Cheeky power!

Matthew 5:38-48

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I remember my days in the army when, as a White South African male, I had to do conscripted military service.  South Africa at that time was an overtly Christian country so at the weekly prayer parades the Army Chaplain would read to us from the Bible.  I was a serious Christian at the time.  As deadly serious as any seventeen year old can be, so I tried to listen for the word of God for me at every reading.  I don’t recall any encounters with God on the parade ground and that is possibly because I don’t remember the Chaplain once reading from the Gospels.  I remember lots of readings from the Psalms, but never a reading about Jesus.

In later years I fell foul of the army when I became a religious objector who had discovered that I could not in good conscience be part of an army that was being used to violently suppress the voices and aspirations of fellow South Africans in the Black townships.  It was the words of Jesus that brought me to that decision, and particularly the words of this Sunday’s gospel.  I was helped to really understand the way of non-violence by studying the teachings of Martin Luther King Jnr., Ghandi, and South Africa’s own Desmond Tutu. (Nelson Mandela was still in prison and his teachings inaccessible in South Africa)  These men showed in their lives the  power of peaceful protest that I believe came very close to the way Jesus had lived and taught.

It was however a less public figure, Walter Wink, with his Third way, that gave me the real insight to Jesus’ brilliantly subversive non-violent teaching.  The Third Way is the alternative to Resisting or Running away, the so-called fight or flight options which we believe are the only choices.

Like most churchgoing people I had been taught to understand the teachings of Jesus on turning the other cheek and going the second mile as a kind of milk-toast passive path that cowered in the face of violence.  It portrayed Jesus as , “Gentle Jesus meek and mild” who really would be much use to anyone in a struggle against powerful oppression.  In the South Africa of the day, as in most First World military complexes this kind of Jesus suited the war machine well.  No follower of the lamb-carrying, blond guy with the effeminate features, was going to argue with the drill sergeant!

Walter Wink however, turned that on its head for me:

To watch this from a subscribed email post click here

It is essential to  notice the “BUTs” in Jesus’ words where he says,”You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek…”

The word for “resist” is anthistemi and is linked to military warfare where two armies would clash on the battlefield, “resisting” with bronze, blood and bone.  Don’t do that with evildoers, BUT if someone wants to humiliate you by putting you below them, then resist. Resist in a creatively alternative Third Way.

As Wink has pointed out above turning the other cheek wasn’t passive at all.  Neither was giving your undergarment when sued for your cloak.  There was a strong prohibition against nakedness in Jewish society not only for the person found naked but also for the person who caused the nakedness.  So to offer your last piece of clothing to a creditor, was to suddenly put them at risk of being shamed in public. Imagine the scene where the creditor suddenly has to beg the person being sued NOT to give them the undergarment too!

So too with “going the second mile”. Roman occupation troops were allowed to press locals into carrying their pack but only for one mile.  To be caught abusing this privilege was punishable my military law. Again, can we imagine the arrogant Roman soldier begging for his pack  from the poor Hebrew who wants to carry it further and thus get the soldier in trouble?

There is a comprehensive article on these arguments here.

All of Jesus’ teaching is to empower his hearers who are most often the marginalised, the poor and the powerless. Jesus does not want revolution which will simply invert the power structures with oppressed becoming oppressors.  Jesus wants the restoration of human dignity for all. That is the real power of the Gospel.

But the power Jesus uses is not to mirror the oppositional power that is being used to cause the hurt and humiliation, it is rather, skilful alternative and transforming power that forces a review and reconsideration of the whole structure of human power and abuse of power.

Small wonder we all wanted to silence him. He was too skilfully subversive for status quo people who really don’t want to change and certainly don’t want to share our power and privilege!

I also understand why Army Chaplains, responsible for motivating troops and sanctifying violence would find it difficult to read from the Gospels about Jesus.

It takes cheek to follow Jesus.

Blessed? Don’t you mean cursed?

