Thursday, 12 January 2017

Meditation: MARRIAGE AS A MEANS OF GRACE by John de Gruchy


John 2:1-11
"There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding..."

During the last few weeks there have been five weddings, but no funerals, at Volmoed.  It seems that marriage is still in fashion.  And, appropriately, the lectionary reading for last Sunday was about the wedding feast in Cana.  On reading the story again, I was struck by the fact that John does not tell us who got married!  Imagine a report in the Hermanus Times telling us about a wedding last Saturday on Volmoed, but forgetting to say whose wedding it was.  All the report said was: "Alyson and Mike Guy were there."  I think the bride and bridegroom, as well as their families would be a little peeved if not downright angry that they did not get a mention.  And then, to add further insult to injury, the report went on and said that the wine had run out!  How embarrassing, though, come to think of it, seeing the family name was not mentioned in the newspaper report, they were protected from that scandal.  But those were the salient facts.  Mary, Jesus and his disciples were there and the wine ran out.  That is, except for the additional and most startling piece of information.  Mary gets involved and tells Jesus there is no wine; Jesus appears to get angry with her, but he goes ahead and turns the water in a the jars into good vintage wine.  Now that was worth reporting.  Not even Barry or Bernhard together would have been able to do that!

When Isobel and I got married 56 years ago last Friday, if we may boast a little, we also ran out of wine at the reception.  In fact, there was none to begin with as we were married in a Methodist Church and no alcohol was allowed in the church hall where the reception was held.  So we were served tea, much to the displeasure of some of the guests.  And in those days tea meant Ceylon tea, none of the fancy teas available today.  Even Jesus would have had difficulty in turning that tea into wine!  But that did not matter to Isobel and me.  We were married and duly set off in our Fiat 600 to travel the country and begin to work out what the vows we had made actually meant: "for better, for worse..."  It did not take us too long to find out as our roller-coaster of a marriage began to go up and down!  "for richer for poorer," yes in those days we were "the poorer;"  "in sickness and in health," yes, we have had our fair share of sickness and sadness.  And while our marriage has been much better than worse, it has not been perfect,  and we know that there will come a time when "death will us part."

Marriage is a blend of romance and learning to tough it out.  It can be full of roses, but never without some thorns.  That's just how it is.  But we celebrate marriage like Mary, Jesus and his disciples did with that anonymous family in Cana because it is so fundamental to our lives and to the well-being of society.  In these days when many people simply  live together, and when divorce is common,  it is important that we reaffirm that marriage is, for Christians, a sacrament.  Not all our church traditions call it a sacrament, but that does not alter the fact that marriage is a God-given "means of grace."  That is, through marriage God promises to turn the water necessary for daily life into the wine of romance and joy!  We bring to the marriage our fallible selves with all our personality peculiarities, which would apply to gay marriages as much as any other.  Somehow by the grace of God there is a fusion in which we become one without losing our personalities.  In fact, our personalities are meant to be enriched not diminished as we are led into the mystery of our growing unity.  At least that is the theology of marriage even if it does not always work out that way in practice.  But it does help to put the romance back into marriage if we understand it as a sacrament or means of grace, for that lifts it beyond a legal agreement and places it within the embrace of God's grace.

Which leads me to the thought -- why is it that dancing is such a universal feature of wedding celebrations?  And why is it that traditionally the bride and bridegroom lead the dance at the reception?  Is it not symbolic of  taking the first step together into the future and then being joined by everyone else in the dance as supporting cast.  And could it be that at Cana, Jesus, Mary and all the disciples joined in that dance?  Yes, I think so.  After all, as the song has it, he is the Lord of the dance, and we are meant to dance with him wherever we may be!.

