Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

Everyone needs an enemy! Mark 10:35-45 Ordinary 29B

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

(This classic conflict of interests reminded me of the phenomenon of scapegoating and how Jesus used the scapegoating dynamic for human transformation. One could say Jesus is saying to the disciples you , like me will be scapegoated)

When last did you scapegoat someone and feel so much better?
If you are human, it happens quite frequently. At least according to Rene’ Girard, Stanford University professor of sociology who was converted from atheism to Roman Catholicism by his study of human conflict and violence.
Let me illustrate his theory.

“Picture two young children playing happily, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy,” and grabs it.
The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to get it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummelling each other.
As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!”
The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and chase the other child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbour is back indoors crying.”

There are two dynamics significant to this story.
The first is how imitative desire causes conflict. GI Joe increases in value because the other brother also wants it.

The second point is that finding a scapegoat helps reduce the conflict between the brothers.
If you have ever tried to calm domestic violence you will have experienced this when the fighting couple unite, and turn on you!
In these simple dynamics Girard explains the origin and process of all human conflict.
Girard’s research shows that whenever tension exists in societies, the community in the tension find release through some process of scapegoating.

According to Girard, this scapegoating has always been part of human life.
It is the origin of sacrifice.
The killing of an outsider, makes the community in conflict feel better.
But there remains an aftermath of guilt. “How could we have done that?”
To go back to the two boys. Imagine that, having chased off Fat-Butt, the brothers feel remorse about their bullying. One of them says, “You know bro, we had to do that because Dad says, ‘Blood is thicker than water’.”
Dad has become the authorization for their violence.
Girard discovered that religion plays a role in violence by encouraging and condoning scapegoating. Dad/God demanded the scapegoat.
The community that has sacrificed their child, their vestal virgin, their ox, their prophet, at some point feels remorse.
The priest then says, “Relax, God demanded it that way. We are merely being obedient.”
Girard’s conversion came when he saw how Jesus accepted being scapegoated, but for the first time in history, exposed the process to the perpetrators.
“Father forgive them…”

So next time we use our religion to scapegoat someone, let’s ask ourselves, “Is this truly the Spirit?”

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Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

Love how? – Easter 6

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I have always loved Occam’s razor. As someone who has sported facial hair since I learned to grow it, I am a relative stranger to razors, but I like Occam’s or Ockham’s one. You see the razor has nothing to do with beards. It has to do with shaving the superfluous from logic and design. Simply put it states “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity). That is why I like it. I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that 14th century Franscican Friar Father William of Ockham was not the first to suggest such a principle. Apparently Ptolemy (90-168 CE) stated “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible” So there is nothing new under the sun.
No matter who said it I like it. “Keep it simple”, I say.

It is interesting then, to discover that in religion there is generally an obsession with obfuscation rather than simplification. The Jewish legal code called the Talmud has two hundred and forty subject headings on which rules are promulgated. The Babylonian version of the Talmud stretches to multiple volumes, and all that developed from Ten Commandments!

How contrasting then, is the teaching of Jesus who condenses religious observance down to one commandment. He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” An Occam delight.

It sounds a simple thing doesn’t it? “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus even explains what that means. The greatest show of love is when someone lays down their life for a friend.

Every time I see this verse inscribed on a war memorial, I experience a wry and angry irony. I mean, it is ironic that our Chaplains in the bush war in Namibia/Angola used to encourage us to do that. To lay down our lives for our country and comrades whilst killing as many people on the other side as we possibly could! Methinks not quite what Jesus had in mind?

Speaking of minds, it is worth noting that the “life” that Jesus refers to being laid down is the Greek word “psuché’ which can be translated in any of these phrases:

  • lay down (or set aside) their heart
  • lay down their mind
  • lay down their soul
  • lay down their being

These ancient words hover at the edge of our modern psuché-logical understanding of human nature don’t they?
Would I be pushing too hard to suggest that a contemporary reading of Jesus’ words would be, “There is no greater unconditional love than when someone gets their ego out of the way for another.”?

As I watch myself going about the church and hanging out with Christians I don’t see a lot of ego’s getting out of the way. In fact I find that in place of setting myself aside for my friends (and enemies) it seems so instinctive to assert MYself, MYpsuché. Speaking of assertiveness…

The buzz these days is all about Generation ME. Yes, I heard that sigh, and I agree that generational analysis is less than helpful when it leads to profiling and stereotyping. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to give a sattelite view of a social grouping.
Gary Schlee has ripped the following headings out of Jean M Twenge’s “Generation Me” which will have to serve to outline Generation ME in bullets. (more here)

  1. Generation Direct
  2. Generation Self-Esteem
  3. Generation Entitlement
  4. Generation Thin-Skin
  5. Generation Dream-the-Impossible-Dream
  6. Generation Get-an-Education
  7. Generation Don’t-Want-To-Be-Bored
  8. Generation It’s-Not-My-Fault
  9. Generation Tough-to-Make-a-Living
  10. Generation Can’t-Change-a-Thing

Now as a boomer parent of Generation ME adults, I accept full responsibility for their attitudes and behaviours (Contra point 8 above!). I wanted to listen to my children rather than raise them as I was raised with, “Children are seen and not heard”. If that indulged them, I accept my culpability. However, I don’t think these dynamics above are exclusive to GenME’s. They are pretty general to modern humans. Check the list again and see.

