thinking theology

A Responsive Soul

The best description of the irresistible call of Jesus is perhaps best characterized by Dorothee Söelle who wrote the following poem, “not without you.”

he needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

What made Simon and Andrew, James and John follow him, leaving behind work and family for a relatively unknown, itinerant preacher? We will never know except to ask ourselves why we are here today. What yearning in our souls draws us from our warm covers, from our book, our coffee, our devices? What is here that calls us from our comfort?

And to what call does Jesus respond? I think it is the call from a people who are alienated, disconnected; a people who are suffering and have lost hope for a better future. Jesus shapes his call as he walks the roads of Palestine, healing and challenging, teaching and practising compassion. He himself learns as he goes and sees that this road that he has chosen will inevitably lead to a confrontation with the powers in charge of the people for whom he cares.

I am not sure that there is anything such thing as an exterior call, that the Holy One singles anyone out for a special purpose. I think it is the incarnation, the abiding spirit of God that calls through our humanity, through our psychology, through our experience, even through our relationships. For Christians, that gets shaped in following the Way of Christ, and indeed, in his personal charisma that has stood the test of millennia now. In our heart, there is an unfulfilled longing that sends tendrils out into the world and for those of us here, those tendrils connect with Jesus. But that is just the beginning. Like Jesus, we are presented with choices at every branch in the road, The choices invite us to choose compassion or hate, indifference or connection, commitment or apathy. We are free agents, able to ignore the pulling of our hearts, the deep questions of our minds, the teaching in our relationships.

The touchstone for us around our choices is of course our baptismal covenant, which for many of us must be re-thought and re-chosen from time to time. It is the map that tells us how close we are to Gethsemane, how near the cross, how willing we are not only to love Jesus, but to make his choices.

The call that Christians hear begins within our hearts, but to be fully realized, we must hear also the cry of the poor, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, move from judgement to compassion.

Here is what Marcus Borg says: We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities, pre occupations – to minds and hearts centred in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism – to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, minds alive to God’s passion for justice. (Days of Awe and Wonder)

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Open to the Call

1 Samuel 3:1-20; John (1:43-51)

The readings for this Sunday are about improbable calls. In the Samuel passage, the boy in training for the priesthood is very new and unprepared. He has no idea what is happening and has to have to spelled it or for him. The disturbance in his sleep is neither too much hummus, nor a scary dream, nor an unreasonable demand. Instead, it is a call from the Holy One that disturbs his sleep and will overturn the course of his life. He is to replace the descendants of Eli in the family dynasty of priests. We know as the story proceeds that he will call the first kings; he will advise and chastise; reprimand and encourage. But he is still a boy when he is called, with no idea of what his future will hold.

In the gospel passage, Nathaniel is called by Jesus despite his racist and classist attitudes. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, he sneers about Jesus. Jesus teases him by acknowledging his prejudices. Nathaniel, astounded at the insight, is completely won over. Jesus remarks that if he thinks this is a big deal, he will have to stick around for the denouement, the fireworks, as it were.

Both of these passage ask some different questions about who and how people are called. St. Paul himself a murderer and a bigot is called into Jesus company. The first men called by Jesus were simple men. Women followed and financially supported him. Children could not be driven off; nor would Jesus permit them to be chased away.

You might be noticing who is not called. There are no stories about God calling the rich and powerful, the brokers of deals or the politicians. Some of these do follow Jesus, Nicodemus, for example, but they have to seek out Jesus, rather than the reverse.

The ones who are called are called because they have nothing to lose. They are open to the voices because nothing else filters their hope. That have no status, no power, nothing to look forward to particularly. Jesus offers them a cosmic adventure, s spiritual ride of transformation and insight.

A challenge to ourselves: ask what filters stand between us and the call. What elevator music blocks out the call? What busy anxiety cancels the seeking Spirit? What possessions or status makes us deaf and blind in our souls?

Rumi

A Star Without a Name

When a baby is taken from the wet nurse,
she easily forgets her
and starts eating solid food.

Seeds feed awhile on ground,
then lift up into the sun.

So you should taste the filtered light
and work your way toward wisdom
with no personal covering.

That’s how you came here,
like a nameless star
Move across the night sky
with those anonymous lights.

