Cultivating Change – Lent 3C

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I keep meaning to look up the definition of procrastination, but I never seem to get round to it.
I really want to change, but Lent after Lent comes around and the same old issues, attitudes and addictions bedevil my development and growth in love.
As a columnist I know the power of deadlines. There is something about having to submit copy by Tuesday that sharpens my focus and gets me tapping away at the keys. I know that the deadline will not slow down it’s inexorable approach, so I had better get my act together and be ready for its arrival.
The gospel story of the martyred Galileans and those killed in the disastrous fall of the tower of Siloam, reflect that the dead did not have had any time to prepare for deaths.
According to this parable our lives have a deadline. The presence of a “dead”-line, (pun intended), should move us to fruitfulness in our lives. According to the story, the fruition of our life is not complicated. If you are a fig tree, produce figs. If you are a vine, grapes.
So often we fall into the trap of assuming that spirituality involves becoming who we inherently are not. That is not true. The Lord does not expect anything, except for us to fruitfully be who were created to be.
So let’s use this Lent to dig around the roots of our lives and prune ourselves into fruition. This may be our last opportunity.
Oh, one last thing, if you are wondering about where the manure comes from, remember Forrest Gump and his wise words, “Sh#t happens”. The failures and hurts of the past are the fecund compost of today.
Can you dig it?

Vintage extravagance – John 2:1-11

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

This miracle story seems to brim with invitation to metaphorical interpretation.  It is too bizarre a narrative to be taken literally.

  • A wedding where the wine runs out. Really?
  • A mother who doesn’t become offended by the dismissive comment of her son.  Really?
  • Six hundred litres of ceremonial ablution water that become wine without incantation or intercession by Jesus.  Really?

It is a story that just cannot be taken at face value.  At least not whilst you are sober!

Maybe that is the whole point.  This is not a story for sober judgment.

It is a miracle of intoxicating import.

It is a story of hope for those embarrassed hosts at life’s party who find themselves under resourced and red-faced at the possibility that the celebration has exceeded their most careful planning and logistics.

It is a story of detachment by a wise rabbi who realizes that miracles don’t require interference or intervention.  All miracles need is willing participation in the unfolding of the mystery.  To be open to the possibility that hospitality can supersede holiness and that vessels are better filled with joy giving wine than justifying washing rituals.

It is a story of extravagance where the cautious vintage of the careful caterer crashes out before the sparkle of the spontaneous appearance of grace.

It’s an inebriating insight into the life of Jesus.

It is a miracle of the Divine Domain. Drink up!

Everyone needs an enemy! Mark 10:35-45 Ordinary 29B

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

(This classic conflict of interests reminded me of the phenomenon of scapegoating and how Jesus used the scapegoating dynamic for human transformation. One could say Jesus is saying to the disciples you , like me will be scapegoated)

When last did you scapegoat someone and feel so much better?
If you are human, it happens quite frequently. At least according to Rene’ Girard, Stanford University professor of sociology who was converted from atheism to Roman Catholicism by his study of human conflict and violence.
Let me illustrate his theory.

“Picture two young children playing happily, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy,” and grabs it.
The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to get it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummelling each other.
As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!”
The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and chase the other child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbour is back indoors crying.”

There are two dynamics significant to this story.
The first is how imitative desire causes conflict. GI Joe increases in value because the other brother also wants it.

The second point is that finding a scapegoat helps reduce the conflict between the brothers.
If you have ever tried to calm domestic violence you will have experienced this when the fighting couple unite, and turn on you!
In these simple dynamics Girard explains the origin and process of all human conflict.
Girard’s research shows that whenever tension exists in societies, the community in the tension find release through some process of scapegoating.

According to Girard, this scapegoating has always been part of human life.
It is the origin of sacrifice.
The killing of an outsider, makes the community in conflict feel better.
But there remains an aftermath of guilt. “How could we have done that?”
To go back to the two boys. Imagine that, having chased off Fat-Butt, the brothers feel remorse about their bullying. One of them says, “You know bro, we had to do that because Dad says, ‘Blood is thicker than water’.”
Dad has become the authorization for their violence.
Girard discovered that religion plays a role in violence by encouraging and condoning scapegoating. Dad/God demanded the scapegoat.
The community that has sacrificed their child, their vestal virgin, their ox, their prophet, at some point feels remorse.
The priest then says, “Relax, God demanded it that way. We are merely being obedient.”
Girard’s conversion came when he saw how Jesus accepted being scapegoated, but for the first time in history, exposed the process to the perpetrators.
“Father forgive them…”

So next time we use our religion to scapegoat someone, let’s ask ourselves, “Is this truly the Spirit?”

