17 Feb 19
You would expect the first psalm to be somehow special, and you would be correct. In many translations, it is known only as a pre-amble to the book of Psalms and Psalm 2 is actually the first Psalm.
As the preamble it calls the singers to sing the psalms as if they were meditations on the laws of God.
In this theology life is simple:
Blessings follow Wisdom, and
Tragedy follows arrogance.
Watch for this pattern: verses 1-3: Blessing follow Wisdom, then 4-5: tragedy follows arrogance. The psalm will close with the same frame: B/W T/A.
The word blessed used in the first verse is not an external kind of blessing, like for example winning a lottery or being with family or going to camp. It is a sense of internal peace that facilitates walking through life, regardless of the externals. The happy one avoids internalizing the negativity of the world by finding home in God’s wisdom and experiences a kind of calmness from within.
Indeed this psalm is about basic decisions of life in simple contrasts. There is fruit in the wisdom of God and there is barrenness in the way of those who listen to no one. How do wish to be…at peace or troubled?
Listen carefully to the Word of God.
Like the psalm, this ancient reading offers a choice between two ways. Because I don’t like to think in terms of black and white, I believe there are continuums on both sides of these experiences: happiness or miseries. Many scholars believe Jeremiah has used Psalm 1 for this writing.
Jeremiah has used a very old formula which reflects both the miseries of life and its joys, both of which we all experience to one degree or another sometimes daily. The words used could be: blessings and curses, joys and miseries, laughter and tears. Jeremiah likes the words cursed and blessed.
At the end of this reading, you will hear him confessed the human mind and heart is too complicated for any one person to understand, leaving only the creator to be the entity which fully understands human kind.
This last bit about the deceitful heart is very interesting. Jeremiah is noted for his use of the word heart as the center of the human soul. For him the corrupted human heart can be turned around but only in response to God’s love. Earlier Jeremiah writes of this transformation in this most powerful way: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts.”
Luke 6: 17-26
Jesus taught his lessons after making some kind of spectacle attracting lots of onlookers. He then, usually around food, told stories of offered pithy memorable one liners.
For example: if I were to ask you to finish this one liner: Blessed are the poor… most of you would say: for they will inherit the earth. Matthew offers a long list of these pithy sayings and we know that list as the Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s version is known as the Sermon on the Plain. Neither events likely took place; most likely as believed by most scholars both authors collected together the short pithy memorable sentences into one place.
Here again we meet the ancient pattern found in psalms and in Jeremiah: blessings and curses. We have come to call these the beatitudes and the woes. By the way Luke adds the woes, making his version more in line with the ancient practices.
You have to love the symmetry of this reading. Each target of the blessings is balanced by the target of the woe begotten. Watch for this pairing:
The hated/the praised
The other element worth noting is the tense used: the present state and then its future. The poor now will have a better life, hungry now will be satiated, the rich now will be impoverished etc.
17 Feb 19
Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10
Luke 6: 17-26
How Can Mercy be a Bad thing?
Triune God, you are our giver, our gift, and our power to give. Be with us now as we un-wrap the wonder of your word, and seek to be a blessing to the world. Amen.
How can Mercy be a bad thing? The mercy or compassion that we find in the gospels is very precise and it will provoke push back. The hostility that Jesus provoked with these beatitudes and woes was a major factor contributing to his death.
Jesus had great empathy and major hope for those living below the poverty lines: the poor, the hungry, the depressed, and the marginalized. His empathy and hope scratched the people, where they itched, living in the farming lands and small villages of Galilee.
Jesus was not the last to touch the people subjected to abuse of a rigid class structure with empathy and hope. The preaching of John Wesley, a founder of the Methodist church, in 1775, touched the hearts of hardened dirt poor, much abused mine labourers of Somerset England. Wesley empathised with these working people so much so, he could offer hope that life did not have to stay that way. Wesley said: “I know how bad your lives are today, and yet I know how much better they will be.” He taught with empathy and hope. That hope translated into social changes that addressing the worst atrocities of the Industrial revolution of 1800. It is said Wesley emphasized so well tears of connection and hope created white streaks down their black coal dust covered faces. Wesley’s mercy; based in the gospel teachings, met with significant hostility from privileged people in high places who wanted the poor to keep their mouths shut and their heads bowed.
Wesley preached about a future of dignity for miners, freedom not servitude, participation and not submission. His music and voice spoke words for all and the wealthy privileged few hated him.
Recall the sermon on the plain: Jesus empathises and wins the hearts of those poor now, by calling for major transformation of the system to bring about a much better future. He warns the privileged that this compassionate transformation, if they resist it will in time come back to bite them hard. “Woe to the rich, for they will be brought down.” We know that that preaching for mercy met huge resistance among the privileged, then… perhaps does it not do so today in some places?
