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)

Leaving the shadows – Epiphany3

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nazareth wasn’t a good place to put on your Curriculum Vitae as your place of origin. In fact if there was Facebook back then, you wouldn’t acknowledge that you were from there on any social media. Nazareth was a dump.
It didn’t feature in any Old Testament prophecies. No great personage had come from there. It wasn’t the seat of any power and no great families hailed from Nazareth. It was a simple backwater town. No great schools, colleges, universities.

There was nothing. Nazareth was nowhere.

Jesus came from Nazareth.

Despite the setbacks of being from there, the Nazarene Jesus had insight and intuition that the best family, geography and education cannot give. He knew people, their nature, their motivation and their desires. That is what drew him to Nathanael as he saw him standing under the fig tree.
Standing under your own fig tree is a symbol of comfort and blessing in the language of the Old Testament. Again and again the prophets used the image to evoke feelings of longing for peace and consolation. To be under your fig tree was to be home and arrived. Nathanael was standing in that space.

Strangely, there is a restlessness in the human spirit that is not satisfied with the shade of our own particular circumstance. A longing and a yearning for more. Was it this that Jesus sensed in Nathanael? Did he see in the shaded man, something restless wanting to grow?

Nathanael wasn’t impressed with Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Prejudice and arrogance make us so unteachable.  I came across a lovely defition of a heretic the other day.  It defined a heretic as someone who is unteachable.  Nathanael was bordering on heresy.

It was Philip who cut through Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareans, “Come and see.” The most simple and effective of evangelistic invitations.  It is the beginning of growth and liberation. “Come and see“. It seems that it is not enough to stand afar off in our comfort zones and formulate opinions from a distance. We have to “Come and see“. That is what changes our lives.

As I write this, I am facing charges of heresy that have been laid with the Presiding Bishop of my denomination. The people who have laid the charge have never met me, nor are they prepared to meet me. I phoned and asked them. They are not members of any of the congregations I serve, they have never attended a service I have conducted. They have listened to an archived sermon of mine on the Internet and now they want me silenced, “to protect the people you [I] am leading to hell” by teaching exclusively from the Gospels as I do.

All they, by contrast, want to do is stand under their fig tree, their comfort zone, and voice cynical opinions.  My invitation to them is the invitation of Philip, “Come and see“. Thus far they have refused to budge from the shadows.

Jesus finds Nathanael right where he is in his comfortable, fig tree shadow, the place of his prejudiced opinions, and then Jesus leads him on to greater adventures.

He tells Nathanael he will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending.  Jesus is referring to Jacob who experienced a dream where he saw what Jesus is describing to Nathanael. Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending as Jesus describes. On awaking from his dream Jacob named the place Bethel and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

By all accounts it would seem Nathanael never did see what Jacob saw. Instead he saw the Nazarean Jesus, whom he followed; despised, rejected, crucified and utterly destroyed.   It wasn’t much of a dream! It was a nightmare!

The next and only time we hear of Nathanael, after his meeting with Jesus under the fig tree, is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in one of those mysterious post resurrection events.

I wonder if Nathanael remembered, as he stood there in the presence of the crucified and risen one, the words he heard those three adventurous years ago, “You will see greater things than these

Nathanael sure had.

Perhaps if we will get out from under the shade of our own prejudiced opinions, we may see greater things too?

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.

Are you ready to risk? Ordinary 33a

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When working in the Gospels it is always a chalenge to know where to begin reading and where to end. The versification of the modern format of the Gospels is not helpful as some of the chapter breaks are arbitary and cut across teachings much the same way the cartogrophers pens carved across the map of Africa separating whole cultures, tribes and collective histories in the quest for Imperial lands.
We know from extant manuscripts that the written form of the gospels was very dense and even unpuntuated, let alone unversified!

Coming to these end times teachings of Jesus it is difficult to know when to begin reading before the passage to be preached from the lectionary. I find it helpful when trying to find the entry point into passages, to look for action passages, which are often the transition and comencement points.
Jesus moves to another place, Jesus enters the synagogue, Jesus crosses the lake, that kind of transition.

