Saturday, June 24, 2006

What sort of man is this?

Have you ever noticed that the good nights on TV are always the nights when you’ve got something else on? – just when the Bill has got to some nail-biting climax and you’ve got friends over – when you have got the chance to flop down in front of TV for the evening it’s re-runs of the Inventors or bright-eyed eccentrics talking enthusiastically about Grecian urns or something.  For a while back there it seemed like whatever channel you switched on, whatever day of the week it was, it’d be one of the endless variety of Law and Orders – have you ever wondered what TV would be like if there was no crime and no medical emergencies?  Leaving aside the stuff that’s just too awful to think about – Big Brother or Australian Idol for example – what is it about ordinary people that makes them want to watch shows about life-threatening illnesses or psychotic killers - for relaxation?

When I was a teenager there seemed to be a spate of box-office thrillers about random nastiness – movies like Jaws, or The Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno.  Psychologists tell us we humans have a fascination with what makes us feel unsafe – with the idea that evil or chaos is lurking just beneath the surface – we maybe watch movies that play with the idea of random violence because it strikes a chord for us with the fear we all have that basically the world isn’t safe, that tragedy does strike by sheer chance, that terrorists really could be plotting an attack in our neighbourhood, or that even our own bodies might just be waiting to come down with some obscure illness – and I guess part of the attraction of movies that plug into the anxiety that’s part and parcel of modern life is that at the end, when the credits roll, we can remind ourselves that all that ugliness was just let’s-pretend – the world we live in isn’t as gritty and fearful as that, after all, at least our world is safer than that.

In the ancient world, one of the most powerful symbols of anxiety and disorder was the chaos of a storm at sea.  At sea, you were in the power of forces almost too big to imagine, the violence of wind and waves was so feared that creation itself was supposed to be the result of divine forces holding back the unimaginable fury of watery chaos – as Yahweh reminds Job in our first reading, ‘who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?’  - the fury of a storm was a battering at the doors of creation itself, the forces of chaos trying to get back in.  In the centre of the storm you were as good as lost – at the same time, as we read in Job, the whirlwind was where you came face to face with the power of God who mysteriously was in control of the uncontrollable.

It’s a sense of awe that we lose, a bit, in these days of weather charts with isobars and cute little sunny faces and rainclouds that tell you what tomorrow’s going to be like.

It’s a point, also, that seems to be lost on Jesus’ disciples, in spite of all the hints of the past few weeks, the miraculous healing power that they have witnessed, the parables that, as Mark tells us, went over the heads of everybody else but Jesus privately explained to the disciples.  They should be getting the point by now!  And then they head out into the middle of the Sea of Galilee on an overnight trip, heading for the non-Jewish region on the far side of the Jordan

Mark seems to have a bit of fun with this story – according to my commentary there’s an echo here of a similar trip involving another prophet called Jonah who went to sleep in the middle of a storm.  On that trip, too, the captain wakes up the passenger and accuses him of being too blasé – ‘don’t you even care?’ – though in the Book of Jonah the captain at least knows the right procedure for dealing with storms at sea – pray as hard as you can, to as many gods as possible, and hope that one of your prayers gets through.  But the disciples don’t ask Jesus for anything: ‘Don’t you care that we’re getting swamped?’  ‘Have you even noticed?’

These guys are professional fishermen, they’ve been to-ing and fro-ing on the Sea of Galilee all their lives.  The Sea of Galilee apparently just does that – from zero to a raging fury in half a minute – so they should have known what could happen on a night trip from one side of the Sea to the other.  Maybe this one was worse than usual.

‘Don’t you even care, God?’  We know what they’re talking about, don’t we?  When you think about it, we’ve all been in that situation, when all of a sudden the storm that’s always just in the back of our awareness blows up, the medical diagnosis or the financial disaster, the telephone rings with bad news and we look around to see Jesus right where he always is, serenely unconcerned. ‘Don’t you even care, God?  Why am I suffering like this?  Aren’t you in control?’

The disciples don’t ask Jesus to help – the implication is that they don’t believe he really can, they just want to make sure he’s panicking as hard as they are – notice how, despite all they’ve seen and heard, the remarkable events they’ve been part of, the disciples immediately revert to unbelief when they’re overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control.  It happens, doesn’t it?  Trusting God is OK while the boat is more or less upright, but when the situation gets out of hand we want something a bit more tangible?  Anxiety can make us think we’re on our own.

