Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Bread – John 6.1-21

Like much of the world in this Olympic year, I’m gearing up for a couple of weeks of broken sleep, when too much sport is never enough. Winners are grinners, but I wonder why every commentary I’ve read makes the point that the Miracle of the Feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle recorded in all Four Gospels.

It’s as if the more times a miracle is recorded across the Gospels, the more we need to take notice. Why? Isn’t just one recorded miracle enough any more?

Have I missed something? Sure, I can see the point that a miracle is emphasised by repetition but why? Are we now at a point where we are grading miracles as if they’re in an Olympic pre-selection trial? That the Gold Medal goes to the one that appears in all 4 Gospels?

I would have thought that any miracle is worth a look, whether or not it appears in multiple places, wouldn’t you?

On the other hand, instead of observing the number of repetitions – as if we are in some theological sporting contest – maybe I should concentrate on the content of the Miracle.

Let’s first be mindful of this, though: the Gospel Readings for the next five weeks are from John 6. What this means is that, over that time-frame, there will be lots of references to bread and how it comes from above and stuff like that. A test of ingenuity approaches, methinks.

There is one significant difference between the version of the Miracle that we’re reading today and the ones found in the other Gospels: John calls his version a sign (it’s a sign, it’s a sign) and therefore not simply about satisfying people’s empty tummies.

Here, the reader is going to discover something about Jesus and something about God at the same time, Two-for-One style. What that is, of course, is that Jesus can and does satisfy every one of our needs.

Jesus is way more than a heavenly baker or Brumby’s owner. He’s way more than a Baker’s Delight franchisee and he’s certainly not just trying to drum up business for the local welfare food outlet.

The punters don’t seem to get on board with this idea at all – and haven’t done since Jesus did the water-into-wine thing back in Chapter 2. They want more tucker, more grappa, more healings, more whatever.

Some time ago, My Beloved and I were at an Investment Seminar and someone asked the presenter this question: How much money do I need to be happy? The man answered with tongue in cheek: about 10% more than you get already.

We are so convinced that material possessions will make us happy – and just a bit more will make us even more happy – that we miss the point of this miracle yet again. More may be what we want, but is it needed?

Have a look in my bathroom if you still don’t believe me. Although My Beloved banned me long ago from doing the weekly shopping with her, I do go to the supermarket by myself sometimes.

Do I take a list? No. Do I know what I’m going to buy? No. Do I end up with a drawer full of traveller’s-sized toothpaste and facial wipes? You bet. Have I got enough? I fear that I will run out.

The real miracle is surely not about whether my Superannuation account will be sufficient to retire on, or whether I will run out of facial wipes.

The real miracle for the lilies and the birds and the crowds and the people like us is this: today, Jesus addresses and satisfies both our deficiencies and our poverty. He is all we need.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Doing It Jesus-style – Mark 6.30-ff

It ain’t easy being green, or a vicar, or a dad; they each come with their own special challenges, although being a frog would be hard. But what must it be like to have been an apostle?

The spiritual ones among us would rejoice, like Fr Mulcahy of M*A*S*H, because they were nearer the cross and, by implication, nearer to that form of spiritual power that is measured in centimetres and is based on the Theory of Proximity.

Then there’s us others who are separated by centuries from the original events yet still manage to get caught up with every wind and breeze that comes along.

It never ceases to amaze me that, one minute, we can be face to face with some miracle or other and the next be dragging our bottom-lip around as if we’d lost a quid and picked up sixpence.

Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah – and lots of others – were masters at that game. They have their hi-lo moments, as did the apostles in Mark’s Gospel. In the Feeding Story, Jesus tells his Boys to feed the large number of followers. The Boys know there’s no Brumbies or Maccas close by, so they get all aerated and sarcastically ask Him where He thinks the nearest food outlet might be.

I can hear the exasperation in his answer: “How many loaves have you?” It’s like “When are you going to get it?” So he takes the few loaves and fish and multiplies them right before their eyes. That’s the Jesus way.

The sadness is that the Boys miss out again on grasping the reality that the Kingdom of God is there in front of them and that they’ve just muffed an invitation to participate in it.

This Big Feed contrasts with many Church meals I’ve attended: you know the sort – tables groaning with chicken wings and quiche, piles of salads, sandwiches (egg mostly), devilled kidneys (maybe), bread rolls, slices, coleslaw, apple crumble and Peter’s Ice Cream to top it off.

