SERMON 31 JANUARY 2016
Once upon a time….once upon a time, the stars in the night sky overhead were crystal clear, points of light scattered over the sleeping earth, moving in time and place, familiar, recognised and comforting. The moon shone its whiteness casting shadows of trees and bushes. The grasses murmured in the breeze and the night time insects chittered. Sometimes there was a louder noise as some creature crushed the leaves and grasses as it made its way to the creek to drink. Over it all hung a stillness and the embers from the fire sent a lazy spiral upwards, dissolving in the air. Gradually, in the far off place, the line of the earth emerged from the dark as the first tinge of light appeared, growing steadily and quietly. The moon faded as her sister, the sun rose up. Glowing red and gold and painting the land with new colours. Soon the sounds of human life were heard – a cough, a yawn, a greeting of one another and of the new day.
It had been like this for a long, long time; though not always peaceful for sometimes the wind raged, storms crashed as lightening blazed and cracked the sky. Sometimes fires roared through. Sometimes, even, the earth shook. But these things were known and understood within the ancient order of things. And the people, even though they moved from place to place, belonged within the land and could read its signs and its moods.
But one day it changed, changed for ever. Over the edge of the land appeared strange people such as they had never seen before. They wore strange things, made strange sounds and carried many things with them. It seemed that they wanted this land for themselves and thought they had a right to it. It seemed they brought with them a god who, they said, had told them they could take this land and that these ancient people must obey this god and so obey these people too. There was no choice. It was that or be endlessly moved on to somewhere else they did not belong. What could they do? Where could they go? All this could not happen peacefully. Blood was shed. Tears were shed. Families were broken apart. That’s when the real fear arose, fear that came from loss of identity, loss of land, loss of culture. Yes, there had been fighting before, fierce fighting over land rights and traditions. But this was different. Nothing was ever the same again because now these ancient people could not belong in what had been their land. They would always be regarded as lesser beings and so would always be outcasts in the land.
The gods they had worshipped were destroyed. The Asherah to whom they had looked to grant fertility to their flocks, their land and the women, they were taken away and shattered. The people, these Canaanites, were written out of history, only to appear as faint traces along the edges of the story of these other ones who called themselves the Chosen People. The Promised Land had not been terra nullius.
Tuesday, the day I started writing this, was, of course, Australia Day. I hoped, though I do not know, that you might have heard the first part of this sermon, as an imaginary little description set in Australia. It could have been, until we got to the Asherah. It could actually have been many places over centuries. It still happens. History is a very complex thing. Whose story dominates? Whose voices are heard and whose are silenced? Through what lenses to do we see? It seems that there has always been a story of the insiders and the outcasts, the powerful and the disempowered. It is the same everywhere and it goes on being like that.
It was like that in Jesus’ time as the people of Nazareth, the Jewish people, listened to the man who was one of their own. Except he wasn’t, and what he said, what he refused to do – performing miracles for them such as he had done elsewhere, even in their rival town of Capernaum – these things made him something they could not understand. Joseph’s son, whom they thought they knew and of whom they had felt proud for a while, now he was telling them something that was too unimaginable to grasp. He was telling them that though they might think of themselves as the Chosen People, God was not their sole possession. All the stories they knew, of their people’s struggles in the past, from Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, of Moses and Miriam and the wandering in the desert until they could find the Promised Land, all these stories had shaped them. The God they believed in was the One God, the one and only God and God had told them that they were the people with whom he had made a covenant. They understood themselves to be God’s Chosen People. This was what they had heard, generation by generation, Sabbath by Sabbath. And more than that, they knew that their God would send them the Messiah who would finally bring them to freedom, to salvation and justice from all the oppressions they knew.
How could they possibly accept what this man Jesus could be telling them! Yes, they knew about those stories of the widow in Zarephath whom Elijah helped, and Naaman the Syrian whom Elisha brought to God’s healing. But those stories were not what was really about the main story, so why would Jesus mention those in preference to themselves, Jesus’ own people? It was too much to hear, to bear, and so they flared up in anger and would have killed him.
Luke’s gospel is really saying some very powerful things in this passage. It’s all very well for us to say, as we have before, that Luke frames this gospel as God’s upside down kingdom. Yes, we want to hear about the poor being raised up, the oppressed given justice, the sick healed and so on. But here, today, Jesus is saying that this is not all about the insiders. He is challenging the insiders to see that God is also concerned for everyone on the outside, those who were not the Chosen Ones. And so, Luke tells us, Jesus was threatened with death. It is a precursor of what would happen to him at the end. Luke emphasizes this point in the way he describes what happened there, on a hill which would connect for his hearers with Golgotha. In fact there is no hill like that near Nazareth. That is not the point. The point is what Luke was telling his hearers about how Jesus and his message had been received and what continued to happen. It is the amazing and challenging thing about the Scriptures - how they address us across the centuries. The messages they hold remain timeless.
