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A Cleansing Ritual for Preachers

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Mark 7:1-23

7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

There are probably very few readers of this blog who don’t know of the work of the Jesus Seminar, a gathering of leading New Testament scholars who gathered, in the lead up to the Millennium, to evaluate the content of the canonical and apocryphal gospels in the light of emerging scholarship.  The seminar voted on the reliability and authenticity of the stories and saying attributed to Jesus by the compilers of the gospels.

One of the spin offs of the project is a very useful book by Robert W Funk and The Jesus Seminar entitled, “The Gospel of Jesus”.  It is a redaction of the material that the seminar deemed to be most likely the authentic sayings and stories from Jesus.

In my preparatory reading for preaching the gospel passage this week, I decided to reference the Gospel of Jesus. (It is chapter 14 for those who have a copy to hand).

What I discovered was interesting.  The following sections of Mark’s Gospel were deemed not to be authentic.

6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said,  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It seems that at the core, the events and sayings of the passage are authentic.

What isn’t is the quotation of Isaiah as back up for the saying (6-7), the polemic against the Pharisees (8-11), the explanation of Jewish customs (11-13) (to be expected given the non-jewish audience of Mark) and the listing of what the actual evil intentions are (21-23).

As a preacher I find the superfluous material above particularly challenging.I realise that I am the better preacher when I present the message of Jesus as simply and contextually as possible.  I am, on the other hand, probably the least true to the kerygma (message) of Jesus, when I become polemical and argumentative, when I proof text to back me up, when I over explain everything, and when I presume to make lists of offences by which I judge others and encourage them to do the same.

After all isn’t that exactly the point of this passage in the first place!

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

“The Lullaby Gospel” John 6:56-69 Ordinary 21B

John 6:56-69

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

One of the great religious thinkers of our time is Don Cuppitt. The Professor Emeritus of Cambridge University makes a telling point when he states, that “All of the world’s religions take place within the realm of human conversation”. The implication of this is that any thought that religion dropped from heaven or anywhere else, as a gift to humans, is simply a nonsense. We humans created religion as a product of our consideration and contemplation of how reality works in our Universe. This of course does not imply that the process was always conscious. Much of our ordering and explaining of the world is unconscious. That is why we have dreams.

However, if we can grasp this truth, that religious thought is a human process, then many things become clear.

With reference to this Sunday’s gospel, the one thing that clarifies itself is why so many of Jesus’ followers gave up on him when he offered them a teaching that directly confronted the ego’s role in religion. If you have been following The Listening Hermit for the past few weeks you will have read that when Jesus identified himself as the bread of life that could not be earned by the sweat of human effort, he immediately put the egoic investment in religious achievement in question. If Jesus is the bread of life, we are nothing more than the 5000 plus hungry pilgrims on the hillside, or the lost wanderers in the Sinai desert.

Yet if we hold that religion is a human process, and humans are largely defined by ego demands, it follows that religion in current practice will also be consumer indulgent. Isn’t the whole science of Church Growth and Congregational Management founded on ensuring that people have a good experience and thus drop the maximum amount of cash in response?

In Jesus day it was no different. Cash may not have been as dominant an idol as in our day but the human pleasure principle (If it feels good do it) was. When the crowd realised that Jesus was demanding profound inner transformation and not merely offering customer service, they lost interest.

I wonder if we, who are the communicators of the Gospel and the line managers of the church, can be honest enough to admit that we seldom proclaim without an eye on the balance sheet?

If this true, then we have failed to proclaim the words of eternal life and have been largely busy with proclaiming the words of eternal comfort and indulgence.

The irony with this approach is at some point when the ego is inevitably challenged, there will be many who stop following. In South Africa it happened in the 1980’s as preachers in white churches started naming Apartheid as the sin that it always had been. The exodus from such challenging preaching into comfortable charis-mania was huge. I used to call such people “Tutu Refugees” as they tried to disown and disavow the courageous actions of the diminutive Archbishop.

“Words of eternal life” are of course hard to define, and challenging preaching can be as much of an ego trip for masochistic martyrs as the comfortable gospel.

