Perfect panic strategy.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

A wise teacher once told a friend of mine, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”. That sounds true the moment you hear it, but as with so many truths in life it takes practice to make it work for you.
I recall when I first moved into the mountain hermitage for my year long retreat in 2008, being beset with fears that verbalized as, “Oh No! I have forgotten this, and I haven’t got enough of that” Slowly, little by little, I had to say to myself, “Everything that I need is here“.  It sounds true, doesn’t it? Just like the saying that the teacher gave to my friend, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”
Discovering the truth in statements like these takes time and a degree of faith which enables them to reveal their truth.

It is almost as if one has to bed down with reality for a while before that inner perfection of the situation is revealed.

I have a sense that at the time Jesus withdrew to Capernaum after the arrest of John the Baptizer, it didn’t seem as perfect and as prophetically inspired as Matthew makes it sound when he writes about it in this Sunday’s gospel. Herod is on the war path.  Jesus, his mission and ministry are in peril. He makes a move into Northern Gentile territory.  Away from Judea and the people that he saw as his first priority.

Yet decades later Matthew can see the perfection in what seemed at the time to be chaos.
He sees that here Jesus finds the right kind of disciple, the right kind of audience, the people who have “been sitting in darkness” caused in part by the Judean exclusivist religion from the South.  Here are people ready to listen ready to respond. Ready to repent and change their minds.  It is perfect and complete lacking nothing.  Everything Jesus needs is right here in the most unexpected place.
Matthew sees because time has confirmed the providence that was hidden in the moment of panicky decision to run away to the North.

Isn’t that the truth about life? Crises come.

True, we may not have to experience the arrest and beheading of our cousins and partners in ministry, but we know what it is to have to act quickly and decisively when all one has as a guide is the light of your intellect and the courage of your heart.
How wonderful it is to look back as Matthew does and see that where we might only have seen survival strategies and doubt, time confirms the providence that was always there.

If we have really handed our lives back to God as Jesus did, then truly everything, every moment is perfect and complete lacking nothing.
As that great Christian sage Anthony de Mello has it, “Enlightenment is complete co-operation with the inevitable”

Of course I can’t say it to you, or for you, in your chaotic circumstances right now.  That would be insensitive and blasphemous.  I can however, say it for myself, looking back at the faithfulness of God in my chaotic moments and thus able to be just that little less jittery about the decisions and directions I am taking in my life right now.

Jesus who may never have chosen Capernaum if it weren’t for John’s arrest, ends up going throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Isn’t that just prophetically perfect?

Could it be for me too if I leave my nets and simply follow him?

Camouflaged by shame

Luke 19:1-10

To hear this sermon preached click here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why am I so needy?

Luke 12:22-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This wise man also said:

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

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

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

Said a sparrow to another,

“I would really like to know,

Why all these human beings

Rush and scurry so?”

Said the other little sparrow

“It seems pretty clear to me

They don’t have a heavenly Father

Such as cares for you and me.”

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

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

The Art of Dying Well, with Jesus

Recently there has been some significant deconstruction of the grief cycle as postulated and engraved into our psyches in the last twenty years by the work of thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. So it is incumbent on me before I reference these “stages” for the work of Holy Week that I acknowledge the challenges that have been put to her work. I  concur with most of the criticism of the “Grief Cycle”.  What was intended to be a tool for helping professionals became popularized and bandied about by people who demanded of grieving friends that they pass through each stage in some kind of causal process. I am not sure Kubler-Ross would have been happy with what became of her insights anyway! The main outcome of the critique has been a realisation that what Kubler-Ross identified exclusively with death and dying processes are in fact normal human responses to chaos and change. For example, there is as much chance of experiencing the “stages” (and they are non-linear stages that come in any random sequence and recur multiple times) when your motor vehicle engine “dies”, as when you hear that you are suffering from a terminal illness.

