Sermon: November 6 2016

The sermon was delivered at a Worcester College Chapel evensong service.

1 Kings 3:1-15
Romans 8:31ff

For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.
Words from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the eighth chapter.

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

If God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, there isn’t much biblical evidence for it.

Saul, you might remember, was king before David, Solomon’s father, whose throne he inherited. God ditched Saul after he had the nerve to offer sacrifices to God before battle, instead of waiting for that crotchety prophet Samuel who, by the way, was running late and never bothered to send so much as a carrier pigeon. The break was decisive when, instead of slaughtering all the men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys, Saul spared the Amalek king and some choice livestock. And no, God wasn’t angry because Saul was an elitist who only deemed royal blood worth keeping within the body envelope. If only. Old Samuel saw to King Agag’s bloody end, of course, Yahweh’s bulldog that he was, he hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.

All this happens before Solomon is born to David and Bathsheba, the wife he obtained by sending her first husband off to his death on the front lines. This, the guy in whose statutes Solomon was meant to walk. Clearly, there was redemption for David not at all clearly extended to Saul, who—you might recall—goes mad, dies in battle, gets decapitated and displayed on a wall. His heir, Jonathan, is killed too, whose love for David was wonderful, passing the love of women. David’s words, not mine. David, incidentally, is never really described as having loved anyone at all.

Anyway, Solomon. Solomon was born after God had already punished David for the thing with Bathsheba’s first husband, by killing their first son, Solomon’s elder brother. So Solomon was OK. More than OK: he was exceedingly wealthy, everyone loved him, and people still now keep saying that he wrote these great bits of the Bible that he probably had nothing to do with. But, of course, there was all that idolatry, worshipping Astarte and Milsom, Yahweh’s neighbouring competitors. Plus, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which just seems excessive. In the Book of Deuteronomy—which, in Israel’s mythic history, was written by Moses long before Israel ever had kings—it says that kings should acquire neither gold nor wives. By the Bible’s own legal accounting, Solomon was a bad king. And Yahweh knew it too. Which is why Solomon gets to die of natural causes in old age, and his son is punished instead, and his descendants after him.

If God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, there isn’t much biblical evidence for it.

+++

Life isn’t fair. This fundamental Christian commitment is offensive to modern sensibilities, those of us who have imbibed the opiate of meritocracy and thus hallucinate a karmic vision of the world. It is Christianity 101—the ethics of Christianity is one of grace, not of fairness—and we have learnt this lesson well. Sometimes too well.

St Paul’s description of the Christian life is easily and often mistaken for the kind of life that Solomon and David lived. Lives in which nothing, not even our own attempts to sabotage ourselves at the expense of others, can get in the way of God’s love for us, passing the love of any man or woman. And, to be sure, this is indeed the life given unto us, we lucky bastards. The Christian gospel is the ludicrous news that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we are incapable of destroying ourselves. It seems too good to be true, and it is, and yet we believe it. But this reading of St Paul, meet and right thought it might be, should not blind us to the rest of the message.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Rhetorical questions, to be sure, but not as hypothetical to St Paul as it seems to us now. We are, in this way, more like Solomon than Paul, the apostle previously known as Saul. We are—despite our many and sundry sins, our minor misdeeds and acts of cruelty, our pedestrian participation in viciously mundane cycles of injustice and oppression that trickle up or down to affect the anonymous strangers who live far, far away, but whose underpaid brows sweat for those things with which our cups overfloweth—(we are), well, handed overflowing cups of Oxbridgeness, even those of us who tell ourselves that we worked hard to get here, which I’m sure we did. Hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or the sword? Hardly. And yet, St Paul does not list such things for no reason: such was the cup promised to the Christian, to them who dared to sign up to the so-called good news of the so-called kingdom. It is the cup promised to us, though that too rings false, perhaps even less believable than the good news that we’re all going to get away, by the grace of God, scot-free.

But what can this mean, that we are more like Solomon than like Paul?

It means at least that we are unspeakably lucky, having won the genetic, cultural, and social lotteries that have placed us at the top 1% of the world’s economy: the median income in the UK is £26,000, compared to the global average of £11,000. Life isn’t fair, and our dices are loaded.

