Touching heaven, touching lepers…

A reflection offered at Hobart North Uniting Church, 15th Feb 2015

Mark 9:2-9 & Mark 1:40-45

You might expect that, given what I do for a living, I’d be involved in lots of conversations about Jesus! And perhaps I am. Recently I’ve been involved in two such conversations in particular, and they’ve given me quite a lot to think about.

The first was an email one in a group that I’ve been part of for several years: a large group connected with the Common Dreams Progressive Faith movement that has included important international theologians like John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Val Webb, and John Spong… and people like me! As you might imagine, I’ve not agreed with everything I read there, but have found it helpful to look on, and have even added something occasionally.

This particular conversation was triggered by a prayer written by someone in England in response to a terrorist attack. It began a robust back and forth conversation on the nature and language of prayer, on how we speak of and relate to GOD, and on how speak of Jesus in the context of all of this. The content of the discussion was interesting.  But I became saddened by the way in which it quite quickly turned into a debate, and then an argument, about who was REALLY progressive in the conversation. The debate turned into a kind of ‘reverse-doctrine’ thing, based on who had the ‘best’ language, and then on who was or wasn’t still a Christian!

Now, I suspect it was a bunch of good people having a bad day, but I was disappointed enough in the conversation to delete the emails and leave it alone.
The second conversation was much smaller, immediate, and life-giving. It involved two wonderful people who were interested to chat about some reading that we’ve been doing. As is always the case, we came to our chat with some similar stories of faith and life behind us and some different ones too.
My partners in conversation suggested that I’d been learning and thinking about Jesus for a while now, and so might be able to help them with their questions and reflections. I hope that was the case. But our chat was a particular delight to me as well, because I experienced again the pleasure of ideas, experience and faith shared.
And the next day there was an email thanking me, which contained a statement that I have enjoyed and pondered over ever since: “Whatever conclusion I arrive at there is always the constant of the wonderful Jesus”

I could stop there… But you just KNOW I’m not going to!

Sitting with that comment and these two conversations is what prompted me to put these tow gospel readings together, rather than choosing one The lectionary has two sets of readings for this day in the Christian year, one involving the healing of the man with leprosy, and one for the Feast of the Transfiguration. Presumably the people who formed the lectionary see these as two distinct sets of readings and themes, and would probably be surprised to find anyone wanting to bring them together.
Challenge accepted!

I agree with my friend that Jesus is a constant in my life and faith, and a wonderful figure at its heart. And for me one of the ‘most wonder-full’ elements of that is the complexity of his character. As we read the gospel stories we are presented with a life full of complex, rich and diverse experiences, with a man who understood his life with a depth of wisdom few of us ever reach. We are met by someone whose sense of God is so profound that it touches every aspect of his life, and yet he is willing to be challenged by the faith of others and learn from them.

Such complexity in the one that we choose to call “LORD” means, I think, that there needs to be some complexity in the way we understand him and attend to his gospel. This is the stuff of theology. Theology is sometimes talked about as best left to that rare breed of people called ‘theologians’, who sit in their studies and write books and give lectures based on every 14th word in 1 Thessalonians. Yes, such people do exist for sure, but the vast majority of theologians are like you and me, people who live and work within the ministry of local churches and communities of faith. You may have heard me say it before, but I’ll say it again anyway: “There’s no one here but us theologians”.

The academic ‘scholars’ are critically important. They (we, actually) are vitally important to help all of us grow in our sense of Jesus, and of the GOD we believe is revealed in and through him. But whether or not we regard ourselves as scholars in the strict academic sense, each of us is called to learn of Jesus. Even more importantly, we are called to learn and grow in the way of Jesus. Jesus the complex, authentic, and wonderful heart of our stories today.

It matters that we attend to Mark’s story of the transfiguration. It’s not simply there to emphasise Jesus’ authority, and that he’s up there with the ‘big boys’ of the people’s faith history. That’s part of it, certainly, but there’s way more to it than that.
The dazzling appearance, the clothes whiter than any earthly figure could make them… These symbols are here to spell out that, in some deep and unfathomable way, heaven and earth come together in this figure Jesus. This is a huge statement of faith for Mark, embracing both what he can see in an earthly sense in Jesus, and that which can only be experienced as holy mystery. The nature of this mystery doesn’t make sense for Mark by itself, and so he links it with Jesus’ teaching about his future treatment at the hands of the authorities. This, of course, makes no sense to his disciples. Nor is it meant to do so, within the narrative flow (big picture) of Mark’s gospel.

What it does do, is to begin to make clear that stories such as the transfiguration are not meant to be seen in isolation from the other stories in the gospel. Or to put it another way, the ‘glorification’ type stories, are not meant to be seen in isolation from the earthier stories. Each give complexity and meaning to the other.
So, to return to my choice of gospel stories for today, the transfiguration story is a vital part of the picture of Jesus. But if that’s the only picture of him we allow, then we are left with a very one dimensional Jesus.

For Mark, the holiness of the transfiguration story is enhanced by the story of Jesus touching the man with leprosy. And if I may be so presumptuous as to suggest why Jesus is critical of the religious leaders, I think this is part of it: that they fail to recognise that holiness is about engagement with ordinary life and people, rather than standing aloof from them.