Having paid my dues to current research, let me proceed to say that the headings of the Grief cycle still offer useful lenses through which to observe some of the archetypal activities and personalities playing out during Holy week. Along with the work of Kubler-Ross I have in the last few days been introduced to the themes of the classical “Ars Moriendi” – the art of dying from 15th and 16th Century Europe and so may be able to weave these into the themes as well.

Born in a time when death from Bubonic plague (Black Death) was prevalent. the Ars Moriendi, or “art of dying,” is a body of Christian literature that provided practical guidance for the dying and those attending them. These manuals informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a “good death” and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and they initiated a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that lasted well into the eighteenth century.

An article in the Christianity Today Library merges the themes of Ars Moriendi with the Seven words of Jesus from the Cross and this might just become my outline for the Three Hour Vigil on Good Friday,

The Grief Cycle Stages

DenialPeter and the crowing cock – the” rock” that wobbled.

What to do when the ground beneath you shifts.

“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” Denial is usually only a temporary defence for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of situations and individuals that will be left behind after death.

Of course Peter was denying knowledge of Jesus, in the presence of possible hostility and exposure, but was this denial rooted in a deeper denial within Peter that was the result of the chaos he was experiencing?

In my own experiences of shock and chaos, which include being blown up by a land-mine during the bush war, motor vehicle accidents, and experiencing divorce, I have known the numbness that floods the psyche and the functionality that has one feeling that you are standing outside yourself and simply going through the motions without being fully present. Peter had been very vocal about never allowing anything bad to happen to Jesus, but now it had and he was numb. This can’t be happening!

I wonder if Peter’s denial of any association with Jesus was an attempt to disassociate? Disassociation is a very powerful psychological protection mechanism and I don’t want to enter the Freud – Janov debate on this matter, suffice it to say, that there is a very strong pull in times of chaos to deny what is happening and extreme cases even to disassociate from the reality of what is taking place.

The first two woodcuts in the classical Ars Moriendi (see graphic above) show what are called Temptation in the Faith and Encouragement in the Faith respectively

The first woodcut shows the Saints and sages, isolated behind the headboard, whilst the dying one is beset with a horde of tempting and fear inspiring characters.

Chaos will do that won’t it?

All that we know and trust has little worth as we are overwhelmed by the experience.

The second woodcut, “Encouragement in the Faith” has the person surrounded by consoling and nurturing visitors.

Could this two stage process be a graphic illustration of Our Lord’s own experience on the cross?

My God my God why have you forsaken me?” is classically named the Cry of Dereliction, it could also be the cry of Desolation.

Jesus beset by the chaos, the pain, the loneliness, the sheer brutal horror, finds himself denying that God is present.

I insert this here, because I believe it is important that we recognise that these processes are largely unconscious. It is only one who has established a grounded spiritual practice of prayer and contemplation, who will be able, in every moment to be conscious of the inner and outer processes at work in their being and not disassociate and be overwhelmed by the demons who masquerade as realities, whilst the stable mind would know in a wink that they are illusory and ephemeral shadows on the screen of a tormented mind.

It is a great consolation for me that even Jesus had this moment of overwhelming fear!

Anger“Father, …take this cup away from me..”“Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?” Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.

Whenever I am confronted by people who insist that Jesus knew every step along the way that he was going to die as a substitutionary sacrificial lamb as his Father’s will, I refer the discussion to Jesus in Gethsemane. Here we see a Jesus who is not resigned like some robot to the execution of the programmed plan. I see a young Rabbi, with dreams and trust in a Kingdom of Love that could change the world if given a chance to grow in people’s hearts. The looming opposition, the sinister leaving of Judas bringing in the darkness (and it was night!), all of this brings Jesus to his knees before God and he isn’t acquiescent, could he be angry?

God knows it didn’t have to be this way! Jesus knows it too. For me the grappling Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane is a deeply consoling image, a transformative icon. Once again I see the move from desolation to consolation. The shift that is shown in the woodcuts at the start of this blog. From, “Take this away!” to “Let your will be done in my life“. And if you thought that the movement from that desolate pole to the consoled one was easy, count the drops of sweated blood along the way!

