Bible · faith

We Step Outside The Text

My brain hurts!
I’m reading in Jeremiah … a short passage today (Jeremiah 43:1-7), raises some interesting and challenging questions.

Let me first summarise what’s happening and then think about the intent of those who wrote the text. I guess this is all about how we view scripture and how it comes to us.

Basically this is what’s happened: The forces of Babylon have finally overcome Israel and taken off most of the people into captivity in Babylon. However, there is a remnant who are still left and they are trying to decide whether to give in to The Babylonians or run to Egypt for help.

The prophet Jeremiah has been warning Israel that God’s way, and their only hope, was to surrender to Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon. (The defeat of Israel is God’s judgment for neglecting God’s commands to care for the weakest – the widow, the orphan and the stranger).

Two of the leaders of the remnant group, Azariah and Johanan, ask Jeremiah to pray to God for guidance.

Jeremiah’s answer is that God’s word is still the same. Stay in Jerusalem. If they truly want to learn to listen to God’s way, this is what they must do. But this is not what Johanan and Azariah wanted to hear.

Azariah son of Hoshaiah and Johanan son of Kareah and all the other insolent men said to Jeremiah, ‘You are telling a lie. The Lord our God did not send you to say, “Do not go to Egypt to settle there”’ ….

(In reality, they had probably already decided that they were going to lead the people to Egypt, whatever Jeremiah said, in the belief that they would be safe there).

The outcome of all this is that they ignore Jeremiah’s warning that going to Egypt will end in disaster. They decide to go to Egypt and take Jeremiah with them – possibly of his own free will, or maybe as a captive as he was against the plan – it’s not clear

Johanan son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces took all the remnant of Judah … everyone …. the men, the women, the children and the princesses, and came into the land of Egypt, for they did not obey the voice of the Lord.

Now … let’s step outside the text for a minute. The authors of Jeremiah are among those deported to exile in Babylon. It is during the years in exile that much of the Old Testament is written. They write from the point of view that the exile is indeed God’s judgment, and that they must use the years in exile to reflect on past failures and seek to be more faithful to God’s word.

So, as we think about the intent of the authors, it’s reasonable to suppose that they want to claim that they are the true remnant of Israel and not the group that ended up in Egypt. Their position is that they are the community that God has chosen to take forward.

So now … I’m thinking about the process that brought the text to us … a process that would have included some editing and in the end a decision that this was indeed God’s word to Israel.

Those who considered the book of Jeremiah as having authority, and included it in the Hebrew Scriptures have a particular point of view. That is … it is the voice of Jeremiah that needs to be heard.

We know that all reporting of an event is told from a point of view. There is no such thing as a totally impartial observer. In the same way, the text of Jeremiah witnesses to the conflict between Jeremiah and the Royal house of Israel, but it is not a neutral voice.

The account is presented as both political reporting and theological fidelity. No doubt there are times when political reporting is not faithful to God’s word. I would take the view that Christians who are determined to support the gun lobby, or the interests of oil and gas companies are not being faithful to the teaching of scripture.

The book of Jeremiah is presenting a political point of view and claiming that they are being faithful theologically. The authors are not neutral voices. They take up a particular standpoint. In this chapter it is that those who go to seek refuge in Egypt are being disobedient to God’s voice.

As we read it, we have a choice about what view we take. Do we trust the process that has resulted in the book as we have it ? Do we side with Jeremiah or Johanan and Azariah in this account ?

Perhaps the most important thing we can say is that the values Jeremiah holds are ones that we too want to follow. The word that comes up very often is ‘listen.’ The Hebrew word doesn’t just mean hear with your ears, it means pay attention and act accordingly. Listening is active and leads to being obedient to God’s word.

We might think that hearing God’s voice is tricky … In situations where we need guidance that might be true, but as far as understanding how we are to live, we have quite enough to go on. Perhaps the key is to make sure that we develop practices that lead to all being treated fairly and with compassion.

Activism · Bible · faith · Political · World Affairs

How To Avert The Crisis

There’s a passage I’ve been reading in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them— 9 that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery. 10 And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that all would set free their slaves, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again; they obeyed and set them free. 11 But afterwards they turned about and took back the male and female slaves they had set free, and brought them again into subjection as slaves.

