Do not be afraid

September 22, 2018

Pentecost 18 – 2018

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

In the name of God who sees us as we are and loves us still. Amen.

Imagine this – in a small country church there are two women. Each woman has a daughter and each daughter has a daughter. The woman in the middle is both a daughter and a mother and she is addicted to illegal drugs. Our church-going women tell no one of their situation, not even their church community. They are worried that other members of the congregation will think less of them if they know of the family’s situation. For some reason, are ashamed of their situation, too embarrassed to share their grief and powerlessness with members of the church family. And, because they do not feel comfortable sharing their pain, they remain unaware that someone else is in exactly the same situation. They do not know that within their very own church community there is another grandmother standing by helplessly, unable to intervene fearful of losing contact with her granddaughter altogether.

Because they hide their pain and their shame inside, they deprive themselves not only of the mutual support they could give each other, but also of the help and encouragement of other members the congregation. They deny the community the community the opportunity to provide support and prayer. Almost certainly nothing except divine intervention will change the situation but imagine how different their day-to-day lives would be if they knew that members of the community were holding them, their daughters and granddaughters in prayer. Imagine what a difference it would make if they shared with each other their anxieties and their griefs. How much stronger the congregation could be if together they took on one another’s burdens?

Now imagine the same small community in which a woman has a daughter who has a granddaughter who has the more socially acceptable diagnosis of a brain tumour. This grandmother has no fear of sharing her grief and anxiety with the congregation who prayer week after week, day after day for the grandchild. When that grandmother comes to church she is assured of sympathy and concern. Everyone knows what is happening and shares the devastation the grandmother feels whenever the child has setbacks and her joy when things are going well.  This grandmother has the assurance that the whole community is holding her family in their hearts and in their prayers. Eventually the child recovers. The community that grieved together can rejoice together.

I am sometimes saddened by the fact that many of us who are members of a church community feel unable or unwilling to be vulnerable, to have our weaknesses exposed to one another. It seems that we are afraid that if our fellow worshippers know that we struggle with depression, that we get angry more easily than we should, that we resent the impositions made upon us, that our income barely stretches to cover our expenses or any number of real or perceived failings, that they will think less of us for it. Instead of believing that the Christian community is the one place in which we can be truly ourselves, the one place where we might hope to receive unconditional love and the best forum from which to seek advice, support and help, we imagine that we have to present an image that best represents what we think that they think a “good” Christian would be like.

None of us like our weaknesses to be laid bare – a situation that is all too evident in today’s gospel. Jesus tells the disciples – for the second time – that he is going to suffer and die. Clearly the disciples do not understand this anymore now than they did the first time Jesus told them. This is understandable – nowhere in the gospels does Jesus expand on his announcement or explain why this might happen. According to the context he simply states: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Nothing in scripture, or in their tradition, has prepared the disciples for a suffering, dying Christ. They must have been perplexed that their leader had no vision for the future beyond his death, no plan for the community that had built up around him. They must have wondered what they were expected to do when he had left them. If they were confused, they didn’t show or express it. They didn’t ask: “What do you meant? What will happen to us?”  They kept quiet because, as we are told: “they were afraid to ask him.”

Why were they afraid to ask? Surely the future of their movement depended on their understanding what sort of Saviour they were following.  Were they afraid of appearing foolish to the other disciples or to Jesus? Were they worried that Jesus might think less of them if they revealed their ignorance? Were they afraid of what the answer might be? Were they worried that their fear might make them appear childish? Whatever the reason for their fear they do what anyone else would have done – they cover up their fear, their vulnerability and their ignorance with bravado. They compete with each other as to who is the greatest. They are not vulnerable but strong, not foolish but knowledgeable. As if anyone is fooled by their talk! Jesus certainly is not duped. He knows exactly what is going on and he confronts it head on.

Not only does Jesus know that they were arguing, he points out that it is what they are arguing about – not their failure to understand that has revealed just how foolish they are.  The way to greatness in the kingdom is not gained by competing with one another, not by being stronger, smarter or richer. Greatness in Jesus’ eyes is measured by vulnerability, trust and dependence, a by a willingness to admit to not knowing everything above by being like the child Jesus places in their midst.

The disciples have it so wrong – as do we!

