Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Donkey Catchers (Mark 11:1-11)

If you reckon getting a taxi at the airport – any airport – is hard, try getting a donkey in Jerusalem. In that place, donkeys ought to be in plentiful supply but, as usual, they weren’t. At least, that’s Mark’s story.

Then there’s the whole thing about his quantity of words. For all his famed economic word-smithing, Mark spends half his story of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem just wading through the minutiae of blokes pinching an animal: where to go, who to talk to, what kind of donkey to get; that kind of thing, you know.

We don’t know who the guys were who were sent on this dodgy errand. However, we can be sure that they weren’t just anybody. We know they were ‘disciples’ and any one of them could have been muscling their way into being a message-boy for the boss.

Jockeying for an advantage seems to have been one of the lifestyle choices of hanging out with the Messiah, a professional hazard for sky-pilots if ever there was one. Every last one of them was angling for some glory spot or other or arguing about who was the greatest.

There’s a delicious irony, then, that on this day, a day when Jesus’ ministry took a very public turn, a day when lots of loud hosannas greeted him, that these two blokes found themselves engaged in the most unromantic ministry of mucking out a stable.

Not only that, the old adage showed itself to be true yet again: when someone looks like a horse thief and sounds like a horse thief, the chances are they are horse thieves.

I’m not a horsey person myself but the thought of wrestling an untamed and uncooperative donkey toward an olive grove fills me with terror, especially if I had another agenda in mind when I was called from being a fisherman. I can hear myself think “This isn’t what I signed up for.”

Finding the donkey seems more like one of those jobs that ya just gotta do, a bit like being on the Worship Committee ordering the candles for Easter. It’s one of those inglorious jobs in the church that’s necessary but definitely not where the real action is.

In our Ordination service for Deacons, candidates are asked, "Will you seek to set forth Christ’s kingdom in the world, proclaiming the gospel and working for reconciliation, peace and justice?”

These are bracing words, words that are designed to get the blood flowing in the veins, words that cause the hairs on my arm to stand and wave in excitement each time I read them.

Justice; Peace; Reconciliation; words that indicate a white-knuckle ride over the rapids of culture, then rushing headlong into saving the world. It’s a breathtaking possibility.

No one ever tells you that setting forth the Kingdom – with vigour, imagination and enthusiasm – often boils down to things like ordering the candles or cleaning the toilets or, as these two disciples found out, catching a donkey.

It’s right here that Mark gives us some of his best insights: it’s a lesson that not a few clergy could do well to learn, including me, that the way to serve is by performing humble and routine tasks, sometimes ad nauseam.

Here’s a bit of a list of some things those first fellas did: they procured a boat for Jesus; they found out how much food was on hand for the multitude; they secured him a room for the Passover and, of course, they chased down a donkey.

Whatever they may have heard when Jesus said, "Follow me," it has led them into a ministry of handling the earthy details of everyday life. Mark understands – and helps us to understand – that this is what the ministry of Jesus is really all about.

It’s all about preparing the way for Jesus, true, but this is a phrase that cuts two ways. On the one hand, we are called to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. It’s his ministry and not ours. To not put too fine a point on it, we’re nothing but a mob of donkey-catchers.

On the other hand, the routine, often exhausting, bags-under-the-eyes, details of donkey-catching are gathered into the great arc of Jesus’ redemptive work in the world. It’s the real deal.

In Mark, the Twelve are sent out to proclaim the gospel, to cast out demons, to heal the sick and to exercise authority. It’s an impressive list. He also desperately wants us to know that what this looks like is often a matter of folding newsletters, or locking up the church after worship, or visiting an incoherent and incontinent parishioner or writing a few words on the back of an envelope on the way to our fifth service in a week.

In Mark’s hard-edged world, "preparing the way of the Lord" usually looks very like standing knee-deep in the mire of a stable somewhere, trying to corral a donkey.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Reflections from The Hill – God’s Explicit Love (John 12.32)

You’ve got to feel sorry for the Greeks. I mean, they rock up to the synagogue and ask Philip if they can see Jesus. Then they get transferred to Andrew and end up being put on “Hold”.

All the while the elevator music is running, interrupted every 45 seconds or so by a recorded message assuring them that their ‘call is important to us’ and to not to hang up.

These Greeks never did get to see the One they came to see, although we know that the message was passed down the line. Perhaps they’re still on hold.

Why would someone want to do that? To see Jesus, I mean. If the context of the Reading is right, they would have heard stuff about Jesus’ impending death, set it in the framework of Moses and the Brass Serpent and hot-footed from their homes to get their peepers on The Man.

They wanted to be saved, to simply look at Jesus and live. These blokes weren’t after a parley; they just wanted a pain-free gander. What they got, in the end, was much more than they bargained for.

None of us like pain much. We live by the pleasure principle and will do whatever it takes and from whatever source to avoid it: other people, failure, risk, even truth sometimes.

You and I are practical hedonists, in the business of making pleasure and happiness a way of life, asking no more of ourselves and others than that we all have a nice day. So what can we understand of a twisted body hanging from a cross?

Some of us want to take that figure off the cross, or cover it with the data projector screen, or put a flag or a banner in front of it and proclaim that Jesus lives instead.

