Category Archives: Musing on Preaching

Divorce? Or something else?

The gospel reading (Mark 10:2-16), especially in its first part (divorce, etc.) seems to contain a whole lot of Law and not a whole lot of grace.  Especially for those in our congregations who have experienced separation/divorce, etc.

And yet, I don’t feel it’s faithful to the text we’ve been given to skip to the warm fuzzy part of Jesus welcoming the children, and only talk about that.  To paraphrase Martin Marty from a few years ago, we need to preach through difficult texts, not around them.

So, with that in the background, I’m offering the following:

Instead of approaching this text as a description of what God “wants” from this broken creation, or understanding it as a direct quote for the mouth of Jesus (which, of course, must then be “obeyed”), might we instead approach this text as a parable? As a parable, not from Jesus, but from Mark?

It seems to me that a consistent theme throughout this reading (including the warm fuzzy part), especially if we read it as a parable, is the theme of power and its mis-use. According to Mark, for a man to divorce his spouse, all he had to do was fill out a sheet of paper saying “You’re not welcome anymore.” She did not have that right.  She had no power. The hubby had it all.

But, lest we think that Jesus is saying spouses should have that power equally, and then everything would be wonderful, we get the explanation to the disciples later on. In this section, Jesus says that neither party can unilaterally cut the other one off. Equality does not mean everyone has the same power. In this case, it means everyone has the same vulnerability.

Suddenly it makes sense that Mark would follow this up with a story of Jesus welcoming the children (especially given that the disciples try to exert power over them by keeping these unimportant people away from the important one, i.e. Jesus). Kids had no say in virtually anything; they were the epitome of vulnerability. So who does Jesus embrace?

So. We are left, not with a rule about refusing to allow any marriage to break up at any time; we are left with a parable about power and its mis-use, and the call to embrace our shared vulnerability.

Which I experienced last night at the local commemoration for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.

The official commemorations were done, but it hadn’t taken very long, and people felt no desire to leave right away, so it turned into a sharing circle.

At one point, I asked to speak. I said it was important for me to be there, representing the church, as an act of repentance, since the church has far too often aligned itself with the powerful, and as a supporter of the status quo. I said this is inappropriate, and it’s not the people of the power structures with whom we should be standing.

A while later, a woman, a Mi’kmaq woman who led part of the evening, said (still in the circle), “I want to thank you for saying what you said. It means a lot to me, because my mother was a survivor of a Residential School.”

I couldn’t help but think of the story from Mark. When one “side” claims all the power, and exercises it over others, life is not as God desires. When we share a mutual vulnerability, we learn to live together, and all the children can begin to find a welcome.

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Reading Esther in a Rape Culture

Do we believe women when they tell stories that men would rather not hear? Do we dare speak or preach about this? Do we dare not?

It’s in our scriptures, after all. In multiple places.

If we read the story of Esther, we find several points of connection with our current realities.

(Note – I’m not vouching for the historical accuracy of the book of Esther. I’m commenting on the story as it is presented.)

Esther became queen because her predecessor wouldn’t do what she was told by the king. He was drunk at a never-ending party, and decided he wanted her to parade around in front of allies wearing her crown (and nothing else?) so he could show off how pretty she was (and therefore, of course, how much of a man he must have been). She wouldn’t play the game, so she was killed.

After this, men were decreed to be master of their own houses (to keep women from getting any ideas).

Next, pretty virgins were sought out to join the king’s harem, and they went through an extensive, year-long process of beautification in order to be presentable to the king. Esther, a Jew, is brought into the harem, and eventually becomes queen.

Haman becomes chief advisor to the king. Mordecai (Esther’s uncle and adoptive father) refuses to tell Haman how great he was (a demonstration of how insecure power people often are), so Haman puts together a scheme to kill off all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther hears of the plot, and approaches the king to tell the him of the danger to her people.

But (and this is important for our day) she loses her nerve at the last minute. Will she be believed? Or will she be thrown out like her predecessor? After all, she is taking on the two most powerful men in the kingdom; one of them capricious and unpredictable, the other scheming and self-serving. Faced with that reality, she can’t bring herself to tell her story.

She approaches the king a second time, but again loses her nerve, and this in spite of the fact that the king offers a perfunctory promise that he will indeed listen to her. Will he? Or will he change his mind, and call his past promise Fake News? This is scary stuff, because the risks of acting are as dangerous as the risks of not acting. But she does manage to ask one more favour.

The third time she screws up her courage and manages to tell her story. On this occasion, a near miracle occurs: she is believed.

But things aren’t made instantly better. Haman is removed, but his scheme still moves forward, because he’s not the only one with designs on the Jews (there are 75,000 of them out there). Can you say, “enablers”? Sure you can.

