UnitingWorld has launched an emergency appeal for relief and rebuilding in Fiji following Cyclone Winston. Find out more, or give online here.
The Roseville Asylum Seeker & Refugee Support Group is screening the movie The Good Lie, (Rated M) on Thursday 17th March at 7pm for 7.30 at Roseville Uniting Church
Cost is $15 including refreshments. For more details: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Sue Drury
(9416 7342). All proceeds to the Roseville Asylum Seeker & Refugee Support Group.
This year, our local host for the World Day of Prayer is Turramurra Uniting Church. The day of prayer starts at 10:30am, and lunch is provided. The service has been arranged by the women of the Church in Cuba.
Mark 6:1-13, 30-44
I’m really enjoying this series of readings where we get to hear a largish chunk of the gospel read at a single sitting. Every week, as I’ve been reading the text in preparation, something has emerged that I haven’t seen when I’ve read the stories in isolation, as we tend to do.
Not that there is anything wrong with taking the stories each on their own merits; there are things we learn like that. But I’m really enjoying the fresh perspectives that the juxtaposition of stories gives us.
The sending of the twelve on their first missionary endeavour, for instance.
Now I’ve always loved this story – the way that Jesus doesn’t wait until the disciples are ready, doesn’t wait until they understand, doesn’t wait until near the end of his ministry to pass on the baton; but instead, early on in the piece, he’s teaching them not just with his words and his example; he’s teaching them by setting them practical homework. Take what you’ve learned so far, he says to them, and go and share it! Tell others what you’ve seen and heard!
And I’m sure that there is a message here that we’ve heard before but really need to hear again: that part of the life of being a disciple is that we are sent to tell others. The twelve didn’t have to have all the answers, and nor do we. The twelve didn’t have to have experience, special training, evangelistic conferences: they just had to go and tell others what they had seen and heard.
The core of Christian evangelism is not apologetics; it is our own story of our own encounter of Jesus, with the invitation – “taste and see that the Lord is good”. Or, as D.T. Niles put it, it is “one beggar telling another where he found bread”.
There is a whole sermon in there, in the way the twelve (and later the seventy two) were sent. And there’s another whole sermon in the fact that they were not sent alone, but in pairs; pairs who were safer, who could keep each other honest, who could encourage each other when things went badly, who could talk the events of each day over and reflect upon them. There’s a whole sermon in the fact that the Christian faith is very rarely a solo endeavour, that we are sent as we are called, in community with one another.
There are a whole load of sermons about mission in this gospel reading today. But I want to read it today through a different lens; not about mission, but about hospitality…
The story starts with Jesus being rejected. In his home town he preaches the same good news that has been welcomed in many other places, but here, amongst those who know him, he proves the adage that familiarity breeds contempt. Or perhaps something else is at work here. They say “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, brother of James and Joses and so on.”
Notice something odd about that? They name him as the son of Mary; not of Joseph. Odd, when society placed so much emphasis on the male line of descent.
This is sometimes taken as an indication that Joseph was dead; but the death of a father never stopped a child being named as “bar Joseph”.
Perhaps this instead reflects the lifelong stigma hanging over Jesus’ birth; that everyone who could count knew that he was born less than nine months after Joseph and Mary were wed.
“How could this man, with no legitimate father, possibly be a prophet, a voice from God?”
For whatever reason, they reject him. And then in the very next passage, Jesus sends his disciples out to carry the word to all the villages around. And he gives them this baffling instruction: take nothing with you except your staff, your shoes, and the clothes on your back. No money, no bag, not even food.
What’s this all about then? Why were the disciples sent out unequipped?
Now I’ve often heard it said that the point Jesus was making was that they needed to be dependant upon God; that they needed to learn that they could trust God to provide for them – “trust in the Lord and lean not on your own bank balance” as it were.
And I’m sure there is truth in that. But I think it’s truth that is filtered through a rather different lens. That is, that Jesus was not trying to teach the disciples to depend on God as he was forcing them to rely on the hospitality of those to whom they were sent.
Go, and when you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Place yourself upon the hospitality of others, into the hands of others.
Jesus refused to let the disciples go and preach from a position of independence, or of power. He insisted that they preach the good news from a place of being dependant upon those to whom they preached.
