Thursday 20 June 2024

There it is again: don't be afraid

David and Goliath.

Just to mention the names brings to mind a particular scenario. Underdog versus overwhelming adversary. Little guy takes on the big and powerful. Little versus big, weak versus strong, it’s used in sports, business, politics, science - pretty much everywhere with that singular meaning. Even the name Goliath has come to mean someone or something huge, gigantic, strong and powerful.

This is the power of a metaphor. This situation is like that situation, so we use this as a colourful way to describe it. I’ve been talking about metaphors a lot lately, especially the ones Jesus uses, as well as the parables. I’ve been encouraging a deeper dive, suggesting that metaphors are really an invitation to look more closely at something, to ask more questions and learn more. Unfortunately, we tend to use them to simplify, to point at one particular meaning. That’s too bad and often does a disservice to both the thing we’re highlighting and the thing - or story - we’re using to describe it.

Sometimes it even pushes us to think of the original thing so much in the context of how we’re using it that it loses its original meaning.

Like David and Goliath. 

Sure, little David and big Goliath. Sometimes when we use it that simply, it’s not even about who wins, but the comparison of the adversaries. Except the story’s not about that.

To begin with, it’s not just about two individuals, it’s a story. So it’s more than a metaphor, it’s an allegory, an expanded metaphor that’s complex, nuanced and detailed. And the story of David and Goliath isn’t just about an underdog facing an overwhelmingly superior opponent.

1 Samuel 17 records the Israelites, under King Saul, coming to battle the Philistines at Elah. In a tradition of the ancient world, the Philistines sent out a champion so that the day could be decided by single combat, sparing the two armies. Goliath is described as huge, wearing armour, carrying a spear and shield. He’s a great warrior who taunts the Israelites to send out their best.

The Israelites are afraid. No one wants to fight Goliath. David is a boy who takes care of sheep and runs errands to his older brothers who are with Saul. David isn’t afraid and is willing to fight Goliath. David has a plan.

See, I imagine David was just as scared as everyone else. But he wasn’t afraid, in that same way that Jesus means when he tells us “don’t be afraid.” It’s okay, sensible even, to be scared, but David knows that God is with him, whatever happens. Not that God would take care of everything for him, but that the spirit inspired him to know that his skill with a sling could make the difference. And it does. He knocks down Goliath, takes Goliath’s own sword and cuts his head off. (Yeah, that’s the part we often leave out - it’s not the sling that kills him, it just brings him down.)

The story’s really about believing in yourself and the power of the spirit to engage even the greatest obstacles in our life. That’s God at work in each of us. Don’t be afraid.

Thursday 13 June 2024

An Invitation to Dig Deeper

Who doesn’t like a good metaphor?

Or a simile for that matter. They serve the same purpose, essentially, in describing or comparing something based on their similarities. More specifically, similes use “like” or “as” to connect things and metaphors just say something “is” something else when it literally isn’t. (Grammar police, please don’t come for me. I know that’s pretty simplistic and there’s more to it. That’s kind of where I’m going. You’ll see.)

It’s such a handy way of describing things and helping people understand. “I’m busy as a bee” or “just covering the bases,” for example, “they’re the star of the team” or “the kingdom of God is like a tiny seed.”

Yes, it’s one of Jesus’ most important teaching tools. He used a lot of metaphors and similes, often in the form of parables which are really just metaphors extended into a narrative. 

The thing is, metaphors are inherently flawed, aren’t they? Or, at least, incomplete. Without a lot of thought, we get the impression that two things are the same and they’re very much not. They’re like each other or similar, but they’re not the same. It’s important to note the differences as well as the similarities and to remember that metaphors only represent a particular perspective. There’s always more to it.

This is sometimes more obvious than others. When Jesus tells a parable about farming, for example, it’s pretty clear that, while he’s trying to connect with a predominantly agrarian audience, he’s definitely not a farmer. In the parable of the sower, he says the sower throws the seed willy-nilly wherever and some of it lands in the worst places. No farmer would waste seed like that. Of course, that’s part of the point of the story, but you need to dig a little deeper than the face of the story in order to find out. (There’s a metaphor right there.)

