“The Lullaby Gospel” John 6:56-69 Ordinary 21B

John 6:56-69

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

One of the great religious thinkers of our time is Don Cuppitt. The Professor Emeritus of Cambridge University makes a telling point when he states, that “All of the world’s religions take place within the realm of human conversation”. The implication of this is that any thought that religion dropped from heaven or anywhere else, as a gift to humans, is simply a nonsense. We humans created religion as a product of our consideration and contemplation of how reality works in our Universe. This of course does not imply that the process was always conscious. Much of our ordering and explaining of the world is unconscious. That is why we have dreams.

However, if we can grasp this truth, that religious thought is a human process, then many things become clear.

With reference to this Sunday’s gospel, the one thing that clarifies itself is why so many of Jesus’ followers gave up on him when he offered them a teaching that directly confronted the ego’s role in religion. If you have been following The Listening Hermit for the past few weeks you will have read that when Jesus identified himself as the bread of life that could not be earned by the sweat of human effort, he immediately put the egoic investment in religious achievement in question. If Jesus is the bread of life, we are nothing more than the 5000 plus hungry pilgrims on the hillside, or the lost wanderers in the Sinai desert.

Yet if we hold that religion is a human process, and humans are largely defined by ego demands, it follows that religion in current practice will also be consumer indulgent. Isn’t the whole science of Church Growth and Congregational Management founded on ensuring that people have a good experience and thus drop the maximum amount of cash in response?

In Jesus day it was no different. Cash may not have been as dominant an idol as in our day but the human pleasure principle (If it feels good do it) was. When the crowd realised that Jesus was demanding profound inner transformation and not merely offering customer service, they lost interest.

I wonder if we, who are the communicators of the Gospel and the line managers of the church, can be honest enough to admit that we seldom proclaim without an eye on the balance sheet?

If this true, then we have failed to proclaim the words of eternal life and have been largely busy with proclaiming the words of eternal comfort and indulgence.

The irony with this approach is at some point when the ego is inevitably challenged, there will be many who stop following. In South Africa it happened in the 1980’s as preachers in white churches started naming Apartheid as the sin that it always had been. The exodus from such challenging preaching into comfortable charis-mania was huge. I used to call such people “Tutu Refugees” as they tried to disown and disavow the courageous actions of the diminutive Archbishop.

“Words of eternal life” are of course hard to define, and challenging preaching can be as much of an ego trip for masochistic martyrs as the comfortable gospel.

I suppose at the end of the day, the soul will know what is life giving bread and what is candy floss.
The bottom line seems to be that true transforming discipleship is always an activity pursued by minorities.

You’re a prophet? Have you lost your head?- Ordinary 15b

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I like to be liked. I suppose it’s the curse of my temperament and of my profession. Not many people like to be disliked. There is something masochistically deranged about people who like being in the bad books of others. Herod wasn’t one of them. After all Herod was a politician. I am not sure if biblical politicians had to shake hands and hug babies as they do today, but you can be sure they needed to be liked.

Herod wanted to be popular and so he kept in with the religious prophet John the Baptist because it is always a good thing to stay in step with the church. I overheard a member telling another the other day, “Always stay on good terms with your minister and your bank manager. Herod would have understood.

Herod also had to stay in step with his new wife Herodius. She had first been hsi brother’s wife and the circumstances that led to her becoming Herod’s wife are not clear, but John did not approve. So Herod had a conflict of interests. Keep the prophet happy or the wife happy?

Then there was step daughter also called Herodius, and we all know how difficult that could be.

Film makers over the years have portrayed Herod as a bit of a lech. Getting all steamed up by the dance of Herodius and rashly offering her anything in the kingdom, even half the kingdom himself. It is not clear what in the dance pleased him but Herod walked into a classic conflict trap. It was not longer a conflict of interests, it was now a conflict of values.

Herodius’ hatred for John the Baptist forcing Herod to choose between his religious appreciation of John and keeping the peace with his new wife.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  And it wasn’t 2012!

