You’re a prophet? Have you lost your head?- Ordinary 15b

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I like to be liked. I suppose it’s the curse of my temperament and of my profession. Not many people like to be disliked. There is something masochistically deranged about people who like being in the bad books of others. Herod wasn’t one of them. After all Herod was a politician. I am not sure if biblical politicians had to shake hands and hug babies as they do today, but you can be sure they needed to be liked.

Herod wanted to be popular and so he kept in with the religious prophet John the Baptist because it is always a good thing to stay in step with the church. I overheard a member telling another the other day, “Always stay on good terms with your minister and your bank manager. Herod would have understood.

Herod also had to stay in step with his new wife Herodius. She had first been hsi brother’s wife and the circumstances that led to her becoming Herod’s wife are not clear, but John did not approve. So Herod had a conflict of interests. Keep the prophet happy or the wife happy?

Then there was step daughter also called Herodius, and we all know how difficult that could be.

Film makers over the years have portrayed Herod as a bit of a lech. Getting all steamed up by the dance of Herodius and rashly offering her anything in the kingdom, even half the kingdom himself. It is not clear what in the dance pleased him but Herod walked into a classic conflict trap. It was not longer a conflict of interests, it was now a conflict of values.

Herodius’ hatred for John the Baptist forcing Herod to choose between his religious appreciation of John and keeping the peace with his new wife.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  And it wasn’t 2012!

The mistake most preachers make here is to berate Herod as weak willed and gormless. I don’t think many of us would have done anything different from Herod. After all we are speaking about him countering his spouse for the sake of some disposable prophet.

Family values and all the Dr Phil shows would endorse Herod’s choice. He went with his wife and her needs. He was supportive and nurturing of the relationship and after all he was the king.  It was not as if this was the first person whose head he had chopped off!

No the villain here isn’t Herod, nor is it hate filled Herodius. The villain is expediency. For the beheading of John the Baptiser is the forerunner of the greater travesty that plays out in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus some months later.

What Herod did is what Caiphas did.
Here is John’s gospel: So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

Prophetic witness and personal or political expediency do not have a good history of co-existence. It is most often expediency that wins.
It is no different in our day. Herod the King, Caiaphas the high priest, Presidents and Popes, Mayors and Ministers.

Who on earth would want to be prophetic and challenge evil?
You must have lost your head to be a prophet.

The catharsis of not cutting. Easter5

John 15:1-8

”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

As winter creeps darkly toward us in the Southern Hemisphere I see my horticultural friends wielding their most feared weapons, the seccateurs. Knowing just where to cut, they lop and lunge at every bush and tree until skeletal forms remain where foliage once flourished and the ground is littered with sticks and stalks.  It is botanical carnage.  Essential, I am told, but carnage nonetheless!

In the history of Christianity there have many, and some very interesting, aberrant groups commonly called heretics.  The word heretic comes from “hairetikos=able to choose”.  So  a heretic was judged by the church hierarchy to be one who had chosen to believe and profess in opposition to official  doctrine and as a result, had to be silenced.  Such silencing usually involved the cutting off of the heretical, “wrong choice” person or group from the church community. In dark and dangerous times it also involved the cutting off of body parts from the heretic either during the trial to determine heresy or eventually to cut the heretic off as a consequence of the bad choice they had made.  In the latter case the most favoured body part to be severed was the head.  The head that had made the wrong choice was thus removed from the body, symbolising the cleansing of the church by the removal of the heretic.  It was another carnage. Not botanical pruning, this time it was human carnage.  At least gardeners don’t hear the plants scream!

I am glad to report that this Inquisitorial practice is no longer part of church management though the language echoing that dreadful past remains with us in phrases like, “heads are going to roll” and “losing your head” about something or someone.  The Inquisitors, who were the head lopping pruners of the medieval church considered themselves tasked with “cleansing” the church of error.  They saw themselves as those who were doing the pruning work that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel reading.

In fact the word that John’s gospel uses for prune is  katharei=to cleanse. We still reference the word when speaking of cathartic experiences.  Those moments when we, through grief or pain, are cleared out and cleansed.  Inquisitors saw themselves as cleansing the church through the pruning of heretics.  Painful it might have been, but prudent for the preservation of power.

