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Friday, 8 October 2021

are we there yet?


 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

and at St Alban’s, Kurow

ORDINARY SUNDAY 27 (3rd October) 2021

 

Readings:

 

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Psalm 22:1-15

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

 

There was a period of scholarship – forgettably – when scholars did their best to ensure that the harsh Jesus-saying about camels passing through the eye of a needle wasn’t about camels and needles at all. Fortunately for us all that aberration was in the mediaeval era, probably not the high point of biblical interpretation. The short scholarly parenthesis is best forgotten except as a reminder that  scholarly attempts to wriggle away from the harsh claims of the gospel, or from the harsh demands of Jesus, are utterly misguided. For what it’s worth another scholarly interpretation, based on Greek misspellings, suggested that the original referred to a thick cord passing through the eye of a sewing needle. That too was incorrect – and denudes the Jesus-saying of its humour. Jesus was totally capable of illustrating his points with outrageous humour, and many of his illustrations were what we might call in an internet age OTT. Sewing with camels, anyone?

But beneath the humour was a serious point. Paul would put it a different way a decade and a half after Jesus (though probably about the same period before Mark recorded Jesus’ words). All fall short of the glory of God. We live an existence the very basis of which is short-falling. Ever tried passing a camel through the eye of a needle?

So Jesus is making a point that will recur often in the scriptures. Wealth – not evil in itself – is a noise that all but inevitably drowns out the voice of God. The love of riches is the root of all evil, says Paul. Prosperity gospel preachers who claim that God is telling you to buy them a Lear Jet have somewhat missed the point of needles’ eyes and camels. The saying, as Mark records it, is in the midst of a series of Jesus-sayings that remind us that the way to God is not a picnic, and the way with God is not a stroll in the park. Jesus and his followers called it the way of the cross and even after two millennia of turning an instrument of execution into pretty jewellery and bumper stickers we haven’t quite rid ourselves of the brutality of that symbol.

Jesus spoke these words in a world that operated on what today might be called a zero sum basis. First century economic were based largely on the premise of a limited-goods society: if I have goods then you miss out, and I will attempt to do all I can to accrue goods with the result that you are increasingly beholden to me to receive even the scraps that fall from the table – as it  happens a key to interpreting another Jesus moment, that we shall flag but leave for now. Some of us might recognize that it is ever thus: we may dress it up in a modern economy, but we might note, must note, that the rich do not benefit the poor by their accrual of limited resources. “The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor” wrote Cohen in a terse exposé of universal exploitation.

Jesus, then, was not mucking around beneath the gentle overtones of humour. But nor of course was he shutting the door on hope. The author of Hebrews describes the word of God – and remember John refers to Jesus as the Word – as sharper than a two edged sword. Jesus himself speaks of the choices he presents as providing no in-between spots – and indeed the witness of his ancestors simply foreshadowed that: chose this day who you will serve. Binaries may be unpopular in post-modern society but in some of the contexts of our faith binaries are a thing. The thing. Though I don’t think here we are talking about choosing heaven or hell, as many would tell us.  But that’s a complex subject for another time. What we are choosing is the difficult path that is Christ-following, as against other paths that are not.

The more important point that the author of Hebrews is making is that we are surrendering ourselves to a Saviour, a priest, a God who has been there done that. Matthew and mark make this point when they tell the visual tale of Jesus Temptation in the Wilderness. Whatever we might be seduced by along our journey, Jesus has had bigger issues to deal with. And yes we will fall short – it’s not even that we will succeed. Paul too constantly talks about the human, even the follower-of-Jesus-humans – volition to failure. Except that this is not the end. The Christ who has been there – even to the point of utter godforsakenness, will pick us up, wind us up, patch us up and send us on into his footsteps one again.

And the strange thing is that this side of the grave we won’t see the outcome of the journey. But it’s the journey Jesus leads us on.  Scholars give it fancy names – divinization, as I prefer to call it, or theosis, the transformation into the likeness of God that we were always designed to attain from the moment of our creation.


