Sunday, May 15, 2022

Is it Really that Simple?

“What? It is really that simple?“ was my first reaction when I read the lectionary gospel this week. 

 

What am I talking about? I am pondering the concluding sentence of the very short Johannine reading (John 13: 31-35). It is all about love. According to this text, love is the litmus test which shows who are true followers of Christ.

 

It seems so simple, yet in practice it can be quite difficult. Of course, love is many faceted, if anyone wants to look at all the different aspects of love I’ll recommend + Andy’s book Love as a Guide to Morals.

 

Interestingly, the compilers of the lectionary chose to pair this passage on love with a story from Acts (11:1-18). It seems the disciples had already forgotten about loving one another so needed a sharp reminder. Peter had a vision all about eating, what was clean and what was unclean. For emphasis it was repeated three times. The details of the vision are not so important, but the message is. This loving each other, as an expression of discipleship, was expansive. It wasn’t just for those who were “in” — their friends, those who followed the same religion or were from the same cultural background. Loving one another extends to everyone.

 

Yesterday, once again there was a horrendous attack, a mass shooting at a supermarket in upstate New York. Terribly sad, our prayers today will be for the victim’s families and the recovery of the injured. The preliminary findings show that this was a racially motivated attack. Sadly, the message the lectionary brings today still has not been heeded. It makes me feel heavy inside, why is it so hard to love and accept everyone? How in 2022 is our culture still in a place where there is a perceived need to attack anyone who looks, thinks, speaks, dresses, eats, resides, feels, believes, acts differently from oneself?

 

I have always been a fan of C.S. Lewis. I’ve always loved the seven books in the allegorical Narnia series. In the final book, The Last battle, the protagonists reach Aslam’s Country. Surprisingly, they see a Calormene soldier, Emeth, there. Throughout the series the Calormenes have been the enemy of Narnia. Questions are asked, how can an enemy, someone who is so different be included in Aslan’s Country? Aslan explained that all the good done by Emeth was good done to Aslan, even if it was not acknowledged as such. Interestingly, the inclusion of this story line all about love and acceptance brought critical reviews of Lewis at the time he penned it.. Personally, I think it was a great storyline moving towards inclusion. 

 

In the community we have often said “all truth is God’s truth”.  Today, I want to add all love is God’s love. As I glance around locally or read of kindnesses done all over the world, even in the midst of acts of hate like seen yesterday, I see outpouring of love. Love is a reflection of God and well worth recognizing as such wherever it is found.

 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

What Happened?

 Time goes so quickly — a constant reminder not to waste a moment of it. Already it is a week since Easter Sunday and, this year in Upstate New York, the change in the physical seasons reflects the change in the spiritual. All of a sudden it feels like winter is over and spring has finally arrived. The snows of last weekend have turned to sunshine today. 

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not underestimate the importance of winter — a time of hiddenness and preparation, of unseen growth, a womb time. But now, it is time for life to start to burst forth, a time of hope and promise. The shoots are pushing through the soil, the trees are starting to bud and the glimmer of a green canopy can be seen around the deciduous ones. 

 

Earlier this morning Andy and I were treated to a dance by the Turkey Vultures. It is a sight that each year fills us with wonder. They overnight in our very tall pine trees and then they spend perhaps half an hour swirling and dancing overhead obviously catching the wind currents. The movement of the birds reflect joy. They are magnificent creatures. It is always a privilege to watch them.

 

I think that sense of hope and promise that spring brings to Upstate New York would have been present with the disciples in the story told in the lectionary today (John 20:19-31). The text contains a two-fold tale. The first is of the disciples gathering in fear behind locked doors when Jesus appears to them, gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of peace. 

