Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

That’s why they call it the blues

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”   He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.   Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’   Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!   See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

There is something mournful about the blues and as Elton John says, “That’s why they call it the blues“.

There is a world weary wisdom in the lyrics of a good blues number. It speaks of love lost, life wasted, and the cost of insight. Experience is expensive stuff.

I am no expert, but I do think the blues requires an old soul to write it and an old soul to understand it. If you don’t get it, chances are you haven’t lived much pain and suffering. The words of Louis Armstrong when asked by a reporter what jazz is, are equally true for the blues. Sachmo said, “Honey, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know!

The blues are for real people with real scars and who have firsthand experience of what Kahlil Gibran describes as “knowing the pain of too much tenderness

The blues are born when you have experienced pain and suffering, and have learned the most difficult lesson life can teach, “it didn’t have to be this way!

I can imagine Nelson Mandela singing the blues when he looks at South Africa sixteen years after liberation where the values of equality, respect and living in a Rainbow Nation have been diluted by immoral power grabbing, self aggrandizement and corruption at the highest levels of government, whilst the abject poor and disempowered are only slightly better off than they were in 1994.

In fact as I walk the streets of the global village, I see, on almost every corner, a weary and sad blues singer mourning the death and defacing of the dream that once was their deepest passion.

I surfed over to Wikipedia and looked at the list of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and it looked like a list of Grammy Nominees in the category, “Best Blues Album”. Certainly, some of the tracks would be celebratory, almost too much so to be called the blues, but for the most part, they are “true blue”, Blues man.

Jesus sang the Blues.

He sat overlooking the city, “set on a hill” that should, “not be hid” and saw not the vision of his Father, rather he saw a city driven by an economic exploitation of ritualistic religion, where it is estimated that eighty percent of the economy centred around the temple sacrificial system. (Are any of our modern church economies any different?)

Jesus sang the blues

As a caring lover of all people, Jesus knew how threatened the vulnerable chicks of Israel were.  The poor, the widows, the outcasts, were at the mercy of the Foxy Herod and the Roman Eagle.  In a homely farmyard metaphor, Jesus likens himself to the vulnerable hen who, despite the danger to herself,  gathers her chicks when the eagle is soaring and the fox is stalking.  Did he know even then that Herod and Caesar would rip him apart at the end?

Jesus sang the blues

He remembered that he wasn’t the first to challenge what was wrong with God’s people. In that respect he stood in a long lineage which stretched all the way back to Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Jesus stood in a lineage of Blues singers, which was what Elijah had come to remind him of on the Transfiguration mount.

In reflecting on that lineage Jesus says an interesting thing. He states that it is “impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”, implying that all the prophets are stoned in the city, which would be the case with false prophets who would be tried in the temple courts and then dragged into the streets for public stoning.

A very interesting example is the stoning of Zechariah. Jesus’ reference to it is recorded in Matthew, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.‘ [Matthew 23:29-36 (NRSV)]

This is the Zechariah (there were a few) whose name is attached to the Old Testament book, In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah [Zechariah 1:1a (NRSV)]

The event is referred to in Second Chronicles,” Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, ‘Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.’ But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord.” [2 Chronicles 24:20-21 (NRSV)]

Note: (Did you notice the interesting misquote or editorial glitch? Two Zechariahs are being spoken about. For more on this debate click here)

What is pertinent for me, is that it is in the book of the prophet Zechariah that it is written that the King will come riding on a donkey, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” [Zechariah 9:9].

Of course we know that Jesus is going to incarnate that prophetic statement, when he returns on Zechariah’s colt and the palm waving people call out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and then days later bay for his blood as a false prophet and a threat to National Security.

But that is in the future. Now it is time to sing the blues.

To mourn the missed and rejected opportunities of yielding to the embracing wings of God’s unconditional love, that does not require an industry of sacrifice and an economy of scapegoating.

