Texts: Lamentations 3:22-33; 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5:21-43
Note: If you wish to focus on the Refugee Issues today, CWS has provided some useful resources. See www.cws.org.nz and www.refugeesservices.org.nz. Unfortunately, their material relates to the readings set for 17 June (1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34), but in the wonderful way that Scripture so often does, today's readings fit this theme just as well, if not better.
Theme. I'm going with "When Hope is All there is"; although I'm tempted to omit the word "When". Ultimately a religious attitude to life may be captured better by the realisation that all life is founded on hope. I shall be exploring that idea more as these notes go on. (At least, I hope so!).
Introduction. Sticking closely with the theme, we can see that all three readings are about everything turning to custard. What then are we left with? What do we do when our city or country is devastated by war, tempest or earthquake? Where do we turn when our own daughter is dying and seemingly beyond help? What is left for us when we have exhausted our means on every doctor we can find and still our health deteriorates? And what should be our response when any such terrible disaster strikes others? These are the real issues of today, as they were for Judah in the 6th century B.C., and for others in the time of Christ on earth. And as always the Scriptures eschew easy answers. Instead they question us. In whom do we truly believe/have faith/trust? Or to put that in today's word – who is the ground of our hope?
Background. The full horror of the refugees' plight has been on our TV screens almost nightly over the last two or three weeks as over-crowded and unseaworthy boats have set off from Indonesia and attempted to reach the promised land called Australia. Over 100 have died in that period, and another 200 or so have been fortunate enough to have made it one way or another to Christmas Island (a somewhat ironic name in these dreadful circumstances). Once again politicians shout themselves hoarse, and have no breath left to lead a civilised, much less humanitarian, debate in that country. Would ours be any better? Would we let them?
Some figures. According to the CWS material, there are about 10.4 million refugees under the care of the UNHCR, and a further 5 million Palestinians, who come under a different agency. In addition, there are estimated to be 26 million displaced persons (refugees inside their own country), of whom at least 1 million are seeking asylum elsewhere. New Zealand has an annual quota of 750 refugees, but has not filled that quota in recent three years. We want to work through official channels: refugees should get in line and learn to queue politely and patiently. "Boat people" notoriously jump the queue, and should not be "rewarded" for doing so. Which all sounds correct and proper, doesn't it? And while you're still nodding in agreement, try to imagine Jesus telling the synagogue ruler or the pushy woman with the blood discharge problem to wait in line, and have their papers in order when he gets to them.
There is a sense in which these ideas are at the very heart of our faith history. Adam and Eve are kicked out of their homeland. Abraham is called to leave the land of his fathers. The people escape from (take refuge from) slavery and abuse in Egypt. And, of course, the whole drama of the Exile and the Return are major themes in the ongoing story. Against that sort of background, perhaps, we can see the extraordinary grace of God. Imagine how today's refugees would feel if someone (some nation) actively sought them out, took them in, and offered them new life, instead of making it ever harder for them to find sanctuary anywhere. Imagine if Australia were to become the new "Statue of Liberty" – and imagine if we were to join with them in a brand new manifestation of the Anzac Spirit.
Isn't that what God has done for us in Jesus Christ? Hasn't he come into the world of refugees – the outcasts of Eden and their descendants – with an offer of truly safe passage into a new life - FOR FREE!!! And if we accept the truth of that, should we not be prepared to offer sanctuary to others on the same terms? Freely we have received, freely we should give. Isn't that the gist of St Paul's argument in today's begging letter on behalf of the afflicted in Jerusalem?
Finally, remember some sayings we have featuring this little word "hope". "Where there's life, there's hope." "We can but hope." "Let's hope for the best." "We live in hope." And learn from Dante: "Abandon hope, all ye who enter in." Hell is the state where all hope is abandoned.
Lamentations. This is a truly astonishing book! If you have never sat down and read it straight through (it's quite short) try it. But be warned: it leaves most horror stories far behind. Remember that it is set in the wake of the Babylonian invasion which ended with the sacking of Jerusalem (including the Temple), and the carting off into exile of Israel's brightest and best. But this outcome only occurred after a devastating siege of the city in which the citizens were starved into surrender. We are spared no detail, including cannibalism. What makes it all the more terrible is that the prophet (traditionally taken to be Jeremiah) is quite clear that God was not simply absent, apparently unable or even unwilling to save his people from such a terrible catastrophe, but that God himself was responsible for it. This was the outworking of God's wrath at the peoples' sins. From the very beginning of this book, right through to the end of 3:20 the catalogue of suffering goes on, until suddenly, in 3:21, the whole tone changes: Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. What is "this" that he remembers and that gives him hope? It is the nature or character of God. Despite everything that is wrong in the world, in their nation, and in their city, despite all that God seems to have brought on their heads, the prophet knows that God is loving, compassionate, merciful and forgiving, and so, in the end, all will be well. That is the hope that he bears as a man of faith.
