Poor, Rich or Middle Class in the 21st century?

I don’t want to be poor

Well, Jesus really is turning our world upside down again with this teaching.  I don’t want to be poor, hungry, even if it supposedly makes me blessed, or happy. Nor I expect do you. But, on the other hand, I want enough to each and a comfortable life without waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop and have it all taken away.  Is this what Jesus is telling his followers and us? Or is this Jesus’new middle class value system?

Jesus teaching

Let’s clear up a couple of common misapprehensions first. This was not a choice for the crowd listening to Jesus, who were almost entirely the poor. Nor does Jesus ask us to choose.  It’s a fact of life that for most of us that our economic status is a result of where, when and to whom we were born. Secondly, this is not a promise of how God will treat us. It’s not a judgemental passage promising heaven or hell.

A language lesson – blessings and woes

Blessed and woe are words we only use these days in areligious connotation.  They hang on because there doesn’t seem to be an exact correlation in modern English. Blessed is often translates as Happy; but in English, Blessed has the sense of being made happy by God, or being consecrated. However, the word used in the Greek (according to Internet sources) is closer to happy, and is often translated happy.  Woe on the other hand is a word we only find in the Bible nowadays. It is an exclamation of grief of distress, a stronger form of alas, another archaic word. Other Bible versions translated it as how miserable for you; or oh, the sorrows that await the rich; or how terrible for you. No judgement, only sadness.

God has sent me to preach good news to the poor.

Luke is continuing here the theme of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue which we heard a few weeks ago, when he read from Isaiah: God has sent me to preach good news to the poor. Jesus is addressing the social order, describing the situation as it was then, and as it still is today with the gap between rich and poor widening.

His words here are definitely addressing social inequalities rich vs poor and hungry vs filled.   There is no wiggle room for “the poor in spirit” or “hunger and thirst for righteousness” as in Matthew’s beatitudes.  We’re talking physical poverty and hunger here, not spiritual! And his hearers were poor. They were both Jews and Gentiles who had come from far and near to hear his message and to be healed of their illnesses. These weren’t the rich people. I imagine Jesus speaking with compassion both to the poor and even to the rich, if there were any in the crowd.

Happy are the poor?

How happy are you, the poor...’ We can imagine the gentleness of the words, the warmth and softness of the delivery. This is not a promise for the afterlife. Yours is the Kingdom of God, now; the kingdom that has come near in the person of Jesus. Jesus knows poverty and the struggle of living and has compassion.  How terrible for you rich…” Again, we can imagine the warmth, the knowing lilt in the voice, the aching love in the words. Jesus knows that life can change on a dime.  I hear Jesus saying that he is one of us, with us and loves us. He knows our struggles and shares our life. Rich or poor. These are not words of judgement, but a recognition that riches alone cannot bring happiness

 Woe to the rich?

Only the top 1% of people earn more than $20,000 a year

“Alas for you the rich!”  Who were the rich? Who are the rich today? It’s all relative. The poverty line for a single person in Ontario is $ $19,930 which puts them in the top 7% of income earners in the worldwide.  For a family of 4, the poverty line is, $41,568 and this income put the wage earner  in the top 1% in the world.  We may be rich compared to the total world population, but here most of us consider ourselves middle class. Do we need  a new middle class value system?

Back in Jesus day, there was no large middle class like today. For the most part, people were rich or poor, and most of them were poor.  It was a fact of life that the rich taxed the poor and lived off the work they did.

The common wisdom of the day, however, was that wealth was a sign of a good person, of God’s blessing..  Not so for Jesus.  He criticizes the rich in a very hard and direct manner: You rich have had your easy life and will go hungry at some time. Nothing lasts. Your fortunes can be reversed later on.  If you set your heart on what the world values, that’s all you will get. This is not the fury of a vengeful person, but the sadness of a loving, compassionate one. Alas, if your values are the world’s values, your heart is not open to the blessings God wants to give you.

Never satisfied

I have known people, and you probably have too, who have a lovely house, well furnished, two cars – but it’s not enough. They “need” a more, maybe a swimming pool or a cottage … you name it. And when they get all these wants satisfied, they need something else, maybe a boat to use at cottage. So they work, scramble up the corporate ladder, join the dog eat dog world – and have no time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Alas for you rich. You have what you think you want, but it’s never enough.  How sad it is to never have enough, to always want more. These people just can’t be filled. They will feel impoverished because none of it satisfies what they are looking for. People who are impossible to satisfy are just that. Impossible to satisfy.

A new middle class value system

For Jesus poverty is neither a sign of sinfulness, nor something to be proud of, it just is. It may be the fruit of unjust enrichment on the part of others.  How are the poor, the hungry and the sorrowful happy? I wish Jesus had expounded on this and told us. We can only draw conclusions from the way Jesus lived and what he taught. What he had, little though it was, was, enough to satisfy him.

Jesus’ well off friends

What do these words say to us today? We have to look at them in the light of the whole New Testament and the life Jesus lived, all of his teaching.  When we do this, we are not led to conclude that being comfortably off or even wealthy is, in and of itself, bad or sinful.  Rather, we find a new middle class value system for life here on in this world.

Joseph of Arimathea

Jesus himself had friends who were not poor – the women like Joanna who looked after the needs of the disciples, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus who could entertain Jesus and his disciples in their own house;  Matthew described Joseph of Arimathea  as wealthy and as a disciple of Jesus;  Peter had a house in Capernaum and his family had a thriving fishing business. I’d say they were comfortably off.  What is the difference between these friends and followers of Jesus and the rich he is lamenting over in the passage we just heard? They are sharing their good fortune; they are not getting rich on the backs of their fellows; I would hazard a guess that they were satisfied with what they had or they wouldn’t have been so generous.