To find the access point for this teaching in today’s gospel, one has to backup to Matthew 24:3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things 8 happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
The reply of Jesus to that request takes the form of the following teachings:

  • The Persecution of the Disciples
  • The Abomination of Desolation
  • The Arrival of the Son of Man
  • The Parable of the Fig Tree

Underpinning the teachings is the theme,”Be Ready!”
Under this sub section of being ready there are then three parables, namely:

  1. The Faithful and Wise slave who takes care of the staff of the household whilst the Master is away,
  2. The Ten Virgins, five of whom keep themselves properly resourced for the return of the Master,
  3. and finally the Parable of the talents which is the focus for this week’s preaching.

The story is a simple narrative of a landowner who is going away and entrusts his property to his servants in differing proportions, five, two and one.
The unit of measure being termed talent is unfortunate, as it has come to be associated with skills. A talent in fact refered to a sheckel, which was the largest unit of weight in Biblical times but which scholars have not been able to find equivalency for in our modern measuring system.
The best we can do here is to say that the master divided his property into eight parts, five to the one servant, two to another and one to the last. Scripture then also goes on to comment, “According to their ability”
In the later accounting the five talents have been applied to yield another five; similarly the two talents are now four and both enteprising servants are given access to the Master’s joy. The fearful conservative slave who for fear of the Master’s harsh business methods, does nothing with his resource
is punished by losing that resource and also as a final humiloiation is excluded from the “joy of the master”

Now, if you have grown up in the church as I did, you will have heard any number of teachings on this parable, most of which will have been exhortations for you and I as individuals to use our God given talents as skilfully as we can and to achieve, achieve, achieve. After all that is the basis of the Protestant Work ethic!
There is just one problem with that approach. The individual was really not the key component of Biblical, Bronze Age culture. The group was.
Now if we consider that the church is the servant entrusted with the Divine Domain whilst Christ is visibly absent, I behoves the church to be expanding that Divine Domain’s resources through skillful engagement and even entrepreneurial action. Yet when I consider the activities of many church communities I see them acting, not in the inclusive expansive and expanding spirit of the skilfull stewards in this parable, I see rather fear based, suspicious and conserve-reactive (Conservative) laagers. It is even evident in our architecture.
The pictute at the head of this post, is of one of the newest Methodist Churches to be built in Johannesburg. Whilst I am architecturally astute enough to “read” the architect’s intention to embody the African theme, what they have unwittingly created is a fort!
Here is a British block house built by the Colonial forces in South Africa during the AngloBoer war.

A picture paints a thousand words, so let me be brief to close.
I am sadly persuaded that should the church have to give account right now,we would have to accept that the one portion we have so fearfully protected in our fear based, block house forts we call our denominations and our doctrines; would probably be taken away from us and we would lose the joy of the master.
Hey, come to think of it, that’s already happening!

Wow! Would you look at this? Ordinary 17a

Matthew 13:31-52

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

One of the joys of what Richard Rohr and others call “the second half of life”, is that one has enough life time behind you as material for review and reflection.  Naturally there isn’t total recall, (Thanks be to God!) and neither does one remember everything accurately.  I reserve the right to embellish and embroider my life story so as to maximise the enjoyment, if not of my hearers, then at least of myself as the narrator.  So coming to that life story which has more than a half century of content, I discover with amazement, how I have been surprised by God.  Now this isn’t a new thought, C. S. Lewis wrote “Surprised by Joy” and Gerard Hughes wrote, “God of Surprises” and many others have commented on the wonder of a God who simply appears in theophanic moments of delight, often totally unexpectedly.   What a Joy, C. S. Lewis, a joy indeed!

Ever since I first came across it I have been moved by the inscription that Carl Jung had on the doorway of his home.  It reads,  “Bidden or unbidden, God is present”. (You can see the Latin on the plaque in the right hand panel of my blog).  The maxim captures the same mystical, mischievous, dimension of God’s self revelation in the forms of everyday events.  Jesus was acutely attentive to that epiphanous reality in his life and it flowed into his teaching.

He taught that the Kingdom of God (literally of the heavens), the Divine Domain, is like… a minute micron of a mustard seed; a secreted treasure that is stumbled on whilst striding in a field; a precious pearl worth purchasing with your entire portfolio of provisions; a net straining with every kind of fish imaginable, so large a catch that you have to sift through it to get the good (and sustainable?) ones.  Each learner of life (Scribe) has a treasure out of which we can skilfully select and bring forth the best for the world.