 

The second is the story of Thomas, who missed out on the prior visit of Jesus, and a week later had his own post-resurrection visit. Thomas’ need for this visit has given rise to him being labelled “doubting”. Personally, I don’t like this interpretation of the text. I prefer to see Thomas as desperate to have the same spiritual experience as others. I think everyone is a bit like that wanting to see and experience for themselves rather than hear about it second-hand. I have just written about how wonderful it was to watch the Turkey Vultures, anyone reading my account can recognize what it meant to us but cannot feel the same wonder without having been there. It sure it must have been the same for Thomas. I have written and spoken about this many times before. (It is in my blog entitled “Thomas’s Plea for Inclusion”)

 

So, although I love the story and humanness of Thomas, my musing today will return to the other disciples. As a lingering thought this week, I want to consider all that happened in that room where the disciples were hiding in fear behind closed doors. The text contains the Johannine account of the giving of the Holy Spirit, which is a quieter, gentler version of the event than the one told in Luke/Acts and I like that. No tongues of fire or sound like a mighty rushing wind are seen and heard. Instead, Jesus simply breathed on them and gave a blessing of peace. And they were changed. 

 

I think most people can identify with that — something happens, a significant life event, or a realization of something deep within oneself and it changes everything. Nothing will ever be the same again. It is not just an outward change but a deep inner change — and hopefully one for good! The experience may lead to an instant change or may be the catalyst that begins the work to be done with a determination for change to happen. 

 

The change for the disciples was momentous. They were behind closed doors afraid of the same fate befalling them. All it took was one breathe, and the fear left them or started to leave them. One of the other readings in the lectionary today (Acts 2:27-32) is the story of the disciples before the high priest being reprimanded for speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus. Their fearless response is that they are obeying God rather than the human authority (29). A profound change had happened, a wonderful example of non-violent disobedience, and all because they were breathed on and received a blessing of peace.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

What a crowd!

Palm Sunday’s readings unsettle the normal rhythm of the lectionary. I think that is a good thing, as anything a little strange or out of the ordinary causes a ripple to which the reader pays extra attention. So, today, it is worth highlighting that the usual pattern of the lectionary is disrupted. The first reading is a gospel story and, incidentally the text upon which I will focus today. Following this reading is the litany of the passion, the litany of the psalms, a text from the epistles followed by a second long gospel passage.

 

I urge each person reading this blog to spend some time with the litany of the passion, the litany of the Psalms and the longer gospel passage (Luke 22:13 to the end of chapter 23) during the next week — the final week of Passiontide. I would be interested to hear whether it was meaningful to reflect on these longer texts in the days leading up to the Easter events.

 

But today, on this Palm Sunday, I’m going to remain with the first, shorter reading (Luke 19:28-40). It is the story of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem where Jesus rides into the city on a colt with crowds shouting and throwing down their cloaks to protect the young animal’s hooves. 

 

I have attended a few parades in the past. There is always an air of excitement, crowds push forward as they see distant figures and anticipate the approach. There is something about crowds gathering whether it is at fun carnivals, solemn parades honouring royalty or famous dignitaries or more serious protests. They take on a life of their own. People are captured by the excitement of the moment.  The emotions of the crowd supersede and add to the emotions of the individual. 

 

As I read this text, describing in just a few words the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, I can try to imagine a little of the vibrant atmosphere. Yet, I can’t fully enter into the joy of the event portrayed as I know the end of the story. So, my reading is always tinged with sadness. Crowds that are cheering and shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven” (38) will in just a few short days be jeering and shouting, “Crucify, crucify him’ (Luke 23:21).

 

What happened? 

How did cheering turn to jeering?

How did acknowledging Jesus as one from God turn to demanding death and public shame? 

Are human beings really that fickle?

 

I wonder could personal beliefs and public opinion really change that quickly. At both events, could it be that the mass hysteria of the crowd mask the true feelings of the individuals (either pro or against Jesus). I find this a salutary warning on a number of levels.

 

As I ponder the stories, spiritually this final week of Passiontide is an emotional roller-coaster, full of paradoxes; disturbing and inspiring, unsettling and uplifting, sorrowful and joyful, turbulent and peaceful.

