Category Archives: Thoughts

Easter Reflection: Dad, why did you go to church?

Richard Smith – Wembley Downs UCA, WA.

My Son asked: Why did you go to Church this Easter?

Good Friday from God’s Friday was a reminder about the Domination Systems of political power that amass wealth at the expense of the poor causing social distress, extreme environmental damage and climate chaos. Jesus is remembered because he pushed back against the Domination System of the Roman Empire which responded by having him publically tortured and killed, a warning to others, do not mess with the system.  Modern Domination systems continue with modern weapons and cyber techniques as the normalcy of civilisation where violence in its many evolving forms is the human choice of resolving difference.

Jesus advocated for the Kingdom of God where everything to be shared, is shared equitably. Gospel or Good News for the poor, but warning to the rich to share their wealth and knowledge. This kingdom was named after God’s image because at Creation it was shared equally among all of humankind (Genesis 1:26), to be experienced as “God is Love” (1 John 4:8).

On Easter Sunday, the Resurrection is the metaphor that despite his untimely death Jesus’ advocacy of the Kingdom of God would live on and be vindicated.  St Paul (AD 53-54)  used the evolutionary concept of a seed being planted and dyeing before new life could emerge to offer the opportunity of an evolutionary step forward or alternatively extinction by a process of self-destruction (1 Cor. 15). The choice is ours to make or ignore, to live or to die, to plant and to harvest or create a dry desert.

Jesus’ advocacy has weaved its evolutionary way through history reducing violence and bringing the peace many enjoy today. The sharing of political power through representative democracy has brought peace and universal systems of welfare, education, health, child care and human rights. But the normalcy of civilisation continues with all the modern forms of rhetoric and force, to reassert its desire for Domination leaving many is distress.

The cycle of such violence in Jesus’ prayer is broken by practising justice, mutual forgiveness and resisting the use of violence (Matt 6 11-13). Violence creates more violence in an escalatory process which is the bible’s the earliest definition of Sin (Genesis 4.6-7). Thus Jesus dies not for our sins, but by dying for his advocacy he exposed the sin of humankind and revealed an alternative way of living for peace through non-violence.

Why then Church? Religion derives from the Latin word religo “Conscious concern for that which matters” for which the people have regularly gathered as the Synagogue, Ecclesia or Church.   One concern of contemporary human consciousness is the social, environmental and economic sustainability of our world and our diminishing ability to hand it on to the next generation in a better condition than we found it.

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Hope that demands action

A message presented to the congregation at St Andrews UC, Creek Street, Brisbane yesterday by

Dr Mike Pope,

Professor of Environmental Mission, Missional University, Ethos Environment Coordinator, Ethos: EA Centre for Christianity and Society

A sermon on Romans 8:19-23 preached by Dr Mick Pope at St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Brisbane, April 7 2019.

Introduction

I’d like to begin by thanking you for the invitation to speak to you this morning. But I also have to have to brag at your expense. For those who follow Rugby Union, the Melbourne Rebels were up here a couple of weeks ago and beat the Queensland Reds. There is something else Victoria beats you at, although I am less proud to speak about it.

We had our hottest summer on record, along with four other states. However, as a consolation prize it was your hottest January on record, with rainforest damaged by fire, and record breaking rains in Townsville. All of this consistent with long term warning trends, and the warmest Australian summer on record. Now I know that some in the churches are unwilling to accept that climate change is real, but I want you to suspend your disbelief if that is you and come along on a journey with me.

Recently, roughly 150,000 Australian school kids participated in the school climate strike, and I attended during my lunch break in support. I was very proud of them. The strike is an expression of their anger at politicians on both side of the spectrum, whom they believe are not delivering enough on climate change. This generation is growing up in a different climate to the one you and I have, and they have fear and anxiety about the future.

When I went home, a friend of mine who writes for Eternity News, a Christian website, asked me to jump onto their Facebook page and answer some of the comments on a piece they had published. The article spoke about two Christian schoolgirls who had attended the strike. After 45 minutes of responding, I was despondent and had a stress headache. There was so much outrage, with comments of ‘fake news,’ poorly understood science, and poor theology.

What would you say to the youth of today? Particularly those within the church? Do you respond with denial, or simply say that God is in charge and not to worry about it? How does the church become more pro-active and less ­re-active on climate change?

Our text for this morning reads

20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Straight off the bat, Paul is making two big theological statements that say ‘God is in charge’:

  1. God has subjected creation to futility
  2. God will set it free

So doesn’t that wrap it all up? Can’t you say ‘Mick, there’s no more to say, just sit down?’ We I think that this passage begs three questions.

  1. What is the nature of this futility?
  2. How will creation be set free?
  3. Is there anything we can do?

So let’s look at each of these questions in turn.

