thinking theology

Archive for February, 2017

Transfiguration 2017

This year, there is an NFB film nominated for an Oscar, even though it has immigrant tendencies. “Blind Vaysha” by Theodore Ushey is a short animation about a girl who is born with one eye that can only see the past and the other eye that can only see the future. The vision from each eye immobilizes her decision-making, and her inability to see in the present makes it almost impossible to get around or participate in life. The film asks the question, “Are we all sometimes Vaysha?”

blindvayshaOn this Transfiguration Sunday, I want to suggest that that perspective, whether it is time or expectation, can prevent us from seeing what is before our eyes, and, even when we do, we can misinterpret the moment because of our own assumptions. In the gospel passage, Matthew 17:1-9, we have traditionally made the same assumptions as Peter and the other apostles.

While Jesus is praying, the apostles, probably gossiping amongst themselves about what strange thing their rabbi was doing now, suddenly see him in a new light. They see him in the tradition of Moses and Elijah; they see him not just as an eccentric albeit compelling teacher, but as the messiah, the one to carry Israel’s future. In a moment, their eyes are opened to him as a person who has more weight than they had appreciated, more power and holiness than they had understood. They see him connected intimately with the Holy One.

Their response is to make a stone altar to memorialize the moment. But Jesus is having none of it. He does not talk with them about what has transpired. Indeed, for him, nothing may be different. He walks in the same intimate conversation with the Maker, locked together in compassion and sorrow for all people who suffer, bound in the same passion for justice and abundant life for all.

Every now and then in history, other people have caught this vision of Jesus, but routinely they want to remember it in stone and mortar, in doctrines and rules. Where does this glorious vision of Jesus belong then? I think it began in Mary’s womb, in love and obedience and passion. It began in the very human heart that beat in Jesus’ breast, and in history, it ended in sacrificial love and trust.

Hearts and bodies are made of flesh not stone; hope is made from faith, not paper law or arbitrary boundaries. I think of all those refugees crossing from the USA into Canada, freezing hands and feet to achieve freedom and safety. I think of the RCMP officers who see a child not an undocumented stranger.

In the story of the transfiguration, we are challenged to see the Jesus not of our own assumptions, but the Jesus who, from the bosom of Holiness and love, reaches out to us. What kind of sanctuaries are we called to make? What is the holy place for Jesus to rest in our midst? How will people see his glory in us? Will we look only to the past, the story of what has been, or to the uncertain future of our expectations? Or will we live in the present, touching the hands that are before us, touch with mercy the lives that are presented to us, making monuments not of stone or brick as in Egypt, but living testimonials to the God who walks with us even to the cross, and certainly beyond.

Wise teacher of Torah Matthew 5:17-37

Today I would like to reflect on Jesus as the Rabbi, or teacher, to his followers, which means thinking about the Law, or Torah, and how Jesus would have understood it. First about the disciples: in these passages, Jesus says, “You have heard….” This is at least partially because very few of his disciples would have been literate so they would have heard only what they had been taught orally. Jesus undertakes the act of interpreting Torah for them, in the tradition of the rabbis. Much of what he says is not new but his audience is not the elite, but the poor of his time. He, however, is teaching them with the conviction that they can learn the deeper insights of the law. He is saying that you do not have to be educated to follow Torah; you do not have to be smart or rich. You do have to love God and your neighbour as yourself.

Let us think about Torah for a moment. Michael Lerner wrote, in 1994, about Jewish renewal; that is, recovering the essential nature of Judaism that is creation concerned, ethical, just, in awe of the creator, and aware of the wisdom of the righteous community. Christianity has obscured the fact that Jesus was speaking as a Jew about Jewish matters, about how to recover the community of those who were chosen to model justice, reverence, compassion. He had no intention of separating people from their religion. He was interested in making the Law and the Prophets accessible to the ordinary people of his own time, to give them hope, faith and empowerment.

When Jesus interprets Torah, it is not to rewrite it, but to open up the possibilities that exist in the text. His sermons are not oppositional but explorative. In Judaism, there is a rich tradition of opening up new possibilities for hearing God’s word. Thus, Torah is not rewritten, but it is new in every generation because its students will understand it through fresh perspectives.

