Good News? Ouch that hurts! Luke 3:7-18 Advent 2 C

Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

This has to be the most tongue in cheek ending to a scathing prophetic proclamation, “…with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”! John has just made it clear that God is not a nepotist, that he axes trees of tradition, and that he burns all that is not fruitful from his presence, and Luke suggests that is good news?

Surely this must be wry Middle-eastern wit?  Either that or Luke knows something that we don’t.

The secret to understanding that these purifying and pruning practices could be good news, the gospel, comes from moving their reference from outer collective religious practice to the internal and personal realm of divine development.

It was Richard Rohr who woke me up to understanding that one of Jesus’ greatest contributions to our understanding of God was that he moved our location for God’s presence from the outer to the inner.  From temple to heart, from observance to lifestyle.  And, Rohr concludes, when I am the temple where God resides then the only sacrifice required is myself.

So Jesus, says John the Baptiser, does not disrespect culture, tradition, lineage, or any social register that is so important in our outer lives. Jesus doesn’t disrespect them, he ignores them.  They are irrelevant.

Who of us has not smarted or winced at some moment of humiliation in our journey. Just when we had made it.  Right after the ordained us, or called us Reverend (what the heck does that title mean anyway?) Just after we became Senior Pastor, or Superintendent, or wait for it Bishop; along came Jesus and called us by our birth name.  He called us what our parents and siblings called us, and then he told us to leave it all behind and follow him.

That is the axing, winnowing and burning John is talking about.  It is the threshing of our pride and ego.  It is the burning of our BS. (Yes, you KNOW what that stands for and I meant to use it like that)

There is just no escape from the confrontation with pride and arrogance if we are to follow the King of Love.

That great Lebanese soul Kahlil Gibran got it spot on when he wrote in The Prophet.
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast. All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart. But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

Advent is not for the arrogant and powerful.  You and your ego, have to stoop low to enter the stall.

The word came to who? Luke 3:1-6 Advent 2C

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Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Most scholars would agree that to try and pinpoint a date based on the list of power players that make up the first lines of this gospel passage is complicated. I will not go into the details here, I simply want to note that all these dates don’t quite line up.

That makes me wonder if the who’s who is included here for the purposes of locating Jesus in time? Could there be another reason.  Is this a biographical device or is there a deeper purpose for all these names?

The complexities of dating aside, the opening verse has a powerful irony to it.

Allow me to paraphrase: “ Despite Tiberius being Emperor of Rome, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Phillip and Lysanius being provincial governors, and despite Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, God chose to speak to a nobody named John living in the desert.”

To have lived for over five decades on the planet means that I, like many of you, will have witnessed the parade of powerful, professional, pontifical people pass into obscurity. They have held the headlines, transformed the tabloids been called news makers. The question I ask myself is, “Have they received and shared the word of God?”. My answer is, “Seldom.” The same would be true for preachers and pastors who have paraded themselves in the same arenas, as did Annas and Caiaphas.  Seldom does the word of God enter history through the flashy and powerful religious industry.

Once I realised the irony of this passage, I could more clearly see the impact of John as the fore-runner for the Incarnation.

The God who is going to appear as a vulnerable baby in a stable, doesn’t need the validation of a palace or a priest for that matter.

Come to think of it, in the same five decades I have been alive, the word of God has come to me through the people whom history would not remember, and whom editors would deem to be “not newsworthy”.

Grandmothers and God mothers, friends and family, workers and wild people. People like John. Wilderness voices.  They receive the truth of God and transmit it.

So instead of expecting the word of God to come on CNN or even in church, this advent I am going to attend to the little people in the daily conversations.

In the lines at the mall, the burbles of the coffee shop and maybe even the person who shares my roof is where I think the word of God may be whispering.

Finding a place to stand and watch. Luke 21:25-36 Advent 1c

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Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

The opening lines of this gospel sound like a generic TV news report on any given day and on any given channel.  It is that which links the two paragraphs of this scripture for me.

As I see it Jesus is warning the disciples against missing the signs because they are either too frightened or alternatively too forgetful. Possibly both.  There is after all only so much stimulation the brain can absorb before it begins to filter the input.  It goes numb and dumb.  As an ex-serviceman I have witnessed first hand what the American GI’s termed “the thousand yard stare”.  That almost catatonic state where the mind self medicates and anesthetizes itself against the horrors witnessed.

The opposite is often also true.  We are so numbed by our boring routines that we go in search of something to fear. Some imaginary phantom or foible to scare us into feeling something.
I remember a very sad alcoholic I knew years ago who would spend her days watching the Crime channel.  The horror and violence she saw there evoked at least some feeling in the fog of her existence.
Jesus is suggesting that neither perspective is helpful. Neither, numbing and dumbing nor freaking and flipping are the place of discerning wisdom.

