A shared reflection with Benjamin Oh - such an enlivening and distinguished leader in Australia's Asian, queer and faith communities - on Jesus and the poor widow, Ruth's covenantal promise to Naomi, and the gospel of liberation from and for the marginalised...
When you step out of your door in the morning, do you feel that you are stepping into a world of wonder in which you are intimately connected? Or, are you simply stepping into mere location? Is it just dead space which you are crossing so that you can get to where you need to go? Or, do you believe you are walking into a living universe? Those are questions which the great spiritual writer John O’Donohue used to ask and they lie right at the heart of the Season of Creation we have just begun this month. For it matters vitally how we view the world and where we locate God in relation to it. So much of our politics, our business and trade activities, and our lifestyles, are affected. If we believe that matter, material existence, doesn’t really matter to God, then we will end up acting in problematic ways. Or, as John O’Donohue used to say, if we do believe that when we step out we are walking into a living universe, then our walk ‘becomes a different thing’. So let us explore some of the theological paths which can underpin more loving and sustainable ways of living together on the Earth…
I have always loved the story of the woman at the well, which has so many layers of interpretation. We have diverted from the lectionary today, so that we can look at it in association with Corinne Ware’s work on the Spirituality Wheel – a tool that helps us better understand our preferred forms of spirituality, and how these can aid or hinder our encounter with the divine. We will come back to this slide in our faith education session later this morning. For now, just notice that we have four main ways of approaching our spiritual life, through our head, our heart, our soul and our community. We will each tend to favour one of these over the others. Some lend themselves to a theology of transcendence, some to one of immanence. Some lean towards outward expression, some more to internal. Each produces different kinds of liturgical approach and different preferences for personal prayer. All of them will be present in a good liturgy or a good story. Today’s story, like all good stories, offers entry points for all of us, as we play with it in different ways and allow different aspects to reveal themselves...
We should have been listening to Jo talking about baptism today – but life in Sydney has been temporarily interrupted, so that will have to wait. Instead, we have a chance to look at this wonderful story of interruption and crossing over from Mark’s gospel (Mark 5:21-43). It is without doubt my own personal favourite gospel reading, so I offered to chat with you about it for a few minutes – and I hope over our Zoom coffee we may be able to chat some more...
One of the reasons I love this story, is that it is so cleverly constructed – two stories that mirror each other, one within the other like a pair of Baboushka dolls. In different ways they are each about boundaries, edges, and transition zones – the kind of liminal spots where God has the most space to work. And this is signalled in the very first verse, “when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side”. Bit of homework for the next two weeks at home – count the number of times in Mark’s gospel Jesus crosses over the Sea of Galilee – I can promise you it is quite a few! It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s well-known book and film “Eat, Pray Love” in which the central character develops a love of the Italian word “attraversiamo”, meaning ‘let us cross over’. ‘Attraversiamo' seems to be Jesus’s motto – and a good motto for others too. But I’m ahead of myself.
On this occasion Jesus crosses over from Gentile territory where he has healed the so-called Gerasene demoniac, back to a Jewish area – a risky choice, though at this stage the crowds are more of fan mob than a lynch mob. Here Jairus, the leader of the synagogue falls at Jesus’s feet, begging for the life of his daughter. Now this is a big deal. Jairus was important, honoured – and he crosses from that powerful place, demeaning himself at the dirty feet of a ragged itinerant and highly dodgy preacher. He crosses over from the centre to the edge. Why? because his daughter – according to Luke’s account his twelve-year-old daughter, on the border of childhood and womanhood – is in the border land between life and death. Are you noticing all the borders and edges? There are more to come.
Jesus goes with Jairus – of course! If the leader needs you, you drop everything and go, right ?– especially if it’s a life and death issue? But then there’s an interruption. The crowd is pressing close – no social distancing here, no boundary! And suddenly Jesus stops. He starts talking about someone having touched him and looking all around the crowd. Can you imagine that? No wonder the disciples are so confused. The leader’s daughter is dying, and he is worried about someone in a crowd bumping up against him!
