(Job 38.1-7; Hebrews.5.1-10; Mark.10.35-45)
‘Inspire a generation.’ That’s been the strapline of the Olympic and Paralympic games. And they have gripped the country in such a positive way over the summer. My family and I watched the Paralympics at the Olympic Stadium one evening and I was deeply inspired by what I saw and experienced…….and the Church can learn an enormous amount from what’s been happening over the summer. ‘Inspire a generation.’
Before we entered the Olympic Park, we were greeted by a young person saying to the gathered crowds, ‘Come on, smile everybody. Don’t look so gloomy, you’re going to experience something special,’ and this lifted the spirits of everybody. This probably already happens in the diocese of Norwich, and in particular at this Cathedral, but I have been encouraging parishes in Rochester diocese to have stewards stationed outside churches before services and saying to worshippers as they enter, ‘Come on, smile everybody. Don’t look so gloomy, you’re going to experience something special.’ There were some great and inspiring moments in the stadium that evening, not least to see athletes with what are usually described as disabilities – and some had lost limbs, some had cerebral palsy, some were blind – but all of them performing to a level of athletic prowess of which many of us could only dream. Despite all that these paralympians were facing and had faced, they were able to look above their disabilities, not be held back by them and even use them to achieve their goals. Indeed, a Swiss wheel-chair paralympian called Marcel Hug wrote, ‘It is a major frustration when admired as a disabled person and not respected as a sportsman.’
But the highlight of the evening was the 5,000 metres race for paralympians in wheel-chairs. After a very exciting and nail-biting finish, David Weir from GB won the gold. The last minute was unbelievable. The crowd was clearly wanting and willing David Weir to win and as we saw how close it was going to be, and he wasn’t in the lead in the last lap, all 80,000 of us stood up, made an amazing noise and cheered him past the finishing line…..and I believe that the cheering encouraged him not just across the finishing line but into the winning place. What a powerful image of prayer this is. A reminder that the great cloud of witnesses that no one can number, the saints, angels and archangels with whom we shall soon be joining in the Eucharistic Prayer, is always there behind each one of us, supporting and cheering us on throughout our journeying and wanting us to win and pass our finishing lines. And it is particularly helpful to remember this when times are tough – times when, even though we may feel alone, we are not alone. We shall be celebrating this in a few weeks time as we mark the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. ‘Inspire a generation.’
The events of last summer chime in with the readings from today. In that wonderful and disturbing first reading, Job and his friends are silenced by the enormous, inexplicable and undeserved suffering that has been delivered upon Job. Those he loves have died and now Job himself, with his flesh erupting in pain, is near to death. It’s not fair. What’s the point of it all? What’s the point in God? In the verses today, God challenges Job, even in his great suffering, to lift his eyes above his own situation, dire as it is, and see a greater vision. Will he wallow as a victim or will he stretch out to something greater than himself? ‘Where were you,’ asks God, ‘when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know?’ You need to lift your eyes from your own personal situation to somewhere different, to a much greater vision which will, in the end, even in the middle of the great difficulties and sufferings, liberate you. A really tough, tough message to Job…..and to all of us. Look above and beyond our own situations and discover life in places and people we would not expect to find it.
After the games, one paralympian who had been severely disabled as a result of an accident, was asked, in an interview, if he had rather that the accident which had injured him had not happened. After a few moments thought, he said that he would not change anything. He had discovered life in places and people he would not expect to find it.
In the Gospel, James and John asked a particular favour of Jesus. They wanted to be in places of honour with Jesus. ‘Grant us,’ they asked, ‘to sit one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.’ Now, in one sense, the request came from a heart wanting to keep company with Jesus, not a bad thing; but they were thinking as the world thinks and when they were asking for seats in glory, they were thinking in terms of seats of honour and prestige at a banquet. They were seeking worldly honour. But for Jesus, the place of honour was the cross. ‘You do not know what you are asking,’ was Jesus’ reply. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ Again, Jesus lifted their eyes from their personal situations and was pointing out that life was to be found in places and people they would not expect to find it: the cross. ‘Inspire a generation.’
From my observation of the many communities it is my privilege to visit and be part of, both here and overseas, I see an enormous amount of potential life and energy all around. Our communities are full of people of commitment, humour, generosity and self-giving. There is a lot of creative potential and there are some very impressive young people eager to play their part in shaping the future. The Olympics and Paralympics and the atmosphere they created lifted the curtain and showed what it can be like. But society as a whole is ill at ease with itself: it has allowed the negative parts of humanity, which undoubtedly exist, to become the default setting, driving our thinking and action. Society is less tolerant and more judgemental than I can remember. I would go further and say that society encourages intolerance, especially towards those who refuse to accept what is regarded as conventional wisdom. People can be condemned for the food they eat, the way the parent their children, their view on same sex marriage (those who are opposed are dismissed as bigots) and for displaying religious symbols in public. We are a society which is encouraged to be unreasonably fearful both of our security and of our future. This, in turn, leads to a difficulty in accepting and living with difference and an aversion to taking risks. So we are living in a society which is tired, suspicious and not at ease with itself: yet, at the same time, we have communities teeming with life and potential.
As the people of God, we have an important role to play in all of this. ‘Inspire a generation.’ As God did to Job and as Jesus did to James and John, the People of God needs to give encouragement to those around to lift our eyes from those obsessions and self-absorptions that trap and drag us down and point to visions of life and possibility. We are called to lift our eyes above ourselves. But what is also clear from Job and James and John is that the way to life is through self-giving and the cross. But, of course, we cannot begin to interact with wider society in these terms – and I believe that our calling is to interact in this way – we cannot begin to interact with wider society in these terms, unless we strive to live these values as the People of God. Does the organisation of our churches and do our lives reflect the glory to which Jesus Christ pointed in his conversation with James and John? The church is at its most authentic when it is at its most vulnerable, as our brothers and sisters in Harare are showing to us – is this reflected in our life? Are we open to taking risks for Christ? With all the pressures upon us, are we able to lift our eyes above our obsessions and self-absorptions and gain our strength from the life and possibilities that God gives us through Jesus Christ?
‘Inspire a generation’ is our calling. Looking for life which will be in places and people we do not expect. The Olympics and Paralympics are important reminders of what is possible.