One of the best known groups of heretics in Europe also take their name from this word katharo.  They are the Cathars who are refered to in the Council of Nicaea in 325 but which emerged as an autonomous movement of strict Christians in the 12th Century in the Rhineland and Northern France.   These heretical,  “wrong-choicers”  were completely exterminated with the loss of many pruned and roasted body parts by the 12th and 13th century Inquisitions. The Cathars had some strange ideas about no re-marriage afetr widowhood and who also maintained that there was no way to do penance for sin that was committed after baptism.  A rather serious bunch they were. A kind of puritanical movement before the Puritans if you know what I mean?  How ironic then that the Cleansed Ones = Cathars were “cleansed” by the Inquisition.  Something Rwandan with Auschwitzian echoes here don’t you think?

Anyway, the Church needed to get rid of them.  They were just not with the Roman programme.  So the Inquisitors arrived and the heads rolled.   A vast pruning purge which, despite novel romantic notions of links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, surely represents one of the lowest ebbs of Christian history?

So it is with my mind awash with horticulture and history, that I eventually come to the Sunday gospel.

It fascinates me that in John’s gospel there are only two parables recorded.  Last Sunday Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd in the one parable, and this week he refers to himself as the Vine in the second.  If the writer of the last canonical gospel to be written  opted for only these two similes they must be pivotal to describe Jesus.

Now, if Jesus is the the Vine with a Shepherd’s heart, and only God is the gardener, then a few realities seem to bud and sprout from that:

  • Only God is qualified to wield the pruning tools.
  • Every severance is painful to Jesus.
  • Believing that we have the right to prune the church as Christ followers is not only arrogant, it is blasphemous (playing God) and may indeed rebound in the axe wielder being axed for usurpation!  Cathars are cleansed!

No, for me it is clear. The church is not called to prune, that is God’s job. Faggots of fruitless followers are God’s business not mine.

The church is called to fruit by remaining connected to the life giving/love flowing sap of the Shepherd-Vine.

It is through fruitful love and life, not through severance and sectarianism, that I become his disciple.  Of course if you don’t agree, you can always cut me off.

Hosanna! Save us from Self-Interest! Palm Sunday-B

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

For many years, as a preacher, I have been captive to the insight that the fickle crowd who cried Hosanna at the Triumphal entry would have largely made up the crowd who cried for Jesus Crucifixion only days later. I have harped on their fickleness.
Whilst I still hold to that insight as valid, I have had my captivating lockup sprung open by considering the etymology of that interjection “Hosanna“. Reflecting on that one word, I am beginning to realise that the culturally captive crowds of Jerusalem would have almost no other way of seeing the man on the hiterto unridden colt than as the expected Saviour come to rescue them from their perceived enemies and according to their preconceived expectations.

The key lies, as I have said, in the word Hosanna which originally comes from Psalm 118:25 “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!”.
By the time of Jesus this Psalm verse had found its way into common parlance as a greeting and blessing. When one looks into the Greek version of the Old Testament the Septuagint, the word for Hosanna in Ps 118:25 is translated σῶσον δή (soson dei) which, if you don’t have Greek, means “save us”. I suppose it would be close to the Irish common usage, “God help us“, said willy nilly in conversation.
There is an interesting sidelight here. In Lent 5b last week we read of Jesus asking in John 12:27, “And what should I say—‘Father, save (SOSON) me from this hour’?”
Isn’t that strange the one thing Jesus said he wouldn’t ask of God, “Save me from this hour” is the very thing that the crowd requires of Jesus in their Hosanna-“Save us now!”?

Staying with the John passage of last week, Jesus declines to ask God to save him, he rather requests the Father to glorify his name. At face value it would seem that the Jerusalem fan parade is glorifying God’s name but they are not really. They are simply demanding their own liberation. “Save us now!

The paradox of Jesus’ life is that the glorification of God’s name is found  in the ignonimity and humiliation of the accursed one who is nailed up on a tree. It is from there that the salvation called for in the Hosanna arises.  However, this salvation is now completely redefined by the poured out life on the cross.

Which brings me to that Jerusalem flash mob and their, “God help us! God save us!”

Isn’t that the most primal prayer ever prayed?

As I write and muse, I realise that the only thing that would change in my prayer in 2012 from the prayer of the crowd is that I usually pray, “God save ME!” My Western consciousness doesn’t care much for the tribe or clan. That aside, the prayer is the same. It is the most basic form of prayer. It is an expression of self interest.

