A sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this service: Mark 8.31-end

Our Gospel today begins with Jesus’ prediction to his disciples that he will undergo great suffering and be rejected. Rejected. Think about that word for a moment. It’s a word so often used that we don’t really see its massive significance on people’s lives. Have you ever been rejected?  I guarantee that if you have been rejected- you won’t have forgotten it. It can be a deeply painful scarring experience that permanently records itself in our psyche and has a habit or rewinding later in our lives. Think of the different types of rejection that haunt people’s lives. The rejection of a parent or parents- perhaps even before the child is able to remember, but how often years later that person can struggle to believe that they are loveable or worthy of love. Or rejections at school which may still haunt us- a failure to pass an examination, lack of prowess in sports, a public humiliation by a teacher, the bullying of one’s peers, or the ganging up of others to exclude us. There is a powerful instinct in all of us to conform. And groups often abhor difference- the one who is different- who can’t or won’t conform or is exposed as an outsider because of their race or gender or perceived weakness or sexuality, or even because of a physical or mental perceived disability.  Last week I saw a deeply perceptive, sensitive play by Phyllis Santa Maria’s son Ben Santa Maria entitled: Do you really want to hurt me? It told the story of a young boy discovering his identity in the knowledge that he is gay and different from the prevailing culture which surrounds him and somehow because of that fair game to be mocked, bullied and excluded. It’s a powerful piece about the power of conformity which leaves the person who is different, isolated and increasingly fearful- so that this young man is constantly tempted by thoughts of suicide. This play had the power to evoke our own memories of exclusion and shame.  The most painful rejection is often the rejection by a person we love. We use the phrase “broke my heart”- it’s a rather a cliché  but it does describe a truth that a rejection by someone you love and trust can indeed feel like,- your heart- the inside of all that you are- has been mangled and all that you are betrayed. It can years to get over- after a rejection of love- it is going to take time and courage to rebuild your trust, and if that trust is not rebuilt it can easily lead to bitterness towards self and others and a loss of self-worth. The Christian is the called to love again, come what may, to love again, to not give up on love. To be there in that broken place and in that place which we all fear- to discover Christ steadfast- with us- in that very place of our abandonment.

When Jesus says he himself is going to be rejected his disciples of course find it impossible to believe- this is the one whose life with them so far has been a success story. And like all of us they are attracted by success. It’s easy to be a follower when everything is going well. They are after all the inside group and it feels prestigious to be close to someone attracting popular acclaim. When Jesus says he is going to be rejected and put to death- it’s certainly not what they want to hear. Peter rebukes him. It’s as though he’s tempting fate. No one ever thinks that they will be a betrayer until they themselves experience their own fear of rejection, fear  becoming tainted by association with the rejected one, fear that they too will become a scape goat. What happens when allegiance becomes toxic? Jesus, his accusers say, eats with sinners, he blasphemes, he’s the friend of tax collectors and prostitutes, he breaks the rules, and encourages others to do the same. He has a blatant and dangerous disregard for those in moral authority.  Suddenly the accusations are flying and the disciples don’t know what’s hit them as Jesus faces a storm of public accusation. Don’t underestimate the power of conformity it has the power to turn men and women into crucifiers or the curators of gas chambers. Our fear of being the outsider is insidious. And it goes right back to our primordial survival instincts- don’t alienate yourself from the pack or they can turn on you too and you too can be torn to pieces. Where were these disciples when things turned against Jesus- as we know their loyalty turned to fear and they fled. It was only his mother who remained constant, and a group of women, one beloved disciple and of course Mary who had known rejection and accusation herself, she of course remained faithful. She had no fear for her reputation for she knew her humanity had been given back to her by Christ alone

Jesus – confronts his disciples for he knows the fickleness of human nature-. He shows that Peter has failed to grasp his message. It’s as though Peter wants the success story but has failed to understand the struggle and suffering that this will involve.  And Jesus knows that when things go bad- there will be verylittle loyalty anywhere to be seen. The one who now rebukes him and claims undying loyalty will be the same one who three times will deny him.  I wonder how many of us would really remain loyal when our own safety and reputation is threatened. I wonder how many of our friends would stay loyal to us under such extremes?

