Sunday, 11 July 2021

God and the plumb line: Trinity 6


Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark6.14-29


“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised”

When King Herod hears of Jesus’ ministry, it is as if all his worst nightmares have come at once. He’s convinced that John the Baptist, that inconvenient truth-teller, is back, raised from death – a death for which Herod was responsible. Suddenly he feels as if his life is unravelling before his eyes.


Herod’s problem was like that of most dictators. He had too much power for his own good – far more than he can handle - and yet he didn’t have the absolute power he thought he really needed. Herod had the power to imprison John and to have him killed for daring to challenge his incestuous marriage to Herodias, but killing the man didn’t kill the message, and that was the power he longed for. Not only was John’s call to repentance still out there being preached to the crowds by Jesus, it was also still inside Herod’s head. He couldn’t forget what John had said to him, however hard he tried. That is what really troubles him when he hears of another teacher and miracle worker who seemed eerily similar to John.


Later on in the Gospels we hear of Herod plotting against Jesus and colluding in the decision to have him executed. Herod was desperate to take control of this situation too, desperate still to silence this challenging, disturbing message. But mighty as he was, that was something he just couldn’t do, because John and Jesus had the power of the truth behind them, the power of God, and that, in the end can’t be resisted. 

A few weeks ago, Philip and I were on one of our regular day-off Tuesday walks, when we came across the church of St Mary the Virgin, Westwell near Ashford. It’s a lovely old church built in the mid 13th century, and clearly much loved, but the first thing you notice when you walk in is that all the pillars down the South Aisle are leaning outwards at an alarming angle. It’s very disconcerting. It made me feel slightly sea-sick. And it’s obviously been like that for a very long time because there are ancient looking buttresses inside and outside the church, plainly added at different periods to try to shore the building up. It’s still standing, but I’m sure the churchwardens see those wonky columns in their nightmares…


I’m no surveyor or builder, so who am I to know, but my best guess is that this 800-year-old problem was there right from the outset; a small miscalculation, dodgy foundations, a bit of shoddy workmanship, a poor choice of materials, a false economy…  I am eternally grateful that whoever built our church, around the same time, didn’t employ the same builders…


It might not have seemed important at the time; but 800 years on, the problem is all too evident. The truth will out. There’s nothing hidden that won’t someday, somehow be made known, and I can just imagine the moment, maybe not too long after the church was built when someone said to the churchwardens “Those pillars there…do they look straight to you?” And maybe, at that point, someone went and got a plumb line to check it out.


When the prophet Amos, in our Old Testament reading, saw a vision of God standing with a plumb line in his hand, he knew what it meant. A plumb line, a simple lead weight on the end of a string, was one of the most basic building tools in the ancient world, and they are still used today – Screwfix will sell you one for under a fiver. It tells you whether you are building straight or not. It alerts you to the problems early if there’s something going wrong with the foundations. Amos knew that the leaders of Israel hadn’t been building the nation straight and true. They’d been lining their own pockets, bolstering their own power by making dodgy deals with the nations around them and it was starting to show.


But just like Herod, five centuries or so later, they didn’t want to know about it. “Go and prophesy somewhere else!” was the message. Not long afterwards, the Assyrians swept Israel away, deporting its people across their empire. The nation fell, but the prophecy endured, and it still speaks to us today. Pay attention, it says, especially to the things you’d rather not pay attention to, the things that feel uncomfortable, challenging, difficult.


When Herod heard that Jesus, who had been baptised by John, was healing people  and performing miracles, he knew that the truths he had wanted to ignore were coming back to bite him. Herod’s tragedy was that it didn’t have to be so. He could have changed. He could have heeded John’s message, but he was so anxious to cling to the life he had that he didn’t dare believe that any other life – a life lived honestly and lovingly – could be worth living. He’d always been a devious manipulator, and he wasn’t prepared to try living or ruling any other way. He lost his power in the end anyway, for all his cunning. He ended his life in Gaul, banished by the mad emperor Caligula when he rashly asked to be given the title of King of the Jews, egged on, once again, by Herodias. Herod overreached himself once too often in his desire to have absolute control of his world, and it all came crashing down around him. But it didn’t need to be so – he had a choice, as we all do. He just didn’t have the courage to take it, and very often, I suspect, neither do we.


So where do we find that courage, when we are faced with difficult decisions, when we are afraid to get out the moral plumbline and hold it up against our lives or the world around us? Perhaps, oddly, Herod’s words, the words I began with, might give us a clue. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” says Herod. Of course it wasn’t literally true, but resurrection is the key to this story. John may not have been raised, but Jesus, whose death Herod also connived in, would be. That was the proof for the early Christians, by and for whom this Gospel story was written, that however many people were killed, God’s life and God’s goodness couldn’t be snuffed out. They lived in the light of that resurrection, and they saw it at work in themselves and one another too. St Paul let go of his hatred and prejudice, and discovered the transforming power of love. St Peter let go of his self-aggrandisement and machismo, and discovered that Jesus still loved him, God still called him even after he had denied knowing him and run away in terror.  People who looked like hopeless cases, with no chance of redemption, found that they  could be and do things they never imagined.


Every week we begin our worship with confession – a moment when we ask God to  hold his plumb line alongside our lives and show us what he sees. Sometimes people think it’s a rather downbeat, depressing way to start the liturgy, that we are just dragging ourselves down and beating ourselves up, but actually, the opposite is true. It is, or should be, a moment of pure joy, because it’s only when we can see and say what has gone awry that God’s resurrection power can begin to open up a new way for us, a way that leads to life, hope, healing, reconciliation. Only then can he rebuild us on foundations that are firm and true.


