A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 13:31-35, Lent 2

Image Credit: Gospel Book of Otto III, flickriver.com

This week’s gospel begins with “some Pharisees” described in a more positive way by warning Jesus that Herod “that fox” (a predator, crafty animal that looks for chickens to kill and eat) wants to kill him. The phrase “some Pharisees” is a reminder to the readers of this gospel that not all Pharisees can easily be stereotyped, and that they were a diverse group of religious leaders—some of whom most likely did not oppose Jesus.

In contrast to this group of Pharisees, Herod is after Jesus’ blood, and wants him dead. Indeed, Herod was a treacherous man who had beheaded John the Baptizer.

In Jesus’ message to Herod via these Pharisees, he emphasized that his mission of ushering in God’s realm must continue—i.e., casting out demons and performing cures were signs of his messianic identity, and likely could be perceived as a threat to Herod, since people flocked to Jesus, and this had the potential to cause political unrest. Jesus’ words communicate courage and a single-mindedness in carrying out his messianic mission—that he was not about to be intimidated by Herod’s machinations.

Then Jesus goes on to lament over Jerusalem: “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” In this lament, one can sense how heart-breaking it was for Jesus to experience the rejection and hatred of people he came to love. The metaphor that he employs is the loving, brave and protecting hen that gathers her brood of chicks when there is danger. This image that Jesus associates himself and his messianic mission with is a message of encouragement and affirmation of the feminine.

The heart-breaking lament in response to rejection and hatred is a reminder to all of us of Jesus’ solidarity with members of the human race who lament because they are rejected and hated. There are far too many in the world today who are heart-broken and suffer untold pain because of being rejected and hated for the colour of their skin, being a different gender, or belonging to the wrong socio-economic, ethnic, linguistic or religious group. How can we see these folks as the presence of Jesus in our midst today and welcome them?

In the closing verse of our gospel, Jesus may be referring to his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the crowds welcome him with these words that he quotes here from the last Hallel Psalm (Psalm 118:26), which was sung at the Jewish festivals, including after eating the Passover meal.

 

 

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A Brief Lectionary Reflection on Deut. 26:1-11, Lent 1

Image credit: Yebin Mun

This pericope includes instructions to the Israelites when they began to settle in the Promised Land and survived via an agrarian way of life. They were to bring to the priest at the place of worship the first fruit of their harvest as an offering. This was a reminder to them of how the LORD God provided for them.

Included in the ceremony of giving the first fruit to the priest is a confession of faith beginning with the words: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor….” This ancestor, some scholars believe, was Jacob, who lived for many years in the land of Aram, modern day Syria.

The confession of faith goes on to emphasise the importance of remembering how the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt, and how the LORD God delivered them from slavery through the Exodus event, bringing them to and giving them “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In other words, God delivered them from an oppressive, poverty-stricken state of existence to a new life of freedom and opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle through the means of a fertile land.

This confession of faith connects with the gospel pericope in that it is by way of confessing one’s faith and remembering God through that act of confessing that is life-giving and helps one to depend on God for deliverance from temptation and oppression. The confession is then an act of expressing one’s ultimate loyalty to God.

Following the confession, the Levites, together with the people bringing their first fruits, along with “the aliens” celebrate the bounty provided by God. This is a beautiful picture emphasising the inclusive nature of new life in the Promised Land—implying that no one is left out, there is enough for everyone. A very pertinent message for the situation in many parts of the world today, where there is an ever-growing need to welcome and care for refugees.

This pericope has many preaching possibilities—everything from an emphasis on stewardship, giving God the first fruits NOT the leftovers, Thanksgiving, gratitude, to the importance of confessing our faith as an act of ultimate allegiance to God, to living out our faith by making our community, province, nation, world more welcome and inclusive.

A Lectionary Reflection on Exodus 34:29-35, Transfiguration Sunday

Moses receiving the tablets by Marc Chagall

Prior to this pericope, we are told that Moses had been on Mount Sinai with the LORD for forty days and nights without eating or drinking. That is a long time to go without food or drink! How many people could survive such an endurance test? Perhaps inferred here is that the divine presence provided Moses with the gift of life and sustenance during this time so that it was not necessary for him to eat or drink. Another possibility is that Moses the man of faith, totally trusted in the LORD even when there was no food or drink in sight—reminiscent of the wilderness wanderings and God’s miraculous provisions for the Israelites.

