Friday, February 24, 2012

First Sunday in Lent

In Patrick White's classic novel, Voss, two unlikely and essentially unlikeable characters meet in Sydney in 1845 and fall instantly, if somewhat dispassionately, in love.  One is a prickly, orphaned young woman marooned in high society – the other an arrogant, middle-aged wannabe explorer, newly arrived from Europe with the express purpose of crossing Australia on foot.  The character, Voss, is loosely based on a real-life explorer of the Australian outback, Ludwig Leichhardt, who died in the desert in the remote west of Queensland in 1848.  Voss ultimately comes to a similar end – what makes the novel so powerful, apart from White's incandescent literary style, is its exploration of the role that the desert itself plays in the Australian psyche – as a force to be reckoned with, an obstacle to progress to be crossed and tamed, a void filled with fantasised treasure to be exploited, but also as an emptiness of almost mystical dimensions that both fascinated and horrified colonial society.  In the book, the desert works as a sort of blank canvas that reveals most of all the unexplored depths of the human mind and soul – the essential backdrop of course for the gradual unravelling of Voss's sanity.

Our Gospel reading this morning is about three quarters made up of verses that we have read already this year, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River that maybe we should read as his coming to an awareness of his place in the history of God's relationship with the people of Israel.  Jesus' baptism is not just an affirmation of his identity – notice that the voice that reveals this is heard by Jesus alone – but a commissioning.  Jesus has a mission to accomplish and in the final verses of this passage he begins his ministry of proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom.  In between – are the verses that we need to focus on this Sunday, as we enter the season of Lent.  Because before he can be who he needs to be in relationship with other people, Jesus needs to explore what it means to be himself.  And so the Spirit of God drives Jesus out into the desert.

Not, 'the Spirit of God suggested ..'  Not even, 'Jesus thought this might be a really good idea …'  This is something he apparently doesn't have a choice about – there is a note of compulsion and even violence – he is shoved out into the wilderness.

We Australians think we know about desert.  Perhaps we no longer even fear it in the same sense that early settlers and explorers did, after all the remotest parts of the Gibson Desert are now criss-crossed with well-made roads constructed by mining companies, and the mysterious art of the Western Desert graces our richest boardrooms.  But I think we are still a bit ambivalent about it, we understand it as a place of horrifying risk.  So the first thing that springs to mind is probably that just staying alive in the desert is going to take some doing.  It takes some skill and some courage – in the desert people get disorientated and driven mad by thirst, and find themselves walking around in circles.  It's a harsh and challenging environment that's going to test Jesus physically and emotionally.

But the second thing we understand about the desert is that it's a place of beauty and wonder.  We are uneasy about it even as we are drawn to it.  You get changed by spending time in the actual, physical desert.  And we're awestruck by the ease with which Aboriginal people who call the desert home can find their way around, can find water and food, how they can read the signs and live in harmony with the desert.

So it's not hard for us to understand that for the people of Israel, too, the desert had both these aspects.  The desert is regarded as the place where God calls and shapes his people.  And I think that in these two short verses we are meant to see the connection between Jesus being tested in the desert for forty days, and the defining story of the people of Israel, the story of the escape into freedom from Egypt and the forty years long experience of testing in the wilderness.

Mark tells us Jesus is with the wild animals, and attended to by angels!  This is a slightly different picture than Matthew and Luke paint with their imaginative description of the duel between Jesus and Satan.  For a start, I don't think the wild animals in Mark's story are meant to remind us how dangerous the desert is – rather, it's an idyllic picture of Jesus surrounded by peaceful and attentive animals like St Francis, with even his basic needs being met by the hand of God.  And it strikes me that this is a picture that's meant to remind us of the Garden of Eden, the Gospel writer reminding us that the relationship Jesus has with his Father, and the relationship Jesus has with even the natural creation, is what God originally intended for all human beings.  In other words, that Jesus is revealed as the very point of contact between God the Creator, and the Creation that God loves.

So I don't think it's coincidental that Jesus goes out into the desert, or that it's God's Spirit that compels him.  Jesus doesn't need to be confronted by his own sin, but he does need to discover who he is, and to recognise what is and what isn't part of God's call for him.  Where that happens for him – in fact, where that happens for all of us – is in the desert places of our experience.

In the desert – especially, of course, in the old days without GPS devices and four wheel drives - everything that is non-essential gets stripped away and discarded.  To survive in the desert, you need to get back to the basics of who you are and what you're about.  In the desert, when all the mod-cons are gone, you learn the true nature of yourself, and the true value of love. The journey into the desert is a journey into the heart of a paradox – a contradiction in terms, which is that finding our own centre in the heart of God means looking for our centre right where God's love seems most to be missing.  The desert in your life then might be a medical diagnosis.  It might be a divorce, it might be unemployment, the loss of someone you love.  We generally don't enter willingly, but there is always something valuable to learn.  And often it turns out to be the only way to get back to where we really belong.

