|6:00pm||Passion Sunday Organ Recital - Simon Johnson|
Sermon preached on the fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (16 September 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at the natural human instinct to take sides, but that 'sitting on the fence' allows people of faith to focus entirely on God.
James 3: 1-12 Mark 8: 27-end
I was fortunate enough to attend the women’s semi-finals of the wheelchair basketball during the recent Paralympic Games. It was exciting stuff but, just to ensure that we really were excited, there was a cheerleader who bounced onto the court every now and again to teach us how to do Mexican waves and to ask us whose side we were on.
I had arrived at the matches without plans to support any particular side but I quickly realised that this would make me non-participative and risk the camera being turned on me during the cheers and expose me as a party-pooper. I almost imagined the cheerleader coming and having words with me broadcast around the world if I didn’t play ball.
So, in the match between the US and Australia, I decided to support Australia on the grounds that we share the same monarch and, in the match between Germany and the Netherlands, I chose Germany on the grounds that my father was German. The latter decision was assisted by the fact that I was sitting near a very large and very loud group of Dutch supporters with absurd orange hats on their heads.
And, of course, I had to admit that, by becoming an actual supporter, the matches were all the more thrilling as a result.
The taking of sides is a natural human response to events and situations. And, in human terms, it is also seen as a show of strength. But it is not so within the context of a community of faith and our Gospel lesson this morning makes this clear.
The reason why Jesus orders his disciples to keep secret his identity as the Messiah is for fear of misinterpretation. Peter – always the one to find words when challenged, even if they’re not always wise or suitable words – means to identify Jesus as the triumphant rebel leader who will throw off Roman tyranny and establish God’s people as an independent state. Jesus, however, will articulate his Messiah-ship as a mere mortal. A defenceless sufferer, who wins dominion by utter obedience, not by force of arms.
The cheerleader at the basketball match would be pretty unimpressed by this sort of Messiah and the Church finds itself frequently compromised by the same pressure to take sides and to command, but that is not the example which Jesus has given to us.
Although I get frustrated by the leadership of the Church of England, I do recognise that its attempts – vain though they often are – to steer a via media through the complex and diverse range of confessional stances and opinions that exist within the Church is a better reflection of the messianic secret than magisterial dictats from on high which certain types of Christians prefer. Perhaps we could call that ‘Petrine misinterpretation’?
That misinterpretation of what it means to be the Messiah and of what leadership might mean in the Christian context is also revealed when people reflect on the way in which this cathedral community steered its way through the crisis of the protest camp late last year and early this year.
We were described as bungling, incompetent and weak – because we refused to take sides. We held exactly the same number of meetings with Corporation officials as we held with protest camp leaders: sixty altogether. Adopting a middle way meant that, for opponents of the protest, the camp stayed too long and, for supporters of the protest, the camp didn’t stay long enough. One person recently said that the problem about the way we handled it was that we were too focussed on God.
Peter tells Jesus, "You are the Messiah” and urges him not to surrender to his destiny so tamely. Jesus, wary of echoes of his tempting by Satan in the wilderness, adopts the alternative title ‘Son of Man’ and emphasises thereby the human figure who wins through not by force of arms, not by killing and conquering, not by taking sides, but through the sovereignty of absolute devotion to God.
And, yes, that sometimes means sitting on the fence: that lonely, weak, unpopular, much-derided location, from where one looks down sorrowfully on what happens when people of faith take sides.
Of course, the Son of Man didn’t sit on the fence. He hung on the cross – a step too far probably for all of us here. That was the consequence of not taking sides but of being a defenceless sufferer who wins dominion by utter obedience, not by force of arms.
How daunting then that Jesus indicates that, likewise, a disciple’s life must be forfeit if he or she is indeed to follow Christ. If that’s too much to ask, the least we can do surely is to follow Jesus’s example and not take sides. Yes, it’s the natural human response to events and situations but look what Jesus says to Peter when Peter urges him to take arms against his sea of troubles: "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Sitting on the fence is lonely, weak, unpopular, and much-derided but it allows people of faith to focus entirely on God and, if we all did that, we’d be on the same side anyway and we’d be able the more readily to set about the task of that other much-derided activity: mutually worked out compromise, at which the Church of England, for all its faults, is pretty adept.
Taking sides at the wheelchair basketball was great fun but, on that occasion, my mind was set on human things.