Sermon: March 5th 2015

5 03 2015

Lent Series: Women in the Bible

Rachel & Leah (Genesis 29-31)

Biblical marriage is, more often than we’d care to admit, a transaction between two men. The story of the sisters Rachel and Leah, their husband Jacob, and their father Laban is no exception.

Off Jacob went, having deceived his father and cheated his brother of the old man’s blessing. Off he went to find a wife, in the land of his relatives, because a local goyish lady just wouldn’t do. There, in the east, at a well, he meets Rachel—the daughter of his mother’s brother—tending her father’s sheep. He kisses her, waters her sheep, and tells her they are first cousins, and off she goes to tell her father Laban. The men hang out for a bit, and the negotiations begin. Jacob will serve Laban for seven years in exchange for his younger daughter’s hand in marriage. Seven years later, Laban gives his maid Zilpah to Leah, his elder daughter, and sends Leah off into Jacob’s tent who, before the days of night lights, was none the wiser. Come morning, a dissatisfied Jacob approaches Laban, and they cut another deal. Laban gives his maid Bilhah to Rachel, and sends her off to Jacob, in exchange for another seven years of labour. Jacob loves Rachel more than he loves Leah, and this begins the sisterly feud.

The body count in this battle is large, but not in the usual way. Some say that it kickstarted the whole people of Israel, and that’s true enough. Certainly, Jacob got thirteen children out of it: twelve boys and a girl. The twelve boys went off to fulfil Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, and the girl—Dinah, barely mentioned in this story—is eventually seduced and/or raped by an uncircumcised man, and it’s unclear which aspect of this atrocity enraged her brothers more. In any case, precious little else is said about her in the Bible. But I digress. Seeing that Leah was unloved, Yahweh makes her fertile and Rachel he made barren. And so, Leah gave birth, first to four boys. In response, Rachel gave to Jacob her maid Bilhah, who bore him two sons. As you might expect, the sons are Rachel’s rather than Bilhah’s, who never gets to speak. Leah retaliates in kind, giving Jacob her maid Zilpah, who bore another two sons. The maids don’t even get to name the children. Leah’s strategic surrogacy seems premature in retrospect, as she then produces two more sons, before she finally has a daughter, Dinah. And finally, Rachel manages to have her own biological children: Joseph—he of the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—and, eventually, Benjamin, at whose difficult birth she died.

So far, so mired in patriarchy, but this is hardly surprising: even without buying into the myth of moral progress, one would hardly expect the Bible to be any less sexist than our present situation. To read the Bible from the margins is to look for the subtle ways in which otherwise subdued voices can tell us about how dominant forces can or should be subverted. Our story begins in Genesis 29 as a transaction between two men, the trickster Jacob and Laban, his uncle who too will prove a wily character. As the story progresses, however—through to Genesis 31—we see how the sisters Leah and Rachel exercise their own agency, limited though it is by the social structures they inhabit. The two paradigmatic incidents involve mandrakes and teraphim respectively.

+++

Mandrakes—or, literally “love plants” in biblical Hebrew—were thought to be an aphrodisiac and enhancer of fertility. In fact, it is a hallucinogen, and may cause poisoning, vomiting, and diarrhoea if ingested. Anyway, Reuben finds some one day, and gives them to his mother Leah who, as we have established, has no need for them. Rachel, on the other hand, wants them, and so she trades for them an amorous night with Jacob, their husband. “You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” is, in my estimation, one of the best lines in all of Scripture. I have hired you. The word sachar has strong commercial connotations. It is Jacob’s turn to be the object of a transaction between two women. And for her chutzpah Leah receives not just one more son, but two, and a daughter also.

The mandrakes seem to have worked, for at the end of this episode, Rachel finally manages to conceive. Or—according to the Midrash—Leah intercedes on her sister’s behalf while pregnant with Dinah, which prompts Yahweh to remember Rachel and open her womb.  This rabbinic embellishment has Leah demanding justice for her sister, so that she has at least as many sons as their maidservants. Thus, Dinah—whose name is exceptionally left unexplained in the biblical narrative—is given a name that means “justice”, much like her half-brother Dan, born by Rachel’s maid Bilhah. The story of Joseph, Rachel’s  firstborn, turns out to be a crucial prologue to the story of the Exodus, in which again mothers play a central role, but that’s a talk for another time.

