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

Luke 3:7-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Love how? – Easter 6

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I have always loved Occam’s razor. As someone who has sported facial hair since I learned to grow it, I am a relative stranger to razors, but I like Occam’s or Ockham’s one. You see the razor has nothing to do with beards. It has to do with shaving the superfluous from logic and design. Simply put it states “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity). That is why I like it. I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that 14th century Franscican Friar Father William of Ockham was not the first to suggest such a principle. Apparently Ptolemy (90-168 CE) stated “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible” So there is nothing new under the sun.
No matter who said it I like it. “Keep it simple”, I say.

It is interesting then, to discover that in religion there is generally an obsession with obfuscation rather than simplification. The Jewish legal code called the Talmud has two hundred and forty subject headings on which rules are promulgated. The Babylonian version of the Talmud stretches to multiple volumes, and all that developed from Ten Commandments!

How contrasting then, is the teaching of Jesus who condenses religious observance down to one commandment. He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” An Occam delight.

It sounds a simple thing doesn’t it? “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus even explains what that means. The greatest show of love is when someone lays down their life for a friend.

Every time I see this verse inscribed on a war memorial, I experience a wry and angry irony. I mean, it is ironic that our Chaplains in the bush war in Namibia/Angola used to encourage us to do that. To lay down our lives for our country and comrades whilst killing as many people on the other side as we possibly could! Methinks not quite what Jesus had in mind?

Speaking of minds, it is worth noting that the “life” that Jesus refers to being laid down is the Greek word “psuché’ which can be translated in any of these phrases:

  • lay down (or set aside) their heart
  • lay down their mind
  • lay down their soul
  • lay down their being

These ancient words hover at the edge of our modern psuché-logical understanding of human nature don’t they?
Would I be pushing too hard to suggest that a contemporary reading of Jesus’ words would be, “There is no greater unconditional love than when someone gets their ego out of the way for another.”?

As I watch myself going about the church and hanging out with Christians I don’t see a lot of ego’s getting out of the way. In fact I find that in place of setting myself aside for my friends (and enemies) it seems so instinctive to assert MYself, MYpsuché. Speaking of assertiveness…

The buzz these days is all about Generation ME. Yes, I heard that sigh, and I agree that generational analysis is less than helpful when it leads to profiling and stereotyping. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to give a sattelite view of a social grouping.
Gary Schlee has ripped the following headings out of Jean M Twenge’s “Generation Me” which will have to serve to outline Generation ME in bullets. (more here)

  1. Generation Direct
  2. Generation Self-Esteem
  3. Generation Entitlement
  4. Generation Thin-Skin
  5. Generation Dream-the-Impossible-Dream
  6. Generation Get-an-Education
  7. Generation Don’t-Want-To-Be-Bored
  8. Generation It’s-Not-My-Fault
  9. Generation Tough-to-Make-a-Living
  10. Generation Can’t-Change-a-Thing

Now as a boomer parent of Generation ME adults, I accept full responsibility for their attitudes and behaviours (Contra point 8 above!). I wanted to listen to my children rather than raise them as I was raised with, “Children are seen and not heard”. If that indulged them, I accept my culpability. However, I don’t think these dynamics above are exclusive to GenME’s. They are pretty general to modern humans. Check the list again and see.

The reason I am referencing these tendencies is to illustrate how, in every generation, the challenge of Jesus to love unconditionally in ego-heart-mind sacrificing ways, is going to run against the grain of our culture, our context and our conditioning.

All of which thankfully, drives me to pray…

“Lord Jesus, thank you for Ockham’s razor, and thank you for a simple commandment. Would you please cut through my obfuscatory, egotistical, sophistry and transform my heart, mind and life to your resurrected, self-sacrificing life?”