What I love about this teaching on the theme of God’s surprise manifestations, is that in most cases the human response comes after the surprise. Because God surprises us we don’t have to contrive and control the conditions. In short we can’t make the miracle happen.

It is a miracle that the miniature mustard seed makes it through the prodigal sowing, and weed ridden wheat field of the past two weeks lectionary readings; but it does, and thrives. The surprise of the treasure, the pearl, the fish catch all precede , the commerce of converting ownership of one kind for the consolation of a Kingdom investment.  We respond to grace we don’t bring it into being.

How wonderful to realise as I look back on my life, that I really didn’t make much happen.  When I tried too hard I tended to butcher it.  No, I have been at my best, when I have simply allowed life to surprise me, and then responded to grace in gratitude and in giving. I am like the bulldog in the picture. Someone put be on this board and on this wave. God! what a ride!

High Noon at Jacob’s Well

John 4:5-42

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

In the scorching midday sun at Jacob’s well it was a “High Noon” confrontation with as much drama as the 1952 Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly classic.  Unlike the movie, this vignette of Jesus’ life is not a violent confrontation between good and evil, it is rather a conflict of exclusivist, sexist and racist cultures, that is every bit as engaging as Carl Foreman’s screen play.

The theme song from “High Noon” , “Do Not Forsake Me O My Darling” could well have been the anthem of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus discerned had been married five times before.  She had loved and lost enough to have earned a reputation which made the women of the village shun her from their communal water drawing circle at dawn and dusk, when the day was cool.  Only mad dogs and shunned Samaritans go out in the midday sun.

Jesus the Jewish Rabbi, was out of his comfort zone too. In speaking to the woman he was breaking a whole scroll of religious and traditional taboos.  John only references this by “ Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”.  An understatement if ever there was one!  A product of Post- exilic puritanical xenophobia, the Jewish religion of Jesus day, had become extremely exclusive.  Women bore the brunt of the exclusion  (See Ezra 10)

In a verbal shoot-out under the scorching sun, the Samaritan woman ducks and weaves like a good defensive gunslinger.  In keeping with the all too human way we defend ourselves from shame and blame, this shunned and failed woman goes on the attack. She fires from the hip with a hail of historical, theological, and sociological arguments in an attempt to hook Jesus into a messy cat fight and thereby mask the deep pain of her life that is exposed to his gaze and the blazing sunlight.

Jesus will not be drawn.  Rather than attack or defend, Jesus simply holds her in a space where he acknowledges who she is and then declares who he is despite her ritual and religious “unworthiness” for such an epiphany.

Isn’t that all any of us need for our healing? A space,unbearably hot as it might be, where we can allow ourselves to acknowledge who we are, and in that moment be graced by a Saviour who does not turn away from our shame and failure, but who floods our failed lives with his quenching living water.

Watching this sun drenched scene, I notice how the woman leaves the redundant water jar.  She didn’t ever draw Jacob’s water did she? But then she wasn’t thirsty anymore was she?

I also notice how she goes back to the very people of her village, who have judged and jostled her, and owns who she is in front of them, because despite her failures Jesus’ thirst quenching encounter has validated her as a human being.

There is something very “Resurrection morning” about the way this Samaritan woman leaves the deep gaping well, ( a symbol of her deep and dark wounding?) Like the women leave the empty tomb, she goes back to the city to proclaim having possibly seen the Messiah.  Perhaps though her message is different.  Could she not be calling out, “I have risen from the dead!”?

I suppose this event from Jesus’ life is different from the Western High Noon.  This Middle-Eastern High Noon has life pouring from the desert sands, where most Westerns end with blood seeping into the sand.  Is that because the “victim” is no longer the failed human woman, but the inclusive Jewish rabbi, who allows his blood to be spilt to end the shaming, and blaming as he gets caught in the Cross-fire?

Good Friday is just weeks away, time to saddle up and move on out.

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Back AWAY from the drawing board!

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

There is a monastery close to where I live and from time to time I have visited the monks there.  These are experienced Benedictines, most of whom are life professed which means that they have been in the religious life a long time.  Yet despite them knowing what it is to be monks, knowing how to be monks and obviously BEING monks,they chuckle when they tell of how many visitors to the monastery who don’t know what it is to be a monk, or how to be a monk and who, despite not being monks, consistently tell them what they think the monks should be doing!