We who know this story so well, know that when the expected terms and conditions of that salvation did not materialize , the crowd turned viciously on the colt rider and had him done away with. I am not convinced we would have done any different. Except that we would probably sue Jesus first, and expose him in the tabloids as a fraud for good measure!

The question that remains for me though, is whether the crowd could have done any differently? It seems that as enculturated self interested human beings (are there any other kind?), they were only doing what it is our nature to do, they wanted to survive.
The horror of Holy Week for me is that I realise again and again that were I in that time, as I am now in mine, nothing would change. Self interest always wins.

Yet the real miracle we see in this whole Holy-Horrific week that lies before us from Palm Sunday to Easter, is how the Divine parent uses the most destructive forces of human nature, namely scapegoating and violence; as the very process of redemption.

My “Hosanna”,and my “Crucify him” screamed from the visceral core of my being, and screamed with absolutely no real understanding of what I am asking for, becomes the miraculous vocabulary with which God teaches me the meaning of unconditional love, mercy and salvation.
The cross becomes the confrontation with my self interest.
So into the horrors we go…

When I have gaped and groaned long enough at the feet of the Crucified one this Easter, I pray I will arise with a transposed cry in my heart.
Perhaps this year God will change me enough to cry out “God save them“, and “Crucify me!”

Do you suppose  those words will glorify God’s name?

Faith like a Dog’s Breakfast – Ordinary20A

 Matthew 15:21-28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.


Have you ever, like me, felt in desperate need of Divine help, but hesitated even to ask due to the choir of voices in your head singing verses like : “Who am I that God would care?”, “After all I have been and done it would be a cheek.”, “I really don’t have enough faith to make this happen!”

This week the gospel tells of a non-Jewish woman who nonetheless had the chutzpah not only to ask, but also to challenge Jesus to think again about his perceptions of her.
Jesus was away from his familiar territory. He was still processing the reality of John the Baptizer’s death. He was in controversial discussion with religious leaders. I am speculating here, but his initial unresponsiveness could possibly have come from sheer exhaustion, (Oh no not another demand!) or cultural bias (Men don’t speak to strange women, especially from another culture!). Whatever motivated Jesus lack of response, he was about to be taught faith and determination from the most unlikely teacher.

It isn’t lost on me that as I write this, here in South Africa, today is a public holiday celebrating Women’s Day.What a wonderful, gutsy, Gospel woman to inform this celebration day.

The interchange between the woman and Jesus is almost clinical in its brevity.
The woman calls for help for her tormented daughter.
Jesus is non-responsive.
The disciples want to chase her away.
She continues to plead.
Jesus, when he answers, specifies that she is outside the sphere of his vision and mission. He has only come for a certain group, the people of Israel.
The woman kneels in front of Jesus. A simple, respectful plea on her lips.
Jesus, again dismisses her with a rather crude simile for third millennial sensibilities. Dogs (the Canaanites) don’t deserve the food that belongs to the Jewish children of God.

Then comes the clincher in the conversation. This is the tipping point where orthopraxis (correct action) overrules orthodoxy(correct doctrine).
Chutzpah, temerity, guts, desperation; what it was we will never know, but this woman in the dust at Jesus’ feet winkles into a crack in his argument and unlocks the Master’s heart, with both fierce logic and evocative need. “Dogs can live off scraps.

Jesus’ response is almost an expletive. “MEGALE’ sou e’ pistis”. “Great is your faith” “It’s MEGA-FAITH WOMAN!!!”
Am I forcing the narrative when I hear triumph mixed with celebration and some relief, in that declaration of Jesus? At last here is someone who gets it!
The wrong person, of the wrong culture, in the wrong place, speaking with the wrong accent. It should be all wrong, but don’t you know, it’s actually all right.

At the start of this reflection I asked you remember when you and I felt we shouldn’t or couldn’t pray, ask or even plead.
Today this foreign woman scales the xenophobic orthodox walls of religion and says to you and to me. Go on ASK! You might feel like a dog’s breakfast, but that’s enough to unlock the heart of Jesus.

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.

Perfect panic strategy.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

A wise teacher once told a friend of mine, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”. That sounds true the moment you hear it, but as with so many truths in life it takes practice to make it work for you.
I recall when I first moved into the mountain hermitage for my year long retreat in 2008, being beset with fears that verbalized as, “Oh No! I have forgotten this, and I haven’t got enough of that” Slowly, little by little, I had to say to myself, “Everything that I need is here“.  It sounds true, doesn’t it? Just like the saying that the teacher gave to my friend, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”
Discovering the truth in statements like these takes time and a degree of faith which enables them to reveal their truth.

