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“Inside” and “Outside”

Mark 9:30-37
September 20, 2015
Year B
17th After Pentecost

Remember the book with the surprise ending? Remember thinking that the only way to make sense of the ending was to go back and read the book again and try to put the pieces together? Sometimes, these books are quite unsettling: What we thought should have happened, didn’t happen and we have to grapple with an alternative wisdom. These books offer us an opportunity to reflect and very often these books offer us views of the world different from our own.

The ending of Mark’s gospel might have the same affect on us: a sudden, shocking and ironic ending where the women up until now have been faithful witnesses of Jesus’ death and burial. Now that they are charged to tell the news of resurrection, of new life, and instead of going out and proclaiming this new freedom, they run away in terror and say nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

Because, we as readers, know how the story ends, we often miss the impact of the gospel writer’s decision to leave us dangling in mid-air. What the writer wants us to do, of course, is to go back to the beginning and read the story again and by using the conclusion as a lens, an opportunity to reflect, to think about new ideas and try to put the pieces of the story together.
Regarding the end of Mark’s gospel, we might ask what would it have been like to have been there that day, how would I have reacted? What would I have been afraid of? (Just in case you do go home and read the end of Mark’s gospel remember it ends at 16:8)

In today’s story from Mark the writer indeed turns the story upside down.

While important to their families, children were almost “non-persons” in the society in which the story is set. Childhood in Palestinian, as well as Roman society could be harsh. Children were often the first victims of famine, disease, or war.

This early Christian community lived as a small minority in an increasing hostile empire. Jesus’ act of taking a child upon his knee and caring for him/her is an act that demonstrates a different ethic and valuing of children. He takes a child in his arms and declares that to welcome one who is powerless and vulnerable is to welcome him, too. This act of showing compassion, care and hope for the vulnerable, would include the community gathered. They too would have felt welcome. They are insiders, they are people comfortable in the community. The disciples, those who chose to work with Jesus - this decision to join him would move them to the outside; now they are in a new and different place, doing work that makes them vulnerable and it is challenging work.

A couple of other things are happening in the story: Jesus foreshadows his death again and no one pays it any mind; maybe they simply don’t know how to respond, or maybe they don’t want to enter into that conversation. Sometimes denial is a wonderful thing.

Then Jesus challenges them to talk about the argument they were having on the road. Again, they remain silent, not willing to engage in conversation, which would lead to meaningful relationship. It’s difficult to be in relationship if we can’t talk with one another. It’s now that Jesus takes the child on his knee and welcomes this child and it is within this act of caring that the group feels welcome also. They have been given the opportunity to be in relationship with one another. We know as readers of the story sometimes they get it and often they don’t.

This is a story that holds up the vulnerable and at the same time speaks to those who had some authority. In order for Jesus to do the work he did at that time and to die for his actions, means that he had some power and authority. He was also vulnerable because of the work he was doing. The disciples would have been chosen for their skills and for their ability to speak and act. They were asked to work closely with the community in ways that would lead to the empowerment of all the people. They too were both powerful and vulnerable.

Margaret Wheatly’s book, turning to one another, Wheatley talks about making the time to think things through and then taking the time to do the work of empowerment. It’s work that gives the people a voice. She believes it is important work, but she feels few of us take the time to enter into this life of serving those on the margins, or take time to make change that benefits all of the people and not just the powerful. The writer of the Gospel of Mark and “turning to one another,” both are talking about how we live both inside and outside the community. How do you do that? When are you working “inside” and when are you working on the “outside?”

So, again when are we inside our community? That place we belong, that place we go to when we are bereft, that place that is secure and when we go outside of the community, where is it that we go? What does it mean to be outside?

I’ was reminded as I wrote this, of my experience when I have worked with those on the margins. In 2010 I did an Interim for two years in Vernon, BC and while there, I worked with a group who provided a Saturday lunch for those on the margin. I volunteered for this project along with others from the church. For me, working at the street lunch is hard work. When I first get there it’s okay, but as time wears on I wear down and soon what fills my mind is the impossible dynamics of the situation.

Wheatly believes that we don’t listen closely enough to our inner voice.

In my head I’m asking what needs to happen, or how might something happen to change the status quo. How might the world look if we all had enough to eat? By enough to eat I mean enough to eat at our own family table – not standing in line at the street lunch and have others dish up the food. The street lunch is a great project and it pushes my mind around in different directions. On those Saturday mornings I was only on the outside for such a short while that it was difficult to sustain the momentum that could create change within government and the bureaucracies.