Gratitude is in order, for sure. But also—and this is where it gets tricky—we have to keep asking ourselves if we are too comfortable, too complacent in our privilege. The Christian faith is meant neither as a crutch nor a convenience, but a life of leaning against the windmills of injustice and oppression, bigotry and cruelty. This is the other side of an ethics of grace: Christians are called to give of ourselves because we are not our own to keep, but God’s, the God who gave up life, even to death on the cross, for the sake of the world. That is what the Christian life looks like. And if we find our blessings getting in the way of this life, this vocation, we should instead look upon them as curses. Without fetishising suffering, we should equally refuse to remain content to merely enjoy the world in which we find ourselves, instead striving to make it better, even if it means giving up our riches and honour and longevity. And if we do, the promise of the gospel is that even in our poverty and dishonour and weakness and death, the love of God will be immovably with us. To some people, this will mean nothing. But they are wrong.

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

Election Week Blues

It’s been a long week. I’ve spent much of it poring at voter demographics, reading and listening to political commentary anatomizing the election, talking and listening to my American friends, and just sort of vomiting my feelings on social media. It’s frankly unbecoming; it feels like walking into a formal meeting flushed and eyes raw with weeping. At the same time, however, I don’t want to forget how I feel now, at the disastrous end of two elections this year, the EU referendum in the UK and the Presidential election in the US. Both were very upsetting to me, and for much the same reason. They were clear messages to me that the English-speaking Western world in which I have chosen to make my home doesn’t really want me here. It’s not me personally, of course; I’m sure Brexiters and Republicans would be alright with a tax-paying academic psychologist who volunteers as Church of England priest. But the xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia that characterised the political climate in both the UK and US are palpable. After Brexit, hate crimes against Europeans and Muslims rose. Right now, in the aftermath of the Trump victory, the same is happening here to immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, and others.

Here are some things I wrote, in the week of the election.

At this point, it might as well be over. From my perspective, anything but a Democratic landslide would’ve counted as a loss. Tomorrow, people will talk about how the political establishment have failed the American people, who have thus responded. And that may be true, despite the economic improvements during the Obama administration. But let’s not forget that the rhetoric of this election has been characterised by a disdain for facts, including economic facts; xenophobia; and reactionary nostalgia. Brexit, Trump, the rise of right-wing authoritarianism on the European Continent. These are not unrelated things. (Nov 9, 4.49am)

 

There had better be a fucking socialist revolution at the end of this shit tunnel. (Nov 9, 5.31am)

 

Dear white people,

It took under 24 hours for you to post links and messages about how the Trump victory isn’t “really” or “just” about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. You came up with counterfactual speculations about alternative Democratic candidates, particularly white male ones. You said it was class warfare. You blamed neo-liberalism.

Except that, it *is* about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Maybe not “just” this, but then, no one said that. You protest too much. Some of your best friends are Black or Hispanic or Asian or queer or women. But if so, you have a funny way of showing it, by prematurely shutting down their experiences of this election.

Forgive me if my political anxieties are not primarily about the economic welfare of white people who have lost jobs because consumer goods can now be made more efficiently elsewhere. (And by the way, maybe think about that the next time you go shopping. You’re voting with your wallet.) My worries about Trump are about the minority groups he and his supporters and enablers are going to marginalise, persecute, and deride. It’s not that surprising. I’m non-White immigrant too. And judging by the experiences of others I’ve seen just in the past day, it looks like Trump-inspired prejudices have already reared their heads. (Nov 10, 8.06am)

 

It is certainly time to build bridges, to extend the arms of friendship, to embrace people different from ourselves. But might I suggest that we begin with the victims of our cultural ugliness? Ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities are being marginalised and vilified even more now than we have learnt to tolerate or ignore. (Nov 11)

 

In the past few days, I have come to feel a deep shame over what might be called the “Christian response” to the Trump victory. Not many of my friends cheered, but some certainly waved about platitudes about the “sovereignty of Christ” or even about Trump’s win being “God’s will”. They are calling vulnerable people to “accept” or “reconcile” with those who voted this bully into power. These are smug ways of appearing holy, as niceness is now our cheap imitation of holiness.

