Thursday, September 29, 2022

Human sexuality and "sin"

Is is a "sin" to be LGBTI+?

This is a question that is much more important now than ever before. Whatever our answer to this question is, “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know,” there are significant consequences to be considered.

If we answer “yes” then nothing much changes. We will continue along still experiencing the significant problems that face the church today. Those problems include a loss of people, a continuation of the rejection of the church by those within the LBGTI community, and a rejection from within the church of the suggestion made by science that sexuality is biological. Simply saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a superficial answer to a complex problem and does nothing to provide an actual answer to the question. Even if a homosexual person were to become a part of our fellowship, is welcomed unconditionally, becomes a Christian, and makes a church their home, for as long as we name homosexuality a sin then at some point their journey towards wholeness must include an enforced celibacy, the rejection of any existing partners and the possibility of future ones, and the acceptance of a belief that a key part of their identity (their sexuality) is intrinsically sinful.

This is what pains me more than anything else; the vast majority of an entire section of our community is rejecting the church, and with it the gospel, because we continue to label their sexuality sinful and, as a result, reject them as people.

Are we prepared to continue on that path? If so, we need to think carefully of how we navigate it. Because that road will continue to cause a lot of hurt to a lot of people.

The alternative is that we answer “no.” We cease to call homosexuality a sin. Now, there are a whole range of biblical and theological questions that arise in answering in this way. Can we legitimately do this? How are we to interpret clear prohibition passages from Leviticus, for example? Are we just enforcing culture upon Scripture? These are serious questions and a significant and complex situation we find ourselves in. We need to think theologically about this and carefully interpret Scripture in the context of the canon, not just proof-text with individual verses. That latter approach is simply insufficient.

There is a biblical precedent for interpreting Scripture that bears some parallels here. It commences with a look at the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that are set in the time period immediately following the Exile of the Jews. The people joyfully return to Jerusalem but there is a complex issue that accompanies them. Many of the Jews had married Gentiles during the period of the Exile. Now that they were back in Jerusalem the people are rebuilding the city but they are also rebuilding their national identity. Exile had been a punishment for covenant unfaithfulness and so they were very keen to not fail again. A significant question arises - “Can we allow for interracial marriages or not?” They read the Book of the Law and it is interpreted amongst the people. The decision they come to at the time is that no, marriages between Jews and Gentiles are to be rejected. The Priest Ezra stands before the people and declares:

“You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now honour the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:10b-11)

The decision was made to send away the women and children from marriages between Jews and Gentiles. Of course, it’s not the men sent away. It's the women and children who suffer. I find this one of the most difficult and tragic passages of Scripture. Picture the heartache. The children wondering why? The wives left to fend for themselves and raise their children alone. The pain. The rejection. The abandonment. Yet, there it is printed in black and white in the book we call Scripture.

This passage provides some perspective on the inter-race relations that existed between Jews and Gentiles; specifically, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. To help us understand them better we should read passages like John 4 and Luke 10 with Ezra and Nehemiah in the back of our minds. For the Jews, contact and interaction with Gentiles was considered sinful and highly contagious. They were to keep themselves physically separate from them; they certainly did not accept, let alone ask for water from them, nor assist them if they were injured on the side of the road. Herein lies the power of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan as well as his interaction with the woman at the well. At the heart of these interactions Jesus is challenging the status quo and what was accepted as a normative understanding of purity at the time.

Consider now the book of Acts and, specifically, Acts 10 – the story of Peter’s interaction with Cornelius. The background to this situation is that following an intense persecution lead by Saul (Acts 7-8), the Lord intervenes and converts the leader of the opposition in a dramatic and history-altering way (Acts 9). Following Paul’s conversion the church experiences a time of peace and strengthening by the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). This peace is significant. There had been persecution, including the stoning of Stephen and others, and now the relationship between the Jewish leadership and the budding church was at rest.

For the time being.

Following this Peter and Cornelius experience their visions from God. Peter’s is a vision of food descending from heaven; food that he was previously not permitted to eat. It was considered unclean and Peter knew this well. But now pork chops, prawns and lobster were on the menu!

Hallelujah! Pass the bacon!