This was the good news for the people of Galilee, but not so much for the rich families unless the rich families found another way. We find, I believe, in the sermon on the plain, like with Wesley a partnership of hope that goes beyond understanding. In other words we see the mystical hand of the Holy Spirit as preached by Jesus and experienced by Wesley.
I cannot but think about the laid off Canadian GM workers and the record profits reported by GM which are attributed to this labour decision.
This week a voice cried out in empathy and pointed to a future that must be different: Notice the way this is worded: the empathy is now, the hope is in the future, just like the beatitudes and the woes in Luke’s gospel.
“I go (today) to visit the GM workers as a gesture of solidarity. At some point (in the future), basic human decencies will kick in and companies will be loyal to the people that support them.”
You may have noticed this tidbit offered this week, by, of all people this man: “Sting”. He revealed he grew up in Wallsend, England, just as the ship building industry collapsed and he experienced the heart ache and suffering of long time loyal workers, including his father. This is a genuine source of his empathy.
And why is he optimistic with hope for a better future? He said this: “I have to be hopeful, otherwise I will do nothing.”
In other theological words: if God gave up on the poor, they would never inherit the land. If God gave up on the hungry, they would never be filled. Alternatively if God never warned the rich, they will never change the world. If God never warned those with full bellies, they will never want a better way.
All our readings today carry this ancient chant: empathy now and hope for the future. Jesus preaches on the plains; Wesley preaches to the miners, and Sting sings in Oshawa.
What a living God we have! God has not given up, despite all the foibles and chaos of the human race. I think it goes back to the creation word of God. And God created humankind and saw that it was very very good. Poor or rich, all creatures can work for the vision of God earth as it is in heaven.
What should or could we do with this? We can touch, our neighbours, our family and friends in difficulty with jobs, or illness, or hunger, or depression by empathy. We can then teach the hope of a better time to come.
We can remind our neighbours, our family and friends in privilege with money, fitness, full bellies, and great spirits by our empathy. Then we can teach the more excellent way for all in the future.
Speaking of teachers, we have amongst our volunteers who live and teach with empathy-in-the-present and hope-for-the-future. So while we are considering our homework to do the same, let us extend our gratitude to our teachers. From our education pillar these are the amazing teachers amongst us. Let us sing the two verses of our next hymn, “Will you come and follow me?” which will give our people time to come up from the down stairs.
10 Feb 2019
Our Psalm reading is clearly a psalm of thanksgiving. It shows up at the end of the fourth book of Psalms as a summary psalm to assist the reader transit to the final chapter of the psalms.
The reader is grateful that the horrible period of refugeeism to Babylon is over, and yet is also aware that chaos and danger lurks in the background…watch for the words: “trouble” and “foes”.
By placing God as the center of life, the writer feels safe from the ongoing chaos as much as he feels gratitude for the deliverance from the refugee camp.
The beautiful art in this psalm is located by a frame placed around the inner message and we can see the frame in the repetition of the phrase: “Your steadfast love” at the beginning and then again at the end. You might also look for, in the short middle section that there are 3 reasons for the felt gratitude. Why is he grateful? Watch for these words:
The writer is grateful because God
emboldens, answers, and looks kindly.
I Corinthians 15:1-11
In all of Paul’s authentic letters, he starts with the assumption that seeds of the teachings of Christ, after the crucifixion sprouted a full grown plant. He writes about this most aggressively in the next reading.
Paul came to believe this due to his own intimate encounter with God on the road to Damascus. He understood his encounter was only one of many appearances of Jesus beginning with Peter and indeed continues from one generation to the next. Paul’s encounter was merely the latest in an on-going-phenomena.
The Corinthians to whom Paul writes, like most Jews gave little or no thought to resurrection as if resurrection meant a return to life from the once dead. While they understood the Jesus was once dead, then returned to life, they did not think rising for the actual dead was a theology applicable to their own individual human lives.
But that gives the unique death and resurrection of Jesus its sustaining hold to the believers. As Paul points out: anything less than holding firm to the knowledge that the full grown plant of Jesus theology comes from its dormant inert dead-looking seed would render the Christian faith empty.
Most of us grew up believing that this story was the miracle that brought Simon. James and John to give up everything, abandon Zebedee, and follow Jesus.
