Baptism of Christ (A) – 12 January 2019

sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands

Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

These are the words that God says to Christ at his baptism.  But I always think that they are also words that God says to each of us:  “This is my son, this is my daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Or as Isaiah has it, in a passage that was surely meant by the gospel writers, by Matthew, by Mark, to be called to mind: “this is my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  Chosen by God. Beloved by God.  That is the good news that we share as we join today to celebrate the Baptism of Christ. We are all, each of us, beloved by God.

Do we feel that way?  It can be difficult, as Henri Nouwen writes: “It is a real struggle to claim our belovedness. … Our identities are so wrapped up in the structures and the spirit of the world we live in that we live as though we were who the world says we are: rich or poor, able or disabled, good or bad, emotionally stable or vulnerable.”[1] These are so often categories that defie us by what we are not that it can be hard to affirm what we are.  We may be so attuned to what seems not to love about ourselves that it is hard to remember, to realise that God loves us.  There are often times when we can’t grasp our chosenness. As Henri Nouwen reflected, “The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”[2]

Being Beloved by God is not an end in itself.  That affirmation of being God’s beloved, expressed at his baptism, was the starting point of Jesus’s ministry.  And that sense of being beloved by God should be a starting point for us too.

But a starting point to do what?  We can see that Isaiah’s chosen one of God is the Messiah who will transform the world:  “he will bring forth justice to the nations; … open the eyes that are blind, bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  He will “establish justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  The words spoken at Jesus’s baptism identify him with this prophecy, point to him as the one who will transform the world.  But this is not Jesus’s task alone:  rather that transformative, redemptive task is what we too are called to through our own baptism.

That means, as Karoline Lewis powerfully reminds us in a reflection on this passage, that baptism is about much more than just ourselves:

remember … that baptism is also about who the other needs you, and them, to be. To be present in the wilderness. To tell the other of God’s words from heaven. To proclaim that baptism cannot just be about the self, but is about living life as being the light of the world for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now.[3]

Desmond Tutu also reminds us of the way in which the love we receive from God flows through us to others:

We who are freely loved and thus affirmed are meant to be as God for others, to seek to work for a world which has been preserved for the enjoyment of all. God longs that we, who are aware of our infinite worth, will see in one another the image of God.[4]

That vocation – to be God, to be Christ for others – flows out of the knowledge of your belovedness.  We are reminded of this by the introduction to the confession: “We love because God loved us first.”  It is not always going to be comfortable and it may take us to places that we did not want to go. Indeed, our vocation, for Benjamin Mann, is:

a school of charity and a means of crucifixion. Your vocation is the means by which your self-serving ego will die in order to be resurrected as the servant and lover of God. This is all that we can expect; but this is everything – the meaning of life, all there really is.[5]

It is important to grasp that we don’t need to do any of these things to earn the love of God. Rather, when we know ourselves to be beloved, the love of neighbour, the transformative love for the world, will overflow to others and in so doing will challenge and transform us in our turn.  And perhaps when we live out that love, when we help to make to world a little better for someone, we may also gain a better understanding that we are precious to and beloved by God.

This is another way of saying that baptism is the primary way in which we are marked as called by God to share in God’s mission to the world.  Responding to that calling, which is rooted in our being beloved of God and responding to that experience, may offer moments of self-revelation, but Benjamin Mann emphasises that we should not expect it to give us all the answers to all our questions, or to make everything make sense:

Discernment is not about finding the hidden, magic key that will unlock your life and solve the riddle of your being. When you figure out what you ought to do with your life, and begin to do it, you will be just as much a mystery to yourself as you are now. Your daily confusions, recurring frustrations, and deep puzzlements will remain. Life, even life illumined by faith, will be an enigma – at least as much as before. …
My vocation is where I will learn to let go of my questions, carry the cross of my problems, and be mysteriously fulfilled even when I am not happy.

Being held in the love of God may take us to places that are not at all comfortable, as Rowan Williams reminds us:

If you want God, you must be prepared to let go of all, absolutely all, emotional satisfactions, intellectual and emotional. … If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your ‘religious’ world shattered.[6]

Being beloved of God may take us to a place beyond certainty where we experience the love of God in quite a new way.

Desmond Tutu reiterates that none of this is about earning God’s love:

Many of us have thought that we had to impress God in order for God to love us, in order for God to accept us. We have thought that we needed to achieve our acceptance of God through our own efforts – to impress God that we were deserving of His divine love and approval. We seem to think that God is somehow hostile to us, setting impossible standards for us to attain before we can hope to be accepted.[7]

But God is not like that.  God’s love and acceptance

are not based on merit or achievement on our part. No, it is a love that is prevenient, that goes before, that precedes any achievement or effort on our part.[8]

As Luther emphasised, grace is a free gift of God, an abundant free gift of God.  And grace is the true expression of the love of God.

