Fourth Sunday of Lent: Luke 15:1-32

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‘This man’ they said ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

To be rejected, to be cast into the outer darkness away from the group sitting around a tribal fire, is one of humanity’s deepest fears. The rejected suddenly become the enemy of the group rejecting them. To associate with them is a sign of disloyalty and makes them toxic and infectious.

In the British film Apostasy, a Jehovah’s Witness church excommunicates a young woman for breaking their rules and her family confront (and fail in) an agonising choice between rejecting her and remaining members of the elect. The most diabolical aspect of the drama is the inverted religious language of self-justification and the false, creepy tone of hard-hearted self-righteousness. The word ‘diabolus’ implies the state of di-vision, throwing apart. The opposite word is ‘symbolum’ which unites and brings the separated together. The diabolical attacks in the name of God. It divides, using every trick, including quoting scripture, to make it seem on the side of the angels.

Cliff-edge moments come around from time to time when we are forced to choose where we stand. Do we stay in the security of the crowd baying for blood, or stand in solidarity with the outcast? Take immigrants for example. In some parts of affluent society today it is dangerous to speak compassionately about immigrants. Once your head of state has accused them of being ‘drug dealers, criminals and rapists’ their dehumanisation has begun. The bar on abusing them, the most vulnerable, has been raised.

‘Sinners’ is a common term of rejection in religious vocabulary, even though it is often used wrongly. Jesus associated with ‘sinners’, people off the purity radar. He saw that the sin that matters is not being unacceptable, like the untouchables in the cast system. The Greek word for sin means ‘missing the mark’. Not in the sense of not getting into respectable society, but in the human sense of failing. When we try to throw a piece of paper into a basket and miss, should we rage and curse or pick it up and try again?

To understand sin we need to be straight about our own interior divisions and contradictions, the universal symptoms of human weakness. Otherwise, we plunge into the collective hypocrisy which is the binding force of any mob.

Those who dine with sinners put themselves at risk. But, even when they in turn are despised and rejected, they pull the plug on the power of hypocrisy. They expose the real sinners in the human drama – not the victim but the victimisers, dividers not the divided. It becomes clear how easily we slide from the side of angels to demons. It is the casters out not the outcast who really sin.

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Saturday Lent Week Three: Luke 18:9-14

 

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the man who humbles himself will be exalted.

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

I have met a few lovely people who quite naturally seem to have their ego under control. It doesn’t appear to cost them any effort and it even seems they have no ego. Of course, anyone you can relate to has an ego because this is what makes us distinct. If we weren’t separate we wouldn’t be capable of dying to ourselves and rising into deeper union.

Most of us have relatively wounded egos. Through the long process of psychological development and individuation, the ego accumulates painful memories and fears that form patterns that form our personality. No separation occurs without pain and pain leaves a scar in memory. Without great love surrounding it to heal this repeated wound, the ego builds distrust and learns to dissemble to protect itself. Sometimes it becomes inflated and aggressive to compensate for its imbalance. Sometimes it becomes timid and insecure, terrified to be seen or heard. Sometimes we flip from one type of ego to another.

Whoever has grown up with minimal damage has been wrapped from the beginning in love. They have a more balanced inner world, in which the lever of the ego operates gently – as a medium of communication rather than a weapon. They are nicer people. When they go to a social event they don’t worry about whether they will be get recognition or upgraded to a higher table. They might be curious about what will happen but won’t feel the egotistical anguish of those who need and crave applause or who are terrified of being noticed.

As most of us do not have such well-balanced egos, today’s gospel offers a practical and compassionate wisdom. Make an extra effort to avoid what the ego craves or fears and then, do not feeling proud because you have done the right thing. Thus you will be ‘exalted’. This doesn’t mean becoming the latest star of X Factor. A YouTube clip of you facing an adoring audience, astonished at your talent, won’t go viral.

It’s quite another kind of exaltation, in which, detached from success or failure, your ego can laugh at itself. Freed from the grip of self-fixation you can give your attention, your self, to others, with the delight of seeing the transformation that pure, selfless attention can work.

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Friday Lent Week Three: Mark 12: 28-34

 

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

As he lay dying, the disciples of the Buddha were discussing how they would keep all the 227 monastic rules he had given them. They asked his closest disciple to ask him to prioritise  a more manageable number. When he returned, the disciple told them unfortunately the Buddha had died before he could answer the question. So they were left with a lot of rules.

When Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment of the Law he replied as above – the three dimensions of love of God, self and others. Three in one. Theologically it makes sense to place the love of God first. Psychologically, we have to start with love of self. The devoutly religious person, who is focused on loving God by obeying all the commandments and winning divine approval, can easily be a conflicted and divided individual who has never integrated their shadow and had the humility to accept their imperfection. The person who has done their work in the desert and learned to love themselves humbly, may appear quite unreligious, while fulfilling the greatest commandment. The unloving always bring religion into disrepute. But whoever obeys the ‘first and greatest’ commandment of life – to love wholeheartedly – doesn’t have to worry about the little rules. ‘Love and do as you wish’, said St Augustine.

