Thursday, August 31, 2017

Canaanite Lives Matter!

This post is based on a sermon I preached on August 20, 2017. It is based on Matthew 15:21-28.

According to Biblical commentators, the passage in Matthew 15:21-28 is one of the most difficult to understand. Traveling to the traditionally pagan region of Tyre and Sidon (modern day Lebanon), the farthest north Jesus would travel during his earthly ministry, he is accosted by a Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter.  Shockingly Jesus acts dismissive and even mean to this Canaanite woman.  We find ourselves asking “Is this the same Jesus?  How come he is acting like this?”
It certainly seems that Jesus is acting in a negative, even a racist manner towards this non-Jewish woman. There have been many attempts by theologians to understand what is happening in this text. Here are some of the explanations:
  1. The story shows an inner struggle of Jesus when he is confronted with the request to extend his mission beyond the Jewish limits in which he had begun it. At first he is reluctant to make the shift in his ministry focus, but upon seeing the faith of the Canaanite woman he grows in his understanding of his mission and changes his attitude.
  2. The Gospel has Jesus playfully using the diminutive word for dogs (i.e. doggies or puppies) rather than the usual term, thus indicating that Jesus did not really despise foreigners as many other Jews did.
  3. Jesus is trying to teach his followers a lesson, by mirroring what would have been their attitude towards non-Jewish people, then in a sudden shift showing the disciples how Gentiles should be treated (by responding to the request positively, healing the daughter in an act of love and compassion).
  4. Jesus is testing the sincerity of the Canaanite woman’s humility and faith by seemingly rejecting her request at first.
  5. The story was adapted by the Gospel writer from another source not related to Jesus, in order to address the struggle within the early church as to whether the message and powers of the kingdom of God were open to Gentiles as well as Jesus.
If we simply consider what are Jesus’ words and actions in this story then he seems to be reflecting a prejudice against this woman because of her ethnic identity. Jesus is acting in a manner that could almost be considered ‘racist’ towards Canaanites. Even though she addresses him as “Son of David” – a distinctly Jewish understanding - Jesus disregards her at first, ignoring her pleas for help. But she won’t stop asking and the disciples beg Jesus to do something to get rid of the woman. So Jesus speaks to the woman, but in a manner that seems to be negative and dismissive – her problems are none of his concern seems to be Jesus’ initial approach. But none of Jesus’ negative responses deters this woman, and she persists until Jesus changes his tone and approach completely.

Is it possible that we are glimpsing some of Jesus’ human nature here? One shaped by the culture and community he was raised in? We know through other historical documents that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day had strong negative opinions about people of other ethnic groups and religions: they did not like the Romans, or the Samaritans, or the Greeks, or the Canaanites. They called non-Jewish people “dogs” and they avoided interaction with them as much as possible. If that is what is happening in this story, it would not have been anything unusual as far as a Jewish audience was concerned. This attitude was normal in the culture Jesus grew up in.

We are all shaped by the community and culture in which we were raised. When I think back to my childhood I remember plenty of derogatory jokes and comments made about “other people” – that would include people of Polish or Ukrainian descent, people who came to Canada from India or Pakistan, Asians were all grouped together in our minds and negative stereotypes were repeated over and over. Most significantly Indigenous peoples were targeted for particularly harsh scorn and derision. Not only were people of different ethnic backgrounds treated with suspicion, disregard or outright hatred, so to were people of different religions or different sexual orientations. I can clearly remember using all kinds of slurs and put-downs for people who I considered different from me. And nothing seemed wrong with such behavior, because everyone was doing so, or so it seemed.

These past few weeks we have been watching expressions of hatred towards people of other religions or ethnic heritage on the news. We have seen the neo-nazi and white supremacists marching with torches and hate filled chants in Charlottesville, Virginia. We have seen people targeted and run over by a van in Barcelona because of religious intolerance and hatred, the terrorists believing that their version of religion is the only legitimate one and all others should be exterminated. Such extreme displays of hating others is upsetting to us, and, personally, I found myself deeply disturbed by all this.