We turn now to the matter of the teraphim, the household gods that problematize the view that ancient Israelites were iconoclastic monotheists in stark contrast to their pagan Ancient Near Eastern neighbours. Rachel steals Laban’s teraphim, and no one really knows why. The context is Jacob’s increasing unhappiness in his father-in-law’s household, a frustration he expresses to his two wives, who agree with him, pointing out with one voice that not only had Laban sold them, but that he was quickly using up his earnings from the sale. It might be too anachronistic to say that they were criticising the patriarchy, but they were at least participating in a revolt against a patriarch. So they fled—Jacob, and Rachel and Leah, and their household—but before they did so, Rachel swiped her father’s household gods, and neither Laban nor Jacob were any the wiser. Indeed, Jacob’s ignorance—and remember, knowledge is power, in the Bible as much as elsewhere—nearly lands them in trouble, as he curses to death anyone whom Laban finds has stolen his gods. As Laban is searching, Rachel puts the little statues in a camel’s saddle and sits on it. Her father searches her tent, but she does not get up, saying, “I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me”. A woman may not have been fazed by this, but Laban—afraid of menstruation as the members of his sex are wont to be—left her unsearched, and thus failed to find his precious gods.

If Leah’s mandrakes and her fertility were the sources of her power over Jacob, then the teraphim and menstruation were Rachel’s sources of power against Laban. Nobody knows why she took them, but one influential reading is based on the claim (for which there is some evidence in extra-biblical material) that household gods were symbols of inheritance and leadership. If so, then Rachel’s taking of Laban’s household gods was a wresting of power and resource from her father who sold her. Perhaps she did so for the sake of her husband or her sons, but this is not to say that she did not also do it for herself.

+++

So, we have a story about two women—sisters, and then wives to the same man—who managed to objectify the objectifiers and trick the tricksters. None of this undoes the structural patriarchy of the biblical text and its world, but it is not nothing either. After all, the gospel is about—among other things—the subversion of power by the seemingly powerless. A young woman, pregnant out of wedlock, gives birth to a King, and lays him in a manger. A man from the Jewish backwaters of the Roman Empire is rejected by the religious power brokers and executed as a political criminal by imperial forces, and rises again in glory. Such stories about the subversion of power—not for its own sake or even our own, but for the good of all—are the stuff on which the Christian faith is founded. And accustomed as we are to forget it, women like Rachel and Leah—and Sarah (Isaac’s mother); and Rebekah (Jacob’s mother); and Jochebed (Moses’s mother); and Rahab the prostitute; and Deborah the Judge; and Mary Magdalen the apostle to the apostles—women are, as should be obvious but so often isn’t, crucial and active participants in the economy of salvation, the story in and to which we, all of us, belong.





Sermon: February 8th 2015

17 02 2015

Sermon preached at Evensong, Hertford College, Oxford.

Readings:

Genesis 2·4b–25

Luke 8·22–35

In the beginning, in the darkness God said, “Let there be light”, and there was. And God spoke some more and thus made land and sea and stars; and creatures that swim and those that fly, and even those that crawl and walk. And finally on the sixth day, God mades human beings: male and female, God created them. Thus says the Book of Genesis, the first chapter.

Or: In the beginning, God made the earth and the sky; and on that same day, God made a man, and a garden to put him in and animals to keep him company. And then when God discovers that animals won’t do the trick, God made a woman: flesh of the man’s flesh, bone of his bones. Thus says—the slightly creepy and sexist— Book of Genesis, the second chapter.

Or: In the beginning, there was a monstrous sea of chaos—or a dragon, or a beast called Leviathan, or one named Rahab—and God subdued it to bring about peace. This tradition is hinted at in tonight’s psalm, which has God stilling the roaring of the seas, and also occurs more prominently in other psalms, in the prophecies of Isaiah, and in the Book of Job. Even in Genesis 1, God’s Spirit hovers over the formless watery void, from which the order of creation emerges.

+++

People like creation myths. As far as we know, every culture has them, with the possible exception of the Pirahã people in the Amazon. But they also seem to have no sense of history beyond living memory, no social hierarchy, and no words for numbers, so who knows what’s going on there.

The Pirahã aside, psychologists think that our affinity for creation myths and for religion more generally is a product for our evolved tendency to think in social and instrumental terms. Children intuitively assume that natural objects like rocks and waterfalls have some kind of function, just like artefacts do. Rocks are pointy so that dinosaurs can scratch their backs, waterfalls exist so that animals can take showers, that sort of thing. They gradually grow out eventually, but some residue remains into adulthood. Even scientists slip into functional language, like when we talk about how nature selects for eyes, as if she had a choice in the matter. Our metaphors are inescapably functional and, by extension, social and personal.

Because we have rich mental and emotional lives—thought and feelings, desires and dislikes—we assume that other things do too, including our pets, our computers, and as in the evolutionary case, Nature. Whether we meant to or not, we have a tendency to anthropomorphise things, including God.

+++

This is bad news for theologians.

