"A penny for your thoughts". The voice cut into my privacy penetrating my consciousness and causing my eyes to refocus. I was sitting in the sun and though my body was in the garden my mind was a million miles away and I was only semi-conscious.
It is years since I have heard that phrase. Pennies dont get you much nowadays so perhaps it has gone out of fashion. Anyway hundreds of people are more than willing to share their thoughts if Talk Radio and internet chat are anything to go by.
But to be honest there are thoughts all of us have we would very much prefer no one to know. Sometimes our own thoughts surprise and even alarm us. We did not imagine we could entertain some of the thoughts and ideas we do and we would not want to admit them to others or share them. Not for a million dollars.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons some people distance themselves from the church. Here, before God, there may be exposed some secret thoughts, undesirable passions, unsavoury imaginings that lurk in the depths of their mind. Here you may be confronted with these thoughts which are yours but which you dont like and may not want and certainly need to conceal. And the Bible tells us that there is nothing in all creation that can hide from God.
At the very beginning of the gospel story there is that incident when Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the Temple for dedication. There they are met by devout old Simeon who remarks that "this child is destined to be a sign that people will reject and that by him the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare". (Luke 2: v34)
The risk, the pain, the embarrassment of his exposé still means his rejection.
We may not like to know or like others to know what we are or what our innermost thoughts are.
The time came when Jesus wise words, strange actions and miraculous signs drew admiration from many (as we read in John 2: v23). And this is still the case.
But would Jesus trust himself to them? Oh no. "He knew people too well." John tells us. "He knew what was in people!" The gospel story teller constantly refers to the fickleness and the hypocrisy that tempered the enthusiasm and admiration people had for Jesus. He knew what was in them and he knew to be wary. In a flash they could turn against him as they did in his home synagogue of Nazareth. They sang his praises; they were stirred with admiration for his wisdom and attractive way of putting things. But they never let him finish before they were ready to throw him over a cliff at the edge of town. (Luke 4:vs15, 22 and 29). He had exposed their prejudices, their xenophobia, their sectarianism - their secret thoughts were laid bare, and Simeons ominous prediction came true.
Always when he was doing good, there were those who watched with dark thoughts; grudging, critical, jealous, evil thoughts.
He knew too what was in Peter, even when he professed absolute loyalty and wanted to protect Jesus from his enemies. "Even you Peter will deny me three times before the cock crows." And at the last supper he looked Judas in the eye as he served him knowing his secret heart: "One of you will betray me"
He knew. He always knew.
And some who admire him, follow him, put faith in him, know too.
As John Bradford, Oxford Don and Reformation thinker to be martyred by Queen Mary, watched some criminals being taken to execution he remarked "There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford." He knew those negative things of which he could be capable but for Gods help. Look around you at the dishonest, the adulterous, the hypocrites, the snobbish, the scandalous, the liars, the pitiless, the terrorist - could you become that? Given the background circumstances and events?
Eugenè McLaughlin, a researcher analysing the prison population of Northern Ireland claimed recently that most who had been jailed through the "Troubles" there were not in fact criminals. She argued that they would never have committed punishable acts had it not been for the political situation. But all of us, if we are being honest have found ourselves thinking the unthinkable if not doing the undoable because of terrorist threat and violence and other causes. Have we not thought revenge, kill, torture, maim? Have we been provoked to hatred? And that means we are capable of things we abhor and God condemns.
Others have claimed the same as that researcher for ODCs ordinary decent criminals they would not have done it but for their background, their family, their childhood experiences, the temptations put in their way. I used to argue about Ulster politics with my father in-law. As an old soldier in the early days he believed there was only one answer and it had nothing to do with conciliation or peacemaking. Although these arguments were often very disagreeable our relationship survived the disputes. My mother- in-law used to rebuke me, "you bring the worst out in him". I suppose she did not want me to forget there was another side to him.
The word of God is that there is a predisposition in human nature to evil and wrong doing. Situations test us and sometimes people or events bring out the worst in us. But in the test it is possible to find the grace of God like John Bradford. If we recognise what is in us, rather than deny it, avoid it or conceal it, we are less likely to lose control and go to the devil. No spirit of evil can possess our minds if they are open to the grace of God.
So there is also a positive aspect as well as a negative aspect to all of this. Jesus knew what was in people: the falsehood, the hypocrisy, the evil intent, the suspicion, the sourness.
He also knew the potential for goodness, kindness, understanding, peacemaking, love, faith.
He could see Peter would deny him. He also knew Peter could be a Rock and that his rock like faith would be the foundation stone of his church.
He always looked for the potential in everyone he met. Because he was God incarnate he saw the universal potential. Divine love and human potential came together in his saving mission on Earth. He still draws the best out of people and he draws the worst out of them. "You bring out the worst in him" my mother-in-law used to say.
When Jesus acts on a person he draws the worst right out of them for good. He removes the worst to make them the best they can be. Thats the Gospel. And that is your salvation! As a church poster said: Jesus brings out the worst in you for good!
On BBC radio Bishop Bill Weston told of being at an event where the band announced it would play an Irish Jig. A big shambling man unshaven and unkempt made his way towards the band. As it struck up he drew himself upright and his feet began to move in rhythm to the music, his body erect and still. In that moment he was transformed from a derelict of humanity and in him the audience could see another person. The Bishop says he caught a glimpse of a boy with energy and ambition - a Michael Flatley in disguise, if you like. Suddenly the old man he tired and stopped and vanished into the body of the audience again.
It is not always easy to see what is in someone. We only see and see readily Irish, Scots, American, Arab, drunk, loud, slovenly, deceitful, violent, unsavoury, snob. Our Lord sees beyond what is readily seen above all he sees the potential. He sees your potential and his grace draws it to the surface.
Of course none of us know what we are capable of until we allow him to take us in hand and begin to shape us to the imaginative pattern he has in mind for us. This applies to you as an individual. It applies to this congregation. It applies to our whole society.
There is good and bad in all of us
But when Jesus draws out the worst in us
It is to leave only the best
Which he brings to its full potential.
There is a prayer:
"Almighty God who alone knows what we have been
and what we could become
Make us all that we should be
by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ."