Taking the plunge – Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Almost twenty years ago and a hundred kilometers off the coast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s most southern city, a yachting couple were in grave danger.  A brutal storm that characterizes these waters, had capsized their small yacht. Being a keel boat it had of course righted itself, but the mast was broken and lay like a broken limb across the deck with the sails and rigging in the turbulent sea.  Their lives were seriously at risk.

I read the story on the front page of the local morning paper. By then the news desk could report that a South African Air force Shackleton fixed wing aircraft had located the yacht when responding to the distress call which had been picked up by a local radio ham.  There was even a picture of the grateful couple waving up at the plane from their crippled craft.

I remember thinking how relieved they must have been to see the plane circle above them, but also how despondent they must have felt when they saw the plane turn around and head back to base.  There was of course no way a fixed wing craft could rescue them.  They had to wait a while longer for diverted shipping to come to their aid.

This story has stayed with me as an illustration of how useless and impotent a God who watches from the heavens is for us humans.  We who have to live in the reality and storms of life may be a liitle encouraged by a God who watches from a distance.  An overhead God may be as encouraging in my storms as the Shackleton was to the yachtsmen, but truth be told, what those yachtsmen needed more than an overhead observer, was someone on their level. One who could touch, grasp and lift them from their stricken vessel.

As a preacher, I am delighted every year by the sequencing of the Lectionary that has the Baptism of Jesus follow directly after the great Christ Mass celebrations of the Incarnation.

The baptism of Jesus is for me the great act at the commencement of Jesus’ ministry that declares him not simply to be the “Only begotten Son” who pleases the observing Father above, but this event also reveals him as the one who immerses himself in the sin soiled waters of humanity.  Here is one who can touch, grasp and lift me from my level of crisis and challenge because he has immersed himself in this life.  He is one whom I can embrace, bond with, and follow to wholeness.

For first century Judeans, desert people, who had a deep fear of water, similar to many Southern African traditional cultures, being thrust under water and possibly held there, was a powerful initiatory moment.  It marked, not only the washing off of past failure, it also enacted the gasping inrush of new ruach (translated as spirit, wind and breath) as they emerged from the depths. (Yes I know the Jordan isn’t that deep, but hey, you can drown in a cup of water, remember)

The fact that Jesus chooses to use this symbolism for the launch of his public ministry is not merely iconic, it is transformative for we who follow after him.

How amazing that we go into the year 2011 following a flesh and blood God, who doesn’t merely hover over us, but who immerses himself in our soiled lives and gasps every gasp with us along the way.

Parking under the wrong tree – Christmas Eve

 

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A fellow preacher http://seeingmoreclearly.blogspot.com/ has likened preaching at Christmas to wringing out laundry in the days before spin dry cycles on washing machines. Two people would grab opposite ends of then sheet and then twist the material to try and squeeze every last drop from it before hanging it on the line. The point is that preaching at Christmas can be as exhausting as wringing out the laundry. You just can’t seem to get the essential and hopefully unique drop! This analogy of Don’s is one I can relate to, and yet it also struck me that the story really finds its power in the simplicity of the narrative.

It is a story of a pregnant couple who have been displaced by socio-political forces completely beyond their control. The difficulty of their journey to comply with the demands of the authorities is of little interest to those who decreed the displacement. Rules are rules and must be obeyed. The universality of this cameo is that it is being playing out in real time in Darfur, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Southern Africa and the Mexican border with the USA.

The second scene of this archetypal drama finds our couple unable to be accommodated in the “inn” (In Greek kataluma. This could also mean place reserved for guests or “guest room”). So not only are they displaced but they are now further marginalised by being rendered homeless.

Let’s forget the nativity play with the inn keeper dialogue for a moment and read the text more closely. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” I find no cosy backlighting here. No cattle lowing, and fresh straw. I find a marginalised and homeless teenage girl, having to give birth, God knows where, and then putting the child in a feed trough presumably so that she can attend to herself and her post natal recovery. Once again any third world disaster area will suffice as a modern day setting for this drama. Who was it who said, “The rich get richer and the poor have babies”?

The third and final scene of our story, is of another group of unsheltered, and by their profession, unclean persons. Shepherds who are under the stars and who receive a message and a manifestation about God’s glory (The Greek “doxa” is the opposite of episte’me’ (epistemology) knowledge and is realised not from reasoning but from realising) The unrighteous subsistence farming shepherds are the ones to whom the revelation of what is really happening is given.