For Peter, a Jewish man, this was unheard of. This wasn’t like he’d travelled to a foreign country and was eating something different while on holidays, this was a challenge to his entire worldview. Three times he is confronted with this vision and three times he was told the following:

            “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)

Take note that Peter struggles with the meaning behind the vision (10:17 and 19). He realises that it’s not just about what he can and cannot eat yet he can’t figure out what the deeper meaning is.  “While Peter was still thinking about the vision” he is instructed by the Spirit to go with the men that are about to arrive. He is obedient and goes to the house of Simon the Centurion; a God-fearing Gentile. Peter states openly the problem that he faced. He was a Jew and he was breaking Jewish law by being inside the house of a Gentile. We, the readers, are meant to pay close attention to this because it relates directly to the meaning of the vision:

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)

The meaning of the vision that Peter had previously struggled with becomes clear to him by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit descending on these people before him in exactly the same way it had happened for him at Pentecost. Peter states:

“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34)

Peter shares the gospel with them and he and his companions are astonished to see that the Holy Spirit is poured out on these people, even though they are Gentiles. For them as Jews it turns their previous well-known status quo completely on its head. In the light of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the interpretation of the Law that had been established and upheld from that date on, Jews did not interact with Gentiles. Yet here and now in front of Peter and his companions the Holy Spirit itself was descending upon Cornelius and his household simply by virtue of their faith in Jesus Christ.

The vision becomes a reality. It’s not about the food. It’s about the people.

Peter returns to Jerusalem and is called to account for what he has done. Remember the peace between the Jews and Christians referred to in Acts 9:31? The leaders of the church are aware just how fragile that peace really was. The fact that Peter had gone into the household of a Gentile and eaten with them could well result in the re-emergence of the persecution they experienced under Saul. So, they challenge him to respond to the accusation that he “went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:3).

Peter recounts the story from start to finish. If it wasn’t clear for us as readers at this point we are reminded of the key change that has taken place in Peter’s mind; the instruction given directly from the Lord. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 11:9)

Peter tells them how the Holy Spirit came upon these people in the same way that he had come upon Jewish believers at Pentecost. Peter asks a powerful and pertinent question:

“So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)

Here is what we need to carefully consider today. Could it be that we are faced with a very similar situation to that which confronted Peter? In recent years I have come to know several Christians who identify themselves as being homosexual. These very same Christians have been blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit just as equally and extravagantly as I have been. If God has given them the same gift that he gave me, who am I to think that I can stand in God’s way by labelling “impure” someone whom “God has made clean?” This is why I answer the question “Is it a sin to be LGBTI+?” with a firm “no.”

Peter realised that there was a connection between the previously unclean foods and the previously unclean people. Perhaps, then, we need to consider that there is a similar connection for us with those who identify as LBGTI.

At a later date the church wrestled with the question as to whether Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). This was the first of many councils where the church considered its response to new and sometimes complex situations. Peter, reflecting on his interaction with Cornelius and his family, spoke on that occasion.

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:7b-11)

As I read that I cannot help but substitute the word “Gentiles” for “the LBGTI+ people.”

Some questions to consider

Could it be that labelling homosexuality as “sin” places an unnecessary “yoke” around the necks of the LBGTI community; a yoke that they are unable to bear?

Do we need to remind ourselves that it is “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are?”

Is the fact that LBGTI Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit evidence enough to suggest that God has made them clean and, therefore, we should no longer call them impure?

If we continue to label being LGBTI+ as “sin” could we be “standing in the way of God?”

Significantly, we are left wondering what to do with the verses, such as Leviticus 20:13, which clearly prohibit homosexuality (and specifically male to male homosexuality in the case of this verse). Well, I am going to suggest that the same approach be taken to this verse that is taken to the ones just a little earlier in the same book, such as Leviticus 11:7-8, which clearly prohibit the eating of pork. It is not that we ignore their presence, or apply an editorial hermeneutic and just “read on by.” No, the reason we can happily eat bacon and eggs for breakfast is because God himself has declared these foods to now be clean. Remember, though, that Peter’s vision wasn’t just about food. It was about the people. Now, by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit freely poured out upon all people, including both Gentiles and Jews, that the dividing wall that previously existed between these two groups of people has been destroyed. The evidence for this, for Peter and for us, is the presence of the Holy Spirit upon all people. It is the presence of the Spirit that makes a person clean. 

