“Troubled? Change to Yoke Light.” – Ordinary 14A

Matthew 11:16-30

But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,  We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say,  He has a demon ; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say,  Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!  Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.
At that time Jesus said,  I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

I happened to pass the living room and saw his face on the television screen.  He wore the robes of a monk and looked ever so serene. (The bald head helped) He was being interviewed on a chat show.  (South Africa’s own Oprah wannabe, Noelene)  Being interested in all things spiritual I stopped long enough to hear this dialogue…
Noelene: Are you telling me that you never get angry?
Monk: No I experience anger but I choose not to act on it.
Nolene(Incredulous): So if you are on the freeway and someone cuts in front of you, you won’t hoot or yell at them?
Monk: I might think of doing those things but I will ask myself this question before acting, “What will this change?”

“What will this change?”

A skilful question to be sure. As a preacher I sometimes ask myself the same question before and after preaching!  Counting conservatively I realise that I have preached upwards of fourteen hundred sermons.  What did they change?
As I read the gospel this Sunday, I find a deep resonance with Jesus who is remonstrating far more vociferously with his congregation than I have had to courage to do with mine.  It is difficult to pin down the exact emotions Jesus is expressing, but they are incarnationally and beautifully human feelings to be sure! I can follow and serve a God who can experience these emotions that are so much part of my daily life.  Jesus not only confronts, he also condemns.  “Woe to you…”  Wow! He is ticked off!

And then suddenly he changes direction. Matthew marks the change with a time check, “At that time Jesus said,…”

I would love to ask Jesus what triggered the change?
Did he notice a facial expression, did he experience a change of feeling tone, or did he simply remember his own parable?  The one about the reckless sower who doesn’t care where the seed falls or what it produces,leaving the outcome to God. I will never know.
What I do know is that Jesus, having vented his spleen at the hard of heart, non-responders then turns to a prayer of thanks to God for those who are able, because of their innocence and of their liminal lives full of pain, to hear and receive what is being offered.

The proud and arrogant, those who have all the answers, those who think they are “self-made” will never see and receive what the burdened and heavily laden ones will see and receive.
There is something about the pain of human suffering, that tills the soil for the fertile seed of Jesus’ words.
If Jesus had an advertising bill board it could have read, “Troubled? Make the change to Yoke Light”

What did these words change?
If you ask the burdened heavily laden ones who have come to Jesus down through the ages, they will probably testify, that those words changed everything!
Maybe these words will do that for someone too?

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Worthy of the name?

Matthew 10:37-42

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

It is no easy thing to decide to follow Jesus.  I mean to make the radical decision that you are going to be first and foremost a Christ follower is a weighty decision, certainly if Jesus is to be believed.  It would seem from this dialogue in the gospel that nothing can get in the way of this following. Certainly nothing from our culture nor our context.

That great Theological heavyweight of the last century, Richard Niebuhr gave me a useful framework for assessing just where I am prepared to place Christ vis a vis my own culture with its own demands.

Niebuhr’s schema is clearly marked out in this excerpt from wikipedia:

Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

Reading this typology years after my theological studies I am struck by how in all the years of my ministry I have shifted around in each of the categories and how I have also encountered fellow pilgrims doing the same.

As I feel the Christian church contexture of the modern day, with fundamentalists getting most the airtime and the liberals only being quoted when they push the envelope on ethical issues of gay rights or abortion, I realise that not many of us have come to the place of deep contented commitment where we are able to follow Jesus in the here and now of daily life without continually hiving off into ghettoes of fear of what is happening in the world, all the time holding our breath for something that is to come in the far off future.

If I consider the culture that I absorbed from my mother’s breast, the culture that I live in as a Euro-African and the culture that I have transmitted to my twenty something sons, I recognise that Jesus whilst acknowledged in what was always called “Christian culture’’ was not really central to that way of life.  My culture has never really stressed the cross bearing, compassion driven life of which Jesus spoke so often, and which was the very fabric of his being in the world.

I am not shamed or guilty about this, I am rather saddened that for me and for many, this business of Christ following is at best a veneer, a waxen mask that I wear to the church dance without really allowing my inner being to be changed.  Small wonder then that Jesus seems to be doing something new and refreshing outside the church charade.

How wonderful as Desmond Tutu proclaims in his latest collection essays to be published, “God is not a Christian”.

We Christians love our parents and children, school ties and apple pies, our parties and our points of view too much to be worthy of the compassionate cross carrier from Nazareth.

Could we Tweak the Trinity?

Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Let’s not underestimate the power of this doctrine of the Holy Trinity.  It is not merely some speculative sophistry on the part of idle theologians.  Blood has been shed, empires divided, and the first constitutional split in the hitherto united church of Rome hinged on this doctrine. (See Filioque debate). That was just one of many conflicts and councils around this doctrine.

The passion with which the Church has defended the trinity was inevitable. After centuries of defending monotheism as a minority view in the Middle East, the Jewish Christians were committed in blood and brain to the unity of the one God.  Add to that the contrast that they had to preserve against their most recent conquerors in the decades before Christ, namely the Greeks and then the Romans with their populous pantheons of gods, and we can understand why, in the Jewish mind, God had to be ONE.

There were just two problems.  These Jewish thinking Christians had experienced the divinity of the man they met as Jesus of Nazareth but whom they had come to understand as The Christ of God. As if that wasn’t conflicting enough, after Jesus had been translated back to the non-physical dimension of God being, they then experienced a presence and power so ecstatically and dynamically divine they could only reference that power as Holy Spirit.  Game on.

