Tag Archives: Sirach

I haven’t Blogged much lately. I’ve been thinking about writing things but work just keeps me too busy. But I was on the roster at church this week and managed to throw together a reflection on the readings. I used these first reading, psalm and gospel and added in Marina by T.S. Eliot (an old favourite of mine as regular readers know) as the 2nd reading.

I spoke without having written down my thoughts, because now that I teach and lecture that seems easier than reading…but later I reconstructed more-or-less what I had said. I also used a “Eucharistic prayer” that I wrote back in March but hadn’t had an opportunity to use today. It’s been sitting in a cupboard at church with noone aware it exists. It focusses on the earth.

Here  is my “reflection” on the readings:

I grew up with a “face value” reading of today’s gospel which I didn’t (in retrospect) find very helpful. In this way of thinking the Pharisee was wrong for thinking so highly of himself, whereas the tax collector was to be emulated as being humble and not thinking well of himself. I cultivated my low self esteem carefully, thinking it was virtuous to do so. It became self-hate and was quite a toxic thing to live with. I want to be careful today not to repeat the same mistake, to look with a more nuanced eye at today’s parable.

Parables are not simple surface-level morality tales anyway. They are meant to deeply challenge us, to niggle away at the things we think we know and invite us to come deeper, experiencing otherness rather than analysing it from the sidelines. Our experience of a parable should be a long journey of learning not a point of revelation or answers. Today’s section of the journey will be looking through the lens of the first reading. When the lectionary gives us groups of readings it is an invitation to consider them together and in light of each other.

So I will look back on Sirach. This reading is about God being responsive and empathetic to the plight of any who suffer from not being heard or having their needs disregarded.  God desires justice and will advocate for the widow and the socially, materially or emotionally vulnerable. The reading also has teeth- although I don’t like the violence sometimes present in the Hebrew scriptures I feel there is a risk when we sanitise our tradition too much. God break’s scepters, acts with anger and destruction toward those who hold unjust power. From our vantage point in a wealthy, overconsuming, exploitative country we would do well not to sanitise this part of our faith out.

But the focus is certainly comfort for the oppressed. God is not neutral is clearly taking sides here. This is consistent with a 20th century Catholic teaching that used to be spoken about more- that God has a “preferential option for the poor”. God is present in the relationships and angry at the inequities of our social world.

So if we take this social justice focus back to the gospel, how to we view the two men in Jesus’ parable? The pharisee is not wrong to think well of himself and his achievements, but he is displaying a faith that is performative rather than relational. His focus is on impressing other people, comparing himself and feeling superior to others who he can pre-judge at a glance. He has filled in all his spiritual KPIs but become separated from other human beings.

The tax-collector has no such shield against the world. He has come to God with his vulnerability, his knowledge of his own failings. I am probably projecting a modern-day understanding onto him if I talk about his awareness of privilege, but I will try to explore that idea in view of what tax-collectors were and did in Jesus’ day. The Roman Empire used to impose taxes on the people- these could be crippling, and the men who collected them added their own fee to the tax they collected. They were hated in part because people hated paying the taxes, but also because many of them may have added on an exorbitant fee and so enriched themselves.

A tax-collector then might be caught between the competing demands of his family (who will struggle or starve without his income) and the injustice and imbalance of the empire’s taxes and perhaps his own added fees. He is caught up in a system of injustice and oppression, not just caught up in a web of dependency but maybe even benefiting from it. We know this too, that although there is much that is wrong with the world these days we are often the ones who benefit from the inequitable distribution of wealth and the exploitation and demonisation of others. The tax collector brings his awareness and his worry to God, not able to find answers but showing a willingness to let God inform and infuse his life for a better future. Jesus says that he rather than the escapist priest is the one “justified”.

What does this mean? How does it help to be “justified”?

What is it that we come to church for?

Dare we be honest and less than shiny before God…and what does this look like?

