Trinity 10: Jeremiah 1, 4-10, Hebrews 12, 18 -end & Luke 13, 10-17
‘Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.’ Strong words from the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews and yet words which we do well to take as an article of faith, for let’s be honest we live in a flaky, unjust and at times a downright cruel world.
As we look at and consider the world around us it can seem too cruel to bear. The very real pain, suffering and injustice of the world can leave us feeling both angry and impotent. The good news is that men and women throughout the generations have felt this self-same sense of hopelessness and futility. The prophet Jeremiah, one of my heroes, certainly felt this way at the beginning of his ministry: ‘I am only a boy’ he says to God, which could taken as the equivalent of saying ‘why me, why do you want me to be the one who says to the powers that be, enough is enough?’ The answer God gives is simply this: ‘why not you, and if not you who?’ God is saying the same thing to his people today: ‘if not us, then who?’ We the people of God need to develop the courage to speak out against all forms of exclusion, prejudice, hatred and tyranny: ‘if not us, then who?’
One of the Five Marks of Mission is to challenge the unjust, by which we might mean excluding structures of society. We are called on to be agents of freedom and liberation. We are Christ’s arms of love in a sometimes cruel world, but we are more than this, for like Jeremiah, like John the Baptist, and like Jesus, who let us not forget, was a social prophet, we are to called on to be the divine voice; God’s echo chamber. We are called onto be a people of healing, but also a people who dare speak truth to power, and the two go hand in glove. Christians are not meant to be passive; we are not meant to be religious stoics. The here and now is the place where we exercise our faith, through the works of our hands, and with voices raised loud, for as Meatloaf sang ‘heaven can wait.’
This combination of healing and prophecy is played out in today’s Gospel reading. The story starts with Jesus seeing a disabled woman and he calls out to her. Moved by compassion his instinct is to include her; he beckons her over, touches her, heals her, and gives her back her dignity. For eighteen years she has been excluded and now she is to be included. Yes, there is a very real physical healing, but there is also a social and relational healing. Our job is to effect social and relational healing, to free people from the power and domination structures that leave them as bystanders at best; excluded and vilified at worst. That is what real healing both looks and feels like. But that is not all that Jesus does for he also enters into a terse conversation with the synagogue leader.
The synagogue leader is an interesting character. He is a kind of work’s supervisor; a clip-board king. He hasn’t much real authority, still less status in the world of Jewish religion, but he is determined to protect his own turf and to protect the minutiae of the law. His obsession with the minutiae of the law is, however, at the cost of his humanity. He would prefer to ‘shame’ others than to see healing, liberation and inclusion. He is a walking and talking religious tragedy. He knows all the rules but none of the virtues. In his conversation with this Captain Mainwaring type figure what Jesus does is to relocate shame. The synagogue leader wants the disabled woman to be the focus of shame, but Jesus takes away any shame that she might be feeling and places it on the synagogue leader and his ilk. And, that’s what prophets do: they relocate shame. They name and relocate cruelty and injustice.
Over the course of September and October we are going to be considering Anglicanism’s Five Marks of Mission. We are doing so for one simple reason: so that we become an ever increasing Christ-like church, for Jesus is the ‘perfector and pioneer of our faith.’ Being Christ-like means acting as Jesus does in the account we have heard today. It means acting with compassion, as agents of healing, reconciliation and justice whilst at the same time daring to speak truth to power, so that shame can be properly located. This is the journey we are, hopefully, about to embark on. It will be an interesting and challenging journey, one for which we might, like Jeremiah, feel ill-equipped, but let’s do so in the full and certain knowledge that God is ‘our consuming fire,’ and that however uncertain we may feel, through the very exercise of our faith we are both ‘receiving’ and proclaiming a ‘kingdom which cannot be shaken.’ Amen.
Trinity 8: Faith - Isaiah 1, 1 & 10-20, Hebrews 11, 1-3 & 8-16 & Luke 12, 32-40
As a parish priest people often say funny things to you, such as ‘I wish I had faith,’ or ‘I am not religious but...’. I always find this the most interesting statement. In fact I think that in many ways mission and evangelism is about speaking into, and hopefully erasing, the ‘but.’
Of course some people will always want to rubbish or ridicule faith but, and here is my but, one of the reasons they are able to do so is because they haven’t seen the consequences or outworking of faith enabling them to conflate faith, as an active and dynamic virtue, with mere cognitive belief. Belief is, for sure, an element of faith, but faith, real transformative faith, cannot and should not be reduced to straightforward belief. In terms of mission and evangelism dynamic, active, transformative faith is the answer to the wishes and the buts that so many people express to me.
So what does such faith look like and how does it differ from straightforward belief? Before I start to answer this I think that I would want to say something very important by stressing once again that faith, if it is to be convincing, if it is to answer the wishes and the buts, must be observable; it must look like something. If it isn’t observable, in some ways visible, it – faith – is hardly likely to be convincing. In many ways this is the entire point of the gospel reading; if our faith is to be judged as credible it must be an alert and active faith.
The gospel also makes something else abundantly clear: faith is an antidote to selfishness and individualism. If our faith is to be credible and transformative the one thing it must always do is to point away from us and towards God and neighbour. As Christians, especially rationally minded Western Christians, we need to make sure that our belief in Jesus captures not only our heads but our hearts and hands too; for this is the essence of an active, missional, evangelistic and transformative faith. Faith is in many ways belief made real in both feeling and doing.
