Sunday, November 29, 2020

Watching and Waiting


Today, our journey through Advent begins. I hope it will be a rich and meaningful time for each person reading this. 

 

This morning I unpacked our Advent wreath and adorned it with five new candles representing hope, peace, joy, love and, in the centre, the Christ candle. Each ready to be lit in turn as the journey through Advent continues.

 

First to be lit is the purple candle of hope. I think at this time, as the church begins the new liturgical year, hope is much needed. For many it has been a rough few months — a deadly virus, isolation, quarantine, political uncertainty, unemployment, fear, sickness, deaths of friends or family members. Yet hope abounds — hope for a vaccine and an end to the pandemic, hope for a more stable future, hope that all will ultimately be well. Hope is what keeps us going, maybe a bit like the star shining in the darkness, leading the magi onwards. 

 

The lectionary reading paints a metaphorical picture of suffering and hardship (Mark 13: 24-37). A time full of darkness and catastrophe. Yet the text offers hope of better things to come. The passage uses the illustration of the fig tree offering the anticipation of summer after the cold (28).

 

Yet with the offer of hope in this extended metaphor, comes the message from the author of the Gospel to keep awake. Of course, this cannot be taken literally, human beings are created to need sleep for restoration and rejuvenation. But in those two words —keep awake — the author captures the meaning of Advent. Watching and Waiting. 

 

Advent always encompasses the dual themes of waiting for the birth of the Christ child and watching in hope for the future. Often those two words representing Advent are the antithesis of what happens in reality. Watching and waiting have a quietness about them — a sense of peace yet with an increasing anticipation. Sadly, Advent is often consumed with busyness and a feeling of not having enough hours in the day to complete all the tasks that need doing in preparation for Christmas. 

 

This year will be different. There can be no large in person gatherings, no pre-Christmas parties, no Christmas dinner with extended family and friends, no going to Christmas shows, no lingering in stores buying things that are not really needed, not even large Carol services crushed together with others’ celebrating. 

 

Just maybe, this year, the enforced slowing down will help restore the season of Advent. Maybe this year’s pandemic restrictions will change some of our Advent busyness permanently. Maybe watching and waiting will take on a new, deeper meaning.

 

I hope so. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Where's Christ?

 


Today’s lectionary reading (Matthew 25: 14-30) is another parable which I consider troublesome. It is the parable where a rich slave owner entrusted his money to three slaves. To one he gave five portions, the next he gave two portions and the last one portion. The first two doubled their money while the third merely kept it safe. On return from a long absence the slave owner praised the first two and reprimanded the last one.

When one starts to really think about this parable, there is nothing easy about it. Obviously, other Biblical interpreters have also considered it difficult, this is illustrated by the many times it has been spiritualized. There is nothing wrong with spiritualizing Bible passages to edify those reading or listening, but it is not an interpretation — it moves beyond the original intent or understanding by the contemporary audience. Not that I am going to pretend that I can even begin to understand the original intent of this parable, I am merely going to offer a few musings on the text.


But before I do that, I am going to continue to bang my drum about interpretation of parables and trying to assign roles to the various characters. This parable illustrates it beautifully. If one assumes the rich landowner portrays God, then it leads to all sorts of problems:


Firstly, the landowner is described as a harsh man,

Secondly, he gets rich through the work of others, “I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter” (26),

Thirdly, the landowner was absent —he went away and left his people.

Fourthly, he owned slaves (although I admit, that may not have been as shocking to a contemporary audience.

Fifthly, the slaves were afraid of him.


If one assumes that the landowner equates to God, then these attributes belong to God. It is much better to see the parable simply as a story told to illustrate a point. 


Anyway, back to the text — this is a parable about money and wealth. Just because the currency is talents — which has a different meaning in English — that does not change the text. This would not have been understood to be about singing, dancing, woodworking, storytelling or anything else one might be good at. That is completely changing the meaning of the text. This is a parable only about money, wealth and even greed.


Just to give an idea of how much money is being talked aboutOne talent was worth about 3,000 shekels. It is estimated that it was equivalent to about twenty-years wages for an ordinary worker. Together the eight talents distributed in this parable would equate to approximately one hundred and sixty years of wages! That’s a lot of money. 


