What’s for dessert?

Signpost for Sunday 20 Sept 2020: Exod 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6,37-45; Phil 1:21-30; Matt 20:1-16.

Quails eggs and manna. Yum. Quails eggs these days would be a luxury. I don’t think they were in ancient times. What’s the point though? I think it’s this: all the Israelites were fed, no matter whether they were the really grumpy hungry ones or the-very-grateful-to-have-escaped-slavery hungry ones – because they were all hungry. (Actually Exodus makes all the Israelites sound like a bunch of ungrateful moaners, but there must have been a few decent ones among them surely.)

And in case the ancient Jews ever took their survival for granted, Psalm 105 is more or less a song celebrating the fact that no body starved or died of thirst in the desert. It’s a kind of thank you letter to YHWY. Just like your Mum made you write to Aunty for those socks at Christmas. I should think so too.

Then we come to Matthew. Another famous parable. I don’t know what you think but this time of reading it occurred to me that the workers who come late to the vineyard aren’t just supposed to be those who find their god late in life (which is what a lot of sermons I’ve ever heard suggest). Aren’t those late-comers rather like people who go to live in a country that’s not their own, by choice or otherwise. And isn’t the resentment of those who have worked in the vineyard all day a bit like the attitude of some people towards new-comers: they resent people coming from other communities and countries being able to get the benefits that they have because they have not worked for them like they have. They don’t want the government to use their tax money to provide support services for people who don’t have jobs or enough money to afford a place to live in.

When I look at it that way, then the vineyard owner becomes even more than an analogy for God, he’s an analogy for a just society – one that works to feed anyone who’s hungry, house anyone who’s homeless, and support anyone who’s struggling, even if they are a bit grumpy sometimes. 

Paul

Credit card debt is bad enough, but this is outrageous.

Signpost for Sunday 13 Sept 2020: Exod 14:19-31; Ps 114 or For Ps: Exod 15:1b-11, 20-21; Rom 14:1-12; Matt 18:21-35.

Credit cards charge us an enormous percentage in interest, but we’re not the first people in history to be overburdened by debt. Take the story in Matthew of the person who ran up a debt so big he’d be dead long before it could be paid off. And then that debt was called in.

Like so many people, I have heard or read this famous passage from the gospel lots of times, but I found a couple of things that got me thinking this week – about forgiveness and how much money is involved here – i.e. how much debt are these people in?

I’ll start with the money, because that’s a matter of record. Historians reckon a talent was the largest single unit of money around in first century Palestine, and apparently the figure 10,000 was the biggest number anyone ever counted to in those days.  We think people at the time considered it to be a number beyond their imagination.

I did a bit of research and discovered that 10,000 talents would be equivalent to about 150,000 years’ worth of wages in the first century world. That’s about two-and-a-quarter trillion US dollars in today’s money ($2,250,000,000,000).  In other words, the first man, who owed his king the that much, wouldn’t in a million years be able to pay his debt back.

(I also discovered this week that 10,000 talents was the amount of tax demanded by the Romans when they conquered the Israel in 63 BC.  It was so a sum outrageous that Julius Caesar eventually reduced it.  The point being that when Jesus specifies 10,000 talents in this parable people would probably have recognised that sum of money as being the exact amount Rome said the Jews had to pay – and they would never be able to.)

Then there’s the forgiveness. It’s obvious that the point here is that there is no limit to the number of times we should forgive or can be forgiven. I think we really need to believe that, but it also makes me think about how forgiveness works.

I don’t think the mean slave is an analogy of you and me, but I do take a couple of things from this dodgy character’s behaviour. First, when I really need and want forgiveness there’s no point me trying to pray a sob story. Sob stories are often used by people who want to get away with something. I don’t know about you, but I need forgiveness for the things I know I haven’t got away with, or have come to realise I should never have got away with. Second, could it be that the first slave didn’t accept that he was actually forgiven? Is part of how forgiveness works that those who are forgiven need to accept forgiveness? Isn’t that why the prayer book reminds me, to believe that God forgives me and to be at peace – to “take hold of this forgiveness and live my life in the spirit of Jesus”? A great friend of mine once showed me the title of a book by a little known author (Lewis Grinstead?). I may have forgotten his name but the title of the book; this was it: Don’t Chew on What’s Eating You. That sums it up pretty well for me.