When traveling in Europe this summer we came across other disturbing reminders of our intolerance and unacceptance of others who are perceived to be different. Our group visited Dachau, the site of the first concentration camp established by the Nazis, where political dissidents, religious opponents, homosexuals, and multitudes of Jewish people, were held captive and ultimately executed – for no
other reason that they were deemed “not like us.”

Visiting a museum in Munich, Beth and I learned how the National Socialist Movement (or the Nazis) started, how the movement grew and took hold of power. Munich was the heart of fascism in Germany and where Hilter began his quest for power. In this museum I came across one of the most dis-heartening artifacts from the Nazi era – this red stole, worn by clergy, both Catholic and Protestant, during the reign of Hitler.

From reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I know that there were many clergy, theologians and academics who embraced Nazi-ism with open arms, who welcomed Hilter’s movement as a good thing, and shaped their worship services to reflect this admiration. I wondered “How could pastors and priests not see this was a bad thing?”

This was not the only example of racism from historical Europe we encountered. In Wittenberg, the town that is at the heart of the Reformation, the place where Martin Luther preached and taught for most of his life, in this town, on the Stadtkirche (Town Church), we saw this 13th century sandstone sculpture.

It portrays a rabbi who looks under the sow's tail, and other Jews drinking from the pig’s teats. A plaque at the church told us "In the late 13th century, a relief mocking the Jewish religion was installed on the south-east corner of St. Mary’s Church (also known as Town Church). Offensive reliefs of this kind were widespread in the German Empire at that time and were intended to discourage Jews from settling nearby."

A holocaust memorial below the stone relief was unveiled in November 1988, 50 years after the start of the Jewish pogroms in Nazi Germany. The bronze panel created by sculptor Wieland Schmiedel shows four floor slabs meant to conceal something underneath. This “something” however, cannot be suppressed. It emerges from the joints and stands out in relief, forming a cross. The suffering of those trampled underfoot is replicated in the sufferings of Christ. The text by writer Jurgen Rennert around the monument refers to the inscription on the relief high above on the church building. It reads: "God’s original name, the maligned Shem Ha Mphoras, which the Jews held holy before the Christians, died in the six million Jews under the sign of the cross." Added in Hebrew letters in the beginning of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”

The “Jewish Sow” high on the church wall at Wittenberg was a stark reminder of the racist attitudes towards the Jewish people that existed throughout Europe, for centuries before the Nazis came to power.

In every museum display talking about Martin Luther and the Reformation that we saw this summer, there was an acknowledgement of Luther’s antisemitism. Sadly, this amazing man of God also had a very negative side to his personality and work. Early in his career as a theologian and pastor Luther supported and defended the Jewish people, however by the end of his life he had come to see the Jewish people only in a negative and hostile light. Some of his final writings were anti-Semitic books
and pamphlets. The most infamous one being his book “On the Jews and Their Lies”, written the final year of Luther’s life. Adolf Hitler used Luther’s book to give support to his own antisemitism.

Why Luther changed his attitude towards the Jewish people has been cause for much speculation, and no clear answer. I also discovered in my reading these past months that Martin Luther was not the only reformer to publish antisemitic works, others such as John Calvin and Erasmus of Rotterdam also wrote or spoke against the Jewish people. Thus even those who knew well the command of Christ to love others as we love ourselves exhibited racist attitudes. It seems as if cultural biases took precedence over Biblical imperatives.

We are all shaped by the cultures and communities we have been raised in, and we are all susceptible to unconscious biases, or to put it another way, we are all to some degree racist.

When we hear the word “racist” certain images come to mind – but racism goes beyond the stereotypical image of the guy with a shaved head and “White Pride” tattooed across his shoulders, the one who drives around with a Confederate flag bumper sticker on his jacked-up truck, and
tosses empty beer cans out of the window. Then we think "We’re not like that, we don’t blatantly hate any groups of people."  Thus we conclude that we’re not tainted with racism. However, once and a while we get a glimpse of our unconscious biases, our prejudices, and if we’re honest we need to admit that we find it easiest to paint a group of people with the same brush.

