An invitation that you just cannot … accept!

We are all used to receiving invitations. Sometimes, those invitations come as an invitation that you just cannot refuse—the special performance that is a must-see, the party that you don’t want to miss, the occasion with a special friend that wouldn’t be the same without you being there.

This week, the lectionary provides us with a series of invitations. Do you want to refuse them? Are you going to say, “this is an invitation that I just cannot refuse” ? I hope not. Because I want to convince you, that you do have to refuse those invitations. In fact, you need to be clear that you are not going to accept any of these invitations.

The invitations are shaped by the way that the Christian Church has approached and interpreted its scriptures. The invitations are subtle and pervasive; they simply invite us to read and understand the passages in this week’s lectionary in the way that so many interpreters, throughout the history of the church, have interpreted these passages. The invitations invite us to adopt an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, antisemitic way of reading these texts.

My exhortation this week is: don’t accept those invitations. Don’t get drawn into traditional ways of interpreting scripture that lead down the pathway of negative stereotyping of Jews. Don’t get caught in the traditions of antisemitism that grew and flourished across the many centuries of the existence of the church. Don’t judge negatively, don’t demean or deride, don’t open the door for destructive depictions and careless caricatures of our Jewish sisters and brothers.

The first invitation comes in the reading from Hebrew Scripture that is set in the lectionary this week (Exodus 20:1-20). It is an invitation to reflect on the heavy burden of the Law, the weight of demands that were placed on the people of Israel through the giving of the Law. It is a recounting of the Ten Commandments, and the importance of following them to the letter—to have “the fear of God” instilled in us to obey them and not sin (Ex 20:20).

The second invitation comes in the section of the letter which Paul wrote to the Philippians (Phil 3:4-14). It is an invitation to cast the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition as being of no value whatsoever. In this part of his letter, Paul reflects on his upbringing, and has a very colourful description for what he learnt, as a member of Israel, a Pharisee devoted to living a blameless life under the Law. Of all that he learnt as he was raised in this way, Paul writes, “I regard them as rubbish”—the ultra-polite way that the NRSV translates what, in Greek, reads literally as “I consider them all to be bullshit!” (Phil 3:8).

And the third invitation comes in the parable of Jesus which is included in ‘the book of origins’, and which its author (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46). The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, the lectionary offers us two passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.

The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we presumably are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God), who is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: “the kingdom will be taken away from you” (Matt 21:43), he tells “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (Matt 21:45).

Do not be taken in by these three invitations! Do not succumb to even the merest whisper of anti-Jewish sentiment as you reflect on these passages! Do not be shy to decline these “invitations you cannot refuse”!

Why?

First: because the Law was given, not to be a burden, a heavy weight, a set of endless demands; the Law was given as a gift. In the Law, Israel was given a way of strengthening the Covenant relationship with God, of providing practical means for remaining in covenant relationship with God. No Jew regards the Law as a burden; universally, the Law is celebrated as a gift, and valued as a way to ensure a healthy and vibrant relationship with God.

The Ten Commandments need to be read in the context of the story as it transpired over time. The giving of the Law (Exodus 20) sits in the midst of the stories about Moses ascending the mountain, encountering God, and formalising the covenant relationship with God (Ex 19:16-25; and Ex 24:1-18). Before the Law is given (Ex 20), the Covenant is formalised (Ex 19). The requirements of Law follow on from the gift of Covenant. In this way, the Law itself becomes a gift—a way to ensure the strength of the Covenant.

And these scenes of Moses making the covenant with God and then ratifying it with all the people, need to be seen in the context of the still larger scope of the storyline, which tells of a series of covenants: with Noah, with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob (and on into future centuries, with David, with Solomon, through Jeremiah).

It is the covenant which is the primary context: the means by which God chooses, nurtures, and remains in relationship with Israel. The Law comes as the consequence of the gift of the Covenant; the Law provides a clear set of guidelines for maintaining that covenant and continuing in relationship with God.