And yet a closer look and there is so much more. We know today that fishing was a carefully controlled industry. The boats were built and maintained by a wealthier class of land owners. Small partnerships were formed to rent these boats and fish. Fishermen essentially had nothing, and the youngest members of the crew, Simon, James and John would have had nothing to give up. Staying on the boats would mean they had little future. Following Jesus gave them a chance at a better life. And while they left Zebedee’s employ, there is no indication they had rejected their father or would be leaving him without crew. Finally, leaving behind their possessions would be the law of the sea. Jumping ship was legally penalized by forfeiture of the catch and their personal gear on the ship. Furthermore it was no big deal as other than this catch of fish, they had little or nothing on the ship in the first place.
Understanding these social realities of fishermen in the time of Jesus renders much of the popular understanding as naďve as any bedtime children’s story.
That means that if this story is to teach anything, its meaning has to be found in the power of parallel meanings, a parabolic story. Modern theologians have refocused on three aspects of the story and I have underlined them for you. They are:
1. Doing something that flies in the face of human trust and logic (like fishing a fished out sea)
2. The over-abundance of fish (too heavy for the crew)
3. Leaving their share of the catch for Zebedee and other fellow crew members (left everything).
10 Feb 19
Psalm 138; I Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-10
Until our nets break
O Majesty and Mercy, open us to wonder that we may be surprised by the greatness that awaits us in the smallest bud, the earliest sunrise, or the unexpected invitation from a neighbour. Let us always be expected to find your love incarnating among us in new ways. Amen.
From the call of Simon, James and John, in Luke we get these two lines: they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. They filled both boats so full that they began to sink. It is actually easier to see this as a magical event than to deal with its theological truth.
Let me explain. The economy of our Western democratized society holds to this principle:
There is not enough to go around. We must work to get as much of the pie as we can but when it is gone it is gone, and we could starve. There is not enough to go around.
At this core this is our capitalistic system of consumerism. This system has indeed become the most successful economic engine of civilizations and been in play for the last 500 years. Its governing principle is scarcity and the scarcity principle was entrenched in modern economics by the great Scot Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of nations, published in 1776.
In the past two hundred years of industrialization, money is used to compensate for work. Such economics was officially defined as: “the study the relationship between the end results and the scarcity of means”. In simple terms: markets are driven by supply and demand. Unfettered capitalism encourages the unlimited desire to consume and accumulate far more than one could ever use in a lifetime, creating human made scarcities. It encourages greed on world-wide scales.
Basing all our modernity on the principle of scarcity has become pragmatically attractive; blasphemous to challenge, it works very well, and yet in the long run becomes a destroyer of souls.
It has spawned unlimited rape of the earth. It encourages the building of walls. It encourages uprisings and violence. It leaves people terrified they will not have enough for retirement. It traps people in unsavoury relationships. Even with all its benefits to the world, capitalism is the anti-thesis to the alternative system of the gospel.
What is the gospel solution? When the mother of Jesus complains the wedding wine was about to run out, Jesus showed her an abundance of wine. When the disciples complained they could not feed the 5,000, Jesus showed them an abundance of food. When people showed him anxiety he pointed to the trust the lilies had in God of abundance.
When the fishermen lamented the lack of fish, Jesus shows them plenty of fish in the sea. The economics of our Jesus is based not in the principle of scarcity but rather in the principle of abundance. God’s creation, Jesus taught holds an abundance of resources to sustain all life, including the feeding of a human population, provided those resources are accessed and distributed in a socially equitable, just, and compassionate way.
And therein lays the problem: it is easy to say we believe in the economics of abundance, but we live in an economy principled in scarcity. It is so difficult to imagine the alternative that when the President of the United States raised the word socialism on Tuesday, he did so as if socialism was Satanic. It is really difficult to embrace the Jesus principle of abundance despite all its strong supporting biblical evidence and the clarity of Jesus teaching.
The economics of Jesus are hard to embrace; the economics of Jesus provoked hostility among the wealthiest Jewish families, a certain rich young man, and the Roman commanders in charge of Israel because they had so much to lose. That hostility led to the Kangaroo court and the execution of the Nazarene.
Could Jesus economics also be playing a part in the increased world trade protectionism, Brexit, civil unrest in Venezuela, resistance to immigration, riots in Paris, and the American-Mexican Wall standoff?
Let that question be our homework to ponder when these news items invade our homes.
Let us ponder when we hear dire warnings from the most powerful and the richest about the dangers of alternatives. Let us ponder that question when the richest people on earth demonizes too much government, or demonizes social safety structures, or demonizes social medical care, demonizes immigration, or demonizes impoverished war weary families caravanning towards the ideals of Western successful democracies. Let us ponder this question when those who hold most of the world’s wealth defend their production. After all there is no scarcity at Pfizer, Exxon, Bell, or General Motors.
