Tuesday, June 27, 2017

a complex flavour profile

Winning ... Billie’s botrytis cinerea dessert, which won her the competition. Picture: Channel 10.
Image from www.news.com.au
Botrytis cinerea dessert, Australian Masterchef 2015 winning dish
I am not much of a foodie. Most days, a protein shake and a few handfuls of popcorn constitute lunch. And I like it that way. However, my husband, Dean, loves to experience food from around the world and is always looking for exciting combinations of flavours and textures. A gourmet meal features depth and complexity in its flavour profile. There may be bitter, sweet, sour, spice, and saltiness all present in one bite. Rich cream, fresh mint, hot cayenne, spongy light cake, and crunchy chocolate brittle all stimulate different sensations. A fine meal is one which causes not only your taste buds, but your olfactory system, your eyes, your ears, and even your sense of touch, to be awakened.

I often think of Jesus's invitation/command to Peter to "feed my sheep" (John 21). This is not only a pastoral metaphor with multiple meanings (Jesus as a shepherd, people as sheep who need care and nourishment, one shepherd training another shepherd, etc.) but it is also a food metaphor. Eating is something that all living creatures spend a significant amount of time doing. Like the other appetites, eating combines necessity with pleasure, ensuring that those things which give us life in a physical sense also give us life in other ways.

Whenever I preach, teach, or write, my prayer is that I might provide something both tasty and nourishing for those who receive my words. The reason I pray this is not only because of Jesus's directive to Peter, but because preparing a feast is what God does. During the wilderness wanderings of the newly-freed Israelites, God provided sweet, flaky manna every morning. The seven feasts established in Leviticus describe the covenant between God and humanity through a complex Middle Eastern menu. In Psalm 23, we see a shepherd who leads sheep to an oasis, providing respite and refreshment along with food and drink. Later in the poem we find a contrasting setting: a feast prepared in the midst of enemies. Both quiet meadow and hostile environments become settings for enjoying nourishment.

In the gospels, we find Jesus miraculously feeding hungry people with simple peasant fare (fish and bread) and providing fine wine to those already satiated at a wedding feast (John 6 and John 2). But the meal that subsumes and supersedes all of these is the one where Jesus indicates that he himself is on the menu. Quite early in his ministry, Jesus said: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:51). At a Passover meal with his disciples, he was even more explicit, asking them to eat his body and drink his "blood of the covenant" in the form of unleavened bread and wine (Matt 26).

Unleavened bread is made with flour, salt, olive oil, and water. It is poor person's bread, and in the Passover feast, it is known both as the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom. During a Passover seder, there are four cups of wine drunk during the celebration, each remembering one of the promises of YHWH found in Exodus 6:6-7: 1) I will take you out, 2) I will save you, 3) I will redeem you, and 4) I will take you as a nation. The Eucharistic meal, which echoes the Passover feast, features the simple elements of bread and wine. However, as already noted, it reveals a surprisingly complex flavour profile. The feast of Jesus encompasses the sweet (fullness of joy) and the bitter (share in his sufferings). It combines finely aged ingredients with fresh ones (old and new covenants joined together). It presents a shocking, acidic tang (love your enemies) while at the same time stewing everything in a soothing, warm broth ("I am with you always [remaining with you perpetually - regardless of circumstance, and on every occasion], even to the end of the age" Matt. 28:20, The Amplified Bible).

The feast of Jesus is a gourmet meal prepared by a master chef.[1] It is a complex combination of flavours which stimulate and awaken all the senses of mind, body, and spirit.  The best chefs are able to take all their experience, all their knowledge and skill, all their love of good food, nutrition, and beauty, and put it on a plate for others to enjoy. Jesus, our chef, does more than that. He puts himself on a plate. He is the food for our hungry souls. Let us pull up a seat at his generous table and dig in.

"O taste and see that the Lord is good." (Psalm 34:8)

[1] Chef: a French word meaning chief, head, leader, or master.



Monday, June 05, 2017

what about justice?

