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.

“Is it Really You?” – Easter 2

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The sign in the shop says, “Nice to look at, lovely to hold, but if you break it, consider it SOLD” Understandable I suppose.  Which is why my childhood memories of going into stores are underscored by my Mother’s mantra, “Look don’t touch!”.  Yet we are tactile beings.  The very first sensations we have as humans involve touch and then of course putting the held object into our mouths!  What a consternation causer for young mothers.

Thomas wasn’t a doubter he was simply human.  “Don’t tell me, show me.”  After all, didn’t the Psalmist say, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8

I am reminded of the countless movie scenes where a long-lost–thought-dead loved one returns.  The director usually has the other character hold the returner’s face in their hands and say something like, “Is it really you?

Despite the risk of touching instead of just looking, despite my Mother’s nagging voice, I am a Thomas too.

Like him I have had moments of loss, confusion and chaos when I have shut down and denied the possibility and probability of any return from the dark desperate void of my own broken grief.  My heart has shut down as securely as the locked doors of that upper room on that first Easter evening.

I am never sure how, or why, Jesus has come to me and stood in that sequestered place of fear and forgetfulness, but he has again and again.  He is miraculously there despite my barricades and belligerence that often make Thomas sound tame.

He is there, and all I want to do is what the movies characters do.  I want to hold his face in my hand and sob, “Is it really you?

I never do that though.  Perhaps it’s my Mother’s voice, “Look don’t touch”?  I don’t think so.  Rather I believe it is the overwhelming experience of real resurrection renewal that makes me not hold him nor poke fingers of incredulous questioning into him.

In moments of resurrection encounter I like Thomas, can do nothing other, than fall on my knees before his patient ever-returning grace.

“My Lord and my God!”

Back AWAY from the drawing board!

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

There is a monastery close to where I live and from time to time I have visited the monks there.  These are experienced Benedictines, most of whom are life professed which means that they have been in the religious life a long time.  Yet despite them knowing what it is to be monks, knowing how to be monks and obviously BEING monks,they chuckle when they tell of how many visitors to the monastery who don’t know what it is to be a monk, or how to be a monk and who, despite not being monks, consistently tell them what they think the monks should be doing!

What is it with our culture that somehow assumes that despite inadequate training or experience we can opine about anything with grandiosity?  My doctor was telling me of a similar problem in her profession. “Patients enter my consulting rooms,”she said, “armed with a file of Googled results.  They sit down and instead of telling me their symptoms, they proceed to tell me the diagnosis of their condition and what medication they want me to prescribe!” I could sympathise with my doctor because as a priest I have had to put up with other’s “expert”opinions about religion for most of my ministry.  My studies and qualifications aren’t worth a hill of beans because everyone is an expert.

You will therefore understand why I take such delight in the Father’s put down of the disciple’s great opinions and plans for what should be happening on the Mount of Transfiguration. Their best laid plans of “Let’s build three booths up here and …” is cut short by The Voice that thunders, “This is my beloved Son, LISTEN TO HIM

Now here is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus.  Could it be that, our five year plans, mission strategies and files of Googled answers deafen us to what Jesus is really saying to the church?

Am I being too provocative when I suggest that maybe the church has been booth building for twenty Centuries too long? The record of that moment of transfiguration seems to suggest that Jesus’ desire will most often be contrary to our plans.  The disciples want to build booths and Jesus says, “Get up, stop being afraid, let’s go!”

If we read on in the seventeenth chapter of Matthew, we discover that at the foot of the mountain a desperate father is waiting with a suffering son.  There is no time for building booths nor basilicas. “Get up, don’t be afraid let’s go”  It seems that the glory of God shines on Jesus to get him ready for Golgotha, or a least to heal a suffering boy in the foothills of transfiguration.

Could the same be true for our worship Sunday by Sunday?  Do we hear the Father’s acclamation that we are God’s children as a reason to bask in a booth, or as the inspiration to , “Get up, stop being afraid,”  and to go down to the suffering of humanity and our personal crosses that wait?

I’ll be right with you Jesus!

I’m just rolling up this blueprint and the five year plan!

We might still want to build something someday.

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Come and see…Ordinary 2

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o”clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

I have always been one of those people who need to verify things experientially.  It is never enough for me to hear how something works, I want to experience it.  I am not sure if this is a helpful trait to have, but it has made for some interesting experiences!

Because I am an experiential learner I appreciate the sequence of events that are described in this gospel passage.

John who has the experience of baptizing Jesus, who has seen the Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, is able to confidently point to Jesus as “The sacrificial lamb of God” and then to wax theological about the destiny of Jesus vis a vis Israel.  That was John’s experience and insight.