It is almost as if one has to bed down with reality for a while before that inner perfection of the situation is revealed.

I have a sense that at the time Jesus withdrew to Capernaum after the arrest of John the Baptizer, it didn’t seem as perfect and as prophetically inspired as Matthew makes it sound when he writes about it in this Sunday’s gospel. Herod is on the war path.  Jesus, his mission and ministry are in peril. He makes a move into Northern Gentile territory.  Away from Judea and the people that he saw as his first priority.

Yet decades later Matthew can see the perfection in what seemed at the time to be chaos.
He sees that here Jesus finds the right kind of disciple, the right kind of audience, the people who have “been sitting in darkness” caused in part by the Judean exclusivist religion from the South.  Here are people ready to listen ready to respond. Ready to repent and change their minds.  It is perfect and complete lacking nothing.  Everything Jesus needs is right here in the most unexpected place.
Matthew sees because time has confirmed the providence that was hidden in the moment of panicky decision to run away to the North.

Isn’t that the truth about life? Crises come.

True, we may not have to experience the arrest and beheading of our cousins and partners in ministry, but we know what it is to have to act quickly and decisively when all one has as a guide is the light of your intellect and the courage of your heart.
How wonderful it is to look back as Matthew does and see that where we might only have seen survival strategies and doubt, time confirms the providence that was always there.

If we have really handed our lives back to God as Jesus did, then truly everything, every moment is perfect and complete lacking nothing.
As that great Christian sage Anthony de Mello has it, “Enlightenment is complete co-operation with the inevitable”


Of course I can’t say it to you, or for you, in your chaotic circumstances right now.  That would be insensitive and blasphemous.  I can however, say it for myself, looking back at the faithfulness of God in my chaotic moments and thus able to be just that little less jittery about the decisions and directions I am taking in my life right now.

Jesus who may never have chosen Capernaum if it weren’t for John’s arrest, ends up going throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Isn’t that just prophetically perfect?

Could it be for me too if I leave my nets and simply follow him?

Can we trust these foreigners? Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

There is, without doubt, something very attractive about the exotic.  Exotic people, exotic places, exotic food, exotic clothes, all hold a fascination for us, which delights our travel agents and the airlines no end.

This is not always true however.  Sometimes the exotic and different can be threatening.  The same stimulus that triggers fascination can also light the short fuse of fear.  Xenophobia and fascination differ only to the degree that the difference of the other we encounter comes with a background of benignity or a history of conflict.  If we have has a bad experience with a specific people group, then xenophobic racism is a far more expected response than interest and fascination.

I am a fifth generation Euro-African.  I know.

Knowing this truth of the xenophobic and the fascinating in our response wiring as human beings makes the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, all the more interesting.

A brief visit to one of my new favourite websites, http://www.greattreasures.org informs me that the word we translate for wise men in our gospel for Epiphany, is: μάγος (magos Strongs 3097) wise man great, powerful; magus, plural magi, the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians, whose learning was chiefly astrology and enchantment.

Now Medes, Persians and Babylonians did not have a great relationship history with the people of Israel.  The Old Testament is packed with that history of conquest, oppression and exile for the people of Judea.  A modern day equivalent reference would be, “Nuclear physicists from Yemen, Iran or the Peshawar province in Pakistan, came to Bethlehem.”  The declared motivation for their visit, “to pay homage” to a new Jewish King, would have been seen as a smokescreen to gather intel and probably “remove” any political threat to the stability of the region.  Could this be why Herod engages them so actively, because astute politician that he is, he guesses the “real” motive for their mission is in keeping with his own power games to maintain hegemony for himself?

Medes, Babylonians and Persians do not come to David’s town to worship, they come to spy and conquer.Yet on reaching, the place where Jesus is, they do what they say they came to do.  They offer him homage and present him kingly tribute.

Isn’t it so disappointing when people we are suspicious of, act with integrity and honesty?  It’s hard to keep hating when they behave out of the character our prejudice has scripted them to play.

This reflection leads me to three speculations on this Epiphany Sunday.