Paul

First thoughts

Signpost for Sunday 6 Sept 2020: Exod 12:1-14; Ps 149; Rom 13:8-14; Matt 18:15-20.

Even though there won’t be any this week for those of us living in Auckland, I imagined myself sitting in church and hearing the readings. I’m pretty sure this is what would come into my head as I listened:

Exodus 12:1-14. Strangely to find the all-seeing, omniscient YHWH who can’t tell whether you’re one of his chosen people or not unless you paint lamb’s blood on your doorway. This is a story told down the ages, a myth if you will. It doesn’t matter whether it actually happened or not. What matters is that the Jews were eventually freed from slavery in Egypt, and for that they thank God. Every year ever since.

Psalm 149. I suspect we could do with a bit more dancing in church, don’t you. It would certainly wake up a few congregations I’ve been part of over the years supposedly praising the Lord. But I don’t really like this song. It’s final verse is full of vengeance and smugness. I ask myself why are we reading such as this in church in this day and age? It excludes so many, it’s not what we need is it? Or is that just me?

Romans 13: 8-14. Well there you have it, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The New Testament keeps telling us how to live. It’s simple enough. But we just can’t seem to get it right, can we. Right down to some people refusing to wear a mask to help keep Covid-19 as under control as we can.

Matthew 18:15-20. Let us pray, because Yeshua said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of you.” (Matt 18:20) Even in level 2.5 lockdown, here in Auckland we’re allowed gatherings of 10 people, so we should be fine.

I wonder what your thoughts will be.

Paul

Burning issues of the day, every day in fact.

Signpost for Sunday 30 August 2020: Exod 3:1-15; Ps 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Rom 12:9-21; Matt 16:21-28.

Much to my surprise I realised I have written about this week’s lectionary readings twice before.

That’s one reason I thought you might be interested in someone else’s take on the famous burning bush scene from Exodus. It’s the view of Bruce Epperly – theologian, retreat leader, lecturer, and author of 19 books, none of which have I read.

I think his is a really interesting way of thinking about that flaming revelation:

Once upon a time, a rabbinical gathering considered the question, “Why was the bush burning but not consumed?” The rabbis posited of a variety of answers until one responded, “It was burning and not consumed so that one day, as Moses walked by, he would notice it.” The encounter of God with Moses could take up a sermon series. First, it describes divine communication: God is always calling and sometimes we notice. We are always on holy ground, the world is full of “thin places,” and every so often we stop, take off our sandals, and bathe ourselves in the constancy of divine revelation. Too busy to notice these God moments, we fail to see beauty, wonder, and love right where we are. Spiritual formation is about taking time to pause, notice, open, yield and stretch, and then respond to the holiness everywhere.

What do you think?

And then over the last couple of days I have been listening to the heart-rending victim impact statements made by those who lost family and friends in the Christchurch terror attack.

There was a lot of anger, and catharsis. But the statement that seemed to really get through to the gunman and made him weep came from a woman who said she forgave him for the murder of her husband. How hard that must have been. And yet, the advice is that this is the very best way to live our lives, or as Romans 12: 14-17 and 21 puts it:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Paul

Telling stories, and stories that are telling.

Signpost for Sunday 23 August 2020: Exod 1:8 – 2:10 Ps 124; Rom 12:1-8; Matt 16:13-20.

“Once upon a time there was a princess whose father was afraid that some of his subjects would rebel against him. So the king decreed that all the baby boys born to those people must be killed, in case they became soldiers who would fight his soldiers.”

