Second Sunday before Lent
Readings: Isaiah 40: 21-31, Psalm 147, 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23, Mark 1: 29-39
Hymns: 202 Let all the world: 417 Praise we now: (sheet) Will you come and follow me: 510 Sent forth by God’s blessing
Today’s readings bring to mind, or brought to mine, mutual respect and memory. The beautiful speech starting the final book of Isaiah, written around 530 BC, was made to exiles returning after fifty years. Their and our memories were and are so easily crushed by reality: the person or place we remembered as gentle or comfortable may years later seem mean or small-minded, the house we knew a car-park, Jerusalem a heap of rubble. Yet the person who returns is not the person who left, and nor were those who returned from elegant Babylon. Some wouldn’t want to return, some would be ambivalent, some keen: but none found what they expected. Yet Isaiah insists that, far from God ignoring their rights and needs, the Creator of all consistently respected each and noticed each, ’calling them all by name and not one was missing.’ Patient and trusting older people, in contrast to the younger with their great hope but little experience, will regain strength and put things straight for everyone. Isaiah is not denigrating the young, but respectfully expecting the mature to use their resilience born of experience organise and to lead, so that eventually, memory and reality come together in a fresh creation for all, with place and people renewed.
Seeing the Gospel as mutual respect between Jesus and Peter’s mother in law might surprise, for the suddenly healed lady ups and dishes out the food for Jesus in what might seem a gesture of subordination if not servitude. But wait! Jesus knew her as his disciple Peter’s mother-in-law, and we know from Corinthians that Peter’s wife, and most other wives and therefore extended families, were part of the later travelling mission. So when restored to health by her rabbi and old friend Jesus, the lady of the house returned thanks to him in a gesture of mutual respect by supervising the serving of the meal. Seen from our servantless and usually nuclear families, we might imagine the sickly lady slaving away in the kitchen, but cooking was the job of unmarried daughters and daughters-in-law, with the ‘house-mother’ as supervisor, ensuring all went well. Resuming her respected position thus becomes a gesture of self-affirmation as well as one of respect and thanks.
Paul’s letter is the crucial one when it comes to respectful social interaction with all and sundry, as essential for mission as community life. Yet his final comment, ‘I have become all things to all people’ has gained a rather negative tone, as if he was a hypocrite, a manipulator. Let’s think a little! When you visited or visit your grandparents, did you wear the same clothes or speak in the same tone, with the same words, as you’d use with your closest school friends? And if you travel to a new place, hoping to make friends, and are offered food you don’t much like, do you push it away, suggesting by gesture if not words it’s more appropriate for dogs? I doubt it. And if you have had little children, were you happy if they responded to a gift with words like ‘But I don’t like that,’ or ’I’ve got one!’ I doubt it. Speaking respectfully to Granny yet more crudely to friends is being aware of context- appropriate behaviour: giving food is a gesture of hospitality, a recognition of shared humanity, which is also the basis of sharing the gospel: giving a gift to a child, respecting its age and possible interests, is done with the intention of pleasing it, and it is that intention which the child is taught to recognise.
Intentions are tricky: talking sweetly to granny to cajole her into parting with her last penny is wicked, for the respect is false. We speak with more care and less jargon to her out of respect, a respect which should underlie all speech, for even rough speech among mates should not aim to destroy but rather create and maintain a relationship. That is what Paul was doing: speaking respectfully to all in order to convey some understanding of himself as a decent person and then, only when that was established, speaking equally respectfully to them of Christ. So in the Synagogue which he attended, he’d follow Kashrut rules and in the market place, Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek courtesies and demeanour: with the poor and marginalised of whatever background, he fitted in with their style, respecting and interacting with them as they were.
But he still had to be, and still remained, the person he was in all those ‘changing scenes of life.’ Sometimes he did not ‘accommodate’ to everyone and every attitude. He was expelled from the synagogue after speaking, and beaten – for in attending, he put himself under the discipline of its leaders. Proclaiming Christ in the market place, he was ejected by traders who felt threatened and was thrown into prison. Yet Paul kept faith with himself, kept faith with Christ, and also kept faith with all to whom he spoke, respecting each, irrespective or rank, ethnicity or gender, as a human equally made in the Image of God. Keeping faith, being courteous, doesn’t always mean fitting in so carefully you become someone else, and it certainly doesn’t mean fitting in in order to take something, whether that is money or self-respect, from the other.
Christian mission to others is littered with people who ignored or misread Paul’s words, insulting others, showing no respect, just as relationships within the Christian community can do just that in more subtle ways. Failure in both can sit deep, arrogance in the mission field a century ago being as bitterly remembered as an uncaring minister fifty years back. But both areas, mission and ministry, are full with individuals and groups who do accept and respect all people as created in the Image of God. Yet they do not compromise on core values such as loving and affirming rather than abusing the neighbour, worshipping God not idols of stone or bank notes, and giving thanks to God for the forgiveness we are given through God’s Son Christ, and the life-affirming embrace of the Spirit. Let us therefore give thanks and be glad, and determine to be experienced and remembered as one who respected others, respected our responsibilities, and respected ourselves.