“My Way” or a “Widow’s Way”? Mark 12:38-44 Ordinary 32B

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Of all things valued in our culture and society, independence must rank very high.
We are schooled to develop it, trained to maintain it, resist the loss of it; God knows we have even gone to war to protect it.
We speak of fierce independence.
It is a quality of life we will fiercely defend.

Another value of our culture is faith.We inculcate faith in our children, we encourage not only faith but faithfulness.

“In God we trust” though somewhat discounted these days is still a motto for many.

Yet I have observed from my work with people who are in the second half of life and thus more aware of ageing, that faith often grows in inverse proportion to independence.
It is often as we lose the independence that made Frankie sing’ “My Way” that we are able to allow dependence on the Greater Self, the True Self what we call God, to emerge.

I am speaking here of course of faith as trust. The more common understanding of faith as belief in doctrines is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word “pistis”.
Trust is often a fruit that grows in the compost of decaying independence.

It is this abandonment of oneself to something deeper and less programmed and planned than our independence plans and investments which jumps out at me from the gospel for this Sunday.
The story of the widow’s gift is a story of abandonment to God’s provision.

It is not a teaching for stewardship Sunday or any fund-raising drive for that matter. Would that the church could learn to trust God more for it’s sustenance and depend less on its fundraisers and hedge-fund managers, like the widow did.
I am presently involved in a second-half of life transition. I would love to say mid-life but that would mean I am going to live to be one hundred and ten! My transition has been the most exciting adventure of deciding it was time to stop what I have been doing for the past thirty years, and then waiting for the flux that the decision created, to take form.

I have been astounded at the providence of God, and the doors and avenues that have opened that I could never have dreamt. But, only after I had thrown it all into the treasury!
My “new life” that begins in exactly one month’s time could never have been planned or strategized for by me acting independently.
It seems after thirty years I will have to begin preaching what I preached.

“My Way” may have been Frank Sinatra’s way.
I prefer to advocate the “Widow’s Way”.
Give it all to God and be surprised.

Let’s divorce God for causing this suffering! Job 2:1-10 Mark 10 2-16 Ordinary 27B

Job 1:1 1

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Job 2:1-10 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

There is nothing that angers and horrifies us more than the abuse of children. On this St Francis Sunday we have to say that the abuse of animals for many probably comes close. Jesus never said anything about the abuse of animals, but he certainly spoke out about the abuse of children and women.

I live in a country where the abuse of children and particularly child rape is a regular occurence.

The urban legend that grew up around AIDS saying that you could be cured or immunised against the virus by having sex with a virgin, is a huge contributing factor to the child rape statistics. The younger the child predated, the better the chance that she is a virgin. The insane conclusion of following that line of reasoning I will leave to your graphic imagination. But let me add one detail. We have experienced toddler rapes here.

Divorce does not help the protection of the children. The vulnerability of children is increased when the ideal nuclear family is disrupted, often due to the selfishness of parents. I am divorced so I know how this works and I am not proud of it but nor am ashamed of it. I not going to avoid speaking about the problem.

I know too, that children in families are also at risk where there is domestic violence and conflict, and often divorce is a healthier option than obedience to church laws. This is not a simple problem and it surely does not have a one size fits all solution.

These, like all ethical issues, are not simple scenarios. There is no black and white. Perhaps there are even more than fifty shades of grey, I don’t know, but it is complicated.

Job’s wife thought it was simple black and white. Her logic said, “We are blessed, healthy, wealthy and wonderful. That means that we are blessed by God”

Then Job got ill.

It seems Satan was involved.

I am not sure.  Job’s wife was.

She reasoned, “ Job you are sick and thus you must have lost your blessing. Screw God anyway. Just curse God and die!”

I am reluctant to be so harsh on her as Job was.

He called her a stupid woman. At least he didn’t divorce her for it!

I am less ready to judge Job’s wife, simply because I have caught myself thinking in her black and white way.

I too have thought, “Life’s good, praise God. Life’s tough, to hell with God”

Job perseveres in what his wife calls his “integrity”

Interesting word integrity. It means to integrate, to hold together in tension.

  • The black and the white
  • The joy and the suffering
  • For better, for worse
  • For richer for poorer
  • In sickness and in health

Until not even death can part us from our conviction that God has not abandoned us.

Until we know with Job, that the whole of life, good and bad is in the hand of God.

What God holds together let no one separate!

I know this seems childish and naive.

