Archive for July, 2017

Parables, Kingdom, Us?

Posted: July 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

Parables, Kingdom, Us?

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

July 28, 1996

He is behind his ox, plowing down the row, when suddenly the blade catches a huge rock, and everything stops, and the is hurtled forward into the handle of his own plow. Some graphic four-letter words, in Aramaic perhaps, and then he notices that’s not a rock, it’s a box of some kind, so he reins in the ox, kneels down and scooping with his hands pulls enough of the dirt away to be able to open the box. His eyes bulge, his jaw drops, it is filled with jewels and coins worth a fortune. Now what to do? There’s a major obstacle here. He works this field but he doesn’t own it. He thinks about this for a bit and decides to head off down to the real estate office or goes on google and begins to inquire. It is as formidable psychological challenge as you can imagine; how do you act nonchalant in the real estate office; how do you feign passing interest on line when in fact you must have that field?

The real estate agent says “Tell me, Jake, why all these questions? Why are you interested in that piece of property all of a sudden?” What does Jake reply? How does he reply What do you suppose Jake said? Probably something devious like:

“Always enjoyed the view from up there.” Or even better, maybe he told a carefully camouflaged truth, “It has this unusually rich soil.”

“Rich soil! Sure, tell me about it.”

So, what is Jesus trying to tell us? Jesus who expends great time and energy warning us against complicating our lives with affluence, nevertheless is tuned in enough to human nature so that he understands that deep seated conviction in most of us, that if we should suddenly be blessed with a few million dollars it would settle a lot of anxiety and we would then be truly free to devote ourselves to the betterment of the human race. I heard someone say just this last week that they hoped they would win lotto so that they could help people. Jesus understood why a person would try to conceal their excitement in the real estate office, or carefully search the internet for an advantage in negotiations, or invest a dollar in the impossible dream of riches.

The realm of God is such a treasure, it is a bonanza like that of our unlimited imagination and we should go for it with the same guile, the same gusto, the same abandon, that we do the lucky chance, the windfall of riches, because there is nothing we could ever possess that offers more. Don’t gamble but see the desire as like the desire for heaven. The treasures of heaven are beyond one’s greatest desire.

One difficulty we have is that sadly the metaphor of the kingdom doesn’t quite fit the church. In fact, it would be an especially hard sell to say that the kingdom is reflected in what we call the Presbyterian Church. Our Church impresses us as something other than extravagant value, a long way from an unimaginable treasure. In this particular field of the kingdom, all the numbers seem to be descending, and the only thing that’s increasing is the anxiety level. We are not that burgeoning, blossoming movement that Jesus depicts in the parables, we are in fact the folks who are projected to disappear, (that is of course if the present trends continue?)

It would be fair to say that the mood of the church has been infected with the dramatic loss of members and dollars. Since around 1965 in the Western World, the so-­called mainline churches, the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, have lost many members. The trends in these churches seem to be virtually identical, so we can’t blame it on any one national or even global event. According to the research most of these people did not leave in a huff over any one theological shift or social ideology. Liberals have not become conservatives nor vice versa. The large majority simply drifted away, phased themselves out of the community, slipped quietly away to that private place where the church is no longer a necessary component of their lives. They find that they can get along without it, and this response is particularly manifest in the so-called “baby boomers” and the following generation” It seems that there has been a whole generation of people for whom the faith did not take.

So, we have to say that the church is not the treasure that people yearn to obtain. We have become a “take it or leave it” church, with a growing continuing number inclined towards “leave it.” We are no longer perceived as a “with it” organization. We are no longer at the social center of the communities that we serve. We are no longer the primary catalyst for education, medical care, providing for the hungry and the homeless, that we once were. Some would say that we never were and others would say that our liturgy is out of date, our music is archaic, that we no longer mediate an experience of the presence of God, we being hindered by all of the institutional and theological baggage that we have accumulated through the years.

Let’s be honest here too. It is not easy to be confronted with all of that, because we sense that much of that diagnosis is accurate, and some of us argue that the church must continue to reform, and to reconstitute itself so that we are become a more pertinent, current and helpful gathering of people. But before we go down the fix it road we need to remember that it is unhealthy to live with a sense of failure or with some burden of guilt for the inadequacies of the church. If we are a dying church, a loser institution, what are you and I still doing here? Are we not still the church as followers of Jesus? And why should we be the ones to deal with all the guilt trip? What does it mean to insist that the Christ is alive and going before us? What does that mean? Has not the Christ promised to be with us even to the end? Surely this has some value? Where is the church as a treasure? Our tradition says that this conviction transcends all the statistics and trends does it not?

