True honour

July 14, 2018

Pentecost 8 – 2018

Mark 6:14-29

(Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God, who sees who we are and not who we pretend to be. Amen.

If you watch enough gangster or James Bond movies, you will know how precarious life can be for the members of a gang or terrorist group. In order to join the group a person must prove themselves by committing a crime or an act of violence. Once admitted, a member cannot afford to show any sign of weakness lest they be despised, humiliated or even abused by the other members of the gang. The position of leader is even more tenuous than that of members and can only be maintained by a continual show of strength and even violence. Any sign of insurrection or lack of discipline within the group must be dealt with immediately – the perpetrator put back into their place or in the worst-case scenario disposed of in order to establish the fact that the leader is the ultimate power within the group.

This is not a modern problem. Any examination of the ruling class in Great Britain will reveal that many of the Kings (or Queens) obtained their power through subterfuge, brutality, war or murder. If they achieved their goal, they were vulnerable to attack by those whom they had deposed or disenfranchised. The only way to maintain their hold on power was by violence and oppression. Because they had achieved their position by force, they had to hold on to it by force. They could never be sure who their friends were and had to always be on high alert because just as he/she had sought power, so he/she could be sure that someone else was waiting to take the power from them at the first opportunity. (The current documentary about Lady Jane Grey illustrates this most clearly.)

The situation was much the same in the first century. Herod Antipater had a reputation for ruthlessness. He was not a legitimate ruler, but had obtained his power by backing the winner in the battle between Pompey and Julius Caesar. The people resented him because he wasn’t a Jew and just as Rome had appointed him, so Rome could depose him if he didn’t keep the peace and if he didn’t ensure that the nation paid its dues to the Emperor. When Herod died, his son, Herod the Great inherited the kingdom and on his death the kingdom was divided among his three sons one of whom, also named Herod, is the Herod of today’s gospel. Like his father and grandfather before him, Herod was not secure in his position but was dependent on Rome and on his ability to subdue any opposition. He ruled by force – crushing any opposition to ensure that Rome saw him as a person of strength and that the people perceived him as a person not to be crossed.

It is against this background and against the background of a culture of honour and shame that the death of John the Baptist must be understood. (For a brief description of the honour/shame culture see last week’s offering.)

In the context of the time, hosting a feast was a means to reveal one’s wealth and to test the loyalty of one’s constituents. It was also a way to ensure that the guests were in one’s debt. Herod will have observed all the proper protocols in order to ensure that a) his guests would attend, b) that their honour was appropriately recognized and c) so that they would recognize their dependence on him. Seating arrangements would also have been organized to give to each person the respect due to their position relative to everyone else. The food will have been of an appropriate standard and entertainment will have been provided.

It is very unlikely in such a context that the daughter of his Herod’s wife would have danced for the guests. We have to see this as artistic license on the part of the author (or the tradition). (In fact for a member of Herod’s family to have danced before the guests would have been shameful – it would imply that Herod had no self respect and was not able to manage his family.) Even had the daughter danced, the kingdom clearly was not Herod’s to give away.

Taking the account at face value (as Mark would have us do) we have to understand that Herod cannot afford to lose face or to show weakness in front of his guests. To do so would jeopardize not only his status but his grip on power. He must fulfill his promise however reluctant he is.

We live in a world that is vastly different from that of the first century Mediterranean but most of us are still concerned with how others might see us and some of us compromise our values and ideals so as not to be derided or excluded.

Jesus had no such scruples. Jesus was absolutely confident in his own self-identity. He did not hesitate to cause offense or to be considered disreputable. Jesus, though strong enough to take on the authorities in verbal jousts, was not afraid to appear to be weak and vulnerable -both in public and in private. At the last he faced with courage and confidence the humiliation of arrest and crucifixion rather than compromise his values.

Jesus demonstrated that authority and honour did not lie in externals and that it was not dependent on the good opinion of others. He showed us that true honour lies in self assurance, integrity, loyalty and faithfulness and that the only opinion that ultimately matters is that of God.

May we have the courage to do and be likewise.

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Bringing God down to our level (or not)

July 7, 2018

Pentecost 7 – 2018

Mark 6:1-13

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who doesn’t value our worth by what we achieve, but by who we are. Amen.

In our culture one’s reputation is as much determined by the expectations that others have of our role as it is by what we do and don’t achieve. People are judged differently according to the organisation they represent, their occupation or the influence they are deemed to have. So for example, a Church official who behaves inappropriately is rightly condemned for not living up to expectations and his or her reputation (especially in Church circles) may be permanently damaged. Today’s sporting heroes are considered to be role models to the young and face intense criticism and even humiliation if they do something that is considered to be a bad example (take drugs, beat their wives, cheat).

When it comes to politicians and rock stars however, society demonstrates something of a double standard. Both John Kennedy and Martin Luther King were known womanizers, yet their reputations as great visionaries and reformers have remained in tact. In their case, the good that they did allowed the public to turn a blind eye to what would otherwise be considered immoral behaviour[1].

In the first century Mediterranean honour and shame were dominant cultural commodities that determined a person’s place in the social hierarchy.  A person’s honour was ascribed by their birth and was closely guarded and people (men) behaved in such a way as not to compromise their honour or to allow themselves to be shamed.  At the same time, honour was a limited commodity – there was only so much to go around. That meant that the only way for a person to increase their honour was to diminish another or to place them under obligation. In the New Testament, the religious authorities appear to be continually trying to undermine, expose or humiliate Jesus. In other words they were trying to maintain their honour and to ensure that his did not increase at their expense.

Jesus’ responses to their attacks demonstrate that he is well able to defend, if not increase his status (honour) within the society.

