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26th September 2021

Into The Unknown. Do You know Me?

Passage: Mark 9;33-37


I never really got the hang of kick-starting a motorbike. I don’t know why- there was nothing wrong with my legs- but when I had only a small motorbike to get around, I dreaded having to stop because I knew I would be lucky to get started again. There was one time when I was out on a lonely road in mid-Wales; the bike stalled, and I could not get it started again. What could I do other than start walking (five miles) and pray, Please God, will you send someone to help me?
I noticed a figure moving behind a tall hedge. Yes! Thank-you, God. But when the figure came into view, it was a frail, elderly gentleman leaning heavily on a walking stick… Is this the best you can do, God?
The old man looked at me. Can’t you get the bike going? No. I’ll see what I can do, he said and hobbled off.
For the next five minutes I cursed in turn the bike, myself, the old man, and God. Then I heard footsteps and a strong young man appeared. Grandad says you need help with your bike, gave it a good kick and it roared back into life. Off I went, apologising mentally both to God and to the old man. I was still cross with the bike and still cross with me because, not for the first time, I had seriously underestimated the worth of a fellow human being.

We all do it, don’t we? Hopefully we are kind to the more fragile members of our society but how often do we consider that they might do good to us? In the business world, “networking” was always a key skill: noticing the people who might be useful to you in your career and making a point of getting to know them, doing them a few favours. So, although you might generously drop some coins in a busker’s hat, you would never dream of placing that busker in the same mental category as the CEO you had lunch with.

Of course, everybody has different strengths and abilities. You would be doing no-one any favours if you made the busker into a CEO and the CEO into a busker. It is when you-even unintentionally- write people off that the rot sets in. This is what Jesus was getting at in our Gospel story today.

His disciples had been discussing who was the greatest; who was the best; who was the most important. In their society, as in most societies, people were rated according to their financial status, their professional success, their political position, their religious fervour, so it would have been quite common to hear people rating each other on a scale of 1-10. And you do not have look far into the Gospels to work out which were the people right down at number 1 or even at zero: lepers, prostitutes, beggars, non-Jews, enemy collaborators. They simply did not count. Children, admittedly, were valued but only as a future resource- as the people who would one day take over your business and look after you in your old age. For now, they were best seen and not heard.

Jesus turned all this upside down. More than once, he was heard to say that “the greatest people are the ones you think the least.” He went out of his way to engage with men and women who had been cast on society’s scrap heap. And this was not just about being “kind.” If you read on in that chapter, he says some strong stuff warning people about hurting “little ones,” suggesting that it would be better for you to drown yourself with a heavy stone around your neck; better for you to lose an eye or a hand rather than use them to cause harm to another. This is verging on barbaric. There must be something serious Jesus needs us to hear.

I guess that, if you underestimate other people, you start to underestimate yourself. I remember once receiving a group into church membership and one lady apologising to me: “I am sorry we are all so old.” Yes, I think they were all over sixty and yes, churches do need the stimulation and energy of younger people. We get that. But did this mean that this group had nothing worthwhile to offer? I came to see each one of them bringing real gifts into that church community and the lady who had apologised for being too old actually ended up doing great work with children, meaning that, partly because of her, we did get younger people in the church.

There is a saying, “Comparisons are odious” and they are, especially when we cannot forgive ourselves for not being younger or richer or more successful or as attractive as others. Even people struggling with a huge crisis such as bereavement, will worry that they are not coping as well or in the same way as someone else did. And don’t get me started on the people who apologise for not being as good at saying prayers as that superior Christian over there…. Since when did prayer become a competitive sport?

It is all part of the same mindset. When we mentally categorise other people as being of little “use,” we then come to place ourselves in the “useless” category when we feel too old, too poor, too frail, too bad and we more or less give up on life.
Which is perhaps what Jesus was getting at when he said that if his followers receive an unimportant child, they will be receiving him and if they receive him, they will be receiving God. Turn it around and you could say that if we give up on others, then we give up on ourselves; if we give up on ourselves, we give up on life; and if we give up on life then we give up on God. And that is serious stuff.

Many times, in the Bible we are told that we are made in God’s image. We have the creative, powerful, problem-solving, visionary, loving gifts of God. And we are warned not to deny or to misuse or to under-estimate these gifts. Jesus’ whole mission is to reconcile each and every one of us to our essential nature as children of God.
And if I am made in God’s image then so is each one of you. If you are made in God’s image, then then so are all the people you will meet this week. If all those people are made in God’s image, then so are all those they will encounter. Which means that every single person, no matter how frail or how strong, how nice or how not-so-nice, how rich or how poor has something of God in them for us to see. Each of them has something to teach us about God; something that will bring us closer to God. Write them off and you risk writing God himself off.

The James who wrote that letter was thought to have been a brother of Jesus and offers excellent advice on how to live as a Christian in the real world. His words are as strong as those of Jesus: mean-spirited ambition isn't wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn't wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn't wisdom. It's the furthest thing from wisdom - it's animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you're trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart, and everyone ends up at the others' throats.

Once certain people are thought to be “expendable” civilisation falls apart. Think Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. And Jesus, speaking from Caesar’s Rome, knew how quickly civilised people could come to adopt a mindset of the devil and behave like animals. This may account for his own strong words. It is not just about being “kind.” It is about saving humanity to remain human.

Living through a global pandemic has taught us a lot about ourselves. We have had to confront deep fear, all-pervading anxiety, serious anger and frustration, crippling loneliness, resentment against life and anyone we think might have done something to prevent this crisis. We may not like ourselves very much right now, especially if we do not think we are coming through the pandemic as quickly or as bravely as we ought. And, as we continue to journey “into the unknown,” maybe we wonder if God still likes us? Or if God has ever really known what we are like deep inside? If we believe what Jesus taught, then the answer to both those questions has to be “Yes.” Of course, God still likes us and of course God has always known what we are really like. Because He is God
We need to remember that God does not have a yardstick of behaviour by which he measures us all, then places us in order on a scale of 1-10. God sees each one of us as a unique individual and wants only to see us the best we can be. And if our best right now is to present God with our fear, anxiety, anger, frustration and say, “I can’t deal with this alone, can you help me,” then that is OK. It is more than OK because it is demonstrating the kind of true wisdom proclaimed in God’s Word in the Bible: the wisdom of humility, of recognising that you need the help of a higher power; the wisdom of faith in a God you trust to be there for you; the wisdom of accepting both your own limitations and your own potential as a child of God, which will lead to the wisdom of recognising each and every person we encounter as a child of God.

In Jesus we see the God who knows us and who values us far more than we can ever imagine. Let him do his job and lead us lovingly into the unknown. Amen.