Trinity 18 ~ Zero to Hero


Trinity 18 2017 ~ Zero to Hero

Do you know what a millennial is? To put it crudely, and you may have heard this, millennials did not vote in favour of Brexit, whereas Baby Boomers did. And so on. Sound familiar? The succeeding generations of the last few decades have been classified and defined in order to attempt to understand trends and behaviour. While this is interesting philosophically, as it were, of course the exercise has great potential for those who sell things. Yet these distinctions are opaque to many people, but they inform marketing, politics and for sure, the Church tries to learn from them too.  The generational breakdown, promulgated since the War, goes like this, working backwards:

Gen Z: Born 2000 and later
Millennials: Born 1980-2000
Gen Y: Born 1970 to 1985
Generation X: Born 1965 to 1976
Baby Boomers: Born 1946 to 1964
Traditionalists or Silent Generation: Born 1945 and before

So, you can place yourself, and bear in mind that the edges are blurred and there is some disagreement about where the borders of generations are, and the model is basically American too. I’m generation X, a phrase coined by Douglas Coupland in a novel of the same name. Much could be said about the characteristics of each generation, what they believe, how they believe, how they behave. Whether one is looking at a street cleaner or an American President, the generational separations and how that affects attitudes and behaviour is sometimes terrifying to behold. But it also helps to explain some of the recent trends in what we might identify as huge ideological and theosophical change going on around us at the moment. Millennials are coming into their own. The generation that Trump is addressing when he speaks of false truth, is not so much identifying a trend in society as reflecting its own blurred edge thinking. So Generation Y and millennials are much happier with holding two thoughts together even if they are contradictory. Baby boomers do not like, or even understand this. What a millennial takes to be self-evident, a Baby-boomer will see as contradictory, sloppy thinking.

So, take gay marriage – yes there we are - I’m going to refer to it in the pulpit – gay marriage is a divisive issue in the church, and, despite what the newspapers may encourage you to believe, also in society. But the fact is, different generations think differently about the issue – if it is one – such that it will become less of an issue, because as time goes by, folk will not so much get used to it, but they won’t even think in terms of having to get used to it because they never had a problem with it in the first place. Gay marriage in church is inevitable – it’s not about ‘if’ but ‘when’. By the same token, we may well ending up whatever the European Union becomes in forty years time. And whether you or I like it or not, is barely relevant.

The issue of women priests and bishops is similar – those who object strongly might adopt the name Canute, because once we left the Second World War behind, and the general Synod was created in 1945, whereby democracy came into the Church of England, the question was never ‘if’, but ‘when’. If you go half way back to Jesus in time, you reach King Canute, who famously tried to turn back the tide. Or rather, who didn’t. The first written account of the Canute episode was in Historia Anglorum (The History of the English People) by chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, who lived within 60 years of the death of Canute (1035 AD). According to the story, the king had his chair carried down to the shore and ordered the waves not to break upon his land. But when his orders were ignored, he said: ‘Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws,” So Canute, who was described by his contemporaries as the greatest Saxon King, and our generation as an arrogant idiot, didn’t actually try to stop the tide, but rather sought to demonstrate that it couldn’t be stopped.

And we only have to look at the way millennials think to objectively predict where and when the tide of thinking will come in. And there is no point putting a chair on the beach to try to stop it.

The Church’s job is to try to understand all this, and preach and live the gospel above, below, around and inside it all. Because what every generation of Christians have always believed is that there is such a thing a truth, and along with the way and the life, it is to be found in Jesus Christ.

If you watch television, like 97% of us do, spending up to 24 hours a week doing so, you might have noticed that the TV programmes we watch reflect the way society thinks. It’s always hard to say whether the programmes are made to appeal to what we already believe and think, or whether they determine what we believe and think – that is – it is not clear whether the media reflects our views, or forms them. It’s a bit of both I daresay. In any case, notice the catalogue of TV hits in recent years: Big Brother, Pop Idol, Britain’s got talent, Strictly Come Dancing, X Factor, Bake-off, Masterchef, and smaller scale spinoffs like the wonderful art programme that the Revd Richard Coles did a few months back. He is now dancing to fame in ‘Strictly’ of course. If you missed it – it was ‘Bake off’ for painters – you know, start with ten painters, give then a task - paint a portrait or whatever – and then send one of them home every week. We love this stuff – millions lap it up and if one broadcaster pinches the idea of another, huge sums of money change hands and it’s a national scandal.

