Sunday, December 28, 2014

It is still Christmas!

It is still Christmas! Yesterday whilst Andy and I were walking the pugs we saw a sad sight. It was a Christmas tree lying discarded by the roadside awaiting collection. It still looked a good, healthy tree. I felt sorry for it, (I know a bit sad feeling sorry for a tree!) I even mentioned taking it home and making it feel wanted but Andy quickly vetoed that suggestion.

Yet, that sad tree was a poignant reminder of how we rush from one season to the next. On Christmas Eve I noted that certain stores in Ithaca have already started putting out Valentine’s Day chocolates. Let’s linger with the season and enjoy “now” rather than rushing to “tomorrow”.

One of the things enjoyed in Britain are the Christmas Specials on TV. They were part of my childhood and I continue to enjoy them today. So far we have seen the Christmas Special of Downton Abbey, Dr. Who, Catchphrase, Mrs. Brown’s Boys, Carols from Kings, The Boy who Wore a Dress and Call the Midwife.

On Christmas Day we enjoyed the Vicar of Dibley’s The Christmas Lunch first shown 25th December 1996. Even though we could anticipate every line we still laughed. It amazes us how the Christmas Specials can swing from hilarious to serious in a few moments yet carry a strong Christmas message. They are full of the good news of unconditional love, sacrifice for one’s friends, dedication and the message that Christ is incarnate in human form.

The lectionary gospel reading today is about two old people, Simeon and Anna. Their stories are also those of dedication, love, sacrifice and the news that Christ is incarnate in human form.

Anna we are told is 84 years old and has lived in the temple for probably 64 years. (I am assuming she married at 13, lived with her husband till he died when she was 20). Anna, we are told, never left the temple but had given her life to prayer and fasting. In the Call the Midwife Christmas episode one of the story lines is about a young girl probably about 20 who wants to take up the religious life. I won’t say anymore about the plot, or who the character was, as I don’t want to give away any spoilers. Sufficient to say as the young girl bravely faced her future choices it showed the myriad of emotions, in both herself and her friends, connected with her decision. It made me think of Anna in our text today, the young girl who chose the religious life. She dedicated herself to prayer, fasting and serving others.

Her contemporary Simeon did not live in the temple. Yet, he too lived a committed life. We are told he was a righteous and devout person. How is that for a great character reference! The text tells us that he had been told that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. His life was lived in expectation of seeing the Christ.

Another factor of Christmas Specials is that they often tie up loose ends. The story lines that had been going on throughout the previous season are brought to a conclusion. This year that was particularly true of Downton Abbey. Again I offer no spoilers, but suffices to say lots of things were concluded ready for a brand new start in series six.

Anna and Simeon stories are placed right at the beginning of the gospel yet feel they are tying up loose ends. They are making sure the reader is ready to launch into the history and life of Christ, a new beginning. Personally, I think the writer of the gospel wanted to be sure the message was firmly established. They wanted to leave the reader in no doubt as to whom the babe was. Just in case the stories of the apostles were not sufficient, here are two people, two new witnesses confirming that this babe is the Messiah. These were witnesses who were presumably well known to the temple worshippers. They had credibility. Anna who had lived in the temple in prayer and fasting for 64 years and Simeon who is known as devout and righteous. They were chosen by the author of the gospel to bear witness to the Christ child. 

This is the last Sunday of 2014. This is a good time to think back over the year. Perhaps, like the Christmas specials the loose ends are tied up and we are ready to move into the New Year with excitement and anticipation.

Or maybe, like Anna and Simeon we are still waiting and hoping. The human life is about choices, we are continually re-assessing and considering what we are doing or where we are going. We may be pondering a decision, trying to decide what is the best thing to do, we may be waiting and wondering about various things in our lives. We may feel that we have lots of loose ends needing some conclusion.
However, unlike Downton Abbey they are not all going to be solved in a two hour Christmas Episode! Real life isn’t like that! Life is not static, life is a living, moving adventure. Anna and Simeon give us hope we may have to wait a long time, but remember, they saw Christ incarnate!

Perhaps, the important thing to learn from them is not how long we wait when we are making life choices but how we wait. Maybe, that is the lesson from today’s text. Not a hint that Anna and Simeon were impatient or disappointed. Not a hint that their lives had been wasted as they were elderly before they saw what they were waiting for. Look again at the way they are described, devout, righteous, praising, thankful and blessing those around them.

