Posted by: owizblog | September 22, 2012

“Mind The Gap!” Sermon UCB 15 July 2012

Just before the holidays, I was sharing some reflections with you about getting used to island life – and in particular, to the ferries. And from the nodding heads – and particularly a couple of conversations I had afterwards, one on the ferry – suggested that I’m really just being inducted into the ways regular travellers between the island and the mainland look at things.

So here’s another one for you. I refuse to believe that, when the ferry’s tied up at the pier, and the steward has hopped through the double-doors, closing them behind him, to secure the gangplank, and when he’s come back and opened the doors for the rest of us – I REFUSE TO BELIEVE that I’m the only person, in that two seconds when I’m off the ferry, and over the water, looking down into the canyon formed by the ship’s side on the one side, and the pier and the elevated walkway on the other, looking down at the narrow, dark strip of water, seething from the wash of the ship’s azipods – I REFUSE TO BELIEVE that I’m the only one, standing on that little bridge between the ship and the land, who wonders “Where exactly am I?”

I actually love that moment! And moments like it; I seek them out. They don’t frighten me. (And I’m not just saying that so that CalMac don’t sue me for putting people off ferry-travel.)  I think I told you at the turn of the year about the Hogmanay I startled everyone at midnight by leaping off the arm of the sofa so that I was in mid-air as the old year became the new. And years ago, when I used to go regularly to a conference in London around Christmastime, I was particularly struck by the intimation that boomed out of the tannoy at one of the Underground stations, with lipsmackingly clear consonants: “Mind the gap! Mind the gap!” I think it was perhaps Gower Street – I do remember that the gap was huge, and that the drop between the train and platform was another canyon, smaller than that between ferry and land, but much more frightening.

And that moment comes back to me whenever I hear the corresponding announcement on the train at Wemyss Bay.

mind-the-gap bank

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Mind the gap. The space between two stabilities. The space you have to pass through, but can’t stay in. Mind the gap.

It’s the gap that both our readings are exploring this morning. The place where things aren’t stable, aren’t settled. The space between what we’ve left behind, and haven’t reached yet.

Crossing from the ferry to the walkway, or leaping from the train to the platform, take seconds, or less. You really have to be thinking about it even to notice that you are in, or crossing, “the gap”. Actually “minding the gap” – being aware that this is the moment, that you’re in it right now – means getting your act together before you step out. Being a connoisseur of gaps isn’t easy! These kinds of gaps are over in seconds.

But this other gap – the gap our readings this morning explore – is very different. It’s where we are. It’s a condition of our existence. The safety of the past is behind us. What lies ahead of us – well, we’re not there yet. And the point is – we’re not there. We’re in a betwixt and between that is much scarier than the gap between the tube-train and Gower Street platform. Way, WAY scarier than the gangway between the ferry and Bute.

And we, as human beings, contrive astonishing ways of NOT thinking about the gap. The fact that there’s nothing beneath our feet.

And sometimes the times conspire to help us hide from the gap, forget about it. Sometimes the times are comfortable – for us, anyway – and we don’t need to think too much about where exactly we are.

But these aren’t such times. For years, now, we have all been touched by, living with, the kind of uncertainty that people less privileged and protected have never been able NOT to think about. Billions of them in the rest of the world, many, many of them in our own society.

And now, we are all exposed to the same uncertainties. That’s what the credit crunch, the global recession, has meant. We all feel the cold draught, the fearful chill.

We don’t yet seem as a society – to say nothing of as a global human family – to have drawn the conclusion that we’re all in the same boat. It might take even more than the credit crunch to show us the full extent of the gap we’re poised over. It might take even more to make us take that seriously. Please God it’s not catastrophic, irreversible climate change… (Speaking of which, isn’t this a weird summer? Anybody seen the weather forecast for the week?)

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It’s not as though there haven’t been times like this before in human history.

The passage we read there, from the book of Amos, the clash between the prophet of God and the complacent status quo of the Kingdom of Israel, comes from one of those times.

The book of Amos marks an epoch – a break in history. It isn’t just that Amos is the first and earliest prophet whose preaching we have in a book.  A new kind of prophet. It’s that, but it isn’t just that.

Amos came north to preach at a point when it was just dawning on people that the world they lived in had changed forever. Old certainties, tired but  comforting, full of devils they knew, were collapsing under their own weight.  Established wealth and unfairness had built a good life for many, at the expense of many more – but it was now becoming unsustainable. You can see it in the preaching of Amos. The book starts with a chain of prophetic oracles threatening the nations round about with the wrath of God. This is conventional, crowd-pleasing stuff, with a long tradition behind it. For a prophet to stand at the roadside by a shrine, telling the pilgrims coming to worship God that God hated the peoples round about – Damascus, Gaza and the Philistine cities, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Amos goes round the borders calling down God’s fury on the traditional enemies of Israel. For three transgressions, and for four… You’re going to get it! In the not inappropriate language of the pre-fight rhetoric of boxers and wrestlers: “You’re all going DOWN! WAAAAAYYY down!”

