Marking Covenant

Genesis 17 focuses on the covenant between God, Abram and Sarai. This is the point where their names are changed to Abraham and Sarah. It is here that the covenant gets put into physical form. God again speaks to Abraham and affirms that there will be many descendants—not just Ishmael but a child that Sarah will bear.

What the lectionaries leave out is the way in which the covenant is marked—circumcision. Abraham is commanded to circumcise all the men of the household. It is a way of marking the covenant with an outward sign. Circumcision was not limited to Abraham’s household but here it takes on theological significance as a sign of the relationships between a particular group of humans and God.

Imagine what happens after God tells Abraham to circumcise all the men in his household. Abraham is the only one who had a conversation with God. Abraham goes out and gathers all the men and boys together in a group and tells them that they are all going to be circumcised. I can’t imagine anyone else being enthusiastic, but they are given a choice: be circumcised or you are no longer a part of this household and no longer a part of God’s people. In a culture where familial connections were so important, it may have felt like there wasn’t a choice. There was probably muttering and head scratching. How did Abraham get so many people to participate in this scheme? Was it enough to say, “God told me to” or did it become a bit of a mob with Abraham and few others performing the circumcision using force? Was there screaming and violence and rage? Did some people leave the household rather than submit? I imagine the blood flowing and colouring the earth. I imagine a scene of horror as the circumcisions happen.

photo of man full of blood near trees

Photo by Ezekixl Akinnewu on Pexels.com

Scripture is full of stories where it seems blood (sometimes human, sometimes animal) is required in order to maintain the God/human relationship. In chapter 22, Abraham will set out to sacrifice his son, Isaac. There are chapters and chapters dedicated to the details of what sacrifices should be made and how. Many of the atonement theologies surrounding Jesus continue in this vein where blood shed by violence is necessary for healing and relationship with God.

But if we believe in a God of wholeness and healing, why do humans insist on grounding that wholeness and healing in a theology of violence and blood? Covenant and relationship with God are necessary for wholeness and marking the covenant is important. It reminds us who we belong to and our commitments to the one who created us. I can’t believe in a God of violence and I can’t believe that God wants us to mark covenant using violence. We need to let go of the belief that God requires someone’s blood in order to be in relationship with us. This belief isn’t God’s command but a human construction which we can choose to keep or not.

Whether we mark covenant with circumcision or baptism or some other ritual, the point is to embody the relationship with God through action. Whatever the ritual, it needs to be meaningful for the people involved and reflect God’s on-going action in our lives and our commitment to live faithfully.

 

 

Advertisements

You Give Them Something to Eat

This reflection is based on Matthew 14:13-33 and was offered at St. Andrew’s on February 24. The first part is a re-telling of the story from Peter’s perspective. The second part is my own reflection on the reading.

I’ve been following Jesus around for months now and he continues to surprise me. Like yesterday I knew he was tired. We’d been travelling a lot and teaching and healing people. He went off by himself to rest and I could tell the strain was getting to him. I thought he would finally get a break but the crowds followed him. I don’t know how he continues to care for people when he is so run down himself. I thought for sure he would send the crowds away but instead, he just kept healing people and more people kept coming and bringing sick people to him and he helped as many as he could.

The crowd kept growing and growing. It got late in the day and the sun was getting ready to set. I went to him and told him he should shut it down for the night. I told him that he should send everyone away because they would be getting hungry and there was nowhere nearby for them to buy food.

I thought for sure he would agree with me. Not just because they would be hungry but because he would be tired. I thought he might be looking for a way out. Instead, he said: You give them something to eat.

How was I supposed to respond to that? I had only enough for his followers—just five loaves and a couple of fish. There was no way that amount of food was going to feed thousands of people. I scoffed. I will admit I was skeptical and I even told him it wouldn’t work. I was afraid there would be a riot. That little bit of food and so many people. I was scared we would be trampled as people tried to get enough for themselves.

sliced bread beside wheat on table

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But Jesus, always the optimist called for calm. He invited people to sit down on the ground. He blessed the bread as we had been taught since we were children. He gave us the loaves and told us to pass the food around. I still wasn’t convinced. I’m all for hospitality and feeding a big crowd of people but I knew it wouldn’t stretch that far. And yet we kept passing the food and the baskets didn’t seem to get any emptier. There was more than enough. When all 5000 men plus their families were full, we gathered up the leftovers and there were still twelve baskets full.

I don’t know how he did that. It was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, and I can’t quite explain it. Maybe Jesus has some magic powers that allowed the food to multiply. Maybe, there was other food already in the crowd that people shared. Maybe we’ll never know but somehow there was enough.

And then the story gets even stranger… Jesus sent us away so he could finally get a break. We decided to cross the lake in the boat. We started rowing and got to the middle of the lake and there was a massive storm come out of nowhere. We didn’t see it or sense it coming. The wind came up and the waves were crashing over the side. There was water everywhere and we were soaked to the skin.  Then in the darkness and water and wind, there was a shape. I couldn’t make it out very well but it looked vaguely human.