Mary and Martha share their home and food with Jesus and his followers

A new middle class value system

The kind of wealth that brings woe is wealth that has been acquired at the expense of others or without due care for the environment.  A few examples of Jesus’ new middle class value system.

. We have come to expect cheap food in our supermarkets, but do we consider the downside of this? Are farm workers, especially migrants, paid fairly? how do the fertilizers used to make the land overproduce vegetables and animal feed affect the soil and water? How much greenhouse gas do farm animals produce?  Is the server at our local restaurant paid a living wage? Do we tip well to compensate? Do we try to evade paying taxes which will provide services for all members of society, especially the poorer ones?

We also need to do what we can to support equitable economic relations globally.  We in first world countries currently enjoy many unfair advantages in global trade.  To do what we can to counteract this, we need to be aware of sourcing, make an effort to purchase fair trade products, boycott companies until their overseas workers are treated properly, and so forth.  This means an investment in awareness and a commitment to action in response to what we learn.

Need vs Greed

Gandhi famously said that there is enough on Earth for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed. The world is hitting global limits in its use of resources. We are feeling the shocks each day in catastrophic floods, droughts, and storms.

It is the greed principle, with the rich doing everything to get richer that is fueling the growing resource crisis, which will lead to a widening divide between the rich and the poor – and quite possibly to an increasingly violent struggle for survival. If we don’t address these issues now, if we don’r adopt Jesus new middle class value system,  maybe this is how we will learn that nothing lasts, especially our comfortable way of life

 

Don’t let the Devil Steal Your Identity as God’s Beloved Son or Daughter

Jesus is God’s Beloved Son

We heard last week how God, at Jesus baptism, confirmed what people have been realizing up to now in Luke’s Gospel. The voice of God from heaven declared that Jesus is God’s beloved son.  In the families of the ancient world an adult son was the father’s representative and the father and the son would work together to accomplish the family goals. So here we have Jesus about to start his work as the representative of his Father. But how was he to understand and accomplish the family goals?

Right after his baptism, we heard, the Spirit sent Jesus into the desert where he spent time sorting out what that meant, how he was to fulfil this role. As I’ve heard Nigel put it, it’s equivalent to the pre ordination retreat priests do today. After this, Jesus was ready to go into Galilee and proclaim that the words of Isaiah about the Messiah have been fulfilled. We’ll be hearing about this in the weeks to come.

Temptations call Jesus’ Identity into Question

Using the language of his day, Luke, like Matthew and Mark, presents Jesus’ deliberations as being tempted by the devil. These temptations go to the heart of who Jesus is.  Two of them start by calling into question Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son with the words “if you are the Son of God” followed by a challenge to prove this identity with some miraculous display (stones into bread or a dramatic angelic rescue from death). The other temptation (all the nations of the world will belong to you if you worship me) invites Jesus to ignore God’s role in his life and work and be seen as the sole ruler.

Jesus in the Wilderness

Three temptations – Self-indulgence / bread, self-aggrandizement / power and self-serving religious identity / safety. What they all have in common is that they display Jesus’ identity in self-serving ways that would undermine his identity as the Son who relies on the good gifts of the Father.

Identity Theft

David Lose, a Lutheran preacher and writer summarized it this way, as identity theft taking away Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son.

“It really doesn’t have to be bread, power, or safety. Temptations, I mean. In today’s reading the devil tries to seduce Jesus with the promise of bread when he’s hungry, the glory and power of all the world’s leaders, and the promise of rescue paired with the suggestion that God is not sufficient to keep Jesus safe. And all Jesus has to do in return is worship Satan.  Bread, power, and safety. But it just as well might have been youth, beauty, and wealth. Or confidence, fame, and security. On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity. Which is why I think this passage is really about identity theft. And not simply the devil’s failed attempt to steal Jesus’ identity but all the attempts to rob us of ours.”

Our identity – Beloved Children of God

Last week’s reading from Isaiah gave us a lovely picture of who we are and whose we are “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”. We belong to God and God loves each one of us. calling us by name. We, too, are God’s beloved sons and daughters, children of God.  Paul confirms this: Romans 6:14 “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God”; and Gal 3:26 “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith”.   This is our identity, sons and daughters of God, and like Jesus, we face temptations that seek to rob us of that identity.

A few that come to my mind right away are these, but I expect you can think pf more:

Advertising and Consumerism

Advertisements make a promise less about the quality of a product and more about an imagined lifestyle that owning the product can somehow provide.

By owning this kind of car, or using this kind of wineglass, advertisers suggest, we will discover our identity and move closer to having a meaningful life. Thehe new  Volvo XC60 – Moments advertising video shows a mother driving her child around in a Volvo as the child, initially shy, develops confidence. Another car advertisement, an Audi Ad proclaims “Bravery it’s what defines us”. Soap ads show pictures of beautiful women with perfect skin – but stop short of claiming that’s what the soap will do for you.

Sometimes it’s explicit, usually it’s implied. Owning this brand of car will make you a more confident  or braver person; using this soap makes you more beautiful.  Look how much fun you’ll have if you serve this food or beverage. You get the idea.  Want to be happy, brave, confident or whatever – there’s a product out there whose advertising implies it can give you this. Who needs God?

Greed

Tired of being poor, counting pennies? Look what you could win on the lottery! Need some excitement – well, play the slots, or live tables; you don’t need to fly down to Vega, although you can. It’s legal, but is it right? There are lots of get rich schemes here, in addition to the gaming tables – just ask a shady investment dealer! You could get rich – or become very poor. But they don’t tell you that. Come on, get rich off other poor suckers. Forget all this Love your neighbour stuff.