The answer to the infamous kids’ question “are we there yet?” I’m afraid, is no. It is awfully hard to get camels through the eyes of needles, and we have an equally awful lot of distractions from that task. But with the help of God and beyond our sight we can and will.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

rending asunder

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

ORDINARY SUNDAY 27 (3rd October) 2021



Readings:

 

Job 1:11, 2:1-10

Psalm 26

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

 

 

I love it, every few years when this reading about divorce – either in Matthew Mark or Luke (I so like John!) – comes up in our lectionary. So, for those of you who don’t know my story: yes I am divorced and remarried. There: a disclaimer! But it raises the question “How do we read the bible?” 

Another personal revelation: I doubt if any here were particularly aware of it, but a few years back some unglamorous aspects of my personal history were aired for about 24 hours across New Zealand media. The fact that they were was my own choice, because someone in a powerful position was making statements about me that implied that I was a far more heinous creature than I actually am – and lest these shady hints seem interesting I can assure you I am an utterly boring human being. Nevertheless as the storm in a teacup continued I was most upset, amid an edifying chorus of support that arose despite my obvious failings, when a solitary and sensationalist columnist in a tin pot local paper accused me of hypocrisy. I preached, he alleged,  one thing in a pulpit while practising another. I could assure him, if he ever bothered to listen, that I had never preached on human failings in matters moral, sexual or otherwise marital in any context at any time. 

But, as is so irritatingly human, I remember several years later primarily that one vicious poke amongst the countless outpourings of support. It’s hard, being human. I hope I tell the story not to wallow in my own self-importance, but because at the heart of all my teaching I hold dear the belief that Christ meets us at the very centre, or to put it in another perspective, the very darkest depths of our being human. At our fail-point. 

Most of us, and I include myself, aren’t very interesting, in our darkest depths. Our stories will not make, as Emmylou Harris once put it, the News of the World. The movie about me or about you will probably not be made. Yet it is in our “me-ness” that Jesus meets us. In our mediocrity, our ordinariness, Jesus meets us. And, for various reasons, the matter of divorce that Jesus addresses here, sternly, has become a factor in most of our lives, either personally or by extension through the lives of friends and family.

Jesus’ teaching was it seemed pretty much not negotiable. Some of you will know that I am writing the history of the diocese (I remind you of that from time to time not to big-note myself but so that I have compulsion to continue in what is not always a labour of love!). In the 1890s our Dunedin Synod, alongside that of our Presbyterian neighbours, issued warning after warning to the national government that divorce laws must not be weakened. The clear teachings of Jesus, they argued, must not be diluted. 

Long after my father died I learned that, in the 1950s, he divorced his first wife. To the best of my knowledge he never received communion again, for the Church of England forbade a divorced man to receive the sacrament. 

Were these strict law-protecting synodspeople in the 1890s and through to the 1960s right in their attempts to preserve strict regulations? By the letter of the law they were right. Yet in their literalism there was no room for human weakness. Our world is more nuanced now, and so as it happens is our church, though the battles were fierce. I certainly still could not receive a clergy licence in the Diocese of Sydney.  

Yet today we know that some people, women and children especially, have been forced to abide in hells under the guise of the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage.

We know too that there are disproportionately high statistics on domestic abuse emerging from the highly patriarchal Diocese of Sydney, and from its clergy marriages in particular. As one writer put it, “The emphasis on the indissolubility of marriage in [Sydney] diocesan teaching has been a powerful factor in trapping women in violent marriages.”[1] The writer adds “In some cases we are told we cannot be on music teams, or teach Sunday School classes, or lead in prayer, because as divorced women we are inappropriate role models.” In Dunedin we can be proud that our women were at the forefront of the move to permit divorced women membership of women’s groups.

