Sunday, November 20, 2022

Crucifixion

Next Sunday we enter Advent — a new season preparing for the birth of the Christ child. Today, is designated as a day to remember the sovereignty of Christ. The text is the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. It always seems to be a strange time of year to think about death — a little incongruous. Perhaps, however, it serves as a reminder of the cycle of life — mourn a death then start to think of a birth. Life goes on. The cycle continues.

 

This last couple of days the lectionary has urged (or even forced) me to think of crucifixion and all that entails. It does not make for pleasant musing. Crucifixion was one of the most brutal and painful ways of killing someone. It is the root for our word for extreme pain — excruciating. Crucifixion was thought to have originated with the Babylonians and Assyrians, was used commonly with the Persians from about 6 BCE, brought to Eastern Mediterranean countries by Alexander the Great and introduced to Rome in 3 BCE by the Phoenicians where it was used for 500 years before being banned by Constantine 1.

 

During crucifixion one was tied or nailed to a stake, tree or cross. Death could be slow and painful taking from between six hours to four days. Death resulted from a combination of pain, haemorrhage and dehydration which caused the body to go into shock and progressive asphyxiation due to the positioning of the arms. Crucifixion was mainly used for slaves, Christians, disgraced soldiers and foreigners. A Roman soldier was placed at the foot of each cross and had to remain there until the person died hence the death-hastening practices of fracturing legs, stab wounds to heart area, blows to the chest and a smoking fire at the foot of the cross (to further impede breathing). It is all rather horrible, and I have only given a sanitized version. If anyone wants more detail, please use google!

 

So why have I gone into this in a little more detail than usual — I’m not trying to depress anyone. But, if this is the lectionary topic to think about today and during this week, it is important to know what crucifixion entailed.

 

Today’s reading (Luke 23.33-43) has a number of points worth considering. The text documents Jesus being crucified between two thieves, mocked and scoffed at by the onlookers and having conversation both with God and the thieves. Would conversation be possible on the cross? My research would lead me to say speech was perhaps possible but very hard and nothing like fluent. 

 

So, at this point, I’m going to harp back to our discussion at Theology school where we looked at how comparatively recently the idea of reading the Bible as “literal” started to happen. There would be no concept of that in the pre-modern world. It is hard to get our heads round as we were schooled in such a different culture. 

 

I would say it was unlikely that an intricate conversation as documented could have happened to people who were dying primarily from asphyxiation. Yet, I would also say — of course, it is real, it has changed people and society for centuries. It contains ideas around which our lives have been built.

 

The conversation itself is very interesting. The first phrase “Father-Mother forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” has been, perhaps, one of the most discussed phrases. In my Bible version it is bracketed indicating it is not contained in the earliest manuscripts. Theories abound both for it being original and initially omitted or it being a later addition — for example, it was part of the oral tradition and later added by scribe, it interrupts the flow of the narrative so could not belong there, it was added to bring the number of sayings to the special number of seven, it was omitted for antisemitic reasons or it was added to fit the ignorance-forgiveness motif of Lukan writings. I’m merely noting these, I’m not going to discuss them in detail.

 

The second recorded dialogue is between Jesus and the two thieves. As I read this conversation I noted the promise of future paradise for one of the thieves, I can’t help but think of what a comfort this inclusion would have brought to early Christians. It would have been lifechanging to those facing persecution, to those who were holding on to their faith knowing that they may be next on the cross. A powerful reminder that death was not the end for them, it was merely a doorway to paradise.

 

Finally, I want to mention the ongoing influence this text has had over lives and faith for centuries. It cannot be underestimated. This passage has had a powerful impact on our relationship with God and humanity. The conversations contained therein are all about forgiveness. I could even say that in one sense, this short reading sums up the message of the gospels. Forgiveness from God for humanity and in turn forgiveness between humanity. There is something about knowing one is forgiven and forgiving those who have caused personal harmed that makes one feel a bit lighter.

 

So, today’s lectionary was something of a journey — readers are brought once again face-to-face with death, learnt about the power of forgiveness and now are ready to step into advent with lighter hearts to prepare to welcome the Christ child, the incarnation of love.