And there is something of the incarnation here – an echo, if you like, of the Christmas story, of the very life of Jesus. Who did not consider his position of power, his equality with God as something to be used, but emptied himself, became dependant upon those that he came to save.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not at it’s greatest and truest and most powerful when it is spoken from a position of authority, from a position of privilege, from a position of wealth, from a position within the system.
Look around the world. The gospel is not spreading like wildfire in places where preachers have stipends and manses, where Churches have tax status, where Christian prayer is part of school and government.
The gospel is spreading where Indian preachers swim across Himalayan rivers to pastor their congregations in Tibet. Where the small Christian minority in Indonesia offers unconditional service to their Muslim brothers and sisters. Where the Chinese underground Church has for years preached the good news in the face of persecution.
Jesus, sending his disciples out with nothing, said to them: in this conversation, you will not be the host. You will be the guest. Your food to eat, your right to speak, will be that which is given to you by your host. If they do not welcome you, then leave, go elsewhere, find someone who will.
And there is a simple practical twist to this: those who will welcome you, those who will offer you hospitality; they are the ones most likely to hear your words.
And so they go; and later in the chapter they return, and Jesus takes them to a deserted place, to debrief, I guess. But they are swamped by a crowd, and Jesus takes the theme of hospitality one step further; his followers have gone and placed themselves at the mercy of the hospitality of others; now the crowd – including, perhaps, many of those who had hosted the disciples in their travels, and had followed them back to the source, to see and hear Jesus for themselves; now the crowd comes and places itself at the mercy of the hospitality of Jesus, the hospitality of God.
And we come full circle. Jesus, rejected by his own, his disciples, dependant as guest upon the largess of their hosts; now the crowd comes as guests to the hospitality of Jesus.
And all are fed.
Because God is their host.
It’s an echo of that meal that we share today, as we gather at the table where God is our host, and all are welcome.
But as we gather, I wonder where we find ourselves in this net of hospitality?
Do we have the courage to do as Jesus bid the twelve? To place ourselves not in a position of power, but at the mercy of others, of those who are not of our community of faith?
To believe the words of the apostle, that it is in our weakness, and not our strength, that God most powerfully works?
And to do so because we can hold in our minds at all times the hospitality of God held out to us, symbolised in this meal that we share together as the people of God?
I wonder what we might look like if we did…
So many options for the preacher in today’s reading. Two stories of miraculous, interwoven into one another as if to force us to treat them as someone linked, somehow two sides of the same something, as if to say “don’t hear one of these stories without hearing the other”. Although of course, we do still manage to do so – I suspect many Bible story books, for instance, contain the story of Jairus’ daughter but leave the woman with the haemorrhages out.
But why are these stories so bound together? What is it that we learn from the combination of stories which we don’t see in either of them on their own? It seems to me that we would benefit from looking at these two miracles side by side, to see how they are similar, how they differ, and what that might tell us.
To begin then, perhaps, with the great difference; the two characters who come to Jesus seeking help could not be more different from one another.
Jairus, we are told, is one of the leaders in the synagogue. He is a respectable man, conventionally religious, married, with children, (or at least one child). And, of course, he is male. When it comes to assessing privilege within his society, Jairus ticks all of the boxes. No wonder the people who remembered this story, retold it, passed it on until such time as Mark came to write it down, knew his name.
By contrast, of course, with the anonymous woman in the crowd. In terms of social respectability, she had nothing: a woman, to start with, but also unclean (the bleeding of a haemorrhage would make that certain) and therefore excluded from public acts of worship and from most social events. She’s bankrupt as a result of years of medical costs; probably unmarried or divorced; an outsider with no influence or respectability.
But both of them have heard of Jesus, and both of them have come to the conclusion that this man might be solution to their very real problems; that he might represent the salvation they are searching for.
And so both of them come; and both of them have to overcome very real personal barriers in order to do so.
Jairus has to put his respectability on the line. As a respected leader of religion, he is supposed to be the one who knows, the one that other people turn to when they are in need of answers, in need of help, in need of God. He is used to being the teacher, the God-person in the room.