 

So, if like for me this week is a bit of a roller-coaster — hold on tight, the ride is about to begin!

 

 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Welcoming the Outcast

As seems to be the norm in the gospels, Jesus was receiving criticism from the religious of the day. The complaints which heralded this week’s lectionary passage were used to introduce

a series of parables (Luke 15: 1-3, 11 to end). 

 

The complaint was simply, that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (2). When I started to write I had intended considering the first three parables in the series, the third of which is main part of the text for today. I had even started to type a paragraph or two, but I kept returning to the first couple of verses and so decided to remain with them. I’m sure I will continue to ponder these verses throughout the week.

 

So, I paused and thought about that phrase — “welcomes sinners and eats with them”. I find it very powerful. Immediately, it gave rise to a couple of thoughts to muse over this week:

 

Who would be considered today’s tax collectors (1) and sinners? 

How would I welcome tax collectors and sinners?

 

Yet, I found these questions quite hard to pose even hypothetically. As I considered how to phrase the questions it was difficult not to resort to “them and us” language which I dislike  Even worse to “them and us” thinking which I hate even more. 

 

All around I see far too much division into “them and us”. This thinking is present in all spheres of contemporary life, rampant in our society from political life, to career status, to psychological testing, to everyday conversations. It exposes the roots of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The tendency for division and separation is rife. 

 

Clearly, in the text when the Pharisees and scribes were complaining about tax collectors and sinners the implication is that they are not “us”. They are different from “us”.  Jesus shouldn’t want to be associated with “them”. There needs to be a distance and a distinction between “us” and “them”.

 

So, three further hypothetical questions for me to ponder over the coming week are;

How can such thinking be prevented? 

Even, is it possible to prevent such thinking be stopped? 

Or, is it too deeply ingrained and encultured into our lives and thought patterns to be vanquished?

 

It is really hard to change something so deeply embedded in culture. I only have to read a newspaper or listen to a news programme or even glance through some newsfeeds on social media to see that “us and them” language permeates society. 

 

And the final question which I’ll be musing on this week is, how do I welcome and eat with those on the margins, today’s “sinners and tax collector”?  Welcoming all as “us” without even the smallest inkling of anyone being “them”. Quite a task but I think one worth pursuing.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

 

In the liturgical calendar the season has changed, Lent is now being celebrated. Lent began on Wednesday, 2 March and will last until Thursday 14 April. — a long season of 40 days. Lent is a solemn time of remembering all the circumstances leading up to the Easter event and all the wonder that encompasses.

 

The text for today (Luke 4:1-13), records the story of how, after baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness. It is a time of preparation before fulfilling the special ministry Jesus was called to. 

 

I just want to comment on the wilderness.  I know I am repeating myself so apologies to those who have heard me say this before. I don’t think when Jesus went into the wilderness it was just to find a patch of wild and rough country and abide there. I think it was a much more purposeful time of preparation than that. I think Jesus probably went to the Essene community in the wilderness possibly where John may have been educated. A place where undisturbed time could be spent in prayer and fasting. The same flavour that is expressed in the meditation in the Way of Living, “In Scetis, a brother went to Abba Moses and begged him for a word. And the old man said: Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” (p. 390)

 

As another aside, before I get to the text, I also want to make a comment about fasting. This is an ancient practice observed during Lent formalized after the first council of Nicea (325CE) although clearly far older than that — amongst others Moses fasted for 40 days (Exodus 34:28). Fasting is a spiritual practice. I also think it is a choice for each person, how or if they observe this practice. I have been mildly disturbed by some things I have read almost in the vein of who can fast the most or who can re-interpret the word to not mean giving up food. Happily, I have not seen such comments from anyone in Lindisfarne but I still wanted to say that fasting is not a great big competition. It is not about who can be the best faster! it is a personal choice between each individual and the God they serve. It is a private spiritual practice — no one needs to share how they are fasting or if they are fasting. I love the words of Jesus on the sermon on the mount, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Mother-Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:16-18)

 

But back to the text, when Jesus was at the end of the allotted fasting time Jesus was tempted. I thought a lot about the three areas of temptation that Jesus was challenged with and overcame. I found it interesting that these three areas could be seen as those that are common to many. Actually, I wonder if these three areas are constantly being dangled as temptation before each person.

