Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Shooting Isaiah’s Arrows – Isaiah 49.1-6

Growing up as I did in a repressive family, I used to fantasise about sitting behind a desk. I interpreted this to mean that, one day, I was going to be in charge of something.

However, no-one ever came to that desk. No one asked me to deliberate on an issue; no-one brought me anything to fix; no one stopped by for a yarn. I was all alone, bereft of friends and things to do.

Then I learned that desks can be barriers for us to hide behind. This brought a new light to my life. People came, but not too close. They didn’t stay, not once. They brought stuff with them but it ended up in the WPB. The barriers were up and I was as happy as a pig in a barrel of malt. Happy, safe, and bored witless.

The desk had to go. I had to stop hiding behind the “Lovely service, Father” stuff and all the other security-oriented approbations. I had to get out of the cloying wonder of my own presence else I’d be as stiff as a four-day old road kill.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve had my share of holy moments: I’ve wept beside the death-beds of young children; I love teaching adults “If I Were A Butterfly” with actions; I’ve been put over the fence by a wide-eyed Santa Gertrudis cow and had many other similar Pastoral joys helping people in need.

There have always been the hair-pulling reactions from people who just don’t get it that bring me back to earth. And, unlike Isaiah in this First Reading today, I’ve never been able to convince people to return to a homeland some of them have never even seen, especially since that homeland was in ruins.

What I’m more inclined to do is to rail at them for their obstinacy and beat my head against a wall. Or, if things get really bad, to grab a nice red or single malt whiskey and put a dent in its contents.

I’ve always considered myself to be more a pastor than anything else; more comfortable among a mass of sinners rather than shaking a righteous fist and preaching God’s wrath at them.

Prophets don’t have a long employment history. They either get booted out of town or have their heads cut off after one too many so-called ‘incidents’, so I’m not particularly excited to be among them.

Still, if people find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and God has other ideas, then sometimes it takes a sharp stick or a pointed jab to get them off their derrieres and into moving to where they ought to be.

I am aware that The Good Book has two words for ‘time’. One word is the tick-tock word that describes sequential time; the other is the special moment word, that describes the right, or opportune, time.

There’s not a lot of future in being a knock-‘em-down, drag-‘em-out, fire-and-brimstone type of guy and, frankly, it ain’t me. I’d rather be picking myself out of the dust of a drafting yard than standing on a street corner telling the passers-by that they’re all going to hell in a handbag.

There is a kairos time for many things. I was going to be the pastor with the soft heart who slogged through the rough stuff with the sinners, who wept and laughed with them and who grabbed their sweaty palms and said “This stuff stinks. It’s good that God’s with us, eh?” God’s time was different.

Maybe I ought to have had a hissy fit and yelled at them once in a while. Maybe I ought to have yelled at the coastlands a bit more often. If I did that, maybe I could have shaken them out of their complacency. Maybe.

So I ask: is it possible to shoot Isaiah’s arrows or swing his sword without being cut to pieces by an angry crowd? Is there any future in that?

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Reflections from the Hill – Working at Hearing Mark 4:26-34

It wasn’t until I was given an IPod Nano that I began to notice how many other people have the regulation earpieces in their lugholes, trailing thin wires like bunting on Mt Everest. I am a dinosaur and blind, it seems.

Many of us humans can’t even walk down the street without noise filling our headspace and my guess is that the more we are bombarded by this cacophony, the less we actually hear.

Because of this, I think that we don’t need to work at hearing; we need to work at not hearing. Case in point: airline travel. Next time you are flying somewhere by plane, watch the other travellers during the safety demonstration and see if we are intent on not hearing a spiel that is intended to save our lives.

For us, however, this may be a problem because we employ this tactic of not listening when we come to worship. Living in a world that spends much of its time working at not hearing, when we come to church we can easily allow the familiarity of the Liturgy to lull us into la-la land.

Rather than switching off when we come to the Kirk-house, we need to actively work at hearing. Unless we make a conscious effort to listen differently, to listen with attentiveness to the reading of Scripture and the preaching of the sermon, we may do to public worship what we do to the airline safety demonstration.

This process has a particular and immediate application because, for the next wee while, as the New Zealanders say, we’ll be walking through Jesus’ “Kingdom of God Parables” in Mark’s Gospel.

One thing’s for sure: these parables can’t be understood by a switching off the listening hole or by a folding of the arms in feigned objectivity or even by a ho-humming ourselves down the ‘heard-it-before’ track, although some will try.

The only way to understand Mark in this is to allow the stories to lay their own claim on us. How? By hearing, by letting the parables have their intended effect on us by hearing them.

Like the first three Chapters of this high-powered Gospel, Marks Chapter 4 is alive with action and determination as Mark allows the narrative to carry the message he wants to deliver. In Mark, the essential convictions and teachings are shown rather than told.

We stand a better chance of understanding if we first see it demonstrated. Mark’s vigorous narrative is designed to prepare us to hear what Jesus has to say to us.

Hearing is difficult, as we have discovered, so Mark postpones the teachings of Jesus until our familiarity with him helps us understand him, so he starts with the Parables.

Parables can be deceptive. Many of us grew up on the “Parables-are-earthly-stories-with-heavenly-meanings” theory and, for the most part, that’s fine, except that this shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of parables.

These Parables can’t be understood by standing outside and peering into them, like looking at goldfish in a fish tank. They can only be understood by getting out of our seats and becoming part of the action.

Each of the three Parables in Chapter 4 has two things in common: first, they’re each about seeds and second they’re each surrounded by Jesus’ own encouragement for us, his hearers, to actually hear.

By themselves, seeds don’t grab me greatly but I do know they have tremendous potential. I know, for example, that this or that little seed can become a carrot or a carob tree, buffel grass or banksia, given the right circumstances.

The clue for the Gospel hearer lies in what happens next: just as the seeds have to be planted and watered and waited for expectantly, so the Gospel has within itself the power to become something other than what it appears to be. The stories also require some additional activity.

The Parable of The Mustard Seed, proverbially the smallest of seeds, makes a point. Though almost invisible, the mustard seed grows into a shrub large enough for birds to nest in. That something so large could come from something so small is unfathomable. What we have here is an analogy.

When we first hear the gospel, when the gospel is first declared to our world, it seems small and insignificant. Many other things seem more important: there are plans to be made; careers to be considered; proposals and marriages and children to reckon with; houses to build; relationships to pursue, and so on.

Yet the Parable is about the power inherent in the gospel to supersede the eye evidence and to produce something else that is wholly unexpected. In comparison to such things, the gospel seems like a dark speck in the palm, something to be looked over for a moment, and then overlooked for ever.

However, the gospel will not be relegated to an insignificant place. If this was just about human stuff then, perhaps, we might ditch it. But it is something more than that; it’s God’s work, His creative, redeeming and restorative presence.

Maybe the beginnings are small and inauspicious but slowly, even imperceptibly, it creeps into our spirits and begins to intrude into our lives to the point that we can’t ignore it, despite the many competing sounds of a world that, at first, seem more important.

The transformative power of the gospel produces the qualities of life that we most long for, but that most elude us, by encouraging us to hear the story to the point of heeding. The Parable of the Sower in each of its complexities promises that those who hear the gospel in this way receive it, and “it bears fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20).