Self-indulgence

On Friday, when I went to Fortinos to buy (healthy) fruit, I was tempted and bought a big container of Chocolate Chip cookies! Self-indulgent, yes, but relatively harmless. Self indulgence could be deciding to watch TV instead of calling or visiting a lonely person, just because we don’t feel like it – or many other things

Self indulgence at the expense of the environment

It can also be about putting ourselves before the needs of the environment and our fellow creatures.  Do we buy eggs laid by hens that are kept in tiny cages? Or eat chickens that never get to see the light of day? And what about consuming more than our fair share of the world’s resources?

A recent Globe and Mail article said: “while dairy and meat products provided just 18 per cent of calories consumed by humans, their production monopolizes 83 per cent of global farmland and is responsible for 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases generated by agriculture. The loss of forest cover to farmland is one of the main causes of species loss and global warming.”

We are encouraged to think about greenhouse gas usage, but do we consider the impact of our diets on God’s creatures and creation? What are we doing to our world, and what will it be like for our children and grandchildren? I’m not proposing full vegetarianism, just more thoughtful consumption and we’ll see where it leads us.  God loves all creation, and as God’s children, we should too

Finding our identity.

So, where do we find our identity? Are we driven by consumer culture, get rich quick schemes, self-indulgence or other temptations? Is our identity rooted in being God’s beloved son or daughter, or it is rooted in our self-love? “If you are the son of God …”- the devil tried to undermine Jesus’ confidence in both God and himself. He seeks, that is, to erode Jesus’ confidence that God is enough, and that Jesus is worthy of God’s love. But Jesus knows that God is enough and he, Jesus, has enough. But he also knows that he is of infinite worth in the eyes of God.  And so are we.

“Turn these Stones into Bread”

Isn’t this what most of our temptations are about.  Our insufficiencies and insecurities   A new outfit will give me confidence. With a new carpet my home will be perfect and admired. If I had more money, I’d be happy and popular. I can do without God to fulfil my needs;  I can do it myself. I can turn the stones of my insufficiency into the bread of whatever I need without God. The temptations may be very different on the surface, but at a deeper level they all boil down to this: they seek to move our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that seems to promises a more secure identity.

In the wilderness

The Wilderness is a place of Testing

Jesus, according to the story, wandered in the wilderness for 40 days, two biblical expressions meaning a place of testing and a very long time.  Like Jesus, there are times we find ourselves in the wilderness, in a place of testing, where we feel lost; where we try to sort out in our own minds and hearts where God is for us, what it means to be a child of God, what our egos think we can do for ourselves. Sometimes, God feels very distant and insufficient for our needs.  Can God be trusted? Our deep spiritual work rarely happens in abbreviated, linear bursts; temptation is not once and done. Jesus rejects the tempter here, but he has other moments of doubt, particularly at Gethsemane and the cross.

What is going on in the wilderness? On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, the temptation to define ourselves apart from God

Here is something for each of us to do. Take with us this question, and think about it and answer it on the weeks to come: What tempts me to find my sufficiency and security in something other than in God? And then reclaim your identity as Gods beloved son or daughter.

Go forth knowing you are  a beloved child of God

Jesus went into the wilderness with God’s blessing in his ears: “You are my beloved son (daughter). He came out knowing how to serve God and God’s kingdom on Earth.   So God bless you, beloved Children of God, as we all journey in the wilderness.      Amen

 

Zechariah is visited by the Angel Gabriel

The Story Starts with the Prophets

Icon of the Prophet Micah

Luke opens his narrative of the Life of Jesus, not with Jesus himself, but with the story of the birth of his cousin John. Over the next 4 weeks, we will follow that story to its climax with the birth of Jesus. But today, we focus on Zechariah. But Zechariah isn’t the start of the story, either.  As we heard in our readings today, the prophets had been prophesying that God will send a new leader. Micah, for example, writing 800 years earlier has talked about a new ruler to bring prosperity (feed his flock) and security. Jeremiah, writing at the time of the the Babylonian exile 600 years earlier, prophesied that God would build a new Jerusalem where all life would be peaceful and perfect. Zechariah knew all these prophecies, but surely never dreamt that he and his family would be part of God’s plan to redeem Israel. As  priest, Zechariah knew all the messianic prophecies and looked forward to the day God would remove the yoke of foreign rulers from his chosen people.

Who was Zechariah?

Burning Incense

All we know about Zechariah is what we read in Luke’s first chapter and what we can extrapolate from that.  We know that he was a priest, a hereditary function in Biblical Israel. At any given time there were about 20,000 priests in Israel. Every direct male descendent of Aaron, Moses’ brother, was a priest, and only them.

In Genesis (49:7) God appointed the descendants of Levi, one of the 12 sons of Jacob / Israel, as the priestly tribe.  Unlike the other tribes, they received no land inheritance.  When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, God told Moses that Aaron and his descendants would be the priests. Other descendants of Levi, the Levites, would also serve but in a lesser capacity. Hence we have “the Priests and the Levites” that we read about in the Gospels.

Zechariah and Elizabeth – A righteous yet Barren Couple

Apart from Zechariah being a priest, we know that he and his wife Elizabeth had no children.   She was past child bearing age. This was a real tragedy for them. Back then, childlessness was grounds for divorce. Of course people blamed the woman  for being barren. It was shameful for the woman who had no children – remember that this was an honour / shame society.

Not having children was partly a financial problem – no one to look after you when you got too old to work. It was also seen, like sickness,  as a punishment for sin.  Rabbinic teachings listed 7 reasons why a man was excommunicated from God – starting with a man who wasn’t married or who was married but had no children. Luke makes a point of telling us that this couple was not sinful “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

What did Priests do in the Temple?

 

In the film clip we saw. Zechariah’s “family” of priests was serving in the temple. Details about the priesthood are mainly found in the Torah: who could serve, what they did and how to do it. King David had organized the descendants of Aaron into 24 families – Zechariah belonged to the Family of Abijar. All priests served for Passover and Yom Kippur, and the 24 families took turns of a week at a time to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem, so each family had 2 weeks a year.

