Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pentecost +22B

One of the favourite devices in fairy tales is the unexpected reversal of fortunes – the frog that when kissed turns into a handsome prince, the scullery maid who morphs into a beautiful princess, the beggar who becomes king.  Fairy tales – the stories of peasants and gypsies and working class people – are a sort of oral folk wisdom, a magical tradition and a rich source of psychological insight.  Another variation is the riches to rags to riches story – the hero who starts off with apparently everything he could hope for, who loses the lot through the trickery (usually of a wicked stepmother or uncle), lives by his wits and finally through a combination of luck and cleverness and integrity wins back more than he ever had before with a beautiful princess into the bargain.  Puss in Boots is a good example of this sort of story. 

So we begin today with two beggars.  Job, who as we know was rather arbitrarily used as a pawn in a bet between God and God's offsider, ha-Satan the Accuser, has been sitting on the rubbish heap of his life for the last 43 chapters, refusing to go quietly.  He has progressed from self-pity to demanding justice, accusing God (fairly accurately, within the context of this story) of procedural unfairness, he demands to know the case against him, he demands that God show himself, explain himself – and in our reading last week, God finally speaks.  Our Gospel reading this morning begins with another beggar, Bartimaeus, which St Mark rather unnecessarily tells us means 'the son of Timaeus' – or unpacking that a little further since Timaeus means precious, or worthy, 'son of worthiness'.  Well at a symbolic level the name is already telling us that here is someone to watch out for, someone to emulate.  But in the meantime he is doing the only thing a blind person could possibly do in the days before social security, sitting by the side of the road at the gate of the city – which is to say, both marginalised and in the way – begging for his daily bread.

But the astounding coincidence is – and I suspect this is a coincidence the lectionary writers didn't plan – Bartimaeus behaves exactly the same way Job does.  In fact, I suggest, the stories of Bartimaeus and Job help explain each other.  To be brutally honest, both of these gentlemen are in the way.  They are a law and order problem, actually.  In the logic of the world they inhabit, both of them are supposed to accept that their plight is the result of some hidden fault and to stay out of sight, unacceptable, inexplicable and miserable.  But neither Job nor Bartimaeus accept that.  Neither of them are prepared to shut up.  And, getting ahead of myself for a moment, both of them see more clearly than anybody else.

In our reading last week, Job was reduced to silence again by God's response.  God doesn't outline the case against Job, neither does he justify his own actions but simply reminds Job that he is God.  Were you there, he asks rhetorically, when I laid the foundations of the earth or hung the stars in space?  In other words, do you really think with your limited perspective you can possibly know the truth of things, the chain of cause and effect?  Can you really apply your human standards of justice to the immensity of the whole created order and its divine author?  Well of course not, and Job is duly chastened, and falls silent again, not this time the silence of depression but the silence of wonder.  There is something, isn't there, about holding up our own heartache and suffering to the immensity of the universe itself, to the silence of the stars and the frightening abyss of the ocean – and allowing our own tightly clenched and self-obsessed souls to open in wonder to what is.  And the non-answer we get from the immensity of the universe and the silence of God is – paradoxically – an answer.  We are what we are, and we belong, and small as we seem to ourselves, we are a child of God.

But if God sounds cranky at Job for pestering him, the intervening chapters that we didn't read between last week and this put it into its proper perspective.  Because it's Jobs friends, the ones who kept telling him to be silent and to accept his situation, who get the right proper divine telling off. Eventually God tells them to ask Job to intercede for them, Job the persistent nuisance is the one God wants to hear from.  And in today's anti-climax, of course, all that Job had and more is restored to him because, in his distress, in his bitterness and depression and argumentativeness he insisted on being heard by God.

In the Gospel reading today, the Greek word that that particularly strikes me is squawk.  Bartimaeus doesn't just cry out, he squawks, or to use the colloquial Aussie, he carks like a crow - the Greek word is krazo – when he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is walking past.  This is a man who is sitting on the ash-heap of his own life, blind, utterly without prospect, a nuisance.  So he doesn't exactly speak up, he doesn't speak loudly or assertively – literally, according to the Greek, he squawks like an inarticulate creature.  Everywhere else in the Gospel, St Mark uses this same word to describe the cries of demons and irrational mobs.  It is an almost sub-human cry of distress – and yet – Bartimaeus is the only one who sees clearly what is going on.

What he hears is that this is Jesus the Nazarene – perhaps this is what the crowd is saying – and what he cries out shows that he sees more clearly than the disciples have done in both of the episodes that come just before this one in chapter 10 – 'Jesus', he squawks, 'Son of David, have mercy on me'.  Our ears should be pricking up at this – we know this one – Bartimaeus is making a big claim, because 'Son of David' is a title that belongs to the longed-for messiah, the once-and-future king of Israel who would be a descendent of the great king David and restore the glory of Israel.  Bartimaeus although blind, is the only one in Mark's Gospel who sees clearly who Jesus is.  Until the very end, that is, when the Roman centurion who has just crucified Jesus also gets it:  'truly, this man was the son of God'.

