Sermon: June 11 2017

Trinity Sunday
Baptism of Kathy P.

Audio link here.

Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
[John 3:16-18]

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The fiery pillar materialises ex nihilo, and speaks, to Charlton Heston in Cecil DeMille’s 1956 biblical epic The Ten Commandments.

I am, I am, I am the Lord Thy God, names the voice before a prehensile stream of Oscar-winning special effects emerges from the pillar and etches into the mountainside some Bronze Age Phoenician Hebrew far beyond my palaeographical powers. And then the familiar slabs—those rectangles with rounded tops—are carved by the same supernatural flame, and Heston’s Moses reaches for them, and holds them in his own hands.

These are not the plates he now holds, of course. They lie crumbled at the bottom of Mt Sinai; God’s own work and writing smashed in the old prophet’s fury at his people’s faithless idolatry. His wrath burned hot and burned the golden calf and ground it into dust, and the people drank the dust mixed with water, and so the idol is transmuted into effluent waste.

Moses had to supply the slabs this second time around. But the Lord came again and stood with him, comes in the midst of us and takes us as an inheritance and utters that mystery of a name, a name that may or may not come from the verb to be, but has been received anyway as an indication that God just is. I am, I am, says the Lord. There is no why or how to the existence of God. There is, in other words, no purpose, no function, no point to God. God is in this way like number theory and the ballet, like poetry and musical theatre, none of which need to be useful to be essential. God is a gratuitous act, and therefore utterly free, free from our obsessions with utility and value, costs and benefits, and therefore free to love for no reason at all.

+++

And so, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is most commonly and disastrously misunderstood in functional terms: the Father is for creating, the Son for redeeming, and the Spirit for sanctifying. God is thus defined in terms of what God does for us, which is almost laughably narcissistic, if not tragically idolatrous. The problem with modern idols—made of ideas rather than of gold—is that they cannot be so easily identified and expelled.

It is not our fault, of course. From all fronts, we are assaulted with our own objectification and commodification. Human beings have become human resources, to be evaluated based on our outputs and efficiencies. Cries of need are met at best with unfeeling mantras about balanced budgets and at worst with mocking talk of magical money trees. We are now perhaps known best by the mindless algorithms that extract data from our most popular avenues of self-expression; this data is then sold to the highest bidder, and thus we have become the products of the services we purport to use. It is no wonder that we don’t know how to be loved, that we are in perpetual states of anxiety about whether we belong, whether we are worthy so to do.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is the idea that at the heart of all things is a life that consists of nothing other than gratuitous love. Father, Son, and Spirit pour themselves out into one another without remain, holding nothing of themselves back for themselves: they therefore define one another, not by roles fulfilled but by love given and received, given and received, given and received, ever world without end.

+++

This then, is the name into which you, Kathy, are to be baptised, really the same name revealed to Moses so many mythic years ago.

This is the life into which you are to be baptised, a life of learning to be loved not for what you can produce or accomplish or what you look or sound like, but just because; because you were made by love for love.

Our job—the job of this congregation now gathered and of the Church throughout the world—is to help you with this learning, by loving you. Your baptism calls forth ours, in which we too were brought into this new life. And we are unspeakably privileged, from now on, to call you our own. Take seriously the promises we are making to you, Kathy: This will forever be your Church, and we will forever be your people. It will not matter how far away you go—though London is really not very far away—this will always be a home to which you can return. We will always have your back.

Your job is, like ours, to live out this calling to be in the world unencumbered by the trappings of life as it is typically known, the petty insecurities that fuel our narcissistic compulsions to assert ourselves, even to the detriment of others. This is, of course, the sense in which baptism is a kind of death: you will be drowned in the waters of baptism into the death of Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for the sake of the world. The life into which you then emerge is the life of his resurrection, which walks with strangers and breaks the barriers of fear and sits at table to truly know and be known.

+++

These are all glorious mysteries.
God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit.
The baptism by water and the name of God.
And you.
Amen.

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Sermon: April 23 2017

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter.

Audio link here.

Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

He showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples—instead of calling an ambulance or passing out at the sight of this gory specimen—were glad when they saw the Lord. This is a weird response. Even more weird is Thomas’s desire to stick his fingers into the wounds, where the nails once tore through tendon and ligament, where the spear entered the body envelope of his Lord and God.

Weird, and yet, totally understandable. If I was in that room when Jesus came back from the dead, holes in his hands and feet and side, I would want to probe them too. I wouldn’t be able to look away. It’s like a train wreck, a friend’s new piercing in an unfortunate location, a comically extravagant engagement ring.