Each family had nearly 1,000 priests and there were many jobs fort them to do in the temple.  The jobs were assigned by drawing lots. The priests slaughtered and roasted the sacrificial animals, spattered the blood on the corners of the altar, dispensed the meat, and so on. They cleared out the ashes, looked after the candles, cared for sacred vessels and robes.

A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity

During the week when  Zechariah’s family line were serving at “the temple of the Lord”,  Zechariah was chosen by lot to perform the evening incense offering. This was the most solemn and holy of the tasks, and each priest would only perform it once in his lifetime. After that, his name was removed from the lottery for that task.  But many never got the chance. Every priest dreamed about this –the highlight of the priest’s career.  When Zechariah’s name came up. he would enter the Holy place in white robes and no sandals.  Two other priests would enter with him. They would leave when they had made everything ready.

The Priests Court in Herod’s Temple

The Holy Place, within the Priest’s Court, was the second most holy part of the temple. (The most sacred part was the Holy of Holies. Once a year,  on the Day of Atonement the High priest entered alone to pray for forgiveness for the nation’s sins).

In the Holy Place, the Golden Altar of Incense stood before the veil separating the Altar from the Holy of Holies. (This veil, we are told, was ripped apart when Jesus died.)  While Zechariah was in there, the laymen waited in the Court of Israel and the other priests in the Court of the Priests. They prayed in deep silence while yet another priest sacrificed the evening lamb at the great Altar of Burnt Offering.  When he’d finished the sacrifice, he gave a signal to Zechariah, that he had completed this part of the ceremony .  Then Zachariah would throw the incense on the fire of the Golden Altar, and watch its fragrant smoke rise with the prayers he offered for the people.

The Angel Gabriel’s Message

It was while Zechariah was alone at the Altar that God spoke to him through the Angel Gabriel. “Your prayers are answered,” he said.  Which prayers? Well, those for a son – but that was also the start of the salvation story for Israel and the world.

As I thought about this story, I thought about how God speaks to us today.  He spoke to Zechariah, and later to Mary in the familiar story of the annunciation, through the Angel Gabriel. Angels appear more than 20 times in the NT as messengers from God, this being the first chronologically. The word in Hebrew and Greek for angel means “messenger”. As I was researching videos for our Advent and Christmas services, I found angels portrayed in many different forms.  Unlike earlier art, the most common ones were the wind or a light, maybe a swirling light.

God’s Speaks in Culturally Acceptable Ways

Like Zechariah, we are more likely to recognize a messenger from God if we live prayerful lives. God’s messengers may be our friends, or people we meet; our dreams or what we read and see in various media. For me, the messages often come in books.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt an urge to buy  a book which sits on my shelf. Then, one day, I’m pondering some issue  and I remember that book and find in it the answer, or the path that leads me to resolution. There are also messages through social media.

Separating God’s Messages from the “Noise

So many messages bombard us daily.like Zechariah, we need to ask “How do I know that this is so?” Again, we can take a lesson from this story. Keep silence to ponder, wait for God to fulfil his word. But also remember  we don’t just sit back and wait for God to fix everything. We work towards making our prayers happen.  Zechariah shared his news with Elizabeth, but otherwise they seem to have been reticent to broadcast what had happened. I am sure Zechariah did his part to make their prayers come true, and in due time, John was born. We’ll hear the continuation of this story over the next few weeks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Poverello, the Little, Poor Man of Assisi

Next Thursday is the Feast of St. Francis.  To celebrate, I thought that this morning we could look at some events in his life and how it might tie into our lives today. [The photos illustrating this homily were taken earlier this year on my pilgrimage to Assisi,]

Francis’ Early Life

In 1182, Francesco entered this life in the Umbrian town of Assisi, a walled independent commune situated on a spur at an elevation of 1,300 feet overlooking the valleys of two rivers. The hilly town has narrow, winding streets and is surrounded by medieval walls.

 

The Font where Francis and Claire were baptized

Francis was not brought up to be particularly holy. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a merchant. In fact, when he came home from a long business trip and found that his wife had named the baby after John the Baptist, he renamed him Francesco (Frenchman) after his beloved France. He didn’t want his son to be a churchman! As a child, Francis worshipped in the Church of St George which is now a part of the Basilica of St Claire. The font where both he and St Clair were baptized was moved to the Cathedral of St Ruffino.

As he became an adult, Francis was the leader of a group of young people who enjoyed wild parties, “addicted to evil and accustomed to vice” according to a contemporary biographer, Thomas of Celano who knew him well. He was good at business but wanted to be a nobleman, a knight. So he joined the army when Assisi declared war on the nearby city of Pelugia. Francis became a prisoner of war, held in for a year a dungeon waiting to be ransomed. He went back to his old life of business and partying, but still craved glory. His next chance for fame and fortune came with the fourth crusade, and off went the 25 year old Francis  in a rich cloak and gold trimmed armour on a new horse, saying he’d come back a prince.

God Intervenes

a copy of the San Damiano Crucifix

But God had other ideas. Just one day out of Assisi, God spoke to him in a dream, saying he had it all wrong and to go home. Which he did. Can you imagine how the townspeople would have derided him and called him a coward?  He started spending more time in prayer, while still working in his Father’s shop. It was in the ancient run down church of St Damiano on the hills outside Assisi that his life changed again. He was meditating in front of an icon of the crucifix, when he heard speak to him: from the crucifix:  “Francis, repair my church”,

Assuming this was church with a small c and referred to the building,, he took fabric from his father’s store and sold it to buy building materials to repair the church. His father accuse him of theft and took him before the Bishop for judgement. The Bishop told Francis to return the money and that God would provide. Francis not only gave his father the money, he took off all his clothes, also provided by his father, and gave those back. Wearing nothing but a hair shirt, he announced that “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father” and set off into the freezing woods, joyfully singing. This was a turning point in his life. From then on, he had nothing, but he had everything. Begging for stones, he carried on what he believed was his calling, to rebuild the church of San Damiano with his own hands.

