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The Cry of and from the Wilderness (Mark 1:1-8)

John the Baptizer’s story is created from bits and pieces of older scripture. The strain in the story rises from the disparity between John’s message and Jesus’. To this day, in the Mandean community, John the Baptist is still revered as the Messiah of the two ways, one of death and the other of life. In Islam, he is the great prophet Yayah. For the first writers of Jesus’ story, their problem was clear. How could they weave the story of John into that of Jesus without compromising Jesus’ message of reconciliation and forgiveness. Their solution was brilliant. We will never know if Jesus began as a follower of John or if he simply existed and preached at the same time. In any case, the solution lay within Torah; present John as the Forerunner of the true Messiah. Relate him to Elijah (although John himself rejected that idea).

‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.
2 Kings 1:8

The Forerunner would call for a new purity, a reclamation of the values of tribal culture, preceding that of king and city state. Jesus’ message, too, offered a possible return to the covenants of Noah and Abraham. John, in this case, is the trumpeting angel who calls for repentance and the subsequent promise of sanctuary. The Exodus passage 23:20 for example, suggests a requirement of absolute obedience to a way of life, and terror for those who oppose the righteous.

I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.

Another echo comes from the prophet Malachi 3:1-3

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

What is notable, however, is that it is the community that is called and individuals, only insofar as they constitute the newly redeemed and restored tribal community.  So how do we reconcile these two prophets for our time. John demands that the community remember a history and a covenant that probably existed as an ideal, rather than a lived reality. And Jesus, who called for a developed humanity that would choose justice with compassion, that would stand against power and privilege without violence, that would judge with forgiveness and reconciliation.

I think these two voices represent stages of our own insight into the problems of our own era. Some of us think to look back to an imagined better time and some of us look forward to the resolution of this stage of human history. Without doubt, we can hear the cry of and from creation, the cry of and from those being assaulted and oppressed.

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Isaiah 40:1-4

We know with every fibre of our being that the world is at a turning point, a critical time, when change will come upon us suddenly and inexorably. I think many people in the world feel as if they have already been baptized with fire, either of the heart or physically and socially. The earth is wounded and lashing out in pain. This is not a question of an angry God, but of a body, the body of the world crying out to us to act, to teach the faith again, the faith of a new humanity, and death to our old ideas about power and safety. Our salvation is at hand but it involves protecting others, our world and all of us its creatures. We can forget about the old ideas of personal salvation and instead see the cosmic spirit within which Christ acted, that spirit into which we are all invited, that spirit that promises healing for all and life for all we had thought to be dying.

We can make Advent this year our commitment to act, to learn, to be faithful, not out of personal fear, but out of the love of Christ, who called us to be his friends and co-workers in the in the kindom of peace and joy.

 

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Already here: Matthew 25:1-13

I am grateful to D. Mark Davis for reminding me that Matthew puts his own twist on Jesus’ parables, in this case to explain the delayed parousia. I also agree that this parable seems more like what the kingdom of God is not like.

I have some problems both with the parable and in how we translate it. Firstly, I do not think these unmarried women are bridesmaids as we understand them, guests and attendants. I think these are the servants for the event, or the household, with some particular set of tasks. They are probably tired after a day or a month of preparation and so they drift off to sleep. Some of them are shrewd and some of them are “morons’ as the text says. Some of them guess about how the rich behave and prepare for that eventuality; others do not even consider the possibilities.

In the story, it seems to be night, so it is unlikely that the women without enough oil would be able to leave to go into town and get more; nor is it likely any would be easily available. Oddly, there is no offer to share what oil remains.

I wonder if people might have heard the parable as a cautionary tale about trusting in princes to deliver justice and prosperity. The state is notoriously fickle and unreliable for the least of its citizen. There are promises made, but delivery on those promises may be attenuated, if they happen at all. The danger in trusting in the state is that it tends to pit the least in society against each other. So the shrewd have to always be on guard. The unprepared, the “morons,” will be left to their own devices, which will be disastrous; in the harsh world of the state, there is no mercy for these people, even from their own class.

In the kingdom of God, on the other hand, the bridegroom is always present, always available to heal and to restore, to lift up the lowly and scold the proud.The kingdom of God is about abundance and enough for all, not more for some and less for others. Worthiness has less to do with morality or wisdom and more to do with compassion and cooperation. In the kingdom of God, the bridegroom already has come and is returning simultaneously.