This Lent, I join Jesus and every forgotten or ignored peacemaker as I too sing the blues. I moan and mourn not only for the missed opportunities in my country and the global village. I mourn for every moment I have been too preoccupied with my own industry and economy, that have kept me from yielding to the outstretched wings of grace. Thank God he is still busy with the second day work of demon driving and healing. There is hope for me still. May I not make the same mistake again.

Such missed moments. Such expensive lessons. Such silly mistakes.

That’s why they call it the blues.

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Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

The Biggest Temptation of All

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,  where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.  The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”  Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”  Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,   for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’   and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”   Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

One of the greatest challenges I have to deal with daily, as a White, Western-thinking, Euro-African who now represents only nine percent of the demographics of South Africa; is that I don’t know what to do.

It’s not that I “don’t know what to do“. As a Western trained person I have a ton of ideas in every minute of exactly how the world should be! The world my way! The problem is that I arrogantly assume that my solution is the best, most logical and most obvious to any other rational human being. The frustration and anger that follows when no-one else agrees with me, nor implements my ideas, is proof that I have fallen prey to the Biggest Temptation the Wilderness held out to Jesus and holds out to anyone with ego, energy and ideas. The temptation of the quick fix

It is difficult to wait with a problem when your mind and skills base tell you that you know exactly what to do. Add to your competence a resource of divine power, and we begin to see what the temptations of Jesus were really about.

Food

Overflowing with compassion at the suffering of the people that he had grown up with, Jesus wanted more than anything to see the hungry fed. Stones to bread was a simple solution. It was a quick fix. In Africa we are constantly confounded by how a well meaning air-drop of tons of food to starving people on this continent, can issue in cartels of connivance and control as food becomes another weapon to be used by the power mongers with the assault rifles. How can the well intended dropping of food be so abused to increase the suffering of the starving who can now see the bags of food they still have no access to?

Favours

In a world lost and hungry for meaning Jesus knew that he had a secret that could change lives forever. Would it be so bad to enter a coalition with another spiritual super-power, for the good it could bring? Surely together they could do more than when divided?

South Africa really liked the idea of trading with China, and still does. How embarrassing when that alliance meant the South African Government had to refuse a visa to the Dalai Llama who was invited to the country by the Buddhist community here. Quick fix coalitions can have counterproductive consequences.

Fantasy

Who doesn’t love a thrill? Entertainment is a massive global industry. It is fuelled by our need for illusions that will be the quick fix to the agony of reality we face daily.

Travel through any informal settlement in this country and you will see television antennae sticking out from the simplest of shacks. Everyone needs to be entertained.

Of course the media can do a power of good to expose and to educate. That is why every oppressive regime will demand total control of the media. In South Africa we have had experience of that in our dark history.

But fantasy and entertainment can also have devastating effects. What is a young man, with no education and no employment , to do when he sees on the television that to be a real man, he has to drive a German car, wear a Swiss named watch, and wear the shoes that it seems everyone in New York is wearing?

How does that young man become what he is told by the media to become if he has an illegal fire arm and a head full of crack-cocaine. What does he do when he knows where the people live who have what he has to have? If you don’t know the answer, read your next daily newspaper, it will tell the story of young men like the one I have described.

It is very difficult not to fall for the quick fix.

Food, Favours and Fantasy are powerful temptations, that have seduced even the church for centuries. They still do.

So what did Jesus know that made it possible for him to survive?

Based on his answers in this passage he seems to have understood that:

  • Food is not the only supporter of meaningful life.
  • That Faithfulness is more important than favours.
  • Living a fantasy is the ultimate deception for the soul/ego.

The journey through Lent each year offers us the opportunity of cutting through the veils of deception that so easily wind around us.

  • We fast, becoming aware of our obsessions with food.
  • We seek solitude with God, examining our dependence on networks of favour and power that often supplant our trust in God.
  • We simplify, our use of media and entertainment and come to live our God given realities in gratitude without constantly testing God to make things different from the way they are.

And through these forty days we pray to see that the quick fix for ourselves and others, is the biggest temptation of all.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

You gotta practice man…

Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.  They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.  While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.  Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.  Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.  I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”  Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”  While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.

