thinking theology

Archive for December, 2016

Struggle and Peace

Everyone is remarking on what an emotional roller coaster 2016 has been. Tragic losses of children in many parts of the world, gun violence, environmental disasters, the re-emergence of prejudice, historical anger, and a contempt for justice and compassion. In this climate, we fear the worst and find ourselves braced against the future.

Humanity, while knowing more, understands perhaps even less about how to live abundantly, in community, in peace. It is grievous to think how much is needlessly lost because of fear and greed. Jesus lived in a similar time, a time when people prayed for relief.

The story of the incarnation teaches that the divine is revealed within human life, the divine is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. We may make the problems of our world, but we have the power to create the solutions also. At Standing Rock, brave people faced a strongly armed military force. All over the world, bigots are being challenged by other ordinary people to rediscover the light within.

Jesus, whom we call the prince of peace, was born as we all are, in water and blood, tears and pain. But what followed was joy. The gift of Jesus to the world is the promise, that when we’re ready and willing, the pain will end and the rejoicing will begin.

On this holy night, we are not really celebrating the birth of a baby, but the birth of hope, of creativity, of compassion, emerging from the womb of history, from the holiness that lies nestled in the heart of the human spirit. Don’t let the power of this night be diminished by sentimentality. Our power lies in our vulnerability. Our power lies in our bodies that connect us to the earth and the other creatures. Our power lies in water, not guns, hearts, not armour.

We have power, spirit power and it is time for we, the followers of Jesus, to use this with courage and compassion. It will not be safe, and it may be scary, but it is what we promised in our baptism, and every time, we say we are the people of Jesus. Being born is a struggle, but incarnation is born of that struggle. And that incarnation is the love we share, the forgiveness that liberates us, and the joy that being aware of gods presence with us brings.

A Tale of Two Mothers

A Tale of Two Mothers

Narrator (It would be good if they could wear some kind of ceremonial outfit)

Once on a beautiful planet – skies of blue, clothed in green and banded with earth of every kind, with a warm sun and sweet breezes that embraced the whole world. . .
Once, in a corner of that world, two boys were born who would forever change the course of history. . .
Once, in the time when history was first imagined, two mothers each had a vision of gods and kingdoms, of the rise and fall of nations, of peace and violence, of healing and change . . . .

This is their story. This is a true story although the facts may have changed over time. This is the story of how we became who we are now.

First. let us tell of Atia Balba Secunda, middle daughter of the sister of Julius Caesar, mother of the Emperor Augustus, step-grandmother of the Emperor Tiberius, great grandmother of the Emperor Claudius, great great great grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and the Empress Agrippina the Younger, and great great great grandmother of the Emperor Nero.

(Trumpet flourish as Atia enters dressed in a long “Roman” toga, or something els estately and moves with great dignity to the pulpit.)

Atia: It is said that I will marry Gaius Octavius the governor of Macedonia, but I am not interested in politics. I am interested in being faithful to the gods, reverent of speech, and focussed on good works. I will raise my children to be responsible citizens of the Republic and leaders in the economy of Rome.

Narrator: The other mother was named Mary of Nazareth. The gospels vary in her lineage. Matthew said that her blood line could be traced back to Abraham and King David. Luke traced her family origins to King David, even to Adam, as well as more humble ancestors.
(Cow bells or chimes. Enter Mary wearing a simple outfit. She moves to the lectern.)

Mary: It is said that I will marry Joseph, but he is a widower and already has a family, with sons older than I. What will I do with such an elderly husband especially when I am seeing that cute Roman soldier Panthera.

Narrator: Before the man who would become Caesar Augustus was born, Atia had an odd experience.

Atia: I can hardly speak about this strange experience. I had come to the temple of Apollo in the middle of the night to take my turn to pray. While all of us slept, a snake glided over my body. When I awoke I realized that the snake had marked me in colours like a serpent. (Put on coloured mask) Because of this condition, I could no longer go to the public baths and I hid in my home until my son, Octavius, was born and the marks disappeared. (Remove mask) I knew then that he was the son of Apollo.

Narrator: Mary also had a vision but it happened before her betrothal to Joseph.