Not because psychological theories about religion somehow undermine theological claims. But because if we’re right, then theologians are fighting an uphill battle against a view of God that they consider to be deeply mistaken.

People intuitively believe that God is very much like them, but better and bigger and more powerful. Theologians, on the other hand, have always insisted that God is absolutely nothing like any created thing: in fact, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians have agreed for centuries that the God who creates must be wholly other from the created. Even the idea that God is “better and bigger and more powerful” than creatures is idolatrous, because God and creatures cannot be comparable in that way.

When we say that God created the world, we are not saying that God is the first in a chain of causes, because that would be to list God among other things. Nor are we saying that God is an “Intelligent Designer” as if God were an extremely clever and powerful nerd. Rather, the Christian doctrine of creation is simply the claim that the world is utterly dependent on and indebted to God, who freely gives it its being. It is therefore about the self-sufficiency and otherness of God, and not really about how and when the world began. The doctrine of creation is a theological assertion, not a scientific theory.

+++

I guess it goes without saying that I disapprove of literal readings of biblical creation myths. There is also plenty of evidence now that these myths were never really intended to describe how the world began at all, but rather to contrast the Hebrew God from the deities of neighbouring civilisations. Unlike the Babylonian Marduk or the Canaanite Baal, Yahweh did not have to struggle with the forces of chaos to bring about order: instead, God speaks, and things leap into being.

This interpretive principle—that biblical texts mean primarily to say something about God and not history—also helps us to make sense of the miracle narratives in Luke’s gospel. Just as the creation myths are not about what happened at the beginning of the physical universe, the miracle narratives are not about what happened in the Middle East two thousand years ago. This is not to say that they are necessarily fictional—maybe they are; maybe they aren’t—but the question of historicity or facticity is more or less beside the point.

At last, then, we come to the gospel reading:

In the first story, Jesus is rudely awakened to calm the treacherous waves. In the second, he casts evil spirits out of a naked man, and into a herd of suicidal swine.

As the putters together of the lectionary realize, Luke means to call up memories of the creation narratives in Genesis. Like God, Jesus too subdues the stormy waters, and thus takes the side of the powerless against impersonal brutality. Furthermore, in the next story, the references to “the abyss” and the lake to which the evil forces are banished also echo these creation myths; and the naming of the demons as “Legion” implies a critique of Roman military might.

Taking both these stories together, we also get a contrast to the story of Jonah, in which a xenophobic prophet is annoyed at God’s tendency to transgress ethnic and religious boundaries out of love. Jesus, like Jonah is asleep in the storm, and wakes up to still it. But unlike Jonah, Jesus willingly enters into foreign territory—the sort of place that has unkosher beasts hanging about—and while he is there, he makes all the difference in the world to a despised and marginalised man.

Thus, in two short stories, Luke associates Jesus closely with God; subverts physical and political power; and reminds us of the boundless love of God.

+++

As ever, things—texts—are not what they seem at first.

The world of ideas is full of creation myths that are not about the beginning of things; and miracle narratives that are not about prestidigitating prophets. There is poetry, and not just propositions; there are stories, and not just soundbites.

And so it is with the Christian faith, and its sacred text.

The Bible speaks, frankly, about unbelievable things, but they are not unbelievable because science or historical scholarship say that they are.

The absurdity of the Christian faith runs deeper. Its claims are about an incomprehensible God who makes the world for no reason out of love, and—even more incomprehensibly still—dies in the world and at the hands of the world for much the same reason.

What to make of all of this?

Who knows?

But those of us who want to make something out of this return to these stories and songs, again and again.  We are never really done with them. And, thank God, they are never done with us.





Sermon: November 23rd 2014

24 11 2014

Readings

Matthew 25:31-46

1 Cor 15:20-28

Ezekiel 34:11-17

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in their own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father.  Words from St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.

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

So here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems like ages ago, the solemnities of last Lent leading into the rapturous joys of Eastertide. Our memories of those powerful liturgies on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Paschal Vigil are inevitably dimmed behind the shrouds of Ordinary Time, behind the busynesses of our ordinary lives.

Here we are, at the end of the Church’s year. It seems that we can already see and hear and smell Christmas. Or, perhaps, cheap imitations and commercial appropriations of the holy season. Between the soaring gravity of Remembrance Sunday and the building haze of cheap tinsel and kitsch yuletide pop music, it is all too easy to skip Advent altogether, to miss the company of the holy family, waiting, peaceful and strong.

All things considered, the Feast of Christ the King is well-placed, at this otherwise forgettable end of the Church’s year. It serves us well as a timely reminder of our primary allegiances, as easily distracted as we are by the other ways we mark our time: the ends of financial years and election cycles, the ends of school terms and sports seasons.

