Sunday, September 9, 2012

An insignificant, unnamed woman (Year B Proper 18)

Mark 7:24-37

Today I want to focus on the first few verses of the lectionary reading. I want to think about verses 25-30, the story of the Canaanite woman. It was interesting to read the lectionary choice of gospel passage for today. We are at the beginning of our Autumn book read and this passage (although Matthew’s version) is the subject of chapter four in Knowing Her Place.
It is an incredibly rich passage. However, I will leave most of the riches to be unpacked when we read it together with Anne Thurston.
For today I want to focus on one thought. It is the thing that always strikes me first about this passage. (Of course, I know some of you will have heard me on this before)
For me the focus of this passage is how God uses this woman so powerfully. When I read the scriptures I think that this is a most significant moment. It is the moment that it was revealed to Jesus that now was the time for his ministry to include Gentiles. The woman is used as a prophetic voice to show that this ministry is for all. It is to be an inclusive ministry.
There are several such moments in the gospels where women challenge Jesus and the result is a new beginning, a prophetic revelation that now is the time for something to happen. (for an example . . . read the marriage at Cana in this light)
Today’s gospel is a really significant passage. Yet, often, we skip over the story quickly.
Note that even the compilers of the lectionary did not allow the passage to stand alone. It is combined with the reading of the healing of the deaf man which being the second reading demands the readers/hearers attention. However, today we are not looking at the second part, we are resisting it being left with that thought. We are staying with this woman.
This passage is a puzzle . . . it is not comfortable . . . Jesus equating gentiles to dogs . . . doesn’t quite sound right. It doesn’t fit with our image of Jesus. It can make us uneasy.
I also want to note, as often is the case, when key players in a story are women they remain unnamed, thus insignificant.
This is one of those stories that on initial reading we have to do what Trible says and refuse to let the text go until it yields a blessing (Did you note that Thurston quotes this thought from Trible in her introduction)
So we want to remain with this text.
If we were asked when Jesus’ message and ministry was opened to the Gentiles our answer would probably be in Acts 10, the story of Peter and Cornelius. The account in Acts 10 is long and detailed. It includes that momentous verse where Peter declares, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”
Perhaps Peter should have understood earlier!
This short little passage in Mark 7 (or Matthew 10) revealed the same thing.
It was revealed by an insignificant, unnamed woman who was brave enough to challenge Jesus, who through her courage revealed to Jesus that this ministry was to be available for the Gentiles too.
When we remain with this text we get a blessing!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A good shepherd (Easter 4 Year B)

Lectionary Musings Easter 4

Acts 4: 5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

This week I have been following a story from Farm Sanctuary.

Farm Sanctuary is now at three locations, two in California the other in New York. It is about an hour drive away from Ithaca. Andy and I sponsor a sheep named Donna and a pig named Terrin who we like to go and see. We love to visit Farm Sanctuary. We especially like to take new foster children to visit . . . it helps to show them why we do not allow meat in our home. (or to coin Linda McCartney’s phrase “we don’t eat anything that has a face!”) The love and care of the animals at Farm Sanctuary is obvious to all visitors. Of course, Farm Sanctuary is more than just a place that cares for abused animals. Tireless advocates work to change legislation on the treatment of farm animals, ending cruel practices and seeking to get factory farming banned.

However, the story I have been following isn’t about factory farming but about a small farm in upstate New York. The local SPCA called in Farm Sanctuary after they investigated the report they received about animal cruelty. (I posted the link with a short video clip on my face-book page this morning). The worst abuse was with the sheep (although probably only because they were the most numerous). There was a dead and decaying sheep, and 30 sheep and lambs still alive all in extreme condition of starvation . . . there was no food or water. The sheep with baby lambs were the worst as the mothers had sacrificed themselves in order to feed the babies.

So, after following this story about a cruel and neglectful shepherd. I read the gospel for today and found the story of the good shepherd. Christ was portrayed in this metaphor as the good shepherd. The one who cares for the sheep.

We talk in the community prayer about finding Christ in those we meet. In the Farm Sanctuary story it is easy to find Christ in those people . . . the one who made the abuse report, the ones who tenderly cared for the sheep in a filthy barn, the ones who gently carried the lambs to the transport van, etc, etc.

It started a train of thought about what qualities a good shepherd needs. If we are to be as Christ to those we meet we need to be good shepherds . . . all of us, not as is so often suggested only those called to formal ministry. We all need to be good shepherds to those we meet.