Tieja Thomas of the Someone Project said in a recent interview on CBC radio:
"Everyone makes judgements based on race. So [by] saying that everyone is a racist, I'm trying to make light of the negative impacts of hateful forms of racism, but I think we all make judgements. We're all innately judgmental beings."
To be fair, this impulse to judge others based on some identifiable characteristic – their ethnic group, their sexual orientation, their social status, their education level, and so forth – to categorize and characterize others makes it easier to navigate our way in the world. This is why it is such an easy thing to fall into. The world can be an overwhelming place, and anything that simplifies our understanding of how people function in this world is something we would naturally gravitate towards. But just because it is easier doesn’t make it right.

I try hard not to harbor any racist attitudes I sometimes catch myself thinking or even speaking a negative stereotype of another ethnic group. In my interactions with indigenous people I have found myself being patronizing, or over-simplifying their problems, or worse, simply disregarding them. I am not proud of this behavior, but I need to acknowledge that I can also slip back into racist attitudes I learned from my community and culture as a child.

Scientific research has shown that it takes time and effort to overcome our unconscious biases, our racist attitudes, our judgmental behavior. But it can be done. It begins with becoming aware, making unconscious biases conscious. It takes serious reflection, it takes honesty and humility. I believe it also takes prayer. And finally it takes practice, meaning we need to be intentional in getting to know those who we identify as “others.”

This means listening to indigenous people share their stories. It means getting to know a Muslim neighbor. It means participating in ecumenical dialogs, such as the one we hope to have this fall between the Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans of our area.

Let us return to the Gospel reading, moving past the initial behavior and words of Jesus to the conclusion of the story. Here we find Jesus suddenly proclaiming the worth and value of the Canaanite woman. This un-named Gentile woman is the only person in the Gospel of Matthew said to have “great faith” (in contrast to the disciples’ “little faith”).

In this way, this story is similar to that of the Roman centurion in Matthew chapter 8, both stories of Jesus’ interactions with non-Jewish people prepare us for the universal mission charge with which the Gospel of Matthew concludes (28:19-20). "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you."

The other day I came across a Statement of Lutheran Clergy Rejecting White Supremacy, Terrorism, and Violence. It begins by quoting from Revelation 7:9-10: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!
Then it continues:
We the undersigned, as Lutheran pastors and leaders who believe that God’s grace is for “all tribes and peoples and languages,” publicly condemn white supremacy as well as terrorism of every kind.

I applaud the people who put that statement, but if we only paid attention to the obvious forms of racism and hatred we will miss the call of the Holy Spirit to look deep into our own hearts, and to begin the transformation to a world of peace by starting with ourselves.

One final image to share with you.

Here we see hands of many different hues placed on top of the cross. This specific cross is on the Norwegian flag. When you think of Norwegians I’m sure you imagine blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned people. One time my Dad was in a store and overhead people speaking fluent Norwegian. He rounded the corner and saw two black men engaged in conversation using perfectly pronounced Norwegian. Had he not heard them first I’m sure my Dad never would have thought they were from Norway, the world is filled with surprises like that. Surprises such as a Canaanite woman who shows more faith than even Jesus’ disciples. May you be open to the surprising people that God will give you opportunity to get to know.

As we strive to accept and love all people, truly and fully from the depths of our hearts; as we seek to allow the love of Jesus to transform us, and to change any lingering sinful attitudes into fruits of the Spirit; then we will be united as in the vision in Isaiah 56, united as the whole people of God, a family created by the love and grace of God.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Epiphany Needs its own Colour

When I was a child the same colour was used in the church to designate the seasons of Advent and Lent – both were assigned the colour purple, a colour of royalty, passion and penitence. For some reason this began to change sometime in the 70’s and thus in many churches the colour blue became the colour of Advent.

We currently have a similar situation with the Season of Epiphany and the Season after Pentecost (both of which are designated as Ordinary Time). I cannot think of Epiphany as ‘ordinary’, this season of revelation - of light and insight - it has its own distinct tone, its own unique emphasis, its own personality. I think it needs its own colour.