The mistake most preachers make here is to berate Herod as weak willed and gormless. I don’t think many of us would have done anything different from Herod. After all we are speaking about him countering his spouse for the sake of some disposable prophet.

Family values and all the Dr Phil shows would endorse Herod’s choice. He went with his wife and her needs. He was supportive and nurturing of the relationship and after all he was the king.  It was not as if this was the first person whose head he had chopped off!

No the villain here isn’t Herod, nor is it hate filled Herodius. The villain is expediency. For the beheading of John the Baptiser is the forerunner of the greater travesty that plays out in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus some months later.

What Herod did is what Caiphas did.
Here is John’s gospel: So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

Prophetic witness and personal or political expediency do not have a good history of co-existence. It is most often expediency that wins.
It is no different in our day. Herod the King, Caiaphas the high priest, Presidents and Popes, Mayors and Ministers.

Who on earth would want to be prophetic and challenge evil?
You must have lost your head to be a prophet.

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

Mark 4:35-41

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

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

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

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

Storms are part of nature.

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

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

Storms of the heart are similar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps he saw what Rumi saw.

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

The smile of Mahakasyapa, of Jesus, of Rumi.

The smile born from wonder at the mystery of Spirit.

Sorry, got to go.

The wind is coming up.

So one last line from Rumi.

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

“I don’t know.” isn’t a wrong answer.

Mark 3.20-35

…and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

I am constantly amused by my conservative fundamentalist friends. I am not impressed by their fear based paranoia but their inconsistency is a constant source of joy.

Take for example, the matter of evil and demons.  Just this week a young woman called me, deeply concerned that her friends were warning her about read Neale Donald Walsch’s, “Conversations with God“.  “They say it was written by a demon.” she told me.

What I find amusing is that the friends of the young woman, don’t realise that in doing and saying this they are placing themselves in the category of people whom Jesus says commit the unforgivable sin. How strange (and humourous) that the very people who are so hell bent on judging everything and everyone that doesn’t fit their narrow fear-based system, are in fact choosing to head for the very hell they threaten other people with!

How can I say that?

Well let’s look closely at this Sunday’s gospel.

Jesus is teaching in Galilee.  Scribes from Jerusalem come to hear his teaching and judge that Jesus is performing his works of power by the power of the Prince of Demons Beelzebul.  Sound familiar doesn’t it?

Jesus responds by saying that not only is the charge illogical, (how can the devil cast out the devil) but it also is blasphemous.

To call what is of God, of the devil, is to sin against the Holy Spirit. I didn’t say it Jesus did.

How is it that my literalist Bible loving friends don’t get it?

This is the same Jesus who also told his disciples not to forbid others who were healing in his name.

Mark 9:38-41

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

So why are my conservative friends blind to what they are doing? Truth is I don’t know.

Just as I can only guess why the Scribes were blind to the good that Jesus was doing, I can only speculate why my friends are so judgemental and afraid.  Is it possible that we can become so fearfully arrogant of anything different from us that we end up cursing God for what is innovative and different?

When I read the Scriptures it seems that every now and then wisdom is able to transcend fear.

A good example that is contrary to the Scribes of the New Testament and the Conservatives of our day is Gamaliel who was a teacher of the law in Jerusalem when the religious leaders wanted to kill the apostles for what they were saying.  Gamaliel said  “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; you may even be found fighting against God!” Acts 5:38-39

I have no idea whether or not Neale Donald Walsch, actually has conversations with God.  I do know that his work brings millions of readers closer to God and transforms their lives.

So I am not going to accuse him, nor my fundamentalist friends of demon possession.

Like Gamaliel, I will see what happens and let God be the judge.

Was Jesus bipolar? Lent 1b

Mark 1:9-15
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I am interested to see how the distinction of “bipolar” has become so prevalent in our label loving society. Every second person I meet, particularly the creative ones, have had this albatros of being “bi-polar” hung on their neck.

