Trinity 7: Even Half of my Kingdom

So, whilst the disciples are off on their holy adventures, Mark entertains us with a rather colourful and gory story.

We haven’t heard much about John for a while: right back at the beginning of Mark’s account John was noted to be calling people to repentance and baptising them. We witness John baptise Jesus, and then hear of his arrest. We know that John has his own disciples and that Jesus’ disciples are held up against them as being somewhat lacking as they don’t fast in the way that John’s do, and that is about it. Until now.

Now, as Mark fills time waiting for the 12 to return, we hear the rather lascivious story of John’s death:

Herod was a man of great power and wealth, a man with a beautiful wife whom he somewhat dubiously acquired from his brother, and with her a daughter. The daughter is young, nubile, beautiful and a great dancer.

John, a rather strange man who wondered around in camel hair and eating whatever he could forage, spoke forcefully of the need for repentance in the world, and especially amongst the successful elite, the powerful and wealthy, people like Herod who had no qualms about stealing another man’s wife, even if that man was his brother.

John had no fear in speaking against Herod’s marriage and need for repentance, and Herod somehow found himself attracted to the words that John spoke – though not enough to act upon them, to repent. Herod’s wife was not attracted to John. He was a thorn in her side, a mosquito humming in her ear. Herod had the man imprisoned, out of the way, yet not far enough for Herod’s wife who would find her husband in his company, listening to his preaching.

So much for the back story: Our story takes place on the king’s birthday. It is only fair to say that this king is not just powerful and wealthy, he is also vain and arrogant. In his pride he invites his courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee to a banquet to celebrate his birthday. All the guests are men, of course, and they all wish to impress the king and assure their own role in elevated society. As he gorges on the delicacies set before them, they do too; as he devours glass after glass of fortified wine they do too, and when his daughter is called to dance for them, and they leer after her, he does too. She swirls and turns and encourages their cheers and jeers and other ‘manly’ responses to the way she uses her body, and when the king calls her to him, she responds demurely, lowering her eyes. She knows what is about to come.

The king praises her and the men echo his praises with energy, and he offers her ‘whatever you wish, even half my kingdom’ – a generous offer, the most generous of all, and he swears solemnly, with all the courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee as witnesses. The young woman, nods and smiles and backs away to meet with her mother who has been watching, the mother who has trained her daughter to dance and delight, the mother who has been plotting for this one golden prize.

‘What shall I ask for?’ the daughter says.

‘The head of of John the Baptist’, she replies, without hesitation.

The daughter rushes back and requests,’I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’

The leering and jeering stop. This girl is no innocent, this girl is a viper who has just stung. The courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee look on in silence: will he do it? Will he murder a prophet on the whim of a girl? Will he keep his word?

Herod too is silent. John is a man of God. He knows it is really his wife behind this and that she has trapped him. He knows too that his honour is at stake. It pains him, he likes the man, there is something special about him, even though Herod knows that John is no fan and would show no loyalty to him. What loyalty would the courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee show him if they discovered him to be weak? What has he to lose? Only the head of a man who has been needling him and upsetting his wife for years.

So he gives the command. A soldier is sent to do the deed, and returns bearing a platter covered in blood and bearing the head of John the Baptist; bearing the ears of the one who heard from God, the mouth of one who spoke words of repentance, the eyes of one who saw deep into his heart, the one who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah.

So other than filling time, like a community song in a panto whilst the cast change into their wedding costumes for the finale, why does Mark tell this story now?

Well the Gospel is changing tack. Mark is taking us closer and closer to the cross. In this passage we are reminded that John is the forerunner of Jesus. Their lives have mirrored each others from before they were born: both had miraculous conceptions, both had a calling to preach repentance and to draw others into God’s kingdom.  Both drew curiosity and intrigue from the powers that be, and just as John has met a bloody end, so too will Jesus. And just as Jesus and John share a similar fate, so do the powers that be: both Herod and Pilate find themselves, ‘manipulated to carry out the deadly hostility of a third party, both, though seemingly in charge, become unwilling actors in a drama beyond their control’ (Williamson Jnr).

What’s more, for those who continue to follow Jesus, those who have picked up their staff and gone out in their twos to preach the kingdom in Jesus’ name, will also face such hostility and, for many, violent death.

There is also a warning here, that political leaders may seem to spout words of support for the kingdom, may show understanding, compassion and even an inkling of faith, but don’t be surprised if they let us down. They did it to John and to Jesus.

This isn’t a story of evil defeating good. This is a story of success versus significance. Pilate may have succeeded in removing a threat to the current tenuous peace, the religious leaders may have succeeded in removing the ‘heretic’ in their midst, Herod’s wife may have succeeded in removing the threat to her marriage and her throne, however, the significance of the Gospel has not and will not be diminished. Not John’s nor Jesus’ nor any of the disciples’ deaths will have been in vain, each of them have been building blocks in the kingdom, of restoring heaven on earth.

Something to do:

Light a candle and hold some silence. Read out loud the passage from the Gospel of Mark (read it here.)

Something to watch:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCDId5H1ijc

Something to think about:

  • What is the most enthralling or inspiring entertainment you have been caught up in?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What do you think were the real motives in this story? For Herod, his wife Herodias, her daughter, Salome, for John?
  • Explore some of the implications of Mark including the story at this point in the gospel.
  • What lessons can we learn from Herod’s pride? Are there ways in which we need to make changes in our attitudes?

Something to pray:

Sovereign God,

open our hearts to everything you would say to us through your words and through those who speak it to us, however demanding it might be – however unpalatable the truth, demanding the challenge, humbling the experience or searching the questions we must face.

Speak to us and equip us to speak for you in turn, standing up for truth, right and justice, even though that may be equally demanding.

Give us strength and humility both to hear and to be your voice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Nick Fawcett

 

 

 

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Trinity 6: Your mum is a……

A few week’s ago, we heard the story of Jesus’ mum and siblings believing that Jesus was deranged, and seeking to bring him home, trying to prevent him from further embarrassing the family name. Read more here. That story was a bit like a prologue foretelling what is about to happen, and today’s is like an epilogue reflecting on what has come to pass. Or perhaps they are bookends bearing a symmetrical design, or opening and closing brackets.

Once more Jesus’ family are at the heart of the action, and once more their status as kin is questioned. Read it here.

Jesus has returned home, willingly this time, and like the good Jew he is, he attends synagogue on the Sabbath. Everyone is astounded as he expounds on the Holy Scriptures. His fame has gone before him and they are expecting a show, his teaching doesn’t disappoint, and yet those he grew up among somehow can’t quite believe that Jesus is who his fame claims him to be after all, isn’t this Mary’s son, the carpenter?

Ouch! We all know that Jesus’ birth was unusual, to say the least. We know that Mary found herself pregnant before she and Joseph had consummated their wedding, but hadn’t Joseph married Mary and claimed the child to be his own? Doubt had obviously lingered in the minds of  the people of Nazareth – they knew something was up, Jesus and Joseph were, perhaps, too different in personalities, appearances, in their ability to handle wood. ‘Mary’s son’, not ‘Joseph’s son’ – your mum is not all she claims to be……

and neither is Jesus.

His family are present, or at least his sisters are. His brothers are named: James (who will go on to become one of the leaders of the church and even write a book of the Bible), Joses, Judas, and Simon, but none of them stand to defend him or his honour. None of them speak up for their mother either for that matter. In their very silence, they too reject Jesus.

Previously Jesus had asked the question ‘Who are my family?’. Blood and bone don’t count in the ordinary way. Then he pointed to those around him and claimed them as mother, brother, sister. Now, we just move swiftly on.

Amazed at their unbelief, disheartened, lonely…. Jesus leaves Nazareth and heads out for the villages. He calls to him the 12: these are his ‘family’. Jesus called these twelve men and they followed. He taught them, built trust in them and created a new family of faith with them. These are his kin. Nothing could be done in Nazareth – the locals’ disposition to doubt and down play and discourage prevented Jesus from truly being himself, but out in the villages Jesus could challenge the disciples to go and be God’s family, reaching out to extended ‘family’, finding hospitality and doing their Father’s work.

So what has happened within these book ends? Jesus has been telling parables, drawing close to him anyone who will listen and teaching them about God’s kingdom. He has reached out to the outcast: the gentile lunatic, the woman with bleeding, the girl who had died. He has brought his disciples directly into the presence of his kingdom as they have witnessed, taken part in, explored the theological impact of what Jesus has been doing. He has built a family of faithful risk takers around him, people he can trust, people he knows will get it wrong, but won’t lose heart, won’t cower behind gossip or keeping up appearances. These are the people of his kingdom. This is his true family.

So where do we find ourselves in this story, or collection of stories?

Do we hide behind what we think we know of God – gentle Jesus meek and mild? Do we keep him tucked up in the nativity set or hung upon the cross, but never allow him full reign in our hearts? Do we doubt? Do we fear? Are we risk averse? Is God’s kingdom for us the same people who share the peace week in, week out and linger over ‘nice’ biscuits and luke warm tea afterwards? Is ‘out reach’ or ‘missionary work’ what others do, but we support in prayer once a week in our intercessions and save bottle tops for?

Or is God more than that? Have we discovered the welcome home Jesus offers us, in a family of adventure and miraculous (but sometimes scary) events and activities? How we view Jesus has an impact on how we view our relationship with him, and that has an impact on the works and wonders he can perform in and through us. Are you willing? Are you ready? If so, welcome to the family.

Something to watch:

 

Something to do:

Light a candle, read through the passage from the Gospel of Mark (click here) and st in silence for a while. What thoughts or images come to mind?

Something to think about:

  • How would you describe your own family?
  • How do you think Jesus felt when he was rejected by friends and family?
  • How do you think his family felt when they had been ‘rejected’ by him?
  • What was it that stopped people from Jesus’ home town from having faith in him?
  • Does familiarity breed contempt? Have you experienced this in your own faith?
  • How can we prevent ourselves from having a faith life limited to Sunday worship and church rotas?
  • How can we be more adventurous and active in our faith?

Something to pray:

Incomparable God you have made yourself available to us in all your power and in all your love.

You have put the world at our feet and made us lords of your creation.

Now we go out to the adventure of living in good heart and with high hope because you are going with us. Amen.

Alan Gaunt

 

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Trinity 5: Woe is me.

This weekend I was relived of preaching duties due to attending a friend’s ordination in Canterbury Cathedral and then his first communion in his village church in Egerton. Both these were huge celebrations, but the Bible passages set for the weekend focused on lamentation. Our guest writer Rev Matthew Grayshon has the following points to share:

The link in today’s readings is Lamentation.

  • In 2 Samuel, David is Lamenting the loss of Jonathan and Saul
  • The psalmist (130) laments his own loss of self-esteem.
  • In Mark we find Jairus and his village lamenting the loss of a young daughter.

 

What marks out Lamentation from grief?

  • There is no stiff upper lip, pretending we can cope
  • God is drawn into the sorrow, and sorrows which are deep and painful
  • There is a raw honesty, which many would find too much to speak to God
    • eg “what’s the point of a harvest if life has no purpose?”
    • and, God, you are really letting yourself down by not keeping your promise
    • the loss of a child is outrageous

 

So what is the value of Lamentation?

  • It opens us to the love of a Heavenly Father who loves us no matter what
  • It gives perspective to our grief ie there is hope if we reconnect with God’s promises
  • Jesus raising the little girl gave a family a new start – as did his raising of the son of the widow of Nairn, – as did his raising of Lazarus. Jesus is still in the business of Laments received and healed.

 

What might this mean for us?

  • Speaking personally, sent to boarding school aged 7 it took me only half a term to shut down my tear ducts and feelings. I was in my late 40s before the Lord broke in, defrosted my tear ducts and brought this healing to two or three hidden Lamentations.
  • You may well have Laments locked away in your memories which the Friendship of Jesus can transform
  • Perhaps you need an invitation to be raw with your heavenly Father and find he loves you anyway – and then receive the joy of consolation which  Lament can bring.
  • And speaking carefully, Lamentation is bringing a new perspective to those caught up in the tragedy of Grenfell – there grief is crippling some, whilst grief brought to God as Lamentation is beginning a process of consolation.

Something to do:

Light a candle and sit in silence bringing before God all that causes you sorrow.

