Posts Tagged ‘complacency’

What are we prepared to give, to give up?

August 17, 2019

Pentecost 10 – 2019

Luke 12:49-59

Marian Free

May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, God our strength and redeemer. Amen.

In Apartheid South Africa it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person or a coloured person or an Indian person or for a colored person to marry a black person or a white person, or an Indian person. If one was unlucky enough to fall in love with someone outside the prescribed parameters the consequences were serious – disgrace, arrest, followed by a jail sentence. Those who formed such relationships were usually isolated from their families and ostracized by their social circle. A white South African sex worker named Ethal, reported that she felt more accepted by her peers when she was a sex worker than when she married a black African man. For many in this situation, the threat of jail or of social censure led to self-imposed exile. In order to be with the one that they loved, they gave up home, family, friends and occupation.

As I have said many times, the first century Mediterranean culture was very different from our own. Greeks and Romans comfortably worshipped a number of gods. Their gods did not command the absolute loyalty of individuals but were variously responsible for the weather, the harvest and so on. It was no hardship for a Gentile to include Emperor worship to this diverse practice. On the other hand the one Jewish God demanded absolute loyalty and was worshipped only in the Temple in Jerusalem. Gentile gods could be worshipped wherever a Temple was to be found.

From a religious point of view, whether one’s starting point was as a Jew or a gentile, becoming a Christ-believer involved a radical realignment of one’s social, economic, religious and even political loyalties. Urban life was closely associated with both the local gods and with the imperial cult. It was essential for the well-being and protection of the city that all citizens fulfill their obligations to Rome and to the gods. Gentiles who came to believe in Christ could no longer associate with the gentile temples. When they stopped participating in sacrifices to the Emperor or to the local gods, they would be seen as putting the whole city in danger of losing the favour of the gods or the privileges extended by Rome.

If this were not enough to create tension, Engagement with the gods and their temples not only provided protection for the city, it was also central to the social life and cohesion of the community. Sacrifices of both meat and wine were part of the practice of worship. Temples were therefore not only gathering places for worship, but also marketplaces and venues in which people met to eat. Further, different gods were associated with different trades and the various guilds would hold their meetings in the relevant temple. A person who believed in Jesus was no longer able to visit the temple and so not only became isolated from his or her family and peers, but they were also excluded from membership in the guilds. This latter meant that they were not able to earn an income – at least not in the way that they had been used to. Christ-believers were regarded as dangerous because they placed their fellow citizens in jeopardy. They were isolated from their families and friends and unable to work.

The situation was not much better for Jews. Those who lived beyond Judea enjoyed many privileges that their fellow citizens did not. They were exempt from the Emperor cult and were free to send money to the Temple in Jerusalem. If some of their number chose to believe in Jesus, the whole Jewish community would be affected. Technically, Christ-believers were no longer Jews which meant that they were no longer under the protection of Rome. The problem for continuing Jews was that outsiders might not be able to distinguish the Christ-believers from the real thing. Jews were worried that they would be tainted by association and that they would be accused of sedition and lose their privileges. For this reason, among others, Jews too kept their distance from those who had come to believe in Jesus.

Whether Jew or Gentile, a person who chose to believe in Jesus was effectively cut off from all their previous relationships – family, friends and work. Faith in Jesus was divisive, potentially pitting “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Jesus’ words introducing this passage are perhaps the most passionate and, dare I say, violent that Jesus utters. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is not the first time that Jesus tells us that faith in him redefines what it means to be family, but this is the only time that he is explicit about the effect that coming to faith will have on relationships. In a culture in which family formed the basis for social relationships and for social cohesion, Jesus’ words will have been shocking, even frightening, but Jesus is describing the world as it will be for those who follow him. As he does on other occasions, Jesus is warning would-be disciples that following him means not only commitment but a willingness to leave everything behind to face a hostile and even dangerous world.

How reassuring these words must have been to those who found themselves ostracised and financially strapped as a consequence of faith? After all, isn’t this what Jesus said lay ahead? How difficult these words are for us in a world in which once again family is the bedrock of our society and, though the world is changing, a world in which having faith in Jesus puts us within, not outside the status quo? For most of us faith comes at no cost, only with benefits. The danger is that we will become complacent, that we will relegate Jesus’ uncomfortable words to irrelevancy instead of seeing them for what they are – a challenge to our complacency, a prick to our easy conscience, a call to action. Would our faith stand the test if it meant losing everything that is meaningful to us? Would we hold fast if we lost our work, our family and our friends? Would we stand our ground if society turned against us, harassed us, persecuted us or threatened to kill us?

