Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Pharisees not included?

So, Jesus didn't exclude anyone.
Then how come this? Pharisees... not included?
In our church, we've been doing a family service about once every month or six weeks for almost a year now. It was something God really spoke to us about, through people and circumstances. It is a way of creating a space for families - like our own and many others using our toddler group, etc - to 'come to church' in ways that might work for them. It was also a way of trying to integrate the various groups and activities of our church into one family, sharing together. This happens on a Sunday morning in place of our usual, more traditional, gathering (at most, once a month, I stress!).
Not long after we launched this new venture, perhaps after the first one even, a loyal friend and trusted adviser in the congregation was talking it through with us, and I said to him, "It's not for everyone." He was visibly shocked at this. It was an observation, since some members of the congregation either attended the pilot service and did not enjoy it (understatement), or boycotted altogether (and continue to do so, whenever it's family service). His shock was in that the idea of the family service was to include everyone. This is true, but we can't make people come, or make them enjoy it. The family service is open to everyone, it is designed to encompass and embrace everyone connected to our church. But... Some people will not accept that. It's ours, they'll say. For us. These other people can have their thing somewhere and sometime else. This is ours. If new people want to come along, they need to get with the programme...
This is exactly what happened with the Pharisees (and others) in the stories of Jesus, our gospels. Jesus came declaring and demonstrating the outrageous inclusiveness of God's kingdom. But some didn't like it. It's ours, they said. And if these other people want to come, they need to get with the programme. Such people had ways of (mis)understanding God and his way of doing things as being inherently theirs, belonging to and controlled by them. And so, it all had to be approved by them, measured by their criteria. Which meant they excluded many people from all of it straight off. But in trying to do that, they only succeeded in excluding themselves from what God was doing. They missed it. Missed the point. Missed the whole thing. That's why Jesus shocked a bunch of them by saying that the tax-collectors and prostitutes were getting into the kingdom of heaven ahead of these guys... (Matthew 21:31). Jesus made most of his enemies by including, not excluding. So let's remember that when we try to decide who is excluded, we're more like Jesus' enemies than like Jesus.
If we want to be included in what God is doing, we need to get with God's programme. When we try to exclude others from this, we only exclude ourselves.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Finding our voice