According to Mark’s telling, after the raising of Jairus’ daughter – an event that caused much amazement, Jesus returns to his hometown.  On the Sabbath he goes to the synagogue and begins to teach. Initially many of those who hear what he has to say are astounded – though perhaps they are also puzzled. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands![2]” In their confusion they seek to determine Jesus’ place in their community, his status or honour.  To do this they identify his profession and his parentage. They remember that he is only an artisan after all. Workers in wood and stone were not respected as we might think. There would have been no work for a craftsman in a community the size of Nazareth. A tradesperson would have had to travel to find work, leaving their family at home and without protection. Those who had to make a living in this way were considered to be “without shame” that is, without the requisite sensitivity to protect their honour.

According to his fellows then, Jesus is not deserving of honour by virtue of his trade and certainly not by virtue of his birth. The villagers classify Jesus through his mother (not his father which was the norm.) This suggests that there was a question mark around the identity of his father and therefore around the honour of his mother.

The questions voiced by the crowd then, do not express their amazement or even their familiarity. Instead they are an attempt to put Jesus in his proper place, to refuse him the honour that seems to have been granted him in the previous scene.

The problem is that there is only so much honour to go around. Jesus’ status can only be increased at the expense of someone else’s, something that these poor villagers cannot and will not allow.

Home, it appears is not a place of welcome for Jesus. During his first visit home his family try to restrain him in the belief that he “is out of his mind”. Now, when he returns home having demonstrated his power over nature, over demons and even over death those who know him best remain unmoved, even skeptical of his growing status in the wider community. In the one place in which we imagine that Jesus would want to restore people to health, he finds that he is unwelcome and that the lack of welcome limits what he is able to do.

In our time and place honour is not such a rigid commodity. People can and do achieve the unexpected, people can and do overcome the limitations of birth, lack of education and poor connections.

That said, just as Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to box him in and keep him in his place, so too do we. Jesus’ contemporaries could not see the extraordinary in the ordinary person before their eyes. They refused to see the presence of God in this tradesperson of uncertain ancestry. We too are guilty of failing to see the transcendent and miraculous in the commonplace and in the everyday routine of our lives. We are tempted to look for God in the amazing and the extraordinary, the inspirational and the other-worldly when, as the life of Jesus demonstrates, God is just as likely to be found in the ordinary and the mundane – even among those who are considered of little worth.

God, in Jesus, entered the whole experience of human existence – the exciting and the unexciting, the exhilarating and the boring. If we don’t see and experience God in every aspect of our lives, it is not because God is not present, but because we choose not to notice.

[1]The tide is changing as we begin to demand higher ethical standards of our public figures and as women confront exploitative and abusive behaviours.

[2]The exclamation mark is in the English text, perhaps it too should be a question.

A matter of life and death

June 30, 2018

Pentecost 6 – 2018

Mark 5:21-43

Marian Free

In the name of God who knows our desperation and responds with compassion and love. Amen.

What would you do if your child or someone whom you loved were dying? Would you, as some parents have done, have raised money to travel overseas to a hospital or clinic that promised a cure, or at least an extension of life? Would you try an untested miracle cure because you didn’t want to leave any stone unturned? Would you publicly challenge doctors and hospitals if they told you that nothing more could be done and that further treatment – even different and better treatment – could not reverse the damage that the disease had already wrought on your child’s body?

None of us really know what we would do until we find ourselves in that situation, but I’m sure that most of us would do everything possible to ensure that our child received the very best chance of a positive outcome.

It should come as no surprise to us then that Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, should have sought out Jesus when he knew that his daughter was dying. Jairus was desperate and despite the fact that the scribes, the Pharisees and other Jews were suspicious of Jesus to the point of seeking to kill him, Jairus’ desperation was such that it overcame any reservations that he might have had about Jesus and overrode any concern for his status within his community. He was prepared to endure any social cost if it meant that his daughter would live. So, with no regard for his position or reputation, Jairus, in the presence of the crowds, threw himself at Jesus’ feet and begged him – not once but repeatedly – to come to his daughter. Jairus was not just hopeful. He was confident that Jesus would be successful.

Can you imagine then how Jairus might have felt when Jesus stopped in his tracks? His daughter was dying and his one hope that she might live had been distracted by someone in the crowd who had touched his clothes! Every second must have seemed precious to the anxious father and any number of people in the crowd could have rubbed against Jesus, bumped him or touched his clothes. As the disciples said, how could Jesus possibly identify this one particular offender? How much worse would Jairus have felt when messengers arrived to tell him that his daughter was already dead?

It is possible to draw all kinds of conclusions from the story as it stands. For example, Jesus knew that he was going to raise the child from the dead, God’s time is different from our time and so on.

In fact, according to the story, Jairus doesn’t react at all which tells us something about the way Mark has retold these two stories. Almost certainly, the two events occurred on separate occasions[1], but Mark brings them together allowing each to interpret and emphasise the other. Mark often uses this sandwiching technique to give greater depth and emphasis to the point that he is trying to make.[2]For example by interrupting the account of Jesus’ family trying to restrain him Mark makes the point that Jesus’ family are no different from the scribes who accuse Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul (3:20-35). Both Jesus’ family and the scribes have failed to see the hand of God in Jesus’ actions. In the same way Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is framed by the account of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and the withering of the fig tree. In this way Mark implies that the failure of the Temple to bear fruit will lead to it’s destruction of the Temple (11:12-24).

In this instance, the raising of Jarius’ daughter is interrupted by the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage. By placing the two stories together in this way Mark emphasises the desperation of the woman and of Jairus and also highlights Jesus’ power to restore a person to life. The two accounts compliment and contrast with each other in a number of significant ways. They are similar in that neither Jairus nor the woman give any thought to behaving in socially acceptable ways. Jesus is their last hope for a cure and they will risk everything – including censure from the community – to tap into his healing power. The stories are also different. Jairus is a person of high status and the woman, thanks to her gender and her illness, is marginalised ostracized. Jairus seeks Jesus’ help, while the woman creeps up to steal a touch. Jesus publically engages the woman in conversation, but heals the girl behind closed doors and insists that Jairus tell no one what has happened.

