Sermon - Epiphany
There was a show I used to watch with my dad when I was a teenager. It was a British show – no surprise there, right? It was set in a London council estate, and it was called “Only Fools and Horses.” Del-boy, the main character, was an unlicensed trader who sold shadily acquired goods from a suitcase on the edge of local outdoor markets. With his parents gone, he was the caretaker for his little brother Rodney – now an adult – and their granddad. Rodney, Del-boy and their Granddad lived in a run-down council highrise, interestingly called Nelson Mandela house, in working-class South London. They lived on the underside of an obviously unbalanced social and economic system: a system that is still very much with us today.
The 1980s council highrises of Peckham, were places of poverty, crime and despair. They sat just 4 and a half miles down the road from the opulence of the British Royal family’s residence at Buckingham Palace, and only 3 miles from the money markets of one of the most powerful financial districts in the world and the obscenely, over-the-top wealth of the more legitimate traders that populate that place.
Such stark contrasts in living standards in the city of London are a local expression of a global system in which some have access to resources and power while others don’t, a system that supports the extreme wealth of some and at the very same time the desperate poverty of others.
His experience in this system taught Del-boy that if you want to get by you have to play the game, work the system, find the loopholes and the schemes. You have to lie and cheat if that’s what it takes. You have to jump on any opportunity that comes along to grab some power, because, well, there obviously isn’t enough to go around, and so you need to take what you can get, when you can get it.
The mostly bittersweet and often slapstick comedy of this show emerged from the brothers very dodgy, never-ending, and never successful get-rich schemes. The compelling drama and the show’s loyal following – in 1984 it attracted a viewing audience of one third of the UK population – well, that came from the ways that the show so beautifully gave a glimpse of the reality of family bonds in adversity, and the heartache and hope of the working class story in Britain.
“Only fools and horses work” is the saying that gave birth to the title of this show. It’s an expression that speaks to the injustice of a social and economic system that encourages all strata of society, the rich and the poor, but really makes it easier for the rich, to play the game – to look for the advantage and take it even if it’s at the expense of someone else. Only fools and horse work, and no one, no one, wants to be a fool.
There was a line, a catch phrase, that Del-boy repeated throughout the show, often after the failure of a scheme or in moments of connection with Rodney his brother – times when they had to restate that they were in this thing together. “This time next year, Rodney,” he would say, ”this time next year – we’ll be millionaires…..” I remember feeling sadness and a kind of dread at knowing, along with the rest of the viewing population, that really this couldn’t be further from the truth, and also understanding, in my gut, why they would keep telling themselves this thing that even they too must not really believe.
I could understand why they would keep gaming the system, assuming the worst in the world around them, avoiding the tax that they owe, running from the authorities, cheating people, associating with shady business partners, embarking on underhand, dangerous, schemes because well, no one wants to be a fool and in our system only fools (and maybe horses if we believe the title) are upfront, totally above board, direct and completely transparent. Only fools let the world see who they are and what they really need. Only fools reject fear and choose to hope. Only fools trust and keep trusting.
This time next year, we’ll be millionaires, Rodney... This time next year, we will have what we need, we won’t have to worry any more, we won’t have to scramble and scrape to survive. This time next year it’ll be better, we will have uncovered through our wit, our savvy, our self-reliance, a scheme that will bring us everything we need. It’s going to be OK – this time next year, this time next year – we will be millionaires – we will be able to relax then and stop looking over our shoulder. This time next year we’ll have some value, this time next year the world will know that we are no fools.
But wait, how does this drive to not appear foolish sit with our story of faith? Seems honestly, that in the stories we meet in this book, and at this table there are fools all over the place. You can’t turn around without bumping into foolish behavior. Not least among them are these Magi: a band of scholars, or maybe astrologers or some kind of magicians – the commentators can’t quite agree – but foreigners for sure, funny looking, different – who come looking for a new king – a promise of something that the whole world has been waiting for, that the whole world needs.
Now these Magi, they just wander into a foreign land, a land that already has a king and they start asking how to pay homage to the new one. They immediately have access the halls of powers. I am not really sure why maybe they had some connections, but what we do know is their claims are enough to frighten the current king. Their claims tap into a powerful promise that has been made to the Jewish people that a new leader, a king appointed by God, a messiah, would come who would herald a new system, one that would bring justice and protection especially for the least amongst us. Well, Herod is frightened and he wants to protect himself and the system that works for him.
But where is this king, if he exists? There is not a sign in Jerusalem even though this is where we would expect to find God’s king. Jerusalem is after all God’s Holy Mountain, the place that the temple of God was established and it is where the major prophets of the faith, like Isaiah, have said the new kingdom would emerge. So Herod consults with the top religious scholars of the time – where would this king they are talking about be.
Well, we would expect him here, we really would, but then I suppose there is the prophet Micah.
If they are set on looking, they could think about Micah.
Micah, yes, Micah, they might have said flipping through their scrolls. You see Micah said it was Bethlehem. Yes, here it is according to Micah:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
I mean sure, they could try there. It seems unlikely but sure, they could try Bethlehem.
So Herod frightened and scheming sent them to Bethlehem and they went. They left the big city, God’s Holy Mountain, they left…. this strange and determined band, following a hope, looking to the stars, believing and trusting in what they understood to be a sign of this new king – not worrying about the anxiety they encountered in the current king and what this might mean for them.
Off they went to Bethlehem and they ended up satisfied that they were where they were meant to be. They ended up satisfied that yes, they should lay their riches, their gifts at the feet of a poor baby. The power center of Jerusalem and the threatened king didn’t stop them and they were nine miles south, in a little town, with a very ordinary family hailing the birth of the one that they believed who would lead the world to what they needed. There they were following a dream, a hope, and giving what they had, doing what they had to, to honor it. Fools really, and opening themselves and others up to all kinds of danger in a system that wasn’t going to like the possibility of another, different kind of leader.
This newborn king will make fools of us.
We will be asked to place our hopes in a way that makes no sense, given the systems we live within. We will be asked to believe in a way of peace and reconciliation in a system that values blame and aggression; we will be asked to be authentic and open in a system that teaches us that we get by best by not trusting others, by not revealing who we are and what we need, by taking what we can get by whatever means we can get away with.
We will be asked to look for the best in people, instead of expecting the worst. We will be asked to love in an expansive and honest way, instead of looking out only for ourselves and those closest to us; we will be asked to give our gifts in ways that do not provide any kind of reward and might even open us up for pain and loss instead of hunkering down, retreating, trusting no one and keeping each other at arm’s length. We will be asked to give our lives to a dream, a hope of a different way. We will be asked to make fools of ourselves in the name of the one who foolishly gave his whole life to save us from the fear and horror of this system that we live within.
So what do you think…..this time next year….millionaires or fools?…. looking over our shoulders or looking to the stars?…..fearful or hopeful?….frightened or trusting?….captive or free?
We will have lots of chances as we make our way this year to choose – but as you go, remember that no matter what, this time next year we will be and we will remain exactly what we are today: wholly and equally, with all of our brothers and sisters, the beloved of God, wholly and equally with all of our sisters and brothers a dignified, a valued, a gifted part of creation.
Look to the stars, look to this table, look to each other…..look……beautiful light….and remember that these things remain. Remember, hope, give thanks and then maybe find the courage to act foolishly.
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St. Andrew Sermons