The Feast of Christ the King is well-placed—with Christmas before us and Holy Week behind us—between birth and death, life and new life. Here and now, we are reminded that Christ, whose undignified beginning is matched only by his shameful end, (Christ) is in the midst of us and at the heart of all things, is our source and our beginning, is our end and our destination.

+++

As, in their great wisdom, the putters-together of the lectionary make clear, the Feast of Christ the King is, among other things, an occasion to reflect on the nature of power, and God’s and our relationship to power.

St. Matthew’s vision puts our treatment of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—that is, the powerless—at the centre of Christ’s judgement between the righteous and the condemned. This text is a riff on Ezekiel’s depiction of the Lord who, while seeking the lost and bringing them home, while tending to the weak and injured, also promises to obliterate those who unjustly enjoy abundance and strength. St. Paul’s rhetoric is even more blunt: he tells it to us straight, that Christ will come and destroy every rule and authority and power, especially death.

All of which is to remind us that our confession of Christ as King is not the endorsement of the kinds of activities we typically associate with sovereignty, not a sort of religious jingoism that revels in strength and abundance, power and authority. Christ’s power is not Caesar’s power, not Pilate’s power, not Herod’s power, not even Caiaphas the high priest’s power, which is ultimately the power of death, the power to execute dissidents and rabble-rousers and blasphemers. To the contrary, to confess that Christ is King is to abandon our pathetic quests for these pale facsimiles of power, whether physical or psychological, personal or political. Or at least to recognise their insignificance, and potential for abuse and corruption.

To be confronted by Christ the King is to have our group identities, from which we typically derive such power, relativized, lest they collapse into idolatry. Our churchmanships and nationalisms alike, our political partisanships and brand loyalties alike; we are—before the throne of the Son of Man’s glory, that is the shadow of his cross—jolted out of the lulls of our mistaken identities as cogs in the machines of machiavellian politicians and the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

On this the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (as it is officially called), we must be clear that this Christ the King of the Universe is the same “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” who conquers, not by taking up arms, but by having his arms bound to planks in blood and iron and rust; this too is an indictment of power as practiced in political playgrounds wherever they have been poisoned by humanity’s most pitiable weaknesses, anxieties, and insecurities. Hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound, this King dies for his people to defeat death, the fear of which drives so much of our futile quests for self-assertive power.

+++

Therefore:

If Christ is our King, then our lives must look very different than if we were instead governed by some other set of allegiances.

If Christ is our King, then Pilate is not, he for whom violent force is the price of some cheap imitation of peace.

If Christ is our King, then Caiaphas is not, he who applied the utilitarian calculus, and concluded that it is good for one man to die for the sake of his national security.

If Christ is our King, then Caesar is not, nor are the coins that bear his image. Neither governmental stability nor financial freedom feature in the eschatological hopes of the faithful. Which is not to say that politics and economics are irrelevant. On the contrary, it is to affirm the centrality of Christ—and thus of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and bound—in our political and economic lives, and to marginalize the interests of lobbyists and marketeers.

If Christ is our King, then our loyalties can be taken for granted by no one: neither Visa nor Mastercard, neither Oxford nor Cambridge, neither Arsenal nor Liverpool, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party. The Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category; neither a fan club nor an old boys’ club. It is the risen body of the crucified criminal who is, at the same time, the King who ever arrives to defeat darkness and death, who will seek the lost and bring them home, who will feed us justice and peace. The Church is—we are—by the grace of God, the body of Christ the King, taken and broken and blessed and given to the world. We had better behave like it.

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





Sermon: November 5th 2014

6 11 2014

Sermon for Keble College Chapel

Readings

Isaiah 2:1-11

Matthew 2:16ff

Religion is often said to be a sort of psychological crutch, a convenient source of comfort that lulls us into a false sense of security, that dulls our senses against the harsh reality that life is nasty, brutish, and short. Alas, this analysis is not far off the mark. After all, the gospel—the central Christian message—is supposed to be good news; that is just what the word means. Christian faith is, in some sense, about how things are better than they might appear, how things will get better than they are now. But such talk of beatific visions at the end of our journeys through vales of tears can, if we are careless, lead to a kind of moral resignation and complacency.

The gospel is good news, but it is bad news before it is good news. That is to say that the gospel is an attempt to confront us with the human condition in ways that may be neither comforting nor convenient. Furthermore, the vantage point of the gospel narratives—beginning as they do with the birth of a peasant child—is not from the privileged arena of medieval academies or Victorian pulpits, but from the margins, the Jewish backwaters of the Roman Empire.

+++

When King Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men gone to visit the newborn Christ, he was furious. And in his rage he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem; any child two years old or younger.