Image result for justice
Image from ec.europa.eu
There seems to be an increasing emphasis on addressing injustice, at least in the circles I move in. Everywhere I turn, it seems that someone is talking about how we can become more just people. On a recent trip to Toronto for a conference, I was reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy which tells about his work as a lawyer in Alabama, addressing systemic injustices in the legal system. When I arrived in the city, I visited a downtown church which had posters and banners addressing issues of social justice all around their sanctuary. At the conference, some of the presentations identified specific people groups who have been victims of injustice and suggested ways we can move forward to more equitable interactions.

What is justice? The symbol for justice in the legal system is a blindfolded woman (known as Lady Justice) holding a set of scales. The symbolism suggests an impartial, careful, and accurate weighing of matters. The dictionary tells us that justice is fairness, equity, impartiality, neutrality, honesty, and righteousness. In the Hebrew bible, the word tzedek (to be just or righteous) is rooted in the nature of God, joining the idea of impartiality with promoting the good and dealing with sin. In Greek, we have the word dikaiosune which basically means approved by God. When we link justice to the nature of a loving, merciful God, we get a slightly different view of justice than when we equate it with moral rectitude. I offer two stories to illustrate this, one from the Hebrew Bible and one from the New Testament.

In Deuteronomy, we find specific laws given to the nation of Israel which were to guide their behaviour and ultimately, reflect their worship of a just God. One of these had to do with ensuring that a widow was not left destitute when her husband died and she had no sons. Since the women in the Ancient Near East had their value and their livelihood tied to men, when a woman's husband died and she had no sons to receive the family inheritance, her situation was precarious. The law made provision for this.

"When two brothers are living together, sharing family property that hasn’t been divided, if one of them dies leaving a widow without sons, his widow must not be married to a man outside the family. The brother should marry his sister-in-law and try to have children with her in his brother’s name. Her firstborn son will be named after the brother who died, so that the first husband’s name will not disappear from Israel and that son will receive his share of the family inheritance" (Deut. 25:5-6, The Voice).

Basically, the brother-in-law of the widow was to ensure that the deceased brother's name and inheritance were not lost. In effect, a man who married his brother's widow was sacrificing part of his inheritance in order to honour his dead brother and protect his widow. Understandably, some men were not too keen on fulfilling this obligation.

Case in point. In Genesis 38, we find the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah had three sons and the first one married Tamar. He died, and since Tamar had no sons and no means of income, she depended on the family she married into to take care of her. Judah told his second son that he must marry Tamar and any sons she bore would have his dead brother's inheritance. Well, he resented the imposition and the implications it had for his prospective wealth, so he begrudgingly took Tamar as his wife and had sex with her, but took precautions to make sure she would not become pregnant. That second son died as well. Now, Judah had a third son who was not yet of marrying age and, understandably, Judah was reluctant to have Tamar wed him. The two men who had been her husband had both died, and it seemed like she was a cursed woman. In fact, in the story we learn that both her husbands were wicked men. Nevertheless, Judah told Tamar that when the third son reached marrying age, she would be guaranteed a husband and a future. She waited and waited, but even though the youngest son became eligible for marriage, there was no talk of a wedding. Judah's wife died, and after the time of mourning was finished, he went on a trip to work with some sheepherders. Tamar was desperate and saw an opportunity. She dressed up as a prostitute and waited on the side of the road. When Judah came along, he saw her and expressed interest in engaging her services, offering to send her a goat when he got home. She insisted that he give her the cord he was wearing and his staff as a personal guarantee. He did so and they had sex. When he got home, he tried to send a goat as payment and get his possessions back, but no one could find the prostitute.

A few months later, Tamar was reported to be pregnant. When word got to Judah, he demanded that she be dragged into the public square to be condemned and burned. He had always had suspicions about her. As Tamar was being brought out, she let it be known that the man who had made her pregnant was the one who owned the cord and staff she had. It was soon revealed that Judah was the one responsible for her pregnancy. Judah's response is noteworthy: "She is more in the right (tzedek) than I." Justice, that attribute which links someone to the nature of God, was found in Tamar, the woman who played a prostitute to trick a man into taking care of a widow.