The Franciscan Order

He started preaching and soon had a following of people who wanted to follow his simple life, living in the open, begging for food and loving God. This was the start of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor. Realising that, with the growth of followers he needed to provide them with some direction for the new life, he opened his Bible in three places and read how Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to see everything and give to the poor, how he told his disciples to take nothing on their journey, and his command to take up one’s cross daily. Here is our rule, he said!

It would take too long to follow the life of St Francis in detail, so I’m just going to pick out a few key areas

Franciscan Alternative Orthodoxy

One of the things that drew people to Francis was that he offered an alternative to the established Catholic Church, which at that time had become fraught by scandals, greed and heresies.

The large, ornate Basilica of St Francis, built shortly after his death, is typical of churches of that time

His life of poverty and simplicity was the antidote many needed. But that doesn’t mean he gave up on the church – he eventually realized that his calling was to reform the capital C Church, which he did by calling people back to the Gospel as demonstrated by Jesus. He was grounded in the Church, believing the essential doctrines of the trinity, the incarnation etc. His genius, or his gift from God, was sorting out what was perennial wisdom from what was merely cultural (and sometimes downright destructive).

An Alternative Orthodoxy

Rather than rejecting traditional Christian images, history or culture, Francis, and his later followers, chose to focus on what they found deep and life giving. This is recognized by the Catholic Church as an “alternative orthodoxy”. It has much in common with Celtic spirituality. They see God in his first “Bible”, his creation; they understand Christ’s death, not as a vengeful God sending Jesus to be punished as a response to Adam sinning and tainting all of us (substitutionary atonement) but as a loving God’s initial plan from before creation to show us how much he loves us. The Incarnation was a very important part of Francis faith; he saw in Christ the mystical union of the physical and spiritual worlds. When our outer world and our inner world come together, we are whole; we are holy. Part of the genius of Francis is that he was at home in both worlds at the same time and thus made them, in his life, into one world. He lived the gospel in radical simplicity. 

Talking of the incarnation, t’s interesting that he was the first to use a nativity scene (with live animals and a real baby).  To Francis, this represented the hardships Jesus went through in his earthly life. There is now a beautiful church in Greccio, Italy where Francis assembled this first Nativity scene during a Christmas Mass which was held in a cave, so different from the church there now.  The church at Greccio is filled with nativity scenes of different types – statures, pictures, carvings, stained glass, etc.

Francis and the Church

Francis’ Robe

Francis relations with the Church were not limited to differences in lifestyle and alternative theology. The Catholic elite saw Francis as a threat to the infrastructure — for he was not about power, he was about responsibility. Many people of Assisi had left the traditional church to follow the poor out-of-towner, known as El Poverello, the poor little man. The elite was losing money. They went as far as to burn down his church outside Assisi. Summoned by Pope Innocent III, Francis and his companions walked over 100 miles through rocky hilly country to reach Rome.  Everyone expected Francis to get firmly told off by the Pope. But tradition has it that the Pope was so moved by Francis humility and charity,  that he abandoned his golden throne, stepped down to the “audience hall”, fell to his knees, and in an act  of complete humility, kissed the feet of barefooted  Francis.

Francis’ relevance to today

What did the Pope see in Francis? What do we see in Francis? If we look beyond the sentimental pictures of Francis preaching to the birds, we see a man living his faith as he saw Jesus live, in poverty, in simplicity and in joy.  We see a man (and in his companion Claire of Assisi, a woman) born into the world at a time when Western civilization began to move into intellectualism, into consumerism as sufficient for human meaning, and also into a world of perpetual war. The Church was materialistic and power hungry; Italy was in a state of permanent conflict between city states; society was moving into consumerism.

During the 13th century, the modern commercial infrastructure developed in the Italian City states, with double-entry bookkeeping, joint stock companies, an international banking system, a systematized foreign exchange market, insurance, and government debt. Sounds familiar?  Francis himself had been a soldier, and sold his trader father’s cloth. He came from the very world he was then able to critique, but he offered a positive alternative to these systems, right at the beginning of their now-eight centuries of world dominance. He moved from the common economy of merit to the scary and wondrous economy of grace, where God does not do any counting, but only gives.

Exactly when we began to centralize and organize everything at high levels of control and fashion, Francis, like a divine trickster, said, “Who cares!” Right when Roman Catholicism under Pope Innocent III reached the absolute height of papal and worldly power, he said in effect, “There’s another, better way!” Exactly when our society began a style of production and consumption that would eventually ravage planet earth, he decided to love the earth and live simply and barefoot upon it. He epitomized the saying “You do not think yourself into a new way of living; you live yourself into a new way of thinking.”

The Way of Simplicity

Francis lived a life of simplicity and service – that’s one very good way to start. I’m not suggesting any of us should give away even our clothes and set out barefoot and clothed only in rags – although if that is your calling go for it! But we can decide to live simply, not buying or hording more than we need, sharing what we have with those who have less, giving of our time and abilities to others. Franciscan alternative orthodoxy asks us to let go, to recognize that there is enough to go around and meet everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. Having more of anything or more frenetic doing will not fill up our longing and restlessness. Francis knew that climbing ladders to nowhere would never make us happy nor create peace and justice on this earth. Too many have to stay at the bottom of the ladder so we can be at the top.  So he embraced simplicity, which he called poverty. Simplicity levels the playing field so that there is enough for everyone – a worthy aim for anyone who seeks to follow Christ. So let’s stop trying to think our way to happiness, but let love show us the way to live into a new way of thinking, and Francis way of simplicity is an excellent way to start.

