Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Reflections from The Hill – Innies and Outties – Mark 9.38-50

Each of us has one (or the other). We share having it and it connects us, past, present and future with the whole of humanity. It crosses racial, ethnic, cultural, physical, age and gender boundaries.

I’m not talking about navels, although I could. I’m actually addressing the issue of another thing that has the same ubiquitous power to connect us, and that’s our ability to draw boundaries.

No matter who we are or where we live or what school we went to or what our job is or what colour our hair, eyes or skin happens to be, we humans have this in common: we have an extraordinary ability to create two groups of people, usually labelled Us (or me) and Them.

We see the results of this ability whenever Grand Final footy is played, or a boat load of refugees appears near Java, or a person makes a video belittling someone else’s faith, or a host of other circumstances.

As I say, it doesn’t take much for us to draw boundaries. The results of boundary-drawing are neither particularly pleasing to the eye or to the emotions, except if the Bulldogs beat the Storm this weekend.

What’s worse is the accompanying desire we have to let someone else sort out the difficulties: for some bureaucracy to come in and enforce conformity to manage our anxieties.

In the Gospel for this week, Jesus gets confronted with this line drawing, Innie v Outtie, battle. His disciples were getting twitchy; they want him to stop another bloke from casting out demons in his name because (horror of horrors) he wasn’t one of them.

I am not surprised that Jesus didn’t buy into this. It doesn’t surprise me that He goes on to point out that anyone who does a good work in his name will have a hard job doing anything against his name in the future.

It’s almost as if we are hard-wired to make lines, whether they’re racial, ethnic, linguistic, political, sexual, physical or religious. Truth is, religious lines are particularly well drawn and so simple.

As I contemplate this Gospel passage, I wonder whether it could shape or re-shape how we might think about those who see God differently from us, if they see him at all.

While we know that the unnamed exorcist was acting in Jesus’ name, what we don’t know is whether that makes him/her a follower of Jesus, a wanna-be disciple or just someone on the make.

What we do know is that he’s scaring the disciples witless and they want to shut him down but can’t.

It’s right here that Jesus does one of his Let-me-turn-the-tables-on-you tricks. He gives his boys a little warning about stumbling blocks and the dangers they pose for people on the move.

Now I really am in a dilemma. I’m now asking myself: Is it my zeal for God or is it my xenophobia that is putting a stumbling block in front of people, drawing a line between me and those who have another faith, or none? Which one is it that makes it harder for them to see and know the great love of God-in-Christ, my faith or my fear?

A few years ago, people wore rubber bangles on their wrists with WWJD? written on them (we still see a few here in NQ, such is our penchant for things of antiquity). The question posed on them (What Would Jesus Do) was built on the assumption that there was something that Jesus did that is always useful to know.

What he did, of course, was to say that his followers were not to prevent doing good stuff for people, even if they weren’t an Innie. There are no boundary lines when it comes to caring.

He told us very forcibly that we were to help others even if we didn’t know what they believed. We’re not to put a stumbling block in front of anyone who is needy or vulnerable or both, and for us to be at peace.

“Here’s the thing”, said one commentator “every time we draw a line between who's in and who's out, we'll find Jesus on the other side."

As we get more and more pluralistic, multi-cultural, complicated and diverse, the chances of us actually meeting people from other faith families, or none, is increasing exponentially.

The Gospel this week shakes our foundations. Jesus calls us to be at peace with everyone, even those who name God differently or those who aren’t able to name Him at all. It’s a direct result of a No-Innie or Outtie stance.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Looking for the Invisible Mark 9.30-37


Sometimes, I just don’t understand the way the minds of Lectionary compilers work. Maybe this week’s selection was made because we’ve had a bit of a doing this year as far as Transfiguration stories are concerned or, maybe, that’s not the reason at all: maybe I’m just being scratchy today.


In any case, the context of this week’s Gospel actually assists the message of the Transfiguration, so I really don’t know why it’s been omitted. Let me fill you in on a few details.


Jesus knows that it’s a mistake for people to hang onto the experience of Transfiguration. In fact, his coming death and resurrection would give them something even greater than what they would ever experience on the mountain.


Jesus mates just didn’t get that message. They were still hooked up on who was the greatest. Three of them had seen the Glory with their own peepers and they reckoned that this gave them some kind of privileged position, which is a pity because there were another nine blokes, plus the women, to deal with.


When greatness is based on reputation and status, when our sense of self-importance blossoms and divisions begin to appear between people like cracks in the concrete, that’s when a muscular Christian needs to take us aside and explain a few things to us firmly.


It’s not surprising that Jesus takes a child to illustrate his point. OK, so a kid’s not a muscleman but right there, in front of twelve grown men full of their own importance, Jesus clearly announces that greatness isn’t found where they think. It’s found in simple, child-like trust; in inferiority, not superiority.


