Friday, 21 September 2012

Four glimpses...

Peter Lockhart

The four readings today challenge us as people who seek to follow God as to what it means to proclaim a faith and to hold on to that faith. I am going to do something which sometimes can be annoying by taking one phrase from each of our four readings and giving a short meditation for you to reflect on. As we listen for God speaking to each one of us, I am also going to encourage you to do some further reflection on each of the four topics. You might choose to do this alone or with others.

The four topics are:

From Psalm 1: On his law they meditate day and night.

From Proverbs 31: A capable wife who can find?

From James 3: Who is wise and understanding among you?

And from Mark 9: They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

The idea of meditating on God’s law day and night may bring a range of responses. Maybe it is something you already do: thinking about God in moment of your life and how God’s love is found within that moment? Maybe, thinking on all the rules that are found in the Bible and making judgements about others or yourself constantly? Or maybe God’s law doesn’t consume you and maybe you don’t even know what God’s law really means to you?

The Psalm goes on to suggest that to meditate on God’s law in this way is like a healthy tree whose roots go deep and who bear good fruit. This view of God’s law as providing the very sustenance of our existence and leading to a well lived life is profound but could also be misinterpreted as limiting.

For me the idea of meditating on God’s law day and night is really very much about contemplating the idea that God became one of us in Jesus and shared our life and our death and gives us a promise of a future, a future that we can experience though maybe not fully yet. It is the hope that I find in this story of grace of willingness to be alongside us that gives life to me – in other words it is not about reading the concept of “law” as legalism but rather reading more as revelation, as grace.

Yes this involves dealing with difficult aspects of scripture, interpreting them anew and listening for the wisdom of teachers and mystics who may more fully help me understand God’s love for all people in this way.

I know personally I often have theological and spiritual and scriptural issues constantly buzzing around my brain. Take some time to reflect on the question “What does it mean for me to meditate on the law of God? And do I do so day and night?”

At the beginning of Proverbs 31 we are hit with the words, “A capable wife who can find?”

As a married man I could glibly say I already have but then when I read the passage and remember we don’t have servants in our house and Shelley doesn’t collect the flax maybe I have missed out. The description of the good wife has some helpful things to say. For instance, the idea that “charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” is pertinent in a world where some much emphasis and energy is focussed on beauty.

However, I was blessed on Thursday morning at the prayer group when we were talking about this passage and Beth shared a comment that maybe it was not so much about the finding as the searching.

This could turn into a fruitless search for perfection in another person, which would I think be wrongheaded. Alternatively, the encouragement to search and seek for what is good in others may be more pertinent. To discern what is of true value in people and not take them for face value. Maybe if we search the good in one another a bit more deeply we would find pathways into greater peace and respect for one another.

I wonder when you look others what you are looking for and whether beyond first impressions you can see image of God in which all people were created. Consider that yardstick that you use to judge others, for we all do this, does it conform with God’s view of loving even those who do not reciprocate that love and so may in our opinion be unlovable.

Jumping now to the letter to James we continue on a theme of seeking as we hear James’ words: Who is wise and understanding among you?

This week I finished reading 2 more books. Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics and Without a vision my people prosper. I don’t think I am perceptibly any wiser.

We live in a very complex world and as much as I would like to encourage you to the principle KISS (Keep it simple stupid) the more I encounter, the more I see, the more complex things seem.

What does wisdom look like to you? The church has a history of counting people in or out based on what they believe – is this really wisdom?

So often we relate knowledge to power, but as Paul writes at the heart of our faith is the foolishness of the cross. If we think that knowledge and wisdom is a tool for our own ends then maybe we have missed the point.

James describes true wisdom with these words: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”

I hear nothing in here that justifies hatred or war mongering or hurtful words or spiteful actions. These are words of peace and of love – by actions wisdom, true wisdom is known. Meditating on this as God’s law, with our roots going deep, should lead us not to value our belief and our knowing above our generosity and our peace-making.

What acts of wisdom do you see occurring around you each day? Who is it that is wise?

