An Alternative to Revenge

Posted: August 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

An Alternative to Revenge

Genesis 45: 1-15,   Matthew 15: 21-28

Over the last two weeks we have been following the story of Joseph and we have been focusing on the blessing that comes after the struggle, and the consequences of the blessing being communal, collective and systemic in nature. We are all interconnected and so our blessing affects others and ultimately changes the world. Today we revisit the story reminding ourselves that his story speaks of hatred, kidnapping, plots to commit murder, being sold into slavery… In reminding ourselves we are not surprised that with all these things happening to somebody, that it would be logical in most cases to see an opportunity for an act of vengeance against those responsible for causing one’s problems. In Genesis 45, Joseph is finally in a position where he could get revenge on his brothers for everything they have done to him…. The position is that they urgently need Joseph, but Joseph certainly does not need them! The Pharaoh’s dream of famine has become a reality and, thanks to Joseph’s interpretation of this dream, Egypt has an abundance of grain. But rather than seize this golden opportunity to take revenge on his brothers, Joseph, instead, chooses to provide for them and their families in their time of need.

Despite having been treated like dirt and subjected to a catalogue of pain and suffering, Joseph chooses to receive his brothers, embrace them and forgive them. Here in Genesis 45, we are presented with the culmination of Joseph’s rags to riches story as well as a powerful example of forgiveness. We also read of how God used the despicable actions of Joseph’s brothers to pave a way for Joseph’s involvement in the birth of the nation of Israel. If we read on to Genesis 50, we learn that Joseph understands now that his brothers’ actions were ‘intended to harm him, but God intended it for good to accomplish what then being done, the saving of many lives’ (Gen 50:20).

Today we also read from Matthew where we learn of what has been called, The Scandal of the Gospels, “The Pharisees and the Canaanite Woman,” Some lectionaries give the option of including the story of the Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees before his encounter with the Canaanite woman. In that story Jesus says offensive things to the Pharisees, too, but we don’t generally blink an eye at that anymore. For Jesus’ original audience it would have been the other way around: they would have been very uncomfortable with the offensive things Jesus said to the Pharisees, and they wouldn’t have blinked an eye at what he said to the Canaanite woman. The thing is that when we read these two stories together we find quite a contrast: The Pharisees are offended; the Canaanite woman is not offended. The stark contrast is revelatory, for the opposite of offense is faith, but the only way to faith is through the possibility of offense…. The central issue is offense versus faith. And it is posed in a highly offensive way: pious and law-abiding Pharisees lack faith, and a Gentile dog has great faith. What Jesus said to John the Baptist’s disciples in Matthew 11:6 broods over this narrative as a kind of suspended challenge to the characters in the text and to readers of the text: ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’ (p. 19)

To gauge the seriousness of this we note that Matthew uses the same word ‘Skandalon’ or as we have said “offense” 19 out of all occurrences with a heavy concentration of it in the middle section. Brian D McLaren in a section from his book ‘Everything Must Change, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope’ makes a similar suggestion. In the section ‘A Radical Assessment of Jesus and the chapter entitled ‘Joining the Peace Insurgency’ he brings in this troubling story of Jesus and the “Canaanite” woman, to undertake the postmodern task of recovering the anti-imperialist readings of the Bible. He begins this piece by saying that, we are in the early stages of a radical reassessment of Jesus. More and more of us realize how religious communities can be complicit with imperial narratives and edit their version of Jesus to fit their narrative. Just look at the colour of Jesus skin in most western images. More and more of us understand Jesus’ life and message as being centered on the articulation and demonstration of a radically different framing story. Most of us now believe that the Jesus story is one that critiques and exposes the imperial narrative as dangerous to itself and others. One could even say that the popularity of facebook and all social media are examples of an attack on empire. More and more of us are discovering a fresh vision of a Jesus who seems less moody, irrational, and bipolar, and more consistent, focused, courageous, subversive, and brilliant. Along with the knowing less about him historically comes the more detail of his message.

Obviously, in this emerging reading phrases like “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), : “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), and “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52) are deeply significant. But in this alternative reading, many other stories of Jesus take on a powerful new luminosity as well, charged with mystery and wonder and dynamism in stark contrast to imperial narratives and counternarratives. It is no longer good enough to accept the simple ideologically driven narrative. We know more keenly that life is not like that. It is complex and fluid and subject to perception at the time.

