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.

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

Mark 6:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

Meat, rice and two veg.

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

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

So he sent his disciples elsewhere.

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

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

Proclaim radical change to everyone.

They did, and the kingdom grew and grew.

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

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

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

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

See how they line up with the Gospel this Sunday?

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

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

Works for me.

Are we ready for recovery?

Was Jesus bipolar? Lent 1b

Mark 1:9-15
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I am interested to see how the distinction of “bipolar” has become so prevalent in our label loving society. Every second person I meet, particularly the creative ones, have had this albatros of being “bi-polar” hung on their neck.

Perhaps, after today’s gospel reading, we would want to label Jesus bipolar too?
A look at the early events of his ministry would suggest quite a roller coaster of emotions for the young rabbi starting his public life.

At the Jordan river, such a watershed symbol for Israel, he is baptised by a reluctant John and for his obedience Jesus is rewarded by a “torn open”(the Greek is schizo) heaven out of which a dove, (the covenantal bird which bears hopeful news to Noah that God has saved the earth) descends upon him and he hears a voice affirming him as the beloved and approved of son of the Father in the heavens.

Now that, my friends is a high, if ever there was one!

To hear the affirmation of one’s parent, the lifelong craving of every human life; and to experience the approbation of the divine upon our path is the best that life can be. It was so for Jesus on the banks of the Jordan that day.

But immediately,(Mark’s oft-used term euthus=directly) the Ruach-Pneuma life-breath of God literally cast him into the eremitical wilderness (Greek=ereimos) and the two poles of the swing are determined.

  • From river to desert
  • From community to solitude
  • From affirming Father to cynical Devil
  • From clear observance (Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness Mt3:15) to doubting where to go next.
Apart from being crucified and abandoned I guess that’s as low as one can get?

Yet, even in the turmoil of the solitary search for direction, there is this powerful contrast in the phrase, “Wild Beasts and Angels“. It is almost tailor made for another Dan Brown novel? Perhaps not, but it is the truth about our path as we follow Jesus.

Along the path of every Christ follower there will times of clear and visionary certitude. The affirmation of God’s presence, Gods’ calling and God’s endorsement of our lives.

Yet just as surely as water evaporates in the sun, times will come where the clarity, the conviction and the consolation of the high moments will have gone and only the snarls of the wild beasts and the whisper of our chilling doubts will be there for company in the badlands of our arid, eremitical souls.

Helpful to know then that the diaconic angels will also be there ministering (Greek=diakoneo) to us.

Does this contrasting, pendular life of consolation and desolation make us bipolar?

Heavens no! By Jesus, it makes us human!

May it be well with you as we follow Jesus through the Lenten wilderness.

Particles in the Cosmic Crib – Christ Mass Day

Harry's Cosmic Milk Bottle

John 1:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

There is a spine chilling moment in Goethe’s Faust where Faust, the dry as dust academic in mid life, begins the play by bewailing:

Ah! Now I’ve done Philosophy,
I’ve finished Law and Medicine,
And sadly even Theology:
Taken fierce pains, from end to end.
Now here I am, a fool for sure!
No wiser than I was before:
Master, Doctor’s what they call me,
And I’ve been ten years, already,
Crosswise, arcing, to and fro,
Leading my students by the nose,
And see that we can know – nothing!
It almost sets my heart burning.
I’m cleverer than all these teachers,
Doctors, Masters, scribes, preachers:
I’m not plagued by doubt or scruple,
Scared by neither Hell nor Devil –
Instead all Joy is snatched away,
What’s worth knowing, I can’t say,
I can’t say what I should teach
To make men better or convert each.
And then I’ve neither goods nor gold,
No worldly honour, or splendour hold:
Not even a dog would play this part!

In desperation Faust decides to rewrite his life and begins with the Gospel of John:

It’s written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Word!’
Here I stick already! Who can help me? It’s absurd,
Impossible, for me to rate the word so highly
I must try to say it differently
If I’m truly inspired by the Spirit. I find
I’ve written here: ‘In the Beginning was the Mind’.
Let me consider that first sentence,
So my pen won’t run on in advance!
Is it Mind that works and creates what’s ours?
It should say: ‘In the beginning was the Power!’
Yet even while I write the words down,
I’m warned: I’m no closer with these I’ve found.
The Spirit helps me! I have it now, intact.
And firmly write: ‘In the Beginning was the Act!’

