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.

“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.

“Wave your flag, but DON’T touch the treasury!” Palm Sunday

 

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Crowds are fickle.  Watch the supporters of any professional sports franchise and you will see. When the team is winning the stadiums are full, when the team hits a losing streak, the gate monies diminish.

Be they political supporters, pop idol followers, or sports fans; crowds are at their best when they are cheering on a winner.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was a public relations winner.  The messiah hungry crowd witnessed and interpreted the arrival as it was cast in the all the old testament trappings and nuances of a royal arrival to the capital.  This was a hero’s welcome.  This was the Jerusalem equivalent of a ticker tape parade, or a coronation cavalcade.

The mystery that confronts me every time I reflect on this passage however, is how quickly this crowd in Jerusalem changes their mind and their allegiance.  If we follow the liturgical sequence and timing, which may not be quite the lost historical schedule, we have Jesus the victor on Palm Sunday and Jesus the villain by Thursday night!  That is a serious drop in the ratings! I doubt Charlie Sheen nor Tiger Woods could top that!

What could Jesus possibly have done in one week that so disillusioned his supporters that they turned on him, called for a criminal in his place, and were happy to see him killed?

Perhaps the key to understanding this falling away lies in what Jesus does when he gets inside Jerusalem.  He goes and overthrows the tables of the money lenders in the temple.

I remember reading somewhere that at the time of Jesus, almost the whole economy of the temple was based upon the temple and its sacrificial system.  The buying and selling of sacrificial animals, and the forex generated by changing money into the exclusive temple currency.  The religious industry was what made Jerusalem work economically.

If you ask me as a white South African, who has lived long enough to be immersed in Apartheid for 37 years of my life and the New South Africa for the balance (since 1994),  “What ended Apartheid?” I would tell you what brought the Apartheid regime to the negotiation table was primarily economics. The sanction blockade enforced by the global community made the old ways unworkable.  What is important not to forget is that at the heart of that sanctions campaign was a diminutive, ever smiling Archbishop named Desmond Tutu.  If the Apartheid rulers could have crucified him they would have!  You challenge my treasury at your peril.  Hadn’t the Nazareth Rabbi said it, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also”?

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, turned out to be, not the arrival of a club member who would endorse the status quo and conform to the messianic agenda formulated by the stakeholders; but rather emerged to be the arrival of a table turning radical, who had justice at his core. Once that realization dawned, assassination and not worship was on the agenda.

A Jesus who “refuses to be an insider but who always sides with the outsider”, as Richard Rohr puts it, will always upset our carefully laid economic tables and status quo scenarios.

I have some understanding for the fickle crowd.  I have felt their vacillation in my own heart.  The real, radical Jesus, from time to time, evokes deep visceral anger in my carefully crafted concepts. At these moments of challenge I could gladly do away with him.

It is at times like those, with Jesus upturning my values and attitudes, that I fight hard to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The truth will set you free, as Jesus said.  But first it will make you very angry!”

Angry enough to kill?

Rebirthing the Powerless Rabbi – Lent 2

John 3:1-17

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

I am a child of Apartheid.

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

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

My name should have been Nicodemus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parking under the wrong tree – Christmas Eve

 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A fellow preacher http://seeingmoreclearly.blogspot.com/ has likened preaching at Christmas to wringing out laundry in the days before spin dry cycles on washing machines. Two people would grab opposite ends of then sheet and then twist the material to try and squeeze every last drop from it before hanging it on the line. The point is that preaching at Christmas can be as exhausting as wringing out the laundry. You just can’t seem to get the essential and hopefully unique drop! This analogy of Don’s is one I can relate to, and yet it also struck me that the story really finds its power in the simplicity of the narrative.

It is a story of a pregnant couple who have been displaced by socio-political forces completely beyond their control. The difficulty of their journey to comply with the demands of the authorities is of little interest to those who decreed the displacement. Rules are rules and must be obeyed. The universality of this cameo is that it is being playing out in real time in Darfur, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Southern Africa and the Mexican border with the USA.

The second scene of this archetypal drama finds our couple unable to be accommodated in the “inn” (In Greek kataluma. This could also mean place reserved for guests or “guest room”). So not only are they displaced but they are now further marginalised by being rendered homeless.

Let’s forget the nativity play with the inn keeper dialogue for a moment and read the text more closely. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” I find no cosy backlighting here. No cattle lowing, and fresh straw. I find a marginalised and homeless teenage girl, having to give birth, God knows where, and then putting the child in a feed trough presumably so that she can attend to herself and her post natal recovery. Once again any third world disaster area will suffice as a modern day setting for this drama. Who was it who said, “The rich get richer and the poor have babies”?

