Mad or Bad?

June 10, 2012

(Genesis 3, 8-15; 2 Corinthians 4,13 – 5,1; Mark 3, 20-35)

The trial of Anders Breivik, going on in Norway at the moment is not being held to decide whether he carried out the murders in Oslo and Utoya Island last year. He has already pleaded guilty. It is really to decide whether he is sane or not, whether he is bad or mad. In the eyes of contemporary European law, if he is found to be mad, he is not responsible for his actions, but will be incarcerated for public safety; if he is found to be sane, he will be held responsible, and will be punished; but since Norway does not have the death penalty, the outcome will be much the same.

The same question “Is he mad or bad?” is being asked about Jesus in our Gospel reading today.  Jesus’s family come to take him home, after hearing that his teaching and miracles have attracted huge crowds. They say he is ‘out of his mind’, and seek to take him  under their protection. They are, in effect, maintaining that he is not responsible for his actions.

This is frequently said about religious people, especially those whose words and actions don’t fit the conventional mode. It was said initially about Joan of Arc, whose feast day the church celebrated ten days ago, because she had visions which led her to dress up in male clothing, and to lead an army against foreign invaders of her country. It was only when her efforts brought success that this charge was dropped by her countrymen.

There are some people who say that any religious person who claims to hear voices or see visions must be out of their mind. They are usually people who believe that the material world is the only reality there is, denying any reality to a spiritual realm beyond what we can see and touch. They have a point, when often the voices that people hear instruct them to do dreadful things.

So, how are we to judge?

In our Gospel reading, the scribes don’t want to have Jesus judged as mad. They want to hold him responsible for his actions. They believe in a spiritual realm, composed of powerful beings, both good and evil. Their judgement is that Jesus is obeying the wrong spiritual beings, the evil ones rather than the good, Beelzebub or Satan and his demons, rather than God and God’s angels. They want him declared bad.

This happened to Joan of Arc too. When she was successful, she was hailed by the French Royal forces as sent by God; but when she was captured by the Burgundian forces, the allies of the invading English, they tried and convicted her of heresy, that is, serving the forces which opposed God.

After her death, and after the war between France and England was over, the trial verdict was reversed and she was declared a martyr (although she was not made a saint until the early twentieth century).

The resurrection and ascension of Jesus convinced many of his contemporaries that he was neither ‘mad’ nor ‘bad’, but doing the work of God on earth. Changes in social, religious and political circumstances did the same in the case of Joan of Arc. But how do we judge whether what we feel impelled to do by our religious beliefs comes from God or not? And how do we judge whether, when others behave in strange ways in pursuit of their religious beliefs, they are insane or evil?

Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements, which I have used before:

“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement  and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.

The accusations of his family and the scribes lead Jesus to make his statement about the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. There has been endless debate about what exactly this means. The commentary on the readings I read suggested the unpardonable sin is to state with absolute conviction that the work of God is the work of the Devil, and vice versa. Such people leave no room for doubts and rely totally on their own judgement. (This incidentally links with the origin of the term ‘heresy’, which came from a root meaning  a division resulting from individual self-will).

We can see the mythical representation of that action in our Old Testament story from the beginning of the Book of Genesis. You don’t have to take the story literally to perceive the truth in it. The details are unimportant; the tree and the fruit are just symbolic of any actions of human beings (in other cultures the ‘fruit’ is translated as a pomegranate or a coconut, rather than an apple). It doesn’t matter whether the woman or the man made the first move towards disobedience, no matter how the story has been used since to deny women equality.  Both Adam and Eve choose to follow their own desires, rather than listen to the voice of God.

One result is that the community they were created to inaugurate is broken. Rather than remembering their common origin as created by God, bone from the same bone, flesh from the same flesh originating from and returning to the dust of the earth, the man blames the woman and the woman blames the snake. The unity of male and female and of human and animal kingdom is destroyed, with the disastrous consequences we still see.

The blame game we see portrayed in the Genesis myth is still being employed to create divisions in society, and to allow people to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. Anders Breivik has done this repeatedly. He wants to be declared sane, but he does not want to be declared evil, so he blames his actions on his victims: his hatred of Muslims on perceived slights to him in by Muslims in childhood, his opposition to immigration on the political party his whose members he attacked. Those are his judgements alone, and he is claiming that his judgement is the only thing to which he owes allegiance.