Yet we cannot ignore them. But maybe they don’t indicate the failure of the church so much as they do the adjustment of the church to the monumental shifts and changes that are taking place in the world. Some of our church sociologists depict that at the end of an era we will see not just the decline in the church but the conclusion of that experience of the church generated by the Reformation. One that I find particularly insightful, Loren Mead, finds us in the concluding days of Christendom, a form of the church that has persisted for 1700 years. Mead argues that we are returning to a context more reflective of the apostolic church, a minority community in a sometimes supportive, sometimes hostile but mostly indifferent world. We are starting again perhaps?

Another argument is that the church has been at these crossroads before. Endings are never easy and are always accompanied by grief and pain. But in the Christian church endings have always been at the same time, beginnings. The pain of the demise of one form of the church has been at the same time the birth pains of the new spirit filled community. And so, we are not so much the last of the Mohicans of the Christian church, so much as we are the privileged who are called to be a part of the transition of the church from what we have been to the new church.

So, though we may be confronted with a loss of members and dollars, there is a strong suggestion that there is still a need for vitality in what we call the church. In traditional terms, there is still the presence of God, the good news of Jesus, the moving of the Spirit, so the predominant mood could be one of celebration, and we could continue to invest our best energy to the quality of life of church experiences.

Our reading is the third reading in a row from chapter 13, that has a parable.  The parables highlight Jesus’ role as teacher, which is important for the writer of Matthew’s gospel. His source for the parable of the mustard seed was Mark (4:30-32), though Matthew gets “tree” from elsewhere.  The parable of the leaven appears to come from Q if Q exists and the gospel of Thomas also includes both parables.  The word for “parable” is parabole–literally, “thrown alongside.”  So this suggests that parables are stories “thrown alongside” life, you might say, which prompt comparisons and contrasts between the two.  Paul Tillich had his “method of correlation” which called for points of contact and comparison between the faith and the world.  Parables do something like that.

The parables of Jesus sometimes use hyperbole, as in the parable of the mustard seed.  A mustard seed is small, but it is not the smallest of all the seeds.  First, it grows into a laxanon, which means either “garden herb” or “vegetable.”  Laxanon refers to a plant that was planted on purpose. Matthew adds the “tree” to the original version of the story we have in Mark.  Perhaps Matthew didn’t think a garden vegetable was a grand enough comparison for the kingdom of heaven.  What Matthew is really doing, however, is making a hyperlink to Daniel 4: 10-22, particularly verses 11-12, which use a tree as an image for the great kingdom of God which is visible to all and for all:

11The tree grew great and strong,    its top reached to heaven,    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.  12Its foliage was beautiful,    its fruit abundant,    and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it,    the birds of the air nested in its branches,    and from it all living beings were fed.

Two primary themes abound in only a few verses–universality and “weakness.”  Both the tree and the field are universal images.  The field is the world, and the tree “provided food for all” (Dan 4).  This universality has an anti-triumphal twist, however.  The seed itself, the agent of this universal mission, is small and hidden in the ground.  It does its work mysteriously and out-of-sight. Can we perhaps see this as the point of transition we find ourselves in in regard to the church, the Christian faith and perhaps even religion?

One approach to this could be to look at our liturgical year again and ask if there is a season that we might have all year long. This might sound strange but maybe we have too many seasons in the liturgical year and we need to spend longer time on the one that is important for our global circumstances. We might perhaps suggest that all year should be an advent season. A season of expectation, of preparation and anticipation Advent seems to encourage the appropriate response for a people in transition. Advent seems to call us to hang in there in hope, and to live in expectation of God’s new day, to keep a very light grip on what has been, and cultivate openness and flexibility in anticipation of an amazing and surprising future. T.S. Elliot indicates this in his poem from the Four Quartets where he summons us to wait without faith, hope and love, for fear that we will have faith in the wrong things, hope for what is inconsequential, love for what is trivial, and then it concludes, “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought; So, the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.”

In the meantime, we can continue to do those things which have always been a part of the church and always will be. Like an All blacks team that is not quite ready for the Lions attack, but they can always practice defense and tackling because that will be a part of the game, wherever and whenever it is played. So maybe we should proclaim the good news, tell the story to our children, and embody that which we believe is God’s love for all of our near neighbour, especially the poor, the emotionally scarred, the homeless, the oppressed, the outcasts, the innocent victims. Whatever the form of the church in the future it will be composed of people in ministry, people living out of their gratitude for the gift of life. Maybe we could take sensitive and generous care of each other. And maybe we could remember that there was a time of declining numbers and dollars in the career of Jesus, and He asked His disciples, “are you going to leave too?” And the reply was, “where shall we go, Lord, you have the word of life.” Maybe we can’t quite see the realm of God, the Kingdom that Jesus saw but maybe the realm is still treasure, and our appropriate response is still, “Let’s go for it.” Amen.

