Camouflaged by shame

Luke 19:1-10

To hear this sermon preached click here

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

I grew up in a culture that was peppered with prejudice about all sorts of people and people groups. A product of the height of Apartheid, and a white male South African, I was fed a steady dose of all the stereotypes that went into making up our society. It may surprise you that the stereotypes weren’t all about race! Many of them were about other physical features, like, “Never trust anyone whose eyes are too close together“. I do beg your clemency for this bigoted upbringing and would offer as mitigating circumstance that I grew up deprived of “Google”. If I’d had the Internet I could have verified all these misperceptions on Wikipedia. (Yes, that lump on my face is indeed my tongue in my cheek!)

Another of these cultural biases was located around persons of short stature. Short man syndrome or a Napoleon Complex, was used to judge people of less than average height who competed aggressively with those who were taller. Behind the bias lay an unspoken principle: short people should know their place. Interesting that there isn’t a short woman syndrome, are women just expected to be small?

Coming this week to the most famous short man of the gospels, Zacchaeus, I find myself wondering if the short man syndrome was a bias in the days of Jesus? If it was, poor Zaccheaus had to face a double whammy. Short of stature, and also a tribute collector, what a difficult incarnation to carry.

All this nostalgia for the prejudicial upbringing of my past also dredged up a song from my youth. It was written by another short man and performed by his short self and his tall partner. The opening lines were, “When you’re weary , feeling small…

Are you old enough to remember “Bridge over Troubled Water“(YouTube Link) by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel? It was 1969, so you may not want to admit to that.

I think those opening lines would have got Zacchaeus’ attention if he had heard the song back in the day. Zacchaeus knew what it was to be weary and also what it was to feel small. In the shame based culture of his time (is there any other kind?) being a tribute collector was tantamount to being a spy and a traitor. The only difference was you were required to perform your treachery in public! Collecting the extorted tribute from the Jewish populace and then handing it over, sans your sizeable administration fee,  to the Roman oppressors would not have endeared this profession to your peers.

I can’t help wondering if the tree climbing that Luke tells us was to get a better view was not also an attempt at concealment and camouflage?

Zacchaeus knew who he was, he also knew what he had done. He saw the shame in the looks his fellow Jericho-ers, including some of his family, gave him as they looked down on him literally and in every way. Zacchaeus was quite happy to be concealed in the sycamore-fig tree that day. To catch a discreet glimpse of the travelling Rabbi, that so many were speaking of.

On the Internet there is a name for people who enter chat rooms and who never participate in the discussion. They are called “Lurkers“. Zacchaeus was a lurker. Drawn to the teacher Jesus, he didn’t believe he had anything to offer and certainly believed he was not worthy to receive anything, so he lurked in the sycamore-fig tree, the very tree that was ironically a symbol of the nation of Israel and of blessing. Knowing what we do now about the outcome of this narrative, the sycamore-fig tree was an inspired choice. Zacchaeus might not have dreamed about the blessing of Zechariah 3:10, “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.“, but somehow he knew he had to see Jesus

When I preach on a Sunday I sometimes find myself wondering how many Zacchaeuses are in church, or even reading this blog. People who are drawn by the promise of healing and wholeness from Jesus, but who have experienced too much shame and have been looked down upon just once to many, for them to risk disclosure of their need? They lurk in the back pews, or don’t even attend church, constantly reading blogs like this trying to find some redemption from the harsh judgement they see in the eyes of others. Sadly, the most despising and diminishing looks come from the disciples of Jesus.

Here is the good news. Jesus is drawn to shame. Shame and sadness are the pheromones that attract the amazing grace of Jesus.

Just one look up the tree of shame and concealment and Jesus encounters the one who is lurking there.

It took me a while before I grasped the irony of the tribute collector hiding in the iconic fig tree of Israel and of blessing. At the risk of totally mixing metaphors, and confusing everyone may I point out that Jesus “the vine of the New Israel” calls Zacchaeus Smallman, to leave the concealment of the laws of shame and blame and also to leave his false blessing of wealth and extortion. He is called to leave that which makes him live in concealment from everyone, and “come down” to take his place as a forgiven son of Abraham.

No longer will Zacchaeus have to lurk up the tree of shame and blame, he will now be able to sit under that tree in the blessing of God. How? Because, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

This is not merely a story for Zacchaeus. It is a call to each of us as Small-people.

Let us risk climbing from the perches of false guilt caused by prejudicial bias where we have been lurking, and leering at the world.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Wow! Zacchaeus, how you’ve grown! You are taller down here than when you were up the tree.

Why am I so needy?

Luke 12:22-31

He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

An indigent Indian poet with the musical name of Simanta Chattergee, once said to Robert Johnson, ‎”If I began thinking about needs, I would sink to the bottom of the world. If I don’t think, I get what I need

Fauna Sunday in the season of creation, is an invitation to invert our arrogant assumed dominance of the created order and to contemplate the inherent wisdom of the creation which witnesses to the provision of God far more than we, who claim to be the crown of that creation, do.

The following is an excerpt from a CNN report dated May 10, 2010 (

CNN) — The world’s eco-systems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse” according to a new United Nations report. The third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) published by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) warns that unless “swift, radical and creative action” is taken “massive further loss is increasingly likely.” Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD said in a statement: “The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history.” The U.N. warns several eco-systems including the Amazon rainforest, freshwater lakes and rivers and coral reefs are approaching a “tipping point” which, if reached, may see them never recover.

Whilst some of the extinctions can perhaps be viewed as part of the ongoing process of evolution and the natural selection process which sees the survival of the fittest, nevertheless, we cannot exonerate ourselves from being a conscious participant in the extinctions. It is important for us to note that for the first time in the history of the planet, apart from God’s role in things, evolution and extinction are being affected by a species which is aware of what we are doing, whilst we are doing it!

