SERMON PREACHED AT
THE CHURCH OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
FRED’S PASS (NT)
Sunday, November 4th, 2012
(ORDINARY SUNDAY 31)
Readings: Ruth 1.1-18
Mark 12.13-17, 28-34
As we reach towards the end of the liturgical year and its sometimes slightly eccentric ordering of the gospels we find ourselves if not at the pointy end of Mark’s gospel – we were there before Easter – then certainly at the pointy end of his portrayal of the teaching or public ministry of Jesus. In the telling of the gospel story the disciples are increasingly obtuse and obdurate (or if you don’t like my little cascade of o-words, dull-witted and stubborn), increasingly not getting it. It’s probable that to some extent Mark wanted to convey an important message with this portrayal, related to the remarkable power that he engenders with his famous original ending, when he closes his narrative with the women standing, mesmerised at the tomb, possums in the headlights of history: ‘and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (16.8). Yup, and yet they overcame their human fear, and you and I heard the message, along with millions of others: he is not here, he is risen. The frightened women and the obtuse men … yet the message reached us, and God willing, may even, even in the 21st century, reach others through us. For it is not on our intelligence or our bravery on which the gospel depends, but on the Spirit of God.
So we are at the – or a – pointy end of Mark. The questioners are making no pretence of engaging with Jesus, now. Like Nicodemus, who in John’s gospel account comes to Jesus in the dead of night, the dead of darkness (but gets it oh so right by the end of the gospel-story) these interlocutors of Jesus are not in a frame of mind to ‘get it’. They want only to trap Jesus. Rather than looking at the testimony of his own life of love and justice and compassion they look at him only through the prism their own fears and hatreds, and will no longer hear his summons to love and resurrection hope. They come with questions, but these are hostile questions, and hostility is the opposite of openness to compassionate love.
Let us not pretend that Christians are not in some way prone to narrow minded hostility. I remember only too well the young convert that I once was, attending every visiting speaker’s seminar at my undergrad university, armed to the teeth with hostility and self-righteousness, determined to bring the speakers down so that those gathering to hear them would hear nothing but my version of the gospel. Thank God my arrogance was soon eroded, and rather than seeking to undermine those who came I learned, at least some of the time, to listen, to learn, to adapt and utilise the wisdom they often brought with them. One in particular, recently deceased Māori activist Hone Kaa, was to become one of the single most influential figures in the formation of my faith, once I had stopped futilely attempting to argue with him, and agreed instead to listen. He taught me much about the gospel and colonialism, and I will never regret it.
I suspect we have all seen it from time to time, and seen it, too, amongst those who purport to bear the name ‘Christian’. I have many times since my own belligerence was bashed out of me (metaphorically and verbally) by Hone Kaa seen similar Christians, attending a meeting only in order to spew their own preconceived formulae, and to attempt to silence those who hold opposing positions. To some extent politics will always be politics, but there is a difference between life-giving engagement and the narrow-minded and hostile debating that seeks only to trap others. It is possible to win a debate and miss the faith, and far too often it seems to me that the fruits of compassion and love are not in the arsenals of the clever people, but in the baskets of the gentle. This is hardly surprising of course, if we seek to follow the Jesus who said blessed are the meek, the humble, the peacemakers, and added, on another occasion, by their fruits shall you know them.
In the end I will tend to look at the love-quality of the people I encounter. Love of course will not always be a mere warm fuzzy feeling, but entail too a dimension of justice-seeking struggle, a striving to proclaim in action then word the characteristics of the reign of God embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus. I am utterly aware of my own inadequacies in that direction, but can pray that by the grace of God the rough edges of my inadequacies will continue to be chipped away. Around me I will see individuals, both within and beyond the apparent parameters of the Jesus community, who utterly reflect the compassionate and loving justice of God. I will see others, both within and beyond the apparent parameters of the Jesus community, that utterly fail to do so. I have met mean-spirited Christians and Christ-spirited atheists (though either might not thank me for the description), and know that the Spirit of God is at work far beyond the boundaries of my or the Church’s expectation.
To say this is both to state the obvious and paradoxically to sidestep myriad theological questions. So let it be. Once more as we are confronted by the bad guys in Mark’s gospel-account we must ensure that we are not amongst them, dictating terms to the divine, limiting the possibilities of God. The disciples are obtuse, we can acknowledge, but ultimately they are striving to serve God and God’s values, and ultimately, like the frightened women, we know they got it right. It is our task to ensure, in all our weakness, that we do too, surrendering ourselves to the transforming Spirit of God, surrendering to the texts of our faith, our liturgies, surrendering in prayer and worship. The God who is love will continue to transform willing human hearts into hearts of love. Our task is to ask God to transform us, too.