Liz Little recently presented a homily to the congregation at St Mary’s in Exile in Brisbane. It was based on her experience in the Holy Land. She gives some insight into the challenges for progressives visiting the popular biblical places.
Liz Little 20/21 January 2018 – St Mary’s in Exile – South Brisbane
Last April I was lucky enough to join three friends to spend a couple of weeks walking in northern Israel – in the Galilee area.
Israel is a country I am drawn back to for some reason. I’ve been there on study tours before. This was the first walking visit. We did it the easy way, staying in guesthouses at the holy sites and carrying just day packs. We had our main luggage transported for us.
We walked first across country from Nazareth to Capernaum and then we walked around the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake, of course.
There were markers to show the way and we had a guide book and a compass and various maps. In spite of that, we didn’t always manage to stay on the cross country part of the track. It was wildflower season and sometimes the flowers were so prolific that they covered the track markers. At other times, the track was just poorly marked.
It didn’t matter that we were not always on track. We could often see our destination from the top of a ridge, even if it was 15 kilometres away.
I think we might have sometimes trespassed on private property when the track wasn’t obvious to us. But, there didn’t seem to be anyone around to care. We saw only two other walkers during the whole two weeks.
The walk was not hard, but some days were long and some days were hot. Some days were long and hot. All days were beautiful.
There is something about walking that nourishes the human spirit. It’s the rhythm of the movement and the challenges of the terrain and being out there in the landscape that seems to lift the spirit and engage the soul. The long walk provides time and space for one’s own inner thoughts. It brings to mind Narelle’s homily about human beings not human doings. A long walk allows for the experience of the now; an experience of wholeness and unity, of joy and peace; an experience of God.
Peter has pointed out from time to time that the word God has been tainted for many. In an attempt to understand the concept, religious teaching personified God, into a male of course. God was also presented as a judge, someone who would reward and punish and also as a puppeteer, someone who controls the world and what happens in it. God as the person, as the judge, as the puppeteer all imply that God is a separate entity; apart from human beings and apart from the world. None of those concepts seems to serve us adequately any more.
Lloyd Geering, a NZ Presbyterian minister and a scholar, explores the concept of God in his book Reimagining God. He says that God as the creator was once a useful way to explain the natural world, the seasons, the rains, the floods, crop growth, etc. (Geering 2014: 121) Over time, God the creator became God the controller, God the judge, God the puppeteer. As scientific knowledge developed, so did our understanding of the workings of the natural world and the traditional images of God became less and less convincing. Some people felt they had to choose between God and science.
And yet, for others, there is a sense that not everything about life and living can be explained by science or reproduced in a laboratory. For such people, there remains a dimension of life that is spiritual, a part of us that is inspired by the awe and the wonder of the universe, a part of us that is touched by the goodness of our fellow human beings; a part of us that senses something life giving in the human experience; a part of us that seeks to understand our place in the universe and our purpose in life.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher, said that God is not the maker of nature, but is the very essence of it. (Geering 2014: 10) God is not the external puppeteer controlling the universe, but God is the universe, God is the beauty, God is the wonder. God is the process that enables the elements of the natural world to fit together and to work. God is the unity of the universe. (Kaufman in Geering 2014: 128)
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, said that unity and wholeness are what humans seek. He said that God is the name we give to that quest for that wholeness. (Geering 2014: 84) Geering advances that idea to say that God is the name we give to our highest ideals, like love, justice and compassion. (Geering 2014: x), the ideals that will bring us to the wholeness and unity that we seek; the wholeness and unity that is actually God. This doesn’t make God any less powerful, but it does make God less controlling.
I think that is the God I encounter when I hike and when my spirit experiences the wholeness of life, the oneness and the peace of the universe.
But I didn’t have to go to the Galilee to experience that. The universe is really quite close by to where I live. So, there was also another dimension to walking in the Holy Land – the dimension of pilgrimage.