Some of the major human threats to species are well known but at the risk of redundancy, let me list them once again:

  • Unsustainable hunting
  • Trophy hunting of large predators
  • Introduction of exotic species
  • Habitat destruction

I am not so sure that Jesus’ prayer from the cross is applicable in this case. Remember as Jesus was being crucified, he prayed,” Father forgive them they don’t know what they are doing“? I think we know exactly what we are doing but we have made a critical error of judgement. We have failed to discern our role in the vast drama of this complex and beautiful planetary play. By a cunning sleight of hand, our dominant egos have tricked us to believe that everything exists to fulfil our needs and not the other way around.

Jesus grasped it in the gospel reading for this second Sunday in the season of creation. And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

  • The nations of the world” as Jesus refers to them. Seem to be those who have not grasped the secret of God’s reign, or as someone called it, “the God first principle”.
  • Your Father knows that you need them” begs the question as to whether I like all the other created species can place my dependence on God to provide what is needed. (Am I the only one, or do you also hear a thousand arguments arise as you read this? I wonder whose voice those arguments are using? My parents, teachers, financial advisors all baulk at this concept.)
  • “Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” There was a time when “seeking first the kingdom of God” meant I had to go into the world and get everyone to think and act like Christians do. I no longer believe that. I believe that Christianity as it is commonly practiced is a far from Jesus as the Pharisees were. No, striving for the Father’s kingdom has come to mean for me a radical reconsideration of what it means to form my life around following Jesus.

In that process I have had to confront my culture and all that it has indoctrinated me to believe.

That process has, in turn, taught me that striving for the Kingdom of the Father is a lifelong search for the places where nurturing and not destruction is taking place. My search for nurturing rather than destructive teachings has taken me outside of my own religion into a global community of concerned people who are together and individually searching for ways to heal and not to hurt.

For example I have learned from a maverick Japanese farmer called Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote, The One-Straw Revolution that:

To the extent that people separate themselves
from nature, they spin out further and further from the centre. At the same time, a centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises. But if people merely become caught up in reacting, moving to the left or to the right, depending on conditions, the result is only more activity. The non moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity, is passed over, unnoticed.

I believe that even “returning-to-nature” and anti-pollution activities, no matter how commendable, are not moving toward a genuine solution if they are carried out solely in reaction to the over development of the present age. Nature does not change, although the way of viewing, nature invariably changes from age to age. No matter the age, natural farming exists forever as the wellspring of agriculture.

This wise man also said:

To disrupt nature and then to abandon her is harmful and irresponsible.

So I have learnt that ravens and lilies have a wisdom, which Jesus understood and which when grasped is liberating for the troubled human soul.

My maternal grandmother had a simple plaque that used to hang in her kitchen. It read:

Said a sparrow to another,

“I would really like to know,

Why all these human beings

Rush and scurry so?”

Said the other little sparrow

“It seems pretty clear to me

They don’t have a heavenly Father

Such as cares for you and me.”

The secret seems to be that when I trust God first in all things, as ravens and lilies do, I then don’t have to worry about discerning need from greed.

The words of that indigent Indian poet have is so well, ‎”If I began thinking about needs, I would sink to the bottom of the world. If I don’t think, I get what I need

Believing is seeing.

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

One hundred and thirty eight times, in the four gospels, Jesus is reported as “seeing”.

Jesus noticed. Jesus was a “seer”.

It wasn’t that others around him did not see, it was the way he saw that contrasted with his disciples, the crowd, the Pharisees and generally everyone else. In last week’s lectionary reading, Jesus accused the crowd of being hypocites, because they were able to see the signs that foretold the changing weather (Lk12:55) but were unable to see the signs that showed that their heavenly parent wanted to give the kingdom to them, the little flock.(Lk 11:32)

There are forty four references to Jesus referring to or working with eyes in the gospels. One of the recurrent miracles of Jesus was to restore sight to the blind. It would seem that the people of Jesus’ day had a problem with seeing. Certainly they did not see as he saw, and thus did not see what he saw.

In today’s passage Jesus encounters a woman who has been crippled (astheneia – a word still with us in asthma and a male infertility disorder called astheno teratozoospermia lit “weak sperm”). The woman Jesus saw had been crippled for eighteen years, long enough I would speculate, for herto be seen by her community as the “bent over crippled woman”. So when she appeared in the synagogue, no one except Jesus, would have seen anyone other than a crippled woman.

What tells us that Jesus, saw something else is that his first words to her are in contradiction of her outward appearance, “Woman you are set free from your ailment“. The next thing Jesus does is to touch her, and it would seem that the contact is simple human contact and not some magical transfer of healing energy moment, as it is often interpreted as being. Just those words, based on unique seeing, and a simple human touch are enough to heal this woman and set her off praising God.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to see like that!

So I ask myself, “What was different in the way Jesus saw this woman that could teach me to see as he saw?”

In answer to my question, I noticed three aspects:

He saw the person and not the condition.

Whenever I have had the really challenging task of conducting a funeral for someone who has taken their own life, I have encouraged the congregation to remember that a person, any person is much, much more than the way that they died. It is a real trap to speak of a person who died by their own hand, as forever after, “a suicide” and to forget that they were also a person, in relationships, with a family, a career, a home.

The leader of the synangogue, in today’s reading saw only the misdemeanour of a healing on the Sabbath.  Jesus saw a miracle of a woman whose cure was imminent (and immanent).

In all my encounters with people, am I able to see the person and not the condition?

He saw the potential and not the present manifestation.

I would love to have the technology to evaluate exactly at what point the healing of the crippled woman took place. Was it when she was seen by Jesus? Was it when he told her she was free of her ailment? Was it when he touched her? I have no way of identifying the moment, but I would like to think that, at some level, the healing began when Jesus saw her as whole and not bent-double.

