Sunday, December 18, 2016

It's a Man's World . . .Still!

It is the fourth Sunday of advent. The last week of preparation as the journey towards the revelation of the Christ-child nears its conclusion. This week the fourth purple candle which represents love is lit, joining the candles of hope, peace and joy. On the fourth Sunday of Advent the lectionary focuses on preparation for the birth of the Christ-child.

The gospels each begin in a different way. The gospels of John and Mark do not have birth stories. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Mary and her experiences. I like this telling. It is so good to have a story about a woman’s experience told in a woman’s voice. Birth and child-bearing are women’s experiences and it is right that the Gospel of Luke acknowledges this. The time is measured in the weeks and months of pregnancy. Commenting on the Lukan account of the meeting between Mary and Elisabeth, Anne Thurston notes, “It should not surprise us then that the time-scale is shifted from the chronology of rulers and priests to that of this pregnant and prophetic woman.” (Knowing Her Place, 4).

Sadly, it is a brief moment. It does not last. Thurston again, “In the end the doors close over once more and the patriarchal framing and naming once again eclipse the stories of the women . . . The women have been silenced.” (ibid 9)

Today’s lectionary passage is taken from the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-25). Sadly, the woman’s voice is not heard here. The author of the gospel simply states that Mary was “found to be with a child of the Holy Spirit” (18). Mary is not given a voice in this gospel.

The chapter starts with a genealogy, at our Christmas Eve service for many years we have used a different genealogy which acknowledges the place and importance of the women. I will include it here. I would like to credit it but I do not know the source. I found it online many years ago.
It gives a little different perspective. It allows the women to be seen, or in some cases, notes their anonymity, their absence.

The story begins long ago . . .
A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, the daughter of Anna:Sarah was the mother of Isaac,And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,Leah was the mother of Judah,Tamar was the mother of Perez.The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon and Salmon have been lost. Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.Obed's wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse. The wife of Jesse was the mother of David. Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,Na'amah, the Ammonitess, was the mother of Rehoboam.Ma'acha was the mother of Abijah and Asa. Azubah was the mother of Jehosephat.The name of Jehoram's mother is unknown. Athalia was the mother of Ahaziah,Zibia of Beersheba, the mother of Jehoash. Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,Jerushah bore Jotha; Ahaz's mother is unknown. Abijah was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hepzibah was the mother of Manassah, Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,Jedidah was the mother of Jehoiakim, Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiakin,Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.Then the deportation to Babylon took place.After the deportation to Babylonthe name of the mothers go unrecorded.These are their sons:Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,Matthan, Jacob, and Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David's mother; fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation; and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Mary, the mother of Christ.
However, the author of the gospel of Matthew focuses on Joseph’s story. I suspect the few short verses don’t reflect the turmoil and agony Joseph would have felt. Even in contemporary times if a couple were engaged and the woman announced she was pregnant with another man’s child it would cause a lot of trouble. Even typing that sentence made me aware of how quickly a woman would be blamed regardless of circumstances and her story.

Joseph first inclination was to “dismiss her quietly.” Of, course, the word “quietly” was to try and shield her from public disgrace, which redeems the text somewhat.

I find it sad that Joseph obviously did not accept Mary’s explanation of events. It took a divine intervention in the form of a dream to change his mind. Dreams were highly valued in first century Jewish tradition and the content was significant. For Joseph the words of the dream were more important than the words of his betrothed.

Yet, in spite of the patriarchal nature of the text, I want to follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake it until it yields a blessing.

I think that can be found in Joseph’s reaction after the dream. He remained faithful to Mary and the promises he had made to her, even though the text adds that he “did as the angel commanded (24)”. He married her and cared for her. This is a model of Joseph that can be emulated. This is where a blessing can be found in the text. Joseph can teach us about caring with faithfulness, kindness and acceptance.

Nel Noddings describes caring, “Caring involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference into the other’s . . . To act as one caring, then, is to act with special regard for the particular person in a concrete situation.” (Caring, 24).

Caring for others encompasses much of the message of the Gospels. Here it is found, in Joseph, on the first page of the New Testament. The motif of the Gospels is set. Caring is the way forward.

Of course, in the last verse of the text a baby is born. A baby is always a blessing. This baby, this special child, especially so. But it was Joseph who named the baby. It’s was still a man’s world! Yet, it can be balanced by the Lukan account as Thurston says, “Each time we re-visit the text the silence is broken and the voices of Mary and Elisabeth are heard again as women singing out hope” (Knowing Her Place, 9).

