20th September 2015 - Hugh Perry
Proverbs 31: 10-31
The reading this morning is from the closing verses of the book of Proverbs. If you remember last week we read from the beginning where we were introduced to woman wisdom who taught at the city gate and today we find this wisdom as the good wife who does some very male things like property speculation. Claudia Camp sees a link between the feminisation of wisdom at the beginning and end of the book to form a unity that includes this feminine wisdom throughout the book. Judith McKinlay however wonders if the strong willed woman wisdom at the beginning of the book has in fact been domesticated into the dutiful wife at the end.
Mark 9: 30-37
This is the second prediction of Jesus’ passion and the group are travelling through Galilee and Jesus does not want anyone to know because, in Mark’s Gospel, the time of his public ministry is passed and he is now teaching the disciples. As usual the disciples do not understand and, immediately after the prediction, they begin arguing among themselves about who is the greatest.
Marcus Borg notes the use of paradox in this section ‘whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’. He then goes on to define paradox as a statement that seems contradictory or absurd but expresses a possible truth and adds that the way of following Jesus is not about becoming masters, but servants.
The image of the child, in itself, throws the focus more on the lowliness than on the service. The child is vulnerable. But then the focus shifts from the child back again to caring, this time for the child. Caring for vulnerable human beings is part of what caring is about.
My God is so big, so strong and so mighty,
There's nothing my God cannot do.
I am sure we have all sung that song and I suspect there are a fair number of people who expect their God to be ‘so strong and so mighty that they don’t have to worry about anything because their god will sort everything out for them. Furthermore their god will understand their unique perspective on life and not only put them in charge but help them get rid of the people they hate.
The early success of Donald Trump’s campaign to be the republican candidate in the United States presidential election demonstrates the expectations people have of a god who is ‘so strong and so mighty.’ Trump is phenomenally wealthy and has promoted a style of leadership though aggression and bullying. For many he appears to be just the sort of leader to make the US their kind of place but if he should become president it will be interesting to see how many people get the official Trump message. ‘You’re fired.’
However the recent news that really amused me was a local white supremacist who said he was trying to preserve the white race. I looked at his overall dishevelled appearance and though ‘why.’ He just didn’t seem to have the sort of DNA worth preserving.
In contrast to these imagined saviours the image Jesus gives of God, in this morning’s reading is not of a god is who is so big, so strong and so mighty but a vulnerable God. Right from the turning point on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the climax of the crucifixion Mark’s Gospel focuses on the vulnerability of the God we image in Jesus.
Of course the disciples do not understand and we also struggle to understand. Once again Jesus talks about his execution and following Jesus’ rebuke of Peter the disciples are afraid to engage in the conversation or ask any questions. Instead they argue among themselves about who is the greatest. Perhaps Jesus’ talk of his death prompted a discussion about succession. More likely, as the text makes clear, they don’t understand. They were still fixated on the idea of an all conquering mighty messiah that would become king when they get to Jerusalem so they were arguing about the cabinet posts they will get as his supporters. In fact further along in the narrative James and John come to Jesus and ask ‘grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory. (Mark 10:37) That is a fair indication that they still see Jesus at least as a king and probably a god who is so big, so strong and so mighty. Therefore they also imagine that as supporters they will get some of the power and the glory.
Donald Trump’s supporters will be having those same discussions on his presidential campaign. That is if a campaign eventuates and they don’t get fired for having sensible hairdos.
However the confusion is not just limited to the disciples. In her commentary on Mark’s Gospel Morna Hooker suggests that although we will never know for sure there probably was wrangling in the gospel writer’s community. Even if there wasn’t Mark would have guessed that it would be inevitable that such disputes would arise in any community of Jesus’ followers.
This is certainly borne out by church history and although Constantine usually gets the blame the church’s bishops quickly adapted to the privileged lifestyle. Furthermore the fact that Constantine had bishops to deal with indicated that the church already had a hierarchy. In fact it is really difficult for any organisation to exist without some form of structured leadership. Perhaps Jesus recognised that when he gave the instruction ‘whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35)
Ironically the way such leadership can work is demonstrated in our Proverbs reading where the strong willed woman wisdom at the beginning of the book seems to have been domesticated into the dutiful wife in a patriarchal society. However if we pay close attention we find that the male who sits at the gate is not praised for his own achievements but because of the achievements of his wife. It is the dutiful wife who engages in property development and expands the family business while she keeps the household running. The dutiful wife is equally as wise as the wisdom Spirit who speaks at the city gates. She is wise enough to be a leader of all, by being a servant of all.
