Saturday, July 29, 2006

Sharing lunch (John 6.1-21)

When I was a little boy, every morning before I left for school mum would give us kids our lunches, packed in plastic lunchboxes. I knew that inside my lunchbox would be a couple of rounds of sandwiches with whatever my favourite filling was at the time – I’ve never been very imaginative about sandwich fillings – I remember for a number of years I thought that tomato sandwiches were about as good as you could get – and there’d be a piece of fruit and maybe a biscuit – now that I think about it, that’s rather a labour of love for four children – wouldn’t you think you’d be saying ‘here’s your lunchbox, make your own’? Anyway, as I remember it, mum used to make pretty much what I wanted to eat for lunch – but when the lunchboxes came out at Wilson Park Primary and I sat in a row with Robby Gamble and Michael Stanley – that’s when the trading would start – for some reason the sandwiches my mates mums made were always more interesting – so maybe I’d swap my soggy tomato sandwich for a Vegemite sandwich that’d started to curl up at the corners. Lunchtimes were the great leveller, even though some of my mates came from homes where I now realise there probably wasn’t enough to go around, when it came to lunches we all swapped and shared and more or less got enough.
Partly it was about curiosity and wanting to make sure that if somebody else had something you didn’t have you were going to get your share, even if it was pretty ordinary. Partly I think it was because it didn’t really occur to us that lunch wasn’t for sharing. Kids, I think, generally get this right.
Which of course brings us to Jesus and the great miracle of crowd that all gets enough to eat from one little boy’s lunch. Have you noticed that this week we’ve swapped over from Mark to John? Even though in Mark’s gospel, the feeding of the 5,000 is what happens next in the story, I think there are probably some good reasons for the lectionary writers deciding that we should hear John’s version of the story. As they always do, the different gospel writers pick up the same basic stories that have probably been passed down by word of mouth for years and years but in the way they tell them the emphasis is a bit different. For Mark, there’s this deliberate doubling up of the story – first Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 Jews and then he feeds 4,000 Gentiles – which emphasises how the people who used to be thought of as outsiders are now part of God’s plan – for John, the story is made to say something fundamental about who Jesus is and how Jesus’ relationship to God is revealed.
But we can’t help finding it all a bit unlikely, no matter which gospel we read it in. One little boy’s lunch simply doesn’t feed a crowd, no matter how imaginative the caterers are. And I don’t know if it’s the same for you as it is for me, but I look around myself at the world I live in and I think, that’s not actually how it works. Right now, there are people in Sudan – to name just one place – where it doesn’t matter how much people pray – the misery just seems to continue and men, women and children all go without enough to eat, without clean water to drink, without basic medicines or security from predatory militias. Even right here in the middle of Perth, today there are children who aren’t getting enough to eat. They come through our very own doors, here at All Saints. So on one level it actually seems a bit shocking to base our faith on stories like this in which Jesus casually multiplies a little boy’s lunch. That’s not the way it works, not in the first century and not in the 21st century.