(Goethe’s Faust Scene I &III)

At that very moment Mephistopheles the embodiment of evil, the shadow, the devil that stalks every one of us, enters the room disguised as a poodle (the very dog that Faust said wouldn’t play his part), and the game is on.  Faust will live on trying to integrate all of his being in what remains of the second half of his life that he has extended in a bargain with the devil.  All the time Faust is aware that if he fails, he stands to lose his soul.  It is a dark deal.  We know it well.  We have made in myriad ways ourselves.

Robert Johnson that great explorer of the Golden world of the unconscious mind has described Faust as, “… one of the great statements of optimism, hope, and redemption in Western Literature” (Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness. Johnson, Harper Collins.1991)

It would seem that the dilemma of modern humans is that, like tired Faust, we have become sceptical of words, God knows, we have produced enough of them! (This from WordPress as I write “The best of 388,445 bloggers, 608,093 new posts, 352,786 comments, & 126,353,072 words posted today on WordPress.com.”)

We also have become doubtful of the ability to act in any way that will significantly integrate and heal the world through words or even deeds.

Like Faust we come on this Christ Mass day tired of words, and exhausted from our many acts. We drag ourselves away from Turkeys and Tinsel, Egg Nog and Alka-Seltzers and stumble into church not really expecting anything to happen here that will help or change anything.

We tell ourselves we have come for the children. That they should remember “the reason for the season,”. Now there is a hackneyed cliché if ever there was! Ho Ho Ho! I know of families where children are not permitted to open presents until they have been to church. What a terrible conditional religion!

So here we sit, exactly where we sat last year, and all the Gospel seems to have to offer is more words about Word. Every fibre of our exhausted minds wants to scream with Eliza Doolittle who in My Fair Lady sang, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; first from him, now from you!

Do we want to rewrite things like Faust, In the beginning was the Mind, the Power, the Act?

Yet, what if we could get behind our verbage strewn present into the mind of the Gospel writer in his Hellenistic world we may discover that when he said Word(Logos), he didn’t mean the empty shells we have come to see words as, but rather understood that Mind, Power, Act and more were contained in that Logos that the Greek philosophers believed was the very core of Being in the Universe?  The Word John writes of here is not an exhausted collection of letters, it is the very core of existence.  Word(Logos) for the Greek mind was what the Higgs-Bosun (God Particle) is for ours

Could we perhaps attempt a modern day Faustian re-translation and say “In the beginning was the Life Energy”?

If we do we might get close to an understanding that enables us to take the truth of our religion into the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and say, “Here is God’s manger” and at the same time, fly up to Hubble’s lens and sensors and say, “Look as far as you can, and you are seeing just the interior of God’s Cosmic crib”

Like you, and Eliza, I am nauseated by the surfeit of words.  So I need to stop this flow which is probably only adding to my toxic verbal footprint.
I will try to be succinct.

  • Imagine the biggest and smallest manifestations of life energy that you can.
  • Now imagine all of that appearing in the magic and mystery of a vulnerable human life.
  • Get that, and you get the greatest gift of the Christ Mass.

“The Life Energy of the Universe, became flesh just like us and camped out amongst us”

Faust spent his final years in simple joy, not writing, seldom speaking, merely reclaiming land from the sea. May all of us who come home to the indwelling Christ Word do the same.

Merry Christmas.

Just say, “Yes. Let it be…”

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by processes. Perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up in gold mining towns where the headgear wheels were spinning, the metalurgical plant was roaring, and the tailings were clattering onto the waste dump. There was always something going on. Gold was coming out of the depths of the earth. Rich ore was graded as containing fourteen milligrams per ton of rock milled. Small returns for a lot of efffort. Yet gold, that elusive beguiling metal, was at one time the backbone of South Africa’s economy.

So I find processes, mining, metallurgical or monetary altogether fascinating.

As I read the Annunciation Gospel for this fourth Sunday of Advent, I discern a process in the unfolding of Mary’s story. For the past two weeks we have contemplated John the Baptizer as that archetype of the Christ follower. This week the other archetypal Christian Mary asks for our attention.

