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.   

Sermon: December 25 2016 (Christmas)

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52: 7-10

Hebrews 1: 1-6

John 1: 1-18

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Words from the Gospel according to St John, the first chapter.

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

And the Word became flesh.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is Christianity’s beating heart. From it flows our understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our view of the sacramentality of things; our vision of what it means to be human, made in God’s image. Without the Incarnation, the Resurrection is the little more than a parlour trick and the Church little more than a fan club.

It violates my anthropological intuitions to say so, we who are so allergic to claims to cultural uniqueness: but there is nothing quite like the Incarnation anywhere else, this idea that God—the God who made all things, and who upholds the whole universe—this idea that this God of infinite power is born a human boy, wet and screaming, nursing and sleeping, teething and throwing tantrums; that God grows up, gets grubby and grumpy, nauseated, constipated, gets himself killed. This is—I don’t know—something else. A hint half guessed, a gift half understood, or not at all.

I mean, gods that are like people are dime a dozen. Zeus and Thor, Shiva and Guan Yin, even Yahweh in the old days, are all anthropomorphised. Frankly, except on our very best days, even the God we imagine is likely a very powerful man. And shapeshifting gods are common too, including those who temporarily adopt human form. Zeus did this, of course, to nefarious ends; a bizarre passage in the Poetic Edda has Odin accusing Loki of having born children and “milked cow” as a woman on earth; even our own Book of Tobit has the Archangel Raphael take on human appearance to journey with the eponymous protagonist’s son, Tobias. But none of this is quite the doctrine of the Incarnation, which begins not with a humanoid god, but with a God radically other, so unlike anything in the world that the divine is beyond knowing and certainly beyond telling. God is the mystery to which all things owe their being, and yet it is this God who comes and shares in our fragility and finitude. And how fragile and finite indeed. Sea turtles break out of their eggs, and immediately dash for the ocean. Giraffes can walk within hours, despite their awkward gangliness. Human neonates, in contrast, are unable to lift up their own heads for the first two months of their lives. The Christ-child is, like all children, utterly dependent on others. This, we are shown rather than told, is what God is like: a baby in a manger, a man on death row.

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Of course, this is absurd. It makes no sense. Except that it is the only thing that really does make sense against a world in which might makes right; the value of things is reducible to their utility; and even people are means to our ends. The Incarnation is a repudiation of these poisonous ideas, lodged in our brains and our bones, our societies and their structures.

This is what true power looks like, not military might, nor media manipulation by monied interests, but a newborn in a world where infant mortality at the time is best estimated at 30%. It’s a crapshoot, whether Jesus would have made it to adulthood, and then we killed him by popular vote.

This is the value of the world, such that the God who, by definition, has no use for it, made it anyway and then made it home, became part of it. How dare we treat it merely as our pantry, our gas station, our playpen, our theatre of war?

This is what a human being is worth, a homeless foreigner, a boy born out of wedlock, a criminal, tried and executed. The heir of all things, who reflects the glory of God, who bears the very stamp of God’s nature.

The Incarnation makes moral sense, then, but in ways that run against our entrenched intuitions, either endowed upon us by our biological heritage or calcified by our cultural history. Evolutionary theorists tell us that the strongest survive, by which they definitely do not mean those who lay down their lives for others. Economists have no other way to conceptualise value except in terms of use. Psychologists have shown through decades of research that prejudice—suspicion and derogation of the other—is all but inevitable, baked into the way we process social information. The Incarnation renders none of these claims empirically false: it is not a scientific theory, after all. But it is a response to such a world as this that, far from escaping into denialism or cynical apathy, enters directly into these economic, political, psychological, and biological realities. The Incarnation is therefore an invitation for us to be defiant in hope, to resist being overcome by our own darkness, the darkness of the world around us. It is into this world that Christ is born, which comprehended him not, knew him not, received him not. And yet, the light shines. Perhaps this too is absurd, but if so, it is a necessary absurdity. To whom else can we go? Here is the Word of eternal life.

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The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth and from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace and one day eye to eye we will see the return of the Lord.

In the meantime, it is the first day of Christmas, and there are—sons and daughters of the most high—(there are) good tidings to bring, peace and salvation to publish. There is a Word we have received, to bring light to the world.

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

Sermon: December 11 2016 (Advent 3)

Third Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10

James 5:7-10

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.

Words from the traditional entrance antiphon, from St Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, the fourth chapter.

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

Not so long ago, last week, many centuries past—in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests—John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, was in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. No reed shaking in the wind, was he, nor decked in soft kings’ raiment, but a prophet sent to face us.

