Friday, July 06, 2012

Pentecost +6B

The classic Monty Python comedy, The Life of Brian, begins in Palestine in the year zero when Brian's mum takes a wrong turn on the way to the maternity hospital and ends up forced to give birth in a stable, next door to a rowdy family also having a baby amidst a crowd of shepherds and suspicious-looking cashed-up foreigners who initially mistake Brian for the other one.  Years later, and to his great annoyance, Brian is still being mistaken for Jesus. By everyone, that is, except his mum, who isn't buying it.  In one scene Brian appears at the doorway of his home in suburban Jerusalem to be greeted by an adoring crowd calling out hallelujah, and 'save us', and 'Gawd 'elp us', which when you think about it comes to much the same thing until Brian's mum back in the kitchen decides enough is enough and comes out with the broom to chase them all away. 'e's not the messiah', she tells them firmly, 'e's just a very naughty boy'.

So, how do you get taken seriously?  How do you convince the home crowd? Our readings this morning invite us to think about leadership and the way God calls and works through particular people.  At first glance the Old Testament and Gospel readings look like totally different outcomes – the people enthusiastically endorsing David as their king, Jesus' own family and neighbours who can't take him seriously as a spiritual leader.

The chunk we read from 2 Samuel this morning might make it seem as though David had everybody's approval, that his coronation is just the next inevitable thing after Samuel anointed him many years before and about three weeks ago in our lectionary.  But that's just because we've skipped over all the gory bits in the middle, the divisions and betrayals, the wars with external and internal enemies.  And so we come in, so to speak, at the end when everybody that's left acknowledges David and remembers how he led Israel even during the troubled final years of the reign of King Saul.  The most important verse is the last one – David grows in stature and power because God is with him.  He isn't finished with making mistakes and ignoring good advice, or with conflict and dispute, but the Bible reminds us that it is as he walks with God that he will grow in maturity and charisma and grace.

On the other hand we already know that God is with Jesus, and by this stage in Mark's Gospel it should be obvious even to the people of Nazareth, the tiny village of perhaps 120 people in which Jesus grew up.  Jesus has just returned home for a bit of R&R after a spectacularly successful tour of the local region.  His reputation is starting to grow, surely they have heard of the amazing healings and the demons driven out and a little girl restored to life? Remember this is in the ancient world where for the peasant population there was no health care at all, except for the comfort their own knowledge of binding wounds and setting bones and the vaguely medicinal properties of local herbs might bring.  This is the sort of reputation that made wandering holy men of the time into the equivalent of today's mega pop-stars.  Jesus' reputation as a healer and as a teller of stories, especially in this early part of his ministry, was spreading like wildfire.

When you think about it, though, none of us are easily impressed by the kid that used to play in the same street as us, who went away and came back a great guru of something or other.  We maybe give lip-service to the local boy or girl made good, but we can't quite get over the feeling that we knew them when.  'Him? My girl used to babysit for his mum.  A right little so-and-so he was.'

And yet, Jesus is treated with the courtesy that is given to every visiting adult male – he is invited to open the Torah and to speak in the local synagogue.  And he does so, reading from the scriptures and teaching succinctly, with authority.  The first thing is maybe to wonder where he has acquired the learning – the Gospels don't tell us anything about Jesus being trained as a rabbi, although there are tantalising hints of an apprenticeship served perhaps under John the Baptist or in the Essene community in the wilderness.  This, after all, is a community of almost universal illiteracy where most Jewish men would have learned to recite, though not to read, from the scriptures.  Some commentators interpret what happens next not as rejection but as the sort of respectful push and shove dialogue fairly typical in the ancient world.  He gets engaged in argument.  And why not?  A certain amount of healthy argument is all to the good in a faith community.  But whether or not that's how it starts, it quickly turns to offended reaction – 'this is just Mary's boy' – a fairly devastating put-down actually, implying either that Jesus' paternity is questionable or that his father is not worth remembering.  'Who does he think he is?'