Instead Jesus suggests a careful almost contemplative consideration of whatever phenomena may arise.  Not being fearful nor forgetful like neurotics or drunks but rather alert and observing what is really going on with the eyes of faith.
I have to admit here that I probably learnt more useful techniques in this regard from my Buddhist and Hindu friends than from Christians.  Not that there are no neurotic Buddhists or Hindus! Au Contraire you can be too precious in any religion!

The point though is that the Eastern practices cultivate mindfulness and awareness of what arises in the mind.  This is most helpful. Another angle would be to say that in this passage Jesus encourages exactly this grounded prayerful approach to all of life that finds a ground of being that does not get swayed by outside information and experiences.

It would seem that even in this information saturated age, Jesus encourages us to be grounded in the changeless, the unchaotic, the non-warring, non-judging, non-divided place.  That place is the domain of God’s reality and presence. It is found at a manger, at a cross, at an empty tomb.

It can also be found in the alert and faithful heart.

All the Saints who did not despair. John 11:1-45 All Saints Day

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

It was Eric Erikson the famous German-born American developmental psychologist who created a wonderful map to illustrate the stages in our journey of our psycho-social development.
The last of the eight stages he mapped begins at age 65 and lasts till our death, and given that most of the congregation is in that stage now I thought I wouldn’t bore you with the other seven stages because it too late for you!

The last stage of our lives, according to Erikson’s schema involves reconciling the tension between Integrity and Despair.
In this final stage, says Erikson, we for the first time in our lives look back over the path and there comes to us, as we look, either a deep sense of integrity, meaning,  and wholeness, or there will be a opposing sense of profound despair.

Waste, mistake, unresolved relationships, guilt, shame and blame these are the ingredients for us to despair.

Despair is what the gospel on this All Saints Day is all about.
The death of Lazarus is a study in despair.
The delay of the teacher, the anxiety of Martha and Mary, the disbelief of the disciples.  All go into making the death of Jesus’ dear friend seem both avoidable and thereby unnecessary.
This is summed up in exactly the same words that Martha and later Mary both speak to Jesus when he eventually arrives at the Bethany house of the now four day dead Lazarus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
If only. If only.

This is the language of despair.

Soren Kierkegaard the Danish Christian Existentialist philospher wrote about the death of Lazarus and about human despair in his work, “The Sickness unto Death” written in 1949 under a pseudonym Anti-Clamacus.

For Kierkegaard the ultimate despair is the despair of the Christian who believes in sin and in particular, original sin.
To come to believe that there is nothing one can do about one’s human condition of falleness is the worst kind of despair.

Mary and Martha and the whole of Bethany despair that Jesus doesn’t arrive and then when he does it is on the fourth day. The day when any act of God could no longer happen. God was believed to act up to the third day. The fourth day was the day of reality and thus despair.

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the fetid tomb he dispels the roots of human despair.
There is no statute of limitations on when God can bring life back to the dead.
There are thus no grounds for complete and utter despair.
Faith for Kierkegaard is the opposite of despair.

“Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” becomes with faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

The raising of Lazarus begins with this declaration of faith and trust in the saving power of God.
For those of us who look back on life and are tempted to despair, may I remind us all that today we are still alive. Still trusting.

Look back at the sealed stinking tombs of your life as I look back at mine and know that even now the God of life can call forth life even from those smelly places.

It is the good news.

It is the Gospel of All the Saints.

“Could we also regain our vision?” Mark 10:46-52 Ordinary 30B

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

It has to be one of the best known, oft-preached sections of the gospel narrative.  It is also the prototypical story upon which the Orthodox Jesus prayer is based. That oft repeated phrase prayer of the Hesychastic tradition, “Jesus, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.”

Come to think of it the entire account is transformative.

We are told the band of Jesus followers are leaving town. They are setting off on another leg of their journey to Jerusalem. As with all travelers setting off there is an impatience to get going and to keep going. There really isn’t time for distraction and disturbance. The group is focused on the journey.

Then there is this interruption.

Bartimaeus. Well known in the community, he is the son of old Timaeus.  Bartimaeus has a place in society. His role is that of the blind beggar. As a beggar he has the role of reminding all passers by that they have an obligation to give alms. What Bartimaeus doesn’t have though, is the right to be too obtrusive. Bart may beg, but he may not badger the teacher.  After all we will tolerate the poor as long as they don’t become too demanding.

