Archive for the ‘Mark’s gospel’ Category

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.

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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.

Not an ending – a beginning

March 31, 2018

Easter Day – 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who turns darkness to light, sorrow to joy, death to life. Amen.

 When something significant happens – a natural disaster, a mass shooting, the visit of a member of the royal family – not only does everyone know about the event but nearly everyone has an opinion on the matter. A certain amount of notoriety attaches to those who were close to or involved in the event and at the same time, those who were affected by what has happened need to talk about it because they have been so traumatized by it.

Why then does Mark’s gospel end on a note of silence. The women (who have seen the empty tomb and been told that Jesus has been raised) “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Silence is an inauspicious start for what was to become the Christian faith. Silence is an inappropriate response for something as extraordinary and unexpected as the resurrection. Silence and fear detract from Jesus’ victory over death, and silence defies the young man’s explicit instruction: “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

There are a number of explanations for Mark’s terse and unsatisfactory ending – and I will come to them – but first let me take a step back. Those of you who followed the gospel in the pew bibles will be saying to yourselves: “but the gospel doesn’t end at verse 8.” If you look closely though, you will see that the second half of verse 8 is headed “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and verses 9-20 “The Longer Ending”. The problem is that there are no original copies of the gospels, the earliest manuscripts that we have come from the fourth century and these are copies of copies of copies. Significantly, the oldest copies of Mark end at verse 8, that, plus the fact that this is such a difficult reading has led scholars to believe that the original gospel ended here.

If that is the case, t is not surprising that the later copiests added to Mark’s ending. They would have found the lack of resurrection stories unsatisfactory and they would have wanted to find a way for Mark’s gospel to line up with the other gospels. The longer ending, for example, includes a reference to Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Luke) and the commission to proclaim the good news to all the nations (Matthew). It also contains disturbing “proofs of faith” that do not seem to go back to Jesus– “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”

So why does the author of Mark leave us hanging? Why are we left with fear and silence rather than victory and joy?

There are a number of suggestions as to why this might be. One is that those for whom the gospel was written already know the ending. They know too that the story does not end with Jesus’ resurrection, but continues in their own lives and through the experience of the gathered community. Jesus’ is alive in their midst, they themselves are the proof enough of the resurrection. The author of Mark knows that the story is far from over. It is possible that he is challenging his community – the believing community to take their place in the story, to move the story forward. In some ways the resurrection is just the beginning of the story. In fact, Mark appears to set us up for an open-ended close from the start:

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The suggestions is that gospel as written is not the whole story rather it sets the scene for a story that is just beginning[1].

Another perspective suggestion is that the women find the tomb empty because Jesus has better things to do. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t wait around for the disciples to come and process the resurrection, to chat with him, to eat with him. Jesus gets on with what he has to do and leaves a messenger to remind the disciples (in this case the women) of something that he said while he was still alive – that they were to meet up with him in Galilee where it all began. They are to go back to the beginning, but they go back as people who are profoundly different from the people that they were at the start of their discipleship. Having experienced the ending, the disciples are sent back to the beginning from where they will be able to see the story with fresh eyes. The contradictions and confusion that they experienced during Jesus’ ministry will, hopefully, now make sense to them. With any luck they will now understand that Jesus’ suffering had a purpose and that his vulnerability was in fact a strength[2].

Yet another explanation for the abrupt ending is that while Mark is well aware of the importance of the resurrection for the story and for the disciples, he is equally conscious that the ambiguity that attended Jesus’ ministry will continue in the lives of believers. That is, despite the resurrection, the believing community will experience suffering and rejection. Like Jesus they will be misunderstood and sought out for the wrong reasons.

Then again, Mark might just be chiding the community (through the women) for their lack of faith. Three times Jesus has explicitly predicted his death and resurrection and three times the disciples showed by their response how little they understand. Now, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the women come to the tomb expecting to find a body when they had been promised a resurrection. It is possible that Mark is challenging the community for whom he writes to maintain an openness to the possibility that God will do the unexpected so that, unlike the women, they will not be caught by surprised, they will not be traumatized and confounded when God does not meet their expectations and they will trust that God will do what God has promised to do.

Centuries later the ending of Mark’s gospel presents us with a mystery – a mystery with a purpose. It asks us to consider:

Do we understand that we are part of the ongoing story of the gospel?

Are we able to accept and to live with the contradictions of the gospel – that it is in service and through suffering that we draw close to and are formed in the image of God?

