Sunday, December 27, 2015

The lost child

It is the third day of Christmas. I hope you are all having a wonderful Christmas season. Today’s lectionary gospel reading is from the book of Luke (2:41-52).

It is the one story, included in the gospel, about Jesus as a child. It is a very strange account. It really doesn’t show Jesus in a good light, especially if we translate it into a contemporary tale.

Imagine this was in the media today . . .

A twelve-year-old boy goes on a trip with his parents. It is a vacation they take every year. Many friends and extended family travel with them. They are going to the capital city to attend a festival in their religious tradition.

After enjoying the festival, it is time to return home. His parents assume he is travelling with other relatives within their large party. When they reached their overnight stop the parents discovered the boy is missing.

At additional expense, and very worried, the parents set off on the long journey back to the city. They search for the boy but are unable to find him for three days. When they eventually do locate him they ask him why he stayed behind and caused them so much anxiety. He gave them an offhand answer indicating they should have known where he would be.

Of course, in contemporary times police and social services would also be involved. If this had appeared in some of the  newspapers I read online I can imagine some of the comments . . .

Parent failure for not checking sooner
Disobedient child
Very naughty child
Cheeky child
Child needs serious consequences
Fancy causing all that worry to his parents
Etc., etc., etc.

So the questions in my mind are
Why is this story included in the gospel?
What purpose does it serve?
What can we learn from it?

As I read it over several times I could only conclude that it was included as part of the gospel to emphasize that the child’s origin was special. The author of the gospel wanted to make a link between the birth stories and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and chose to do it with a story of the twelve-year-old Jesus.

However, I think the last sentence is the key to the story. Maybe, the detail, the framework is not so significant. The important message is that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” (52)

The first couplet is interesting, “increased in wisdom and in years.” It certainly gives the impression that wisdom grows as one ages. In the gospel text Jesus, as a child, was said to amaze some of the temple teachers with his understanding and answers. The way the story reads indicates that Jesus thought it was time to start taking his place with the teachers. Yet, his mother clearly disagreed. She made him return home with her. She knew he needed time to age and to grow in wisdom. It was more than another dozen years before Mary revealed that it was time for Jesus to start his public ministry.

I think this idea could be of huge importance.  The passage is read on the last Sunday of the old year. It is often a time of reflection on what has been achieved. It is a time when fresh visions and plans for the New Year start to come to mind.

Maybe, this last year nothing has been achieved other than to “increase in wisdom and in years.” Yet, that is a big success. It is preparation time. It is a waiting time but not a wasted time. I think this story shows us the importance of not trying to do things in too much of a hurry. Not to try to do them to soon. Jesus had to wait many years before he was revealed and to start his ministry.

The second couplet can also be relevant today. “To increase in human and divine favor.” I think this speaks to lifestyle while in a waiting period. A aim for a life which finds favor with others. Perhaps expressed best in the words of the lectionary epistle, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . forgive each other . . . clothe yourselves with love . . . And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.

I hope all continue to have a happy and blessed Christmas season.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Not Enough to Live On!

Today’s readings are largely about journeys, provisions and widows. The Old Testament reading gave us a choice of two stories. I wish we could have read both as they share the themes of widows, journeys and provisions. 

The first reading is part of the story of Ruth. The background to this story is that Naomi journeyed from Bethlehem to Moab with her husband and two sons. While she was there her sons both married. One of them married Ruth. Sadly, Naomi’s husband and sons all died. Leaving both Naomi and Ruth widows. Naomi had to return to her homeland Ruth chose to stay with her mother-in-law. Together they journey from Moab to Bethlehem.

To keep them from starving Ruth went out into the fields to glean. Boaz, who was their kin, saw Ruth and instructed the harvesters to drop a little more grain than usual to make Ruth’s task a little easier.

However, this wasn’t enough. I think this is a feminist issue. The woman was offered what the men left over!  Perhaps we could say that Boaz was a kindly man, after all he left extra grain for Ruth to glean. But this story is not about whether Boaz was kind or not. It is about women’s rights. And Ruth and Naomi had the right to be cared for by Boaz. It was the law (see for example Deut. 25:5-6,).  Boaz may have been kind to Ruth but he was shirking his duty as a relative.

