Who put the “i” in Surprise? – Advent 1b

Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

There can be no doubt that the gospel is full of surprises.
There is the surprise of finding the Divine domain. It is a surprise treasure buried in a field that the pilgrim trips over and then goes and sells everything to possess. It is a pearl of great price that a merchant finds in a market and then gives all he has to own it. It is the surprising (not so much for us bur certainly for Bronze age people) action of the yeast that makes a batch of bread dough rise, that makes the seed grow silently, that can take an immeasurably minute mustard seed and grow it into a large bush in which birds can nest. The Kingdom of God is a surprise. Gerard Hughes was correct when he entitled his book, “God of Surprises”

There another kind of surprise in the gospels. It is less organic and natural. It is also somewhat sinister.

It is the surprise of the returning Master, Lord, Landowner, King, Son of Man. It has an energy akin to a police swoop or a special forces raid. It is the thief that breaks in when you least expect it. It is a way of presenting Jesus that modern New Testament scholarship recognises probably did come as the core of what Jesus atually taught and may in fact be the longings and projections of a later, suffering and apocalytically hopeful early church.

As a preacher I have to be something of an octopus. Gone are the days when I could listen to Karl Barth and have the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other as I preached. As a pastor now, I have to have the eBible open on one desktop with Textweek in a parallel window, Google reader open on another, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TED all waiting. I have to be up to speed on the emails and text messages coming in about pastoral needs, The Spreadsheet relflecting the church financials needs to be up to date and I still have to download the MP3’s for worship and get the PowerPoint for the sermon done.

I can truly say that I am ready, or at least my Tablet, Broadband and Mobile are. The question is will I really be surprised?
There is so little that surprises us today doesn’t it? Hubble and CERN, Google and the Genome, Jasmine revolutions, Tsunamis, quakes and tremors it’s all quite pas sé. To coin a phrase, we have “seen” there and done that. So I am not sure that a little apocalyptic action as described in today’s gospel will actually get our adrenalin pumping.

It is however this imperviousness to be surprised that is our achilles heel. For just when it seems that we have it all sorted on the outside and the world materiel is managed and measured, the inner world of dark depression and ennui infect our innards and leave us in what Ken Wilber has named Flatland.
It is then that we are ready for the Divine Domain’s real encounter.
It is not an extravaganza. It is quite boringly simple.
It doesn’t need any equipment created by that wonderful Jobs man and that has an “i” in front of it.
In fact as Martin Buber pointed out it is not the “i” in iGadget it is the “Thou” in O.M.G. that makes for a relationship of WOW and wonder.

It is is with the eye of the heart that we can rediscover the surprise of the divine domain which the mystics have always been able to glimpse even though they may not fully have grasped what they saw.

So excuse me if I don’t get all fear fired up with Apocalyptic fervour, I happen to have seen the Son of Man coming in the clouds when I watched the sunrise this morning.
Oh b.t.w. I was really , and not virtually there.

The Feast of Christ the Comrade (Christ the King/Reign of Christ A)

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I am sure it has been done, but as I think of Christ the King this Sunday, I am intrigued to look at Jesus in a category beyond the traditional Jesus of Nazareth and History and the Christ of Doctrine and Faith. There is another character in this process that I would want to call Jesus the Brother and Guide, Jesus the Comrade.
As Theology has evolved in the past few decades, we have come to an understanding which goes beyond the search for the Historical Jesus.  This Jesus of history keeps eluding  us  despite the best efforts of scholars, including the work of the Jesus Seminar.
There is also, I suggest, a need for something more experiential than the Christ of Doctrine and Faith, the Christ of the catechism or confirmation class.

More and more people are suspicious of formulaic creeds and requisite confessions of faith as the conduits of their spiritual relationships. I suppose if we had been aware of where we were going as a theological community in the seventies and eighties, we would have interpreted the shift of the Liberation Theologians from Orthodoxy (correct beliefs) to Orthopraxis (correct practices) as the harbinger of the shift that I have just described.  We need more insight into Jesus beyond history and doctrine. This is the reason for my appeal for a third dimension to this hologram of Jesus, namely the Jesus of Experience, the Jesus as Brother and Guide.  Jesus the Comrade.

Without seeming to be a survivalist, I do think the church, as always, is failing to read the writing that has been on the wall for some time. People in the West are finding it more and more difficult to access the Jesus of the literalist who speaks in red letter quotations in their King James Version bibles. More and more thinking people who are awash with information from the new “river of life”, the internet; are saying of the holy books, “How did that come to be written as it is?” The answers are no longer hidden in the Old Boys clubs of Divinity Libraries, you can read it for yourself on Wikipedia.
Similarly the question is raised about the creeds that for generations have been the unquestioned bastions of belief. “Who said so?” say we post-moderns and all the resisting and crook and mitre rattling in the world, is not going to reconstruct what has been deconstructed.

One of the most delicious things I heard Richard Rohr say in Cape Town last year was, in response to a question from a Reformed minister as to how he coped with being a free thinking priest in the Roman Catholic Church? Richard responded, “When a structure is collapsing you don’t have to push it.” When the laughter died down, he continued, “In fact, you shouldn’t even touch it, lest you be hit by the oppositional energy that is propping it up” (I am quoting from oral memory here so may not have the “red letter” version of the saying).
All this stuff and nonsense from an largely irelevant church trying to lord it over the people with dogma and decrees is at best sad, and at worst insulting! It only serves to afford the ever Evangelical Richard Dawkins with a caricature of what a person of faith looks like.
A luddite and a laggard, too frightened to read and too stubborn to really think!

It is time that thinking people who follow Jesus say to those who choose to represent them, in this way,”No!”
To speak to the singular, free thinking, non-aligned and consequently, quite lonely people of today, we who have the task of communicating Good News will have to do better than quoting the Bible and Patristics! (even Matristics may not be enough)

I am not so convinced that ending the Christian Year by an appeal to Christus Pantocrator, or Christ the King is that skilful or even relevant.
People today find Kings and Queens quaint. Royals are at best wonderful distractions and when they plant trees up the aisles of Wesminster Cathedral they get a giggle, but they are not going to save us in from the terrors of the night and the toppling of all that we believed would be there forever.
That is why I am appealing for a new look at this Jesus. Not Jesus the King but Jesus the Comrade.