Or when he talks about how the kingdom of heaven is like the seed that’s planted and, day and night, it grows but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth does all the work. Try telling a farmer that. Or the mustard seed, which Jesus says is the smallest of all the seeds and grows into a big shrub with branches big enough for birds to nest in. It isn’t and they don’t.

In that same passage from Mark - and elsewhere - the author says that Jesus “spoke the word” to the people in parables “as they were able to hear it,” but he explained everything to the disciples. Well of course he did. I don’t think this is about secret knowledge or not trusting the people to understand or ensuring the future of the priesthood set apart from the people. I wonder if it’s more like preaching and bible study. The people heard the word proclaimed and those who wanted or needed to know more, learned more. And I wonder if, when the gospel writers refer to “the disciples” in these moments, they may have meant any followers of Jesus, not just the twelve.

Because that’s what good metaphors should do. It’s certainly what the parables do. They’re an invitation to dig deeper. When people heard Jesus, I doubt they went away thinking they’d been told how it is. I think they went away thinking about it. Some might have stayed, or come back, to learn more. The parable just opened the door. There’s another metaphor.

Thursday 6 June 2024

It's Harmony and Wholeness

That all may be one.

On the night he was arrested, the Gospel of John tells that Jesus had a lengthy conversation with his eleven closest followers. Judas had already left to betray him, it says, and Jesus tells them some really important things. The kind of things you say when you know you’re about to leave.

The gospel tells it like a lengthy monologue, mostly, but I can’t help but think there was conversation. There’s just too many important things. I think there would have been more back and forth, especially when he could see how anxious they were.

He tells them not to be afraid. He tells them about The Way, the truth and the life. He tells them the Holy Spirit will be there to help them. He describes himself as the true vine, of which we are the branches. He gives them the commandment to love one another as he has loved them. Big stuff.

Then, at the end, he prays. And in that prayer he asks God to take care of them and he talks about the relationship of God, Jesus and his followers, that they may be one. But not just them. “I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”

After all the time they’d spent living with Jesus, learning with Jesus, growing with Jesus and being empowered by Jesus, stories that we have so that we could know Jesus, too. After being reminded that they know The Way to live - the way that is true to the divine spirit and earthy humanity that is in them, so that we could know that, too. After being “commanded” (meaning that in the best possible way) to love as he showed them to love in his own life, so that we could know that, too. After all that, he prays that all may be one. After all that, I think Jesus knew that we’d still find it difficult - too difficult, even - we’d still fail frequently and we’d still think we weren’t good enough to be Jesus, that we weren’t good enough to be love in the world. Even though we already are.

I wonder if Jesus could see that we wouldn’t understand that all of that begins with knowing that we are one, not in uniformity or sameness, but in how our uniqueness is connected by love. We see difference and diversity as the things that separate and divide us. We’re fearful of things we don’t know. But true community, what Jesus would call the kingdom of heaven here, comes with affirming and embracing difference as an opportunity to connect and grow. True community isn’t just a collective of like minds and similar ideas where people connect on their common ground. It’s when people feel they truly belong, that their own uniqueness is a welcome, valuable, contributing piece of what makes the community. The things we have in common are an introduction, but the respectful sharing of our unique selves is what makes a new, healthy, whole community.

We need love to do that. We need grace, compassion, empathy, and all the things that are the life of Jesus, however and whoever you know as Jesus. The one-ness Jesus prays for isn’t conformity or uniformity, it’s harmony and wholeness.

Thursday 30 May 2024

The Great One

What’s the greatest commandment?

The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all have stories of Jesus being asked this question. His answer, I think, goes to the heart of what we’re all about. An appropriate way of describing that, since it’s about love.

In Mark’s account, Jesus answers by first quoting the Shema, a jewish prayer recited each morning and night: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” So. Love God. Seems simple.

Good start, but Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says there’s a second “great” commandment: Love your neighbour as yourself. There’s nothing greater than these, he says. These.

These. Of course, Jesus would want to tie God, self and neighbour together. And tie them with love. His whole life demonstrates that they’re connected. 

The divine is in all creation from the beginning. Jesus shows us how the divine is present in him to help us better understand how the divine is in us, too, and yes, that means our neighbours as well. It’s pretty simple, really. 

