SERMON 13 NOVEMBER 2016
This has been a strange week in which to write a sermon. It has been a week of two halves: pre 11/9 and post 11/9. I began writing this on Wednesday when there had been what felt like a pause as the eyes of the world turned to watch the United States of America. All over the place people were talking about it because this was not just about the election of a president and the possibility of a woman president. It felt as if much more was at stake. I heard from friends in different countries, all aware of a deep anxiety about what was going to happen. Whether we wanted to or not, we had been caught up in this extraordinary, seemingly endless campaign in which racism, sexism and anger became somehow appealing to many. It felt as if it has brought out the worst in people at a time when it should have been so important to appeal to the best in people, as some tried to do. We may think what we like about it, but the anxiety many of us felt is based on the fact that something dark seemed to have been unleashed. Quite brutal things have been said. Can these be stuffed back, or has the lid of this Pandora’s lid been lifted wide open? So there was the beginning of the week, waiting, and then the end of the week and a deep anxiety about where are we now? There has been a shock wave around the world. What can bring people together again after such a lot of divisive rhetoric?
Back near the beginning of the week I was at Leigh Memorial Church in Parramatta with the group discussing the lectionary readings for today. The setting there is quite extraordinary at the moment. The church and its halls now exist as a kind of island as buildings all around are demolished to make way for a big new square with trees and a channelled stream that will be surrounded by towers of glass. Already, 50 metres away, there is a 13 story building nearly finished, belonging to Western Sydney University. As we talked about Isaiah and his vision for Jerusalem, the new heavens and the new earth, where, Isaiah said, there would be no more weeping, where the people would build houses and live in them, plant vineyards and harvest their fruit, the bulldozers were busy just beyond the wall. How we can hear this reading today for our own city and suburbs, and in times when Jerusalem and its surroundings are anything but places of peace? At Parramatta, we wondered when Jerusalem had last been a place of peace for any length of time. We turned to the last verse we heard read this morning: “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” What an image! Isn’t this about all beings living together in harmony? That is Isaiah’s prophetic utterance that seems to come from the very heart of God. Isaiah is telling the people that though they may have failed themselves and God, God remains faithful and will redeem what has gone wrong. God’s vision and purpose remains.
So, we hear the words about such peace and prosperity, and we probably dismiss it as being like some kind of fairy tale. OK. Maybe. But what else does all this say to us today? If we can’t imagine Jerusalem, nor the Middle East ever being at peace, if we are wondering about America and the rest of the world, what are we saying about what our values, what our faith is about? We are not talking about retreating into some kind of unrealistic fantasy-land where we can keep things nice and happy. If we are fearful of what lies ahead for all of us in this world where it is so easy for divisions to widen, and we seem to be stepping into an unknown and potentially unstable United States, how does our faith inform our thinking and our reactions?
Last week, as we pondered the Sadducees’ question to Jesus about resurrection, we reflected on the difference between our worldly, human understanding and the mystery of God. Jesus’ response to them indicates a God in whom there are no boundaries of time or place. God remains the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Jesus and the God of his disciples and all who have come after. Our times may be in flux but God is constant.
Let’s turn to the reading from Luke for today. It is a reading that is full of portents of disaster and hardship, both natural and man -made. We don’t like to hear these things because they come close to home. It’s hard enough to cope at the best of times without being reminded that apparently all these things are signalled as being inevitable. The reality of them is inescapable. Luke knew this very well as he was writing. When he wrote his gospel, the Temple had already been destroyed. Jesus’ followers were being persecuted. Stephen had been stoned to death at the feet of Saul who would become perhaps the most significant convert to the Way of Christ. James, the disciple had been beheaded. How can we deal with all this talk of hatred and betrayal? Do we give into the temptation to hide our heads in the sand like ostriches?
Actually, as I thought about this reading, I felt that I had no right to be standing here talking about this at all. I felt I had no right to stand here in the security and peacefulness of this place, barring, of course, the traffic noise outside as people busily go about their lives. What do I know about persecution and such hatred and violence? Let’s go back to the Middle East. We have probably all seen pictures of villagers escaping from their war-blasted homes, people who are Christian, who have had to endure under extremist Muslim rule. And of course, the violence has been no respecter of faith or gender or anything. I can’t stand here and pretend to know anything at all about what that is like, or for the Christians in some African countries, never mind in those who live under communist rule.
Luke is speaking about real things, not just scare-mongering. But here, where we are, there is threat enough to make people suffer from anxiety and depression and other issues. So let’s look at the gospel reading again. It ends with these words: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” These words refer us back to earlier words in Luke: “Even the hairs on your head are numbered (12:7)”. Chapter 12 in Luke’s gospel is full of words of reassurance, about not worrying, in a gospel where there are always warnings of the cost of discipleship. The hairs on our heads may be numbered but they are mortal, as every part of our bodies is mortal, but they are not lost. I remember reading to you the words of the hymn by Colin Gibson that say; “Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost forever.”
The Christian gospel is about an enduring hope that crosses generations. It is that hope which has always drawn people, but more than that, has sustained people, through all kinds of suffering and hardship. It is hope that comes through knowing how deeply we are related to God, how closely we are held within the heart of God; how the whole story of Jesus shows us that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love, not even death. It is this hope that has fuelled people’s living down the centuries and that has given people courage to carry on, to endure. Here are some words from Martin Luther King that seem very apposite in these times. They come from his Christmas sermon in 1967: “I’ve seen too much hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.’”
Martin Luther King knew the cost of standing up for what, in faith, he and others like him, knew to be right, to be the way of love and justice. We have not had to fight for our civil rights, to bear abuse for sitting on a bus or in a supposedly wrong place in the coffee shop. But we are all in this together, in this strong but fragile world we share.
So what are we saying in all of this? By being here today we are saying that we want to be on this journey together because we find in it the things that speak to us most deeply about life, about love, about those other big things like truth and wisdom and integrity and relationship, about justice for all and peace for all. In these times it is a bit like nailing our colours to the mast. That can seem a bit dramatic for our everyday lives, but it brings me back to something that I also believe is important to remember. In the scale of things, those early disciples and converts were very few in number. For three centuries they lived on the edge of things, always vulnerable. They knew what it was like to be regarded both as being insignificant but also a threat. So they supported each other. Many of them were part of Christian communities that Paul had seeded as he taught a gospel of inclusion. He wrote letters to encourage them, and to remind them of the way they should treat each other when things went wrong. We did not read from his letter to the Christians in Thessalonica that is in the lectionary for today, but, after speaking to them about the way some were behaving, he says “As for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.” How the few acted was important. Let’s remember how, in Luke 13:20 Jesus says “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about 60 pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” In these times we live in, where we are surrounded by so much that causes fear, so much that gives messages of violence and hatred and division, maybe we can see ourselves as being the grains of yeast in the dough, as individuals but also as our little community of faith. The world needs to be always reminded of friendliness and hope. The world needs to know what the gospel calls us all to be.
Apparently after one of the terrible school shootings in the US, the parents and teachers taught the children the phrase “Look for the helpers”. Children began to spy police officers, nurses and volunteers everywhere. Perhaps this passage from Luke is calling us to see ourselves as the helpers or the yeast in the dough. To do that, we have to keep reminding ourselves of the source of our hope. We need to remind ourselves of what it is we believe in even of the world around us feels chaotic. It is within the sanctuary of our souls that hope is nurtured. It is within our connectedness with each other and with people of faith everywhere that we know we have what it takes to hold onto God’s purpose and promise of peace for the world. Let us always remember that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness and life is stronger than death.