Can you feel the gut wrenching care?- Mark 6:30-56 Ordinary 16b

Mark 6:30-56

30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things
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53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

As one who has a strong vocational call to solitude and who, at the same time, has spent over thirty years in active pastoral ministry, I feel the tensions of  this passage in my bones.
Jesus and his disciples yearning for retreat, simultaneously seeing the need of the crowd.
How does one balance the tension?
The clue is in the text, but first let me enumerate a few unhelpful responses that I see in the modern church.

The first is professional walling.
I am always deeply disappointed when the first words I hear out of preacher’s mouth when they come to a new congregation are, “My day off is on a Friday!”. By all means take your time off, but don’t make that your first priority! If I read the story correctly, Jesus didn’t. There was something else that gave priority (see the word “prior” in priority?)

The second is avoidance masked as delegation. I am all for mobilizing the laity and every member ministry, but all these systems lose some of their authenticity when clergy use them as an excuse to never engage emotionally with suffering.
By the way this flows the other way too. I am amused at how often I am called by people not even in the congregation and told where a homeless person is to be found. By telling me, the caller thinks they have discharged their duty to care for the person. Let the professional handle it!

So what is it that drives the discernment of Jesus? How does he manage to put the retreat on hold and care for the crowd first?
Well I did say the clue was in the text, it is in verse thirty four.

The giveaway is that marvelously rich greek word σπλαγχνίζομαι (splanchnizomai). You can’t really say it without blasting your sinuses clear!
It is a visceral word, that roots in the sphinctal regions of the bowel. It literally means to feel in the gut.

If we are to have any hope of showing Jesus to the suffering, we are going to have to allow the pain of the world to move us in the core of our being. Simply thinking, intellectualising and theorising in our heads will not do.

This is job for the gut not the nut.

When last did the suffering of humanity feel like a punch in the solar plexus? That is how Jesus felt it. It’s hard to run away on retreat when you have been impacted like that.

Oh I forgot to mention. I am on leave so if you need ministry please call the church (and only during office hours)

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.

Digging down to healthy understanding

Mark 2:1-12

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

I can hear the seventies Hippie preacher in his tie-dye T-shirt, bell bottom hipsters and Jesus sandals, “Hey man this story of Jesus is way cool, can you DIG it?”  (Ahem. Sorry I just couldn’t resist.)

It is as well known a gospel story as any can be, and the subject of a thousand Sunday school lessons.

The challenging question now is, “What can it possibly say today?”

As I take a fresh look at the passage, with what my Zen friends refer to as “Beginner’s mind”, three aspects of the story dig their way through the ceiling of my thoughts that want to say, “Oh I know what this story is about.”

I am struck firstly by the insight of those determined friends who know instinctively, that health is related to proximity to Jesus.

Please don’t hear me saying the manipulative nonsense of the televangelist, “Come to Jesus and you will be healed”.  That, we all know, cannot be guaranteed.

Following Jesus is not a formulary of positive outcomes.  No.

I am suggesting however, that the health and well being of humans; physical, emotional, and spiritual; is affected by proximity to Jesus.  I suppose it has to do with orientation and focus.  Being close to Jesus is not stress free. (God knows the route passes through Golgotha!)  Yet, being close to Jesus does orient me to a compassionate, open-hearted, generous, non-aquisitive, joyful, lightness of being with regard to life, in all it’s material forms. I tend to lose that when I get too far away from him and his gospel values.  Human health is enhanced in proximity to Jesus.

Linked to the first insight, the story of the burrowing friends of Jesus also reveals that despite all our Christian iconography, there are times when we discover that Jesus is below us and not above.

Those who visit The Listening Hermit regularly will know that I am greatly helped by the insights of Jungian depth psychology, which I believe, gives us a range of metaphors for third millennial communication of the Jesus message.

Depth Psychology“. That really is my whole point.

In our heady and lofty intellectual culture, it is all too easy to assume that Jesus, the incarnate God is wafting above us.  Yet, in-carnation, is a visceral, meaty notion, that sometimes requires digging rather than flying, when a spade is of more use than Red Bull wings.

