Back AWAY from the drawing board!

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

There is a monastery close to where I live and from time to time I have visited the monks there.  These are experienced Benedictines, most of whom are life professed which means that they have been in the religious life a long time.  Yet despite them knowing what it is to be monks, knowing how to be monks and obviously BEING monks,they chuckle when they tell of how many visitors to the monastery who don’t know what it is to be a monk, or how to be a monk and who, despite not being monks, consistently tell them what they think the monks should be doing!

What is it with our culture that somehow assumes that despite inadequate training or experience we can opine about anything with grandiosity?  My doctor was telling me of a similar problem in her profession. “Patients enter my consulting rooms,”she said, “armed with a file of Googled results.  They sit down and instead of telling me their symptoms, they proceed to tell me the diagnosis of their condition and what medication they want me to prescribe!” I could sympathise with my doctor because as a priest I have had to put up with other’s “expert”opinions about religion for most of my ministry.  My studies and qualifications aren’t worth a hill of beans because everyone is an expert.

You will therefore understand why I take such delight in the Father’s put down of the disciple’s great opinions and plans for what should be happening on the Mount of Transfiguration. Their best laid plans of “Let’s build three booths up here and …” is cut short by The Voice that thunders, “This is my beloved Son, LISTEN TO HIM

Now here is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus.  Could it be that, our five year plans, mission strategies and files of Googled answers deafen us to what Jesus is really saying to the church?

Am I being too provocative when I suggest that maybe the church has been booth building for twenty Centuries too long? The record of that moment of transfiguration seems to suggest that Jesus’ desire will most often be contrary to our plans.  The disciples want to build booths and Jesus says, “Get up, stop being afraid, let’s go!”

If we read on in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, we discover that at the foot of the mountain a desperate father is waiting with a suffering son.  There is no time for building booths nor basilicas. “Get up, don’t be afraid let’s go”  It seems that the glory of God shines on Jesus to get him ready for Golgotha, or a least to heal a suffering boy in the foothills of transfiguration.

Could the same be true for our worship Sunday by Sunday?  Do we hear the Father’s acclamation that we are God’s children as a reason to bask in a booth, or as the inspiration to , “Get up, stop being afraid,”  and to go down to the suffering of humanity and our personal crosses that wait?

I’ll be right with you Jesus!

I’m just rolling up this blueprint and the five year plan!

We might still want to build something someday.

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Transcending our terrors – Epiphany 8A

Matthew 6:24-34

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

It was Robert Johnson, that great explorer of the inner realms of the mind, who wrote, “In the Dark Night of the Soul, it is always three a.m.!”  If midnight is known as the witching hour, then three a.m. must sure be the worrying hour?

I lie awake and my mind seems like one of those old tractor feed printers spewing out reams and reams of thoughts onto the floor of my mind.  Every page filled with lines of data from the screaming print head, Zzzzzt, Zzzzzt, Zzzzzt.

In the worrying hour with the pile of messy thoughts littering my mind, I run endless, “What if?” scenarios. “I will say, she will say, he will say, then this, then that”. A proliferation of scripted chaos that never happens but which keeps me awake and sweating nonetheless.

Mark Twain understood this when he said, “I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened”

Jesus is putting his finger right on the problem when he says, “No one  can serve two masters”

What the non-dual teachers like Eckhart Tolle and others have discovered in the past decade was already clearly spelled out by Jesus.  You can only live in one moment and one reality at a time.  Yes, of course we are able to multi-task. That is what living in the cyber world demands, all the more reason to clearly distinguish between multi-tasking and divided thinking.  Jesus is clear, we can only live in one reality at a time.  To try and straddle multi-realities is the way to insanity.

The choice is simple. Either God is in charge,  (The King is really the king of the kingdom) or God is not in charge and we are we are merely flotsam on a tsunamic sea of chaos.

For all the good our pre-frontal lobe in the brain does by giving us awareness and consciousness, at another level it requires careful management as to where we allow our consciousness to settle.  The narrative of Peter walking on the storm comes to mind.  As long as Peter is conscious of Jesus calling him to come, Peter is able to tread on the chaos and walk on water. The moment, however, that he shifts his awareness from Jesus to the waves beneath his feet, he begins to drown.