Finally, I jump to the gospel reading and the disciple’s reticence to ask Jesus a question when they are obviously bamboozled. “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

So often we wear masks in our lives. We keep silent because we do not know or understand. We present an image of ourselves and not the turmoil that often lies beneath. There are times I have encountered people in my pastoral care unwilling to ask me a question because they are worried they will be wrong and I know that I too find it hard to ask questions that for others may seem somewhat silly.

Jesus response to the disciples confusion which is expressed in their argument about is greatest is to draw a child into the disciples midst and to compare himself with that child and speak of the welcoming of that child.

In my experience, children especially younger ones are very trusting and very eager to learn. They ask questions silly and wise, the share their love openly and gently, and they seek to be part of their families.

We should not be afraid to ask each other questions nor help each other understand as we continue on our journey of faith.

I wonder what are the questions that you have and want to explore and whether meditating day and night on the scriptures in not solo event but a communal journey.

Meditating, searching, being wise in our actions and asking. Are these not the attributes of a faithful people? It’s not about what we have already as if it is ours alone it is about whose we are and where we are going that shapes us.

Dreams, visions and revelation (Book Review)

by Peter Lockhart

I have just finished reading Without a Vision My People Prosper a short book by David Hayward. The book is a collection of posts from Hayward’s blog The Naked Pastor, which I regularly visit.

Given it is a collection of musings from his blog the book reads like a blog not a well structured argument which was both a blessing and a little irritating. It is highly unlikely that I would have read through his post history and it was interesting to see the progression of Hayward’s life story reflected in the blog history. On the other hand I did feel that a more precise editing process may have reduced the repeatitive feel.

Hayward’s key theme was crituiqng the obsession with vision and goal setting in church cultures and the burdens placed upon people by their pastors.

As a minister I have often found myself struggling with the notion of vision and goal setting recognising the paradox that much of what I do is somehow defined by personal goals, recognised or not. It is a paradox that Hayward struggles with, ironically how to have a goal of no vision and no goals.

I found myself having a great deal of empathy for what Hayward was exploring yet wondering about whether or not the reactionary agenda that appears to drive him was really as freeing as he thought. There were times it felt as he has become chained to his own need to critque the church. 

I also searched for a sense of concern beyond his own spiritual journey and whilst there appeared a strong concern for the local and the acceptance and support of all I wondered about bigger picture issues (other than challenging the instituional church).  Core to the mission of the Uniting Church in Australia has been service of others, an agenda I believe is well worth pursuing.

Despite this absence this is but one part of Hayward's work and I find the raw (and oft confronting)openness of Hayward is a gift and whilst I might not agree with where he heads in his search I am gratefully for his willingness to share.
I think I will continue to appreciate The Naked Pastor as a corrective to misplaced energies whilst at the same time being prepared to take what is said with a grain of salt. I am glad I was able to read Without a Vision My People Prosper as an insight into Hayward’s personal journey and why he might think the way he does.  At $7 for the eBook it was worth saving the effort of backreading the blog.  I believe there are things Hayward says that we need to hear, even the ones we find distinctly uncomfortable.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Biblical Prophets & Contemporary Environmental Issues By Hilary Marlow Oxford University Press 2009

Review by Peter Lockhart

It was more by chance than good design that I came across the book by Hilary Marlow bringing some of the Biblical Prophets into conversation with contemporary environmental issues.

Given the title I had expected Marlow to begin her dialogue with the prophets straight out but was somewhat pleasantly surprised to discovery a different methodology.

Her opening words clearly set the reader in the direction of her project. "Human impact on the natural world is unsustainable and has costs for our survival and that of numerous other species." The introduction clear outlines her serious concern for the environment and belief that people of faith have a part to play.

I found the first chapter both captivating and elucidating as she gave a brief but insightful survey of the biblical interpretative history of the relationship between God, humans and the creation. Touching on the influence of Greek philosophy she moves into exploring various of the early Church fathers like Irenaus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine.

She moves though the middle ages including Francis of Assissi and Thomas Aquinas before engaging with the Reformers, particularly Luther and Calvin.

The first chapter set the scene for her move into more contemporary conversations in chapters 2 & 3 moving through Romanticism into Hegel, 20th century exegetical methods and the rise of creation theologies.