Something to watch:

 

Something to think about:

Read through the gospel passage (click here)

  • Are there times when you have felt isolated by a physical ailment?
  • There are two stories in Mark’s gospel – a young girl about to turn into a woman, and an older woman whose life is closing in around her. What links can you find to connect the two women?
  • What laments might these women voice?
  • What laments might their families voice for them?
  • Both laments were brought to Jesus – how did he respond to each ‘child’?
  • How can we bring our laments to God – what might stop us?

Something to pray:

Sovereign God,

open our hearts to everything you would say to us through your word and through those who speak it to us, however demanding it might be – however unpalatable the truth, demanding the challenge, humbling the experience or searching the questions we must face.

Speak to us and equip us to speak for you in turn, stand up for truth, right and justice, even though that may be equally demanding.

Give us strength and humility both to hear and to be your voice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Nick Fawcett

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Trinity 4: Don’t Panic Mr Mainwaring

If we were to look for  link between the three passages set for this week it would indeed be panic – or an exhortation not to panic.

In the Old Testament passage we meet a young David prepared to do battle with the Giant Goliath. All around him are filled with fear, including the handsome, well built, armour owning, king of Israel; in the New Testament passage we meet Paul encouraging the first Christians in a state of persecution to hold fast, open their hearts and above all ‘Don’t Panic’; but it is our Gospel passage I want us to focus on today.

Following on from last week, when Jesus has a huge crowd gathered around him listening to stories and parables about seeds, and especially the mustard seed, Jesus sets out to sea with his disciples. The time was intended to be a place of peace in which he can explain the meaning of the parables in more detail to the disciples. However, other boats are following them, and Jesus is tired and so he falls asleep on a handy cushion in the stern of the boat, and then the wind suddenly cuts across the Lake of Galilee and whips it up into a dangerous storm.

The Lake of Galilee is known for this sudden change in weather and sailing conditions, and the fishermen amongst the disciples would have experienced the danger of trying to sail in those conditions. They have very real and practical reasons for being afraid stemming from their past experiences. They was another reason why these Jewish disciples would be scared of the sudden ferociousness of the waters, a more ‘superstitious’ reason: under the water is where chaos lurks, where the Leviathan from Job dwells, and where demons reign. The disciples are scared of fear itself.

But this time is different. Peter, Andrew, James and John are no longer fishermen, they are disciples of the rabbi Jesus: no longer do they wade in waters, they walk in the dust of his cloak. The disciples are enshrouded in his teachings and seek to walk so close to him that they share the very dirt that is kicked off his sandals – dry dust from the land. They are no longer superstitious boatmen at the mercy of the tides for their fortune, they are men of faith and hope for the future.

Or are they?

As the storm grows, Jesus sleeps, and the disciples feel abandoned, lonely, scared… the boat is being tossed about in the waves and there seems to be more water on board than over, and Jesus sleeps. The sailors are commanding the others to bail out, to man the rigging, to pull on the oars, but Jesus isn’t even aware of the water that must be drenching him as much as the others, and yet he sleeps in comfort on that cushion in the stern.

We don’t know which disciple cracks first, but Jesus is woken with the words,

Do you not care?

And he stands, perhaps yawns, and rebukes the wind and tells the sea to be still, to be at peace. Perhaps Jesus is speaking to the Leviathan after all, because these are commands we might expect to give to a dog.

Sit! Stay!

Jesus is not just a good teacher, a loyal and loving friend. He isn’t ‘just’ a healer and miracle maker feeding thousands from crumbs. Jesus has authority not just over demons, but over the whole of creation, even that which lurks under the waves. The disciples are humbled, gobsmacked (God-smacked?), in awe.

But Jesus is disappointed. Every time he thinks that the disciples have ‘got it’ their idiocy or lack of faith or plain humanity gets in the way.

Suddenly everything is very quiet. There is a dead calm. No-one is saying anything. The wind and waves are still and so are the disciples, frozen to the spot with buckets, ropes, oars in hand. Their immediate fear of danger and death is gone, but Jesus looks at them with that sadness in his eyes,

Have you still no faith?

And the disciples begin to be filled with a holy fear, who is this Jesus? Who then, truly is their friend and teacher who can put the fear of God even into the wind and waves?

Something to do:

Light a candle and read aloud Mark 4: 35-41. What thoughts and images come to mind?