The upside-down kingdom

This week, we had a guest preacher while Nigel is enjoying a well-deserved vacation, so we don’t have a copy of the sermon to post. Instead you’re getting a few thoughts from me, Jan, on the Gospel reading.

Who’s The Greatest?

 

 

We read in Church yesterday about the disciples disputing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Don’t you just love those disciples; they aren’t “plaster saints” perfect in every way. They are just like us. Don’t we want to stand out from the rest if the group – to be seen as the best – whether it’s the best athlete, or artist; the best dressed, the one with the nicest house or fancy car?  Or even, as with the disciples, the one closest to God? Yes, our pride can even cloud our faith and devotions, which is perhaps the most insidious way we can try to outdo our friends and neighbours. Jesus wasn’t going along with any of this. He told them:  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. This is so counter cultural. It’s been called the upside-down gospel. Position, power and prestige are not part of following Christ, the one who was crucified for standing up for what he believes, and by that execution, he showed us that suffering and apparent defeat are the way to new life.  This is what St Paul calls “the folly of the cross” in 1 Corinthians.

Turning discipleship on its head

This Upside-downness is central to the Gospel. It permeates Jesus life and teaching: love your enemies; whoever wants to save his life must lose it; the time he spends with the marginalized of society, while calling some religious leaders “whited sepulchers”. He always prompts us to look at our lives, our actions and everything around us with different eyes, the eyes of a servant rather than of the elite. Our culture teaches us that to have more, do more or achieve more makes us better and happier. Jesu says No; blessed (happy) are the poor, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  These are the ones who are blessed. This is how we become children of God. Our ego tells us that popularity and approval are ways to happiness. Jesus says: Blessed (happy) are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. This is the upside-down kingdom.

The Kingdom Come on Earth

This is the kingdom we pray for every week when we pray “Thy Kingdom come …” and it is then up to us, as followers of Jesus, to live the kingdom life. Otherwise, how can it come on Earth? God calls each of us to servant-hood, in different ways, As we listen for his call, he will make it clear to us, maybe in the “still small voice” within our souls; maybe in some words we read or hear; maybe in a need we see around us. As we each meditate on this,

I leave you with the words of the French mystic and teacher of The little Way, St. Therese of Lisieux:

Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.

And with a poem by the Spanish Mystic, St Theresa of Avila:

Christ Has No Body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

 

The Bread of Eternal Life

This week we are back to Jesus’ discourse on The Bread of Life, which starts with the Feeding of the 5,000 – we heard that story a few weeks ago.As I thought about today’s Gospel reading, I found myself thinking about life based on these 3 concepts:

 – Physical life – what we know here and now
  -Life after death – which we can’t even imagine; and
 – Eternal Life, which I always want to write in all capital letters LIFE

I have known many people who believed that this physical life is all there is. My Father referred to death as “the big sleep”. I suspect he is now one very surprised eternal soul! Many others, including many who follow the teaching of Christ, see this physical life as something to be endured before we can enter heaven, when the good / marginalized will have eternal bliss and the others eternal punishment. We see this in the songs of oppressed people; such as in African American spirituals “the river is deep and the river is wide. Milk and honey on the other side”. Other people imagine life after death as rather like life here bur without the difficulties we endure now. You hear them at funerals saying things like: “Uncle Fred is now playing golf with my Dad on the great golf course in the sky.” To others, life is a 2 stage event – one life here and quite different one hereafter, perhaps sitting on a cloud playing a harp – who knows?

What is Eternal Life?

But what Jesus is offering in this discourse isn’t a two stage life – Eternal life isn’t the same as life after death. Eternal Life starts here and now. “Having eternal life” is mentioned four times in this discourse and in every case, the verb is in the present tense!. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” and “I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Not will have, has. Eternal life starts here and now, and won’t be terminated by the death of the body. Eternal life is not ‘pie in the sky bye and bye when you die.’ It’s not something that you have to wait for till you die. For John and for us, eternal life is something that begins in the now. Eternal life is life now in Christ, (as Paul calls it) and John asserts here that believers have eternal life now in Christ. Jeus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

So what is this life that Jesus gives, this eternal life? John Wesley once wrote, that religion (I think we’d probably use the word faith today) is not the mere saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or private, but “a renewal of our beings in the image of God, a recovery of the Divine likeness, a self-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy redeemer.” Wow! Sounds heavy. If I could put it in other words: Wesley is saying that True religion or faith is a transformation; it’s a new way of living. It’s – well, as Wesley said, becoming more Christ like, recovering the divine likeness that is in us. Saying a few prayers, taking part in a few rituals, believing a few doctrines … we could call that Fast food Christianity – is not true faith; we may feel full for a time, but fast food, popcorn and pretzels, or even a hot dog and fries is not very nutritious. Christianity isn’t even fine dining, although that’s part of it; it’s an ongoing, sustainable healthy diet, day in, day out. And to Jesus’ listeners in 1st century Galilee, that meant bread. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Bead of Eternal Life.

Life flowing out from God to us

The more I study the Bible, the more I feel a need to understand the words used by the writers, and what happened to them in translation. What’s the difference when I read everlasting life and eternal life? Well, none. The same Greek word is translated sometimes as one and sometimes as the other. But according to Greek Scholars, neither word really conveys the sense of the word John and other NT writers used, which has more of a sense of flowing – life that flows. It connotes a quality of life, tether than a quantity (length) of life, although the quantity isn’t absent. Jim Finley says it’s “Infinity (God) giving itself away”. A lot of the medieval mystics, especially women, use this language of God flowing out toward them and through them (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingem, Teresa of Avila to name a few). For Christians it means we are part of the Trinitarian flow of God’s love and life in us, through us, with us, for us—and usually in spite of us.