So, I wrestle with how the realm of heaven is illustrated by this story of the rich slave owner, who made his money by dishonest means and fear. The only way I can make any sense of it is to subvert it. Therefore, I will read it as a critique of contemporary society. I understand the realm of heaven not as some future event but as a way of life for now. Often stories in the gospel expose selfish and uncaring ways which in turn become pointers towards a better way of living; directions for a good life, something to be strived towards. This parable does just that. 


In many stories told in the gospels, money-makers are not held in high esteem. The rich got richer through the work of the poor. Often the workers toiled long hours to enable them to eat and feed their families. 

Therefore, in this parable, I am not finding Christ reflected in the harsh landowner who sought to get richer. Nor am I finding Christ in the two slaves who made more money to receive praise from the landowner. I find Christ in the slave who kept safe that which was entrusted to them. I find Christ in the one who refused to allow the money to be used to extort from others. I find Christ in the one who was rejected and thrown out.  


Interestingly, this parable was placed by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew as a prelude to the crucifixion story which details the ultimate abandonment and rejection. 

 

 

 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Samhain

All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day — a special weekend in the church’s year. Plus, as we like to go by the Celtic Calendar, this weekend also saw the first day of the new year —Samhain.

 

Samhain is the first season of the Celtic year — a time when the seeds shed by the previous generation lie dormant, safe, hidden and protected. So right at the beginning of this new year it is fitting to think of those who have gone before, those who have already shed their seeds. Their lives have enriched our lives. Their seeds have found new life and growth in subsequent generations.

 

Many times, I, and others in the community, have shared our experiences of “thin” places. Those places where there seems to be less distance between oneself and God — where it is easier to sense the presence of God. I love those places and I enjoy hearing others’ experiences of them. 

 

At the beginning of the Celtic year, the focus is not on a “thin” place but on a “thin” time. November is deemed the thinnest month. In Celtic folklore it was a time when even demons and malevolent beings became closer as the physical darkness prevailed, hence the many Celtic prayers for protection. I suspect we will touch on that next week as we look at the Celtic Year in our Theology School. But today is a time to focus on the good aspect the “thinness”.

 

A blessing collected by Alexander Carmichael expresses it well. It begins:

 

Be each saint in heaven

Each sainted woman in heaven

Each angel in heaven

Stretching their arms for you

Smoothing the way for you

When you go thither . . .

 

It is not surprising then that All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are right at the beginning of November — the thinnest time. These ancient feasts, which have been celebrated over the centuries, set the tone for the month. 

 

Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St Peter’s, Rome on November 1 during his reign (731-741) in honour of all saints and martyrs. Although there are earlier mentions of this festival, All Saint’s Day was officially sanctioned for general observance by Pope Gregory IV in 837.

 

Later, in Burgundy, France, Odilo, Benedictine Abbot of Cluny (962-1048/9) instituted All Souls’ Day on November 2 to commemorate all who have gone before. By the thirteenth century it had become widely established. Perhaps, when we turn to prayer in a few minutes we can remember all those who have influenced our spiritual journeys.

 

For All Saints’ Day instead of an Old Testament reading the lectionary gives us a text from the book of Revelation. The focus of which is those who have gone before, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples, and languages” (Rev. 7:9) I love the inclusive nature of this description. 

 

As a community this weekend we gathered together for our Samhain retreat. Our hearts and minds were focused on love. What a fitting way to start the new year! 

 

Love encompasses everything we want to be as a community — love of God, love of each other, love of the stranger. 

 

It is a great focus to have for the upcoming year — to keep love upmost in our thinking. Determining that all our actions and words will be motivated by love. The other lectionary readings affirm this love. The reading from the epistle declares, “See what love the Father-Mother has given us” (1 John 3: 1-3). The gospel story is the very well-known passage on the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1-12). Implicit in the passage is love. People will be comforted, people will be filled, people will receive mercy. These are simply manifestations of love.