This, I think, is the true meaning of the temptation that Mark says Jesus endures in the desert – the desert tests us because it is a place where our regular resources fail us, and our regular props are missing.  The temptation is to panic, to say, 'I can't live here, I can't endure this place of emptiness'.  Not only the physical means of sustaining life are problematic in the desert but the stories that sustain us, the myth of our own self-sufficiency and even the narratives of who we are vanish like a mirage.  The technology of our everyday lives – our computers and calendars and clocks – are meaningless.  And in the deserts of our experience – especially the deserts we enter unknowingly or reluctantly – God also seems to be absent.  The temptation, then, is to despair, to walk around in circles, and to believe that we are lost.  The only alternative is to recognise our deep dependence on the one who lead us into the desert in the first place.

In the story from Genesis, Noah is in a different sort of desert, but the 40 day voyage of Noah is also – I believe - intended to remind us of the 40 years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness.  The name, Noah, actually means 'rest', and his role in this story is essentially passive.  God shuts him – and his family and animals – the vestiges or seeds of creation - into the ark and seals it up, and the world they know is submerged and vanishes in a chaos of water which represents nothing less than the unmaking of creation.  It is a journey into trust and radical dependence, and ultimately what is at stake is a new creation.

So, what does this mean for us?  If the desert is a symbol, and particularly if it is a symbol for us of our own Lenten journey into the heart of God's love that we take over the next forty days before Easter – well, what does it stand for?  How do we get into this desert, and how do we find our way back out again?

There are three movements, I think.

First, it's about recognising our own brokenness – this is the first step into the desert, and we named it first up, very forcefully, in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday – we reminded ourselves that we are sinful, and we called to mind the ways we distort God's creation – both our individual sinfulness and the structural sinfulness of the society we live in – the sinfulness that creates human misery and that causes God to grieve.

That's the first movement into the desert, and it leaves us sitting in the ashes of our own failure.

And the second movement is this – recognising our own emptiness.  In the desert one of the fist things you notice is the silence, and it's the same with our own Lenten desert journey.  Cultivate silence for the next six weeks.  Attend to the things of the spirit that so often get neglected in the general busyness of life.  Reflect on the desert places of your life, and remember what you have learned there that will sustain you.

And the third movement?  - is experiencing the gift of solitude.  In the desert, apart from the animals and the blessedly silent angels, Jesus is utterly alone.  And yet his whole life, and the purpose of his life, has meaning only within the context of his community and the history of God's people.  As you move deeper into the quietness of your Lenten desert retreat, reflect on the quality of your relationships with the people you love and share your life with.  Recognise the ways in which, even when you are alone, your very sense of who you are is built on the relationships you have with those around you.  Recognise your radical dependence on your communion with human beings and with God.  Give thanks, and recognise the sheer gift that is your life.

Acknowledge the truth about yourself.  Empty yourself of baggage.  Fast on solitude and silence.  This Lent, adopt the spirituality of the desert, trusting in the One who made you and who sustains you in love, and be refreshed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Welcome to the unpopular season.

Lent has a bit of an image problem, doesn't it?  Perhaps the Church needs to think about this.  Some of our Christian holy days and seasons cut through very nicely, to use an advertising term.  Christmas, for example, has been wildly successful, everyone celebrates Christmas, even atheists, it's the festival that brings us all together, the Christmas story even generously bends a bit to accommodate the lowest common denominator of feel-good sentimentalism, family or community spirit that we can all agree on.  We scrimp and save up in special Christmas funds, shop till we drop and cook and clean and decorate our houses with tinsel and fake snow and over-indulge to demonstrate that we have the right Christmas spirit, and even if we sigh gratefully when it's all over we don't really mind and we'll do it all next year. 

Even Easter does very well, we eat hot cross buns and Easter eggs as soon as they come out in the stores on January 1st and celebrate the gift of an extra long weekend.  The feast of St Valentine is an absolute godsend for Hallmark, who must be eternally grateful for whichever Valentine it was who got himself executed by a squad of archers during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.  Other Christian festivals don't have quite the same universal appeal, you don't get harangued for example by Myer or David Jones to get your Pentecost shopping done or by Australia Post to make sure you send your Trinity cards out of time.  But we appreciate them in the church, the chance for a bit of extra light and colour, the high points of the Christian calendar add life and energy to our worship.

