Monday, 20 July 2015

Sermon, Sunday 19 July: 'Breaking down the walls'

1st READING: Psalm 23
2nd READING: Ezekiel 13:9-16
3rd READING: Ephesians 2:11-22

SERMON ‘Breaking down the walls’
let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations 
of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight 
O Lord our strength and our redeemer… amen.                                           

‘He is our peace… who has broken down every wall.’                                                       
…For most of this week, I’ve had that verse from Ephesians in my head, 
along with a picture – 
it’s good to have something in there at least!

Early last year, I had the opportunity to travel to the 
Holy Land on a study tour with a group of students from New College. 
It was an amazing time: an odd time.
Lots of sights, sounds, smells that were unfamiliar, and yet,
strangely familiar too, as stories from the bible came to life in my head. 
Our group was spending a couple of days in Jerusalem, a city built of stone:
a place where ancient faiths mingled uneasily,
a place of narrow gates, old walls. 
We were walking near the wall known as the ‘Wailing Wall’,
watching observant Jews draped in prayer shawls busy at their devotions.
I was reminded of a photo I’d seen a couple of years before:
a close up of some of the stones in that wall -   
ancient, crumbling, limestone;
big stones;
stones that had expanded and contracted in the heat and in the cold -
the heat and cold in turn creating cracks.
And there, stuffed in the cracks –
were pieces of paper – prayer notes. 
Notes of hope and notes of fear,
notes of love, notes of anger,
notes of life and notes of death,
stones telling prayer stories,
stones with notes…  eloquent in their silence.
It’s a simple photo, and yet, in its very simplicity,
it holds within it such contrasts:
the tiny bits of prayer on crumpled paper - so very fragile, ephemeral...
and the huge stone wall - strong, solid, ancient.
Strength and fragility combining:
a stone wall with cracks and paper prayers….

I’ve been thinking about other walls this week:
There are so many walls…
The Great Wall of China;
The Berlin Wall;
Hadrian’s Wall;
The boundary fence between the USA and Mexico;
The Rabbit-Proof-Fence in Australia – and the film of the same name, 
which was about indigenous kids taken away from their families 
to be placed with white families…
The walls of the Warsaw ghetto – to keep people in;
The large concrete wall zig-zagging its way around parts of Israel – to keep people out;

The world… is full of walls.
Everywhere we go, there are fences, gates, partitions, 
and other ingeniously constructed barriers—                                                           
all aimed at keeping something or someone in, 
and keeping something or someone else out
I’m reminded of the lines of quiet protest about walls 
in Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.'

Walls are useful.
We need walls:
walls in our homes to protect us against wind and rain;
walls to keep livestock safely in and predators out - 
though sometimes keeping the livestock in can be a challenge -
it’s quite something to see the occasional cow leap a wall and 
race off down a track, as I did the other week while I was sitting in the wee car! 

Walls to help us separate spaces and improve organization and efficiency.
But it doesn’t take much to understand that walls, 
both literal and spiritual, can lead to grief, division and even violence:
racial walls, religious walls,
political and ideological walls:
concrete, limestone, barbed wire, brick,
bible, torah, koran.
And it doesn’t take much of a jump to realise that when it comes to walls,
we face a dilemma, a paradox:
when we wall people or things out, we wall ourselves in -
hold ourselves captive to our fears both real and imagined…
and then we hear the words:
He is our peace, who has broken down every wall...

In Ephesians we read that Christ has "broken down the barrier of enmity."
The church in Ephesus was faced with a problem – 
a division brought about due to religious ritual, 
and the clash of culture and tradition - namely, differing views on circumcision.
There was the ‘in gang’, those who were circumcised;
And there were the folks on the edge,
who didn’t fit in,
who weren’t circumcised and who weren’t about to be, either.
The inner group thought of them as outsiders, aliens, strangers, foreigners.
There were cracks in the relationships between the members in the church at Ephesus.
Strong walls had been built:
tall walls which stopped them from coming into the fullness of God’s hospitality.
All walls serve a purpose,
but not all walls serve the purposes of God

And the writer of Ephesians was at pains to stress that this had to stop,
that this shouldn’t be the case –
that in Christ, there were to be no divisions.
That the work of Christ was to turn strangers into friends,
to invite the aliens – the foreigners insidefrom a place of exclusion,
to a place at the table in the household of God,
and that the process of reconciliation was a process 
where walls of separation,
of division and dissention,
were cracked,
broken down,
in and by Christ,
peace-bringer and wall-dismantler.