A prime example would be Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28), which has been read provocatively by Grant LeMarquand. (pp. 154-55) where he says that the key to seeing that Matthew might be doing something different here is that he changes Mark’s “Syro-Phoenician” woman to a “Canaanite” woman, which is an anachronistic term in the first century, like calling a modern Norwegian person a Viking. But “Canaanite” fits well to the time of Joshua and his conquest of the Promised Land.

Is Matthew’s Jesus reconstituting that conquest? McLaren has an engaging reading of 15:21-28 itself, but the overall clue as to reconstituting conquest appears through what comes next in Matthew’s story of Jesus: healing of Gentile crowds (Matthew tells us they are Gentiles by remarking that “they praised the God of Israel”; Matt. 15:31) and then a repeat of the miraculous feeding. In the first feeding with Jews (14:13-21), there is a hint of reconstitution by the gathering of twelve baskets leftover, for the twelve tribes of Israel.

In the second feeding with Gentiles (15:32-38), there are seven baskets leftover. If we look for a similar symbolism of reconstitution, we might look to the time of the “Canaanites.” As the people of Israel stand poised for conquest of that land, Moses says to them: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)


In the first encounter with the seven nations of “Canaanites,” they are to show no mercy. But Matthew’s Jesus has come to teach them something different, to learn what this means, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (with Matthew’s Jesus twice quoting Hosea 6:6 in Matt. 9:13 and 12:7). McLaren concludes: “If Jesus’ first feeding miracle and its twelve-basket surplus suggest a reconstitution of the twelve tribes being led through the wilderness with a new kind of manna, then this second feeding miracle suggests a new kind of conquest — not with swords and spears, but with bread and fish; not to destroy, but to serve and heal. Here, Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out, and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past. (p. 158)

This reconstituting relationships with Gentiles begins with the encounter with the “Canaanite” woman, who seems to remind Jesus of what the promise to Abraham and Sarah is really all about. She doesn’t begrudge Jesus the fact of his mission with his own people who have lost their way (Jesus himself calling them “lost sheep”). But she knows that if he is successful with his own people in helping them to find their way again, that she will at least receive scraps from their table. For the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Sarah is not for Jews to be blessed for their own sake but that they might become a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). One might also see this as the suggestion by McLaren that the task is to move beyond believing the faith as a way to the afterlife and move to practicing the faith in ways that make a difference in the here and now.

We might also note here is that the Matthew 15 Jesus is reconstituting Joshua’s conquest of Canaan with healing and food for the hungry instead of militaristic genocide. Jesus and Joshua are the same name, the latter translated into English directly from the original Hebrew and the former filtered through the Greek translation. In short, Matthew 15 is a contrast between the conquering styles of these two Joshua’s. Grammatically, it is said we can see this reading as the subjective reading of the genitive where Jesus is the conqueror. But there is also the objective reading where Jesus is the conquered. In fact, it may be that it is not just the woman who is converted, but Jesus himself. In the midst of his testing of this woman, Jesus’ attitude appears to shift. She is at first a non-entity; she is ignored. Next she is addressed, but Jesus’ words to her are simply an explanation of her exclusion (‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,’ 15:24). Finally, Jesus hears the faith behind her plea, grants her request, and heals her daughter (15:28). It appears that Jesus has been turned; he has been confronted with and has learned the meaning of his own teaching concerning ‘mercy’ The story of the Canaanite woman is a story of Jesus’ own “conversion.” In this narrative the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.

Is this an either/or? Do we have to choose between a Jesus who knowingly goes into Gentile land as a different kind of conqueror than the Joshua of roughly fourteen centuries earlier, thus playing games with Canaanite woman whom he foreknows to have faith? Or is the choice a Jesus who is taught a lesson by this Canaanite woman and then puts it to use right away in Gentile territory? Or is there a third choice that is not about reading it as either active or passive, as inflicting violence or suffering violence, but rather about actively choosing to suffer violence rather than inflict it, (as in ‘turning the other cheek’).