I watched it come toward us and I thought it must have something to do with the storm—that I was seeing things. Slowly it glided toward us—completely oblivious to the storm. The storm on its own was scary but this was another whole league of scary. We clung to each other in the boat, convinced that we were all going to die.

And then there was a voice, a voice I knew. A voice of calm: Take heart, do not be afraid, it is I.

That voice, those words, had an instant impact on my fear. I felt calm and strength come into my body and spirit with those words. I knew at that moment that I could do anything that God required of me.

Tell me to come to you and I will come.

Come.

photo of woman walking barefoot on seashore

Photo by Akshaya Premjith on Pexels.com

I stepped out of the boat. No fear. I was certain I could walk across the water without sinking, I trusted that the same spirit that kept Jesus on the water would keep me on the water. I took several steps. I looked down and saw that I was walking on the water and realized how impossible it was. People don’t walk on water.

In a matter of seconds, I found myself floundering and knew I was going to drown. Jesus reaches out. Took my hand and helped me into the boat.

These stories really speak to me personally. I had a time not so long ago, where someone needed help. There were all sorts of reasons to send the person away. It wasn’t safe. Their presence would be disruptive to my routine and personal space. I looked for other options. I asked other people to help and nothing worked out.

And then I heard these words in my head. “You give them something to eat.” It wasn’t quite the same as feeding 5000 people, but my inclination was to send someone away when they needed help that I had the resources to give. As I heard Jesus’ voice speak to me, I knew I could not turn this person away—even though there were lots of reasons I could use to justify doing that.

I have a sense of how the disciples might have been feeling as they saw the crowds and heard Jesus tell them to feed the crowds. It’s easier and simpler to send people away than to become personally involved. As help was initially offered, I was nervous and anxious about how this would all work out and I knew it could end badly. But those words would not leave my head.

There are moments in my life and in ministry where I feel like I can do anything. I have gifts and skills and I feel competent and able. So, we do ministry together and it feels good. Then I will have a moment where I look around, maybe it’s on a more difficult day and ask myself: What did you get me into God? I should be the one to lead this community of faith. I don’t know enough about…. It feels like everything might fall apart if I can’t hold it together. I feel like Peter stepping out of the boat. Sometimes, life and ministry feel solid and strong and I feel supported by the spirit. And sometimes I feel like I might be sinking.

The commentary we used at Bible study this week focussed on the role of imagination. The disciples couldn’t imagine five loaves and two fish feeding the crowds, but Jesus could. Jesus calls us to dream big and use our imaginations to change the world. “Who am I to end poverty? Who am I to bring peace? I’m one person, I can’t do it.” When we say these types of things to ourselves, we limit our imagination and we won’t be able to do any of it. When we use our imagination, we can help even one person and the possibilities become limitless.

When we forget to use our imagination, we flounder. Our imagination is what gives us hope and allows us to see possibilities. Our imagination gives us the courage to risk doing what seems impossible. Peter didn’t step out of the boat alone. When he forgot his imagination, God was there to pick him up, dry him off and send him into the world again with renewed faith and hope.

Judging Ourselves and Others

This is a reflection based on Matthew 7:1-14 and was offered at St. Andrew’s United Church on February 10.

men s black crew neck shirt

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I want to think about what it means to judge. If we take this passage at face value, the passage seems to be telling us not to judge anyone or anything and yet we are always making judgements. We need to make judgements in order to be safe and in order to choose what type of path we want to travel in life. Judging is what allows us to make choices.

When we see someone in a particular situation, we don’t know how they got there. For example, we might see someone come and access the food and clothing shelf. Maybe we know that they’ve been at the casino and spent their money. We might say, going to the casino (or buying smokes or alcohol or whatever) was a stupid thing to do when someone is short of money. If they would just get their act together, they wouldn’t need handouts. We might make a judgment that they are lazy or incompetent.

If most of us looked at our own financial habits we might find there are things that we could do better or differently. Maybe we could afford to be more generous with charities or with a person in need. Maybe we could choose fair-trade or eco-friendly products even though they might be more expensive. Maybe we could buy less junk, eat out less, travel less. Someone else might judge us as greedy for our habits.

Judgement looks different depending on where you stand. But judgment from someone else—and sometimes ourselves—can be uncomfortable. Part of what the scripture says to us is that we need to look at ourselves and judge ourselves before we can judge someone else. Judging ourselves isn’t about self-loathing or being hard on ourselves. I don’t want anyone to go away thinking they are a terrible person. Judging has to do with repentance—recognizing the moments when we don’t live up to God’s expectations of us. Judging ourselves has to do with creating space and being open to God at work in us. When we believe that we have our lives together and everything is in place, we are often closed to what it is that God would have us do and be.

