SERMON 26 JUNE 2016
My grandmother was a little person whose life spanned many changes in the world. From a time as a child when they had gas lamps in the house in Glasgow before electricity got there, to living to see a man land on the moon. One of the things that never changed for her was her commitment to the church and her faith. Her beliefs held her steady. As she was bewildered by the changing world – like when she thought that a girl had come to cut down a tree in the back garden, it never crossing her mind that it could be a young man with long hair – she held on to some things tightly. One of these was a belief that alcohol was evil. Never mind that Jesus apparently, like all people then, drank wine. She had signed the pledge. I am not sure how my grandfather dealt with this, and other strictness, but I know, when she came to live with us for the last 30 years of her long life, my mother was reduced to hiding a bottle of sherry in the garden shed with the weed killer. They didn’t get mixed up. My grandmother, and so many others of her generation, and since, had a great fear of the sins of the flesh that Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians. The trouble is that this kind of moral strictness also led to a feeling that enjoyment at all was sinful. What a bind! This was the kind of attitude that led to such things as my brother and I hiding behind a sofa as children on holiday on an island in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, so we could play a card game on a Sunday, without being seen by the “Wee Free” (Free Presbyterian Church) Minister who was also in the guest house. Our immortal souls were in danger.
Yet Paul is talking about freedom in this passage we heard from his letter to the Christian community in Galatia. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Last week we heard the passage that states “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” What a wide, barrier-breaking understanding of the gospel of God’s love. Paul has been telling them that the requirement of the Law for circumcision no longer applied. In God’s grace such a condition was not necessary. But he also knows very well the human propensity to forget that, underlying everything, was the commandment to love. He reminds them of this: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The next sentence says “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed.”
Nothing has changed about human nature. It sometimes seems as if the language of the public space drags us all down. It would have been u thinkable even a few years ago, for a presidential candidate in the U.S. to have said the kind of things we have heard from Donald Trump. Closer to home, it still seems as if people like Eddie McGuire can get away with demeaning someone, a woman, because it was only said in jest. Where’s your sense of humour? We live in times where moral boundaries appear to be stretched, where anger is vented in violence and the language of fear and suspicion has become accepted. 10 days ago, Jo Cox, the British Labour MP, was murdered. People in Britain, and around the world, were deeply shocked. Shocked because she seems to have been someone who passionately believed in the things that make for a just society and a humane world. It was then very moving to hear her grieving husband’s statement that he would not give in to hate and would not allow his children to be shaped by hate. There was a powerful speech in the British Parliament.(Speech)
On the one hand we see a slide down a slope of denigration and abuse, and on the other, the words that resonate with a spirit of compassion and goodness that connect us and lift us up. Such words resonate with what Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Law, rules, may give a framework for good behaviour and try to control bad behaviour, but, in the end, Paul says, the things that are good come from the Spirit. It is ironic that too often we are called back to these things because of some act of violence: mass shootings in Orlando; the murder of a young mother who stood for so much that was about care for ones neighbour. From these dark deeds, good things have been reseeded.
We find some angry words in Luke’s gospel today. Jesus and his disciples met with an unfriendly response in a Samaritan village. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” ask James and John. It’s interesting to note that they felt they had the power to do that. There is quite a lot being said about power and about choice in and around this passage. Just before this, John has complained to Jesus that someone was driving out demons in Jesus’ name and they had tried to stop him because he was not one of them. “Don’t stop him” Jesus said. “Whoever is not against you is for you.” Jesus did not put up a boundary around what could be healing, or who, acting in good spirit, could be part of God’s work.
Luke has been building up an understanding of Jesus’ power and authority. He has shown Jesus as he healed the sick, raised Jairus’ daughter, cast out demons and appeared to Peter, James and John transfigured beside a vision of Moses and Elijah. But now, Luke’s focus changes. He has come to a particular moment in his account of Jesus’ ministry. Here, at the reading we heard today, he changes tack. The first words we heard were “As the time approached for him to be taken up into heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Up until now, Luke has been drawing on the material that is found in Mark’s gospel. He now uses his own sources, as well as what is called “Q”, an unknown source that is common to all the first three gospels. Now we will have some of the stories that are only found in Luke, like the parable of The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, to name just two familiar ones.
