Fences. Joy Cowley. Aotearoa Psalms
Does anyone make New Year’s resolutions these days?
Did any of you make a New Year’s resolution?
I guess it is not too late if you have a mind too. We are only one week in to another year.
Why do we it? What do such resolutions signify?
If I think back to when I might have done such a thing - I don’t any more- but when I did, I think they were a statement of my intention to do something different about the way I was living. They were signifying a choice I was making to do something differently.
Today’s reading, in the no nonsense way that characterises this gospel, launches us straight into the heart of the gospel we know as ‘Mark’. There are no nativity stories with virgins and angels, no gift bearing magi from afar, no mystical accounts or theological conundrums ... instead it begins with Jesus making a major choice about his life.
He chooses, the people he wants to be accountable to for the way he would conduct his life, and, most importantly for the rest of the gospel, Mark tells us what God thought about that.
Mark establishes his framework, lays before us his dominant theme, sets out his authorising references for what he wants to convey, and provides us with supportive statement of God’s approval. Then he unpacks it all in the following chapters.
Although scholars tell us there were collections of sayings attributed to Jesus in circulation from the about the 50s, this is the first of what is called the narrative gospels. That is, the story of Jesus life and teaching told in a sequential story form - and it sets the pattern for the Matthew and Luke.
Right here, in these first verses as Mark tells the story, we are introduced to Jesus at a significant point of transition: Jesus is choosing to step aside from the life he has been living (we know nothing of that, but can speculate it was perhaps in Joseph’s workshop as would be normal for his time) and take up a different ‘way’.
In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the writer places Jesus at the River Jordan, at the boundary of the Promised Land, this place that signifies freedom and new life. Here Jesus chooses a way of life, a set of commitments, and a community of people! to be accountable to. The choice is marked through ritual baptism by his slightly older kinsman and mentor John. Baptism, the ritual descent in to death and chaos and the emergence into new life, was for the community that followed John, a political act It signified a choice to stand apart from the Roman Empire and a desire to be free from the demands of the temple and religious powers. Jesus was at a transition point and making a choice. Jesus’s intentions are set before us.
Today, we like to think that the choices we make are made in the strength of our individual agency: if I want to do it I can. To some extent that is the way it is, but the cultural components of our life - the ethos of the communities we are part of - have a significant role in the choices we see as possible; that we see as viable for us; that we see have potential to bring change and are worth the effort that will be required to enact that change.
Jesus chooses to align himself with John who has been challenging the power of the Roman authorities and their agents: John who lives in the desert, wears skins and eats locusts and wild honey - so we are told - and who is dependent on none of the trappings of the social system, who proclaims freedom from sin while turning away from the demands of temple sacrifices.
Jesus himself, immediately after his own baptism, heads off into the wilderness from which John has emerged. Then as Mark tells the story, John is arrested and beheaded and this, in Mark’s narrative, is the catalyst for Jesus to emerge and begin his public ministry.
This is ‘the way’ he has chosen to live and what he has committed himself to be accountable for. He is resolute in the face of many temptations to turn his back on this new way he has chosen, that he intends to continue proclaiming a return to the ways of the covenant with God by:
opposing the power of the Romans,
healing community divisions and
offering hope to those who despair of the way life has treated them.
Mark makes sure to tell his readers that, when Jesus chooses this ‘way’, God is very pleased! “The heavens are torn apart and the spirit is descending like a dove on him...” Earth and heaven are no longer separated!
We are fortunate to be able to choose from many different ways of life in our society. Sometimes we are seemingly unaware that there are choices we can make and we simply ‘go with the flow’ as it carries us along. That is often how it is when things are quite pleasant for us - no hassles so why change anything. Or sometimes when things are so awful we can’t imagine anything different for ourselves - we see no way out, we feel trapped - there are seemingly no choices apart from to submit and make the best of it.
We often think we know ourselves well, that what we choose to do is directed by that autonomous self.
However, to put all the choosing power within our own hands is to overlook the impact of cultural influence: social location and contextual pressures. Who we associate with, and our contextual experiences shape our values and our aspirations.
Our self perception is also shaped largely by influences outside ourselves. Our ethics, what we think is good or of value, is shaped by those we listen to, people we consider knowledgeable, successful, acceptable leaders, powerful: shaped by stories freedom.
People who know us, who recognise traits in us that align with their own self perception and who see value in us, have more influence than we sometimes care to acknowledge.
So while we might choose the people we associate with they in turn shape the choices we make. It’s a feed-back loop. There was a dramatic example of sorts last year. Think about the team of 5 million who chose to follow the protocols for national protection against the COVID virus, we kept each other up to the mark of acceptable behaviour. Those who opted out of that team and did not support or follow the protocols were censured one way or another as we sort to influence them to choose national safety. Those we associate with, who we ‘hang out with, will either encourage us to engage with the team or to oppose its expectations. We will be influenced one way or another by others.
You have chosen to be a part of the community of St Luke’s church here in Remuera. Together you have a set of protocols for how you behave, you are developing an approach to being Christian which is distinctive and you have a set of core attitudes and expectations. Together you hold church rituals and Christian priorities which you help each other to maintain and enact. Most of you, at some time, chose this community because it reflects something of who you believe you are and now you influence the way it lives and expresses itself as a community - a feedback loop.
None of us know for sure what this coming year will bring. We can reasonable expect things to be different from the pre-COVID days; we might also reasonable expect climate change to gather momentum and the housing crisis and wealth gap to be exacerbated.
What choices are available to us in the face of these things?
‘The Way’ of Jesus we have chosen would see us seek to support and advocate for those things that are in line with life-giving justice making priorities. Those choices tend to put the well-being of others ahead of self-interest, they tend to value compassion, diversity, access to economic, food and housing security.
How we as individuals maintain our capacity to embrace this ‘way’ of justice-making love will be resourced and strengthened by those we choose as companions. Our resilience and commitment to respond in life-enhancing ways to the changes to our planet and our community rests on the stories of hope and possibility that we hear, a vision of heaven and earth united and the voice of God saying “this my beloved with whom I am well pleased”