These days, watching the news, it can feel like hostility is the default position
when it comes to how we live and relate to one another.                                                           
Faced with a relentless stream of bad news stories -
of wars, of terrorism, of neighbourly disputes,
it can be very hard to imagine how we even begin to go 
about the work of peace and reconciliation,
of breaking down walls.

And then, there’s the small but important matter of perspective: of where we stand. 
Perspective and power shift depending on what side of the wall we’re standing on.
Let’s be blunt: in the ongoing discussions about immigration, 
I’m someone who looks at this from the perspective of being one of
‘those foreigners’!!
I’m rather pleased the Government hasn’t thrown me out as yet.
But the side of the wall we stand on colours our view of the ones standing
on the other side:
And back to the Holy Land for a moment:
Just ask the Jewish "settler
about the Palestinian "squatter"…
differentiations… divisions,
demarcation lines drawn.
it’s a very human thing, this building of barriers.

And in our own lives, there will have been times when 
we’ve helped to build walls of hostility:  
within our families,
amongst our friends,
with neighbours,
with collegues at work. 
We’ve built walls with folk we’ve both known and not known –
people holding differing political views,
people not considered to be from our culture,
even people in the church.
Church communities have been torn apart with arguments about which bibles
to have in the pews…
or whether or not to actually have pews;
or about worship style: traditional or less-traditional worship? 
Noisy or contemplative?
Or who may, or may not, be a Christian.

What about the walls between Christian groups?
The growth of more and more denominations as
Christian brothers and sisters form splinter groups 
convinced that theirs is the only way to follow God?
The scandal of divisions, splits and infighting that flies 
in the face of Jesus' high priestly prayer for unity and oneness? (John 17)?
Such troubles in the body of Christ are a sign 
not necessarily of diversity but of division. 
Used as excuses sometimes to score points, perhaps?  
They compromise the church's witness and grieve the Holy Spirit.

We've built many of them, not out of bricks and mortar, 
but out of the raw material of sin and division. 
Then we've cemented them with the mortar of name-calling, 
labeling and prejudice – all ways that effectively dehumanise 
those who are different, those seen as ‘other’….
All walls serve a purpose, but not all walls serve the purposes of God.

In light of this, how should we ‘unpack’ our text from Ephesians chapter 2? 
This is where I see a connection with the Psalm this morning:
It is so, so easy to be busy -
to get caught up in a cycle of endless activity
in our busy, fast-paced world.
Maybe walking away from the circus of our lives for a while,
and allowing ourselves times of refreshing, 
allowing ourselves to be led by still waters,
allowing ourselves to quietly trust and give thanks 
and ensure that God is the still, peaceful centre in our lives,                      
would help us to find a place of peace from which we can then begin to work for peace. 

Thomas a Kempis said:
‘First keep the peace within yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.’ 
And Christ, the peace-maker, the peace-bringer is the foundation of our peace –
reconciling ourselves to God,
reconciling ourselves to ourselves
reconciling ourselves to others

The peace described here is not just a ceasing of conflict
 or the absence of violence.
Here unity, peace and hope are not things at all; they are a person.
Christ is our peace;
in his flesh he has blurred the differentiation and demarcation 
and has broken down the dividing wall. 
In Christ's death on the cross,
peace has been achieved and hostility has been crucified.
Peace is not necessarily the absence of noise:
Jesus is the God-human wrecking crew, 
that demolishes the walls that divide 
and who gifts us with unity, peace, and reconciliation.  
Peace in this case is less the absence of noise and more
the sound of walls cracking and crumbling and falling down
and of rubble being cleared away and of paths being made,
and doors being flung wide open.
Peace is not necessarily the absence of noise…
it’s the sound of building work –
the work of building relationships grounded in Christ the cornerstone.