But Lent is unpopular, even in the Church.  And the trouble of course is right there in the readings, the prophet Joel complaining as prophets are prone to, and telling you personally in no uncertain terms how disappointing you are, that wars or climate change or famine – whatever – it's all your fault.  And the bit from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel telling you not only that we have to fast and pray and make yourself thoroughly miserable except that you're not even allowed to look miserable, you're not even allowed to enjoy being self-righteous.

Well, we live in a society that is ambivalent about all this self-discipline and introspection stuff.  On the one hand you might think we are all carefree hedonists, what with our nightclubs and entertainment industry and our worship of sport, not to mention our habit of celebrating on the slightest pretext by shooting a half-million dollars worth of fireworks into the sky.  Life's too short, self-sacrifice and self-denial are old hat.  On the other hand, we tut-tut in almost Puritanical fashion whenever some public figure gets found out in some peccadillo, we keep check on our neighbours to make sure they aren't using their sprinklers on the wrong day and the new religion of anxiety about climate change and energy saving and immigrants who dare to look or act or worship differently is doing very well.  Our culture gives us mixed messages, and we are just not very good at stopping and reflecting on the internal contradictions.

Lent makes us uncomfortable.  Lent asks us to give something up, and right for a start that makes us suspicious.  Year after year, Christians stress about whether or not Lent is God's way of telling them to go on that diet they've been putting off, whether not eating chocolate or drinking alcohol is the real purpose of Lent, or for teenagers, whether 40 days without a mobile phone is even possible.  And we get defensive, heck, we live on the smell of an oily rag anyway so why should we be expected to go without the one little luxury we reward ourselves with?  Ever since last Advent we've been forking out for this special appeal or that one, guilted out by every worthwhile cause and some that frankly don't look all that worthwhile, and no, it hasn't escaped our notice that every week during Lent the Church expects us to make an special offering to ABM, so really! 

If it's not the emphasis on discipline and self-denial then it's the big-picture themes of penitence and prayer.  You see we actually know we need this stuff.  We know our spirituality needs some attention, we know we need to spend some time reconnecting with God, quietly listening to the inner currents of our own lives and attending to the movement of God's Holy Spirit within us.  Contemplation, meditation, whatever you call it, taking time to practise holiness.  We are aware it is an option, but it doesn't for the most part seem to fit within the demands of a busy life.  I don't so much pray, Father – I meditate while I'm driving.  Well alright, just as long as I'm not driving on the same freeway with you.  Deep down we know – I include myself in this – we need to be spending some quality time in prayer, and Lent is maybe unpopular because it reminds us of this.

And unless we are totally unreflective we also know we have some things to repent of.  Personal things.  We know deep down that the inequality of this world is down to us.  We know we consume more stuff – whether we eat it or wear it or drive it or live in it – week by week than the poor of this world – the two-thirds world – will ever see in a lifetime and that it is our consumer choices that perpetuate that.  We know – or if you don't, then I'm telling you – that to make a single pair of jeans, for example, uses 5 tonnes of water, not to mention the sweatshop labour, the modern version of slavery, that the Western fashion industry depends on.  Buying your next pair of jeans at our Op Shop is a political action of considerable importance in fact.  We have to repent of our lifestyle choices.  And closer to home, how many times, I have to ask myself, have I been so focussed on my next task that I have rushed through a conversation with someone who needed my time, how many times have I been more interested in vegging out in front of TV than spending time with the important people in my life? Repentance is a deeply unpopular word, we don't like to admit our complicity either in the big things that divide our world or the multitude of small hurts we inflict at a more personal level.  We don't like to admit it, but yes, we know we need it.

We need Lent.  We need the opportunity – even, perhaps, we need the excuse – to turn aside from business as usual and actually notice, pay attention, to what's going on inside us, in our world, and in one another.  To pay attention to the gift of time which isn't ours to dispose of, the kairos of God's time which is interwoven with the calendars and appointments, with the chronos of the world's time.  Lent, though at some level we resist it, is a gift to people starved for meaning, for reflection, and for time.

Seen this way, the choice of giving something up for Lent makes a little more sense.  It's not to deprive you but to sustain you with the gift of absence – an absence of stuff, an absence of clutter and distraction and noise.  It's a sweeping aside – for a brief time – of the stuff that prevents you from attending to what is really going on within and around you, also the stuff that you use as a substitute – unconsciously perhaps – the stuff you use to distract yourself with in order to prevent yourself from seeing the disturbing truth about your own soul, your own relationships.  Give something up in order to spoil yourself – with the gift of reflection, the gift of being fully present to the people you love, the gift of hearing within you the unmistakable whisper of God's Holy Spirit.