That Law is embraced, valued, and celebrated in Jewish tradition and scripture. Just look at how it is described in the Psalm offered in this week’s lectionary selection, where the commandments and precepts of the Law are praised as “perfect, reviving the soul … sure, making wise …right, rejoicing the heart … clear, enlightening the eyes … true and righteous altogether … more to be desired are they than gold .. sweeter also than honey” (Ps 19:7-10).

Second: because the Jewish upbringing and Pharisaic practices that Paul had, were never totally jettisoned, even though this one colourful comment seems to suggest this. Paul has many ways by which he demonstrates that his Jewish upbringing, his years of study as a Pharisee, his intense dedication to the Law, all still continue to shape his life, his words, his actions, his very being, right through the years that he was a faithful follower of Jesus.

Paul had an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture; we see this demonstrated at many place in his letters (Rom 1:16–17; 3:9–20; 4:1–25; 9:6–11:12; 11:25–27; 1 Cor 1:19–25; 2:6–16; 2 Cor 8:15, 9:9; Gal 4:21–31) as well as in the reports of his preaching in Acts (Acts 13:32–41; 17:2–3; 26:22–23; 28:25–28). The whole argument that is developed in his letter to the Romans is an exposition of a key affirmation, made at Rom 1:16-17, which itself quotes and draws from the words of Habakkuk, a late 7th century Israelite prophet (Hab 2:4). That argument engages consistently and in complex ways with the Hebraic traditions and understandings that were so central to Paul’s spiritual life. He uses pearl-stringing, argument by analogy, diatribal argumentation, midrashic storytelling, and other techniques which he undoubtedly learnt from his Pharisaic teachers.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/20/spirit-and-scripture-in-romans-rom-8/)

In writing to the Galatians, Paul asserts that the Law serves as a paidagogos (3:21–24)—a position in Greek society in which a tutor both instructs and disciplines a young man until he reaches his maturity. So Paul does not portray the Law as obsolete and completely irrelevant and; rather, he insists that “the Law is not opposed to the promises of God” (3:21). In fact, he supports his position with an argument drawn from “the Law”, that is, Hebrew scripture—the accounts of the two children of Abraham (found in Gen 16 and 21) provides an allegory for the two covenants made by God (4:21–31). And in Romans he affirms that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12).

There are many other examples of how Paul uses the debating techniques and reflects the theological insights that he learnt during his formative years, right through into his mature years, even when he was the most intense and most passionate follower of Jesus. So let’s not get caught into the trap of adopting an anti-Jewish attitude and claiming that we are simply following the lead of the Apostle Paul. His understanding was far deeper than that, and his engagement with the issue much more complex. (We might well say that his claim that his Jewish past was “bullshit” to him, is itself a claim that is, well, “bullshit”!)

Third: because the parable of Jesus is not intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic without any further refinement of understanding. It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?

We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. Guerilla groups initiated battles with the Romans on and off throughout the first century. These encounters intensified from 66 CE onwards. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Vigorous polemic and robust debate were not uncommon.

During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant. (From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time.)

The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and attacking the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. And the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.

Older academic Christian scholarship and popular Christian tradition both contain a preponderance of the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—precisely because of the claimed “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees in their debates with Jesus. This stereotype was heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.

This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that my own church, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.

(See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism and the Statement linked at that page.)

Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/)

Later written accounts of Jesus reflect the intensity of fervent debate as he encountered the scribes and Pharisees (see especially Luke 11:37-54; Matt 23:1-36). We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/)

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/18/easter-in-christian-tradition-and-its-relation-to-jewish-tradition/)

Reimagining—the spirit of our times

The city where I live, Canberra, has a regular annual festival. Each year, a large section of a central park is planted out with bulbs, around this time of the year. Lots of tourists come in September, joining with many of the residents of Canberra, to enjoy the festival known as Floriade.

The bulbs that have been planted grow, silently and stealthily, throughout winter, so that when spring arrives, they are fully grown plants, ready to burst into a display of spectacular colours—in time for hundreds of thousands of people to walk through, enjoying the display.

507,550 people saw the display in 2019 (see https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6456817/floriade-breaks-attendance-record/)

That’s not going to happen this year. The ACT Government wisely decided that it would not be sensible to plan for a large, crowded event in September—with the uncertainty that crowds of people would be able to gather, even in the outdoors.