It is my contention as a steeped Wesleyan that a well balanced basis for theological thinking has four legs and not the traditional: Revelation, Reason, Tradition of the patristic model.  The fourth leg that is essential, is Experience.  I would hold that experience gives the contexture to theology and keeps it from being merely heady armchair speculation.

It was the experience of the church of God – Jesus  – Holy Spirit as a divine continuum and union, that led to the formulation of this complex doctrine which was settled into stone by the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So it has been since for millennia of our history. “World without end”?  Maybe not.

Given the fact that so much has happened to our understanding of the world in the last one hundred years (a mere wink of an eye in the history of this doctrine), and given that heretics are seldom burned at the stake anymore, I would like to propose a fresh look at this doctrine, not to change anything but to perhaps expand our understanding in the context of third millennium thinking.

Firstly I would want to suggest that we recognise that Father is often not the most helpful reference for the being that we want to understand as the source of unconditional love.  Exposure in our time of the horrors of domestic violence and patriarchal abuse that for centuries been hidden or even worse, condoned leaves some people unable to reference God at all because the referent of Father is so abhorrent. Referring to the first person of the Trinity as The Father and Mother would make things easier, but I wonder if the time hasn’t come for us to speak of that first experience of God as The Parent?

The second person of the Son, is also somewhat limiting because it is my contention and my experience that there is as much blessing to be experienced by realising that a large component of the nature of Jesus is also as brother to the believer. I am not sure how we could verbalise that in the creeds but I would ask that we seriously affirm the Sonship of Christ to the Father and the brotherhood of Jesus to the believer.  If the church does not make Jesus more relational as soul-sibling I do believe he loses the impact of his Incarnation.

My final expansion on our statement of the Trinity would be firstly to celebrate that we no longer speak of Holy Ghost, which infantilizes that face of God, but also ask that we perhaps bring Holy Spirit out of the shadows of the Parent and Son/Brother so that we may recognise that Universal Spirit is the very (I am tempted to say “only”) source of life, creativity, and change in the world.  As a Christ follower, I cannot conceive of anything good, true or beautiful that does not spring from Holy Spirit.  Once again I am not sure how we word-work this into creed, but I do want to plead that we do it somehow.

So that is my expanded understanding of the Holy Trinity: Parent, Son/Brother and Creative Breath of life that is the complexity and singularity we call God.

Distilling and Dispensing shots of Spirit – Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The Day of Pentecost was traditionally a harvest festival for Israel.  I remember the harvest festivals in the churches where I grew up.  The altar groaning and the communion rail festooned with produce.  Canned and fresh it didn’t seem to matter.  It was a time of cornucopial abundance. For Israel the feast was celebrated on the fiftieth (Greek=Pente) day after the first sickle had sliced through the crops in the field.  Every person, clan and tribe would carry the first fruits of their harvest in baskets to the temple.

It makes sense then that our cultivating Heavenly Parent, the Lord of the Harvest, should choose to reveal the extravagant abundant aspect of God’s nature on this day.

There is the rushing ruach wind, there are the the tongues of fire evenly distributed and dancing on each person’s head.  It is every bit as dramatic as any and every theophany that happened in the Old Testament.  It is Moses and Elijah, Sinai, Horeb and Carmel all happening in Jerusalem.

Unlike Elijah on the mountain before the Lord 1Kings 19:6-16 here God is indeed in the wind, and in the fire!  Instead of the sound of sheer silence in Elijah’s experience, this time there is the peal of universally comprehensible proclamation.  Everyone hears, everyone sees, everyone experiences. That is the earth shattering earthquake that happens not in the ground but in the hearts of those who see and hear this reversal of Babel and comprehend that in God all the peoples of the earth have access to common language and understanding.

The cynics of course thought they were drunk, which I suppose in some way they were.  Holy Spirit is intoxicating stuff.  Yet that is not the disturbing part for me about this day.  Honest cynics, I have found are useful to my understanding of things  and usually they are open to discussion.

No the disturbing thing for me is that as I stand in church on any given Pentecost Sunday, I hear no mighty wind, except perhaps the whisper of the pipe organ and I see no tongues of flame except on a banner or an altar cloth. Even the Bishop’s mitre is a tame doffing of the cap to what happened the first Pentecost. 

I suppose I could live with even that as we have become meeker and milder than those dusty, lusty first disciples.

The most disturbing thing for me about the feast of Pentecost year after year is that there are so many who no longer hear in their own language about God’s deeds of power.

How have we as disciples and church moved from fire carriers with loose tongues, gossiping the Good News Gospel; to become domesticated distribution centres of mediocrity, where only club members have access, and only franchise holders get a tongue of fire endorsement branding, after doffing their cap to the Bishop and the treasurer?

Peter quotes Joel in his sermon, ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”

I am willing to bet, good non-gambling Methodist that I am, that if we advertised that these things Joel and Peter are referring to were going to happen here this morning, most of us would have elected to rather go and play golf, or walk on the beach.

I mean really!  Where is the reverence and decorum in that chaos!

Could that be why the ruach wind no longer blows in the churches? Why young people have visions on YouTube and old people dream dreams of the preacher ending the belaboured sermon so they can go and have tea? 

When last was the church truly prophetic and not keeping one eye on the bank balance and another eye on whether the dominant culture group was approving? When last did we allow a foreign Galilean, speak to us in our own language?

No folks, I fear we are a long long way from Pentecost. I fear our respectability, our rules and our recalcitrance to be moved by a creative, fiery God, has left us breathless and becalmed whilst the Spirit seems to be blowing fiery freshness elsewhere where the Spirit wills.  It’s hard to imagine a harvest in some of these fields.

It’s enough to make one go and get drunk!