A friend of mine is a worm farmer.  There is something mesmeric about watching these primitive life forms still going about their million year old lifestyles of recycling crap into fecund soil.  The miracle of the Capernaum roof diggers is a story of depth and dirt, and not a lofty ideological mind flight.

Sometimes Jesus is not above us, but below.

The final insight my beginner’s mind was lowered into as I descended through that old roof, wasn’t really an insight as much as a jogging of my memory.  As the bed hit the dirt floor in front of Jesus and I heard him say, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”, I suddenly remembered that Paul Tillich had the insight that in that moment Jesus wasn’t forgiving the sins of the paralysed one, he was proclaiming that in the sight of God the man was sinless.

A quick history detour may be in order.

In Jesus day, (and more subtly in ours), religion proclaimed that human suffering was the consequence of human failure. Sufferers had done something very wrong to slight God or at least upset the balance of the rules of prosperity.  To be sick or invalid was to have broken the rules.

This gospel story underlines that Jesus didn’t have to forgive sins. He simply had to point out that God wasn’t offended by humanity. (Another way of understanding “Your sins are forgiven“)

Grasping that, “Digging that” I am not an offense to God neither am I an offender, was such a liberation that often the perceived penalty would disappear as the perceived offence was annulled.  Healing happened.

The idea that we as humans have somehow deeply offended our Loving parent is the really offensive notion that has held the Church, and Christians, captive and paralysed for millenia.

Isn’t it time we blew the roof off that lie and walked out of the prisons of our fearful dogma?

Let the Pharisees mutter about protocol and precedent, Jesus has seen our trust in liberating truth.

Do you know, I would dig through the roof of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome if I could get this truth to Wikileaks?

Warning: Jesus is Contagious!

Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity,(or other authorities read anger) Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy* left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

A cursory reading of the footnotes for this text in any bible reveals the need for some “translation of the translation” if we are going to access the text in our 2012 contexts.

We know nothing about lepers.
Truth be told, it is unlikely that the disease we associate with leprosy is the disease refered to in the biblical text.  The leprosy we know probably only came to the middle east from India after bible times. In Bible times “leprosy” which literally means scaly or rough refered to any skin disease like psoriasis, acne, or boils. In a pre-scientific time, the fear of contagion would have made people reluctant to have contact with anything which may have caused them to suffer or even be excluded for society.
It may be useful in our context to return to the literal words of rough and scaly as referring to the people we cast out from our circles of acceptance and avoid contact with. I am sure most of us have rough and scaly relatives, right inside our families we would want to avoid contact with.

I will leave you to make your own two lists…

1. Rough and Scaly people I personally choose to avoid.

2. Rough and Scaly people that the church should avoid.

The texts show Jesus moved with emotion (the majority say pity but others say anger). I quite like the choice. In fact I can even picture Jesus feeling pity for the rough and scaly outcast and anger at the society that marginalised him.
It would be a good balance for modern day Christ followers to keep, don’t you think? Can we be prophetically angry at the structural violence that crushes people and groups, whilst keeping our hearts open with compassion for the sufferers?

Another aspect of the passage that bears explaining is this continual demand for secrecy by Jesus. There are many theories since the first advanced by William Wrede in 1901. You can read them here. For sake of simple proclamation this Sunday, it seems most likely that Jesus wanted to avoid celebrity so as to move about freely.
We should never forget that he was in the North because he couldn’t be in the South. The gruesome death of John the Baptizer at the hands of Herod down South was the reason for Jesus being in Galilee. So some secrecy might have been a matter of security

Despite the above, I also affirm the theory that in the understanding of Jesus, the notion of Messiah had become distorted by the political expectations and yearnings of oppressed people. Jesus didn’t want to become a Messiah of the Popular Mould. He needed time to show who the Suffering Servant was. That would only be completed when he showed the depths of his love in death.
Again a modern context question arises.  Do I trust Jesus to be himself as I follow him or do I want hime to fit my preconceived mould I have cast for him?

