The kingdom of heaven is like…

Year A Pentecost 7
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Parable of the Mustard Seed
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

The Parable of the Yeast
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[a] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Three Parables
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Treasures New and Old
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
© The New Revised Standard Version,

(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989

In the name of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Well the world has changed over the past two weeks while I’ve been away. One week the world is one way then suddenly it’s changed.

Perhaps it’s the shooting down of the Malaysian Airline, so unprovoked, so innocent, so many people just going from one place to another. Not even an accident.

Perhaps it’s the conflict in Israel where any criticism of Israel is met with some type of resentment and where the world seems curious, if not silent, about why those in the Gaza strip, the most highly populated mass imprisoned on earth, feel such deep injustice.

Perhaps it’s the movement of fundamental Islam through Iraq and Syria that has swelled in the past few months and has no regard for life.

And perhaps these things remind us of all the other grief we have almost forgotten that no longer make it to our newspapers.

Of course these things also sit alongside those things we know from our own lives that are difficult, or the difficult things from the lives of those around us, or even at times when we meet others, as the Food Pantry volunteers do each week, when we hear stores and events from their lives that can be difficult and overwhelming.

There have been other times in history when unspeakable events took place, but this is part of our own time in history and it’s ok to feel overwhelmed, sadness, and wonder what is happening.

The words “Good” and “Evil” are not popular these days. If I said amongst many of my friends, “I’m going to reflect a little on evil” they would think it was just religious jargon. But it is too true, that within our world, in all places and in all people, there is the wrestle between “Good” and “Evil” – and humans are so capable of both.

In one place a group of people can be working hard, to save the life of someone, from injury or disease, without caring about race, language or religion. People can be working to feed others. They help those who are poor, marginalised, or suffering injustice. While in another place, people can we killing, persecuting, abusing and stealing from others without regard to their cries, their pain, the suffering. It’s hard to imagine that the same human beings are capable of such opposites, such extremes; and there is no other way to describe it, but by naming it… Good and Evil.

And it’s not about religion; all religions have been involved in abuse and hatred and its sobering to ponder that while we get a lot of negative news about Muslims, within our own society, the Christian Church is not able to hold its own record in terms of care and support and nurture as a shining example of the way of Christ and many terrible things happen in the absence of religion. It’s not about race, or class, or location or opportunity. There is just within and around…. Good and Evil.

It’s a theme throughout the Bible too. In Genesis there is the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. In Proverbs there is a great little saying [15:3.] “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Jesus talked about the sun rising on the good and evil alike and rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike, and in one comment, for example, Jesus says [Matthew 12: 35] “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure and the evil person brings evil things our of an evil treasure”.

Today’s little parables, little stories that tell us something about God, today’s little parables are about the way of God, the Kingdom of heaven. They are not stories about a place called heaven, they are stories to tell us something about God; the way of God.

There’s the parable of the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure hidden in the field, the merchant in search of fine pearls, and the net thrown into the sea, which gathers in both the good and bad fish alike.

You can work too hard at parables and try to pull them all apart, but a good way to read a parable is just to see what it says to you, about God, the ways of God, and perhaps, but not always, about you and our world.

So firstly we might simply remind ourselves that the Kingdom of Heaven is the way of God, the presence of God, and it is good. The Kingdom of Heaven is about love, about grace, about wholeness; the characters of God. Remember it was Jesus who said… [Matthew 11: 11-13.]

9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Today’s parables also remind us that like the mustard seed, the yeast, the pearl which began as a grain of sand… the kingdom of heaven grows from small things, from a simple and humble beginning, but becomes something like a tree, or a loaf of bread, or a string of pearls, or a treasure,… something of goodness… something that is precious.

Then to finish today’s passage there is a fascinating saying of Jesus, remembering that what Jesus is speaking here is to the Jewish leaders….

And [Jesus] said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

There Jesus seems to be saying that those, who are the people of the Kingdom of heaven, have a task to do, to look into the good things we have and are, the treasures, and hold out not just things of the past, the old, but new things of the future.

And so it may be us… it is us… people like us, who amongst all the things that trouble the world, the good and the evil that is within and without, are to look into the treasures, the good things we have and are, and bring out glimpses of the kingdom of heaven, from the old, and the new.

