Judith Walker-Hutchinson Sermon - 3rd June 2018
St Mary’s Barnard Castle - First Sunday after Trinity 2018 (3 June 2018)
Readings - 1 Samuel 3: 1-20 & Mark 2:23 - 3:6
Staycation - taking a holiday in the UK is a great idea but not exactly predictable, but always one to look for the positive when the weather isn’t what one might call tropical it’s a great time to catch up on reading. In Norfolk recently it was absolutely perishing and having read all of the books we took with us I picked up a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” from the bookshelves in the cottage we were staying at. It was written quite a while ago and I’ve seen the film so probably wouldn’t have read the book under other circumstances, but it was notionally set in Norfolk so out of curiosity and boredom I gave it a go.
If you’re familiar with this acclaimed dystopian novel you’ll know that it’s a disturbing tale. On the surface initially it seems a rather prosaic story of the childish vying for attention and affection amongst a group of boarding school children. The children are particularly competitive about the ‘art works’ they are encouraged to produce for selection by their guardians to be placed, they believe, in a gallery of treasures. Being selected to show your work brings great prestige amongst the children and those who are not as gifted or skilled feel not only slighted but actively diminished amongst their peers. They are aware of a sense that this lack of ‘success’ somehow diminishes their life chances and opportunities. The guardians have set a standard against which the children feel utterly judged and against which they estimate their ‘worth’.
The sinister reality of their plight however slowly unfolds and this aim for achievement is revealed as nothing more than diversionary activity to keep these children occupied until they grow and are ready to become ‘donors’ - for they are in fact created purely to be farmed for their organs, their productive purpose has nothing to do with creativity or achievement but has been mapped out in a twisted ethical and moral decision that it is better for society as a whole to produce these semi-human animals to be organ donors than to let many die for want of donation.
What has this sick, fictional perversion of morality to do with the real world? In my view quite a lot.
There are many obvious ethical and moral dilemmas in our news at present, domestic and international: the Irish abortion law vote, the Guernsey assisted dying debate, the location of the American embassy in Jerusalem... where it is clear that the ‘rights’ of one can never be satisfied without diminishing or damaging the rights of another.
Like me you will have an opinion on all of these issues, my point is it’s not which side of the fence you sit but that what may seem like a clear and appropriate moral choice to me may not seem the same to someone with a different set of life experiences.
Ethical choices seem easy when there is evident evil, and we can carry that ease of judgement into other situations that are not quite so straightforward. Whether that’s a young Irish girl who’s been raped being forced to be a mother or a child that will never be born, or someone left without a homeland or a job, the hard choice of one individual or group has inevitable, sometimes devastating consequences for others.
The guardians in Ishiguro’s tale believe they are acting justifiably for the greater good, in purely philosophical terms a valid ethical decision making tool, obviously for the children at the heart of the story there is nothing ‘good’ or ‘right’ in that choice.
I was struck by a less obvious parallel between those children and young people here in the UK - education - what is it for? Of course it’s important for society as a whole that people get jobs but if we see our young people purely as instruments of production, the way our education system is headed as cuts to the arts and sport, humanities generally, bite ever deeper, we are diminishing and sealing their fate to be that of a unit of production whose worth is assessed by someone other than themselves. We may not literally be breeding them to die, but are we really teaching them to flourish? As life chances and choices for the individual narrow so too will the type of society we all live in. It’s not too great a step in decision making from judging someone’s worth purely on economic contribution to seeing a person as worthless if for whatever reason they cannot actively contribute to the productive process. If you think I’m over-stressing this just cast your mind to the tone of debate around assisted dying or the termination of Down’s syndrome babies and ask again if we are all that far from eugenics.
So how do we make those tough, sometimes almost impossible choices which never-the-less have to be made?
In our Gospel today we hear of Jesus making choices that put him in direct conflict with the religious authorities of his day, conflict that would ultimately lead to his murder because for those religious leaders being convinced they were ‘right’ meant that he must be ‘wrong’ whatever the circumstances.
In this part of his Gospel Mark presents a series of five controversies and today we heard the final culminating two - one on picking in grainfields on the sabbath and the second concerning healing on the sabbath.
What do these apparent controversies teach us about the nature of God? Was Jesus wilfully disobeying the law regarding Sabbath observance perhaps even trying to provoke the authorities or was something else going on?
When the Pharisees challenge Jesus because the disciples have plucked the heads of grain he answers them by reminding them that when King David and his companions were hungry the high priest (who incidentally according to the Book of Samuel was Ahimelech and not Abiathar Ahimalech’s son as recorded in Mark), gave them the consecrated loaves reserved for the priests. Here and even more clearly in the healing of the man with the withered hand that follows, Jesus is teaching that in case of need, law yields to compassion. ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind not humankind for the Sabbath.’ Decoded, this reads: religion is to serve, not enslave, women and men. But so convinced were the religious leaders that Jesus was in the wrong that they set out to trap him into healing the man on the Sabbath - but as he makes clear to them the issue is not one of right or wrong but of doing good or doing harm, and Jesus was “grieved at their hardness of heart”.
How we must hurt Him now when so often we, like the Pharisees reduce our opinions to a simple binary right or wrong. But we are doing so more and more. Be it Brexit here or Trump in America how easy it is for me to decide that if I am right those who do not agree with me are wrong - what Matthew Parris in yesterday’s ‘Times’ called “moral triumphalism.”
Life is too complicated for that binary simplicity and when we try to make it so it breeds division and hatred now just as surely as it did in Jesus’ time.
Our late, great friend and colleague Bishop David Jenkins was known for his pithy sayings which encapsulated the Gospel and one of my favourites is ‘God is as He is in Jesus.’ In other words when life and its choices seem too hard for us and we wonder what God would have us do we should look to Jesus for the answer for he is the very imprint of God in our lives.
The lesson today is not about what is right or wrong on the Sabbath the real lesson is about the worth of the human person in God’s sight, whether you’ve broken an arbitrary law because you’re hungry or whether you’ve been reduced to begging in the streets because you cannot work, to Jesus you are a child of God and of such worth that he is prepared to stand up and stand out for you.
Scripture teaches that the human person is valued by God for so much more than a perceived contribution to arbitrary societal norms and demands.
It is oh so easy to judge, we all do it, but next time we weigh someone’s worth by what they’re capable of or not, earn or don’t earn, think or even don’t think, let’s try to remember that we are judging a brother or sister, a fellow child of God, someone for whom He was prepared to suffer and die, surely it’s not too big an ask to give them and Him a little respect?
How do we make those tough, sometimes almost impossible choices which never-the-less have to be made? Ideally with the grace of God.