Sermon, Parish Eucharist, Sunday 5th January 2014
What’s Your Epitaph Going to Be?
Sadly for me, both of my parents died at what was a relatively young age. Arguably it is sadder still for my children who never really knew their grandparents. To wildly misquote Oscar Wilde, to lose one parent is sadness, to lose two feels like you’ve been orphaned.
When my dad died in the early nineties it ushered in what was a very difficult time for me. Nothing seemed right any more and all aspects of my life seemed to be affected, work in particular. I was then a Producer on Newsnight and it was the run-up to the General Election, so the work was very demanding anyway, without this extra burden. The experience seemed to go so far beyond grief that I began to wonder whether something else wasn’t afoot and I concluded that I was in need of a career change. To help with this I sought some professional help from a firm of industrial psychologists. I spent a day in their offices just off Baker Street and did a number of tests. The day culminated in a 90 minute interview in which we reviewed the test results.
I found myself sitting in front of a formidable, brisk woman who had clearly had a lot of experience with the likes of me. She opened by saying “I don’t understand what all this is about. Most men of your age and background would give their left arm for what you do. ” Any hopes that I was in for one of those touchy-feely, “how are you feeling today” interviews quickly evaporated. As I attempted an answer she developed a more sympathetic demeanour. Finally, she simply said: “Of course, it may be that as you enter your late thirties, you are beginning to wonder what your epitaph will be.”
The effect of that single word “epitaph” was dramatic. The second she said it, everything became clear. The fact both parents were now dead meant I couldn’t dodge the question any more: what was my life about? What, indeed, did I want to be remembered for? There was no longer my Dad standing between me and the grave: it was me next. In truth, I had no answer, but at least realising that it was this question that was gnawing at my soul was a big help. As Einstein once said, defining the right question is more important than finding the answer.
That simple question lies at the heart of Jesus’ challenge to each and everyone one of us, and there are few better examples of the folly of ignoring it than King Herod. In today’s gospel we meet Herod eagerly asking the Wise Men to tell him Jesus’ whereabouts. His intentions were, of course, far from well-meaning. When the Wise Men refuse to do his bidding he promptly had all the children under the age of two in the Bethelehem area slaughtered.
This account is all of a piece with what we know about Herod from other historical sources. Any suspected threat to his power was likely to be met with deadly violence, and this included members of his own family. He had his wife Mariamne murdered and her mother, not to mention three of his sons. The Emperor Augustus said of him that it was “safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son”. And yet, he was capable of capable of goodness, even greatness. He was the only ruler of Palestine to keep the peace in that famously unruly corner of the world. He was a great builder, responsible for the great temple in Jerusalem. And during the famine of 25BC he melted down his own gold to buy corn for the starving.
Despite all this, what is Herod remembered for? Well, it’s not his humanitarian work, and that’s for sure. In so far as he is remembered at all, it’s as but a small footnote in the history of the world, and a distinctly unsavoury and depressing one at that. A better example of the sheer folly of pursuing power at all costs it’s hard to imagine.
There is, of course, an acute irony in all this. He feared Jesus’ birth for exactly the wrong reason. At that time the world was full of expectation of the coming of the messiah, someone who would release the Jews from Roman captivity and usher in a new era of peace, justice and prosperity. What everyone was eagerly anticipating was a mighty warrior-king, someone who would send Herod and his lot packing. But what they got, of course, was a poor, itinerant preacher who called for repentance and announced the coming of this thing he called “the kingdom of God”.
In other words, Jesus’ challenge was first and foremost to individuals. However loathsome the Romans, he knew that without repentance, without a change of heart on the part of individuals, the Roman empire, even were it to be swept away, would be replaced by something equally unjust.
Jesus’ call is for each and every one of us to live lives of integrity. It is an appeal to our better natures that, for all its small beginnings, has the power to truly transform the world, for it works not by brute force, but by inspiration, example and influence. Think Gandhi, Mandela and Luther King and you begin to get the picture.
At the heart of our faith is the belief that we all of us have a part to play in the transformation of the world. The chances are that it will be very modest and that we won’t enter the history books, even as a small footnote – but no matter! In his great first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul describes us at the Body of Christ with some parts accorded greater honour than others by the world, but with each essential to the healthy working of the whole.
So what’s your role in all this? What part, unique to who you are, have you got to play? Above all, what would you like to be remembered for? For in that question lies the key to understanding both ourselves and those better natures that Jesus came to liberate.