If Christianity had any moral authority left, it is responses like these that undermine it. We were called to defend the oppressed. We were called to be a city on a hill. And instead, we are cowards who are complicit with the oppressors. Instead, we hand over our ethnic, religious, and sexual minority friends to those who will persecute them. Instead, we tell victims to love their abusers, in the wholly misguided assumption that we are being like Jesus when we do so. And we rationalise, we tell ourselves stories to absolve ourselves. But we should be ashamed. I am. (Nov 11)

 

+++

Not being able to find very much to say that was uplifting myself, I also posted things from elsewhere:

  • Calls to actions, to support such groups as the ACLU, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood
  • Clinton’s concession speech, in which she says: “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
  • An article by a Parks & Rec writer in Leslie Knope’s voice, in which she says: “And let me say something to the young girls who are reading this. […] You are going to run this country, and this world, very soon. So you will not listen to this man, or the 75-year-old, doughy-faced, gray-haired nightmare men like him, when they try to tell you where to stand or how to behave or what you can and cannot do with your own bodies, or what you should or should not think with your own minds. You will not be cowed or discouraged by his stream of retrogressive babble. You won’t have time to be cowed, because you will be too busy working and learning and communing with other girls and women like you. And when the time comes, you will effortlessly flick away his miserable, petty, misogynistic worldview like a fly on your picnic potato salad. […] Now find your team, and get to work.”
  • Great photos of Obama, especially with kids.

+++

The election also pervaded my sermons and talks. I gave a long one at Christ the Saviour, Ealing Broadway, which was meant to be about psychology and the Church. Download a copy of the talk here. Similarly, my Remembrance Sunday sermon at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is here.

Sermon: October 30 2016 (All Saints Day + Baptism)

The Feast of All Saints (and baptism of Anne Barkham)

Daniel 7:1-3,15-18

Ephesians 1:11-23

Luke 6:20-31

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

The communion of saints: communio sanctorum. That is—so the Catechism tells us—the sharing of holy things among holy people: not half bad as far as definitions of “the Church” go.

In the current fashion of democratisation, we are quick to insist that we are all saints, all holy people, all of us who have, in the waters of baptism, died with Christ and risen with him into new life. And of course we are. But this is not what the Feast of All Saints is about. It is, in the first place, not about the Church militant, those of us currently here on earth, faithful and feckless in equal measure, souls made both of wheat and tares. I mean, we would be very tall poppies indeed, if we dedicated a feast day to ourselves. Nor is it about all the Christians who have come before us: we have another celebration of that great cloud of witnesses, to which we too will one day all belong, the Feast of All Souls, which falls just one day after All Saints’ Day. 

And so it is that today, Anne is being initiated into the communion of saints—she is being made one of this holy people, who will share holy things—and yet, she is not among those we celebrate today every year. Today is about her, and yet not about her Or rather, it is about her and about who she, and we, are meant to be, whether or not we make it before our times are up.

+++

Who we are meant to be.

Love your enemies, he says, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Holy people who share holy things, unequivocally asked to live impossible lives that go against, if not our natures, then the cultures into which we are all born, that quid-pro-quo dog-eat-dog world in which revenge and meritocracy are confused for justice.

Give to everyone who begs from you; he says, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Holy people who share holy things, and therefore share all things, as if those things were not our own to hoard because, well, they’re not our own to hoard. In baptism, we have been drowned, and the dead have no private property, no rights to withhold things from the needy: in the eucharist, even we ourselves are broken to feed others, even as we feed on everlasting life.

There can be no mistaking who we are called to be, who Anne is called to be: what saints look like.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I see when I look in the mirror.

+++

She’s a funny old thing, the Church. Invariably, we who are not saints nevertheless make saints: recognise them, canonise them. In an odd way, they are saints only because of us, only because we share with them this holy thing. And, of course, in a different way, we too are only here because of others: we were baptised, some of us as adults and others as infants, but always by someone else. One does not baptise oneself: there is no room for that kind of individualism in Christianity, that ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, the theological anthropology of Thatcher and Reagan (not to mention Rogernomics and Ruthanasia) that still infects us today like a bad jingle stuck ringing in our heads.