When we are open to God at work in ourselves, we are more likely to find compassion for others. We are less likely to judge harshly because we have judged ourselves and recognize that life is complicated. The choices we make in our own lives are complex and it isn’t always easy to do what we know is right. If we have that compassion for ourselves, we are more likely to share that compassion with others.

Jesus calls us to offer compassion to each other and be gentle with each other. There’s a funny verse in this passage: “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” Warren Carter of Brite Divinity school suggests that this verse continues the theme of judging. When we offer advice to help someone improve their lives that advice might not always be well received—especially when the advice is unsolicited. Most of us have probably received advice that was meant to help but which we found offensive or intrusive. Most of us have probably given unsolicited advice which was not well received. In this verse we see holy and pearls (advice) being contrasted with (dogs and swine).

Jesus calls us back to basics: follow the law and the prophets. Jesus didn’t set out to start a new religion. He wanted to reform Judaism into what it was meant to be—religion grounded in God’s spirit which took seriously the relationships that people have with each other—personally and communally. Jesus wanted people to look out for each other and have compassion. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” In order to have compassion for others, we need to have compassion for ourselves. In order to love others, we need to love ourselves.

This work of loving ourselves and others can be very challenging. We live in a world that often tells us we aren’t good enough, but the message of the gospel is that God is always at work in us if we are open to the spirit and that is enough. Our openness is enough.

But we need to have something in our lives as a source of strength. Someone who refuses to make any judgments has no ability to discern what is good and right. You may have heard the proverb: “stand for something or you will fall for anything.” Our judgement helps to give us a sense of where our priorities lie. Sometimes judging a situation helps keep us safe and keeps us from taking unnecessary risk. This passage uses the image of building a house on sand or on rock. A house on sand is like someone who has no convictions about anything. A house on rock is like someone who is grounded in God’s love and compassion for themselves and able to extend that love and compassion to others.

I invite you into some self-reflection about the things in your life that God might be calling you to judge so that you can find greater compassion for yourself.

The Wise Ones…Not the Christmas story

In the first chapter of Matthew, we read the story of how the angel appeared to Joseph and told him to stay with Mary. In Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, there are no shepherds and no angels singing in the sky. In this version of the story, the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream prior to Jesus’ birth is followed directly by the wise ones arriving to worship in Matthew 2. There’s some time missing in this story. It is likely that the wise ones did not appear until at least two years after Jesus’ birth. Jesus is no longer a baby. He is a toddler by the time this story occurs.

We don’t know a lot about the wise ones. Because there are three gifts, we assume there are three wise ones, but we aren’t told that. In other places, the word we have as kings or wise men is translated as magi which means magician—anyone who could interpret dreams or the stars. But in the Greek language of the time, it meant something specific: Zoroastrian priests. The Zoroastrian priests may have been men or women, and they had a full breadth of knowledge including: “philosophy, history, geography, plants, medicine and the heavens.” Within their community, they were known as “physicians and problem solvers,” hence wise ones.

Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia about 3500 years ago. Followers of this faith believe in one God who created everything. It has a core value of “Good Words, Good Thoughts and Good Deeds.” Within this faith, fire represents God’s light or wisdom. It seems an appropriate story for the beginning of Epiphany.

green christmas tree with string lights

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

Epiphany is a Christian season which means the coming of light. As Christians, we often speak of Jesus as the light of the world. As Christianity was spreading, there were many cultures celebrating the winter solstice. They would light fires and pray for the sun’s return. Christian missionaries became very good at assimilating festivals from other faiths into Christianity. The missionaries told people that the son (Jesus) who is the light of the world would return. It’s why we started having Christmas trees with candles—candles representing Jesus’ light in the world.

Light is important across many faiths and cultures. Isaiah 60 from the Hebrew scripture refers to light that will come into the world. The Zoroastrian priests from Persia saw the comet flash across the sky and knew that the light signified something important.

The comet would foreshadow political change. And it does. As the priests visit Herod, they set in motion violent events. Herod knows that the comet signifies a change in politics. He knows that his position is tenuous, and he wants to do everything he can to hold onto his position, so he orders the deah of all children under two.

Jesus and his family were lucky enough to be warned by God,  or maybe they just understood the politics of what was to come. What about all the families with children that didn’t have the ability to flee to another country? I imagine the horror of those days as people waited in fear for violence to occur and yet are helpless to prevent it.
This story makes me think about the millions of refugees around the world right now who are looking for places of safety. People who are fleeing violence just like Jesus and his family. We watch this happen from the relative safety of our homes and community but without having a sense of how to end the conflicts so that people can return home. Jesus and his family fled to Egypt and stayed there until Herod died. They thought it would be safe to go home. They started travelling and realized that Herod’s son was now King, so they went to Nazareth rather than home. It still wasn’t safe. The ruler had changed but the violence and instability remained.