This story relates to part of the
covenant that God had made with Israel. It concerned members of the community of Israel who for whatever reason had fallen on hard times. Maybe their crops had failed and they had been forced to sell their land to make ends meet. Or even worse, they had been forced to live as slaves to pay off a debt. Every 7th year, according to the law of Israel, their debt should be cancelled, they should no longer be slaves, and land that was forfeited should be returned to them.

The context for this passage from the book of the prophet Jeremiah is that Israel has strayed from God’s ways. They have gone after other gods to worship, and have neglected the laws concerning the care of the poor,
particularly widows, orphans and foreigners.

God’s judgment on Israel is that they will suffer the consequences – and be invaded by Babylon and many of the population be taken into exile.

For much of
the time, the leaders in Israel – the ruling elite of kings and priests, ignore these warnings.

But the
crisis deepens. Invasion looks likely. It seems that Jeremiah’s dire warnings are true.

What to do in a such a situation. For the leadership in Israel this means
trying a last ditch attempt to avert the crisis by obeying the law that God had given them and setting free the slaves that should have had their freedom in the 7th year of their slavery. It’s a cry to God to say -“OK, we’ll do as you commanded. Now please come to our help and stop this invasion.”

What happens next is that king Zedekiah reverses his decision and makes them all slaves again ! The reason is not given. It’s possible that the threat from Babylon went away, and Zedekiah thought he could get away with going back to business as usual –
oppressing the poor.

Or maybe the economic situation got worse – so bad in fact that landowners needed slave labour to survive and put pressure on the king to reverse the decision.

Whatever it was, Jeremiah’s verdict is that once again the King and the
ruling class have ignored God’s commands and will be judged.

That’s a long, but necessary preamble …

This incident makes me think of the Coronavirus crisis that we have lived through, and still are to some degree. In the early days, our government put in place measures to reduce the negative impact on the population by
introducing the furlough arrangements, whereby the government would pay businesses to keep people on the payroll while they were not able to carry on trading. (Eg – restaurants that had to close completely in the pandemic).

Now the direct threat from Covid has reduced because of the success of the
vaccination programme. It’s back to business as usual. In the immediate aftermath of Covid, the pressure was off … but the government needed to recoup as much of the financial outlay as possible. So …

We are seeing increases in National Insurance contributions, and other ways that the
government are seeking to increase revenue.

Then comes another crisis … Ukraine and the consequent increases in oil and gas prices as well as effects from the grain harvests in Ukraine being disrupted.

What do we see from the
government – a £150 rebate on council tax … with another sum – that will need to be paid back. For an average household, that £150 will go in two months in their increases in gas and electric bills.

Meanwhile we still read of massive bonus payments to some, while others are sitting with hot water bottles and blankets to keep warm, and relying on
food banks for essentials.

Can you see the parallels ?

What
happens to nations, businesses, organisations in general when those at the top are sitting pretty while the poorest struggle to survive. In the end those nations, businesses, etc will fall.

A
settled social order relies on justice for the poor. Without economic justice, society eventually collapses.

What do we need ? Justice for the poorest. When do we need it ? Now !

Bible · faith · Grace

The Last Shall Be First

I’ve been reading Jeremiah 31 today. The promise to Israel that they will return from exile.
The story of exile and homecoming is one of THE MAJOR THEMES in the Bible. A couple of things I noticed:

There are various literary devices used in scripture. Among other things, they are designed to make the message memorable, or emphasise certain aspects of the text.

For example – repeating an idea but using different words – sing, shout praise …
Or having a refrain as in Psalm 46 … ‘God is with us’

Another, perhaps less recognised literary device is to do with a mirror image structure called a chiasm

In a chiasm, you have a structure that goes something like this from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
A. Adam,
B first of men
B` to first of women,
A` Eve

There’s a nice chiasm in Jeremiah 31 that you can see here

One of the points about a chiasm is that the whole thrust of the passage is often to be found in the centre of the chiasm.

In the case of Jeremiah 31, the centre of the passage has these words.

8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.


