Month: August 2013

An ‘Honouring’ Network

So they were him watching carefully (Luke 14: 1 – 14). Not it would seem as a means of learning and hopeful anticipation of any notable manifestation of the kingdom of God; rather waiting to find out how he might incriminate himself further after his outburst against that ‘fox’ Herod. Was it a watching and waiting to see him fall rather than be raised up?

After another Sabbath healing at the synagogue which left the religious with nothing to say, we find Jesus has accepted an invitation to eat at the home of a leading religious leader, along with a group of his colleagues. The opportunity was being offered for networking; or, was it a means of trying to control and contain both Jesus and his message through bringing him into their fold. Was he supposed to be grateful for the invitation?

The purpose of networking is to nurture a relationship of reciprocal benefit. It is a something for something relationship that seeks to scratch your back now so that you will scratch my back later. It is a relationship based on what I can get rather than what I might be able to offer. This may be acceptable in the way the world works but is this how Jesus indicates the kingdom of God works?

Was Jesus left to linger at the back of the room without being shown any honour on behalf of his Father’s calling while watching the movers and shakers, whose inconsistencies seem to have subverted his sense of honour, take the best seats by way assumption based on entitlement, expectation and ambition. But is this how honour is to be assigned? By status? Position? Privilege? Wealth? Education?

But what of sacrifice?

They may have been watching him, but so also was he watching them!

What Jesus appears to have seen is a network of quietist religious sameness whose members were competing, within a culture of homogenous exclusivity, for the honour of the best seats. Wherein then is honour to be found?

Perhaps, the host should have known better. According to Luke, Jesus had already set out his stall in frustration against the religio-political leadership and in despair for Jerusalem. If nothing then we find here a consistency of Jesus in his sense of call, purpose and life. The kingdom of God was not to be characterised by the dishonour of homogeneous exclusivity but rather by the honour of diverse inclusivity. Here, those who had nothing to offer ‘the network’ were given an equal, if not higher, place than those with a sense of expectation, entitlement and anticipation who will, in turn, be removed to their seat of humiliation at the back of the room.

The network of God is never a relationship of repayment and reward; it is only ever a relationship of grace and generosity which brings resurrection for the righteous.

So in this week to come

  • What networks do I belong to and why?
  • How can church function as an ‘honouring’ network?
  • Whom do I honour and why?
  • What homogeneous exclusivity can I challenge?
  • What diverse inclusivity can I promote?

Lord, have mercy…

Precious and Affirming…

Oh, to have been one of the crowd ‘rejoicing’ in this week’s lectionary Gospel reading (Luke 13: 10 – 17) because ‘of the wonderful things’ they saw Jesus doing. If I’m honest, however, I have an awful feeling that I may have been one of the religious hypocrites who hung their heads in shame. It’s not that they were essentially bad. They had a duty to protect the rites, rituals and traditions of the faith. Indeed, if they hadn’t been fulfilling this duty, then equally they may have heard about it from the crowd as well.

Of course, what Jesus was reading at the Sabbath isn’t recorded, nor is the content of his teaching. Whatever it was, and whatever subtleties he picked up in conversation and discussion, he seems to have left the company of the synagogue, gone outside and noticed a woman bent over oppressed by the powers and struggling to live with disability. For Jesus, there appears to be a relationship between teaching within and reaching without that he wants the religious to realise and the crowd to experience. Somehow Jesus’ understanding of the Sabbath and worship appears to have led him to cross some significant boundaries of gender, age and disability to set the woman free from all that bound her.

But, what a title by which to describe her; ‘Daughter of Abraham’! In the list of names and things she may have been called through the years, I wonder how often anyone anywhere had called her anything so precious and affirming. The religious on the Sabbath may have seen her as an elderly, disabled, women but Jesus, from within the context of his faith, teaching and Sabbath practice, saw someone who belonged to Abraham, deserved to share the full promise of God and was to be held within the body of faith and whole community, even on the Sabbath.