Are we aware that as followers of Jesus life will not always be easy and that we can expect the same treatment from our contemporaries as he received from his?

Do we trust that God will do what God has promised to do?

Finally, have we locked God into one version of the story or are we alert, open and expectant – ready for God to do God’s next new thing?

Mark’s gospel does not end tidily because there are no tidy endings. Indeed the story of Jesus has not and will not come to an end.

 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

[1] David Lose. Working Preacher

[2] Lance Pape, Working Preacher

How is your relationship with Jesus?

March 24, 2018

Palm Sunday – 2018

Mark 14:1 – 15:27

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks us to retain an openness to the world around us so that we don’t mistake Jesus for a trouble-maker and miss him altogether. Amen.

We interrupt this bulletin to bring you some breaking news. Police have called for back up to quell a potential riot in the small regional town of Woiwoorung. Crowds from all over the region have descended on the town for the annual music festival. The usual levels of excitement and anticipation are threatening to spill over into mob behavior with the arrival in town of one Jesse Bunda. Jesse, a young indigenous woman, is well-known to police. She is a controversial figure who has been attracting crowds wherever she goes. Jesse has been spreading the message that the regional authorities are inefficient and corrupt. She has been suggesting that those who live beyond the town have the power to take things into their own hands to create better lives for themselves.

Some people are drawn to her and almost as many are disturbed by her presence, her actions and her words. The authorities in particular are wishing that she simply would fade away. As we speak, the police have the situation in hand, but they are worried that there might be a stand-off between Jesse’s supporters and those who see themselves as the brunt of her criticism.

At this moment the streets of Woiwoorung are continuing to fill with people. They are spilling out of their homes and businesses, from the pubs, the shops and the school just to catch a glimpse of the person who is causing such a stir. There is so much excitement in the usually quiet town that people are climbing on to cars and the backs of trucks. They are calling out, waving clothes and branches – doing whatever they can to catch Jesse’s attention. The populace is wondering whether Jesse will dare to speak here – here in front of the authorities of whom she has been so critical. Until now the influential people of the town have, of course, known about Jesse and what she has been doing, but they had thought of her as a harmless eccentric whose influence would die out as quickly as it had grown. They were completely unprepared for today’s reaction.

Our reporters on the ground tell us that it is almost impossible for the local police to see what is going on. At any moment things might turn ugly especially if those who support the status quo decide to take on those who are challenging it.

Keep watching as we bring you the latest developments.

It is easy for us, from the perspective of our comfortable, middle-class Anglicanism, to think of Jesus as a benign and comforting figure, to forget that in his day he was difficult, confrontational and divisive. As much as there were people who welcomed him and his message, there were those who viewed him with anxiety and suspicion – even with alarm. Almost from the start of his ministry Jesus angered and offended the leaders of his day – the Pharisees, the scribes and the priests. Jesus blatantly broke the Sabbath law and presumed to forgive sins – something that was God’s prerogative. He called the Pharisees hypocrites and told parables that implied that the authorities were greedy and corrupt. And the people he mixed with – well no decent, law-abiding person would have been seen dead with them, let alone have eaten with them or, worse still, included them among their companions. Those in authority could have been forgiven for thinking that he was inciting insurrection – after all the crowds seemed to hang on his every word and at any moment they could have turned against them. Jesus was provocative, disruptive and troublesome. No wonder that those charged with keeping the peace wanted to subdue and restrain him. No wonder they wanted to get rid of him.

From time to time I find myself asking: “If Jesus were among us today, would I recognise him (or her)? Would I find Jesus challenging and disturbing or comforting and reassuring? Would I try to protect the status quo or would I join Jesus in challenging structures and norms that had become unwieldy and unhelpful? Would I have the courage to own up to and let go of my hypocrisy?” The answer is, “I don’t know.” I can only hope that I have not created a Jesus who makes feel comfortable and secure and that I am able to retain an openness to who Jesus might have been and who Jesus might be if he were to appear in front of me today.

We should never be so comfortable in our faith that we do not allow our ideas to be challenged. We should never be so complacent that we allow ourselves to think that we know all there is to know and we should never simply assume that we alone are on the side of right.

Two thousand years ago, those who thought they knew who and what to expect called for Jesus to be put to death. Let us hope that we do not make the same mistake.

How is your relationship with Jesus? Would you know Jesus if he were right in front of you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whose side are you on?

