To Boldly Go
Preacher: The Ven Simon Burton-Jones, Archdeacon
14 October 2012, 10:30 (Trinity 19)
Hebrews 4Human weakness is an uncomfortable topic to dwell on and public conversation is dismissive of people who don’t ‘cut it’ in life. The debate over a so-called benefits culture has coincided with signs of a new spirit of contempt towards disabled people. The crude yet prevalent division between winners and losers in life is evidence of the unforgiving belief that only the fittest should survive. In fairness to Charles Darwin, he didn’t even coin the phrase, ‘the survival of the fittest’ and the use of this idea to understand human society is a misuse of his original concept, but it has great traction today.
Human beings seem predisposed to see weakness in others as contemptible. We would never admit to it, of course, because it’s not a pretty way to describe ourselves and it isn’t especially true. There is a beautiful instinct for kindness and sacrifice in human nature which makes life worth living and speaks eloquently of the character God has given us. Yet the dark tendency to look down on people who are less gifted, less able, less attractive or less fortunate is also an impulse that courses like poison through our veins.
In a world governed by material measurements, wealth has become the chief indicator of status and an unspoken but assured way of distinguishing between those who are considered deserving and those who are not. The uncompromising words of Jesus in our Gospel reading about the risks inherent to ownership find little place in our society, not least because the Church struggles with its meaning. Yet without this voice of caution, the temptation to measure people by what they possess is too great for some.
The self-improvement industry tells us how to turn our weaknesses into strengths, without any sense that strength might actually lie in weakness. People are routinely asked in interviews how they see their weaknesses. ‘Oh, I’m a perfectionist, I can’t help myself’ it’s said, thus cleverly making a point about strength in the middle of a question about weakness. We have a great fear that others can see through us and will identify our inadequacies, as if we are the one person sitting in an orchestra who can’t play the instrument in front of us. In reality, we are so busy obsessing over our own adequacy that we don’t notice the other person who is obsessing over theirs, which is a form of ironic good news for all of us. But what if we could see into the heart of another person?
Let’s put that the other way: what if people could see into our heart? What would they find there? On one level, we might feel some relief. There is a tendency for us to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. If only others could see what we think and what we mean, they would be kinder to us, we imagine. Yet the fact that only a few people know us intimately is an indication that we do not trust others to know everything about us. It would be a brave person who submitted to others’ knowing about their deepest thoughts because there are seams of unpleasantness and weakness which could be exploited.
This makes the argument from our passage in the letter to the Hebrews all the more compelling. It begins with the unsettling suggestion that the word of God pierces us with such brutal precision that no defence can be knitted together to protect our integrity; it is like watching a butcher peremptorily chopping up meat on a board. This violent imagery shocks us into the assertion that ‘all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account’. For those who comfort themselves with the gentle promises of scripture (which is pretty much all of us) this is a summary and unsparing judgement. It suggests that all those devious and self-justifying trains of thought we use to bolster ourselves at the expense of others will be shredded, eviscerating us and leaving us defenceless before a God whose holiness is unimpeachable.
And then, just when we might expect the final blow, we hear this: ‘for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses’. God has looked into our hearts, in all their darkness, and had pity on the turmoil he sees. I do not know what you are dealing with today in the secret places of your heart, any more than you know mine, but there is someone who knows us better than we know ourselves and his instinct is for sympathy and kindness. This is yet one more beautiful thread of the incarnation. This God is not impassive and indifferent to our distress; he has experienced it personally. Much of the sympathy we offer one another is compromised by the sense that we cannot do anything to change the situation. There is a lingering sense of helplessness in some pastoral encounters because all we can offer is a listening ear. Yet here we are encouraged, in our fear and our anxiety, to approach the throne of grace with boldness because there we ‘find grace to help in time of need’.
Some newspapers like summarising complex news stories in two or three sentences to help people who are too busy or too confused to understand them; if a news editor were at work here, it might say: The bad news is there is no escaping from God; he knows everything there is to know about us. The good news is he still loves us and wants to fill us with his grace and power to help us through the things that we are afraid of in life.
There is scarcely an argument in scripture which is more transformative of our worship and prayer. Here is the creative tension of approaching God as a friend and reverencing him as a king. We are on first name terms with the creator of the millions of galaxies which stretch across this known universe; a God who is so holy and perfect, even though we are frail and flawed. In our crudely graded world of wealth and celebrity, there are many people we would not be permitted to relate to because we would be perceived as beneath them in some way. This is anathema to God. Grasping this truth is at the heart of Christian worship. That we haven’t quite grasped it within our churches is demonstrated by passionless worship which has all the care and affection of a miss-spelt email agreeing a meeting time at work.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to approach God with boldness. It is one of the most arresting phrases of scripture we have because it encapsulates the Gospel we believe. There are many places we cannot walk into in this world; we do not belong in them and others make sure we know that. Yet the one place we belong the least is the one we can walk confidently into without expecting a hand on the shoulder. So much for looking down on the weak.