A Higher Resort

Sunday 7th September 2014
The Twelth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Ezekiel 12:21-28; 13:1-16
Acts 19:1-20

I went to secondary school - Grammar School as it was then - in 1963, precisely at the time when the Beatles went stratospheric and, like all my generation, I listened to Pick of the Pops with Alan Freeman and watched Top of The Pops fronted by a variety of disc jockeys, including Jimmy Saville and Dave Lee Travis, both of whom I loathed. I also loathed Rolf Harris when his cloying Two Little Boys got into the charts alongside the Beatles, the Stones and the kinks. I'm not re-writing history. You can tell. In the middle of August an American comedian called Robin Williams committed suicide and, as it was a quiet news day, his death received massive coverage, a lot of it involving the comedian talking about his use of illegal drugs. What this said was that it was all right for millionaire Williams to take Cocaine without any legal consequences but not an impoverished black person in a slum.

These are only the extreme cases. Do we really think that a washing up liquid is better because it is endorsed by somebody we recognise by somebody who features in a sit-com? Do we really think that our dog will enjoy his food because a model says so? I mean, there might be some credibility in an active sports personality endorsing trainers or a beautiful woman showing off new fashions, but most of this stuff is surely a load of tosh which can only survive because we let it.

At a more serious level, both of our Readings are about celebrity and credibility. Ezekiel is only one of the later prophets to attack his rivals as false prophets, and the sons of Sceva are only one example of people trying to invoke the name of Jesus for their own ends; but the beginning of that Reading from acts gives us the clue, the indispensability of the Holy Spirit to which I will, inevitably, return after clearing some preliminary ground

For a start, I don't for a moment believe in what people call "common sense", as in, "Send them back where they came from, it's common sense" because it's quite clear that there really is no such thing. There is shared sense but it is only built through shared values and careful thinking, applied to countless small situations over time. So it may be sensible to say that there is no connection between celebrity and soap powder but this is not governed by lazy 'common sense' because, if it were, the celebrity wouldn't be doing the advertising. And then, the way teenagers use 'smart' phones and the way we feel slightly uncomfortable with them, isn't a matter of common sense but rather of different areas of experience and practice.

The conclusion from this brief thought is that you can't boss common sense into people, it just doesn't work; but, at the same time, there are common tools for understanding experience such as induction and deduction and, because they're often confused, here's the one minute lesson: induction is the inference of a general law from a particular circumstance, for example when we observe the people around us in their particular situation and infer that men are more assertive than women. Deduction, on the other hand, is the opposite process whereby we infer particular instances from a general law, for example when we accept that men are more assertive than women we deduce that the law will apply in our own community.

We might add to these useful processes the exercise of our social imagination whereby we put ourselves as far as we can into the mind-set of the person talking to us which is generally called empathy but which, to be applied successfully, needs to be much less fuzzy than that because the more closely we understand otherness, the more helpful we can be and also the better we can help ourselves. An example of this might be a conversation we have with somebody about their mortally ill child having never gone through such an experience ourselves; in this case our imagination is concerned with the other person's pain and our role is most likely simply to listen, a quite different exercise, for example, from listening to the dilemma of a traveller and trying to find commonality between his dilemma and our experience. Mostly the mistakes we make, to deduce from a general rule, is that men often try to solve problems when all that is needed is for them to listen, and women only listen when somebody wants help to solve a problem. this is why understanding processes and exercising imagination are so important.

So what of the Holy Spirit? The most important thing is that the Spirit is not, on the basis of what I have said, a last resort but is, rather, a higher resort. False prophets, after all, are plausible, as were people like Jimmy Saville. And for all its merits, logic can be completely bamboozled by the plausible. In the case of Acts, the sons of Sceva over-played their hand but the most subtle charlatans never do that. It isn't, as I've said before, the roaring devil that's the problem it's the insouciant. In these circumstances our only defence is the Holy Spirit, not in the sense that she will ride to the rescue in a crisis but in the sense that the more often she dwells with us, the more likely she is to be about when the crisis occurs.

And how is she to dwell within us? First, by our opening our hearts; second, by our fervent but broken prayer; third, by our constant attempt to wear down our pride as water wears down a stone; fourthly, by looking at our world with thankfulness; and, finally, by following the example of Jesus, brick by brick, building God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. To take these steps is, no matter how valuable we find it, away from logic towards wisdom.