Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

The catharsis of not cutting. Easter5

John 15:1-8

”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

As winter creeps darkly toward us in the Southern Hemisphere I see my horticultural friends wielding their most feared weapons, the seccateurs. Knowing just where to cut, they lop and lunge at every bush and tree until skeletal forms remain where foliage once flourished and the ground is littered with sticks and stalks.  It is botanical carnage.  Essential, I am told, but carnage nonetheless!

In the history of Christianity there have many, and some very interesting, aberrant groups commonly called heretics.  The word heretic comes from “hairetikos=able to choose”.  So  a heretic was judged by the church hierarchy to be one who had chosen to believe and profess in opposition to official  doctrine and as a result, had to be silenced.  Such silencing usually involved the cutting off of the heretical, “wrong choice” person or group from the church community. In dark and dangerous times it also involved the cutting off of body parts from the heretic either during the trial to determine heresy or eventually to cut the heretic off as a consequence of the bad choice they had made.  In the latter case the most favoured body part to be severed was the head.  The head that had made the wrong choice was thus removed from the body, symbolising the cleansing of the church by the removal of the heretic.  It was another carnage. Not botanical pruning, this time it was human carnage.  At least gardeners don’t hear the plants scream!

I am glad to report that this Inquisitorial practice is no longer part of church management though the language echoing that dreadful past remains with us in phrases like, “heads are going to roll” and “losing your head” about something or someone.  The Inquisitors, who were the head lopping pruners of the medieval church considered themselves tasked with “cleansing” the church of error.  They saw themselves as those who were doing the pruning work that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel reading.

In fact the word that John’s gospel uses for prune is  katharei=to cleanse. We still reference the word when speaking of cathartic experiences.  Those moments when we, through grief or pain, are cleared out and cleansed.  Inquisitors saw themselves as cleansing the church through the pruning of heretics.  Painful it might have been, but prudent for the preservation of power.

One of the best known groups of heretics in Europe also take their name from this word katharo.  They are the Cathars who are refered to in the Council of Nicaea in 325 but which emerged as an autonomous movement of strict Christians in the 12th Century in the Rhineland and Northern France.   These heretical,  “wrong-choicers”  were completely exterminated with the loss of many pruned and roasted body parts by the 12th and 13th century Inquisitions. The Cathars had some strange ideas about no re-marriage afetr widowhood and who also maintained that there was no way to do penance for sin that was committed after baptism.  A rather serious bunch they were. A kind of puritanical movement before the Puritans if you know what I mean?  How ironic then that the Cleansed Ones = Cathars were “cleansed” by the Inquisition.  Something Rwandan with Auschwitzian echoes here don’t you think?

Anyway, the Church needed to get rid of them.  They were just not with the Roman programme.  So the Inquisitors arrived and the heads rolled.   A vast pruning purge which, despite novel romantic notions of links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, surely represents one of the lowest ebbs of Christian history?

So it is with my mind awash with horticulture and history, that I eventually come to the Sunday gospel.

It fascinates me that in John’s gospel there are only two parables recorded.  Last Sunday Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd in the one parable, and this week he refers to himself as the Vine in the second.  If the writer of the last canonical gospel to be written  opted for only these two similes they must be pivotal to describe Jesus.

Now, if Jesus is the the Vine with a Shepherd’s heart, and only God is the gardener, then a few realities seem to bud and sprout from that:

  • Only God is qualified to wield the pruning tools.
  • Every severance is painful to Jesus.
  • Believing that we have the right to prune the church as Christ followers is not only arrogant, it is blasphemous (playing God) and may indeed rebound in the axe wielder being axed for usurpation!  Cathars are cleansed!

No, for me it is clear. The church is not called to prune, that is God’s job. Faggots of fruitless followers are God’s business not mine.

The church is called to fruit by remaining connected to the life giving/love flowing sap of the Shepherd-Vine.

It is through fruitful love and life, not through severance and sectarianism, that I become his disciple.  Of course if you don’t agree, you can always cut me off.

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Posted in Book review, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

It’s Oil gonna be OK – Ordinary 32A

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It is inevitable that in our days of mined fossil fuels, we should read this parable and reference it to lamp oil. Some kind of parafin or kerosene. That would not be correct. It is most likely that the oil that fueled the lamps of people in Jesus’ day would have been olive oil. The same marvelous stuff that was used in cooking but even more specially in the anointing of the sick and the blessing of visitors and other dignatories. It was also, as we know, a symbol of the Spirit of God.

The idea that this life giving substance so critical for light, cooking and blessing should become scarce was unthinkable. It would mean that the olive crop had failed. It was the worst of conditions that Habakkuk lists as the worst of times when he would still trust in God
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Jesus is describing a coming age when he as the bridegroom, is delayed from the consumating feast and the welcoming party has to dig deep into its reserves of inspiration, or is that spiritual lubrication? The point being that the wise followers of Jesus are those who are able to be logistically strategic.
What does that mean?

At the most basic level it means staying awake and being prudent.
This is most graphically evident in monastic orders where from earliest times, it has meant the keeping of vigils and staying awake in the night watches, not merely as ritual but as a discipline of watchfulness.
For we third millennium Westerners who have daylight at night, and burn tons of fuel to have it so, this might not be a parable that communicates as effectively it did, to the first Christian communities.
Or could it be a parable about being resourced at all levels. Literal, Ethical, and Spiritual?

As a Baby Boomer I have lived long enough to see the red fuel light flashing on our global dashboard at all three levels.
We all know that there are no longer enough resources to feed the mouths we are bringing to birth. The lamps of livelihood and food security are literally flickering.
We are also seeing, most recently in the Jasmine revolution and on Wall Street, that executive power can no longer burn at full bore from the power-full without any concern for the long term consequences of their abuse of power and resources. The ethical flames are flickering.

Finally, it would seem that the ancient world’s religions of which ours is but one, are flickering too. All the major world’s religions (at least those who are not pursuing some hidden political passionate agenda) are showing declining numbers and interest.
The Wikis are Leaking indeed!
Even the flames of the faithful are flickering.

The challenge for us as preachers, working with this text is to be able to proclaim with some credible, passionate expectancy to a world so jaded that it scarce believes that there is a Bridegroom, let alone that he is coming back!

This parable challenges us to revisit our Eschatology (The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.) To think that the Bridegroom has gone somewhere far away is to misunderstand the context of the parable. In the time of Jesus the bridegroom would have been away, fetching his bride, more than likely from a home in the same or a nearby, village. Jesus has not gone off far away. We are not abandoned at all.

I have a friend who is a keen scholar of Paul Tillich and who often says, “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent”
In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focussed so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God.
Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the other parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” (Don’t assume to much about the translation of tote as “Then” it can just as easily be translated “Consequently”)

The worst mistake I could possibly make is to forget that the Kingdom of the Heavens, the Divine Domain, is right here right now. It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.
There is no way that one can run out of Holy Spirit, the worst one could do is neglect the container. The error of the foolish virgins was not that they fell asleep, but that they were careless with their most critical resource, Spirit. Seems to me when I listen to the church at Mission meetings, Synods and Conferences, that we are in danger of making the same mistake. We have become negligent of Spirit. We have plans and programmes, strategies and skills sets; but to we have the simple resource of Spirit?

The light from a flickering lamp of faith is all that is required to watch and wait that despite all the gloomy shadows crawling on the walls, there is one who is coming to us in every moment. The Immanent Bridegroom beckons us to wake up to the fact that our faith is not a programme or a project it is a betrothal and celebration to the mystery and miracle of life in every moment day or night.
Don’t fall asleep.

Not now!