Have you ever thought that the seed or love or kindness you plant with someone, as small as a mustard seed, is the way of God amongst others within our world?

Have you ever thought that the warmth and nurture you give to another can be like yeast growing, like the kingdom of heaven growing within their lives and within our world.

Have you ever thought that like a net cast, the kingdom of heaven is cast over both the good and evil and the glimpses of the way of God that we sow and grow and cast are simply that, about the way of God, the kingdom of heaven, and not about who is deserving and who is not.

Even though we may be overwhelmed by the wrestle of Good and Evil in our world, let us be a people, let us choose to be a people, pray to be a people, who plant, sow, seek, find, cast, glimpses of the kingdom of heaven amongst other people’s lives, because we are all a part of this world too; God’s world, for which there is great love and longing on God’s part.

Be encouraged, as people in the presence of the Kingdom of heaven.

Amen.

Wells and springs of life

Year A Pentecost 4
Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67

34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The LORD has blessed my master abundantly, and he has become wealthy. He has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys. 36 My master’s wife Sarah has borne him a son in her old age, and he has given him everything he owns. 37 And my master made me swear an oath, and said, ‘You must not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live, 38 but go to my father’s family and to my own clan, and get a wife for my son.’

42 “When I came to the spring today, I said, ‘Lord, God of my master Abraham, if you will, please grant success to the journey on which I have come. 43 See, I am standing beside this spring. If a young woman comes out to draw water and I say to her, “Please let me drink a little water from your jar,” 44 and if she says to me, “Drink, and I’ll draw water for your camels too,” let her be the one the Lord has chosen for my master’s son.’

45 “Before I finished praying in my heart, Rebekah came out, with her jar on her shoulder. She went down to the spring and drew water, and I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’

46 “She quickly lowered her jar from her shoulder and said, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too.’ So I drank, and she watered the camels also.

47 “I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’

“She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel son of Nahor, whom Milkah bore to him.’

“Then I put the ring in her nose and the bracelets on her arms, 48 and I bowed down and worshiped the Lord. I praised the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me on the right road to get the granddaughter of my master’s brother for his son. 49 Now if you will show kindness and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so I may know which way to turn.”

58 So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”

“I will go,” she said.

59 So they sent their sister Rebekah on her way, along with her nurse and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“Our sister, may you increase
to thousands upon thousands;
may your offspring possess
the cities of their enemies.”

61 Then Rebekah and her attendants got ready and mounted the camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebekah and left.

62 Now Isaac had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. 63 He went out to the field one evening to meditate and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. 64 Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel 65 and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”

“He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.

66 Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67 Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

Genesis 24: 34-38, 42-49, 58-67
© The New Revised Standard Version,

(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989

In the name of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we’ll continue our reflection on the Old Testament passages from Genesis. Two weeks ago we read the passage about Abraham’s wife Sarah telling Abraham to send his second wife Hagar and his first son Ishmael away into the wilderness. Last week we heard the passage of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac whom he had with Sarah, and this week we hear about the choosing of a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac.

Do you remember me saying how Abraham’s wife Sarah was a Jew, and Abraham’s second wife Hagar, who was suggested by Sarah, was from Egypt; an Arab. I also talked a little about how we see in this passage the division that still exists between the Jewish and Arab world and now even in this past week, how terribly we have seen this division lived out. One generation teaches another the way of hatred and violence.

In today’s passage we see again something of this division, and I’ll just put the whole reading in context before we hear it.

Of course Abraham and Sarah were old when they had Isaac, in fact Sarah laughed when she was told she would have a child. There is a book called, “The woman who laughed at God”. And just before our passage today from Genesis 24, Sarah had died. Abraham bought a piece of land with a cave at one end in Hebron, Canaan, where he buried his wife. And now Abraham, who is old too, in fact he is dying, wants his son Isaac to have a wife. We need to remember that the traditions, times and cultures were vastly different to ours. So Abraham calls one of his servants who is never given a name and makes the servant swear an oath that he will go back to Abraham’s homeland in Mesopotamia and find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham tells the servant that on no account must Isaac marry one of the local Canaanite girls; he has to marry a girl from his own people. And so the servant asks what if he can’t find a girl who is prepared to leave home and come with him to marry Isaac. To this Abraham calls upon his faith and remembers that God has promised him descendants and land and he says to the servant that basically God will provide.