Leadership in Jesus’ community, and the community of those who would continue to take Jesus’ ideals into the future, must be leadership that first and foremost wants to serve. To serve both the gospel and those that the leader is called to lead. It must be leadership that, in the name of the God who is vulnerable enough to be crucified, welcomes the most vulnerable into the community of Christ. To illustrate that point Jesus took a child in his arms and said ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’. (Mark 9:37). This is not Jesus promoting our breakfast church or the Kids Friendly programme although the way we include children in both the church and our community is certainly important. Jesus was using the child as an example of the most vulnerable of people and in fact many communities don’t regard children as people.
I can still remember being together with my aunt and my cousins when the conversation moved to the approach of our 40th birthdays. My aunt’s surprised reaction was to exclaim ‘O gosh, you are all almost people! My aunt certainly valued children and it was the realisation of just how old we were becoming that prompted the remark. I can remember being just as shocked to hear Geoff and Kim Calvert discuss how they intended to celebrate their 40th birthdays.
On a more serious note in the debate on paid parental leave in parliament last week ACT MP David Seymour said that he wanted to ‘advance the principle’ that ‘people should only have children when they can afford it.’ Raewyn and I had children when we couldn’t afford it and it was a real struggle. In fact it is only in very recent years that we really could afford to have children. By then our boys were school teachers making a solid contribution to the future society and growing with them as been a real joy. The greatest blessing however is they are never likely to join the ACT party.
Sir Ray Avery spent his childhood running away from foster homes after his drunken father left and his mother knocked him unconscious with a piece of firewood. Sir Ray Avery’s story demonstrates that the great blessing of children and of the worlds most vulnerable is that they have the potential to do amazing things that transform people’s lives.
However Jesus’ plea for the vulnerable, by using a child as an example, did much more than alert us to the potential of vulnerable people. The second part of the statement is ‘whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’. (Mark 9:37). That is one of the gospel statements that underpins Trinitarian theology and links Jesus and God together. More importantly it links Jesus’ vulnerability with divine vulnerability. Furthermore the verse makes the theological statement that we welcome Christ when we welcome the most vulnerable. That concept is more fully developed In Matthew 25:31-46 as the parable of the sheep and the goats. That episode also highlights the reality that we cut ourselves off from Christ when we fail to welcome the vulnerable. For I was hungry and you gave me no food and so on until Jesus says ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matthew 25:45)
In today’s passage Jesus calls us to a sense of solidarity with lowliness and vulnerability and affirms that in acts of caring and love we come face to face with the divine. Jesus is speaking of community which provides mutual caring and support and his own actions demonstrate such a possibility. His self-giving is both the symbol of divine presence and the model of being in communion with him and in community with others both within the church and throughout all humanity.
After we successfully promoted the St Albans Facebook someone made a cynical comment on our page that there was not a single show from any of the so called gods when Christchurch was devastated by the Earthquakes. That person seemed to be expecting intervention from a god so big, so strong and so mighty rather than the Christ who walks beside us in our darkest moments. In actual fact, immediately after even the first earthquakes many of the city’s churches were in action very quickly with vulnerable people helping vulnerable people. Later this year we will be part of an ongoing door knocking campaign that began checking on people immediately after the earthquakes and continues to put those vulnerable people still feeling the earthquakes effects in touch with those who can help. Other people of faith also made themselves vulnerable to help the vulnerable. Members of the Auckland Buddhist Community flew to Christchurch as soon as we had a functioning airport to join their Christchurch counterpart in opening a kitchen in the CBD. They brought vegetables and a very large cheque.
It is absolutely true that there's nothing our God cannot do but our God, we image in the vulnerable Christ who walks beside us in our darkest moments, operates in our world through people of faith who lead by serving others.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp.380,381.
 Marcus j. Borg The Gospel of Mark (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2009) pp.77,78.
 Morna Hooker The Gospel according to St Mark (London: A&C Black, 1991), pp.225-228.