Living the word

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

In the year 70 C.E., 10 to 20 years before many scholars think the gospel of Matthew was written, the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed by the Roman army in the first Jewish-Roman war. Although not mentioned by name in any of the gospel readings, the city of Jerusalem—and particularly the temple, which was the center of Jewish life, power, and sacrifice-based worship—is present in the parables of judgment and the controversy stories that we read this month. Jerusalem is background, foreshadowing, main character, and hermeneutical key.

Not 20 verses before the first gospel reading for this month are the dramatic events that we remember during Lent. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the political and religious center of Jewish life, “humble, and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5). The next day, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Matthew 21:12). It is against these conflicts with the Jerusalem leadership that we read the parables, controversies, and aphorisms that follow.

After the tables have been turned, an event that politically oriented commentators call the “temple action,” the gospel of Matthew contains a unique image. The center of worship is symbolically destroyed, but amid the scattered tables, coins, and livestock an alternative center is offered with the most marginal at its heart. The blind and lame, and children crying “hosanna” pour into the temple in a celebration of healing and praise for a very different kind of kingdom (Matthew 21:14-15). As we struggle to understand the destruction and violence, it is the little ones at the center who we must remember.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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A Harsh and Dreadful Love

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, developed her ideas about Christ­ianity in conversation with literature and the work of radical hospitality. She often quoted the chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov titled “A Lady of Little Faith,” in which the elder Father Zosima exhorts a wealthy woman to “active love” as a remedy for her doubts. “Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.”

When she confesses her sentimental dreams of a life of service to the poor and her fear of their ingratitude, Zosima—while re­maining kind—delivers a scathing critique of charity, which is chiefly about controlling and defining the one who is in need. “I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you,” he concludes, “for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”

Love is central to the readings from Romans and Philippians this month. But the lections from Matthew, in which Jesus and his companions approach Jerusalem, lean more toward the harsh and dreadful. They ask what love means in practical terms. How do we resolve conflicts in community? How do we love one another in a world of complex economic and social relationships? How do we deal with authority and power? How do we honor our families?

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She lived for 10 years in a Catholic Worker house. www.laureldykstra.com

September 7

Love in Action

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Romans 13:9-10 says that all the commandments are “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2008
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Lives and Fishes

Wind across the quay-side / Grit in my eyes and fish in my nose / White as whalebone, wheeling seagulls cry.

—from “Never So Free,” by Bruce Cockburn

The gospel of Matthew is alive with fish: Nets are filled with them (Matthew 13:47), fishers are called to catch human beings (Matthew 4:18-19), and a crowd is fed on a few loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:17-20). According to biblical historian K.C. Hanson, “because Jesus made his residence in the fishing village of Capernaum during his ministry and traveled up, down, and across the Sea of Galilee, the lives of these real fishing families became the fabric from which he wove many of his metaphors and told his stories.”

This month the gospel readings from Matthew 14-16 are drawn from the stark realities of this family-based fishing economy and its encounter with Rome.

Near Capernaum, three miracles—a feeding, a sea rescue, and a healing and restoration—remind us that even today the very poor are the people who are most harmed by famine and hunger, disease and disability, and storms and natural disasters.

In quite different ways, the feeding story and Jesus’ encoun­ter with a Canaanite woman highlight the importance of women, surplus food, and children. And although we find a complex and detailed portrait of the fisherman Peter, in Matthew it is not the known insiders but nameless women who represent the model of faithfulness.

August 3

Not Counting Women and Children

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Beside the Sea of Galilee, a crowd is fed on a few loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:16-21). According to the New English Translation, about 5,000 ate, “not counting women and children.” But bad things happen when women and children aren’t counted, and fish are not always a sign of abundance.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2008
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Life Lessons

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables …” (Matthew 13:1-3).

Most of the gospel readings this month come from a collection of parables, sometimes called the sermon on the water, which form the structural and thematic heart of Matthew.