And this is where we need to notice that in this story – just as in the story of Job – there are three characters: Bartimaeus, Jesus, and the crowd, including the disciples.  Job, God, and Job's well-meaning friends who persist in doing more harm than good.  Because when Bartimaeus squawks in recognition, when the blind man sees clearly, the disciples and hangers-on try to shut him up.  'Be quiet!'  Unable to see, locked into his private world and socially marginalised as he already is, the disciples want also to make him voiceless.  Job's friends, of course, spent 40 or so chapters trying to do exactly the same thing to him.  'Stop pestering!' We need to pause and think about this one for a bit.  How often, effectively, have we given out the same message to the uncouth, the mentally ill or disabled that they disturb us, that they are in the way, that they do not belong in our ordered worship? How often have we given out the silent but clear message that children are welcome, so long as we don't see them or hear them, or have to do anything differently because they are here?  It's when our own agendas get in the way, especially our unacknowledged agendas, the ones that make our worship and our spirituality self-serving, that like Job's comforters or Jesus' fair-weather friends, we stop seeing clearly either who God is, or who we are.

And Jesus says to Bartimaeus – as more or less, God says to Job – 'what do you want me to do for you?'  It is the exact same question that Jesus asked James and John in our Gospel reading last week, and of course James and John gave the 180 degree wrong answer.  'We want to sit at your left and right hand.  We want to be important'.  Bartimaeus gives the right answer, the answer that makes him a true disciple: 'sir, I want to see'.  This of course is to unpack the story at the symbolic level, but Mark informs us this is how he means it when he wraps up the story by saying: 'and he followed him on the way'.  The only time in the whole Gospel that somebody healed by Jesus follows him on the way.  If you want to be a disciple, then your persistent prayer needs to be, 'Lord, I want to see'.

Though you might be quietly arguing the point with me, you might be thinking, 'yes, but.  How does that help somebody who is really blind?' And you are right.  Bartimaeus, like Job, is in physical distress, and we can't wriggle off by making it all symbolic.  Clearly, Jesus healed people.  Real sick people, blind, crippled, feverish people.  Even allowing for a bit of exaggeration in the Gospel stories, the traditions are just too clear on this for us to ignore it.  And Job, even if his character is fictional, represents any one of us, anyone who calls out to God in the extremity of real calamity or distress and hears – the silence of the stars.

But I don't think the two levels of hearing this story are unrelated.  Poverty, physical or mental illness, disability – isolate people.  The person suffering chronic illness learns to shut up, internalises rejection and experiences shame.    The released prisoner continues to wear the label of offender.  Even amongst God's people.  Even in the Church.  We don't have Jesus' power to heal, to remove or undo the circumstances that have damaged a person's life.

Except – as the body of Christ, the hands and feet and vocal chords commissioned to heal and speak words of grace – we are in the business of transformation.  This is a tricky word, transformation.  Transformed sore feet still hurt.  Transformed macular degeneration still leaves a black hole in the middle of your visual field.  Transformed conviction and imprisonment still leaves you with a police record.  But transformed suffering is grace-filled suffering, suffering that comes hand-in-hand with joy.  Suffering that is empowered to live with confidence and purpose.  And how, as the body of Christ, are we supposed to accomplish that?

 I think – by praying for the grace to see clearly.  Who we are.  Who God is.  Who the person next to you in the pew is.  The one in whom, whether you like it or not, you come face to face with Christ.  I often wonder what it is, when we pray for somebody in our midst, when together we lay hands on somebody and anoint them with oil and pray together for them – what it is about that that works?  Because, make no mistake, it does work.  There is healing, I hear time and time again of the healing that comes through this prayer.  The oil is just oil, set apart for a holy purpose.  We are just ordinary people, gathered together for a holy purpose.  And I think, what changes in our prayer of healing – is all of us.  That we get transformed into a community of care and grace.  A community that includes, that hears, and that sees.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Pentecost +21B

The great Jewish scholar of the early 20th century, Martin Buber, writes that human beings have got two main ways of relating to our environment.  The first way, he says, is when we focus on what a thing or a person can do, how it works, how to make it behave the way we want it to behave - and he calls that an 'I and It' way of relating.  We've all had the experience of being treated as an 'it' sometimes.  For example anybody who's been in hospital can vouch for what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the diagnostic process where you're poked and prodded, examined and measured and X-Rayed – of course at times that's just what we need because we trust the doctors to think about us as a system that's either functioning well or showing signs of malfunction – this objective sort of relationship is what Buber calls 'I and It' – unfortunately we also tend to treat people this way when we want something from them, when we treat them as a problem to be solved or an obstacle or even as a resource – when we relate like this we don't really open ourselves up to a complete and trusting relationship with the other person – instead we stay objective and we treat the other person as an object.  That's not so good.