So they have implemented Floriade Reimagined. Bulbs have been offered to community groups, to be planted at dispersed locations right around Canberra. Those bulbs are to be planted in locations that are visible from the road. Now, in September, people are able to drive around Canberra and enjoy the displays of flowers in many community locations. (See https://floriadeaustralia.com)

Alongside this, in the southern part of Canberra, there has been an annual festival in Tuggeranong, called, quite appropriately, SouthFest. This has been based around the Tuggeranong Town Centre in past years, with many stall lining the streets, and a festive atmosphere pervading the day.

But this year, again because of COVID-19, it has not been possible to plan for and hold the usual festivities. (See https://the-riotact.com/southfest-organisers-make-early-call-to-cancel-2020-festival/379080)

But SouthFest, alongside Floriade, has also been reimagined. And that’s where the Tuggeranong Uniting Church comes into the picture. They took their annual Spring Fair, and in 2019, gave it a strong sustainability focus. This year, they once again reimagined that that spring fair would look like. And so, SpringFest was born.

Tuggeranong, where Elizabeth is serving as Minister, submitted an expression of interest for Floriade Reimagined, and was awarded a set of bulbs. A crew of volunteers has worked hard to dig garden beds, build up the soil, and plant the bulbs. (See the picture, and https://www.insights.uca.org.au/tuggeranong-to-provide-a-symbol-of-hope-during-floriade/)

Now, in September, the Tuggeranong Uniting Church is surrounded with colour, as the bulbs burst into flower.

And this church, along with the Yarralumla Uniting Church (pictured below), is on the visiting list for Floriade Reimagined.

And Tuggeranong Uniting Church, under the enthusiastic and energetic leadership of Elizabeth, along with a fine team of dedicated volunteers, has partnered with SEE-Change to have a modified, downscale (but still very much appreciated) SouthFest happening, in the grounds at Erindale. The sustainability focus of 2019 was kept and expanded in SpringFest 2020.

SEE-Change, a local sustainability group, ran a series of workshops, in the community garden and the community hall, on topics relating to sustainability: composting, worm farms, bee keeping, and reducing plastic.

Meanwhile, in and around the church auditorium, the Red Dove Pre-Loved Op Shop was selling second hand clothes, the church was offering Devonshire teas and BBQ sandwiches, the Girls Brigade were selling delicious cakes, reuseable bags to replace single use plastic bags were on sale, as was a wide range of potted plants, and there was a Beeswax stall and assorted other goods for sale.

Why, the COVID Fairy was even in attendance (ensuring that all COVID Safe precautions were being adhered to). And she brought Senator Katy Gallagher along, to open the proceedings!

Floriade has reimagined itself. SouthFest has reimagined itself. COVID-19 has been the impetus. Tuggeranong Church has reimagined how it can partner with community groups to provide an enjoyable and inviting community event.

Can the church as a whole, similarly, reinvent itself? Can we take the stimulus of the present time to move out into the future with renewed creativity, imagination, and community engagement? Can we demonstrate that we are capable of the spirit of the times—reimagination?

Pastoral Letter to Canberra Region Presbytery—September 2020

It has been six months since we were propelled into the new world that we are living in at this time. Restrictions on gathering, imposed because of the rapid and worrying spread of the corona virus, meant that we had to cease, with very little notice, all of our in person gatherings.

The time since then can be characterised by two important words. One word is Challenge. It has been a challenging time for many. The challenge of needing to find ways to continue worship, in different ways from what we had long been used to. The challenge of knowing that people continued to be hungry, living below the poverty line, some without a place to shelter each night—and that our usual ways of serving them needed to be drastically changed.

The challenge of not being able to meet in person for a cup of tea and a good chat, and the impact that this has on our own mental health. The challenge of being distant from family, unable to visit them, or have them visit us.

The second word that characterises this time is Innovation. In each of these areas, we have seen great examples of innovation happening, right within our own communities of faith. We have adopted online worship—by ZOOM, by Facebook, by YouTube; we have set up personal sanctuaries in our homes, and made use of worship resources prepared and delivered directly to us, whether by email or by post or by hand.

