And behold there came a great…SMILE! – Mark 4:35-41 Ordinary 12B

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Storms are a phenomena of nature and not just on our planet.

Let’s be grateful we don’t live on Jupiter where the winds can reach 360 kilometres per hour(225 mph)! To put that in perspective, consider that we measure wind on earth according to the Beaufort scale.  On this scale 0 is calm and the maximum of 12 is a Hurricane gusting at more than 118km/h(74 mph). Jupiter’s winds are more than double that force.

The strongest wind gust ever in South Africa occurred ironically at “Beaufort” West (Western Cape) on 16 May 1984 and measured 186 km/h.

Storms are part of nature.

We don’t like nor choose them. We whinge about the wind, yet were it not for the wind the rains would not come.

That great Islamic navigator of the spirit Rumi, said, “..smiles come best from those who weep. Lightning, then the rain-laughter.

Storms of the heart are similar.

In the gospel story of Jesus stilling the storm, there are two interesting phrases.  The first describes the storm as being ανεμου μεγαλη- great wind or more literally, great animation.

The disciples are deeply disturbed by this storm that animates their fear.

Jesus then stills the storm and the state after the storm is described by the second phrase , γαληνη μεγαλη – usually translated great calm, but it can also be read as great smile. When I think about the inner storms of spirit, I like the alternative translation.  Smiling after the storm has blown over, no matter the damage, is for me a sign of trust.

I can imagine Jesus smiling as he settled down in the boat.

Here is Rumi again,  “I do not know who lives here in my chest, or why the smile comes. I am not myself, more the bare green knob of a rose that lost every leaf and petal to the morning wind.”

According to a classic text attributed to Japanese Soto Zen Master Keizan Jokin (1268-1325), The Transmission of the Light (Denkoroku), one day the Buddha silently raised a lotus blossom and blinked his eyes. At this, Mahakasyapa smiled. The Buddha said, “I have the treasury of the eye of truth, the ineffable mind of Nirvana. These I entrust to Kasyapa.”

Zen practitioners have for centuries contemplated what it was that made Mahakasyapa smile when he saw the flower twirl in the Buddha’s hand.  They know it was the moment of enlightenment.  It is for them the prototypical koan. What was it it?

Perhaps he saw what Rumi saw.

When the storm has stripped us and we have passed our fear of drowning in the chaos.  When all prettiness has been stripped away and only the naked rosehip is left, we who understand Spirit will still smile.

The smile of Mahakasyapa, of Jesus, of Rumi.

The smile born from wonder at the mystery of Spirit.

Sorry, got to go.

The wind is coming up.

So one last line from Rumi.

When your love contracts in anger, the atmosphere itself feels threatening. But when you’re expansive, no matter what the weather, you’re in an open, windy field with friends.

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?

Jesus sweeps the corridors of power – Proper 16A

Matthew 16
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

I loved visiting America in the 1990’s. It was such a beautifully naive and robust life. Impenetrably defended, and financially dominant it was a halcyon time. I have also just remembered in the midst of my reverie that Triazolam (called halcyon) is a sleeping pill! America from where I sit at the bottom of the continent of Africa, seems to have been rudely awakened despite the halcyon. There are no impenetrable defences, there is no such thing as financial security, (it’s an oxymoron), there also seems to be no Presidential messiah. Y
Yet back in the 1990’s my dear American friends were so proud to show me their Capitol. I was confused at first, as I was miles from Washington, until I realised that every state seems to have one. Beautiful architecture strong and robust. White marble abounding. A manifestation in stone of the brave and the free spirit of that great nation. Those beautiful Capitol buildings and of course the unequalled one on the hill in Washington are modern day equivalents of the Caesarea Phillipi where Jesus is located in this Sunday’s gospel.

