A Sermon for Trinity 4
The late, great theologian Douglas Adams, in the fourth book of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy introduces us to the character of Wonko the Sane. Wonko is a virtual hermit, who lives “Outside the Asylum”. Wonko has decided that the whole world is mad, and confined it to the asylum. As a sane person, he lives outside the asylum.
It is hard, sometimes, to argue with Adams (or Wonko)’s view. We live in a time of austerity, and yet we are prepared to spend billions on a nuclear weapons programme. We have been through a financial crisis, and yet nothing has changed, except that bankers continue to draw big bonuses and the poorest have their support cut or removed. We were told that we were all in it together, but seems that we don’t all need to pay our tax. Clear thinking seems far, far away.
And that is before the delusions that we all engage in. We might find solace in drugs, alcohol, or perhaps in shopping. Yet all of them will hook us in for more and more, and do us no real good. We blame politicians for the woes of the country, and then either don’t vote at all or vote for the woes we go on to complain about. We think that a little lie doesn’t matter, so we tell one, and find that dishonesty is built upon dishonesty. We live in such a way that we are endangering the planet we live on, and yet we still carry on waiting for someone else to change things for us. We think that the world would be better if more people were like us and so impoverish ourselves by failing to learn what others have to teach us.
We live in a mad world, and we ourselves are caught up in the madness. Belonging to the church is no guarantee of sanity. Our first reading from Isaiah tells us that God’s people walk in a way that is not good, they spend the night in secret places, they think that they are too holy for others. God’s people have not changed too much. Last week I spent a day in London to hear Professor Linda Woodhead tell that young people do not think the church is stuffy and outdated. It’s far worse than that. They think it is morally defective because it is discriminatory and excludes people. We need to hear again the call of Isaiah’s God: “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me”.
But out there, in the Asylum, to borrow Wonko’s description, we also find a man. He is homeless, living with the dead and regarded by most as good as dead. He is disturbed and disturbing, but guarded and kept nearby. He shouts to any who will listen, but no one ever does. Then, into the Asylum from across the sea, comes Jesus. In the face of all the shouting, the ranting and raving, and all the activity, falling over and the drama of the homeless man, Jesus does – nothing. Then he asks him his name, the first time anyone has done that in years. There is more commotion and Jesus continues to do nothing. By the time people have gathered to see what all the fuss is about, they find that nothing is happening. The man is clothed. He is sane and sitting at the feet of Jesus, which is to say that he is listening to Jesus teach.
If we will listen to the teaching of Jesus, if we will sit at Jesus’ feet, we too can find sanity in the midst of the Asylum. We can find that our delusions mean nothing to Jesus; that the great dramas that we construct for ourselves make absolutely no difference. Jesus, now as then, does nothing. He does not enter into our insanity. Instead, he asks us who we are, he brings us back to ourselves. Not ourselves as we imagine ourselves to be, with our legions of self-deceptions and self-aggrandisements. But ourselves as God made us to be, and ourselves that he longs us to become once more. We are made whole, clothed and in our right minds, as we sit at Jesus’ feet and are taught. We are taught to love our enemies. We are taught to share what we have. We are taught to care for those in need. We are taught to trust in God’s provision. We are taught to worship God, and to leave behind the countless false deities of our own imaginings.
Yet what is strange is that when people see this, they do not rejoice. Instead they bundle Jesus away as quickly as possible. They tell themselves and anyone that will listen that Jesus is bad for business, but don’t believe them. St Luke tells us they were afraid. Afraid of what? Afraid that now the obviously mad person has been made whole, that the whole edifice of the Asylum may follow? Afraid that they too might be asked who they are and have to confront themselves? Afraid simply that things might change, and, well, who knows where that might lead?
But here too is one of the deep truths of the Gospel – we are afraid of our own wholeness. Afraid that our wholeness will not be enough, and so we continue to feed our insecurities with more and more stuff. Afraid that no one will like us if we are whole and ourselves, and so we hide behind ever more sophisticated masks. Afraid that we might not recognize ourselves, and so we turn away from ourselves and take ourselves yet further away from being whole. We are afraid. Perhaps we need to hear again the constant refrain of the Bible – it’s most often repeated commandment – ‘Do not be afraid; do not fear’. We can be whole, and it will be enough and we will be loved and we will know ourselves. Do not be afraid.
And here we find the answer to the next puzzle that our Gospel reading gives us. The man, now whole and himself from sitting at Jesus’ feet, asks to go with Jesus. He begs. And Jesus sends him away. The same Jesus that brought him back to himself, that asked him his name and made him whole. The same Jesus sends him away. ‘Go home’, he tells him, and tell what God has done for you. Tell them who you were, and who you now are. Tell them where you found wholeness. Tell them not to be afraid, tell them to abandon the illusions and the self-deceptions and the lies. Tell them they can be whole too. Tell them to come outside the Asylum.
It is a particular privilege to preach on this passage, because it is this passage in St Luke’s Gospel that is at the root of my call to ministry. As I have struggled with what it means to be called by God, I have had to learn to turn away from the grand gestures, ‘Lord, I gave it all up to follow you’; ‘Lord, I founded a new church for people to worship you’; ‘Lord, I travelled half-way around the world to tell people about you’. These grand gestures are, at least for me, part of the same self-delusion that God would heal in me. My call is to go home, go to a place that is familiar, even mundane, and to tell what God has done for me.
Today we are all, with the homeless man who has lost himself, called to sit at the feet of Jesus and be whole. We have heard the scriptures and in a few minutes time we will come to the altar and receive the bread and wine that are for us the body and blood of Jesus. Then at the end of the service we will be sent out, sent away by Jesus. We are not to stay in church, everlasting worshippers, martyrs to all else. We are to go out, to go away. We are to go home, to go about our regular daily lives and to bring the message of wholeness to others. Not to get caught up in new dramas, and new religious ways of deceiving ourselves (and believe me there are plenty of those), but to bring the message to others that they do not need to be afraid. That they can be whole. This is our task, to be ourselves and to help others to be themselves. We do so by sitting at the feet of Jesus, by allowing God to make us whole again. And then by telling what God has done, and helping others to imagine what God might do in them.“I am ready”, says God, “to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me.” “Return to your home”, says Jesus, “and declare how much God has done for you”. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral 23.6.13.