If only we had had the courage to acknowledge our vulnerability and to confront our weaknesses, we as church may not have covered up child sex abuse out of a sense of shame and embarrassment. If we had been more willing to ask questions of God and of the scriptures, we may have avoided the centuries of condoning domestic violence and condemning divorce. If we were more open about our imperfections, more willing to trust others with our real selves more people might have been drawn into our number rather than being put off by our apparent goodness or disgusted by our obvious hypocrisy.

Over and over again in the gospels we hear the refrain: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid to show your real self to others. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be afraid to question God and question the scriptures. Do not be afraid to trust God and others with your weaknesses, your imperfections, your fears and your doubt.

Do not be afraid – and who knows – you and the whole church might just be stronger for it.

 

 

 

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On the side of Satan???

September 15, 2018

Pentecost 17 – 2018

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who through Jesus reveals something of Godself to the world. Amen.

 Today I’d like to do something a little different. I invite you to take a few moments now to think about your image of Jesus –

Do you, as some people do, think of Jesus as your friend or is Jesus the judge who is watching you to catch you out in some minor or major misdemeanour?

In your imagination is Jesus enthroned or on the cross; coming in glory or mingling with friends?

Do you see Jesus as a tiny baby who is dependent on others or as a self-confident adult who takes on the power brokers of the church? Is the Jesus you relate to powerful or vulnerable?

is your Jesus a benign teller of stories, a “don’t rock the boat” sort of person or is your Jesus an uncomfortable radical who challenged the establishment?

Did “your” Jesus ask his followers to support the status quo or to struggle for justice?

In your mind is Jesus someone who comforts and mends or someone who breaks down barriers and takes you out of your comfort zone?

Is Jesus always male for you or do the images of the Christa[1]inform your picture of Jesus?

 

There is an old hymn that references a number of different ways in which people have thought of/named Jesus. In Together in Song it is hymn 205 and over the course of 12 verses the hymn explores a number of expressions that have been applied to Jesus – “Redeemer, Angel, Prophet, Counsellor, Pattern, Guide, Surety, High-Priest, Advocate, Conqueror, King, and Captain” and each term is expanded on in some way.

“I love my Shepherd’s voice,

his watchful eyes shall keep

my wandering soul among

the thousands of his sheep:

he feeds his flock, he calls their names,

his bosom bears the tender lambs.”

Today the language of Isaac Watts is foreign and even peculiar, but it reflects the ways in which people saw Jesus in the 18thcentury.

Even the  New Testament includes a variety of expressions to refer to Jesus. These include: “Lord”, “Saviour”, “Shepherd”, “Lamb”, “True Vine”, and “Bread of Life”.

It seems that no one image is enough to capture all that Jesus was and is. At different times and in different places people have different experiences of Jesus that inform how they name Jesus and how they relate to him. Depending on where we are in our life’s journey we too might experience Jesus differently over the course of a life-time.

In my childhood the picture of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” was the predominant image. Jesus was depicted as a benevolent social worker who went around doing good. He did not challenge the system but accepted and therefore supported the world as it was. For many people that image still holds but, during the twentieth century there was a growing awareness that Jesus might have been anything but mild-  at least on occasion. For example, when Jesus saw the money changers in the Temple he was sufficiently enraged that he fashioned a whip to drive them out of the Temple. It is hard to miss the fact that Jesus was a change-agent who was incensed by injustice and frustrated by the complacency and self-satisfaction of the leaders of the church. And, as we see today, he was not afraid to accuse even his closest followers of being Satan.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” This question is the climax of Mark’s gospel. Until now Jesus’ identity has been veiled; and from now on Jesus will gradually reveal his true nature to his disciples until it is finally announced by the centurion at the foot of the cross.

Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” Then he asks: “Who do you say that I am?” it is clear from the responses that those who came into contact with Jesus drew a number of different conclusions as to who he was based on their expectations and their experience – John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, but when Jesus goes on to clarify what that means, Peter is sufficiently confused that he rebukes him. It is beyond Peter’s comprehension that the Christ should suffer, be rejected and die. Peter obvious hoped that Jesus would be a Christ who would be triumphant in a worldly sense, that he would either reform the church or oust the Romans.