Christmas Eve 2017

There is a lovely hymn by Miriam Therese Winter about the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth called “The Visit”. One of the lines is: There leaped a little child in an ancient womb. and there leaped a little hope in every ancient tomb. I think one of the themes of of the incarnation is that nothing is ever really dead except pain, suffering and despair. New life, creativity. can awaken what has been thought to be finished, without any new possibility. Hope against even common sense, or the laws of probabilities, is a gift that keeps us breathing, that encourages us to plant trees we won’t see bloom, give to fledgling organizations.

And that hope doesn’t always have to be one that we can easily access on our own. We can find it through others, through the joyful spontaneity and spirituality of children, in ancient hymns, sung in traditional and contemporary ways. We can be surprised and delighted, like the band Barenaked Ladies playing a blending of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Star of Wonder.

Through the ancient rite of the eucharist, in the context of modern theology, and language, we can remember that this rite unites us to life in all its holiness and all its creatureliness. The rite unites to one another, the saintly, the sinful, the sceptical, and the devout. Tonight, we are one family, together to listen for something that we have been missing, or to be reassured that we have heard correctly. But it won’t be as it has always been. That is impossible. You are new tonight and the way the story of a baby and a star broke into our hearts will be new also.

We are like the shepherds. We are tired, we have worked hard, we have been frightened by the things happening in our world. And yet, we have still come to this place with open hands, needing to receive something, although we are not sure what that is perhaps.

There is one gift I hope you receive tonight and that is the gift of hope. There is no sin or sorrow that cannot be resolved by God’s blessing of life that stirs in the depths of our hearts. Open hands, open hearts, a willingness to be invaded by joy and holiness will lead all the way to a manger, then later a cross, but always from life to life, from love to love, from isolation to the enfolding of the communion of joyful hearts.

Here is the last line of that hymn:
When you walk in the summer through the heat on the hill, when you’re wound with the wind and one with Her will, be brave with the burden you are blessed to bear, for its Christ that you carry everywhere. May hope find you and hold you in Love.

For most of Advent, Ive been grumbling about the collision of dates but in preparation for the 8 am service, I suddenly realized how this year “trues” the message of Advent. it has come upon us suddenly, even though we knew it would come. It came as a surprise, illogically enough. I certainly was not as ready as I thought. Over breakfast, wremarked that it looked as though the apocalypse had happened in our living room, and baking, cleaning, decorating still had not happened. Despite all my obsessive organizing, things assumed new paths, new configurations, and it was all very good. Indeed, my organizing ales got in the way.

The message of John is prepare for God’s judgement, and that judgement i Jesus. Prepare for something new and unexpected to erupt in our midst, and a child cries in the night. Advent asks us to get ready, but nothing we can do will prepare us, nothing we can practice, will let us anticipate this improbable event. The judgement of God has come, and the judgement is love. The judgement is a blessing on our humanity. The judgement says all things shall be well. Open your hearts, and feel forgiven, freed and loved. And now we are ready for Christmas!

Holiness, Woven and Revealed

Many years ago, I was asked to be a guest on a CBC radio show. My task was to talk about the Marian Antiphons with Jürgen Goth, a personal hero. It seemed like an odd thing to have happened, but I didn’t want to miss the chance so I took myself for some research not only on the antiphons, but on a new understanding of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In my early church days, like everyone else I guess, Mary was a background figure. Despite the Magnificat, she seemed to be silent and passive, being caught between the plans of a father god and a divine son.

The antiphons presented quite a different picture of her, of course. Written between the 11th and 13th centuries CE, their prayer is to a woman of power and authority. Jesus may be entreated through her in times of danger or stress and struggle. In may parts of the world, icons and altars in her honour have been created. Nonetheless, in most of the paintings, frescoes and statuary, she remains a demure figure.

As a young and pious woman, I wanted to be as obedient and as demure as she; however, I am a fiery Sagittarian and such meekness could not be fulfilled without serious damage to my identity. Nor was my mother much of a traditional figure of humble, womanly behaviours. She was too much fun and too alive for all that. And thus, until the radio programme, I spent very little time considering Mary’s presence in my life or in the life of the church.

Study and reflection have caused me to re-evaluate this figure in the story of Jesus. Mary had enough influence that legends rose up around her, supplying her with an immaculate conception and a bodily resurrection along with her son. This would suggest the authority of her presence in the deliberations of the early church.

