As we know, given a choice between Netflix and conversation after a meal, Jesus opted for conversation. Mind you, conversations with Jesus were not hazardous free. In addition, to being teacher and healer, Jesus was willing to dabble as an economist.
Truth be told, Jesus talked about money a lot. Why? Over the course of his life, Jesus had observed some rather strange human behaviour, the strange yet obvious economic inequity where some reveled in over-abundance while others struggled to eat, struggled daily bread. This inequity is not normal, it is strange and Jesus was interested in returning the world into a home for God’s kin-dom.
Jesus peppered conversations with stories to provoke listeners to imagine possibilities, like the story of landowner, a person of wealth who went out to hire workers to harvest the grapes. These workers were essential. Wage negotiations were terse, a day’s wage for a day’s work. No conversation about benefits and pension contributions for these essential workers.
In the story Jesus weaves, the landowner returns to the market square where word had circulated that work was available, and the landowner, who seems to have all the power, keeps hiring more workers throughout the day, even hiring workers in the late afternoon.
Now, before finishing the story, I pause to ensure we hear one reason why Jesus told the story. This story illuminates with clarity, a world where there is an imbalance of power and wealth. A single landowner hires crew after crew, hires one day at a time. The picture is obvious. The one will have on-going benefit, the many have transitory benefit eking out enough to have daily bread for a day. Jesus told this story so we could see how strange that is.
The story of COVID-19 that is unfolding before us is reminding us how strange things are. One only need witness food riots breaking out in parts of the world after only a few days of physical distancing because in those lands there is no personal storehouse.
Even in our land of abundance, the imbalances that exist have been made stark. Our world is not yet a home for God’s kin-dom and the stories Jesus told illuminate that painful truth. In Canada, we are fortunate that political movements in the early 20th century were inspired by a vision of God’s kin-dom and this vision impacted our social structures such that we are better off than many in our world. Equally, we are aware that in recent years, economic inequity has been growing and not decreasing, backward steps made glaringly evident in recent days.
Jesus told stories in order to imagine a world that could return to being a home for God’s kin-dom, a kin-dom where imbalance is not normalized but viewed to be strange.
Jesus awakens the spirit energy required to tackle the arduous task of creating a home for God’s kin-dom through the ending of the story.
Jesus weaves a tale where the landowner chooses to pay all the workers an equal amount regardless of the number of hours worked. Remember the wage was not some stock dividend but sweat labour to feed the family for the day. The earliest workers protest, but the landowner notes that there is no unfairness since they still received what they agreed to.
When dialoguing with Marti Settle and Danielle Rolfe in preparation for this service, I was glad to receive their wisdom, after all Jesus told stories to start conversations, to unleash imagination, to dialogue about lived experiences. My comments reflect their insights.
In this story the all day workers are representative of the in-between. They were not the powerful and wealthy nor are they the ones dependent on the charity of the landowner. The story focuses on their response, and they are invited to delight, not about the landowner's charity but rather celebrate that everyone got their basic needs met regardless. Everyone deserves enough to live, regardless of how much they "produce", regardless of the different categories of people in this world who have differening obligations, abilities, or needs. This is the vision of the kin-dom of God, and the in-between were invited to celebrate this vision.
For many of us, we are the in-between and the story of COVID-19 unfolding before us is painting a vivid picture.
As Danielle writes. It is true that this virus does not discriminate, but as we’ve seen, it reveals the layers of discrimination, neglect and disregard for human life that exist in our society. Those who die are more likely to have faced discrimination. The real invitation to those of us living in the in-between is a real understanding for the challenges faced by those living in poverty, those who are discriminated every day, those who lived limits to their freedoms and benefits before a pandemic world? In pandemic, it is easy to accept a world of government "bailouts" where no one is shamed. I wonder, is it possible, to transform this shared suffering into lasting empathy.
And what of the working poor. As Marti notes, I'be been shaken by Revenu du Quebec ads celebrating giving an extra $100 for essential workers making $28,600 per year or less. The acceptance of the fact that essential workers earn less than a living wage is unconscionable.
Jesus told stories to illuminate the unconscionable.
Jesus focused on the in-between because of the power they can unleash. In the story, they were invited to move beyond their complaint about personal fairness to social justice. This is the illumination of the Bible story, and this is the illumination of COVID-19, illuminations that unleash spirit energies for change. The Winnipeg strike of 1919, a strike that changed the landscape of Canada, happened after a pandemic.