Taking It Personally.
· Read through this book slowly. Or if you are short of time, have a quick look at verses 2:20, 4:10, and 4.49. Think about the sheer bloody horror of what had happened during the siege. Now pray for refugees.
· Recall a time in your life when everything had turned to custard. Where did you find hope? While thinking about that situation, reflect on today's passage. Do these words sound trite or do they ring true?
· How would you encourage someone who feels hopeless about something today?
· Focus on verse 3:8. Have you ever felt that God was shutting out your prayer? How did you respond?
Corinthians. The existence of hope does not preclude Christian action! St Paul is at his pragmatic (not to say political) best today. He is quite shamelessly trying to commend to the Corinthians an appeal for the believers in Jerusalem who are having a hard time. There is very little appeal to lofty theological ideals, and much more to human pride. Others are being generous; don't let them show you up – good psychology, as always from St Paul, who understood human nature (and particularly Corinthian human nature) better than most. And as always we cannot read St Paul without feeling his beady little eyes boring into us. Are we as openly generous as he urges the Corinthians to be? In our society we are under constant pressure these days to lift our level of savings to enable us to meet our future needs. But what about the present needs of others? His pragmatism is to the fore also in his flagrant use of the "you scratch their back so that they will scratch yours" approach in verse 14.
Taking It Personally.
· What do you think of St Paul's "pragmatic approach? Is it too worldly for your taste? How would you react if an appeal was pitched to you along these lines?
· Is the Church too concerned about personal piety (and personal sin), and not concerned enough about such practical matters as giving to the poor? Should it be one or the other, or does the gospel call us to both personal piety and generosity to others?
· When we give to the Church, are we genuinely seeking to benefit others in need, or are we more like flatmates contributing towards our shared living expenses?
Mark. Here is yet another reference to "crossing over the Lake", a common feature of this gospel. It's worth reminding ourselves that one side of the Lake was Jewish territory and the other was predominantly Gentile. Mark was, perhaps, trying to show with these many simple references how Jesus was breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile, weaving the two communities together, using a boat like a darning needle or weaver's shuttle. Today we are back in Jewish territory, and we meet two very different people from that community. Driven by desperate need, need which cannot be met within their usual community of interest, each comes to Jesus at considerable risk to themselves. In that respect they may represent the plight of refugees. Think how often Jesus fell foul of the religious establishment in the synagogues of his day. Yet here comes Jairus, the ruler of his local synagogue no less, begging Jesus on his knees to come with him to heal his daughter. If word of that got back to his synagogue he would be in great trouble, but he does not allow that to stop him from making the hazardous journey out of his place of comfort to come to Jesus. Even more at risk is this nameless woman, 'unclean' in the ritual sense and therefore liable to be stoned if the crowd realised her status. She too risks all to journey to Jesus.
Notice how cleverly Mark deals with the result of the woman's "religious experience" of Jesus. First, the outcome accords with her own belief system. She believes it will be enough to touch his cloak, and so it proves. Secondly, there is an objective change in the situation ("her bleeding stopped"). And thirdly, there is a subjective element: "she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering". The raising of the little girl is Mark's equivalent to John's story of Lazarus. There is a lot of unexplained detail. Mark tells us what happened, but offers no explanation for it. Why does Jesus make a public scene about the woman, yet excludes most people from the even more astonishing "healing" of the dead girl? Why the reference to taking her by the hand: why the recording of the exact words in Aramaic? Why the stern words not to tell anyone what happened (when no such admonition was given after the healing of the woman? And did you notice what we are not told? Why no mass conversions following these great miracles? Could it be that our modern obsession for "head-hunting" (or perhaps that should be "'bottom-hunting" given our propensity for reducing evangelism to the counting of bums-on-seats) was not one that Jesus shared?
Taking It Personally.
· Another wonderful passage for the prayer of imagination. Journey with Jesus slowly through this story. Watch what he does; listen to what he says. Feel the anxiety of Jairus and the woman with the medical problem. Share their relief and joy when the healings take place. Join in their joy, giving your own thanks to Jesus.
· Ponder Jesus' first reaction: what do you make of the reference to power going out of him? Does it conjure up an image of a "battery-powered" Jesus? Have you ever felt empowered by God to do something you would not otherwise have been able to achieve? Might this give a clue as to what was going on here?
· Ponder the faith of these two people. Do you agree that what they had was a complete trust in Jesus' power and willingness to help them, even when their situations seemed hopeless? How does that compare with your own faith in Jesus?