(Click Here to listen to this article as it was preached on Sunday Jan 31 2011)

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Gospel of Jesus – according to the Jesus Seminar suggests that the core of the Beatitudes probably refers to the poor the hungry and the weeping.  The scholars translate the word makarios “Blessed” as “Congratulations.

“Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations you hungry! You will have a feast.  Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh.” Gospel of Jesus 2:3-5

If ever there was a saying that is counter intuitive, then this must be it.

Don Cupitt in “Theology’s strange return” points out that “In post modernity Christianity is being progressively deconstructed, as text and subtext come apart and we we begin to recognize that the religion was first created by a very large-scale act of repression.   The original Jesus was far too radical a figure.  He had to be very heavily veiled, and became the Christ of faith, the incarnate word of God and the ever obedient Son of his heavenly Father.  Thus weirdly disguised, Jesus could be presented by apostles an priests as the central figure in a great myth of redemption which promises the believer a permanently deferred union with God that does not dethrone God.  The object of the complicated manoeuvres here was to preserve just a little bit of what Jesus had been about while yet retaining in full the divine transcendence, the supernatural world, the system of religious mediation and, above all, priestly and disciplinary power. But in postmodernity it is all coming apart.  We begin to see that historical ecclesiastical Christianity was from the first constituted by a great repression of something bigger and better that lies behind it, something that is now at last coming into view.” (Introduction xv)

This radical Jesus, and that piercing scalpel that dissects hypocrisy wherever it has taken form, is nowhere more visible than in these teachings from the Beatitudes.  It matters little whether you take the canonical account of Matthew or the Jesus Seminar version above, the effect is the same.  Jesus is turning the conventional wisdom of the spiritual country club on its head.

All the conditions of human suffering that we pray to avoid and for whose victims we pray in our Sunday and weekday intercessions are congratulated and declared as blessed and happy for it would seem that in Jesus view they have access to the imperial reign (Kingdom) of God.

Having just passed through the consumer orgy of Christmas, and living in Africa where the poor cannot be sanitarily avoided, the words of Jesus seem to amplify the bloated material hangover whose toxins seem to linger long into the new year.

Could it be that peace, joy and hope are not consumer goods, but are rather purveyed in the depth of trust that is born of human struggle and suffering?  We do ourselves and the gospel a great disservice when we spiritualize the Beatitudes and assume they refer only to mind or soul states. The poor are really poor, the weeping are crying real tears.

Moreover, the weeping hungry poor, do not need platitudes and deferred promises of redemption.

They want what they cannot have, and miraculously discover that God is closer in the wanting than in the having.  We who have whatever we want never seem to even get close to hearing Christ’s congratulations.

This is confusing.  It traps my ego and my comfort culture.  I suppose it must be from Jesus.

Lord help me to stop praying for the blessings that I want.  I am coming to see that my desired “blessings” might end up being curses that take me further from you.”

Perfect panic strategy.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

A wise teacher once told a friend of mine, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”. That sounds true the moment you hear it, but as with so many truths in life it takes practice to make it work for you.
I recall when I first moved into the mountain hermitage for my year long retreat in 2008, being beset with fears that verbalized as, “Oh No! I have forgotten this, and I haven’t got enough of that” Slowly, little by little, I had to say to myself, “Everything that I need is here“.  It sounds true, doesn’t it? Just like the saying that the teacher gave to my friend, “In each moment, everything is perfect and complete lacking nothing”
Discovering the truth in statements like these takes time and a degree of faith which enables them to reveal their truth.

It is almost as if one has to bed down with reality for a while before that inner perfection of the situation is revealed.

I have a sense that at the time Jesus withdrew to Capernaum after the arrest of John the Baptizer, it didn’t seem as perfect and as prophetically inspired as Matthew makes it sound when he writes about it in this Sunday’s gospel. Herod is on the war path.  Jesus, his mission and ministry are in peril. He makes a move into Northern Gentile territory.  Away from Judea and the people that he saw as his first priority.