So the invitation is to unleash our spirit energy in two ways.
First, we live a consciousness that is grateful for the blessing we live in this land as well as taking time to be honest with our own pains and struggles. Our pains and struggle cannot be ignored, because that is what nurtures empathy for the pains and struggles of another. Equally, we allow ourselves to be grounded in a spirit that reminds us of the original goodness and blessings, the abundance of creation and God that is intended for all to celebrate and share.
Second, we are called to see what the kin-dom of God is like, and imagine the ways we can make our world a home for God’s kin-dom. To have eyes, ears, and hearts that are open, that are willing, that will not despair but stand on the shoulders of our ancestors in the faith.
This is the spirit energy embodied in the prayer sung by Holly Near. May we make this song our prayer.
I am open and I am willing
To be hopeless would seem so strange
It dishonors those who go before us
So lift me up to the light of change
There is hurting in my family
There is sorrow in my town
There is panic in the nation
There is wailing the whole world round
May the children see more clearly
May the elders be more wise
May the winds of change caress us
Even though it burns our eyes
Give me a mighty oak to hold my confusion
Give me a desert to hold my fears
Give me a sunset to hold my wonder
Give me an ocean to hold my tears
Even if we are not together, together let us cry...
Remember there is so much love. Because we love, we cry.
These words for a refrain in a stirring poem written by Nova Scotia poet, Sheree Fitch, for the on-line vigil in the wake of the Nova Scotia mass shooting last weekend, a vigil held on CBC television earlier this week. This is a poem that immediately resonates. How many tears have we shed because we have loved and love?
Fitch’s poem speaks about the abundance and enduring power of love, not dissimilar to the poem of love we have in our Christian tradition, that poem in I Corinthians where the poet notes that we might have the language of angels and the heavens and even have the ability to understand all mysteries, but without love, then we are only a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. Love matters most. Later, in the poem, characteristics of love are named noting that love is not happy with evil but rejoices with truth. Subsequently, the poet expressing the deep knowledge that love can result in tears and heartache because we can only see through a mirror dimly.
Love is straightforward to understand, even to respond to. All of us know love and experience many beautiful expressions of love as we walk through life. We also recognize that we live in a complicated world therefore love must negotiate these complications, complications like the unthinkable actions that happened in Nova Scotia this past week.
These tough experiences, experiences of loss, bring into focus primacy of love, and the truth that because we love we cry. In addition, in experiences where there is no rhyme or reason, processing our love and our loss has complications.
Life has complications, and those complications combined with our own complications, draws attention to the challenges of living love. I am complicated, I only see through a mirror dimly, and I live among complicated people and therefore relationships are complicated.
Jesus understood these complications and grappled with this complexity of living love in our world by telling a story, the story of a prodigal parent and a prodigal child. The word “prodigal” is attached to the story. The word actually doesn’t appear in the story, but the meaning of prodigal is significant. Prodigal means to be extravagant, extravagant in a wasteful kind of way. Words like lavish and generous are associated with being prodigal. This world is awash with a prodigal love.
In the parable Jesus told, the parent is extravagant and wasteful in actions directed towards a child, and the child is extravagant and wasteful with the benefits and riches of the parent.
Let me quickly remind you of the story. A father has two sons and the younger son asks the father for his inheritance which the father, in a rather surprising and lavish moment actually gives the full inheritance to the son and the son immediately leaves home for a far away land where he squanders the inheritance. The inheritance is spent. After squandering the inheritance, the son finding himself destitute, secures employment feeding pigs only to realize he is eating worse than the pigs. In that moment the son comes to his senses and decides to return home hoping if his father might treat him like a servant; however the father surprises again, runs and greets the returning son, puts a cloak around him, and kills the fattened calf for a party.
Meanwhile the older son who has never left is not even told about the party, discovers the merriment only as he comes back from toiling in the fields and even has to ask a servant what is going on in order to learn his younger brother has returned. The elder son is displeased, and so the father comes to calm the son assuring him that his inheritance remains secure, but also invites the older son to rejoice because a lost son has come home, the son is invited to be prodigal with grace.
What the older son decides is left untold.
This story that Jesus told is multi-layered. There is a hint of reference to the unconditional universal love of the sacred that is abundant and extravagant, that is prodigal, a remembering of so much love. This is one reason for telling this story.