These words show us God’s heart and God’s intention for Israel. That is to restore them and bring them home. But the remarkable thing that struck me was those who are specifically mentioned as coming home. The blind and the lame, the pregnant and those in labour. That is, the most vulnerable.

God promises to become like a father to these most vulnerable of his people. They will be like the firstborn.

What an amazing thing to read and understand. God’s concern is for the weakest. As Jesus would himself demonstrate throughout his life – “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Or, as American priest and writer Robert Farrar Capon often wrote – God’s concern is for ‘the little, the lost, the least and the last.’

Are we able to see ourselves here in this company? Because we all need to find our way home. And maybe part of that journey home involves becoming vulnerable and surrendering our impulses to be strong and in control.

Wherever you are on this journey. Grace and Peace.

Bible · faith

Resurrection Is The Last Word

I love it when things come together. To see God’s hand in even the smallest event.
For me, this has come in the last few days in my readings in the book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

We have just had two weeks that have been very rich with family time, but also full of travelling and busyness when there hasn’t been much time for quiet.

Now, as I write this, it’s Holy Saturday, that space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when we remember Jesus in the tomb, and I’m hoping to capture some of the meaning of this season – moving from Lent into Easter.
I’ve been reading the book of Jeremiah since the beginning of the year, and now I’m up to chapter 30. In the last few days of my readings, there’s been a shift. From dire warnings of judgment for Israel for forsaking their God, a note of hope is creeping in.

That’s not to say that the judgment will not come.
It will.
Israel will still be sent into exile in Babylon.
Jerusalem will still be laid waste.

But God has a long term plan that involves restoration. In fact the time that Israel spends in exile will result in purification and a renewal of their faith. Read what God says to Israel in chapter 30:

Thus says the Lord:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob, and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, and the citadel set on its rightful site …… and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.


It feels so right to be reading this on the cusp of Easter Day.
Walter Brueggemann writes about this chapter of Jeremiah:
“This chapter speaks of a hope rooted in God’s own resolve and faithfulness; a hope addressed toward a people who are at the brink of despair. A hope issued in the face of their captivity in Babylon. A hope that would overcome even the utter failures of the past.”
Exile and Homecoming – A Commentary on the book of Jeremiah. page 270 (slightly amended)

The fix that we are in is essentially the same as Israel’s. We need hope in our places of despair, our sicknesses, our addictions, our slavery ….
We are tempted to respond with either blind optimism, or bleak despair. The message of Jeremiah is that there is a third way. The following verses from Jeremiah 24 tell us that hope is to be found because this renewal is a work of God, and not a human endeavour.
I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God,”
God promises that there will be a time when he will give them a new heart. God knows that on their own, Israel’s heart will not change. If they are to change, then it must be a work of God.

Jeremiah uses the image of sickness unto death in chapter 30:
For thus says the Lord: Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous. There is no one to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you. (Jeremiah 30:12-13)

God’s people are terminally ill, beyond healing and sure to die.

But even in the face of this, God says:
“I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 30:17)

In the end, God wills resurrection. Walter Brueggemann again:
“The future … is firmly under the rule of God … On the one hand, Israel must not deny its bleak present. On the other hand, however, it must not take the present with ultimate seriousness. God’s sure governance of the future stands as a powerful, palpable alternative to present despair.” Brueggemann p. 281

I remember nearly 20 years ago hearing Rowan Williams being interviewed. He had just been announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He was asked what for him was the central message of the Christian faith. His answer was that change is possible. The resurrection of Jesus is the most powerful statement that it is possible to transform even the most hopeless situation.

It seems to me that the message of the book of Jeremiah is the same. On this Holy Saturday, as we wait for Easter Dawn, we pray for all those who are waiting and praying for change, and for God to work in resurrection power.

Grace and Peace.





Activism · Bible · Church · community · faith · Political · Theology

Stories Of Pain And Possibility

This post is about two ways that the Christian Church typically responds to situations of pain, and how our default settings miss something vital.

Part 1: Mercy more than Justice.

In the fortnightly online discussion group that I’m a part of we’ve been thinking about ‘The Powers’ that are in play around us, and what a Christian response looks like.