Loving fluffy kittens, children, sweet-tempered old people, those who do what they say they will do, who make your life easier, great cooks, those who appreciate you adequately, people on all kinds of pedestals of your own making – these are the easy ones – friends – to love. Your enemies are a different matter. People who let you down, stop a decision going through by complicating the issue unnecessarily, the dishonest, unfaithful, manipulative and animals like rats and cockroaches: these are the ones who really help us obey the commandment. The difficult to love expose our hidden conditions and agenda. They reveal the inadequate degree of our self-knowledge and self-acceptance – our love of self. Thus ‘our enemies are our best spiritual teachers’, just as failure trains us better than success.

Sometimes, it is hard to see what one person sees in another who they love deeply and selflessly. It is hard to feel the love that St Francis felt for the leper he embraced or the dying that Mother Theresa rescued from the streets of Calcutta and tended as if they were Christ. A modern journalist would question whether they were each doing it for the camera. But to love wholeheartedly is to see what others, who can only love those who love them, cannot see.

We could say the truly loving see God or Christ in the unloveable. It would be as true to say that they see themselves in the other and the other in themselves. This enfolding of persons is God. When a person loves another there are always three involved.

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Thursday Lent Week Three: Luke 11:14-23

 

Others asked him, as a test, for a sign from heaven

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

There is a story of the Buddha meeting with a group of Brahmins among whom there is a sixteen-year-old, insufferably prattish, prodigy, who knows all the texts and challenges the enlightened one’s authority. Gautama fields all his questions and eventually checkmates him. The happy ending is that the youth has learned his lesson and becomes a disciple.

Becoming a disciple for most of us is a longer business. The ego, like Lucifer, in the cosmic struggle that led to the civil war in heaven, wills not to serve. It prefers defeat and exclusion from the ranks of the blessed to acknowledging a higher power.

In more down to earth terms, this is reflected in our struggle with addiction. The first of the Twelve Steps that leads to freedom is the most humbling, to acknowledge our incapacity to free ourselves and the need to recognise a higher power. This eventually leads to the eleventh step by which time we have learned what prayer really means: ‘conscious contact with God as we understand’ what God means. Only then, after the ‘spiritual awakening’ that results from mastering the ego, are we ready to help others suffering from addiction and to begin to live what we have learned in all parts of our life.

We cannot teach until we have learned from a teacher whose higher power we have acknowledged. As long as we see this relationship as a battle of wills, competing with our teacher, impatient for our graduation with honours, we have not even taken the first step. Ultimately, however, we do not surrender to our teacher. We love our teacher and therefore the teacher of our teacher… Students graduate and set up on their own. Disciples enter a community stretching in all directions in space and time.

At first, testing our teacher is not a bad thing, provided it also brings our ego out into the open where it can itself be tested and tamed. I guess the Buddha wasn’t really angry with the prattish Brahmin prodigy or offended by his attitude. He understood where it was coming from. Finally, with his help, the youth understood himself and saw that his true self would only be freed, and his talents put to good use, by what perhaps seemed like a humiliating defeat but was, in truth, the mutual acceptance that exists between a true teacher and a true disciple.

But this can be a long and difficult game until we encounter this kind of teacher, one who can make us this kind of disciple. Until then, the ego has innumerable red lines that it refuses to cross and will even seek to defeat and humiliate the teacher on whom it depends for freedom. This is made explicit later in the story of Easter.

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Wednesday Lent week Three: Matthew 5:17-19

 

Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

It is hard to let go of the past. Even when it was flawed, we tend to whitewash it, to avoid admitting our mistakes. It is hard to change our mind (metanoia), and the more people shout at us to do so the more entrenched we become.

But circumstances change. What was right yesterday may not be best for today. We can always say ‘I am sorry’ and let go, but the left hemisphere of the brain finds this hard to do because it constructed all the good reasons for previously-held opinions. It enjoys fixity. (I won’t make a comparison with Brexit). But even when we do admit that a new approach is called for, we are not condemning ourselves for past mistakes: we did the best we could with the information at hand at the time. The right hemisphere of the brain is in the flow of reality and finds it easier to accept change. Only then can we make peace with the past and see the best of it, the law and prophets, carried over into the new.

Even gods, like the cultures they once supported, change and die. Today we live in the twilight of the old gods. They depended on their devotees to keep them alive with the offerings of petition and sacrifice. When the devotees stop believing the gods wither on the vine. Even the mighty gods of Olympus were downgraded. Before they die, they become local, vestiges of nostalgia or objects of amusement for the new generation.