Mary: I was studying so that I could help with the family accounts when a beautiful stranger appeared to me. (Enter angel.) The stranger clearly came from God. Who else could be so amazing!

Angel:You look shocked. Don’t be afraid. Everything is going to work out for the best. God has favoured you and you will have a baby but Joseph will not be the father.

Mary (if the angel speaks) Awkward!

Angel: I know, I know, but really it will be okay. Your child will be a king, child of the Most High, the Top! He will inherit the kingdom of God and you will be remembered forever. Let me take care of Joseph. It will all be good. I promise. (The angel winks and smiles and leaves)

Narrator: In later years, Atia and Mary looked back at their lives and pondered all that had happened to them and to their sons. (If no other actors, an a/v background may be created)

Atia: There was a shooting comet on the night of Octavius’ birth. It was a sign. He became the first emperor of Rome. He had tens of thousands of soldiers and generals at his call. (Enter soldiers)
Mary: Jesus became a friend to the oppressed farmers and the homeless of Israel. Shepherds came to his birth and marvelled that a star seemed to stay over the stable where we were staying with the animals. (Enter shepherds and animals)

Atia: Senators and poets wrote about the miracle of his birth and later admired his deeds in history. (Some folks in togas)
Mary: Angels came to sing when Jesus was born. All who were low could see them and the love that they expressed. (Angels led in by Gabriel)
Atia: Elephants, camels, horses and chariots showed my son’s strength and power.
Mary: Children and women followed Jesus’ everywhere and he joked and laughed with them. He was born in a stable and animals seemed to know him. (A gang of animals, some for Atia and some for Mary; again audio visual alternative)

Atia: In the senate, they named my son venerable, august, Lord of all, Saviour of the world, Prince of Peace because he conquered the world and subdued it. He was the son of God.
Mary: The crowds following him called Jesus their Lord and teacher, their friend and Saviour because he showed them that violence will not win forever. He was the son of God.

Atia: My son’s name will never be forgotten by those who would rule the world. All soldiers will carry his intentions into battle.
Mary: My son will live forever in all people who are true of heart. From generation to generation, they will call him blessed and beloved and his kingdom will endure as long as there are those who will offer their lives in loving service.

Narrator: And that is the story of how two men living at the same time in history came to be known by us. It is up to you to choose which one for you is the sign of peace.

Which one for you is beloved.(Pause after each question)
Which one for you will give you hope.
Whose God you will choose
Whose way you will follow all your life.
Therefor choose in this time in your history.

Tale of Two Mothers

The little play that contrasts the two understandings of kings appears on my website:

Letter to my Grandkids

Hi Kids: I know you will be sooo excited about Christmas, but you might feel, after everything is unwrapped, a bit of a let down. That’s growing up, sadly. One of the things we discover is that we have to make the presents special because we don’t actually need them. Instead, after all is opened, it’s time to take a second look at the presents and think about how much love went into choosing each one specially for you, or making them with you in mind and no one else. I remember a funny sweater I made Uncle Matt one year. It had one sleeve longer than the other, but he bravely wore it anyway.

When I was a little girl in Quebec, one of my father’ aunties, whom we called Great Aunt Maud, lived in a nursing home in New Brunswick. When she was young, she took care of her husband who had been disabled in World War 1. She shingled her own roof, and was strong enough that she could threaten to burst the seams on my father’s jackets. One famous story about her is that she was annoyed that the nursing home didn’t serve fresh strawberries, so she escaped, climbing over a fence even, in search of her own.

In any case, every Christmas, she would send us — me, my sister, Gayle, and maybe my brother Bill — a box of presents. She could never remember Gayle’s name so she called her Sheila for some reason. She had no money and no opportunity to shop so we would get re-gifts, thing that she either had received herself and didn’t want, couldn’t use, or things from her own few treasures. One year, my present was a pretty little necklace wrapped in tissue paper, that must have been hers at some point. Aunt Gayle — Sheila — received a boxed set of ladies panties with the days of the week on them. Since Gayle was only five, they were not much use to her. I think I delighted in Aunt Maud’s ingenuity and loved opening her presents, just to see what she conjured up.