The other way of relating to our environment Buber calls 'I and Thou', and the difference is that here we take a risk, in this sort of relationship we just want the other person to be themselves, and we just want to show ourselves to the other person as we really are – no pre-conditions, no hidden agendas because there's really only one reason for relating to somebody like this, and that is because you want them to grow, you want them to reach their full potential, to experience joy – you want the other person's life to open up just as much as it possibly can – and when two people relate to each other like that then both of them are strengthened, both of them grow in confidence, communicating without words, just being with each other and for each other.

The reality of course is that most of us go back and forth between the two ways of relating a lot of the time, even with people we love, sometimes having 'I and thou' moments, other times dropping back into the 'I and it' mode –

But the point Buber really wants to make is this – that it's in the 'I and thou' relationships we have with human beings that we come face to face with God.  This is a typically Jewish way of seeing the world, refusing to draw a strict dividing line between matter and spirit, for example, or between human and divine.  The Jewish way of thinking about God is that there is a connection between the holiness of God and the holiness of human beings, when human beings love mercy and justice, when we love each other and seek the best for each other then God becomes visible and takes on flesh in our world.  Like Christian theologians, Jewish thinkers emphasise that God is first and foremost a God of incarnation, a God who seeks to be known in and through the relationships that human beings have with one another.  Which means Christian spirituality is also incarnational, learning to be open and vulnerable with one another, learning to see the face of God in the likely and even the unlikeable faces of everyday life.  We experience the compassion of God when we receive the rare gift of compassion from a stranger, we make God's compassion visible and real in our world when we show compassion to one of God's children.  Sounds almost too simple, doesn't it?

We read today from the epistle to the Hebrews, that strange, very Jewish book of the New Testament that doesn't get read much in church, hidden up the back of the New Testament where most of us don't often go.  One of the most striking things about Hebrews is that the writer is really interested in Jesus – unlike Paul who doesn't say a word about Jesus before the crucifixion and who seems not even to know any of the stories about Jesus' earthly life – for the writer of Hebrews, as we read today, there are some really important things he wants to say about Jesus the man.

Now for me personally, as a priest, this letter makes compelling reading.  What does it actually mean to be a priest?  What does it mean to be part of the priesthood that we read about in 1 Peter, which is the priesthood of all the baptised?  And Hebrews tells us – two very important qualifications to be a high priest or for that matter, any sort of priest at all.  I'll get to the first one in a minute but the second qualification is this – you've got to be chosen by God.  You don't get to be a priest because it seemed like a really good job or because it turns out you've got the right qualifications.  This whole bit about Melchizedek, you know, Hebrews just loves Melchizedek, that odd character from Genesis who's both a Canaanite king and a priest – I guess this is a bit the same as how ship's captains are also qualified to marry people, the ancient pagan understanding of kingship was that the king was also a priest.  So Hebrews is making the point that Jesus didn't have to be a Levite, he didn't have to go to priest school because being a priest is about God's initiative, not human initiative. 

But the first qualification to be a priest is this, that you have to be one of the people.  That's actually really important, and I find it very, very reassuring.  You've got to be human to be a priest, you're not a priest in spite of your humanness but because of it.  If you can't make mistakes you can't understand people who do.  If you can't recognise your own unholiness, if you can't recognise and confess your own sinfulness, then you're not going to be much good to regular flawed human beings.  There's one of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, those stuffy old clauses invented by the Reformers, that's my personal favourite, and for the sake of this one I'm prepared to take them on as a job lot – number 25 - and it's called, 'On the unworthiness of the ministers, which hinders not the effect of the sacrament'.  Just as well, really.  Now Hebrews is working up to the point that Jesus is the great high priest, so the writer doesn't really want to suggest that Jesus is a sinner but he does want to emphasise that being a human being was just as much of a struggle for Jesus as it is for you and for me, and that, I think, is a point worth making.

This is where all three of our readings today connect, because in the gospel reading Jesus refers to his own death as a baptism, and in the Suffering Servant poem of Isaiah we read how God's will and God's compassion for the people is revealed through the Servant's obedient suffering.  The underlying theme of Mark's gospel is that it's in Jesus that we can really understand what that means, that Jesus fulfils the Servant prophecy and that the obedient suffering of Jesus somehow shows God's compassion and God's care for human beings.  It's the underlying paradox of faith that theologians wrestle with – how does Jesus' holy suffering help?  And the writer of Hebrews has got a unique take on that, because he says that Jesus, who cries out to God in the face of death – this verse sounds a whole lot like Mark's description of Gethsemene where Jesus prays in anguish to be relieved of this dreadful ordeal and yet chooses to trust in the goodness of God's purposes for him – Hebrews reminds us that on the other side of that suffering was life, and dares to suggest that in this suffering Jesus himself is being perfected.  That Jesus has to struggle towards some completion that can only be accomplished on the other side of death.  According to Hebrews, Jesus' suffering is part of Jesus becoming who Jesus had to be, the completion of Jesus' high priestly preparation because it enables him to fully identify with the suffering of human beings.