Parables are not concrete examples to help simple people who might not otherwise understand lofty spiritual matters. Quite the opposite is true. Through parables, Jesus asserts that the raw stuff of the daily life of the poor—debt bondage, subsistence farming, day labor pools, taxes, crop contamination, food preparation—is vital to understanding the reign of God, or as it says in Matthew, “the kingdom of heaven.”

We hear the phrase “kingdom of heaven” seven times in this month’s gospel readings. In Matthew the words are used where identical passages in the other gospels say the “ kingdom of God.” The author of Matthew is not describing a different reality but honoring the Jewish prohibition on uttering or writing the name of God. The kingdom described is the same “this-world” reality of economic justice, community, abundance, and radical inclusion. Matthew’s kingdom of heaven is not pie in the sky when you die.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

July 6

Come Out and Play
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25;
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In a gospel that calls us repeatedly to hear and listen, we begin with a noisy passage full of calling, quarreling, wailing, and flutes. This first reading is the odd one out in a month of kingdom parables.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2008
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Uncomfortable Words

We have returned now to what some churches call “ordinary time,” a designation more to do with the numbering of weeks than a plain or mundane time. Rather than celebrating a particular event or season, each Sunday in ordinary time is a celebration of resurrection—which isn’t so ordinary after all.

After Easter readings from Acts, Luke, and John, we return to the Hebrew Bible and gospel of Matthew. This month we read passages from the first half of the gospel; some are lengthy, some very short, some ignore divisions that most scholars recognize, others skip verses in the middle of a passage, some are collected sayings of Jesus, and others narrate scenes of action. All of them disturb me.

As a child I puzzled over these words from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith to all who truly turn to him.” This month’s gospel lections seem to be composed instead of uncomfortable words, words that assail us where we are most complacent. The portrait of Jesus and his call to discipleship is harsh and challenging. Ongoing action, radical inclusion, obligatory hospitality, divided families, and life-changing welcomes all call into question the divisions and barriers we use to define ourselves and to keep ourselves safe.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture

and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia.

www.laureldykstra.com

June 1

Just Do It

Genesis 6:9-22, 7:24, 8:14-19; Psalm 46; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31; Matthew 7:21-29

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Sojourners Magazine June 2008
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The Creator of Life

Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are not three distinct seasons, but rather celebrations of and grapplings with three aspects of Christ’s resurrection and what they mean about Jesus, God, Spirit, and us.

Jesus’ friends and companions were adamant. Jesus had died, was brutally executed as a criminal and disruptor, but he continued to live. They saw him, re­ceived messages from him, and were different because of it. Jesus was with them individually and in community.

Easter did not just happen one morning 2,000 years ago, and it does not happen one Sunday a year; it happens over and over again through the life of the church and the life of those who would follow Jesus. It happens after the chocolate and jelly beans are gone; it happens when we know that love and hope have died. Then and now, powers and principalities say no to resistance, but God says yes to life. Death does not have the last word. Each new Christian generation has Easter experiences that demand the absurd proclamation, “He is alive!”

This month’s reflections look at passages from Acts, Psalms, Isaiah, and Genesis. As we read both the texts and the resurrection-filled world around us, I have focused on bodies, laughter, and the earth itself—lest we become, as my mother often quoted, “so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

May 4

Slapstick Comedy

Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

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Sojourners Magazine May 2008
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Resistance and Survival

The books of Luke, Acts, and 1 Peter dominate the readings this month; Peter and Paul are key players. Passages from Acts replace those from the Hebrew Bible so that the only He­brew content is the Psalms. This leaves us seemingly cut off from the prophetic tradition and the reality of Jesus and his companions as Jews. It also brings into sharp focus the struggles of the early church in the years after the crucifixion.

As Christianity spread from Palestine into other parts of the Roman Empire, the various communities swung between resistance and assimilation. In their quest to survive this hostile environment, they sought both to establish an identity and to present Christianity as nonthreatening to Roman authority and decorum. In this bid for survival, those who were least valued in the Roman patriarchal household—women and slaves—were in some sense abandoned. Unfortunately, the later church, and even modern churches, have read this compromise as a mandate.