When I looked at those Farm Sanctuary workers I saw compassion. There was compassion for the hurting and the helpless. If we are going to be good shepherds in imitation of Christ we need to have compassion. We need to look around us and see where there is hurting and need. In Acts we read about Peter being questioned because he had looked with compassion on the sick and done what was within his power to bring healing. Not always the easy way having compassion on those in need.

Another quality a good shepherd needs is constancy. It is hard work to care for sheep. It isn’t glamorous, mucking out barns, making sure water troughs are full, etc, etc. I think the pictures we see of Jesus with a lamb around his neck and the caption “I am the good shepherd” do not do justice to the meaning of this passage. Actually I think they detract from it. Shepherding wasn’t easy in those times. Think about it, walking over rough terrain to find fresh grass, sleeping rough in the open air, drinking from streams (no supermarkets to buy bottled water!), eating what can be cooked over an open fire, keeping animals safe, protecting them from predators. The shepherd needed to keep constant watch, to be constantly alert.

Care, Compassion, Constancy . . . these are all needed if we are to be as Christ to those we meet. And, of course, this fulfills the commandment we read in today’s epistle “love one another” and more than that, “let us not love in word or speech but in truth and action”.

Apart from those thoughts, which were inspired by the Farm Sanctuary story, I must admit that I wrestled somewhat with the passages today. I found them disturbing. They made me uncomfortable.

This was also influenced by the events of the week. In this case because of some work I had been doing. I was writing the last two essays of my college course. The course was on world religions, looking at the rise of the pluralistic society since the 1965 Immigration Act. We live in a society where we work and have neighbours and friends who practice other religions than ourselves. How do we relate to them? What do we think about them?

In one of the required college reading books it was obvious that the author really struggled with what he thought about this. It left a somewhat confused message. On one hand he was very clear he wanted to see acceptance and tolerance and understanding between religions. He was of the opinion we could learn from each other. There should be no sense of considering the religion of others inferior. Yet, on the other hand, he was saying that he believed that Christianity was the “one true religion” and should be preached to all our work colleagues and friends. It was clearly a dilemma for him.

The verses used to support his latter position are reminiscent of the ones we read today, “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold” (John) and “There is salvation in no one else”  (Acts) The latter is very interesting, all through the story it talks about healing, then for this phrase the word is translated as saved. Almost feels like a bit of Christian triumphalism or exclusivism.

I think many people do struggle in these days with the question of other religions. I think they share the same dilemma as the author of the book I was reading. They want to stay true and honest to the religion they are practicing, yet want to honestly recognize the validity of religions of others. I often think that the religion we practice is an “accident of birth”. If we had been born into a different family, in a different part of the world and culture we may have embraced another religion in our search for God.

I am grateful for the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and others like him. They showed that one can embrace both one’s own religion and those of others without inner conflict. (some within our community have shown this too). God is bigger than our own imaginings. As the author of the epistle says, “God is greater than our hearts”.

I want to let  Thich Nhat Hanh have the final word. He says,

“Sharing does not mean wanting others to abandon their own spiritual roots and embrace your faith”

“Different religious traditions can engage in dialogue with one another in a true spirit of ecumenism. Dialogue can be fruitful and enriching if both sides are truly open. If they believe that there are valuable elements in each other’s tradition and that they can learn from one another, they will rediscover many valuable aspects of their own tradition through such an encounter. Peace will be a beautiful flower blooming on this field of practice.”

(Living Buddha, Living Christ p.196)

Blessings +Jane

Bullying (Easter 7 Year B)

It has been an interesting week.

Our work on the New Monasticism is drawing to a close. The book just needs a few finishing touches. It feels like our lives have been overtaken by this book for the last few weeks.

But this week we moved on. We started our next project. Together we are writing two books on foster care and non violent (re)parenting we hope to have the first completed in about five weeks. In addition, I am researching corporal punishment in the public school system. I am shocked by what I am finding. So now our minds are becoming occupied with abuse and violence and the victims of it.

Last night, Andy and I went to the movies. We went to see the documentary film, Bully. It was not what we anticipated, yet nevertheless was thought provoking and profoundly disturbing. We had expected facts and figures, statistics and interviews. What we saw were five interwoven stories, with mainly the young victims and/or their families talking. There was no outside commentary on it. All were intensely grieving. Two of the five families had children who had killed themselves as a result of bullying, one was a teenager, the other only eleven. The third family had a son who clearly had some developmental difficulties. Actually a smart kid, who had been born at 25 weeks, but he looked a little different. All he wanted was to make friends. He was being bullied to the extent that there were concerns for his safety expressed by the filmmakers. The fourth family had a fourteen year-old daughter who had been bullied continually. She was in detention as she had finally retaliated, unfortunately by taking a gun on the school bus. The final family had a daughter who was gay, and dressed like a boy. The bullying she received was so bad that the family ultimately pulled her out of school.

