The Wisdom of the Cross

You show us a child, Jesus,
to show us how to live;
save us from our false ambitions and desires,
that we may receive the pure heart
which comes with true wisdom;
this we ask in your name. Amen.

Reading
Mark 9.30–37

 

The real surprise inherent to the narrative itself comes when Jesus takes a small child and tells the disciples that in receiving such a one they receive him—and through him they receive ‘the one who sent me’ (presumably, following the rule of faith, the Father). Given our domestication of Jesus, however, this often comes across to our congregation as another ‘cute’ story about Jesus and little children. — Nathan G Jennings, in Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol.4, Kindle ed’n, loc.3507

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Sometimes, a novel just has an absolute corker of a first line that makes you want to read more. One of the most famous first lines comes from Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen (1813)

Or this, from Neuromancer by William Gibson:

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel. — (1984)

I can see that colour! 

And what about

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. — C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), one of the Narnia stories

There’s another first line which I love. It is very helpful to remember it when we read the scriptures:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

That’s the first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, published in 1953. 

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

Let’s keep that in mind as we turn to today’s Gospel story. In it, Jesus teaches the disciples that he is going to undergo something unimaginable: 

The Son of Man is now to be handed over into the power of men, and they will kill him; and three days after being killed he will rise again.

‘But,’ Mark says, ‘they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask.’

Even worse,

on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest.

Can you imagine? Jesus is telling them about his death; all the disciples can think about was which one of them was the best.

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples really just don’t get it. And how can they? Jesus is turning everything they know upside down.

Look, he’s doing it again! Now, he says to the disciples

If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.

Hang on, Jesus! The first is the one who wins the race, the one who becomes prime minister, the richest one, the one with the best car and the latest computer system. How can the last be first? How can a servant be number one?

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A deficit of wonder

Readings
Proverbs 1.20–33
Mark 8.27–38

 

There are four things that are too mysterious for me to understand:
an eagle flying in the sky,
a snake moving on a rock,
a ship finding its way over the sea,
and a man and a woman falling in love.
Proverbs 30.18–19 (GNB)

Here’s the thing: in an era when there can seem to be a deficit of wonder, swifts are like the sky: once you start, you can’t stop wondering about them. Frustratingly, though, their elusiveness and pace mean you rarely get more than a glimpse of what they are up to in a town. The edge-land, however, reveals a wider perspective… — Rob Cowen, Common Ground, Kindle ed’n, p.208

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Our daughter lives in Chile, and so (of course!) does her daughter, our granddaughter Emilia. Emilia is nearly three. They visited us a while ago, and it was just a delight to witness Emilia’s joy and wonder at everything she encountered.

Frankly, I don’t miss a lot about being a child. But if there’s one thing I miss it is finding wonder in learning new things, in animals in all their weird shapes and forms, in the expanse of space, in everything really. 

I suppose it’s pretty normal not to experience so much wonder as you get older. You have to pay the bills, cook the meals, get to work. You realise that the world is a pretty messed-up place. You worry about the future.

But then you see a newborn baby, or look up at the night sky away from the city lights, and that feeling of wonder is right back there again.

It may be normal for that sense of wonder to fade as you get older; but it may be fading away more in our time in history. Today, some people are experiencing a ‘deficit of wonder’.

A deficit of wonder. I have seen that phrase twice in the last week, yet I’d never seen it before in my entire life.

A deficit of wonder. I read it in a British nature book (Common Ground, by Rob Cowen) set in the local area where I was born. I read it also in a quotation from Tom Waits, the gravel-voiced blues singer whose work some of you will know.

Tom Waits says

Everything is explained now. We live in an age when you say casually to somebody ‘What’s the story on that?’ and they can run to the computer and tell you within five seconds. That’s fine, but sometimes I’d just as soon continue wondering. We have a deficit of wonder right now.

‘Sometimes I’d just as soon continue wondering.’

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No works? No faith

Reading
James 2.1–17

 

(Re Hebrews 11.1:) …by means of pistis [faith], the true people of God are willing to act decisively in the visible world not for reasons that are immediately apparent but because an unseen yet even more genuine underlying substance (hypostasis), God’s reality, compels the action. This willingness to act on the deeper, truer, but nonetheless hidden reality is ‘faith’ for the author of Hebrews. — Matthew W Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King, Kindle Ed’n, p.19.

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Faith without works is dead.

A while ago, I was listening to a friend of mine. She was talking about someone she knows, someone who had given up on her Christian faith.

My friend found some consolation by reminding herself that years ago, her friend had once accepted Jesus as her Saviour. That never goes away, right? Once you do that, you’re going to heaven whatever happens, yes? 

That’s a very common idea. It’s what I was taught when I started my Christian walk, at the age of fourteen. You pray a prayer in which you confess you’re a sinner and you accept Jesus into your heart. And when you die, you go to heaven.

And if you ever fall away, that doesn’t matter because Jesus is in your heart. 

Millions of people believe it, but it’s hardly in the bible at all. What is there is some awkward bloke called James who has the hide to say

Faith without works is dead.

The great Reformer Martin Luther didn’t like the Letter of James. He called it ‘an epistle of straw’. When he translated the bible into German, he put James right at the very end. After Revelation. James annoyed him so much that if he could, he would have deleted it from the New Testament.

