Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 25th March Palm Sunday

Readings:  Mark 11:1-11  Mark 14:1- 9

We pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen

Let me begin by telling you a little bit about my past week – a time where a variety of happenings have somehow coalesced into one thread of thinking –what is it that builds our faith community into the transforming presence of Christ and what leads us astray? 

On Tuesday night I listened to the lecture by John Barclay – on early Christianity and the survival of the poor and the realisation came of how interdependent we really are as church community and yet how the culture of one way giving without reciprocal relationship has pervaded our way of living.  I have much more thinking to do on the issues raised by John but for now can I encourage you to keep an eye out for the podcast if you weren’t able to be there.

On Wednesday it was the turn of Wednesday Worship to add to the picture.  We explored the reading of the nameless woman anointing Jesus alongside the work of Susan Jones who wrote of what it was like to be that woman, facing the angry denial by others of her understanding of Jesus need and her own pain because she accepted that Jesus was about to die in great suffering. We were invited to put ourselves into the story and hear a different point of view.

That same day I heard several stories, in my Presbytery role, of churches where people in the congregation were being cruel to others – where the diversity had morphed into angry division and grace and extravagant love were being sidelined. At times like this, right and wrong takes centre stage and people are hurt and feel displaced.

Out of this and more came the question of whether our current understanding of being church community is perhaps needing some rethinking on our part. 

And so we go to the scriptures we heard today to explore what Jesus says to us about this.  To help us begin we will, like Susan, attempt to put ourselves into the two stories.

First of all from Mark 11. We can all be one of the people at the gate of Jerusalem, welcoming Jesus, waving our palm branches, raising our voices in praise and hope.  But what precisely is it that we are hoping for? 

Some words from Malcolm Gordon[1] - he imagined what it might have been like to be one of those in the crowd at that gate – recognising and welcoming the Messiah but not so sure of the path he had chosen – maybe Judas might have had some of these thoughts running through his mind too.

We pray
O Jesus our king, riding into the capital city for the great showdown with the powers of evil and corruption;
You are known as a man of peace but you might want to think about that
For those you are up against are merciless and cruel and the only place you’ll end up by turning the other cheek is high on a criminal’s cross.

We pray
O Jesus our king, riding into our hopes for redemption, where is your sword and where is your army?
This ragtag rabble of rascals and rednecks from the sticks aren’t going to fill any of your enemies with fear.
Just say the word, and we’ll throw down our palm branches and take up our spears, hidden away all these years.
Cast off the disguise of peacemaker and we will rally to you in a heartbeat.

We pray
O Jesus our king, you mock us, you refuse to claim the throne we offer.  You’ve taken hold of our hearts but you have rejected our fists and anybody can tell you that’s no way to rule.
So we’ve no use for you, you peacemaking poet from up north for the villains we face come with razor sharp swords.
Take your stories and die, they’re no good to us.  It’s going to take more to save us than your foolish love.

We pray
Jesus our king, the clamour and noise for you to reign on high, for you to be cursed and die have all faded and gone, like seed that springs up in shallow soil.
But you were still, like sleep in the midst of a storm.  You were the point of persistent peace while we all wanted war.  Now all our rage is spent.   We wonder, are you?

Malcolm suggests that we struggle to grasp Jesus radical approach to the salvation of the world.  We can get fired up, but we want it to be our way – the way that is logical and obvious to us.  Getting a handle on this up-side-down thinking of the cross as the pathway that Jesus invites us into is hard, and really hard for some of us who are used to problem solving or leading from the front especially.  We are also quite accomplished at giving up hope when the journey of faith doesn’t go the way we expect – the disciples, many of them anyway deserted in the face of the reality of the cross and they had to yet learn that the words of Jesus were trustworthy and true.

And what if we put ourselves in that room with Jesus and Simon and the unnamed woman - what would be our take on the situation? Would we be cross at the waste, sure we knew better what should be done or blown away by the act of love before us, even if we didn’t quite understand why?

