Friday, February 27, 2015

The Cheshire Cat and Jesus' First Day

Gospel Reading Mark 1.21-39

I'd like to read a short passage from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:
Alice was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off.
The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought…
‘Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name..., `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
`I don't much care where--' said Alice.
‘Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
`--so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'
I've been on sabbatical recently so I've had chance to attend a good many services conducted by other people. At one of those the preacher read this passage from Alice in Wonderland, but it seemed to me that he threw it away. He promised that he was going to come back to it later, but he never did, and I fell to thinking what I might say about it if I were preaching - and so here we are, because now I am!
I suppose one of the reasons why the passage appealed to me is that I was using my sabbatical to finish a degree in business studies. When you're running a business, or in my case a charity, it's generally bad advice to have no plan, so most successful businesses, or charities, have a broad vision of where they want to go, which is sometimes called a 'mission statement', and then they usually have  some more specific aims, and finally a series of detailed objectives or milestones, which will tell them where they've got to on their journey. Sometimes all of this is written down but in smaller organisations the planning process often happens inside the heads of the managers. However, if there aren't any plans at all, the business or charity will find itself in exactly the same place that Alice was in when she met the Cheshire Cat.
The businessman and entrepreneur John Harvey-Jones, who was for a while the chairman of the chemical giant ICI and also a TV pundit offering advice to struggling firms, once said this: “Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. And the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”
Maybe that's why the Cheshire Cat's advice has so many resonances with the way people lead their lives. If we don't much care where we're going or how we get there, we're sure to arrive but when we do our destination will be unplanned and it may come as a complete surprise to us.
But lack of forethought isn’t just part of the modern condition. People have always gone through life without making plans, not much caring where they get to. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was a clergyman and here he makes a sly dig here, I think, at popular attitudes in his own day. The social commentary underlying the Cheshire Cat's conversation with Alice flies over the heads of children, for whom this is just another example of whimsical wordplay, but I believe Carroll was in earnest. He wants his adult readers to ponder the Cheshire Cat's words.
One change since the Nineteenth Century is that I don't think so many people now are concerned about where we ought to go. 'Ought' has become a dirty word. We're accustomed now to asserting our moral autonomy, by which I mean that we don't expect anyone else to lay down rules for us - parents, teachers, partners, the Church, politicians or society at large. Instead we tend to feel that we're free to do just as we like, so long as it doesn't hurt or inconvenience anyone else too much. In fact, quite a lot of people would say that we're free to do whatever we can get away with.
Of course, Christians should never taken this attitude. That's because we don't believe we have moral autonomy, and that's one of the reasons why Christianity has lost much of its former popular appeal. There were always a good number of people who didn't really feel obliged to go the Christian way, even if they sometimes pretended to, but now all pretence has gone.
Instead, people are increasingly drawn to forms of spiritual direction that seem to preserve their freedom to make their own rules, or at least to put their own interpretation on the rules. That's why pick-and-mix forms of spirituality have grown in popularity; they allow people to pick an idea which appeals to them from one religion or spiritual code and put it together with an equally appealing idea from somewhere else. The world's great religious and spiritual leaders - the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Lao Tzu and Confucius - are reduced in status to personal gurus.
In a pick-and-mix culture Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat's becomes more relevant than ever. When we're picking and choosing what we believe, where we ought to go from here depends a good deal on where we want to get to, and a great many people still don't really know the answer to that.
Of course, Christians should know where we want to get to. That's because we already have a vision to live by. We want to get to the Kingdom of Heaven, or - if we're not too sure exactly what that means - we at least want to make the world a better place than it was when we found it. And if we have a sense of mission or vocation, a conviction that we've been endowed with certain gifts or opportunities to use for the benefit of others, we should be able to pray and think our way to a set of more specific aims.
Unfortunately, from our perspective at any rate, many people live entirely in the moment, without any vision or purpose, just waiting for a fancy to take them. They don't feel they ought to go in any particular direction. They don't even have anywhere in particular that they want to go. In fact, they don't much care where they go, so long as they go somewhere.
They might want to save up for a shopping spree, or an exotic holiday; or they might have fifty things they want to do before they die; or they might have some very specific aims - finding love, having children,  getting promotion, buying a house, saving for their retirement - but they have no ultimate goal, no final destination in mind. They may have a series of milestones on their journey, but they still don't know where the journey's taking them.
It''s a bit like driving to the nearest motorway and then flipping a coin to see which way to go from there. Life's milestones become like the service stations, stopping off points, but the direction of travel remains purely arbitrary and unplanned.
This sort of nightmare journey isn't just a metaphor or a way of picturing our broader dilemma. It has actually overtaken motorists in real life. One man embarked on a journey from Kent to Northumbria, missed his turning on the M25 and drove round it for nine hours before he ran out of petrol. That's what some people's whole lives are like. They not only miss the right turning, they have no particular turning in mind.
