Sunday, April 21, 2019

An Idle Tale

Christ is Risen
Christ is Risen Indeed.

The lectionary for Easter Sunday offers two accounts of the resurrection. The choice is the story in the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Luke. I read through them both, the phrase that really caught my attention was “these words seemed to them an idle tale” (Luke 24:11). 

Each account of the resurrection has some minor differences. In Luke’s story the spices were being taken to the tomb in the early morning. One presumes to continue the practice of preparation of the body, which may have been interrupted by the Sabbath. 

It was a party of women, three of whom are named —Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James — they found no body. In the Lucan account, they met two men who spoke to them. “Why do you look for the living amongst the dead?” Then proceeded to remind the women that on the third day Christ would rise. 

The women returned to the disciples. The text doesn’t tell us how they returned. Were they quiet and ponderous or running and happy?  I can imagine a lot of conflicting emotions — perhaps some joy, perhaps some hope, perhaps some confusion, perhaps some fear.

They reached the disciples and told their story. Initially they were not believed. The apostles thought it “an idle tale”. Did they dismiss it because it was women who testified of it? Or, was it simply too incredulous? I wonder if I had been one hearing from the women would I, too, have dismissed it as an idle tale. Ultimately, Peter decided to check out the story and was amazed also to find the empty tomb.

This “idle tale” is the foundation of the Christian faith. 
This “idle tale” has brought hope to millions of people worldwide. 
This “idle tale” reminds us of the cyclical nature of life—death—life. A cycle that is reflected each year in nature. 
This “idle tale” fills with overwhelming joy.

What a powerful story. What a powerful “idle tale.”

Christ is Risen
Christ is Risen Indeed.

Happy Easter

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Doing the Unexpected!

The gospel reading for today is the story of Mary anointing Jesus with costly perfume. (John 12:1-8) Jesus and the disciples were once again together in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. The author of the Gospel of John brings to the readers’ attention that Lazarus was the one raised from the dead. I’m sure the occasion was a happy one, maybe they were celebrating Jesus’ role in that resurrection. The text announces that the dinner was in Jesus honour. 

This story is also recorded in the other gospels. Today, I’m only going to focus on the Johannine account. Although many details are different —for instance the woman is unnamed in two accounts —it is clearly the same tale. 

I think the most important thing to note is that Mary did the unexpected. She stepped outside the acceptable role for women of the day. It is easy to miss the impact of this in the familiarity of the story about Martha and Mary. Often, we read it as if Martha took the role of service and Mary the more spiritual route, like these were their permanent roles.
I prefer to think of Mary’s action as an aberration. She stepped out of role and did the unexpected. It was noted as such as it caused a reaction from the disciples. Maybe it even sent a shockwave through them. A powerful woman stepping out of her place!

Mary anointed his feet with costly oil. This is a powerful prophetic action which is almost unequalled in the gospels. 

The story tells us that Mary had purchased the perfume to “keep it for the day of [Jesus] burial” (8). Yet, she chose to anoint him that day. I repeat — a powerful prophetic action which is almost unequalled in the gospels.

I often wonder how Mary felt. It certainly can’t have been easy for her to do this. It is never easy to go against the status quo. Maybe it is worth realizing how hard this action must have been for Mary. Yet this one deed, this significant anointing, caused her to earn her place in history.

There is also a sort irony in this story. One worth pondering for the last weeks of Lent. At a celebration for Lazarus who was “raised from the dead” (1) Jesus was anointed for his own death.

I want to glance briefly at the role of Judas in this story. He queried whether the perfume should have been sold and given to the poor. The writer of the gospel notes in parenthesis that Judas wanted to steal the money. However, they would not have known that at the time. I often wonder if it wasn’t merely a later attempt to show that Judas was always bad! If not, why let him handle the finances? Imagine if Peter or John had been the ones to query whether the money should be given to the poor. Would it have sounded different? 

Jesus message had consistently been to side with the poor and marginalized, yet here he was lauding Mary’s action. Clearly, this shows the importance of this one prophetic action. In this story, this single action takes precedence over caring for the poor. This is not a light thing. Another part of this story well-worth reflecting on. 