Bartimaeus oversteps this social register with his loud appeals.  Appeals so heart wrenching and profound that they have been captured as the words of transformation used by thousands of Christians in the East. “Son of David have mercy on me”.

We are told that these words stop Jesus. He stands still and calls the man to himself.

It is this moment that we see an amazing transformation begin.  Bartimaeus does two uncharacteristic things for a blind beggar. He throws off his cloak and he springs up.

Living in Africa, one doesn’t have to look for poverty and begging.  It is everywhere.

Beggars, especially blind ones, do not throw off their cloaks and spring up.  Not if they know their place and their craft, or graft.  Beggars cower and cringe.  The fact that Mark records this unusual behaviour suggests to me that the transformation of Bartimaeus has already begun.

I wonder what cloaks and cows us and keeps us from approaching Jesus? Our propriety, our poverty of trust or our politeness?

Cloaked and cowering, we assemble Sunday by Sunday watching the gospel parade go by, never once raising our voices or our expectations that anything could uncloak us and put a spring into our lethargic liturgy.

Perhaps we are so acquiescent because we fear the other who would tell us to be quiet and not make a fuss.

Thank God for this boisterous, blind, beggar, Bartimaeus.

He not only stops Jesus in his journey, he also elicits the strangest question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Hello?! Blind beggar! Isn’t it obvious what he wants?

Well perhaps not. Sometimes we call out to Jesus wanting only some small alleviation of our discomfort but without wanting complete and revolutionary change of life.

That is why Jesus checks.

Uncloaked and springing Bart want the real change. He wants more than alms. He wants life.

Did you notice the interesting detail in his request?

“My teacher, let me see AGAIN”

Blind Bart it seems had not always been unsighted and benighted.

He had seen he once knew colour, depth and shape. He wanted it again.

So do we, don’t we?

Jesus doesn’t seem to do much for Bart except remind him that it is his trust that has restored his vision.

I wonder if our oft repeated Jesus prayers could uncloak us, put a spring back into our lives, and restore our vision?

Repeat loudly after me, “Lord Jesus Son of God, have mercy…”

Everyone needs an enemy! Mark 10:35-45 Ordinary 29B

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

(This classic conflict of interests reminded me of the phenomenon of scapegoating and how Jesus used the scapegoating dynamic for human transformation. One could say Jesus is saying to the disciples you , like me will be scapegoated)

When last did you scapegoat someone and feel so much better?
If you are human, it happens quite frequently. At least according to Rene’ Girard, Stanford University professor of sociology who was converted from atheism to Roman Catholicism by his study of human conflict and violence.
Let me illustrate his theory.

“Picture two young children playing happily, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy,” and grabs it.
The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to get it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummelling each other.
As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!”
The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and chase the other child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbour is back indoors crying.”

There are two dynamics significant to this story.
The first is how imitative desire causes conflict. GI Joe increases in value because the other brother also wants it.

The second point is that finding a scapegoat helps reduce the conflict between the brothers.
If you have ever tried to calm domestic violence you will have experienced this when the fighting couple unite, and turn on you!
In these simple dynamics Girard explains the origin and process of all human conflict.
Girard’s research shows that whenever tension exists in societies, the community in the tension find release through some process of scapegoating.

According to Girard, this scapegoating has always been part of human life.
It is the origin of sacrifice.
The killing of an outsider, makes the community in conflict feel better.
But there remains an aftermath of guilt. “How could we have done that?”
To go back to the two boys. Imagine that, having chased off Fat-Butt, the brothers feel remorse about their bullying. One of them says, “You know bro, we had to do that because Dad says, ‘Blood is thicker than water’.”
Dad has become the authorization for their violence.
Girard discovered that religion plays a role in violence by encouraging and condoning scapegoating. Dad/God demanded the scapegoat.
The community that has sacrificed their child, their vestal virgin, their ox, their prophet, at some point feels remorse.
The priest then says, “Relax, God demanded it that way. We are merely being obedient.”
Girard’s conversion came when he saw how Jesus accepted being scapegoated, but for the first time in history, exposed the process to the perpetrators.
“Father forgive them…”

So next time we use our religion to scapegoat someone, let’s ask ourselves, “Is this truly the Spirit?”

Let’s divorce God for causing this suffering! Job 2:1-10 Mark 10 2-16 Ordinary 27B

Job 1:1 1

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Job 2:1-10 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

There is nothing that angers and horrifies us more than the abuse of children. On this St Francis Sunday we have to say that the abuse of animals for many probably comes close. Jesus never said anything about the abuse of animals, but he certainly spoke out about the abuse of children and women.

