Sunday 4th October 2015

One of my earliest memories, in Britain when I was little, was sitting down in front of the wireless, as it was known – yes, no TV – at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, in time for “Listen with Mother”. I don’t actually think mother was there. She was probably having a well-earned break. I can remember the anticipation waiting to hear the words: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”. Then there would come those well-known words – “Once upon a time…”. I wonder if there is an equivalent phrase in Korean at the beginning of children’s stories, usually what we call fairy stories. “Once upon a time” signals the entry into a different kind of world where all kinds of magical things might happen, sometimes fearfully, sometimes with a sense of injustice, sometimes making all that right in the end. Children have a great capacity to know what is “real” and what is make-believe, even while getting caught up in the make-believe world. And stories, fairy tales, are a great way of acquiring some important understandings about life, not least that life is often not fair. Nowadays I suppose that sitting in front of a wireless, listening, seems very outdated. How much more visual and interactive the world is for children now. But, in some ways, the stories remain much the same, even if more sophisticated.
The story of Job is thought to be the oldest book in the whole Bible. It may even pre-date the stories of Abraham and Moses. And that is old! I like to imagine this story, most of which is poetry after the introductory part we read today, being recited around the campfires of the nomadic Hebrew people from generation to generation. It is myth, in the best sense of the word: a story made up to deal with some big issues of human existence and to carry great meaning. It could well have been preceded by the words “Once upon a time” to indicate that our imagination was to become engaged as much as, or even more than, our intellect. We are going to be following this story for the next three weeks.
So let me just make some clarifying points. The story engages the hearer in the cosmic structure as it was understood at the time, and for long afterwards: that there is a realm of heavenly creatures above and a realm of earthly creatures. Satan is not the same as the devil. Satan is, rather, an adversary. That is what the name “Satan” means. He is a deceiver and leads people astray. One could, I suppose, say that Satan’s own rebellious nature led him astray.
So we have the story of Job, the righteous man who becomes the subject of a wager made in the heavenly realms, and so seems almost a plaything. But this myth deals with questions that have torn at the human mind and heart down the ages. Why does suffering exist, and, more particularly, why do bad things happen to good people? The book of Job is full of questions that find no answer. The reader is left agonising with him and his wife, and trying to make sense of what is apparently grave injustice. Like all good myths it connects with our hearts and souls because we all recognize the issues it raises for ourselves in one way or another. We probably wonder how anyone could deal with all the things that beset Job – the loss of almost everything he has and loves – and still retain their own integrity. How does he manage to maintain such patience, the patience of Job, in the face of it all, his friends and his wife who just want him to accept that he must have done something wrong, that he has every right to be angry with God?
I am sure we all have known some kind of suffering in our own lives, because, contrary to the expectations that people nowadays seem to have - that we are somehow entitled to happiness - suffering, grief, loss, pain, are all part of life. When we are going through bad times we may well wonder how we can get through it because there seems to be no way towards the light again. To sit, and ask ourselves “why?” is surely one of the hardest states to be in. Maybe, like Job, friends, family try and bring some comfort, but it cannot reach into that hurting place. I find it very moving to think that this myth, this story that so touches us, was written those thousands of years ago and is part of our Scripture. It is there because those hard questions remain. Why? And we will journey more with Job in the next three weeks.
The reading from Mark’s gospel also challenges us. It deals with some of the hard, painful issues that have also been around since earliest times and which seem even more relevant, perhaps, today.
I must admit that I have sometimes skirted around this reading when it has come up in the lectionary. I am the daughter of divorced parents who were both very connected to the church that I grew up in. But my father left to go off with the woman who had been the church organist. Back then at the end of the 1950s, there was a lot more shame attached to that then there is now. But I also was divorced and that fact has shocked some people, that I can be an ordained minister with that history. These are the reasons that I have felt uncomfortable with this reading.
But I have looked at it more. Just as my experiences have their back-stories, so there is a back story to what Jesus was saying. Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem. On the way he is challenged by his opponents and is also teaching his disciples about some of the tough issues in the life of faith.
There was, at the time, a rabbinical debate going on about marriage and divorce between two different schools of thought. The Pharisees are trying to draw Jesus into the controversy. But he doesn’t buy into it. Yes, he acknowledges what the Law of Moses says, but goes back to what God’s intention in creation was, that man and woman are created equal. That was clearly not what the common perception was. Women were the property of men: firstly the father and then the husband. They had very few rights of their own and their role was proscribed. Our Western society has mostly come a long way from that, but not every society has. So much has changed in the space of one or two generations hasn’t it. Now we have the term “stay at home mum”, something that some women choose to be, and can be looked down on in consequence, whereas not so long ago it was the norm. At one time too, it was assumed that however deadly a marriage was, the couple would just stick it out.
