There`s a wonderful piece of satire from the 1960`s which features three people in descending height; I think it was John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. They each represented Upper, Middle and Lower class people. The punch-line comes when the small- lower class man declares, “I know my place”.
I suppose we like to think that things have changed since then and maybe they have but we`re still very conscious of the boundaries that we set up to ensure that relationships run as we would wish. To some extent there are `rules to the game` where social interaction is concerned. So for instance if I`m in conversation with a Police Officer, unless I know them socially (in other words in a different context from their calling to deal with the break-in at my home) then I`m unlikely to call them by their first name. The very presence of that uniform dictates something of the terms of our meeting. I speak, if you will, to that uniform and the particular role they have.
And there are good reasons for maintaining this kind of boundary. To some extent I need to relate to a function and I need confidence that this person can carry it out competently. I mean we expect such people to act, as we put it, professionally; which means that they don`t become so emotionally overwhelmed by my difficulty that I have to the Kleenex out for them.
Of course, it`s good from time to time to be a bit flexible with those boundaries. I`ll recognise that there`s a person behind the uniform and, for instance I`ll offer them a cup of tea. And it`s good to as we say `pass the time of day`. I recall a man working at the checkout thanking me for chatting with him as he scanned my shopping. “It gets a bit dull sometimes”, he said. “Thanks for having a natter”. And playing with these boundaries can be great fun. That`s why Morecambe and Wise having Newsreaders and the rest behaving in silly ways on their Christmas show was so amusing.
But of course, there are times when flexibility with those boundaries becomes problematic. So, it`s all well and good being `friendly` with your employer but every so often it`s good to remember that they might need to discipline or even dismiss you. And we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that someone who is engaging with us in one particular capacity may not want to adopt others as well. Such as the hairdresser, solicitor or bartender (delete whichever doesn`t apply to you!) who inadvertently becomes our counsellor. Or sometimes we recoil when someone seems over familiar- perhaps we`ve all had that uncomfortable feeling when that salesperson comes on the phone and uses our first name without asking. I mean, hearing ones name can be profoundly affecting but we see the same issue in places like hospital don`t we? I don`t think it`s about being old fashioned as some people would suggest again I think it`s about being aware of how we are relating to one another and what are, if you will, the `terms of engagement`.
And this, I would suggest is at the heart of John the Baptist`s problem when he met Jesus down by the Jordan. Take a moment to enter into John`s utter incomprehension when Jesus comes to him. He says: ”I need to be baptised by you. And do you come to me?” At its most basic level this is the story of a meeting; an encounter. But the point is that John is clearly unsure about what Jesus is doing to the terms of engagement. What strikes me about this incident and what I`d invite you to reflect on this morning is how, in the broader sense, like many other instances in the Gospels we`re given a picture of what it`s like to be in the presence of Jesus. This passage seems to be saying “Just look at the way Jesus subverts expectations. Look closely at John`s sense of surprise, the reversal of roles and consider what this might teach us about meeting Jesus and how it helps us recognise that we`re in his presence”.
In that famous children`s Hymn: `All things bright a beautiful` there is a verse which no longer appears in modern hymn books which goes like this: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.” When the lower class man in that satire I mentioned earlier declares, “I know my place” he`s clearly signing up to this understanding of the world and his place in it. It`s a world which is ordered- not only by God- but frankly, is based on power, money and influence. These are the terms of engagement.
Now, the words of that hymn are less popular today because we like to think that we don`t subscribe to that way of relating anymore. We see it as somewhat oppressive. But notice, “I know my place” is not only a statement of resignation or acceptance of the way things are. It can also carry overtones of convenience and security. It echoes that double-meaning behind that often used phrase, “God`s in his heaven”. If these are the terms of engagement then it implies that whilst in one sense all is well with the world it also hints at the possibility that we can get on with what we want, as it were, unimpeded.
