Sunday, 23 September 2012

Trinity 16: a sermon by Kevin Bright

Those here last week will recall that we looked at the stained glass window showing Jesus Transfiguration and Peter putting his foot in it when he tried to prolong the event suggesting that shelters were built for Moses, Elijah and Jesus just as God confirmed his love for his Son. After healing a sick child Jesus talks to the disciples of his forthcoming death and resurrection which is where Mark’s gospel continues the story today.
It seems amazing that Peter, James and John witness the Transfiguration and yet we are told that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he spoke of forthcoming betrayal and rising again 3 days after his death.
Maybe the clue lies in the fact that they ‘were afraid to ask him’. Perhaps what Jesus was telling them simply too much to take in? Possibly it was a bit like one of those situations where you don’t like to ask because you know that you’re not going to like the answer because you suspect that the future will involve you in a way you’re not yet ready to face up to.
When you think of it in those terms it becomes easier for us to see ourselves in the story. After all I’ve already glibly referred to Jesus death and resurrection but even though we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to reinforce the facts most of us still behave like the disciples, perhaps for similar reasons, that we find this much love, this much sacrifice too much to take in, we just can’t face up to it right now.
When did we last have a serious conversation about what Jesus really means to us, how he shapes our values, our lives. If not recently then perhaps it’s time to ask really deep questions of God and his plans for our future through prayer, reflection or with someone we trust.
Part of the problem is that everyday things get in the way, then we get tired, fall asleep and do it all again.
It’s a bit like this when Jesus asks the disciples what they have been squabbling about on the road. He’s been telling them of God’s plan for the future and they’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest. They keep quiet, surely because they feel foolish for getting caught up worrying about such earthly things as status, position and power rather than wrestling with what Jesus is telling them.
We should ask ourselves honestly whether we expend a disproportionate amount of energy pursuing similar goals. I am sure that we will all know people for whom status, titles, qualifications and demonstrations of wealth are all that seem to matter. Such people can be fascinating, entertaining and depressing all in one go.

The TV programme ‘Dragon’s Den’ offers almost a pantomime style lesson about humility and respect. You have people whose bank accounts are so full that they have to pile up cash on the table next to them looking disdainfully upon desperate people with business ideas as they parade fearfully in front of them only to be told ‘that’s ludicrous, it will never work’.
Being very careful to protect the identity of the subjects involved I can share the story of one man who was so proud of his mansion and high quality fittings throughout that he carried a glossy brochure with photos of all the best bits in order that he could share it with all he acquainted himself with for more than 10 minutes. His identity was clearly tied to it. He was quite young and wealth was new to him so let’s hope he grew up.
At one of my old employers we had a mild mannered orthodox Jewish client whose clothes always looked like they had seen better days and who drove the oldest Volvo I had ever seen, probably still does. Naturally I found out later that he was personally worth tens of millions.
The point is that it’s not money that corrupts people’s values though it does of course have that potential.
I found an Arabian proverb this week which seemed to make sense - “Arrogance diminishes wisdom.”
Jesus does the equivalent of saying to the disciples ‘we need to have a serious talk’. So he sits down, adopting what the disciples would have recognised as the formal position of a Rabbi teaching his pupils. ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and the servant of all’ he tells them.
A challenging and radical message of course but not as difficult to engage with as it can first seem as we will we never run out of opportunities to serve each other.
Jesus then tells the disciples that it’s important how we treat each other and accept each other warning that those with the least say, the lowest status need to be cared for, valued and listened to. He took the example of a child because they had little status in society and are of no use to a person seeking advancement or influence more likely to be in need than able to give.
It’s interesting that this very week we appear to have had a news story involving the  issues of status and how we treat each other. I am, of course, referring to Andrew Mitchell who is reported to have told a police officer something along the lines that he should know his place when told to get off his bike. Maybe he got so upset because he belongs to the party that is famous for telling people to ‘get on their bike’.

In James’s letter he urges people to find true wisdom explaining that envy and selfish ambition will be obstacles to this.
We shouldn’t misunderstand today’s messages and be left feeling lethargic as there is no question that Jesus wants us to have ambition, just not misplaced ambition.
To strive to achieve the best possible education, to provide for our families, to find work or progress in our work are all natural ambitions which approached in the right way will offer opportunities to share, to welcome and encourage those others may shun and to serve each other along the way.
It may help to consider how we would answer if asked by Jesus a similar question to when he asked the disciples what they had been squabbling about. What if at the end of each evening we sat with Jesus and explained what had been the most important thing to us that day?
Thinking like this we may discover new opportunities to find real purpose and meaning in our everyday tasks. We don’t have to join a monastery, wear hair shirts and live on berries its more about opening our eyes to what is already around us and then making the effort to include the unpopular child in class and taking delight in surprising the person who lacks self-esteem by treating them as well or even better than the person of great influence.
I’m pretty sure that very little that I’ve said is news to anyone, we’ve got a good idea of what Jesus wants us to do but consistently putting it into action is not easy is it.
We have to keep trying to make enough time to confront the issues that are stopping us realising the full potential we have to be people of God.
 A starting point can be reminding ourselves that God loves us as we are regardless of our achievements. It follows that giving up the desire for self importance and the need to be at the centre of everything can be enormously liberating. When you next meet an arrogant person why not urge them to give it a try!
We should also take encouragement from the fact that even small acts of service, kindness and respect can have a huge effect on others and it’s surprising how quickly they can become infectious. We know this is true from our own experience when such kindness seems to come out of the blue. Such things are achievable for us whoever we are and will enable us to get the conversation going with Jesus if we allow him to ask ‘have you been squabbling over nonsense again or have you done something important today’?

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