The similarities between the woman and the child, the disciples and the crowd are also significant.  The woman has been afflicted for 12 years and the child, we are told, is 12 years old. The woman has reached the end of her childbearing years and the girl has reached a marriageable age. The child is physically dead and the woman has been socially dead for years. By curing the woman, Jesus restores her to her place in society and by raising the girl Jesus restores her to her family and, in time to a family of her own. Both the disciples and the mourners doubt Jesus ability – the former question whether Jesus can identify who touched him and the latter laugh when Jesus suggests that the girl can be brought back to life..

These two miracle stories are, in the end, not about Jesus’ power to heal. Mark has intertwined them so as to illustrate the relationship between faith and salvation. Jairus begs that his daughter might be saved and live. The woman is sure that if she touches Jesus’ garments she will be savedand Jesus assures her that her faith has saved herand Jesus tells Jairus not to fear, but to have faith. Faith (confidence in Jesus) is the assurance of salvation. Salvation is life – life both in the present and  in the future.

 

 

 

 

[1]The writing style for each is quite different.

[2]A technical term is “intercalation”.

In the boat with Jesus

June 23, 2018

Pentecost 5 – 2018

Mark 4:35-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who takes us where we do not want to go, accepts our fears and lack of faith and loves us still. Amen.

Today’s gospel is a great example of some of the differences between Mark’s gospel and those of Matthew and Luke.  All three tell the same story but Matthew and Luke have made significant changes in their re-telling of the event (the website “Five Gospel Parallels, places the accounts side by side. Look for Mark 4:35, Matthew 8:18 and Luke 8:22 ). Both, in slightly different ways, have pared back the story with the result that their accounts are much less detailed and therefore less colourful and dramatic than that of Mark. The changes made by Matthew and Luke also significantly change the ways in which Jesus and disciples are depicted. They have, for example, omitted some of the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples that has the effect of making the disciples less petulant and Jesus more harsh.

As I’ve said before, most scholars agree that Mark was the first person to write an account of Jesus’ life and teaching. Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as the basis for their own and added material from a common source as well as material that was unique to each of them. In the process they removed much of the detail that brings the stories and the characters to life. Matthew and Mark rehabilitate the disciples and depict Jesus in such a way as to emphasise his divinity over his humanity. Mark’s gospel is much shorter than either Matthew or Luke and it has a sense of urgency. The Greek of Mark is less refined and less polished than theirs but (perhaps as a consequence) his story-telling has an immediacy that the others do not.

Mark’s account of “the calming of the storm” is the most dramatic of the three. The author tells us that it is a “great” windstorm and adds that the waves beat against the boat. (The word “great” is repeated three times, great windstorm, great calm, great fear). Mark provides the rather intimate detail that Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat on a cushion. In Mark, Jesus doesn’t simply rebuke the wind; he also speaks to the waves saying, “Peace! Be still!” The wind ceases and there is a great calm.

According to Mark the disciples are sullen and accusatory: “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” (Don’t you care? Don’t you love us? How can you sleep when we are all about to lose our lives?) Jesus response is more direct – to the point of insult: “Cowards! Have you still no faith?” Mark’s Jesus is also more authoritative, the word “θιμοω” that we have translated as “be still” has the more emphatic meaning of “to put to silence” and could be translated as strongly as: “be muzzled” or more crudely as “shut up.” When all is calm, the disciples do not respond (as might be expected) with faith or even relief. They were “frightened with a great fear” and despite what Jesus has done, and what he has taught they are none the wiser as to who he might be.

Not only does Mark provide colour and detail that Matthew and Luke omit, he is not afraid to present the disciples as fallible and weak (whiney even). Jesus is depicted as vulnerable and human. Jesus is asleep – on a cushion, he is impatient and not as tolerant of the disciples than Matthew and Luke would have us believe.

There is so much more to this apparently simple miracle story, than a human Jesus and pathetic, frightened disciples. In re-telling the story, Mark  has filled it with symbolism and hidden depths that are clear only in the context of the gospel as a whole.

As an example, there is no reason for Jesus to cross the sea. It is evening, (not an ideal time for a sea crossing) and Jesus has been teaching all day (neither he, nor his disciples have made any preparation for a journey). The sea, like other locations in this gospel is a literary artifice, used by Mark for a particular purpose. It is here (after Jesus’ teaches the crowds and after the two occasions that Jesus feeds the crowds) that the confusion and ignorance of the disciples is most clearly revealed. Here, even though the disciples have been privy to personal teaching, they still have no idea whom Jesus is or what his purpose might be.

Mark also uses boundaries to great effect whether social, geographic or political. Over and over again Jesus breaks through or ignores the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, the boundaries created by purity codes and the boundaries presented by geography. In this instance the sea is the boundary between Jewish Palestine and Gentile Gerasene. It is an in-between place in which a person need not be bound by either culture and in which anything is possible. Jesus is not bound by convention or religious tradition; he knows that the Gentiles will not contaminate him.

So much more than a miracle story, Mark’s account of the calming of the sea gives us an insight into the foolishness of the disciples, their incomprehension and their lack of faith. It moves the story forward, demonstrating Jesus’ power over nature, before revealing his power over demons and his authority over death. It reminds us that Jesus was not afraid of in-between places or of people and situations that had the potential to make him unclean and that he was as comfortable on a stormy lake as he was in a home. As the gospel progresses, Mark will use these and other literary techniques to expose the true nature of Jesus and to reveal the gradual comprehension of the disciples.

All of this is very well, but of what relevance is it to us – 21st century Christians  who have the advantage of knowing who Jesus is and how the story ends? Among other things, I think this story tells us that miracles are just as likely to raise questions as they are to provide answers; that Jesus exists at the boundaries and in the in-between places, refusing to see the world in black and white; that even if Jesus is frustrated with us he doesn’t lose hope in us, and that an absence of faith is not a reason for Jesus to abandon us.