For Christian readers, mention of the forty days and nights is a reminder of what is coming next in the lectionary for the first Sunday in Lent, when we read the story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13).

Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets containing the ten commandments (or ten words) suggests the role of Moses as Israel’s mediator and law/Torah-giver. In this Sunday’s gospel Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Jesus—Moses perhaps symbolizing the law and Elijah the prophets. In any case, Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets is a sign that he has mediated with God a renewed covenant, after the episode of the golden calf, when Moses, out of rage at the Israelites’ idolatry, destroyed the first two tablets.

It is interesting that when Moses came down from the mountain he “did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Have you ever seen someone’s face shine when they have been in close communion with God, and/or when they have said or done something kind, loving, and inspirational? The appearance of one’s face often reveals information about one’s personality, nature, emotions, faith, etc. This Sunday’s gospel of course also takes place on a mountain, a place of divine revelation, theophanies, visions—and the appearance of Jesus’ face changed (Luke 9:29).

Biblical scholars have rendered the Hebrew word qaran or karan as shone and shining in reference to Moses’ face. However, some may have translated it as qeren meaning horn. One possibility is that Moses’ face “was giving off rays (horns) of light.” In any case, this reference to horns has inspired the imaginations of many artists over the centuries. When we visited Germany, we saw Moses depicted with horns in a couple of churches. Famous artists like Marc Chagall have also included horns on Moses’ head when God gave him the tablets, as the picture herein depicts him.

As Moses comes down from Sinai, Aaron and the Israelites kept their distance because they were afraid of him. Moses however speaks to them and eventually they came near to him as he gave them the commandments.

Reference to Moses putting on a veil after he speaks to the Israelites and taking the veil off when he goes into the tent to speak with the LORD may suggest a sign or symbol that highlights Moses’ role as God’s mediator and prophet. When the veil is off, there is open communication with both the LORD and the Israelites. When the veil is on, perhaps Moses required time to be alone to rest and recover from the intensity of his encounters with both the LORD and his people. As readers will remember, when God calls Moses at the burning bush, Moses claims not to be a good public speaker. This may suggest that he was something of an introvert, like many clergy are, and public speaking can be rather stressful and exhausting as well as at times ecstatic and inspirational.

Quotes for consideration and action

Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too.” -Heinrich Heine

The Church is the community where the unthinkable gets thought and the unsayable gets said.” -Walter Brueggemann

Never, never let anyone tell you that what you are doing is insignificant. Let them know that the sea is made up of drops of water. There is no way in which injustice can ever prevail over goodness.” -Desmond Tutu

2019 Synod Study Conference

This year our annual Alberta and the Territories Synod Study Conference featured keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis. She is the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary and she previously taught at Candler School of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary, and Augsburg College.

She is the author of John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries(2014).

In addition to addressing matters of biblical exegesis, sexism (according to the study of one scholar, only about 1 per cent of all the people in the Bible are women, and many of them either do not speak, speak only briefly, and many of them are unnamed), racism, a canon within the canon, reading and studying the Bible with the awareness of one’s own built-in biases—Professor Lewis challenged conference attendees to be more aware of what we believe about the Bible, how we read and interpret it (hermeneutics), how we prepare sermons and preach on them.

Professor Lewis also presented her exegesis of the Johannine story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria in chapter four. She encouraged those who read, study and preach on this pericope to pay attention to the details of if not each word, at least each sentence in the story. For example, the text says in verse four: “But he (i.e. Jesus) had to go through Samaria. Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria? At the time Jews and Samaritans were not exactly on friendly terms. Indeed Jews avoided travelleing through Samaria and the Samaritans if they at all could. It is clear by looking at a map that Jesus definitely had at least two options in travelling back to Galilee—he could have taken a route along the coast or he could have crossed the Jordan and travelled on the east side of Samaria. Yet, he had to go through Samaria. Of course, one reason for that was to widen the scope of his ministry; to become more inclusive by welcoming women as well as men, non-Jews as well as Jews into his realm.

In addition to Rev. Dr. Lewis’s presentations, we enjoyed hearing from other presenters and had opportunity to reconnect with colleagues informally, as well as worship together.

Below is a photo of our Synod’s women clergy as well as a few visiting from other Synods and Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis.

A few thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13

Although today, 1 Corinthians 13 is often chosen as a favourite for weddings, the apostle Paul, in writing his first letter to the congregation at Corinth, Greece was addressing some serious issues. Among other things, there appears to have been a division or some degree of conflict in the congregation.

