"The assumption that priests know something about God is ludicrous, absurd and also very dangerous." A sermon from the Revd Canon Jonathan Baker.
A sermon on Mark 6: 1-13, by Revd Canon Jonathan Baker
One of the peculiar hazards of my particular calling is that people tend to assume that priests know something about God; that they are familiar with him, and can talk about him confidently.
The assumption is both obvious and ludicrous. It is obvious because of course priests are supposed to be familiar with God. What else are they supposed to be familiar with? Are they seriously going to know anything about balance sheets, or Business Plans, or multi-million pound building projects, or marketing and PR – hold on a moment, that’s starting to sound like a Canon Missioner’s Job Description…. Of course we expect priests to talk confidently about God. It’s obvious. But it is also ludicrous. The sheer presumptuousness of it. How can I possibly stand here and pretend I know all about God? How can I know anything about the God who creates the universe out of nothing? Who stands outside time? Who cannot be seen? How can I dare to say anything about the God who chooses a cross on which to make himself known? It’s not just ludicrous, it’s absurd.
It’s also very dangerous. Once you set yourself up as an expert on God, people tend to think you know what you’re talking about. And once you have people assuming that you know something about God, the big danger is that you start to believe it yourself. You convince yourself that the things of God are safe, because they become familiar. You start taking the holiness and the grace of God for granted. If you’re not careful, you start to compare God to the little things of this world, to domesticate him and bring him down to your level.
The theologian Annie Dillard once asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or (as I suspect) does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offence; or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Familiarity breeds contempt. And this is what we see in the first half of this morning’s Gospel reading. The people of Nazareth thought they knew Jesus. ‘Jesus? Oh yes, he’s the carpenter, the son of Mary. We know him and all his family. Watched them grow up, all of them. We’ve known Jesus all his life, since he used to play in the streets. Done his father proud he has, running that workshop.’ What they knew about Jesus was true, as far as it went. They hadn’t been misinformed. They hadn’t jumped to the wrong conclusion. In fact, there would have been less of a problem if they had got it completely wrong. Sometimes it’s easier to show people they are wrong than it is to show people that the truth they perceive is only part of the truth.
And precisely because the people in the synagogue in Nazareth know beyond doubt that Jesus really is a carpenter, it is impossible for them to believe that he might also be a prophet – let alone more than a prophet. The problem wasn’t that they couldn’t understand what he was saying. They understood his message all right – they were impressed by it. And they didn’t doubt the miracles – they acknowledge that Jesus had been working ‘deeds of power.’ Their problem was that they couldn’t believe God was in it. They just saw Jesus the local boy getting too big for his boots. Perhaps they were jealous of the attention. They’d got him safely pigeon-holed in the box marked ‘carpenter,’ and they weren’t prepared to accept that there might be any more to him than that. And Jesus was amazed at their unbelief, and could do no deeds of power there.
I wonder, has anyone ever done that to you? Has anyone ever ignored you or dismissed you because they weren’t prepared to look beyond the label they’d given you? I was once at a party when this chap came up to me and said, ‘And who might you be?’ ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘I’m the local Vicar.’ And he turned on his heel and walked away without a word. And I wanted to run after him and say, ‘Come back! There’s so much more to me than that. I have hidden depths. I can read a Balance Sheet. I can draft a Business Plan. And I can run a building project.’ But it was too late. All he could see was the dowdy country Vicar.
Even worse, have you ever been guilty of pigeonholing someone else? Often we do it out of fear. We look at the rough sleeper on the street and think ‘Just another drug addict,’ or we look at the News and think ‘look at all those wretched migrants,’ as a way of stopping ourselves from thinking of such people as real human beings each with a rich story, and unexpected gifts, and experiences of triumph and tragedy. We use the labels to protect ourselves so that we don’t have to open ourselves up to another child of God.
I was once a member of a secondary school committee on Spiritual Awareness, helping staff and pupils to become more aware of the spiritual dimension of different parts of the curriculum. One of the best things that committee did was to organise a staff meeting where a number of members of staff were asked to speak about some aspect of their work which they found spiritually meaningful. All sorts of stories were shared. A drama teacher shared a story about a child with behavioural difficulties who was wowed by a trip to the ballet. A scientist talked about the beauty of the DNA double helix. A mathematician spoke about the sense of pattern and meaning and wonder he got from thinking about probability. And a technology teacher showed a beautifully shaped wooden bowl and described the stages involved in its manufacture and the skills and techniques needed to make it, and then revealed at the end that the student who had made it was disabled and had made it using her feet. The feedback after that staff meeting was full of expressions of surprise because people were seeing a side to colleagues they hadn’t seen before. They were reminded that their colleagues were far more interesting and rounded people with much richer lives than they had allowed themselves to suspect. It was good that it was the Spiritual Awareness Committee which allowed people to see past the labels in that way.
The people of Nazareth are witnesses to Jesus the prophet, Jesus the Messiah, even Jesus the Son of God. But all they are willing to see is a carpenter. It’s not wrong. But it’s not enough. And their lack of openness means that Jesus is limited in the deeds of power he can do. The kingdom of God doesn’t become a reality, because of their unbelief and lack of openness.
By contrast, in the second half of the reading, the disciples are sent out by Jesus with hardly anything – no money, no food, not even a change of clothes – and they are sent to unfamiliar towns where they don’t know anybody, and they see the kingdom of God take shape in powerful ways – demons are cast out and the sick are cured, and people are brought to repentance. That takes place wherever the disciples are welcomed. The kingdom of God becomes real where there is hospitality and openness rather than fear and a desire to protect oneself. Instead of the disciples being seen as strangers and therefore potentially dangerous, and needing to be excluded, they are seen as strangers and therefore vulnerable and in need of hospitality. The hosts who respond to the disciples’ vulnerability are the ones who enter the kingdom. The ones who trust that there is more to the stranger than meets the eye are the ones who receive God’s blessing. Because in welcoming the stranger we are welcoming Jesus himself. In looking beyond the labels we are discerning the image of God in other people.
However well we think we know Jesus, there is always a sense that, in Albert Schweitzer’s phrase, ‘He comes to us as one unknown.’ He identifies with the outsider, the marginalised, the powerless, and the way we respond to such people determines how we receive Christ himself.
So do you see why the task of the preacher is hazardous? I cannot presume to know the mind of God. I cannot fake a familiarity which, if it exists, is illusory. All I can do is point to the cross and say: There he is. Not a victim, but a victorious Lord. Not a carpenter, but the Christ. Not a symbol, but the Saviour. There he is, in all those who are like him; the vulnerable and poor, the rejected and misunderstood, the victims of injustice and prejudice. That’s where you find Jesus. And as you receive them so you receive him, and the kingdom of God takes shape, as the poor hear good news and the captives are set free and the sick are healed.
I wonder. Who are you sitting next to in the Cathedral this morning? If you could be see past the label, it might be Christ himself.