In our reflections, let us also remember an amazing inexplicable progress of the vision of the Nazarene. Jesus teachings continue to transform the mythological economics of scarcity. Millions more people, today, all connected world-wide, are devoted to the vision of the Nazarene which says there is, in fact an abundance of freedom, motivations for work, money, jobs, and hospitality. What is needed is the equitable access and distribution of those things on scales not yet realized.
Since I believe in the message of Easter, as hard as that is; I must also believe that the alternative taught by Jesus of Nazareth is slowly penetrating the human race despite all the warnings and resistance.
I must also believe that the wisdom of the Holy Spirit is impacting the stubborn hostility to the economics of abundance.
Is that part of the complex hope of Easter? I, for one, like to so believe.
Your word encourage us to try again and so we cast our hopes in deeper waters, assured we will find nourishment for all.
In the presence of your Spirit and each other, you open our eyes, ears, and hearts. O God send us out in a state of openness, so that we may be surprised by the abundance in your creation.
3 Feb 19
Psalm 71: 1-7
This psalm is unique as it is the only psalm that has no credit line, although it is closely linked to psalm 70 and really should be studied together.
It has the flavour of a weeping psalm, lamenting the horrible life of the refugee fleeing their land where their indestructible sacred temple has been destroyed. It also expects God, who was once the midwife to humanity to step up once again to protect the Israeli nations from the wicked and the cruel.
We learn later in the psalm that these lyrics were likely written by one person, a man, elderly and likely ill in some way.
Now with all due respect to the writer and the first readers of this song, we must realize that this song demands much of us. It makes wild swings with four elements:
petitions, expectations of salvation, enemies, and hope. This psalm actually can be divided up into three clearly visible sections. Today we read the first section.
We’ll see clearly the four elements present in this reading. Psalm 71
Luke 4: 21b-30
Indeed this reading has to set into the context of the verses that precede it. The beginning of adulthood for any Jewish youth is at age 13 and is ritualized by that boy reading in his home synagogue. I suspect this is the kind of thing that is happening in this story about Jesus reading at his own synagogue.
This would explain the story and take into account its variety: admiration, suspicion, and rejection. He reads Isaiah and he read it well, clearly, confidently and captures its sensation. The congregation is thrilled at seeing one of their own being no longer a boy, but a man who is now a son of commandments. Then this daring confident young man, perhaps even a teenager claims he is the one of God who shall heal the sick, give sight to those blind, and free the oppressed. Like young teenagers anywhere and anytime, so often they speak fearlessly with solutions to all the ills of their time.
But our Jesus is not a normal young man. We know he is a very astute student of the stories of the Old Testament. He noticed that God saved not one of the chosen, through Elijah the Jewish prophet, but rather an unclean gentile woman from the famine that afflicted Israel. Jesus also noticed that God saved through the Jew prophet Elisha healed only one leper amongst the many in Israel, and that man was Naaman, a pagan from Syria: no Jew was healed, no Jew was saved.
When this young man, one of their own, pointed out this very unpopular truth of sacred scriptures that to the assembly they are outraged at his pertinence, so outraged the want to do him harm.
But being a young teenage, in the chaos of the crowd, he slips away from their wrath. What a great story: Luke 4: 21
I Corinthians 12: 31b - 13:13
One could easily claim our next reading is like a priceless piece of art or music. Its rhythm, its rhyme, its simple and colorful expressions has made this reading one of the most popular. Perhaps most commonly heard at weddings, recited at churches, it is found hanging in homes, offices and hospitals all over the world, religious or not.
While we must acknowledge its beauty, we must not lose sight of its purpose nor for whom it was written. To do so reduces this glorious writing to a gooey sentimentality which is more related to a simplistic Hallmark Card than to Jesus. To do so perverts the purpose of the letter. It was written to promote the theology that unity in Christ Jesus trumps everything else.
Written to the fledging new congregation in Corinth about 50 AD, it is one of the earliest sacred writing about Jesus Christ, predating all four gospels.
The congregants were divided, fighting passionately about which of them was the most valuable: preacher, healer, teacher, lawyer, historian, linguist, or theologian? Paul sees this naval gazing debate as a meaningless waste of time distracting this church from the mission of love that came from the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul’s word “Love,” repeated here 15 times, is much more than a feeling between two people’ Love here is an euphemism for living “in Christ”, which, for Jesus, meant creating a society characterized by distributed justice, non-violence, plenty, and peace. Without such love, life is as empty as clanging cymbals.