Domestic violence, abuse … or just sheer energy-sapping misery – these were often ignored by those who argued for a not-negotiable approach to the question. Yet there are other Jesus-sayings about the letter as against the spirit of the law, and about millstones and causing little ones to stumble. These might equally be applied when we wrestle with seemingly bald Jesus-statements that I for one have so clearly disobeyed.

Depending of course on our attitude to the bible we might realize that there are many commandments that we disobey each day, each time we gather to worship. Few of our women wear hats in church these days – or keep silent! Few of us gouge out our eyes when they cause us to sin. This last Jesus-saying in particular flies in the face of almost the entire advertising industry, which is based on the premise that we will always covet those things that are better than what we already have; that Jaguar, this coffee, those pills will make our life all we want it to be.

Every time the strict teaching of Jesus comes up in the lectionary cycle my first response is to cringe. I know my story. But I know too the context in which Jesus was teaching, when divorce was effectively the end of a woman’s life, when Herod like a patriarchal celebrity traded – (and executed, as did the founder of the Anglican Church) – wives on a whim, when women and children were no more than commodities. 

While the bible is not as Dan Brown seemed to suggest given to secret codes, the equivalence between first century words and contemporary meaning is not always direct. Jesus delivered a harsh teaching as a warning to opportunist men who would dispose of women as little more than unwanted property. We might extrapolate from this reading far less about marriage and far more about selfishness in other aspects of our contemporary, throw-away society – discarding everything from effluent to McDonalds plastics to the lives of living creatures, human and others, as if they were no more than a worthless commodity.

Jesus' words still ring powerfully true – and I know for one that I fall short of their fulfilment.  But that is why day by day we turn back to the Christ who by his Spirit enables us to grow into the likeness of the God who loves, forgives, and restores us.

 

 

 



[1] “Abused Clergy Wife’s Message to the Church.” ABC News October 22nd, 2018.  https://tinyurl.com/s5vctzdu. Accessed October 2nd, 2021.

Friday, 1 October 2021

Cut Peter some slack

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

ORDINARY SUNDAY 19 (26th September) 2021

 

Readings:

 

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

Psalm 124

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

 

In Mark’s gospel-account we have we have the work of an instinctive story-teller. In this series of glimpses into Jesus’ relationship with his followers – and the implication id s that we too are those followers, they are simply  obtuse and obtuser – or to put it in real English, dumb and dumber. With apologies to Peter and the crowd, you really just don’t get it, do you? And yes, I shall put my fingers over my ears and refuse to hear you, Peter, saying “and nor, bro, do you.” I hear “lalalala,” okay? I’m not listening!

You know – I mean really … does a couple of hundred words back Mark tells a weird story about Jesus, when he talks about defecation and the Kingdom of God (Mk 7:17-23) then playfully warns his followers to concentrate, or they will join the ranks of the ne’er do well. Perhaps the warning is they never left them. Sand yeah, Peter, I can’t hear you saying “an’ nor bro, did you.” Lalalala.

But it’s not just Peter and his mates, I guess. I mean the Pharisees. C’mon! Jesus feeds a whole lot of hungry people out of nowhere, and those religious of his day trundle along and say “Jesus mate, show us a sign that you’re who you say you are.” But Peter, really you take the cake. You even tell Jesus that he’s the Messiah, pay lip service to getting it, and then try to stop him doing Messiah stuff. And yeah I get that you were expecting a bit of a revolution and the overthrow of the Caesar, but really? Hasn’t Jesus just been saying that outward appearances don’t count for much, that it’s what’s in the gut that matters? As it happens in a Covid era we might begin to get that: if I do meth, it’s revealed in the sewers. If I have covid it’s revealed in the sewers. Jesus didn’t miss much, eh?

And now, Peter, James, John, you’ve had a really big Wow moment, just you and Jesus up a sort of Palestinian Mount Cargill, and you start bickering about who’s the top dog? And some other passing dude performs a really life giving miracle and you whinge because you didn’t get to do the histrionics? C’mon.