The third and final scene of our story, is of another group of unsheltered, and by their profession, unclean persons. Shepherds who are under the stars and who receive a message and a manifestation about God’s glory (The Greek “doxa” is the opposite of episte’me’ (epistemology) knowledge and is realised not from reasoning but from realising) The unrighteous subsistence farming shepherds are the ones to whom the revelation of what is really happening is given.

They in turn become the ones who go and explain the mystery to Mary and Joseph and leave Mary with food for thought if not food for her family. “ all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” I would like to speculate that now the message of Gabriel began to have real application. Mary now needed to know, “… the Lord is with Thee” Yes Mary even in the extremity of this moment, “ the Lord is with Thee”

I am not sure we have any clue, any more about the transforming power of this narrative which we ritually repeat year after year. We who have homes, hearths, and heaped plates, what do we know about political displacement, marginalisation, and homelessness?

If we have become jaded by the mall mania, the credit-card crisis spending, and the bloated botulisms of our wasted food; perhaps we need to listen again to the invitation of the shepherds. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Let’s go to Bethlehem now in 2010, behind its concrete wall of Zionist and Palestinian isolation and begin to understand what it means for God to be present in the suffering of simple people.

But let’s not stop there, now that global travel is so much easier, let us also go to Indonesia, Iran and Ethiopia and look into the earthquake rubble, let’s go to the flood ravaged Ukraine and Panama.

Let’s go where God seems to be found incarnated and present. Not in our tinsel decked trees but in the trauma ravaged suffering of the poor and the powerless around the world. Let us go there, and see these things that the Lord has made known to us. I don’t feel that I have to wring some new cute angle from this ageless story. I think the story speaks for itself. If we can’t find God this Christ Mass, maybe we are parking under the wrong tree.

Camouflaged by shame

Luke 19:1-10

To hear this sermon preached click here

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

I grew up in a culture that was peppered with prejudice about all sorts of people and people groups. A product of the height of Apartheid, and a white male South African, I was fed a steady dose of all the stereotypes that went into making up our society. It may surprise you that the stereotypes weren’t all about race! Many of them were about other physical features, like, “Never trust anyone whose eyes are too close together“. I do beg your clemency for this bigoted upbringing and would offer as mitigating circumstance that I grew up deprived of “Google”. If I’d had the Internet I could have verified all these misperceptions on Wikipedia. (Yes, that lump on my face is indeed my tongue in my cheek!)

Another of these cultural biases was located around persons of short stature. Short man syndrome or a Napoleon Complex, was used to judge people of less than average height who competed aggressively with those who were taller. Behind the bias lay an unspoken principle: short people should know their place. Interesting that there isn’t a short woman syndrome, are women just expected to be small?

Coming this week to the most famous short man of the gospels, Zacchaeus, I find myself wondering if the short man syndrome was a bias in the days of Jesus? If it was, poor Zaccheaus had to face a double whammy. Short of stature, and also a tribute collector, what a difficult incarnation to carry.

All this nostalgia for the prejudicial upbringing of my past also dredged up a song from my youth. It was written by another short man and performed by his short self and his tall partner. The opening lines were, “When you’re weary , feeling small…

Are you old enough to remember “Bridge over Troubled Water“(YouTube Link) by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? It was 1969, so you may not want to admit to that.

I think those opening lines would have got Zacchaeus’ attention if he had heard the song back in the day. Zacchaeus knew what it was to be weary and also what it was to feel small. In the shame based culture of his time (is there any other kind?) being a tribute collector was tantamount to being a spy and a traitor. The only difference was you were required to perform your treachery in public! Collecting the extorted tribute from the Jewish populace and then handing it over, sans your sizeable administration fee,  to the Roman oppressors would not have endeared this profession to your peers.

I can’t help wondering if the tree climbing that Luke tells us was to get a better view was not also an attempt at concealment and camouflage?

Zacchaeus knew who he was, he also knew what he had done. He saw the shame in the looks his fellow Jericho-ers, including some of his family, gave him as they looked down on him literally and in every way. Zacchaeus was quite happy to be concealed in the sycamore-fig tree that day. To catch a discreet glimpse of the travelling Rabbi, that so many were speaking of.

On the Internet there is a name for people who enter chat rooms and who never participate in the discussion. They are called “Lurkers“. Zacchaeus was a lurker. Drawn to the teacher Jesus, he didn’t believe he had anything to offer and certainly believed he was not worthy to receive anything, so he lurked in the sycamore-fig tree, the very tree that was ironically a symbol of the nation of Israel and of blessing. Knowing what we do now about the outcome of this narrative, the sycamore-fig tree was an inspired choice. Zacchaeus might not have dreamed about the blessing of Zechariah 3:10, “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.“, but somehow he knew he had to see Jesus

When I preach on a Sunday I sometimes find myself wondering how many Zacchaeuses are in church, or even reading this blog. People who are drawn by the promise of healing and wholeness from Jesus, but who have experienced too much shame and have been looked down upon just once to many, for them to risk disclosure of their need? They lurk in the back pews, or don’t even attend church, constantly reading blogs like this trying to find some redemption from the harsh judgement they see in the eyes of others. Sadly, the most despising and diminishing looks come from the disciples of Jesus.