Just as quantum physics is teaching us that our expectations of outcomes in the experiments we are observing can determine the data we observe in the experiment, so too I believe people often become and manifest what we “see” them to be. In South Africa where we are still working on the fallout of our Apartheid heritage, there is a question asked in anti-bias workshops. The leader asks the group, “Why is it that when we see a white person running in the street, we ask, ‘I wonder what he is late for?‘” “When we see a black person running in the street, we ask, ‘I wonder what he is running from?‘” What effect does our shadow projection, or by contrast our light projection onto people do to the experiences they and we have of each other. The work of Carl Gustav Jung has shown that the effects are significant.

In all my encounters with people, am I able to see the potential in the seemingly suffering individual before me?

He saw without prejudice.

It would seem that Jesus had the wonderful gift to see exactly what was before him in its full kingdom potential and not be swayed by obvious externals and past realities that might contradict what he was seeing at a deeper level.

Prejudice affects us all. The word means to “judge before”

I remember a case that was told me of a teacher who was given false information about the intelligence and learning abilities of a class of children. After just one semester the children were actually performing according to the false profiles she had been given. Her prejudice had created real behaviour in the classroom.

In all my encounters with people, am I able to see the reality of the person rather than be swayed what I have been told or experienced of them before this moment? Can I act always without prejudice?

When I think of my work as a healer, (I believe all ministry is healing at some level) I realise that healing begins when people are seen as Jesus would see them:

  • With Unconditional Acceptance
  • With appreciation for their person and not their problem.
  • With vision for their potential and not their limitations
  • With insight into how my prejudice could keep them in bondage to suffering, or if I could let my prejudice go, to their liberation.

A dear colleague of mine, Don Scrooby, has a wonder-filled blog called Seeing more Clearly.  I like that.

Believing is seeing…. as Jesus does.

The cost of values

If this was a soap opera script it would begin as follows…

“Last week on ‘Following Jesus‘”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

“…and now to this week’s episode of ‘Following Jesus'”

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Last week I was reflecting that there is a shift of mood in the gospel that we read from Luke 12:32-48. The passage begins with a beautiful theme of blessing for the crowd. The “little flock” are to be the recipients of the basilea, the reign of a parental God, (contrasted with the despotic turannis of Rome). [I have coloured that text green] I suggested that perhaps the latter half of the passage [which I have coloured red] reflected the mood of an abused and despondent church at the time Luke wrote: a church that was being abused by leaders that had lost their way and their focus.

To enter fully into this week’s passage (verses 49-56) we have to connect it to the preceding passage for it is the same dialogue, and I have coloured the text for this week to continue the mood from “last week”.

I can’t remember where it was that I first learnt of the two levels of Jesus’ teaching, so forgive me for not referencing my source. My memory is becoming a forgettery! It is however an interesting dimension to bear in mind when reading the teachings of Jesus. When he is with the crowd, strangers and foreigners, he proclaims the Good News of God’s unconditional acceptance and universal compassion. When Jesus is with the disciples, his teaching is far more demanding and often blunt. “How much longer do I have to put up with you?!“, kind of sayings. The point is that the Good News brings us to the place of commitment and discipleship, not the other way around. I am dumbfounded when I hear preaching that implies that only when we have done the “hard stuff” will we experience grace. “No! No! No!“, I want to scream, “We do the hard stuff because we have experienced grace!

Jesus is continuing, this week, to answer Peter’s question, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”. His initial response is to warn the douloi (slaves) of the Bridegroom not to become lax and abusive of their fellow servants whilst waiting for the return of the Bridegroom. (I asked last week if this was perhaps Luke’s editorialising of the narrative as he saw the abuses of the ninth century church?)

In the final part of that answer to Peter, Jesus speaks in graphic terms to the disciples about the division his proclamation will bring, and then he ends with a final challenge to the crowd.

Firstly Jesus speaks of bringing fire to the earth. Here is a possible allusion to Elijah, the conqueror of the false prophets in his day. In similar ways Jesus understands his mission to challenge and confront the lost and erroneous worship values of his day. An ironic insight comes from the Greek, where the word for fire is “Pur” could this be a etymological root in our word “purify”? None of the etymological dictionaries I consulted gave that but it’s a nice little hook for this discussion.

He goes on to talk about his baptism, his initiation. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Once again dipping into the Greek text discloses that Jesus is again using the word telesthei which is the same word he cries from the cross when “It is accomplished“, “Tetelestai” For more on this see (my blog from last week.)

The stress that Jesus says he is experiencing until his “baptism” is accomplished is the same word Paul uses when he writes “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” 2 Corinthians 5:14

From this point Jesus launches into a disturbing discourse about the divisions that his coming will bring about on earth. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” What does this all mean?

Firstly five is never going to divide equally. Odd numbers never do! Is this the origin of “being at odds with someone”?

Secondly, I must confess that the specific relationships Jesus points out are the ones which, in my experience, are most naturally conflicted! Think about it…

  • Father against son.
  • Mother against daughter
  • Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and vice versa

These are the classic conflict lines in families.

Note he doesn’t say :

  • Father against daughter
  • Mother against son
  • Brother against sister

These great primal and psychological bonds that are the subjects of a thousand human dramas, on and off the stage, are not part of the list. Why is this so? Why are the most common lines of conflict used by Jesus to illustrate the division he is going to bring?

Is Jesus, as reported by Luke, choosing these three examples of natural conflict very specifically to illustrate the crisis that following Jesus will bring? I think so.

Firstly in the reference to the “Father and Son” conflict Jesus is making the following clear. Conflict is natural, and the conflict between the followers of Jesus and the old order will be a natural consequence of his kingdom’s (basilea’s) reign against the turranis (despotic power) of the established political order and the cult of Emperor worship imposed by Rome. The Pariarchal power of old order dominance and oppression has no place in the kingdom of Jesus. We must never forget, especially in these perilous political times, that the first Christians were persecuted not for dogma, but for devotion. They refused to bow down to the image of the Emperor as was required of all Roman citizens and people in occupied territories.

