If you lived here, you’d be home now! Easter 5a

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

What is it in our human nature that persistently wants to turn grace into law, inclusion to exclusion, plenitude into penury?  We are the great reductionists!

The Gospel this week speaks of consolation for the disciples who are troubled that Jesus, is speaking about leaving them.  They are not sure their hearts can bear it and that why he quiets their troubled spirits by speaking of a Father’s house where there is abundant accommodation. In contrast to the birth of Jesus, the Father’s inn will never be too full.  This is also far more than a guesthouse we are speaking of. The Father’s house is home.  It is the place the Prodigal son eventually headed for when he came to himself.  It is the place you and I long to return to when we are homeless and heartsore.

What is more, Jesus the shepherd, the gate from last week’s gospel, is going to make sure that everything is ready “back home” where the Father is, and when he has turned back the covers, and put the chocolate on the pillow, checked and refreshed the flowers on the nightstand and aired the room, he will come and take us to be there.

You also know where I am going”.  Is it possible that Jesus was implying,… “Because you are already there.  When we began this adventure I told you that the Divine Doman (Kingdom of the heavens) is at hand, close and even within you.  I am not speaking about travel I am talking about transformation. This is not about destinations it is about discovering you are already at home with God.” John Kabat Zinn titles his book, “Wherever you go. there you are

Incredulous, over-thinking Thomas, can’t get beyond the concrete and so asks for a map.  “Just give me the co-ordinates to that I can plug them into the old GPS and let the device take me there.”  Jesus says to Thomas, “ I am the GPS, the map, the truth and the life.  Nothing else is going to get you there if you don’t get me.  (If you don’t understand me)”   Surely if the resurrection appearances teach anything they demonstrate that in the Divine domain, geographic locations are irrelevant? Locked doors are of no consequence, Jesus appears and disappears at will.  He is in Jerusalem, Emmaus, Galilee; seemingly all at once.

Philip begins to understand that there is nowhere to go but still wants a sign. “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied”  Once again, may I speculate some unrecorded sub-text?  “No Philip you won’t be satisfied.  If you are still looking for God in signs and wonders and can’t see the Divine in this moment of resurrection encounter, then nothing will reveal God to you and nothing will satisfy you.  The divine domain, is here Phillip, in me. Can you not see the non-dual unity and union of everything in me. Philip there is no division in me.  I am one with “I am”, and so you can be.  Just look at what has happened the works of restoration and latterly of resurrection!”

This has to be one of the most beautiful non-dual, inclusive passages of teaching by Jesus.  All the divisions are healed in Jesus.  There is unity and accommodation for all.  There is no need to go anywhere, for Jesus has come to us.  There is no need to search any further for it right here.  Just lay down., you are home already.

How tragic then, that this passage has become the war-cry of exclusivist and triumphalist Christian dogma that uses the very words of the all including Jesus as a sword of separatist isolation from others.

As Jesus has pointed out in this passage if we don’t see the unity in all this, we really don’t get it.  “How can you say, show us the Father?

Perhaps the best rejoinder to those who use the words of Jesus in this passage to be judgemental and exclusive, comes from that master of the one-liner and the succinct, snappy answer, Richard Rohr.

When Richard has spoken inclusively, and people throw at him, “But Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life…NO ONE…” Richard replies in his lovely gentle manner, “When Jesus said ‘I am the way the truth and the life’, it means that you are NOT” A sobering reminder if you get it, that none of this is our business.  This is mystery of the highest order and our best response is awe and wonder, rather than bigotry and belligerence.

I wonder if this place has room service?

Jesus the Gate, and Paddy Plenty

John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

I was looking for a catalyst for this week’s reflection and decided to use my trusty old research assistant (Google) to go out there are get me some ideas. The concept of having life abundantly that Jesus speaks of in the gospel had piqued my interest.  I knew though, that if I asked Google to get me references on “abundant life” I would only get a bunch of churchy sites like this one, so I first went looking for synonyms for “abundant”.  The synonym that seemed closest to the Greek “perissos” used in John 10:10, was “plentiful”.

So, plentiful, was the word I entrusted to Google on it’s errand.  The first page that Googs (we are on nickname terms) came back with, was a mixed bag.  Half the links were to financial advisory services, and given that I don’t have any finances to be advised on, I gave them a miss.  It was, however a link to the ezine, “Irish Abroad” that drew me in where I read a delightful article, entitled, “A Plentiful Life LivedRead the full article here.