February 24, 2018

Lent 2 – 2018

Mark 8:31-39

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. Amen.

Last week I suggested that Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a means of preparing him for what was to come. The hostile environment, the privations and the encounter with Satan could be seen a foretaste of what Jesus could expect as he began his ministry as one who had been named the Son of God. From start to finish, Jesus will encounter misunderstanding, antagonism and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his own disciples. If he could withstand the difficulties that he faced in the desert, he (and God) could be comfortable that he would be able to survive the forces that would oppose him as he attempted to share the good news.

Today’s gospel takes a great leap forward from Jesus’ baptism and temptation. What that means is that we have not been following Mark’s story line and so we have not seen the way in which the tensions between Jesus and his opponents build and develop. We have not been privy to the threats against Jesus’ life that began as early as chapter 3.

To bring you up to speed then: after Jesus’ baptism he is driven into the wilderness where he is tested or tried out by Satan. During the course of his ministry the demons confront him, the leaders of the church challenge and criticize him, his family are concerned that he is mad and now we discover that Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle, is among those who would oppose or even prevent Jesus’ mission. So serious is Peter’s misunderstanding that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan or the adversary.

Today’s passage, with the one that precedes it, is the climax of Mark’s gospel. In the verses immediately preceding those we have just read, Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They respond: “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Peter has spoken the truth, but what follows demonstrates that Peter knows and understands only half the truth. His understanding of the Christ is limited. It has been conditioned by the cultural expectations of his time and, despite the fact that he has been with Jesus since the beginning, his experiences have not impacted on his expectations.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus is very reluctant to make his identity public. Jesus is well aware that he will fail to meet the hopes of many of the people. He knows that those who were expecting God to send someone to restore the glory of Israel – politically, economically, spiritually – will be seriously disappointed. Jesus does not reveal who he is because he knows that he will be misunderstood. Contrary to the popular thought, Jesus will not be a Christ who will lead the people to a triumphant victory over Rome. He is not a Christ who will restore the purity of the Temple worship. Jesus is neither a warrior nor a high priest.

So, when Peter declares him to be the Christ, Jesus’ qualifies Peter’s declaration with a description of the future that he, as the Christ, can expect. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter has so misunderstood Jesus’ ministry that he is shocked to the core by Jesus’ revelation and so validates Jesus’ belief that he will be misunderstood. In fact, Peter is so shocked that he immediately tries to convince Jesus that he is mistaken.

If Peter’s declaration that Jesus’ is the Christ is the climax of the gospel, then Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction is the other side of that fulcrum. The stakes are high – as is demonstrated by the strong language that is used in this passage. “Epitimaō” the word that is translated as “rebuke” in our versions of the New Testament, means “to overcome with a powerful word”. It can be used to demonstrate the way in which Jesus exercises power over the demons and over the natural elements. In other words it is used in the context of the fierce battle between the demons and the divine. On Peter’s lips it could be translated, “Shut up! Don’t say such things!” On Jesus’ lips, as the text makes clear, it suggests that Jesus understood Peter to be taking the side of the demonic forces that opposed Jesus. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to go away. A better translation of “Get behind me, Satan,” is: “Depart behind me Satan” (in other words, “Get out of my sight, you have no place alongside the divine”). Not surprisingly, this is the same language used by Matthew when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus banishes Peter not only because he so spectacularly fails to understand but also because he has the arrogance to presume that he knows better than God what lies ahead. In that moment Peter has shown himself to be on the side of Jesus’ opponents who want to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.

The language of this passage tells us that this is not a simple disagreement between Peter and Jesus but “a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical”.[1]

This brief interchange between Jesus and Peter shows how much is at stake if we fail to truly grasp who and what Jesus is, if we try to contain Jesus through simple and well-worn categories or if we think that we know better than God. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof-positive that God acts in ways that we do not expect and that we cannot comprehend. The cross throws into relief all our false ideas, our hopes and expectations. Jesus is not all-powerful and all-knowing, but vulnerable and subject to misunderstanding. Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimately Jesus’ death forces us to continually rethink our ideas about God – who is not triumphant, who does not exert God’s will over us and who shows in high relief the distinction between the divine and its opposite.

Jesus is not and will not be who or what we expect. So let us not make Peter’s mistake of assuming that we know and understand, but rather suspend our certainty so that we can learn from Christ who and what he is.