And today he is told, from behind bars awaiting a puppet despot’s petty vengeance, he is told of the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, lepers cleansed, the dead alive, all good news. He will see confirmation of none of these things, not with his own eyes, our crotchety old faithful old John the Baptizer, none greater than whom has been conceived and born of a woman.

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It is the Third Sunday of Advent. And we are told to rejoice, thus the traditional name for this day in the Church’s year: Gaudete Sunday, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And we are even given a reason so to do: The Lord is near, St Paul says. Near: a word, which like the word advent connotes both approach and arrival. In the same breath: presence and promise. The Lord is near. Nearer now than when we first believed. Not that this is particularly helpful to John the Baptist, languishing in a cell, or Paul, himself under custody and eventually also put to the sword.

The blind see, he told them to say to John, the lame walk, the deaf hear, but of course, they don’t. And the poor may have good news preached at them, but the World Health Organisation says that there are nearly 800 million people who cannot afford to keep themselves nourished. 3.1 million children die ever year from malnutrition. That’s 8,500 kids a day. 350 an hour. 60 in the time it takes to preach this sermon.

Shall we look for another?, John asks, not knowing whether he dares to be hopeful. It’s not a silly question, even now. Be patient, St James says, be patient for the coming of the Lord. But the Lord sure is taking his time. See, this is the why we need the Old Testament. Our forebears, they knew the importance of lament, they knew the place of impatience, of asking “How long, O Lord? How long?” Job 7; Psalm 13 and 35 and 89 and 90, I could go on; Habakkuk 1; pretty much all of Jeremiah. The call to be patient is all too often heard, even if not meant, as permission to accept the status quo, no matter how intolerable it is. This is, of course, not what St James means, who tells us to make the prophets our examples of this patience. Anyone who confuses what the prophets did for passive resignation hasn’t read them very well.

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Now it is time to awake out of sleep,

For the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

These are the words I associate most with Advent, which we say every morning in our common prayer, taken from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, this one incidentally not written in prison. They are for me a daily reminder of what it means for Advent to be a season of anticipation. Waiting, Christianly conceived, is not a passive act. Rather, we are called in this time to prepare, to make ready the path of the coming King. Saints, you will recall, are not just characters in pious stories or subjects for artistic endeavours, but examples for us now: this includes John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, martyrs both, who spoke truth to power.

There is another common misconception, not helped by off-the-cuff quips by clerics, that one Sunday of Lent and Advent each—them of these pink vestments—are to provide reprieve from these otherwise penitential seasons. This is a mistake not only because Advent isn’t a penitential season in the way that Lent is, but also because liturgical seasons don’t come with bathroom breaks. Gaudete Sunday is not a suspension of Advent, but an amplification thereof: our anticipation is heightened today as we are given a foretaste of what is to come. We see, even if through a glass darkly, the world for which we are preparing, to which we are paving the way. A world in which the desert shall rejoice and blossom; the ransom of the Lord shall return; sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

So, there is work to be done. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. We have our marching orders, and we should not pretend that we don’t. We have, most of us, been through enough Advents and Christmases to expect sermons about making the world a better place. We should not pretend that we haven’t. Nobody really needs another December tirade from this pulpit about the excesses of consumer capitalism. Tirades, by the way, that are, of course, hypocritical, given that none of the clerics here are anchorites. All the same, there is work to be done, by you and me, by us all. It is the Third Sunday of Advent, and if today we anticipate the coming of God’s kingdom more intensely, then this is as good a week as any to participate more actively, practically, actually in Christ’s advent. As the white of Christmas breaks into the violet of this season, it ought not be rose-tinted glasses that we receive, but a fragrance to be offered: to be offered back to God, of course, but if the New Testament is anything to go by (and it should be), what that looks like is an offering to those in need. The blind, the deaf, the lame, the poor; the homeless and malnourished; the imprisoned, and those who need second chances and thirds and then some.

Maybe you don’t know where to start. You will not be surprised to hear that I have specific opinions on the matter, but we can have that conversation later. For now: start anywhere. Start here, talking to each other about what you can do. Start just outside the church, where people sleep rough, and could do with a hot drink and a kind word. Start down the road, at the Gatehouse, who have called for warm hats and scarves and socks for gifts to the homeless. They need them by this Wednesday. Start with a standing order to a charity that supplies clean water and medical treatment to those who lack easy access. Start with a letter to your MP about what we can do together as a society to make this place look more, even if just a little more, like the glimpse we get to see of a world in which all things are put to right. Wherever you start: the Lord is near.

It is the Third Sunday of Advent. It is time to awake out of sleep. The night is far spent and the day is at hand.