In the New Testament, the powers that are at the forefront are:
1) The Jewish religious leaders and
2) Rome.
The way that Jesus responds to the power of religious leaders is something that you might be familiar with. The conflict is right there on the surface in the Gospels.
Iff we were to look a little deeper, we would see also how he challenges Roman imperialism.
(I’m just starting to read Ched Myers’ book – ‘Binding the Strong Man,‘ a political reading of Mark’s Gospel – more on that another time maybe.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that as Christians we are called to be aware of the powers around us – economic, social, political, organisational etc which are often working for the common good, but are just as, or more likely to be pursuing their own agendas.

Being aware of how the powers are at work is the first step, but if and when we judge that the powers are not aligned towards justice and peace there comes a point where some response is called for. This response could be expressed in protest, or resistance of some kind, but as I argue below, it’s more likely to be a response driven by compassion.

Just the other day, I came across this quote from Hannah Arendt, German thinker –
The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility. Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting.”

The first part of that quote reminds us that when we see that the powers are not aligned with the Common Good, we have a choice how to respond – with goodness or responsibility.

For example, in line with the often repeated instruction in the Old Testament, we are called to look out for ‘The widow, the orphan and the stranger,’ but over the course of history I would guess that the most typical Christian response has been through acts of goodness, service and compassion – binding up the broken hearted, healing the sick and so on, rather than through a commitment to justice.

We see the compassion response in the foundation of hospitals, hospices and a host of other projects that are driven by a Christian impulse to serve – especially those who are suffering. I would argue that the mandate to justice as well as mercy has often been forgotten, because it’s easier to help people than to buck the system. It’s easier to patch things up than getting to the root of the problem.

Part 2: Individual more than Collective.

There’s a second emphasis in the usual Christian response that I want to point out, and that’s our fixation with the individual. Not only do we find it easier to be compassionate than to confront, we tend to focus on our individual responsibility to change and be a part of bringing about change rather than seek a collective way.

I refer here to an earlier post when I quoted Walter Brueggemann’s assertion that the foundational work of transformation is not to be found in individual action as much as in Liturgy and Organising.
That is the work that we do when we are bound together in action to resist the powers, together with the organising that makes that happen.

In the context of Christian worship, I’m trying to pay attention to the different ways that we use liturgy, and how we read the scriptures, and how that might speak into a discussion on ‘The Powers.’

So, for example, in the Anglican tradition, there is a prayer of confession, usually at the beginning of a service. Here’s an example that is used most often.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against youand against our neighbour
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorryand repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,who died for us,
forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life
to the glory of your name. Amen.

We are often encouraged to reflect on the past week, to call to mind the things we have done, thought or said that we regret, and those good things that we didn’t do. The prayer is all about getting ourselves ‘right with God’ before we continue in worship.

It’s all very individualistic. It tends to lead to a spirituality that is focussed too much on ‘sin’ and ‘me’ and the things in my life that need putting right. In the Bible, sin is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.
Two of the central stories in the Old Testament for example are:
The story of liberation from slavery in Egypt – that speaks to our bondage to the powers around us.
The story of exile and return – that speaks to our longing for home.

A suggestion put by Marcus Borg, in his book ‘Speaking Christian,’ is that we give less airtime to the prayer of confession, by using it maybe once every five weeks, and for the other weeks, replacing the confession of sin with images of our predicament as slavery, exile, blindness, sickness etc. “Imagine the absolution replaced by the proclamation that God wills our liberation from slavery, our return from exile, our seeing again, our healing and wholeness. Sin matters, but when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue of our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”
Speaking Christain p.152

In addition, when thinking about how we read scripture, I would suggest that in many (most ?) Christian worship services, the sermon will read the Bible through a very personal and also individual lens. Even the teaching about how we serve God will be likely focussed on what we as individuals can/should do.
This is of course tied to the point about confession made just now. If our obsession is with sin, and putting our personal relationship with God right, then it follows that the teaching in our churches will be aimed at keeping us on the right track with God, and serving God by ‘loving our neighbour.’