Caesarea Phillipi was an ancient site further developed by the Greeks and eventually annexed in 20BC to the Kingdom of Herod the Great when the Greeks crumbled. Associated with the God of desolate places, Pan Herod set about about beautifying the place known mainly for its copious spring which bubbled through the limestone and fed the Huela marshes. Herod built a temple of white marble also in 20BC. Later, Phillip the Tetrarch (trans Big Deal Guy) built his administrative capital there. Nice temple, good water. Politician that he was he also named the place Caesarea to honour Caesar. The bible refers to the place as Caesarea Phillippi to distinguish it from Casarea Maritima on the coast. There was more than one politician and more than one Capitol! Get the picture?

Jesus is here in a Capitol. You may picture anyone: the British Houses of Parliament, the Kremlin, South Africa’s Union Buildings, it doesn’t really matter. Here in the shadow of political might and majestic military confidence he asks his disciples, “So guys, what do folks say about me?” A flustering groups of tourist/disciples bluster the names of prophets and law givers. It’s a bit like an early approval rating report. “Uh, Elijah? Mmmm, Moses?…” Jesus turns up the heat, “But who do you say that I am?
I would love to know why he asked that question, in that place, at that time? There in the shadow of Imperial power and prestige, there with the Greek god Pan in central focus, there with the mysterious desert spring, there he asks for an opinion from his disciples.

Peter replies, “You are the redeemer, the Son of the living God” Not the Emperor Caesar, Not the God Pan. You are the rock that brings living water. You are the fountain of life.

Jesus then affirms Peter, before he silences all of the disciples and commits them to the mysterious messianic secret, “Don’t tell anyone…YET!”

In that affirmation the simple Jewish Rabbi from backwater Nazareth, overshadowed by the capitals of the Capitol, competing with foreign gods, dares to suggest that he is going to build something himself. Not a temple or a palace made of stone but a building made of flesh and spirit. Not an Imperial regime to dominate and enslave with brutish power and law. (Mmmm we seem get confused about that one now and gain) Rather Jesus is going to build a church an ecclesia, a gathering of citizens called by a herald to discuss the matters of a Free State.

A risky endeavour in the shadow of such power. An even riskier dream when one considers the quality of the “rock” that Jesus had to work with. Peter was definitely not white marble, he was far more like crumbly clay. But Jesus can work with less than perfect materials. He did it with Peter and the other ten, except of course resplendently righteous and granite Judas.

Jesus has been working with crumbly clay Christians since the beginning. It’s a simple low key project. It doesn’t make it into the news, and the television stations that purport to represent it don’t seem to really understand the plan.
But here’s the thing, Caesarea Phillipi lies in ruins, Pan is all but forgotten, the waters no longer flow freely from the limestone spring, yet Jesus the water of life, and his flawed and fractured stones continue to be the ecclesia gathering of God! Now there is something to marvel at.

Go and engrave that on the steps of the Capitol!

Start walking by standing still


Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Finally Jesus gets the rest and retreat he came to this shore of the lake to find. That is before he was accosted by the needy crowd on whom he had compassion and who he fed with the five loaves and two fish.  At last evening has come.  He has sent the disciples off to the other side of the Lake, perhaps back to the place that they left when Jesus had heard the John the Baptiser had been beheaded? En route, one of the notorious squalls on Lake Gennesaret blows up and the disiples are in fear of their lives.

Jesus having finished his prayers round  three am in the morning, comes to the disciples walking over the sea. Matthew tells us, “…when the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified...”. It is interesting for me that the word that the Greek uses for terrified is tarasso which referes to water that is agitated. One could say that the disciples seeing Jesus walking on the agitated sea become agitated themselves, because they think it is a ghost (Greek = phantasma).

Notice the sequence, Jesus does nothing about the outer storm and agitation of the sea, but rather, addresses the agitation of the disciples’ minds. “Take heart” or “take courage” he says. The same word he uses in John 16:33, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!

