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

Blessed? Don’t you mean cursed?

(Click Here to listen to this article as it was preached on Sunday Jan 31 2011)

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Gospel of Jesus – according to the Jesus Seminar suggests that the core of the Beatitudes probably refers to the poor the hungry and the weeping.  The scholars translate the word makarios “Blessed” as “Congratulations.

“Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations you hungry! You will have a feast.  Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh.” Gospel of Jesus 2:3-5

If ever there was a saying that is counter intuitive, then this must be it.

Don Cupitt in “Theology’s strange return” points out that “In post modernity Christianity is being progressively deconstructed, as text and subtext come apart and we we begin to recognize that the religion was first created by a very large-scale act of repression.   The original Jesus was far too radical a figure.  He had to be very heavily veiled, and became the Christ of faith, the incarnate word of God and the ever obedient Son of his heavenly Father.  Thus weirdly disguised, Jesus could be presented by apostles an priests as the central figure in a great myth of redemption which promises the believer a permanently deferred union with God that does not dethrone God.  The object of the complicated manoeuvres here was to preserve just a little bit of what Jesus had been about while yet retaining in full the divine transcendence, the supernatural world, the system of religious mediation and, above all, priestly and disciplinary power. But in postmodernity it is all coming apart.  We begin to see that historical ecclesiastical Christianity was from the first constituted by a great repression of something bigger and better that lies behind it, something that is now at last coming into view.” (Introduction xv)

This radical Jesus, and that piercing scalpel that dissects hypocrisy wherever it has taken form, is nowhere more visible than in these teachings from the Beatitudes.  It matters little whether you take the canonical account of Matthew or the Jesus Seminar version above, the effect is the same.  Jesus is turning the conventional wisdom of the spiritual country club on its head.

All the conditions of human suffering that we pray to avoid and for whose victims we pray in our Sunday and weekday intercessions are congratulated and declared as blessed and happy for it would seem that in Jesus view they have access to the imperial reign (Kingdom) of God.

Having just passed through the consumer orgy of Christmas, and living in Africa where the poor cannot be sanitarily avoided, the words of Jesus seem to amplify the bloated material hangover whose toxins seem to linger long into the new year.

Could it be that peace, joy and hope are not consumer goods, but are rather purveyed in the depth of trust that is born of human struggle and suffering?  We do ourselves and the gospel a great disservice when we spiritualize the Beatitudes and assume they refer only to mind or soul states. The poor are really poor, the weeping are crying real tears.

Moreover, the weeping hungry poor, do not need platitudes and deferred promises of redemption.

They want what they cannot have, and miraculously discover that God is closer in the wanting than in the having.  We who have whatever we want never seem to even get close to hearing Christ’s congratulations.

This is confusing.  It traps my ego and my comfort culture.  I suppose it must be from Jesus.

Lord help me to stop praying for the blessings that I want.  I am coming to see that my desired “blessings” might end up being curses that take me further from you.”

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

Perfect panic strategy.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

A wise teacher once told a friend of mine, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”. That sounds true the moment you hear it, but as with so many truths in life it takes practice to make it work for you.
I recall when I first moved into the mountain hermitage for my year long retreat in 2008, being beset with fears that verbalized as, “Oh No! I have forgotten this, and I haven’t got enough of that” Slowly, little by little, I had to say to myself, “Everything that I need is here“.  It sounds true, doesn’t it? Just like the saying that the teacher gave to my friend, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”
Discovering the truth in statements like these takes time and a degree of faith which enables them to reveal their truth.

It is almost as if one has to bed down with reality for a while before that inner perfection of the situation is revealed.

I have a sense that at the time Jesus withdrew to Capernaum after the arrest of John the Baptizer, it didn’t seem as perfect and as prophetically inspired as Matthew makes it sound when he writes about it in this Sunday’s gospel. Herod is on the war path.  Jesus, his mission and ministry are in peril. He makes a move into Northern Gentile territory.  Away from Judea and the people that he saw as his first priority.

Yet decades later Matthew can see the perfection in what seemed at the time to be chaos.
He sees that here Jesus finds the right kind of disciple, the right kind of audience, the people who have “been sitting in darkness” caused in part by the Judean exclusivist religion from the South.  Here are people ready to listen ready to respond. Ready to repent and change their minds.  It is perfect and complete lacking nothing.  Everything Jesus needs is right here in the most unexpected place.
Matthew sees because time has confirmed the providence that was hidden in the moment of panicky decision to run away to the North.

Isn’t that the truth about life? Crises come.

True, we may not have to experience the arrest and beheading of our cousins and partners in ministry, but we know what it is to have to act quickly and decisively when all one has as a guide is the light of your intellect and the courage of your heart.
How wonderful it is to look back as Matthew does and see that where we might only have seen survival strategies and doubt, time confirms the providence that was always there.