1. What is the nature of this futility?

It is best to start at the beginning. If ever like me you have tried to read the bible from cover to cover, you would have started with Genesis. We learn about the beauty of creation and its great blessing, and human responsibility in Genesis 1-2. In Genesis 1 we learn that to be made in the image of God means to be fruitful and multiply, and subdue the earth, which means to engage in agriculture and feed ourselves. In Genesis 2 and verse 15, we learn of our vocation to care, tend, and keep the earth. We have an intimate relationship with the soil, the pun from the Hebrew being humans from the hummus. And then in Genesis 3, it all goes pear shaped, or better still apple shaped. Our relationship with the soil becomes cursed. We see the same thing at end of the book of Deuteronomy where Moses warns the people of Israel to remain faithful. Human disobedience leads to broken relationships with the soil.

So the subjection to frustration in Romans is due to the fact that God has let us run it – and what a fine job we’ve done of polluting the air and water, cutting down trees, warming the climate, and killing all the animals (60% of all living things in less than 50 years).

In Rome, Paul could also see the devastation that human misrule brought. He could see the regular silting up of the Tiber River because all of the trees had been cleared, and it needed to be dredged regularly. Although Paul and the ancients did not understand this, this swampy ground was the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. In 452 AD, those brave Huns were afraid to enter Rome because of the bad air, or malaria. There is evidence to show that malaria was one of the factors that was involved in the collapse of Rome. The air quality was also poor. Philosopher and Senator Seneca (4BC – 65 AD) wrote that

“No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city and the reek of smoking cookers, which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated … I noticed the change in my condition at once.”

Paul was making an observation then not in the abstract, but in the particulars of how Roman misrule produced damage to the world around him. In Romans chapter 1, he identifies the root of these problems, that we make idols out of things like wealth and power. Reformer John Calvin identified the heart as an idol factory, and Paul would agree, and link that idolatry to damage to creation.

In our day, Pope Francis notes in the encyclical Laudato Si’ that “the present ecolog­ical crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity.” In other words, the worship of progress, technology, consumerism and individualism, which may have once been done in ignorance, is now done in full knowledge of the consequences for our world, God’s good creation. This is recognised both within and outside of the church. Environmentalist Gus Speth says “The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy … to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation … we scientists don’t know how to do that.” But we in the church do! We know about repentance. What is needed by the church is to join the dots between sin and repentance with issues of the environment.

2. How will creation be set free?

The answer to my second question, how will the creation be set free, is found in verses 22-23.

22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation is suffering now in birth pains, but that suffering will one day give way to joy. Any woman here who has carried a child will know what this is like. I can remember watching my own wife with her distended belly, it getting hard to get comfortable at night. But the suffering is all worth it when a child is born. What Paul is saying is that creation is longing for the resurrection of the dead like a pregnant woman groans for the baby to come out. Renewed humanity at the resurrection means a renewed relationship with the Earth, and not the abandonment of it. Christianity is not just about going to heaven when you die like some Christians believe. Anglican theologian Tom Wright has said that heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world. The future of us and the future of the creation are entangled together.

What this means is that we have a message of hope to offer the world. But what does that mean for the here and now?

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Easter Reflection: Resurrection repeated every day in our lives

Don Whebell

Reading: John 20: 1-18

She had gone there to anoint a dead body – who has stolen it? She finds it easier to believe in the night-time antics of grave-robbers than in the night-time antics of a God who refuses to let death have the last word.

The Easter story begins with someone who many had written off as a lost cause: Mary Magdalene. When she reaches Jesus’ tomb she finds that the stone had been rolled away…

When Peter and the Beloved Disciple hear her story they immediately head for the tomb – and we have a great marvellous action-picture of the Easter jog! The Beloved Disciple [his name was John] seems to be a better sprinter than Peter. He reaches the tomb first, looks in to see the cloths lying about …and waits for Peter, who catches up and goes straight in as you would expect of him!

The climax of the Story is the Beloved Disciple following Peter in. He sees the same evidence as Peter does – and more: he sees more than discarded cloths: he sees with the eyes of faith what this means.

            His is a love that sees through the dark.

One of he features of The Gospel According to John is a specially-mentioned love between Jesus and one of the Twelve. The Beloved Disciple is presented as the ideal follower of Jesus, the one who sits closest to him at The Supper, the one who stands at the foot of the Cross. Now in running to the tomb on Easter morning, the urgency of his love gets him there first, and he is the first to believe.

And some days later, when Jesus stands unrecognised on the lakeside, it is the Beloved Disciple who informs Peter: “It is the Lord!”His is a love that gets him there first.

In celebrating Easter we rejoice in the light that darkness cannot dim; we celebrate the God who raises Jesus from death and calls us from death to life.

We bless God for the faith that challenges us to see more in others as we respond to them with the grace and love that has touched and changed us.

It means that we take a part in the sufferings of the Risen Crucified One And take part in God’s protesting against the violence and suffering in the world… the violence and suffering that too often is accepted as an inevitable part of life in the world. Death is not just a fate that we meet at the end of our lives. We see death around us in the midst of life.

