Posted in Reflection, Sermon

Heralding the reign of the Healing King

Luke 10:1-12,17-20

The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them out ahead of him, in pairs, to all the towns and places he himself was to visit. He said to them, ‘The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest. Start off now, but remember, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Carry no purse, no haversack, no sandals. Salute no one on the road.
‘Whatever house you go into, let your first words be, “Peace to this house!” And if a man of peace lives there, your peace will go and rest on him; if not, it will come back to you. Stay in the same house, taking what food and drink they have to offer, for the labourer deserves his wages; do not move from house to house.
‘Whenever you go into a town where they make you welcome, eat what is set before you. Cure those in it who are sick, and say, “The kingdom of God is very near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not make you welcome, go out into its streets and say, “We wipe off the very dust of your town that clings to our feet, and leave it with you. Yet be sure of this: the kingdom of God is very near.” I tell you, on that day it will not go as hard with Sodom as with that town.’
The seventy-two came back rejoicing. ‘Lord,’ they said ‘even the devils submit to us when we use your name.’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Yes, I have given you power to tread underfoot serpents and scorpions and the whole strength of the enemy; nothing shall ever hurt you. Yet do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you; rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.’

Having just returned from a wonderful week of leave that included a World Cup soccer game and fantastic shows at the Grahamstown National Festival of the Arts, I am a feeling just the slightest patina of rust on the homiletic tools, so let me simply highlight the phrases that grab my attention for reflection in the Gospel this week.

Seventy Two Others
I am not an expert on numerology, so I will not pretend to know the significance of the number seventy-two except to note that it is a number six times larger than the original band of apostles.  If this passage indeed teaches Jesus’ priorities for ministry as I believe it does, I as a ministerwould do well to remember that ministry should constantly be including more and more people in the work of the Kingdom.  How else will people know that the Kingdom of God is very near to them if there are not representatives of the King, touching their lives?

Ahead of him, to towns and places he was to visit.
Don’t you find it interesting that Jesus sends these “others” to the places he has yet to go? So often I find the church only wants to send “ordinary” men and women to places where Jesus has already been, (or where the professionals have been.)
I grew up in a church culture where the expert preacher or evangelist would come to the town first and lead the “revival”. Then, and only then, ordinary members would be left to do the “follow up”.  Jesus seemed to operate differently. He is the follow up after the ordinary people have gone to others and brought healing and spoken of the immanent and close kingdom.

Eat what is before you.
I wonder what happened to teaching this ministry principle in Seminary. As I look around at the culture of entitlement of so many modern ministers I begin to wonder if they have come to serve or to be served?  So few seem happy these days to “eat what is before them” rather the value seems to be, “criticise what is before you and demand something different and more expensive”!

Cure those who are sick
How different were the days when healing was a spiritual process, and healers were the spiritual leaders of a community. Our society has made the physical body engineers, the doctors, the sole custodians of the healing arts.  A few years ago I was praying with a patient behind drawn curtains in a hospital ward when the attending physician arrived and interrupted my prayer with, “Please stand aside and wait outside, I have work to do here
What is most damming in my memory of this event is that I didn’t argue or protest. Like a lamb before the wolf I aquiesced and left the ward. Was I following Jesus there?

I wonder how long it will still be before we realise the bankrupcy of trying to heal the body without reference to the dis-ease of soul that makes health break down in the first place. True wholeness comes from integration of the whole person into the whole of life as an extension of our whole God.

And say the “Kingdom of God is very near to you.”
It is when we come to the complete understanding of union with God as integration and non-duality of being at all levels of this human existence that we will begin to experience the reality described as the kingdom or reign of God.

Healing is our primary task as the enrolled and registered servants of heaven’s health.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

The loneliness of the God in our image.

Staring at this image for 30 seconds creates a picture of Jesus when you then close your eyes

Luke 9:18-24

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”

Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”

He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

This passage has an intriguing opening. It also is an interesting study in psychological projection.

There seems to be a contradiction in that opening statement. Jesus is praying in solitude and his disciples are with him? How could that be?

It seems to suggest an important lesson for those of us who take prayer seriously. Solitude need not mean solitary. It would seem from this cameo of Jesus’ spiritual practice that he needed to be in solitude, that essential state for the growth of spirit in Spirit and by Spirit. This of course is not new to us. The Gospel of Luke distinctively shows Jesus as often drawing aside to be in solitude. What is of note however, is that this solitude may be practiced in the presence of a community of those who are on the journey with us.

There is too much loneliness in our world. Those of us, like myself, who live alone may too easily succumb to the temptation of solipsism and think that God may only be found in absence from others. Wasn’t it John Cassian who taught that community is essential for the monk, for how can one hope to grow in grace if there is no one to challenge and irritate you?

So the distinction between solitude, and loneliness have to be carefully discerned.