This of course is all masterfully knit together by Mark. Matthew and Luke get all a bit po-faced about it, and I guess it’s good we get their stuff too. But Mark strings us along. Man, we’re the suckers here.

I once had a colleague who shall remain nameless, but he was a masterful storyteller. I remember once he told us a story which had us all killing ourselves laughing because one of the characters in the story was making an absolute fool of himself. And then suddenly the nameless storyteller turned on us and said “Come on guys you are that person.” And we realized we were. How often do we see those outside our doors and whinge­ because they are doing the work of God? Those who are working astronomical hours to keep us safe in an age of covid?

Basically, and to be fair, it’s not surprising, and we need to cut Peter and his sometimes mates a little slack. The Hebrew people had long expected a Messiah. They did not expect him to start talking about suffering dying, and then some nonsense about rising again. That was not in the playbook.

But there’s strong hints that we are as western Christianity replicating those same errors. The Christian community presents, by and large, as a group of nay-sayers. The most popular faces of Christianity are those who wave big sticks and condemn others who don’t behave they way they do – or in some case they pretend to do. Too many bearing the name of Christ condemn those who declare that love is love, condemn those who are seeking to save vulnerable people from a rampant virus, condemn those of other faiths who perform stunning acts of compassion and kindness – giving a cup of water – with more credibility than many Christian spokespeople do.

Mark was a stunning storyteller. He tells, with humour, tension, energy – of the Jesus who enters into the dark places of human existence, the Myanmars, the Afghanistans, the Covid wards, the suicide statistics and there, in these hells, releases hope, compassion, kindness. Mark’s telling conveys the warmth of the Messiah who would soon be crucified yet who loves even today. Mark tells of the Jesus who does all this and then says to us, ‘c’mon, you lot, do likewise.” And even that isn’t the end of the story, because Jesus sends his Spirit to guide, warn – I always want to say “warm” because that too – and revive us, his church. And our simple task is, as best we can, to go, do likewise. Aided as we can be by the Spirit of God.




 

 

 

 

Saturday, 4 September 2021

this is who we are: not irreversibly

 

SERMONETTE PREACHED ONLINE 

ORDINARY SUNDAY 23

(5th September) 2021


 

Readings:

 

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Psalm 125

James 2:1-17

Mark 7:24-37

 

 

Three weeks ago I was speaking of a feisty woman named Mary of Nazareth who spoke of an upside-down world where the mighty are torn down. Now I encounter another desperate, feisty woman arguing with Jesus. Somehow I have to discern the thunder-whispering voice of God through it all.  

Forty years or more ago a strong woman named Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza wrote a book about unsettling women who are given no name but whose stroppiness reverberates through scripture for two thousand years. Today we encounter one of the stroppiest of them all.

As it happens I am researching a chapter of a book at the moment about the origins of this diocese, encountering several stroppy women. I cannot but notice how hard it is to find their names amongst the narratives of men, how deep I have to dig to find the real identity those women who wrestle with society and with God and are generally thrown into a pile of anonymity and owning only their husbands’ identities.

Today a woman who encounters God will not take no for an answer. We know only that this unnamed woman has an unnamed daughter and is desperate. Desperate that her daughter must not be cast even further to the scrapheap of humanity, the scrapheap to which the absence of a Y-chromosome has already pushed her. Whatever demons were and are, the biggest demon this woman faces is that she and her daughter must fight for every scrap of hope. Demon of oppression, demon of indifference, demon of a myriad names.

She fights. An outsider, an infidel, she encounters a Hebrew who may just break the cycles of indifference that have been her life story and may be her daughter’s death story. Perhaps in a timey-wimey way she finds a nation that cries out "This is not who we are" after one terrorist attack but turns and sends death threats to Muslims after another: for as long as hatred is condoned, for as long as indifference is condoned, for as long as racial demarcation is condoned this is who we are. This un-named woman confronts Jesus with it.