If God listens to the poor and oppressed, what is our role in all of this?

There are no answers in the back of the book, but we can reflect on these challenges and share our thoughts with each other.

Rushed thoughts from the midst of the chaos

Welcome to the sieve that is life, that will shake you up and demonstrate what quality you are as a person, as a God-being-image, as an agent who thinks and speaks and embodies values. So goes the first reading. I have seen much of this lately, people being shaken and the best or worst of them appear. I am working on being kind and tolerant of people who are flawed when shaken and thus able to cope with my own limitations too. Some people surprise and inspire me even under the greatest pressure. I would like to have that sort of courage and integrity. Based on picking up values from people we choose to spend time with and listen to I guess I have a chance of developing that way.

The psalm continues in this vein, telling us to be grateful to God and to keep our integrity because ultimately we will thrive or perish according to the health of our values and our inner self. I am not sure that real life always demonstrates this well, but on the other hand I was cheered when in answer to a question about her “legacy” at Writers Week Gillian Triggs said “I don’t think I am anywhere near finished yet”!!!

Maybe this is what: “They shall bear fruit even in old age” means.

I myself feel so week and fearful and dependant on others but maybe I can learn. Triggs talked of being mentored and supported at times, she talked of benefitting from systems that were there to support her. None of us can do it alone and I need to have some faith in the integrity (spoken and lived) of the people who are in my life.

The second reading talks about our human preoccupation with the deaths and hurts of this life but claims that through God we can hope through that to a greater depth of meaning and success. We have to find the incorruptible, immortal things to clothe ourselves in, and the implication is that these are values. We must be “firm, steadfast and fully devoted” to God’s work, but let’s remember that God’s work is not nitpicking the lifestyles of others but upholding the vulnerable (the “widow and orphan”) and loving those who need our love, calling to account the powerful (see eg the Magnificat), feeding and healing the world in LOVE. We must have integrity even in how we treat our enemies, we can attack the position and corruptibility of people like Cardinal Pell and decry the words of people like Andrew Bolt, but it is not God’s work to personally attack these people (although when victims of their crimes do it we should be understanding).

Death is swallowed up in the victory, the immortality (“legacy” if you like) of the good work we do. I want to think of immortality as some good people have left or are leaving the university I got work at, where I would have liked them to continue on and mentor and befriend me. Some people do remain who understand what has been achieved and my task is to hold firm. Things of value are larger than one person, they are larger than human cycles of loss and death. Meaning is never something we hold forever but always something we must chase and wrestle with and contest with others and find in fragments.

I don’t like that it is always so difficult, but the tone of the readings is comforting, that God will reward all our efforts even if the world does not.

The gospel mocks me for my reliance on my teachers. They also are human and “blind” as I am and I must learn to be equal to them and work like them not simply follow them (not even heroes like Gillian Triggs). The other side of the coin is that I as a teacher and a leader should not be grand about my own status, but should accept the rights of people to disagree with me, challenge me and find their own way to work alongside and not beneath me. It’s easy to always criticise others instead of looking at how we can contribute something of worth, or at what is blocking us from doing better.

But reassuringly if we are good and healthy on the inside (grounded in values) if we are fruit of a good tree (a tradition, a person, a way of being) then we in turn will produce good fruit. We will speak the truth of what we truly believe which is what we truly are. I will seek to embody (and ensoul) in myself love and radical, healing hope.

I am afraid for the future but God’s will be done. I will learn to stand fast!

Holiness, families, connection, otherness

The first reading today, is a couple of disjointed passages from a longer section where surprise, surprise the father (patriarch) of a household is setting up his own wellbeing and interests as “God’s law” over his children. There is a section defining the parent’s power over children as natural and right, God’s will, then he sensibly looks ahead to a future time when he may be feeble or have dementia and sets up taking care of him them as a virtue for his children.

