Worcester College 2nd June 2013
Mark 3: 7-19
Thank you for the invitation to be here this evening. It’s a real joy to be able to come into this beautiful chapel and to hear such wonderful singing. It’s something we don’t really get in my little country parishes but, having worked in Durham Cathedral some years ago, it’s something I really miss. So thank you.
When I was at Durham we used to view visiting preachers as something of a mixed blessing. It may be that you are the same and wondering just what the experience of the next few minutes is going to be like. You might have pricked your ears at the mention of a few minutes – clearly he at least thinks that he isn’t going to be talking for too long. That’s encouraging. On the down side II have to tell you that a parishioner brought be a little present last Christmas. It was a book – called ‘101 things to do during a boring sermon.’ Many of those who came to the Cathedral obviously came with the view that they needed to preach the best sermon of their life – the trouble was that they tended to preach three sermons in one slot! So, with that in mind, I will try not to take up too much of your time and will endeavour to say something of some interest.
I have to say when I took a first look at the readings for this evening that I wondered whether that was going to be possible. Cain’s murder of Abel and the ensuing consequences didn’t seem to me to provide the sort of material needed to say something encouraging. It’s all a bit hopeless. Cain killed his brother out of jealousy – killed him simply because his offering was found to be more acceptable by God. There was a bit of denial – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ – before the realisation that what he had done was wrong and wad going, in today’s terms, to attract a life-long tariff. There was to be no end to his punishment for as long as he lived.
It’s a really depressing story – but it’s one which continues to be reflected in today’s society. There are those who, for whatever reason seem to believe that they have the right to take another life. We only have to watch the news or to read the papers to see that is true. Whether it be the death of April Jones, or Lee Rigby, or Georgia Williams or any of the countless victims who never make it into the media there is, for many of us, a sense of shock and revulsion, helplessness and even numbness.
But it isn’t just the violence that we see against individuals which must give us pause for thought. I don’t want to rehearse the politics of Afghanistan or Syria – I don’t see much point in trying to work out who is at fault because all I know is that day after day people are suffering loss – whether of life, of home, of livelihood or of loved ones. Their blood cries out from the land every bit as much as Abel’s did.
And if our first reading doesn’t help us to find some encouragement then what about the second? One the face of things it’s a bit bland. Jesus performing some more healing miracles and being ready to get into a boat followed by what feels a bit like the calling of a register at school – the names of the twelve whom he appointed as apostles.
I was lucky enough to be born and grow up in a place called Alnwick up in Northumberland. Around ten years ago it was voted as the best place to live in England. It’s a market town and the home of the Dukes of Northumberland in their splendid castle. The people are friendly and there certainly used to be a whole range of independent shops selling pretty well everything you might need. The local butchers full of beautifully reared meat and game. Fish from the coast five miles away. Tea rooms, tourist shops, pubs and restaurants and even a toy shop to rival anything outside Hamleys.
And we had all sorts of choices about where we might like to go. The beaches of the Northumbrian coast are gorgeous – mile upon mile of golden sand raking back from the into sand dunes where young boys and girls can play for hour after hour. Or out into the wild beauty of the west of the County – rolling hills and the history of Roman occupation and the Roman Wall. Or up into the border country – or to Lindisfarne, seat of Christianity and home in days gone by of Aidan and Cuthbert, two of the great northern saints. Or up into the Cheviots, the hills that stand at the northern end of the Pennine way. The town is a lovely place – but the area in which it is set is even better.
And so there’s a part of me that feels that I fully understand why Jesus would want to take himself off up a mountain and call those who were close to him to be with him. It had been a long day with people clamouring for his attention. Why wouldn’t you want to enjoy the beauty of their surroundings and take a little time to rest and relax – to recharge batteries?
But then, if you look a little closer you’ll realise that’s not right. If you look closely, you don’t see a group of men relaxing at the end of a day – you are far more likely to see them engaged in earnest conversation. Jesus might be doing most of the speaking with the apostles asking the odd question. What we are witnessing is not something ordinary – we are witnessing the start of something truly extraordinary – something which is going to turn the old order of things on its head.
As we heard, there were those who had seen Jesus in action who were beginning to realise his significance – to understand who he was – the Son of God. That isn’t news that he is ready to be heard widely because both the Jewish and Roman authorities weren’t likely to react well. And as the Son of God gathered around those who were closest to him, it is no coincidence that they were twelve in number – corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. What is very clear in the symbolism of what we see is that Jesus isn’t simply here to heal – he is here to bring about a restoration at every level and he goes up the mountain with his disciples to shape the movement that is about to launch. It will challenge society at every possible level and will herald a new relationship between God and His people.
What we see in our two readings are, if you like, the two extremes, the highs and the lows – the worst of what has been and the best of what can be.
In a very real sense it is for us to play our part in making possible the best of what can be. It is for us to play our part in dismantling the barriers which cause so many of our troubles – whether between people of different race, or different religion, different sexuality or even different gender.
Last summer the Olympic Torch relay came through the village that I live in and we decided at church that it would be good to offer tea and cakes to those who came along. Initially we thought it would be a good fund raiser but one member of the congregation challenged us with the idea that this was, perhaps, an occasion when it would be better simply to offer hospitality – in other words, rather than selling tea and cakes we should simply give them away.
It seems like such a small thing but I was struck by the reaction of many who came along – struck by the massively positive reaction of the majority to a simple bit of hospitality freely offered. And with that simple thought it seems to me that we glimpse a way towards achieving the best of what can be. A spirit of giving, a spirit of hospitality, will play a huge part in bringing people together and breaking down the barriers.
And isn’t that what we all hope for?