Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

Can we trust these foreigners? Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

There is, without doubt, something very attractive about the exotic.  Exotic people, exotic places, exotic food, exotic clothes, all hold a fascination for us, which delights our travel agents and the airlines no end.

This is not always true however.  Sometimes the exotic and different can be threatening.  The same stimulus that triggers fascination can also light the short fuse of fear.  Xenophobia and fascination differ only to the degree that the difference of the other we encounter comes with a background of benignity or a history of conflict.  If we have has a bad experience with a specific people group, then xenophobic racism is a far more expected response than interest and fascination.

I am a fifth generation Euro-African.  I know.

Knowing this truth of the xenophobic and the fascinating in our response wiring as human beings makes the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, all the more interesting.

A brief visit to one of my new favourite websites, http://www.greattreasures.org informs me that the word we translate for wise men in our gospel for Epiphany, is: μάγος (magos Strongs 3097) wise man great, powerful; magus, plural magi, the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians, whose learning was chiefly astrology and enchantment.

Now Medes, Persians and Babylonians did not have a great relationship history with the people of Israel.  The Old Testament is packed with that history of conquest, oppression and exile for the people of Judea.  A modern day equivalent reference would be, “Nuclear physicists from Yemen, Iran or the Peshawar province in Pakistan, came to Bethlehem.”  The declared motivation for their visit, “to pay homage” to a new Jewish King, would have been seen as a smokescreen to gather intel and probably “remove” any political threat to the stability of the region.  Could this be why Herod engages them so actively, because astute politician that he is, he guesses the “real” motive for their mission is in keeping with his own power games to maintain hegemony for himself?

Medes, Babylonians and Persians do not come to David’s town to worship, they come to spy and conquer.Yet on reaching, the place where Jesus is, they do what they say they came to do.  They offer him homage and present him kingly tribute.

Isn’t it so disappointing when people we are suspicious of, act with integrity and honesty?  It’s hard to keep hating when they behave out of the character our prejudice has scripted them to play.

This reflection leads me to three speculations on this Epiphany Sunday.

  1. History is not a justification for ongoing suspicion and xenophobia. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  2. Where people are from, how they look, and what culture they observe, does not determine the behaviour we may expect them to exhibit. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  3. There is at the heart of the Universe a truth, a wisdom which is able to transcend xenophobic fear and suspicion. That wisdom is found in the life and presence of Jesus.

I find the idea of a beckoning star on the horizon of a new year, exotic and inviting and so I pray, “Lord Jesus, give me grace to be intrigued and not intimidated by the different and exotic people who, with me, will follow the star to your heart.”

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Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

Parking under the wrong tree – Christmas Eve

 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A fellow preacher http://seeingmoreclearly.blogspot.com/ has likened preaching at Christmas to wringing out laundry in the days before spin dry cycles on washing machines. Two people would grab opposite ends of then sheet and then twist the material to try and squeeze every last drop from it before hanging it on the line. The point is that preaching at Christmas can be as exhausting as wringing out the laundry. You just can’t seem to get the essential and hopefully unique drop! This analogy of Don’s is one I can relate to, and yet it also struck me that the story really finds its power in the simplicity of the narrative.

It is a story of a pregnant couple who have been displaced by socio-political forces completely beyond their control. The difficulty of their journey to comply with the demands of the authorities is of little interest to those who decreed the displacement. Rules are rules and must be obeyed. The universality of this cameo is that it is being playing out in real time in Darfur, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Southern Africa and the Mexican border with the USA.

The second scene of this archetypal drama finds our couple unable to be accommodated in the “inn” (In Greek kataluma. This could also mean place reserved for guests or “guest room”). So not only are they displaced but they are now further marginalised by being rendered homeless.

Let’s forget the nativity play with the inn keeper dialogue for a moment and read the text more closely. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” I find no cosy backlighting here. No cattle lowing, and fresh straw. I find a marginalised and homeless teenage girl, having to give birth, God knows where, and then putting the child in a feed trough presumably so that she can attend to herself and her post natal recovery. Once again any third world disaster area will suffice as a modern day setting for this drama. Who was it who said, “The rich get richer and the poor have babies”?

