BEGINNINGS: A REFLECTION ON MARK 1:1-8

Finally, it begins.

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God,” is announced as the opening of Mark, the second ‘chapter’ of the one great Gospel. While the newly closed year of Matthew framed the invitation inherent in disruption, Mark moves us into the graced chaos that comes with a surrendered “Yes” to the reality at hand. Like the wilderness Baptist, we are to turn from the littered landscape of the way it was supposed to be, the shattered dreams and lost hopes that represent our bargains with life at the moment of unwanted change, and to turn to God alone.

It’s a baptism of mind/heart-changing repentance for forgiveness of whatever separates us from God, our truest self and right relationship with our fellows. I cannot imagine a community more in need of this sort of forgiveness than the embattled house-church of ancient Rome where the mechanisms of emperor tore at fabric of relationship with unerring cruelty. Do you desire to save yourself and your family from a hideous death in Nero’s circus? Then deny your God and condemn a fellow family of your faith community to the same death. An impossible choice! There is much to forgive in every direction.

The great turning, repentance or change of heart/mind, thrusts us with this community into our own time of wilderness with its solitary and excruciatingly personal work of deep grief. We too are cast into the pathless desert with John, because the interior self must join in the exterior letting go. With John, each follower of the Way ‘appears’ in the wilderness, a stripped down place that demands everything of us, in hope that this movement too expresses the living Christ. Unwanted change and the excruciating choices it brings either embitters us or softens us. In the softening we become permeable to the work of the Spirit in ways that were not possible before.

Rabbi Brant Rosen (Voices in the Wilderness ) notes that “the Hebrew verb ‘to speak’ and the word for ‘wilderness’ share a common root: d-b-r. It suggests an important connection between wilderness and speech – more specifically divine speech.” It was in wilderness that Moses, the people of the Exodus, and Elijah all experience divine revelation:

At first glance, the wilderness might seem to be a wasteland – a “God-forsaken” environment unable to support life. But desert biomes are actually vital, and dynamic ecosystems… the desert invites us to look beyond its seemingly barren surface to discover the life that dwells deep within. We also might regard the wilderness as more symbolic terrain – an existential place far from the “noise” of culture, artifice and ego… to strip away the outer layers of self so we may discover, like the ancient Israelites, the divine word that dwells at the elemental core.

In the end, the journey into the wilderness is one that leads both inward and outward: to the outermost reaches of experience and the innermost reaches of the human soul. These are the places where the voice of God may truly be heard.

In recognition of these outermost and innermost reaches, there is a quality of compassion in Mark’s account of the Baptist that is not present in the other accounts. Both Matthew and Luke depict a John of fiery words, perhaps because these other ‘chapters’ of the one great gospel have their own distinct forms of wrestling to do: in Matthew there is the resistance of ego that has not yet let go and in Luke there is the reconstitution of ego needed to move back into the world. But here, in Mark where we, with the ancient Roman community, already live in the fire of deep suffering, there is only proclamation of the One yet to come with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Together we await what is already here: The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ!

Preparing for the Expected Unexpected – Matthew 25:1-13

“We’ve had 5 small earthquakes here in the last week along the Hayward fault,” my daughter announced shortly after my arrival last weekend. “They don’t appear to be releasing the stress, so a larger one is likely in the next few weeks.”  In preparation the family has gathered all necessary emergency supplies and coached the 5 and 7 year old in how to respond to each temblor wherever they are.  They are consciously preparing for the expected unexpected.  In earthquake country, the quake will come, though at what day and time no one knows. When it does those who have invested in conscious preparation will have a greater likelihood of survival.

There are similarities to the parable of the ten bridesmaids in which each is responsible for the necessary supply of oil for her own lamp.  Readiness cannot be borrowed; it has been cultivated or not. The major difference near the end of this long year of facing change in Matthew is that the bridesmaids are awaiting celebration, not disaster. This too takes intention and attention – perhaps even more so when disaster is all around.

When unwanted change is thrust upon a community, a natural response is to hunker down in a protective posture, but this first movement of the one great Gospel is about more than survival.  It’s about responding to the summons that comes through change… a summons that leads eventually to an unlikely ‘wedding’ when two become one in new relationship. As we are still in the first of the four paths, we might consider the wedding feast when we are attendants to be a foretaste of the coming new union ahead.

It’s reminiscent of another time when Isaiah preached to his broken community in exile from their shattered Jeru-shalom:

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. (62:4-5)

I can imagine the strange looks Isaiah received in the middle of lived disaster – and yet, keeping hope alive and tending the capacity to trust in the Big Story of grace at work is crucial to our readiness to respond to the new thing when it eventually arrives.