Yes, it is important to hold dear the things of faith; but here the challenge seems to be one of recognising the things of faith are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are the means not only by which God is worshiped but also his people are reminded that to be true worship, they must go out, cross boundaries and work to set people free.

Then the world will rejoice and God will be glorified, not just the Sabbath/ Lord’s Day but on every day as well.

So, in this week to come

  • With whom do I meet to share teaching and to grow in the faith?
  • What are the things of faith I am called to defend?
  • What are the boundaries I am called to cross?
  • Who can I name and affirm in the faith?
  • How can I hold together worship and service during every day rather than allow them to be separate entities for separate days?

Lord, have mercy…

How I am Constrained…

In Christ Alone is one of the most popular hymns sung by Christians around the world. There is something about its language and music that resonates. It was sung at the funeral service of my father in law a number of years back. When I hear the song, or when I’m invited to join in the singing of it, it helps me to focus on God, faith and my Christian commitment in a way that not many other ‘new’ hymns do.

Given this, I have to admit surprise that a decision has been taken to leave the song out of the new Presbyterian Church USA’s new hymnal, Glory to God. It appears the hymnal committee had asked Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, the composers, to alter one of the lines of the song from ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied’ to ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified’.

Getty and Townend declined and at the subsequent committee vote for inclusion, the required percentage was not reached and the decision was taken to drop it from the hymnal. It is important to note here that the decision was not taken as a reaction to the inclusion of a language describing the wrath of God, as the media seem to be largely reporting, but rather the controversy seems to be stirred by satisfaction of God through the cross. In other words, the atonement theory the song appears to be promoting.

However, we understand the atonement (and I have to admit to hardly understanding it at all!!), Getty and Townend would appear to have said what they meant, meant what they said and stayed true to their vision and purpose when writing the song, even when it may have been to their benefit (and to the benefit of the PCUSA) to change it.

Saying what you mean, meaning what you say and staying true to an inspirational vision is a reflection which helps me in a small way to engage with the hard sayings of Jesus in the lectionary Gospel for this week (Luke 12: 49 – 56); and, hard they are!

The ideas expressed in the imagery around fire and baptism are hard to understand; ie, are they about judgement, purification, love or any combination of these. The statements on peace, division, family and hypocrisy are equally hard to hear and understand.

For me, in acknowledging the hard challenges of this passage, I wonder if a possible way forward might be found in Jesus’ statement, ‘and, how I am constrained until it is accomplished’ (v 50, RSV – though note the translation is apparently difficult as seen by the range of attempts to put ‘constrained’ into English!). As a means towards trying to understand this, it may be worth reflecting on the only other instance in the New Testament of the word translated as ‘constrained’.

In Philippians 1: 21 – 23 Paul is recorded as stating,

For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me.

Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.

I am hard pressed between the two.

Being constrained, being hard pressed, being in a situation of hard choosing where desire to gain the hoped for future is in tension with the reality of the day to day as experienced in life. Here is the state in which I would suggest we find the Lukan Jesus this Sunday.

The challenge of course lies in the realisation that on the way to gaining this desired and promised future, there is a real world in which immediate present choices are available and decisions need to be made and acted upon regarding them. By definition, where a decision is taken in favour of one thing, it is also a decision against the other; and in the middle is the tension of choice.

In the instance of this week’s Gospel story, this tension of choice is played out particularly in the family. It isn’t for one moment that I think Jesus was being anti-family (though a study of his place within his own family could be interesting with no earthly father, an absent father, sibling rivalry and the disowning of Mary his mother (Matthew 12:48)).

I do think there is a reality check here, however, which realises that when decisions are taken to follow him, there may be relational consequences, even within the closest and most fundamental of socio-cultural relationships, the family; and the implications of this within a patriarchal family – kinship structure should not be underestimated.