Perhaps, after today’s gospel reading, we would want to label Jesus bipolar too?
A look at the early events of his ministry would suggest quite a roller coaster of emotions for the young rabbi starting his public life.

At the Jordan river, such a watershed symbol for Israel, he is baptised by a reluctant John and for his obedience Jesus is rewarded by a “torn open”(the Greek is schizo) heaven out of which a dove, (the covenantal bird which bears hopeful news to Noah that God has saved the earth) descends upon him and he hears a voice affirming him as the beloved and approved of son of the Father in the heavens.

Now that, my friends is a high, if ever there was one!

To hear the affirmation of one’s parent, the lifelong craving of every human life; and to experience the approbation of the divine upon our path is the best that life can be. It was so for Jesus on the banks of the Jordan that day.

But immediately,(Mark’s oft-used term euthus=directly) the Ruach-Pneuma life-breath of God literally cast him into the eremitical wilderness (Greek=ereimos) and the two poles of the swing are determined.

  • From river to desert
  • From community to solitude
  • From affirming Father to cynical Devil
  • From clear observance (Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness Mt3:15) to doubting where to go next.
Apart from being crucified and abandoned I guess that’s as low as one can get?

Yet, even in the turmoil of the solitary search for direction, there is this powerful contrast in the phrase, “Wild Beasts and Angels“. It is almost tailor made for another Dan Brown novel? Perhaps not, but it is the truth about our path as we follow Jesus.

Along the path of every Christ follower there will times of clear and visionary certitude. The affirmation of God’s presence, Gods’ calling and God’s endorsement of our lives.

Yet just as surely as water evaporates in the sun, times will come where the clarity, the conviction and the consolation of the high moments will have gone and only the snarls of the wild beasts and the whisper of our chilling doubts will be there for company in the badlands of our arid, eremitical souls.

Helpful to know then that the diaconic angels will also be there ministering (Greek=diakoneo) to us.

Does this contrasting, pendular life of consolation and desolation make us bipolar?

Heavens no! By Jesus, it makes us human!

May it be well with you as we follow Jesus through the Lenten wilderness.

Warning: Jesus is Contagious!

Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity,(or other authorities read anger) Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy* left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

A cursory reading of the footnotes for this text in any bible reveals the need for some “translation of the translation” if we are going to access the text in our 2012 contexts.

We know nothing about lepers.
Truth be told, it is unlikely that the disease we associate with leprosy is the disease refered to in the biblical text.  The leprosy we know probably only came to the middle east from India after bible times. In Bible times “leprosy” which literally means scaly or rough refered to any skin disease like psoriasis, acne, or boils. In a pre-scientific time, the fear of contagion would have made people reluctant to have contact with anything which may have caused them to suffer or even be excluded for society.
It may be useful in our context to return to the literal words of rough and scaly as referring to the people we cast out from our circles of acceptance and avoid contact with. I am sure most of us have rough and scaly relatives, right inside our families we would want to avoid contact with.

I will leave you to make your own two lists…

1. Rough and Scaly people I personally choose to avoid.

2. Rough and Scaly people that the church should avoid.

The texts show Jesus moved with emotion (the majority say pity but others say anger). I quite like the choice. In fact I can even picture Jesus feeling pity for the rough and scaly outcast and anger at the society that marginalised him.
It would be a good balance for modern day Christ followers to keep, don’t you think? Can we be prophetically angry at the structural violence that crushes people and groups, whilst keeping our hearts open with compassion for the sufferers?

Another aspect of the passage that bears explaining is this continual demand for secrecy by Jesus. There are many theories since the first advanced by William Wrede in 1901. You can read them here. For sake of simple proclamation this Sunday, it seems most likely that Jesus wanted to avoid celebrity so as to move about freely.
We should never forget that he was in the North because he couldn’t be in the South. The gruesome death of John the Baptizer at the hands of Herod down South was the reason for Jesus being in Galilee. So some secrecy might have been a matter of security

Despite the above, I also affirm the theory that in the understanding of Jesus, the notion of Messiah had become distorted by the political expectations and yearnings of oppressed people. Jesus didn’t want to become a Messiah of the Popular Mould. He needed time to show who the Suffering Servant was. That would only be completed when he showed the depths of his love in death.
Again a modern context question arises.  Do I trust Jesus to be himself as I follow him or do I want hime to fit my preconceived mould I have cast for him?