Yet decades later Matthew can see the perfection in what seemed at the time to be chaos.
He sees that here Jesus finds the right kind of disciple, the right kind of audience, the people who have “been sitting in darkness” caused in part by the Judean exclusivist religion from the South.  Here are people ready to listen ready to respond. Ready to repent and change their minds.  It is perfect and complete lacking nothing.  Everything Jesus needs is right here in the most unexpected place.
Matthew sees because time has confirmed the providence that was hidden in the moment of panicky decision to run away to the North.

Isn’t that the truth about life? Crises come.

True, we may not have to experience the arrest and beheading of our cousins and partners in ministry, but we know what it is to have to act quickly and decisively when all one has as a guide is the light of your intellect and the courage of your heart.
How wonderful it is to look back as Matthew does and see that where we might only have seen survival strategies and doubt, time confirms the providence that was always there.

If we have really handed our lives back to God as Jesus did, then truly everything, every moment is perfect and complete lacking nothing.
As that great Christian sage Anthony de Mello has it, “Enlightenment is complete co-operation with the inevitable”


Of course I can’t say it to you, or for you, in your chaotic circumstances right now.  That would be insensitive and blasphemous.  I can however, say it for myself, looking back at the faithfulness of God in my chaotic moments and thus able to be just that little less jittery about the decisions and directions I am taking in my life right now.

Jesus who may never have chosen Capernaum if it weren’t for John’s arrest, ends up going throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Isn’t that just prophetically perfect?

Could it be for me too if I leave my nets and simply follow him?

Come and see…Ordinary 2

John 1:29-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His invitation is simply to experience.  Come and see.

It is an invitation to unprejudiced, undetermined, encounter.

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

It is the path to life.

Taking the plunge – Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Almost twenty years ago and a hundred kilometers off the coast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s most southern city, a yachting couple were in grave danger.  A brutal storm that characterizes these waters, had capsized their small yacht. Being a keel boat it had of course righted itself, but the mast was broken and lay like a broken limb across the deck with the sails and rigging in the turbulent sea.  Their lives were seriously at risk.

I read the story on the front page of the local morning paper. By then the news desk could report that a South African Air force Shackleton fixed wing aircraft had located the yacht when responding to the distress call which had been picked up by a local radio ham.  There was even a picture of the grateful couple waving up at the plane from their crippled craft.

I remember thinking how relieved they must have been to see the plane circle above them, but also how despondent they must have felt when they saw the plane turn around and head back to base.  There was of course no way a fixed wing craft could rescue them.  They had to wait a while longer for diverted shipping to come to their aid.

This story has stayed with me as an illustration of how useless and impotent a God who watches from the heavens is for us humans.  We who have to live in the reality and storms of life may be a liitle encouraged by a God who watches from a distance.  An overhead God may be as encouraging in my storms as the Shackleton was to the yachtsmen, but truth be told, what those yachtsmen needed more than an overhead observer, was someone on their level. One who could touch, grasp and lift them from their stricken vessel.

As a preacher, I am delighted every year by the sequencing of the Lectionary that has the Baptism of Jesus follow directly after the great Christ Mass celebrations of the Incarnation.

The baptism of Jesus is for me the great act at the commencement of Jesus’ ministry that declares him not simply to be the “Only begotten Son” who pleases the observing Father above, but this event also reveals him as the one who immerses himself in the sin soiled waters of humanity.  Here is one who can touch, grasp and lift me from my level of crisis and challenge because he has immersed himself in this life.  He is one whom I can embrace, bond with, and follow to wholeness.

For first century Judeans, desert people, who had a deep fear of water, similar to many Southern African traditional cultures, being thrust under water and possibly held there, was a powerful initiatory moment.  It marked, not only the washing off of past failure, it also enacted the gasping inrush of new ruach (translated as spirit, wind and breath) as they emerged from the depths. (Yes I know the Jordan isn’t that deep, but hey, you can drown in a cup of water, remember)

The fact that Jesus chooses to use this symbolism for the launch of his public ministry is not merely iconic, it is transformative for we who follow after him.

