Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 Advent sermon

St Aiden’s

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you this advent service.

The lectionary readings this morning from 2 Samuel and Luke are very interesting; especially in the way that they can be connected. The key connection is the word dwell. In Samuel God comes to dwell among us in an ark and temple, in Luke he comes to dwell among in the person of Jesus.

Israel was a nomadic nation. They were always on the move constantly in danger. They had no roots, no land, and no security. What they did have was superficial and temporary. In this passage King David has finally secured for the nation of Israel land, security and wealth. It is David’s desire to offer God the same. After all an ark within which God dwelled could be stolen, as it had been in the past. David wanted to build God a house, a temple in which Yahweh could dwell.

It is interesting that we can have similar lives; constantly living in fear of financial loss, placing our hope, our roots in superficial things that can be taken away in an instant. We too seek security and ways in which we can feel rooted. It is interesting that we seek to place God as an object of our religion into our boxes, our buildings, restricting faith and religion to a specific time, a specific place, and a specific ritual. It is interesting that God should dwell in man-made structures. It is interesting that the priority is to house our God where we are (God comes to us on our terms) rather than ensuring we are where God is, among the poor and dispossessed. It is interesting in the Christmas birth narratives, that Joseph and Mary are homeless, nomadic, looking for a place to dwell for the birth of Jesus.

The Hebrew word for dwell here is the word shakan which means ‘to no longer be a nomad, to rest, reside’. It has resonance with the word abide as used in John 15 (the vine and branches passage), ‘abide in me and I will abide in you’. It has a sense that we do not go in and out, away and towards, we abide, we remain, we reside, we stay. In that there is a different kind of security and stability. Faith becomes something more than just Sunday religion or temporal belief that we seek to protect, housing God in our religious convictions, creeds or doctrine. The Luke passage about the virgin birth is an example of this point.

There is a legend that Mary was not the first young woman to whom the angel came. But she was the first one to say yes. This legend would be offensive to the Roman Catholic for upon this virgin narrative and other Marion doctrines we have the Immaculate Conception, the perpetual virginity and the bodily assumption of the virgin. In Protestant circles this offensive because the very claim of divinity for Jesus and his status as the Son of God required the literal historicity of the virgin birth stories not to mention the doctrines around sin and atonement.

Luke writing this narrative around 58-63C.E. was writing in a very specific context. Just like David, he was influenced by his context in the way he formulated his understanding of his faith and his God. The first writings we now have in our bibles came from the pen of the apostle Paul, a companion of Luke. Luke, a gentile, would have been shaped by these writings particularly as most biblical commentators agree; by Pauls view of the birth narratives which were more about adoptionism i.e. God adopted Jesus into heaven as God’s agent of salvation. Bear in mind the doctrine of the trinity was only fully formulated by the 5th century C.E.

Incorporating half of the gospel of Mark into his narrative, it was Luke’s task to show that Christianity, far from being subversive, was a natural development within a recognised and respected Jewish religious tradition. Christianity, Luke was asserting had simply grown past the Jewish limits and had become a worldwide religion. A religion that would later under the crusades justify murder and under apartheid justify racism. This is what happens when religion or faith becomes something we house, dwelling in our confounds and walls. It gets messy.

It is interesting that Christianity now understands God dwelling in fullness in the person of Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit dwelling in fullness in us as living temples.

In Luke, we have a heavenly host in the sky as a herald for all to see the arrival of the Christ child. Simeon, the old priest, announces that this child would be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ as well as ‘for glory to the people of Israel’ (Lk2:32). In the genealogy of this Jesus, Luke traces the heritage not back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation (as Matthew had done), but to Adam, the father of the entire human race. This God, this faith is bigger than the temple David built to house Him in. He dwells among humanity.