We have seen innovation in the ways that take-away meals have been prepared and distributed to those who are hungry, and how we have found the telephone and the internet to be wonderful tools to ensure that we remain in contact with all of our friends and family members.

The ways we have met the challenges and created innovative responses is clearly seen in the series of videos with people in our Presbytery that have been made for our two online Presbytery meetings this year.

The videos of the interviews can be seen at

Judy Grasby @ https://vimeo.com/418299030/4174c41797

Daniel Mossfield 1 @ https://vimeo.com/418299127/42c6d88bdf

Gary Holdsworth @ https://vimeo.com/418299249/6246c5d2f4

Daniel Mossfield 2 @ https://vimeo.com/447367026/9a2ffbdf9a

Duncan McDiarmid and Kaye Anderson @ https://vimeo.com/447648198/e40c32e225

Darren Wright @ https://vimeo.com/446697971/ba50b74460

Elizabeth Raine, Sue Wald, Dorothea Wojnar and Bill Lang @ https://vimeo.com/447030335/9f50ad75cd

Our sense, as Presbytery leaders, is that the health of our churches is strong; the commitment of our people is deep; the expertise of our ministry leadership—lay and ordained alike—is growing; and the possibilities for the future remain hopeful. Hard work, prayerful reflection, compassionate concern, and openness to exploration are the hallmarks of our Congregations.

Our Synod leadership switched into a strongly collaborative mode from the very start of this period. Weekly meetings with leaders from Presbyteries right around the Synod, and regular guidance notes which provided links to key government and health resources, were immensely helpful in the early months. The ongoing collaboration of our leadership has been of benefit to every Presbytery and every Congregation.

We have been able to maintain a community of learning amongst those who had started the Mission Shaped Ministry course last year, and a good cohort of people has just completed that course. We are encouraged, also, to see the establishment of a Community of Practice amongst people from the Inner North Congregations, and we pray that this group will share hopes, see visions, and implement plans, for a renewed witness on the inner north area of Canberra.

Of course, we are acutely aware that pandemic struck so soon after so many communities were just beginning the slow and painful task of regathering their lives after the devastation of the bushfires. People were looking to rebuild their lives and, in some cases, their homes; the pandemic struck deep into this enterprise. The pain and despair of many communities is something that we have been working together to address. It has been made more complicated by the pandemic. But it is very heartening to see how organisations, congregations, fellowship groups, and individuals have all pitched in to assist.

So, we rejoice in these signs of robust life across our Presbytery. We hope that you share our sense of confidence in what lies ahead, because of the evidence of how we have responded over the past six months.

We encourage you to pray with us for people caught in painful traumatic memories; for people offering assistance and support to those who have been impacted by fires; for communities where the road to recovery is long and slow.

Pray too for those for whom the past months have brought new experiences of feeling isolated and lonely, depressed and discouraged or brought loss and grief. Pray that the healing power of the Spirit may renew and refresh all those who are suffering in some way and reassure them that they are the beloved children of God.

We encourage you to maintain hope, to continue offering compassionate care to the people of your faith community and to your local community. We challenge you to seek new ways of sharing the Gospel, seeking to offer fresh expressions of faith to those in the places where we each live and work.

We are grateful for all the signs of faithfulness and hope in our midst, and we look forward with confidence to discovering who God is calling us to be, and what the Spirit is leading us to do, in the days ahead.

Judy McKinlay and Ross Kingham, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons

Jared Mitchell, Presbytery Deputy Chairperson

Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers

Banning “conversion therapy” and the essence of the Gospel

Last week the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory debated, and passed, legislation which will ban the practice of “conversion therapy” within the territory. The legislation was introduced as the Sexuality and Gender Identity Conversion Practices Bill (2020). See https://www.legislation.act.gov.au/View/es/db_62959/20200813-74809/PDF/db_62959.PDF

The aim of the legislation was very simple: “to recognise and prevent the harm caused by sexuality and gender identity conversion practice.” The Bill was introduced on 13 August 2020, following two years of consultation with conversion practice survivors, schools, faith leaders and members of the community. Both before and after its introduction, the Government has engaged closely with these groups in order to clarify the Bill’s intent.