We have always found this image compelling, and made much of the fact that Jesus bore the marks of his passion, even in his resurrection:
They recognised him not at first, but then they noticed his scars and knew and were glad. And if Christ is recognized by the damage he sustained in this world, perhaps we too are formed by the slings and arrows we have survived in this vale of soul-making. Maybe our traumas make us who we are, for better or worse.
Christ is risen, scarred still; perhaps he also ascends thus wounded, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, in the bosom of God, in the life of the Trinity, disfigured. There are wounds in God. And if so, disfigurement and disability are given dignity. Our superficial cosmetic preferences are thus challenged, as is our fetishisation of functionality, of utility.

And yet these interpretations seem too heavy-handed, over-extrapolated.
It seems condescending to be told that suffering builds character. It fails to do justice to the actual horrors of the world. Suffering breaks people as least as often as it builds us up. It should not be glibly romanticised.
And, of course, the wounded Christ is not in any sense disabled, though he is disfigured. I suppose they amount to the same thing in our world, with its obsessions. All the same, on his pierced feet he walked; with his torn hands, he took fish and bread, and fed his disciples.

We are understandably eager to make something of this icon, but it resists neat theologising.

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Perhaps we are going about this the wrong way, then. I have been asking what the wounds of the risen Christ mean for the psychology of trauma and the politics of disability. But maybe these are too specific, or maybe not specific enough. What do these wounds mean today? By which I don’t mean the year 2017, but the second Sunday of Easter.

These scars tell us that Christ’s risen body is that same body, hung on a tree just days ago, beaten and naked; it has not been replaced, but transfigured. We too, on this side of the empty tomb, are the same crooks and cowards who hung him there, who denied him, who fled in the darkness, but, by the grace of God, transformed. Whatever the world to come is like, it is the same world as this one, which crucified its Lord, but renewed. There is, in other words, no escapism in Christianity, only redemption.

These wounds also reveal our woundedness, because Christ’s risen body is also our bodies: after all, his humanity is our humanity, and humanity is irreducibly embodied. Let’s return to the idea, briefly entertained earlier, that the disciples saw—really saw—their Lord only when he showed them his hands and side. His wounds were the particularities of his body that enabled recognition: that is, it is not a male body or a Jewish body that they saw, but a wounded one. This is important because it provides us a point of identification beyond his creatureliness and humanity.

In Christ’s woundedness, we not only recognise ourselves, but are confronted with a truer image of ourselves. The risen Christ shows us who we are, relieves us of our delusions of grandeur and myths of self-sufficiency that tempt us to divide the world between our self-made, able-bodied selves and the poor souls who need our help, whether they deserve it or not. We are—the wounded Christ shows us—all of us, wounded.

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There is much about the biblical narratives of the resurrection that beggar belief, particularly in our modern times. Chief among them is that description in the second chapter of the book of Acts, describing what sounds like the formation of a socialist utopia in the light of the resurrection: they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. This is, as we know in our day and age, impossible; we know better, in a world where austerity applies asymmetrically to the poor, where the rich, in our growing richer, have all but guaranteed that the poor will be with us always.

On the other hand, this is a perfectly sensible way to arrange a society that has been touched by Christ’s wounds. The recognition that we are all, in diverse ways, disfigured—whether by our privilege or our poverty—is precisely the equalising basis for such an economy of sharing, of gift. It is not that the resurrection entails socialism; that too would be wishful over-extrapolation, at least on my part. But it does entail an interrogation of our starting points.

If we are all wounded, our concern for others whose wounds may differ from ours comes first from this solidarity, and not from a pedestal of our own wishful devising. We are not to begin with assumptions about inequality that lead us into habits of dividing people into strong and weak, deserving and unworthy, givers and takers. We are, all of us, takers; everything is gift.

Perhaps this description of the world rings false: no more credible that the testimony of grieving women, hysterically claiming that their teacher had returned from the dead. I would not be surprised, so ingrained is the orthodoxy of our current political economy. But of course we do take; we who are able-bodied and skilled and diligent and, let’s face it, wealthy.

We take from our genetic lottery, and the accidents of ancestral history and regional microclimate. We take whenever we exploit these randomly allocated advantages, to drive ever widening wedges between ourselves and others. Make no mistake: the gifts we can afford to give are so much blood money. This is a consequence, not of our individual moral characters, but of the systems in which we live and breathe and have our beings. We are as much unwitting victims as we are perpetrators of the tragedy of social injustice.