In Chapter 3 she begins to explore in more detail ecological hermeneutics defining the topic and adding a helpful critique along the way of approaches including the Earth Bible Project. Towards the end of this chapter she introduces the ecological triangle and explains her decision to engage with the prophets in the way she does. This explanation of her methodology is very helpful as she moves into exploring Amos, Hosea and Isaiah 1-39.

In each of these next chapters Marlow explores the use of creation metaphors and the implications of these metaphors for contemporary ecological issues. Her explorations do not feel forced or contrived by a genuine respect for the texts in the context whilst listening more deeply for what connections there may be.  Not being an Old testament scholar it is difficult to critque Marlow's work more effectively, sufficed to say I found her explorations helpful and enlightening.

Chapter 7 brings it all together recognizing connections and disparity arguing for the place of using the Old Testament as a place in which to find and explore our ethics as Christian people in relationship to the creation. As she moves towards her conclusion she quotes the 2007 Environmental Agency survey which identified 50 things which will save the planet of which the second on the list was "the role of faith communities and their leaders".

Overall, Marlow's book was a good read and whilst the chapters on the prophets themselves were interesting it was the preliminary survey of the place of the creation in church history and exploration of some of the current ecological theologies that I would most recommend. For me these chapters were a window into where we have been and where we are going on ecological issues and provided a solid context for Biblical engagement which leads to transformed thinking and even more importantly was of living.

The book is quite expensive ($120 from Amazon) so unless you are really committed to this field it is a lot of money to spend on a book.  There is a copy at Trinity Theological Library in Brisbane, which is where I found the copy I read.

Friday, 14 September 2012

3 reflections on Psalm 19

by Peter Lockhart

1 The heavens are telling the glory of God

Whenever I read the beginning of Psalm 19 I hear a sense of the joy of creation and the echoes of people who have shared their feeling of closeness to God in nature; whether it be in the mountains, or the bush or by the sea. Yet, as I hear this joy and sense of closeness to God I am also reminded of John Calvin's words written almost 500 years ago:

“But although the Lord represents both himself and his everlasting Kingdom in the mirror of his works with very great clarity, such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward so manifest testimonies, and they flow away without profiting us.” Calvin Institutes I.V.11

Now while environmental concern was not what was driving Calvin on this particular point it leads me into wondering whether not only does our inability to find faith of any true substance in our encounters with God in nature that it also does not 'profit' nature itself when we fail to make the connection.

Any of us can easily be lost in our wonder of creation, even encounter God in the moment and a sense of God's presence in the scene before us, yet how quickly this moment fades overcome by our perceive pressures and drudgery in everyday life. We are deaf to the muted voice found in the song of creation.

The encounter does not change us as it ought in our relationship with God nor in understanding of what it means to see stewards of God's creation - a task I believe we are failing miserably at.

In God's choice to turn towards the world in and through Jesus Christ the promise of the reconciliation of all things in him is a promise not for the destruction of the creation but a renewal of it. As followers of Jesus and having already been drawn into this coming hope I wonder whether we might begin to hear differently these words of Psalm 19.

Can we hear not simply the telling of the glory of God but the telling of the coming renewal of all things? Can we hear a call to Christian faithfulness being expressed in not only our response to God and each other but also to voice of God's glory - this wondrous world in which we live!

2 More to be desired... really?

On Q&A last week Catherine Deveny launched numerous attacks on the church and Christianity in general, culminating in this tirade:

"When you actually look at the Bible, which is - that's the only text that I’m - like, religious text that I'm really familiar with, it is basically social engineering embedded in fairytales and horror stories which is just chock full of homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division and most people haven’t even read it. It has been written by 44 - you know, 60 people, I think, 44 chapters, you know, three different languages over thousands of years, thousands of different interpretations and despite all of those different interpretations, the only thing they can all agree on is homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division."

Despite Deveny's Biblical illiteracy and obvious bias her opinion is certainly not a lone one and as much as might wish to critique the proponents of atheism (so-called new or otherwise) there can be little disagreement with the idea that many of the Biblical texts and laws are difficult, and can be even more difficult to actually live out as A.J.Jacobs found ("The Year of Living Biblically").

