Giving it up for Lent
The One by Jessie Kohn
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 1/3/20
Mark 9.30-37; 10.17-31
Apparently, despite a million memes to the contrary,
Mahatma Gandhi didn’t actually say that,
‘The true measure of any society can be found
in how it treats its most vulnerable members’.
But it doesn’t have to be a quote from Gandhi,
to still be a valid point!
And I do find myself worrying that the current trajectory of British society
is towards the promotion of self-advancement and self-improvement,
at the expense of those whose capacity to achieve is more restricted.
So, you will remember the rhetoric around recent elections,
where people in so-called ‘hard working families’ were lauded,
while those who were deemed ‘benefits scroungers’ were vilified.
The changes to the benefits system in recent years,
have left many vulnerable people without access to support;
and a recent National Audit Office survey
found that at least 69 suicides could be linked
to problems with benefit claims over the last six years.
Dr Chris Allen, a Consultant clinical psychologist
with the Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust,
wrote recently that:
When worth is increasingly defined by ability to be economically productive, and mental health issues are discounted as a reason to not be in the workforce, the underlying message is that you are a burden and that you don’t belong.
A compassionate society would care for people experiencing difficulty, recognise that contributions can be made outside work, and facilitate this, rather than communicate a sense that if you cannot work you may as well be on the scrapheap, or even not here at all.
To take this train of thought a bit further,
in our society, even caring for the victim or siding with the weak
is sometimes viewed as being a somehow ‘suspect’ endeavour.
Indeed, a headline from the Daily Mail a few years ago,
suggested that ‘Nobody likes a do-gooder’
and that ‘selfless behaviour is 'alienating'’
The unnamed ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ explained:
They probably think their selfless behaviour makes them popular
but the truth about 'do-gooders' is nobody really likes them.
Far better, clearly, at least in the Daily Mail’s eyes, to get on, and get ahead.
While those who fall behind,
as Johnny Depp says in Pirates of the Caribbean,
get left behind.
Well, in our first reading for this morning, from Mark’s gospel,
we met the disciples having an argument about which of them was the greatest,
and in response to their quarrel,
Jesus offered one of the most powerful and challenging
re-envisionings of human power dynamics
that has ever been uttered.
Verse 35: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
And this week, as we begin that period of the Christian calendar known as Lent,
when people traditionally focus on self-denial
as a preparation for the journey towards the Cross,
the invitation here is for us to join with the early disciples,
in re-thinking the basis of our self-worth,
and in reconsidering where we will place our priorities.
The disciples in Mark’s gospel,
quarrelling about who was the greatest,
were stuck in a mind-set of personal and individual advancement,
with delusions of grandeur and achievement dominating their self-worth.
I’m a huge fan of the musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’,
and the lyrics of one of the songs
brilliantly captures something of this hubris on the part of the disciples.
Always hoped that I'd be an apostle.
Knew that I would make it if I tried.
Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels,
So they'll still talk about us when we've died.
This culture of personal advancement and spiritual achievement
is still something which haunts disciples of Jesus in our own time.
Many of us have been nurtured in our faith
in contexts which emphasised the following of Jesus
as a personal decision which each of us must make for ourselves.
And whilst I don’t fundamentally disagree with this:
- there is always an element of personal choice involved -
it can all too quickly take us
to an individualised understanding of the gospel,
where the good news, is good news for me,
and where what matters most
is my personal relationship with Jesus.
Many of the songs we sing
speak of Jesus and God in highly personalised language:
‘My Jesus, my saviour’
‘Be thou my vision’
‘O Lord my God’
And whilst I like, and choose, all of these songs,
we need to be alert to the temptation of falling into an individualised gospel,
because the temptation to pride is always before us.
It is only a short step from knowing that we are special to God,
to thinking we’re somehow more special than others,
or possibly more worthy of God’s love than some others.
There’s a wonderful quote from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters,
where the senior demon Screwtape is writing to his nephew Wormwood,
offering this junior demon advice on how to tempt his first human subject.
Your patient has become humble; have you drawn their attention to the fact?
All virtues are less formidable to us
once a person is aware that they have them,
but this is specially true of humility.
Catch your patient at the moment when they are really poor in spirit
and smuggle into their mind the gratifying reflection,
“By jove! I’m being humble,”
and almost immediately pride – pride at their own humility – will appear.
If they awake to the danger and try to smother this new form of pride,
make them proud of this attempt – and so on,
through as many stages as you please.
But don’t try this too long, for fear you awake their sense of humour and proportion,
in which case they will merely laugh at you and go to bed.
What the disciples, arguing about who was the greatest,
needed to learn from Jesus,
was that he had called them to be part of a very different kind of community,
where greatness and humility were measured in substantively different ways.
And Jesus teaches them this through a kind of enacted parable,
involving a small child.
It’s a highly dramatized scene,
as Jesus draws the little child into the centre of the group.
