Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

The Fish John West Reject: Sermon, Epiphany 2, 2002

Isaiah 42:3 …a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning  wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Most Sundays, I use a script; to see a Minister with a script cheers a congregation up, they say – at least they know he will be finishing at some point! Every so often, though, I preach without notes or script; preaching is communication, and sometimes it’s necessary to take the risk of communicating directly, with nothing to rely on – just talking.

I’ve had a spell of doing that since the new year. Also – our printer was broken!

However, since the website got up and running, it seems that people do find it useful to be able to read the sermons that are here. Text, too, is communication, and people can interact with it – agree, disagree, find new thoughts occurring, feel spoken to….

On the Second Sunday of Epiphany six years ago, I had to preach on exactly the same readings as those that came up this day. Reading it over, I think the biggest change since then has been that the pendulum has swung back radically with TV programmes, from gladiatorial cruelty to the point where, as on Strictly Come Dancing, people get “saved” because they aren’t very good but have a sympathetic fan base. Or can cry well! Actually, I think that’s just another facet of the same emotionally out-of-control society we live in! The classical scholar Stewart Perowne notes of the Romans that, like other cruel people, they were very sentimental…

Sermon coming soon on this!!

Meanwhile…

Epiphany 2, 2002

Here is my servant, whom I uphold…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…  What’s all that about?

D’you ever find yourselves going back to remembered conversations from the primary school playground? I’d guess that we can all remember some that went surprisingly deep, and touched on profound things. Does God have a machine to move the clouds? Why can’t you see the stars in the day? I remembered one conversation from primary school as I read our Old Testament lesson for today – the conversation and its moral: it’s salutary to remember how advertising slogans can misfire.

Several of us in the playground at Dewi Sant Welsh Primary, in Rhyl, thirty-five  years ago had big problems with an advertising slogan: “It’s the fish John West reject that make John West the best…”

One of my friends firmly believed that it meant that only rejected fish got put into John West’s cans. What, on that understanding, they did with the fish that they didn’t reject I can’t imagine; maybe the people from the factory took them home and ate them themselves, leaving the customers with “the fish John West reject…”

I never understood the slogan that way. Several of us pointed out to our playground pal that we quite liked John West salmon. I think that Jonathan X was a particularly big fan. But I still had – and have – problems with the slogan and the thought it expresses.

“It’s the fish John West reject that make John West the best…”

It’s the idea that rejection and waste are at the heart of our consumer society that I found offensive; and I wasn’t alone. Several of us spotted that. Assuming that it’s the fish John West accept that get into the tins, what does happen to the fish John West reject?

Was it thrown out? Left to rot on a dump? Was it made into petfood? Was it – and maybe this was what the advertisers wanted us to think – the fish that wound up in the tins of other companies? (“It’s the fish Fred Bloggs don’t reject that makes Fred Bloggs third-best”) Was it given to people who had nothing to eat? We considered the word reject. Such a harsh, final word. “You are the weakest salmon. Goodbye!” It sounded like the rubbish bin. Whatever. We weren’t told.

I like John West salmon. Just as – for balance – I like Princes’, or Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s own brand tinned salmon, all of whom would like us to think that they are the best, even if it means reminding us about the fish they reject. I’m not embarked on a vendetta against one brand here. I’m staying out of the tinned salmon business, not least because my own preferred slogan: “It’s the fish that Owain Jones put in that makes Owain Jones’ salmon pretty good, because obviously we wouldn’t put in anything that’s actually inedible, and we sell off the poorer quality fish at a huge discount or even give it away to anyone who could use it…” isn’t terribly catchy. And is probably commercial suicide.

Our society is based on rejection. On throwing away. We’re not the first such in history. Hitler’s Third Reich was, too. But Hitler made a virtue of it. Those people nobody wanted about – he’d get rid of them. Ruthlessly, violently, pitilessly. Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, the mentally and physically handicapped. And he made a virtue of this. The Third Reich was perhaps the most extreme example in all history of ruthlessness and lack of compassion being exalted into virtue. And we like to think that our society is utterly and totally different. That we are totally different people.

But there’s a logic at work in our society too. The logic of selection and rejection. The logic of what’s good enough to be counted acceptable and normal, and what isn’t.

Go to any supermarket. Buy fruit from the open boxes. We’re all the same – this is how I was shopping yesterday. We choose the best. Whole, perfect fruit. I’d guess that everything there is actually edible. But it’s always the best that we’re looking for. What happens to the stuff that’s left? What already happened to the stuff that didn’t make it to the shelves?

Go outside into the welcoming shopping mall. Full of people like you and me. The nice, acceptable people. No reminders there of homelessness or poverty. In most shopping malls you can buy just about anything but a Big Issue. You have to go outside for that. See the adverts on the television. Lots of things for rich people like you and me to buy. We sit down and do the sums, and maybe we’re not rich after all, but they’ll never sell anything to us on that assumption! They have to convince us that we’re the sort of people who are good enough, nice enough to buy their products. Which is why all the offers are “Exclusive!” Who’s excluded? Well, the poor, for a start.

We say so often that there’s no such thing as real poverty any more. But isn’t any degree of poverty that means that people can’t take part in the life of their own society real poverty? But then again, who cares? In a society like ours, as the French critic Jean Baudrillard says, “The poor must exit…”  

In that colossal cinematic masterpiece Star Trek: Generations Dr. Toliam Soren, the mad El-aurian scientist is examining the electronic visor that enables the blind Starfleet engineer Geordi LaForge, who is his prisoner, to see. 