Written by Cormac MacConnell, the article is a kind of obituary to a dear friend whose full names were “Patrick Anthony Pacelli Murphy ”. Pacelli was the name of a Pope whom his mother thought would add blessing to his life.

For most of his life though, Patrick Anthony Pacelli Murphy was known as “Paddy Plenty”.  It began at school when the class was asked by a visiting Bishop as to how many loaves and fishes it would have taken to feed the five thousand that Jesus fed in the miracle.  Paddy’s hand, flew up and his answer to the Bishop was, “Plenty!”.  Paddy Plenty, his name became, and it stuck like a gumboot in a bog.

MacConnell goes on in the article to describe how “Paddy Plenty” lived out the accuracy of his nickname. Never wealthy, he was always able to see abundance in the everyday blessings of life.  He writes, “ In real times of hardship, if neighbors passing along the road were complaining, he would point to his vegetable garden and say, “Plant plenty of spuds and turnips and cabbage and carrots and kill a fat pig and we’ll always have plenty anyway.

What a gift! To be able to see abundance when scarcity is screaming for attention. Surely that is the abundant life that Jesus is describing as his shepherd’s gift to his flock.

I was recently in conversation with a friend who began his Christ following in mid-life.  As a successful businessman, he chose to attend the flashiest and seemingly, most successful church in town.  All was well whilst he parked the Mercedes with the other upscale cars in the lot on Sunday.  This seemed to be just the right community of affirming and encouraging folk that would help him to follow Jesus.  Some months into this adventure, my friend went through an economic crisis which saw him lose everything, including the Merc.

Now walking to church, and wearing the same clothes week after week, he began to stand out from the congregating crowd.  It wasn’t long before he was approached by two of the church elders, who asked to come and see him at home.  During that visit in his home, (now emptied by the Sherriff and the debt collectors), he was asked please to find another church community, as his circumstances “no longer witnessed to the abundant life” that members of that church were called to live!

What a curse! To be unable to see abundance other than in material terms. Surely that is what Jesus meant when he said “All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

It would seem to me that the “gate” that is Jesus, channels my thinking, my values and my directions in life.

When I allow Jesus to shepherd my life, I feast in Paddy Plenty’s fields. Seemingly sparse and simple, they are abundantly plenteous with all I need.

When I don’t, I don’t; and find myself gated from gratitude by greed and acquisitiveness.

A Risen Jesus? It’s a no brainer! Easter 3a

Luke 24:13-49

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

I am told by the psychologists that people can be grouped as to whether they are thinkers or feelers. According to this typology, developed by Carl Jung and popularised by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator , thinkers process data and make decisions based on rational thought and are therefore called “head” people. Feelers or “heart” people on the other hand, process information and make decisions based on the congruity of the information with their feelings.  So a thinker will walk out of the cinema saying, “That was a great movie, the plot was so clever and cohesive”.  The feeler will walk out of a movie and say, “That was such a great movie, I cried and laughed all that way through

Another school of thought suggests that the dominance of brain hemisphere will determine how we respond to the world. Left brain dominant people will favour logic and reason, whilst people whose right brain hemispheres are dominant will come at things from less structured and more intuitive, creative orientations.

It would seem that the two disciples dragging themselves home to Emmaus after the trauma of Jesus’ death were trying to think the problem through with their left brains.  Granted, they were exhausted with grief.  The name of their home town, Emmaus means “warm springs” and I would like to speculate that after the day they had just had all they wanted was a warm soak and a good night’s rest.  I sense their tired irritation in the way they respond to the unrecognised stranger who engages with them on the walk home. “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?

The left brained reader will be pleased to know that a walk of seven miles would take about an hour and forty five minutes. Enough time to get into quite a testy discussion with someone who seemed to be obtuse.  Jesus, the unrecognised companion, who always begins where we are; responds to their thinking, left brain questions and explains, from the scriptures, all the reasons why the death of Jesus was necessary. After the one hundred and five minute journey is finished, the two travellers invite the stranger home in the way middle-eastern hospitality would demand.

It is as they sit down for the evening meal, doing their duty instead of opting for the more selfish soak in the warm springs, that the stranger breaks the bread and is recognised as Jesus himself.  The fellow traveller is indeed the companion! (Latin: com panis = bread sharer)

In the moment of recognition he also vanishes! Am I the only one who hears the echoes of “Don’t touch me Mary” and “He is not here, he is risen,.. he has gone ahead of them into Galilee”?  It seems that one cannot really grasp nor hold onto this risen Lord.  One can only glimpse with insight as these warm-spring Emmaus wonderers, bow with reverence like Thomas, “My Lord and my God” , and follow him with the other disciples to the places where he is going ahead of us, like Galilee.