Like the disciples we take Jesus in the boat with us, we expose our fallibility and lack of faith and in the process we learn who Jesus is and discover what we can be.

 

The kingdom of God is like a weed

June 16, 2018

Pentecost 4 – 2018

Mark 4:26-34

Marian Free

In the name of God, creator of the universe, source of all life and love. Amen.

Mustard

 

 

 

 

A story that I used to read my children goes like this:

There was once a father and a mother, six handsome little boys, five lovely little girls and a chubby baby who lived in a house in the middle of town. “I’d be a happy man,” said the father, “if I had a house the right size for my family.”

The mother baked all day in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Ask Grandma to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.”

Grandma came. Straight away she began washing in the laundry. Grandpa came with her. Straight away he began to mend his car in the garage.

The mother baked more food in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Ask Uncle John to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.” Uncle John came. Straight away he sat down by the fire and put his feet on the mantelshelf. His dog came with him. He lay down on the mat by the door.

Grandma did more washing in the laundry.

Grandpa kept on mending his car in the garage.

The mother baked even more food in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Ask Aunt Debbie to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.” Aunt Debbie came. Straight away she washed her hair in the bathroom and made her face beautiful. Her cat came too. It chased Uncle John’s dog.

Uncle John sat by the fire with his feet on the mantelshelf.

Grandma did even more washing in the laundry.

Grandpa kept on mending his car in the garage.

The mother baked more than a lot of food in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” Ask your cousin’s children to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.” The cousin’s children came. There were six lively boys and six sweet girls.

The six lively boys played football with the boys on the verandah.

The six sweet girls played hide-and-seek with the girls in the parlour.

Aunt Debbie washed her hair in the bathroom and made her face beautiful. Her cat chased Uncle John’s dog.

Uncle John sat by the fire with his feet on the mantelshelf.

Grandma did even more washing in the laundry.

Grandpa kept on mending his car in the garage.

The mother baked even more than a lot of food in the kitchen.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Send all the visitors home,” said the mayor. “That’s all you need to do.”

 

The cousins went home.

Aunt Debbie went home. She took her cat.

Uncle John went home. He took his dog.

Grandpa went home. He took Grandma with him in his car.

The six handsome little boys stopped playing to wave good-bye.

The five lovely little girls stopped playing to wave good-bye.

The mother picked up the baby to wave good-bye.

The father waved good-bye, then sat down in his favourite chair. “I’m a happy man,” he said. “My house is exactly the right size for my family.”[1]

The bible is far too serious to include stories like this that are both absurd and humorous – or is it?

I think that we often overlook the humour in our scriptures because we have been brought up to believe that scripture is the word of God and that God is a humourless being. God, the creator of heaven and earth is far too majestic a figure to have sport with mere human beings – or so we think. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if we are open to the possibility we will see that the bible makes it very clear that God has a wonderful and robust sense of humour. Think of today’s Old Testament reading – God sends Samuel off to choose a new king. First of all God tells Samuel to engage in deceit – to lead the elders of Bethlehem to believe that he has come to offer sacrifices. Then when Samuel makes Jesse produce all his sons, one by one, God rejects them all in turn. Finally Samuel makes Jesse bring David, the youngest in from the field and God reveals that he is the chosen one. Then there is the story Jonah who is swallowed by a giant fish, or the last chapters of Job in which God appears to take delight in reciting all the wonderful things that God has done. I could go on and on. The bible makes such good reading because its writers have used hyperbole and comedy to get our attention and to make the stories inviting and repeatable.

Today’s gospel is one such example. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” Jesus says. Now no Palestinian in their right mind would plant a mustard seed. Mustard was a common weed. It sprang up everywhere, spread like wild fire and was difficult to eradicate. The kingdom of God is like a weed – that must have brought a smile to those who were listening. But it doesn’t end there. Jesus goes on to suggest that this common, scrappy weed grows to be the greatest of all the shrubs with large branches that provide shade in which the birds can nest! No doubt Jesus’ audience laughed out loud at this point – the image is so absurd – birds sheltering under mustard – impossible! (Matt Skinner )

Why not compare the kingdom of God to the great cedar of Lebanon – that would have made more sense? Mustard – the kingdom of God is like a common mustard bush – that’s just ridiculous.

Jesus uses humour to grab the attention and to subvert the expectations of the listeners. The absurdity of the imagery will not only make them laugh, it will also serve to move them to a new way of viewing God’s kingdom. Contrary to their expectations, the kingdom of God will not come with a shout and a bang. Its coming won’t be dramatic and showy. Like an unwanted weed the kingdom will simply spring up all over the place and quietly and gradually it will take over. Before we know it, the kingdom will be everywhere.

Jesus pairs this parable with a second comparing the kingdom to another ordinary, unexceptional event – that of a seed growing. Just as mustard spreads and takes over without any help from us, so a seed once planted, quietly does its own thing with or without our interference. We don’t have to worry about the kingdom – God has it well in hand.

So you see, we don’t always have to take the gospels seriously, we don’t always have to find deeper meanings or make the texts fit our pre-conceptions.  Sometimes we can simply take the texts at face value – simple stories about simple facts. Mustard is a weed that grows prolifically; seeds have their own mechanisms for shooting and growing.

The point is this – the kingdom of God is not necessarily a grand affair heralded by trumpets, adorned with magnificent buildings and filled with important people. It is as ordinary and insignificant as a weed, quietly taking over, pushing its way into unlikely and unexpected places and growing inexorably until it spreads throughout the world and it does all this without our help.

We need to take our scriptures less seriously and perhaps more importantly we need to take ourselves less seriously.  The kingdom does not depend on us. God has it all in hand, we can relax, have a laugh and leave it all to God.

