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baptism

Baptism and a New Way of Seeing

Baptism Sermon – Mark 9.38-end, Psalm 124

“Come to Church” they said “it will be fine.. it’s a baptism! they don’t talk about all the scary stuff any more.. it’s all luvvey-duvvey now. None of the gratuitous violence or random maiming… it’s all fine and fluffy”….. er… well . .. (whoops!)

We are here on this wonderful joyful day, and then our reading gives us this?£&%@!
As Richard said a few weeks ago… the Lectionary is set for the whole church … a way of working through major themes in the bible over a three year cycle… we don’t get to decide.

But actually if we realise that Jesus is using a metaphor, creating the most vivid images to make a dramatic point.. we will see that there is something in this reading which is pertinent to our baptismal family today, and indeed to all of us….

* I want to introduce you to an OT Hebrew word; Anawim, עָנָו
‘Anaw’ means afflicted, humble, poor the outcast, the vulnerable – those open to exploitation……. A common usage was ‘little ones’ (Anawim, is the plural).

Who might that be? Children certainly… revealing vulnerability and innate trust; but also outcast are the homeless, the exploited, or excluded by gender or race or sexuality, the disabled, the sick, those deemed ‘unprofitable’…

* In creation season.. we might think also of the forests, the oceans, indigenous tribes, endangered species.. All interconnected parts of the marvellous kaleidoscopic wonder of creation.. all vulnerable.. all weak, all ‘little ones’, all anawim

(And maybe we see the vulnerable in ourselves too?)

So let’s explore the context of this week’s reading.. remember this is a conversation following straight on from last week’s when the disciples are embarrassing themselves as they consider who is the greatest in the kingdom, and Christine reminded us that Jesus took and held a young child, (probably a toddler),

* “you want to know who’s the greatest..?”

Dramatically illustrating the fact that the kingdom belonged to the little ones, the wide-eyed, the innocent – and not those who look for power or status…

The kingdom Jesus speaks of is truly upside down, it inverts and challenges the priorities of the world.. it is revolutionary and transformative..

We have only paused for the week… and now we are sat back down (with the popcorn and the boxset) and we press play .. “where were we up to? … ah yes Jesus holding this child…”

Aha! Still holding the child? (we can forget that detail) Ok.. so that helps us to think about what he goes on to say…
We resume with a bizarre question from John. ‘teacher’ he says (as he begins another question that suggests he hasn’t learned anything so far!!), ‘teacher we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he doesn’t belong to our group.”

 

Jesus appears frustrated – he’s certainly emphatic!

And comes back immediately with three staccato ‘for’ responses; don’t stop him!

  1. for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
  2. (for)Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 
  3. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

The exorcist didn’t have ‘true-faith’ assumes John.. or did he? He knew enough to know that Jesus was to be respected… and that his aims were not to exploit, but to heal, (we may surmise).

John seems to want a border, some definition, ‘our group’ (and maybe that’s understandable); But Jesus is pointing to openness and inclusivity of this kingdom of God… it seems to be a kingdom with very porous borders!

Jesus seems to be getting at something far deeper… the kingdom isn’t so easily defined – but is about the heart. The heart in rhythm with the heart of God, open to God. It makes space for our mistakes and errors, and allows for vulnerability and openness.. (and thank goodness for that!)

What he is saying is still relevant to the child in his arms; which may explain why he jumps straight to these next words….

42 “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around the neck and be thrown into the sea.”

Is he really connecting the street healer (‘not of our group’) to the vulnerable child?

Jesus kingdom is made explicit again, even though it remains mysterious; the vulnerable come to us in trust, they reveal the kingdom of God to us! And they require our care, love and nurture.. The forests, the earth, the air we breath.. the oppressed, the exploited, those on minimum wage or living on the streets.. and the children… All are the anawim, all ‘the little ones’ who so often are the first victims of the human desire for power and greed…

Jesus then ‘ultra-emphasises’ the injunction not to exploit… he goes fully ‘out-there’

“do anything.. cut off your limbs if need be, but don’t exploit the little ones.. “

In God’s kingdom (where the poor are lifted high).. there is nothing worse than exploiting the vulnerable. Instead… we are to love, to care, to treasure and honour…

 

Which brings us to today’s happy occasion and what baptism means…

This morning our family are here for baptism… a sacrament of new life in the church and in God…

The children lead the way in this kingdom.. we are reminded that it is the wide-eyed, awe-struck, wonder and playfulness which is its mark.