The shift in the Emmaus disciples is immediate.  From left brain thinking dominance, their feeling function and right brain intuition takes over.  These irritable grieving men feel a warm spring rising in their hearts at the recognition of the risen Christ.  It is a warmth that with a Pentecostal wind, could become a blaze!

You see, we don’t have to open our hearts only on Mother’s day, as significant and important as that day may be. Each encounter with nurturing selfless, bread sharing warmth from another human being, first modelled by our Mothers, can be for the honest pilgrim a moment of resurrection encounter. 

It may happen anywhere at any time. All it needs is an open heart, an open mind and an open eye.  Oh by the way, some grief, irritability and exhaustion could also help!

“Is it Really You?” – Easter 2

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Lord and my God!”

“Wave your flag, but DON’T touch the treasury!” Palm Sunday

 

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Crowds are fickle.  Watch the supporters of any professional sports franchise and you will see. When the team is winning the stadiums are full, when the team hits a losing streak, the gate monies diminish.

Be they political supporters, pop idol followers, or sports fans; crowds are at their best when they are cheering on a winner.

Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was a public relations winner.  The messiah hungry crowd witnessed and interpreted the arrival as it was cast in the all the old testament trappings and nuances of a royal arrival to the capital.  This was a hero’s welcome.  This was the Jerusalem equivalent of a ticker tape parade, or a coronation cavalcade.

The mystery that confronts me every time I reflect on this passage however, is how quickly this crowd in Jerusalem changes their mind and their allegiance.  If we follow the liturgical sequence and timing, which may not be quite the lost historical schedule, we have Jesus the victor on Palm Sunday and Jesus the villain by Thursday night!  That is a serious drop in the ratings! I doubt Charlie Sheen nor Tiger Woods could top that!

What could Jesus possibly have done in one week that so disillusioned his supporters that they turned on him, called for a criminal in his place, and were happy to see him killed?

Perhaps the key to understanding this falling away lies in what Jesus does when he gets inside Jerusalem.  He goes and overthrows the tables of the money lenders in the temple.

I remember reading somewhere that at the time of Jesus, almost the whole economy of the temple was based upon the temple and its sacrificial system.  The buying and selling of sacrificial animals, and the forex generated by changing money into the exclusive temple currency.  The religious industry was what made Jerusalem work economically.

If you ask me as a white South African, who has lived long enough to be immersed in Apartheid for 37 years of my life and the New South Africa for the balance (since 1994),  “What ended Apartheid?” I would tell you what brought the Apartheid regime to the negotiation table was primarily economics. The sanction blockade enforced by the global community made the old ways unworkable.  What is important not to forget is that at the heart of that sanctions campaign was a diminutive, ever smiling Archbishop named Desmond Tutu.  If the Apartheid rulers could have crucified him they would have!  You challenge my treasury at your peril.  Hadn’t the Nazareth Rabbi said it, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also”?

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, turned out to be, not the arrival of a club member who would endorse the status quo and conform to the messianic agenda formulated by the stakeholders; but rather emerged to be the arrival of a table turning radical, who had justice at his core. Once that realization dawned, assassination and not worship was on the agenda.

A Jesus who “refuses to be an insider but who always sides with the outsider”, as Richard Rohr puts it, will always upset our carefully laid economic tables and status quo scenarios.

I have some understanding for the fickle crowd.  I have felt their vacillation in my own heart.  The real, radical Jesus, from time to time, evokes deep visceral anger in my carefully crafted concepts. At these moments of challenge I could gladly do away with him.

It is at times like those, with Jesus upturning my values and attitudes, that I fight hard to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The truth will set you free, as Jesus said.  But first it will make you very angry!”

Angry enough to kill?

It’s never too soon to give up hope!

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I don’t know many people who like to wait.  I don’t.  When I was in the Army, I hated my last name “Woods”, because it left “Zulch” and me at the back of every alphabetical line.  It was worst on pay days.  Abrahams, and Brown would already be in their bungalow sipping their Cokes from the canteen when I hadn’t even been paid!

I like waiting even less when I have called someone to come and help me.  Telephone repair people seem the worst.  The DSL line is down, I cannot get my Facebook fix, and no one arrives to sort out the problem!

