Sermon Mark 7:24-37

Mark 7:24-37

24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

A journalist once had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa and so he said “Mother

Philip Tirone kissing the hand of Mother Teresa

Philip Tirone kissing the hand of Mother Teresa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Teresa, you believe in God so I guess you must pray regularly”. “Yes, I do” came her reply. “So what do you say?” asked the Journalist. “Oh mostly I just listen”, she said. Thinking that he now had a great scoop, the very words of God to Mother Teresa he said “Ah, so what does God said to you?” “Oh mostly he just listens too”.

I would like to talk about listening to God, just a little bit, because I am drawn to the word “Ephphatha” that Jesus said – opening the deaf man’s ears – and I feel strongly that we too need to be able to hear God’s voice as a Parish so that we might walk in the right paths.

But I have to first unpack the first story because it is perhaps one of the most fascinating and challenging stories in the bible. It throws up questions of discrimination and questions of Jesus’s divinity and humanity.  So Jesus is possibly tired and fed up, he doesn’t want to be noticed, but a Gentile woman finds him and begs him to get rid of a demon in her daughter. I tend to think that “demon possession” in their terms was either something like epilepsy or mental illness.

So Jesus responds saying that the children should be fed first and it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. What a horrible response – the woman would be well aware that the Jews referred to non-Jews as dogs. There is that famous prayer that Jewish men at the time used to pray – “Thank-you God that you didn’t make me a gentile, or a woman, or a dog”.

Admittedly, the word used in this text is “little dogs” rather than “dogs”, but I don’t think it makes it any better – it is dehumanising – I find it frightening when any group diminishes another, dehumanises them, because once we do that we can make them other than ourselves and treat them badly.

The woman responds that even the dogs eat the crumbs from the children’s table. And Jesus is impressed by this response and tells her that her child has been healed.

There are two possible interpretations of this story – the first is that Jesus is learning – that he listens to the woman and learns from her, and indeed this changes his ministry. The story is set between two mass feedings – and the symbolism and locations of these meals suggest that the first was for Jews and the second for Gentiles, the “dogs” suddenly finding themselves at the table and no longer eating the crumbs. This reading of the story would suggest that Jesus in his humanity had to learn to be Christ in his divinity. I quite like this idea – I am doubtful that when Jesus was a child he had the wisdom of Christ, I doubt that in his essays at school he wrote things like “God is love and all who live in love, live in God and God lives in them”. I doubt he said to his brothers “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called Children of God”. On this day Jesus learned something about equality between races that undid the racist teaching that he had learned before. Jesus then has a time of ministry to the Gentiles, the story marks a turning point.

The second interpretation is that Jesus is testing the woman and she comes through with flying colours. The woman is remarkably persistent – under the circumstances – she has been put down, insulted and she still keeps going. I dislike this because I find it insulting, the notion of Jesus testing her, especially in the context of the insult. But it does preserve the notion of Jesus being unchanging, emphasising the divinity of God.

How do you see Jesus? Do you see him learning? I think that is the reading that I take, in which case if it is ok for Jesus to be wrong sometimes, to learn from others, to be challenged and change his mind, then it is surely ok for us too.

Moving on to the story of the deaf man hearing, the reason I think we need to listen to God, particularly at this time, is because times are hard in the parish. Over the last few years the numbers of people who have attended our three churches has reduced probably from 134 per week to 87 per week. The amount of money we spend has stayed constant at about 45k per year, before paying our parish share, but our income has gone from 108k to 78k over the past four years. Alan will preach about this next week, but we the long and the short of it is we can’t afford to replace Carol, and the Vicarage will be let until the situation changes.

These numbers look depressing, and they need facing, but my belief is that God is with us, God will lead us through this. And in the meantime my hope is that we will come together more closely as a parish, we will need to work together, to help each other. My belief is that churches have seasons, and at the moment it is Winter, but Spring is coming. This belief has been strengthened by experiencing once again such a strong call to come here and it has been strengthened by finding such faithful people and the warmth of the welcome and friendship when we arrived.  I am convinced that together we will have the persistence of the Syrophoenician woman to work though this, the humility of Jesus to hear others and change where we need to, and I believe that Spring will come. I hope that you will also have that belief. Amen.