But we cannot live without gods. (Even the atheist has to deal with them.) We need the symbols and charms they provide to express hopes and needs that we cannot put into words. The change of the pantheon of gods, however, is a time of loss and crisis such as we are going through now in Christianity and other religions. The new gods are worshipped on screens from Hollywood and Bollywood, in the temples of shopping malls, trading rooms and newsrooms. There are gods of misinformation and division (and some good new ones). Some old gods try to re-invent themselves and become relevant while others just fade and disappear. Consensus – the certainty that the old gods gave – is eroded and replaced by conflict and controversy until something new is born.

This is why the desert and our forty days there, or our twenty minutes there twice a day, are so liberating. There are no gods, dead or alive, in the desert, no temples except the heart, no sacrifices except our attention. There are, of course, our inner demons and a few necessary angels. Without gods, all that is left is the God who is, but has no name: the ‘religionless Christianity’ that Dietrich Bonhoeffer caught a glimpse of through the wreckage of the old order?

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Tuesday Lent Week Three: Matthew 18:21-35

 

How often must I forgive my brother or sister if they wrong me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Like most of us, I have known at times how painful it is not to be forgiven. Maybe I am deluded, but I don’t find it as hard to forgive (given a bit of time) as to feel that I am refused this wonderful grace that changes not only relationships but the world and advances the reign of God.

When you seem to have resolved in yourself a mistake or a fractured relationship; when enough time has passed and people have got on with their lives, moved on, you might then feel ready to reach out and try for reconciliation. Until forgiveness happens, the unhappy feeling of something blocked and unfinished stops deep healing from beginning. For peace and justice it’s not enough just for hurt feelings to subside. Forgiveness is ontological, deeper than feeling. There is no going back to the past: some relationships stay there, in personal history. But our natural thirst and hunger for justice is not about either forgetting or apportioning blame. It is about conscious restoration and re-balancing.

When Jesus says not 7 but 77 he shows the attentive listener that there is no justice without forgiveness. No hope of justice restoring our humanity unless we are truly open to forgiveness. When I hear people confess they ‘cannot forgive so-and-so for this-or-that’ I often detect a sense of shame and self-justification. Behind it is the sense ‘it’s not my fault and I would if I could.’ Of course we need to forgive those who cannot forgive. For that matter, we have to forgive ourselves for not forgiving. But also we need not to confuse forgiveness with a self-justified attachment to a grudge or victimhood (for the sake of the injured party first and for the injuring party second). How do we tell the difference? Perhaps by seeing how we feel if the party who offended us moves on and flourishes.

Forgiveness is inner healing not the bestowing of pardon. One day we understand it’s happened already when we weren’t watching. We receive the grace of forgiveness subtly (and can then share it actively) after we have passed through the 77 questions that penetrate all the dark corners of our heart: What do I really feel? Why did X act the way they did? Am I seeking wholeness or clinging to retribution? Do I ‘love my enemy’ meaning that they are no longer my enemy (even if I wouldn’t choose to go on holiday with them).

This insight into forgiveness comes from the one who would say on the Cross ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.’ For him this was the last of the keys that opened his door to paradise. / Week 3

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Monday Lent Week Three: Luke 1:26-38

 

‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

For those who like advance planning, Christmas is nine months away from today, which celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, the hidden moment when the Word began to take flesh. It has meaning for everyone, believers and non-believers alike. For the non-believer it affirms the fact that truth grows in us in an integrated way. Truth is more than an idea. For the much rarer breed of believers it signifies the opening of a new era in human affairs when the transcendent Source of the material world merges with it, in, through and as a particular human person who his parents called Jesus. The Source of everything that exists, who says simply ‘I AM’ is both revealed and hidden in this event. We cannot truly call this source He, She or It, but only I AM.

Angels come and go. The Bible often sees them not only as messengers, in the literal translation of the word. The world is full of messages carrying meaning (connection to what is always a bigger picture) if we take time to listen and sort them out. But, more, the Bible sometimes also identifies the messenger with the one who sends the message. This is like quantum physics where the usual dualities and boundaries are suspended. They can form and re-form according to the nature of our observational point of view. Objectivity thus takes on a new and more playful meaning. Prejudices and uptightness loosen up and a new way of seeing and interacting in the world emerges. The Annunciation signifies that this actually happens. Lent helps us to clarify our perception of it happening by giving us the optimum distance and the right focal length to see it influencing daily life.

Like atomic particles divided by great distances yet operating as one, this can be a bit weird. I walked around the abbaye at Bonnevaux yesterday, struck and moved by the way it has been transformed, simply but beautifully, with immense skill and effort and yet producing the sense of ‘just rightness’ that deeply satisfies the soul. I thought of the 900 years that have passed since the first community came here to ‘truly seek God’ and love the world by loving each other. It gave me the weird feeling that Bonnevaux was grateful to have been saved.

I thought of the words of Isaiah: Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. (58:12)

If Lent is a time to repair personal spiritual foundations, this feast is about the evolutionary restoration of humanity. It’s another way of looking at things – maybe there is a time to tear down and start from scratch but a deeper truth is the continuity of things, revealed in seeing the time to rebuild and restore.

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