I've been fascinated recently by the story at the start of Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80), of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who became the parents of John the Baptist. What struck me about it is the famous part with Zechariah losing his voice, basically because he doesn't believe straight away the angel's message. But maybe what's more important is the voice Zechariah finds at the end of this narrative.
It seems to me that this story is about prophecy, about speaking up and speaking out. But the whole thing is set within and against rich tradition.
The first thing to note about the 2 characters is their names.  Zechariah means 'Yah(weh) remembered'.  Elizabeth could be a derivative of Elisheba, which means 'God of the oath'. Elisheba was Aaron's wife (Exodus 6:23), Aaron being the brother of Moses and the first high priest of Israel. So tradition, and especially the priesthood, looms large in this text. Zechariah is a priest, of the division of Abijah (the 8th division named in 1 Chronicles 24). He is on priestly duty when he loses his voice. A priest was a fairly high class citizen in those days, and an establishment figure. As a priest, Zechariah probably benefitted from the maintenance of the status quo.
Another early reference in their story takes us, and this couple, right back to the start of their people, with Abraham and Sarah. Like the patriarch and matriarch, Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless (she was unable to have children, and both were too old, almost exactly what it says about Abraham and Sarah in Genesis). Barrenness is no obstacle for God in the Jewish tradition, as we see in the cases of Abraham and Sarah, Hannah (mother of Samuel), and the mother of Samson. All of their stories feature miraculous conceptions. So God had form here, in their tradition...
There is, though, an interesting juxtaposition of two details: first, both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous and blameless according to another important tradition - Torah, the Law - but despite this, they were childless. The childlessness is presented as a negative. Notice Elizabeth's reaction to her pregnancy: she says that God "took away the disgrace I have endured among my people" (Luke 1:25). Children were traditionally a sign of God's blessing (cf Psalm 127:3-5). Indeed, in much of the Old Testament period, children were your life after death, as there wasn't really a doctrine of the afterlife. So, in most English versions, the broad Greek conjunction kai (very often translated 'and') is here (Luke 1:7) rendered 'but'. It's like, they were really good and godly, but despite all that, God hadn't blessed them with a child...
And so, it all changes when Zechariah is on priestly duty, offering incense at the temple sanctuary. He receives a vision and commission from God. This reminds me of one particular prophet in the Jewish tradition. The prophet Isaiah also had a divine encounter and received his calling in the temple (Isaiah 6). I've read here and there that Isaiah may also have been a priest first. And another prophetic and priestly connection to this story is that Zechariah shares his name with another Old Testament prophet.  The prophet Zechariah seems to have had priestly roots, his grandfather Iddo having been a priest, and both Iddo and Zechariah are named as priests in Nehemiah 12:16.
The child Zechariah and Elizabeth will have will be every inch the prophet.  Firstly, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth - Jeremiah (1:5) and Isaiah (49:1) both speak of their pre-birth vocation, although the latter may have been speaking about Israel. His ministry may include a call to repentance, a classic prophetic task. He will go before the Lord in the spirit of Elijah, perhaps the biggest hitter of all Israel's prophets, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord - again, very reminiscent of Isaiah 40 and Malachi 4:5-6. Again, John will be in the same category as Samson and Samuel, who were both consecrated as Nazirites it appears. So John the prophet, this marginal figure, is in fact in a fine tradition, a long line of prophets and reformers.
And despite the precedents, the traditions, the history, Zechariah fails to accept God's message at first, and that is why he loses his voice. And he gets his voice back only at the naming of John on the eighth day. Having been told to name his son John (which means 'Yah is gracious'), he finally gets his message out there when the relatives try to interfere, saying the boy should be called Zechariah. They don't agree with naming the child John because no one in the family has that name. In other words, they want to preserve tradition. But instead, God wants to pour out his grace and his Spirit to bring renewal, refreshing, reform, resurrection. How often do we say, or hear said, "You can't do that, because no one ever has..."?  Or, "It has to be like this, it's how it's always been..."
And so, having written it first, Zechariah is suddenly able to speak. And how. He has his voice back, except it's new, it's different. For the first time, he finds and uses his voice. It's a prophetic voice. He's filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy. This isn't so much about the future, as about the past and the present, all in the light of God's mercy and salvation purposes. Zechariah picks up on some of the big, key parts of the rich tradition of God's people, and sees John's part in how God is going to get back to that, and bring the people back to it. Note, by the way, that Zechariah ('Yah has remembered') prophesies that God has remembered his oath (Elizabeth = 'God of the oath'). Zechariah here is a different kind of prophet to the one John will become. John will be a marginal figure, out on a limb, on the outside looking in... Zechariah is well-connected, an establishment figure. And sometimes such prophets are the most important. They can influence from within the system, effect change from inside.
I want to suggest that all prophets are interested in tradition, in their heritage, but they want to get radical about it. In fact, perhaps it is an appreciation of the tradition(s) that fires them, as well as the anointing by God's Spirit. But this is often not about the religious trappings, the veneer, nor about the establishment, the maintenance of the status quo and the dominant structures...
Zechariah has stepped out. Raised his head above the parapet. He's found his prophetic voice.
Prophets speak often with and usually to a tradition. Prophets often speak against the establishment or institution, for its own good and for God's purposes. Because a prophet will speak and act for God, not the party line. So, let's find and use - or else we might lose - our voice.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The thing about being born in a stable is you live with an open door policy