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And yet: redemption, renewal, transformation; in a word, resurrection. The risen Christ redeems all that he has assumed, wounds and all.

These resurrection wounds are not for hiding, for denying. They are for showing and touching, for bringing peace. And so it is that our wounds—even the wounds of our privilege—are our crosses to bear, redeemed to be our gifts, our imperishable and unfading inheritance, not to hoard, but to share.

Wounded, he says peace be with you; not payback, not please leave me alone, but peace. Wounded, he comes and breathes upon us his most holy spirit, and we who do not see—cannot see, for the sheer glory of the thing—nevertheless find our soul’s salvation in his wounds that are, by the grace of God, our wounds too. He comes back to us, with the damage we have inflicted upon him, not only to forgive us, but to invite us and empower us and send us to forgive others. Not just to love us with this unutterable love, but to call us and exalt us, in our woundedness, to love others. Even to break bread together, and to share all with all.

 

Sermon: April 14 (Good Friday)

A sermon for Good Friday.

Audio link here.

Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-8
John 18 & 19

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. — The Epistle to the Hebrews, the fifth chapter, the seventh verse.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

He cried out to God. God was able to save him from death. And didn’t.

In other words, we have a high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are. Jesus is, in his passion, perfectly ordinary; in God’s refusal to intervene, perfectly like the rest of us.

The risk that Christians run is that we fetishise the passion of the Christ. Having forgotten, as we are wont to do, that Jesus of Nazareth is a human being just like us, we forget also that suffering and dying in divine silence is the lot of most, if not all, human beings.

[Some of you were here earlier, when a man stormed in, drunk and angry, railing against the state and capitalism and the church, shouting that God did not exist. And he’s not wrong. For so many—for him, for Christ himself in the garden—God doesn’t. They suffer alone.]

This is just what humans do. We suffer, and we die; alone, even if surrounded by living, breathing bodies, who keep on their living and breathing long after they’ve left the hospital room, in it our rapidly cooling corpse. Jesus suffers and dies because he is human. He suffers and dies of his humanity.

Not all humans are murdered, of course, except in the sense that all death is murder, all death is imposed upon us, if not by malicious intent, then by cancers and viruses, by poverty and pollution, by forces beyond our control, whether economic or evolutionary. Even to die of old age is a misnomer; it is just to die because our bodies can no longer withstand the corrosive effects of living in a world of genetic copying errors, carcinogens, and constant assaults on our immune systems.

All the same, not all humans are murdered. Not all of us are are wrongfully accused by our own people and tried in kangaroo courts and tortured with the blessing of the state and executed for political convenience. Then again, maybe more of us are than we think, and not just the tens of thousands of forgotten others that the Roman Empire subjected to crucifixion. Our instruments of death are more subtle now, in any case. Murder is easier when we don’t have to smell rust and blood; when we don’t even have to whisper crucify, crucify.

Consumer choices cost lives when commodities are traded on the backs of anonymous others working to death in fields and factories hidden from our flatscreen televisions. Or, not working at all; replaced by the efficiency of automation.

Political decisions cost lives when funding is cut from efforts to reduce poverty and homelessness and to provide mental health services, and when the Church has not stepped up enough, not nearly enough. When boys and girls we have never met are armed and dropped across borders far from ours. The minimum age to sign up in this country is 16; the average age, 20. When we wring our hands about taking in refugees. 207,000 civilians have been killed by the Syrian regime; 24,00 of them children. When the ice is melting and the sea is rising and some people subsist near low-lying coasts: a cool 22 million in Vietnam; 50 million in China; entire islands in the Pacific. All just numbers, and people.

The Sanhedrin conspire in boardrooms and parliament houses now. The innocent are crucified by trade deals and the realpolitik of mutually assured destruction and proportional responses and preemptive strikes. We kid ourselves if we don’t think that our ballots and wallets are weapons.

And, of course, we murder ourselves in exactly the same ways. Our hunger for national security and our thirst for retribution damns us into suicidal cycles of paranoid violence. Our obsession for mass extraction and production brings poison to our breath, to the water and soil that feed our bellies. In killing each other, we kill ourselves. And we do so unthinkingly, unknowingly, sleepwalking.