But of course, there was no accidental bump here. The touch was deliberate. Across all the borders of exclusion, gender, isolation, the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years reached out to touch another edge – the hem of Jesus’ garment. And it was enough. Her touch was forbidden on so many levels. Because of her bleeding, the woman would have been excluded from society, from religious ceremony, from every aspect of daily life for twelve years – all the years Jairus’ daughter has been alive in fact. Stuck on the edge of menopause, just as the girl is stuck on the edge of puberty, she dares to cross over – to be out in public, to touch a man, or at least his clothing, to make a bid for her life. And Jesus asks for more. By stopping, by acknowledging what has happened, he invites her to come across the border, from the edge to the very centre – to come and speak her whole truth.
But while all this is going on, while Jesus has been ‘wasting time’, Jairus’ daughter dies, and word comes from the household not to trouble Jesus further. And watch the movement here – Jesus brought the woman from the edge, right into the thick of the crowd. But when it comes to the little girl, he allows no one to accompany him except his closest disciples and the child’s parents. Just as the excluded person needs to be brought from the edge to the centre to find wholeness, so the child whose parent is the ‘big shot’ needs to be taken to a quiet edge, away from others, there to be taken by the hand and receive the simplest of words in Aramaic, ‘ Talitha cum’, ‘little girl, get up’. (I love those two words, along with the one other word in Aramaic in the gospels, spoken to the deaf man, ‘"ephphatha," as being perhaps some of the only words in Scripture we can reasonably assume that Jesus pronounced – praying with them has a special resonance for me). Taking the child by the hand was of course forbidden – to touch the dead made Jesus ritually unclean. Yet he crosses over the border to bring her back, to invite her to cross the threshold into womanhood.
Two women – two stories of crossing over and restoration to life – mirror stories that take us from the edge to the centre and back again. Don’t worry too much about the miraculous. Just notice the edges, the borderlands, the crossings, the risks, that are part of every human story of identity and transformation. For this story is of course also our story. This is who we are and just as the woman and the girl in these nested stories are restored to their true and emerging identities, so this story invites us to live out our identity; to risk the crossings, to inhabit the borders where wholeness happens.
And not just at the individual level. For Pitt St is a borderland community – and I don’t just mean that we come from many different LGAs! We could easily take attraversiamo as our motto, as we cross borders of geography, religious belief, ableism, gender, sexuality, race and all the rest on a daily basis. So have a little think about the borders you have crossed in life; about the borderlands you have chosen or been forced to inhabit; and about the healing that unexpectedly you have found there. And let’s chat about some of that and Pitt Street’s calling over our tea and coffee later – but for now, ‘let’s cross over’ as we move to our affirmation of faith. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Pitt Street Uniting Church, Sunday 27 June 2021
What is your ‘good news’? One of the theological college principals I used to work with would occasionally ask this of students. If you had to put the good news of your Christian faith in a short phrase, he would say, what would it be? Now he was certainly not trying to dumb down faith, under the pressures of modern media attention spans and ‘church growth’ gurus. That, to be honest, would hardly have worked! Our theological college was, after all, the child of two theological traditions - one of them radically incarnationalist and the other powerfully modernist – both of which had rattled the cages of conservative and complacent faith in the past. No, he was certainly not attempting to avoid deep and complex questions and intelligent reflection. He was just trying to encourage us to affirm what we could affirm and to be able to share that clearly with others. For, let’s be honest, much theology and Christian communication can be pretty difficult to grasp, can’t it? Nor is it just ‘traditional’ faith communication. Sometimes, to be quite frank, so-called ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ theology is also not very clear about ‘good news’. It can tell us a great deal about questions and debates, and help us move on from much that is death-dealing. Yet it can sometimes be less helpful in affirming what, in Jesus and Christian Faith, is truly life-giving. So, what is our ‘good news’ today?...
One of the saddest sounding of Christian truisms is that ‘God has no grandchildren’. When I first heard that phrase I was a little taken aback. Of course what it is trying to say is that we cannot have spiritual relationships at second hand. Each of us has to respond to God in our own particular way. Despite what some would like to believe, we cannot directly inherit faith from our parents, or from others. They can put us on the right path, just as Mary and Joseph were doing in taking Jesus to the temple in today’s Gospel story. We have responsibilities too to others to offer them spiritual pathways, and to invite them into journeys of faith. Ultimately however, each of us has to unwrap the present, and receive the promise, ourselves. Nonetheless, do we really believe that God does not enjoy relationships like a grandparent, or a grandchild for that matter? I truly do not think so: a conviction born both of my own experience and today’s Gospel story. Rather what I see and know is the extraordinary wonder of God in cross-generational relationships, and, not least, the resilience and joy of elders of many kinds…
A few weeks ago I invited us all to address the question of Jesus: ‘who do you say that I am?’ This is central to the Christian spiritual pathway. As I affirmed, the answers to that question will differ, as they have differed, subtly or significantly, down the centuries. Today, on St Luke’s Day, Penny and I want to ask three more questions, which also feed into our community visioning day. They seek to open up three important areas of life: firstly, healing; secondly, hospitality; and thirdly, how do we hand on hope, as we experience it in our spiritual lives. Penny and I will do this together as a conversation. For, after all, isn’t one of the most beautiful stories in Luke’s Gospel that of the conversation between the disciples on the road to Emmaus, as they rediscover the living Christ in new ways?