Mary performed a powerful prophetic act. She stepped out of her expected role. She broke the stereotype of how a woman had to behave. Mary, and a few other women like her, made the gospel relevant for women. She helped to form and change Christianity, and continues to do whenever her story is revisited.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Second Chances

The lectionary gospel reading today is a strange little passage.  Sometimes, this kind of text makes one wonder whether simply to ignore it and turn to the Epistle. I must confess I considered doing just that, but decided to remain with the gospel. I want to do what theologian Phylis Trible suggests, shake the text until it yields a blessing.

The first part of the reading talks about a couple of incidents where people are killed horribly. Although the stories lack in-depth detail, it seems one group dies at the hands of another and the other group died when a tower fell on them. The dialogue is not very uplifting so I’m not going to expand on it (Luke 13: 1-5). I think, maybe the only positive thought to take away is that these horrible events weren’t a punishment from God. The author of the Gospel concludes that these people were no worse than anyone else even though these bad things happened to them.

The short passage then moves to a parable purportedly told by Jesus. Parables are always interesting so I’m going to focus there. First, I am going to talk about how I understand parables. I know I’ve talked about it before but I think it is important. A parable is a story to illustrate a point, usually just a single idea. The details tell the story, they make it exciting for the former listeners or present day readers, yet they are often not so important. 

So, I think it is a mistake to try to read too much into the detail. What often happens is that each character in the story is assigned a role — this person represents God, or Jesus, or the gentiles etc. If one takes the parable in such a way there often follows a torturous and often wordy explanation of it. The problem with using this approach is that the character assigned acts or speaks in a way that is, well, out of character. One clear example is the parable of the talents (Matt 25) where the man handing out talents before going on a journey is often interpreted (or assigned) as God. Yet, the character is described as a harsh man. Not really a good description of God. I have read several accounts of why the person is described that way, none of them really satisfy me. 

Therefore, I prefer to read parables as stories, characters don’t need to represent God or any other person or nation. The main point is the important thing. That is the message of the parable. 

Today’s short parable (Luke 13: 6-9) talks about a man who had a fig tree which bore no fruit. He approached the gardener asking him to cut it down. The gardener persuaded the owner to allow him to give the tree some extra care and see what happened. The owner agreed.

As I read this several times, I thought of second chances. I think that may be the main point. This was the blessing I could get as I shook this text — there are second chances. I think that is applicable both in my own life but also in how I treat others. Give second chances, apply some loving care and wait to see what blooms.

Be blessed.  

(Photo: Great Falls, Washington DC, February 2019)

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Theological Shift: Fear to Friendship.

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany. It is also Transfiguration Sunday when the story of Jesus and three companions going up to the mountain is read. A familiar story repeated in all three of the synoptic gospels. So, of course, I have blogged about this story many times before. Today I am going to focus on a couple of aspects of the tale.

Mountains are wonderful. I love to hike up them (although I prefer safe paths) and I love to see them towering above me when I drive or walk past them. There is always something exhilarating about mountains. I remember hiking in the lake district (NW England). As one hikes up the hill sometimes it feels like the end is in sight but then as one continues the walk upward the realization that it was just another ridge and the mountain continues. Yet, when the summit is reached it is a wonderful feeling of achievement.  

In today’s story (Luke 9: 28-36) Jesus, John, James and Peter went up a mountain to pray. The text does not include any details of their journey into the mountains. I have no idea how arduous the hike was or how long it took them. I can only imagine, I think it must have been quite a journey as passage reports that Jesus’ companions were “weighed down with sleep.”

Regardless of how difficult the walk it was so worth the journey. They saw an amazing sight. I imagine it was something they never forgot. I think in every person’s journey through life, there are some amazing mountain experiences. These are highlights. Special moments that remain forever in one’s memory. But it is not just having a good memorable experience. It is more than that, they impart something that brings change. I’m sure Peter, James and John were not the same after their mountain experience. 

Yet, the thing about mountain experiences is one doesn’t remain there. When Andy and I hike in the Lakes and reach a summit we enjoy the experience. We are exhilarated to have reached the top. We may linger and enjoy the view, we may rest awhile absorbing the beauty of the place. Then we start back down to the valley. That is where we live and work.