With all this context in mind we come with some caution to reflect on the second movement of Psalm 19 which climaxes with an expressed desire for the law of the Lord:

"The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb."

Do we really long for God's law as the Psalm describes, all of it, some of it, the anachronistic bits, the reinterpreted bits, the filtered through Christ's life bits? How do we reconcile the equality we have in Christ described by Paul with laws which are so quickly turned into self righteousness and judgement of others?

What does the Psalmist long for?

Whilst I find myself wanting to have such a deep desire God's ways - a desire greater than gold and drippings of the honeycomb - honesty is more prudent. Maybe, it is not so much that I have a deep longing for the law of the Lord, rather than I long to make sense of the disparity of the texts and experiences of Christians as I seek to live out my faith. And, I desire to understand being part of this human race that has so often failed, with or without god or gods, to live loving one another and with proper regard for this wondrous world in which we find ourselves living. I long for God to help me understand and to live well. What do you long for?

3 The words of my mouth

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

A few years ago I started using a paraphrase of these words at the beginning of my sermons as a way of seeking to focus myself and the congregation on the delivery and reception of the sermon. In a sense I have seen it as encouraging to think of the sermon as a sacred space for sacred listening. Together we listen for Jesus words to us.

Yet these words are also a reference to the sacred space which each of us inhabit as people. God has chosen us and set us apart to be his Holy people, to articulate the praise of the universe to God. As Psalm 19 says “the heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

We have the immense privilege of giving voice to that praise. A privilege not restricted to holy moments or times that we set apart but in every moment of our existence – our very lives as human beings are sacred signs of God’s love.

To put this in a practical sense I wonder what it would be like to pray the prayer I prayed at the beginning of the sermon in other settings to focus us on the purpose of our existence.

What if just before you begin to discipline your child you stopped and prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

What if just before you entered a meeting at work you prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

What if just before you visited your elderly mother suffering from dementia you prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

What if as you sit wondering whether your children will ring you or visit you this weekend you prayed: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

If you reflect on all of the things you do during the week, all of your interactions, what would it mean to realise that in each moment you are under the scrutiny of the one who made you and who has made your life a sign and symbol of his love for others.

I know when I think about this the challenge is daunting, there are times that I say and what I do not seem to reflect this purpose and intent for my life. The words of my mouth and meditations of my heart are at times not even acceptable to the standards I set for myself let alone acceptable to what I believe would be acceptable to God.

There is a corruption in the sacred space that is my existence. I am out of step with my maker. We are all out of step with our maker. Things have awry, askew, they have become distorted and setting things right is a problem.

This problem is not a new problem but the same problem experience by the Israelites as God’s people. Individually and collectively they knew they had problems and God provided systems for them to deal with those problems. These solutions involved sacrificing animals and making offerings at the Temple.

For the Jewish people God resided in the Temple and they went to meet there. At the times of the great festival people would travel from far and wide to come and make such offerings and seek reconciliation with God.

In a practical solution to the problem of bringing animals appropriate for such sacrifices people had effectively set up shop in the Temple courtyard to help people make their offering. Here animals were sold and money changers change the Roman coin for Temple currency. The Roman coin bore the image of Caesar who was considered to be a God and therefore the coins were idolatrous items. A practical solution was provided for people so that they could worship and offer sacrifices.

But just as individually our lives our askew the practice of buying and selling and changing money was corrupted by human greed and fallibility. The collective Holy Space was also tainted and the witness and worship stunted.

When Jesus comes driving out the animals and turning over tables he was not simply raising questions about the corruption within the walls of the Temple or the structures of the religion that allowed people to be mislead but also in the lives of individual people. A new way of reconciliation was needed: God’s love and mercy could not be bought and sold!

When challenged on this Jesus says such a strange and wonderful thing: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The temple that he was referring to, we are told by John, was the Temple of Jesus own body.