In that Easter Faith we catch a glimpse of the Messiah who makes us friends with each other because he has made us friends with God. The challenge of Easter is to understand the history of human suffering… and to understand the histories of our own sufferings… in the light of Jesus’ resurrection.

In an Easter sermon, theologian Jurgen Moltmann says:

            “Death is an evil power now – in life’s very midst.It is the economic death of the person we allow to starve…It is the political death of people who are oppressed… It is the noisy death that strikes through bombs and torture…It is the soundless death of the apathetic soul.”

To accept this litany of death as inevitable is to deny the power of the Resurrection for today. Resurrection faith faces the cross and protests against the finality of that violence on Calvary Hill. It calls us to see as God sees: to act as so many people have chosen to do when, with enormous courage, they refuse to worship the powers of darkness that use suffering and death to gain and keep power.

The Resurrection is a proclamation that this hanging, suffering outcast is the living Son of God, who cannot be held in the grip of death.

The truth that God raised Jesus from death gives hope, healing and health    to all who need that miracle to be repeated in the midst of a world that is cruel, harsh and empty of love.

We are convinced that God’s work continues: for we have been grasped by the words of the One who again and again says to us: “I am Resurrection    and I am life.  Those who trust me,  though they die,  yet shall live…”

We can catch something of the reality of the Resurrection when the light of new life bursts in upon us in the midst of the darkness of despair and hopelessness. We see it in hospital wards where nurses hug people back from death to life. We see it in the women and men who risk their own lives protesting against the dark, mindless violence inflicted by their fellow human beings. We see it in the disciples of Jesus who see in the dark what no one else sees.

For all this, we will rejoice. It is Easter in our midst. It is the refusal to accept that anyone should be left for dead. Listen – again – to the Basis of Union:

Paragraph 4:

Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes,     rules and renews us as his Church.

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Reflection: Why are we here?

Back before Copernicus and Galileo, we used to believe we were at the centre of the universe, and everything revolved around us. Then we worked out that we lived on one of nine planets that circled the sun, and later that we were in an arm of the Milky Way that circled its centre. We now know we are part of a supercluster of clusters of galaxies, called Laniakea.  

To the centre of our supercluster, called the Great Attractor, is about 250 light years. The distance to the edge of the observable universe is 46 bn light years away. For us the reality is that we sit at the centre of all we can observe in space. 

We have measured and mapped three “great walls” of galaxies, parts of a series of filaments of galaxies. We think all up to the observable edge, there are 1-2 trillion galaxies, of which we are capable of detecting about 100 billion.

So that is an awful lot of rock, and gas, some liquids, and nuclear fusion reactors to light up our night sky, just for nine billion human beings on one relatively very tiny planet, with only the sun and moon really of any interest to organisms other than us.

So that’s ten detectable galaxies each. As the author of the song about a sunburnt country might have put it, wilful and lavish. 

A recent paper even suggests that before the Big Bang, the point from which it came was the result of a previous universe shrinking to that point.

There is also evidence that the radiation flowing to us from the earliest days of the formation of the universe, the cosmic microwave background, is aligned with the plane of our solar system. Some cosmologists find it disconcerting that of all the solar systems in the universe, ours is at least one of those with this seemingly special alignment.

We are here, conscious, and self-aware, with the scientific skills to observe those things which are outside the radiation detection range of our eyes or detectable using instruments, and with the knowledge we have developed of maths. There is no one else that we know of who would know that the universe exists. Of the organisms on earth, only we know we exist. Our chances of ever holding a conversation with anyone else beyond our solar system are very low. Physics says that it would take nine years to receive a response from a planet near the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. (7.8 years for someone around in 11900 AD, when Barnard’s Star gets closer). 

We have somehow found ourselves with passions and emotions, some connected to sex, procreation and child-rearing.  Some positive, some negative. We are not the only species to experience some of these. 

Why all that, with just us here as far as we know or are likely to know, on this, relatively speaking, ultra tiny blue speck?

A variety of responses to our situation has arisen among us, some brute, some philosophical based on a shared view of what is reason. Some are grounded in experiences and beliefs which are considered to reflect an ultimate reality beyond anything we can observe logically. They give us a sense of where we “fit in”.

Geoff Taylor

Some readers may like to watch this, showing galaxy flow:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTws86Z_YI8

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12 Psychological Traits likely to affect dispositions of ‘progressives’ and ‘evangelicals’.

Psychology / our disposition to certain ways of responding to the world is very powerful. How much does psychology influence the preference of a person to take up an “Evangelical” or socially conservative view of the faith? The same question could be asked of socially progressive and theologically “liberal” Christians.

This post is not so much interested in the reason people are “Evangelical” or otherwise. Rather the concern is how do we navigate our relationships and build consensus when psychology is such an influence on our views of the world.

