Sermon: Feb 12 2017 (Racial Justice Sunday)

This sermon was delivered for evensong at Lincoln College, Oxford.

Readings

Genesis 11:1-9

Galatians 3.23-29

According to data from the dating site OK Cupid—data from 25 million individuals—black women are the most discriminated against, followed by (unfortunately for me) Asian men. In the five years between 2009 and 2014, people became much less likely to say that they prefer someone of their own race, but their actual behaviour indicates that they are liars as well as racists. Tinder has not replied to my emails requesting their data, but I live in hope.

God is apparently to blame for our linguistic diversity, which many have taken to also indicate racial diversity. It is hubris, we are told, that made our primordial human unity so odious to the almighty. This is fitting, I suppose, seeing as hubris is also the father of racism and xenophobia, or at least their politically incorrect uncle they dread to encounter at family occasions.

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53% of White people in the UK voted for Brexit: compared to 33% of South Asian, 30% of Chinese, and 27% of Black voters.

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Fortunately for us, living in New Testament times, there is now neither Jew nor Greek. We no longer see race, or so we assure ourselves with just a hint of self-congratulation for our hard-won egalitarianism.

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58% of White Americans voted for Donald Trump; only 21% of non-whites did. “Non-white” is, of course, not a very meaningful category, but then again, neither is “white”.

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Alright, alright. The point is made, the dead horse flogged: everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes. Not just White people either, though White people have all the power, so their racism is much scarier. I was just back in Malaysia a week or so ago, and let me tell you, my Chinese family was simultaneously overtly pro-stereotyping and anti-interracial marriage. That said, I was encouraged to find a White woman to marry, but this is likely because the Chinese only make up 0.7% of the British population. Beggars can’t be choosers.

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The Bible has been used to justify all kinds of nonsense, sometimes more plausibly than others. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Black Africans were often called the “sons of Ham”, referring to Canaan whom Noah cursed saying that “a servant of servants shall he be”. The Bible never says that Canaan was black, but that sort of thing has never stopped religious people from abusing their authoritative texts.

Almost equally ridiculous is the use by some Christians of passages from the Hebrew Bible to disparage interracial marriage: the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in particular, which decry marriage to foreigners with their foreign gods. Ezra doesn’t even allow for religious conversion: he just has the foreign wives sent away. Mass deportation, before it was cool. Never mind that the books of Esther and Jonah—both written around the same time as Ezra-Nehemiah—advocate for embracing foreigners. Esther was Queen of that goyish king of Persia. Jonah was that comic-prophet disappointed at God’s outrageous mercy to the Ninevites.

The New Testament is little better, I’m afraid: the gospel of St John has provided much fodder for anti-semites down the centuries. I may or may not be able to recommend a drinking game that involves the number of times the phrase “the Jews” is used disparagingly.

And yet: there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. This is, of course, not to suggest that St Paul shares our progressive sensibilities. After all, he tolerated slavery and exhorted women to obey their husbands. All the same, he does say that we are one in Christ Jesus.

As usual, it is easier to talk about the wrong way to read this than to say how to read it rightly. Our approach to truth is paved with mistakes. When we talk about the unity of the Church, we often say that we are one in Spirit, which sounds suspiciously like a roundabout way of saying that we aren’t one at all. In much the same way, talk of being one in Christ is sometimes a way to avoid dealing with latent and chronic racism and xenophobia. It is to relegate our interpersonal and intergroup relations into the realm of the metaphysical, unsullied by the empirical facts of our prejudice. It is, in other words, the pious version of “some of my best friends are black” and #alllivesmatter, both of which are ways of changing the topic.

Frankly, Abrahamic monotheism has a bad track record when it comes to racial justice. For centuries we—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have struggled with Zionism and white supremacy and Arab nationalism. The pre-Reformation Church of the West waged crusades, pillaging and slaughtering all shades of non-white people in Jesus’s name. And then, of course, there are all those celebrated depictions of Jesus himself, so Aryan as to tickle Hitler’s cockles. The Church of England is complicit in British imperial colonialism and its concomitant evils, grateful though I am for schools, roads, and Anglicanism. Psychological research and political demographics show clearly that Christianity is still strongly associated with prejudice against various minority groups, whether ethnic, sexual, or otherwise. The Church therefore has no credibility when she preaches on racial justice except when she is on her knees, confessing her sins and asking for mercy. But then again, neither do the rest of us.

So: be less racist. That’s all, really: the rest is preamble. Be less racist. In who you avoid sitting next to on the bus. Be less racist. In your talking more loudly or slowly to people who look different from you. Be less racist. In your asking “But what’s your real name” and your saying “But I don’t even notice that you are Chinese (or Black or whatever)”. Be less racist. In your dabbling in Eastern wisdoms, and other forms of superficial cultural appropriation. Be less racist. In  your passive-aggressive moaning about how difficult life is in our cosmopolitan twenty-first century with political correctness gone mad. Be less racist. In what you are imagining right now when I say the word “terrorist”. Be less racist.