Was Jesus trying her desperation, trying to hear the depths of her heart-cry for her desperate daughter? I think not. Jesus the Son who in Paul’s terms emptied himself and was found in human flesh steps out of divinity into the myopia of being human. He is us, and is brought up short by his own misjudgement. Humans absorb nonchalance, indifference, fatigue, hatred. That’s why Paul cries out “all have sinned.”

This desperate, broken, nameless woman calls Jesus for it; even the Messiah is stopped in his tracks. Then, chastened, feeling compassion that gods are not supposed to feel, he reaches out where gods fear to tread, reaches across abysses of sexism and racism. He says, with his word from which action is inseparable, your daughter is well. Perhaps, face with the heartcries of human loneliness, even God’s mind is changed from time to time? Love is love.

Our task? Let’s start with being honest with God. I hurt when I see Afghanistan or New World or a cot death. Let’s start by telling God. Let’s continue by being vulnerable agents of compassion. Reaching across the tiny abysses in our own world and showing love against all odds – as Jesus unexpectedly learned in a flash to do. Let’s start by being fair and just and caring not because hate is not who we are, but because this is exactly who we are. We are the darkness of nonchalance and indifference, even if not mostly of hate. It is what we are all capable of.

Jesus the human  encounters desperation beyond his until-then understanding. He is yet to experience the brokenness of the cross that reaches further still, beyond even this woman’s pain. But faced by this broken woman’s anguish he sees new dimensions to which divine love can reach, and he continues afresh his journey towards Jerusalem, where hope at last can be born.

 


Saturday, 14 August 2021

feisty mary

 

SERMON PREACHED at

St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

FEAST OF MARY THE VIRGIN

(15th August) 2021

 

Readings:

 

Isaiah 7: 101-5          

Psalm 132:6-10, 13-14

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 1:46-55

 

In the famous words of the Nuns of Nonnberg Abbey. “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” Protestants – and incidentally that is something I believe we’re not – have done their best to ignore her for five hundred years. Catholics, of the Roman variety, something else we are not, elevated her to the celestial realms and made her the Queen of Heaven, an elevation that is fraught with problems. The Orthodox, idf we are to be honest, probably had the best solution, honouring her as Theotokos, the Mother of God, which is a title guaranteed to send a shiver up the spine of many a Protestant, but is probably the most profound of her titles. For if Jesus is fully divine as well as fully human (and that’s something we’ll never get our heads around), then there is a very real sense in which Theotokos (Θεοτόκος)is correct. The problem is that the τόκος part of Θεοτόκος) is untranslatable. God-bearer will do.

How do you solve a problem like Maria? It’s a bit of an issue, really. Luke, who gives us the closest glimpses into the heart of Mary of Nazareth, paints with a few broad brushstrokes, a portrait of a remarkable woman. He places her into the context of a remarkable whanauatanga, linking her in righteousness, in integrity, in compassion and strength of character with her cousin Elizabeth. These are not women to trivialize. Elizabeth bore stoically what was in her culture – not theoretically ours – the shame of childlessness, barrenness as it is often indelicately called. Mary has no such problem – though technically she has the problem of a pregnancy that occurred somewhat before society would consider the appropriate time.

We lose sight of Elizabeth, but we find Mary singing a song that taunts corruption, that flings a gauntlet at the feet of exploiters, that dares injustice to dismantle its protections and privileges. One can only think of the women in Afghanistan in terror at this moment as the Taliban strip them of rights and dignity: Mary, unlike the Eurocentric world currently wringing its hands, dared to challenge the oppressor. Mary, like the early champions of Me Too, dared to challenge a nudge, nudge, wink wink world of male supremacy.