 

 

 

 

[1] C. Clifton Black, workingpreacher.org. Lent 2 2018.

Children of God, beloved and special

February 17, 2018

Lent 1 – 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who strengthens us and equips us for all the good and the bad that we might be asked to face. Amen.

Did you notice something missing from today’s gospel? You might have been expecting to hear the details of the three temptations – turning stones into bread, jumping off a cliff and worshipping Satan. These specific details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness (listed by both Luke and Matthew) are missing in Mark’s gospel. They are apparently of little consequence for Mark as he pushes on to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. Probably because Mark’s account is so stark, the lectionary writers have included Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. This creates an interesting juxtaposition: baptism followed by temptation, public repentance followed by private battles within, a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, followed by Jesus being driven into the wilderness.

If we read the account of the baptism on its own without understanding the consequences it becomes a wonderful affirmation of Jesus. Though Jesus alone sees and hears, the events that accompany Jesus’ baptism are quite extraordinary. The heavens are literally torn apart, the Spirit descends as if a dove and Jesus hears the voice of God from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been both an inspiring and terrifying moment. Jesus heard God assuring him that he was doing the right thing and that his relationship with God was of the highest order, Father and Son.

Why then does the Spirit (note: not the devil) immediately drive Jesus out into the wilderness – that godless, inhospitable and unforgiving place – to be tempted by Satan and threatened by wild animals? To experience both physical and spiritual adversity? At first sight, it seems to be back-to-front. Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus would want to repent after a time of reflection and temptation? Doesn’t make more sense for Jesus to be tested before God tears apart the heavens and sends the Spirit upon him? Doesn’t it seem that it would be more prudent for God to have been certain that Jesus was ready the task before he took the radical step of affirming him as God’s Son? I wonder, what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could God take the Son thing back?

Two things help us to make sense of the order of events as they are presented. The first is the parallel between Jesus’ experience and that of Israel. Before God led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God declared that Israel was God’s Son. God thus affirmed the status of Israel and, through the cloud and the fiery pillar, God provided proof that God would provide for them and would never desert them. Yet, despite such assurance, Israel grumbled against God and relied on their own resources to the extent of making their own gods thus demonstrating that they had little to no faith in God’s promises.

When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and led into the wilderness he places his trust entirely in God, he refuses to rely on his own resources or to put God to the test. As a result Jesus is able to withstand the privations of the desert and as a result is “ministered to by the angels”. Jesus did what Israel could not – he believed not that God would spare him from trouble, but that when trouble came his way he could rely on God to provide the strength to see him through.

We better understand the order of events when we remember that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will face hostility and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his disciples. Jesus’ journey, once begun, will lead only to suffering and the cross. At Jesus’ baptism then, God gives Jesus the resources that he will need for whatever lies ahead – the absolute assurance that he is God’s Son and the implied assurance that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with him. The wilderness is a sign of what is to come. Jesus begins his ministry with the endorsement of God’s love and approval ringing in his ears – an endorsement that sustains him in the wilderness and throughout the challenges and threats that dog his ministry.

At our Baptism we are told: “the promises of God are signed and sealed for us.” And we are assured of the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are not empty words, but gifts to sustain us through thick and thin. They are gifts that assure us that God will be with us every step of the way: sustaining us, encouraging us and equipping us to face whatever dangers, griefs or hardships that might come our way.

Lent, our time in the wilderness, need not be a time of self-flagellation, a time of reminding ourselves how far we fall short or a time of stressing about what we need to do to be holier or kinder, more loving or more patient. Lent can be a time of letting go, a time for reminding ourselves that we can place our trust completely in God, that we can rely on God to be there in our times of need and that we can trust God to hold us up when we feel that we can go no further.

No one can predict what life will throw at us. The question is not whether we will have wilderness experiences, but whether our confidence in God is sufficient to see us through. May this Lent be for us all a time to renew our trust in God, to make peace with the lives that we have and to believe that whatever happens God has, waiting for us, an eternity that is beyond our capacity to imagine.

In Jesus, heaven and earth meet

February 10, 2018

Transfiguration – 2018

Mark 9:2-9

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose presence is revealed in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Amen.