How amazing that we go into the year 2011 following a flesh and blood God, who doesn’t merely hover over us, but who immerses himself in our soiled lives and gasps every gasp with us along the way.

Can we trust these foreigners? Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

There is, without doubt, something very attractive about the exotic.  Exotic people, exotic places, exotic food, exotic clothes, all hold a fascination for us, which delights our travel agents and the airlines no end.

This is not always true however.  Sometimes the exotic and different can be threatening.  The same stimulus that triggers fascination can also light the short fuse of fear.  Xenophobia and fascination differ only to the degree that the difference of the other we encounter comes with a background of benignity or a history of conflict.  If we have has a bad experience with a specific people group, then xenophobic racism is a far more expected response than interest and fascination.

I am a fifth generation Euro-African.  I know.

Knowing this truth of the xenophobic and the fascinating in our response wiring as human beings makes the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus, all the more interesting.

A brief visit to one of my new favourite websites, http://www.greattreasures.org informs me that the word we translate for wise men in our gospel for Epiphany, is: μάγος (magos Strongs 3097) wise man great, powerful; magus, plural magi, the name for priests and wise men among the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians, whose learning was chiefly astrology and enchantment.

Now Medes, Persians and Babylonians did not have a great relationship history with the people of Israel.  The Old Testament is packed with that history of conquest, oppression and exile for the people of Judea.  A modern day equivalent reference would be, “Nuclear physicists from Yemen, Iran or the Peshawar province in Pakistan, came to Bethlehem.”  The declared motivation for their visit, “to pay homage” to a new Jewish King, would have been seen as a smokescreen to gather intel and probably “remove” any political threat to the stability of the region.  Could this be why Herod engages them so actively, because astute politician that he is, he guesses the “real” motive for their mission is in keeping with his own power games to maintain hegemony for himself?

Medes, Babylonians and Persians do not come to David’s town to worship, they come to spy and conquer.Yet on reaching, the place where Jesus is, they do what they say they came to do.  They offer him homage and present him kingly tribute.

Isn’t it so disappointing when people we are suspicious of, act with integrity and honesty?  It’s hard to keep hating when they behave out of the character our prejudice has scripted them to play.

This reflection leads me to three speculations on this Epiphany Sunday.

  1. History is not a justification for ongoing suspicion and xenophobia. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  2. Where people are from, how they look, and what culture they observe, does not determine the behaviour we may expect them to exhibit. Not if we are seeking Jesus together.
  3. There is at the heart of the Universe a truth, a wisdom which is able to transcend xenophobic fear and suspicion. That wisdom is found in the life and presence of Jesus.

I find the idea of a beckoning star on the horizon of a new year, exotic and inviting and so I pray, “Lord Jesus, give me grace to be intrigued and not intimidated by the different and exotic people who, with me, will follow the star to your heart.”

Parking under the wrong tree – Christmas Eve

 

Luke 2:1-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When faith falters – Advent 3a

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Last week we celebrated the mercurial ministry of John the Baptiser, this week the rising star has become a plummeting comet.

John the Baptizer, popular prophet and wild man of God, had been imprisoned at the fortress of Herod Antipas 24 kilometres southeast of the mouth of the Jordan on the eastern side of the Dead Sea.

Jesus on the other hand was heading north into the Decapolis, the ten cities in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee on the opposite side of the country.  Scholars suggest that the imprisonment of John the Baptist was a motivation for Jesus to get out of Judea and out of harm’s way.  It is easy to understand how John the Baptiser who had been fulminating about axes laid at the roots of trees, and who himself had been challenging nepotism of Herod, who had divorced his own wife and married his brother’s wife for the sake of political power; could believe that Jesus getting out of Judea was at worst an act of cowardice.  In danger of his own life and thinking his cousin has gone soft, John sends this message with some of his disciples. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question bristles with sarcasm, but also gives significant insight into the frame of mind of the Baptiser.

Jesus response is firm and two pronged.  He challenges John to reconsider his expectations and the challenges the crowd to re-evaluate their motivations.  In the response of Jesus I believe we see a map for our own times of doubt and questioning.