You see the King (or Queen- except the one from “the Village” or Soho…[if you don’t get it Dora, don’t worry just read on]) Ahem, let me start again.
The Monarch, is the one who sends you into battle, who commands and demands your loyalty without ever really standing with you and alongside you. Kings have blood on their hands but it isn’t theirs. This righteous, judgemental monarch, how does he in any way resemble the Jesus whom I meet in the dark nights of my despairing?

A Comrade however is far more real to a footsoldier like me. When I am in the trenches with mud up to my knees and pee running down my pants for terror of what lies over the top, it is the hand of the Comrade that steadies me, stills my shaking, and strikes up a “lucifer to light my fag”.
That’s who I need and want with me.

If I look closely at the Gospel for this Sunday I see not a distant detached King but a Comrade who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger who is naked sick and in prison. I know of few kings or queens who have first hand experience of that.
Jesus my Comrade is the one who comes to me when I am hungry even after my lovely home cooked meal, thirsty after my bottled Evian water, a stranger in my home town, naked in my designer labels and in prison whilst speeding down the freeway.

This is the Jesus who I believe will outlive the Jesus of History and The Christ of Dogma, not because those others are not interesting but because Comrade Jesus is more relevant.
How do we meet this Comrade Jesus? Well to be sure don’t look in the palaces and cathedrals.
You might even struggle to find him in church.
He will be found in the places of need. Those places where you hurt and others hurt and you are not afraid to be with pain, in pain and to hold it all in a secret com-passionate silence.
There remains for us to rediscover, (and it is a re-discovery) because this is not new, simply neglected; the mystical reality of the Jesus-Christ encounter which is unmediated and unmitigated by Creeds or Councils and which is able quite firmly to survive Cynicism too.

I am speaking of the personal encounter that is the potential of everyone who follows Jesus’ instruction to “when you pray, pray to your father in secret, and your father who hears in secret will reward you.” and then in counterpoint to understand , ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
So as this Christian year ends, excuse me if I don’t get too excited about your Imperial Christ the King, I am only four Advent weeks away from the Crib and I can smell the straw and the dung. That’s where my Comrade calls me to be.

Why am I so needy?

Luke 12:22-31

He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

An indigent Indian poet with the musical name of Simanta Chattergee, once said to Robert Johnson, ‎”If I began thinking about needs, I would sink to the bottom of the world. If I don’t think, I get what I need

Fauna Sunday in the season of creation, is an invitation to invert our arrogant assumed dominance of the created order and to contemplate the inherent wisdom of the creation which witnesses to the provision of God far more than we, who claim to be the crown of that creation, do.

The following is an excerpt from a CNN report dated May 10, 2010 (

CNN) — The world’s eco-systems are at risk of “rapid degradation and collapse” according to a new United Nations report. The third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3) published by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) warns that unless “swift, radical and creative action” is taken “massive further loss is increasingly likely.” Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the CBD said in a statement: “The news is not good. We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history.” The U.N. warns several eco-systems including the Amazon rainforest, freshwater lakes and rivers and coral reefs are approaching a “tipping point” which, if reached, may see them never recover.

Whilst some of the extinctions can perhaps be viewed as part of the ongoing process of evolution and the natural selection process which sees the survival of the fittest, nevertheless, we cannot exonerate ourselves from being a conscious participant in the extinctions. It is important for us to note that for the first time in the history of the planet, apart from God’s role in things, evolution and extinction are being affected by a species which is aware of what we are doing, whilst we are doing it!

Some of the major human threats to species are well known but at the risk of redundancy, let me list them once again:

  • Unsustainable hunting
  • Trophy hunting of large predators
  • Introduction of exotic species
  • Habitat destruction

I am not so sure that Jesus’ prayer from the cross is applicable in this case. Remember as Jesus was being crucified, he prayed,” Father forgive them they don’t know what they are doing“? I think we know exactly what we are doing but we have made a critical error of judgement. We have failed to discern our role in the vast drama of this complex and beautiful planetary play. By a cunning sleight of hand, our dominant egos have tricked us to believe that everything exists to fulfil our needs and not the other way around.

Jesus grasped it in the gospel reading for this second Sunday in the season of creation. And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

  • The nations of the world” as Jesus refers to them. Seem to be those who have not grasped the secret of God’s reign, or as someone called it, “the God first principle”.
  • Your Father knows that you need them” begs the question as to whether I like all the other created species can place my dependence on God to provide what is needed. (Am I the only one, or do you also hear a thousand arguments arise as you read this? I wonder whose voice those arguments are using? My parents, teachers, financial advisors all baulk at this concept.)
  • “Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” There was a time when “seeking first the kingdom of God” meant I had to go into the world and get everyone to think and act like Christians do. I no longer believe that. I believe that Christianity as it is commonly practiced is a far from Jesus as the Pharisees were. No, striving for the Father’s kingdom has come to mean for me a radical reconsideration of what it means to form my life around following Jesus.

In that process I have had to confront my culture and all that it has indoctrinated me to believe.

That process has, in turn, taught me that striving for the Kingdom of the Father is a lifelong search for the places where nurturing and not destruction is taking place. My search for nurturing rather than destructive teachings has taken me outside of my own religion into a global community of concerned people who are together and individually searching for ways to heal and not to hurt.

For example I have learned from a maverick Japanese farmer called Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote, The One-Straw Revolution that:

To the extent that people separate themselves
from nature, they spin out further and further from the centre. At the same time, a centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises. But if people merely become caught up in reacting, moving to the left or to the right, depending on conditions, the result is only more activity. The non moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity, is passed over, unnoticed.

I believe that even “returning-to-nature” and anti-pollution activities, no matter how commendable, are not moving toward a genuine solution if they are carried out solely in reaction to the over development of the present age. Nature does not change, although the way of viewing, nature invariably changes from age to age. No matter the age, natural farming exists forever as the wellspring of agriculture.

This wise man also said:

To disrupt nature and then to abandon her is harmful and irresponsible.