Two disciples of John then decide to follow Jesus, meet him and enquire about where he lives.  This question is far deeper than merely an inquiry after an address.  Amongst the Xhosa people of Southern Africa, there is a form of introduction which goes, “U velaphi?” It means, “Where do you come from?” In the customs of the Xhosas, the appropriate answer to the question is not to give an address, but to declare your clan heritage. The answer is self revelatory far beyond geography. The question is one of identity not of location.  I believe the question of the disciples, “Where are you staying?” has similar dimensions.

Having had the benefit of John’s theological identification of Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, I just love the way Jesus doesn’t respond, “Don’t you know who I am?”, or “What have you heard?” as so many self-styled, egotistical messiahs would answer.  Jesus’ response is a simple invitation to “Come and see.

This response is so beautiful because it is open ended and does not require any prior pre-judged concepts of Jesus.

Isn’t that the miracle of the Jesus journey?  Despite the countless layers of encrusted doctrine, dogma and determined identities that the Church has put onto Jesus as well as the requirements so many communities put on prospective followers before they even begin, Jesus does not.

His invitation is simply to experience.  Come and see.

It is an invitation to unprejudiced, undetermined, encounter.

It is an adventure where the disciple and the teacher are in relationship and not merely formulaic ritual.

It is the path to life.

Parking under the wrong tree – Christmas Eve

 

Luke 2:1-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus…who? (Feast of Christ The King)

Luke23:35-43 (Click here to listen to this post as preached in Port Alfred South Africa on Nov 21 2010)

And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

I grew up believing that Jesus Christ was the name of the man I heard about in Sunday school. He was white, had long blond hair and was usually carrying a lamb around in his arms.

It was only when I began to study theology that I realised that Christ wasn’t Jesus’ last name. I had thought he was Jesus Christ just like I am Peter Woods. I learnt that Jesus, a teaching rabbi from Nazareth had been put to death during the governance of Pontius Pilate, and that outside of the biblical record that was all that was known about him historically.

Inside the biblical writings, (which cannot be used historiographically – that would be like using a reference from your mother when applying for a job!), this teacher Jesus had been experienced as one who fulfilled the expectations of Israel for an anointed one, whom they had called “Messiah” or in Greek “Christos”.

I also learned that recognition as the Jewish Messiah was not the end of the evolution of Jesus’ name, because as the Good News (Gospel) spread through the world after Jesus day, it met up with Greek philosophy. The Greeks, particularly the Platonists, had a notion of a divine ordering principle which they called the Logos. Judaism had already met Platonism and Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) the Jewish Alexandrian had prepared the way by postulating that the Logos was “God’s blueprint for the world

So when Christ followers met the Greek philosophers there was this “Aha!” moment when Jesus, of Nazareth the Jewish Christos was experienced by the Greeks as being the Logos. So, early on in the development of Christian theology Jesus of Nazareth, who was recognised as the Christos (Anointed one), came to be seen also as the divine Logos (The unifying, creative principle at the heart of the Universe John 1:1= “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God and the Word was God”…) This is echoed in Paul where he writes in Colossians 1:17 “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together

It was the Christian theologian Justin Martyr (c 150 CE) who made the formal connection by identifying Jesus as the Logos.

Thus Jesus of Nazareth who had been experienced by his followers as the Christos (anointed one) came also to be experienced as the Logos, (God’s blueprint for the world) Also, did you notice how many times I used the word experience in describing this journey from Jesus to Christos to Logos?  We have to remember that our beliefs are  our attempts to explain our experiences.

By the time I was finished with my academic study of theology, I (sort of) understood that the proper name for the one I follow, is Jesus the Christ and Logos of God, although he insists that I just call him “my friend”.

Now when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King at the end of the entire Christian Year, we are making faith connections and saying that in Jesus of Nazareth, we believe, Gods blueprint for the world, is revealed. That is why we follow, reverence and promote Jesus to the world.

However, this feast of this tripartite faith union of Jesus, Christos, Logos, also demands of us some critical and clear thinking so that we may be honest with ourselves. If we are going to continue to make sense to the world, we are going to have to understand this evolution of understanding that saw Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, the rabbi, become firstly the Christos of Jewish expectations, and later the Logos of Greek philosophy.

This I propose to do by offering some questions for your prayerful consideration. I am not going to suggest full answers because I believe the best theology is done by each of us bringing our logic (logos) and experience to bear on these questions.

Question one: Did Jesus of Nazareth think of himself as the anointed messiah (Christos) or the unifying blueprint of the universe (Logos)? A simple reading of the gospels would answer yes. Jesus affirms Peter for saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Honest biblical scholarship demands though that we ask, how a Galilean fisherman could have come to such a sophisticated philosophical notion? Could this be the editors of the gospels putting words in Peter’s mouth to express the later understanding of the church?