What Jesus brings to us is a way out of the violence and fear. Jesus is heralded as a king but not a king the brings violence and death—a king who brings peace and compassion. Jesus is the light against the darkness of Herod’s actions. Jesus is the goodness against Herod’s evil. The Zoroastrian priests recognized what Jesus would be in the world. They recognized light—someone who would shine a light on evil and point the way towards God. That light wasn’t of their faith, but it didn’t matter, the light was too important to be dismissed.

Progressive Christianity holds as central that we need the core values of Christianity to be everywhere—love, compassion, peace, justice, hope, joy. Christianity has a history of not being able to see these values outside of itself. Progressive Christianity asserts that these values transcend religious bounds. The wise ones of this story already knew that.
In other words, Jesus isn’t the only light. Christianity isn’t the only light, and we need to seek light where we find it but always follow the light. Along the way, we will meet many travelers seeking the light and following faithfully. We might be on different paths, but we seek the same things—a sense of oneness with ourselves, the Creator, the earth. We seek love, compassion, peace, justice, hope and joy.

In a world where many people are unsafe and live with violence, we need this light guide us. We need to be bearers of light, bringing the light everywhere we go and into every place of violence and fear. The light has always been in the world—sometimes shining brightly, sometimes more difficult to see. But the darkness, violence and fear cannot overcome the light. Light will always shine in the darkness. As we celebrate epiphany, I invite you to join with me in following the light to seek Jesus and his path.

 

Help Me Stand Strong

strength-prayers-1482413_1920.jpgEver have a moment where you wonder why bad things happen? What did I do to deserve this? John 9 tells the story of a man who is blind from birth. The first question the disciples ask is: What did this man or his parents do to deserve blindness? Jesus doesn’t really care why the man is blind. Jesus simply has compassion for him and heals him.

When we encounter people who are struggling in life we sometimes want to know how they ended up in a particular situation. In other words, are they worthy of our care and concern? There is an important role for story-telling in helping us to understand what happened so we can prevent the same thing from happening again so that people responsible can be held accountable. But offering care and compassion is not tied to sin—to what someone has done or not done.

As the story moves on, Jesus heals mixes saliva and mud, smears it on the man’s eyes. Jesus sends him to wash and when he returns he can see. The neighbours and the community don’t recognize him anymore. They wonder if this the same man that they’ve known since he was a child. People begin to question the man. He keeps affirming that he is the same person they have always known and that Jesus was the one who healed him. This speaks to me of the process that happens when people come out about their sexual orientation or gender identity. As those of us in the LGBTQ community begin to talk about who we are, we say it’s still me. Who I am hasn’t changed. What has changed is your perception of me.  Sometimes there are questions about how or why people identify a particular way. The why or how isn’t necessarily important. The important part here is that we recognize that of God within someone. You can hear the man in the story says that Jesus is from God. As he affirms God is at work in Jesus he is also affirming that the healing, the thing that everyone is questioning is also of God.

When the neighbours aren’t able to figure out what happened, the Pharisees get in the action. These were people who are very observant of the Jewish faith. They were concerned that Jesus had done this healing on the Sabbath day, the day of rest. But they continued to question the man and he kept responding. I was blind and Jesus healed me. Then the temple authorities called the man’s parents and asked them how he had been healed. They refused to answer because they were afraid of being tossed out of the temple. This goes back to the on-going conflict the writer of John is dealing with between the Christian-Jews and non-Christian Jews. The parents don’t want to lose their place in the temple so they will not intervene for their child and they will not support him. Being removed from the temple essentially resulted in shunning by the community—they would lose social and business connections as well as their place of worship. The parents put the responsibility for answering questions back on their son.

The authorities call the man again to answer questions. This time when he answers the questions, the man has lots to say. You can almost hear is frustration as he says it again.

“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. I have told you already how it happened, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples? Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he Jesus comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (NRSV)

The questions that he is asked, again and again, strengthen his faith in Jesus. Having to defend his faith helps him to be able to articulate who Jesus is for him. It helps him to be clear. He practices first with the neighbours—people who know him well and know him as a person. Then he begins to publicly defend himself. He doesn’t really have a choice. The man born blind is being questioned from every side. His life has been turned upside down. His livelihood has been begging but he no longer has that. No one is going to give to sighted, healthy person. He has no skills. He needs to be accepted into the community in order to survive. If he can’t convince the community that Jesus is of God, he will not have a place.

For those of us, like myself who are comfortable, it’s often easier to stay silent. I sometimes stay silent because I don’t want to upset anyone. It might be less complicated to say silent. Being able to stay silent is a source of privilege that not everyone has. Often it is those who are most vulnerable who use their voice to speak out against oppression, injustice, violence. Speaking out sometimes makes people more vulnerable and more of a target for hatred and violence.