“The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus” isn’t simply between Jesus as either the conqueror or the conquered. The distinctive third option would be both: Jesus is first and foremost a conqueror by purposefully letting himself be ‘conquered’. So, yes, Jesus does enter into the conversation foreknowing that this woman’s faith is up to the test. But instead of flaunting this foreknowledge, or intuition, he lets himself look like an abuser. He lets the tables be turned so that, in an act of faith (not violence), “the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite,”. The ultimate turning of the tables — a “subversion from within,” is to subvert the entire process of conquering by letting oneself be conquered. And, as with the cross and resurrection, this conquering immediately shows itself as the power to heal and nourish in the subsequent episodes of Matthew 15 — namely, the power of God’s merciful love.

What happens here is that our experience of God is reconstituted. Instead of a god who shows no mercy through the first Joshua, we meet a God of mercy through a new Joshua, who shows forth that mercy, first of all, through the willingness to suffer violence rather than inflict it, and then, second of all, as the true power of life itself, rather than of death — namely, through the power to heal the sick and nourish a crowd.

Matthew’s version of this story makes a confession: Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed, to nurture and protect life rather than take it.

Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past, and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us toward a better vision of kindness, reconciliation, and peace for our future and for our children’s future.

Matthew’s calling the woman a Canaanite was an anachronism that recalled Israel’s historical relationship with this people, in much the same way that calling a contemporary Danish woman a Viking would invoke ten centuries of history for us. Jesus would have grown up absorbing his people’s tradition that the Canaanites were the worst of enemies, enemies to be exterminated by the likes of Joshua, enemies who were periodic oppressors of Israel in the period of the Judges. Worst of all, Canaanites were dangerous because they tempted the Israelites to forsake their God in favor of their idols and sacrificial practices. Mark gave the woman the more up-to-date designation of a Syrophoenician. This meant she was a member of the oppressing class of the Roman Empire, which made victims of the Jews. Starting from early childhood, Jesus would have taken in this adversarial relationship before he knew what had possessed him. With this cultural inheritance, it is understandable, if not commendable, that Jesus would speak harshly to a Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman who came to him for help. Many commentators try to get out of this difficulty by suggesting that Jesus was just testing the woman. That is possible but I would like to follow up the ramifications of accepting the plain sense of this story.

The Canaanite woman’s retort is justly famous for its cleverness and humility, qualities that make her words subversive. Jesus seems as amazed by her faith as he is by the faith of the centurion who asked him to heal his servant. (Mt. 8:10) That the woman asked for the deliverance of a daughter possessed by a demon may have aroused Jesus’ sympathy. The Gerasene Demoniac had shown Jesus how a dysfunctional culture can possess a person and need to be exorcized. That this woman wanted her daughter delivered of the demon possessing her own culture would alert Jesus of the need to eject the demon of hatred of the Canaanites that had possessed his own culture. This understanding of the story has Jesus modeling the ability and willingness to overcome an ancestral enmity by listening deeply to the reality of a person in need so that she ceases to be an enemy. We desperately need to learn to follow this kind of example offered by Jesus today. Especially it seems when we perceive that we are on the brink of a third world war. What is all this violence if not the attempt to impose empire on one another. Is there not another way? Amen.



‘A New Perspective’

Posted: August 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

‘A New Perspective’

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28       Matthew 14:22-33

Last week’s readings were about the blessing found beyond personal suffering. The claim that even the most disastrous person circumstances are overcome by God’s blessing. This week’s readings take this a further step in that they are about God’s safekeeping of fallible, wayward, and mortal humanity. Here is the presence of God’s grace for the collective, the community and the nation, in fact for humanity in the big picture. At the individual level God responds to all who call upon God. God in fact desires to save persons in distress; in this we can trust or have faith. This week however we need to ponder the circuitous routes of salvation or wholeness and the reality that not all prayers for deliverance appear to be answered – violence still takes the lives of innocents, often through the machinations of religious zealots; young children still die of cancer; homes are still foreclosed forcing families to depend on the mercy of strangers; and pleas for rescue from domestic violence still go unnoticed. In the bigger picture these can be discarded as just a biological reality or a human animalistic reality but I want to explore this bigger picture, seeking a third way that is in the collective, in the humanity picture because I think this trust or faith takes on a new dimension there.