Donald Hilton, a writer and minister in the URC, once said that:
‘the Church is meant to be a laboratory of peace, 
a parable of the Kingdom, a sign of contradiction among the nations,
a place of welcome amidst the sectarianism and xenophobia 
of the surrounding society, a community of praise.’
Ironically, as those brought into the household of God,
we live in a dwelling place with God that doesn’t have walls,                                                        
a place not made by human hands:
we worship a God who is uncontainable;                                            
a God beyond walls… 

The Church is not made of bricks and mortar but of flesh and blood;
built on the foundation of Christ the cornerstone,  
who reconciled us with God, 
and we carry on with the work of reconciliation.
The work of reconciliation happens when we decide 
to speak with a member of our family who we’ve fallen out with, 
and who we’ve not spoken to for a long time;
It’s when we stand in solidarity with those in our society who are oppressed
because they are different…
It’s when we support projects which give people in local communities 
opportunities to have fun together and to build relationships between villages  – 
and I’m thinking of the such things as our new community choir, 
or our parish lunches, 
or in the wider world, of small acts of saving stamps for the work of World Mission
or supporting Sujitha, the child we sponsor as a community.
The writer to the Ephesians says:
‘yours was a world without hope and without God’
Our task is to be reconcilers, as Christ reconciles:
To be bringers of hope to the world;
To be reminders that God is in the world…
To use our prayers to widen the cracks in the walls;
To see and to help the peaceable kingdom come –
To serve the Prince of peace…
for he is our peace,
who has broken down every wall.  Amen 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Sermon, Sunday 12 July: 'Power, pride, passion, revenge'

1st READING: Psalm 24
2nd READING: Mark 6:14 - 29

SERMON 'Power, pride, passion, revenge'

It’s a story of power, of pride,
of passion, and of revenge.
Now before any of you go thinking of programmes like
‘House of Cards’ or ‘Game of Thrones’
or perhaps even ‘Emmerdale’ or ‘Eastenders’...
I’m referring to our gospel passage this morning;
a passage that I confess, caused me to look heavenwards,
sigh rather loudly, and made me wonder why on earth
I’d chosen to preach on it.
Because this particularly gruesome story -
of John the Baptist’s execution in the Gospel of Mark -
could hardly be described as one of your lighter, fluffier cheerful bible texts.
In fact, it fits into a special category of bible readings
commonly referred to as the ‘terrible texts’ of the Bible.
And, it’s unremittingly grim...
so now that I’ve cheered you all up -
well, given you a little advance warning at least,
let’s explore this story!

Two questions sprang to mind as I pondered this particular ‘terrible text’.
The first:
Where is the good news in this passage?
The second:
Why does the writer choose to place this story where he does?
Why is it here?

To help answer these questions,
and, thinking of our themes of power, pride, passion, and revenge,
we need a little background context for this story.
Who are the main characters in this drama?
There’s John, cousin of Jesus, and very popular prophet.
Perhaps worryingly popular if you're a ruler:
in his life-time, he’s certainly more popular than Jesus.
And he certainly makes a statement -
not just by his words, but by the way he acts.
He’s quite a striking figure:
stern, austere,
a wild man who’s lived in the desert hills and valleys;
who wears a camel’s hair garment tied with a leather belt -
the clothing of a prophet.
He eats locusts and wild honey.
And he emerges from the desert preaching repentance
and baptising those who listen to his words.
He takes no prisoners with his message:
he is a truth-speaker
who tells things as they are to people regardless of their station in society.
And it’s this truth-speaking, without fear or favour,
that’s landed him in Herod’s prison.
John has openly criticised Herod for breaking with
religious regulations and marrying his brother’s wife.

And what of Herod?
Herod could have had John killed immediately -
after all, he’s got the power to do it,
and yet, he doesn’t:
John holds a fascination for him -
Herod knows him to be a righteous and holy man,
likes to listen to him,
even though John’s message is a hard one for him to listen to.
This Herod -Antipas - is the son of King Herod:
Herod the Great.
That same Herod the Great who spoke to Wise Men from the east
and ordered the slaughter of the innocents.
While Herod Junior is not a particularly nice bloke
his dad, Herod Senior is in a whole different league of nasty, and of power.
Herod Senior is recognised as a king by the Romans;
Herod the younger is not.
He’s not really ‘king’ Herod, he’s Herod the Tetrarch,
’tetrarch’ signifying a quarter:
Herod Junior holds only a quarter of his father’s kingdom,
has nowhere near his status and power.
And because of this, it appears that Herod the younger
is all about trying to make himself look like a big man,
a man in charge,
a man of power and substance.
Perhaps this is partly why he’s now married to Herodias -
having abducted her from his brother Philip.
It’s a way of demonstrating Philip’s impotence, weakness:
the marriage is a way of humiliating his brother;
young Herod’s way of showing everyone that he’s powerful
and he can take what he wants, whenever he wants.
Or rather, he’d like to think he’s powerful,
and, to some extent, of course, he does have some power...
but effectively, he’s merely a puppet hanging on Roman strings,
given power only because it suits his Roman masters for the time being.
He’s rash, impulsive,
and lives under the shadow of his dead father’s greater reputation.