I’ve mentioned before that it’s always worth paying attention in Mark
to the geographical clues he gives us about where events take place,
and the setting here is in the midst of a group of people,
in a house, in the town of Capernaum.
This isn’t happening out on some isolated hillside somewhere,
it’s taking place right at the centre of community and family life.
And the thing is, normally, a child would have been excluded from such a setting.
Children, and other powerless members of society,
would never have been welcomed into the centre of a social circle;
they would have been kept outside, unseen and unheard.
In fact, more sinister than this,
the normal pretext for drawing a powerless person into the middle of circle
would have been as a precursor to stoning them.
Let’s never forget that the scapegoating of the vulnerable
isn’t something we only find in the ire of the Daily Mail and its ilk.
But Jesus subverts all of these power structures,
by drawing a small, weak, powerless child
into the centre of the circle of power;
and he takes the child in his arms
and embraces it with love, and welcome, and inclusion, and acceptance.
The most powerful person in the place
honours the least powerful and least deserving.
As object lessons go, this one packs a punch;
particularly given that it is Jesus’ answer
to the argument about which of the disciples is the greatest.
Jesus says to them, and by extension to us,
that the greatest is the weakest,
and that the last shall be first.
And I wonder how we can hear this challenge
in our world, in our context, in our church.
Who has power in this room?
And who doesn’t?
And where do we locate our estimation of value?
You see, the community of Jesus’ disciples, both then and now,
is to be a place where the weak and the vulnerable are valued,
where the helpless are nurtured,
and were personal prowess
is secondary to the service of others.
This is a topsy-turvy view of power dynamics,
where those whom society would normally side-line or scapegoat
are brought into the centre, and honoured and valued.
But here’s the thing,
Jesus doesn’t welcome the child and tell his disciples to do likewise
because it’s a nice thing to do;
or to earn approval from God and society;
or to make himself and the disciples feel like better people;
or to enact some kind of first century equivalent
to politicians kissing babies on the campaign trail;
or to set up a community of ‘do gooders’
who make the rest of the world feel guilty and resentful…
Although, I have to note, Christians have a pretty poor track record
of doing all of these things with enthusiasm...
But rather, the Jesus community, which is you and me in our generation,
is instructed to do good to the weak and the powerless;
because this is the antidote
to the envy, jealousy, greed, and resentment
that keep some down in the gutter
whilst raising others to the stars.
In first century society, just as today,
so much of societal advancement
was built on some achieving greatness,
whilst others were trampled along the way.
And if you look around you today and see a society creaking at the seams,
with a rising number of vulnerable people falling through the cracks,
and if you find yourself thinking, there has to be a better way,
then the good news is that there is,
and it is here in this enacted parable
of Jesus bringing a little child into the heart of the community.
Jesus invites his followers to create communities,
where the rich, the powerful, the educated, and the articulate
set aside their privilege and their advantage,
learning that these do not add to a person’s worth before God.
And to become instead communities
where the vulnerable and excluded are welcomed in,
and placed in positions of honour
as their worth is restored to them in God’s name.
As the rich man in our second reading discovered,
it would be so much easier
if it was just a matter of keeping the basic commandments.
Here we have a guy who seems on the surface to be getting it all right,
he’s not killing people, he’s not cheating on his wife,
he’s not stealing, or lying, or defrauding,
and he’s still doing very nicely too,
thank you very much.
This is the kind of guy who is, as some might put it today,
But he knows that something isn’t ringing true,
and that despite all his success, and all his efforts,
his life lacks vitality,
it’s missing the deeper significance that Jesus calls ‘life eternal’.
And Jesus offers him a prescription for what ails him,
which is that he needs to let go of his money.
This is not easy for us to hear, in London in 2020,
where almost all of us are richer than two thirds of the world’s population.
Challenges about money are never easy to hear,
and invitations to give it away are problematic.
Thankfully, Jesus knows this;
he says that it is hard for those who have wealth
to enter the Kingdom of God,
and that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
I’ve heard people engage in all kinds of exegetical squirming
to get out of this.
One of the commonly asserted get-outs in the armoury of well-heeled preachers,
is that there was an ‘eye of the needle’ gate in the wall in Jerusalem,
which was narrow and low,
and that the only way a camel could get through it would be on its knees;
concluding, of course, that the way a rich person
can get into the Kingdom of God,
is on their knees in prayer.
The only problem with this is that there is absolutely no indication
that such a gate ever existed. It’s a completely invented story.
Others have claimed that ‘camel’ is a mis-spelling,
and that instead of ‘kamelos’,
it should be the similar sounding word ‘kamilos’
which means rope or cable.
But again, there isn’t any textual variation in the manuscripts to support this.
The problem is that there isn’t really any way out of the fact
that Jesus basically says it is impossible for those who have wealth
to find their way into God’s kingdom on merit.
And, speaking as someone with, in global terms, a certain level of wealth,
I don’t know why any of us are surprised at this.
Those of us who have bank accounts, and savings,
and pensions, and houses,
will know from our own experience
that these things can weigh heavy on our souls.
