The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Job 1: 1; 2: 1 – 10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12, Mark 10: 2 – 16

Each Thursday night this year a seminar group of ten people has met in the Cathedral Office under the umbrella of EFM – Education for Ministry, or, as it is also sometimes referred to, Exploring Faith Matters. EFM is a programme that originated some forty years ago in the US. It was, and is, a deliberate attempt to invite ordinary people into a careful study of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as well as explore Church History and more modern theological and philosophical thinking. Despite its name, Education for Ministry, it is a not a programme that leads to ordination. What it does do is take seriously the intention of baptism as found in this exhortation by the bishop in the Confirmation service:

“All who have been baptised and confirmed are called to study the Bible, to take part in the life of the Church, to share in the Holy Communion, and to pray faithfully and regularly. We are called to share with others, by word and example, the love of Christ and his gospel of reconciliation and hope…” APBA page 69


Last Thursday night the group began exploring some of the concepts and ideas contained in a book by William Countryman with the intriguing title “Living on the Border of the Holy”. It is an exploration coming out of Countryman’s more than forty years living, thinking and being an Episcopal (Anglican) priest. On one level he explores what it means to be an ordained priest and the difference, if any, between priesthood and ministry – especially where lay people are concerned. By far the most intriguing thought is that a ‘priest’, however you define that word, is someone who moves in and out of the border between the sacred and secular, between heaven and earth, the divine and the created human being. It is this idea of living on the border that intrigues me and, I think, may help us get into today’s readings – none of them the easiest to deal with.


Before we look at the readings though, let me refer to two other sources which explore this idea of the border as the meeting place between God and human. The first is someone you know well here in Adelaide, having been consecrated Assistant Bishop in this Cathedral in 2007. One of Stephen Pickard’s books is entitled “Spiritual Life on the Anglican Veranda: a view from Australia.” In it he uses the veranda found on so many Australian houses as the meeting place. Those who live in the house come out to greet the world on the veranda; those who pass by on the street step on to the veranda to greet the householder. The veranda is the border, the meeting place – that special place where those from inside and those from outside meet – this is the meeting place between the world and the church, the secular and the sacred.


Studying Celtic spirituality some years ago I found myself intrigued with the concept of “thin” places in Celtic spirituality, especially around water and wells. There has been an resurgence in the use of these ancient holy places, and one finds prayer ribbons tied to the branches of trees which often hang over a well or a pool in the river. There are many Celtic stories of encounters with the supernatural at wells. These wells, often with some sort of ‘holy person’ living nearby, are the ‘thin’ places where the natural world touches the supernatural. There is perhaps an Asian parallel with the Tibetan prayer wheels.


Well – what do all these concepts, ‘thin’ places in Ireland, verandas in Australia and the border country written about by an American Anglican priest have to do with today’s readings?


This concept of the border, the veranda, the thin place gives us a window into a different world – one which we do not always easily understand and are often somewhat fearful to move into. We need a guide, someone to help us navigate and explain. Let me suggest some examples:

  • A person facing surgery or chemotherapy is, understandably, apprehensive. For most this experience is not common or garden, it is out of the ordinary, and we need help (that of a surgeon, specialist, understanding nurse) to help us navigate our way through the experience.
  • As old age creeps up on us we begin to wonder about the future – what will it be like, is there anything after this life, what will I do in heaven, and what will happen at my funeral? It is not a common or garden experience and we need help – a trusted pastor, a professional funeral director – even a lawyer to act as trustee.
  • A young couple (and some not so young) facing the birth of their first child is full of apprehension. Will we cope? Will there be enough money, time, love to go round? Mid-wives, good friends and ante-natal classes all help prepare the way into the unknown border country of childbirth and family


Now consider today’s readings. The first, from the opening chapters of the Book of Job, introduces the concept of suffering, blame and blatant unfairness. Job doesn’t actually say it anywhere, but he could have used a very colloquial saying after being afflicted with ‘loathsome sores’, and, which we did not hear this morning, the complete loss of his fortune – his oxen his donkeys, his sheep and slaves, even his children! He could have said “Life sucks!” As we will hear over the next few weeks, in the morning and evening services, Job struggles to make sense of what has happened to him, and to hold on to his faith in God. His friends, and his wife, are full of good advice – but none of it helps. This is border country never before traversed by Job. The fact that it is inflicted by Satan, the joker in the heavenly council, and not yet identified with the Greek-influenced notion of the god Pan, and the lively imaginations of mediaeval painters and hell-fire preachers, is intriguing to say the least. There is no satisfactory answer to Job. He holds on to his faith in God – for the most part. He knows that God is God and cannot be fully understood – especially by someone like him, a mere mortal, created by the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. It is dangerous territory, this border land. In the end, it is God who leads Job, who puts it all into an understandable context.


What of the Gospel reading? In today’s world it is dangerous territory for any preacher to stray into. I am well aware that a significant number of people here will have been divorced and remarried; others are here who long for the time when ‘gay marriage’ becomes accepted and welcomed; still others ache because the ‘right’ person, for whatever reason, has not come along, or been available. Jesus’s words sound harsh to those who are hurting, or have been hurt. This territory of marriage and divorce is dangerous and difficult, it can be likened to the ‘thin’ places. The Church recognises this, I believe, in the introduction spoken at the start of each wedding in this cathedral. Marriage, we are told (and you can look it up in the Prayer Book on page 657) is a gift of God, a symbol of God’s unending love, of the union between Christ and his Church (how scary is that?). The different gifts and hopes are drawn into a unity of love and service. Today’s Gospel passage is the first in a chapter filled with teaching and questions about commitment. Today it is marriage and divorce; next week it will be keeping the commands and the distractions of the world; still later we will be invited to consider who, why and how some are considered important and not others. In all of these dangerous territories we need a guide.


But it is when we open the letter to the Hebrews that we are into really interesting border country. In this fascinating book the author sets out to explain just who Jesus is. Is he God, divine? Is he human? Is he both? Where does he fit in the established and well-known pattern of temple, sacrifice and priest – strange to us today, but the norm for the Hebrew people when the letter was written? How does God reveal the secrets of the Heaven – speaking no longer in the many and various ways of the prophets, but by a Son, the one we have come to know as Jesus, the Christ, the Lord, the Saviour? And how, this is perhaps the most important question of all, do Christians make sense of the cross, the suffering, death AND resurrection of Jesus – for we cannot separate the death from the resurrection, or the resurrection from the death: Good Friday and Easter belong together, part of the whole. How does that dying and rising make any difference to us in Adelaide today?


At least part of the answer that can be teased out is found in Hebrews 2: 11 – the third line in the last paragraph of today’s reading from Hebrews. Jesus Christ and you and I have one big thing in common. As the writer says “the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father”. The one who negotiates the difficult border country between obedience and sin, life and death, suffering and wholeness – the one who acts as a priest, leader, friend, constant supporter and upholder, is Jesus Christ, who shares the same heavenly Father as we do. He, according to Hebrews, is the one who walks with us into the border lands.


Dos that make any sense? Perhaps Jesus should have the last word this morning and we should go back to the Gospel reading from Mark 10 – not the words on marriage and divorce this time, but the words that follow, where Jesus enfolds children in his blessing, encouraging even adults to receive the kingdom of God as a little child. If a child can do it, so we too, baptised Christians, can be the guides for others as they step on to the veranda, approach the thin places or enter the borderlands.


Food for thought and prayer.