“The old home town acts the same…”

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Whenever I read the gospels I have in the left back corner of my mind a monitor for the dreadful public relations and marketing gaffes that Jesus makes in his ministry.
Today’s reading is no exception.
Ask yourself, how does he mismanage the congregation so badly that he goes from, “ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” and ends up with, “ …all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town,…”?

And Jesus does this all himself.
First he puts words in people’s mouth, by assuming that they are going to quote a proverb to him and then that they will demand miracles.
Next he responds to them based on what he assumes they were going to say, and tells a story about Elijah that ends up condemning them for their exclusivity and suggests that, like Naaman, others will be healed and not them.
No wonder the congregation were furious!

I can only suppose that Jesus read the non-verbals, and intuited the sub-themes in the synagogue dynamic that sabbath.
Perhaps he, like all of us who wax hysterical about “the old home town” and the nostalgia of how things aren’t the same, (They never were!) found that neither he, nor we, can ever go back.

“Sentimentality is repressed brutality” said Freud.  Perhaps Jesus sensed the schmaltz in the cutesy pooh, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” maybe there was an unrecorded, “Gee but you’ve grown” thrown in?  Whatever it was, Jesus was not about to milk the marketing opportunity or play the P.R. violin.

He knew this town.  He had grown up with its narrowness.

He remembered how they had treated his mother and whispered about his “virgin” birth.  They wanted to group her with the prostitutes who lived on the edge of town.

He had seen how Samaritans passing through had been rejected, and how the tax-collectors were despised.
Of all people he could assume. After all he was one of them.

But he had walked away.

That’s the thing about this Gospel.  It just won’t let you rest at home.

Once you get it, you become marginalised like him. Suddenly, yet imperceptibly his truth, his inclusivity, his compassion, his humility become yours and you can never go back.

Once we have seen what Jesus sees and become what Jesus is, we don’t fit back at the school reunion and under the yellow ribboned, old oak tree. Going home is a nightmare just like Nazareth was for him.

So much for the “family values” lobby.  Jesus has just puked over the picket fence!

We all have to leave home and never return.  It’s the Jesus way.

Leaving the shadows – Epiphany3

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nazareth wasn’t a good place to put on your Curriculum Vitae as your place of origin. In fact if there was Facebook back then, you wouldn’t acknowledge that you were from there on any social media. Nazareth was a dump.
It didn’t feature in any Old Testament prophecies. No great personage had come from there. It wasn’t the seat of any power and no great families hailed from Nazareth. It was a simple backwater town. No great schools, colleges, universities.

There was nothing. Nazareth was nowhere.

Jesus came from Nazareth.

Despite the setbacks of being from there, the Nazarene Jesus had insight and intuition that the best family, geography and education cannot give. He knew people, their nature, their motivation and their desires. That is what drew him to Nathanael as he saw him standing under the fig tree.
Standing under your own fig tree is a symbol of comfort and blessing in the language of the Old Testament. Again and again the prophets used the image to evoke feelings of longing for peace and consolation. To be under your fig tree was to be home and arrived. Nathanael was standing in that space.

Strangely, there is a restlessness in the human spirit that is not satisfied with the shade of our own particular circumstance. A longing and a yearning for more. Was it this that Jesus sensed in Nathanael? Did he see in the shaded man, something restless wanting to grow?

Nathanael wasn’t impressed with Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Prejudice and arrogance make us so unteachable.  I came across a lovely defition of a heretic the other day.  It defined a heretic as someone who is unteachable.  Nathanael was bordering on heresy.

It was Philip who cut through Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareans, “Come and see.” The most simple and effective of evangelistic invitations.  It is the beginning of growth and liberation. “Come and see“. It seems that it is not enough to stand afar off in our comfort zones and formulate opinions from a distance. We have to “Come and see“. That is what changes our lives.

As I write this, I am facing charges of heresy that have been laid with the Presiding Bishop of my denomination. The people who have laid the charge have never met me, nor are they prepared to meet me. I phoned and asked them. They are not members of any of the congregations I serve, they have never attended a service I have conducted. They have listened to an archived sermon of mine on the Internet and now they want me silenced, “to protect the people you [I] am leading to hell” by teaching exclusively from the Gospels as I do.

All they, by contrast, want to do is stand under their fig tree, their comfort zone, and voice cynical opinions.  My invitation to them is the invitation of Philip, “Come and see“. Thus far they have refused to budge from the shadows.

Jesus finds Nathanael right where he is in his comfortable, fig tree shadow, the place of his prejudiced opinions, and then Jesus leads him on to greater adventures.

He tells Nathanael he will see heaven opened and angels ascending and descending.  Jesus is referring to Jacob who experienced a dream where he saw what Jesus is describing to Nathanael. Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending as Jesus describes. On awaking from his dream Jacob named the place Bethel and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

By all accounts it would seem Nathanael never did see what Jacob saw. Instead he saw the Nazarean Jesus, whom he followed; despised, rejected, crucified and utterly destroyed.   It wasn’t much of a dream! It was a nightmare!

The next and only time we hear of Nathanael, after his meeting with Jesus under the fig tree, is on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in one of those mysterious post resurrection events.

I wonder if Nathanael remembered, as he stood there in the presence of the crucified and risen one, the words he heard those three adventurous years ago, “You will see greater things than these

Nathanael sure had.

Perhaps if we will get out from under the shade of our own prejudiced opinions, we may see greater things too?

Can we trust these foreigners? Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.