They in turn become the ones who go and explain the mystery to Mary and Joseph and leave Mary with food for thought if not food for her family. “ all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” I would like to speculate that now the message of Gabriel began to have real application. Mary now needed to know, “… the Lord is with Thee” Yes Mary even in the extremity of this moment, “ the Lord is with Thee”

I am not sure we have any clue, any more about the transforming power of this narrative which we ritually repeat year after year. We who have homes, hearths, and heaped plates, what do we know about political displacement, marginalisation, and homelessness?

If we have become jaded by the mall mania, the credit-card crisis spending, and the bloated botulisms of our wasted food; perhaps we need to listen again to the invitation of the shepherds. “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Let’s go to Bethlehem now in 2010, behind its concrete wall of Zionist and Palestinian isolation and begin to understand what it means for God to be present in the suffering of simple people.

But let’s not stop there, now that global travel is so much easier, let us also go to Indonesia, Iran and Ethiopia and look into the earthquake rubble, let’s go to the flood ravaged Ukraine and Panama.

Let’s go where God seems to be found incarnated and present. Not in our tinsel decked trees but in the trauma ravaged suffering of the poor and the powerless around the world. Let us go there, and see these things that the Lord has made known to us. I don’t feel that I have to wring some new cute angle from this ageless story. I think the story speaks for itself. If we can’t find God this Christ Mass, maybe we are parking under the wrong tree.

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!

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.

The altitude of a prayerful attitude

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Once again I am reminded how disadvantaged we moderns are when coming to the ancient texts. We live in such a vastly different world with such different worldviews, that our entire third millennium consciousness finds the biblical consciousness almost inaccessible. The disadvantage with this week’s gospel is a challenge for the meeting of the two geographic consciousnesses.

As I have said so often on this blog, we who have seen our planet from the outer limits of our solar system in the image beamed back by the Voyager spacecraft as it left the system in 2003 (see Voyager image here). In Jesus day there wasn’t even the notion of planets! The world was flat, there was a dome of water overhead, held back by God’s providence, and the stars were hung Christmas tree like, from that dome. (See the world in Jesus’ day).

The highest altitude a human could experience at that time was the top of a mountain, which is why most temples were located on mountains or hills. From these vantage points one could find perspective of the world below as well as gaze into the heavens without obstruction.

Having established these challenges for our insights as moderns trying to understand this Lucan narrative, we can now proceed into the text.

Immediately we are struck by the attitude-altitude of the hearers to whom Jesus addresses the parable. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” To these elevated judgers Jesus speaks a parable. As we listen to the parable I invite you to notice the altitude changes in the story. ( I have used the more literal translations of certain Greek words to emphasise the altitude references in the original roots)

“Two men stepped upwards into the sacred place to pray.

The Pharisee, standing towards himself (self focussed and preoccupied with himself?) thanks God that he is not like any other people. He is better than them all.

The tribute collector on the other hand stood far away (from the holy hot spot) and from the shadows did not even look into the heavens, but beat his breast and acknowledged that he had missed the target and pleaded for reconciliation with God.”

“I tell you” says Jesus, “this one stepped down, back home, having been made right with God rather than the other. The one who elevates himself will be made like the lowlands, and the lowlanders will be elevated.

Having noticed the altitudinal and attitudinal location of the two characters of the parable, the question has to be asked., “Why?”

Why this threat of humiliation for the lofty living Pharisee and the reverse for the tribute collector?

I don’t think Jesus is commending a toady-obsequiousness in our approach to God, rather what is being addressed here is the naiveté of the Pharisee, who really believes that he is better than everybody else. That is a very dangerous blind spot to have. If my life journey has taught me anything it is the hard lesson that I usually fall and fail not from my weaknesses, but in my strengths. It is a simple law of strategy. We do not guard our strengths and in the shadow of our glittering self-images, the dark threats gather.

I have long been disturbed at the tabloids’ rapacious appetites for feasting on fallen icons. Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, the list stretches far back down the Yellow Brick Road. When will we question whether creating such celebrity doesn’t in fact set these poor stars up to collapse into their own, ignored, stellar shadows?

Similarly priests and politicians now have to face more discerning communities who will no longer tolerate inauthenticity be it dressed in Vestments or Louis Vuitton.

To modernise the parable: Who would you rather listen to: “Good morning my name is Joe and I am a regular struggling human being” or “Good morning I am your latest glittering paragon and idol.“?

Despite the Nielsen ratings, Jesus seems pretty clear which one God prefers to hear and help.

Mercy is found at ground level.

The Bakery at the heart of the Universe (Season of Creation 4 – The Cosmos)

John 6:35-51

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

The notion of Jesus coming down from the heavens or in more modern language, the sky, only makes sense to the world view of his day which was naturally, that of a flat earth. God lived behind the dome that held back the waters over the flat earth.