This reminds me of another story, this time in the New Testament. Jesus was teaching people at the temple when the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and presented her to Jesus, asking him what to do. The law allowed for the stoning of such a woman, and the religious leaders were trying to trick Jesus into doing something that would allow them to accuse him of breaking the law. Jesus didn't fall for it. Instead, he ignored them, drawing something in the dirt with his finger. They continued to bother him and demand an answer, so he finally said, "Let the first stone be thrown by the one among you who has not sinned." The Pharisees had no response to this, so they left, one by one. Eventually, it was just Jesus and the woman. Jesus asked, "Where is everyone? Did no one condemn you?" She replied that no one had. Then Jesus said, "I don't condemn you either. Go on and sin no more" (John 8).

The Jewish religious leaders had, in fact, not accurately quoted the law. It states that both the man and the woman involved in adultery should be stoned (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:24). They were twisting the law to their own purposes: making a trap for Jesus so that they could get rid of him. One commentator has speculated that Jesus writing in the dust might be a reference to the law which forbids writing on the Sabbath, but does permit writing with dust. If this was the case and it was a day of rest, Jesus might have been illustrating that he knew the details of the law just as well as they did and would not be trapped by it. Others have suggested that Jesus wrote words of condemnation regarding the woman's accusers. Whatever the case, in this story we find the same kind of inversion that happens in story of Judah and Tamar: the one looking to condemn someone for an unlawful act is shown to be the one who is unjust. Jesus put the shame of adultery in direct contrast to the shameful way the Jewish leaders were acting (trickery, bending the law to suit their needs, treating the woman with disrespect, rejecting God in the person of Jesus). Jesus does not condemn the woman, but calls her to a new life. We can be prone to over-emphasize this last line (go and sin no more), but in doing so. we unravel the mercy evident in Jesus's refusal to condemn, even though he would have been lawful in doing so. It is important to remember that the law is not the standard for justice, Jesus is, and he requires those doing the judging to reflect on their own sinfulness before judging others (Matt. 7:1-3).

So what is justice? It is that which reflects the nature of God, that which God approves of, and in these two stories, the person on the side of justice is not the religious leader or respected citizen (those in positions of power), but a woman who has committed a shameful act and stands ready to be condemned and killed by her accusers. As I stated before, the law does not equal justice; only God is justice, because being just means being approved by God. So how do we stand on the side of justice, and how do we respond to injustice?

We can be prone to ignoring or doubting stories of injustice when they don't directly affect us. We can complain about the inconvenience of injustice and try to remove ourselves from its effects (NIMBY: not in my backyard). We can be prone to judging (it's their own fault) or begrudgingly agree to do the bare minimum to fulfill the law (like Judah's second son), hoping to mitigate its effect on and cost to us. If we are the ones wronged, we can seek to exact revenge on those who have wronged us, or prosecute someone to the full extent of the law, assuming that we are the faultless ones.

Looking at these two stories, it seems more in keeping with the nature of God to stand as sober witnesses to those who have suffered injustice, making sure that we hear their voices and their complaints. We can pray, repenting for our part in injustice and asking God for healing and reconciliation. We can change the question from "How does this affect me?" to "How does it affect the most vulnerable, the least of these?" We can make sure that we are not stone throwers, but stone catchers (a phrase I came across in Bryan Stevenson's book), that we step in-between those who condemn and the condemned, showing mercy instead of judgment. It is what Jesus does for us everyday. We can seek wisdom to discern what compassionate, thoughtful action we might take. Above all, like Jesus, we can seek to bring hope to the hopeless.

Friday, June 02, 2017

go and ...

This is part two of a series talking about Jesus's calls to come and to go and the relationship between them. You can read the first part, "Come and See," here.