I understand how Mary and Martha felt.

They had called for Jesus.  He was down near the Jordan where John had been baptizing.  Close enough to get to Bethany.  Really close if your dear friend is dying!

But Jesus, doesn’t seem too concerned. He sees a far bigger perspective than everyone else who is in a panic that Jesus hasn’t arrived.  Then suddenly, all too suddenly it is too late.

Lazarus is dead.

All human hope is now superfluous.  It is too late.

Have you ever been there? I have.  Too late to fix, too late to call out, too late even to hope.  It’s too late.

Jesus knows that Lazarus is dead.  He tells his disciples this brutal truth.  Only then does he decide to go to nearby Bethany. He arrives on the fourth day.  The day that is beyond all hope.  All through Scripture the third day is the day that God acts.  Jesus arrives on the hopeless day, the fourth.

He bears the ire of Martha, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”  Am I the only one who reads a silent sub-text from Martha, “Where the hell were you?

Jesus himself weeps at his dead friends tomb…

And then he calls forth life and liberation from the hopeless hole, on the hopeless day, amidst a hopeless crowd.  He calls forth life in the midst of certain confirmed, putrefied and stinking death.

I don’t quite know what to make of this narrative.  Year after year I look at it and the deep mystery of this event continues to cloud round me like soupy fog.

All I know is that I have been hopeless before.

At the back of the line, waiting and waiting.  Praying and praying. Willing and willing.  And then somewhere just after the third day I have given up.  I have resigned.  I have resented. It is finished. It’s too late!

In the dark of failed relationships, failed programs for happiness, failed dreams of beauty and happy endings.  In the entombed hopeless reality of life’s darkness, I have heard an untimely voice.  A voice that called my name.

Just like Lazarus, for me life and liberation came, through the tears of Jesus and the torment of my hopelessness.

I was able to stand up, against all the odds and I understood the meaning of Lazarus’ name.  It means, “God has helped

No one else could have helped, but God has helped. On the fourth hopeless day, God has helped.

Now untie me and let me go!

High Noon at Jacob’s Well

John 4:5-42

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

In the scorching midday sun at Jacob’s well it was a “High Noon” confrontation with as much drama as the 1952 Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly classic.  Unlike the movie, this vignette of Jesus’ life is not a violent confrontation between good and evil, it is rather a conflict of exclusivist, sexist and racist cultures, that is every bit as engaging as Carl Foreman’s screen play.

The theme song from “High Noon” , “Do Not Forsake Me O My Darling” could well have been the anthem of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus discerned had been married five times before.  She had loved and lost enough to have earned a reputation which made the women of the village shun her from their communal water drawing circle at dawn and dusk, when the day was cool.  Only mad dogs and shunned Samaritans go out in the midday sun.

Jesus the Jewish Rabbi, was out of his comfort zone too. In speaking to the woman he was breaking a whole scroll of religious and traditional taboos.  John only references this by “ Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”.  An understatement if ever there was one!  A product of Post- exilic puritanical xenophobia, the Jewish religion of Jesus day, had become extremely exclusive.  Women bore the brunt of the exclusion  (See Ezra 10)

In a verbal shoot-out under the scorching sun, the Samaritan woman ducks and weaves like a good defensive gunslinger.  In keeping with the all too human way we defend ourselves from shame and blame, this shunned and failed woman goes on the attack. She fires from the hip with a hail of historical, theological, and sociological arguments in an attempt to hook Jesus into a messy cat fight and thereby mask the deep pain of her life that is exposed to his gaze and the blazing sunlight.

Jesus will not be drawn.  Rather than attack or defend, Jesus simply holds her in a space where he acknowledges who she is and then declares who he is despite her ritual and religious “unworthiness” for such an epiphany.

Isn’t that all any of us need for our healing? A space,unbearably hot as it might be, where we can allow ourselves to acknowledge who we are, and in that moment be graced by a Saviour who does not turn away from our shame and failure, but who floods our failed lives with his quenching living water.

Watching this sun drenched scene, I notice how the woman leaves the redundant water jar.  She didn’t ever draw Jacob’s water did she? But then she wasn’t thirsty anymore was she?

I also notice how she goes back to the very people of her village, who have judged and jostled her, and owns who she is in front of them, because despite her failures Jesus’ thirst quenching encounter has validated her as a human being.

There is something very “Resurrection morning” about the way this Samaritan woman leaves the deep gaping well, ( a symbol of her deep and dark wounding?) Like the women leave the empty tomb, she goes back to the city to proclaim having possibly seen the Messiah.  Perhaps though her message is different.  Could she not be calling out, “I have risen from the dead!”?