Sunday, 4 July 2021

More than enough of contempt: Trinity 5

 Psalm 123, Ezekiel 2.1-5, Mark 6.1-13


“We have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.”


Powerful words from our Psalm today. Ancient words, but words which I think could have been written at any point in history, by a destitute Victorian forced into the workhouse, by a refugee who’s escaped war with only the clothes on their back, or by someone who finds themselves dependent on the help of a foodbank. It is hard work to be poor, and depressing, and tiring and complicated. But to add to all that you often also have to contend with the attitudes of those who’ve never been there, or who’ve managed to scramble out of poverty. It’s all too easy for others to sit in judgement, to assume that those who  have less are less; less valuable, less hard-working, less careful, less conscientious. The contempt, scorn and derision the Psalmist complained of 2500 years ago are just as prevalent today as they ever were.


It was interesting to read that Psalm today alongside the Gospel reading today, which is also, in its way, about poverty and our attitudes to it. Jesus deliberately sends his followers out on their first mission with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a stout stick. No bag, no money, no bread. No back up if they find themselves homeless, nothing to smooth their way if it all goes wrong and they want to buy themselves out of trouble. It may only be a temporary thing, but he’s sending them out with nothing to fall back on or to offer to others, nothing to tempt people to join them. And it will be obvious to others. They will look poor as well as being poor. It’s partly about them learning to trust God, not themselves, but it will also help to break that deep rooted assumption that material success is a sign of God’s blessing, a reward for virtue or hard work.


There’s nothing wrong with virtue or hard work in themselves, of course, but the truth is that  material success often has far more to do with the family we are born into, the people we encounter on the way, and just plain good luck than we would like to think. The good weather that ripens a vital crop or the bad weather that destroys it, political instability, war, unjust trading practices, or, as we have seen this year, pandemic disease – things beyond our power to control - all tilt the playing field, so that some have it easier than others. Billions of people around the world who work harder than most of us could ever imagine, yet still live their whole lives in dire poverty. The fact that some manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t mean that everyone can – you have to have some bootstraps, for a start. 


It isn’t fair that it should be so, and we are all called to right injustice where we can, but there will always be some who fall between the gaps; it might be others, it might be us, now or in the future. So it’s also important that we learn to talk and think about poverty in ways which don’t demonise or reject those who find themselves stuck in it.


It has to have been tough for Jesus’ disciples to be sent out like beggars, dependent on the good will of those who welcomed them, or didn’t. Most of them weren’t particularly wealthy,  but they weren’t destitute either. They owned boats to fish from, homes to live in. They had jobs and families and positions in their communities. Going out with nothing forced them to look at themselves afresh, to discover how much of their sense of self-worth was tied up with what they had rather than who they were – children of God. The fact that Jesus tells them what to do if they aren’t welcomed shows that this would sometimes be the case. This isn’t a test of faith that there would be a bed and a square meal if they believed hard enough. This was a confrontation with reality, with the insecurity and fear that stalks human life and which we all, sooner or later, have to deal with.


They needed to face that because many of them, like Jesus himself, would face opposition and persecution. Some of them would lose family, home or even their lives because they followed him and the new communities they created would be disproportionately filled with those who came from the lowest rungs of society. They wouldn’t look or feel successful, to others or to themselves. If they thought that was the sign they were in God’s good books, they’d be in for a shock. They needed to know what it felt like to have nothing, and to know that it didn’t mean that they were nothing. This mission was part of that steep learning curve.   


It was, I suspect, something that Jesus had learned early, and there’s a hint of that in the first part of the Gospel story. The crowd who take offense at Jesus when he preaches in his home town of Nazareth do so because they’ve known him all his life, and his family too. They call him “the son of Mary”. People in that patriarchal culture would usually have referred to people as sons of their father, not their mother, even if the father was dead. To call him the son of Mary implies that they believed there was something dodgy about his parentage. Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one to have been written, doesn’t have any stories about Jesus’ conception or birth. It doesn’t mention Joseph at all - or any other father.  Mark doesn’t seem to know anything about a Virgin Birth. If he did, surely he’d have said so. It’s only Matthew and Luke who tell that story, a decade or so after Mark. Whatever had actually happened, Mark implies that people thought Jesus had been conceived out of wedlock, a cause of stigma at the time. No wonder they didn’t want to listen to him, didn’t even think he had the right to speak.


“Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus – not just the financially poor, but all who were despised by others. We’ve heard those words many times, but they were new and life changing to those who heard them for the first time, the poor, enslaved, disabled and disadvantaged people, the vulnerable women and children who flocked to Jesus. They knew good news when they heard it, that they – even they - especially they – were blessed and loved by God. It was like water in a desert. They found new dignity in following Jesus. They discovered a truth that set them free, that they were of infinite worth to God, however much contempt, scorn and derision the world heaped on them.


It’s a message which is as important now as it was then. It is important whether we think of ourselves as poor or rich in the world’s terms because the truth is that we may all find ourselves in either camp at some stage. Sooner or later we all have to face situations in which we don’t have what we need, whether that’s money, health or status. However charmed a life we’ve led none of us is invulnerable, but whatever our circumstances, God never looks on us with contempt, scorn or derision, so we shouldn’t look on ourselves or others like that either.  

Instead, we are called to open our hands and hearts to one another, in our poverty and in our riches, in our weakness and in our strength, so that together we can discover and share the limitless generosity and grace of God. Amen