Finally, I love how effective the attempt at silencing the healed leper is!
For all the best reasons for secrecy which we have considered above, there is something Jesus has underestimated.
He hasn’t reckoned in the power of effervescent witness from those who have been touched by God! There is just no silencing the babble of blessed ones. As Don Fransciso made famous in his song, “I gotta tell somebody, what Jesus did for me!”

Could it be that the church is dying today as it is, because we have protected ourselves from the possibility of the healing encounters that might happen if some rough and scaly people got close enough to Jesus?
Our sanctuaries and our sacraments are sanitised and leprosy free.
Rough and scaly people are just not welcome.
So instead of effervescent witness there is sterile silence.
Sad really…

The Original Love Language – Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A lot has been said about how we can communicate love since Gary Chapman published his book, “The Five Love Languages
In case you haven’t come across them here is a summary of Chapman’s Five Emotional Love Languages:
Words of Affirmation
This is when you say how nice your spouse looks, or how great the dinner tasted. These words will also build your mate’s self image and confidence.
Quality Time
Some spouses believe that being together, doing things together and focusing in on one another is the best way to show love. If this is your partner’s love language, turn off the TV now and then and give one another some undivided attention.
Gifts
It is universal in human cultures to give gifts. They don’t have to be expensive to send a powerful message of love. Spouses who forget a birthday or anniversary or who never give gifts to someone who truly enjoys gift giving will find themselves with a spouse who feels neglected and unloved.
Acts of Service
Discovering how you can best do something for your spouse will require time and creativity. These acts of service like vacuuming, hanging a bird feeder, planting a garden, etc., need to be done with joy in order to be perceived as a gift of love.
Physical Touch
Sometimes just stroking your spouse’s back, holding hands, or a peck on the cheek will fulfill this need.

The invitation is then to go on to “Determining Your Own Love Language

Since you may be speaking what you need, you can discover your own love language by asking yourself these questions:

  • How do I express love to others?
  • What do I complain about the most?
  • What do I request most often?

(excerpted from http://marriage.about.com/cs/communicationkeys/a/lovelanguage.htm)

It would seem from the success of Chapman’s book and the subsequent spin-offs that inevitably come from a pivotal production as his was, that he touched a sensitive spot in our collective emotional psyche.

As a divorced person and also as a pastoral minister, I know the difficulties of relationships at first and second hand.
Psychologists are continually telling us that we are undernourished with regard to our emotional needs

William E. Harley who runs Marriage Builders determines the most important emotional needs of couples to be:

  • Affection
  • Sexual Fulfillment
  • Conversation
  • Recreational Companionship
  • Honesty and Openness
  • Physical Attractiveness
  • Financial Support
  • Domestic Support
  • Family Commitment
  • Admiration

What I miss in these very important and helpful studies is an answer to the question, “Why are we so needy in the first place?”
Do we arrive needy, or is there something missing in our emotional diets early on, that creates this deficiency, in much the same way some of us need more magnesium or calcium than others?
If the development psychologists are to be believed then the cause of our love hunger, and by inference of much of our neurosis, is the deficiency of knowing at an early age that we are “The Beloved”

To know that one is deeply loved is one of the greatest of human experiences.
I am going to suggest a very subversive truth to you now.
It is subversive because it has the potential to put every self-help guru out of business.
It is subversive because it also has the potential to put that great grace dispensary, the church, out of business too.
The truth is a simple one that Jesus experiences at the pivotal moment he begins his public ministry.
The truth is that you and I and every single living being on the planet are the agapeitoi of God.
The agapeitoi….WHAT?  of God?
O sorry I need to translate for you.
We are all, with Jesus, the Beloved of God.
Now this may not seem subversive at first, but the more we realise and live from that place of being beloved, we see the absolute security and grounding it can give to our lives.

