Posted by: owizblog | February 23, 2013

“I Look DOWN On Him!” Sermon, 26 February 2006

26 February 2006 Hosea 2:14-20, 2 Corinthians 3:1-6, Mark 2:13-22

I

Here are a couple of thoughts to file away for a few minutes. We’ll bring them back out later.

Do you remember Tommy Cooper’s famous sketch in which he was dressed in two half-uniforms, sewn together? One half was a British WWII officer’s uniform, the other a German officer’s. He stood side-on to the audience, and then turned through 180 degrees to play both parts. He then proceeded, as his German half, to “interrogate” the British half, playing a hilarious scene in which he questioned himself as prisoner. But the funniest bit of all was when his turning got out of synch, and he found himself with the British side to the audience, talking in a German accent. You’ll remember that he simply turned through another 180 degrees and asked “Vy are you imperzonating me?”

It’s hard to know who we are. Sometimes we depend on our audience to tell us who we are. And sometimes we pick up from the audience that we’re not who we thought we were. And sometimes, when that happens, the truth is that our audience seems to be telling us that we actually are the people we feared we were all along.

Sometimes, very odd things happen to Ministers writing sermons. Sometimes, the texts they are looking at seem to generate connections they can’t quite grasp.

So it was for me this week. Looking at the Hosea reading, that Iain dealt with earlier, and the 2 Corinthians reading and the story of Levi’s call from Mark, that Margaret gave us, I found myself thinking of a classic sketch from sixties TV – The Frost Report. It starred John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. It’s the one where three men stand in a line, dressed progressively worse from left to right.

John Cleese says “I look down on them, because I’m upper class.” Barker says, “I look up to him, because he is upper class and look down on him because he is lower class.” Little Ronnie Corbett just says: “I know my place.”

This, of course, from the sixties, when suddenly an old framework started to come apart, and it became possible to begin to look at that framework from outside.

Trouble was that since then we’ve been within a very different framework, and because we’re inside it, it’s really very difficult to take stock of it – this new framework within which we all “know our place”, without really understanding it.

II

There are a lot of similarities between the call of Levi and the call of the first disciples. To begin with – the actual words! “Follow me…” And the response. Levi gets up, and leaves everything behind that had formerly defined him, everything that had framed who he was. Everything that had defined him – and not just for himself, but for other people too.

And that is also where the difference lies.

Because where, for Simon and Andrew, the settled pattern of their lives was a reassuring, consoling framework, for Levi, the framework of his life was a prison, that kept him incarcerated in the view other people took of him. They saw him as his life defined him. Corrupt. A sell-out. And a whole lot of other things a Minister couldn’t possibly say from a pulpit. And he saw himself reflected, as in a mirror, in the attitudes they took to him. And that’s how he came to see himself.

Burns was wrong.

O wad some poo’r the giftie gie us
Tae see ourselves as ithers see us…

Our problem is that we do. We see ourselves as others see us, and we believe that that’s us, end of story. What Levi encounters is a power that can see him differently.

III

One of the pioneers of American academic sociology, just as the discipline was separating itself from philosophy, was Charles Horton Cooley, and one of Cooley’s most famous concepts was the “looking-glass self”. And he expresses it very nicely, in a daud of elegant nineteenth century American prose:

As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be, so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it.

And Levi knows how other people see him. He knows what thoughts there are in the people he deals with, of his “appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on” – not that he has any friends – and is “variously affected by it.” But not that variously. Because the reactions he gets aren’t that various. He looks in the mirror, the looking-glass, of other people’s responses, and sees only one thing reflected back at him. “Scum of the earth!”

No wonder he begins to believe it.

IV

Because we believe the things that we see reflected back at us. And we are “variously affected by it.”

And then, one day, he looks up at someone he’s never seen before – and he sees something different reflected back at him. In fact – and I quote this deliberately – he no longer seems to see himself “reflected in a mirror, darkly.” He sees himself known, face to face. By someone who sees everything that there is to be seen about him. The money on the table, the greed, the corruption. The isolation, the loneliness, and the pain.

And someone who is able to reframe all of this. To see it differently. And therefore to make it different.

It certainly isn’t a matter of Jesus being sentimental, of “seeing potential” in a lost cause, like those two social workers in that harsh, stupid old joke where they come across someone who has been beaten senseless and mugged by some thug, and one of them says to the other “This is terrible! The person who did this clearly needs help!!” There are people who think like that, of course, but most of them seem to find their way away from the place where real life is lived to places where it’s only talked about.

The Latin poet Horace has a wonderful two-word phrase that captures exactly what I’m looking for here. He talks about heroism of the man who can look on all the dangers of the world “siccis oculis” – with dry eyes. At a sheerly human level, we can understand Jesus in this way. He isn’t taken in. He knows who and what is in front of him. He looks at Levi siccis oculis, with dry eyes, with the complete lack of sentimentality that is the mark of real compassion and love – and assesses what he needs.

And what Levi needs is something terribly risky.

He needs a total commitment. And he gets it.

“Follow me…”

V

Jesus commits himself to Levi before Levi does anything. In fact, Levi couldn’t have done anything, if this total commitment hadn’t been there. “Follow me…” is the offer of a different framework within which Levi can understand himself. It is, in that sense alone, no less than the offer of new life.

And you can pick up the riskiness of this from the reactions to what he does next.

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Now that’s fighting talk. These are people who are working within a very firm framework They understand their lives, their duties, other people and where they fit in, and God within this framework.

And the weird thing is that it’s exactly the same framework that Levi has lived in, up to the moment that this man came by. It’s the framework which has told him exactly who and what he is. Just as it has the Pharisees, with regard to them, and to him, and everyone else in between.

“I’m a Pharisee. I look down on him.”

“I’m Levi. I know my place.”

And because he knows his place, he knows that God is beyond him. He knows that he can never be – well, he doesn’t even think about it. He lives with his self-image, which is the same as the reflected image of himself he gets from everyone around him. He lives within a framework, which tells him exactly who he is and where he belongs. “Scum of the earth…”

And in that sense, we can see that what Jesus of Nazareth comes to do is something very violent indeed. He does indeed come to destroy, and to tear down. To destroy frameworks that hold us all captive in terms of what we all think of each other, how we see each other,, and how, we are absolutely sure, God sees us. Because the big thing that Levi and the Pharisees agreed on was that God saw them all the same way they all did.

And to tear down an idolatrous image of a condemning, belittling, bullying God who reinforces all the bad things that we think about ourselves, and believe other people think about us.

And what that does is to set us free.

VI

Jesus comes to bring a new framework within which we understand our relationship with God, and is killed by the collision between that new framework and the old one. And the taking of his death as the event which defines us, which makes sense of who and what we are, is to enter into that new framework. And the Resurrection is the validation of Jesus’ way, of the way of costly, liberating love. Because we understand Jesus Christ as fully God, we understand that the bringing about of this new framework is something that only God can do for us. Because we understand Jesus Christ as fully human, we understand that this is the way we are called to live our real, human lives in the world. This is the way we are called to be disciples, this is the way we are called to be the Church, full of Christ’s daring, risk-taking, open and accepting love.

To turn that Frost Report sketch on its head – we aren’t called upon to live so that we can look down on anybody. We are called to live knowing our place. Which means, in Jesus Christ, that our place in God’s love is secure. And we’re called to live that out, before the world, in joy and freedom and openness.

You aren’t who you thought. But you aren’t what other people imagined, either. (Nor are they what you thought, and that’s a hard lesson to learn!) You are what Christ calls you to be. And his call is to step out of the old framework into his new, risky, joyous, and free framework. To relinquish the life we had, and to accept the life he brings.

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