Sermon for Sunday August 18th, 2013.
20th in Ordinary time, Year C
‘If you want to make an omelette . . .’
A number of years ago, just across from the school where I taught in Northern England yet another modern edifice sprang up almost overnight. Unlike so many of the buildings that had been built in recent years there, it wasn’t yet another temple to Mammon, another financial institution. Rather is was a Temple of Mars. It was the new site of the Royal Armouries, a museum dedicated to war and warfare.
Intrigued as to what it might contain I visited with my family, and children who are far less inured to violence than we rhinoceras hide adults commented, ‘it’s full of guns’, why would anyone want to come here? But one remark in particular pierced my own rhino hide. In one large hall, probably to do with British campaigns in India, there stood a stuffed elephant, encased head to toe in armour, and Rose my eldest asked, ‘Daddy, why would anyone want to hurt an elephant?’
Rose like all my children loved elephants. The thought that anyone might want to kill one was soul piercing . . . like the question, ‘why would anyone want to Crucify Jesus?’, at least for a child. Of course a child’s heart is a soft and receptive thing, open to love and thus to the life of God, and children’s Bibles almost always speak of Good Friday as a sad day, because their friend Jesus was brutally killed. But no explanation is given . . . the unwritten message is that ‘some bad people’ did it, the same bad people one supposes who are responsible for all that is wrong in the world. Certainly that is the story we tell our children, and it is a childish myth we perpetuate to rationalise all our warfare and encasing elephants in armour.
Of course many children’s bibles don’t contain today’s gospel readings, as indeed they don’t include many of Jesus’ hard sayings. Imagine for example reading Jesus stark parable of the Rich man and Lazarus to a child who is comfortably off. ‘There was this rich man, and he died and went to hell . . . There was this poor man . . .’ Actually I think Children would understand perfectly well Jesus’ ‘explanation’ put into the mouth of Abraham, ‘You in your life received good things and Lazarus bad . . . and now the tables are turned’ Children after all seem to have a nose for justice, and until they get caught up themselves in what they are taught to think of as the morally complex adult world, they can be great advocates for justice for the poor. Something which only the tiniest minority of us carry into even early middle age. We remember the vulnerablilty of childhood and we as sure as hell don’t want to go back there.
Our adult Bibles of course don’t avoid these plain words of Jesus. Yet we are the ones who romanticise Jesus. We’ve lost sight of the justice of God, and are more concerned to look after our own affairs. We either mentally airbrush out the ‘difficult words of Jesus’, or explain them away, or if we think ourselves rather theologically modern and sophisticated, we don’t take them as coming from ‘the real Jesus’ of our romantic imagination.
Of course, because we are so foolish as to do this, we too have no answer to the question ‘Why did they crucify Jesus?’, except that comfortable myth, ‘bad people did it . . . the sort of people who are still standing in the way of Jesus’. By ignoring those words of Jesus, by refusing to meditate upon them or indeed getting rid of them from OUR version of Christian faith, we deny that WE are the ones standing in his way. That we are the ones who crucify Jesus.
I have come to bring fire on the earth. Fire, a symbol of the judgement of God, and of the Spirit of God. ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and Fire’ says John. The Spirit, the Advocate of whom Jesus says ‘when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.’ The Spirit is the Holy Spirit – the vessel of the Life of God and also therefore the judgement of God. And this judgement intimately involves Jesus. and how I wish [this fire] were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed. That baptism the church has always recognised as the Cross – where all of humanity comes under the judgement of God, All of humanity. And that judgement begins with the people of God.
Jesus comes as the son of the owner of the vineyard, of which we heard in our reading from Isaiah – he is the one who finds that the vineyard is bearing no fruit. The very people of God, the ones called by God into a living relationship, saved by God from Egypt, tended and cared for by God – who have rejected him and his life. And this rejection is coming to its climax in the crucifixion of Jesus.