Spoil yourself, this Lent, with the gift of being fully present to the one who empties his own life in order to be fully present to you.  It's a paradox, as the heart of our faith always is, the paradox of resurrection itself.  But it's a simple paradox.  Lent reminds us – to put it bluntly - that we are full of ourselves, and invites us to fix that.  To pour some of our selves out, so that on Easter morning we can be full of the risen Christ.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


I came across a little book a while ago – I hasten to add it was a fictional novel – about a young man named Albert Einstein.  Hopefully you've heard of him?  The theoretical physicist who at the beginning of the 20th century single-handedly came up with the theory of relativity.  So in the story it is 1905 and the young Albert Einstein is working as a clerk in the patent office in Berne, Switzerland, and in his spare time is working out his theory about how time and space fit together and about the relationship between matter and energy.  And as he works, Einstein has a series of dreams – 30 dreams altogether, each one with a different idea about how time might work.  And the dreams are the book – Einstein's Dreams.

Like all dreams, Einstein's have a certain elusive, whimsical quality, their own internal logic which is wildly out of whack with the everyday logic of the world but somehow connected to it.  In one dream, time runs differently at different altitudes – the higher you get the slower time runs, so people decide to get as high up as they can in order to live longer.  In another dream, time runs around in circles like a snake with its tail in its mouth, so the history of the universe is doomed to repeat itself over and over, with no hope of things ever turning out differently.  In another dream, there is no past, so people instantly forget each other – the person you have just argued with or made love to, the work you have been engaged in, the dreams of your childhood evaporate as soon as they are past.  There is only the present moment.  In another dream time stops running altogether, leaving people frozen in an infinitude of insignificant moments, the spoon halfway to the lips, mid-embrace, mid-argument – all meaningless without the context of past or future.  And perhaps the point is that in each one of Einstein's dreams there is something that is elusively true, a hint of how things might be, and something forgotten, a hint of what has yet to be remembered and understood.

One of the first things we notice about today's Gospel reading – and in case we don't Bible commentaries always point it out – is how dream-like and disconnected it is.  So Jesus takes his closest friends up a high mountain, and as they watch him his clothes suddenly turn dazzlingly, Nappisan white.  And then he is suddenly talking with Moses and Elijah (just as in all good dreams the disciples know instantly who these strange figures are, even without nametags or ever having seen a photograph of them).  And then Peter decides to pitch some tents so the three men deep in conversation can make themselves a bit more comfortable.  And then they all hear a voice speaking out of a cloud (like thunder?) telling them who Jesus is and that they had better listen to him.  And then they all traipse down from the mountain and Jesus says to them: 'shoosh! Don't tell anyone!' And they don't.  Is it just me or does this sound a bit like something out of Alice in Wonderland?

Have you ever noticed that Mark's Gospel – the earliest Gospel, written a whole generation before Matthew and Luke's more elaborate versions and maybe half a century before John – Mark's Gospel doesn't have a nativity scene, and in its earliest, authentic ending doesn't have a resurrection scene either, just a suggestive emptiness where Jesus' body should have been?  What is does have is three scenes – three moments - in which the veil of ignorance is lifted just for a moment, and the secret of Jesus identity is shared.  The first moment is at his baptism by John when the sky splits open and the Spirit flutters down on Jesus' head like a dove and a voice – that in Mark's version only Jesus can hear – tells him 'you are my Son.  I am pleased with you'.  It's a breakthrough moment, a moment of glory.  The third and final moment is the moment of Jesus death, when as he gives his last cry the veil of the Temple is split from top to bottom – that is to say, the veil that prevents ignorant human beings from seeing the glory of God is blasted away – and the Roman centurion who had supervised Jesus' execution utters the truth that up until now has evaded every human being in the Gospel: 'truly, this man was God's Son!'  This is the moment when time stands still, a moment in which the whole of creation shares in the suffering of God.

And the other moment is this one, halfway through the story, already on the road to Jerusalem and death, the dream sequence that shows the befuddled disciples seeing – but not quite seeing.  Being shown, but not understanding.  The disciples, of course, get a bad rap in Mark's Gospel.  They never quite get it.  In fact, in this section of Mark's Gospel the only one who sees clearly who Jesus is, is the blind man at Bethsaida who when Jesus lays hands on him, 'sees all things clearly'. The disciples in Mark's Gospel don't just represent themselves, they represent all Jesus' followers who – let's face it – continue to look without seeing and hear without really getting it.  Who would still rather get to the happy ending without having to sit through the hours of tedium and soul-searching in the Garden of Gethsemene.  This middle moment combines both glory and suffering.  Peter in his befuddled reaction wants to put up some memorials but we already know that the only memorial Jesus is going to get is an empty cross on another, smaller hillside.