The story of Jesus and the man with leprosy needs the story of the transfiguration. It says that the one with the gift of healing was a quite extraordinary person, in all kinds of ways. And the transfiguration needs the healing story. It says that the one in whom GOD was seen in an extraordinary way, understood how that presence was to be lived out.
In crossing the boundaries of holiness and taboo, I see GOD at work in him. Sometimes I am able to do the same. Sometimes his example shames me. And sometimes I hear a word of grace in it, calling me to try again next time!

For me, this week, this is the gift of the ‘constant and wonderful’ Jesus.
Constant in the way of love, and the insistence that this is the way of GOD,
and “wonder-full”, in touching lepers, and touching the heavens!
For this gift, I give thanks.

“How long, O Lord?

Every now and then a random scripture will stop me in my tracks.
The impact may be emotional, intellectual, or both. For a while it may become all I think about.

Almost inevitably, a few days later, my congregation gets to hear about it on Sunday, because I can’t avoid sharing it. Psalm 13 is one of those texts, and this is one of those weeks!
Imagine… You’re on a boat. An old boat, not totally seaworthy, perhaps. You really wish you were somewhere else, almost anywhere, in fact. You really wonder now why you’ve given your life savings to the boat’s owner, based on the promise that he could get you where you wanted to go.
Then you remember where you’ve come from, and you remember thinking that trying to get your kids to safety was worth any risk. Anything is better than where you were…

There’s a lot of you on the boat. As the seas turn nasty (again!), you start to get really afraid, because the boat’s not holding together too well. You realise that after trying to get away to avoid being killed at home, you might end up dying a long way from anywhere. Some people have died already.

The cry goes up: “A ship! Over there.”
It’s a military vessel, but you don’t know whose. Still, you can’t help thinking that all will be well now, you’re being rescued… aren’t you? Continue reading

Strange wisdom… Strange blessings…

( A reflection offered at Hobart North Uniting Church. 2nd Feb 2014)

And maybe a strange title too! 

As I’ve grown older I’ve had to deal with the fact that something which makes quite a lot of sense to me, makes very little sense to a whole lot of the people around me!

The Christian faith that I hold dear, and which helps me to make sense if the world, is described by many people in our world today using words such as: immature, hogwash, insecure, superstition, evil and just plain wrong!

And when those words are used to describe something that I hold dear, I find that tough to hear or read.

That’s a tension that I suspect many of us feel on a fairly regular basis.  Continue reading

on ‘lostness’, and being found…

(Reflections on three parables of Jesus in Luke chapter 15)

 When it comes right down to it, “lostness”, in Luke’s gospel, is about being found.  In other words, it’s about grace!

And it’s about celebration: celebration which draws everyone around into it.


 Something’s going on, here in Luke’s gospel.  The writer has a wide range of stories to work with, as he draws together HIS story of Jesus: stories drawn from decades of oral sayings and traditions.  The three parables which form what we now call chapter 15, tell us a whole lot about how Luke sees Jesus, and the realm of heaven to which he points constantly.

Three stories: one about a farmer who finds his sheep… one about a woman who finds her coin…  and the BIG one!   One of the parables that only Luke tells.  It’s the story of the father who welcomes home his wayward son, and the brother who doesn’t.

Putting the three together helps us reflect on what each might have to say.

For example, it helps us to see that each has a touch of the crazy about it!! Continue reading

“Jeremiah, politics, and starting over…”

An Election Day Reflection on Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house.  Delivered as a rant on Sun 8th Sept at Hobart North UCA

I have to confess that actually getting started on this reflection was incredibly hard for this week.  Trying to write a well thought-out, logical and objective witness just wasn’t working…

Mostly because for much of this week, and the last few weeks, I’ve been too angry to think straight!

 Now don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with which party will form government after yesterday’s election.  (As I wrote this, it was still yesterday morning, when I was feeling sick about having to vote at all.) 

 As a matter of fact, my anger is not all directed at the major parties… (Not ALL of it!)

 It’s actually directed mostly at the social, political, and media process that has brought our nation to the terrible situation in which we find ourselves, and at ourselves for allowing ourselves to misled by all the lies we’ve been fed. Continue reading

“yours”. No, “yours”: Jesus, a father and his sons

A reflection offered at Hobart North UCA, 10th March, 2013

Check out these pictures.  I wonder what you see…

As you look, please take note of what you notice first… what draws you in, if anything?

Note the position of the characters… their expressions, their stance towards each other…

What touches you?  You know the story, how do the pictures help you see it?  Anything new?

The pictures:




What did you notice most?

For me, it was the expressions on the father’s face: delight, relief, gratitude… and some emotions beyond mere words, it seemed to me!

It left me with a question.  Why is this story most widely known as “the prodigal son”??

Quite apart from the fact that ‘prodigal’ is a really strange word, this story of Jesus isn’t about the son at all!  It’s about the other 2 characters: the father, & the elder son.

They are the ones whose responses are important to Jesus the storyteller: they, and their relationships with the younger son. Continue reading

The boats are stopping…

Dear Julny Gillarbbott, I’m hoping you can help me with a problem.  You’ll be pleased to know that we’ve managed to stop the boats, they’re here in Hobart.  The problem is that the people on board don’t seem very interested when I offer to drive them to the Detention Centre at Brighton.  They’re even less interested in going to Nauru!  What should I do?

Or is it ok that these boats arrive? Their owners seem to be quite wealthy and healthy, and there’s food on board, and they don’t seem to be in fear for their lives: is that the difference between these and the other boats that arrive?  Both lots are legal, so it can’t be that…

Please forgive me writing to both of you at the same time, it’s just that I’m not really sure who’s actually running the country!

Regards, Rod