Messages of Hope

Month: November 2015

For the sake of the planet

Published / by Andrew

For the Sake of the Planet

Creator God,ap_61
breath and source of life,
in love you called the world into being
and in grace you made us and call us your children.
We stand in awe of the wonder of your creation:
its beauty and wildness;
complexity and power;
resilience and fragility.

God of life,
you call us to be participants in the web and wellspring of life:
to be nurtured by the planet;
to be nurturing of the planet;
to cherish the world and all that lives.
But we have failed and creation groans under our weight.

God of grace,
forgive us in our brokenness:
when we have taken too much from the earth;
when we have not spoken out against greed and destruction;
when we have allowed our most vulnerable neighbours to be harmed.
We seek courage and forgiveness to be made whole.

God of love,
we pray for those people, communities and nations
already suffering the devastating effects of climate change;
and we pray for the diversity of life on earth,
so much of it already threatened by our actions.

God of hope,
we pray for the world’s leaders gathering in Paris.
Bless them with wisdom and creativity,
and a shared vision of hope for all creation.
May they find the determination
to take strong action against climate change,
and the political will to act together for the common good.

Creator God,
we pray for us all,
that we might restore our relationships with each other
and work together to heal the earth.
Renew us in your grace
for the sake of your creation. Amen.

© 2015 Uniting Church in Australia Assembly

The Greatest Lie

Published / by Andrew

The Sunday of Christ’s Reign
Gospel: John 18:33-8

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ 38Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

What is truth? In the way John writes his gospel, he wants us to remember that Jesus has already said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

So… Jesus is the truth… but, what does that mean?

Well, there’s some interesting dialogue back in Chapter 8, where Jesus is having an argument with religious folk:

They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ 42Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. 43Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.  [And why is that?44You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies45But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.

So Jesus is the truth— Jesus stands for something— which is opposed to the father of lies. The father of lies is that foundational lie which gives rise to all the other lies.

What is the greatest lie? What is the thing we worship which, at its very foundation, leads us astray?

The father of lies is that we can solve violence with more violence; the idea that we can make war to create peace; the idea that order and harmony can be created by violence.

Now, you might say, Andrew, violence is not good, but didn’t you just pull that out of your hat? What makes it the worst thing, or the father of lies.

Well, the scholar Walter Wink, says the Babylonian Creation story, which dates from before 1200 BC is one of  “the oldest continually enacted myths in the world.” That is, it’s one of the oldest stories by which people live their lives. [1200 BC is the date of the written records; the story is far older.]

He says

… its basic mythic structure spread as far as Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and China. Typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler….

In this myth, creation is an act of violence. … order is established by means of disorder. Chaos …. is prior to order. Evil precedes good. The gods themselves are violent.

Now: The interesting thing that happens around 600BC is that Israel is exiled to Babylon. And it’s there that the Book of Genesis gets written down in its current form. And you can see the similarities between stories in Genesis, in the Creation story and in Noah, with Babylonian stories. So of course some folk want to crow, “See… it’s not true! It’s the same story!”

But what’s clear is that the story “in Genesis 1 is diametrically opposed” to the Babylonian story. It is written to be— I quote, “a direct rebuttal to the Babylonian myth… ”

It sounds the same only on the surface. But the “Bible portrays a good God who creates a good creation. Chaos does not resist order. Good is prior to evil. Neither evil nor violence is part of the creation, but enter later, as a result of the first couple’s sin and the connivance of the serpent (Genesis 3). A basically good reality is thus corrupted by free decisions reached by creatures.” (Wink)

Wink says that “In this far more complex and subtle explanation of the origins of things, violence emerges for the first time as a problem requiring solution.” In the Babylonian Myth, violence is how things are done. It’s the way of the world. And one way of reading that extraordinarily bloody saga that we call the Old Testament, is to see the gradual exposure of the lie of violence. Violence is injustice. Violence is anti-God. Violence harms the innocent.

How do we see the world? Is it a fundamentally violent place where we must strive to create harmony, living almost as warriors who overcome and tame nature? Or do we see that fundamentally it is a good place, where we are at home, and meant to be a part of the good balance of things?

Once you see the foundational violence in the world view of much of our culture, it can’t be unseen.  It is everywhere. This is not a dry study of old myths which are irrelevant. It is us.

Wink said

The Babylonian myth is far from finished. It is as universally present and earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life…

What crystallised it all for him was the realisation that he was watching the old myth of Babylon reshaped into the story of Popeye and Bluto and Olive Oyl.  Look at the underlying assumptions of so many movies and books: violence solves problems and brings resolution and peace.

But isn’t the story of Jesus the same? There’s a problem, so God violently kills his own Son to create peace— isn’t that what it says?

