Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Freeways and Freedoms (Mark 7.1-23)


Then there’s the one about the guy who was watching the local news one night when a story came on about a car going in the wrong direction on the freeway. The man knew his wife was on the freeway, so he called her. (ed: don’t try this, please).


He said, “Sugar, please be careful; there’s some idiot in a car going the wrong way on the freeway.” She exclaimed, “A car? No dear, not one; there’s hundreds of them”.

One of the reasons that’s funny is that we believe, for most of the time, that we’re absolutely right, no question about it. Those other cars on the freeway (or whatever) are the ones that are in the wrong. It couldn’t possibly be me.

It’s a bit like the old tale I read once that told of a man who fell ill at the mid-point between two villages. This presented a problem: who was going to care for him? The authorities decided that the village to which he was closest would take care of him. Problem solved? Not.


One village maintained that the distance should be measured from the man’s navel; the other village argued that it should be calculated from the man’s mouth so, while the two communities argued over a mouth versus a navel, the guy died.

I sometimes reckon the same kind of thing happens with Churches: it’s more than possible that our understanding of what is good and right and pleasing to the Lord is short-sighted. It’s more than possible that, like the woman driving on the freeway, people can actually be going the wrong way.


Moreover, it’s more than possible that, like the authorities in the two villages arguing about who was closest to the sick man, we can be majoring on the minors while, all the time, people are dying.

The Gospel for today shows Jesus challenging the religious authorities with exactly that conundrum. Remember? When the Pharisees and Scribes saw Jesus’ disciples not wash their hands before they sat down to eat, they went berko. They said, “You aren’t teaching your disciples to honour God like our ancestors did.”


I think this sounds a lot like the argument over mouth v navel measurements, don’t you? People are on a slippery slope to Never-land but don’t actually know it.

Jesus told the Pharisees, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

The Pharisees and Scribes were driving the wrong way on the freeway and they thought that Jesus and the disciples were wrong. They were worried about gobs and navels while people around them perished.


The real tragedy is that those guardians of faith and order (the Scribes and Pharisees) are still alive; their spirit lives on. Whenever we take a matter of grace and turn it into a requirement for the Kingdom of Heaven, we honour God only with our lips.


Whenever our worship becomes a matter of law rather than a matter of grace, we honour God only with our lips. And the real sadness of living a life of bondage to rules and requirements is that Christ actually died to set us free from them.

Worship is not about rules and regulations; it’s not just about liturgies or hymns. It’s not about how well we memorize or read Scripture or whether we’ve taken a 2-year rather than a 2-week Baptism or Confirmation class.

Honouring God is about meeting Him on His terms. Worship is not about doing something for God, but rather receiving a great deal from Him: receiving his forgiveness and trading our sinfulness for his perfect and holy way of life.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Straight or Messy? (John 6.59-69)

My Ever-Lovin’ will tell you, if you ask, that I can be a bit of a pain, especially when it comes to living an ordered life. For the most part, this isn’t a permanent problem but I’m here to tell you that there’s something attractive about straight lines.

Like the other day when I reverse parked into a spot outside the gym: the front of the car pointed towards one corner of the rectangle, the rear pointed in the diagonally opposite direction.

I was happy to walk away from this poor example of parking, so I was not in the least impressed when one of my fellow-gymmers yelled “At least you got it inside the lines.” It became a soaked tee-shirt morning that day, for there’s only so much a man can take at 5.45am.

Getting things inside the lines has been a focus since before I was in Grade 1, whether it was colouring in, sitting up straight, doing my homework or, at the risk of repeating myself, parking the car.

The flip side of this is, you guessed it, disappointment on my part when the figurative wheels point in the wrong direction and I am forced to admit that life is, well, messy; there’s no straight path.

Take the Israelites as an example: given the option of walking for seven days in a straight line from Egypt to The Promised Land, the Israelites took a Forty-Year-Walkabout instead. OK, we can argue that their silliness didn’t help but it gives the lie to what might be called The Easy Life.

A similar situation re-surfaces in this week’s Gospel, in the bit where Jesus starts on about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Cannibalism ain’t high on Jesus’ lifestyle agenda, nor on mine as it happens, so what’s all this about?

Here we have to go down the metaphor route: Jesus is making a direct reference to the exodus event I just mentioned, where The Mob was fed with manna; “the bread from heaven”, every day until they reached their destination. By using that allusion, Jesus is saying something special about himself. Neat.

Then it gets messy. The nice and neat, straight-sided, theological cage is rattled by Jesus messing up their story. No longer is it a tale about something that is understandable like bread but it’s been changed into something fairly complex like a relationship.

