Have you “herd”? – Epiphany 4

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Last week we considered the nine word one-liner sermon that Jesus gave as he sat down after reading from the scroll of Isaiah, in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. This week’s Gospel reading opens with those nine words and continues…
‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”’
So Jesus had clearly finished the formal exposition from the words.
The narrative now continues with Jesus speaking as if he knew what the people were thinking.

It is a common homiletic device. As a Methodist I was weaned on it as John Wesley used it frequently. The preacher verbalizes what they think the audience is thinking. In this case and often for Wesley, it takes the form of objections that may be in the mind of the hearer. “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

Jesus then makes a statement that , “…no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town”, and goes on to illustrate his point by referencing two events. One from the life of Elijah and one from his successor Elisha.
In both stories he points to the fact that God’s favour is not determined nor directed by familial, community or cultural rights of access. Being a home-boy does not give Nazareth special rights of privilege. In fact it would seem that cosmopolitan Capernaum is a preferred site for signs of God’s reign.
It is worth remembering that it was only the other day, in 2007, we crossed a line.  Since then,  for the first time in human history, more people on the planet live in cities than in the country. Before that cities were seen as places of excess and debauchery. Tire, Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah, you can complete your own list, but I think for Nazarenes, Capernaum would be on their list.

This was not what the good homeys of Nazareth wanted to hear. They of all people had rights and claims to this their home-reared son.
Again, in our individualistic, Western, deconstructed nuclear families, we may not feel the tug of clan and community as the culture of Jesus would have exerted it. Those of us in more tribal cultures will have a better grip on this pressure. Imagine club, team, religion, herd, culture, gang; whatever helps to understand that people who share your origins, believe they have rights above others on your talents. Imagine that, and you will have an angle on why the Nazareth congregation became so angry.
One moment they were praising the gracious words, the next they were an angry mob wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff!

Years ago I watched Anthony Quinn pay tribute to Ingrid Bergman. ‘What made Ingrid great’, he said,’is that she was able to see fame and criticism for the impostors they are.‘ Jesus had the gift before Ingrid.

Let’s not forget that in the Gospel record two archetypal events had preceded this preaching in Nazareth.
At his baptism, Jesus had heard from God, just who he really was. “That’s my boy! I am so proud of you
In the wilderness, the shadows of ego, ambition, and power had constelated into a diabolical manifestation called, al-Shaitan= the adversary.  Jesus knowing who he was in God’s sight managed to hold his vocation and vision intact through the forty day ordeal.
Is it any wonder that he was not particularly threatened by some home town good-ole boys who got angry because he wouldn’t dance to their tune?

Christ following is a demanding and ego-threatening enterprise.
Loyalties, connections, cultural nuances, demands, threats, will all be grist to the mill that will sift us like wheat.
We will have to know who we are AND we will have to face the shadow adversaries within us.

So, how did he manage to walk through the “midst of them” and “go on his way“?

My years in conflict mediation have given me a clue.
Some mobs, some crowds, some passionate, vindictively righteous assemblies, can get so enraged, so angry, so violent, so hynotised by their fulminations that truth, light, and Universal Love, are able to depart from amongst them so swiftly they don’t even notice!

Hey! Where did you go?

Fully-Filled Epiphany – 3C

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Some time ago now, I was in conversation with a a lady who expressed concern about her adult son. “It is so sad”, she reflected,”that my son hasn’t accepted Christ.”

“I hear your concern.”, I replied,”But isn’t it wonderful that Christ has accepted your son?”

This conversation once again highlighted, for me, just how ego-centric and individualistic our culture has become. Right to the point where salvation is seen no longer as a work of God’s amazing grace, but is something that we do and achieve by our decisions and actions.

Jesus comes to his home town of Nazareth. To socio-politically oppressed people, poor people. Dare I say, desperate people?  If salvation was something they could do, something they could decide to accept by an executive decision, don’t you think they would have done it as quickly as you can say Roman Empire?

The fact that they didn’t, is all because they couldn’t.
If you have ever been lost, oppressed, abused, depressed, hopeless, you will know the impotence of not being able to change anything by an executive decision of your choice. No plan, no strategy, no act of will can save you in those moments.

That is what makes this one-liner sermon of Jesus so powerful.

Jesus, in his home synagogue,  is given the scroll of Isaiah to read from.  He  is no doubt, expected to teach from the passage and expound in great rabbinic tradition, the meaning of the words he has read. The people are expectant. Luke tells us, “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone”. The expectation in the synagogue is palpable.