Here is the good news. In Jesus own body humanity meets God, and God meets humanity. In Jesus’ very own body we are reconciled with God. As Paul later wrote our lives are hidden in Christ. The personal sacred space and the communal sacred space find a new location.

We remember this in our worship as we worship the Father in the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even now as we meet Jesus offers prayers and praises to God on our behalf.

The quality of our worship is not what makes us right with God. We do not have to sing in tune. Our prayers do not have to be absolutely theologically correct. The sermons can only represent the limitations of one person’s thoughts and ideas. And so on. Yet in the midst of all of this, God is at work in and through the Holy Spirit. Our paltry offerings are taken into the worship of the Son and he pours out upon us the Spirit enlivening us with the good news of the grace and mercy of God.

This means as I pray the prayer before a sermon I do so not because I believe I will be saying what God wants you to do and declaring his truth but precisely because of my inadequacy to do so. I describe my sermons as a different heresy I prepare each week trusting that despite this in God’s grace the good news will be heard.

Drawn into the sacred space of Jesus’ life through the power of the Holy Spirit we are set free again to live our imperfect lives witnessing to that love and mercy we have encountered.

We do so together as a congregation: collectively, communally sharing in God’s love together whilst, at one and the same time, aware that there are still tables needing to overturned in the way we do things as congregations. Yet we pray that despite our weakness that “the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart are acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.”

And we also witness personally from the midst of what can only ever be a distorted and stunted faith which but sees through a glass darkly. And so we make our prayer in each moment: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

I want to encourage you in the week ahead to deliberately say these words in situations they seem to least apply and consider the wonder of the grace of God as you engage with the conversation with your butcher, in the parent teacher interview, as you speak to your neighbour, or the telemarketer that has interrupted your dinner.

Let us pray that in each moment of our lives this prayer may be true and that we might become an icon of God’s grace; that Gods’ loving mercy might shine forth out of the sacred space of our connection with Jesus who is our Lord and saviour. Amen.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A woman expanding Jesus perception!

Peter Lockhart

As someone who is quite committed to education and learning I find myself challenged each week by new ideas, new concepts and new learning. Sometimes I seek these things out and sometimes because of situations or experiences that arise I am forced to act in new ways and reflect on my world view. Ideally, the intellectual learning might inspire new actions but sadly this is rarely the case, so the question may be asked whether I have actually learnt anything new. Nevertheless, in my opinion these processes of learning, growing and changing are part of what it means to be human.

Which brings me to a question which is raised for us in today’s reading of Jesus encounter with the Syrophonecian woman, “Did Jesus learn something new through this encounter?”

This may seem a strange question for some of you, because you assume that Jesus was aware of everything that was going to occur before it happened because he was God’s Son. And, I have heard this passage preached in exactly this way. Jesus only referred to the woman as a dog because he knew how she would respond. But what if something else going here that we might learn from?

If Jesus was, like the rest of us, human, then it should not strike us a strange that Jesus himself learnt and grew throughout his own life. The first words of Mark’s gospel let us into a secret which is then explored in the interplay of relationships through the drama of Mark’s gospel.

Mark declares in the very first verse, “This is the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God”. The story then unfolds as a process of discovery about who knows and understands and believes this truth and who doesn’t. Or maybe to put it another way who are the insiders and who are the outsiders.

One of the ironies of Mark’s gospel is that it is more often than not the outsiders, the gentiles, the ostracised, even the demons who recognise Jesus whilst the Jews, the insiders and even the disciples struggle to understand and to believe.
What strikes me about this story of the Syrophonecian woman is to see this journey of discovery of God’s relationship with the so-called outsiders is also a journey that Jesus himself appears to have been on.

When the woman comes into their midst pleading for her child Jesus response is dismissive at best and possible at worst plain insulting – he infers that she is a dog.

This behaviour of Jesus jars against our modern sensibilities but for a first century Jewish Rabbi Jewish words are totally coherent and in context. Jesus did not need to deal with this person because not only was she a woman but she was not even a Jewish woman.

This may upset our thinking about Jesus somewhat because we have experienced and seen the bigger story.