In Jesus’ time, as we see in the reading, divorce was allowed. There were several reasons that allowed a man to get a divorce certificate. And yes, if he fancied another woman, he could easily divorce his wife so that he need not commit the offence of adultery. Divorce often left a woman completely vulnerable in the community. A woman had to have a male to belong to for her protection. Think of Naomi and Ruth.
When we read this passage we tend to think of it in individual terms, but Jesus is addressing the needs that are held within the community and ensuring, as he always did, that the vulnerable were protected and could have a place of belonging. That is why we are also moved by the image of him gathering the children around him, the vulnerable, unimportant ones whom he noticed and gave their place in the community.
But looking back again to the harder stuff, you know it’s all very well in theory to deal with it, but we come up against the too common tendency we humans have to try to discover reasons, like Job’s friends, or to apportion blame somehow when things fall apart. It makes it all easier to deal with if we can name a cause. And we do it to ourselves – blaming ourselves and burdening ourselves with guilt. I can vouch for that myself. One of the big issues of our times, highlighted a lot recently, thanks to Rosie Batty, is domestic violence. There seems to be something almost primitive in a lingering attitude that allows a man to take out his anger on his wife or girlfriend. It’s almost as if there is a sense of entitlement from past ages that allows this to happen. I know it is enormously hard for a woman to free herself from a situation where she has been made to feel worthless, guilty, ashamed and frightened. And it is far too common.
When I was a minister in Parramatta I was also the police chaplain there. One Christmas day I went to the police station after our 9 am service to take them some Christmas cake. When I got out the car about 10.30 or so I met two young constables who were returning from their third domestic violence call-out that morning.
Jesus was addressing the whole community, not just individuals, with his words that are actually about offering protection.
So what does all this mean for us here this morning? I think we have been talking about vulnerability and pain, about suffering which is often unseen or misunderstood, and about how we can, as a community of Christ, respond between each other and for the sake of the world. We are talking about a truth that is at the core of human existence: that suffering sometimes places us in situations where we just have to hold on and try to keep our integrity, like Job, in the face of misunderstanding. That truth reveals integrity to be at the heart of our survival as individuals and as a community. When we see someone who has quietly held onto their integrity in the face of suffering, it is inspirational.
The challenge is how we support one another without trying to provide easy answers, but showing our willingness to walk alongside without casting any blame or judgement or needing reasons. The church is very often seen from the outside as condemning the fallen instead of being a community of welcome. But we can make it different.
I would like to close by telling you a story that some of you may know. It is a true story told by Tony Campolo, an American evangelist. He had gone to a city to speak at a convention. Having arrived during the afternoon, he didn’t feel at all sleepy at night so he decided to go for a walk. After a while he came to an all-night café and decided to go in. he was surprised to find that it was very busy. There was only one seat left at a table where there was a woman. He asked her if she minded if he sat down with her and she slightly reluctantly agreed. Being the pastoral person he was, he began a conversation with her. She asked him what he was doing there and he told her about his visit to the city. She then told him that her life was rather different. She was a “lady of the night”, a prostitute. But she began to tell him more of her story and how she came to be where she was. It was a sad story, made more so when she told him that it was her birthday the next day and no-one knew. The following day, after speaking at the convention to huge audiences, Tony went out again at night and went back to the café, this time bearing a birthday cake and balloons. The woman was there and was quite overwhelmed. Quite a celebration followed, with everyone there being drawn in. As he left to go, the woman tearfully thanked Tony and told him that she could belong to a church that had parties for prostitutes.
That seems to me rather a Jesus moment. A community of belonging was created that accepted the suffering, the reality, and allowed a person to glimpse something different, to reclaim some of her integrity because she had been “seen”. She might have felt akin to Job had she known that story. But she would well have known the facts behind the story, of loss and struggle and helplessness.
Jesus created communities of belonging for all people together wherever he went. Some people found the inclusiveness hard to cope with. We are part of that community of faith, and in a few moments we will share in the symbolic feast that re-enacts the meal in which Jesus showed his friends how he was going to give his all for them and through which they would find the way of life. In it, he demonstrated the integrity which had carried him through all kinds of misunderstandings and challenges and which would hold him through the suffering that seemed so impossible to contemplate.
His story remain alive for us, the truth for us. The myths, like the story of Job, and the gospel stories are meant to connect with us to free us to change our understandings and ourselves along the way, and to find our community of belonging, for the sake of the wider world. They are about God’s truth for us. Thanks be to God for the truth that keeps calling us on in pain and in joy!