And so there’s the temptation to rationalise a bit, with stories like this, and without denying the general miraculousness of the event to wonder whether perhaps the real miracle might not have been the opening of hearts and the opening of lunchboxes that – in the adult world – all too often stay shut when we know we’ve got a hot soggy tomato sandwich in there that – when it comes down to it – we’d rather save for later than give it to someone who really should have brought their own. Could the real miracle have been the renovation of the human heart? When you think about it, that’s the sort of miracle we desperately need today, isn’t it? The sort of water into wine miracle in which the hardness of human hearts is dissolved. The sort of miracle in which the well-equipped army of Israel stops shelling fleeing civilians. That’d be the sort of miracle worth having. And so we get versions of this story in which little Johnny pulls out his lunchbox and hands it up the front – and then one or two other kids remember they’ve got their lunchboxes as well, and even a couple of grown-ups pull out their own little packets of squished tomato sandwiches. And it turns out there’s enough for everybody. That’s a good sort of miracle, and the very best thing about it is that it’s a miracle that we’re all invited to be a part of.
Well there’s more to it than that. John, in particular, doesn’t let us get away with taming Jesus, or rationalising away what seems irrational or improbable. All the gospel writers, it must be said, seem perfectly happy to believe that the miracles of Jesus were just that – miracles – but I think for us, reading these stories with minds formed by twentieth century science and scepticism – maybe we just need to learn to stay with the ambiguity of the story. Certainly we need to notice that the miraculous feeding stories in the Gospels are packed full of symbolism and echoes of much older stories from the Hebrew scriptures, like Elisha’s miraculous multiplication of barley loaves in the Book of Kings, or the miracle of manna in the desert after the escape from Egypt. Stories that for Jewish people are automatically going to rise to the surface when they hear this – does Jesus mean the same thing for us as these stories that tell us who we are? – a people Yahweh can’t forget, that Yahweh provides for and loves? Above all, the most important thing about the miracles is that they point us to something deeper that’s going on. John calls them ‘signs’, and by that he means that the miracles of Jesus have got a sort of deep meaning that point us to who Jesus is. So, for example, straight after this story when Jesus comes walking across the pitch-black surface of the Sea of Galilee at night, we’re not just meant to be impressed, we’re meant to be reminded of the One who hovers over the heaving waters at the dawn of Creation, the One who holds back the death-dealing waters of the Red Sea. In the one who reassures his terrified disciples with the words, ‘I am’ we see the presence of the One who speaks out of the burning bush to tell Moses his personal name: ‘I AM’.
For the rest of chapter six, John’s going to be talking about bread, like Jesus saying, ‘I am the bread of life’; and so we begin to get the point that the bread that Jesus miraculously provides out there in the desert is also a sign that stands for the true bread of Jesus own body – the bread that we break and share in the miracle of the Eucharist. Not only is the miracle something impossible that becomes possible because who Jesus is, it has a deep structure that shows us the deep meaning of Jesus as the one who embodies the character of God – the character of being given – the character of being broken and poured out as the gift of life itself.
John takes stories from the remembered tradition about Jesus and uses them in ways that help us understand what Jesus means. John uses stories about everyday necessities like bread and fish, water and oil and light as a way of repeating, over and over again, the basic claim that it’s in Jesus that we can find our deepest needs. That God’s gracious provision for our deepest needs comes to its fullest expression in Jesus.
Children, next time you’re out in the desert with a whole lot of hungry people, share your lunch. Your soggy tomato and your dried-up Vegemite taste all the better for breaking in half and sharing with the hungry one sitting next to you. That’s an OK moral to get from all this. You want to be God’s people, learn to be like the one who tells us he is bread for breaking and sharing.
That’s how you find out who God is. That’s how you find out who you are. Share your lunch.
Good fences make good neighbours (Eph 2.11-22)