His misunderstanding causes Jesus to react in a way that seems completely out of proportion to Peter’s response. He says angrily: “Get behind me Satan!” That he would call his closest friend and most significant disciple Satan, demonstrates the seriousness of Peter’s misunderstanding. In Jesus’ eyes Peter is so far off the mark in his comprehension of who Jesus is that he has put himself on the side of evil rather than the side of good.

While it is true that there are many different ways to think of Jesus, we must never be complacent and self-satisfied, never think that ours is the only view and never think that we really know who Jesus is. We must keep an open mind, continue to explore scripture for the answers to our questions keep on building and developing our personal relationship with Jesus so that at last we can feel that we truly know him.

As today’s reading shows us, this exploration is not an added extra to our faith but an essential element. The consequences of being mistaken in our understanding of Jesus could be catastrophic. We could be so far from the truth that, like Peter, we could be found to be  on the side of Satan.

 

[1]For example Sydney Nolan, for others see for example: https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/christa-edwina-sandys-art_us_57f55296e4b0b7aafe0b8999

God’s holiness making us holy

September 8, 2018

Pentecost 17 – 2018

Mark 7:24-37

Marian Free

In the name of God through whom all things are made clean. Amen.

 In the early part of this century, an Indio-Canadian woman produced three controversial movies – “Fire”, “Earth” and “Water”. I have only seen the last of these. “Water” follows the life of two widows – one who is only eight years old and another who appears to be in her late twenties. The movie is set in 1938 when widows in India were allowed to remarry but, as we all know, some traditions – especially those that are rooted in religion – are not easily overturned by legislation. Chuyia and Kalyani who were members of the Brahmin caste had only two choices when their husbands’ died – to throw themselves on the funeral pyre or to marry their husband’s brother. If they chose to do neither they were forced to enter an ashram. For the remainder of their lives they were to live as nuns, hidden away from society and dependent on the charity of others. Their hair was cut short and they were robed in white so as to make them identifiable to the public because their status as widows meant that they were considered unclean and were to be avoided.

It is a powerful and disturbing movie that demonstrates the way in which, as one commentator puts it, “an ancient religious law has been put to the service of family economy, greed and a general feeling that women can be thrown away.” The widows have no social status, in fact it is as if they did not exist. In one scene, a woman brushes up against Kalyani who, though she is young and beautiful causes the other woman to recoil in disgust, screaming at Kalyani for allowing herself to get so close. Her widowhood has made Kalyani ritually impure and she has, albeit inadvertently, made the other woman impure through contact. Societies such as that in which the movie is set have strict protocols that must be observed so as to avoid any possibility of pollution of the one by another.

In our reasonably enlightened and unstratified society, it is difficult for us to imagine the utter revulsion that people in some cultures feel when exposed to others whom they have been taught to see as soiled or polluted. We do not feel that we have to have religious rituals that would restore us to purity or make us fit to attend worship.

As the gospels and the letters of Paul reveal, issues of clean and unclean were the lived reality of first century Jews. The Pharisees worry that Jesus does not wash. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the priests and Levites avoided the Samaritan because they did not want to be polluted by his injuries or by his status as a Gentile. The priests do not enter Pilate’s quarters when they bring Jesus to be tried because they do not want to be rendered unclean by the contact.

Today’s gospel stands alone as a powerful story of a woman whose desperation meant that she refused to be silenced and whose persistence, it appears, changed the course of Jesus’ ministry.

If we look at the context of this story within the gospel as a whole, we can see that Mark uses this story in a very particular way to illustrate Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees regarding ritual purity and concerns about what food is clean and unclean. The narrative section in which the account of Jesus’ meeting with the Syrophoenician woman occurs actually extends from Mark 6:31 (the account of the feeding of the 5,000 Judeans) to Mark 8:21 (the feeding of the 4,000 Gentiles)[1].

The discussion begins in Jewish territory (6:31-7:29) and concludes in Gentile territory (7:31-8:21). Both the geography and the narrative setting serve to highlight the central point – Jesus declares all things to be clean. In technical terms Mark uses a chiasm to place the emphasis on the central point – clean and unclean. Simply put, the story is framed by two different accounts of a miraculous feeding (and a misunderstanding of the meaning of bread). Within those outer brackets are two other sets of brackets.  Immediately inside this the stories of feeding we find instances of Jesus’ healing ministry and inside those again are two controversy stories (with the Pharisees and with the Syrophoenician woman). Nested within this framework is Jesus’ discussion with the disciples in which he declares all things to be clean.

