A sermon preached by Jim Lumsden on 6 June 2021.
During my PhD, I volunteered at in a soup kitchen in south Bristol, called The Wild Goose. This café was staffed by volunteers from churches across the city, and we served free hot food, tea and cake to anyone who walked in the door. I particularly enjoyed manning dessert counter at Wild Goose, because another volunteer, Margery, always ran the tea-station to my left. See, Margery had a gift: whatever conversation she was having, whether with another volunteer or a guest, she could see God’s hands at work.
The people who came to Wild Goose were from all over the city, all over the world even. They’d had hard lives, local lives, amazing lives, and each had their own story. It didn’t matter how far the conversation wondered from Margery’s own lived experience; she saw every encounter as being placed along our path by God. Every supposed failure was a chance to draw close to God. Every challenge was a chance for us to overcome. For every moment of suffering that a guest had endured: Jesus had suffered alongside them.
I like to think that Margery almost saw two interpretations of reality overlaid on one another. One, the material world in which we live: the physical, the visible. The second, an unseen spiritual reality through which God touches our lives, and through which we wander on our journey in faith. And indeed, both of our readings today challenge us open our minds to a new divine perspective.
In our gospel reading, we see Jesus’s family come to “bring him home”. People are saying he is possessed or crazy. And, if we think about his last few months: he has travelled round the countryside, healing people, teaching radical new interpretations of the holy scriptures, hanging out with sinners and acting with enormous authority. The clincher, for many, is that Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sins: something that is ONLY the prerogative of God.
When I first read the Gospels, I was struck by how much of a ‘diva’ Jesus was. Perhaps diva isn’t quite the right word: but I was fascinated by the way he operated a completely different level to those surrounding him. He cuts right through these societal norms, does and says things that no one else would dare, speaks with incredible certainty yet ambiguity, and kinda just expects everyone else to ‘handle it’. Even his closest followers are frequently mystified by his actions. Indeed, one among them is alienated to the extent that he betrays him.
So, in the minds of many, including the religious leaders and those benefitting from the existing power structure, Jesus was acting with unconscionable ego and making claims that were absolutely irrational. Why? His understanding of the world was markedly different from theirs.
This unusual worldview is made plain when Jesus’ family come, concerned, to bring him home. He refuses to acknowledge them, saying “who are my mother and my brothers?”. And then, in one fell swoop he offers a radical redefinition of family, claiming the crowd around him as his mother and brothers instead. Declaring that his true kin are “whoever does the will of God”.
Over and over in the gospels Jesus seeks to overturn the traditional structures of his society. In Luke 9:48 he inverts social hierarchy: “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” in Luke 12:49 he tells a crowd that he comes to bring division to the earth. To set “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother”. In John 10:16 he expands the definition of God’s chosen people, who for thousands of years had been only Israelites. Jesus welcomes “other sheep that are not of this fold”. In other words, all those outside Jewish society. I could go on and on with examples yet consider that perhaps the most radical of all Jesus’s commandments is “love your enemies”. Talk about flipping the world on its head!
Perhaps Jesus was not a diva then, but rather a revolutionary. A revolutionary seeking to overturn the existing order and replace it with The Kingdom. To reveal to us a new way of living: rooted in our relationships to God, not our worldly relationships to one another.
I don’t think it’s correct to imply that Jesus disregards human relationships completely. But rather, he elevates the value of human relationships from beyond the physical to the spiritual. His ministry does not differentiate along temporal, worldly lines, such as social class or nationality. He invites all into his flock, uniting us in a single spiritual family, and connected by our invisible faith in God.
This idea is echoed in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He asserts that as Christians, their (and our) focus should not be on the ‘visible’, but rather the invisible eternal. It is easy for the rush, glamour and pressures of everyday, modern life to fully occupy our minds. Almost automatically we divide our experience of the world into neat categories: “that was a pointless meeting”, “he’s an idiot”, “I had an incredible weekend”. But when we do so we lose our awareness of the unseen. We lose the nuance: ignoring the spiritual underpinnings of the situation, and God’s presence in it.
Paul reinforces the temporary, fragile nature of our current experience by describing it as a tent or tabernacle. He contrasts this impermanence against a “building of God”. No doubt the magnificent stone temple in Jerusalem: intended as an eternal monument to God’s glory.
Just like Jesus, Paul is challenging our worldview. Don’t define yourself according to material divisions. Don’t default to understanding the world in terms of simple, visible things. Instead, strive to see the world as God does. Overflowing with love, spiderwebbed by spiritual connections, radiating with justice, with sin and redemption. This is the spiritual reality through which we unknowingly move. The unseen, eternal.
So my challenge to you this week is to be more like Margery. Hold these spiritual lenses over your eyes and open your heart to look anew on the world. In the discussions you have, the arguments you witness, the couple walking down the street hand in hand, the strangers who live around you. Consciously explore “how would Jesus see what I’m seeing?”. What worldly preconceptions and categorisations am I dragging with me?
For one day, this will all be dissolved, and we will dwell within a house not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens. I cannot explain it, perhaps our minds cannot even comprehend it. Yet, if we might but glimpse, then I think it is worth a try.