Torah is properly understood as a gift for people to reflect upon in the context of their own lives. Its origins are not legalistic but are practical, spiritual guides for living. Thus the context becomes the lens through which Torah is read and Torah is the lens through which life is examined. Torah is neither a rule book, nor doctrine. It is meant to be inspirational, a “truing” of the ethical spirit of God in humanity.

Earlier in Matthew, we heard Jesus say that he had come to fulfill the Law and that no one could find heaven unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes. This is not about individual piety, but about the evolution of community. Traditionally, heaven marked not an other worldly existence, but the time when God’s presence would so fill the earth that war and struggle would cease. It is not utopian because it was understood as something that would have to be worked for and worked at. It would require a community of the righteous working together, in concert, to realize this dream. It would require sacrifice and commitment beyond a person’s own desires. The point that Jesus is making is this I think. As people we need structure, ritual and expectations, to help us know how to live. These expectations and rituals may develop and change over the ages, but their essential purpose must not. And that purpose is to help us know how to be ethical, loving humans. The second part is that The Law is a tool for this, not a goal. Torah is a way to see God at work in this life, to experience the beauty of life lived in harmony, compassion and justice.

I would like to end with a quote from Michael Lerner’s book:

What is unique about Judaism is that it entwines this sense of awe, wonder, amazement, and this spiritual reality that surrounds us, with a vision of the God who not only created the universe but also is the Force that makes possible an ethically guided universe. Many non-biblical religions separate these two dimensions and celebrate creation as the central reality Judaism, on the other hand, insists that these two elements are inseparable; the Force that creates the world is the same Force that makes possible the triumph of goodness. (Jewish Renewal, p.96)

Searching for the Spirit of God

The lections for today include 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, a passage that challenges us to become aware of ourselves in light of the spirit of God that is within us. I doubt whether many people going about in their daily lives think about the spirit of the Holy One abiding within. For most of us our days are spent serving the spirit of the world that requires work, budgets, administration, status, taxes. I wonder how often we pause in our day to be in touch with the spirit of God within us. Do you think it would change what we do or how we do it? I am conscious that when I pause for a contemplative moment, when i say to myself, “Be still in God’s presence,” it helps me,

However, learning to take time to experience the Presence is only one part of the discipline. The other part is considering what aspect of God us defining our inner life at any time. Is our internal God scolding or judgement? Is our God compassionate and healing? Is our God full of passion for justice? Is our God distant and mysterious?

At a wedding last night, I listened to friends saying their personally composed vows to each other. They were beautiful and carefully crafted, but I did wonder if the promises they made to each other were as much expectations of each other as commitments to behaviour.

I often think that about God. One of the priests of my childhood contended that we were always recreating God in our own image. So how do we achieve divine input when our own voice echoes so loudly in our brains? I am going to challenge you to think about three stories from the bible that you keep tucked away in your memory. Do these messages define you or do they cause you to consider new ideas or ways of being? When I was very young, we used to sing the first hymn in the book, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” I was captured by the magnificent splendour of those images of God and they fed my imagination. After a summer spent on Miss Hasell’s caravan mission, the story of Jesus chastising the rich became a mantra for a while and I modelled myself on the truth-telling, confrontational image that I heard in that. People who knew me then called me fierce. I have since had to spend time thinking about Jesus the compassionate healer who forgives even those who hurt him, who listens to people’s true stories.

Learning about the spirit within is a process. Like everything else in creation, it is a spiral, circling around like the satellites that circle the planets, offering new pictures and discoveries each time. We will never be done. I have often said to people who can no longer be out and about in the world, that, like Mary, they have the better part because they can tune in to the music of the spheres, they have time to be still and know God; they can pray for the rest of the rushing, clamouring world. And from their internal peace, they create waves of spiritual peace for the rest of us.

If, as people of faith we want to be like a city set on a hill, offering shelter and safety, compassion and solidarity, healing and forgiveness, then we have to think how each of our lamps are fuelled. So, after you think about the stories I asked you about earlier, think now about how you can add to your spiritual library of images. When you are still, how will you know God this week?