Philippians 3:17-4:1 Luke 13: 31-35
Apparently, in 2012 the world spent $1735 billion on war. Estimates are that it would take approximately 125 billion (not sure about how this is calculated) to totally eradicate poverty
Even if there is something vaguely correct here. Even if it’s only half correct this is challenging. What this is saying is that we spend 14 times as much in any given year on killing each other than what it would take to look after our neighbor’s survival.
What does that say to you?
I watched an interview this week with Chris Hedges. Hedges is a famous journalist who got thrown out of the New York Times for his opposition to the war in Iraq. And he’s just written a book called “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” in which he explores and documents what he calls the ‘sacrifice zones’. Places in the US most devastated environmentally and socially… places like Camden City, Imokolee Florida, and the Appalachians (where the whole environment has been mined to destruction by corporations who leave the people living in pollution), places where money has been able to control the legislation and there are really no impediments to the maximization of profits at the expense of human life. And Chris Hedges was asked ‘What ties all these places together?’ He thought for a minute and then he said,
‘Greed… greed over human life… A willingness to destroy our fellow human beings. We forgot our neighbour.”
He says it is part of the corporate value system, ‘Greed is good’. And we have become accomplices. It seeps down into general cultural values. He says ‘the cult of the self is accepted as a kind of natural law’.
In the gospel today the Pharisee appear to be helping Jesus out. They are more frightened of Herod and his desire to kill Jesus than Jesus is. Jesus is funny… it seems to me. He says. “Go tell that fox!…I am casting out demons and performing cures today tomorrow and the next day,” In other words, “Let me check my diary… you want to kill me, Mr Herod… mmm sorry I’m all tied up for at least three days. Sorry mate… good of you to offer but Prophets get killed at Jerusalem and that’s where I’m headed. I am a prophet for Israel. It is Israel who will kill me. Then his whole tone changes in the next section
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets
and stones those who are sent to it!
How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!
In the words of Chris Hedges. Jerusalem is a ‘sacrificial zone’. And Jesus knows that he will be sacrificed to keep the system going. So Jesus engages in Lament.
Walter Brueggeman says that 1/3 of the Psalms (one third of Jesus’ hymn book) is made up of Psalms of Lament – like the one he quoted from the cross “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”. They are complaints and protests and cries for help. They bring to God the truth of their response to the pain of their life.
Paul, writing to Philippian Christians says
18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly
He tells them the truth with tears. His concern is not to remain positive and put a bright face on it all. The truth is the enemies of the cross of Christ are on a path to destruction. He joins with Jesus to lament.
I wonder how many songs we sing in church are songs of lament? I wonder how much we hide our tears when the community gathers.
Brueggeman says that in avoiding lament in our worship we are in danger of two things. (1) denial about problems (2) guilt – rather than ranting at God we turn in on ourselves and beat ourselves up about not fixing the world. Feeling powerless before the state of the world we gradually begin to eat ourselves up with guilt.
Chris Hedges was asked, ‘Why do you do it? Why do you keep writing? He replied:
“I look less on my ability to effect change and understand it more as a kind of moral responsibility to resist these forces, which I think, in theological terms, are forces of death… and fight to protect, to preserve life… we have to let it go. Faith is the belief that it goes somewhere…”
Later he commented:
“Faith is a belief that it does make a difference even if all of the empirical signs point otherwise.”
Great reporters, says Hedges “care about truth as opposed to news”. They will risk their job for it. The interviewer pushed him further “Can you accomplish more as a dissenter (outsider) than as a journalist?” Again he paused. “It’s not a question I ask. What you do you have to do (like denouncing the war on Iraq) its career suicide. You can’t serve the interests of the institution and do that…. Eventually you will clash with institutions you care about” (whether it be newspapers or church or whatever).
It seems to me that this is lament too. Telling the truth about the bad things in life. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets…” … “I tell you even with tears, their end is destruction, their god is their belly.” Lament it seems is about going public about the bad things.