Some Bible scholars have suggested that the story of the Transfiguration is in the wrong place in Mark's Gospel.  Surely, they argued, what the disciples are really seeing with the brighter than bright Jesus is a vision of the resurrection, the post-Easter glorified and risen Christ?  It's Mark's resurrection story, surely - it just got a bit muddled in all the oral telling and retelling and now it's out of place, before the crucifixion.  I don't think so, but it does have something to do with resurrection, doesn't it?  Because Jesus gives us the hint, saying to his disciples: 'don't tell.  Not until after I have been raised from the dead'.  This is actually not so hard for us modern men and women to understand, with our sophisticated understanding of flashbacks and glimpses of the future in Hollywood movies that play fast and loose with timelines.  A vision of the future that informs us of the present moment.  As a storyteller, Mark is light years ahead of his time.

And why don't I think the dream-sequence of the Transfiguration is out of place? Because it belongs right here, at the middle of the story, as the tide of events turns and Jesus is inexorably drawn toward that other hill outside Jerusalem on which he will die.  It certainly belongs, for us, at the threshold of Lent and the five week journey toward Holy Week.

Like Peter, who wants Jesus to be the promised one but doesn't like all this talk of suffering and death, many Christians would also like to flick the switch straight to resurrection without going through the ashes and introspection of Lent and Holy Week.  It often strikes me as ironic and telling that the services of Ash Wednesday and the great three days of Holy Week are so poorly attended.  The emphasis on solidarity and suffering are a turn-off, we prefer a bright, happy religion that informs us we get to live happily ever after.  The original disciples are not the only ones who close their eyes and go to sleep as Jesus struggles in the garden and on the cross to endure the logical outcome of his ministry of healing and forgiveness.  And yet, of course, what we turn aside from is not just the distant memory of the sticky end of Jesus of Nazareth, not just the violent flip-side of our 2,000 year old religious narrative, but our reluctant awareness of the suffering and failure and compromise that surrounds us in our own lives and in the life of the world.  The violent passage of Jesus' final week is in itself the tearing of the veil that separates our experience from the life of God.  What is at stake for us in the journey of Lent and Holy Week is not just being good card-carrying Anglicans but reconnecting our own spirituality, our own needs and the suffering of the world with the divine love that redeems our hurt precisely by sharing it.

The dream-story of the Transfiguration reminds us that resurrection is coming – and also reminds us that the only way to participate in the joy of resurrection is to be fully present to the suffering not only of Christ but of the world we live in.  It is of course the central paradox of our faith – that fullness of life can only be experienced on the other side of suffering and death.

In one of Einstein's dreams time flowed backwards.  In the dream he saw somebody take a brown rotting peach out of the garbage bin and put it in a fruit bowl, where it became pink and firm, and then the person took it out into the garden and placed it on a tree, where it was transformed into a glorious pink blossom.  This is the true nature of time, that the dream of the Transfiguration tells us about.  The dream that reminds us that the wounds and failures of the past are not fixed but healed and transformed in the miracle of resurrection, that our future is not fearful because it opens up to the mystery of divine love that is as old as time itself.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

6th Sunday after Epiphany

Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who happened to meet an ugly frog. 'Hello, beautiful princess,' said the frog. 'I'm not really a frog at all. I've been enchanted by an evil sorcerer. If you kiss me, I will turn into a handsome prince.  Promise.'

So the beautiful princess bent over the lily leaf and planted a great big kiss on top of the frog's slimy head.  Like you do.  Unfortunately, she had completely forgotten to check that the coast was clear first.  History is unclear about whether the frog ever did turn into a handsome prince.  But there is no doubt that the photographs in the morning paper and the ensuing scandal did force the princess to leave the castle in disgrace.  After all, she might start developing warts on her face.  Who knew what she might get up to next?  Or what disreputable types she might get up to it with?  Come to think of it, she was beginning to look a bit froggy herself …

Always, when we read the stories that have come down to us in the gospels, we need to remember that this was a very different world to ours.  The way people thought in the 1st century was completely different to the way we think.  Anthropologists would describe it as a society dominated by the opposite poles of honour and shame – being acceptable or being unacceptable.

One of the main ways this worked in Jewish society was about whether you were ritually clean – this wasn't about how often you washed your hands, but it was about not being yucky.  Yucky people weren't allowed to worship God.  The idea seems to have been that God couldn't put up with yuckiness.  That of course worked mainly against poor people – who no matter what century you live in are generally the ones that get landed with the most yuckiness.  Not only were yucky people not allowed to worship God, but if you wanted to worship God you had to make sure you didn't go anywhere near anybody yucky.  Sometimes you got temporarily yucky, for example if you touched a dead body, or a sick person, or if you gave birth.  For the temporarily yucky person it wasn't so bad, you just had to wait a while and then offer the appropriate sacrifice and then you were back in.  For permanently yucky people it was more of a problem.

