Tag Archives: Colossians

Kings, victims, revolutionaries

The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”  (Luke 23: 35-38)

This rings true for anyone who has been in a situation where they themselves are less than perfect but are trying to advocate for others. This sort of attitude goes hand in hand with “deficit models” of the suffering person and various versions of victim blaming.

Victim blaming has never been completely absent in the way we as a society view the suffering, but it seems that at the moment it is once again on the increase. These days it goes together with the idea of choice…”choice” supposedly leads inevitably to “consequence” and therefore all suffering gets traced back to being the product of an individual’s choice. Never mind the fact that the logic here is faulty, I want to look at the way that this is partially true, and yet not a good reason for us to turn away and deny even compassion to the suffering.

You could say that Jesus’ cross was the consequence of his choices too! Had he quietly accepted the oppressive regime of his society and looked away from the injustices and the suffering of others he would have lived out his life in something like peace (the social science critics can argue over whether he would have been comparatively wealthy or impoverished). Then our call to be like Christ, our call to care more for justice and integrity than for the quiet, peaceful life becomes a dangerous choice to make. And we can expect only mockery and condemnation from others when the choices we make entangle us in things that look like “failure” to the contemporary gaze. It is hard to steer a balance then between the idealism of always transgressing and challenging an unfair society and yet not falling into pointless escapism, self-pity and the sort of individualism that achieves nothing. We do also have to live in the world in which we find ourselves. I won’t discuss that but I feel I need to be mindful of it when I am arguing for anything radical.

Because the “reign” of Christ IS radical. I can’t bring myself to call it kingship, I don’t respect kings and I wouldn’t serve one. Christ comes to us as a mentor and model of radical justice and love and the inability to be silenced. As a feminist I recognise the unsilenced Christ, the ever-nagging (against injustice) Word of God as also Sophia, Wisdom in Old Testament terms. I recognise an ethnic minority (a Jew under Roman occupation). A person of dubious parentage, of suspect sexuality and habits. I can read possible signs of depression in some gospel stories, of fear of rejection and abandonment. I can see someone who is an activist, not just an obedient “worker”. I can see someone who breaks social taboos to touch lepers, prostitutes, men and women of all walks of life.

This then, is our inheritance, not some sort of cleaned up and shiny “Christus Rex” using the cross as a pulpit for easy theologies of “Father knows best” but the struggle and filth and sweating-blood as the end to the hard work and misunderstanding of ministry. So what is the good news here? I need to retrace the whole story. Is it the connections with people who loved and nurtured his identity? Is it the ability to touch and be everything that is true, to call forth the beauty from a story, a place, a story? What about the mocked and degraded criminal hanging on the cross has made us decide we believe in impossible hope? Where’s the resurrection in this last week of the liturgical year?

The jacarandas are turning purple, we are going to move into advent and prepare to celebrate the birth of a displaced baby to a young woman with a question mark over her pregnancy and her dreamer/idealist of a husband. We will watch them forced to travel, to flee, to pick up their fragile lives in various places because of hostile political powers. We place our hope and our identity in this family and it is time to call for a kinder, more just world for all the Mary’s, Joseph’s, Jesuses.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done” because your will is a kinder wiser world. Help us unsilence you again, disreputable God. Give us the courage and compassion to bring your transformative peace to our interactions. We seek your reign in our lives.

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If today you hear God’s voice…

If today you hear her voice, harden not your hearts!

The voice of God is everywhere calling us to a life based on compassion (e.g. here), equality (e.g. here) and depth (e.g. here). She calls to our sense of humanity (e.g. here) and for us to seek wisdom (e.g. here).

All the readings this week decry the life lived according to the lowest common denominator- worldly wealth and worldly success. I don’t want to get stuck into a Spirit vs Body binary, because I think if we focus too much on ideals of “spirit” and the “next life” we can miss the politics of the reign of God, calling us to a meaningful life HERE and NOW.

We feed our spirits, not by neglecting our own bodies but by looking out for the bodies of the others who are Christ in our lives (refugees, homeless people, children from low-income households, disabled people). We invest in God’s eternity not by hiding in warm houses praying and chanting praise while our brothers and sisters freeze, but by remembering that we connect with God through how we treat other members of creation (true images of God).

But in 2016, the logic of tearing down the existing barn to build a larger one to store wealth more than needed for one lifetime does not really even shock us anymore. The greed of hoarding and wasteful living while others suffer is exactly what our society and our economic system are based upon. We are the fools in the parable and Jesus calls us to pursue a different form of enrichment.