Epiphany begins with the light of a star leading Magi to the Christ child, and continues with the divine identity of Jesus being revealed in various ways to the waiting world. A voice is heard at Jesus’ baptism proclaiming “This is my beloved son”; water is turned to wine at a wedding feast leading one to say “You have saved the best wine until now.”; prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of light dawning on a people in darkness get referenced by Jesus, or by the Gospel writers about Jesus. When artists of earlier centuries sought to reveal Jesus’ divine nature they painting a golden yellow halo around his head. Golden yellow, the colour of a dancing flame atop a candle standing on the altar (or a lamp on a lampstand), such a colour seems like a perfect choice to mark a season of revelation.

Baptismal Font and Epiphany Paraments

When I look at Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” I see the shimmering golden yellow marking the vibrance of the stars in the night sky, and I think of the light of the world, and the message of the heavenly host swirling through the heavens “Glory to God in the highest!”  When I see the sun rise in the east, changing the deep blues of twilight into the golden hues of sun rise I think of the rising of the Son of God. When I see the golden yellow of pure silk fabric I imagine the magi from the east bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Golden yellow is the colour I most easily associate with the Season of Epiphany.

A few years ago there was a clearance sale on stoles which came from MESH (Maximizing Employment to Serve the Handicapped), a non-profit organization in India founded to provide opportunities for disabled people and their dependents. I noticed that there were some golden yellow stoles no one was picking up, and since the price was right I picked one up (as did my ministry partner Pastor Lynn Robertson). I figured these stoles were intended to be used at Easter (which instead of white can use gold as a liturgically appropriate colour). But these stoles were more yellow than gold. That’s when the thought hit me “These stoles could be used for the Season of Epiphany”.

Pastor Lynn Robertson and I wearing our MESH golden yellow stoles.

It always seemed odd to me, being that I live in the northern hemisphere, that green would show up in the paraments at a time in the year when the only things that were green were either plastic plants or leftovers growing mold in the back of the fridge. There was no green on the Canadian prairies in the middle of winter, but sunlight – bright golden sunlight – that we had plenty of.

I don’t know who first had the idea for using the colour blue for Advent, but somebody, somewhere did – and it caught on. So I decided that if I thought the Season of Epiphany should have its own colour, then I should simply start the ball rolling. At first we could only wear our MESH stoles, but then this year Karen Schultz, a talented fabric artist from our congregation, created some paraments from beautiful golden yellow silk fabric that she had found. Besides the paraments hanging on the pulpit, lectern and altar, she also created two long side banners, and most lovely of all, a new Epiphany stole!

So now our sanctuary is resplendent in its golden yellow paraments, and the season of Epiphany is being marked with its own colour. I encourage other congregations and clergy to consider doing the same, explaining the significance of light as a symbol of Epiphany, and golden yellow as an appropriate colour to remind us of the revealing of the Christ. Jesus born of Mary and acknowledged by the magi, Jesus the light of the world who brings hope to a world trapped in darkness, sight to people who are blind (both physically and spiritually), and the warmth of God’s love to shine upon us.

New Epiphany paraments and stole created by Karen Schultz.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Violent Death Hits Home

On Thursday December 1st a young man was shot in New Orleans. Normally I would only take brief note of such a news story - but this time it was different. I knew this man, not personally, but I was sitting in the stands at Mosaic Stadium when Joe McKnight's play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders made me notice this mid-season addition to the team. I remember thinking that there was some hope for the future at the running back spot because of Joe's ability to hit the holes in the line and with a burst of speed gain a first down or more.

Now a burst of gunfire has ended his life, at only 28 years of age - the same age as my eldest son. All because of a road rage incident if the news reports are accurate. Rage and violence, too often the solution used to right a supposed wrong. What kind of traffic offense was so terrible that it warranted such a response? My head can't even begin to make sense of this. I find myself shaken deeply - the same age as my son, violently torn from his family and friends. It's a nightmare.