In a recent joint churches statement about asylum seeks seeking to come to Australia it was said, “Core to the Christian faith is the principle of ‘welcoming the stranger’, and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan guides us as we seek to care for those who are vulnerable and marginalised in society. As Christians, we are called to cross the road to help, to not turn away those in need.”

This is the Jesus we believe we know, Jesus who welcomes all strangers and offer God’s love unconditionally.

Yet in this story Jesus appears to be in a process of discovering exactly who he is and who God is calling him to.

The persistence of the woman opens Jesus eyes and heart to her predicament and he responds by offering healing, albeit in an offhand manner as the woman urges him by suggesting that even the little puppies should be welcome to the scraps on the floor.

Jesus, recognises something in the woman and the direction of his compassion flows to someone who would have otherwise not been considered even worthy of Jesus attention.

Just as the way in which Mark is seeking to open people’s minds to Jesus identity and so also God’s concern for those who seek him, whatever their ilk, so at this point in the story Jesus mind appears to be opening up to this very truth about himself and God’s love himself.

As a follower of Jesus, as his disciple, I find this story encouraging and challenging. Jesus the man from Nazareth was on a journey of learning, just as any of us are. I do not have any sense that Jesus had direct knowledge of all things but through his unique bond with the Father and through the Spirit was guided in that journey.

Yet I am also challenged with Jesus response. Jesus came to see and understand that God’s love was for all people, that there were no outsiders, and so as with the woman he reaches and acts for them and for us.

This raises the question for my life and for yours as we learn new things how do we respond?

How do we live honouring others for who God may have concern even when we believe they do not fit into our little group?

Let me give an example: in the conversations and articles that I have read around the issue of asylum seekers coming to Australia it appears that fear of the other and protection of what is ours drives argument.

We play the game of insiders and outsiders and we decide people’s fate. The persistence of the Syrophonecian woman in some ways is reflected in group of Hazara refugees from Afghanistan located on Christmas Island who have written to our government pleading their case and asking not to be processed in Naaru.

Just as the presence of the Syrophonecian woman would have caused some offence amongst the Jewish males so long ago we struggle with the presence of people who are different who come seeking our help, who come seeking the crumbs from the bounteous table of our Australian lifestyle.

These are complex issues no doubt, yet when we consider Jesus learning about who was and who was out and we see his response we might ask ourselves how we go about caring for those who are different amongst us.

And maybe we don’t have to worry about going as far afield as the asylum seeker issue to think about the issues of inclusion in the community, of hospitality and of care for others. Who is it in the congregation and in the community around you whom we need to listen to? Who is appealing to us just as the woman appealed to Jesus?

Our faith is not a static thing as if we get faith and then that’s all there is to it. Even Jesus our teacher grew and at some level may have even changed as he drew closer to the knowledge of who he was. So too as our faith grows and is nurtured we respond as the Spirit works in us and we are drawn to the good works of God.

It seems fitting that the story of the healing of the deaf mute follows this story. A story in which a man has his ears opened and so also is given a new opportunity to hear and respond to God’s love for him. In the story Jesus could was moved to respond, he heard the woman. As Jesus people here and now the question is what we are hearing and if we are deaf to ask Jesus to unstop our ears that we too might learn and grow. Amen.

Jesus: homogenised, pasteurised & homoousious

Peter Lockhart

You may have seen an add on TV where a guy walks into a corner store and asks for some milk. In response the woman behind the counter begins to reel off all the different kinds of milk there are available – low fat, skim, flavoured, full cream, extra cream, soy and so on. At which point he responds by saying, “I just want milk that tastes like milk”. What the woman offers to him is a specific product that based on her opinion or maybe more realistically the advertising company’s opinion tastes like milk.

I reckon this add is not a bad analogy for the way we think about Jesus. In our own way what we have done for the last 2 thousand years is play with the formula to find a Jesus that is most palatable to us. There is more than one Jesus on offer to us and regardless of what we think we are doing, I suspect most of us are looking for a Jesus to suit our taste.

You see who Jesus was and what he was has been the source of debate for Christians since he walked the earth. For the first 300 years of the church there were fierce debates about who Jesus was, debates that still rage today.