Let’s not discard Christmas too soon. Enjoy the next eight days of Christmas living the message of unconditional love, sacrifice, dedication and Christ incarnate.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Where is Love?

We are already in the fourth week of Advent. I don’t know whether it is because I am getting older or if time has really speeded up but it doesn’t seem very long since the advent journey began and now it is drawing to a close. The journey started full of anticipation yet as I look around I see a kind of franticness; people rushing around. Will everything be ready in time?

Today we light the fourth candle of the Advent wreath. It is the last purple candle that represents love. It shines with those representing hope, peace and joy. Yet, as I look around and read the news I have to wonder what it would look like if love really was manifest in the world. This weekend I read about  two police officers murdered amidst cheers, a child murdered, a man killed by his partner who he was abusing and that is just on the first page! Where is love? What is the Christmas message for the survivors overwhelmed by sadness?

The lectionary reading is the story of Mary. The angel, Gabriel, appeared to her and told her that God had chosen her to bear a child. The Holy Spirit would “come upon her,” "overshadow her" and she would have a child. As I read the stark facts of the story I wondered how this would look if reported in contemporary times. A young woman, told by a third party that something would overshadow her and leave her pregnant. I don’t think it would make pretty reading even if a claim could be made that she consented. Yet the passage tells us, she was frightened and confused at the time so maybe the consent was coerced. So to read the story through contemporary eyes really doesn’t work. We wouldn’t find it uplifting, we wouldn’t find it spiritual, at the best we would probably think mental illness, possibly we would find it criminal. Certainly, we wouldn’t think it was a tale of love (or hope, or peace, or joy) being made manifest.

Yet, this story is significant. It has gripped humanity for centuries. It has become probably the number one celebration in the Western world. In A Christmas Carol (pub. 19 December 1843) Dickens added a lot of the detail which we still associate with Christmas (snow, food, family and holidays) C.S. Lewis in the Narnia series represented the power of evil one by her ability to make it “always winter but never Christmas”.  In World War 1, on 9th December 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested there were Christmas truces in the trenches. Although never officially sanctioned many chose to uphold the ceasefire. Enemy soldiers emerged from the trenches sang carols and exchanged gifts with each other for the one day. The magic of Christmas. 

The story brings hope to the world. A young woman bore a special child; a child who would do great things; a child who would come to the world with the message of love and peace. Love was incarnate in a child.

So, for us, ready or not, Christmas will come. We will celebrate the birth of the Christ child.  Hopefully, it will be a day of peace, joy and love for each of you. Maybe we can incarnate hope, peace, joy and love to all those we meet, especially those for whom this year Christmas will be hard.

Enjoy the last few days of advent. My desire is that there will be hope, peace, joy and love in your anticipation as you wait, once again, to greet the Christ child.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Them and us ...

This week’s gospel reading (Matthew 25:31-46) is yet again one which may cause us to have some self-reflective thoughts about our lives.

It is the story that immediately follows the one of the ten bridesmaids and the talents. Both of which caused us to think about sharing with others or exploiting others. In this story there is a judgment which divides people.

Just to be clear . . . I not equating this with actual futuristic events but I am reading it as a story which is telling the audience how they should behave. The author of the gospel firstly conveyed the message through parable and now though apocalyptic literature.

In the story the people are divided into those who cared for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the prisoners and those who didn’t. It is an appropriate reading for this Sunday which the church celebrates as the “Reign of Christ”.  It is the final Sunday of the church’s calendar. Next week the cycle restarts with Advent. The Reign of Christ is the triumphant end of the church’s year. Yet, the reading gives it a real twist, the Realm of Christ is not about pomp and circumstance but about caring for others.

It is also Thanksgiving week in America. A time where traditionally, those who are able, join their families and give thanks for all they have. Of course, there is an underside to Thanksgiving historically with the memory of the slaughter of many thousands of native people. In addition, Thanksgiving has become a huge time for buying and spending. Again this reading may be a timely reminder.

So, bearing in mind both that we are celebrating the Reign of Christ and Thanksgiving I want to share a few thoughts that I had as I read the passage.

The first thought was that in the story the gathering is of all nations. It is always amazing how lines drawn on maps (and borders) can cause so much trouble in the world. Nations against nations! Here all the nations are gathered. We often lose this thought as it is an opening line. We don’t often dwell on it, simply seeing it as setting the scene. Yet, even at the time it was penned, this would have been quite a stunning opening. It would have got the audience’s attention, even send a ripple of shock. All the nations, even those who have been seen as enemies, are included.