[1]A traditional tale, re-told by Jean Chapman in Tell me a Tale: Stories, songs and things to do. Hodder and Stoughton, Australia, 1974, 86-89.

Insiders and outsiders

June 9, 2018

Pentecost 3 – 2018

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who does not observe conventional boundaries and who brings the outsider in and challenges the insider to rethink their ideals and their values. Amen.

I don’t need to tell anyone that families are complicated beasts. An ideal family provides nurturing and safe place in which there is a genuine desire that each member is given the space and resources to develop their full potential. The reality however is sometimes very different. Children, and even parents can compete with one another for the limelight. Some parents want to live out their missed opportunities through their children and others want their children to follow in their footsteps. Even though most of us have good intentions, we can unwittingly bring to our relationships our own experience of family and our unmet needs.

Families may not be perfect, but most of us stumble through and our lives are enriched by the relationships and the security that family affords and most of us retain our loyalty to and our love for our families despite their flaws.

In the first century family life was complicated by the cultural norms of honour and shame and of the collective personality. Individualism as we know it did not exist. Society consisted of a web of relationships and individuals existed in relationship only to others – primarily to their extended families. At the same time a person’s honour was their most precious possession and had to be guarded zealously. A man’s reputation (his honour) could be negatively impacted or seriously undermined not only by his deeds but also by the actions of his family (who were seen as extensions of himself). Expectations of family members were much higher a result.

According to today’s gospel Jesus’ behaviour had led his family to believe that: “he had gone out of his mind” . It is not surprising then, that they determined to “restrain him”. The reputation of his brothers, his mother and his sisters and their standing in the community were at stake. We don’t immediately hear how this part of the story works out because Mark interrupts the discussion with a comment from “the scribes who came down from Jerusalem” who, while acknowledging that Jesus was possessed of power to heal, claimed that his power derived from Satan . When Mark returns to the story of Jesus’ family the reader is shocked to hear that Jesus not only ignores their call, but completely dissociates himself from them.

By placing these stories together Mark suggests that Jesus’ family was as misguided as the scribes. They were concerned with superficial issues such as reputation. They misinterpreted his teaching, his healing and the attention of the crowds as madness. The scribes, who were perhaps threatened by Jesus’ popularity, could not believe that God was at work through him (or indeed that God could be at work in the world). They refused to believe that a nobody from Galilee could work miracles that they themselves were unable to perform. They resented the fact that Jesus was liberating the poor and the marginalised from illness and possession.

Jesus pointed out the foolishness of the scribes’ point of view. Satan, he says, simply has no interest in relinquishing his power over individuals and certainly would waste no time in setting them free from the cords that bound them – to do so would only weaken Satan and ultimately destroy him – which would be counter- productive to Satan’s goal of controlling the world!

The actions of both Jesus’ family and the scribes reveal not only their lack of understanding, but that they in fact are in league with Satan. Both have committed the “unforgivable sin” – mistaking God for Satan and by standing in the way of God’s work in the world. They are unable to see God’s compassion and grace being worked out through Jesus – in fact they reject that very possibility. They have confused the divine with its opposite and what is worse, is that both Jesus’ family and the scribes try to stop Jesus – the family by restraining him, the scribes by denouncing him. Their hearts are hardened and their eyes are blinded to the presence of God’s liberating grace. They themselves have not been set free from the powers that bind them (honour in the case of the family, cynicism in the case of the scribes) and they cannot rejoice when others are set free.

That Jesus would reject his family is shocking even now. That he would put his family in the same category as the scribes and even Satan seems utterly outrageous.

Through his teaching and healing ministry, Jesus broke apart the conventional ways of behaving and of seeing the world. He opened up new possibilities for those willing and able to recognise the potential to bring about healing and wholeness for the world. Those who had not as yet identified their own brokenness resisted and condemned him, unable to relinquish their pre-existing points of view (as to how things should be done and who should do them).

Jesus broke down the barriers that separated people from one another and from God. His acts of healing restored them to family and to society, his teaching freed them to experience God’s love and compassion in their lives. Jesus redefined the meaning of family (personal and religious)– insiders became outsiders and outsiders become insiders. Insiders were no longer defined by belief or by blood, but by their relationship to God, their willingness to see God in Jesus and their desire to work with and not against God.

Insiders were (and are) those who are not concerned with reputation or position in the world, who are not rigidly locked into a particular way of seeing things, who do not resent God’s blessings being bestowed on the unlikely and the unworthy and who are not afraid to see God at work in new and unexpected ways.

For different reasons both Jesus’ family and the scribes are determined to stop him and as a result are exposed for whom they really are – people closed to the possibility that God might be at work in the world.

Let us pray that we do not make the same mistake, but remain open, expectant and excited by what God might be yet to do.

Risking it all

June 2, 2018

Pentecost 2– 2018

Mark 2:23- 3:6

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who gives us the truth and trusts us to pursue it and not compromise it. Amen.

Those of us who read know that novelists have a gift for building suspense. Detective novels for example, are written in such a way as to totally confuse the reader. Once the crime is committed, there are often there are a number of red herrings that lead the reader to consider most of the characters as potential suspects and to keep them guessing until the very end of the novel when the real culprit and his or her motivation are finally exposed. Romantic novels are also suspenseful. Authors make the reader follow a torturous path of separations and misunderstandings before the two lovers finally admit their love for one another. Every genre of literature – fiction and non-fiction alike – has a particular style or format designed to capture and maintain the attention of the reader.

This is no less true of the gospels. We do not know who wrote the gospels and scholars cannot agree as to what genre of literature they belong but it is clear that each gospel has a particular structure and a particular intention – that of supporting the communities who have come to faith in Jesus and of encouraging others to believe in Jesus. The gospels were not written by Jesus’ disciples – uneducated fishermen and tax-collectors, they were written by second or third generation Christians who were compelled to collect the stories of Jesus at a time when the church was separating from the synagogue and developing a life of its own. There was an anxiety that stories that were repeated from memory were in danger of being embellished. The gospel writers wanted to gather Jesus’ teaching and the account of his life before it was altered beyond recognition.

