Cultivating Change – Lent 3C

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I keep meaning to look up the definition of procrastination, but I never seem to get round to it.
I really want to change, but Lent after Lent comes around and the same old issues, attitudes and addictions bedevil my development and growth in love.
As a columnist I know the power of deadlines. There is something about having to submit copy by Tuesday that sharpens my focus and gets me tapping away at the keys. I know that the deadline will not slow down it’s inexorable approach, so I had better get my act together and be ready for its arrival.
The gospel story of the martyred Galileans and those killed in the disastrous fall of the tower of Siloam, reflect that the dead did not have had any time to prepare for deaths.
According to this parable our lives have a deadline. The presence of a “dead”-line, (pun intended), should move us to fruitfulness in our lives. According to the story, the fruition of our life is not complicated. If you are a fig tree, produce figs. If you are a vine, grapes.
So often we fall into the trap of assuming that spirituality involves becoming who we inherently are not. That is not true. The Lord does not expect anything, except for us to fruitfully be who were created to be.
So let’s use this Lent to dig around the roots of our lives and prune ourselves into fruition. This may be our last opportunity.
Oh, one last thing, if you are wondering about where the manure comes from, remember Forrest Gump and his wise words, “Sh#t happens”. The failures and hurts of the past are the fecund compost of today.
Can you dig it?

Obfuscating Observances

John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

There is just no substitute for experience.  When you have been blind and now you see, you are able like John Newton to write about the Amazing Grace of God, in ways that you could never have learned from a Theological textbook.

The man born blind knew that.  He didn’t know much about Sabbath observance, original sin or the validity of Rabbi Jesus’ credentials to heal.  What he did know however, was that he “once was blind” but now could see.

Perhaps the most destructive dynamic in organised religion (any organised religion) lies in its propensity to compulsively control and condition people’s experience of the Divine.

I suppose I am a little pre-disposed to be critical of this obfuscating observance, as I experienced it first hand as a young boy.

All of sixteen years old I was attending a church youth camp.  On the first night, not the pumped up “Gospel-Campfire-give-your-life-to-Jesus” second night; I was all alone on the banks of the Vaal river when I had an experience of connectedness to the whole universe that changed my life forever.  It was what mystics have all experienced and what Rudolf Otto called a numinous experience. I knew I had connected with SOMETHING or SOMEONE, it didn’t seem to matter.  I knew I belonged, and that I was going to be all right.

The next morning I had to tell someone, so I told our bungalow leader who called the pastor, and he then proceeded to pour my expansive, unmediated, numinous encounter into the mould of his conservative, narrow evangelical worldview.  He explained that I had been saved, called and commissioned by God.  All that in one.  All I had to do was pray the sinners prayer and confess (with my mouth) Jesus as Lord and I would be “in the Kingdom”.  I did, and I suppose I was… or maybe I never was not?

As I look back on that transforming time I realise that if the first person I met on that morning after my direct experience had been a Rabbi, a Mullah, a Bhikkhu, a Shaman, or even Richard Dawkins, each would have wanted to obfuscate my experience through the lens of their particular religious (Yes Dawkins is a rabidly religious Atheist) observance.  It is the way of herd religion.

In hindsight I realise it was all perfect for then.  We all have to begin at the literal level, move through the herd conformity and perhaps be birthed into Universality and Transcendence.  I hold no disappointment to the Pastor for pouring my Universal experience into his parochial mould. He was doing his best, and I needed that at the time.

Similarly, I enjoy the complete lack of guile I see from the man born blind.  The Pharisees are in a panic to discredit Jesus, to obfuscate the miraculous event by declaring it invalid on religious and doctrinal grounds.  The once blind man, couldn’t care less.  My favourite lines from this narrative are the words of the healed man, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

There is just no substitute for experience.  In fact, truth be told, experience is all we really have.  All doctrine, tradition and dogma, are merely mechanism whereby humans try to replicate, mediate, validate and control the experiences of others.

Not only is this bad religion.  It is the worst kind of blindness that is seemingly incurable even by  Jesus.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

Oh I see…  Look!
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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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