And so he has to humble himself; a leader of the synagogue going to an outsider; a respectable pillar of society falling at the feet of Galilean nobody, an educated man seeking the advice of a carpenter’s son. But he does so – and he does it not as even as an equal – one man of God seeking the help of a peer – but he falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him, repeatedly. Because here, in this moment, Jairus is no longer the powerful, respectable, educated leader of men; here, Jairus is just a father whose little girl is dying – a man who has discovered exactly how much all those other things matter when placed next to a parent’s love for their child.
Jairus overcomes all the social barriers to seeking out Jesus because none of them matter to him any more.
The anonymous woman has a very different set of barriers to overcome. Ceremonially unclean, she is unwelcome wherever there are people, especially in anything resembling a religious setting. Certainly to be in a great crowd was not acceptable. A crowd pressing in, people pushed together, jostling; this was context she had probably avoided for the past twelve years. Most likely she went incognito; for she would know that if she was recognised, she would be shunned, perhaps even met with violence, for daring to bring her uncleanliness amongst the crowd.
So she has to overcome the hostility of those who would not want her there, as well as her own internalised version of that same rejection. It is simply not possible to be excluded from society for twelve years without some part of you coming to believe the exclusion must be justified.
But she does. Because she has already tried every option that society told her was ok; she has gone to the doctors, and they have taken her money and left her no better; indeed, we are told, they have left her worse than she was before.
But she doesn’t go to Jesus. She doesn’t face him; not even on her knees at his feet does she feel she would be welcome. All she dares is to touch his cloak.
Jairus had to humble himself to come to Jesus for help; this woman had to do the opposite. She had to believe she was worth enough to have the right to seek his help. Jairus’ approach was very public; hers secretive. Jairus begged, she didn’t even speak.
Two people seeking Jesus out; two people who stand at opposite ends of the social spectrum, who could not be more different, who overcome very different barriers in order to seek his help.
But the story ends the same for both of them.
Both are given back the gift of life.
Jairus receives back the life of his daughter; and with it all the hopes and dreams that had been shattered; all the possibilities of a future for her, for the family.
And the anonymous woman receives back her health, and with it, her life as part of society: now she can be declared clean, she can be part of life once more; perhaps, depending on her age, she might even dream once more of a family.
But in fact, her story is not yet complete. For there is a detail in the story that I had never noticed until I read it this week. When Jesus asks “who touched me?”, and the disciples can’t believe the question, but she understands and comes finally to face him; but when she does, she comes “in fear and trembling”, and unconsciously imitates Jairus; she falls at his feet.
She has sought Jesus out, she has received the healing she hoped for; but now she has been found out, and she is terrified. She’s not rejoicing, or full of gratitude; when Jesus calls her, she comes in fear and trembling, frightened that she will be punished for daring to approach Jesus, daring to touch him.
Everything in her life in the past twelve years has taught her that she is not worthy; that she is unclean; that she has no right to even hope for help.
Her healing is not yet complete. She has been healed in her body; but Jesus knows that that is not the end of the story.
And so he says just a few more words to her.
“Daughter,” he names her; the same word that Jairus had used of his little girl, the one he loved so much he would do anything in the hope of saving her; Jesus uses the same word to name this woman.
“Daughter, your faith has healed you,” your faith, he says, as if to say, this healing is yours. You have this because whatever life has told you for the past twelve years, you are worthy of it.
“Go in peace,” you need not fear that your presumption will bring consequences upon you, “and be healed”; this healing will not be taken from you.
And now she has truly been healed.
So what does it all mean? How to pull it all together? Well, you know I’m not into the whole “the moral of this story is” sort of thing. Find your own conclusion.
But this one, I offer, at least.
It didn’t matter that the two came from opposite ends of society. It didn’t matter that they overcame different problems. It didn’t matter that one came for herself and the other came on behalf of another. It didn’t matter that they approached Jesus differently, addressed him differently.
All that mattered was that they knew they needed his help; that they dared to overcome all that would stand between them and him, and that they came.
On Thursday of Holy Week, March 24th, we will be remembering the events of the night of Jesus’ betrayal – from the Last Supper, through the Garden of Gethsemane, and on to the trial. The service will be communion and, while serious, will also be suitable for older children.
During Lent everyone is warmly invited to the Manse at 7:45pm each Tuesday evening for a Bible Study / Discussion based around the gospel reading for the previous week (and to dissect the sermon, if you are so inclined!) over a glass of wine.