That’s why Jesus said we should be like them in receiving his truth.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.” Mark 9:30-37 Ordinary 25B

Mark 9:30-37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Let’s face it, church conflicts are the worst. It is probably due to the fact that in politics, sport and business there is no one denying the oft healthy, oft brutal competition, co-optation and coercion that is going on.
In the church we practice exactly the same dynamics but we pretend that we don’t. So when the conflict is made visible, as it was with the disciples travelling with Jesus, there is shock, awkwardness and horror.

The disciples competing for power is of course made all the more sinister because it is in counterpoint to Jesus’ teaching about his own selfless sacrifice to come.

Jesus then takes a child as a metaphor of the kind of community he desires. You and I have, in our lives, heard literally hundreds of sermons on this theme about how Christians should be childlike not childish, trusting and downright obsequious.
Nowhere is this sentiment more drippily expressed as in the hymn:
“Christian children all must be,
mild obedient, good as he.”

In your dreams pal!

Whoever wrote that didn’t have an inkling about real children.

Children fight. Children compete.
Children bicker and bawl when they don’t get their way. Just like Christians.
In fact one wag has said that, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in original sin, hasn’t had kids!”

So I don’t think Jesus was using children as paragons of conflict avoidance.
I wonder if the master wasn’t suggesting we develop the honesty of children who when they they fight, bicker and bawl; don’t pretend that they are not doing so?
Children are the perfect Christians because of their trust but I would like to think they are our models also because of their transparency.

Here’s looking at you kid!

Open your ears before you speak – Ordinary 23 B

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

In an earlier post I have addressed the conversion of Jesus by the Syro-Phoenician woman. This time around with the Gospel, I would like to attend to the deaf man from one of the ten towns of the Decapolis.

To the modern ear the linkage of the man’s deafness and a speech impediment is redundant. We all know that if your cannot hear properly, or at all, there is no way you could learn to pronounce and sound words correctly. In Jesus day the causal link was not that clear.

I am however, thankful for the redundancy for it gave me pause to consider the link between having one’s ears opened, one’s tongue released and then being able to speak plainly.

If I was to move from the literal story to the level of allegory and metaphor, there seems to be wonderful pathway of spiritual experience outlined in this miracle. Given that all miracles are signs that the Divine Domain of God is present, then here is a process that is consequential to that presence in the life of every pilgrim who encounters Jesus.

Jesus touches the man in ways that are quite tactile and visceral. He puts his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the mans tongue and then tells him to be opened. “Ephphatha.”

An interesting word that, Ephphatha. Especially considering that most of what seems to go on in the church is our command to people to do the opposite, “Be Closed”, we say. (How I wish I knew the Aramaic for that!) Anyway, Jesus says the opposite, “Be Opened” and the church says be closed.
Be closed to anything that does not fit the cultural status quo. You can make your own list of the things we say, “Be closed”, to.

I am also intrigued by the sequencing of the healed response. We are specifically told that his ears were opened, his tongue released, and then he spoke.
On the day I created this blog and chose the name The Listening Hermit, I had just read the WordPress homepage and seen just how many million words were being blogged. It made me wonder if there was anyone listening! It is now almost four years later and there is still not much listening going on.

Could it be that this miracle sequence is a parable that shows that Jesus would have us first listen before we open our mouths to speak?
My late Grandfather used to say, A still tongue makes a wise heart”
My Grandmother used to chime,
“The wise old owl sat on the oak,
the more he listened the less he spoke,
the less he spoke the more he heard,
why can’t we be like that wise old bird?”

Could it also be true that this miracle show that plain speaking can only come as the product and fruit of listening.

I would like to believe that is true.

Open up with all your being,
listen deeply,
speak plainly.

Jesus the Janitor? John 6:24-35 – Ordinary 18B

John 6:24-35

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

So why do people come to Jesus?

One wag has said with relation to personal change, that some people change because they see the light and others because they feel the heat!

Perhaps the crowd that followed Jesus had neither motivation.  Jesus suggests that they were looking for security.

In modern times we would call it food security.  Jesus had fed them without their effort and struggle and that seemed to be something worth repeating.   It was probably worth patenting!

There is a hint of indignation in their enquiry when they eventually find Jesus after a long search.  “When did you come here?”   It is as if they expect Jesus to account to them for his movements.

It is about the same as the modern day dilemma faced by NGO’s and Aid agencies.  The agency begins with a vision and mission.  The vision is grasped by others and funding is made available by donors and patrons.  These donors demand accountability and soon the NGO is hobbled to desks writing reports to justify their expenditure of the donations, to the extent that they find it difficult to do the work that was their mission to begin with!  What is even more frustrating is that the donors have every right to demand good governance and fiduciary compliance. “When did you come here?”  “Account for yourself!”