I came home that day to a novel that I was reading,
The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly. This story takes place in Burma in a prison that houses political prisoners.
The jailer, a kind man, whose name is Chit Naing speaks with Teza the prisoner. Chit Naing speaks in a deep quiet voice. He says, “How are you?” “Hungry” replies, Teza. He continues “Another worker told me my food parcel from my mother has gone missing. And the parcel before that was almost empty. Do you know what’s going on?” “I’ll try to find out. Be patient.” Teza says, “That’s what Sein Yun told me. It’s hard to tell an empty belly to be patient. That’s why I got so sick last month, I’m hungry all the time. Do you think they want me to starve in here? It would be faster to finish me off with a bullet.” The two men look into each other’s eyes. Chit Naing says nothing. How can a man who is well fed reply honestly to another man’s hunger?
Karen Connelly
It’s that line that gave me reason to pause: How can a man who is well fed reply honestly to another man’s hunger.

Going to the street lunch program is certainly an opportunity to work outside of my comfort level, but what’s missing for me is opportunity for conversation about the politics of hunger. There is no opportunity to have a dialogue with those who are hungry. Making that happen of course, is another whole different project. Connected, but different.

Wheatly writes,
Most of us don’t have to risk life and death daily, (well not usually anyway) but we may be dying a slow death. If we feel we’re changing in ways we don’t like, or seeing things in the world that make us sorrowful, then we need time to think about this.
Margaret Wheatly
The disciples refused to do this, or at least they refused to talk out loud about what they were thinking. They wanted to linger inside the community that was comfortable. Whereas Wheatly is telling us that yes, we need to think, but we must also find ways to act. She is hard on bureaucracy, institutions and government, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe we need to be challenged. As the church, maybe we could live more on the outside.

Chad Meyers, author of
Binding the Strong Man says that this passage from Mark is pointing to those on the inside and those on the outside and it raises the question of power and vulnerability.

All of this makes for a roller-coaster ride through the Gospel. It was never meant to be comfortable and Gospel wisdom, if we are willing to read it over and over again has a way of unsettling and challenging us. Jesus’ own wisdom came from a deep connection with his beloved Jewish tradition and I believe we can assume a strong background in Hebrew scripture. This wisdom had to be integrated into first century Palestinian life with all its complexities and uncertainties.

That isn’t much different than the struggle the church faces today. The United Church has just elected
Jordan Cantwell of Saskatoon as its Moderator for the next three years. Jordan has a long history of being involved in social justice through the church. She says,
One of the great pieces of wisdom that I have learned from friends who live with the daily reality of poverty is that the only faithful response to perceived scarcity is to become more generous and more community-focused. Like the hungry crowd that followed Jesus to a deserted place, we are being asked to reorganise ourselves so that our resources might be distributed in new ways that allow everyone to experience God’s abundance (Mark 6:30-44).
Jordan Cantwell
Around this thinking Jordan Cantwell believes the church will emerge. She says,
The Comprehensive Review has been on how we will organise the United Church in the future to ensure that we remain faithful and sustainable. The church doesn’t exist for its own sake, but to be a community that embodies God’s justice, expresses God’s compassion and works relentlessly for God’s vision of shalom. Getting the structure “right” means ensuring that how we organise the church reflects our mission and purpose. As we wrestle with what the United Church should do, be and look like in the future, we know our structures must enable the voices of the marginalised to be heard and given priority; accountability to one another needs to exist at every level of governance; respect for creation should be evident in all aspects of our life together, and structural injustices must be transformed.
Jordan Cantwell
How we make changes in our church is as important as the changes we make. As we begin to implement the decisions that the upcoming General Council will approve, we will need to make sure we keep asking ourselves key questions:

  • Where do we see the Holy Spirit?
  • How does this action reflect God’s justice, God’s economy, God’s grace?
  • Does this direction embody the truth of Jesus Christ as we understand it?
  • How does this strengthen our relationships with one another in the church, in this country, to the land, and to all our relations
  • Who is being left out/silenced? Who needs to be heard/included?

We will get this work done, together as we work both inside and outside the institution, we will accomplish the work we are called to do. We know how to do this work, because we bring with us a tradition rich in social justice, a tradition rich in story, that has the power to shape and reshape us.

I invite you this week to keep track of when you are inside your church community and when you step outside – how does that feel? Note the differences.

Also, keep some notes as to what you think is important for St. Paul’s United Church.
Sharon Ferguson-Hood