That profound Jungian, (no, sadly, they are not all profound, many are merely pretentious) Robert Johnson, has written of loneliness in “Inner Gold: understanding psychological projection”

He says:

Loneliness is an interior matter… The collective unconscious often produces myths that tell us what is happening or about to happen in a culture… [One] is Der Fliegende Holländer, The Flying Dutchman. There are many variations on the story and all go something like this. A young man has committed an indiscretion, a transgression that resembles the one that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden of Eden. He is the captain of the ship The Flying Dutchman. As punishment, he and his ship are banished to sail the storm clouds, where they must stay until someone loves him. He cannot ask anyone to love him. He has to wait. That’s the terrible thing about loneliness. You can’t ask for relief. It’s a kind of paralysis. You can only hope that someone will sense your dilemma and help.

The Flying Dutchman has been banished “above” to the stormy upper world. Loneliness is always “up there,” an abstraction. There are billions of people in the world. We do not need to feel lonely. But we alienate ourselves from ourselves and then we head up to the clouds, to the stormy aspect of loneliness. When our feet are on the ground, we feel connected to the energy of the world and don’t feel so lonely. When we connect with the lower parts of ourselves, we are in relationship with others as well. The word saunter comes from the Middle Ages, when we sainted or sanctified inanimate objects, and not just people. Even the cross was sainted, and so was the earth. The earth was called Saint Terrare, and so when we saunter, we are in contact with Saint Terrare, the sainted earth. Sauntering grounds and connects us. It is an important cure for loneliness.

Every evening, as the winds whirl around the chimneys, the villagers hear the Flying Dutchman moaning, crying out in loneliness. They all rush indoors, closing their doors and windows, to keep out this awful sound. For years the young man lives like that, up in the storm clouds, moaning in the chimney tops of northern Germany.

Then, one day, a peasant maiden hears him moaning, and because of her good heart, goes out into the yard and calls to him. She asks the Flying Dutchman to come to her, and that is all it takes. He comes down and is relieved of his loneliness. They have a love affair, and his humanity is restored. Only a peasant woman in touch with the earth has the good sense to do this.

Many of us are Flying Dutchmen, and our loneliness is unendurable. We have an insatiable need for entertainment—we moderns watch TV and other screens more than seven hours a day—and for anything that might assuage our longing, especially late at night when the howling in the chimney tops is most painful. Loneliness is on the rise, and advertisers exploit this: If you do thus and so, you’ll feel better.

There are three kinds of loneliness—loneliness for the past, loneliness for what has not yet been realized, and the profound loneliness of being close to God. The third kind is actually the solution. A good myth doesn’t leave you out on a limb. It describes the difficulty, and also offers a solution.( Pg 36-38)

Jesus, before Jung and Johnson, knew this. That is why he is praying in solitude, WITH the disciples.

So we come to the psychological projection part of the story.

Probably one of the most powerful excuses we offer when we fudge the distinction between solitude and loneliness, and want to justify our aloneness, is that when we are alone we have less conflict. With Satre we intone, “Hell is other people“. The truth is when we are alone we don’t have to account for ourselves and we don’t have to deal with the expectations of life and others.

It is rigorous to be in community with others. It is difficult to deal with the projections and the expectations. Ask any clergy-person. I mean, who on earth or should that be “who in hell?” decided that clergy should enter this already rigorous communal life with the Albatross title of “REVEREND” around their necks? If that is not begging for destructive projection then I don’t know what is. Could this simple aspect account for so much of clergy burnout, depression  and psychosis?

Healthy and whole Jesus, in the solitude of prayer in community deals with projection head on. He asks what most of us as clergy are too afraid to ask, “So who do people say that I am?”

Watch the projections happen. Individual and collective unconscious archetypes are projected onto Jesus in this passage. “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”

Jesus, sniffs but he doesn’t inhale. This is ego-intoxicating stuff. Instead he moves the question into the community. Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter offers the prophetic, priestly and papal projection, “The Christ of God.”

Now there is something for the ego to get hold of!  That trumps “Reverend”, don’t you think?

But healthy and whole Jesus, still sniffing and not inhaling,says Luke, “…rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

Instead, Jesus begins to teach about selfless service and how, losing one’s life is the only way to follow him.

I don’t know if our communities will ever be able to stop the projection onto the clergy with its terrible price. I know even less, if the clergy will ever become integrated enough to stop inhaling those projections. Certainly the young crop of clergy I see in my denomination and Synod seem hell bent on being more “Reverend” than they are on being “real”

And so the church will still never see Jesus as clearly as Jesus saw himself.

Lonely isn’t it?