We are often tempted to breathe a sigh of relief here, because at least Jesus survives. And to us—as to Herod—the other children are collateral damage, anonymous and faceless, to be forgotten as soon as their narrative purpose is fulfilled. But the gospel forbids such callousness about the lives of innocents killed at a tyrant’s whim. After all, it is not as though Jesus is really spared in the end. Far from achieving the political power Herod feared, Jesus ends up misunderstood and betrayed and captured and flogged and killed. He joins the anonymous infants, albeit thirty years late; and if his murderers had their way, he too would have been forgotten, marginalised.

This then is the bad news: that our insecure quests for power are inevitably corrupting and damaging. Few of us are—like Herod and Pilate—in positions to pass death sentences, but we nevertheless impose our jealous wills on others, if not by physical force, then by other, perhaps subtler, forms of coercion and manipulation. Then again, in liberal democracies and market economies, we—the global 1%—are the oligarchs and tyrants, the select individuals whose desires move governments and multinational corporations. In his desire for a sort of power, Herod orders infants killed; in his desire for a sort of peace, Pilate orders Jesus executed. In our desire for cheap gadgets, we order the enslavement of anonymous foreigners. In our desire for sex, we order the exploitation of women and men whose names we do not know or will not remember. In our desire to consume more calories than we know how to obsess over, we order the destruction of natural habitats and the torture of animals. Thus, in our own little (and therefore insidious) ways, our insecure quests for self-assertion lead us to hurt people, to strain relationships, to participate in grave injustices.

In the face of this stark state of affairs, what the gospel offers is not just the sweet assurance that “in days to come” things will be different, that one day many people shall come and walk in God’s path and the haughty and proud shall receive their comeuppance. One day, but not today; perhaps not even on this side of eternity, but on the other, with a slice of pie in the sky by and by. To think of the Christian hope solely in these terms makes us complacent, if not complicit in the horrors of the world. Prophecy can and must be read differently, as commands rather than passive predictions about the future. Prophets are not fortune-tellers, after all. Thus, when Isaiah says that one day “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks”, we should hear God telling us to beat our swords into ploughshares; our gluttony into generosity, our narcissism into love, our passive aggression into truth. One day we shall do these glorious things, and why not today?

+++

The gospel is good news, and the good news is not just that we will eventually be rescued from ourselves, some day later rather than sooner. But it is the confidence that the world is, in the final estimation, good; not only because God made it, but also because God is, in Jesus, making it good. God is—in humanity; in the humanity to which Jesus belongs perfectly and to which you and I belong imperfectly; God is in us—making the world good. The doctrine of the Incarnation, which provides the context for infancy narratives like this one tonight provides the basis for a kind of theological humanism that is neither pollyannish about our ability to pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps, nor complacent about being saved by an interventionist God, nor cynical because it sees people as inherently and hopelessly sinful. What the gospel provides is a hopeful confidence in the God who elects to work through us, fallible though we are, meandering though our moral journeys are.

In other words, the good news is—like prophecy—also a command, a call to “come…walk in the light of the Lord”, to “get up and go” into the world to make some prophecies come true.





Sermon: September 28th 2014

29 09 2014

Sermon for St Mary Magdalen, Oxford

Readings

Ezekiel 18.25-28

Philippians 2.1-11

Matthew 21.28-32

I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

…and I believe in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. I also believe in life on Mars. Or somewhere else in the Universe; it just seems silly to think that a place so big and old could be empty but for Earth.

…and I believe in democracy. Most of the time; except when the majority disagrees with me. And in freedom of speech. Almost always; except when people are racist and stuff. I also believe in washing my hands before meals. Because there are germs literally everywhere. I guess this means I also believe in germs.

But I digress.

I believe in one God, the Father. And in one Lord Jesus Christ. And in the Holy Spirit, worshipped and glorified with aforementioned Father and Son.

And while God is certainly rather unlike a germ or democracy or the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, it is less obvious whether or not my believing in God and germs and democracy and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics amount to the same kind of human activity. On the face of it, they all seem to involve agreeing that some claim is true: “God exists”; “There are germs literally everywhere”; “Democracy is a rather good idea”; “The Copenhagen interpretation is the best available explanation of the formal mathematics of quantum mechanics”. At the same time, however, it seems equally obvious that at least in the case of God, there is more to believing than simply assigning positive truth value to some proposition. Belief is more than just a mental state.

+++

A man with two son tells them each to do some chores. One refuses perfunctorily, but then thinks twice and does as his father requested. The other obsequiously agrees, but then does not follow through. Which one, Jesus asks, does his father’s will? The answer is obvious, and indeed, the chief priests and elders knowingly respond that it is the first child who is, despite his initial petulance, the obedient one. At first glance then, this is a parable about the relationship between words and deeds, and the priority of the latter. Talk is cheap, Jesus implies, and hypocrisy is bad. Or, as business-types might say: always under-promise and over-deliver.