Go to: Making Church Decisions

Building Consensus Across Psychological Barriers

To say that there may be a psychological disposition to preferring an “Evangelical” or “liberal” expression of faith does not go to the question of who is right or wrong. However, it is important for us to understand this personal background so that we can have a better understanding of one another.

Terence Corkin is an ordained Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) and the former General Secretary for the Uniting Church in Australia. He is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and is a nationally accredited mediator.


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The Message “OF” Jesus: According to the Gospel of Mark

Six sermons by Smith, Rev John W H, author of “Honest To GOod”, Morning Star Publishing 2016.

Written in December 2018

“Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor never the tormented.”

                                Eli Wiesel, Jewish writer, Professor and political activist.

Suggestions – scroll down to the Conclusion to get an overview of John’s theme and background to this set of articles. Taste one….then come back for more!

Introduction

I have been requested by a number of parishioners from Stonnington Community Uniting Church to provide written copies of sermons that I presented while providing short term supply when their minister Rev Greg Crowe was on study leave.  I have taken the opportunity to add a further sermon from Mark’s Gospel set aside for Pentecost 19B, because it supports the theme set out by Mark in the other sermons.

The following is a written documentation of these sermons with an additional introductory explanatory essay and a short conclusive statement of the background to these sermons. I have also included, by request, two articles written for “Inspire” –  the Stonnington Community Uniting Church Newsletter.

I record here my sincere appreciation for the support I have received from my colleague and close friend Greg Crowe to respond to the requests of his parishioners. In particular I wish to thank my friend Faye Pattinson for her friendship and support to produce this booklet and especially for her keen proof-reading talent.

Foreword

“The Empowering Nature of Relationality.”

For a number of years now I have been writing and talking about my concern that Christian orthodoxy continues to emphasise a message about a divine Jesus rather than to proclaim the message of the human Jesus.

Firstly to understand the importance of this concern we need to read the sayings of Jesus in the context of their time.  The object of drawing these essays together is an attempt to understand in 21st century language the message of the human Jesus.  In the discourses Jesus shares with his disciples he does not imply that his person is the answer to the problems of the world.

Jesus does have a vision of what the world should accept as vital if people are to live positive and fulfilled lives.  Jesus refers to this vision as God’s domain or realm, which he affirms is present within and between the lives of his disciples and all people.  This is a realm that Jesus did not create or control, it was present before he was born. We find that in the ‘healing narratives’ Jesus states six times that a person’s healing comes from the sacred energy that resides within and is not because of his person or influence.  Nor does healing have to wait until Jesus is crucified.

This is the vision that Jesus is asking his disciples to affirm and this includes all who value their friendship with Jesus today.  His original disciples like us today, unfortunately continued to stare at his finger and not at where that finger was pointing.  Jesus vision was of a world where peace, justice and compassion expressed in our relationships with others would bring about ‘God’s Realm’ as defined by the gospel writers.  Perhaps the translation of the Greek ‘Basileia tou Theou’ does not truly reflect what Jesus means by the ‘Kingdom of God’.  Most scholars agree that Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic not Greek and the most likely word used by Jesus would have been the Aramaic ‘Malkuta’. This is important because unlike the Greek and English notion of Kingdom with all its imperial connotation of top down authority and obedience, the word ‘Malkuta’ denotes a concept of mutual empowerment, where power is equally shared and dispensed for the benefit of the receiver rather than the giver.

This definition of the ‘Kingdom’ fits well with Dominic Crossan’s concept that the ‘Kingdom’ is in reality a ‘Companionship of Empowerment’. So the call to “Seek first the Kingdom of God” is Jesus calling us to share in the ‘companionship of empowerment’ because in this companionship we will find that the ‘relational’ activity is what liberates, nurtures and leads us to a life of wholeness.  This is the Jesus vision.

Perhaps we might even suggest that Jesus is saying, “Don’t concentrate on looking at me, but reflect and contemplate on the relational nature that is unfolding within and around me.  If you contemplate this phenomenon you will discover what defines and constitutes the kind of person I am, because I am at all times the sum total of my personal relationships.”  (Diarmuid O’Murchu p115 2017)

This concept has been most engagingly affirmed by John Shelby Spong (2016 p140.)  “When we pray, Thy Kingdom come, it means that our eyes must be trained to see the sacred source of energy in each other.  It means that the ‘Kingdom’ is visible when we are empowered to live fully, love wastefully and be all that we are capable of being.  Clearly the work of the ‘Kingdom’ is the work of enhancing human wholeness.”

The attached essays were delivered as sermons to the Stonnington Community Uniting Church during the period of Pentecost in 2018.  These essays were based on the texts in the Gospel According to Mark.

These texts record the words of Jesus that provide us with some insight into the type of human being he was, but more importantly, they emphasise the importance of bringing to visibility through our relationships that we are companions in the empowerment of each other.