Genesis 28:10-19a Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 Romans 8:12-25 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

‘Imagination, Ambiguity and Grace’

When I reflect on what human life is today I am lost for words. That is at first an admission that my language or my vocabulary is inadequate yet it is also a clam that the world is chock full of divinity.  It’s a claim that we can encounter the holy in the most unlikely places.  Thin places, or in old language the places where the joining heaven and earth, abound for those for whom the doors of perception have opened.  The discovery is that life is messy, but also that it can be spiritually full in all its complexity when we open our senses to divinity within and beyond us.  A way of saying that is to say that God is in all things, and all things are in God! This is that awesome moment when we discover the place of being lost for words.

Like Jacob we might say “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!  How awesome is this place?”  Jacob finds himself in a thin place where heaven and earth are joined and angels ascend and descend on a ladder to the heavens.  It is interesting to note that the angels “ascend” to heaven.  A claim that the Earth is filled with divinity, or that Earth has its own angels.  God is not far off or trapped in a far-off heaven.  Divinity is on earth as it is in heaven.  We don’t need to go to heaven to find God; heaven is in this place!


Here is the claim for the value of imagination. We need to acknowledge here that traditionally we have some assumptions about imagination we need to put away. At first touch of imagination we have this idea that it is of the realm of fantasy and it is unreasoned and untrue waffle. It does not appear to have value because it is rooted in the idea that it is a narcissistic illusion, in other words a project of the self and thus tainted and not really sensible or of real value. And this is true as it does include the field of phantasies and images. It evolves out of the mirror stage but that is not all it is. It extends into our relationships with others. It includes pre-verbal structures making it a creative enterprise of unlimited bounds. It takes us beyond the limits of language and creates the unlimited world of creating relationships. If one wanted to give it a description one could say it is the Holy Spirit at work.

In Psalm 139 we find one of the most majestic pieces of spiritual literature.  The Psalmist discovers God everywhere.  No place is without God’s presence.  Even when we run away from God, we run into God’s hands.  In the heights, God is there; in the depths, God is also present.  God knows each of us fully, but God’s knowledge of us is liberating, not judging.

What we might give caution to here is that Psalm 139 is a hymn to divine omnipresence, and the only condition of divine omnipresence is the recognition that God is everywhere and in all things. That is consistent with our claim that God is everywhere and in all things but it introduces a theological claim that Jacob’s encounter with holiness comes by pure grace.  In the same mode we ask did the Psalmist need to cultivate the experience of divine presence through spiritual practices?  And that again, grace simply happens.  But, Damascus Road experiences also emerge – and are grounded for the long haul – through opening to God by prayer, meditation, hospitality, service, worship, and study. Here we have the Roman and Greek influence of the need for structure to one’s practice. Here we see the introduction of spiritual practices to sustain the discovery of God’s intimacy and to defining that intimacy and provide a way of protecting that discovery. Not wring but ultimately a challenge to the boundlessness of imagination.

The reading of Romans 8 continues this hymn to divine omnipresence.  God speaks within us, inspiring us to seek our original wholeness.  God also speaks through every living thing.  All creation lives in hope for transformation, sharing in the same hope for God’s realm of Shalom.  There is no dividing line between God and the world or human or non-human life.  We may be the crown of creation, but we share the breath of life and the movements of the Spirit with all reality.  Inspired by the Spirit, each thing in its own way leans in a God-ward fashion.  Joined in an interdependent ecology of hope, all creation seeks fulfillment in relationship with the Creator. Again, we hear the need for order and structure and liturgy and ritual so as to protect and describe the discovery of God’s intimacy.

There is a clear affirmation of creation theology and nature mysticism within the words of Romans 8.  This is surely God’s world – and all things declare divinity – but only those with eyes to see and ears to hear can discern the holiness embedded in the non-human world.  Yes, we can find God in nature, at the seashore and on starry nights, and this is good.  But, a life of prayer makes such moments of holiness the norm rather than exceptional in our lives.

And here we return to the claim that Jesus upsets the assumptions and raises the question of piety of spirituality. Is all the pomp and ceremony required or not? His parable notes, that growth is ambiguous, whether personal, communal, or global.  The wheat and the tares are mixed: this is not just a matter of righteous and unrighteous persons – the latter being the “evil ones” –  but our own personal righteousness and unrighteousness.  Life is ambiguous and so are we.  We are holy, but also wholly ambivalent and ambiguous at times.  In old language, we would say that we are saints who also are sinners. Spiritual stature comes from recognizing the interdependence of life, and seeking to embrace the whole of our lives in light of what we call God’s grace.  If we destroy the tares, the weeds, the wheat will eventually die.  Our power and wisdom comes from embracing the whole, not denying the parts.  In the spirit of Psalm 139, our darkness can be a vehicle of creative transformation. God is in this place.  God is in the mixture of wheat and tares; flowers and weeds.  God comes to us on the darkest night, when we like Jacob recognize our brokenness.  God cries out in wounded nature.  Wherever we are, God is present; and wherever we are, it is Beth-el, the house of God.