It is for this very reason, the church has for centuries tried to keep this reality from us. The church knew that if people were secure in their relationship as the agapeitoi of God; if they knew that there was indeed “nothing that could separate them from the Love (agapeis) of God” Rom 8:39, then they would not fall pray to the guilt riddled shame blame game that the church has used so effectively to extort money and allegiance from fearful people.

So what about us who weren’t told this early on in our lives?

Well, the good news is that it can happen at any time.

  • Jesus was thirty at his baptism.
  • Augustine of Hippo came to this life changing understanding late in his life at the age of thirty two.

Augustine  wrote:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

This subversive truth is the ultimate form of human liberation.

  • I am the agapetos-the beloved of God.
  • God’s very nature is agape-selfless love.
  • By realising that I am the agapetos of the agape. The beloved of Love, I begin a participation in the very life and nature of God.

This is transformative to the deepest fibres of our being.

Jesus knew this.
It was imprinted from the moment he stepped out of the Jordan.
“You are my child the beloved.”
It is already true for you and me.
We simply have to realise that it is.

Nan C Merrill published a wonderful paraphrase of the Psalms in 1996. She titled the Book, “Psalms for Praying- an invitation to wholeness”

The psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 29.
Nan has it read like this:

Give praise to the Beloved,
O heavenly hosts,
Sing of Love’s glory and strength,
Exalt the glory of Love’s name;
Adore the Beloved in holy splendour.

The voice of the Beloved is upon the waters;
Love’s voice echoes over the oceans and seas.
The voice of Love is powerful,
majestic is the heart of Love.

The voice of the Beloved breaks the bonds of oppression,
shatters the chains of injustice.
Love invites all to the dance of freedom,
to sing the Beloved’s song of truth.

The voice of Love strikes with fire upon hearts of stone.
The voice of Love uproots the thorns of fear,
Love uproots fear in every open heart.

The voice of Love is heard in every storm,
and strips the ego bare;
And in their hearts all cry
“Glory!”

The Beloved lives in our hearts;
Love dwells with us forever
May Love give strength to all people!
May Love bless all nations with peace!

Just say, “Yes. Let it be…”

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by processes. Perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up in gold mining towns where the headgear wheels were spinning, the metalurgical plant was roaring, and the tailings were clattering onto the waste dump. There was always something going on. Gold was coming out of the depths of the earth. Rich ore was graded as containing fourteen milligrams per ton of rock milled. Small returns for a lot of efffort. Yet gold, that elusive beguiling metal, was at one time the backbone of South Africa’s economy.

So I find processes, mining, metallurgical or monetary altogether fascinating.

As I read the Annunciation Gospel for this fourth Sunday of Advent, I discern a process in the unfolding of Mary’s story. For the past two weeks we have contemplated John the Baptizer as that archetype of the Christ follower. This week the other archetypal Christian Mary asks for our attention.

Where John was all barren wildness, Mary is innocence in encounter with the Creative Life of the Universe we call God. Here Incarnation happens and “the dwelling place of God is with people”.
How does it happen?
There is no earth shattering explosions underground, no pounding and grinding of great mills, not even the fiery furnace of the alchemical gold extraction and pouring in the smelt house.
There is only a simple peasant girl saying, “yes” to an outrageous idea from God.

The Annunciation-Incarnation process seems to unfold in five stages for Mary:

  1. Comfort. “Do not be afraid.”
  2. Assurance. “You have found favour with God,”
  3. Annunciation of the plan. “You are going to conceive and birth a God-child”
  4. Questioning doubt. “How can this be?”
  5. Agreement to partnership. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

It strikes me that this process is archetypal for us who are invited into the Divine Domain, the Kingdom of God.