Experience says that such love seems way beyond human capability. Paul knew this and so he added this key often overlooked phrase: I will know God’s love as God knows my love. He says in effect that this most excellent way calls for the promised divine-human partnership.
3 Feb 19
Psalm 71: 1-7, Luke 4: 21b-30, I Corinthians 12: 29b-13
To Whom do you think you are talking?
Speaker over the waters, word in the prophets’ mouths, voice from heaven, word made flesh, your word shapes, guides, claims, and saves us. Open our hearts to encounter your word with fresh ears and clear eyes, that our lives might be renewed to serve you with thankful hearts. Amen.
The story of Jesus reading in his home town has been re-enacted for us by the story from this woman: Rahaf al-Qunun.
Obviously she is very clever, very articulate, clear eyed and good looking. As a young girl, she must have brought delight to all who met her. Her upbringing appears to have been in a healthy caring environment, one which, consciously or unconsciously allowed her to become the independent courageous teenager we saw on the news.
Then she stood up in her mosque, her culture, and her family to declare she is a role model for freedom from oppression by institutional misogyny. The crowd went wild, threatened to throw her over a cliff, but slipped away to surface in Taiwan free to teach healing for those she had seen traumatized: 'I hope my story encourages other women to be brave and free.'
In our reading Jesus has reached the age of consent, the age of bar Mitzvah. “Bar mitzvah” is not a ceremony; it is a stage of growth like puberty. A boy enters bar mitzvah or literally translated a boy enters his time as a “son-under-the-law”. At 12 he was still a boy under the responsibility of his parents. In the temple we heard about his charm, courage, precociousness, and intelligence. But then as a teenager at least 13 years old, he was treated to be an adult member of the Jewish community with the responsibilities that come with it. These responsibilities comprise
-being accountable for one’s own actions;
-reading well from sacred texts of law
-lead or participate in worship;
-the right to possess personal property
-the right to marry;
-expected to uphold the laws of the Torah
-to speak truthfully as if under oath in synagogues
The irony is that according to Luke, when Jesus as a son-under-the law, behaved with these responsibilities, his own people went wild. He read well from sacred scriptures, he led their worship intelligently with the challenges of the prophets Isaiah, Elijah and Elisha, he believed in the law, took responsibility for his own faith in action and spoke truth to power.
Jesus testified that he expected himself to role-model the mission found in his Bible. He pointed out that the God saved not the Jews but rather the dirty rejected pagans through the beloved prophets of Elijah and Elisha!
This young man from a lower status family had shamed his own people with the brave theology of Isaiah’s healing, freedom, and hope. No wonder they cried out: “who does this kid think he is? Is this kid not just some tradesman’s son? Let’s get him!”
And there it is: the sad way of the world. Is there not usually hostility against even the most constructive missions that criticize or threaten those with invested power? Would not that hostility be amplified if one of our own young Sunday school students called us to account?
It takes courage beyond human understanding to stand up to the adult powerful privileged knowing full well such a courageous stand will provoke hostility. It still takes a mystical courage to stand up against the foibles of the privileged because truth will provoke hostility and enemies will always emerge. Those with privilege and power outside the mind of God hang on to their places with a tenacity that is dangerous.
Our mission, should we chose to accept it is to stand with our Jesus and be able to say: 'I hope my story encourages others to be brave and free.'
On closing, imagine thinking like the young teenager Jesus might have thought. Thinking like any teenager, and yet like no teenager at the same time. I came across this prayer that maybe captures the mystery upon which Jesus had been meditating:
Bar Mitzvah Time by Diarmuid O’Murchu
Having thought long and hard, my vocation in Life,
The call of the Spirit to Listen.
I found myself opening the book of Isaiah
And was drawn to the place where 'tis written
You're called and anointed
To bring to the Poor,
The Captive, the Blind, and Disheartened,
A reign of empowerment,
Healing and hope;
a new face of God for enactment
I lay down the scroll and looked at them all,
Bewildered, amazed, and uncertain.
How could a tradesman be so versatile,
Unraveling divine revelation! CHORUS
Today, in your midst, this text is fulfilled
Embracing a prophetic vision.
I wish I was not the one chosen so,
But I can't abdicate the decision. CHORUS.
It seemed like too much for the leaders to take,
A threat to their status and power.
The prophets of yore rejecting as well,
I had to acknowledge my hour. CHORUS.
Their voices rang loud with anger and rage,
They shuffled me down to the cliff
While wrangling broke out in the disparate mob,
I made an escape rather swift. CHORUS.
I knew this rejection would frequently rise,
Every time I promoted the new.
And I knew what 'twould cost to honor the dream,
The Reign of God to pursue! CHORUS