Jesus, as always, cuts to the quick of the crowd’s  motivations. “You don’t want me, you want what I can do for you.  That is your mistake.You are materialist, utilitarian and pragmatic (all concepts that don’t exist yet, but when preachers speak about this in 2012, they will)” (All of this dialogue I found in an obscure Gnostic Gospel according to The Listening Hermit)*Joke

Despite my spurious and speculative dialogue, isn’t that the problem we have with Jesus and miracles?

The crowd may not have been “materialist, utilitarian and pragmatic”, but we moderns certainly are.  Remember Bill Hybels best seller titled, “Making life work”?

That what we want from our religion.  It must make the life we know and want, work.

When Jesus sees this in us however,  he gets into a boat and sails away.

For Jesus it seems, the Kingdom of God isn’t mere materiality, utilitarian ethics and pragmatic problem solving.  It is a transcending and transforming domain where God is paramount.

In this domain if you have trust in the mere mortal incarnation named Jesus, then your human suffering of hunger or thirst, poverty or humiliation, is merely the context for the deepening of that trust and the loosening of your addiction and dependence on the quick-fix, crowd-pleasing, sensational show, that so much religious activity devolves to.

Demands for signs and miracles are the marks of immature trust.  To provide them on demand is an iniquitous error on the Church’s part.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I want to fix the world and it’s suffering as much as the next person.

Jesus however seems determined to fix humanity first.

Can you feel the gut wrenching care?- Mark 6:30-56 Ordinary 16b

Mark 6:30-56

30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things
===
53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

As one who has a strong vocational call to solitude and who, at the same time, has spent over thirty years in active pastoral ministry, I feel the tensions of  this passage in my bones.
Jesus and his disciples yearning for retreat, simultaneously seeing the need of the crowd.
How does one balance the tension?
The clue is in the text, but first let me enumerate a few unhelpful responses that I see in the modern church.

The first is professional walling.
I am always deeply disappointed when the first words I hear out of preacher’s mouth when they come to a new congregation are, “My day off is on a Friday!”. By all means take your time off, but don’t make that your first priority! If I read the story correctly, Jesus didn’t. There was something else that gave priority (see the word “prior” in priority?)

The second is avoidance masked as delegation. I am all for mobilizing the laity and every member ministry, but all these systems lose some of their authenticity when clergy use them as an excuse to never engage emotionally with suffering.
By the way this flows the other way too. I am amused at how often I am called by people not even in the congregation and told where a homeless person is to be found. By telling me, the caller thinks they have discharged their duty to care for the person. Let the professional handle it!

So what is it that drives the discernment of Jesus? How does he manage to put the retreat on hold and care for the crowd first?
Well I did say the clue was in the text, it is in verse thirty four.

The giveaway is that marvelously rich greek word σπλαγχνίζομαι (splanchnizomai). You can’t really say it without blasting your sinuses clear!
It is a visceral word, that roots in the sphinctal regions of the bowel. It literally means to feel in the gut.

If we are to have any hope of showing Jesus to the suffering, we are going to have to allow the pain of the world to move us in the core of our being. Simply thinking, intellectualising and theorising in our heads will not do.

This is job for the gut not the nut.

When last did the suffering of humanity feel like a punch in the solar plexus? That is how Jesus felt it. It’s hard to run away on retreat when you have been impacted like that.

Oh I forgot to mention. I am on leave so if you need ministry please call the church (and only during office hours)

Ballast from Bethany-AscensionB

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The feast of the Ascension brings to a close the forty day season of Easter, which itself is a climax to the forty day preparatory period of Lent. The purpose of the Ascension is to mark the transition of Jesus from Incarnate God back to the original Cosmic Omnipresnt Being. At least that is the theological perspective.

But there is something missing in all of this, for in my lifetime I have seen a steady decline, not merely in the observance of the Ascension feast, but also in the significance of this event in moderna day experience of our salvation history.
In part I suppose this due to the fact that “ascension” works better in a flat earth cosmology where there is only one direction one can ascend in. Knowing we live on a sphere, and then discovering the vast insignificance of that sphere in the Universe makes the ascension almost impossible for twenty-first century minds to process on any cognitive level.

Besides this, asking “Where did he go?” is at once a locational as well as a dimensional conundrum and to go from here to geo-physical explanation becomes a flight of fanciful sophistry.

Simply from these few sentences you can see that it is easy to ascend into such etheric speculation as to begin to feel just a tad trippy. That is why I come to the Ascension looking for an anchor and some ballast. If I, as a global, galactic human am to understand this feast at all I will have to angle into its significance in a way that is relevant to my context.