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What are the worst weather conditions you have found yourself in?
  • How did you ‘escape’?
  • What do you think the disciples were most scared of?
  • What scares you the most in your walk with God?
  • Fear prevented the disciples from having a faith which enabled them to fully trust Jesus – what prevents you from trusting Jesus with your life?
  • When life gets choppy who do we turn to for help?
  • Are there times when it has felt as if Jesus was absent or asleep or just didn’t care?
  • How can we answer the questions ‘Why are you still so scared?’ and ‘Have you still no faith?’
  • At some point everyone has to answer the question  ‘Who is this?’ – what is your response and what in your life has helped you to find it?

Something to pray:

 

 

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Trinity 3: Bigger and Better?

Whilst I was enjoying myself at a wedding this weekend, the Team Rector was left holding the fort. This is what he had to say about the Parable of the Mustard Seed- read it here.

I don’t know if you have noticed but in recent years everything seems to be becoming bigger.  We went into a café down in Portsmouth the other day and the piece of cake that I received was about 6 inches square, it would have kept me going all day. Try getting a modern car into a garage that was built more than 30 years ago and while you may be able to (just) drive it in you won’t be able to open the doors to get out, it’s too wide.  Is the American way of life taking over?  Is bigger necessarily better?

Both the readings for today would lead us to think that this is not necessarily so.  The Ezekiel reading –written for a people in exile – was to give heart to a people who were fallen from national independence and pride, that their small remnant would be restored and flourish once again;  the other OT reading we might have had is the choosing of David – the youngest son of Jesse’s large family – to be the new king of the nation.  And then in the gospel Jesus is talking about the kingdom being like a grain of mustard seed that will grow into a mighty tree.   (Just a little horticultural explanation – forget all about mustard and cress, those seeds we grew on a piece of blotting paper when we were children,  this is a different kind of mustard seed.  Think more of something like Giant hogweed, mustard plants were a curse in that culture, they grew up everywhere and got enormous.)

It was a continual practice of Jesus when he was talking of the kingdom of God to use little images from everyday life;  long explanations were not his thing, but because he told stories, we can remember what he said;  if I were to name just a few –  the Good Samaritan, the Sower, the Prodigal Son, you will at once recall  the story. Images and stories are memorable.  There are parts of St Paul’s letters that are memorable too, but that’s usually when he lapses into poetry or lyrical prose – like the words about love in 1 Corinthians – and those passages are memorable. But there’s much more in the gospels that is memorable than in the epistles, because the gospels are based on image and story.

Jesus’ band of disciples was a small close bunch of friends, we know about the 12, but recent scholarship has given us to understand that there were also a group of women who travelled with them, and some had fairly prominent roles, but history has rather blanked them out of the story.  At other times we read of him attracting large groups, but these were transitory, it varied from place to  place, and when his message became difficult it seems that the less devoted drifted away, until at the very end there were just the core group of disciples, and at the cross itself just a few women standing at a distance, –   or in John, his mother and one other.

To quote Herbert O’Driscoll, a writer who I very much enjoy:

Over and over again this theme appears in the scriptures, God’s way is not necessarily the human way;

people will seek a messiah who is a warrior king, God will choose a child who later dies on a cross

Builders will reject a stone, God will make it the cornerstone on which the whole building depends

Rome will have legions, Christ will have small groups in back streets of cities.

The legions will pass, but the groups will flourish and become a great faith

 

So what is it about being small that is so good?  Well, small is personal – we get to know each other  well – think of how a house-group works, or a small village church. Small means that everyone is needed and their presence or absence  makes a difference, small also means that we know each other’s troubles and concerns and can be there to help.  That’s how church life works at its best, a real fellowship built not so much on a convergence of belief but on friendship and support.

Rev Cannon Peter Gilks

Something to watch:

 

Something to think about:

  • What is the most successful thing you ave grown in your garden (and the least?)
  • What made it so ‘successful’?
  • What do we need in order to grow successfully?
  • How can we ensure that our ‘little needs’ are met so that we too can grow?
  • How can we ensure that others’ needs are also met?

Something to pray:

Loving God,

by your grace plant new seeds of faith within us today, and through your Spirit feed and nurture them, so that, however small that faith might be, it may grow and flourish within us beyond anything we might imagine.