Sermon on Mark 8:31-38 (Lesley)

Mark 8.31-38dali_christ_of_st_john

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So we heard from the Roman’s passage Paul’s big message – you can be righteous, or right with God through faith.

I looked back to when I preached on this passage six years ago and at that time I was actually studying theology, indeed I was studying Paul, so that was quite helpful because I clearly seemed to know what Paul was on about at the time!

Although there was a line in the sermon that said that we skipped Romans 4 because our lecturer said it was too difficult for us to understand!

Anyway, the thing that Paul was so fabulously excited about was that we could be right with God through faith… this was his conversion experience…. He had been a Pharisee, and not just any Pharisee, but one that had zealously been persecuting Christians and having them stoned…. And the reason for that was that he thought that everyone, every Jew, had to be obeying the Law perfectly in order for them to be right with God. In order for God to bless Israel, in order for God to release Israel from captivity to the Romans, everyone had to follow every law in the utmost detail. And they weren’t doing it. Especially the Christians, they were being heretical proclaiming a man, this man Jesus to be God.

So you can imagine the migraine this gave poor old Saul as he was, trying to control EVERYONE. It is hard enough to control ourselves…. I have certainly caved in on some of my Lenten disciplines already and they are truly piffling compared the Jewish Laws.

And then Paul realised, and then Paul found the penny dropping, that we could be made right though FAITH. And what a relief that was.

So what is faith? For Paul it meant surrender to God. Giving in to God. Stopping trying to control, stopping trying to have things our way, stopping trying to understand, and falling into the loving arms of God. Stepping out perhaps

(Indiana Jones video)

Sometimes, in Bibles it is translated as “to believe” because we can’t say “to faith” in English like you can say it in Greek, but to believe is such a poor translation. It suggests intellectual assent rather than giving your whole body and soul to God. And anyway, I think sometimes we surrender to God even though in our mind we can’t believe, we “faith” anyway.

Hence, central to our faith is the image of Baptism – trusting others as they dunk you under the water, giving in, surrendering, submitting to God. And for Paul, he felt we had to die to the old ways, die to the Law and be resurrected as new people, people who surrendered to God.

In the Gospel we also hear of a similar idea – Jesus says we have to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is a sort of surrender, but I don’t think it necessarily means that our lives will be nasty and painful… not at all. I think that the cross is a symbol of release of burdens.

Like the bit in the Pilgrim’s progress where Christian loses his burden:

Up this way, therefore, did burdened CHRISTIAN run; but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.

He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a Cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as CHRISTIAN came up to the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble; and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

Then was CHRISTIAN glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart,

“He hath given me rest by his sorrow,
And life by his death.”

My gran had a big, beautiful, illustrated version of the Pilgrim’s Progress, and I did once try to read it because my Gran told me to. Now I look at it again it is no wonder that I couldn’t – the language was so alien to me, but so was the content – I had no understanding of faith.

However, years later, I too had an experience similar to that of Christian. I was at Uni when I heard an evangelistic talk where the preacher was thinking about the words Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished”. I was convinced it wasn’t for me and so I let my guard down, and was enthusiastically agreeing with the speaker in my heart hoping that it would enable others to understand the truth of God’s love for them. The speaker was saying…

‘..when Jesus died on the cross he said the words ‘it is finished’. These words were often used on grocery bills when people paid their tab. In other words Jesus said ‘it is paid for in full’. Now, imagine all of your sins listed like a grocery bill. All your sins, the ones that you feel are forgivable and the ones that you are so ashamed of, all of them.’

I was so absorbed in what the speaker was saying that I did as I was told and listed all the things I was ashamed of, even the unmentionable, unforgivable ones.

The speaker continued..

‘..now, imagine Jesus stamping the bill with a seal and on the seal are the words ‘paid for in full’.

I could see all my sins listed, and a big red wax seal… paid for in full. I was amazed and tearful; I suddenly felt that Jesus’ death had mysteriously paid for all my sins. I had become crippled by shame and in those moments I felt able to walk again.

