Sunday, 18 January 2015

Meditation: CHRISTIAN CHARLIES by John de Gruchy


Galatians 5:1, 13-15
Matthew 23:13:24

For freedom Christ has set us free...only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert  twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

A new slogan has been violently born: Je suis Charlie! I am Charlie, an  outcome of the  murderous attack by militant Jahadists on the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo last week.  Within hours Je suis Charlie was adopted around the world by millions of people who came out in solidarity with those who had been killed and in defence of the freedom of speech.  Yesterday over five million copies of the newspaper were sold, and it was as defiant and outspoken as ever.

Charlie Hebdo (Hebdo means a weekly magazine.)  was founded  in 1969 with the name Hara-Kiri Hebdo. In November 1970 it was banned when it joked about the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle.  It then published under its present name inspired by Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame, and became Charlie Hebdo.  By 1981 Charlie had closed down for lack of support, but ten years later it restarted and began attacking religious fundamentalism, in fact, religion of any kind, and declared itself to be an atheist paper.  In 2006 it gained global notoriety when it published images of the Prophet Mohammed drawn by a Danish cartoonist.  Muslims in France were deeply offended and took Charlie Hebdo to court but lost the case.  Four years later its offices were fire bombed after naming Mohammed their "editor-in-chief" and saying: "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter".  Charlie also depicted Pope Benedict XVI in amorous embrace with a Vatican guard; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy looking like a sick vampire; and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.

Now you might well be asking what has this to do with a meditation at the Eucharist, so let me refer to the gospel passage we read today in which Jesus pours scorn on the hypocrisy of the religious fundamentalists of his day. ”Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert  twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." The whole of chapter 23 in Matthew's gospel has the same message.  And on several occasions Jesus pokes fun at religious leaders and practices which dehumanize people and corrupt politicians who line their own purses.  No wonder he was attacked in return and accused of blasphemy, a charge which soon led to his death.

Christians have good reason, then, to support those who satirize corrupt rulers or bad religion, and make us cry tears of laughter at human folly.  When the comic strip Charlie Brown was at the height of its popularity someone even wrote a book called The Gospel according to Peanuts.  In fact, Christ depicted as a clown, as Charlie if you like, is part of Christian tradition precisely because it is through being foolish that he reveals the wisdom of God.  In Dostoevsky's great novel The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, the idiot, is a figure of Christ. So we  Christians can say with a good conscience "I am Charlie!" and salute cartoonists like Zapiro, and satirists like Pieter Dirk Uys.  And we should not take umbrage when Christianity is lampooned if we deserve it.  We do well to laugh at our foibles, misdeeds and idiosyncrasies.  But even if some caricatures of Christ are blasphemous,as they might well be, we do not kill those who draw them, or stone people who take his name in vain .  And we don't do so for Christ's sake who taught us to love even our enemies.  How foolish can you get!

Christ has set us free to be Charlies, then, but we are called not to abuse our freedom. The freedom Christ gives us is not to do what we like irrespective of the consequences, but the freedom to act responsibly for the common good.   This means that our primary concern is loving our neighbour, building relationships, nurturing community, working for reconciliation and a just peace.  After all, even the founding principles of the French Republic are not just liberty, but also equality and fraternity, and fraternity is about love for the neighbour if it means anything. There are, in other words, boundaries and limits to freedom which are determined by love for the other. 

So in defending the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, as Christian Charlies we draw the line at what is deemed hate speech, speech which denigrates and dehumanizes others, speech which puts the lives of innocent people at risk.  It may be difficult sometimes to draw that line because who is to say when it has been crossed.  But as Christians we have to risk making a judgment if we are to be followers of Christ.  In the current euphoria of being Charlies, we dare not lose our critical faculties and that means being critical of Charlie Hebdo if necessary.  As one of the leaders of AVAAZ, the on-line human rights pressure group that stands for the freedom of the press,  has said, some of "the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are offensive, racist and purposely inflammatory."  

While we must applaud the remarkable show of unity amongst the millions who marched in Paris in support of freedom, bringing together Jews, Muslims, Christians and secularists, something that will hopefully lead to better relations in France and elsewhere, we should not be blind to the hypocrisy in evidence.  There were some political leaders who led the march who are not defenders of free speech, and are many others who are using the attack on Charlie Hebdo to stir up anti-Islamism in pursuit of their own dubious agendas.  And let us not forget that some of those responsible for this awful deed in Paris were of Algerian descendent, and that Algeria was for long a colony of France often ruled by violent force.  The French Foreign Legion, the shock troops in the region, were mostly criminals and  by no means  paragons of virtue.  In fact, the Algerian war of not so long ago, was brutal, and we are now witnessing some of its consequences. This does not justify in any way what the Jihadist criminals did in Paris or elsewhere, nothing can do that, but it reminds us that the cycle of violence that arises out of conquest, resistance and repression lies at the heart of the crisis we face.  It is not a conflict between religions, but the abuse of religion in serving other agendas through destructive rhetoric and violent attacks on innocent people.  The crisis we face is certainly a clash between fundamentalism and democratic values, but it is also the consequence of the brutalization of a generation of the dispossessed.

We live in sobering times.  As Christian we need to defend the freedoms we have and support those who exercise them.  But we need to use our freedoms responsibly, seeking to speak the truth in ways that humanize rather than dehumanise, build up and not just break down, reconcile and not alienate.   Jesus calls us to break the cycle of violence in the struggle for justice, and the healing of human and social brokenness.   We are Charlies, to be sure, but we are Charlies for Christ's sake. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 14 January 2015

Monday, 12 January 2015


II Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 5:1-8

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

There are some days when, on awakening, my first words are "bless you!"  It's not because I am being pious or even expressing my affection for Isobel even on our 54th Wedding Anniversary; it is because the abbot who lives next door has woken up the Valley and me with a loud sneeze! 

Why is it that we say "bless you!" to someone who has just sneezed?  I went in search of an answer this past week and discovered that, according to legend, the custom began with Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century during a plague that was ravaging Rome.  People who were showing signs of the plague, one of which was uncontrollable sneezing, were brought to him for healing.  So the practice began: you sneeze, I bless!"  That already gives us a clue to its meaning.   There is, in fact, a long list of words used in virtually all languages, from Albananian to Zulu, in response to people who sneeze, and they invariably mean "may you be healthy." To be blessed is about well-being.  To bless others is to pray that God will make them whole.

As children in Sunday School we use to belt out a chorus "Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done!"  Back then I had little idea about what blessing really meant.  I assumed we were taught the chorus to keep us grateful for mom and dad, my dog Chippy, my Mechano set and bicycle, and for food on the table.  So we asked a blessing before meals, my parents gave me their blessing when I set off into the wide world, just as they gave my sister their blessing when she got married.  And then on Sundays we had even more blessings when the minister blessed babies with the time honoured Aaronic words: "The Lord bless you and keep you..." And then sent us on our way with a final blessing: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!"  Yes, there was every reason to count and name my blessings one by one because somehow they made you feel good.  And that is another clue to its meaning.  To be blessed is not only to be well, but also to be happy because you can be well but not happy. To be a blessing to others, to take it one step further, is to help make them truly happy as well.

But what is happiness?  People will differ in their definitions of happiness, and philosophers have long debated its meaning.  So it is not surprising that Jesus taught his followers what it truly meant for him in what we call the Beatitudes which Matthew records in his gospel.   Each one begins with the Greek word makarios which literally means "happy."  The happy are not the rich and powerful, but the humble peacemakers who work for God's justice in the world.  The happy are the pure in heart, that is, those who seek to do what is right and good.  Even those who mourn or are persecuted are called happy.  Clearly Jesus has turned happiness upside down and in so doing given happiness a much deeper meaning than normally understood.

Isobel and I received a very special blessing recently from a lady named Hannah van Rensburg we don't even know.  She wrote us a letter and  this is what she told us.  She is now 85 years old, but she was born and brought up in the Hemel en Aarde Valley on a little farm called "Dawn" -- the name of her mother.  From this small farm she walked everyday along the old sand road to Braemar School, now the office of the Hamilton Russel Wine Farm, where she was taught by Aunt Chrissie Havenga.  Her father, Andries de Villiers, planted the original blue gum trees along the road to provide shade for the children as they walked to and from school.  Most people in the Valley, white and coloured were poor but they learnt to share what they had.  Each day drinking water was brought to the farms on donkey or horse drawn carts.  Her mother drove a large Cape cart pulled by Clydesdale horses to take wild and garden flowers from their farm into the hotels in Hermanus.   "It was during those years" she wrote, "that a very deep love grew in my heart for the Hemel en Aarde Valley."She continued:  "On or near Volmoed lived Oom Lisa and Aunt Bessie Langenhoven who took a very keen interest in this little, sickly child."  Sadly, she told us: "When "Dawn" had to be sold as my parents were getting on in years, my mother, after signing the Deed of Sale and approaching "Dawn" with the cart, looked up at "Dawn" and prayed:

Dear Lord, please bless little "Dawn" and let it be a blessing to others too."

"Dawn" later became the Rudolf Steiner School and then Camphill.  So how come we received this lovely letter with all its blessings.  The clue came next in her letter:  "When I read the Volmoed Journey (that is, the book Isobel and I wrote for the twentieth anniversary of Volmoed) I find myself once more in 'my' valley.  In my mind I walk up to my 'klipkoppie' behind the old 'Dawn' homestead where I used to pick 'Painted Ladies.'"  Then she exclaimed "Isn't God wonderful!  Even to this day he is blessing 'Dawn' and my whole valley with his love and kindness...I am so happy to know that God has blessed Mummy's little prayer of so many years ago so beautifully.  Thank you so much for looking after our beloved valley with so much love."   Isn't that a remarkable letter out of the blue from a lady of 85 who lived as a child in our Valley, and whose mother asked a blessing on all who might come to live here? 

When, at the end of our worship we say the grace together, we are asking for God's blessing on each of us as we leave this place in a very special sense.   In doing so we turn to each other because we are saying to each in turn may God make and keep you happy and healthy, but not in any superficial way.  We may not always be happy or healthy in the way we would like to be, but God's blessing goes beyond that.  God's blessing rests on us in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer.  God's blessing is the giving of his grace, love and Spirit for our journey no matter what might come our way.  It is about health and happiness, but at a deeper level than we might first think.  We do not know whether 2015 will bring us the health and happiness we would like, we hope that it will, but we also pray that as we journey into the coming days we will be blessed with grace, love and strength to live in ways that might renew our souls and help us be a blessing to others.  Greet one another, as Paul says, with a holy kiss!  And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. And may we all have a blessed New Year. 

John de Gruchy

Volmoed  8th January 2015

Monday, 22 December 2014

Meditation: KEEP AWAKE! by John de Gruchy


Matthew 24:36-44
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming!

Last Friday, a large trailer truck carrying two million Rands worth of Creation wines down the Hemel en Aarde Valley road, crashed through the trees on the bend above our house, and turned over.  It was a total wreck.  Most of the splendid bottles of wine were ruined.  There is a rumour going round that I had ordered the wine but gave the driver the wrong instructions . So he took  a short cut in order to bring the stuff to our front door, which he nearly did.  But that is patently untrue.  Nor did I go up to the truck in the middle of Friday night to try and steal some undamaged crates.  What is true is that even during the Christmas season unexpected and often dangerous or unwelcome things happen.  Boomslangs arrive unannounced, and fanatics take innocent people hostage.  Who knows what surprises, pleasant or otherwise, are around the corner.  It's important to keep awake, as Jesus says, even if some of us can't even watch the TV for more than five minutes without dozing off.

But more serious things are at stake in this parable of Jesus at the end of Matthew's gospel, for it is part of a sequence on the last judgment. "Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore for you do not know on what day our Lord is coming."  These words are a warning that the day of judgment will arrive at an unexpected, inconvenient time.  So you had better be prepared.  Taken very literally, that is the message of a series of thirteen novels by  Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins entitled  Left Behind,  some of which were rated   #1 best sellers in the New York Times a few years ago. The novels  are fictional accounts of the end times, when Jesus returns and, in what is called the Rapture, takes all true born again believers up into the clouds to be safely ensconced with him  in heaven.  The rest are left behind.  No some might mischievously think that they would prefer to be left behind with all the other sinners rather than travel with all born-again believers.  But not if you know about what comes next.  For now the world falls into total moral collapse until it erupts in the final battle between the few good people left behind and the Anti-Christ who turns out to be the General Secretary of the United Nations aided and abetted by the Pope.  The point of the novels is obviously to evangelise people through fear so they too can escape with Jesus from being left behind, and at the same time to send out a clear right-wing militaristic political message.  Such interpretations of Jesus' Second Coming or Advent are nothing new, but they are dangerous.