Do you feel that love?  No?  Rowan Williams suggests that we may need to cultivate stillness and presence to God:

The real problem in prayer is not the absence of God but the absence of us.  It’s not that God is not there but (nine times out of ten) that we are not. We are all over the place, entertaining memories, fantasies, anxieties. God is simply there in unending patience, saying to us, “So when are you going actually going to arrive? When are you going to sit and listen, to stop roaming about, and be present?”[9]

Can we stop and allow ourselves to be bathed in the love of God?  It is in those moments, affirms Rowan Williams, that “the overwhelming joyfulness of God begins to impinge on us.”[10]  And that for Henri Nouwen is the fulfilling of vocation: “to enjoy God’s presence, do God’s will, and be grateful wherever I am.”[11]

May you know that you, each of you, are God’s beloved.  And may you respond to that knowledge in loving, joyful service.

Amen

[1]   Henri Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (SPCK 2013), 139.

[2]   Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

[3]   Karoline Lewis, “You Are All My Beloved” (2017), online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4790.

[4]   Desmond Tutu, In God’s Hands (Bloomsbury 2014), 97.

[5]   Benjamin Mann, “Your Vocation is Not About You” (2014), online at: https://catholicexchange.com/vocation.

[6]  Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement:  Sermons and Addresses (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1994), 97.

[7]  Tutu, In God’s Hands, 71-72.

[8]  Ibid., 72.

[9]  Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK 2016), 81.

[10]  Ibid., 85.

[11]  Nouwen, Discernment, 107.

Sonntag in der Weihnachtsoktave – 29.12.2019

Predigt in der Alt-Katholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Genesis 15,1-6; 21,1-3
Hebräerbrief 11, 8-16
Matthäus 2,13-15.19-23

„Wir sind nicht auf der Flucht.“  Oft spricht mein Mann diesen Satz aus, wenn wir etwas zu spät daran sind, oder wenn ich dränge, dass etwas bald passieren sollte. „Wir sind nicht auf der Flucht.“ Wir haben wirklich Glück, dass dieser Satz für uns stimmt. Wir sind es in der Tat nicht, wir sind nicht auf der Flucht.  Das war mal für die Familie meines Mannes anders, als seine beiden Eltern jeweils als Kind mit der eigenen Familie aus Schlesien vertrieben wurden.  Sie waren damals auf der Flucht, mussten schnell sammeln, was sie tragen konnten, als sie die Heimat verlassen mussten.  Manche von Ihnen, von euch werden auch wissen, wie es ist, auf der Flucht zu sein. Und die heutige Lesung erinnert uns daran, dass selbst Jesus, dass selbst die heilige Familie auf die Flucht gehen musste.

Der Grund dafür wird in den schrecklichen Versen genannt, die wir gerade in der heutigen Lesung überspringen:  Herodes, der von der Geburt Jesu erfahren hat, lässt alle männliche Kinder in Betlehem und Umgebung ermorden. Die heilige Familie geht auf die Flucht, damit Jesus dieser Schlacht entkommt.

Aber für Matthäus geht es nicht um den Kindermord als solchen, sondern darum, dass Jesus als Erfüllung der Schrift verstanden werden kann. Zuerst zitiert er Hosea 11,1: „Denn es sollte sich erfüllen, was der Herr durch den Propheten gesagt hat: »Aus Ägypten habe ich meinen Sohn gerufen«.“  Auch die schreckliche Geschichte des Kindermordes wird als Erfüllung einer Prophetie (Jeremia 31,15) dargestellt: „Da wurde erfüllt, was gesagt ist durch den Propheten Jeremia, der da spricht: »In Rama hat man ein Geschrei gehört, viel Weinen und Weh-klagen; Rahel beweinte ihre Kinder und wollte sich nicht trösten lassen, denn es war aus mit ihnen«.“  Schließlich kommt die Heilige Familie nach Nazareth, was ebenfalls als Erfüllung einer Prophetie verstanden wird: „Denn es sollte sich erfüllen, was durch die Propheten gesagt worden ist: Er wird Nazoräer genannt werden.“

Für Matthäus geht es um eine theologische, eine allegorische Geschichte also. Aber mit dieser Schreckensgeschichte von Mord und Flucht wird auch das Leben Jesu und seiner Familie fest mit der Schicksal der vielen Menschen verbunden, deren Heimat plötzlich durch Krieg oder Verfolgung oder Hungersnot zum Verhängnis geworden ist, und die zu einer Flucht gezwungen werden oder sich gezwungen fühlen. Auch dies ist eine theologische Aussage, die später am Kreuz bestätigt wird: Jesus steht solidarisch mit denjenigen, die sich im Dunkel des Lebens befinden.

Für Alexander Seidel ist dies die wahre Bedeutung von Weihnachten.  Das Christkind, der als Mensch geborene Gott, „kommt schutzlos in diese arme, elende und tödliche Menschenwelt, mitten hinein in den Alltag der Menschen mit ihren Ängsten und Freuden, ihrem Hunger und ihrer Mühsal. Zu Menschen, die ihren ganz normalen Berufen nachgehen, die manchmal täglich ums Überleben kämpfen müssen.“[1]

Oder, wie der Greifswalder Universitätsprediger Michael Herbst über diese Stelle geschrieben hat:

Was immer Ihr tut, das müsst Ihr wissen: In jedem, der sein Leben zurücklässt, um sein Leben zu bewahren, begegnet Ihr mir. Mit jedem Kind auf der Flucht, mit jedem Verfolgten, mit jeder verängstigten Familie, mit jedem, der vor Gewalt und Tod floh, identifiziere ich mich.[2]

Diese Stelle erinnert uns daran, das Christkind nicht – oder nicht nur – in unseren gemütlichen Familienbeisammensein zu suchen, sondern auch dort, wo Menschen ums Leben kämpfen und eben auf der Flucht sind.