This includes LGBTI+ people.

I have come to the conclusion that the presence of the Spirit upon any person makes them clean, regardless of race, sexuality, gender, age or status. If God gives the same gift to them as he’s given to me then who am I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

Concluding thoughts

A little earlier in the book of Acts we find the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. We are told, in Acts 8:27, that this Eunuch had gone down to Jerusalem to worship. What he is likely to have encountered, though, is rejection. For according to the Law, specifically Deuteronomy 23:1, anyone like him was not permitted within the Temple.

Restricted from entering into the place of worship because of a difference in his sexuality.

We’re not told how he acquired a copy of the scroll (something that intrigues me) but on his return home he is reading from Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip is taken to this man by the Spirit and aids him in his interpretation. The Eunuch is baptised and as a result the person who was once excluded is now included.

Praise God!

We don’t know anything more about this Eunuch but I like to think that he hopped back into his chariot and joyfully resumed not only his journey but also his reading of Isaiah. If he did so it wouldn’t have been taken him long to come Isaiah 56:4-8. I can only imagine the smile on his face when he did so. There he would find the promise of his inclusion within the temple. Not only that, there he is promised a name that is “better than sons and daughters.” He would have known, too, that on that very day that name was his.

This is the hope of the gospel. The hope of salvation for all people. That everyone would know that they are welcome in the Kingdom of God. That still others will be gathered besides those already gathered. My prayer is that this will include many, many LGBTI+ people.

Lord may it be so.

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the [LGBTI+] who keep my Sabbaths,

    who choose what pleases me

    and hold fast to my covenant—

to them I will give within my temple and its walls

    a memorial and a name

    better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

    that will endure forever.

And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord

    to minister to him,

to love the name of the Lord,

    and to be his servants,

all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it

    and who hold fast to my covenant—

these I will bring to my holy mountain

    and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

    will be accepted on my altar;

for my house will be called

    a house of prayer for all nations.”

The Sovereign Lord declares—

    he who gathers the exiles of Israel:

“I will gather still others to them

    besides those already gathered.”

Monday, August 22, 2022

Sermon: Luke 13:1-17

Luke 13:10-17

Luke, the writer of our text today, gives a prominent place to those who would normally have been on the fringe of society; the poor, Gentiles, women. For example, in contrast to Matthew who writes “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) Luke writes “Blessed are you who are poor.” (Luke 6:20. An example of Luke’s emphasis upon women is found in Luke 23 and the first part of 24 which contains his account of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. I would encourage you each to take time this afternoon to read through this section and pay attention to “the women.” From the time Jesus is sentenced all the way through to his resurrection there are some “women” present. Initially they remain unnamed until Luke reveals their identity in 24:10. The men come and go, they have their moment in the story, and then they disappear – Simon of Cyrene, the two criminals on the cross, the centurion, Joseph of Arimathea. But the women, they are there the whole time. The disciples don’t even gain a mention until later in chapter 24, apart from Peter who runs to the empty tomb after the women have been there. They are the eyewitnesses to everything at the most crucial moment in the story, indeed the most important moment in the history of humankind. They stay and watch the trial, the procession to the cross, the death, the burial, and finally they are the first to see the empty tomb.

They are crucial to everything!

In fact, when Jesus says to Cleopas and his travelling companion on the road to Emmaus “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” I don’t think Jesus is referring to prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel or Elijah. I think he means these women. All of this is an example of Luke elevating the place of those who would normally be on the fringe of society to a place of prominence within the gospel story.

Turning to our passage today Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. The synagogue had a different purpose to the temple in Jewish worship. The temple centred upon sacrifice. The synagogue centred upon the Torah. Synagogues began to emerge as the Jewish people spread throughout the Roman Empire. Wherever there were ten respected men a synagogue could be formed. The role of teaching in the synagogue was an important one. Imagine a seat in the front and centre of the room. It is a seat of authority and the place where teaching happened from. When Jesus taught in his home synagogue of Nazareth Luke tells us that he read from the scroll of Isaiah, rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. He wasn’t sitting back in his spot in the congregation, rather he is sitting in the seat of authority teaching the gathered congregation. Jesus would have been sitting teaching again in this passage today.

