Posted by: owizblog | February 5, 2016

New Every Sunday 31 January 2016: The Servant of the Lord 3: Risk and No Exemptions

1) Welcome

Good morning from the Isle of Bute, and the United Church of Bute here in Rothesay. On this ancient site, worship has been offered for seven centuries, yet the roots of the Christian faith, and the oldest places of worship on this island, are centuries older than that. Yet, grounded in this history, our faith is of today, and tomorrow, and we witness to it along with our brothers and sisters of the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist and Christian Fellowship traditions. I’m Owain Jones, Minister of the congregation. Welcome!

2) Hymn:

Hymn:  Jesus Calls Us! O’er The Tumult.

 3) Prayer

Let us pray:

We wake from sleep, and a new day stretches before us,

The beginning of a new week.

We look back over our journey to this point,

To this new moment,

Through the known, and the new,

The expected, and the unexpected.

Blent our lives are

Of routines, patterns, comfortable regularities

And things that took us by surprise,

Were not, could not have been, prepared for,

That thrilled us, shocked us, laid us low – or set us free…

 

Left to ourselves, we cling to the familiar,

Cleave to the controllable,

Stick with what we know.

Our adventurousness is a measured commute

Between what-is-new and what-we-know,

A bargain, we think, with being,

That risk will always be hedged about and contained.

So easily we slip into a sense of entitlement.

 

Yet life, we know, is not like that.

And faith, we know, is your call into whatever comes,

Your call to trust that you will bring us through all things

And bring us to you.

 

Remind us that this is the path Christ trod,

Who sought no exemption, no inoculation

 

Forgive, Lord, our covert belief

That faith should exempt us

from the realities and risks of life.

Gently show us Christ’s presence with us in all that life throws at us;

Gently show us his leading through all things,

He who is author and pioneer of our faith.

Teach us that faith is not about a privileged way out

Or a privileged way around the difficulties that come,

But a privileged following of him, through all things, and to you.
AMEN

 

4) Reflection 1

Leslie Crowther was a well-known, much-loved face on television for years. He hosted game shows, appeared on advertisements, and my earliest memory of him is on the children’s programme Crackerjack. And, we probably all remember that his career was sadly ended by severe debilitation following a car accident, in his beloved Rolls Royce; he died four years later. What isn’t often recalled is that Leslie Crowther was a devout Christian. In a televised tribute to him, I recall someone reflecting on this, and saying “He never asked ‘Why me?’” Then the speaker corrected himself. “He did once say ‘Why me…?’ But then he paused, and said ‘Why not me…?’”

We are mesmerised by risk. We live in a society, and a culture, that hates risk and seeks to avoid it, and sues litigiously when things go wrong, in order to fix the blame for what life does onto a name and a face – because blame and fault feel less threatening than risk, and if we can sue people who should, we feel, have guaranteed us safety and didn’t, that’s easier to bear than the acknowledgement that in life there are no guarantees, no special exemptions.

“Why not me…?” is a remarkable thing to say, full stop. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to say in the setting of a society like ours. It flies in the face of its culture of risk aversion, and entitlement to risk-free living.

It’s certainly possible to step back and look critically at this way of thinking, this assumption that the default condition of life is risk-free, that if bad things happen we have in some way been failed, and due to be compensated.

In a wonderful parody sketch of Russell Crowe’s speech at the opening of Ridley Scott’s film epic Gladiator, impersonator Jon Culshaw, in full Roman armour declaims “I am Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, loyal servant of the true Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife – that’s when I called …” and here you may insert the made-up name of a fictitious compensation-claims company.

We laugh; and we’re laughing at many things, perhaps not least the tasteless absurdity the sketch illuminates so brilliantly of the assumption that absolutely anything can be compensated for. None of this is to decry the very necessary regimes of health-and-safety, despite its occasional clear excesses, and certainly not the protection of vulnerable groups. To expose vulnerable people to risk is unpardonable. To expose anyone to unnecessary risk is unpardonable. But the pervasive culture of allergy to risk in which we’re immersed can seep into our souls, and distort our sense of what life in the real world is really like. And it can get between us and understanding of what faith is, and what faith demands.