Loving God means loving God in creation, in ourselves and everyone else - “all my relations” is an expression of indigenous peoples that reflects this connectedness. How can one say that they love God and not love themselves, when God is in us? How can one say they love God and not love their neighbour when God is there, too? How can you love neighbour and not God? Or self and not God? However you know or understand God, God is there, how can we not love? It’s simple.

Simple, but not easy. Things get in the way, sure they do. And I bet Jesus would be the first to acknowledge that. I bet he’d also encourage us to keep trying, keep hoping, keep believing that we are inherently good and true joy comes with living love into the world as best we can.

In Mark’s account, the person who asked Jesus the question congratulates him on the right answer and says these two commandments together are more important than any “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” I wonder if this might remind us that there are things - rituals, practices, structures - to which we cling that might be the very thing that’s getting in the way of love. Not just in church, although religions could sure use a discerning overhaul, but in our lives.

What are the structures and practices of everyday that get in the way of love, that disconnect us and keep us apart, that build on our ignorance rather than engaging the world and learning and growing in love? Perhaps the very things we thought were great for us, aren’t nearly as great as love.

Thursday 23 May 2024

A Wonder of Community

From the earliest days, the followers of Jesus wondered about the relationship between God, Jesus and the Spirit. As things got more formal and they began to be “the church,” there were questions and thoughts about how to understand that relationship and, of course, there was a point at which they felt it was important to be able to clearly state how it was to be understood. So in the 4th century, a worldwide gathering of the church (it was a smaller world then), decided on The Trinity.

The term “trinity” doesn’t appear in the bible at all, but is a part of the church doctrine (teaching) that has become dogma (teaching that the church considers to have been divinely revealed in the Word and therefore becomes part of faith). There’s lots of both, but the Trinity is the concept that God is three persons, classically represented as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This concept is revealed in Christian scripture, church leaders said, that there is one God and that God is, in essence, three persons, so intimately connected that they are one.

Remember, though, that they are speaking to the understanding of personhood in their time, when it meant both the individual and the sense of that individual existing in the context of community. The wholeness of being unique and, at the same time, part of something greater. Individual, but not separate; unique, but not alone; separate, but of the same essence. The three “persons” of the Trinity exist with each other, but are not each other.

In contemporary society, more weight now seems to be put to the individual, that the “I” of our personal rights is greater than the community. That makes it more difficult to see the relationship of the three within one.

So is God one or three? Yes, is the answer, God is both “Three in One and One in Three” so the old hymn goes. Okay, so then how does that work, exactly? It’s a mystery, the church said. It just is.

That sure didn’t stop people from trying to explain it. After all, in our modern minds, mysteries need to be solved. How do the three relate as one? What’re the mechanics of the relationship? Who’s in charge? What’s the structure look like? We even came up with other, more contemporary, ways of describing the three in order to better understand how they are one: Creator, Christ and Spirit; God in the world, God among us and God within us; Parent, Child and Comforter; there are many, each representing a particular perspective, trying to articulate the wholeness that is God.

But maybe it’s not a mystery to be solved, it’s a wonder to learn from. Maybe it’s not an example of individual distinctiveness, but a model of community. Maybe it’s not about who’s who, but about the necessity of relationship. The Trinity is constantly active relationship. That’s a powerful way to understand God: in the world, in relationship and in action.

The idea of the Trinity is a wonder, to be wondered at and wonder about so that we might find the wonderful in a relationship with God who is the very model of relationship, to live in community with God who is the very model of community, and to live out that love, not alone, but with the world around us.

Thursday 16 May 2024

It's Been There All Along

It seems to me that it’s the one time the disciples actually knew what was going to happen. And believed it, too.

After his death and resurrection Jesus told the disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait. The Holy Spirit was coming and they would “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” Jesus leaves (ascends to heaven) and off they go to Jerusalem where they wait patiently (or impatiently maybe, I don’t know). While they’re waiting they pick Mathias to replace Judas and then, on Pentecost the story says, they experience the Holy Spirit.

