Sermon: April 23 2017

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter.

Audio link here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

 

Sermon: April 14 (Good Friday)

A sermon for Good Friday.

Audio link here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

 

 

Sermon: 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.

+++

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.

+++

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: 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.

+++

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.

+++

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.

+++

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.

Sermon: May 8 2016

John 17:20ff

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

The first step is admitting that we have a problem.

It didn’t take long for us to start bickering, though I suppose it took a little longer before we split up for good…or ill. And now, here we are, with our various divisions: east and west, Catholic and Protestant, mainline and evangelical, episcopal and congregationalist. It is impossible to count how many Christian denominations there are, but the point is that there are more than one.

There is disunity, and there is no sense pretending otherwise. We are, they say, one in spirit, which just seems like another way of saying that we are not really one at all. The unity of the Church, they say, is an eschatological reality, which just seems like another way of saying that it’s not a reality at all.

Or rather, these are convenient slogans that we use to exculpate ourselves, to excuse ourselves from actually attempting reconciliation. But this is surely an abuse of theological categories. The Church is indeed spiritually united, but this is no reason to cease our ecumenical endeavours, any more than the real spiritual freedom of Christian slaves should have led us to abandon the abolitionist movement, as many slavers conveniently argued back in the day. The vision of the Church united is indeed an eschatological one, but this too is no reason to stop working toward it on this side of eternity; after all, all our moral visions are eschatological, and yet we strive to do better here and now, or we ought to, anyway. 

There is disunity, and there is no sense pretending that it’s not a scandal, a crisis of Christian credibility. One among many, to be sure, but still, I think, a crucial one. The modern ecumenical movement arose out of concerns that denominational diversity would confuse the poor pagans and heathens in foreign, newly colonised, lands. And these concerns, while patronising, were not totally unfounded. Even growing up in Malaysia in the 1990s, I was bemused about how the evangelical Methodists were suspicious of the charismatic Baptists, and how both were suspicious of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholics in equal measure. These Christians, they seemed to enjoy splitting up.

The broken-upness of the Church is a scandal and a crisis, and this is not least because balkanisation and insularity has never served any organisation well. Given the abuses of power that have recently been brought to much-needed light, one would think that this is a lesson well learned by now. Especially for an organisation so pruriently obsessed with the personal relationships and break-ups of individuals, it smacks of hypocrisy that we are not more concerned with relationships at ecclesial levels.

The first step is admitting that we have a problem. All the other steps involve doing something about it.

+++

Alas, so much of what passes as ecumenical activity–like so much religion more generally–is frightfully dull. It is difficult to get excited about gatherings of polite people trying very hard not to openly disagree. And it is not as though ecumenical groups are unaware of this shortcoming. Recently, I saw a headline in the News section of the Churches Together in England website that read “Boring but beneficial”, describing a new constitution for local groups. It was, I am sure, someone’s attempt at self-deprecating humour, but might have hit the mark a bit too well.

And yet, of course, we are woefully under-selling the modern ecumenical movement if we assume that it’s all instant coffee and superficial cordiality. As I have already mentioned, the modern ecumenical movement began as a missional movement. And this is not just to say that it was  concerned with evangelism or proselytism, which of course it was. Rather, it is to say more generally that it was an outward looking phenomenon. The goal was to be one for the sake of the world, not least when the world was torn asunder, first by the Great War and then by its yet darker sequel. The world is still torn, of course; and so the need has not changed, and our call is to come together to meet it. Therefore, the question with which we are faced is this: what does the gospel compel us, together, to do, in this time and place?       

+++

We–Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, ad infinitum–(we) disagree on moral and political issues: this much is obvious to all of us. But it is not as though the disagreements are only between denominations: even within our own churches there are diversities of positions on any number of ethical topics. And yet, here we are, regularly worshipping and working together for the sake of the world, at least on a good day, at least when we are not defensively gazing at our navels, at least when we are not threatening to split up ourselves. There is no denying our differences, but there is, equally, no point in fetishising them. 

The fact of the matter is that we agree on much. And, if so, we can do much, and should and must, do much, together. Complete ecumenical agreement has never been a prerequisite for cooperative social action, and may well be its consequence. There is a relevant piece of advice that psychologists often dispense to the parents of adolescents: we tell them to cook together, or to engage in some other kind of joint activity in which parents and children stand side-by-side, rather than face-to-face. This has a way of improving the conversation, opening both sides up to free and frank talk. Churches are, in many ways, like adolescents.

There is, in meta-ecumenical reflections, a tendency to worry that ecumenism descends into mere humanistic do-goodery, but this anxiety seems misplaced. Woe be to us, if the thing we worry about is doing too much good together. Whether feeding the poor together or caring for the sick together or tilting against the windmills of injustice, violence, and oppression together will lead to inter-communion, I cannot say: but it is not as though this kind of cooperation would be a waste of time, even if it didn’t. The poor will be fed; the sick will be cared for; evil windmills will be toppled. And we will have done this work of the gospel, hands joined, even if gingerly.