The reason I am referencing these tendencies is to illustrate how, in every generation, the challenge of Jesus to love unconditionally in ego-heart-mind sacrificing ways, is going to run against the grain of our culture, our context and our conditioning.

All of which thankfully, drives me to pray…

“Lord Jesus, thank you for Ockham’s razor, and thank you for a simple commandment. Would you please cut through my obfuscatory, egotistical, sophistry and transform my heart, mind and life to your resurrected, self-sacrificing life?”

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The call of the Slaughtered Shepherd

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Once again I come to this passage from John’s gospel remembering that John never says anything that is not significant. Parchment was too rare and expensive to waste on non-essentials. Every word and phrase has power in John’s hands. It was John who gave us that chilling four word phrase just after Judas has departed the upper room, “… and it was night“. In that endline all the horror of what is happening is captured.

So I come expectantly, to this passage from John and he hits me with another of those phrases.

First he tells me that it was the time of the Festival that had been set up by the Maccabeans in 126BCE to commemorate the re-consecration of the temple in Jerusalem, the festival of the Dedication. He then hits me with, “It was winter”. A barren season when there is little sign of life. He is in the re-consecrated temple yet I wonder if John is suggesting that consecrating a building without consecrating one’s heart is a cold and fruitless ritual?

It is in this bleak architectural and calendar space that Jesus is questioned as to whether he is the Xristos, the Messiah.

I can almost hear the sigh in his voice as he replies,” “I have told you, and you do not believe.” Jesus has been performing many restorative acts of resurrrection, healing, forgiving. Restoring people’s food security, in raising men for vulnerable widowed homes. Countering bad shame blame theology by healing Canaanite children, Roman children, and even Synagogue leader’s children like Jairus’ daughter, to show that bad things do not only happen to bad people. If all of my works of restoration do not show you that God’s Xristos is here, then what will?

Remember, word economic John has located Jesus very precisely. All that is missing are the GPS co-ordinates and we could reference the spot on Google Earth! Jesus is standing in Solomon’s portico.

Solomon’s portico that abutted the court of the Gentiles, where all the sheep trading and money changing was going on.

  • Can you hear the haggling of the priests and the pilgrims?
  • Can you hear the clinking of the coins as they drop onto the tables that Jesus will overturn next time he comes to town?
  • I am sure Jesus heard all these sounds too.
  • But it was another sound that gave him the metaphor he needed for this Good News moment.
  • If we listen carefully you and I can hear it too.

Do you hear the bleating of the sheep and the silence of the lambs?

These are not calm and pastoral flocks, these are the fuel for the bloodthirsty religious machine that the temple has become, and it is the fear and dislocated cries of the scapegoated sheep that Jesus uses to teach us this Shepherd Sunday.

You don’t trust that I am the Messiah, because you don’t recognise my voice above the noisy screams of your own conflicted lives. If you were my sheep, this call to life, love, compassion and community would not be strange to you, and you would follow me. But as it is now, all you have is this beautiful building and a winter-blighted religion in which your frozen hearts cannot care less about the desperation of the pilgrims who need to know God’s life.

That is why I have come. I have not come for fancy porticoes and friezes, nor for festivals and feasts. Of all your laws I will keep only one rule, that you love God and each other. And of your rituals I will retain only a piece of broken bread and Elijah’s cup of wine from the Passover meal. The rest is as dead as these poor bleating sheep soon will be. There is no salvation in all this sacrifice. That is why I have never once spoken of myself as a sacrifice. No I am a Shepherd.

A shepherd whom your laws declare to be permanently unclean, because I work with blood and dung.

Yet, despite who you judge me to be, those who need life and love, compassion and community, come to me. Their belief is not some doctrinal and ethical veracity, it is simple trust. Trust that opens their eyes to glimpse God, in me and in themselves. In that union of my Father and me they come to share in a life that will last forever.

These sheep of mine will become, by grace, one flock with one shepherd. This flock will be struck and scattered across the face of the earth, for it is winter now, a cold and barren time.

But one morning the sun will rise, the hearts of ice will melt, and the Shepherd will repeat his eternal call once more. “Follow me.”

You may slaughter sheep but you cannot kill a shepherds love.

Not in winter, in fact not ever!”