In the lectionary passage today Naomi finds a way to remind Boaz of his responsibilities to Ruth and herself. This is really important. The women did not calmly accept the little that was offered but demanded their proper place in that society. Happily, Boaz fulfilled his responsibilities and the story ends well.

The second story is very different. In the tale the prophet Elijah is sent by God on a journey to Zarephath. According to the story Elijah will meet a widow who will provide for him. But the widow he meets is at the end of her resources. She has only enough food to prepare one final meal for herself and her son. Then she knows they will die of starvation.  Elijah asks her to prepare bread for him first.  The story tells us that God, through Elijah, has said the “jar of meal” would not be emptied until rain came to allow more crops to flourish. Surely, this is a story of generosity of a woman, sharing even in the face of poverty. Yet, the story does not end there. The widow’s child becomes sick and dies but is miraculously revived by Elijah (or God). Overall it is a story of provision for a woman and her child. In this story the provision is supernatural.

Often in the bible we read of widows and orphans. I think this is a bigger concept than just those who are physically widowed or orphaned. They are used as biblical examples of those who are marginalized, poor, needing care, needing to be seen, etc. The stories around them illustrate this.

The New Testament story also features a journey, a widow and provisions (Mark 12:41-44). In this tale people have journeyed to the temple and are giving money to the treasury. Many give lots of money but the widow puts in only two coins. The story continues with Jesus commenting that she put in all she had to survive with.

This is often called the widow’s mite. It is cited as a good thing, Jesus is said to applaud her generosity. Sadly, this story has also been used to make people feel guilty if they are not giving everything they own to the church.

Today, I want to re-imagine it or re-vision it or re-claim it.

As we read it, remember that the widows and the orphans have often been used to represent those who are needy and poverty stricken.

I want to set the text in context.

Firstly, in the whole scriptures using the examples of the lectionary readings of Ruth and Elijah. In both cases, although in very different ways, a duty of care is illustrated. It is a duty of care that did not let widows starve.

Secondly, I want to set the passage in the context of the verses around it. Immediately before it is love. New commandments are given which talk about loving God and loving neighbour. The text is quite specific, “to love one’s neighbour as oneself—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (33)

The people listening were instructed not to be like scribes. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (40).

Then Jesus took the disciples and sat and watched people go to the treasury. The treasury is in the court of women. It consists of thirteen brass receptacles. They were the shape of 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 woman come in and put in her two coins. It was all she had.
Was this an example of “devouring widows’ houses”? She was left with nothing to live on.

Does this sound like something Jesus would applaud? Personally, I say a resounding “no”.

As I read the passage it feels like Jesus is showing the disciples the shame of the system. It exposed a religious society that did not care if widows were left to starve.
It exposed a widow harmed by her offering.

Yesterday, we ordained Thomas.
Our conversation was of a new kind of priesthood.
One that serves
One that cares
One where people are more important than temple decorations
One that, metaphorically speaking, doesn’t leave widows and orphans to starve.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Culture of Violence

This week, once again, the main topic on the news was violence. Sadly it was another shooting in a college where nine young people lost their lives and seven more were injured.

Their friends and relatives will be in our thoughts and prayers today. As a parent I can’t even begin to imagine what it must feel like to get the news that your child is dead in a place where they are supposed to be happy, safe, and preparing for their future. A future, that in a brief moment, was stolen from them.

CNN gave the latest figures which were issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They record that between 2001 and 2013, 406,496 people died as a result of a gunshot. According to the State Department figures in that same time period 3,030 were killed as a result of domestic terrorism.

Of course, statistically the mass shootings account for a small portion of those killed, most of the deaths are the result of a single shot. Nevertheless, this level of violence is unacceptable.

In his speech in the aftermath of the shooting Obama commented that it was becoming routine, that as a nation we have become numb to gun violence. According to CNN it was his fifteenth speech as a response to mass killing by gun violence in the few years he has been president.