And when you fail, apologise.

Amen.    

Sermon: Feb 12 2017

Readings

Ecclesiasticus 15.15-20

Matthew 5.17-37

If you will, you can keep the commandments; and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.

Nonsense on stilts. Or rather, more diplomatically, a gross overestimation of the powers of human agency. Much more realistic is St Paul’s observation that he understands not his own actions: for he does not what he wants but instead what he hates. The fact is that our moral choices are almost never between fire and water, life and death, good and evil, but between the more or less destructive, the better of goods and the lesser of evils. 

And yet there is a danger in this latter view, truer though it may be. Too often we take it too far, and down that path is the sort of fatalism that conveniently allows us to exculpate ourselves and blame others for our sins of omission and commission both.

A pox then, on both houses.

+++

What we have before us are the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’s commentary on Moses.

You have heard that it was said of old:

you shall not kill;

and, you shall not commit adultery;

and, whoever divorces his wife,

let him give her a certificate of divorce;

and, you shall not swear falsely.

And then, he responds; and we might wish that he hadn’t:

If you are angry,

you will be liable to judgement.

If you insult a brother or sister,

you will be liable.

If you say “You fool”,

you will be liable to hellfire.

If your right eye causes you to sin,

pluck it out.

If your right hand causes you to sin,

cut it off.

Whoever divorces his wife

or marries a divorced woman

commits adultery.

Do not swear at all.

This is a hard text; it is hard to know what to do with such a text.

The history of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount provides many fascinating examples of how religious people wrestle with difficult bits of Scripture:

problematic texts are marginalised,

not actually dealt with

apparent inconsistencies are harmonised,

not actually reconciled

ideals are relativized,

never actually endeavoured.

We have, for example, tried to say that these moral injunctions apply only to special classes of people, monks and nuns perhaps; certainly not ordinary people like us. They should be all zen, but we can throw hissy-fits. They should be all chaste, but we can, well, never mind what we can do.

We have also tried to say that Christian morality applies only to a special realm: the sacred and spiritual, but certainly not the secular, let alone the political. God, we think, doesn’t mind what we do with our votes or our credit cards.

But, perhaps in response to these readings, some of us have also gone in exactly the opposite direction, resisting such attempts to dull the effect of these difficult words. The likes of Origen and St Francis and Tolstoy and Gandhi have, in their own ways, taken the absolutist option and demanded of themselves the full rigour of these words taken literally. Of some of these words, at least; even saints read selectively. And, in their own ways, they discovered the limits of this approach. And, indeed, their own limits.

As tempting as it is to go with the more permissive readings of today’s Gospel text, it is hard to ignore the moral force of imagining the sort of world in which we could live like Jesus told us to:

A world without anger;

and in which anger is not necessary.

A world without lust;

without the competition of misaligned desires.

A world without broken relationships,

but whole individuals giving of ourselves.

A world in which oaths are unnecessary

because there is perfect trust.

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We cannot take the easy way out: Matthew forbids it.

Matthew’s Jesus separates the sheep—who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the captive—from the goats, who do none of these things.

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

Matthew’s Jesus came to fulfil the law, and he adds that whoever relaxes the least of them will be himself the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Preachers have been warned.

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Were it only that it were so: that the Wisdom of Sirach were right, in saying that it is a matter of our own choice to live as Jesus demands. But this vision of this world that Jesus casts is not ours to pull up by our own bootstraps. The good news is not that we are now, all of us, moral übermenschen, magically transformed by the waters of baptism. We have not become gods. No. The good news is that God has come to join us in this muck; in the moral morasses so often of our own making; in our moral meanderings, God is ever with us; in our succeeding and failing, with us; in our gathering together and falling out, with us; in our eating and drinking—the breaking of bread and sharing of wine—with us.

The good news is that though our choices are few and our spirits weak, even this will suffice. Appearances to the contrary, we do not after all live in a God-forsaken world, but a world which God has made and calls good, God who calls us to join in this goodness. This is a hard call, if not impossible, but it is our call and our end all the same.   

So, there is work to be done. We have ears to hear and eyes to see that the world is not as God made it to be, and we are not as God knows us to be. We have been given each other, and water and bread and wine for the journey, and so off we must go, out to love and serve, in Christ’s name, to join in his re-making of this world he loved into being. We go, in peace, to try and fail, to die only to be raised up again and again and again: there will always be balm for the injured, bread for the hungry, wine for the weary. We go to do this impossible thing, not because we will succeed but because neither we nor success are the point. The point is that God’s own falling down and raising up is for us the pattern of our lives, the pattern of the faithfulness to which we are called. So we go, and fail the glorious failure that is the better part than cynicism or fatalism or apathy. And then some day—I don’t know when, nor how—(but someday) there will be failure no more, and the world will be made new. 

Amen.   