Harden not your heart.

Recently I met a woman from interstate who for some years now has been working with refugees: supporting, advocating, seeking, justice. When she heard I was an unemployed single mother she bought a bowl of chips “to share” and placed it in front of my son (who was happy to work hard at emptying the bowl). We had a few views in common so I added her on Facebook. To meet her in the flesh, you would not think of her as a rich woman: she has a hard-working job that pays and average amount. She is well enough to live but not dazzlingly rich.

When I added her on Facebook I got a completely different impression. The friends this woman has! The many culturally diverse and rich in wisdom contacts that share love and insights with her all over her page. I began to see, how my new friend’s life choices HAVE in fact made her dazzlingly rich, but with something better than just money and the paranoia that goes with an overemphasis on money. The same story could be told of many of the people I go to church with. When I look at friends who have chosen to pursue compassion, creativity, tolerance, courageous living, sustainability and love I see rich people.

Greed really is idolatry, as we are told in Colossians. How often do you hear religious-sounding language used about “the economy” and are we treated as heretics if we believe that we ought to preserve values of sharing and supporting each other instead of competition and malignant “growth”. And yet in Christ we are not Indigenous Australians, colonial Australians and asylum seekers; we are not Christians, atheists or Muslims; we are not men, women or trans; we are not hipsters or bogans; private or public school; leafy suburbs or Elizabeth. In Christ we are called to the meaning that is only found through un-othering, through seeing that wealth is what we do toward the reign of God, how we open ourselves to meaning and transformation and above all love.

In an Islamophobic, paranoid, climate-threatened Australia of 2016 so many of us have anxiety disorder and burnout. We spend the whole day working hard, the whole week swelling our bank account to save for the school fees or the holiday or the investment property and then we fear existential angst and can’t sleep at night. Vanity of vanities. Or we have inadequate income and we schedule our dehumanising Centrelink appointments and toss and turn and can’t sleep at night. Vanity again.

We spend thousands of dollars on weddings and funerals, but don’t have time to talk to the elderly relatives or play with the children. We shop to try to dull the pain. We go to the hairdresser every six weeks and the gym or pool twice a week and look so damn beautiful that someone should put us in a movie- but the wrinkles we know will keep upon us and the regrowth shows the grey as well. We are not born to live and glitter forever. Vanity of vanities.

My addictions are reading and writing. Not bad things per se, but at times I retreat into them to try to shut out the world of other people’s needs. I stare at the screen, trying to make my words beautiful so others will like and approve of me. I am intentionally clever, or disingenuously humble or funny, or wise or virtuous as I spill words out hour after hour and lap up the joy of sharing them with others. Vanity.

Nothing that we do is bad, but if our ONLY focus in life is eating, drinking, adorning ourselves or our homes, performing our talents, gratifying our vanity and escaping into fantasy worlds while our brothers and sisters starve and the overburdened earth weeps then all the good things that we have become dust. It’s a question of where in our lives (and our nation) do we make room for the reign of God?

No “if” about it you will hear his voice today. Will you harden your heart?

Ask, seek, knock…but why?

I was asked to give the “reflection” this week and this was it

What is the point of prayer?

 

As a child I got taught the “right” prayers to say, the “right” words to use. I was told to use my own words to ask God for things (but this was set up as a somewhat pointless exercise in which I needed to add “if it is your will” and God would do whatever God had already decided either way). I was told to constantly apologise for all my sins and the ways I didn’t measure up, to be ever aware of my unworthiness before God and the likelihood that even in using words I probably wasn’t “paying attention” or “listening” to God properly. I was told to thank and praise God unconditionally, no matter how I was feeling or what was going on in my life or the world around me.

 

Sometimes people would say that prayer was “not just words” but they would make it sound like a harder and harder discipline where we were meant to empty ourselves completely of our contexts, desires, agendas and even identity and just be empty before God. I think I was born feminist (without knowing the words for what that was) and the idea of making myself nothing but a container for someone else’s ego and importance did not sit quite right with me no matter how many times I was told that God was important and I was not. So for me the first reading is very liberating, Abraham does not have the sort of obedient “blind trust” in God but worries about his nephew Lot and manages to nag and reason at God in prayer, trying to bargain God down from the extreme idea of destroying cities. I like this Abraham a lot better than the far-right Abraham a few chapters later who agrees to sacrifice his child blindly to the same God, but even here I feel he wimps out of saying what is really on his mind.

 

How often do we bite our tongue and retreat into the “right words” and liturgies instead of daring to have necessary conflict with God?