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Reflection: Oh my God! Meeting ‘God’ in the ‘thin places’

John W H Smith

 We all embark on tasks then wish that we hadn’t, because it becomes all too hard.    You try to walk away from the whole thing, but you find that it continues to nag at you until you go back and take up the cudgels again.  When I first began to explore the historical Jesus and tried to define what I believed God was it all seemed so exciting and straightforward, however I quickly discovered that this wasn’t the case.  Whilst I was able to question the traditional interpretation given of Jesus birth, the miracles and some of the sayings that were attributed to him; the logical consequence of what I did believe when these concerns were removed told much more about what I didn’t believe.   Would it have been better if I had continued to hold the faith of my teenage years and not be too critical about matters of reason and intellect?

The questioning began simply, I argued that if the God I believed in was not someone whose wrath brought Tsunamis as a punishment for a wicked world, and this phenomenon could be explained by the science of massive earth movements under the sea, then could I call upon God to make other changes in our world.  Could I ask God to heal my friend who has a massive brain tumour or heal a child involved in a car accident?  It was so much easier as a teenager to talk about God as a personal being, a loving parent, rather than as ‘essence’ or a ‘sea of love’ or as Tillich says the ‘ground of our being.’  It was easier to talk about “prayers of intercession” and handing over the responsibility of doing something to God; than to meditate on how I could respond to the plight of my friends, the poor or disadvantaged and actually do something about it.

Could I continue to be blissfully ignorant and disregard these nagging doubts and their accompanying quests for openness and truth, or having once been challenged would this change my way of functioning forever?  To face the reality that I do not know what God looks like and that the person of Jesus is a much more complex and confronting figure than we were taught at Sunday school was a daunting prospect.

I remember being in a study group with a group of people who had just studied Albert Nolan’s Book “Christ before Christianity” and I posed the question, “Could we change Jesus’ mind on a particular issue?”  “Could he accept advice from us?”  All of the group participants were considerably younger and all stated that Jesus’ thinking was far above ours and that he would not have accepted our advice because he had the ability to foresee the outcomes we were postulating.   If this is the case then is it possible that Jesus was just game playing with his disciples when he asked them questions and he already knew the answers?  It would mean, that when he invited us into discussions and debate, he wasn’t interested in what we had to say, because he already knew the outcome, he already knew what we would say.

Can you now see something of the dilemma, if Jesus is really human then when he asks us for advice he is really seeking help.  Jesus is seeking help from us because he is searching for an answer, which is beyond his human ability.  Is it possible that he could be seeking from us the wisdom of the word of God within us as a response to his questions?

If we hold to this image of Jesus then understanding his words and actions as portrayed in the gospels requires a lot more explanation than a literal interpretation.   How wonderful to begin to understand that Jesus was able to convey a wisdom and spiritual understanding of God and people, whilst being authentically human.  It really means that it is possible for us who are wonderfully human to reach a similar understanding.

Having taken a step along this path it is impossible now for me to turn back and accept the teaching of the past, even though the journey is not smooth, it is exciting.  There have been times when I have experienced the God activity in my life and where there is no other explanation than to recognise the Spiritual influence of a loving God. These are the times that Marcus Borg calls the ‘Thin places”; these are the places where we recognise the activity and presence of God.   Not an ‘elsewhere God’, but a God who is present ‘here and now’.  Borg tells us that if we want to recognise the thin places we must keep our ‘hearts open’.  A closed heart is insensitive to wonder, it affects the mind and the reasoning process.  As Borg says ‘blindness and limited vision go with a ‘closed heart’, but most of all a closed heart forgets God; it does not allow for the ‘magic’ around us to become reality.”  Borg quotes Thomas Merton the Trappist Monk in expressing his understanding of God:

“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.  This is not just a fable or a nice story.  It is          true.  If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows himself       everywhere in everything – in people and in things and in nature and         events.  It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without him “

Every now and then we experience this God Spirit shining through.  According to Borg these are the ‘Thin places’ where the veil momentarily lifts and we experience God. A thin place is anywhere where our hearts are open.  It is the boundary between our world and the world of the Spirit.  A thin place is a mediator of the sacred and this can appear to us in the shape of a stranger or friend, so keep your hearts and minds open, for even though the path may be bumpy the experience of meeting God is mind blowing.

John W H Smith

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EXPLORING ECO-THEOLOGY, ECO-SPIRITUALITY and ECO-JUSTICE

The world is slowly coming to grips with the reality of climate change, human influence on the biosphere and impending dramatic changes which will force social and political activity that is unprecedented.

What has this to do with human spirituality and the teachings of Jesus?

Together with the Progressive Christianity Network (Qld) we are planning a seminar in March around the theme of Eco-Spirituality. This paper presented to the Common Dreams Conference in 2007 by Rev Dr Noel Preston makes excellent background reading and should be of interest. If you are busy, try, at least, to read the paragraphs in bold type.

Noel’s book Ethics with or without God (2014) is also recommended reading. It is available from Morning Star Publishing.