It is only “in the world” that a person would look for external signs; they are immaterial in the land of the faithful. In the life in Christ, time has ceased to hold its power over human life. The banquet of the Lamb has begun and continues, despite being unrecognized by those who took for signs of power or “put their trust in princes.”

This is an opportunity to interact with the text and ask who the bridegroom is in our world. Does it matter whether we are asleep or awake? Does it matter how much we have or how prepared we are? Is it really more a question of showing up? of being present to serve and to celebrate? to die and to live in the life of the Holy One, expressed in Jesus?

Caesar’s Face

With thanks to D. Mark Davis for his comments and translation.

In Matthew 22:15-22, we hear about the trap forming around Jesus. In this case, the temple and the Roman sympathizers form an unlikely and probably uncomfortable alliance. They ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. There is no safe answer to this question. The temple, of course, also collected funds. The coins in either case were different. Temple coin could not be engraved with a human face or God’s face. Roman coins were engraved with the face of the emperor.

If Jesus said the coin should go to the Temple, it would be blasphemy, and also treason, a double whammy as they say. He turns the question back to them. He says, “Whose face is engraved here?” Then, it is logical that the coin belongs to the state. But God has presence over all, so the power of this coin is minimized by being part of a greater reality. It is a clever response, but also one to cause the listener to think. To whom do I owe my life? To whom do I owe my loyalty? To whom do I offer my service? Whose gifts do I appreciate and why?

Suddenly, we are confronted with some troubling thoughts. We in Canada, may not be living in occupied territory politically, but we might ask ourselves who owns our water? our natural resources? our fields and farms? our dairy and forests? How much control do we have over our daily lives?

Jesus was very political in his time and we must be too. It is not enough to hand over our coin to the state and then turn a blind eye to how it used, for good or ill. Politicians receive hate mail all the time. I wonder if they receive equal amounts of encouragement for their service in ecology, in justice, in compassionate legislation. We live in fractious times, but it is not all bad. I am proud of Quebecois who are wearing face coverings to protest the new law prohibiting such dress. Apparently even some bus drivers are protesting. This is an example of peaceful, but strong resistance to racism and martial law. I am happy to see Lloyd Longfield (MP) writing in social media about what he is thinking. Agree or not, it is an effort at transparency.

The best society is the one which understands sharing of resources , sharing personal as well as corporate responsibility. Jesus addresses not only social victims but also power brokers, demanding justice and consideration for all. The coin may belong to Caesar, but Caesar is accountable to God. In Hebrew scripture, in many passages, we hear the prophets warning rulers that security in leadership requires integrity. When integrity fails, so will the state ultimately. The lesson is that natural law will prevail because God shelters all.

The question for us in the passage is how do we use the coin that is stamped with our Caesar’s names? How do we decide whose agenda dominated our decisions? How do we weigh the easy prize against the long term care for the earth, and its people? Sheri Tepper, the novelist, commented that justice must be weighted on a case by case basis. God sees the sparrow, sees the tree, sees the whale, sees us. God sees the particular as well as the whole. Where do we place ourselves as church, as city, as family in that mirror; what do we see?

If asked the same question as Jesus was, how do we say with integrity how we support our society, our church, our family? Is it even a question we ask ourselves or have we forgotten to whom we belong, whose service liberates us?

Eat, Pray, Act

Eat, Pray, Act

This thanksgiving is a weekend for counting our blessings. As I write in Southern Ontario, I am looking out my window at dramatic weather, wind chasing clouds grey with rain, then in the next minute, clear skies and hot humid air. And I am reminded that I am not worrying about how to survive a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami, or even someone filled with rage and malice who wants to act violently.

There is plenty of food in the kitchen, plenty of family and friends with whom to share, plenty of love to go around. I live in a pleasant neighbourhood with trees and flowers and gardens, in a city that is fairly enlightened, and fun. How could I be anything but grateful! These are the macro thanks.

On a simpler note, I am incredible grateful for electricity and running water. I had a new appreciation for my laundry room and appliances when I read the article about Puerto Ricans, trying to remember how to do laundry without electricity or running water. And yet, I saw a picture of some families, men and women laughing together about how they wished they had listened to their grandmothers.

All over the world, people just like me except for circumstance, are struggling for survival, worried about how to take care of their loved ones, worried that they might be killed for having the wrong religion, colour, language, gender, politics. Again, in the midst of and despite so much pain and uncertainty, people are acting to improve things, speaking out although at risk; choosing to act rather than passively accepting the status quo. They are creating hope in what might look to us like impossible situations.