So the servant heads off and arrives at the city of Nahor in northern Mesopotamia, where he finds a well or spring, and it is sunset, the time of the day when the women come out to get water, and the servant prays that God will make it clear to him which girl to ask to be Isaac’s wife. The servant prays that he will know the girl who is to be Isaac’s wife, and he prays that the way he is to know this is by asking the girls for a drink of water; the right girl will not only offer him a drink, but offer to give a drink to his 10 camels too. Half way through his prayer, Rebekah arrives to draw water and so he asks her for a sip of water and then she offers to water his camels as well. Wow- the first girl he asks! Then the servant enquires about her and about who her father is and he is amazed to hear that this girl’s father, Rebekah’s father, is a man named Bethuel, who is descended from one of Abraham’s brothers so that Rebekah and Isaac are in fact cousins of one distance or another.

[Let’s hear the passage].

Well by the time the servant returns in the caravan with Rebekah it’s too late for Abraham who has died and Rebekah is given Sarah’s tent which is an expression of how the headship has passed to her and to Isaac. And then Isaac and Rebekah are married. Of course then the next part of Genesis is about Isaac and Rebekah and their two sons, Esau and Jacob… but that’s another story….!

One thing that is the same today as it was all those thousands of years ago is our reliance on water and its nourishing of life. Aqueducts, like large bridges or courses that carry water, were not simply a Roman invention; they had already been used for hundreds of years. But no matter if it was in the days of Abraham and Isaac, or in the days of Jesus, or still today throughout vast areas of the world, having clean water running from a tap was not what you had. Instead you went to a well, the spring, people gathered around wells and rivers, and they were indeed life-giving.

The well or spring was the life giver to Hagar when she was sent out into the wilderness. The well was the place where the servant went to meet Rebekah who became Isaac’s wife. The well featured in Jacob’s life and where he met Rachel.

The well was a life giver to Moses after he fled Egypt and a life giver in other places in the Exodus story where God provided water, sweet water, for the Israelites. The well was a significant and symbolic source in the Jewish history and faith stories.

Then even in the Gospels we might remember the account of the woman who comes out to the well, not at sunset when the other women came out, but in the middle of the day by herself, and there she meets Jesus who asks her for a drink of water and in his response we hear the significance and symbolism of the well; he says to her… 13 , “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

It is no accident, that in asking for a drink of water, in all these accounts, in seeking water for the body, that a deeper spring of life wells up within the people; through prayers, desperation, conversation, the presence of God.

In today’s passage, the unnamed servant relies on God, and through prayer as he waits by the wellspring, he is seeking something deeper, something life-giving, both for his master Abraham, and for Abraham’s son Isaac, but also as an expression of participating in the promise of God.

One thing that differentiates between humans and all other living things is that we participate in life as an expression of meaning. A bird is satisfied flying, nesting, finding food. A cat’s life is sleeping, eating, wandering, and trying to catch the bird. A fish swims, an elephant wanders, a spider hunts. But for us, we participate in life as an expression of meaning.

Every movie made, every book written, every painting painted. Every family, every journey, every friendship. Every movement, every protest, every belief. Every group we belong to, every political view we hold, every thing we buy. Every jog, every meal, every garden, every hobby, every thing we make. Greed, love, hate, knowledge, forgiveness and un-forgiveness. It is all about how we participate in life as an expression of meaning and we are drawn to things in life as we seek this meaning.

We all go to wells and springs to seek life and meaning.

Some wells are life giving, some are bitter and not about life.

And for all of us in our lives there can be a mixture of different wells and springs, again some that are life giving, and some that are not.

What are the wells that you are drawn to in your life? Are they life giving? Do you find God there? Are they wells where you pray and find a way ahead in life? And you will know when a well is good; you will meet God there, a place where God provides, and leads you on. A place where you will find water for your soul; a wellspring, gushing up to life.

Let me finish with two little passages…

Psalm 114: 7-8.

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
At the presence of the God of Jacob (Isaac and Rebekah’s son)
Who turns the rock into a pool of water,
The flint into a spring of water.

John 7: 37ff.