We are again reminded of Jacob and his family in this week’s Hebraic scripture reading. We are again reminded of this dysfunctional family, headed by a narcissistic parent. Perhaps, Jacob can’t help it; but the child of his later years is his favourite. He treats him with greater affection and gives him more opportunities to shine and grow than his brothers, and they are rightfully angry. Perhaps, Jacob sees himself in his youngest son; and Joseph has an intuitive sense that mirrors his father’s experiences of the Holy and a cocky attitude that mirrors his own youthful self-confidence. Some of Josephs later arrogance highlights this. To make matters worse, Joseph knows he is the favourite, and lacks the maturity to filter his dream-sharing as they relate to his brothers.

The brothers conspire to kill the favoured son. But, they don’t go through with it, instead selling him into slavery which appears preferable to killing him. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that God’s aim in any given situation is the “best for that impasse” and this “best” may not always be very good. Contextually, sometimes our level of previous choices, spiritual maturity and ethical understanding limits our possible courses of action. Sometimes no truly ‘good’ decision is possible; simply the least damaging one. This again highlights the application of individualism to all things. Sometimes it doesn’t fit, and we need another dimension. Justice for the individual is sometimes in conflict with justice for the collective.

Jacob survives and eventually saves his family. He grows through his experiences and overcomes his alienation. “In all things God works for good,” as Paul notes in Romans 8. God was moving through this less than optimal decision to bring forth future decisions and actions by Jacob, such that what his brothers aimed for as revenge or an act of evil evil, God turned to good. (Genesis 50:20) While not agreeing to the interventionist God assumptions we can recognize the evolutional reality here.

When we go to Psalm 105 from our lectionary readings we find it is a hymn to God’s deliverance of Israel. God is at work in the details of lives, large and small, to secure people’s well-being. God’s rescue and ongoing inspiration of Joseph enabled the Israelites to flourish in the centuries ahead. Simplistically we can say God chooses all, but works in each person’s life to realize God’s Shalom in our world. Here again we have the inference that the part of the individual has a collective element to it. We are never alone even when we think we are. Our revenge has consequences that are not simply a solely focused outcome. The act is always consequentially far reaching. God’s Shalom is not just ours.

To add to this from our Romans readings we recall the saying that; “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” We know that this passage has led to a variety of interpretations, some of which implied that God only loved some of God’s children, predestined others to damnation, or that those who don’t explicitly believe are left out of God’s plan and will suffer the consequences of divine abandonment. The passage raises many possible interpretations, inclusive and exclusive in nature. It can and has been viewed primarily as a doctrinal litmus test, defining those who are in or out, but it can be viewed more inclusively, if taken in its fullest context, the salvation of both Jew and Gentile. It can be interpreted holistically to embrace the confession of our lives as well as our words and this lifts it from just a reasoned basis.

While we can’t fully ascertain Paul’s exact intention, the passage seems to say that salvation and wholeness are for all people and all nations and not exclusive to religious and ethnic Jews. This is a radical statement that challenges any parochial images of God or divine favoritism because it claims that God favours all people. Moreover, all who call upon God will be saved. Any who ask for divine help, even if they lack words or theology, will be welcomed into God’s realm. This again is an expansion of the individual call and the promise.

Again, this is also the claim like that which Paul makes; that faith and action go together. As the Quakers say, “let your life speak.” Our lives are our testimonies to our faith. Apart from love, doctrine is lifeless; faith without works is dead; doctrine without welcome is destructive. We might also say yes and when we confess our faith in our daily living we change the world. When we do good, wonders happen that are not personal or limited to just who we are but rather they change nations directions, they transform communities and it doesn’t even stop there.

This week’s gospel begins with Jesus at prayer. Here we have action leading to contemplation in the rhythm of faith and personal well-being. After transforming – by what means we don’t know – after transforming, which appears as an act of the individual’s effort, something new emerges, something huge takes place, a few loaves and fish become a banquet and a day of preaching and teaching, Jesus then retires to a quiet place to commune with God. It is important and true that our worship involves the private aspects of faith but it also requires the public connection. We need to gather as a community and to reach out to the world; we also need to be still and listen for God’s voice in stillness, in the still small voice, as well as maelstrom of daily events.

