The modern addiction to success, or being better, (or even the best) is dangerous and is leading us slowly but surely into disaster. It was this philosophy of racial superiority which lead to the tragedy summed up by the word ‘Auschwitz’ – although the extermination of European Jews was much, much wider than Auschwitz alone. On my visit to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial museum near Jerusalem last year, I learned anew about the tens of thousands of Jews who died in the squalor of the ghettos as well as those who died in concentration camps.
Naziism, and its philosophy of racial superiority, is on the rise again in Europe. We will look back on our age, in years to come, and wonder how we could have been so blind to the the plight of thousands of displaced people, fleeing terror for which the we in the west are largely responsible – how we could have turned our backs and let people die. Or, when we do take people in, how their presence could allow the resurgence of extreme nationalism which is happening all around us.
It seems a central part of the human condition that everyone likes to think that they’re better than someone. We seem to need to have someone to look down on, shake our heads at, tut-tut over and thereby make us feel better about ourselves – that welcome feeling of superiority. Or just having power over people – I remember, long a go, in Africa, finding that even the cleaners in the airports would stop you and demand to see your passport – clearly, having a job at the airport put you a cut above everyone else – how people enjoyed using their power simply for its own sake. It’s addictive.
Jesus disciples suffered from this, just as we do. Jesus had been trying to tell them that he was about to be imprisoned, killed and then resurrected, about these most profound things that would change the course of history. Were they listening? No, they were arguing about which if them was the best – maybe about which one of them was Jesus’ favourite, or which one was in charge.
Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He must have despaired sometimes. So he showed them a child – someone with no power or authority – to show them how they should be. I’m not sure what children were like in Jesus’ time. Children in our own time can be as competitive and combative as adults. They are victims of our own system – weighed and balanced with each other constantly SATS, tests and exams. Streamed into groups of more and less able children. And then there are pressures of fashion and consumerism – who has the right trainers, the trendiest top, the best phone or computer. And so on.
So maybe Jesus’ choosing of a child is lost on us these days. We need to ask ourselves what we have done to childhood, to the lives our children – in the UK our children are amongst the unhappiest in Europe – we’re top of the teenage self harm tables for any country in Europe.
What have we done? The short answer is that we’ve swallowed the notion of success, hook, line and sinker. We can’t say that Jesus didn’t warn us.
The remedy is straightforward, but you need a lot of courage to do what’s needed because you’ll be swimming the opposite way to everyone else. It is simply that God loves us as we are. We don’t need to fight for God’s love – there’s plenty of it – more than enough for everyone. So we don’t need to be better than anyone else – in fact the humility of admitting our neediness is the most helpful thing. We have to remember that Jesus loved us even at our very worst – when we were nailing him to a cross.
We need to remember too, that, in Jesus, even God is wounded and broken. Our salvation doesn’t come from God’s omnipotence and success, but from God’s weakness and destruction: from a place where only love, only a refusal to hate, could triumph.
To find God’s love in our weakness, vulnerability and failure is not only an imperative for our personal lives, but also in our life together. We have a moment at our PCC meeting on Monday when we felt overwhelmed by failure – our numbers have plummeted and we don’t have enough money coming in to keep going for too much longer. This is a painful and difficult place to be. But it is also the place of hope and resurrection.
Eventually we’ll be humble enough to stop hating, to stop blaming, to lay aside our need to be superior – giving the impression of a church full of morally superior people. We’ll be humble enough to stop clinging on to the past when things were better. Then we’ll learn to take our faith where others are, to serve our parish – our neighbours, to tell of GOd’s love in the midst of failure and distress. And at that point we’ll be reborn. At that point, growth will begin.