And all were astounded at the greatness of God. While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, …

I enjoy telling the rather “corny” story of the man carrying a violin in a case, who emerges from Grand Central Station onto the streets of New York. A visitor to the city, he stops at a homeless man propped up against a wall on the sidewalk and asks him, “Excuse me sir, can you tell me how I can get to Carnegie Hall?” The drunk squints up at the man and the violin case and answers, “You gotta practice man, practice!

Today’s reading has something of that ironic misunderstanding about it. It is a passage of contrasts. Luke, our gospel writer/editor frames the narrative in a way that enables us best to glimpse the contrasts. There is a mystical drama unfolding on the summit of the mountain, and a very human drama unraveling at the mountain base.

Jesus has been teaching the disciples and sending them out on practical ministry events. He has been feeding the crowds and encouraging them in the simplicity and struggle of their daily existence. He has been testing the disciple’s understandings of who he is, “Who do you say that I am?“, and he has been spelling out the cost of discipleship with the gruesome analogy of carrying a cross.

After all the activity of the opening verses of Luke 9, we now find Jesus taking three close disciples and going up “the mountain” to pray. After all the hands-on and direct encounters early in the chapter, the events on the mountain take on a very ethereal mood. There is what the mystics call the “Tabor Light“, the glorious radiance of the Shekinah glory of God associated with moments of epiphany and transformation. The disciples are sleepy, just as they will be portrayed in the garden of Gethsemane the night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. What is it about our psyche that wants to fall asleep at the very moment we are faced with moments of enlightening growth and challenge? “Can we not watch one hour, because the weak flesh cannot keep the pace of willing spirit?” (Matthew 26:41) Here, at least, says Luke, the disciples manage to stay awake and see the transforming glory of Jesus as well as the meeting with archetypal characters Moses and Elijah, who embody the pillars of Judaism, namely, the Law and Prophets.

This meeting has all the power of that classic encounter of Frodo with Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.

Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Simply exchange the word cross for ring and Moses and Elijah for Gandalf, and you have one of those timeless moments when vocation and destiny collide and the inevitable consequences of obedience are glimpsed in all their fearful reality. How consoling to know that the faith ancestors, will come to us at those times to steel our shivering spines!

When Peter decides to build a mountaintop monastery, it feels to me that our proto-church leader, is simply verbalizing religion’s motivation to settle in moments of God’s blessing and to avoid the ongoing, cross-carrying journey which all encounters of this nature are designed to fuel. We who, thanks to Luke, know what is happening at the foot of the mountain recognize that Pilgrims and not Settlers are needed for this enterprise of healing the world.

Don’t you just love the precious parental presence that does not smite nor embarrass Peter? God simply envelops the entire community in a blanket of glorious unknowing which renders all our best building plans facile.

In that cloud of glorious unknowing, the Baptism voice of God again affirms who Jesus is, and encourages us all to listen to him.

In keeping with all mystical transmissions the moment is over as quickly as it began.

I would like to think that the silence which the disciples held about this moment they shared with Jesus, had more to do with profundity of the experience than with mere exclusive secrecy.

Perhaps I, in the evangelical church, could do with less testimony and more transforming silence? After all, how does one put these things into words. Like Mary, I would do better to “ponder these things in my heart and think deeply about them.

The Cross waits for Jesus, the gates of Mordor for Frodo.

Isn’t it ironic that the Only Son who will be lifted from the earth by evil shadows of power, is here at work restoring another only son who is being dashed onto the earth by the same dark forces?

A world oppressed by a plethora of unclean spirits meets me every time I come off the mountain top moments of transformation. There is no avoiding the encounters, but if I treasure the silent secret of what I have seen in the cloud, my heart will not break nor quake as I touch the darkness with the cross cutting into my shoulder.

You gotta practice man practice

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon, Uncategorized

Come as you are – Epiphany 5C

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.