Having I hope made the claim that imagination has been traditionally maligned and alluded to the fact that our concepts of God and God’s activity are synonymous with ours, I want to tell a story of transition in thinking. It is not my story but it does reflect I think, the journey many of us are on today. The story begins…..

Over the last ten years my Christian faith has undergone a dramatic transformation. The beliefs that were once absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the universe and my own existence have been gradually deconstructed. It has been a confusing, unsettling and sometimes painful process, but I now feel I have in some way emerged from that confusion, and am feeling a sense of clarity, hope and excitement about my faith that I have never felt before.

In the early stages of deconstruction, it felt as if the ground beneath my feet was crumbling. The “unshakeable” truths I had been taught to build my life upon were being dismantled one by one – it was exhilarating but terrifying.

I know far less now than I did ten years ago. I have far more questions than answers, and God seems more mysterious and unfathomable than ever.

I used to have everything sorted, organized into boxes and neatly stacked. Now the boxes are torn open and their contents strewn everywhere, but I am learning to live comfortably in the mess. Free from the constraints of my boxes, God seems bigger and more loving than ever, and the life and message of Jesus seems more real, relevant and fundamentally good.

The core message, or ‘Good News’ of Christianity that I learnt growing up went as follows:

God made people, people ‘sinned’ and went against God. God, being perfect and just, cannot stand sin and therefore must punish it with death and eternal torment. However, God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die and take the punishment for our sin so that we can go to heaven and be with God after we die. All we need to do to be saved is become a Christian, which means admitting that we are sinners bound for hell, believing that Jesus died for us and accepting him as our personal Lord and Saviour. Anyone who fails to do this will go to hell and be punished forever.

This message, or something like it, has been central to Christian teaching for a very large chunk of history, and it has only started to be seriously challenged in the last few decades. It is a message based on the threat of eternal punishment, and I would argue that it has survived in this form for so long largely because it is based on and fueled by fear. Questioning and doubting the core Christian beliefs has long been seen as a weakness, as “sinful”, so most people until fairly recently have followed along faithfully, interpreting any doubts as personal problems to be overcome or ignored.

As questioning religious beliefs has become more socially and culturally acceptable, many people have found their faith has been deconstructed to the point where they would no longer call themselves Christians, and have sought other ways to find meaning in life. Through all my own struggles with Christianity and church I have never been able to shake off the sense that there really must be more to life than what we see and experience – science alone cannot explain everything. The life and message of Jesus has continued to captivate me, and the more I have read and thought about it the more I have seen how much his message has been distorted, hijacked and misrepresented over the centuries, often with tragic consequences.

Well known Christian thinkers, speakers and writers who have moved into this new understanding of Christianity have come up against harsh criticism from other Christians. This is to be expected and I really can understand the desire to be conservative, to protect the strong framework of belief that has stood firm for so long. When your whole life and work has been built upon a particular belief system, it is a very unsettling, scary and unpleasant thing to see that system dismantled.

Those who have pioneered this rethinking process are often accused of not taking the Bible seriously. This thinking comes from people who read the Bible as if it were a scientific text book or an instruction manual for life – directly spoken from God to us, and therefore flawless and to be interpreted literally. With this mindset, taking the Bible seriously means taking individual passages, often entirely out of context, and applying them to our lives now. Theological discussions with people whose faith is based on this understanding of the Bible don’t get very far as the answer is always “because the Bible says so”. However, I am yet to meet anyone who takes the whole Bible seriously in this way – it is just not possible to interpret everything literally. So, whether they admit it or not, even the most conservative Christians have projected their own views and opinions onto the Bible, and are being selective about which parts to take seriously.

I have come to see the Bible as a family history – a rich and varied collection of texts spanning over a thousand years, telling the story of how God has interacted with people. It is written by many different people and includes eyewitness accounts, letters, poetry, songs and folklore, all inspired by people’s experiences of God. In understanding our family history, we gain a sense of who we are and who God is, and in that sense the Bible is sacred, useful and relevant today. With this understanding, taking individual verses and passages out of context and applying them to our lives makes no sense whatsoever. We need to understand the cultural background, the intention of the writer and what it would have meant to people at the time. When this is done seriously, it can often change the meanings entirely.

By taking bits of the Bible out of context and interpreting them literally, Christians have justified a whole range of atrocities and injustices that most of us would now consider to be completely wrong. The Crusades, slavery and the oppression of women are just a few examples. The overarching story of the Bible is one of love, hope and reconciliation, but by taking bits out of context we have managed to construct belief systems based on fear, guilt and oppression.

