A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 7 November 2021.
Sarah and I recently went to a wonderful exhibition at the Lettering Arts Trust at Snape Maltings in Suffolk. It was an exhibition about the environmental crisis that we face, and it was fascinating to see lettering artists take a theme and interpret it in all sorts of creative and unexpected ways.
I was particularly drawn to a piece where the lettering artist had beautifully carved the letters of the words ‘Turtle Dove’ in slate and then picked the letters out in gold. Yes, the Turtle Dove has inspired music, poetry and art with its gentle cooing and beautiful plumage, but perhaps never before has it inspired a lettering artist and for all the wrong reasons. Its story is amongst the saddest of Britain’s threatened wildlife. Since 1970 we’ve lost a staggering 98% of turtle doves in the UK.
So the title of the exhibition reflected the environmental crisis that we now face. It was entitled ‘On a knife edge’.
The stories told of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, particularly when told by Mark in his gospel that we heard this morning, have a huge sense of urgency about them.
We heard how the arrest of John the Baptist appears to signal the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and he comes to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God.
And as with any clarion call, people are recruited to the cause: ‘Follow me’ leaps from the page of every one of our gospels and catches our hearts.
We heard how Simon and Andrew immediately leave their nets and follow. We heard too how James and John leave not only their nets but their father as well.
There’s an edge to Jesus’ demands – life’s on a knife edge, is the implication – this is no time for hanging around.
What about their father Zebedee, now abandoned by his two sons and left with the hired men? What about Simon’s wife whom we never hear about but assume was around since Simon has a mother in law whom Jesus heals?
At times of crisis sacrifices are made that in normal times are unreasonable – but in what way was the time in which Jesus exercised his ministry a time of crisis? Because if it was it may help us understand a little better this dramatic beginning to the gospels and the sense of urgency that runs through Jesus’ ministry as told by Mark in his gospel.
You may have noticed that many of the stories Mark tells include the word ‘immediately’ – this morning we heard it twice in just seven verses.
It was a time of crisis, not on a global scale such as we face, but on a smaller scale for sure.
Galilee where Jesus began his ministry was an oppressed region suffering chronic political and economic instability. The country was occupied by Roman troops and this inevitably led to resentment and frustration. But that was not all.
Large wealthy landowners demanded high rents as well as part of the harvest from their tenants. Tenants inevitably got into debt, particularly if harvests were poor, and what was the way out?
Because of the political and economic instability, some simply dropped everything and took to the hills.
Others disappeared by emigrating. They dreamt of a better life in another country. There were the usual stories of people getting rich abroad, and some took this option – Alexandria in Egypt was a favourite destination.
Inevitably others became beggars and homeless. As debts rose, landowners evicted people from their homes and they then took to the streets and roads of Galilee, finding places to sleep and beg.
If you were in any way disadvantaged or disabled, blind or a leper, this was your permanent way of life and others joined you, forced by the pressures of the day.
So the people of Galilee were desperate.
Some left home to become freedom fighters, part of the resistance movement, Zealots as they were called. An armed uprising seemed the only solution to the Zealots. ‘Follow us into the hills of Galilee and join the struggle.’
Families were often torn apart – with some disappearing abroad to seek a new life, some going into the hills to join the Zealots, some taking to the streets to beg and avoid imprisonment, and others fleeing into the wilderness.
This last group rejected armed resistance but instead opted for a radical religious life in community, praying for God to intervene. The Qumran or Essene community were such a grouping.
These were just some of the choices that confronted people when Jesus begins his ministry. Both his call to follow him and the demands he makes on his disciples can be better understood when we know something of the social and political turmoil of life in Galilee at the time.
Life was on a knife edge. Not as profoundly as for us as we face the climate and environmental crisis, but still on a knife edge.
And listening as we have done to Jesus’ opening words we can only agree that we too have to change our ways and turn around or ‘repent’ to use the word that Jesus uses.
We’re facing the wrong way: towards death when we should be facing towards life.
So with every fibre of his being Jesus cries then, now, always: wake up.