I am telling you this story so that you will always be delighted by the gifts others bring you, not because of what they are but because of the love they express. And the stories you are making for your lifetime. My parents were born in 1919, almost a hundred years ago, so Great Aunt Maud was probably born 130 years ago. And yet, I remember her because of those crazy gifts and now you know about her too.

This year, all of you will receive one regift from me and there will be a story to go with the gift. I hope you will cherish these stories as they connect us as family, as a group of people who love each other even more than we love our stuff. And I hope you will look at every present in this way, as something others want to share with you to see they care about you.

Appreciating the Nativity Story

Narratives are the way we communicate ideas and share memories. Quite frequently, after one person finishes a story, another person will add another memory or a parallel experience. History is created in this way, from the shared, accepted, and composite memories of a particular group of people who usually share a language, a culture and some common assumptions or biases. The Hebrew bible is an example of how a people remembered their own stories, while also borrowing from the stories and wisdom of other cultures, like Egypt and Mesopotamia.

In Advent, we are invited into the writing process of the gospel writers, whose sources would not likely have been their own experiences, but rather their own cultural history, their socio-political context, and whatever stories they had heard from original or early followers of Jesus.

With the hope they had in the social upheaval that would usher in a new world, they naturally looked back into the prophetic writings of Isaiah, writings they would have heard often in Jewish worship. Isaiah of course was addressing his own period of history, another time of upheaval, but in the rich writing of that scroll, the gospel writers found ways to talk about Jesus. Isaiah does not predict Jesus, but his poetic prophecy becomes material that is familiar and encouraging to the first Jewish Christians.

The gospel writers had some challenges. How could they explain Jesus as the messiah when he neither fit the description of the Davidic king to save Israel (see Ezekiel 34:23-29), nor did he compare to the power and presence of the Caesars? In the first instance, Jesus was not even the dramatic figure of John the Baptist who preached repentance, who chastised Herod (Mark 6:17-20), who thundered from the desert with the atavistic charisma of Mount Sinai and stone tablets. Instead Jesus preached compassion, inclusivity, and practised forgiveness and healing. He was the illegitimate son of a woman who had been hastily married to a kindly widower.

The Davidic messiah was to be a warrior priest and prophet to overthrow the oppressors of Israel. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of Israel, his response is either silence (Mark 15:5) or sarcasm. “If I were that kind of king don’t you think I would come with an army.” (John 18:36, Luke 23:4)

I think you can see the challenges for these writers who could not demonstrate with the living, charismatic, spiritual strength and vision of Jesus. The tools they had were poetry, metaphor, and narrative.

In Isaiah, they found the imagery of both the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13-52:12) and the compassionate healer (Isaiah 35:1-10), who would bring peace and change. To this day, we read Isaiah not as prediction but as hope for humanity, a vision we yearn to see fulfilled. Since the time of Jesus, for Christians, we acknowledge John’s teaching about turning away from injustice, but we follow the way of Jesus both as process and goal. However, we can still see how Christians are caught between John’s call to turn back to a more rigid standard, and Jesus’ command to look ahead without judging persons, but only institutions. John calls for an individual repentance; Jesus calls for systemic change.

Another natural question would be why an itinerant peasant should be someone to follow, even to die for. Matthew and Luke set the stage for their presentation of Jesus as the ruler of the human heart and will, by their comparisons with worldly rulers. The nativity stories are less about history and more about metaphor. The Caesars wanted to be perceived as demigods, divine rulers. With both the concept of the messiah and the righteous king, Matthew and Luke set a striking contrast to the Caesars. Augustus Caesar has armies; Jesus has shepherds and angels. Caesar brings peace by conquest; Jesus brings peace by reconciliation. Caesar wants to remake the world in his image; Jesus wants to remake the world in the image of God’s love, compassion and welcome to the poor and all the disenfranchised.

The powers of the time could not understand how Jesus was not leading a political revolution. Jesus’ followers were learning that political strategies are only tools, not ends in themselves. Jesus’ kingdom and kingship were seated in tolerance, welcome, and transformation, rather than thrones of weapons and gold. And his “officers” were a courageous young woman, fishermen, women caught in social conflict, men of conscience, but under threat. They had neither power nor influence. They had the story of their encounter with Jesus, and they had hope and faith. And that is what we have now, an opportunity to birth the story of compassion and healing.