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.

Familiarity breeds CONTENT – Mark 6:1-13 Ordinary 14B

Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Coming home is usually a mixed blessing.  There is the consolation of familiar faces, nostalgic dishes, and all those triggers for our memories of days that have wrinkled into time.

So what are you doing?‘, friends ask when we meet them in the old store or restaurant.  For Jesus it was easy to answer, ‘Come to Synagogue on the Sabbath and see.’

There he was, the local boy come home with wisdom beyond his years and the temerity to teach new insights and understandings.  He should have realised that the people who had stayed in backwater Nazareth were there because they didn’t like new, nor different, nor anything but the same as last week.

Meat, rice and two veg.

He offended them with his novelty and the nous to expose their stuckness.  They didn’t care for either.

It seems that the reaction was reciprocal.  Jesus as amazed at them as they were at him.

So he sent his disciples elsewhere.

Don’t go in power and pretense, rather be with people in vulnerable simplicity.  No fancy clothes, weapons, nor support teams.  In fact nothing logistical at all.  Not a church growth strategy nor mission statement in sight.

A simple instruction. Remain with the receptive and quit on the contentious.

Proclaim radical change to everyone.

They did, and the kingdom grew and grew.

I have heard it said of Jesus in Nazareth that, “Familiarity breeds contempt”.  I am not so sure.  If I look at the modern church it seems that familiarity breeds content.

I wonder if we can recapture the heart winning, soul changing simplicity those early apostles exhibited.

God knows it will be unfamiliar and may just be the packaging our proclamation needs.

A friend recently alerted me to a wonderful set of principles used by that heroic organization Alcoholics Anonymous.  Most famous for their twelve steps, their twelve traditions would make a wonderful charter for change in the “submerging church“.

See how they line up with the Gospel this Sunday?

Note: I have taken the liberty of substituting “Church” for every reference to “A.A.” (From Page 564 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

  • One – Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon Church unity.
  • Two – For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority-a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  • Three – The only requirement for Church membership is a desire to stop drinking.  ( for drinking substitute ” failing to follow Jesus”)
  • Four – Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or Church as a whole.
  • Five – Each group has but one primary purpose- to carry its message to the alcoholic (Christ Follower) who still suffers.
  • Six – An Church group ought never endorse, finance or lend the Church name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  • Seven – Every Church group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  • Eight – Church should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  • Nine – Church, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  • Ten – Church has no opinion on outside issues; hence the Church name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  • Eleven – Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
  • Twelve – Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Works for me.

Are we ready for recovery?

Silencing those demons and beginning to serve.

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Human suffering is a great way to meet Jesus.
I would love to have been able to interview the crowd that followed him around during his ministry and establish what percentage of them were following because they had encountered in Jesus, some liberation from their suffering . I am sure they would make up the majority of the crowd. Another sector might be those who were in the process of being healed by ongoing encounter with him?
I like the way the New Revised Standard Version translates the action of Peter’s mother-in-law after the fever.  It renders “dieykonei” as “she began to serve them“. Do you also hear the present continuous sense to it? I love the implication that it was the beginning of perhaps, a lifetime of service?

There is also an interesting quatrain of activities as Jesus goes about his public ministry:

  • He proclaims the unconditional acceptance of God for all, to all.
  • He heals the sick.
  • He casts out darkness(demons)
  • He retreats into prayer.

What a wonderful rhythm for the Christ following life. How often can I recall times of frustration or burn out because I have neglected to attend to these four activities in a balanced way.
As students of yoga know, you cannot only breathe in, nor can you only breathe out.
Yet we who have been blessed, healed, and who have had our darkness dispelled by Jesus. We who now serve and follow him, need to learn the potency and sanity for our own lives of Proclaim, Heal, Remove darkness, Pray. I don’t think the sequential order is essential. What is essential is balancing our lives firmly on those four legs.

Yes, I know I am avoiding commenting on why Jesus wouldn’t allow the demons “who knew him” to speak. I can only speculate from the times we do hear them speak in Mark, that they speak only of themselves in the most egotistical terms. For example, “‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Mark 1:24. Can you hear the “me” in “Demon“?