In our parable today, the door is shut on the wedding feast, not out of cruelty, but out of necessary containment.  Celebration feeds the communal spirit, like oil feeds a lamp, and cannot be allowed to dribble away.  It does not mean that there will never be another celebration – the parables repeatedly point to the desire of God to ‘wed’ us, suggesting that there will be other opportunities, should we be prepared to accept them.

In a wonderful little piece called The Committee of Joy (Alive Now, Nov/Dec 1999), Joyce Hollyday writes of how a Honduran refugee camp filled with tragedy and loss burst into joyful preparation for Christmas Eve. She then goes on to describe a conversation between an American aid worker and a refugee woman in the camp. “Concerned that the worker always looked so sad and burdened, the refugee woman confronted her: ‘You cannot be serious about our struggle unless you play and celebrate and do those things that make it possible to give a lifetime to it.’”

There is wisdom here for us as people of the Way. As we near the end of this year of Matthew, may our ‘Yes’ to unwanted change open us to mutual celebration of the surprising ways Grace already and always moves among us.

When Kairos Comes Crashing In (Matthew 21: 33-46)

A Harvard-trained brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a major stroke at age 37 that permanently altered her life, but not in the way most of us would think.

Yes, the stroke initiated a 10 year process of recovery in which she re-learned seeing, hearing, walking, talking, reading, writing and basic self care, but what she ultimately recovered was far more precious. With her highly developed left brain shut down, she awakened to a much wider right-brain perspective that is eerily similar to Jesus’ descriptions of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ across Matthew.  In this realm of consciousness, Dr. Taylor entered a deep peace, a sense of unity with all-that-is, a sense of well-being and ultimate value, and a deep trust in the abundance of grace that more than meets our need.  In ‘stepping to the right’ she left her well-ordered universe of ticking sequential chronos time regulated by her ego-need to be the one in charge for the timelessness of God-saturated presence that is kairos time and which is always ‘at hand.’

Such letting down into kairos is what the tenants of the vineyard are invited into in the parable of Matthew 21 which begins literally “when the time [kairos] of the fruit drew near…” (v. 34). It’s time, in other words, for them to ‘step to the right’ in connection to the larger reality in which they already and always participate. Something good has been growing in the vineyard and it is now time to gather it in for the next step in becoming wine.  In Jewish understanding,

Wine symbolizes a completed and perfected human life. It starts off as an inferior product (grape juice = childhood, immaturity) but must go through fermentation (struggle = challenge of evil) and only then does it become the superior product, wine. We drink it on occasions where we have passed a certain fermentation process (marriage) or at times, like Shabbat, which represent the final product of human life, the World to Come. (Ask the Rabbi, http://ohr.edu/ask_db/ask_main.php/243/Q5 /)

The tenants say “No,” to participating in this larger reality, preferring to claim the illusory prerogatives of ownership separate from the larger story of Grace moving.  Clutching for ownership of what is not ours – something to which we humans are always prone ESPECIALLY in times of fundamental change –  can only end in disaster, and does in the parable. The choice to resist the rightful turn of the season which is in God’s hands, escalates into destruction. It’s futile and silly – as silly as ‘refusing’ to allow fall to come after a long summer season. It will come, regardless. Our task is recognizing when the holy moment of change is at hand and partnering it.

Bolte Taylor sees this moment as a partnership between the right and left brains we each inhabit:

Creating a healthy balance between our two characters enables us the ability to remain cognitively flexible enough to welcome changes (right hemisphere), and yet remain concrete enough to stay a path (left hemisphere).A Stroke of Insight, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, p. 145

Both are needed; mischief is made when one or the other aspect of our humanity, generally the ‘left brain’ ego-self,  attempts to assume ownership of the whole.

Lest we miss the point, remember that this parable is part of what is written to the community of believers in Antioch about their own process and journey in a time of wrenching change. This story is not a triumphant statement about how they got it right and the other guys got it wrong. It’s about us who have chosen to follow the Christus and who perhaps waver in what this means. Who among us hasn’t wanted to stop the flow of seasons, clutching the fruits of summer tightly to ourselves in false ownership, resisting the winepress ahead?

So comes the seemingly enigmatic ending:

Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone [lit. the head/chief corner];
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?

While this is written in Greek, it is significant to note that a very different connotation emerges in a Hebrew translation of the same text. The ‘head’ or ‘chief’ corner[stone] is foundational in setting the orientation of the whole structure/body (which includes us).  But notice the kind of orientation that is suggested: the archaic Hebrew root of head means  “to shake; the head (as most easily shaken), whether literally or figuratively (in many applications, of place, time, rank, etc.”  http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/7218.html).