Finally, I love how effective the attempt at silencing the healed leper is!
For all the best reasons for secrecy which we have considered above, there is something Jesus has underestimated.
He hasn’t reckoned in the power of effervescent witness from those who have been touched by God! There is just no silencing the babble of blessed ones. As Don Fransciso made famous in his song, “I gotta tell somebody, what Jesus did for me!”

Could it be that the church is dying today as it is, because we have protected ourselves from the possibility of the healing encounters that might happen if some rough and scaly people got close enough to Jesus?
Our sanctuaries and our sacraments are sanitised and leprosy free.
Rough and scaly people are just not welcome.
So instead of effervescent witness there is sterile silence.
Sad really…

Channeling God -Advent 2b

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
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.”

I love words. That is why I write. Words have so many layers. They come from other words, they dance, they cascade, they evoke. Words are wonderful.
Language is such a living thing. It emerges from our primordial past. Like our genes, words carry codes that we have forgotten or were never aware of. Words carry their own grammatic history within themselves. It is an alpha-helix called etymology.
Examining the etymology of a word like etymology is a fascinating exercise. You might want to try it right now. Open Google and type etymology of etymology.
Now click the first link Google serves. You should get…
late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from O.Fr. et(h)imologie (14c., Mod.Fr. étymologie), from L. etymologia, from Gk. etymologia, properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” from etymon “true sense” (neut. of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true”) + -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy). In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium. As a branch of linguistic science, from 1640s. Related: Etymological; etymologically.

Now I don’t know about you but that excites me.

Dictionaries are like microscopes. They let us examine words. They place the word on a slide and shine a light from underneath and suddenly we see a wonderland in the word. If you are able to crossover between languages it becomes even more fun.
Words are like families too. They have genealogies.
If you begin to track English words eymologically (hey that’s the word that ended the search we just did!) you will discover that most English words are descended from Latin, Greek, French and perhaps some Germanic Saxon as a catalyst.
When I began to play with the words in this Gospel for the Second Sunday in Advent I notice that Isaiah’s quoted prophecy has for the word of the Lord, “I am sending ” the Greek word appostello. Now you don’t have to be a Greek pundit to know that appostelo is the word from which we trace our word Apostle. Apostles are thos who are sent. They are emissaries. So in the Gospel the writer of Mark quotes Isaiah as saying “God is sending,…” Sending whom?

Well here is the next bit of microscope word fun. The word for messenger that we English readers see in the text is the Greek word angelon. Again you can see that it’s the word we derive “angel” from. So angels are messengers. In fact one could say they are “messengers who are sent” or apostolic angels.

These apostolic angels are to prepare the way of the Lord in the Wilderness
Another translation could be “equip a channel in the eremetic desert for God to pass along”

Now it is when playing like this with the words of a passage, that one is able to come to some interesting insights.
We who know this story well, know that it refers to the work of John the Baptist. He is the divinely appointed and sent one who prepares the way for Jesus.
But if the apostolically sent messenger angel is the one who equips a channel for God.(Please excuse the redundancy but I needed to hold the concepts in parallel) Then we are all potential John the Baptisers.

We are all sent to prepare channels for God.
Is it too much of a leap to suggest that the Christ follower is the one who is divinely charged to channel God in a bleak world?
Maybe our New Age friends have something worth considering on this score?

Who put the “i” in Surprise? – Advent 1b

Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

There can be no doubt that the gospel is full of surprises.
There is the surprise of finding the Divine domain. It is a surprise treasure buried in a field that the pilgrim trips over and then goes and sells everything to possess. It is a pearl of great price that a merchant finds in a market and then gives all he has to own it. It is the surprising (not so much for us bur certainly for Bronze age people) action of the yeast that makes a batch of bread dough rise, that makes the seed grow silently, that can take an immeasurably minute mustard seed and grow it into a large bush in which birds can nest. The Kingdom of God is a surprise. Gerard Hughes was correct when he entitled his book, “God of Surprises”

There another kind of surprise in the gospels. It is less organic and natural. It is also somewhat sinister.

