thinking theology

Archive for July, 2017

Soil, Sand and Rocks

Against the rocky hill, surrounded by the trees, and a wall of stone, lived an old king. Behind the walls, orchards and vineyards wreathed the slopes behind. The king sold the wealth of the fields, but he never tasted its produce. People who lived outside the wall, worked on the terraces, but they were poor.

THe king was very cranky. His partner had died; his children had left. There he sat year after year, crown on his head, bitterness in his heart. The outsiders came and worked his fields. The guards in their rock-hard armour protected him, although there was no threat.

One day, two strangers came to the walls. They asked to speak to the king because they had good news. The guards said, “Our king has no need of good news.” One of the visitors planted a flower in a crack of the soldier’s armour. They waited while the flower grew and bloomed. That soldier said, “It can’t hurt. Maybe it will cheer the king.” So they took the strangers to meet the king

The king said,”Who are you and what are you doing here?” The strangers replied, “We have great news! The time of your loneliness has ended. It is time for your castle to be filled with music and rejoicing.”

But the king was afraid of the message and he threw the strangers out of the castle, beyond the walls. Before they left, the strangers touched each of the soldiers wearing the rock hard armour with a seed of joy.

Late in the night, the king was awakened by the sounds of music and laughter. He peered out of his window at the top of the castle and he saw and heard beyond the walls. The farmers and the soldiers, the strangers and the families, were playing music, dancing and having fun. It made him furious and he felt his power slipping away like sand.

In the morning the king called his soldiers but only six came. Their appearance was worrisome. Their armour had flowers in the creases, and coloured ribbons on the corners on the breastplates. He commanded them to escort him to where the villagers lived. They hesitated. “You won’t like it Sire. They are all really, really happy.” “Why are they so happy?” The king demanded. The soldiers said that the strangers had brought a message of freedom and hope. “Hrrmmph.” said the king.

When the party got beyond the walls, the hard armour simply fell off in the sunshine. The king marched up to a table where people were eating and talking. When they saw the king, they invited him to sit down. But he said, “Those better not be my peaches that you’re eating.”

“Oh no, said the villagers, “we will grow our own now. You can keep yours.” At that the king noticed no one was paying any attention to him at all. “What can I get you to do to work on my fields again? Who will keep the terraces so that the plants don’t slide in the sandy soil?” The villagers replied, “First you have to share this meal with us. Then you can dance with us. Then we will talk about how to help you.” The king said, “I don’t know how to dance” but the villagers taught him the steps. To this day, there are no sweeter peaches grown anywhere and the king renamed his kingdom, “the Dancing Land”

You may ask what happened to the strange visitors. Well, they slipped away during the dancing. Two of the villagers went with them. They move from place to place, teaching people to dance and changing the hearts of kings.

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Echoes into the Future

A Reflection on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The earlier echoes in this passage from Matthew are dramatic. John the Baptist preaches in the tradition of the great prophets to remind the people that it isn’t in the intricacies of scrollimagethe priestly tradition that they will find salvation but in righteousness, in being a community of justice and mercy. We hear the thunder from Mt. Sinai, “ I am the God who is always becoming, who has and will liberate you; who expects you to treat each other with respect and justice. This is the Law and I am the enforcer and inspiration for this liberation, this standard of living.” And again, when King Josiah found the “book” (2 Kings 22:15ff):

The prophetess Huldah declared to the priests, “Thus says the God of Israel: I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.”

John the Baptist challenges the community of common folks and with the passion of Jeremiah also challenges the leaders and King Herod. His is the voice of the sirocco, the Arabian wind that sweeps the desert clean with abrasive force. The sacred history of Israel is written in this ricocheting story of the righteous people and the same people who turn away from the standards of their covenant.

