Archive for April, 2013

What the Living Do: A Sermon after Watertown.


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Mercy not Sacrifice

I’m on our church’s confirmation retreat. For the last three years, we’ve framed our retreat around a discussion of the three questions you get asked when you join the United Methodist Church in tandem with three verses Ephesians 4:14-16. The first question asks us whether we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sins,” while Ephesians 4:14 in the NIV talks about humanity being “like infants tossed back and forth between the waves.” So I’ve gone with the metaphor of sin as a “sea of wrath.” This year, a kid was asking but what about sins that the Bible doesn’t talk about, how do we tell what they are? We had just read Galatians 5:19-21 about the works of the flesh. So I said sin is doing things that create “drama” in the negative teenage sense of the word, because…

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I am most definitely not a child of Thatcher. Perhaps few people can claim that, but, through a strange combination of timing and circumstance, I can. When I first came to the UK in 1990, the bulk of the debate on her central policies of privatisation and deregulation, had already taken place here.  It was very much in its infancy back home and didn’t really become the vogue on the rest of the continent until the following decade. Essentially, I took a strange leap in time – from the fierce battle between neoliberalism and socialism, almost straight to the Blair/Major accord which refused to engage in such ideological debate.

I missed the chit-chat. I just saw the effect. I remember the despair I felt when I first witnessed hundreds of people sleeping in Waterloo’s cardboard city – I had never before seen a homeless person. I remember wondering whether I…

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Over at Homebrewed there is a great guest post by Ken Alton , who blew us all away with his take on Bo’s John 3:17 challenge. There’s not room on the comment box there to post a full response, so I have pasted the post and my full comment below.

Did God send Jesus to die on a cross? Did God send Jesus to die for our sins?

My reaction is to say no. God sent Jesus to save us.

And I want to say that there was a possibility, even way back in biblical times, that Israel, responding in human freedom, could have realized just who this Messiah was and got behind and between and caught up in the kin-dom, such that all nations would have been drawn to that light, that human flourishing and the kin-dom be proclaimed to the ends of the earth without there being a cross in the story.

I want to say that even with the Sanhedrin being all caught up in shoring up their hierarchy and religiosity, then Pilate and Herod could have responded, in human freedom, to the invitation of God in their ears at that moment, to the invitation of God standing right in front of them, and set Jesus free, not only set him free but got behind and between and caught up in the kin-dom and taken it to the ends off the earth in a different way, also without there being a cross in the story.

Jesus could have lived to a ripe old age, teaching thousands of brew-babies brought to him from miles around, sitting on a swing hanging from a tree to fulfill the prophecy. And after he died in his sleep, God still could have raised him from the grave and the lesson of new life could have been learned, and the giving of the Spirit could all have happened without a cross.

If none of that was a real possibility on Christmas morning, then something is wrong in how I understand our human freedom to say yes to Sophia’s divine wisdom whispered in each and every ear. I know we live in a world where the cross did happen. Thank God that cross is not the end of the story. Maybe if we spent less time focused on Jesus having to die for us, we could open ourselves to being able to live into that kin-dom that is always coming near, so near that it is among us even now.


Tripp and I called it a ‘hat-trick’ and a ‘home-run’. What do you think?

My thoughts:

I love this piece of theological imagination but I find it hard to imagine Jesus dying of a ripe old age in bed. If it wasn’t the conspiracy of Caiaphas and Pilate one Passover leading to a Roman cross, then perhaps one of the disciples would have killed him for his betrayal of their messianic hopes – giving Christians for centuries the symbol of the dagger and the phrase "for our sins he was stabbed in the back". Maybe a zealous proto-Pharisee like Saul of Tarsus would have stoned Jesus for blasphemy, so we all wear pebble necklaces in memory of the one who was stoned for us. Pushed off a cliff, a la Luke 4:29 "he took our fall…"

In all of these examples it is not to say that God or "Fate" had a death plan that was going to get Jesus one way or another, but more that the powers have their way of dealing with prophetic individuals, and it always ends in violent death (Gandhi, MLK jr, Romero …).

We know enough about Jesus to imagine that if the provocative acts on Palm Sunday and the demo in the Temple were not enough to make the powers snap into action to crush this annoyance, then there would have been something else, he wouldn’t have stopped there with his defiance of the unjust combination of imperial, religious and economic might, and with impudent humour and insightful critique there would have been more times when the local elders would have had him beaten up, or a Centurion would have had him flogged, leading eventually to a public discrediting of the rebel movement, the imprisonment and execution of its ringleaders, and potentially some legislative change to outlaw their customs.