We agree on much, I don’t think it is pollyannish to say. We agree on more than we want to admit, perhaps. There is a vanity, as Freud used to say, in small differences. And if the freedom that Christ won for us is meant to achieve anything, surely it is meant to defeat the narcissistic insecurities that compel us to drive wedges between ourselves. The Pope’s response to Donald Trump’s immigration policy should burn our hearts also: “a person who thinks only about building walls … and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel”.

+++

So, what now? We turn up, together. Maybe not to lowest common denominator prayer meetings and tepid talks in cold church halls, but to soup kitchens and protests and sit ins and refugee camps. The Churches Refugees Network, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, the Gatehouse here in Oxford, based just down the road at St Giles’s: there are any number of ways to work side-by-side other Christians in ways that that go beyond mere symbolism and tokenism. The afore-mentioned Churches Together website is a good source of information.

To be sure, not all our social action has to be through Christian groups, but our Christian ecumenical activity, if it is to have legs–if it is to get hearts racing and fists pumped–has to involve action. So, off we go. Go, in peace, together, to love and serve the Lord. Amen.

Sermon: April 3 2016

Readings

Acts 5:12-16

Revelation 1:9-13, 17-19

John 20:19-31

+++

Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed.

Christ has risen, and Rome has fallen, but in her place have risen empire after empire, each one repeating that age old trick of dressing up thuggery in the respectability of marble busts and fine bone china.

Christ is risen, but the poor are still with us, as indeed he himself said they would be; this time, however, we have not wasted the choice nard to anoint his feet, but have instead stored up riches for ourselves under the eschatological vision that wealth trickles down. Meanwhile, since Good Friday last week, approximately 180,000 people around the world have died of hunger or hunger-related causes.

Christ is risen; meanwhile, we are witnesses to another kind of resurrection, of the old time demagoguery that appeals to our basest prejudices and insecurities. The most effective tool in the arsenal of the craven warmonger is the fear of the other, and boy do we fear the other. Thus, for every side of every bout of armed conflict, young men and women give up their lives, and all we have to show for it is an ever bloodier mess. First, it was the Jews we feared, and since then we have found others, and the cycles of preemptive and retaliatory violence have gone on unimpeded as the Neros of the world play on.

Christ is risen, and now everything has changed; but, of course, nothing has changed. Or, at least, we haven’t; not enough, not nearly enough.

+++

And yet, this—this sordid state of affairs in which we find ourselves, and which is of our own making—is precisely why we need to continue celebrating Easter, why we need the Paschal light that pierces the darkness, and brings warmth into a cold world.

Truth be told, Christianity has much more in common with nihilism than it does with any whiggish view of history, in which the world is getting inexorably better toward some beatific vision of a just and peaceful society. To be sure, we hope for such a world, but it is not offered to us on a silver platter. After all, surely we know better than most, that it is the severed heads of the politically inconvenient that tend to be thus offered.

There are, in the Christian life, no pat certainties, no guarantees of projected outcomes: ours is a risky enterprise, a sojourn in the wilderness, destination unknown, but for the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, the rising star. Christ is our help and hope, without whom we are lost for sure, trapped in our world of credit default swaps and sweatshops and factory farming and military-industrial complexes.

Hope is the operative word. Easter—the Resurrection—is our sacrament of hope: it is our rejection of the world that has been sold to us on the cheap, in which violence is the cost of peace, and poverty the price of economic growth; in which our conveniences and comforts are bought with the blood, sweat, and tears of anonymous others, kept far, far away for fear that if they too are allowed to prosper, then we would suffer as a consequence; a pale facsimile of the world that God loves into being. Christ—the subjugated Jew; the son of man who has no place to lay his head; the prophet, marginalised and ignored—(Christ) is risen. Christ is risen, and we are raised with him: raised into peace and out of fear, and out of our locked rooms into the world, led by the Spirit whom we have received, to forgive the sinners and wash the unclean and heal the sick, we who are ourselves the beneficiaries of healing, washing, and forgiveness.

This is the difference then, between Christianity and nihilism; and it is a difference that means that there is, for Christians, no room at all for the apathy of resignation or complacent cynicism. Popular opinion to the contrary, we are not about pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die, but about bread today, the kingdom of God come, the will of God done, on earth as it is in heaven.   

This is, after all, the faith of Martin of Tours; of Genevieve of Paris; of Thomas Becket; of Francis and Clare of Assisi; of Catherine of Siena; of Bartolomé de las Casas; of William Wilberforce; of Elizabeth of Russia; of Maximilian Kolbe; of Edith Stein; of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; of Martin Luther King Jr.; of Albert Schweitzer; of Óscar Romero; of Dorothy Day. We stand with these, and so many more, men and women—all doubtless fallible and flawed—but nevertheless beacons of the light of the Risen Christ. We have a great cloud of witnesses who have leaned against the windmills of conquering warlords and power-hungry kings and slave-traders and bigots and robber barons.