Life in the world, our human existence, is infused with risk. We are not omnipotent, we are not exempt. It’s our reality, and faith must wrestle with it. Faith must wrestle with the two great questions, “Why me?” and “Why not me…?”

Among the words of the so-called Second Isaiah, the great prophet of the Babylonian Exile, are preserved for us a series of songs – the so-called “Servant Songs.” They sketch an individual, and we don’t know who that individual is. He’s referred to as the “Servant of the Lord.” He may represent the prophet himself, or someone known to him. He may represent the community of God’s people, or he may be a depiction of someone whose coming the poet expects. The Christian tradition inevitably looks back to the element of promise in the delineation of this character, and, as wherever it detects promise in the Old Testament, finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ.

We can certainly say this. The Servant of the Lord represents the living-out of a particular relationship with God, in the real, harsh world in which real life has to be lived.

And as we hear now, in this passage, which is the third of these enigmatic and evocative poems, these “Servant Songs”, the Servant’s life before God involves a particular attitude towards risk.  What characterizes the way of God’s Servant is discipleship, the willingness to learn, and to live out the implications of what is learned – in the horrible but not inaccurate cliché, the readiness to “walk the walk” as well as to “talk the talk,” the disciplined acceptance of all that it means to hear, pass on and live out what God teaches. The faithful acceptance of all that comes…

And how can this not involve the running of risks? It must, and it does, as our next reading clearly tells us.

 

5) Reading: Isaiah 50

The Lord GOD has given me

the tongue of those who are taught,

that I may know how to sustain with a word

him that is weary.

Morning by morning he wakens,

he wakens my ear

to hear as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I turned not backward.

I gave my back to the smiters,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I hid not my face

from shame and spitting.

For the Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been confounded;

therefore I have set my face like a flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who is my adversary?

Let him come near to me.

Behold, the Lord GOD helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;

the moth will eat them up.

[170 words]
6) Hymn

 

Hymn:  Courage, Brother! Do Not Stumble

 

7) Reflection 2

Who is this strange figure sketched for us in the songs of the Second Isaiah? Who is the Servant?  His outline, the shadow he casts, which falls long into the future, is distinct enough. A presence that communicates encouragement, that energizes, revives the weary; that transmits, receives and passes on what it receives from God. And also a presence that suffers, but – and here’s a paradox – not passively,  but actively. “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” This isn’t just a turning of the other cheek. This is, already, a profoundly radicalized turning of the other cheek, the transformation of violence by receiving it, and absorbing it, soaking it up, and draining off its power.

 

And that, certainly, engages with the Gospel’s presentation of what Jesus does, by his obedient acceptance of suffering.

 

I was privileged to be taught Practical Theology by the late Very Reverend Professor James White, and I remember the shattering challenge to my eighteen-year-old’s faith that he passed on from his own young experience. He said, as I recall, that he’d long assumed that what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek was this; that the person who’d slapped you would be so astonished by your forbearance and magnanimity, and so abashed by the baseness of their own violence, that they would instantly stop, and be changed.

 

He shared with the class something he said it took him a little time to grasp; that there are people who will, if you turn the other cheek, smack you across the other side of your head without hesitation.

And still, it’s what Jesus asks us to do.

 

But we have, perhaps, got ahead of ourselves. We have moved on from the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah to Jesus – and we are in danger of short-circuiting the development of our theme: “Who is this?”

Let’s return to that mysterious figure, who, as it were, by his anonymity, has us asking not just “Who is this?” but “Who might this be…?”

 

There, at the centre of the Hebrew Scriptures, is a person-shaped hole, with a label attached. “The Servant.” In our experience, holes with labels attached are usually for filing purposes. There are other such person-shaped holes, looking for someone to fill them, each with a label attached. “Son of Man…” from the Book of Daniel. The “prophet like Moses…” Most of all, the biggest, most exalted pigeon-hole of all, “Messiah.”

 

Mark’s gospel has, almost from the beginning, had the disciples scrabbling about, trying to categorize this Jesus. Who is he? Into what pigeonhole does he fit? Could he actually be big enough to fit the big one?