Secondly, relating to the Mother against daughter, the conflict is not only going to be against the powers and principalities of Rome. The Jews of Jesus day had a similar opposition to Emperor worship yet they too came into conflict with the values of the Kingdom of the Heavens. That is because the kingdom crisis reaches into Matriarchal energies and strongholds. It is worth remembering that the Jews were and are, a Matrilineal culture in the time of Jesus. Matrilinearity had been developing in the Hellenistic world not from the Torah, but in the oral tradition which was codified in the Talmud by the 2nd century CE, which means it would have been active in the traditions and times of the Jesus and the early church. See Wikipedia . Having illustrated the crisis the Kingdom will be to Patriotism (you did see pater in Patriotism?) with regard to the Father- son conflict and Rome. I suggest that in the Mother-daughter conflict Jesus is now illustrating the conflict the kingdom crisis will bring for the established matrilinear religion of his day. The old evangelical adage, “God has no grandchildren” which was used to emphasize that each generation has to make their own decision for Christ, is helpful to illustrate the Mother-daughter conflict. Claiming religious lineage is not a kingdom value.

So finally the Mother-in-law / Daughter-in-law, reciprocal conflict; what can this mean? I must admit I was stumped with this one at first until I fired up ISA2 once more. [No it isn’t a NASA rocket, it is Interlinear Scripture Analyzer 2 a really useful program that makes my Greek look much better than it is.

What I discovered is that the literal words in the Greek text of Luke don’t say Mother-in-Law / Daughter-in-law. The literal words are “Matri penthera epi tein Numphein auteis”. Translating word by word, that reads “Mother mother-in-law on the BRIDE of her”. The big AHA for me was that what we translate as daughter-in-law is the word Numphein ie Nymph which literally means bride. Numphein is used only in the Gospels of Matthew Luke and John where it refers to “bride” and then in Revelation where it refers to the Bride of the Lamb, which is the church! I would suggest that in this third example of the conflict the kingdom will bring Jesus is acknowledging that his kingdom will not only bring conflict between Church and State; nor only between Church and the originating Mother of the Church, the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The mother-in-law will be in conflict with the bride. Law and grace, forever in tension.

Could it be that Jesus was teaching the disciples to be aware that within the church itself there would be division and discord caused by the crisis of the new values of the kingdom of God’s reign?

I believe he was. Simply supporting the church status quo is not a kingdom value. Self criticism and constant measurement against kingdom values is essential. As evidence of this need I would cite the following:

  • Within a few centuries the Church had acquiesced to the power of the state and the Pope was the Spiritual Emperor. The Father son conflict was papered over in a political truce that has never really worked.
  • The Patristic councils effectively expunged all Matriarchal forms of Christianity in its Gnostic formulations and with the hatchet job done on Mary Magdalene. This feminine energy has only recently been replaced by the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary promulgated in 1950 and celebrated by our Catholic friends this very Sunday. Subsequent strides in Feminist theology still strive to restore the balance within the church.
  • The Reformation and Counter-reformation were shifts and shakes in an organism that constantly has to be self-reflective and by implication self-critical.
  • In our own day the Emerging church is a form in which that self-critical assessment continues to strive for context relevance in tension with honesty and obedience to Jesus.

We would do well as church to not be afraid to constantly asses the state of the predicted Father-son, Mother-daughter and Mother-in-Law to Bride, conflicts of our day.

In conclusion Jesus turns to the crowd and accuses them of hypocrisy. He reminds them of their ability to read the weather and yet at the same time to avoid seeing the blatant truth of God’s values juxtaposed with political, religious and organizational power.

I wonder if he would say the same to us today? It seems that the values of the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate and which he accomplished in his life, death and resurrection, are still in tension with the values of our politics, our religions and our organizations.

Are we prepared to bear the cost of Christ’s Kingdom values?

Why are we delaying the party?

Luke 12:32-48

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded

It would seem that this passage breaks down into two parts, paragraph one is the declaration and paragraph two the dialogue.

In the declaration of paragraph one, Jesus puts his hearers at ease. Daddy God, Abba, wants to give you the kingdom where he lives, with pleasure. So you can get rid of all your possessions and give alms to the poor because your investment is in the kingdom of the heavens, far from robbers and inflation. Do this because wherever you invest your life is where your attention will be.

The master is coming soon to celebrate his victory and even his slaves will be blessed in this celebration. The master will serve the slaves (douloi = slaves who were born in slavery, not enslaved), the only condition is the slaves must be awake and recognize him when he knocks at the door. It might even be in the middle of the night so vigilance is necessary so as not to fall asleep and miss the arrival of the master.

As I read this first section, the sense of immanence and urgency is palpable. The kingdom, the basilea in Greek  is already here!

The second half of the passage has a different feel. The energy shifts and it seems that the immanence and expectancy dissipates. Could there be some delay between the writing of these two paragraphs?

The detective in me wonders why it is Peter who is asking the question? Could this be the voice of Early Christians being put into the mouth of the Petros (stone) on which Christ said he would build his church? The reference to the abuse of other slaves, eating and drinking and getting drunk are all the result of the master being delayed. Is this not a dramatization of the Early Church trying to deal with their crisis of expectations? They had believed, lived and preached that Jesus was returning soon. Luke, writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE, would have known the dynamics of this crisis only too well.

If that is the case, how much more acute is the crisis for us as modern Christ followers, if we are still holding out for a physical return of Christ in time and space?

Allow me to say out loud what many of us have may been thinking for some time. Given what we are discovering about the Universe, its origins, scope and scale, it seems very unlikely that the Apocalyptic visions of the book of the Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel and all others that have been mustered to determine the details of how it is all going to end, will be realised. It seems reasonable to believe that the information streaming from The Hubble Telescope and from the Large Hadron Collider on the macro and micro fronteirs of our exploration demands that we acknowledge the universe doesn’t work like the Mayans, Nostradamus nor even the early Christians thought it did.