Manna (the God Bread) was something external back then, something that people picked up off the ground. Now, Jesus is talking about the God Bread being the relationship with Him which, if we want it, will mean taking Him to ourselves, eating and drinking for our salvation. Or, in other words “Turning to Christ”.

Is it any wonder some of the bystanders murmured aloud: “Man, this is hard tack; who can take this on board? He’s gone right outside the lines now: it’s too much for us to handle”, or words to that effect, so they turned back and no longer went about with him.

Understand that we’re not talking about a bunch of hangers-on here, like people who might walk away from a nutter. John calls this lot ‘disciples’, so the chances are they’d been around Him for a while.

They saw Him walk the talk, they had tuned in to His message; he was a nice guy and all that, but they couldn’t cope with the messiness. “Does this offend you?” He asked them. Well, yes.

That’s when Jesus shirt-fronts the Big Twelve with His question. “And you, what about you? Are you going to leave as well?” He had them by the short-and-curlies in a couple of questions. Talk about rattling their cage.

If they’d actually recalled the manna story, they would have remembered how much a meandering story it was: forty years to walk a journey that otherwise took about a week. Life’s not a walk in the park.

We know, don’t we, that life isn’t served up to us in straight lines. There are curve balls coming in from all points of the compass and the solutions to these hiccoughs aren’t always straight forward either. How we long for it to be different.

The words of eternal life aren’t always the ones that fit onto the latest Christian poster or tee-shirt or are on the bottom of our emails. They’re not always simple, cute or easy to hear. The words of eternal life remind us that life is not always plain because solutions to our problems aren’t always straightforward.

It is exactly because the words of eternal life ring true that we can’t leave. Where would we go? Who else will tell us the truth about life? Who else has lived the truth about life so fully? Who else has lived – and died – outside the box?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Finding Mary

(Note from Ian: Reflections this week is an edited version of a Sermon I’m planning to deliver at St Mary’s Atherton on Sunday. It’s their Festival Day. I’m indebted to Sr Elizabeth Johnson CSJ for her insights.)

How should we think about her today, this little Middle Eastern woman called Mary? Different times and cultures have interpreted her in different ways and she could easily be the Lady of a Thousand Faces. Let’s see why.

The first thing is to look in Scripture and, in particular, the Gospels. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t get much court-time: in Matthew, Mary doesn’t say anything and is kind of beige, neutral; in Mark, she’s like the cocky on the biscuit tin, an outsider; in Luke, she’s a woman of faith; in John, the only name she gets is “the mother of Jesus”, which says a lot, particularly if you’re a clergy spouse.

Certainly, there’s no consistency in the Good Book. However, we can say some things about her, this one who has intrigued and fascinated people for centuries.

Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) was, start to finish, a Jewish woman. She had inherited her faith from her family line, one that stretched back to Abraham and Sarah. Her prayers were to YHWH, the God who set people free, the One who established covenant with his people.

Mary followed the Torah (Law) by reciting the prayers, keeping Sabbath and Festivals and lighting candles. She was a typical Jewish woman who also believed that the Messiah had come. This didn’t mean that she stopped attending synagogue; far from it, she continued that practice.

While Mary was one of the original Jewish Christians, she was never a Gentile. It does her no honour, therefore, to take to her Jewishness with a bottle of White King Bleach. Don’t think we haven’t done that, believe me. We have.

We’ve turned her Jewish complexion into that of a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian. Not content with disfigurement, we’ve also taken to her spiritual life and made her into a 20th/21st century version of a Christian woman, which she ain’t.

Mary lived in a rural village, Nazareth, whose population consisted largely of peasants and tradies. Married to a local chippie, her life consisted of taking care of her large household. Besides Joseph and Jesus, Scripture tells us there were four brothers: James, Joses, Judas and Simon and some unnamed sisters.

Her days were filled with the hard, unpaid work of women of all ages: the feeding, clothing and nurturing of a growing household. Like other village women of her day, she was, most likely, illiterate.

Times were tough in l’le old Nazareth. This village was part of an occupied state under the heel of imperial Rome. Revolution was in the air. The atmosphere was tense. Violence and poverty prevailed.

To our shame, it’s only in recent days that we’ve even noticed the similarities between Mary's life and the lives of many others. The Flight into Egypt and the death of her son Jesus by execution compares with those who, among other horrors, have had their children and grandchildren disappear or murdered by dictatorial regimes.