We who have seen the planet from outside have a problem with this understanding

Does this mean that we have to mistrust the words of Jesus? Not at all. What we do have to do as a matter of responsible scripture reading is lift the truth of Jesus’ teaching from the frame of the context in which that truth was taught.

Every religion which wants to retain relevance has to do this with their ancient texts. Not to do this could one of two problems. Firstly the religion would make less and less sense to people who are living in cultures with different world views, or secondly followers of those religions that do not want to translate into modern contexts would find themselves having to practice their religions in forms that would be more and more out of step with modern society. The most cursory look at religion worldwide will offer many illustrations of these two challenges.

It would seem that the more intelligent forms of Christianity are accepting the challenges of modernity and are continuing to attempt to apply the ageless wisdom of Jesus to the reality of the ever expanding body of knowledge and information that is at our disposal regarding the way the world works.

Reflecting on the realities of the Cosmos has affected the practice of our faith in very significant ways.

Allow me to highlight three

We have rediscovered the power of the feminine for our pater-dominated lives.

At present the archaeological record shows that the first artefacts to have been made by homo-sapiens about 30 000 years ago, were figurines of pot-bellied, broad hipped women.

This seems to point to the religious awe that a tenuous tribe would have had for the ability of women to produce offspring to ensure the ongoing life of the tribe. The religion of those first peoples seems to have been strongly feminine, and it was only when agrarian settlements appear that the energy shifted in religion and social life to a male dominated patriarchy and the maternal was replaced by the material energy of landed people. This strong male energy that led us ever outward in exploration and technology, but which also had its shadow side in the oppression of women, the imperialism both of politics and religion; has brought us to the very edge of a mysterious Cosmos that fills us with as much awe as it must have filled our African proto-parents when they walked into the vast world 70 000 years ago! We are once more on the edge of exploration and at the doorway of discovery. We are hungry to know more.

We have returned to the survival priorities of first peoples.

Having passed through the male-dominated phase of exploration and subjugation (some would suggest annihilation) of nature, we have arrived at the place where the old tribal survival priorities now demand that they be our global priorities. Journey, tribe, nurture, sustainability, words that described the values of first peoples are now once again on our agendas. We realise that for the foreseeable future there is only us in this part of the universe. We are the planetary tribe of earth. The survival of the tribe demands an end to any smaller agendas and pursuits that place the welfare of the whole tribe in jeopardy. Our hunger can no longer rob others of their right to heaven’s bread, neither can we hoard Jesus like moulding manna, as if he is only for our nutrition in the church.

We have taken religion from the outside to the place Jesus had directed it to so long ago, the inside, the heart.

Being confronted by this ever expanding Cosmos we have sympathy for the somewhat disputed comment of the first human space traveller Yuri Gagarin who said, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” 14 April, 1961. Those of us who try to be honest with ourselves as we can, have to admit, “Neither have we” It is this confrontation with the silent vastness of space (the name “space”, says it all) that challenges us to either fall into a despairing atheism or to honestly seek for the space where God truly can be encountered. Don Cuppitt the irascible modern, non-church going theologian was heard in an podcast on Philosophy Bites to declare that Jesus was essentially the world’s first Humanist. What he seems to mean by this is that Jesus was one of the first to point to the inner “space” as the most significant for human encounter with God.

Carl Jung of course saw it too, “We are living in what the Greeks called the right time for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” i.e. of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science.

Jung is also alleged to have said, “If you will not go within, you will have to go without” Living on the Third Rock from the Sun in a rather obscure corner of the universe is not as threatening as it may at first seem. Rather, it has brought us away from outer male dominated ritual forms to inner feminine forms of encounter with the God of the Macro and Micro Cosmoi. The God who invites us as God always has, to integrate our split an divided selves and societies, into the non-dual unity that has always been God’s true nature. Here at this one point of the infinite void of the Cosmos, I encounter in my very being, the One who breaks bread and feeds my soul.

So on this Cosmos Sunday of the Season of Creation, I celebrate the return of the feminine to our thinking, the return to first people’s priorities for survival, and the journey inward that has been necessitated by the encounter with the vastness of the Cosmos.

I am a pilgrim of the one Earth tribe, nurtured by the One, whom we all call God. The God of Bread from heart and heaven. The Baker at the heart of the Universe.

Danger! Crossing Ahead. (Season of Creation 3 – Storms)

Listen to this sermon as it was preached on Archive.org

Luke 8:22-25

One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’

There is something inherently threatening about crossings. So many people have lost their lives crossing rivers, crossing mountains, even crossing the road!

