Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
1 July 2018
We are now about halfway through our series of Marking Jesus, as we pay attention to the way that the Gospel of Mark presents Jesus as a figure of controversy.
Like Jesus, the Bible itself often confronts us with a fresh perspective on our long-held assumptions, as it invites us—perhaps even demands—that we move beyond our comfort zones into the new space to which God is calling us.
My preparation for this sermon started well over a week ago as I needed to draft the text for the front page of the bulletin before Roger went on sick leave. Even then this simple Sunday School story of Jesus being kind to two people—an older woman and a young girl— was drawing me into a different space, as I heard those stories in the context of violence against women.
Then a friend asked my advice about the nature of the love between David and Jonathan that we read about in the first reading today.
Bit by bit I was being drawn into deeper theological reflections about issues that really matter to everyday people in our city. I was being pushed beyond the Sunday School stories to reflect on the deeper significance of these stories for us here and now.
As my thoughts took shape I published them so others could reflect on these issues, if they wished to do that.
More on each of those stories shortly, but first a brief reflection on the ways that we use Scripture in the life of the church.
Using the Bible faithfully
All Christians use the Bible, although some think that calling themselves a ‘Bible-based’ church or describing their beliefs as ‘biblically based’ somehow makes them different to and better from other groups of Christians. I am sure God is tired of these games that some Christians like to play. I certainly am!
Every Christian takes the Bible seriously, even if it is good to remember that there are several different definitions of what constitutes the Bible. An Anglican Bible is not the same as a Baptist Bible, for example. We might look at that issue in a Dean’s Forum later this year.
Despite some differences about what books to include in the Bible, all Christian communities take the Bible very seriously. It shapes our lives and provides us with the language we need to explore and express our faith.
It may be helpful if I outline briefly my personal way of making faithful use of the Bible, and especially in the context of our worship.
First of all, I try always to follow the lectionary. This means that I am choosing to follow the mind of the great church rather than choose texts that reflect and reinforce my personal preferences. The lectionary is an ecumenical project, so that means the texts we are dealing with are also being read in other local church communities at the same time: Catholic, Lutheran, Uniting, etc.
Secondly, I try to focus on the forest and not count the trees. Good Bible teaching is not about amassing huge amounts of Bible trivia, but about learning to read Scripture soundly in the search for spiritual insight. We are seeking wisdom for holy living.
Thirdly, I pay attention to our own context as readers. As a historian, I could keep you entertained for hours with (hopefully) fascinating information about the biblical world, but my calling is to connect the sacred texts with our everyday lives here and now. I need constantly to be asking myself: What counts as good news for my community—and for me—in these ancient words?
Finally, I expect the Bible to disturb our usual way of thinking. This is a prophetic text, after all, and the prophets—like Jesus hismelf—confronted, challenged and disturbed their listeners. The Bible does not simply reinforce our settled opinions, not even those found in the creeds and confessions of the churches. Rather, the Bible is a sacrament of continual reformation as the Church listens afresh to hear what the Spirit has to teach us. When we domesticate the Bible and limit its meaning to what we already believe and know, then we fail to use the Bible faithfully.
As already hinted, the readings this week seem such nice tales and yet they invite us to think afresh about important aspects of everyday life.
These readings invite us to notice how gender shapes our lives, and at times becomes the basis for violence and discrimination.
Due to time constraints, let me focus on the Gospel passage.
As I said in my notes on the front page of the bulletin, most of us are not surprised that Jesus would respond to a request that he visit a sick girl, or that he would heal an older woman on his way to see the girl. We are not even surprised that he kept going to see the little girl even after he got word that she had already died.
We respond to these stories from our cultural context where women are (mostly) assumed to be equal with men, and from our post-Easter faith perspective.
For the contemporaries of Jesus and for the readers of Mark’s Gospel, things were very different. As they still are for Orthodox Jews today, who refuse to sit next to a woman: whether that be on a park bench or in an aeroplane.
Jewish gender boundaries were clear and rigid in the time of Jesus.
Jesus broke the rules.
Jesus included women and girls in the community that gathered around him, and he was accompanied by at least a few women as he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem. How the tongues must have wagged.
For a woman whose periods lasted 12 years and not just a few days each month, to be welcomed into the circle around Jesus was an act of amazing grace indeed. Think of all the places and groups from which she would have been excluded during those twelve years. No wonder she just crept up and ‘touched the hem’ of Jesus’ robe! Even to be there in the street was breaking the rules.
How does the good news of Jesus transgress gender boundaries in our own day?
When a young woman is raped and murdered on her way home from work in Melbourne, and another is raped and assaulted while being driven between here and Armidale, while a young girl is kidnapped at knife point and sexually assaulted in Newcastle … when a 16 year old girl near Brisbane is killed and her body placed in a drum … what does the Gospel mean to these women and their families?
We have come a long way in tearing down the boundaries that people have erected on the basis of gender, but there remains significant work to be completed.
As church we need to be a safe and nurturing place for women and girls.
As church we need to be active in our community so that Grafton is a safe place for women.
God’s love knows no bounds, and neither can our commitment to justice and equality.
There is much more to say about our texts today, but maybe this is the heart of what the Spirit is saying to the church—to our church—in these familiar stories?