And in walks a woman.

The English translation we’ve just heard is a little matter of fact about it in comparison to the tone that Luke uses. He really wants to draw your attention to her, to imagine yourself in the synagogue in the middle of Jesus teaching, and see everyone’s heads turn as this woman walks in.

She’s hunched over. She’s been that way for eighteen years.

Jesus sees her. He calls to her.

Can you imagine her reaction? The reaction of others in the room?

He lays his hands upon her and says “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” She stands up and begins praising God. Of course, it’s the perfect time and place for praising God, right? In a synagogue on the Sabbath?

Apparently not.

Up speaks a man. A man in power. A man with authority. Not just one of the ten men who formed this synagogue but the number one. The leader of the synagogue. But does he raise his complaint directly with Jesus? No. He goes to the crowd and speaks to them.

“According to the Torah you can’t heal here today.”

“That’s not in the liturgy. What kind of Rabbi is this guy?”

“He should stick to the preaching. That’s what he’s here for.”

“We’ll have to report this to the synagogue council, I’m afraid.”

“Tuesday afternoon is the healing service. She should come back then. Oh, and bring a plate”

If this guy lived today he’d probably pull out his iPhone and post something on social media to shout his misguided views into his online echo chamber.

The way this man speaks about this woman to the crowd, and not to Jesus or her, serves to “other” her. It’s a tactic used by all sorts of people in power. Consider how in Australian political discourse the language used to describe government policy regarding asylum seekers has used the phrase “Stop the Boats.” The focus is not on the people because the Australian public might actually care about people. No one cares about “Boats,” right? They describe what they’re doing as “illegal” to make them sound like criminals and then call them “boats” to take away their humanity completely.

Jesus is having none of it. In response he speaks directly to him and those who follow him. “You hypocrites!” And then he forces their gaze back upon her. He forces them to see her. Jesus saw her. He wants this man, and the crowd, to see her too. To see this woman who only moments ago was hunched over and had been for eighteen years. Now she is standing upright and praising God. Not only that, he emphasises her place within the family of God. She is their sister – “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham.” It’s the same tactic Jesus used in Simon the Pharisee’s home when a woman of ill-repute walked in and dared to wash Jesus’ feet with her hair. On that occasion, when Simon attempted to “other” her, Jesus forced Simon’s gaze upon her and said to him – “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44).

In this synagogue, in today’s passage, Jesus saw her. He called her. He healed her. And this man tried to exclude her for it.

“You hypocrites!”

And the crowd, and the woman, did what was right and joined with Jesus in the celebration.

We sit together here at Holy Name of Jesus parish. The core values of this parish are listed on our website: 

Welcoming

Traditional worship style

Safe and trusted environment

Multi-cultural and inclusive

Engaged and participatory congregation

Outreach

I recall the first time I entered this church building. I too was hunched over and burdened by my own brokenness. I experienced a moment when it was like Jesus touched me on the shoulder and said to me “Adam, you are set free from your ailment.” I stood up straight and praised God. I experienced a safe, trusted, inclusive, engaging, and participatory church that reached out to me and made me feel welcome.

I read those core values and honestly feel they are reflected in the lives of the people that are here today. I’m so glad God led me to this parish and that it has become our home. I join with you in trying to live out those values every day.

Those values suggest that we are a church where everyone is welcome regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, physical ability, intellectual capability, sexuality or past Christian experience. Welcoming, safe, trusted, inclusive. All of these words are important and I think consistent with our passage today and the gospel of our Lord that we proclaim together.

The challenge is to live these values out. To be a place that is genuinely these things all the time towards all people.

Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites.

So let’s be a welcoming, safe, trusted, inclusive, engaged and participatory congregation. And let’s join together, with Jesus, in the celebration of the wonderful things that God is doing in this place. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

"Please sir... I want some more"

For seventeen years I was an Officer in The Salvation Army. I was very grateful for the opportunity I had to serve in this way. Leaving Officership was incredibly difficult but I'm also happy with the new life I'm living now. 