Of course, it needed surrender, it needed faith, but somehow, by doing so I gained a new life, I gained a sense of being right with God. The clouds cleared and I felt like I was dancing in the sunshine.

I pray that this Lent all of us might experience this realisation that Paul was so excited about, that surrendering to God mysteriously brings us close to God. Amen

Sermon on Mark 3:13-19 (Lesley)

English: Jesus calling Simon Peter and his bro...

Image via Wikipedia

Mark 3:13-19

Jesus Appoints the Twelve

 13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Jesus chose twelve people to be his apostles, to be his closest band of disciples, those who would do what he did. Those who would learn from him closely, like the disciples of a great artist or a great violin maker; those who would watch and listen and listen and watch and become like the one that they were following.

There is a great tradition of rabbis doing this, of training others to follow in their footsteps, but first they had to make it all the way through school.

The Jewish people sent their boys to school. They would memorise the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy…. all off by heart. This was called Beit Sefer. At the age of 10 the best ones would stay on at school, those who had managed this feat. However, most would go off and learn their father’s trade at that point. I think Jesus was still at school aged 12, because we learn about his visit to the Temple, when he was left behind, and how amazed the rabbis were amazed at his questions and his understanding. Presumably he was asking them about the scriptures.

Those that stayed would go on to memorise the rest of the Hebrew scriptures – Genesis all the way through Malachi, off by heart. This was called Beit Talmud. They would stay at school until they were fourteen or fifteen, and then most would go and learn their father’s trade. However, the very best, who had accomplished this would carry on with their learning. I imagine it was many, a tiny percentage.

These few would go and find a rabbi and become a disciple – I disciple doesn’t just want to know what the rabbi know he want to be like the rabbi is. This was called Beit Midrash. Now the rabbis had different understandings of the scriptures, different interpretations, and that rabbi’s teachings were known as that rabbi’s ‘yoke’. So if you wanted to follow a particular rabbi, you wanted to take on that particular ‘yoke’. So, aged fifteen a boy would find a rabbi and go for an interview. He would be grilled, and at this point most would fail, however, if they were really impressive, then the rabbi would say ‘come and follow me’. And then the kid would leave his family and his village and his friends. Each rabbi would travel, and go from town to town, teaching the scriptures, followed by his disciples. By the end of the day the disciples would be covered in whatever the rabbis would have stepped in. And so there was a saying ‘may you covered in the dust of your rabbi’.

I believe this is what happened to Jesus. I don’t think he was ever a carpenter. He was the best of the best of the best at school – he knew and understood the scriptures like no other lad. I believe he left Nazareth aged fifteen, and he was a disciple until he was thirty, which is the age at which they were expected to find their own disciples.

However, when Jesus called his disciples, he called fishermen like Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John. People that were no longer in school – they were learning their father’s trade – they were not the best of the best of the best.

In this passage Jesus chooses the twelve for three purposes:

1. to be with him

2. to send them out to preach

3. to drive out demons

There could only be twelve that were close enough to observe Jesus closely enough to become like him. To live with him, listen to him, watch him, be with him…. To do what he does. And then those twelve would make disciples, passing on the message, the “yoke”.

This has passed on to us now. We are called to be with Jesus. We have the ability to be with him through the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Scriptures. But we also need to learn from each other, learn from those in whom we can see God acting. In each community of Christians we all have gifts and we can learn so much from each other, if we are close enough and real enough and open enough.

It is a tremendous honour to be disciples of Jesus. Let’s see if we together can be covered in the dust of our rabbi Jesus, let’s see if we together can be transformed such that we can know Jesus and do what he does.

Amen

Note: much of this comes from Rob Bell’s Nooma video “Dust”

Sermon – Mark 1:4-11 (Jennifer)

Jesus baptism site - River Jordan 015

Image via Wikipedia

Mark 1.4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

 The baptism of Jesus.

 Aren’t there times when we all feel like a fresh start

– a new beginning.

Our New Year’s resolutions – slim down, eat less, exercise more,

Give up smoking,

These are relatively straight forward,

though sometimes difficult enough to put into practise

But what about those more difficult issues

Life isn’t perfect, we’re not perfect.