So I have learnt that ravens and lilies have a wisdom, which Jesus understood and which when grasped is liberating for the troubled human soul.

My maternal grandmother had a simple plaque that used to hang in her kitchen. It read:

Said a sparrow to another,

“I would really like to know,

Why all these human beings

Rush and scurry so?”

Said the other little sparrow

“It seems pretty clear to me

They don’t have a heavenly Father

Such as cares for you and me.”

The secret seems to be that when I trust God first in all things, as ravens and lilies do, I then don’t have to worry about discerning need from greed.

The words of that indigent Indian poet have is so well, ‎”If I began thinking about needs, I would sink to the bottom of the world. If I don’t think, I get what I need

The cost of values

If this was a soap opera script it would begin as follows…

“Last week on ‘Following Jesus‘”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

“…and now to this week’s episode of ‘Following Jesus'”

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Last week I was reflecting that there is a shift of mood in the gospel that we read from Luke 12:32-48. The passage begins with a beautiful theme of blessing for the crowd. The “little flock” are to be the recipients of the basilea, the reign of a parental God, (contrasted with the despotic turannis of Rome). [I have coloured that text green] I suggested that perhaps the latter half of the passage [which I have coloured red] reflected the mood of an abused and despondent church at the time Luke wrote: a church that was being abused by leaders that had lost their way and their focus.

To enter fully into this week’s passage (verses 49-56) we have to connect it to the preceding passage for it is the same dialogue, and I have coloured the text for this week to continue the mood from “last week”.

I can’t remember where it was that I first learnt of the two levels of Jesus’ teaching, so forgive me for not referencing my source. My memory is becoming a forgettery! It is however an interesting dimension to bear in mind when reading the teachings of Jesus. When he is with the crowd, strangers and foreigners, he proclaims the Good News of God’s unconditional acceptance and universal compassion. When Jesus is with the disciples, his teaching is far more demanding and often blunt. “How much longer do I have to put up with you?!“, kind of sayings. The point is that the Good News brings us to the place of commitment and discipleship, not the other way around. I am dumbfounded when I hear preaching that implies that only when we have done the “hard stuff” will we experience grace. “No! No! No!“, I want to scream, “We do the hard stuff because we have experienced grace!

Jesus is continuing, this week, to answer Peter’s question, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”. His initial response is to warn the douloi (slaves) of the Bridegroom not to become lax and abusive of their fellow servants whilst waiting for the return of the Bridegroom. (I asked last week if this was perhaps Luke’s editorialising of the narrative as he saw the abuses of the ninth century church?)

In the final part of that answer to Peter, Jesus speaks in graphic terms to the disciples about the division his proclamation will bring, and then he ends with a final challenge to the crowd.

Firstly Jesus speaks of bringing fire to the earth. Here is a possible allusion to Elijah, the conqueror of the false prophets in his day. In similar ways Jesus understands his mission to challenge and confront the lost and erroneous worship values of his day. An ironic insight comes from the Greek, where the word for fire is “Pur” could this be a etymological root in our word “purify”? None of the etymological dictionaries I consulted gave that but it’s a nice little hook for this discussion.

He goes on to talk about his baptism, his initiation. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Once again dipping into the Greek text discloses that Jesus is again using the word telesthei which is the same word he cries from the cross when “It is accomplished“, “Tetelestai” For more on this see (my blog from last week.)

The stress that Jesus says he is experiencing until his “baptism” is accomplished is the same word Paul uses when he writes “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” 2 Corinthians 5:14

From this point Jesus launches into a disturbing discourse about the divisions that his coming will bring about on earth. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” What does this all mean?

Firstly five is never going to divide equally. Odd numbers never do! Is this the origin of “being at odds with someone”?

Secondly, I must confess that the specific relationships Jesus points out are the ones which, in my experience, are most naturally conflicted! Think about it…

  • Father against son.
  • Mother against daughter
  • Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and vice versa

These are the classic conflict lines in families.

Note he doesn’t say :

  • Father against daughter
  • Mother against son
  • Brother against sister

These great primal and psychological bonds that are the subjects of a thousand human dramas, on and off the stage, are not part of the list. Why is this so? Why are the most common lines of conflict used by Jesus to illustrate the division he is going to bring?

Is Jesus, as reported by Luke, choosing these three examples of natural conflict very specifically to illustrate the crisis that following Jesus will bring? I think so.

Firstly in the reference to the “Father and Son” conflict Jesus is making the following clear. Conflict is natural, and the conflict between the followers of Jesus and the old order will be a natural consequence of his kingdom’s (basilea’s) reign against the turranis (despotic power) of the established political order and the cult of Emperor worship imposed by Rome. The Pariarchal power of old order dominance and oppression has no place in the kingdom of Jesus. We must never forget, especially in these perilous political times, that the first Christians were persecuted not for dogma, but for devotion. They refused to bow down to the image of the Emperor as was required of all Roman citizens and people in occupied territories.

Secondly, relating to the Mother against daughter, the conflict is not only going to be against the powers and principalities of Rome. The Jews of Jesus day had a similar opposition to Emperor worship yet they too came into conflict with the values of the Kingdom of the Heavens. That is because the kingdom crisis reaches into Matriarchal energies and strongholds. It is worth remembering that the Jews were and are, a Matrilineal culture in the time of Jesus. Matrilinearity had been developing in the Hellenistic world not from the Torah, but in the oral tradition which was codified in the Talmud by the 2nd century CE, which means it would have been active in the traditions and times of the Jesus and the early church. See Wikipedia . Having illustrated the crisis the Kingdom will be to Patriotism (you did see pater in Patriotism?) with regard to the Father- son conflict and Rome. I suggest that in the Mother-daughter conflict Jesus is now illustrating the conflict the kingdom crisis will bring for the established matrilinear religion of his day. The old evangelical adage, “God has no grandchildren” which was used to emphasize that each generation has to make their own decision for Christ, is helpful to illustrate the Mother-daughter conflict. Claiming religious lineage is not a kingdom value.