In financial terms, I didn't receive much by way of an allowance as an Officer. In fact, it was below minimum wage. Around $500 per week. I also grew up hearing many stories of Officers scraping by each week on a meagre amount of money and living "by faith" week in, week out. That was part of "the calling". I knew what I was getting into when I signed up and so I 'endured' this 'life of poverty' as a good soldier of Christ. 


I never openly complained about it but I also didn't refuse help from people where it was offered. If someone offered to pay for a meal I never said no. Sometimes someone would provide a gift of some kind. I always accepted. On the surface I did and said the right things, but in reality I was also playing into a cultural expectation of what Officership is like. 

As I reflect on it know I realise that the reality was very, very different. As an Officer I was provided with the following

  • A house, rent free
  • A car, lease free
  • Petrol for the car
  • Health insurance (hospital) for me and my family
  • Officer's Health Assistance for extras for me and my family
  • Guarantee of employment and appointments within that employment. 
Having left Officership and now in regular employment I have come to realise just how valuable these things are and just how much I took them for granted. I have come to realise that the allowance I received was really disposable income and I was able to afford many things then that I would have no hope of affording now. 

I'm now working for a small Catholic theological college where I work with many people who are part of religious orders. They have committed themselves to ministry and taken on certain vows associated with the different orders they are a part of. The "vow of poverty" usually appears high on the list. 

In a conversation around the coffee pot a few weeks back one of the lecturers jokingly commented 
"It's easy to take on a vow of poverty when someone else is paying the bills." 
I've been reflecting on that ever since. It really struck a chord (and prompted this post). I've considered my life of poverty as an Officer in The Salvation Army and, if I'm honest, I had it easy. Someone else was paying most of my bills. Whether that was the organisation paying for my rent, car lease, petrol etc. Or friends and family offering to pay for dinner if we went out for a meal. In many, many settings my 'vow of poverty' was easy because someone else was paying the bills. 

Now, I have deliberately framed this using personal pronouns because I don't want to universalise my experience. Single officers, for example, I imagine would have a much more difficult time making their allowance cover everything they needed. However, there is a cultural norm associated with Officers that they take on a life of poverty to fulfil their calling and serve Christ through The Salvation Army. 

As I look back I realise that's a lie and I perpetuated it with ease. 

Because someone else was paying the bills. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

How do we talk about death?

Trigger warning: Death, Suicide

This is a post I've be thinking about for a long time. The trouble has always been that someone I know has been struggling with the death of a loved one and so, in trying to be sensitive to their situation, I've chosen not to post it. 

But here we are. Death is inevitable.

So why is the church so bad at talking about it? 

I mean *really* talking about it. 

So many funerals, social media posts, or conversations about death and the most obvious word to use (death, died, or its cognates) is avoided. I grew up in, and was an Officer in, The Salvation Army where we spoke of people being "promoted to glory." Other euphemisms are used all the time (I can sense Monty Python skit coming on).


Why?

We don't need to do that. 

One of the earliest funerals I conducted was due to a death by suicide. I was forced to consider how I would handle this within the funeral. I read a text which provided me with a principal I have followed ever since.

You've got to mention it. 

As difficult as it may seem, and as counter-cultural as it may be (and really that's all it is), you've got to mention the cause of death. Indeed I would even say "say it and say it early." 

On that occasion the deceased was someone who lived very much on their own and so I simply stated that they "lived their own way and died their own way." Later I used the word "suicide" deliberately so that it was clear for all. 

As a principal I applied this into all funerals I lead. I would say something like "we are gathered here today as (name) has died from (cause of death) and we are grieving together."

There are good practical and emotional reasons for this. It names the "elephant in the room". This brings relief to those present, and this is particularly true in those funerals where the death has been hard (e.g. suicide, long sickness, death of a child). I've been quite amazed at some funerals where there is a coffin in the room that doesn't even get acknowledged! But there are strong theological reasons for using the word "death/died".

Death has been defeated! In the words of Paul "Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:55). Avoiding naming death is to give it power that it no longer holds and no longer deserves. Think about this in another way. We don't use a euphemism to describe Jesus dying on the cross ("Jesus passed away on the cross"). Why should we use them in describing other deaths?

What are your thoughts? I'd be interested to hear other people's experiences of times when the word "Death/died" was avoided. How did it feel? If you did it yourself, how come? Share a comment to continue the conversation. 