We live in the time of spectacular rejections and falls from grace. And while we all must abhor abusive behaviour we can only hope that these exposures and public condemnations and rejections will ultimate lead to a more balanced and just society where there is greater justice for all- where wrongs are properly addressed, a transformation of attitudes is brought about, and abusive behaviour stopped, but where mercy and forgiveness for the sinner are not abandoned.  Last week a homeless man died in a freezing cold underpass in Westminster. For a brief while his death became a symbol of the failure of our nation to provide adequately for its most vulnerable. But then suddenly the story changed. No longer one of sympathy and concern- now his story was threatening policies of austerity and the failures of welfare- and the story  changed- the homeless man, one of the tabloids reported, was a sex offender. Does that mean it’s OK for him to die on the streets and no one should show any concern? More than that he was a foreigner who shouldn’t have been here. Suddenly sympathy and compassion was turned into something ugly–the deceased has become the pariah- the one who threatens our nation and has no defence, no full examination of the facts, and no rights to redress.

This at the time when the Times of course published its story about the behaviour of several Oxfam workers in Haiti in 2011 who had been dismissed for breaking codes of moral conduct and trust. The legitimate fear in this story was for the vulnerable in Haiti- there was a lack of transparency and safeguarding processes which needed to be radically improved to prevent this ever happening again.  The result however was that within a few days a quarter of a million of the most vulnerable poor in the world had paid the price because Oxfam’s partners the Swedish International Development Cooperation swiftly announced it was suspending funding for a joint project which benefits 250,000 people in Iraq, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[1] A few days after the British Government insisted that the country’s biggest international charity stop bidding for tax-payers money until ministers are satisfied the charity can meet the high standards they expect and exhibit moral leadership. Meanwhile our nation continues to sell arms and bombs to Saudi Arabia which rain down on the Yemen a country where 2.2 million children are said to be starving and where since 2015 Oxfam has provided emergency aid for more than a million people.   When Parliament itself faced similar accusations of sexual misconduct- this misconduct needed to be addressed but there was no talk of Parliament losing its public funding.  It seems that in an effort to reform bad practice- everyone gets swept into the panic, while others use the scandal for their own political agendas to cut the British Foreign Aid Budget. Last year Oxfam provided emergency support for 8.6million people hit by conflict and natural disaster. Surely that is worth preserving? Rejection when it becomes so coercive is frightening and intimidating. It has no balance, or proportionality. Paul Vallely writing the leader article in this week’s Tablet writes “the ensuing debate has been characterised by ignorance, muddled thinking, falsehoods and hypocrisy”[2] and those who will suffer most are the very people who are the most vulnerable because the public has lost its trust. My brother told me he doubled his standing order to Oxfam this week- a very small action perhaps, a drop in the ocean, but I sign that in the tide of public rejection of bad practice we should not throw out babies and the vulnerable with the bath water.

How can we draw guidance from the Christian Gospel? Well it seems that Christ never abandons the person. The way forward in our Gospel is the way of struggle, persistent presence, never giving up on humanity despite the sin- in short it is the way of the cross. This is the way not of prestige or celebrity, or universal acclaim. It is continuing along the path of compassion, mercy and justice even when the going gets tough and the crowds are no longer shouting hosanna but crucify. The thing that inspires me about Christ is that here- in the very face of rejection he does not even reject his rejecters. He does not abandon Peter or even the one who betrays him- “do quickly what you have to do” he says to Judas. He looks betrayal in the face but refuses to hate. He is victimised but does not victimises others. Here is where Christian morality is born not among those eager to prove their righteousness or to throw the first stone but the one who is there in the midst bearing the pain- indeed carrying it on his shoulders, exposing the injustice and in the end transforming all that violence and hostility into an act of costly forgiveness and love. A new order is born- based not on revenge but on redemption. There is no future without that forgiveness, no hope for any of us. We would all be hoist on our own petard. Against all the odds Jesus opens the way for true transformation and the rejected one to become the witness- the bearer or expression of God’s love- because the failure is great therefore the love must be even greater. It is now that we must not give up on charity- caritas- but redouble our efforts, that is the journey of Lent repenting and addressing our failures through the mercy of God and redoubling our love. It is in the very place of rejection that we find Christ, present steadfast- with us- carrying our cross. Courage he says- do not be afraid I have taken your rejection upon myself, I have born your sin, and I will be with you always, showing you the way back to God.

[1] Paul Vallely: The Attack on Aid; The Tablet. 24 February 2018

[2] Ibid