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Dawning Light

What a week! I had wondered if the fear, grief and depression which followed the election would have abated somewhat by this weekend. Yet, it still remains but for many it has turned to activism. That sometimes takes the form of large protests but mostly it is in the small deeds of kindness and support.

This week the lectionary offers two choices of gospel passage. I read them both, the phrase that stayed with me was, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).

I particularly liked the phrase “the dawn from on high will break upon us”. It had a real Celtic feel about it. The reality of the cycle of life. After darkness there is always light. It is inevitable. The dawn will come. It is bigger than us, it is bigger than our lifespan.

As many of you know, part of our lifestyle is to start the day in the hot tub. We often watch the dawn arriving. We get into the tub in the dark (we don’t put lights on). As we sit and sip our morning cup of tea light starts to penetrate the darkness. It is not a sudden thing, there is not a moment when we switch from darkness to light. It is almost imperceptible. Trees start to become recognizable shapes, the outline of a deer can be made out, shadowy objects become garden furniture and the stars recede as light overtakes darkness.

For me, that picture really summed up the atmosphere of the last two weeks. The darkness has remained. Yet, I think now glimmers of light are starting to show through. These are the stories that are emerging of ordinary people helping and supporting those most at risk.

I have read or been told many stories of people showing kindness to strangers. They are committed to making sure those in their immediate sphere are cared for and supported in the face of persecution. These are glimmers of light ushering in the dawn.

Others have been writing or phoning their political representatives. Their phone calls are not about fiscal policies or educational reforms but about the way human beings are being treated. They are to advocate for people who should be afforded protection by the country they live in. These, too, are glimmers of light.

Still others are supporting organisations which stand up for human rights. They are using their personal resources to help to ensure that legal protection will be available for those who need it. More glimmers of light.
I am sure that each person reading this could add a story about a glimmer of light.

Yet as I write this, things still feel fairly dark. The only thing I can be sure of is that the dawn will arrive. I have no idea how long it will take. I don’t know what energies will be expended in ushering it in. I don’t even know that it will get fully light in my lifetime. But ultimately light will overcome the darkness . . . it always does.

(Photographs: Dawn breaking over Broadkill Beach, Delaware. November 2015. © Jane Hall Fitz-Gibbon)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Trickery, Lies and Family!

The lectionary passage for this week is about Jesus, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. What an interesting passage to read two days before a presidential election that has been fraught with hatred and lies. Sadly, it shows that human nature hasn’t really changed over the centuries. All the teaching about respect, love, peace, harmony seem to fly out of the window when some-one doesn’t think the same or supports a different candidate. I wish it was otherwise.

At the time of this story there were two main religious sects, who also wielded political power, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The Sadducees were the more conservative party. They were a very strong political force at high level with lots of power. They believed in only the five books containing the law of Moses. They rejected all the later inclusions, for example the book Isaiah, so denied all later beliefs like resurrection, spirits, angels. These were thought by the Sadducees to be corruptions of the true faith. Spiritually for Sadducees everything focused around the temple.

The Pharisees were the liberals. They considered themselves as representatives of the ordinary people. They accepted all of what in contemporary times Christians call the Old Testament. Their spiritually included many observances derived from various parts of their Scriptures. This included belief in an after-life.

(As a point of interest after the destruction of the temple, the Sadducees almost ceased to exist therefore present-day Judaism is derived from the teaching of the Pharisees)

So in the text today (Luke 20:27-38) the Sadducees came to Jesus to ask questions. It is clear that their motive is trickery. They cite a story of a man who died and his wife passed along to his brother, the scenario was repeated until the poor woman had been passed to all seven brothers. The trick question was, “Whose wife would she be in resurrection?” I call it a trick question because the Sadducees weren’t genuinely wanting to know the answer. They didn’t believe in resurrection! Of course, in the text Jesus refused to be drawn or tricked, merely showed that God was a God of the living.

The context too shows that this was, indeed, trickery. The stories preceding it had also been used to try and trap Jesus. Scenarios where Jesus had been asked about power and money. Jesus answered their questions well. So having failed to trap Jesus with questions about authority and economy, the Sadducees did what all good politicians do and resorted to questions about family life!