So what I`m suggesting is that John the Baptist`s story- his meeting with Christ invites us to ask about the terms of engagement with our God and that, as he discovered it`s not as straightforward as we might think. Firstly, I think we need to notice that it`s not we who set those terms. Like Moses who encounters God in the burning bush there`s a call to remove the sandals from our feet; there is a call to reverence and awe and to acknowledge that what we`re talking about is an encounter between creature and creator. But this rightful sense of awe is ever enough unless it is counterbalanced by verses like these in Psalm 8.
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
In other words things are not complete unless you recognise the disarming nature of grace.
Secondly, I think it`s in the nature of things that we will always be surprised and corrected by the terms which God sets. What I mean, is this is what John the Baptist experiences. His assumptions about meeting Christ were based on power and position. John assumed that Christ would know his place in the scheme of things and John was very good at laying out these kinds of judicial boundaries. The problem is that but Christ wasn`t playing ball. The terms of engagement were not as John had supposed.
It`s rather like those of us who harbour that picture of a God who is a bit like the schoolteacher who has momentarily left the room worrying that they`ll come back to catch us out. To them and us Christ lays out very different terms when he says rather pointedly “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.17). And of course he bids us call this God: `Father`.
But thirdly, John has to wrestle with the surprising and unnerving humility of Christ; as he submitted to baptism. A few months ago, Pope Francis came out onto the balcony at St. Peter`s in Rome and the first thing this newly elected Pope did was to ask the people to pray for him. Of the many interesting things he has done in the last few months it was this that caught the imagination of so many. It`s stayed in the mind because of the way in which he subverted the customary (and perhaps we might say erroneous) terms of engagement.
And this was a moment which was too important to dismiss as a bit of a stunt. On the one hand he was making a statement about the nature of his ministry, after the manner of Christ but he also in that moment acknowledged, affirmed and we might even say `ennobled` the vocation of all Christian people. You see this apparent reversal of the terms of engagement teaches us something important about the power of humility and vulnerability.
I want to invite you today pray with the terms of engagement of your many everyday relationships. Some of them will be based on power and authority; some will be about transactions and exchange; some are about dependence or interdependence. Most of them will function pretty well on these terms but the interesting times are when the boundaries we take for granted are challenged in some way. This is what happened between John and Jesus and their meeting asks us to look more closely at the moments when we experience a certain tension or misapprehension in the terms of engagement, because these may indeed be places where we too will meet him. Today we hear of the Christ who comes through a certain vulnerability.
Each month the clergy of a particular area have a meeting, it`s called the Clergy Chapter. The day after I was ordained I attended a meeting like this. I was feeling all fresh and enthusiastic but for reasons I needn’t go into, I was treated to one of the most pompous and alienating occasions you could ever wish to attend. I really wondered what in the world was going on. But about four years later, at the same group, though with a few changes of personnel, one of our number spoke very movingly about the healing ministry and their own particular struggles. What followed was a real deepening of friendships as we were all given permission to reflect in a similarly honest way. What was remarkable was the closeness that emerged through the shared vulnerability. It was a re-drawing of the terms of engagement.
Now, I`m no great fan of that 1970`s fad for `sharing` or `bearing your soul` and all the rest. But I do know the power of subverting the terms of engagement. I think of the woman whose husband died. Everyone from their social circle came to the funeral. But I recall her saying how all those dinner parties they attended and hosted were really with acquaintances rather than friends. I remember her saying how she longed for some simple human warmth and support in her grief. She needed someone to subvert the terms of engagement.
And don`t we all? This is how friendships begin. This is how Churches become `Church` rather than a gathering of the eccentrically like-minded because this is where our God is to be found. Our God shows up when someone doesn`t give a hoot about the usual terms of engagement but rolls up their sleeves and gets stuck in. Like “Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house today”, or “Peter, lend me your boat”. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” It`s in the crossing or subverting the usual terms of engagement that our God is known and served because our God does not know his place.