One of the ways of being permanently yucky was to be a leper.  Now this isn't modern leprosy, or Hansen's disease, which is actually not a skin condition but a disease of the nervous system.  Leprosy in the ancient world was a catch-all category that probably included any sort of skin complaint, anything from psoriasis to an unexplained rash to a bad case of acne.  If you were a leper and you got better, well and good, and there was a definite procedure for getting a clearance from the temple authorities and then you were back in.  In the meantime – tough luck – you had to wear rags, not comb your hair, cover your face, live outside the town limits, and shout a warning to anybody who might come too close.

But today we meet a leper who breaks the rules.  For us, in our individualistic age, that mightn't sound too shocking – although it wasn't so long ago, was it, that people lived in irrational fear of touching somebody who had AIDS?  But in the world Jesus lived in, social boundaries were a whole lot harder to cross.  You stayed where you were put.  But not this guy.  Instead of staying at a distance, he comes right up close to Jesus.  Instead of shouting his pathetic warning, he issues Jesus with a direct challenge: 'you can make me clean, if you want to'.

This pushy leper who knows he is a social pariah, who knows he is terminally on the outer, believes that God is so powerfully present in Jesus that none of that should matter.  He insists that yuckiness should be acceptable to God. This has been a very radical idea, for most of Jewish and Christian history.

I wonder if this pushy leper, who comes along according to Mark at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, helps Jesus to work out who he really is, and what God really wants him to be?  Because there's a bit of doubt about exactly what happens next.  There's a bit of doubt about how Jesus reacts to this outsider who won't obey the rules.  And it comes into our Bible in verse 41 where we read that Jesus is moved with pity.  Because the trouble is, not all the ancient manuscripts agree about this.  Some of the oldest ones say that Jesus is moved not with compassion but with anger – this of course is one of the joys of Bible translation – when not even the original texts agree with each other.  And most Bible scholars work on the assumption that it's most likely that the correct reading is the one that's hardest to understand.  Why?  Because disagreements in the most ancient manuscripts mean that some ancient copyist scratched his head over that verse and decided it didn't look right, and that he had better tidy it up.  And you only do that when the verse you are staring at is hard to fathom.  It's easier to understand why Jesus reacts with compassion, anger is more puzzling, more disturbing.  And a couple of verses later it seems Jesus is still angry, because he speaks sternly to the man he has just healed.  Can you feel compassion and anger at the same time?

I think we get a clue about this when we read the rest of the story, because this guy just doesn't do what he's told.  Jesus, who ends up getting a bad reputation for flouting the rules, is actually really keen for this man to do things by the book.  Take yourself off to the priests, show them you are healed, he says.  Offer the appropriate sacrifice, make it official.  Little enough to ask, wouldn't you think? 

Maybe Jesus is feeling something similar to what I feel when I'm confronted by a smelly drunk at the train station.  A mixture of emotions, isn't it?  Compassion has its limits.  There are ways of getting help without putting me on the spot like this!  Jesus knows that if touches a leper – if he touches a yucky person then he is going to be yucky too.  By touching the unclean person, Jesus himself is going to become unclean.  Could it be that Jesus is caught between a pushy leper and the community sense of the right way to do things?  Remember this is at the very beginning of Jesus ministry, according to the earliest Gospel.  And he is angry because he is being put in a bind.  Angry because he's torn between compassion and the need to be respectable.  But in this story we see Jesus working out who he is and what God wants of him.  Because what wins is compassion.  Jesus does what Jesus always does – he touches the one who is untouchable.

But it doesn't stop there, because the former leper keeps breaking the rules, and the rumours start spreading quicker than chickenpox: 'Did you hear what that new rabbi did?  He actually touched a leper!  Yuck!'   

You see, when we first read it, it looks like the leper is doing Jesus a favour.  Getting him a reputation as a great healer.  But actually the reputation Jesus is getting here is the wrong sort of reputation altogether.  Jesus has been caught out kissing a frog.  Maybe that's why Mark's Gospel tells us he has to stay out of town from now on.  By touching the outsider, Jesus becomes an outsider, and we already know how the story ends.  Eventually he's going to die as an outsider, on a cross on a garbage dump outside the city.

