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

Obfuscating Observances

John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

There is just no substitute for experience.  When you have been blind and now you see, you are able like John Newton to write about the Amazing Grace of God, in ways that you could never have learned from a Theological textbook.

The man born blind knew that.  He didn’t know much about Sabbath observance, original sin or the validity of Rabbi Jesus’ credentials to heal.  What he did know however, was that he “once was blind” but now could see.

Perhaps the most destructive dynamic in organised religion (any organised religion) lies in its propensity to compulsively control and condition people’s experience of the Divine.

I suppose I am a little pre-disposed to be critical of this obfuscating observance, as I experienced it first hand as a young boy.

All of sixteen years old I was attending a church youth camp.  On the first night, not the pumped up “Gospel-Campfire-give-your-life-to-Jesus” second night; I was all alone on the banks of the Vaal river when I had an experience of connectedness to the whole universe that changed my life forever.  It was what mystics have all experienced and what Rudolf Otto called a numinous experience. I knew I had connected with SOMETHING or SOMEONE, it didn’t seem to matter.  I knew I belonged, and that I was going to be all right.

The next morning I had to tell someone, so I told our bungalow leader who called the pastor, and he then proceeded to pour my expansive, unmediated, numinous encounter into the mould of his conservative, narrow evangelical worldview.  He explained that I had been saved, called and commissioned by God.  All that in one.  All I had to do was pray the sinners prayer and confess (with my mouth) Jesus as Lord and I would be “in the Kingdom”.  I did, and I suppose I was… or maybe I never was not?

As I look back on that transforming time I realise that if the first person I met on that morning after my direct experience had been a Rabbi, a Mullah, a Bhikkhu, a Shaman, or even Richard Dawkins, each would have wanted to obfuscate my experience through the lens of their particular religious (Yes Dawkins is a rabidly religious Atheist) observance.  It is the way of herd religion.

In hindsight I realise it was all perfect for then.  We all have to begin at the literal level, move through the herd conformity and perhaps be birthed into Universality and Transcendence.  I hold no disappointment to the Pastor for pouring my Universal experience into his parochial mould. He was doing his best, and I needed that at the time.

Similarly, I enjoy the complete lack of guile I see from the man born blind.  The Pharisees are in a panic to discredit Jesus, to obfuscate the miraculous event by declaring it invalid on religious and doctrinal grounds.  The once blind man, couldn’t care less.  My favourite lines from this narrative are the words of the healed man, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

There is just no substitute for experience.  In fact, truth be told, experience is all we really have.  All doctrine, tradition and dogma, are merely mechanism whereby humans try to replicate, mediate, validate and control the experiences of others.

Not only is this bad religion.  It is the worst kind of blindness that is seemingly incurable even by  Jesus.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

Oh I see…  Look!
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Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

High Noon at Jacob’s Well

John 4:5-42

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

In the scorching midday sun at Jacob’s well it was a “High Noon” confrontation with as much drama as the 1952 Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly classic.  Unlike the movie, this vignette of Jesus’ life is not a violent confrontation between good and evil, it is rather a conflict of exclusivist, sexist and racist cultures, that is every bit as engaging as Carl Foreman’s screen play.

The theme song from “High Noon” , “Do Not Forsake Me O My Darling” could well have been the anthem of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus discerned had been married five times before.  She had loved and lost enough to have earned a reputation which made the women of the village shun her from their communal water drawing circle at dawn and dusk, when the day was cool.  Only mad dogs and shunned Samaritans go out in the midday sun.

Jesus the Jewish Rabbi, was out of his comfort zone too. In speaking to the woman he was breaking a whole scroll of religious and traditional taboos.  John only references this by “ Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”.  An understatement if ever there was one!  A product of Post- exilic puritanical xenophobia, the Jewish religion of Jesus day, had become extremely exclusive.  Women bore the brunt of the exclusion  (See Ezra 10)

In a verbal shoot-out under the scorching sun, the Samaritan woman ducks and weaves like a good defensive gunslinger.  In keeping with the all too human way we defend ourselves from shame and blame, this shunned and failed woman goes on the attack. She fires from the hip with a hail of historical, theological, and sociological arguments in an attempt to hook Jesus into a messy cat fight and thereby mask the deep pain of her life that is exposed to his gaze and the blazing sunlight.

Jesus will not be drawn.  Rather than attack or defend, Jesus simply holds her in a space where he acknowledges who she is and then declares who he is despite her ritual and religious “unworthiness” for such an epiphany.

Isn’t that all any of us need for our healing? A space,unbearably hot as it might be, where we can allow ourselves to acknowledge who we are, and in that moment be graced by a Saviour who does not turn away from our shame and failure, but who floods our failed lives with his quenching living water.