Jesus doesn’t talk to them.  Neither does he do the traditional thing, which is to pray for deliverance – instead he talks to the storm as though it was a demon – what is it in your life – what is it in our life as a church – that so overwhelms us that we give it the power of the demonic?  What is it that keeps us from trusting one another, and from trusting God?  A storm, after all, is just a storm, and in the worldview of the ancients that should be exactly where the power of the divine is most on display.  It becomes demonic when we give it the power to diminish who we are, when we allow it to cut us off from our awareness of what really gives us life.  Jesus shows that he has the power to cut through all that, to set us free from whatever has taken on the power of the demonic in our lives.  Mark, who typically shows the disciples as not getting the point – ‘what sort of man is this?’ - is more or less inviting us to fill in the blanks.  We’re listening to the story from the other side of Easter, so we know what sort of man Jesus is – we know Jesus is the bearer of God’s Spirit who challenges and transforms our deepest and most destructive demons, all that distorts our relationships with each other and with God.  All that prevents us from trusting in the future that God intends for us.

And yet we too miss the point, if we just hear this story as an impressive way of Jesus revealing his secret identity – the disciples haven’t worked it out yet, but like viewers who see Clark Kent pulling off his glasses in the telephone booth, we’ve got the privileged information.  But we also know what it’s like to be in situations where we haven’t got any control, we know what it’s like to be swamped and afraid.  We know what it’s like to be in a place where only God can be any help.  This isn’t just an all-too familiar story for us, it’s the story of our own lives.  We know what it’s like to say, ‘Don’t you even care that we’re being swamped?’ – and to hear God’s silence in return.  How easy do we find it to trust that God is in control of the storms that rage in our lives?  It’s not as easy as just switching off the television set after another black episode of Law and Order.  What haunts our dreams doesn’t fall silent so easily. 

The Gospel writer knows this.  Mark is writing to a Christian community living through doubt and persecution, a community that doesn’t know whether it has a future.  He’s a realist, and he also knows that we’ve read through to the end of the story.  When Jesus rebukes the chaos of wind and water, we hear a powerful message of hope from a man who, we know all too well, is going to cry out in despair on a Roman cross.  A man who knows that the centre of the whirlwind is right where we are going to encounter the God of wind and storm.  The God who comes to share our boat with us.  This isn’t a gospel of cheap tricks, it’s a gospel of costly grace.  ‘Don’t you even care?’ – we ask God, for the umpteenth time.

And we hear in return, ‘Be still.  Be at peace’.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Mustard, again

In the Monty Python movie, The Life of Brian, the main character really wants nothing more than a quiet life.  Unfortunately for Brian, he was born in the stable next door to the one in Bethlehem with all the special effects – and spends the rest of his life getting mistaken for Jesus.  Years later, after they spot Brian unwisely painting some political graffiti on a wall – ROMANI ITI DOMUM – or, Romans go home – the local arm of the Peoples Front of Judea begin to take him very seriously.  The Life of Brian manages to offend just about everybody who isn’t too busy splitting their sides laughing – one of the most memorable moments for me, when everything begins to get out of hand with crowds of people turning up outside the house waiting for words of wisdom, Brian’s mum pokes her head out of the window and tells them, ‘E’es not the Messiah!  E’es just a very naughty boy!” 

Which is more or less where Jesus finds himself at this early stage of Mark’s gospel.  At the end of the last chapter, Jesus’ mum and his brothers have even turned up to take him home – his family thinks he is mad or even worse, possessed by Beelzebub, they’re trying to stop him hurting himself or getting himself noticed by the authorities – reading between the lines in Mark’s gospel the relationship between Jesus and his family at this point is pretty strained.  He’s managed to offend the religious folk and unlike The Life of Brian, nobody’s splitting their sides laughing.  Jesus isn’t reverent enough, he doesn’t keep the Sabbath rules, he hangs about with the riff-raff and tells them God forgives them without going through the right channels, without sending them off to sacrifice in the Temple (which, of course, most of them couldn’t afford to do anyway).  It seems Jesus’ early ministry hasn’t got off to a very good start, and he finds himself having to defend himself against some pretty strong criticism.