Sermon: December 25 2016 (Christmas)

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52: 7-10

Hebrews 1: 1-6

John 1: 1-18

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

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

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

And the Word became flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: November 13 2016 (Remembrance Sunday)

This sermon was delivered on Remembrance Sunday at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

Malachi 4:1-2a
Luke 21:5-19

What a week.
I knew a great old lady—she died just a few months ago, aged 105—and while she had no memory of the beginning of the Great War, she could remember Armistice Day. She also remembered the day she was brought by friends and family to a political rally in Bavaria, where she was on holiday in her early 20s. She was told to pay no mind to the buffoon speaking: he couldn’t possibly go far. The next year, he became the Führer.

What a week.
I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. It’s one of those events that get seared into one’s memory. The coronation was one for many of a previous generation. The assassination of JFK. The first moon landing. The death of Diana.
I was up all night, waiting for the news that after 240 years, there would finally be a woman in the White House, leader of the free world. Given her training and experience, she was the most qualified presidential candidate in the nation’s history: the choice should have been easy. Instead, the American voting public, with the help of a bizarre electoral college system, chose a sexist, racist, xenophobic buffoon, whose ad campaign ended with two minutes of criticism of the financial establishment featuring video clips of prominent American Jews. It is no wonder that neo-Nazis and the KKK support Donald J. Trump.

I’m going to remember the morning of November 9th 2016 for the rest of my life, for all the wrong reasons.

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There is a curious ambivalence in the Bible. On one hand, there seems to be a sort of naïve optimism. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays., says the prophet Malachi. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life., says Jesus. The same Jesus who, of course, gets arrested, beaten within an inch of his life, ridiculed, spat upon, nailed to a cross to die, and stabbed. As for his followers: by tradition (if not legend), all but St John were martyred. By the late second century, Tertullian could write that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. The rhetoric of triumphalism is therefore tempered, to say the least, by the reality of failure and death. Of course, the Church finally did triumph in the usual sense of the word: it became the Roman imperial religion by the later 4th century, and thereby spread both gospel and tyranny around the world. It turns out that we don’t behave well when we win.

+++

81% of White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. The figures are 58% for Protestants more generally, and 52% for Roman Catholics.

If my Facebook feed is any indication—and, of course, we know what bubbles we live in—Christians say the most sanctimonious, condescending things when things like this happen. They tell us to play nice. They tell us—as, indeed, both Malachi and Jesus do—that it’ll be alright. God is still sovereign, they say; some might even say that Trump is in power only by the will of said sovereign God.

Perhaps it will be alright. But even so, this is no reason to acquiesce, to accept the new status quo. That convenient option is the luxury of those who can afford to wait for things to pan out in the long run. The convenient option is very rarely the Christian one. No. Stand firm, he says. Which is to say, don’t back down. Turn the other cheek, to be sure; speak the words given unto you, or remain silent, even as Christ himself was. But don’t you—don’t we—dare stand by, stand back and let bigotry win the day. You will win life, he says, and if his own life and death are any indication, it is the lives of others that we must put before our own.

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We must never forget the sacrifices that have been and still are made by the women and men who gave up their lives in unnecessary wars that they did not start. Today, perhaps more than ever, when we have outsourced our violence to the poor, we must not forget. It is the poorest schools that are most targeted by army recruiters. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a socioeconomic gap between us and those whom we send to kill and die for us.

But this “not forgetting” is not a matter of entertaining pious thoughts about our grandfathers or the armed forces in the present day. Remembrance, Christianly conceived, is about changing the world. It is about changing the world so that nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.

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We have seen this kind of demagoguery before, which has pit peoples against peoples. Time and time again, we have blamed the Other for our woes. For the bubonic plague, we blamed the Jews. For the unemployment rate, we blamed the Polish. It’s the same play, over and over, sometimes even with the same characters. And the same is happening across the ditch. According to news reports, the violence has already begun, particularly against Muslim Americans. Again, this is familiar to us: Brexit was not so long ago, with its own subsequent spike in xenophobic hatefulness. Regardless of how you voted and why, we are all culpable for propping up the culture that has enabled such things. And as any social scientist worth her salt will tell you, and kindergarten teachers: violence begets violence. Therefore, the beating of swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, is not so much a symptom of the end of war as it is a remedy, a cure.

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We must not forget. And Christian remembering—eucharistic remembering—is about changing the world. Our celebration of the this most holy sacrament is, of course, our central act of remembrance and, at the same time, our central act of sacrifice, in which we are ourselves offered in Christ to be broken for the hungry and split for the thirsty.

We must not forget, but we must stand firm to win lives, allowing ourselves to lie down only if it is a laying down of ourselves for the sake of others.

This morning at Sunday School, the children were told about the brave women and men who were so brave and gave up their lives for us in times of war. And they were asked how they too could be brave. In our times, the answer could not be more obvious. We must be brave against bigotry and bullying, standing firm with and for those about whom the angry mob cries “Crucify, crucify—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ—even if it, God forbid, inconveniences us. Their lives must win, must trump hate.

The mass ends with an exhortation to go, to go out into the world, bellies full of Christ, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. And what a world it is now. We have our work cut out for us.

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: 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.

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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.