This is just what humans do. We die, and we rob other humans of their agency and of their lives, when it is expedient for us so to do, except that it ends up killing us as well. And so we killed him because what else would we do to someone whose humanity reveals our own inhumanity. And he is killed because that is the cost of wholly nonviolent resistance against inhumanity, resistance that even heals those who seek to kill.

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Behold, therefore, the man; the man who drinks of the cup that we all drink, that we hand to him to drink, the vinegar of our own making, poisoned with all the things that compromise our humanity, which may well boil down to our clawing desire to escape our mortality.

Behold, therefore, the man who would rather die than live lives like we do, in our petty insecurities expressed in acts of violence both great and small, unto others and upon ourselves. His acceptance of death is the opposite of our thoughtless suicide, as it is not fear that brings him to the cross, but love. It is, unlike our own so-called living, not for him self-expression or self-assertion or self-enhancement that gets him up in the morning, but the flourishing of the other.

Behold the man whose death is offered, even to us, we who are complicit in the evil wrought upon him, even by our apathy and inaction to keep a false peace. Behold him, but not only. We are invited to so much more. Kiss him also, and be fed by him at his table, his tomb; that his unquenchable life consumes your lust for death and mine. Behold him thus, and see the God who saves us by suffering our worst and nevertheless, well, that’s a story for another day.

 

 

Sermon: April 14 (Pontius Pilate)

This sermon was delivered as part of a Good Friday Three Hours’ Devotion service. It is a meditation on Pontius Pilate.

Audio link here.

Matthew 5:7
Matthew 27:11-26

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. — The gospel according to Matthew, the fifth chapter, the seventh verse.

I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

You killed him. You wanted him dead, because it is better for one man to die than for a whole nation to perish.

Your cost-benefit analysis killed him, as it so often does. It is better for Muslims to be bullied, than for you to feel unsafe. It is better for women and children to suffer in poverty, than for you to pay more for your gadgets and garments. It is better for ecosystems to collapse, than for you to give up your favourite meals. It is better for one man to die, as long as it’s not you. That is a price you are willing to pay.

I gave you a choice, and you chose Barabbas. You chose this brigand, this murderer. You chose violence, as you so often do. I don’t blame you. God knows I would’ve done the same. It is a dog-eat-dog, eat-or-be-eaten kind of world, red in whip and dagger. No one makes it in this world without some ruthlessness, not least Roman governors. We’re not so different: you and me.

See to it yourselves, then. Let his blood be upon your hands. And if you like, let it be on your children too. No sense letting the welfare of future generations get in the way of our immediate gratification.

I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

Yet here’s a spot. The smell of blood still.

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Are you their king?
Dear God, say no.
Just say what you’re meant to, the politically expedient: there is no king but Caesar.

You have to help me to help you. I need a reason to pardon you; an excuse for mercy. That’s how it works, in such a world as ours. There is a price for everything. There is one for your head, and if you don’t pay it, someone else will have to, and it sure isn’t going to be me.

Do you not hear? They accuse you of blasphemy, which I don’t care about. Why should I? Your god seems no more real than mine. They don’t do me any good; and, you, well, let’s just say I’d have switched allegiances a long time ago. And they accuse you of treason, which I must care about. Perils of the job. Let’s be frank: we have no god but Caesar, but power, but steel. Say you are a god, if you want: there are pills for that kind of thing. But, by Jove, don’t claim to be king. Don’t you dare dabble in politics. Separation of Church and State, and all that. Keep your moral theology in kitchens and bedrooms, or better still, in good intentions, never to be expressed in the real world. Leave that to the grown ups: government and law and war and money.

My wife, she had a dream about you. She thinks you are a righteous man. And maybe you are, but what has that gained you? Nothing. It doesn’t pay to be righteous. Not here, anyway. Just look at where it’s landed you. Mocked and beaten, spat upon, dressed up in blood and bruises. And worse, you’ve managed to upset my wife.

Maybe it’s your own fault, then, this mess you have gotten yourself into. Why did you come into the city? There are bad people here. You should’ve known better. And if they manage to ensnare you, maybe you deserve it. Were you drunk when you made that decision? You have a reputation for that kind of thing, you know? And why did you arouse these men’s fury? What did you expect would happen? You were asking for it. Don’t look to me for mercy. You should’ve taken the proper precautions. You should’ve known your place, and stayed there. Don’t look to me. Heal yourself.

+++

Then what shall I do with this so-called Christ? On one hand, I could let him go. I could find him not guilty by reason of insanity, seeing as he thinks he’s the Son of God. So does Caesar, I suppose, but Jesus is not nearly rich and powerful enough for it just to seem like an affectation.