  1. History is not a justification for ongoing suspicion and xenophobia. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  2. Where people are from, how they look, and what culture they observe, does not determine the behaviour we may expect them to exhibit. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  3. There is at the heart of the Universe a truth, a wisdom which is able to transcend xenophobic fear and suspicion. That wisdom is found in the life and presence of Jesus.

I find the idea of a beckoning star on the horizon of a new year, exotic and inviting and so I pray, “Lord Jesus, give me grace to be intrigued and not intimidated by the different and exotic people who, with me, will follow the star to your heart.”

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.

Jesus…who? (Feast of Christ The King)

Luke23:35-43 (Click here to listen to this post as preached in Port Alfred South Africa on Nov 21 2010)

And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

I grew up believing that Jesus Christ was the name of the man I heard about in Sunday school. He was white, had long blond hair and was usually carrying a lamb around in his arms.

It was only when I began to study theology that I realised that Christ wasn’t Jesus’ last name. I had thought he was Jesus Christ just like I am Peter Woods. I learnt that Jesus, a teaching rabbi from Nazareth had been put to death during the governance of Pontius Pilate, and that outside of the biblical record that was all that was known about him historically.

Inside the biblical writings, (which cannot be used historiographically – that would be like using a reference from your mother when applying for a job!), this teacher Jesus had been experienced as one who fulfilled the expectations of Israel for an anointed one, whom they had called “Messiah” or in Greek “Christos”.

I also learned that recognition as the Jewish Messiah was not the end of the evolution of Jesus’ name, because as the Good News (Gospel) spread through the world after Jesus day, it met up with Greek philosophy. The Greeks, particularly the Platonists, had a notion of a divine ordering principle which they called the Logos. Judaism had already met Platonism and Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) the Jewish Alexandrian had prepared the way by postulating that the Logos was “God’s blueprint for the world

So when Christ followers met the Greek philosophers there was this “Aha!” moment when Jesus, of Nazareth the Jewish Christos was experienced by the Greeks as being the Logos. So, early on in the development of Christian theology Jesus of Nazareth, who was recognised as the Christos (Anointed one), came to be seen also as the divine Logos (The unifying, creative principle at the heart of the Universe John 1:1= “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God and the Word was God”…) This is echoed in Paul where he writes in Colossians 1:17 “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together

It was the Christian theologian Justin Martyr (c 150 CE) who made the formal connection by identifying Jesus as the Logos.

Thus Jesus of Nazareth who had been experienced by his followers as the Christos (anointed one) came also to be experienced as the Logos, (God’s blueprint for the world) Also, did you notice how many times I used the word experience in describing this journey from Jesus to Christos to Logos?  We have to remember that our beliefs are  our attempts to explain our experiences.

By the time I was finished with my academic study of theology, I (sort of) understood that the proper name for the one I follow, is Jesus the Christ and Logos of God, although he insists that I just call him “my friend”.

Now when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King at the end of the entire Christian Year, we are making faith connections and saying that in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe, Gods blueprint for the world, is revealed. That is why we follow, reverence and promote Jesus to the world.

However, this feast of this tripartite faith union of Jesus, Christos, Logos, also demands of us some critical and clear thinking so that we may be honest with ourselves. If we are going to continue to make sense to the world, we are going to have to understand this evolution of understanding that saw Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, the rabbi, become firstly the Christos of Jewish expectations, and later the Logos of Greek philosophy.

This I propose to do by offering some questions for your prayerful consideration. I am not going to suggest full answers because I believe the best theology is done by each of us bringing our logic (logos) and experience to bear on these questions.

Question one: Did Jesus of Nazareth think of himself as the anointed messiah (Christos) or the unifying blueprint of the universe (Logos)? A simple reading of the gospels would answer yes. Jesus affirms Peter for saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Honest biblical scholarship demands though that we ask, how a Galilean fisherman could have come to such a sophisticated philosophical notion? Could this be the editors of the gospels putting words in Peter’s mouth to express the later understanding of the church?

Question two: Has the Logos energy of God (the creative unifying blueprint of the universe) only been manifest and experienced in the life of this one Jesus of Nazareth, or could there have been others in History?

Question three: How much of what we reverence in Jesus, was his intention? Bearing in mind that Jesus is recorded as saying seventeen times in the gospels, “Follow me” and NEVER does he say “Worship me”

I am very clear that for me, Jesus is both Christ and Logos. That is my experience, that is my way, that is my truth, that is my life.