Others of us want to polish that cross, to give it a clear plastic coating, saving ourselves the elbow grease to keep it looking nice, and make it clean and neat and antiseptic. No pain here; no hurt. It’s best that way.

I read of one Parish that, a few years ago, put three black-draped crosses on its front lawn during Lent only to get a dozen or so phone calls complaining that these things lowered the tone of the neighbourhood and could they be taken down, please?

Suffering, either that of Jesus or humanity’s is, apparently, something that happens to other people, that it’s annoying rather than ennobling, especially if it can be easily eradicated by drugs or meditation techniques.

The fact is that it’s intellectually a bridge-too-far to connect the cross and our salvation; or to connect the suffering of Christ and the suffering of humanity or even to understand the need for God to get down and dirty with the world. (In clergy-speak, this is known as The Atonement).

The truth is that there are some things we can’t understand, which is just as well, because we aren’t saved by our understanding but by us standing under the truth, if you get my meaning.

John’s Gospel implies that the cross is not to be understood; it is simply to be gazed on, to be lifted up, to be forced on our myopic view of the world, to be held up like a poster in front of any procession which moves us toward God.

There are those did look. Francis Bernadone was one such. He was in the Church of San Damiano in Assisi, stood under the crucifix over the altar, looked at the body, cadaver-like, on the cross and heard the voice of Jesus calling him - and was saved.

Let the atonement be a dollars-and-cents-style transaction if it must, a contract between a righteous judge of a God and sinful humanity or else let it be a Christus Victor-style military coup. We can understand both.

But in the places where the gospel is made intellectually digestible in weekly doses, the crucifix, with its visible, believable, body on the cross still grabs us.

Sure, it is the work of a man’s hands but, like the craftsman who repaired the Yarrabah crucifix, it still has the power to cause more than one tear to fall because people never cease to be amazed that God’s love should be made so explicit.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Reflections from The Hill – God’s Story (John 3.16)

Apart from being flummoxed and not a little embarrassed when people want to talk about something I said, I’m actually beginning to learn that some do hear some of the things I say; generally, though, I suspect that they hear things I didn’t say or only thought I said. Such is the wonder of communication.

That's why I feel sorry for John the Evangelist. John, beloved by Sunday School teachers the world over for of the number of Bible-Verses-To-Remember he wrote, is also the star of today’s Gospel reading, particularly Ch 3 verse 16.

This verse was the very first bit of Scripture I learned off-pat and I have warm-fuzzies thinking about it even now. However, this verse is more easily found these days in other places than in the Bible itself or in our family’s history.

Look closely during the upcoming Olympics and you’ll see it draped over balustrading in the various arenas of combat. Look closely at the tee-shirts people wear, or bumper stickers that go on their, um, bumpers and tell me I’m wrong.

I’m sure John 3.16 was never meant to be like that. I’m sure John never meant it to be the centrepiece of an advertising campaign. It’s almost as if, by flaunting it so, we are (or someone is) expecting it to do the hard yards of conversion for those myriads of folk who will somehow see it, wherever it’s shown.

It’s sad but challenging to think that many people read the Bible like that – whether in the small, bite-sized pieces in the Readings section of the Sunday Pew Bulletin or in memory verses that are supposed to reveal our best knowledge of Jesus – and fail to grasp that there is an alternative.

Instead of reading John 3 as a selection of God’s Greatest Hits – a fist-full of Biblical assurances that will get us to heaven – we might begin to read it as part, and only part, of the continuing Story of God’s grace at work in human lives.

This Gospel Reading, and moreso this verse, might then serve to remind us that each of us live in stories: that our life is a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle and an end; is inside and intersects other, bigger, stories; and that even a pithy saying like this will not allow us to know all we need to know of God's grace and love.

You and I live in stories, not in words or verses or systems, and so we understand our lives, the world, and God most fully only by paying attention, by listening, and by living forward into His story, as it were, with hope.

That's why I love the story of Nicodemus; he comes out of the dark night stuffed full of the codes and systems he lived by as a leader and chief teacher of the Jews, hoping to make sense of this new piece of data called Jesus of Nazareth.

He is a thinker, and Jesus describes him thus, but in a few more words than I’ve done. I reckon Nicodemus came because had an inkling that he was missing something about Jesus that others were beginning to allude to and that, whatever it was, he was in danger of letting it escape him.

Nicodemus is so like us: here he is trying to figure Jesus out, having a gnawing hunger for what Jesus seems to be offering, yet unsure how to slot it into everything else he knows. It’s a familiar tale.

Nicodemus reminds us that all of us, including religious people – and especially religious people – have systems or beliefs or coded rational meanings designed to get a handle on God, to try to put God in a box.

Yet the story we enter today is not just about the John 3:16 belief that Jesus is the Son of God who cleanses us from all sin, but about our own inability or unwillingness to believe that.

The story is not about a bumper-sticker faith that can be refined into 144 characters. It is about a different way of seeing, of living, a way that changes everything about us. As someone said, it is about stepping out of darkness and choosing light.

The words of John 3:16 come true not on bumper stickers or bits of hand-painted cloth. They come true in the human heart and are played out in human lives, lives like those of Nicodemus, like yours and mine.

As we continue to journey through Lent, may we also move into the light and begin to live fully into the story of God that He wants to tell in and through us.