The name Pentecost doesn’t have anything to do with the Spirit, at least not directly. “Pente” simply means fifty and it was the day of Shavuot on the Jewish calendar, a harvest festival fifty days after Passover. For Christians, Pentecost has become fifty days after Easter. The point of it being that particular day isn’t related directly to the Spirit (it kind of is - I’m coming to that), it’s significance in the story is that there was a crowd in Jerusalem that day, Jews from all over the known world. And when the disciples find themselves empowered by the Spirit, what they’re able to do is to communicate in the languages of all of those places. And those people are rightfully amazed. And perhaps moved.

That’s certainly an important piece of the story. Not just communication, but connection. Imagine being in a far off place where you might be struggling a bit with communication and unfamiliar surroundings and suddenly you hear the language of your home. That might be a message you’d want to hear, one that’s speaking to you right where you live, connecting with where you’ve come from and helping you feel, well, at home. That’s an important learning for today’s church.

But let’s get back to the waiting disciples, expecting the imminent arrival of the Spirit. And suddenly there’s a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Of course there is. What better way to describe the Spirit than with the elements? We also talk about the Spirit present in the water of baptism. And don’t forget how the Spirit is in earth, too. From the very beginning even, in the creation story, the Spirit of God created all living things. The Spirit is life.

It can be very easy to read the Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-21) as the disciples expecting something to happen to them, to hear the Spirit being some outside force acting on them. But the Spirit is already there, in all things. Maybe that’s why it’s so appropriate for it to be the day of a harvest festival. The fruits of the earth and the Spirit connecting.

I wonder if, rather than hearing a story of expecting something to be done to them, the disciples had finally had enough experience of Jesus, of faith and of the spirit, that they were open to knowing the Spirit being alive within themselves, just as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is teaching us. Instead of some outside force acting on them, perhaps they suddenly were aware of the connectedness of things. Perhaps they knew the divine was in them and in creation and instead of a force acting on them, it became something flowing out: the Spirit of life and love, the creativity and connection of the divine in all of us.

Thursday 9 May 2024

What Do You Mean?

We’re at the end of the season of Easter. It seems kind of ironic to say that, given that Easter is the season of new life and new beginnings, but here we are. The season ends, but the new life lives on. Doesn’t it?

That was in our theme for the season, “Daring to Live as an Easter People.” The idea was to share the stories of people bringing new life to the world by living “Jesus” into the world. From that, we could once again be reminded that we, too, can live “Jesus” into the world.

You’re wondering about the quotes around Jesus, aren’t you. It’s meant with respect.

See, I don’t think Jesus was trying to teach us that we can live like him, specifically, or that we can behave differently by following him, specifically, or - especially - that we can come closer to God by worshipping Jesus, specifically (I think he’d hate that). I don’t think Jesus was trying to show us a power we don’t have. I think Jesus was trying to show us that everything that is in Jesus, is in us, too. We are divine and earthly, just as Jesus is. We are, in our heart of hearts, good. We begin in life that way and it’s our experiences that will either enhance and encourage that or undermine and discourage it. Jesus is uniquely aware of the divine and in touch with the humane, that’s Jesus’ true power. Our’s is broken and seems distant from God. We’ve lost touch with the presence of the divine in our own being.

What Jesus is trying to show us is that God is in us, too, and that we are capable of all that is “Jesus” - what John, and the earliest followers called “The Way.”

Hmm. More quotes around that.

I’ve talked about this before. I like to talk about it. I even tried to call it “Jesusing,” a verb, because being Jesus is action. That didn’t really take, but the point is still true, whatever name, label or description we give it, however we know it: all that is in Jesus is in all of us, too. Jesus was trying to show us that.

That brings me back to the “Daring to Live as an Easter People” theme. The people whose stories we shared weren’t figures from scripture. They weren’t saints, they weren’t religious leaders and they weren’t the usual inspiring figures from history like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. They were people from our communities, local people that you might know. Your neighbour, even. They were ordinary, everyday people, that would probably tell you they weren’t special, they were just doing what they felt was right and good. Some of that was showing love, kindness, care and compassion, but it was also about justice, equity and reconciliation, too. 

It’s so easy to distance ourselves from scripture, from the saints and from the famous and larger-than-life figures of history. But look around you. Jesus is alive in your neighbour, in people you know, in friends and family, in people you can talk to, touch and embrace. Jesus is alive in you.