Sunday, January 20, 2019

Mother Know's Best

Today’s gospel lectionary reading is a very familiar tale. It’s the story of a wedding (John 2:1-11). I love to go to wedding. It is always such happy occasions. A time of joy and celebration, full of promise for the next stage of life being embarked on. 

This wedding was in Cana of Galilee. I have blogged about this particular wedding before. I make no apologies for doing so again as I feel this is a key text in the gospels. It is particularly important for any starting a journey into the study of feminist theology and the role of women in the scriptures.

The story doesn’t reveal who the wedding was between. The text hints that it was a close relative of Jesus — maybe it was a brother, sister or cousin. There is no way to know who was getting married, all the passage suggests is that the mother of Jesus was the host. She was the person to whom the servants turned when there was a problem with the wine.

Just as an aside, I want to note that the mother of Jesus remains unnamed in John’s gospel. Sadly, this is common of many of the women. They are designated only by their role in relationship to men rather than as a person with a name.

As a second aside, I want to draw attention to the scale of this wedding which the mother of Jesus was the host. It was clearly an affluent affair with wine flowing freely and servants and stewards attending the guests. Often, Jesus is depicted as hailing from a poor background. Yet, his father, Joseph, was a craftsperson, a carpenter. Nothing about this passage suggests the poverty background often imagined.

Anyway, back to the text. In the story the wine at the wedding ran out. The servants approached the mother of Jesus, who in turn appealed to Jesus. Water was converted into wine and guests commented that the best wine was saved until the last. This tale has been viewed as the first miracle also as an allegory. As always when reading this text, what fascinates me is the conversation between Jesus and his mother. It is a significant part of the account and as such would seem to be important.
When the wine ran out it was Jesus to whom his mother turned. She told him there was no wine. Jesus is recorded as saying it was no concern of his as “My hour has not yet come.” 
It is a strange retort. Obviously, Jesus knew that his mother was expecting a miraculous intervention. Yet was reluctant to reveal who he was. 
It shows the growth and maturity. In my last blog, I talked about the twelve-year-old, Jesus, who was so eager to start ministry and teaching that he was willing to abandon his family. In that text, Jesus had to be told that it was not the right time and he returned home with his mother. 
Now here, approximately eighteen years later, Jesus is still happy to remain in anonymity. Again, it was his mother who revealed the timing. She did it quietly and calmly. She simply ignored his protestation that it was not his hour and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” The miracle was performed. The ministry was launched!

It is important that the key role of Jesus’ mother is not under-estimated. This woman was given the task of knowing when it was time for Jesus to start his ministry. Jesus submitted to that revelation from the person he esteemed highly.
I think these are such important principles established right at the beginning of the Gospel of John. Firstly, it establishes a key role for a woman (although unnamed).  Secondly, Jesus submits to the wisdom of another.

It always reminds me of the anamcara (soul friend) relationshipmentioned often in the story of the Celtic saints, An anamcara was someone with maturity and wisdom who helped with the discernment and timing of ministry. In this story, there is certainly a hint of that sort of relationship between mother and son. It is inspiring to think of the mother of Jesus as his anamcara. 

(Photo: Delaware Bay, November 2018)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Goodbye 2018, Welcome 2019.

Early this morning as I looked out of my window I was a little surprised. Everything was white! In upstate New York on the last Sunday of December that really shouldn’t have shocked me. Yet it did, as it was very unexpected. Certainly, not what my weather app had told me before I went to bed. The forecast had been no more snow until next Friday. The weather has certainly been very changeable. A lot of snow for a few weeks culminating in a crisp white Christmas (always lovely), a couple of days later a surge in temperature causing a thaw with the ensuing glimpse of green grass again . . . for a day! Now snow stretched before me white and unmarked. A fitting sight for the last Sunday of the year. A reminder that a new year, as yet untouched, is before me. 

A couple of lines from the popular Christmas song—which made the Christmas number one spot in 1973—came to mind. 

 “Look to the future now. It’s only just begun.” (Slade)

So, the last Sunday in December has arrived — the last Sunday of 2018. Perhaps, a time to look back and a time to look forward simultaneously. I’ve reached an age where I am aware of how short and fragile our time on earth is—this year has flown by. Life is a gift and should never be taken for granted. I’ve always liked the idea of the analogy of life as a journey. The journey may be smooth or have rough spots, have ups and downs, deep sorrows and joys, but that is all part of our humanness. 

The text for today (Luke 2:41-52) talks of a journey. One undertaken by a young Jesus and his earthly parents. I’m sure their annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover festival was something of a highlight in their lives. The text tells us they travelled with a large crowd, presumably friends and relations were part of the group. The journey was probably a large part of the overall event. I know whenever Andy and I travel we enjoy the journey, we listen to books, we see new places, sometimes passed through quickly and seen from the road. Occasionally lingered at and experienced for an hour or two. 