Do you remember last week, how I said that God heals us by touching us.  Nothing fancier than that.  By being radically available, by touching.  But there's always a cost.  Jesus kisses frogs and 'poof!' – now there's two frogs on the lily leaf – making outcasts acceptable by becoming an outcast himself.  The way God works on our brokenness and our unacceptableness is by joining us right in the middle of it.

But what does that mean for us?  Two things – First, it tells us that God's love for us is costly.  Making us whole and complete isn't as simple as pulling us into the winners' circle, a divine immunisation against misfortune – quite the opposite, answering our prayers and healing our brokenness means God joining us in the reality of our day-to-day circumstances.  This is what St Paul is getting at when he writes: 'My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness'. [1]  Don't pray for the weakness to be taken away from you, because it is in your weakness, in your brokenness, that you will know the reality of God with you and God for you.

And the second thing?  We get to kiss frogs as well.  I guess we don't generally come across lepers wandering the streets of Cannington.  The world we live in isn't desperately concerned about ritual cleanliness and purification.  But who are the people we don't want to touch?  The list of available suspects is long enough – immigrants, rich people, poor people, bikies, Muslims, car thieves, child molesters, drug addicts – our world still makes outcast groups through vilification and blaming.  And once you are labelled as an outcast, it's not so easy to get off the list.  Not even in the Church, unfortunately.  But who in particular are your outcasts?  Who is beyond the pale for you personally?  It's not a rhetorical question, and if it makes you angry you're in good company.  But look closely, next time you come across your secret leper at the shopping mall or waiting at the traffic lights.  Look into the face of the one that you would cast out and see the face of Christ.


[1] 2 Corinthians 12.9 – NRSV translation 'for power is made perfect' but notes other ancient authorities, 'for my power is made perfect'.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

5th Sunday after Epiphany

In the Harry Potter books, one of the earliest gifts that Harry receives – and he receives many, on his path to becoming an accomplished wizard – is an invisibility cloak.  There's actually an irony there, I think, and a clue to Harry's personality, because of course is the boy in the limelight – the boy who as a tiny baby withstood the darkest magic of He Who Must Not Be Named and who had been whisked away to grow up in safety until he was old enough to learn the magic arts and save the world – even blissfully ignorant non-magical muggles – from the evil designs of the dark lord.  Harry, in other words, is a messiah in waiting with the whole magical world's weight of expectations on his shoulders.  And book by book he has to learn, not only his magical incantations but what it means to be himself, what his true identity is.  And one of the earliest and most important lessons Harry learns is – it's not about him.  It's not about drawing attention to himself but – and the invisibility cloak definitely helps with this – learning the courage to stand up to bullies and to stand up for what is good and right.  He learns that compassion and loyalty and strength of character are more important than a whole book-full of magical potions.  And he spends the greater part of his time deflecting the attention of others from his mysterious past and his expectation-laden future.  Because it's not about him.

St Mark the Evangelist would understand about invisibility cloaks, because in his version of Jesus' ministry, the hero does exactly the same thing.  'Shoosh', Jesus tells the demons in today's readings.  Strange thing that in Mark's Gospel the demons always recognise Jesus, they get who he is, but no human beings ever do.  'Shoosh', he says to them.  'Keep it to yourselves'.  Not only the demons though, later on in this first chapter when he heals a leper – 'shoosh', Jesus says to him.  'Don't tell'.  In chapter four when he brings back to life a little girl, the daughter of a synagogue official – 'shoosh'.  In chapter seven when he restores to a deaf man the gift of speech, in chapter eight when he gives to a blind man at Bethsaida the gift of sight.  'Shoosh! Don't tell!'  When – right in the middle of the Gospel Peter finally gets a dim idea of who Jesus is, when he says 'Oh! You are the Messiah' (which of course means the anointed, the long-expected one – but Peter's very next words reveal he still doesn't have a clue what that might mean) – and in chapter nine when he takes Peter, James and John up a mountain and reveals to them his true dazzling identity – 'shoosh! Keep it to yourselves!'  Bible scholars call this the Messianic secret – in the earliest Gospel of all, Jesus behaves as though he wants to keep his true identity a secret, and in fact the one human being in the whole Gospel who really, I think, comes to understand who Jesus is – is the Roman centurion who crucifies him, who, as Jesus breathes his last, exclaims – 'surely, this man was God's Son'.  And at the end of Mark's Gospel – did you know this Gospel has no less than three endings?  There is the original ending, at chapter 16, verse 8, and then there is the so-called 'shorter ending' – just a single verse - and then the so-called 'longer ending' which most Bible scholars believe is some later editor's attempt to give the whole thing a more satisfying conclusion.  But the point is that the way the Gospel originally ended, with the women going to the tomb and discovering – where the lifeless body of Jesus had been – a terrifying and inexplicable absence – the attention is not on Jesus, but on what happens next.  Which of course is the early Christian community, Jesus' friends, the men and women who have just spent the whole Gospel systematically missing the point.  The story is incomplete on purpose, because it's up to Jesus' frail and foolish followers to complete it.