But then Amos says something that as far as we know, nobody had said before him. He says:

Thus says the LORD:

“For three transgressions of Israel,

and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;

because they sell the righteous for silver,

and the needy for a pair of shoes —

they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the

earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted…

And see WHAT he says. You aren’t who, or what, you were. You aren’t who, or what, you THINK YOU ARE. You aren’t a kingdom in which your kingship represents the rule of God, because there’s no justice here, there’s exploitation, there’s desperate suffering and degradation. There’s nothing under your feet. You need to MIND THE GAP. The gap between what was, and what should be.

I remember when I was first taught the standard university course on the history of Israel, and when I taught it in turn to first-year classes at the Theological College in Aberystwyth,  we’d always have the same knot of weak little jokes, that fixed in the minds of a new generation of students one of the most important turning-points in the history not just of Israel, but of the whole ancient Near East. It went like this. There was a chap called Pul, P-U-L, who came to the throne of Assyria, and decided that Pul wasn’t much of a name for a king. So he changed it to the much more resonant Tiglath Pileser III. And he was an early riser, because it was 7.45 when he came to the throne.

Corny – but in the darkness of the mind that comes on you in the exam-room, generations of students remembered these things, and got through first-year Old Testament. They needed to know about this, too. Tiglath Pileser III’s accession, in 745 BC, to the Assyrian throne, changed everything, immediately for centuries afterwards.

David had defeated the Philistines, and built an empire, and Solomon his son had consolidated it, at a time when the real world powers – Egypt, Babylon and Assyria – were all weak at the same time. But when Tiglath Pileser III came to the Assyrian throne, all that changed. The easy prosperity, the stable world situation, was shadowed and withering. It would take only two and a half decades before the Assyrians arrived, and snuffed out the kingdom of Israel forever. The tiny hill-kingdom of Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem, would hold out for another century and a quarter, and it was the reviving Babylonians who would crush them – but already, as Amos preached, not long after 7.45, when Pul got up early, and the Assyrians with him, the world had changed, the old certainties were gone, and nobody who thought about it knew what would happen now…

And Amos, in a nutshell, says “You pretend that everything is as it should be. But it’s not. You assume that God will come to prop up the old ways, the old certainties. But there’s a huge gap between how things are, and how they should be.

mind gap

4

Amos and John each stand in the same gap; the gap between how things are, and how they should be.

Amos is telling it as it is to a corrupt regime in a corrupt society. John, in the Gospel reading this morning, is telling it to a corrupt king with a scandalous and sleazy home life. But did you find yourself thinking as the reading unfolded, what a strangely sympathetic figure king Herod is?

Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

There’s something there, something in what John says, that Herod acknowledges the truth of. Something about what John the Baptist is all about – turning your life, your existence around, getting ready for what God is going to do next, getting ready for the kingdom of God – that captivates Herod.

Part of it, surely, is this. John stands in the gap. He stands in the gap between what things are, and what they should be. He stands, for Herod, in the gap between what Herod is, and what Herod should be – and (and isn’t this why Herod is such an oddly sympathetic figure in all his weakness) the gap between what Herod is and ON SOME LEVEL DESPERATELY WANTS TO BE.

We talk so often about “taking a stand”. How many times, in splenetic letters to the Herald and the Scotsman, not to mention Life and Work, do enraged, righteously indignant, people call on the Church of Scotland to “take a stand”? We should “take a stand” against this, or that, perceived evil…

But notice that John the Baptist, in this story, isn’t the one worried about where he’s standing. It’s Herod who is taking a stand, despite himself. He’s rooted to the spot. He’s so mesmerised by the gap that he won’t venture to step from where he stands.

Faith isn’t, in the Bible, so much a matter of taking a stand. But it’s ALWAYS a matter of taking a STEP, a STEP ON A JOURNEY. And – this is what we learn from the ferry, coming in to Rithesay – faith is taking a step out of one security, and towards, but not yet into, another security. Faith is a step – but then, it’s step after step. That’s what Herod can’t do. It’s what John challenges him to do, but what , in the end, he can’t do. John is the gangplank, over which Herod is challenged to start walking away from a place he shouldn’t be, towards a place he should. And he can’t do it.

In fact he dithers, and dawdles, and stands where he is too long. So long, that somebody takes the gangplank away, and the gap becomes uncrossable. See what happens, suddenly – and irreversibly?

‘When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”’

salome-john-baptist-head

Oh, he could jump. But he won’t. And he doesn’t. The gangway’s been removed. The ferry is backing away. The gap in which he could have stood has disappeared – paradoxically widened to nothing.

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So us – what does this mean for us?

Amos and John invite people to come out with them and stand in the gap between what is, and what should be. But John is already pointing towards the coming of Jesus. And Jesus’ call is not to stand between what is and “what should be.” Jesus is about the kingdom of God. And faith in Jesus puts us in the gap between what is and what SHALL BE. That’s the “gap” we’ve to “mind.” In Jesus, as his disciples, as his body the Church, we are called not to just condemn and leave behind a world that isn’t as it should be. We are called to point that same world to what God will have it be. Not us – God. To the coming of the Kingdom. The shadow of this calling is there in Amos, and in John. The substance of it is there in Jesus, and in his call to us, today, to follow him.

The Church is not the Kingdom. The Church’s job is to point beyond our stuckness in the here and now, to the Kingdom of God, the horizon of faith. To live in the gap between here and there, now and then, this – and that. Where we are – and where God would, and, God being God, will have us.


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