I suppose this event from Jesus’ life is different from the Western High Noon.  This Middle-Eastern High Noon has life pouring from the desert sands, where most Westerns end with blood seeping into the sand.  Is that because the “victim” is no longer the failed human woman, but the inclusive Jewish rabbi, who allows his blood to be spilt to end the shaming, and blaming as he gets caught in the Cross-fire?

Good Friday is just weeks away, time to saddle up and move on out.

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Rebirthing the Powerless Rabbi – Lent 2

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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 answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.

I am a child of Apartheid.

I was born when the Nationalist Government, the architects of the policy, had been in power for almost a decade.  I arrived when there had been just enough time to alter the social structures of society in favour of whites like me, at the expense of other races, who were the majority in South Africa.

As a child of Apartheid, I was the first of my extended working class family to graduate from University and then to proceed with post-graduate studies.  This was not only due to my abilities, I wasn’t the first bright child in the family.  I was however, the first generation who didn’t have to compete with so many others for a space. My education, social and familial formation all taught me that I was better than other people and that I would be expected to take a position of leadership in society when I grew up.  It was called “baasskap”Afrikaans for “boss-ship”.

My name should have been Nicodemus.

Nicodemus literally means “conqueror of the people”.  Small wonder he rose to the ranks of the party of the Pharisees. If James Hillman, the Jungian writer, is correct, that “the whole oak tree is already in the acorn” then perhaps the whole of Nicodemus’ life was prophetically packed into that name.  Nicodemus, the conqueror of people would expect “baasskap” in his life.  He would lead, he would command, he would conquer.

Jesus told him that he needed to start his life over. As a conqueror of people he could function well in the Kingdom of the Pharisees and the Kingdom of the Roman and Jerusalem Politicians, but the Kingdom of God needed another kind of life orientation.  To even see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus would have to start again from the beginning.  The very beginning, because every white South African knows, you can drink in prejudice with your mother’s milk!

Perhaps this is why in the fledgling days of the Christian Church, those who chose to follow Jesus were expected to change their names.  “Christian” names were the mark of the radical re-orientation that was required to follow Jesus into the Kingdom of God. I wonder what Nicodemus chose as his Christian name. I would like to speculate that he became DOULOS-demos (Doulos=Greek for slave/servant)

I am bemused by what the evangelicals have made of Jesus’ very specific command to the “Conqueror of people” that told him he needed to be born from above. They have made it into a hollow external ritual that has very little to do with radical internal transformation, and everything to do with signing on for an evacuation programme from the realities of life. The “born again” brand of Christianity really does not require a change of name and identity.  It is merely an arrogant label by which others who are not in the country club are made to feel less than equal.   Nothing could be  further from the clandestine conversation that Jesus had with a man trying to understand the alternative Rabbi from Nazareth.

What a contrasting encounter it was!  The Conqueror of nations and the Suffering servant, Son of Man.

Power, prestige and privilege, in conversation with compassion, servanthood and service. This must be why Nicodemus found it so difficult to understand Jesus.

Being “born again” [Greek=gennao anothen], can also be translated as “born from above” and even as “rebirthed”. Any way you slice it, Jesus is emphasizing the radical change of heart, values, worldview and orientation that is required of those who want to see the Divine Domain.

Being a child of Apartheid, a well trained “Baas”, it has been transformational and traumatic to have to learn to live as a minority in a nation now legitimately governed by the majority who for forty years were conquered and silenced by the people of my culture and complexion.

My greatest joy in serving Post Apartheid, and still mainly white, congregations, has been to see the previously powerful conquerors, compassionately serving the communities of poor and dispossessed.  That silent, suffering majority of South Africans whose own leaders are unable or unwilling to care for them.  Despite the fact that the power wheel has turned full circle, the little people that Jesus came to seek and save, are still invisible to the conquerors of nations, in South Africa, Libya, Zimbabwe and I suppose everywhere?

Nicodemus, the conqueror of nations, member of the party of the Pharisees, was not empowered nor informed enough to understand the mysteries of Jesus’ way of Liberation.

I as white, privileged, powerful, boss, have not only had to go back to school, I have had to be rebirthed.

In the dark night of dispossession I have had to learn that my incarnation was never intended to extend and maintain illegitimate power, prestige and privilege. I have had to be rebirthed by grace to be a re-incarnation of the homeless, powerless, rabbi of Nazareth.