At this point I want to diverge and put on my feminist hat and consider the plight of women. The woman in this story, who I referred to as a “poor woman”, had no rights. Once again, a woman is treated and referred to as purely property. She belonged to a man and when he died she was inherited by his brother presumably with all the rest of his property. The situation kept repeating until all seven brothers had owned her. It would be easy to say that things have changed, and of course they have legally, but recent events have shown that in many circles women are still considered only as the property and playthings of men. They can be used, and abused, and it is all a joke. It is just what men say and think, there is no real harm in it. At least, that is the rhetoric, but it is not true. Much harm has been done to women through the centuries and harm is still being done to women.

So back to the Sadducees question about which brother would be with the women in an after-life. Make no mistake this is not a story about love and commitment. It is not a story about loving a person for eternity and all these men wanting to be the person chosen to share that love. This is a story about ownership and property rights. This is a story about oppression and what more emotive way to do it than asking a question about family.

I said at the beginning, that sadly, not much has changed. As I read and look around I see and hear things that confirm the truth of that. Yet, at the same time I see glimmers of hope. Maybe even more than glimmers. The recent Trump tapes brought the way women are thought of to the forefront. There was a public outcry. Courageous women came forward and spoke of the way they had been treated by men. Secrets and lies were brought into the open. That is a very good outcome. Personally, I think the release of that tape will be an instrument of change for women.

I am also thankful for a president who publicly spoke to his audience about the way an opposing supporter was addressed. He reaffirmed the values of freedom of speech and respect for all.

So I am going to end by being hopeful that things are changing. Change is always slow. I want to be part of that change. I hope Lindisfarne too will be part of that change. An inclusive community where all are welcomed without reservation.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Faith? Duty?

Today’s lectionary passage (Luke 17: 5-10) is about faith and duty. In the passage the two seem to be interlinked. The disciples ask about faith and the story told in response is about duty.

It is another in Luke’s series of strange, hard to understand passages. Another one where there will be as many interpretations as readers. Another passage where I am glad that I am freed from approaching the texts in a way that seeks for the “right” or the “only” interpretation.

As always, one of my main considerations with any passage is how does the tale speak today. Is it relevant? Can I learn from it? Does it help me live my life in a better way?

The poor disciples must have been mind-boggled. They had just heard story after story about acceptance, diligence, listening, honesty, shrewdness, not causing harm to another, to name a few of the themes. 

I think they must have felt as if they were falling well short of the mark! That is a feeling I suspect most people can identify with. Not feeling good enough, wanting to be better. I know I thought that lots of times. Not in any self-pitying way, but simply wishing I could do more. 

The disciples expressed it in a simple request, “Increase our faith.” They still didn’t get a straight answer. They were given a metaphorical answer that if they had enough faith they could uproot trees and plant them elsewhere. Of course, it is not a literal analogy. No-one moves trees by faith. There have been a few instances of people who can bend spoons (mind over matter) but I never heard of anyone moving a tree. Correct me if I’m wrong! 

Those who have visited us will know that we have lots of trees in our garden. Big, solid, old trees. We love our trees. It is part of the draw towards the Celtic saints and lifestyle. Their love of nature which illustrates the times and seasons, reflecting the whole cycle of life. Occasionally one of our trees starts to wither and has to be removed for safety. It happened this summer. Experts were called in and they chopped the tree down, they observed that getting the roots out would be a whole different matter. Roots are not easily removed. Directly in front of our lounge windows we have two small bushes. They have been dead for a few years. even so we can’t get them to move. Someone suggested that we tie a rope round them , connect them to the car, drive forward to try and pull them out. Not a helpful suggestion as that would entail removing the fence and churning up the lawn! Nevertheless, it illustrates how hard trees are to move. 

To say, a grain of faith will move a tree is setting an impossible task. So, at this point, I have to wonder if Jesus is telling the disciples that their thinking about faith is faulty. It is not going to be this wonderful thing that they can be given to them to enable them to perform impossible tasks. Nor will it miraculously enable them to meet all the standards that seem to be required in the previous stories.  

An illustration is then given which, at first glance, seems to change the subject completely. A story is told about slavery. Of course, slavery is abhorrent in contemporary times, but at the time these words were penned it was common for the rich. 

Yet, continuing in the theme of the previous stories, these are more confusing words. They twist in an unexpected way. The disciples are asked hypothetically if a slave had just come in from the fields would they be invited to take a place at the table. In light of previous passages, I would want to give a resounding, “yes”. Surely, the message of the gospel is equality, kindness, sharing resources and caring for those less fortunate. Those would seem a fitting explanation of what faith would look like. 