It is the surprise of the returning Master, Lord, Landowner, King, Son of Man. It has an energy akin to a police swoop or a special forces raid. It is the thief that breaks in when you least expect it. It is a way of presenting Jesus that modern New Testament scholarship recognises probably did come as the core of what Jesus atually taught and may in fact be the longings and projections of a later, suffering and apocalytically hopeful early church.

As a preacher I have to be something of an octopus. Gone are the days when I could listen to Karl Barth and have the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other as I preached. As a pastor now, I have to have the eBible open on one desktop with Textweek in a parallel window, Google reader open on another, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TED all waiting. I have to be up to speed on the emails and text messages coming in about pastoral needs, The Spreadsheet relflecting the church financials needs to be up to date and I still have to download the MP3’s for worship and get the PowerPoint for the sermon done.

I can truly say that I am ready, or at least my Tablet, Broadband and Mobile are. The question is will I really be surprised?
There is so little that surprises us today doesn’t it? Hubble and CERN, Google and the Genome, Jasmine revolutions, Tsunamis, quakes and tremors it’s all quite pas sé. To coin a phrase, we have “seen” there and done that. So I am not sure that a little apocalyptic action as described in today’s gospel will actually get our adrenalin pumping.

It is however this imperviousness to be surprised that is our achilles heel. For just when it seems that we have it all sorted on the outside and the world materiel is managed and measured, the inner world of dark depression and ennui infect our innards and leave us in what Ken Wilber has named Flatland.
It is then that we are ready for the Divine Domain’s real encounter.
It is not an extravaganza. It is quite boringly simple.
It doesn’t need any equipment created by that wonderful Jobs man and that has an “i” in front of it.
In fact as Martin Buber pointed out it is not the “i” in iGadget it is the “Thou” in O.M.G. that makes for a relationship of WOW and wonder.

It is is with the eye of the heart that we can rediscover the surprise of the divine domain which the mystics have always been able to glimpse even though they may not fully have grasped what they saw.

So excuse me if I don’t get all fear fired up with Apocalyptic fervour, I happen to have seen the Son of Man coming in the clouds when I watched the sunrise this morning.
Oh b.t.w. I was really , and not virtually there.

Mazeltov! You are suffering! – All Saints

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I suppose it is somehow significant that since my sublime school days I have seemed a sucker for alliteration.
What is it in the way those similar sounding consonants cascade that makes them most memorable?
It also seems an easy way to get people to remember things. I will often be asked, “What was the third “P” in your sermon last Sunday?”

So forgive me if in my digging over of the text of the gospel for All Saints, I was intrigued by the alliteration in the Greek text of the Beatitudes.
According to the classic Matthew five text, Jesus says to the disciples who come to him when he has sat down on some raised ground, “Blessed are the…

Ptochoi (poor), Penthountes (grieving), Praeis (meek/humble), Peinontes (hungry)

More modern translators suggest Makarioi not be translated “Blessed” but rather that “Congratulations!” would be more in order. Who knows perhaps in the spoken moment it might have been “Mazeltov” that came from the Rabbi’s mouth?
Also quite recently (a decade ago), the Jesus 2000 Seminar decided that the most authentic core of this teaching is probably “Congratulations, you poor!… Congratulations, you hungry!… Congratulations, you who weep now!…”
Congratulations? Blessedness? You must be joking!
These are the very conditions that evoke commiserations. To congratulate poor, hungry, grieving people is surely only to mock them? It is an affront to all that is decent and polite.
Yet that seems to be what Jesus says. What could he possibly know that we can’t see, which makes him say something so counter intuitive?
Is it possible that Jesus knows what Buddhists have also observed? That acknowledging sufering can lead to a place where suffering can end. In the life of the Gautama Buddha he experienced old age, sickness and death as what he later named, “the heavenly messengers“. Those confrontations with the less than perfect events of life which, if skilfully understood and held, may in fact lead to a perfection far greater than the false perfection that we focus on so obsessively in trying to avoid suffering at all costs.
Congratulations! Mazeltov! You who are experiencing the anguish of humanity stand at the doorway of God’s domain.
Step inside your frailty and you will find a greater freedom and perfection than any avoidance behaviour can promise.