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

Sermon: November 23 2016 (Baptism)

This sermon was delivered at St Mary Magdalen, Oxford as part of a course on basic doctrine. 

Very often, people talk about how certain things are just “symbolic” or mere “social constructions”. I find this attitude very puzzling, because as far as I can tell, pretty much everything worth caring about is symbolic and socially constructed. Symbolism is about the excess of meaning, about how something means more than it first appears. The 1975 film Jaws is about more than a giant shark terrorising New England beachgoers. Wedding rings are more than bits of dense, ductile yellow metal, beaten into short, hollow cylinders. Social construction is about the sharing of meaning, about a common vision, common values. It is what makes possible traffic signs and peace treaties. It is what makes language possible, and love.

There is nothing trivial—no justness, no mereness—to socially constructed symbols. A world in which all meanings are literal and all things are only as good as their practical functions is not one worth living in. Christians have always known this. It is fundamental to the Christian way of seeing the world that there is more here than meets the eye, that things are not just as they seem. And this is why we have sacraments: sacraments are signs, not in the sense that Post-It notes are signs, but in the sense that a kiss is a sign. When we kiss somebody, we are not just reminding them of our affection, communicating something to them easily and equally expressible in words. The kiss is itself the embodiment and consummation of this affection. Sacraments do not just show or say something, but accomplish it.

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Baptism involves water and the Trinitarian formula: I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Of course these days, we have white frocks and candles and vows and all sorts of things, most of which also brim over with significance. But the essential ingredients of a baptism are pretty basic. Water and the name of God. Basic, in more than one sense of the word. These elements are not incidental, of course: baptism would not be a very good sign if they were. But what do they signify? What does baptism accomplish?

Baptism is a kind of drowning. We don’t tell parents this, when they come to us with their precious newborns, but it’s true. There are other ways to talk about baptism—as a washing or cleansing, for example—but these descriptions tend to undersell the gravity of the thing. Baptism is a kind of drowning, a cleansing so complete that it is a kind of death. It is also like death, and not like bathing, in its one-off-ness and in its permanence.

Baptism is a kind of death, then. Specifically, it is Christ’s death: the New Testament tells us repeatedly that we are baptised into Christ, and thus into his death and resurrection. One of the drawbacks of not performing baptisms by immersion is that we don’t get to witness the dramatic enactment of plunging into the waters of baptism, and rising again into new life.

Baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are in this new life, dead women and men walking, and therefore, free. Free, that is, from the egocentric insecurities that lie at the bottom of our basest instincts, our insistence to assert ourselves and our desires, even at the expense of others. Indeed, as St Paul observes, baptism also relativizes all our previous sources of identity, those group alignments—our nation-states, our ethnic groups, even our families—from which we derive our comfort and self-esteem, again often at the expense of those who are different from us: there is, St Paul saith, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. These divisions, which give rise to the most deadly and mundane sins—racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice—(these divisions) fall away because in our baptismal death and regeneration, we have our identities redefined. We are not our own but Christ’s, his Body, raised by God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, to participate in that shared life of eternal self-giving that is the very essence of God.

Go figure: water and the name of God go pretty far.

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There is, of course, an element of aspirational over-statement here. Every individual Christian life and the history of the Church is marked by a conspicuous failure to live up to our baptisms. We are called to live impossible lives. And while, for some, this leads to despair, it should not. There is nothing to fear from failure per se, only from rising again. Death and resurrection is kind of our thing.

Also our thing is mutual support. Christian lives are not meant to be lived individually, but corporately. We are baptised: the verb is passive; we do not baptise ourselves. The idea that we should only be baptised if and when we fully understand what it is that we are doing is just a misunderstanding of baptism, and indeed, of the Christian life. We never fully understand what it is that we are doing, not me, not you, not the Pope, not an infant brought before God’s people to be God’s people. In this we are the same. And so we stand–shoulder to shoulder; arms linked; ready to pick each other up and dust each other off should ever we fall; ever having each others’ backs–we stand and walk together, live together this impossible life of giving up our lives for the sake of the world.

Sermon: November 20 2016 (Christ the King)

This sermon was delivered at Queen’s College, Oxford for evensong.

1 Sam 8.4-20
John 18.33-37
It’s been a rough year. Remember when the most heartbreaking thing about 2016 were the deaths of beloved celebrities?

And then Brexit happened. Look, I don’t care how you voted, and how you justified it to yourself to help you sleep at night, but that referendum dug up some proper ugliness in this country. The campaign disregarded facts, and exploited the insecurities of the economically marginalised in an effort to scapegoat people who looked and sounded different from the nostalgic visage of old Britannia. The aftermath included a burst of hate crime, against ethnic and religious minorities; it did not include more funding to the NHS.