It is clear that in Mark’s retelling of the story Jesus’ discussion with the woman serves to emphasise the point that he has already made in his argument with the Pharisees – that cleanliness and purity depend not on outward behavior, but on inward disposition. Boundaries related to food, religion or ethnicity have no place in the Kingdom that Jesus is announcing. Borders considered to be immutable are being torn down in the new world that Jesus’ teaching is bringing into being.

In the short account of Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman a number of significant frontiers are crossed. Jesus (for no apparent reason) not only enters Gentile territory but presumably the home of a Gentile and he engages directly with a woman. The woman, who by Jewish standards is unclean on account of her race and her gender is further tainted by the presence of an unclean spirit in her daughter. According to the social and religious norms of the day she should not have approached Jesus, let alone entered the house in which he was staying. The woman’s actions demonstrate her deep love for her child. Jesus’ actions reveal his understanding that the social and geographic boundaries of his time are a human artifice that have nothing to do with true holiness.

The society of Jesus’ time and place believed that the impure polluted the pure. In declaring all things to be clean, by responding to the pleas of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus exposes the false thinking of his age. God, God’s temple and God’s people cannot be polluted by the unholy and profane. Impurity does not flow from us to God. Rather purity and holiness always flow in the other direction from God to us. God is not tainted by our behavior or by our failure to observe certain protocol, neither is God sullied by those deemed (by us) as unfit for God’s presence. Rather God’s love and goodness extend outwards from God making holy all those who, like the woman, believe that they are not beneath God’s notice.

 

 

 

[1]For more details read “The Construction of Identity in Mary 7:24-30: The Syrophoenician Woman and the Problem of Ethnicity.” Smith Julien C.H., Biblical Interpretation.20 (2012), 458-581.

If only the outside is clean

September 1, 2018

Pentecost 15 – 2018

Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who sees us as we really are. Amen.

There is a fairy story that goes something like this.

Once upon a time there was a widow who had two daughters. The elder was very like her mother and was doted on to the point that she became proud, sullen and disagreeable. Though she was much put upon by her mother and elder sister, the younger daughter was sweet and obliging no matter what was asked of her. One of her daily tasks was to go to the well at the edge of the woods to draw water for the family. One day, while she was at the well, she met a poor, old woman who asked for a drink. ‘Of course,’ said the girl, ‘is there anything else that you need?’ ‘Nothing,’ replied the woman as she went on her way, ‘but your kindness and generosity will be rewarded.’

When the girl returned home her mother scolded her for taking so long. As she began to explain what had kept her, there came from the girl’s mouth flowers and precious stones. Astonished, and not a little put out, the mother demanded to know exactly how this had come about. Again the girl shared what had happened at the well, only this time she remembered that the woman had promised to reward her. All the while flowers and jewels fell from her mouth as she spoke.

Anxious that her favorite should be equally enriched, the next day the mother kept the younger daughter at home and sent the elder to fetch the water – having first given her instructions as to how to respond when she saw a poor old woman at the well. The spoilt and selfish spoilt daughter hurried to the well keen to receive the riches that were her sister’s. To her surprise she was met, not by a poor old woman but by a richly dressed princess who also asked for water. ‘Surely she has servants who can do this for her,’ the girl thought, as she ungraciously drew some water and gave it to the princess to drink. (Not for one moment did she think to ask if there was anything else that she could do to help.)

When the princess had departed, the girl waited to see if the old woman would return. After some time, she returned home, As she began to explain what had happened to her it was not flowers and precious stones, but toads and snakes that issued forth from her mouth. Just as the younger daughter’s real nature was exposed by her response to the old woman, so the elder daughter’s disposition could not be disguised when she responded to the Princess. Instead of riches and beauty, she produced the horrors born of her avarice and self-centredness.