Where John was all barren wildness, Mary is innocence in encounter with the Creative Life of the Universe we call God. Here Incarnation happens and “the dwelling place of God is with people”.
How does it happen?
There is no earth shattering explosions underground, no pounding and grinding of great mills, not even the fiery furnace of the alchemical gold extraction and pouring in the smelt house.
There is only a simple peasant girl saying, “yes” to an outrageous idea from God.

The Annunciation-Incarnation process seems to unfold in five stages for Mary:

  1. Comfort. “Do not be afraid.”
  2. Assurance. “You have found favour with God,”
  3. Annunciation of the plan. “You are going to conceive and birth a God-child”
  4. Questioning doubt. “How can this be?”
  5. Agreement to partnership. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

It strikes me that this process is archetypal for us who are invited into the Divine Domain, the Kingdom of God.

We begin by experiencing the comfort of God when God shows up disguised as our life. In the dark night, the fearful storm, the empty wilderness, God shows up and Consoles us. “Do not be afraid” I suppose it is outrageous of me to ask at what point Mary conceived? Was it before, during or directly after the messenger visited? I wonder if it matters? God showed up.

The next step in our Incarnating of God process is the Assurance that whatever has happened, is happening now, and is going to happen, is all in the presence and providence of God. We all have found favour with God, we know the favour because we sense our part of the plan. The worst hell possible to a human being is not to know that there is a favourable destiny to our lives.

The third step is the Announcing of the Plan. It is only at this third point in the process that we note that Mary has a specific and unique plan. Ours will be different, but the process remains the same. The plan is announced and revealed and we see the possibilities.

The inevitable fourth step of Questioning doubt is essential and inevitable. Any deep encounter with the mystery of God must leave us incredulous and asking, “How can this be?” Beware of any scheme or plan that is announced to you by messengers claiming to be from God and who won’t allow you to ask that question, or any other questions. The church is littered with the wrecks of deluded egos who claimed to be speaking for God, would not allow any doubt or questioning, and were later revealed to be nothing more than manipulators and controllers.

Having got through the fourth and challenging stage of Questioning doubt we then stand with Mary on the edge of mystery and miracle. All that remains is the “Let it be” This is the ultimate wording for an Agreement to partnership with God and Life

Great song it was by John Lennon, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be. Let it be…'” John Lennon was not an obvious Christ follower, but he knew enough to know that Mary would know what to do in “times of trouble”
“Let it be”

It is the moment when Annunciation becomes Incarnation.
It is a process which was Mary’s but which is open to us all.
It is the way that God keeps being born into this world.
Just say ,”Yes. Let it be”

In all the years of my ministry, I have served the Divine Domain best when I have allowed this Annunciation-Incarnation process to flow. “Yes, Let is be…”

There is gold and God in those words.

Every time I have said, “No. The rules say…” I have hurt others and myself and sensed the thwarting of what God might have been wanting to do, if I had only said yes. It is perhaps the greatest curse on ministers in denominations that we are expected to serve both the Incarnating Life of God, and to keep the rules of the church. As if those two were in any way aligned and symbiotic?

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.

The Feast of Christ the Comrade (Christ the King/Reign of Christ A)

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I am sure it has been done, but as I think of Christ the King this Sunday, I am intrigued to look at Jesus in a category beyond the traditional Jesus of Nazareth and History and the Christ of Doctrine and Faith. There is another character in this process that I would want to call Jesus the Brother and Guide, Jesus the Comrade.
As Theology has evolved in the past few decades, we have come to an understanding which goes beyond the search for the Historical Jesus.  This Jesus of history keeps eluding  us  despite the best efforts of scholars, including the work of the Jesus Seminar.
There is also, I suggest, a need for something more experiential than the Christ of Doctrine and Faith, the Christ of the catechism or confirmation class.

More and more people are suspicious of formulaic creeds and requisite confessions of faith as the conduits of their spiritual relationships. I suppose if we had been aware of where we were going as a theological community in the seventies and eighties, we would have interpreted the shift of the Liberation Theologians from Orthodoxy (correct beliefs) to Orthopraxis (correct practices) as the harbinger of the shift that I have just described.  We need more insight into Jesus beyond history and doctrine. This is the reason for my appeal for a third dimension to this hologram of Jesus, namely the Jesus of Experience, the Jesus as Brother and Guide.  Jesus the Comrade.