Actually, it’s not. It’s a rewrite of the story, just as Genesis is a rewrite of Babylon’s myths to rebut them.

I reckon one of the great insights of twentieth century scholarship came through Rene Girard who started out as an atheist scholar of literature. He was so startled by what he found— he wasn’t looking for it— that he converted to Christianity! He also observed the underlying myth of violence in human culture, especially our universal practice of finding scapegoats when something has gone wrong.

Girard says, that Jesus was the last scapegoat. He exposes the lie that the scapegoat restores peace. He exposes the lie that violence brings peace.

Essentially, one way of reading that extraordinarily bloody saga that we call the Old Testament, is to see the gradual exposure of the lie of violence. He said that the Old Testament, and finally, the death of Jesus, shows us that the scapegoat is innocent, and that violence brings a false peace.

Yes, Jesus died for us, he said. But we killed him, not God. We sent him to his death, not God. Jesus did not have to die, but we did not listen to his message of the fundamental peace and justice that is generated from living for our neighbours as we live for ourselves. If you’ve ever been troubled by the violence that seems to characterise Christianity, Girard’s work is a revelation.

Jesus refuses violence. When he is arrested, he stops Peter using his sword to defend him, and heals the man— the very man* coming as part of the mob who will have him killed. In his conversation with Pilate he says my kingdom is not like yours… “it is not from this world.” It is not derived from the myth of violence.

Some folk have suggested that “my kingdom is not of this world” means Jesus had no interest in politics; he was about some spiritual kingdom. He is everywhere interested in politics. He stands firmly in the tradition of Amos, Micah, and Hosea, the prophets who cry out: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

But he says to Pilate. If my kingdom were like your kingdom, my followers would fight to prevent me being handed over. But it is not like your kingdom. The early church radically refused homage to Caesar. They refused to do military service; they were pacifists.

The great lie, the father of lies, is that violence will produce peace and justice and harmony. Jesus’ non-violent, just way of living, is the truth.

How can that be even remotely practical in the world of ISIS and Assad, of Russia and America, and of Australia and its concentration camps?

What if we changed the underlying story? What if we said the idea that violence solves problems and brings peace is a lie, the father of lies? Would we trust Christ the King enough to live in this violent world as though his different kingdom were real?

What if we said this:

We confess
that every necessary soldier in the street
is witness to our failure
to do justice, love mercy
and love our neighbour as ourselves.

In this
I will honour my father and his companions
who endured the trauma of war
and carry it still:
I will honour them
as bearers of my sin.

Not only will I refuse fighting.
I will give my life to the just cause
down to the lie of the last cheap t-shirt
which clothes the violence of the sweat shops,
and pay what is proper,
refusing the advantage of my privilege,
living gently,
seeking justice,
seeking peace.

This is to call out the father of lies.
It is to trust— aka have faith— in Jesus’ claim that the Kingdom is at hand
among us and within us
instead of within comfortable houses and fine food.

In John 18-19, Jesus is on trial. But Pilate, who knew he was innocent, caved into the threats of the mob. Pilate was judged too, and found wanting when he chose allegiance to the Emperor. Would we be judged as followers of the King of Peace or the father of lies?

Sources:
Creation Myths: http://www.religioustolerance.org/com_geba.htm
Walter Wink: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml
To find an accessible introduction to the work of Rene Girard, follow the articles currently being posted by Richard Beck in memory of Rene Girard, who died on November 4. They are not yet in a sidebar menu, but begin here, and scroll up through the blog posts. They update the original posts of 2006-7. Beck notes a good introductory article to Girard here.
Andrew Prior: Who[se] are we?

* The man who has his ear cut off is Malchus. Malchus means king (melek) If you appreciate the synchronicity of myth and symbol, how odd that the king is the servant of the high priest, and that Jesus heals the hearing, the ability to understand the meaning of life. The gospels constantly call us to see and to hear.

Originally posted at onemansweb.org

The end is nigh….

Published / by Andrew

Listen here

To each and every street corner preacher of disaster, and to every preaching prophet on Sunday, Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  The thirteenth chapter of Mark contains no esoteric code for deciphering the future. It is a rebuttal of those who claim to know: This is no special time;  this is how life is. So be on watch. But do not think that you know; you don’t. No one does. No one, not even the Son.

Micah D Kiel says

Much of what is stated [in Mark 13] is apocalyptic boilerplate. Jewish apocalyptic literature had been working with such themes, imagery, and topoi for several centuries leading up to the time of Jesus and Mark in the first century. Conservative biblical literalists, who look for the specific fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies in our modern age, completely misunderstand this genre of literature.

