Sermons 2011 ~ 3rd Sunday Before Advent

‘Calling all Capitalists’


Mark 1:14-20

The St Paul’s saga continues….

But at least people are beginning to talk in terms of humility, of having made mistakes and of moving on. And there has been a great success this week - the story has not been on top of the News every day. Greek finance has taken pole position - normal service has been resumed.

But what has struck me throughout, is that some of the protesters have prominently displayed a banner asking the proverbial question ‘what would Jesus do?’. It’s a slogan that has crossed the Atlantic, as it is the buzzword for groups of faithfully minded, ethically orthodox - some would say conservative - Christians, who ask, of almost any situation, ‘what would Jesus do?’. Faced with any moral dilemma, it’s a question that can be asked. ‘My friends want me to take drugs - what should I say?’ ‘What would Jesus do?’ ‘Well, he wouldn’t take drugs, so I won’t’. You get the idea.

It can sometimes be very annoying, sometimes helpful, and asking the question keeps us focused on Christ in both the most awkward and strangest of situations. But it can be annoying: it is particularly annoying when the question is used to invoke Jesus on one side of a debate. And that is why it annoys me to see the protesters brandishing a sign outside St Paul’s, asking ‘what would Jesus do?’. Because they aren’t really asking at all, they are presuming. They are saying that Jesus is on their side, not on the side of those inside the cathedral, or anywhere else for that matter.

Any annoyance at the sometimes goody-two-shoes nature of the question is dwarfed by the sheer presumptuousness of the protesters using - and I mean using, rather than asking - the question as a political blunt instrument with which to beat up Christians on their own turf. Maybe this is good for us - but, it is still impertinent, especially when and if those using it are not believers who are using this approach against those who are believers, and who might agree with or disagree with their position independently of ‘what Jesus would do’.

Although, actually, I do not think it is the wrong question to ask in these circumstances. In fact, it is inspired, but not for the reasons the people asking it might think.

It is probably impossible to know what Jesus would do in any circumstance. Logically speaking it is definitely impossible, because there is no measurable answer - we can’t determine what Jesus would do, or relate our answer to the question to some kind of dictionary, in which we could look up the solution. The Bible is a great guide to life - the guide to life, but it is not a spell book, nor an encyclopaedia to be opened and used either a reference book or DIY manual. So on one level, asking the question can yield at worst an opinion, at best an inspired answer. But asking the question ‘what would Jesus do?’ is problematical in any event.

Yet it is an inspired question in the case of the St Paul’s protests, because I think there is an answer, and it tells us a great deal. And we do know the answer - or rather we have good authority for suggesting one. And that can’t always be said for those who ask ‘what would Jesus do?’. But in this case we know what Jesus would have done.

He would have asked a tricky question which exposed both sides of a debate as foolish.

Many have focused on the moneylenders in the Temple whom Jesus turfed out in the final week of his ministry. The former Dean of St Paul’s touched on that in his ill-fated sermon when the cathedral reopened. But no-one should have allowed that story to become the paradigm against which the situation is judged. There is a better one - which also took place in the Temple: the question as to whom one should pay taxes. We heard it read a few weeks ago.

Jesus is collared by those who wish to trick him, and they ask him to whom they should pay taxes. Jesus is not drawn, or forced to take sides, but rather exposes their folly by saying ‘render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God’s’. I don’t mean to make a financial point about capitalism, but rather to remind ourselves of how Jesus deals with awkward, divisive line-drawing questions.

Take another example - the woman caught in adultery - again his opponents ask an awkward question - shall we stone her? Jewish law insists on it - but Roman law makes it illegal. So what do you say, Jesus? As you may remember Jesus writes in the sand - perhaps to symbolise their divisiveness - and tells them to throw the first stone if they have no sin. A brilliant answer, which annoys them intensely, makes them look arrogant and causes them to slink away.

That’s what Jesus would do outside St Paul’s - I’m convinced of it. He would not leap onto the anti-capitalist bandwaggon, but nor would he leap to the defence of the established church. Rather he would call us all to think differently and creatively, to abandon some of our preconceptions and to work, not against each other but with each other, in an attempt to achieve a reconciliation of attitudes and ideas that helps folk move forward for the good of everyone. And sometimes the only way to do this is to make folk understand the foolishness of their own position. Only then can real progress be made, in a spirit of humility and openness.

For Christ is not to be adopted - he is not to be hauled in on the side of a debate. Yet he is faithful to those who keep faith with him.

So while I do not normally like the trivial asking of ‘what would Jesus do?’, I think that even though it is being asked in a pretty trivial, even disrespectful way, it is, in fact, the right question this week, and its asking points us in the right direction - towards humility, and therefore growth, in the face of what has, of course, been a very difficult, even humiliating fortnight for St Paul’s and others.

In our gospel reading we heard of Jesus’ call to discipleship - a call made to Simon, Andrew, James and John, who were busy mending their nets - minding their own business -  when Jesus called them to be fishers of men. It is poignant to remember who these men were.

They were the capitalists of their day.

They were, literally, minding their own business: fishing was a significant industry. Let’s not fall into the age-old trap of assuming that Palestinian fishermen in the first century were gullible, simple-minded but hard-working marine agricultural workers. Far from it – fishing was a lucrative business. The fish they caught would have been sardines, which were prolific in the spring – as many as ten tons could be hauled on one outing. Once landed, they were grilled or fried, very soon, or would be preserved by drying and salting. Jesus met Andrew and Peter by the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake. There were various places along the shore, fishing villages, one of which was called Capernaum. Another place, scene of the famous incident when Jesus helped them haul a huge catch of fish after a barren night, was called Genessaret. Nearby was another village called Magdala, home to Mary – Mary of Magdala –Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was from a fishing village: Magdala is a Hebrew word, and the Greek name for the place is Taricheae which means ‘fish tower’, a place where fish would have been strung up to be cured. Fish was a valuable commodity, and Simon and his colleagues would have made a good living in that significant industry. They were quite possibly quite rich, because they sold stuff.

There is a great significance in the fact that Jesus calls fisherman as his first disciples – for they were among the basic providers of food for the region. As his first disciples and witnesses to what is yet to take place they will become the founders of the church and providers of spiritual food for generations to come. So it is not just - ‘fish for people’ that Jesus is saying, but ‘feed my sheep’. And you might remember that at the end of the gospels, after the resurrection, Jesus meets Peter on the seashore, and they eat fish together. And what does Jesus say to Peter, no less than three times? ‘Feed my sheep’.

Jesus calls the capitalists of his day, and says to them - ‘hunt down the lost, and feed them’. Feed them the word and love of God. Feed them, me.

That’s what Jesus would do. It’s what he is still doing today, as he nourishes us with word and sacrament, here and now.

Amen.


The Reverend Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene Enfield, Sunday 6th November 2011

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