I am saddened, not only because Joe McKnight's death has hurt a team, has left a hole in a family, has brought unexpected grief into the lives of many - I am saddened that we are living in a world in which such a tragic event can even take place. The tension in the United States has only gotten worse in recent months, and when something is wound up so tight, when it lets go damage is inevitable. I have no idea if this specific event is related to the increasing fear and polarization happening in the United States, but I'm not sure how else to make any sense of this, how such a thing could happen.

Violence as a solution is all around us - in television, movies and books; in the encouragement of competition rather than cooperation; in playground intimidation and courtroom litigation (not all violence is of the physical sort). Violence as a solution is also inside us - in the primal response to hurt as we've been hurt; in the quest to dominate and get our own way; in what I would simply call our 'sinful nature'. At its least destructive feelings are hurt, at its worst someone lays bleeding to death on a city street.

There is another way to live, a path set forth 2000 years ago, when another innocent young man was subjected to undeserved violence and death. In the face of aggression and anger he refused to use force and violence in return - instead forgiveness and mercy were offered. The only power Jesus used on others was the power of love. May the tragedy of Joe McKnight's shooting compel us to seek the path of peace and justice with greater energy and intention. May we seek to love our neighbours, all our neighbours, with the same love that Christ showed us. It is not enough to feel sad about such an unnecessary death - it is time to repent, to change the way we think and act, and to walk in the light of the Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

We Are the Lord's

This past week we celebrated All Saints Sunday at Christ Lutheran where I am a pastor. When looking for a hymn to go with the theme I was preaching on I came across a hymn with suitable words in the Lutheran Book of Worship (the old green hymnal as many know it). The text was very fitting, but I didn't like the melody very much, so I decided to look for another melody to use with this hymn. The only hymn tune I found that matched the meter of the words really well was the much loved How Great Thou Art.  The only problem is that How Great Thou Art has a refrain and the hymn We Are the Lord's did not. So rather than throw this idea out I decided to write a refrain to go with the verses to this hymn. This adapted hymn was very well received on Sunday, and people have asked me for the words - so here they are.

Words by Karl J.P. Spitta, translated by Charles T.Astley
Words for the added Refrain by Dennis D. Hendricksen
Sung to the tune "How Great Thou Art"

1.  We are the Lord's. His all-sufficient merit,
     Sealed on the cross, to us this grace accords.
     We are the Lord's and all things shall inherit;
     Whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain:
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     By grace we're saints forevermore.
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     Alleluia! Alleluia!

2.   We are the Lord's. Then let us gladly tender
     Our souls to him in deeds, not empty words.
     Let heart and tongue and life combine to render
     No doutful witness that we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain

3.   We are the Lord's. No darkness brooding o'er us
     Can make us tremble while this start affords
     A steady light along the path before us –
     Faith's full assurance that we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain

4.   We are the Lord's. No evil can befall us
     In the dread hour of life's fast loos'ning cords;
     No pangs of death shall even then appal us.
     Death shall be vanquished, for we are the Lord's. 
Added Refrain:
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     By grace we're saints forevermore.
     We sing our praise, because we are the Lord's.
     Alleluia! Alleluia!

Monday, August 1, 2016

A World That Isn't

We are creating a false existence, everyday on social media I see examples of it. A world that isn't real. Hyperbole has become our proffered reality. It was once said "You can believe what you see" but this is no longer the case. As a photographer for many decades I have tried to capture on film, and more recently in bytes, what caught my eye in the world around me. Landscape photography was my preferred format, and I would share my best images with others, in print or in slide shows. Freeman Patterson, a mentor in this field, once said that if he had 2 or 3 images in a roll of 36 pictures that he considered great images he was satisfied that he had done well. That meant waiting for the right lighting, being in the right location, and having the settings on the camera perfect for the image one was trying to capture. I'm talking about those eye-popping pictures that seem to jump off the page or screen - the rare images that captured the beauty of nature in a way that did justice to the scene as experienced by the photographer.

