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2018 JOURNEYING TOWARDS WHOLENESS. 21/10/19

Scripture: Mark 10:35-45

Anyone who has ever travelled knows that even the most highly anticipated and best-planned journeys will usually throw up at least one or two surprises. These can be either unexpected and serendipitous pleasures, such as the wedding we happened upon in the magnificent cathedral at San Sebastian, or frustrating unplanned cancellations, accidents or illness, like when a group from this congregation found themselves stuck for a week in Katmandu when the airport runway became blocked. Seasoned travellers know that when all of the bookings have been checked and long range weather forecasts scrutinised, anything can happen, and something probably will, one way or the other. It is just part of the wonderful, anxious unpredictability of the journey.

Last week I shared with you my perception of one particular way in which a journey on the way of Christ can unfold. It is where the adventure starts with a commitment to the cause, and that decision to dedicate oneself to this particular way gives energy and purpose as the fuel on the way. Remember how some of Jesus’ disciples just got up, left their nets, and followed him. The time comes, though, as it did for the rich man in Mark’s story, when commitment to the cause no longer gives the sense of certainty that it once did. Give the right choices at this point, one finds that what has become impossible merely by our human effort, is possible in a new way, when one experiences the grace of God to overcome doubt, failure and the resulting guilt and shame.

In my own journey on the way of Christ, I can identify how commitment was the driving force for perhaps the first third of the journey. Then, when my own strength failed me, grace took over as the central theme. Just one of those experiences of grace was when, after five years in then wilderness, I received a call to minister in this congregation in the year 2000.

Some years later I experienced another shift of emphasis. When I became Moderator in 2011, it became important to emphasise the calling of our Uniting Church to witness to the wholeness of the Christian faith. For example, we have a mission to integrate our spiritual journey with our passion for justice and inclusion. So I find that, in what may well be the "third third” of my ministry, the unifying theme is "Wholeness.”

I want to illustrate this today with a few reflections on our recent trip to France and Spain, as well as the experience of Jesus’ disciples as expressed by Mark in today’s gospel reading.

(Photo 1) This photo is of the idyllic port of Agen, on the Baise River in southern France. Everything is prepared for the six-day journey on the barge Gallician, pictured on the right, so much so that when the woman in the office suggested that we insure our excess for damage, I said to Peter Campbell, "What is the worst you can do to a barge on a calm river” We nevertheless took the conservative way, and paid up.

(Photo 2), Which is just as well, a you can see what can happen to the gunwale when one miscalculates slightly on entering a very narrow lock!

(Photo 3) Fortunately, all’s well that ends well, as we reflect on what was a most enjoyable six days, even with a few anxious moments.

There were a few other unexpected moments over the six weeks travelling in France and Spain- as one should reasonably expect. The fact is that when one reminisces about the time, it is the awkward and problematic moments that play just as much a part of the whole story as the times of wonder and tranquillity. In fact, the story would be quite bland without the downs to go with the ups.

My point here is that the journey toward wholeness is what it is precisely because so much of what can happen is unexpected. Dealing with the bumps and bruises helps to make us who we are. Getting grumpy with one’s friends is actually quite predictable over such a period of time in close proximity, but if one can survive the unsettled weather with a commitment to one another and the grace to let some things go, the friendships are stronger for the experience. Such journeys are truly journeys towards wholeness.

So it is that the followers of Jesus find themselves, after a period of exciting challenging and successful ministry on the way with Jesus, at the very awkward juncture when he announces that they will now be leaving the tranquil hills of Galilee to take the very risky and difficult path into the turmoil of Jerusalem. It’s a bit like expecting to spend a week in Vallencia relaxing on the beaches on the Costa Blanca, eating paella and drinking sangria, only to find oneself in the middle of a seething mass of Catalonians, intent on gaining their political autonomy. (Video 4).

One needs to read the full story in chapters 8, 9 and 10 of Mark’s Gospel to see this drama unfold. Every time Jesus broaches the subject of their journey’s new direction, his followers indulge in some sort of inappropriate avoidance behaviour. In today’s reading, we find James and John trying to ensure that, whatever happens to everyone else, this journey will have the best of outcomes for them. In heaven, they want to be placed each side of him. "Can you be baptised with the baptism that I am to be baptised with” he asks them. "Of course we can” they reply, oblivious of the fact that he is actually referring to his suffering and death.

In this teachable moment, Jesus gathers all his disciples together, and reminds them that his journey is one of service, where the last are first and the first last. This does not mean that the experience will not be wonderful, and life changing, just that becoming whole involves being fully engaged in the range of experiences the journey has to offer, the tough and the gentle, the rough and the smooth. Rather than try and avoid all the pitfalls, the committed journeyer sets out in an attitude of trust, knowing that whatever happens, it is all part of the richness and the wholeness, from which we come out more mature, rounded, enriched people.

I also want to share with you more deeply about one experience from our time abroad that witnesses to the journey towards wholeness.

I had heard of Antoni Gaudi, and knew a little about his eccentric style, but nothing quite prepared me for the impact of his architecture that we encountered in Barcelona. His work in The Parc Guell (Photo 5) and the monumental and still unfinished Sacrada Familia. (Photo 6) were particularly impressive. His style is not everyone’s cup of tea, but what really impressed me about this man was the wholeness of his life and work. A gifted architect and artisan, he became at one point a committed Catholic, the influence of which shines through his work. He was also a nature person, and his creations express the harmony of nature and built environment. A man ahead of his time, he even ventured into the area of anatomy, (Photo 7) creating a concrete bench in the Parc Gruell that is unexpectedly comfortable due to the way the curves support a person’s lower back. He achieved this by making careful anatomical measurements. The concrete also has built into it bits pottery and mosaics that have been recovered and recycled.

Something of Gaudi’s eclectic spirituality lives on. The Parc Guell was initially meant to be a private housing development, but Gaudi’s demands that purchasers adhere to strict environmental guidelines meant that the project was unpopular, and failed as an economic enterprise. Happily, it now belongs to the people of the city, and even contains a public primary school within its grounds.

Gaudi was a Christian, but his creativity would not be contained within the bounds of the narrow theological and dogmatic constraints of his day. His was a faith of the common good, and as a result, the whole community is reaping the benefits. Not for him the divisions and dualisms that religion so often seeks to foist on its devotees. For example, we are now hearing news of a particular section of a particular denomination in Sydney that is moving to constrain its activities to exclude people who are other than heterosexual. They are also bringing in restrictions on the practice of yoga on their properties. It will be permissible to take up yoga positions as exercise, but not to meditate while doing so. How they intend to police this distinction is a mystery to me. I can think of little so contradictory to the spirit of Jesus than to so seek to exclude and divide to control and to direct. Meanwhile the Spirit will continue to blow where it wills.

On the journey towards wholeness. we make our best contribution to God’s world when we embrace rather than exclude, expand rather than contract, give as servants rather than direct and demand as rulers. Wholeness engages and embraces our deepest being, allows the free reign of the spirit of grace, and makes us people who are enriched by the journeys that we undertake in a spirit of wonder and trust.

May God give us the breadth of vision to see the whole picture (Photo 8- a scenic view through a large hole in a rock face.)

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