(OK, a disclaimer. I know that it's tradition rather than text that tells us Jesus was born in a stable. The text of Luke may suggest he was born at the animal end of someone's house, as there was no guest room available. On this occasion, the tradition is helpful....)
Have you ever worked into a room and left the door open, to which someone has called out, "We're you born in a barn?" Whenever I hear this, I think of the traditional nativity scene, in the stable. It makes me think, well, being born in a barn, or stable, turned out OK for Jesus...
In fact, the whole idea really got me thinking. When Jesus grew up, he was radically inclusive. He moved in some colourful circles. Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, foreigners, women, children - he welcomed them all,  he included them all, he hung out with them all, he ate with them all. Eating with someone was a social statement.
In fact, it seems to me that Jesus never rejected anyone.  He challenged people with the invitation to the radically alternative, upside down and inside out way of living that is the reign of God. Some people couldn't accept it. Even still, I think Jesus accepted people. And sometimes, His heart broke, with theirs, as they walked away. I think of the rich young man, who couldn't re-order his life God's way, because he was too invested in his wealth.
It seems to me that Jesus had an open door policy.  He welcomed all comers. In fact,the open door is consonant with God's kingdom. In the closing chapters of the New Testament, in Revelation, John has this vision from Jesus culminating with the future city of God, with God's full and unshrouded presence at its heart. Of the city, John writes, "It's gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there" (Revelation 21:25). That means the gate never shuts. Ever. So maybe there's always a chance to come in? I think, with Jesus, his door is always open, because, yes, they say, he was born in a barn.

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Great Divide

  In a New Testament class once, we studied Luke 16:19-31. This passage is a parable of Jesus about 2 characters, the rich man and Lazarus.  I was amazed at the general consensus of belief about the meaning of this parable: that it is about heaven and hell.  Amazed, because this misses the point almost entirely.
  This text is not primarily about heaven and hell, or the afterlife, and we can tell his from a few clues.  First, neither heaven nor hell are mentioned at all in the text. The place of punishment in the story is Hades, the Greek underworld, well-known in the Hellenised world of Jesus. This concept may have informed Christian ideas of hell, but Jesus was simply using the ideas of the day to make a point.  On the other hand, rather than heaven, Jesus refers to Abraham's bosom. This was believed to be a place of comfort in Sheol, for the righteous, perhaps especially for Jewish martyrs. Again, Jesus is using contemporary, established concepts (and therefore, unlikely to be teaching about our modern day Christian doctrines).
  So, if he doesn't talk about heaven and hell, what does he talk about?  First, there's a rich man.  Tellingly, Jesus does not dignify the rich man with a name.  The other character, Lazarus, is a poor man, covered with sores, who lay at the rich man's gate. So, we start to see what the story might be about: something to do with money. After all, only a few verses earlier, Jesus has said that one cannot serve God and money, and let's remember that Luke's gospel has a particular interest in economics. It has been called the gospel of the poor, but equally it is the gospel for the rich, who need to be freed from the oppression of wealth as much as the poor from the oppression of poverty...
  Anyway, poor Lazarus is a very interesting character. When he dies, he is taken to Abraham's bosom.  It's worth noting here that Lazarus is the hellenised version of Eliezer. If that name rings a bell, it may be because of Abraham's servant in Genesis. Eliezer of Damascus was Abraham's most prized bondsman, so valued that Abraham saw him as his heir when the promised offspring was not forthcoming. A slave, the heir of God's promises? And a foreigner, at that. In fact, while we're there, and also picking up on Lazarus's skin condition, I'm reminded of another famous Damascene: Naaman the Syrian. Jesus, in Luke 4, uses Naaman's story (you can read that in 2 Kings 5) to talk of God's outrageously inclusive and revolutionary grace. Jesus was very nearly killed for speaking of that story, and very actually killed for (among other things) daring to challenge the established social order.
  Back to heaven and hell then. As I say, Jesus is, with this parable, using well-established images for illustrative purposes. That is what parables do.
  So this parable is not about heaven and hell. Too often, that has been the focus, and not just of this parable, taking attention away from the very real issue of poverty and wealth, and all that goes with it.
  If this story were literally about heaven and hell, then entry to those places is apparently based on social standing, and attitudes and behaviours, especially towards the neighbour and wealth. That would fly in the face of much doctrine pertaining to salvation and eternal destiny.
  The big issue in this story is the Great Divide. Unlike heaven and hell, this actually is mentioned in the text: a "great chasm has been fixed" between the rich man and Lazarus in the afterlife.  But the chasm, the divide, is not metaphysical, but socio-economic. It is set by the rich man, and gthose like him, and by systems and structures perfectly designed to maintain the divide. And Jesus' point in telling this story is that this situation is not acceptable.
  There have been different incarnations, throughout history, of the worldview that holds to a strict, fixed social ordering, with everyone in their place, whether that be feudal, caste, or whatever system. These systems propose closed, segregated stratification of people, classes, races, etc.
  But then, didn't Jesus say, "The poor you will always have with you"? Yes, he did (Mark 14:7; Matthew 26:11), and doesn't that suggest that some people will always be poor? Well, first, he wasn't saying that, in context, and second, he's probably paraphrasing the Hebrew scripture Deuteronomy 15:11, which encourages openness and generosity towards those less fortunate than ourselves. That text, in fact, relates to the Sabbath Year, which was part of the economic and social laws for Israel. The sabbath year, and especially the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) were designed to end poverty by regularly redistributing wealth. This is the real Great Divide: a sharing of wealth. And the early church was an experimental community in this regard. In Acts 2 and 4 we read summaries of life among the first Christians, that they shared, they held possessions in common, they abolished private property. The result was that "there was not a needy person among them..." (Acts 4:34). They ended poverty in their community! Their Great Divide ended the Great Divide, creating a true common wealth.
  Of course, the issue is not just an economic or material one. In Jesus' story, he rich man continues to see Lazarus as inferior and subservient , expecting Lazarus to serve his needs even in the afterlife. The rich man needs an attitude adjustment,not towards his wealth, but his neighbour. And at every point here, Lazarus is his neighbour, they are juxtaposed in life and death. This speaks of a universal law that where there is wealth, there is also poverty, often in its shadow.
  The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man's brothers. Abraham says they have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them. This stuff is not a secret! It is on virtually every page of scripture. Yet it is ignored time and time again, because it's inconvenient, or it's less important than key issues like heaven and hell. And we're back...
  The story ends with the question over the value of someone coming back from the dead. After all,  if people ignore Moses and the prophets - supposedly the basis for their entire life and society - someone coming back from the dead won't change them, will it?  Perhaps Jesus (or Luke) is employing irony here. After all, Jesus' own upcoming resurrection wasn't enough to change some people's minds.