 

So today, at the beginning of this thinnest month, we remember those who have gone before whose lives aided us in our spiritual journeys and we determine that this year our focus will be on love making a firm foundation for future generations.

 

I end with a blessing for the Celtic new year:

 

God, bless to me the new day,

Never vouchsafed to me before,

It is to bless Thine own presence

Thou hast given me this time, O God.

 

Bless Thou to me mine eye

May mine eye bless all it sees;

I will bless my neighbour,

May my neighbour bless me.

 

God, give me a clean heart,

Let me not from sight of Thine eye.

Bless to me my children and my spouse,

And bless to me my means and my cattle.

 

(Collected by Alexander Carmichael.)

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Seasons of Life


Chapters Twenty-four and twenty-five in the book of Matthew are designated as Apocalyptic literature — describing or prophesying the end of the world. 

 

I have to confess it is not my favourite genre nor something I have done a great amount of in-depth study on. Today, while briefly reading and re-reading a few articles on the subject, which include some wild and wonderful interpretations, I came to the conclusion that actually no-one really understands it! The differing opinions are wide and varied. As always it is a mistake to assume one’s interpretation is the correct one. No-one is really sure what the author of Matthew meant. Certainly, it is a literary device not to be taken, well, literally.

 

Today’s lectionary reading is Matthew 24:30-35. This includes the oft quoted line “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”. Matthew is usually dated as being written about 70 CE — although some discussion of an earlier Aramaic version has been mooted.

 

Therefore, to read it literally makes no sense — many of the generation alive with Jesus would already have died by the time it was penned. Even if understood that Matthew, as an old Man, was writing it as a comfort to new, young, early believers — a generation undergoing persecution — they too died without seeing the fulfillment of this verse.

 

Yet, countless generations have used those words to claim they are the generation who will see Jesus return. Lists of people who have predicted a bodily second coming of Jesus  with the end of the known world can be found. Here are just three quick examples: 

 

It was prophesied that it would happen in 500 CE. (Irenaenus, Hippolytus of Rome and Julius Africanus). 

Beautus of Liebana, a Spanish monk, prophesied the end of the world in 793.

 Pope Sylvester 11 predicted a millennium apocalypse — when it didn’t happen, it was changed to say it must be 1,000 years from Jesus death rather than his birth so 1,033!

 

I could include many other historical predictions, there was almost one or more documented for every century. In the nineteenth century the prophecies increased and have continued to do so to present day. Of course, it maybe that more were just documented. 

 

Interestingly, in 2010 Pew research focused a question on the second coming of Christ. Their data show that 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will return to earth before 2050. 

 

When broken down further the results showed that —

58% of white evangelical Christians believe Christ will return in this period. 

59% of those with no college experience believe Christ will return in this period.

Whereas only 19% of graduates share the same belief.

52% of those who believe Christ will return by 2050 live in the south.

(I’ve included the link at the bottom where more details can be found)

 

So, what do I think? I think it is a pointless exercise to try and predict dates. I think it is much more profitable to focus on how I am living my life in the time I am given on earth. Much of apocalyptic literature is urging the readers to consider their lifestyles.

 

In the same reading in Matthew the author of the gospel uses the illustration of the fig tree — “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” I find this a helpful phrase. Perhaps, because it brings me back to a Celtic understanding of seasons and times of life. 

 

Right now, as I look out of my window, I see a beautiful vista of Autumnal colours. Yet, the leaves are already dropping. Friday was a very hot day with an overnight storm which caused a severe drop in temperature. On Saturday as we walked, Andy and I remarked how many leaves had fallen, how different the trees looked than the previous day. The season is changing. For us, in the Western hemisphere, in Upstate New York winter is drawing near. 

 

I don’t even need to look at a calendar to know the date of the approaching new season. The signs in nature reveal it. Life too has seasons — I once heard it said that as one got older the winter of life is approaching. I think to see winter as the last season of life is a wrong way of thinking about it. 

 

Winter is a beginning, a time of hiddenness, a time of much growth. Spring is a time of visibility, tender shoots, freshness and growth while Summer is colour, ripening, beauty and vibrance. 

