Sermon for 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Sunday 25th January, 2014
1 Corinthians 6:1-11 (alteration to Lectionary reading)
‘Securing our own existence? Why not be wronged? Why not be defrauded?’
Amongst all the giants of those who correctly diagnose the human condition, I believe it fair to say that not enough attention has been paid to one of my fellow country women. For her perception of the condition of the human soul, there are few who would dare compare themselves to . . . Beatrix Potter . . .
Farmer, award winning breeder of the best Herdwick Sheep, natives of my home Lake District – and one who has seen deep into the dark heart of the human condition. And as evidence for this perhaps preposterous claim, I offer you ‘The tale of Tom Kitten’
Now there is not time to tell all of this intricately woven fable of human existence, told in the form of a parable involving animals – so to fill in a few details – There were once three kittens, Mittens, Moppet and Tom Kitten – who loved to play in the dust, but one day, their mother, Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, was expecting friends to tea – So Moppet, Mittens and Tom Kitten had to be wash and suitably dressed, before the arrival of ‘fine company’. Faces scrubbed – and squeezed into ‘all sorts of elegant and uncomfortable clothes’, ‘Mrs Tabitha Twitchit unwisely turned them out into the garden, to be out of the way while she made hot buttered toast . . .’ Well of course like any children sent out to play in the garden in their best clothes . . . it was not too long before all the clothes were in disarray, indeed, dirty, torn and eventually discarded, where they were espied by the puddle ducks . . . where we pick up the tale ‘Mr Drake Puddle-Duck advanced in a slow sideways manner, and picked up the various articles. But he put them on himself! They fitted him even worse than Tom kitten “It’s a very fine morning!” said Mr Drake Puddle-Duck. And he and Jemima and Rebeccah Puddle-Duck set off up the road, keeping step -pit pat, paddle pat! Pit, pat waddle pat! THEN Tabitha Twitchit came down the garden and found the kittens with no clothes on. She pulled them off the wall, smacked them, and took them back to the house.“My friends will arrive in a minute and you are not fit to be seen; I am affronted!” said Mrs Tabitha Twitchit. She sent them upstairs: and I am sorry to say she told her friends they were in bed with the measles; which was not true. Quite the contrary; they were no in bed; not in the least. [SLIDE] Somehow there were extraordinary noises over-head, which disturbed the dignity and the repose of the tea party . . .
How like Life 🙂 We’ve made all our plans – we decide what a perfect life would look like and we set about securing it for ourself – this is the way we want life to be – we’ve made a huge effort to get everything right . . . and then others mess it all up! And the dignity and the repose, the elegance and the refinement, or the quiet perfection of life as we’d like it comes crashing to the ground . . . and the question is – what do we do next?? For like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, it is others who refuse to co-operate – it is as if we surrounded like willful children . . . how often do we hear the complaint, oh they really need to ‘Grow up!!’ for like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, we are affronted!!! We exclude more and more others from our life, we try to secure our existence, and if that means I go nowhere near so and so, all well the good . . . and our lives shrivel as we surround ourselves with those who reflect the person we’d like to be back to us – in other words, we are lost in our selves, like Narcissus who can only bear to see himself in the world around him, who cannot bear to be wrong, who cannot bear being wronged . . .
Which is all well and good until we come to the Church, for in Christ, we are all one body, called to Life Together with no get outs. We cannot at once be close to God in Jesus Christ, and distant from those who refuse to co-operate with our attempts to secure life on our own terms, to give us what we want . . . as if that was their role, as if they existed for us . . . for we cannot bear to be wronged . . .
St Paul was not blind to this in the life of the church in Corinth and his words to us may well unmask our own attempts to secure a life for ourselves. For he finds that the Corinthians are not sorting out their disputes amongst themselves, rather they are taking their fellow Christians to court (which sounds terrible until of course we remember that in the C20 Christians went to war with each other over ‘higher ideals’ . . .) One of the glories of the Scriptures is that there is no papering over the cracks, the naughty kittens aren’t sent upstairs as if they didn’t exist – here in the Bible we read of how God’s people still forgotten who they really are – that their lives are no longer their own. So Paul asks a shocking question, I wonder if we heard it?? Rather than try and assert your ‘rights’ he asks, ‘Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?’ Why are you so insistent on trying to secure this Life you have built for yourself?? You see you cannot build a life for yourself and follow Jesus, because Jesus invitation to follow him is to leave the life we build for ourselves behind, and accept the true life he offers us . . . there is no carefully refined respectability in the Kingdom of God, there is just the life of Jesus, who sleeps in the dust, who is wronged, who gives up all rights . . . and yet whom God raises even from death.
Elsewhere Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.’ In this he is entirely like Christ who
Listen to what St Peter says about Jesus . . . to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. Jesus is utterly wronged, but his security is not in his own sense of self worth, which can all too easily be torn to shreds like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit’s plans for a dignity and repose. His security is in the very life of His Father, God. That is what fills his consciousness
When we like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit are ‘affronted’ – when we shudder for the repose and dignity of the life we have tried to make for ourselves is assailed – it is a sign that we haven’t begun to follow Jesus. We are still trying to secure our own life – and we are rejecting the life he calls us to. The disciples are called from the life they have made for themselves to a life with Jesus. A life in which we are healed from our deepest sin, our desire to have life on our own terms. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
And that is the heart of Baptism – the abandonment of our attempts to build a life on our terms – to follow Jesus, the one who entrusts himself entirely to ‘the one who judges justly’