Thursday, 25 September 2014

Law, Liberation, Life, Love

Another sermon from today, same readings, different event (this time a short Eucharist for the ACW - Anglican Church Women - group here in Victoria)


Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path’ proclaims the Psalmist. Which is nice.

But what does he mean?

Well, when the Psalmist is speaking, and indeed when the compilers of the proverbs are writing the definition of the word is quite clear – it is the law.  God’s law – the commandments, all 613 of them.  For in the commandments – far from the impression we have in Christian circles, is a sense of liberation and joy, a sense of ‘this is how we please God – by living by these commands’

And these commandments are so special, so wonderful, so life-giving that even now any adult member of the Jewish community becomes, on their transition into adulthood a bar or bat Mitzvah – a son or daughter of the law.  Even now, as they have done for hundreds, thousands, of years, Jewish scholars and writers dedicate themselves to an understanding and interpretation of the commandments – believing that fullness of life is found within obedience to the word, the law of the Lord.  Or as it says elsewhere in the Psalms ‘your statutes are my delight’.  How often do we think of delight, of joy, of freedom when we consider the law of the Lord – the word to which the Psalmist and the Proverbs refer?  How often is this idea of law taken as a liberation and as an expression of the freedom God desires?

For within the law are not just the ten commandments – that’s a particularly Christian concept – nor are there only laws about religious ritual. In the law are considerations of justice and fairness, of how we live together with care for one another, of how each member of the community should behave in order that there might be peace- Shalom – wholeness. There are considerations towards the stranger, the alien, and towards the poor and needy and sick. There are guidelines about what to eat not just for religious but practical reasons – I mean, eating shellfish in the desert before refrigeration… not a sensible idea.  Pork, when it is not subject to the kind of rigour that pork farming is now, is stuffed with all sorts of unpleasant parasites and diseases.  These laws became part of a ritual food code, but started as some pretty sensible advice for the wandering people of Israel!  The law is meant to take away the stress of living, and show us how to relate to God and one another, faithfully and joyfully.

As Christians we kind of hijacked the idea of law, taking a cue from Paul and holding up the law as oppressive, negative, bound by rules and regulations, and in sharp contrast to the life found in grace in Christ. I don’t actually believe that this is what Paul meant, for in Chapter 7 of his most exquisite and nuanced theological work – the letter to the Romans – he says ‘I delight in the law of God’. And I am certain that this negative view of law is not what Jesus meant when he talked of himself as the fulfilling of the law.  Or said that not one iota of the law would pass away until all is fulfilled…

The law, the word of God is considered to be life-giving, life affirming, life-changing.  It is meant to be a way in which we see God’s inmost desired and we are encouraged to meditate on this law and to live by it.

But like so many bits of scripture, I would say that it is not the words themselves that are to be our focus – but the meaning behind the words.  The law seeks to frame an attitude towards God, not to bind us in a blind obedience, but calls us into deeper, richer, more profound relationship with God. Indeed, in our Christian tradition the whole of scripture calls us that way – and though the Church often focusses on the words of Scripture it is the Word within Scripture we are called to discern.

Ooooer, I hear you think, what does the Rector mean by that?

Don’t get me wrong, I love words, I love reading, I love playing with words. And I am the same with Scripture – I love to meditate, consider, struggle with, think on, pray on and learn from scripture. But the words in themselves are not where God resides – I do not worship the Bible, I worship the one Word, who we call Christ.  In the well known prologue to St John’s Gospel we hear the words used at pretty much every Christmas Night service  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’  In the Greek the term is logos. The logos is the expression of God – the breath of God gone forth in substance. The reality of God made manifest.

Within the words of Scripture, I seek the Word of God. I look for where the Christ leads me, I listen for the voice of God and long to feel breath of God ruffle the pages of my Bible. It is this word which brings the words of our Bibles to life.

We don’t worship ink and paper. It is disturbing to see how many seek to enshrine the living, breathing, vibrant spirit of God in words and phrases pulled from a book.

Christian faith, following Christ, is actually a much harder, higher, more exciting calling than that.  It is to be in relationship with a God who is experienced in prayer, in worship, in sacrament, in love, and yes in study of scripture.  But not a God trapped in scripture, we are called to discern the word behind the words, the life behind the scriptures.

And it is the task of each of us to set our minds and hearts on this discovery – together, seeking to discern the life of God.  When we trap our understanding of God in words, or traditions, institutions or even just habits of worship then we miss out on the true and living Word.

For a faithful Jew, the life of the law comes from being excited about and by the life behind the commandments.  For those of us who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our fullness of life comes from a relationship with him through our common life, through our care for one another and of all in need, through our shared experience of worship and prayer.