We aren’t told what happens to the man born blind but unless others speak up for him, recognize that of God in him, his entire world will fall apart. Those of us who are comfortable, need to use our voices to stand with folks in our community and world who are vulnerable. We need to recognize that of God in the most vulnerable and lend our voices in support.

Rethinking John 3:16

There’s a lot in this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is an important person on the temple in Jerusalem but he has witnessed Jesus clearing the temple and teaching. Jesus has caught his attention and he wants to know more. He came to Jesus in the middle of the night when no one would see him. At this point in the story he doesn’t want to be associated with Jesus but he’s curious.

He finds Jesus in the middle of the night and acknowledges what he has seen in Jesus. Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus’ words and actions must be from God. Jesus responds to this acknowledgement by saying that you cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above or born again. The translation is unclear and is used interchangeably.

In Jesus time, people’s status in the world was attached to them at their birth based on their family. If your family was wealthy and important—you would be wealthy and important. If your family was poor or less important—you would be poor and less important. Status didn’t change much through a lifetime. The situation you were born into was your situation for life. So in this passage, we hear Jesus saying that a person must be born again or born from above—born of God’s spirit. This rebirth means that a person is no longer poor and unimportant but is a child of God. Anyone who believes in Jesus has this rebirth which elevates their status.

God—of course—has the ultimate status so to be a child of God raises those with the least status to the highest status. The other thing this rebirth does is to level the playing field. All of the children in a family (with the exception of the first-born) are of equal status. Jesus is the first born and everyone else’s status is evened out. In a society where status determines all of your social interactions and opportunities, to equalize the status fundamentally changes the world.

In this passage, we hear a famous verse: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I will admit that I struggle with this verse because when taken on its own it seems to suggest that if you believe in Jesus you will live forever. If you do not believe in Jesus, you will not experience God after death.

There are a few words in here that need to be examined. The word believe has taken on a different meaning from what was originally intended. We think to believe means to know intellectually that something is true or real. According to James Rowe Adams, (Episcopal priest, founder of the Centre for Progressive Christianity) the intent that we find in John’s gospel seems to be “a recognition of a desire for God rather than an intellectual assent to opinions about God that cannot be supported by imperial evidence.” To believe in Jesus simply means that we have a desire for a relationship. This is more about an experience of the Holy than it is about knowledge. We do not need to sign on to particular statements of belief about Jesus.

Eternal life is another phrase that is sometimes problematic. It is often taken as a reference to life after death but in the Greek, it is in the present tense. So it is not intended as something that will happen but something that is happening… Here. Now. This is not about the length of life but about the quality of life.

So here’s what we get so far out of this scripture…As we are born from above we become children of God, equal to all other children of God. If we have a desire for a relationship with God and Jesus, the quality of our life changes. But wait…There’s more!

The passage goes on to speak about judgement and condemnation of God in the world. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

We need to think of the world in the broadest sense. The world includes the universe or entire cosmos. All creation is included in “the world.” Condemn means to separate, to distinguish or to decide. Jesus did not come into the world to separate. What we translate as judgement can also mean justice. To save means to heal or make right.

So thinking about this verse another way might mean: God did not send Jesus into the world to separate the world but in order that world could be made right.

pexels-photo-733881.jpegThose who have relationship with the holy are not separated. Those who have not found relationship with the holy are separated. We might think about this in terms of all the ways we are cut off or separated from ourselves, each other, the earth. When we no longer have a sense of ourselves within our relationships we lose our ability to love, to show compassion, to care. We are separated. Relationship with the holy mends the separation.

The final part of this passage adds one more twist. Claiming faith in Jesus does not give a get of jail free card for doing things that destroy or harm. And God will claim anyone who does what is good and right. Jesus’ role is to point the way. Jesus himself does not offer judgement but offers an invitation to be in relationship with the holy. By being in relationship with the holy, we find our own sense of purpose for good in the world.

There is no one who is outside of God’s love. That love is made known to us on a daily basis. We don’t have to wait until after death to experience God’s love. Simply a desire to be in relationship with the holy brings eternal life. Nicodemus came to Jesus with questions and uncertainty. He didn’t have the answers at the beginning of the conversation and he went away more confused than when he started.

We don’t have to come to faith with answers. We come to our faith with questions. Through the questions, Jesus gives us an invitation to deepening relationships, a sense of purpose and works through us and others to heal the creation.

An Easter Reflection

Mary Magdalene tells her story:

Woman, Old, Senior, Desperation, Grief, Female, PersonWe spent the Sabbath, weeping and mourning and praying. There was nothing left for us to do. We wondered why God had abandoned Jesus and why God had abandoned us. We were all together comforting each other. After the Sabbath, I went with Joanna, Mary who is the mother of James and some other women to Jesus’ tomb. We hadn’t had time before the Sabbath to prepare him for burial. It was just one more indignity that he had to endure. Now we just needed to perform the proper rituals for him.