On Friday I had my head full of these thoughts so I went for a walk to do some listening and let God have a word in the process. So as I walked up the hill and down Killiekrankie pass, the sun was shining on a perfect Dunedin day, and I was thinking ‘I how can I preach about lament’ when there is so much to thank God for on a day like today? Jesus, where are you in all of this? I prayed. And as I walked past the pensioner flats on Kew Park a voice called out to me. Hey Bruce. It was a guy I’ve got to know over the last few years who lives there. He’d just been 34 hours in A & E and nearly had his leg chopped off because of infection. He told me the story and then we got talking about the problems in the hospital system. He clearly was engaged with the bigger picture and he was talking about how in the end the problem is ‘greed’. He wasn’t irate. He was just telling it like it is. It’s not something you can do much about. Sometimes we call this kind of thing ‘whinging’ . But in fact what he was basically saying the same thing as Chris Hedges. And when we use terms like ‘whinging’ we effectively deny people the space to lament. Even Chris Hedges realizes that he has little chance of changing these things… but he is committed to telling the truth anyway. Whinging… telling the truth about the hard things to your neighbour. Protesting… telling it with a crowd of others. Perhaps the point of both is to continue the long tradition of lament… Lament as non-violent resistance.
Jesus didn’t just whinge about ‘Jerusalem the city that kills the prophets’ he also protested. The first thing he did on arrival was go straight to the house of God, the temple, and overthrow the money changers. I’d been thinking about this too. And my friend in the flats mentioned precisely this example. It was like he somehow knew what I was going to be preaching on.
The thing about Jesus protest is he goes straight to the table with the doves, according to each of the gospel accounts. Why doves? The doves were the offerings especially set aside for the poor. They could not afford lambs. Jesus is concerned about economic exploitation. Richard Beck describes the outcome like this. Jesus engages in a protest action that
“shuts down the financial system of the city during the annual peak of its commercial activity, where he “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” during the Passover week. An action akin to shutting down the Wall Street trading floor or shopping during Black Friday.
In the end of course, it was the system that shuts Jesus down. At least that was what they thought they had achieved. Jesus wanted to gather his people, like a hen with chicks. On Good Friday they gathered to kill him. Like Chris Hedges he knows that there is something he must do and to all empirical signs he has been completely ineffective. Jerusalem has done its usual thing. Jesus rather than taking up the sword, lets them do their thing. Your house (read temple in particular) has been left to you.
And yet the story does not end there. God takes that lament, God takes that truth telling and makes a victory of it… an eternal victory. Paul says,
“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
The power that enables him to subject all things to himself, is of course, precisely the power that enabled him to subject himself to the world, to Jerusalem. In a nutshell. Love wins. We can lament because love will win.
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11, Luke 4: 1-13
Today’s reading Deuteronomy connects to the sermon I preached a few weeks ago on the law of Moses not just as an obscure and outdated set of regulations about purity and sex and sacrificial ritual (and there is that, which is so hard to understand from a modern perspective) but most significantly as an economic vision. The law of Moses imagines a society in which property and land is a gift from God and so is never really ‘private’ property. Every seven years debts are cancelled and land goes back to its previous owners. The rich don’t get richer and the poor don’t get poorer. The whole economy is organised to protect the weakest, so that harvests are shared with refugees and foreigners in the land and with the poor.
Today we see this again encapsulated in a liturgy or ritual if you like: The farmer brings the first-fruits of his produce to the priest and there before the priest he recites the story of his heritage – “A wandering Aramean was my Father…” a story of how God has liberated him from slavery and from wandering and given him a place in the world, a place to stand, a turangawaiwai, the legendary land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (a bit like the 100% pure NZ). And after rehearsing his identity the Torah says to the farmer:
You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites (the priestly one’s who didn’t have any land to farm) and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.
So there are two things here: worship and hospitality, the celebration of the relationship to God, before God, on the one hand, and then there is the celebration of the relationship to fellow human beings – a feast for both neighbours and strangers – on the other hand.
Let’s look at them in turn. Worship – in a nutshell means, finding our self before God [repeat]. The farmer brings the first fruits and places it down and bows before the Lord God. The act of bowing down… it is the act in which we are centred beyond ourselves on God, who gives us life and in whom we live accountable lives.
How easy it is… (let me speak from experience here)… how easy it is to go through our lives as if this were not true. There’s worship on Sunday and everything else for the rest of the week.. . Finding ourselves… every day… before God. Oh the investment is due, what shall I do… what’s the best rate? Shall I watch TV? Shall I stop and talk to him? Of shall I move on? Where are you Jesus in this situation? What do you want me to do? If I had your mind (the mind of Christ) what would I see? What would I do? We used to say “I had a good mind to…” … a good mind… “have this mind in you that was also in Christ Jesus”. The presence of God. Finding ourselves in the presence of God.