They—we—are Easter people, the people of the resurrection, the people who are called to have our candles held up high, to bring the hope that we have been given into the world that knows it not yet, not enough, not nearly enough. Therefore, in the light of the resurrection, let us gather in Solomon’s Porch, together with all the saints. And let the sick and unclean be carried to us—let us carry them, all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit—and let not just our shadows fall on them but the Paschal light himself, who refuses to be extinguished, but lives forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon: January 17 2016

Readings

Isaiah 62:1-5

Ps 36:5-10

1 Cor 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

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

It all began with the Magi: pagans, turned by our tradition into wise kings, who first made him known to, of all people, Herod, the Roman client king of Judea. It seems now an ill-advised thing to have done, foreigners telling Herod that there is born another King of the Jews. In retrospect, “wise” might not quite be the right word for these astrologers. In any case, at this point, they knew about Jesus—from their study of the Scriptures, no less—but this does not quite count as “epiphany”. Epiphany requires encounter, requires meeting Jesus in the flesh, even in a manger. This is, of course, entirely unsurprising, given the central Christian confession of the Incarnation. The Church is nothing if not obsessed with physical, material reality. In that way, she is like God: John 3:16, and all that. And so it is that two Sundays ago we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, during which we remembered the visitation of the Magi, which in turn marks the revelation of Christ to all the world, even to the Gentiles.

+++

Epiphanytide is one of those liturgically contentious seasons in the Church’s year: the Roman Catholics no longer really keep it, whereas Anglicans officially still do. Good Catholics that we are here at All Saints’, we’re with Rome, but it must be said that this move loses something from the ancient tradition that keeps together at one go the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at the wedding at Cana. In all three, Christ is in some sense revealed to us, made known and real and present.

+++

This time last week, we remembered and celebrated the baptism of Jesus by John. Just like that, thirty years have flown by. The infant boy to whom the Magi brought their precious gifts is now all grown up, and we are unworthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. “Behold”, his eccentric cousin exclaims, “The lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”. Jesus is, like the rest of us, baptised, after which—unlike for the rest of us—the heavens opened, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. Thus, Jesus’s identity—crucially, his relationship to the Father—is made known, even by the voice of God.

And then, as we have just heard, Jesus turned water into wine at the weeding at Cana, at the beginning of his ministry. John’s gospel asserts that this was the first of his signs, which revealed his glory, and led his disciples to believe in him. Serious stuff, to be sure. And yet, if the account of the wedding at Cana counts among the best-known miracle stories in the New Testament, it is at least in part thanks to Rowan Atkinson’s sketch from the 1980s. You may recall that, in this piece of comedic genius, Jesus also produced a white rabbit, sawed a woman in half (and renamed her Sharon), and cracked puns about being sick of the palsy. The crowd thus proclaimed, “Thou art indeed an all-round family entertainer”. The joke is only as ridiculous as it is representative of how many, many people—including Christians; especially Christians, perhaps—think about Jesus and his miracles. Despite knowing better, we often fall into the trap of believing that Jesus is a sort of conjurer of parlour tricks, whose power is best used for our comfort and convenience, if not quite our entertainment. It is tragicomically ironic that this story, meant to reveal some truth about Jesus—his glory, as St John puts it—now represents one of our crassest and most common theological failures.

+++

If our celebration of the visitation of the Magi points to the kingship of Christ, and our celebration of his baptism points to his divine sonship, what does it mean to remember the wedding at Cana?

In the water made wine, the new creation was revealed at the wedding feast. Poverty was turned to riches, sorrow into joy.

So it goes in one of the Extended Prefaces for Epiphanytide. In other words, what is revealed is the world in which the Son of God is King, not only of the Jews, but of all people, and every time and place. In this new creation, things are turned on their heads. The best wine is served last, rather than first; plain water in pots for purity is made into that heady substance that moralists have in every age cautioned against. This is not to say that Jesus is some kind of weird contrarian, violating expectations just for kicks. Rather, it is to recall the absurdity of grace, the unbounded generosity of God. The central event of this absurd grace is, of course, not this miracle itself nor the wedding during which it occurs. The water and the wine point beyond themselves. There is, for Christians, no thinking about the conjunction of Jesus and wine that does not immediately lead us through the Eucharist to the Cross, the paradigmatic locus of grace. St John writes of this first sign that it reveals Christ’s glory, and we can see why. In John’s gospel, the glorification of Christ is his crucifixion: this first sign thus foreshadows and makes known that final event, which is the very beginning of the new creation.

+++

Finally, there is, I think, something fitting about the way in which Epiphanytide and Ordinary time bleed into one another in the confused way that it does. After all, the revelations we claim for all three events—visitation, baptism, and wedding miracle—are also to be found in the every day and the apparently unremarkable. It is, after all, to water and wine—not just to timely conversions of the former to the latter—that we come to encounter God. The waters of baptism and the Eucharistic wine are for us portals to the new creation that is not a different place but this very place transformed by self-giving love, even the love that dares to die for the sake of thieves and traitors.

By the mystery of this water and wine        

may we come to share in Christ’s divinity         

who humbled himself to share in our humanity. 

Amen.