Trinity 17 2018 (Proper 20)
Here’s a little conundrum for you:
The police are looking for a suspected murderer - they know his name is John, but they do not know what he looks like. But they do know where he lives. They raid the house, and find a fire officer, a mechanic, a lorry driver and a carpenter all playing poker around a table. Without hesitation or a word spoken, they arrest the mechanic. How do they know they have got their right person?
The answer is simple - the mechanic is the only man.
I tell this story because it is used as part of the training that is now rolled out for clergy - and PCCs sometimes - for what is called ‘unconscious bias’. In thinking about that little story many of us would have unconsciously assumed that fire officers, mechanics, carpenters and lorry drivers are men, so it makes the question difficult, as we imagine the police faced with four men playing poker, whereas obviously, when faced with three women and a man in the room, looking for a man called John, the police would immediately know of whom to take hold.
There are lots of various kinds of biases we can be influenced by, and it can affect how we treat people, and it is very important in how employers act too. Recent research in America has shown that the percentage number of senior leaders in America who are more than 6 feet tall far exceeds the average. Tall people have a better chance of getting senior jobs. But it does not mean that this this is deliberate, nor that tall people are in any sense better at or better qualified for such high positions than those of average or lower height. The bias towards them is unconscious.
Having been away this week with all the brand new shiny new curates in London Diocese - and I must say I learn far more than I teach - I joined with them in receiving this ‘unconscious bias’ training, which I found fascinating. I also looked after Bishop Sarah who came to celebrate communion and speak to them, and I can now personally vouch for what a great appointment hers is, and how lucky we all are to have her as our new Bishop. I was tasked with transporting her to and from Broxbourne station, which proved an adventure on Wednesday night when a road was closed and I ended up lost somewhere near Nazeing in Essex! But that’s another story....
We also gave the curates some training entitled ‘Leading from the Second Chair’. This is also fascinating stuff about how to be a number 2 - how to exercise a leadership role when you are not actually in charge. And, you may have heard of this, how to upwardly lead. Or what sine call 360 degree leadership.
The key thing though is that Leadership is a choice you make, not a place you sit. And I’m not going to rehearse what we taught the curates about how to manage their bosses, survive their curacies, not get caught up with petty disputes and so on. The main point is that while in some sense the vicar is the boss and the curate sits in the ‘second chair’ - the fact is, the first chair is and always will be occupied by God. God is the boss.
Which makes me wonder whether some of the characters in our readings today could have benefitted from some reflection on ‘leading from the second chair’! Or even, ‘unconscious bias’ training!
First of all we had that famous reading, which some people love, and which makes others squirm, about the good wife. The bias in this reading is, shall we say, hardly unconscious. It might be helpful to read this text in a non-gender-specific way - not so much to say ‘the good husband’ does this but just to acknowledge that the character of the good wife in Proverbs is a model for us all. In her historical context it is worth remembering that her job is to do the things she is described as doing, while her husband works in the fields, and her tasks are life-saving and vital. In our age of gadgets and supermarkets it is easy to forget that in Old Testament times, making bread was not only vital for survival, it took all day. Grinding, sifting, mixing, baking. She shops, sells, sews and is a manager in many senses of the word. It may even be said that in that culture at that time, she effectively leads from the second chair - or exercises 360 degree leadership: upwardly managing her husband, sideways managing her children and downwardly managing her servants. As the writer of Proverbs puts it, she is praised in the city gates, and we might admire her too. The word ‘multi-tasking’ springs to mind, and we all know how bad blokes are at that!
In our epistle reading the apostle James picks up the thread neatly - ‘who is wise?’ he asks. Well - the good wife is wise - we have just heard it read and said!
But he goes on to warn against envy and ambition, which he says come from the devil and should be resisted. Humility, knowing one’s role and position - that is recognizing that in all things we should submit to God. Any other approach is unhealthy and will get us into trouble. And it is unwise to pursue anything that will get us into trouble.
And this is where these two readings connect with the gospel. For what do we notice? We find that on the way to Capernaum - the village you may remember where Peter’s mother in law lives - on the way, some of the disciples, very much the ‘second chair’ people - have been arguing about which of them is the greatest. Who is the best disciple? Who is the best curate? Who is the best substitute on the reserve bench? Who is the best right hand man? Who is the best number 2?
It’s an odd kind of question - but seductive – we can so easily be lured into its charms. But it’s a kind of question best reserved for James Bond villains – Number One, Number Two etc. Nothing good can come of it.
It is not a question to asked in a Christian realm, in which, famously, the first shall be last. We hear today that the kingdom belongs to little children - by which Jesus means that all of us are born qualified citizens. Remember that much of Jesus’ work was with the people on the edge of society: The sick, women, Gentiles and children. In Jesus’ day everyone was unconsciously biased –consciously biased even - against these groups in society. Yet Jesus has a conscious and deliberate bias towards the poor and the marginalized.
The Gospel reading ends with Jesus saying that if we welcome a child we welcome him. It’s not a difficult idea today – indeed it has a profound edge in the light of modern moves towards greater safeguarding. But in first century Palestine there was no safeguarding policy and children had no rights at all until they came of age. The child in antiquity was a non-person. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around Jesus and his disciples. To say that those who receive Jesus receive God did not constitute a problem. A person's emissary was commonly understood to be like the one who sent him. But to say that receiving a child might have some value for male disciples is almost inconceivable. Here again Jesus is the master of paradox. Small children instinctively liked Jesus. They came to him, they gathered round him so closely that he could bless them.
To him they were just as important as all the scribes and Pharisees – more so perhaps. They were and are not just the future, but the present – a gift.
A little later in Mark’s gospel Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:15-16)
Jesus often heals children too. But they were generally unheard and unseen – a bit like the very Kingdom he is bringing in. Among us but unnoticed, ignored – biased against. For Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is among them – among us.
It is here - it is now. It is both here and there - now and not yet. This is how we can experience the Kingdom of God, and look forward to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Faith in Jesus enables us to both recognize and play our part in the Kingdom and also to anticipate and hope for the heavenly realm of resurrection life. After the resurrection, what the disciples couldn’t fathom during Jesus’ earthly life became crystal clear, that is that the kingdom of God would be most gloriously revealed in a crucified and risen Messiah. A Messiah humiliated unnoticed, and ignored, like a child.
But also a Messiah who was consciously biased towards the poor and marginalized. A Messiah who, in leading from the great chair of heaven, invites us all into shared ministry, care, prayer and leadership of each other and ourselves as we strive for the Kingdom on earth and in in heaven. To him be all majesty, honour and praise, now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 23/09/18