I wish I could tell you that this is simply a matter of choosing where to look in every moment. It is not that simple.  I can be confidently wave walking in one moment and drowning the next.  I may not  even realise the tipping point when fear overwhelms my focus and the consciousness of chaos overwhelms my confidence in God.

I have however discovered an angle which might help.

It revolves around reminding myself of my origins.  Materialism, with its high priests constantly incant that we are mere accidents of the “selfish gene” and the best we can do is accumulate wealth and power so as to better preserve our genetic progeny above the hordes of losers.

That is not what Jesus taught.  If I follow Jesus carefully and caringly I discover a power that transcends my will to power and is even able to transform my genetic selfishness.  It is called compassion.  The ability to feel with another and to live and act so as to bless the lives of those around me.  That transcendence and transformation is the fruit of recognizing  that I am not a lone survivor on a sea of chaos.  Rather, I am a child of a heavenly parent who heads a family in which every other being; human, animal, plant, and rock are my siblings and supporters. Sparrows and Lilies are my encouragement to celebrate our unity,to conserve our habitat, and to worry not about my individual survival, but rather about the blessing and benefit of the whole family.  It is an instant cure to neurotic nights of terror regarding my individual survival.

Jesus said it far better than I can, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you

Allow me to translate and contextually update:

Strive after God’s reign and God’s integrated life and everything you need will appear

It’s only way to power off your three a.m. panic printer. Zzzzt, Zzzzt, Zzzzt……zzzzzzzzzzzzz….. Sleep well!

Cheeky power!

Matthew 5:38-48

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I remember my days in the army when, as a White South African male, I had to do conscripted military service.  South Africa at that time was an overtly Christian country so at the weekly prayer parades the Army Chaplain would read to us from the Bible.  I was a serious Christian at the time.  As deadly serious as any seventeen year old can be, so I tried to listen for the word of God for me at every reading.  I don’t recall any encounters with God on the parade ground and that is possibly because I don’t remember the Chaplain once reading from the Gospels.  I remember lots of readings from the Psalms, but never a reading about Jesus.

In later years I fell foul of the army when I became a religious objector who had discovered that I could not in good conscience be part of an army that was being used to violently suppress the voices and aspirations of fellow South Africans in the Black townships.  It was the words of Jesus that brought me to that decision, and particularly the words of this Sunday’s gospel.  I was helped to really understand the way of non-violence by studying the teachings of Martin Luther King Jnr., Ghandi, and South Africa’s own Desmond Tutu. (Nelson Mandela was still in prison and his teachings inaccessible in South Africa)  These men showed in their lives the  power of peaceful protest that I believe came very close to the way Jesus had lived and taught.

It was however a less public figure, Walter Wink, with his Third way, that gave me the real insight to Jesus’ brilliantly subversive non-violent teaching.  The Third Way is the alternative to Resisting or Running away, the so-called fight or flight options which we believe are the only choices.

Like most churchgoing people I had been taught to understand the teachings of Jesus on turning the other cheek and going the second mile as a kind of milk-toast passive path that cowered in the face of violence.  It portrayed Jesus as , “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” who really would be much use to anyone in a struggle against powerful oppression.  In the South Africa of the day, as in most First World military complexes this kind of Jesus suited the war machine well.  No follower of the lamb-carrying, blond guy with the effeminate features, was going to argue with the drill sergeant!

Walter Wink however, turned that on its head for me:

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It is essential to  notice the “BUTs” in Jesus’ words where he says,”You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek…”

The word for “resist” is anthistemi and is linked to military warfare where two armies would clash on the battlefield, “resisting” with bronze, blood and bone.  Don’t do that with evildoers, BUT if someone wants to humiliate you by putting you below them, then resist. Resist in a creatively alternative Third Way.