Or I could just give him back to you lot, and you can stone him to death, or whatever it is that you do to your unfashionable prophets these days. But you want him crucified. And the customer is always right. The people have spoken, and their word is crucify.

But why? What evil has he done? What is the crime whose just deserts is death upon the cross? I like to think I am a just man, fair in my expressions of imperial might, my meting out of punishment and, less frequently, reward. Not kind, by any stretch of the imagination, but just. So, give me a crime. And don’t just scream treason. I need proof, and he has said nothing about being king of anyone. Clearly, he’s not as dumb as he looks.

But OK, OK: crucify, crucify. And for good measure, a flogging. And for even better measure, a mocking: enter a reed for a sceptre and a crown of thorns. Exit clothing, and dignity. A panto macabre, if you will and for your viewing pleasure. You can’t say I withheld anything from you. Vox populi; and your wish is my command. Not kind—certainly not to him—but generous, in a twisted sort of way. Remember now, next election, how I capitulated to your bloodlust. Don’t forget to sign up to my newsletter; and consider buying some branded merchandise while you’re there. I would like a promotion. Legate of Syria, would be a nice step up.

But remember also:
I wash my hands;
I wash my hands of this;
I am innocent of this man’s blood.

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I have taken a life, and it feels like nothing. This isn’t my first rodeo, and won’t be my last. Jesus of Nazareth is a statistic, to be forgotten just like the others. I’m not even the worst offender. Some people say that when Varus was in charge of Syria, he crucified two thousand Jews at a go. Pesky rebels, after Great Herod died. Varus: what a mensch.

People are killed all the time, and none of us so much as pause to pray for their souls. These men I lead—boys, really—only their mothers know them from Eve. Here they are, fighting for freedom or glory or security or whatever it is that we’re putting on the ads these days. Most of them won’t make it home for anymore Christmasses. And the men they kill? Who cares what their names are? Frankly, I don’t want to know. It’s too upsetting.

And then there’s the slaves. I haven’t the faintest where they’re from. I suppose I could find out. There are probably records. I bet I could even make their lives a little easier, and not just the ones in my residence: even those poor cretins out in the fields and mines. I could fight for a living wage for them: a jubilee, even. I could reunite them with their families. I could, but I probably won’t. Who has the time?

Mercy is always the good that is left undone.

And so it remains, ever and always: slaves, soldiers, men on death row. All just statistics to be forgotten, conveniently abstract and anonymous.

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Just give them the body. It is the very least I can do. An act of mercy, even kindness, at the last, in this morass of unjust violence I have perpetuated. It is too little, too late, of course, after so long a career in this bloody business. Too little, too late: the man is dead, and I have killed him. There are not two ways about it. I tried to wash, but even all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten these guilty hands.

This is what I would like to be remembered for, actually, this final act. I could have had his corpse thrown into a pit, an unmarked grave like the fate of so many in his station. But I didn’t. They asked for the body, and instead of turning them away or worse, I let them have what they wanted. I let them bury their king, their friend. Too little, too late, I know, but it’s not nothing.

I know my place in history is sealed. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, people will say. I will not be remembered as a good man, but as the hegemon who, by cruelty or cowardice or both, murdered God. It seems silly now to complain that history so often so unforgivingly lacks nuance, but it does. It paints people into heroes and villains, and I know which side of the ledger I occupy. Were it that I had listened to my wife; thus saith countless men like me.

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I don’t know if I would have remembered you. There were so many rebels, so many sages. There was always religious squabbling that may also have been political squabbling; these things always gets so tangled up. Strange places, these backwaters of the empire. Maybe there should have been cultural sensitivity training at the military academy, or something. Yours was not a typical case, to be sure, not in my experience, anyway: if you were meant to be like the other messiahs, you did a spectacularly poor job at it. All the same, I can’t say that I would’ve remembered you for sure. There were so many of you. I cared so little.

I can’t imagine that you’ll forget me, though. The man who could have set you free, but didn’t, who instead gave into the shrieks of the mob, and sent you to your death. And I don’t know if I want you to forget, as terrible as the memory must be. It is more terrible to be forgotten. No: remember me, you tragic and holy fool. Remember me, even in your prayers. Pray for me, you king of the Jews, friend of sinners, sinners like me. Forgive me. Have mercy.

