Sunday, September 19, 2021

Who is the Greatest?

 The Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the four gospels (approx. 70 CE). It provides much of the source material for both the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. The structure of Mark is interesting and, I think, reveals something of the intent of the author.

 

The first half (1:1-8:30) seeks to acknowledge, or even prove, Jesus as the Messiah. The gospel opens right at the beginning with preparation for the public ministry—no birth stories in Mark. The ensuing text is packed full of miracles, healings and teaching. The word authority is used several times as the author continues to seek to reveal who Jesus was. This half of the Gospel ends with that declaration from Peter:

 

“[Jesus] asked them, But who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, You are the Messiah.  And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (8: 29-30)

 

The second half of the Gospel is often thought of as the journey towards the cross. It begins with the words: 

 

Then he began to teach them that the Child of Humanity must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, “(8:31) 

 

In this second half of the Gospel the author seeks to establish that the way forward is not in great, conquering strength as many were hoping for but by the path of suffering, of laying down one’s life even to death. Ultimately, this focus in Mark reveals the death on the cross as the greatest proof that Jesus was the Messiah.

 

I just wanted to set the text for today (9:30-37) into this context. Jesus is walking with the disciples providing an opportunity to re-emphasise the journey to the cross. The author of Mark records the words of Jesus as being very direct and clear:

 

“The Child of Humanity will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise.” (9:31)

 

This is followed by the part of the text I want to focus on today. The reader is told that the party arrive at their destination. Once in the house where they are residing Jesus asked what they had been arguing about on the journey. The question silenced them perhaps these followers were a little embarrassed because they had been arguing about who was the greatest. It does feel a bit futile — they had just been hearing about the ultimate end of the journey was to be betrayal and death and they are arguing about who is the greatest. 

 

I suspect this was included in the Markan text at this point to provide opportunity to emphasise again that this journey is not about greatness. I wondered is it part of the human psyche to want to be great? To want to be better than others. To make the whole of one’s life journey about competition. 

 

I see it all around — this need to be greatest. It is visible in both the international and national arenas. Sometimes, as I read or listen to news it feels like the whole content reveals a huge competition about who is the greatest. I even see it on social media, posts full of self- promotion with the underlying assumption that their product or ministry or insights are the best. I wonder why can’t difference be celebrated without the need to be better than the other. 

 

On this journey to the cross Jesus condemned this need to be better than others. The way to go was servanthood. In the final verses of today’s text Jesus illustrates this be taking a child and telling the disciples that welcoming such a child is welcoming Jesus. This is a very powerful image. 

 

To comprehend it fully it is important to not think about children as they are thought about today — cute and sweet (in most cases!), innocent and vulnerable. In the first century children were often the marginalized. Many were street urchins who were considered expendable. A PBS document talks about how after a baby was born it was placed on the ground, if the father picked it up the child was kept, otherwise they were discarded. 

 

Jesus, as a male, would not approach or hold the child. I suspect a collective gasp would escape from the first and second century audience. This behaviour was a little outrageous and would demand attention.

 

In contemporary times, to understand Jesus welcoming and taking a child into his arms within this whole context of the journey towards the cross, servanthood, refusing to think of oneself as better than others, it is necessary to imagine not a child but someone who is considered marginalized or an outcast and extend the same welcome to them. Not such an easy image as a child but a very soul-searching and powerful one.

 

 

 

 

(https://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/family.html)

 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Pivotal Moments

Pivotal moments are those times that offer opportunity to be life changing. Women in the Gospels are present at several such moments — actually, I would call them not just life changing but history making. Things change with pivotal moments, the world becomes a little different, a new course is set and nothing is ever quite the same. 

 

I rejoice that women were instrumental in some important, history making, pivotal moments in the gospels. A few weeks ago, the lectionary text was the story of the wedding in Cana (John 2) attended by Jesus and the disciples. Part of my blog noted the significance of the conversation between mother and son — 

 

I quote:

 

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 but seems reluctant to reveal who he was. It seems, Jesus would be happy to remain in anonymity. 

 

Yet, it seems that his mother knew best! She knew it was time for the ministry to begin and her words and actions revealed it to Jesus. 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.”  (“Cracks are Appearing”, January 24 2020)

 

It was a pivotal moment. It unlocked the ministry of Jesus — life changed and history was made.

 

Today’s text is another such pivotal moment (Mark 7: 24-end). A Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus to seek healing for her daughter.  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. I have read 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. I think it is important, particularly in the current climate, to acknowledge what really happened here. It is an example of racism. 

