by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
This Poverty Action Sunday we are asked to think about our visions of the good society. We’re asked to do this in the context of a looming United Kingdom General Election, when we will be asked to assess others on their vision of what might make our society better.
If you were asked to write down just one thing that would, in your view, represent a giant stride toward the creation of the good society, what would it be? What would it be that would make the place you live, or the area, or the city, or the country, or the world, a better place? Imagine you’re talking to a politician: you’re telling them about all the things that you think are wrong with the world, and they say to you (and they do, because I’ve seen them do it – often), ‘well what would you do?’ Would you know what to say? Would you know what to say if, after you’ve come out with something of a fairly general nature, they then say: ‘and how would you achieve that?’
Now of course it’s not your job to say ‘how’ – that’s they’re job, so don’t be afraid of telling them that. But it may well be your job to say ‘what’. It may well be our job to speak about our vision of a good society in a way which politicians and others can get their heads around. And so, on this Sunday of the year, the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, we are asked as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ to think about what George Bush once referred to in the obviously uncomprehending phrase, ‘the vision thing’.
We’re asked on this Sunday of the year to go to the mountain top with Jesus; we’re asked to be wrapped in the cloud of his glory; we’re asked to be there with Peter and James and John, with Moses and Elijah; and we’re asked to think about what that vision might mean for our vision, to think about how a vision of transcendence can relate to a vision of society, how a new heaven might relate to a new earth.
Peter struggles – and the gospels tell us that Peter often struggled. And, if it is right that Mark’s gospel is the writing down by Mark of Peter’s own reminiscences, then the account of Peter’s struggles and mistakes is Peter’s own telling of his own story. But we can relate to Peter because we struggle too. It may not be that we are very often terrified, but we very often do not know what to say.
What’s your vision? We might be asked when we’re off guard; we might be asked simply by someone who wants to deflect attention from themselves to us; we might be asked by someone with no higher motive than to catch us out; but we might be asked by someone who genuinely wants to know, who is looking for a vision to inspire them, to motivate them, to move them, to encourage them, to bring them hope. What’s your vision?
Over twenty years ago I wrote a PhD thesis about how people read the bible. It argued that the key to how we read the bible is our relationship to power, because throughout the bible we find the stories of power and how it is used and abused, about how it corrupts, and how it demeans, and how it oppresses. And how we relate to these stories, how we are affected by these stories, how we are moved by these stories, how we understand these stories, will be profoundly shaped by our own relationship to the forces of power in our own lives.
For example, Job saw himself as a good man, as somebody who was wise and who was therefore consulted and listened to; Job saw himself as generous, as somebody who went out of his way to give from his riches to alleviate the poverty of others. But Job, when he is like this, is in control; Job is the one with the power. It is only once all that power and control is taken from him that he can begin to wrestle with the real dilemmas and difficulties of human life – and his vision of the good society might well be very different, at the beginning of the book, from what it is at the end.
Paul famously has to be brought low, has to lose control of his life, has to lose his sight, before he can begin to form a vision of what might be. Until then, his life is about controlling others, using his power to keep his vision of society and faith dominant. After that, he is subject to the control of others, to the power of others, even to the visions of others – although Paul never really loses the instinct to struggle against the limitations that inevitably accompany this change in his station in life. Maybe it is that that is his ‘thorn in the flesh’.
Jesus too, we will discover all over again as we walk again through the weeks of Lent, lays aside his control and his power, moves from acting to being acted upon, from doing to being done to, as he walks toward Jerusalem and Gethsemane and Calvary. And our faith would not be anything like it is today, may not even exist, if his way, if his relationship to power, had been any different.
So when we are asked to read the story of God and the story of God’s people that the bible presents for us, we too need to think about where we live in relation to power. And what I think I discovered in my work toward the creation of that thesis is that many people, who live what they would regard as normal, quiet, ordinary lives, have no idea what their relationship to power is. It’s not something they think about; it’s not something they worry about; it’s not something that takes up much, or indeed any, of their time.
However, there are those in our world who know exactly what their relationship to power is, know exactly how it impinges on their lives, know exactly what it does and how it does it. And these are not the people who have it – these are the people who are on the receiving end of its will. They are the people who depend on benefits that can disappear, it seems, at the whim of a government minister or sometimes even the whim of an officer. They are the people who, having lived under the bombs or the hatred or the oppression or the discrimination of one regime or people, end up being told by another regime or people that the danger they believed their lives to be in was all a figment of their imagination, that they are safe to go back – and they can leave the rest of us ‘in peace’.
They are the people who daily search for dignity and self-reliance, but who are daily reminded that they live at the mercy of a system they have no power to control or even influence. And most of us, most of the time, even if we feel that we too have no power, no control, no influence, do not feel the despair, because we are not daily butting up against the power of others.
At the end of this period of preparation we call Lent, we will encounter one who has lost all control, given up all power, been denied the last vestiges of dignity – being told by the ordinary people that he has brought it all on himself, being ignored by the ordinary people as they bustle about their everyday lives, being mocked by the ordinary people as a figure of fun, being judged by the ordinary people for being a danger to their way of life, their safety, their security, being condemned by the ordinary people whose leaders have convinced them that this life is a price worth paying.
So, before Lent begins, we climb the mountain. We climb the mountain to catch a glimpse of another possibility. We climb the mountain to be allowed, just for a moment, the thought that another reality might be there, might still be there in the despair and degradation that is to come, might find a voice even in the groaning of Gethsemane or the cacophony of Calvary. We climb the mountain so that the mountain might still be there with us in the desert temptations, or the temple tirade, or the Sanhedrin’s suspicions, or Pilate’s pondering and pandering. We climb the mountain so that its vision might still be with us when the soldiers’ lashes leave their stripes, when the crown of thorns tears skin and hope, when the nails of empire pierce the air with their cries.
We climb the mountain so that the glorious sight at its peak can be identified with the story at the bottom of the hill. Don’t tell anyone, Peter is told, but Peter now knows. Peter now knows that the glorious truth of God’s son is to be seen and found in this walk into powerlessness; Peter now knows that the dazzling light of transfiguration transfigures the poverty and the oppression that so often passes for ordinary life for so, so many.
Don’t tell anyone, not yet, not until death has been defeated. But then, then the world is to hear that this life has been lived for the powerless, for the oppressed, for the desperate, for the fearful, for those who are totally at the mercy of others. And they will understand. They will understand that their lives are to be transfigured by a vision of glory. They will understand that the death they are asked to call life is to be defeated. They will understand because this story is their story. And those of us who are in the fortunate position that a story of degradation and despair is not ours – we need to listen, we need to hear, we need to be led by the vision of transfiguration dreamed by those under oppression’s heel.
If we don’t know what to say, when we’re asked about what would make for the good society, maybe that should not worry us – maybe we would need to worry if we were too ready with an answer. Maybe instead we should have the humility to listen to the answers of those who have nothing, those who come among us desperate for safety, those whose dream is the mountain top and the transfiguration of their lives.
And maybe, as politicians begin to tout their wares in the run up to a General Election, as they begin to try to convince us of their vision of the good society, as we mark Poverty Action Sunday, and as we dedicate again a gathering of food for a food bank, we need to undertake to urge the politicians to listen most to the dreams, the visions, and the priorities, of those who have least.