When we got to the tomb…the stone was gone. Suddenly, there were two men. They were dazzling and light glowed from them. We were terrified. There were too many strange things happening. How could it be that the stone was gone? Who were these men and why were they surrounded by bright light? They spoke to us. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That doesn’t even make sense. Jesus is dead. We saw him die. This is the place where you look for dead people and Jesus is dead. “He is not here, but has risen.” Wait….what…risen? risen? Wait… risen…raised to life? How is that possible?

We ran away in fear—not understanding what had happened. Distressed at another insult. Distressed at something else we couldn’t explain. We found the others. We tried to explain but our words just tumbled out in a jumble making no sense. It made no sense because our grief was too raw and too huge to understand, to share or explain. This new event just added to our confusion, our grief and outrage.


Rock, Outlook, Landscape, Holiday, Nature, Rocky, ViewThe Easter story is a story many of us know well. it is one that we read or hear year after year. I want to offer some cultural background about death which might put a different spin on our reflections about Easter. This information is taken from the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina . In Jesus’ culture, the original culture of Easter, there was a different understanding of death. We think that there is a moment where life stops…breath stops, the heart stops beating, the brain stops transmitting. For us, this is the moment of death…This is the moment we grieve as life changes to something else.

But in Jesus time, after death, the body would be placed on a shelf in a tomb. Family and friends would mourn for a whole year while the body decomposed. As the body decomposed, any evil deeds would fall away. It was believed that the bones contained the personality and were necessary for a resurrection. At the end of the year, the bones were collected and placed in a box to wait for resurrection.

In the case of capital punishment or crucifixion the body was held by the Sanhedrin (which functioned like a court) for the full year. When the flesh was gone from the body the sentence was complete and the bones prepared for resurrection.

For the women arriving at the tomb on Easter morning, they arrive to participate in a ritual that is part of the mourning process. But there is nothing there to mourn. Without the bones there is no hope of resurrection. We think of Easter as a happy and joyful occasion but the first witnesses would have been more distressed by an empty tomb. Their hope of resurrection is now gone.

Malina and Rohrbaugh make two points that I think challenge our theological perspective of the resurrection. They suggest that Jesus’ resurrection (the disappearance of the body), could go directly to God because there were no evil deeds that needed to rot away. This leads to another important point. Jesus death was wrong and in taking Jesus directly after death, God overturns the judgement of the earthly condemnation.

I like this twist because rather than suggest that God sent Jesus to die, it affirms that the death of Jesus, like so many other deaths, is unjust and wrong. It speaks to us in our moments of despair and confusion and grief and reminds us that God’s love and compassion overcomes the evil and violence in our world.

Maybe after they thought about it for a bit. Maybe after they had cried until they could cry no more, Mary and the other women at the tomb might hear the words of the two men at the tomb differently. With the bones gone, the only way to find hope was to believe that God had overturned the conviction and proclaimed Jesus innocent. The only way to find hope was to believe that Jesus was already resurrected.

As we look around the world and see violence and hatred and injustice the Easter story reminds us that this violence is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new story. It is an opportunity for new ways of seeing the world. It is a chance for hope to blossom and create new life in places of violence and pain.

What thing in your life or in the world is painful, confusing, grief-filled? What can the Easter story teach you about finding new life within this situation?

Reflection on Holy Week

People Raising Their Hands during DaytimeWe have been walking the path with Jesus since we celebrated his birth a few months ago. We read the story of his baptism and how he brings light and love into the darkest places of the world. We heard stories of his love and compassion for those on the margins. We witnessed him challenge injustice. We have witnessed this challenge bring him closer to the cross…to the point where we are today.

This week Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. The story (Luke 19:28-44) leaves lots of room for questions. How we answer the questions says something about who we believe Jesus to be. How did Jesus know where to find the colt? Had he made previous arrangements for it? Had he been in the community before and seen animals at that corner? Did he have some sort of vision or message from God that told him the colt would be there?

Jesus is part of a crowd coming into the city. Throughout Luke, the disciples have not understood who Jesus is and yet here they are proclaiming Jesus is king. Why this moment? Are they simply contrasting him with Caesar and proclaiming Jesus as their political and military leader? Do they understand that Jesus is a different kind of leader? Do they understand that Jesus is not going to be in charge of this new kingdom? Jesus is just the messenger sent by God bringing a message of love, compassion, justice. Do they understand that this new kingdom Jesus is bringing will be different from any other kingdom they have experienced?

What about the stones that will continue to shout? Even if no human ever calls Jesus king or Lord, the very earth will know that God is the creator and Lord of the universe. Can we hear the earth crying out, proclaiming God?

And then Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Is he predicting the destruction of Jerusalem because he knows it is going to happen or he simply because he can see the state of the country and recognizes that bad things are going to happen if they continue on this path? What could prevent the destruction that Jesus imagines is coming? Could the people, the city be saved if they had recognized Jesus as a messenger from God? What would the world look like if the hearers took Jesus’ message to heart? What would our world look like if we imagine God’s kingdom among us?