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Dr Noel Preston – workshop address at the Common Dreams Conference, Sydney, August 2007 

I. Introductory Background

Let us turn to an ancient scriptural text to begin (Psalm 139 – You know me, I thank you for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works.

Perhaps the lyricist of Louis Armstrong’s song “What a wonderful world!” says the same thing:

I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white, The brightness of day and darkness of night, And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

On my study wall there hangs a beautiful photograph taken by the crew of Apollo 17 during their space journey to the moon. It shows Earth our home, the blue planet set against the inky blackness of space. Earth appears as a ball-like, single organism. We are a privileged generation to have this image and, associated with it, an understanding of the cosmos in its magnificence. But we are also the generation that is responsible for unprecedented damage to Earth’s life systems – a system that has been almost five billion years in the making. In our time, the collision between our human story and the Universe story demands some accounting and reconciliation, as well as a revision of the narratives by which we live.

I expect that for many of you, as for me, progressively, across a lifetime, you have been awakened from a false consciousness which dulled your sensitivity to the whole planetary community of life. The Christianity I grew up with didn’t have much to say about the themes we are looking at in this workshop, though there was a date in the Church calendar we called “Harvest Festival”. In fact my early Methodist formation was not only human centred but rarely discouraged our misuse of natural resources or questioned what we called progress. A 1950s understanding of God had little to do with the natural world, indeed it was something of a heresy to imagine you were nearer to god in nature than you were in church on a Sunday, while, of course, many of my colleagues regarded the Biblical account of creation as literal fact. Things have changed. Pope John Paul II called for “an ecological conversion” and certain American evangelical Christians have become converts. Check out the website:

http://www.WhatwouldJesusDrive.org.

Here in Australia there are initiatives described as “eco-ministry”. Great stories can be told about individual churches trying to make a difference. Theologically, liturgically and practically, religion in the new millennium is greener. The question is how much new wine can old wineskins hold? My assumption is that, by and large, even the greener churches have not substantially embraced the worldview, the new paradigm and the new theology behind this presentation.


Personally, I now speak from the vantage of a multi-layered identity, no longer content with being identified simply as a Christian or an Australian or even as a human being, though I am all that. I take seriously what science teaches about the nature of life. As I see it, I am primarily a member of the community of Earth’s beings and my moral universe of responsibility extends to non-human beings and future generations. Therefore what I call eco-spirituality and eco-justice are lenses through which I must now see politics, economics, theology and indeed all relationships. That said, I don’t stand here as an expert on the topic of this workshop. Nor do I profess to practise all I preach. What I want to offer is a work in progress which hopefully will intersect with your own quest to find a framework of belief and commitment as a responsible member of the community of life.

I don’t intend to say much about the crisis that confronts earth’s community of life. My assumption is that you have a broad awareness of the gravity of the situation. The Genesis mandate that we, homo sapiens, are to have dominion over the Earth now haunts us in the guise of global warming, the threat to eco-systems and loss of biodiversity, depleting energy sources, a deepening water crisis, international security flashpoints, crimes against humanity, gross inequalities between and within nations, and absolute poverty and destitution facing 1.2 billion of a human population rushing toward 9 billion (i). The situation is unsustainable. Collectively our global consumption of resources is 1.23 of our ecological footprint, that is we humans are already using one and a quarter planet Earths, 23% more than the ecosystems can sustain. And for those interested in the global social justice gap the situation is even more dire. The affluent 20percent of the world’s population, of which most Australians are a part, controls and uses approximately 80 percent of the Earth’s resources. So we have this double-edged urgent challenge: to achieve environmental sustainability on the one hand and a fairer and more equitable distribution of resources and life opportunities in the human community, on the other. This double-edged challenge is what I mean by eco-justice.

(i) There are many performance indicators that mark this crisis but let us just note two at this stage: Fact 1. more than half of the world's original forest area has been lost and a third of what is left will be gone in 20 years at current rates of deforestation, to say nothing of the loss of species and biodiversity this represents; Fact 2. in the next hour more than 1000 children under the age of 5 will die from illnesses linked to poverty, half of them in Africa.(Porritt)

I now want to introduce you to The Earth Charter (if you do not already know of it) – its 61 principles are a comprehensive global ethics vision, comprehensive because it is more than a green document. It covers the double edged challenge which is why I call it a manifesto for eco-justice. The opening words of the Charter set the scene:

We stand at a critical moment in earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society, founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace. (www.earthcharter.org)

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Faith, a piece of cake?

Rodney Eivers

31st January 2019

            For some 20 years I have been providing morning tea at our Acacia Ridge Uniting Church between 10 and 11 a.m. every Thursday. In all this time it has been disappointing.  I had hoped that, during these get-togethers, members of our congregation would take the opportunity to discuss “theological” questions in a warm, friendly and safe non-judgemental atmosphere.