From silence Jesus goes into action, riding the waves to meet his followers. Once again, they are afraid of the storm. Jesus reassures them that all will be well, inspiring Peter to jump out of the boat. As long as Peter looks to Jesus, he can walk on water. The moment he is overcome by fear, he sinks. When he cries out, seeking salvation, Jesus rescues him, without judgment or recrimination. “Help” or “Save me” are sometimes triggers to the all-important vulnerability that keeps us true and faith-filled. Today’s readings invite us to look to God for our salvation, deliverance, and wholeness. Here again this is more than belief. more than a therapy of comfort. It is not about blindly accepting an idea and moving on. When we keep our eyes on the human Jesus, we gain perspective on life and see the storms and trials of life in terms of the collective and communal movements in our lives and not expect the impossible infallibility of our individualistic efforts. We are never alone. In traditional language, our prayers touch the heart of God, and receive God’s response in the midst of life’s often challenging and difficult moments. Opening to our God gives us an understanding of the nature of reality and a way of approaching that reality especially in situations we cannot change.

I want to summarize what I think I am arguing for by getting a bit technical because as always, I want to try to place my argument in the realm of philosophy and science as well as the biblical story. I try this because I am convinced that all things must gel for us to be on the right path. Or in other words all thinking needs to be inclusive of the whole or at least critiqued by it. I want to quote something from Peter Todd’s book The Individuation of God because I think it helps with a picture of the cosmic, complete co-creative relationship between God and Man. And it provides I think the argument that consciousness in a collective form is as Todd puts it the organizing principle. To help with this it might be seen that Teilhard de Chardin saw this clearly when he saw that evolution has become both conscious of itself and directed, manifesting the very self-organizing mechanisms that sustain its upward and forward movement.

An example of this perhaps is that when someone like a friend of St David’s loves the old brick building so much as to pour copious amounts of energy or dollars into saving it, it is not just about the building. It is not just limited to the way in which each brick clings to another. There is a symbolic meaning that is encoded in the structure as a whole that transcends any understanding of the composition of the bricks and mortar. Thats why the ‘must be saved’ becomes the ‘will be saved’. It is a historical and theological belief encoded as information in its structure. A friend of St David’s might be deluded when it comes to their theological justification but they are not unconscious. As Pribam puts it ‘Through consciousness we become related to each other and to the biological and physical universe and just as gravity relates material bodies so consciousness relates sentient bodies.

Just to leap off again, this suggests to me that the whole seemingly frightening world of artificial intelligence, of robots that think and play like humans is not knew. It is merely another manifestation of this God, human relationship, even if perhaps there is still some way to go to understand what our being human really is. And to go back to an earlier sermon and my suggestion about the so-called demise of the church and of religion as just a further evolution of this God man relationship, engaging in a more collective realm like that of the collective consciousness.

To suggest another example to hopefully explain what I mean we might suggest that this more than the individual, this sense of a collective consciousness is sadly challenged by the heritage people who just want to save a building because it has aesthetic merit, not because that is bad but rather because it is a limited approach. It is an attempt to cling to classic physics and ideas that are no longer adequate treatment of the phenomena of what we understand life and consciousness to be today. In fact to do this in a post quantum mechanical era such indulgences are both scientifically slothful and deceitful, because quantum laws demand an internalist understanding of matter and in particular life and Biosystems. In other words what we know about the place of buildings in human life is distorted when we only see bricks and mortar.

Like the blessing Jacob receives beyond all his behaviour and his view of life there is a collective dimension, a collective consciousness, where no one is alone, no one is abandoned, no one is isolated but rather interdependent, interrelated and this is a place of co-creation, a place where science and religion are one, and as Todd might say a place where there is the individuation of God and I would argue a place where we are at one with our God. Amen.

Dark Struggles, Divine Blessings:

Genesis 32:22–31     Matthew 14:13–21

Jacob was a man on the run. Deep-seated family hostilities characterized Jacob’s entire life. Jacob and his fraternal twin Esau grew up hating each other and he also swindled Esau of his family birthright, which entitled him to a double share of the family inheritance. Later, he and Rebekkah lied and connived to swindle the family blessing from his blind and dying father. When Esau threatened to murder him, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban in Haran, the very place his grandfather Abraham had departed. Jacob married his cousins Rachel and Leah, and eventually fathered thirteen children with them and their two slaves, Zilpah and Bilhah. But it doesn’t end there.