Peter then wants to put this courage to the test, hops overe the side at the invitation of Jesus, strides out over the waves, but the moment he allows his fear of the outer agitation to once again get inside him and agitate his mind, he sinks!  Jesus responds, “You of small trust, why did were you uncertain?
Jesus leads them both to the boat and only then does the outer storm abate.

Now I am not sure of the physics of this event. I can’t explain the science of walking on water or of calming storms at sea, for I have experienced neither. What I have experienced and can speak of is the psychology and spirituality of this event.

As one who has been drawn to and has practiced contemplative prayer, silence and meditation in various forms as something of a perpetual beginner; I do know just how fluid and fickle the human mind is. The Sea of Galillee as a metaphor for the mind is so very appropriate.   Just like that inland lake, my inner stae of mind and being can be beatifically calm one moment and cyclonically agitated in the next nano second. I have also learnt, with great difficulty, that the state of my inner being determines how I am able to deal with, manage and cope with, the outer squalls of life.

A great eastern teacher Ajahn Chah titled a booklet on meditation, “A still forest pool” . In the eastern traditions they speak of meditation bearing the fruit of “tranquility and insight” in that order. There can therefore be no insight if tranquility has not been established. It is a process the Psalmist describes as, “Be still, and know…” Peter discovered that for himself.  As his agitated mind flooded his body with fear and he sank into the deep agitation of the sea.   Jesus, as always, gives the contrast. He has just come from a night of prayer and communion with his Abba and so is able to literally rise above the outer conditions confronting him, “walking over the sea“.

Peter the seafaring fisherman has to learn to navigate the inner ocean of his fears, before he will be able to be the “fisher for people” he was called to be.  Jesus the rabbi will teach him practically: in storms, in sleepy gardens of Gethsemane, at fearsome firesides in moments of denial, and one day in the not too distant future, back here on the shores of this very lake. “Peter do you realy love me more than everything?”

Walking on water is not the great achievement of this narrative. Having a still and trusting mind is the real miracle.

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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Can we trust these foreigners? Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

There is, without doubt, something very attractive about the exotic.  Exotic people, exotic places, exotic food, exotic clothes, all hold a fascination for us, which delights our travel agents and the airlines no end.

This is not always true however.  Sometimes the exotic and different can be threatening.  The same stimulus that triggers fascination can also light the short fuse of fear.  Xenophobia and fascination differ only to the degree that the difference of the other we encounter comes with a background of benignity or a history of conflict.  If we have has a bad experience with a specific people group, then xenophobic racism is a far more expected response than interest and fascination.

I am a fifth generation Euro-African.  I know.

Knowing this truth of the xenophobic and the fascinating in our response wiring as human beings makes the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, all the more interesting.

A brief visit to one of my new favourite websites, http://www.greattreasures.org informs me that the word we translate for wise men in our gospel for Epiphany, is: μάγος (magos Strongs 3097) wise man great, powerful; magus, plural magi, the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians, whose learning was chiefly astrology and enchantment.

Now Medes, Persians and Babylonians did not have a great relationship history with the people of Israel.  The Old Testament is packed with that history of conquest, oppression and exile for the people of Judea.  A modern day equivalent reference would be, “Nuclear physicists from Yemen, Iran or the Peshawar province in Pakistan, came to Bethlehem.”  The declared motivation for their visit, “to pay homage” to a new Jewish King, would have been seen as a smokescreen to gather intel and probably “remove” any political threat to the stability of the region.  Could this be why Herod engages them so actively, because astute politician that he is, he guesses the “real” motive for their mission is in keeping with his own power games to maintain hegemony for himself?

Medes, Babylonians and Persians do not come to David’s town to worship, they come to spy and conquer.Yet on reaching, the place where Jesus is, they do what they say they came to do.  They offer him homage and present him kingly tribute.

Isn’t it so disappointing when people we are suspicious of, act with integrity and honesty?  It’s hard to keep hating when they behave out of the character our prejudice has scripted them to play.

This reflection leads me to three speculations on this Epiphany Sunday.