For the demons in Jesus’ day, and the “demons” in me now, it is always about “me”.
Why me? Why do I have a fever? Why should I proclaim unconditional love? Why must I be the healer of others and their relationships? Why do I have to put up with the darkness of others? What has it to do with me? Why should I have to pray now?
That’s demonic language.
That’s just not the kind of language that will help any of us understand the selfless, life sacrificing Christ; let alone be healed by him and begin to serve him.
Better we don’t listen to it?
If he can shut those voices up in me, I won’t complain.

The Original Love Language – Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A lot has been said about how we can communicate love since Gary Chapman published his book, “The Five Love Languages
In case you haven’t come across them here is a summary of Chapman’s Five Emotional Love Languages:
Words of Affirmation
This is when you say how nice your spouse looks, or how great the dinner tasted. These words will also build your mate’s self image and confidence.
Quality Time
Some spouses believe that being together, doing things together and focusing in on one another is the best way to show love. If this is your partner’s love language, turn off the TV now and then and give one another some undivided attention.
Gifts
It is universal in human cultures to give gifts. They don’t have to be expensive to send a powerful message of love. Spouses who forget a birthday or anniversary or who never give gifts to someone who truly enjoys gift giving will find themselves with a spouse who feels neglected and unloved.
Acts of Service
Discovering how you can best do something for your spouse will require time and creativity. These acts of service like vacuuming, hanging a bird feeder, planting a garden, etc., need to be done with joy in order to be perceived as a gift of love.
Physical Touch
Sometimes just stroking your spouse’s back, holding hands, or a peck on the cheek will fulfill this need.

The invitation is then to go on to “Determining Your Own Love Language

Since you may be speaking what you need, you can discover your own love language by asking yourself these questions:

  • How do I express love to others?
  • What do I complain about the most?
  • What do I request most often?

(excerpted from http://marriage.about.com/cs/communicationkeys/a/lovelanguage.htm)

It would seem from the success of Chapman’s book and the subsequent spin-offs that inevitably come from a pivotal production as his was, that he touched a sensitive spot in our collective emotional psyche.

As a divorced person and also as a pastoral minister, I know the difficulties of relationships at first and second hand.
Psychologists are continually telling us that we are undernourished with regard to our emotional needs

William E. Harley who runs Marriage Builders determines the most important emotional needs of couples to be:

  • Affection
  • Sexual Fulfillment
  • Conversation
  • Recreational Companionship
  • Honesty and Openness
  • Physical Attractiveness
  • Financial Support
  • Domestic Support
  • Family Commitment
  • Admiration

What I miss in these very important and helpful studies is an answer to the question, “Why are we so needy in the first place?”
Do we arrive needy, or is there something missing in our emotional diets early on, that creates this deficiency, in much the same way some of us need more magnesium or calcium than others?
If the development psychologists are to be believed then the cause of our love hunger, and by inference of much of our neurosis, is the deficiency of knowing at an early age that we are “The Beloved”

To know that one is deeply loved is one of the greatest of human experiences.
I am going to suggest a very subversive truth to you now.
It is subversive because it has the potential to put every self-help guru out of business.
It is subversive because it also has the potential to put that great grace dispensary, the church, out of business too.
The truth is a simple one that Jesus experiences at the pivotal moment he begins his public ministry.
The truth is that you and I and every single living being on the planet are the agapeitoi of God.
The agapeitoi….WHAT?  of God?
O sorry I need to translate for you.
We are all, with Jesus, the Beloved of God.
Now this may not seem subversive at first, but the more we realise and live from that place of being beloved, we see the absolute security and grounding it can give to our lives.

It is for this very reason, the church has for centuries tried to keep this reality from us. The church knew that if people were secure in their relationship as the agapeitoi of God; if they knew that there was indeed “nothing that could separate them from the Love (agapeis) of God” Rom 8:39, then they would not fall pray to the guilt riddled shame blame game that the church has used so effectively to extort money and allegiance from fearful people.

So what about us who weren’t told this early on in our lives?

Well, the good news is that it can happen at any time.