And it seems that Jesus is just as offended by them as they are by him.  It's interesting to note that this is the very last time in Mark's Gospel that Jesus ever sets foot in a synagogue, let alone tries to teach there.  What happens next is that he changes tack, sending out his disciples two by two, in the manner of wandering holy men of the time, into the towns and villages, taking the good news of God's forgiveness and love directly to where the people congregate, in the fields and by the shores of the lake, in the market place, in pubs and on street corners.  He makes them dependent, as he is himself from then on, on the hospitality of those they encounter.  And of course it's a stroke of genius.  You don't change the world by trying to change its institutions or talk to the respectable and the well-off.  You change it by preaching hope to people who have no hope, bringing good news to those for whom life is mostly about bad news.  This is the bit of Jesus ministry we, the Church, don't seem to be able get our head around.  We talk to ourselves, mostly, we find it hard to get out and tell the good news to the people who most need to hear it.

But we also need to ask ourselves, how ready are we to hear the good news from the new kid, the upstart, the one with the brash new idea about what God might be wanting us to do?  Ah, she's young, or he's a new Christian, full of enthusiasm – don't worry, they'll settle down after they've been in the pews another ten or twenty years.  Except, like Jesus, they might not hang around.  They might go somewhere else with the good news.  We're actually blessed, in this Diocese, and this State, with some fine young Christian leaders, and I've been fortunate in my work with Anglican EcoCare over the last couple of years to meet and hear from some of them. Young women and men in their twenties with wisdom and fresh thinking and a deep spirituality.  And perhaps a dash of frustration that Church leaders don't seem to be listening.

God, of course, doesn't respect hierarchies.  How many times in the history of God's people does God choose the youngest – like David – the one considered so young and unimportant that his dad leaves him out on the hillside with the flocks when Samuel the prophet wants to interview his sons for the top job?  We need to learn to recognise when God is speaking to us, not to allow our own preconceptions of who is important and who isn't, who is worth listening to and who isn't, to get in the way of hearing and responding to the good news God wants us to hear.

It's not surprising that Jesus redefines for his followers who and what family is.  Nazareth, after all, was that small.  A significant proportion of this little village would have been Jesus' own extended birth family.  In this incident Jesus is rejected, not by the high and mighty but by those who should have known and loved him best of all.  'Who are my mother and my brothers and sisters?', he asks his disciples in Mark's Gospel. 'Who is my family? Whoever hears and does the will of God.'  It's a damning indictment.

The townsfolk of Nazareth – Jesus' own kinfolk – recite his family history as proof that they don't have to listen to him, that after all, he is just one of them and no better than they are.  And so they close their ears to the good news, and the good news is taken to others.  The message for us is two-fold: we need to exercise humility in our listening in case we miss the good news that God is wanting us to hear.  As often as not God's next big thing is not the bright idea of the hierarchy – after all hierarchies usually resist fresh thinking – but by the person on the edge of the community, the newcomer, the misfit, the one with a different point of view.  How well do we listen?

And the second part of the message is that we need to learn imagination and courage to actually share the good news, to go as Jesus sends us, dependent not on our physical resources or our learning or training but on the reality of the Holy Spirit, and on the hospitality of those we encounter.  It's actually just about learning to be secure in who we are and who God is.  Evangelism is not the work of experts and priests but of every Christian, and our story today suggests it is not about being a Bible basher or attempting to convert long-suffering relatives and friends or passers-by, but simply by getting about our ordinary business in the shopping centres and workplaces and caf├ęs of our city.  Not with a Bible in our hand but with the gifts of the Holy Spirit: love, kindness, patience, gentleness – and the willingness to share with others what gives our lives meaning and purpose.

When we do this we will learn to think of ourselves not as people who belong to a Church – as people, that is, who are at home in a building with its familiar sacred objects and rituals, and its history interwoven with the rites of passage of our own lives.  Not as people of a Church, but as inheritors of the Gospel and as stewards of the life-changing message of God's love.  This, of course, is the real treasure of the Church and it is entrusted to us for one reason only – whoever's son or daughter we are, whatever small town we come from, however meagre our learning or our skill at speaking – to share it.