But not so in this tale, the answer is not yes but no. The slaves are expected, after a days’ work, to don aprons and serve, with the implication that they receive no thanks for their continued work. The punchline is that ultimately the slaves consider that they have only done their duty. So, I ask myself, is this faith? Is this how faith is increased? Doing our duty in serving our fellow human beings without hope or expectation of further reward. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dishonest? Shrewd?

Today’s text is a difficult one. It is one that would be easier to skip over. On first reading it seems to be affirming dishonesty. So long as the end result is good it doesn’t matter what means are used to get there.

The story is usually entitled “The Shrewd Manager” or “The Dishonest Manager” (Luke 6:1-13)

The tale tells of a rich man whose manager was accused by a third party of squandering his resources. The manager was being sacked. He was worried. He knew he did not have the ability to compete in the market place for a job doing manual labour nor did he want to have to beg for sustenance. So he schemed! He went to all the people who owed the rich man money and reduced their bills. His rational being that when he was destitute they would remember his kindness and welcome him into their homes.

Here the story twists, instead of the rich man being angry he commends the manager for being shrewd and praises him for ensuring his future. The story ends with a discourse about faithfulness in serving.

Very complex!

Firstly, I want to make the point I have made many previous times about understanding parables. Don’t assign roles. Don’t assume that the central character is representing God. If one does that it often ends up with a significant problem in seeing undesirable characteristics for God. Read parables simply as stories to illustrate a point.

Next I want to glance at the context. This story is the fourth in a series of parables told by the author of the Gospel of Luke to a mixed audience of “tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and scribes”. The prior ones are the story of the sheep who was found, the coin which was found, and the son who squandered his inheritance but was lovingly received back into his family. This seems to continue the theme of riches with comments on a just way to use them and administer them. Time doesn’t allow but a parallel study of the manager who squandered his employer’s wealth and the son who squandered his father’s wealth could prove very fruitful.

It is hard to read this story and understand it. (I’m sure there will be as many interpretations as readers) One of the reasons it is hard is because we live in a capitalist economic system where what the manager did would be criminal if it happened today. So our minds don't get beyond the thought that what he did was wrong.

The story starts with no detail of what the manager actually did to get dismissed. All it says is that he “squandered” the rich man’s property. Then after hearing he would be fired, he reduced the bills of those owing the rich man. Note that he reduced the amounts he did not cancel the debt.

So questions must be asked (and I have no answers only, I hope, some thought-provoking ideas).

Who was really the dishonest one?

Often people described as “rich” in the parables are seen as those who are unjust. Their riches are gained at the expense of others. Certainly, worth remembering that the first group of people named as the audience for this story were the tax collectors. Those who were renowned for getting rich at the expense of others. The latter verses of this story certainly hint at the money being dishonestly gained.  That later reference can’t refer to the manager because he gained nothing monetary from adjusting the bills. His effort was all a hope for a future home.

How was the rich man’s wealth/property/oil squandered by the manager?

Was it to help the poor? Was it to ease the suffering of the sick? Was it his own way of bringing a more equitable economic system? Or was he simply greedy?

Why did the rich man commend him?

Did the manager provide a challenge to the rich man about his own overpricing system? Was the rich man’s conscience bothering him?

Was it acceptable for the manager to try to find a way to assure a future for himself without resorting to begging?

The text certainly indicates that looking for economic stability in the future is a good thing. It is certainly something that contemporary society does both collectively and individually.

Was the reference to being “faithful with dishonest wealth” a commendation of the manager?

The underlying message of riches, service to the poor, redistribution of wealth was obviously in the mind of those who compiled the lectionary. This week there were two alternative texts for the Old Testament reading, both offered concern for poor and advocated sharing wealth (Amos 8, Jeremiah 8). Although I don’t want to jump ahead next week’s story continues the theme as it moves to another tale which talks about the rich and the poor (Luke 6:19-31). It is an important story in helping us to understand this one in context.

So ultimately, what do we do with a text like this one? Often it seems contradictory. At the very least it is confusing and hard to understand. We can’t really comprehend the impact on the first century readers as we can’t fully know how the relationship between owners and managers worked.

I think we can only try to let it challenge us. . .
about our handling of riches,
about our relationship with those we work for and with
about our response it we feel others are being harmed by those we work for
about our relationship and care for those who work for us
about our own planning for the future

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Which Bits of the Bible do we Follow!

Today the lectionary gospel passage (Luke 14:25-33) is a hard one for us to understand in contemporary times. None of us follow it. None of us do what it says.