But dancing can be a challenge, as it was for me. There is much to learn and that takes commitment.  That is why we make vows about  remaining united even when we are poor, sick, or things get bad.  Marriage can be rough, we can stand on each other's toes, and there are many marriages that stumble and the dance comes to an end with bruises on our bodies and souls.  Then we may have to the truth and accept closure.  But let's not think about those times of failure right now.  Let us rather focus on our own marriages or those of our families and friends, or those living together to discover if they want to dance, for whom we care and pray, those with whom we dance along in the divine dance.   Yes, it is God's grace that makes marriage a sacrament and embraces us in the dance of life together, but with that gift of grace comes an awesome task.  We have to dance till the sun goes down, keeping each other on our toes and picking each other up when we fall. 

So marriage as a sacrament is not just what happens on the day of the wedding when we take our first steps in the dance, marriage is meant to be a means of grace throughout our lives as we work at being in relationship, bring up children, welcome friend and stranger, and find our way.  And the primary way in which we receive that sacramental grace that turns the water of the everyday into the wine of celebration and joy is through learning to forgive and accepting forgiveness.  If there is one place where we should not let the sun set on our anger, it is in the marriage bed!  For it is then that we renew our vows and find the grace we need.

None of this is passing a judgment on those whose marriage might fail; on those who might live together and decide not to get married, or on those who opt to remain single.  I am simply reaffirming what Christian marriage is meant to be from the moment we make those vows and take the first dancing steps, and for the rest of our lives -- a means of grace in which the water of daily life becomes the wine of eternal life, and in which even every-day Ceylon Tea can sparkle and refresh.

John de Gruchy
Volmoed 12 January 2017

Thursday, 5 January 2017


Matthew 2:1-12
"Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another route."

I was never keen to be a Wiseman in the Sunday School Christmas pageant.  How embarrassing it was!  Dressing up in an old dressing gown, with an apology of a turban on my head and a broomstick in my hand, I processed into the church singing "We three kings of Orient are," without having a clue what the Orient was, or why there were three kings and a star that kept moving, and what this had to do with anything at all.  But now that I am wiser I marvel at the story and keep on finding new clues in the text as to its meaning.  So I am delighted each year when Epiphany comes round, the festival of the light of God breaking through the cracks into the darkness of the world in Christ, and the traditional time to recall the visit of the sages from the East to the Christ-child in Bethlehem.

They had come a long way, from somewhere in modern day Iran then known as Persia. They were astrologers, maybe Zoroastrians by religion, so following  bright stars in search of the truth and meaning of life was familiar to them.  They were already men of spiritual wisdom, mystics if you like.  But their journey was about to begin in a new way.  Their lives would not be the same after they had seen the child, for it was only then that the light transformed all that they had previously known, lifting it into a new dimension.  What they saw in Bethlehem changed the course of their lives forever.    

On their way to Bethlehem these Wisemen stopped in Jerusalem to visit king Herod.  It was more than a courtesy call to Trump Towers.  They wanted information about the birth of a king and Herod they presumed would be able to give it to them.  Herod was frightened by their request.  He knew he was not popular, he knew that there were Zealots out to get him and usurp his throne in a coup.  But he was also cunning.  He got his aides to Google "birth of a king," and they informed him and the Wisemen to take the camel highway to Bethlehem.  But Herod also told the Wisemen to report back when they found the new born king.  So the Wisemen continued their journey.  The star did not stay in Jerusalem the seat place of worldly power and authority; it only paused for a nodding moment.  There is no light where the Herods of this world rule, only fear and cunning when they know that their time is up.  Darkness cannot tolerate the light.

Fortunately the Wisemen trusted their dreams more than they trusted Herod. They knew that once Herod knew where the light was he would send his minions to extinguish it.  It is always so.  The powers of darkness want to destroy the light before it enlightens too many people.  So once these wise sages found the child born to be king and presented their gifts, once they had seen the Christ-child, the light of the world, they continued their journey, returning home, but by another route.  They were not going to play Herod's game.  They had paid their respects to the king, but they saw through his deceit,  Herod was not to be trusted. 