While we do not know the identities of the gospel writers, we can make a number of assumptions based on the gospels themselves. Only about 1% of the people in the first century could read or write, so we know that our authors had some form of education and whether through formal learning or through the absorption the culture of the educated class, our authors had a knowledge of rhetoric and thus were able to construct their accounts of Jesus’ life in a way that was not dry and uninteresting, but which even today is engaging and even suspenseful.

I have said previously that it is generally agreed that the first gospel to be written is that of Mark. Mark’s gospel is more concise and less accurate than that of Matthew and Mark and his use of the Greek language is much less sophisticated. However an examination of his narrative style and his use of literary techniques reveals that the author is a skilled storyteller. As we journey through Mark’s gospel during the remainder of this year some of the skills that he used will be revealed.

Conflict is a key characteristic of Mark’s gospel – conflict with Satan, conflict with the authorities, conflict with his family, conflict with the disciples and in the end conflict with the crowds who have followed him. Mark introduces conflict at the very start of the gospel and arranges the material in such a way that the conflict continues to intensify throughout the gospel until it culminates with Jesus’ death.

After a brief introduction, Mark introduces the conflict with Satan in the wilderness. Then, no sooner has Jesus begun his ministry and chosen the first disciples, than a representative of Satan in the form of a man with an unclean spirit challenges him (as the demons will continue to do in the first part of the gospel). From the beginning of chapter 2 to 3:6, Mark reports a series of “controversy stories” – Jesus is accused of blasphemy, criticised for eating with tax-collectors and sinners, challenged because his disciples do not fast andbecause they pluck grain on the Sabbath and finally he is attacked because he heals on the Sabbath. At the conclusion of this section, the tension has built to such an extend that: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

The story has barely begun and already a number of things have become evident: Jesus was engaged in a battle with the forces of evil (who recognised his divinity), he offended the Pharisees by doing things that only God can do (forgiving sins) and by breaking the Sabbath. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry Mark hints that the story is going to end badly – Jesus’ enemies will destroy him. A sense of foreboding hangs over Mark’s gospel from the beginning that deepens when Jesus enters Jerusalem and is challenged by the priests.

Jesus does not change his behaviour to accommodate his opponent’s ideas or to quell their fears. He doesn’t compromise his mission for the sake of his own safety or so that he can fit in with those around him. Throughout his mission Jesus manages to cause affront to those who are self-satisfied and to challenge those who keep outdated rules for the sake of keeping rules. The Jesus of Mark’s gospel is confrontational and uncompromising.

Through a focus on conflict, Mark makes it clear that the gospel as he understands it is not about conforming or fitting in, it is about challenging embedded injustice, questioning outdated rules, re-thinking ancient traditions and above all demonstrating compassion for the marginalised and the despised. The Jesus of Mark’s gospel makes it clear that being true to the gospel has the potential to put us at odds with the world around us. Mark doesn’t promise us comfort. His gospel assures us that as Jesus faced conflict, so too will those who follow in his footsteps.

Mark’s gospel challenges us to ask ourselves – How much have we sacrificed in order to fit in with the world around us? Have we compromised the gospel in order to avoid giving offence? When it comes to living out our faith, do we play it safe, or are we prepared to risk all for what we believe to be true, what we believe to be right?

Life-giving, all-embracing Trinity

May 26, 2018

Trinity Sunday – 2018

John 3:1-17 (The gospel set for the day – not the starting point for this reflection)

Marian Free

In the name of the Trinity – boundless and abundant love, creative and life-giving force, all-giving and endlessly welcoming. Amen.

I have just started reading the novel, Gone Girl. The story seems to be about the disappearance of a young woman who has reluctantly moved with her new husband from New York to an uninspiring town in the mid-west. The novel is written from the point of view of the young woman, Amy, and her husband, Nick. Amy and Nick each have an opportunity to tell their side of the story. This means that while the readers are engaged in the investigation into Amy’s disappearance they are, at the same time, given a glimpse into the unraveling of what had appeared to be a perfect relationship – brought about by differing expectations and by different experiences of family.

Human relationships can be messy, complex and destructive, threatened by insecurity, damaged by carelessness and undermined by unrealistic expectations. The inability of some to form mutually respectful relationships is exposed not only in families, but also in communities, nations and the world as a whole. It is only too obvious that our world is not an harmonious place in which people rejoice in difference and seek the well-being of others. Our fractured and broken world is a place in which competition rules and in which suspicion and fear cause people to look inwards, protecting what is theirs and creating boundaries between themselves and those whom they believe threaten our security and our comforts.

Richard Rohr suggests that the Trinity provides the answer to the problem of relationships with each other, within communities and between the nations of the world. A greater understanding of the relational nature of God – Father Son and Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier might, he suggests, help us to relate better to God and more importantly to one another. He points out that the Trinity is a much-neglected aspect of our theology. The concept is difficult to explain, and most clergy are grateful for the fact that the Trinity is celebrated only once a year rather than on every Sunday of every year. Rohr quotes Karl Rahner who states: “Christians are, in their practical lives, almost mere ‘monotheists’. We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”

When I first read that quote, I thought that Rahner was right. I wondered how many of us would be truly distressed if we discovered that God was one and not three at all. We might even be relieved to learn that we no longer had to struggle with the conundrum of a threefold God.

On reflection though, it seemed to me that while we may not be able to articulate the meaning, most of us do relate to God who is three but is also one. God as Trinity is something we know intuitively. Over the course of a lifetime the Trinitarian God becomes part of our DNA. Though we tend to use shorthand when we pray – God, Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, we simply assume that when we pray to one we pray to all, when we relate to one we relate to all.