Jesus is recorded as being a straight talker who said what he meant and meant what he said, while always staying true to his visionary belief in a promised future and living the implications of this for his day to day life, even unto the cross.

In being challenged by this, perhaps this week I need to reflect on

  • How often do I say what I mean and mean what I say?
  • What is my vision of a promised future in faith?
  • What are the challenges today for me in remaining true to this?
  • How do I cope with the tension of daily choices and decision-making while trying to remain true to my vision of a promised future?
  • Who is faced with the implications and impact of making ‘promised future’ choices?
  • While division may be unavoidable in any decision-making, never mind in ‘faithful’ decision-making, how might peace and reconciliation be best enabled?
  • How can those impacted by living out these decisions be best supported?
  • Who comes to mind when thinking about people who lived this tension of choice well?

Oh yes, and then there is the slight matter of atonement theory!

Lord, have mercy…

Sell! Sell?

How many of us can remember a time when a preacher was heard to exhort the congregation to sell all their possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12: 32 – 40)? When, for that matter, have I ever looked at the people in front of me and proclaimed, Thus says the Lord, sell all you have and give?! It is difficult enough to think of the church as an institution selling all it has but it seems almost impossible to consider it in personal terms.

But why should this be the case? Is this command any less clear than that of the evangelical foundation about needing to ‘be born again’? If one is allowed as the foundation of evangelical belief, perhaps this should be promoted as the foundation of evangelical practice.

Evangelical poverty, or becoming poor for the sake of the gospel, is not a message heard much in these parts – perhaps to the relief of many of us! Yet evangelical poverty has a long history and tradition within the faith. While today, it could be suggested, there appears to be a growing realisation of its vocation being recovered, through developments such as Fresh Expressions and Prayer 24/7. There is also New Monasticism with its identified marks of the church , including commitment to the abandoned, socio-economic justice, hospitality, peace-making, environment and formation in the way of Christ

Maybe it also needs to be noted that the issue may not be so much to do with the possessions in themselves but

  • our attitude to them, and, particularly, to those without them
  • how they have been gained
  • how they are held on to
  • what they prevent from happening
  • how life is viewed without them; and,
  • how generous they allow us to be

Or, maybe I’m just looking for a rationalisation as a way out.

So here we are, sitting in front of Jesus, and he looks at us with love and compassion and simply says…

Sell all you have, and give to the poor, for your Father has given you the kingdom!

How does my heart respond?

Lord, have mercy…

Being Rich towards God…

A thought on Luke 12: 13 – 21, Gospel reading for Sunday 4th August…

So how does a request from someone who wants to possess become a parable about someone who already possesses and wants more; or, how does this become a story about one who has a lot in contrast with one who doesn’t?

While Jesus does not directly answer the request to tell the brother and thus stays clear of the fractious world of ‘where there is a will, there is fray’, could it be that he does tell a story against the brother and in favour of the one who has asked his help. Recognising other inheritance stories, in the Gospels, and while not knowing the legitimacy or credibility of the claim for inheritance and against the brother, I wonder if this might be a parable in favour of the ‘disinherited’ within the community as well as a timely reminder of the dangers of losing sight of God and neighbour due to preoccupation with barns and storehouses, and the easy life?

If this is a possibility, then the story becomes a challenge to the brother who won’t share and the community whose socio-economic structures allow the rich to get richer, especially at the price of making the poor become poorer through disinheritance and dispossession.

The issues then may not simply be about the wealth of the rich man/ fool but about how he became so rich and his, and the community’s, selfish lack of concern about anything or anyone (including God) other than themselves.

Thus, in the week to come, perhaps I could do with reflecting on

  • On what is my attention focused today?
  • How does the socio-economic system in which I participate disinherit/ dispossess others in the world?
  • What is demanded of me, never mind the church, ‘this very night/ day’?
  • How am I to be rich towards God?

Lord, have mercy…

Thanks also too…