Saturday, January 28, 2006

Irresistable force meets immoveable object

This year we find ourselves reading in church through the gospel of Mark.  Now the first thing any of us notice about this gospel, probably, is how short it is – just 16 chapters – and also how compact it is, a telegram gospel that hasn’t got any time to waste, that just gets straight down to the business of making big claims about who Jesus is.  A few centuries ago Bible scholars thought that Mark was like a summary of Matthew and Luke, written afterwards like a sort of Readers’ Digest Condensed Book – now we know that Mark was actually the first gospel written – a raw and urgent gospel written for the first generation of Christians living in a time of confusion and war.

And there are a couple of keys we need to help us unlock Mark’s gospel, to help us hear where Mark’s coming from and what it’s got to do with us.  And I think the keys are these: confusion, conflict and freedom.  A century ago, a Bible scholar named William Wrede pointed out that all the way through Mark’s gospel there is a tension between what we - the readers – do know but the human characters in the story don’t know – that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah.  John the Baptist comes closest but seems to have been expecting something a bit different – Peter blurts it out but literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about – only the demons that Jesus defeat know for sure who he is but the disciples miss the point all the way along until finally, when all his friends have run away in fear and confusion, it’s left to a Roman centurion to make the definitive claim: surely this man was God’s Son.  Mark’s gospel is required reading for disciples who know deep down that they don’t measure up.  The key to being a disciple is not self-knowledge – knowing who we are – but knowing who Jesus is.

The second key is this – that Mark more than any of the other gospel writers shows Jesus as being in conflict with the scribes and lawyers – not coming to fulfil the law as Matthew tells us, but to set it aside.  For Mark, the law of Israel is superseded by the new revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth – the temple that Roman forces tear down a generation later is no longer needed by his fledgling Christian community.  Mark’s Jesus has a way of dividing opinion, the first time he opens his mouth in the synagogue he finds himself locked in conflict not only with the religious leaders of the day but with demonic forces.  Mark’s gospel is for disciples who don’t have the luxury of an each-way bet.

And the third key is freedom – writing to a tired and dispirited community during or just after the failed uprising against Rome in the late 60s, Mark shows Jesus not only as the one who attracts trouble but as the one whose purpose is to set free those who are held captive – Jesus echoes the strange figure of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the one who promises freedom to God’s people, and to us.

So how does this Jesus begin? – newly baptised, prepared by fasting in the desert and accompanied by a troupe of fresh-faced disciples – he starts teaching.  If the stories and parables that begin in the next chapter are anything to go by, Jesus’ approach to preaching is different – he doesn’t start, as the scribes do, by expounding the finer points of the Law of Moses – but by drawing directly on common life experience to teach about God’s love and compassion.  You know what God is like because God made you, God made the world you live in.  Even though things get muddled and confused in your life, you know the goodness of things, you know what love is.  Don’t be afraid.  Jesus’ approach to teaching about God is to give power to the ones listening, not the one doing the talking.  

And then the story gets interrupted by a demon – the first full-frontal challenge to Jesus in Mark’s gospel.  Here is where we modern types tend to get a bit vague – is this just an example of something we would recognise today as schizophrenia or some other psychiatric illness?  Well maybe, but explaining it away doesn’t do justice to the fact that something real is happening here, the demonic - at the very least - is what holds people in a grip so powerful that they spend their whole lives and every ounce of their energy trying to twist free, the demonic is what holds real men and women captive – we don’t need to look too far in our own world to see the same sort of thing happening, whether it’s mental illness, or political oppression, or the insane competition for money and status and consumer goods.  And this demon recognises Jesus, the demonic knows only too well that it can’t exist alongside holiness – another word that tends to embarrass modern folk, even some Christians, with its old-fashioned whiff of piety.  Holiness is the opposite of madness because holiness is connection with what gives us life.

And it’s how Jesus meets the challenge of the demonic that is the essential point of the ‘good news’ of God’s reign.  We don’t know what Jesus’ sermon was about that day, but we do know what his point was – it’s a demonstration of what John the Baptist means when he says that Jesus is going to baptise with the Holy Spirit.  The important point is setting people free from what binds them, from the shame or guilt of past failures or the anxiety of a fearful future.  The authority that Jesus teaches with is the authority that sets people free and makes new beginnings possible.