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, October 23, 2022

This morning’s gospel lectionary passage (Luke 18.9-14) is one of a pair of parables followed by a couple of storiesI think for this parable it is important to see the context rather than read the text in isolation. To ponder and ask the question, “what is the overall message being given here?” Also, to query, “why were these particular stories chosen to preserve and write down?”

 

As I read the whole chapter and mused on each parable and how they related to each other my conclusion was that these parables were inserted at this point to give heart to a people under persecution. 

 

Luke’s gospel is generally dated around 85 CE — although as always with dating scriptures there are variations from a few years earlier to even a bit later. Regardless of the actual date, it is clear the gospel was written after the persecution of Christians had begun in 64 (or 67) CE under Nero. Nero blamed Christians for the great fire of Rome (64) and used that as an excuse to start the persecution which over the next couple of centuries saw an estimated two million Christians killed.

 

I think, seeing today’s reading in the light of stories written to those undergoing persecution makes sense. By the time the gospel was penned Luke would have been older. Many of those hearing and reading the gospel would have been a new generation, many would not even have been born in Jesus’ time. Converts raised on stories that encouraged them to look for the bodily return of Jesus and they were still waiting. For the previous years these early Christians would be seeing the death of friends and acquaintances and experiencing the ensuing fear and chaos all around them. They needed encouragement to not give up but to hold firm. These parables offer that.

 

The first is the story of a persistent widow who kept coming to a judge with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary”. Surely, that would be the plea of a people under persecution. The widow continues to pester the judge who eventually caves and grants justice. It is worth noting that the author chose a widow as the person who keeps coming to the judge. A widow would be largely invisible, considered insignificant and possibly without



protection or means of support. Perhaps this typifies how the people felt.  It would have brought a strong message to the people under persecution —keep going and eventually justice will win.

 

The next parable is our text for today. A Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple. In the story the Pharisee is full of confidence, listing all the right things he has done while the tax collector simply asks for mercy. And it was the tax collector who is found justified before God. Again, I see this offering comfort to a people under persecution who would identify with the tax collector — hated and shunned by all, yet the person God ultimately chose to justify.

 

Although not listed as parables the following two stories continue the theme. Firstly, a short passage about children. The gist being that the realm of God belongs to them. Again, the message that the weakest members of society gain the realm of God. 

 

Next is the longer tale of the rich leader who, after a lengthy conversation, was told the way to God was to sell their riches and care for the poor. This story ends with verse which says that “no one who has left home or spouse or brothers or sisters or parents or children will fail to receive many times more …” (29). As I read this verse, I became aware of how very differently it sounds in the context of this section on bringing comfort to those in persecution. Often it is interpreted to encourage a voluntary surrender of all these things to be a better follower of Christ — it never quite sat comfortably. I find it makes so much more sense when read as a verse to comfort people losing these things under persecution.

 

Finally, and perhaps the climax of this section, the chapter continues with Jesus talking of his death and how he would be flogged, insulted, mocked, spit on and ultimately killed. Surely, this would offer some comfort that in their persecution they are identifying with Jesus. Maybe even considered a privilege to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. 

 

When I write a blog, I like to look at what the text offers for today. However, we are not a people under persecution, we are not going to lose family, friends and property because of our faith. Yet, the text has to offer something, some blessing for all who read it in every age. Maybe, as I shake today’s text the message can be best summed up in the words of Julian of Norwich, “I will make all things well, I make all things well and you will see for yourselves that all things shall be well.” (Revelations of Divine Love)


(Photo: Sun catching the autumn trees at Hammond Lake, PA)

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Healing the Outcast

Thankfulness, being grateful, acknowledging gifts or kindnesses are all good practices. In most people they are instilled from a young age — say “Thank you” is urged on a young child many times. As the old saying goes I would be rich if I had received a penny for every time I had spoken those words to my children and grandchildren. Teaching manners and gratefulness is all part of the parental task.

 

On the surface, today’s gospel reading (Luke 17: 11-19) is about thankfulness — ten lepers had been healed but only one returned to acknowledge the wonderful gift they had been given. Yet, I think this story is not really about thankfulness although that is included. I think the heart of the story is about how the outcast is treated.