Then I read the lectionary passage, the prayer of Jesus in John 17. As so often happens a couple of words, or a phrase, jumped out at me. It was as if they were highlighted. The words were “protect them”. Jesus is praying to the father-mother that the ones Jesus cared for would be protected. I am reading this in a very wide way. I am not interpreting it as Jesus referring to the immediate company of followers but to the whole world. Jesus’ heart was to see humanity protected with an ensuing unity.

It is a theme that has been picked up many times in popular fiction and songs. John Lennon’s Imagine is a classic example.

I think last night’s film showed as a society we fail. Those who are weak or different are not protected but are victimized. It is a sad reflection on society.

When we do not protect we do not act as Christ in the world.

Perhaps, even more disturbing in the film were the clips of school personnel talking to the children. They, also, were bullying the children, insinuating that it was the kid’s fault and doing little to protect them. It showed that the parents, too, were bullied by the school personnel when they tried to seek help for their children.

One of the many books I am reading is called Dangerous Schools: What We Can Do About the Physical and Emotional Abuse of Our Children by Irwin Hyman and Pamela Snook. I suspect I will be using several quotes from it in my thesis.

The authors talk about how 90% of the population, learn at an early age that it is okay for someone bigger and stronger to inflict pain. He talks about how people love to watch movies or play video games where heroes win by the use of violence. The authors comment, “We are a nation of violence junkies.”

The movie highlighted a huge problem, which is not limited to schools. It is not one we will be able to solve. However, hopefully, our eyes will continue to be opened. We will see victims of violence, we will see the weak, we will see those who are different, we will see those who have no voice and we will be the ones to try and protect . . . to be as Christ to them.

Blessings + Jane

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Complexities of interpretation (Lent 3 Year B)

John 2:13-25

Today’s passage is a very familiar story . . . Jesus cleansing the temple.

It is probably a passage many of us know from childhood. Often found in a child’s book of bible stories accompanied by lurid illustrations depicting Jesus as a slightly wild character swinging a whip around his head while the animals run amok.

A version of this event is found in all four gospels. That gives us reason to believe it was considered important by the early church. So we have to ask the question, “Why”? Why is this story deemed essential enough for all four authors of the gospels to have included out of all the source material they must have had available. However, today I’ll just leave that question for you to ponder!

One of the issues I want to consider is the placing of this account. The author of John places this event right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It immediately follows Mary’s revelation to him that it is time for Jesus to show who he is. It is the first public thing Jesus did. Imagine the scenario, Jesus had been revealed to only the disciples and friends at a wedding, then suddenly he strolls into the temple and starts upturning tables and tipping the money out.

By contrast the synoptic gospels include this story at the end of Jesus’ ministry, a precursor to the events which led up to the crucifixion. Jesus upset the hierarchy and they sought to kill him.  For anyone concerned or intrigued by these apparent differences in the gospels a good starting point for study is James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.

As today’s passage is in John that is where I want to focus. I want to talk about why this passage was deemed significant to start the public ministry. However I don’t want to offer an interpretation but just offer some suggestions for pondering.

In a sense, I want to use this passage to illustrate the complexities of biblical studies. All of our understanding of biblical passages is interpretation. We read, we study, we ponder, we talk with others and we try to decide what we think is the best meaning for a passage. Others may come to a different conclusion. No interpretation is necessarily wrong. They are simply people’s best efforts to understand the significance of events which happened over two thousand years ago. In addition, we have to realize that those writing down the stories were also interpreting them based on their own experiences and understandings. The gospels weren’t diaries of  the travels of Jesus, written down as things happen. They were stories collated over the years,  some eye-witnessed accounts, some passed down by word of mouth and written to help the newly immerging church to understand their history. I have always been fascinated by the thought that the gospels were written to balance (or even correct) the doctrine circulating in the epistles.

So when one tries to reason with this passage we won’t have a definitive interpretation merely suggestions about the author of John’s reason for the early inclusion of this material.