            That has not happened. The morning teas have been convivial enough but there has been no discussion beyond the mundane day to day events and perhaps an occasional diversion into the current congregational politics.

            I recognised why this might be when one officer of the congregation put it this way.

“Rodney likes to ask questions but I prefer not to do that.  If I asked questions relevant to my Christian faith, I might start to think I was wrong about some things and then my whole faith would collapse”

            I love my colleagues and do not wish to make them uncomfortable over their orthodoxy, so do not press such issues.

            Perhaps the best I can do is just be a “witness”.  We had a visit from a Presbytery officer last Sunday,  I assumed he did not know me very well, So what I usually do when I get into conversation, with others known to  me to be Christian, is usually state, to be clear on where I stand, “You need to know that I am a “progressive”  Christian.”

            I was a bit taken aback when he responded. “Oh yes, we in the Presbytery know all about you and your “progressive” Christianity.”   In the end I was very pleased about this. It means there is no need for me to be preachy and, so far as I am aware, I remain on friendly terms with all those with whom I interact (including my congregation)

            But to get back to morning tea. It so happens that lately we have been joined regularly by a man who “dropped in” one day.  He is a Baptist and very secure in his orthodoxy. What has attracted him to the morning teas, however, is that we can have these “theological” differences, talk about them and still remain on friendly terms.

            Then this morning we were joined by a member of my own congregation, she is one who is prepared to explore a little but only goes so far.

            The subject of faith came up.

            Karen explained it thus.  It is like someone offering you a cake to eat. It tastes good. You’ve eaten many cakes before and no harm has befallen you. Thus you take it on faith that accepting that cake will be a good thing to do. You don’t question it.

            I responded, and Karen saw the point. “Yes, but I may have been offered cakes like this before and they have turned out to be not at all what I was expecting.” Therefore I want to question

 What’s in the cake? Who made it? How old is it?  Can we freshen it up a bit?

            So that is the difference between blind faith and questioning faith. It does not mean that in the end eating the cake or having the faith is not worthwhile. But, in being confident in “what works” for us rather than in supernatural expectations which we struggle to demonstrate we can have a secure foundation in how we see and operate as Christians in this wonderful, complex world of ours.

oOo
           

Who is Jesus for us today?

Sermon preached by Rev Dr Noel Preston last Sunday.

Psalm 23. and Luke 4. v. 16- 21; 9 v.18 – 21

We are here today because of Jesus of Nazareth – that is the simple fact. So who is this Jesus, the one who traditional Christianity has named “the Christ”, and the “second person of the Trinity”.

I want to preach about brother Jesus today because, more than any other, his life has influenced mine and the lives of others who have most influenced me. In fact I have a memory that when I was a seven year old I went to my father and said, “I want to give my life to Jesus.” That commitment remains. (though my understanding of it has evolved over a further 70 years)

I have another reason: I made a deal at Christmas time with my teenage grandson, who rarely goes to church, that I would try to preach a sermon for him which conveys who Jesus of Nazareth is and what he is to us today.

If we are to understand Jesus, we must situate him in his time. He lived in a period when the Roman Empire controlled his home country. Actually, he was probably known as “Joshua” in his time. The name we give him is the result of Graeco-Roman influence. He was a Galilean. And Galileans were simple folk. He was not a Christian. He never read the Christian Scriptures. He read the Hebrew Scriptures, and developed his faith from them.

Apart from the Christian scriptures the only historical record of him is found in the work of a Roman Jew historian named Josephus. Nevertheless, his impact on history has been profound and his message has been a saving grace to millions.

As far as the detail of his life, our knowledge comes initially from the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The account attributed to Mark, was the first written, some decades after Jesus’ death. Inspired as Mark’s Gospel is, this and the other versions of the Gospel, rely much on fallible human memory and oral story telling.

Nonetheless, as our Gospel readings today reveal, Jesus himself went through a gradual process of self-discovery. Our second Gospel reading describes Jesus sounding out who his disciples thought he was. In the other reading from Luke we heard how : At the outset of his ministry in the Synagogue of Nazareth he chose a significant passage from Isaiah – his mission statement if you like – I am here to give sight to the blind, free the oppressed and bring good news to the poor. As that mission unfolded, apparently titles like “son of man” and “son of God” were used of him.

In my lifetime, there have been many commentaries on who Jesus is for us today. Scholars have done much detailed analysis on questions like –
who did Jesus himself think he was?
Or, how are we to interpret the miracles recorded in the Gospels?
Or, what do we really know about his birth and the stories we recall at Christmas time?
Or what is the meaning of his cruel death?
Or, how are we to understand the Easter faith of the disciples who declare his Resurrection?

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that biblical scholars began applying the blow torch of historical criticism to the Gospels. A German biblical scholar by the name of Albert Schweitzer (who, incidentally, was one of Europe’s finest organists) published a book titled The Quest for the Historical Jesus and that scholarly quest continues today.

