Russia is a country that’s always interested me. Perhaps it was because it was a land of mystery behind the iron curtain as it was then. Perhaps it was the movies or story books. Whatever it was, Russia interested me and still does, I hope to visit one day.
That interest was re-kindled recently watching and reading Jonathan Dimbleby’s BBC series of 2008 entitled ‘Russia’. It was made not long after the Communist regime came to an end, a time of openness and new possibility.
Alas things have changed since then, and I suspect the same travelogue would be much harder to make now. But gave a picture of a huge and diverse country, its people and history.
Part of that history was the Gulag’s. Those bleak places where dissident’s were sent. Where writers and poets, thinkers and priests, anyone in fact who was thought to undermine the authority of the regime.
In one-episode Dimbleby visited one of those camps, deserted but still a chilling reminder of what we can do to one another. What power will do to hold onto power. History tells us that this example is not isolated for other regimes and governments have sought to deal with dissent by locking it away or killing it.
And though we might condemn it and wonder why there is a bit of us that knows why it happens. Of how we sometimes struggle to deal with those with whom we disagree.
Of how there is a bit of us that would happily not speak or engage with those people who annoy us or make us feel uncomfortable something I think John the Baptist could do.
He was an unfashionable figure. Awkward and difficult, a wild man I imagine with penetrating eyes who spoke the truth, who spoke of repentance with a directness that made people feel uncomfortable.
He made Herod feel uncomfortable as this morning’s Gospel reminds us telling him ‘“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”’ Herod locks him up knowing that he spoke the truth.
Only to be beguiled by the dance of Herodias’ daughter to promise anything she wanted. She asks at her Mother’s prompting, for the head of John the Baptist and there ends his story. The troubling truth teller is dealt with.
We cannot fully imagine Herod’s inner thoughts in the days the followed, just as we cannot imagine how those who ran the Gulag’s or the Concentration Camps felt as they killed their neighbour and treated them so cruelly.
But we can know enough within ourselves to believe it happened. For we know how we feel when we are threatened of how when we disagree with someone profoundly anger is just beneath the surface. We know we would rather push away that which frightens us than have to take it seriously.
And whilst we should rightly recognise within our selves and the society in which we live some boundaries for what acceptable speech and action is – history tells us, John the Baptist’s story tells us what we can sometimes do to one another. How we can demonise the other, label and condemn.
And if we can label someone then they become an easy target. That labelling was certainly around in Jesus’ time and part of what made his life so offensive to others was that he broke barriers that separated people, whether it was tax-collectors, or prostitutes, Samaritans or women.
Jesus by example spent time with those whom others had labelled and pushed to the fringes of society.
I imagine that he shocked even his closest friends by his words and actions. I imagine that the disciples were not some harmonious group of like-minded people who all agreed with each other all the time.
Instead knowing what we are like it seems much more likely that there were voices of dissent and disagreement as they tried to understand what following Jesus meant for them. Of how they were to live in the world open to those whom they once labelled and dismissed.
And that journey for them finds echoes with us, particularly at this moment in time when it seems to me that we are often good at holding our opinions and offering them to the world and less good at listening.
Labelling those with whom we disagree, putting them into a kind of Gulag in our mind for they have nothing to say to us. And though this can be about the big issues and ideas for our time, it is also lived out here amongst us at St. Mary’s.
And the inspiration for this way of living finds its focus in the hospitality of the table which we are gathered around this morning.
A table connected to Jesus in the upper room where his friends were, no doubt talking and disagreeing and trying to make sense of what he was doing passing around bread and sharing a cup.
And we are the same, trying to make sense of where and how Jesus is at work amongst us, even in those with whom we disagree, who challenge us and might just make us feel uncomfortable.
For I believe that we are called to fashion together a community around a table where we can to use some words of St. Paul ‘speak the truth in love’ in the midst of a sometimes confusing world.
A world which has and still does create Gulags – of one sort or another. Where increasingly we are seduced into binary positions of right and wrong, where grey – the colour of the liberal minded like me seems so out of fashion and not always an easy place to inhabit.
For it’s easier to know who we are and hold our beliefs in an unquestioning way, to condemn and label those who are different from us – but gulags are not the way. We do not silence by force and shutting away those with whom we disagree those who make us feel uncomfortable.
Surely, despite all the challenges – it is better to be open, listening, alert, speaking the truth in love inspired by this big table behind me. A symbol and sign of hope, where we are called to be together and anticipate the kingdom for which we pray.
A table where we can laugh, cry, to talk, listen and learn, confident that our host is always glad to see us, where there is always room to pull up another chair and join the conversation.