Sun 01 Sep
You might be wondering about the gingerbread this morning, and what its connection with Father’s Day is. Well, there are a couple of things we know about gingerbread.
One of the good things the Romans did was bring from Africa; and in time it became the favoured spice across Europe. Gingerbread – with that mix of sweet and spicy – first appears in a 1609 recipe (with stale bread and wine in the mix!). Today it’s a comfort food – a good choice of something to bake for a friend, or father, who needs a little cheer.
Secondly, it features in a folk tale from 1875 with the memorable line: “Run, run, as fast as you can; you can’t catch me I’m the gingerbread man.”
It’s rather a sad tale really. Gingy (as the Shrek movie calls him) was made/baked by an old woman to be her surrogate child. But instead he leaps from her oven and runs away. The woman, her husband, farm workers, farm animals all gave chase. But he runs and runs and runs. Finally he is caught and devoured by a fox.
It struck me as something of a parable about the lives of many men I’ve known, who for whatever reason have run and run and run – running from (or for) parental expectations, running to meet the expectations of being a provider, running because that’s what they have been told ‘men are meant to do’ – and finally they are devoured by something that runs faster – like their health, or the loss of their loves.
We need instead parables/stories about the power of stopping, listening, loving, caring, protecting, enabling others… We need parables about gingerbread that give cheer and comfort.
Blessed is a slice of gingerbread
topped with thick butter,
a soul gift for the sick or weary,
symbol of solace.
Blessed are those who express
their love in culinary deeds ,
their attention to detail
a gift of care.
Blessed is the enticing spicy smell
mingling with the morning coffee,
served with tender presence,
a welcome gift.
Blessed is a loaf of gingerbread
still warm from the baking,
ready for the nexus, the re-forming
Children’s Talk – The Bomb by Sacha Cotter
Jesus, in this story from Luke 14, is dining with a group of Pharisees. Not a toll collector or sinner in sight. In order for that dining to happen Jesus must have been an acceptable guest; in other words he must have been observing Torah strictly. Either Luke is making something up here or he is reflecting what was likely to have been the case: Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with those closest to him, his fellow Pharisees.
The arguments between them assume common ground. And the conflicts that arose were because although Jesus was observant of Torah he let compassion rule not only his heart but his behaviour. He not only bent the rules for the sake of compassion, he believed the rules were designed to serve compassion, not compassion the rules. It was his behaviour that offended some of his fellow Pharisees.
In verse 7 and the discussion about seating arrangements, we are not talking about written laws but cultural laws to do with the all-important arena of meals. Meals were a major communal and community event in the ancient world. Some groups gave their meals such significance that they became representative of their life and identity. This was obviously so in the earliest communities of Jesus followers; for out of dining together came the whole basis of Christian worship and Eucharist.
Among the ‘rules’ for common meals of this kind we often find correct order of seating. There is a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between. Some groups made a special point of reviewing the pecking order of seating every year. Thus the people of the Dead Sea sect conducted a kind of annual performance review for such placements.
In first century Palestine, following Hellenistic norms, reclining on one elbow beside a very low table, or on low couches, had become the established fashion. It is reflected in most meals mentioned in the gospels. Disciples reclining beside Jesus would have a special place. John’s gospel (written in the 2nd century and a creative re-interpretation of Jesus) puts the disciple whom Jesus loved (who was that man?) into such intimate proximity with him. He lay down with his head close to Jesus’ chest according to John 13:23. Jesus had a corresponding position with God before the incarnation according to John 1:18.
In the ancient world one’s place at the table was guarded jealously (this is ‘my pew’ thinking and practice). One’s place at the table reflected the strongly hierarchical nature of society. For many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. It was in some sense given by the group. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place. Losing face could not be shrugged off as easily as for many of us who have grown up in a strongly individualistic culture. Losing face was almost like losing one’s life. (We need to bear this in mind today when interacting with someone from such an honour/shame culture).
Such is the setting of this Lucan reading which appears at first as a bit of practical advice. Like many sages of the day, and like Proverbs 25:6, Jesus instructs the would-be go-getter to avoid putting him or herself in the position where a demotion might occur. It is better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the reverse. Indeed some interpreters leave it at that, so that Jesus is simply giving advice to go-getters. Perhaps Luke read it that way. Perhaps he added v. 11 as a piece of cultural advice.