We know how this week will end. We know that Jesus dies on a cross but did Jesus believe that God had sent him to this place so that he could die? Was he simply living faithfully, knowing that the path he was on would put him into a difficult and dangerous situation?

Are we willing to risk living as Jesus lived? Are we willing to be messenger that point to God?

The Woman Washes Jesus’ Feet

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus has gone to eat with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very concerned with keeping the purity of themselves and their faith community and they did that by following and interpreting the law given by Moses and that we find in the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Pharisees rarely ate with people outside their own group. If they did invite someone outside their group to their home, they would ensure that proper washing had taken place and that the guest was wearing a clean garment which they provided.

Jesus arrives for dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. No water or clean clothing is provided but the food is served. Part way through the meal, a woman arrives with expensive perfume. We are told that she is a sinner. We are not told anything about her sin.

When we read scripture we sometimes think of sin as prostitution or adultery. In Jesus’ culture sin simply referred to not keeping the Jewish law. If you were not particular about who you ate with, or the foods you ate, you could be labelled a sinner. In our own culture, it might be helpful to think of sin as brokenness in a relationship. The broken relationship might be with God. It might be with ourselves. It might be with another person. It might be with the earth. Sin is the action that leads to this brokenness. Sin causes hurt and pain. When we say the Lord’s prayer, I use the word sin rather than trespass because sin carries the weight of hurt and pain. To me, trespass means I have walked somewhere I shouldn’t have—a vacant lot for example. There’s really no harm involved and minimal consequences. Sin implies something different—it is word used exclusively to describe the hurt and pain that causes brokenness.

In our culture, we associate doing something wrong with a sense of shame or guilt that we place on ourselves. Our conscience kicks in and we can often (but not always) tell when we have said or done something that causes pain to ourselves or others. Sometimes, these hurts are a blip. Sometimes we can heal the relationships that have been damaged. In Jesus’ culture, the guilt and shame was not internally based and self-directed. The community was the conscience. It was the community that identified when sin had been committed and responded by labeling someone a sinner. Being identified as a sinner excluded people from social gatherings, limited access to the temple or synagogue and made earning an income difficult. There was also an understanding that an illness or something bad happening might be the result of sin. Whether you had done something or not, you could be labelled as sinner. People who were labelled as sinners became isolated from their communities and found themselves in a vicious cycle of poverty and broken relationships.

In the story, a woman who is labelled a sinner arrives to wash Jesus’ feet and anoint him. We don’t know anything about her sin. We don’t know where she came from or her connection with the household that Jesus is visiting. We don’t even know how she knew Jesus was there and that the host had not offered correct hospitality. Simon, the Pharisee, is perhaps grumbling to himself about the woman who has entered, is now touching Jesus and making him unclean. Simon also thinks that Jesus should know better than to associate with sinners. Jesus calls Simon on his behavior. He begins by telling a story about forgiving debts. Two people owe debts—one owes 50 coins, one owes 500 coins. Neither can pay and so the person holding the debts forgives them both. The obvious lesson from this is that the person with the bigger debt will be more grateful to the money lender.

But the story isn’t really about the money lender and these particular debts. Jesus really has something to say about the Pharisee and the woman who is washing his feet. Simon has sinned by not offering correct hospitality—by not washing Jesus’ feet or providing clean garments. Simon, as a Pharisee, should have been particular about these rituals. Simon—who might be a bit obsessed with keeping the law, and avoiding sin—has sinned by not providing hospitality. The woman, that Simon was looking down his nose at, has provided more than the correct hospitality. Even though she was “the sinner,” she was the one who knew how to do what was right. She was the one who knew how to love. That love overflowed from her in how she cared for Jesus.

Sometimes the people that we want to label and keep out of our communities and gatherings are the people who have something to teach us about showing love and hospitality. Sometimes we want to keep out people with mental illness or disabilities, sometimes we want to keep out people who practice a different religion or whose skin is a different colour from our own.

Sometimes, expected behavior doesn’t match the social location that we place people in. We would expect the random people eating pizza to share. They have an abundance and so we should expect more of them. That’s not how this video played out. The person who didn’t have money to buy pizza and who may not eat tomorrow shared his pizza. In the gospel story, we see Simon, the insider fail to provide hospitality and the woman who is “a sinner” welcome Jesus and tends to him. Who is more faithful in this story—Simon, the Pharisee, who talks about the law and purity or “the sinner” who provides hospitality?

Where are you looking for God’s Kingdom?

In Luke 7:18-35 John the Baptist’s followers have been watching Jesus and bringing word back to John about all the things that Jesus is doing. There may even have been some rivalry between the two groups. John sends a couple disciples to check out what Jesus is up to. John wants to know if Jesus is the messiah or if they should they wait for another.