There is another reasons. The story also hints at the ways that Jesus, as storyteller, understood complexities of life, and so wove a tale that identified that complexity. Sometimes the loving pathway draws one into a near embrace and sometimes the loving pathway has to let go and let be, allow for distance. Sometimes love has to accept the distancing another chooses even when personally painful. We have the pain of loss woven into our living of love. In addition, love demands honest and heart wrenching conversation in order for the healing of reconciliation.
The ending of the story recognizes that while love is powerful and good, love is not always received or chosen. Love can be rebuffed leading to other messes. We know all about this and the tragedies that can occur when love is not lived.
This is the reason why the story ends before the older brother makes a decision, ends because Jesus as storyteller is inviting the listener to enter the story. The story invites conversation, inviting application to the particular complexities of life for the listener, invites a choice for love.
This story is an invitational imagination project of writing ourselves into the text.
In a moment I will read a poem that Jane Sly introduced me to by Allison Funk titled “The Prodigal’s Mother Speaks to God”. In this poem, the poet explores corners of the story not told, yet easy to imagine. The poet offers another voice, the voice of a mother. This mother is truthful and wise, dedicated and weary, a mother recognizing the complexities of love, a mother seeking to see clearly, even though she too understands that she looks through a mirror darkly, a mother struggling in figuring out the way to live love.
This poem hints at a myriad of lived experiences without explicating any, hints at experiences we know, the complications of loving in times of rivalry and addiction and estrangement, the complications of loving in times of betrayal and bitterness and deteriorating mental health. The poet hints at the pain of death or divorce or disappearance.
Over-riding it all, is a passion, is a love, a love that is not romanticized, but the love that happens in the real and the gritty. Listen
When he returned a second time, the straps of his sandals broken, his robe stained with wine, it was not as easy to forgive.
By then his father was long gone himself, leaving me with my other son, the sullen on whose anger is the instrument he tunes from good morning on.
I know there is no room for a man in the womb.
So when I saw my youngest coming from far off, so small he seemed, a kid unsteady on its legs. She-goat what will you do? I thought, remembering when he learned to walk
Shape shifter! It's like looking through water--the head bends, it blurs everything: brush, precipice.
A shambles between us.
Again, no ending but an invitation, invitation for love to cross shambles.
The poet draws us all into a common experience of choosing love, a choice that reminds us that we are not alone, but rather belong in the company of a great throng of people who are all trying to put words around the complexities of love, and put words around the complexities of faith and of hope. For these three endure faith, hope and love and because we love, we cry. This is something we share.
Today our Biblical parable linked with two poems invites us to remember there is so much love even as we recognize the challenges and tragedies, the joys and possibilities that come with living love. This parable and these two poems are honest, speaking to God about the realities of our living, invites us to share our common experiences so that we can come together with empathy and compassion, and so that together we can be hospitable to love, hospitable to when love hurts, hospitable to when love triumphs, and hospitable to that call of love that brings us home whatever home is for each of us.
This love speaks truthfully, stand for justice, works against abuse and domestic violence, and embraces the complexity of living. May we welcome and remember the power alive in the constancy of love and respond to the invitations to live as a people of humility and grace before life's complexity, responding to the invitation from the Holy, the invitation from God, to live love in the complexities and beauty of our world.
In the season of Easter, we consider the resurrection narratives.
One narrative describes two friends walking home, a walk that took them from Jerusalem to a satellite village called Emmaus. One of the two friends is Cleopas, a character not previously appearing in the gospel of Luke, a representative of the wide circle that surrounded Jesus. The other person remains unnamed. We do not know if it is a man or a woman or someone of another gender identity. Perhaps the two are married, perhaps siblings or family members, or friends, soul mates.
The storyteller describes a trust between the two, a trust capable of deep conversation, talking about “all the things” that have happened in the last few days and weeks. The “things” had to do with the crucifixion of Jesus as well as the stories of a Spirited re-appearings. The “things” had to do with all the impacts of the teachings and heal of Jesus, the controversies and social upheaval, the drive for justice and for a renewed compassion.
The “things” probe a significant time, not only in their lives, but in the life of the world. While discussing “all these things”, a stranger joined them. The storyteller informs the reader that the stranger is the Rising Jesus but, for the characters in the story, their eyes are kept from recognizing the Rising Jesus.
