20 October 2021

Amplifying voices that are less heard

Barbara Easton, Vice-President of the Conference, asked,  ‘Tell me who you would like to hear spoken more of and why?’ Three interesting and lesser known Biblical figures came to light.

When I first heard (and learned every word of) Jesus Christ Superstar, one of the bits I really liked was the lines

Always hoped that I'd be an apostle.
Knew that I would make it if I tried.
Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels,
So they'll still talk about us when we've died.

The gospel stories make a lot of ordinary people awfully famous – who would have ever heard of Zaccheus if it weren’t for his meeting with Jesus! But at the same time, there’s a whole load of folk who people God’s story about whom we never really hear. One of the characters who most makes me think in the gospels is the one who asks Jesus he can join the band of disciples but to whom Jesus says, ‘No’. Instead, he says, ‘Go back to your own people and tell them what God has done for you’. What an important work! What might have been the consequences of his telling how God touched his life? But we never learn his name, and we never hear of him again.

I am the sort of preacher who likes to work within the overall pattern of the lectionary and the liturgical year. I think it frames our understanding of the salvation story and develops a fair-to middling-grasp of the overarching Bible narrative. In addition it protects worshippers from having to listen to the preacher’s pet hobby-horses time and again! But the downside can be that some stories and themes never see the light of day. In itself, that might not matter very much, but I think it sometimes gives people a false impression of our faith and our scriptures. This is, of course, compounded when the menu of liturgical encounters is devised by a narrow pool of people and, understandably, reflects more of their view of the world. One of my own hobby horses is people telling me how negative the Bible is about women – hummm, maybe. Or maybe they’re not reading the right bits – but that’s a hobby horse for another time.

I am trying to make it a feature of my Vice-Presidential year to amplify voices that are less heard. Just as the big stars have a ‘rider’ when they go on visits (like, how many bottles of champagne to have in the dressing room!), I am trying to ensure that services at which I am preaching feature a song or hymn that is not in English and that women are referenced in the reading or sermon. So far I have majored on Julian of Norwich and my beloved Mary Bosanquet. In a couple of weeks, I am taking a series of reflections which I want to base around ‘lesser known Bible figures’. Of course, one problem of them being ‘lesser known’ is that I may not have heard of them!

So I went on-line to see what suggestions others had – another way of amplifying the voices of those not normally asked. ‘Tell me who you would like to hear spoken more of and why?’ I asked. Here’s three people they suggested:

Ebed-Melech. (Jeremiah 38) This man is an African hero, a high-ranking official in the court of Zedekiah. Jeremiah preaches a very real message about what is going to happen in his country if things carry on the way they are. This makes him unpopular with the politicians who want him silenced. The King is weak and yields to his advisers who throw Jeremiah into an empty well, leaving him to die in the mud at the bottom. It is Ebed-Melech, the outsider, who bravely takes on the King and the politicians – and goes, kindly and gently, to get Jeremiah pulled out of the well.   

Or what about Mephibosheth, a postscript to the story of David and Jonathan? As a child, being rescued from a battle, he was injured and became disabled. David elevates him to his court and gives him a place at the royal table. The person who drew me to his story said that she works in palliative care and finds reflecting on Mephibosheth particularly helpful in contrast to the many healing stories with which we are more familiar. Here is a man with a disability which does not go away – and yet this is no barrier to the dignity and respect with which he is treated as he is welcomed to a place at the table of the King.

A third we might think about is Barnabas, Paul’s frequent companion in the New Testament. The person nominating him said that they were struck by the way he is never really mentioned in his own right, only in relation to the effect he has on others. Barnabas’ name means ‘son of encouragement’. He was the positive one, prepared to give people (like John-Mark) second chances. He built reconciliation across barriers which divided people - it’s thanks to him that Paul, the persecutor, was received by the church in Jerusalem. He was passionate about the Gentile mission, because, in it, he ‘saw the grace of God and was glad’.

Three great Biblical characters you’ve probably barely heard of. And yet models of dignity, courage and reconciliation. Who would you want to add to this list so their voices can be amplified? And what is it we should hear them say?

Barbara Easton, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, 2021-22.

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