As today’s gospel reminds us, no amount of window dressing can disguise what lies beneath. Wallpaper may cover cracks in the surface, it it does not fix them. No amount of washing the exterior of something can make the interior clean. Ultimately, superficial change is no change at all. The reality is that our real natures do not remain hidden no matter how much we try to change the surface. No matter what image we try to present to the world, the world will ultimately see through our deception. Figuratively, if we do not take the time to clean up and repair what is below the surface, we will produce toads and snakes when we hope to present flowers and precious stones. If the world is not fooled by our outward behavior, we can be sure that God will not be fooled. We will damage ourselves and others and most importantly we will damage our relationship with God.

Far better that we take the time and trouble to to identify and clean up those things that sully and damage our hearts and our souls.

If we are unfaithful to true self,

we will extract a price from others.

We will make promises we cannot keep,

build houses from flimsy stuff,

conjure dreams that devolve into nightmare,

and other people will suffer …

— Parker J. Palmer

A cause for offense?

August 25, 2018

Pentecost 14 – 2018

John 6:58-69

(Notes while on leave).

Marian Free

In the name of God who is disconcerting, challenging and confronting. Amen.

Speaking to a journalist from The Huffington Post about his work ‘Piss Christ’ the artist Andres Serrano stated: “The only message is that I’m a Christian artist making a religious work of art based on my relationship with Christ and The Church. The crucifix is a symbol that has lost its true meaning; the horror of what occurred. It represents the crucifixion of a man who was tortured, humiliated and left to die on a cross for several hours. In that time, Christ not only bled to dead, he probably saw all his bodily functions and fluids come out of him. So if “Piss Christ” upsets people, maybe this is so because it is bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning. There was a time prior to the 17th century when the only important art, the only art that mattered, was religious art. After that, there were very few contemporary art pieces that were considered both art and religious, and “Piss Christ” is one of them.”

When the photograph ‘Piss Christ’ was displayed in Melbourne it was greeted with horror by members of conservative Christian groups who demanded that it be removed from the exhibit because it was disrespectful and offensive to the Christian faith. Even though Serrano is a Christian and even though the work was intended to make a powerful statement about the Christian faith, the protesters could not be appeased.

It is not the first time (and will not be the last) that theatre, literature or art has offended the sensibilities of good Christian folks. For example the musical Jesus Christ Superstar drew crowds of protesters when it was first performed in Brisbane for example.

Of course, the protesters believe that they are defending the Christian faith against attack, protecting it’s purity and it’s innocence. From their vantage point any story except their own is misleading and heretical and any presentation of Christ that dares to critique the domestication of the Gospel is seen as disrespectful and offensive. Those who are sensitive to the ‘offense’ believe that it is their task to defend the faith, to protect the image/the reputation of God.

From my vantage point there are two problems inherent in this way of thinking and behaving. The first is the presumption that God needs human beings to protect God’s reputation and the second is that this who are so offended seem to have forgotten how offensive and scandalous Jesus was. The Greek word ‘σκανδάλων’ (to scandalize, to cause offense) is used of Jesus on more than one occasion. Far from trying to maintain or conform to the status, Jesus appears to be constantly causing offense to the good religious people of the time. Jesus offends the Pharisees by breaking the Sabbath, eating with tax-collectors and, most seriously, by claiming to be one with God. His behavior is so scandalous that those who associate with him are threatened with expulsion from the synagogue and those who are so offended plot to kill him.

Scandal is at the heart of today’s gospel. Crowds, including the Pharisees and disciples, have been captivated by the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. They have been happy to have been caught up in the enthusiasm of the crowds that follow Jesus. However, as Jesus expounds on the meaning of the bread, as he reinterprets traditional views and challenges the crowds to have faith, their enthusiasm wanes. Following Jesus, they realise, will take effort on their part. It will require a depth of understanding and a willingness to change and grow. Many are not ready for this kind of commitment. They are not willing to challenge their cherished belief systems or to expose them to the scrutiny of a new teaching, a new day. Even the disciples complain that the teaching is difficult and many of them abandon Jesus.

The photograph ‘Piss Christ’ challenges all of us to consider how we have domesticated Jesus, to recognize the ways in which we have removed the scandal and the offense of the cross.

We follow a crucified Christ, a man who was condemned to death and executed as a common criminal, who scandalized the religious authorities and even his own followers, who was anything but a comfortable conformist.