BargainingJudas said, , “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

“Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…” The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time…”

Judas makes a bargain. Thirty silver coins, a month’s wages for a life. What makes this deal unconscionable is the fact that Judas is bargaining with someone else’s life. There is the hint of the scapegoating theme here again. It is easy to bargain with the lives of others, but it is also cheap and has suicidal consequences. We can speak of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”), we can speak of Colateral Damage but what whatever our euphemistic name for the bargaining with the lives of others may be, we have to realise that it is never a fair exchange, and Emotional, Ethical or Soul suicide will be the real outcome of such bargaining.

In contrast, Jesus doesn’t bargain at all. Not even for his own life. Is this not the ultimate challenge for the Christ follower. To be prepared to be the one who pours my life out, instead of trying to get someone else to do it in my stead? There is a business in Port Elizabeth called Q-4-U (Queue for you ) For a fee, this company will stand in line for you so that you don’t have to have the unpleasant experience. It’s a bargain! It makes me wonder though how many of us look at the church and the clergy as “Serve- 4 U” or “Compassionate-4-U” or “Suffer-4-U”. Doesn’t “vicar” mean “in place of” or “substitute”? What a bargain!

DepressionHe said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?”

“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die… What’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

I discovered during months of psycho-therapy that depression is the leaden blanket we pull over our souls when the anxiety of reality is too hard to bear. Is this what the pre-Psychology gospel writers are trying to portray with these disciples who cannot keep awake?

They had been in the Upper Room, they had seen Jesus offering Judas the reconciling, dipped bread. They had witnessed the refusal. They must have felt the tension, the apprehension the anxiety. How much easier to pull their robes over their heads and sleep. I thank God that in the moments when this life is overwhelming and I sink into the shadow world of depression, that Jesus is still awake and praying for me and every other one who at times find living their life too much to bear. May I in moments of clarity and calm, be prepared to sweat blood for those whose suffer mental anguish and illness.

Acceptance“Father,… yet not my will, but yours be done.”

It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death that is approaching. Generally, the person in the fifth stage will want to be left alone. Additionally, feelings and physical pain may be non-existent. This stage has also been described as the end of the dying struggle.

The final consolation, comes here in the Garden and also on the Cross. Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Those moments when we can breathe it all out and surrender ourselves to the reality of God’s consoling care. Soon enough the cycling chaos will whirl me up and down the spiral, but just for now, I rest in God and practice for the moment when my out breath will be all there is and what follows is not another in breath, but whatever the Spirit, who first gave me life, wills.

“L’chai-im! – more wine!” – Epiphany2 C

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The wedding reception was rocking and the wine had run out. Wine that the Psalmist says, “gladdens the heart”.

My puritanical upbringing should be glad at the moderation of the bridegroom in his logistics. Just enough, never too much.
Jesus, however sees the frugality as a mistake he can remedy.

Taking charge of a potential social gaff, “Did you hear about his wedding? D’you know the wine RAN OUT!!!“, Jesus has some empty ritual washing jars filled with about six hundred litres of water, and turns the water into more wine!

Extravagant? Reckless? Yes!

John tells us that this is the first sign of the reign of God. Immanuel doesn’t call a prayer meeting as his first act of power rather, he empowers a party!

How did the church lose its sense of mischievous abandon which we see exemplified in Our Lord?
The empty stone jars tell a tale don’t they?
Rote religion, ritual observance and purity don’t gladden the heart as much as spontaneous celebration of life. In fact, truth be told, too much ritual and purity can poop the party we are intended to be celebrating.

The key to Jesus’ brilliance in this first miracle, is that he doesn’t conjure up fresh flagons of wine, he uses the existing and perhaps abandoned ritual vessels for a new and radical purpose.

I wonder if we followers of the wine-maker have the same capacity?