This faith we celebrate is bigger than we think, broader than we think, more inclusive than we think. As Paul Tillich the theologian said, He is the very ground of being.
From 'And it was good: reflections on beginnings' by Wheaton (1983)
Are you sure you mean -
but I'm unworthy -
I couldn't anyhow -
I'd be afraid. No, no,
it's inconceivable, you can't be asking me -
I know it's a great honour
but wouldn't it upset them all,
both our families?
They're very proper you see.
Do I have to answer now?
I don't want to say no -
its what every girl hopes for
even if she won't admit it.
Bit I can't commit myself to anything
this important without turning it over
in my mind for a while
and I should ask my parents
and I should ask my -
Let me have a few days to think it over.
Sorrowfully, although he was not surprised
to have it happen again,
the angel returned to heaven.

2014 Ressurection Sunday sermon

Visions Beyond the Veil

I have entitled this morning’s talk, ‘visions beyond the veil’ after a book by a missionary H.A Baker to China in the early to mid 1900’s. In this book, Baker writes about the visions orphaned children in China had of heaven, angels and so on.

It resonates with the readings this morning concerning the resurrected Christ. Peter in Acts 2:32 declares, concerning the resurrected Christ, that they, the disciples, are ‘witnesses to this fact’. The gospels give us at least 2 accounts where they encounter the risen Christ; one in the upper room and one where Christ reinstates Peter.

What impact would experiencing the risen Christ have on you? Is it something you desire or pray for, ‘God reveal yourself to me’?

In visions beyond the veil, these orphans experience very real visions of another reality. In another book published in 1975 entitled, ‘tell it to the mafia’, ex-mobster Joe Donato tells his story of being encountered by the risen Christ and as a result coming to faith, he turns his back on his mobster lifestyle. Similarly published in 1978, Bilquis Sheikh in her book ‘I dare to call him father’ tells her story of a changed life after encountering the risen Christ. These and many other stories from around the world speak of encounters with the risen Christ.

But what if this is not our story? What if this will never be our story?

The reading from John 20:29 encouraging says, ‘blessed are those who have NOT seen and yet have believed’. So too the reading from 1 Peter 1:8 which says, ‘Though you have NOT seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’.

I want to pause here and look at a few aspects in this verse. Firstly, even ‘Though you have NOT seen him, you love him’. What Greek use of the word love is being used here? Conditional love? If you do this for me, I will do that for you? Or put in the context of this verse, if you conquer death, I will believe in you? No, on the contrary it is agape love that is used her…unconditional love.

Secondly, in the second part of this verse, ‘even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy’. The ‘do not see him now’ is a present participle meaning continuous.  It indicates an understanding of continuing not to see i.e. things will never change and you will never see.

And so thirdly, note the use of the word ‘now’ in this passage, ‘Though you have NOT seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him’. The opening verses help us understand the reason for the use of this word ‘now’. They are struggling, they are facing persecution and in the midst of such suffering the hope so explicitly linked to the resurrection seems dislocated and untenable. In many ways we could re-name the title of this talk, ‘living in the absence of the resurrection’.

Perhaps a story could illustrate this challenge better. I read from ‘How (not) to speak of God’ by Pete Rollins (p80-81)….

Augustine asked, ‘what do I believe when I believe in my God’? I don’t discredit the stories of people encountering the risen Christ, as reading them encourages our faith but for most of us this simply won’t be our experience. We are the ‘not seeing’ in 1 Peter and yet, nonetheless, without seeing we still believe, we still hope with joy. Why? How?

May I suggest one possibility? Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth says, ‘and these three things remain, faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love’. I’d like to suggest a link or connection in these which have an impact on our understanding and experience of the resurrection, of hope. The writer of Hebrews says, ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for, certain of what we do not see’. Note the connection between faith and hope and the connection to our readings of ‘not seeing’. In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he says, ‘and hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our heart through the Holy Spirit’. Again note the connection between hope and love and in the days to come towards Pentecost the link to the Holy Spirit. I suggest the reality of the resurrection, of hope is experienced for the man on the street through the experience of God’s unconditional love.