In today’s story, after the festival, as they journeyed home the parents realised that Jesus was missing. They had assumed Jesus was with some of the others in their party. They returned to Jerusalem and found him in the temple. 

The reading contains some lovely phrases and ideas that I want to highlight. The first idea is that Jesus sought to be with those who he could learn from. Jesus listened and questioned (46). I thought about this in relationship to part of our community prayer, “to find Christ in those we meet.” Everyone has something to offer me and teach me, I just need to listen.

The next idea I want to highlight is the comment about Mary who “treasured all these things in her heart” (51). I love that idea, special moments, special joys being treasured in one’s heart. As I thought about it I can’t number how many times Andy and I have thought about and reminisced about special times. They are close to our hearts. These treasures help through the rough times.

The last idea from the text is the closing sentence. Although in the reading it is specific to Jesus, I want to think about it more generally. The wording is “increased in wisdom and in years.” (52) What an encouraging thought that is. What a hope. As physical aging occurs there is the possibility of an increase in wisdom. Life experiences on the journey are not wasted, they bring wisdom.

Soon I will go outside and step into the snow. I will leave my footprints, I make my mark on it. Each step is like a new beginning, treading a path previously untrodden. In 2019, whatever the year brings, I want every moment to count. 

“Look to the future now. It’s only just begun.” (Slade)

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Noticing Kindness.

Over the last few months I have read or heard several times that the world is becoming a more selfish place. It set me thinking— is this true? Or is this simply a media image?  Perhaps, because doom and gloom incidents make better headlines!

My awareness was raised. I decided to start to notice kindness, as an antidote to selfishness. I was amazed. Once kindness starts to be noticed it is all around. Mostly it is little acts of kindness, things that before awareness was raised would have gone unnoticed. 

Today, is the third Sunday of Advent. The third candle—the pink one— is lit. It represents joy. A reminder that even in a solemn season of preparation, joy can be found. Joy and kindness are deeply linked. 

This week at work a small boy was engaged in making a flower out of beads. He worked hard and long during his breaks for two days. When it was completed he announced that he was going give it to an older child. He had noticed the other child had seemed unhappy. It was a small act of kindness. As he found the older child and presented his gift her face broke into smiles and she hugged him. His act of kindness brought joy to another.

The lectionary reading today gives some hints about acts of kindness, which I’m sure would bring joy to others. The text (Luke 3:7-18) is a story of John the Baptizer talking to the crowds, warning them that their lives need to change. John gives three examples which can be useful when exploring kindness,

The first example is, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (11). 

The second illustration is about tax collectors. They are told “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (13). 

The third reminder is “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (14)

As I read these three principles I saw acts of kindness illustrated which would bring joy to others and to self . . . generosity, sharing, honesty and satisfaction with one’s life. 

For me, noticing kindness has been an interesting and fruitful exercise. I would recommend it. Noticing kindness daily in all the small things brings much joy.

I wish everyone a happy and joy filled third Sunday of Advent.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Hopeful Advent

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, the beginning of the church’s year is a time of preparation. A whole year stretches before yet to be written on. What will it bring? Will I be prepared to meet the challenges and share the joys? 

Today, our advent wreath is prepared for the lighting of the first candle at Eucharist. The first purple candle which signifies hope. The other four, for later weeks, are the candles of peace, joy, love and the white Christ candle.

Hope, the first word to linger with this advent. I been thinking a lot about hope and what it means. The dictionary interprets hope as “a feeling of expectation” and “a desire for a certain thing to happen.” My thinking has been more about what do people hope for? What is their main need? Need drives hope. 

Yesterday, Andy and I went to the cinema to watch Boy Erased. A thought provoking film depicting the true story of a teenager struggling with the reactions of his family to him being gay. I would urge all to go and see it if possible. It is quite disturbing as it showed the boy going through conversion therapy. Over the years, a gradual change occurs in the family led by his mother as she slowly emerges from the bonds of patriarchy. 

The young man’s hope was for acceptance of who he was. His desire was that his family love him rather than change him into some idealistic image of the perfect son. Perhaps acceptance is a big hope for everyone.

Today’s gospel lectionary (Luke 21:25-36) is part of apocalyptic literature. It talks about fear, foreboding and distress. It continues by urging the reader to note all these awful things as signs that the realm of God is near. 

Personally, I think that these verses were included in the gospel to give hope to a people under dire persecution. They were in a time of fear, distress and imminent death. They needed to hear that everything was in control to give them the strength and courage to go through the persecution. Together with the hope of better things to come. A doorway to a future. Perhaps one of the best depictions of that doorway is in C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia novel, The Last Battle.