Jesus is our great high priest not only because he is chosen by God to be God's Son, but because he dares to offer himself without reservation to what it means to be human, because he knows and embraces the full range of human joy and human suffering.  It comes back to what Martin Buber calls 'I and thou', or God's relational mode of being.  In Jesus, God becomes fully available to us, vulnerable to the point of sharing the depths of human suffering, and the whole point of doing that, the writer of Hebrews wants to suggest, is so that, in Jesus, God can be fully in relationship with us.

The challenge is that it doesn't stop there.  I guess we all cringe a bit at the lack of understanding when James and John want the top jobs, but the point is that they do share Jesus' costly baptism, and so do we.  This high priestly mode of being is not just God's way of impressing us, but God's way of inviting us into a new way of being ourselves.  Be available.  Be vulnerable.  Be in love.

Pentecost +20B

From time to time, as a priest, I find myself trying to give comfort in situations where, humanly speaking, there is no hope.  A particularly testing experience very soon after I was ordained was the young couple who asked me to conduct the funeral of their three month old little girl Sharne, who died for no apparent reason and was one of the sad statistics we call Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  Grieving for her child, the young woman was doubly traumatised by the insensitive questioning of police officers conducting the necessary investigation of Sharne's death.  And they came to me with questions: why does this happen? Why does God let it happen? If Sharne was a gift from God, why would God take her back?

We began last week reading some selections from the Book of Job, which resonates with the experience of anyone who has ever felt crushed beneath the weight of misfortune or suffering.  It is an honest book, and a helpful book because it takes suffering seriously enough not to offer pat answers, but instead echoes the questions that countless people have asked in situations of despair and grief – why?  Why me?  Why God? And – what next?

At 42 chapters, the Book of Job is a very long – and surprisingly tedious – read, consisting for the most part of set speeches by Job, his friends and - eventually – God.  The storyline is fairly simple – and of course mythological, unless you think the human author of Job was able to listen in on conversations between God and God's heavenly support staff.  Job was that rarity – a man with every blessing – wealth and friends and a loving family – who was also righteous, a man of integrity, who loved God and was loved and respected by all who knew him.  The ancient world, like ours, tended to be suspicious of the ultra-wealthy or hyper-successful – surely it has been achieved by cutting corners or sharp practices, by knifing others in the back while climbing the ladder of success? The tall poppy syndrome is no modern invention!  So the story opens with God having a good old skite about Job to the heavenly council.  If only the rest of them were like Job!

But not everybody is as easily impressed as God – along comes the chief prosecutor in the heavenly council – the name Satan – or in Hebrew, ha-Satan – is not actually to be equated with the devil of Christian nightmares, but should be understood by its literal translation as 'the Accuser' – counsel for the prosecution, devil's advocate if you must.  But Satan in this story is not evil to God's good, they are definitely in cahoots.  'Oh yes?', says the Accuser.  'Well it's easy to be pious if you're getting the red carpet treatment through life'.  So basically God and ha-Satan make a bet – God thinks Job will continue to be righteous even if his life goes down the gurgler, and bit by bit all Job's business enterprises go bust, his house burns down, his children all meet sticky ends, his wife turns bitter and sarcastic and Job himself is covered from top to toe with loathsome sores.

It's not quite clear why the lectionary writers chose to skip over the last 23chapter between last week and this, but in the meantime Job's friends have turned up and done their best to offer him comfort.  Job is still sitting where we left him in chapter one – on the ash heap, scraping his sores with a bit of broken pottery – and for the intervening 22 chapters his friends have been telling him, one way or another, that it's all his fault.

But let's not be too hard on them.  They arrived promptly when they heard of Job's misfortune – turning up straight away in chapter two immediately after Job's wife has suggested that his best course of action would be to curse God and die.  Job's three friends are wiser than that.  Seeing him sitting on the ash heap they weep and tear their clothes and heap ash on their own heads, and then they sit with him in the ashes and say nothing.  For seven days.  Chapter two, verse 13: "They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great".