And it's not just individuals who don't much care where they want to get to so long as they get somewhere. Organisations can drift along aimlessly as well, and that includes churches. There's even a name for it. When organisations lose their sense of direction they're said to be in "mission drift".
I've sometimes heard people say that they don't much care where their church is going so long as it's still here - roughly where it is now - until after they've died. And I've been to churches - though not in this circuit - which didn't have any worked out vision at all, nor even any practical aims beyond paying their circuit assessment and keeping the rain out. But if secular organisations need a mission, then churches certainly need one too because our role is to be caught up and play our part in God's overarching mission for the world.
That means we can't possibly say that we don't much care where we get to, or which way we go so long as we get somewhere, because if we say that we're no longer remaining true to the Gospel we preach about or listen to every Sunday. Maintenance, keeping the show on the road, jogging along with no particular place to go , is absolutely not an option. We always have to be asking which way we ought to go from here, and that means which way God wants us to go from here.
The passage we read this morning / evening is a day in the life of Jesus. In fact, it’s his first day on the job. We see him preaching in the synagogue, having a break for lunch, healing and taking time out to pray.
Right from the beginning of his public ministry Jesus' authority is contested. He shows up at the synagogue and begins preaching, and immediately someone wants him to stop. Jesus' message is uncomplicated: 'Repent - that is 'change direction' - and start going towards the Kingdom of God.' But powerful forces are ranged against him, resisting this message, driving people's lives in different and often futile directions. And immediately he gets up to speak someone asks him, 'Why are you picking a fight with us?'
Today those resistant forces might be financial ones, driving us towards short term goals like paying the mortgage or meeting the rent, helping children and grandchildren with university fees or the cost of setting up home and perhaps getting married, saving for our retirement or getting by in retirement, or making a profit for ourselves, or earning a profit for our employer. Or the forces controlling our direction of travel might be political forces that are encouraging us, collectively as a nation, to be more inward-looking, more antagonistic to foreign workers and their families. And then there is the relentless pressure in our culture today to focus on ourselves and seek self-fulfilment.
When we encounter Jesus he immediately challenges us to think about which way we ought to go from here. One commentator on this passage from Mark says that Jesus, simply by his presence among us as God become human, upsets the way things are and challenges our direction of travel. He writes, 'Jesus' authority will [always] be a contested authority. His presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over [our] lives [and] these other authorities' have to stand up to him, because they 'have something to lose.'
In the synagogue the contest with the evil spirit is short-lived; Jesus easily overcomes its opposition, which begs the question, 'Why are the influences at work in our lives - which carry us away from the KIngdom of God and in other directions - so much harder to resist?' Is Jesus unable to deal with the control they have over us, or is it that we are we unwilling to let him change the course of our lives by helping us to deal with them?
The man in the synagogue appears to have no part to play in the encounter. The way Mark tells the story he seems to act like a zombie, taken over by the evil spirit. We're not told that he's got, in the professional jargon, any agency, any freedom of manoeuvre, but it may be that he did have partial control and that he actually chose to confront Jesus, hoping that Jesus would be able to set him free from his condition.
If something in our life, or in the life of our church, has taken us over and is leading us in the wrong direction or preventing us from thinking clearly about where we want to get to, there's nothing better that we could do than simply imitate the example of the many people who crowded round the door of Jesus’ house that evening, asking him to help them confront their problems.
But notice that Jesus doesn't eliminate the forces which dominate or control our lives and stop us from getting to where he wants us to be. Instead, he just helps us to banish or overcome their influence. He silences their insistent voices, but we have to remain vigilant and determined to make sure that we stay on track.
Jesus announces his mission, and then he gets right down to it, pausing only to eat and pray. It's no good praying about, and deciding upon, an exciting vision or mission for the future and then filing it away somewhere to gather dust. We have to get up and get going, and constantly recommit ourselves to finding and keeping on the way we ought to take from here.
Of course, the striking thing about Jesus is that he claims to have the insight to be able to tell us which way to go. He isn't vague and noncommittal like the Cheshire Cat, which never answered Alice's original question. Instead, when the disciples come looking for him, wondering - like the crowd - where he is going next, Jesus tells them that he is on a mission, a quest if you like, to proclim the message throughout Galilee.
Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' But the Cat only reinforced her lack of direction by telling her that it didn't much matter which way she went, because she was sure to get to somewhere if she only walked for long enough. In contrast, Jesus speaks with authority, knows for sure what he must do and declares which way we should go too. His teaching and example set out a definitive and reliable road map that we can interpret to help us know which way to turn.
So, to paraphrase Alice's conversation with the Cheshire Cat, we might ask Jesus, 'Would you tell us, please, which way we ought to go from here?'
And Jesus might say, `That depends a good deal on whether you want to walk with me.' And we might reply, 'You are the Holy One of God so we do care about walking with you so long as we get somewhere at the end of our journey.' Ánd Jesus might say to us,`If you follow me you're sure to draw near to the  Kingdom of Heaven if you only walk with me to the end of the way.'
As we travel through Lent and beyond, and as we read our way through Mark's account of Jesus' ministry, we shall learn more about the implications of that journey - the costs both to Jesus as well as to ourselves, and the rewards that await us.

No comments: