The guest list can make all the difference.

Signpost for Sunday 8 July, 2018: 2 Sam 6:1-5,12b-19; Ps 24; Eph 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29.

There’s a stunning juxtaposition in Mark that I don’t think we’ll notice if we just listen or read it the way lection asks us to. Herod organises a feast.  Jesus organises two ‘feasts’ shortly afterwards – the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:34-44) and the feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10).

Herod’s banquet is for the upper-crust elite.  Jesus’s picnics are for the crowds.  The highlight of Herod’s feast pleases one person – she who asks for the head of John the Baptist on a plate.  Jesus’s picnics please thousands of people – everyone gets something to eat.

But what had Herod actually done to anger John the Baptist. We 21st century people think we know. He married his brother’s wife. That’s no big deal by today’s standards, some of us might even be thinking.

Good old Josephus tells us the historical truth and reveals it was a little more complicated than that: While on a trip to Rome, Herod Antipas (the one in our story) stayed with his half-brother, Herod, and had an affair with Herod’s wife, Herodias.  Herod Antipas then divorced his own wife, and married Herodias. But his new wife, Herodias, was actually his niece.

We know that John the Baptist objected to Antipas marrying his brother’s wife. That is highly likely to be because of Leviticus 18:16: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” We don’t actually know whether he knew, or even objected to the fact, that Herod Antipas married his own niece.

Meanwhile, what about the other readings to think about this week? I thought about them and this is what I’ve been thinking.

In one church I worshiped at they started a youth band and asked the band to provide the music for all the services once a month. Some members of the congregation got very upset and said their music was a cacophony. Our brilliant vicar answered the complaints by quoting this verse, “David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, tumbrels, sistrums and cymbals” (2 Samuel 6:5).

Psalm 24 is a beautiful hymn of praise. If you are stuck for a prayer, use this. Sometimes I find prayer really difficult. I’m not sure how to pray, how to speak to God. One way out of that problem for me is to use the many words others have written as prayers and psalms. I say one of them and trust that God will hear whatever else it is I really want to say. For me it’s better than not praying at all; I’ve tried that and I don’t like it.

Paul

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The local tradesman.

One of my favourite songs is Homeward Bound, written by Paul Simon.  That song particularly resonated with me whenever I spent time working away from my wife and children, from the home we have made together.

On the other hand, once I had actually left home and lived away for a few years, whenever I went ‘home’ to my parents’ house, I was only ever their son. On such visits home, even the old neighbour’s would talk among themselves and mention me as Jess and Marge’s boy or that lad from number 73. It was always like that, no matter how old I was, what I had or hadn’t done since I’d left, or where I’d travelled.

And that’s the very same problem the people in the Nazareth synagogue have in Mark’s version of this story. No matter what he says or what he does, all these people can see before them is Yeshua bin Yosef, the carpenter, Mary’s son, the brother of James, Joses, Judas, Simon and their sisters. (Mary and Joseph must have had at least seven kids then.)

I wonder if that’s also part of the problem many of us, in Europe and America at least, have had with Jesus over 2000 years later. We have grown up with Jesus, at home, at church or just vaguely in the neighbourhood. He’s sort of from around here. We think we know all we need to know about him. If he was just like you and me, how can he be anything more than a human being? Why should we believe a word he says? I wonder.

Then there’s the second part of this week’s reading: this same Yeshua sends his disciples into the villages, with nothing but a walking stick and pair of sandals.

Two thoughts came into my head. Firstly I wondered how the disciples must have felt about going out to meet strangers and trying to do what they had only ever seen Yeshua do before. Not only did it remind me of how it feels when someone asks you to pray out loud for the very first time, but more importantly for these guys, Yeshua is asking them to do this immediately after they have seen that he himself couldn’t get through to some people.

And the second thought I had was that in pour family we just can’t seem to travel anywhere without heaps of stuff. When the kids were small we filled the car with stuff wherever we went – whether it was for the weekend or just for a few hours. Now the kids have left home, we still pile the car sky high with stuff if we go away for a  weekend. My wife calls it being prepared, and we have all been very grateful for her preparedness on many occasions. Personally, I prefer to travel light, and I’ve often done that to my cost.

Paul

Relativity (not the Einstein sort).

Signpost for Sunday 1 July, 2018: 2 Sam 1:1,17-27; Ps 130; 2 Cor 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43.

It’s miracle week again. But, as usual, I have been looking around and beyond the miracles themselves as I read Mark 5:21-43. One thing in particular stood out as I did so, the importance of family in these verses.

Straight away we find out it’s Jairus’s “little daughter” who is at the point of death and our deepest sympathies switch on immediately. So many of us know how awful it is when our own children are sick and we would rather feel their pain or discomfort for them; not to mention the heart rending grief of actually losing a child.

Then as we join the crowd and follow, with our minds focused entirely on saving a little girl, we rub shoulders with a very sick woman. A woman who has no one in her life who cares enough to beg Jesus to heal her.