The body in which we participate as Christians has as its head one who sets a pattern that means WE will continue to experience the natural seasons of kairos in which we too are shaken. Following from the entry to Jerusalem which comes earlier in the chapter, our ‘head’ come riding solo on a donkey and a colt (an awkward straddle of old and new) as one who intentionally moves into the worst the human family can dish out, not as triumphant king of a conquering army. Will we follow? It is the only Way to become a people who “produces the fruits of the kingdom.”  (v. 33)

Yes, “The one who falls [descends from a higher place to a lower] on this stone will be broken to pieces…” Our smaller selves will be broken open like Jill Bolte Taylor’s brain was broken open, like bread is broken open, like grapes are broken open to become in the fullness of God’s time, wine. Resisting this primal and necessary process doesn’t stop it coming: “…and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (21:43-44)

But even the ‘crushing’ is not the end of this story. This crushing/ grinding to powder  (from the Greek  likmos/liknon) relates to a winnowing fan or basket in which chaff is separated from wheat. There is a an inexorable process so embedded in the movement of Grace that it will proceed with or without our conscious assent.

Choosing to move consciously into and with the kairos moment when it comes releases us to move forward in trust that nothing less than resurrection lies ahead, and so we become “the people of the Way” – a people producing the fruits of the kingdom – again and again as each season presents itself. May it be so with us!

From Cacaphony to Symphony (Matthew 18:15-20)

The texts of the last months of this year of Matthew seem to lurch along from miracle to argument, from demand to declaration, from clarity to confusion. Within a few chapters, the word to the struggling community in Antioch moves from mind-opening inclusion of an outsider in the good news (the Syrophoenician woman) to a directive about when to exclude a non-responsive brother or sister in faith from participation in the local community: “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault…  if they still refuse to listen [after several tries with enlarging circles] treat them as you would a Gentile and a tax collector.”

This lurching along is the felt experience of living through profound change. The terrain is rocky. In collapse, what remains is rubble, and the long rocky path of steep ascent. It’s easy to twist an ankle or stumble in the rocky life of the ecclesia or church when change upends us. I once heard New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen say a better rendering of “You are Peter (petros) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church is “You are rocky and upon this rock-ness I will build my church.”  The rockiness of Peter and the church is evident, and beneath it all, we are connected to the sure rock of Christ.  So comes the steady drumbeat of warning:  watch out, keep awake, take care. The old landmarks are gone and climbing Matthew’s mountain together takes full attention.

One form of necessary attention is care for how we live together as the body of Christ. For our health and witness, it is essential to hold the creative tension of law and spirit as Jesus does in the transfiguration story of the previous chapter. Both law and spirit are needed whether personified in Jesus the Christ standing with Moses and Elijah, or in the bumbling, “rocky” leadership trio of Peter, James and John. A new integration of law and spirit are present in the practical steps for attending to the integrity of the  community, along with the promise, “wherever two or three gather in my name [in the same practice of the Way] there I am with them.”

The opening question of chapter 18 sets the stage for instruction about how to handle trouble in the body. The disciples (standing in for Matthew’s community) come to Jesus and ask, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” I imagine the small community in Antioch at the vanguard of Messianic Jews who had fought hard to preserve their identity as followers of the Way of Christ in decimating circumstance. Was this experienced and valiant group “greater” than new converts who were sometimes referred to as “little children?” We might ask in the shaking of institutional structures today, are our established church members or long-term leaders worthy of more regard than those new to faith?

Matthew’s Jesus responds to the question by lifting up a child and speaking to the readiness to change as a primary qualification for participation in the always emerging realm of God:  “Unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The journey is not done, ever, regardless of accomplishment or longevity. In a sense, the requirement for change places us on all the same rocky footing.

The next words of the chapter actually put the onus of change on the established body who must be willing to sever parts of themselves  and their ways of being together (an eye, a hand, a foot) if it does not serve the larger purpose of God in opening the kingdom of heaven to all. God’s focus is more toward the one lost than the ninety-nine in the fold.

All this is necessary prelude to the attitude of heart needed to grow together in health as members of the one body. The largess of God does not diminish the ‘rockiness’ of who we are and the need to engage that truth together. We are not to simply shrug off our rockiness with “Oh well, we’re human.” Nor are we to bludgeon one another with shaming self-righteousness.  Our common humanity is the basis for compassionate humility and loving truth-speaking. It’s a winning combination.

There are times community life feels effortless and times we miss the mark, sometimes badly. In this practical passage about minding and mending the relationship, the responsibility to initiate recovery belongs to the one experiencing separation. (“If your brother or sister sins against you…”) It’s not the job of leadership to notice and chase down and fix problems in the community, and it’s not the job of the transgressor who may not even be aware.