The second thought is about interconnectedness and the care of all people. In this story all people are interconnected. In this story what is done to one is perceived as being done for another. We do not exist in isolation. We cannot ignore what is going on around us. I am still trying to think through the implications of this. It brought to mind the famous words penned by King in Letter from Birmingham Jail. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The third and final thought is about the actual care of the poor, sick, lonely and prisoners. There is a message for us in that. Do we treat people differently? Would we be more willing to help someone who is in a position of power? Do we help those who are poor, hungry, in prison? This story isn’t about doing something for “the king” but about how the poor, sick, lonely, prisoners are treated.

Of course, the issue is not a simple. It is an issue Andy and I wrestle with constantly in our conversations in our hot tub. With our decision to be foster carers we see all sides of life. Many of the children are removed from situations of poverty. Yet, their mothers continue to have more children. It is not unusual to see young women in their twenties with six or seven little ones and no emotional or physical resources to care for them. It raises questions about how resources are spent. What is the best way to help? Yet, this gospel story gives us a clear mandate, to care and to help.

Sadly, two or three of our former foster children are now in gaol. It is usually the ones who come to us as a “last resort”. They are already embarked on a life of drug related crime. Yet, their stories are so sad. Does prison really help? We have been watching a bizarre British programme called, “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here”. It usually runs for about three weeks every November. This year ten celebrities were divided into two groups of five. One group was in the camp, the other group in the “Slammer” (gaol). The slammer was an outdoor camp with bars all around. (Actually we noted that the gate was not locked!) The prisoners never left it for a few days. It really struck me how tense and emotionally draining it was for the five imprisoned there. Even though they knew they could opt out at any moment, they were depressed, bored, anxious and described it an emotional rollercoaster. As I listened to them, it made me wonder what it must be like to be in that situation (in much smaller rooms) with no control over one’s life.

 So as often happens in a gospel story, this one leaves us feeling faintly disturbed. Yet, there is hope, as we care for those around us we can see that seed of Christ in each human being. Our lives are a little richer as we make new friends and recognize that the realm of God is composed of us all together. We see with new eyes all we have to be thankful for. As you celebrate Reign of Christ and Thanksgiving have a blessed time.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Bizarre Wedding!

In this Sunday’s reading there is a wedding and a feast.

I always enjoy weddings. They are such happy times. This year I have had the privilege of officiating at weddings and the pleasure of attending weddings as a guest.

Each wedding is different, some are very small, others large; some formal, others informal; some elaborate, others simple.  Yet there are elements in common. People arrive having taken time to get ready to “look their best” and they are smiling.  It is a happy, yet solemn occasion as the focus is on the promises that the couple make to each other. Tears are often shed as vows are exchanged.

Today’s reading in Matthew’s gospel is a parable about a wedding. A very bizarre wedding!

The wedding is for the king’s son and guests had been invited. However when the king’s slaves went to call them the guests all said they couldn’t attend. The king sent back the slaves to tell them how much preparation had been done. This seemed to make the invited guests angry, although some offered excuses the rest murdered the messengers. Bizarre!

In turn this made the king angry. The king sent troops, burnt the city and murdered his friends (who had murdered his slaves).

The king then said that these guests were not worthy to come to the wedding banquet (presumably that is the few who are still alive!). The king instructed the servants to go out and find strangers to invite to the wedding feast.

Then an even more bizarre turn of events! The king was upset that there was a man attending not wearing a wedding robe, had him bound and thrown out. Very strange to invite people off the street and expect them to wear wedding robes.

So, I think it is clear that the author of Matthew penned this story to have shock value to the readers. But what was it saying? This is a complex story. I am not even going to attempt to interpret all the different nuances of this parable. But I do have a couple of thoughts to share.

I have heard it interpreted that the king is God, the slaves are prophets and the guests are Israel. I want to resist this interpretation. For me it is simply too problematic.

As you have heard me say many times, I think it is a mistake to set characters in parables. It often doesn’t work, interpretations have to be twisted to make the characters behave in expected ways.

If the king is said to represent God in this parable then the picture is not a pleasant one. God would be given to rages, one who seeks revenge, a murderer, a destroyer of cities and a torturer. Not a pleasant picture.