In einem Gedicht hat Charis Doepgen OSB über diese Geschichte: „Unschuldige Kinder“ nachgedacht und zum Handeln aufgerufen:

Jene von damals
können wir heute
nur noch feiern

jene der Gegenwart
könnten wir retten …

jedenfalls viele
in Syrien
im Jemen
auf den Strassen
überall

die Ungewollten
die Ungeliebten
unter uns

jene von damals
sind eine Mahnung
heute zu handeln[3]

Und – wir wissen nicht, ob oder wann wir auf die Flucht gehen müssen.  Wir wissen nur: Selig die Menschen, die Gottes Wege gehen.

Amen

[1] See https://www.pastors-home.de/?p=3707.

[2]  See https://www.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/theologie/dekanat/fakultaet/veranstaltungen/Uni_Gottesdienst_Semesterero__ffnung_160404_MH.pdf, S. 10.

[3] Te Deum, Dezember 2019.

Advent 3 – 15 December 2019

sermon preached at St Oswald’s, King’s Park

Isaiah 35.1-10
James 5.7-10
Matthew 11.2-11

The third Sunday of Advent – Gaudete!  Rejoice!  Some churches today are dressed in pink or rose, to mark a joyful Sunday in the midst of a season of penitence, and we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath.  Gaudete – rejoice – points us back to the reading set for this Sunday in the medieval lectionary, and also in the Book of Common Prayer, from Philippians 4:4-5: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! … The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything.”

“The Lord is near.  Rejoice!  Do not be anxious about anything.”

Rejoicing may not be how you feel just at the moment, given the political situation, and the exhortation not to be anxious may strike home.  The Benedictine sister, theologian and poet, Charis Doepgen, writes:

Joy is the key of the third week of Advent. Does that seem unreasonable in this time of global uncertainty?  Or is this a licence – or a requirement – to a tenacious perseverance in faith, despite everything?[1]

The Advent call to joy is not a call to ignore the realities of the world, but to believe that despite everything transformation is possible.  In the midst of unsettling situations, when we might not be able tos see a clear way forward, there is a gentleness the call to rejoicing in Philippians which is matched in our readings from Isaiah and James.  “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’” says Isaiah.  “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord,” says James. “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

In one of the daily readings earlier this week, we read another passage from Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  Comfort comes from the Latin cum forte – with strength:  in times of despair, Isaiah suggests, we will nonetheless be strengthened. The preparation for the coming of the Lord is not some kind of aerobic course only for the fittest.  Rather it is about being kind to ourselves, being patient: for it is then that we will receive strength.  And that mean that Advent is about being able to wait for God as we are, even if (as is often the case at this time of year) how we are is tired or tetchy, stressed or sad. We come before God as we are, in the knowledge that we will be accepted, comforted, strengthened.

And that knowledge is transformation.  In being accepted, comforted, strengthened: that points us towards the blossoming of the desert, the bringing of sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, it opens of our eyes to see the world in a new way.

But we have to wait.  There is no way of speeding this up.  As Paula Gooder reminds us, Advent is about anticipation in the sense of “looking forward” and not in the sense of “beginning the celebrations early.”[2]  This is a time of preparing, of waiting, for what is to come.  It is a time to be patient. Like the farmer in the Epistle of James, we need to know when to be active and when to recognise that more time is needed. Ron Rolheiser remembers:

In one of her early books, Annie Dillard shares how she once learned a lesson, the hard way, about the importance of waiting. She had been watching a butterfly slowly emerge from its cocoon. The oh-so-slow process of transformation was fascinating, but, at a point, she grew impatient. She took a candle and heated the cocoon, though only slightly, in order to speed up things. It worked. The butterfly emerged a bit more quickly, but, because the process had been unnaturally rushed, it was born with wings that were not properly formed and it was not able to fly.

“The lesson wasn’t lost on Dillard,” Rollheiser reflects. “She understood immediately what was wrong.  … She had short-circuited advent.”[3]

So Advent is about waiting until that things that are to come are ready, not about moving to Christmas already.

And yet, Advent is an already-but-not-yet time.  In our waiting for the incarnation, in our waiting for the coming of the kingdom, we are – or we should be – already incarnating Christ in this world.  Friedrich Buechner writes:

to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is not just a passive thing, a pious, prayerful, churchly thing. On the contrary, to wait for Christ to come in his fullness is above all else to act in Christ’s stead as fully as we know how. To wait for Christ is as best we can, is to be Christ to those who need us to be Christ to them most, and to bring them the most we have of Christ’s healing and hope, because unless we bring it, it may never be brought at all.[4]

That is, we are called to wait in a way that prepares not only ourselves but also those we encounter for the transformative reality of the incarnate Christ.

Amen.

 

[1]   Te Deum, December 2019, p. 152.

[2]   Paula Gooder, The Meaning is in the Waiting, p. 3.