This is really important.  Yes, Job's friends are going to get it wrong, very wrong indeed, but they start right.  There is a massive temptation, is there not, when you visit a friend who is sick or dying, or going through a divorce or a loss of employment or whatever it might be?  The temptation to open your mouth.  To say: 'everything will be OK.  I'm sure everything will turn out alright.  Doctors can do miracles these days.'  But as soon as you open your mouth you have denied and minimised the reality of what your friend is going through.  You can't necessarily make it alright.  Maybe everything isn't going to be OK.  You certainly won't have the right words to say.  Learn the wisdom of saying nothing.  But be there.

Job's friends – and Job himself, for that matter – have a theory, or more precisely, a theology.  Suffering comes from God as a punishment.  Job must have done something pretty massively awful, for God to be punishing him that much.  So for 22 chapters, once they did, tentatively and with great respect, begin to speak, Job's friends have been telling him it is his own fault, that he has to repent, to listen to them and to ask forgiveness of God.  To be humble in his suffering.  And Job's friends accuse him of all sorts of faults, trying to uncover some hidden sin in him because – when it comes down to it – they need to protect themselves from the chaos to their own worldview that would result if they have to conclude that Job didn't deserve his fate.

This is not just a quirk of the ancient worldview.  We do this, ourselves.  For a start, how many times have you heard the expression, 'what goes around, comes around'?  When we hear of terrible, random things happening we look for reasons.  No, it doesn't fit easily with the modern worldview or with a helpful theological perspective to suggest that God makes bad things happen.  That God took Sharne.  Although you might be surprised how many people still think so, deep down.  It's even scarier to think that bad things happen by chance.  That there was no particular reason why that particular young woman was raped and murdered in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago.  And psychologists tell us we all practise what they call ideologies of control.  Which means ways of interpreting reality that make us feel personally safer.  Fill in the gaps – 'oh, that would never happen to me because – dot, dot, dot'.  'Oh, they can't have been watching their child closely enough'.  'Oh, she shouldn't have been out on the streets at night'.

Job's own problem is this – that like his friends, he also thought he knew that suffering was a punishment from God – but what he knows for sure is that he has not sinned, and he stands on his integrity.  He refuses to ask God's pardon, to take the rap for something he didn't do.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Because in the 22 chapters we didn't read, Job changes tack in two very important ways.  And the first way is this, that he begins by wanting to give up, by wanting to die – in chapter three for example he begins his first speech cursing the day he was born – and even though the death wish still keeps surfacing from time to time his main focus has shifted.  Now he wants justice.  He wants vindication, his day in court.  He has moved from depression to anger – this of course is the reverse of the movement in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous stages of grief.  He is no longer dying, he is fighting to live, and that is a good thing.  It's a hard thing to watch, it's not pretty and if you have ever been with someone going through this process, lashing out at anyone and everything in their grief, it is confronting.  But it is vital, and gutsy, and honest and necessary.

The second thing is this – that Job has moved from talking about God – to talking to God.  This starts as early as chapter seven, when he blurts out: "What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?". [1] Job's words are bitter, even despairing. He accuses God of terrible things, of watching him like a hawk, waiting for him to sin.  In today's reading, he complains of God's silence and God's absence, but continues to outline the defences he wants to lay before God.

This is also vital, it is the difference, for example, between theology and lament.  Theology – thinking and talking about God – is helpful and necessary in working out what reality is about, and what we ourselves are about.  But lament, in a situation of grief or suffering, is personal and engaged.  This is a move that Job's friends never make – they keep talking about God, and about Job – but never once do they address God, never once do they intercede or pray for Job.  This is a lesson for us, if we would be friends to another in their grief – and it is also a lesson in our own grief.  The theologian Wendell Berry points out that the depressed person falls silent: "The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to themself or to no one at all, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks the trail into despair by sharing it with somebody else remembers the possibility of hope".

In lament, the despairing person "says it aloud" to God, and so holds on to God even in the depths of despair. And in that holding on, something like hope is made possible. Job dwells in the depths of despair, but in the midst of that despair he addresses God; he demands that God answer him; he holds on to God; and in that holding on, a fierce hope is affirmed:  "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another". [2]

Well, at the end of today's reading, Job is still sitting in the ash-heap, and God is – as God so often is – utterly silent.  This is of course part of our own authentic experience, and we may have to come back to this in a week or two.  The story is not yet over.  But already we have learned how to lament – how to be vital and real in our own distress or the shared distress of another.  Job teaches us how to be real with God and in the process – real with and about ourselves.  And when we come back to this we will learn from Job how to hear in the silence that follows lament – God's answer.