In his answer to John, Jesus says, ““Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” This is the challenge to John who seems to have been fuelled by the conventional expectations of who Messiah would be.

It is difficult for us to understand, standing this side of the resurrection and with over two thousand years of church history behind us, that in the time of Jesus people who suffered were believed to have deserved it, (or they were working off the debts of their parents).  Blind people deserved to be blind, the lame had offended God, lepers were unclean and punished by God and the dead were off in a shadow world where the best they could hope for was that someone would still remember them. As for the poor, the ptochoi well you can watch the spittle as you say the word.  Spit and contempt, not good news, were the just deserts of the poor.

There is, in the question of John, a barbed insinuation that what he had heard of Jesus’ ministry was irrelevant to the cause and is what caused him to question if Jesus was the real deal.  In his response Jesus adds a final challenge,  “And (by the way ) blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  “Blessed is” … could this be the ninth Beatitude, building on the eight from Matthew 5:1-10? “Blessed are those who don’t get offended when I turn out to be not who they expected me to be?”

Despite how difficult and embarrassing this all looks for John the Baptiser, I have to say that I can completely identify with his doubts and his questioning of Jesus.  Just like John I have often proclaimed Jesus publicly in terms that I realise with hindsight have been my projections onto Jesus rather than who Jesus really is in himself. That is problematic enough, but what is plain humiliating is when I have proclaimed the Jesus of my projected expectations, and he then goes off north and doesn’t do what I told people he would!

For example, I really do want to have Jesus as my friend and master throughout my life.  I want Jesus to comfort, heal and console me in my dark nights of fear and anxiety.  I also want Jesus to deal with the evil of the world.  To remove the corruption, crime and chaos that so describes life in the twenty first century.  What I don’t like though is how Jesus always brings his rag tag friends with him into my life.  I don’t like how he makes me question my lifestyle, my use and abuse of resources, and I especially don’t like how he is always pointing me to the people I really don’t want to see.  The blind, the lame, the lepers and those ubiquitous ptochoi (spit it out )poor!  And just when I am about to whine to Jesus that this isn’t really what I signed up for, nor why I wanted him in my life, he adds, “ And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  That’s just not fair!  That’s just what John was doing! He had been offended that Jesus wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing… according to John.

The lesson that John the Baptiser had to learn that day, and that I have had to learn almost every day that I follow Jesus, it this, “Jesus is always going to be where the pain is, not where the power or pleasure is”  Human suffering is like a pheromone to Jesus, it draws his heart inexorably.

To illustrate this Jesus now turns to address the crowd that remains after John’s disciples have left.  Jesus has heard the challenge of his imprisoned cousin, he has answered forthrightly, but he has also heard the pain of John’s disillusionment.  He senses the same disillusionment in the crowd.  Interesting word “dis-ILLUSION-ment”, so Jesus asks them, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

These is are difficult metaphors to access from so far away in 2010.  It is interesting that when Jesus speaks of “looking at” the “reed” or “writing pen”, oscillating in the wind he uses a word for looking at that implies contemplating or gazing at.  What do we want from the wild men of God?  We watch them, we are bemused by them, even entertained by them but truth be told, are we not more comfortable when they are locked up on the other side of the country?  Their challenge is too bright and their intensity too pure.  We fear we will be scorched. “What did you go out to contemplate?”, asks Jesus.  “Was it mere entertainment or did you expect real change?

Naturally those of us who know Isaiah’s writings recognise in Jesus’ question about reeds, Isaiah’s chapter 42, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

It is speculative at best to try and connect these teachings, but what is significant is how Jesus corrects and challenges John yet at the same time never loses his compassion for his cousin. He truly doesn’t snap the bruised and quivering reed.  John, he knows, is a broken man.  Jesus in a few years will be a broken man too.  But despite the breaking of John and Jesus, there will be no retaliation no breaking in revenge.  Jesus will weep over Jerusalem and say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Luke 13:34 But Jesus, will not to the disappointment of John, Judas, and others will not call down fire from heaven nor wield the axe at the root of the tree.