“Thin places” are those places that were identified by the ancient Celts as sites where the barriers between humans and gods were particularly porous. Such sites were believed to be endowed with a particular sort of energy that was strong enough to be felt. In the United Kingdom such thin places were/are often associated with geographic boundaries or crossing places of one kind or another. Islands such as the Island of Iona – cut off from the land and sometimes invisible thanks to fog – were considered thin places. Fog itself and low hanging clouds which mysteriously hide a place from view give an air of mystery to glens and mountain peaks which in turn led to their being seen as places where the boundaries between heaven and earth were not only thin, but could on occasions be broken to allow passage between one world and the next.

The notion of ‘thin places’ is responsible for the practices that are associated with Halloween. It was believed that at that time of the year the barriers between this world and the next were opened up and that at that time the dead rose to trouble the living. Hugh bonfires were built to scare off the spirits and food and drink were prepared so that the spirits would be appeased and would not spoil the crops.

A Google search reveals that the idea “thin places” has been popularised in recent times by those seeking (or indeed having) spiritual experiences in “thin places” – old and new. An article in the New York Times offers travel advice regarding the author’s concept of places in which one might have encounters that unsettle and that challenge a person’s view of the world and of themselves. A blog entitled “Thin Places” offers tours of the “thin places” in Ireland.

When Augustine arrived in England he noticed that particular sites were popular with the locals. He wrote to Pope Gregory seeking guidance. The Pope responded that rather than abandoning such sites Augustine should capitalise on their popularity. Glastonbury Abbey being one such place. The “thin places” of the Celts became places of worship for the Christians in Britain.

While the terminology of “thin places” had its origin among pre-Christian religions, the notion of there being times and places in which God might be encountered has its roots deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In Genesis for example Adam and Eve are said to walk and talk with God, Abraham argues with God and Jacob wrestles all night with God. Later, Moses speaks to God face-to-face and Elijah sees God pass by. In the tradition of Israel, mountaintops shrouded in cloud were particularly significant as it was on Mount Sinai that Moses spoke directly to God.

Jesus’ Incarnation represents God breaking into the world in a dramatic and novel way, tearing down the barriers between sacred and mundane, bringing together in Jesus’ own self the human and divine. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke reveal Jesus’ nature through their accounts of Jesus’ birth, but Mark reveals this mystery only gradually – first to Jesus’ disciples and then to all.

The readers of the Gospel know the secret of Jesus’ identity because they are exposed to the new reality from the very start of Mark’s account. At Jesus’ baptism, Mark tells us, the heavens were torn asunder and a voice spoke from heaven. The tearing of the heavens and the voice of God are, in this instance, for Jesus alone (and in time for those reading Mark’s gospel). Mark suggests that though the disciples are in the presence of the divine (Jesus), they don’t seem to be aware of Jesus’ true nature. On many occasions they reveal that they do not understand, they are afraid even when Jesus is present with them and Jesus has reason to chide them for their lack of faith.

At the climax of the gospel, Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ (8:29) but his refusal to accept that Jesus will suffer demonstrates that he really doesn’t get it, he cannot yet see beyond the material and physical to the spiritual and immaterial. Six days after Peter’s declaration about Jesus he is taken, with James and John: “up a high mountain apart, by themselves”. Here once more heaven is opened, but this time there are witnesses. The figures of Moses and Elijah are seen not only by Jesus, but by the three disciples who not only witness Jesus’ heavenly transformation, but who also are enveloped in a cloud in which they hear the voice of God speaking directly to them: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” It is as if Jesus recognises that the disciples need to be shaken out of their old ways of thinking, they need to be confronted with something amazing and inexplicable that will challenge their certainties and open them to the presence of God in their midst.

Just as Moses had a direct experience of God on the mountaintop so now, centuries later, do these three tentative, timid disciples encounter God and hear God’s voice. The veil between heaven and earth has been drawn aside for this one moment in time revealing to them the nature of Jesus and the nature of Jesus’ relationship with God. The divine and the human met together in one person, the eternal breaking through into the temporary changing forever the nature of our existence.

In Jesus, God is always with us. Talking about “thin places” is just one way to express the truth that throughout our lives we meet God in extraordinary places and in extraordinary ways, in the sacred and in the profane, in the natural world and in the people who cross our paths. Such experiences might take place in a Cathedral or on a busy street, when we are transfixed by an amazing view or moved by extraordinary poverty, when we are uplifted by a piece of beautiful music or the laughter of a child. If we are open to the presence of God in the world around us we will recognise these moments as in time and place where heaven and earth meet. If we allow God to meet us in this way our lives will be richer, our joy fuller and our faith deeper. Like Jesus, we will be transformed into what we are really meant to be.