  • Jesus was thirty at his baptism.
  • Augustine of Hippo came to this life changing understanding late in his life at the age of thirty two.

Augustine  wrote:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

This subversive truth is the ultimate form of human liberation.

  • I am the agapetos-the beloved of God.
  • God’s very nature is agape-selfless love.
  • By realising that I am the agapetos of the agape. The beloved of Love, I begin a participation in the very life and nature of God.

This is transformative to the deepest fibres of our being.

Jesus knew this.
It was imprinted from the moment he stepped out of the Jordan.
“You are my child the beloved.”
It is already true for you and me.
We simply have to realise that it is.

Nan C Merrill published a wonderful paraphrase of the Psalms in 1996. She titled the Book, “Psalms for Praying- an invitation to wholeness”

The psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 29.
Nan has it read like this:

Give praise to the Beloved,
O heavenly hosts,
Sing of Love’s glory and strength,
Exalt the glory of Love’s name;
Adore the Beloved in holy splendour.

The voice of the Beloved is upon the waters;
Love’s voice echoes over the oceans and seas.
The voice of Love is powerful,
majestic is the heart of Love.

The voice of the Beloved breaks the bonds of oppression,
shatters the chains of injustice.
Love invites all to the dance of freedom,
to sing the Beloved’s song of truth.

The voice of Love strikes with fire upon hearts of stone.
The voice of Love uproots the thorns of fear,
Love uproots fear in every open heart.

The voice of Love is heard in every storm,
and strips the ego bare;
And in their hearts all cry
“Glory!”

The Beloved lives in our hearts;
Love dwells with us forever
May Love give strength to all people!
May Love bless all nations with peace!

Are you ready to risk? Ordinary 33a

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When working in the Gospels it is always a chalenge to know where to begin reading and where to end. The versification of the modern format of the Gospels is not helpful as some of the chapter breaks are arbitary and cut across teachings much the same way the cartogrophers pens carved across the map of Africa separating whole cultures, tribes and collective histories in the quest for Imperial lands.
We know from extant manuscripts that the written form of the gospels was very dense and even unpuntuated, let alone unversified!

Coming to these end times teachings of Jesus it is difficult to know when to begin reading before the passage to be preached from the lectionary. I find it helpful when trying to find the entry point into passages, to look for action passages, which are often the transition and comencement points.
Jesus moves to another place, Jesus enters the synagogue, Jesus crosses the lake, that kind of transition.

To find the access point for this teaching in today’s gospel, one has to backup to Matthew 24:3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things 8 happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
The reply of Jesus to that request takes the form of the following teachings:

  • The Persecution of the Disciples
  • The Abomination of Desolation
  • The Arrival of the Son of Man
  • The Parable of the Fig Tree

Underpinning the teachings is the theme,”Be Ready!”
Under this sub section of being ready there are then three parables, namely:

  1. The Faithful and Wise slave who takes care of the staff of the household whilst the Master is away,
  2. The Ten Virgins, five of whom keep themselves properly resourced for the return of the Master,
  3. and finally the Parable of the talents which is the focus for this week’s preaching.

The story is a simple narrative of a landowner who is going away and entrusts his property to his servants in differing proportions, five, two and one.
The unit of measure being termed talent is unfortunate, as it has come to be associated with skills. A talent in fact refered to a sheckel, which was the largest unit of weight in Biblical times but which scholars have not been able to find equivalency for in our modern measuring system.
The best we can do here is to say that the master divided his property into eight parts, five to the one servant, two to another and one to the last. Scripture then also goes on to comment, “According to their ability”
In the later accounting the five talents have been applied to yield another five; similarly the two talents are now four and both enteprising servants are given access to the Master’s joy. The fearful conservative slave who for fear of the Master’s harsh business methods, does nothing with his resource
is punished by losing that resource and also as a final humiloiation is excluded from the “joy of the master”

