Silencing those demons and beginning to serve.

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Human suffering is a great way to meet Jesus.
I would love to have been able to interview the crowd that followed him around during his ministry and establish what percentage of them were following because they had encountered in Jesus, some liberation from their suffering . I am sure they would make up the majority of the crowd. Another sector might be those who were in the process of being healed by ongoing encounter with him?
I like the way the New Revised Standard Version translates the action of Peter’s mother-in-law after the fever.  It renders “dieykonei” as “she began to serve them“. Do you also hear the present continuous sense to it? I love the implication that it was the beginning of perhaps, a lifetime of service?

There is also an interesting quatrain of activities as Jesus goes about his public ministry:

  • He proclaims the unconditional acceptance of God for all, to all.
  • He heals the sick.
  • He casts out darkness(demons)
  • He retreats into prayer.

What a wonderful rhythm for the Christ following life. How often can I recall times of frustration or burn out because I have neglected to attend to these four activities in a balanced way.
As students of yoga know, you cannot only breathe in, nor can you only breathe out.
Yet we who have been blessed, healed, and who have had our darkness dispelled by Jesus. We who now serve and follow him, need to learn the potency and sanity for our own lives of Proclaim, Heal, Remove darkness, Pray. I don’t think the sequential order is essential. What is essential is balancing our lives firmly on those four legs.

Yes, I know I am avoiding commenting on why Jesus wouldn’t allow the demons “who knew him” to speak. I can only speculate from the times we do hear them speak in Mark, that they speak only of themselves in the most egotistical terms. For example, “‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Mark 1:24. Can you hear the “me” in “Demon“?

For the demons in Jesus’ day, and the “demons” in me now, it is always about “me”.
Why me? Why do I have a fever? Why should I proclaim unconditional love? Why must I be the healer of others and their relationships? Why do I have to put up with the darkness of others? What has it to do with me? Why should I have to pray now?
That’s demonic language.
That’s just not the kind of language that will help any of us understand the selfless, life sacrificing Christ; let alone be healed by him and begin to serve him.
Better we don’t listen to it?
If he can shut those voices up in me, I won’t complain.

Why Demons sleep through sermons.

Mark 1:21-28

The Worshiper with an Unclean Spirit

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

There is a tension that preachers live with constantly.  On one hand we are called to proclaim the truth of the Unconditional Acceptance of Jesus, yet at the same time that very generosity, embodied in the Good News, evokes dark opposition from the destructive forces in the human spirit that seem to prefer bondage and oppression to the offered liberation and freedom.

In almost every age of its history the church has preferred, for the sake of governance and compliance, to hold back on preaching Liberty, Good News, and the Recovery of sight. Thus it seldom proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour.
The resultant religious practice, for it can scarcely be called Christianity, has been a rule bound, ritual embalmed, rote rehearsal of cosy and folksy tradition that has, as its main purpose, the studied avoidance of anything that may disturb the status quo.

Such compliance to convention and in the worst sense of the word, conservatism, has often, as was the case in Apartheid South Africa, included the collaboration with whatever political ideology was in power.  The church, the synagogue, the temple, become bland and banal and also indistinguishable from the surrounding culture and context.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a comfortable place for prophets, preachers and proclaimers to live.   People embrace you, encourage you, support you professionally and economically, because you are saying what they want and like to hear.  I like to live at peace and to live well.

It is however, not the way of Jesus.

Watching the master prophet, proclaimer and preacher of the Good News of God’s Unconditional Acceptance to All, we see the conundrum at work.

On the one hand people sense the difference. They speak of such proclamation as “a breath of fresh air”. They will say modern day equivalents of, “You teach with authority, not like the Scribes.” ; something along the lines of, “Our last preacher never told us that!”

Yet, despite the attraction of the Good News, such proclamation will inevitably and simultaneously, evoke demonic reprisals.

My detective mind is tickled to speculate what office the man, possessed by the unclean spirit, held in the Capernaum synagogue? Was he the Treasurer? The Choir Director? The Youth Pastor? Was he the Senior Steward?
My experience of Good News preaching is that sooner or later, preaching the Unconditional Acceptance of Jesus will rile someone in the status quo power structure enough, for the demonic in them to manifest.

It is essential at these moments of oppositional confrontation, that we have the same prayer shaped insight of Jesus, that will enable us to separate the darkness of the opponent’s behaviour from their essential nature in God. Only if we can do that will we, as those being attacked, be able to take authority over the darkness whilst still preserving the underlying health and dignity of the temporarily possessed ones.