 

If winter is the beginning of the cycle of life, then Autumn becomes the end. Autumn has its own particular beauty, a time of fruitfulness, harvest and shedding seeds to bring forth the life of the next generation. 

 

Each season is rich and full. Each season can, and should, be enjoyed for the rewards it brings.

 

So, I don’t know when, or even if, Jesus will return in bodily form. I don’t actually want to concern myself with that. I want to focus on how I am living my life now, in the season I find myself in. 

 

The lectionary also includes the passage in Colossians (3:12-17) that hints about how to live life — forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace, wisdom, thankfulness and gratitude.

 

As I live every day afforded to me these the important things to focus on. 

 

(https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2010/07/14/jesus-christs-return-to-earth/)

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Violence doesn’t Win

The lectionary reading today is another complex parable (Matthew 21:33-46). I have blogged about it before and probably will again in the future — it seems the older I get, the shorter the three-year lectionary cycle seems!

The parable doesn’t make great reading. It is full of violence, hatred, greed, discontentment, disregard for human life and sadness.


The first thing I’m going to say about this parable is something many will have heard me say before. It is a drum I keep banging as I think it is important. When reading parables just look for the punchline, the message being put out there. Resist the temptation to assign roles to the characters. I believe that is always a mistake. If roles are allocated to the various players, then the text often has to be twisted as characteristics that are unfavourable are lauded. 


This particular parable is the story of a person who bought land, fenced it in, built a winepress and a watchtower. After the vineyard was leased to tenants the owner left, probably to continue his business exploits elsewhere. I imagine this was a familiar model to the audience of the time.

Indeed, it is a model that is reflected in contemporary times in big business. Owners have multiple investments, they put managers in to run them and scoop up the profits as a return on their investments. Often with this model of business enormous profits are made while workers toil for a pittance — the lower on the hierarchical chain the workers are the less money is earned. As this parable is explored it is worth thinking through a contemporary example as it helps to ground it. 


Back to the text — in the story when the time of the harvest arrived the landowner sent his slaves to collect the produce. The tenants seized them, stoned them and killed them (35). The story does not reveal why the tenants did not want to turn over the harvest. It raises a number of questions: 

Were they greedy? 

Were they disloyal?

Were they starving or likely to starve through the winter months? 

Were their families starving? 

Did they feel the return on their work was unjust? 

Was the landowner demanding more than agreed?

Why turn on the slaves who were themselves in an unenviable position?


Anyway, a second set of slaves sent to take the harvest. The same violent treatment was afforded to them. Finally, the landowner sent his son anticipating (or hoping) that he would be respected. Not so — he also was seized and killed.(39). The landowner would then put the tenants to death and start again with new tenants who he hoped would give him the harvest.


So, I want to return again to why it would be difficult to assign roles in this parable. I have heard the landowner sometimes equated to God. A male God who kept slaves and, possibly, treated his workers unjustly. In addition, God would be portrayed as vengeful thus “putting the wretches to a miserable death” (41). Personally, I don’t think that is an acceptable image of God. Maybe one could argue it is an Old Testament image, but the gospels and epistles have tended to change the image of God from violent to loving, a view which has increased in contemporary times. I don’t want a God whose violent image is affirmed.


Furthermore, roles would then have to be assigned to the tenants, the servants, the son, even the new tenants. The most common interpretation says the tenants are the Sadducees and Pharisees, the servants are the old prophets and the son obviously Jesus. Maybe the new tenants Christians? I would also want to reject this. I dislike the anti-Semitic emphasis it would bring to the text as the tenants killed the slaves and the son. 


So, that leaves me with a story that has no winners, only losers. There is no satisfactory ending. The landowner lost profits, slaves and a son. The slaves and the son lost their lives. The tenants lost their vineyard then their lives. No solution is given in the parable. I don’t have any great interpretation or profound thoughts. Much of it just leaves me feeling it is another unpleasant and disturbing parable. 