Grow in our lives,

that we might sow seeds in the lives of others, each of us, through our life and witness, insignificant in themselves, contributing to the expansion of your kingdom, the furthering of your will on earth, as it is in heaven.

Amen.

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Trinity 2: We Are Family

This is one of those passages which is only recorded by Mark, and we can see why, it is pretty painful and hard to understand. In Mark 3: 20-end, Jesus seems to be disowning his family, which doesn’t sound at all kosher to me, and he is also accused of being the devil. You can read it here.

Mark sandwiches (for which he is pretty well known in theological circles) the accusations of being Beelzebub, between his family accusing him of being out of his mind and seeking to gain control of him.

It is the family dynamic here that interests me the most – the Scribes (and others) from Jerusalem were always accusing Jesus of something or other, though claiming that he is the devil incarnate is quite a low shot even for them. What is going on with his family though?

I think it is helpful for us to actually begin our study half a verse earlier – Mark 3:19b tells us that Jesus has ‘gone home’, and yet he hasn’t gone to visit his mother, he has snubbed her. We can imagine Mary at home with her other grown up children who haven’t yet moved on, gently seething as she hears the excitement from passers by who are crowding in to this other home. We can imagine her ‘twitching the curtains’ to see what is going on, and recognising the Scribes from the Big Smoke descend upon him. We can imagine her wondering what on earth the neighbours will think.

We can imagine Jesus’ younger brothers also seething, a bit like Joseph’s brothers did when he told them of his dreams and his superiority over them, when their father presented him with that precious, technicoloured coat. We can imagine his sisters whose identity was formed in relation to their father, and if he had died, the eldest son, trembling at the thought of marriage prospects shrivelling. They stage an intervention.

However, as they set out, they discover that the crowd surrounding the house is so deep, they can’t get in, they can only send a message. And the reply that comes out is unbelievable,

You are not my family.

How deeply must that have cut the heart of Mary who had given everything to protect this young child? She had risked her reputation, her marriage, even her life, simply to bring him to birth, yet alone everything since: and this is how he repays her?

The expectations and response of Jesus’ family are the real ‘parable’ to explain why the Scribes accusations are so ridiculous.

The Scribes claim that Jesus must be the devil because he has power over demons. Jesus is quick to point out that if he was the devil, casting out demons, destroying their power and hold would be a ridiculous thing to do; just as a kingdom divided against itself will fall, or a family at odds with each other will crumble. It is then that the message comes through that Jesus’ family want to have words with him, want to take him home and stop all this silly messiah business (I am tempted to quote Monty Python here…).

Of course Jesus refuses. He’s not a naughty boy, he truly is the Messiah, and all those who try to stop him are against him, and against God; and of course the inverse is true.

If his mother and brothers and sister are getting in the way and trying to divide his ‘kingdom’ on earth, then regardless of their shared blood they are not his family. However those who believe, who give of themselves to be with him, to follow him, they become his family.

Just as Jesus’ family are not fulfilling their role (at this time – later they will change), neither are the Scribes. For all their religious bearing, their knowledge and ‘understanding’, in accusing Jesus of being the devil, they are committing the unforgivable sin – they are blaspheming against God’s Holy spirit present within Jesus. They are calling that which is holy and pure, evil and corrupt. Instead of focusing upon their own faith journey they are threatening the faith journeys of Jesus’ disciples and followers, scaring them by making false claims about his identity: if Jesus is Beelzebub, then those who follow him must be demons.

We have a choice, just as the Scribes did, just as Jesus’ family did and even his followers. Will we care more for social etiquette than we do for truth? Will we follow Jesus even when he calls us to do the unconventional or will we be more concerned about image, about social standing? When we look at Jesus can we truly claim that We are Family?

Something to do:

Light a candle and let the day drift away, read the passage from Mark out loud, or watch it here:

Something to think about:

  • Can you remember a time when you have been embarrassed by family?
  • Have you ever been tempted to disown family members?
  • How do you think Mary felt in this instance, considering all the things she is reported to have pondered upon or treasured in her heart?
  • How do we make difficult decisions?
  • Mary,  Jesus’ mother, and James, Jesus’ brother are both very much involved at the end of Jesus’ ministry and in leading the early church; what made them change their tune?
  • What impact does Mark’s sandwiching of these elements of events have upon the reader – what insights do you gain from these two elements of the story?
  • How can we be sure to be Jesus’ true family and not like the scribes?