 

Comes the time when Jesus asks them “Who do you say I am?” Firstly, yes, “Who do others say I am?” but then “Who do you say I am?”

 

See how the disciples quickly riffle through the possibilities that others have suggested, which they seem to have discarded as insufficient.

 

See how, in the shattering instant that it becomes clear that they have now to answer, the realization hangs in the air that now they are going to have to decide. How ultimate is the claim on them of this man who has called them?

 

See how it’s Peter who – perhaps unthinkingly, blabs out the irreversible words “You are the Messiah!” You are the one. There’s no way back down from here other than an unthinkable part-retraction. “I got it wrong. You aren’t the one, but you are still very important…”

 

But notice, too, what Jesus does with Peter’s confession. He instantly subverts it. It’s as though he says “I am the one, the one you have been looking and waiting for. But I’m not the one in the way you have always thought someone would be. I’m not the kind of Messiah you were expecting…”

 

Peter tries to put Jesus into a person-shaped hole that he thinks the Biblical tradition has prepared for him. But that isn’t the way the great patterns of Scripture work. They don’t confine. They aren’t pigeonholes. And anyway, Jesus seems to insist on occupying several of the, simultaneously, one, here, in particular.

 

And we recognize it.

 

Suffering. Meaningful, transformative, chosen suffering. Suffering that will be experienced at the time as chaos and horror and darkness, but suffering that, freely chosen, will change everything, because only this can, only this will. And he summons his disciples to contemplate that, and because we are his disciples, he summons us to contemplate it, too.

 

Here’s the reading:
8) Reading: Mark 8:27-33
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

9) Hymn:

10) Reflection 3

The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah hears, and faithfully attends to what he hears. But he also faithfully transmits it.

 

There is this paradox at the heart of lived Christian faith. There is, of course,  our understanding that Jesus Christ goes to places we can’t go, does on our behalf things we can’t do for ourselves, and so sets us free.

 

There is also the clear understanding that we are called to go where he goes, that he goes before us, “the author and pioneer of our faith”, and that we are expected to follow, and, not to put too fine a point on it, live like that. I don’t particularly like the expression “walk the talk” – but that’s what it is.

 

Our lives are to bear the imprint of what we have seen and heard, what we have been taught. And this is risky living, the very essence of risk.

11) Reading: Mark 8:34-38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

 

12) Hymn:  Will You Come and Follow Me…

 

13) Prayers and Lord’s Prayer

 

We live a shared denial, Lord,

About risk – how pervasive it is, how inescapable.

We live a shared myth, about a cozy world,

Its security and safety our right, our property.

But things happen.

 

And for many, there is no security, no safety,

And life is full of risk.

And there, with them, Christ is to be found.

 

Yet it is hard for us to look, really to see.

Their insecurity challenges our own, and unsettles us.

How can we imagine guarantees for us, when we know there are none for them?

 

And there, with them, Christ is found.
So we pray,

Bring us to where he is:

Where life is precarious, and security fragile,

Where all is faith, and all is trust, and all things are in your hands.

Where you are our security.

 

We pray for all those whose life is insecurity and risk.

Immediately we think of:

The poor;

The unemployed;

Those who wrestle with ill-health, of body and mind;

But there are those who live with fragilities that we can’t categorize,

Those whose lives, different and distant though they are,

Share our humanity, our risky, precarious, glorious humanity,

Which Christ wore, and wears to all eternity.

 

Help us to follow where he leads,

To be with the vulnerable,

To stand with the needy,

To bear the burdens and bind up the wounds

Of those weighed down and hurt by life.

Give us never to imagine that faith

Is any sort of exemption from life’s reality.

If Christ was not exempt, how should we expect exemption?

Yet in all these things, we are more than conquerors,

Through him who loved us.

And as he taught us, so we pray:

 

Our Father, which art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts

As we forgive our debtors

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil,

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory

For ever and ever

AMEN

 

14) Benediction

Blessed be you in the Christ who walks our way,

Blessed be you in the Christ who shares in our living,

Blessed be you in the Christ who calls us daily,

To take up our cross, and walk with him,

Through all things, to God.

And the Blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

Be with you now, and evermore,

AMEN

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