I tried reading it from the viewpoint of each of the characters — reading against the grain. As I read it from the tenants’ point of view, I see possible exploitation, injustice, unrest which results in anger and violence in their desire for change. As I read it from the landowner’s point of view, I see also feelings of injustice, of being used, taken for granted, dishonoured, great loss and ultimately wanting to turn to violence. As I read it from the slaves’ point of view, I see victims of a system which disregards their humanity and makes them victims of violence, As I read it from the son’s point of view, I see again injustice and a victim of a parent who cared more for material things than kinship. No winners! 


Perhaps, this is simply a story to illustrate that a time of change was coming. It reflects the unrest and injustices in the society of the day. And change always starts with those who see injustices and are bold enough to stand against them. It has happened with every generation. Hopefully, as this story is read it will show the futility of trying to bring change through violence. With violence there are no winners, only losers.

 

****************

 

 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

It’s Not Fair!


Today many in America will be mourning the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died on Friday (September 18). The timing of her death had great significance in the Jewish tradition which she embraced. Ginsburg died Friday evening, her death occurred around the time Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, began. Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston, Illinois explains, “If one dies on any Shabbat they are considered a Tzadik … more so when it’s on the new year,”

A tzaddik is a person known for righteous deeds. In early Hasidic writings a tzaddik is a channel through which divined blessing flows to others. It is an apt description. RBG, as she was affectionately known, worked unceasingly for the Other. Women everywhere owe her a great debt of gratitude. She co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU saying, "Women's rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy."

Throughout her life she continued to champion the rights of women and minorities. Always seeking justice for the Other. She is a sad loss. There are many political ramifications of her death in an election year which will cause anxiety and uncertainty in many people. These will be addressed countless times in the upcoming weeks.

But today is a time to remember with gratitude all that she achieved in her life which changed the lives of so many others for the better.

It is timely then that our gospel reading today is about justice (Matthew 20: 1-16). It is another story told to illustrate the Realm of Heaven which I think is not some futuristic realm but happening right now.

The story is of a landowner who needs workers for his vineyard. Early in the morning he goes out and hires some workers for the normal and presumably fair wage for the day’s work. One assumes they were happy to accept the job at that rate. Later the landowner went back to the marketplace several times — 9:00, noon, 3:00 and 5:00 — each time he saw other workers standing about idle and he hired them also.

At 6:00 he went to pay them, he started with the ones who had only worked an hour giving them a full day’s pay. All the workers received the same amount. Those who had worked the longest — perhaps twelve hours— rose up and objected. I’m sure they were saying, “It’s not fair!”

The landowner pointed out that he had not wronged them as they had been paid the agreed amount. That he could choose to distribute his money to others as he saw fit.

If we are honest it is a hard story to read. I’m sure if I had been there I might have joined in the cry of, “It’s not fair.”

In contemporary times similar things do happen. Someone takes a job for an agreed salary which seems great at the time. Ten years later a new, less experienced person is hired for the same job and because of raising salaries they may be earning more than the original employee who is still working hard after ten years. It’s not fair!

Yet, this text makes me pause and wonder why such feelings would be invoked. Is it jealousy? Is it discontent? Or is a feeling of being taken for granted? I think I’ll need to do a little more self-reflection here.

But ack to the story, I want to think for a moment about the people who didn’t get hired until 3:00 or 5:00. The passage doesn’t mention why they didn’t get a job — maybe they were old, or weak, or women, or not in the best of health. The only thing I can deduce is that they were desperate. Why else would they stand in the marketplace for many hours hoping for work?

Fairness is not sameness — giving everyone the same. As a simplistic illustration it would not be fair to give every person the same amount of food. No, a teenager needs more than a baby! Fairness is more about giving each person what they need to succeed. Sometimes I like to think about it as an old-fashioned pair of scales where all the weight has been on one side and more weight needs to be added to one side to bring it into balance. That’s why I support Black Lives Matter, that why RBG fought for Women’s rights. Fairness matters.

This is what the realm of God (or Heaven) is about as illustrated by this story. The landowner in cared for those on the margins who had no work. Nobody was going hungry that night.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Control, Intimidation, Judgment and Abuse


“If another member of the church sins against you go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others . . .” (Matt 18)

 

Thus, starts the lectionary reading for this week. It is amazing how a couple of verses can cause so much harm — yet that is just what has happened with this text. It has often been interpreted to be discussing church discipline, which in turn is often interpreted as punishment even though the root word of each is very different. A full discussion of the differences between punishment and discipline can be found in our book Welcoming Strangers.