The third and final scene of our story, is of another group of unsheltered, and by their profession, unclean persons. Shepherds who are under the stars and who receive a message and a manifestation about God’s glory (The Greek “doxa” is the opposite of episte’me’ (epistemology) knowledge and is realised not from reasoning but from realising) The unrighteous subsistence farming shepherds are the ones to whom the revelation of what is really happening is given.

They in turn become the ones who go and explain the mystery to Mary and Joseph and leave Mary with food for thought if not food for her family. “ all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” I would like to speculate that now the message of Gabriel began to have real application. Mary now needed to know, “… the Lord is with Thee” Yes Mary even in the extremity of this moment, “ the Lord is with Thee”

I am not sure we have any clue, any more about the transforming power of this narrative which we ritually repeat year after year. We who have homes, hearths, and heaped plates, what do we know about political displacement, marginalisation, and homelessness?

If we have become jaded by the mall mania, the credit-card crisis spending, and the bloated botulisms of our wasted food; perhaps we need to listen again to the invitation of the shepherds. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Let’s go to Bethlehem now in 2010, behind its concrete wall of Zionist and Palestinian isolation and begin to understand what it means for God to be present in the suffering of simple people.

But let’s not stop there, now that global travel is so much easier, let us also go to Indonesia, Iran and Ethiopia and look into the earthquake rubble, let’s go to the flood ravaged Ukraine and Panama.

Let’s go where God seems to be found incarnated and present. Not in our tinsel decked trees but in the trauma ravaged suffering of the poor and the powerless around the world. Let us go there, and see these things that the Lord has made known to us. I don’t feel that I have to wring some new cute angle from this ageless story. I think the story speaks for itself. If we can’t find God this Christ Mass, maybe we are parking under the wrong tree.

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon

When faith falters – Advent 3a

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Last week we celebrated the mercurial ministry of John the Baptiser, this week the rising star has become a plummeting comet.

John the Baptizer, popular prophet and wild man of God, had been imprisoned at the fortress of Herod Antipas 24 kilometres southeast of the mouth of the Jordan on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.

Jesus on the other hand was heading north into the Decapolis, the ten cities in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee on the opposite side of the country.  Scholars suggest that the imprisonment of John the Baptist was a motivation for Jesus to get out of Judea and out of harm’s way.  It is easy to understand how John the Baptiser who had been fulminating about axes laid at the roots of trees, and who himself had been challenging nepotism of Herod, who had divorced his own wife and married his brother’s wife for the sake of political power; could believe that Jesus getting out of Judea was at worst an act of cowardice.  In danger of his own life and thinking his cousin has gone soft, John sends this message with some of his disciples. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question bristles with sarcasm, but also gives significant insight into the frame of mind of the Baptiser.

Jesus response is firm and two pronged.  He challenges John to reconsider his expectations and the challenges the crowd to re-evaluate their motivations.  In the response of Jesus I believe we see a map for our own times of doubt and questioning.

In his answer to John, Jesus says, ““Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is the challenge to John who seems to have been fuelled by the conventional expectations of who Messiah would be.

It is difficult for us to understand, standing this side of the resurrection and with over two thousand years of church history behind us, that in the time of Jesus people who suffered were believed to have deserved it, (or they were working off the debts of their parents).  Blind people deserved to be blind, the lame had offended God, lepers were unclean and punished by God and the dead were off in a shadow world where the best they could hope for was that someone would still remember them. As for the poor, the ptochoi well you can watch the spittle as you say the word.  Spit and contempt, not good news, were the just deserts of the poor.

There is, in the question of John, a barbed insinuation that what he had heard of Jesus’ ministry was irrelevant to the cause and is what caused him to question if Jesus was the real deal.  In his response Jesus adds a final challenge,  “And (by the way ) blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  “Blessed is” … could this be the ninth Beatitude, building on the eight from Matthew 5:1-10? “Blessed are those who don’t get offended when I turn out to be not who they expected me to be?”