In a talk on prophetic religion, Junaid Ahmad, a progressive Muslim, reflected on his many invitations to speak to other faith groups, with the implication that he is to show why Islam is not threatening. He counters with the challenge, “Why is your faith not a threat? In the face of a dehumanizing global economy that is an affront to the divine, why have you abandoned the prophetic call of your tradition?” Is “nonthreatening” the best people of faith can do?

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia. www.laureldykstra.com

April 6

Heads, Hearts, and Bellies

Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

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Sojourners Magazine April 2008
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Word on the Street

This month, as we enter the high season of the church year, the common lectionary offers an overwhelming number of biblical passages for our consideration. We leave Matthew temporarily, the gospel assigned for the year, and focus on the gospel of John. Certain aspects of Johannine theology dominate our understanding of Lent and Easter, and the church’s focus is on Jesus’ suffering, death, and divine nature. As a counterpoint I have chosen to reflect onthe life of Jesus and the community around him. Some threads that run through these reflections are resistance, action, and a rag-tag community of outsiders.

Although it wasn’t my plan when I started writing, another uniting factor in these offerings is the street, a place where I have most consistently found, or been found by, resurrection. Life in the urban core of modern cities is worlds away from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and more different still from the rural life of peasant farmers and fishers like Jesus and his friends. But in the inner city, these margins at the center of our world and the biblical world intersect. The fragility of lives, the killing effects of poverty, and the stark reality that in the eyes of empire our lives are cheap—these are true in both places. In the city our sacred story encounters the sacred stories of the people who live there.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

March 2

Panhandling

1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

“Any spare change? Can you spare any change?” When we hear the words do we look or turn away?

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Sojourners Magazine March 2008
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A Season of Repentance

Christians tell the same story over and over even though we know how it ends. We dread the execution even as we anticipate the resurrection. The wisdom of our tradition asserts that our path is not a line but a circle—or a spiral. As we turn from Epi­ph­any to Lent we leave the joy and wonder of the incarnation, moving from revelation and recognition to the hard work of repentance.

Forgetting that we were created for joy, many of us wrongly equate repentance with renouncing pleasure. We act as if our greatest sins were watching too much TV or eating too many chocolates. By “giving them up for Lent,” we continue to participate in the culture of consumption and individualism with a program of self-improvement.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Hes­chel wrote, “Repentance is an ab­solute, spiritual decision made in truthfulness. Its motivations are remorse for the past and responsibility for the future.” Could this be so for us?

On the surface, it might not look so different. We might still put down the chocolate bar and turn off the television, but we might also talk about our cultural addiction to spectacle, or forced child labor in the chocolate industry. Lent might look different if together we supported and created alternative media. And, rather than trading our sodas for bottled water, we stood with indigenous women defending their sacred waters.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com

February 3

See and Listen

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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Voices of Truth

In the Northern Hemisphere, the short days and long nights of winter come with lectionary readings full of references to dark and light. Each Isaiah reading speaks of darkness and light: “Arise, shine; for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1); “I will give you as a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6); “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2). Psalm 27 begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” and Matthew 4:15-16 quotes Isaiah 9:1-2. In each passage, darkness indicates danger, fear, and occupation; light is associated with God, Israel, joy, and salvation.

Christians living in a racist world need to acknowledge this scriptural pattern and be aware of the harm it has caused, the ways it has been exaggerated and distorted in Christian theology and hymnody to say that white is good and black is bad. We need to reclaim and proclaim the many positive biblical references to Africa and Africans and the positive references to darkness. In the same passage where Israel is a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6), we find the beautiful dark images of a mother’s womb (Isaiah 49:1) and the shadow of God’s hand (Isaiah 49:2).

If, as the title of this magazine section implies, we are not simply to read but to live the ambiguous and contradictory word that is our sacred story, we must be challenged and struggle, and we must act and speak against racism when we encounter it.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.

January 6

A Disturbing Gift

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

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Sojourners Magazine January 2008
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