Sick of his father-in-law’s manipulations, Jacob fled Laban, only to encounter his long lost and embittered brother Esau. Jacob the consummate deal-maker, concocted a bribe and sent a caravan of gifts along with his women and children across the river Jabbok. Perhaps that would pacify his brother’s murderous threats? Physically exhausted and deeply anxious about Esau, alone in the desert wilderness, shorn of all his considerable worldly possessions, powerless to control his fate, Jacob collapsed into a deep sleep on the banks of the Jabbok River. With Laban behind him and Esau before him, he was too spent to struggle any longer.

But only then did his real struggle begin. Fleeing his family history had been bad enough; wrestling with God Himself was a different matter altogether. During that long, lonesome night an angelic stranger visited Jacob. They wrestled throughout the night until daybreak, at which point the stranger crippled Jacob with a blow to his hip that disabled him with a limp for the rest of his life. By then Jacob knew what had happened: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared” he says. (Genesis 32:30). In the process, Jacob the Deceiver, for such is the meaning of “Jacob,” received a new name, Israel, which likely means “He struggles with God.” Most important and unlikely of all, at the conclusion of that riverbank struggle, we read that God “blessed him there” (Genesis 32:29).

In our culture at large, the myths of success, achievement, and certainty, live large. We celebrate wealth, power, strength, bravado, confidence, prestige and victory, beginning with sport at all levels, schools at certain deciles and jobs of prestige and income levels. Our first job, our first home. We abhor and fear weakness, failure, struggle, and doubt. One homeless person can create a reaction based in fear far greater than someone who rents a hovel. At least they are trying to better themselves we say of the renter as if it is somehow better status to live in a hovel than it is to live on the street. Even though we know that a measure of vulnerability, fear, discouragement and depression accompany most normal lives, we construe these extreme examples of life as signs of failure or even a lack of faith. In real life, naieve optimism and the rosy rhetoric about the state of achievement are a recipe for disappointment and discouragement. Sooner or later reality catches up with most of us. There but for the grace of God go I we say, as a way of countering the fact that the myth of achievement is fragile and suspect.

The Jacob story jerks us back to reality as well. Frederick Buechner characterizes Jacob’s divine encounter at Jabbok as the “magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” Similarly, in her book Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope, the Benedictine nun and writer Joan Chittister uses the Jacob story as a paradigm for a “spirituality of struggle.” In Jacob’s story she identifies eight elements of our human struggle — change, isolation, darkness, fear, powerlessness, vulnerability, exhaustion, and scarring. Did not Paul himself describe being “harassed at every turn — conflicts without, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5)? But God does not leave us there, says Chittister, and in each human struggle there is a corresponding divine gift available to us — conversion, independence, faith, courage, surrender, limitations, endurance, and transformation. “Jacob does what all of us must do,” writes Chittister, “if, in the end, we too are to become true. He confronts in himself the things that are wounding him, admits his limitations, accepts his situation, rejoins the world, and moves on.”

The end result of the nocturnal struggle for this cheater and liar was God’s blessing: “God blessed Jacob there” (32:29). When you read further in Jacob’s story these twin themes of dark struggles accompanied by divine blessing continue to be intertwined. His daughter Dinah was raped. Two of his sons, Reuben and Judah, committed incest. As if to mimic his own parents who favored him over his twin brother Esau, Jacob played favorites with his own son Joseph, sewing seeds of fraternal enmity for all. And yet, God renewed the covenant with him. “God appeared to him again and blessed him” (35:9). Late in life he reminisced, “God almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there He blessed me” (48:3).


Contrary to cultural propaganda about the place of achievement, the human struggle is never easy, and certainly not the struggle with God. But the struggle is never devoid of divine presence and blessing. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis reminds us that the divine-human struggle is neither tidy nor tame, but it is still one we can live with confidence. Susan and Lucy ask Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to describe Aslan (Lewis’s representation of Jesus). They ask if Aslan is a man. Mr. Beaver replies. “Aslan a man? Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion– the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Jacob’s struggle at Jabbok reminds us of this truth, that God is good, but not safe. We may well struggle with God through the night, but by daybreak God only intends to bless us.