And then there’s Herodias - Philip’s ex-wife.
She is not at all best pleased by the wild prophet John
who has the temerity to criticise her relationship with Herod Junior.
She knows she’s on rocky religious ground -
and she’s probably a figure of scandal and gossip
and perhaps even mockery down in the market-place.
Her situation is tenuous:
dependent upon a weak and fickle not-quite-king
to keep her not just in luxury and comfort,
but to keep her safe.
John’s words,
John’s presence,
and her husband’s fascination with him and what he says,
are a threat to her position.
If John’s was a message about repentance,
might Herod repent,
and might she be cast aside?
Out of fear, if for no other reason,
she nurses revenge in her heart and looks for the right opportunity
to rid herself of a potential threat.
And fear can cause people to act quite viciously,
and to justify any means to get the desired ends,
even if those means involve using your young daughter.

Herodias’ daughter, probably also named Herodias,
is also referred to as 'Salome'.
You may have heard of the ‘dance of the seven veils’
and of Oscar Wilde’s story ‘Salome’, or Richard Strauss’s opera.
And she’s portrayed in these as sensual, seductive.
But here we have a problem:
for in the biblical text, unlike the opera,
Herodias’ daughter is a wee girl -
according to the Greek word for ‘girl’ in the text.
So we have an ambiguity:
is this scene in fact as sexually charged as has been implied by writers and musicians?
If she's very young, this moves into quite dubious territory...
Or does the wee lassie just do an innocent dance at a party
that delights the assembled guests, and makes her step-dad proud?
I’ll leave that for you to decide,
but I think it’s the latter.
Nevertheless, what we do know, is that the mother
uses the daughter to exact her revenge on John the Baptist.

Herod, in front of his guests,
wanting to score points,
wanting to look good,
wanting to demonstrate the kind of ruler he is,
the kind of power he has,
grandiosely promises the girl anything -
well, up to half of his kingdom...
which, incidentally, isn’t really in his power to give away.
What would she like?

Well, if I'd have been the poor mite,
I might have possibly been thinking of a nice pony, or a wee dolly.
Salome heads back to mum to ask her advice.
And Herodias jumps at the chance:
‘John’s head on a platter, thanks very much’
It’s possibly not what Salome was expecting or hoping for
and it’s certainly not what Herod expects - he's 'distressed'.
Nevertheless...he demonstrates his power.
Or does he?

If this is a story about power,
Herod is actually demonstrating just how weak a ruler he is,
and just how rotten to the core his not-quite kingdom is.
He has the power to choose,
and he chooses the path of least resistance.
He doesn’t want to lose face.
He goes with the crowd-pleasing thing to do.
Had he really been strong, powerful,
a man of conviction -
of integrity...
a man like the one he’s just about to have killed,
he may have chosen to laugh at the wee lassie
then given her the pony, and told her to go off to bed -
and very possibly had strong words with her mother
for being so blatantly manipulative in public.
Ironically, his name means ‘heroic’
but this story shows him as anything but.

Earlier, I noted that there were two questions arising from this text.
The latter question first:
What is this story of power, pride,
passion, and revenge doing here, in the midst of another story in Mark’s gospel?
The other story, which gets spliced in two,
is also about power,
is also about a kingdom
is also about a kind of passion.

The story of John’s execution sits within the story
of Jesus sending out the disciples to preach.
And as they do,
signs of a kingdom not of this world, are shown:
good things happen in the darkest of places.
There’s repentance, and restoration of body, mind, and spirit.
there are healings,
there’s joy and excitement
and the hope that God’s will can be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
It’s a kingdom that comes with sacrifice for, and on behalf of, others.
Here, there are two kingdoms being contrasted:
two kinds of power,
two kinds of kingship.
And my sense is, that the writer of the gospel also places
the story of John’s death here as way-marker:
John’s passion and death at the hands of Herod,
pointing to Jesus’ passion and death at the hands of Pilate -
both, earthly rulers who are merely cogs
in the greater machine of Imperial Rome.