This implies a radical equality of standing; every person is asked to engage others as mutually accountable members of the family. Communal  life requires investment. Self reflection (and self-valuing) sufficient to notice a felt rupture, and then courage to approach the one involved are required for mutual health. In return, the needed response is authentic willingness to listen. It’s a beginning. There is no guarantee the behavior will shift – we shortly hear we must be prepared to forgive a brother or sister 70 times 7, the number of infinity.

Still, our choices matter. Hurt refusal to approach another and stubborn refusal to listen to such an approach binds self, others, and even the power of the Spirit. Approaching with loving honesty and truly listening in response has the potential to loose everyone, and the power unleashed is real because we then live together in the living stream of God’s will. At this stage of the journey the new community-in-formation begins to emerge from the cacophony of chaos and shape itself toward a symphony.

“If two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be given.”  To agree – symphonia – is an evocative word pointing to the disciplined harmony of different voices and instruments working together with a conductor who is nothing less than the Living Spirit. This kind of symphonia is not merely the ‘agreeableness’ of making nice, but is a creative act that together makes music the world sorely needs…  music to help a people in radical transition move together toward an unknown future.

THE WILD SUFFICIENCY OF GIVING WHAT WE HAVE MATTHEW 13:13-21

In the upside down world of the Spirit where true power for change lies in the subtlety of yeast and barely visible seeds, what does leadership look like and how does it work? I can imagine the Jewish-Christians of Antioch asking that question over and over again in the roil of devastating loss. Not only had all members of the priestly tribe been slaughtered, but the ‘head’ of their own ‘living body’ was no longer present in physical form. Were they too headless like John the Baptist and his disciples? It’s this gruesome story that is the immediate context for the feeding of the 5000.

Faithful leadership in times of cataclysmic change requires courage and the capacity to move beyond the small self toward a greater good. Herod Antipas had neither quality. In a time of great chaos for his people he is a pretender, using his power as Tetrarch to feed his own appetites and puff up a personal sense of importance. He murders a prophet to save face: “The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded [the head of John the Baptist] to be given.” John’s disciples do what they can do – retrieve and bury the headless body – and go tell Jesus.

Ego amok is always distasteful, but in those with political power it is dangerous and immensely dispiriting. (Witness the current wrangling in Washington over the debt ceiling crisis). Both the Jesus of Matthew and the crowds attending him are stunned by the mindless and unnecessary brutality. Having lost his baptizer and friend, this Jesus retreats to grieve the loss and absorb its meaning: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” So too the crowds. In the face of this horror the crowds are desperate, rudderless and looking for somewhere to turn: “But when the crowds heard it, they followed Jesus on foot from the towns.”

In an expression of social compassion, the need of the crowds trumps personal need: “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” He serves those literally “without strength, weak, sick,” a far different focus than the one displayed by those who cater to and focus on the powerful. He lives servant leadership.

I can imagine the discipled community in Antioch so fresh from disaster panicking a bit at this point in the story. Well and good, they (we) might think, but neither Jesus of Nazareth nor the resurrected Christ is here in physical form . We’re as ‘headless’ as John the Baptist with no idea of where we’re going or how to meet the chaos and unending need around us. We’re not you, Jesus. Send the crowds away to see to their own feeding!

They receive a stunning reply: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

They plead insufficiency. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” In other words, you don’t know what you’re asking. We can barely take care of ourselves. Perhaps sometime in the future when we are better equipped and things have settled down?

And he said, “Bring [the loaves and fish] here to me.” Bring me what you have; it’s all that’s needed. I am here with you. Take the focus off what you think you need or what you don’t have and offer what you do… especially when the circumstance you face is dire and your reception uncertain.

Taking the five loaves and two fish, he looked up to heaven and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

Jesus the Christ – the head of this LIVING body – uplifts, blesses and frees the community to recognize what they have and to offer it – even in tumult!  This style of leadership strengthens and heals the frightened community that they might serve the basic hunger around them in a way that is accessible, natural, and real. He blesses what they have, and it is wildly sufficient.

Throughout this whole first movement of the one great gospel, the necessary attitude is about right focus, trust and internal commitment within external circumstance. The word of the One at work in hidden ways through turmoil – the same One who desires mercy and not sacrifice (12:7) – is both clear and costly:

• keep the focus on God who is with us always

• bring what WE as the living body of Christ already have for blessing

• offer it in servant leadership to whomever has come

Oh, one more thing. Be prepared to gather up baskets full of leftover abundance.