What is it with our culture that somehow assumes that despite inadequate training or experience we can opine about anything with grandiosity?  My doctor was telling me of a similar problem in her profession. “Patients enter my consulting rooms,”she said, “armed with a file of Googled results.  They sit down and instead of telling me their symptoms, they proceed to tell me the diagnosis of their condition and what medication they want me to prescribe!” I could sympathise with my doctor because as a priest I have had to put up with other’s “expert”opinions about religion for most of my ministry.  My studies and qualifications aren’t worth a hill of beans because everyone is an expert.

You will therefore understand why I take such delight in the Father’s put down of the disciple’s great opinions and plans for what should be happening on the Mount of Transfiguration. Their best laid plans of “Let’s build three booths up here and …” is cut short by The Voice that thunders, “This is my beloved Son, LISTEN TO HIM

Now here is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus.  Could it be that, our five year plans, mission strategies and files of Googled answers deafen us to what Jesus is really saying to the church?

Am I being too provocative when I suggest that maybe the church has been booth building for twenty Centuries too long? The record of that moment of transfiguration seems to suggest that Jesus’ desire will most often be contrary to our plans.  The disciples want to build booths and Jesus says, “Get up, stop being afraid, let’s go!”

If we read on in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, we discover that at the foot of the mountain a desperate father is waiting with a suffering son.  There is no time for building booths nor basilicas. “Get up, don’t be afraid let’s go”  It seems that the glory of God shines on Jesus to get him ready for Golgotha, or a least to heal a suffering boy in the foothills of transfiguration.

Could the same be true for our worship Sunday by Sunday?  Do we hear the Father’s acclamation that we are God’s children as a reason to bask in a booth, or as the inspiration to , “Get up, stop being afraid,”  and to go down to the suffering of humanity and our personal crosses that wait?

I’ll be right with you Jesus!

I’m just rolling up this blueprint and the five year plan!

We might still want to build something someday.

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Blessed? Don’t you mean cursed?

(Click Here to listen to this article as it was preached on Sunday Jan 31 2011)

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.

The Gospel of Jesus – according to the Jesus Seminar suggests that the core of the Beatitudes probably refers to the poor the hungry and the weeping.  The scholars translate the word makarios “Blessed” as “Congratulations.

“Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations you hungry! You will have a feast.  Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh.” Gospel of Jesus 2:3-5

If ever there was a saying that is counter intuitive, then this must be it.

Don Cupitt in “Theology’s strange return” points out that “In post modernity Christianity is being progressively deconstructed, as text and subtext come apart and we we begin to recognize that the religion was first created by a very large-scale act of repression.   The original Jesus was far too radical a figure.  He had to be very heavily veiled, and became the Christ of faith, the incarnate word of God and the ever obedient Son of his heavenly Father.  Thus weirdly disguised, Jesus could be presented by apostles an priests as the central figure in a great myth of redemption which promises the believer a permanently deferred union with God that does not dethrone God.  The object of the complicated manoeuvres here was to preserve just a little bit of what Jesus had been about while yet retaining in full the divine transcendence, the supernatural world, the system of religious mediation and, above all, priestly and disciplinary power. But in postmodernity it is all coming apart.  We begin to see that historical ecclesiastical Christianity was from the first constituted by a great repression of something bigger and better that lies behind it, something that is now at last coming into view.” (Introduction xv)

This radical Jesus, and that piercing scalpel that dissects hypocrisy wherever it has taken form, is nowhere more visible than in these teachings from the Beatitudes.  It matters little whether you take the canonical account of Matthew or the Jesus Seminar version above, the effect is the same.  Jesus is turning the conventional wisdom of the spiritual country club on its head.

All the conditions of human suffering that we pray to avoid and for whose victims we pray in our Sunday and weekday intercessions are congratulated and declared as blessed and happy for it would seem that in Jesus view they have access to the imperial reign (Kingdom) of God.

Having just passed through the consumer orgy of Christmas, and living in Africa where the poor cannot be sanitarily avoided, the words of Jesus seem to amplify the bloated material hangover whose toxins seem to linger long into the new year.