What powerful words he has to expound from:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This text would be a Liberation Theologian’s dream. Words of exhortation to revolt and resistance spring easily to mind.
It is an Evangelical’s dream text. Words of of invitation to make a decision for Christ and cast off the shackles of sin flood this preacher’s imagination.
It is a text tailor made for a Faith Healer’s sermon. “Oooooh Jeeeesuhs, I know you are telling me right now that there is someone here this morning who is blind and who want’s to see! Come forward, my sister, my brother, Jeeeesuhs want’s to heal you!”
There probably isn’t a genre of preaching that could not mine this text to profound and dramatic effect.

But the home-boy Rabbi applies none of these techniques.
With every expectant eye rivetted upon him he sits down!
And then in a simple one liner says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It is almost as if he has run out of steam. In my imagination I hear those words not shouted or ranted, but almost whispered, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Our parents in the church who set up the lectionary were very skillful to break Luke’s record at this point. Next week we will pick up the thread and see the reaction of the congregation to this one sentence sermon, but for now, we are left to allow those nine words to sink slowly into our contemplation.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In a world where I have been told that is all depends on me, my actions, my strategies, my plans, my decisions; to be confronted with the fact that there is nothing to DO is a conundrum.

The word that is translated, “fulfilled” means exactly that, “filled to the full” Pleroo is defined as: to make replete, that is, (literally) to cram a net, level up a hollow, (hints of John the Baptizer’s valley filling sermon here). It is a word that describes complete accomplishment.
There is nothing for me to do here, and it drives my Western activist mind nuts!

This is why I am so grateful for the blessed times I have spent in dialogue and practice with my spiritual siblings from the religions of the East.  Hindu and Buddhist alike have a rich tradition of contemplation that invites the practitioner to simply “Be here now” in the phrase of Ram Dass.
A practice that does not rush to change what it has not yet fully understood, a practice that sees the perfection of the lotus flower growing in the pond of raw sewage.
It is a  practice that makes me understand Jesus far better and enables me to make more sense of that nine word sermon. As I become still, I know… that God is… Good News.
The good news is that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,” that there is “good news for the poor,release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. There is good news that the oppressed are free, and this is the year of the Lord’s favour.

This reality already exists right here right now, if I will only stop trying to recreate and relocate all the world to a place where they all resemble my culture, my creed and my economy.
Living in Africa and having spent time in India, I have seen and every now and then realised=(made real):…

  • the perfection of the poor unfairly made poor,
  • the freedom of prisoners unjustly imprisoned,
  • the deep inner sight of the alleged blind whose vistas are bleak and dark,

and I have realized that the scripture has already been fulfilled.

This does not mean no action, but it does mean no cultural imperialism.
This does not mean no compassion, but it does mean no whimsical feelings without my being there with and alongside those who are before me (the COM in compassion means “with”)

It means realizing, recognizing, accepting, that the one who reads the scroll, knows what he is doing,and so will I, if I stay close to HIM.

“L’chai-im! – more wine!” – Epiphany2 C

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The wedding reception was rocking and the wine had run out. Wine that the Psalmist says, “gladdens the heart”.

My puritanical upbringing should be glad at the moderation of the bridegroom in his logistics. Just enough, never too much.
Jesus, however sees the frugality as a mistake he can remedy.

Taking charge of a potential social gaff, “Did you hear about his wedding? D’you know the wine RAN OUT!!!“, Jesus has some empty ritual washing jars filled with about six hundred litres of water, and turns the water into more wine!

Extravagant? Reckless? Yes!

John tells us that this is the first sign of the reign of God. Immanuel doesn’t call a prayer meeting as his first act of power rather, he empowers a party!

How did the church lose its sense of mischievous abandon which we see exemplified in Our Lord?
The empty stone jars tell a tale don’t they?
Rote religion, ritual observance and purity don’t gladden the heart as much as spontaneous celebration of life. In fact, truth be told, too much ritual and purity can poop the party we are intended to be celebrating.

The key to Jesus’ brilliance in this first miracle, is that he doesn’t conjure up fresh flagons of wine, he uses the existing and perhaps abandoned ritual vessels for a new and radical purpose.

I wonder if we followers of the wine-maker have the same capacity?

Drive around any city on a Sunday morning and you will probably see rapidly emptying ritual vessels, trying to keep themselves going by careful logistics and conservative liturgy.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, it is indeed right, it is our joy and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
(Methodist Service Book)

Who are we kidding?

The drone of the responses and the reluctance to show any excessive enthusiasm is evidence that everyone present knows, that they will only be getting one sip from the wine chalice today.

It is only a hunch, but I think the wedding at Cana was a little more rowdy than our sedate liturgy.