As Christians we respect the office of kings, presidents and prime ministers, but respect for their office is not the same as trusting their word.    We may respect the office of Zuma, Trump, Putin, Mugabe and Netanyahu, but that does not mean we have to approve what they say and do, meekly bow the knee and obey their instructions. We know they survive through political cunning not godly wisdom.  And in any case, they will lose their power, and like all of us they are dust and to dust they will return, even if they have state funerals and are embalmed and buried in Pyramids.  They are not the Wisemen in God's world, powerful for the moment undoubtedly, shrewd and cunning quite obviously, men who know their way around and how to influence people, of course..  But they are not wise.  They could be, but it would mean leaving their palaces for a time and  journeying with the Wisemen to seek the light, acknowledging the truth that was born in Bethlehem -- God's power and wisdom lying in a manger.  This is what all the truly wise go in search of -- a king who is humble, vulnerable, the very embodiment of the wisdom of God,  The contrast between Jerusalem and Bethlehem could not have been greater then, it is still so today.  Truth resides in Bethlehem's manger, falsehood in Jerusalem's palace; love and integrity in Bethlehem; integrity not duplicitous cunning, and false power in Jerusalem.  Wisemen are always let to Bethlehem even if they visit Jerusalem on the way.

We have journeyed with the Wisemen to Bethlehem.  We have celebrated Christmas, the birth of the child, the coming of the light into the darkness of the world of power and corruption.  Now we are back on our journey.  We don't know where this journey will take us as a new year begins.  We hope it may be better that the last year, and we eagerly grasp hold of the predictions of those who say it will be.  But we don't know yet.  All we know is that there is a journey ahead of us, a journey to our ultimate home and destination.  Yet we do know something else.  To get home we have to bypass Herod and his headquarters in Jerusalem.  We can't depend on the Herods of this world to get us home, anymore than Americans can depend Trump or South Africans on Zuma.  We may no longer have the star to guide us, but we have the light to inform our path.  That light always shines in the darkness, for the darkness did not then, and cannot now, comprehend or overcome the light.

John de Gruchy
5 January 2017.


Friday, 23 December 2016

Meditation: GOD IS WITH US by John de Gruchy


Matthew 1:18-23
"They shall name him Immanuel, which means 'God is with us.'"

We all know the familiar Christmas stories found in the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke's Gospels.  There we read  about Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and Wisemen, and the rest of the Christmas tableaux.  Mark says nothing about any of this, nor does John.  But in the prologue to John's Gospel we are taken behind the scene into the deep meaning of Christmas.  John speaks about the Word who was with God from the beginning becoming flesh and dwelling among us full of grace and truth.  This puts Christmas into a cosmic context.  But how do we connect the Christmas story with this breathtaking announcement that the creative Word which brought everything into being became one of us?  Matthew makes the connection for us. He tells us that the baby born in Bethlehem is "Emmanuel," "God is with us," not God against us, not remote from, but God with and for us.  

This is a dramatic declaration.  It is not how God is generally understood in the world where power is seldom determined by love or shaped by justice.  It is even more dramatic when it is said of a baby born out of wedlock to a young girl and a carpenter in a stable in a small unimportant Palestinian village that has no pretentions to glory, but is the site of  this audacious claim that is the foundation of all else that flows from Christian faith.  It is also goes far beyond the boundaries of Christianity or religion for it has to do with what it means for us humans to be made in the image of God.

From the beginning of the human story billions of years ago we humans  have tried to understand who we are, as well as understand the mystery of the One in whom we live, move and have our being, the mystery we call God.  These two questions,  who are we and who is the mysterious source of life, have always belonged together.  But they come together in the Christmas story.  For we Christians believe that it is only when we journey with the shepherds and Wisemen to Bethlehem to see what has has come to pass", that we discover that the answer to both our questions at the same time, an answer lying in a manger.   For if this child is God with us, if this is the icon of the invisible God, as St. Paul says, then we who are made in the image of God are meant to be conformed to his image.

