When is Christianity Broken? When We Don’t Have a Credible Story!
I have been fortunate to belong to a church community that is open and exploring, and sees doubt as a catalyst for change and new beginnings, not something to fear.
We have been a progressive christian community long before the term was developed, and the Rev. Neville Watson, the heart and soul of the community was a progressive Christian minister long before Borg or Crossan or even Spong were heard of.
Nev himself may not use that term, but ever since I have known him he has been stretching the edges of Christianity, finding an understanding and a path that people can follow faithfully, without leaving their brain or their critical thinking at the door.
He has started up a website with some of his best sermons, plus some of his diary entries, which are very profound, taking us all on a journey of grief and loss after his beloved wife, Marg, died last May. I will put the web address at the end of this post.
But I want to put one sermon here for you, as a taster if you like.
But before I do, an introduction!
I organised for Michael Morwood to speak at our church the other night, on God, Jesus and Prayer. Michael is an author, speaker and leader in Progressive Christianity and an ex Catholic priest, for as we know priests who question the fundamentals usually end up ex priests!
He spoke beautifully and passionately about needing a new story of our faith, that incorporates all we know of the universe, and of the human condition. Not a God in the sky separate from us, but a God found within all of creation. “A mysterious universal presence, never absent, at work at all times, in all places, in all peoples, all through human history and all through this universe”, a definition found in his book, “Is Jesus God”. I have always loved that.
I have been a fan of his for many years, as he speaks to me in words I already know and felt was part of my own journey from the very beginning.
Last night he called us not to worship Jesus (which I have also felt is weird, for as Dr. Rev. Margaret Mayman has said, Jesus is not my boyfriend) but tell his story. Tell the story of Jesus, and his vision of a spirit filled, God filled life that includes everyone. A life that saw justice and peace as paramount. A story about what gives fullness of life, for all people, for you and me.
A rallying call for all those still in a church community.
Then I happened apon this sermon from Nev, written in 2016. Why, because I am trying to sort out my computer and the hundreds of files I have, not only in the computer but on various memory sticks. My digital stuff is as bad as my paper stuff!
And I hear in Nev’s words a man who has been preaching this message almost his entire life, and acting in the world in a way that reflects this belief, this faith.
Nev has been my mentor since I arrived at the church some 30 years ago. A person who has influence me more than I could ever say.
Sometimes I need reminding about why that is!
So here is the sermon, I was going to edit it slightly to shorten it a bit, but no I decided just to put it out there. Funnily enough there is an election around the corner.…
The scripture readings if you are interested were –
1Kings 7:17-24, Luke 7:11-17
I have a minister friend in Victoria whom I see only every year or so. He is exceptionally bright and I can only understand about ten percent of what he is on about. In 2013 he wrote a book entitled “Lanterns at Dusk”. It was not exactly a best seller, and the last I heard the royalties were $13.60. Every now and again, I pick up the book and look through it – probably because on the fly leaf of my copy he has written “For Nev, more of a laser than a lantern.” As always, I am not quite sure what he meant by it.
The other day while pensively thumbing through the book, I came across a statement that struck home, a quote from Robert Jensen: “The world has lost its story because it tries to live a story without a credible story teller.” Never is that more evident than at election time.
The New Testament passage we heard this morning is known as “the raising of the widows son”. And, as ever, we need first to look at the context. “No text without a context!” And the context here is very clear. It is that of John the Baptist asking of Jesus “Are you the one who is to come or do we look for another”. And Jesus’ answer to John’s messengers is “Tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought good news”.
There is also another context – that of Elijah and the widow’s son at Zarafath. It is an additional context because it is of the same subject matter and indeed some of the words used in Luke’s account that we look at today are precisely the same as the account of Elijah raising the widows son at Zarafath
So! On to the questions that immediately arise when these stories are read. The miracles in the Bible are where the rubber hits the road as far as belief and interpretation are concerned. To believe, or not to believe, that is the question as far as miracles are concerned.
And, for some reason or other, I am reminded of Alice in Wonderland where the Queen says “I am a hundred and one years old”.
“I can’t believe that “says Alice.
“Can’t you?” says the Queen. “Well take a deep breath and try again”.
“I can’t” says Alice “You can’t believe impossible things.”
“Oh yes you can “ says the Queen. “When I was your age I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Needless to say Lewis Carroll wasn’t writing a fairy tale when he wrote “Alice in Wonderland”. He was raising a real issue – an issue that we are confronted with today.
A miracle, dictionary defined is “a wonderful event for which there is no natural explanation, and for this reason is attributed to the supernatural”. And we need to recognize that in the first century there was little understanding of the natural, and much was attributed to the supernatural. Storms were not seen in terms of highs and lows and moving fronts. They were seen in terms of angry Gods to whom words should be directed or sacrifices made – and I don’t mind admitting that a few years ago I was appalled when someone in Southern Cross asked us as a congregation to pray for rain. I spend a lot of time praying but praying for rain makes no sense to me! And nor does accepting the miracles at their face value, as actual and factual experiences. To do so means accepting the cosmology of the first century, of a guy in the sky who controls the levers of life. To go back to the cosmology and understanding of the first century is for me too big a price to pay, and flies in the face of everything that we today know and do.
