Here is my sermon from this Sunday
Three years ago the Guardian newspaper published a list of the thousand novels that everyone must read. I think I have some way to go. I looked through the list yesterday and I have read 65 of them. In case you think that actually sounds rather impressive I should explain. The list contains many of the great classics from around the world, Dickens, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen and so on, and many of the books are seriously heavy going. It also contains great modern novels that you probably know better as films – Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, the great Philip Marlow novels of Raymond Chandler, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I managed to resist cheating and didn’t include those in my total even if I’d watched the film.
I was actually helped along to my total of 65 by the inclusion in the list – and remember this is the thousand novels that everyone must read – of such great classics as Asterix the Gaul and Tintin in Tibet, the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend. Even Sharpe’s Eagle, that terrific novel about an army officer in Wellington’s army. If I’m to read the rest and assuming I reach normal life expectancy I need to get through the remaining books on the list at the rate of one every eight and a half days. Which in reality means the list has become one where I can cross of the books I’m now never going to read.
Well, one of those thousand books is one which now regularly comes in the top three or four of the nations top books – The famous trilogy by Philip Pullman “His Dark Materials” which begins with “The Northern Lights” … It is well worth reading – but it really is a heavy read. By heavy I mean that being a trilogy of three quite long books, it’s worth buying a Kindle for. My own copy is still packed in a box following our move into the new vicarage, but it’s at least as big as this Oxford Companion to Music. It’s one of those books which will save you having to splash out on gym membership. It tells the story of Lyra, a girl with an important destiny, who lives in Oxford in a parallel universe, though one which crosses over into ours. She lives in a world where the Church, which he calls the Magesterium, controls every aspect of life. As the story of Lyra and her adventures unfolds, as she journeys to worlds other than her own, as she meets witches, angels and talking bears, finds out the identity of her parents, and travels in the world of the dead, we gradually discover what that destiny is.
It is up to Lyra to bring the world to a new understanding of the meaning of life. The ultimate task of Lyra and her friends is to overthrow the Ancient of Days, the Authority in heaven; to throw God down from his throne; to abolish the Kingdom of heaven and replace it with a Republic, in which human beings will decide their own destiny. No longer will God or the Church decide how people must live – what they can or can’t do. Essentially the books described how people decide they have had enough of God telling them how to live so they overthrow him and run heaven themselves.
In some ways the books are very anti-Christian. Philip Pullman is well-known for having no love of Christianity. He sees the Church as being some kind of Dictatorship, controlled by a bullying God who makes everyone behave how he wants. But in a way, the truth about which he writes – that God’s realm should really be like a Republic where all are equal and not like a Kingdom where some rule over others – is profoundly Christian, as today’s Gospel reading shows.
In the Gospel reading Jesus and his disciples discuss the nature of power in the Christian community that is to be. James and John want to make sure of their places – they are a bit like people who want to be the teacher’s favourites in school. They want to be better than everyone else. But no-one likes that kind of person do they, and the other disciples are angry with them for getting above themselves. The argument provides Jesus with an opportunity to talk about relationships among his followers. Mark, who wrote the gospel, is reminding everyone in the Church – you and me as well as those who first read this book 2000 years ago nearly – about what it means to be a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Mark knows that Jesus is addressing those who in his own time are the leaders of the new Christian Church. They have come from humble backgrounds. They were a mixed group of people – fishermen, a tax collector, a revolutionary … people you wouldn’t have thought would get along. They were from a country ruled by foreigners – the Romans. At the time Mark is writing they now had positions of authority. You might have expected them to finally enjoy getting some power, having people to order about and do as they were told. One might expect them to enjoy finally having some power, with the best intentions of exercising it for good. They might mean well but still enjoy being at the top and running the show. But Jesus will not allow it.
What Jesus does is to tell us that in his Church things are different. The Christian Church is not to behave as if it were any other organisation, he insists. Christian leaders are not to boss other members of the Church. In fact, quite the reverse – those who are in a position of leadership must set an example of humble service. And he doesn’t just mean the bishop – or the vicar – but anyone who wants to play a part in running the Church. They must even, says Jesus, be slaves to other members of the community. They must do this in order to follow the example of their one true leader, Jesus himself, who, the Gospel says, “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. The whole of Jesus’ life, ministry and death was an expression of submission, of service to the human race. He modelled a new kind of leadership. His kingship is one gained through the ultimate act of service, his death on the cross. If his followers are to be true to him, they must behave like him. We Christians – the Christian community – are to be a community of mutual service and love.
There is perhaps no other teaching of Jesus that has been harder for Christians to follow. Jesus showed his disciples that he meant it by washing their feet at the Last Supper. Imagine washing everyone else’s feet! We don’t really like being servants to other people. We enjoy our own importance. We like to be honoured by others. We work hard for recognition, and enjoy receiving our due reward. But just imagine how different life would be we followed the example that Jesus sets us. If we think about it, we can see that an attitude of service modelled on that of Jesus would transform all our relationships, from international politics to family life. Only God can bring about that transformation; but that does not excuse us from trying to follow Jesus’ example in our local churches and in our personal lives. How many of those quarrels between Christians, between church members could be avoided if everyone adopted an attitude of mutuality and service? The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Just think back for a moment to the vision of Philip Pullman, of a despotic God who controls people through the power of the Church. The Church as Philip Pullman sees it, the God that he sees portrayed by the Church, and which he challenges in his trilogy ‘The Dark Materials’ is sadly a view of Church and God that too often parts of the Church have been complicit in portraying. But this is not the God of the Bible who shows us in his Son Jesus his true nature of love and service. Yes – Jesus is a king, a role we usually associate with power and dominance and control. But the kind of king Jesus is, is quite unlike any normal human kind of king – quite the opposite in fact.
As we try to build the Kingdom of heaven in our place and time, may it not be a like a Dictatorship, where we each seek to make others do what we want and behave how we behave, rather may it be a Republic of heaven, in which all are welcome, all are equal, and all both serve and are served after the manner of Jesus himself.