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.

Sermon: April 14th 2013

Readings

Acts 9:1—20

Psalm 30

Revelation 5:11—14

John 21:1—19

 

Who are you?

Struck blind as his friends are struck silent, he gasps at the stranger he cannot see. Lord, he says, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps half-knowing in the way we all know only in halves what we mean in our own speaking. Like Freudian slips and other inadvertent truths that spill forth from our faces, betraying our proclivities and prejudices, surprising even ourselves.

Who then is this Stranger-Lord, this voice that has managed to reach into his, even Saul’s, head; this light that shines and shines into his, even Saul’s, heart?  It is all very unexpected; how odd it is that he—the Pharisee of Pharisees, the ruthless persecutor—is counted among those to whom Jesus appears, among his own apostles and disciples? And yet, whoever Jesus is, he surely is the one who confounds our limitations, the boundaries we put on his mercy.

 

Who are you?

Mouths full and skin wet with salt and sun, they dare not ask his name. They know, or they think they know. It is the Lord, of course, is it not? And not just any old lord—any old sir, old social superior—but their Lord, the Lord. And yet they do and do not recognize his face, in the way that we all sometimes do and do not recognize the faces of the ones we love most dearly, even our own faces. Like syllables uttered too many times in repetition, the sounds turn funny and unfamiliar, the face of their friend is, to them for a moment, foreign.

Who then is this Stranger-Friend, this face they love with fire like burning charcoal, these hands that feed them fish and bread? This too is unexpected, he who was dead—they saw it, they remember all too well—is alive after all, and, of all things, having a picnic on the beach. It is not, as it was with Paul, a voice from Heaven that came to them, but a human being, with rumbling tummy and sandy toes and warm skin, pink from the sun. It was neither ghost nor reanimated corpse, but something else altogether; some kind of transformation, translation, transfiguration before them, the same Jesus, but different. Whoever he is, he forces us to rethink our categories, to rethink what it is to be human, to be alive.

 

 

Who are you?

We think we know, and perhaps not unreasonably so. After so many years, so many sermons, so much prayer. We think we know, after so many centuries of theological reflection, so many scholarly tomes on the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. We, those of us who claim to follow Jesus—with Paul on Damascus Road who knew that Jesus was a dangerous fool and Peter in the high priest’s courtyard who knew that Jesus was done for—with them, we are ever tempted to believe that we know who this Jesus is. And worse, we domesticate him, we co-opt him for our own purposes, personal and political, confining him to a tomb of our own making. And yet, of course, the tomb—flanked on either side with angels—is like the Ark of the Covenant in our old Hebrew stories—it, with cherubim flanking on either side—both tomb and ark are empty precisely because God resists definitive description, transcends comfortable categorization, refuses to be carved in stone or steel or sentences. We think we know, but we do not know, and yet, at the same time, of course we do, because God has revealed himself fully in this Stranger who is both Friend and Lord.

 

+++

 

It is the Second Sunday after Easter, and the Risen Christ is, in his rising and speaking and sending and absolving and eating, is, whoever he is, the one who changes everything, overturning old ideas for minds renewed, rendering old categories null and void, empty as his tomb. He appears to his friends and foes, and they know and do not know him, and yet are found by him, and fed, and forgiven, and freed from their pasts to live the lives we remember still these centuries later. Peter, who once betrayed Jesus is, by Jesus, entrusted with the care of this fragile new community. Upon this rock, Jesus will build his Church. Paul, who once tried to kill the infant Church, is tasked with growing it far beyond its traditional social, national, and ethnic borders. And here we are today, against the odds of any betting man, the Church still here, and we in it, kings and gentiles beyond the ends of the earth. Here we are today, remembering that it began with traitors and haters, struck blind and speechless by their strange friend and master.

 

That is to say, we do not know how stories end. It is interesting to textual scholars, and to very few other people, that St. John’s Gospel ends at least twice. The last two verses of the twentieth chapter is clearly an ending of sorts. And yet, it is not the ending of the story, because we now have the twenty-first chapter, assigned as our Gospel text for today. Thus, this story ends not with knowledge—with the dissipation of St. Thomas’s doubt in Chapter 20—but with love, with the reversal, in Chapter 21, of St. Peter’s previous betrayal. It ends with love, and yet it does not end at all, pointing as it does into the future and, in the closing verses of the book, asserting the necessary incompleteness of all tellings of Jesus’s story. We do not know how stories end, not Jesus’s, not Peter’s, not Paul’s, not yours or mine, or anyone else’s.

 

We do not know how stories end precisely because, whoever he is, Jesus is the one who ever exceeds our expectations; who is more comprehending of the foibles we count most mammalian, more forgiving of the sins we count most shameful, more merciful to those we count our most bitter enemies. No less than St. Peter’s, our own betrayals are not the final words about us; no less than St. Paul’s, our own prejudices are not our epitaphs. The same that is true of us and those whom we meet in the pages of Scripture, is also true for those whom we meet in the pages of our newspapers and in our television screens and on our city streets and in our own lives. Our sins, and theirs are, for all their differences, exactly the same, not least in that they are inconclusive. We are not ourselves written off, given up on, and we must therefore fight the urge to close the pages on someone else’s story, to write off as hopeless those who have betrayed us and hated us in both petty and profound ways.

  

+++

 

It is the Second Sunday after Easter, and the Risen Christ is our strange friend and master, whose new life is ours because he has shared in our deaths, in our darkest hours. He is indeed a heavenly voice in the midst of great light, as St. Paul encountered him. And he is a lamb, on a throne, slaughtered, just as he was revealed to St. John Divine who was told—just before this eruption of angelic praise we have heard today—to expect a conquering Lion of Judah. Once again, Jesus is the great violator of expectations, turning on their heads our ideas of what victory is, what glory is, what conquest looks like. Heavenly voice, enthroned lamb and, all the same, a quiet camper, hands dusty with bread and oily with fish, and smelling of smoke and sand. Glorious and humble, he is human like us, and like him our stories are unpredictable, neither mine nor yours, nor the people about whom it is believed that all hope is lost, the men and women, the relationships and families, written off by the power structures of State and Church, society, by you and me. Our calling, our following Jesus this side of the empty tomb, is therefore not to define each other and ourselves, or to categorize or to conclude, but to tend and feed and love in the convicting hope that the weeping may indeed linger only for a night, to make way for morning’s joy.