So finally the Mother-in-law / Daughter-in-law, reciprocal conflict; what can this mean? I must admit I was stumped with this one at first until I fired up ISA2 once more. [No it isn’t a NASA rocket, it is Interlinear Scripture Analyzer 2 a really useful program that makes my Greek look much better than it is.

What I discovered is that the literal words in the Greek text of Luke don’t say Mother-in-Law / Daughter-in-law. The literal words are “Matri penthera epi tein Numphein auteis”. Translating word by word, that reads “Mother mother-in-law on the BRIDE of her”. The big AHA for me was that what we translate as daughter-in-law is the word Numphein ie Nymph which literally means bride. Numphein is used only in the Gospels of Matthew Luke and John where it refers to “bride” and then in Revelation where it refers to the Bride of the Lamb, which is the church! I would suggest that in this third example of the conflict the kingdom will bring Jesus is acknowledging that his kingdom will not only bring conflict between Church and State; nor only between Church and the originating Mother of the Church, the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The mother-in-law will be in conflict with the bride. Law and grace, forever in tension.

Could it be that Jesus was teaching the disciples to be aware that within the church itself there would be division and discord caused by the crisis of the new values of the kingdom of God’s reign?

I believe he was. Simply supporting the church status quo is not a kingdom value. Self criticism and constant measurement against kingdom values is essential. As evidence of this need I would cite the following:

  • Within a few centuries the Church had acquiesced to the power of the state and the Pope was the Spiritual Emperor. The Father son conflict was papered over in a political truce that has never really worked.
  • The Patristic councils effectively expunged all Matriarchal forms of Christianity in its Gnostic formulations and with the hatchet job done on Mary Magdalene. This feminine energy has only recently been replaced by the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary promulgated in 1950 and celebrated by our Catholic friends this very Sunday. Subsequent strides in Feminist theology still strive to restore the balance within the church.
  • The Reformation and Counter-reformation were shifts and shakes in an organism that constantly has to be self-reflective and by implication self-critical.
  • In our own day the Emerging church is a form in which that self-critical assessment continues to strive for context relevance in tension with honesty and obedience to Jesus.

We would do well as church to not be afraid to constantly asses the state of the predicted Father-son, Mother-daughter and Mother-in-Law to Bride, conflicts of our day.

In conclusion Jesus turns to the crowd and accuses them of hypocrisy. He reminds them of their ability to read the weather and yet at the same time to avoid seeing the blatant truth of God’s values juxtaposed with political, religious and organizational power.

I wonder if he would say the same to us today? It seems that the values of the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate and which he accomplished in his life, death and resurrection, are still in tension with the values of our politics, our religions and our organizations.

Are we prepared to bear the cost of Christ’s Kingdom values?

Lifting our Mater from our Materialism

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Some months ago I was in conversation with a woman who works at the Trust Division of a large bank. I commented that her task was more complex than mine as a minister as she had to deal with both the dimensions of grief and money. Without skipping a beat she replied, “Oh no, when I have had conversations with surviving families in the almost twenty years I have been doing this work, not once have I encountered any signs of grief!

Her comment was for me a confirmation of Jesus’ teaching all those years ago, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Also recently, I learnt of a widow who was cheated out of her entire estate by a smooth talking financial advisor who was her personal banker and who through winning her confidence by taking her in his car to her doctor and by running errands for her, eventually had her sign a power of attorney which he then used to empty her investment accounts! At one level it is fortunate that she died just months before the small balance left in her one account was exhausted, for this dignified trusting woman faced penury. Yes, of course she was silly, even stupid, to sign the power of attorney in the first place but my attention keeps going to the man who committed this crime. A man whose profile you could find on Facebook if I gave you his name and who still walks around the city where this happened, with his wife and family. The resentment and impotent anger I feel even as I write this reminds me that Jesus is correct.

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

The founding father of Methodism, John Wesley, understood this when he wrote in his journal, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.

Of course money in itself is ethically neutral.

There is a power of good being done at this very minute that you are reading this by the skilful application of money to situations of need and suffering all over the planet. However, at the same time that you are reading this a whole heap of evil is accumulating around issues of money in every suburb of the global village.

I need to be very careful in understanding that Jesus is not warning about money, he is warning about greed.

The greed for money can destroy us as we live to” make a killing” instead of working to “make a living”, or a “giving.”

But greed can take many forms: the greed for attention, the greed for control,  the greed for security.

When I went off in search of the roots of the word I found this:

Old.English. grædig “voracious,” also “covetous,” from Proto.Germanic. *grædagaz (cf. Old.Saxon. gradag, Old.Norse. graðr “greed, hunger”), from base *græduz (cf. Gothic. gredus “hunger,” O.E. grædum “eagerly”), cognate with Sanskrit. grdh “to be greedy.” In Greek., the word was philargyros, lit. “money-loving.” A German word for it is habsüchtig, from haben “to have” + sucht “sickness, disease,” with sense tending toward “passion for.”

So greed seems to be a rather universal concept, from Norse and Saxon to Indian Sanskrit, the word seeks to describe the universal problem. A “sickness to have something”.

It is the root of our addictions.

In this connection I am reminded that Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous was in correspondence and greatly helped by Carl Jung the Swiss Psychiatrist. In a very significant letter, that Bill W. treasured all his life, Jung writes about a patient whom he and Bill W had cared for:

Dear Mr. W.

(Note: Emphasis mine)

Your letter has been very welcome indeed.

I had no news from Rowland H. anymore and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he has adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason that I could not tell him everything was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Rowland H. But what I really thought about was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*

How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.

These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Rowland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.

You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Thanking you again for your kind letter

I remain

Yours sincerely

C. G. Jung*

“As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” (Psalms 42:1)

As an object of addiction, money can fuel greed in the same way that alcohol fuels alcoholism.

Spiritus contra Spiritum.

From another angle, have you noticed the Latin word for Mother [MATER] in the word MATERialism?

Could it be, that in this Male-energy dominated Patriarchal world (PATER = Father [Latin]) that has created its male dominated Patriarchal religion; there is a resultant craving for Mothering (MATERing), and just as the alcoholic confuses spirits for Spirit, we as materialists have confused the material for Mother?