This initial impression is problematized, however, when we get to what Jesus says directly to his interlocutors. His accusation is not simply that their actions failed to match up with their words—as in the case of the second son in this parable—but that they did not believe John the Baptist. In contrast, the publicans and prostitutes did believe, which is supposed to remind us of the first son who utters rebellion, but then later behaves obediently. Thus, for St. Matthew’s Jesus, true believing is bound up with right action. Belief is more than just a mental state, and certainly more than empty words.

Repent and believe. The refrain of this parable is developed over and over again in the rest of St. Matthew’s ethical teaching, not least in the moral rigour of the Sermon on the Mount. To repent in St. Matthew’s sense of the word means much more than to feel remorse over some action; rather, it is to undergo a deep change in disposition, a change in heart and mind. Repentance involves more than experiencing negative emotions and a change in our opinions; but it is also more than simply a matter of changing our outward behaviours. Recall the famous “But I say to you” passages, in which Jesus cites some legal injunction and then attempts to get underneath and go beyond it:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not kill”; but I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”; but I say to you that everyone on looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

And so forth.

We must not hear wrongly, as people are prone to do. Repentance involves more than feelings of remorse or changes of opinion; repentance goes beyond behavioural modification. “More than” and “beyond” are the operative phrases here. In these and other passages, what Matthew is emphatically not saying is that our actions don’t matter, only our intentions. After all, St. Matthew’s is the gospel of “I have come not to abolish [the Law] but to fulfil [it]”; and the gospel of “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”; and the gospel of “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”.

But if the costly discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount is an important aspect of what it means to “repent and believe”, so is the other thread that runs through the gospel. Not once, but twice, St. Matthew cites the same line from the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Difficult as Christian discipleship may be, it is not costliness but compassion that St. Matthew’s Jesus demands. And, of course, this mercy that is expected of us derives from God’s own mercy toward us: the God who when asked for mercy—as Jesus often is in St. Matthew’s gospel—supplies it abundantly, giving sight to the blind, health to the sick, and freedom to the possessed; the God who who forgives the debt of ten thousand talents; the God who has come to call not the righteous but sinners. Time and again, the counterpoint to St. Matthew’s apparent moral pedantry is his insistence on God’s mercy, which is itself the power that enables us to live godly lives.

+++

We believe in one God:

The Father Almighty.

The Lord Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit.

That is to say that we think the sentences of the Creed are true, which is not to say that we think they are comprehensible, these truths mysterious and glorious in equal measure. And it is also to say that we pledge allegiance to live the topsy-turvy life that Jesus carved out for us on, of all things, a Roman cross. The “I believe” in the Creed shares the grammar of the “I will” in the wedding liturgy. The Creed is, as philosophers say, “performative”. But this performance has us dressed in more than the heroism of lofty moral ideals, but also reckless, child-like trust. To believe is therefore finally to trust in a God who is ever for us and for our salvation; ever self-emptying; ever obedient even to the point of death at our hands and for our sake. To believe is to trust that God’s mercy—God’s indefatigable love for the world—is the interpretive key to how we should live, including how we should fail, as we inevitably will, to live the kind of perfect life Jesus demands. We are, all of us publicans and prostitutes and Pharisees, to cry—with the blind and sick and possessed—“Lord, have mercy upon us”. And God will.





Sermon: September 21st 2014

29 09 2014

Sermon for All Saints’, Dunedin

Readings

Proverbs 3:13—18

2 Corinthians 4:1—6

Matthew 9:9—13

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

Let’s pick up where we left off.

As most of you will no doubt remember, when I was last here in February, I spoke about the so-called four antitheses, a part of the Sermon on the Mount in the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. These are the “But I say to you” verses, in which Jesus presents a series of legal injunctions—against murder and adultery, for example—and, in each case, gets underneath and goes beyond them, warning against anger and lust and so forth. Back then, I said that the impossibility of these moral ideals ought not lead us to think that Jesus was kidding, and that we don’t really have to change the way we live at all. On the contrary, St. Matthew’s Jesus takes our moral lives perfectly seriously. After all, this is the gospel of “I have come not to abolish [the Law] but to fulfil [it]”; and the gospel of “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”; and the gospel of “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. These are difficult words to hear, especially for those of us who are accustomed to a diet of harmless, inconsequential religion. Surely, the strict, overbearing deity of yesteryear is passé now: the almighty consumer has spoken, and the god we want in our shopping carts is the pocket-sized buddy Christ. And yet, and yet, here we are, confronted by St. Matthew’s Gospel and its recurring insistence on repentance, on the transformation of our entire lives.