The question we should be asking is not whether something offends us, but – whether by our godliness, our lifestyle, our passion for justice, our concern for the marginalized our tolerance and compassion – we are a source of offense to those around us.

Some things are beyond words

August 18, 2018

Pentecost 13 – 2018

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

In the name of God who who desires relationship not understanding. Amen

Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of preparing three young girls for their first communion. It is the tradition of the Anglican Church in Australia to admit the children (over the age of 7) of church going families to Holy Communion after a period of preparation. The theory is that receiving the Eucharist is a serious matter and that children should understand what is happening.

The process involves families working through a book that explains the Eucharist – including the names for the liturgical garments and the Eucharistic vessels. The workbook requires a reasonable level of literacy and a knowledge of the Eucharist that many adults do not have. In this particular instance the children came from a disadvantaged family who lived in an impoverished part of the city. Their mother had recently abandoned them to live with someone else and their father was doing a valiant job of looking after them. Like many of the children in the area, the literacy skills of these three were poor to non-existent.

I was caught between fulfilling the requirements of the church and responding to the desire of these children to be fully included in the life of the Christian community. It was clear to me that their writing skills were not going to allow them to fill in the exercises in the book. It was equally obvious that the use of language like ‘chasuble’, ‘ciborium’ or even ‘font’ were so far beyond their capacity to comprehend or remember that we were not going to progress very far.

One Sunday as I was pondering the way forward I noticed, as the priest was saying the Prayer of Thanksgiving, that the three young girls had made their way to the front of the altar. There they were, standing in rapt attention to all that was going on before them. It was clear to me then, that they had intuited the significance of what was going on (perhaps more than any adult in the church). No amount of book learning would give them what their hearts already knew – that what was happening at the altar had a deep and profound meaning and that they wanted to share in that experience.

The whole of John Chapter 6 is a reflection on the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand. The arguments are circular, heavily dependent on an understanding of the Old Testament and an interpretation of the story of Israel in the wilderness. At times, as we have seen, Jesus is obscure and he does not always give direct answers. But Jesus’ teaching does not occur in a vacuum. The teaching is based on what the listeners have already experienced. They have eaten their fill of bread. Their their physical needs has been met. Jesus goes on to explain that being in relationship with him will satisfy their spiritual needs. Experience precedes understanding, the material precedes the metaphorical.

As Craig Satterlee points out: ‘Jesus is less concerned with getting people’s to understand than he is in getting them to eat.’ ‘He promises rather than instructs or explains.’ Jesus’ focus is on relationship first and foremost. Those who do not challenge Jesus are those who instinctively know and trust him. They are not worried so much about the intellectual details they simply see in and through Jesus a means to deepen their relationship with God and a way to enrich their life in the present that will at the same time ensure life for eternity. Jesus’ challengers will not understand no matter how he tries to explain himself.

As those children reminded me (and continue to remind me) some things are simply beyond words.

What we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know

August 10, 2018

Pentecost 12 – 2018

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches our minds and expands our imaginations. Amen.

Having been in Italy and finding myself in Geneva, I am conscious of the schisms created by the Reformation and the sometimes vast differences between the different arms of the Christian Church and of the passion with which members of different denominations hold (or held) to their truths. Arguments raged in my own tradition about whether to kneel for communion or to use the sign of the cross. There were some who died rather than renounce their position on particular issues and bishops who only two centuries ago went to jail for using candles as a part of the liturgy. Today, most of the animosity between traditions has disappeared. The ecumenical movement has led us to understand that the heart of our faith is the same even if some of the externals differ.

That is not to say that the churches have achieved unity – externally or internally. New issues have emerged that are at least as divisive as those of the past – the ordination of women and the marriage of same sex couples to mention two. Again, those on either side of the debate present their arguments with equal intensity and with equal conviction that it is they who are most faithfully interpreting the scriptures and the will of God.

Where we stand on these and other issues depends on many factors including our personal experience and the tradition in which we have been born and raised. Sometimes our opinion is formed or altered by our education or our exposure to those who differ from us – though it must be said that education and personal experience do not always challenge pre-existing views.

