Sermon for Evensong – Sunday October 16th, 2016
A Place to Live
I’ve recently started the far from straightforward journey of leaving Facebook. Back in 2008 when my acquaintance with it began, a friend, thinking that I would ‘make something of myself in the church’, counselled me to remove my political allegiance from my public profile, for it would not be read with favour by the powers that be and would undoubtedly count against me, should I look for ‘preferment’.
Which has got everyone wondering, and as the account is now deactivated, I will have to relieve your curiosity by telling you it said, ‘Ellulian Anarchist’! In any church this might be thought to be unwise perhaps, but within the established church of the state . . . Well, I believe and continue to do so, that insofar as any political ideology is consistent with the Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Anarchy, properly understood, is closer than most. However, here is neither the time nor the place . . . and it is that notion of Place, or more correctly, ‘Somewhere to Live’, which at once calls my own anarchic purity into question, and which also weaves together our two seemingly disparate readings this evening.
My purity, which is of course always in question, is compromised because I belong to that class notorious amongst True Believers, I am a Landlord. That is, I own a house that I do not live in and take a rent from those who do. The Anarchist vision is very close to that of the Old Testament vision of the Shalom of the Kingdom of God, each man under his own vine. We are told in the First Book of Kings ‘During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.’ And the prophetic vision of Micah, foretelling the future kingdom says ‘Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.’ So not only from my ideologically pure fellow anarchists, but also from Holy Scripture, I realise that I am under judgement – as The LORD says through Isaiah ‘Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.’
My only defence is that for the last 20 years I have been constrained to live in a house that is not my own – a defence that the Tax authorities seem uninterested in, and which leaves me on the shakiest of grounds with regards to Scripture.
At the base of the scriptural critique is precisely this, that people do not need houses, a roof over their heads, they need much more than that, they need homes’. And as my anarchist friends would say, agreeing with the French anarchist philosopher ‘Property is theft’ – meaning taking up houses for your own ends and thus depriving others of a home . . . And of course in the current madness of the housing market globally we realise this. My children cannot afford their own home – for capital flooding into the land, not only in London, but of course here in New Zealand, inflates the price of properties so that increasingly they become the domain of property speculators. Fewer and fewer have a place they can call their own . . . Of course, in this respect we are only seeing the natural outcome of the shift to an industrialised society in which the most fundamental aspects of our humanity were, and continue to be eroded.
And the children of Israel in the time of Nehemiah knew this – they had been taken into exile – and now returning it was no longer their place. Somewhere to live, and where they had once lived, but no longer Their Place, no longer somewhere they could call home. As we read a little later on in the book of Nehemiah ‘Here we are, slaves to this day—slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.’ This text is a powerful indictment of the outcome of our industrial / capitalist system, Slaves in their own land, someone else employs them, someone else is the landlord and takes the fruit of their labours.
And this desire for their True Home comes to a focus in this ‘Festival of Booths’ or better for us perhaps, ‘Festival of Tabernacles’. This Festival was a remembrance, a remembering of who the people were, that they were the people who had dwelt in Tabernacles, or Booths, in the wilderness of Israel. Of course they dwelt in tents following the command and instruction of God in the Law and the Festival of Booths followed on from Moses descending from the mountain (a second time) a period of repentance after all that business with the Golden Calves. And we have an echo of that, in that all the people ‘wept when they heard the words of the Law’. This act of remembering precipitated sorrow, for they realised in remembering that they had once forgotten, and that it was that forgetting whose they were that had led to their homelessness. Lack of a home, fundamentally is a lack of self.
BUT Ezra commands them not to mourn or weep, for this rediscovered festival was to be a time of restored fellowship with the LORD. “This day is holy to the LORD your God, do not mourn or weep”. To participate in a Holy Day was to participate in the Holy, to share in fellowship with God – a sign of their True Home – it was a sign of restoration and acceptance and finding their Place – culminating in the ‘Festival of Tabernacles’, which were erected everywhere throughout the land on the roofs of people’s houses and people lived in them for the seven days of the Feast – in remembrance of their dwelling with God, in tents, in the wilderness. At once in a sense without houses, but also with a home.
