SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD, FRED’S PASS
(Northern Territory, Australia)
Sunday, September 23rd, 2012
(ORDINARY SUNDAY 25 / SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY OF PENTECOST)
Readings: Proverbs 31.10-31
Mark used locations to underline the events of Jesus’ life that he was narrating. The work of the incarnation would be at its most intense, if we can put it that way, in the unexpected and uninviting places. It is no accident that the words of the angel spoken to the women at the tomb tells them to tell Peter and the disciples that the risen Lord is going ahead of them to Galilee (16.7, also 14.28) , the place from whence he came in 1.9, the place that has been open to his message all along. Galilee is not Vaucluse, Toorak, or Cottlesloe – respective by state the wealthiest postcodes in Australia (2010 census; actually Edgecliff was wealthier but I’ve never heard of it). Nor was Galilee a Nhulunbuy, which surprised me by having the highest level of wealth per postcode in the Territory (though the journalist inexplicably referred to it as a ‘suburb’). Nor, to be fair, was Galilee a Callaghan, in Newcastle, which came out in that census as Australia’s poorest postcode, but which was probably skewed by being centred on students and the University of Newcastle. No – and we need to be careful in making comparisons. The Brotherhood of St Laurence long ago made it clear that wealth is not necessarily or even not much about income. Wealth is about networks.
So Galilee was a place of fractured infrastructure, a place of pride, no doubt, to the locals, but pretty much of scorn to outsiders. John 7 reflects the kind of scorn in which Galilee was held – nothing good was going to come from there, and it certainly wasn’t the sort of place a nice god should hang out. Ironically it is the type of place our psalmist, in Pslam One, might have us avoid, the place that seems to be the place of the ungodly. The Territory has by far the highest rate of crime in Australia – we can be fairly sure that if Australia were awaiting a messiah the populace would not be looking to Pine Creek, Yuendemu or Pigeon Hole for the arrival of God’s chosen one.
Jesus makes his way across this troubled territory, to Capernaum, to deliver his most poignant teaching. For the second time he tells them that the Incarnation, the unveiling of the heart of God will take place not in glory, but in the lowest degradation known to humanity. There have been worse ways, arguably, to die than crucifixion, but few images have held more terror for a populace than the cross, in all its obscene Imperial brutality. Here Jesus doesn’t mention the cross, but he shifts his audience’s focus – or attempts to – from the places nice gods hang out to the places of powerlessness and vulnerability.
The Nineteenth Century romanticised the child as an image of innocence, and that interpretation of this passage dominated readings of this passage for a century and a half since. It was wrong. In some circles it is still used to attempt to suggest we should have an intellectual naïvety in our approach to faith. This is nonsense, at least as an interpretation of this text. This is an image of utter vulnerability: a girl child in China, prone to secret abortion or perinatal execution might be a symbol closer to the one Jesus is adopting here. An Afghani child bride in a Taliban community, exposed to the most demonic forms of misogyny and violence might be closer to the image Jesus is portraying here. A woman in our own society, trapped in hellholes of domestic abuse – or the child of abusive parents or victim of a powerful paedophile – might be closer to the image Jesus is generating here. Each would cry out for a touch of love, what Jesus calls a ‘welcome’, rather than the brutal exploitation and defencelessness that was their and is their daily grind.
In this moment Jesus effectively lays down two unexpected gauntlets. He makes it clear that vulnerability, defencelessness and even shame is the place where the heart of God is revealed – shame in the sense of the utter nakedness of the cross that will soon be, in Mark’s narrative, the place where the messianic secret is finally over and the unstoppable extent of God’s love is made known. But he makes something else clear, too: he makes it clear that it is the yardstick by which we stand judged. Have we touched, transformed, ameliorated the plight of those who are today in all their pain and brokenness the location of God’s self-revelation? Have we touched the lives of the children behind razor wire, the children in communities of abuse, the children in the world’s refugee camps? Have I? And even if we can say yes – and I would imagine many of you are doing far more than I am – nevertheless can any of us say we are doing enough, fiscally, politically, missiologically? Indeed, as James, ostensibly the brother of Jesus puts it in the verse immediately after our epistle reading, ‘Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom’. We can feel terribly warm and fuzzy about our cosy relationship with Jesus, but our cosiness does little for those who are daily dying the death of Jesus.
Which leaves us, for now, just three learning points: can we accept God’s forgiveness for our failure to be vulnerable? Can we accept God’s forgiveness for our failure to transform the lives of the vulnerable? Can we allow the Spirit to transform us so that we can better find the heart of Jesus in the often unattractive lives of the broken? The Way of the Cross leads through Galilee. But that is the place in which Jesus promises, always, to go ahead of us. May we have the strength, in him, to follow him.