It was the same for James, John and Peter. The mountain experience was a source of nourishment. It was a special time. They would never be quite the same again. I’m sure the memory of it carried them through the hard times to come. It was also preparation for their everyday work. The went down the mountain and continued the work of ministry.

I think something else happened in this story. There was a theological shift in how God is viewed. There are a few stories in the New Testament which seem to have extra special significance. I think this is one of them. 

In all three of the synoptic gospels this story follows Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter has recognized Jesus as Messiah even though others thought he may be Elisha or another risen prophet. Then in this transfiguration vision the disciples saw three figures who they interpreted as Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Peter impetuously wanted to build three booths but at that point a cloud overshadowed the three disciples.

The text comments, “They were terrified” (34). Andy and I have been overshadowed by a cloud on a mountain. It is a pretty scary thing. We had hiked up a mountain called Coniston Old Man. We set off in brilliant sunshine, although it got progressively colder and wetter, but as we reached the summit the cloud came down. It was disorienting. We could not see the path in front of us. I imagine the disciples felt the same disorientation, but for them there was a significant difference. 

I’m sure it wasn’t just the effect of the cloud that terrified them. It was the whole scenario.  It was the presence of Moses and Elijah. They were inside a cloud which had echoes of the story of God speaking with Moses. The Old Testament God could be a somewhat fearful presence. That theme repeats itself throughout the story of Moses. 

In this transfiguration story a change happens. I think a significant change. A new view of God is revealed. No longer a God to be feared but a kinder, gentler view is presented. I really like the phrase in Matthew’s version of the story where he says, “Jesus came and touched them,” and said, “Don’t be afraid” (Matt 17:8).  I love this new view of God that is portrayed. A God that tells the disciples no longer to be fearful, a God who touches as a friend. I think this is really important.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Acceptance and Rejection

Today’s lectionary passage (Luke 4: 21-44) is a very strange one. The text even seems to start in the wrong place, half way through an event. I read it through several times with conflicting thoughts and ideas as I tried to glean some insights from it.

I decided it is a hard passage to read in isolation so I’ll set the context. The chapter starts with Jesus’ time in the desert (which I have blogged about in the past). Then it moves to Jesus beginning a ministry of teaching and healing throughout Galilee. This ministry trip eventually brings Jesus back to his home town of Nazareth. The text gives no indication of time. Readers have no way of knowing if Jesus had been away for weeks, months or even years. All that is revealed is that “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” (14) and he “was praised by everyone” (15).

Finally, Jesus arrives in Nazareth, entered the synagogue and read a passage from the book of Isaiah. 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (18-19)

The Gospel of Luke even comments that every eye was on him. I can imagine the scene, all waiting with bated breath to hear what Jesus said about those verses.

So that is the context. The reading for today continues the story. Jesus told them that. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (21).

If I am honest with myself, I suspect if someone had said that about themselves today I would have thought how arrogant they were. Why would they be promoting themselves in that way? The arrogance of youth! 

However, the congregation didn’t act that way. The sense is almost one of pride at a local boy done well. The ensuing comments talked about amazement at the gracious words. 

After which the passage becomes a little strange. It reads as if Jesus is trying to pick an argument with them. He has this dialogue with himself where he predicts questions and answers that will cause them to reject him. It is almost as if he rejects their adoration so they will reject him. This small section ends with the comment, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (24).

I want to pause there and think about that phrase. I have heard it quoted often although rarely about prophets! The sense is always that someone has done something that gets recognition from the wider community but not by their immediate family, friends and neighbours. Although, I’m not going to discuss it today, it is something worthy of pondering. From the amount of times I have heard it said, I can assume it clearly reflects the feelings of lots of people. So, what is the root, is it jealousy or familiarity? 

Anyway, back to the text. After, Jesus’ short dialogue with himself he proceeded to cite two examples from their scriptures. The first was from the prophet Elijah, that he was sent to save one widow from famine. The second was about the prophet Elisha that he was sent to heal one person with leprosy. In each case, the emphasis was on the one.  The text noted there were many widows and many lepers but the stories only talk about miraculous intervention in the case of the one person.

The interesting thing is the reaction of the congregation. The text says, 

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (28-29).

What an impact! What a change! What a violent reaction! 