If that is true, then thank God for the movement we are seeing in our day, away from the Sky God PATER to the Earth Goddess MATER!

Notice how for years we have unconsciously used the female reference, when we have spoken of RAPING
the Earth. Raping our Mother?

Jesus knew that materialism was a false god. What a mountaineer friend of mine describes as a path that leads to a false summit.

Materialism does not diminish the Patriarchal craving for power and possessing.

Our salvation lies not in the material but in the maternal. The nurturing, inclusive, enfolding of God is all that will still our raging consumptive addictions. We need to recognise that calling God our Mother is not a feminist whim, it is the key to our survival.

If we won’t allow the Spirit of our nurturing, inclusive, enfolding Mother to enrapture us, then the ruptured oil wells will continue to bleed death from the rapist’s wounds and the air will be choked from us all by his rapist foul breath.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

At the end of that alchemical work, Faust, by Goethe, the Mystical choir sings:

All that is transitory

shows us the way

is only a symbol;

What seems unachievable

here is seen done;

What’s indescribable

here becomes fact

Woman eternally,

shows us the way.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Steps to Sanity – Take, Thank, Break, Give (Corpus Christi)

Luke 9:11-17

When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

I am fascinated by processes. Whether it be a television programme on “How it’s Made” or a something as simple as watching a new leaf unfold on the potted plant in the sun-porch, I love to see the steps in any process.

I bring that curiosity for process to scripture and am often rewarded by seeing steps unfolding in what seemed at first to be an ordinary event in the life of Jesus

The gospel reading for the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, traditionally called Corpus Christi, yields a beautiful process to my heart that is ever eager to grow into wholeness through contemplative practice.

The passage is a very well known account of the feeding of the multitude with the meagre portion of five loaves and two fish.

The narrative itself is a wonderful example of how the Holy Communion or Eucharist suffused the life of the early church, to the extent that the gospel writer has Jesus distributing the elements only after performing the Upper Room, fourfold Eucharistic action which defines the celebration, “taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd”

The fourfold actions of Jesus break down into, Took, Thanked, Broke, Gave. These actions are repeated in almost every celebration of Holy Communion by priests and ministers to this very day.

It was in contemplating the coming feast of the Corpus Christi that I realised that in this classic four step Eucharistic action of Jesus there lies aprofound process which I share for our own growth. It outlines the process of prayer and spiritual maturing which is so dependent on being nourished by our sacramental life from Jesus’ hands.

Took, Thanked, Broke, Gave…

TAKING

The starting point for most spiritual journeys begins with taking. We take our sustenance from our mother’s body. It is a scary thought that a growing foetus will leach from its mother, whatever minerals it requires and literally digests the mother for what it needs.

We begin our journey of the spirit in a foetal state. God is there for us to receive from and feed from. We will take whatever God can give and then continually ask for more. Our prayer in this stage is usually couched in self interest, preservation and God fulfilling our wants which we disguise as needs.

THANKING

As our nurturing Mother, God is happy to bless us with all that makes life rich in our hands. As we mature like little toddlers being taught to say “Taaaa” We learn the prayer of thanks. Gratitude begins to enter our life as we contemplate all that we have taken from life and loving God.

Gratitude is a major part of our worship as we lift not only our daily bread, replete with butter, jam and cream to God, but also realise with the hymn writer that, “All good things around us, are sent from heaven above, so thank the Lord O thank the Lord for all his love

BREAKING

Journeying, as I have, for most of my over fifty tears of life with Jesus has taught me that life and prayer is also about breaking.

There is something very painful in the Holy Communion watching the Priest’s wafer snap, or the Minister tear the bread apart.

In the Orthodox church the priest has a special knife which he uses to cut the bread into pieces during the prayers of Intercession. So as the congregation witnesses the tearing of the body of Christ it intercedes for the brokenness of all creation.

Sometimes the breaking is joyful when I break through into new understanding and insight.

Oft times the breaking is sorrowful as I break down from my unworkable strategies, scenarios or structures with which I have scaffolded and enmeshed my life.

Jesus in the Upper room taught his proto-church that there is no growth in insight without breaking. Is that not why the Emmaus disciples only saw who Jesus really was when the bread was torn? Tearing bread, tearing veils in the holy of holies, we have to experience breaking if we are going to mature in this journey to wholeness.

GAVE

There is a circular dance of growth and spirit I see in this process as I grow from Taking, then Thanking, and through Breaking learn that there is nothing I need to cling to and I am able at last to give it all away.

Faced with a demanding multitude it must have been a daunting moment when Jesus gave those first few scraps of fish and bread away.

It is just as daunting for you and me, when we come to the resting place of resignation and renunciation. To come to know that “In God we live and move and have our being” is the place of deep sanity and safety that is often most deeply grasped by the world’s poor who have nothing to Take, Thank or Break.

The ultimate sign of being one with God, Jesus taught is to be able to give it all up into the providence of God. Like the lonely grain of wheat that only grows when it has been released from the Sower’s hand. Like the bloody but unbowed corpus on the Cross that commits his spirit into the hands of a Parental God who has always been there, when there was taking, when there was thanking and even in the desolation of breaking.

There is enough for every tribe’s basket. Let’s not be afraid to give ourselves into the hands of this loving Lord, who through his gracious fourfold action in our lives will use us as the sustenance of this hungry world.

(By clicking here you can hear how these thoughts sounded when preached the next Sunday)

Listen for the whisper of the wind.

(You can hear a podcast of this sermon here)

John 14:8-27

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

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

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

That great Iranian Sufi mystic Rumi in his work “Mathnawi”, which some have called the Persian Koran tells this interesting story: (It is worth noting that Persia/Iran falls within the boundaries of the listed observers in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost)

A certain king used to persecute the Christians, desiring to exterminate their faith. His Vazir persuaded him to try a stratagem, namely, to mutilate the Vazir himself, and expel him from his court, with the intent that he might take refuge with the Christians, and stir up mutual dissensions amongst them.

The Vazir’s suggestion was adopted.’ He fled to the Christians, and found no difficulty in persuading them that he had been treated in that barbarous way on account of his attachment to the Christian faith. He soon gained complete influence over them, and was accepted as a saintly martyr and a divine teacher. Only a few discerning men divined his treachery; the majority were all deluded by him.