Image result for child imitates mom computer
Image from healthland.time.com
We learn things by being around other people, and they learn things by hanging out with us. That's the way it works. The first people we learned things from were members of our family. Children are natural imitators and they mimic the behaviour and attitudes they see in their parents and other influencers present in their lives (for better or for worse). Growing up on a farm, I learned how to care for animals, how to plant and harvest, how to embrace the seasonal nature of life, and how to shovel manure. Like I said, for better or worse. Not all of the ideas we assimilate are helpful, and as responsible adults, we need to honestly evaluate learned behaviour to see if it contributes to a flourishing life, a good life, a life consistent with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Nevertheless, imitation is a very effective teaching tool. Jesus invited his disciples to come and see, to hang out with him and observe what he did and how he interacted with people. They witnessed sermons, healings, conflicts, and impromptu feasts. In other words, they learned what it was like to love the world. In Matthew 9, we find a record of what Jesus's followers saw and heard.

Jesus went through many towns and villages. He taught in their synagogues. He preached the good news of the kingdom of God. He healed every disease and sickness. Whenever crowds came to Him, He had compassion for them because they were so deeply distraught, malaised, and heart-broken. They seemed to Him like lost sheep without a shepherd. Jesus understood what an awesome task was before Him, so He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send more workers into His harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35-38, The Voice).

But let's not stop reading. There is an important development that follows, and we have to ignore the imposed chapter division in order to fully appreciate it.

Jesus called His twelve disciples to Him. He endowed them with the authority to heal sickness and disease and to drive demons out of those who were possessed. These are the names of the twelve apostles: Simon (who is called Peter, which means “the rock”) and his brother Andrew; James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew (the tax collector); James, son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot (who would betray Him). (Matthew 10:1-4, The Voice)

Let me spell out the development. Jesus invites people to follow him, to come and see his ministry, mission, and method. Those who take up this call to come and see become his disciples, pupils and learners. After they have followed Jesus around for some time and borne witness to his ministry to the sick, the oppressed, the downtrodden, Jesus gives his disciples the authority to do exactly what he has been doing, to carry on the work of the kingdom of God. After this, the language changes. No longer are they called disciples (learners, pupils) but apostles (sent ones, delegates). Their identity is changed. They remain disciples, for they will never stop being followers of Jesus, but they also become representatives of Jesus, doing what he does and bringing the good news of God's kingdom to the world. Responding to Jesus' call to come and see naturally leads to Jesus's commissioning to go and do, or perhaps a better way of putting it, go and be like Jesus.  

So what does it mean to be like Jesus, to do the work of Jesus? What follows in Matthew 10 is a list of instructions for the twelve apostles. The details do not translate directly into our context, but we as contemporary followers of Jesus and "sent ones" can draw some principles from these directives. Below are a few of the specific instructions along with a corresponding general principle for us today.

1. "Jesus sent out these twelve with clear instructions. Don’t go to the outsiders or to the towns inhabited by Samaritans, a people whose Jewish ancestors married Gentiles. Go instead to find and heal the lost sheep of Israel." Start where you are. Before we rush out to save the world, we should look at bringing healing and wholeness to those around us: our families, friends, coworkers, neighbours, and city.
2. "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, and cleanse those who have leprosy. Drive out demons from the possessed." Our message of hope, demonstrated in our actions, is that God is near, God is a healer, God brings life, God is a restorer, God brings freedom.
3. "You received these gifts freely, so you should give them to others freely. Do not take money with you: don’t take gold, silver, or even small, worthless change. Do not pack a bag with clothes. Do not take sandals or a walking stick. Be fed and sheltered by those who show you hospitality." Let us be generous with what God has given us, and allow others to be generous with us. Let us travel light, live simply, and trust God to supply everything we need.
4. "Listen: I am sending you out to be sheep among wolves. You must be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. You must be careful. You must be discerning. You must be on your guard." We can expect opposition and expect to be treated badly. We should never assume that everything will go our way. Let us learn wisdom. Let us cultivate discernment. Let us practice faithfulness. Let us be courageous. Do not fear. We can trust God in all circumstances.

Jesus's invitation to come and see, to participate in the life of Jesus and in the lives of others, is always linked to Jesus's commissioning to be delegates, to bring the life and love of Jesus wherever we go. The Greek word, erchomai, means both "come" and "go." This is the dual invitation of Jesus.