The same idea is found in 1 John 1:1-4 which the message translates “eternal life” as “The infinite Life of God himself … this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ”! There you have it, The Life which Jesus brings is this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. It’s ours here and now. Christianity is an experiential religion, not a religion of dogmas and rules. The way we live flows out from our experience of the divine, as we in turn, are part of the flow, where love, compassion and forgiveness that flow into us from God flow out of us to others. God doesn’t give us rules for living king of like the “Seven habits for highly successful souls” . Instead, God lets divine Love flow through us and out to others.

God’s Gift to Us

Jesus makes it very clear in this passage from John that this life, the ever flowing, eternal life is not a result of anything we do. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” and “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”. Our eternal life is a gift from God. God, or as Jim says, Infinity, takes the initiative,

But we have to respond with belief – not believing with our intellect certain propositions about God, Jesus or our faith, but the kind of belief I show when I tell my child, maybe as he branches out by himself, I believe in you. I have faith that you will do the right thing, I trust you. Jesus said: “whoever believes has eternal life.” God makes the offer; but we have to respond. If you come to my birthday party and bring me a beautiful and valuable gift, and I don’t take it from you, I don’t have it. In the same way, God offers to each one of us the gift of Eternal Life, and we have to accept this gift by believing, by trusting, by following the one who offer this life. God’s love is constant and unconditional; our part is to be open to it and let it transform us. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more than God already God’s; and there is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. The only difference is between those of us who allow that and those who don’t, but we all are equally and objectively the beloved. Those of us who allow God’s love in our lives just enjoy it and draws ever-new life from that realization. As RR says “God doesn’t love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.

How Jesus Defines Eternal Life

So what is this Eternal Life? I spent a lot of time this week trying to put into words (or find words written by others) to express what it feels like to live in Christ. I fall back on the words of Jesus: In his prayer before the crucifixion recorded only in Johns Gospel, Jesus refers to Eternal Life saying: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” And Jesus prays for all of us, who didn’t know him but have believed through the words passed down from the first disciples over the years: he prayers “for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us“ Unity with God, the triune God, Father , Son and Holy Spirit – and participating in the flow us divine love -this is the gift of Eternal Life, and it’s ours now.

God Walks with us in Good Times and in Bad

What a gift! But, please don’t misunderstand me, it’s not the gift of ease and comfort. It doesn’t isolate us from the problems of this world, sickness, unkindness, quarrels, money problems – they will still plague us. But God walks with us in good times and in bad – just read Psalm 23. And there will still be times when it feels as if God has deserted us. Just read the lives of saints and mystics! St John of the Cross called these experiences the Dark Night of the Soul, and they are times that God is letting us grow, like a bird pushing her chick out of the nest, or a snake sheading its skin for a new bigger one. Very often, we think of faith as a feeling or an emotion, an experience, and it is easy to become addicted to this feeling, and to measure how close we are to Jesus by the intensity of the emotion we feel. We become spiritually addicted to this emotion. Mike Glenn, a Baptist pastor, believed that he had a contract with Jesus: if he obeyed Jesus teachings, in return, God was obligated to do something in return for him, namely stop bad things happening to him. Then he was diagnosed with Cancer. He writes: “I lost [my faith]. No, that wouldn’t be correct. I didn’t lose it. That means you put it somewhere and then, when you went to look for it, you couldn’t find again. I didn’t misplace my faith. Jesus took my faith from me. He stripped it away. Jesus will never tolerate the presence of idols or falsehoods in your life, even when we call that idol ‘faith.’”. Love must sometimes be tough live and growth is rarely comfortable. There are two primary teachers (maybe they are the only two teachers) that move us ever closer to this unity with God. They are Great Love and Great Suffering.

A New Life – Sharing the Life of God

So, is it worth it? Oh yes! I want to leave you with the words of Richard Rohr: “I think [this] is the central positive theme of the Bible. It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired. It is called grace and has been rightly defined as “that which confers on our souls a new life, that is, a sharing in the life of God Himself”

Walking on Water

There is a lot in this reading that we just heard – four incidents and a hole. We start with Jesus inviting his disciples to leave everyone and go with him “to a deserted place” to rest. According to Mark, the disciples had just returned from their mission without Jesus to preach and heal, and were reporting back. Surely they needed this rest. Sadly interrupted by needy people But it was not to be. This is where the hole comes. The crowd were waiting for them and Jesus had compassion in them. You will hear this part of the chapter next week. Jesus feeds 5,000 men + women and children, after which (as we pick up the story), Jesus sent the disciples away in the boat, and dismissed the crowd. Then he goes away by himself to pray. As we heard, when his Prayer time was over, he went looking for his friends, walking on water to reach them – more later. The last incident we read about saw Jesus and the disciples back with crowds of people and Jesus again at work healing.

Back to walking on water. Did it happen? I’m not going to debate today whether Jesus really did walk on water. Three of the 4 gospels have this story. Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, Mathew, who based a lot of his writings on Mark, but adds the detail of Peter also walking on the water to meet Jesus until he lost faith he could do it, and John, believed to have written independently of the other three. Scholars’ opinions range from: He’s God; of course he can walk on water or (a version of this) the miracle was a hologram version of Jesus; to It was an optical illusion (he was on the shore or a sandbar) to It never happened; it’s a myth! Take your choice.

However you interpret it, like so many Bible stories, there is more than one level of meaning in the story. The phrase Walking on Water, like many biblical phrases has been adopted into current parlance and is used without thought of where it comes from.  When I worked at the bank we had a performance appraisal every year, and we were graded from Unsatisfactory, right up to Exceptional. I didn’t know anyone who had ever received the Exceptional rating, and I found out why when I tried to rate one of my staff that way. My boss didn’t believe anyone could ever be exceptional. As a result, the office culture claimed that, in order to be rated Exceptional, you had to be faster than a speeding bullet, leap tall buildings with a single bound, and walk on water! You have to be a combination of Superman and Jesus.  This is the way walking in water has entered our culture – as one aspect of doing the impossible. According to the story, if taken literally, Jesus could do the impossible, but not the disciples and not us.