Everyone is very welcome to join us for our next Congregational Lunch – after Church on Sunday 21st February. Tell Cecile or Mary if you’d like to book in!
Then Jesus began to teach them many things in parables.
Don’t you just love parables?
Those quirky images of everyday life interwoven with an edge, an observation, a twist.
Stories designed not to answer a question, but to ask a different one.
Playful, often humorous pictures that sometimes seem clear, but whose meaning seems to twist away or change direction when you try to look more closely.
I love parables, and I love the parable of the sower. Jeyanth, on the other hand, does not. When, yesterday, I mentioned that we were looking at this parable he responded “but I’ve heard that like five million times already!”
And let’s face it, allowing for a little hyperbole, it’s true. We’ve heard this one a lot of times.
And it’s more or less de-rigueur when preaching on it to say that although this parable gets called “The parable of the sower”, it’s really not about the sower at all – it’s about the soil. It’s a parable about the different soils, the different ways that people respond to the good news of the Kingdom.
And of course, that’s totally true.
The soil in the story describes the human heart. The place into which the good news is sown.
And the reality of the world is that the soil of human hearts – indeed, I suspect the soil within a single human heart – is always a mixture. It’s not all goodness and niceness and happy potential crying out to be set free, as the more optimistic philosophies would have it. And nor is the heart universally hard, resistant, selfish, as the pessimist might suggest.
The soil is mixed. And on one level at least, the parable serves as a challenge to consider what soil we offer to the seed of the kingdom of God.
The seed, Jesus explains, is the word, the message, the offer of the kingdom of God. It’s traditional to think of this in terms of sort of evangelistic proclamation – but I suspect it’s a lot broader than that. It might, of course, be the call to first respond to the good news, to make that fateful decision that you will be one of Jesus’ people. But it might again be another word, decades later, calling you to a new insight, a new challenge, a new act of love or service or discipleship.
Or perhaps it might be an unexpected act of love or grace falling upon you – how will you respond, the parable asks, when someone seeks you out and asks your forgiveness for wrongs that long ago divided you? How will that seed fare in your heart. Or when someone challenges you to step up to a new challenge in service of others? Or when someone simply show an unexpected act of love; visiting you when you are sick, helping out when you needed it. How will you respond that a new “word” of the Kingdom, a new demonstration of God’s grace?
And Jesus offers four answers. Not, I suspect, as an exhaustive list, but as a challenge. How will you respond when a seed falls in the soil of your heart.
Sometimes, we simply don’t – or won’t – hear. The adversary, that force (spiritual, physical, economic, whatever) which is opposed to the advance of the Kingdom, takes the seed, the word, the act, away before we even recognise it for what it is.
Sometimes we hear and we respond enthusiastically – perhaps too enthusiastically. We jump on the bandwagon without doing the work of putting down roots. Or perhaps we hear only the fun bit of the message, and miss the call to discipleship, to repentance, to servanthood.
Or perhaps we respond, but only until other things crowd it out – care of the world, the lure of wealth, the desire for something else – recognising that the call of the kingdom is sometimes away from these things, away from the path that might lead to the greatest material benefit.
But sometime, just sometimes, a seed falls in rich soil within us. It grows slowly but surely, like the corn, or the mustard tree, and bears much fruit; creates the multiplier effect, the “pay it forward” of the Kingdom.
But there is always another angle, of course, and I wonder if perhaps we might see this story as the parable of the sower as well?
Because the great thing about this story, at least on the surface, is that the sower seems to be completely rubbish at his job. He chucks his seed out with no concern whatsoever for the ground it falls on. He doesn’t seem to be worried that three quarters of his seed gets wasted. He isn’t selective – he throws out his seed crazily, irrationally, in all directions.
And I wondered why.
And I wonder if perhaps it’s because he knows that good soil can be found in unexpected places. Because even on the path there may be patches not so hard trodden that the seed cannot take root. Because even amongst the weeds there will be some places where the seed can outgrow the thistle. Because even the rocks hide patches of rich soil.
And he knows that the rewards, the benefits to be reaped from even a single grain that unexpectedly grows, far outweigh the cost of sowing prodigally.