It is a daily process, slow but sure, like a seed growing in the depths of my being, but by grace, it will also fruit in new life for others.

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Desert Tower to Angel Flight. You are cleared to land -Lent 1

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

A 2020 Video Update on this

Until re-reading this passage in my sermon preparation this week it had never registered with me that there is a sequence in the temptation of Jesus other than the sequence of the three temptations. Sometimes as a preacher I lock on to any three point passage and away I go with my sermon without reading around the passage to see perhaps the greater structure of the whole.  I am so glad I did the “reading around” this week as it has been revealing.

Apart from, stones to bread, pinnacle of the temple, and the promise of world domination; there is the larger sequence in the passage of:

  1. Led to the wilderness by the Spirit
  2. Forty days of ritual fasting
  3. Profound physical hunger
  4. The temptation (nested in this larger sequence)
    1. Stones to Bread
    2. Pinnacle of the temple
    3. World domination
  5. The ministrations of angels

It has been the contemplation of this larger structure that has prompted the following thoughts.

The first aspect of the story that impacts me is the fact that Jesus, up to the moment where the Tempter manifests, has been very obedient to his calling and his mission.  He has been baptised by John, he has been affirmed by the voice of his heavenly Parent, he has followed the Spirit’s leading to go away into the wilderness and he has been diligent in fasting.

It is at the point of discipline and due diligence that Jesus renders himself most vulnerable.  Isn’t it true that we are often most vulnerable to the darkness when we are doing everything correctly and are wearied and worn out from the doing of it all so correctly.  Please don’t hear me dismissing discipline and diligence.  Not at all. They are the framework of any meaningful spiritual practice.  I do however recall a time in my ministry when, totally over-extended by pastoral and community service work, I unlocked the front door one night and thought to myself, “I am really at the top of my game!”.  One week later I was in a psych ward undergoing sleep therapy for burnout!  It happens that quickly.

There is a false doctrine that wafts around the church as it wafted around the temple in Jesus’ time.  It says, “If you are diligent and dutiful and if you keep all the rules, then only good and pleasant things will happen to you.” The life of Job, Jesus and your life and mine attest to the fact that this is not true. Every great spiritual tradition on the planet attests to the fact that shadows are darkest around those that burn brightest.  The presence of these shadows don’t diminish the devotion and diligence of the devotee, they are the realistic counterpoint to the music of their beautiful lives.  The joyless secret journals of Mother Theresa are recent evidence of this reality.

Secondly, I need to confess that I prefer to speak of the singular temptation of Jesus rather than the temptations of Jesus.  My reasoning is that I don’t think that the struggle which Our Lord had in the wilderness was merely confined to: the avoidance of suffering (Stones to bread), the lure of cheap sensational showmanship (Pinnacle base jumping sans parachute),  and world domination at the cost of Godly obedience( Bow down and worship me).  I speculate that these are merely illustrations of the torment he faced as, filled with power and blessing, he had to submit his ego to the will of God for his life.

Carl Jung said most powerfully, “Any form of neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”.  Are we perhaps, the neurotic society we are, because we recoil from legitimate suffering either as discipline or as duty? The temptation of Jesus is essentially Jesus’ costly choice for mental, spiritual and physical health over the soft and cheap neurotic options he could have embraced for his ministry.  I wonder how much healthier I would be if I could do the same?

The third and most striking discovery I have made in this passage for the first Sunday of Lent, lies in the final verses.  “Jesus said to him[tempter,ego, false self], “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

The way Matthew tells the story suggests that despite the temptation struggle of the faithful, fasting and thus famished Jesus, this battle does not happen in a place where God is absent.  We, as pilgrims of the cross, know that no such Godless place exists! God is. The Israelites regarded the wilderness as a place of demons and devils.  For them it was the destination of centuries of scapegoats, those symbolic bearers of the nation’s sin.  But the wilderness was also the place where the fledgling Israel, fresh out of Egypt, learnt devotion and dependence to what Daniel Erlander calls their Manna and Mercy God.

Jesus learns in the wilderness temptation, as every faithful servant of God has come to learn, that once we put our self-centred, selfish, false-self Satan in its place,  the runway is clear for the hovering angels of God’s grace to land.

Desert Tower to Angel Flight, self is contained, you are cleared to land.

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Back AWAY from the drawing board!

Matthew 17:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be right with you Jesus!

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

We might still want to build something someday.

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