One does not baptise oneself, and this is because the Church is not made up of autonomous individuals who, having given informed consent, plunge into the waters of baptism as if bungee jumping on a Queenstown holiday. It is a mystery, even to the compos mentis, even to the most sober and reflective and well-read of theologians. In this way, those of us baptised as adults are really no better off than those received as infants. It may be clear to see who we are meant to be, but information does not in this case help us truly to know anything about the Christian life into which we are baptised.

One does not baptise oneself because the Christian life is not one to be lived alone, but with one another, in a community of mutual self-giving that nourishes each of us to nourish the world. We know the Christian life by living it together for the sake of others. There is no short cut available.

And so it is that we—you and me, those of us entrusted with Anne’s pastoral care and Christian formation, and those of us looking on—(we) will be making vows today too, to be their people, their holy people who will share with them holy things, that is, all things, denying them nothing they need, if ever needs should arise, and they will. Today, we will be making vows to have their backs, just as others have made vows to have our backs. We have no idea what this will mean, and neither do they: we are again, in this, the same, in the same dark, which for God is light, to whom the night is as bright as day.

+++

Anne, you may or may not always remember this day; days have their way of bleeding into each other, and our minds are fragile things. But that’s what we are for: we will remember, we will remember you, even if you decide some day to walk away from us, even if you decide to hate us and curse us, even then (though we would really prefer you didn’t), we will be your people, who will love you and withhold nothing from you. Holy people, sharing holy things: all of us, saints for your sake, so help us God.

Sermon: October 16 2016

This sermon was delivered at Holy Trinity, Edmonton.

Jeremiah 31:27-34

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18: 1-8

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

Words from the Gospel according to St Luke, the eighteenth chapter, the seventh verse.

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

Jesus seems to be terrible at asking rhetorical questions. Immediately, he responds to his own setup: I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet.

And yet there are desperate people everywhere, praying their hearts out, knees bloody and eyes raw with tears. There have always been, and justice has not been granted them with anything like the promised swiftness. To say that they—victims of war and colonisation and genocide and natural disaster and disease and poverty and domestic abuse—have not prayed enough, have not been found to have enough faith, is a morally bankrupt cop out, a dodgy means to cling on to our convenient and comfortable belief that we will be granted our recompense in timely fashion. But this is nonsense on stilts.

Is Luke’s Jesus wrong, then? Sure, if we can stomach saying such a thing. But, of course, we need to look no further than the Garden of Gethsemane for our proof. There, four short chapters from here, Jesus sweats blood, he prays so painfully: and all God can muster is the cold comfort of bodiless, sexless celestial beings, not even the vigilance of his brothers and friends, let alone grant him what he actually wants. What we all want: not do die in agony and humiliation.

+++

Justice has precious little to do with it, with the Christian faith, if by “justice” we mean fairness, which is the way most people talk these days.

The unjust judge does not play fair by pandering to the pathetic pleas of persistent peasants. And neither would it be fair for God to do so, not that God does. God does not answer prayers based on the fervour of the petitioners. If God did, the Church would make pots and pots of money in the racket of manipulating sports results and election outcomes. And given the baffling dalliance between Christianity and the Republican Party in your belligerent neighbour to the south, Donald Trump would probably be doing better in the polls. Thank God, God’s arms cannot be twisted by people who have nothing better to do than moan about things.

Thank God that God does not play fair, does not allow the divine will to be swayed by the likes of us. The God who plucks up and breaks down, to overthrow, destroy and bring evil, God chooses to build and to plant, despite the sins of our forebears and, God knows, our own sins.

But this is the covenant that I will make…: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

There is nothing fair about that. There is nothing fair about Jesus’s bloody prayers remaining inadequately answered for our sake, we who fall asleep, we who abandon him in his darkest hour, we who participate in the exploitation of labour and the devastation of the natural environment, not least by our everyday consumer choices; we who fail to call our mothers and make time for our families, let alone for strangers and aliens; we who exclude those different from us and therefore probably inferior to us, even if refuse to face our own prejudices and call them out for what they are. We who are nevertheless here gathered to celebrate this Mass to the glory of almighty God, for whom justice looks like an innocent body broken and blood spilt for the good of the despots and denizens who crucified him. We who are crucified with him, whether we feel it or not, who are murdered with him, drowned in the waters of baptism, and broken and offered in this eucharist; we who are living sacrifices or so we mumble, sometimes thoughtlessly, not realising that we are committing ourselves to live unjustly, forsaking our own demands, even our own rights, for even those whom we might deem our opponents.