Now, if you have grown up in the church as I did, you will have heard any number of teachings on this parable, most of which will have been exhortations for you and I as individuals to use our God given talents as skilfully as we can and to achieve, achieve, achieve. After all that is the basis of the Protestant Work ethic!
There is just one problem with that approach. The individual was really not the key component of Biblical, Bronze Age culture. The group was.
Now if we consider that the church is the servant entrusted with the Divine Domain whilst Christ is visibly absent, I behoves the church to be expanding that Divine Domain’s resources through skillful engagement and even entrepreneurial action. Yet when I consider the activities of many church communities I see them acting, not in the inclusive expansive and expanding spirit of the skilfull stewards in this parable, I see rather fear based, suspicious and conserve-reactive (Conservative) laagers. It is even evident in our architecture.
The pictute at the head of this post, is of one of the newest Methodist Churches to be built in Johannesburg. Whilst I am architecturally astute enough to “read” the architect’s intention to embody the African theme, what they have unwittingly created is a fort!
Here is a British block house built by the Colonial forces in South Africa during the AngloBoer war.

A picture paints a thousand words, so let me be brief to close.
I am sadly persuaded that should the church have to give account right now,we would have to accept that the one portion we have so fearfully protected in our fear based, block house forts we call our denominations and our doctrines; would probably be taken away from us and we would lose the joy of the master.
Hey, come to think of it, that’s already happening!

Jesus sweeps the corridors of power – Proper 16A

Matthew 16
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

I loved visiting America in the 1990’s. It was such a beautifully naive and robust life. Impenetrably defended, and financially dominant it was a halcyon time. I have also just remembered in the midst of my reverie that Triazolam (called halcyon) is a sleeping pill! America from where I sit at the bottom of the continent of Africa, seems to have been rudely awakened despite the halcyon. There are no impenetrable defences, there is no such thing as financial security, (it’s an oxymoron), there also seems to be no Presidential messiah. Y
Yet back in the 1990’s my dear American friends were so proud to show me their Capitol. I was confused at first, as I was miles from Washington, until I realised that every state seems to have one. Beautiful architecture strong and robust. White marble abounding. A manifestation in stone of the brave and the free spirit of that great nation. Those beautiful Capitol buildings and of course the unequalled one on the hill in Washington are modern day equivalents of the Caesarea Phillipi where Jesus is located in this Sunday’s gospel.

Caesarea Phillipi was an ancient site further developed by the Greeks and eventually annexed in 20BC to the Kingdom of Herod the Great when the Greeks crumbled. Associated with the God of desolate places, Pan Herod set about about beautifying the place known mainly for its copious spring which bubbled through the limestone and fed the Huela marshes. Herod built a temple of white marble also in 20BC. Later, Phillip the Tetrarch (trans Big Deal Guy) built his administrative capital there. Nice temple, good water. Politician that he was he also named the place Caesarea to honour Caesar. The bible refers to the place as Caesarea Phillippi to distinguish it from Casarea Maritima on the coast. There was more than one politician and more than one Capitol! Get the picture?

Jesus is here in a Capitol. You may picture anyone: the British Houses of Parliament, the Kremlin, South Africa’s Union Buildings, it doesn’t really matter. Here in the shadow of political might and majestic military confidence he asks his disciples, “So guys, what do folks say about me?” A flustering groups of tourist/disciples bluster the names of prophets and law givers. It’s a bit like an early approval rating report. “Uh, Elijah? Mmmm, Moses?…” Jesus turns up the heat, “But who do you say that I am?
I would love to know why he asked that question, in that place, at that time? There in the shadow of Imperial power and prestige, there with the Greek god Pan in central focus, there with the mysterious desert spring, there he asks for an opinion from his disciples.

Peter replies, “You are the redeemer, the Son of the living God” Not the Emperor Caesar, Not the God Pan. You are the rock that brings living water. You are the fountain of life.

Jesus then affirms Peter, before he silences all of the disciples and commits them to the mysterious messianic secret, “Don’t tell anyone…YET!”

In that affirmation the simple Jewish Rabbi from backwater Nazareth, overshadowed by the capitals of the Capitol, competing with foreign gods, dares to suggest that he is going to build something himself. Not a temple or a palace made of stone but a building made of flesh and spirit. Not an Imperial regime to dominate and enslave with brutish power and law. (Mmmm we seem get confused about that one now and gain) Rather Jesus is going to build a church an ecclesia, a gathering of citizens called by a herald to discuss the matters of a Free State.