And perhaps that itself is a powerful image of the way the Kingdom grows. And how we grow it. Not so much by careful targeting, but by unreasonably lavish acts of love, gifts of grace, sharing of story. Not by trying to work out who might respond to the word or act of grace, but by offering it unconditionally, and rejoicing when the mysterious workings of seed, soil, sun and water turn the seed we throw into a hundred more.
For those who’ve asked – here’s what I said about #letthemstay in Church this morning. The public meeting is 6pm – 7:30pm, Town Hall Square.
Tomorrow at 6pm at Town Hall square, people from all over Sydney will be gathering to call on the Australian government not to send the more than 80 babies and children of asylum seekers currently in Australia, or their families, back to Nauru. There are similar gatherings in every capital city in Australia. Sureka, the kids and I are going to be there, and I’d like to take a moment to tell you why.
There is a wide range of opinions about how we can best respond to the world wide crisis of asylum seekers. The questions around how they come, where and why they come, and how many can be settled are complicated, and I know that people of good will can honestly differ in good faith.
But the campaign against the detention of children is not about that.
This is about how we as a nation, treat innocent children. Children who are in our country’s care while their family’s claims for asylum are being assessed. Children, in many cases, born here.
I know we could be critical of parents for putting their children into this situation. But that’s not the issue at hand. The question for us is how we, as Australians, respond. We are responsible for our actions and our decisions, and the effect they have. And I simply cannot stand by in silence while my country sends children to detention on Nauru.
I cannot remain silent when a five year old boy, having received medical treatment needed because he was raped, is sent back to the custody of the same guards who are accused of raping him.
I cannot remain silent when a seven year old girl attempts suicide by cutting her face and chest with razor blades, when young children jump from buildings in an attempt to kill themselves; it is not ok to send more children into the very situation that has created such despair, whatever crime we may think their parents may have committed.
It is never ethically acceptable to deliberately cause harm to the innocent – these children – in order to punish or deter those that we hold to be guilty.
Last year 15 peak health professional bodies issued a joint statement opposing the detention of children because of “the devastating impact of detention on the health and wellbeing of children”. The Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian & NZ College of Psychiatrists, the Australian College of Nursing, Westmead Children’s Hospital, The Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital, the Australian College of Children and Young People’s Nurses, the Australian Psychological Society – all of those and others – professional medical bodies with first-hand experience of Nauru, have called for this to stop. I have copies of that statement in full for anyone who is interested.
I say again – to deliberately hurt children in order to punish their parents is simply not acceptable, whatever crime you believe that those parents may have committed. And knowing what we know, what all the expert bodies agree, about Nauru and Manus, there can be no doubt that choosing to send these children back is choosing to deliberately cause them harm.
Possibly the harshest words spoken by Jesus in the gospels were reserved for those who put children into harm’s way. Millstones and oceans.
This is why Churches across Australia – Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Uniting and others – have this week declared that they will offer sanctuary to children and families at risk of being returned to Nauru. Church leaders of all denominations have made it clear that as an act of civil disobedience, they will refuse to hand over any families who seek their protection, accepting that they could be charged and imprisoned as a result.
And I have never been prouder to be part of the Church than I am today.
Tomorrow we will be joining with thousands of other Australians calling on the Government not to let it come to that, not to send these families back to Nauru but to allow them to live in the Australian community while their claims for asylum are assessed.
I invite you to join us. 6pm. Town Hall Square.
Tuesday 9th is shrove Tuesday – so please join us at the Manse for the traditional pancake party! All ages welcome, from 7pm until whenever. We’ll provide a big stack of pancakes, bring along something that can be eaten or drunk with them 🙂
Lonely Planet says it’s among the ‘world’s hottest new experiences’. Opened to the public for the first time last December, Tasmania’s Three Capes Track is a world-class, multi-day walking experience of 46 km on the Tasman Peninsula. It’s an easy to moderate walk, lightly packed, on a track so meticulously crafted you’re free to enjoy your experience rather than watching every step.
Places on the trek are limited, so book early. This will be an experience you’ll talk about for years. For an overview see 2016 Major Trek (Three Capes Track) flyer (PDF format).
Full information on the Thee Capes Track is available at www.threecapestrack.com.au.
