Friday, October 25, 2013

The Real Prize

Sundays after Pentecost, Proper 7[12] Year C

How many of you have played “Pass the Parcel” or organised that game for your own children to play at a party?

The idea is, of course, that you hide little treasures under the layers of paper that is wrapping a parcel – so many layers that the parcel at the beginning of the game is much bigger than the final prize in the centre – and as the children pass it around, when the music stops the one holding the parcel gets to take off one layer of paper and may get a little treasure as well.

I have had fun watching children disregard the little treasures that come along the way because they are so fixed on getting the “real prize” in the middle, and indeed on one occasion I made sure that the little prizes along the way were much better than the one in the end – just to make a point.

Many of the stories we have in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible are very much like the parcel in a pass-the-parcel game in that there can be many layers of meaning to be gained from it, but sometimes I think we are so focussed on getting to what we think is the “real prize” in the middle that we miss the beauty of the additional little treasures that are in a story.

I think this is one of the things that makes sense of the text in Hebrews 4:12 :- “The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword.”  It means in my mind that every time I read a Scripture it can have new meanings that speak right into my presently lived experience.

That is one of the main reasons I never use old sermons – they were written to address our life and circumstances as they were then, not now.

Today, I am not going to try and unpack the parcel right into the middle – someone else has probably done that well for you before.  I want to offer you some thoughts that could be regarded as little jewels or prizes that we found along the way as we considered the story.

There are so many layers of meaning that I could keep you here all day, I am sure, but let’s see how we can go for 15 minutes or so.

1.    Jesus meets us all where we are
One of the striking features of this story is that Jesus is willing to approach someone whom the rest of society has shunned for many years.

Here is a man whom people kept away from – his behaviour was completely unpredictable and he seemed to have super-human strength. 

He is described as being possessed with an evil spirit – I have nothing in my experience to reference this, although perhaps some of you have.  The closest thing I can imagine as being like it is schizophrenia or some of the multiple-personality disorders that psychiatrists talk about.

Regardless of this it is clear that here was a man who was completely shunned by his community – they feared him.  And to add to his horror in their eyes, he chose to live among the dead in the cemetery. 

You may remember my comments on my first Sunday that being in such a place associated with the dead would have made this man ritually unclean and so unable to fulfil his religious obligations.

With all these things in mind it is extraordinary that Jesus even dared to engage with the man.  By all the cultural norms of his day he should have run away as fast as he could.

But he didn’t. 

He stayed put and reached out to this man in one of the most desperate situations in life and sought to meet his need.

2.   Jesus cared enough to want to know his name and offer to help
Now this is an interesting aspect of the story.  On the one hand his request for a name is addressed to the spiritual entity that has possessed the man.  The important thing I see here is that Jesus seeks to address the PERSON – I would think he was looking into the man’s eyes with compassion.

Because of his situation, the man would rarely have been addressed as a person – you can imagine the kinds of names people would have yelled in abuse at him, if they came across him. 

In Jesus he found someone who not only was willing to come close, but who also cared enough to reach out and help him as a real person in need.  Jesus enables this man to be restored to his right mind – and as you might say, the man was eternally grateful.

3.   What happens when you do good?
If there is anything of a theme in the stories of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels it would have to be that “when you do the right thing you upset somebody.”

Almost every time Jesus does something good for someone he gets it in the neck from one bunch of people or another – healing a man on a Sabbath day; telling a woman her sins are forgiven. 

Indeed it was ultimately too much for the religious leaders – Jesus disregarded both the purity code and the authority of the religious leaders as custodians of the Law – and they determined he would pay the ultimate price.

4. Go home

The final little treasure I want to draw your attention to is the instruction Jesus gave to the man who had quite naturally declared his desire to follow Jesus anywhere.

“Go home!” Jesus said to him.  “Go home and tell people how much God has done for you.”

Sometimes, home is the hardest place to do this – perhaps because of the complex lines of relationship and responsibility that link us to everyone in what we call our family.

The thing that I like about this little instruction is that if we applied it to each of us, we could all do it.

There is no need for a theology degree to do this.  All that is expected is that you can talk about your own very real experience of the blessings of God.

There is no need for jargon here, no need for complicated ideas and doctrines of the church.  Just a telling of your own story – and only you can do that because you are an expert in yourself.

What would you say?  You might need to talk it through with a good friend – because sometimes we don’t notice our own things – but I want to encourage you to think these things through so that sometime, when some asks or you think it’s worth saying, you can talk very naturally about why it is that you are a follower of Jesus.

Let us pray:
God our most holy Friend, you have entered into our lives out of your own deep concern for who we are and what we need most, and you have promised a most precious gift for us, your Spirit, the Advocate, whose work is to embolden us in the telling of our story of following you.

We thank you and pray this through Christ Jesus our Saviour.


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