And the other question?
Where is the good news, in this particular text -
a text of violence, revenge, and lust for power?
It’s that, this text shows us where real power sits:
Herod is a pale shadow of his father,
a pale shadow of a king -
weak, ineffectual, self-centred.
Herod’s kingdom-that-is-not-quite-a-kingdom,
is mired in corruption, greed, jealously, revenge;
it is self-serving:
a tin-pot kingdom in which the choice is made
that the innocent are killed
alongside truth, justice, and integrity.
It is a shabby not-quite kingdom that is
found to be seriously wanting by the writer of the Gospel.
In contrast, Mark points to another way, another kingdom:
a real kingdom in which the choice is made to
care for the vulnerable -
to look after the frail, the poor,
to protect the innocent;
where truth is spoken,
where justice and integrity,
and loving-kindness prevail.

At the beginning of the story of John’s death,
Herod thinks that Jesus is a resurrected John.
But friends, we know that Jesus is the resurrection -
the one who has defeated death and the one who promises abundant life;
the one whose kingdom is eternal and who calls us
to use our position, our power - who we are and where we are -
to be about the work of that kingdom.

We are none of us independent of each other:
the choices we make impact upon the lives of others.
And while we may not have the kind of power that Herod had,
a power that could destroy lives,
we do have the power within us
to choose the way of the kingdom of God:
to choose the way of love.
To choose to find ways to love God
and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves...
To dream dreams of peace
and to work for that peace
in a world of bitter strife;*
to embrace God’s vision of hope, of healing,
and love for the world, and for humanity.

Every day, in the news, in our neighbourhoods,
we hear stories of power, pride, passion, and sometimes, even revenge.
That is the way of the kingdoms of the world -
the way of places where shadowy power resides:
whether nations or households...
Let us choose to use the power we have
to demonstrate the power and promise
of the kingdom of heaven -
so that our lives point to the good news:
the good news that God has not finished with us.
....The good news that can turn a terrible text into one that points to hope,
and to a love that lasts for not only a lifetime, but for all eternity.
And so may God’s name be praised.

*As we think of the choices we can make to point to God’s kingdom, let’s sing:
HYMN 710 ‘I have a dream,’ a man once said

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Garden Party...

And so the great day dawned. The minister opened one weary eye, noted the dull, grey sky, heard the patter-patter raindrops and went 'aaargh'.  Cheered on by the news that the rain would pass by 11ish and that the afternoon would be warm 'n sunshiney, things began to be moved. The wondrous Social Committee were soon on hand, organising tasks with military precision.
And still it rained.
A couple of judicious decisions were made as to where to relocate the afternoon teas, and games area, and then 2pm rolled in.
The rain, a smirry drizzle, continued.
Heedless of the weather, people began to appear.
Hot dogs [happy Independence Day, USA] were made and eaten, games were played, tombolas ...tombola'ed.  Afternoon teas were happily devoured, the giant Jenga didn't crush anyone when it fell, and in a rare moment of dryness a wee spot of petanque happened.
Great to see so many people turn up despite the weather and lovely to have such a nice buzz about the manse.  In amidst the fun-raising, we also both covered our costs and raised £416.
Huge thanks to all who came along and supported our 1st Garden Party, and very special thanks to the wonderful Social Committee [and friends] who planned and prepared, and made such a success of what had been an off the cuff thought by the minister.
I suspect we'll do it all again in a year's time - perhaps with some gazebos!!
[The rain finally cleared at about 4.15 and the weather was fabulous for the rest of the evening...!]

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Sermon, Sunday 5 July: 'Tall Poppies'

1st READING: Ezekiel 2:1-5
2nd READING: Mark 6:1-13

SERMON ‘Tall poppies’
Let’s pray: may the words of my mouth, 
and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, 
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Consider the poppies of the field …                      
Their seeds stir beneath the wasted soil,     
Moving, reaching upwards,
breaking out and rising -                                                                    
Rising towards the sun.                                 
Consider the poppies of the field,                         
scattered red amidst the swaying,
golden barley -
tall, red, bold:                                      
prophets -                                                          
singing songs of praise to the Holy One.