In fact, I am convinced the guests did not need to be told to lift up their hearts. The six hundred litres of fine vintage would have gladdened their hearts and in good Jewish tradition they probably shouted, “L’chai-im” to life! No droning here! Shouts of celebration!

It troubles me that Jesus begins his ministry wanting to show that he can use the old ritual vessels to bring the new life of God’s Kingdom, yet later after experiencing the hardness of our hearts he warns that new wine cannot be poured into new wine skins. (Luke 5:37)

I wonder at what point he gave up on using old vessels?
I wonder if he has reached that place with this emptying ritual church yet?

The third day, is meant to be the day of Resurrection.

This was a third day wedding in Cana, and it makes me wonder, what will still have to be crucified before the church reaches the third day potential of new life?

As I write this, a female colleague who recently celebrated heart gladdening love and life in a same sex wedding, (not in Cana, but in Cape Town)  faces charges, brought by her Superintendent for “being in breach of the discipline of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa“.

Dear Jesus you were correct. There is no place for new wine, nor your reign here!

There are only inflexible, fractured skins, of fear and prejudice.

Thank you that despite us, you remain your reckless extravagant self.

So please Lord, let the wine continue to flow.

Flow out of the disused and dusty jars and into the streets where there can be dancing and joy, and where with the wine maker of Nazareth we may empower all people to call out “L’chai-im!”

Maybe then all people will come to believe in Him.

Paper, rock, scissors: water, Spirit, fire – Baptism of Jesus C

Luke 3:15-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“Paper, rock, scissors: Water, Spirit, Fire?
Is it a new team selection game? The kind you use on the playground when you have to decide who gets to choose first?
It may sound that way, and it is about making choices, but this is certainly no game.

John the Baptizer had raised the expectations of a nation disillusioned with rote religion. They were weary of a religion that justified and supported the status quo by diplomatic expediency so as to continue operating under the peace of Roman domination, the Pax Romana. People were hungry for justice and freedom. They were looking for a liberating leader and hoped that John was the one.

Those of us who participated in the transition of South Africa from Apartheid to Democracy in the nineteen eighties and nineties, will remember just how volatile and pregnant that longing can be. Ego drives and character assassinations were the dynamics of the day as one leader after another jostled and jockeyed for dominance in the flux of expectation.

Unfortunately there were only a few of the ilk of a Desmond Tutu who could detach their own ego driven greed and say, say as John the Baptist did, “There is another coming.
For South Africa, the coming one was Madiba, known to the world as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who on his release ended the jockeying and led South Africa through a bloodless and miraculous transition.
For Israel, it was Jeshua the Nazarene, or as we know him, Jesus of Nazareth.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The coming one, according to John, was not going to chaff around. He was coming to clear the chaotic threshing floor, where all was dust and trampling. He had a winnowing fork, that would throw it all in the air so that only that with substance and value would fall through and be seen clearly as substantial life-giving grain, whilst the worthless would blow off as fire fuel.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Bathing, washing, ritual cleansing was only the beginning.  John could do that work, just as Desmond Tutu could get South Africa ready, by speech and sanctions and blood-sparing mediation.

However, Breathing, Spirit, In-spiration, that sets the world ablaze with a passion for compassion and justice for all required someone with more to give.

Back in the day, Herod Antipas, chose as unskillfully as his father Herod, who had gone off as the Butcher of Bethlehem and killed all the children under two, to try and stop the coming of the true king. Antipas thought that imprisoning and finally killing John the Baptizer would halt the coming of the king’s reign.
They were both wrong. They chose badly.  They listened only to the voices of their fear, and never (it would seem) heard a voice from above.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Jesus, on the other hand, heard a voice from above that drowned the Gethsemane voices of fear.




Bathe, breathe, burn.

That was the sequence of Jesus’ ministry.
After ritual bathing in baptism, he heard the only words any child needs to hear to be complete as a human being, “That’s my child, my beloved, I am so proud of you!”.

Jesus was ready for the breathing of Spirit every moment as he burnt his life up as an offering for the salvation of all.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Once you know who you are, beloved child of God, there is nothing that can defeat or hold you. No prison, no power, no political regime.
You are then, as Jesus was, Invictus. You are Invincible.

(This poem, by William Ernest Henley, kept Nelson Mandela sane for twenty seven years on Robben Island)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The words from his Parent in heaven, held Jesus, in the three and a half years of his ministry as he poured out his life.

I wonder what will hold me in this year, this life, still unfolding?

In my sane moments I choose to believe that the voice from heaven, speaks to me as it spoke to him, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When I hear it, and the voice of my my fear does not drown it out, I too know I have the potential to be Invictus.

Bathe, Breathe, Burn…