Experience the mystery -Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-13
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

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.

The traditional structure on which theological thinking, or discourse about God stands has three legs. Revelation (what data is given about God), Reason (how we process that data intellectually and logically) and Tradition (how others before us have dealt with the other two legs). This has been the classical system and though useful, it has tended to produce quite dry and dusty systems of thought.

I love the story of the first year student who made an error at registration and signed up for Geology instead of Theology. He attended lectures for an entire semester before realising the mistake!
Revelation, reason and tradition meant that the good ‘ol boys who ran the theological club could devise nice closed systems in a code that only they would understand.
Clearly there has been something missing with this three legged stool.
Many, like the Gnostics, tried to introduce a fourth and vital ingredient to the process but they were sooner or later removed from the club. “Right of admission reserved” and all that. It was only in the eighteenth century that classical theology received a challenge from one of its own.

An Oxford don, who had begun actually dialoguing with ordinary gin-swilling, slum-dwelling, mine-working, common people and discovered what was missing in the dusty theological process. John Wesley, preaching; and Charles Wesley, singing, experienced the power of the very thing their training had taught them to be suspicious of: Experience!
Academia was not impressed. The Wesleys were labelled as “Enthusiasts”, a terrible slight in intellectually imprisoned rational England. Undeterred they persevered and prevailed to allow the experiences of ordinary men and women to inform and shape religious discourse and development. In so doing they not only revived religion they also opened the door for the great Pentecostal and Charismatic revivals of the twentieth century.

Naturally experience has always been part of religious life, but it is difficult to contain and control. Human experience is mercurial, oft times manic and extremely maleable.  Definitely not the characteristics that are sought after for hierarchical systems of dominance and discipline. That’s why the Gnostics never made it. They set too much store by mystical experience.
But today the genie is out of the gin-bottle and it ain’t going back.

Our spiritual natures demand experiences that are relevant and real. They don’t even have to be rational or traditional.
It is strange that the church never caught on sooner to what was missing. The clue was sitting right at the coreof the creeds. The very statements of orthodoxy that were used to exclude the emotional enthusiasts had at their heart a doctrince completely based on experience. The doctrine of the Trinity.

The trinity is the way the church has tried to square its experience of God with revelation, reason and tradition.
The monotheistic Judaeo-Christian path has experienced the one God as Parent, Son/Sibling Jesus, and Spirit of Life.
Right here experience has determined our theology.
Why did we take so long to understand?
Well like the trinity, that’s a great mystery.
Jesus encourages Nicodemus to get out of his head and into his heart. To experience being born from above.
Louis Armstrong got it right when a reporter asked him, “Mr Armstrong what is Jazz?” Satchmo replied, “Honey, if ya gotta ask y’ull never know!

Love how? – Easter 6

John 15:9-17
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

I have always loved Occam’s razor. As someone who has sported facial hair since I learned to grow it, I am a relative stranger to razors, but I like Occam’s or Ockham’s one. You see the razor has nothing to do with beards. It has to do with shaving the superfluous from logic and design. Simply put it states “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity). That is why I like it. I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that 14th century Franscican Friar Father William of Ockham was not the first to suggest such a principle. Apparently Ptolemy (90-168 CE) stated “We consider it a good principle to explain the phenomena by the simplest hypothesis possible” So there is nothing new under the sun.
No matter who said it I like it. “Keep it simple”, I say.

It is interesting then, to discover that in religion there is generally an obsession with obfuscation rather than simplification. The Jewish legal code called the Talmud has two hundred and forty subject headings on which rules are promulgated. The Babylonian version of the Talmud stretches to multiple volumes, and all that developed from Ten Commandments!

How contrasting then, is the teaching of Jesus who condenses religious observance down to one commandment. He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” An Occam delight.

It sounds a simple thing doesn’t it? “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus even explains what that means. The greatest show of love is when someone lays down their life for a friend.

Every time I see this verse inscribed on a war memorial, I experience a wry and angry irony. I mean, it is ironic that our Chaplains in the bush war in Namibia/Angola used to encourage us to do that. To lay down our lives for our country and comrades whilst killing as many people on the other side as we possibly could! Methinks not quite what Jesus had in mind?

