One of my grandchildren was particularly fascinated when I was in England in December. She was trying to grasp how it was night with me when it was daytime in Australia, and how it was so warm here and so cold where I was. One day, she had it sorted. Speaking to Penny on the phone, she loudly proclaimed ‘GranJo is upside down!’ I am not sure whether she thought that I was standing or walking on my head. However, in more than one sense, she was right - not least spiritually. After all, as Acts of the Apostles chapter 17 reminds us, like other early Christians, Paul and Silas were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’. It remains part of our Christian calling and sits well with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, otherwise known as the feast of Candlemas, which we mark today. Wherever, or whoever, we are in the world, we are all called to ‘live upside down’ in spiritual terms…
Good morning! It is a delight to be back here in Pitt Street after several weeks away on personal ‘sorry business’ and study leave. In the context of the continuing pandemic, it has certainly been what some might call an ‘interesting’ time, marking an important watershed in my own life and that of my wider birth family. In offering some reflections today, I would therefore like to begin by expressing my deep gratitude for the many, many. wonderful expressions of support from members of our Pitt Street community, and for the prayers which have been offered. I continue to be so grateful for the gift of loving relationships I am given as part of our life together, and I look forward to their further and deeper unfolding in the days to come. For relationship is such a core element of our lives, and never more important than at times of loss, grief, challenge and growth. As such, it is so absolutely foundational to the Day of Mourning we mark today, as well as to the trials of the pandemic world with which we continue to journey, and the struggles of our own particular lives. In the light of these things, my own recent and continuing journey, and of our readings today, I offer up relationship as one of three words which might be central to our considerations at this time.
Growing up, even as a little child I was fascinated by what was then known as the English Civil War (although, to be accurate historically, this is now rightly recognised as several different wars across the islands of Britain and Ireland). It was a bitter and brutal period, culminating in the judicial trial and execution of the King. For this was a powerful revolution. Indeed it saw the establishment of a republic, the Commonwealth and Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Moreover, in that latter period there was also an extraordinary flowering of truly radical religious and political life and thought. That, I think, was what especially drew me into the study of history. For the origin of many liberal democratic things we take for granted lie there – for example, the insistence on no taxation or legislation without representation, on regular elections, fixed parliamentary terms, equal votes, and, vitally, on religious freedom for different types of groups, particularly the marginalised. Indeed, Cromwell even reopened England to the Jews, who had been banned for centuries. For his supporters were also part of the movements which helped create Congregationalism, the original founding tradition of Pitt Street Uniting Church...
Many years ago, before entering ordained ministry, I worked for the probation service in England. I was an assistant house manager for a hostel for what were called ‘hard to place’ ex-offenders. ‘Hard to place’ – whom do you think that included? ...
Well, it referred both to those who had committed the most serious of crimes and to those who were liable to cause physical and reputational damage, including those who had committed arson or who might be seen by the wider community as scandalous. We had men who had committed so-called ‘minor’ offences – some of whom, to be honest, could sometimes be the most awkward residents of all. We also however sometimes had men who were on ‘life license’ for taking the lives of others. Certainly, we always had at least one man, or several, who had committed sexual offences. Perhaps that group of people were also always of the greatest underlying concern, at least in terms of risking public outcry and our own limits of hospitality. For appropriate relationships with those who have committed sexual offences is rightly vital. What then does that mean, today, for churches?...
One of my favourite contemporary spiritual songs is that which we heard before the beginning of our worship today – ‘I Am Mountain’ by Gungor (see YouTube link above). The lyrics are evocative of both rich ancient understandings and the best insights of modern life and science. They speak of profound presence, of the immanence and transcendence of the divine. They direct us to the heart of the life-giving spirituality of this Season of Creation. For, in Gungor's words, and ancient Christian orthodoxy proclaims, ‘there’s glory’ (‘beauty’ and ‘mystery’) in the dirt.’ As Christian, and other mystics, have affirmed, there’s ‘a universe within the sand, eternity within’ a human being. Often, we may indeed feel ourselves to be ‘wandering in skin and soul/ Searching, longing for a home’. Yet in truth, in memorable phrases, we are invited to see ourselves as:
Momentary carbon stories
From the ashes
Filled with holy ghost
In the face of the climate emergency, we are also called, by ‘the light’, to ‘fight, fight for our lives’ - as we have also explored, particularly in last week’s reflections and discussions. However, above all, we are encouraged to acknowledge more deeply the wonder of the divine existence we share. For we are intimately related to our extraordinary world. All metaphors, as Gungor says, then begin to break down in the face of this astounding mystery and reality, as:
Life is here now
Breathe it all in
Let it all go
You are earth and wind…
WWJD – What Would Jesus Do – in the climate emergency? In the face of the increasing climate crisis, highlighted by the latest IPCC report and weather events across the world, how are we to react? As people of faith, what might guide us in our responses, as individuals and as a community together? This is the challenge which, with Gerard and Vivien, I ask us all to consider today. For, during this Season of Creation, we have rightly given expression, in several different ways, to our wonder at God’s world of which we are a part. We have joined with others elsewhere and received the gifts of Ecopella and other artists. We commit ourselves to continuing to grow more deeply in the soil of God’s love in Creation and to share more deeply in that grace and beauty. What however will we now do to honour that same Spirit of Christ?...
What do we make of traditions - those of our own and others? Today’s Gospel throws up that question vividly, although it is but one of several significant scriptural texts related to traditions. All of them, not least this one from Mark chapter 7, need to be read in context. Let us come to that in a few moments. Firstly however, we might reflect on what each of us understands by the word ‘tradition’ and on what traditions have shaped us (pause)…. What do each of us have to share together?...
What is there to eat in the Christian scriptures? It can often be challenging for many people to find answers to that. We live, after all, in very different times from those in which the books of the Bible were composed. It is not, of course, a new question. Decades ago, at theological college, I recall a leading biblical scholar, a Canon of Christ Church Oxford, throwing a similar testing query to myself and my fellow students. If we were to omit books from the Bible on grounds of significant racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and other forms of violence, with how many would we be left? Which books of the Bible would you keep? Canon John Fenton’s immediate answer was only three: Mark's Gospel, the Letter of James, and the book of Revelation. However, in subsequent discussion, he himself agreed that each of those scriptures also had problematic features. As we hear again today part of the Gospel of John chapter 6, what then are we say about, and still more feed upon, in the books we call ‘holy' scriptures?...
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
Three things immediately struck me in recently moving back to work again in the centre of Sydney. Firstly, so many of the high buildings had either grown even higher or had multiplied in number. Secondly, particularly in the adjacent areas north and west of Pitt Street Uniting Church, different Asian shops and cultures continue to grow in number. An official Koreatown now sits close to Chinatown, and other presences, including Malaysian, and particularly Thai, are not far behind. Thirdly, in the suburb where I live, each park has an acknowledgement of country, including the prominent words Budyeri gamarruwa – ‘welcome’ in Gadigal language. Each of these things are redolent to me of both the challenges, and the promise, of Pentecost today. For if we are to receive the Spirit of God more fully - replacing hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and becoming one body in this land - these are part of the journey we make…