It can be tricky for progressive Christians to be pilgrims in the Holy Land. The holy sites are really set up for literal interpretations of bible stories. The locals make their livings out of the places being authentic and that is what many pilgrims look for. But, progressive Christians look for religious truth, rather than literal truth. Progressive Christians are interested in what they are being invited to learn, rather than what may or may not have happened.
And yet, as humans, we are creatures of time and place and it is interesting to be in the part of the world where our stories are sourced. Going to the places gives you pause to consider the stories and their religious truth. In terms of pilgrimage, my companions and I agreed that the holy sites were places where we chose to remember and to reflect upon particular parts of the Christian story.
At Mt Tabor, we reflected on the story of the transfiguration and saw it as a moment of insight. To see Jesus is an encounter with God.
At the Mt of Beatitudes, we reflected on the essence of Jesus’ message. The essence of Jesus’ teaching is goodness and justice, unity and wholeness – the Kingdom of God here on earth.
At Cana, we reflected on the concept of miracles.
The town of Cana is remembered for the first miracle of Jesus, turning water into wine at a wedding feast. Our accommodation was at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, located not far from the Franciscan Wedding Church.
But none of it helped. We still had to buy our own wine from a shop.
Miracles present a problem for us because they conflict with our understanding of how the world works. So, to make sense of miracles we need to explore the religious truth of the story: what we are being invited to learn. The water-into-wine story invites us to learn something about our understanding of God.
Much has been written about this particular miracle story, especially by those who are uncomfortable about the quantity of alcohol involved. For my reflections today, I want to draw on the work of two familiar scripture scholars – John Paul Meier and Marcus Borg.
These scholars tell us that the wedding and the water-into-wine miracle are probably not historical events. Even the historical village of Cana was probably not at its current location. It is thought that today’s Cana developed at a location convenient for pilgrims.
The water-into-wine story occurs only in John’s gospel. The scholars identify most elements of the story as typical of John’s writing John 2:1-11 – The Wedding at Cana
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’
– elements such as the third day,
And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?
Mary not being named, and addressed by her son as woman,
My hour has not yet come
the reference to my hour having not yet come,
His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’
the structure of Jesus’ at first refusing to help and then going above and beyond expectations. (John Paul Meier in https://gregoryjenks.com/page/22/?pages-list) All these are recognized as things specific to John’s style of story-telling.
The story is also full of symbols commonly used at that time. For example, the banquet symbolized the coming of the messiah and the celebration that will accompany it. Marriage symbolized the relationship between God and the Jewish people. (Marcus Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time in https://gregoryjenks.com/page/22/?pages-list) So, the scholars conclude that John created the Cana story as a vehicle to teach something important.
Cana was a peasant town, so a suitable setting for a typical peasant wedding, which was the most festive occasion that happened in first-century Palestine. Weddings commonly lasted seven days. They featured dancing, wine, and vast quantities of food – quite the opposite of daily peasant life. (Marcus Borg Reading the Bible Again for the First Time in https://gregoryjenks.com/page/22/?pages-list) And weddings were not about two people but about two families. To run out of wine would cause a loss of family honour. Thus, the situation was dire. (https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/an-exegetical-reading-of-the-wedding-at-cana-john-21-11-an-excerpt-from-john/)
And Jesus saved the day.
He not only produced a huge amount of wine, but wine of a better quality. This is a story of generosity; of abundance and wholeness. The abundance and wholeness that is the experience of God.
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
The story-teller says that Jesus revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
To encounter the generosity and wholeness of Jesus is to encounter God. But such an experience has consequences. Christians are called to be co-creators of the wholeness by living their lives as Jesus taught.
So, we recognise the God of abundance and the God of wholeness in our world and in our stories, in the beauty of nature and in the beauty of people. When we experience goodness, we experience God and all that it implies – compassion, justice, generosity. We experience that God everywhere and every day; but sometimes it is useful to take some time out, to leave behind the normal structures and routines; to go to a special place; and to reflect on our stories and our mission; and hopefully be re-energized and re-focussed; to continue our work as co-creators of the Kingdom of Unity and Wholeness, as co-creators of the Kingdom of God.