The reign of God that Jesus teaches us about in Mark’s gospel is good news because it sets us free to be the people God created us to be.  Don’t be afraid.  The God who made you, who loves you, is growing within you – but we need to understand the powers that keep people from being truly free, the false gods that enslave people.  Jesus makes no bones about it – proclaiming the good news of God’s reign means seeing ourselves as being in opposition to the alternative.  We need to learn to recognise the symptoms of the madness of the world we live in – people living lives dominated by loneliness in a world where so many live for themselves alone – people afraid to take the risk of reaching out to another human being because of the memory of past rejection or loss.

Hearing and being transformed by Jesus’ announcement of the reign of God also means having the courage to confront our own madness, naming the smallness of our capacity to love, our selfishness and the ways we hem ourselves in with shame and guilt.  But as post-resurrection disciples who do know the secret that the human characters of Mark’s gospel struggle to understand – the secret of who Jesus really is that is finally fully revealed when he submits to a shameful death on the cross – that intersection of human madness and divine love - and – impossibly! - draws from it new life and freedom - as post-resurrection disciples we also need to hear that all of our failures and limitations, all the smallness and all the madness of our own lives are transformed to the extent that we dare to bring them face-to-face with the holiness of God in Jesus Christ.

This of course is the very centre of our Christian faith and spirituality – what St Paul refers to as growing towards maturity in Christ – depends on our participation, in prayer, in our life as a Church, above all in the sacrament of the Eucharist – in recognising and confronting all that alienates and entraps us, all that enslaves our world and the whole weight of human suffering – and offer it up to be transformed by the suffering love of Christ.   

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What’s this?’ A new teaching! He commands even the unclean spirits with authority, and they obey him’.


Saturday, January 07, 2006

Baptism of our Lord

This sermon incorporates and relies heavily upon a reflection on the feast of the Epiphany written by Rev’d Marnie Barrell, of Christchurch, New Zealand, whose work I wish to acknowledge:


In the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ – more than loosely based on Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ – three bumbling convicts break loose from a jail in the deep South of the USA and try to find the treasure that the brightest one claims to have hidden.  As they gradually learn the time-honoured truth that you often have to travel a long way to find out where home is, they encounter a series of strange characters – including a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob, a one-eyed Cyclops bank robber much annoyed by the nickname ‘Babyface’, a seductive band of sirens, and a blind prophet who warns them that ‘the treasure you seek will not be the one you find’.  In one of the most memorable scenes the escapees follow the sound of singing down to the banks of the Mississippi, where a Preacher is baptising hundreds of silent, white-robed believers.  Delmar, the dumbest of the three, breaks into a run and dives headlong into the river, coming up spluttering next to the Preacher who promptly dunks him under again, three times.  Delmar comes back to his friends convinced that nothing can ever be the same again –

‘Well that's it, boys’ says Delmar – ‘I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward. The preacher says all my sins is warshed away … Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now. C'mon in boys, the water is fine.’  Ulysses Everett McGill, the brains of the outfit, remains unconvinced about he benefits of baptism – ‘that’s not the issue, Delmar’, he explains, ‘Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi's a little more hard-nosed’. Yet Delmar remains in a state of beatific and blissful forgiveness, at least until the boys commit their next crime.

So, what’s it all about?

This week, we’ve begun the church season of Epiphany – it’s a word that in everyday use has come to mean one of those moments when the lights go on – the sudden and serendipitous revelation – literally it means ‘what God reveals’.  Today's story caps off the Christmas theme of God’s self-revelation, God making Godself known to us in the person of Jesus the beloved Son, the story that we’ve followed from Luke’s nativity account of shepherds and angels to the Epiphany story in St Matthew’s Gospel of the Wise Men recognizing and coming to worship Jesus as the light of all nations.  That event we celebrated in our Eucharist on Friday; today we continue to follow the same theme – echoes of the same good news that God has come near in Jesus Christ, but this time we hear it in Mark’s account of Jesus’ own baptism.