When I was about 12 years old, my friend and I watched an old war movie about an escape from a POW camp – I forget the name of the movie, they tunnel out – well, to my friend and me the idea of building a secret tunnel was just so exciting – heroic, dangerous, playing the Nazis for fools, all that. Right then and there we decided that was what we wanted to do when we grew up. Unfortunately, the war had been inconveniently over by then for about twenty years, so we decided we were going to go over to West Berlin and build a secret tunnel under the wall, we were going to become famous for rescuing hundreds, maybe thousands of people from East Germany.
But the reality turned out to be more dramatic, more exciting than our fantasy ever could have been. Do you remember how the wall finally came down? It was people from both sides of the wall – the German people knew the time had come when they could knock the wall down, and they began physically attacking it with whatever they could lay their hands on – remember how there was an anxious time when it looked as though the East German authorities might still try to put this peoples’ movement down by force? – then at some point they must have realised it was unstoppable and the wall was torn down.
The point is, it was never about rescuing the people of East Germany – not just about the East German people being allowed in to share what they had in the West – but about the German people – all of them – becoming something new together. Before the wall came down both communist East Germany and capitalist West Germany were separated by more than a physical wall – it was also a wall of hostility, and ideology, and unforgotten guilt – what had to happen, and what did happen in 1989, is that they came together in a historic act of reconciliation that made them into a new people, with a new capital, a new sense of identity, and a new confidence. This is what reconciliation is about – both sides become part of something new, something more complete than either of them could be by themselves.
I’m reminded of a poem I learned at school by Robert Frost, that starts, ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’ – and tells the story of Frost and his neighbour setting about their annual springtime task of repairing the stone wall between Frost’s apple orchard and his neighbours pine plantation. Whenever the poet asks why they need to keep rebuilding the fence after the winter ice has broken the stones apart, his neighbour just nods and says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonderIf I could put a notion in his head:'Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't itWhere there are cows?But here there are no cows.Before I built a wall I'd ask to knowWhat I was walling in or walling out,And to whom I was like to give offence.Something there is that doesn't love a wall …
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians knows just what Frost is talking about. The whole theme of this letter is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles who – up to now – have seen themselves as mutually exclusive, divided not just by culture and language but by religion as well. Like Frost, the letter to the Ephesians sees something in the basic nature of things that isn’t too pleased by the human tendency to divide the world into us and them – Frost wonders if it’s just the winter ice that breaks the ancient stones apart - but for the writer of the letter to the Ephesians it’s God himself who’s got a thing against walls.
This letter makes a couple of very basic – but hard to swallow - claims about what reconciliation means – for a start, the writer says – it’s not just about giving other people some of what you’ve got. Real reconciliation means being prepared to give up some of the things that you thought were really important, but that have turned out to be part of what keeps other people fenced out. That makes reconciliation risky – you’re going to have to be prepared to be changed by the experience in ways you can’t predict. Reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, in Ephesians, means both sides get changed into something new called the ‘body of Christ’.
The other major claim this letter makes, is that there’s a basic connection between reconciliation between people – horizontal reconciliation, if you like, and reconciliation between people and God. If you’ve got a whopping big wall between you and other people who incidentally are also made in God’s image, then – guess what? – you’ve also got a whopping big wall between you and God. That, I think, is another disturbing idea. So long as we refuse to knock down the walls that divide us from other people, we’re also keeping ourselves separate from God. And the reason for that is because in Jesus we can see that God’s love isn’t just for Jewish folk, or even for religious folk, but for everyone equally. In order to have peace with God – and we need to understand ‘peace’ in the Jewish sense of wholeness and flourishing – to have peace with God we have to be in the business of breaking down walls of discrimination and exclusion wherever we find them.
You might not think this is too outrageous, but if you were a first century Jew you’d be appalled. Certainly Matthew would be turning in his grave, and Luke wouldn’t be too impressed about it either. Because the wall that this letter says we have to knock down, is exactly what defines Israel as a separate covenant people, that is, the Jewish commandments or Torah. This is the Law that Jews believed was a gift from God designed to keep them living within the circle of a covenant relationship, but now the writer of this letter says it has become a barrier to others who are excluded from the circle, and so it is a wall that has to be broken down. It’s a big claim - basically what he’s saying is that relationships matter more than holiness. In the tradition of Paul, the writer claims that Christ’s offering of himself on the cross brings the whole of human life into relationship with God. Because the initiative has been taken by God, there’s no longer any basis for holding on to rules that discriminate between some people who are in the circle, and others who are outside. So maybe, after all, we do have something to feel uneasy about. Because if the whole basis for belonging to God’s household is breaking down of all the dividing walls that keep people out, then it’s going to be a bit of a problem for us if we create new ones. It’s going to be a bit of a problem for us if we become so protective of our own sacred and holy traditions that we fail to see where God might be working outside the Church. We – Christians as a whole and Anglicans in particular – need to repent of our power struggles and our arguments about who’s got the correct interpretation of scripture, we need to repent of our readiness to judge and exclude people on the basis of gender or sexuality. Because when we hold onto this stuff we’re trading the experience of God’s radical inclusiveness, and a spirituality that celebrates God’s presence in all creation, for a self-centred and loveless dogma. We argue about whether people from other religions are right before God, when only God can possibly know that. It’s kind of arrogant, and when we read the letter to the Ephesians we need to be reminded how far we all are from God, until we understand that God’s family includes everything and everyone that our human squabbles divide.It’s a point that has a special poignancy about it this week, as we’ve witnessed the heartbreaking violence wreaked on innocent civilians in Lebanon and northern Israel. A violence born of religious, as much as ethnic and political, division. As Islamic jihadists send Iranian rockets to kill Jewish children, and Israeli tanks fire shells that kill the children of Lebanese Christians. A cycle of tit for tat violence that’s guaranteed to do only one thing, and that’s cement hatred and deny another generation the chance to live in peace.Just forget whatever it was you thought was so precious or so right about your own position, says the writer to the Ephesians. Can’t you see it’s your rightness that keeps making everyone else wrong? Can’t you see that your rightness itself becomes wrong, when you hold onto it so tightly that it locks other people out? Good fences don’t make good neighbours. Good fences just keep us all out of God’s household, where we belong together.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