Having grown up interpreting the Bible in this literal manner, I now see it as at best narrowminded and misguided, and at worst downright dangerous. In my mind, viewing the Bible in this way is not taking it seriously enough.

The result of the deconstruction of my belief framework is that I am more passionate than ever about my Christian faith. For a while I felt like I was ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – in weeding out the bad bits I was also losing all the good, reassuring, comforting and inspiring aspects of my faith that had once been so central to my life. For a number of years, I was confused and angry, and church was a place of frustration and bitterness. I was mourning the loss of the security I had in my neat and tidy belief framework, whilst feeling frustrated that others weren’t thinking the same as me.

I now feel like I am “the other side of angry”, as a friend recently put it; I have regained the hope and security I once felt but the whole thing seems so much bigger and better, and makes so much more sense. The ‘Good News’ seems far, far better than it did before.

I feel that the Christian message as I was taught it massively and devastatingly missed the point, and I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to realise this.

My summary of this personal story is that the story is a story of wheat and tares held together on the way toward harvest. Amen.

Pentecost 6A 2017 Matthew 13:24-30

Don’t Weed!  Make Space To Heal…

We have just heard a story. A story – or parable – about wheat and weeds. A parable we have all heard many times and rather than dissect the parable in search of learning I want to take the genre and tell stories myself in the hope that from them we might discover learnings. The first is a story from New Zealand and specifically from a Children’s home.

Once upon a time there was a children’s softball team that inherited a tradition of losing almost all the games of a season. The other teams were supported each week by their parents, they had uniforms, coaching staff and it was clear that they had after school training. The kids from the home didn’t have a coach or uniforms and not all the staff turned up to support. The children were obviously talented, but untrained. Then one day a young man watched them stumble through practice. ‘Can I help?’ he asked them. By this time the team was ready to accept help from anyone.

‘You fellas are the best,’ he said.  ‘There’s no reason you can’t win the premiership. But you have to practice, you be confident in yourselves, and most of all you have to be good friends. ‘No more fighting among yourselves or with me if I’m going to be your unofficial coach’. The kids agreed.

The first thing the coach taught them was how be friends and play together with one another. Then he told them, training session after training session, how good they were. Finally he made them work, work, work. And you know what happened? They went on from there undefeated and won the premiership. When asked what had caused the turnaround in their fortunes they said; ‘He made us believe in ourselves’. The next year the parents hired a “real coach” and the team finished last on the ladder. (A Greeley web site).

What sort of story was that? It was nothing out of the ordinary. It was one we have heard before but was it a spiritual story. What makes it a spiritual story? Well maybe was because it not only critiqued and subverted the status quo, it also re-imagines a world that could be? It took hold of individualism and created community, it took competition and turned it into a force for identity, community and self-worth. What we need to be careful of however, is that in spiritualizing the story we risk making it a pious story either as an “earthly story with heavenly meanings” or seeing it only as a ‘nice story’. The challenge is to avoid what we do to many parables. We make them into simple stories with trite meanings. We often lift them out of their social and historical context and reshape them into theological or moralistic fables bereft of any political or economic edge or consequence. B Brandon Scott, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, and a student of the study of the parables, says: ‘The parables give us access to the way Jesus re-imagined the possibility of living, of being in the world.  They are not just religious, not just about God, although they are that too… they are multifaceted re-imaginings of life, of the possibilities of life’ (Scott 2001:6).

So he says that if we opt rather for the ‘critique’ and the ‘re-imagining’ then we will have grasped Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ purpose: which was to get his hearers to see the world differently. And that can be summed up in this phrase… God’s reign is not an, other-worldly proposition.

Just taking a brief glance at recent history we could say that the world is radically different since 11 September 2001 and we not be wrong. It might be simplistic to say that but we could understand why it is said. And one of those differences is perhaps evident as the great polarity that now exists between Christian and Muslim, Jew and Muslim, Hindu and Muslim. The daily news of suspected terrorist attacks – the enemy called ISIS and stories of nations banning some religious groups in favour of others all speak of this tension and the sad part about it is that it takes hope away and tries to convince us that human cleverness is about spying on the enemy, having the smartest weapons, and living in constant suspicion of strangers, and that this way of living can save us. Good healthy skepticism becomes suspicion and fear.

If this is the case then how do we as followers of the Jesus Way respond to this?

The first difficulty is that right now doesn’t seem to be a good time for hope, for reason, or for patience. Right now doesn’t seem to be a time to allow both ‘wheat’ (the good blokes) and ‘weeds’ (the bad blokes) to grow together. Right now one is seen as having worth. And the other is seen as being worthless.