By emphasising the distinctive—salt-like—flavour of this story—by holding the child to make his point so clearly.. Jesus story is resisting a world concerned with power, conquest and domination.

Baptism is saying something similar too. When we baptise these children in a few moments they begin a new life and participate in this different story; one which embraces vulnerability and compassion; forgiveness and new beginnings every day.

It’s a story which stands with the anawim, the little ones.
It’s a story that says that life is a precious gift to be treasured and shared.
It’s a story, which cares about community, the environment, justice,
It’s a story of imagination and creativity;

This is a story of hope. The story of the church. This is God’s story.

Which means we all face a choice…

* The church calls Baptism a ‘Sacrament’, which means it’s like ‘a window on God’. It is a way of showing that this kingdom is already with us, in our midst, yet seemingly ‘not yet’. Jesus invites us all to ‘wake up’ and to participate in its coming.

Through these distinctive symbols; passing through waters of new birth, receiving a light, being anointed, it is like we are saying God has changed their story, the signs tell us that the change has already taken place. These children just need time, (we all need time), to face the full reality and responsibility of that, (Maybe that’s why we do church – to practise these stories of hope?)
The sacrament says that they are more than simply invited into the story of God’s hope and endless love; they’re already participating!

So baptism isn’t just about this family; it’s for the whole church. It reminds us of our own baptism, and that in this moment the love of G-d calls us all to live with open arms; to repent and turn away from the story of fear and death; to turn instead to delight and wonder—to savour and give thanks for this amazing gift of life, like these children’s lives.

And as we delight in this baptism life, this different story, we make room for others, the anawim, ‘the little ones’ to share that life too, to break down the walls that divide us, to live the story of welcome, love and compassion. It’s God’s revolutionary story; and it begins today!

 

GS Collins

 

 

red-palms

Palm Sunday and an unseen turn of events.

Psalm 118 | Mark 11:1-11 Palm Sunday.

Anticipation

So here we are .. Palm Sunday.. the beginning of Holy Week

This is the most vivid week of the church year. It’s why the liturgical colours go from Lent’s purple to red!

In this vivid week the human story is written on a cosmic canvas.

In this week we see Jesus embrace it all – the extremes of human experience.. the joys, the hope, friendship, excitement and love; but also betrayal, loss, silence, desperation and desolation.. self-doubt, the horror of torture and a violent death.. and a final most-unexpected surprise from beyond our imagining.

He experiences it all… God experiences it all.. These are experiences that we face in our lives too.. the extreme moments in life which can challenge us, enrich us, inspire us, push us too far, forever change us.

Maybe we can find some hope in this holy week.. could it be that these very human extremes might actually be the places where we too are closest to God.. It’s easy enough to say.. but it will take a lifetime unpacking.

Let’s get down to the surface.. down to the dusty ground outside Jerusalem.. lets imagine ourselves there so many years ago… maybe you are a disciple, (women and men), maybe an onlooker caught up in the excitement of the crowd… we can imagine in the heat of the day, rich aromas in the air and a growing crowd, a sense of excitement.. branches waving in the air.. hands raised voices singing, chanting, laughing and cheering.. We are carried along with the crowd, and hoping against hope maybe we find ourselves also thinking..

“Could this really be the one? the liberator.. a king, a messiah?

Could the ‘hosannas’ really be true, could we really be saved from our oppressions?”

But not everything was going to turn out as we expected… even now on this most joyous day something is not right with the script…

Kingship usurped… And The absurd drama of the grand victorious entrance!

Remember this is Marks Gospel.. the urgency of his writing adds to the sense of drama.. Mark knows how to write.. each new moment like an act in a play, yet running through this radical story of a suffering messiah there is a seam of subtle, understated, humour.

And here-on the first Palm Sunday- Jesus is playing the fool.. can we  see the humour?… and absurd performance art maybe? . . lets look again;

Beneath the text, what none of us could be expected to know, is a type-scene common in antiquity:
“Hail the conquering hero.”

In Hebrew tradition, which Jesus would have been familiar with, The book of First Maccabees (5:45-54) recounts such a story with a self-importance: the return of Judas Maccabeus to Israel following a triumphant massacre. In ancient Jewish literature the details vary, but the format is predictable, (we just heard it in the beautiful Psalm too); Amid cheering throngs, the military victor enters a city and offers thanksgiving at a religious shrine. This kind of tale was familiar to Mark’s audience.