It’s Lent and every Lent we remind ourselves of Jesus instructions in the Garden of Gethsemane, before his death, ‘Watch and Pray’. Pray with your eyes open. Have your eyes open prayerfully.
In our gospel reading Jesus was tempted to turn the stones into bread. He replied: “Man shall not live by bread alone”. It’s one thing to have a crop from which to make bread. It’s another thing altogether if both the crop and the bread are a gift from God to be enjoyed and shared in the life of God. Worship locates us in something bigger, something greater than survival, greater than the satisfaction of our immediate desires, the great desire in which all desires belong and can be ordered.
The second thing is the celebration of hospitality. Having brought first-fruits the farmer is told to throw a feast with those who God has given us as neighbours, especially those who are not so well off. Worship must become hospitality. The feast represents in its own way the economy of the law of Moses. Refugees and aliens are particularly invited. Its very easy to have parties only with good friends. But if our bounty is not ours, it is for sharing.
My Dad preached a range of sermons, but there is one he did quite often which still sticks in my mind, possibly because of its catch-phrases. It’s the story of the Good Samaritan. And each of the characters in the story has a motto in Dad’s sermon. For the robbers who come along the road, their motto is ‘What’s yours is mine if I can take it?’ I guess its not just people who engage in violent robbery who have that motto. Then there are the Priestly folk from the Temple who pass by. Theirs is “What’s mine is mine if I can keep it.” Finally the Samaritan has the motto: “What’s mine is yours if I can share it”. My Dad was never a communist but that attitude to property is pretty deeply ingrained in him.
Places matter… each place has it’s own unique character…(wide open spaces of the Maniototo from En Hakkore)… the roadside defines a certain kind of space. It’s no-man’s land… and yet it is a place of encounter between people on journey’s with purpose – like the wounded man and his good Samaritan.
Jesus is taken up on high with a view of the empires of the world, he is taken to the temple in Jerusalem. There couldn’t be more symbolic, more loaded places to be. This is the centre of the world. The temptations are about power, politics, power over other people. The Satan is, by definition, a power player.
He says to Jesus, this place, this place of power could be yours for the taking… power in Jesus world meant Roman power. It meant military brutality. It meant hierarchy and control on fear of death. Insurrection of any kind resulted in people being nailed up on ‘power poles’ on the side of the road. They called it crucifixion. It was a world, like ours which, by its very structure, did violence to the weakest and poorest
A fortnight ago I asked the question. Who pays the cost… of a world which does violence to its weakest and poorest? Those who share their lives with the weaker ones. That’s our job. But how do we pay the cost? … we learn to share our lives… not just give charity from our spare change which leaves us comfortable and feeling better and the recipients feeling indebted. We share our lives by sharing ourselves and our bounty in acts of hospitality. Throw a feast! says Deuteronomy. We get down from the top of the temple with our sights set on the top job or world domination. And we join Jesus in acts of hospitality.
We say No to Satan and Yes to Aliens. And in so doing we create places, on the roadside, in our homes, in our churches which are places of hospitality.
Texts: Jeremiah 1: 4-10, Luke 4: 21-30, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Speaking of Words that overturn the world (Jeremiah, the boy given a word to create a revolution) words that nearly get you killed (Jesus’ near death experience at Nazareth)… I want to speak today about one of those words. As you’ve probably guessed (from 1 Corinthians 13) the word is ‘love’.
But by way of introduction… I don’t know if anyone else here attended the Public Conversation with Bishop Justin Duckworth this week. Justin Duckworth, prior to becoming bishop, was one of the people who started Urban Vision (Tom and Cat’s community South Dunedin is now a subbranch). UV is a group of young people, mainly young families who have shifted into the poorest and roughest parts of NZ cities in order to live with the people there and practice hospitality. It’s a missional church basically. So Justin talked about raising kids in the rough streets of Wellington, in community, and how eventually he came to link with the Anglican church and has now been chosen as a bishop.
The media have picked it up mainly because they like the image of a bishop with dreadlocks and barefeet.
But there was one thought that really stood out in that public conversation, and I’m not sure I can remember exactly the context. Justin was being asked about his move into the big structures of the Anglican church and whether as a bishop he had any power to make a difference. And he was talking about the fact that the church really no longer has any power and can’t rely on a kind of status in society and political authority or the right to be heard… and yes (he said) we do need to be concerned at the structure of our society and the reasons things are going wrong and not just be involved as ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. But… and this is the phrase that stuck with me, those who pay the cost will be listened to, those who pay the cost will earn the right to speak and will end up making a difference. The talkers and the politicians think they are in power… and we sometimes start to believe them. But it is those who pay the cost who will overturn the world.