Luther didn’t like James because he found the centre of his theology in the Apostle Paul. Paul wrote

…we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2.16)

When Martin Luther read Paul, he saw that faith in Jesus Christ saves us, and not works. James seemed to be saying the opposite:

Faith without works is dead.

Who was right? Paul or James?

Did James think Paul was wrong? I would say this: James did think Paul was wrong, but the version of Paul that James knew was a distorted one.

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Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!

Readings
Song of Songs 2.8–13
Mark 7.1–8, 14–15, 21–23

 

The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. — Rabbi Akiba (in Harvey Cox and Stephanie Paulsell, Lamentations and the Song of Songs, Kindle Ed’n, p.189)

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. — Where there is love and affection, there God is.

To be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self and to enter a realm of sheer delight, in which the human and the divine can merge. Human love both allows us to celebrate God through our bodies and educates us in loving and being loved. — Julia M. O’Brien, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.4, loc.333

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This is how the Song of Songs begins:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!

I was around fifteen years old, a new Christian and a keen reader of the scriptures. When I first started reading the Song of Songs, I was mortified that something so—well, arousing—should be in the Bible. So I stopped reading this book. Possibly, I stopped around 1.13:

My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
that lies between my breasts.

My fifteen year old self was trying hard to be good. He was disturbed that there is an erotic poem slap bang in the middle of the Bible. 

He would have been quite relieved to find that the Song of Songs only appears twice in our three-year lectionary, and may easily be ignored. 

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The Bread of Life (3): You are what you eat

Reading
John 6.56–69

 

The living ‘flesh’ of the world is made up of communication with others. Into such a conversation the Word is uttered, and into the dialogue originally existing between the Father and the Son the various actors of the Gospel drama are drawn. As this process reaches out to include believers of every age, God’s unrestricted love for the world provokes the full play of human conversation as it turns on the meaning of life, God, human identity, and the destiny of the world itself. — Anthony Kelly & Francis Moloney, Experiencing God in the Gospel of John, Kindle Ed’n, loc.782

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Almost 2000 years ago, people had some very strange ideas about what went on in Christian worship.

I’ll read you a tirade which comes from a book written by a Christian in the second century AD. It’s called The Octavius of Minucius Felix (chapter 9). Here, he is speaking as a pagan who repeating rumours of what Christians do:

Yours is a religion of lust. You promiscuously call one another brothers and sisters. You apparently do this so that your debaucheries will take on the flavour of incest.

Your vain and senseless superstition revels in wickedness. I would apologise for passing on the reports I hear about you if I weren’t so certain that they are true…

…The stories of your initiation rites are as detestable as they are well known. Your priests place an infant covered with flour in front of the new convert. Then they tell the convert to strike the harmless-looking lump of flour with deadly blows. Thereby the convert innocently slays the infant and is initiated into your horrors. The Christians present then lick up the infant’s blood and divide its limbs among themselves to eat. They are united by this unholy meal, since they are bound to mutual silence because of their wickedness. Your sacred rites are more vile than any imagined sacrilege.

All I can say is You may have noticed that Uniting Church services aren’t very much like that.

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Gratitude and Grace

Readings
Ephesians 5.15–20
John 6.51–58

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.
— George Herbert, ‘The Elixir’ (from The Temple, 1633)

 

Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness. — Bro. David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the heart of prayer

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When I began to think about preaching through August, I thought we’d follow along with the Gospel Reading and have a four-week series on Christ, the Bread of Life.

That was before I found that today would be my last Sunday here. So the series is cut short, just like my time here. So I would like to follow the advice of the Apostle Paul and ‘give thanks for everything to God the Father’. I want to speak about gratitude and grace on this occasion of Hudson’s baptism. 

Baptism is based in gratitude for Jesus Christ. We are baptised to share in the salvation that Christ has won for us; it is only because Jesus has saved us that we can ‘become his faithful witness and servant’. 

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Bread of life (2): Fill up on Bread

Reading
John 6.41–51

 

The ingredients for bread were always the same: flour, yeast, water, and salt. But the difficulty was that there were ten thousand ways of combining these simple elements. — Julia Child, My Life in France, 2006

A dog fed on fine white bread flour and water does not live beyond the fiftieth day. A dog fed on the coarse bread of the military lives and keeps his health. — François Magendie, The Lancet, 1826 

Note: I enjoyed dipping into 52 Loaves by William Alexander as I prepared this sermon.

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I can still remember my mother saying to me: ‘Fill up on bread!’

She said it to me often, as I frequently complained that I was still hungry after dinner was finished.

Fill up on bread. I didn’t like a lot of the bread I was given to fill up on though.

I do like good white bread—crusty loaves from the bakery are great—but the white bread I knew as a child was pretty insipid. You know, that tasteless, stick-to-the-roof-of-the-mouth white fluff that has passed for ‘bread’ since before I was born.

That was the only white bread I knew in my childhood, so it’s not surprising that I always preferred brown bread to this so-called bread.

I’m not the only one who thinks a lot of bread tastes awful. This quotation is attributed to the American celebrity cook Julia Child:

How can a country be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?

Indeed.

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