 

Yes conflict.

 

If we present a falsely compliant face that is not an honest relationship.

 

In the second reading we are reminded that God is not out to test us, or trap us into proving we are “unworthy” of love or anything like that. Even if there was ever a time when we were unworthy, ignorant, unaware, uncaring or distracted from the reign of God (and most times we have some of this “deadness” somewhere in our lives) even then God was already working to call us and raise us and make us one in redeemed life. So then we need to get courageous about our faith and about our prayer. We need to dare to seek joy and justice from God. We need to really speak our mind in prayer.

 

Then we can trust in God’s willingness to work with our limits, and transform our half-heartedness.

 

I want to read the gospel as simply as I did as a child. I want to believe that if I pray long enough and persistently enough and fervently enough God will fix all my problems and make life on earth a Utopian dream. I’ll mention that to avoid the pious clause “if it is God’s will” because when I pray I am NOT going to fake submission to things I don’t like. It is NOT alright with me that an increasingly irrelevant magisterium of the church puts limits on how the rest of us are supposed to live with God, while too often blinking at the very real problems of climate change, wide-spread inequality, abuses and disenfranchisement of the faithful. I am NOT going to be philosophical about the difficulties of finding work, or the fears for my children or the terror for the children on Manus Island. Not to God. Never again will I hide behind doormat-dispositions with the God who knows me better than that.

 

But we know that we don’t always get what we ask for. So why do we ask for it?

 

What do we get out of prayer?

 

How do we continue to believe that God loves creation enough to give us what we need, not a snake or a scorpion?

 

If I had an easy answer here I would share it with you. The gospel to me seems clear that we DO need to pray and we do need to bring our real agendas to God. The first reading reminded us that it is ok to get out of pious formulas of the “right words” and make it real.

 

The second reading reassures us that God wants us enough to do some of the work of relating, that it is not all down to us to get it right.

 

I invite you now to sit with these readings, and your own experiences of prayer in any way that seems best to you, and then take a moment to share your reflections with the people around you.

The “better part” in a world that doesn’t get it

It seems like over the centuries nothing much has changed. As Amos had God saying back in the time of the first reading, so we could easily believe God would start an angry rant today:

” Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,”

These are “good business-men” according to the values of 2016, they are very concerned with efficiency. They want the holidays (holy days) to be over so they can get back to making money, they alter the measures to give themselves a better profit margin. Any multi-national of today would gladly welcome such canny entrepreneurs into its fold! But these days the disease has spread. Schools and hospitals, care centres, churches and even charities feel the pressure to behave the same way. Everything we have is commodified and then watered down to make it cheap to produce and sell.

The needy are trampled upon, the land is ruined like never before. So if God was angry then, what might God be feeling now (no point in saying Jesus’ death cancelled out all of that, since Jesus never said that social justice was obsolete, or that his death came to replace our responsibility for how we live).

But we do slowly compromise our beliefs to get along in this very difficult and cynical society: “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

God notices and God does not overlook this. The rest of the reading is full of dire threats against the escapist sties of excess of the rich.:”The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.”

And is that not what we experience when we bury ourselves in lavish but empty lifestyles and pursuits? Having been quite well off, and recently having experienced a lack of many things that would make life easier, I have been brought face to face with the best and worst in people. Many people have dealt very generously with me, and that puts me to shame because I know that when I am well off, I forget a little about the suffering of others.

But none of us should forget the homeless in this hideous winter weather (a bus station is better than the street but still woefully inadequate when the wind howls and the rain floods). None of us should forget the children in large classes, with inadequate learning materials and exhausted teachers. It may not be my child, but it ought not to be anyone’s child. None of us should neglect the ill or the old or the mentally ill, or those who were kicked off their centrelink payments just in time for the school holidays, so that their children will go back to school with nothing to talk about the holidays apart from how cold and hungry and scared they were.

My challenge is to help people more than I do, but our collective challenge also is to change these systems, because increasingly there is too much hardship for one person’s charity to reach (and world-wide the situation is even more bleak). As God (via Amos) reminds us that the land itself has been oppressed we need to look at atrocities like fracking, nuclear weapons, excessive consumption, genetic manipulation of seeds to maximise control and profit, cynical versions of medical research, fossil fuels….the reality that we have already changed the global climate in extremely dangerous ways.