The problem – if there is a problem – is that because we take for granted the threefold nature of God, we may not take the time to reflect on the meaning of the Trinity and to consider what it really means to engage with God who is Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver and we (and perhaps the world) are the poorer for this. Perhaps, if we make an effort to struggle with the relational nature of the threefold God, we will be better equipped to share that mystery with others. If we really grasp what it means to worship a threefold God we might discover that the Trinitarian God is a model for all relationships and a solution to all the problems of our fragmented world.

Last year on this day, I read you the poem that is in the Foreword of Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance. I confess that I haven’t read the book to its end, but what I have read has been life-changing and faith-renewing. Rohr has helped me to know God in a new way and my faith is enriched by that knowing. In fact, I don’t think that I am over stating it if I say that I feel that I have found my way to the heart of the Trinitarian God. Rohr has helped me come to grips with the Trinity in a way in which all my academic study did not – indeed could not.

I have come to see that God who is three is relational. God relates to Jesus who relates to the Spirit who relates to God, who relates to the Spirit who relates to Jesus, who relates to God in an outpouring of love that flows from one to another and back again. A constant stream of love that in turn creates an atmosphere of love that cannot help but flow outward from the threefold God to the world – drawing the whole world into a loving and welcoming embrace. The love that each person of the Trinity has for the others is complete and without reserve. Nothing is held back, each person of the Trinity is totally open to the other members of the Trinity. Each person of the Trinity is completely vulnerable – having given everything of themselves to the other persons.

In their love for one another, the members of the Trinity create an energy that is life-giving and dynamic, a creative force that drives and empowers all that is good in this world. God in relationship is generous, self-giving and abundant. God in relationship is not remote and disinterested, but is fully engaged and participatory. God in relationship is fully immersed in the world and invites us to fully immerse ourselves in God. God who is relational has no boundaries, but welcomes us into the very heart of the Trinity that we might be caught up and held in the stream of love that flows between the three. The threefold God is not afraid that our presence (or the presence of anyone else) will contaminate their divinity, but rather has absolute confidence that our being in relationship with God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier will serve to enhance and enrich that relationship and our relationships with one another.

The Trinity models the love that can be the salvation of the world – love that heals and sustains, love that delights in the other, love that gives itself entirely without losing anything of itself and without seeking anything in return, love that embraces difference, love that seeks the well-being of the other and love that refuses to exclude anyone from that love.

God who is one could be aloof and alone. God who is two could be self-contained – each focussed wholly on the other. God who is three is other-centred, inclusive, life-giving and welcoming. The Trinity, God who is three invites us all to be a part of this loving community, to allow ourselves to be loved and to give ourselves in love and in so doing, to contribute to the healing of the world.

Don’t send me!

May 19, 2018

St Augustine – Pentecost, 2018

John 15:26-27

 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

Marian Free

In the name of God who will empower and direct us and who has already gone before us into the world. Amen.

The English Historian the Venerable Bede has provided us with a history of the English church from about 100 BCE to 731 CE. Even though he himself did not travel he was able to get others to bring him relevant information and documents. Among these were the letters from Pope Gregory to Augustine that give us a reasonably comprehensive idea of Augustine’s mission and of the concerns that Augustine raised. Those of us who regularly worship at St Augustine’s are familiar with the story. Pope Gregory (the Great) was intrigued by some blonde slaves whom he saw in the market. On learning that they were Angles (he heard the words as angels) he determined to send someone to the British Isles to convert them.

To that end Augustine and several other Benedictine monks were commissioned with the task. On reaching England they received a welcome from the King of Kent Ethelbert whose wife was already a Christian. Ethelbert gave the monks land on which to build their church and allowed them liberty to preach the gospel in his kingdom. The site on which the church was built became Canterbury Cathedral, the center of the Anglican Communion to this day.

There are a number of interesting facets to the story but my favorite is this – after the team set out they got cold feet, to quote Bede: “Having undertaken this task in obedience to the Pope’s command and progressed a short distance on their journey, they became afraid, and began to consider returning home. For they were appalled at the idea of going to a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation of whose very language they were ignorant. They unanimously agreed that this was the safest course, and sent back Augustine … that he might humbly request the holy Gregory to recall them from so dangerous, arduous and uncertain a journey.”[1]Gregory refused this request and so they continued.

Their anxiety is not uncommon among those called to serve God. Moses at first refused God’s call (even though God appears in a burning bush!). The reasons – he was certain that Pharaoh would not listen to him and that the Israelites would not believe that God had sent him. When these excuses did not dissuade God, Moses argued that he could not do the task because he was not eloquent enough[2]. Jeremiah likewise argued that he could not speak well and he added to that that he was only a boy.[3]Gideon made the point that his tribe was the weakest in Israel and when God insisted that Gideon wasthe one whom he had chosen, Gideon asked for a sign. When God gave him a sign, Gideon, still refusing to believe that God could use him, asked God to repeat the sign![4]Jonah’s reaction to God’s call was the most dramatic and the most selfish of all. Jonah was so reluctant to respond to God’s call that he ran away, presumably believing that he could escape God.  Worse, when he finally did what God had asked and God spared Nineveh, Jonah sat under a tree and sulked.

If we are anxious or lacking in confidence when it comes to sharing the gospel, we are in good company. However, that does not let us off the hook. In today’s gospel Jesus commissions us to testify on his behalf. Through our baptism we are all called and commissioned as disciples to be God’s presence in the world. And still we hesitate. The reasons for our hesitation may be as many and varied as those of us who are present. Like Jeremiah we might think that we are too young (or even too old). Like Moses and Jeremiah we might be afraid that we will be unable to find the right words to say or that people won’t believe what we do say. Like Gideon we might need to be convinced that God really canuse us. Like Jonah we might simply think that God can do it all on his own and that God doesn’t need us or, like Augustine and his fellow monks, we might be terrified of the reception that we imagine awaits us.