As followers of Jesus, we signed up to pay the cost… that’s what Jesus did – pay the cost… the cost of a different world.
Jeremiah was given words. Jesus spoke words odd unrealistic words about grace that almost got him killed at his first sermon… but ultimately the Word became flesh and lived among us paying the cost.
And the character of that cost-paying, the way of life that pays the cost, we call ‘love’.
Part of me hates the word ‘love’. I’m going back to being a seven year old boy who doesn’t want kiss aunty goodbye. Love has become a fetish word, it turns to mush in our songs and our culture and nothing is left but a kind of sentimental optimism – we are swooning to sleep in our own emotions.
So lets draw back from this word ‘love’ for a moment and remind ourselves that it’s not our love that will overturn the world but God’s love… not that we can’t be part of God’s love, and love too… but as God’s love it is (in a sense) unnatural to us… (we are born into a world alienated from that love). God’s love got crucified. And that was not just an accident of history. In that world love is a gift from outside. It is god’s gift, it is different.
Second, not only is God’s love, in one sense, unnatural to us… what we mean by this word ‘love’ in our post-christian culture doesn’t always bear much resemblance to the love of God. The word is such a central part of our vocabulary, our inherited spiritual vocabulary from our Christian past (and its important to remember that this was not always so, its not as if love was the sum of the virtues in the Greco-roman world) … that we can’t avoid making much of it… but in fact we end up filling that word with a whole range of manageable meanings associated with our emotions and desire. All of which are wonderful things and not to be despised. But I fear we have cut the love of God down to our size. It has become a consumer commodity
Love is all I need… all I need is to fall in love with another person… and once I have that ecstatic delight, that heavenly feeling then my life is complete … and each of us finds heaven on earth in our own little bubble of love.
It’s a quick fix, it’s individual, and its so easily a form of selfishness. If the beloved is there at all it is only as a kind of idea or idol to be worshipped. It’s all about the wonderful person who satisfies my desires, fulfils my dreams and sparks my imagination. In other words I focus on the other person, but in the end it’s all about me.
What has this to do with God’s love… the love that might overturn the world?
Let me reread the middle section of 1 Corinthians 13
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant, or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is that slow burning commitment to pay the cost for another person and for all of us. The description is framed at beginning and end with patience and endurance. Love can wait… and will not force anything on anyone. Love can wait because the love of God will come through in the end… so there can be no need to panic.
Love is outside of competitiveness… when we hear those words ‘envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insist on my own way (controlling) irritable, resentful’ we are reminded of the struggles of living with others. Am I ok? Is someone else better? Do I need to assert myself over those around me? The source of love is a lack of fear about myself and my place in the world. If I know I have a place then I can love. If I am loved then I can love. … That simple, gentle word ‘kind’ (love is kind) stands over against all the struggles of competitiveness that make it so hard to live with others. And we think kindness is easy!!
Because the love of God is not worried about itself it looks outward. It is eccentric (going out from itself)
But let’s go back to the frame of it… love bears all things… love is that slow-burning commitment to pay the cost for another and for all. That is the Jesus life?
When Bishop Justin talked about paying the cost he was talking about all levels of our life. When our society does violence against some member and the gap between rich and poor increases, who will pay the cost of sharing community with the poorest and weakest? When our society does violence against the natural world, who will may the cost of limiting our consumer desires for the sake of a sustainable future. And on an individual level when your neighbour is ill or suffers mental illness and can’t manage on their own… who pays the cost? The examples could go on.
Jesus pays the cost… and as a result so can we… Let me finish with a quote from a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer on 1 Corinthians 13:
“Faith and hope enter into eternity transformed into the shape of love. In the end everything must become love. Perfection’s name is love. But the sign of perfect love in this world bears the name cross. That is the way that perfect love must go in this world, must go over and over again. That shows us first of all that this world is ripe, even overripe, for its destruction; only God’s indescribable patience can wait for the end time. Second, it shows us that the church in this world remains the church under the sign of the cross. In particular, the church that wants to become the church of God’s visible glory, here and now, has denied its Lord on the cross. Faith, hope, and love together lead us through the cross to perfection.”
“Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-3: London, Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, October 14, 1934,” in *London* DBWE 13, 395-396
I recently attended a public conversation at which Andrew Shepherd from the Centre for Theology and Public Issues in New Zealand interviewed the new Bishop of Wellington, Justin Duckworth. When Justin was asked about how Christians make a difference and what their agenda might be, he spoke about Christian influence in terms which do not assume our involvement in government or our right to shape the culture from a position of authority because we are a state religion. In other words he spoke about Christian influence in ways that might finally make sense with the demise of Christendom. His key phrase and central point was that those who make a difference will be those who ‘pay the cost’. We will change the world but only if we pay the cost. At the time it was clear that he was thinking quite broadly and concretely of the lifestyle costs of sharing community with the poorest and weakest, the costs of limiting our consumer desire for the sake of a sustainable future for all… all the costs that arise from our society’s violence against its members and against the natural world. It was if he was or could be interpreted as saying we must pay the price of salvation.
And I was thinking “He’s right” but another Presbyterian voice in my head was saying “No, Jesus paid the price of salvation, we are saved by grace and not works”. But before you run and hide between tidy evangelical distinctions between ‘personal salvation’ and ‘social justice’ I invite you to pause for a moment. Justin Duckworth was speaking like an Anabaptist Christian rather than an Evangelical of reformed heritage.
Let me try and emphasise the distinction. From the Anabaptist perspective Jesus death and our death are not mutually exclusive. Jesus does not die instead of us. He dies with us and we die with him (and rise with him). We share in his death. The price he pays, we pay also. As followers of his we are empowered by the same Spirit to live and die in a life like his. We too take up our cross. We too pay the cost of going up against the ‘principalities and powers’. In short, we participate ‘in him’. It’s not as if we could do it on our own, as if we could even imagine doing it had he not done it. It’s not as if we could do it apart from his Spirit and the way we are brought to participate in what he did. We cannot. His ‘paying the cost’ is entirely the basis and source of our ‘paying the cost’, but it does require of us that we also ‘pay the cost’. And as we pay the cost we also share in his saving work. To summarise Justin Duckworth’s point: new possibilities for a just community emerge when Christians ‘pay the cost’. So in the Anabaptist approach there is no separation between salvation and justice. What then does this way of parsing the matter say about the reformed objector in my head?
It says that there are different ways of using an economic metaphor to describe the difference that Jesus makes. And the Evangelical tradition with its roots in Calvinism which in turn has roots in Anselm uses the language quite differently from the Anabaptist tradition which is more closely connected to the christus victor tradition in the eastern fathers and Irenaeus
For Anselm the cost must be paid to God because God is the transcendental equivalent (analogue) of a medieval Earl. This means that God is responsible – responsible for the well-being of creation and responsible to a transcendent law of retributive justice (reciprocity). In this economy costs (damages to creation) are conceived as debts payable to God which must be paid and which cannot be forgiven. Of course, as Anselm imagines it, God must also do the paying (if justice is to be done) as well as receive the payment. Hence Jesus alone can ‘pay the cost’ of our salvation.
Two things are worth noting. Firstly, in this system ‘debts/costs’ are abstract and quantifiable, rather than relational. Thus the language of forgiveness no longer functions in a properly relational way. Secondly, God is subordinated to notion of justice conceived as a system of reciprocity – an exchange economy. Thus, not only can God not ‘forgive’, but it must be God who is paid, if God’s honour within the system is to be maintained.
That another way of thinking about the language of ‘paying the cost’ is possible becomes evident when we think about the resonances of Justin Duckworth’s account, in nuce, of social healing. If the costs or debts in question are not abstract ‘coinage’ in an exchange economy but damages to creation, then the focus of salvation become the healing of creation rather than the restoration of divine honour. If that damage is conceived as a complex network of human violences both to human and non-human creation, then we can begin to see how the non-violent suffering of Jesus might, in all its otherness and subversiveness play a healing role, bearing sin and subverting a fallen economy under the control of principalities and powers. If something is given or offered to God in all it is a secondary result of what is done in and for creation by God. Paying the cost thus becomes primarily a restorative rather than a retributive metaphor. If God is ‘paid’ at all it is not by Christ alone but by Christ who brings with him all creation restored and renewed. At this point the financial metaphor begins to betray the soteriological cause and reveal some of the problems it creates. The real ‘costs’ are not entailed by any transcendent obligation upon God but are simply a way of describing the disarray of creation. For God to chose to ‘pay the cost’ is simply for God to seek the reordering of creation and to take this upon Godself as free divine act of grace. The nature of creation’s disarray means that ‘paying the cost’ means the suffering of the ‘Son of God’ and of those who share in his life. If we are not to continue to think abstractly about this payment we must acknowledge that it is not made in some abstraction from the whole history of creation but represents the outcome of this whole history – an eschatological atonement in which the community of Christ continues to participate and to pay (with Jesus) the cost of the that future which scripture calls ‘the joy that was set before him’.