Jesus’ voice, too, comes from the desert as he leaves the temptations to power and status behind him. In his voice, we hear an earlier covenant, the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the covenant of prosperity and safety. When this covenant is broken, the Holy One repents of the harm done to the earth, but reminds the people that they will be holy, no matter how many times they turn away. The rainbow is to remind people that God will not punish the creation, despite the wickedness of humanity. In Jeremiah 31:

Is Ephraim still my dear son, a child in whom I delight? As often as I turn my back on him, I still remember him, and so my heart yearns for him; I am filled with tenderness towards him

Or Isaiah 49:

Can a woman forget the infant at her breast, or a loving mother the child of her womb? Even these forget, yet I will not forget you. Your walls are always before my eyes, I have engraved your name on the palm of my hands.

The lash of prophecy that John wields is one of self-awareness and repentance, a turning back to the Holy One. The guide rope that Jesus offers is the hour of reconciliation, the promise of a better way, healing in community. Their methods may vary, but the method is the same. Justice, mercy, and compassion are the ways to joy and well being.

It is not only Jesus’ generation that called for a song to which they would not dance, or a solution which they would reject. We see those who would deny the need for new sources of energy, for a commitment to put life ahead of profit, ecology ahead of economy. We hear the ongoing voices of discrimination encouraging hate instead of love, division instead of unity of purpose. Sometimes we hear those voices in our own heads. This is surely one of the reasons we exist as a religious institution, to help each other resist the call of the expedient and choose the longer work of reconciliation. In our churches, we must be learning how to act with justice, to speak with gentleness, to protect others with the passion of John and the open embrace of Jesus. We live not for ourselves but as living sacrifices, as Jesus and John were, pouring out our corporate life not to maintain ourselves but to be lovers, artists, and bridge builders in our community. We come together to mourn for the state of the world, and then to learn some new steps and to teach some new steps so that all may dance to a blended music of holy joy.

The Light Within

In the teachings of Sylvanus, a wisdom teacher from the 2nd century, we read that humility of heart is the gift of Christ,who is our light within. On this 150th Canada Day, we need to acknowledge the possibility of light within, although as a nation it has often been clouded and dimmed. For the future, if we hope to celebrate as a nation, with integrity and with one voice, I think we need humility of heart. All of our self-promotion talks about us as a nation that shields the vulnerable, that acts with justice, that has equality within diversity. These are our goals, perhaps, but they are not our complete history. “In the early times, when Cartier first came to these shores, he discovered not an empty land, but a land rich in diverse cultures, religions, languages, industry,” shared University of Manitoba professor Niigaan Sinclair.

Unfortunately, Cartier and those who followed, were mostly interested in how to use the land and its peoples. There was no room for cultural appreciation or diplomacy. The reservations on which many First Nations people were confined became a symbol of a real problem in Canadian culture. We deplored South Africa in the time of apartheid, but the creators of that system came to Canada to study our reserves. We welcome refugees now but after the gold rush, we placed a head tax on Chinese people who wanted to emigrate, although it was due to that labour of Chinese workers that much of our railways were built. During World War 2, we turned away Jewish refugees and interned Japanese Canadians. We look judgementally on what has happened to the Palestinian people since the Israeli occupation, but we avert our eyes from the legacy of the residential school system, the polluted waters, the impossible cost of living, the despair in many indigenous communities.

What we need now is humility of heart, a humility that acknowledges the sins of the past, as a harsh lesson in doing a better job of being human beings. heart flagWe need to mend what has been broken, look to the possibilities of a new covenant for all people who live on this land. Ed Broadbent said, “A country’s true worth is measured by how it provides for each of its citizens. The best way to celebrate Canada Day is to rededicate ourselves to making good on this promise — for all.”

And how do we do that? The gospel Matthew 10:40-42 is instructive in this. When we have humble and clear hearts, we can hear the prophet. When justice motivates our decisions, the well-being of all will take precedence over wealth. And when we acknowledge our own vulnerability, fallibility, limitation, then we will not be able to turn away from the vulnerable. That cup of water will be relationship, hospitality, solidarity, compassion. The reward will be unity, and shared purpose. Then we will be a great nation, not because of our power, but because of the joy of our people, the health of our land, and the safety of our shores.

Broadbent quoted Rosemary Brown, who in 1972 became the first Black Canadian woman elected to a legislature in Canada. “Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.” In this land of many waters, let us make sure there is a cup for each of us and joy at the end.