Preached at St Mark's North End on 6th July
Reading: Matthew 11:16-19 & 25-30
Have you heard the one about the Bishop, the priest and the student who were in an airplane, when the engines failed? Well, unfortunately, there were only three parachutes. The pilot, who knew this, grabbed one and jumped out of the plane – leaving just two parachutes between the bishop, the priest and the student.
“Sorry folks”, said the Bishop – using nice inclusive language because the priest was a woman – “but I am a very important man; there is a whole diocese relying on me for leadership. I’m afraid I simply have to have one of the parachutes. So he grabbed a pack, and jumped out of the plane.
“What are we going to do?” asked the priest. “How on earth can we choose who gets the last parachute?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry,” said the student. “The Bishop has just jumped out with my rucksack!”
Do you get it? Well, not everyone does. Humour is a funny thing – if you’ll pardon the pun. Humour is a funny thing? Get it?! Whether or not you do get a joke rather depends on who you are, what your life experiences have been, and what kind of sense of humour you have.
One of the funniest things I’ve experienced as a priest is to watch people in a pub telling each other some rather risqué joke, who then realise that they have been overheard by a priest. The look on their faces is usually very funny – especially when they see that I’m usually laughing as well!
Not getting a joke is one thing. Not getting who Jesus was is something else entirely. This morning’s gospel reading is just part of a much longer section in which a whole host of people entirely fail to get who Jesus was. First there is John the Baptiser, who had baptised Jesus and had even heard the voice of God calling from heaven that this was His son, with whom he was well pleased. But even after that, and after hearing of so many miracles that Jesus was performing, John still didn’t get it. He had to send some of his disciples to Jesus, to ask “Are you the messiah we were promised? Or should we wait for another?
The towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum – where Jesus had time and time again performed mighty miracles which declared the dawning Kingdom of God – they didn’t get it.
And then in the gospel reading we heard today, we see that scholars and the wise, who could explain much, but missed the revelation in their midst…they didn’t get it. Jesus prays to his father, and says, “I thank you, Father…because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent…”.
And then, what about the image Jesus uses of children in the market-place. Who was he referring to? Let’s just read those verses again, right from the beginning of the Gospel…
(Mat.11:16-17) But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’.
Jesus uses this image of children in the market-place to speak about himself and John. On the one hand, there is Jesus, whom Sydney Carter famously called the Lord of the Dance. Jesus is accusing the entire generation of Israel of not getting what he was all about. Here he is, announcing the peaceable kingdom of unconditional love and forgiveness and of celebrating the goodness of life with all – and no-one wants to dance to the tune he is playing. But neither would they mourn to the message of John, whose warning of coming judgment was too threatening, and whose life-style was too unworldly for the sophisticates of his generation.
They just didn’t get it. They didn’t get John’s invitation to repent – to turn away from sinful living – followed by Jesus’ invitation to have life, and have it to the full (John 10.10).
Why didn’t they get it? That’s the question that we are invited to ask.
And to get an answer to that question, we have to understand something of where all these people were coming from…something of their context. This was a people who were under occupation…the occupation of the Roman Empire. They longed to be free of the yolk of oppression which Rome had put on their shoulders. They longed to be able to go about their lives without having to pay taxes to Rome, or having to do whatever they were told by whichever drunken Roman soldier bossed them about. They were fed up of being ruled from afar by an Emperor they had never met, and would never see. So they longed for a ‘saviour’, a ‘messiah’ who would set them free.
But Jesus turned out to be something very different from the Messiah they were expecting. For Jesus, Rome, or Roman occupation, just wasn’t the problem. When challenged to incite the people to rise up again Rome, and to stop paying their taxes, he simply said “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. Jesus knew that empires will rise and fall – by his time in history, the world had already seen the Egyptian, Greek and Babylonian empires rise; and then crumble. No, the overthrowing of empires was just not on Jesus agenda. He was much more concerned about the issues in people’s lives – issues which were stopping them from living their lives to the full.
Jesus’ solution to the world’s problems was actually very simple…so simple that it could be grasped by a child. Which is precisely why, in the Gospel reading, Jesus thanked his father that he had hidden ‘these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’ (Mat 11:25) What was it he said on another occasion? “Unless you receive the Kingdom of Heaven like a child, you will never enter it” (Mat 18:3, Mk 10:15, Lk 18:17)
Jesus solution was simple…almost childishly simple. It wasn’t about complex theological somersaults. It wasn’t about over-throwing political powers. It didn’t rely on philosophy for its underlying truth.
It was very very simple.
So what was it? What was the amazingly simple message that Jesus had…a message so simple that an infant could grasp it? It was this… Love One Another. Or, perhaps a bit more fully, Love God and One Another.
That is it. Understand that basic, fundamental truth, and you’ve grasped the very heart of Jesus’ message to the whole of humanity. Love God and One Another. That’s it. Nothing more. Done and dusted.
So what does this mean for us? After this service, we are going to spend some time thinking about what the future might look like for us, here at St Marks. We are going to think about all sorts of possibilities which might be open to us…everything from ways to introduce Jesus to the people in this community who don’t already know him, as well as ways to deal with the crumbling building we have inherited thanks to the shoddy builders in the 1970s. We are going to think about our styles of worship, and our ways of reaching out into the community. But all of it, all of it, needs to be undergirded by that simple message of Jesus…Love God and One Another.
If we get that right, then Jesus promises, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. “Come to me, he says, all you who are carrying heavy burdens of worry about this and that…and I will give you rest. Focus on me, and on my central message, and you will find rest for your souls.”
So be it. Amen