The freeing truth about anger. Mt 21:33-46

Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

It was Martin Luther King Jnr who concurred that the truth will set you free.  But he added, “…but first it will make you very angry.
There is something in this encounter between the Chief Priests, the Pharisees and Jesus which reflects just how the truth which Jesus had proclaimed to them in the metaphor of the rebellious tenants, made them very angry.
Matthew however, throws out another important detail that hints at the cause of their anger, namely their fear.
The Priests and Pharisees want to destroy Jesus, but he has the adulation of the people who think he is a prophet.
So the Priests and Pharisees, who are threatened by Jesus, are also afraid of the crowds.  The fear is palpable, don’t you think?
I know what it is to get angry.  I can literally seethe and seize up with rage!  If I consider my anger rationally though, most times I am not angry for the reason I think.
I am enraged because a subconscious fear or insecurity is surfacing and my anger is a way to avoid dealing with my fear.
I have spent my life in South Africa, dealing with racism.  By the way, not only white people can be racist.  But having lived with racism in this milieux I recognise that the angry violence of racism is fuelled by the fear of those distinctively different from ourselves.
Witness if you will the Islamophobia sweeping the church at present and you will see what fear can do.
So let’s not deny our anger for politeness sake.  But let us be clear from whence our anger is fuelled.

Matthew 18:21-35 -Ordinary 24A Forget about not forgiving

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Forgiveness is a difficult thing if it weren’t Jesus would not have said so much about it.  His whole life seemed to be a chain of forgiveness events.  If one looks at the opposition to Jesus in the gospel narratives there were ample opportunities for him to develop a victim mentality.
The oppression of his mother, the difficulty of his birth in a foreign town and as a homeless person, the genocide of his peers due to Herod’s obsession with him, the life of exile in Egypt, the obscurity of life in Nazareth, the misunderstanding of his disciples, the crowds, his home-people.  Even his own mother seems not to have understood him at times.  There were ample chances for Jesus to become an embittered victim.
Yet his life is not one of victimhood but of sacrificial victim-being.  Victim being is different from victimhood because in victim-being Jesus allowed himself to be sacrificed for the sake of those who didn’t even get him.
How did he do it?
He lived forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t some band-aid brush off for those who have wronged us, whilst all the while seething at the injustice, it is rather as Jesus says, a process “from the heart”
That means it is deep and transforming and if I understand the numbers of the gospel lesson correctly, it is repetitive.
Again and again we are called to do what Jesus did as he hung on the cross.  The victim of extreme injustice, he found the capacity to pray, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”
I would like to think that he was able to forgive in that extreme moment because he has praticed at least seventy times seven times before, forgiving others.

 

It’s the nature of all things pickled and enlightened. Matthew 5:13-20 Epiphany 5-Ordinary

ImageMatthew 5:13-20

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Okay so I checked.
It is scientifically impossible for salt not to be salty. Sodium Chloride (NaCl) Salt is a very stable compound that cannot lose its taste except by dilution in water.
Light also cannot be anything other than light. You can hide the light or block the light but the light continues to be the light.
Jesus’ jump from affirming the nature of salt and light to be what they elementally are, to a discussion on the inviolability and permanence of the law, seems at first not to make any sense nor logical connection.
So I wonder if the master isn’t once again smiling as he speaks another irony?
If I consider my legalism and bigotry. When I examine the laws that I use as part of my religious practice, I realise that I am often trying to go against nature.
If salt is salt and light is always light, there is absolutely no reason to legislate to keep it so.
If people are made in the image of God, and are thus sparks of the divine nature, there is no religio-legalistic imperative to try to control them to be what they already are.
However, if you think salt is in danger of dilution, or that light can be totally blanked out and smothered, then you will have to arm yourself with jots and tittles full of laws to keep that from happening.
It all boils to what you believe about intrinsic goodness, the providence of God, or the depravity of humanity, and by inference our creator.
Light and Salt cannot be legislated into being better salt and light.
As for being more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, well that’s an impossible benighted competition if ever I saw one.
You can take that with a pinch of salt!

Advent changes for the Listening Hermit

My dear blog readers,

Yesterday I returned to Port Elizabeth after four years in the lovely town of Port Alfred.The holiday and retirement destination on the Kowie river was also my last pastoral appointment.  I have retired early from the church so as to pursue a more specialized ministry of Pastoral Therapy. You can read more about that by clicking here  I will be opening the practice doors in the rooms of Dr’s Wannenberg and Benson, 86 Park Drive, in Central PE on December 18th.

As one who follows this blog I wanted you to know that I intend to continue posting here as The Listening Hermit as I love the process and the people which the blogs puts me in contact with.

I do however want to change the perspective of the blog (and you may not even notice this) from reflecting purely as a preacher, to looking at the gospels with my new eyes of a pastoral therapist.  This will afford me the context relevance which is important to my reflections on scripture.

I do hope you will continue to visit and interact with me as you have done.