Drive around any city on a Sunday morning and you will probably see rapidly emptying ritual vessels, trying to keep themselves going by careful logistics and conservative liturgy.

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, it is indeed right, it is our joy and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.
(Methodist Service Book)

Who are we kidding?

The drone of the responses and the reluctance to show any excessive enthusiasm is evidence that everyone present knows, that they will only be getting one sip from the wine chalice today.

It is only a hunch, but I think the wedding at Cana was a little more rowdy than our sedate liturgy.

In fact, I am convinced the guests did not need to be told to lift up their hearts. The six hundred litres of fine vintage would have gladdened their hearts and in good Jewish tradition they probably shouted, “L’chai-im” to life! No droning here! Shouts of celebration!

It troubles me that Jesus begins his ministry wanting to show that he can use the old ritual vessels to bring the new life of God’s Kingdom, yet later after experiencing the hardness of our hearts he warns that new wine cannot be poured into new wine skins. (Luke 5:37)

I wonder at what point he gave up on using old vessels?
I wonder if he has reached that place with this emptying ritual church yet?

The third day, is meant to be the day of Resurrection.

This was a third day wedding in Cana, and it makes me wonder, what will still have to be crucified before the church reaches the third day potential of new life?

As I write this, a female colleague who recently celebrated heart gladdening love and life in a same sex wedding, (not in Cana, but in Cape Town)  faces charges, brought by her Superintendent for “being in breach of the discipline of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa“.

Dear Jesus you were correct. There is no place for new wine, nor your reign here!

There are only inflexible, fractured skins, of fear and prejudice.

Thank you that despite us, you remain your reckless extravagant self.

So please Lord, let the wine continue to flow.

Flow out of the disused and dusty jars and into the streets where there can be dancing and joy, and where with the wine maker of Nazareth we may empower all people to call out “L’chai-im!”

Maybe then all people will come to believe in Him.

Could we turn this around? Advent 3C

shipsLuke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

It is interesting that out of the four Sundays of advent, John the Baptizer takes centre stage in Sundays two and three. It is naturally due the fact that Advent is a season of preparation and John is the Arch-Prophet of Preparation.
As we know by now, the first Sunday of Advent is about the trauma of contemporary chaotic events. In the context of Jesus’s words it was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Literally the mountains being made low! The second Sunday is the first John the Baptizer Sunday and focuses on the external preparation for the Coming One. (See The End of Access Control) This third Sunday, the second John Baptizer Sunday move the realm of preparation inwards as we shall see later, and the fourth Advent Sunday reaches the height of interiority with the Annunciation to Mary and the Cosmic conception of Emmanuel in her womb. Please remember that this is not the Immaculate Conception which is a Catholic doctrine referring to something completely different. More of that next week.

All I want to map this week is the concentric inward course of the Advent journey.

The route is Week 1 Outer chaos, Week 2 Outer landscape, Week 3 Inner heart scape, Week 4 Interior fruiting. I trust that your Advent journey is mirroring some of that gradual stepping inside?
And so to the Gospel passage of the week.

After two hundred years of quiet through the Inter-testamental period, (yes I know it wasn’t as silent as our fore-parents in Biblical studies presented,but it does capture the expectancy so cut me some slack?)one can understand the interest that the proclamations of John generated.
Two hundred years is a long time. Imagine religious life going on Sabbath by sabbath from 1810 till now with no change nor new inspiration! Mmmmmm come to think of it, that sounds too familiar for this Methodist.

John’s call to prepare the freeway for the Lord, brings the most interesting collection of people to hear him in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan.

Following the script of most significant theological shifts, there are the scripture scholars and the learned theologians, the Scribes and Pharisees. Good, sincere, religious leaders who somehow always feel obliged to have to see, judge and act upon anything different that emerges in the realms of religion. There is a joke amongst my Roman Catholic friends that any teacher or theologian worth their salt will have to be investigated by Rome at some point in their work. It’s a rite of passage.