Because for Mark's Jesus – it's not about him.  It's about life, it's about community, it's about the need and the longing of human beings for wholeness and comfort and belonging.  And what Jesus points to in this story is not himself, but to what we do next.

We continue systematically to miss this point, I think, as for the last 2,000 years we have carefully constructed a religion of dogma and ritual that is all about Jesus, and a long-running series of arguments about the right way of believing in him.  Jesus didn't set out to found a new religion, and certainly not a religion that's all about him.  And today's reading shows us Jesus' own example and tells us in very simple language what he does think it's all about.

And it starts like this.  As soon as they leave the synagogue – remember from last week, this was where Jesus has just stood up and told the people in no uncertain terms that the good news starts now, and just watch and see – as soon as they leave the church they go to lunch at Simon Peter's place where his mother-in-law is too sick to carry out her expected role.  And Jesus heals her and restores her to her place.  Now we can pause here – I suppose - and comment on the patriarchal sort of world that Jesus lived in, where women didn't seem to have much of a role except to serve in the domestic sphere, and even when she gets up from her sick bed she has to make lunch.  Or we can speculate about why it is, if Peter is married and has an extended family to care for, that Jesus can tell him to leave all that behind and tag along.  It's a very different world from ours and the fact is that Jesus' priority is restore the woman to the place that gives her social honour.  Also – I'm not totally convinced that Jesus disciples did leave their families behind, even if the break from the normal round of work and home and village life was absolute.  Jesus does after all make a big thing of honouring family responsibilities, for example in Matthew's Gospel right before James and John's mother taps him on the shoulder to make sure her boys get the best jobs in his new kingdom.  And in John's Gospel we read of a whole group of women who travelled with them and took care not only of the cooking and washing up but financed the whole enterprise too, it seems.  The travelling band seems in fact to have been a self-contained community that tried to live the values Jesus was teaching – the community that Jesus in Mark ch. 3 Jesus says are his true mother and his sisters and brothers - and I'm not at all convinced that Peter's mother-in-law or his wife weren't amongst them.

But the point is that as he leaves the synagogue Jesus is immediately engaged in real life, and real human need, and he sees his role as the one who is teaching and proclaiming God's kingdom to put it into practice by showing compassion and care.  And of course the word spreads that this man has a way of looking at you that sees right into your heart, and a way of touching that relieves your burden of pain and self-blame and regret.  That Jesus, when he sees you, knows who you really are, and when he touches you he leads you into who you could be, and that in his knowledge of you there is not condemnation but restoration.  And so of course by evening the whole village, just about, is on the doorstep and Jesus heals all who are broken by the miracle of availability and love.

So this is the first point.  It's not about Jesus, and it's not about what we do in church between 8am and 9am on a Sunday morning, it's about what we do after we leave.  It's about practising availability and love, about practising non-judgemental acceptance and forgiveness, and it's about really seeing people when we look at them, and really touching them when come into contact with them.  In our modern culture we don't do these sorts of real contact very well, the sort of availability for other people that you have to slow down for and spend something of yourself on – in fact in our modern society we spend a lot of our energy keeping ourselves separate and making sure that the general awfulness of other people doesn't rub off on us.  Jesus practises – and preaches – the way of radical availability – which happens also to be the way of healing.

And then next morning, while it is still dark – in that wonderful hour when the racket of the world hasn't started yet – Jesus creeps out of the house and finds a deserted spot to pray.  Mother Theresa was well-known for her habit of going off by herself to a quiet place to spend time in prayer, and somebody once asked her about her prayer life, what did she do when she prayed.  Did she have a particular method?  'What do I do?', she repeated. 'Nothing at all.  I just listen'.  'Oh', said her questioner.  'Well, what does God do, then?' 'He doesn't do anything either', Mother Theresa said.  'He just listens too'.

You can't practise Jesus' way of being radically available to others without being radically available to God.  Without nurturing the life of your own soul.  If you want to follow Jesus you discover that it is a rhythm, and an ebb and flow of availability to others and availability to God.  An ebb and flow of availability to others in community and withdrawal into solitude which is conversation with God.

It's not about Jesus, it's about us – and the need for us to learn who we really are, in relation to God, and in relation to the world.  And the invisibility cloak that we need to put on to become truly ourselves – because we don't understand who we ourselves really are until we learn the way of radical availability to others and to God. Until, in other words, we learn to be the good news we proclaim.