Well, it reflects the classic millennial thinking. Millennials – perhaps even all of us - ever since the National Lottery was began as nationally endorsed gambling a quarter of a century ago – we love the idea of Zero to Hero. The Lottery is a simple version of it – someone really poor can win a fortune. But this is random and purely financial. Now we have something far more sophisticated, based, apparently, on talent. You could be the househusband who makes rather good cakes; the singer in the bath who is brilliant (like Susan Boyle), or the unknown painter, cook, ventriloquist, whatever, who shoots to fame overnight –from Zero to Hero. I’m waiting for the launch of ‘Preach-off’ – the new gameshow on Cassock FM where unknown vicars ascend to the heights of hermeneutical glory through preaching on set texts provided at random, drawn from a big book, and given only a few hours notice, to be assessed by a hundred people, who post-on twitter what they think, and whether my stole was straight, and haircut acceptable…

Seriously – this is how we entertain ourselves, and to some extent, it is what we base our hopes on. The idea that someone who is nobody can become somebody overnight, is a powerful dimension of modern thought. It happens on TV so it must be possible, and it could happen to me. It won’t, but it could. There is of course also the dark side of this, whereby Zero to Hero can also happen:

Harvey Weinstein – who I have to confess, I had never heard of until this week – he is experiencing the fast track, HS1 version of Hero to Zero. How the mighty fall – or rather, how the famous fall. It’s a long way down, and he has reached terminal velocity pretty quickly. And it seems he hasn’t landed yet – he is in free fall, and the press are loving it. Hero to Zero, or Zero to Hero – it’s what millennial society expects and believes in.

Incidentally, I mentioned Susan Boyle – someone who went from Zero to Hero, or perhaps from zeroine to heroine, which did prove difficult for her. But if you only watch one thing on Youtube ever, look up her very first performance on X Factor, or whatever it was, and see how the panel of judges, Simon Cowell among them –shame on him – just assumed she was a middle-aged Scottish woman who was going to be rubbish. And watch their faces as she starts singing – the visible shock is a delight. It’s a cultural milestone, and we are still living in its aftermath.

But how does all this cultural stuff relate to our gospel reading? Have you noticed, it is also all about Zero to Hero and Hero to Zero? Those who were invited to that wedding banquet – the great and the good – the official heroes - they behave badly, rejecting everything that is good and true, and have no peace or goodwill at all. So they are reduced to Zero – the king destroys those murderers and burns their city. Yet there is still the great gift of mercy, joy and salvation at the divine wedding banquet on offer. And it is an invitation offered to all and sundry. So the servants go into the streets and gather all they who find, both good and bad, the Bible says – and they fill the hall with guests. For this motley crew of guests, it is their hero to hero - gutter to top table. It’s the same as the millennial fantasy – being plucked from nowhere to stardom, from nobody to celebrity.

Except that there is a twist. For in Christ, while zero to hero is absolutely possible, it is not 100% guaranteed in this parable. One of the zeros remains a zero – he comes in but he does not know how to behave – so he is ignominiously turfed out. Traditionally we see this story as referring to the Scribes and Pharisees who assume they have a place at the table, but who resent the invitation nevertheless and scorn it by either rejecting the Messiah or even killing him. So, the Kingdom of heaven, originally meant for the select few - the heroes, if you like, is then opened up to all believers (the zeros perhaps). As the ancient Te Deum puts it, ‘Thou didst open the Kingdom of heaven to all believers’. This is the work of Christ – the hero who made himself zero on the cross that we might all be heroes hereafter. This is the message of faith, that salvation came first to the Jews and then to the whole world. And in this parable Jesus is saying that those who take it for granted, for whom complacency has bred contempt, they will find themselves cast out, while those who least expect it will be invited in. It was a strong and insulting message to his hearers. But it outlines the story of faith – those hypocrites who assumed they were the heroes of organised religion will find themselves out on their ear, and those who never dreamt of being included, will find themselves invited in. It was a strong message then, and it is a strong, challenging message today – especially in a time when the church is engaging with difficult dilemmas and there is so much judging and hand-wringing going on. The message from Jesus is, don’t assume too much, and don’t be surprised if the zeroes get in rather than the self-proclaimed heroes.

But there is more to it than belief, this parable hints: for one of them who believes in and accepts the invitation, still does not behave right, as a sequence of which he is booted out. We must not only believe in the invitation to the heavenly wedding feast, we have to behave like we believe in it. The parable shows us that we are called to believe and behave. Our behaviour must reflect what we believe, and our beliefs must be reflected in our behaviour. Even the zeros who have become heroes must live up to the status bestowed upon them.

And so too must we: in accepting the call of our hero Christ to dine at the wedding feast, we recognise our own status as those who deserve zero, but, through his own self-offering and suffering, have been welcomed as heroes. Which means we strive to live our lives in gratitude, humility, generosity and love.

Let it be so, Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/10/17