I live in a country where the abuse of children and particularly child rape is a regular occurence.

The urban legend that grew up around AIDS saying that you could be cured or immunised against the virus by having sex with a virgin, is a huge contributing factor to the child rape statistics. The younger the child predated, the better the chance that she is a virgin. The insane conclusion of following that line of reasoning I will leave to your graphic imagination. But let me add one detail. We have experienced toddler rapes here.

Divorce does not help the protection of the children. The vulnerability of children is increased when the ideal nuclear family is disrupted, often due to the selfishness of parents. I am divorced so I know how this works and I am not proud of it but nor am ashamed of it. I not going to avoid speaking about the problem.

I know too, that children in families are also at risk where there is domestic violence and conflict, and often divorce is a healthier option than obedience to church laws. This is not a simple problem and it surely does not have a one size fits all solution.

These, like all ethical issues, are not simple scenarios. There is no black and white. Perhaps there are even more than fifty shades of grey, I don’t know, but it is complicated.

Job’s wife thought it was simple black and white. Her logic said, “We are blessed, healthy, wealthy and wonderful. That means that we are blessed by God”

Then Job got ill.

It seems Satan was involved.

I am not sure.  Job’s wife was.

She reasoned, “ Job you are sick and thus you must have lost your blessing. Screw God anyway. Just curse God and die!”

I am reluctant to be so harsh on her as Job was.

He called her a stupid woman. At least he didn’t divorce her for it!

I am less ready to judge Job’s wife, simply because I have caught myself thinking in her black and white way.

I too have thought, “Life’s good, praise God. Life’s tough, to hell with God”

Job perseveres in what his wife calls his “integrity”

Interesting word integrity. It means to integrate, to hold together in tension.

  • The black and the white
  • The joy and the suffering
  • For better, for worse
  • For richer for poorer
  • In sickness and in health

Until not even death can part us from our conviction that God has not abandoned us.

Until we know with Job, that the whole of life, good and bad is in the hand of God.

What God holds together let no one separate!

I know this seems childish and naive.

That’s why Jesus said we should be like them in receiving his truth.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.” Mark 9:30-37 Ordinary 25B

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Let’s face it, church conflicts are the worst. It is probably due to the fact that in politics, sport and business there is no one denying the oft healthy, oft brutal competition, co-optation and coercion that is going on.
In the church we practice exactly the same dynamics but we pretend that we don’t. So when the conflict is made visible, as it was with the disciples travelling with Jesus, there is shock, awkwardness and horror.

The disciples competing for power is of course made all the more sinister because it is in counterpoint to Jesus’ teaching about his own selfless sacrifice to come.

Jesus then takes a child as a metaphor of the kind of community he desires. You and I have, in our lives, heard literally hundreds of sermons on this theme about how Christians should be childlike not childish, trusting and downright obsequious.
Nowhere is this sentiment more drippily expressed as in the hymn:
“Christian children all must be,
mild obedient, good as he.”

In your dreams pal!

Whoever wrote that didn’t have an inkling about real children.

Children fight. Children compete.
Children bicker and bawl when they don’t get their way. Just like Christians.
In fact one wag has said that, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in original sin, hasn’t had kids!”

So I don’t think Jesus was using children as paragons of conflict avoidance.
I wonder if the master wasn’t suggesting we develop the honesty of children who when they they fight, bicker and bawl; don’t pretend that they are not doing so?
Children are the perfect Christians because of their trust but I would like to think they are our models also because of their transparency.

Here’s looking at you kid!

Is your martyrdom also discipleship? Mark 8:27-38 Ordinary 24b

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

It was many years ago now and I was sitting in the hermitage of my first ever spiritual director. He was an old man who had been a monk from a very young age and had lived the solitary life of a hermit for close on sixty years. (An Augustinian Canon for those who need to know these things)

I, on the other hand, was a young Methodist probationer.  Brimful of anticipation and arrogance, I was seeing a spiritual director because six years earlier my probation had crashed and I had been out of the ministry. Those years of working on the gold mines was the time for recovering some treasure from my shattered evangelical shards.  My way back to faith and ministry was now by a diferent road that led me to the deep wells of Catholic spirituality and contemplation. Spiritual direction was the rope and bucket that enabled me to discover and drink from those wells.

We were an odd couple, the old man and me. Our direction relationship lasted for five years and the last news I heard of Anthony was that he had asked to be released from Holy Orders at the age of eighty, so that he could marry!  He was, as you can see, an earthy saint and just the right foil for me at the time.