+++

And as most of you will no doubt remember, when I was last here in February, I spoke about the generous providence of necessary grace as the counterpoint to this impossible requirement of perfect goodness. For mortals, Jesus says in Matthew 19, salvation is impossible, but for God all things are possible. This then is our joy and our salvation: that in Christ God has, in God’s mercy, given us our perfecting hope. Which brings us to this morning’s gospel text and, arguably, the central theme of The Gospel according to St. Matthew, whose feast we celebrate today.

If St. Matthew’s Gospel is most often remembered for its moral stringency, what is unjustifiably neglected is Matthew’s emphasis on mercy as the main theme that binds together his various ethical demands. Not once—here in the ninth chapter—but twice—again in the twelfth—does Matthew quote the prophet Hosea’s summary on theological ethics, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”. As costly as Christian discipleship doubtless is—not least as St. Matthew has it—it is not the costliness that matters, but mercy. We have, many of us, and perhaps more so in this country, a sort of fetish for the difficult that, in an odd way, complements the commodification and domestication of our Christianity. We of No. 8 wires and electric fences; we of grey winters in the cold and damp of single-glazed homes; as we are with life, so we are with ethics. The virtuous, we expect, is difficult; it engenders suffering or, at least, discomfort. And so it does. Goodness does involve sacrifice, and naturally so: to be good, we have to sacrifice our base desires and conveniences for the sake of others. We spend scarce resources—our time, our money—to protect the environment from industrially-driven degradation, to avoid the exploitation of anonymous labourers, to extend generosity to friends and strangers alike. None of this is easy, nor should we expect it to be. But our sacrifices are not virtuous because they are costly; difficulty and inconvenience do not a good deed make. God desires mercy, says St. Matthew’s Jesus and Hosea both. But what does this mean?

+++

God desires mercy, and at first glance what that looks like is Jesus walking along and picking up corrupt apparatchiks and petty criminals to have dinner with. That is to say, at first glance, to have mercy looks like hanging out with our social or moral inferiors: the publicans and prostitutes of our world, whoever they may be. But there is, I think, something wrong-headed with this view. It comes from a place of presumed purity, of assumed elevation: we should, like Jesus—halo shiny, with wings of drifted snow—descend and deign to fraternise with rascals and ragamuffins; the poor and ugly things graced by our precious presence. We ought to kiss the frogs to make them princes, in God’s love and in Christ’s mercy. The problem with this view is, to my mind, not so much that it is patronising, which it is, but that it involves a sort of deluded assessment of our selves and of each other. The problem—ours and that of the Pharisees—is not that we don’t hang out with sinners, but that we don’t hang out with people whose sins are not just like our own. We are prejudicially picky and parochial about which sinners, what kind of sinners to sup with. This then, is what St. Matthew would recognise as mercilessness: not that we refuse to engage with those beneath us, but that we perceive others as being beneath us in the first place; the putting of ourselves on pedestals and the presumption that we have a monopoly on high ground. In other words, mercilessness is the assumption that we have no need for mercy ourselves.

+++

God desires mercy, says the prophet Hosea, but before that, he says:

Come, let us return to the Lord;

for it is the Lord who has torn, and the Lord who will heal us;

the Lord who has struck down, and the Lord who will bind us up.

It is the Lord who will revive us and raise us up,

that we may live before him.

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;

his appearing is as sure as the dawn;

he will come to us like the rain,

like the spring rains that drench the earth.

In other words, we are called to cast ourselves upon the mercy of God. Mercy—hesed—is, in the first place, a divine prerogative.

God desires mercy, says the prophet Hosea and St. Matthew’s Jesus, and not sacrifice, and what they mean is that we are all of us in this together, in need of mercy:

the Pharisees, the tax-collectors, the so-called sinners;

the two blind men in Chapter 9, who cried out,

“Have mercy on us, Son of David!”;

the Canaanite woman in Chapter 15, who shouted,

“Have mercy…for my daughter has a demon”;

and the man in the crowd in Chapter 17, who pleads,

“Have mercy…for my son has epilepsy”.

The mercy demanded of us is thus in the first place, an acceptance of the mercy offered, the consequence of which is the extension of this mercy to others.

God desires mercy, says the prophet Hosea and St. Matthew’s Jesus, and not sacrifice, and what they mean is that:

God has made a world for us and like the spring rains drenched its soil with faithfulness and love.

God has made a world of us, a bound and healed people, called to reconcile others to themselves, to each other, and to God. 

God has set a table for us, and we are to all of us sup and feast together on bread and wine: publicans and prostitutes, the blind, the possessed, the epileptic, and even you and even me, us Pharisees all.