Bill Loader makes a comment and it is that in this situation there is a sense that there is an enemy and this sense marks many societies, religious and otherwise.  It is almost as though we need an enemy, an, other, against whom to define ourselves.  Renee Gerard calls this a mimetic scapegoat, and this need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, even create enemies for our survival…  A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning.  There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’.  The simpler, the better.  This is the stuff of prejudice and sadly, Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’ (WLoader/web site).

I want to just spend a moment on this mimetic desire that the French thinker René Girard has helped us with. The argument is that, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. And just in case we want to blame others for everything we are reminded that the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the outcome most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each, others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus was on about in our text last week in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

And when it comes to community and society Girard reminds us that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us within and that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. The question we are left with by the challenge of the weeds in the wheat is, can we accept the yoke Jesus offers, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

I think Thomas Merton writes about the depth of this need for a scapegoat when he says:

Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly. God may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly and in that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural toil.

 Here, in the light of Matthew’s parable, Merton names our tendency to introduce toxins into our inner soil through our fear, anxiety, and selfishness. These toxins poison the seeds that God is sowing in our lives and inhibit our growth.  Secondly Merton indicates that there are big toxic systems of government, prejudice, and corruption that deeply affect us, and our inner soil, but that are also out of our direct control because these toxic systems are so large and pervasive.  But if we are to have any hope of redeeming these toxic systems, even in part, we must begin with tilling our own soil. As Mother Theresa also said, “Before you try to love the entire world, start by loving one other person.  You can save only one at a time.  We can love only one at a time.”

The Jesus of Matthew, in telling this parable, suggests an alternative to the norm in his time. But with our tendency to domesticate parables we can give Matthew’s point and circumstance less attention than it deserves. So what is Matthew’s circumstance? Possibly a division in the Syrian synagogue between those Jews who seek to follow the ‘way’ of Jesus and those who don’t. We reflect here that both early Christians and Muslims know of Jesus and give him an authority. And what is Matthew’s so-called ‘point’ of the story? He says Don’t weed!  Deal inclusively. And Why? Because it is in the midst of the mess of conflictive coexistence that God is also revealed. Not in some hypothetical situation where ‘good seed’ or ‘bone fide, truly Presbyterian Congregations’ or ‘real Christians’ – usually champions of right – grow in pure isolation. There is no such thing as that good seed or right-thinking exclusivity.

This does not suggest confrontation should be advocated or created. But it does mean that where there is confrontation: one must never cease to act graciously or to have compassion, never write people off, never uproot people in your mind or attitude by treating them as no longer of any worth. And let’s be honest here, that sort of inclusiveness in reality, can be somewhat difficult at times.

David Ranson an Australian Catholic priest in an article in the publication Eremos, on reconciliation, recorded a comment by the Buddhist Dalai Lama. When asked did he hate the Chinese, the Dalai Lama replied ‘no’. ‘He remarked that the Chinese were indeed dominant and that he had no possibility of overthrowing them by might.  Were he to hate them therefore no change would occur in the Chinese. But change would certainly occur within him.  His own heart would become more tense, bitter and rigid.  The only way forward then was to let go of the hateful feelings that might arise. In the space that ensued perhaps there was a greater possibility for peace’ (Ranson 2002:7).

This says that parables are in no way earthly stories with heavenly meanings, but what they are is earthly stories with heavy meanings? When one thinks about this, one has to say that such an approach fits better with what we believe about the Ministry of Jesus…There is a possible alternative and it is not adversarial nor is it passive. It is inclusive of all, aware of all and different from all else. Amen.

Notes: Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.

Pentecost 5A, 2017 Matthew 11:25-30

  New Habits Of Seeing and Doing..

Last week I talked about the need for us to shift our thinking in terms of our images of God. How do we talk about a non-theistic, non-supernatural God in a world where truth is an indication of uncertainty as opposed to certainty, a world where the planet earth image has moved from a large singularity in the galaxy into being just one place among millions and that human consciousness, specifically the minds part in it, is about a level of co-creative birthing of reality and that reality is a work in progress. A daunting, exciting opportunity or the herald of an immanent end of all things. This week I want to say the same thing in a different way. I want still to acknowledge that in the old language of faith, God is separated from us. God is a master, a king, a supernatural being, separated from common or ordinary folk. And that as a result, much of our own understanding until recently, was influenced by this kingly and removed character of God. This way of thinking is often called ‘neo-orthodoxy’. And I want to say that when we examine the language of Jesus in our context, we see that God is liberated from this kind of thinking. And so are common or ordinary people. This leberation is for me the gospel in a nutshell. The Jesus’ ‘yoke’ enabled the invisible people to be liberated,- those who didn’t know the law or were poor, landless peasants – to stand up, to be counted, to be seen as having value. And as such, to be preserved. This is the timeless gospel and it is our invitation as 21st century Christians.