Sovereignty!, we demanded. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that life got a whole lot worse for immigrants and ethnic minorities over here. It’s hard not to take that personally.

And then Trump happened. And that was much worse.

Freedom!, our American cousins are wont to cry. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that the Ku Klux Klan are celebrating over there, and diverse groups of people—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ folk—are being intimidated, harassed, and even assaulted. Far from being the promised champion of the working class, Donald Trump has now populated his transition team with corporate consultants and lobbyists. If the swamp has been drained, it is being refilled with orange Kool-Aid.

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Christians almost invariably say insipid things about politics. The sovereignty of God, for example, is often used as a means to justify the current regime. Vox Populi, vox Dei, and therefore Donald J. Trump is God’s chosen, who works in mysterious ways. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, we say, as a convenient means to disengage from political action. But such sloganising—such memefication—is tantamount to the abuse of theological language. Make no mistake: there can be nothing Christian about casual and convenient complicity with bigotry and bullying.

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The Bible is iffy on the relationship between Church and State.

The First Book of Samuel narrates Yahweh’s—or, should we say, Samuel’s—displeasure at the shift from theocracy to monarchy. But it is not as though Israel became a secular state. Samuel is told to listen to the people…but also to tell them what they want. Samuel: the Steve Jobs of ancient Israelite realpolitik.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jesus, a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine: he couldn’t be further from the centre of political power than Samuel was at its heart. There was no king but Caesar, and his vassals, including Herod’s family, who reigned over Judea at the pleasure of his majesty the Emperor.

Are you the King of the Jews? There was, of course, no such thing at the time. Herod the Great, to whom the title once belonged, was long dead, and his jurisdiction split among his male offspring: no surprises there. It was, in that sense, a trick question.

My kingdom is not from this world. There it is: the prooftext of Christian political apathy, which is really not so different from hipster cynicism. We are above the fray, too cool to believe that government can ever be anything but a stumbling block to be overcome by clicking things, or whatever people do these days.

And yet: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

With that, Jesus seems to come back to Samuel’s position. This political criminal, with the nerve to claim that—unlike the Herodians whose titles even required the Caesarian stamp of approval—the Christ’s kingship is his birthright, is truth itself, and we had better heed his voice.

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The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. That’s what this feast day is called, just in case we had any doubts about the scope of our moral and political concerns. You would be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the Church is only interested in where one puts one’s genitals, given her well-publicised obsessions.

This is not to say that the Church should be the Labour-Party-at-Prayer. The sovereignty of Christ relativizes all our group alignments, whether to political party or nation-state or ethnic group, or even family. We are first members of Christ’s body, who was crucified and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And, even as the Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s year, Christ is our end, our goal, our bottom line; there can be no other. Therefore, Christian political action cannot be a means to any other end, least of all grasping for political power for ourselves. Rather, if Christ is our goal, then our political action—our voting, our campaigning, our protesting—must embody Christ, whose mission was to the poor and marginalised and oppressed, who gave himself up for their sake.

If Christ is King, we cannot vote to prosper ourselves at the expense of the poor and needy, either here or abroad.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to take the lives of anonymous others far, far away, just to make us feel safe.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to restore some imagined past, excluding those who fail to look or sound like us.
If Christ is King, we must stand with and for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, long before we fight for ourselves.

There will, of course, never be a political candidate or party or platform that is unequivocally good. After all, we are none of us unequivocally good. Christians make the mistake of thinking that our moral choices are between right or wrong, when they are in fact mostly damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decisions. And yet, moral disengagement is not an option for us who are in the world, even though our kingdom is not from it. We are not called to be above the fray, but to be mired in the clay, to be an infant in a manger, a voice in the wilderness, leaven pervading bread, beaten and bloodied on a cross.

I make no apology to the 81% of white evangelical voters (58% of Protestants more generally and 52% of Catholics) when I say that Hillary Clinton was far and away my preferred candidate, for all the reasons I have stated, and that support for Donald Trump is unconscionable for Christians. But even had Clinton won, the Church would still have work to do, leaning, pushing against her government’s warmongering, delegating of power to corporate interests, and dilly-dallying over environmental protection.

But the next leader of the so-called free world is a buffoon who, regardless of his own views, demonstrably inspires hateful people and hateful actions. A lot of people are scared right now, and I don’t blame them. The UK and US is an increasingly hostile place for immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ persons. Economic disparities are ever widening here at home and elsewhere. There are a lot of vulnerable people. If Christ is our King, then our concern for the people he loves must not remain at the level of pious platitudes. Go, as we say at the end of every Mass; go in peace and love. There’s work to be done.