As Wink has pointed out above turning the other cheek wasn’t passive at all.  Neither was giving your undergarment when sued for your cloak.  There was a strong prohibition against nakedness in Jewish society not only for the person found naked but also for the person who caused the nakedness.  So to offer your last piece of clothing to a creditor, was to suddenly put them at risk of being shamed in public. Imagine the scene where the creditor suddenly has to beg the person being sued NOT to give them the undergarment too!

So too with “going the second mile”. Roman occupation troops were allowed to press locals into carrying their pack but only for one mile.  To be caught abusing this privilege was punishable my military law. Again, can we imagine the arrogant Roman soldier begging for his pack  from the poor Hebrew who wants to carry it further and thus get the soldier in trouble?

There is a comprehensive article on these arguments here.

All of Jesus’ teaching is to empower his hearers who are most often the marginalised, the poor and the powerless. Jesus does not want revolution which will simply invert the power structures with oppressed becoming oppressors.  Jesus wants the restoration of human dignity for all. That is the real power of the Gospel.

But the power Jesus uses is not to mirror the oppositional power that is being used to cause the hurt and humiliation, it is rather, skilful alternative and transforming power that forces a review and reconsideration of the whole structure of human power and abuse of power.

Small wonder we all wanted to silence him. He was too skilfully subversive for status quo people who really don’t want to change and certainly don’t want to share our power and privilege!

I also understand why Army Chaplains, responsible for motivating troops and sanctifying violence would find it difficult to read from the Gospels about Jesus.

It takes cheek to follow Jesus.

The Law of Love, or the Love of Law?

Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me as their minister, “Is it right to…?”, “Is it wrong to…?”, I would not have to burden my congregation with my stipend assessment!

There is something about human nature that wants to be told. “Do this.”  “Don’t do that.” It is the path of lazy and infantalised religion.  I never grow up if I never have to figure out the rules, for my own context, for myself.

A colleague of mine posted on Facebook recently his distress at losing a dear member and friend from his congregation.  The member had gone off to join a right wing fundamentalist church.  “I work hard all week, and when I come to church, I really don’t want to think.  In my new church they just tell me what to do.”

Contrast that with this interview in which Eugene Peterson (The Message) speaks about effectively communicating Gospel – Good News to the world.

I am amused by the ironic circles of history. The essential teachings of Jesus challenged the way the Pharisees had replaced the essential interiority of a relationship with God and a covenant written on the heart and not in stone (Jer 31:31)with external legalism and ritual observance.  The church took the Gospel of those challenges by Jesus and made them into external observance once again! I would giggle at the irony if I didn’t know many whose lives were devastated by that mistake of the Church.

At first glance, it seems that Jesus is making it even more difficult to follow the rules.  However, the teachings of Jesus in the gospel passage for this Sunday are not intended to create more external laws, thereby deepening our self loathing and despondency about ever making the grade or getting over the ever rising bar!  He is showing us the way to transcending our legalism.

I am convinced that the church will continue to decline on the left and become rabidly rigid and rule bound on the right, until we realise that the gospel is not about rules.  For the Gospel to be Good News it has to be proclaimed in a way that shows that it is about relationship.  Jesus is pointing that out with Middle Eastern humour and irony.

Externals are the consequences of interior processes. We avoid interiority at our peril.  Was it Carl Jung who said, “If you do not go within you will have to go without

Jesus is always, always, always inviting us to go inside.  To enter the heart in the sacred, silent, spacious solitude of the personal and intimate encounter with our Parent Creator.

There in the cave of the heart we will hear, as Jesus did, that we too, are well beloved children, with whom God is well pleased! No law or behaviour can mediate that unconditional acceptance nor can observance of laws make it happen.  Only by being still do we know that “I am” is God.

However when we emerge from that meeting,  we will do the right things, make the right choices, behave as God’s children.  What the Pharisees feared to risk is what Jesus did.

Theologian Don Cupitt calls Jesus the first humanist and I think he is correct.  Jesus trusted that human nature, when secured in love and transformed by unconditional acceptance, is capable of doing good, true and beautiful acts. This is something that fearful rule-makers and law-keepers will never understand.

Hear the Good News!  We act best not from fearful conformity, but from compassionate concern and perfect love.