Hearing truth makes us all angry at some point. That is unavoidable.

The freedom that is that truth’s gift to us may, however, first require the exorcism of our fearful demons that are so resistant to the new that Jesus wants to bring us.

The Original Love Language – Baptism of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This subversive truth is the ultimate form of human liberation.

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

This is transformative to the deepest fibres of our being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just say, “Yes. Let it be…”

Luke 1:26-38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is gold and God in those words.

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

Jesus the untouchable deal breaker – Advent 3b

John 1:6-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John testified to him and cried out,”This was he of whom I said, ˜He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
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Deuteronomy 25: 5When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” 8Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” 9then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.
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Ruth 4 : 5Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” 6At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal.
9Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.” 11Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses.
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Strange things, these sandals.
“In ancient times men generally went barefoot indoors but outside they protected their feet with a sandal usually made of a simple sole of untanned leather, tied on with straps or latchets (Genesis 14:23; Mark 1:7). A sandal was the cheapest thing one could imagine (Amos 2:6) ”only the shoe-strap was worth less (Genesis 14:23).” (http://www.bible-archaeology.info/clothes.htm)

From the above readings the most obvious interpretation of John the Baptizer saying, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” means that John sees himself as a far more lowly person than the one whose coming he is proclaiming.
It reminds me of a custom in India where a form of greeting usually of younger persons to elders, will be by touching the feet. This in turn places the greeter’s head at the level of the elder’s hands which then bless touch the bowed head and offer a blessing of long life upon the supplicant.

There is also a wonderful Indian tradition that has found its way into our Christian Hymnals, namely sweeping the dust off the Guru’s (Teacher’s/Rabbi’s) feet. The hymn goes like this:

One who is all unfit to count
As scholar in Thy school,
Thou of Thy love hast named a friend
O kindness wonderful!

So weak I am, O gracious Lord,
So all unworthy Thee,
That even the dust upon Thy feet
Outweighs me utterly.

An Indian website explains the Eastern Custom:
Touching the Guru’s feet, then, is an act of respect and reverence, but also of learning. We facilitate our own spiritual progress when we learn to be humble. Humility puts us in a place of learning. After all, when we accept a Guru, regardless of whether they are a diksha (initiatory) or shiksha (learning) Guru, we do so because we wish to emulate that Guru. By touching their feet, we demonstrate not only that we are ready to listen to them, but also that we are ready to transform and strengthen ourselves. (http://kamakhyamandir.org/culture-and-history/why-do-we-touch-a-gurus-feet/)

So it is clear that John’s reference to the sandals of Jesus is a reference to his own humility.

But to leave the metaphor there would be to miss another important dimension of John’s words.
The reference in Ruth above and the reference to the Deuteronomy passage regarding dynastic succession and deal making using sandals,has relevance for our understanding of the relationship of the herald John, to the master Jesus.

Before unpacking this let me remind us that John the Baptiser is a wonderful arche-type for the Christian Disciple. He is the one who builds up a successful ministry in the South Jordan, so much so, that people travel from Jerusalem and surrounding regions to come and hear him and to be baptised by him. This very successful operation is just as quickly dissolved by John at the appearance of Jesus. He even goes so far as to send some of his own disciples off to follow Jesus with those magnificent words that have found a resting place in the Eucharistic liturgy, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”.
Oh, how the church could have benefitted from more pliable egos like John’s ego in the history of Christendom!

So back to the sandals. I would like you to consider that by proclaiming that he was not worthy to touch the sandals of Jesus, (not even the lowly thongs that tied the sandals) John was acknowledging that he wasn’t in a position to make deals and contracts with the coming one that he was preparing the way for.
No genealogical appeal from John who was a relative, and thus no genealogical claim from anyone.
Don’t forget that it is also John who said,to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “˜We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3)

This is an example we would do well to follow as we prepare once again this year for the coming of the Christ.
We who are the way preparers. We who are the Freeway construction crew. We would have to remember what John is saying to us.
Like John, we can only prepare the way. Just as we are not worthy to untie his sandals, and to gather the dust off Jesus’ feet, so we are not in a position to assume that we can negotiate and argue the terms of his coming. Jesus will come to us and to the world on his own terms and in his own way. All that remains for us is to be as surprised as John was.

So let us keep our hands off his sandals and our egos at his feet.