Of course they had always kicked against this. The LORD dwelling in their midst was not enough for so many who longed for the good old days in Egypt and did not rest in the promise of the Land which God had sworn to them. Like so many of us, like the Prodigal Son, they didn’t realise how At Home they were with the Father. It was only when they had lost it that they ‘came to their senses’ When finally they were settled in the land, they rebelled against the LORD – the rich accumulated power and possession and added house to house and field to field, until they lived in lonely isolation – and the poor were dispossessed and put to work on land that had been taken from them – or put to work in the cities. (The correlation between what had happened and the world which we find ourselves is compellingly powerful as the industrialisation of agriculture globally has meant that more people now live in urban than in rural areas – people taken out of their place – having houses but no homes, no place of historical continuity, generation to generation, but another time . . .) The people had kicked against God’s shalom and so had been taken into exile – all except the poor, the nobodies – to whom now the land once more belonged in some sense – the meek inheriting the earth.
So, in this restoration of the festival an act of remembering took place – of remembering living with God in their midst in this Feast of the Tabernacles – each with their own Tent or Booth. But something was missing. In the days of Glory – the LORD had dwelt in the Temple, and before that his Glory, the sign of his Presence and rested on the Tabernacle i the pillar of cloud by day and find by night – the Shekinah, the Glory of the LORD was missing. For all they were back in Jerusalem, it was still as slaves under a foreign power, the land was not theres and the Presence of the LORD was, at best obscured. They lived in ‘booths’ for week each year, but where was the Shekinah, the Glory of the LORD . . . And now there is a Long gap, a time of silence – until we get to the festival of the Tabernacles in the Gospels . . . For this festival is one we know in the New Testament also, although it too has got somewhat obscured 🙂
“Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle palm and other leafy trees . . .’ Bring anything to mind??
In the Mishnah – the verbal commentary in the Torah, the book of the Law, which described the ‘rituals for [The feast of] Tabernacles in the time of Jesus: how the branches of palm, willow and myrtle were cut and tied into bundles. People carried them in procession to the Temple, while singing Psalm 118 : Hosanna, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
‘The whole bundle [of palm, willow and myrtle] was called ‘lulabh’, literally a ‘palm’’ . . .
‘The next day, a great multitude, that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees – [not to build booths, but] – to meet him . . .’ For truly ‘He inhabits the praises of his people’
A feast of the Tabernacles unlike any before, with the palms for a house for Israel’s God and King to dwell in once more. As John had already said in his magnificent prologue which we rarely hear outside the context of Christmas, ‘The Word became flesh, and [literally] ’tabernacled’ amongst us, and we have seen his Glory . . .’ The Glory, The defining sign of the Presence of [The Son of] God.
The question of where Jesus is from, and of where he is dwelling runs like a thread through John’s gospel. The first question addressed to him is ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ Where do you abide? Jesus invites them to ‘Come and see’, and they ‘abided with him’ that day . . . And now in Ch 16 we are in the midst of the great discourse of Jesus with his disciples on the night before he died. In a sense we are deep in the heart of the mystery of who Christ is as in this, at times bewildering narrative, Jesus speaks of being the Vine, of calling the disciples to dwell in him as he dwells in them . . .
‘Where Is God to be found?’ Jesus had spoken with the Samaritan woman at the well and this very question had come up. Where do we go to meet with the lIving God? You Jews say we must go to the Temple, we Samaritans go to Mt Gerizim – and Jesus said to her, ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ God’s presence was no longer to be confined to the Temple, or the mount, but in and through Jesus, all who were themselves abiding in Jesus, became the place where the Holy Spirit would dwell – within the Church, not the building, but the people.
Why do we long for Home? Because we are made in the Image of God who is himself seeking a Place to dwell! And so God sought out a people amongst whom to dwell. Jesus in his humanity is that faithful people Israel, and the Holy Spirit that dwelt in him was now to abide in all who lived in him, in all those who kept his commandments.
And as I said last week, in the mutual and unreserved forgiveness amongst God’s people, that which did not place a stumbling block in front of those whom Jesus was calling and had called to himself, so His Love amongst them is set free. A new commandmentI give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you. As I have forgiven, forgive, As I have loved, so love. In obedience to Him, He abides is us and we in him. Our Life in Him, His Life amongst us.
Jesus has been telling his disciples that if they abide in him as he abides in them through obedience to his commandments, so they will also share in his sufferings – As they treated me, so they will treat you, he says – I am telling you this so that when it happens you won’t fall away, you will not stumble, you will not deny the Life that is in you through me, you will not once more leave home.
Jesus Christ dies not for the immoral, but for the ungodly – not the immoral – those who do not know their true home – that it is to be found in Him – Abide i me, as I abide in you – and that He may be found in us