Haven’t we all been the victim of unrealistic expectations?  Public figures get this regularly, especially after they have just been elected or appointed. There is even a name for it – the honeymoon period + that time before the person has done something to make them unpopular. I remember the headline in 2015: “How long will Justin Trudeau’s Honeymoon period last?” For a while, it seemed like he could do no wrong.  The same thing happens in other spheres of life. Of course there is the original marital honeymoon, but also the new boss, new pastor or a role model who, eventually, because he or she is human, lets us down in some way. We either accept the other person’s failings, or a divorce happens – marriage breakdown, we leave the job or the church, or we force the other person out.

Thinking about these expectations, thought of a song performed by the hip hop artist Eminem, the best selling artist of the 2000x in the US< called I walk on Water and here is the chorus (which I won’t try to sing): I walk on water / But I ain’t no Jesus / I walk on water / But only when it freezes.” Rap (also called Hip Hop)  is the 21st Century equivalent of the protest songs of the 1960’s, and like them expresses anger and frustration at the systems that marginalize segments of the population while making life easy for others – truths that are uncomfortable for the comfortably off to hear. In this song, Eminem laments the celebrity culture which has put him on a pedestal. “Why, are expectations so high?” he asks. His fans expect every word he writes or sings to be exceptional, each new song to be better than the one before; kids look up to him as a role model and he’s afraid to let them down. They expect him to walk on water, but what happens when the is=ce melts?  He raps:

‘Cause I’m only human, just like you / I been making my mistakes, oh if you only knew / I don’t think you should believe in me the way that you do /’Cause I’m terrified to let you down, oh / If I walked on water, I would drown / ‘Cause I’m just a man, ……. Or woman! … : I walk on water / But I ain’t no Jesus / I walk on water / But only when it freezes.

It’s not only leaders and celebrities who get idealized with unrealistic expectations.  Just as we have unrealistic expectations of a new boss, (or pastor or neighbour or even spouse) the boss (or whoever) might have unrealistic expectations of us! I doubt there is one of us who, at some time in our life, hasn’t been put on a pedestal, thought of as a role model, felt called to Walk on Water, carried the burden of unrealistic expectations.  Wasn’t there a time when, to your children or grandchildren, you could do no wrong? When people relied on you and didn’t want to let them down, but their expectations were unrealistic? Or have you ever been told: “You’re a Christian … how can you say (or do) that?” Haven’t we all wanted to cry out with Eminem I don’t think you should believe in me the way that you do /’Cause I’m terrified to let you down, oh / If I walked on water, I would drown / ‘Cause I’m just a man, ……. Or woman!

Where do these unrealistic expectations come from? Sometimes from others. Very often from ourselves!. But they do not come from God.  Jesus didn’t call us to be perfect, without flaws. OK, now you’re all thinking of that saying of Jesus in Matthew: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”. I’m not a Greek scholar, but I looked that up. The word used in Greek, that was translated into Latin as Perfectus, and later into English as perfect is teleios and it can mean ‘perfect’ but is more usually used to refer to maturity or wholeness. In fact anywhere else it is used in the New Testament, it is translated as mature.  Be mature is very different from being perfect. Grow up, says Jesus. So what did Jesus expect of us as we grow up, if not perfection?

I like Paul’s image (2 Corinthians 4.7) which says that ‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.‘ The Corinthians made various kinds of pots and exported them widely. As well as fancy, highly glazed pottery, some of their pots were made of inferior clay that, when fired, cracked and made great light diffusers. Paul is referring to these pots, when hr describes how God’s extraordinary power chines through us, the inferior pots. Paul’s point is that our cracked imperfect exteriors (in this instance his in particular) are nothing to be ashamed of — they are vital. A well glazed pot keeps the light in; only a pot riven with cracks can shine God’s light in the world. The cracks let the light out. A slightly different image with the same idea is Kintsugi pottery, a Japanese practice which mends broken pots withgold or silver so that that resulting pot is more beautiful than the one that broke. In both cases, iy is through the cracks that the light shines through.

As Christians, we are called to be who we are with all our cracks and imperfections, knowing that God’s glory will shine through those cracks into the world around us and that the gold of God’s love will mend our brokenness into something far more beautiful than it was before. We are called to be who we are with all our cracks and imperfections.

The Christian calling is not a calling to perfection. I find it very freeing to know that I don’t have to walk on water, but instead we are called to be ourselves, and to live with our imperfections so that God’s glory can shine all the more powerfully.  I know I’ll never be perfect; I can’t walk on water. Those expectations come from other people, or from myself. I want other people’s high opinion, and I don’t want to let people down. But I do let myself and others down; I’m human, I can’t walk on water.

I don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. If perfection was the goal, I’d never step out of my house. I’d be too afraid about how I measure up to ever open the door. I’d obsess over everything I say or do  and if I couldn’t measure up, I’d stay under my covers, afraid to face the world. If I had to be perfect. I’d be stagnant and frozen.  That’s no life. Knowing we’ll never be perfect and don’t have to be perfect, means we can be those disciples in the boat, striving against the storm, even though they didn’t recognize Jesus. We can be the pots with cracks, because it’s through the cracks that God’s light shines forth.  God made each one of us, with all our imperfections. God loves each one of us, with all our imperfections. God made each of us to be different. What God want is for each of us to be the wonderful, beloved, distinct individual we were created to be.  He gave us guidelines Love God, Love your neighbour, and Love yourself. Same rules, but each has our individual way to let the light of love shine through. So be yourself, your beautiful, beloved self, and spread Love around.