Despite the disciples’, the crowd’s and no doubt Jairus’ frustration that Jesus stops to find out who has touched him, it’s what Jesus says to the woman when she comes forward that struck me. Not the famous words, “… your faith has made you well…” instead the very first word he speaks to this woman: “Daughter” (verse 34). Think back to Mark 3:35 when Jesus redefined who his family is; now here’s his daughter.

I’ve mentioned before a Book called ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ by Adam Rutherford. It’s a brilliant explanation of how DNA works. One of the most important things DNA has shown us is that if we trace back far enough we find you and I are related to every single person in the world, and to every single person who has ever lived.

That means that even if you’d rather believe in science than miracles, that woman really was related to Jesus. Better still, so are you and I.

Paul

Babies, boats and a bit of bafflement.

Signpost for Sunday 24 June 2018: Isa 40:1-11; Ps 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26 or Gal 3:23-29; Luke 1:57-66,80. OR (a) 1 Sam 17: (1a,4-11,19-23),32-49 Ps 9:9-20 or (b) 1 Sam 17:57 – 18:5, 10-16; Ps 133; 2 Cor 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41.

As you can see from the Lectionary listings, there’s no way I can be absolutely sure which reading you’ll all be hearing in church this week. If you’re in New Zealand then you’ll probably have the reading from Luke about the conception of John the Baptist as your gospel this week. If not, then it’s continuing from where we left off last week with the story of Jesus calming the storm.

Whichever you read or listen to, it strikes me that they’re both difficult stories to come to terms with.

Let’s start with the passage from Luke. Here’s why I have problems with it. Luke starts his gospel by telling his mate Theophilus that he’s going to give what we might call an historical account of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. And he peppers his gospel with dates and references to rulers and Roman governors that appear to set it at a particular time.

But when you look closely at Luke, can we count his account as in any way historical?   His account of the birth of Jesus differs radically from Matthew’s. He’s the only one who suggests that Mary and Elizabeth are cousins and therefore that Jesus and John the Baptist are relatives. His story of twelve year old Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem and then being found ‘teaching’ his elders in the Temple appears nowhere else. What’s Luke up to? Could he really have written down a bunch of eye witness accounts as he suggested in chapter one? Unlikely when Luke clearly wasn’t a disciple. Some scholars think he might have been a physician from Philippi, others say he was a companion of Paul’s, others don’t know. It’s pretty certain that he personally knew nothing whatsoever about Jesus’s birth and childhood. We can actually be reasonably sure about what happened in the few years of the short adult life of Yeshua bin Josef, but no one wrote histories of villagers growing up in remote Galilean villages, so the early part of his life is a mystery.

The point is that Luke’s ‘facts’ are all at least second or third hand or he’s a very good storyteller. I think he’s a very good storyteller, and a not any kind of historian in any sense of that word that we would understand. All of which means that today’s reading is a beautifully told scene setter for one of the greatest stories ever told. One that contains many profound truths, but few literal ones.

Which brings us to the reading from Mark. It’s one of my favourites. When I was about ten or eleven I went on a boat trip from the Isle of Wight to see the Needles off the coast of southern England, and on our way back, there was a serious storm at sea. My dad and I stood on the deck of the boat and watched as gigantic waves rose and fell all around the little pleasure boat we were on. My mum was, like most of the other people on the boat, not a good sailor. She wasn’t at all well. But dad and I stared at the horizon whenever it appeared above the roiling waters and stood steady on our sea legs in the howling wind and the driving rain. It was terrifying and exhilarating for a boy of ten. But I tell you what, I’m pretty sure no one took a nap during that storm.

I doubt very much then if this is a literal account either. I love the picture it paints of Jesus telling the waves to be still and I can imagine the look on the disciples’ faces when the storm subsides immediately. One scholar poses a very pertinent question, which is this: were the disciples more afraid after Jesus had calmed the storm than they were during it?

What’s the story then? Is it about faith? Is it about a miracle? Or is it that theboat trip represents a crucial stage in the journey the disciples and Jesus are on? After that boat trip everything changes. They land for the first time in a new part of the country (Mark 5:!), they’re following someone who’s way more mysterious than they may have at first thought, and they have come a long way from their humble beginnings as a bunch of fishermen, they’re in for the ride of their lives.

I’m not sure what it all means, but I like this quote about the New Testament authors:

The New Testament “… is a story written down in various forms by writers whose purpose was first of all to render the sense of a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was understood only after his death, to have revealed the way of God toward humankind.”*

Paul

* Marilynne Robinson, Wondrous Love, in When I was a child I read books, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014

 

A short walk on the seedy side.

Signpost for Sunday 17 June, 2018: 1 Sam 15:34–16:13; Ps 20; 2 Cor 5:6-10, (11-13),14-17; Mark 4:26-34.

Two very short parables this week. Very famous too, and therefore although we have ears we may not, like the listeners in Mark 4:23, hear everything on first listening. 

One or two things caught my ‘ear’ this week. The first is obviously that Yeshua is talking about the kingdom of God and trying to find a way to explain what’s it’s like.