 

Happily, the story does not end there. The Syrophoenician woman was not cowed. She did not allow the comment to pass uncontested. I am full of admiration for her and the courage she displayed. She challenged the narrowness of Jesus’ mission. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

 

The challenge was met and change happened. The woman was instructed to return home as her daughter was healed. It was a pivotal moment — life changed and history was made. 

 

Once again, a woman — who in this story remained unnamed — was instrumental in revealing to Jesus a significant change. A woman was given voice to speak the message of inclusion for all. I cannot express the enormity of the significance of this short story. Although, I’m not going to dwell on it today, but the completion of today’s text illustrates that the change was immediate. 

 

A woman ushered in this pivotal moment in history. Nothing would ever be the same. This event, this story, allowed the Apostle Paul to pen the words “There is neither Jew nor Gentile …”.

 

Everything changed — all are welcomed and received. 

 

 

 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

My Soul Rejoices

 

My soul rejoices . . .

 

I felt uplifted as I read the lectionary text for today. It was not even the content of the whole passage, but the first three words alone were sufficient to excite me — “And Mary said”.

 

What a wonderful beginning to the passage! In the last few weeks I have bemoaned, on several occasions, women who in the gospel texts remained unnamed. Often, these women were identified only by their relationship to a male — the daughter of someone or the sister of someone.  They were invisible in their own personhood.

 

Yet, here, right at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke the author announces, “And Mary said”. A woman is being identified by her own name, and her words are being given a place of importance. It is, indeed, a cause for rejoicing. 

 

I would like to think that her words are completely unaltered, yet, I have to admit that they are probably mitigated through the lens of the male gospel writer. Nevertheless, it does not detract from the magnitude of allowing a named woman to speak and be credited with this speech.

 

These powerful words speak of a sort of redemptive justice, a different realm, a reversal of the norm. This prophetic utterance declared the mission of the child Mary was bearing. This is not Mary, meek and mild as often depicted in writings and art but a strong prophetic woman who was given her own name. This is not a woman just speaking to other women, this is a woman uttering a message for all. It is something to be rejoiced in. 

 

As I am writing this, excited about a woman who was named, heard and listened to, not just in the moment but throughout the centuries, I am hearing the overnight news from Afghanistan. I am saddened about what this will mean for the people, especially women and young girls. They will be much in my prayers in the ensuing weeks and months. One day, I hope life will be different for these women in Afghanistan. 

 

Change does take time, women being seen and heard is comparatively new. One only has to look at history, and not even ancient history, to see that. Even in our contemporary society change is slow to happen, seeds planted in one generation only start to bud in the next generation until they eventually show fruit. 

 

Mary’s proclamation and the acknowledgement are anachronistic. They stand as a prototype and as an example to all. So today, I rejoice in those three small words with huge implications — “and Mary said.”

Sunday, July 25, 2021

To Be the Best


Yet another unnamed woman defined only by her relationship to a male (or in this case three males) came to Jesus. She had a surprising request about the upcoming Realm of God, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left . . .” (Mathew 20:21}

At this point I let out a big sigh! It seems like human nature has not changed much over the centuries. I read the rest of the text (20:20-28) but it was this unnamed mother’s request that became the focus of my musing this week. 

Here is a question which I pondered for several hours — is competition a good thing?

Of course, in a capitalist society competition is a fundamental value which drives the markets. However, that is not where I want to linger today.

Most of my pondering was about competition between people, where someone wants to be better than someone else. This unnamed mother wanted her sons to have higher honour than the other ten disciples. The ensuing result was to sow discord and division within this small company of twelve (24).  

People are encultured into this mindset from being young. I remember when my kids were very small, there was lots of conversation between parents about who sat up first, who walked first, who talked first, who learnt to read first. I have had so many children that I could watch it among new parents with a smile. It all seemed rather silly, yet with some parents it was so very important to have their child reach milestones early thus being perceived as the best. 

Then I thought about the competitive nature of our whole education system. Here I content myself with just another big sigh! 

Then there is the competitive nature of sports where winning has become more important than playing. A couple of weeks ago my family of football fans (English football that is!) watched a European football competition. All of us were saddened to see fans booing teams from opposing countries — competition leading to nationalism. 

Ultimately, the final was won on penalties which, to me, always feels a cruel way to determine a match outcome. The three young lads who missed their penalties all happened to be Black and they became subject to horrendous racism. In that instance, competition leading to racism — so very sad. 

Somehow, culture seems to be permeated with the same competitive spirit that today’s text highlights, wanting to be the best and most honoured regardless of others.  

Can that mindset be broken? Honestly, I’m not sure it can as it has clearly persisted over the centuries. However, I do think the text hints towards an answer — it is quite simple — serve others (26). 