[3]   http://liturgy.slu.edu/3AdvA121513/reflections_rolheiser.html.

[4]   http://www.frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-be-patient.

Christ the King (C) – 24 November 2019

sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands

Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s Year, now known as Christ the King Sunday.  The German Protestant Churches call it Ewigkeitssonntag – eternity Sunday – and it is indeed a festival that stands at the cusp between time and eternity, “a feast of ends and beginnings” as Malcolm Guite calls it.[1] Over the last few weeks our readings have called us to contemplate judgement and the Last Things, and from next week we will move into Advent. We stand at the cusp of the old year and the new, but and we are challenged today to think particularly about the nature of Christ’s reign in the kingdom of God, about Christ as King.

The language of kingship may conjure up all kinds of images and associations with pomp and splendour.  But Christ’s kingship is not of this world. Today’s gospel reading tells of Christ’s passion, his crucifixion, reminding us that the kingship of Christ is manifested in his giving his life, his suffering and death on the cross, which leads to resurrection and eternal life.

And so Christ’s kingship is about the transformation of the world, and particularly of the suffering of the world. Michael Gehrling writes in a powerful poem:

Can you hear his voice?
calling from a distant land
around the world
the voice of a child,
malnourished and hungry.

The King who once
put on human flesh
now hidden…
in frail, naked bodies
with starved, bloated stomachs.

Can you hear his voice?
calling from a distant land
across the street
the voice of a man
begging for change.

The hands that formed
the depths of the earth
now hidden
in cracked, dirty hands
that hold a beggar’s cup.[2]

God’s kingdom – and Christ’s kingship – turns our human expectations upside down.  Christ is King at that very moment when he is preparing to die, precisely because his suffering is not the end of the story. Christ’s kingship points us to the way that our own times of terrible suffering and grief can be transformed by God’s presence.  Christ’s kingship is about transformation, about redemption, about salvation.

The reading from Colossians reading reminds us that this understanding of Christ’s kingship is part of the transformation of the world. Here we have a great christological hymn, a hymn celebrating Christ as the image of the invisible God; the first-born of creation through whom all things were created; the head of the church; the first-born of the dead, through whom God reconciled all things to himself.  This is a hymn of praise, a hymn of affirmation, but it is also a statement of faith: one of the early credal statements which form the foundation of our own affirmations of faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

All that is affirmed here in Colossians is summed up in the beginning of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

That links the Christ we celebrate today as the King who is present in and transforms the suffering of the world is the same Christ whose coming, whose incarnation we will be celebrating in just a few weeks’ time at Christmas.  Christ the King is the maker of the world, but he will come – and has come – into the world a human baby.  This is the King, the Christ, who is not only our redeemer but the Logos, the shape, the reason of the making of the world.  Christ, says Colossians, gives the world its shape, gives the world its rationale, because God orders the world through Christ.  And each of us is drawn through Christ into God’s intended pattern of the world.  Our individual lives are all part of God’s mission to redeem the world.

Each of us as individuals has a part to play in a much larger story.  Our lives in Christ contribute to the shaping of the whole world back into its proper way of being.  The salvation of each of us as individuals is part of God’s decision, God’s choice to restore creation.  This is what we affirm in the baptism service, when we pray together:

Bring those who are baptised in this water
with Christ through the waters of death,
to be one with him in his resurrection.
Sustain your people by your Spirit
to be hope and strength to the world.[3]

This feast of the end of the one church year and the beginning of the next is also a feast about our beginnings – our baptism, our rootedness in Christ – and about our ends, in the teleological sense, in the sense of our aims.  Where are our lives going?  Revelation 22:13 affirms that Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  And today we remember how all of us are – each of our individual lives is – drawn into that journey from the beginning to the end.

Amen

[1]  See https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2019/11/23/christ-the-king-3/.

[2]   See https://mikegehrling.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/a-poem-for-christ-the-king/.

[3]  SEC baptism liturgy 2006 (https://www.scotland.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/holy-baptism-2006-word.docx).

22nd Sunday after Trinity – 17 November 2019

Oriel College Chapel

Psalm 69: 9-21
Zechariah 8:9-23
John 2: 12-25

We may not be very familiar with the Jesus we meet in today’s gospel reading: the Jesus who takes up a whip and physically drives the traders and their stock out of the temple.  This is a very different image from the rather calmer account of the cleansing of the temple we find in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, and Luke 19:45-48). Those accounts occur towards the end of Jesus’s ministry, shortly before he is arrested.  Here the cleansing of the temple comes at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, just after the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. John seems to be using this encounter to point forwards to what Jesus’s ministry is going to be about:  he associates Jesus’s action with words drawn from Psalm 69:9: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ This is the phrase given to me as a theme for this sermon. To focus our thinking about John’s depiction of Jesus’s ministry, or his self-understanding in this early part of the gospel.

‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’  I found myself pondering the meaning of the word house here. What house is meant?  I think John means us to ask exactly that question. Is this about God’s house in a narrow sense, the physical building, the temple? Or God’s house in a more dynastic sense, the people of Israel, the church?  Or about God’s house in a much broader sense, the whole people of God, the whole of creation?  And how does each of those relate to Jesus’s ministry?

