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Saturday, 2 June 2012

13th May Readings and Sermon

Reading from Christopher Sande thoughts on Jewish Festivals of today..
Lag B’Omer (30th day of counting the Omer) May 10
This minor but very joyful festival has grown over the last few decades, under the influence of the Hassidic and Sephardi populations in Israel, into quite a big occasion. The day primarily marks the anniversary of the death of the first century Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is credited with a revelation that brought to the Jewish people much of the mystical tradition which eventually ended up in the book: The Zohar, and in the birth of Kabbalah. Indeed it is commonly believed in Orthodox circles that the Zohar was revealed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and written down by him.
Within Israel there are pilgrimages to the grave of the Rabbi, in the Galilean town of Meron and all over the world bonfires are lit to symbolise the light that his teachings brought into the world. The period of counting the Omer between Passover and Lag B’Omer has become quite sombre, in commemoration of a period in which thousands of the disciples of the first/second century Rabbi Akiva died, and Lag B’Omer is the date, which tradition holds as marking the end of that tragic period, thereby adding to the festivity of the day.
This festival dates from after the life and death of Jesus.

Story time..

About two and a half centuries ago, there lived in Kosov a wealthy textile merchant named Reb Moshe. He lived in the best section of the city, in a luxurious mansion on a huge estate, on which grassy lawns, lush gardens, and orchards of fruit trees all flourished. Basically a simple person, his innate humility seemed to remain unaffected even as his wealth grew from year to year. But then, one day, an unusual idea entered his mind and took hold of his heart. Moshe had become possessed by the desire to experience a revelation of Elijah the Prophet.
Not that he was under the illusion that because of his wealth he was entitled, at present, to see Elijah. He knew better than that. So to become "worthy" of attaining his objective, he undertook a series of fasts and other forms of deprivations and self-afflictions, hoping that would enable him to fulfill his wish.
But to no avail.
He started to keep company with the chasidim and the other strictly religious people in the community, emulating their ways. He hoped that their superior spiritual attainments would rub off on him and his resultant elevation would allow him to attain his goal.
That also didn't work.
Your task is to perform acts of kindness and charity….
Unsure what to try next, he decided to consult the local tzadik, Rabbi Boruch of Kosov. TheRebbe listened intently, but, to Moshe's dismay, then said, "Reb Moshe, why are you trying to pursue such lofty matters? Your task is to perform acts of kindness and charity - that's what your soul requires for its rectification." Moshe left the Rebbe's room, frustrated. He still felt sure that he knew what he really needed.
From that day on, Moshe the merchant's behavior changed radically. He abandoned his business for hours at a time in order to be in the BeitMidrash. He no longer paid much attention to his personal appearance or the upkeep of his estate, abandoning almost completely the aristocratic lifestyle he had adapted over the years.
After some time, he went to visit the tzadik again. Eyes downcast, the dark shadow of depression on his face, it was clear he was deeply troubled. His desire to see the prophet left him no peace. As he told the rebbe of his frustrations, he involuntarily emitted a deep sigh.
The rebbe repeated his advice that the proper path for Moshe was that of kindness and good deeds. This time, however, he seemed to accept Moshe's sincerity, and advised him to greatly increase his distribution oftzedaka. Then, after a pause, the Rebbe added mysteriously, "If a poor man should approach you and request even a thousand gold pieces, don't refrain from granting his request."
A pathetic-looking, poverty-stricken man had knocked on the door of the house, begging for help….
Moshe, once again, felt belittled by the Rebbe's reply. Nevertheless, he decided to adhere closely to his counsel. Any poor person that crossed Moshe's path was immediately endowed with a generous contribution, without any delay to check the recipient's worthiness. For several years, Moshe conducted himself in this manner, but still there was no revelation of Elijah. His frustration gave him no rest.
One day, while he was busy at work with a number of different customers, a messenger arrived from his house telling him that a pathetic-looking, poverty-stricken man had knocked on the door of the house, begging for help. The pauper, however, had refused to accept the food that a servant had brought. Instead, the pauper had insisted that he be invited into the dining hall so he could sit and eat there. Reb Moshe's wife wasn't sure how to handle the situation, so she had sent to ask her husband's advice.
At first Moshe was outraged by the needy man's chutzpah. But then, remembering the Rebbe's counsel, he instructed the messenger simply to tell his wife that he would come home as soon as he could, and that in the meantime she should fulfill the stranger's unusual request and invite him in. When he arrived about an hour later, he found his wife pacing near the entrance, exasperated, impatiently awaiting him. As soon as she saw him she burst out bitterly, "Not even sitting in our dining hall satisfies this beggar; he demanded to take a nap in our bedroom!"
…How about a little donation?
Moshe dashed upstairs to the master bedroom. He could barely believe the sight that greeted him: a disheveled crude-looking person, wearing what seemed to be more rags and patches than actual clothing, sprawled across his bed, with the stains and remains of his meal spread all over himself - on the hitherto fresh linens. As Moshe stood there with bulging eyes and mouth opened wide, the "guest" looked up at him and drawled, "Nu? So how about a little donation? A modest, insignificant sum - only a measly thousand gold pieces."
Moshe wasn't sure whether to erupt in anger or burst into laughter. He was so taken aback, he felt powerless to move or speak; he could only stand there in stunned silence.
"If you won't give me right now one thousand cash, I won't leave!" announced the strange beggar defiantly.
Moshe calmed down a bit from his initial shock. Deciding to ignore the insult to his honor, he simply offered the man a lesser sum. "Fifty...a hundred fifty...." Eventually he offered him 200 gulden - hardly a small sum.
It was as if the man on his bed had sealed his ears. He kept arrogantly asserting he would take 1000 gulden and not a penny less. Moshe finally lost all patience with this rude boor and signaled his servants to remove the impudent pest from his presence. But the target was much too quick. Before they could lay a hand on him, he climbed out of the window and disappeared.
Elijah…appears to people according to the root of their souls and the level of their deeds….
All this occurred just a few hours before Lag b'Omer. That night all the chasidim gathered at the tzadik's table in honor of the occasion. Moshe was among them. Rebbe Boruch spoke about the divine revelations that are manifest on this special day, but that not everyone merits to recognize them. Moshe decided that this must certainly be an auspicious moment to mention his burning request. The Rebbe's response shocked him like an icy hand squeezing his heart: "But didn't you already meet a poor person who requested from you one thousand gold pieces?"
Moshe quickly told the tzadik about the impudent beggar who had so crudely pushed his way into his house earlier in the day.
"Ach. What a pity!" the Rebbe sighed softly. "You saw Elijah the Prophet but didn't recognize him."
"That vagrant was Elijah the Prophet?!!" Moshe screamed in dismay.
"Yes," explained the Rebbe. "He appears to people according to the root of their souls and the level of their deeds."
Moshe was truly broken-hearted. He and his wife decided to move to the Holy Land. They settled in the holy city of Safed, where a change came over him almost immediately. He no longer sought greatness or extraordinary revelations. He served G-d simply and whole-heartedly.
Before Lag b'Omer he would go to Meron and devote himself to serving the myriads of attendees that crowded in to the tomb area around the clock. He rubbed shoulders with the masses of simple Jews that came to honor Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, taking pleasure from their company and helping to take care of their needs.
Several years later, in Meron on Lag b'Omer, as Moshe was hurrying to and fro to help serve the many guests, he suddenly saw in front of him a face that was burned into his memory: it was the "beggar" who had appeared at his house so many years ago!
Moshe froze in his tracks. He stared in amazement at the person in his path. This time the eyes that looked back at him were no longer outraged and challenging; they were bright and shiny in the midst of a smiling face....