What will you do? (Mark 6.14-29)

Over the last week I guess we’ve had a bit of an insight into the murky world of politics.  I’m referring, of course, to the question of what John Howard promised Peter Costello 12 years ago – whose version of events do you trust?  How much does it matter?  We might say, well, you can’t trust any of them.  Politicians always lie.  If Peter Costello’s only just finding out now that his boss has got a unique sort of perspective on non-core promises, well, we could have told him that years ago.  Or as one letter-writer to the paper asked, do you think now Peter Costello might be a bit more sceptical about the value of individual workplace agreements?

It’s about power, isn’t it?  About how power makes everything else relative.  About how when political power and the truth intersect, the truth generally comes off second best.  Political power breeds suspicion and second-guessing – ‘I thought he was going to double-cross me, so I double-crossed him back first’.  Fortunately for us, in our relatively peaceful corner of the world, we can more or less trust that behind their power games politicians of all persuasions do try to act in the best interests of the country, at least as they see it.

In our gospel reading this morning, we’ve taken a little detour.  Jesus has sent out the disciples in twos – under-equipped and over-excited – and in a little while they’re going to be coming back to report on how things went.  We’ve already had a hint that it’s not going to be plain sailing – Jesus has got himself cut down to size in his home town and it’s no easy job that they’ve been given – nothing less than to confront evil, to offer hope and bring restoration and reconciliation to communities that are demoralised and divided, healing to the sick and hope to the fearful, the marginalized, and the down-trodden.  And then Mark goes back a few paces to fill us in on the bigger picture, to give us the wider context of the story which is this – you can’t do this sort of stuff without making powerful people nervous.

Jesus is no longer just an obscure country preacher, he’s come to the attention of the high and mighty.  Confusingly enough, this isn’t the King Herod – the one who gets anxious and homicidal around the time of Jesus’ birth – the family tree of the Herods is complex to say the least, made worse by their habit of marrying into other parts of their own family – the one we’re talking about today is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and not actually a king at all - only a local governor or ‘tetrarch’ put in place by the Romans, but every bit as murderous as his dad.   Very soon, Mark is going to give us the twin stories of miraculous feasts – the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 – stories that he knows we are going to connect with the miracle of the Eucharist and the underlying good news of God’s goodness and generosity – but before we get there Mark’s showing us the dark side – the upside down miracle of selfishness and fear that is going to follow Jesus wherever he goes from now on until Good Friday.

Not only does Mark gives us some of the popular gossip about Jesus that’s got Herod so worried, but in the process shows us something of his own take on what resurrection is all about.  Is this Elijah come back to life?  Herod is more terrified by the other possibility doing the rounds – that Jesus, whose ministry didn’t start until after John the Baptist had been executed, might be John risen from the dead.  Obviously not on a literal level, given that Jesus and John spent time together in the desert.  On the other hand, there’s a sense, isn’t there, in which the Church itself is Jesus risen from the dead?  Jesus is certainly the one who fulfils the meaning of what John was doing and preaching out there in the desert.

And to explain all that, Mark needs to detour back a little bit further – why did John come to such a sticky end?  Here, Mark’s colourful story about drunken parties and dancing girls starts to look a bit blurred, compared to the more pragmatic version of Mark’s contemporary, the Jewish historian, Josephus.

Josephus’s own life was colourful enough.  A Jewish rebel leader in the second failed uprising against Rome in the 60s, defeated in battle and taken into slavery, Josephus proved himself a master of adaptability by reinventing himself as a historian and advisor to three successive Roman emperors.  Where Mark downplays Herod’s role by claiming that he had to arrest John for being a moralising killjoy – and was then manipulated by his wife into cutting off his head even though he quite liked him – Josephus claims more believably that Herod arrested John and executed him in the mountain fortress of Machaerus because his preaching made Herod nervous.  Josephus tells us Herod was afraid of John’s popularity, afraid that John’s call to repentance was not just a call to personal holiness but a dangerous popular uprising. 