Speaking of minds, it is worth noting that the “life” that Jesus refers to being laid down is the Greek word “psuché’ which can be translated in any of these phrases:

  • lay down (or set aside) their heart
  • lay down their mind
  • lay down their soul
  • lay down their being

These ancient words hover at the edge of our modern psuché-logical understanding of human nature don’t they?
Would I be pushing too hard to suggest that a contemporary reading of Jesus’ words would be, “There is no greater unconditional love than when someone gets their ego out of the way for another.”?

As I watch myself going about the church and hanging out with Christians I don’t see a lot of ego’s getting out of the way. In fact I find that in place of setting myself aside for my friends (and enemies) it seems so instinctive to assert MYself, MYpsuché. Speaking of assertiveness…

The buzz these days is all about Generation ME. Yes, I heard that sigh, and I agree that generational analysis is less than helpful when it leads to profiling and stereotyping. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to give a sattelite view of a social grouping.
Gary Schlee has ripped the following headings out of Jean M Twenge’s “Generation Me” which will have to serve to outline Generation ME in bullets. (more here)

  1. Generation Direct
  2. Generation Self-Esteem
  3. Generation Entitlement
  4. Generation Thin-Skin
  5. Generation Dream-the-Impossible-Dream
  6. Generation Get-an-Education
  7. Generation Don’t-Want-To-Be-Bored
  8. Generation It’s-Not-My-Fault
  9. Generation Tough-to-Make-a-Living
  10. Generation Can’t-Change-a-Thing

Now as a boomer parent of Generation ME adults, I accept full responsibility for their attitudes and behaviours (Contra point 8 above!). I wanted to listen to my children rather than raise them as I was raised with, “Children are seen and not heard”. If that indulged them, I accept my culpability. However, I don’t think these dynamics above are exclusive to GenME’s. They are pretty general to modern humans. Check the list again and see.

The reason I am referencing these tendencies is to illustrate how, in every generation, the challenge of Jesus to love unconditionally in ego-heart-mind sacrificing ways, is going to run against the grain of our culture, our context and our conditioning.

All of which thankfully, drives me to pray…

“Lord Jesus, thank you for Ockham’s razor, and thank you for a simple commandment. Would you please cut through my obfuscatory, egotistical, sophistry and transform my heart, mind and life to your resurrected, self-sacrificing life?”

Hosanna! Save us from Self-Interest! Palm Sunday-B

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

For many years, as a preacher, I have been captive to the insight that the fickle crowd who cried Hosanna at the Triumphal entry would have largely made up the crowd who cried for Jesus Crucifixion only days later. I have harped on their fickleness.
Whilst I still hold to that insight as valid, I have had my captivating lockup sprung open by considering the etymology of that interjection “Hosanna“. Reflecting on that one word, I am beginning to realise that the culturally captive crowds of Jerusalem would have almost no other way of seeing the man on the hiterto unridden colt than as the expected Saviour come to rescue them from their perceived enemies and according to their preconceived expectations.

The key lies, as I have said, in the word Hosanna which originally comes from Psalm 118:25 “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!”.
By the time of Jesus this Psalm verse had found its way into common parlance as a greeting and blessing. When one looks into the Greek version of the Old Testament the Septuagint, the word for Hosanna in Ps 118:25 is translated σῶσον δή (soson dei) which, if you don’t have Greek, means “save us”. I suppose it would be close to the Irish common usage, “God help us“, said willy nilly in conversation.
There is an interesting sidelight here. In Lent 5b last week we read of Jesus asking in John 12:27, “And what should I say—‘Father, save (SOSON) me from this hour’?”
Isn’t that strange the one thing Jesus said he wouldn’t ask of God, “Save me from this hour” is the very thing that the crowd requires of Jesus in their Hosanna-“Save us now!”?

Staying with the John passage of last week, Jesus declines to ask God to save him, he rather requests the Father to glorify his name. At face value it would seem that the Jerusalem fan parade is glorifying God’s name but they are not really. They are simply demanding their own liberation. “Save us now!

The paradox of Jesus’ life is that the glorification of God’s name is found  in the ignonimity and humiliation of the accursed one who is nailed up on a tree. It is from there that the salvation called for in the Hosanna arises.  However, this salvation is now completely redefined by the poured out life on the cross.

Which brings me to that Jerusalem flash mob and their, “God help us! God save us!”

Isn’t that the most primal prayer ever prayed?

As I write and muse, I realise that the only thing that would change in my prayer in 2012 from the prayer of the crowd is that I usually pray, “God save ME!” My Western consciousness doesn’t care much for the tribe or clan. That aside, the prayer is the same. It is the most basic form of prayer. It is an expression of self interest.