  1. History is not a justification for ongoing suspicion and xenophobia. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  2. Where people are from, how they look, and what culture they observe, does not determine the behaviour we may expect them to exhibit. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  3. There is at the heart of the Universe a truth, a wisdom which is able to transcend xenophobic fear and suspicion. That wisdom is found in the life and presence of Jesus.

I find the idea of a beckoning star on the horizon of a new year, exotic and inviting and so I pray, “Lord Jesus, give me grace to be intrigued and not intimidated by the different and exotic people who, with me, will follow the star to your heart.”

When faith falters – Advent 3a

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’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.

Last week we celebrated the mercurial ministry of John the Baptiser, this week the rising star has become a plummeting comet.

John the Baptizer, popular prophet and wild man of God, had been imprisoned at the fortress of Herod Antipas 24 kilometres southeast of the mouth of the Jordan on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.

Jesus on the other hand was heading north into the Decapolis, the ten cities in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee on the opposite side of the country.  Scholars suggest that the imprisonment of John the Baptist was a motivation for Jesus to get out of Judea and out of harm’s way.  It is easy to understand how John the Baptiser who had been fulminating about axes laid at the roots of trees, and who himself had been challenging nepotism of Herod, who had divorced his own wife and married his brother’s wife for the sake of political power; could believe that Jesus getting out of Judea was at worst an act of cowardice.  In danger of his own life and thinking his cousin has gone soft, John sends this message with some of his disciples. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question bristles with sarcasm, but also gives significant insight into the frame of mind of the Baptiser.

Jesus response is firm and two pronged.  He challenges John to reconsider his expectations and the challenges the crowd to re-evaluate their motivations.  In the response of Jesus I believe we see a map for our own times of doubt and questioning.

In his answer to John, Jesus says, ““Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is the challenge to John who seems to have been fuelled by the conventional expectations of who Messiah would be.

It is difficult for us to understand, standing this side of the resurrection and with over two thousand years of church history behind us, that in the time of Jesus people who suffered were believed to have deserved it, (or they were working off the debts of their parents).  Blind people deserved to be blind, the lame had offended God, lepers were unclean and punished by God and the dead were off in a shadow world where the best they could hope for was that someone would still remember them. As for the poor, the ptochoi well you can watch the spittle as you say the word.  Spit and contempt, not good news, were the just deserts of the poor.

There is, in the question of John, a barbed insinuation that what he had heard of Jesus’ ministry was irrelevant to the cause and is what caused him to question if Jesus was the real deal.  In his response Jesus adds a final challenge,  “And (by the way ) blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  “Blessed is” … could this be the ninth Beatitude, building on the eight from Matthew 5:1-10? “Blessed are those who don’t get offended when I turn out to be not who they expected me to be?”

Despite how difficult and embarrassing this all looks for John the Baptiser, I have to say that I can completely identify with his doubts and his questioning of Jesus.  Just like John I have often proclaimed Jesus publicly in terms that I realise with hindsight have been my projections onto Jesus rather than who Jesus really is in himself. That is problematic enough, but what is plain humiliating is when I have proclaimed the Jesus of my projected expectations, and he then goes off north and doesn’t do what I told people he would!

For example, I really do want to have Jesus as my friend and master throughout my life.  I want Jesus to comfort, heal and console me in my dark nights of fear and anxiety.  I also want Jesus to deal with the evil of the world.  To remove the corruption, crime and chaos that so describes life in the twenty first century.  What I don’t like though is how Jesus always brings his rag tag friends with him into my life.  I don’t like how he makes me question my lifestyle, my use and abuse of resources, and I especially don’t like how he is always pointing me to the people I really don’t want to see.  The blind, the lame, the lepers and those ubiquitous ptochoi (spit it out )poor!  And just when I am about to whine to Jesus that this isn’t really what I signed up for, nor why I wanted him in my life, he adds, “ And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  That’s just not fair!  That’s just what John was doing! He had been offended that Jesus wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing… according to John.