While I agree that looking after the old with compassion and respect is virtuous, as a whole this piece of writing leaves me cynical and disconnected from my tradition. I want to look for holiness instead at real holy families I know… two women who defy their church and some of their relatives to give loyalty and nurture to each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer…” and let their mutual love outflow to their communities… a single mother on the barest pittance who struggles to put food on the table but always finds some change or a cigarette for any homeless person who asks her, and refuses to give up her World Vision sponsored child…the couple who take turns running for election or supporting each other’s efforts, who work together to manage their household finances, chores, child rearing, extensive political involvement, gardening and still find time to each have personal interests and entertain friends (how do they do it all?)…the single person who knows s/he (I know more than one of these)is on a good income and looks for opportunities to be generous and transformative with their money, even while enjoying a good standard of life themselves…the elderly people whose love for their own (now grown up) children spills over into grandchildren and others who they can mentor, support, encourage…the teachers who are like family in the way they see and respond to an emotional need…the nurses who heal more than a physical wound by lingering or listening for a (precious and scarce) moment longer than they have to…the chef who finds an excuse to feed people even beyond the call of duty…the boss who genuinely cares about how unique her employees are and their individual needs and issues…the now separated or divorced couple who remain friends for the sake of their child, or add encouragement and support to the ex, rather than bitterness and judgement…”

And there are broken families too of course, people betrayed, abandoned, insecure, criticised, misunderstood, neglected…all families are Christ’s family whether we approve of them or not, whether we can see the life-giving potential in them ore not.

To extend this logically, the family called “the church” which is also extremely flawed and at times abusive is Christ’s family too…

The second reading starts off well, with all the advice about loving and forgiving each other, but also ends up devolving into patriarchal family hierarchies. Husbands over wives, parents over children. I don’t want to rehash all the apologetics here about “this is actually liberative for its time and culture because it is two-sided.” Maybe, maybe not but I am reading it on the threshold of 2018 and this way of putting it does NOT liberate someone who has experienced being a child and then a wife. As a lay-person in a church where there is so much power and authority accorded to clergy I am wary of this asymmetrical two-sided responsibility where my responsibility to obey is supposed to mesh with someone else’s responsibility to nurture me. That has often not been the way it has panned out. I also added back in here the verse the lectionary has swept under the carpet, because I think it illustrates our need for caution with texts.

God created all humans with intelligence, will, agency; it in no way makes sense for some to give up their own ability to reason, choose and decide and to hand that power over to others.

I am digging in my heels at these reading with a big fat NOPE.

In the context of these two readings, the gospel seems a little bit oppressive too. Here is Jesus’ family following tradition, celebrating his maleness and first-borness by killing some pigeons. I understand that this is not my culture and I try to bite my tongue as I read it (but there were those other readings to set the tone for me to resist this too). So here they are doing everything that is “prescribed” and Jesus’ specialness is affirmed by people outside the family, people important within their religious community.

As someone who never got to be “special”, as “only a girl” I can watch it from the outside but this story has never really captured my imagination much, nor has it given me any sort of useful concept of “holiness” so that as a child this feast-day was more of a puzzle to me than anything else. I was a pious little goody-goody so I took it for granted that they were holy, I was not and my role in the faith always was to obey and follow- never any more.

But when I was pregnant myself (no longer a child by then) I thought a lot about Mary and her struggles, about Joseph and his ability in other parts of the gospel to put his family radically first (which is pretty transgressive in a patriarchal context). I thought of Jesus’ contradictory attitudes toward his own family- now clear affection, now a seeming desire to escape and deny…of his need to be more than his origins or pedigree, of his resistance to being subsumed in domesticity or family expectations. Leaving the security of the family leads to the cross; the cross might have broken Jesus’ body, but imagine the wreckage it wrought to Mary’s heart?