So what should we feel? Again the Gospel reading gives the answer: trust and lack of fear, where trust is firmly grounded in the surety that Jesus is truly the Messiah. It is this level of trust, or surety, that allows us to move beyond the paralysis of fear and into action.
It is this trust, the trust that we are a part of a much larger picture, that allows us to move from self=centeredness and individualism, and a belief that we can be saved through the acquisition of things, into fellowship and communion. We need to develop such radical trust as the basis for an active faith, and the way we do this is through prayer, for it is through prayer that we become open to the transformative presence of God, for faith isn’t really about belief but about relationship. In some ways this shouldn’t be too hard to grasp, for many, perhaps most of us, will know that it is through relationships, loving relationships, that we are changed for the better and as we are changed for the better the nature of our desires changes and what we begin to crave is a new ‘homeland,’ ‘a better country, that is a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11 14 & 16): ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’
Faith is belief acting on desire. But I would want to go further and say that faith, I think, is belief acting on desire and leading to transformative and empirically observable action. This is Isaiah’s point: for Isaiah the fruit of an active faith is holiness, where holiness means that we ‘learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow,’ (Isaiah 1, 17).
Doing all of this looks like a tall order! But the good news is this: we are not called on to do it alone, instead we do it together as the Holy Communion of God’s people; we do it grounded in prayer and empowered by the Holy Spirit, for whereas belief is individual faith is corporate, or communal.
What I have sought to do today is to make explicit the link between faith, mission and evangelism. I have tried to show how faith transcends belief and suggested that faith is belief, acting on desire, made manifest and credible through transformative action.
Over the next few weeks and months we are going to consider, in some depth, various aspects of mission and evangelism, but as we do can I ask you to commit to deepening and enriching your own faith so that we can help fashion a new ‘homeland,’ and a ‘better country; that is a heavenly one,’ so that we can start to answer those wishes and erase those buts that I referred to at the beginning of this homily? Amen.
Trinity 7: Colossians 3, 1-11 & Luke 12, 13-21
Last Sunday, at the church door, someone mentioned to me that they couldn’t join in various bits of the service because they had left their glasses at home. Now, I must admit I too would struggle without my glasses. In fact last year I knew it was time for an eye test when I was struggling to read the gospel; I had to keep moving it further away and then nearer to make any sense of it. You see I need varifocals! Does anyone else wear varifocals?
The thing about varifocals is that they help us to see both into the longer distance and the shorter distance. As Christians we need to develop the ability to see as though we are wearing varifocals. We need to be able to look into the far distance whilst also seeing that which is right under our eyes. We need to hold within our mind's eye a kingdom view, an eternal perspective, whilst also seeing that which needs our immediate attention. Over the last few weeks the readings from Luke’s gospel have, in many ways, been about the art of seeing; spiritual seeing.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about seeing clearly that which requires our immediate attention. In many ways the Priest and the Levite in the story can be regarded as wearing the wrong sort of specs. They were so hung up on misplaced conceptions of duty and protocol that they failed to see, unlike the Samaritan, that which required their immediate attention. In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha is so fixated with getting the housework done that she forgets that any growth in Christian faith requires that we spend some time focusing on the person of Jesus. Mary, by contrast, understands that we often learn through the simple art of observation. Last week we heard the account of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. Very early in the Lord’s Prayer we hear the words: ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ The implication is clear: if we want to be of any earthly use we need to have developed a vision of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.
In today’s readings we are given an insight into what it means to live a life devoid of all spiritual vision:
Put simply it means to live a life characterised by false distinctions and hierarchies where this is possible because we fail to see, in the words of the Taize Chant, that ‘the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ To see into the far distance, into eternity, into heaven, by contrast implies agreeing with Paul that ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free,’ because ‘Christ is all and in all.’ But because to be Christian means to work for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, ‘here on earth as in heaven’ or in Paul’s words to work for ‘that renewal,’ we need to develop the ability to see where people are made to feel less than fully human, less than fully loved, in the here and now and then we need to act: ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’
The Gospel reading provides us with a picture of someone who is spiritually completely and utterly blind; someone who can see no further than themselves and cares about nothing other than the satisfaction of their desires. The rich man has no vision of the Kingdom of God; that’s his basic problem. Because he can’t see beyond his own barns he's of no earthly use, less still of heavenly value.
So how do we avoid becoming the sort of people who seek to prop up our self esteem through perpetuating false hierarchies and thinking solely of ourselves? The answer is clear: we take to heart the teaching of Luke’s gospel, allowing it to act as our varifocals. We spend time each and every day, like Mary, observing Jesus and becoming fascinated by Jesus, through reading the gospels, and we pray.
It is through fixating on the person of Jesus and praying the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we develop our spiritual vision, becoming the sort of people who are of both earthly use and heavenly value. So please do take home your pew sheets, read through the readings, or perhaps use the app we are endorsing, and pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer each and every day, for if you do you will become agents, God’s agents, of ‘that renewal,’ that St. Paul talks about, and the world so badly needs, Amen.
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