Imagine a society where instead of competing to be better than one’s friend, one’s acquaintance, one’s colleague, one’s sibling, even one’s enemy everyone served the Other, helping and encouraging them to be the best they could be. Maybe that would be moving towards the heart of the gospel. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

What — no name?

Greetings from our campsite at the beach. The sun is shining, and a gentle breeze is blowing. We have enjoyed several days of biking, hiking and camp meals. One of the joys of camping is eating every meal outside. This morning at breakfast we had a visitor, it was a bug — of the sort we had never seen before! It was about an inch and a half long and bright orange with very long black feelers. It just sat on the corner of the table having somehow got inside the screen tent — probably not hard to do as there are several small holes in the mesh!
 

 

I wondered if our bug friend would enjoy toast so placed a small piece nearby. Sure enough, the bug moved to the toast and started nibbling it. We were both amazed. So, I placed a piece of melon next to the toast. The bug seemed to enjoy that too.

 

Andy looked at me and commented that as the bug had joined us for breakfast, they should have a name. He chose “Flo”.  The name changed a stranger to a friend — suddenly they had an identity. Flo hung around for quite a while before flying to explore new regions. 

 

Interestingly, as I read the lectionary this morning, names were the first thing I noticed. Or should I say the lack of them! 

 

The text tells the stories of two women (Mark 5: 21-end). Neither were named. One is identified only by her male parent, the other by her disability. It made me quite sad, neither was deemed important enough to be given their own identity, their name. 

 

The text also speaks of life transitions. The younger was twelve, just on the brink of womanhood, making a transition into the next stage of life. The other woman was also ready to make a life transition as she yearned for menopause and the fruitfulness of that stage. 

 

An important time for both of them — but not significant enough to give them a name! 

 

Both needed healing. Others sought it for the young girl, the older wiser woman sought it for herself. Both were healed and onlookers were “overcome by amazement (42)”. 

 

This morning, as I read the stories, I, too, am amazed. Not at the magnitude of the healings but that Jesus cared enough actually to see these unnamed women and tend to their needs. I rejoice in that and hope that I, too, will see those who are invisible.

 

 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Our year: Musing on to Love, to Serve, to Forgive

 

I concluded my last blog of 2020 with a quote — it began

 

It was the best of times, 

it was the worst of times,”

 

(Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

 

It still seems relevant today as I think back over the academic year 20/21. On this, the concluding day of our retreat, I reflected on the differences between this and previous years. This year, as a community, we have not been able to meet in person. There have been no face-to-face retreats either at our home or at Casowasco. There is something special about sitting together sharing conversation over a cup of tea or coffee. It has been a loss. 

 

But, there has been Zoom! Love it or hate it, Zoom has afforded opportunities that have benefitted us all. Perhaps, one of the main advantages has been our retreats have been readily available to everyone. No one has needed to consider finances for the retreat centre, for transportation or for child and dog care. It has brought a new depth of reality to the words “all are welcome”.

 

Our focus this academic year has been on our rule — to love, to serve, to forgive. I feel I have lived it — those words, that phrase seem to have been ever present. True with greater intensity as each retreat approached and the preparation began yet nevertheless constantly close to mind.

 

Over the last few months together, we have shared many conversations about love, service and ing. Now, we just have to live them! Or maybe, I should say, try to live them. I know there will be many occasions when I won’t love as I should, I will miss opportunities to serve and forgiveness will be slow to happen. 

 

But I won’t allow myself to be discouraged if I fall short. After all this is a journey — something I strive towards. I take heart from a phrase in the lectionary reading — “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Corinthians, 5:14).  

 

I found the gospel reading equally encouraging. The text for this Sunday is the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4: 26-34)— there is always something motivating about an image that depicts growth from a tiny seed to a big tree.

 

The mustard tree is one of my favourite images of the realm of God. Of course, when I think of the realm of God I am not looking for some distant future event but for the realm of God being established here on earth,  fulfilling what is repeated daily in the prayer that Jesus taught — “your realm come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. 

 

The parable of the mustard tree is a lovely example of the use metaphor or picture language to help portray something which is too vast and too deep for humanity to comprehend. Each different image of the realm of God adds to overall picture but still one can only say “it is a bit like . . .”

 

Mustard trees are special. A mustard tree was chosen to provide an image of the Realm of God. Mustard trees (Salvadora perisca) grow in the Middle-East, India and North Africa. This evergreen shrub reaches both a height and width of twenty or thirty feet. Their leaves are dark green but lighten with age, their flowers are green or yellow and the fruit is purple. Their seeds are amongst of the smallest in the world.