I found myself following the debate about this woman unnamed in Mark, identified as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus in John’s Gospel. Commonly regarded as a reformed prostitute based on the Luke rendition (what else could sinner mean for a woman), there is little evidence that it was so. There is not mention of her character in the reading we heard today. In all Gospels though, she is seen as an interloper by those with Jesus, one who is doing a foolish thing. Yet for her it was imperative that she carry out this act of extravagant love.  Some of the words from Susan:
“What happened inside that gave [you] the courage, the energy to gatecrash the party at Simon’s house?
What deep inner need drove you there, your precious jar of ointment carefully cradled next to your body?[2]
What was going on inside to over-ride for you the murmurs of disapproval, the angry mutterings, the hiss of air sucked in between irritated teeth?”

Sinner or saint, Jesus welcomed her deep love and her act of anointing him for his difficult journey to the cross.  And she understood what the others did not – that this wasn’t a time for giving to the poor, or for questioning the best use of a costly gift but rather an act of unreserved love to one who faced a journey of pain and grief and despair.  The poor will always be with you, said Jesus but I will not be……

So how do these two stories and the story of my week come together and help us understand what it mean to live in Christ centred community – effective in the way of love and grace and mercy in Jesus name.
One very clear point is that community is made up of many voices – faith is lived with many understandings of the love of Jesus and we need all those voices to grow and flourish in faith.  Each of us brings a unique experience of growing in faith and we are to be encouraged to share and to understand that there are different approaches than ours and that others might have insight where we don’t.  Often it is the case that voices that shout the loudest have the least to say and the quietest are full of beautiful wisdom and insight. Jesus spoke through the weak and the vulnerable, the displaced and the doubting.  We must make sure we listen to all.  In fact, I would go further and say it is out of our very diversity as a people of faith that we can most effectively seek the way of Jesus.  Together we can do this!

The alternative is not pleasant.  For when we stop listening to each other, seeing our way as the only way, conflict and division ensues.  When we loudly voice our own certainties we can fail to hear the sometimes still small voice of Jesus in others. We become like that person Malcolm described at the gate of Jerusalem – not at all sure that Jesus way is the best way to establish the kingdom.  That this is happening in the church on a regular basis is incredibly distressing and sad.  The path of Jesus is clear and this is not it.

We have to recognise the need we have of each other as well as Jesus to live in grace filled community – Jesus talked about the poor always being with us – poor not only in material wealth but also the spiritually impoverished or emotionally and mentally and physically in need.  And this is all of us is it not? Our community is made up of a whole mix of needs - it most definitely is not about some of us always being on top of things and able to give without need of anything back (the charity concept). We will all be in need at some times in our lives, and the relationship developed as we give and receive strengthens us and the community of faith in ways we can’t imagine.  As John mentioned in his lecture, it behoves us to look after each other with extravagant generosity, knowing that we are going to be both givers and receivers.
When we stop caring for each other or thinking that we can get by with never needing the gift of anointing by others in our community then we truly do not understand the depth of Jesus love and the pain of the journey that is the way of the cross.

Community in the 21st century is pretty complicated – we tend not to live together but are spread out over the city – we are no longer in one church community for life or even at one time and we have incredible choices in who we will be and where we will go.  For most of us it’s not hand to mouth economically but equally our poverty can show in our spiritual tentativeness, our hands-off giving, our unwillingness to embrace the different or put ourselves into places of discomfort or new thinking. 

What has changed from Jesus day – not a lot!  What makes the difference then and now – a willingness to be open to Jesus’ unexpected directions and radical ways of loving that blow away most all of our fears and gather us together and make us whole. 

We pray:
O God, in this world where goodness and evil, action and apathy, love and hate  continue to clash with each other, instil in us, and in all your people, discernment to see what is right, faith to believe what is right and courage to do what is right.
Keep us aware of the subtlety of wrong, and preserve us, body, mind and soul, through the power of your Holy Spirit on your path and in your steps.  Amen.

[1]A way to pray’ by Malcom Gordon based on Mark 11 from The Illustrated Gospel of Mark p.124

[2] Body Language by Susan Jones

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