And as I said at the early service this morning (my last sermon, found below), taking my cue from the Gospel reading where the disciples are sent out with nothing, not even money or bread - we are not to be distracted – whether it be by the minutiae of biblical verses, or our own comfort, or the way we like Church to be – but to live fully in the life of Christ, abundant, transforming, hopeful, loving, faithful life – that all the world might know and be transformed by it.

Dust and Feet

A sermon preached at our midweek early morning Eucharist in St John The Divine, Victoria

Dust and feet

In today’s Gospel reading, which is the one I want to focus on this morning, there is a declaration made by Jesus which I have found troubling since I first heard it.  It’s that bit about ‘wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them’ 


In Matthew’s account (today’s reading was from Luke) it goes even further ‘Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.’

This reminds me of my introduction to my first ever parish where the Rector announced to the congregation – Alastair comes as Curate to our community, and we hope that as he comes to us he will bring peace, and that peace will rest on us – and that he won’t turn away and say ‘Sodom’…

Which got a slightly scandalised laugh from the congregation!  Which was the point and broke the ice somewhat…

But these harsh words seem so odd from the mouth of Jesus – what is he saying? Is he really giving up on those who do not hear the message on first blush – is he really consigning to judgement those who do not accept the disciples as they share this message of the good news. It certainly doesn’t sound like good news if there are people excluded, for whatever reason, from the party!

I suspect that these words were said by Jesus – as most scholars agree that the most authentic parts of scripture, most likely to be accurately recorded and passed on, are the difficult bits – the bits we find uncomfortable. The bits that the early Church would find uncomfortable as they sought to bring all into the life of Christ.  The logic goes that if they made a point of recording it and passing it on even though it’s difficult then the chances are it did actually come from Jesus as if it was from elsewhere they would have been more likely to edit it out.

So we have these words, but like all faithful followers we are called to question. What does this actually mean? Who was it said to and why? What is the meaning behind and within these statements…

I think that these words are less a judgement on non-believers than an encouragement to us.  They remind us that not all will hear and accept the message of faith – that it is right not to browbeat, cajole or force people into accepting our way of seeing the world. Jesus is simply acknowledging that some won’t get it, and won’t want to get it.  As for the consequences of this, it is for God to sort out, not for us to pronounce judgement. 

As an aside, the comment about Sodom and Gomorrah is about the lack of hospitality shown by those cities – something that is considered sacrosanct in middle eastern nomadic societies where survival is often dependent on supporting and caring for one another.  Throughout scripture we are shown the importance of hospitality and welcome, including the famous statement by the author of the letter to the Hebrews “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” 

And as for shaking off the dust.  I think this was for those first disciples, and indeed is for us, a comment about not carrying with us our failures, or rejection, or negativity. Let nothing hinder us from our sharing of the life of Christ – do not be distracted. When the disciples were sent out with nothing, not even staff, bag, bread, money or a change of tunic, they were being encouraged to depend only on God, to strip away anything that might give a false sense of security, anything that might possibly make them think about anything other than what we call the ‘kingdom’ or the ‘reign’ of God. This is to be something that is so focussed, so intentional, so much at the heart and the foundation of what we as Christ followers are about that we are to let nothing distract us. Not even our failures.

Which should give us cause to think again about those things which might be distracting us from our calling to live and to be the good news to this world.  I think that we are too comfortable, too distracted – and I certainly include myself in this. We are rarely confronted with our calling to give of ourselves to others.  From that place of knowing ourselves loved, called, graced and embraced should come hearts and minds and lives which are consumed with the love of God. And from this spiritual foundation comes our calling to be and to bring the Good news – we are called in word and deed to proclaim God’s radical message, love for all, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, confronting the powerful and abusive, bringing comfort for the afflicted – living out the values of God’s kingdom and seeking to make those values real in our own spiritual community and in the community around us.
It’s a scary calling. It’s a spiritual calling. It’s a shared calling. It is something we as a community are being called to – this isn’t one of those ‘what are you doing because it all depends on you’ callings, but to ask what our part is within a community that seeks to live and share these values.  Perhaps our calling is to pray, to give of our time, talents or money , perhaps our calling is to volunteer, perhaps our calling is to listen to where God is leading us and to respond.

Whatever our calling, the question that comes back to us is this – what do we cling to or carry around like dust on our feet that prevents us from fully entering into this wonderful, distressing, challenging, transforming life which Jesus calls us to and what do we need to leave behind that we too might be a community which is living the power of the spirit in transforming this world.