In fact, what I have come to realise as I navigate this ocean of opinion in the quest for mainlands of meaning, is that admitting that we have not fully understood all that Jesus was trying to communicate, may open us to a fresh perspective which in turn might be our real hope.

So let me make some statements that might be co-ordinates as we chart our course towards a more integrated and intellectually honest understanding of this Bridal feast teaching.

The first statement is about scripture. If we are to be intellectually honest we have to allow our understanding of the levels of scripture to grow. That journey begins by recognizing that in any text, be it prose, poetry, mythology or science, the literal meaning is the lowest level of understanding.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And Eternity in an hour.

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

Why is it, when we read William Blake’s words from “Auguries of Innocence” we do not demand from the words literal veracity that we demand from similar words of scripture?  Yet it is this very suspension of any demand for scientific and historic accuracy that makes his poem and any other capable of moving us most deeply. I wonder what it will take for us to see the words of Scripture as the profound truths about reality that they really are, despite the fact that they may not square with current scientific information. Truth is truth when it moves our hearts and not merely when it makes us nod our heads.

Moving on from there, my second statement is premised on the first. The kingdom of our Heavenly parent is real and experienced in every moment that we allow peace, compassion and love to suspend our judgment, opinion and our demand for the power of always being correct. I need to pause for a moment, to explain that “the kingdom” is a reign (basilea). The opposite of basilea (reign, dominion, kingdom) is turannis a monarchy, or sovereignty. It is worth noting that the word turannis occurs nowhere in the New Testament. How I wish to basilea that some members of the Fundamentalist Christian Taliban would understand the subtleties of this! It suggests that if I can stop my own fear based tyrannical demand for control of everything and everyone in my world, I can live in the readiness that I am going to hear my master the bridegroom, knocking on the doors of my experience multiple times a day! I will celebrate providence and perfection in multiple moments when I know that I am already feasting with my Lord.

From this place of realized eschatology where I recognize that Jesus has already returned, (in fact he never left) I will relax from always having to judge and discern who is in the Kingdom and who is outside the Kingdom, because Jesus is here and he is the way the truth and the life and not me, nor my doctrine nor my denomination.

“But what about the end times?” you cry. Allow me an attempt at a concluding statement. There are two ways that we can understand “end”. The first is the Latin word Finis I am old enough to remember seeing that word as the final title on the movie screen. “It is Finished” This is the end of the movie. The film has spooled out of the projector.

There is however, another word for “end”. It is the Greek word Telos.
This word means end in the sense of everything being accomplished. It is the root for the word that describes Jesus knowing that all things having been accomplished (tetelestai) then says “I thirst.” (John 19:28) And later himself says, “It is accomplished (tetelestai)” and dies. (John 19:30). It is this word that allows me to suggest that what many Christians still see as only coming in the future, End (finis) times, is already here in these End (telos) times. You see, telos time is like the “whodunnit” mystery novels, it makes sense of the clues that we have been glimpsing all along. The things we suspected all along, but were too afraid to ask or that the Church was too afraid to let us believe lest we would no longer be controlled, attend worship and pay our tithes!

The disturbing second part of our scripture passage, that I suggest are the words of a later, well developed church, point to a community that is beginning to obfuscate the direct experience of Jesus by neglecting and abusing their fellow servants in the belief that Jesus is not going to be around for a while and so the leadership have to take over control and dominate the membership. It is the beginning of the Christian Taliban that has blossomed at various times of history and is in full bloom all around us at the moment.

Exclusionary, xenophobic, ethnocentric, separatist… how many words have we found in our modern vocabularies to describe the horrific clues we have been witnessing in the church but are not confident to name or challenge? At the heart of the abuses of the second paragraph abuses in our passage, lies the drift from a telos understanding of end to a finis, understanding of end. Jesus proclaimed the telos had happened. The church realised that only with the threat of finis, could they keep control. So they switched the focus!

Fortunately, not everyone was fooled. In very generation and thankfully in our own, there have been saints and sages who have lived as if the echoes from the cross were true. “Tetelestai!” they cried as they lived in the reality that the Kingdom is already amongst us, and the challenge of our Gospel first paragraph life is possible. For them, despite severe opposition, from the finis camp, the telos of a loving Father’s kingdom made the present moment vibrant and pregnant with grace and redemption.

Would you like a checklist of the clues they discovered?

  • Reconciliation with God? Accomplished.
  • Binding of Satan? Accomplished.
  • Defeat of evil? Accomplished.
  • Freedom for all? Accomplished.
  • Emptying of Hell? Accomplished.
  • Living in paradise? Accomplished.

But why can’t we see it?” we whine.

Because we are blinded by our dogmas and our devotion to outdated and increasingly irrelevant creeds (If we demand they be understood literally)

But for those who know what the Master wants, who understand that he requires compassion and care for every one of his servants; those who know a lot and those who know very little, if we will do what he told us to do in the first paragraph we read…:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

… for these who can look above the literal and see the mystery of heaven already present and breaking through into present time, those will understand exactly how…

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

TETELESTAI!!!!

Re-learning to pray for today

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

It has become fashionable in recent years to offer translations of the Lord’s Prayer that intend to make the depths of this core Christian practice more meaningful and accessible.

One of my favourites is the one by Neil Douglas-Klotz, translated from the Aramaic, which is probably the language that Jesus spoke. If you visit this website you can hear the prayer being said in Aramaic (Note that God is referred to as “Allah” in Aramaic, a fact that draws me much closer to my Muslim brothers and sisters when I pray)

Douglas-Klotz’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer published in Prayers of the Cosmos reads as follows:

O Birther! Father- Mother of the Cosmos

Focus your light within us – make it useful.

Create your reign of unity now-

through our fiery hearts and willing hands

Help us love beyond our ideals

and sprout acts of compassion for all creatures.

Animate the earth within us: we then

feel the Wisdom underneath supporting all.

Untangle the knots within

so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to each other.

Don’t let surface things delude us,

But free us from what holds us back from our true purpose.

Out of you, the astonishing fire,

Returning light and sound to the cosmos.