I’ve always been impressed by the words of a colleague who thought we rich westerners had no right to interpret apocalyptic, and that we should remain silent. How could we remotely understand the trauma of living through the destruction of  a Jerusalem, or the year of four emperors, or the horrors of a Herod, or a Nero? Especially exempted from any right to pontificate upon these texts are the Americans, and we Australians of the late 20th century through to today, for we are the invaders of our lands. The bombing of Darwin, or of the Twin Towers, bears no comparison even with The Blitz, let alone the lives of Palestinians. We are not the oppressed. We are the Empire and its fortunate vassal states, which apocalyptic is written to oppose.

That conversation was twenty five years ago.

When I listen to the emotional tenor of news media and social media conversations today, I hear a change.  Our complacency is gone. Our comfortable, arrogant assurance about our place at the top of the world has been replaced by blatherskite. Resentment about the loss of privilege, and fear of loss of privilege, drives the narratives of the Trumps and the Abbotts and the Bolts. Our insulated bubble of privilege has been punctured at last. The order in which we have lived our lives is crumbling, and we don’t know what is coming. Listen to your emotions as you read what follows:

The latest Eureka Street email I received this morning, has this blurb about an article by Tony Kevin.

The US unipolar moment is ending. Real multipolarity is upon us, with Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Iran testing new multipolar arrangements for sharing world power. The US fears these changes, and would prefer to corral everybody back into the familiar bipolar camps of the past. This would be a disaster. Australia will benefit from a stable rules-based multipolar world, and our foreign policy can help build it. But we are going to have to take a few calculated risks along the way….

This realignment is real. And it will happen in a context of climate change which will itself confound our established political categories and strategies.

Here is the catch: When we read texts like the one above, what we tend to do is take issue with, or affirm, a commentator’s interpretation of “the signs of the times.” We get distracted by, and argue over, the details, the small facts. That has its place; injustice, faulty argument, and lies, all need to be confronted.  Wisdom and new insight should be affirmed and incorporated into our political thinking and actions.

But Mark is not dealing with small facts. Mark is facing the great fears of the times.  He says

beware…
watch…
keep alert…
keep awake…

when all the fears of the day fall upon you,
and the prophets of doom harass you
with small facts which are either lies
or false hopes.

Don’t let them spook you. Live as you have been shown.

Kiel says that the text we see in Mark 13

is essentially about God working on behalf of humanity… It leaves God alarmingly free and open to the future. God is not limited by temporal questions, such as the one the disciples ask. The community is supposed to watch, stay fast, and endure.

I think Mark is not writing in the middle of the Jerusalem siege. He’s at some distance, like us, with the threat of Jerusalem-like disaster all around, and wondering when it will come to him— and how it will come. And how he will survive.

He has only one answer. It comes from the disaster his community has already weathered. Jesus, and Jesus’ hope of the kingdom of God, was utterly destroyed by the Empire. But then found to persist beyond death.

Accompanying us to our Jerusalem are two peoples, he says. The rich, the scribes, the young ruler, all live for themselves. But the people who are healed of their blindness go on into the city in the trust that even through disaster and total tragedy, there is an ending worthy to be called  resurrection.

Mark has been teaching us what these people’s radical trust of God involved: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself…  whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.  … whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 12:31, 9:35, 10:43-4)

It seems the exact opposite of common sense in the face of impending disaster, but Mark claims this way of living, even through tragedy and disaster, rescues us from self-centred survival-at-any-cost, and brings us from frantic whistling in the dark, to a more settled hope that there is an ending worthy to be called resurrection.

There is a giving of ourselves to the world and to life, like the widow of last week, and like Jesus himself, which frees us even in the midst of wars and rumours of wars. Michael Coffey says

… Listen: It’s all true, or it’s freaked out fearful chatter, or who knows,
but then what anyway?  All is prologue and prelude, lift up your
heart to the universe: the ultimate word and song are yet to come…

Andrew Prior

 

This post was this week’s Link of the Week at The Text This Week. TextWeek, as it tends to be known, is a great resource if you want lots of detailed resources about the lectionary readings set for each week.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dancing past the Birdcage

Published / by Andrew

What’s the connection between Jesus, The Cat Empire, and an impoverished widow? Oh… and the Melbourne Cup?

This week, churches worldwide are exploring a story where rich folk are pouring money ‘by the bucket’ into the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. Probably lots of corporate sponsors as well. And Jesus pans them, and instead draws attention to a desperately poor widow, whose two copper coins, he says, are more than all the rest. (Mark 12:38-44)

This story, and all the stories in the New Testament are fundamentally answers to the question, “Who is Jesus?” Here are two visions which answer that question.