For more information contact Kit Craig on 0411 507 422 or email email@example.com
As usual, the folk at The Dish have been very much thought of by the wider community. Plans have been underway for months: St. Patrick’s Asquith Children’s Choir have been preparing their repertoire of songs to share with our friends on the Tuesday before Christmas when their Church folk were preparing and serving the meal. Some of the Staff of Pymble Ladies’ College were spending their final day at School filling 25 bags with gifts bestowed on us over the year, supplemented by the PLC staff as well – wrapping them and preparing cards for each bag – labelled according to it being for a man or woman, and according to size (of person!).
Staff at Central Finance Management Group approached The Dish some time ago to offer help: they provided hot Christmas Pudding and custard on the day, and as well, many presents – items of clothing and necessaries – to go in the bags prepared by PLC Staff. For some years now the Inner Wheel of North Sydney Rotary Club have been sending up many presents for inclusion into the bags of treats. Thanks to all of these people for their caring for those in need.
The menu was organised weeks in advance as both Janet’s and Alison’s families were to be out of Sydney this Christmas. A Wahroonga family together with a Cathedral family were prepared to be responsible for the Shift supervision and serving. This was marvellous – terrific food: many courses – just like yours at home – and finishing with a bag of goodies for each one there. All the food was fabulous! Home-made Christmas pudding and custard – to die for!
As well, (as if this wasn’t enough already!!) the customers of Bendigo Bank participated in helping by surrounding their Bank’s Christmas Tree with gifts. These were dispatched on Christmas Day.
(Sorry, it took me a long time to get around to posting this – Chris)
Today we’ve heard a big chunk of gospel reading, most of chapter 2. A set of vignettes that we would normally read as individual stand-alone stories, each carrying a particular message. Our printed Bibles tend to encourage this sort of approach, by inserting sub-headings to tell us what each paragraph is all about.
But we’re taking advantage of reading larger blocks of text together, recognising that the author was doing more than just randomly chucking a bunch of stories together; he was deliberately telling his story in the way he felt best communicated “the good news of Jesus Christ”, as he names it in the opening verses of chapter 1.
In passing – if you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you sometime over the coming weeks to sit down and read the whole of Mark’s gospel – it isn’t really very long – to get a feel of this overall shape. I reckon you’ll find the individual stories make a lot more sense when you have that context.
But back to today’s reading – what we have is this set of vignettes – the healing of the paralytic, the calling of Levi and the controversy that followed, the discussion of fasting – all of which are connected by, and leading to, those last few verses about cloths and wineskins. Which tend to be the bits we leave out, because they seem a bit obscure and don’t have an interesting story connected to them.
Which is a shame, because in those couple of sentences Mark uses Jesus’ teaching to draw together the theme of the three stories that have gone before.
What Jesus has begun to do, and here continues, is teaching people about the Kingdom of God; teaching them by his words and by his actions, his priorities, his miracles (as we explored a couple of weeks ago).
And Mark illustrates the nature of the Kingdom, often, by contrast, by showing Jesus’s conflicts and arguments and differences with the religious leaders – and religious attitudes – of his day. So each of our three stories has an argument at its core: can sins be forgiven (the healed paralytic)? who is acceptable to God (eating with tax collectors and sinners)? how should we practice our faith (the question of fasting)?
There’s a saying, attributed, as so many pithy sayings are, despite the lack of evidence, to Einstein, that says “you can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created it”. Whether Einstein said it or not, there’s a sense in which Jesus seems to be illustrating it: that the problem the people of God are facing in Roman occupied Palestine, their lack of freedom, lack of influence, lack of honour paid to their God, lack of impact on the world in the name of their God; is not going to be solved by continuing with the same thinking, the same worldview. For about six hundred years the people of God have been more or less continuously in exile – literally, in Babylon, or figuratively, back in Jerusalem but under the power of Persia, then Greece, then Rome.
And throughout that time they’ve been trying, over and again, to put things right following the logic of holiness:
if we can just be good enough for God, obey the law well enough, and exclude from ourselves unclean or non-conforming elements, then God will grant us military victory, and set us free.
The logic of holiness is that the people just need to be better, purer, holier, stricter in their unquestioning obedience to every letter of the law.
But for six hundred years, it hasn’t worked. It’s the Alcoholic anonymous definition of insanity – to keep trying the same thing and expecting different results.
