2021 03 28 Alan Storey
2020 12 20 Alan Storey
Advent Evangelism: Graced to Grace 2
It seems that Covid-19’s second bite is bigger than its first bite. “The Western Cape has more cases confirmed in the second wave, than compared to the first wave.” This is according to Dr Keith Cloete, the Head of the Department of Health in the Western Cape. My own anecdotal evidence confirms this. I know far more people with COVID-19 during this second wave than I did during the first. I also know of more people this time around who have died, and others who are struggling in ICU.
As many have said, if we are not careful over this Christmas time this could be our last Christmas. For this reason, we will not be having any in-person services at CMM. Our services will remain via zoom, including Christmas Day at 10 am. We will re-assess this situation only when there is a marked reduction in the spread of COVID-19.
Please remember to wear a mask, wash hands and keep at least 1.5 m away from each other. This prevention trinity is the kindest thing we can do for each other at this time. In the short term this will remain true until we have all received the vaccine. In the medium to long term, if we do not radically change the way we humans do life on earth, we can expect more lethal and frequent pandemics in the future. The choice really is, change or die.
Tragically not everyone agrees with the science. Some think COVID-19 is a hoax and sadly only find out it is not when they struggle to breathe. We may debate each other, but reality does not debate. Reality reigns. Gravity will bring us down every time.
Equally disturbing are those who are anti-vaxxers. History shows that vaccines are nothing short of miraculous in the way they have reduced death rates. From the mandatory smallpox vaccination in the 19th century to the polio vaccine of about sixty years ago, the world has been spared much suffering. Yet from the beginning of vaccines there has been opposition by a minority for a number of reasons, many of which continue to motivate anti-vaxxers to this day. Namely:
- The assault on people’s autonomy.
- Government overreach.
- “Religious” reasons around “de-fouling” the natural order or a supposed link to the “mark of the beast” or the school that says, “simply have faith”.
- Suspicion of big pharmaceutical companies’ manufacturing the problem or at least exploiting it.
We can go to the internet to find out the latest anti-vaccine theories and how they have been debunked, especially around the measles-mumps-rubella vaccines supposed link to autism. This continues to circulate even though it has long since been shown to have zero merit. With equal ease however, we can go to the internet to have any number of conspiracy theories validated. I guess this is a case of, “we will find whatever we are looking for”. This points to another deathly virus plaguing the world: the spread of misinformation.
Anti-vaxxers are not the only stumbling block to the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccination. Rich countries have placed hoarding orders (some countries have ordered up to six times more doses than their population size) making it almost impossible for poor countries to secure enough vaccines.
In the wilderness of old, the freshly freed slaves from Egypt learnt that hoarding stinks of death. When some have too much, others will have too little. One would therefore have hoped that we would have learnt something from COVID-19, that we are all interdependent, and that we are only as healthy as the sickest among us, but sadly not.
It reminds me of the story of the 10 lepers who were healed by Jesus and only one of them returned to say thank you. This person was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). They were all united together when they suffered leprosy together, but as soon as they were healed, other divisions, like ethnicity, came to the fore. Separating them again. In today’s situation a nationalism and classism, rather than a world-wide humanitarianism, now determine who will be first in line for vaccine treatment.
This past week South Africa together with India and later supported by Eswatini and Kenya, requested the World Trade Organisation TRIPS Council that certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19 be waved to ensure greater ease to acquire the COVID-19 vaccine. This was not agreed to. Unsurprisingly, the debate was pretty much split along economics: rich countries vs poor countries.
Time is running out for the human species to mature. To literally grow up and recognise the real reality (that does not debate, but reigns) of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all of life. Only then will we end the apartheid between nations that selfishly secures privilege for a few at the exclusion and exploitation of the many. In short, a mature human person recognises that all people are family. For this reason, we pray: OUR Father / Mother in heaven… To take that three-letter word seriously is to change the world we live in.