 

Often there is a judgmental quality and a harshness accompanying these ideas. They have been used to justify spiritual abuse and patriarchy where men seek to control the behaviour of women. 

 

I have known of situations where the “elders” of particular churches — all men— go to talk to young women. I have talked with and prayed for victims of this sort of control and intimidation. I wasn’t planning to give details, but on further reflection I will cite one example as it serves to show how ludicrous and abusive this sort of interpretation can be. 

 

A single mother was visited by the “elders” — she was told that her bra was not supportive enough and that her breasts bouncing around under her high-neck sweater may distract some of the male members. I can only imagine how threatening that must have felt.

 

A glance back over history shows that this isn’t only a contemporary issue. And, I know that it is not only women abused by this interpretation of “church discipline”. Others too have suffered much at the hands of this short passage. 

 

Interpreting the scriptures in a way that makes them instruments of control, intimidation, judgment and abuse runs counter to the overarching themes of the New Testament — love, kindness, gentleness, preferring the other, care for the poor and marginalized, etc. 

 

Therefore, I want to re-image this passage in the light of those values. 

 

First, I’ll make a quick comment on the use of the word for church in this text. The word is ecclesia (gathering) which is used only twice in the Gospel of Matthew. The first time is in chapter 16.  Actually, the English word for church is derived from Kuriakos a possessive word roughly meaning house of God. In English we do not have these two as separate words,  both are translated church, which unfortunately does give us preconceived ideas when today’s text is read.

 

To re-image the reading for today I find it helpful to go back to the first appearance of the word ecclesia (chapter 16). A couple of weeks ago I wrote about this passage and suggested that the ecclesia is built on rocky ground — imperfect humanity with all the wonder and variety that entails. 

 

I like to remind myself that at this point ecclesia is a fledgling idea, a hint of what may become, an inkling of possibility for the future. Therefore, when ecclesia is used for the second (and final) time in this gospel to read into the text an understanding of church as an established, fomalised structure with “elders” visiting errant members is surely something never intended by the author of the gospel. 

 

So back to Peter, I wonder how he reacted to this new fledgling idea of ecclesia. I’m sure he never imagined that in the twenty-first century it would still be being discussed! But what did he think? Of course, there is no way really to know, but I can imagine that he would let the idea sit, ponder it now and then, be amazed by it, feel the responsibility of it, wonder if Jesus would mention it again and give hints of what it would be like.

 

A few things happen between the two mentions of the word and I think they help with the understanding of the text for today. I don’t think any of the gospels are a chronological list of events — different placing of the same stories in the books show that can’t really be the case. However, I do think the stories are carefully place by the various authors, so they reveal the heart of the individual gospel. So, I suspect that the stories placed between the two mentions of ecclesia are not random. 

 

I want to briefly look at those stories to see how they inform today’s text. I think they firstly seek to establish Peter as rocky ground — all the wonderfulness of humanity that gives us all hope. (16: 21, 17: 4) The ecclesiais not for perfect people everyone can be included 

 

Next there is talk of commitment (16: 24-25), faith (17:20), healing (17:18), interaction with the contemporary culture (17: 27), humility (18:5) and not causing offense (18:6). Then immediately preceding the second mention of ecclesia is a parable. I think this is perhaps the most significant placing of all.

 

 It is the parable of the lost sheep (18:12-14). The story is a familiar a man has a hundred sheep, one goes missing. He leaves the 99 to seek the lost one. It paints a lovely picture of love, kindness, care and concern. 

 

I think it is teaching the way to understand the text for today. The words are not an instrument of control, intimidation, judgment and abuse. They are hints of how it will be in this new, fledgling ecclesia. If someone is struggling or having a hard time make the effort to go and talk to them, have a cup of tea with them, be the friend they need. In the picture of the parable gently lay them across our shoulders and welcome them home.

 

And just in case Peter missed the point immediately following this verse is a parable about forgiveness — but that is for another day!