They find Jesus continuing to do exactly what he has been doing. Jesus is curing people of diseases, plagues, evil spirits and giving sight to the blind. The lame are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news. Jesus sends this message back to John.

John’s messengers go back and Jesus continues to preach to the crowd. It seems that Jesus is preaching to a group of people who were followers of John. Perhaps they have become disenchanted with something John said or did. Perhaps Jesus has more pizzazz. Perhaps Jesus is spending more time in the communities and less in the wilderness. This is a group who have been to the wilderness with John and are now following Jesus around. And Jesus asks them why they even bothered to go to the wilderness with John. What were they expecting to find out there? Jesus asks if they went to see a reed shaken by the wind. This might be a reference to wild sugar cane. It would grow 4-5 feet tall and during the day when it got really hot the tops of the canes would droop to the ground. It was apparently very pretty but not really the focus of a trip into the wilderness. Perhaps they went to see someone in fine clothing and living in luxury. Why would you go to the wilderness to see that? You would be looking in the wrong place.

Jesus is asking, “If you didn’t go to look at the wild sugar cane and you didn’t go to look at the wealthy people in their finery, why did you go? What was in the wilderness for you? Maybe you went to see a prophet—a prophet like John who is sending out the message that the messiah is coming.” Jesus has a crowd of people who have heard John’s message. They have even, like Jesus, been baptized by John. The crowd is made up of an assortment of people—including tax collectors who were perceived as corrupt. This crowd of people was looking for the kingdom of God. Looking for what was to come. They had gone to the wilderness looking for the kingdom of God and hoping to find it in John and in baptism. They were seeking something—something better than what they had. They were looking for hope that their oppression would end.

The Pharisees were trying to maintain their purity and obedience to God’s law. They saw the John and Jesus movements as barriers or threats to the Jewish people’s ability to keep God’s law. Jesus was crossing too many barriers and breaking too many of laws they felt were necessary to be faithful. They were looking for new life in the laws.

At the core of Jesus’ message is a sense that the important thing is not the law but to bring good news to the poor. You might remember from several posts ago, that the poor refers—not just to the economically disadvantaged—but to anyone who is socially marginalized. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was touching people who lived with illnesses. He was touching dead bodies and raising them to life. He was healing on the sabbath. All these things make him unclean and impure in the eyes of the Pharisees. For the Pharisees, it was more important to keep the law.

Jesus goes on to speak about the Pharisees as those who refused to participate in God’s kingdom. He describes them as children who haven’t learned how to behave appropriately. They haven’t learned that when there is music you should dance. At a sad time, like a funeral, you should cry. Because they haven’t learned how to behave appropriately, they have missed the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Yet children know instinctively that when there is music you should move and dance. Children pick up on the emotions around them and know when others are sad or upset. The Pharisees should instinctively know how to participate in God’s kingdom and yet they choose not to.

How many opportunities do we miss to participate in God’s kingdom? I have been reflecting lately on my own reaction to conflict. It is sometimes easier to walk away and remain silent rather than risk creating a scene or getting into an argument with someone. I find myself responding to difficult situations in this way. We learn ways of dealing with conflict in our homes as children. Sometimes, families have good and healthy ways of dealing with conflict. Sometimes conflict is surrounded by silence. Sometimes it is surrounded by violence.

One of the ways I deal with conflict is by remaining silent. By doing so, I miss the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. We sometimes think—and are taught to think—that God wants us all to get along and so we cannot disagree openly. Jesus engaged directly in conflict. By not engaging in conflict, I sometimes let injustice or inappropriate behavior go unchallenged.  In doing so, I maintain the status quo and miss an opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Instinctively I know how to participate in God’s kingdom but at times choose not to.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to engage conflict. He wasn’t afraid to disagree openly as a way of helping people to understand God’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t afraid of challenging people who thought differently from himself. He always grounded the conversation in his understanding of God and God’s kingdom. He didn’t just tell someone they were wrong. He brought the conversation back to what God’s kingdom would look like. He brought the conversation back to the teachings of the prophets. This seems like a good model for engaging conversation with people who have fundamentally different world views. As people of faith, we need to learn how to speak about our values in a way that reflects our faith and expresses our understanding of who God is and how the world is meant to be.

 

 

The crowd Jesus is speaking to had gone looking for God’s kingdom. Some had gone looking for it in the wilderness. Some had gone looking for it in following the law exactly. God’s kingdom is not in either of those places. God’s kingdom is found as we challenge injustice and seek to welcome the stranger and those on the margins. Many of us know this instinctively but are hesitant to risk being hurt.

I sometimes find it difficult to engage in what could be a conflict but as I see what’s happening in the world, I am reminded again God’s kingdom is not found in wealth and power. God’s kingdom is not found in dividing people but in drawing us together. God’s kingdom is not found in destroying life but in creating hope.