Toorak Uniting Church

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Nobody wants reality!

Proverbs 31: 10 31,     Mark 9: 30 37,     James 3: 13 4: 3, 7 8a
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
21 September 2003

The Jesus I grew up with was very much the Jesus meek and lowly we just sang about.
Jesus as he is portrayed in those lovely stained glass windows all around us: An angelic figure, nice and clean, with a soft smile, soft hands, white robe, a glow of quiet gentle peacefulness around him.
A Jesus that went to the cross without complaining, in complete and effortless surrender to the will of God.
Jesus a man who was nice and polite and never, ever did anything the neighbours would not have approved off.
A Jesus living very much like the ideal James describes in his letter: Pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy, righteous and full of wisdom, sowing peace wherever he went.
Jesus somebody that made me feel small, helpless and impotent.
It didn’t require much insight into my personality to know that I would never be that perfect.

It wasn’t until later that I began to understand that there was another side to Jesus, and another side to his story. An uncomfortable side, more difficult to understand.

The bloody side.

The lonely Jesus, at pains to explain to his disciples who he is and what he has come to do, and what will happen to him. Not meeting with even the faintest trace of understanding by those closest to him.
Jesus in Gethsemane, crying, terrified by the events that are moving towards him.
Jesus on the cross, suffering one of the most torturous deaths ever invented by mankind, abused, beaten, blood gushing from wounds all over his body.

I know, I know, talking so graphically about blood, wounds and suffering is in bad taste and I should not be indulging in it. Modern theology has removed all hymns that refer to such hideous realities from the hymnbook and aren’t they right? Singing sweetly of the suffering and cross is not appropriate is it? Wallowing in the imagery and surrounding it with a pink and rather melodramatic cloud as is done in some 19th century hymns, can hardly be called appropriate and suitable to the awesome gruesome-ness of the story can it?

However, I sometimes wonder if we are not, in the process, removing every trace of Christ’s suffering and cross altogether….

If we are not trying to make life look like that of the wise woman in Proverbs who has everything under control and takes care of her family so they live in prosperity, safety and peace. Banning anything out of our minds and our existence that does not square with it?

Why so squeamish?

Watched the news lately? Heard some of the horrible stories Julian Burnside had to tell us last Monday? Read the papers? Watched some documentaries about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or less recent atrocities in Cambodia under Pol Poth, or even Uganda under Idi Amin? Or to stay closer to home, the fate of some Christians in Indonesia?

It was this that came to my mind when I read this week’s gospel reading with Jesus trying to prepare his disciples for what is to come: His suffering and death.
He tries to share with them the reality he can see approaching: betrayal, suffering, death, but hope beyond that. They do not understand and they do not even seem to really try to.

"They are afraid" it says. And I think most of us would be able to understand that. Because we are afraid when things like that come close: suffering, death, betrayal, injustice, pain.

We don’t know what to do, we don’t understand, and we don’t want to know.

We don’t like to be confronted with a reality that leaves us feeling impotent, helpless, and out of control. Children in detention centres, refugees with nowhere to go, terrorists with murder in their hearts, fundamentalists bent on wreaking havoc in our well organised world…….. we don’t want to know about it, do we?
And should we?

It sometimes seems too much. It is just too hard to deal with it all, so ignoring it seems a sensible option.
Get on with life and try not to think about it too much.

Exactly what the disciples did.

Who is going to be first they ask among themselves? Who is most favourably looked upon by our master? Who has got the highest marks so far? They bicker about it, competing for honours they presume will be shortly given out.
Who will come out on top?

We all try to be good, to be best. Even at doing what James tells us we do: be more gentle meek and mild, agreeable and peace loving than other people. We all try to live the life of the wise woman in Proverbs and tend our families, our fortunes with diligence.
Doesn’t the Bible tell us to do so? To work hard and be respectable?

Jesus then puts a child in their midst.

He confronts their dreams of power and glory with something they would have rushed straight past in their desire to become number 1.
In those days children were real nobodies.
Most of them died well before they could ever grow up and thus they were not really counted as people before they reached an age where there was a reasonable chance they would survive to become of some economical value to their parents. Not that mothers didn’t love their children at the time, but they were not the precious, spoiled and pampered little people that grow up in our society.
They were more like the children that live on rubbish dumps in developing countries, abjectly poor, dying like flies. Mostly not expected to get anywhere in life, if they live at all, that is.

Look, says Jesus, while you are talking about being first, take a minute to look at this child, who we all know is at the very bottom of the heap. And know that it is those I embrace and put in the middle to give all my attention. If you want to be with me, be something in my Kingdom, you’ll have to learn to direct your gaze downward towards them instead of up towards the top, stoop instead of scramble to get to the top of the ladder. In them you will meet me. Embracing them you will be embracing me.

He leaves it at that, and again the disciples don’t seem to understand.
And do we?
Does it mean that we have to be good to children? Make sure they do not suffer hunger, or poverty? Make sure they are not kept in detention, do not cross Oceans in desperation and leaky boats, are not put in the frontlines when a war is on, will not lose limbs when crossing mine fields, and won’t ever die because of lack of care?
Yes, it certainly means that. But there is more.

Something that will meet with more resistance in us then when we listen to the call in the letter from James to be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy, righteous and full of wisdom,.

That is the fact that when we really want to follow Jesus and truly be his followers we’ll have to let go of our self importance, of the structures we feel safe in, where everything has its place and life consists of being good and working hard at being better. That we will have to become people that live dangerously, prepared to be touched and moved to care that goes way beyond the call of duty. People prepared to let go of certainties and securities most people would not want to go without.

We celebrate Holy Communion today. The body of Christ broken for us, the blood of Christ, shed for us. We celebrate the life of one who stooped so deep it should take our breath away. We remember the death of one who did not deserve to die but shared the fate of millions of others that die an undeserved death at the hands of people that justify their deeds from a position of fear. If we don’t kill him worse will happen. An argument as old as the world, still in good use today.

It is this Jesus whose life we commemorate today. Not somebody that was just a very lovely and nice man, but somebody that went through hell because he did not yield to the standards of the world but chose to live according to the standards of Gods Kingdom.
Who stooped to embrace what others would not even deign to look at, who was not afraid to let go of prestige, wealth, security, even his life, to live with God’s wisdom guiding his every step.
He was a single tree growing by the stream of God’s mercy, blooming and bearing fruit.
He overcame envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness, and cravings. He lived a life truly open to wisdom from above, a life of sharing and serving, of stooping down and scooping up. A life that did not count the cost but lived in trust that God would make justice and peace prosper where life was led according to his will and surrendered to his purposes. May we have the courage to follow him there as well.

Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2003


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