The first thought I had, and one which I will continue to ponder, is about the influence this parable (and other similar ones) have on contemporary society or even throughout history. If, God is understood as one who seeks revenge, is angry, can murder and pillage then it can give justification to behave in a certain way.

(And I don’t even want to start on the picture of God as a male thus giving rise to the idea that only males are in God’s image with a duty to dominate females.  Sufficient to say this interpretation has caused harm to women and children for centuries.)

I think it is really important to consider this whole idea of how we image God. In the last few years I have read many things where God is being said to be angry or revengeful. Where God is supposed to be on one side and seeking the downfall of others. How much influence do interpretations such as this king’s behaviour have on this sort of portrayal of God?

So where do I find God (Christ) in this parable? Certainly not in the king, nor the guests, nor the slaves. I find Christ in the one who was speechless. The one who was cast out. The least of the least. It reminds me to see Christ, to see that spark of divinity, in the poor, the downtrodden, the persecuted and the unlovely.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mind Games

The New Testament lectionary readings today seem to have the theme of “minds”.

The gospel text is a parable of a two brothers asked to do a task. The first said “ no” but later “changed his mind” and did the work. The second agreed to do the task but didn’t do it.

The passage from the letter to the Philippians contains the phrase, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” It is here I want to dwell a little.

The thought I pondered this weekend was, what does it mean for us to “be of the same mind”, practically?

We are not robots. And I, certainly, don’t want us all to become robots, all saying exactly the same thing. We are human beings and as such have the ability to think through issues and form individual opinions.

If we started a discussion on various topics, for example, politics, pacifism, hermeneutics or vegetarianism we wouldn’t all have the same mind. There would be lots of different opinions. Some of us would claim to be republicans, democrats, labour, conservative or independent. Each of us would have opinions on the various current issues. Or, some of us would think wars are justified others would never espouse violence. Or, some of us would never eat “anything with a face”, others would think it okay to eat animals. Bible passages would be interpreted differently depending on the thoughts and life experiences of the reader.

We would not be of the same mind. I hope we can accept our difference and recognize and appreciate that there is richness in our diversity. As our ideas are challenged and we are exposed to new thoughts it will help us develop and refine our own beliefs.

This may cause us to change our minds. If we think back over our lives, even to beliefs held deeply we will probably have changed our minds several times and will continue to do so. This comes with maturity, with growth, with life experiences. We change and so to do are convictions. This is part of being human.

So how do we understand the author of Philippians who says “be of the same mind”? How can we “be of the same mind” when we all have different viewpoints and opinions in a variety of areas?

I think the rest of the text gives us some clues. As I read it, it feels to me that the “same mind” is about attitudes and values rather than opinions, beliefs and issues.

The text talks about love, compassion, sympathy, humility, regarding the other better than ourselves, regarding the interests of the others, doing nothing out of conceit or selfish ambition.

I think that is the same mind that we all need to cultivate. If our common aim is to look out for the other with love and humility then we can have discussion where we disagree without contention and bitterness.

The world of social media has opened up a new dimension to discussion and opinions. Too often someone puts an opinion and it is countered by another but rather than good discussion ensuing there sometimes seems to be a mean spirit creeping in. One of our “rules” with foster teens is that if they are on Facebook I have to be their friend so I can keep an eye on what they say. (Of course, I’m not na├»ve, I know they can set up accounts with false names, but you do what you can!). However, many times I have had to jump into a discussion and say “enough”, the comments were becoming nasty.

Of course, none of us are teenagers who are going to be putting up nasty comments on Facebook. Yet, I think there is something to be learned for us all. When we are faced with an opposite opinion, whether online, in email or face to face it is good practice to ask ourselves are we regarding the other, are we expressing our view in love, compassion and humility or are we expressing our thoughts through conceit and selfish ambition.

One of the things I like about our community is the variety of different viewpoints and the way mostly we can talk about issues without putting the other down. Long may this continue! This is often a really hard thing to do. Our viewpoints and opinions are usually well thought through and held deeply. They mean a lot to us. So, I’m not talking here about just abandoning them to someone else’s viewpoint. But it is about listening, respecting the other, recognizing that we are not always right, allowing ourselves to be challenged, ultimately our (and their) viewpoint may be unchanged but our relationship with each other will be stronger.

I think this is what the author of Philippians meant by having the same mind. Let us continue to strive to be a community where we try to “be of the same mind”.