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.

Open your ears before you speak – Ordinary 23 B

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

In an earlier post I have addressed the conversion of Jesus by the Syro-Phoenician woman. This time around with the Gospel, I would like to attend to the deaf man from one of the ten towns of the Decapolis.

To the modern ear the linkage of the man’s deafness and a speech impediment is redundant. We all know that if your cannot hear properly, or at all, there is no way you could learn to pronounce and sound words correctly. In Jesus day the causal link was not that clear.

I am however, thankful for the redundancy for it gave me pause to consider the link between having one’s ears opened, one’s tongue released and then being able to speak plainly.

If I was to move from the literal story to the level of allegory and metaphor, there seems to be wonderful pathway of spiritual experience outlined in this miracle. Given that all miracles are signs that the Divine Domain of God is present, then here is a process that is consequential to that presence in the life of every pilgrim who encounters Jesus.

Jesus touches the man in ways that are quite tactile and visceral. He puts his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the mans tongue and then tells him to be opened. “Ephphatha.”

An interesting word that, Ephphatha. Especially considering that most of what seems to go on in the church is our command to people to do the opposite, “Be Closed”, we say. (How I wish I knew the Aramaic for that!) Anyway, Jesus says the opposite, “Be Opened” and the church says be closed.
Be closed to anything that does not fit the cultural status quo. You can make your own list of the things we say, “Be closed”, to.

I am also intrigued by the sequencing of the healed response. We are specifically told that his ears were opened, his tongue released, and then he spoke.
On the day I created this blog and chose the name The Listening Hermit, I had just read the WordPress homepage and seen just how many million words were being blogged. It made me wonder if there was anyone listening! It is now almost four years later and there is still not much listening going on.

Could it be that this miracle sequence is a parable that shows that Jesus would have us first listen before we open our mouths to speak?
My late Grandfather used to say, A still tongue makes a wise heart”
My Grandmother used to chime,
“The wise old owl sat on the oak,
the more he listened the less he spoke,
the less he spoke the more he heard,
why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

Could it also be true that this miracle show that plain speaking can only come as the product and fruit of listening.

I would like to believe that is true.

Open up with all your being,
listen deeply,
speak plainly.

A Cleansing Ritual for Preachers

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Mark 7:1-23

7Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

There are probably very few readers of this blog who don’t know of the work of the Jesus Seminar, a gathering of leading New Testament scholars who gathered, in the lead up to the Millennium, to evaluate the content of the canonical and apocryphal gospels in the light of emerging scholarship.  The seminar voted on the reliability and authenticity of the stories and saying attributed to Jesus by the compilers of the gospels.

One of the spin offs of the project is a very useful book by Robert W Funk and The Jesus Seminar entitled, “The Gospel of Jesus”.  It is a redaction of the material that the seminar deemed to be most likely the authentic sayings and stories from Jesus.

In my preparatory reading for preaching the gospel passage this week, I decided to reference the Gospel of Jesus. (It is chapter 14 for those who have a copy to hand).

What I discovered was interesting.  The following sections of Mark’s Gospel were deemed not to be authentic.

6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

9Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said,  21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It seems that at the core, the events and sayings of the passage are authentic.

What isn’t is the quotation of Isaiah as back up for the saying (6-7), the polemic against the Pharisees (8-11), the explanation of Jewish customs (11-13) (to be expected given the non-jewish audience of Mark) and the listing of what the actual evil intentions are (21-23).

As a preacher I find the superfluous material above particularly challenging.I realise that I am the better preacher when I present the message of Jesus as simply and contextually as possible.  I am, on the other hand, probably the least true to the kerygma (message) of Jesus, when I become polemical and argumentative, when I proof text to back me up, when I over explain everything, and when I presume to make lists of offences by which I judge others and encourage them to do the same.

After all isn’t that exactly the point of this passage in the first place!

“The Lullaby Gospel” John 6:56-69 Ordinary 21B

John 6:56-69

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

One of the great religious thinkers of our time is Don Cuppitt. The Professor Emeritus of Cambridge University makes a telling point when he states, that “All of the world’s religions take place within the realm of human conversation”. The implication of this is that any thought that religion dropped from heaven or anywhere else, as a gift to humans, is simply a nonsense. We humans created religion as a product of our consideration and contemplation of how reality works in our Universe. This of course does not imply that the process was always conscious. Much of our ordering and explaining of the world is unconscious. That is why we have dreams.

However, if we can grasp this truth, that religious thought is a human process, then many things become clear.

With reference to this Sunday’s gospel, the one thing that clarifies itself is why so many of Jesus’ followers gave up on him when he offered them a teaching that directly confronted the ego’s role in religion. If you have been following The Listening Hermit for the past few weeks you will have read that when Jesus identified himself as the bread of life that could not be earned by the sweat of human effort, he immediately put the egoic investment in religious achievement in question. If Jesus is the bread of life, we are nothing more than the 5000 plus hungry pilgrims on the hillside, or the lost wanderers in the Sinai desert.

