Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Ordinary 14 Yr B: Beware: tall poppy syndrome

Sermon-in-potentia for Sunday 5th July, focusing on Mark 6:1-13
Consider the poppies of the field …

Their seeds stir beneath the wasted soil,
Moving, reaching upwards, breaking out and rising
Rising towards the sun.
Consider the poppies of the field,
scattered red amidst the swaying, golden barley,
Tall, red, bold: prophets -
Singing songs of praise to the Holy One.
Tall poppies. 

It was one of those amazing purple-golden hazy late summer evenings. I was on the bus, taking the very winding way home… and coming around a corner, a field filled with gently rippling barley – more shimmering gold on that already golden evening… and scattered throughout, scarlet splashes – patches of glorious red poppies. Breathtaking. The landscape like a prophet telling forth God’s wonders. The bus stopped a moment to let me bask in the beauty of it all – well, to pick up a couple of passengers, but why let facts stand in the why of a nice story?! We drove on. The golden barley and the red poppies fell away from sight. I eventually got home… still in a bit of a wonder about the interplay of colour and landscape and light and...sense of connection and yet mystery of God. One of those ‘gosh’ moments –a ‘numinous’ moment.... It was years ago, and the picture stays with me still.

Tall poppies. One of those terms we Aussies use to describe people who have been extremely successful in some way: fame, fortune or however success might be measured at any particular moment. Tall poppies: people outstanding in their field, as it were. Every now and then, someone seems to come from out of nowhere – from humble beginnings, or difficult background – they have a particular talent or idea, almost the air of the prophet about them – though not always proclaiming the glory of God… people get wind of the story and it takes off. The ‘underdog’ is cheered on… until, having succeeded… somehow, the crowds say: ‘enough. You’re getting too big for your boots. Who do you think you are, anyway? We knew you when you were just a snotty-nosed kid running about in nappies.’

Tall poppies. One thing common to both the poppies in the field and the poppies who are people… is that they’re torn down. The poppies are destroyed in the harvest by the farmers, and the other poppies are destroyed – knocked back down to size by a harvest of … jealousy or incredulity or cynicism… I’m not a psychologist and I’ve never really got my head around why people actually do this anyway: but it’s a strange human phenomenon, this so-called ‘tall poppy syndrome’. But one sad element arising from it can be found in a comment made to me a long while back when I was working for a family caring for two young teenage girls: they were great – fun, pretty, kind and clever but…. One of them was talking about her school work: she said she knew she could do better, a lot better in fact, but did what she needed to in order to be in the middle – she didn’t want to be top of the class: she didn’t want to ‘stand out’ - that way led to bullying. …If you stand out, expect rejection.

Tall poppies. ‘Tall poppy syndrome’. Jesus knew what it was to be a tall poppy – to be different, to be acclaimed … to be rejected. In our passage from the gospel of Mark this morning, we get a glimpse of tall poppy syndrome unfolding in Nazareth, where Jesus and the disciples have arrived. Nazareth: Jesus’ hometown. He is once again amongst family, friends – a warm, safe space of welcome. The homecoming of the local boy ‘done good’. Except that this homecoming is not as welcoming, not as warm, and perhaps not even as safe a space as Jesus and the disciples may have wished for.
As seemed to be his usual practice, Jesus went into the synagogue on the sabbath, and he began to teach. The crowd – people who had grown up with him, people who had known him all his life… were astonished. You can almost see them looking at Jesus and then at each other, eyes slightly popping out of their sockets in surprise. Wow! Gosh! Now there’s a thing! And then the questions begin… But how? But why?... But… hang on just a darned minute! …And then the statements, the labels, the rationalisations… but this is Mary’s kid – yeah – y’know, Mary’s kid – not sure about Joseph, y’know what I mean? Who does he think he is, anyway? Well, I reckon he has some cheek to stand up there and tell us how we should live our lives… ha… he can talk – instead of wandering about the countryside he should be at home taking his family responsibilities seriously. Illegitimate… Irresponsible…
Seemingly, there was a lot of offended muttering, amidst the sound of feathers being well and truly ruffled.