 

 

Praying for a miracle

February 3, 2018

Epiphany 5 – 2018

Mark 1:29-39

Marian Free

In the name of God who brings us to newness of life and calls us into service. Amen.

For the last eighteen months or so, I have been praying for a miracle. A young woman of my acquaintance has terminal cancer. The best that the medical community can do is to delay the inevitable. To that end Mary, who gave birth to her child shortly before the cancer was diagnosed, is enduring endless surgery and chemotherapy in the hope that she might live long enough to see her child go to school. I have been praying for a miracle – hoping against hope and against all evidence to the contrary that somehow the cancer can be reversed, that the damage to this Mary’s body can be sufficiently healed that she can watch her child grow to adulthood, that her child can have a mother and her husband a wife. I am praying for a miracle because I believe in miracles not because I expect a miracle or understand what a miracle is or when a miracle happens. I am certain that God acts in this world in ways that we cannot begin to understand, but I am equally certain that we cannot control or manipulate God or force God to do our will. So I am praying for a miracle, but I am also praying that my friend will know the presence of God in her life as she faces whatever future lies ahead of her.

It is true that the gospels record instances of Jesus’ healing all kinds of injury and ailments. There is even evidence that Jesus raises the dead. Jesus quite clearly responds with compassion to those in need and we can be confident that he was able to perform miracles. In reporting Jesus’ miracles the intention of the gospel writers is more complex than simply presenting Jesus as one miracle worker among many. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ healing are multi-layered and are intended to expose more than the surface event. Today’s gospel reading, in particular the account of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, is an example of the complexity of Mark’s story-telling and an indication that his intention is not so much to reveal Jesus as a healer but to point to the deeper meaning of Jesus’ ministry and purpose.

Reading the story in isolation fails to do it justice. Mark skillfully works into this account for example, that the occasion is a Sabbath day (Jesus has just been in the synagogue where he has cast out a demon). In these verses, we see that Jesus moves between public and private spaces – synagogue, house, crowds, wilderness and towns in Galilee. At the same time Jesus’ fame is spreading and this serves to increase the tension not only between Jesus and the sources of evil, but also between Jesus and the authorities.

At the heart of today’s reading is the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. All the elements of this story are important. The one healed is a family member. She has a fever – something that in the first century could lead to death. As a result of her illness the woman is no longer able to function in the way that she normally would. She is unable to play her role in society. The woman is at risk of dying, restricted in what she can do and her social interactions have been significantly curtailed.

Jesus responds by taking her hand (as he does in many other healing stories) and raising her up. The Greek word translated as ‘lifted’ is in fact the word for ‘raised’. This word appears in a number of healing stories and, of course, points forward to Jesus own resurrection. As a result of Jesus’ actions the fever leaves the woman (as the demon left the man in the previous story). Restored to health and life, the woman ‘serves’ those who are present.

It is this last that is most misunderstood. Some have tried to theologise or explain away this part of the story. Others are concerned that the woman is being returned to the domestic sphere (being kept in her place as it were). What we see however is that Mark’s account of the healing conforms to the pattern that is generally used for miracle stories: the healer touches the person – who is cured instantly and who then acts in such a way that it is clear that they have been healed. The woman’s service then is an indication that she has been cured – she is doing what women do – it is also more than that. The Greek word ‘diakonos’ means to serve food or to wait on tables. (It is from Acts 6 and the choice of Gentiles to serve at tables that our ministry of the diaconate has emerged.) Mark then may be intending to suggest that Peter’s mother-in-law is exercising a form of ministry or discipleship. The word ‘diakonos’ is used for discipleship in Mark 9:33-37 and 10:43-45 and of the women who followed Jesus in Mark 15:41. Jesus’ own ministry is described in terms of service. It is possible then, that rather than confining Peter’s mother-in-law to the domestic sphere, Mark is opening up possibilities for ministry and discipleship.

For the author of Mark’s gospel miracles have a significance in and of themselves but more important is their significance for our understanding of Jesus’ mission and of our response to that mission.

I will continue to pray for a miracle, but I will do so as I have: aware that Mark reports on the miracles of Jesus, not so much as events of themselves but as a sign that Jesus can raise people from lives that are deadening into lives that are fulfilling, that Jesus restores the lost to their families and their communities and gives meaning to their existence and that those who have been raised from death to life respond through discipleship and service. Above all when Jesus raises the sick to wholeness, he is pointing forward to his own resurrection and to the assurance that no matter whether we are healed or not in this life we will all, with Jesus, be raised to life eternal.