Jesus always took responsibility for his own actions, at the same time as claiming that he did what he was sent to do by God. He came to assure everyone, both those inside and those who were outside his community, that they could receive the forgiveness of God for the sins they had committed and took responsibility for. He extended the meaning of ‘family’ to include those outside his own biological family; he expanded the meaning of ‘community’ to embrace even all those whom his own religious community excluded. His sole allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

As we move from an emphasis on the life of Jesus during the seasons of Lent and Easter, into the season of Pentecost, we are faced with the challenge of how we follow Jesus, and how we are called to work to live out our allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to building community in our own situations. Is our ultimate loyalty to Christ, and to his radical way of creating community; or is it to our own racial or religious community, or to our own biological family – or ultimately, only to ourself?

It is not an easy challenge to accept, and no doubt we will find it difficult to make those decisions, and be faced with doubts, when perhaps, the path we choose seems to be going wrong. We will constantly have to return to the questions: “Is what we (or others) are doing mad, or bad, or following the will of God?”

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul provides encouragement as we attempt to live our our allegiance to God. He acknowledges that it can often seem a waste of time; that it can cause us pain; that it can look to others as if we are giving our loyalty to something that is a fantasy, because it cannot be seen, or proved scientifically.

But, he reassures us, what we are placing our faith in, and basing our judgements on, is ultimate reality, and is eternal, and will endure far longer than any of the judgements of this world as to what is mad, or bad, or the will of God.

God Save the Queen.

June 3, 2012

Sermon for Queen’s Diamond Jubilee .   Trinity Sunday 03.06.12

This weekend, and all this year, we are celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But what exactly is it we are celebrating?

On the simplest level, we are marking 60 years since the Queen’s accession to the throne. We are simply following what seems to be a strong human instinct to mark the passage of time, and the passage of lives, by celebrating anniversaries, and particularly those which occur after 25, 50, 60 and 100 years. But this is not an anniversary for us personally, nor for a member of our family or our local community – so why do we celebrate?

There has in the past been a tradition of seeing the character of the nation embodied in the person of the monarch. This why a royal jubilee is a national occasion. But what precisely is this ‘national character’ that the Queen embodies?

One hundred or so years ago, at the time of the golden and diamond jubilees of Queen Victoria, those questions simply would not have been asked. It was quite clear what the Queen embodied. She was the Queen Empress, head of a nation which ruled over half the earth. The jubilees celebrated our position as ‘Top Nation’,  the one on which God’s favour clearly rested. Much the same sentiments would have characterised the Silver Jubilee of King George V – but things have changed a great deal in the last 60 years.

Ian Bradley, in his book, ‘God Save the Queen’ comments that the monarchy has been struggling to find a new role since our Queen came to the throne. It has been shorn of most of its military, political and constitutional significance over the last two centuries. Kings no longer lead the nation’s armies into battle – that is a job for experts. We are a democracy, and our governments are chosen by popular ballot, not by heredity or royal favour. The monarch retains only the right to advise, and even that must be done in secret.

Bradley summarises four broad directions in which the 21st century monarchy could develop:

– ceremonial splendour and public show, (the monarchy as tourist attraction, part of the heritage theme park of Merrie England, along with stately homes and mock mediaeval banquets);

– subject matter for gossip columns and paparazzi (the monarch as part of the nation’s longest running soap opera);

– encouragement and active involvement in ‘good works’ (the so called ‘welfare monarchy’);

– and the embodiment of a mixture of metaphysical, magical and moral elements which go to make up the spiritual dimension of monarchy.

Bradley sees the monarchy as an outward and visible sign of the royalty and majesty of God, the sort of picture our Old Testament reading gives.  The spiritual dimension of monarchy is one that has its roots in the Old Testament, and perhaps even before, in the priest/kings of ancient civilisations. There, the person of the monarch represented order over chaos; the monarch was the person who was able to commune with God, who enjoyed God’s special favour, sometimes even being given the title of ‘God’s son’. The monarch was charged with carrying out God’s purpose. While the monarch found favour with the divinity, so also did the nation.

This is a dimension of monarchy that is highlighted in the Coronation service, set in the context of Holy Communion, with its musical settings of passages from the Bible describing the coronations of David and Solomon and use of the royal psalms. It was highlighted 59 years ago, in the media coverage of the coronation, with its variety of preparatory religious services for the nation.