My special thanks must go to Jenee Woodward of Text Week who has been such an encouragement in my blogging

Blessings to you all

Peter

Never say “Never!” Mark 13:1-8 Ordinary 33B

Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

I remember this awful joke from the 1980’s

PW Botha (then President of South Africa), Eugene Terreblance (White Supremacist – Neo Nazi), and Desmond Tutu (Archbishop of Cape Town) are all given an audience with the Almighty and are allowed to ask God one question.
PW Botha asks, “Will the ANC ever come to power in South Africa?” God answers “Not in your lifetime”
Eugene Terreblance asks, “Will the Afrikanders ever get their own homeland?” God answers “Not in your lifetime”
Desmond Tutu asks, “Will South Africa ever have a black president?” God answers, “Not in MY lifetime!”

It’s a terrible joke. But we laughed at it because as whites in power we were arrogant and really thought that the status quo would last forever.

Today that joke is just sad. Simply because all of its assumptions were wrong.

It was the same for the Jewish religion in Jesus day.

There was an arrogance at the heart of its practice.

The temple was inviolable and eternal.
The people of Israel were the chosen race.
Chosen for privilege and power and not for service, they regarded themselves as better than everyone else.

For Jesus to suggest that it would one day be destroyed was both heresy and blasphemy.

Yet barely four decades later in AD 70 the temple was destroyed, and it has never been rebuilt.

Apartheid, Afrikander Nationalism, White supremacy in South Africa have all taken their place on the road to destruction that is the inevitable legacy of humanity.

Of course we are not immune from the same kind of arrogance.
We want our culture, our religious forms, our heritage to continue.
Because after all we are better than other people.
God has favoured us.
Afrikander, British, German, French Hugenot, Dutch, Zulu, Xhosa.
We are every bit as arrrogant as the religion of Israel of Jesus day.
Yet in our lifetimes we have seen the decline of the church and the erosion of Christian influence in society on a scale we could never have imagined.
Could it be that for us too the stones of the temple of our arrogance are falling?

We are about to receive, for the first time in the history of this circuit, a minister of colour in the Wesley section.

Unthinkable just a few years ago.

We as whites were the leaders of the nation, the culture, the church.
Never the majority, we simply ruled as if we were. Because we are English dammit.

What does the gospel say about this?

Jesus is clear. Kingdoms come and go.
The temples of stone will crumble and fall just like the power structures of politics and power.
There will be day when even this our lovely church will be empty, desolate and in ruins.

If you don’t believe me take a drive through the countryside. See the abandoned farmhouses, railway stations and the minig towns that are full of ghosts and rubble.

But you don’t even have to go that far. Just watch the decay of the temple of your body. That ought to convince you.

The question Jesus is asking without saying it is, “What remains?”

If bricks and mortar, culture and control, even our own flesh passes away.

What remains?

Jesus suggests that the inviolable core of reality is the life of God’s spirit in the world.

Isn’t that the place we should be looking to and living from?

Jesus said it like this,‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust* consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust* consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

“My Way” or a “Widow’s Way”? Mark 12:38-44 Ordinary 32B

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Of all things valued in our culture and society, independence must rank very high.
We are schooled to develop it, trained to maintain it, resist the loss of it; God knows we have even gone to war to protect it.
We speak of fierce independence.
It is a quality of life we will fiercely defend.

Another value of our culture is faith.We inculcate faith in our children, we encourage not only faith but faithfulness.

“In God we trust” though somewhat discounted these days is still a motto for many.

Yet I have observed from my work with people who are in the second half of life and thus more aware of ageing, that faith often grows in inverse proportion to independence.
It is often as we lose the independence that made Frankie sing’ “My Way” that we are able to allow dependence on the Greater Self, the True Self what we call God, to emerge.

I am speaking here of course of faith as trust. The more common understanding of faith as belief in doctrines is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word “pistis”.
Trust is often a fruit that grows in the compost of decaying independence.

It is this abandonment of oneself to something deeper and less programmed and planned than our independence plans and investments which jumps out at me from the gospel for this Sunday.
The story of the widow’s gift is a story of abandonment to God’s provision.

It is not a teaching for stewardship Sunday or any fund-raising drive for that matter. Would that the church could learn to trust God more for it’s sustenance and depend less on its fundraisers and hedge-fund managers, like the widow did.
I am presently involved in a second-half of life transition. I would love to say mid-life but that would mean I am going to live to be one hundred and ten! My transition has been the most exciting adventure of deciding it was time to stop what I have been doing for the past thirty years, and then waiting for the flux that the decision created, to take form.

I have been astounded at the providence of God, and the doors and avenues that have opened that I could never have dreamt. But, only after I had thrown it all into the treasury!
My “new life” that begins in exactly one month’s time could never have been planned or strategized for by me acting independently.
It seems after thirty years I will have to begin preaching what I preached.

“My Way” may have been Frank Sinatra’s way.
I prefer to advocate the “Widow’s Way”.
Give it all to God and be surprised.

“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!

A Cleansing Ritual for Preachers

Image

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!

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.