These days there are amazing pictures posted on social media all the time, everyday astounding images fill our feeds - but they're a lie. Almost every image that you see has been enhanced in one way or another. The built in cameras that come with smart phones means one never has to be without a camera - but the apps that capture the images on our phones also enhance them, deepening the colour and contrast, because the app writers know what kind of images appeal to us, lots of colour and strong patterns. The picture above is an example of that - I took this with my iPhone from on top of a building in downtown Regina. The storm cloud was truly big and beautiful, and worthy of a picture. The image is close to what it looked like in real life, but the colours are a bit more intense and the contrast more striking than what my eye perceived. But it makes for a great image.

This is mild to what I see people do with digital enhancements, using programs like Adobe Photoshop to make the image more appealing. The law of diminishing effect is at work here, in order to make one's picture stand out from the others the temptation is to use more colour saturation, or higher contrast. Soon those images seem plain in comparison, so even more manipulation of the original image is rendered. The images no longer represent reality, but instead a hyper-reality that doesn't exist... but it sure gets a lot of like on one's Facebook page! Will we get to the point where we give up looking for beauty in the real world, and simply respond to endless false images on computer screens? Does that matter?

Perhaps not so much with pictures of nature, but it certainly matters with politics and people. We now live in a time when reality is manipulated to suit the individual. If something seems right due to one's biases, then it becomes truth - facts no longer matter. What feels right must be right, and we gather around ourselves those whose feelings are similar to ours - this is particularly easy with the algorithms of social media programming. We are fed what we like, and soon this becomes our reality. But the reality is false, and we are being manipulated. For example, our social media feeds are filled with stories that provoke fear, and paint the world as a place saturated with violence and danger. However if one looks at statistical information the truth is we are living in a time when crime rates are significantly lower than in previous decades (there are of course anomalies, but generally speaking this is true from a purely statistical analysis). But like enhanced photos, we are drawn to the exaggerated information that calls out to us from our screens. It's time to resist.

The best way to resist is to explore the world, the real world. Go outdoors, go to new places, meet new people, sit quietly in the midst of nature, look and listen carefully. Discover the world that is, as it really is. Consider this a spiritual pilgrimage, a search for truth, a worthy vocation. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Jesus' Lightsaber

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on the first Sunday in Lent this year. It is based on Luke 4:1-13 and Romans 10:8b-13.

Jesus – full of the Holy Spirit – is led into the wilderness. Jesus is leading a new exodus – and thus it is only fitting that it begins in the wilderness. The Hebrews were led out of slavery into the wilderness – their path to freedom – but they lose their way (spiritually speaking). They are tempted and tried in the wilderness – and they turn away from God. Jesus is tempted and tried in the wilderness but he doesn’t turn away from God’s path. He resists the lure of self-centered use of his power for material needs and gain. He resists the use of his authority without sacrifice. He resists taking the easy way out.

Jesus fights off the temptations of the evil one with his weapon. It is a weapon that can be both used for defense and attack, a weapon that functions as a shield as well for offense, a weapon that shines light on the situation. When I thought of these things I of course thought of a Lightsaber.

In Star Wars Episode IV – the movie that introduced the lightsaber to the world (when I was still a teenager!) Luke Skywalker in introduced to this weapon of the Jedi. He first learns its defensive capabilities, practicing warding off attacks from a training droid aboard the Millennium Falcon. Later he learns of its awful power when Darth Vader uses it to strike down Obi Wan Kenobi.

A Lightsaber can be used to deflect attacks from an enemy, or to strike at that enemy, to drive the enemy back. So what weapon does Jesus in his struggle against the devil in the wilderness that has such power and versatility? What is it that I consider like a Lightsaber?

Jesus' Lightsaber is Scripture – Jesus uses scripture to fend off the temptations of the devil. For every temptation attack Jesus counters with a scripture passage – and that is enough to force the devil to try a different approach.

What gives scripture such power? Why is it a force to be reckoned with? I would suggest this power comes from the covenantal relationship between God and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Scripture derives its power from its ability to remember the relationship between God and God’s people. The power of scripture is not in the words but rather in the relationship the words point to.

