Pretending to be asleep?

Posted: October 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 22B, 2018
Mark 10:35-45

Pretending to be asleep?

I want to begin today with a paraphrase of our text from Mark. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” In other words we are worried and maybe even a bit afraid so how about you help? And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” In other words we want the assurance you have. We want to know that we will be ok in the future so can you keep us close to you in this realm of God you talk about. But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In other words, do you really know what you are asking? Have you thought this through as my life is at risk because I have taken on the world that we know and live in. By joining me in my baptism there is only one way this will end. Baptism is a whole of life journey. They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; In other words ok you will come with me. but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” In other words ‘coming with me on this journey is a commitment to leave everything worthwhile behind and risk your very existence. You will only know you have arrived when you get there. When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. Now look what you have done, you have made it impossible for all of us. You have caused the setting of entry standards beyond our reach. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” See its not about getting on the coattails of God, hedging one’s bets on the journey being comfortable. It’s about participating as a servant of good, in fact its about service itself, serving as an orientation for living, a doing for others, not as an unthinking obedient slave but as a collective corporate existence.

We have just finished our General Assembly in Christchurch and we await the uplifting, confident encouragement that our church is in mission. It is no longer consumed by debates and rulemaking about who’s in or out, who’s eligible to be a leader in our church or who’s not. It is no longer consumed with its decline in income and what to do with its growing value in assets. Its no longer hell bent on telling the world how to think and how to behave as if the world will listen. Our hope is that it has in traditional fashion, listened to its people explaining where the world is at and what the world is saying and it has with the help of all those present found how to encourage, resource and facilitate, mission initiatives among the people of the world. Surely the business of the church is about enabling mission as opposed to more efficiently managing the decline. As was said to me the other day about the current plan for strategic management of the church’s property portfolio, it is good for the institution, it will focus on the efficiency of the management but it will have little to offer mission. Having your seat on the left or right of Jesus is not the issue. It is about risking the alternative, about the leap of faith, about the stepping out beyond the frontier, it is about God’s mission which you know exists but have little idea of how to secure your seat. It’s in the risk of Baptism and not the security of appointment to power. It’s about moving with God’s Spirit, and that is best understood when wrestling with it and engaged in that wrestling together. It is not about finding out how to avoid it.

There’s a prayer by a J Wood that could be helpful at this point. The prayer seems to give insight into what a Session, Presbytery and General Assembly might do at its meetings, consider as motivation for its gathering and remember when it is caught up in seeking to claim its place alongside Jesus. It goes like this….

Galilean Jesus,
on hills and near beaches you called people
around you for reflection, explanation and resolution.

So now we reflect together, knowing that
we will hear wise words if only we listen intently.

We each bring some knowledge and some understanding
and we bring our faith,
incomplete,
sometimes uncertain, but willing.

Help us to complete our task together
and to be resolute in gospel action.
Amen. J Wood

The challenge in that prayer is that the only role General Assemblies, Presbyteries and Sessions have is not to meet, as if that is a committee’s or council’s reason for existence is to manage, but rather, “to be resolute in gospel action”. The challenge in business language might be to not expect to sell your ice blocks to eskimos but rather to feed the hungry. The question we ask today is how did our General Assembly go? There seems to have been a lot of words said and discussion had and there may have been some resolution passing. But was there any theology debated? Was there any social justice action planned? Was there any theological exploration into why fewer people call themselves religious let alone Christian? Was there any theological and sociological discussion about why fewer people see the worth of a faith journey? And I don’t mean wallowing in the church’s decline and finding reasons that justify our reasons for doing nothing, that is just the church looking at itself through its own lens and it is a good way of avoiding the real questions. If you and I believe so strongly that the Jesus Way is a convincing call to live our lives in that manner why is it that others do not? Why are people not flocking to call themselves followers of Jesus? Its more than ‘they just haven’t heard that truth’, and its more than’ we haven’t told them our story yet’. The story is already out there and they seem to be rejecting it. I wonder why?

I often think that this dilemma is the one that lies at the heart of St David’s frustration about an educational project as our mission. Show us how it will provide a congregation. Show us how it will add success to the institution; show us how it will not have a detrimental effect on other church schools. All these seem to be focused on the survival of the institution as opposed to the gospel in action. Maybe they think we don’t know what the gospel is, or maybe its because there is some confusion around what it is so let’s not do anything. Or maybe its because St David’s are thinking too far out of the institutional theological boundaries. I might agree with this last critique but I rather think its because no theology is being done because it might rock the institutional boat.

On the Presbyterian Website it says that there are thirteen schools with associations to the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. It also says that each school has its own story, valued traditions and current flavour but they all share the special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. My question is a mission question and it is; what is the special character of a Christian ethos within the Presbyterian, Reformed tradition? What does it mean and what is it about St David’s proposal that is outside that reformed tradition?

I want to now switch tack a bit and explore some reasons for what I think is our dilemma as a church. In the mid-1980s Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “It’s very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep.” And I think this might be a charitable reason to consider.

Our church has been virtually paralysed by more than 30 years of debate and dispute
over human sexuality and falling attendance numbers. Led by the fundamentalists, ultraconservatives, and many liberals our Church has shown itself to be too anxious about these issues to risk perceived additional losses at the hands of, what might be termed, theological reform. Even the liberals were limited in their concern for deconstruction and universality and afraid to embrace constructive theological reform. Today at least among thinking people the message is clear. What is perhaps a ‘progressive’ Christian grassroots movement is loud and clear: that theological and liturgical reform is the much -needed root of ‘gospel action’ today. As we at St David’s have explored this desired reform should include as Hal Taussig said in 2006:

  1. a spiritual vitality and expressiveness,
  2. an insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity,
  3. a transgression of traditional gender boundaries,
  4. the belief that Christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion, and
  5. (v) strong ecological and social justice commitment.

Like others I want to suggest that today’s gospel story from the storyteller we call Mark, touches on this matter of ‘gospel action’ or ‘mission’. It does this in that it seeks to empower its listeners. It appears Jesus was experienced as powerful, but in an empowering way. His life did not require him to seek power for his own sake, but to own the power he had in compassion and in self-giving. His call was to model a new kind of being in the world. Not to be served but to serve. Not to be about maintenance, or in-reach, but to be at mission, at outreach, at risk taking stuff, or as suggested, at ‘gospel action’. The challenge to us is to stop pretending to be asleep and get on with God’s Mission. Amen.

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