If you would like the Zoom link for Sunday’s Service – please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This Sunday we will reflect on Jesus being questioned about paying taxes to the emperor. It is a topical issue at the moment. In South Africa we are faced with daily revelations of state / private corruption that detail the squandering of State collected taxes. Taxes meant to be spent for the public good have instead been criminally syphoned off for private gain. Further afield we learn of a president who routinely boasts of how wealthy he is and yet shamelessly withholds paying taxes. Sunday’s reflection: Taxes and Death.
Sunday’s service will take place via zoom at 10am.
Email: email@example.com for the zoom link.
Now for a few thoughts regarding more broadly what I see taking place in the States at this time. I share this with the hope that we will be reminded of some crucial lessons from our own history as well as to draw attention to the disturbing up-swing of authoritarian regimes and populous demagogues around the world.
Using Scripture as the lens to focus our thoughts, in this case, specifically Exodus 1:8-22 and Isaiah 59: 1-16a. Rather than use scripture in a “proof text” or “literal / fact based” kind-of-way, I will try to unearth and be guided by the archetypal truth embedded within the given narrative. In this way the ancient text enlightens our present context and our present context informs our understanding of the text. Meaning moves both ways.
The book of Exodus is the story of a slave people taking the gap … to freedom. It was so impossible that it was compared to sneaking through an ocean split dry. This great escape includes moments so unforeseen that the only word in human vocabulary to be able to describe it was a “miracle”. Even the secular press turned to this word for help when they ran out of all others to describe the event – which itself was another miracle.
We turn to the text to guide us:
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. [Exodus 1:8-14]
We read, “… a new king of Egypt who did not know Joseph”. How strange? How could that be possible that one be so forgetful? What terror-ble amnesia! This new king must have either been so narcissistic that there was no room within his heart to remember anyone but himself, or it was a profound act of wilful-forgetfulness. Forgetful of Joseph is a proxy for being forgetful of YHWH. When one is forgetful of the Ultimate One then one is inclined to exaggerate one’s own sense of self. This forgetful king thus had no reason to be humble. His forgetfulness made him accountable to none and to live in steadfast service of himself.
We read this forgetful king was also fearful. Now just as love casts out fear, so fear casts our love. A fear-full leader is therefore a love-less leader. A love-less leader is a terror. Not surprising then that he would soon be signing off executive decisions that dealt with people “shrewdly”, “ruthlessly” and murderously.
Forgetfulness of the Higher Power of Truth and Justice, together with fear of one’s neighbour, are always present at the birth of authoritarianism.
Notice how the forgetful and fearful king changes a long held truth into a dangerous lie. The Israelites were no longer their neighbours of many years. They were now named soon-to-be traitors. What a re-framing! Fear mongering. Naming and blaming. Othering! Othering that instils fear and hate with the aim to divide and conquer. Next we witness the major trick performed by every successful authoritarian ruler. Just like a magician covers their hat with a handkerchief before they pull out a rabbit, so the authoritarian covers everything they say with the blanket of national security. This blanket is decorated with holy cows grazing in fields of evergreen nationalism that silences those with questions. When it is pulled back, we see that a remarkable thing has taken place: the victims have become the perpetrators and the perpetrators have become the victims. (Water into wine eat your heart out!). With this deceptive reversal in place the victims (read: real perpetrators) are justified to crackdown on the perpetrators (read: real victims). So children are separated from parents and locked in cages. Dare not call this cruel. It is not. The reason it is not is that it is a matter of national security. So the uniformed dare not question their orders. Instead they efficiently do what is evil enjoying the praise for doing good. (But one day they will have to answer. And the defence, “I was just following orders” will not be accepted as a valid reason for their evil. A millstone may be put around their neck for causing little ones to be so terror-ised.)