 

The story is quite brief, not much detail is given. The reader is not told if these were male or female lepers, or even children. It seems they followed the regulations not to approach anyone as the text says, “Keeping their distance, they called …” (12). 

 

The tale continues they were told to go and show themselves to the priests. 

 

Now showing oneself to a priest seems quite simple but was a complex process. I think within this story is a huge time lapse. Healing leprosy was not a priestly function but inspecting the affliction and pronouncing healing was. The priest was the authority where a declaration of leprosy was needed. However, whenever healing occurred there were required rituals (Lev. 14) on first, seventh and eighth days. These take place outside the camp were the leper lives — sacrifices, offerings, bathing, laundering clothes ultimately blood of a lamb and oil are daubed on the leper’s right big toe, ear lobe and thumb. 

 

After being pronounced healed, one returned to show gratitude. Worth noting that this time the former leper came right up to Jesus and fell at his feet. The leper could once more approach people. They had been pronounced clean. They no longer had to live as an outcast. 

 

As I read the story through the phrase that really jumped out at me was “And he was a Samaritan” (16). A double outcast — a Samaritan and a leper. I thought it was interesting that in such a short story talking about events that must have taken place over a week or more that phrase was so prominent. Did it really matter that they were a Samaritan? Was nationality so important? Obviously, to the author it was a key point, a fact worth noting. An outcast in a story about outcasts. 

 

Often, outcasts blend into the background, hidden on the edge of society. It is easy to pretend they don’t exist. While thinking about this story I did quite a bit of reading on leprosy and leper colonies. As far as I can see the quarantine on the last leper colony in USA was lifted in 1969. I was a bit shocked — this is in my lifetime. Lepers existing on the edge of society, and I knew nothing about it, invisible people.

I’ll not spend time looking at all the other outcasts isolated on the edge of society but just mention one person whose name has been all over social media this week. An anniversary that should not be forgotten. Mathew Shepard — beaten, tortured, and left to die on October 6, 1998, (died October 12, 1998) twenty-four years ago this week.  A hate crime because Mathe was gay. An outcast in the small town he lived in.

 

I hope whenever this short gospel text is read it will provide a much-needed challenge that outcasts still exist on the edge of society, largely unnoticed and invisible. 

 

My prayer, Open our eyes, O God.




Sunday, September 18, 2022

Shrewd or Dishonest?

What a perplexing parable! It seems to be a story that baffles all its readers. Expositors of today’s lectionary gospel passage (Luke 16: 1-13) have suggested many varying interpretations. Perhaps, a good example of why, when reading the Bible, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to understand it — that always causes division, if someone is right then someone else is wrong! Much better to accept that each interpreter is simply trying to understand what God is saying in a way that is relevant to them.

 

I have blogged about this text before and as I read it again, many of the thoughts I have seem to be similar.

 

On first reading I always find this story strange and unsettling. Something about it just feels a little off. The parable focuses on a rich landowner and their manager. As was the custom of the day, the manager (or steward) stood between the landowners and the peasant farmers and tenants. The manager negotiated the sale of oil, wheat and other goods plus collected the rents. Mangers were in a privileged position. 

 

Sadly, it was customary for the manager to add interest to each bill for personal gain. The custom of adding interest was commonplace although was spoken against in several places in the Jewish scriptures. For example, Leviticus 25: 36 where is says “Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you.  The landowners tended to ignore this practice so long as they continued to get wealthy. 

 

Of course, in all these transactions the people who suffered were the exploited tenants and peasant farmers — they were voiceless and powerless. 

 

The manager could also be in a precarious position — they depend completely on staying in favour with the landowner. Although managers enjoyed the benefits of additional finances it may not have felt a secure lifestyle. 

 

I want to interject here with a comment which I have made many times before. I make no apology for repeating it as I feel it is important. When reading parables keep in mind that when interpreting, or trying to interpret, them don’t assign God as the principal character. Simply understand parables as little stories told as illustrations of a point albeit sometimes an obscure point. If one assigns roles, it often leads to complications when the leading character exhibits traits one would rather not associate with God. This parable is a wonderful example of that. If all parables are seen as veiled references to God, then right at the outset problems would occur in this one. If God is assumed to be the rich landowner, or even the manager, then God is getting wealthy by exploiting the poor tenants. Personally, if I wanted to assign roles, here I would prefer to subvert the parable and find God/Jesus in the peasant farmers and tenants who were powerless and voiceless. 