Something to pray:

Father God, draw us together here, united in faith and purpose, and with Christ and one another, having the same mind among us and same goal: to seek your kingdom and do your will.

Teach us what it means to be your children, your people, your family, and help us to honour you through honouring that calling.

Amen                                                                                                                Nick Fawcett

 

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Trinity 1: Easy Like Sunday Morning

Ok, so today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark (yes we are back on track for our year with Mark) is all about how to celebrate the Sabbath, not Sunday. The Jewish day of rest, the day Moses was commanded to keep holy, was Saturday, not Sunday. The early Christian church continued to observe the Sabbath as they had been brought up to do and in accordance with the law, but also kept Sunday as ‘The Lord’s Day’, as this was the day of resurrection and upon which the Christian faith is founded.

However, here we find that Jesus is accused of breaking the law, of not keeping the Sabbath. His crime? firstly, he and his disciples were found guilty of the toil of harvesting and threshing, and then he follows up this infraction with the work of a doctor.

Jesus and the 12 are observed to be walking through a field of corn, and as they do so, pick a handful of grain. Picking a handful of grain was not unlawful – this was not counted as theft, a handful was not enough to ruin a farmer or to be sold for profit, it could however stave off hunger. It is likely that the disciples had picked a handful of grain each, rubbed it between their fingers to remove the husks and so that they could chew on it on the way the the synagogue to worship: this was breakfast, and nothing more. However, Mishnaic Tractate Shabbat 7:2 made reaping and threshing (and 37 other classes of ‘work’) unlawful on the Sabbath. These rules were loosely based upon Deuteronomy 5: 12-15 and Exodus 34:21 which states,

Six days shall you work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in ploughing time and in harvest time you shall rest.

At the time that Mark is recording his account of the gospel, observance of the Sabbath was a hot topic, as it had been one of the identifying factors of being Jewish, as it still is for observant Jews. For Jesus, as he walked through that field and made his way to the Synagogue it was also a hot topic, and for the Pharisees it was an opportunity for them to gather ‘evidence’ against Jesus.

As Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees (which must surely have also been a violation of he no-working policy?), he uses the moment to correctly identify the Sabbath as a gift from God for the well-being of humanity,

Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27

Sabbath was intended to be a day of restoration and recreation, to bring humanity back into the presence of God as we had been in the Garden of Eden, before there was any need to toil or our relationship with God had become fractured. To share food is an integral part of Sabbath even today, beginning with a large family meal to mark the end of the working week, to gather everyone together, to remember the stories of faith and to have so many leftovers that there was no need to cook again for another 24 hours. The body would be nourished and rested and relationships with family, friends and of course God would be restored.

Jesus and his friends may have broken one of the distorted rules regarding what counted as work, but were fulfilling the Sabbath in the sense of eating together, talking with each other and joining fellow Jews in worship; and as Jesus points out, they are not the first to break such holy laws when it came to restoring the body. Indeed King David didn’t simply take a handful of grain, but ‘raided’ the Bread of the Presence from the holy of holies – as is recorded in Scripture, and as the Pharisees would surely have known.

The next incident Mark records also takes place in the synagogue and on the Sabbath. If Jesus’ calling upon the actions of David previously silenced the Pharisees, this next incident certainly fired them up again, although to be fair, the Pharisees were looking to be provoked, and it seems that Jesus willingly stirred their fire. This time, Jesus observes a man with a withered hand. Recalling that the purpose of Sabbath is to restore humanity, if only for a short period, to that perfect time at the beginning of creation, Jesus calls out to the man to come forward. He then tries to begin a theological debate with the Pharisees about the purpose of the Law – was it lawful to do good or to do harm? The Pharisees are not willing to engage – they have hardened their hearts and their stance, and care not for the man with the withered hand, the man unable to work or to provide for his family. They care only that their laws are seen to be adhered to; they see only that Jesus is their lawful nemesis. On this day of rest and restoration, of recreation and re-creation, Jesus heals the man’s hand, returns it to the strength it once had. Jesus has fulfilled his identity as Creator, the man is restored to a purposeful life, but the Pharisees seek to do harm to Jesus, to kill him.