(I am indebted to Cynthia Briggs Kettridge for some of these ideas http://www.workingpreaching.org and to Ben Witherington III for the reminder about the structure of miracle stories The Gospel of Mark a Social-Rhetorical Commentary.)

Free to follow

January 20, 2018

Epiphany 3 – 2018
Mark 1:14-20
Marian Free

In the name of God who redeems and liberates us, but who always allows us to chose our own way. Amen.

I don’t need to tell you that by their very nature cults are insidious, abusive, controlling and soul destroying. In most cases they are established by individuals who are seeking to somehow empower or prove themselves by gaining control over others, usually under the guise of having some deep wisdom or spirituality to impart. Followers are often drawn in by a leader’s charisma or their own insecurities. These insecurities are then played upon to the extent that the followers will do whatever the leader suggests – abuse their children, engage in sexual acts with minors, murder the innocent or take their own life. Once they have fully embraced the “values” of the cult, members will try to convince others to join the group – the group grows and the cycle continues.

The Moonies for example, seem to target the lonely and the vulnerable (often young people traveling alone) and then use forms of mind-control (lack of sleep, suggestion, manipulation, drugs) to convince them that the cult has the answers to all life’s problems. They make it clear that if a member questions the teaching or the methods used to persuade others to belong that their own salvation is at risk.

It can become very hard to leave a cult. Those who have previously subscribed to the teaching can find it extremely hard to admit that they were wrong. If they leave the group they will almost certainly lose contact with their families and their friends. They will hav no form of social support and very likely, as a result of their time out of the world, will have no means of economic support. In some instances cult members are become so convinced of the rightness of the cult, or made to feel that outside the cult they are damned that no amount of rational argument will persuade them that they are better out than in.

In Australia, the cult known simply as The Family administered LSD in its purest form to teenagers in order both to subdue them and also to gain information from them that made it easy to manipulate them. It also allowed cult leaders to bend the youngsters to their will. With the collusion of doctors, nurses, social workers and lawyers, its founder Anne Hamilton-Byrne was able to “adopt” new born children and to whisk them away from hospitals without going through the proper channels. These children grew up believing that Anne was their biological mother.

What was it that made educated, professionals follow? What was it about Anne and her husband that led such people to behave in ways that were not only illegal, but that were also contrary to the ideals and codes of their professions? What hold did Anne have over educated professionals that they could justify to themselves their collusion in child abduction and in the shocking abuse of the children in their care?

What is it that makes people follow? What draws them to a particular person or set of beliefs? What leads them to forsake the norms of their society, to abandon friends and family and to accept as normal behaviors that are controlling and abusive? I’ll leave the psychologists to answer that.

It is interesting to note just how different Jesus’ approach is to that of those who establish cults. To begin with, Jesus has no intention of forming a cult (or even a sect within Judaism). Jesus’ goal is to proclaim the good news, to announce the Kingdom of God and to encourage people to ‘repent’ (turn their lives around). Jesus does not target the vulnerable, the lonely or the distressed. In fact the opposite is the case. Those whom he heals are free to continue living as they have before. (Neither the Syrophonecian woman nor the Roman centurion are urged to convert though both were in a very distressed state when they sought Jesus help.) Jesus doesn’t need followers to affirm him, to enrich him or to cover up his insecurities. Jesus’ goal is to empower and enrich others, to enable them to live life to the full. Jesus is confident enough and secure enough in his own person that he doesn’t need to resort to manipulation or subterfuge to gather followers or to subject them to his will.

Today’s version of the calling of the first disciples is quite different from that of John’s gospel that we heard last week. The call of the fishermen is the one with which we are more familiar. There was something about Jesus. Whether you take today’s account or John’s account, Jesus appears to have been able to inspire and energize others, to draw them out of themselves to their true calling. Without any attempt to pressure, without resorting to making them feel guilty, Jesus inspires Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave everything and join him in his task. Rather than take anything from them Jesus, as we shall learn, empowers his followers to do what he does. Instead of taking all the glory and power for himself Jesus shares not only his ministry, but with it the ability to teach, to heal, to cast out demons.

Rather than focusing on himself and placing himself at the centre of his movement, Jesus always and continuously points away from himself towards God.