15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’”
Authoritarians take the institutions that are designed to promote and protect life and begin to employ them to bring death or in the very least begin to prevent them from fulfilling their life enabling function. Pharaoh calls the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Birth enablers are employed as facilitators of death. Sometimes this is communicated bluntly and sometimes subtly. Sometimes the forgetful, fearful king simply ignores and encourage others to ignore the instructions of well-meaning institutions, that if followed, would save life. In so doing they fail to do anything to prevent the death of 222 891 people (as of 16/10/20). Fascists are perversely turned on by death, especially the death of the weak. So Pharaoh does not mourn. There is no apology. Only lying denials. Read Isaiah 59 to see how authoritarians lie and lie. They spin a deadly web of lies that cause the “truth to stumble in the public square and justice to be turned back”.
“YHWH is appalled.” (Isaiah 59:16a) that so few intervene and so many remain silent. Especially the silence of the community called church.
But there are some who do intervene. Many of whom are ordinary people or even so-called “little people”. Wise as serpents and gentle as doves (non-violently) they courageously resist genocidal fascists with creative acts of sabotage. The midwives were so in-spirit-ed by the wonder of life that they had no space within themselves to fear this forgetful and fearful Pharaoh. They made up a story about how “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women” and Pharaoh bought it because it confirmed his existing prejudice. Proving how prejudice makes one so stupid.
Eventually Pharaoh openly sanctions genocide: drown them!
Patriarchy goes hand in hand with authoritarianism. Pharaoh undermined girls/women. He believed only boys/men could possibly be a threat to him. He admitted that he would just grab a girl/woman when and how he wanted. And yet history will show it was girls/women who were the founding members of the anti-Pharaoh Struggle. Besides the midwives, there was a mother and sister who with the wisdom of serpents placed their baby boy on the river instead of in the river. So it is with resistance struggles throughout history. Liberation is won, changing one letter at a time. Pharaoh’s own daughter worked behind enemy lines – eventually getting one of the enemy not only into Pharaoh’s house, but adopted into his family! Viva Caroline Giuliani viva!
As we have said repeatedly over the last couple of weeks: the exploitation of people goes hand in hand with the exploitation of creation. The one leads to the other. People will eventually revolt and creation will eventually rebel. Creation rebels by confronting us with the consequences of our exploitative ways. Insecticides contaminate the soil. The run-off poisons the water. The fish die, as do those that feed on the fish. We become chronically ill. When illness catches up to Pharaoh himself there is the hope that a lesson will be learnt and that a humbling change will take place … but alas, this is not always the case.
Pharaoh was given many opportunities to do the loving / liberating thing, yet he repeatedly decided not to. In the process his heart was hardened, until one day it was fixed in its hardness. All that remains then is self-destruction on a massive scale. The deathly consequences of this self-destruction are impossible to over play, for during the very time we should be doing everything we can to prevent the oceans from rising, we have to concern ourselves with a Pharaoh in denial who is leading a people into the ocean to drown. All because of his desperate attempt to fill the gaping void within his own life.
Fascism relies on the public believing that their nation is so exceptional that “it will never happen here”. Exceptionalism is idolatry. It is a lie, for just as all people have fallen short of the glory of God, so have all nations fallen short. It is a slippery slope from exceptionalism to fascism. A slippery slope constantly greased by Christian fundamentalists, Constitutional originalists and white supremacist militia.
In closing, let us read the text again while being attentive to who we identify with in the text. Let’s check our natural inclinations to quickly self-identify with the persecuted, re-denying any existence of the persecutor within us. Even if we struggle to see ourselves as a Pharaoh-type, can we wrestle with the possibility that there may be others who view us as Pharaoh? Who are they? How would they like us to change? Oh that we may take out the log from within our own eye…
Reflection on Exodus 32:1-14
Truth is larger than fact. There are times when the facts simply can’t adequately hold the truth. For example, there is no fact that could sufficiently account for a parent’s love for their child. Or for the liberation of a long-oppressed people. When the facts fail the truth, we turn to metaphor and myth, satire and story, parable and poetry. To say that someone is the most beautiful person in all the world is not meant to be evaluated on a factual basis, but rather to be appreciated for the truth that the statement makes about their love or attraction toward the person.