We who know this story so well, know that when the expected terms and conditions of that salvation did not materialize , the crowd turned viciously on the colt rider and had him done away with. I am not convinced we would have done any different. Except that we would probably sue Jesus first, and expose him in the tabloids as a fraud for good measure!

The question that remains for me though, is whether the crowd could have done any differently? It seems that as enculturated self interested human beings (are there any other kind?), they were only doing what it is our nature to do, they wanted to survive.
The horror of Holy Week for me is that I realise again and again that were I in that time, as I am now in mine, nothing would change. Self interest always wins.

Yet the real miracle we see in this whole Holy-Horrific week that lies before us from Palm Sunday to Easter, is how the Divine parent uses the most destructive forces of human nature, namely scapegoating and violence; as the very process of redemption.

My “Hosanna”,and my “Crucify him” screamed from the visceral core of my being, and screamed with absolutely no real understanding of what I am asking for, becomes the miraculous vocabulary with which God teaches me the meaning of unconditional love, mercy and salvation.
The cross becomes the confrontation with my self interest.
So into the horrors we go…

When I have gaped and groaned long enough at the feet of the Crucified one this Easter, I pray I will arise with a transposed cry in my heart.
Perhaps this year God will change me enough to cry out “God save them“, and “Crucify me!”

Do you suppose  those words will glorify God’s name?

“Jesus, you’ll be the death of me!” Lent 2B

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Who can blame Peter for remonstrating with Jesus about his perceived “death wish“? Peter sounds so thoroughly modern in wanting to avoid suffering.
I wonder what Peter and Jesus would say about our multi-billion industries driven by our denial of the realities that life includes suffering? Longevity, Youthfulness, Beauty, Leisure, Comfort, Entertainment, Sensual and Sexual fulfillment. We want it all and now. “And How!”

The modern attraction that the ancient religion of Buddhism has for so many in the West, intrigues me. Yes, I know that many of the “Buddhists” I meet are merely parroting their favourite film stars. Any halfway intelligent question quickly exposes this, like, “So what school of Buddhism are you a member of?“, or “What is your core practice?
So discounting the fad-trendy Buddhists, it remains interesting why Buddhism has become a fascination for many in the West.

Could it be that Buddhism does not try the Petering move of avoiding suffering?
The core teaching of Buddhism is grounded in the four noble truths which can be summarized as follows:

  1. The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, stress)
  2. The truth of the origin of dukkha
  3. The truth of the cessation of dukkha
  4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

Coming to understand these enobling truths, Gautama Buddha, the founding, historical character in the religion was guided to enlightenment by confrontations with what he called “the heavenly messengers“; old age, sickness and death.

He didn’t have a Peter to dissuade him, he had a Prince of a Father who tried to shield him from ever seeing suffering until the the day he got out of the pleasure palace and saw  an Old person(old age), a Leper(sickness), and a Corpse(death). Those “sights” caused him to renounce his life of pleasure and become a mendicant beggar searching for “insight” and ultimately enlightenment.

I am not sure these events from the Buddha’s life which preceded Jesus’ life by five hundred years, are so very different from what Jesus was trying to get across in Caesarea Phillipi.

Jesus, in the Roman town where politics oozed from every stone and symbol had just been been associated with the longed for Messiah of Israel. Realizing the socio-political weight of that association, all the expectations and projections placed upon that role; he commanded silence and then began to suggest that the path to true liberation leads through a confrontation with human suffering.
There is a cross, not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Only through the portal of embracing the reality of death is there any hope for born-again(resurrected) life.

Peter, bless him, wouldn’t see it.  Jesus’ rebuke acknowledges that it is human, but not helpful, to avoid the cross.

We cannot speak of Jesus as messiah without speaking of Jesus as Crucified
The power of the cross is not merely the bloodletting, it is the willingness of the crucified one to be scapegoated in the machinations of mankind and never to stop loving those who are destroying him.
Only when we can be with suffering in this way will it redeem us.

René Girard has been so helpful in my understanding of this.

He suggests we need a special way of seeing the suffering for it to transform us.
To learn this, let’s eavesdrop on Archbishop Cauchon in the epilogue of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924). Here is a conversation between two churchmen, one of whom, de Stogumber, is speaking of the traumatic effect upon him of witnessing St Joan’s martyrdom:

DE STOGUMBER: Well, you see, I did a very cruel thing once because I did not know what cruelty was like. I had not seen it, you know. That is the great thing: you must see it. And then you are redeemed and saved.