The lesson that John the Baptiser had to learn that day, and that I have had to learn almost every day that I follow Jesus, it this, “Jesus is always going to be where the pain is, not where the power or pleasure is”  Human suffering is like a pheromone to Jesus, it draws his heart inexorably.

To illustrate this Jesus now turns to address the crowd that remains after John’s disciples have left.  Jesus has heard the challenge of his imprisoned cousin, he has answered forthrightly, but he has also heard the pain of John’s disillusionment.  He senses the same disillusionment in the crowd.  Interesting word “dis-ILLUSION-ment”, so Jesus asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

These is are difficult metaphors to access from so far away in 2010.  It is interesting that when Jesus speaks of “looking at” the “reed” or “writing pen”, oscillating in the wind he uses a word for looking at that implies contemplating or gazing at.  What do we want from the wild men of God?  We watch them, we are bemused by them, even entertained by them but truth be told, are we not more comfortable when they are locked up on the other side of the country?  Their challenge is too bright and their intensity too pure.  We fear we will be scorched. “What did you go out to contemplate?”, asks Jesus.  “Was it mere entertainment or did you expect real change?

Naturally those of us who know Isaiah’s writings recognise in Jesus’ question about reeds, Isaiah’s chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

It is speculative at best to try and connect these teachings, but what is significant is how Jesus corrects and challenges John yet at the same time never loses his compassion for his cousin. He truly doesn’t snap the bruised and quivering reed.  John, he knows, is a broken man.  Jesus in a few years will be a broken man too.  But despite the breaking of John and Jesus, there will be no retaliation no breaking in revenge.  Jesus will weep over Jerusalem and say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Luke 13:34 But Jesus, will not to the disappointment of John, Judas, and others will not call down fire from heaven nor wield the axe at the root of the tree.

John had been sent to prepare the way and he had.  It was however not the freeway for an avenging army, it was the rocky road for a suffering servant.  Those who prepare the way, don’t get to determine who rides on it, or how.

And as I leave this poignant cameo of a very human Jesus, speaking with such love of his broken and doubting cousin who is languishing in Herod’s prison on the other side of the country, I sense the power of this image to heal and encourage hope in the broken and doubting people of our planet.

This human Jesus, the Son of Man, who always goes to where the pain is and not where the power or pleasure is, will be with me too in the moments of my disillusionment when he feels so far away he might as well be on the other side of the country or the other side of the universe! .

When all I have expected, dreamt and even demanded from being faithful to God’s call in my life has not played out according to my scripted plans.  When illusions are exposed in disillusion. When I find myself imprisoned and losing my head, and mind; how wonderful to know that Jesus will still be compassionate whilst challenging.

There are many moments when I too wonder if I shouldn’t look for another, and then I pray for the blessing of not taking offence when he does things his way and not mine. It is then that I experience the eighth beatitude, I am blessed by not being offended, and the bruised and quivering reed is able to stand for at least another day.

Jesus…who? (Feast of Christ The King)

Luke23:35-43 (Click here to listen to this post as preached in Port Alfred South Africa on Nov 21 2010)

And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

I grew up believing that Jesus Christ was the name of the man I heard about in Sunday school. He was white, had long blond hair and was usually carrying a lamb around in his arms.

It was only when I began to study theology that I realised that Christ wasn’t Jesus’ last name. I had thought he was Jesus Christ just like I am Peter Woods. I learnt that Jesus, a teaching rabbi from Nazareth had been put to death during the governance of Pontius Pilate, and that outside of the biblical record that was all that was known about him historically.

Inside the biblical writings, (which cannot be used historiographically – that would be like using a reference from your mother when applying for a job!), this teacher Jesus had been experienced as one who fulfilled the expectations of Israel for an anointed one, whom they had called “Messiah” or in Greek “Christos”.