As always happens after a mass shooting there is lots of talk about the need for gun control. Charts showing the number of gun deaths in the US are compared with other nations where guns are not allowed. In my opinion the statistics speak for themselves but I have also read comments of people who believe guns should still be allowed. There is a lot of fear over the thought of guns being banned. That raises another interesting question does a culture of violence produce a culture of fear?

I hear excuses for the violence in references to mental health and upbringing. Maybe they could be contributing factors but I have all my working life, in two different countries, worked with children who have had a rough start in life and people with mental illness. Most of them don’t shoot people!

To me, it feels like violence is a poison running through the veins of society. Violence is thought of as the solution to many problems. We live in a culture of violence.

That is the message being given to our young people. That is the message they are surrounded by, immersed in. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a young child, even a toddler, misbehaving and heard the response from other onlookers “he or she just needs a good slap.” There is the message . . . violence will solve the problem.    
TV, video games, social media all show violence. We have talked before about the myth of redemptive violence, seen often in movies where at the end there is a huge battle, lots of life lost, lots of violence but the good guys triumph. Even children’s movies for example Harry Potter have the same themes.

Last night Andy and I watched a film. A quick scene in it showed a group of teenagers in a car. One said something the others didn’t like. They all hit him! I noticed it, probably because I was thinking of violence. Yet it was supposed to be just a normal teenage response. It illustrated how immune we have become to violence. How commonplace it has become in our society.

As I ponder the question of gun violence my thoughts are mainly around how is culture changed. In the gospel reading today Jesus is talking about the need to change attitudes. In Jesus case he is trying to change attitudes to how women, divorce and children are treated. There is still the need for continual change in those areas today but I want to stick with pondering on how attitudes to violence can be changed. Not that I have answers to offer but I am trying to raise the awareness of the amount of violence in our society for consideration.

I am currently finishing my dissertation. I am getting up at 5:00 to write for an hour or so before work. The subject is an aspect of violence, corporal punishment, in public schools. The statistics are horrifying for both the level of violence and the harm caused by it. Once again there is a message being given to the nation’s children. Violence is the solution.

So while I wholehearted support the need for gun control I think the problem is far deeper. I think somehow the message that violence is the answer needs to be reversed. To change a culture is really difficult. To change thinking that has been ingrained for centuries is hard to do. Change is rarely quick or easy but it is possible. Look how far this nation has come. Look at slavery, look at child labour laws, look at treatment of women, look at attitudes to gay marriage, lots of examples could be given. None are perfect yet but slowly the culture is changing. Perhaps violence, and guns, will be the next thing to be tackled. I hope so.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


This week the Gospel lectionary passage (Mark 9:30-37) has multiple themes. In the Gospel of Mark by this time the journey to the cross has already begun.

This text starts with talking about betrayal, death, resurrection and fear. All these are interesting themes that could be explored further­– but not for today.

Then the text moves to the disciples arguing about who is the greatest of them. I pondered what is it in human nature that wants to be the best even at the expense of others? Here was a group of people who were privileged to be travelling with Jesus. The text tells us Jesus was teaching them. They were probably privy to conversations we have no knowledge of, yet there were still petty jealousies and unhealthy competition.

They clearly knew that their conversation was wrong. When Jesus questioned them about the topic of their discussion they were silent. That is a sure sign they were uncomfortable and embarrassed. It didn’t really matter, Jesus was aware of the nature of the conversation.

Jesus told them that if they wanted to be “first” they had to be “a servant of all”. This is a recurring theme in the gospels. The thing that is most important is service to others, especially those who are marginalized or disadvantaged in some way.

Jesus illustrates this by taking a child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

This was the phrase that stood out to me this week. Perhaps, it is because this week we have been in conversation with the editor about the subtitle and cover design for our upcoming book. Welcoming Strangers: Nonviolent Re-Parenting of Children in Foster Care. As the title suggests this is about inviting children and teens into our home and welcoming them. Not always as simple as it sounds!