If we have really handed our lives back to God as Jesus did, then truly everything, every moment is perfect and complete lacking nothing.
As that great Christian sage Anthony de Mello has it, “Enlightenment is complete co-operation with the inevitable”


Of course I can’t say it to you, or for you, in your chaotic circumstances right now.  That would be insensitive and blasphemous.  I can however, say it for myself, looking back at the faithfulness of God in my chaotic moments and thus able to be just that little less jittery about the decisions and directions I am taking in my life right now.

Jesus who may never have chosen Capernaum if it weren’t for John’s arrest, ends up going throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Isn’t that just prophetically perfect?

Could it be for me too if I leave my nets and simply follow him?

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

Come and see…Ordinary 2

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o”clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

I have always been one of those people who need to verify things experientially.  It is never enough for me to hear how something works, I want to experience it.  I am not sure if this is a helpful trait to have, but it has made for some interesting experiences!

Because I am an experiential learner I appreciate the sequence of events that are described in this gospel passage.

John who has the experience of baptizing Jesus, who has seen the Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, is able to confidently point to Jesus as “The sacrificial lamb of God” and then to wax theological about the destiny of Jesus vis a vis Israel.  That was John’s experience and insight.

Two disciples of John then decide to follow Jesus, meet him and enquire about where he lives.  This question is far deeper than merely an inquiry after an address.  Amongst the Xhosa people of Southern Africa, there is a form of introduction which goes, “U velaphi?” It means, “Where do you come from?” In the customs of the Xhosas, the appropriate answer to the question is not to give an address, but to declare your clan heritage. The answer is self revelatory far beyond geography. The question is one of identity not of location.  I believe the question of the disciples, “Where are you staying?” has similar dimensions.

Having had the benefit of John’s theological identification of Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, I just love the way Jesus doesn’t respond, “Don’t you know who I am?”, or “What have you heard?” as so many self-styled, egotistical messiahs would answer.  Jesus’ response is a simple invitation to “Come and see.

This response is so beautiful because it is open ended and does not require any prior pre-judged concepts of Jesus.

Isn’t that the miracle of the Jesus journey?  Despite the countless layers of encrusted doctrine, dogma and determined identities that the Church has put onto Jesus as well as the requirements so many communities put on prospective followers before they even begin, Jesus does not.

His invitation is simply to experience.  Come and see.

It is an invitation to unprejudiced, undetermined, encounter.

It is an adventure where the disciple and the teacher are in relationship and not merely formulaic ritual.

It is the path to life.

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

Taking the plunge – Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Almost twenty years ago and a hundred kilometers off the coast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s most southern city, a yachting couple were in grave danger.  A brutal storm that characterizes these waters, had capsized their small yacht. Being a keel boat it had of course righted itself, but the mast was broken and lay like a broken limb across the deck with the sails and rigging in the turbulent sea.  Their lives were seriously at risk.

I read the story on the front page of the local morning paper. By then the news desk could report that a South African Air force Shackleton fixed wing aircraft had located the yacht when responding to the distress call which had been picked up by a local radio ham.  There was even a picture of the grateful couple waving up at the plane from their crippled craft.

I remember thinking how relieved they must have been to see the plane circle above them, but also how despondent they must have felt when they saw the plane turn around and head back to base.  There was of course no way a fixed wing craft could rescue them.  They had to wait a while longer for diverted shipping to come to their aid.

This story has stayed with me as an illustration of how useless and impotent a God who watches from the heavens is for us humans.  We who have to live in the reality and storms of life may be a liitle encouraged by a God who watches from a distance.  An overhead God may be as encouraging in my storms as the Shackleton was to the yachtsmen, but truth be told, what those yachtsmen needed more than an overhead observer, was someone on their level. One who could touch, grasp and lift them from their stricken vessel.

As a preacher, I am delighted every year by the sequencing of the Lectionary that has the Baptism of Jesus follow directly after the great Christ Mass celebrations of the Incarnation.

The baptism of Jesus is for me the great act at the commencement of Jesus’ ministry that declares him not simply to be the “Only begotten Son” who pleases the observing Father above, but this event also reveals him as the one who immerses himself in the sin soiled waters of humanity.  Here is one who can touch, grasp and lift me from my level of crisis and challenge because he has immersed himself in this life.  He is one whom I can embrace, bond with, and follow to wholeness.

For first century Judeans, desert people, who had a deep fear of water, similar to many Southern African traditional cultures, being thrust under water and possibly held there, was a powerful initiatory moment.  It marked, not only the washing off of past failure, it also enacted the gasping inrush of new ruach (translated as spirit, wind and breath) as they emerged from the depths. (Yes I know the Jordan isn’t that deep, but hey, you can drown in a cup of water, remember)

The fact that Jesus chooses to use this symbolism for the launch of his public ministry is not merely iconic, it is transformative for we who follow after him.

How amazing that we go into the year 2011 following a flesh and blood God, who doesn’t merely hover over us, but who immerses himself in our soiled lives and gasps every gasp with us along the way.