As the narrative unfolds, the stranger assumes a posture of unknowing, asking the two what they were talking about. The two are incredulous that this stranger does not know what is happening, but this unknowing posture elicits from the two their story. They talked about their hopes, the hope that Jesus of Nazareth was a leader who would help the people in a liberation movement that would free them from their oppressors, and they talked about their loss, about the devastation of the crucifixion and the grief of the death of Jesus and the dashing of their hopes, and they also talked, tentatively yet with a sense of wonder upon hearing stories of women who had encountered appearances of a rising Jesus. Hard to know what to make of it all.
The stranger listened as the two recounted the story, got the whole story out of them if you will. The Holy in Jesus honoured their story, giving space for them to tell their story and even to come to know their own story in a deeper way. Through the telling of story, awareness is awakened. The two spoke both their insights and their confusions. They gave voice to what still blinded them, even as a deep awakening was stirring in the heart.
I don’t know about you, but I am stirred by “all the things” I am hearins as I isten to the stories happening as we walk through this significant season of COVID-19. Many of us are still grasping to find the words to name what is really going on, but as we walk through this experience, we recognize the significance. This event is impacting our lives and our world. Stories provide a framework for meaning.
The holy, having heard these two on the road tell their story, connects their experience with their sacred story. The gospel storyteller indicates that the unrecognized rising Jesus frames “all these things” by returning to the prophets, beginning with Moses, and then the stranger offers insight and interpretation and a renewed understanding of the meaning and impacts of the teachings and healings and controversies and social upheavals that Jesus of Nazareth, as a prophet, was all about.
The holy awakens these two friends to the workings of the sacred, awakens them to begin seeing God’s presence in the significance of their story and experience. What was happening was significant, not to be missed.
I won’t speak for anyone else but myself. This strange season of “staying home” is awakening stuff for me personally, some rich and beautiful, some troubling and challenging. This “staying home” as a whole world is awakening in me an amazement at the capacity of our world to rally around a common cause and to take a stand for life with a greater solidarity than I had ever imagined possible. I am not merely talking about efforts like “one world together” but I find more inspiring the on-line conversation happening in twos and threes, not to mention the inspiring creative and courageous things happening. Equally, I am stilled by how “strange season” is illuminating social inequities with a vivid clarity that is sobering
One can feel the uprising of spirited energies, an awakening, an opening of the eyes, that if chosen, can be transformative.
The friends reached their home. The two knew they could not let the stranger walk away and be forgotten.
They invited the deepening awareness “into the home”, into the place closest to the heart. They invited the deepening awareness to stay with them.
Then, as they gathered around the table, the stranger took initiative, took bread, blessed the bread, and broke it.
In that instance, the two recognized the Rising Jesus, recognized that spirit of life which could not remain buried in a tomb, recognized that the spirit of life cannot forever remained locked behind doors, the two saw the rising love and compassion of “all these things”.
In that same instance, the storyteller indicates that the stranger vanishes.
The stranger vanishes, but not vanishing is the broken bread and not vanishing is the stirring of the hearts of the two friends. They look at one another and recognized that they had been in the presence of the holy, the flames of Spirit had warmed their hearts, actually it was like a fire burning within, a fire of renewed passion as the two quickly danced themselves back to Jerusalem knowing that the Christ-story was not ending, the Christ-story was just beginning. The stranger vanished, but the Christ-story dances on. This is the testimony of the storyteller.
We live in both strange and significant times. All of us are bidden to walk path we have not walked before. As we negotiate so much that is unknown, it is our sacred stories and the words of the prophets and the teachings of Christ Jesus that are a lamp unto our feet and a light for our path.
So, in these strange and significant times, we tell our stories, speak our hopes and dreams, voice our fears and uncertainties, name our treasures and our losses, and as we tell our stories we also hear stories, stories that awaken a deepening compassion, especially for those who face hardships and traumas, a compassion seeking agency. This agency invites us, perhaps even compels us, to add our part to the great dance, to be lifted into the sphere of grace, to receive the wisdom that comes in this unexpected strange time, to wonder about what is yet to be discovered, to anticipate the possibilities of the unseen days ahead.
For me, I find myself in this story, not quite at the ending yet, but at the point where I am just getting really used to be at home, just at the point of inviting the holy stranger in to stay for a while, to stay with me in this time of staying home, to stay so that I can learn, and to stay in order to provide strength as I hold in the heart a world in a time of pain and crisis, a world in a time of having understanding and unexpected and a new story-line broken open through the recognizable act of breaking bread together.
It is a strange time, but holy things happen when the holy strangers is invited to stay.