But, having said that, the Second Coming is part of Christian belief and central in the NT.  As the Creed puts it: "He will come again to judge the living and the dead."  It is also one of the mysteries of faith we affirm at the Eucharist: "Christ will come again," and as we break the bread, we do so, as we say, "until he comes." The early Christians certainly believed that Jesus would return soon, that is why they cried out "Maranatha! Come quickly Lord Jesus!"  But what does this  mean today after two thousand years of keeping awake and waiting, only to be disappointed again and again?  Even Paul had to deal with this problem, and did so by reminding believers that God's time-table is not ours.

There are various ways in which the Second Coming has been interpreted.  For me the place to start is with Jesus' prayer: "your will be done on earth as in heaven."  "Heaven," as we know,  does not refer to a place to which we are taken up on "clouds", it refers to the reign or kingdom of God.  Heaven is wherever God's justice, righteousness, love, forgiveness and compassion are evident.  Heaven is where God's will is done whether in this life or the next.  So when we pray with Jesus "your will be done on earth" we are praying with him for the coming of God's reign in all its fullness, we are praying with the prophets for the birth of a new creation; we are expressing our faith in Jesus as the one in whom God's reign, already revealed in the first coming, will be brought to completion at the appropriate time in the second. In short, we do not believe that Jesus gave his life for the world in vain.

Sometimes, maybe often, it is difficult to hold on to this belief for the world does not seem to be getting better, but rather worse.  The events of our day in Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and even Australia, don't encourage us to believe that "all shall be well" in the end.  But that is the Christian hope. To  believe in the Second Coming is to live expectantly in the hope that God's promise in Jesus will ultimately triumph.  It means living and working for the coming of God's kingdom even though we do not know when  that might be or how it will come about.  That is why we have to  "keep awake," watching and praying, witnessing and serving, because all of this points towards the coming of God's reign.  In other words, faith in the Second Advent is a way of living in hope, of erecting small sign-posts of the kingdom that point ahead to its eventual coming.  In fact, everything we do now that embodies the love of Christ, everything that expresses God's justice, mercy and compassion, is an anticipation of the Second Advent.  Even though we do not know when the Lord will come, we keep awake by doing his will.

And, now, if this brief meditation has induced slumber instead of waking you up,  let me remind you that there is exactly only one week to go before Christmas!  So keep awake, not just to get everything ready, but by sharing the good news of Christ's gift of love and peace on earth.  That is how we live expectantly.  For the rest, you can safely leave the Second Advent in God's hands.  It is one of God's surprises, a genuine mystery of faith, something that will happen unexpectedly.  But you need not fear being left behind if you keep awake and share in Jesus' ministry of healing  and love, justice  and peace today This is the message of Christmas; it is also the message of God's coming kingdom.  

John de Gruchy

Volmoed 18 December 2014

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Meditation: THE LION AND LAMB by John de Gruchy

Revelation 5:1-5; 11-14
John 1:29-31
See, the Lion has conquered.
Worthy is the Lamb to receive power

In the final verses of the Book of Revelation we are warned that we should not take away or tamper with the words of the book for if we do we will forfeit our share in the tree of life in the holy city, the New Jerusalem!  The problem is many people find it difficult if not impossible to understand what Revelation it is all about, it all seems bizarre and grotesque.  So we generally disregard it.  This was a problem from the beginning, for there was much debate in the early church about whether or not the Revelation should be included in the New Testament.  But there it is, bringing the Bible to its conclusion with the resounding, the Advent cry, "Maranatha!" "Come, Lord Jesus!"

The Book of Revelation was not written to be read literally.  Like Tolkien's  The Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis' the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when you read Revelation you enter a world of symbol and metaphor. And necessarily so.  It is written in code language precisely because its message is subversive.  It was written to provide encouragement to Christians in their struggle to be faithful witnesses to God's kingdom at a time of intense persecution by the Roman Empire.  Revelation remains a subversive book in the ongoing struggle between people of faith who witness to God's reign of justice and peace, and those powerful empires and corporations that are corrupt and oppress the weak and the poor.   As such the Book of Revelation speaks to Christians in all times and places, for it is a call to remain faithful in bearing witness to the good news of Jesus despite opposition and persecution.   