Whatever else Mary is, she is a sister of the marginalized women in every oppressive situation. It does her no honour, then, to take her out of her dangerous historical circumstance and transform her into an icon of a peaceful middle-class, western woman dressed in a blue robe.

Mary walked by faith, not by sight. She had a relationship with God that was profound. In her days, people's hope for the coming of the Messiah included the hope that he would liberate the poor from oppression. That was her hope, too.

Her “Here I am Lord” in Luke is a response to the call of God on her life to be God's partner in the work of redemption, a vocation that still eludes many of us today. As I say, she walked by faith, not by sight.

God stood beside this young woman who was pregnant outside of wedlock and in danger of her own life. God stood with her to fulfil the divine promise. Mary's faith-filled partnership with God in the work of liberation is sung out in the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55). It's the longest set of words placed on the lips of any woman in the New Testament.

In this song, she sings of the future, when peaceful justice will take root in the land among all people. She’s a prototype of many others – Martin Luther King and so on – and, like his speech, her song is great too; a revolutionary song of salvation. Not only is Mary full of grace but she’s also full of political opinions, which is a Good Thing in anyone.

It does no honour to her to reduce her faith to a privatised level. What’s worse, though, is to reduce Mary’s faith to that of a doting mother/son thing. Before Jesus was born, Mary had her own deep relationship with God and it’s a relationship that isn't focused on Jesus.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is someone whose life we ought to try to copy; she’s a friend of God. It’s good to find her and to let her dangerous memory inspire and encourage our own witness as a partner with her in that same hope.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Reflections from The Hill – A Desert Freebie – John 6.24-35

(thanks to Ps Luke Bouman for some of these thoughts)

There’s something about a freebie that’s attractive. If it’s big enough and plentiful enough, that’s even better. Whether it’s a BBQ with free champers and OJ in King George Square or a ride on a bus, I have a hard time keeping away.

Sometimes the freebie is genuinely gracious and fulfilling but mostly it’s not. “Something for nothing” ain’t all what it’s cracked up to be. I wonder why my avarice takes over and accepts so easily?

The crowds on that Galilean seaside were prepared to cross the water just to get whatever was on offer, for there was something about Jesus that kept drawing people to him.

It wasn’t just that the offer of free bread was attracting them, like we might get from the Day-Old counter at Brumbies. The bread he was giving out wasn’t simply free. This bread actually came out of nowhere and it came right in the middle of nowhere.

The people had been in the wilderness, they had been the people of God on the move again and, like once before, they received this bread.

Now they wanted more: “Give us this bread always.” Like sceptics all over the world, they’re not any different from us: they wanted a repeat performance because they just couldn’t grasp what they saw the first time. Miracles don’t always lead people to faith. People just say ‘do it again, only slower this time.’

This scenario, captured in today’s Gospel reading, is exactly that and, yes, it’s slower. What’s disconcerting is something I’ve already alluded to: that we’re not much better than those seaside wanderers. We’re still on the search for more – more bread, more something that will satisfy us. And we’re in a wilderness too, most of us, a wilderness more of our own making than not.

The world in which we live is made up of two whacking great bits. One part contains people who eat as much as they like and still bring leftovers for lunch. Yet these are curiously unfilled, unsatisfied.

The other part contains those who are desperate for any morsel that falls, any crust that remains. Here they wait, with protruding ribs and painful stomachs.

The one says to the others: “How can you still be like this? There’s more than enough to go around.” The others say “How can you be hungry? You have so much already.”

There’s something about this Gospel that has a challenge for us. It’s found in the middle of the Reading, in a part that often slips us by: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.“

Even in the midst of global financial anxieties and failures, we in the west have a hard time with those words because they fly in the face of the things we most treasure. My financial advisor would agree: shouldn’t we be building wealth?

However, the lessons from the wilderness about food were as important for the people of Israel as they are for us. They learned that Yahweh would give them the things they needed. They also learned not to hoard their bread but to share it with those who could not get it for themselves, otherwise it went bad.

In his helping them to understand, Jesus identifies himself with Yahweh, The Big Fellah. “I AM the bread of Life …” he says. Here is the One who satisfies; here is the Bread of Life – and this in stark contrast to the kind of bread that feeds but doesn’t fill.

This kind of Life-bread opens up a Pandora’s Box of other needs, of other hungers that Jesus satisfies; peace or justice or loving kindness or simply a humble walk. These hungers will never leave us no matter how many times we come for sustenance at his Table.

We become the bread we eat, reshaped into His Body, not by putting up our hand and letting avarice take over but by giving as he gave. We come hungry for life and leave hungry to give it. That’s the Jesus way.