We know John was a wild card, the people who flocked to him out of Jerusalem thought he was the first authentic prophet for four hundred years.  What made John popular was the same thing that made him dangerous – his preaching.  In Luke’s gospel we get a pretty good idea of what John’s sermons were mostly about: “…His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Lk 3.17-18)  John was no smooth-voiced crowd pleaser – with his camel skin clothing and his wild eyes John wasn’t interested in preaching warm fuzzy feelings – instead he believed the evil and oppression in the world he lived in were so extreme that God was ready to burst in from outside, to tear the sky open and establish justice once and for all.  John was what theologians call an apocalyptic eschatologist – which means he thinks that God is calling all things to account and God is imposing a solution on the evils of the world, as it were, from above.  If he was around today, John would be talking about the end times.

What else was John doing out there in the desert?  He was baptising – probably not a new thing, there’s evidence the Essenes practiced some sort of ritual washing as an act of purification – but the way John did it was different – John had folk come out to the Jordan – to the desert on the other side of the river and then baptised them in the Jordan as they crossed back over into the Land of Promise – in other words John was re-enacting the defining story of the Jews, the flight out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea and across the River Jordan into new life as God’s people.  If Herod was nervous about this, he had every right to be!  Because what John was doing was challenging people to say where they loyalties really lay – with the Roman Empire and its ordering of things, or with God’s ordering of things.  Baptism, for John, was not a harmless, cute ritual in church on a Sunday morning but a dangerous act of commitment that threatened the world’s practice of oppression and injustice.  We need to keep this in the front of our minds when we baptise, here at All Saints.  Baptism isn’t safe, baptism poses the question, ‘and you, how will you live?’

So who’s this Jesus?  Is he John come back to life and if so, what’s he going to do?  The question isn’t too far off the mark – but Jesus is going to turn out to be even more dangerous than John.  Like John, Jesus lived and practiced his eschatological convictions – which means he too thought the issue was that things have got to such a pass that God is about to break in on us.  But unlike John, Jesus’ brand of eschatology was not apocalyptic but ethical – what’s the difference?  It means that where John expected God was going to come crashing down from the sky, Jesus realised that God works more subtly than that.  It’s not about us waiting for God to come crashing in, but about God waiting for us to get the point that it’s up to us to do something about the evil and the injustice in the world.  Up to us to do something about a world in which some children still grow up – even in our own neighbourhood - without any reasonable expectation of a safe home, or enough to eat, or the chance of an education and a good job.  That’s what Jesus is talking about with his kingdom of God metaphor – it’s the demand for us to participate in God’s priorities, to make God’s priorities present in the here and now.

The jury’s still out on the mission of the twelve.  Soon enough they’ll be coming back, and they’ll be telling Jesus how they anointed the sick, how they taught, how they encouraged and how they were encouraged.  In the meantime, Mark has been reminding us that faithfulness to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God implies opposition.  In Mark’s gospel it’s an opposition that the disciples never do quite confront.  At the end they’ll run off into the darkness, utterly demoralised.  Only after Jesus’ resurrection will they find the courage to have another go.

It’s a question that Mark leaves hanging uncomfortably in the air.  What about us?  What will we do?


Saturday, July 08, 2006

Spitting the dummy

Yesterday, five of us from All Saints were privileged to take part in the Diocesan Day of Prayer for Mission at St Hilda’s Girl’s School, in Mosman Park.  There was a lot of good stuff, some passionate and engaging speakers about the core business of the church, which is prayer, and the core orientation of the church, which is to be focused outwards in mission.  Kanishka Raffel, who led us in a Bible study, and Andrew McGowan, who took us through some reflections on the prayer of the church as a community of faith – two priests who, interestingly enough, represent pretty much the opposite ends of the spectrum of Anglican church life – both pointed out the fundamental connection between prayer and mission which is that prayer fundamentally isn’t about us telling God what to do, but about us consenting to participate in God’s activity in the world. 

From my point of view, it was an inspiring day and also I guess one of those battery-recharging days where you get to reconnect with the Church on a wider platform – just seeing the auditorium at St Hilda’s packed with people who all care enough about the Church to think that a Saturday spent thinking about prayer is time well spent, having the opportunity to touch base with friends from other parishes and listening to some passionately held convictions about what God is up to in our church and in our world – days like this remind me why the Church is supposed to represent a sort of advance instalment on the Kingdom of God.