Are you ready to risk? Ordinary 33a

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When working in the Gospels it is always a chalenge to know where to begin reading and where to end. The versification of the modern format of the Gospels is not helpful as some of the chapter breaks are arbitary and cut across teachings much the same way the cartogrophers pens carved across the map of Africa separating whole cultures, tribes and collective histories in the quest for Imperial lands.
We know from extant manuscripts that the written form of the gospels was very dense and even unpuntuated, let alone unversified!

Coming to these end times teachings of Jesus it is difficult to know when to begin reading before the passage to be preached from the lectionary. I find it helpful when trying to find the entry point into passages, to look for action passages, which are often the transition and comencement points.
Jesus moves to another place, Jesus enters the synagogue, Jesus crosses the lake, that kind of transition.

To find the access point for this teaching in today’s gospel, one has to backup to Matthew 24:3 As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things 8 happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
The reply of Jesus to that request takes the form of the following teachings:

  • The Persecution of the Disciples
  • The Abomination of Desolation
  • The Arrival of the Son of Man
  • The Parable of the Fig Tree

Underpinning the teachings is the theme,”Be Ready!”
Under this sub section of being ready there are then three parables, namely:

  1. The Faithful and Wise slave who takes care of the staff of the household whilst the Master is away,
  2. The Ten Virgins, five of whom keep themselves properly resourced for the return of the Master,
  3. and finally the Parable of the talents which is the focus for this week’s preaching.

The story is a simple narrative of a landowner who is going away and entrusts his property to his servants in differing proportions, five, two and one.
The unit of measure being termed talent is unfortunate, as it has come to be associated with skills. A talent in fact refered to a sheckel, which was the largest unit of weight in Biblical times but which scholars have not been able to find equivalency for in our modern measuring system.
The best we can do here is to say that the master divided his property into eight parts, five to the one servant, two to another and one to the last. Scripture then also goes on to comment, “According to their ability”
In the later accounting the five talents have been applied to yield another five; similarly the two talents are now four and both enteprising servants are given access to the Master’s joy. The fearful conservative slave who for fear of the Master’s harsh business methods, does nothing with his resource
is punished by losing that resource and also as a final humiloiation is excluded from the “joy of the master”

Now, if you have grown up in the church as I did, you will have heard any number of teachings on this parable, most of which will have been exhortations for you and I as individuals to use our God given talents as skilfully as we can and to achieve, achieve, achieve. After all that is the basis of the Protestant Work ethic!
There is just one problem with that approach. The individual was really not the key component of Biblical, Bronze Age culture. The group was.
Now if we consider that the church is the servant entrusted with the Divine Domain whilst Christ is visibly absent, I behoves the church to be expanding that Divine Domain’s resources through skillful engagement and even entrepreneurial action. Yet when I consider the activities of many church communities I see them acting, not in the inclusive expansive and expanding spirit of the skilfull stewards in this parable, I see rather fear based, suspicious and conserve-reactive (Conservative) laagers. It is even evident in our architecture.
The pictute at the head of this post, is of one of the newest Methodist Churches to be built in Johannesburg. Whilst I am architecturally astute enough to “read” the architect’s intention to embody the African theme, what they have unwittingly created is a fort!
Here is a British block house built by the Colonial forces in South Africa during the AngloBoer war.

A picture paints a thousand words, so let me be brief to close.
I am sadly persuaded that should the church have to give account right now,we would have to accept that the one portion we have so fearfully protected in our fear based, block house forts we call our denominations and our doctrines; would probably be taken away from us and we would lose the joy of the master.
Hey, come to think of it, that’s already happening!

“The return of the Red Earth Man” Creation 2 – Land

Genesis 2:15 – 25
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed
Matthew 12:38-40 The Sign of Jonah
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.
The Commendation from the funeral liturgy (Orthodox Kontakion for the Departed)
Give rest, 0 Christ, to your servant(s) with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting. You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: AlIeluia,alleluia, alleluia.
Etymology of the word Adam
Adam \a-dam\ is pronounced AD-um. It is of Hebrew origin, and the meaning of Adam is “earth”. From “adama”. In Hebrew, it is a generic term for “man”. Biblical: in the Genesis account, he was the first man created from the red earth of Eden
Land is an emotional issue.
We are born from it, we long to return to the land where we are born, we will shed blood to defend “our” land, and we end our lives by being returned to it.
Imperial powers through the ages have laid claim to land, with bloody spears and cartography pens. Lines on maps have severed tribes and clans and thus created cauldrons that have boiled over with bloodshed and even genocide. As an African, I remember Rwanda, and I can only imagine the earlier traumas of human trafficked souls ripped from their soil and transplanted on foreign lands to plant crops that they would never share, and build mansions they would never inhabit.
Land is an emotional issue.
Is it because we still echo the fact that we are Adamite, red clay people?