We make mistakes, we have regrets,

There are time when it would feel wonderful to leave all these behind us – in the past –

and start again.

One of the great comforts and joys of the Christian faith

is that we know and love a God who by his very nature is forgiving

who allows us

encourages us

to let go of past failures and begin again.

And because this is what our God is like,

this is how he would have us be as well.

‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’

During every regular act of worship there is an opportunity to remember our failures before God

accompanied by assurance of His forgiveness.

When we are very troubled we can seek a private opportunity for the consolation of confession.

And indeed the very moment of the start of our life in Christ is a moment of new beginnings

Of turning away from evil – towards Christ

Of being washed clean in the waters of Baptism.

For each of us these are very personal, precious moments

moments between me and my God.

But just think, as we say the words of confession together,  aren’t we also to consider our failings as a community,

To bring these before God and to find a better way.

At the time we read about in today’s Gospel it seems that a vast number of the Jewish nation were seeking a new way.

People went out to John in the Judean desert from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.

Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the river Jordan.

Not one or two people, but almost the whole nation.

There’s practically no reference to any form of baptism in the Old Testament

So at this time baptism was a very recent development.

We know that the Jews of the Qumran community, made famous by their writings we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, living beside the Dead Sea not far from John,

attached great importance to ritual washing.

They viewed the Temple worship of Jerusalem as corrupt.

And refused to take part in the Temple sacrifices.

They compensated for this by immersing themselves daily in a communal bath – in a spirit of repentance for cleansing of sin.

It’s not really surprising then to find John the Baptist,

just up the road,

demanding Israel’s repentance,

signified by a once for all baptism in preparation for the coming judgement of the Messiah.

John was what we would now describe as a “hellfire preacher”.

He demanded total immersion from his followers,

which symbolised that inward purity and repentance which would deliver them from immersion in the coming river of fire.

John was thought to be the last of the old prophets who preached about the coming day of reckoning,

and who visualised it as something utterly terrifying.

The images of purification are always of refiner’s fire,

as though the badness and evil could only be burned out of people’s souls.

Hence the medieval images of Hell.

The people revered John’s preaching,

and although some left him to follow Jesus,

he still had plenty of disciples of his own at the end of his life.

In fact his following continued long after his life,

some, called Mandeans, survive to this day.

So John’s baptism was a turning to God baptism

‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.

A conversion baptism

– this link between conversion and baptism remains constant throughout the New Testament.

Jesus was one of those who came to John for baptism by total immersion.

And this seems to have been a transforming moment in Jesus’ own life,

for it was after this that he began his own ministry in Galilee.

Indeed, St.Mark, with his characteristic immediacy, starts his Gospel with this very moment in his account of the Life of Jesus,

he doesn’t record anything before.

At this moment St.Mark describes the heavens as “rent asunder”, torn apart,

using this identical phrase again at end of Jesus’ ministry,

when Jesus is hanging on the cross and the curtain of the temple is torn apart.

At the same moment a dove,

a symbol of the Holy Spirit borrowed from Genesis,

from the creation of the world when God’s spirit hovered like a bird over the waters,

is seen hovering over Jesus.

It is tempting to suppose, as many modern commentators do, that this experience awakened in Jesus a consciousness of his unique relationship to God, and of his vocation as Israel’s Messiah.

This may be so, but it is not a safe interpretation.

– it is a conjecture inspired by a modern desire to enter into the psychology of the religious experience of Jesus.

In the texts we’re never given any hint of the way Jesus’ mind works.

This is not what the Gospel is dealing with.

The message to us here, lies in that Epiphany word – Manifest

God in Man made manifest

Manifest – to reveal – to show clearly

For this moment of baptism is primarily about revelation.

Here we have revealed before us

Jesus the Son of God.

And look at the wonderful trinitarian imagery

God the Father in heaven

Sending his Son Jesus into the world

Empowered by the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove

Here we have God’s supreme fresh start

That which we find in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray

Lord of all time and eternity,
you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father
in the baptism of Jesus your beloved Son:
by the power of your Spirit
complete the heavenly work of our rebirth
through the waters of the new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.