Maybe the very word, ‘Epiphany’, should tip us off that there are two sides to what’s going on here - not just from the top down, with God revealing Jesus to an unsuspecting world, but also on our side, from below, with human readiness to receive and willingness to experience what God is revealing.  I wonder how many of us have got memories of a special time or a particular place when right in the middle of the ordinariness of life we somehow sensed the truth and beauty and nearness of God, even if we could hardly describe it in words.  I’ve got the feeling that experiences like that happen all the time, but too often we’re not paying attention.  Like Mary, who treasures her experiences in her heart and ponders them, we need our epiphanies as personal proof that God is real.

In the magical folklore of Ireland there are stories about what they call ‘thin places’ - places where the human world and the spirit world come dangerously close, where the fog seems to lift a bit and God's presence is somehow easier to experience.  I guess the Irish would say that Bethlehem, during the reign of King Herod, was one of those thin places.  The fog lifted and those with eyes to see were drawn to the child and knew who he was - God with us, in all the dirt and noise, in all the general unsatisfactoriness of things with not enough room or time or money and too much to worry about.  A place where - just for a moment - rough labourers hear angels singing, where wealthy foreign dignitaries get their knees dirty offering splendid gifts to a peasant child in an obscure village.  God has drawn them all together - some as they went about their ordinary work, some because of the hassle of an Emperor's decree, and some by following mysterious signs.  It all comes together and – just for a moment - God's presence is seen up close.  Then the fog rolls back in and the troubles and injustices of life crowd in again - the wise men are rightly suspicious of King Herod and avoid him, the shepherds go back to work, the family make themselves scarce to avoid Herod’s retribution.

Today we read about another thin place - thirty years later at the river Jordan.  Dramatic, charismatic John the Baptist, almost certainly a little mad, touched with the holy fire to call Israel to repentance and readiness, calling out the new Israel from the tired, corrupt old system.  Stand up and come forward if you're ready to be part of what God is doing!  Be washed and purified!  Come on in, the water’s fine!  Maybe John came up with this idea by himself – splashing around in the water - that ancient universal human sign of encounter with the Spirit.  Who knows what reasons the common folk may have had for coming to him.  But they did come, with whatever dreams they had, to that thin place where God's presence was shining through the ordinariness.  And amongst all the hullabaloo, the splashing and the shouting, there’s one man, grown up from the small child the wise men recognised as the light of nations.  Maybe you or I wouldn't pick him out of the crowd, but John knew who he was, and God knew who he was.  And on that day, Jesus finds out for sure who he is.  He hears God's voice.  "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased". 

And Jesus responds to this voice by going out into the desert to pray and prepare himself for what God is asking of him.

The thin place is where God's readiness to reveal meets human readiness to perceive.  Of course God is present all the time, but we're usually too self-preoccupied and busy to notice it.  But it happens at the Jordan for Jesus, and it happens sooner or later for each one of us, when the right combination of circumstances and place and readiness come together.  If we’re paying attention at that moment we’ll be transformed by it, and that single moment will have far-reaching consequences for our lives.  Life’s going to go on the same as ever, but the meaning and purpose are different.  Our values and perceptions are turned upside down.  We cling to that moment of truth, and we try to get the knack of being ready for it when it comes again - to see and hear more clearly, to know the sort of thing God has done in the past and still is.  We try to put ourselves in the way of those thin places and sacred moments, and little by little we find that God, far from being elusive, is ready whenever we are, ready to tell us as often as we need to hear: "You are my beloved child, I am well pleased with you."

Today Jamin’s family has brought him along to be baptised.  And what a wonderful occasion for it, on the feast of our Lord's Baptism.  We don’t expect, like Delmar obviously did, that he’s going to come up miraculously changed, waterproof.  But we pray that this, for Jamin, is going to be the first of a lifetimes-worth of encounters with the God who loves him, the beginning of a lifetimes-worth of being shaped and led by the Spirit in the thin places.  An encounter that, in years to come, he might look back on as a moment in which God spoke to him and told him who he most truly is, a beloved child of God in whom God delights.