[1] Job 7:12, 17-19

[2]  Job 19:25-27a

Pentecost +19B

It strikes me that one of the issues the Church handles worst of all, even though we spend a great deal of our energy thinking about it, is sex.  Well, sex and gender and human relationships.  Mind you, I'm not saying the Church shouldn't think carefully about sex, given its central and powerful role in human life – but preparing for our annual Diocesan Synod last week reminded me of how much of our systematic reflection as a Church goes in to trying to resolve our differences of theology and interpretation of Scripture around sex.  One motion has us considering the so-called Anglican Covenant – an attempt to paper over the differences between Church factions on the inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in our worshipping life and leadership – which perhaps will have the effect of forcing national Churches to follow the most conservative and least inclusive line – while another motion invites us to a more generous and tolerant conclusion that a change in the secular law to allow for civil unions between same sex partners would not threaten in any way the Christian celebration of marriage between a man and a woman.  But a note in the Synod papers by the Primate, Archbishop Aspinall, caught my attention – he points out that before we were hung up about same sex relationships the Church was hung up about the ordination of women, and before that, we were hung up about whether or not divorced people could be remarried in the Church.  Issues of sexuality and gender divide us and perplex us precisely because they are foundational to the lives of men and women and children, and because they carry enormous potential to cause hurt.

And so, of course, like most preachers I venture onto the subject of marriage and divorce in our Gospel reading from Mark this morning with some trepidation, and aware that this is a subject that affects many of us personally and painfully.  As a divorced and remarried person myself, I can't reflect on this passage without recalling the hopes with which I entered my first marriage, the failures on both sides and the pain that both my wife and I felt – and that our sons experienced without understanding its causes – when our marriage ended.

It's a passage that some Church traditions take too literally, and others hurry past too quickly.  Because when Jesus is asked about divorce, he gives an answer that unequivocally states that it isn't God's intention.  Later, in private with his disciples, Jesus seems to take an even harder line, equating remarriage with adultery.  I heard the story a while ago of a very conservative church that decided, if Jesus is that clear on it then they had better be as well, and so they made a rule that divorced and remarried people weren't welcome in their church.  The number of people missing from the pews the following week caused a quick rethink.  What is Jesus on about here?  How can we receive his teaching, and how is it life-giving?

The first thing to notice, is this.  That Jesus is asked a lawyer's question, about divorce – and he responds with a Biblical answer, about marriage.  The Mosaic law did allow divorce – or at least, allowed a man to divorce his wife on any ground, though not the other way around – and you can read it in Deuteronomy, chapter 24. [1]  By Jesus' day however there were different schools of rabbinic thought, and it seems that the ancient world, like ours, understood the implications of fractured marital relationships for both women and men, and most especially for children.  Incidentally, it may well be that the increased proportion of marriages ending in divorce over recent decades reflects the fact that women now have more options and more economic resources, and that society generally has more protection for vulnerable children and parents leaving abusive domestic situations – so hopefully we will never again go back to the "good old days" where the priest or social worker or police would say to a woman, 'and what did you do to make him hit you?'.  Like our ancient ancestors in faith, we have made peace with the sad necessity that some relationships need to end, and others founder despite the best intentions, and generally we show compassion and understanding for those who seek the Church's blessing on a new marriage that offers the chance for healing and life-giving relationship.

But Jesus is asked what he thinks about divorce, and of course it is a trick question, given that some religious leaders of the day allowed it, and others didn't.  Whatever he says, he is going to offend somebody.  So Jesus acknowledges the reality that the Law of Moses allows divorce, because, he says, 'of the hardness of your hearts'.  Because, I suppose, of all the ways that we human beings fail in our efforts to love.  But then Jesus puts scripture into conversation with scripture, holding up the ideal of God's intention so beautifully expressed in Genesis, for two people to be faithful, lifelong companions in an intimate, committed relationship that should not be severed.  In response to a legalistic question about the situations in which divorce should be allowed, he responds with the ideal of a covenant relationship in which a man and woman give themselves entirely to one another, trusting that in the openness and inevitable ups and downs of an uncertain future, that their own true identity and fulfilment may be realised in one another.  As I often tell starry-eyed couples in wedding preparation, they will let one another down, and in not insignificant ways, over and over.  A healthy marriage depends on forgiveness and honesty, and the preparedness to put the interests of another person ahead of your own.  So Jesus deflects the question away from divorce by affirming God's intention for marriage, and of course so should we in the Church find ways of focussing more energy on the ideal of lasting, faithful, loving unions that are a sign of God's love in the world. We could strengthen our support systems for married couples and our marriage preparation programs, and perhaps we clergy might sometimes even consider a measure of holy hesitation before marrying every couple that asks.