The apocalyptic message of night and day becoming skewed and wide-spread lamenting seems quite close to hand and God in the reading seems to vow that the wilfully blindly privileged will not remain untouched by this curse they are calling down. The psalm jeers at those who are foolish enough to take refuge in their excessive wealth instead of God. But the “righteous”, presumably the one who seeks God’s values for living is like an olive (judging by the olive trees I never planted, that are taking over my yard this means tenacious and resilient). Somehow withing all the apocalyptic possibilities before us we trust in the steadfast LOVE of God.

That love has never meant easy answers, or that we are off the hook. But in some way we may not yet be able to grasp it translates into hope for those who DO speak up for the poor and for the earth. The second reading adds evidence for this. We have Christ’s headship and ongoing presence making the best out of us, turning us back from evil ways to redeemed possibilities (I cannot see how, but the hope is there). But our hope is part of or faith, both things we need to steadfastly hold onto. Some aspects of this are mystery, we do not know everything. Wisdom in the second reading consists of trusting God and turning toward God’s way of life, listening to the warnings and teachings to achieve a “mature” faith.

Finally the gospel.

This is one of the ones that at times I have grappled with. Because what makes Mary so special? It seems really rough on Martha that she is excluded from the ease of Jesus and the apostles. Granted I can’t see that it would be better if Mary also had to do the “shit work”. But I can’t blame Martha for being angry that she has been left with all the work. I enjoyed a book called “Through a Woman’s eyes: encounters with Jesus” by Chris Burke that I read several years ago that put a different possibility on this story, with some of the male apostles being less entitled and helping Martha out so that Mary could have her connection and teaching from Jesus. To me those sort of imaginative possibilities are helpful but in the context of today’s readings I can see another twist to it too.

Ignoring questions of gender (and I realise we can’t always do this) and relegating Jesus and the apostles to background in the power-play between Mary and Martha, I put myself into the place of Martha (easy for someone like me to do). I am resentful, jealous, tired. I resort to judging because I am not getting what I need. If I then read Mary as a special little flower who has more important things to do than help me then I remain angry! But the fact is I don’t know about Mary. I have not walked in her shoes. I do not know her inner battles, her exhaustion, her background or why she needs to simply sit at the feet of Jesus, drawing in healing, life, teaching.

So my challenge (still as Martha) is to get my needs met in a way that does not judge Mary. I don’t think that this is a perfect way of reading this episode of the gospels, but it becomes relevant to the other readings of the week if we consider our society’s suspicious and grudging attitudes towards artists, thinkers, “dole bludgers”, the disabled or single parents. We feel envy and resentment at how hard we need to work and the fact that others are given what they need whether they appear (to us) to have earned it or not. We are beginning to teach ourselves to see taxes NOT as a public good, but as our hard-earned cash that ought to deliver a measurable good to ME the individual consumer. Instead of thinking about what is missing in our own lives (more family time, leisure, creative expression, meaningful connection, spirituality) we can get caught up in feeling self-righteous about how unpleasant it feels to “have to” be an economic participant in such a flawed society and losing our compassion in the fear that added pressures will be put on us, or that something will be taken away.

I have felt like this. It is related to the panic that people from overseas will come and drive down our minimum wage and take away our (seemingly) inadequate share of the cake.

Martha’s thinking is twisted because she says “make Mary work” instead of “I need to find a way to spend less effort so that I too can come and connect in with the Word and have Life”. We ought to have compassion for Martha because I feel that we all make that mistake one way or the other when we look at “others”. But as Jesus explains, Martha does not fully understand what is going on with Mary (or the possibility that she could and should have it too).

Jesus reminds us to look at ourselves, and get our own priorities right instead of trying to take away the joys, interests and vocation of others. I don’t think he is endorsing the exploitation of Martha (and if he is I would quarrel with him). In Amos we see the devastation that comes when people’s wrong priorities are allowed to fester into selfishness, and their skills go into getting ahead instead of getting along. The psalm echoes this and reminds us that our safety is in God not in wealth. Colossians reminded us that hope comes from coming to Jesus with a steadfastness.

All of us have things in our lives we could cut back on or slow down on to focus on relating and to redirect ourselves toward hope. All of us have people like Martha, who judge us when we don’t “look busy” or compete at mundane things. Perhaps we also have the tendency to show off unimportant things instead of just relating, and to try to control the contribution of others.

What is the “better part” and how do we choose it? How do we also free up our sisters (Marthas) and others to have some “better part” in their own lives too?