 

Anyway, back to the story — the landowner told the manager that they was going to lose their position. There are no real details given as to what prompted this, the story simply tells us that the manager was “squandering the landowner’s property” (1)  

 

The manager reflects that they are unfit for other means of subsistence — not strong enough to work the land and too proud to beg (3). So, the manager makes an alternate plan and immediately met with all the debtors and lowered their bills.  This was a way to ensure a welcome in their homes with as their circumstances changed. 

 

This is quite interesting, as the landowner is already starting to identify with and presume help from those previously exploited — the tenants and peasant farmers. Maybe showing the beginning of a change in the manager.

 

Rather than being annoyed by this action the rich landowner commended his manager for acting shrewdly thus ensuring that manager kept their position. It is a difficult story to understand, I doubt there is any one definitive understanding. 

 

I think it is important to see the difference between shrewd and dishonest.  Shrewd is defined as having or showing sharp powers of judgment, being astute or being marked by practical hardheaded intelligence. While dishonest is behaving or prone to behave in an untrustworthy or fraudulent way.

 

The manager is called both — perhaps the reference is to dishonesty of some kind that had come to light which caused their dismissal or dishonesty referred to the way the peasant farmers were treated. Regardless, dishonesty is not seen in a good light while the shrewd behaviour which is lauded. 

 

I am going to offer for perusal a couple of thoughts I had while reading the parable.

 

One thought I had was as the steward was being commended for being shrewd. His shrewdness focused on future planning and well-being. I think this is a point for all to heed. I have met people who believe that it is wrong to plan for their future, as it shows a lack of trust in a God who will provide all their needs. In the extreme, seeing any future planning as revealing a lack of faith. Of course, I respect their views. Yet this parable highly values responsible planning for future well-being. It is heralded as a good and positive thing. It is even rewarded. orth thinking about. 

 

But perhaps my lingering thoughts are about the exploitation of the poor.  However, it came the result was that the main beneficiaries in the parable are the poor who had their bills lowered. I think it is important that this point is not lost. Whatever the motives the poor benefitted. 

 

In spite of a poor start, the manager also came out well, The lowering of the bills was presumably by removing the interest — the percentages given in the parable were the normal percentage added for oil and wheat. As the manager realized he could soon be one of “the poor” could the manager be showing a newfound compassion for the poor? 

 

In turn, perhaps the manager’s behaviour challenged the landowner about their practices allowing interest to be added. Maybe the landowner’s conscience was pricked! Maybe manager’s behaviour served as a reminder of the law about interest which would leave no alternative but to commend the steward. 

 

Interestingly, in the gospel of Luke this parable is grouped with those showing compassion for those who are poor and oppressed. Context is always important when trying to understand the parables. Parables should also speak a relevant application for contemporary times. If I view this parable as one showing compassion for the poor, it can offer a challenge, something to think through this week. 

 

In what ways are the poor exploited?  

Sunday, September 4, 2022

When I write my blog, I don’t intend it as an in-depth Bible study, it is simply how a certain text speaks to me in the moment. One thing that is important to me is trying to interact with the text honestly. It would be too easy just to spiritualise the verses, often to hide dealing with an unpalatable idea. I think that has happened too often in history, texts being twisted and spiritualised in an attempt to avoid what they say. 

Today, was one such text. It is a really hard passage to read and yet one often quoted as an example of the cost of discipleship . . . but in spite of the spiritualising not one that is really adhered to. 

 

In this text, Jesus says, “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

 

Just going to make a quick aside here — once again even in this negative appeal notice the patriarchal bias in the text, to hate “wife and children”. Obviously, this entreaty was aimed at men not at a general audience. Even in this the women are invisible except as in relationship to a man.

 

I find this one of the unpalatable texts. I will say quite openly that I don’t hate father and mother, spouse and children or my sisters. I know very few people who do and, those, exceptions usually have a reason that is nothing to do with following any spiritual path. 

