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Ship of Fools

Ordinary Sunday 10: 10th June, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, 'He has gone out of his mind.' (Mark 3:21)

Today's Gospel reading is a dramatic and a difficult one. Jesus is accused of being out of his mind, mad. His own family believes the gossip and feeling ashamed try to restrain him. The Jerusalem scribes explain, publically, that he is possessed by Beelzebul the ruler of demons and offer this as an explanation for his ability to cast demons out of others. Jesus is forced to defend himself. If I am Satan, how can I cast out Satan? You call me mad but your accusations have no logic. You twist truth in the most damaging way. It is a blasphemy and the ultimate sin to proclaim the Holy Spirit as an evil spirit. And then Jesus denounces his own family who are still trying desperately to get their mad relative back into the house and under control.

Madness is unsettling. It is a threat to normality and like Jesus' family we generally try hard to push it to the margins, of our selves and of society. It is synonymous with mental illness and needs to be removed, isolated and then healed if possible. The human tendency to isolate those we consider different is as old as time. The fifteenth-century German satirist, Sebastian Brandt, published a powerful poem in 1494 entitled Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools). In it he describes a boat or barge into which society casts the fools and all who are considered mad. The boat is captained and manned by the insane, and drifts aimlessly along the rivers of Europe. It is debatable as to whether there was ever such a ship, but it is a powerful metaphor.

In Alexander Barclay's English translation from 1874 he contemplates the ship's arrival in London:

We are full laden, and yet forsooth I think
A thousand are behind, whom we may not receive.
For if we do, our navy clean shall sink;
He oft all loses that covets all to have.
From London Rocks Almighty God us save,
For if we there anchor, either boat or barge
There be so many that they us will overcharge.

Michel Foucault, philosopher and social theorist, was fascinated by this idea of the Ship of Fools and its social and art history. He builds the opening chapter of his Madness and Civilisation: a History of Insanity in an Age of Reason around the metaphor and draws out something of the paradox we see in today's gospel, wisdom in perceived madness, good perceived as evil:

Another symbol of knowledge, the tree (the forbidden tree, the tree of promised immortality and of sin), once planted in the heart of earthly paradise, has been uprooted and now forms the mast of the Ship of Fools, as seen in the engraving that illustrates Josse Bade's Stultifarae naviculae; it is this tree, without doubt, that sways over Bosch's Ship of Fools. What does it presage, this wisdom of fools? Doubtless, since it is a forbidden wisdom, it presages both the reign of Satan and the end of the world . . .. The Ship of Fools sails through a landscape of delights, where all is offered to desire, a sort of renewed paradise . . .. This false happiness is the diabolical triumph of the Antichrist; it is the End already at hand.

There are clear dangers in madness, but perhaps the biggest dangers lie in the way we treat those who we define as insane. It has been said that a society (or church) is judged by the way it treats the most vulnerable and marginalized. One of the most powerful reminders of this took place one Pentecost in a parish in Auckland. I was in the middle of celebrating the mass when a homeless person I knew walked into church. To start with the sides people and I were the only people who could see John at the back of the church. We were more than a little anxious when we saw what he was carrying. John had by the neck a gigantic dead seagull, its long wings stretching out to either side. I could see the sides people trying to gain control of the situation, but John had just one thing in mind and wouldn't take no for an answer. He set off down the aisle at the Benedictus and I had no choice but to put the mass on hold. "Fr Hugh," said John, "I found this bird outside, can you give it a blessing please?" I dutifully obliged and then suggested that John might like to leave the dead seagull outside and we would bury it later. The Holy Spirit truly visited us that Sunday!

There should be a place for everyone at the Lord's Table.

I'd like to close with another story, about a cracked pot. A water-bearer carries two large pots on a yoke across her shoulders up the hill from the river to her master's house each day. One has a crack and leaks half its water out before arriving at the house. The other pot is perfect and always delivers a full portion of water after the long walk from the river.

Finally, after years of arriving half-empty and feeling guilty, the cracked pot apologizes to the water-bearer. It is feeling miserable. "I'm sorry that I couldn't accomplish what the perfect pot did. I am no use to you." The water-bearer asks, "What do you have to apologize for?"

"After all this time, I still only deliver half my load of water," said the pot. "I make more work for you because of my flaw." The water-bearer smiles and tells the pot, "Take note of all the lovely flowers growing on the side of the path where I carried you. The flowers grew so beautifully because of the water you leaked. There are no flowers on the perfect pot's side."

Jesus came that all may have life and have it in abundance. There is room at the table of Eucharist for everyone, even the cracked pots (and crack-pots) amongst us!


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