The narrative of John’s gospel certainly relates the cleansing of the temple to God’s house in the sense of the temple, which is immediately brought into relation with Jesus’ physical body. The surface narrative of the story shows us Jesus expelling those who he sees as exploiting the believers. (This is a text much discussed in English cathedrals in the context of the charging of entrance fees and the setting up of cathedral shops.)

The disciples here are confronted with the thought of the destruction of the temple, an important theme in Luke’s gospel, written probably after it had been destroyed. The main Sunday lectionary today also picks up that theme, and this morning in the village church in Derbyshire where I grew up and was married we were invited to think about how it would feel to be told that this building, were people have worshipped for over 800 years, was about to be razed to the ground. How would you feel if you were told that this chapel was about to be destroyed?

It is a shocking thought, but this is what is being promised there: the old order passing away. The old order is shown in John’s as gospel as corrupt in a way that it would not have seemed to those who were involved in it.  I often wonder how it felt to be one of the sellers of doves, told by Jesus that they had it all wrong, or someone whose faith focused around sacrifice. But that is what this passage is getting at: the rejection of an old order that is portrayed as exploiting believers.

Susan Eastman the commodification of faith, and Jesus’ rejection of it, as the key to understanding this passage:

You shall not be caught in the lie that faith is a matter of bartering your way into the heart of God. … God’s house, God’s oikos or economy, is not a house of trade. It is not a place of exchange, a marketplace. God’s household economy is pure gift, abundant gift, overflowing grace for the undeserving, without regard to merit. God is not keeping a balance sheet: debit, credit, debit, credit, debit, debit debit debit debit debit… God doesn’t balance accounts; God gives it all away, without keeping track.[1]

This resonates with the rallying cry of many sixteenth-century reformers: justification is by faith alone. Grace is not for sale. You cannot buy salvation.

But there is more going on in John’s account of Jesus’s action in the temple, suggests the New Testament scholar Dennis Hamm. This is about shaping the new order as well as rejecting the old. Hamm finds that in the Gospel of John, “Jesus replaces, one by one, all of the major Israelite institutions. His life, death and resurrection definitively fulfill the meanings of Temple, feasts and Torah.”[2]  In this particular episode, says Hamm, we see Jesus “acting out the full Easter meaning of his life.  He can drive out the animals of the Temple sacrifice because his own self-offering on the cross will permanently fulfill the purpose of Temple sacrifice.”[3] The cleansing of the temple is one aspect of the way in which Jesus shows how the house of God is now – after the resurrection – to be understood and ordered.

Zeal for God’s house is not simply about the temple and the transformation of temple worship, and the pairing today of this passage from John with Zechariah reminds us of this. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s house is synonymous with the people of Israel. Jesus’s zeal for God’s house is zeal for the well-being, the commonweal of the people of Israel.  And that is about peace: peace between the House of Israel and the House of Judah. This challenges us to think about peace between religions as well as between nations. Last Sunday on 10 November, or last Monday, on 11 November, or both – many of us will have paused for two minutes’ silence in remembrance of all those who have died in war and especially in the two world wars. I was at the Remembrance Sunday service in Camden which took as its focus an interreligious approach to peace, involving a local Imam and two Rabbis as well Christian church leaders. It is very striking that for Zechariah the flourishing of the houses of Judah and of Israel, together, is about peace: “there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. Just as you have been a cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you and you shall be a blessing.”

The Gospel of John also understands Jesus’s ministry in terms of peace: indeed, the language of peace is probably more familiar to us than the image of the angry Jesus purging the temple.  Think of John 14:27: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ As Angus Paddison remarks,

Jesus’ victory over the world is not something in the dim and distant past. The peace acquired by Jesus … doesn’t fade or recede. The victory of Jesus, his healing words and redeeming action, is anchored by the Spirit in our time.[4]

Jesus as the bringer of peace may be an easier image than Jesus with a whip. The early church theologian Origen clearly thought so. He was uneasy with the thought of Jesus wielding a whip. Andy Alexis-Baker explains how Origen interpreted this passage allegorically (a very typical approach for him):

the temple signifies either a person’s soul or the church from which Jesus drives out earthly things (cattle), irrationality (sheep), and vanity (doves) with a whip that is a symbol of his powerful words. Thus in Origen’s reading the violent whip becomes nonviolent speech.[5]

In this reading, Jesus is coming to found a new kind of community, superseding the House of Israel in the church, but also founded on peace.

And yet, peace to can mean destruction. Another big anniversary this year is the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989. The tearing down of the wall marked the end of a system, the end of a way of being. What came out of it was not necessarily what those who gathered in autumn 1989 calling “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”) imagined. But this is a reminder that purging change can happen for the world as well as for the church.

This resonates with Zechariah’s words also: ‘Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgements that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, says the Lord.’

These are powerful words in our age of false news and in the rhetoric that surrounds us in these weeks leading up to the general election. (And if you have not yet registered to vote, do so!)  We may need in our context to hold on to the image of Jesus purging the temple, standing up for what he believed to be right.  A meme that was going round Facebook this last week, aimed at the BBC, says something important about truth:  “If one person says it is raining and another says it is sunny, it is not you job to give us both views. It is your job to put your head out of the window and find out which person is right.”

Discerning the truth about the situations in which we find ourselves, and speaking out about it, is an important challenge to us all. Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town and an important leader in the struggle against apartheid, has said “The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority.”[6] Similarly, in 2017, for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses, the Lutheran World Federation produced materials focused around three themes:  ‘Salvation – Is Not For Sale; Human Beings – Are Not For Sale; Creation – Is Not For Sale.’[7] These are reminders that Jesus came to transform the world, not just religious buildings or religious communities. He came to make the world new. So that the blind would see, the deaf hear, the captive be made free. So that, as Zechariah proclaims, people shall say of us, “We have heard that God is with you.”

‘It is zeal for your house that has consumed me,’ says the Psalmist in Psalm 69, ‘I will praise the name of God with a song; … Let the oppressed see it and be glad; you who seek God, let your hearts revive. For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own ….’

John’s gospel shows us a Jesus who brings this new order, the order promised in the Old Testament, not just to the temple, not just to the people of Israel or the church but to the world. Let us play our part: let it be so.

Amen

 

[1] Susan Eastman, ‘Sin’s Wages and God’s Gift in the Divine Economy: Reflections on Romans 7 and the Cleansing of the Temple in John 2:13-17,’ Expository Times 121 (2010) 342-345, at 345.

[2]  Dennis Hamm, ‘Livestock, Whip and Zeal,’ America 176 /6 (22 February 1997), 31.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Angus Paddison, ‘Exegetical Notes on John 14: 23-29,’ Expository Times 118 (2007), 342-343, at 343.

[5]   Andy Alexis-Baker ‘Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15.’ Biblical Interpretation 20 (2012), 73-96, at 76, citing Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel according to John.

[6]  Desmond Tutu, Sermon at Southwark Cathedral for the

The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Sunday 1 February 2004 (online at https://www.anglicannews.org/news/2004/02/sermon-by-archbishop-desmond-tutu-at-southwark-cathedral.aspx)..

[7]  See https://2017.lutheranworld.org/content/liberated-god%E2%80%99s-grace-131.

Proper 23 (C) – 13 October 2019

sermon preached at St George’s by the River, Rumson NJ

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Ten lepers.  Ten lepers who come to Jesus. Ten lepers who came to Jesus — not too close, because lepers aren’t allowed to come too close, being too infectious — not too close, because they belong to the outcasts of society and no one would want them too close.  Ten lepers who come to Jesus — not too close, but close enough to be heard.  And when they get that close, not close enough to offend, but close enough to be heard, they call out to Jesus.  Jesus, master, have mercy on us.  And Jesus, instead of touching them, instead of going to them himself, sends them to the priests, that is, to the officials who are responsible for making pronouncements about the health or otherwise of the people, to the local public health officers, if you will.  And as they went, we are told, they were made clean.  When they got there, we can assume, they were pronounced free of their sickness. They were healed.

Or were they?  For one of them — only one of these ten — when he saw that he was healed returned, came back to Jesus. And not only did he come back, but he came near and prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  To this former leper — only to this one of the ten — did Jesus say, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”

Ten were cleansed of their leprosy, ten were made clean.  But, it seems, only one was healed.

This story offers us, I think, two key messages.  The first relates to that initial point of healing.  These lepers come to Jesus to ask for healing: they recognise their need.   But what Jesus tells them to do is to get on with their normal religious life.  Go to the religious officials. There is something important for me here about the way in which our religious disciplines can be healing if we allow them to be. We do need to take time out to know our need, but we can also trust ourselves to our own religious structures and systems. They can and do mediate grace. That is an important message in a society which encourages us always to be looking for something new.

But this story also offers us a poignant reminder that there is more to healing than outward appearance.   Lepers in the ancient world (and in some places even today) were outcasts, not a part of society, existing on the fringes of communities.  Lepers belonged to the group of people that no-one wanted.  Most people in that situation, most of those who had lived with their illness for long enough, must have found ways of living with it, must have adapted their lives, made it their normality.  And perhaps for the other nine lepers, it was the case that they had learned to live with their illness.  Perhaps these nine, now cleansed of their leprosy, still felt themselves to be outcasts, misfits, excluded; perhaps it was still impossible for them to imagine approaching anyone without the stigma which their illness had given them.

They were cleansed, but they were not yet healed.  They were cleansed of their affliction but still unable to break through the terrible burden of separation that their illness had laid upon them.  Cleansed of their illness, but unable to break out of the straitjacket of behaviour imposed by who they had been, unable to stop being the people whom society had taught them to be.  Clean, but unable to change, unable to acknowledge who they might now have the potential to become.  Offered the gift of healing, they were unable to take it:  unable to turn back to the person who had given them this chance, and to speak the simple words of acknowledgement and thanks which might mark the beginning of the deeper healing.  They were cleansed but they were not healed.

But one was healed:  one — and he a foreigner — was able to break through what was for him a double burden of distance and exclusion.  For this one the realisation of his cleansing was also his healing.  This one was somehow able to break through the barriers – to reach across the gulf between Jews and Samaritans, to close the distance imposed between society and lepers, to come close, to approach a normal healthy human being.  It must have taken courage to approach this person who had made him clean – but who might still reject him.  It was a huge risk.  But this one leper did it:  and that he did so is an acknowledgement that a deep change has taken place, a recognition of true healing.