One would expect the Scribes and Pharisees to be there. John makes short work of them. Calling someone a snake and the group a brood of vipers is pretty straight talk, but these are, after all, the people of power who are on the summit of the mountains of religious control and prejudice. Mountains that, he told us last week, are about to be downsized to the level of the plains. There is no way to escape the impermanence of power and privilege. The freeway is going to bulldoze its way right through the High Priest’s palace.

In my more inspired moments I think I understand why post-modern deconstruction has been good for the church. Although I long for the power and prestige that must have been a factor to draw me to this vocation all those years ago,  I understand that John was correct, you can’t avoid the wrath that pulls down oppressive power. I understand even when it is difficult to live as a white South-African male now, and to see other mountains rising on what should be a level kingdom plain.
So the priests were duty bound to be there, listening to John.

What they are told however is deeply challenging. “Don’t think your dynasty that you trace back to Abraham will save you from being brought down. Like an axe cutting to the root, let me cut to the root of the problem with the Temple, there is no compassion! Discover that God’s work is compassion and you will realise you don’t have to be in the temple on the mountain top. You can be compassionate anywhere. In things as simple as sharing your surplus.
A surprising answer from someone who started out carving up the snakes with his locust stained tongue.

Less expected at the river sermon though, are his next group of questioners in the narrative. The Tax-collectors.

Who would have thought that these guys, who in our world would be regarded with the same disdain as loan sharks and traffic police (the South African variety who will accept on the spot payment of fines in cash, and small bills), could be attracted by a message of change?

I need to hit the pause button to help us understand this word repent. Too many years, and too many guilt inducing sermons, stand between us and the word that John included in his call. Repent in it’s ancient form, meant to change direction. Realizing that one is on the wrong path, one repents and goes another way. All the added weight of guilt, shame, blame, and boxes of Kleenex tissues is just unnecessary padding. Nonetheless, it is still fascinating that these financial grafters had a desire to change their lives.
Does this point to the truth of that Great Wesleyan teaching, “All people need to be saved”? Perhaps, but  John’s answer, points to the next Wesleyan foundational understanding, “All people can be saved!” Even tax-collectors.

I wonder how many pastors in the church today would show John’s skill in counselling the change-desiring tax-collectors? He doesn’t demand that they give up their difficult and conflicted positions as Jews working as Roman agents. He simply says, “Be fair.” There will always be difficult and easily compromised jobs to do. Keep your values intact. Be ruled by compassion not greed.

Along similar lines, Luke introduces the next group of hearers simply as “soldiers”. We can’t be sure if these would be the hated Roman soldiers of the occupying force in Judea, or if they were the temple guards, accompanying the religious leaders to protect their security on this fact finding mission.
Whatever group of soldiers it might have been, and perhaps it was both, John’s response and invitation has a very contemporary ring to it. “Don’t abuse power for exploitation of the weak. Be satisfied with what you have.”

Of course in our world you don’t have to carry a gun to be able to abuse power, but sometimes it is a lever! Similarly there are many instruments of power that we can “lock and load” to ensure we get our way on the path to privilege and power. Soldiers face the temptation to use their might to get their way by force. Each partner, parent, priest, teacher, employer,and politician have at our disposal an arsenal of abuse with which we can wield power. John says,”You won’t find the kingdom down that road”

In next week’s reading of the Annunciation there is a disturbing phrase. The angel says to Mary, “the power from on high will overwhelm you.” Sounds abusive at one level, doesn’t it?
But remember what it generates.
The infant servant of peace!
Power needn’t exploit. Power can bring peace, compassion and a power of good.

This is the heart scape that John explores with us this third Advent Sunday.
It is a space where anyone may enter, Orthodox Traditionalist, Extortionist, Militarist may I continue with a contemporary list,Racist,Sexist,Atheist, Africanist, (ANY)ist?

Welcome to Emmanuel’s waiting room. Your only entrance requirement is the willingness to be changed by his truth.  Observe your Open Heart scape.  Change is possible.