Yet both the film and the reading made me realize how much strength and courage is linked with hope. It is the hope of a better future that gives one strength to face the now. 

The text also urges the reader to look to nature and see the signs portrayed therein. It feels a very Celtic thing to do. So, this first Sunday of advent I look out of my window to see signs of hope. I see squirrels piling pine cones in hope of food to survive the cold months. I see trees showing the beginnings of buds in hope of the bloom to come. I see the clouds looking heavy with snow ready to give a brand new, clean, untrodden path.

May this week be filled with hope for all.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Re-Imagining the Widow's Mite

The gospel lectionary today is the story which has often been termed “The Widow’s Mite” (12;38-44). It is the tale of a widow who made a monetary offering at the temple. She put in two coins which, the story comments, was all she had. 

This story is often used to illustrate sacrificial giving and generosity. Indeed, generosity is one of the values of the community. 

Therefore, I don’t want to detract from this old and valid way of interpreting this passage as an example of generosity. Although I deplore the way this text has sometimes been used to make people feel guilty about not giving enough.

So, as I read this passage, I want to ask myself what else is in this text? Is there a way to subvert or re-imagine it? Can it be re-claimed in a different way?

I do think that sacred scriptures can be understood at many levels. Often there is not just one “correct” interpretation. It is far more nuanced than that. I also believe that the gospels are not necessarily chronological —although most start with a birth and end with a death. I think that the stories are carefully placed to make and illustrate points.  

 As I read this story, I also want to keep in mind that in contemporary times the widows would now represent those who are needy, lonely, marginalized and poverty stricken. 

In context this story immediately follows the command to love one’s neighbour, emphasizing that this is more important than offerings. Could it be that the author placed this story to illustrate loving neighbour? 

At the beginning of today’s passage the people listening were instructed not to be like scribes who walk around in long robes. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (40).

I find the link here with widows significant. In the story, Jesus took the disciples and sat and watched people go into the treasury. The treasury is in the court of women. It consists of thirteen brass receptacles shaped like trumpets. People placed their offerings in them. Nine of them were for money tributes, for example sin offerings. Four were to receive freewill offerings used to buy wood, temple adornments and incense.

They watched the widow come in and put in her two coins. It was all she had to live on. The offering had forced her to even deeper poverty. I have a hard time thinking this is something that Jesus would applaud. It does not feel in line with the message of the gospels to care for those in need. Something not quite right here. 

Furthermore, the two alternate Old Testament lectionary readings both, in different ways, established a duty of care not to let widows starve. Therefore, an offering of two coins which would leave the widow without, does not feel in tune with the message of the scriptures. Was this an example of “devouring widows’ houses”?

As I read the passage I wonder if it is passing comment on a religious society that did not care if widows were left to starve. The shame of the system is exposed —a widow harmed by her offering.

Last week at the retreat our conversation was about a new kind of priesthood. One that is present to those around. One that serves and cares. One that, metaphorically speaking, doesn’t leave widows to starve.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Silence isn’t an Option.

Once again as I was writing my blog for today it was interrupted by the reports of another tragedy, another shooting, more lives lost, more people devastated. Our hearts go out to all the families and friends of those involved. 

A targeted attack on Jewish people happening in 2018 is a cause for great concern. Surely society should be beyond that kind of hatred. It is, indeed, a sad day. Yet, there is a glimmer of hope for the future in the response of those leading the spontaneous vigil that ensued.

Speaking at the vigil, Rev. Vincent Kolb from the nearby Presbyterian church declared, “We gather because we are heartbroken but also to show zero tolerance for anti-Semitic speech, anti-Semitic behavior and anti-Semitic violence.”

He was joined by Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who acknowledged how angry people were feeling. He read a verse from the Koran that says the way to respond to an evil deed is with a better deed. The Muslim community had already raised $15,000 for the Jewish community. (From reports in various newspapers)

They were joined by others who spoke out against the violence. In these days and times, it is important to speak out against violence and injustice, refusing to remain silent.

The lectionary passage for today is the story of Bartimaeus who was blind (Mark 10:46-52). As I read the text the point that stood out to me was that Bartimaeus refused to be silent. Bartimaeus persisted!

In the tale the issue was blindness, Bartimaeus needed sight. Bartimaeus cried out but was told to be quiet. The text even uses the word “sternly”. It wasn’t just a mild reprimand but a serious rebuke. But Bartimaeus refused to be silent and ignored those opposing him. He persisted. The text records that Bartimaeus cried even more loudly. Ultimately that caused him to get what he needed and sight was restored.