But the second thing is Jesus' even harder words later, in the house.  Most Bible scholars consider this to be an addition by the early Church, given that in Jesus' day only men could initiate a divorce.  In the Greco-Roman society in which Mark's own community lived a couple of generations later, women also could initiate divorce proceedings, so maybe this is why Mark records Jesus talking about a woman divorcing her husband.  But remarriage, he says, is the same as adultery.  It's a hard teaching, isn't it?  That remarriage, even after divorce, is a fundamental breach of faith with the former partner.  Perhaps, as some commentators say, it is another example of Jesus' occasional use of hyperbole, of deliberately over-stating something to make us sit back and think.  Well it certainly does that … for myself, it reminds me that relationships are never cancelled out, and divorce doesn't erase what went before, despite our best attempts at mediation and counselling and legal settlements.  There is a residual relationship, particularly when a couple share the responsibility for children, and there is a need for healing and forgiveness.  It strikes me that Jesus is saying something serious about sin, which inevitably is involved whenever human relationships break down irrevocably, and which we need to acknowledge, to forgive and to ask forgiveness – preferably before entering into another covenant relationship in which past patterns of behaviour, if we haven't reflected deeply on them, might re-emerge.  In any case Jesus, who both teaches and models God's forgiving love, does not condemn our human weakness – as we learn for example from his response to the five-times married Samaritan woman at the well. [2]

The final thing to note – perhaps the most significant of all – is the fact that Jesus' teaching on divorce and his unconditional welcome of children go hand in hand in Mark's Gospel.  It's not by way of changing the subject.  Children, in this society, were all but invisible, and definitely part of the domestic sphere of women, not the public arena inhabited by men.  As a respected rabbi, Jesus could not be expected to bother about children!  But, as always, he notices and cares for those who have the least power, those who are generally not noticed, and whose voices are not heard.  It reminds us, of course, that children are often the primary victims and the ones who are most hurt when marriages fail.  And asks us to hold up to our own relationships the ideal of how Jesus noticed and responded to the needs of others.  But it says something theological as well – Jesus actually holds up these grubby, disregarded children as the ideal of discipleship!  Unless, he says, we can be like this, we simply won't get the point of all his talk about God's kingdom.

It's something about trust, of course.  That in relationship with one another and with God, our needs will be met.  That we don't need to be tricky and grown-up and defensive and self-preoccupied, we just need to be.  That we can trust enough to love.  Mercy, Jesus is reminding us, can be found by those who, like children, are open enough to trust in love, over and over and over.  Marriage, it seems to me, is a lifelong lesson that happiness, like righteousness, is not an achievement but a blessing.



[1] Vss. 1-4

[2] John 4.5-42

St Michael & All Angels

Over the last five days Alison and I have been treated to a feast of the senses, as we attended and took part in a retreat sponsored by Anglican EcoCare in the Stirling Ranges.  We more than had our fill of climbing mountains, and celebrated the Eucharist at the top of Bluff Knoll in driving sleet and subzero conditions – at the other extreme we were entranced by the annual spectacle of wildflowers at lesser altitudes – Fr Trevor Burt as a walking encyclopaedia of all things botanical and geological identified spider orchids and donkey orchids – even snail orchids which we found growing alongside actual alpine snails – rocks still bearing the ripple of ancient ocean beds – an extravagance of birdsong, reflection, prayer and fellowship, which is what, in the Church, we always mean by a feast.  A celebration of a high point in the spirituality or the history of God's people, always accompanied by a profusion of sensory inputs, music, vestments, wild claims and solemn liturgy that – when it is well done – really does lure our spirits into a foretaste of heaven.  And when we're really lucky, the feasting of the Church also includes food.  To feast is to aim for the top, to pile it on, to outdo ourselves in generosity and beauty and remind ourselves – that's what God is like! 

On the other hand there's also what we call a fast, specially the weeks of Lent which, in my early Church days I was quite relieved to know didn't literally mean bread and water.  Paring away, peeling back the layers to allow what's grown comfortable and self-serving to be challenged again by the prickly truths of the gospel, the giving up of something good in order to focus on the real desire of our hearts, allowing ourselves to acknowledge our emptiness so that we can find room in our lives to receive God's overflowing love.  There is, of course, also an element of fasting in making a spiritual retreat – a getting back to spiritual basics and reminding ourselves where our real priorities lie.  The good news, of course, is that there will also be an EcoRetreat next year – a feast and fast that helps us reconnect our Christian spirituality with the beauty and fragility of God's creation.

A few years ago, on the eve of the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, Alison and I were honoured to be invited to a Ramadan dinner, an Iftar meal, which is the meal eaten just after sunset to break the daily fast – and we found ourselves amazed by a wonderful kaleidoscopic blend of cultures and foods that seemed more feast than fast, and a feast, too, of friendship and spirituality, of prayers and verses chanted from the Koran and read from the Book of Lamentations, a beautiful and agitated young woman speaking of her dream of Muslims and Christians living together in peace; a profound and gentle reflection by our own Archbishop Roger that fell into place for me as the context for the feast of St Michael and All Angels, the day of reflection on who we are as God's people in this particular place and time.