“Once upon a time a princess, who had no children of her own, found a baby boy by the river and instantly fell in love with him. She was so smitten that she didn’t even think to ask if the child was lost or if his mother was nearby, she simply wanted to make sure the baby was safe and sound. So she adopted him as her own son.”

Exodus is one of those stories that was told and retold down through the generations and around the camp fires. It’s part of ‘the story of who we are’ for the Jewish nation. But it’s not history as we know it, any more than The Iliad and The Odyssey are history, rather great epic poems.

So should we just dismiss it as a story? I don’t think so. Remember that phrase, ‘and the moral of the story is…’? That’s how I think about stories in the Bible that are thousands of years old.

And the moral of the story here I think is? Well, what do you think? I think it’s that in the midst of evil, love is the only way of undermining that evil. I also think the way to do that is to outsmart evil by never deviating from remembering what is good.

I once met a man with whom I was doing busines who asked me what I loved most about life. I said, sunsets, shore lines, wine and my wife and children. He said you’re a romantic. And he may have been right, but isn’t God love? (John 4:8).

Paul

P.S. Isn’t it interesting that each us often notices something different when we hear the readings in church each week? I think so. And that’s my excuse for this week’s Signpost.

Who hasn’t made a dog’s breakfast of something in their life?

Signpost for Sunday 16 August 2020: Gen 45:1-15; Ps 133; Rom 11:1-2a,29-32; Matt 15:(10-20), 21-28.

Imagine the book of Matthew is a Netflix series. Then Matthew 10-20 in brackets would be the ‘previously’ bit before this week’s episode. It comes immediately before the continuation of the drama, after all, and it’s there to keep the audience up to date.

Previously then, the whole encounter with the Pharisees about handwashing is there so that the author of Matthew can reassure the new gentile ‘Christian Jews’ they were accepted into the family. It wasn’t just handwashing, that the author of Matthew needed to address, it was the food laws the Pharisees had come up with. Those ‘laws’ created a barrier preventing Jews from having any close contact with gentiles.  But by 80 AD they were quite a number of gentile ‘Christian Jews’, so  the author of Matthew has Jesus quash them out completely. I think it’s that simple.

We’re all set for part two now that God’s mercy and love is for everyone, not just the Jews. But what happens? Jesus doesn’t even practice what he’s just preached. He behaves like a typical male Jew and calls the woman and her daughter dogs! The Canaanites had been the bitter enemies of the Hebrews (have a look at the book of Joshua) and that’s what Jewish men called their worst enemies  – dogs.

The good news is that Jesus then changes his mind completely about the woman. And the disciples get to see what he was on about when he talked about evil not being what goes in but what comes out (Matt 151-20 and Mark 6:14-23) – what has gone into this Canaanite woman is gentile blood and forbidden food, what comes out of her is unshakable faith.

Maybe Jesus is only trying make that point to the disciples in the way he handles this, but him calling somebody a dog to their face made me think beyond that. Jesus here isn’t a very nice person at all. When he first dismisses the woman I think Jesus sounds like a bigot who wants to exclude someone who’s different, who doesn’t fit in, who he thinks is beneath him. Is that really the Jesus I’m trying to get to know and understand?

But then I thought about all the people who are, or have in the past, been dismissed by the church. It boils down to this for me: anyone who thinks that the church or religion should not or cannot change its mind or its rules should have another look at this passage.

Isn’t Jesus calling the Canaanite woman a dog just like a church that says women can’t be priests?

Isn’t Jesus accepting that the Canaanite woman is no dog like a church that welcomes women as priests, archdeacons, bishops, and archbishops?

Isn’t Jesus calling the woman a dog just like a church that calls homosexuality and gay marriage wrong?

Isn’t Jesus realising that the Canaanite woman is no dog like the church that accepts LGBT people and gay marriage?

If Jesus can admit that he was wrong about the Canaanite woman, what does our church need to admit it might be wrong about?

Paul

The perfect storm?