Similarly, the validity of the Exodus narrative (and much of Scripture) does not rest on whether it factually took place once upon a time or not, but rather on the truth that it announces for all time. (It is most likely that the Exodus narrative was the accumulative wisdom gleaned from many cycles of oppression and liberation all sewn together into a single archetypal liberation narrative.) The narrative’s purpose is to speak timeless truth:
- The truth about God (ultimate reality) who is always on the side of truth and justice (the universe’s bending moral arc) and therefore forever listening to the cries of the oppressed and liberating the oppressed from bondage.
- The truth that little people (midwives) who remain faithful to the Life-Giver bring down genocidal fascists.
- The truth about how power hardens human hearts (Pharaoh had heart problems.)
- The truth about the anxious, stubborn, devious and paranoid ways of Empire (Time and time again the Pharaoh regime promised to let the people go but reneged each time. Power is very seldom given up willingly. Codesa 1 and Codesa 2.)
- The truth that when those who have access to the perks and privileges of palace power (Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses) choose rather to join in solidarity with the enslaved and exploited, a united front begins rolling mass action that not even all of Pharaoh’s chariots will be able to stop.
- The truth that exploitation of people goes hand in hand with the exploitation of the environment, with the environment ultimately rebelling via plagues. (Contaminated topsoil poisons the water.)
- The truth that liberation always looks impossible (like walking through an ocean) until it isn’t (ocean split in two) and then it looks inevitable.
- The truth that a liberated people move quickly from gratitude to complaint. From dancing praise of their courageous leaders to accusing them of selling out. (Moses have you brought us out here to die? HIV does not cause Aids.)
- The truth that a liberated people often forget their pain-filled past (we ate meat in Egypt) and soon begin to imitate the ways of their past oppressors. (Another name for State Capture is Greed.)
- The truth that populous ‘leaders’ (read: fascists) will always be ready to exploit the frustrations and fears of the people, promising everything they want but securing just the opposite (We see you Aaron. We see you CIC in red overalls. We see you with the MAGA cap.)
- The truth that it takes a long time for a new constitution to be carved into our hearts of stone and therefore in the interim it remains very tempting to return to the golden calf of oppression that falsely promises us a quick fix. (During the writing of our New Constitution our new leaders were negotiating the arms deal. A deal that was corrupt in essence and in process. A deal more in tune with the ways of Egypt than of liberation.)
This brings us to this Sunday’s reading: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us … Aaron took the gold from them and formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf…”
It is important to note that the golden calf may be seen as a replacement of the liberating YHWH or a representation of YHWH. The latter is a far more subtle form of idolatry and therefore potentially more dangerous. An idolatrous representation of YHWH would include attributing non-liberative characteristics to YHWH (see last week’s reference to “make no wrongful use of the name of God”.) An example today is the prosperity teaching (read: heresy / cult) calling on Jesus’ name in order to prosper financially by TV evangelists who believe owning a private jet is crucial for them to spread the word about the humble sandalled Jesus. (The same Jesus who happened to warn that it was pretty impossible to fly a jet through the eye of a needle.)
An even subtler form of idolatry includes that which is not necessarily religious at all and as a result are seldom named as gods / idols, yet they solicit our unquestionable belief in their professed saving power. Like believing that the death penalty will save us from crime. Or the gun will keep me safe. Or low taxes on the rich will be good news for the poor. Or that the quality of health care or education must correlate to how much money one has. These come to us through laws and systems rather than doctrines and creeds. We learn proverbs like “time is money” off by heart until we believe that everything is a product to be traded and that the value of anything or worth of anyone is ultimately determined in monetary terms.
