Have you “herd”? – Epiphany 4

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Last week we considered the nine word one-liner sermon that Jesus gave as he sat down after reading from the scroll of Isaiah, in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. This week’s Gospel reading opens with those nine words and continues…
‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”’
So Jesus had clearly finished the formal exposition from the words.
The narrative now continues with Jesus speaking as if he knew what the people were thinking.

It is a common homiletic device. As a Methodist I was weaned on it as John Wesley used it frequently. The preacher verbalizes what they think the audience is thinking. In this case and often for Wesley, it takes the form of objections that may be in the mind of the hearer. “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

Jesus then makes a statement that , “…no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town”, and goes on to illustrate his point by referencing two events. One from the life of Elijah and one from his successor Elisha.
In both stories he points to the fact that God’s favour is not determined nor directed by familial, community or cultural rights of access. Being a home-boy does not give Nazareth special rights of privilege. In fact it would seem that cosmopolitan Capernaum is a preferred site for signs of God’s reign.
It is worth remembering that it was only the other day, in 2007, we crossed a line.  Since then,  for the first time in human history, more people on the planet live in cities than in the country. Before that cities were seen as places of excess and debauchery. Tire, Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah, you can complete your own list, but I think for Nazarenes, Capernaum would be on their list.

This was not what the good homeys of Nazareth wanted to hear. They of all people had rights and claims to this their home-reared son.
Again, in our individualistic, Western, deconstructed nuclear families, we may not feel the tug of clan and community as the culture of Jesus would have exerted it. Those of us in more tribal cultures will have a better grip on this pressure. Imagine club, team, religion, herd, culture, gang; whatever helps to understand that people who share your origins, believe they have rights above others on your talents. Imagine that, and you will have an angle on why the Nazareth congregation became so angry.
One moment they were praising the gracious words, the next they were an angry mob wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff!

Years ago I watched Anthony Quinn pay tribute to Ingrid Bergman. ‘What made Ingrid great’, he said,’is that she was able to see fame and criticism for the impostors they are.‘ Jesus had the gift before Ingrid.

Let’s not forget that in the Gospel record two archetypal events had preceded this preaching in Nazareth.
At his baptism, Jesus had heard from God, just who he really was. “That’s my boy! I am so proud of you
In the wilderness, the shadows of ego, ambition, and power had constelated into a diabolical manifestation called, al-Shaitan= the adversary.  Jesus knowing who he was in God’s sight managed to hold his vocation and vision intact through the forty day ordeal.
Is it any wonder that he was not particularly threatened by some home town good-ole boys who got angry because he wouldn’t dance to their tune?

Christ following is a demanding and ego-threatening enterprise.
Loyalties, connections, cultural nuances, demands, threats, will all be grist to the mill that will sift us like wheat.
We will have to know who we are AND we will have to face the shadow adversaries within us.

So, how did he manage to walk through the “midst of them” and “go on his way“?

My years in conflict mediation have given me a clue.
Some mobs, some crowds, some passionate, vindictively righteous assemblies, can get so enraged, so angry, so violent, so hynotised by their fulminations that truth, light, and Universal Love, are able to depart from amongst them so swiftly they don’t even notice!

Hey! Where did you go?

Paper, rock, scissors: water, Spirit, fire – Baptism of Jesus C

Luke 3:15-22
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. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“Paper, rock, scissors: Water, Spirit, Fire?
Is it a new team selection game? The kind you use on the playground when you have to decide who gets to choose first?
It may sound that way, and it is about making choices, but this is certainly no game.

John the Baptizer had raised the expectations of a nation disillusioned with rote religion. They were weary of a religion that justified and supported the status quo by diplomatic expediency so as to continue operating under the peace of Roman domination, the Pax Romana. People were hungry for justice and freedom. They were looking for a liberating leader and hoped that John was the one.

Those of us who participated in the transition of South Africa from Apartheid to Democracy in the nineteen eighties and nineties, will remember just how volatile and pregnant that longing can be. Ego drives and character assassinations were the dynamics of the day as one leader after another jostled and jockeyed for dominance in the flux of expectation.

Unfortunately there were only a few of the ilk of a Desmond Tutu who could detach their own ego driven greed and say, say as John the Baptist did, “There is another coming.
For South Africa, the coming one was Madiba, known to the world as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who on his release ended the jockeying and led South Africa through a bloodless and miraculous transition.
For Israel, it was Jeshua the Nazarene, or as we know him, Jesus of Nazareth.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The coming one, according to John, was not going to chaff around. He was coming to clear the chaotic threshing floor, where all was dust and trampling. He had a winnowing fork, that would throw it all in the air so that only that with substance and value would fall through and be seen clearly as substantial life-giving grain, whilst the worthless would blow off as fire fuel.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Bathing, washing, ritual cleansing was only the beginning.  John could do that work, just as Desmond Tutu could get South Africa ready, by speech and sanctions and blood-sparing mediation.

However, Breathing, Spirit, In-spiration, that sets the world ablaze with a passion for compassion and justice for all required someone with more to give.