“Formed of the earth and to earth we shall return”

We are soiled souls.
In one of the great sychronicitous ironies where mythology and science intersect, earth scientists have determined that the shift from the only life forms being bacteria and blue green algae, to more complex forms like the Eukaryotes of which we are members, occured 1,9 billion years ago when the Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere dropped, Oxygen increased and RED BEDS formed. Red beds are very shallow-water, river, or soil deposits in which the iron has combined with O2 to form red iron oxide.Reference here We are indeed Adam, red oxide earth people!
So underneath the layers and layers of papered Imperial maps, each demarcating, each delineating assumed possession of the land that never belongs to anyone, there lies the red earth. The soil of our souls. We will never hold title to it, we are not entitled to even assume it is ours.
The ancient land, the seed bed of all origins is the fabric of being that cannot be posessed by transient clay mannikins like us.
Africans knew this before the missionaries came. In Africa, Modimo, Camata, Nkulunkulu (the bantu names of God) lived in the earth and not in the sky. Caves were wombs and portals to the mysteries of life. That is why, in their depths, red clay adamites danced and painted.
It is into these depths that Jesus goes to find us. Like Jonah in the whale, Jesus in the earth belly is questing to the very depths of our genological and geological origins to bring us back to our real senses.
Mud caked, soiled and fecund with potential, he breathes into our clay once more and cries.
Live! Adam Live!
Wake up and heal the land from which you came, and to which you are returning.

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Wow! Would you look at this? Ordinary 17a

Matthew 13:31-52

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

One of the joys of what Richard Rohr and others call “the second half of life”, is that one has enough life time behind you as material for review and reflection.  Naturally there isn’t total recall, (Thanks be to God!) and neither does one remember everything accurately.  I reserve the right to embellish and embroider my life story so as to maximise the enjoyment, if not of my hearers, then at least of myself as the narrator.  So coming to that life story which has more than a half century of content, I discover with amazement, how I have been surprised by God.  Now this isn’t a new thought, C. S. Lewis wrote “Surprised by Joy” and Gerard Hughes wrote, “God of Surprises” and many others have commented on the wonder of a God who simply appears in theophanic moments of delight, often totally unexpectedly.   What a Joy, C. S. Lewis, a joy indeed!

Ever since I first came across it I have been moved by the inscription that Carl Jung had on the doorway of his home.  It reads,  “Bidden or unbidden, God is present”. (You can see the Latin on the plaque in the right hand panel of my blog).  The maxim captures the same mystical, mischievous, dimension of God’s self revelation in the forms of everyday events.  Jesus was acutely attentive to that epiphanous reality in his life and it flowed into his teaching.

He taught that the Kingdom of God (literally of the heavens), the Divine Domain, is like… a minute micron of a mustard seed; a secreted treasure that is stumbled on whilst striding in a field; a precious pearl worth purchasing with your entire portfolio of provisions; a net straining with every kind of fish imaginable, so large a catch that you have to sift through it to get the good (and sustainable?) ones.  Each learner of life (Scribe) has a treasure out of which we can skilfully select and bring forth the best for the world.

What I love about this teaching on the theme of God’s surprise manifestations, is that in most cases the human response comes after the surprise. Because God surprises us we don’t have to contrive and control the conditions. In short we can’t make the miracle happen.

It is a miracle that the miniature mustard seed makes it through the prodigal sowing, and weed ridden wheat field of the past two weeks lectionary readings; but it does, and thrives. The surprise of the treasure, the pearl, the fish catch all precede , the commerce of converting ownership of one kind for the consolation of a Kingdom investment.  We respond to grace we don’t bring it into being.

How wonderful to realise as I look back on my life, that I really didn’t make much happen.  When I tried too hard I tended to butcher it.  No, I have been at my best, when I have simply allowed life to surprise me, and then responded to grace in gratitude and in giving. I am like the bulldog in the picture. Someone put be on this board and on this wave. God! what a ride!