(This was brought home to me as I was listening yesterday to the Archbishop of Canterbury interviewing writer Stephen King. Stephen King talked freely about his faith in God, portraying it as a personal matter, that seemed to have little to do with what goes on in the world. He quoted Jesus saying ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God,’ as a way of justifying keeping religion separate from politics. Keep God out of politics).

In the time of the gospel writers, the power that was calling for total allegiance was Rome and the Emperor. When Jesus contrasts Caesar and God, he is setting before us two complete opposites. Are we to say ‘Caesar is Lord ?’ or ‘Jesus is Lord.’ To put God first will mean that Christians are called to engage the powers of the day.

Perhaps the way we go about ‘confession’ in our worship and the treatment of scripture can help redress imbalance, moving the focus from the individual to point us towards the more collective pains, ills and injustices in the world.

If you are a church goer, you might want to pay particular attention to the way that the prayer of confession and the use of scripture are experienced in your worship services.
To what extent, if any, do they address the questions of the powers, and issues beyond our individual response ?
How as communities can we resist and challenge those powers that call for our allegiance, rather than God’s ?




A Prayer For This Day · Activism · Bible · Political · Prayer · suffering · Truth · World Affairs

Praying For The Ukrainian People

Today I read these words from the Prophet Jeremiah chapter 11:

God told me what was going on. That’s how I knew. You, God, opened my eyes to their evil scheming.
I had no idea what was going on—naive as a lamb being led to slaughter!
I didn’t know they had it in for me, didn’t know of their behind-the-scenes plots:
“Let’s get rid of the preacher. That will stop the sermons!
Let’s get rid of him for good. He won’t be remembered for long.”

Then I said, “God-of-the-Angel-Armies, you’re a fair judge.
You examine and cross-examine human actions and motives.
I want to see these people shown up and put down!  I’m an open book before you. Clear my name.”

The people of Anathoth, the home town of the prophet Jeremiah, want to silence him.
Jeremiah is unaware of this until God shows him the truth.
Then he realises their plan to get rid of him.
He appeals to God and God’s justice.

We were not unaware of Putin’s plan, but we did not want to think it would happen. Now it has.
This is my prayer, as we also appeal to God for justice.

The name Putin is derived from put – путь, the Russian word for ‘way.’
Pravda
Правда is Russian for truth
ZhiznЖизнь is Russian for life

We pray to the LORD of hosts
The LORD-of-the angel-armies
Not to come against might with more might
But to raise up the people of Russia in resistance.
To reveal the bare pravda
To see false, fake rulers standing naked
Hands tied behind their backs
Their power and glory stripped.

We pray to the LORD of hosts
The LORD-of-the angel-armies
To raise up the people of the earth in solidarity
To reveal the Pravda and the true Put
To see the people of Ukraine delivered from evil
Once more able to live Zhizn openly and spontaneously
Not cautiously and warily.

Pray for the peace of Ukraine
Prosperity to all you Ukraine lovers
Friendly insiders, get along!
Hostile outsiders, keep your distance!
For the sake of my family and friends,
I say it again: live in peace!

(The last section is From The Message translation of Psalm 122 in the Jewish Scriptures)


Bible · Climate Change · faith · Prayer · World Affairs

A Boundary For The Sea

We’ve been watching ‘The Sinner’ in the last week. Series 4. It’s a crime drama set in Maine, USA, and stars Bill Pullman.
The main character, Percy Muldoon, is a woman in her 20’s and is very troubled by something in her past. Her uncle Colin is trying to help her recover her catholic faith and one scene shows them repeating these words together.

“I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea,
a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass …”

I didn’t recognise the words, but thought they were probably from the psalms.

Weirdly, I came across the exact same words the following day, as I came to the next section of Jeremiah in my daily prayers. (I’m reading through Jeremiah a few verses a day).

When I experience an extraordinary coincidence like this (serendipity), I try to be alert to what God might be saying. The conclusion I came to was to write a post about it in the hope that it might speak to someone.

In “Praying with the Prophets,” Eugene Peterson comments on this verse – “Oceans and lakes know and respect the boundaries set for them by God. Why will not human beings do the same ? But everywhere there are people who scorn and flout guidelines of justice and gratitude, compassion and generosity.”