Let’s see…
The ascension is at its heart the conclusion of the Incarnation. How does one grasp that then without feeling utterly bereft of all the gift and consolation that Emmanuel brought us at the Christ Mass? As I scoured the passage for some sign I noticed that Luke is very specific in telling his readers,”he led them out as far as Bethany”.

Why did he lead them out as far as Bethany?
Bethany is the place of consolation, community and care for Jesus. The home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, was his refuge and at the same time the prototypical church community.

If Jerusalem is the city that “stones the prophets” and which refuses to be “gathered like chicks under the wings” of Jesus; then Bethany is the place where prophets recover and where clucking, caring community is to be found. Jesus, in taking the disciples as far as Bethany, points to where his incarnation will continue after the ascension. Yes, he does tell them to go and wait in Jerusalem for the gift from on high, but they are to go as the Bethany house community, caring for and supporting each other.

Pentecost may mark the birth of the empowered church, but the Ascension marks the gathering of that grieving, wounded and wondering group preparing, through pain, for inspiration.

Here in Bethany,where Lazarus walked out of a tomb that had been sealed for four days, these women and men are experiencing the very human realities of separation, loneliness and agst that we know from our own experience are the portals through which Spirit can blow.

Fear on a Stick – Lent 4b

John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Living as I do in South Africa I have grown up around snakes. I remember as a small boy in my first year at school, living in the sub-tropical lowveld of Nelspruit . My mother spoke no Zulu, but the first word she learnt was “I’Nyogka!”.  Screamed at the top of her lungs it brought Isaac, the gardener, running with a shovel to dispense the terror. Usually a deadly black mamba or boomslang.

I was taught that snakes were to be feared, and it was only later in life that it began to seep slowly into my consciousness that snakes are probably more afraid of us than we are of them. Truth be told, when I encounter a snake today, I realise that seepage isn’t complete. There is still a powerful residue of fear.  I have believed the Christian mythology that taught me snakes are evil.

So I ask myself, why would lifting up a serpent, the symbol of evil, be healing?  Why would the Son of Man, identify with the serpent?

In the Old Testament we read that the Israelites set out from Mount Hor, where Aaron was buried, to go to the Red Sea. However they had to detour around the land of Edom (Numbers 20:21, 25). Frustrated and impatient, they complained against Yahweh and Moses (Num. 21:4-5). This is the last of the complaint stories in the Book of Numbers. Just east of Palestine, God plagued them with “fiery serpents” for their murmurs against Him. For the sake of repentant ones, Moses was instructed by God to build a serpent of bronze that was used as an instrument to heal those who looked upon it

According to Lowell K. Handy, the Nehushtan was originally the symbol of a minor god of snakebite-cure within the Temple. The name of this god is unknown, however, the use of “brazen serpent” is a subtle play on words that are based on the metal that the snake is made of: נחש (nachash) means “serpent”, while נחשת (nachoshet) means “brass” or “bronze”. (More here)

It would seem that my boyhood fear of snakes connects me with the entire human race! The fear of snakes is global.

Is it going too far then to speculate that by comparing the Crucifixion with the Nehushtan ritual of Moses, Jesus is teaching that we need to confront our fears if we want to be healed?

The conversation with Nicodemus that dark Jerusalem night was literally a life and death interaction. These were the topics on the agenda.
‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’
Jesus’ response speaks about being born from above and then he speaks of his own death in the gospel passage for this Sunday.

As primary as my ophidiophobia is the assumption that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus about saving his soul by being “Born Again”. I was taught at my Sunday School teacher’s knee that John 3 is only about being saved.
I find myself wondering if the heart of the conversation isn’t “Salvation” as my evangelical upbringing has taught me, as much as it is Jesus confronting Nicodemus with humankind’s two greatest fears?
The fear of change, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” and the fear of death (the ultimate change), “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

The longer and the deeper I journey in my life as a Christ follower in the church, the more I am aware of how I resist change and how much I think of my own death and the death of the Church.

It is worth remembering that when Jesus referenced the Nehushtan ritual it had been destroyed as part of the repertoire of Jewish Liturgy. He was calling upon a practice that had been outlawed in the time of Hezekiah

2 Kings 18:4 He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan.
Scholars suggest that this was an act of removing Egytian cultural references to endear himself to Assyria. An abortive attempt for he fell into thrall of Assyria some years later anyway. (You can delay but never fully avoid confronting your fears)

Nicodemus the scholar would have known all this background.
The fact that he had come to Jesus indicated however, that his orthodoxy was no longer serving his needs. He needed something more than the dogma of the day.

