Sunday 11th March - Lent 4 (Mothering Sunday) - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN, Lent 3, EP: Isaiah 43.14-28; John 18.28-40.

If you studied Shakespeare at school, you may remember the question: was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, truly mad, or, in the circumstances in which he found himself, was he just too intelligent for his own good? Much ink has been spilt on this question, but it is part of Shakespeare’s genius to keep us guessing. Shakespeare was writing at a time when older ways of seeing the world – twilight ways which had room for ghosts, or for the demons Jesus casts out in the gospels – when these older ways were giving way to modern ways, brightly lit ways in which ghosts and demons were bleached out of the real, external world, and relocated in the disturbed and disturbing inner world of people who were mad, or as it was eventually renamed, mentally ill.

Was Hamlet mad? But what is madness or mental illness?  In the play, creating the character and crafting the platitudes of Polonius, again is part of Shakespeare’s genius to keep us guessing: ‘to define true madness/What is’t to be nothing else than mad?’ old Polonius pontificates – as if that were an answer. But then, are we any nearer to defining true madness today? As it happens, this was the subject of discussion at a conference of doctors and philosophers I was at last week. One of the sessions described recent research on the false beliefs, abnormal ideas and irrational behaviour often seen as signs of mental illness, often seen as ways of defining true madness. But what the research showed, was that false beliefs, abnormal ideas and irrational behaviour could also be found in many people who had no mental illness. Then, in another session, it was pointed out that what many people in Western countries today often consider to be false beliefs, abnormal ideas or irrational behaviour, are not seen as false, abnormal or irrational by many, and probably many more people, in many other parts of the world where spirits, ancestors, ghosts, demons and other spiritual or religious phenomena are part of everyday life. It was pointed out moreover, that many people in Western countries, when it comes to making political or economic decisions, also can be seen as being swayed by false beliefs or indulging in irrational behaviour. As Alexander Pope, the 18th century poet, remarked about the politics of his day: ‘Party-spirit is at best but the madness of the many for the gain of a few’. Is it any different today, in the world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’?

‘Every one’, the poet Kipling once remarked, ‘is more or less mad on one point’. Hearing what was being said at last week’s conference, I was beginning to wonder if Kipling was right, and if so, whether there really is any way ‘to define true madness’. Fortunately I was helped by a wise doctor who had been listening to the discussion. People with what others consider false beliefs, abnormal ideas or irrational behaviour, he said, might have a mental illness or they might not. But those things were not the basis on which he would judge whether or not to treat them as patients who needed help: that judgement depended rather, on whether these people themselves were seeking relief from mental suffering, or again on whether they were clearly unable to make decisions or care for themselves, or in rarer cases, on whether they were a danger to themselves or to others. Having what others considered false beliefs, abnormal ideas or irrational behaviour was not, in his view and that of many of his colleagues, sufficient to label people as mentally ill.

What others consider false beliefs, abnormal ideas or irrational behaviour then, are not necessarily signs of mental illness. Happily: for if they were, we might find it difficult to defend why we go on including in worship readings like our two tonight. Our first reading was from Isaiah, one of the Old Testament books written about, or in some cases by, the prophets of ancient Israel, most of whom thought, spoke and behaved in weird and wonderful ways that most people in this country today would probably consider, odd, abnormal, irrational - and probably mentally deranged. Yet even if they seemed deranged, there was (to paraphrase Polonius), method in their madness, and unlike the unfortunate Hamlet, they left a very positive and creative legacy to posterity.

In the Exodus, centuries earlier, Moses had led a ragbag of slaves out of Egypt, forged them into a nation under God, and seen to their settlement in Canaan. But once settled, the Israelites seem to have gradually adapted and assimilated to the fertility religions of the people around them: they might even have lost their distinct identity and not made their profound contribution to human history, had it not been for the prophets, repeatedly recalling them to return to the One Lord, in whose name the prophets were convinced that they spoke.  