Could it be that peace, joy and hope are not consumer goods, but are rather purveyed in the depth of trust that is born of human struggle and suffering?  We do ourselves and the gospel a great disservice when we spiritualize the Beatitudes and assume they refer only to mind or soul states. The poor are really poor, the weeping are crying real tears.

Moreover, the weeping hungry poor, do not need platitudes and deferred promises of redemption.

They want what they cannot have, and miraculously discover that God is closer in the wanting than in the having.  We who have whatever we want never seem to even get close to hearing Christ’s congratulations.

This is confusing.  It traps my ego and my comfort culture.  I suppose it must be from Jesus.

Lord help me to stop praying for the blessings that I want.  I am coming to see that my desired “blessings” might end up being curses that take me further from you.”

The Fulfilment of Emptiness – Advent 2a

_IGP0699 Matthew 3:1-12

You can hear these ideas being preached by clicking here

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

A friend of mine, an eco-psychologist, runs a Wilderness Retreat Centre.  The slogan for the Centre is most engaging, “Go Wild – Get Well”.  You don’t get much wilder than John the Baptiser!   What is worth contemplating is whether for all his wildness he was in any way, a well person.

On the face of it, to our sanitised western eyes, the answer would definitely be no.  I mean the man is psychotic, with severe anti-social tendencies, evidence of bi-polar disorder and just a little disassociated, don’t you think?  This manifests in garish dress, non-compliance with social registers (just look at how he disrespects religious authority) and very unbalanced nutritional programme.

And yet it is of this wild man that Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt11:11)

When I first began having conversations with people who follow an Eastern religious path, I heard a description of a holy person that I hadn’t come across in my Western Christian journey.  They spoke in honour of a person as being “empty”.  Now that was foreign to me who had grown up being told to constantly be “full”.  Full of the Spirit, full of faith, full of hope and full of love. So the attribute of emptiness as a positive in spirituality got my attention.

In the gospel encounters with John the Baptiser, it is his emptiness that is most striking.

He is empty of fear and proclaims.  “Turn your lives around  the reign of the heavens is manifesting.” He also challenges the Pharisees who are “full of it”, “You progeny (gennemata) of snakes, who suggested you should get away from the impending natural punishment (orgés)? That is pretty fearless in a religious culture where the snake was the archetype of Satan! How sad, by contrast, are our faith communities today which are most often characterised by fear-filled avoidance of truth telling so as not to offend anyone.

He is also empty of propriety. His entire lifestyle was in contrast to the sedate and established orthodoxy of the day.  He is styled on the prophets of centuries before, passionate people who had proclaimed the truth of God as they had seen it, with no sense of propriety and often at great risk to themselves.  John was echoing this prophetic voice that had grown strangely silent for centuries before he spoke. Probably my deepest sadness as a Christian who has lived through the prophetic pain of a church in opposition to the viperous system of Apartheid, has been to see how the Church has fallen prophetically silent since the church got into bed with the ruling party. The only prophets who have remained consistent are Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev Paul Verryn who currently houses thousands of Zimbabwean refugees in the Johannesburg Central Methodist Mission and is vilified by church and state for that stand.  It is probably too painful for the church to be prophetic yet many of us fail to see the irony in calling ourselves “Protestants”

Finally the most searing and challenging facet of John the Baptiser’s emptiness for me lies in his complete emptiness of ego.  This is the man with a successful preaching community.  People are leaving the city to come to listen to him in the Wilderness! That is completely against the logic of the day where the Temple in the city was the only conduit to the divine. Yet this man with the successful ministry, knows from the beginning that he is just the opening act, and when Jesus steps onto the stage, John graciously bows out, and sends his own disciples to follow the one who he recognises as the Lamb of God.  How much closer to the reigning presence of the heavens would the church had come if all Christians leaders could model that emptiness of ego?  The Spiritual turf wars that seem to be on every street as we compete for “market share” and “franchise dominance” makes us look more like representatives for Kentucky Fried Chicken than the followers of Jesus.

Where did John get it from, this emptiness?  I don’t know.  But I sense that the wilderness would have stripped him, burnt him and detoxed him to a point where he really did have what Paul described Christ as having,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.  Philippians 2

The Wilderness Retreat Centre says, “Go Wild – Get Well”.  When in that wilderness we discover Jesus as John did, we too will have something worth losing our head for.