 

In the first vision Jesus was tempted over material needs — Jesus was hungry and was tempted over food. In my musings, I widened it to more than simple bread. Yesterday, Andy and I visited a supermarket to buy food and as we entered the store we were immediately assaulted by displays of Easter candy — chocolate, chocolate everywhere! It all looked very mouthwatering and tempting.  And, of course, the temptation for material things is much more than chocolate but still it is everywhere. Through my email and on social media I constantly get unsolicited posts about things I may want to possess. It feels like,  if I let it, it could be a never-ending source of temptation. A few years ago we had a teenager in our home who stole from us (it has happened a lot over the years!). This particular teen took our goods and cashed them in at a store that bought them. Of course, we are not naive about such things and quickly discovered what was happening. When asked why, the teen responded that he didn’t think it was fair that some kids at school had a better phone than he did! It was an ill thought out plan but nevertheless illustrates the temptation that material goods can offer.

 

In the second vision Jesus was tempted by power and authority. It is another area that continually seems to be a source of temptation. People wanting to rule over other people. People wanting to be better than others. This can happen on a world scale (look no further than current headlines) but also on a smaller, more personal level at home, school or work.

 

In the third vision the temptation was safety and protection. Another big one as anxiety seems to beset this current generation. I have told before the story of an acquaintance, an older woman, who believed that if she had enough faith she would never die. It was ridiculous, but also utterly sad. She felt that her faith would protect her so she could do anything. I can see how that thinking about protection from death was a big temptation for her.

 

So, having said all that, I want to bring balance which I think is much needed when there is any talk about temptation. It is worth noting that each of these three areas can be good, normal parts of living. 

 

Of course, I can enjoy a chocolate bar. I can buy things needed for personal use and for the household. I can pray for those who are hungry, I can support organisations that feed and clothe those in need. 

 

Of course, it is okay to want to advance in careers and to take on more responsibilities — that was discussed last weekend as our retreat focused on study.

 

And, of course, everyone wants to protect and offer safety to those who need such things. Our hearts are all breaking as we have seen the images from the Ukraine — families without safety and protection.

 

So, this week as I take the first steps into my Lenten journey I will continue to ponder this story. Lent is a time to search my heart  and to think about the balance in my own life. It is also a time of anticipation as I journey towards Easter.


(Photo: Panola Mountain State Park, Georgia —August 2021)

 

 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Stormy Weather

 I love a good storm.

 

There is something quite magical about being safe and warm while watching a storm. Looking out of the windows and seeing the snow swirling and the brilliance of the lightning. I love the sound of a storm too, especially when we are camping and hear the patter of the rain on the camper-van roof. 

 

Last year when we were camping at the beach a sudden summer storm blew up. Of course, the forecast had predicted the event, so I had decided to take a quick walk around the campsite before it arrived. As I was walking back to the van the storm arrived, the power of the wind was amazing. It was a struggle to keep upright I momentarily wondered if I would actually be able to get back to the van. The wind felt as if it might be too strong for me to walk against. Of course, I did manage it and watched the rest of the storm through the window watching the wind and rain lash the campground. The wonderful thing about summer storms on a campground is that the sun soon comes out and people immerge from their campers and tents like ants scurrying about.

 

One thing I have learnt about storms is that I have no control over them. Nothing I can do can change the course of the wind or delay the onset of a storm. I may know it is expected, I may be able to make limited preparation — have I got enough firewood inside? is everything outside secure? or are the snow shovels by each door? — but I can’t stop the storm from happening. I can’t change the course of nature.