And he does it by telling some pointed little stories.  More to the point, according to some Bible scholars, he borrows at least one of today’s stories from another eccentric who rubbed people up the wrong way.  Ezekiel.

I heard somewhere that in the old days Jewish boys weren’t allowed to read Ezekiel, in fact, it was considered that until you were 45 years old you didn’t have the maturity to understand what he was on about.  I must be a late developer.  Anyway, Ezekiel seems to have been a bit of a madman.  One of the first to be carried away into exile by the Babylonians, Ezekiel writes that he’s sitting by the river Euphrates, in Babylon, when he starts getting messages from God for the folk back home.  Some of his passages sound suspiciously like modern-day descriptions of bad experiences with designer drugs, but basically his message for Zedekiah, the puppet king put in place by the Babylonians, is that he’s headed for disaster.  Zedekiah apparently isn’t too bright, the Babylonians have overrun Judah and set him up as a sort of lame duck king, but he decides to try his luck with the Egyptians.  Sort of like John Howard deciding to invite Saddam Hussein to give him a hand.  So Ezekiel quite reasonably informs Zedekiah that he’s cactus.  But here’s the point – for Ezekiel, Zedekiah isn’t cactus because the Babylonians are cross with him but because Yahweh himself has taken up arms against him.  If the Temple is going to be destroyed – as Ezekiel predicts it will – then it must be God’s doing.

We need to understand what Ezekiel thinks here, but we don’t need to agree with him.  Remember when some Christian groups tried to say the tsunami was God’s punishment?  We need to be pretty clear about rejecting that sort of logic that not only blames God for wars and natural disasters, but also lets people off the hook for their own moral responsibility.  Zedekiah is heading for trouble because he’s made some bad decisions.

But then we get to the poetic interlude, today’s reading from Ezekiel where he predicts – sometime in the distant future after Zedekiah has come to a sticky end – that God is going to restore Israel, not in the old language of planting a grapevine but as a mighty cedar – a tree on top of a mountain that’s so vast that all the nations of the earth are going to take shelter under it – it’s a vision of the end of history when, basically, everyone else is going to come grovelling to us and see that we were right all along.

You might have guessed that I take this sort of stuff with a grain of salt.  It’s part of the national mythology of Israel that doesn’t quite connect with reality.  Like Jesus, Ezekiel is prepared to talk about hope in a situation where realistically, there doesn’t seem to be much cause for optimism, and that’s a very powerful message.  It helps us to take God’s perspective.  But there’s a subtle difference between Jesus’ message – like the message of prophets like Micah and Amos – that God’s people are blessed when they learn to be a blessing to the people around them – and Ezekiel’s idea that at the end of the day everyone else is going to be at our beck and call.

So Jesus, according to some Bible scholars, basically takes Ezekiel’s boasting imagery and twists it around a bit.  ‘The kingdom of God is like this’, he says – ‘like a mustard seed – the smallest seed of all that grows into a mighty plant so that it gives shelter to all the birds of the sky’.

Well, for a start we know he’s exaggerating wildly – actually the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed of all, and the mustard plant really isn’t that impressively big, either.  So if Jesus is picking up Ezekiel’s image he’s poking fun at it a bit – contrasting mustard, a nuisance weed, with Ezekiel’s rather grander picture.

It’s like he’s saying, ‘God’s reign doesn’t have to be imported from Lebanon – when God’s power goes to work transforming people’s relationships it doesn’t even have to look that impressive.  It’s not something mighty or foreign but rather something close to hand and common – something you find every day out in the back yard – something that unpretentiously grows out of everyday relationships between unimportant and overlooked people.

And here’s the other thing – you get weeds in your back yard you’ve got them for good.  Back in the days before Roundup, anyway.  You’ve heard me talk before about the idea that God’s kingdom is weedy – wild and unrestrained, can’t be contained or tamed or predicted – Jesus it seems is contrasting the power of the ordinary and not very highly regarded with the majestic but fairly easily chopped down.