+++

Bread and wine, or—we joke—poor imitations thereof, and yet, the most intense of moral and political symbols, the symbols of the revolution that began years and years ago and begins still even now, with a covenant a faithful God makes with a feckless people, with a promise of words inscribed into our innermost flesh, with a mother’s son bloodied and broken, dead and risen, with this most mysterious consumption of food and drink through which we give ourselves over to be consumed by a hungry world and thirsty for hope, pleading persistently, widows all of them, all of us, bereft of all manner of things. For these things to be well, all manner of things to be well, we have to repent of the injustice of exploitative consumption and convert to the injustice of reckless grace.

It is, of course, unfair of me to lay the troubles of the world at your feet. And yet, here you are, here we are, perhaps no longer wet with the waters of our baptism, but certainly, in a moment, we will have our bellies full of Christ, and we will be sent out into the world he loves, for which he died. And we will, with some luck, realise that the command to “do this in remembrance of me” is about a lot more than a piece of bread and a drop of wine, so help us God.

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

Sermon: September 25 2016

Readings
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-end

The Bible is sometimes difficult to interpret, difficult to apply to our 21st century lives; it is a complicated thing, not to mention culturally foreign to us, written centuries ago in faraway places. Times change, and context matters. Sometimes, it is difficult to work out, from what the Bible says, how we ought to live now.

This is not one of those times.

In their wisdom, the putters-together of the lectionary have made the moral effect of today’s readings about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. Much misquoted, but the original is not without its force.
“As for those who in the present age are rich […] be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.
“During your lifetime, you received good things…[now] you are in agony”.

Now, it is tempting to think that these passages aren’t directed at us. We are not rich, certainly not like the rich man was in the the morning’s reading from Luke’s gospel. We are solidly middle class, after all.

But of course the median income in the UK is roughly £22,000. This puts the average Brit in the top 1.46% in the world, in terms of income. In global terms, we are obscenely rich. The average house price in Old Marston is £490,000. This is 22 times the UK’s median income; if the average Brit spent every single penny to buy a house here, it would take a little less than half of her entire career to do so. Most of us here today—even if we do not live in this idyllic neighbourhood—are in that top 1% that people keep going on about, when they are complaining about oligarchs.

And, of course, here in Oxford, though perhaps less so here in the suburbs: there are myriads of homeless and other people panhandling on the streets. Lazaruses abound. However, all to often, like the rich man, we just walk on by, comforting ourselves with the knowledge that the City Council discourages us from giving people cash. We don’t stop to remember that the City Council says nothing about having a chat or sharing a hot drink on a cold day.

“If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will be they convinced even if someone rises from the dead”.

Ain’t that the truth? We have gotten very good at minimising the ethical import of transparent passages like these, explaining away clear commands to us. We spiritualise the message of Jesus: we insist that our call is to be poor in spirit, so that we can maintain our comfortable middle-class lifestyles. We forget that when Jesus read from Isaiah, he said that he came to “bring good news to the poor”, full stop. “To proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”. And to be sure, we are spiritually poor, morally blind, oppressed by systems of power that manipulate consumers and voters and exploit workers, especially if they don’t look like us, and preferably if they live far, far away. And therefore the good news is for us too. But our spiritual enrichment, our restored sight, our freedom from oppressive desires, these are not simply for us to enjoy, patting ourselves on our backs. We have been healed and set free to heal and set free.

“As for those who in the present age are rich […] be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.

How shall we live? It could not possibly be more obvious.

Sermon: August 28 2016

Readings

Luke 14:1,7-14

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

You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just, he says. To which I am tempted to reply: are we there yet? Not because, mind you, I have racked up enough feasts for the poor, maimed, lame, and blind to qualify for great rewards in heaven, but because this claim seems evasive to my admittedly very short-sighted eyes. I feel like a child, who is constantly asking his mother when he can have those sweets, only to receive in unwavering reply the single ambiguous familiar declaration: later.