I also learned that recognition as the Jewish Messiah was not the end of the evolution of Jesus’ name, because as the Good News (Gospel) spread through the world after Jesus day, it met up with Greek philosophy. The Greeks, particularly the Platonists, had a notion of a divine ordering principle which they called the Logos. Judaism had already met Platonism and Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) the Jewish Alexandrian had prepared the way by postulating that the Logos was “God’s blueprint for the world

So when Christ followers met the Greek philosophers there was this “Aha!” moment when Jesus, of Nazareth the Jewish Christos was experienced by the Greeks as being the Logos. So, early on in the development of Christian theology Jesus of Nazareth, who was recognised as the Christos (Anointed one), came to be seen also as the divine Logos (The unifying, creative principle at the heart of the Universe John 1:1= “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God and the Word was God”…) This is echoed in Paul where he writes in Colossians 1:17 “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together

It was the Christian theologian Justin Martyr (c 150 CE) who made the formal connection by identifying Jesus as the Logos.

Thus Jesus of Nazareth who had been experienced by his followers as the Christos (anointed one) came also to be experienced as the Logos, (God’s blueprint for the world) Also, did you notice how many times I used the word experience in describing this journey from Jesus to Christos to Logos?  We have to remember that our beliefs are  our attempts to explain our experiences.

By the time I was finished with my academic study of theology, I (sort of) understood that the proper name for the one I follow, is Jesus the Christ and Logos of God, although he insists that I just call him “my friend”.

Now when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King at the end of the entire Christian Year, we are making faith connections and saying that in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe, Gods blueprint for the world, is revealed. That is why we follow, reverence and promote Jesus to the world.

However, this feast of this tripartite faith union of Jesus, Christos, Logos, also demands of us some critical and clear thinking so that we may be honest with ourselves. If we are going to continue to make sense to the world, we are going to have to understand this evolution of understanding that saw Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, the rabbi, become firstly the Christos of Jewish expectations, and later the Logos of Greek philosophy.

This I propose to do by offering some questions for your prayerful consideration. I am not going to suggest full answers because I believe the best theology is done by each of us bringing our logic (logos) and experience to bear on these questions.

Question one: Did Jesus of Nazareth think of himself as the anointed messiah (Christos) or the unifying blueprint of the universe (Logos)? A simple reading of the gospels would answer yes. Jesus affirms Peter for saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Honest biblical scholarship demands though that we ask, how a Galilean fisherman could have come to such a sophisticated philosophical notion? Could this be the editors of the gospels putting words in Peter’s mouth to express the later understanding of the church?

Question two: Has the Logos energy of God (the creative unifying blueprint of the universe) only been manifest and experienced in the life of this one Jesus of Nazareth, or could there have been others in History?

Question three: How much of what we reverence in Jesus, was his intention? Bearing in mind that Jesus is recorded as saying seventeen times in the gospels, “Follow me” and NEVER does he say “Worship me”

I am very clear that for me, Jesus is both Christ and Logos. That is my experience, that is my way, that is my truth, that is my life.

I will share this with everyone who is interested in knowing.

However, as I consider how I have come to this position, and how we as church have explained and constructed it, I have to acknowledge that it is not clear, that Jesus is the only manifestation of God’s Logos in human history nor that Jesus considered being equal with God important ( Phil 2 “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.”). It seems more reasonable to me, that the Divine Logos is bigger than one religious creed or cultural experience.

What is abundantly clear from the life and teaching of Jesus as I have studied and experienced them is that Jesus became recognised as Christos and Logos, by living as a servant of humankind and as slave of compassionate love. Our King is a Servant!