Our particular experience of church and of faith also impacts on the way in which we approach change. There is so much at stake that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. To give a personal example, even though my sense of vocation was powerful and strong, there were moments when a verse from scripture made me waver, made me wonder if the opponents to the ordination of women did in fact have it right. My life’s experience and the teaching I had absorbed as a child were so deeply ingrained and so much a part of my understanding of salvation that it was hard to isolate the voice of the spirit from the accretions of practice and tradition.

So – perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless ‘Jews’ who are Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ communication could be confusing at best and obtuse at worst. Furthermore, he was taking traditions that had been held for generations and turning them upside down. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus claiming that he is to the Jews what the manna was to their ancestors. In fact he is asserting that he is much more. Using the language that God used to identify himself to Moses, Jesus claims: ‘I AM’. ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Jesus, whom everyone in his audience knows to be the son of Joseph, is now insinuating that he is God. As God he is able to guarantee life eternal to those who believe. It is an extraordinary claim for which Jesus’ listeners are completely unprepared. Nothing in their past experience, nothing in their religious practice, nothing in their tradition or teaching could have led them to expect the outrageous claims that Jesus is making. It really is not surprising that they found what he had to say difficult and incomprehensible.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is not why Jesus’ opponents did not believe, but ‘what was it that enabled at least some to believe?’

Complacency and self-satisfaction can be the enemies of a deep and authentic engagement with the divine. They can give us a false sense of what should be and make us blind and deaf to what really is. We cannot, and will not, ever know a fraction of what there is to know about God.

Instead of arguing over trivial and superficial issues perhaps we as believers should unite in a concerted effort to suspend all our certainties and be caught up in the great adventure that is a relationship with God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver – who is ultimately beyond all our efforts to comprehend and who will always be beyond our grasp.

A glimpse of the great unknown

August 4, 2018

Pentecost 11 – 2018

John 6:21-35 (Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires to open our eyes to new ways of seeing and our hearts to new ways of being. Amen.

The following is a short extract from the Mad Hatter’s tea-party (In Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol)

“Have some wine,” the March Hare said, in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked. “There isn’t any,” said the March Hare. “Then it wasn’t very civil for you ” said Alice angrily; “to offer it.” “It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said March Hare. “I didn’t know it was your table,” said Alice; “it’s laid for a great many more than three.” “Your hair wants cutting,” said Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, this was his first speech. You shouldn’t make personal remarks!” said Alice with some severity; “it’s very rude.” The Hatter opened his eyes wide on hearing this; but all he said was “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.” “I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud. “You mean that you think you can find the answer to it.” said the March Hare. “Exactly so,” said Alice. “Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on. “I do,” Alice hastily replied; “At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know.” “Not the same thing a bit,” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” “You might just as well say,” added the March Hare that, “I like what I get’ is the same as ‘I get what I like’!”

Little of Alice in Wonderland makes logical sense. The characters constantly talk past each other, providing answers that bear no relation at all to the question asked. Absurdity rules. Lewis invites us to suspend our rational minds and to simply allow the story to carry us along – not to try to make sense of it.

In real life we hope, expect even, that our conversations with others will be logical and consistent. We say, or ask something of another with the clear expectation that we will be heard and responded to appropriately. Most of us find it terribly frustrating to ask a question and to be given a response that does not relate to the question in the slightest or to be talking about something and have our conversation partner go off in another direction without even acknowledging what we have said.

It makes us feel diminished and undervalued. Yet, this is just the sort of communication (or lack thereof) that marks the Jesus of John’s gospel. Over and again Jesus appears to thwart an apparently genuine attempt to understand who he is, or what he is up to. Even for the reader it is frustrating.

In today’s gospel for example, Jesus’ response to the crowds seems to be deliberately obtuse. So what is going on? Ginger Barfield summarizes the conversation, or what is presented as conversation.

“Verses 25-27: The crowd wants to know when Jesus came to the other side of the lake. Jesus’ answer is a convoluted response about their not seeing the signs but being filled with food. It dissolves into something about working for food that endures for life.

Verses 28-29: The crowd wants to know what they can do to work God’s work. Jesus’ response is about believing rather than working.

Verses 30-33: The crowd asks for a sign from Jesus so they can believe. Jesus comes back with a proclamation about “My Father” and bread that gives life.