The worst fears of Augustine’s monks were not realised. The reality was quite different from that which they had expected. Instead of a hostile reception, they received a warm welcome and were given freedom to pursue their mission and the resources to establish themselves and their community. Their obedience to the call of God resulted in blessings far more than they could have imagined because God had not asked them to do the impossible. God had gone before them to prepare the way, remained with them as their help and support and empowered them with the Holy Spirit so that they could do what needed to be done.

Almost certainly, wewill not be called to lead a company of people out of slavery to the Promised Land. Wewill not be asked to lead an army in battle or to call an entire city to repentance. We won’t be asked to go to an unknown land to people whose language we do not know. All that we are asked to do is to testify to the risen Christ and to Christ’s presence in the world, to share with others the comfort, strength and assurance that we experience because Christ is present in our lives. We are to trust that the Holy Spirit will equip us for that task and to remember that God will not ask us to do more than we can do, nor will God send us out on a mission that has no chance of success.

The examples of Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Jonah and Augustine assure us that it doesn’t matter how old (or how young we are), how articulate we are, how wise and clever or how strong or brave we are. God can and will use us to make known God’s presence in the world.

[1]The Venerable Bede, Chapter 23.

[2]Exodus 3,4

[3]Jeremiah 1:4

[4]Read the story for yourself (Judges 6)

Immersed in the world

May 12, 2018

Easter 7 – 2018

John 17:6-19

Marian Free

In the name of God whose Son draws us into relationship with God, with himself and with each other. Amen.

Marking assignments is an interesting task. In the process one learns a lot about the different ways in which people think. For example some students compartmentalise their material under sub-headings arguing every point separately before bringing the thesis together as a whole. Others write in a linear fashion, beginning at point A and moving consecutively through their argument to a conclusion at point B. Still others don’t appear to have any particular order or structure – all the details of the argument might be there but they are mixed together in a way that obviously makes sense to the writer but can be harder for the reader to disentangle[1].

If the gospels were student papers, as an examiner I would put John’s gospel into the last category. In this gospel the language and themes circle around and repeat themselves while at the same time moving forward to some new idea or insight. This is perhaps best illustrated by the images of the shepherd and the vine. Both contain more than one image (shepherd and gate, vine and abiding). These images somehow entwine together and get to the place for which the author is aiming, laying down one’s life for the sheep, and laying down one’s life for one’s friends but are difficult to disentangle without damaging or oversimplifying the meaning. Further, the imagery that relates to Jesus in chapter 10, is extended to the disciples in chapter 15, so the theme of an earlier part of the gospel is carried forward to later section. Similarly, at the conclusion of the discussion about the shepherd, the Jews accuse Jesus of having a demon. In chapter 15 Jesus warns the disciples that if the world has hated him, it will also hate them.

Another characteristic of John’s gospel that is obvious in today’s gospel is the density of the material – the number of ideas or themes that are contained in a few verses. Several words that John uses in very specific ways are found together but they are so enmeshed that it is impossible to separate them.  Yet knowing the meaning of each is important to our understanding of the passage as a whole. Making today’s reading more complex still is that these themes have been woven in and out of the gospel from the beginning. Expressions such as “the world”, “the truth”, “being one” and “being hated” have already been introduced and the author of the gospel expects that we will be familiar with his use of these terms and that we will know what he means when he uses them in this context.

For these reasons, it is my contention is that the fourth gospel is better experienced than dissected. When it is read as a whole, in one sitting, the various themes coalesce enriching and enhancing each other. The words echo through the text as they are repeated over and over again. Gradually they simply sink into the consciousness and understanding of the reader who understands their meaning without any need for explanation.

Our reading today is a portion of the prayer that concludes Jesus’ farewell speech (13-17). In preparing the disciples for his departure, Jesus demonstrates servant leadership, reassures the disciples that they will not be left alone, insists that they remain connected to him and assures them that they will receive the Holy Spirit. Finally Jesus prays – for himself, for the disciples and for those who will come to faith through the disciples. Having prepared the disciples for his imminent departure he now makes it clear through this prayer that he expects that his mission will not conclude after he goes away but will be extended through the mission of the disciples and the mission of those whom they bring to faith. The disciples are ideally suited to this task – they have “kept Jesus’ word” (17:6) and believed that “God sent Jesus” (17:8). As Jesus (through his life) glorified God, so now Jesus is glorified through them. As God sent Jesus, so now Jesus sends the disciples.

Jesus is ready to pass the baton and the disciples are ready to pick it up but Jesus believes that when he is gone they will need protection and he prays that God will further equip them. Jesus knows that the faith of the disciples has set them apart from the world. They no longer really belong, just as Jesus did not belong. This places them at risk of being misunderstood as Jesus was misunderstood, and of being mistreated as Jesus was mistreated. Until now Jesus has put himself between the disciples and the world, now he hands that responsibility over to God. He asks that God will protect them from the world.

Jesus also asks God to sanctify the disciples – to make them holy. He prays that God will “sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth”(17:17). Jesus is not asking God to bestow some esoteric piety or purity on the disciples. Rather, Jesus is asking God to bestow on the disciples the sort of holiness that he himself exemplified, a holiness (sanctification) that comes from knowing the Truth and having the courage to share God’s word (Word) and which results in being immersed in, and willing to die for, the world.

Like the remainder of the gospel, the prayer is multi-layered. The “word” that the disciples have is both the word that Jesus spoke and Jesus himself. The “world” is the place Jesus came to save and the world that is hostile to Jesus. Above all though, the prayer is multi-layered because it addresses not only those who were present but also all the generations since who have come to faith.

When Jesus prays for the disciples, he prays for us – that we who claim to know him may be so sanctified that we too will immerse ourselves in the world, sharing the truth and spreading the word no matter how costly that might be.

 

 

[1]Of course, I may be revealing that my thought processes are more linear. Those who think in a different way may find my style too spare, too direct.


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