Sunday, 23 July 2017

Confronting Violence

Matthew 13:24-43
All gardeners know weeds grow no matter how diligent you are. If you are a gardener like me, the weeds always seem to grow better than the plants I planted! A gardener’s main task it seems is to keep the garden clean of weeds.

In todays reading from Matthew we have a landowner who seems to have more than the normal outbreak of weeds amongst his wheat. And the weeds he is dealing with look like the real deal. Called darnel it is a wild wheat like weed that replicates the real wheat. Weeding it out as it grows is a risky task. What is and what isn’t the real wheat? We won’t know until we go to harvest and then we wil sort it out.

Really? Isn’t it too late then? Does this sound like a Jesus who understood rural life or is it a parable from a later edition with a different purpose?

The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest the following: “The parable reflects the concern of a young Christian community attempting to define itself over against an evil world, a concern not characteristic of Jesus. Letting the wheat and weeds grow up together suggests the final judgment rather than agricultural practice.” [Five Gospels, 194]

And the parable itself seems to point in that direction:
40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

What we have here is another of a number of difficult passages pointing towards a violent end for those who are not of the true faith, the church. It is not our responsibility to judge others; God will do that and will condemn them to a furnace of fire. But don’t worry; we who are righteous will shine like the sun and escape the punishment of those who sit amongst us in this and other communities.

Are we comfortable with this image and language? How does this sit with us in a world where our understanding of people’s behaviour has been influenced by science, psychology and personal experience? Are we able to accept an image of another burning in a fiery furnace and not be challenged by the image of the God it portrays?

Perhaps we are today more comfortable with this concept of punishment than ever before. We live in a surveillance society where one of the fastest growing industries is the prison system; a society in which prison and detainment camps are accepted as part of our response to the plight of others (refugees etc) and where we are quick to condemn others by means of media and hearsay. Perhaps today we are more comfortable with the idea of a last judgement that will separate the wheat from the weeds as long as we are included in the wheat, than ever before.

There is also the fact that we may have become desensitised to the violence in our faith and our liturgy, a violence which reflected a different world view and a different cosmology. On the ABCs the Drum the archbishop addressed the issue of domestic violence and a research paper which stated that Christians from certain styles of Churches are more likely to commit violence on their partners. It was primarily a discussion on the doctrine of headship - males as heads of the household and women as being obedient to that headship. His response is that there will be an apology on this at General Synod if it passes a vote.

At the same time It is important we address the violence in our liturgy and the language of sacrifice and redemption we repeat each time we gather for worship. We need to ask how have we embedded and normalised violence as a symbol of Gods' (understood as male) action in the world and find ways to address this. Domestic and other types of violence are expressions of our acceptance of violence as a way of being in the world and, for the church, violence as an accepted part of Gods action in the world.

It is much bigger than headship.

Are we comfortable with images of eating the body and blood of Jesus, of God sending his son to die on the cross to make us better, of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God to be sacrificed because of our failure in order to bring about redemption and peace?

In discussion with many older people I hear things like; “Well, I cringe at some of the things I hear in church”, “I can’t believe any more in some of the stuff we say in our liturgy”, “I have moved on in how I understand what happens but I still like the form of our service” and more.

Or are we disturbed by such language because it does not depict the God of our experience or the one discovered by rational and critical reflection? Are we ready to explore new ways of taking the ideas expressed in the scriptures and our liturgy and begin to craft a new way of doing church that is relevant to a modern worldview?

Matthew was writing for a community in the midst of a battle to control the synagogue, a battle between traditional religion and the embryonic group who followed Jesus. Matthew was employing language which basically said, let us not try and identify who is a true follower of Jesus, let’s leave that up to God. In doing so he employed an image understand by those reading his words.

We are living in a very different time and with a very different understanding of how the world, and God, works.  Is the language of such as the Agnus Dei (which you may have noticed is not part of the 10am service book) relevant or does it take us back to an understanding of human sacrifice Abraham left behind when he decided to sacrifice the sheep instead of Isaac? Are these words and the story they tell the story of God that is your story?

Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.
Jesus, redeemer of the world, grant us peace.

I spend much time with people who are wracked with guilt and shame, much if it seemingly imputed by words they have listened to over and over again in their church liturgy. Is it not time for a careful look at what we say simply because it is our tradition to say these words? Is it time to consider new images and options in order that what we know in our head is no longer in conflict with what we are asked to believe?

Now I know that this may be difficult for some, but the word acts and what we say influences how we see and accept what is happening in the world. Is our acceptance of the violence we see around us influenced by our acceptance of the apparent violence in our faith we attest to each week?

Perhaps it is time for us to begin the discussion on just what we need to be saying and how that reflects our informed understanding of God, faith and scripture. This is a subject our worship committee, like the wider Anglican Church here and overseas, is thinking about and we would be happy to hear your ideas and suggestions in writing.