Tall poppies.                                                            
It was one of those amazing purple-golden hazy late summer evenings.                               
I was on the bus, taking the very winding way home.  
Coming around a corner, a field filled with gently rippling barley –            
shimmering gold on that already golden evening…
and scattered throughout,
scarlet splashes – patches of glorious red poppies. 
The landscape, a little like a prophet telling forth God’s wonders.                                
The bus stopped a moment to let me bask in the beauty of it all –
well, to pick up a couple of passengers,
but why let facts stand in the way of a nice story?!       
We drove on. 
The golden barley and the red poppies
fell away from sight.                              
I eventually got home…
still in a bit of a wonder about the interplay
of colour and landscape and light and...
sense of connection and yet mystery of God.
One of those ‘gosh’ moments – a ‘numinous’ moment.
It was years ago, and the picture stays with me still.

Tall poppies.                                                                                 
One of those terms we Aussies use to describe
people who have been extremely successful in some way:
fame, fortune, or however success might be
measured at any particular moment.                                          
Tall poppies:
people ‘outstanding’ in their field, as it were.                                                   
The kind of person who seems to come from out of nowhere –
from humble beginnings, or difficult background –
who has a particular talent or idea,                    
and sometimes, almost the air of the prophet about them –
though not always proclaiming the glory of God.                                       
People get wind of the story and it takes off -
or, in our age of social media and technology -
the story goes ‘viral’ and the ‘underdog’ is cheered on,                      
until, having succeeded, somehow, the crowds say:
‘enough.  You’re getting too big for your boots.                         
Who do you think you are, anyway?                           
We knew you when you were just a snotty-nosed kid
running about in nappies.’  
Popularity can be a fickle thing.
Tall poppies.                                                        
One thing common to both the poppies in the field
and the poppies who are people is that they’re torn down. 
The poppies are destroyed in the harvest by farmers,
and the other poppies are destroyed –
knocked back down to size by a harvest of jealousy or incredulity or cynicism.
I’m not a psychologist and I’ve never really
got my head around why people actually do this:
but it’s a strange human phenomenon,this so-called ‘tall poppy syndrome’. 

One sad element arising from it can be found in a comment made to me 
a long while back when I was working for a family caring for
two young teenage girls:
they were great – fun, pretty, kind and clever but…. 
one day the younger of the girls was talking about her school work:
she said she knew she could do better, a lot better in fact, 
but instead, did what she needed to in order to be in the middle –
she didn’t want to be top of the class:
she didn’t want to ‘stand out’ - that way led to bullying.                
…If you stand out, expect rejection.

Tall poppies.                                                        
‘Tall poppy syndrome’.                                    
Jesus knew what it was to be a tall poppy –            
to be different,                                                        
to be acclaimed …                                                   
to be rejected.                                                          
In our passage from the gospel of Mark this morning,
we get a glimpse of tall poppy syndrome unfolding in Nazareth,
where Jesus and the disciples have arrived.                                   
Nazareth: Jesus’ hometown.                                 
He is once again amongst family, friends – a warm, safe space of welcome.                   
The homecoming of the local boy ‘done good’. 
Except that this homecoming is not as welcoming, not as warm,  
and perhaps not even as safe a space as Jesus and the disciples may have wished for.  
As seemed to be his usual practice, Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath,
and he began to teach.
He read from the book of the prophet Isaiah and the gathered crowd -
people who had grown up with him,
people who had known him all his life were amazed at his gracious words:
they were astonished.                                                  
You can almost see them looking at Jesus and then at each other, 
eyes slightly popping out of their sockets in surprise.                                           
Now there’s a thing!                                                       
And then the questions begin…                          
But how?                                                              
But why?...                                                          

And the growing tension and anger:                                                        
hang on, just a darned minute!                       
And then the statements, the labels, the rationalisations…accusations.
Who does he think he is, anyway?            
Joseph’s “son”…
something a bit dubious about that, as I recall.                                   
Well, I reckon he’s got some cheek to stand up there
and tell us how we should live our lives!  
Instead of wandering about the countryside he should be 
at home taking his family responsibilities seriously. 
Seemingly, there was a lot of offended muttering,
amidst the sound of feathers being well and truly ruffled.

