Looking Lectionary: Proper 19A/Ordinary 24A/Pentecost +15

 

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Banksy. Image source.

 

A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.

Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

In Matthew 18:15-20, we saw that Jesus took the very human impulse to shun outliers from fellowship and urged his disciples to treat them as “pagans and tax collectors” – which seems harsh until you remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors! In this week’s reading, Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus’ teaching becomes more explicit as he first tells Peter to forgive sins “seventy times seven” (an infinite amount) and then cautions his disciples via the parable of the ungrateful servant to forgive as they’ve been forgiven.

Theoretically, we Christians should be great at this. We’ve experienced first hand (and daily continue to) the love, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Yet it seems like we’re often the worst of the worst when it comes to mercy! We erroneously assign ourselves as the gatekeeper to the sheep pen rather than as sheep under the guidance of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and use this “gatekeeper” mentality to try and put up walls between people – imperfect people, people who don’t look, act or think the way we do, people we feel threatened by or superior over – and Jesus. It’s the height of arrogance, and I think it’s rooted in a very simple misconception: we think the debt is ours to forgive.

In the parable of the unforgiving servant, we learn that the servant owes a huge amount of money to his king – ten thousand talents, a talent being equivalent to twenty years of a day labourer’s wage. It’s an insurmountable debt. Jesus was using hyperbole to demonstrate how ludicrous the repayment of such a sum was and to show how much was being forgiven.

When the forgiven servant finds another who owes him a hundred denarii, or the equivalent of a hundred days’ of a labourer’s wage, he flies into a rage. But if we read this attentively, we realise that the money the forgiven servant was demanding back probably wasn’t his to begin with. He’d lent it from the coffers of his own fraud. That he’d demand back stolen money as if it was his own makes his cruelty and ingratitude all the worse.

Christians often act the same way. When we see people whose “sin” we don’t agree with (or aren’t guilty of in our own estimation) we put on the brass knuckles to pummel them…”for God”. Whenever we move into God’s judgment seat or attempt to take the reigns of his wrath, we’re laying claim to a debt that was never to us or ours to begin with. Like the ungrateful servant, we go around demanding back what doesn’t rightfully belong to us: God’s grace.

The Nashville Statement is a good example of this. A body of Christians used their brand of theology to “defend” God’s righteousness and salvation against anybody who doesn’t look, act or think the way they do. Rather than use the enormous gift of grace they received themselves to shine the beacon of freedom in Christ, they’ve used their reprieve to withhold reprieve from others.

Friends, how arrogant are we when we behave this way! The Nashville Statement is a very visible example, but opportunities to act as a debt collector for a debt that isn’t ours – to steal, in others words, much like him of the thieving and destroying – are everywhere. Proper 19A’s narrative reading is a great time and place to remind ourselves and those around us just what we have in God’s grace, and that our calling is to humbly enlarge this circle of God’s light, not to patrol its borders with exclusionary theology, fear and judgment.

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Book review: The Gunslinger by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #1)

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Though I was a big Stephen King fan back in high school (a result as much of his books as our limited local library I fear), I’ve never actually finished The Dark Tower series. I zipped through the first three books and started on the fourth, but there was a long flashback and I lost my appetite for it. I’ve been meaning to reread and finish the series ever since, but it wasn’t until its sort-of adaptation loomed in theatres that I actually made good on my intentions.

The Gunslinger picks up Roland Deschain’s quest as he battles his way across a desert in pursuit of The Man in Black, a figure who (in The Gunslinger at least) is part phantom and part prophet – a shadow from the haunt of Roland’s past. Roland, his world’s last gunslinger (think Knight meets cowboy meets king), wants The Man in Black to lead him to the Dark Tower, a tower that stands at the centre of all worlds and holds them all together. Roland’s world is breaking down, and in finding the Tower he hopes to find a cure. But The Man in Black is a cunning enemy and has laid his traps well…

It was interesting to reread The Gunslinger a decade after I read it first. It’s not quite as good as I remember, but I think that’s maybe because ten years on I can better separate my appreciation of King as a writer from his actual work, and his work is often problematic. Reading The Gunslinger and its sequels (at the time of writing this, I’m on novel number five, The Wolves of Calla) it’s pretty hard not to run up against the “wall” of his maleness and even his whiteness, and many of the things I once found charming about his writing now annoy me.

Still, this is Stephen King we’re talking about, one of his generation’s most popular and prolific writers. He’s a storyteller with a passion for his characters, whether those characters take up whole novels or just a paragraph, and his interest in them feeds your own. The Gunslinger plants the seed from which the whole series sprouts: Roland, his ghosts, his loneliness and his stubborn, desperate, hopeless quest to change things the reader suspects are far past changing…

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Gunslinger
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner (1982, 2003)
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.99/5)
The best feature of the book: Probably King’s ability to draw in and draw together. Its biggest boon, though, is that it’s very accessible for a fantasy novel: not as remote and dense as high fantasy, but little like his usual fare either.
The worst feature of the book: The unlikely sex scenes.
Trigger warnings: There’s non-consensual sexual contact and murder of varying degrees of violence.
You’ll like this if… You’re a fantasy fan or a Stephen King loyalist.

Hope against all hope: a #MondayPrayer

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Lord oh Lord oh Lord…

As You invented the seven-day week model, I hold You personally responsible for Mondays. A big part of me wants to hold you responsible for this Monday in particular; for everything from my bad night’s sleep to floods in India to the real possibility that I’ll check Twitter at some point today and see that North Korea and the US’s posturing men children leaders have started a nuclear war. I want to hold You responsible for the prayer request I received from a woman in a terrible situation. I want to hold You responsible for me.