(Listen to this reflection being preached on Father’s Day 2010 at Port Alfred Methodist Church.  Click here)

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Liberating a shadow legion

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

It is a tricky task when reading scripture not to force too much modern symbolism out of nor into the reading which, it must be acknowledged, comes to us across a twenty century cultural and historical divide. So having paid my dues to decency, that is exactly what I am going to do with this passage simply because it begs to be read at all its rich levels of meaning.

I am intrigued by the context of this miracle. Jesus has crossed over the lake of Galilee, and has entered the wilderness area of the decapolis (ten cities). We should not be surprised that Jesus has crossed over. He is the consummate, “fence jumper” isn’t he? Put a label, a prejudice, a social barricade before Jesus and before long he will, “cross over”. It is thus not surprising that in this wilderness area of the Trans-Jordan, Jesus encounters demons. This wilderness was after all the place where the scapegoats had for centuries been driven with their shadow burden of Israel’s sin. This wilderness was the place of Israel’s projections. Similar perhaps to how the continent of Africa has been scapegoated with all the shadow material of the Euro-American high priests placed on its people’s dark skinned shoulders?

Jesus goes to the repository of shadow material.

The fact that Jesus encounters a naked, demoniac (psychotic?) is not surprising. What is surprising is that the fence jumping Jewish Rabbi is not averse to an encounter with this frightened and frightening person. All the rules of culture and religion dictated that it would be best to ignore and avoid a person like this.

The demoniac on the other hand comes to Jesus and knows who he is. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” He also is reluctant for an encounter with Jesus. “I beg you, do not torment me” Here is a person robbed of dignity. Exposed and shamed, symbolised by his nakedness and excluded by reference to his location in the tombs.

Jesus’ response is to inquire as to the man’s real identity. By asking his name, Leslie Weatherhead suggests, Jesus is asking a question equivalent in the day to a therapist asking in our day, “How did it all begin? What power is it that is over you“. The insight that emerges in the narrative suggests that Jesus might have spent a long time in this conversation drawing closer and closer to this rejected and abused human being to get him to a place of trust where he could share his story (his name) with Jesus. Weatherhead goes on to speculate that perhaps the reference to the name “Legion” may be a pointer to the fact that the man was naming atrocities committed by the Roman Legionaires who controlled the Decapolis.

Whatever the illness of the man, Jesus sets him free and liberates him from the abysmal energies at work in his life. No wonder that the man deeply desires to stay with his divine therapist from then on, and how skilful of Jesus not to encourage that dependence but to set the restored man free to be himself, and not a slavish dependent disciple? I wonder if, in our ministry as churches, we are as generously skilful?

I suppose I really should stop here, with this psychological interpretation that would be acceptable to us as preachers, and our congregations. I really should stop, but there is a question haunting me in the right outfield of my mind. I have to notice it.

The question is, “In what form is this Demoniac representative of people haunted by legions of hurtful and abusive experiences from the Church?”  Is the church the demoniser?

If it is true that the demoniac symbolises the demonised members of society who have been stripped of their identity and clothing and who are living in the tombs, then it must be equally true that Jesus wants to encounter those very people and bring them back to healing and community.

Space and time does not permit me to begin naming the thousand and one members in this legion of abuse and shaming commanded and executed by the church. Let me begin the current  list and leave you to complete it.

Racism and slavery, sexism and patriarchy, homophobia, paedophilia,… The legion of fear based “tactics of exclusion” that has many living in the tombs having forgotten their identity as children of God to the extent that they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Hear the good news, “Jesus is a fence jumper!”

He will go to the shadow wildernesses created by our fears and projections and liberate our scapegoated sisters and brothers from their abysmal exclusion. Having done this he will command us to continue this work in his name.

After all, was the heyday of the church not when we dwelt in the catacombs ourselves?

Posted in Book review, Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection

What does he possibly see in her?

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

There is a saying that goes, “We seldom see things the way they are, rather we see things the way we are

Our contexts, our cultures, our histories with certain people groups, our preferences, are all filters which determine what we see when we see something or someone. Living as I do in South Africa, where labelling and prejudice was a way of life, I am deeply aware of my tendency to label and judge at every opportunity. In the heydays of Liberation Theology and Orthopraxis, we were taught to “See, Judge, Act“. Now that may be good for revolutionaries, but I am not sure that it cultivates a contemplative attitude to the world and people. These days I much prefer Lama Surya Das’ mantra, “See it, Know it, Watch it go. There seems less of the judging labelling mind in this second approach. Am I getting lazy?

With that as my background you will understand why, when I read of this classic encounter at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, I notice the way people are seeing, judging and acting.

Simon the Pharisee, is focussed on the externals. “he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” His focus on externals prevents him from meeting the person behind his label.

The anonymous woman, is focussed on her deep need for unconditional acceptance. “She stood behind him at his feet,
weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair”
Her need overwhelms her awareness of propriety and place.

Jesus with the wealth of wisdom coming from a contemplatively integrated heart, sees both and his response to Simon and the woman is absolutely need specific and thus appropriate to each individual.