Previously Jesus had grounded Sabbath Law ‘in the welfare of humankind’, here the Pharisees shame themselves more than they do Jesus:

They care more about their custom than they do about their brother…to place religious scrupulosity above concern is not pleasing to God.  Williamson

The Sabbath is meant to be a pleasure. The Pharisees have made it an obstacle course of legal barriers and pitfalls.  Knowles

In Mark’s recording of Jesus’ life and ministry, such arguments over the place of Sabbath were critical. It was obviously important for Jesus to keep the Sabbath, but also to restore the day itself to the blessing God had originally intended it to be.

It has been said that ‘It is not Jews who have kept the Sabbath, but the Sabbath that has kept the Jewish people’. There is even evidence to suggest that those Jews and Israelites throughout history who have continued to mark the day, have fared better than those who haven’t. In recent history, Jews who observed the Sabbath with the very limited means available to them in prison camps during the second world war, kept hope and a reason for living in the darkest of times.

So what does Sabbath mean for us? Very little it seems in this new millennium. Nothing ever stops or rests. Cities claim with great pride to be awake 24 hours and stores open for the same length of time. Sunday closing is now limited to a few hours at the beginning and end of the day, oh, and Easter Sunday. Even then online shopping is available, and online sales now begin Christmas day. Life is so busy that we cram our household chores into the one day that should be restful, or rush around trying to fulfil our desires. Little room is left for God or neighbour.

At times there have been attempts to return to a faithful following of a day of rest, but these have simply ended up as a return to the days of legalistic, Pharisaical, nothingness. In order to rest nothing can be done: no games, no socialising, no helping a neighbour. This is not the joyful rest which God commanded.

So how can we find a new way of keeping the Sabbath? Perhaps we simply need to put first things first. It may not be possible in our culture to keep Sundays clear (certainly not for clergy, ironically), but there must be one day a week which can become a time of reconnecting with God and with each other. Perhaps we need to readjust our sense of day too. The Jewish day begins and ends at Sunset. The day before Sabbath is the day of preparation – traditionally for Western Christians this would have been Saturday, when chores were completed, the house tidied and food prepared. And then the feast for all the family, and for neighbours too, because no-one is a pauper on the Sabbath and no-one eats alone. Throughout the course of the meal God’s goodness would be remembered, and God would be thanked in the blessing of bread at the beginning of the meal and a shared glass of wine at the end (now doesn’t that sound familiar?). Worship would take place in the nearest synagogue, not travelling to the one that most takes your fancy, and focus on the teaching would not be interrupted about concerns for the main meal of the week, because last night’s leftovers were already waiting.

If we wish to return to a more balanced way of living, a more Godly way of living, a way of living more in tune with the way we were created to be, we can. It will take a conscious decision to turn off our electronic devices and disengage from the world, and we may find ourselves going through cold turkey as we do so; but if we persevere, we may well find ourselves reconnected with our communities, with our families and even ourselves too.

Something to do:

Light a candle and rest your thoughts. Read out loud the gospel passage from Mark (read it here), or watch it here:

Something to think about:

  • If you had 24 hours free to do what you wish with, how would you spend them?
  • What stands out for you in each of these Sabbath moments?
  • Why was it so wrong for Jesus and the 12 to pluck the grain – do you think the Pharisees may have had a point?
  • Why was it so important for Jesus to heal the withered man’s hand on the Sabbath, what point was he trying to make?
  • How can we find a Sabbath that fits our culture? Or do we need to be counter cultural?
  • Our greatest communal ailments in Western Society are Depression and Anxiety – could these be considered to be a withering of the soul? Could a return to some form of Sabbath rest be restorative to our well-being?
  • Are there occupations that make Sabbath rest impossible, or do we just need to plan better?
  • How can we try to plan true Sabbath rest into our lives, families and communities?

Something to ponder:

Our society is suffering from an outbreak of anxiety and depression. Could our 24/7 lifestyle be a cause of this? If so, could the remedy be found in once more ‘Observing the Sabbath’?

Something to read:

Something to watch:

 

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