Jesus said…
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water”.

Amen.

The Garasene Demoniac

Year C Pentecost 5
Luke 8: 26-39

Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’- 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons* begged Jesus* to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus* sent him away, saying, 39 ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Luke 8: 26-39
© The New Revised Standard Version,

(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989

In the name of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is not that well received by a congregation, to begin a message with… “put your hands up if…”, but today I will…

Put your hand up if you found the gospel reading today shocking or disturbing?!

It is an amazing passage, that time when Jesus goes to the other side of lake Galilee by boat, and steps out onto land to be confronted by a man who had lived amongst the tombs for a long time. It is a passage that I have preached on before, found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, in one form or another.

Each time I have preached on this passage, I’ve thought to myself, this man is out there, living amongst the tombs, because he is a reject, uncontrollable, unwanted in the nearby town. In Mark’s Gospel, the same passage about this man reads… “when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” [Mark 5]

But of course, as we often do, we can read such passages about the way of Christ, and not be amazed, shocked, disturbed, at all.

And then a month ago, as I was driving, I heard a BBC radio programme…. About mental health throughout the world, and the story of one man from India….

As I listened, I thought to myself, I have read about this man, in the Gospels…. This is exactly the man from the country of the Gerasenes. And it is shocking. I’m going to play a portion of the programme for us to hear …, but I want us to hear about the man named Kashava… It’s about a man who was for 9 or 10 years kept in a room because his family over time could no longer deal with his behaviour and mental health issues as he became more and more violent and uncontrollable.

[http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p018vhb7]

Now that is shocking.
Isn’t that a contemporary account of the same man in today’s Gospel reading?

Now in today’s passage, the man is described as being possessed by demons and I am certainly not making any connection between mental health and demons; that would be very wrong. Yet we hear in that month old interview from India, the same tensions that existed 2000 years ago in the time and place of Jesus Christ, between religious beliefs and beliefs about medicine and science. At first the Indian man Kashava would have been treated by religious people, but then as we heard, the family sought medical treatment, and saw no real change in his behaviour, and of course, as we heard, the community would have encouraged “Magical religious” treatment. It would have been no different in the days of Christ, depending on what you believed, how much you could afford, and where you lived.

Do you remember the woman who had been haemorrhaging for 12 years, and comes into the crowd simply to touch the hem of Jesus cloak, believing that she would be healed…. She had spent everything she had on doctors and no one could cure her.

And let’s recall the passage of the man who had been begging by the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem for 38 years, along with many others, all who believed that the first person into the water when it bubbled up would be healed.

It’s the tension between the magical religious and the medical. We still live with this today to varying degrees, again depending on where you live, what you believe, and how much you can afford. In our part of the world, and in this age, we are fortunate to have great health care, with the support of modern medicine, but to varying degrees, many still rely on their faith at any time of health crisis. In other places in the world, where health care is not as available, people would rely almost completely on their religious beliefs.

Today’s passage from Luke, and the healing of the Garasean demoniac, is obviously not a passage affirming the medical, nor even the “Magical religious”, but an event from the life of Jesus that announces the way of God, the longing of God for people’s lives. It is a passage that deals both with the physical, but also with the spiritual.

It is like the woman who had been haemorrhaging for 12 years.
Like the man begging by the pool for 38 years.
Like the woman at the well.
Like the healing of the blind, or the lepers,
Like the feeding of the thousands,
Like the healing of the centurion’s daughter…

In each of these passages, we hear about both the physical and the spiritual, but all are events from the life of Jesus that announce the way of God, the longing of God for people’s lives, and most notably, the gathering of the least, into this act of God’s grace.

When I heard the BBC radio interview about the man in India… I thought I heard once more the liberating voice of Jesus…. But spoken through an Indian [Mayor.]

“Immediately I told my people to break open the wall… there were 2000 people gathered watching what we were doing…”

“Break open the wall”…

I imagine, that unlike the Garasean demoniac, the man from India, has not been cured, but he has been helped.
He has been set free, where once he was bound and confined.
He has been given dignity, where once he had none.
He has been given a name, where once he had no name.
He has been given back to his community, where once he was alone.