The consequences of living outside the boundaries that God has given us are that our lives go out of alignment, and on a macro level, we see injustice spreading and the earth itself groaning.

Eugene Peterson’s prayer following his comment in this verse:
Dear God, I want to live in harmony with what you have created in and around me, not at odds with it. I want to increase in wisdom and stature, in favour with God and humanity. (Luke 2:52)”

Bible · faith · Political · Truth

You Show Me Your Truth

This morning, I read these words from Jeremiah chapter 5: (The speaker is Yahweh, Israel’s God).

”An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own authority; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?”

Truth has been front and centre in the news for a while now. The Trump era brought us face to face with the damage that lies cause in the public sphere. We’re surrounded by conspiracy theorists, and one in particular in the last week.

Musician Neil Young decided to take his music down from Spotify in response to vaccine misinformation on the Joe Rogan podcast. “It’s either me or Joe Rogan.” In the end Spotify seem to be sticking with Joe Rogan, and Neil Young kept his promise and his music is being taken down. (He’s just been followed by Joni Mitchell)

I’m disappointed that Spotify are allowing, and implicitly encouraging this kind of content, and we’ve just cancelled our Spotify account in solidarity.

I know that these are not simply black and white issues, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

Once more, it is the importance of truth that is under discussion, with not only podcasters but politicians very much under the microscope.

It seems that many people love a conspiracy theory. Maybe it’s something to do with the way that the usual authority figures have often let us down and are viewed as no longer trustworthy. I wonder where it will end ?

Maybe the words of the prophet Jeremiah, (slightly amended) from 2500 years ago ring true:
An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: politicians, podcasters and others have spoken falsely with their misinformation and outright lies; one consequence of this is that even some of our leaders think they can do what they like, and lie to cover up their mistakes as they rule by their own authority. Sadly, many people are attracted by lies and love to have it so. I wonder what will happen next ?

Bible · Creativity, · Political

Lessons For A Free People

Since my last post, I’ve listened to more from Ched Myers on Sabbath Economics.

The fundamental thought here is based on a reading of the whole of scripture, First and Second Testament. (or Old and New)
Ched Myers traces his proposition back to the experience of Israel after being freed from slavery in Egypt. In the years that followed the Exodus from Egypt, the story describes how God provided for Israel through the gift of Manna. Each day this food would appear like dew on the ground. There would be enough for everyone. But they were commanded not to try and keep it overnight as it would spoil. Each day there would be a new provision. In addition, they were instructed that once a week, they were to gather enough food for two days, giving one day of rest each week – this was the Sabbath day. From this experience, they were to understand a new way of living that was not based on the predatory economy that the had known in Egypt.
The story of manna in the wilderness gives us three lessons for a free people.

Lesson 1. There is enough for everyone. No one has too much and no one has too little.
Those who gathered much did not have too much, and those who gathered little had enough.

Lesson 2. There will be enough tomorrow.
Abundance does not mean accumulation. Just because there is an abundance of resources does not give us the permission to keep on accumulating. An economy based on amassing more and more only leads to the more wealthy having control over resources which inevitably leads to inequality.

Lesson 3. Stop. Take a break.
The instruction not to gather one day a week was to do with stopping what would otherwise be an endless cycle of work and production, such as they had known in Egypt. The Sabbath principle was also extended to letting land lie fallow every seventh year, and after 7 times 7 years there would be a jubilee year every 50 years when there was a redistribution of land and wealth.

The commandment to keep Sabbath is instituted before the giving of the Ten Commandments. Then after Moses receives the Ten Commandments there is a reminder to keep Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath is both the beginning and end of Torah. “It is the bedrock of a culture of restraint.”

Lesson 1 is about abundance – enough for all.
Lesson 2 is about avoiding the wealth disparity that comes from accumulation
Lesson 3 is about the need to challenge an economy that never takes a break, but rather live in such a way that in the long term wealth is distributed fairly.

In our world, we have forgotten these lessons, we just don’t get it. We do not live by these instructions, but live largely with an economy that is diametrically opposed to the principles set out for Israel in the story of manna in the wilderness … “our economy being based on private wealth, accumulated welath, and no limits to production or consumption.”