Sermon: March 15 2017

The Second Servant Song

Isaiah 49:1-6

There is no escaping the question of the identity of the servant. To a rough approximation, Jews believe it is the collective Israel and Christians believe it is the individual Jesus; scholars are predictably divided. Other candidates include King Cyrus, the prophet Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah himself.

The third verse of this Second Song seems to settle the matter altogether: And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified”. Ah yes, I’m sorry, the Jews were right.

On the other hand, the sixth verse complicates things: [The Lord] says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel”. The servant cannot be Israel, unless she is called to raise herself up by her own bootstraps.

The question of the servant’s identity is as intractable as it is inescapable. So be it. The Bible is as its best when it confronts us with questions, not when it comforts us with tidy answers.

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There is a fairly obvious way to make sense of this apparent inconsistency between verses 3 and 6, though it is one that leaves the servant stubbornly unidentified. It is to deny that verse 3—“You are my servant, Israel”—reveals the name of the servant in the first place. Rather, it confers the name “Israel” upon the servant, whoever that might be: “Now you are Israel my servant, the new Israel, in whom I will be glorified”. The Hebrew allows for this reading, and it makes perfect sense for this new Israel to be called to raise up the old Israel.

There we have it, then. The servant is whoever it is who is called to be the New Israel, not only to return God’s people from exile, but to go far beyond the promised land of the promised people to gather from the coastlands and the ends of the earth the rest of us, now invited to the family meal.

If we understand the mission of Jesus in these terms, we must not fail to notice the asymmetry. Salvation begins in the tribes of Jacob, the preserved of Israel, and from there reaches—like light—to the ends of the earth. There is no sense here that the New Israel replaces the old, but reconstitutes it, and opens it up. This may seem obvious, but the bloody history of Christian anti-semitism suggests that it is not.

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One of the things for which the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer is famous for saying is that, over the course of history, people have expanded their circle of moral concern, from family members to tribe members to society members to foreigners and even to members of other species. For this ever-increasing ecumenism, Singer credits the human capacity for reason.

To be sure: Women’s suffrage has come a long way since the Swedes pioneered the idea in the early 18th century. Anti-miscegenation laws in Nazi Germany became inoperative at the end of the Second World War; the United States followed suit in 1967 and South Africa in 1985. The Geneva Conventions of 1949, ratified by 196 countries, established standards for humanitarian treatment in war. The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, passed by Parliament in 1822 was one of the world’s first animal welfare laws.

Doubtless, our circle of moral concern has expanded. The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and all that. But there is nothing inevitable about this. We do not need newspapers to tell us this, but recent trends in local and international politics are stark on this point. The human capacity of reason is neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent. Nor does the gospel promise inexorable moral progress by inertia or osmosis. If the moral arc bends, it is because there is active force applied.

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I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

We who believe that Israel is reconstituted in Christ also believe two further things. First, that he gave up his own life—even unto death upon a cross—in this act of reconstitution and reconciliation. Second, that the Church is a sign of Christ the New Israel, his body broken and given to the nations.

Far from implying that we may now rest smugly as God’s new chosen gentiles, the identification of the mission of Jesus with the mission of the servant in these songs conscripts us into that mission; that mission that ends, in the fourth servant song and on Golgotha, in self-sacrificial death.

In other words, it is Christ who bends the moral arc of the universe, with bloodied hands, and therefore it us who are called to do so. And therefore it is you, and God help us, me.

It is the second week of Lent. May our Lenten sacrifices be preparation for lives lived more fully as Christ’s body, his hands and feet, gifts for the salvation of the world.

Sermon: Feb 12 2017 (Racial Justice Sunday)

This sermon was delivered for evensong at Lincoln College, Oxford.

Readings

Genesis 11:1-9

Galatians 3.23-29

According to data from the dating site OK Cupid—data from 25 million individuals—black women are the most discriminated against, followed by (unfortunately for me) Asian men. In the five years between 2009 and 2014, people became much less likely to say that they prefer someone of their own race, but their actual behaviour indicates that they are liars as well as racists. Tinder has not replied to my emails requesting their data, but I live in hope.

God is apparently to blame for our linguistic diversity, which many have taken to also indicate racial diversity. It is hubris, we are told, that made our primordial human unity so odious to the almighty. This is fitting, I suppose, seeing as hubris is also the father of racism and xenophobia, or at least their politically incorrect uncle they dread to encounter at family occasions.

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53% of White people in the UK voted for Brexit: compared to 33% of South Asian, 30% of Chinese, and 27% of Black voters.