Jesus treats the child, someone socially invisible, as his own body-double (‘seen but not heard’ was the way I was taught) because he sees something in the child that the people with him don’t even know that’s there.

If we could put this week’s Gospel on a bumper sticker, I reckon something like “Look for the invisible” might be a good start. Start looking for the invisible, not because it’s good to do so, or because we can congratulate ourselves on being the greatest at seeing.

Start looking for the invisible because to receive that invisible one is to receive Jesus, and to receive Jesus is to receive the one who sent him. Learn to entertain strangers: they may well be angels.

Start looking for the invisible. Ancient literature knew this. Like modern fairy tales, the far-past is full of stories where gods and other supernatural beings disguised themselves as human beings, sometimes as the lowest of the low variety, and roamed throughout the world to see how people would treat them.

I don’t believe that it’s accidental that Jesus uses this same model to drive home his point to his listeners (that’s us in case you’re wondering).

We’ll never really know when the next little one will be put in our midst to expound some extraordinary insight. However, our expectations should be sharpened and our inner radar at the ready because we never know when, or where it’s going to come.

The flash might just as easily come from someone at the other end of the age spectrum, as the following story attests.

An eighty-year old Jewish Rabbi, who used to stand daily as thousands came to him for a blessing or for his advice, was asked how he could do it for so long without appearing to be wearied by the experience. His said “When you’re counting diamonds, you don’t get tired.”

While diamonds aren’t invisible, seeing people, and young people at that, as precious pieces of pressurised carbon changes one’s whole outlook. They could just as easily be stones.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Elephants in the Room (Mark 8.27-38)


In a world that seems obsessed with clichés, even if it’s about avoiding them like the plague, I’ve found one that has to do with elephants.


I’ve used it plenty of times myself, so I guess I just hadn’t seen its coming as a cliché, which is the story of my life, really.


The elephant of which I speak is one of those recurring themes of the Christian life. It is, by far, the one that is least talked about, except on rare occasions and is, by far, the one issue that took up most of my time in the counselling work I did once.


I refer, not to those great questions of doctrine or theology nor of what people do in Church on Sundays. It’s sad to report but this elephant needs to be handled with care, mainly because of the way we’ve been raised up.


Either people believe it’s unseemly to think like it or they believe that it comes down to a lack of faith. There’s no middle ground here. Either way, they say, we’re on a slippery slope. It’s not coincidental but that happens to be the very best reason to expose it.


Today, in the Gospel Reading, we get up close and personal with this pachyderm. We note it in Jesus’ question to his A-Team, we note it in his direction not to tell anyone about his Messiahship, we note it when he ticks Peter off for not having the right kind of mind-set.


Our elephant, of course, is called ‘disappointment with God’.


No matter that the A-Team came from a background of Bible knowledge (Lamentations and Psalms, to name two) which deals with disappointment. No matter that they knew that naming disappointments is part of faith’s renewal. No matter that they’re human like us.


Even after the flash of inspiration that caused Big Pete to blurt out that this Bloke, his leader, is the One everyone’s been waiting for and that he couldn’t imagine for a second that the he, the hope of Israel, would be killed in an extremely inglorious way, Pete meets The Elephant.


I’m perpetually amazed that he didn’t seem to hear Jesus say all that stuff about resurrection, but maybe I’ve missed something.


There are many people like Big Pete who worship regularly, who pay their tithe, who pray and read the bible yet who find it hard going when The Big Fella seems to smack them in the mouth or it feels as if He’s just gutted them.


There are many people who believe it’s wrong to be disappointed with God, especially after they’ve discovered that their child has been diagnosed with schizophrenia or that their Dream Job has ended in redundancy or when any number of disappointments, even disasters, comes their way.


The Good News is that it’s not wrong to be disappointed with God. I rail often at the thought of this beautiful guy having to suffer the ignominy of the death he died. I am overcome with embarrassment when I think that he hung on that cross buck-naked, with the passing crowd walking and gawking and only some of them averting their eyes.


It’s not wrong, either, to struggle with following this Bloke. It’s OK to be in the compost of life because that’s where the best flowers grow. It’s OK to be dead because that’s where resurrection comes from.


It’s OK to talk about the pain of lining up on Sundays while the Church seems to be going out backwards and is, seemingly, helpless – or ignorant – to stop the rot.

It’s OK to talk about the elephant when people all around seem to not have heard a word about reconciliation but are, rather, intent on revenge and retribution and all we want to do is to send them back to where they came from.

Maybe dealing with elephants in the room goes by another name. Maybe dealing with elephants is actually another word for discipleship.