The question is: What does our faith mean to us, and what are we prepared to give up for it?

What we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know

August 10, 2018

Pentecost 12 – 2018

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches our minds and expands our imaginations. Amen.

Having been in Italy and finding myself in Geneva, I am conscious of the schisms created by the Reformation and the sometimes vast differences between the different arms of the Christian Church and of the passion with which members of different denominations hold (or held) to their truths. Arguments raged in my own tradition about whether to kneel for communion or to use the sign of the cross. There were some who died rather than renounce their position on particular issues and bishops who only two centuries ago went to jail for using candles as a part of the liturgy. Today, most of the animosity between traditions has disappeared. The ecumenical movement has led us to understand that the heart of our faith is the same even if some of the externals differ.

That is not to say that the churches have achieved unity – externally or internally. New issues have emerged that are at least as divisive as those of the past – the ordination of women and the marriage of same sex couples to mention two. Again, those on either side of the debate present their arguments with equal intensity and with equal conviction that it is they who are most faithfully interpreting the scriptures and the will of God.

Where we stand on these and other issues depends on many factors including our personal experience and the tradition in which we have been born and raised. Sometimes our opinion is formed or altered by our education or our exposure to those who differ from us – though it must be said that education and personal experience do not always challenge pre-existing views.

Our particular experience of church and of faith also impacts on the way in which we approach change. There is so much at stake that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. To give a personal example, even though my sense of vocation was powerful and strong, there were moments when a verse from scripture made me waver, made me wonder if the opponents to the ordination of women did in fact have it right. My life’s experience and the teaching I had absorbed as a child were so deeply ingrained and so much a part of my understanding of salvation that it was hard to isolate the voice of the spirit from the accretions of practice and tradition.

So – perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless ‘Jews’ who are Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ communication could be confusing at best and obtuse at worst. Furthermore, he was taking traditions that had been held for generations and turning them upside down. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus claiming that he is to the Jews what the manna was to their ancestors. In fact he is asserting that he is much more. Using the language that God used to identify himself to Moses, Jesus claims: ‘I AM’. ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Jesus, whom everyone in his audience knows to be the son of Joseph, is now insinuating that he is God. As God he is able to guarantee life eternal to those who believe. It is an extraordinary claim for which Jesus’ listeners are completely unprepared. Nothing in their past experience, nothing in their religious practice, nothing in their tradition or teaching could have led them to expect the outrageous claims that Jesus is making. It really is not surprising that they found what he had to say difficult and incomprehensible.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is not why Jesus’ opponents did not believe, but ‘what was it that enabled at least some to believe?’

Complacency and self-satisfaction can be the enemies of a deep and authentic engagement with the divine. They can give us a false sense of what should be and make us blind and deaf to what really is. We cannot, and will not, ever know a fraction of what there is to know about God.

Instead of arguing over trivial and superficial issues perhaps we as believers should unite in a concerted effort to suspend all our certainties and be caught up in the great adventure that is a relationship with God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver – who is ultimately beyond all our efforts to comprehend and who will always be beyond our grasp.

Opening the eyes of the blind

March 29, 2014

Lent 4

John 9:1-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who causes the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Amen.

Some of you may have seen the movie A Time to Kill. It is based on a John Gresham novel and set in the Deep South of the United States. A black man (Carl) is on trial for attempting to kill the men who raped and tortured his ten-year-old daughter Tonya. The evidence is clear and the white jury have no sympathy for the grief and rage that led the man to take justice into his hand. It becomes clear that he will be condemned and that he will receive the death penalty. His lawyer (Jake) tries to persuade him to plead guilty but Carl says to him: “If you was on that jury. What would convince you to set me free?” What follows moves and challenges me every time I think about the movie.