Again it is perhaps easy for us to read these passages and not be shocked or disturbed. Worse still; not be challenged or called to respond in our own lives and communities. And… if it is not us who are going to respond, then who will be able to say…

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim that the time of the Lord’s presence has come. [Luke 4 18 ff]

Amen.

A word of truth, hope and vision

Year C Epiphany 4
Jeremiah 1: 1-10

1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2 to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3 It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah 1: 1-10
© The New Revised Standard Version,

(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989

In the name of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When Peta-Gai and I go away on holidays, we often go to a book store beforehand, choose a book together, a novel, and buy two copies. Then we take the book away with us, and read it together, like our own little book group. But over time a few of our friends, when they come away with us, want to have a copy of the book too, so this holidays we had 6 people reading the same book that we chose. The book was a novel, fiction, a tale, a journey. I’m also reading a book on the history of maps. Another person on holidays was reading a crime book. Another, a biography. Another person was reading American history. All different books, written in different ways, and it is, of course, the same with the Bible. There are different types of books, all put together, into the one book that we call the Bible.

Today’s reading is from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah and it is one of the books we call the Prophets. There are a few books from Prophets in the Old Testament and they are the books where people are writing down the ideas, the ways, the word that God is expressing to the people. Most prophetic books start with four things….

i) that this book is a word from God – prophecy
ii) the name of the person who is the prophet
iii) the time and place when this is taking place
iv) the subject or theme of the book.

The opening of Jeremiah has 3 out of the four, it doesn’t have the theme, but the other amazing thing about this opening is that the word of God is coming to Jeremiah when he is only a boy.

4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

The book opens with the expression that God knew of Jeremiah’s life before he was born, and had set him apart, chosen him, to speak his message to the people. And Jeremiah responds…. “but I don’t know how to speak… for I am only a boy.”

And God replies…

7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,

And so begins the story of the prophet Jeremiah, and throughout, such as in verses 11, 14, 2:1, there are the lines of God speaking to Jeremiah… “The world of the Lord came to me…” and then Jeremiah speaks to the people… “Hear the word of the Lord…”.

God speaks to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah speaks to the people.

When I was a teenager I worked in a newsagency for many years after school. Some of the newspapers that were around then, are no longer available. When it was school holidays I worked longer hours, and in those days at 3pm a truck would arrive from Sydney in the car park at the Rex Hotel on Northbourne avenue and all the newsagents would meet there to grab their allotment of the Daily Mirror and The Sun before racing them back to the shops for the waiting afternoon customers. But, even in those days, the Daily Mirror and The Sun were papers that were pretty rubbishy. We also sold a paper that was called, ironically, The Truth. It was full of made up stories, complete rubbish, and other gossip…: it was known as a “scandal sheet”. Of course, The Truth, as it was called, was anything but the truth.

It is interesting to ponder the question, “where do we hear words of truth, vision, wisdom, in today’s world”?

We may look today to reasonable papers, such as the Sydney Morning Herald or the Melbourne Age, and believe that we are reading something of the truth, or a word about what is happening. Or we could listen to our politicians, perhaps, but at a time when there seems to be a good few who are facing various charges, and a desperate need for power by others, an election in the wind, it seems most politicians are unwilling to speak the truth with any vision and wisdom.

As a society we have become so secular that the church has little or no voice as an institution and in some denominations we see perhaps a fear of the truth because of wrong doing or narrowness of theology.

It is interesting to ponder the question, “where do we hear words of truth, vision, wisdom, in today’s world”?

Perhaps we live in an age, just as it was in the days of Jeremiah, where a word of truth, an expression of Godliness, needs to come from the least, the ordinary people, the ones who are even children, the boy, the girl, …. just as it was for Jeremiah.

I think we read the Bible at times, with a deep sense of belief, and yet see it as being in the past, or simply beyond our understanding, or about people who were more acceptable, more Godly, or more spiritually inclined that we are. Perhaps we see the people of the Bible, and the way of God’s work as being for another time and simply wonder why God doesn’t seem to be as present as it is expressed in the Bible.

Perhaps we read the call of Jeremiah with a sense of belief that God had a message for him, and that time, but not necessarily for us, and our time.

However, the message of the Bible all the way through is that God more often than not, chose the youngest, the least, the ones with speech impediments, the women, the sinners, the nameless, along with the people we will never read about, to speak the words of truth, to hold the visions, to be the leaders, amongst those to whom God was calling and longing.