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Fortunately for us, living in New Testament times, there is now neither Jew nor Greek. We no longer see race, or so we assure ourselves with just a hint of self-congratulation for our hard-won egalitarianism.

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58% of White Americans voted for Donald Trump; only 21% of non-whites did. “Non-white” is, of course, not a very meaningful category, but then again, neither is “white”.

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Alright, alright. The point is made, the dead horse flogged: everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes. Not just White people either, though White people have all the power, so their racism is much scarier. I was just back in Malaysia a week or so ago, and let me tell you, my Chinese family was simultaneously overtly pro-stereotyping and anti-interracial marriage. That said, I was encouraged to find a White woman to marry, but this is likely because the Chinese only make up 0.7% of the British population. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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The Bible has been used to justify all kinds of nonsense, sometimes more plausibly than others. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Black Africans were often called the “sons of Ham”, referring to Canaan whom Noah cursed saying that “a servant of servants shall he be”. The Bible never says that Canaan was black, but that sort of thing has never stopped religious people from abusing their authoritative texts.

Almost equally ridiculous is the use by some Christians of passages from the Hebrew Bible to disparage interracial marriage: the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in particular, which decry marriage to foreigners with their foreign gods. Ezra doesn’t even allow for religious conversion: he just has the foreign wives sent away. Mass deportation, before it was cool. Never mind that the books of Esther and Jonah—both written around the same time as Ezra-Nehemiah—advocate for embracing foreigners. Esther was Queen of that goyish king of Persia. Jonah was that comic-prophet disappointed at God’s outrageous mercy to the Ninevites.

The New Testament is little better, I’m afraid: the gospel of St John has provided much fodder for anti-semites down the centuries. I may or may not be able to recommend a drinking game that involves the number of times the phrase “the Jews” is used disparagingly.

And yet: there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. This is, of course, not to suggest that St Paul shares our progressive sensibilities. After all, he tolerated slavery and exhorted women to obey their husbands. All the same, he does say that we are one in Christ Jesus.

As usual, it is easier to talk about the wrong way to read this than to say how to read it rightly. Our approach to truth is paved with mistakes. When we talk about the unity of the Church, we often say that we are one in Spirit, which sounds suspiciously like a roundabout way of saying that we aren’t one at all. In much the same way, talk of being one in Christ is sometimes a way to avoid dealing with latent and chronic racism and xenophobia. It is to relegate our interpersonal and intergroup relations into the realm of the metaphysical, unsullied by the empirical facts of our prejudice. It is, in other words, the pious version of “some of my best friends are black” and #alllivesmatter, both of which are ways of changing the topic.

Frankly, Abrahamic monotheism has a bad track record when it comes to racial justice. For centuries we—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have struggled with Zionism and white supremacy and Arab nationalism. The pre-Reformation Church of the West waged crusades, pillaging and slaughtering all shades of non-white people in Jesus’s name. And then, of course, there are all those celebrated depictions of Jesus himself, so Aryan as to tickle Hitler’s cockles. The Church of England is complicit in British imperial colonialism and its concomitant evils, grateful though I am for schools, roads, and Anglicanism. Psychological research and political demographics show clearly that Christianity is still strongly associated with prejudice against various minority groups, whether ethnic, sexual, or otherwise. The Church therefore has no credibility when she preaches on racial justice except when she is on her knees, confessing her sins and asking for mercy. But then again, neither do the rest of us.

So: be less racist. That’s all, really: the rest is preamble. Be less racist. In who you avoid sitting next to on the bus. Be less racist. In your talking more loudly or slowly to people who look different from you. Be less racist. In your asking “But what’s your real name” and your saying “But I don’t even notice that you are Chinese (or Black or whatever)”. Be less racist. In your dabbling in Eastern wisdoms, and other forms of superficial cultural appropriation. Be less racist. In  your passive-aggressive moaning about how difficult life is in our cosmopolitan twenty-first century with political correctness gone mad. Be less racist. In what you are imagining right now when I say the word “terrorist”. Be less racist.

And when you fail, apologise.

Amen.    

Sermon: Feb 12 2017

Readings

Ecclesiasticus 15.15-20

Matthew 5.17-37

If you will, you can keep the commandments; and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.

Nonsense on stilts. Or rather, more diplomatically, a gross overestimation of the powers of human agency. Much more realistic is St Paul’s observation that he understands not his own actions: for he does not what he wants but instead what he hates. The fact is that our moral choices are almost never between fire and water, life and death, good and evil, but between the more or less destructive, the better of goods and the lesser of evils. 