It seems to be the dimension of the monarchical role that appeals most to the present Queen, and to the heir to the throne. The Queen, since her earliest public pronouncements, has spoken about her role in terms of a religious duty. And the Prince of Wales has spoken of his desire to be ‘Defender of Faith’, and has set up a forum of faiths to promote communication between the leaders of the different religious groups in this country. Bradley suggests, in the sub-title to his book, that the spiritual dimension of monarchy is the one which our nation needs, and which the jubilee ought to be celebrating.

However, the idea of ‘sacred monarchy’ is less easily acceptable in the modern world than it might once have been, for two reasons.

The first is that we are now irreversibly a multifaith nation. We no longer enjoy the unity of religious belief that nations did in the days when the idea of sacred monarchy was current. Christian churchgoing has declined to the extent that many of the newer religious groups in the country, particularly Islam, have more active members than many Christian denominations.

Yet our country is not as secular as some people make out. There is a deep residue of religious feeling in the country at large; many people are engaged in a spiritual search and claim to pray regularly, while never attending church; and people of faith are finding that they have much in common, and share many values, in spite of their differing creeds.

The monarch could build on all this, and come to stand for belief in the spiritual and sacred over against the increasing secularism and materialism of modern life; represent order, and the best of tradition against  chaos; and embody tolerance and unity against prejudice and the fragmentation of our contemporary society. Such a role could help to integrate ethnic and religious minorities into society around loyalty to the person of the sovereign and the institution of monarchy. The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, spoke about this in an article in The Times on Thursday, when he said  the Queen is Defender of all Britain’s faiths. He added that the fact she is Supreme Governor of the Church of England does not prevent that. “Oddly enough, the religious dimension of the throne makes it better placed than secular institutions to value and unite the many faiths of Britain.” Perhaps there could be changes to the coronation ceremonial, to reflect this, and the  part which other Christian denominations, and other faiths, play in national life.

But even if this were to happen, there would still be problems about a monarch being the embodiment of spiritual values. These days, we find it difficult to accept that a person symbolises values unless they live them. Once upon a time it was possible to accept a monarch as the embodiment of Christian virtues, because the general public knew very little about their personal lives. That is no longer so. The “monarchy as long-running soap opera” has brought the personal failings of some of the royals very much into the public realm. So far as we know, the Queen has tried to live by the Christian moral standards she proclaims; the same cannot be said of the next generation.

But, leaving aside moral values (for we all fall short of the ideal which Christ set before us) there are other standards which the monarch would need to embrace if she or he is to stand for the deepest Christian values, many of which are shared with other faiths.

In the Church Times last week, an article by Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign reminds us that the term ‘jubilee’ comes from the Bible, and refers to a time every 50 years, when prisoners and slaves were to be freed, debts cancelled, and land returned to its original owners , shared on a basis of equality. He reminds us that a call to celebrate jubilee is a call for economic justice. The Jubilee Debt Campaign is calling for a debt Jubilee for impoverished Third World countries in 2012,  a Jubilee for Justice involving:

Cancel the unjust debts of the most indebted nations

Promote just and progressive taxation rather than excessive borrowing

Stop harmful lending which forces countries into debt

While the monarch remains one of the richest people in the country, and while the royal family associates itself with a very narrow class of people and pursuits; and while her family are able to insulate themselves from the problems which beset ordinary people, the monarch cannot authentically be a symbol of the spirituality of the one who came to serve rather than to be served and to share the lives of those he came to save.

In his book, Bradley points out that our National Anthem is almost unique in the world in focussing on a person rather than a country or political principle, and in asserting its ultimate reference is to the divine, rather than to secular politics.

So, when we sing ‘God save the Queen’ during these Golden Jubilee celebrations, may we be asking God to save her from the temptation (which we all share !) to preserve our own privileges of wealth and position and comfort, so that she (and we) may more truly be the symbol and agent of those values of community loyalty, religious tolerance and the importance of the spiritual and sacred over the material and secular that make up the spiritual dimensions of the monarchy.

And may this royal jubilee be an opportunity for all of us who call ourselves Christians, to pledge ourselves not just to  uphold the best interests of the United Kingdom that our Queen rules over, but also  to do all we can to build the kingdom of God on earth, a kingdom in which the last shall be first, and the poor and disadvantaged are its first concern.