And I believe it is still the same today.

Those of us who feel pretty ordinary.
Those of us who feel we are too young.
Those of us who wonder if we are ‘spiritual’ enough (whatever that means)
Those is us who are the doubters.
People just like us…
Are the people who God uses to speak a word of truth, hope and vision.

And it is true for congregations too…
Those that are not filled with 1000’s.
Those that are sitting amongst the everyday or ordinary.
Those that have joys and sorrows, ease and struggle.
Those that are just like us…
Are the people who God uses to speak a word of truth, hope and vision.

And the message of God is still, ongoing, and one of longing and hope. One of calling and love. One of challenge and awakening.

The book of Jeremiah is long; it is one of a wrestle of faith, of relationship, of God’s calling to humanity. I’ll finish with just a few lines… chapter 31 & 33…. and it’s still a message for today.

31:33

This is the covenant that I will make with the [people] after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

33:11

“Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Amen.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

Year B Pentecost 18
Mk 9:42-50

Causing to Stumble
42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. [44] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. [46] 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’

49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

Mk 9:42-50
© New International Version,

(Biblica, Inc) 2011

In the name of God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let’s read that again.

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of god with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

That is Jesus speaking. You know Jesus – son of god, saviour of the world, prince of peace. The same Jesus that in his poem for children Charles Wesley described as

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
look upon a little child;
pity my simplicity,
suffer me to come to thee

Bit of a difference here. Gentle Jesus or the Jesus who advocates self-harm? Which one represents the real Jesus? Now that’s a simple straightforward topic for a sermon – shouldn’t have any troubles with this should I? Yeah right, why am I walking into this minefield? For the same reason Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing climbed Mt Everest – because it’s there and ignoring it will not make it go away. Sometimes it is necessary to wade through the tough stuff because in doing so, sometimes something real is learnt.

Firstly, let’s look at the official ‘party line’. The Jesus of Christian propaganda is a man of love, inclusiveness, tolerance, forgiveness, godliness, wisdom, courage. He is the man that saved the woman taken in adultery from stoning and forgave her. He is the man that wept over Jerusalem. He is the man that healed the sick, fed the crowds and stood up to authority figures who abused their power. He is the man that even as he was on the cross dying still thought to forgive his fellow prisoner and to care for his mother’s future. He is perfect, divine and immortal. As Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice said – this is truly Jesus Christ superstar.

That in short is the Jesus that in my Sunday school years I was called to believe in. And everything Jesus did and said was always to be interpreted through the prism that Jesus was perfect and divine. This was Jesus the god.

Now many of us like to stay in this position – some through honest conviction and faith, others through reverence for tradition, others through scholarly attention to the scriptures and others because it’s safe and secure and comforting. Jesus the good and perfect. It sounds about right doesn’t it? That is the kind of thing we can say out loud in church and not expect anyone to object. It is the glue that holds us together right?

Well maybe.

What about this Jesus? The Jesus who rebuked peter when he expressed his disbelief that Jesus would suffer and be killed in Jerusalem:

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of god, but merely human concerns.”

What was peter’s crime – wasn’t he being a friend? Wasn’t he trying to support and console Jesus? How would we feel if someone responded to our words of comfort and support with a severe rebuke?

What about the Jesus who rebuked the fig tree. The bible says

“And on the morrow, when they had come out of Bethany, Jesus hungered. And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if perhaps he might find anything thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for it was not the season of figs. And he answered and said unto it, ‘no man [will] eat fruit from you from now on — for ever.’ .and as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away from the roots. And peter calling to remembrance said unto him, ‘Rabbi, behold, the fig tree that you cursed is withered away’

Jesus cursed and caused to die a fig tree that wasn’t bearing fruit even though it was not the season for it. Think about it – would we chop down an orange tree in winter because there were no oranges on it?

What about the Jesus who cleared the temple of the moneychangers:

“And they came to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves;

Now this was soon after the fig tree incident and this is a man in a public place creating a serious public disturbance. People get arrested for this sort of thing. What would we think if someone came into here and started turning the chairs over and raving on about how we’re only doing it for the money?

