Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday after Trinity (10 June 2018) by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday after Trinity (10 June 2018) by the Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor

The Chancellor reflects on the crowds of people that believed Jesus was mad because he was saving people. Using the example of Sir Nicholas Winton, Canon Mark encourages us to find those "opportunities to discover grace - with a bit of your own unique madness".


The story is told of three male clergy who went to a conference and had to share a room. One night after a drink or two they decided to play a game and confess their secret sins to one another. I’ll begin, said the first, my secret sin is that I just love to gamble. As soon as I get out of my parish I’m down at the races, into the betting shops and on holiday I go to all the casinos. The second priest spoke. Well, my secret sin is that I hate working and all my sermons are taken from the internet, I pretend I’m not in when the churchwarden calls and I can’t stand the bishop and stick pins into a picture of him every night before I go to sleep. Finally the third spoke up. My secret sin, he said, is gossip – and I just can’t wait to get out of this room!

Well, the story we just heard read shows us that Jesus was obviously the subject of a lot of gossip in his day. And it seems he was making people anxious. People are listening and watching him. We are told the crowd, a large crowd, shows up and many of them are saying ‘he has gone out of his mind’ so his family turn up to stop him getting into trouble. As Bishop Michael Curry has shown. The King James Version of the Bible translates it: “He is beside himself.” The old J.B. Phillips New Testament translates it, “People were saying, ‘He must be mad!’” But my favourite is from the 1995 Contemporary English Version of the Bible, which says, “When Jesus’ family heard what he was doing, they thought he was crazy and went to get him under control.”
So the crowd is restless and his family are worried and then the scribes from Jerusalem turn up. These were the theological heavyweights. They see Jesus has some power but their pronouncement is that Jesus is a satanic agent and not a divine one. They offer the most damning assessment they can. And Jesus seems to get angry and talks about something that can never be forgiven. What is it? Well, it seems to be when we witness goodness but condemn it is as bad, when another person is liberated, freed, helped, restored and we can’t cope with it and lash out, usually out of our own insecurities. Whereas Jesus is saying we ought to love our neighbours as ourselves, and gets called crazy because of it, we seem to prefer to hate our neighbour as ourselves and call ourselves sane and in the real world.

One of the people I admire is Sir Nicholas Winton who died just three years ago and organized the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War. Winton found homes for the children away from the Nazi tyranny and arranged for their safe passage to Britain at great cost and risk. Now we often have a cosy view of the British response to Jewish refugees in the Second World War because of the photographs of Jewish children arriving at Liverpool Street station. The fact is that you won’t find pictures of their parents and that there was a lot of hostility around towards receiving Jews seeking refuge. Rather than relaxing entry requirements for Austrian Jews after the Anschluss for instance - Germany's annexation of Austria in March 1938 - the British government tightened them, introducing new, strictly controlled visas precisely to restrict their numbers. More than 65,000 Austrian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Later when rules relaxed a bit, if any were granted entry it was because the Jewish community guaranteed that it would bear all the expenses of accommodation and maintenance, and that their return would happen as soon as possible. So Nicholas Winton was working against the tide of feeling. But he didn’t listen to the voice that said he was mad and out of tune with public feeling. Winton single-handedly established an organization to aid Czech children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis who had just invaded their country. He set up his office at a dining room table in a hotel in Wenceslas Square. An important obstacle was getting official permission to cross into the Netherlands as after Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Dutch government officially closed its borders to any Jewish refugees. The border guards searched for them and returned any found to Germany. Winton succeeded and ultimately found homes in Britain for children, many of whose parents would perish in the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother worked with him to place the children in homes and later hostels. Throughout the summer of 1939, he placed photographs of the children in Picture Post seeking families to accept them. He also wrote to US politicians such as Roosevelt, asking them to take more children. He said that two thousand more might have been saved if they had helped, but only Sweden took any besides those sent to Britain. The last group of 250 children, scheduled to leave Prague on 1 September 1939, were unable to depart. With Hitler's invasion of Poland on the same day, the Second World War had begun. Of the children due to leave on that train, only two survived the war.

Winton saved nearly 700 children but told no one about this extraordinary rescue operation and the world found out about his work over 40 years later, in 1988. Well, I don’t need to tell you about the world we are living in and the rise of populist politics that will always use quick clarity and easy scapegoats to ensure more votes and a takeover of power. And I don’t need to tell you either of those in our own day suffering hate crimes, discrimination, being made to feel ashamed and at risk for simply being who they are. Churches of course must be homes of safety and welcome for those whom the currents of the political day blow against, those currents often being felt in the Church as much as in the world. 

There will always be a cost to being the challenger, the reminder, the one who keeps honesty in the arena, reminding us all that there are never ‘swarms’ of people, never true labels, never ‘collateral damage’ in war, never enemies better kept behind walls, never – there are only ever other human beings, created with all the dignity God can bestow, and in need of friends when the mood shifts against them or when they have lost everything, who need help to hold their heads high, high towards heaven so that they too can hear the voice ‘you are my child too, loved and cherished and for always’. 

They called Jesus mad because he was saving people – from isolation, from pain, from exclusion, from paralysis, from believing themselves unlovable, unsave-able because who cares about them? Well, if that’s being mad let’s be it because the alternative is the madness of a world that says we only get out of bed every day to start a competition, to get more stuff and to find fault in everyone but ourselves. Choose your madness. And choose carefully. You may not get children on a train but you may look out for the colleague at work, or visit the lonely person in your block, or join an organisation that works for human dignity or listen better in that next conversation where you can hear pain or distress. Opportunities are there for you and now. Opportunities to discover grace - with a bit of your own unique madness.

Nicholas Winton, like many who have been brave for a humane humanity, knew the words of Martin Luther King:

Cowardice asks the question ‘is it safe?’

Expediency asks the question ‘is it politic?’

Vanity asks the question ‘is it popular?’

But conscience asks the question ‘is it right?’

‘He’s beside himself, he’s crazy, he needs calming down, restrain him – please’. That’s fear speaking, a desire to control, call goodness bad – it’s unforgivable says Christ. What he was doing was showing us that we are each other’s sister, brother, mother. What he was doing was showing us what a life looks like when it knows that what we do to the least we do to the one who made us all.