The ‘Blessed’ (all that is good) as used in the passage from John is an aorist participle in Greek which is used to express any time; past, present and future. In other words believing without seeing may mean we experience the blessing of God immediately, or perhaps later or perhaps now and until later. The point is, it is not conditional…if you this, you will that. This relates back to the story I read.

But what about others? How do they experience hope, particularly those of no faith using my understanding of the connection between faith-hope-and-love? Well you will remember the time Jesus said, ‘many will come to me on that day and say lord, lord did we not this and that in your name and…yet he will cast them away for he did not know them…while to others he will say come into my kingdom for when I was thirty you gave me something to drink, when I was ill you visited me and so on. You see if hope means anything in a real world, it needs to be really true in the midst of suffering as the passage of 1 Peter is describing. And it is you and I as we serve the poor, thirsty and sick, that represent hope, that represent the resurrected Christ for as we do these to the least of them, we do it unto Christ. I suggest Christ is not only encountered in visions beyond the veil, but also and possibly even more profoundly in our and others sufferings, in the realities of a torn veil, in the absence of seeing.

May you know the hope of Christ even though you do not see. May you be the hope of Christ, even though others do not see.

Another 2014 Pre-pentecost sermon

Faith beyond Religion.


The readings this morning are very interesting. As we progress towards Pentecost Sunday in a few weeks’ time, the reading from Acts is already chronologically after Pentecost and yet the gospel reading is before Pentecost and is pointing us towards it. The readings feel slightly out of sync. But that conflict, that dissonance is actually what has inspired my title this morning, namely, faith beyond religion.   


Acts tells us the story of the stoning of Stephen. We read it nowadays with a sense of disassociation, a cool objectivity. In fact we often joke about it saying it is not a story about being stoned on drugs. But it was cruel and savage way to be killed. It was a cruel and savage way to kill. Just recently I saw a similar real life example of just such savage and cruel behaviour. It was a video taken in my birth country of South Africa of a women being stamped and beaten upon by a mob of people while large crowds stood by watching. Without going into the graphic and really disturbing details, I was shocked at how humans can treat one another without a sense of guilt or remorse; how people who kick someone helpless on the ground do this without hesitation or restraint. Some even lunged themselves into the air so as to land upon this lady with both feet and their full body weight. This blood covered women lay helpless on the ground. I stopped watching when a man approached her with an axe and proceeded to use the back of the axe on her head.


Human beings in this story in Acts, with malicious intent, picked up stones with the aim to cause another human being grievous harm. As we read, this harm caused the death of that human whom we know to be Stephen. He was brutally killed for his religious convictions. In the video I watched recently, which I sent to Amnesty International, it seems these actions of the mob were politically motivated.


Verse 58 here in chapter 7 of Acts says, ‘the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul’. This act of brutal violence was religiously motivated. Surely that is a contradiction? Surely here too there is conflict and dissonance? Surely such violence is not the true intent of religion? Surely any such violence towards humans by humans, religiously or politically motivated is unjustified?


If you have been watching the news recently, you will know of the actions of a religious fundamental group that have kidnapped girls in the north of Nigeria and liberated them because they have converted in fear to Islam. Surely this is not what religion is? Surely Christianity as a religion is not like this? Surely us here on a Sunday expressing our religion are not like that? Surely there is no dissonance, no conflict in our religion?


Pete Rollins in his book ‘Insurrection’ says, “the person who affirms God through fear of persecution makes the claim in order to convince another, while people who affirm God through fear of hell or meaningless seek to convince themselves” (p10). What I suggest is being implied here is the difference between religion and faith. Saul was driven and motivated by his religion and was zealous and driven for that cause but he did things that could not be justified. Our passage from John this morning especially verse 6 has been used in the same way in different ways throughout history and still today within our religion. This is where I suggest religion and faith differ.