Women, strong woman like Florence Nightingale, Rosa Parks, Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia, Rachel Carson, Mary Daly, some of whose names may be familiar, dared to challenge corrupt orthodoxy. Mary was not the first: she too stood in a line of remarkable, brave women: her namesake Miriam, Esther, Vashti, Rahab. It is little wonder that her biological son was a fairly stroppy sort of a fellow.

The elevation of Mary through history was a complex story. As Christianity steadily moved from its subversive roots and became a religion of authoritarianism and usually male privilege, Jesus became less and less accessible, more and more the remote and distant God-figure that dominated the often Hebrew scriptures and other related traditions. He became unapproachable, but he became, too, unapproachably masculist – and I use the word carefully. An authoritarian bloke, demanding submission, was hardly approachable to the women who were surrounded by unapproachable authoritarian masculist blokes.

Slowly prayers were redirected to a more compassionate figure, a mediatrix who would intercede before her now remote son, a female who would understand the heartaches of motherhood and femalehood. Mary became Queen of Heaven – and was elevated further and further, ironically, until lesser saints became intercessors to grant the vulnerable access even to her as she granted access to the Son who granted access to the Father. It was a mess. Humans mess religion pretty quickly. But eventually God in triune, and as it happens genderless compassion shatters corruptions, religious and political and both. Proud empires and protectorates pass away.

Feisty Mary saw that, and warned the mighty that their comeuppance was on its way. We ignore Mary at peril.

She was no Maggie Thatcher, either. The power of Mary came not from her political muscle but, ironically from her powerlessness, her holiness, her submission not to a male but to love itself. She loved her God, and soon recognized too the God in her Son. She agonized at his precocity, storing up in her heart her puzzlement at the dangerous directions the life of Jesus was heading in. Her heart ached, beyond words later, as she watched him dying, knowing the grief that only a parent who has done likewise can ever understand. And we know, though not with the knowledge of mere rationality, that this was not the end of the story, and she and another Mary, and other frightened, broken women would soon be astounded at the experience of his resurrection. Later theologians would argue that Mary herself was assumed into heaven because flesh that had borne the Life of God could not itself taste death and corruption. Who knows, maybe they are right?

But I want simply to leave us with this holy, woman, feisty, courageous, strong. I want to leave us with a woman who bore God, who bore hope. I want to leave us with the challenging question: how can we bring the hope that Mary bore to young women? How can we but think not only of the women who face the Taliban or women predeceasing their babies as Covid rages rampant amongst the uninoculated, but women too who face domestic violence, or women who face sexual exploitation, or simply women whose lives cry out for meaning and who, like Olivia Podmore whose life become so empty that only the vortex of suicide awaits them?  

Jesus of course was more than just an example, he was God with us. He is God with us. But he was also a chip off the old girl’s block, and as he grew in stature he took with him the courage and the humility the strength and the compassion that made Mary blessed amongst women. Through his Spirit he can empower us to be like his mother, to be bearers of hope and justice. May we. women and men, be bearers of Mary’s mana to the world around us.

The Lord be with you.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

bread and bereavement

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU 

and St ALBAN'S, KUROW

ORDINARY SUNDAY 19 (8th August) 2021


Readings:

 

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 

Psalm 130

Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

John 6:35, 41-51

 

“Oh Absalom, my son, my son Absalom.”

I know of few more spine tingling moments in the entire witness of scripture, or indeed in the entire body of literature. The complexities of the death of Absalom are many, his betrayals both perpetrated and received, (dying by the sword as he had come to live), his brutal execution, so undignified a death; only some of these have we glimpsed in this bowdlerised liturgical reading of the Old Testament Scripture. Yet the cry of his father rings out across thirty centuries, and still sends shivers down my spine.