Ramadan – the fast that is also a feast – calls Muslim people to acts of generosity and prayer, to acts of vulnerable hospitality, to recognising as sisters and brothers those of other faiths who accept the simple invitation to sit down and eat together.  The recognition that the shared DNA of all humanity is the DNA of God.  And finally to the profound and disturbing recognition that the reality of God is distorted by the heavens of our own narrow and self-serving visions.  Perhaps that, Archbishop Roger suggested, is what we really need to fast from, from the heavens of our own imaginations.

Two powerful images compete for attention, for me, in our reading from the Book of Revelation today.  St Michael doesn't really get a major starring role in the Bible, just a brief mention in the Book of Daniel, in the letter of Jude, and then, stunningly, here in John of Patmos's dreadful vision of war in the heart of heaven itself.  'And there was war in heaven'. 

Can we even comprehend that?  War in the very presence of God!  In all the visions of heaven that we hold onto as a hope, that we comfort one another with at times of trouble, both the Christian and the Muslim images of heaven, the breath of heaven that sustains and nourishes our lives would seem for most of us to be the very antithesis of war – the nearer we are to God the more remote all our earthly troubles like competitiveness and conflict, suspicion and violence become.  We desperately want to believe that heaven is the home of peace.

And yet, Archbishop Roger said, just take a look at the heavens of our own imagination.  Just look at the war that breaks out when the fundamentalist religious fantasies of Muslim and Christian heavens collide.  Just look at the secular, scientific heavens we make for ourselves, the capitalist heaven of middle-class consumption in wealthy nations that condemns the two-thirds developing world to poverty, the greed for minerals and energy and medical breakthroughs and gadgets.  The ideological heavens of communism or humanism or postmodernism that hollow out the lives of men and women of meaning and dignity.  The heavens we human beings make out of narrow visions and universes that ultimately revolve around ourselves – and that inevitably fall prey to the worm of self-absorption and distrust.  What if in our fascination with the heavens of our own imagination, our fantasy worlds with rules for keeping us in and other people out, Archbishop Roger wondered, what if we've forgotten that the hospitality of heaven is God's prerogative alone?  On the feast of St Michael maybe we need to fast, the Archbishop suggested, from the presumption of making heaven in our own image.

And so I was reminded of my second powerful image, jumping from the very end of the Bible to the very beginning, where an angel with a flaming sword is involved in another eviction.  If, as Bible scholars suggest, the dragon of Revelation is loosely modelled on the serpent of Genesis, here's the shock, because in Genesis it's not the serpent that gets shown the door, it's us – or at least our archetypal representatives who embody pretty accurately our time-honoured human propensity of secretly believing and acting as though it's not God in control, but us.  If the dragon of Revelation stands for the arrogance of reconstructing heaven in our own image, the angelic eviction in Genesis reminds us of our failure to nurture and protect the goodness of God's creation, or to live in right relationship with God and one another.  Like scary bookends, angels with sharp objects at either end of the Bible stand as a permanent reminder of the presumption that needs to be banished from us before we can be ready to live in community as God intends us to.

Equally pyrotechnic, white and bright and wonderful, is the angel that not only in St Luke's gospel but also in the Holy Quran announces the birth of our Lord.  This angel is sheer gift, the hospitality of God who as St John puts it, chooses to pitch a tent among us.  This is the angel of over the top generosity, despite our inability to live in peace with one another or with God, God chooses to live among us, to learn our language and our ways – a feast of sheer delight that changes forever our relationship to God and to one another - but that comes at a terrible cost.

But there are also other, less flashy but more psychological, images of angels in the Bible.  The name itself, malachim, means simply 'messenger', one who bears the burden of God's word to us; and the encounter with God's malachim  typically takes place as God's people struggle to understand what it means to be fully human.  In the Old Testament we see the encounter with God's angels coinciding with the struggle for personal integrity – for example in the near sacrifice of Isaac, or Jacob's night-time wrestling match with himself as he prepares to cross the river to ask his brother's forgiveness; or with humour and the offering of costly hospitality, as for example in the story of Abraham who hears and believes the unlikely promises of God from the lips of three strangers who have just polished off his best fatted calf.  The encounter with angels wounds us and transforms us - and opens us to new possibilities so long as we are prepared to be open and vulnerable to God and to one another.

So what is it with angels, and what does it mean for a parish church to see itself not through the human lens of this or that saint but of all God's malachim, both seen and unseen?  First and foremost, I think, it means a commitment to believing in the angels of God that fill our lives with possibilities for transformation and grace.  A commitment to accepting the discipline of limitation, as well as the wonder of new experiences of God's goodness.  A commitment to living humbly and vulnerably with one another, open to the angelic in the familiar as well as in the unfamiliar, ready to take the risk of welcoming and being welcomed by strangers.  A commitment to recognising the hospitality of heaven in the middle of the everyday.