 

In the lectionary today, the story is about a sudden storm that blew up (Luke 8:22-25). I can quite imagine the scenario. Jesus and the disciples decided to sail to the opposite shore and “a gale swept down the lake” (23). I can picture this quite well. I have often stood in the park at the end of Cayuga Lake (44 miles long) and watched the storm blowing down the lake. The first noticeable sign is the distant darkening of the sky. It is actually quite an amazing thing to watch it encroaching.

 

Therefore, I’m sure, that as those whose career had been fishing the disciples had experienced sudden storms on the lake many times. But this time there was something different, something more violent, the boat started to take on water and they felt they were in danger.

 

A couple of extraordinary things about this story. The first is that Jesus was asleep. I must confess I almost allow myself a chuckle at this image. I can picture Jesus lying with a few inches of water lapping around his prone body, the force of the waves covering him with spray and the noise of the wind was howling around the boat which was being violently tossed about. I have, on many occasions, been awoken by a storm and never in the circumstances described in this text. So, there was something quite extraordinary, maybe miraculous, about Jesus being able to sleep through it all.

 

The second extraordinary happening was that Jesus could control the storm. This is not humanly possible, storms cannot be controlled. They blow and calm at their own will. I know that people pray when they are in the midst of severe weather — usually for their own protection— but even if the storm misses them, it does not really prevent what is happening. Nature cannot be controlled by humanity. 

 

So, as always, with the stories in the gospels I ask myself why this one was included. I do believe that the writers of the gospels wrote with purpose; that the stories chosen to include were there for a reason.

 

Last week during our study of the historical Jesus, our task was to read the lost Gospel of Q as if we had never read or known anything about Jesus. It was quite a hard thing to do. I had not looked at Q for many years and certainly never tried to read it putting aside all the other sources of information about Jesus.  One thing that really struck me was if the only writing available was Q, it would be hard to see Jesus’ divinity. Q contains a really great collection of the teachings of Jesus, all about how to live but there is nothing of incarnation, death and resurrection.

 

 So, as I read this account in the Gospel of Luke, I noticed how this story was emphasising the divinity of Jesus. Jesus was doing something beyond human capability, Jesus was controlling nature. 

 

When reading scripture, I am always aware there is a balance between the various authors and writings. Each highlighting a different dimension or bringing a new insight. Last time I blogged I talked about the balance between the epistles and the gospels. Today, as I read this little story, I saw a balance between the teaching in Q, the oral tradition which would have been circulating amongst the early followers of Jesus, and the gospel. In both the actions and the ensuing conversation between Jesus and the disciples, the author pf the gospel was highlighting a different aspect of Jesus — the divinity of Jesus.

 

I just want to add briefly that often this story is spiritualised. People talk about life’s storms especially if facing something a little unusual or hard. It is a comforting image to think of Jesus being unperturbed by the storm, even to the point of sleeping through it. Or to imagine Jesus calming or stopping the storm. I think this is another balance. This balance is between looking at the scriptures to seek to understand and study the theology contained therein and to read scripture to allow the verses to speak to current circumstances to bring hope and comfort.  


(Photo — Derwent Water, Lake District, Cumbria)

 

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Unusually, for me, I am going to reflect on two of the lectionary readings this week. My normal discipline, when it is my turn to write the blog, is to focus on the gospel and to quote theologian Phyllis Trible, to “shake the text until it yields a blessing”.

 

For me, it has been an interesting and enlightening way to read the scriptures, not focusing on the popular interpretation but really looking at the words, the contemporary period and the various roles of all the characters in the story. Of course, not everyone will see what I see in a text and that is okay. It is not about being right or wrong but about a text inspiring and speaking to the reader. In the past, with our community, much time has been spent teaching about how to disagree in a way that invites dialogue rather than causes conflict. Quite simple really, rather than say “I think you are wrong” or “I don’t agree with you”, perhaps comment “That’s an interesting way of interpreting the passage, I’ve always read it this way. What do you think?” That is just one quick example but there are many other ways to invite dialogue, to validate and enrich each other.