And the Jesus story keeps being told by endless and various story tellers. When I began my ministry there were the musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar which made Jesus a rock star and Godspell popularizing him as a clown. Then there was Monty Python’s irreverent Life of Brian which had a measure of truth in it, and would’ve had the real Jesus laughing in his grave I’m sure. In a way these pop culture presentations have humanised Jesus by correcting what I call the dehumanising of Jesus. This “dehumanising” happens through idolatrous beliefs and practices which make him half-human and half divine, a process which was underlined by the Nicene Creed adopted in the 4th century AD. The writers of the Creeds may have lost touch with Jesus of Nazareth and his early followers who were known as “followers of the Way”. Jesus never said, “Worship me” but he did say, “ Follow me.” Of course, it is much easier to worship him than follow him daily.

Reading the traditional Creeds today, you may conclude that they lose sight of the life Jesus lived and what he taught. The language they use attempts to make him someone to worship rather than a brother who is “Saviour and Lord” – He is my Saviour and Lord because he exemplifies and calls us and empowers, to be the best that humanity can be, by living a life of unconditional compassion.

Thus far, I have tried to give some background as to how I answer my grandson’s question : “Who is Jesus for us today?” But there is more to tell.

FIRST A STORY. I have a fellow retired minister friend with whom I was talking recently about this topic. I mused with him. “Some of the supernatural elements which do not fit 21st century knowledge, like the Virgin birth and the Ascension into heaven, have kept the Jesus story alive over the centuries. If we strip the story of these parts, how do we keep the Jesus story alive today?” Instantly Bob, whose mind is burdened by Parkinson’s disease, said: “We keep it alive by living it.” (Repeat)

I have a book by a South African Catholic priest, Albert Nolan, which I have found very helpful. Called “Jesus today”, it explores Jesus’ spirituality, how his mind and spirit were nurtured in the intimate relationship he had with the One he called, in his language, “abba”, a word which means “father”.

Nolan’s opening sentence is challenging: On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christians or not.

I have to confess that’s true for me – the demands of discipleship can be overwhelming – remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler ‘Go and sell all you have and give it to the poor and then come and follow me’! What of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5) where Jesus teaches us to love even our enemies. Or, if we took seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, what a conversion that might involve!

Nolan interprets Jesus as a deeply mystical prophet, one who had a special relationship with his abba, his God experience, the intimate father, whose love was boundless. That relationship is the secret of his extraordinary life – and death: A Love that has no limits. So intimate was the relationship between Jesus and his abba that about 100 years after his death, the writer of John’s Gospel has him saying “I and the Father are one.” Jesus’ abba relationship was expressed in his friendship with the downtrodden. He practiced inclusion not exclusion in relationships. He lived by a sense of oneness with all. He empowered others to see through religious hypocrisy and stand up to the abuse of power in the Temple or by Roman overlords. Though he was radically critical of his society, Jesus never blamed, accused or condemned any individual person but his attitude to people labeled ‘sinners or outcasts’ was strikingly different from that of other religious leaders.

Jesus of Nazareth is a breakthrough in human history calling us to be truly human.

Of course no account or interpretation of Jesus the Christ is complete without engaging with the fact and the meaning of the end of his life. The Crucifixion of Jesus is the climax of a life lived so close to abba that the dereliction and abandonment of those cruel hours demands explanation.

But the explanation consistent with the Jesus I have tried to describe is not one about a sacrifice for our sins to placate a god who doesn’t sound one bit like Jesus’ abba. No, the meaning of the Cross is that it is the culmination of a life which challenged the powers that oppress the downtrodden through the costly way of compassionate Love. This demonstration of LOVE to the bitter end means that the cross cannot be the end. So it is that his followers, then and now, claim the realization by faith that Jesus’ life is not extinguished by a burial. But, his followers must learn that the significance of the Cross is that it must become OUR CROSS.

Jesus becomes the one who never goes away, who meets us today, who invites ongoing interpretation of the relationship of our life to his, whose challenges to us may change, but who persists through history as a challenge in all times and cultures. He does not go away; he keeps invading our lives, our society – so, it is not atrivial question to ask, “What would Jesus do ?” “What is the Jesus way of handling this matter in our time?”

I mentioned Albert Schweitzer earlier, the author of a ground-breaking theological treatise, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”. I also said he had fame throughout Europe as a musician. The real story about Schweitzer’s quest is that in his thirties, his life changed direction. He came to the conviction that Jesus is to be known and followed in deeds not just words, costly deeds for the needy . So he took up medical studies and became a Doctor and spent the rest of his long life as a missionary Doctor in Africa.

In the final paragraph of The Quest he prefaced this change in discipleship:
He comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word, “Follow thou me” and sets us to the tasks he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings that they shall pass through in his fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their experience, WHO HE IS.

SILENCE – your response

Noel Preston 13th January 2019

oOo