Here is the good news. Jesus is drawn to shame. Shame and sadness are the pheromones that attract the amazing grace of Jesus.

Just one look up the tree of shame and concealment and Jesus encounters the one who is lurking there.

It took me a while before I grasped the irony of the tribute collector hiding in the iconic fig tree of Israel and of blessing. At the risk of totally mixing metaphors, and confusing everyone may I point out that Jesus “the vine of the New Israel” calls Zacchaeus Smallman, to leave the concealment of the laws of shame and blame and also to leave his false blessing of wealth and extortion. He is called to leave that which makes him live in concealment from everyone, and “come down” to take his place as a forgiven son of Abraham.

No longer will Zacchaeus have to lurk up the tree of shame and blame, he will now be able to sit under that tree in the blessing of God. How? Because, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

This is not merely a story for Zacchaeus. It is a call to each of us as Small-people.

Let us risk climbing from the perches of false guilt caused by prejudicial bias where we have been lurking, and leering at the world.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Wow! Zacchaeus, how you’ve grown! You are taller down here than when you were up the tree.

Believing is seeing.

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

One hundred and thirty eight times, in the four gospels, Jesus is reported as “seeing”.

Jesus noticed. Jesus was a “seer”.

It wasn’t that others around him did not see, it was the way he saw that contrasted with his disciples, the crowd, the Pharisees and generally everyone else. In last week’s lectionary reading, Jesus accused the crowd of being hypocites, because they were able to see the signs that foretold the changing weather (Lk12:55) but were unable to see the signs that showed that their heavenly parent wanted to give the kingdom to them, the little flock.(Lk 11:32)

There are forty four references to Jesus referring to or working with eyes in the gospels. One of the recurrent miracles of Jesus was to restore sight to the blind. It would seem that the people of Jesus’ day had a problem with seeing. Certainly they did not see as he saw, and thus did not see what he saw.

In today’s passage Jesus encounters a woman who has been crippled (astheneia – a word still with us in asthma and a male infertility disorder called astheno teratozoospermia lit “weak sperm”). The woman Jesus saw had been crippled for eighteen years, long enough I would speculate, for herto be seen by her community as the “bent over crippled woman”. So when she appeared in the synagogue, no one except Jesus, would have seen anyone other than a crippled woman.

What tells us that Jesus, saw something else is that his first words to her are in contradiction of her outward appearance, “Woman you are set free from your ailment“. The next thing Jesus does is to touch her, and it would seem that the contact is simple human contact and not some magical transfer of healing energy moment, as it is often interpreted as being. Just those words, based on unique seeing, and a simple human touch are enough to heal this woman and set her off praising God.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to see like that!

So I ask myself, “What was different in the way Jesus saw this woman that could teach me to see as he saw?”

In answer to my question, I noticed three aspects:

He saw the person and not the condition.

Whenever I have had the really challenging task of conducting a funeral for someone who has taken their own life, I have encouraged the congregation to remember that a person, any person is much, much more than the way that they died. It is a real trap to speak of a person who died by their own hand, as forever after, “a suicide” and to forget that they were also a person, in relationships, with a family, a career, a home.

The leader of the synangogue, in today’s reading saw only the misdemeanour of a healing on the Sabbath.  Jesus saw a miracle of a woman whose cure was imminent (and immanent).

In all my encounters with people, am I able to see the person and not the condition?

He saw the potential and not the present manifestation.

I would love to have the technology to evaluate exactly at what point the healing of the crippled woman took place. Was it when she was seen by Jesus? Was it when he told her she was free of her ailment? Was it when he touched her? I have no way of identifying the moment, but I would like to think that, at some level, the healing began when Jesus saw her as whole and not bent-double.

Just as quantum physics is teaching us that our expectations of outcomes in the experiments we are observing can determine the data we observe in the experiment, so too I believe people often become and manifest what we “see” them to be. In South Africa where we are still working on the fallout of our Apartheid heritage, there is a question asked in anti-bias workshops. The leader asks the group, “Why is it that when we see a white person running in the street, we ask, ‘I wonder what he is late for?‘” “When we see a black person running in the street, we ask, ‘I wonder what he is running from?‘” What effect does our shadow projection, or by contrast our light projection onto people do to the experiences they and we have of each other. The work of Carl Gustav Jung has shown that the effects are significant.

In all my encounters with people, am I able to see the potential in the seemingly suffering individual before me?