  • Ptochoi
  • Penthountes
  • Praeis
  • Peinontes

Why, that might just be perfectly liberating!
All the Saints I have ever known or read about knew this secret.

Now you do too.

Breathe Forest Breathe!!! Season of Creation 1

Genesis 2

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Psalm 1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
 but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.
 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

John 3:1-17

3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I remember an old sports chant from my school days. It went:

“We shall, we shall, we shall not be moved; we shall, we shall, we shall not be moved.
 Just like a tree that stands by the water side, we shall not be moved”

Despite growing up in the church and going to Sunday school it was only years later that I discovered that the lines come from Psalm 1 that we have just read.
Jeremiah that great prophet of Israel picked up the image in Jeremiah 17 when he wrote:

5Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. 9The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse— who can understand it? 10I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

It would be a sheer nonsense to assume that the ancients knew the vital role that trees play in the ecology of the planet. They could not have known that rain forests produce forty percent of the planet’s oxygen. That did not keep them from appreciating that in a tree they were seeing something magnificent and mysterious. That is why the tree becomes the archetypal image of the creation, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That image of the tree remains throughout scripture. Jesus himself is the one who is lifted up on the tree. The cross becomes the tree of life in the mystical insights of the early Christians. The tree is there right at the end of the book of Revelation in chapter 22:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

It has fallen to us who know the role of forests and trees in the life of our planet to deepen the image of the tree of life by realising the profound link between the tree, the forest and the breath of life. Every tree that breathes assists us to rehabilitate our messy carbon footprints.
Every tree is thus a tree of life.
I have only recently been blessed to encounter a deep insight from that great Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr. He tells of attending a lecture by Jewish Rabbi who is also a physicist. The Rabbi was speaking about the name of God:

“You know, you Christians, never really understood the meaning of the commandment to not take the name of God in vain, you seem to think that it means you shouldn’t say ‘God Damn you’. It isn’t very nice to say and I hope you don’t say it to anyone, but it doesn’t even come close to the meaning of the commandment. Vannas, or emptiness, to speak in vain, to speak with emptiness, is in fact to speak the name at all.” When you use the name God, don’t use it, don’t speak it, because you think you will know what you are talking about and you don’t. It’s always mystery. It’s always beyond, beyond, beyond, and any box you build will be too small of a box. Wow. Now I knew, and I’m sure you’ve been told, but we don’t know for how many centuries this was strictly followed. But we do know for a certain amount of time it was followed and that is, we never spoke with our lips the sacred name Yahweh and it was during that period that the word elohim and adoni because the sacred name was never to be spoken.

Then he went on and he said if any of you studied Hebrew, you know this is true, but when you write Hebrew, all you write are the consonants and what it means to be an educated Jew, is that your eye automatically fills in the appropriate vowels and there are four consonants in the sacred name Yahweh, and he said, “Did you know that those consonants if correctly pronounced do not allow you to close your lips or use your tongue”. In fact the reason the name could not be spoken is it could only be breathed, in fact the sacred name Yahweh was an attempt to imitate and replicate the sound of inhalation and exhalation. TheRabbi then breathed in and out about 30 times in this crowd of PhDs! But at the end of it I heard sobbing in the room, that people got it. God is as available as the breath, the air, the wind and the words are the same in many languages. Ironically, paradoxically, truthfully, was there some intuition here? The one thing you have done since you came out of your mother’s body is take in that breath and put it out, and you are doing it now. It’s the only constant, along with the beating of the heart. The beating of the heart starts even before. Breathing is uniquely the phenomenon of this world and of course that moment comes, and we’ll all be there one day, and we’ll take in that breath for the last time. This could change your life, it can certainly change your prayer life. Because now you know that prayer is not something so much you do it’s something that’s done to you. You allow it. You say yes to it. You bring it to consciousness. You bring it to awareness. You awaken to the mystery and the miracle that is happening around you, within you and through you, all the time.”

The breathing forests, the breathing land, the breathing wilderness, the breathing rivers, all living creatures are praying the name of their Creator.
I don’t know about you, but knowing this takes my breath away!

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!

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.