 

The text continues by offering some wise advice about estimating the cost before embarking on any venture (28-32). Good sound advice which I’m sure most people adhere to from time to time, I know I have. Perhaps phrased in contemporary times as “know what you are getting yourself into”. Although often, however much one tries to estimate the cost, there are still those unknown and unimagined consequences that are encountered. Nevertheless, the advice is worth heeding and counterbalances recklessness.

 

Today’s reading does not end with this advice but circles back to where it started, “none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” Of course, in the time it was penned many of the possessions would be people — “wife and children”. It is another unpalatable verse. Give up all our possessions? It doesn’t even make a lot of sense to become homeless, hungry and destitute. 

 

So, when faced with the dilemma of unpalatable verses I tend to look at the wider picture presented in the Bible and even in the culture I live in.

 

 So, hating “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” seems to go against most of Jesus’ teaching with its focus on love: 

Jesus cared for his mother even while dying on the cross, 

Jesus celebrated at a wedding with family, 

Jesus intimated that others will become his siblings. 

In contemporary times, much is made of love, family and caring for each other. Hating family is not esteemed as a high value in any circles.

 

And instead of giving up all our possessions, I read much more focus on sharing and hospitality, caring for the poor and outcasts. I know that in our Celtic tradition the stories of the desert mothers and father and their wisdom impact us. That was their special calling but not for everyone.

 

For most people it is their “possessions” which allow them to help, love and serve others. Certainly, many stories in the gospels show how Jesus was cared for by those who shared their homes and food with him. 

 

I think what I want to say in all the above is that there are sometimes texts which don’t sit comfortably. They cause unease. Even they cause guilt or a feeling of inadequacy as they are largely ignored. So, I’m going to say quite openly, that today I am rejecting the ethos of a text that tells me to hate and to have no possessions.

 

I am going to follow the larger edict of Jesus to love and to use my possessions to love practically by caring and serving others.


(Photo: A cluster of butterflies at a campground in PA -2021)

Sunday, August 21, 2022

 Our project over the summer months has been the New Way of Living — the last couple of weeks has been proof-reading, amending, more proof-reading, more amending, even more proof-reading. One phrase that I have read over and over again is “May I be as Christ to those I meet” — this phrase is now incorporated into every office. 

 

This morning, I have laid aside the New Way of Living to focus on the Lectionary readings. The gospel passage is the story of a woman who was bent over, unable to stand up straight (Luke 13:10-17). As I mused on the text, I became aware of how this woman could represent many women who were not able to stand up straight. 



 

Huge weights are on their backs causing them to bend over:

the weight of patriarchy, 

the weight of racial inequality, 

the weight of poverty, 

the weight of gender issues, 

the weight of safety issues,

the weight of autonomy over their own bodies. 

 

Many, many women stand in the place of this woman in the gospel reading, unable to stand up straight. The more I thought about it the sadder it made me feel. Yet, the text does offer some hope and some direction.

 

In this unique story, the woman does not seek healing or relief from her condition: 

I wonder if she had just accepted it as her lot in life (she had suffered for 18 years)

I wonder if she felt somewhat invisible (the text tells us she just appeared, yet she must have been physically there all the time but unseen)

 

Jesus saw her, Jesus talked to her, Jesus removed the burden that was weighing her down.

 

“May I be as Christ to those I meet”

 

In this text this is what being as Christ to those we meet would mean: 

Seeing the woman — there are too many unnoticed and invisible women

Talking to the woman — treating her a person in her own right

Helping the woman — relieving the weight on her back.

 

Not an easy task to be as Christ to those we meet — it can be quite costly.

 

The rest of the text documents the reaction of those present to Jesus enabling this woman to stand upright.

 

The most religious person present, the leader of the synagogue, stirred up the crowd against the woman being healed on the sabbath. I’m not going to linger here but I can’t help but think that still religious voices are being raised to keep women bent over.

 

Jesus’ response was amazing. He told the crowd that they tend to the needs of their animals — their oxen and their donkeys — so was he not correct in attending the needs of a woman? The implication being did they not consider the woman of more worth than an ox and a donkey?

 

As we seek to be as Christ to those we meet this little story of how Jesus treated one woman who could not stand up straight serves as a good model to be followed. 

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.