I want to tread carefully here. There will be some of you who have experienced far more grief than I have in my relatively comfortable life. There are every day on our news feeds the sanitised tales of those across the globe who are experiencing immeasurable grief as entire communities are torn apart most obviously by COVID. Communities are torn apart every day, too, in the hidden atrocities of civil war in Myanmar, oppression in West Papua, decades old hatreds in Israel and Palestine. A bereavement is a bereavement wherever and however it is; and the loss of a child, as some of you will know with nerves only too raw, is the greatest loss of all. We can only think in horror of the families of five young people who lost their lives in Timaru last night. “Would I had died instead of you, Oh Absalom.” 

So I speak not to trivialize nor to answer the great cries of time, the “why” that reverberates through bereaved human lives. Yet somewhere, as in the too many times I have stood with grieving families, I must try to wrestle with mysteries of loss, the emptiness of a universe without one who has been loved. Today we speak theoretically perhaps, but too often the theory is reality.

At the same time I am confronted with the words of one who we call Lord, one who himself weeps at the death of those he loves, and who was himself be cut down in life’s prime, a fact we must never lose sight of no matter how well we know the resurrection story. He speaks of “I am” – the timeless un-name of God (a phrase I will unpack another time), and he speaks of bread, and he, if we weave these bread of life sayings into the entire narrative of his teachings, challenges us both to consume and to be bread for others. To be the staple of life for those who God brings across our paths, for we are called over and again to be Christ to those around us.

We cannot be that with empty words. I try to ensure words are not empty, my words are not empty, though God knows I fall short, as we all do. But to be bread of life, to be Christ bearers in the midst of grief, in the midst of a sometimes bewildering and empty universe, is to seek to dig deep into the integrity and authenticity of our faith. The bread that Jesus speaks of is the very stuff of life. “All I need is the air that I breathe,” sang the Hollies, “and to love you.” But the bread is the love part of that equation: we are to be bearers of love and light and hope that brings those rare dimensions into the lives of those who are groaning under whatever burdens weigh them down. Let’s not think this is melodrama: we live in a nation with ridiculously, demonically high rates of suicide. Furthermore, if we are to be honest we must acknowledge that we the Church have failed – occasionally but even that is too often – to break cycles of despair. In some lives we have even perpetrated darkness, as Royal Commissions and equivalent around the world have told us. Not us individually, we hope and pray, but we the Christian community. No wonder Jesus said something about millstones.

But I think Jesus, and John who conveys his here-complex words gives us clues about the way to be hope-bearers, life-bringers in his name. There are deep hints here about the demand to encounter Jesus again and again, and not superficially but with ever-deepening awareness, in the bread-made-body of Communion, of Eucharist, of Mass. He chooses his words carefully when he hints of this, using a harsh verb that we might translate as “munch” or “chew,” except they sound more silly than sombre. We are called to consume with intent the Spirit-enriched life force that Jesus offers us in the communion that is his gift to us. For that to be life-force of Jesus rather than flimsy wafer or crumb it must be pregnant with our desire, made possible by the Spirit; for the communion to be communion with him with his life, with his resurrection life it must be saturate with the presence of God. “Be known to us in broken bread, but do not then depart.”

We are called then so to immerse ourselves in lives of justice and, similarly, lives of compassion in the communities into which God has called us, placed us, that we can withstand and be there, wordlessly yet bearing hope, as those around us or even those we love cry with David, “Oh Absalom my son.” For only when we ourselves are immersed in Christ hope and Christ love can we bring that love and hope to the despairing, near and far.

May God help us to have that integrity, for it is to that which God calls us.

 

The Lord be with you.


I apologize for the typos that marred the earlier posting of this reflection - tiredness and rushedness nearly had the last word!
M

Friday, 16 July 2021

textual slaughter and wild dogs

 

SERMON PREACHED at St MARY’S, NORTH OAMARU

ORDINARY SUNDAY 16 (18th July) 2021

 




Readings:


A crowd without a Maremma?