John had been sent to prepare the way and he had.  It was however not the freeway for an avenging army, it was the rocky road for a suffering servant.  Those who prepare the way, don’t get to determine who rides on it, or how.

And as I leave this poignant cameo of a very human Jesus, speaking with such love of his broken and doubting cousin who is languishing in Herod’s prison on the other side of the country, I sense the power of this image to heal and encourage hope in the broken and doubting people of our planet.

This human Jesus, the Son of Man, who always goes to where the pain is and not where the power or pleasure is, will be with me too in the moments of my disillusionment when he feels so far away he might as well be on the other side of the country or the other side of the universe! .

When all I have expected, dreamt and even demanded from being faithful to God’s call in my life has not played out according to my scripted plans.  When illusions are exposed in disillusion. When I find myself imprisoned and losing my head, and mind; how wonderful to know that Jesus will still be compassionate whilst challenging.

There are many moments when I too wonder if I shouldn’t look for another, and then I pray for the blessing of not taking offence when he does things his way and not mine. It is then that I experience the eighth beatitude, I am blessed by not being offended, and the bruised and quivering reed is able to stand for at least another day.

Swept away or Standing firm?

Matthew 24:36-44

To hear the this sermon as preached (Click here)

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I am currently reading a fascinating book by the Institute of Noetic Sciences titled, Living Deeply: The Art & Science of Transformation in Everyday Life. The authors point out that transformative experiences in life involve both assimilation and accommodation:

Jean Piaget, the Swiss-born biologist and pioneering developmental psychologist, together with his colleagues, observed that when a child is presented with a new experience, that new experience is most often assimilated or incorporated into their current beliefs and attitudes (Inhelder and Piaget 1958). Or, if a child’s beliefs and attitudes cannot assimilate a new experience because it’s too challenging or different, their cognitive structures must alter to accommodate, or make room for, the new experience. For example, when children see a zebra for the first time, they often call it a horse. Having no concept for zebras, children assimilate the experience of the zebra into their current mental structures and decide that it’s just an unusual horse. Eventually, a child will learn that there exists an animal similar to a horse in shape but actually a different animal altogether called a zebra. This process is the child accommodating her worldview to include the possibility of zebras.
Thus, as we learn, we’re naturally forced to stretch and revise our world- views. This cognitive process may partially account for the profound shifts in consciousness that we’ve heard about over and over again in our research.
But what makes it more likely that we’ll accommodate rather than assimilate new information? Psychologists Dacher Keltner from the University of California at Berkeley and Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia study experiences of awe and wonder, an area previously ignored by scientists. These two pioneers propose that awe has two essential components: perceived vastness and a need for accommodation (2003). In other words, it maybe that some experiences are so vast, so profound, so far beyond what we’ve previously perceived, that they in effect demand that we transform our worldview in order to accommodate them. Rather than simply trying to assimilate these experiences into our constricted framework, we are forced to broaden that framework. (pg 68-69)

Coupled with that reading has been a reading of Richard Rohr who in an article, We need transformation not false transcendence” writes:

I am convinced that without experiences of liminal space (that place where all
transformation happens), there is no truthful perspective on life. Without truthful
perspective, there is neither gratitude nor any abiding confidence. It is precisely this deep gratitude and unfounded confidence that I see most lacking in our people today, even the people of the church. It makes me wonder whether we are doing our job. We are not being initiated into the mysteries.
Victor Turner, in his classic study of initiation, The Ritual Process, says that some kind of “shared liminality” is necessary to create what he calls communitas, or what I would call church. Communitas in a spiritual sense does not come from manufactured celebrations or events. Havenʼt we all tried that? It is forgotten the next day or even the next hour. It depends on artificial stimulants of food, drink, music, shared common space and energy. It is really lovely and probably necessary, but it does not transform. It merely sustains, and it is often unfortunately diversionary from the deeper task. True communitas comes from having walked through liminality together — and coming out the other side – forever different. The baptismal drowning pool was supposed to have ritualized just such an experience. But something happened along the way. Baptism became a pretty blessing of children