It is true that many have used Jesus and his teaching to engender guilt, to manipulate others and to subject them to their will, but the true Jesus, the one whom we see in today’s gospel, has no need of coercion, does not seek power over others and nor does he induce feelings of worthlessness. The true Jesus recognises the strengths and weaknesses of his disciples, accepts them for who they are and frees them to be his voice in the world. The true Jesus knows us, accepts us and uses us to be his presence in the world.

Temporary happiness or eternal joy?

January 6, 2018

Baptism of Jesus – 2018

Mark 1:4-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks us to place our trust in God and to know our true worth. Amen.

There is a great gulf between what we are being promised by the commercial world and what we actually receive. One example is the advertisements for L’Oreal products in which a beautiful and rich woman encourages other women to buy their products because “we are worth it”. I understand that the advertising company is challenging a view held by many women that they shouldn’t put themselves first. The question is – does spending more on beauty products really improve a person’s feelings of self-worth. Or perhaps more important, does the use of beauty products make a person – woman or man – more worthwhile than they were before they used the product?

Another example is an advertisement I saw last week for a (supposedly) impressive four-wheel drive. Apparently, if you own this car you can get away with doing just about anything. In the advertisement the mother of young adult daughters attends a rock concert with them and causes them great mortification by crowd-surfing. The by-line is: “if you have nothing to lose you can do anything.” The connection between owning the car and having nothing to lose escapes me. Presumably, other people will be so impressed by what you drive that they will not think any the less of you if you do something that is immature, crazy or just fun. At the same time, the advertisement suggests, if you own this car you will free to do whatever you like and will never be embarrassed. Both advertisements have sensed – presumably correctly – that most people want to feel good about themselves. People want to know that they have value and credibility in the eyes of others. But does owning a better car, a more powerful car, a more prestigious car really help a person overcome feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt? If underlying feelings of failure and powerlessness are not addressed, no car, not matter how powerful will fill the void.

Advertisements, knowing our insecurities, focus on externals – the image that we can create if we use or buy their product. They suggest that simply by purchasing or applying their product that we can change our state of mind – become more confident, be more respected, have more authority or generally feel better about ourselves.

In the commercial world there is no place for inner strength, inner beauty or the self-confidence that comes from being at peace with yourself. Yet we all know that our identity has nothing to do with externals. Who we are is not defined by what is on the surface – how we look or what we own – but by our character, our relationships with others and by our inner strengths and resources.

What set Jesus apart – as we will see over and over again – was that Jesus did not feel a need to prove himself. He didn’t need external signs of power to make people sit up and take notice of him; he didn’t need to be richer or faster than everyone else to know his true value and worth. He didn’t need to set himself apart from his contemporaries to give the impression that he was better than them. Jesus appears to have had an inner confidence in his abilities and his sense of his own worth such that he did not need to be bolstered by what he owned or by what other people thought. Jesus’ belief in his own self-worth meant that he didn’t to seek affirmation or validation by jumping off cliffs or turning stones into bread. It was Jesus’ self-confidence and inner strength that allowed him to ignore the criticisms of the authorities of his day – not the fact that he owned the latest chariot. It was Jesus’ compassion and understanding that drew the crowds to him – not the fact that he was wearing designer clothes. It was Jesus’ personal resilience and inner resources that enabled him to make the journey to the cross – not the way in which his beard was trimmed. Jesus didn’t need any external prop to make him feel strong and invincible.

It was because Jesus knew who he was and where he was going that he felt free to seek John’s baptism of repentance. Having nothing to prove and nothing hide, Jesus didn’t have to feel self-conscious or embarrassed when he lined up with everyone else to repent. Jesus was happy in his now body and comfortably with his humanity. Another person might have been too proud or too independent to submit to such a ritual, but not so Jesus whose humility came from a sense of self that was sufficiently strong to ignore the games of power and outward appearance and to resist the social pressure to conform to the expectations of others.

The commercial world offers us products that promise to make us feel stronger, better, brighter, richer, more attractive or in some way better than our neighbour. The gospel gives us assurances of inner peace, joy and security, assurances of our own worth and our worth in God’s eyes – riches beyond our wildest desires. The gospel remind us that we are all of equal value before God. If we choose to buy into the values of the world in which case we will never feel that we have enough. If we choose the values of the kingdom we will have all that we need and more. The choice is ours – temporary fixes or lasting change, external signs of worth or inner certainty, temporary happiness or eternal joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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