Don’t you ever wish for something that would make you look more normal? says Sorian, in a way that shocks us, because we’re not used to such brutal up-frontness.

“What’s normal?” says LaForge.

Sorian pauses for a moment, and says

“Normal is what everyone else is, but you aren’t.”

To sell to us, advertisers have to persuade us that we’re included, normal, in.

The most blatant example of this is the current advert for a car finance company that specializes in dealing with people who find credit hard to get. For months, they have been going against the grain of advertising, by stressing how not-exclusive they are, how they’ll consider anyone. And they’ve had Jack Charlton and Jim Davidson selling the message to us.

And suddenly, the advertising has changed. Now, we see the sad tale of a man who jilts his fiancee and tries to escape from the wedding in a clapped out old banger. He could have had his car replaced by this firm – but (horrors!) he is rejected! And why?

Because he “doesn’t deserve it!” But, says the smiling blonde girl in the green gilet and jogging pants, there’s no problem for “nice people”. Like you the viewer.

Maybe your initial reaction to that advert is the same as mine. “Fair enough!” And maybe you find the same gnawing shame as I do over that reaction. What about the people who aren’t nice? Where do they get their cars from?

And the obvious response to that is “Who cares about them?” They, too, “must exit…”

Here is my servant, whom I uphold…a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench… 

This is the logic of God’s Messiah. A logic of total inclusion. A logic of radical tolerance that exposes our society’s total intolerance. Remember what we said above? That there’s a logic at work in our society too. The logic of selection and rejection. The logic of what’s good enough to be counted acceptable and normal, and what isn’t.

Of what we reject, and the best.

I want you to understand very carefully what I mean by what I say now. One of the most significant programmes in  is one that I’ve scarcely ever watched. I hate it. And I also need to say that Anne Robinson is known to be a woman who has triumphed over colossal adversity to build a successful life, and I want to distinguish very carefully between the person, whom I don’t know, and the persona, which is part of a television concept. I only want to talk about the persona. But it seems to me that The Weakest Link is just exactly about the logic of our society, even down to its one word catchphrase: “Goodbye”. The poor must exit. The weak must exit. The substandard must exit. Those who don’t measure up must exit.

The Weakest Link is just the purest distillation of a formula that’s behind so many shows, because it’s the structure of our society. Think of Pop Star, where week by week the person who most fails to please the audience is thrown off, with their dreams in shreds. There the logic of our society was pushed too far when the producers decided that one contestant was too fat, and engineered his ejection. In our society, fat people must exit. Strangely enough, and encouragingly, there was a viewers’ revolt against this. Or think of Blind Date, where after going out together, couples are split up to talk about the experience. Think of those times when one has obviously been smitten by the other, and says so openly, and the confession of attraction is intercut with the other’s saying that their date-partner is a boring loser, who must exit.

What sense can a society like ours make of the promise of a Messiah who will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a dimly-burning wick?

None. Jesus would have been as swiftly eliminated today as he was two thousand years ago. But more “nicely”. Laughed at. Ignored. Or crucified on television, mocked in the media. Recognised only by those others who had been forced to “exit”. And maybe by his church.

Does it shock you that I say “Maybe by his church?” Well, for a long time, now, the church has been away from the margins. Towards, if not at, the centre of society. True, and significantly, we’re moving back out at the moment. Maybe we’re in the process of “exiting”. And certainly, if we take seriously the message of this Messiah, we’ll be thrown out all the faster.

But there’s still plenty of scope in the church for Jesus’ radical message to be rejected. Where we find ourselves thinking in terms of who’s in and who’s out. When we find ourselves thinking who really belongs and who doesn’t. Who “fits”, and who doesn’t.

Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, comes to John for baptism. He doesn’t have to do this. What does he need to repent of? And as Matthew tells the story, Jesus stands in front of John, and there’s a very brief pause. Everything stops. A conversation takes place, which only those closest can hear. “What are you doing? This isn’t for you…

And Jesus says something vague, about doing what has to be done.

But why?

The answer the early church came up with was this. That Jesus comes into the world wearing our humanity. But not as we wear it. Not in sinful separation from God, but one with his Father through – dove, visual aid – the Holy Spirit. Not the same as us.

And the choice – be baptized or be not baptized – suddenly looks like something very different. All these people, to whom and for whom he has come. Is Jesus going to stand above them, over against them? Is he going to trade on his difference?

But that’s not what his Messiahship is about. He is about accepting, not rejecting. He is about enfolding, not excluding. He is about kinship and belonging, not difference. And so humbly he goes down into the water of baptism. Sets aside the difference. Instead of making us exit, he holds open a door…

Now here’s the rub. The church is called to be different from the world. That sounds like a work of judging, of excluding, of rejecting in order to be best.

But if you follow the logic of the Messiah who doesn’t break the bruised reed, that’s exactly what we, his church, cannot be.

We are to be different to the world by accepting where it rejects, by including where it excludes, by showing the door to the logic of “must exit”.

Only to the extent that we strive to do that can we claim to be his fellowship, his society, his church.

And that means subverting the Anne Robinson logic of the world. By accepting, for instance, that there’s far more to Anne Robinson than what she said about the Welsh.

But it also means refusing to strike back; turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and all of this as an act of resistance against a world which praises the “strong” and the “perfect”, and even the cruel, just as much as the cruellest of human societies.

If we are not a place where everyone is loved and accepted, the church doesn’t just fail. She becomes a blasphemy against all that Christ’s coming means.


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