Job 1:1; 2:1-10, Mark 10:2-16
The Kingdom of heaven is like a young child who has a big box of dress up outfits. Who comes out each day dressed as a different character to play its part in the day based on how it's feeling or what the child thinks the household might need.
As I contemplated the difficult readings set down for this Sunday, both in Job and in Mark, the phrase which stood out to me, as possibly the easiest to preach on, was this one: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” There is an innocence that is being suggested in the faith of a child, an innocence that we are all encouraged to learn from.
Yet Jesus is speaking to adults and as I thought about young children the image of a child playing dress-ups day by day stood out. We start our acting career early, but the reality is that as we go through life our acting career continues.
We play the part of an athlete as we participate in sport.
We play the part of a dutiful son or daughter to our parents, or maybe the rebellious one!
We play the part of an employee sometimes dressed in a uniform for the job that we work.
We play the part of being a faithful husband or wife or a loyal friend.
We play the part of being a parent and then possibly even grandparent or great grandparent.
And dare I say, we play the part of being a Christian.
It is as Shakespeare observed in his play “As you like it:
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”
Today's sermon then is a preparation for you to go from this place to play-act your part and enter the world that is a stage. There are three phases in this preparation. The first phase is to understand the theatre of our existence and the stage on which we will tread the boards. The second phase is to consider the prompts and the cues that we will receive from side stage as we enter each act. In the third phase, I will consider our freedom to improvise as we respond to those prompts. And finally, with these three phases of formation and preparation completed we will prepare ourselves to go from here as God's people into the world.
The first phase of our preparation and our formation is to consider the theatre of our existence. To do this I take us back to the book of Job and the central character. He was a man from the land of Uz. It has long fascinated me that Job is from this faraway land called Uz. In reading various commentaries about where this land of Uz actually is, there appears to be some agreement that wherever it is, it is not Israel. Now there is a possibility that Job was a Jewish man living in the diaspora, but scholars seem to agree that by locating Job in this fictitious and faraway land the author was expanding our understanding of Job’s story as transcending the history of the Israelites. The theatre of our existence is the cosmos created by God. The cosmos which unfolds in the stories of Genesis which transcends the limitations of our ethnicity, our politics, our religion, our race, and our gender. It is a place in which we encounter blessings and a place in which we encounter suffering.
Thus, Job’s Story has implications for all people and for all time. This is the world in which we as characters will tread the boards. The stage itself has been set. Below us, supporting us, is the story of Jesus Christ. The very first words of Mark's gospel are this, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” The story of Jesus Christ is the story of God's grace and God's love en-fleshed and living among us. The book of John begins with these words “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Paul in his letter to the Colossians wrote this, “For in him [that is to say Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Again, Paul writing to the Romans said this, “but God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This is the stage on which we walk in the theatre of our existence - God's unconditional grace and love in and through Jesus.
This is vital for us to understand because the reality is that we all make mistakes as we walk on this stage. Not one of us lives a perfect life. In fact, far from it. Kathryn Schulz Says this of human beings:
I have much empathy for what Schulz is saying here. It is difficult for us to really know whether or not many of our decisions are right or wrong. So, what most of us assume is that we're right, most, if not all time. When we gather for worship, in the presence of God, prompted by the Holy Spiri,t we reflect on this reality when we say a prayer of confession. This prayer helps keep us humble and listening for the prompts from side stage as we act out our lives.
The prompts from side stage may come to us as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or through the influence of the Scriptures. When we gather for worship, we listen to words read from the Bible as prompts for us. As I said at the beginning today's readings contain complex and difficult messages. This means that the prompts we receive may not always be as clear cut and helpful for us as we might hope. In the book of Job, we encounter a discussion around the origin of suffering and notions of determinism. Job infers that what happens to us in life all comes from God, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In his commentary, David Hester says of Job, “The book of Job is God's word in its most enigmatic form, carried in an ancient tale and poetic dialogue, that raises questions yet shelters answers.” Thus, the prompts we receive cause us to pause and consider how we are viewing our lives, God, and the world around us. But the answers are not necessarily in plain sight.
The same is true of the reading in Mark. Many Christians these days interpret Jesus’ words about marriage to support the concept of the 1950s idea of the nuclear family. To view what Jesus was saying, when the Pharisees were testing him about divorce, is take the conversation out of its context and impose our modern concepts of marriage on them. In Jesus’ time women were viewed as the property of men. Without a family structure to support her a woman may have been isolated or even ostracized. Primarily Jesus seems to be trying to protect women against being hung out to dry by men. The difficulty in listening to the ancient prompts is often that we bring our own layers of expectation to them without considering their context. Even people in Jesus’ time struggled with his words. In Mark 4, Jesus says to his disciples:
To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God,
but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
they may indeed look, but not perceive
and may indeed listen, but not understand:
so that they may not turn and again be forgiven.”
We, as Jesus disciples, may also feel that we have been given the secret of the kingdom of heaven. However, when we consider this, we should remember the context of the conversation Jesus was having. It was precisely because the disciples as “insiders” did not understand Jesus’ parables that he said this. In fact, throughout Mark’s gospels the disciples constantly get it wrong whilst outsiders recognise Jesus’ identity. Ultimately, it is left to a Roman centurion at the end of Mark’s gospel to echo the words from Mark 1:1 when he declares as Jesus dies “Truly this Man was the Son of God.”
There is a reminder here to remain humble in our acting out of our part and listening to the prompts that we receive. Pride and hubris can blind us to the mystery of faith, the boards beneath our feet that support us is Christ’s unconditional love, not the self-righteousness of how we interpret our part or interpret the complex prompts we are given. This should also mean that we take a step back before we judge anyone else and their interpretation of life.
This brings us to the third phase of the refection our adaptation to the theatre, stage and prompts. Shannon Craigo-Snell suggests that as actors playing our part as Christians the Scriptures acts like a script. She says, “Scripture, like script, is both complete and incomplete.” In other words, it still requires our interpretation. She is asking, how should we live treading the boards of God’s grace as we interpret the script? But what if there is actually no script!
In his book on Christian Ethics Samuel Wells pushes beyond Craigo-Snell suggesting that as actors it is more like the craft of improvisation. We listen humbly to the prompts from the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, and we walk onto the stage of Christ’s grace, in the theatre of our existence, in a cosmos and creation which is full of both joy and suffering. You could say we are set free to live an improvised life with Christ. We are set free from the mistakes we will inevitably make, our missteps and misinterpretations, and we are set free to celebrate the good, to seek out signs of God’s peace breaking into the world, to speak out for justice, and to advocate for those who are oppressed.
This brings me back full circle to the children playing dress up day by day. There is an innocence of children at play, experimenting with life and how to live it. There are costumes and props to choose from and ideas that they copy from other people to help them interpret their playfulness. Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes it gets silly, sometimes its serious or sad or celebratory. There are usually boundaries to their playfulness, to keep them safe, and then there are boundaries which they create for themselves, limits beyond which even they are not prepared to go. How similar is our daily life as Christians to this?
The stage of grace on which we walk with humility gives us freedom to be the best versions of who we can be. As inspired by the prompts of scriptures, of the Holy Spirit, of each other we improvise our being Christians against the backdrop of a constantly changing and complex context. The safety net of God’s grace is below us and the love of Spirit prompts us to live in freedom, free from our constant mistakes, and free to live gratefully towards the God who gave us our part for if all the world is a stage, then the theatre is and can only be, God’s.
Schulz, Kathryn. Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. Granta Books, 2011.
Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The drama of Christian ethics. Baker Academic, 2018.