It’s interesting that these lessons are so foundational for Israel, and revisited by Jesus in the feeding of the 5000. This story in Mark chapter 6 also takes place in the wilderness (a remote place). It concerns food, and the need for all to be fed. Jesus turns first to the disciples, who immediately think of buying food (even though they acknowledge that solution as impractical, it is their first thought). They are short on ideas. Then, in Ched Myers reading, Jesus, as community organiser, sees that there is capacity there already and enables the food that is there in the crowd to be distributed so that all have enough. “Only cooperation can turn market scarcity into shared sufficiency.”

As Ched Myers traces what he calls “Sabbath Economics” through the pages of the Bible, we come to the account of the last Supper, where Mark records Jesus using exactly the same words as are recorded at the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Before the food is shared we read: “Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it … “

Surely the same words are used here to link the Last Supper with the Feeding of the Five Thousand. What Jesus is doing here is a final reminder to the disciples that this is how they are to live – by the principles that were first established in the Sinai wilderness.

And when we come to the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see that they did remember … “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Acts 2:44-45.

So …..

An online group that I recently joined spent some time listening to Ched Myers, and thinking about ‘Sabbath Economics.” Among a range of subjects, including Food Banks and other attempts to promote food sovereignty (where everyone has enough) we wondered what a communion liturgy based on these principles might look like.

That’s for next time.

Grace and Peace

Please note. All quotations are from Ched Myers – Studies in Mark III: Sabbath Economics & Eucharist (Mk 6)
Go to the BartCast and look for Ched Myers Bartcast 05

Bible · Church · community · Creativity, · faith · Storytelling

I Have A Better Idea

First, a disclaimer – the ‘I’ in the title of this post is not me, in case you were thinking – what an arrogant … !

I love the way that things sometimes come together. This week a whole load of stuff has been converging for me.
Let me start with a list:
Pioneer Practice – a series of webinars hosted by the Church Mission Society and HeartEdge
Article from around 1995 in SEEN newspaper. (Newspaper of the Anglican Diocese of York)
Ched Myers on Mark chapter 6 – The feeding of the 5,000
John chapter 2 – Water into Wine
An article in the Church Times by Canon David Power
‘Total Ministry’ in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan

Pioneer Practice
The series of webinars mentioned is about gathering the experience of ‘Pioneers’ across various Christian denominations in the UK. Jonny Baker, who works for the Church Mission Society training pioneers is the host of the webinar, which is paired with the book Pioneer Practice. Yesterday’s session was all about seeing differently.
Attendees were asked to think about these three aspects of working – Imagination, Knowledge and Skills.
What would be the order of importance of these for you ?
Most of those present had Imagination as the first. That’s why they are on a pioneer webinar, because pioneers tend to have the imagination to see things differently.

When we are confronted with a situation that we can’t understand or see a way to make progress, we often have to employ our imagination to get started. Try to see in a different way.

One of the ways that we might be challenged to see things differently is in situations where we see a need and want to do something about it. Often we might only see what is lacking, and look for ways to help by problem solving or acts of compassion.
But what if, instead of seeing what is lacking, we were to look for what is already there, and celebrate it.
This is the heart of the work of Chris and Anna Hembury who are Pioneers with the Church Mission Society in Hull.

Look for the Light that is here
Back in the 90’s, we were living and working in East Hull. At the time, as I remember it, one of the churches in another part of Hull was starting a new congregation on the Longhill Estate in East Hull. Their expressed aim was to ‘Bring the Christian Gospel to Longhill.’ An article in SEEN newspaper, written by a Christian who lived in Longhill, said something like this: ‘Don’t come to bring The Light to Longhill, come and see what is already here.’
(A well known way of working that uses this principle is ABCD – Asset Based Community Development.’)

Ched Myers
I’ve been listening to Ched Myers talking about Mark’s Gospel. Today was the story of the feeding of the 5,000.
If you know that story, I wonder how you have understood it ?
I see three ways to read this –
1. Jesus miraculously multiplies 5 loaves and two fish.
2. The disciples use their common purse to rush off to a local village and buy enough food for the crowd.
3. The crowd share the food that they have with them.