I prayed that none of my children would ever in any way or in any movement be a “Messiah” and yet I also knew that whatever they were or were not, despite the first and second readings of today I would neither choose nor control. The holiness of “family” then, must lie somewhere in that contradiction between individual agency and call, and collective support, love, acceptance of one another. We yearn as human beings both to connect and to be free. We can achieve so little alone, as a pure individual and yet perhaps the most frustrating and perennial challenge is the attempt to be understood by each other (and the pain of stopping our own knowledge and emotions in their tracks long enough to know another).

So on this feast of the holy family, I look at my own flawed self as a mother of sons, as a sister and daughter, aunt and cousin and friend. I look at my single-state, my difficulty with managing intimacy in my life, but miraculously the relative stability of my friendships. I offer a prayer of thanks for the people who have with-held judgement (or even advice) and have offered encouragement and practical help, fostering my slow growth.

I anticipate my need for more- necessary but slow and painful growth to better relationships and the best inspiration I can find in tradition can only be the prayer of St Francis,

Divine Wisdom make me an instrument of your peace,

where there is injury let me sow pardon,

where there is hatred, let me sow love,

where there is confusion, let me bring Wisdom,

(God I know the original said something different but I mean to bring creative doubt to over-certain faith as much as reassuring faith to toxic doubt)

where there is sadness, let me bring joy

where there is darkness let me bring your light

(and as a three-year old once pointed out where there is too much light let me bring the rest and peace of your darkness)

and to despair let me always show the chance of hope.

Oh beautiful and loving One teach me always to seek

more to console others than to need consolation,

more to listen and understand than just to be heard and understood

especially when I have privilege in worldly terms.

Teach me not to be needy in matters of love but to be generous and ready to pour out and be poured out in love.

 

Let me know with you that it is in giving that we receive

it is in pardoning and making allowances for others that we lose our own guilt and complicity in sin,

and somehow, in some hard to comprehend,

miraculous way

even death is not final as our eternal vocation is into You.

 

Make me an instrument, a way for you to play the music

that is peace and healing

to all.

Amen.

The law? Integrity, liberation and who we really are.

I shred this reflection at church today based on these readings. It may have been too long but it represents about to weeks of agonisingly trying to reduce my complicated thoughts on this to a manageable size (and then trust others to fill in the blanks as well or better than I could).

 

What does it mean that the Spirit scrutinises even the depths of God?

 

I came to these readings with a feeling of suspicion toward their legalistic tone: long gone are the days when I could view any text as innocent. Everything that is written serves someone’s interests. I’ll leave aside the question of whose interests scripture might serve as that is a big question and one we probably wouldn’t all agree on, but the lectionary also is a text- the juxtaposition of particular readings is not inevitable and has helped to build the histories of interpretation that we are born and brought up in.

 

Ideas of law seem to me to be linked with power and I have not always experienced these positively from the church. People can find themselves outside the church for such trivial reasons. My great aunt could never receive communion again because she married for a second time while her first husband (taken away by an invading army years before) was never proven dead. As a child I learned that all the divorcees and gay and lesbian people in perfectly stable and functional relationships were considered to be in sin (and the outrage of some gossiping Christians that people “like that” come to church). We continue to hear with shame, hard-line rules against simple necessities like contraception, and we know there is a link between this and other archaic laws like barring women from being clergy.

But then it seems like the law that is so stringent on some, is more easy on others. George Pell seems very resistant to returning to face the secular law, which is interesting because his public voice has always been so legalistic in tone. When I consider the tendency for powerful men to escape consequences for whatever they do, then I realise I am not quite so anti-law in my own thinking and I can dive back into the first reading.

Think of all the calls for “de-regulation” these days, of the ideal that is preached of “freedom”. What a harsh sort of a freedom that is, the freedom of the market.  Basically in this world-view governments and societies will stop interfering with the flow of capital so that those who are rich and unscrupulous can be even more free to exploit, lie and cheat as they want. Protecting vulnerable humans or the environment would be a thing of the past in this terrible freedom.

