A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 10 June 2018 by Canon Edward Probert, Acting Dean
(2 Corinthians 4.13-end; Mark 3.20-end)
One of the most momentous short British documents of the 20th century was the so-called Balfour Declaration, issued during the First World War and whose unresolved ambivalences still affect the world in painful ways today. It promised Jewish people a homeland in Palestine, whilst seeking to guarantee the rights of the existing population there.
A rather depressing discovery about British imperial policy-making is how ill-informed it sometimes was. One of the reasons the Foreign Secretary of the day could be reasonably confident that this Janus-like promise might succeed was the assumption that Arabs were on the whole nomadic people like the Bedouin, and that their transient lives wouldn’t be too much disrupted by a few more settlers living amongst them. To be inappropriately flippant, one might say ‘Tell that to Palestinians who had lived in their houses, villages and towns for at least as long as English people have lived in theirs.’
There isn’t much mutual understanding between settled and transient ways of life. The first murder described in Genesis arises from a rivalry between Cain with his settled agriculture and Abel, who went around with his animals. In our own society gypsies and other travellers can evoke strong emotions, distrust and hostility - we are a week or so away from the summer solstice and 30 years ago the roads around Stonehenge were almost a battleground as what the media then called ‘hippy convoys’ sought to congregate there. In a society where property is so important, where successive governments have spoken so positively about a ‘home-owning democracy’, it is explicitly counter-cultural to go around with your home in a vehicle or on your back.
Perhaps in our home-owning democracy it is not as rare as you might assume to have no settled home. The dependence of sectors of our economy on short-term migrants is being exposed in the agonies of Brexit; more people than is comfortable are single, homeless and on the streets, including in Salisbury; many people live in short-term accommodation like bed and breakfast; and an indeterminate number are sofa-surfers (a singularly inapt description for something so unglamorous and probably unhealthy). But all these modern-day nomads live on the margins of our society, they are part of an underclass.
Yet it was with such as these that Jesus chose to align his own life. He was no more of nomadic background than were those living in Palestine in 1917. And then here we are in today’s gospel passage, confronted with this reasonably normally brought-up man first embarrassing his family, and then disowning them. The statement Mark quotes him making, that his followers, and not the people who have brought him up and shared his home, are his mother and brothers, is as unsettling as the news a couple of decades ago of the American 12 year-old Shawn Russ, who took legal action to divorce his parents, or as Simon Peter’s declaration that he did not even know the man Jesus. Knowing his family thought he’d gone mad, and were worried enough to come and find him, he simply washed his hands of them.
People were saying that Jesus was unhinged - or, in the terms of the day, possessed by an unclean spirit. It was this allegation that angered Jesus so much that we heard him saying that it was unforgivable. Yet he was indeed responding to a Spirit, the one which he had experienced at his baptism and which had driven him out into that wilderness, the Spirit of God which was disrupting his settled life and through him disrupting countless others. What seems to have been all-important in the ministry of Jesus was awareness of and responsiveness to the presence of God now. Nothing else could get in the way of that, not even the obligations of family life.
This isn’t a comfortable thing for us. We as individuals and as a Church have a lot invested in both the norms of family ties, and in veneration of the mother of Jesus. Only a mad person chucks these things away. Like Jesus.
I don’t think there is anything to be known about the family of the apostle Paul. But we know that he too made a radical commitment to a wholly different life, subject to leading by the Spirit and not to the norms with which he had grown up. And we heard earlier from him describing Christian life in terms recognisable to any nomad, then or now, for he writes of living in an earthly tent. The present, in other words, is unstable and uncertain. But he is convinced that what is really important is beyond all that instability - it is the everlasting fact of God, known now in transient glimpses of faith, hope, and love, and yet a more solid and reassuring fact than even the best human home: ‘a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’
So, what is it that makes you secure? Is it your home, your family, your work or pension or savings? Or is it that we live in the presence of God, who is our ultimate only home?