 

The Mustard Tree was chosen as one image of the realm of God — or, to phrase it differently, the realm is a bit like a Mustard tree. I am always amazed at all the usages of a Mustard tree. It provides nourishment for human and non-human animals— the berries and seeds are eaten and leaves are used in salads. It offers protection — the birds shelter in its branches. It is a place of nurture as the birds nest and rear their young. And it offers health and healing, the fibrous branches are used to clean teeth while the leaves help cure many diseases including coughs, asthma and rheumatism.  Nourishment, protection, nurture and healing — what a great picture of the realm of God!

 

Trees have also featured in our retreats this year. A Love Tree was drawn at the Samhain retreat, a Service Tree was drawn at the Imbolc retreat and yesterday a Forgiving Tree was added. These trees dripped with fruit as participants added their comments about what to love, to serve and to forgive meant to them. I think our retreat trees also provide a glimpse into the realm of God. 

 

Look at some of the fruit. I’ll share just a few pieces from each of the abundance on each tree. Firstly, from our love tree — love of God’s creation, love of family, love of stranger, love of those cared for. Then from our service tree — love in action, acts of kindness, putting the Other first, giving of ourselves, being fully present to the Other. Finally, our forgiving tree — to let go of a desire for revenge, to give up anger and resentment, give up the desire to punish, to let go of past hurts, because of our humanity we need to practice forgiving, to keep healthy relationships. Rich fruit indeed!

 

As I look again at the fruit of our retreat trees, I can’t help but think that like the mustard tree these offer a glimpse into the realm of God. What a wonderful world!

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Mystery of Faith

As it is Trinity Sunday, I thought I’d ponder the mystery of the Trinity. I try to be real and honest when I write my blogs and when I don’t understand an idea, I’ll admit to it. Right at the outset of this blog I want to say that I don’t understand the Trinity — I can’t quite get my head round it. 

 

I think I am in good company, because as I glance at some of the explanations of Trinity, I’m not sure that anyone else understands it either. 

 

St. Patrick tried to explain Trinity by using a clover leaf — three leaves on one stalk. One clover, three parts. A good and, possibly, helpful picture yet not quite there. St Augustine described the Trinity as the Beloved, the Lover and the Love between them — another good picture based on a love relationship. Historically there have been several theories now considered heresy which were an attempt to explain the Trinity. Most claim one God in three distinct and separate manifestations — the Mother-Father became the Child who then became the Spirit (sorry for the very simplistic explanation!).

 

My preference is to remain with it as mystery. It is part of the faith. I don’t need to understand the details. As I pondered the relationship between mystery and faith, I realized that I live with this tension in many aspects of my life.

 

I thought about the COVID immunization, which I am incredibly grateful for. The vaccine is a mystery to me. I don’t understand what all the component parts are and although I’ve listened to some great explanations of how it works, I am aware that I don’t really understand the intricacies of how a vaccine works.  It is a mystery, yet, I accept by faith that this is the best thing for me and for my fellow human beings therefore I had the two jabs. 

 

I also pondered nature, something which I often do, but this time I was thinking of the mystery of it. So much of nature is a mystery to me. How does summer become autumn? I know vaguely that it is to do with light, and heat, and water and seasons. Yet, here in upstate New York in September we are often still in high summer temperatures but still the leaves still start to change to their autumnal glory. It is a mystery, yet I have faith that the seasons will continue to change, autumn will continue to follow summer.

 

The above are a couple of poor examples but as I pondered, I became increasingly aware that I live a lot of my life in this place of mystery and faith. Lots of things are a mystery to me yet I have faith in them. I’m seeing them through new eyes. Even simple things like writing this blog — the mystery of opening the computer with the faith it will log on, the mystery of hitting a key with the faith that what I type will appear on the screen , the mystery of pressing a few buttons and the faith that the blog will appear on the mailing list and Facebook. 

 

I am happy to live with many things as mystery. I don’t need to know the intricacies of the inner working. I simply live by the faith that they will work as expected. It is an interesting exercise — trying to see how many things during a normal day are a mystery to me yet I have faith in them.

 

Each time we share Eucharist together, we announce this is “the faith of the church” as we recite the Nicene Creed where the Trinitarian nature of God is expounded. I don’t understand the intricacies of the relationship between the three parts of the Trinity — it is an aspect of faith.

 

Trinity is a mystery and I am happy to remain with it as such.

 

“The Three who are over us,

The Three who are below us,

The Three who are above us here,

The Three who are above us yonder,

The Three who are in earth,

The Three who are in air,

The Three who are in heaven,

The Three who are in the great pouring sea,

Be blessing us this day.”

 

(Way of Living 47)