We begin by experiencing the comfort of God when God shows up disguised as our life. In the dark night, the fearful storm, the empty wilderness, God shows up and Consoles us. “Do not be afraid” I suppose it is outrageous of me to ask at what point Mary conceived? Was it before, during or directly after the messenger visited? I wonder if it matters? God showed up.

The next step in our Incarnating of God process is the Assurance that whatever has happened, is happening now, and is going to happen, is all in the presence and providence of God. We all have found favour with God, we know the favour because we sense our part of the plan. The worst hell possible to a human being is not to know that there is a favourable destiny to our lives.

The third step is the Announcing of the Plan. It is only at this third point in the process that we note that Mary has a specific and unique plan. Ours will be different, but the process remains the same. The plan is announced and revealed and we see the possibilities.

The inevitable fourth step of Questioning doubt is essential and inevitable. Any deep encounter with the mystery of God must leave us incredulous and asking, “How can this be?” Beware of any scheme or plan that is announced to you by messengers claiming to be from God and who won’t allow you to ask that question, or any other questions. The church is littered with the wrecks of deluded egos who claimed to be speaking for God, would not allow any doubt or questioning, and were later revealed to be nothing more than manipulators and controllers.

Having got through the fourth and challenging stage of Questioning doubt we then stand with Mary on the edge of mystery and miracle. All that remains is the “Let it be” This is the ultimate wording for an Agreement to partnership with God and Life

Great song it was by John Lennon, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be. Let it be…'” John Lennon was not an obvious Christ follower, but he knew enough to know that Mary would know what to do in “times of trouble”
“Let it be”

It is the moment when Annunciation becomes Incarnation.
It is a process which was Mary’s but which is open to us all.
It is the way that God keeps being born into this world.
Just say ,”Yes. Let it be”

In all the years of my ministry, I have served the Divine Domain best when I have allowed this Annunciation-Incarnation process to flow. “Yes, Let is be…”

There is gold and God in those words.

Every time I have said, “No. The rules say…” I have hurt others and myself and sensed the thwarting of what God might have been wanting to do, if I had only said yes. It is perhaps the greatest curse on ministers in denominations that we are expected to serve both the Incarnating Life of God, and to keep the rules of the church. As if those two were in any way aligned and symbiotic?

Channeling God -Advent 2b

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

I love words. That is why I write. Words have so many layers. They come from other words, they dance, they cascade, they evoke. Words are wonderful.
Language is such a living thing. It emerges from our primordial past. Like our genes, words carry codes that we have forgotten or were never aware of. Words carry their own grammatic history within themselves. It is an alpha-helix called etymology.
Examining the etymology of a word like etymology is a fascinating exercise. You might want to try it right now. Open Google and type etymology of etymology.
Now click the first link Google serves. You should get…
late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from O.Fr. et(h)imologie (14c., Mod.Fr. étymologie), from L. etymologia, from Gk. etymologia, properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” from etymon “true sense” (neut. of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true”) + -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy). In classical times, of meanings; later, of histories. Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium. As a branch of linguistic science, from 1640s. Related: Etymological; etymologically.

Now I don’t know about you but that excites me.

Dictionaries are like microscopes. They let us examine words. They place the word on a slide and shine a light from underneath and suddenly we see a wonderland in the word. If you are able to crossover between languages it becomes even more fun.
Words are like families too. They have genealogies.
If you begin to track English words eymologically (hey that’s the word that ended the search we just did!) you will discover that most English words are descended from Latin, Greek, French and perhaps some Germanic Saxon as a catalyst.
When I began to play with the words in this Gospel for the Second Sunday in Advent I notice that Isaiah’s quoted prophecy has for the word of the Lord, “I am sending ” the Greek word appostello. Now you don’t have to be a Greek pundit to know that appostelo is the word from which we trace our word Apostle. Apostles are thos who are sent. They are emissaries. So in the Gospel the writer of Mark quotes Isaiah as saying “God is sending,…” Sending whom?