God desires mercy, and is mercy.

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





Sermon: February 16th 2014

16 02 2014

All Saints’ Sermon, February 16, 2014

Readings

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

Ps. 119:1–8

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

Matthew 5:21–31

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

[Preamble: Last week, Fr. Michael asked if I would like to preach when I came back, and I said “Yes” as usual, without having read the text first. And then I did. It’s a hard text. So, before I could write the sermon, there was a lot of reading and thinking to do.  I wrote most of the script on the plane, on the way here, and was never really satisfied with it. Now, when I was at a Pentecostal church, preachers used to claim all the time that they’d prepared sermons, but that they’d abandon their scripts to go with the flow, or whatever. Whenever that I happened, I thought to myself that I’d never do that. But today, at at 8am service, I decided that my sermon was rubbish, really. So, in the time between services, I rewrote it, scribbling some things down that I don’t think I can actually read. In any case, I’m going to try again.

I was recently interrogated by the Church of England, as part of the discernment and ordination process, and one of the questions they asked was, “What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?”. It is as good a question as any, I suppose, and—in the middle of my sermon at the 8am service—it occurred to me that today’s texts may have something to say about how to answer it.]

+++

What we have before us are the four so-called antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s commentary on Moses. He begins:

You have heard that it was said of old: you shall not murder;

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 sort of wish he didn’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, tear it out.

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

(This is where I’m glad I’m left handed.)

Whoever divorces his wife or marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Do not swear at all.

It 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, if not actually dealt with

apparent inconsistencies are harmonised, if not actually reconciled

ideals are relativized, if never actually endeavoured.

We have, for example, tried to say that it applies 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-like, but we can…well…never mind.

We have also tried to say that it applies only to a special realm: the sacred and spiritual, but certainly not the secular. There shouldn’t be ecclesiastical oaths and religious wars, but it might be alright to swear in a civil court and to sign up to defend our country.

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 and King 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 tempted as I am 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 misaligned desires of any kind.

A world without broken relationships, just because we are not broken people.

A world in which oaths are unnecessary because there is perfect trust.

+++

Most sensible people agree that this text casts a vision, provides an ideal too lofty to ever meet, and therefore contains a theology of grace. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. It is a classic move in atonement theology to insist that Jesus came to fulfil what we cannot fulfil; Jesus does what we cannot do by our lonesome. This is not—as some might suppose—to say that Jesus does these things instead of us as if we have swapped places, and have no part to play in the economy of salvation. Rather, Jesus lives and dies for us, so that we can present a perfect offering to God. This presentation of a perfect life is our participation in that life, the fullness of which is to live as Jesus lived.

This is, as I said, a sensible, a reasonable reading.

The theological point about the impossibility of goodness and the necessity of grace is fine as far as it goes, but should not distract us from the fact that Jesus is—here, and elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel—takes our moral lives perfectly seriously.

Recall that 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.

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

Recall that just as Jesus says that he came to fulfil the law, he adds: whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven

+++

What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?

+++

In the Book of Deuteronomy,

At the edge of the promised land, Moses speaks:

the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded

the words of life and death,

good and evil,

blessing and curse

the word that is not far off, but nearby;

in our mouths and in our hearts

Moses—one hundred and twenty years old, his eyes yet undimmed—stands before his pilgrim people, and he speaks of a life he will not share in a land he will not inhabit.

Moses—one hundred and twenty years old, his vigour yet unabated—will die before his people cross the Jordan, but not before he sees, from the mountain of the Abarim:

Gilead, as far as Dan;

All Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Judah, as far as the western sea;

All the Negeb; Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.

+++

What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?

The Good News is that Jesus sees Moses, and raises him.

If Moses was a peasant turned prince, Jesus is the prince turned peasant for our sakes.

If Moses walked dry through water to salvation, Jesus drenched himself in baptism to save us.

If Moses wandered in the wilderness stopping short at the promised land, Jesus defeated the evil in the desert to bring God’s promise to fruition.

If Moses climbs mountains to receive laws, Jesus makes them his own.

The Good News is that Jesus sees us—meandering through whatever wilderness we are meandering through—and raises us. We will see the promised land, like Moses did, but we will also live in it.

The Good News is both that the world must be a better place than it is, and that it will be.

It is, at the same time, ruthlessly realistic about what needs to happen, and almost laughably optimistic that it will…

Let me try again.

The Good News is that:

Appearances to the contrary, we do not, after all, live in a God-forsaken world.

God made a world that God calls good, and calls it—us—to be good.

And goodness is hard, if not impossible, and yet that is our call and our end all the same.

The Good News is that:

God is in our moral meanderings, 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. And that is what, in the end, makes us good.

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








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.