Friday, June 17, 2022

The Tradition of Scripture

An interesting online conversation I was in the other day got me thinking about the relationship between "tradition" and "scripture." In my theological training there was much made of the Wesleyan quadrilateral and the inter-relatedness of "Scripture," "tradition," "reason," and "experience." What I've been thinking a lot about, lately, those is the fact that Scripture itself is a tradition.

What do I mean by that?


Well, no one alive today was there when the texts of Scripture were written. Every one of us receive the text(s) of Scripture from someone else, who received them from someone else, who received them from someone else... and so on. They are passed from person to person, or more specifically from peoples to peoples, as a tradition. When we receive them we accept that they are treated as Scripture within the tradition in which we receive them and this we do so as an act of faith. That is, if they are indeed received within a faith tradition we receive this text in the belief that they have not just come from the person(s) who gave us the text but in some way this has come from God.

In the church I am now a part of the liturgy reinforces this concept when we say at the end of each reading "This is the Word of the Lord" or "This is the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." After this the congregation joins together and proclaims "Thanks be to God" (or similar). 

As a result, we confess together that the text is something more than the text and we believe that in faith. Indeed to call it Scripture is to confess something well beyond the historical facts of the reception of the text.

And that's OK. Indeed, it's a good thing. If we were left to prove the historical reliability of each individual text contained within Scripture every time we read it we'd never get on with the any of the work of the Kingdom.

So, all this is to say that the dichotomy between "Scripture" and "Tradition" is a false one and irrelevant. Things like the "Wesleyan quadrilateral" need to be reconsidered, reworked, nuanced, or abandoned as a result. 

Friday, June 10, 2022

Here we go again

It's been a long time since I posted here. In fact my life has completely changed over the last couple of years. I separated from my wife. Left my ministry as an Officer in The Salvation Army. Was remarried at the beginning of this year and recently began work at a theological college in Melbourne. 


Things are very, very different for me now.

There's been a whole lot of pain, shame, and, fortunately, gains as well. I'm happy in my new marriage. I continue to progress along the journey of completing my PhD (I will get there eventually). I've published two peer-reviewed journal articles this year alone and I have a small book currently at the editors. Sure, there are still significant challenges along the way but overall it has been a necessary and positive move for me.

I hope to pick up this blog and start writing again. Writing has been the biggest challenge for me in the PhD process. I have the ideas in my head but getting them onto the page in an orderly manner is so difficult. I'm hoping that I can use this blog to try and develop my skills in this area and, hopefully, free up some brain space for the work I need to do.

If no one comes along for the journey, that's OK. But if you do find yourself still reading at this point then send me a note. I'd love to know that you're along for the journey.

Thanks
Adam

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Do you see this protestor...?


Jesus reclines at the dinner table of a powerful man in the community. He’d been invited to join with them, but he had to earn his place there. The normal customs afforded a guest in the home were ignored. Jesus was there but he wasn’t welcomed. This was a meal but it was also a display of power; a test to see if Jesus knew where he reallysat in the scheme of things. A prophet? A teacher? A rabbi? Not likely. The meal table of a powerful man was where the movers and shakers wanted to be found. Jesus had been granted a spot at the table. He’d better be grateful for the privilege.

Then in comes a woman. Luke tells us she had “lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:37), but the euphemism isn’t lost on the reader. She’s a sex worker. The men don’t sit on chairs at a table but recline with their feet furthest from the centre. They all look away from her presence but it is difficult to ignore; especially when it is accompanied by such confronting behaviour. 

She touches his feet. She weeps on his toes. She wipes away the dust from the road with her long, beautiful hair; the marketing tool of her trade now being used to clean up the mess she’d made.

Then there was the perfume. Normally a few drops would be enough for her to grab the attention of a potential client who passed by her on the street. Here she lavishly pours it out on Jesus’ feet and fills the room with its powerful smell. What could be tolerated in small amounts becomes engulfing when the senses are overwhelmed. This smell would last for days, even weeks; contaminating clothes and furniture alike. And whenever anyone who was there caught even a passing whiff of it again the powerful olfactory memory it generated would quickly bring to mind this event. This sex worker. This sinner.