And this Judgement will reveal the true nature of things, separating sheep from goats, and dividing families. Above all doing away with our feeble conceptions of peace that are nothing more than a pious screen for the violence of the age. ‘Why do you say Peace, Peace, when there is no peace?’ asks Jesus. ‘Do not think that I have come to bring Peace . . .’ he says. ‘Peace’, like ‘Justice’ and indeed ‘Love’ are words that we have as it were stolen from God and put to our own distorted uses. Last week you may remember I spoke of the jet airliner, and how it all but flew itself. How it was a cocoon from reality – how we take things into our own hands and put them to our own uses, and in so doing flee from the Real Life that is life dependent on God.
We take the good things of God and then put them to our own use. We are autonomous. Laws unto ourselves. And we distort the meaning of words. Those of Jesus’ time, especially those in Palestine understood how human power distorted words, and particularly the word Peace. Imperial Rome had come to bring Peace, by the force of Sword to trample down all that stood in its way, to make straight the path for its own commerce and trade. War and Economics, the unholy alliance down through the ages? The British Empire arming elephants to make straight the way for the East India company. And we can think of many more recent examples. Jesus does not engage in such sophistry as the Pax Romana, the false peace that comes about only through Power.
No, his message is in no way seductive, the rich will not hear it and rejoice as they might over the Pax Romana, or Americana, or Britannica. Rather he comes to bring division, to shatter all the false securities we build for ourselves, to declare God’s merciful judgement on the world we have built for ourselves and to to usher in the kingdom of God.
In utter vulnerability, he puts himself in our hands to have our way with him . . . and thus is revealed the door to Life. Life on our own terms is judged and found wanting, and a new and Living way of humble dependence upon the Spirit of God is revealed. And so comes the division, for to live in such dependence upon God is to find ourselves at odds with those who insist on keeping control of their own lives, of trying to create ‘Peace‘ and ‘Safety’, when there is no such thing. Such is the way of idolatry which is at the heart of all of this. Jesus over and again attacks the idols which keep us from vulnerable exposure to the life of God, which if you like keep us secure in our carefully sealed jetairliner, away from the ocean below and the small sail ship which the little flock are called to.
Just a few years ago I was given a particulalry powerful vision of how our ‘Peace’ is false, of how our lives are sealed of from others as I came here on interview. And for the first time ever I crossed the teeming continent of India in air conditioned comfort, and as I flew I worked out that the cost of my air ticket was somewhere in the region of fifteen years wages for the average person 35,000 feet below me. Many of them lives of for me unimagineable poverty. Peace? It was powerful illustration for me of how we secure ourselves against life and so against the one who comes amongst us in vulnerable poverty. Our idols.
Money of course. We idolise this, we imagine that the work of God cannot be done without it – and God laughs! We reveal we know little or nothing of the work of God in our blindness. And here again, family. As people long for ‘enough money’ to secure them, so also they long for happiness in family – as if that will be all they need. We idolise family. This is why Jesus’ words, like his teaching about wealth is so shocking, our treasures, our idols, those places we put our security he scales a full on assault on, for Our sake.
As last week, I want to think about this briefly in terms of the church – and our fellowship. Here in the Diocese of course we face things falling apart, but I wonder if we might possibly see this as something good? All those things we put our hope in, money, buildings, all as it were crumbling away. Can we see this as God’s merciful judgement upon us? His taking away those things which we use to defend ourselves from him?
Last week I spoke briefly about how I knew of many small churches which were close to the end of life on their own terms and yet hadn’t woken up to Life on God’s terms. in the midst of everything, they hadn’t flung themselves on the mercy of God and cried out to him. They weren’t giving hours and hours to prayer and fasting and seeking what God was saying. Rather they just imagined that this was the end because, after all, ‘church is mainly about our money and our time and our resources an they’re all gone’. One or two perhaps half heartedly would say, ‘All we can do is pray now’ – yet THAT was all they ever Could do! The true life of the church, its true peace was not found in our power, but in our vulnerability, in understanding that Prayer was The Thing. That apart from a deep shared life of Prayer, there was no church to speak of. Apart from a people living in genuine humble dependence upon the Spirit which blows where it will, there was no life.
We, as I said last week, are very good at running the show ourselves. but that is not Life. That is not what we are called to. I think if we learned to pray together even half as well as we run the church, we may discover that we don’t need to put all this time and effort and energy into running the church. We might discover that Fire which Christ the Risen one has kindled in his death and resurrection. We might discover the Life of God.