I also, however, came back home yesterday reflecting on the undeniable fact that a whole lot of the life of the Church, particularly when we all get together at the big Diocese-wide functions, reflects not so much God’s kingdom as the all-too-human worlds of gossip, competition and party politics.  We’re not immune from it, even though we remind ourselves every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer about the connection between God’s forgiveness that we experience in Jesus and our own practice of forgiveness and generosity.  Even though we have to admit every time we pray the prayer of confession that we’ve failed yet again to love others as ourselves.  Maybe it’s because so much of who we are is bound up with our church lives – our relationships and for many of us, the memories of major turning points in our lives – maybe it’s because we invest so much passion and so much love in the church, that church can also be a place where old wounds can still hurt, that grudges and feuds can keep simmering, that the forgiveness and healing we proclaim every week can so often elude us.  The paradox is that we come to church because we have the experience of God’s Holy Spirit at work here, we experience church as a place where God’s good news of forgiveness and live is celebrated – the place we know we want to be a part of but also the place where we struggle to live the life together that we know God calls us into.

In St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians you can just about hear the defensiveness and hurt – Paul’s feeling rejected and judged by this fractious and unruly congregation.  Paul, you get the feeling, is never really at a loss for words, but here his words are almost falling over themselves, coming out in an almost incoherent jumble but remarkably never quite losing sight of what is most important – not me, but God.  Not what I can do, but what God can do in spite of me.

Well if we’re going to boast, Paul says – talking about himself in the third person as though he doesn’t want to boast at all but if he was going to then he’d have a fair bit of ammunition – not that I would boast but I do know a thing or two about mystical prayer – dropping a veiled references to experiences so profound that he’s not even permitted to talk about them but don’t be in any doubt that he could if he was!  It’s a dummy-spit, isn’t it?  We’re all capable of spitting the dummy when we feel under-valued.  And yes, I know as well as you do that I’m not really up to the job.  There’s a bit of a dark area on my CV that I wish I could make go away.  A thorn in the flesh –Bible scholars have argued for centuries about this – is Paul talking about a physical weakness, about depression – or is it his reputation as a one-time enemy and persecutor of the Church?  At any rate, Paul knows he’s not perfect and he says he’s prayed about this – but here’s the wonder and the sheer breath-taking depth and beauty of Paul’s spirituality centred on the crucified Christ – God’s response to his prayers, he tells us, is to remind him that ‘power is made perfect in weakness’. 

So there – right in the middle of a defensive dummy-spit: I know I am an inadequate, fallible human being with weaknesses that are obvious to anybody.  Paul’s humanity is being tested to the limit in this relationship with the Christians at Corinth.  Nothing he does is good enough.  But that’s how God works.  God’s power is made perfect in weakness – Paul’s own weakness, certainly; and also, if we dare to follow his argument, in the weakness of God.

Because the core truth of the gospel that Paul keeps hammering home is that it is not in strength but in weakness that Christ accepts and redeems us.  The crucified figure of Jesus that Paul keeps coming back to is hardly a figure of overwhelming strength, it’s a figure of overwhelming vulnerability and suffering love.  That’s how God comes to us, Paul keeps reminding us, not as the God who fixes stuff but as the God who dares to let us not believe in him, the God who dares to let us find him irrelevant and push him aside onto the cross.  That’s the God whose power is made perfect in the depths of weakness.

You’ve heard me talk before about what I call the relational power of God, the power that works not on the brute facts of our circumstances but on the more intricate, crisscrossing web of what makes us who we are, flawed and fragile people who have to work out who we really are in our relationships with one another and with God.  Our relationships with one another are the problem, and our relationships are also where God works to transform us.  God does that, not through brute force but by being vulnerable, persistent, nagging us right at the place where we too find ourselves weak, broken and inadequate.

Get in touch with your own place of desolation.  It’s where you’ll find God waiting for you.