And to leap to our new testament reading we first need to resist the temptation to call Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand a miracle. Not as a way of theologically skirting around miracles because there are in fact everyday miracles in life, but rather as a way of not missing the others in the text.

While we can debate whether Jesus suspended the natural order to feed the five thousand or whether his example merely prompted the crowd to share what it already had, these weren’t the concerns of the earliest Christians. Rather the wonders Jesus performed were, as John is most consistently adamant about, always signs of the character of the God whose presence Jesus seems to bear.

Which is what brings us to the first of two miracles described in this story that are anything but pedestrian: the point isn’t what Jesus does, but why. Because the character of the God Jesus reveals and represents is captured in a single word, “compassion.” Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him he had compassion on them. And so he healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came and they found themselves without food, he fed them.

Notice, before going further in the story, the context of this scene. It begins with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The thing Jesus just heard about was John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod at a feast. The juxtaposition couldn’t be more ironic, or powerful. One moment Matthew invites us to focus on one more episode from the “lifestyles of the rich and shameless” and in the next he fastens our attention on a scene portraying poor, sick, and hungry crowds looking for relief. Matthew is indicating by these contrasting scenes just what kind of God Jesus represents.

In the first century, gods aren’t normally supposed to care about people like the crowds. The gods of the ancient philosophers, for instance, were considered dispassionate and so were regularly referred to by cozy names like “the Unmoved Mover” or “First Cause.” At the other end of the spectrum, the gods of the Greek and Roman empires were notorious for using humans as playthings and for ordering the world to their whims. At best, gods were supposed to take the side of the rich and powerful, to stand with people like Herod and his well-fed party guests, sanctioning their exploitation of the poor and even the bloody murder of a truth-teller like John. They were definitely not known for siding with the oppressed, the ordinary, the downtrodden, or the hungry. The prosperity gospel has been around a long time it seems.

And yet that’s what happens here, as Jesus renews, embodies, and fulfills the consistent call of the God of Israel to feed the hungry. We recall that this was no minor endeavour, as what we now call “food scarcity” wasn’t only known in the ancient world, it was rampant. And so the disciples’ suggestion that these hordes of people go buy food isn’t just unrealistic – they are, after all, out in a deserted place – it’s ridiculous…and even a little insulting, as the folks making up these desperate crowds probably didn’t have money to buy food in the first place. And so Jesus tells his disciples to get over their callous self-concern and feed them themselves.

Which brings us to the second miracle of the story: Jesus uses the disciples, even when they would rather look after themselves, to tend the needs of these thousands of men, women, and children. Using words and actions foreshadowing the Last Supper, Matthew depicts what happens when you move from a worldview of scarcity – “we have nothing here but five loaves and fishes” – to one of abundance – “thank you, God, for these five loaves and fishes.” Whatever their initial skepticism, or doubt, or self-preoccupation, the disciples are caught up in Jesus words of abundance and gratitude and distribute what they have and participate in the wonder and joy that “all ate and were filled.” God used even these reluctant disciples, that is, to care for the poor and hungry that God loves so much.

And that miracle continues. When a university trained high achiever turns down a high-paying job in order to teach disadvantaged kids, God’s miracles continue. When a parent puts dreams of an academic career to the side to care for a special-needs child, God is working that same kind of miracle. When a church makes the wrenchingly difficult decision to celebrate its century of faithful service and close its doors after significant decline in order that another ministry might flourish, miracles abound. When one student stands up against bullies in defense of another student, the God of compassion is again miraculously revealed. When a fledgling community of faith makes a promise that no one that comes to its doors will be turned away hungry, God is still at work performing miracles through disciples eager, reluctant, and everything in between, miracles that easily rival those reported in today’s reading.

Because the real wonder of these two stories is that goodness and compassion, continue: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the shallow youth, the deceiver, the consummate deal maker, the manipulator, the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to care for them. The wrestling with God is necessary as it depicts the reality of life and the nature of the wrestling depicts the severity of life’s wrestle, yet such wrestling also reveals the miracles of living. The opportunities for compassion, and love. Amen.

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.