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Readings: 21 September 2012 - 16th Sunday after Trinity

14 September 2012


Proper 20: Jeremiah 11.18-20; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE journey through Galilee that Mark describes sounds a fiercely lonely one for Jesus. It was about 30 miles, and took a couple of days. Jesus was avoiding crowds, so that he could focus on getting the disciples to understand his messiahship, which they had so recently acclaimed, before Peter had tried to silence him on its implications.

It can be easier to talk about hard things when walking side by side rather than sitting looking at each other, but the disciples could not comprehend what Jesus said, and, sadly, were afraid to ask. Sometimes, it is easier not to ask questions than risk hearing answers that we fear.

Anyone who has felt unheard by someone to whom they looked for support in distress will have an insight into how isolated Jesus would feel. He needed his closest friends to listen, receive what he had to say, and keep company with him. But, like Job's comforters, they could not cope. There was no succour for him, only an intensification of the loneliness.

Worse, not only were the disciples not listening to Jesus: they were having side conversations, indeed arguments, to which he was not privy, as they walked in twos and threes along the road. While he spoke of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection, in ironic and terrible contrast, they were arguing about who was the greatest. Perhaps they were trading experiences: "I was the first to follow Jesus," "I healed a sick person when we went on mission," "Yes, but I saw Jesus transfigured."

So, once in the house where there was no escape, he challenged them. He sat down, thereby increasing the gravitas of the moment, as he assumed the position of a rabbi when teaching, and, having failed to get them to understand his words, resorted to a visual aid, and took a child, perhaps one of the disciples' children, and placed him or her centre stage. In a culture where children were insignificant, Jesus's action and teaching that he and, more astonishingly, God came to the disciples through children was barely imaginable.

On 14 August, the Church remembered Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest killed in Auschwitz, after ten prisoners were chosen randomly to die in revenge for what was wrongly thought to be an escape. One man cried: "My wife, my children! I will never see them again," and immediately Kolbe stepped forward to take his place, saying: "I am a priest; he has a wife and children."

In the starvation cell, he celebrated mass daily, and, two weeks later, when his companions had died, and the cell was needed for more condemned prisoners, he was given a lethal injection.

The prisoner whom he had saved returned home at the end of the war, and was reunited with his wife, but, tragically, his sons had been killed. Every 14 August for five decades, he returned to Auschwitz to honour Kolbe. He said that he felt remorse for effectively signing Kolbe's death warrant, but came to realise that a man like him could not have done otherwise, and, as a priest, he wanted to help the men condemned to starve to death to maintain hope.

I focused the prayers at evensong around his story, and afterwards, a visitor reflected on Kolbe's continuing influence. He exemplified James's exhortation to show by our good lives that our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom, even when, like Jeremiah, he was led as a gentle lamb to the slaughter.

Kolbe's instinctive reaction to value that prisoner's unknown wife and children was the fruit of a lifetime of perceiving and knowing what he ought to do. By embodying Jesus's teaching, he publicly reversed the "values" of the Nazis. A memorial by the cell bears continuing witness to his action.

The playwright Christopher Fry wrote: "No man is free who will not dare to pursue the questions of his own loneliness. It is through them that he lives."

Jesus and Kolbe had to go on alone, without the support of their closest friends. In the collect, we predicate our prayer on the assurance that God hears our prayer, including the prayer of our loneliness, and will enable us to embody the wisdom from above in our lives, so that we, like Kolbe, are full of good fruits.



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