So there I was on my quarterly direction visit to the monastery, and I was in the throes of a classic martyr’s pity party.  You know the sort.  You are the only guest because the pity party is all about you and only you.  The music is all whiny, the lyrics go, “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me.  I think I’ll go eat worms!”

The canapes are the dry crusts of self pity and the drinks are a pool of pathetic tears.

I was also the keynote speaker at the pity party and was going on and on about how misunderstood I was by my conservative white (American’s readers: I mean WASP) congregation.  How no one wanted to hear that Apartheid was evil and how no one cared that I was trying to help them be free of their oppression as oppressors.

Fr Anthony never said a word.  He let me wail on.

When I was finished my litany that made the biblical book of Lamentations seem like it was written by a motivational speaker, Anthony asked a simple question.

“Are you a Christian?” he said.

“Of course!” I whipped back.

“What does that mean?”, the reply

My impatient response, “I follow Jesus.”

Then slowly his robes moved as he extracted his huge hand from the bell sleeves of his habit and pointed to the crucifix on the hermitage wall.

“Well,” he breathed, “look what they did to Him.”

It was a pity-party-pooper of note!

I have never forgotten that moment, and when I read this Sunday’s gospel my beloved director and his outstretched arm come to mind.

Like Peter, I rail at the idea of a suffering Jesus almost as much as he did that day at Caesarea Phillipi.

Like Dylan Thomas to his father, I want to say to Jesus, “Do not go gentle into that dark night, Rage rage rage against the dying of the light”

Yet the part of me that Fr Anthony cultivated so skilfully almost thirty years ago, knows that Jesus is correct.

There is no resurrection without crucifixion.

No transformation without putrefaction.

No roses without compost.

And certainly no living without dying.

I am not talking of the idiotic self-martyrdom of the Christian Taliban suicide bombers who think they are serving Jesus by thwarting change and inclusivity with their rabid fundamentalism.  That’s just stupid ego, and the suffering they experience is brought on themselves.

No, I am talking about the pain of living on for Jesus in the midst of a dying church. A church, too moribund to sail with the winds of change.

I am talking about preaching the truth of Jesus as he sees it when even the other Christians vilify you as the antichrist.

Speaking about inclusivity and inter-faith dialogue on a weekend when all people want to hear is prejudice as they watch re-runs of the Twin Tower tragedy.

I am talking about doing what it right because like Martin Luther, “I can do no other”

That isn’t really martyrdom is it?

It is simple, honest discipleship.

Open your ears before you speak – Ordinary 23 B

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

In an earlier post I have addressed the conversion of Jesus by the Syro-Phoenician woman. This time around with the Gospel, I would like to attend to the deaf man from one of the ten towns of the Decapolis.

To the modern ear the linkage of the man’s deafness and a speech impediment is redundant. We all know that if your cannot hear properly, or at all, there is no way you could learn to pronounce and sound words correctly. In Jesus day the causal link was not that clear.

I am however, thankful for the redundancy for it gave me pause to consider the link between having one’s ears opened, one’s tongue released and then being able to speak plainly.

If I was to move from the literal story to the level of allegory and metaphor, there seems to be wonderful pathway of spiritual experience outlined in this miracle. Given that all miracles are signs that the Divine Domain of God is present, then here is a process that is consequential to that presence in the life of every pilgrim who encounters Jesus.

Jesus touches the man in ways that are quite tactile and visceral. He puts his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the mans tongue and then tells him to be opened. “Ephphatha.”

An interesting word that, Ephphatha. Especially considering that most of what seems to go on in the church is our command to people to do the opposite, “Be Closed”, we say. (How I wish I knew the Aramaic for that!) Anyway, Jesus says the opposite, “Be Opened” and the church says be closed.
Be closed to anything that does not fit the cultural status quo. You can make your own list of the things we say, “Be closed”, to.

I am also intrigued by the sequencing of the healed response. We are specifically told that his ears were opened, his tongue released, and then he spoke.
On the day I created this blog and chose the name The Listening Hermit, I had just read the WordPress homepage and seen just how many million words were being blogged. It made me wonder if there was anyone listening! It is now almost four years later and there is still not much listening going on.

Could it be that this miracle sequence is a parable that shows that Jesus would have us first listen before we open our mouths to speak?
My late Grandfather used to say, A still tongue makes a wise heart”
My Grandmother used to chime,
“The wise old owl sat on the oak,
the more he listened the less he spoke,
the less he spoke the more he heard,
why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

Could it also be true that this miracle show that plain speaking can only come as the product and fruit of listening.

I would like to believe that is true.

Open up with all your being,
listen deeply,
speak plainly.