Jesus condones Weed – Ordinary 16a

Matthew 13:24-43
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Why can’t  we leave judging to God?  What is it in human nature, that is somehow heightened in Christian human nature, that has to judge?  Jesus prohibited judging in his teaching. (Matthew 7:1-5)  He was always in some conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees for their persistent judging of people and their attempt to control the minutiae of others’ lives. Yet if you were to ask most people who have been alienated from the Church what they found most difficult about Christians they would say, “Church people are SO judgemental

I sometimes think that Christians are not merely trying to be “holier than thou”, they are trying to be “holier than Jesus!”.  Granted, Jesus spoke about being perfect even as our Parent in heaven is perfect, but as a good Wesleyan I know that he was referring to be perfect in Love as God is perfect in Love. (More on that here

Before holiness and perfection however, Jesus expected transformation in his hearers.  He knew that hearing the good news of the unconditional acceptance of a parenting, providing, profligately generous God, has a way of transforming our natures as we discover that religion isn’t about rules, it is about relationships.  This is a process.  That is why Jesus uses organic images to describe the process of  the Divine Domain (Kingdom of God) coming to fruition in the lives of people and their communities.  He speaks in this Gospel passage of the Divine Domain operating as growing wheat amongst weeds; as yeast leavening dough; as a small mustard seed transforming into a tree big enough to host a colony of birds.

This process isn’t flawless nor is it conducted in clinically sanitised environments.  Wheat grows in the presence of competing and threatening weeds, sourdough yeast is rotting old food material, and that little mustard seed could just as well have ended up as bird seed as a bird housing bush!

So Jesus condones weed.  He acknowledges that for the life of God to be real it needs to live and grow in a real world.  Nit picking weeding in a field of young wheat does more harm to the wheat than good.  Nit picking Christians are as damaging.

A Parable of the Prodigal Sower

Matthew 13:1-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

I marvel at how we turn everything into a competition.  Not a week goes by that I am not invited to compete in some way or another to win something or t’other.  It is little wonder then that when we come to parables of grace, like the one this Sunday, we compulsively look for the competitive spin in them.
The story as I understand it in a time before farm co-operatives where you can go and order your Monsanto, Du Pont or Sygenta seed, tells of a sower, who was no doubt also the farmer, going out to sow. The seed that he was sowing would have been carefully hand selected (there was no mechanization) from the best of the previous season’s seed.  It would have been carefully stored and protected from damp (not so difficult in a desert climate) and insect infestation (more difficult in a pre-irradiation and pesticide world).  After tilling the soil and preparing it for sowing the sower would have waited for the the optimum weather conditions and then on the right day gone out to sow.
I cannot remember the first time I heard this story, because it was one of those that children hear from their earliest times in Sunday school.  I do remember a picture of the sower from my childhood, it was on a memory verse stamp that was licked and stuck into the memory verse book.  I also remember that throughout my childhood, the parable was taught as being about the quality of the soil and not about the qualities of the sower!
You see the parable has some wonderful content for ever-competitive learners and educators to dig into, if you can bear the pun?  All through my childhood I was asked and asked myself, “What kind of soil are you? Are you bringing in the best harvest of all that God has invested in you?”  The Ol’ time balance sheet, so indicative of Evangelical religion was firmly drawn in my life.  I had to balance the books or be damned. Quite literally!
It was only in the last twenty years as I lived with this passage, that I have come to realise that as with so many other parables of Jesus, this story was designed to illustrate the Divine domain of God in a way that would evoke strong emotions in the hearers.
Just like the shocking story of the waiting father welcoming his profligate son, so the sower of the parable is a prodigal too!
To take preciously gleaned, cleaned, stored seed and sow it so recklessly that it falls on the path, in the rocky wastes and amongst thorns is prodigal at best and downright unskilful to boot.
This is a story that would have shocked those early agrarians for the sheer waste of good seed.  To then have the sower identified as God would have been shocking indeed.
In a shame-blame religious culture where the righteousness of people was measured by their position on the pyramids of power, prestige, and privilege; to even think that the word of God could come to those who seem to be so easily overcome by the Evil one, or by the cares of the world was a scandal.  Yet this is what the story suggests.
The seeds of grace fall indiscriminately into the lives of all God’s children.  The outcome of that gracious sowing will not be immediately known.  One never knows what may come of profligate grace.
To make of Christ following, an exercise in soil inspection, is to pave the heart, and  attempt to throttle the power of God.
Still the sower sows wildly day by day, some hear and some are hardened, some see and some are blinded, yet the sower wits not, and sows on and on in gracious abandon.
Thank God, the Prodigal Sower.