Ten were cleansed but only one was healed.

What the tenth leper did was far from easy.  It requires extraordinary courage to come to a place where you think you might be rejected, to fling yourself at the feet of one who might still draw his feet away in disgust at what you are (a foreigner) – or at what you once were (a leper).  But the tenth leper had that courage, and it was rewarded: Your faith has made you well, said Jesus.  This leper was not just cleansed but also healed.

There is something very important for us here in this distinction between cleansing and healing.  For it would seem that true healing requires reconciliation, and reconciliation requires conversion: turning around, going back, not in the sense of retreating but of revisiting, of repentance.  The healing of relationships requires us to take our courage in both hands and address what is difficult, not just to excise what is hard, what hurts, but to face it, and go through it, and to discover the reconciliation that may lie on the other side.

We need such healing in our society, broken and alienated as it is.  In these times of division, or political discourses which separate and drive apart, we need the courage to come closer to one another, to open ourselves to those very people whom we have learned to reject, or who have learned to reject us.  We need to learn new ways of being together, of recognising the human in each other.  Not long after the September 11th attacks in 2001, in an article that has stuck in my mind, Raghida Dergham, an Arab American journalist, wrote in Newsweek that Arabs and Americans are “so much alike, in the end, living each in our own worlds, disconnected, talking past each other.”[1]  It is not different today, nearly twenty years later; it is not different where I live in Britain and in Germany.  It is not different in the Church.  So often we live in separate worlds, separated by a distance across which we shout insults, or threats, or, when divisions and suspicion become deeper, throw bombs.  It is this distance that we need to heal.  And that healing will not come about by ignoring or excluding those whose existence we find difficult.  We cannot be healed by purging ourselves of those with whom we disagree.  The horror of the term “ethnic cleansing” which arose in the context of the tensions between different cultural and religious groups in the former Yugoslavia offers us a stark reminder that such a divisive, destructive cleansing has nothing at all to do with healing.

Healing comes about when we are ready to reach across the boundaries which cage us in, or shut us out, when we are prepared to take the risk of being rejected, when we are ready to approach those who we are afraid will reject us.  That is, healing comes about when we are prepared to enter into relationships that may require us to change.  All of this is what we mean when we talk theologically about repentance.  For healing means repentance, it means allowing our faith to shape our lives, to shape our being together; it means to allowing our faith in Christ to shape us and make us — and the relationships in which we live — well.

None of this is easy — I am all too aware of how very much easier it is to speak of what is needed to create healing relationships than to actually to create them — but it is necessary.  Cleansing may be purging; healing is to do with reconciliation. Healing is about involving ourselves in the risky process of reconciliation, in the knowledge that we may be rejected.  Healing is about having the faith and the hope, that when we do muster up our courage to do reach out to those who have rejected us in the past, we might this time be met with acceptance, forgiveness; that we will indeed be able to hear together the voice of Christ:  “Get up and go on your way.  Your faith — the faith we share – has made you well.”

Amen

 

[1]    Newsweek, 15.10.2001, p. 56.

Proper 20 (C) – 22 September 2019

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2.1-7
Luke 16.1-13

This is a challenging parable, as almost every commentator reminds us.  It is placed in Luke’s gospel in the middle of a series of stories about value: the story of the prodigal son who spent his inheritance and yet was welcomed home; the story of the woman who hunts for her lost coin, of the shepherd who searches for his lost sheep. Next week we will be thinking of the story of the rich man, who finds himself in hell, and the poor man Lazarus, who finds himself in heaven. Luke’s gospel urges us again and again to consider our relationship with money, with wealth, and how we balance that with our lives as disciples. Above all, Luke warns us not to believe that having money can ensure either our salvation or our happiness.

 

The lectionary gives us another context. In its thematic version, which we are following, this parable is offered to us in conjunction with Amos’s warning to those who cheat others, who ‘trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.’  When I read this text it resonated deeply for me with policies in the UK today, particularly with universal credit and reductions in support for those who are disabled. Amos suggests that what is happening in his society is abuse, particularly of the poor: diminishing measures (“we will make the ephah small”), inflating currencies (making “the shekel great”), and selling what has traditionally be viewed as the portion of the poor (“the sweepings of the wheat”). Reading Luke’s parable of the steward alongside this passage from Amos seems to me to raise some challenging questions about how privilege can be wired into society’s structures, even when those structures are not being abused: what was the relationship between the master, the steward or manager and the people?

In Luke’s parable the steward is his master’s representative to – or mediateor with – the people, but his doings in that capacity are not entirely clear. Is this steward some version of the exploitative factor who was so common in nineteenth-century Scotland, helping his master to oppress the people, and in this case taking a cut for himself in the process?  Or is it that he has already been acting as some kind of Robin Hood figure, diminishing his master’s profits by privileging the people?[1]  Either way, once he is found out, his response is to reduce the people’s debts to their master. “How much do you owe my master?” he asks. The answer comes: “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” He does that, at least as the parable portrays his motives, not out of innate goodness, but in the hope that the people will then help him once he has lost his post.  Nonetheless, the effect of the steward’s action is to forgive the people their debts. And how must that have felt?  To have a debt reduced by a half, or even a fifth?