And what are we doing with our abundance, with our security, with our blessings. I think our first act is to give thanks at the tables where we find ourselves, banquets of food and spirit(s), to look with wonder on our lives, to turn from negativity to delight and appreciation, to cherish each other and the ways in which we are connected. The first chapter of the letter of James says that religion that is authentic calls us to and from the table, both acts of love, both acts of faith. People are encouraged to act on their faith, not simply contemplate their theology, or good fortune, or blessedness. Gratitude is a process that begins with appreciation, then recognizes that the cup is not just full, but running over. Then we are called to employ our hope, our assets, our skills, our privilege in the work of sharing blessings.

I cannot look at my grandchildren without thinking how I want all the children of the world, to have clean drinking water, to feel safe, to be proud of who and how they are. I want to do what I can to turn away violence and discrimination and injustice. I want to be a person who promotes peace and joy, not out of a sense of duty but because I have so much of all of this that I want to share it with others. May your hearts be broken and healed in love, both in the receiving and in the giving.

Here is my prayer
O Wise and Only One, how carefully you made us.
We are blue clay streaked with colour, full of divine radiance;
after the molding, after the fire, earth yet open to be filled.
Our days are but a moment through which your breath passes, sanctifying body and soul.
Burst from our hearts, Lover and Friend, unite us to one another like forests sharing sunshine and rain, water and wine, holiness gleaming through our tears.

The Day of Restoration

In James 5:1-8, we read a prophecy about rich oppressors. Listening carefully, we note that this is not a condemnation of wealth, but of the misuse of wealth. It echoes back to Leviticus (25:8-24) and the year of Jubilee, a festival for every 50th year; a year that is good news for the poor because debts are forgiven, good news for those who have been or might be cheated because restoration is expected. Absentee landlords are required to return to see how their properties have been managed because they are as responsible as those left in charge.

In James, we read that this has not been the practice, that in fact, restoration is no longer an expectation for the wealthy. The wealthy who are oppressors are those who refuse to see that everything they have, belongs to God and God demands restoration always. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. Humanity lives and walks in the garden of the Lord . We own nothing, but are caretakers on the earth. Although inequities may occur, the balance is to be set right at least every 50 years. Injustice, imbalance must not persist; balance must be restored.The death of Jesus is laid in the hands of the powerful who hate him for advocacy of the poor, his challenges to the status quo.

Jesus is an icon of God’s proclamation of the righteous kingdom where the earth is protected, there is food and shelter for all and weapons have been turned into useful tools. In the year of the Lord’s favour, Jesus says, quoting Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21), there will be healing from the consequences of poverty and war. There will be restoration and equity for all. The scripture is fulfilled in the person of Jesus, not in law or prophecy, but in the life of a human being.

How are we, the body of Christ in the world, doing at fulfilling this vision of Jesus? I think this text is a challenge about mission. While many might think that mission is about getting church members, I think this text shows us that the mission of the church is to find co-workers in the task of healing what we have damaged, restoring what has been stolen and renewing right relationships among all people.

It really is not enough to hear Jesus’ words without feeling them. It is not enough to recite creeds written long after Jesus’ time, without promising to follow his mandate. It is not even good enough to say, “Lord, Lord” unless it changes our hearts, opens our minds, and puts action and mercy in our hands. Of all Jesus’ disciples, the early church recognized his mother Mary as the true teacher and so they placed the Magnificat on her lips.

Without this commitment to making the world a better place for everyone, all our songs and prayers, all our liturgical actions are self-indulgent. Our worship must be energizing for mission, reflective for repentance, and challenging to lead us on the Way; that is discipleship. For the good news of Jesus to be our good news, we must dedicate ourselves with love and courage to the earth, to the other creatures, and to all our brothers and sisters, even those we may wish to perceive as enemies. The work is too urgent for us to be distracted. The call of Christ is too compelling for us to turn aside. The day of the lord is here and the accounting is upon us. May Jesus be able to call us his good and faithful servants.

Freedom: Not Just Another Word

This past week, I was in conversation with some folks and we were talking about what we meant when we said we had good news. Most people talked about the good news in terms of liberation. Understanding God as divinely inclusive love meant a freedom from judgement. Some people talked about the good news as radical inclusive community, a freedom from isolation. Others spoke the freedom to question, to learn. to expand one’s mind and consciousness. Still others talked about the good news as freedom from anxiety.

