A sermon given at Ascot-Vale Uniting Church on October 14, 2018. The readings were: Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Mark 10.17-31.
Recently Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) minister, and church historian, Rev. Dr. Avril Hannah-Jones published an article about the decision of the UCA’s 15th Assembly in regards to marriage. Without setting aside the strengths of Hannah-Jones’ article, there are a few concerns I feel it is appropriate to raise.
“[Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph. 2.14)
At the centre of today’s reading is this claim that Jesus is peace, and breaks down hostility within a new community. I want to try and unpack what this might mean for us today. But I want to admit from the start that this is not an easy idea to grapple with, and in my own reflections it has been somewhat confronting, and discomforting.
The Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia has resolved to allows its ministers freedom to choose to marry two people, regardless of gender, or not. I welcome and celebrate this decision. I spoke for this decision.
And yet this decision was hard. Many people have been significantly hurt along the way. Many people have felt their voices choked in a church they thought offered them a space to belong.
I am aware that literally no one asked for this. Nevertheless, I am a member of the upcoming Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) Assembly - that council tasked with discernment and decision on issues of doctrine within the Uniting Church. I thought it would be helpful to lay out the issues that I see framing the issue of marriage within the Uniting Church, as a way of resourcing the discernment that the Assembly is to undertake. The issue in question is whether the Uniting Church in Australia should change its law to allow ministers to conduct same-gender marriages if they so wish -- but not to compel any minister, or any congregation to conduct or condone any such marriages if they do not wish to do so.
God who mothers the world, may your wisdom be borne in my words. And may my folly be called out by your Spirit in those that hear it. Amen.
‘Little girl, get up!’
Our reading today from Mark 5 is a story about radical transformation and healing. A young girl is raised from the dead; an adult woman is healed of chronic pain and bleeding. This is a story, ultimately, of hope. This is a story of the struggle of women being raised up.
My intention today is to try and understand how this story in Mark 5 teaches us, through the experience of the struggle of women, how to follow the way of Jesus. The point is that women who suffer and struggle for justice teach us about faith -- and we are wise to listen and learn.
The question of calling and ministry has for a long time been difficult for me. In the church contexts I grew up in, discussions of calling often followed the common narrative of a singular turning point. A vision or word from God, a moment of realisation, a heart strangely warmed.
While this kind of experience can be profound, and play an important role in many people’s journeys, this has not been my experience. And I can, after all, only talk honestly about my own experience.
“[T]hanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession …” (2 Cor. 2.14)
Our call to worship today was drawn from 2 Corinthians chapter 2. There Paul begins the argument that flows through chapter 3, and into our main reading for today from 2 Corinthians 4.
This opening image of a triumphal procession is overtly political. The triumphal procession refers to the parade of the conquesting King returning home, declaring the “Gospel,” or “Good News,” of victory. (This image is where early Christians drew the familiar language of “Gospel.”)
It is no doubt obvious at this point that my ability to blog consistently is atrocious. Nevertheless, I continue to slowly compile my thoughts, unsystematically, and inconsistently. Here is a reflection on the question of marriage, and resurrection. In my own context my church, the Uniting Church in Australia, is set to decide whether it will embrace marriage equality - now law in Australia - at its upcoming Assembly in July.
Forgetting is a key element in coming to understand. It allows what we know to become fragmented, to float like melting sea ice around our minds. Hopefully these fragments can be put together. There is a puzzle that I have wondered about for some time in the Gospel of Mark. As I go through waves of remembering and forgetting how the story unfolds different fragments from the story coalesce around different themes. As I noted in my previous entry, Mark’s Gospel consists of multiple threads that all run through the narrative and come together to form a rope: something robust that can actually be used for something. The thread I want to pull on in this post is the puzzle of the twin Simons.
The end is nigh! The world is coming to an end!
All of it.
Political strife. Environmental degradation. The slow agonising heat death of the universe.
Everything is headed towards disaster, decay, and destruction.
Now all we have to do is wait for Jesus to return. Descending from the clouds to finally, finally wrap everything up. And reveal, once and for all, that we were right.
If we sit for a moment in this way of looking at the world, we might better understand the experience of the first Christians leading up to Pentecost.
Last week we commemorated Holy Week: the central festival in the Christian calendar. Leading up to this time many within the church - here and around the world - prepare themselves during the period of Lent. The time of lent, when many people give up something important to them, recalls the time of preparation that Jesus underwent before his public ministry. It is a time when many recall the seriousness of the suffering of Christ to come.
After Lent we retell the story of the end of Christ’s ministry. From the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday, to the dark depths of Good Friday, and the glorious resurrection of Easter Sunday. During Easter we retell the story of Jesus the Messiah, who, as one of the earliest summaries puts it: “humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.” We re-tell that “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” We confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This is the central story of Christianity itself. And so it is important that we keep retelling it.
As I’ve been percolating my reflections on the Gospel of Mark I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with narrative approaches to the text. I signalled this in my first post in this series. My dissatisfaction has two causes:
First, it disconnects the text from the community in which it resided, and the communities in which it still resides. In reading the Gospel of Mark simply as a text we are at risk of making assumptions about its composition that may be explained in other ways. Since we have no access to what lies behind the text some of the best interpreters have therefore suggested that we simply take the text as a text and set aside the unknown reality behind it. This increasingly seems to me to be unwarranted. Not because I have - at last! - secured some insight beyond the text. But because regardless of what the reality was in the author’s community behind the text, there was such a reality. And regardless of our ignorance of that communal reality, we are well aware of our own. And insofar as our own communities are Christian, and see texts like the Gospel of Mark as, in some sense, Scripture, we are obliged to see the text as enacting an intervention into the situations of our communities.
Second, a narrative approach to the text imports assumptions about how the text should be read. Notwithstanding the significant diversity of interpretations of the Gospel of Mark, the common narrative approach to Mark’s Gospel assumes that the story evolves from beginning to end. Certainly the text does have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But very few interpreters therefore think that we should read each section with equal weight. There is consensus within scholarly commentary that the Gospel of Mark amounts to a passion narrative (the end), with an extended introduction (the beginning and middle). Quite right. What interpreters then do is simply read the narrative as if the character of Jesus were fated -- as if the original readers had not already read the ending.
This is my first post on Theology Corner. I felt that moving my blog to this platform would finally encourage me to blog with more consistency. The only challenge I faced is what to write about. I finally have my answer.
I have been wrestling with the Gospel of Mark for several years - it was my gateway drug into formal theological study. As I’ve studied and wrestled with the text my views have grown considerably. I frequently return to the Gospel of Mark as a way to help me think through the shifting sands of my theological commitments. This text is a work of pure genius, and so it has been rich enough to hold my theological reflections over several years.
Finally, I think, I am ready to venture a reading of the text. Fortunately this aligns with the year of Mark in the common lectionary. So my hope is that between my own musings, and preaching opportunities that come my way I am able to develop a basic approach to each part of the text. And at the end of the year I’ll have enough to collate together for a more complete interpretation of the text as a whole.