Amen.

This translation is obviously very different from the one we grow up saying or singing in church but it does illustrate the need for us, in every generation, to review our understandings, not only of the Lord’s Prayer, but also of all our faith and practice.

A few years ago I was in conversation with a friend who was considering becoming a Buddhist monk and we were reflecting on the two hundred and twenty seven precepts or commandments that govern Bhikkhu’s lives. In that conversation I coined the phrase, “context-relevance” which describes the need for our doctrine, ethics and practice to be relevant with the context we find ourselves in. If we do not pursue context-relevance, (and I don’t mean context-relativism) we run the risk of becoming anachronistic and irrelevant.

With that in mind, permit me to take another look at the Lord’s Prayer (which would be better named “The Disciple’s prayer”; as the Lord’s Prayer is what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.)

Say it with me:

Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Give us this day our daily bread nd forgive us our trespasses(sins) as we forgive those who trespass(sin) against us.

And lead us not into temptation (Save us from the time of trial) but deliver is from evil.

Such familiar words which we learn as children, and then as adults we love telling of the bloopers kids make whilst learning. Ones like, “Our Father who shouts in heaven, ‘Hello what’s your name?'” My favourite, was one of my sons who, as a little mite, earnestly prayed, “… and lead us not onto the station.”

The question that lurks behind the cuteness is, “What is the context-relevance of this prayer in 2010?

Permit me then, to apply what I have learnt of modern human needs, from my pastoral ministry; to the Lord’s Prayer in an attempt to offer some insights that may remind us of its context relevance in 2010.

Our Father. Thank you that despite the dysfunction of some families of origin, I need never think of myself as spiritually orphaned nor abandoned in my life as it is now.

Who art in heaven and not in some faraway destination, but right within the heart of your creation. You live in the place of perfect bliss and love, which I can access every time I open to your reality within me.

Hallowed be Thy name which is above every human distinction and status. You are without equal and thus in competition with no one. As wholly other, you do not require of me to justify you, explain you, or even defend you. I need only acknowledge you as the ultimate and everything else then finds its proper place.

Thy Kingdom come. May the discovery that you are in charge of all reality as the Prime One, be the experience of every conscious being.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May your dreamed destiny for everything you have created be realised within us, and made real around us, so that the intended perfection of all beings and relationships may manifest.

Give us this day our daily bread. Restore our perceptions so we may see you at the heart of all provision and work for a living and not to make a killing.

And forgive us our trespasses(sins) as we forgive those who trespass(sin) against us. Help us to understand that your unconditional acceptance of every person and culture is the ground of harmony and community for us all. May compassion grow for victims and perpetrators alike, so that real transformation will be our experience.

And lead us not into temptation (Save us from the time of trial) Guard us from our own destructiveness and the oppositional forces within us that keep us from being healed.

but deliver is from evil. May our shadows never overwhelm us, and may fear not be the ruling principle in our living and decision making.

So may it be for us all

AMEN

Twice robbed: by Thieves and Lawyers

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Coming once again to such a familiar passage as the Good Samaritan, there is the strong temptation to assume that I know what is happening in the narrative. If I can fight off that temptation and hover over the story just a little, previously unnoticed or unregistered details pixelate into view.

One such emerging insight is the fact that the parable is told in response to the sophistry of a lawyer who is testing Jesus. Lawyers suffer a lot of bad press and are the butt of thousands of jokes. Usually they deserve the derision. It is an adversarial and argumentative profession. The lawyer in our Gospel is no different. Is he really interested in eternal life or is he flying a kite? It is impossible from this distance to know. It does seem that he wants to inherit eternal life, but within clear norms and parameters. Loving God with heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving neighbour as one loves oneself is not clear enough. He wants a definition of the term neighbour. If he knows who is described he can then proceed to love them within the norm and the parameter.

Jesus, frustratingly tells his enquirer a story which casts the neighbour in the form of the person who we come across and whom we would be the least likely to help. In fact the law of Jesus’ day would have fully exonerated the bypassing priest and Levite on good legal grounds of avoiding impurity and defilement. It would seem that Jesus’ story is in fact subversive with regard to the law itself. It is an outrageous story of an untouchable Samaritan being the one who touches the beaten up man on the side of the road. Not only is the Samaritan uncaring of the purity laws about blood and corpses (which the heap of humanity by the roadside might have been), as a Samaritan, by touching the man he may in fact have brought defilement on the victim by the touch of compassion. This story is a legal conundrum and koan.

In the days of the Struggle to end Apartheid here in South Africa, there was a saying that was borrowed from the American Civil Rights movement a decade earlier. It said, “If the law becomes a thief, it is just to break the law.” Examples of this civil disobedience were clergy who married Black, Coloured, Indian and Chinese people to Caucasian people despite the fact that it was not permitted in terms of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, Act No 55 of 1949. The marriage could not be registered legally, but the ministers performing the marriage knew that in the sight of God these two people were married even if the state would not acknowledge this. In a most ironic twist, current South African legislation permits Gay and Lesbian Civil Unions, but Methodist clergy are prohibited by our Church law from registering with the State as Civil Union Officers and thus prohibited from performing Gay and Lesbian Marriages. “If the law becomes a thief it is just to break the law.” Many Methodist clergy are still conducting the Christian blessing of Civil Unions in defiance of the Church legislation.

As I look once more at this socially outrageous story of the Good Samaritan, set in the context of Jesus’ debate with a sophisticated lawyer’s sophistry, one thing becomes clear. Law and Compassion do not sit easily together. In fact, nine times out of ten, law seems to quench love. On the other hand, compassionate love, if it is to be true to Jesus, will at some point probably have to break some laws. Loving like Jesus (who is the archetypal Good Samaritan and Good Shepherd)is not for faint hearts.