Verses 34-35: The crowd demands (rather than asks for) the bread. Jesus claims to be the bread (egō eimi the bread of life).”

The reason for Jesus’ obtuseness appears to be that the crowds have approached Jesus with the wrong expectations. They have asked the wrong questions. They want to make Jesus conform to their known categories and Jesus wants them to see that God is doing something new and different.

As you would expect, the differences between Alice in Wonderland and the fourth gospel are many, not least of which is the determination of Lewis Carrol that Alice should have no moral, should ‘do no manner of harm to the reader’s mind’. The author of John’s gospel has a clear and definite intention – that those who read it will come to believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that through believing they may have life in his name” (20:31). Alice is light-hearted nonsense, John is absolutely serious. Lewis just wants us to suspend reality and to enter the fantasy. Jesus wants us to abandon our fantasies and to open our eyes to the truth that is revealed through him. For this reason Jesus’ responses are designed to tease the listeners minds out of their conventional way of seeing towards a new and very different reality.

By providing indirect answers to the questions asked not the crowd, Jesus hopes to provide a disconnect that will encourage them to re-think their experiences, let go of their previous expectations and to see what is being on right in front of them.

Two thousand years have calcified our way of seeing and understanding Jesus. Many of us are locked into narrow, conventional and comfortable images of the Christ. The challenge of John’s gospel gospel remains the same: to break through our limited and restricted constructs and to open ourselves to a new and startling reality. To release the stranglehold that tradition and habit have placed on our minds and to liberate us to receive the Christ in the fullness of Christ’s divinity and power, through him to gain a glimpse of the great unknown that is God.

Enough and more to spare

July 28, 2018

Pentecost 10-2018

John 6:1-21

(Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose giving is never measured or constrained, but lavish and extravagant. Amen.

We are told that there is enough food in the world to feed all the people in it yet each day hundreds of thousands of people go to bed hungry and thousands more die because the world’s resources are not evenly distributed. Just this month I heard that one third of the catch of fish from the Mediterranean is wasted. That’s an enormous amount. Think of the people who could be fed with the two thirds that is simply discarded . It is equally distressing to realise that a majority of people in the Western world throw out around a third of the fresh food that they purchase every week and that that figure doesn’t take into account the food that restaurants and supermarkets are forced to throw out every day – good food that cannot even be given to the homeless or the hungry.

There must be dozens if not hundreds of ways to reduce waste and to ensure that the food that is produced is more equitably distributed. In France, for example, supermarkets are now prevented by law from throwing out food that someone would be grateful to eat. Elsewhere individuals and organizations are doing what they can to source ‘unsaleable’ fresh food and to give it to those in need. It is a great tragedy that we live in a world in which one person dies of hunger or of a hunger related cause every ten seconds and in which first world countries are facing an obesity epidemic. Something is just not right.

There was a time when scholars and others tried to make sense of Jesus’ miracles. In the face of a rational, scientific world they came up with explanations as to what really happened when Jesus healed the lame, cast out demons and fed the 5,000. It was suggested that the feeding of the 5,000 could be explained in this way – even though the boy had only five barley loaves and two small fish his act of generosity meant that every one present was shamed into producing food that they had kept hidden. In the end there was plenty to go around. The problem with this approach is twofold, in a world in which food was scarce it does not account for what was left over and further it says more about humanity than it does about divinity. It turns a miracle story into a morality story making it a reflection on human selfishness.

I don’t know what happened on that day nor do I really care to know. What I do know is that the feeding of the 5,000 is a reminder once again of God’s unlimited, unbounded and unearned generosity. God withholds nothing and always (as the collect says) gives us more than we need or deserve. God never gives barely enough or just enough. God always gives more than enough. God gives in abundance such that there is plenty to go around and more to spare. What is more, God is not diminished but enlarged by every act of generosity.

The more we hold things to ourselves the poorer and meaner we become. In my experience generosity always leads to abundance and that we ourselves are richer, not poorer for what we give away. In fact generosity works both ways – the other ends us with more than enough and we ourselves are not impoverished by the giving.

If we, like God, gave in abundance and held nothing back, we might discover that there is plenty to go around and more besides.


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