Signpost for Sunday 09 August 2020: Gen 37:1-4,12-28 Ps 105:1-6,16-22, 45b; Rom 10:5-15; Matt 14:22-33.

I watch the dawn most days since we moved house a few months ago. We live on a hill and I have seen some spectacular dawns, especially recently. Even when it’s dark and rainy the atmosphere just before dawn has a special quality. It’s never just dreary, always dramatic.

That’s one reason I prefer the dramatic story of Yeshua walking on the water in the King James translation. The NIV’s ‘early in the morning’ doesn’t really do it for me. I much prefer the idea of ‘the fourth watch of the night’,  which lasted from 3:00 am to 6:00 am.

There are three versions of this story (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:15-21) but Matthew’s is the one that seems to me the most intriguing. Apart from the sheer spectacle of Yeshua walking on the waves, it’s Peter’s attempt to do the same in this version that leaves me pondering.

Peter isn’t trying to do the same as Yeshua. He just wants proof that he isn’t hallucinating (Matt 14:28). But he ends up apparently being told off by Yeshua, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? Well, wouldn’t you? I would. I do, all the time.

But I’m not entirely convinced it’s about having more or less faith. I prefer to see it as a description of life on Earth. We somehow manage to navigate the troubled waters of the world, but inevitably the howling winds scare the bejesus out of each one of us at some time or another. And usually more than once. Getting through those times often brings us face to face with the most extraordinary love – when we love one another, as He loved us. 

Paul

Why picnics are better than takeaways.

Signpost for Sunday 26 July 2020: Gen 32:22-31; Ps 17:1-7,15; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:13-21.

Drama or history who knows, but the feeding of the ‘five thousand men besides the women and the children’ is a story in which we are told that it must have been as many as 8,000 people, were fed with two fish and five loaves. How on earth could that happen, especially as we all know what hungry kids are like?

Being a bit of a sceptic I got to wondering about what might be the biggest possible fish they could have caught in the Sea of Galilee. So I looked it up and there are some whoppers available. They still catch them today. They are called Biny, a type Carp. They were and are used by Jews for Sabbath meals and feasts apparently. And each one weighs a hefty 6 to 7 kilos (13 to 15 pounds) or more. Impressive, but even a couple of big Biny wouldn’t go far among thousands of hungry folks.

Why then is this story of the feeding of the five thousand the only one of Jesus’ miracles that is told in all four gospels (Matt 14:13-21’ Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-14), not to mention the story of Jesus feeding four thousand (Matthew 15:32-39)?

Is it because this was actually what happened? Or is it a parable rather than a miracle. If it is a parable what could it mean? I don’t think the meaning of this parable is that if you believe strongly enough you can ‘do the impossible’. ‘Impossible is Nothing’ is actually the advertising slogan used by Adidas. It’s hype.

But I don’t think two fish and five loaves is hype. I am leaning towards one or both ways of looking at this story. The first is simple enough and it’s about not being daunted when the odds are against you. Or to put it another way, start with what you have and build on that, no matter how small that resource may seem in the face of an enormous problem or conundrum. Greta Thunberg is a phenomenal example of someone who did exactly that. 

Another meaning stems from something a friend recounted to me a few years ago. At his place of work there was to be a large gathering of people on a particular day, but they had no clear idea of how many people would  actually turn up. The people in charge of catering were mainly Pakeha (European New Zealanders) and Pasifika (people from Pacific islands like Samoa and Tonga). The Pakeha people were terribly worried that there would not be enough food and drink to go round. The Pasifika people weren’t worried though. They simply said, if only a few people attend, then each will have plenty to eat and drink. And if a large crowd arrives, then each person will have less to eat and drink. There is always enough to go round when we share whatever we have.

Paul

Soap opera, solace and who knows what.

Signpost for Sunday 26 July 2020: Gen 29:15-28; Ps 105:1-11, 45b or Ps 128; Rom 8:26-39; Matt 13:31-33,44-52.