Reading from John Chapter 21 veses 1 to 14

“Old wisdom clad in raiment new fresh insight found in ancient lore”

At first glance we may not see the mystic influences on the Gospel writers or on the experiences given of the early disciples. Some may wish to take at face value the stories of the Gospels. In our reading today of Johns Gospel and in particular this last chapter we have an account that is steeped with a mystical revelation of seeing Jesus set after his death. But hang on there are many similarities with this final passage set in a different place in the accounts of other Gospel writers. In particular this passage chapter 21 we had read was added later to the Gospel of John and so we must ask why?  Look at the final verse of Chapter 20 and it is a concluding verse. I quote.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and that believing you may have life in his name.”

A pretty concluding verse wouldn’t you say?

So why does this chapter get added here? A question that has puzzled many a scholar? Clearly this is set nowhere near Jerusalem and is a much later resurrection experience on the face of it, the disciples had returned to fishing as a way of life. Obviously it is set at Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  So why add it?

I think to understand this needs us to consider the mystic beliefs of the time.
Interestingly there are parallels between what becomes mainline belief and the mystic tradition celebrated by Jewish Festivals today and the beliefs that are evident in the Gospels.

Interestingly the Jews go on to celebrate in the festival Christopher wrote of a Rabbi who lived in the region of Galilee. His teachings became adopted by the Jewish community and had been discussed and debated in the synagogues and his followers after his death had their belief in his mystic teaching adopted into Judaism.