I want now to tell you a story that says something about this gospel timelessness. There was a parish minister in Chile who was distributing food for the poor of his village. At the time it was a village caught in the crossfire of civil war and he was distributing the food which he had been given by friends in North America. He was arrested for doing this and sent to a prison in Santiago. The prison was overcrowded.  There were about 150 men were living there in a room that wasn’t big enough to let them all lie down at the same time. The parish minister took over the role of chaplain and held daily devotions and bible study for his fellow-prisoners.

It came time for his release and just before that took place the other prisoners wrote their names on his back with burnt matches. It was November and the weather was warm and as he left the compound he was fortunate enough not to be stripped and searched. So when he turned up at the local Peace Committee meeting most of the names – names of people who were listed as having ‘disappeared’ – were still legible. The men had returned; their names being written with burnt matches on a prisoner’s back. The hour of silence was at an end… The names written in black charcoal, became signs of hope. And this hope was a hope which could not be blotted out by the threat of torture, The names had already faced that fear and persisted. Nor was it a hope erased by the terror of silence or even by the softer terror of oblivion. The names had had already survived that assault.

There are many other such events in our own Western history which tell of one group seeking to devalue or enslave or silence, another group. One perhaps in our Scottish tradition as Presbyterians was the Disarming Act of 1746 which outlawed anyone in defined parts of Scotland from having in his or their custody, use or bearing of, a broad sword or targe, poignard, whinger or durk, side pistol, gun or other warlike weapon, unless authorised.

This disarming of the highland clans was followed that same year by the Act of Proscription known also as ‘the dress act’, which read….

That from and after the first day of August, One thousand, seven hundred and forty-six, no man or boy within that part of Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as Officers and Soldiers in His Majesty’s Forces, shall, on any pretext whatever, wear or put on the clothes commonly called Highland clothes (that is to say) the Plaid, Philabeg, or little Kilt, Trowse, Shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of what peculiarly belongs to the Highland Garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff shall be used for Great Coats or upper coats, and if any such person shall presume after the said first day of August, to wear or put on the aforesaid garment or any part of them, every such person so offending … For the first offence, shall be liable to be imprisoned for 6 months, and on the second offence, to be transported to any of His Majesty’s plantations beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years.

This act had significant impact on the clans as dress was the main symbol of distinction and difference for a family, tribe or community and its outlawing went straight to one’s identity. For 36 years before the Dress Act was repealed thousands of men were transported. Many to Tasmania. Others were transported for bearing arms and for other reasons and between the years of 1803 to 1853 it is thought that 160,000 people were sentenced to transportation to Australia and these people ranged in age from a nine year old chimney sweep to an 82 year old woman. An horrific story of people who we devalued, imprisoned. silenced. And thus offered no hope!

This morning Matthew’s ‘socially-active’ Jesus story, reminds us that Jesus would have none of that. And neither should we. Matthew’s Jesus stands opposed to the common belief of his day that God loved some and not others. That some people had rights and others did not. That some people had value and others did not. That some people mattered and others did not. We cannot escape the challenge that in our own economic climate this is the case for many today. The God of Jesus, Matthew seems to be saying, does not saddle anyone with that kind of yoke. As with the challenge last week we are being invited to acquire new habits of seeing, and new habits of being… beyond the stained-glass images of an almighty benevolent God or a ‘meek and mild’ Jesus, we are to keep on liberating. To keep on naming the lost, the disadvantaged and the oppressed. To keep on supporting, nurturing and tending one another, with compassion. In other words to be signs of hope.

In our text Matthew is concerned about the real. How can you tell a true prophet from a false one?  Matthew says you can tell by their “fruit,” by what they do and what they produce (7: 15).  In today’s lection, God’s wisdom, which created the world, is justified by Jesus’ actual “works” in the world.

A translation of the text from verse 25 to 30 is as follows:  In that time, Jesus answered (and) said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you hid these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to children.  Yes, Father, for in this manner gracious purpose happened before you.  All things have been delivered over to me by my father.  And no one knows the Son except the Father, (and) no one knows the Father except the Son and to whomever the Son might wish to reveal.”

“Come to me, all the ones who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and you will find rest for your lives, for my yoke is lovingkindness and my burden is light.”

The few verses left out of the lectionary I think give some context to the afore mentioned and perhaps even to the extent of their plight when they express condemnation toward cities which opposed the Jesus movement–Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum. The hiddenness being why some would oppose the movement and a suggestion that such opposition could contribute to the plight of those who engage in such activity.

In the face of this opposition, however, we have a kairotic moment.  “At that time,” Matthew says.  The word for time here is kairos, which means special time, the important moment, the time of God.  In a moment of special revelation, Jesus speaks.