In fact, things aren’t really made better until Mordecai (a man) is put in Haman’s place, becomes the royal advisor, and get’s his own laws passed so the Jews can defend themselves.

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We need to be aware of the assumptions we bring to our reading of this story. It’s not just a story of a couple of plucky people taking advantage of a lucky break or two (being pretty, becoming queen, becoming chief advisor, etc.). This is a story of inherently unjust power structures (men over women, citizens over foreigners, power people over ordinary people, insiders over outsiders, etc.). And the rot goes deep, because in some cases the law stands as it was written (anything which might impact the perception of the king in the public’s eyes), and in some cases the law is subject to interpretation, revision or revocation (anything which impacts anyone else).

Ultimately, there is no rule of law. There is no justice. There is no fairness. There is only rule by royal whim (or whim of those who are close to the royal presence).

Esther’s story first names, and then challenges these unjust, unfair structures; and it also identifies the incredible risks that such challenge entails.

Yes, there is a “happy ending.” But the relief we feel at the end is so strong because we know that there was no guarantee of a happy ending, there or any place, then or any time. We all know there have been (and are!) too many times when the ending is anything but happy, and the machine goes merrily on.

I think we need to preach, teach and speak about this stuff, friends. This is not the time to fall back on moralisms (don’t do naughty things, if your hand causes you to sin, the life of faith is only about personal responsibility, it’s all about individual decisions, etc.). This is a time to talk about what is really going on, structurally, communally, economically, politically, religiously, internationally.

It’s risky. It’s dangerous. It will probably result in push-back. But the risk of not speaking to this is just as great, and if we succumb to that temptation and say nothing, nothing at all will change.

For anyone.

Peace…

Preaching to Depressed People

The following was posted on a website I frequent, referring to Matthew 16:26, in which Jesus says, “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”:

A teenage boy attempted suicide last week. Another [man], 47, suffering schizophrenia, did commit suicide. What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? All of the success of the world cannot give peace to the soul. But if we focus on following Jesus, all earthly glory becomes meaningless, and the reason to live is found. He who loses his life for Him, finds it.

I had to respond….

“I would be very, very hesitant to draw parallels between this passage and the tragedy of suicide to which you point. Those who see no point in life, or who are worn down by the agony of existence, or who struggle (as I have for years) with depression or mental illness, know in their bones that success does not give peace in their souls. We already understand this.

Telling or implying to those who choose, or attempt, or even consider suicide, that they have the world in their pocket, and that they are forfeiting it all by choosing or attempting or considering suicide, is not addressing their concerns or feelings. In fact, it is ignoring what they are experiencing, and trying to impose a different reality on them. You might as well be speaking Martian; it communicates nothing helpful.

Also, inferring that paying more attention to Jesus will make the crap fade in significance and make everything somehow better is quite frankly cruel. They WANT purpose and meaning for their lives. They WANT there to be a point to it all. They WANT a reason to live. People with these struggles are probably the most persistent people in the WORLD in asking, seeking and knocking; but the answers they receive are not sufficient; the so-called purpose they find is inadequate to their reality; the door never quite opens in a way that really allows entry into the peace they crave.

For far too long, the Church has clung to easy answers, and ignored the complexity that is life. Our dismissal of the pain of those who struggle with mental illness, and our insistence that they just don’t believe enough, has caused untold damage to untold numbers of hurting people.

I do not mean to be dismissive of well-meant concern, nor of the pain that your family has felt, nor of the attempt to make sense of it all. But when easy answers are offered without regard for the complexity of the reality which is being faced, or when others are told to do something which will make the TELLER feel better, I think we need to be ready to hear, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'”

Thoughts about Easter 7

The first reading for this coming Sunday.

Acts 1:6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away.  When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.  All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

This passage strikes me as a wonderful description of where we spend most of our lives – In Between.

We live In Between our baptism into Christ and the culmination of our hope.

We live In Between the promise of the reign of God and the fulfillment of that promise.

We live In Between “In the beginning” and the final “Amen.”

We live In Between the Alpha and the Omega.

The question for us is not, as the disciples tried to ask, when will all of this happen? When will we no longer be In Between?

The question is, How are we to live IN this “In Between”? How are we to live as people who have received a promise, but who have to wait for its fulfillment?

The disciples, for all their failures, get this one right. They gather, they pray, they support each other, they go through the In Between together.

One thing we might need to remember is that, even though Pentecost eventually came with all of its Spirit-driven hurricane-like impact, the disciples were still In Between. The Spirit came, but the church was still only “on the way.”  It had not arrived.  We still haven’t.

And that’s ok!

We are called to embrace the In Between.  Even as we have been embraced IN the In Between.