A risky endeavour in the shadow of such power. An even riskier dream when one considers the quality of the “rock” that Jesus had to work with. Peter was definitely not white marble, he was far more like crumbly clay. But Jesus can work with less than perfect materials. He did it with Peter and the other ten, except of course resplendently righteous and granite Judas.

Jesus has been working with crumbly clay Christians since the beginning. It’s a simple low key project. It doesn’t make it into the news, and the television stations that purport to represent it don’t seem to really understand the plan.
But here’s the thing, Caesarea Phillipi lies in ruins, Pan is all but forgotten, the waters no longer flow freely from the limestone spring, yet Jesus the water of life, and his flawed and fractured stones continue to be the ecclesia gathering of God! Now there is something to marvel at.

Go and engrave that on the steps of the Capitol!

Start walking by standing still


Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Finally Jesus gets the rest and retreat he came to this shore of the lake to find. That is before he was accosted by the needy crowd on whom he had compassion and who he fed with the five loaves and two fish.  At last evening has come.  He has sent the disciples off to the other side of the Lake, perhaps back to the place that they left when Jesus had heard the John the Baptiser had been beheaded? En route, one of the notorious squalls on Lake Gennesaret blows up and the disiples are in fear of their lives.

Jesus having finished his prayers round  three am in the morning, comes to the disciples walking over the sea. Matthew tells us, “…when the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified...”. It is interesting for me that the word that the Greek uses for terrified is tarasso which referes to water that is agitated. One could say that the disciples seeing Jesus walking on the agitated sea become agitated themselves, because they think it is a ghost (Greek = phantasma).

Notice the sequence, Jesus does nothing about the outer storm and agitation of the sea, but rather, addresses the agitation of the disciples’ minds. “Take heart” or “take courage” he says. The same word he uses in John 16:33, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!

Peter then wants to put this courage to the test, hops overe the side at the invitation of Jesus, strides out over the waves, but the moment he allows his fear of the outer agitation to once again get inside him and agitate his mind, he sinks!  Jesus responds, “You of small trust, why did were you uncertain?
Jesus leads them both to the boat and only then does the outer storm abate.

Now I am not sure of the physics of this event. I can’t explain the science of walking on water or of calming storms at sea, for I have experienced neither. What I have experienced and can speak of is the psychology and spirituality of this event.

As one who has been drawn to and has practiced contemplative prayer, silence and meditation in various forms as something of a perpetual beginner; I do know just how fluid and fickle the human mind is. The Sea of Galillee as a metaphor for the mind is so very appropriate.   Just like that inland lake, my inner stae of mind and being can be beatifically calm one moment and cyclonically agitated in the next nano second. I have also learnt, with great difficulty, that the state of my inner being determines how I am able to deal with, manage and cope with, the outer squalls of life.

A great eastern teacher Ajahn Chah titled a booklet on meditation, “A still forest pool” . In the eastern traditions they speak of meditation bearing the fruit of “tranquility and insight” in that order. There can therefore be no insight if tranquility has not been established. It is a process the Psalmist describes as, “Be still, and know…” Peter discovered that for himself.  As his agitated mind flooded his body with fear and he sank into the deep agitation of the sea.   Jesus, as always, gives the contrast. He has just come from a night of prayer and communion with his Abba and so is able to literally rise above the outer conditions confronting him, “walking over the sea“.

Peter the seafaring fisherman has to learn to navigate the inner ocean of his fears, before he will be able to be the “fisher for people” he was called to be.  Jesus the rabbi will teach him practically: in storms, in sleepy gardens of Gethsemane, at fearsome firesides in moments of denial, and one day in the not too distant future, back here on the shores of this very lake. “Peter do you realy love me more than everything?”

Walking on water is not the great achievement of this narrative. Having a still and trusting mind is the real miracle.

Back AWAY from the drawing board!