The first reading compares law with fire and water. Fire can mean warmth, safety, togetherness, the ability to cook our food, light. Water can mean refreshment, cleanliness, peace, life. Law also can bring us together and build society fostering right relationship.

Fire can get out of control and mean burning, danger, death. Water can become storms, tidal waves, ruthlessness and also death. Law that is out of control we experience as oppressive power- it rips apart individuals and relationships. But despite the dangers of law it remains as significant as water and fire. Noone is to be given license to be unjust or harm each other.

I might have hoped that the second reading would tell me what the good law is- how to recognise it and maybe seven easy steps to follow to always be right. Not so. The law in this reading is according to a mysterious and hidden Wisdom of God. My heart leaps there she is again, we know Wisdom from other readings her values seem to be liberation and generosity although she is hard to follow and impossible to pin down.

It was unawareness of Wisdom which resulted in the death of Jesus. The need to put to death opposition, to silence critical voices and to maintain the status quo against all threats is a need counter to the agenda of renewing refreshing Wisdom. This is good news when I am the critical voice but the challenge is to remember it when I have worked hard to make something that seems to me good and someone else has an unpalatable opinion to share. It is significant that the reading talks about “this age” in the present tense. It is always “this age” when the voices that try to bring Wisdom’s compassion and liberation to a hurting world are silenced, trivialised or in extreme cases persecuted (content warning on the last link).

So there is no blueprint for knowing Wisdom, no infallibility given in any power that sets itself up over us. But the Spirit works for us to scrutinise all things, even the depths of God. Within Godself we find a deep integrity and an ability to be reflexive and process questioning from “the other”. We find that “otherness” even within the very identity of who God is. To anyone who has experienced being the “outsider” in some way this is unbelievably good news.

 

This gospel sometimes gets read as a sort of divine nit-picking by Jesus, a raising of standards for who can qualify as “good”. I don’t think this is an entirely fair reading. Jesus may be inviting us to reflect on the purpose behind a law, to enter into the spirit not just the letter of a law that coming from Wisdom must be aimed at transforming who we are to the depths of our being. The key here seems to be right relationships- responding to people in all situations with respect and love, speaking with honesty and not letting negative feelings fester and eat us up from the inside.

There may be hyperbola in the specifics, (as an enneagram 4, I see a sort of grandiose over-the top desperation to be heard here) but aside from that, the connection between what we do and who we authentically are may apply.

 

If you are on facebook and linked in with the left-side of politics you might have seen how the growing fear and dissatisfaction with many leaders has fostered a gleeful slogan: “punch a nazi”. This expresses the despairing frustration of many, as xenophobic and regressive ideas gain a foothold in society but it glorifies violence and reifies a “good guys vs bad guys” view of the world which probably does more harm than good.

The gospel acknowledges that the temptation within us can be to let anger and despair change who we are and how we treat people. Most of the people saying this awful slogan, would probably not really punch another person but Jesus in today’s gospel seems to be saying something that Foucault would agree with that we construct ourselves within discourses (both in our own heads and outwardly) and we become the ideas we circulate.

I hope you will enjoy entering into a moment of silence with these readings, or in whatever way is best for you.

We have an opportunity now to think over our own reactions and relationship to the law and Wisdom of God! We have a chance to think about our identity within ourselves and our dealings with others. Relationship moves from within each of us to others, so after some time in silence please if you wish share your thoughts with each other.

 

 

Living in sin

Today I went to uni to try to work on my so far unpublished article. I have a habit when my brain gets clouded and my body feels cramped of getting up and walking around the lake as quickly as I can to revitalise my body which hopefully makes my brain work again (at least it used to). This time people kept interrupting. Interesting people like the lovely Marxist that wanted me to go to a feminist meeting and some kindhearted young Muslim men who wanted me to attend their “exhibition” the little I saw of it seemed similar to a church service in some ways but with cultural differences. But I resisted all that because time is ticking on my article.