Happy new year friends! I know its already a month in, but it still feels like the beginning right through January thanks to our long summer holidays Downunder. hope you feel something of the newness of the Spirit as you begin 2013. For our family it began with the Milford Track (google it, one of NZ’s great treasures). The flooded track opened the day we were booked to walk and all five of us, plus David from Germany and two other friends, took the ferry from Te Anau into the primal forests of Fiordland. As many of you know it is a truly magnificent place surrounded by soaring cliffs adorned with waterfalls and multi-coloured bush, fern and moss. The clouds didn’t really open above us when we climbed over the MacKinnon Pass and no dove descended from the heavens, but the mist parted below us and we looked over the edge into the abyss and the “12 second drop” to the next hut below us. Needless to say we took the longer path, more travelled. For the following two days we saw beautiful sunlight, and were surrounded by awesome mountain views with snow as well as waterfalls in plain view. We fed the sandflies well. We communed with travellers from around the world – Italian, Australian, German and a charming deaf couple, who taught us all some new language. All of which reminds me of the words of novelist and thinker, Marilynne Robinson:
We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides. For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form which we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives.
(When I was a Child I Read Books, Hachette Digital, 2012)
In honour of this grand collaboration let me offer you two pieces to start 2013. The first is a prayer by Michael Leunig which reminds me of the Milford Track and the second is my paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. Hopefully these words will encourage us in a venture even more important than language, namely prayer.
“Dear God, we pray for another way of being: another way of knowing. Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway and in so doing have lost our footpath. God lead us to our footpath: Lead us there where in simplicity we may move at the speed of natural creatures and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet. Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts. And lead us there where side-by-side we may feel the embrace of the common soul. Nothing can be loved at speed. God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing; another way of being. Amen.”
(Michael Leunig, The Prayer Tree)
Abba in heaven, Abba in freedom
May your glorious life be the delight of all creation
May your realm come to us and among us
May your will be done on earth
as it is in heaven
Give us today what we need for today
and forgive us our sin
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us when we come to our trials
and deliver us from evil.
For all dimensions of power,
including the power to establish true community,
now and in the age to come
Texts: 1 Corinthian 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21
In a recent item in the New Yorker David Remnick described the rise of the new right in Israel… What troubled me most was the purported increase in public display of a thinly veiled racism of a certain kind. The claims that there is no such thing as a Palestinian… they are all ‘arabs’ defined purely by their hatred of Israel and not to be trusted. We don’t need too long a memory to recall what happens once it becomes accepted that certain kinds of people don’t really have human rights – no place in the land.
Another piece I read this week was an essay by the famous novelist and thinker Marilynne Robinson. It’s a kind of history of an idea – the idea of “Moses”, or ‘the law of Moses’. She makes a defense of the ‘law of Moses’
The point that she is very aware of is that ‘the law of Moses’ has, in so much of our history been treated as a problem, something Jesus got rid of, something bound up with the evil God of the Old Testament who orders genocide of other races and so on… a long history which, if many protestant sermons are to be believed, could be crudely summarized as Old Testament bad, New Testament good.
I’m not going to try to unravel all that today. It’s just much more complicated than that. Instead let me quote some of Robinson’s summary of the laws of Moses.