One of the issues causing such division or conflict was that of human pride and sin. There seems to have been some congregants who thought themselves to be better than others. They may have come from wealthy families. They may have thought it was beneath them to associate with the poorer congregants. They may have thought that their education or their achievements in the workplace and community ought to give them certain privileges and entitlements.

In any case, the apostle Paul here in chapter thirteen reaches a beautiful crescendo in this often referred to as his “Love Chapter.” The issues may very well have been closely related to what Paul mentions herein: pride in speaking in tongues or languages, displaying prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, all faith that brought impressive results, giving away of possessions, the giving of one’s body in some sacrificial (perhaps Paul had in mind marytrdom or being sold into slavery) manner. All of these things people may be tempted to take pride in—yet, without being motivated by and rooted in love, the apostle Paul says they gain absolutely nothing. According to Paul, none of these things, though seemingly impressive and valued, are not what in the end lasts. Love, on the other hand, lasts forever and is the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does the apostle Paul mean by love? The word he employs has a lot of baggage, it is in the Greek, agape. Agape love is different than romantic, sexual love (eros), or friendship and companionship (philos). Agape love is the greatest love of all in that it is not selfish, and is willing to count the cost by serving others whole-heartedly.

Paul goes on in this chapter to cite several examples of what agape love entails—if you haven’t read it before, I encourage you to do so.

Contemporary examples of agape love may include the following: anonymously being a generous benefactor—e.g., giving a large amount of money to a benevolent organisation without wanting others to know who gave the gift in order that the homeless may have a decent place to live, and funding education for the homeless to train them for employment so that they can be self-supporting. As a grandparent, providing childcare for a single parent mother. Visiting those in prison, hospital, seniors’ facilities, etc. Working without drawing attention to one’s self for a more just and humane society for every human being—with a special commitment to the weakest, most vulnerable citizens. Of course, in some nations of the world this is regarded as “criminal activity,” since it endeavours to remove despots, tyrants and dictatorial powers from office and replace them with humble, kind leaders who genuinely serve their people—especially the least, lost, last and forgotten in society.

Agape love also moves into the larger world that God created to care for: animals, birds, fish, whales, water, air, soil, etc. It lives with an ethic that there is enough for everyone when all of God’s creation is valued, respected and wisely, lovingly shared and cared for.

Agape love sees and celebrates the reality of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Book Review: The Power of Kindness

The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy Is Essential in Everyday Life

Author:Brian Goldman, MD

Publisher:HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

309 pages, including Acknowledgements and Index, hardcover

ISBN: 978-1-44345-106-2

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Dr. Brian Goldman has been an emergency room physician for about 35 years, and since 2007, the host of “White Coat, Black Art,” a multi-award-winning show on CBC Radio.

Dr. Goldman begins this volume by asking: “Am I a kind soul?” (p.1) He admits that sometimes he was more worried about mistakes he may or may not have made in his medical practice than whether he was a kind doctor to his patients. He was also preoccupied with being a responsible husband and parent, rather than focussing on kindness per se.

He makes the distinction between sympathy and empathy; describes three types of empathy—emotional, cognitive, and compassion; looks at the origin of the word kindness; and offers several examples of unkindness and kindness. “Linguists say “kindness” comes from the Old English word cynd,which refers to kinship, as in friends who are “two of a kind.” (p. 9)

Dr. Goldman was impressed by the kindness shown him on Good Friday in 2016. He planned on travelling to Brazil for some interviews for this book when he realized that he needed a tourist visa. A Toronto consular office staff person; in an act of kindness agreed to process his application in order that he could catch his flight to Brazil.

Another word he describes in relation to kindness is synchrony,meaning: “a simultaneous action or occurrence.” (p. 10) An example he cites is newborn babies imitating the facial expressions of their parents.

The author notes that when someone experiences kindness from another person; they see the kind person as being similar to themselves; and they, in turn, are more likely to show kindness to others as well. From a faith perspective, I think this is one of the benefits of “the Golden Rule,” in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

In his quest to learn more about kindness and empathy, Dr. Goldman decided to get a fMRI, and become a participant in research measuring empathic resonance among health care professionals. Those who have worked as health care professionals for a long time tend to underestimate the pain of others. Researchers are not sure why this is the case.

Neuroscientists believe that humans are hard-wired to be empathic and kind.” (p. 21) However, it’s difficult to empathize when parts of the brain are not functioning properly.