There can be no doubt that questioning one’s own gender identity is a very challenging matter; more so, in the case of younger people. Supportive counselling and the encouragement to explore with honesty in such a situation is imperative; pressure to change, to conform to an alleged “norm”, can be incredibly unhelpful and even damaging for people in such a situation.

The Bill was introduced by the Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, and supported by the leader of the Greens, Shane Rattenbury. The leader of the Liberals, Alistair Coe, spoke in support of the Bill in principle, but then raised questions about how “conversion therapy” was defined, citing in particular the possibility that a parent might be charged with a breach of the law simply by counselling their child about their sexual identity.

That the Bill did not imperil any parent undertaking such a counselling role in a supportive manner, was clearly explained in the FAQ material supplied by the ACT Government, to explain this law. See https://www.justice.act.gov.au/faq-recent-changes-make-act-more-inclusive-place-everyone

Prior to the debate in the Assembly, a group of 16 Uniting Church Ministers and Chaplains who are serving within the ACT decided that we would write to all 25 members of the Assembly, expressing our support for the Bill. I was pleased to be a part of this important action, bearing witness in a public way to an important element of our faith.

In supporting this legislation, we drew on our pastoral experiences of working with people who identify in ways other than “straight”, or opposite-sex attracted. Indeed, we wrote knowing that there are people within so many of our Congregations who identify with each of the letters in the LGBTIQ+ rainbow (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and more).

You can read the full text of the letter at https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/24/sexuality-and-gender-identity-conversion-practices-bill-a-christian-perspective/

The primary intent of the letter was to underline the ongoing commitment of the Uniting Church, to accept, value, and honour people who identify as same-gender attracted. Supporting a Bill that would outlaw “conversion therapy” is one way of making clear this fundamental commitment.

On Church Councils, in Congregational study groups, in local outreach activities, and amongst our ordained ministers, there are such “rainbow people”—each of them faithful disciples, committed participants in the church, willing followers of Jesus in all of their lives.

Our letter to the ACT MLAs was an expression of the joy that we have, in serving together, alongside people of a wide diversity of gender identities, expressing a wide array of sexual attractions. There is absolutely no need to persuade (or worse, force) such people to change in their own identity, or in their sexual preferences.

In this letter, we drew on theological work that the Rev. Elizabeth Raine had written, as she had reflected on the wonderful diversity of human beings, which is evident in many ways, not least in expressions of sexuality and gender identity.

“All creatures are ‘nephesh’, or sentient beings”, Elizabeth wrote. “We have a soul, a state of being, a life that is fully formed and given by God. All human beings are created with the spirit of God within us (Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:7; Job 12:7-10). There are no exceptions to this in biblical understanding. All human beings exist within this understanding. Our human identity is grounded in the creative work of God’s spirit. Who we are is how God has made us to be—each human being is made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; Sir 17:3).”

This has been an important stance for Uniting Church leaders to take during the past ten days, especially since some fundamentalist lobby-group agitators who (mis)use the term “Christian” have been arguing that this legislation was fundamentally flawed, that people of faith had a right to persuade (or force) people to change their sexual orientation, and that all of this was consistent with “biblical Christianity”.

For some decades now, in the Uniting Church, we have allowed the possibility that people who are attracted to people of the same gender are not only welcome and valued in our churches, but can exercise leadership in ministry, can be ordained, and most recently, can be married in accordance with the rites of the Uniting Church. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/ and https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/a-diversity-of-religious-beliefs-and-ethical-understandings/

I believe that we can be proud that we have had leadership over many years, which has advocated for, offered support to, and worked constructively with, LGBTIQ+ people. Opposite-gender attracted people like myself have, over the years, moved from understanding such people, to welcoming them, accepting them, and valuing them, within our communities of faith, and within the wider society.

With this latest matter we are showing a firm commitment to protecting the vulnerable, advocating for them and working proactively alongside them, and declaring our clear acceptance of the wonderful diversity of humanity. This is the very heart of Christian community. This is the essence of the Gospel.