Our reading tonight is spoken by the second of three prophets, all known to posterity under the name of Isaiah. It dates from a time in the 6th century BC, when the Jewish people, long exiled in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, were soon to return and reconstruct – reconstruct not just the Temple but also the history of their destiny under God. In this reading, scholars believe, we hear the first prophetic voice to revive and reintegrate the memory of the Exodus into the story of Jewish destiny: ‘the LORD who makes a way in the sea… who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior, they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished’ - a clear reference to the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea as Moses and his people escaped.

The rest of tonight’s Old Testament reading is not always as easy to decipher: mostly it takes the form of a trial in which God accuses Israel of forgetting him, but nevertheless promises to forgive them and be with them in the fruitful future he has prepared for them. These verses, in which the LORD takes on himself the burden of his people’s sins, scholars believe, probably reflect an ancient temple ritual of atonement, now reintegrated into the new and enduring story of Israel’s destiny under God, a story which would sustain Jewish religion long after the time when the reconstructed Temple would once again be destroyed, this time by the Romans in 70 AD. 

This enduring story of Israel’s destiny under God, of course, also lies in the background of our second reading tonight: it was in the light and with the help of quotations from the Old Testament prophets, especially the three Isaiahs, that the Gospel writers and St Paul would interpret the meaning and significance for them of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection. For many Christians over the centuries, familiar with these Old Testament prophecies quoted in the New Testament, it has seemed obvious that they point to Jesus Christ, and inexplicable that Jews cannot or will not see this. But the conclusion of tonight’s second reading should make Christians pause. According to St John’s gospel, Pilate tells ‘the Jews’ that they ‘have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover’ and in reply ‘the Jews’ howl for Jesus’ death. But there is no evidence for such a custom, which seems to have been an ‘alternative fact’ invented by the gospel writer, who also appears to blame the entire Jewish people rather than the religious leaders whom Jesus himself took to task, like the prophets before him. Such condemnations of ‘the Jews’ no doubt reflected the tense and often bitter confrontation of church and synagogue in the early centuries, but that can never excuse the long and terrible history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Now against the background of that history, it was highly exceptional but also greatly generous for the modern Jewish writer Martin Buber to go so far as to call Jesus ‘my great brother’ and to say that ‘a great place belongs to him in Israel’s history of faith’ and that ‘this place cannot be described in any of the usual categories’. But what Buber went on to say, Christians also need to hear: ‘Whenever we both, Christian and Jew, care more for God than for our images of God, we are under the feeling that our Father’s house is differently constructed than our own human models take it to be’. Our human models, our mental images of God, our own or our own church’s particular ways of talking about God, in other words, are never able to fully express the overflowing meaningfulness of the reality we glimpse, speak to, even hear, in prayer, worship, nature and loving one another. 

In our reading tonight, Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s question about whether he is a king: he says instead that he has come to ‘testify to the truth’, or as the Authorised Version puts it ‘to bear witness to the truth’. But to Pilate’s dissatisfaction, he does not say what the truth is, only that ‘everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice’.

When Jesus talks about belonging to the truth, I believe, he is not talking about belonging to any particular Christian tradition, church or sect, or even to Christianity itself. The truth Jesus talks about here is not something that can be definitively summed up in any particular set of dogmas, or doctrines, or statements about God or Jesus himself. The truth Jesus talks about, rather, is the truth that he speaks of earlier in John’s Gospel: the truth that will make you free… if you continue in my word’ and ‘are truly my disciples’, truly those who follow him. To continue in his word and to follow him is not to know the final definitive truth and rest satisfied in it, for Jesus said and did many different things on different occasions - and for our different occasions. His truth he left to us, he left, and perhaps deliberately, in fragments – fragments often deeply meaningful for our different occasions, but the whole only fleetingly glimpsed on those other occasions when it suddenly all seems to make sense, when as Hopkins wrote, we greet him the days we meet him and bless when we understand. And even then, the best and only test we have, of whether what we glimpse is the truth that he came to bear witness to, is whether it sets us free to love, a little more, God and one another.