The laws of Moses assume that the land is God’s, that the Hebrews are strangers and sojourners there who cannot really own it but who enjoy it at God’s pleasure (Leviticus 25:23). The land is apportioned to the tribes, excepting the priestly Levites. It can be sold (the assumption seems to be that this would be done under pressure of debt or poverty) but a kinsman has the right to buy it back, that is, redeem it, and restore it to its owner. In any case, in every fiftieth year the lands are restored to the tribes and households to whom they were first given. Every seventh year Hebrew slaves are freed, each taking with him or her enough of the master’s goods to “furnish him liberally” (Deuteronomy 15:14; all quotations are from the Revised Standard Version). In these years also all debts are to be forgiven. Obviously these laws would have the effect of preventing accumulation of wealth and preventing as well the emergence of a caste of people who are permanently dispossessed. Furthermore, in every seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath, to lie fallow…
It’s a kind of resting time for the land and a free for all, especially the poor. There are even special rules about not harvesting the corners of the field and always leaving enough for the poor – those disadvantaged for a range of reasons. Deuteronomy says:
“It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:21–22).
Robinson goes on to note that the word “commandment” is not there in Hebrew. In the Hebrew the 10 Commandments are just the 10 Words and they are as much promises as they are rules. So in this vision of society, this strange economy, we call the Law of Moses we might say the promise is made ‘you will not steal’ (not must). And Robinson continues, it could just as well read “you will not be stolen from”. Why? Two reasons: first because:
“the poor are given the right to take what would elsewhere have been someone else’s property, and second because they are sheltered from the extreme of desperation that drives the needy to theft.”
How different is that from the concept of private property which so structures our life?
The point is that we have forgotten what the Law of Moses really is. The point is, that regardless of the extent to which this vision was ever realized in history (and it is hard to tell), it represents an extraordinary economic and political vision.
Robinson notes that:
“…no conditions limit God’s largesse toward the poor. They need not be pious, or Jewish, or worthy, or conspicuously in need, or intent on removing themselves from their condition of dependency. The Bible never considers the poor otherwise than with tender respect, and this is fully as true when the speaker is “the Jewish God” as it is when the speaker is Jesus. What laws could be more full of compassion than these?”
Robinson asks “By what standard but their own could Israel have been considered ungrateful or rebellious or corrupt?” There was no comparable economic and political vision in the ancient world.
That’s the background we need to remember when Jesus stands up in the Synagogue in Nazareth and reads from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
Jesus is talking about the year of Jubilee, the year when debts are forgiven and those who have been empoverished are restored. He is standing up to announce the fulfillment of the Law of Moses in its broadest sense.
Importantly he interprets this announcement by what he doesn’t say as well as by what he does say. He stops the reading mid-sentence… he doesn’t quote the last section of Isaiah which continues ‘and the day of the vengeance of our God.’ It is the day of the Lord’s favour but not of God’s vengeance against the nations and the gentiles. Am I reading too much into the silence here? I don’t think so… because the next thing Jesus does is remind his listeners of stories in which the word of God extended beyond the people of this Law of Moses to the ‘nations’, the gentiles on whom his audience hope God will seek vengeance. Jesus tells of God’s compassionate involvement with the outsiders, the sojourners, to those who today might, in our time, be called Palestinians.
In our Epistle reading Paul doesn’t mention Moses. He doesn’t, talk of a Kingdom (as Jesus does). Instead he does something very similar. He talks of a body (perhaps like Aristotle talked of the body politic). And the standards by which this body is judged have to do with how it treats its weakest members.
“The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable member are treated with greater respect, whereas our respectable members do not need this. But God has arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Another astonishing political and economic vision! Perhaps there’s a connection we have forgotten? The body of Moses and the body of Christ!
Let me digress briefly… reading Ian Harris again this week I am reminded that every second time he gets an opinion piece in the ODT he tries to persuade us that although God existence is an outdated idea, this doesn’t matter. What does matter, according to Harris, is whether we can live with the symbolism of God… as if like the ancient pagans we might create our own symbols and then bow down and worship them, only to discover that like the idols of stone and wood of the ancient world they are merely artifacts of our own desires, our hopes and fears in visual form, and in the end we are worshipping ourselves. But my main problem with Harris’s articles is not his amalgamation of modern atheism and a subtle form of idolatry. That’s certainly a problem. But his assumption that Christianity stands and falls with the idea of God. That we are in the business of persuading people that God exists. And if we can’t do that, then we can make do with the idea of God as a symbol of our values. I want to suggest that he’s worrying about the wrong issue. Of course Christians believe that God actually exists, and is not merely some useful symbol. But that’s not the distinctive characteristic of Christian faith. There are lots of people out there who believe in God and are not Christians. Not just the Abrahamic religions, but millions of people, especially baby boomers, who say ‘I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.’