And finally the reading for today:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell.

Does Jesus want us to maim ourselves to prevent us from sinning and do we only do this to avoid hell?

So there you go – two sides to Jesus. The perfect one and for want of a better word the crazy one rebuking friends, cursing trees, creating a public nuisance and advocating self-harm.

So where does that preamble leave us? Well there are two things that need a little more thought. The first is how we interpret the bible and the second is who is Jesus? Now these topics have been the topics of discussions of theologians for centuries and I’m not about to flatter myself that I can answer them now or ever. But I’d like to say a few things about how we approach these two questions.

Firstly did Jesus really mean that in certain circumstances we should harm ourselves? So how literally do we interpret everything in the bible? Sure we argue over stuff – how did creation take place, were the Jews the chosen race and are they still god’s people, is there a heaven and a hell, what is right behaviour, what’s the balance between justice and mercy – everything, the whole gamut of human experience can be argued in biblical terms – and often is. When you think about it we all draw our interpretation line somewhere. Some draw it at the literal end and so we have sincere committed Christians arguing for the genesis creation story and using the bible to defend their views on gay marriage and women’s rights and so on. In earlier times a literal interpretation of the bible was used to defend slavery. But that was an earlier time.

And then there are others at the non-literal end who interpret everything in the bible through cultural and rational lenses so that everything is relevant to its time and place and nothing is eternal. So no miracles, no healing, no walking on the water and no resurrection. And of course there are all the others in between. I’m not about to tell you how you should interpret the bible but just to say you should be self-aware how you approach it. It is said that god created humanity in his own likeness – just be careful that in the way we interpret the bible we don’t re-create god in our own likeness.

As an aside, John Shelby Spong the American theologian once said if you preach that we follow the bible you better know what’s in it. Not just the bits we like.

Which brings me onto the second question – who is Jesus? Once again I’m not going to tell you who he is. Mainly because that has to be done by you and I’ve found that in the struggle is the only way to truly start to understand. I say start to understand intentionally because we may never truly understand.

But let me say that in your struggling do not block out the unpalatable or the inexplicable Jesus – the Jesus who cursed the fig tree and said we should cut off our hands. I chose those examples because they have not sat right with me. But, don’t rush over those bits in our haste to come to our conclusion that Jesus is perfect, divine and a really good guy. Don’t start the journey with a pre-conceived view of what you will find out. Similarly don’t start with the Jesus who showed human traits and interpret everything to prove he was only human after all. Let the record speak to you, struggle with it – as they say, do the hard yards.

I won’t leave you hanging with ‘work it out yourself and good luck’. Let me leave you with this. This may be totally inadequate for you but simply what I currently think is the Jesus who rebuked peter may have been a man who saw that his life’s true purpose was being diverted by a true friend who cared but did not understand. The Jesus who cursed the fig tree may just have been having a bad day. There may be a more profound reason there somewhere but I’m satisfied in thinking well this just says the guy got tired. The Jesus who cleared the temple may have just been a man who was so outraged by the desecration of what is holy that he lost it and acted in passion and the Jesus who advocated self-harm we’ll that’s an easy one for me – it’s called a literary device and it reveals not a literal truth but a profound truth. He was just saying you are better off doing without really important things if it gets in the way of a right relationship with god. But because he said it the way he did you’re sure to remember it, right?

In closing I don’t think there are two or more Jesus’. There is and always has been one Jesus and it’s up to us and worth the effort to get to know him and try to work him out. Others more profound and learned than me will come to their own conclusions. Others will be content will more simplistic views. The important thing is that we have a relationship with Jesus – a real one based on understanding not just adopting attitudes we think we should. The Jesus I know is a man, who gets tired and frustrated and angry and talks in poetic language when he needs to make a point. I’m content to struggle to know a multilayered Jesus who may be difficult to understand.

I’m not content with just gentle Jesus meek and mild and try to block everything else out and interpret everything so it fits that image. Nor am I content with crazy Jesus and just use that prism to understand him. I like to think I’m content with Jesus as I find him, as he was, as the bible recorded he was and to spend the rest of my life trying to work it out and in trying to work it out then living life a little better and fuller. The struggle reaps a reward.

And so who is Jesus to you and what will you do to understand him?

Amen.