CAUCHON: Were not the sufferings of our Lord Christ enough for you?

DE STOGUMBER: No. Oh no: not at all. I had seen them in pictures, and read of them in books, and been greatly moved by them, as I thought. But it was no use: it was not our Lord that redeemed me, but a young woman whom I saw actually burned to death. It was dreadful: oh, most dreadful. But it saved me. I have been a different man ever since, though a little astray in my wits sometimes.

CAUCHON: Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination?

You see, it is frightfully clear that if we cannot imagine a crucified messiah, and follow him onto, and faithfully through, the cross, we will simply continue to create suffering for others.
BUT:
Imagine who we could be if we would follow Jesus daily all the way to the cross?

It’s Oil gonna be OK – Ordinary 32A

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It is inevitable that in our days of mined fossil fuels, we should read this parable and reference it to lamp oil. Some kind of parafin or kerosene. That would not be correct. It is most likely that the oil that fueled the lamps of people in Jesus’ day would have been olive oil. The same marvelous stuff that was used in cooking but even more specially in the anointing of the sick and the blessing of visitors and other dignatories. It was also, as we know, a symbol of the Spirit of God.

The idea that this life giving substance so critical for light, cooking and blessing should become scarce was unthinkable. It would mean that the olive crop had failed. It was the worst of conditions that Habakkuk lists as the worst of times when he would still trust in God
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Jesus is describing a coming age when he as the bridegroom, is delayed from the consumating feast and the welcoming party has to dig deep into its reserves of inspiration, or is that spiritual lubrication? The point being that the wise followers of Jesus are those who are able to be logistically strategic.
What does that mean?

At the most basic level it means staying awake and being prudent.
This is most graphically evident in monastic orders where from earliest times, it has meant the keeping of vigils and staying awake in the night watches, not merely as ritual but as a discipline of watchfulness.
For we third millennium Westerners who have daylight at night, and burn tons of fuel to have it so, this might not be a parable that communicates as effectively it did, to the first Christian communities.
Or could it be a parable about being resourced at all levels. Literal, Ethical, and Spiritual?

As a Baby Boomer I have lived long enough to see the red fuel light flashing on our global dashboard at all three levels.
We all know that there are no longer enough resources to feed the mouths we are bringing to birth. The lamps of livelihood and food security are literally flickering.
We are also seeing, most recently in the Jasmine revolution and on Wall Street, that executive power can no longer burn at full bore from the power-full without any concern for the long term consequences of their abuse of power and resources. The ethical flames are flickering.

Finally, it would seem that the ancient world’s religions of which ours is but one, are flickering too. All the major world’s religions (at least those who are not pursuing some hidden political passionate agenda) are showing declining numbers and interest.
The Wikis are Leaking indeed!
Even the flames of the faithful are flickering.

The challenge for us as preachers, working with this text is to be able to proclaim with some credible, passionate expectancy to a world so jaded that it scarce believes that there is a Bridegroom, let alone that he is coming back!

This parable challenges us to revisit our Eschatology (The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.) To think that the Bridegroom has gone somewhere far away is to misunderstand the context of the parable. In the time of Jesus the bridegroom would have been away, fetching his bride, more than likely from a home in the same or a nearby, village. Jesus has not gone off far away. We are not abandoned at all.

I have a friend who is a keen scholar of Paul Tillich and who often says, “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent”
In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focussed so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God.
Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the other parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” (Don’t assume to much about the translation of tote as “Then” it can just as easily be translated “Consequently”)

The worst mistake I could possibly make is to forget that the Kingdom of the Heavens, the Divine Domain, is right here right now. It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.
There is no way that one can run out of Holy Spirit, the worst one could do is neglect the container. The error of the foolish virgins was not that they fell asleep, but that they were careless with their most critical resource, Spirit. Seems to me when I listen to the church at Mission meetings, Synods and Conferences, that we are in danger of making the same mistake. We have become negligent of Spirit. We have plans and programmes, strategies and skills sets; but to we have the simple resource of Spirit?

The light from a flickering lamp of faith is all that is required to watch and wait that despite all the gloomy shadows crawling on the walls, there is one who is coming to us in every moment. The Immanent Bridegroom beckons us to wake up to the fact that our faith is not a programme or a project it is a betrothal and celebration to the mystery and miracle of life in every moment day or night.
Don’t fall asleep.

