Finnefan’s wake Joyce writes that the “chaosmos of Alle anyway connected in the gobbleydumped turkerey was moving and changing every part of the time.” What Joyce poetically understood was that order does not rule the universe but that chaos is intrinsic to reality. Chaos theory tells us that complex organization cannot come into being through orderly step by step growth. Such systems tend to stagnation, folding in upon themselves, stick in a cul-de-sac, never changing enough to complexify. Instead for complex organizations to occur chaos is necessary, randomly unsettling, jiggling the system just enough that new orders and new ways of being come about. Chaos is a necessary part of new life.
And the Spirit is a kind divine chaotic force, The Spirit rushes though our lives and our worlds, eroding our ossified ideas and our desire for stability and sameness. The Spirit is the mysterious trickster of the Elohim pulling away our chairs just as we are about to take a seat so that we have a comic pratfall. The spirit always keeps us guessing and won’t let us settle into the 19th century binaries like good and evil, black and white, male and female, god or no-god. The spirit is always on the move; it won’t sit still and won’t let us sit still.
The spirit is the mighty wind that wouldn’t let the disciples sit still; blowing through the house they were hiding in. David Lose suggests that the Spirit may not have been welcome, that the Spirit doesn’t solve our problems but creates them. If it weren’t for the Spirit, the disciples might have gone back to their previous lives as fisherman. You can imagine James and John the sons of Zebedee talking to Peter and saying, “You know, it was a great run and Jesus was amazing and all but maybe we better get back to Galilee and take over the family business. But the Spirit will have none of it. There is no return to normalcy; instead the disciples are driven out into the world to spread the bizarre news that God has brought new creation into the world through an itinerant preacher from the rural north who was crucified for treason. The Spirit doesn’t solve our problems but creates them.”
And we here ate Wesley have to get in the way of the Spirit and embrace the problems the Spirit makes for us. We need to get out into the world and engage the challenges of our neighbourhood of our world. We need to engage the neighbourhood and the challenges of new Canadians struggling to understand a new language and a new culture, of University students trying to grow into adulthood, of First Nations University as it nurtures indigenous folk into life in 21st century Canada while at the same time nurturing Canada into a post-colonial country. The Spirit doesn’t let us off the hook.
And Lose points out that not only does the Spirit come creating problems it also comes “inviting failure. It invites us to fulfillment and right relationship through our setbacks and our failures.” Failure is not only an option it is inevitable, the problems facing the world are too huge and complex for simple solutions. It is only through trial and error that we can approach solutions to such overwhelming problems. The chaos of the Spirit is the spirit of innovation and new creation. And this is good news. There is reason for optimism. “An optimist is someone who figures that taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster it’s more like a cha-cha.” Failure is a good thing. We must embrace failure if we are to be agents of the chaotic Spirit.
And that is my hope for us here at Wesley United Church is that we go out into the world and embrace failure; that we innovate and fall down and get up in the interests of co-creating a better world. That we see failure as Spirit dancing. Doing the chaha. That like Peter quoted we shall see visions and we shall dream dreams. That we dream of a better world, a more just world. That we have visions of the beloved community where strife and inequality are no more and that through chaos and failure we can participate in the genesis of new creation. Amen.
ReferencesCatherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, (New York, Routledge), 2003.
David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1575
The Mind Unleashed, https://www.facebook.com/TheMindUnleashed?fref=photo