This account of the forgiving of debts resonates with the Lord’s Prayer in the English translation most frequently used in the Church of Scotland.  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  The parallel in the translation we more often use reminds us that debt and sin are here closely related: “Forgive us our sin as we forgive those that sin against us.”  Debt in the gospels often functions as a metaphor for sin. We might want to read the forgiveness of debt in Luke’s parable of the steward in parallel with anther parable recounted in Matthew’s gospel: that of the slave whose master lets him off a huge debt, but who then refuses to mitigate the far smaller debt of a fellow slave. These parables connect forgiveness of debt to forgiveness of sin, and in doing so they point to the gift that is grace, to God’s free gift of grace which frees us from the burdens of sin, or or guilt, or what we feel we owe others.

Luke’s steward sees forgiveness as part of a calculated move. He is shown as forgiving the people their debts in the hope that they will repay them in kind when he loses his position. He forgives them part of their debt. God’s grace is free gift, which forgives us the whole of our sin, our debt, with no strings attached.  I think this is what those gnomic comments by Jesus at the end of today’s gospel reading are getting at. Of course in our happiness we may well want to show our gratitude to God for completely wiping out our entire debt. But do we even comprehend the magnitude of that gift?  Desmond Tutu comments, “I accept that it must be enormously difficult to be open to receiving when one seems to lack for nothing, and that it perhaps why so many who come from affluent societies do not easily understand the wonder of grace, freely bestowed by a deeply generous God.”[2]

It might make more sense to us, in our context, to couch this metaphor in terms of a deep sense of inadequacy or of a burden of guilt, rather than as a burden of debt. Henri Nouwen writes of the importance of recognising God’s deep love for us: “The truth is that God loved us before we were born and will love us still after we have died. … We are held by God in an everlasting embrace.” We do not need to earn God’s love. Nouwen recognises: “This is not an easy identity to claim because to deserve being loved our society requires us to be successful, popular, or powerful. But God does not require our success, popularity or power in order to love us.”[3] That sense of needing to do something, needing to be something, needing to produce something – and particularly our inability to do, be, or produce what we feel is expected of us – resonates with the sense of debt that Luke is talking about. It can leave us with a deep sense of inadequacy, or of guilt.

And that has an impact. David Bryant writes of the crippling effect of feeling guilt, not just on ourselves, but for our attitudes towards others:  “If we hate ourselves it is hard for us to love others, and our vision of the world outside and our behaviour towards it is warped and soured.” However, it may not take very much to “shift the suffocating intolerance and self-loathing of guilt away from ourselves and bring in a breath of fresh air from the outside world. Sometimes all that is needed is an apology, a settlement of outstanding debts, a request for forgiveness or a kiss.”[4]

The steward in Luke’s parable gave that he might receive. In God, however, the gift of grace, the gift of freedom from guilt and debt, is not an end in itself, but frees us in such a way that we may free others in their turn. The paying off of debt, the lifting of the burden of guilt is not intended to make us self-sufficient, but rather reminds us that we exist in relationship to God, but also to one another. The petition “forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others,” or “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”, is a reminder of how we are interlinked, how our flourishing is intertwined with the flourishing of others. For, as Desmond Tutu affirms, “none of us could ever be human in isolation, in stark solitude.  … We are made with inbuilt insufficiency so that we can know our desperate need of the other.”[5]

This recognition resonates with our reading from Amos.  The kind of exploitation that Amos warns against is oppressive behaviour; it sees those who are being exploited and oppressed as other, as less important human beings, not as other people but simply as the source of profit. Such an understanding of our fellow human beings is opposed to God’s vision of justice, as Paula Gooder remarks: “Living a life of justice and righteousness involves genuinely seeking the welfare of others – and in our modern global world this involves those who live thousands of miles away as well as those who live next door. … Our God, the everyday God, calls us to be everyday Christians and not just Sunday best ones.”[6]

We may not feel that we can do very much, but we should do what we can. Reflecting on the feeding of the five thousand, Paula Gooder writes: “We should never hold back from offering our small gift, even when we are confident that it will be insufficient for what is needed. … We can never know what God’s miraculous, generous intervention can do with the smallest of things we offer.”[7]  That is, Desmond Tutu affirms: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

And so may we know our debts to forgiven and our burden of guilt lifted.  May our hearts overflow with gratitude to God.  And may that gratitude spill over into our relationships with others, and our whole lives overflow with the radical generosity of God’s grace.

Amen

 

 

[1]  For further reflection on the parable as a whole, see my sermon for Proper 20 at St Mungo Alexandria on 18 September 2016: https://cmethuen.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/proper-20-c-18-september-2016/.

[2]  Desmond Tutu, In God’s Hands (London 2014), p. 88.

[3]  Henri Nouwen, Discernment (London 2013), p. 135.

[4]  David Bryant, Glimpse of Glory (London 2016), pp. 106, 107.

[5]  Tutu, In God’s Hands, pp. 33, 38

[6]  Paula Gooder, Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary (Norwich 2012), 70-71.

[7]   Ibid., 52.