This reading from John is one of me favourites:

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

The suggestion here is that although humans cannot either contain or manage the Spirit of the Divine, we can be born into it or of it. It sounds reassuring but that Spirit is also unpredictable. How disconcerting for a species that thinks to elude death by creating monuments and shrines, rules and cultures. It is not that any of these activities are ill considered on their own necessarily. The problem is that we tend to rely on them to save us rather than on the living presence of Christ in our midst. And that unpredictable Christ will cause us to ride along with strangers, eat with the socially unacceptable, lay healing hands on the undesirables of each society. That Spirit will not let us recline on comfortable sofas, or even uncomfortable pews. If we want to be participants, we must leave the safety of our emotional and cultural assumptions with other treasures of our past. We are called to sail on stormy seas, even when we are unsure about our competence for the water.

Freedom in the missional sense is not without boundaries, however. It is our ethic, expressed in tribal terms in the decalogue, and in first century terms in the beatitudes. For us, living in this time, it might expressed as an ethic of responsible relationship, of mutuality of service and support, of compassion beyond pity or reason. Of eagerness to learn, to question, to make connections across the boundaries; a willingness to sacrifice in order to cultivate new friends, to stretch the network of love.

Freedom is not the easy path. Freedom requires thought and planning, effort and openness. The only way to escape the wind is to hide inside a cave. The only way to escape the Spirit of truth and love is to shutter the windows of our hearts and minds. The only way to experience the wonder of resurrection is to let that same Spirit blow through us like the seeking wind that will recreate us and teach us to live in the holy and eternal moment of God’s love.

The Earth is the Lord’s

The earth is angry and hurting. Monstrous hurricanes, uncontainable wildfires, flooding, drought in tender places on the planet. Like any wounded body, the body of the planet is reacting not just to normal cycles but to some abnormal stresses placed upon it. Its crust has been drilled, its air and waters poisoned; its meadows covered in asphalt and cement. If you just contemplate for one moment what humanity has done to our paradise, you will understand immediately what is happening now.

We think we are very smart but some of you may have read that there is a 3,700 year old tablet from Babylon that has things to teach us about mathematics. This generation does not have all the answers, nor have we even asked wise questions yet. I think the earth is in danger from our ignorance combined with our arrogance and pride. We have the capacity to destroy ourselves many times over. What makes us think we are wise or even smart. We are the mice who poison our own litters, the wasps that sting ourselves.

In Isaiah 54, there is a prophecy about God’s steadfast love, the divine heart that is grieved but cannot remain distant. One of the ways for Christians to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” is to consider Jesus as the wise teacher who shows us that God has entrusted us with the mission of reconciliation of the people, the creation. But it takes courage to acknowledge that our present course must change, that we have learned that our cultures, our knowledge, our experiments have been dangerous and often ill considered.

Where do we begin when we have allowed mega institutions and rich men to control our education, our health, our labour? I think we begin in humility. We begin by acknowledging our weakness, our lack of wisdom. We begin by discarding all the language about separation that we have created, language of ethnicity, gender, race, religion. Jesus moves from a tribal perspective to a universal perspective. We must work at this also. The divisions in our minds will not disappear without intentional effort.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. It has been ceded to us for our comfort and well being, not for greed and not for hoarding. When we see ourselves as caretakers rather than conquerors, we will have begun to remember that the earth is for sharing not owning.

I think we need to learn how to pray again and by that I mean opening our hearts and minds to the deep well of wisdom and compassion that is the Divine Presence. It is time to pray that we will learn how to repent and rebuild what we have lost. It is time to experience our smallness in the universe and the enormity of the trust that has been placed in human hands. Praying is primarily listening into the silence, hearing the drum of our hearts, the whisper of our breath, that is shared with every other atom of earth. Praying means connecting ourselves to the mystery of life, rather than cherishing our lonely separateness

The practice for this way of being means being generous, hospitable, interested in other beings, unafraid of what we might learn. We need to remember that as the baptized, we are witnesses and missionaries in every single moment of our lives. How we speak to others, the degree of generosity and compassion we model, the joyful friendliness we share – all these behaviours testify to the Spirit of Christ working within us. And that Spirit calls out, “My saviour and my Lord” in our hearts because we know that Jesus shares this journey with us.

And so finally, don’t be afraid. That’s what the angels always say before they send us on a mission that is going to be challenging. But then there are rainbows and open tombs, there are everyday miracles, friendship, bread and wine and suddenly we know that not only can we survive this time, we can be agents of peace within it. And so a life: work, meaning, companions and peace at the end. May God’s holy name be praised!