And for each of these three ways of seeing the miracle, I see a way of understanding our life together as Christian communities.
1. The charismatic church leader who seems to be able to do everything really well, and is a total inspiration
2. The leadership team that work together to serve a largely passive congregation.
3. The congregation that is active in loving and serving one another, and are a sign of God’s kingdom.

In Ched Myers’ reading of Mark chapter 6, it goes something like this:
Disciples: Why not send the people away to buy food. (But actually it’s late in the day … and this is a crowd with likely many poor people who might not have the resources to buy food).
Jesus: Why don’t you give them something to eat.
Disciples. Where would we get enough food to feed this crowd ? It would take half a year’s wages !( The disciples see the lack, not what is already there).
Jesus: I have a better idea ….

What follows is a superb example of community organising, where Jesus uses the lunch that the young boy has to teach the crowd to see what they already have, and use their resources for the benefit of everyone.

This way of seeing the Gospel will not go down well with everyone ! In our churches, we have usually understood this story as an example of miraculous multiplication. Maybe like me, you have often wondered about that intepretation, been aware of the other possibility of the crowd sharing what they had, but reluctant to abandon the ‘miraculous’ way of reading it. But perhaps Ched Myers’ way of reading it is more consonant with a Gospel that liberates people to a life of mutual care. Ched Myers would also go further and say that this interpretation subverts a whole economy that is based on self interest, and moves towards a community of solidarity.

Water into Wine
Just a brief thought about this passage. (In which wine runs out at a wedding and Jesus performs a miracle turning water into wine … a lot of wine !)
There are a range of characters here: Jesus; his mother; the disciples; the servants; the guests; the master of ceremonies. Jesus directs the action, telling the servants to fill 6 large jars with water, which, when it is tasted by the master of ceremonies, has become wine.
Notice that it is the servants who fill the water jars. The word in Greek that is used here – diakonoi – is the word that means ‘one who serves’, and is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament, but often to do with those who are committed to following Jesus, part of the Christian community and and serving God with their gifts and their time.
The servants who fill the water jars are towards the bottom of the social ladder, but are remembered here for being intrumental in the miracle that saves the day. Note again, that although the story starts with an apparent lack of resources, as it turns out, the resources are there.

Church Times article
This appeared just last week, and comes at a time when the church seems to be defined in our minds by what is lacking. Lack of money, lack of clergy, lack of people, lack of everything. And, however much we try to tell ourselves that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, which should trump all that we’re lacking, that doesn’t seem to help.
The article, which you can read here (hopefully, as long as the link works) is suggesting that it’s high time the Church of England ditched the centrality of stipendiary (paid) ministry and moved to a different way of seeing.
(A radical move of this kind will look for imagination from our bishops, and by the way, the word for bishop in Greek is episkope – which essentially means someone with imagination, someone who is able to see the big picture, and able to see things in a different way).

The force of the article by David Power is that market forces are driving the church to ever increasing desperate measures. Lack of money forces parishes to combine, giving clergy multiple churches to lead, while congregations diminish year on year. This vicious spiral demands a new way of seeing, which probably should have been the norm all along.

The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
A church that is going down this new route is the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan in the USA. It’s an evolving pattern that allows churches, when they are ready, to call leaders from among their own congregations. Each congregation will prayerfully choose those from among them to serve in a number of ways – as Preachers; Those who will preside at Holy Communion; Teaching the faith; Giving pastoral care; Engaging in mission to their local community … and so on. Each congregation would have a degree of autonomy (as they do now), but still be part of the wider network of a diocese, and financial resources would be directed to giving support and training to congregations. I found it inspiring to read the srticle by David Power and the way this is being lived out in the diocese of Michigan

To conclude, what I have seen here in this variety of ways is all about seeing in a different way. And particularly looking – not at what is lacking, but at the treasure that is already there.
It’s about the potential of every situation to be a place of growth and learning if we can look beyond the obvious to see what is right in front of us.

And almost certainly, this will come to pass as we tell stories of what we see happening around us when we have encountered a situation that we can’t understand, but begun to trust that there is the possibility of transformation. And in the telling of those stories, we will see signs of healing and grace, and be encouraged to continue looking for the treasure that is among us.

Grace and peace.