And Jesus looked at them, and he, in turn was astonished;
astonished at their unbelief.                                                  
He spoke of prophets not being recognised,       
not being honoured in their home town
and that it had ever been this way in Israel’s history.   
He spoke of God’s love being wider than they imagined…
And they were infuriated.                                
So infuriated,                                                       
so angry that they were prepared to grab him
by the scruff of the neck and throw him off a cliff.          
And, taking the disciples, he quietly wandered off
to other villages teaching wherever he went.     
And then sent the disciples out in pairs. 
They were to stick their heads above the parapet,
they were to talk about the good news of the message of God, 
and in doing so, to stand out and to be rejected
like tall poppies.                                                                
If you stand out, expect rejection…      

Tall poppies.                                                    
Prophets –                                                        
People with a message…                                    
Tall poppies make us uncomfortable.
Down through the ages prophets have had a reputation
for being a bit odd,                                     
a bit prickly,                                                             
a bit … challenging.                                                 
And the message of Jesus was challenging:           
so challenging that as we’ve heard,
the people in Nazareth took offence -
Jesus angered them with his message -                                                         
the message to go out and proclaim the reign of God 
regardless of cost to self,                           
regardless of the bonds of family ties…         
To leave their comfort zones and to live the message
by engaging in healings and exorcisms,
and by setting the prisoners and the oppressed free.  
To be bearers of the good news of the breaking in
of God’s reign both in word and deed;                                                                
To be and bear good news for the poor even if it meant 
leaving all you’d ever known in order to proclaim it.[1]                   
And if they didn’t - didn’t listen, didn’t go -      
if they rejected the news and the mission,
well, as Jesus reminded them from their holy book,                                                               
God would go elsewhere, choose others.

But, why were they infuriated?     
Jesus was challenging the very structure of society,
and community, and family.                          
Saying uncomfortable things to those who thought of themselves
as chosen, as special;                                                       
who looked out at the world and perhaps felt they
were a cut above the rest,                                            
a little bit better,                                                         
and who, because of that, 
perhaps imagined God’s love being available only to them.    
And Jesus was turning that idea on its head.        
He was almost scandalising them by saying
that God’s love went beyond their boundaries – 
that they couldn’t ring-fence God in and keep God for themselves.  
And in response, society, community, and even family, 
ultimately rejected the message.                             
It was just… too much.                                                                      

And the message of Jesus is still challenging…   still… infuriating.                                       
Because the message of the breaking in of God’s reign
is one which overturns the whole way society currently functions.   
The scandal of the message is that it proclaims 
the breaking down of systemic structures of power that reek and creak
and which are rotten to the core.                                                                      
It is a message of liberation of the oppressed,
it is the message that there is another, better way: 
it is the message of love –                                      
God’s love for the world and humanity;              
our love for our neighbour,                                 
and love for ourselves –                                
which goes beyond, which goes deeper,
even than the way we understand family ties. 
In one sense, it enlarges family to include the whole of humanity and creation…                
The scandal of the message is about love –            
love that doesn’t create a fence in order to keep people out
but love that breaks down the fence:            
a radically inclusive love which liberates all of us,
taking us beyond our boundaries and way of being. 
And it’s the message, as Jesus’ followers,
that we are to proclaim and, in doing so,
to expect rejection:                       
to be cut down, like tall poppies.

Tall poppies: we come back, full circle.                                 
Who are the prophets in our midst, I wonder?                                                                  
I suspect that Prophets come in many shapes and sizes and ages.
Do we listen to the message?                               
And does the message offend us – infuriate us? 
When we reject certain people, does that rejection – 
that exclusion from the community of God’s people –
become our version of not honouring folk 
as potential prophets in our midst?                                                                       
Do we ring-fence God’s love to keep God for ourselves,                                                         
to keep God in, and everyone who we don’t like out?  
And if we do so, do we end up closing ourselves off from
new thoughts, ideas, ways of doing things
which might open us, and the community we are a part of,
to new and exciting possibilities?

Tall poppies.
Poppies are usually associated with Remembrance Sunday.
Maybe though, poppies in the context of our bible text this morning 
provide us with another kind of remembering:                              
poppies seem to ‘pop’ up all over the place –
whether in golden barley fields,                         
or in the cracks in the pavements. 
Perhaps, when we wander past a patch of poppies,
they might also serve to remind us to honour
the prophets who are in our midst, not to cut them down,
and a reminder to keep ourselves open to the scandal of God’s big love –
which no amount of ring-fencing can contain.  Amen

[1] Bill Loader -