It hardly needs much explanation, does it, when Jesus comes back home to Nazareth – as he does today - and finds that the folk back home remember him as just Mary’s boy who turned out to be a tradesman.  Home is very often the place where they remember you from back when, and when you go back they don’t give you the chance to be who you’ve turned into in the meantime.  In Mark’s gospel, too, there’s the suggestion that relationships were already a bit strained.  Jesus’ family were worried about him, back in chapter three they came to fetch him because they thought he was mad, and here things aren’t getting much better.  When Jesus comes back to Nazareth after his baptism in the Jordan by John, after fasting in the desert and healing the sick and driving out demons, after showing his authority over wind and waves and raising the dead – he’s just Mary’s son – by implication Joseph is no longer alive or else it’s suggestion that there’s some doubt over who his father was, he’s just Mary’s eldest son who left her without any apparent means of support and now who does he think he is?

And Jesus spits the dummy.  We forget, sometimes, what it means that we believe Jesus was truly human.  It means he can feel hurt and rejected, it means his pride can be punctured – and here we see him giving it back with interest, in one breath insulting his village and his own family as well.  Outsiders recognise who Jesus is – just not the people he knew best of all – just not the people he grew up with.

When we dare to believe in each other, we give each other the power to be who God intends us to be.  The opposite happens when we expect the worst from one another.  When we leave our relationships with one another unexamined and untransformed, we end up standing in the way of God’s work in the world.

Jesus seems to have changed tack, at this point, sending out the disciples in twos, deliberately making them reliant on whatever goodwill they might come across.  The point seems to be that the only way to proclaim the gospel is to become vulnerable.  In Mark’s version Jesus tells them they can take a staff and a pair of sandals.  Matthew and Luke say, no staff, no sandals.  At a human level proclaiming the good news of God’s love and forgiveness is always going to meet with a mixed response.  There’s going to be success, and there’s going to be failure.  The apostles are going to meet with hospitality and hostility.  We can just see that they’re going to spend half their time inspiring and supporting each other, the other half arguing.  We’re none of us perfect.  We’re sent out under-equipped, all we really have is each other.  With a child-care centre or without one, we’re still sent into the world to be God’s people, reliant not on what we can do but on what God can do, called to be God’s people not in strength but in weakness, so God’s grace can be made perfect in us.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Have faith, and believe

Have you ever wondered about women’s magazines that tell us all about Jennifer Anston’s heartbreak, or Nicole Kidman’s fairytale wedding?  These are basically people who are famous for being famous, aren’t they?  Why is it that the private details of their lives sell magazines?  You wouldn’t see an edition of New Idea with photos of Evan and Alison taking their little nephew and niece ten-pin bowling – no matter how hilarious the photos might look –

Of course, Brad Pitt probably is more interesting than me, though I reckon it’d be worth the price of a magazine to see photos of little Joanna bowling.  Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that even in our so-called classless society there are people whose lives apparently matter, and other people whose lives don’t seem to matter very much.

We’re reading Mark, and already, into the fifth chapter, it’s clear that Mark is very interested in this basic division of who matters and who doesn’t matter.  It probably helps if you read it straight through at one sitting, rather than the few verses every Sunday, like we do in church.  In chapter four we would have read good news for Israel, as Jesus sets about his mission of healing and casting out demons – and then he crosses over into Gentile territory on the other side of the lake and exorcises the tormented demoniac of the Gerasenes – for some reason I can’t figure out, the lectionary skips over that bit – later on, Mark is going to make the same point with two almost identical stories about mass picnics – the feeding of the 5,000 celebrates life for Israel and the feeding of the 4,000 in Gentile territory announces that the good news isn’t just for Jewish folk.  Mark is about inclusiveness, the ultimate message of hope, in Jesus God is doing something new for anyone that has ears to hear and eyes to see.  The point is that human differences don’t matter to God.

Today Mark keeps making the same point, and he weaves together two different stories that kind of reinforce each other.  Women get God’s attention just as much as men.  You know, I hope that isn’t news to you, one of the ways our society has moved forwards over the last few decades is that gender has become less of an excuse to keep some people under the thumb of other people, but it’s still a live issue, and back in Jesus’ day it was unheard of.  I’ve heard it said that pious Jewish men used to get up every morning and thank God that they weren’t born Gentile or female.  Men mattered, women didn’t.  Women and girls were more or less assets, if they could have children, or liabilities, if they couldn’t.  I guess parents loved their little girl children, in today’s story it’s clear that Jairus does, but their value depended on how marriageable they were.