Reflecting on over thirty years of minsitry I recognise that everytime I have kept the rules of the church with regard to who may or may not be baptised, confirmed, married or buried in the Church, inevitably, someone has got hurt or excluded. Usually both. During such times I have always felt such a coward having hidden in the thicket of the law.

This parable brings home to me a recognition, that whilst I may find the most erudite reasons to justify non-engagement with the suffering of those lying in my path, in most cases, I will be motivated by Law and not by Love. I have become a robber too.

You see, the poor man lying on the side of the road was robbed twice. The first robbers took his goods and beat him up. At the hands of the priest and Levite, he was robbed a second time. The priest and Levite robbed him of compassionate justice.

It is true. The law is a thief, whenever is steals my love away.

Thanks be to God we are called not to be lawyers, but lovers for Jesus.

The loneliness of the God in our image.

Staring at this image for 30 seconds creates a picture of Jesus when you then close your eyes

Luke 9:18-24

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”

Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”

He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

This passage has an intriguing opening. It also is an interesting study in psychological projection.

There seems to be a contradiction in that opening statement. Jesus is praying in solitude and his disciples are with him? How could that be?

It seems to suggest an important lesson for those of us who take prayer seriously. Solitude need not mean solitary. It would seem from this cameo of Jesus’ spiritual practice that he needed to be in solitude, that essential state for the growth of spirit in Spirit and by Spirit. This of course is not new to us. The Gospel of Luke distinctively shows Jesus as often drawing aside to be in solitude. What is of note however, is that this solitude may be practiced in the presence of a community of those who are on the journey with us.

There is too much loneliness in our world. Those of us, like myself, who live alone may too easily succumb to the temptation of solipsism and think that God may only be found in absence from others. Wasn’t it John Cassian who taught that community is essential for the monk, for how can one hope to grow in grace if there is no one to challenge and irritate you?

So the distinction between solitude, and loneliness have to be carefully discerned.

That profound Jungian, (no, sadly, they are not all profound, many are merely pretentious) Robert Johnson, has written of loneliness in “Inner Gold: understanding psychological projection”

He says:

Loneliness is an interior matter… The collective unconscious often produces myths that tell us what is happening or about to happen in a culture… [One] is Der Fliegende Holländer, The Flying Dutchman. There are many variations on the story and all go something like this. A young man has committed an indiscretion, a transgression that resembles the one that caused Adam and Eve to be expelled from the Garden of Eden. He is the captain of the ship The Flying Dutchman. As punishment, he and his ship are banished to sail the storm clouds, where they must stay until someone loves him. He cannot ask anyone to love him. He has to wait. That’s the terrible thing about loneliness. You can’t ask for relief. It’s a kind of paralysis. You can only hope that someone will sense your dilemma and help.

The Flying Dutchman has been banished “above” to the stormy upper world. Loneliness is always “up there,” an abstraction. There are billions of people in the world. We do not need to feel lonely. But we alienate ourselves from ourselves and then we head up to the clouds, to the stormy aspect of loneliness. When our feet are on the ground, we feel connected to the energy of the world and don’t feel so lonely. When we connect with the lower parts of ourselves, we are in relationship with others as well. The word saunter comes from the Middle Ages, when we sainted or sanctified inanimate objects, and not just people. Even the cross was sainted, and so was the earth. The earth was called Saint Terrare, and so when we saunter, we are in contact with Saint Terrare, the sainted earth. Sauntering grounds and connects us. It is an important cure for loneliness.

Every evening, as the winds whirl around the chimneys, the villagers hear the Flying Dutchman moaning, crying out in loneliness. They all rush indoors, closing their doors and windows, to keep out this awful sound. For years the young man lives like that, up in the storm clouds, moaning in the chimney tops of northern Germany.

Then, one day, a peasant maiden hears him moaning, and because of her good heart, goes out into the yard and calls to him. She asks the Flying Dutchman to come to her, and that is all it takes. He comes down and is relieved of his loneliness. They have a love affair, and his humanity is restored. Only a peasant woman in touch with the earth has the good sense to do this.

Many of us are Flying Dutchmen, and our loneliness is unendurable. We have an insatiable need for entertainment—we moderns watch TV and other screens more than seven hours a day—and for anything that might assuage our longing, especially late at night when the howling in the chimney tops is most painful. Loneliness is on the rise, and advertisers exploit this: If you do thus and so, you’ll feel better.

There are three kinds of loneliness—loneliness for the past, loneliness for what has not yet been realized, and the profound loneliness of being close to God. The third kind is actually the solution. A good myth doesn’t leave you out on a limb. It describes the difficulty, and also offers a solution.( Pg 36-38)

Jesus, before Jung and Johnson, knew this. That is why he is praying in solitude, WITH the disciples.

So we come to the psychological projection part of the story.

Probably one of the most powerful excuses we offer when we fudge the distinction between solitude and loneliness, and want to justify our aloneness, is that when we are alone we have less conflict. With Satre we intone, “Hell is other people“. The truth is when we are alone we don’t have to account for ourselves and we don’t have to deal with the expectations of life and others.

It is rigorous to be in community with others. It is difficult to deal with the projections and the expectations. Ask any clergy-person. I mean, who on earth or should that be “who in hell?” decided that clergy should enter this already rigorous communal life with the Albatross title of “REVEREND” around their necks? If that is not begging for destructive projection then I don’t know what is. Could this simple aspect account for so much of clergy burnout, depression  and psychosis?

Healthy and whole Jesus, in the solitude of prayer in community deals with projection head on. He asks what most of us as clergy are too afraid to ask, “So who do people say that I am?”

Watch the projections happen. Individual and collective unconscious archetypes are projected onto Jesus in this passage. “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'”

Jesus, sniffs but he doesn’t inhale. This is ego-intoxicating stuff. Instead he moves the question into the community. Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter offers the prophetic, priestly and papal projection, “The Christ of God.”

Now there is something for the ego to get hold of!  That trumps “Reverend”, don’t you think?

But healthy and whole Jesus, still sniffing and not inhaling,says Luke, “…rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.

