John Bluck, Retired Bishop of Waiapu
Pentecost 23 Mark 12:38-44
Video available on YouTube, Facebook
It was a rough couple of weeks for Bill English. He’d just explained his way out of the living expending, family entrusting tangle when a row breaks out over a not very plain tv promo for a programme called Plain English.
But things are looking up for Bill, unlike Rodney Hyde who usually dances his way lightly through the media wonderland. But he’s been stumbling about in a controversy over his partner’s travel costs and his throwaway lines about the prime minister. He won’t be winning any bonus points this month for nimble footwork.
Nor will Bishop and now becoming King Brian Tamaki with his claims to divinely bestowed royalty in the Old Testament model of David and oaths of allegiance from followers in the model of the Mafia.
But Graham Henry will do better because all he has to do to silence the carping from the twilight world of radio talk back is to win a game. And the All Blacks have awon two in a row. Winning is believing.
It’s hard to become a public figure and be heard in this country. And its even harder to stay credible and believable.
Which is why politicians and sports promoters and even some church leaders spend so much money on media managers and image consultants.
A whole science has developed on how to manufacture credibility, believability.
When I was a student in the States a year or 40 ago, a naïve young Kiwi newly arrived in Boston, I met this science for the first time. If you had a degree from Harvard, and a suit from Brooks Brothers, a button down collared shirt and loafers with tassels, and drove a European car, then you could walk through almost any important doorway and find a job and a wife, even if you were a clod of a guy.
Now we’ve taken that science and made it our own, ten times more sophisticated. All those public figures I talked about have media minders telling them how to look positive and cheerful, even though Graham Henry doesn’t seem to pay much attention to his.
But daring to be grumpy and successful is the greatest trick of all. If you follow the rules of manufacturing credibility, if you have your strategic plan in place and your performance outcomes ticked off, then you don’t have to smile all the time.
You don’t even have to ensure your arms aren’t crossed when you listen and you don’t have to lean forward when you speak. The rules of credible communication are very subtle and very flexible.
As the rabbis and religious leaders of Jesus time knew all too well. They were masters in the art of being believable. They dressed immaculately to fulfill every detail of the law – from the length of their tassels to the cut and curl of their beards. They waited to be greeted by those socially inferior to them, which was pretty much everybody, their prayers flowed beautifully and endlessly and they knew exactly where to sit at synagogue (close to the sacred scrolls) and the banquet table (close to the best food).
These leaders and scholars, these holy men made our attempts to manage and manufacture credibility look like amateur night. We can’t begin to imagine how impressive they were in the first century Jewish world; how deeply respected they were for their scholarship, their piety, their observance of every jot and tittle of the law. You criticized them at your peril. Everyone respected them. Everyone listened to them.
But Jesus didn’t. He called them hypocrites and condemned them. But even more devastating, in this morning’s gospel reading, he says that God doesn’t listen to them at all.
This is a reading about how to speak in a way that God hears and respects. Not how to speak in a way to win votes and ratings, test matches, record attendances, followers and offertories. Not how to be the voice that attracts the most attention?
What is it that convinces God? That pleases, honours and gives God delight? That gives glory to God?
Jesus answers the question by contrasting the voice of the religious leaders with the voice of a widow, which at the time was the hardest of all voices to hear.
Because a widow in first century Israel was poorest and most vulnerable of all people, especially if her oldest son was unmarried and she therefore had no income.
The Hebrew word for widow is the one who is silent, unable to speak. This voiceless, invisible women with no credibility according to the rules of the movers and shakers is the one who Jesus holds up as the model to follow. She has nothing yet she gives it all away. She has nothing to say yet she is heard by God more clearly than those who have all the words and make the most noise. She counts for nothing in the social standing stakes, she’d never make the society pages in the Sunday Herald, yet in God’s eyes she will inherit the kingdom.
We’re electing a new bishop this weekend. Pray that he or she when newly robed and consecrated for this office of leadership will remember this gospel and promote and protect the voices in our church who speak with the authority of sacrifice and generosity, out of the experience of dispossession and suffering.
Pray that we might find the wit and the courage as Anglicans to rediscover the hidden silent corners of our story as a church, held in the lives of men and woman, Maori and Pakeha, who found faith and kept the faith against the odds, who gave of themselves generously in remote places, who served the sick and the desperate and the unlovable, without recognition, or acceptance or thanks or praise.
And let’s remember that this widow woman Jesus honoured is not alone. She leads a whole army of silent and forgotten people who have kept the faith and the church alive when it was unpopular, persecuted, or simply ignored as it is so often in New Zealand. She belongs to that great host of beatitude people – the broken hearted, the dispossessed, those who hunger and thirst for justice and never seem to enjoy it.
If we know people like this widow we need to pay attention to them, because God does.
I’m spending a lot of time these days listening to a potter I’ve met whose work is made distinctive by crooked lines and broken forms and rough surfaces left unsmoothed.
Much of his work would be rejected by many just as much of our story as a church is about failure rather than success, about silence rather than a lot of noise.
This morning’s gospel is directing us to ask who God listens to, and try again to listen to those voices ourselves.
Voices outside us and all around us. And inside us too. Whenever we are generous and get no thanks for it; faithful and get no reward; and bear our brokenness with courage and grace, this story tells us God listens when no one else is hearing, remembers when everyone else forgets, and blesses us.