Without seeming to be a survivalist, I do think the church, as always, is failing to read the writing that has been on the wall for some time. People in the West are finding it more and more difficult to access the Jesus of the literalist who speaks in red letter quotations in their King James Version bibles. More and more thinking people who are awash with information from the new “river of life”, the internet; are saying of the holy books, “How did that come to be written as it is?” The answers are no longer hidden in the Old Boys clubs of Divinity Libraries, you can read it for yourself on Wikipedia.
Similarly the question is raised about the creeds that for generations have been the unquestioned bastions of belief. “Who said so?” say we post-moderns and all the resisting and crook and mitre rattling in the world, is not going to reconstruct what has been deconstructed.

One of the most delicious things I heard Richard Rohr say in Cape Town last year was, in response to a question from a Reformed minister as to how he coped with being a free thinking priest in the Roman Catholic Church? Richard responded, “When a structure is collapsing you don’t have to push it.” When the laughter died down, he continued, “In fact, you shouldn’t even touch it, lest you be hit by the oppositional energy that is propping it up” (I am quoting from oral memory here so may not have the “red letter” version of the saying).
All this stuff and nonsense from an largely irelevant church trying to lord it over the people with dogma and decrees is at best sad, and at worst insulting! It only serves to afford the ever Evangelical Richard Dawkins with a caricature of what a person of faith looks like.
A luddite and a laggard, too frightened to read and too stubborn to really think!

It is time that thinking people who follow Jesus say to those who choose to represent them, in this way,”No!”
To speak to the singular, free thinking, non-aligned and consequently, quite lonely people of today, we who have the task of communicating Good News will have to do better than quoting the Bible and Patristics! (even Matristics may not be enough)

I am not so convinced that ending the Christian Year by an appeal to Christus Pantocrator, or Christ the King is that skilful or even relevant.
People today find Kings and Queens quaint. Royals are at best wonderful distractions and when they plant trees up the aisles of Wesminster Cathedral they get a giggle, but they are not going to save us in from the terrors of the night and the toppling of all that we believed would be there forever.
That is why I am appealing for a new look at this Jesus. Not Jesus the King but Jesus the Comrade.

You see the King (or Queen- except the one from “the Village” or Soho…[if you don’t get it Dora, don’t worry just read on]) Ahem, let me start again.
The Monarch, is the one who sends you into battle, who commands and demands your loyalty without ever really standing with you and alongside you. Kings have blood on their hands but it isn’t theirs. This righteous, judgemental monarch, how does he in any way resemble the Jesus whom I meet in the dark nights of my despairing?

A Comrade however is far more real to a footsoldier like me. When I am in the trenches with mud up to my knees and pee running down my pants for terror of what lies over the top, it is the hand of the Comrade that steadies me, stills my shaking, and strikes up a “lucifer to light my fag”.
That’s who I need and want with me.

If I look closely at the Gospel for this Sunday I see not a distant detached King but a Comrade who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger who is naked sick and in prison. I know of few kings or queens who have first hand experience of that.
Jesus my Comrade is the one who comes to me when I am hungry even after my lovely home cooked meal, thirsty after my bottled Evian water, a stranger in my home town, naked in my designer labels and in prison whilst speeding down the freeway.

This is the Jesus who I believe will outlive the Jesus of History and The Christ of Dogma, not because those others are not interesting but because Comrade Jesus is more relevant.
How do we meet this Comrade Jesus? Well to be sure don’t look in the palaces and cathedrals.
You might even struggle to find him in church.
He will be found in the places of need. Those places where you hurt and others hurt and you are not afraid to be with pain, in pain and to hold it all in a secret com-passionate silence.
There remains for us to rediscover, (and it is a re-discovery) because this is not new, simply neglected; the mystical reality of the Jesus-Christ encounter which is unmediated and unmitigated by Creeds or Councils and which is able quite firmly to survive Cynicism too.

I am speaking of the personal encounter that is the potential of everyone who follows Jesus’ instruction to “when you pray, pray to your father in secret, and your father who hears in secret will reward you.” and then in counterpoint to understand , ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
So as this Christian year ends, excuse me if I don’t get too excited about your Imperial Christ the King, I am only four Advent weeks away from the Crib and I can smell the straw and the dung. That’s where my Comrade calls me to be.

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!

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.