The Christians were divided into twelve legions, and at the head of each was a captain. To each of these captains the Vazir gave secretly a volume of religious directions, taking care to make the directions in each volume different from and contradictory to those in the others. One volume enjoined fasting, another charity, another faith, another works, and so on.

Afterwards the Vazir withdrew into a cave, and refused to come out to instruct his disciples, in spite of all their entreaties. Calling the captains to him, he gave secret instructions to each to set himself up as his successor, and to be guided by the instructions in the volume secretly confided to him, and to slay all other claimants of the apostolic office. Having given these directions, he slew himself.

In the event each captain set himself up as the Vazir’s successor, and the Christians were split up into many sects at enmity with one another, even as the Vazir had intended. But the malicious scheme did not altogether succeed, as one faithful band cleaved to the name of “Ahmad,” mentioned in the Gospel,’ and were thus saved from sharing the ruin of the rest.

What on earth, you may ask, has this story to do with the feast of Pentecost?

Well, the ending gives the key. Rumi refers to the one faithful band who cleaved to the name of “Ahmad mentioned in the gospel” I have never heard of Ahmad, except as a name for Muslim men I have met, so I was grateful for the footnote in my copy of the Mathnawi that states:

“John 14:26 “But the Comforter (parakletos) shall teach you all things.” Muselmans (sic) read periklytos, (praised) as referring to Mohammed” An interesting way of sychronizing ,or should that be syncretising, the Gospel with the Quran.

Despite Rumi’s little bit of triumphalistic proselytising, ( sometimes it does us Christians some good to be on the receiving end!) the story is a powerful one. The power comes from the fact that it is so true!

As a Protestant I am humbled and embarrassed that my “brand” is one of over thirty thousand Protestant denominations that have divided and divided and are still doing so at viral rates; all in the name of Jesus and claiming to be blown by the Holy Spirit!

Just like the lying Vazir we have clung to our dogmatic beliefs that our Bibliolatrous books and doctrine will save us and like the Vazir we have even begged to be mutilated in our self-chosen martyrdoms and then have licked our wounds with relish and believed we are suffering for Jesus. Yet just as in the story, the megalomania eventually withdraws, kills itself and leaves chaos and division in its wake. Just look at the number of churches on the streets of your town and you will see what I mean.

This was certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he prayed in John 17:21 “...that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

What could possibly have gone wrong?

Jesus was very clear. The paraclete, the counsellor/comforter/helper would teach and remind us of all that Jesus taught. That was pretty simple to remember anyway, “Love God, Love your neighbour, Love yourself, Avoid violence, Don’t seek power, Remember the poor, Pour our your life daily” This is not difficult to recall especially when we have the helper, the Spirit of Jesus, his heart, his mind, his soul united to the Father and breathing in us every moment of every day!

It is here that Rumi’s parable delivers the killer punch. In the story, the Christians don’t listen to the paraclete, they listen to the Vazir.

A Vazir, eymologically means counsellor too. The word entered English in 1562, from the Turkish vezir (“counsellor”), and from the Arabic wazir (“viceroy”), āzara (“to help”), and the root wzr (“to help somebody”)

The word however came to mean Viceroy and Chief Minister to the Caliph, and was adopted to have only political and not spiritual meaning.

So instead of hearing the Paraclete whispering in our hearts to remember Jesus, we have come to trust the Vazir beguiling our heads to believe our suspicious fears.

We divide, we destroy, we deny that we are lost. Whatever we are doing, and for whatever reasons, it is not working! We have been listening to the wrong voice in the wrong place.

I think we need a breath fresh air.

Thank God, the breath of Pentecost is coming!

“It is not certain”

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 am fascinated by Chaos Theory. A relatively new branch of physics that has been applied in many other fields such as biology and meteorology. Chaos theory stated at its most simple, suggests that systems evolve and are not static, that even orbits can become irregular over time due to irregular actions of “strange attractors”.

An early pioneer of the theory was Edward Lorenz whose interest in chaos came about accidentally through his work on weather prediction in 1961. Lorenz decided to cut time on running a very long computer programme, by inserting values, (which the first half of the programme would have calculated), at the halfway mark of the programme. To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. Lorenz tracked this down to the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have had practically no effect. However Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome. Lorenz’s discovery, which gave its name to Lorenz attractors, proved that meteorology could not reasonably predict weather beyond a weekly period (at most). Wikipedia: Chaos Theory

This has given rise to what is now called the Butterfly effect, and that in turn to the famous saying, “The flap of butterfly wing in Brazil may cause a hurricane in Hong Kong

All this is fascinating to the intellect but there is one significant challenge. Our minds crave order! It is this natural ordering drive in all humans that has made us such a diverse and successful species. We prefer to make order out of chaos (except for some teenage years) and not the other way around.

Our mechanistic universe, so eloquently described and mapped by the early Western scientists was the fruit of this ordering drive. The Newtonian world that ran like a machine made us feel safe and comfortable. When people like Darwin, Einstein and Bohr came along, we became insecure and twitchy once again.

We find it difficult to deal with randomness and chaos, because the ego, which you can translate as “Satan” wants’ to be in control.

The problem however comes when, what has now been scientifically proven to be a fairly chaotic and random world, will not allow us to control it as we desire.

Halley’s comet did not return where we said it should, we cannot predict the weather as accurately as we would like, and as to what we will find in the Large Hadron Collider when we really get those atomic particles colliding who knows?

So because the world is now revealed as being random and chaotic, and because we refuse to accept that not everything can be explained or controlled, as a final frontier of control and resistance we now still expect our religion to explain and control what we know from science that we cannot.

And Fundamentalist religion falls right into this trap laid by our fear and expectations. that of offering certainty where there is none. Pandering to humanity’s quest for blind certainty is a hallmark of unskilful religion. Trying to explain, and thereby control the mystery, instead of celebrating the limitations of our understanding and the mysterious and unfathomable nature of God is not helpful.