There are three main instructions for discipleship contained within the passage:

          1. Hate mother, father, brothers, sisters, spouse, children, self.
      2. Give up all your possessions.
      3. Check you are willing to do all that before you try to be a follower.

It was a passage I read and almost wanted to skip but decided to pursue it. I will follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake the passage in the hope it will yield a blessing.

Firstly, as one with an interest in feminist theology. I want to comment on the verse about hating your family. In my list of the requirements for discipleship I use the word spouse, that is how we understand it in contemporary times. However, the actual word is “gunaika” which means woman and wife. Therefore, when the author of Luke penned these verses they were being spoken to males. The females were, as is often the case in the scriptures, invisible. They were not thought of or included. The people who were being called to discipleship were told to hate their wives. If the verses are taken literally they are not for women! I think that is worth taking very seriously and pondering.

Secondly I want to comment on the requirement to give up all one’s possessions. It would be easy to conclude that in this passage the possessions are wife, children and family. The wife and children belong to the male. Once again confirming the patriarchal nature of the passage. It may, of course, also refer to material possessions yet in the Lucan passage there is no thought of selling to give to the poor. This is not a passage about sharing means with those less fortunate. The poor are never mentioned. It is merely a leaving behind and renouncing of all one owns.

In our culture both family and possessions are understood very differently. Society functions in a completely different way. If everyone gave up their homes, their means of income, and disowned family members then society would collapse. The few people who try to do this become reliant on others to support them.

Many years ago I had a colleague who chose not to have a car. It was not for religious reasons but to try and live more simply and care for the environment. A laudable aim. This colleague happily used public transport to work but then wanted to go on vacation. She asked me to take her to the airport about 50 miles away. I agreed. Then I realized not only would I have to take her but also pick her up ten days later. This colleague’s living simply actually meant I did two one-hundred-mile round trips!

I’m not using the story to say that the colleague should not have followed her conscience, trying to reduce car emissions is a good thing. Nor am I saying that I resented taking her to the airport, I did so gladly. What I want to do is use the story to say that if everyone followed the recommendations in this Lukan passage our whole society would change. It would be inevitable. At the barest level everyone who took the scripture seriously would be homeless with no supportive relationships.

So can the passage be interpreted in a way that is relevant for  us today?
Or should the passage simply be disregarded as irrelevant?

When interpreting scripture I often use a redemptive-movement hermeneutic. I used it extensively in my work looking at corporal punishment which I quickly realized was, in large part, a religious argument.

The term redemptive-movement hermeneutic was first suggested by William Webb. It bears much resemblance to other forms of interpretation, in particular the historical-critical method. What is suggested is that when looking at practices in the scripture one has to take into account the practices of surrounding culture. Then note the way the practices advocated are modified so they are somewhat redeemed. This process happens continually as humanity develops and progresses.

A classic example is slavery. To our mindset slavery is abhorrent. Yet it was accepted as the norm in the scriptures. In the Old Testament there are many regulations for the treatment of slaves (Deuteronomy). When the redemptive-movement hermeneutic is applied the contrast between the practices of the surrounding tribes and the treatment prescribed in the text is noted. This shows that improved conditions were insisted upon for slaves. In another of the lectionary readings for today Paul advocated for a slave who had served him in prison. Paul did not advocate that the slave was freed but that he was to be treated as a brother (Philemon 1:16). Time and space don’t allow for fully tracing the history of slavery in the scriptures but even these two citations show a movement in the way slaves were viewed. Of course, neither reflects a contemporary view on slavery. The redemptive-movement hermeneutic allows things to continue moving towards a better position beyond the time frame of the scriptures.

If the redemptive-movement is applied to the passage it allows the freedom to not take it literally. The text can be understood within its own culture. It was said at a time when women and children were possessions, not partners in a relationship. It was said to a comparatively small group of people in a localized setting. Today, everyone would fall far short.

Recognizing that this passage, if taken literally, has little relevance today gives a freedom to explore what seeking after spirituality and discipleship means. So often when a text such as this is read it produces guilt. Often expressed as, “I’m too fond of my family” or “I haven’t given away all my possessions” or “I’m not being true to the scriptures.”

Seeing that there is movement within and beyond scripture allows common sense to be applied.
It doesn’t deter people from seeking spirituality. It is not rejecting family and leaving possessions that are the face of true spirituality for contemporary society. It is helping those who are marginalized or being a voice for those who have no voice or serving society or simply being as Christ to those we meet.