When I first saw this topic included in the the Season of Creation themes I wondered what it could have to say about the creation.  I have realised in my reflections that storms are usually due to, and the agents of change in the natural order.  High and Low pressure systems, Tectonic plate pressure bursts, all herald a change and the crossing from one stasis to another.  As such they parallel our life journeys

Today’s Gospel is an account of such a crossing. Luke tells us that one day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples and said, “Let’s cross over to the other side“. A harmless intention on the surface, but as it turns out a choice that had life threatening consequences. As I have said before, if we remain stuck in the literal, lowest level meaning of this narrative we will have a good Sunday School story of which we can draw pictures and cardboard cut outs. The reality is however, that you and I are no longer seven years old and our adulthood therefore demands that we find a deeper significance in this story if we are to do justice to it.

As so often happens in the Gospel narratives, when we agree to look beyond the storyline we discover yet another metaphorical map that is of profound use for the journey into wholeness.

So let’s look a bit deeper and discern the choice, the crisis, the call, and the calm in this crossing story.

As I said, crossings can be dangerous. Any decision to cross the unknown for the sake of transformation is fraught with danger. For Jesus it was a decision to go to the foreign country of the Gerasenes, and we do well to remember that their first encounter after disembarking is with a demoniac! There are always dark energies like the Nazgul, in Lord of the Rings, who seek to suck the soul from those who wish to cross from mediocrity to higher awareness. Mental hospitals and rehab centres the world over, are filled with people who took too lightly the crises inherent in their choices. Choices that do not have the potential of life threatening crisis within them are trivial and non-transformative. A few minutes watching television advertising will give us enough examples of trivial choices that are fed to us as real transforming choices. Do we really think being “spoiled for choice” when it comes to toilet sprays is transforming?

The fact that Jesus falls asleep as they are sailing is a beautiful childlike cameo in the piece. The one’s who truly know their identity and their destiny can allow themselves to be at peace in the midst of danger. Jesus models what the Psalmist knew, “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lo rd, make me lie down in safety.

For the untransformed and fragmented soul, however, the encounter with the powers of the deep; both the wind and the waves of our undigested shadow material that emerge when we decide to cross over to transformation, can be scary indeed! The disciples are overwhelmed with fear.

I have been intrigued and disturbed by the waves and winds of fear that wracked America this past week with the anniversary of 911. I am appalled at the fear mongering that is going on in my own country. Fear constricts us and paralyses us. It makes skilful fishermen doubt that they can make it in a storm on their familiar lake. The real heart of the storm of course is the fear of change. Was the storm really that bad or did the disciples just not want to go to the territory of the Gerasenes?

Finally at the height of the crisis there is the call to Jesus ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’. It is a constant prayer of mine that each person who finds themselves overwhelmed with the fears and cares of life, will have a Master sleeping in their vessel. Too many panic driven decisions to suicide, divorce, addiction and self abuse, come from forgetting to wake the Master sleeping in our battered boats.

The calm that Jesus brings is truly, the “peace that passes understanding“, isn’t it?

It is a peace that comes from the same source that enabled him to sleep through the crossing. No matter how frightening the crossing, the true hero and heroine knows that what arises also passes. It only our fear that makes us think that bad things cannot be transformed and redeemed. “O we of little faith

The disciples are of course, amazed when the storm stops and they experience the calm of post-adrenal quiet, both externally and viscerally. Bemused, they “said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”

We are left to give our own answer to their question. My answer to the question is, “He is the one whom I want to become

Anyone coming with me for the ride?

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

“Deep, deep as the ocean…”(Season of Creation 1)

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Seventy percent of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans which contain 97.5% of the water on the planet.

It is estimated that the oceans formed between 4.6 and 3.8 billion years ago.

Life began in the oceans because of the nutrients that were washed into the oceans and provided the content for primitive unicellular bacteria to develop, so one could say that the oceans are the primordial archetype of God as all life emerged from the oceans

It is probably this archetypical power that explains why the sea holds such a fascination and a sense of deep threat to us all. As Joseph Conrad has it, “The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.

At a psychological level, the ocean with its restless surging has often been a metaphor for the unconscious part of humanity. As Carl Jung said, “Consciousness seems like an island surrounded by the sea in which there is a self-replenishing abundance of living creatures.”

The early Hebrews had a deep respect for, and fear of, the sea.

Possibly because they had their origins as desert nomads in the Sinai Peninsula, when they came eventually to settle in Canaan, the Hebrews never became a seafaring nation, despite the fact that their entire western Border was the Mediterranean ocean. The closest the Jews came to seafaring was to be Lake-farers on the Sea of Galilee.