This is very unfair of me I know, and hardly deserved. Still, sometimes the gulf between knowing something and feeling something is nigh insurmountable. I think You know about that gulf: after all, against all caution, You created us and hoped… Someone’s clearly an optimist.

I think it’s that hope I need most this week: hope against all hope. Hope against all hope that sleep will be caught up, that Tuesday won’t loom as large, that cooler heads will prevail, that the places that need sunshine more than rain will get it and that the places that need rain rather than sunshine will get it too. Hope that a married man will come to his senses or fall down a hole (either will do). Hope that I could be less of a Dumpster fire (I did say hope against all hope).

I need Your hope. The whole world needs Your hope.

Praying for it today, Lord, and for Trump’s Twitter app to crash.

Amen.

Looking Lectionary (Proper 18A/Ordinary 23A/Pentecost +14)

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Image source.

A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.

Reading: Matthew 18:15-20

It bothers me no end that some folks are going to take a look at Proper 18A’s Gospel reading, nicker to themselves and preach a sermon on church discipline full of emphasis on church authority and covenental relationships and probably as a bonus, gender hierarchy. Because hey, why not? This is Jesus speaking, and Jesus is saying folks should be “subject to” those “above” them; moreover, the church is necessarily more powerful because “where two or three are gathered…”

Shall we tread the same path as these folks? Is Jesus really padding the case for the church-centric theology so popular nowadays?

On a superficial level I suppose we can interpret this snatch of Gospel as Jesus prophetically injecting the future church with credibility and moral authority overs it members. Could he have foreseen the challenges of the church at the time Matthew’s Gospel was composed, several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection? Yessir. So a straight reading wouldn’t be far off the beaten path.

But then this is Jesus we’re dealing with. Jesus, who so often said things to catch his disciples out in their assumptions, and who used irony as a way to weed wheat from chaff. This Jesus told his disciples that those resisting church discipline should be treated as “pagan[s] and tax collector[s]” (v17). The superficial reading cries: “Cast them out!” But when you’ve gotten accustomed to the tenor of Jesus’ ways in the New Testament, you’ll remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. You’ll remember the Roman soldier’s servant he healed, the prominent (and short-statured) publican he dined with, the Canaanite woman’s daughter he exorcised, the Samaritan woman at the well. You’ll remember that Jesus’ harshest criticism wasn’t reserved for the cast out, but for the let in: the ones “let in” who were so keen to police the gates.

If that isn’t enough to ween you off the superficial reading, the easy one that affirms traditional nexuses of power within the church and society, then run an eye over the stories before and after these few verses, specifically the parable that follows: that of the unmerciful servant. Far from commanding his followers to cast out those they deemed unfit to belong, Jesus, I think, foresaw the temptation of power churches so often fail to resist; the temptation of “group think” and spiritual abuse, of tradition and fear of change. It’s us he’s speaking to in these verses, the ones who would use a superficial reading of his words to bully. And he’s telling us to love the broken, love the broken, love the broken.

All that said, this “Jesus perspective” won’t be as easy to preach about as a more superficial reading. The leadership won’t like that their authority is being threatened, and you betcha there will be folks in the pews thinking that this excuses them from accountability for their harmful actions. The uncomfortable truth is that both leadership and errant congregant may be right. In his letters, John the Elder wrote, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” The Church tends to err on the side of power when it comes to love; we call it authority. But – oh dear – what if we err on the side of servanthood when it comes to love, and call it grace? Our churches will be messier, for sure, but might they not be more alive to the Spirit?

That Jesus post scripted his rumination on confronting sinful church members with verses 19-20 (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”) is instructive. In treating each other the way he treated pagans and tax collectors, we leave much more room for His Spirit to work in them and ourselves than when we treat them the way we want to.

Book review: Poison City by Paul Crilley (Delphic Division #1)

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To my shame, I’m not very clued up on the local [South African] speculative fiction scene, so when Paul Crilley’s Poison City first floated across my newsfeed as part of a giveaway I had no idea the story was set in South Africa. That and Goodreads’ advice that Crilley’s novel would appeal to Ben Aaronovitch fans was enough recommendation for me.

Poison City tells the story of Brit immigrant Gideon Tau and his adventures in the insidious and supernatural underbelly of Durban as a special investigator for the Delphic Division, the secret South African branch of the police who deal with things that go bump in the night (or orishas; beings of varying power, from low grunts to deities). Like every noir detective, Tau’s battling demons on more than the professional front, also having to deal with the death of his daughter and the subsequent unravelling of his marriage. When a case turns up involving a dead vampire, Tau and his boss Armitage are pulled into an Apocalyptic showdown.

Tau’s Durban is compelling and rich in atmosphere, and he paints it with a disenchanted lover’s hand: lovingly but unflinchingly. I’d have been content to read about Tau and the Delphic Division’s adventures till Kingdom come. But as the story progresses, Poison City veers into Philip Pullman/Neil Gaiman territory, into divine plots and Armageddon. Crilley’s take on (for lack of a better word) Christian mythology is interesting but tainted with an atheist’s biblical literalism. Still, I did finish the book in a day’s time, so I can’t fault it on intrigue.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Poison City
Author: Paul Crilley
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (2016)
Rating: 2.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.03/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s atmospheric, blackly amusing and scathing towards the follies of authority and humanity. The bits with the dog are funny.
The worst feature of the book: The cynicism is wearing. Tau is a hotbed of white disenfranchisement wrapped in a slick black exterior.
Trigger warnings: Blasphemy of various intensity. Gore. Situations that allude to child abuse. General wickedness. Lots of South African slang. Unwise clothing choices on the part of the narrator.
You’ll like this if… You like this genre of fiction; you like Ben Aaronovitch, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman or Jim Butcher; you want to read something South African for a change.