Despite how difficult and embarrassing this all looks for John the Baptiser, I have to say that I can completely identify with his doubts and his questioning of Jesus.  Just like John I have often proclaimed Jesus publicly in terms that I realise with hindsight have been my projections onto Jesus rather than who Jesus really is in himself. That is problematic enough, but what is plain humiliating is when I have proclaimed the Jesus of my projected expectations, and he then goes off north and doesn’t do what I told people he would!

For example, I really do want to have Jesus as my friend and master throughout my life.  I want Jesus to comfort, heal and console me in my dark nights of fear and anxiety.  I also want Jesus to deal with the evil of the world.  To remove the corruption, crime and chaos that so describes life in the twenty first century.  What I don’t like though is how Jesus always brings his rag tag friends with him into my life.  I don’t like how he makes me question my lifestyle, my use and abuse of resources, and I especially don’t like how he is always pointing me to the people I really don’t want to see.  The blind, the lame, the lepers and those ubiquitous ptochoi (spit it out )poor!  And just when I am about to whine to Jesus that this isn’t really what I signed up for, nor why I wanted him in my life, he adds, “ And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  That’s just not fair!  That’s just what John was doing! He had been offended that Jesus wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing… according to John.

The lesson that John the Baptiser had to learn that day, and that I have had to learn almost every day that I follow Jesus, it this, “Jesus is always going to be where the pain is, not where the power or pleasure is”  Human suffering is like a pheromone to Jesus, it draws his heart inexorably.

To illustrate this Jesus now turns to address the crowd that remains after John’s disciples have left.  Jesus has heard the challenge of his imprisoned cousin, he has answered forthrightly, but he has also heard the pain of John’s disillusionment.  He senses the same disillusionment in the crowd.  Interesting word “dis-ILLUSION-ment”, so Jesus asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

These is are difficult metaphors to access from so far away in 2010.  It is interesting that when Jesus speaks of “looking at” the “reed” or “writing pen”, oscillating in the wind he uses a word for looking at that implies contemplating or gazing at.  What do we want from the wild men of God?  We watch them, we are bemused by them, even entertained by them but truth be told, are we not more comfortable when they are locked up on the other side of the country?  Their challenge is too bright and their intensity too pure.  We fear we will be scorched. “What did you go out to contemplate?”, asks Jesus.  “Was it mere entertainment or did you expect real change?

Naturally those of us who know Isaiah’s writings recognise in Jesus’ question about reeds, Isaiah’s chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

It is speculative at best to try and connect these teachings, but what is significant is how Jesus corrects and challenges John yet at the same time never loses his compassion for his cousin. He truly doesn’t snap the bruised and quivering reed.  John, he knows, is a broken man.  Jesus in a few years will be a broken man too.  But despite the breaking of John and Jesus, there will be no retaliation no breaking in revenge.  Jesus will weep over Jerusalem and say, “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!” Luke 13:34 But Jesus, will not to the disappointment of John, Judas, and others will not call down fire from heaven nor wield the axe at the root of the tree.

John had been sent to prepare the way and he had.  It was however not the freeway for an avenging army, it was the rocky road for a suffering servant.  Those who prepare the way, don’t get to determine who rides on it, or how.

And as I leave this poignant cameo of a very human Jesus, speaking with such love of his broken and doubting cousin who is languishing in Herod’s prison on the other side of the country, I sense the power of this image to heal and encourage hope in the broken and doubting people of our planet.

This human Jesus, the Son of Man, who always goes to where the pain is and not where the power or pleasure is, will be with me too in the moments of my disillusionment when he feels so far away he might as well be on the other side of the country or the other side of the universe! .

When all I have expected, dreamt and even demanded from being faithful to God’s call in my life has not played out according to my scripted plans.  When illusions are exposed in disillusion. When I find myself imprisoned and losing my head, and mind; how wonderful to know that Jesus will still be compassionate whilst challenging.

There are many moments when I too wonder if I shouldn’t look for another, and then I pray for the blessing of not taking offence when he does things his way and not mine. It is then that I experience the eighth beatitude, I am blessed by not being offended, and the bruised and quivering reed is able to stand for at least another day.