Well here is the next bit of microscope word fun. The word for messenger that we English readers see in the text is the Greek word angelon. Again you can see that it’s the word we derive “angel” from. So angels are messengers. In fact one could say they are “messengers who are sent” or apostolic angels.

These apostolic angels are to prepare the way of the Lord in the Wilderness
Another translation could be “equip a channel in the eremetic desert for God to pass along”

Now it is when playing like this with the words of a passage, that one is able to come to some interesting insights.
We who know this story well, know that it refers to the work of John the Baptist. He is the divinely appointed and sent one who prepares the way for Jesus.
But if the apostolically sent messenger angel is the one who equips a channel for God.(Please excuse the redundancy but I needed to hold the concepts in parallel) Then we are all potential John the Baptisers.

We are all sent to prepare channels for God.
Is it too much of a leap to suggest that the Christ follower is the one who is divinely charged to channel God in a bleak world?
Maybe our New Age friends have something worth considering on this score?

Who put the “i” in Surprise? – Advent 1b

Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

There can be no doubt that the gospel is full of surprises.
There is the surprise of finding the Divine domain. It is a surprise treasure buried in a field that the pilgrim trips over and then goes and sells everything to possess. It is a pearl of great price that a merchant finds in a market and then gives all he has to own it. It is the surprising (not so much for us bur certainly for Bronze age people) action of the yeast that makes a batch of bread dough rise, that makes the seed grow silently, that can take an immeasurably minute mustard seed and grow it into a large bush in which birds can nest. The Kingdom of God is a surprise. Gerard Hughes was correct when he entitled his book, “God of Surprises”

There another kind of surprise in the gospels. It is less organic and natural. It is also somewhat sinister.

It is the surprise of the returning Master, Lord, Landowner, King, Son of Man. It has an energy akin to a police swoop or a special forces raid. It is the thief that breaks in when you least expect it. It is a way of presenting Jesus that modern New Testament scholarship recognises probably did come as the core of what Jesus atually taught and may in fact be the longings and projections of a later, suffering and apocalytically hopeful early church.

As a preacher I have to be something of an octopus. Gone are the days when I could listen to Karl Barth and have the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other as I preached. As a pastor now, I have to have the eBible open on one desktop with Textweek in a parallel window, Google reader open on another, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TED all waiting. I have to be up to speed on the emails and text messages coming in about pastoral needs, The Spreadsheet relflecting the church financials needs to be up to date and I still have to download the MP3’s for worship and get the PowerPoint for the sermon done.

I can truly say that I am ready, or at least my Tablet, Broadband and Mobile are. The question is will I really be surprised?
There is so little that surprises us today doesn’t it? Hubble and CERN, Google and the Genome, Jasmine revolutions, Tsunamis, quakes and tremors it’s all quite pas sé. To coin a phrase, we have “seen” there and done that. So I am not sure that a little apocalyptic action as described in today’s gospel will actually get our adrenalin pumping.

It is however this imperviousness to be surprised that is our achilles heel. For just when it seems that we have it all sorted on the outside and the world materiel is managed and measured, the inner world of dark depression and ennui infect our innards and leave us in what Ken Wilber has named Flatland.
It is then that we are ready for the Divine Domain’s real encounter.
It is not an extravaganza. It is quite boringly simple.
It doesn’t need any equipment created by that wonderful Jobs man and that has an “i” in front of it.
In fact as Martin Buber pointed out it is not the “i” in iGadget it is the “Thou” in O.M.G. that makes for a relationship of WOW and wonder.

It is is with the eye of the heart that we can rediscover the surprise of the divine domain which the mystics have always been able to glimpse even though they may not fully have grasped what they saw.

So excuse me if I don’t get all fear fired up with Apocalyptic fervour, I happen to have seen the Son of Man coming in the clouds when I watched the sunrise this morning.
Oh b.t.w. I was really , and not virtually there.