Today’s Season of Creation Gospel locates Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.

At the literal level (always the lowest level of meaning for literature) this is an account of the call of some Galilean fishermen to follow Jesus. That is what I would call the Sunday School level of interacting with the story. Many of us grew up with that level of interpretation and reading the narrative as adults there is the temptation to revert to only that understanding of a nursery bible story. To do that as adults is, I believe, to shirk our responsibility to seek the symbolic depth of this account of human transformation.

What is most haunting in this account is the instruction of Jesus, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” It is a command for the fishermen to trust him at the point of their impotence

Now we need to be clear that in oceanographic terms the invitation to go deeper was not a huge ask. The Sea of Galilee has a maximum depth 43 metres, which is within the capacity of a level one scuba diver. To put it is perspective the deepest place in the oceans is the Puerto Rico trench which drops to an amazing 8605 metres!  However, when you are used to keeping to the shallows, any depth is deeper than where you are.

In order to relevantly access this gospel narrative from the context of 2010, I would like to suggest that this passage has the potential for being a profound map for our own transforming following of Jesus.

Would it be too much to suggest that Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.“; could also mean, “Don’t be afraid to explore the unconscious, for there you will find nourishment.”?

  • Is it not true for many of us that our deepening experiences with Jesus happen when we are resting on the shores of our self sufficiency, thinking the work is finished?
  • Or at times when, Jesus invites us to explore something new, against our better judgement. We follow simply because a deeper authority invites us?
  • Many of us will know that when we have responded to the call of Jesus to go deeper we have discovered a harvest from the depths we have not explored before.
  • Sometimes that invitation has meant that we had to encounter and override our fear and resistance
  • Just like those fishermen, these depth encounters have been an equipping for new life tasks, and all because we risked some depth.

I am blessed to live at the ocean. I see the mysterious depths from my window where I write this. Oft times when I gaze at this ancient mass of water, and hear the voice of the surf, I glimpse that like the ocean, God is an unfathomable, mysterious presence of life giving love. I pray that I will always have the courage to risk going deeper into that abbysal love.

Hidden in plain sight

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I am fascinated by the human mind and its abilities. One such ability, that I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation for, is the one that alerts you to the fact that you are being watched. It has happened to you, I am sure. Standing in a busy street, you become aware of something, you look up and straight into the eyes of a person who is staring at you. I of course have great fun with this the other way around. Staring at people from my coffee shop table I see how long it takes them to realise they are being watched.

In this Sunday’s gospel, it seems Jesus was under multi-scrutiny. Yet the seer who was being watched was also capable of noticing what the watchers were blind to.

Last week I reflected on how Jesus in Luke 13:10ff was able to see in the following ways:

  • He saw the person and not the condition.
  • He saw the potential and not the present manifestation.
  • He saw without prejudice.

This week there is more watching going on, and the seeing contrasts with the characteristic seeing of Jesus from last week.

Here the looking is to judge, to assess and to catch Jesus possibly committing an error. Just the kind of observation we have become so accustomed to in the church. Like internal auditors constantly in search of fraud we scan the lives of others, and also our own for the least inconsistency so that we van pounce and cry, “Fraud!

How contrasting, once again, is the seeing of Jesus. Despite being aware of being scrutinised he does not become preoccupied with that. Instead, he is able to notice the man with dropsy, whom Luke describes as, “Just then, in front of him…“. This description reads like the directions for a stage play, “Just then, in front of him…” For me this cameo is a powerful glimpse into the mindfulness of Jesus who, despite all the drama and projections around him, is able to see what is, “Just then, in front of him…

I find myself desiring to be that focussed in my own day to day dramas.

Is it possible, in the midst of others projections, evaluations, and judgements of my every move, to still be focussed on that which is “Just then, in front of me?“. Jesus shows me it is possible.

The rest of the gospel passage would seem to flow from that moment of concentrated compassionate seeing.

Jesus uses the man’s need to teach the lesson that, in the compassionate Kingdom of the Heavenly Parent, love must always override legal observance. That segment of the story seems to have a logical connection to the mindful seeing of the dropsical man. How though does the teaching on the places of privilege have bearing on contemplative, compassionate seeing?

I would suggest that Jesus is teaching that our vision is refracted through our values.

If position, privilege and power are the values that we pursue, as the wedding guests who scan the seating plan for any sign that they may have been disadvantaged by the wedding planners; to that extent we will be disabled from seeing the humility and humanity of others needs that may “Just then, be in front of us

Once again Jesus’ teaching is a real eye-opener.