The declaration made in Genesis that we are made in the "image of God" was startling when it was first uttered and it remains startling.  It means that if we are to know who God is we must first learn to know ourselves.  For without knowledge of ourselves, knowledge of how we have evolved and what we have become, knowledge of God is not possible.  Yet the more we do this, the more difficult our quest becomes because God's image in us has been so defaced and distorted.  So much so, in fact, that if we think of God as a big one of us, then God becomes a bad father, a God of war, a God who demands human sacrifice, a God who is capricious, a God who gets angry, greedy and vengeful, a God who seems absent not with those who suffer in Syria.  A God who is against us, against the world, against humanity.  Yes, we continually make God according to our broken sinful image.   So we end up worshipping idols and fail to recognise the true image of God in us and others, which is about being with and loving our neighbour, our enemy, and creation itself, and therefore loving God as ourselves.  When we fail to discern and respect the true image of the God in us and others, we turn disliking the other, rejecting the other, hating the other, and we even call on God's name to support us in doing so. The image of God in us is defaced as we deface others.

But into this messy world hungry for good news we hear again the message of Christmas, as startling as the first time it was heard.  A child will be born and he shall be called Emmanuel, God is with and for us.   Instead of us trying to find God, or searching for the ultimate meaning of life elsewhere, the good news is that the true image of God has been born again in a baby in Bethlehem.  There, in the language of St. Paul, is a "second Adam" in whom we are able to see again the true image of God, the "icon of the invisible God" as Paul also refers to him.  He is the human face of the God. This is precisely what Charles Wesley invites us to sing about in his great Christmas carol "Hark! the herald angels sing,"

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

The restoration of the image of God in us begins, then, with the birth of a baby in whom God's power is revealed in weakness, and the wisdom of God made manifest in what the world counts foolishness.  Already in the manger the cross is prefigured, overturning all our assumptions about God.  Christmas is about the vulnerability of God, God's identification with us in our fallen humanity.  It is the good news of God's love, joy and peace for the world.  Christmas heralds the beginning of a new creation, the offer of  a fresh start for humankind.  When by faith we truly see the image of God made flesh in Jesus we receive the ability to see God's image in the face of others and discover God's way of redemptive love for the world. That is why we declare that in Christ God reconciles the world to himself.  In the Christ-child we not only discover the God who is with us, we also discover our true humanity in being with God for others.  We are born again.

If we journey in faith and wonder with the shepherds,  the humble men and women of all ages, or follow the star with the wise men and women of every generation, and hasten to see this thing that has come to pass, then it is that we discover that the God who is with and for us is the God who enables us to discover ourselves in being with and for others.  For there in the little town of Bethlehem a miracle occurred that is as amazing as the birth of the first human being.  For the gift of Christmas is a second chance for the world, the offer to us all to receive this gift and start again as children in whom the image of God is reborn.  For if God so loved the world that he became one of us to make us whole again, so ought we to love the world in order that through us God might make others whole. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  22 December 2016

Thursday, 15 December 2016



Luke 2:8-14
"Do not be afraid; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people."

Last Sunday evening Isobel and I watched a recent TV adaptation of Peter Pan and Wendy, the famous book by J.M. Barrie.  Entitled Peter and Wendy, the story is retold through the imagination of a young girl named Lucy who is about to receive hospital treatment for a serious heart condition. Prior to her operation, which nearly ends in her death, Lucy reads Barrie's book to a group of other seriously ill children in hospital.  And then, as she sleeps that night before her operation, she dreams the story.  It is, as one commentator puts it, a "startling fantasy of a brave, imaginative and utterly modern young girl who fears her illness might mean that she, like Peter Pan, may never grow up." 

You probably know the story well from your own childhood, and may have read it to your children -- or grandchildren. It is all about children dreaming of remaining children forever in Neverland. They dream of never having to grow up and take on adult responsibilities, like being parents themselves.  Sadly, the young son of James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, died young.  He never grew up.  Which is the reason why Barrie wrote the book. But otherwise we all have to grow up, we cannot live forever in Neverland.  We have to leave our childhood behind. 