Skilful religion, points to the mystery that is God, with awe, instead of trying to explain everything with arrogance.

Luke tells of how people come to Jesus and tell him of a massacre of Galileans whilst they were offering sacrifices to God. The assumption is that they must have done something wrong to deserve that. The certainty principle at work, “Bad things happen to bad people” Jesus’ response is to deny that who the Galileans were, made them in some way the deserving of the massacre.

He then sites the tragedy of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam just outside Jerusalem as another case for consideration. Were the eighteen people who were killed in that tragedy worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem. Jesus is again denying the certainty principle.

You see in Jesus day, the certainty principle stated that bad things happened to bad people and good people only received blessing upon blessing. So tragic accidents, massacres and any other suffering had to have a cause that lay in the people who suffered in the event. They must have drawn it to themselves!

We have just recently seen the Christian Fundamentalist certainty principle, at work through the odious statement of televangelist Pat Roberston: on the earthquake in Haiti that destroyed the capital and killed tens of thousands of people, Jan. 13, 2010, “It may be a blessing in disguise. … Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”
[1]

Blame the victims is what this kind of thinking is. It is the same mentality that says women who get raped must have acted provocatively! It is a shocking line of argument but it feeds off the need to always explain what cannot usually be explained.

I love philosopher Sam Keen’s maxim, “Seek simplicity but respect complexity” The mysteries of life and death, tragedy and blessing, demand that respect.

Jesus, in both case studies, ends his exoneration of the victims from any culpability in the disaster, by calling his audience, to repent or else they will perish in the same way.

Now there is a mysterious statement if ever there was one!

The first phrase is relatively simple, “I tell you; but unless you repent” is a call to change direction. In this context it would seem to be a call to change the way people are thinking about disasters and accidents. I would paraphrase Jesus as saying, “Change the way you are over-simplifying these complex matters. You can’t blame the victims. They didn’t deserve what happened. Re-orient(repent) your thinking on these things

The second half of Jesus’ statement is a little more tricky, “you will all perish just as they did.”

This “dying as they did” seems to be the consequence of not re-orienting their thinking. “Repent, or die as they did”. At face value the saying seems to have the same causal problems the statement Jesus is refuting!

I must confess that I find no “simple” grasp of this passage. But the more I meditate on its mystery I seem to glimpse an insight that may be helpful.

The clue lies in the illustrative parable of the fig tree. “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.’

This is a parable about a landowner expecting a causal and predictable result from his fig tree. The sequence is logical and simple, plant a fig tree, expect fruit, after three fruitless seasons get rid of the resource sapping barren tree.

But the gardener, pleads for clemency against the logical and causal decision of the landowner. Just another chance. “Maybe there is a mystery at work here you and I don’t understand. Let me feed and mulch the tree and if there is still no fruit next year. Go ahead and chop it down.

Of course the symbolism of the parable is clear. Landowner = God, Fig Tree = Israel, Gardener=Jesus, Fruit = Being a light to the nations. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

So here we have people in Jerusalem, steeped in the certainty of their doctrine and dogma about who God is and how God works. This doctrinaire exercise of their faith has over centuries, especially since the return from the exile, become exclusive, judgemental and xenophobic. Despite what they may think they know about God, Jesus is suggesting that their dogma is not bearing any fruit for God.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You can’t go around making pronouncements about the deeply mysterious tragedies of life, as if you somehow know how these things work!“. There are things only God understands. Take for example God’s patience with us as a nation and a religion. Despite our pathetic lack of fruiting, God has not cut us off yet. If God was as causal as you say, and if God’s ways ran on the narrow rails that your dogma has laid down for God, then we should have been destroyed just as certainly as the people you have been citing as examples of God’s judgement!

So please, re-orient your thinking, or else you are all going to die in your dogma and our nation will never have fulfilled its God given purpose.

Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is more going on in the mysteries of living and dying than of simplistic quest for certainty can couch in trite dogmatic pronouncements.

A dear Buddhist friend, who spent twelve years as a monk in Thailand, tells of his teacher Ajahn Chah, who had a favourite phrase whenever one of the other monks would make some great pronouncement about the meaning of the Universe, or merely about their plans for the next day. Ajahn Chah, would get a wry smile and murmur, “It is not certain”

I think Jesus has an invitation for us as the Church and as individuals.

As we face the barrage of opinion and doctrinaire drivel that spews with egotistical certainty from so many pulpits and podiums, we have an opportunity to pause a moment and consider the mystery of all around us and then respond, “It is not certain”

All that is certain is the mystery.

Does that negate the need for faith? No it does not.

True faith you see, is not belief, it is TRUST. Jesus called the people of his time to trust the God of the mystery and not try to play God themselves.

The call remains the same for us today.

Historic footnote: Many of the people Jesus spoke to in these dialogues did in fact die as the Galileans butchered by Pilate, and the Siloam tower victims, did. In AD 70 Jerusalem (including the temple) was destroyed by the Romans. I wonder who was responsible for that? … It is not certain!

Come as you are – Epiphany 5C

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.

He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.

So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

 

My memories of fishermen from my Port Chaplaincy days are of wild men. I recall a chokka (squid) boat captain telling me that before the crew boarded to go out on a run, he had to stand at the quayside with a tray of marijuana “arms” so that the crewmen could sample the quality. It was a deciding factor as to whether they would board. Another ritual amongst the chokka crews in the Southern sea of Africa, is when two boats pass each other the crews hang over the gunwhales asnd hurl abuse at each other. The exchange are colourful in the extreme and often the reference the “mothers” of the other crew. Unfortnately decorum won’t permit me illustrate.

I have a feelin g though that Peter would have understood the language!

This passage is obviously a record of the call of the “Big Fisherman” according to Lloyd C Douglas’ novel titling.

It is also, as are encounters with Jesus, archetypal in its fecundity to bring forth a map of our spiritual journey. It is this map I want to explore a little here.

I marvel at Peter the Big Rough Fisherman, being so obedient to the directives on fishing by an itinerant Rabbi and carpenter! Perhaps Luke, like me in his account of this fishing tradition had edited out some of the more colourful expletives that were muttered by Peter when Jesus told him to set out into the deeper water, and reset the nets after a whole night of fruitless fishing?