Back in the day, Herod Antipas, chose as unskillfully as his father Herod, who had gone off as the Butcher of Bethlehem and killed all the children under two, to try and stop the coming of the true king. Antipas thought that imprisoning and finally killing John the Baptizer would halt the coming of the king’s reign.
They were both wrong. They chose badly.  They listened only to the voices of their fear, and never (it would seem) heard a voice from above.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Jesus, on the other hand, heard a voice from above that drowned the Gethsemane voices of fear.

Water

Spirit

Fire

Bathe, breathe, burn.

That was the sequence of Jesus’ ministry.
After ritual bathing in baptism, he heard the only words any child needs to hear to be complete as a human being, “That’s my child, my beloved, I am so proud of you!”.

Jesus was ready for the breathing of Spirit every moment as he burnt his life up as an offering for the salvation of all.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

Once you know who you are, beloved child of God, there is nothing that can defeat or hold you. No prison, no power, no political regime.
You are then, as Jesus was, Invictus. You are Invincible.

(This poem, by William Ernest Henley, kept Nelson Mandela sane for twenty seven years on Robben Island)

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Paper, rock, scissors; water, Spirit, fire.

The words from his Parent in heaven, held Jesus, in the three and a half years of his ministry as he poured out his life.

I wonder what will hold me in this year, this life, still unfolding?

In my sane moments I choose to believe that the voice from heaven, speaks to me as it spoke to him, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When I hear it, and the voice of my my fear does not drown it out, I too know I have the potential to be Invictus.

Bathe, Breathe, Burn…

Learning from our children – Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them.
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

I have often been heard to say that being a parent for the past 25 years has taught me more about God’s relationship with humankind, than all the theology books I have read. So when I have the privilege of this Lukan window into the world of Mary and Joseph’s parenting of Jesus, I am delighted to see that they had to learn similar lessons to mine.

It was the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, in The Prophet, who first alerted me to the fact that, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Over the past twenty five years I have learnt the truth of this saying as I have not tried to be my sons’, controller, dictator, policeman, moralist, publicist nor garbage disposal unit.
In fact learning to be, not the perfect parent, just the Good Enough Parent, is what taught me so much about God’s parenting.

Mary and Joseph begin their school of Good Enough parenting, by learning the following lessons.

  • Children are never really lost.
  • Children find their true home despite us.

Children are never really lost, they are just on their own path.


There is a parable for me in the way that Mary and Joseph set off back home and travel a whole day with the assumption that Jesus is tagging along.

I feel their discovery of his absence viscerally, for as a parent I know how it is to wake up to the fact that my children are under no obligation to follow the path that I have chosen for myself. I remember the awakening to how I simply assumed that they, and every other rational being on the planet should emulate my path, my values and my way of looking at the world.
I also resonate with the shame, blame,game that Mary tries to lay on Jesus when he is found in the temple. Even down to the way she tries to triangulate Joseph onto her side of the power play!
Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.

Such a familiar scene. Or is my family the only one who played those games?
Remember the old relationship training adage, “Never assume. It only makes an ASS of U and ME!”

Please don’t hear me suggesting that parenting does not involve the formation of young lives. Of course it does! What I am suggesting from the lesson of Mary and Joseph, however, is that this formation must be done with deep respect and discernment for the destiny that our children’s Heavenly Parent has for them.

Chances are, that their destiny will be different from our own and may even be radically different from the plans that we may have made for our children.

I have had too many counselling conversations with distraught, damaged and depressed adults and adolescents who have been made to feel less than adequate for having “let their parents down“.

To any of us who may feel that way, let me remind us that in this passage Jesus also “let his parents down“, and not too gently either.

Can we begin to pray to be “let down” from our lofty delusions of how perfect and conforming our children should be?

They may not need to follow us back to Nazareth. It doesn’t mean they are lost. They are simply finding their own destined home, often closer to God’s heart than we are!

Which is really the core of the second lesson the Holy Family learnt.

Children find their true home despite us.

I have never been able to get my head around the notion of predestination. The idea that God has it all planned and determined from before our birth is offensive and mechanistic for me. Parenting has taught me the impossibility of predestination.

The amazing grace of a relationship with children who are not forced nor manipulated into loving one as the parent, and who do it nonetheless is one of the most profound human experiences. I hope I am never in a relationship where I feel I have to love someone simply because I was told, or required or determined to do so. Such a relationship would be an experience of deep oppression.

Yet, having said that I also know that despite the twists and vagaries of this precious human existence, there is a deep perfection at the heart of the created order. I know it sounds contradictory to human freedom and self determination. I also know that I cannot say it to another human being.

For example to say to my friend who is getting divorced as I write this, or to a congregation member who is grieving deeply years after their child was killed in an accident; “It’s all perfect”, would be scandalous and rude.
Yet somehow when I look at my own life, the past, the present, the pain the joy, the mistakes the success. In all of these I can say, in faith and with reference to my own life alone, “It’s all perfect”

It’s a faith response. It’s a chosen way of viewing my reality. It gives me deep peace.
Is it predestination?

Dear Lord, No!

It is integration.

Mary and Joseph, despite their mistaken assumptions, errors of judgement and anxiety, could also come away from the temple encounter with Jesus with a sense of deep peace, knowing that it was all perfect.
Parenting has taught me to trust the universal and unconditional providence of God, even when terrible and traumatic events tear at my sanity.

It’s all comes home to God.

Didn’t I know that we all need to be in our Father’s house?