I suppose at the end of the day, the soul will know what is life giving bread and what is candy floss.
The bottom line seems to be that true transforming discipleship is always an activity pursued by minorities.

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

Cannibal or Mystical? Ordinary 20b John 6:51-58

John 6:51-58

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

It is interesting to me that the three world religions that have the highest incidence of conflict and war are the three “religions of the book”.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam have the dubious distinction of having fought most amongst themselves and others.

As one whose initial, adolescent and subsequent experience of God has been direct and thus mystical, I think I know the reason for the conflict. Some things are just impossible to put into words. To presume to capture, or at best. describe the ineffable in language is almost impossible. The most eloquent and reasoned statement of belief is immediately vulnerable to misunderstanding and conflict.

As I read today’s gospel, I was reminded of this difficulty with descriptions. Eating Jesus’s flesh drinking his blood? What on earth (or in heaven) is he going on about?

Whilst having to think coherently about something to say on Sunday, I am also beginning my newest book. Yes a real paper version, with “pages”, purchased last week at my favourite bookstore. It is by Kevin Nelson MD Professor of Neurology at the University of Kentucky and titled, “The God Impulse: Is religion hardwired into our brains?“.
It is early days. I am only on the thirty third page, but already I am engaged. At the moment Nelson is reminding me of the monumental work of William James in “The Varieties of Religious Experience“. It is at this point that the book intersects the Sunday gospel.  Nelson is outlining on page thirty three  the four qualities that James listed for mystical experience. If like me you are grappling with the cannibalistic communion that John’s gospel is describing, these four qualities may help?

According to William James a mystical experience has the following qualities:

  1. It is somehow beyond language.
  2. It imparts knowledge that is above normal human understanding.
  3. It is of brief duration.
  4. The person having the experience is passive.

The first statement above is key to the text this week. The encounter Jesus is describing does, in a sense, defy description. That is why he uses the profound language of mastication, ingestion and absorbtion.
To even begin to take this language literally would be disastrous.
This is exactly the problem the religions of the book have. “Literalism is idolatry” or so says the British Philosopher Owen Barfield.  To expect the already challenged language of our beloved mystical religions of the book to yield literal, utilitarian instruction manuals is not only silly, it is downright dangerous.

So I hope this Sunday, not to explain this gospel passage in any way.

I hope not to give my hearers easy recipes for action.

I hope only to immerse them in the mystery that Jesus is intimately masticable, ingestible and absorbable in ways that defy understanding but which can be life transforming.

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

What beggars know about bread. John 6:35-51 Ordinary 19b

John 6:35-51

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

I find it difficult to understand how the message of Jesus that was so clearly universal in its scope and in its proclamation, could have become what it so often is today.  Narrow in spirit and accessibility.

To Jesus, every person who came to him was already being drawn by the love of the heavenly parent whose desire for union with prodigal children is the very essence of God’s being.

The word “all” features large in the teachuings of our Lord, as it does here, “…they shall all be taught by God.”

Yet the most cursory look at most of the church that claims to represent and embody the Spirit of Jesus, will reveal a club that it is quite difficult to get into and if you do, will teach you early on just who it is that doesn’t belong.

How did this happen?
The simple answer lies with our old friend the ego.
That inner energy so essential in the formation of the indentity that in adult life becomes threatened by anything that could mean its dissolution into a greater Energy of being called the True Self or God.

Ego wants accolades.
Ego thrives on achievement and when the prize of the spiritual enterprize is eternal life, the ego needs to at least feel that it played a part.

Jesus wrecks the ego expectations of his hearers.
There is nothing for your ego to do here.
Salvation, Enlightenment, Eternal Life, Wisdom, are not the products of human endeavour as your bread is.

For you to have earthly bread requires the sweat of your brow. That’s your creature curse carried from Adam.
Yet foreshadowed by the manna of the wilderness and now fully revealed in me; the bread of life is offered to all who are hungry enough to trust that five barley loaves and two fish can feed a multitude.

This bread is me and it is offered for the life of the whole cosmos (world).
There is nothing to achieve or to do. Which means you cannot decide or designate who gets some and who doesn’t.

You are not the baker nor the distributor.
You are just another hungry pilgrim on the hillside or in the wilderness.
Want a slice?