Verse 11 reads: ‘If you want to be exalted, humble yourself!’ It was a common Hebrew saying (e.g. Proverbs 11:2, Psalm 18:27). It is however a contradiction in terms. Such strategies usually result in a put-on humility because the driver is self-interest and personal success. Jesus may, by contrast, have been poking fun at the fashions of his day, holding it up to ridicule.
In Luke however the self-interest continues unabated in verse 14. ‘It is best to put people in your debt who cannot repay you, because then you will be repaid by God at the (end time) resurrection!’ Really?? This is perverse thinking even if you believe in a literal end time resurrection. This is the attitude that we help the poor and needy so that we can build up spiritual capital for our own future. When we help the needy to build up our spiritual investment portfolio then we are actually using and abusing them.
Alternatively, Jesus’ words could be heard as totally absurd, and been meant to be heard that way. It was a crazy idea, designed to subvert the games being played. ‘Try losing and see how much you win!’ If we hear these words like this and not as a serious strategy, then Jesus is subverting the whole enterprise which was driving his culture and its values: reward.
From this piece of counter-cultural wisdom in v. 11 (as the Scholar’s Translation puts it: ‘those who promote themselves will be demoted, and those who demote themselves will be promoted’), Luke – seguing into the parable he will shortly use – adds “Instead, when you throw a dinner party invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (and, we could go on, all the ritually unclean, who will in turn make you unclean and unacceptable to the way we Pharisees think about God).
This is about divine reversal; the whole topsy-turvy ethos of the Jesus movement, which in this case is challenging conventional patterns of reciprocity. So instead of seeking a place of honour, be content to be amongst the shamed, the unclean; and when you are host to a dinner party invite the shamed and unclean, who will in turn include you in their shamed-ness and unclean-ness. For we follow a shamed and unclean God. Quit striving to be seen as honourable. Care for others because it is what we do as followers of Jesus; not for reward or some other reason.
One of the lessons of this piece of writing from the communities of Luke is the importance of, as the mystics say, ‘letting go’. Letting go of our privileged seating, and more importantly the priority we might make to have privileged seating and all the honour that goes with it. Let go of our desire to seek and strive for honour and status and reward. Let go of our desire to shape outcomes, and instead let the stream of love and compassion flow through us, and that stream will carry us to its own outcome.
This I believe is an underlying message in ‘The Bomb’ by Sacha Cotter. Think of Nan’s perspective. She might think, ‘why does my dear grandchild want to continue to pursue this goal when he seems to be no good at it and is ridiculed by his peers? Maybe I should direct his energies and dreams elsewhere?’ But, no. This Nan hears his passion and encourages him in it. She encourages him to express his individuality – even to the point of him looking ridiculous – as a way through his fear. This Nan lets go of her agenda (she might have wanted him to be a pianist, or a rugby player, or concentrate on his studies in astrophysics…) and focuses instead on him and his agenda. This takes strength of mind (when you think he might get hurt), and perseverance (when he does get hurt).
The first reading today was the well-known story of the woman sweeping the floor in Chartres Cathedral. Again there is a letting go motif here. Instead of focusing on herself, on what she is good at, on her skills and life goals, of her daily duties, she has let go of all this in order to be caught up in a bigger version.
And so I return to the folk-tale of the gingerbread man I retold at the beginning of our service – a sobering story of a make-believe man running and running, striving, and eventually being consumed. Instead I want to be part of creating a new narrative, a bigger vision, for men, for those blessed to be fathers, for all – a narrative where we let the stream of love and compassion flow through us, helping us to encourage and enable others; a narrative that will require us to let go of expectations both of others and ourselves, in order to be there to listen, absorb, and gently help. This narrative will not be concerned about our status and stature, but about the status and stature of those feeling small, shamed and excluded. It will be a narrative about providing for and protecting all – the insiders and outsiders, the Pharisees and sinners, the strong and the weak. On Father’s Day, in the best sense we need to be fathers for our planet and all manner of life that dwells here.