At the risk of being unfair and even making some enemies, I am going to say that much of the church I have experienced in my 58 years of life and 31 years as a priest is much more “liminoid” than liminal. Liminoid experience substitutes group think, shared and engineered feelings, mass reassurance and group membership for any real or significant personal transformation. It works real well. It creates false transcendence in just enough dosage to inoculate people from Real Encounter. It takes away oneʼs sense of aloneness and oneʼs sense of anxiety — and for most people this feels like “God.” And, of course, God is so humble and well practiced that God will use all of these things to bring us to Beloved Union. As I keep saying, these things are not bad, just dangerous and highly productive of delusion. In the world of the Spirit, the real sins are usually quite subtle. The devil is used to dressing in clothes that draw no attention to himself or herself, and if the clothes do,
they usually impress us.

These two quotations I feel need to be  heard before we embark on trying to understand the Gospel passage for this Sunday, the first in Advent.  The reason I say this is because so much of our reading of the Gospel seeks to assimilate Jesus into what we have already decided to believe, and very very little of Jesus’ teaching has the power to confront us with vastness and force accommodation, and to use Rohr, most of our encounters with Jesus are liminoid and certainly not liminal.  We do not expect Real Encounter.

As proof of this assimilating liminoid syndrome, I would suggest that when most Christians read this passage, their attention is grasped chiefly by the two people in the field and the two women grinding and will ponder the details of how and why one is taken and one is left in each case.  This is not our fault. We have been so thoroughly brow beaten by abysmal apocalyptic doctrines of the rapture, and the genre of sensationalist fear based movies and novels it has spawned.

I don’t want to get into too big a rant about the dubious doctrine of the rapture that only surfaced in the nineteenth century (You can read the history of its Irvingite origins here) All I have noticed is that this obsession with end times has had the effect of putting the church to sleep rather than keeping us awake as Jesus intended.

The background to this passage in Matthew is Jesus warning his disciples of the destruction of the temple and all the atrocities that were going to follow.  Having outlined these dark events in Matthew 24:1-35 Jesus then moves to challenge his disciples to be awake to the unpredictability of the parousia of Jesus, which could (and I think, should) be translated, “The being present of Christ” rather than “The (second) coming of Christ” This being present of Christ occurs three times in Matthew 24 in verses 27, 37, and 39.

The context for the Advent One gospel teaching is the flood, where Noah built an Ark despite the derision of his neighbours and so was prepared for the day when everyone and everything else was swept away in the deluge.

What the rapture theorists have failed to note is that the Greek suggests that the ones who remain; the one’s who are Aphietai (= let loose, left alone), are better off than those who are Paralambanetai (= taken along, swept along).  Hadn’t Jesus, earlier in Matthew 24:10-13 said, “Then many will fall (be swept?) away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

It would seem that you don’t have to experience the horror of a Noah type deluge to be swept away.  As I look around the world I see Methane gassed miners in New Zealand, crushed worshipers in Cambodia, shelled South Korean fishermen.  There are whole economies in Greece and Ireland in danger of being swept away, and it looks like that tsunami might well beach in other Mediterranean economies soon.

Although the “being present of Christ” (parousia) is presented in metaphors of flood and thief, nevertheless it would seem that wakefulness is the key to seeing that presence of Jesus in the middle of the crisis.

In the insecurity of these deluge days, it is easy to be swept away by fear.

Despite what the Rapturists ,who are “only visiting this planet”, may preach, I am happy not to be swept away on a wave of Apocalyptic avoidance.  No, I want to stay and stand, firm on the earth where the parousia presence of Jesus is experienced in the liminal transforming margins of our suffering world.

In the gathering gloom of this Advent night.  I light a candle, sip some coffee, and wait to accommodate Christ’s transforming presence by ongoing change in my life and attitudes. We will stand here together as the communitas of the awake ones.