 

 

 

Give justice, rescue, do likewise

Plumb lines are for measuring depth. I am afraid the depth of my commitment to this reading may not be worth plumbing considering the rape culture in verse 17. Sure we are supposed to look beyond it, as women we are always meant to blink at the alienating and the outright creepy and defend the honour of the patriarchal text. But just as Amos cannot get away from who he really is (a herdsman and a dresser of trees) I am really a woman and a feminist and I cannot too whole-heartedly jump on board a text that talks about a man being punished through sexual dishonour and servitude for his wife and violent death for his children.Especially when this is a punishement threatened by a tantruming, petulant God.

God, in all honestly I expect better behaviour than that for you, and I will be ready to listen to you when you come back with a reasonable attitude instead of threats and abuse toward others. Let’s see if there is something in the other readings…

God’s “judgement” in the psalm is more to the point. We are called out of our own inappropriate behaviours and unfair dealings with others (fair enough God, that’s a valid criticism).

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” God is calling us to get political again, because rescuing the weak and needy is more than personal morality or niceness. Our transformative attitude needs a sweeping focus, it is not enough (herdsmen and dressers of trees) to hide behind our ordinary life, our ordinary skills and our small sphere of influence. And if society is hard to change it is because:
“They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness;”

So it seems that we have a responsibility always to do what we can, to speak the truth and to try to change the way people think towards (once again) God’s interests.

My inbox is full of Richard di Natale thanking me as part of the team that worked so ahrd in the lead-up to the election. This is how Paul comes across in Colossians. By recognition and thanks toward one of the communities, the distant Paul is brought closer to the community and the community is affirmed in their work and their identity, encouraged to persist when at times it surely must be hard. But unlike a modern political leader, Paul grounds the whole operation back in Christ.

In Paul’s way of thinking, transformation according to the will of God is achieved through prayer (which also increases connections between people) and a spirit of gratefulness for each other toward God. All our hope is in something bigger than an election, or a social movement, or a specific policy. We are “rescued from the power of darkness” by God, we become something new that is not fated to always set up injustice as systemic. We are citizens also of the reign of God, redeemed. it’s not clear here how it unfolds, however it seems to be unfolding through Paul’s loving and supportive words for the people of Colossae (whether it is actually Paul writing or not is not the point). So perhaps we can affirm and thank each other to spread a sense of hope and possibility.

But what must we do? how do we access this light and this hope?

In the gospel Jesus tells a story of a man who is beaten up and left for dead. He slips between the cracks as far as the organised religion is concerned, the priest and Levite cannot offer the ministry that is needed. Perhaps the man was gay? Perhaps he was Muslim? Maybe he just wasn’t from the right side of the tracks, or the right creed, or could not engage with the right sort of liturgy. Maybe the Catholic guilt got to him and he beat himself up and abandoned himself on the side of the road. At any rate that is what I did.

Some unclean Samaritan walked past. Or some unclean feminist. Or some atheist maybe, some sort of unbeliever. Outsider, heretic, “other”. What on earth are we expected to think when the wrong people help us? When the wrong people minister to us? When we rediscover our faith through the sorts of adventures that we were always told don’t happen to good little Catholic girls? But the Samaritan who is really neighbour goes to great lengths to offer practical support, not just comforting words. he makes a long-term commitment to see this through. A filthy Samaritan does all this? What are we supposed to think? Are there no standards these days?

But when Jesus turns this puzzle back onto the cleverly questioning lawyer, the lawyer does not say “the Samaritan” because he has been converted to seeing that the only part of the person’s identity that matters is his identity as “the one who shows mercy”. So that is that. We see who it is that is showing mercy and we know who the good guys are!

But Jesus flips it again. This is not just about including the right people, about recognising the good of others. “Go and do likewise” he says. He says it to the lawyer he is talking to but maybe also to the priest and the Levite in his story. That really would be transformative wouldn’t it, if there were no cracks to fall through to begin with, and the Samaritan merely joined the story to help what the priest and Levite were already doing?

Interesting also that in so far as we are the rejected or excluded, this parable clearly shows that we are in no way let off from God’s call, just because we ourselves are “Samaritans”.

So my question would be how do we do likewise? How do we accept valid criticism (as Amaziah in the first reading didn’t)? How do we judge our work by the standards in the psalm (the extent to which we stand up for the poor and needy). How do we offer thanks and support to the people in our lives who do this work (whether they are insiders or outsiders)? Who do we see beaten up by circumstances, or even by their own flawedness and lying helpless on the side of the road to life?

If I see a way this week to live answers to any of these questions then I pray to God for the courage and wisdom to do so. Because the opportunity to do this work is truly “the inheritance of the saints in the light.”