A few weeks ago I went to the funeral service of one of the most saintly people I have known – one who spent her life serving the needs of the poor, the indigenous community and those in prison. In the eulogy, the last moments of her life were recounted in terms of “the room was filled with warmth, she smiled and she was gone”. Did a miracle occur and the room actually become warmer? I don’t think so. It was the way the person sitting with Bernadine experienced it. To spend time considering whether the room actually became warmer is to miss the point completely. It was as if the room was filled with warmth. The words were used to make a point, a point about Bernadine and her life. I have no doubt, however, that some will see it in terms of a miracle. And more’s the pity, because Bernadine’s life was the miracle – the dictionary definition of miracle being, I remind you, “a thing of wonder”. Bernadine’s life was the miracle, not her death.
The Christian faith is not about believing impossible stories.Fred Craddock puts it in an interesting way. The Bible is for us “like listening through a key hole to an ancient conversation not intended for us …..There are many stories in the Bible. All of them are true and some of them actually happened.” Dominic Crossan puts it a little more bluntly and points out that in the gospels there are not only the parables of Jesus but there are parables aboutJesus. Jesus told parables about life. His followers told parables about him. Crossan is quite strong on this because he, like many of us, has seen good people leave the Church because of the impossibility of believing such things as the miracles. Crossan is passionate about it and says “We think that the ancients told dumb literal stories. Not quite! The ancients told smart metaphorical stories that we are dumb enough to take literally…… It’s the meaning that matters, dummies!” He also points out that the gospel writers consciously and deliberately took Old Testament stories and themes and created fresh stories in which Jesus seemed to fulfill the expectations.
The New Testament is hugely important – why else would we be considering it this morning – but we need to recognize that it was written in the first century.
The bible was written for people who believed that there was an almighty guy in the sky who controls everything and who would suspend the laws of nature on request. There are still people who believe that. I am not one of them. Our understanding of the world has changed since the year one and so has our understanding of the word within the scriptures.
When I was a young man , which is about seventy years ago, there was a movement which attempted to explain the miracles in terms of today’s understanding, for example, that in Elijah’s case his “breathing deeply on the child” was an early example of CPR. and that the widow’s son at Nain wasn’t clinically dead. Leslie Weatherhead, I remember, saw many of the miracles in terms of psychosomatic medicine. I wasn’t particularly impressed with Weatherhead and co. To see the miracles in his sense is neither necessary nor realistic. He seemed intent to impress that the bible is factually true in all things which, of course, is patently not the case. Anyone who believes today that the Garden of Eden story of creation is factually true is in cloud cuckoo land. It’s the meaning that matters, and so it is with the widow’s son at Zarafath and Nain. The bible has huge implications for the twenty first century but being a medical text book is not one of them.
We today desperately need a miracle worker, a credible story teller, and in Jesus of Nazareth we see just that – thanks be to God who is not a guy in the sky pulling the levers of life but the energy of life pointing us to fullness of life. Diana Butler Bass, the main speaker at the coming Common Dreams conference does not particularly thrill me, but she certainly gets it right when she says that the Christian faith is not about an escalator rising to post mortem benefits but an arrow pointing to the future.
And so it is with the stories of the widow’s children at both Zarafath and Nain. The meaning is clear. Jesus brings new life to those who are to all intents and purposes dead. This is what our scripture this morning is about.
I don’t know about you, but I can smell the stench of death around us at this election time where politicians promise to put life into a dying economy and a decaying social system. The posturing of the politicians is blatantly childish and their primary aim is being elected. Why else would they promise huge sums of money as they cross the country? They bow the knee to a deity called the free market where the rich grow rich and the poor get poorer and the trickle down theory becomes a case of piddling on the poor. As Harvey Cox says “Of all the religions in the world, the market has become the most formidable because it is rarely recognized as a religion. ” But such it is, and the Christian faith is not about market fundamentalism. It is about fullness of life. “I have come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness.” New life for those who to all intents and purposes are dead. As Irenaeus put it in the 2ndcentury “The glory of God is the human person fully alive”. A Christian is a human being striving to become more so. Such is not the case today and the stench of death is everywhere around us.
Who am I going to vote for in July? My vote is going to Jesus of Nazareth! You didn’t know he was standing? Oh yes; he’s standing all right – behind and beside and in front of every politician, with policies and promises that go far beyond those of our politicians .
My disillusionment with the pollies and their policies is well known. Many of them are locked into the past. Many of them can’t see beyond the nose on their face. And all too few see the future except in terms of material welfare and the pursuit of pleasure.
How different is the policy of Jesus of Nazareth who points us to the future and fullness of life, a new way of life, which leaves the present day prophets for dead and breathes new life into the system, a system that I suspect is on the verge of collapse. We live today on borrowed time and borrowed money. We have feasted sumptuously at the table of life without concern for the future. We have partied long into the night. The dawn of a new day has arrived. The bill is about to be presented, and the credit card is overdrawn.
Such is the result of our political miracle workers. Thank God we have an alternative miracle worker, one who enables the blind to see, and the lame to walk, the lepers to be made clean, the deaf to hear, the dead raised to life, and good news being brought to the poor.
His website is
https://nevwatson.com.au Sermons for the 21stCentury.