But I couldn’t resist my friend. This was a young man who I know from political circles. He is a lot more involved than I am and works extremely hard in that and he called me by name and asked me how I was and suggested that I needed to sit with him a moment. I was torn because this was my one precious day to study (work had already called me in for tomorrow) but I sat and we chatted.

He eventually shared with me that he had broken up with his boyfriend.I shouldn’t share too many details about someone else’s story (although it was interesting) but one of the causes of the break-up was that the ex-boyfriend (who I think my friend still has feelings of care and perhaps even desire for) “kept thinking he was going to hell for being gay”. Neither of the young men would say they were religious, neither is a member of the church but the one thing they have picked up is this idea of God rejecting them for who and what they are and sending them to hell.

 

Then this young man told me about another friend who travelled to another country to make a life with his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s family. It would have been an act of trust and courage to make this journey, but in my friend’s words “he got dumped”. The bitter thing about this situation was that once again it was because of the family’s religious convictions, because the partner had to hide his true nature and because of talk of “sin” and “hell” that this young man got thrown out by the man he loved.

I realise that we all suffer disappointments in love (whether our partners or our children, our parents or our friends at some time we are all going to feel rejected by someone). We all feel devastated by the loss and the abandonment when someone ends a relationship or moves away or dies and we all keep living and return to loving. And I seriously hope that all these young men will have better experiences next time. But will we let them? Will society allow them to just be? Will the church honour the God who created and loved them rather than some traditional bogeyman in the sky who rejects and condemns?

So then my friend asked me, “Do you believe in it all?”

“In God?” I asked, “I’m a Christian, even though I am a lesbian.”

“No I know” he said “Do you believe in sin”

I didn’t expect the question so I didn’t answer it well. Because yes I do believe in sin but I don’t believe that those boys trying to make meaningful long-term relationships with someone they love is “sin” by any reasonable definition.

I ought to have said that “sin” is in placing needless obstacles in front of people, whether we are preventing a refugee family from settling in our country, preventing a single mum from having enough money to feed her children or preventing a young woman from accessing birth control. Sin is in taking something as beautiful as the love between two friends/lovers and turning it into the fear of hell and the choice to be estranged from your partner or your family and community.Sin is whatever dismantles and blocks the reign of God, it can happen within us when we love ourselves exclusively and disregard others; or when we hate ourselves and get overly critical or neglectful of the first person God trusted into our care (the self).

It is sin to forget to “love my neighbour” who may be different than myself but in God is another “self” to me.

Sin is a lot of things but it is not two lovely boys enjoying a physical dimension to the love they bear each other (nor two women, nor one of each). Sin doesn’t hide in specific sexual acts while we have license to unravel social supports for others and pursue hyper-individualism. I reject that version of religion and God. My God told me she was love. And those boys deserve to be accepted in love.

All of this happened before I had a chance to look at this week’s readings, but I think it fits with them. The hubris of the Pharisee who goes to church all the time and feels superior to the “other” blocks us from God’s grace. Because I AM like the rest of humanity and am implicated in their suffering while I stand idly by or even profit.

God in the first reading hears the cry of the oppressed whatever walk of life they may be in and responds to them. In the second reading the one who was rejected and abandoned by the church community but served God well is vindicated.

The church is heard as a threat and a condemnation on LGB/PT people. It has a loud voice in doing this. I know of a good church family who fail to acknowledge that one of their beloved daughters is in a stable and life-giving relationship with another woman. They have to choose between looking as self-righteous as the Pharisee in the gospel, or losing face to minister to their daughter and welcome a potential daughter-in-law. If they chose on behalf of their daughter and daughter’s partner, they would in all probability lose their community (as the girls did). How can the church do this to people?

We used to take pride that we would be known as Christ’s disciples by the way we show love to others (John 13:35). What happened to that?

I cannot doubt that there is grave “sin” here.