Sunday 23 September
Jer 11:18-20 and Mark 9:30-37
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips open to us these written words and draw us ever closer to the Living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
First, the good news. You may have heard during the course of last week that Pope Francis said that a sermon should be no more than 8 minutes long.
Now, the bad news, Pope Francis is not my line manager so I am making no promises!
My slightly more direct manager, although the whole concept of management in the church of England is a bit vague, is the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Justin has also been in the news a fair bit over the last few weeks.
There are times when being a priest can cause you to feel rather ashamed of the church. Every time a new child abuse scandal breaks and you see mostly retired priests shutting doors in the face of TV cameras, a little bit of me despairs. Obviously abuse is by no means confined to the church, and I can tell you from my time on the bench that I committed a good number of people to the Crown Court for child sexual offences and none of them were priests, but the fact remains that many people will now always associate the dog collar with abuse, and that is horrendous and shaming. Especially when you consider what a distortion of the gospel such abuse is.
But there are also times when one can feel a certain, Christian pride, that the church is doing and saying the right thing. Archbishop Justin has been an outspoken critic of the pay day loan companies such as Wonga, whose whole existence was predicated on targeting some of the most vulnerable groups in our society and charging them outrageous levels of interest, thus trapping them in an inescapable cycle of debt and poverty. The Archbishop made no secret of the fact that he was pleased when Wonga went bust.
He also criticised Amazon on the basis that they ought to treat their employees more fairly and ought to pay their fair share of tax in the UK. The newspapers immediately hit back accusing him of hypocrisy on the grounds that the Church of England has investments in Amazon. As I said to someone here in church Archbishop Justin does not control the investments made by the Church Commissioners and had he tipped them off that he was going to preach about Amazon he would have been accused of insider trading!
Others said that the Church should not be making such statements at all – i.e. keep your nose out of business and politics. Well, as I’ve been saying for a while now, to be a Christian is not simply to be a singer of hymns on a Sunday. To be a follower of Jesus is to be unafraid to challenge injustice and oppression wherever it is found in the world because being citizens of the kingdom of Heaven is not simply about waiting for the afterlife, it is about living by the values of the kingdom of heaven in the here and now. And Kingdom values, God’s values, are not the same as the World’s values and the World does not like to be challenged and called out. Which is the greater hypocrisy for Christians – to have an investment in Amazon and still say that they should behave better or to stand silently by in the face of injustice out of fear of criticism?
So I am proud that Archbishop Justin is unafraid to show the world that the Church of England is not simply here for the big events of State but that we are still called to live by and proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.
That eternal conflict between what the world expects and what God expects is thrown into stark relief by this morning’s gospel reading.
Once again Jesus is travelling with the disciples, although this time he is back on his home turf of Galilee, and once again he does not wish people to know that he is there. Not because he wishes to be alone this time, but because he wishes to spend some time teaching his disciples.
And what does he teach them? He says this:
“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him and after three days he will rise.”
You may recall that Jesus told his disciples about his forthcoming death in our reading a couple of weeks ago and Peter tried to stop him, earning himself a stinging rebuke in the process. This time the disciples do not try to stop him talking in these terms, but it is clear that they still don’t understand what Jesus is saying:
“But they did not understand and were afraid to ask him about it.”
Isn’t that interesting – these are his disciples, the ones who are supposed to be learning at Jesus’ feet, and yet when they hear a lesson they don’t understand they keep quiet and are afraid to ask Jesus to explain. Are they afraid that he will rebuke them like he did Peter or are they more afraid that they won’t like the answer – the plain answer – that the man whom they gave up their lives and livelihoods to follow is telling them that he is going to die and, as for rising again on the third day, what could that possibly mean? So they kept quiet in the face of Jesus’ words.
But as they walked through Galilee the disciples spoke amongst themselves and when they arrived in Capernaum, which was Peter’s home village on the shore of the lake, Jesus asked them a simple question:
“What were you talking about on the road?”
Once again all the disciples can offer is silence. But this is a different sort of silence – this is not the silence of ignorance or fear, this is the silence of embarrassment. This is the staring down at your feet and hoping that the headmaster will not notice you. Because although the disciples are not perfect and do not understand everything Jesus has been teaching them, they understand enough to be embarrassed by the subject of their conversation:
“We argued about who would be the greatest.”
You can almost imagine them mumbling this towards their feet and Jesus asking them to repeat themselves.
And although we were not privy to that conversation on the road, as it appears that Jesus was not, it is fascinating to imagine how it might have gone – who would have been greatest? Would it have been the first disciple to be called, would it have been the strongest, would it have been the cleverest, might it have been Judas, the controller of the purse strings? However that conversation went we can assume that they were using the world’s measure of greatness because Jesus now illiustrates how far their discussion is from the values of the kingdom of heaven.
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
I wonder how many people grow up aspiring to be a servant? If we see a big queue in the Post Office do we aspire to be at the head of that queue or to be the very last?
And then Jesus illustrates the point further by placing a small child in the midst of this group. In our society we place great value and importance on children but in that society at that time children were of little value and no importance, certainly not compared with 12 proud men. But Jesus says something quite strange – he says that whoever welcomes a little child like this in his name, welcomes not only Jesus into their midst but also ‘the one who sent me’, who is God the Father.
Whoever welcomes a small, unimportant child, in the name of Jesus is actually welcoming God the Father into their midst. Why don’t we have a sacrament of welcoming children? Perhaps we do – perhaps when we welcome our kiddies at the start of the service, perhaps we are doing something greater than we know.
When we live by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven we do not worship wealth or power or strength or cleverness or the ability to jostle for first place. In the Kingdom of Heaven, the first shall be last and the last shall be first and the one who is servant of all shall be master of all.
And, of course, Jesus was the greatest servant of all, led like a lamb to the slaughter, as Jeremiah said, to serve all by laying down all. But, as he promised the disciples, to be raised again on the third day to start a new era, an era in which the values of this world do not have the final word.
That may have been slightly more than 8 minutes. Respectful apologies to His Holiness.