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

There is a monastery close to where I live and from time to time I have visited the monks there.  These are experienced Benedictines, most of whom are life professed which means that they have been in the religious life a long time.  Yet despite them knowing what it is to be monks, knowing how to be monks and obviously BEING monks,they chuckle when they tell of how many visitors to the monastery who don’t know what it is to be a monk, or how to be a monk and who, despite not being monks, consistently tell them what they think the monks should be doing!

What is it with our culture that somehow assumes that despite inadequate training or experience we can opine about anything with grandiosity?  My doctor was telling me of a similar problem in her profession. “Patients enter my consulting rooms,”she said, “armed with a file of Googled results.  They sit down and instead of telling me their symptoms, they proceed to tell me the diagnosis of their condition and what medication they want me to prescribe!” I could sympathise with my doctor because as a priest I have had to put up with other’s “expert”opinions about religion for most of my ministry.  My studies and qualifications aren’t worth a hill of beans because everyone is an expert.

You will therefore understand why I take such delight in the Father’s put down of the disciple’s great opinions and plans for what should be happening on the Mount of Transfiguration. Their best laid plans of “Let’s build three booths up here and …” is cut short by The Voice that thunders, “This is my beloved Son, LISTEN TO HIM

Now here is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus.  Could it be that, our five year plans, mission strategies and files of Googled answers deafen us to what Jesus is really saying to the church?

Am I being too provocative when I suggest that maybe the church has been booth building for twenty Centuries too long? The record of that moment of transfiguration seems to suggest that Jesus’ desire will most often be contrary to our plans.  The disciples want to build booths and Jesus says, “Get up, stop being afraid, let’s go!”

If we read on in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, we discover that at the foot of the mountain a desperate father is waiting with a suffering son.  There is no time for building booths nor basilicas. “Get up, don’t be afraid let’s go”  It seems that the glory of God shines on Jesus to get him ready for Golgotha, or a least to heal a suffering boy in the foothills of transfiguration.

Could the same be true for our worship Sunday by Sunday?  Do we hear the Father’s acclamation that we are God’s children as a reason to bask in a booth, or as the inspiration to , “Get up, stop being afraid,”  and to go down to the suffering of humanity and our personal crosses that wait?

I’ll be right with you Jesus!

I’m just rolling up this blueprint and the five year plan!

We might still want to build something someday.

Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

Come and see…Ordinary 2

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o”clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

I have always been one of those people who need to verify things experientially.  It is never enough for me to hear how something works, I want to experience it.  I am not sure if this is a helpful trait to have, but it has made for some interesting experiences!

Because I am an experiential learner I appreciate the sequence of events that are described in this gospel passage.

John who has the experience of baptizing Jesus, who has seen the Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, is able to confidently point to Jesus as “The sacrificial lamb of God” and then to wax theological about the destiny of Jesus vis a vis Israel.  That was John’s experience and insight.

Two disciples of John then decide to follow Jesus, meet him and enquire about where he lives.  This question is far deeper than merely an inquiry after an address.  Amongst the Xhosa people of Southern Africa, there is a form of introduction which goes, “U velaphi?” It means, “Where do you come from?” In the customs of the Xhosas, the appropriate answer to the question is not to give an address, but to declare your clan heritage. The answer is self revelatory far beyond geography. The question is one of identity not of location.  I believe the question of the disciples, “Where are you staying?” has similar dimensions.

Having had the benefit of John’s theological identification of Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, I just love the way Jesus doesn’t respond, “Don’t you know who I am?”, or “What have you heard?” as so many self-styled, egotistical messiahs would answer.  Jesus’ response is a simple invitation to “Come and see.

This response is so beautiful because it is open ended and does not require any prior pre-judged concepts of Jesus.

Isn’t that the miracle of the Jesus journey?  Despite the countless layers of encrusted doctrine, dogma and determined identities that the Church has put onto Jesus as well as the requirements so many communities put on prospective followers before they even begin, Jesus does not.

His invitation is simply to experience.  Come and see.

It is an invitation to unprejudiced, undetermined, encounter.

It is an adventure where the disciple and the teacher are in relationship and not merely formulaic ritual.

It is the path to life.