 

So back to the texts for today, as I read the gospel and the epistle passages, both talked about Jesus. I was immediately engaged by how very different the two passages were — what contrasting pictures of Jesus they paint!

 

The earliest of the two readings is 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11, which was penned about 53-54 CE. This passage contains a high and concise Christology. The way the text reads it feels credal, as if the author of Corinthians was reciting a developed statement with a focus on death of Jesus and resurrection of Christ. The purpose of the text is to encourage the recipients of the letter to continue in the beliefs they had previously embraced. As I read, I was intrigued by the credal statement and the complexity of that doctrine which had developed over a relatively short time — just about fifty years. For me, today, that would be like looking back to the seventies. On one hand so many developments have happened in that half-century. I met Andy, got married, gave birth to three wonderful children, fostered more than a hundred others, moved to a foreign country, gained three lovely daughters-in-law and three grandchildren — and that is just with family! What about developments in technology, transportation, human rights, etc.? It has been a momentous, action packed fifty years. Yet on the other hand, the time has gone so fast, the seventies seem like yesterday. A poignant reminder of how short life really is.

 

 Of course, I realize that some reading this would not even have been born in the seventies, nevertheless have probably listen to seventies music and heard older relatives reminiscing about those days. When I think over this similar time period, it really grounds for me the reality of a fifty-year time span. It does make me aware of how quickly this complex Christology developed.

 

I have long embraced the thought that the gospels were written to balance the teaching found in the epistles. Not to correct or to change but to balance — to add another side of the story of the Christ.  Although fanciful, I can almost imagine the authors of the gospels reading the Christology contained within some of the letters and wanting to balance it with the story of Jesus’ time on earth. Gospel of Luke was penned maybe thirty-years after Corinthians. It is not really a stretch to think that there was concern that the story of Jesus, birth, miracles, healings would be lost to the new generation. What a different view of Christ we would have if the gospels had never been written.  

 

Actually, there are a number of theories about the dating of Luke, but all put it significantly later than Corinthians. Most commonly ascribed to is that it was written somewhere between. 80-90 CE.  However, some scholars argue for a date as late as 110 CE while, less popularly, prefer a pre-70 date. Most think the text was revised well into the 2nd Century. 

 

It would bring contemporary readers (or hearers) back to the simplicity of the stories of the gospel. It would ensure the miracles, feedings, healings, teaching, non-violence, etc were not forgotten.

 

As I read the gospel text in Luke (5:1-11) it is such a simple tale. Jesus was standing on the shore and got into the boat belonging to Simon. He then told him to row out further and cast his nets in the deeper water. Simon answered that they had worked all night and caught nothing but nevertheless followed the instruction. He caught so many fish the nets began to break, and he had to get help to land the catch. Then Jesus told him he would be catching people from now onwards.  

 

Of course, the story in itself is quite complex when one spends time with it. It should be noted that even within the story there is a nod to the divinity  of the Christ, the Messiah— a miracle happened such that it caused Simon, James and John to forsake their careers, families and friends to follow. The Christ was being revealed.

 

Another complexity that always intrigues me is why the synoptics placed this story as part of the calling of the disciples and Gospel of John placed it as a post-resurrection story — but I’ve blogged about that before so not for today.

 

Today, as I ponder the text  I focus on the reminder of the humanness and simplicity of the story — Jesus interacting with ordinary people, Jesus fulfilling their physical needs and Jesus calling them to be more than they ever thougt they could be. 

 

So, the complexity of the Pauline Christology or the simplicity of a story about the humanness of Jesus? I think both are needed. They balance each other and balance is good.