Isn’t it easy for the Church today to feel that it is only within its boundaries that God is speaking? We too can fasten on particular stories that allow us to feel safe, the chosen ones, and so to protect ourselves from some of the difficult issues of our times. We often want God to act on our behalf in ways that we think we need or want. There are always voices that call us to open our eyes and our ears. In my own experience, back in the 1960’s, George MacLeod, who started the Iona Community, warned that the Church was becoming the spiritual arm of the status quo. It also required a huge shift in our self-perception to accept a minister into the local church who came as a missionary to Scotland from Africa.
Here, in Australia, I expect some of you may have heard a little bit of Stan Grant’s speech, delivered unscripted from the heart, about the story, the continuing story of what it is to be Aboriginal in Australia. I know last week I gave you some statistics. Here is one that Stan quoted: that Aboriginal people make up 3% of the population and 25% of the prison population. I had been thinking to myself about insiders and outcasts, but those two words don’t fit those figures. The disadvantaged are too often locked in. Stan talked with both passion and awareness about things in the history of this country that remain unaddressed or suppressed and very hard, both to accept and to deal with. His speech was likened to Martin Luther King, though Stan himself rejected such a comparison. We can be inspired by Martin Luther King more easily because that Civil Rights movement was over there in the United States. But Stan Grant was speaking out this country about Australia, with all its complexity and all its cultural differences. What does the gospel call us to as we hear about God’s upside down kingdom?
There is much to be proud of in this country, but we cannot hold our heads high when we know that offshore, and behind fences within this land, there are men, women and children who are held, without a time-limited sentence, too often without respect or anything beyond basic facilities and with nothing much to give them hope. Do we believe that God is there behind that razor wire? If not, then what does the gospel mean?
There is no point in us being here and feeling helpless, let alone possibly angry, for whatever reason. We are here to try and understand what God may be saying to us, here and now. How is God trying to break open our hearts? Let us remember that the core of what Jesus was proclaiming was about God’s love. He knew that the people in Nazareth were not able to hear it from him because of the limits they placed on him. But God’s love is not limited. It is a love that may ask us to see how our living may be limiting that love.
So it was with the people on Corinth. In the last two weeks we have heard Paul describing this community, within which there were many different groupings and cultures, with rich and poor, as the body of Christ, the body with many different parts, all of which were necessary and all of which belonged. There were different gifts but all these came from God. It was a community where there were deep disagreements that reared their ugly heads soon after Paul moved on from them. So he wrote to them and called them back to the heart of the matter: love.
I am sure we all know this passage. It is very often read at weddings because it paints a beautiful image of what real love is and what we would all aspire to. But this is not a reading about romantic love. It is a reading about what it is to be a mature Christian in a community that is faced with difficulty, exclusivism, intolerance and superiority. It reminds these Christians that they had not “arrived” at the end of their journey but were very much still on the way, as we all are. There is a force to this love that people saw in Jesus. It was a non-violent force such as what Mahatma Gandhi emphasized. Maybe that was what enable Jesus to walk away through that angry crowd outside Nazareth.
Martin Luther King drew on both the example of Jesus and of Gandhi. He wrote “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door to ultimate reality.”
Who is on the inside and who is on the outside of this love? The Church stands as the entity that calls us to claim and proclaim that love, to live in it and to demonstrate it wherever we are. Somehow there is something about human nature that seems to want to control that love and to permit ourselves to feel that we know how far and to whom that extends. There is something about human nature that would have us search the Scriptures for the words that would affirm us in our stance. We all do it. But what we see in Jesus is the one who kept turning people’s assumptions upside-down and asking them to resist the temptation to make themselves into God’s chosen people to the exclusion of those who are different, who seem to be outsiders for a whole variety of reasons. How hard it can be for us to live as a body with many different parts!
The trouble is that there are so many pressing issues facing us in our communities, in our country, that we can become navel gazing and our internal disagreements can stop us from focussing rather on how we live the love of Christ for those we know of who are on the outside, who are at the bottom of the heap. Luke would have us understand what it means to be followers of Christ. It was not easy for people then to hear and it is not meant to be something we hear comfortably Sunday by Sunday. Neither is it meant to make us feel that we have failed or to disempower us. What is the purpose of God’s love if not to break open our hearts, time after time, and to keep our living open to receive what God may have in store, whatever age we may be? There was nothing ageist in what Jesus said; nothing that said that any stage of life was more or less important than another. The inclusiveness of Jesus’ message shows us that the love we are shown and that we are offered is a living, vibrant, healing, liberating and fulfilling thing that is enough for everything we seek to do and be, for the sake of our world, in Jesus’ name.