Joy Cowley: Come and See #64
It's a great time of year for story telling!
In my family, when we gather at this time of year, it s all stories about what people have been doing during the year and what they hope to do in the coming year... and invariably there are the stories about 'what we always do' as older generations pass on to the younger generations stories about our family traditions... what we do and why. Sometimes I can hardly believe what I hear as the variations are as numerous as the people telling the story. There are speeches too as new family members are welcomed and guests are introduced and welcomed. We enjoy hearing about who these people are and about ourselves as we are introduced to them - our background, our attitudes and what we have done that others think is important - again, sometimes it's hard to recognise our selves but always fun with matters of significance clearly recognisable as the accounting for the year, the family mythology and the hopes for the future are talked about.
It is curious, and easy to forget, that neither of the stories from Mark or John, the gospels set down in the lectionary for use at this time of year - the first and the last of the gospels to be recorded according to contemporary scholarship - that neither of these have the birth narratives in them: neither the Bethlehem stable birth nor the visitation of the magi. The visit of the Magi tends to take centre stage in this time of year we call Epiphany, as if it were history. Both gospels, in their different ways, are telling 'Jesus stories', introducing him to their hearers. Both story tellers are setting out what they think is important about this man; both retelling earlier stories to a new generation of people - persuading them that they should listen and take note and follow this important 'mythbearer' ; this 'god-person' who can change lives.
John chooses to use signs and symbols to make his point. Signs and symbols easily recognisable to his audience and designed to convince hearers of Jesus pedigree and to set him within the 'big story' of the people of Israel and their relationship with their God. Symbols such as 'Nathanael' - representing the twelve tribes of Israel (all the people of the known world), and the 'fig tree' that points toward abundant life, and the phrase 'come and see' suggesting wisdom/insight and relationship.
After his opening theological statement symbolising Jesus' origins and relationship with God, he then tells a story painting a picture of the commencement of Jesus' ministry with the invitation to Andrew and Simon and how they set off to Galilee, picking up Philip and Nathanael on the way. Nathanael was reluctant and asks the others somewhat sarcastically "if anything good could come out of Nazareth?" to which John has Jesus reply again using symbol language "come and see" (signifying both relationship and wisdom) - as he had to Andrew and Peter.
For me, it is this phrase 'come and see', that hooks me in and it makes room for the travelling magi too who, (in the other gospels), had 'come to see' the babe in the manger. In popular speak we often call the magi the 'wise men' - and the myth tells us they came to see for themselves the new life full of hope and potential lying in the stable manger.
About now , as the new year is getting underway, we can ask ourselves in all seriousness
What it is we 'see' when we look at the church: when we look at ourselves as a community of 'followers of the Jesus way'
Are what you see, and what you hope others might see in line with the 'big story' that encompasses Jesus within the salvation hopes of the Gospel writers?
Are they in line with the 'big story', the alternative story, that Jesus and his followers were attempting to live out and proclaim in their day: the story of love and hope, of protest and justice of peace and of caring enough to act for change where things were not life giving?
What do you hope they will see when they look at us?
people telling the story of salvation - that is of life and healing?
people building friendship communities - relationships of justice and regard?
people working for 'salvation' - for justice that changes pain and death into life-giving sufficiency and hopefulness.
As 'church' we can collectively, and as individuals too, tell a counter narrative to the prevailing story that dominates our public media - the one which individualises and isolates people and is dependent on economic ups and downs, the accrual of wealth and manipulation of markets.
We can open our eyes to see those things that are focused on wealth and that need to be changed so all might have enough of what we need live in healthy ways. And, we can all 'open our hearts' to seek the courage to change our ways if we need to.
But, what we can't do is close our eyes any longer to climate change, to the implications of the world wide weather events of the last few months (including here in NZ). Because, our human health depends on the health of the planet and unless we are seeking environmental justice - salvation for the earth - there can be no salvation for humanity - none for us or for other sentient beings, we will die. Remember the phrase in the Genesis creation story the God repeats after each act of creation "and God saw it was good". Well how are we doing in our respect for those 'good' things?
Today our air is polluted,
our waterways contaminated (toxic),
our aquifers salted, our lands flooded or burned to a cinder, or dried out, or frozen.
Our earth is unable to repair itself, to heal itself fast enough in the face of the rapidity of our degradation of our beautiful our blue/green planet, and our stripping off its non-renewable resources.
We are not giving it a chance.
Those of us like me, who have deconstructed the stories of our faith over recent years, are perhaps in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water and are in danger of not hearing the wisdom in them.
We have so deconstructed the stories of our faith, those stories that encouraged the previous generations, that they can no longer inspire us to care for each other and to care for the earth.
In earlier times we came to know our human selves as the pinnacle of God's creation, as the species with rights to use all the resources of the earth for our own benefit. We came to know ourselves as the ones who are 'made' in God's image with the power to use and destroy, to create and to change the way things are. These same stories had mystery and awe threaded through them pointing to partnership and responsibility, care and love.
It seems to me it is us, we who have deconstructed those symbolic stories that painted pictures of healing and wisdom, of care and regard and justice-making love, who have to find and proclaim a counter narrative to the one our contemporaries have shaped, we need a story for our time about the place of humanity, our current responsibilities and the nature of our planet earth, we need a story that can bring hope and healing in our time.
It is those of us willing to ask questions about those old stories and the interpretations and 'truths' that were found within them and passed on giving shape to the systems of belief we have inherited, those interpretations that are causing so much damage today - it is us who have the critical task of faith in our time, to work hard to see new truths contained in the images symbols and poetry of those old inspirational stories.
It seems to me those of us who hang into the community of church can't quite abandon the 'truths' we have come to know, or the stories that are familiar to us, or our search for 'God', for meaning. I am daring to say, with Sally McFague that at the very least, we have clung on to the belief that we find God present in even the 'smallest scrap of life and goodness still in us.' (McFague, Sally. A New Climate for Theology p 173) She writes "In the worst of times people often say "all we have is God" Indeed, here, 'God' is the thread of hope that desperate people hold on to... God is not a being but, whatever shred of hope is left. It is very small indeed sometimes, but it is enough..."
As the wellbeing of the earth begins to look more and more precarious after decades of thoughtless abuse, and our human life and wellbeing is in question, the counter narrative we Christians have to tell a story of hope can, dare I say must, become stronger and louder.
We can proclaim hope in a world saved from destruction
we can tell of the difference caring enough to behave differently can have;
we can proclaim the capacity we have to act in life giving ways;
we can dare to declare a vision of a world where enough is what we are prepared to settle for, enough for everyone ,not obesity of bank accounts, obesity of housing or the need for more 'stuff'.
We can proclaim human power to act differently toward life, the planet and each other.
So, as we begin 2018 the 'big-story' we tell will need to be of balanced interdependence (humanity and the earth), of careful stewardship - kaitiakitanga. It will be a story of respect that includes the earth and doesn't any longer put humans and their greed centre stage. We will open our eyes to see where the signs of life are, where God is, where the signs of restorative care for people and for our earth are evident - and we will put our effort and support there, into those places. we are partners with the earth and with other people in ensuring our mutual wellbeing.
To return to the awesome poetic picture language of the writer of John's gospel
We need to see 'the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending' - or some other amazing sign of relationship and that life is being restored and the fig trees are fruiting abundantly once more.