In his summing up, Jake takes the jury on a journey in their imagination. He describes what happened to the child – how she was abducted, raped so viciously that she would never have children, used as target practice – full beer cans thrown so hard that they tear her flesh to the bone. He tells how she was urinated on, had a noose place around her neck and hung from a tree and how when her tiny body proved too heavy for the branch, she was tossed back into the truck, driven to a bridge and thrown thirty feet into a river. “Can you see her?” he says.” “I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she is white.” At that point the penny drops for the jurors. At that moment, the child is no longer a stranger, no longer a member of a race for whom they have no respect. She becomes their own child – their daughter, their niece, their granddaughter. The horror of the crime and the violent grief of the father become understandable. They would have felt the same.

Of course, powerful as that is, it is fiction and it is set against a particular background. That said, it is a reminder that many of us tend to see the world in a certain way. We tend to be blinded by our experiences, by our cultures and our religious ideals. Whether we like it or not, most of us make judgements about other people. We create stereotypes that are difficult to break and make assumptions based on false or limited information. Sometimes our ideas change gradually as we get to know the person or group we have demonised. At other times we need something to shock us out of our complacency so that we can see the other for whom they are, not who we believe them to be.

Jesus is an expert at shocking people into a new way of seeing. He wants us to see things in new ways, not in the conventional, centuries old way of seeing things. He astonishes us by appearing to disregard the law, by healing on the Sabbath and by eating with tax collectors. His parables explode existing religious truths and force his hearers to reconsider their ideas about God and about other people. His teaching and behaviour are sometimes contradictory. In Luke, the story of the rich young man is followed by the account of Zaccheus. Jesus urges the rich young man to give away all his possessions then he commends Zaccheus who only gives away half of his possessions. It begs the question: What are we to do with our possessions? Jesus is not being fickle or obtuse, the contradiction and confusion have a purpose – they are designed to destablise our preconceptions, to make us dependent on God and to prevent us from believing that we can have all knowledge and all truth. If Jesus does not conform to the party line, and if his teaching is apparently then inconsistent it is impossible for anyone to claim that they fully understand or that they have a monopoly on truth.

The account of the healing of the blind man is a lesson about seeing – seeing differently. The Pharisees, who believe that they can see clearly are exposed as those who are blind whereas the blind man gradually comes to see who Jesus really is. The Pharisees who believe that they have nothing to learn are shown to be misguided and ignorant whereas the blind man who is aware how little he knows is proven to be the one who recognises the truth. The Pharisees are so locked into what they think they know that they are unable to change their preconceptions and expectations, whereas the blind man who recognises that he knows little is open to new ideas. He is aware that he has room to learn.

Throughout the story the Pharisees dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole – demonstrating how little they really know. The blind man not only receives his sight, but allows himself to be enlightened and his ideas to be challenged. The Pharisees who represent the religious leaders, judge Jesus on outdated credentials – he is a sinner, he does not observe the Sabbath, he does not observe the law (9:16), they do not know where he comes from. The blind man uses other – also legitimate – criterion to accept that Jesus comes from God. Just as his forebears believed Moses because of the signs he performed so the blind man sees and believes in the signs that Jesus does – making the blind to see (9:16). He understands intuitively that God listens to one who worships him and obeys his will (9:31). The Pharisees believe that they give glory to God by rejecting Jesus, yet it is the blind man who gives glory to God by worshiping Jesus.

John’s gospel is written for those who will come to faith – that is ourselves. As witnesses to the drama that is unfolding, we are challenged to think about ourselves and our ability to see; to ponder whether we identify with the blind man or the Pharisees and to consider how much we know about and whether we are willing to know more. We are challenged to remain open and expectant, to allow God to reveal God’s self in ways that are unanticipated and that break apart our previous ideas as to who and what God is. We are warned against holding rigidly to preconceptions and assumptions that lock us into only way of thinking and that therefore lock us out of the truth.

The problem with believing that we know it all is that it can blind us to what is actually in front of us. confidence in what we know means that we see things from one point of view – ours. If we believe that our perspective is the only one that has a claim to truth, we are forced to protect and defend it even when the facts contradict it. The Pharisees were unable recognise Jesus because they persisted in their way of seeing things, even when Jesus’ actions seemed to put the lie to it. The blind man was not bound to one interpretation, one view of the world. He was willing to learn and to use what he did know in a different way.

Let us not be so self-assured, so confident in our way of seeing that we are blind to the presence of God or that we fail to see Jesus even when he is right in front of us.



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