Instead, Jesus begins to teach about selfless service and how, losing one’s life is the only way to follow him.

I don’t know if our communities will ever be able to stop the projection onto the clergy with its terrible price. I know even less, if the clergy will ever become integrated enough to stop inhaling those projections. Certainly the young crop of clergy I see in my denomination and Synod seem hell bent on being more “Reverend” than they are on being “real”

And so the church will still never see Jesus as clearly as Jesus saw himself.

Lonely isn’t it?

(Listen to this reflection being preached on Father’s Day 2010 at Port Alfred Methodist Church.  Click here)

Liberating a shadow legion

Luke 8:26-39

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

It is a tricky task when reading scripture not to force too much modern symbolism out of nor into the reading which, it must be acknowledged, comes to us across a twenty century cultural and historical divide. So having paid my dues to decency, that is exactly what I am going to do with this passage simply because it begs to be read at all its rich levels of meaning.

I am intrigued by the context of this miracle. Jesus has crossed over the lake of Galilee, and has entered the wilderness area of the decapolis (ten cities). We should not be surprised that Jesus has crossed over. He is the consummate, “fence jumper” isn’t he? Put a label, a prejudice, a social barricade before Jesus and before long he will, “cross over”. It is thus not surprising that in this wilderness area of the Trans-Jordan, Jesus encounters demons. This wilderness was after all the place where the scapegoats had for centuries been driven with their shadow burden of Israel’s sin. This wilderness was the place of Israel’s projections. Similar perhaps to how the continent of Africa has been scapegoated with all the shadow material of the Euro-American high priests placed on its people’s dark skinned shoulders?

Jesus goes to the repository of shadow material.

The fact that Jesus encounters a naked, demoniac (psychotic?) is not surprising. What is surprising is that the fence jumping Jewish Rabbi is not averse to an encounter with this frightened and frightening person. All the rules of culture and religion dictated that it would be best to ignore and avoid a person like this.

The demoniac on the other hand comes to Jesus and knows who he is. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” He also is reluctant for an encounter with Jesus. “I beg you, do not torment me” Here is a person robbed of dignity. Exposed and shamed, symbolised by his nakedness and excluded by reference to his location in the tombs.

Jesus’ response is to inquire as to the man’s real identity. By asking his name, Leslie Weatherhead suggests, Jesus is asking a question equivalent in the day to a therapist asking in our day, “How did it all begin? What power is it that is over you“. The insight that emerges in the narrative suggests that Jesus might have spent a long time in this conversation drawing closer and closer to this rejected and abused human being to get him to a place of trust where he could share his story (his name) with Jesus. Weatherhead goes on to speculate that perhaps the reference to the name “Legion” may be a pointer to the fact that the man was naming atrocities committed by the Roman Legionaires who controlled the Decapolis.

Whatever the illness of the man, Jesus sets him free and liberates him from the abysmal energies at work in his life. No wonder that the man deeply desires to stay with his divine therapist from then on, and how skilful of Jesus not to encourage that dependence but to set the restored man free to be himself, and not a slavish dependent disciple? I wonder if, in our ministry as churches, we are as generously skilful?

I suppose I really should stop here, with this psychological interpretation that would be acceptable to us as preachers, and our congregations. I really should stop, but there is a question haunting me in the right outfield of my mind. I have to notice it.

The question is, “In what form is this Demoniac representative of people haunted by legions of hurtful and abusive experiences from the Church?”  Is the church the demoniser?

If it is true that the demoniac symbolises the demonised members of society who have been stripped of their identity and clothing and who are living in the tombs, then it must be equally true that Jesus wants to encounter those very people and bring them back to healing and community.

Space and time does not permit me to begin naming the thousand and one members in this legion of abuse and shaming commanded and executed by the church. Let me begin the current  list and leave you to complete it.

Racism and slavery, sexism and patriarchy, homophobia, paedophilia,… The legion of fear based “tactics of exclusion” that has many living in the tombs having forgotten their identity as children of God to the extent that they beg Jesus to leave them alone.

Hear the good news, “Jesus is a fence jumper!”

He will go to the shadow wildernesses created by our fears and projections and liberate our scapegoated sisters and brothers from their abysmal exclusion. Having done this he will command us to continue this work in his name.

After all, was the heyday of the church not when we dwelt in the catacombs ourselves?

What does he possibly see in her?

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

There is a saying that goes, “We seldom see things the way they are, rather we see things the way we are

Our contexts, our cultures, our histories with certain people groups, our preferences, are all filters which determine what we see when we see something or someone. Living as I do in South Africa, where labelling and prejudice was a way of life, I am deeply aware of my tendency to label and judge at every opportunity. In the heydays of Liberation Theology and Orthopraxis, we were taught to “See, Judge, Act“. Now that may be good for revolutionaries, but I am not sure that it cultivates a contemplative attitude to the world and people. These days I much prefer Lama Surya Das’ mantra, “See it, Know it, Watch it go. There seems less of the judging labelling mind in this second approach. Am I getting lazy?

With that as my background you will understand why, when I read of this classic encounter at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, I notice the way people are seeing, judging and acting.

Simon the Pharisee, is focussed on the externals. “he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” His focus on externals prevents him from meeting the person behind his label.

The anonymous woman, is focussed on her deep need for unconditional acceptance. “She stood behind him at his feet,
weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair”
Her need overwhelms her awareness of propriety and place.

Jesus with the wealth of wisdom coming from a contemplatively integrated heart, sees both and his response to Simon and the woman is absolutely need specific and thus appropriate to each individual.

I would like to cultivate seeing the way that Jesus sees.

  • Seeing the need not the label
  • Responding with compassion and not prejudice
  • Putting care above convention
  • Being able to hold opposing energies in one room and minister to people on each side. (Simon and the Woman)

The gospel reading ends with a list of interesting woman who followed Jesus on the way. Looking deeply at this encounter in Simon’s house, I can understand why they did.