There’s something a bit disturbing here, for us as well as for Jesus’ listeners who probably got the point all too well that God’s kingdom might be found working in ways that are inconvenient and disruptive to the agendas set by people with power and money.  If God’s kingdom comes in by stealth, like an infestation of weeds rather than a mighty tree, then how are we going to control it?  Is God’s kingdom even going to fit in? - is it going to be a threat to the way we’ve always done stuff?  How are we even going to recognise that suspicious-looking growth as something that’s going to thrive and unexpectedly turn into exactly what’s needed to give life and energy to those who really need it?  It seems that if we are looking for signs of God’s kingdom then we need to be flexible, we need to let go of our preconceptions about the ways God works, and just be ready to cheer for it when we see it.

And here, I think, is the other thing – this – literally – grass-roots idea about what God’s kingdom might be like is really good news for people who don’t seem to be winning by the usual standards of money and popularity and influence.  It seems almost every other day I open the newspaper to read about how out of touch the churches are, how Christianity just isn’t relevant any more – and judging by declining attendances you’d just about have to agree.  Like Jesus, we find ourselves having to defend ourselves against the charge that it’s not been very successful, really.  Except that God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that.  The way God’s relational power works to transform people, and communities and even institutions, working insidiously like an outbreak of weeds – means that it flourishes right where most sensible people have given up.  God’s relational power is the power that makes people see the strength and beauty that comes in living, not just for themselves but for one another.  Ordinary unimportant people who get the point of living outwards, not inwards, loving others unreasonably and giving of themselves wastefully.  In the church or in the world at large.

It’s never going to be catch on.  Or, maybe, if we know where to look, we’ll see that it already has.


Saturday, June 03, 2006


In ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – a very useful book to have read if you happen to find yourself unexpectedly kidnapped by aliens just in the nick of time when the Earth is just about to be demolished by a Vogon Destructor fleet in order to make way for an intergalactic hyper-expressway – it’s also a very funny movie – anyway in ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ the Earthling, Arthur Dent, naturally can’t understand a word anyone is saying to him even after he gets over the initial shock of finding himself on a spaceship surrounded by large and spectacularly ugly Vogons – until a fellow intergalactic hitchhiker hands him a Babel fish.  Named, of course, after the Tower of Babel, the Babel fish looks pretty much like a regular goldfish except that when you insert it into your ear you can hear and understand everything that’s said to you in your own language.  Unfortunately the fish has to stay in there for the duration, apparently the fish gets something out of the relationship as well, I can’t remember what.  Also it tends to wriggle a bit, which Arthur initially finds a bit disconcerting, but you can’t have everything.

The Babel fish is one of those clever ideas that catches on in popular culture – on the Internet, for example, you can go to the search engine, Alta Vista, where you’ll find a thing called Babel fish translation – you just type in a phrase of English and select what language you want it to be translated into – for example when I typed in ‘what are these babbling Galileans on about’, and translated it into German and then back again into English to get ‘just what are these mad Galileans on?’  Which, actually, is more or less what everyone was thinking at the time, even if they didn’t say so.

You see, Luke also, in our story today from The Acts of the Apostles, comes up with the clever idea of reversing the basic idea of that much older story in the Old Testament about the Tower of Babel.  My New Testament professor at university, Bill Loader, points out some of the rich symbolism in the riotous scene that Luke paints for us – where the original Tower of Babel story tries to explain how it is that people can’t understand one another, why we get separated into factions that can’t see eye to eye, why we spend all our time arguing and fighting one another – here we have the opposite - a miracle of comprehensibility, the miracle of people inspired by the Holy Spirit who do get the point. 

My teacher thinks Luke might be using another very old story associated with the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost – falling fifty days after Passover this was one of the great pilgrimage festivals that gathered together Jews from all over the known world, the still-scattered remnants whose ancestors had gone into exile and never come back – people by now who spoke mutually incomprehensible languages who were at home in foreign lands and cultures but who still knew themselves to be the people of God’s promise.  Pentecost had become one of the great annual festivals to celebrate the coming of the Law on Mt Sinai – where, according to one legends a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire – one for each of the nations of the earth – everyone could understand what God was promising and what God required, but only Israel promised to keep the Law.  So Luke, the great story-teller, has got a lot of material to work with and he weaves it together to tell the story of how, in the promise of God made real in the crucified and risen Jesus, communication is being restored.  The nations of the world are being gathered in again like a great harvest – the Spirit comes as wind – a play on the Hebrew word for God’s Spirit, ruach – just like the Greek word, pneuma - that also means wind, or breath.  And the Spirit also comes in tongues of fire! 