“If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

Jesus is failing the test. Anyone who wants to retain a spot in this position of power must disassociate themselves from people like this. Or, at least keep such associations well and truly secret. The smell of the perfume on the feet of Jesus is nothing compared to the stain her sinfulness will leave upon him.

And he calls himself a prophet?

So Jesus tells a story. The men listen in.

“Tell me, teacher” Simon the Pharisee, and host of the meal, says to him.

It’s a story about forgiveness. About perspective. About prejudice. Two people are given a loan. One owes 500 denarii, the other one 50. Neither can repay the debt. Remarkably, both are forgiven. Both set free from the loan.

It’s a nice story.

But Jesus isn’t in the business of telling nice stories. The moral is teased out of the host.

“Now which one will love the forgiving moneylender more?”

“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says

But the power of the story doesn’t end there. This isn’t just about passing a test. Simon needs to truly learn this lesson. 

Try and visualize Jesus’ physical movement as Luke describes it – he “turned towards the woman.” To this point she is on the floor, behind Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair. For the men, she’s safely out of sight, hidden behind Jesus’ body. She’s “over there.” She’s “a sinner.” A theoretical category of a person whose smell we might have to endure but we can keep her in her place by defining her as “other.” Jesus moves to open up Simon’s line of sight so that the woman is visible to him and, to drive the point home, makes him look at her directly.

“Do you see this woman?”

Look! Look at her! Don’t just talk about her and try and define her away. Look! Here! Now!

“DO. YOU. SEE. THIS. WOMAN!”

With the scathing rebuke that follows Jesus compares Simon’s lack of respect with her emotion-filled acts of love towards Jesus. He rehumanises this “sinner” and confronts the abuse of power at the same time. She is brought out into the open, revealed to be a human deserving of God’s love, forgiven of her sins, and then dismissed in peace.

She is seen.

She is heard.

She is human.

Jesus speaks directly to her, having seen her confession in her acts of contrition. He gives to her the words she so desperately needed and they are spoken directly to her; “Your sins are forgiven.” Having been forgiven a lot she loves a lot.  In the process, the powerful are reminded of their place at the table; of their role in society.

It’s a reminder that we need today.

“Thugs” (@realdonaldtrump, Twitter, May 29. 2020)

It’s easy to sit in a distant room, separated by time, space, and power, and label the other in a way that means you don’t have to act. If they’re “Thugs” then it’s not within the President’s power to address the problem. Send in the National Guard and bring back “law and order.”

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Into this situation I imagine Jesus, sitting on the other side of The Resolute Desk, grabbing the attention of the President away from his iPhone for just a moment, to tell him a story of forgiveness. It’s a simple story, told in terms that a billionaire can understand.

It’s a story about forgiveness. About perspective. About prejudice. Two people are given a loan. One owes $2 billion, the other one $2,000. Neither can repay the debt. Remarkably, both are forgiven. Both set free from the loan.

“Now which one will love the forgiving moneylender more?”

“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus says

But the power of the story doesn’t end there. The President needs to truly learn this lesson.

Jesus turns on the TV and makes sure the volume is down. He finds a news channel and there is the face of an angry protestor. She feels completing powerless to do anything to stop the pain, to stop the senseless murder of black men and women just like her at the hands, and knees, of police. The “right” way isn’t working. It hasn’t worked for years. And so she resorts to the “wrong” way. As always, her presence on the television screens and Twitter feeds of the powerful makes them uncomfortable and they resort to the same old tactics. Just like the perfume, they can cope with black people rising to positions of power, as long as it happens in the “right” way.... the “white” way. When black people attempt to take power in any other way.... they’re lawbreakers, protestors... “Thugs.”

Jesus pauses the image on the screen and moves up close to it and points to the tear-filled, angry, desperate black person that fills the screen.

He points at her.

“Do you see this woman?”

Look! Look at her! Don’t just talk about her and try and define her away. Look! Here! Now!

“DO. YOU. SEE. THIS. WOMAN!”

I came into your house. You served me hamburgers and a diet coke. You did not show me any way that you’ve used your position of power  to serve the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, the needy. But this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped fighting for what is right. For freedom for her people. Freedom from tyrannical rule. Freedom from you. You did not even shake my hand, but she has not stopped shaking the present to make for a better future. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

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