I don’t know if you ever saw that hilarious parody of soap operas called Soap that was on TV in the 1980s. The catch phrase before each week’s resume of events was “Confused? You will be.”  Well, Genesis 29:15-29 is another episode in the ancient version of Soap. No point worrying about it. I mean if you had slogged for seven years in order to get the chance to marry a woman you loved called Rachel, wouldn’t you be likely to at least utter the words, “Oh Rachel, Rachel, I love you” while you’re making love to her on your wedding night? Naughty, naughty Leah. Not so. It’s just an ancient culture that makes no sense to most of us these days. I wonder if it still makes sense in some cultures these days.

Meanwhile I, unusually, find some of the most comforting words in The Bible are apparently Paul’s, written in the letter to the Romans: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I am also convinced. Not because of what Paul says, but because of what Yeshua said, or probably said.

And then there’s Matthew this week writing down a bunch of sayings that were attributed to Yeshua, or had become attributed to him by 80 AD. You can tell by the writer’s repetition of the word ‘again’ that this is a list of collected sayings. Nothing wrong with that, and they are listed here to give them emphasis. Whether Yeshua actually said them is another thing. But for me the most interesting part of the reading from Matthew this week is that it seems to be attempting a definition of the ‘kingdom’.

Here’s my summary of that definition:

You may experience it first as a tiny almost insignificant thing; but don’t dismiss that thing because it has the potential to become much more than it first appears to be, especially if you nurture it in some way. (Matt 13:31-33). Go about your work, your loving, your daily tasks as best you can and amongst all of that you can discover great joy (Matt 13:44-46). Don’t be afraid of casting your net of experience far and wide, but be aware that some of your experiences may not be good ones. Don’t let the bad ones drag you down (Matt 13:47-50).

As for “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:50) isn’t that what people do when they have regrets?

And as for the final verse from this week’s reading (Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old), I think that’s true. Let’s not ignore the teachings of the past just because an attractive new idea comes along. But equally let’s not reject new ideas because they challenge what we have always thought or been taught or thought we knew.

Finally, let me admit that I am not in the least bit qualified to devise any of the above conclusions. They just makes sense to me.

Paul

Is Donald Trump a weed?

Signpost for Sunday 19 July 2020: Gen 28:10-19a; Ps 139:1-12,23-24; Rom 8:12-25; Matt 13:24-30,36-43.

The parable of the weeds (Matt 13:24-30) comes straight after the parable of the sower (13:3-23) and I wonder if that’s why I hadn’t noticed the crucial difference between the weeds that choke the seeds in the first parable and the weeds in this one. I’ve heard this parable read out lots of times in church and what usually sticks in my head is “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned” (Matt13:30) and “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-43). I bet I’m not alone in that. Which means a lot of people usually go away thinking about the awful consequences of the bad things they’ve done, or think they’ve done.

But this time round I wonder if there might be a different way of reading this parable than sending myself on a guilt trip. One big difference between the parable of the weeds and the sower is that Yeshua seems content to let the weeds and the wheat co-exist. “No, don’t pull up the weeds,” he says in verse 29. But why not? Wouldn’t that be good gardening, let alone good farming? And what does he mean when he says pulling up the weeds might uproot the wheat too?

Well, here’s a thought. Don’t we live in a world of weeds and wheat? And doesn’t it all grow in the same soil? Have a look at Twitter. In amongst the hate speech and the mad ravings of Donald Trump you can find people trying to point out the truth. It’s the same with Facebook and most social media. Isn’t it true of most media too? In amongst all that fake news and click bait, there are serious journalists trying to get to the bottom of things. Who’s planting the weeds? Who’s planting the wheat? And maybe right now there are more weeds than wheat ears, but might we take away from this parable a truth about the world we live in? Is that truth that, like Jesus, we have to put up with the weeds, but we need to be able to know the difference between them and the wheat? And don’t we need to harvest the truth and devalue the lies.

Paul