Matthew’s Jesus poses us a modern challenge, to bring the message of the kingdom of God into sync with the time in which we live, just as he attempted to do to those he was representing at the beginning of the church. Amen.

Monday, 3 July 2017

In The Thicket

There is much said and written about the found violence in the Quran and some interpretations of its voice.  Media and politicians and some church leaders are quick to point the finger at the text as the reason for the violence of terrorism, war, treatment of women and children and its own form of law.
I am no expert on Islam but I do read the Christian scriptures and am constantly challenged by the violence there in, the violence accredited to heroes of faith, and the violence that emanates from or is sheeted home to God. And I am always challenged by the violence of the cross as the central focus of our faith.  It doesn’t matter how I read the texts, last weeks or this weeks, I am left with a sense of unnecessary violence as an integral part of my faith.
This violence is in full view in the Genesis reading of the binding of Isaac – the akedah – and the intervention of God at the very last moment to rescue the boy. It is often this intervention that is spoken of as the compassion of God but the reality is that Isaac was facing death at the hands of his father because of a command apparently given by God. Human sacrifice was prevalent in Abraham’s time. even though it had been banned by his people it still had a deep hold over the people and their understanding of God. Otherwise there could be no story. Abraham would have dismissed this idea as a madness and left it behind. He didn’t’. He went along with it.

“Not only do the prophets condemn such sacrifices in honour of Molech, but the Hebrew Bible even notes the power of such sacrifices when deployed against Israel in battle:
When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. [2Kings 3:26-27]

The story of Isaac—horrific as it is—must also be read alongside the even worse story in Judges 11 where Jephthah offers his daughter as a human sacrifice in fulfilment of a vow.” (Jenks) It is a confronting story to read. There is no intervention by God; no last minute testimony to their faith, as the story of Abraham and Isaac is often interpreted; it ends as it was intended to, with the father killing his daughter to maintain a vow.
In the story of Isaac we get the straying sheep stuck in a thicket and all ends well. But does it? Has the damage been done? Have we ended up with a tainted God, a God who is not afraid of using violence and who is not impartial – he saves Isaac but not the daughter of Jephthah? Has this image of God continued to haunt the church, not the least through the interpretation of the cross as the inevitable means to solve God’s relationship problems with his creation?
Modern day atheists such as Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and others cite this seemingly in built desire for violence as the reason to dismiss any discussion of a god or God’s existence. You and I have our own stories and questions regarding the seeming disparity in justice, fairness and compassion shown by the world to those we love and care for. Where was God? Why did God allow such and such to happen? Why did God do no thing about this tragedy or disaster? Many who no longer profess faith can point to a moment when the perceived disparity between a God of love and a God of violence changed their heart and mind.
We cannot simply pass this off as an Old Testament anomaly. There is much in the birth of Christianity that raises the same questions. The history of the church in all its forms is replete with violence ranging from inquisitions, crusades, persecution of witches and women, the abuse of children and more seem to make a lie of the image of God as all consuming love.
What are we to do with these stories and experiences and how are we to frame or reframe the image of God? How are we to read the scriptures and the history of the church containing many such stories in such a way that we too do not find it all too incongruous and slip away ourselves?
We could:
·      Simply ignore that they are there and go merrily on our way oblivious to the impact they have on others – the ostrich approach;
·      Embrace them and spruik a wrathful God who will do what ever he please to whomever he pleases, but never to us  - the bring it on God approach;
·      Spend copious amount of time to study the research and academia and develop an appropriate intellectual understanding of why this would be so in this particular time for this particular people - the there is always a rational reason for stuff we don’t like approach;
·      Simply accept the incongruous nature of evolution of thought and understanding and get on with living out our understanding as truthfully and respectfully as possible – the living with the questions approach.
Living with the questions and the questionable seems to be the way faith and understanding has developed or evolved. It does not come pre-packaged fully comprehended ready to roll. It has to be grappled with, argued about and lived to become real. There is a sense that the stories which disturb us are a part of that process. Abraham’s almost murder of Isaac was stopped when Abraham had an insight and recognised the foolishness of his ways. Jephthah fails to stop his crime because his vow was more important than the outcome and he didn’t recognise the very same insight. The accrediting of the process in both cases to God forgets the cultural impulse to child sacrifice and the incredible growth in understanding required for Abraham to change his mind. No wonder the story is told with God at the centre, Abraham had to frame his experience this way to explain how he could do such a tremendous about turn.

If we are seeking a squeaky clean narrative of the evolution of the understanding of humans interaction with the Divine then we won’t find that in the scriptures. If we are seeking a nice neat interpretation of stories such as today’s Old testament story then we are fooling ourselves. The path to spiritual understanding and experience is a prickly one, as prickly as the thicket that caught the lamb. Not to learn to live with incongruous stories of an evolving relationship, and to learn to live with all our questions will find us  running the risk of abandoning our faith. Embrace the questions and the messy stuff, it is the only way.