One vision says he is the son of God; when you see him, you see how God would look if God were one of us. He shows us how to live… do what he did and God will accept you…. No, no, no!— that’s a heresy! God already does accept you and always did. God is love and you are loved… and forgiven. It’s all about living like Jesus did and being opened to a life which is full and fulfilling.

People have often seen a call to duty in this understanding of Jesus. We are implored to respond to the great love of God, to give fully of ourselves, like the poverty stricken widow in the temple. But it too often translates into the poor being the ones who fund the parading of the rich. And nothing is done about the injustice of it all.

Such an understanding of Jesus is not a short read. It’s not something you click on the ‘net and internalise in a few seconds. It’s more of a language, something you have to live in to learn fully, and appreciate, and benefit from. And it has more wisdom than you’d expect, given the sometimes stuffy nature of church. It’s why old grannies, who’ve been in church for most of a century, so often have a peace and calm about things which others of us can’t quite yet grasp.

But this is an ancient view. It has baggage, and if you haven’t grown up with it, it sounds like Gregorian chant when your favourite band is The Cat Empire.

For all its joy, Cat Empire’s “Waltz” is a serious song, but it wouldn’t work with plainsong— well, actually Cat Empire just might make it happen!

… this is a song I discovered instead
The song about living before we are dead
And by living I don’t mean perfection like gold
Cos living my friends is the sweet unresolved…
    (Waltz on The Cat Empire CD: Cities)

So is there another vision of Jesus for those of us who sense a “sweet unresolved” beyond the shallow glitz of life,  and who “born with a smile[, want] to die with a grin?”

The second vision goes something like this: The story of Jesus enables us to see into a life of spirit which goes far beyond us: the story of Jesus “opens a window to the soul.” It lets us see the deeper realities of what life is about. The Jesus story “is the secret life of us… a story about the life of the human soul.” (This last quotation is David Tacey in Beyond Literal Belief pp63)

The Jesus story is our story. It’s about how to live life for all it’s worth. This view of Jesus has echoes of the old paradigm. It’s not so new— living always has been, as the song says, an unresolved mystery, and the holy people of all times and places have known this. What the new song about Jesus does, is take an old truth and set it to the music of our time so that we may dance with it.

In this new dancing out of the story, the widow is another Christ figure. She is making a worthless donation to a lost cause— at the time the Gospel of Mark was writing this story down, the Temple in Jerusalem was either destroyed, or its destruction was an inevitability. She is a Christ figure because she is giving all she has — the original Greek text says something like “her whole life” — to something which will be destroyed.

This is what Jesus does in the same story. He gives his whole life to a way of being, a way of living, which he called Kingdom of God. It was a life based in radical justice and peace for all people. Life lived fully in the presence of the Mystery we call God, and lived in a way that dignifies all people, because it sees that they are also a part of the same mystery. So it treats them with the same love and respect it desires for itself.

And of course, Jesus gets killed for that. You can’t have people like that around, upsetting the status quo and the comfort of the rich and powerful. So his life was a worthless gift too. He gave it to a lost cause. Everyone knew how it would end. I mean, why bother? The rich will never let go. As a teenager we can have ideals of equality and justice, but isn’t the old saying true: “if you’re not a socialist by the time you are 20, you have no heart, but if you’re not a conservative by the time you are 40, you have no brain?”

Jesus should have grown up and made the best of it.

Except that the first Christians, back before they were taken over by Rome, and too often became an instrument of Empire, saw it differently. It’s in the wholesale giving of self, in the sort of love that’s as “mad as they come,” (Cat Empire again) that we find real freedom and fulfilment.

We can bet that the character whose words Felix Riebl sings, knows all about grief and dissatisfaction. But there is something in his refusal to package his love.

Like a dove in the kitchen with a note that says
Make sure you scrub well and plan and prepare everything
Affection as clean as a triangle ting
But love it or not love’s as mad as they come
Oh it’s sly and it’s wise and it’s wonderfully dumb
And while some might still say ‘No it’s pure like one’
My love it is wild and not mild and on the run…     (Waltz on The Cat Empire CD: Cities)

There is something here which enters into the essence of the spiritual. In the old language we might say we receive an unwarranted grace if we decide to love; that is, even a little genuine love leads to a disproportionate healing and freedom in life.

Jesus doesn’t magically give all the answers. Working out how to model his life opens us to one way into a deeper life, and a living through its problems and griefs. And one suspects that when the little woman came in to give her two copper coins, she had that same visible integrity and wholeness as many of today’s old grannies— wholeness that showed the fakery and the shallowness of all that showy giving in the Temple birdcage.

The Text
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ Mark Chapter 12.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.