But there is a danger with scripture for can also be misused. Like any powerful tool it can be used for good of for ill. In the Star Wars saga we learn that both the good side (the Jedi) and the dark side (the Sith) use Lightsabers. Notice too, in the story of Jesus in the wilderness the devil also quotes scripture – the tempter attempts to use God’s word against God’s Son.

This should be a warning to us that not everyone who quotes scripture is in line with God’s will. There are many who quote the Bible to justify their judgmental attitudes, their hatred of others, their selfish and lavish lifestyles, and so forth. The Bible in untrained hands can be destructive and damaging.

So too does the Bible require great skill and training to use properly. Thus the importance of hearing scripture expounded on in sermons and explored in Bible study. I believe the best way to learn the proper use of scripture is in a faith community – such as a Bible Study group.  Group discussion allows the Spirit of God to reveal through conversation and reflection a fuller meaning of these ancient words.

 The Apostle Paul encourages Christians to take hold of this weapon. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul encourages his readers to put on the whole armour of God, which includes “the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.” (Ephesians 6:10-18) The scriptures are like a light that brings insight into the darkness and confusion of our lives. The scriptures can deepen our relationship with God, and it is that relationship that will keep us from giving in to temptation.

God equipped the Apostle Paul to bring the Gospel into a hostile world. Paul knew well how to wield the power of the Lightsaber called Scripture. In his letter to the Romans Paul quotes scripture to give encouragement and guidance to the Christians in Rome. These same scripture quotations I leave with you, as a weapon against despair and fear, against temptation and struggles.

Let the light of these ancient words blaze into your world today, sustaining you in the days and weeks to come:
“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”
“All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame.”
“All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

3 Reflections on Epiphany - Reflection #3 – Gifts Suggestions

The three gifts the magi bring to Bethlehem are often considered as symbolic indicators of Christ’s nature. Origen, the 3rd century theologian, gave us a concise example of this way of understanding the gifts when he wrote “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” This was the interpretation I grew up with, and one that still resonates with me today. However I would like to suggest another way of interpreting the significance of these three gifts.

I would like to propose that the three gifts given by the magi to the Christ child can also represent a proper response for all of us who seek to honor and worship the Saviour. The gifts of the magi can help us understand what gifts we can offer to Jesus, in the here and now.

Gold – it seems to me the giving of gold by the magi suggests that we give to Christ from our resources, through our offerings of time, talents and treasures to the work of the church and beyond. Giving of our gold (money) is really a way of sharing our time and talents. Money is both a measure of the time we have worked at something and an indication of the value of our skills and abilities. When we give from our resources to others, especially to those less fortunate than ourselves, we are giving them to Christ. As the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40 NIV)

Frankincense – as incense was used in Biblical times in religious ceremonies I would suggest that the giving of frankincense by the magi would indicate that it is appropriate that we give to Christ our worship, our prayers. We offer our petitions to the Lord because not only is Jesus worthy of receiving our prayers, but also because as the Son of God Jesus is able to receive our prayers and respond. The gift of frankincense indicates that the one born in Bethlehem is also the one we can turn to in prayer, in worship. With the psalmist we say “May my prayer be like incense in your presence.” (Psalm 141:2 NJB)

Myrrh – I would suggest that this final gift tells us that it is appropriate to give to Christ the gift of our serving, specifically serving as agents of healing and reconciliation in the world. Myrrh had a number of uses including as a medicinal agent in healing balm. We are called to make the world a sweet smelling place, not through dousing everything with perfume, but by spreading the healing and pleasant aroma of love – not a romantic love, but the self-giving love of God, shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Loving service inspired by Christ, the caring serving of others to honour Christ, this brings light into a dark world, brings healing into a broken world, and as the gift of myrrh suggests, brings a sweet aroma into a world made putrid with hatred, vengeance and exclusion. “Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.” (Ephesians 5:2 CEB)

Perhaps these Epiphany thoughts of mine can best be summed up with the words of the closing verse of the carol written by the English poet Christina Rossetti - "In the Bleak Midwinter
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him – give my heart.