All of this says a lot about how the world works and from which we could build up the same theology of the powers as we see in Paul and the evangelists. Of course we still know enough about God to realise that the community that suffered this setback, could still experience the resurrection event, and subsequently make sense of the violence and suffering of Jesus through the narrative frame of the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Events of the last twenty four hours have taken me to thinking about eschatology. If you take a realist theology then eschatological matters are always something of an embarrassment. I have found it helpful to understand the Maccabean roots of one strand of our eschatology – that the supernatural hope beyond death is a function of squaring the justice of a God who does not act, with the righteousness of the martyrs who die as victims of the powers, whether it be by the direct swords and crosses of persecution or the grinding Imperial yoke that crushes the life out of communities.

We see this in the Lukan couplet at 6:20 "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." And 6:24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."

I can see how the eschatological hope functions for the poor, the downtrodden and the victims of the powers. Psychologically there has to be more than this, if your life is made miserable by the combination of the cruel selfishness of the few, coupled with the institutional brutality of a class of lackeys acting under orders out of either fear or the desire to make things a little better for their own families. If God is just then there must be resurrection – if the tables are not turned in this life, then surely God will work his great reversal in the age to come.

So it is with this in mind that I come to Twitter and Blogs where there is a collective letting off of steam at the death of widely hated former leader. The following example is not untypical.

… Maggot Thatcher snuffed it today … so .. its all together now, and in her own words … “Rejoice ! – rejoice … ! “
They will be singing and dancing tonight – from the Falls Road in Belfast .. to the streets of Brixton… and the decimated communities of Yorkshire, Durham, Nottingham, Wales and Scotland and beyond …
But no singing & dancing from the bereaved families of the brave Marines & the Welsh Guards on the Sir Galahad .. cold-bloodedly sacrificed by Thatcher to win an election
… the Darkest Witch that the Devil and the English establishment ever imposed on the hard-working innocents of the nation has finally been cleansed from the land … rejoice .. rejoice … ! The She-devil is no longer amongst us
… and The Fires of Hell are welcoming one of their own …
Tomorrow is a bright new dawn, and the air will taste fresher and cleaner ….

This is an interesting blog post, because the anonymous writer instinctively reaches for the language of eschatology and super-nature. We see the "fires of hell", "a dark witch" and "she devil", we also see the eschatological New Earth, dawning brightly with fresh clean air. What are we to make of this reach for the strong and dark language of eschatology when evil rulers die in their beds, un-deposed by God, without the vindication of justice?

Equally interesting over the past twenty four hours has been the moralistic reaction against those expressing the relief of such a symbolic passing. This of course comes in two forms; the crude version is simple sectarianism – those who quietly happily deride the passing of Hugo Chavez, or Osama Bin Laden but object when it is their own camp’s champion whose evil is being called into question. These can be safely ignored. The other is the more pious condemnation against the celebration of the death of any individual. This one is psychologically more interesting, especially if the function of eschatology is to give vent to powerful emotional forces which if repressed in the cultural pressure-cooker would result in violence.

So, three questions and a thought…

1) Does a Christianity without eschatology lose something important in expressing the solidarity of God with the poor?

2) Can a community maintain an eschatology of hope – "blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of heaven", without an eschatology of woe towards those who are currently oppressing them, or benefiting from their oppression?

3) What happens psychologically and culturally if we, on grounds of "taste and decency" censor the resort to the eschatological?

Finally Revelation 21:24 has the "…the kings of the world will enter the city," Perhaps the answer to the tension of eschatological hope and eschatological condemnation is the Christian theology of eschatological universalism. If Jesus can even admit the enemies of God, the kings of the earth, into his new city, then perhaps there needs to be a liturgical space for communities to enact forgiveness towards Margaret thatcher in this life. Our liturgy needs to acknowledge the pain she caused and that goes on being meted out in her name. Our liturgy needs to give us words and actions to turn the tears of bitterness into the open hands of neighbourly love. Our liturgy needs to be a space free of hagiography and triumphalism (so the military funeral at St Pauls will be no place for this work). Our liturgy needs to become a place where we may release her soul from hell and so release our wounded hearts to the God who would not act. Our liturgy should empower us to become a community so enraptured with the story of love that we never allow another one such as this to arise again, yet always alert to the new guise in which the powers charm their way into dominion. Our liturgy will help us to remember, and to forgive.

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