What could it mean, after all, to say that we will be rewarded at the resurrection, at the end of history, in an unimaginable future where it is not at all clear that words like “future” or the concept of time make any sense at all? In real terms—that is to say, in the terms of cold, economic logic—it means approximately nothing.

I mean, what would you say if I borrowed a large sum of money from you, and said that I would repay you—even with interest—at the resurrection of the just?

It is as though our Lord lacked the psychological insight to know that human beings are dispositionally and incorrigibly bad at deferring gratification. I can barely wait two days for my Amazon parcels to arrive, let alone take the time to find another place to buy my books and dinosaur figurines. Another place, which does not calculatingly exploit their workers and meticulously avoid their taxes. I can barely wait two days for justice, let alone until the resurrection of the just for my recompense.

Christians are often criticized for what is assumed to be our motivation for doing good: we only do good, they say, to ultimately benefit ourselves. We only do good to curry favour with God or to avoid incurring his wrath. I am sure that there is some truth to this; and yet, just a brief moment’s reflection must make us—and them—see how obviously unappealing the deal is. No sensible human being would live the life Jesus demands for maybe pie in the sky when they die. We are—human beings are, even the least sensible among us—(are) too shrewd, too cynical, too impatient for that. Christians truly do believe many impossible things, but this—the naïve notion that we ought to be virtuous for treasures on the other side of eternity—is surely not among them.

The truth is, as usual, even more unusual—even more absurd—than the caricature. 

+++

The scales fell from my eyes when I was about sixteen, reading the Gospel of Matthew. It was that story Jesus told, the one about the workers. Some of them turned up before dawn, and agreed to work for a day’s wages. Others turned up looking for work later that morning; others still appeared at midday; others came in the afternoon; and even a mere hour before the working day was done, there were people seeking employment. The guy who ran the vineyard, he paid them all a denarius each, a day’s wage.

The gospel, it dawned on me, had—unlike the rest of the world familiar to me at the time and still—(the gospel had) nothing whatsoever to do with cold, hard, economic logic. The gospel, I realised, was opposed to my world of carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, cost-benefit analyses, just desserts, tit-for-tat strategies for achieving Nash equilibria.

It all suddenly made sense, this God for whom one and one and one made one; who tells stories about householders who provide to each according to his needs after receiving from each according to his ability; who has no need for us, but made us anyway, and lived and died for us, who killed him, and rose again to bring us home.

It all suddenly made sense. And the kind of sense it made was, of course, totally and unrepentantly absurd. Sure, Christians believe impossible things, silly things. We believe that we were and are loved into being; that our primary identity is like that of a child born into a family that had no need for her nor desire or agenda for her except that she flourish. We believe that this love who gave us breath and life came alive among us, and died, and changed all lives forever. All lives: even the lives that don’t matter to us, the lives different from us, the lives we would rather marginalise, avoid, or exploit. We believe that all this grand stuff about creation and redemption are as true for them as they could be for anyone else, as they could be for us. And therefore, we believe that we should all sit at table together: not just symbolically, on some anaemic definition of symbols, but really, in the flesh and the blood. Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. He’s not kidding. I’m not sure why we think he is, though we sure act like it most days; God knows I do anyway. Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind; God knows he did, invite us in our own impoverished visions of the world, our crippling insecurities, our moral blindness.

+++

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to apply biblical texts or theological precepts to the modern day, to our every day lives. This is not one of those times. The thing we are called to do and be is difficult, to be sure, but it’s not our inability to understand that makes it so. Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. Not because we will be repaid at the resurrection of the just, whenever that might be, but because we are made and saved—sons and daughters of love itself—(made and saved) to defy our basest instincts, even when they are tarted up, made respectable and entrenched as ostensibly moral or political or economic necessities.  Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. Because our source and sustenance and salvation is love. No hermeneutical lens is required here, no reading between lines. God help us, then, that healed and strengthened at his table, we will be able to open ours.