I would like to cultivate seeing the way that Jesus sees.

  • Seeing the need not the label
  • Responding with compassion and not prejudice
  • Putting care above convention
  • Being able to hold opposing energies in one room and minister to people on each side. (Simon and the Woman)

The gospel reading ends with a list of interesting woman who followed Jesus on the way. Looking deeply at this encounter in Simon’s house, I can understand why they did.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Steps to Sanity – Take, Thank, Break, Give (Corpus Christi)

Luke 9:11-17

When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

I am fascinated by processes. Whether it be a television programme on “How it’s Made” or a something as simple as watching a new leaf unfold on the potted plant in the sun-porch, I love to see the steps in any process.

I bring that curiosity for process to scripture and am often rewarded by seeing steps unfolding in what seemed at first to be an ordinary event in the life of Jesus

The gospel reading for the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, traditionally called Corpus Christi, yields a beautiful process to my heart that is ever eager to grow into wholeness through contemplative practice.

The passage is a very well known account of the feeding of the multitude with the meagre portion of five loaves and two fish.

The narrative itself is a wonderful example of how the Holy Communion or Eucharist suffused the life of the early church, to the extent that the gospel writer has Jesus distributing the elements only after performing the Upper Room, fourfold Eucharistic action which defines the celebration, “taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd”

The fourfold actions of Jesus break down into, Took, Thanked, Broke, Gave. These actions are repeated in almost every celebration of Holy Communion by priests and ministers to this very day.

It was in contemplating the coming feast of the Corpus Christi that I realised that in this classic four step Eucharistic action of Jesus there lies aprofound process which I share for our own growth. It outlines the process of prayer and spiritual maturing which is so dependent on being nourished by our sacramental life from Jesus’ hands.

Took, Thanked, Broke, Gave…

TAKING

The starting point for most spiritual journeys begins with taking. We take our sustenance from our mother’s body. It is a scary thought that a growing foetus will leach from its mother, whatever minerals it requires and literally digests the mother for what it needs.

We begin our journey of the spirit in a foetal state. God is there for us to receive from and feed from. We will take whatever God can give and then continually ask for more. Our prayer in this stage is usually couched in self interest, preservation and God fulfilling our wants which we disguise as needs.

THANKING

As our nurturing Mother, God is happy to bless us with all that makes life rich in our hands. As we mature like little toddlers being taught to say “Taaaa” We learn the prayer of thanks. Gratitude begins to enter our life as we contemplate all that we have taken from life and loving God.

Gratitude is a major part of our worship as we lift not only our daily bread, replete with butter, jam and cream to God, but also realise with the hymn writer that, “All good things around us, are sent from heaven above, so thank the Lord O thank the Lord for all his love

BREAKING

Journeying, as I have, for most of my over fifty tears of life with Jesus has taught me that life and prayer is also about breaking.

There is something very painful in the Holy Communion watching the Priest’s wafer snap, or the Minister tear the bread apart.

In the Orthodox church the priest has a special knife which he uses to cut the bread into pieces during the prayers of Intercession. So as the congregation witnesses the tearing of the body of Christ it intercedes for the brokenness of all creation.

Sometimes the breaking is joyful when I break through into new understanding and insight.

Oft times the breaking is sorrowful as I break down from my unworkable strategies, scenarios or structures with which I have scaffolded and enmeshed my life.

Jesus in the Upper room taught his proto-church that there is no growth in insight without breaking. Is that not why the Emmaus disciples only saw who Jesus really was when the bread was torn? Tearing bread, tearing veils in the holy of holies, we have to experience breaking if we are going to mature in this journey to wholeness.

GAVE

There is a circular dance of growth and spirit I see in this process as I grow from Taking, then Thanking, and through Breaking learn that there is nothing I need to cling to and I am able at last to give it all away.

Faced with a demanding multitude it must have been a daunting moment when Jesus gave those first few scraps of fish and bread away.

It is just as daunting for you and me, when we come to the resting place of resignation and renunciation. To come to know that “In God we live and move and have our being” is the place of deep sanity and safety that is often most deeply grasped by the world’s poor who have nothing to Take, Thank or Break.

The ultimate sign of being one with God, Jesus taught is to be able to give it all up into the providence of God. Like the lonely grain of wheat that only grows when it has been released from the Sower’s hand. Like the bloody but unbowed corpus on the Cross that commits his spirit into the hands of a Parental God who has always been there, when there was taking, when there was thanking and even in the desolation of breaking.

There is enough for every tribe’s basket. Let’s not be afraid to give ourselves into the hands of this loving Lord, who through his gracious fourfold action in our lives will use us as the sustenance of this hungry world.

(By clicking here you can hear how these thoughts sounded when preached the next Sunday)