There are those who would want to say that Jesus is nothing more than a human being, a great teacher, but basically a human being.

There are others who would so elevate Jesus divinity, that he was so fully God’s son, that as he trudged the roads of Galilee he was all knowing, some kind of super being in our midst.

I have problems with both of these views.

The first of the views, that Jesus was just a man, appears to limit the possibilities of how God can act. It places human beings in an all knowing position. It is a view that says, “Jesus couldn’t be God’s son it’s scientifically impossible, it is historically unprovable.”

The second of these views seems to miss the point of the idea that God became one of us in Jesus; it turns Jesus into something for more than being human and so presents us with a Jesus that is difficult for us to relate to.

These are but two views, or two flavours if you will, of Jesus that occupies the shelves of the spiritual supermarket we call Christianity.

So what do we this problem, how do actually find the real Jesus, is it possible?

I think one of the things that can help us to know Jesus is to try to listen afresh to the stories in the scriptures, stories like the one that we heard today.

Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophonecian woman has often been identified as a problematic story.

Jesus calls the woman a dog, and even though, as some scholars point, out he uses the word puppy the insult is still there.

Why does he do this and why does he dismiss her request? Jesus’ response is based on the fact that she is a woman and not a Jew.

One of the explanations given for Jesus’ behaviour is that he knew how the woman was going to respond and that he was testing her, but for me this denies Jesus humanity, as if he were all knowing.

It could also run the risk of setting up a model for Jesus’ followers that the end justifies the means. That is to say we could begin to think it is OK to insult someone if we think it is going to get the right response.

Thinking about what Mark was trying to get across in his whole gospel we know that he is trying to help people believe his very first assertion in Mark 1:1 which announces his narrative with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Alongside this theme of revealing Jesus to be God’s son, there is also a theme of who is to be recognised as insiders and who is to be counted as outsiders.

One of the ironies of Mark’s telling of the gospel story is that despite Jesus telling the disciples, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God’ it is the outsiders, the gentiles and the outcastes who recognise Jesus’ identity whilst his disciples flounder in misunderstanding.

So how might these themes be a part of this particular story?

One of the things that I would want to suggest is that this story shows Jesus humanity and that he was growing in his own understanding of what he had been called to do.

If we take seriously the idea that Jesus is truly human then he cannot be all knowing but is on a journey of discovery in his own relationship with God through his life. Maybe his desire to find some anonymity in the region of Tyre, his initial rejection of the woman and his preference that the news about his healing of the deaf mute be kept private are all indicators of Jesus’ humanity.

Is it possible that through this interaction Jesus himself comprehends more clearly that the love of God and presence of the kingdom that he is proclaiming is for more than the just the Israelites? Here is a man learning what it means to follow God and entering into what had been for the Jews relatively unchartered waters – God’s will was that all humankind and the whole creation share in his love.

So the story may be saying something to us about Jesus’ own personal growth, that when God became human it really was a self emptying and he did need to grow and learn as other human beings.

On the other hand, the story also contains pointers to Jesus’ divine connection and authority. To speak a word without even seeing a child and so caste out a demon, to heal a man who was deaf and mute, are given to us as signs of his power and authority. Jesus was a man, but no ordinary man.

How we think about who Jesus was and what he did is absolutely vital to our faith and to our life as the church – it determines how we act and what we do and what we think we should be doing.

It can be quite easy to homogenise and pasteurise Jesus, to skim the cream off or take the impurities out, but is this the Jesus that God wants us to know or the Jesus that we are making for ourselves to make him more palatable?

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”

I wonder what the solid food might be for us, real food and real drink. It is interesting to think that the image of the dogs being fed at the table found in this story has carried across into what is called the prayer of humble approach in some versions of the Eucharist.

It is a prayer in which we identify with the Syrophonecian woman, recognising the great gap between who we are and who God is, yet also celebrating that God’s nature has been to bridge that gap so that we like the woman might be fed, not with milk but with Jesus offering of himself for us, his body and his blood in bread and wine.

Take a moment to reflect on who you think Jesus is and what it might mean that he was truly God among us sharing the fullness of what it meant to be one of us.