Tactile empathy happens when the same part of the brain is activated when someone touches another person; and when someone else observes another being touched.

Health care professionals may have an empathy off-switch to distance themselves from their patients’ pain in order to do what is necessary medically—e.g. surgery on a patient.

According to some experts, psychopaths and narcissists are on the rise; and they can utilize cognitive empathy to manipulate people in harmful, even evil ways.

In his chapter, “The Donut Shop,” Dr. Goldman describes the empathy of Mark Wafer, who owns a few Tim Hortons restaurants and is deaf. Because he experienced bullying and discrimination as a deaf person; Mark is more empathic toward people with disabilities like Clint Sparling. Clint has Down syndrome, and Mark hired him; and over the years he has become one of Mark’s most valuable employees. Clint has done exceptionally well; and he lives a full, meaningful life. Now 20 percent of Mark’s employees are disabled.

Dr. Goldman tells of a UN-funded virtual reality film Clouds over Sidra. Sidra is a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl, living in a refugee camp in Jordan. The film shows how Sidra lives in the camp and Dr. Goldman discovered—as did others who have watched the film—that it succeeds in making viewers feel empathy. It has also served as a successful fundraiser for refugees resettling in countries like Canada.

There are some who believe that virtual reality (VR) creates empathy concerning social justice issues—others are more sceptical. VR may also help overcome phobias of various kinds. In Canada, a VR project called Embodying Empathy is designed to help those who attended residential schools; as well as for non-Indigenous people to experience what residential schools were like; and to help the non-Indigenous people to be more empathic toward Indigenous people suffering from their experiences in residential schools.

During his trip to Brazil, Dr. Goldman accompanied a woman in São Paulo who offers empathy and friendship to the homeless. She even created a Facebook page to showcase the poems of a street poet named Raimundo. She also played a role in uniting Raimundo with his family again after many years.

In a trip to Japan, Dr. Goldman visited roboticists and explored how robots provide health care for seniors. The cost of such robots is likely prohibitive for many—20 million yen or $236,000 Canadian. Moreover, robots have not been perfected to the extent that they may not work with seniors who have various kinds of injuries and disabilities.

Dr. Goldman interviews Mary Gordon, the founder of ROE—the Roots of Empathy program in schools, designed to prevent aggression and bullying. Mary Gordon learned empathy at an early age from her parents. This program has made a difference for many students.

It is interesting that Dr. Goldman suggests being kind and expressing empathy to someone you can’t stand. From a faith perspective, that is what Jesus taught and practiced in loving one’s enemies and blessing those who curse you.

Dr. Goldman visits a senior’s care home for people with dementia; and observes how health care staff show empathy for residents with dementia by employing the technique of Validation-mirroring the reality of the residents; rather than trying to correct them and bring them into the staff’s reality. Naomi Feil is credited with introducing Validation for people with dementia. Dr. Goldman describes her as “the soul whisperer” because of her gifts and expertise in employing Validation with people who have dementia. When Feil employs the method of Validation, she is able to share an incredible kindness and empathy with those having dementia.

Feil believes Validation is the best method in caring for those with dementia; rather than Redirection, Diversion or telling a therapeutic lie. Goldman shares several anecdotes as told by health care staff how employing the method of Validation made a huge difference for dementia residents. For example, residents were able to resolve anger and other issues, and be at peace. They too were able to express empathy with other dementia residents.

In his final chapter, “Epiphany,” Dr. Goldman reviews the results of his fMRI with Philip Jackson. After asking Jackson several questions about his empathy tests; Jackson tells Dr. Goldman the clearestway to learn about his empathy is to interact more with people he knows best. So, Dr. Goldman speaks with his partner Tamara Broder, whom he believes is a very empathic person. She tells Dr. Goldman: “I think you’re one of the most empathic people I know.” (p. 292) She says he has the ability to be in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they are feeling.

Some of us are born extraordinarily kind. But most get there only after experiencing pain and then learning from it.” (p. 295)

Dr. Goldman, after all of his research and interviews, comes to realize that to be a person of empathy, one has to be empathic toward oneself; to be a kind person, one has to be kind to oneself. In other words, as Jews and Christians believe, teach and endeavour to live: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.

One critique I have of this otherwise most accessible and informative volume is Dr. Goldman’s failure to mention the divine in relation to empathy and kindness. As a person of faith, I believe that both empathy and kindness originate from God. Indeed, kindness is listed by the apostle Paul as one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22.