The Big Feed had none of this. Rather, the resources were meagre by comparison to a pot-luck supper. It was more like “Whatcha got in the pocket of ya cloak?” than “Would you like to bring a slice or a meat dish?” It was more like “Sit in groups of fifty” rather than “Table 12 goes first.”

Relying on, participating in, the miracle nearly always means that there are often more resources available than we first realise. That’s the Jesus way.

However, if storms are your thing, and not food, then the next part of the story is for you, even if it’s more difficult. To start with, the disciples are described as ‘terrified’ and ‘astounded’ as they face the water but they’re still not getting it. Then, perhaps the most poignant verse in the whole of the Gospel: “they did not understand about the loaves for their hearts were hardened.

We’ll hear this ‘hardened hearts’ thing again in the next Big Feed Story and I’m beginning to think that this is a bit like a mantra, a chorus, a cycle that keeps getting repeated. How easily we lapse into being ignorant and fearful followers, much more like hangers-on than co-workers.

There may well be a case to argue that this was Mark’s argument with The Boys all along. They were call to follow and they were to participate – but they certainly weren’t picking up any clues about participation. Maybe doing it is just too hard.

And isn’t that true also as we look over our life and the ministry to which we’ve been called? That while a vocation might be clear, the doing of it is often clouded by other stuff like sloth or disobedience.

While we might want to try and balance a call with an activity (or series of activities), Mark is actually challenging us to look further into the area of the miraculous as a significant aspect of our work because, above all else, that’s His domain and that’s where He wants us to be.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Reflections from The Hill – More – Mark 6.14-29

Just occasionally, with the emphasis on just, reading one of the Biblical stories is a bit like living in reality TV-land but more uncomfortable.

Reading Bible stories can be fun and exciting. Hey, who wants TV fiction then? Just get out a copy of the Gospels and get stuck into reading that.

Let’s take today’s Gospel Reading as a case in point. Reading about Herod the Tetrarch, for example, makes me think straightaway of that one-time President of the US of A, Richard Nixon.

Tricky Dicky was a master of manipulation and political intrigue, yes? So blinded was he to the vortex of ambition that he was prepared to sacrifice his principles to give himself an advantage over others, just like Herod.

On the goodies side, there are remarkable similarities between John the Baptist and Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero or Dietrich Bonhoeffer; real life leaders who were willing to tell the truth about corruption and the misuse of power, whatever the cost.

Let me not let the ladies off the hook, either. Herodias is just like those female characters who, black widow-like, exterminate their lovers or friends on grounds of self-protection and build themselves a platform of power. Remember Roberta Williams?

Even if it is true that Herodias was intent on protecting her own children, which I doubt if what she allowed her daughter to do is any indication, we might be challenged ourselves to contemplate the lengths we would go to protect our own offspring.

One thing’s for sure about this Reading and that is that Mark has a very specific purpose in telling the story. It’s the only scene in the Gospel, I think, where Jesus does not play any part. So, it’s important. Why?

The first thing to note is this: the proclamation of the Kingdom has significant implications, and I just don’t mean political ones. The status quo is always under threat when we live out our life as Christians.

As David Lose says, ‘our all too easy acquiescence with the cultural presumption that might … is right’ is severely compromised here. The proclamation of God’s kingdom principles is a costly business.

Even more challenging is the possibility that, when we stand up against George St or Canberra or whatever your Parliament’s address is, there will be some collateral damage and we might find ourselves on the wrong end of a baton, or worse.

Mark is telling us this, partly, because he’s describing the world in which he lives but, by extension, he is warning those of us in future generations about the implications of doing and saying the right thing.

Is that it, you ask? Is this all there is or are we yet to squeeze the Gospel orange a little more, at least enough to extract the Good News from this passage?

Maybe that’s the point, that John’s beheading by Herod and family isn’t the end of the story, it isn’t the whole enchilada, that there is more?

Truth is that there is something more than the intrigue, the heartache, the tragedies; of Herod, of Nixon, and of our penchant for the status quo.

Isn’t the heart of the Gospel the belief and teaching that Jesus came to make it possible for us to have something more than mere survival, more than simply success?

Didn’t he come to help us imagine – and enter into – something more than just living, that there is something called ‘the abundant life’ which can be ours? Isn’t that a better ending than many of us seem to expect?

When our Temple has been destroyed, or our marriage is on its last legs, or we’ve just been made redundant, or we’ve just found out that our best friend has cheated on us, then the possibility of another, good, ending has immense appeal.

That’s not just good news. It’s got to be better news any day than anything we can imagine or construct ourselves.