And yet there is a danger in this latter view, truer though it may be. Too often we take it too far, and down that path is the sort of fatalism that conveniently allows us to exculpate ourselves and blame others for our sins of omission and commission both.

A pox then, on both houses.

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What we have before us are the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s commentary on Moses.

You have heard that it was said of old:

you shall not kill;

and, you shall not commit adultery;

and, whoever divorces his wife,

let him give her a certificate of divorce;

and, you shall not swear falsely.

And then, he responds; and we might wish that he hadn’t:

If you are angry,

you will be liable to judgement.

If you insult a brother or sister,

you will be liable.

If you say “You fool”,

you will be liable to hellfire.

If your right eye causes you to sin,

pluck it out.

If your right hand causes you to sin,

cut it off.

Whoever divorces his wife

or marries a divorced woman

commits adultery.

Do not swear at all.

This is a hard text; it is hard to know what to do with such a text.

The history of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount provides many fascinating examples of how religious people wrestle with difficult bits of Scripture:

problematic texts are marginalised,

not actually dealt with

apparent inconsistencies are harmonised,

not actually reconciled

ideals are relativized,

never actually endeavoured.

We have, for example, tried to say that these moral injunctions apply only to special classes of people, monks and nuns perhaps; certainly not ordinary people like us. They should be all zen, but we can throw hissy-fits. They should be all chaste, but we can, well, never mind what we can do.

We have also tried to say that Christian morality applies only to a special realm: the sacred and spiritual, but certainly not the secular, let alone the political. God, we think, doesn’t mind what we do with our votes or our credit cards.

But, perhaps in response to these readings, some of us have also gone in exactly the opposite direction, resisting such attempts to dull the effect of these difficult words. The likes of Origen and St Francis and Tolstoy and Gandhi have, in their own ways, taken the absolutist option and demanded of themselves the full rigour of these words taken literally. Of some of these words, at least; even saints read selectively. And, in their own ways, they discovered the limits of this approach. And, indeed, their own limits.

As tempting as it is to go with the more permissive readings of today’s Gospel text, it is hard to ignore the moral force of imagining the sort of world in which we could live like Jesus told us to:

A world without anger;

and in which anger is not necessary.

A world without lust;

without the competition of misaligned desires.

A world without broken relationships,

but whole individuals giving of ourselves.

A world in which oaths are unnecessary

because there is perfect trust.

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We cannot take the easy way out: Matthew forbids it.

Matthew’s Jesus separates the sheep—who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the captive—from the goats, who do none of these things.

Matthew’s Jesus declares that not everyone who calls him Lord may enter the kingdom, but the one who does his Father’s will.

Matthew’s Jesus came to fulfil the law, and he adds that whoever relaxes the least of them will be himself the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Preachers have been warned.

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Were it only that it were so: that the Wisdom of Sirach were right, in saying that it is a matter of our own choice to live as Jesus demands. But this vision of this world that Jesus casts is not ours to pull up by our own bootstraps. The good news is not that we are now, all of us, moral übermenschen, magically transformed by the waters of baptism. We have not become gods. No. The good news is that God has come to join us in this muck; in the moral morasses so often of our own making; in our moral meanderings, God is ever with us; in our succeeding and failing, with us; in our gathering together and falling out, with us; in our eating and drinking—the breaking of bread and sharing of wine—with us.

The good news is that though our choices are few and our spirits weak, even this will suffice. Appearances to the contrary, we do not after all live in a God-forsaken world, but a world which God has made and calls good, God who calls us to join in this goodness. This is a hard call, if not impossible, but it is our call and our end all the same.   

So, there is work to be done. We have ears to hear and eyes to see that the world is not as God made it to be, and we are not as God knows us to be. We have been given each other, and water and bread and wine for the journey, and so off we must go, out to love and serve, in Christ’s name, to join in his re-making of this world he loved into being. We go, in peace, to try and fail, to die only to be raised up again and again and again: there will always be balm for the injured, bread for the hungry, wine for the weary. We go to do this impossible thing, not because we will succeed but because neither we nor success are the point. The point is that God’s own falling down and raising up is for us the pattern of our lives, the pattern of the faithfulness to which we are called. So we go, and fail the glorious failure that is the better part than cynicism or fatalism or apathy. And then some day—I don’t know when, nor how—(but someday) there will be failure no more, and the world will be made new. 

Amen.