The temptations to selfishness, to pride, to greed,
to envy, to gluttony, and to laziness,
are all amplified by wealth,
and by the privilege and power that comes with it.
None of us can resist these on our own,
and for some, the corrosive effect of wealth
may indeed mean that the call of Jesus is to give it away.
But I don’t actually think that it is responsible exegesis here
to take the encounter between Jesus as the rich young man
and extrapolate from there to an ideology
where all of us should give everything away;
any more than it would be responsible exegesis to suggest
that the young man was rich in the first place
because God had rewarded him with wealth
in return for his diligence in keeping the commandments,
as some prosperity gospel preachers have suggested!
Rather, the message for each of us to hear
is a challenge about our attitude towards our possessions,
it is a question about the extent to which
they influence and determine our sense of self,
and a demand that we reject any patterns of worth and value
based on money, power, and status.
There is also a challenge here, I think, about how we handle our giving,
and the attitude with which we give.
I have said before that giving to God through the people of God
is not the same thing as giving to a charity that we want to support;
and nor should it be one of the good works that we do
to assuage our consciences and discipline our wallets.
Our giving to God should be a sacrificial offering,
which we surrender to the people of God,
so that together we can discern what God would have this community do
to bring the kingdom of God into being in and through this place.
I don’t preach tithing as something binding on all Christians,
and the arguments some Christians get involved in, regarding pre-tax or post-tax tithing, seem entirely misplaced.
But for what it’s worth, over the years, starting with my first paper round I’ve found that giving ten percent of my disposable income to God through my church,
has been a good discipline to remind me that I do not truly own that which I have,
and that I don’t want to get into a situation where what I have owns me.
For those of us with money, this is a difficult calling, but it is not impossible,
at least not for God.
As Jesus reminded the disciples,
‘for God, all things are possible’.
I also think it’s worth our while paying attention
to the language Jesus uses here when he speaks of the ‘kingdom of God’
in response to the rich man’s question about what he must do to inherit ‘eternal life’.
Both these terms, ‘kingdom of God’ and ‘eternal life’,
can become conflated with the idea of heaven
as the place souls go after death if they have been deemed good enough.
Within the cosmology of ancient Judaism, the ‘heavens’ were literally ‘up there’
as the place where birds flew and clouds gathered,
and they believed that God lived up there, above the sky,
seated on a throne with his heavenly hosts around him.
If you could fine a tall enough mountain, or jump high enough,
you could theoretically get there yourself,
and in the apocalyptic tradition they imagined the heavens
and described going there in mystical visions to gain other-worldly knowledge.
The idea of heaven being where you go when you die,
is only a very late addition to the Jewish theology of the afterlife,
and many Jews at the time of Jesus didn’t believe this.
So when Jesus says that it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven,
and when the rich man asks what he must do to inherit eternal life,
the issue is not one of whether a person goes to heaven or hell
for reward or punishment when they die.
This is all about how people live in the present,
in the here and now.
It is about living a quality of life that has eternal value,
and through which God’s kingdom is manifest and made known.
If we can start to model in our midst, the systemic reversal
of the world’s consensus about where power, prestige, and status lie;
if we can live into being a community where the value assigned to a life
is based not on achievement, or wealth, or some other metric of greatness,
but on the inherent value of each created being,
then we are at least part of the way
towards the fulfilment of that for which we pray,
that the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
But valuing the weak and the powerless is only part of the story.
Raising up others is not enough.
We also have to take a long and considered look at our own values;
our addictions to money, power, and status;
our sense of our own self worth and self importance;
and we too have to learn of ourselves, not just of others,
that the value of a life is only measured in terms of God’s love.
All the other foundations and walls
that we have used to define our sense of self
are more of a hindrance than a help
to our journey into God’s love.
The reason Jesus welcomed a child into the midst of the disciples,
is because a child does not need to earn the love of a parent;
or at least, a child should not have to learn to earn love.
A baby is loved for who it is, not for what it does,
and the move towards conditional love that many of us have experienced,
is a move away from God’s absolute acceptance and delight in our being.
Many of us have forgotten that we are loved for who we are,
and we have taken deep into ourselves
the destructive lesson that we are what we do,
what we have, what we achieve.
We convince ourselves that God and others
will only respect us or admire us
for our possessions or some other metric of greatness,
and we confuse this with God’s love,
which is never conditional.
We become, in other words, the rich young man,
keeping the commandments to earn God’s love,
and discovering that this created a successful exterior,
but a hollow centre.
And the challenge to us as we enter this season of Lenten discipline
is the same as it was to him:
Can we give up our addictions to money, power, and status?
Can we give away our false estimations of our value?
Can we move beyond striving to be good,
into a place where we goodness flows from us,
not because of the good we endeavour to achieve in the world,
because we have learned to place the weak and the vulnerable
at the centre of our value system?
As Jesus says,
‘many who are first will be last,
and the last will be first’ (10.31)
Listen to this sermon here.
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