The first thing I noticed is that he isn’t talking about going to heaven when you die, which is what I suspect many people equate the kingdom of God with these days. It’s a mistake that leads us to think that we have to wait till ‘judgement day’ to see what the kingdom of God is all about. Even then, if we think we might end up among the goats, it won’t be something we look forward to.

But the kingdom of heaven that Yeshua is trying to describe has absolutely nothing to do with that. This kingdom he’s talking about is right here on Earth. More than that, these two parables about seeds seems to be telling us that the earth gives birth to the kingdom and then is essential to its growth.

The kingdom of God isn’t like some weird gigantic space ship that comes from the far reaches of the universe and lands here either. (I’m sure some people think of it that way because I did when I was about six.)

Instead these parables show us a picture of the Kingdom being quite literally planted in the earth. And God needing humans to do the planting.

And once again, unlike the apocalypse stories, there is nothing here about chaff being thrown into fires or axes chopping at the root of trees. Everything grows and is fruitful.

Then I started to think what is actually being planted in these parables. One thing I found out is that the mustard plant was regarded as a common weed in Israel in Jesus’ time. I find that quite reassuring.

The other thing about mustard trees is that they aren’t. Trees, that is. They are herbs that can grow into large bushes (about seven or eight feet high). But it’s the fact that Jesus chooses a herb as his plant in this parable that might be important. After all, herbs are most notable for their aroma and for their flavour. So these descriptions of the kingdom of God are not so much about how big it grows from small beginnings, but equally about the spice it adds to the things that nourish us. Love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, and compassion, for example.

Paul

 

 

Family matters.

Signpost for Sunday 10 June 2018: 1 Sam 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, 11:14-15; Ps 138; 2 Cor 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

I never really liked the reading from Mark when I was growing up. It just didn’t make sense to me why Jesus is downright rude to his mum, brothers and sisters. I didn’t, and still don’t, buy any argument that suggests Jesus as the son of God knows who his real parent is, either. So, what on earth is going on, I’ve often wondered?

Is Jesus here really saying that whoever does the will of God is more family than your parents, brothers and sisters? Or are there any clues to any meanings?

I found three things that gave me pause for thought.

Firstly, as ever, let’s consider the context. Scholars agree that the author of Mark is probably writing for at least a mixed gentile and Jewish audience, if not entirely gentile. Some scholars believe the main audience for Mark’s gospel were the same people Paul’s letter to the Romans is addressed to. If that’s the case then verses 34 and 35 may well be a clear signal to those people that the family is not exclusively Jewish. Plausible, I would think of you like the idea of Mary and her children standing as a metaphor for then entire Jewish nation.

Then there’s a literary criticism approach. If we go back to verse 25 we find Jesus ridiculing the scribes’ suggestion that he has the devil in him with these words: if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. Now look at verse 21 which says that his family heard that the scribes accused Jesus of being possessed, ‘they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” ‘ Isn’t there a link between all three verses? Your first century ‘house’ was your family. And Jesus has just told the scribes that his ‘house’ won’t fall because it isn’t divided against itself. So when Mum, sisters and bros come to restrain him, he rapidly needs an extended family. Or maybe, mum and siblings might just be worried he’ll be arrested and hope to save him, but Jesus is telling them they don’t need to worry because the extended family is there to help too.

And then there’s the notion that Jesus is abandoning the definition of the ‘traditional family’ in order to make a point. There is a particular point for us in 2018, when family units come in all sizes, sexes and genders: there’s only thing that makes any group of human beings a family – unconditional love.

Paul

 

THE MISSING BLOG: Signpost for Sunday 3 June, 2018: Isa 42:10-20; 2 Cor 5:14-19 or Acts 10:34-43; John 15:9-17 or Matt 7:24-29 or Luke 6:46-49 or John 17:6-26 (Te Pouhere Sunday).

Sorry about our absence last week. I had a big tech meltdown. Here’s what you may have missed.

‘Te Pou Here’ refers to the mooring post and comes from “te pou here takata, te pou here tikaka” – the post that ties the people and the customs together.  Ngāi Tahu

Here is New Zealand, it’s the week when the church celebrates the three tikanga of worship here. That means recognising the that Maori, Pakeha and Pacific all come together in worship as Anglican.

Sometimes the idea of three-in-one can be difficult for people to get their heads around. Look at the trinity, and all the conundrums that has raised.

I was reading a Book called ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ by Adam Rutherford a few weeks ago and for no reason whatsoever the following occurred to me, and as I’m having serious technical problems this week, I’ll do no more than leave you to thin k about it:

How can God be three in one? Well, water is H2O, ice is H2O, steam is H2O.

Does God move like a gas in the universe, unseen and everywhere? Is the spirit is water that sustains us, or challenges us like raging seas, or falls upon us like rain, refreshing us, causing us to grow or flooding our lives with something we cannot ignore? We know Christ came to us as solid flesh, as spoke to us as any human could.

Is God the very breath of life? Is the spirit the water without we which cannot live? Is Christ someone who walks with us on our journey?

I like to think so.

Paul