Watching this sun drenched scene, I notice how the woman leaves the redundant water jar.  She didn’t ever draw Jacob’s water did she? But then she wasn’t thirsty anymore was she?

I also notice how she goes back to the very people of her village, who have judged and jostled her, and owns who she is in front of them, because despite her failures Jesus’ thirst quenching encounter has validated her as a human being.

There is something very “Resurrection morning” about the way this Samaritan woman leaves the deep gaping well, ( a symbol of her deep and dark wounding?) Like the women leave the empty tomb, she goes back to the city to proclaim having possibly seen the Messiah.  Perhaps though her message is different.  Could she not be calling out, “I have risen from the dead!”?

I suppose this event from Jesus’ life is different from the Western High Noon.  This Middle-Eastern High Noon has life pouring from the desert sands, where most Westerns end with blood seeping into the sand.  Is that because the “victim” is no longer the failed human woman, but the inclusive Jewish rabbi, who allows his blood to be spilt to end the shaming, and blaming as he gets caught in the Cross-fire?

Good Friday is just weeks away, time to saddle up and move on out.

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

Rebirthing the Powerless Rabbi – Lent 2

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I am a child of Apartheid.

I was born when the Nationalist Government, the architects of the policy, had been in power for almost a decade.  I arrived when there had been just enough time to alter the social structures of society in favour of whites like me, at the expense of other races, who were the majority in South Africa.

As a child of Apartheid, I was the first of my extended working class family to graduate from University and then to proceed with post-graduate studies.  This was not only due to my abilities, I wasn’t the first bright child in the family.  I was however, the first generation who didn’t have to compete with so many others for a space. My education, social and familial formation all taught me that I was better than other people and that I would be expected to take a position of leadership in society when I grew up.  It was called “baasskap”Afrikaans for “boss-ship”.

My name should have been Nicodemus.

Nicodemus literally means “conqueror of the people”.  Small wonder he rose to the ranks of the party of the Pharisees. If James Hillman, the Jungian writer, is correct, that “the whole oak tree is already in the acorn” then perhaps the whole of Nicodemus’ life was prophetically packed into that name.  Nicodemus, the conqueror of people would expect “baasskap” in his life.  He would lead, he would command, he would conquer.

Jesus told him that he needed to start his life over. As a conqueror of people he could function well in the Kingdom of the Pharisees and the Kingdom of the Roman and Jerusalem Politicians, but the Kingdom of God needed another kind of life orientation.  To even see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus would have to start again from the beginning.  The very beginning, because every white South African knows, you can drink in prejudice with your mother’s milk!

Perhaps this is why in the fledgling days of the Christian Church, those who chose to follow Jesus were expected to change their names.  “Christian” names were the mark of the radical re-orientation that was required to follow Jesus into the Kingdom of God. I wonder what Nicodemus chose as his Christian name. I would like to speculate that he became DOULOS-demos (Doulos=Greek for slave/servant)

I am bemused by what the evangelicals have made of Jesus’ very specific command to the “Conqueror of people” that told him he needed to be born from above. They have made it into a hollow external ritual that has very little to do with radical internal transformation, and everything to do with signing on for an evacuation programme from the realities of life. The “born again” brand of Christianity really does not require a change of name and identity.  It is merely an arrogant label by which others who are not in the country club are made to feel less than equal.   Nothing could be  further from the clandestine conversation that Jesus had with a man trying to understand the alternative Rabbi from Nazareth.

What a contrasting encounter it was!  The Conqueror of nations and the Suffering servant, Son of Man.

Power, prestige and privilege, in conversation with compassion, servanthood and service. This must be why Nicodemus found it so difficult to understand Jesus.

Being “born again” [Greek=gennao anothen], can also be translated as “born from above” and even as “rebirthed”. Any way you slice it, Jesus is emphasizing the radical change of heart, values, worldview and orientation that is required of those who want to see the Divine Domain.

Being a child of Apartheid, a well trained “Baas”, it has been transformational and traumatic to have to learn to live as a minority in a nation now legitimately governed by the majority who for forty years were conquered and silenced by the people of my culture and complexion.

My greatest joy in serving Post Apartheid, and still mainly white, congregations, has been to see the previously powerful conquerors, compassionately serving the communities of poor and dispossessed.  That silent, suffering majority of South Africans whose own leaders are unable or unwilling to care for them.  Despite the fact that the power wheel has turned full circle, the little people that Jesus came to seek and save, are still invisible to the conquerors of nations, in South Africa, Libya, Zimbabwe and I suppose everywhere?

