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.