Jesus takes centre stage in the unfolding drama described in Revelation.  But his significance is described by the use of two subversive metaphors: the Lamb and the Lion, both of which occur in the passage we read this morning.  If you think that Jesus is literally a lamb and a lion, and even more, both at the same time,  then you won't get off first base as they say in baseball, let alone understand what is going on.  You would certainly miss their subversive significance, indeed, the meaning of the Advent cry "Maranatha!"  "Come, Lord Jesus!"  Come to reign, to judge corruption and put evil to flight.

Louis de Blois, the abbot of a monastery in France in the sixteenth century, once wrote that Jesus comes to us in three ways.  He first comes at Christmas as a Lamb, he then comes at the end of the ages as a Lion, and he comes everyday as a Friend.  In his first coming he is the sacrificial Lamb who offers his life for the salvation of the world.  In the words of John the Baptist:  "Here is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world."   In his second coming Jesus is the King of kings who comes to judge the earth with righteousness and justice.  This signals the final victory of good over evil.   And between these two advents, Jesus  comes everyday as our Friend to stand in solidarity with those who stand for truth and justice or are oppressed. 

Each week as we celebrate the Eucharist together we recall the words of John the Baptist in proclaiming the significance of the first Advent: "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us."  That is, we acknowledge Jesus as the one who gives his life fully and totally for us in order to redeem and make us whole.  Of course, we know that Jesus is also referred to as the Good Shepherd,  a wonderful example of a mixed metaphor, for how can one person literally be both shepherd and sheep?  But we need to keep in mind that Shepherds in the Old Testament often refer to the rulers of Israel, and not all of them were good shepherds, some were decidedly bad,  The Good Shepherd by contrast is the one as gives his life for the sheep.  Suddenly the mixed metaphor makes sense.  The Good Shepherd identified so fully with his sheep, especially the lost, that he becomes the Lamb "that was slaughtered" on their behalf.   Shepherd becomes the sacrificial lamb, the Lord of the manor becomes the servant, God becomes a vulnerable baby, the Messiah dies a terrible death on a cross because he proclaims God's righteousness and justice against the pretensions and corruptions of the Empire.  And in doing so he "is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, and honour and glory and blessing."

So we turn to the metaphor of the Lion, the animal that tops the list of the Big Five and who in all mythology and poetry, as in the Bible, is the King not only of the Beasts in the Jungle, but the King of who comes to judge the earth with righteousness and justice.  Lions were common in ancient Israel, and the lion image is often used as the symbol of royalty, the one before whom we fall down in homage.  So when the three wise men or kings from the East arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the new born King, they first went to the court of king Herod, the representative of the Empire.  But they soon realised their mistake.  He was a bad, evil shepherd!  The Lion of Judah was not in Jerusalem the seat of imperial power, but in Bethlehem.  The Lion was, in fact, the Lamb!  And so it is at the Second Advent,  as the Book of Revelation describes, it is the Lamb who is on the throne, the the Lamb is the Lion King who comes again to reign and judge with righteousness and justice.

This is bad news for  those who rule unjustly, those who strut about the forest of the world like lions, and are feared by all.  But the good news is that this Lion who comes to judge the earth is at heart a Lamb, the judge who is truly a Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep and restores justice.  People fear the Second Coming of Christ who comes to judge the world because they think it means a change in Jesus' character.  The Lamb who was once our friend, has become a roaring Lion who is our adversary!   But no, the text says that it is the Lamb who sits on the throne who will judge us.  Jesus does not change character.  The One who comes in humility as the babe in Bethlehem is the One who will come to judge the world.  He will certainly judge the evil empire with justice just as he condemned those who oppressed the poor during his life. But his justice is restorative.  This is the good news, our judge is on our side, against evil but not against us.  The Lion is the Lamb who "takes away the sins of the world," not the judge who eternally condemns the lost sheep. "Maranatha!" "Come, Lord Jesus!"

John de Gruchy
Volmoed  Advent II. 

13 November 2014.