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Christians are people who follow Jesus, rather than merely believers in a God of some kind. Our God is quite specific. So for us our faith is cast into question not just by the problem of whether there is a God or not, but by the more pointed question… Is there a body of Christ? Does God in Jesus Christ make a difference to the human race?… Is there a community which gives greatest dignity to the least? Which loves its enemies? Has the law of Moses really found its fulfillment? Are we a part of that? That’s the difficult question!
Jesus arrives at a wedding. At the doorway he is greeted by 6 great jars made of stone and carry 20 – 30 gallons of water each but still not full. It was clearly a well-to-do wedding.
And the jars at the point of entrance were not a practical matter for questions of hygiene. They didn’t wash their hands and feet to clean them in the way we would think of cleanliness. They washed themselves to make themselves religiously clean. They washed themselves to please a God they believed wanted them separated from all kinds of impurities, impure people as well as objects. Sure dirt was ‘unclean’, but dirt was only one of many things that were unclean. So these jars were a kind of extension of the temple (the temple is where Jesus stages his protest in the very next segment of John’s gospel).
There is a crisis at the wedding. The wine runs out. How are they supposed to celebrate a wedding without wine, for goodness sake? Jesus’ mother Mary plays the role of administrator and calls on Jesus for assistance. Jesus is not prepared for this change of plan. His time has not come, he says. And yet when flexibility is called for Jesus switches to plan B.
He fills up the water jars of purity and lo and behold it turns out to be good wine, the kind of wine you usually have at the beginning (because what’s the point of good wine once you’re drunk) and the party goes on…
It’s a sign!… says the author of John’s gospel. And in calling it a sign the writer of John’s gospel reminds us of how the ancient Christians (first 1500 years) understood all the stories of scripture, indeed how they understood the scriptures themselves – as signs… signs to be interpreted by the gospel. The ancient church says to us, if you look closely at these stories, whether it’s a story of Moses, or Rebeccah or a story of Jesus himself you can see what God is doing in Jesus of Nazareth.
My favourite blogger, Richard Beck once posted two passages of scripture, side by side, under the heading Jesus: in Microcosm.
The first passage is from Leviticus 13 (45-6) and reads:
Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as they have the disease they remain unclean
They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.
The second passage is from Matthew 8 (2-3):
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
And Jesus reached out his hand and touched him.
And it’s in the contrast, suggests Richard Beck, that we see the heart of what God is doing in Jesus. It’s a sign
During the holidays I watched a movie by Lars Von Triers entitled “Breaking the Waves”. And it tells the story of a very conservative Scottish Presbyterian religious community that maintained its purity by obeying a strict set of rules some of which were about purity… and how the main character Bess McNeil marries an outsider introducing a threat to the purity of the community. Bess has a kind of personality disorder, you might say… and one aspect of it is her profound attachments that she forms. In the end (to cut a long story short) her love for Jan the outsider she married leads her to act in ways which offend deeply against the moral code of the community and she is cast out of the community and dies at the hands of a brutal mob of sailors.
It’s a great movie, but not for the faint-hearted. It portrays in stark images the waters of purity. The jars that Jesus was greeted by as he arrived for a wedding.
So the water signifies the religion of purity. What does the wine signify? We say it every month in worship. This wine is my blood of the new covenant. It is the life of a man poured out in love. Or in the movie it is represented by the life of Bess McNeill poured out in love.
The rituals and rules of purity represent a God who cannot touch the unclean. A God (and therefore a people) who barely connect with the earth. A God waiting in heaven to admit the select few, who have purified their existence. In the wine we see a God who gets involved in all of creation and who lives among us a life poured out in love, touching those that the Pure One refuses to touch.
It’s a sign. A bit like the story of Les Miserables… one of the greatest parables of the gospel ever written has been made into a movie… you’ve got to see it! Anyway, the story tells of three kinds of politics, three ways or organizing life (here I am also indebted to Richard Beck). There is the police officer, Javert. Javert represents the pure religion of law. The God of justice cannot touch the sinner. Javert’s religion means he cannot look on sin except to punish. Then there are the revolutionary students. They are middle-class boys who dream of a better world. In their own way remain pure and separate from the common folk in their idealism, and their attempt to fight the forces of evil at the barricades. The main character, Jean Valjean is different. He has been touched by grace, earlier on in his life. Jean Valjean offers what we might call a politics of compassion. He, like Jesus, reaches out and touches Fantine, and Fantine’s daughter. In his life too the water of purity becomes the wine of grace.