To attempt to understand this text in the context of the gospel it is necessary to look at the different way children were thought of in the first century. In contemporary culture we often hear about the need to put children first. Their needs, and sometimes wants, are catered to. This happens even when it is difficult for the parents either physically or financially.

However, in Roman times children were seen purely as property. They had no rights (along with the women). They were considered of no importance although sons were desired to continue the family line. One custom of the time was that when a baby was born it was placed on the floor by the midwife and if the father picked it up it was accepted into the family, if the father turned away the baby was discarded (

In view of this custom I think it is really important that Jesus “Took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms …” By taking the child in his arms he was accepting and welcoming the child to the family. I doubt if the significance of this action would be lost on the disciples. Of course, even within those times the treatment of children varied greatly depending on their social status.

So when Jesus chose a child to illustrate his point he was choosing someone (or even we could say something) that was very low on the social order.

Today we could choose different words to show the lowest in social order. I want to note here that it is appalling that I even have to consider that in the twenty-first century, in our society, we still have people who are marginalized or considered outcasts.

I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks, “Whoever welcomes one such ******* in my name welcomes me.”

The words we put in the blanks are those we need to serve and advocate for.

Then, let’s push the concept a little farther, make it a little more personal. Think of people who have wronged you, caused you harm in some way or done things that upset you.

Now fill in the blank with a name “Whoever welcomes ******* in my name welcomes me.”

I am the first to admit this is a really hard thing to do. Following the teaching of Jesus is not easy. I think this is perhaps another of those things that we strive for. It is an ideal that we try to journey towards. Enjoy the journey!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Finding Voice

Today’s lectionary passage is Mark 7:24-37. This passage contains two stories. These are the story of the woman who is described as a “Gentile of Syrophoenician origin” and the story of the man who could not hear or speak.

I have blogged much about the former of these stories. I think it is a really important one. This Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus to seek healing for her daughter. Initially Jesus’ response was harsh, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

I have heard many attempts to mediate this phrase. There are suggestions such as Jesus didn’t really mean it and it was only said to test the faith of the woman. Personally, I don’t like the idea that unpalatable passages are explained away. Sometimes things in the Bible are simply not good and we need to accept and deal with that. I think Jesus’ response here was one of those times. Jesus was focused on his mission to the Jewish people and treated the Syrophoenician woman with contempt.

However, this Syrophoenician woman was not cowed. She challenged the narrowness of that mission. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She found her voice to speak for her child. In doing so something amazing happened.  She opened Jesus eyes that the message of healing and wholeness was for everyone.

God used this unnamed woman to reveal to Jesus that the ministry and message was available for all. Thankfully, Jesus had ears to hear the message. The woman found her voice to speak the message of inclusion for future generations. This was a turning point in history. The message became all are welcomed and received.

I also find it quite poignant that this story is featured this weekend. A Syrophoenician was “a native or inhabitant of Phoenicia when it was part of the Roman province of Syria” (Merriam-Webster). So the woman was from Syria.

Syria has been much in the news this week with the refugee crisis. The refugees, too, found voice this week in one photograph of one small boy. It is my hope and prayer that the nations of the world will hear and respond. Perhaps, this little boy from Syria will also speak the message of inclusion for future generations. Perhaps this will be another turning point in history about how refugees are treated. Perhaps, one day, they too will hear the message that all are welcomed and received.

However, the lectionary passage doesn’t end there. It is as if the message of finding a voice needs to be emphasized. The writer of the gospel does it with the story of the man who could not hear or speak. He was brought to Jesus for healing and “his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” Other people brought this man to Jesus.

So as I read the passage today, the thing that linked the two stories was that these people both found voice. Both were people who would have had no significance in their contemporary culture, even, both would have been considered outcasts. One found voice to speak for another and one was helped by others to find voice.

This week we have talked a lot about how we can be Christ-like to those we meet and, even, what it would mean to be Christ-like. Perhaps there is a hint in this passage. We can be a voice against injustice for those who are outcasts and rejected by society and we can help those who need to find a voice speak out.