I was back at base in Old Basing this week. It’s funny how somewhere you’ve been for two years, and an altar that you’ve celebrated Eucharist at for one, can suddenly feel unfamiliar! The message however, would be much the same, wherever I preached it, so I hope it challenges those who only read it, as well as those who heard it.
I have never had to face the repeated onslaught of shrill, wheedling requests that start: “Mummy, can you tell [insert name of sibling here] to… Stop hitting me… Give me my pencil back… Let me have have my turn… Etc.” But I’ve done my time at the school gate and with friends with multiple children, and I know that it’s a reality that I have been fortunate to escape.
There’s something about human nature that means we don’t always grow out of the idea that we need to get other people to make decisions for us. Our political system seems to run on the idea: we elect people who will make decisions for us, and then when we think they’ve made the wrong decision, we can moan about it and blame them! One might say, that now we’re living with the consequences of a referendum where we had to take a collective decision for ourselves, we’re still blaming the politicians for giving us inaccurate facts on which to base those decisions… But perhaps I digress.
My stock of sporting knowledge is restricted, but our national footballers, cricketers and Olympic hopefuls all have to live with the consequences of each and every move they chose to make in their particular arena. If you’re Joe Root, then those decisions will be perfect almost every time; if you’re a member of the England football team, that is less likely. If you don’t have a clue who or what I’m talking about… Well done for avoiding sporting distractions, and I suggest you turn your TV off for the next month!
We humans are risk-averse enough to attempt the feat of metaphorically ‘putting our head in the sand’ as ostriches were once supposed to do when faced with danger, especially when WE are faced with the danger of having to take responsibility for dealing with a difficult situation for ourselves, and living with the consequences of how that works out. The person in the crowd around Jesus who wanted Jesus to tell his “brother to divide the family inheritance with [him]”, was not an unusual character.
Jesus of course, had more right than any other human to make such a judgement, and perhaps the person who asked the question understood that. But I doubt it. Jesus, the Son of God, recognised as such even by the demons who possessed Legion (Luke 8:28), would have known that he had both the authority to make such a judgement, and the power to see that it was carried through, but he refused to use it.
Instead, he tells a parable that talks about the dangers of greed, especially when it is combined with a self-assurance that sets aside the teachings of God, and forgets that no-one can avoid their own mortality. In other words, the Son of God expects us to grapple with tricky situations for ourselves, and we need to be prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Yes, as Christians we believe in a loving God who is in control. He is also the loving God who gave us freedom of expression, freedom of will; the ability to work together to make decisions for ourselves. But in Christ, we have the example as well as the command of this parable, to use our freedoms wisely. We are to put God, and our fellow humans, before our own needs and our own desire for comfort, relaxation and a good time.
St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians has a not unrelated message: alongside the Colossians, we are asked to set our minds on God, on clothing ourselves with a way of life that befits our professed faith, faith in he “who, though he was in the form of God,… emptied himself,… being born in human likeness… [and] became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed the whole letter to the Colossians is about that new community learning how to bear the fruit that comes from following Jesus, setting aside any number of faults that show that by nature we humans too easily fall into the trap of putting our own desires before the needs of others, and are willing to cover our tracks with bad behaviour when we get caught out.
If we put ourselves in the place of the person who wanted Jesus to effectively take control of a tricky family situation, we may grudgingly recognise that there’s an element of immaturity on display, with perhaps a side order of buck-passing. Are we, like them, simply in the crowd around Jesus hoping he’ll make life easier for us, so that we don’t have to sort out our own problems?
If we place ourselves in Colossae, are we still struggling to get rid of old habits that haunt us, and in need of a fresh start that sees us being renewed so that we fit better with the image of our creator God, as revealed in Christ?
Whatever our age, by placing ourselves at God’s table this morning, we are saying that whilst we are children of a loving God, we are seeking to put away childish behaviour (1 Corinthians 13:11), to set aside our greed and our habitual faults, to stop playing the blame game, to put the needs of others before our own, to live by Jesus’ example.
We are not the England football team, we do not need a new manager. Neither do we need the ‘get out jail card’ that is having a high-performing, can’t do anything wrong at the moment, player on our team. We cannot only blame politicians at home or abroad for their acts of injustice, favouritism, and greed; we need the mature capability of showing by example the use of humility, sacrificial generosity, and love toward all people, not simply the ones we like.
We are called not simply to watch, or ignore, other people’s efforts at the Olympics, but to run our own race (Hebrews 12:1-2), individually and as a community of Christians. God has set us a challenge, and it’s no sprint. The goal, the inspiration, and the support team, is with God, in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and we have them already. It’s down to us to live up to their expectations and example, and take responsibility for our own performance in our own field of play!