Creating Space

Sunday 22nd October 2006
Year B, The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Mark 10:35-45

In spite of working for 15 years in developing countries, I have never got used to haggling. When we were in the Holy Land earlier this year we naturally went to the Sukh and I experienced the same old discomfort. You know the kind of thing: a trader offers you an article at a price and you know that you are expected to pitch at a much lower price and sooner or later you reach a deal; it's even worse when you are offered tea and expected to enter fully into the spirit. Being a prosperous Westerner who thinks that time is much more important than the couple of pounds I might save by bargaining, I just want to settle. The trader may have to accept haggling as a condition of his trade from many prospective buyers but I am happy to save his time as well as mine. So, if you're selling junk for the church re-ordering, I'm definitely your man!

I wonder what kind of deal James and John thought they were going to cut with Jesus when they asked to sit on His right and left in Heaven. After all, they had left their fishing business and tramped around after Jesus and they were definitely part of the inner circle, the 'Kitchen Cabinet' but there was that awkward matter of Peter; if James and John were to flank Jesus in heaven, where would Peter sit?

At first sight, the response of Jesus was equivocal; sorry boys, it's not mine to grant; my father looks after the seating plan upstairs. But then he asked the really penetrating question; would they be prepared to pay the price of entry into heaven, let alone the presumably higher price of sitting at the top table?

Of course, there is a paradox here because there isn't a price in terms of our understanding of the word; you can't save up virtue and cash it in at the pearly gates. Because anything we do virtuously comes as a gift from God through His grace, entry into a perfect relationship with God is, literally priceless.

Jesus also makes two very clear stipulations about our earthly life in His grace which are necessary if we are to be with Him forever: we must be prepared to suffer; and we must consider ourselves as servants, a theme which has run through the Gospel readings during the past few weeks.

When I think about suffering I don't necessarily have in mind the famous adage of Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey who said if his measures were not hurting they were not working. Neither do I have in mind the kind of suffering that most of us experience in our lives: broken relationships, hopes dashed, illness, accidents, a feeling that the world is against us, a feeling sometimes that even god has abandoned us. What I want to suggest is that our peculiar burden is to be unflinchingly open hearted and open minded in the face of human failure and intolerance.

We are all so good at serving by doing, by attending committees, raising funds, providing mutual support within the church; but suffering and service in this case might simply mean saying nothing. At a recent meeting I heard the Head of Liberty, Shami Chakrabati, explain how it was so difficult to talk with people who wanted to use the freedom of speech to close down the freedom of speech. She was thinking of extreme Muslims but I was thinking of extreme Christians: the kind of people who think that the Bible is like a science textbook that is so clear in its meaning that there can be no room for dispute; the kind of people who think it's obvious that God did not mean to create gay people; or who think it's obvious that men are superior to women; and, therefore, who think it's obvious that women should not be priests and Bishops.

The price of being a (small l) liberal in secular terms and of being a Christian is that we spend our lives creating space for others; not because we expect to get anything back but because it is what we have to do. Worse still, we have to look on calmly and lovingly as others inhabit the space we have created and try to close it down. In this sense love and service are the same thing; they are ways of allowing other people, other human manifestations of God, to live. Love and service are not about making sure that other people speak or behave correctly; they are not about imposing our kind of solutions; they are not about imposing judgment. Love and service are only effective to the extent that we can remove ourselves from the situation so that we are invisible, so that the light of God's goodness, not our goodness, shines right through our transparent selves. And if we are to be noticed at all it is because, inflected with God's Grace, the light that refracts through us breaks into the colours of the rainbow; God's light is pure but, shining through us, it is colour, every colour; not just the red of our preference nor the blue of our judgment. God's light shining through us makes a statement about human values, about equality shared in His love.

Jesus, who came to live amongst us, being without sin, was the perfect crystal through which the light of the Father was able to shine; which is why he pointed out to the Apostles, when they became indignant with James and John, that He himself had come to serve.

Which brings me to the final point in today's Gospel. Most of us, I think, understand the idea of Christian service and, left to ourselves, we behave reasonably well; but the most dangerous form of haggling is the auction. As soon as the Apostles got wind of the James and John bid they all began to pile in. What brings out the worst in us is competition. Even the good cannot resist the temptation to compete in goodness and, if only secretly, to compile goodness league tables where we usually feature somewhere near the top. If we forget that we are to be transparent, to let God shine through us, goodness can become the most seductive sin of them all.