|Published on Tue, 30 Oct 2018 13:46|
Sermon given by Revd. Duncan Dormer on Sunday 21st October 2018
At various points across the summer, when some are enjoying the sun, there are individuals sitting at desks in offices, at kitchen tables hard at work in deep concentration – because that’s what it takes – their coffee or perhaps red bull is about here – the chocolate a little further away because they are pretending that they won’t eat it all. Those who are slightly more desperate may be nursing other drinks – a beer, a glass of wine - but that is a much more dangerous game.
These are examiners: engaged in the tough business of marking exams and scripts. Many of them in schools and universities will, of course be marking, the exams of young people, they, themselves have taught. Clearly, there is a sense in which the examiner is a judge, but there come moments of judgement on the examiner…
For every now and then there comes a terrible moment - When they, and I have done this read something and think – or even say out loud: ‘but that’s precisely what I didn’t say; I’m sure I was clear; this is the exact opposite; how did they not grasp that’. Aargh - I’ve failed as a teacher.
Well, this morning’s reading provides consolation for teachers everywhere: For Christ himself seems to have failed big time: Two of his key followers, his closest disciples, his best students, James and John, simply couldn’t have got it more wrong.
On at least three occasions in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has spelt out to his disciples the basics:
- that they should be focussed on him and his words – and not the past and the Pharisees
- that if they want to follow him – they need to deny themselves;
- if they want to truly follow the God whom Jesus prays to us Abba - daddy, Mum – they need to understand that we are all children, all equally children – and we need to embrace the poor and the leper and the outcast
- That they are to be the least of all, the servant of all. And our Old Testament reading from Isaiah paints a very clear picture of what this might look like.
And here we have James and John wanting the glory, the best seats, the status. They want to be looked up to, respected, admired.
Jesus had even reinforced his message with a wide range of teaching techniques supporting words with actions – in the passages immediately preceding our reading, he has placed children (who were seen as marginal to society) at the heart of his teaching, making it clear that they (the children) and not the disciples or the Pharisees or anyone else most effectively speak of the nature of the kingdom of God - which must be entered with the dependence and humility of the child-like. AND STILL – despite all his efforts, James and John simply haven’t got it.
But of course the process of teaching is not just about giving people information or even knowledge, it is also about breaking down the ideas they already have, their assumptions or frameworks, they way they see the world. Teaching and learning involves dismantling; a certain sort of ‘undoing’ and ‘unknowing’. When people haven’t grasped something, it isn’t simply that they haven’t listened, but rather that they haven’t fully understand; they haven’t put aside what they thought they knew; they haven’t, as we say, ‘taken on board’ the implications.
This stubbornness or resistance to understanding is a challenge well known to the biblical writers. There is a phrase in the Old Testament which crops up again and again in which God describes the people of Israel as a ‘stiff-necked’ people: obstinate and uncomprehending; stuck in their previous understanding, and therefore can’t receive what God wishes to give them by way of his blessing; they listen, but do not hear; they see, but do not perceive.
It is not really that the disciples are being stupid. Rather, it is that the lesson that needs to be learnt is a really difficult and deep one: Jesus is turning ideas of leadership and power and authority completely on their head, topsy-turvy.
You only have to look across the world to see the extent of the problem – Jesus’s description of the Gentile rulers looks remarkably familiar – from Putin to Trump to Xi Jinping in China – we live in a pretty Game of Thrones, dog eat dog world. And indeed many people in the world seem to love, look up and admire strong leaders, people who assert themselves, who give it swagger, who are in control. It seems that for many, such “strong” leaders make people feel secure. These little gods who lord it over others; who have a clear understanding that ‘might is right’.
James and John are playing this same game, are seeking a piece of the action, a share of power and control and prestige and status. Even the way they approach Jesus involves a power play. ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask’. That is, agree first; then we will tell you what we want. Any parent will recognise this negotiating strategy, it’s deeply human; and we learn it very early on.
And we have no evidence ‘the ten’ are any better, they just didn’t get there first.
Jesus teaches us that the natural way of power in the world is toxic and corrosive. And to follow down that path is to turn in upon oneself.
A couple of weeks ago, I was struck, like many others by the sight of a group of elderly white, powerful men standing alongside Trump’s nominee, Brett Kavanagh, in his denial of historic sexual assault. I have no knowledge or insight as to his innocence or otherwise.
But - reflecting on that stark all male image, journalist Caitlin Moran painted a very good picture of what happens when people – specifically in this case men – lack the self-awareness of humility to apologise or acknowledge fault. She wrote:
‘…this old man insistence that there is nothing – nothing they have ever done wrong and refusing to change is the mark of scared men. Haunted men. For a man who cannot apologise and cannot change is being ruled by his younger self.’
Reflecting on this idea of people being stuck, trapped in their younger selves of 40 or 50 years ago, she observed, that what she saw in the TV image was: ‘a legion of stubborn, white, male teenage ghosts, intractable and outworn – dominant now but heading towards the grave’.
It is a disturbing image of what the pursuit of worldly power in the absence of humility brings. But I think it hits home. For when, like James and John, we seek status or power; when we play games of competiveness with others or of one-upmanship – we are in fact, at a deeper level often simply seeking affirmation, we are trying to feel good about ourselves, convince ourselves we have worth and value. It is part of a natural desire for recognition and self-esteem. And we all do it sometimes in our own ways in our own worlds of school or home or our workplaces.
But, when we do we are looking in the wrong place, and we are looking in the wrong way. Rather, Jesus calls us all - women and men - to ‘unlearn’ deep patterns, to ‘unthink’ the teaching of the world; to come to see that it is only through a rich entanglement with the lives and suffering of others – including those whom others would avoid or see at the lowest of the low - that we can discover who we really are; discover that we become more deeply ourselves through others; become our ‘True Self’ in Christ through our neighbour; learn there is simply nothing great or noble in being superior – or rather imagining oneself to be superior to another person; true greatness is being superior to your former self’.
May we, O Lord, strive to unlearn the ways of the world, seek you as the only Teacher of our souls and pursue humility in all we think and say and do, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen
 Caitlan Moran, The Times Saturday Magazine 13 October 2018.