Sermon: Sunday 14 July 2013
The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler
An interesting book has recently been published entitled ‘The Reason I Jump’. You may have heard of it, or even read it? Written by a Japanese teenager, it was very recently BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week , and, as such, reached a wide audience and attracted a great deal of very positive blogs, Twitter and other comment. I heard a bit on the radio and have just started to read it; but the nub of it is the totally unique insight it gives us of the world from a very specific perspective – its author is quite profoundly autistic.
Personally I don’t have huge knowledge or experience of autism, although I have worked among people on the autistic spectrum, not least in the prison service, where it is a fact that significant numbers of prisoners have behavioural, learning or psychological issues which make it difficult for them to function in society. I am conscious that there may well be people here with first hand knowledge: but my purpose is not to give a lecture but, rather, I’d like to invite you to consider how we receive, interact with and understand the worlds which our fellow humans inhabit.
Our Gospel story this morning is that of the Good Samaritan, very well-known, I guess, to most of us. Indeed, so well known, that it is easy to skate over it, to think we know all about it – that it has nothing new to give us. I’d like to suggest we take a fresh look. Traditionally (and I’ve done this myself in school RE lessons) we take the story in its context of first century Palestine, find contemporary parallels – for priest and Levite read vicar, lawyer, politician or whatever – and then we recognise a clear moral about helping others, whoever they are. The Samaritan is the ‘other’, the person who is different. He becomes the hero and the others are the villains.
But what if the radical otherness is not so much the difference between him and his fellow travellers, but between the passers by and the wounded man? This man has been beaten up, he is lying by the roadside in a pool of blood, totally unrecognisable and possibly dead. When the travellers walk by, they scarcely notice him and, if they do, what they see is outside of their experience. They don’t know how to deal with someone with those kinds of needs, they can’t communicate with him, he looks so awful, they’re out of their depth, embarrassed even – and so they walk quickly on.
Let’s look at some loose parallels in less gory contemporary situations. How do we handle the persistent beggar who won’t be fobbed off? The woman in the street who’s yelling her head off to all and sundry apparently about nothing in particular? The drunkard who’s clearly in mental anguish?
I’d venture to guess that we all have difficulty, however tolerant or understanding we might think we are, in connecting with people who are radically different from ourselves. Difference can make us anxious. What do I say? How should I behave? Even, how should I dress? And this is not an issue confined to obvious differences like cultural background, but can take more subtle forms. I don’t know if you’ve seen the now very old John Cleese film ‘Clockwise’? It’s a comedy about a socially ambitious headmaster attending the Headmasters’ Conference and spectacularly blowing it! Well, the first time I attended that bastion of establishment Britain I was petrified. Even though I’m an educated woman and there were other women present. It took me quite a while to realise that I was as intelligent as they, differently gifted perhaps but just as interesting. I also found others who, like me, didn’t fit the mould. I suspect you too can tell similar stories about walking into a room of people who feel collectively different from you. Remember those feelings in your encounters with others.
When we meet someone new, we invite them into our world and we share a bit of theirs. But, while these worlds may overlap, their world is not ours, nor ours theirs. Even with those we love most dearly there is a separation. But we grow together by sharing, listening and taking risks in so doing. Sometimes we start from a great deal of commonality, sometimes from very little; but if we develop our emotional imagination, we can begin to enter their world.
However too often, even if we are not judgemental, we receive and understand other peoples’ behaviour solely from our own perspectives. This is particularly true if we are part of the majority group, whether that be, for example, identifiable by gender, ethnicity, language….or whatever. I don’t understand his behaviour – unsaid may be because he is not behaving how I would.
Where the differences between ourselves and the other person are evident, then we can, as did the Samaritan in the story, transcend them. We can recognise the different contexts – you had a very different background from me – and then we can explore who are you and who am I. We are not uncomfortable in asking questions and we joyfully receive the answers. We learn from the richness of one another’s experience. In that sense, this Cathedral community is a very eclectic group, to be celebrated and enjoyed as such.
However there are other less immediately noticeable differences between people. I have an aunt who, on first acquaintance, appears perfectly ‘normal’. But she has dementia, and her world, her mind-set, her logic, is very different from mine. We enjoy one another’s company; but a huge part of that depends on my seeing through her spectacles, albeit imperfectly – my reaching to her because I am the ‘normal’ one and she is the ‘odd’ one. It is very tiring for her to cope with the confusion of the world as you and I see it.
At the beginning I mentioned insights into autism. Most of us don’t know that perspective; but if we are in the company of an autistic person, how about turning around our thinking from ‘he is different from me’ to ‘I am different from him’ – considering his perspective as the norm, which it is for him. I used to find in the jail that where I could, however dimly, enter a prisoner’s experiential world, then were connections made and we could journey together, in trust and to mutual enrichment. I gained so much from the company of those who were ‘other’ to me.
Much of what I have just said is about identity. What shapes and frames our experiences and behaviour, our joys and sorrows, our emotions and our gifts. Only I can be I and you you. Jesus knew this at a profound level and when he told the Good Samaritan story, he was telling it in a context, to a particular person, as a way of helping that person step outside of self and see himself in a wider landscape. The story resonated so much, that others remembered it vividly, retold it and eventually wrote it down. Jesus instinctively understood his listeners, even the strangers. He recognised the context of this person’s life, and found a bridge between their worlds in the form of a story.
But Jesus also recognised free will and choice. His is an invitational ministry, a beckoning to enter His world. It is not the dominant culture on the planet, the ‘normal’ world, and never has been. But if, as with my aunt, the autistic child, the person who is unlike us – all of whom are made in the image of God – if I try to get inside His mindset and suspend some of my own earth-bound assumptions, then I begin to enter more deeply into a relationship with Him, where there is delight in one another’s company and a journeying together. As in that small way with my prisoners, so much more with Jesus do I find that in letting go of myself I have gained immeasurably more. The invitation is always there.
© The Revd Alison Adams