Those who have been following this series will see the similarity, the Gospels were written to show the teachings about the Rabbi Jesus from Galilee in the expectation that his “followers of the way” would be accepted as followers of a teaching to be added to the Jewish understanding of things. Except they were not and ended up expelled from Judaism and instead Christianity was the result. 

Johns Gospel in particular is probably written post the exclusion of the followers of the way from the synagogues of mainstay Judaism. It is then less a liturgy to include Jesus as a part of Judaism and more a declaration to say this Jesus is bigger than Judaism.  Jesus is also the way of seeing the mystical nature of God for everyone Jews Greeks and Gentiles.

So when we look at this passage we see not just a Jewish influence but also a more mystical influence.  That’s not to say some of this influenced Judaism as well. Perhaps strongest is the concept adopted into Judaism in the book of Zohar of the doctrine of the soul. Now I got really bogged down trying to find an example of what all this means in simple terms. I did not want you all falling asleep as I expounded on the Judaic doctrine of the soul and compared this teaching to Plato and the teachings of Philio then written about by CH Dodd in his long and very academic book about the mysticism in the Johanine writings. I can see some of you nodding off already..

In a nutshell.. as concise as I can get without you all switching off.. here goes the basics.

The soul not the body is reincarnated. In Judaism in particular this is evidenced in the visions of Elijah. Got the significance of our Jewish story. The mystical teaching of Judaism is the expectations of the reincarnation of the prophets. In particular Elijah appears.

In Greek mysticism the soul is able to recognize the divine but the body is not able to cope with it hence in life the glimpse of enlightenment is all that is available. Still awake??????
Lets start by asking if you have ever had a mystic experience? In writings that are about the mysticism we are looking at, but a Greek view of the divine we have this definition for the soul. “Beholding the beauty of the good”. When the soul beholds this it rises to be with the Gods. Without getting to deeply into the complexities of Ancient Greek philosophy God is always light, but humans are both body and soul and so can only see glimpses of light not the fullness, for to see the fullness is the souls life after leaving the body behind.
Now think about our story of the man seeking to see Elijah we had from the mystic traditions of Judaism and I am sure you will see similarities. He longs to see Elijah and when he allows his soul to rule his life and shows charity and compassion he is eventually so blessed in seeing Elijah. He sees this vision of bright and shiny eyes and a realization of “beholding the beauty of the good” is his.
So what is it we have in our Reading from the Gospel of John? Well it is a bit longer reach but essentially it asks is this the bodily resurrection of Jesus or a soul reincarnation of Jesus. The account says they dared not ask who he was, so he obviously did not look the same but they had an expectation of their prophet being reincarnated. Is this what this passage added is about; long after the two other resurrection experiences we have this third one.
Now the other thing to accompany a meeting with a reincarnated prophet is often a form of mystical miracle. Put your nets the other side, and they mysteriously fill to overflowing with fish and do not break. Did these followers of the way suddenly “behold the beauty of the good”? Is this what made them realize they saw the light shall we say? “They knew it was the Lord” says the account. But clearly he looked different in his bodily form.
What can we find in these ancient writings is accounts that point to ancient lore, the mysticism is clearly evident to me in the Gospel accounts in particular this passage of John. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
More important is the question I asked of you, hopefully before you fell asleep as I went on. That question was have you had a mystic experience?  Simply put this asks have you had a time when “beholding the beauty of the good” has affected your life. I think we can all affirm this in one way or another. We may have all had a Elijah moment not literally but perhaps some have, but in terms of the fact that mysticism is about a recognizing of that which is good. It can be when you hold a newborn baby; it can be when you see the beauty of the world in springtime as new life is reincarnated. It can be when you recognize in someone else the love that speaks to you of the divine nature evidencing it self.
In our Gospel reading we have this story of a mystical meeting with Jesus after his death. How we can find our Elijah is to be the best that we can be, to know our place on earth. To do for others what we are best equipped to do as we heard of the merchant in our Jewish story whose comfort was found not in some ritualistic way but by being there to give to others of his wealth.
As we look at the Gospels we cannot take them at face value easily, but we can try to understand the worldview of the time of their writing. Our point in doing so is to find fresh insight that helps us to live our lives with respect for the divine. In simple terms we can behold the beauty of the good, it raises our spirits to see more than the mundane in life. It gives us hope and it strengthens us if we let it. 
The last added Chapter of the Gospel is also about Jesus reportedly telling his disciples to follow him. I still consider following the teachings of the Man they called Jesus of Nazareth are a good way to “behold the beauty of the good”.
Let it be so.

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