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Do not be afraid

September 22, 2018

Pentecost 18 – 2018

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The disciples have it so wrong – as do we!

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

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

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

 

 

 

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On the side of Satan???

September 15, 2018

Pentecost 17 – 2018

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“I love my Shepherd’s voice,

his watchful eyes shall keep

my wandering soul among

the thousands of his sheep:

he feeds his flock, he calls their names,

his bosom bears the tender lambs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

God’s holiness making us holy

September 8, 2018

Pentecost 17 – 2018

Mark 7:24-37

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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?

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

Life and Death – two sides of one coin

March 31, 2018

For the Good Friday Liturgy, go to that page.

Kahlil Gibran – On Death

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

and like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.

Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?

And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Reflection

It is easy to think that Good Friday is all about dying and indeed we do focus on Jesus’ gruesome death and the events that led up to it. Today is a sombre and sobering day when we are forced to face our own role in the death of Jesus – our daily betrayals, our luke warm faith and our love of all things worldly. It is also the day when we are brought face-to-face with the potential consequences of standing with the oppressed and the marginalised, of challenging unjust structures and of confronting the love of power.

It is also a day of contradiction – the cross revealing in stark relief the ignorance and foolishness of humankind in regard to all things Godly. We begin to understand that life and death go hand in hand – they are two sides of the one coin. Without life there is no death, without death we do not really know life. Death throws life into perspective, helps us to appreciate the gift that it is, challenges us to value and to use the life that we have, encourages us to make the most of every minute.

Life that acknowledges death tries to make the most of every moment – to grasp with both hands the good and the bad, to embrace the future rather than to hold on to the past, to have half an eye on eternity rather than being bound to this earthly existence.

Life and death are aspects of daily existence. Every moment we can choose life or death – we can choose to behave in ways that are life-enhancing or life destroying. We can choose to hold on to those things that are familiar and comforting but which are stultifying and limiting, or we can let go and embrace a future that is uncertain and full of potential and opportunity.

Do you fear death? Are you afraid of letting go of those things that are familiar and comforting?

As the poem suggests, death and life go hand in hand. Through our daily deaths (to fear, anxiety, greed and hate) we free ourselves to embrace life more fully.

All our little deaths, free us to live more fully, more authentically,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)

Don’t push God away

January 27, 2018

Epiphany 4 – 2018

Mark 1:21-28 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God to whom one day we must answer. Amen.

There is a very powerful movie about the civil war in Sierra Leone – Blood Diamond. One of the sub-plots is that of a boy of 10 who is kidnapped by the opposing forces and forced to fight and kill. He like many other young boys is drugged, beaten and forced to carry out all kinds of atrocities. Amazingly, the boy’s family somehow survived the raid on his village and eventually made it to a refugee camp. Although they feared the worst, the family never stopped looking for their son. Even when they had an opportunity to leave the country to be resettled elsewhere they would not be moved determined that they were not going to leave their son behind. By some miracle the Red Cross managed to locate the boy who, by then had escaped (or been freed by) his captors.

The scene in which the father and son are reunited is heart-wrenching. Instead of running into his father’s open arms, the child holds back. He is embarrassed and ashamed. Even though he was forced to fight, in the presence of his father he feels tainted, unworthy. All that he has done, the drug taking, the killing and the cruelty stand between him and his father’s goodness. In the presence of his father, he feels exposed, he sees himself as he believes that any person would see him – an immoral, heartless killer. He is overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt. He knows what he has done and he cannot accept that anyone, even his father could overlook such heinous crimes.

So he stands aloof, awkward and embarrassed. It is only when his father steps forward, takes him in his arms and assures him of his love that the child begins to melt, to believe that there might be a future in which the past is left behind. The future may not be easy, the past may be difficult to forget, but the child has taken the first step to wholeness and healing.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Like the child in the story, the demons felt exposed under Jesus’ gaze. Somehow, when no one else knows who Jesus is, the demons, recognising Jesus’ pure goodness, know that he is ‘the Holy One of God’. To them this is not a good thing. Of all people Jesus, they knew, could see through them, could see the darkness they inhabited, the evil they had committed and of which they were capable. Like the child, they are uncomfortable. They don’t like to be exposed, they don’t want or need to have their nature or their deeds brought to light. Unlike the child though, the demons are comfortable as they are. While they might find Jesus’ presence uncomfortable and disconcerting, they do not want to be set free, they want to be left to their own devices. Jesus nature is the direct opposite of theirs and makes the contrast between good and evil even more stark. Jesus’ presence is an irritant, a reminder of who and what they are. Because they do not wish to be restored, because they want to remain unchanged and unchallenged they see Jesus, not as a healer, but as one who destroys.

The reaction of the demons poses, I believe, a challenge for us. Are there aspects of our lives of which we are ashamed? Do we have thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors that of which we are ashamed or, at the very least self conscious. Are there times when the generosity, goodness or love of another makes us feel mean or nasty or lacking in love and compassion? Are the times when in the presence of another we feel that the worst of our nature is exposed, revealed for all to see? Are there times when we feel that our very being is under threat because we are challenged to give up anger, resentment or bitterness? If there are times when we feel less than perfect, less than worthy of others’ good opinions: do we cringe with embarrassment? Or do we wish they they (the person who has engendered such feelings) would go away so that we didn’t have to see our weaknesses exposed (even to ourselves)? Do we prefer to be unchanged and unchanging rather than do the hard work or dealing with our failings and being no only a better person but a more productive member of society?

These are important questions because they not only impact on the quantity of our life in this world, but they most certainly impact of our life in the next.

I do not have special insight into the day of judgement. With regard to what happens after death I am as ignorant as the next person. But, I do believe that both in the present and at our death we must answer to God for all that we have done and been in this life. If at the moment of death I must stand in the presence of God and under the scrutiny of God’s gaze, I would like to be prepared. That is, I would like to see myself (now) as God sees me. I would like to trust in God’s unconditional love to the extent that I can allow the real me to be exposed. Having allowed myself to be exposed I hope, with God’s help, to allow myself to be transformed and while I do not for one minute expect that I will achieve any degree of perfection in this life, I hope that between now and then I will trust God enough to have no secrets, that I will know what God will see when we come face-to-face. I will know too, that like the father in ‘Blood Diamond’, that God who sees me with all my flaws will love and welcome me just the same.

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark 1:21-28

The demons cannot bear the scrutiny of Jesus’ gaze. We all have to stand in the presence of God. It is important to be prepared, to see ourselves as God sees us, to trust that God’s love is such that however unjustified that love will not be withdrawn, to be ourselves and allow ourselves to be transformed.

(Thoughts to be published in full when internet allows)

Ed

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.


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