Sheep and goats today?

I was thinking about how immediate Jesus' parable of the the sheep and the goats was when he told it. It's recorded for us in Matthew 25:31-46. I wonder if today, Jesus might have said something like this...

I was on the street
And you washed my feet.
I was a refugee
And you welcomed me.
I was living with addiction
And you saw my affliction.
I told you I was gay
You said, 'Son, it's okay.'

You say, 'When? When did we?'
I say, 'Whenever you did, you did it for me.'

I was on the street
And our eyes didn't meet.
I was a refugee
You refused to recognise me.
I was living with addiction
To you, I was an infliction.
I told you I was gay
You said, 'Go, and stay away.'

You say, 'When? When did we?'
I say, 'Whenever you did, you did it for me.'

For those who cared
A place is prepared.
For those who didn't- well,
They can go to hell.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest

Next time you say grace before a meal, why not try this one...?

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
Stay, Lord Jesus, as we digest;
Fix our minds on those with less.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
Let us, Jesus, get distressed
On behalf of the oppressed.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
May we, Jesus, only invest
In stuff that passes the fairness test.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
End, Lord Jesus, our wastefulness -
Move these food mountains of the West.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
So, Lord Jesus, grant our request:
Make our very lives a protest.


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Thy kingdom come

I've always thought the Lord's Prayer is quite poetic. Maybe it's because we learn it in the King James Version,which is very poetic, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where everyone knows how it feels
To forgive and be forgiven.
To let it go, not hold a grudge,
And remember that You, Lord, are judge.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where we can share whatever we have,
'cause what we have was given.
And when You send our daily bread,
We'll make sure our neighbour's fed.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Help us once again discover
The freedom of simple living,
That we won't keep chasing after 'stuff',
But know enough really is enough.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where everyone comes fully alive,
Life turned up to eleven.
Life so full, it's bursting at the seams,
Walking with You, living the dream.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where we won't need a place of worship,
'cause we'll see You, 24/7.
Sickness,sadness,suffering - no more.
You'll live with us in Eden: restored.