Feel the fear… and endure it. (Proper 28C / Ordinary 33C / Pentecost +25)

Luke 21:5-19

Listen to the sermon as preached (Click here)

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

It is of  interest to me that in the Lectionary, this gospel follows Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees (See The devil IS the detail). In that passage Jesus refuses to be drawn by the straw man debate of those who don’t believe in Resurrection and yet want to argue the minutiae of how relationships in heaven might be! Jesus points his hearers in that context to the reality of life that does not end, which begins when one awakens to the reality of it in the here and now. Debates about the furniture or marital relationships in heaven are non-essential in following Jesus.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus once more points to the interiority of life in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Discussing the temple and its glory, (it must have seemed to people who had probably not travelled more than one hundred kilometres from their homes in their entire lives to be an astounding edifice) ; Jesus is not too taken with the outward appearance of the structure. As a clear and wise spirit he grasps the impermanence that is at the heart of every created thing and sees that even this fine edifice will one day be a ruin.

The incredulous listeners cannot conceive of it and so want to interrogate Jesus for the details. “When, where, how, by whom?” Notice how Jesus does not get drawn by the specifics, the curse of the literal mind. It was the British philosopher Owen Barfield who said, “Literalism is idolatry“.  Jesus knew that. As an armour against distraction, Jesus warns of the dangers and distractions to come but hidden in this passage, which literalists try to use as a map for the future, he gives four clear instructions and one final assurance.

It is these that I choose to focus on:

Beware that you are not led astray. The skilful and wise Christ follower is the one who knows that truth and light are not found “out there”. No book, Mp3, movie, programme, teaching, or guru has the answer. Not that any of these are bad in themselves. They are all fingers pointing to the moon. The person who lacks the inner eye of discernment is prey to becoming obsessed with trying to find the correct finger. I often say, that if I had spent as much time praying as I have reading books and blogs about prayer, I would be a lot closer to Jesus than I am now!

Do not go after them. It is difficult to stay focussed when the herd hurtles off somewhere in search of answers or fads to calm their fear of the present. It is here that the one who knows the secret of unending life, is able to trust their inner compass and light to keep to the path that they know leads to transformation.

Do not be terrified. Here of course is the catalytic secret to our distractions from the path. When we become fearful we become forgetful. We forget the promises, the peace, and the process that has so shaped and guided us this far, and we begin to question and doubt the veracity of simply remaining rooted in following Jesus. The ego doesn’t help because it joins the chorus of doubt that whines about needing more security and surety, which comes at the price of serenity. It needs no underlining that Fundamentalism feeds on fear and terror, and often creates conditions to cultivate those dark emotions, so that it can offer its seemingly watertight and foolproof facile “answers”. I have said it before, “Destructive religion points to certainty; Wise religion points to the mystery”

Jesus’ fourth instruction addresses our neurotic obsession for control in stressful times..So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. As I reflect on the stressful times and conflicts of my life, I realise that I have spent hours and perhaps days, planning encounters and debates with people. I have had answers and arguments loaded in my arsenal of competence, so that I may never be caught out as being at a loss for words or information. Truth be told, not one of those scenarios played out the way I had planned.

What Jesus is suggesting is that our time would be better spent, clearing the clutter and static of our ego broadcasting stations, so that we have a calm, clear channel to God which incidentally will always through our hearts and not through our heads.  Our heads are where all the static is!

By your endurance you will gain your souls. Finally after the four instructions, Jesus concludes with an observation. The spiritual life into becoming Christ, is not about having all the answers, arguments and information, it is about enduring in keeping our hearts open to the mystery of the never ending life of God within us and within the entire Universe. No temple, trend or triumphalist doctrine will stand when the demon of fear comes to steal our souls.

The detail IS the devil

Lk 20:27-38

This sermon is available in audio (Click here)

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.

Have you ever met people who obsess about details? I have, and in most cases, where I have had the privilege of speaking deeply with such people in counselling, I have discovered that the obsession with details is often a compulsive strategy of avoidance of deeper issues. I suppose it is a similar syndrome that makes a student spend days preparing the study place, the lighting, the timetable, anything but getting down to studying. At least that’s how I remember it from my formal student days.