Today’s story is about two women at opposite ends of almost every spectrum.  One of them isn’t young – she has been haemorrhaging for 12 years, presumably suffering from a menstrual problem which, according to the purity laws in Leviticus, makes her unclean and untouchable.  In fact every menstruating woman was unclean and untouchable for a few days every month.  There was a basic contradiction, it seems, between holiness and femaleness.  If a man touches a menstruating woman, then that man will also become unclean and can’t take part in any religious or social activities until he has ritually cleansed himself.  So this woman whose menstrual flow won’t stop is an outcast, there is no place for her in this society or in its religion.  She mightn’t even have been physically very sick, in the first place, but everyone she’s looked to for help has just reinforced her exclusion and added to her burden of shame.  After 12 years of misery this no-longer young woman has no value for anybody.

The other woman – and at 12 years of age she is just at the age where her parents would have been starting to think about a husband for her – is of some value.  This little girl is just at the age where an advantageous marriage might cement some useful alliance for her already well-connected family.  Twelve years of promise hang in the balance – is this young woman going to enter into the years of marriage and childbearing or is it just a wistful might-have-been? 

The other remarkable thing Mark does in this story is to show us two people who are prepared to throw social conventions to the winds to get a result.  We might not expect Jairus, the leader of the local synagogue, to be very keen on being seen with this heretical rabble-rouser – but he comes because Jesus has got a reputation.  Jairus is clear on what really matters and what doesn’t. 

The truly remarkable action, though, is the action of the not-so-young woman.  Knowing full well that she wasn’t allowed to touch any man, let alone an unrelated rabbi, she pushes through the crowd and touches him.  Mark doesn’t even comment on the obvious consequence that this makes Jesus unclean – Jesus doesn’t seem to have worried too much about that sort of thing.  And we’re not told how the healing takes place, just that it does.  The male disciples who presumably are in control of who gets access to Jesus, try to minimise it – what do you mean, who touched you?  But she did touch him, and he knows it because it was no ordinary touch, it was the touch of somebody who needed something from him.  Notice how this is a two-fold healing?  As soon as she touches Jesus the bleeding stops, her faith that Jesus is the agent of God’s healing power, her reaching out to God is enough.  But the real problem for his woman isn’t the bleeding, it’s the fact that she’s isolated and shut out from everything that gives life and meaning – just to reach out and touch Jesus she has had to overcome the shame that would have been a constant part of her life – notice how even after she touches him she is ashamed and tries to hide herself - until Jesus sets her free by listening to her story, by accepting and inviting her into relationship with him – he calls her ‘daughter’ - by making this invisible woman visible again.  This example is very important for us – the healing that God wants to give to those who have been shamed and made to feel isolated does not just depend on their faith, but on our willingness to include them as part of a healing and transforming community.

There’s a touch of black humour when Jesus finally arrives at the house where, in the meantime, the little girl has apparently died.  The grieving and the funeral rites are already underway and so Jesus’ suggestion that things might not be as they seem is met with ridicule.  It’s a situation that sounds a desperately sad echo in every parent who has ever lost a child.  How do you believe in resurrection when the evidence to the contrary is right in front of you?  I can’t help thinking, as I read this story, of little Sofia Rodriguez- Urrutia Shu, brutally raped and murdered in our own city last week.  Like me, you might have found yourself thinking about the promise cut short in this little girl’s brief life – all that might have lain ahead of her.  And yet Jesus takes this little girl by the hand and tells her to get up – and the Greek word used here for ‘get up’ – egeiro - is the same verb that later on in the gospel is also going to be used for Jesus’ own resurrection – reminding us, I think, through this story that God’s care and the promise of new life applies even after humanly speaking the situation is beyond hope.  Whether this little girl gets up and eats, or like Sofia passes from us into new life with God, the message is fairly plain – resurrection is God’s loving intention for all human life.  Only have faith, Jesus tells Jairus and us too, and believe in God’s care for the last and the least of his little ones.

Who matters, and who doesn’t?  Mark’s giving us some good news.  You don’t have to belong to God’s chosen people.  You don’t have to be male.  You don’t have to be useful.  You don’t have to go through the right channels.  You don’t have to be a celebrity or one of the smart set.  God’s acceptance cuts through all that.  God’s acceptance creates a future where there doesn’t seem to be a future.  God’s acceptance transforms isolation and shame into new life in community.  Resurrection is God’s plan for human life.

Only have faith, and believe.