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Last Sunday’s Sermon

What is wrong with these people?

What is wrong with these people? As we pull on our boots, waterproof trousers, gloves, gaiters and Goretex tops, ready to enjoy another summer’s day in the fells, we watch a procession of jean-clad, trainer-shod, mapless, compass-less trippers, carrying picnic baskets in their hands, straggling past and setting off along the path that they fondly assume will lead them unerringly to the summit of Scafell Pike. The highest, most challenging mountain in England; and therefore, even in torrential rain and howling gale, the obvious one with which to start if you have never ever climbed a fell in your life before, nor even walked further than from the car park to the Metro Centre. We ask, ‘What is wrong with these people? Can they not even begin to imagine what it might be like up there, in the mist and the rain and the wind?’ This year they have even had to rescue people trying to climb the Matterhorn in jeans and trainers!

As we read of yet another stabbing in London, taking the death-toll over 100 this year, worse than New York or Chicago; as we listen to another bereaved mother pleading for an end to knife crime; as we learn of another gang of teenagers, ‘who cannot be named for legal reasons,’ arraigned in court on murder charges  which will blight the rest of their lives, we shake our heads and ask ourselves, ‘What’s wrong with these people? Have they no sense of right and wrong to guide them? Can they not imagine the consequences of their moment’s murderous madness?

As I get ever older, and ever grumpier, it’s a question I find myself asking more and more often, as I regard the increasingly large and increasingly incomprehensible younger generation. What is wrong with these people, that they can imagine nothing better to do with their lives than twittering vacuously to one another on their mobile ’phones, which seem capable of doing everything except making actual ’phone calls; or wasting endless hours playing video games; and this week, shooting each actually rather than virtually dead?

I’m not the only one. It is a question that has been asked down through history. As the magistrate orders the deportation of yet another impoverished peasant to Australia, for the heinous, monstrous crime of poaching a rabbit, he cannot understand how difficult it might be to feed your family, and so asks himself, ‘What is wrong with these people, that they cannot understand the concept of private property, nor resist breaking the law?’

As the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith begins its session, this is the question uppermost in the minds of its members. We know them better as the Inquisition. Their job is to root out heresy, wrong belief, in order to save the souls; if necessary by the destruction of the bodies of their victims. ‘What is wrong with these people, that they will not simply accept the doctrines and the disciplines of the Church?’

And it is the question the Pharisees and Scribes ask each other, as they cast their superior gaze over Jesus’ dissolute band of fishermen, tax collectors, fanatics and sundry other hangers-on. ‘What is wrong with these people? They set themselves up as spiritual guides for others, they wander the countryside, preaching and healing, yet they don’t even keep to the most basic regulations in the Law of Moses and the Tradition of the Elders. Rules that if you keep them, give you credibility. Authority. Assurance that God approves of you.

‘What is wrong with these people?’ is a question that we use to condemn. To distinguish those of us who are right, from those of them who are not. Whether in my smug dismissal of those who have not yet learned their mountain-craft, or of those whose lives are so devoid of positive role models that gang membership must supply identity and purpose, or of those whose desperation drove them to risk everything to survive, or of those who dared to question. Or of those who see in Jesus a freedom and an acceptance, where their society imposes ever heavier burdens of regulation. ‘What is wrong with these people?’ is a question used to condemn. To judge others as unacceptable in some way, and to confirm to the questioners their own sense of rectitude.

Jesus comes along, and with person after person whom he meets, asks quite a different question. ‘What is right with these people?’ And the force of this question remains as powerful today as it ever was. The Invictus Games take place again next month. Together with the Paralympics, these events are inspiring demonstrations of asking, not about what is wrong with someone, but about what is right with them. They are  celebrations of ability, not disability. We watch as people with the widest range of physical and mental limitations nevertheless do things that the rest of us could not do. They succeed in all manner of amazing ways, because of what they can do, rather than because of what they cannot do. They prove the power of asking Jesus’ question.

For we all work within limitations, of age and ability and intelligence. I can’t understand Japanese; although Japanese people manage it ok, so there must be something wrong with me. I can’t solve differential equations. I can’t even tell you what they are any longer! I can’t clip a sheep, or teach a class, or rig a power line, or build a stone wall or suture a wound. I can’t run a hundred metres in under ten seconds; I never could. The list of things I cannot do would fill libraries.

And I can’t make myself acceptable to God, no matter what rules I try to keep. Washing my hands to avoid ritual uncleanliness like the Scribes and Pharisees; allowing myself to believe only the teachings accepted as orthodox by the Inquisition of the day, keeping to some monastically inspired Rule of Life. None of these rules will prevent me becoming a horrible person, if my attitude to others is not godly. As Jesus goes on to point out to the Scribes and Pharisees and the crowds that gather round him looking for rules, ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.’

Yet God sees, not only the failure and the limitations and the human-ness within us, but also the potential. He asks, not, ‘what is wrong with me?’, but ‘what is right with me?’. Rather than condemn for what I cannot do and cannot be, he asks what I can do, and what I can still give, and what I could still become.

The Sermon is based on the following passage from the Bible: Mark, chapter 7, verses 1- 8  and  verses 14 - 23.

© Jon Russell 2018

A Preacher’s Tale:

Explorations in Narrative Preaching

by Jon Russell

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