He saw without prejudice.

It would seem that Jesus had the wonderful gift to see exactly what was before him in its full kingdom potential and not be swayed by obvious externals and past realities that might contradict what he was seeing at a deeper level.

Prejudice affects us all. The word means to “judge before”

I remember a case that was told me of a teacher who was given false information about the intelligence and learning abilities of a class of children. After just one semester the children were actually performing according to the false profiles she had been given. Her prejudice had created real behaviour in the classroom.

In all my encounters with people, am I able to see the reality of the person rather than be swayed what I have been told or experienced of them before this moment? Can I act always without prejudice?

When I think of my work as a healer, (I believe all ministry is healing at some level) I realise that healing begins when people are seen as Jesus would see them:

  • With Unconditional Acceptance
  • With appreciation for their person and not their problem.
  • With vision for their potential and not their limitations
  • With insight into how my prejudice could keep them in bondage to suffering, or if I could let my prejudice go, to their liberation.

A dear colleague of mine, Don Scrooby, has a wonder-filled blog called Seeing more Clearly.  I like that.

Believing is seeing…. as Jesus does.

Twice robbed: by Thieves and Lawyers

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Coming once again to such a familiar passage as the Good Samaritan, there is the strong temptation to assume that I know what is happening in the narrative. If I can fight off that temptation and hover over the story just a little, previously unnoticed or unregistered details pixelate into view.

One such emerging insight is the fact that the parable is told in response to the sophistry of a lawyer who is testing Jesus. Lawyers suffer a lot of bad press and are the butt of thousands of jokes. Usually they deserve the derision. It is an adversarial and argumentative profession. The lawyer in our Gospel is no different. Is he really interested in eternal life or is he flying a kite? It is impossible from this distance to know. It does seem that he wants to inherit eternal life, but within clear norms and parameters. Loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving neighbour as one loves oneself is not clear enough. He wants a definition of the term neighbour. If he knows who is described he can then proceed to love them within the norm and the parameter.

Jesus, frustratingly tells his enquirer a story which casts the neighbour in the form of the person who we come across and whom we would be the least likely to help. In fact the law of Jesus’ day would have fully exonerated the bypassing priest and Levite on good legal grounds of avoiding impurity and defilement. It would seem that Jesus’ story is in fact subversive with regard to the law itself. It is an outrageous story of an untouchable Samaritan being the one who touches the beaten up man on the side of the road. Not only is the Samaritan uncaring of the purity laws about blood and corpses (which the heap of humanity by the roadside might have been), as a Samaritan, by touching the man he may in fact have brought defilement on the victim by the touch of compassion. This story is a legal conundrum and koan.

In the days of the Struggle to end Apartheid here in South Africa, there was a saying that was borrowed from the American Civil Rights movement a decade earlier. It said, “If the law becomes a thief, it is just to break the law.” Examples of this civil disobedience were clergy who married Black, Coloured, Indian and Chinese people to Caucasian people despite the fact that it was not permitted in terms of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No 55 of 1949. The marriage could not be registered legally, but the ministers performing the marriage knew that in the sight of God these two people were married even if the state would not acknowledge this. In a most ironic twist, current South African legislation permits Gay and Lesbian Civil Unions, but Methodist clergy are prohibited by our Church law from registering with the State as Civil Union Officers and thus prohibited from performing Gay and Lesbian Marriages. “If the law becomes a thief it is just to break the law.” Many Methodist clergy are still conducting the Christian blessing of Civil Unions in defiance of the Church legislation.

As I look once more at this socially outrageous story of the Good Samaritan, set in the context of Jesus’ debate with a sophisticated lawyer’s sophistry, one thing becomes clear. Law and Compassion do not sit easily together. In fact, nine times out of ten, law seems to quench love. On the other hand, compassionate love, if it is to be true to Jesus, will at some point probably have to break some laws. Loving like Jesus (who is the archetypal Good Samaritan and Good Shepherd)is not for faint hearts.

Reflecting on over thirty years of minsitry I recognise that everytime I have kept the rules of the church with regard to who may or may not be baptised, confirmed, married or buried in the Church, inevitably, someone has got hurt or excluded. Usually both. During such times I have always felt such a coward having hidden in the thicket of the law.

This parable brings home to me a recognition, that whilst I may find the most erudite reasons to justify non-engagement with the suffering of those lying in my path, in most cases, I will be motivated by Law and not by Love. I have become a robber too.

You see, the poor man lying on the side of the road was robbed twice. The first robbers took his goods and beat him up. At the hands of the priest and Levite, he was robbed a second time. The priest and Levite robbed him of compassionate justice.

It is true. The law is a thief, whenever is steals my love away.

Thanks be to God we are called not to be lawyers, but lovers for Jesus.