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

Sermon: August 14 2016 (Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Readings

Revelation 11.19, 12.1-6, 10

1 Cor. 15.20-26

Luke 1.39-56

 

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

 

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

 

Of the two—the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception—the Assumption is by far the more reasonable dogmatic assertion. This is not least because it would have been an egregious failure of filial piety for Jesus not to have brought his mother along with him. I mean, my mother would never let me hear the end of it.

 

I confess—don’t tell Fr Peter—that I struggle with the idea that Mary was born without original sin. This is because it makes it difficult for me to relate to her, and to see her as an example for my own life, or for the lives of others not similarly blessed. No doubt, evidence of my own lack of moral fibre, I find myself making excuses for my petulance and disobedience by thinking that faithfulness would come much easier if I too were unsullied by the “stain of original sin”. This is, of course, absurd. There is, after all, nothing easy about the life of a Jewish peasant girl in the backwaters of Roman occupied Palestine, pregnant out of wedlock, who had to watch her son be tortured and publicly murdered. In contrast to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary was, at the end of her earthly life, “assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” resonates perfectly with everything I have come to know and love about this faith we share.

 

Here, we have the taking up of Mary’s whole humanity to be with God: body and soul, past and present, her whole story, the immaculate bits and the not-so-immaculate bits. The messiness of being human is brought into the perfection of the divine life. Here, therefore, is the fundamentally Christian insistence that the entire created order is good, and not just a special, sanitised or spiritualised, corner of it; which is just to say that the entire created order is loved.

 

There can, for Christians, be no hatred of the body, no denigration of the physical, no retreating from the world, so common these days in convenient and commodified versions of spirituality, knock-offs of the real thing. To begin with, our doctrines of Creation and Incarnation are unmistakably positive about the world: God made the world and saw that it is good, and, furthermore, it is worth saving. The doctrines of the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary are yet other ways of saying that God loves the world, not only enough to make it and become a part of it, but enough even to embrace it, welcoming us with arms outstretched, to redeem us and make us whole.

 

+++

 

The Church’s teaching on the Assumption gives us a clue about why we venerate Mary.

 

It is often said, quite rightly, that devotion to Mary is an expression of our belief in the Incarnation: Mariology is Christology. As the early Church argued, if Jesus is God Incarnate (which he is), and if Mary is Jesus’s mother (which she is), then it follows that Mary must be the mother of God Incarnate: the veneration of Mary thus begins with the simple recognition that she is theotokos, the bearer of God.

 

But this is only one side of the story, of course. Our veneration of Mary is also—and perhaps even primarily—a prayer to be like her. And this is only possible because she is like us. The logic of the Incarnation—for us to be like Jesus, he has to be like us—applies here too, perhaps even more so, because Mary is simply fully and wholly human, and not at all divine, except by adoption. Indeed, the most important fact about Mary—her most significant trait—is not the circumstances of her birth or even the circumstances of her pregnancy, but her humanity. It is precisely by being human that she brings God into the world as a human being. It is by being human that she can be for us a sign: a sign of our salvation, body and soul.

 

The Assumption of Mary is therefore our assumption, our invitation and reception into the life of her Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever world without end.

 

+++

 

So, we celebrate the Assumption of Mary, and venerate her, because she is our sign that God loves the world, the whole world. Creation, Incarnation, Ascension, and Assumption, all point in the same direction. On this, Christianity refuses to be subtle.

 

And as if these were not reminders enough of this most central message of the Gospel, we are given also the Eucharist, in which we participate in Creation, Incarnation, Ascension, and Assumption. We take into our bodies the Body of Christ, which earth has given and human hands have made; and the Blood of Christ, fruit of the vine and work of human hands; and in and through this bodily ingestion of these earthy elements made heavenly, we are ourselves received as gifts—souls and bodies—to be sent out, to live and work to the praise and glory of God.

 

Even as we have a share in Mary’s Assumption, so also we have a share in her work as bearer of God.

 

Our bellies full of Christ, our call—like hers—is to brave the world and its messiness, our own messiness, and to bring what we see and hear to God in prayer, and to bear witness, in word and deed, to the good news that God loves the whole glorious thing, and will bring it home.

 

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