Question two: Has the Logos energy of God (the creative unifying blueprint of the universe) only been manifest and experienced in the life of this one Jesus of Nazareth, or could there have been others in History?

Question three: How much of what we reverence in Jesus, was his intention? Bearing in mind that Jesus is recorded as saying seventeen times in the gospels, “Follow me” and NEVER does he say “Worship me”

I am very clear that for me, Jesus is both Christ and Logos. That is my experience, that is my way, that is my truth, that is my life.

I will share this with everyone who is interested in knowing.

However, as I consider how I have come to this position, and how we as church have explained and constructed it, I have to acknowledge that it is not clear, that Jesus is the only manifestation of God’s Logos in human history nor that Jesus considered being equal with God important ( Phil 2 “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”). It seems more reasonable to me, that the Divine Logos is bigger than one religious creed or cultural experience.

What is abundantly clear from the life and teaching of Jesus as I have studied and experienced them is that Jesus became recognised as Christos and Logos, by living as a servant of humankind and as slave of compassionate love. Our King is a Servant!

Feel the fear… and endure it. (Proper 28C / Ordinary 33C / Pentecost +25)

Luke 21:5-19

Listen to the sermon as preached (Click here)

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

It is of  interest to me that in the Lectionary, this gospel follows Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees (See The devil IS the detail). In that passage Jesus refuses to be drawn by the straw man debate of those who don’t believe in Resurrection and yet want to argue the minutiae of how relationships in heaven might be! Jesus points his hearers in that context to the reality of life that does not end, which begins when one awakens to the reality of it in the here and now. Debates about the furniture or marital relationships in heaven are non-essential in following Jesus.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus once more points to the interiority of life in the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Discussing the temple and its glory, (it must have seemed to people who had probably not travelled more than one hundred kilometres from their homes in their entire lives to be an astounding edifice) ; Jesus is not too taken with the outward appearance of the structure. As a clear and wise spirit he grasps the impermanence that is at the heart of every created thing and sees that even this fine edifice will one day be a ruin.

The incredulous listeners cannot conceive of it and so want to interrogate Jesus for the details. “When, where, how, by whom?” Notice how Jesus does not get drawn by the specifics, the curse of the literal mind. It was the British philosopher Owen Barfield who said, “Literalism is idolatry“.  Jesus knew that. As an armour against distraction, Jesus warns of the dangers and distractions to come but hidden in this passage, which literalists try to use as a map for the future, he gives four clear instructions and one final assurance.

It is these that I choose to focus on:

Beware that you are not led astray. The skilful and wise Christ follower is the one who knows that truth and light are not found “out there”. No book, Mp3, movie, programme, teaching, or guru has the answer. Not that any of these are bad in themselves. They are all fingers pointing to the moon. The person who lacks the inner eye of discernment is prey to becoming obsessed with trying to find the correct finger. I often say, that if I had spent as much time praying as I have reading books and blogs about prayer, I would be a lot closer to Jesus than I am now!

Do not go after them. It is difficult to stay focussed when the herd hurtles off somewhere in search of answers or fads to calm their fear of the present. It is here that the one who knows the secret of unending life, is able to trust their inner compass and light to keep to the path that they know leads to transformation.

Do not be terrified. Here of course is the catalytic secret to our distractions from the path. When we become fearful we become forgetful. We forget the promises, the peace, and the process that has so shaped and guided us this far, and we begin to question and doubt the veracity of simply remaining rooted in following Jesus. The ego doesn’t help because it joins the chorus of doubt that whines about needing more security and surety, which comes at the price of serenity. It needs no underlining that Fundamentalism feeds on fear and terror, and often creates conditions to cultivate those dark emotions, so that it can offer its seemingly watertight and foolproof facile “answers”. I have said it before, “Destructive religion points to certainty; Wise religion points to the mystery”

Jesus’ fourth instruction addresses our neurotic obsession for control in stressful times..So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. As I reflect on the stressful times and conflicts of my life, I realise that I have spent hours and perhaps days, planning encounters and debates with people. I have had answers and arguments loaded in my arsenal of competence, so that I may never be caught out as being at a loss for words or information. Truth be told, not one of those scenarios played out the way I had planned.

What Jesus is suggesting is that our time would be better spent, clearing the clutter and static of our ego broadcasting stations, so that we have a calm, clear channel to God which incidentally will always through our hearts and not through our heads.  Our heads are where all the static is!

By your endurance you will gain your souls. Finally after the four instructions, Jesus concludes with an observation. The spiritual life into becoming Christ, is not about having all the answers, arguments and information, it is about enduring in keeping our hearts open to the mystery of the never ending life of God within us and within the entire Universe. No temple, trend or triumphalist doctrine will stand when the demon of fear comes to steal our souls.

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.

The altitude of a prayerful attitude

Luke 18:9-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercy is found at ground level.