Like Douglas Adams, Luke uses a bit of humour.  He makes it sound a bit like the phenomenon of talking in tongues, what anthropologists call glossolalia, the symptom of religious excitement that worries St Paul so much about the Church in Corinth because of the all-too human tendency to get carried away, to mistake the unusual effects of our own excitement for the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Calm down, St Paul tells the Corinthian Christians – the real work of the Holy Spirit is love.  If love is growing among you then God’s Holy Spirit is working.  It’s that simple.  The Spirit of God is incompatible with the spirit of competitiveness and the spirit of showing off.  Luke, writing 30 or so years later than Paul, makes his story sound a bit like talking in tongues – he even says that to people who don’t know what’s going on they sound like a lot of drunks - but then he gives it a twist – the faithful Jews gathered from across the ancient world hear them talking plainly, miraculously making sense.  The curse of Babel is reversed.

For all Luke’s poetic licence, it’s clear something remarkable happened that first Pentecost.  An excited crowd of Jews from different language groups and cultures witnessed some sort of phenomenon that transformed these witless Galilean country bumpkins - who just weeks earlier had been scattered and scared – into fearless and compelling witnesses of God’s new deal for human beings.  Luke, no doubt, makes a good movie out of it, which is more or less what we do ourselves, when we dress up in red and put big vases of poinsettias behind the altar.  Pentecost is a day for theatre, for celebrating the truth of the miracle even if we’re a bit hazy on the details.

So what’s the good news in this story for us, in 2006?  I really think there is good news here, and it’s summed up in one of Jesus’ favourite sayings that also gets repeated at various points in ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ - whenever Arthur Dent gets himself all anxious and worked up about the strangeness and unpredictability of the galaxy he turns over to the next page of the strange little book that his fellow hitchhiker has given him and reads: ‘DON’T WORRY!’.

Or, as Jesus generally puts it: ‘Don’t be afraid’.

Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, marks a turning point in the life of the early Church, and it also marks a turning point in our own lives that, very appropriately, we reflect on at the end of the season of Easter.  Pentecost marks the turning point for disciples who have been pretty much OK about being called and nurtured, who are pretty much OK about following Jesus and being impressed – but who are a bit iffy about being gifted and commissioned and sent.  Pentecost is the feast of the Church that understands itself as the body of Christ – the body of women and men who speak Christ’s words and who live Christ’s risen life - not just because that makes us feel good or because it guarantees us a spot in heaven, but because we are faithful to our Lord’s commandment – ‘make disciples of all the nations and baptise them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’.  Pentecost is the feast of Christian maturity, a feast of the turning point for Christians who recognise that the Spirit of the risen Christ is a gift that doesn’t just redeem them personally but also challenges them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they go.  Pentecost is for Christians who know Jesus calls them to be in mission to a hurting and fragmented world - but are a bit iffy on how to go about it.


As you fly around this amazing and rather scary galaxy – or even just around Belmont – the only job you have is to grow in love.  The Babel fish in your ear is going to do the rest, because the miracle of comprehensibility is God’s work, not yours.  That’s the promise of Pentecost.  The Babel fish – or to use slightly more Christian terminology – God’s Holy Spirit – is going to keep wriggling in your ear, going to keep pushing you slightly off balance, going to transform you precisely to the extent that you are prepared to trust its power to do so.  You will find yourself in some pretty unusual places, there’ll be times when you’re not too sure how it’s all going to turn out.  But the words of God will come from your lips, and they are going to be spoken in the language that is just right for the unique situations that you are going to find yourself in.

In a moment Rhys and Bree are going to be baptised, which is going to make them – just for a moment – the very newest members of God’s family.  After they’ve been baptised we’re going to give them a job to do – in the words of the liturgy we’re going to say to them, ‘shine as a light in the world’.  That’s the job, nothing more, nothing less, if you want to live out of the centre of God’s love.  Just shine so that the whole world can see your light.  The Holy Spirit is God’s promise that you will.