How (or why) did the crowd go from amazement to rage? What was it about these words that caused such fury. These words obviously touched a raw nerve in the listeners. I’m not sure, that reading it in 2019, I can even begin to understand the depths of emotion these few verses invoked. The text does not give a straight answer as to why the crowd were so incensed.  

Maybe, it was a reaction to perceived rejection as in the examples only one was chosen. Yet, they could just as easily perceive themselves as the chosen ones, after all Jesus had returned to his home town to make this analogy.

As I ponder I like to think that something in Jesus words exposed their hearts. They had heard the words about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight to the blind and freeing the oppressed. These are good, abstract ideas which all could agree with. Yet, were the examples given a bit too specific?  Helping starving widows and lepers!

As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe things haven’t changed too much. The same great ideas remain and possibly the same reactions.

Great idea to free the oppressed, until they are coming over a border. 
Great idea to help the poor until they are seen dirty and smelly on the streets. 
Great idea to give sight to the blind so long as they have enough money to pay the bill. 
Great idea to set captives free unless they want to set up house next to me!

Just some ideas to ponder about this strange little text. Be blessed.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Mother Know's Best

Today’s gospel lectionary reading is a very familiar tale. It’s the story of a wedding (John 2:1-11). I love to go to wedding. It is always such happy occasions. A time of joy and celebration, full of promise for the next stage of life being embarked on. 

This wedding was in Cana of Galilee. I have blogged about this particular wedding before. I make no apologies for doing so again as I feel this is a key text in the gospels. It is particularly important for any starting a journey into the study of feminist theology and the role of women in the scriptures.

The story doesn’t reveal who the wedding was between. The text hints that it was a close relative of Jesus — maybe it was a brother, sister or cousin. There is no way to know who was getting married, all the passage suggests is that the mother of Jesus was the host. She was the person to whom the servants turned when there was a problem with the wine.

Just as an aside, I want to note that the mother of Jesus remains unnamed in John’s gospel. Sadly, this is common of many of the women. They are designated only by their role in relationship to men rather than as a person with a name.

As a second aside, I want to draw attention to the scale of this wedding which the mother of Jesus was the host. It was clearly an affluent affair with wine flowing freely and servants and stewards attending the guests. Often, Jesus is depicted as hailing from a poor background. Yet, his father, Joseph, was a craftsperson, a carpenter. Nothing about this passage suggests the poverty background often imagined.

Anyway, back to the text. In the story the wine at the wedding ran out. The servants approached the mother of Jesus, who in turn appealed to Jesus. Water was converted into wine and guests commented that the best wine was saved until the last. This tale has been viewed as the first miracle also as an allegory. As always when reading this text, what fascinates me is the conversation between Jesus and his mother. It is a significant part of the account and as such would seem to be important.
When the wine ran out it was Jesus to whom his mother turned. She told him there was no wine. Jesus is recorded as saying it was no concern of his as “My hour has not yet come.” 
It is a strange retort. Obviously, Jesus knew that his mother was expecting a miraculous intervention. Yet was reluctant to reveal who he was. 
It shows the growth and maturity. In my last blog, I talked about the twelve-year-old, Jesus, who was so eager to start ministry and teaching that he was willing to abandon his family. In that text, Jesus had to be told that it was not the right time and he returned home with his mother. 
Now here, approximately eighteen years later, Jesus is still happy to remain in anonymity. Again, it was his mother who revealed the timing. She did it quietly and calmly. She simply ignored his protestation that it was not his hour and told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” The miracle was performed. The ministry was launched!

It is important that the key role of Jesus’ mother is not under-estimated. This woman was given the task of knowing when it was time for Jesus to start his ministry. Jesus submitted to that revelation from the person he esteemed highly.
I think these are such important principles established right at the beginning of the Gospel of John. Firstly, it establishes a key role for a woman (although unnamed).  Secondly, Jesus submits to the wisdom of another.

It always reminds me of the anamcara (soul friend) relationshipmentioned often in the story of the Celtic saints, An anamcara was someone with maturity and wisdom who helped with the discernment and timing of ministry. In this story, there is certainly a hint of that sort of relationship between mother and son. It is inspiring to think of the mother of Jesus as his anamcara. 

(Photo: Delaware Bay, November 2018)