Whereas the life of Jesus says that holiness, characterised by unquestioning obedience to the written law and withdrawal from that which might infect us with other ways, other ideas, other faiths, even, is not the solution.
It’s this holiness approach, this attitude to the world, which leads the scribes to accuse Jesus of blasphemy when he dares to declare the sins of the paralytic to be forgiven. In their worldview, their mindset, his suffering must be just punishment for his (or perhaps his parents’) sin – victim blaming, we call it now. It might seem obvious to us that healing someone is a good thing to do, but from their perspective – if suffering was God’s punishment for sin, then healing was to directly contradict the will of God. That’s where their demand for unquestioning obedience had led them – to a place where doing an obviously good thing, an obvious act of love, could be understood as blasphemy.
And the same comes through when Jesus goes to dine at the house of Levi. Jesus calls a man who is on the outside, a man who is unacceptable because he is a collaborator with Rome, a traitor to his people, and that man, Levi, follows him. It seems Levi’s first act of discipleship is to invite Jesus to dinner with many of his friends; fellow outcasts, the pro-Roman crowd, tax collectors and other sinners.
And maybe it’s not as clear cut as healing, but I reckon most of us would think that being willing to step outside the comfortable, to share a meal with those who are on the margins of society, with those who are the other, the enemy, is a good thing (at least in theory).
From my perspective as an outsider, one of the greatest things about the life of Nelson Mandela was his willingness, as president, to work with those who had been his captors, his enemies, seeing in the rebuilding of those relationships the best hope for the future.
Although maybe it’s easier to respect and approve from a distance. I wonder if we are quite as comfortable, quite as positive, about those people of faith who work in safe injecting rooms, or with sex offenders.
Do we respect that? Or do we accuse them of condoning behaviour which is destructive, of themselves, or worse, of others? Maybe Jesus dining with Levi isn’t such a simple story. Or maybe some part of us still resonates with the logic of holiness, with the desire to prove ourselves good by contrast with someone one else, some other.
Jesus pulls these things, these threads of idea together in the closing words of our reading, two images that make the same two points: with the declaration of the Kingdom of God, something new has arrived, and it’s not a patching up of the old; the old cannot contain it; you cannot keep this Kingdom of God contained within the mindset of second temple Judaism; you cannot use this new teaching to fix the problems of the nation.
The Kingdom of God is not the Kingdom of David restored; it is not another call to obedience, to holiness, not a promise that if the people can just live right then this time it will all be different.
It’s something new.
Something characterised not by withdrawal from the sinner, and careful avoidance of any semblance of sin, but by the hands of the one who touched the leper, forgave the sinner, dined with the collaborator, welcomed the outsider.
This is the picture of the Kingdom of God that Mark is starting to sketch for us. As we read on, we’re going to see more and more just what it looks like.
(this is the sermon from Jan 17th, which I forgot to upload!)
You’d have to say, Mark doesn’t hang around. In Matthew and Luke’s gospels Jesus doesn’t start his ministry until the middle of Chapter 4 – but here we are, just on our second chunk of Mark, middle of Chapter 1 – and Jesus is right into it – proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and, I suspect more importantly, showing people what it looked like.
But we are also thrown right into what I, as a preacher, find one of the more difficult questions of the gospels – what are we to make of healing miracles and the casting out of demons that run throughout the life of Jesus? Or, rather, what do we make of the fact that we don’t seem to see the same pattern of miraculous healing in our own lives or the lives of those dear to us?
Should we? Is it that, as some would maintain, we simply lack the faith to see God’s miracles at work, that we are too trapped in our own cultural mindset of rationality and scientific method to be able to expect, or even genuinely ask for, the miraculous?
Others might say almost exactly the opposite – that the miracles recorded in the gospels didn’t really happen, that they reflect the credulity of a pre-scientific age, or that the gospel accounts, not being written as historical biography as we might understand it, but as theology, or hagiography even, aren’t intended to describe what actually happened, but instead stand as a sort of parable for what Jesus’ teaching was really about.
And yet, as seems ever the case, I find neither of those perspectives to be convincing. I have known too many people of genuine, deep faith, pray for healing for themselves or those they love, with a confidence that their prayer would be answered, only to find that healing, at least in the form that they were hoping and trusting for, was not to be.
