Sermon preached at Keble College Oxford, 21st October 2018
Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity: Isaiah 53:4-end, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45
First of all, thank you to the Chaplain for inviting me to preach here at Keble College tonight. Writing a sermon is in many ways not unlike writing an essay. You read, you think, you read again, and despite your intention to be well-prepared and organised, eventually you realise that still, you haven’t started writing yet the day before.
I myself come from a physics background, so for a long time I was blessedly unaware of the process of writing essays – although working to the deadline wasn’t that uncommon for myself and most others! What struck me when writing essays was that some of them, in which I had invested a lot of time and effort, were subsequently marked disappointingly low. Others, which I thought were far less well-researched, would sometimes get marks much higher than expected. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had this experience.
Apart from the fallibility of teachers and lecturers, tonight I would like to suggest two reasons why this may be the case, and use this as an analogy to look at tonight’s readings as well. The first one is that we may have answered, or in other words, asked ourselves, the wrong question. Teaching religious studies and philosophy at school now, I read the most remarkable essays: showing creative and deep thinking, the making of connections between different areas of study and evidencing good research. However, when it comes to marking, there is not much relation to the original question or context. And sometimes, almost – but not quite – with tears in my eyes I put down a 30%.
Maybe it is not dissimilar to what happened to James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, in the reading from Mark’s Gospel tonight: they got the context completely wrong. Preceding this passage, Jesus has just told his disciples that he will suffer, be killed and after three days rise again; he has just shared with them what will be the most important moment in history.
And there they are, James and John, who can’t really comprehend that this is not about them, but something much greater. They can’t see beyond themselves and are worried about their own status, not only in this life, but in the life to come: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
Instead of getting angry at this outrageous request, Jesus answers seemingly patiently that they do not know what they are asking. First of all, they have no idea what really lies ahead of them if they want to be followers to the end: they have no idea of the suffering and challenges that the future will hold for them. And secondly, they still don’t understand that God’s kingdom doesn’t follow human laws.
With God, we cannot earn a higher rank at the expense of others: we cannot become more powerful by diminishing others. One of the most powerful messages of the Gospel is that our human ways of thinking need to be turned upside-down: “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all”. God doesn’t keep a scorecard of all the great things we have achieved, but asks us to serve, to help and support, one another.
So James and John got the question wrong: they didn’t realise it was not about them, and not about scoring points. What was asked of them, what is asked of us, is not to try to be clever, but to be faithful and look out for each other.
Back to the example of essays for a moment. As I have suggested, sometimes we don’t do as well as we expect, because we get the question wrong. The other reason, which already starts to emerge from looking at these Bible readings, is that sometimes we try to be too clever. We try too hard to score a high mark, that we forget what it is really about. We forget to be real.
Ultimately, we don’t write an essay as to achieve a high mark – although some students may disagree! We do it, because through the process we learn, we gain a broader knowledge and a deeper understanding. The discipline of writing first of all facilitates this process, and only secondly becomes evidence that we have done so. It is important to keep that in mind.
So too, the way we live our lives. As Christians, we believe that we don’t live our lives with the purpose of going to heaven, but we live them in a response to God’s generous gift to us: the gift of who we are. In other words, one could say that we live to become the people God wants us to be. And we can do this trusting that God sees and knows our innermost thoughts.
That is what the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews is articulating. The language about priesthood may seem alien, but some of the themes are universal. The author of the letter quotes God’s words spoken to Jesus at his Baptism: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. These words, spoken to Jesus, are in a way spoken to each of us: from the moment we are born – or maybe from the moment we are conceived – we are God’s children. It is not something we earn or deserve, but it is the gift we are given, unconditional and free.
On the one hand, this goes entirely against our human way of thinking: in our hierarchical society, some do get more honour than others, by birth, achievements or sheer luck in some cases. On the other hand, maybe, when we think about it, intuitively, we sometimes are able to see others as God does. When we see a baby, a young child, or an elderly person with dementia, or someone approaching the end of their life, sometimes, just for a moment, in their vulnerability we see how precious they are. That is what I think God sees in each of us: we are precious in his eyes.
It is no coincidence that we often see glimpses of this when we see someone at their most vulnerable, or indeed when we are in that situation ourselves. As we also read in this passage from the letter to the Hebrews, even Christ was who he was through His vulnerability and his dependence on God, although he is God.
So, what does that mean for us? I think in a way it is simple: be real, be who you are, because that is who you are made to be. Dare to be vulnerable, dare to love and to care, without worrying about your status, and what people may think of you. Of course, that is far easier said than done, and it takes a lifetime to do so.
Back to essays one last time: Writing an essay that exposes your own thought, takes a lot. First of all, it takes courage. But it also needs the effort that roots it into tradition and the effort that helps us develop our own thought indeed. Just as there are no short-cuts in writing a good essay, there are no short-cuts in living a good life, in growing and becoming who you are meant to be.
But despite, or maybe, thanks to, the effort it takes, it makes us realise that the process itself, whether it’s writing or living, is part of the gift we have been given. We can be who we are because God made us that way, and that is precisely what we see in the life of Christ himself.
Be real, be who you are. That is our purpose, and our answer to God’s promise.