2 Samuel 7:1-14a     

Psalm 89:20-36

Ephesians 2:11-22                                        

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 

The author of the gospel-telling we know as mark was a natural story-teller. But one of his techniques to keep his listeners interested was to sandwich scenes between parts of another scene, to sandwich stories so that at least in his plan they served to illustrate each other.  The problem is that every now and again, like here, the lectionary compilers commit a kind of literary divorce, separating the parts from one another and from meaning. So I was tempted to ignore the passage this week and turn to the epistle. Except this Epistle reading is one of the most excruciating in the entire New Testament. I was once preaching at a girls’ school in Melbourne and was asked what readings I wanted. Without looking at the lectionary I told them to use whatever was the epistle for that day. I was after all not preaching biblically that day. To this day I have nor want no idea what the poor girl-prefect made of her reading.

So here we are with separated snippets of Mark, swimming against the tide of the author’s wishes.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things

 

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

 

So let us dwell with just one passing moment in this slaughtered gospel passage. In fact, one passing word. As you may have noted from my notes in the pew sheet, it is usually translated “had compassion on,” but that’s a terribly sanitized, anglicanised translation of the Greek. Years ago, when I was a priest in Whanganui, I indicated that the Greek was less sanitary: that it meant “moved to the bowels.” A furious woman informed my that such a word as “bowels” was not to be used in church. I wondered sadly how sanitised and judgemental we had become when we felt that we knew better than the gospel writers how to speak of the experiences of Jesus.

The life of Jesus reveals to us the heart of God – all that we need to know of God. When Jesus saw the aimlessness of his society he was, quite simply, moved to the bowels. As I have said in my notes, he felt as we might when we see a child run out in front of a bus. Worse, he felt as we might if we overdosed on prune juice: we are not talking about nice and polite disturbances, here.

But we are talking about the response of Jesus, the response of God, to a crowd, a community, a society, a race, a species that is lost, as sheep without a shepherd. Jesus’ listeners knew well that sheep without shepherds were in his rural world in mortal danger. Like a bus bearing down on a child, like a wolf stalking out its lunch.

When I lived in outback Queensland the farmers who were battling on with merino wool production (against all odds) were facing the relentless problem of wild dogs – some would say dingoes – stalking their flocks. In a parable in itself, many farmers turned to dogs like Maremmas; dogs that, well, doggedly defend the flock on 60,000 acre farms where farmers had no hope of covering all those bases where predators lurked.

The crowds Jesus saw were, we might say, like a flock without a Maremma, a Pyrenean Mountan dog, an Akbash or an Anatolian Shepherd, out there at the mercy of every hungry passer-by, four-legged or two.

We live in strange times. Every generation has. I might even suggest that every generation has had its wolves stalking it, stalking us, stalking all humans, stalking all sheep who are wandering vulnerable and astray. There’s always been predators lurking. And Jesus was moved to the bowels. He withdrew with his apostles but the crowd were relentless. That same crowd – us – eventually executed him: the wolves outwitted the Maremma, it seemed. Or for those in the know, we might suggest that the White Witch outwitted Aslan.

But Mark will tell a different story, and after 2000 years we are allowed spoilers. Just when the witnesses, the sheep of Jesus were at their most broken resurrection light broke in. A young man whispered to some frightened women, saying, if we may paraphrase, “go tell it on the mountain.” And they didn’t at first, because they were frightened. But then the frightened women whispered to the frightened men, and the frightened men whispered to other frightened men and women, and the message that Jesus goes before us and a round us and is always with us even through darkness into light and through death into life leaked out and had the final word.

And it seems that word still can leak out, even amidst dwindling churches and circulating viruses and rising tides and plastic-soup oceans and waterways. And despite all odds we are called to be the singers of the song and even through us and our worship and our lives some may touch the hem of the garment of Jesus and find that light. And next week we will find that a meal and a message of hope can transform the lives of those who reach out to receive it even when they seem simply to walk away. But that’s next week because the lectionary compilers have committed textual slaughter.


The Lord be with you.