Paul Tillich the theologian said that the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim was transreligious, thereby no justifying any religion credence over another or insolence towards that which is different. Karen Armstrong in her chapter about a second axial period says, “every theological statement should be paradoxical, to remind us that when we are speaking about God we are at the end of what thoughts and words can do and that the divine cannot easily be contained within a human system of thought” (p27). Faith therefore as Geering explains is that which “refers to the personal attitude of trust and hope which we humans manifest as we interpret the world in which we live and respond” (p33). It is a position which surrenders control especially control over others and replaces it instead with wasteful generous love. It is a position which places action as a result of the faith it holds to respond to the world in love and in many cases it is love that directs our actions against injustice.

 In contrast, religion often is about control.


Allow me to illustrate this point about control through another story form the Bible. In Genesis 32 we have the story about Jacob wrestling with God. In ancient society to name something was to have control over that thing. Note God asks Jacob his name and Jacob provides it. As a result, his name is changed by God from Jacob to that of Israel. Jacobs tries to control God by asking him his name but God does not concede. There are 2 significant aspects here in this story. One is that God likes us to wrestle and he blesses that action. Religion often likes to have all the ‘t’s crossed and all the ‘i’s dotted and does all in its power to exert this constant unchanging position. Faith on the other hand is about mystery as defined by Hebrews 11 ‘sure of what we HOPE for’. The second aspect is that of control by naming things. A similar situation can be found in the story where Moses is being sent to Egypt and he really does not want to go and so Moses asks, ‘who shall I say sent me?’ In other words, what is your name? Interestingly God replies ‘I am that I am’ has sent you.


Here in John we have the very same reference in verse 6 ‘I am way. truth and life’ and it is part of a long list of ‘I am’s’ such as ‘I am the bread of life’(6:35), ‘the light of the world’ (8:32), ‘the living water’ (7:37) etc. found here in the gospel of John. Bishop Spong says that ‘Johns gospel is so profound so poetic, so skilfully crafted, so dependent on images and concepts out of the Jewish past that it is worthy of the study of a lifetime’ (p189).


Faith is so much more than doctrines, rules, control, naming. Faith is about hope and love just as Paul writes in the letter to the church in Corinth chapter 13 saying, ‘and these 3 things remain, faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love’.


I’d like to think that as Stephen lay there on the ground, helpless and innocent, being unjustifiably and brutally killed in the name of religion, his pronouncement of forgiveness to his enemies, the ultimate expression of agape love was a seed of conviction placed within the heart of young Saul.


Stephen exemplifies faith, love and hope. As Rollins writes, “This is what love does. It does not make itself visible but, like light, makes others visible to us. In a very precise sense, then, love’s presence cannot be described as existing, but rather is that which calls others into existence; for to exist literally means to stand forth from the background, to be brought forth’.


And finally, Bernard Brandon Scott in his chapter ‘from parables to ethics’, says “hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world….and its not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…it is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out” (p132).


May we truly be Easter people where we do not believe for what value it solely gives us but may we be truly faith people, inspired by our faith, hope and love that the world is transformed by our faith living in the way, that it matters to the world what we believe, that our faith catapults us into loving action against any form of injustice for we seek to live life, celebrate life and life in all its fullness. And may God empower us through the coming of the Holy Spirit in this way.

2014 Pre-Pentecost sermon

Desert Sheep

(Isaiah 40:11) ‘He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young’

The use of sheep as metaphor or as symbolism is used quite widely and extensively in the Bible. The lectionary readings this morning all make use of that symbolism as metaphor in various ways. The Hebrew people of course would be quite familiar with such use as seen in the use of the Passover lamb, and as used here in the passage I started with from Isaiah and other such passages such as ‘we all like sheep have gone astray’ (Isaiah 53:6), a rich, layered and vivid metaphor. Of course sheep in a mostly rural cultural world would be a common image and experience for many and therefore a useful teaching tool or method.

But what about today in a culture where Biblical literacy is low, where the mostly urban Western church is at the margins of society and according to statisticians struggling to survive? How do we read, comprehend and apprehend these passages? In fact, how different does the church today look in its practice, culture, belief etc. compared to what we just read about this morning? Did you see the difference?