But at the same time, the gospel accounts don’t read like hagiography. Read some of the accounts of the saints, or some of the non-canonical gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and you find plenty of miracles which just don’t sound right, don’t have what J. B. Phillips, the twentieth century Bible translator, called the “Ring of Truth” that the gospel accounts do.
The gospel writers clearly were not setting out to write history or biography, there is plenty of internal evidence that they have moved events in time or geography to better suit their narrative flow and the key themes they are trying to express, that events have been merged, teaching summarised, and the like. But to simply invent a whole aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry doesn’t seem credible for a writer working at a time when the eye witnesses to those events were still alive.
So we seem left with the tension – that it seems the life and ministry of Jesus was characterised by literal physical healings, in a way that the life of the modern Church is not.
And what are we to make of it? Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed, and I’m sure you won’t be surprised, if I tell you that I’m not going to be able to answer that question for you. All I can hope to do is to offer some of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that make a sort of sense to me, pieces that you might be able to fit into your experience of life and insight into God and find some piece of the bigger picture.
The first of these pieces is clear in our gospel reading today – that the miracles in Jesus’ ministry played an important role in getting people to listen, in showing the truth of Jesus’ words. In today’s reading the people marvelled at his teaching, but also at the authority with which he spoke – an authority which was specifically identified with his ability to command the forces of evil and be obeyed. And we might think too of another healing miracle, the lame man lowered through the roof by his friends, to whom Jesus said “your sins are forgiven” but then, to the doubters present, he added “so that you might know that I have the authority on earth to forgive sins, I say ‘get up and walk’”.
Perhaps part of the reason that we do not have the simple, absolute power of healing the Jesus showed in his life is simply that we are not Jesus! We do not speak with his authority, with the authority of God. And how dangerous it would be for any Christian preacher to be listened to as if his or her words were to be treated as the voice of God; how dangerous, indeed, it is, when this does happen, in cults and extremist religious movements, or any context in which a single voice is given absolute, unchallenged authority….
Any wisdom we have to share resembles any gifts of healing we have to offer – partial, unpredictable, and only ever by the grace of God. And instead of miracles to prove our identity, Jesus offers us an alternative – “by this, shall others know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another”
A second piece, related, is the role of miracles as signs of who Jesus is – this is a theme brought out most explicitly by John, in his gospel, but it is present in the synoptics as well. The miracles recorded seem to illustrate Jesus’ power over different aspect of creation – nature (stilling the storm, walking on water – health (healing, of course) – the spiritual world (casting out demons) – the economic (a coin in the fish’s mouth) and practical needs (feeding the five thousand) – and of course, ultimately, over death itself.
In this sort of reading the miracles were demonstrations, ultimately, of Jesus’ divinity; that it is he, and he alone, who is to be worshipped as God incarnate, Emmanuel.
The third and final piece I have to offer is one that I’ve found increasingly helpful over the past year or so, as I’ve reflected on Jesus final words in the great commission, sending us out to continue to work of the Kingdom of God that he began. And that’s that the miracles of Jesus serve to show us what the Kingdom of God is like – God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven – give us a sense of what we are called to make real. For Jesus was the fullness of God’s Kingdom, the one who lived totally consistently with the way of God, but a fullness which was only a foretaste of the real thing, in which all people will live in harmony with God.
So perhaps in the healing miracles we see that the Kingdom of God is about healing – not just miracles of healing, but the work of healing in the medical and caring professions. Last year my mother-in-law very badly burnt her arm – but thanks to the Australian health system she received perhaps the best care available anyway in the world. I have no qualms about suggesting that the work of, in that case, the Concord burns unit, is a small piece of the Kingdom of God. Many here – perhaps most – could tell similar stories; perhaps the point of the healing miracles is that part of the work of the Kingdom is to offer the best care we can to all of God’s children, whoever they are, wherever they live.
In a way this is little more than common sense and logic – Jesus did things because they were the things God wanted done, so we ought to do our best to do things he did. And since we don’t – mostly – have the power of miracles at our fingertips, we have two options – well, three really. We can work to do the things we see as important in the life of Jesus; to bring healing, justice, peace, reconciliation, truth; we can pray for God to work those same things in and through and around us; or we can get cynical and give up.
I guess the life of faith is about trying to blend the right mix of options one and two, and fighting the temptation to collapse into option three.