Before all that however, I want to ask Penny about our relationship to St Luke. For we’ve had a bit of history with St Luke, haven’t we?...
‘But he [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”’ (John 20.25b)
My father was a fine schoolmaster who came into his own when he performed as ‘Wizard Chiz’ at the annual school fete. Extraordinarily creative, he would demonstrate the miraculous realities of what we usually call ‘chemistry’. My father was also very knowledgeable about such things as the Periodic Table. Yet, it was sharing about chemistry’s wondrous mystery that really counted for him.
I recall this in reflecting on Thomas’ encounter with the resurrected Christ. For he approached Jesus like exploring science as mere practicality, consequently missing the mystery. Sadly, too many still approach God like this, seeking nailed-down ‘proofs’ that bolster misguided securities before we are willing to respond. This is the alarming commonality of both militant secularists and religious fundamentalists. Faith must indeed attend to reason, but its call is essentially an invitation to wonder and adventure.
As J.K Rowling suggested in the Harry Potter series, living into faith and love are like becoming a true wizard. In today’s Gospel, Thomas acted, as we often do, like a Muggle. However, as Indian Christians especially will remind us, there is much more to Thomas. As a remarkable faith adventurer, Thomas went on to grasp, and share with others, the Resurrection’s true reality, as the transforming mystery of unconquerable love.
We, too, may be inclined to dwell on repeated doubts or affirmations of unnecessary details. Yet God’s invitation is to live out the mystery. This is life’s true chemistry.
by Jo Inkpin, for Sunday 19 April 2020, 2nd Sunday after Easter
- also published in Anglican Focus here
I wonder if you have ever pondered the difference between having and keeping? It’s all about relationship. We have a computer, but we keep a dog. God does not have us. God keeps us. As the Psalmist puts it: 'The Lord is my keeper' (Psalm 121) For Psalm 121 is what is known as a pilgrimage psalm – the prayer that a devout Jew would offer on their way to Jerusalem to attend one of the three great annual religious festivals. The author is asking for help on their journey and identifying that that helps comes from God. Travelers are always at risk – those on pilgrimage on foot risk falls, or attack from bandits. Today those of us contemplating travel by air may be more worried about the coronavirus speeding its way to us through the air -conditioning vents. Travel is always a somewhat hazardous exercise. In our present time there is much to make us feel helpless and insecure. But this psalm says the opposite. It urges us not to fear, but to know that we are being ‘kept’. So, what exactly does it mean to be ‘kept’?
As some of you know, I enjoy a practice called Interplay. Interplay is ‘a creative, active way to unlock the wisdom of the body. It is a group activity that uses a number of ‘forms’, physical, verbal and musical, to enable connection with our selves and our community through play. There is a variant of one of these forms that goes like this... Participants are encouraged to choose a place in the room and move towards it with great intent, but moving only very slowly, heel to toe. This is how we often move in life towards goals on which we have set our hearts. But as we all know, life has a way of disrupting those kinds of plans and movements. So, there is another variant of this form, in which participants are invited simply to move slowly as before and just see where they end up and when it seems right to stop. This goal-less movement reflects something of what actually happens in life when we thought we were doing something else. A final variant of this game, invites participants to move slowly and just occasionally take a leap forward, perhaps celebrating that with a whoop. It is great fun, and illustrates how often we forget to celebrate our leaps forward and how much pleasure can be derived from celebrating, even when we do not have a particular goal in mind, and only recognise after it has happened that a leap forward has occurred. Sometimes indeed we may find that the leap has not been forward, but perhaps sideways or even backwards and no less a cause for celebration...