I can’t be sure, but “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” sounds just a little edited to what Peter might really have said!

The alternative might be that during the sermon from the prow of his boat, Peter had heard something that gave him enough cause to trust that taking a chance on the Rabbi’s suggestion, was worth a gamble.

Either way, the learning point for me in this moment is that grace and insight, are often experienced in thos moments when our human efforts, skill and strategies have been expended with no reward.

How often to I have to get to the end of my resources and often my reason before I am ready to hear the God option for my life. Challenges and crises confront me and I go at solving them with all my skill and gusto. Prayer, reflection and listening usually come when I am panting and burnt out, and ready for some depth for my trust of Jesus.

It is a bit like the man who as a newly qulified First Aider, came across a terrible road accident on his way home. Jumping from his car, First-Aid case in hand he rushed to the body of a victim lying on the side of the road. Pushin the person aside who was attending to the injured woman, the man announced,”Stand back please, I am a qualified First-Aider!” Following all his newly learnt rules he proceeded to bandage and splint for all he was worth. Many bandages and much iodine later, the person whom he had pushed aside tapped him on the shoulder and whispered in his ear, “When you get the part where your training says, ‘Call the Doctor’, I am here behind you”

I know that I have often pushed God off my crises, only to have to call him back later when my efforts haven’t yielded much.

The other cameo in this story of call is Peter’s response to the abudance of the catch. Falling down in front of Jesus he exclaims, “Go away from me, Lord,for I am a sinful man!”

I wonder why such blessing issued in such “dissing” of himself?

Where did Peter learn that he wasn’t deserving of good things from God?

Again I can’t be sure but I would hazard that some form of religious communication was involed. I have experienced too often, that when people call themselves sinful, it is usually beacause they have been told that this so, verbally or non-verbally, by religious people!

Peter might have been a hardened, ruffian of a man. He probably was not shortlisted for nomination to the synagogue council of ministries. This did not mean that he was unworthy of having full nets of blessing.

Don’t you love the irony in Jesus call? He doesn’t tell Peter to clean up his act, go for vocabulary re-alignment, and then come and become a rabbi, like Jesus. No, is called to bring all he is, and the way he is, and be a rough-neck ruffian fisherman for people. The people Jesus needs for his Kingdom. People, many of whom will be like Peter. Tax collectors, terrorists, prostitutes and other people who the church says should be called sinful.

Thank God that Jesus doesn’t depart from Peter when he asks him to. Thank God Jesus doesn’t depart from me when I have convinced myself I am nothing more than, “a sinful man”

At the end of my tether, with empty nets, I hear a call from Jesus. I don’t feel worthy and I think he best leave me to wallow here in my exhaustion.

He has other ideas. He says, “Don’t fear. Come as you are. I don’t want to change you, I only want to love you unconditionally and share my life with you.”

Sorry folks I have to go.

No chance to explain.

Just sort out all those fish and the boats.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back.

Have you “herd”? – Epiphany 4

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Last week we considered the nine word one-liner sermon that Jesus gave as he sat down after reading from the scroll of Isaiah, in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. This week’s Gospel reading opens with those nine words and continues…
‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”’
So Jesus had clearly finished the formal exposition from the words.
The narrative now continues with Jesus speaking as if he knew what the people were thinking.

It is a common homiletic device. As a Methodist I was weaned on it as John Wesley used it frequently. The preacher verbalizes what they think the audience is thinking. In this case and often for Wesley, it takes the form of objections that may be in the mind of the hearer. “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”

Jesus then makes a statement that , “…no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town”, and goes on to illustrate his point by referencing two events. One from the life of Elijah and one from his successor Elisha.
In both stories he points to the fact that God’s favour is not determined nor directed by familial, community or cultural rights of access. Being a home-boy does not give Nazareth special rights of privilege. In fact it would seem that cosmopolitan Capernaum is a preferred site for signs of God’s reign.
It is worth remembering that it was only the other day, in 2007, we crossed a line.  Since then,  for the first time in human history, more people on the planet live in cities than in the country. Before that cities were seen as places of excess and debauchery. Tire, Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah, you can complete your own list, but I think for Nazarenes, Capernaum would be on their list.

This was not what the good homeys of Nazareth wanted to hear. They of all people had rights and claims to this their home-reared son.
Again, in our individualistic, Western, deconstructed nuclear families, we may not feel the tug of clan and community as the culture of Jesus would have exerted it. Those of us in more tribal cultures will have a better grip on this pressure. Imagine club, team, religion, herd, culture, gang; whatever helps to understand that people who share your origins, believe they have rights above others on your talents. Imagine that, and you will have an angle on why the Nazareth congregation became so angry.
One moment they were praising the gracious words, the next they were an angry mob wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff!

Years ago I watched Anthony Quinn pay tribute to Ingrid Bergman. ‘What made Ingrid great’, he said,’is that she was able to see fame and criticism for the impostors they are.‘ Jesus had the gift before Ingrid.

Let’s not forget that in the Gospel record two archetypal events had preceded this preaching in Nazareth.
At his baptism, Jesus had heard from God, just who he really was. “That’s my boy! I am so proud of you
In the wilderness, the shadows of ego, ambition, and power had constelated into a diabolical manifestation called, al-Shaitan= the adversary.  Jesus knowing who he was in God’s sight managed to hold his vocation and vision intact through the forty day ordeal.
Is it any wonder that he was not particularly threatened by some home town good-ole boys who got angry because he wouldn’t dance to their tune?

Christ following is a demanding and ego-threatening enterprise.
Loyalties, connections, cultural nuances, demands, threats, will all be grist to the mill that will sift us like wheat.
We will have to know who we are AND we will have to face the shadow adversaries within us.

So, how did he manage to walk through the “midst of them” and “go on his way“?

My years in conflict mediation have given me a clue.
Some mobs, some crowds, some passionate, vindictively righteous assemblies, can get so enraged, so angry, so violent, so hynotised by their fulminations that truth, light, and Universal Love, are able to depart from amongst them so swiftly they don’t even notice!

Hey! Where did you go?