Today I am going to offer three of several suggestions all of which are brief and would lend to much more in-depth study (indeed books have been written about them)

First I want to comment about the temple. The temple was one of the most important symbols in Jewish life.  I have heard it said that the temple was the centre for national, cultural, social and religious life. Sacrifices were made on a daily basis. The animals, wine and flour were sold in the temple, one needed “temple money” to purchase them. Apparently the money-changers changed ordinary money into temple money often making huge profit for themselves. The priest allowed them to set up inside the temple for payment.

Possible interpretation 1
Jesus was appalled by the way the temple was being used. The poor, and even the not so poor, were being exploited. The priests were getting rich by the people’s desire (or even need) to worship. Jesus deplored what had been originally a place for humanity to meet God being used in such a way. Jesus' bias towards the poor and stranger can be seen. In this interpretation the author of John showed this bias to the poor and stranger right at the onset of Jesus’ ministry.

Possible interpretation 2
Jesus was self-revealing as the true Lamb of God. The scapegoat was no longer needed.  Right at the beginning of the ministry Jesus had shown that he willing walked the path intended for him. He was overturning the old order. Rene Girard writes extensively about this. Girard says, “If the term sacrifice is used for the death of Jesus, it is in a sense absolutely contrary to the archaic sense. Jesus consents to die in order to reveal the lie of blood sacrifices and to render them henceforth impossible.” 
Girard again, “When John the Baptist refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,”  or when Jesus refers to himself as “the stone rejected by the builders, who becomes the cornerstone,” the sacrificial process appears and loses its efficacy. The revelation and repudiation of sacrifice go hand in hand.” (Sacrifice, Rene Girard, xi)

Possible Interpretation 3
I stumbled on this one accidentally in the book, Conscious Eating by Gabriel Cousens. Jesus (and the Essenes) stood against animal sacrifice. Animal sacrifice was invented by humanity to justify eating animal flesh. The relevant part about the temple can be viewed at amazon or google. Find the book and look inside, it may even inspire you to buy it!

Of course, even within these three possible interpretations there are many nuances and different emphases.  I realize how simplistic and superficial these thoughts are. My hope is I have given you some food for thought about biblical interpretation and this passage that, in turn, will cause some deeper pondering throughout the week.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Welcoming Strangers? (Epiphany 4 Year B)

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Mark 1:21-28.
What does that word convey to you?
What springs to mind when you hear the word demon?
Today the reading in Mark is about Jesus’ encounter with a man possessed by a demon (unclean spirit) which he cast out. The author of Mark placed this story right at the beginning of the gospel . . . setting the stage to show Jesus’ authority.
However, today, I don’t want to think about authority I want to think more about demons and welcoming those who are different.
The scriptures are full of demons. So is our world, a popular work of fiction is entitled Angels and Demons. In our culture there is continuous fight between good and evil. The idea grips everyone regardless of religious persuasion. Video games and Hollywood are full of it.
What do we make of demons in Jesus’ time?
It is fairly clear when we read the accounts of demon possession throughout the gospels that we would perceive many of the situations differently. If the events happened in the twenty-first century we would see people with epilepsy. We would recognize people with various physical and mental illnesses. We would not immediately talk about demons. Our society would like to think that we would seek medical and psychiatric help for the people.
When I read the story in Mark the thing I noticed and started to ponder was that this “demon-possessed” man was in the synagogue.  I also thought of the use “us” as he talked to Jesus. This passage has often been interpreted as meaning there were multiple demons in the man. Yet, I wonder if it wasn’t multiple people. Perhaps the “demon-possessed” man was speaking for a small group of outcasts. Outcasts who were in the synagogue hoping for help, healing and acceptance.
We will never know for certain . . . that is just the image I have. A small band of outcasts lurking in the Synagogue.  Perhaps they became concerned as they listened to Jesus’ teaching. Worried they would have to leave the synagogue. Their experience led them to expect scorn and rejection. Instead Jesus offered healing.
I wonder if things are much different now. We may not talk about demons as readily, yet how do we treat the outcasts? Have things really changed? Or do “outcasts” still lurk in corners hoping for help, healing and acceptance?
Statistics show that people with mental illnesses fill the prisons. Of all youth leaving foster care between a quarter and a third end up on the streets homeless. (Just Google the various categories) Also see
And mental illness/homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg when we talk about those society may consider outcasts.
I have no answers just a couple of questions for reflection.
How can we be as Christ to those perceived by society as “outcasts”?
How can we hold out help, healing and acceptance?
How can we welcome strangers?
+Ab. Jane