From her role as an apostle and leader in the fledgling church, she gradually became reduced to a supporting role in the church’s theology, although she remained influential to ordinary people. When the reformation came, she was finally demoted, except as a model of virtue and obedience.

Many women have commented on how poorly this affected their ideas about themselves, their autonomy, and their potential. I suspect that not only women have been colonized by these ideas of submission and obedience to a higher authority. The whole church, in many ways, forgot itself over the millennia. The activity of the church became caricatured as the laity supporting a highly regulated and dominant priestly caste. Not only that, while laity were reminded of their human weaknesses and need for salvation, the ruling classes of the church functioned above critique or judgement.

And so we come to the 21st century. In our time, the moment is upon us to rehabilitate the reputation and role of Mary. It is in her mouth that Luke places a song very like that of Hannah who has conspired with God and who will produce Samuel, that great leader in Judaism. In Mary’s song, she expresses joy and hope for the poor and a reversal of fortune for the selfish. Her response to the angel Gabriel, when told of how she could understand her pregnancy, is basically, “Lets get on with it then!” She raises her child and, in the non-canonical literature, it is she who demonstrates his power to heal. She travels with Jesus, possibly working with the women followers who were the probable funders of the mission. At the cross, when others flee, she remains with her son, in life and in death. Her confidence in him and her unwavering strength in the face of resistance, oppression, violence, and her own heartbreak, is an incredible model of discipleship. Not so much obedient as responsive; not so much demure as defiant.

With Jesus, Mary reminds us that the divine works within the human body and spirit. Within the fibres of our being, holiness is woven and revealed; within our lives — our human, bodily lives — healing and hope, compassion and relationship, are sanctified and made real; not just ideas or philosophies, but actions.

To venerate Mary is to venerate the generative power of life in all of us, our capacity to be creative, insightful, courageous. To venerate Mary is to recognize that life itself is holy and we are called to defend God’s choice for life in all its complexity and beauty. I am fairly certain that it is not obedience that frees the world, but rather truth-telling, reconciliation, and forgiveness. And so I say to you, don’t be a shrinking violet! Be like Mary, an outrageous dusky rose who said to the messenger, “All right, lets do this!”

Alma Redemptoris Mater
(From the First Sunday of Advent to the Feast of the Presentation)
Loving mother of the Redeemer, that passage to heaven,
gate of the morning, and star of the sea, assist the fallen, you who cure, lift up the people: you who bore to the wonderment of nature, your holy Creator,
Virgin before and after, who received from Gabriel
that joyful greeting, have mercy on us sinners.

Ave Regina Cælorum
(After the Presentation to Holy Saturday)
Hail, Queen of the heavens, hail, Lady of the angels,
hail, root of Jesse, hail gate of heaven, from whom light has come into the world.
Rejoice, Virgin most glorious,
Above all most beautiful; hail, o most highly honored, and entreat Christ for us.

Regina Cæli
(From Easter to Pentecost )
Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia, for he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia,
was resurrected as he said, alleluia; entreat God for us, alleluia.
Be joyful and rejoice, Virgin Mary, alleluia,
Because Christ has truly risen, alleluia.

Salve Regina
(After Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent)
Hail, Queen, mother of mercies, life, sweetness, and our hope, hail,
To you do we cry, exiled children of Eden.
To you do we sigh, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Ho! therefore, our advocate; Turn your merciful eyes to us.
And after this exile, show to us Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb,
O clement, O holy, O sweet Virgin Mary.

More from the wilderness

I am still thinking about John and Jesus. John looks back into his tradition to find solutions for what he perceives to be a recurring problem that ultimately can be  resolved only by Divine judgement. Jesus, on the other hand, carries his tradition with him, reshaping it for new circumstances. He understands the rabbinical idea that Torah does not change, but people and the world do. Thus Torah is perceived in new ways for every generation.
I do not think Jesus’ ministry is problem based, so much as responsive, open to previously unimaginable possibility. Jesus seems aware that only compassion can unseat violence and only vulnerability can challenge power. No amount of institutional obedience or even piety will bring the world to a new era. For Jesus, the Divine is in the world in relationship, in the flesh , in the struggle, joy, and grace of living and dying with integrity, with love.
John looks to the past, as the Church often does. Jesus opens the door of the future, inviting us to step through death into a re-embodied eternal present.

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.