Nicodemus, the conqueror of nations, member of the party of the Pharisees, was not empowered nor informed enough to understand the mysteries of Jesus’ way of Liberation.

I as white, privileged, powerful, boss, have not only had to go back to school, I have had to be rebirthed.

In the dark night of dispossession I have had to learn that my incarnation was never intended to extend and maintain illegitimate power, prestige and privilege. I have had to be rebirthed by grace to be a re-incarnation of the homeless, powerless, rabbi of Nazareth.

It is a daily process, slow but sure, like a seed growing in the depths of my being, but by grace, it will also fruit in new life for others.

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“Desert Tower to Angel Flight. You are cleared to land” – Lent 1

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Until re-reading this passage in my sermon preparation this week it had never registered with me that there is a sequence in the temptation of Jesus other than the sequence of the three temptations. Sometimes as a preacher I lock on to any three point passage and away I go with my sermon without reading around the passage to see perhaps the greater structure of the whole.  I am so glad I did the “reading around” this week as it has been revealing.

Apart from, stones to bread, pinnacle of the temple, and the promise of world domination; there is the larger sequence in the passage of:

  1. Led to the wilderness by the Spirit
  2. Forty days of ritual fasting
  3. Profound physical hunger
  4. The temptation (nested in this larger sequence)
    1. Stones to Bread
    2. Pinnacle of the temple
    3. World domination
  5. The ministrations of angels

It has been the contemplation of this larger structure that has prompted the following thoughts.

The first aspect of the story that impacts me is the fact that Jesus, up to the moment where the Tempter manifests, has been very obedient to his calling and his mission.  He has been baptised by John, he has been affirmed by the voice of his heavenly Parent, he has followed the Spirit’s leading to go away into the wilderness and he has been diligent in fasting.

It is at the point of discipline and due diligence that Jesus renders himself most vulnerable.  Isn’t it true that we are often most vulnerable to the darkness when we are doing everything correctly and are wearied and worn out from the doing of it all so correctly.  Please don’t hear me dismissing discipline and diligence.  Not at all. They are the framework of any meaningful spiritual practice.  I do however recall a time in my ministry when, totally over-extended by pastoral and community service work, I unlocked the front door one night and thought to myself, “I am really at the top of my game!”.  One week later I was in a psych ward undergoing sleep therapy for burnout!  It happens that quickly.

There is a false doctrine that wafts around the church as it wafted around the temple in Jesus’ time.  It says, “If you are diligent and dutiful and if you keep all the rules, then only good and pleasant things will happen to you.” The life of Job, Jesus and your life and mine attest to the fact that this is not true. Every great spiritual tradition on the planet attests to the fact that shadows are darkest around those that burn brightest.  The presence of these shadows don’t diminish the devotion and diligence of the devotee, they are the realistic counterpoint to the music of their beautiful lives.  The joyless secret journals of Mother Theresa are recent evidence of this reality.

Secondly, I need to confess that I prefer to speak of the singular temptation of Jesus rather than the temptations of Jesus.  My reasoning is that I don’t think that the struggle which Our Lord had in the wilderness was merely confined to: the avoidance of suffering (Stones to bread), the lure of cheap sensational showmanship (Pinnacle base jumping sans parachute),  and world domination at the cost of Godly obedience( Bow down and worship me).  I speculate that these are merely illustrations of the torment he faced as, filled with power and blessing, he had to submit his ego to the will of God for his life.

Carl Jung said most powerfully, “Any form of neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”.  Are we perhaps, the neurotic society we are, because we recoil from legitimate suffering either as discipline or as duty? The temptation of Jesus is essentially Jesus’ costly choice for mental, spiritual and physical health over the soft and cheap neurotic options he could have embraced for his ministry.  I wonder how much healthier I would be if I could do the same?

The third and most striking discovery I have made in this passage for the first Sunday of Lent, lies in the final verses.  “Jesus said to him[tempter,ego, false self], “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

The way Matthew tells the story suggests that despite the temptation struggle of the faithful, fasting and thus famished Jesus, this battle does not happen in a place where God is absent.  We, as pilgrims of the cross, know that no such Godless place exists! God is. The Israelites regarded the wilderness as a place of demons and devils.  For them it was the destination of centuries of scapegoats, those symbolic bearers of the nation’s sin.  But the wilderness was also the place where the fledgling Israel, fresh out of Egypt, learnt devotion and dependence to what Daniel Erlander calls their Manna and Mercy God.

Jesus learns in the wilderness temptation, as every faithful servant of God has come to learn, that once we put our self-centred, selfish, false-self Satan in its place,  the runway is clear for the hovering angels of God’s grace to land.

Desert Tower to Angel Flight, self is contained, you are cleared to land.

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