It would seem, from studying the Gospels that those who question Jesus are often caught up in the details and minutiae of religious practice as a way of avoiding the confrontation with what really matters in the deeper parts of who they really are and what needs transformation? At one point you will remember, Jesus accuses his hearers of straining out gnats and swallowing camels (Matthew 23:24)

Could it be that questioning around the details of marriage arrangements in the resurrection, is a similar avoidance of a deeper issue?

I offer as an example of this dynamic, so many  people I meet who are obsessed with past lives regression and similarly with who and what they will be in heaven or in their next life, depending on their eschatological persuasion.  These dear and sincere people are often caught up in a dance with their own egos. After all, who but our false selves would be deeply concerned about the manner in which our lives will continue in God? Please do not hear me dismissing these interests as inconsequential. I know many who have been greatly helped by exploring past lives as well as meditating on who and what they will be after this life.  All I am concerned to point out is that the ego feasts on these exercises of imagination and so lures the false self into deeper and deeper constructs of illusion, thereby avoiding the life changing encounters with Truth.

I am surprised that as I have got older, I have developed a fair amount of sympathy for my ego, or “false self” as Thomas Merton chose to name it. My sympathy arises from the recognition that my false self has everything to lose from transformative depth encounters with God . I do mean “everything”. To follow Jesus in the Kingdom of the Heavens requires “the grain of wheat to fall into the ground and die“. The cross that I have to take up daily in my following of Jesus will require the gentle, but nevertheless, inevitable transformation of the ego into the likeness of Jesus, and thereby an inevitable diminishing of the self with its obsession with self maintenance, defence and perpetuation.

The false self (ego) in what Fr Thomas Keating calls its “Programs for Happiness” will always be aiming away from the target of self transformation into Christ as our true nature and true self.    The false self targets its own gratification as the exclusive focus of this life.  Need I remind us that “missing the target” is the root meaning of the word “sin”?

Merton writes, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. There I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface” (Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation pp. 34-35).

The devilishly detailed question of the Sadducees ironically come from a group that did not believe in the resurrection, but who are happy to set up a straw man debate in order to discredit Jesus, thereby avoiding having to deal with his challenge to their lives.

So as I am tempted to dance with this straw man, and get into the details of the possibility of marriage in heaven or not, I am checked by a realization that what is at issue here is not marriage in heaven.  The issue  for Jesus is  “Eternal Life” (zoein aionion literally Life of the Ages)

How interesting to realise that the phrase “eternal life” is never used in the Old Testament. The phrase only begins with the New Testament. In the Old Testament the only one who is eternal is God.

Jesus however invites his followers to begin to imagine and dream that they can share in this wholly other dimension to living. “And this is eternal life, that they may know (ginoeskoesin) you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3

Living eternally, in the teaching of Jesus is not an awaited event that comes at the end of this life, but the awakening from the dead right now.  The resurrection happens when one realises that this life with its cares and woes is not all there is. The kingdom of the heavens is within us, and living from that perspective is the ultimate salvation, right here right now.

It would seem that knowing God through Jesus constitutes an awakening from the dead and a beginning of living eternally. Moses was already in this context so he could speak about God as the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.

So to return to the beginning of this discussion; past life regression and our obsession with reincarnation or all the details of heaven, are activities of the ego. The false self is caught up with the inconsequential details, that actually must die here and now in this world so that the true self may emerge.

Does this mean that Christ followers should not marry? I do not want to suggest that at all. The context of modern marriages as loving, long term partnerships between two completely equal human beings (of any gender), is such a completely different relationship in our time, that to compare it with marriage in Jesus day is just plain silly.

In Jesus day, wives and children were possessions of husbands.  The implication that people who are already living eternal life and who don’t marry is really more about living life with diminished grasping for possessions including wives, children and cattle, than about whether Christ follower today should be getting married or not.

The bottom line of this passage for me lies, in its invitation to avoid being distracted from our chief purpose of realising the transformative eternal life in Jesus. Don’t be seduced by the devilish minutiae of doctrinaire speculations of any kind.