But every year as Christmas approaches we are all invited to become children again with all children, and hear the angels sing and rediscover the joy of Christmas.  We might have left our childish naiveté behind, but there is the need to discover the importance of a second naiveté, not being childish but becoming childlike again.  This means recovering the ability to imagine and working for  a different world. A world of faith in a time of cynicism, a world of hope in a time of fear, and a world of love in a time of hate.  Yes, especially at this moment as the people of Aleppo suffer so terribly, and  where the dreams of children have become nightmares, we have to celebrate Christmas and dream with them for a world of peace on earth.  To celebrate Christmas means, in fact, that we refuse to surrender to the Herods of this world who make war, sow hatred, and cause children to suffer.  We dare not be like Scrooge in Dickens' Christmas Carol, who pooh-poohed all this celebration Christmas as romantic nonsense. "If I could work my will," he shouted to the Ghost of Bob Marley, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart."  No, we turn our backs on both Herod and Scrooge and go with the Shepherds to Bethlehem to celebrate the joy of the birth of Christ.  

But even without Scrooge to make us all miserable, it is sometimes very difficult to be merry at Christmas if you have lost a loved one during the year, or suffered serious illness, or you are lying in bed with pain, or separated by distance from your family, or living in poverty and surrounded by violence.  But, then, being joyful is something deeper than being merry. We can still have a joyful Christmas even if it is full of sadness, or even anger at those who are responsible for war and violence. Mary's joy at the birth of Jesus was qualified by her premonition that he would one day suffer, and that she would have to bear that pain with him.  Mary's joy remained even when she and Joseph fled as refugees into Egypt.  Being joyful at Christmas with Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds is celebrating the birth of new possibilities, new hope for the world, and affirming the power of love as that will finally conquer all.  For this is what the message of Christmas is about, and why we should not be afraid but be joyful.

There was a line in Peter and Wendy that struck me as I was thinking about how we can celebrate Christmas joyfully: "parents remember to keep the window open!"  That is, keep them open so that your children can fly out into their dream world, yet always find their way home when reality strikes and the time of dreaming comes to an end.  But we also need to keep our windows open so that the Spirit of Christ can enter our homes and lives to drive out the demons of despair and fear, cynicism and hatred, and fill us with the joy of Christmas. 

But this also this means allowing Christ  to bring with him through the window all those he wants to bring to the party to share our joy.   We might not be able to do much for all those Syrian children whose faces are etched with hunger and pain, but let us at least make Christmas joyful for all those children within our reach so they may experience the love of God which came to earth on Christmas day. And, then, what about those who have been shut out of our lives during the year?  What about those whom we have wronged, or who have in some way wronged us, people from whom we have become estranged?  Is Christmas not the time to open our windows so that they may return with Christ into our lives through forgiveness and acceptance?  Christmas becomes joyful when we embrace them with the love of Christ, for that is why Christ was born in the first place -- to reconcile us to God and one another.  

Yet the circle of embrace extends further, in fact the window needs to be opened as wide as possible so that Christ can bring others into our midst as well.  Those we too often forget, those for whom Christmas means being lonely, those in hospital, those too poor to make Christmas special for their children, those who live in fear, those who are victims of injustice and violence, those who are calling for a "black Christmas" because there is still far too much corruption and racism in our land. 

Imagine if we all became like children again this Christmas!  Imagine if we dreamed dreams of a better world and committed ourselves to making it so.  Imagine if we opened wide our windows to allow Christ to come and join our celebrations and bring with him those he wants us to meet and embrace.  There is no reason why we can't have both a merry and a joyful Christmas, but if it is only merry and not joyful then we have forgotten what it is all about.  Christ brings joy to the world and invites us to share that joy with him and therefore with all for whom he came to seek and save.

"Do not be afraid; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people."

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 15 December 2016