Yet if we hold that religion is a human process, and humans are largely defined by ego demands, it follows that religion in current practice will also be consumer indulgent. Isn’t the whole science of Church Growth and Congregational Management founded on ensuring that people have a good experience and thus drop the maximum amount of cash in response?

In Jesus day it was no different. Cash may not have been as dominant an idol as in our day but the human pleasure principle (If it feels good do it) was. When the crowd realised that Jesus was demanding profound inner transformation and not merely offering customer service, they lost interest.

I wonder if we, who are the communicators of the Gospel and the line managers of the church, can be honest enough to admit that we seldom proclaim without an eye on the balance sheet?

If this true, then we have failed to proclaim the words of eternal life and have been largely busy with proclaiming the words of eternal comfort and indulgence.

The irony with this approach is at some point when the ego is inevitably challenged, there will be many who stop following. In South Africa it happened in the 1980’s as preachers in white churches started naming Apartheid as the sin that it always had been. The exodus from such challenging preaching into comfortable charis-mania was huge. I used to call such people “Tutu Refugees” as they tried to disown and disavow the courageous actions of the diminutive Archbishop.

“Words of eternal life” are of course hard to define, and challenging preaching can be as much of an ego trip for masochistic martyrs as the comfortable gospel.

I suppose at the end of the day, the soul will know what is life giving bread and what is candy floss.
The bottom line seems to be that true transforming discipleship is always an activity pursued by minorities.

What beggars know about bread. John 6:35-51 Ordinary 19b

John 6:35-51

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

I find it difficult to understand how the message of Jesus that was so clearly universal in its scope and in its proclamation, could have become what it so often is today.  Narrow in spirit and accessibility.

To Jesus, every person who came to him was already being drawn by the love of the heavenly parent whose desire for union with prodigal children is the very essence of God’s being.

The word “all” features large in the teachuings of our Lord, as it does here, “…they shall all be taught by God.”

Yet the most cursory look at most of the church that claims to represent and embody the Spirit of Jesus, will reveal a club that it is quite difficult to get into and if you do, will teach you early on just who it is that doesn’t belong.

How did this happen?
The simple answer lies with our old friend the ego.
That inner energy so essential in the formation of the indentity that in adult life becomes threatened by anything that could mean its dissolution into a greater Energy of being called the True Self or God.

Ego wants accolades.
Ego thrives on achievement and when the prize of the spiritual enterprize is eternal life, the ego needs to at least feel that it played a part.

Jesus wrecks the ego expectations of his hearers.
There is nothing for your ego to do here.
Salvation, Enlightenment, Eternal Life, Wisdom, are not the products of human endeavour as your bread is.

For you to have earthly bread requires the sweat of your brow. That’s your creature curse carried from Adam.
Yet foreshadowed by the manna of the wilderness and now fully revealed in me; the bread of life is offered to all who are hungry enough to trust that five barley loaves and two fish can feed a multitude.

This bread is me and it is offered for the life of the whole cosmos (world).
There is nothing to achieve or to do. Which means you cannot decide or designate who gets some and who doesn’t.

You are not the baker nor the distributor.
You are just another hungry pilgrim on the hillside or in the wilderness.
Want a slice?

Jesus the Janitor? John 6:24-35 – Ordinary 18B

John 6:24-35

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

So why do people come to Jesus?

One wag has said with relation to personal change, that some people change because they see the light and others because they feel the heat!

Perhaps the crowd that followed Jesus had neither motivation.  Jesus suggests that they were looking for security.

In modern times we would call it food security.  Jesus had fed them without their effort and struggle and that seemed to be something worth repeating.   It was probably worth patenting!

There is a hint of indignation in their enquiry when they eventually find Jesus after a long search.  “When did you come here?”   It is as if they expect Jesus to account to them for his movements.

It is about the same as the modern day dilemma faced by NGO’s and Aid agencies.  The agency begins with a vision and mission.  The vision is grasped by others and funding is made available by donors and patrons.  These donors demand accountability and soon the NGO is hobbled to desks writing reports to justify their expenditure of the donations, to the extent that they find it difficult to do the work that was their mission to begin with!  What is even more frustrating is that the donors have every right to demand good governance and fiduciary compliance. “When did you come here?”  “Account for yourself!”

Jesus, as always, cuts to the quick of the crowd’s  motivations. “You don’t want me, you want what I can do for you.  That is your mistake.You are materialist, utilitarian and pragmatic (all concepts that don’t exist yet, but when preachers speak about this in 2012, they will)” (All of this dialogue I found in an obscure Gnostic Gospel according to The Listening Hermit)*Joke

Despite my spurious and speculative dialogue, isn’t that the problem we have with Jesus and miracles?

The crowd may not have been “materialist, utilitarian and pragmatic”, but we moderns certainly are.  Remember Bill Hybels best seller titled, “Making life work”?

That what we want from our religion.  It must make the life we know and want, work.