But today, Luke tells us that Jesus turns towards Jerusalem. In fact this is not so much a geographical journey as one of intention. If we were to stick pins in a map to show where Jesus was over the next few chapters, they would indicate him going in zig zags. The point is that, having laid the foundations for his ministry, he now faces up to where it is all leading. And, as we heard today from what happened in the Samaritan village, there is immediate opposition, met, in turn, with an angry response from the two disciples that earned rebuke. This is followed by three interactions about following Jesus. Underlying it all there is a message about the costly nature of discipleship. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Not everyone could see what kind of new life they were being offered. The choice to follow Jesus meant a radical break from the culture and customs of the time; breaking away from family obligations, because, in the urgency of the time that was left, this journey had to take priority. Joining the Jesus group was about becoming part of the new community of faith and for the disciples it was a very steep learning curve. This was not about obligation to follow Jesus. It was about informed choice. It was about knowing that they were opting for insecurity for the sake of the deeper journey of faith in the one they had come to believe in.
How does this connect with us today? Our lives, and the lives of people for centuries, have been about security. We all want our families to have a job, a safe place to live, even if first home buyers find it almost impossible to get a home of their own. Our son lives at home at the age of 24 and it doesn’t seem possible for him to do otherwise just now. Like many others, he doesn’t have much job security. He may no longer be held by an over-riding sense of family obligations as there have been in the past, and which are still very important in many cultures, but my hopes for him would be shaken if he decided to go walkabout with no real security around him. How do we match our need for security with our discipleship?
To make sense of Luke’s message today we have to think about how this gospel addresses us where we are. It is the same gospel that Paul preached, though he did so from the post-Easter perspective of resurrection, with its promise of God’s love overcoming evil, suffering and death and growing into new life. It is a gospel which invites response and which holds out a strange freedom. It asks us what we believe in, what our values are in a world of many competing voices and where goodness can seem to be overwhelmed by anger, by injustice, inhumanity and abuse. I read this last week: “Once a man was asked, ‘What did you gain from praying regularly?’ The man replied, ‘Nothing…but let me tell you what I lost: anger, ego, greed, depression, insecurity and fear of death.’ Sometimes, the answer to our prayers is not gaining but losing; which ultimately is the gain.” Jesus set his face resolutely to Jerusalem. His disciples had been called to follow, and they did, not knowing what they were in for. But they believed in Jesus. So what and who do we believe in today?
Belief is an interesting word. Sometimes it seems as if we are required to be able to give the full assent and agreement of our minds, to be able to tick all the boxes that faith seems to require of us and that we can’t really follow Jesus if we don’t do that. In fact, the word belief has its roots in the old German word for love, which we see now in the German word liebe. Belief is about what we hold most dear. So, we are asked today, if that is Jesus. Faith is not about having the answers. It is much more about being able to set out, trusting that God will lead us on. We take the little faith we have and pray that it will grow as we go. It is about believing that God is enough and that God is good. It is when we set our hand to the plough and look back that we falter, as we wonder if we have done the right thing, or if it really was better back there. If you did that when you were ploughing, you would make awful wiggly furrows. And maybe our lives leave their own wiggly tracks behind us. But there is always an interweaving of faith, belief and action. Our freedom is rooted in this, because it comes from a basis of love. We can go on because we believe that God’s love is merciful and sets us free to pick ourselves up and go on again.
All this is not about needing to obey strict rules of behaviour in order to satisfy a demanding, judgemental God. It is not about having to keep the sherry bottle in the garden shed, or not playing cards on a Sunday. It is about acting out of the kind of love that is concerned for the well-being and flourishing of others. And that may come at some cost to ourselves. Jesus set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem to show us that he was prepared to face the costliest of choices to live out the gospel, the set free good news from the entanglements of death and darkness. He believed in love, the love of God. He lived in faith, moment by moment. The rest of us straggle along behind, sometimes faltering, sometimes tempted to look over our shoulder, but, together, discovering that the things we know are really important are what Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit. We are here because we believe in these, for ourselves, for each other and for the world in all its pain.