As I read the story I felt its relevance for contemporary times serving as a good illustration. Daily I read and see multiple needs and multiple injustices. People hating others because they are different. I am thankful that there are people like Bartimaeus who refuse to be silent. There are currently so many issues that need to be spoken out against. Yesterday, was a sad reminder that anti-semitism is still on that list. 

Maybe a new catchphrase could be the “Bartimaeus generation”! People for whom silence isn’t an option. People who refuse to remain quiet when an injustice is seen. People who will shout even louder when told to be quiet. People who will keep shouting until change happens.

Maybe Lindisfarne community will be part of that Bartimaeus generation.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Change Happens

He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
 Mark 10:11 NRSV

So reads part of the lectionary gospel for today. I must confess when I read the Bible passages on divorce I usually tend to skip over them. I have many friends and family who are divorced, and, in some cases, re-married. Although their stories are sometimes sad, they are never considered second class citizens or regarded as people who have gone against Biblical teaching. It is simply a fact of contemporary lifestyle —and rightly so. 

Today, I want to consider how society moved from that Biblical stricture. It raises many questions about how the Bible is understood in contemporary society. 

Why is it that some commands in the Bible are ignored whilst others are considered sacred and unbreakable?

Is there a sense that the ones considered good by a particular reader are adhered to and those thought to be unpalatable are discarded without a qualm?

What does this say about how the Bible is interpreted and understood?

Are there parts of the Scriptures that are irrelevant in contemporary society?

Regardless of how one feels about the inerrancy of Scripture there is clearly a conflict between the words in Mark 10 and the practice of divorce. 

William Webb, (Professor of New Testament) tried to lessen this conflict, which occurs in many areas in addition to divorce, with, what he terms, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic. Simplified, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic sees an ongoing outworking of several issues in Scripture. His prime example is slavery. Where the treatment for slaves prescribed in the Old Testament is better than the surrounding tribes. The improvement in the treatment of slaves continues into the New Testament and beyond until abolition is complete. I use a lot of Webb’s work in my book Corporal Punishment, Religion and US Public Schools.

Maybe it can be a little helpful in considering divorce. In the full lectionary text (Mark 10:2-16) there is allusion to Moses commanding that a certificate of divorce can be given if “she does not please him and he finds something objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1). 

I find the Deuteronomy passage disturbing on a number of levels although presumably it wasn’t to those the law was originally given to. Firstly, the patriarchy is horrendous. The certificate of divorce is only given to the husband. Then, the woman has immediately to leave the home this includes any children she has borne. Next she has to go and be another man’s wife, I imagine this is to ensure her survival and protection. Finally, if something happens to the second man she cannot go back to the first husband. The reason given is that she would have been “defiled” and that would be “abhorrent” to God.  
In the Markan text there has certainly been some redemptive-movement. Noticeably that wives can divorce their husbands. This certainly is huge as the woman is no longer simply property to be put away but can, in some small way, advocate for herself.  However, I must note that in the parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew (19:9) patriarchy still rules with no mention of women being able to divorce husbands!

The movement towards acceptable divorce continued through the centuries. In America the 1848 Married Women’s Property Act went a long way in making life easier for women if they wanted a divorce. They were no longer so dependent on men. Things improved further with the introduction of Family courts in the 1950s and no-fault divorces in the 1970s.

For the men who wanted to hold high office divorce was a stigma. In the UK in 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated after a short reign so he could marry a divorcee.  In the US in 1964, Nelson Rockefeller’s hope of becoming president were thwarted because he was divorced. Yet in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected.  He became the first divorced person to hold the office of president. The election of the current president confirms that divorce is no longer an issue which prevents office for men. I’m still not sure whether the same standard would apply for women.

Thankfully in many churches it no longer makes a difference whether a woman is divorced or not. Most of the divorced women I know are treated exactly the same as other women in the church. Yet as I write this I started to read the stories of some women’s experiences. I confess I am shocked (Google Women divorcees in the churchand the stories appear).  Women who were questioned about whether the abuse was bad enough to justify them leaving their partner. Others who saw their church try to help the men (even when they had been abusive) but treated the woman like she had done something wrong. Definitely a double standard here and one which shows there is still much improvement and advocacy needed.

So although Webb’s redemptive-movement can be somewhat helpful, especially in that he sees the outworking of various issues continuing into contemporary times and even beyond, it does also raise a lot of questions. Sometimes it feels simply like a way to justify things that are unpalatable in the Scriptures.

Maybe, I don’t need to find a reason to reject verses that are not for the good of humanity. Maybe, I simply have to content myself with saying that as society changed and continues to change the good of all people is starting to be considered. I can read passages like the Markan one and be thankful that things have progressed and changed since it was penned. Maybe, that is enough.