And Jesus looked at them, and he, in turn was astonished… astonished at their unbelief… and spoke of prophets not being recognised, not being honoured in their home town and that it had ever been that way in Israel’s history. If you stand out, expect rejection…
And, taking the disciples, he quietly wandered off to other villages teaching wherever he went. And then sent the disciples out in pairs… they were to stick their heads above the parapet… they were to talk about the good news of the message of God… and in doing so, to stand out and to be rejected… like tall poppies.

Tall poppies. Prophets – proclaimers …and I don’t mean the Scottish band of that name! People with a message… Tall poppies make us uncomfortable … Down through the ages prophets have had a bit of a reputation for being a bit odd, a bit prickly, a bit challenging.
And the message of Jesus was challenging: so challenging that the folks in Nazareth took offence – my Greek is pretty awful, but the work here for offence is skandalon – from where we get our English word ‘scandal’. Jesus literally scandalised them with his message… which was to go out and proclaim the reign of God… regardless of cost to self, regardless of the bonds of family ties… to live the message by engaging in healings and exorcisms, and by setting the oppressed free. To be bearers of the good news of the breaking in of God’s reign both in word and deed. To be and bear good news for the poor even if it meant leaving all you’d ever known in order to proclaim it. (1)

Jesus was challenging the very structure of society, and community, and family. Saying uncomfortable things to those who thought of themselves as chosen, as special… who looked out at the world and perhaps felt they were a cut above the rest, a little bit better, and who because of that, perhaps imagined God’s love being available only to … them. And Jesus was turning that idea on its head. He was scandalising them by saying God’s love went beyond their boundaries – that they couldn’t ring-fence God in and keep God for themselves. And in response, society, community, and even family rejected the message. It was just too much.
And the message of Jesus is still challenging… and still scandalous… because the message of the breaking in of God’s reign is one which overturns the whole way society currently functions… the scandal of the message is that it proclaims the breaking down of systemic structures of power that reek and creak and which are rotten to the core… it is a message of liberation of the oppressed… it is the message that there is another, better way: it is the message of love – God’s love for the world and humanity; our love for our neighbour… and for ourselves – which goes beyond, which goes deeper even than the way we understand family ties... in one sense, it enlarges family to include the whole of humanity and creation… The scandal of the message is about love – love that doesn’t create a fence in order to keep people out… but love that breaks down the fence… a radically inclusive love which liberates all of us... taking us beyond our boundaries and way of being. And it’s the message, as Jesus’ followers, that we are to proclaim… and in doing so, to expect rejection… to be cut down, like tall poppies.

Tall poppies: we come back, full circle… who are the prophets in our midst, I wonder? I suspect that Prophets come in many shapes and sizes and ages… Do we listen to the message? And does the message offend us – scandalise us? When we reject certain people… on the grounds of colour or age or gender or orientation… does that rejection – that exclusion from the community of God’s people – become our version of not honouring folk as potential prophets in our midst? Do we ring-fence God’s love to keep God for ourselves… to keep God in and everyone who we don’t like… out? And if we do so, do we end up closing ourselves off from new thoughts, ideas, ways of doing things… which might open us and the community we are a part of to new and exciting possibilities?

Tall poppies… poppies are usually associated with Remembrance Sunday… Maybe though, poppies in the context of our bible text this morning provide us with another kind of remembering: poppies seem to pop up all over the place – whether in golden barley fields, or in cracks in the pavements, or in the Botanics… perhaps, when we wander past a patch of poppies they might also serve to remind us to honour the prophets who are in our midst… and not cut them down… and to keep open to the scandal of God’s big love – which no amount of ring-fencing can contain.

Consider the poppies of the field …
Their seeds stir beneath the wasted soil,
Moving, reaching upwards, breaking out and rising
Rising towards the sun.
Consider the poppies of the field,
scattered red amidst the swaying, golden barley,
Tall, red, bold: prophets -
Singing songs of praise to the Holy One. Amen



(1) Bill Loader - http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost5.htm

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