New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. –  James R Lowell

In Jesus, Nicodemus found what he was seeking. One who could help him face the sum of all his fears, change and death.
It transformed Nicodemus forever. Jesus was leading Nicodemus, the Orthodox Jew to salvation, but not as Orthodox Christians may believe!

As I contemplate the gospel this week, I wonder what could become of me, if I allowed myself to see, in the Cross of Jesus, the concentrated essence of all my fears being lifted into consciousness and awareness, and then waiting patiently to see what God can do with them, and me?

Fear on a stick?  It is about salvation after all!

Digging down to healthy understanding

Mark 2:1-12

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

I can hear the seventies Hippie preacher in his tie-dye T-shirt, bell bottom hipsters and Jesus sandals, “Hey man this story of Jesus is way cool, can you DIG it?”  (Ahem. Sorry I just couldn’t resist.)

It is as well known a gospel story as any can be, and the subject of a thousand Sunday school lessons.

The challenging question now is, “What can it possibly say today?”

As I take a fresh look at the passage, with what my Zen friends refer to as “Beginner’s mind”, three aspects of the story dig their way through the ceiling of my thoughts that want to say, “Oh I know what this story is about.”

I am struck firstly by the insight of those determined friends who know instinctively, that health is related to proximity to Jesus.

Please don’t hear me saying the manipulative nonsense of the televangelist, “Come to Jesus and you will be healed”.  That, we all know, cannot be guaranteed.

Following Jesus is not a formulary of positive outcomes.  No.

I am suggesting however, that the health and well being of humans; physical, emotional, and spiritual; is affected by proximity to Jesus.  I suppose it has to do with orientation and focus.  Being close to Jesus is not stress free. (God knows the route passes through Golgotha!)  Yet, being close to Jesus does orient me to a compassionate, open-hearted, generous, non-aquisitive, joyful, lightness of being with regard to life, in all it’s material forms. I tend to lose that when I get too far away from him and his gospel values.  Human health is enhanced in proximity to Jesus.

Linked to the first insight, the story of the burrowing friends of Jesus also reveals that despite all our Christian iconography, there are times when we discover that Jesus is below us and not above.

Those who visit The Listening Hermit regularly will know that I am greatly helped by the insights of Jungian depth psychology, which I believe, gives us a range of metaphors for third millennial communication of the Jesus message.

Depth Psychology“. That really is my whole point.

In our heady and lofty intellectual culture, it is all too easy to assume that Jesus, the incarnate God is wafting above us.  Yet, in-carnation, is a visceral, meaty notion, that sometimes requires digging rather than flying, when a spade is of more use than Red Bull wings.

A friend of mine is a worm farmer.  There is something mesmeric about watching these primitive life forms still going about their million year old lifestyles of recycling crap into fecund soil.  The miracle of the Capernaum roof diggers is a story of depth and dirt, and not a lofty ideological mind flight.

Sometimes Jesus is not above us, but below.

The final insight my beginner’s mind was lowered into as I descended through that old roof, wasn’t really an insight as much as a jogging of my memory.  As the bed hit the dirt floor in front of Jesus and I heard him say, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”, I suddenly remembered that Paul Tillich had the insight that in that moment Jesus wasn’t forgiving the sins of the paralysed one, he was proclaiming that in the sight of God the man was sinless.

A quick history detour may be in order.

In Jesus day, (and more subtly in ours), religion proclaimed that human suffering was the consequence of human failure. Sufferers had done something very wrong to slight God or at least upset the balance of the rules of prosperity.  To be sick or invalid was to have broken the rules.

This gospel story underlines that Jesus didn’t have to forgive sins. He simply had to point out that God wasn’t offended by humanity. (Another way of understanding “Your sins are forgiven“)

Grasping that, “Digging that” I am not an offense to God neither am I an offender, was such a liberation that often the perceived penalty would disappear as the perceived offence was annulled.  Healing happened.

The idea that we as humans have somehow deeply offended our Loving parent is the really offensive notion that has held the Church, and Christians, captive and paralysed for millenia.

Isn’t it time we blew the roof off that lie and walked out of the prisons of our fearful dogma?

Let the Pharisees mutter about protocol and precedent, Jesus has seen our trust in liberating truth.

Do you know, I would dig through the roof of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome if I could get this truth to Wikileaks?

Warning: Jesus is Contagious!

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

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

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

I will leave you to make your own two lists…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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