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.