He says I thank you and the words uses are not just an act of gratitude but convey a sense of celebration and joyous affirmation. In essence he is saying, “I give and am being given joyous affirmation of the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth.” “For you have hidden these things from the wise–sofown–and intelligent, and revealed–apocalypto–them to children.”  True wisdom, as we have seen, issues in following the Way of Jesus.  This way has been “hidden” from those who are “wise and intelligent,” but “revealed” to the insignificant.

Again here we are being reminded of the historical ministry of Jesus.  He was leading a non-violent peasant-based movement–a “childrens’ crusade,” after a certain manner of speaking–and he was opposed by the rich and powerful.  It is also apparently true for the community of Matthew in AD 80.  At that time it is still a peasant-based movement.

Despite the opposition they face, the sense of Jesus’ speech is joyous.  “All things have been delivered over to me by my Father,” he says.  The “Lord of heaven and earth” has delivered over “all”–panta, everything, the entire universe and everything in it–to Jesus. Jesus then goes on to say that “no one knows the son except the father, and no one knows the father except the son.”  The word “know” is ginosko, which means intimate knowledge.  The challenge here is to note that this kind of exalted, mystical “knowing” is reminiscent of the fourth gospel, and so we are asked if the author of the fourth gospel was somehow acquainted with the author of Matthew?

This close identification of son and father comes to human beings by revelation–“to whomever the son reveals.”  As in the fourth gospel, the intimate knowledge between Father and Son is not exclusive to the Father and the Son, but may also be shared with the children.  From that position, Jesus issues his appeal: “Come to me”:  The closing two verses are unique to Matthew, though there is a passage that is vaguely similar in Sirach (51: 26-27).  As noted above, there is a partial parallel in Thomas, verse 90. Most of our translations seem to over-spiritualize this passage.  Jesus is specifically addressing those who are over-worked and carrying a heavy load.  In first century Israel, that group consisted of poor people in a condition of political and religious oppression. He encourages them to take up his “yoke.”  “Yoke” was a common image for Torah and the Mosaic Law.  Instead of Torah, however, we are encouraged to take up Jesus’ yoke and “learn” from him.  (The word is mathete, from which comes the word for “disciple.”)  The “yoke” of Jesus is to learn his Way and follow it.  In marked contrast to earthly rulers, both political and religious, Jesus is “meek and lowly of heart.” The NRSV adds “and you will find rest for your souls.”  The problem with that addition is that for many it sounds too pious and too passive for the Greek which appears also in verse 28, and means not only rest, but sabbath rest, the kind of rest that puts a person on the road to recovery.  It has a sense not only of rest, but also refreshment.

Also, one of the Greek words refers to the essence of a person’s life.  It is more than “soul,” which, in any case, calls to mind images more related to Greek philosophy than Christian theology, which was almost surely not Matthew’s intent.  Another perhaps more accurate translation might be “…and you will find rest for your lives…”  Following the Way of Jesus—through open table fellowship, etc.–will set you on a path of true life. “For my yoke is lovingkindness.”  The word lovingkindness is a way of pulling together the concepts expressed in the Greek –“goodness, benevolence, pleasant, worthy, loving, kind,” or, even better, “active benevolence in spite of ingratitude.” Lovingkindness seems to capture all that. The claim here is that this truly wonderful text should not be pietized into worship of Jesus as if he were some kind of idol.  It thoroughly intends to encourage people along the Way of Jesus, to “learn” that Way and follow it, from which will come a truer and better life.

It is also a claim that egalitarian living is “lighter” than heirarchical living.  Living in light of the freedom and dignity of every person, and especially the poor, is not a “burden” but is, in fact, the way of true rest and true refreshment. The inference is that this is what counts as the gospel. This is what constitutes having wisdom. Jesus did that in his time.  We are invited to do no less today. To go on the journey which he first chartered and re-imagine the kingdom or realm of God from the perspective of gospel compassion and hospitality rather than biblical law/ In our day “to be a disciple of Jesus”, writes 1960s radical theologian Harvey Cox, “means not to emulate or mimic him but to follow his ‘way’, to live in our era the same way he lived in his – as a sign and servant of the reign of God.” And then there is the most important revelation of all “To follow Jesus requires us not to choose 12 disciples or to turn water into wine but to take his life project – the making the coming of God’s reign of Shalom real and immediate – making it our own” (Cox 1998/Religion-online).

Liberating people for this Way keeps alive the dream and presentness of God in the ordinary, be they the people in the transportation cells of Tasmania, the prison cells of Chile or the poor of Auckland. Be they the political demonizing of opposing points of view in government or industrial relations, left verses right or unions verses employers, or in places with asylum seekers. This is the call of the gospel and the challenge of our everyday.

Notes: Solle, D. Choosing Life. London. SCM Press, 1981.