Let’s look again at Acts 2:46, ‘Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts…’. Not in the church or school hall or someone’s house, but in the Judaist temple courts.

One of the things that fascinate me about where I come from, South Africa, is the way that the wind shapes the landscape of sand dunes along the beaches or sand dunes in the deserts. No sandy landscape ever remains the same but is constantly changed by the winds of change. Unlike a mountain range where you can pin point the best peak, the desert is a constantly changing landscape. It reminds me of the church and our history.

Here Luke writing in Acts gives us a glimpse of the landscape of Christianity. At this point for the most part, these were Jews proclaiming the Jewish Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah and expressing that faith within the confounds of their Jewish faith. Here in chapter 2 we see them practice their faith within the Jewish temple courts. For most of us as Gentiles we somehow have to jump the contextual gap in order to really understand the context, nature and consequences of this landscape. Some writers have attempted to help us do just that such as Philip Yancey in his book, ‘the Jesus I never knew’ and Scott MacKnight in his book, ‘the Jesus Creed’. Others have taken this context and the development of Western thought even further such as Amos Yong in his book, ‘Beyond the Impasse’ and asked, “what the gospel might look like if its primary dialogue partners were not Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or Whitehead, but rather Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu and so on”.

Bishop Shelby Spong in his book, ‘Liberating the gospels’ suggests these Jewish books became Gentile captives! This meeting in temple courts as recoded in Acts 2 became more and more difficult as Jewish animosity and impatience for this then Jewish cult grew. Furthermore, with Jewish tensions rising with Rome, culminated by the destruction of the temple in 70c.e, the new Jewish faith wanted to break ties with its Jewish heritage if it wanted to survive. Spong suggests that by the early years of the 2nd century, the Christian church had become an almost exclusively Gentile church.

The story of Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 illustrate just the extent of the cultural tension. Murray in his book ‘Church after Christendom’  says “the significance of this incident, of course, is that, for the first time, a full-blown, card-carrying, pork-eating, uncircumcised Gentile had been converted, filled with the Spirit and baptised” (p4). What categories could we place in that sentence today to indicate the changing landscape of faith and church today?

The point I am trying to make or at least suggest, is that the dunes we sheep inhabit today were very different from the dunes of these readings and I suggest will be very different from the dunes of the future. The winds of the Spirit continue to blow and change the landscape of the church. This is hard for sheep like us.

What does the shepherd leading his flock through constantly changing landscapes look or sound like? Are we tempted to ignore his voice and in the hope of false security hang onto that which gives us more security than the faith following action of listening to the shepherd? Such a different metaphor as sheep in the desert is not one that instantly captures our imagination but wait.

John 10:10 says that he has come to give life and life in all its fullness. As part of my role in training curates and the continuing development of clergy in their ministry, what a beautiful and challenging image of a growing and life sustaining church and Christian, of sheep healthy and living life to the full in the desert! What a challenge to our concept of discipleship, that listening to the shepherds voice we can be healthy, growing, life sustaining sheep in the desert!

May we embrace the winds of the Spirit in the days and weeks to come as we approach Pentecost and may we hear the still, small voice of our shepherd in that wind calling us as sheep in the desert to follow him.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Fountain

Nietzsche has said that every notable philosophical system is a compressed spiritual autobiography. Every philosopher is a heretic. He is a restless, questioning, critical person whose need to satisfy himself turns out stronger than his desire to continue to a respected, conforming member of his own people...the philosopher who cannot help but pursue his own quest for personal intellectual satisfaction at any cost I the most religious person of all. I was always a philosophical theologian.
The Fountain by Don Cupitt (2010)
Don gives me signposts along the way that I am travelling on, as I work out my understanding of life, the Other and what really matters. Even though I know my bible, systematic theology, trained and taught these and still do, I have never been comfortable with the term theologian. But I like the label (if indeed I need one) of philosophical theologian. I like the fact that I am not alone in seeking a faith expression that has integrity. How does education fit into this and my commitment to human flourishing?