When Jesus sees this in us however,  he gets into a boat and sails away.

For Jesus it seems, the Kingdom of God isn’t mere materiality, utilitarian ethics and pragmatic problem solving.  It is a transcending and transforming domain where God is paramount.

In this domain if you have trust in the mere mortal incarnation named Jesus, then your human suffering of hunger or thirst, poverty or humiliation, is merely the context for the deepening of that trust and the loosening of your addiction and dependence on the quick-fix, crowd-pleasing, sensational show, that so much religious activity devolves to.

Demands for signs and miracles are the marks of immature trust.  To provide them on demand is an iniquitous error on the Church’s part.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I want to fix the world and it’s suffering as much as the next person.

Jesus however seems determined to fix humanity first.

Catering for our fears – John 6:1-21 Ordinary 17B

John 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

If I have a besetting obsession, and I have quite a few, then it is the obsession that there will not be enough.
I am not one of those organised householders who never enter a supermarket without having first written a list of what they need to buy. I tend to find myself in the aisles and then wondering what it is I need to get for the home.
So it was a few months back that each time I was shopping I convinced myself that I needed to get dishwashing liquid, only to get home and discover that I had enough. In fact, thanks to my obsessing, I now have six bottles of dishwashing liquid patiently waiting on the shelf.
It isn’t just soap that can get me obsessing about not having enough. I can do that with just about anything from pencils to my pension fund.
Will there be enough?
Every year I receive a printout from my pension fund. It is a simple spreadsheet that shows what my pension will be if I retire at a certain age. Of course the longer I keep working the higher pension will be.
When I studied the table last year I extrapolated that if I could keep working till I was 98 years old I could retire as a wealthy man!.
Will there be enough?
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is a miracle that addresses our fears of paucity and penury.
The bottom line of the miracle is that there is always enough.
We all know the angle on this passage made famous by that great commentator William Barclay. Barclay suggested that the miracle may be simply explained as the crowd, seeing the generosity and trust of the small lad sharing his lunch, themselves being moved to pool their resources to the point of abundance and twelve baskets of leftovers. (One for every tribe of Israel).
Barclay may not be correct, but however the miracle worked on a material level a few things are clear.

  • Firstly, when Jesus is present there will be nourishment for all.
  • Secondly, simple trust and Eucharistic celebration (took, thanked, broke, gave) are key to communal kingdom living.
  • Thirdly, the divine providence is profligate. There are leftovers.

It doesn’t rteally matter if it is dinner, dishwashing liquid or pension funds.
For lilies and sparrows, crowds or individuals, God caters for our every need.

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
===
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)

You’re a prophet? Have you lost your head?- Ordinary 15b

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I like to be liked. I suppose it’s the curse of my temperament and of my profession. Not many people like to be disliked. There is something masochistically deranged about people who like being in the bad books of others. Herod wasn’t one of them. After all Herod was a politician. I am not sure if biblical politicians had to shake hands and hug babies as they do today, but you can be sure they needed to be liked.

Herod wanted to be popular and so he kept in with the religious prophet John the Baptist because it is always a good thing to stay in step with the church. I overheard a member telling another the other day, “Always stay on good terms with your minister and your bank manager. Herod would have understood.

Herod also had to stay in step with his new wife Herodius. She had first been hsi brother’s wife and the circumstances that led to her becoming Herod’s wife are not clear, but John did not approve. So Herod had a conflict of interests. Keep the prophet happy or the wife happy?

Then there was step daughter also called Herodius, and we all know how difficult that could be.

Film makers over the years have portrayed Herod as a bit of a lech. Getting all steamed up by the dance of Herodius and rashly offering her anything in the kingdom, even half the kingdom himself. It is not clear what in the dance pleased him but Herod walked into a classic conflict trap. It was not longer a conflict of interests, it was now a conflict of values.

Herodius’ hatred for John the Baptist forcing Herod to choose between his religious appreciation of John and keeping the peace with his new wife.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  And it wasn’t 2012!

The mistake most preachers make here is to berate Herod as weak willed and gormless. I don’t think many of us would have done anything different from Herod. After all we are speaking about him countering his spouse for the sake of some disposable prophet.

Family values and all the Dr Phil shows would endorse Herod’s choice. He went with his wife and her needs. He was supportive and nurturing of the relationship and after all he was the king.  It was not as if this was the first person whose head he had chopped off!

No the villain here isn’t Herod, nor is it hate filled Herodius. The villain is expediency. For the beheading of John the Baptiser is the forerunner of the greater travesty that plays out in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus some months later.

What Herod did is what Caiphas did.
Here is John’s gospel: So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

Prophetic witness and personal or political expediency do not have a good history of co-existence. It is most often expediency that wins.
It is no different in our day. Herod the King, Caiaphas the high priest, Presidents and Popes, Mayors and Ministers.

Who on earth would want to be prophetic and challenge evil?
You must have lost your head to be a prophet.

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?