Not now!

“Troubled? Change to Yoke Light.” – Ordinary 14A

Matthew 11:16-30

But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,  We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say,  He has a demon ; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say,  Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!  Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.
At that time Jesus said,  I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

I happened to pass the living room and saw his face on the television screen.  He wore the robes of a monk and looked ever so serene. (The bald head helped) He was being interviewed on a chat show.  (South Africa’s own Oprah wannabe, Noelene)  Being interested in all things spiritual I stopped long enough to hear this dialogue…
Noelene: Are you telling me that you never get angry?
Monk: No I experience anger but I choose not to act on it.
Nolene(Incredulous): So if you are on the freeway and someone cuts in front of you, you won’t hoot or yell at them?
Monk: I might think of doing those things but I will ask myself this question before acting, “What will this change?”

“What will this change?”

A skilful question to be sure. As a preacher I sometimes ask myself the same question before and after preaching!  Counting conservatively I realise that I have preached upwards of fourteen hundred sermons.  What did they change?
As I read the gospel this Sunday, I find a deep resonance with Jesus who is remonstrating far more vociferously with his congregation than I have had to courage to do with mine.  It is difficult to pin down the exact emotions Jesus is expressing, but they are incarnationally and beautifully human feelings to be sure! I can follow and serve a God who can experience these emotions that are so much part of my daily life.  Jesus not only confronts, he also condemns.  “Woe to you…”  Wow! He is ticked off!

And then suddenly he changes direction. Matthew marks the change with a time check, “At that time Jesus said,…”

I would love to ask Jesus what triggered the change?
Did he notice a facial expression, did he experience a change of feeling tone, or did he simply remember his own parable?  The one about the reckless sower who doesn’t care where the seed falls or what it produces,leaving the outcome to God. I will never know.
What I do know is that Jesus, having vented his spleen at the hard of heart, non-responders then turns to a prayer of thanks to God for those who are able, because of their innocence and of their liminal lives full of pain, to hear and receive what is being offered.

The proud and arrogant, those who have all the answers, those who think they are “self-made” will never see and receive what the burdened and heavily laden ones will see and receive.
There is something about the pain of human suffering, that tills the soil for the fertile seed of Jesus’ words.
If Jesus had an advertising bill board it could have read, “Troubled? Make the change to Yoke Light”

What did these words change?
If you ask the burdened heavily laden ones who have come to Jesus down through the ages, they will probably testify, that those words changed everything!
Maybe these words will do that for someone too?

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Worthy of the name?

Matthew 10:37-42

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

It is no easy thing to decide to follow Jesus.  I mean to make the radical decision that you are going to be first and foremost a Christ follower is a weighty decision, certainly if Jesus is to be believed.  It would seem from this dialogue in the gospel that nothing can get in the way of this following. Certainly nothing from our culture nor our context.

That great Theological heavyweight of the last century, Richard Niebuhr gave me a useful framework for assessing just where I am prepared to place Christ vis a vis my own culture with its own demands.

Niebuhr’s schema is clearly marked out in this excerpt from wikipedia:


Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

Reading this typology years after my theological studies I am struck by how in all the years of my ministry I have shifted around in each of the categories and how I have also encountered fellow pilgrims doing the same.

As I feel the Christian church contexture of the modern day, with fundamentalists getting most the airtime and the liberals only being quoted when they push the envelope on ethical issues of gay rights or abortion, I realise that not many of us have come to the place of deep contented commitment where we are able to follow Jesus in the here and now of daily life without continually hiving off into ghettoes of fear of what is happening in the world, all the time holding our breath for something that is to come in the far off future.

If I consider the culture that I absorbed from my mother’s breast, the culture that I live in as a Euro-African and the culture that I have transmitted to my twenty something sons, I recognise that Jesus whilst acknowledged in what was always called “Christian culture’’ was not really central to that way of life.  My culture has never really stressed the cross bearing, compassion driven life of which Jesus spoke so often, and which was the very fabric of his being in the world.

I am not shamed or guilty about this, I am rather saddened that for me and for many, this business of Christ following is at best a veneer, a waxen mask that I wear to the church dance without really allowing my inner being to be changed.  Small wonder then that Jesus seems to be doing something new and refreshing outside the church charade.

How wonderful as Desmond Tutu proclaims in his latest collection essays to be published, “God is not a Christian”.

We Christians love our parents and children, school ties and apple pies, our parties and our points of view too much to be worthy of the compassionate cross carrier from Nazareth.