He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

 

My memories of fishermen from my Port Chaplaincy days are of wild men. I recall a chokka (squid) boat captain telling me that before the crew boarded to go out on a run, he had to stand at the quayside with a tray of marijuana “arms” so that the crewmen could sample the quality. It was a deciding factor as to whether they would board. Another ritual amongst the chokka crews in the Southern sea of Africa, is when two boats pass each other the crews hang over the gunwhales asnd hurl abuse at each other. The exchange are colourful in the extreme and often the reference the “mothers” of the other crew. Unfortnately decorum won’t permit me illustrate.

I have a feelin g though that Peter would have understood the language!

This passage is obviously a record of the call of the “Big Fisherman” according to Lloyd C Douglas’ novel titling.

It is also, as are encounters with Jesus, archetypal in its fecundity to bring forth a map of our spiritual journey. It is this map I want to explore a little here.

I marvel at Peter the Big Rough Fisherman, being so obedient to the directives on fishing by an itinerant Rabbi and carpenter! Perhaps Luke, like me in his account of this fishing tradition had edited out some of the more colourful expletives that were muttered by Peter when Jesus told him to set out into the deeper water, and reset the nets after a whole night of fruitless fishing?

I can’t be sure, but “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” sounds just a little edited to what Peter might really have said!

The alternative might be that during the sermon from the prow of his boat, Peter had heard something that gave him enough cause to trust that taking a chance on the Rabbi’s suggestion, was worth a gamble.

Either way, the learning point for me in this moment is that grace and insight, are often experienced in thos moments when our human efforts, skill and strategies have been expended with no reward.

How often to I have to get to the end of my resources and often my reason before I am ready to hear the God option for my life. Challenges and crises confront me and I go at solving them with all my skill and gusto. Prayer, reflection and listening usually come when I am panting and burnt out, and ready for some depth for my trust of Jesus.

It is a bit like the man who as a newly qulified First Aider, came across a terrible road accident on his way home. Jumping from his car, First-Aid case in hand he rushed to the body of a victim lying on the side of the road. Pushin the person aside who was attending to the injured woman, the man announced,”Stand back please, I am a qualified First-Aider!” Following all his newly learnt rules he proceeded to bandage and splint for all he was worth. Many bandages and much iodine later, the person whom he had pushed aside tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear, “When you get the part where your training says, ‘Call the Doctor’, I am here behind you”

I know that I have often pushed God off my crises, only to have to call him back later when my efforts haven’t yielded much.

The other cameo in this story of call is Peter’s response to the abudance of the catch. Falling down in front of Jesus he exclaims, “Go away from me, Lord,for I am a sinful man!”

I wonder why such blessing issued in such “dissing” of himself?

Where did Peter learn that he wasn’t deserving of good things from God?

Again I can’t be sure but I would hazard that some form of religious communication was involed. I have experienced too often, that when people call themselves sinful, it is usually beacause they have been told that this so, verbally or non-verbally, by religious people!

Peter might have been a hardened, ruffian of a man. He probably was not shortlisted for nomination to the synagogue council of ministries. This did not mean that he was unworthy of having full nets of blessing.

Don’t you love the irony in Jesus call? He doesn’t tell Peter to clean up his act, go for vocabulary re-alignment, and then come and become a rabbi, like Jesus. No, is called to bring all he is, and the way he is, and be a rough-neck ruffian fisherman for people. The people Jesus needs for his Kingdom. People, many of whom will be like Peter. Tax collectors, terrorists, prostitutes and other people who the church says should be called sinful.

Thank God that Jesus doesn’t depart from Peter when he asks him to. Thank God Jesus doesn’t depart from me when I have convinced myself I am nothing more than, “a sinful man”

At the end of my tether, with empty nets, I hear a call from Jesus. I don’t feel worthy and I think he best leave me to wallow here in my exhaustion.

He has other ideas. He says, “Don’t fear. Come as you are. I don’t want to change you, I only want to love you unconditionally and share my life with you.”

Sorry folks I have to go.

No chance to explain.

Just sort out all those fish and the boats.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back.