First & Last

Sunday 24th September 2006
Year B, The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Mark 9:30-37

It's almost ten in the evening at Brindisi airport when the rumour begins to circulate that the plane is not going to take off. A queue begins to form at the information desk which, in line with EU regulations, displays a large sign saying that in the event of a severe delay, passengers will be informed of their rights. Then there is another rumour that the plane will take off and the back of the information queue becomes the front of the boarding queue; and then another rumour, and those at the front are suddenly at the back again. The irritation at the possibility of not catching the plane is bad enough; but the outrage that the queue won't behave rationally is much worse! For we British pride ourselves on the sanctity of the queue.

That, I suspect, is our problem with today's gospel. We all think of ourselves as jolly good people who will always hang back at the buffet, reserving the right to carp at those whose plates are too full; and our idea of a rich reward is being at the back of the queue, expecting to be given the scrapings, to find that a brand new pavlova is brought out! The last, we think to ourselves, have received a reward for their self control. So, not only have we been virtuous but that virtue has been rewarded, a spiritual double whammy!

But today's Gospel isn't about that at all; it isn't a parable about the virtue of civilised values, of orderly queues and minor acts of self denial. What this Gospel says is that the kind of people we are, the solid bourgeoisie, are always going to be at the back of the heavenly queue, struggling to get in. We are in the precisely reversed position of the poor who are theoretically entitled, in that old cliché, to enter the Ritz but only get in as cleaners. Heaven is open to all but those who have priority are the poor and the needy, the sick and the seedy, the non-copers and the no-hopers; and the only way that we can join them is to be their servants.

Jesus shows his seriousness on this subject by using a child as an example. Let us quickly remind ourselves about children at that time. They were not trophies dressed like models, shod like athletes, draped with electronics, today's equivalent of a fine lady on a white horse riding to Banbury Cross; they were not the fleshly expression of some supposed parental right. Children were on the knife edge of precariousness: three out of every five died before the age of two; many of those were allowed to die because they were judged weak or because the family already had too many girls; it was not uncommon for a baby to be abandoned on the floor at the foot of the birth stool; the Jewish Law has a huge amount to say about damage to animals but nothing to say about infanticide. And as they grew up, subject to all the deprivations and hazards of poverty, uncertain crops, arbitrary landowners, soldiers, gang masters and slave traders, their survival was closely linked to their prospects of surviving to support their parents. We have all seen pictures of famine on television and often you hear reporters describe the scenes of starving children as "Biblical"; they could not be more wrong. Children did not simply die in famines, they died all the time; until they could plough and herd, weave and grind, fight and conceive, they were nothing. They were nothing and theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. These fragile economic units to be bought and sold, traded and degraded, were, said Jesus, the ones who would be at the front of the heavenly queue. The point Jesus is making is awesomely difficult for rational, ethical people like us. Children, being necessarily innocent, were not at the front of the queue because of their good deeds; sinners were certainly not at the front of the queue because of their good deeds. We are who we are by the Grace of God working in us and through us and because we have so much more than our neighbours, so much more is expected of us as servants.

Now the way that this kind of social interaction is worked out in our society is through transfer payments; we pay taxes, we give money to Oxfam or Shelter, we pay so that we can hide; it's guilt money, not so much because we expect other people to provide services for the downtrodden, which is realistic enough, but because we know in our hearts that we do not love these people at all, so we give money not out of love but to make up for our lack of it.

Somewhere in the English psyche the word "Service" has become demeaning. In many countries waiters are not only pleased to have a job, they are proud of their profession but in our country to be a waiter is considered to be servile; now there's an interesting word! The adjective which speaks of a servant is itself a demeaning word!

So, we can't all be social workers with the down-and-out or primary school teachers in Africa but we can all begin to realise God's Kingdom on earth by praying that we can learn to love all of His children and recognise that those he cares for most are those we care for least.

The most difficult obstacle in our way is the sense of human justice we have developed which we equate with the workings of the almighty. We cannot rid ourselves of the sneaking suspicion that if we all behave ourselves like good chaps we will earn ourselves a place in the Heavenly Kingdom; but Jesus warns us time and again that it just isn't like that. Jesus says that it will be difficult for the rich to enter Heaven. We ought to take Him at His word. We have taken the Gospel of our Lord and reduced it to the equity of human institutions. That way we feel secure but the security is false.

Any time now, another rumour might spread and those who are at the front will be at the back; and a minute later it might change again. Within five years Hitler almost wiped out the Lutheran Church which was full of good chaps; how safe are we really?