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.

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

 

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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