Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 19 September 2021.
• First Reading: Jeremiah 11: 18-20 (I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter)
• Psalm 54
• Epistle: James 3: 13-18 + 4: 3, 7-8a (Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you)
• Gospel: Mark 9: 30-37 (Jesus’ prediction of His coming passion)
They would come with their insults and taunts, the condescending remarks and the crude jokes. They would come in a group and the lead tormentor would look around to his colleagues for support and affirmation, and he would not be disappointed. Of course there was no fun of there was nobody to impress or entertain.
It was always easy to select the misfit, not good at games or slow in class and preferably both. The one who had few friends and was something of a loner. And the more pathetic his attempts to defend himself then the better the fun.
I do not think that our age has more of this kind of bullying than any other, even if we now choose to discuss it a little more and if we do not ignore it quite so easily.
If you could keep going through it all, maintain your own sense of being and your right to your views, then you might come out the other side better able to manage it, with stronger coping skills and the ability to ‘roll with the punches’.
One thing that the survivor will have is a highly critical view of the behaviour of the crowd and how easily it is swayed, especially against the defenceless or the poorly equipped. This can lead to a sense that the crowd, or the ‘world’ as the bible puts it, is that it is always suspect, often hostile, and never to be trusted.
And no, it is not good enough to speak of the survival of the fittest, and that in a rough world then it is the tough that survive. If that were really the case then we would have no hospitals, we would leave the wounded on the battlefield, and there would be no kind of art or expression. For me, this kind of intellectual refuge is wholly bankrupt.
But then in our lessons there is that theme of the suffering innocent. In Jeremiah, the prophet tells of one being led to the slaughter and in this we recognize the passion and death of Jesus.
Jeremiah sees a lamb being led to the slaughter and compares it with the innocent man in the face of crude, overpowering force. Jeremiah describes it with a great economy of words and yet the sense that the powerful have an entitlement to this kind of abuse is unmistakable.
But Jeremiah does not leave it there, and that is the point. Even when the powerful can oppress the weak and unsupported, there is still the One in heaven before whom even the kings, princes, directors and governors will bow and give an account of themselves.
Whatever their abuses these will also find justice and God is not asleep in the face of them.
For a start, God put Himself through the same regime. He also elected to live a human life and to die a human death. He elected to undergo the insults, abuses, imprisonment and torture of the victim, and He did so willingly and knowingly.
As He did so, He was living the life of the easily set-upon, the easy target for abuse and ribaldry, the simple pleasures of exclusion and humiliation.
But there was a difference: when challenged, Jesus neither ran away, nor did He resort to abuse or violence Himself. Rather, He faced off His tormentors with a story or an argument. He did not fall victim to His own suffering or come to define Himself by His own hurt or resentment.
But more than that, on the cross Jesus became His own tormentors and He died for them as much as anyone else. He became their sin so that they too may find mercy.
If Jesus’ own tormentors wanted His mercy and forgiveness it was there and in one such, Paul of Tarsus, Jesus found the perfect proclaimer of His gospel.
Yet there is another point in what Jesus had to say. True leadership, and certainly Christian leadership, did not lie in bossing others around, or in claiming the most prominent positions or the most prestigious of situations.
That might be the way the world or arts and commerce, of politics and even of charities work, but this is not Jesus’.
For Jesus, leading meant caring for the other and putting their interests ahead of His own. It meant having the wisdom of heaven within the mind of a child. It meant receiving each other person as one to be cherished and for whom He would die.
True leadership was the opposite of promoting one’s own interests.
As we come to relive the death and resurrection of Jesus, maybe we also should recall both those whom we have used and treated spitefully – and in the spirit ask for their forgiveness.
But also it is for us to rise above the things that have troubled and upset our own lives and the people who have perpetrated them. This is the time to let go of those resentments and to cease to be defined by them.
And if we need to do it in the name of Jesus Christ, then let us do it.