But Mark twists the Maccabeus story on its head. There’s no blood on Jesus’ sword. (He doesn’t carry a sword!) Jesus rides in, not on a Champion’s Horse, but on somebody’s donkey. The crowds do not hail him as “the Son of David” (Matthew), “the King who comes in the Lord’s name” (Luke), “even the King of Israel” (John). Mark plays his trump card at the story’s end, when we expect Our Hero to do something dramatic. It’s time for the general to head for the shrine and offer sacrificial thanks to God for having slaughtered hundreds. Not in Mark!

We expect Jesus to march into the House of the Lord and do the religious thing. What we get is Jesus the tourist, looking the place over. “Well, it’s late. Let’s pack it in guys.” What would the Twelve make of that? How about the exuberant multitudes? Do they pick up their garments and leafy branches with a shrug? “well that’s not quite what we were hoping for..”

Jesus is ridiculing the image of Kingship. The anticipation of Power is subverted, and Mark is using a subtle humour to allow truth to get in; Jesus is not, and never will be, as we expect – he is not the liberator we imagined, he doesn’t follow the script, doesn’t act the way he’s supposed to. If you think you can contain him, you will get it wrong every time. The joke is on us.

Yet things get even weirder later – with a dead fig tree, and then some table-turning antics… We cannot fence Christ in.. and thank God for that. Because if we did there would be no gospel, only the stale clichés of our own religious construction. And that is the genius of Mark – not merely saying things, but actually drawing us into the experience – laughing all the way into God’s upending grace.

Jesus is changing everything – but not as we like to presume. Nothing will be as we had expected…

And here we imagine ourselves on this first Palm Sunday;- we cannot fully know the depth of what the week will bring.. the most unexpected turn of events.. the most searching of questions will confront us; by the end of the week we will be left wondering who we really are; who Jesus really is; and where our hope really lies. (Can you hear the crowds calling for their saviour Barabbas?)

Some 2000 years on, Holy Week still breaks through our comfort zones and – if we let it – asks the most searching questions.

We don’t know the future, we don’t know what will happen when we leave the church this morning. We are vulnerable, weak.. easily tempted.. that’s what makes us human. Sometimes calamities from outside our influence; bereavement, loss, illness, unemployment, family issues, problems outside of our control ….

Maybe God didn’t know either.. is that possible..? Could it be that Jesus didn’t know what was really going to happen in this week…until maybe it was all too late? Yet he experienced it all.

Holy Week reminds us that uncertainty – not certainty – is the path of faith..… it’s what we do with uncertainty, unknowing that makes the difference…

And I would suggest it is through accepting uncertainty; allowing us to be realistic about it; that we might yet find hope and solidarity.. we might find a new way of relating to the word ‘faith’..  Often wrongly construed as ‘sure and certain belief’,  but instead something far more vulnerable, experiential.

Sometime the rug is pulled from under us. Yet in uncertainty, even in our most extreme moments, voicing “God why have you forsaken me.. ” we hear the echo of Another .… we are still not alone.. It’s not necessarily a comfort, (in a simple ‘arm around us’ sense) but it is a comfort in a more real way.. Jesus speaks these words too – we are not alone!

But we are also reminded that we are not alone in the moments of delight and wonder…

Life is made of these contours, and the deep valleys help us appreciate the mountain tops even more.. delight in the stars.. in the summer breeze upon your skin, the embrace of a much-loved friend…  all of these – pain and joy – are the moments when we are most alive.. and where we catch a fleeting glimpse of God ever dancing beyond our containment.

So, where does this leave us? .. As those on that first Palm Sunday were to discover, the future is uncertain and we find ourselves daily facing the challenge of faith – our fragile response to such uncertainty. Faith forms through unknowing, and God shakes off our grand expectations anyway…

But we trust, we hope, we find comfort, we share together. We are not alone; we have friends, family, community; in all these moments.. in all the extremes… we may yet dare to say ‘God is with us, meeting us in our experience, we are truly not alone’

So wake up and face each new day – with everything that we cannot know;

wake up and face the new day; you are alive – and maybe that’s faith enough.

May God bless you in your journey through this Holy Week. Amen.