With the above-mentioned examples, it should be clear that there is no such thing as a “non-believer”. We all believe in something. We all worship something. And whatever we worship is our god – like it or not. If the word worship does not connect with you then ask yourself what is the object of your ultimate concern? (See: Paul Tillich.) The answer to this question is our god. Simply put, whatever we give our heart to is our god, religious or not. For this reason, we are called to do the urgent and crucial work of “know yourself” to discover who / what we believe in. Warning: We may be surprised to discover that we don’t always believe in what we would like to think we believe in or what we profess to believe in. (Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord will enter the reign of God – says Jesus.) This is why the scriptures care less about atheism than they do about idolatry, because we could be worshiping the very ways that crucified Jesus while singing his praises on our lips.
How do we know the difference between God and an idol? Or God and false gods? In short: Idols or false gods always demand sacrifice. Idols take life while promising new life. Think of the military or of the idol of nationalism or tribalism that worship little lines in the ground called borders. Drawn and defended with blood. The true God on the other hand does not demand sacrifices. Rather the true God demands justice, mercy, humility, truth, gentleness. In other words, the true God demands that which will promote and protect life – all of Life in all its fullness.
This is the only scale that really matters: does our living bring life or death?
So just because we may never have carved out an image of a calf doesn’t mean we do not worship any idols. Furthermore, just because we have Jesus’ name repeatedly on our lips does not necessarily mean Jesus is our God. And for those of you reading this who think you are exempt from idolatry because you don’t believe in any God or god or idol – well once you have found the words that work for you – I invite you to check what your ultimate concern is and whether honouring your ultimate concern brings life or death – for all of life.
Know thyself sister. Know thyself brother.
Grace upon grace,
“I feel so overwhelmed by the desperate state of the world.” I have heard this from a number of you in response to what is happening in the world and especially in relation to our conversations on Climate Breakdown over the past few weeks. I feel it too. Some of us have moved from denial directly to despair, without passing GO. From, “there is no problem” to “the problem is too big”. From, “no need to change” to “no change will make any difference”. We are left stuck, staring at the oncoming headlights shining on our imminent destruction.
Our work is to pause. To pause between denial – – and – – despair. In the stillness we may realise that change is possible while knowing that it is not easy and that it comes with no guarantees. In the pause we may realise that perhaps the main reason we struggle to change is because: We are dependent on our sin for our survival. In other words: We are dependent on a way of life that is killing us, for our survival. Spot the problem? To survive off what is killing us, means our survival will not survive. Death alone will win this race.
One of the first things to die is the human imagination, and with it our ability to envision living life in any other way. Soon thereafter we find ourselves reciting the cynic’s creed: “The way things are, is the way things will always remain”.
‘Dependent’ may be too soft a word. ‘Addicted’ is more accurate. We are addicted to a deathly way of life for our survival. When we try to kick our addiction, it feels like we are dying, so we stop trying and return to our deathly ways that falsely promise life. No wonder Jesus says, if we want to be his disciples (i.e. people living life in life-giving ways) we must be willing to die, for we first have to die to our deathly way of living before we can walk in a life-giving way. To change is to die so we can live. This takes great grace and enormous courage. The type of grace and courage that accompanies the alcoholic to AA and through the 12-step programme. This journey to sanity (not simply sobriety) to unsuicide ourselves begins with confession of our powerlessness to kick our deathly way of living.
Once we are able to confess our addiction and our state of powerlessness then we are ready.
On Sunday at 11h11 we will explore this a little more. We will do so in relation to the Gospel reading (Matthew 21:23-32) for this Sunday. If you would like to be part of the conversation, please email firstname.lastname@example.org for the zoom link.
Below you will find a number of resources that may strengthen us to pause between denial – – and – – despair.
Last week we focused briefly on the grieving soil that YHWH invites us to listen to. Here is a new documentary on Netflix about the saving power of soil.
Basically, we need to save soil (at least stop destroying soil) so that soil can save us. Soil remember is 24/7 busy with the miraculous work of resurrection. And here is some great information on how we can “save” the soil to save us.
Also following on from last week I invite you to watch this brief animated video about “talking trees”.