I will share this with everyone who is interested in knowing.

However, as I consider how I have come to this position, and how we as church have explained and constructed it, I have to acknowledge that it is not clear, that Jesus is the only manifestation of God’s Logos in human history nor that Jesus considered being equal with God important ( Phil 2 “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”). It seems more reasonable to me, that the Divine Logos is bigger than one religious creed or cultural experience.

What is abundantly clear from the life and teaching of Jesus as I have studied and experienced them is that Jesus became recognised as Christos and Logos, by living as a servant of humankind and as slave of compassionate love. Our King is a Servant!

Feel the fear… and endure it. (Proper 28C / Ordinary 33C / Pentecost +25)

Luke 21:5-19

Listen to the sermon as preached (Click here)

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

It is of  interest to me that in the Lectionary, this gospel follows Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees (See The devil IS the detail). In that passage Jesus refuses to be drawn by the straw man debate of those who don’t believe in Resurrection and yet want to argue the minutiae of how relationships in heaven might be! Jesus points his hearers in that context to the reality of life that does not end, which begins when one awakens to the reality of it in the here and now. Debates about the furniture or marital relationships in heaven are non-essential in following Jesus.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus once more points to the interiority of life in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Discussing the temple and its glory, (it must have seemed to people who had probably not travelled more than one hundred kilometres from their homes in their entire lives to be an astounding edifice) ; Jesus is not too taken with the outward appearance of the structure. As a clear and wise spirit he grasps the impermanence that is at the heart of every created thing and sees that even this fine edifice will one day be a ruin.

The incredulous listeners cannot conceive of it and so want to interrogate Jesus for the details. “When, where, how, by whom?” Notice how Jesus does not get drawn by the specifics, the curse of the literal mind. It was the British philosopher Owen Barfield who said, “Literalism is idolatry“.  Jesus knew that. As an armour against distraction, Jesus warns of the dangers and distractions to come but hidden in this passage, which literalists try to use as a map for the future, he gives four clear instructions and one final assurance.

It is these that I choose to focus on:

Beware that you are not led astray. The skilful and wise Christ follower is the one who knows that truth and light are not found “out there”. No book, Mp3, movie, programme, teaching, or guru has the answer. Not that any of these are bad in themselves. They are all fingers pointing to the moon. The person who lacks the inner eye of discernment is prey to becoming obsessed with trying to find the correct finger. I often say, that if I had spent as much time praying as I have reading books and blogs about prayer, I would be a lot closer to Jesus than I am now!

Do not go after them. It is difficult to stay focussed when the herd hurtles off somewhere in search of answers or fads to calm their fear of the present. It is here that the one who knows the secret of unending life, is able to trust their inner compass and light to keep to the path that they know leads to transformation.

Do not be terrified. Here of course is the catalytic secret to our distractions from the path. When we become fearful we become forgetful. We forget the promises, the peace, and the process that has so shaped and guided us this far, and we begin to question and doubt the veracity of simply remaining rooted in following Jesus. The ego doesn’t help because it joins the chorus of doubt that whines about needing more security and surety, which comes at the price of serenity. It needs no underlining that Fundamentalism feeds on fear and terror, and often creates conditions to cultivate those dark emotions, so that it can offer its seemingly watertight and foolproof facile “answers”. I have said it before, “Destructive religion points to certainty; Wise religion points to the mystery”

Jesus’ fourth instruction addresses our neurotic obsession for control in stressful times..So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. As I reflect on the stressful times and conflicts of my life, I realise that I have spent hours and perhaps days, planning encounters and debates with people. I have had answers and arguments loaded in my arsenal of competence, so that I may never be caught out as being at a loss for words or information. Truth be told, not one of those scenarios played out the way I had planned.

What Jesus is suggesting is that our time would be better spent, clearing the clutter and static of our ego broadcasting stations, so that we have a calm, clear channel to God which incidentally will always through our hearts and not through our heads.  Our heads are where all the static is!

By your endurance you will gain your souls. Finally after the four instructions, Jesus concludes with an observation. The spiritual life into becoming Christ, is not about having all the answers, arguments and information, it is about enduring in keeping our hearts open to the mystery of the never ending life of God within us and within the entire Universe. No temple, trend or triumphalist doctrine will stand when the demon of fear comes to steal our souls.