Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington
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October 11, 2020
Dedication Festival Eucharist
In 1881, the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, most famous for his story of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the children’s tale of “buccaneers and buried gold”, Treasure Island, famously remarked, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” This morning, I think, we are called to work out whether God prefers to travel hopefully, or to arrive!
Because if you read through the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures up to the point at which we find ourselves this morning, in the early chapters of the First Book of Kings, God has been on really quite a journey. Indeed, God remarks to Nathan the prophet, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving
about in a tent and a tabernacle.”
God was dwelling in the Ark, traveling hopefully, until David’s son, Solomon, finally builds the great Temple in Jerusalem, to be God’s permanent residence on earth - the White House or the Buckingham Palace of its day. The Ark will be placed in the spot known as ‘the holiest of holies’, accessed only one day a year by the Chief Priest, and God will have ‘arrived’ in Jerusalem for good.
Thus it is that this morning, our scriptural curtain raises on Solomon praying to the Lord ‘in the presence of all the assembly of Israel’ as he dedicates the Temple. We only have a brief excerpt of this magisterial prayer, which lasts a full thirty verses, but even its opening shows the vast sense of significance and occasion that is in the air at these proceedings. And when the prayer is over, to seal the deal, 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep are sacrificed to the Lord. The assembly is blessed, and, finally, after a week long party, and a 66-verse chapter, the people are sent away and return to their tents ‘joyful and in good spirits because of all the goodness that the Lord had shown…to his people’. But, for all this celebration and sanctity, for all the construction of a building the like of which nobody present that day would ever have seen before or after, for all the power of Solomon’s prayer, there remains what we would have to call a niggling doubt about it all. Even though God himself talked about ‘building a house’, the uber-wise Solomon is not quite convinced, and prays aloud, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?”
For Solomon realizes that the Temple is not, in fact, anything more than a focal point to help people pray to a God who dwells in heaven - and it is from there, so Solomon realizes, that God will have both to heed his people - and also, to forgive them.
All of which might be said to raise the question about whether God is traveling hopefully, rather than having arrived - or, perhaps, from Solomon’s point of view, whether God has even bothered to set out on a journey at all. But whether or not God travels hopefully, it is certainly in the nature of the people of God so to travel. And at some point around 2800 years after Solomon dedicated the First Temple, some people of God found themselves journeying to Fort Dearborn, and the settlement, town and eventually city which grew up around it.
Now, as Solomon knew, religion needs its focal points, and just as the children of Israel celebrated the building of the Temple, so the children of Chicago came to celebrate the building - and, indeed, re-building after the fire - of this church that is beloved of its members today. And it is the founding of that nascent community that was to become St James, and the eventual building of our beloved church-turned-cathedral that we celebrate this morning. However, I doubt that back in October 1834 the celebrations around the first Episcopal liturgy to be performed in Illinois were as dramatic as those when Solomon dedicated the Temple. And when this church was built a few decades later, I doubt that people will have partied for a whole week. But I do wonder if, on that fateful morning 186 years ago, people might have thought they had properly ‘arrived’ in Chicago now they were holding church services, or if, when this building was dedicated, consecrated and opened up for worship, they thought then that their traveling days were over.
Well I am no historian, but I can tell you there has been an awful lot of journeying over those 186 years, and - with the blessing of hindsight - I can tell you that at any point when people might have been foolish enough to think they had ‘arrived’, they hadn’t. And the journey continues right now, as I am sure you are well aware. Last month, I think it fair to say that everyone in the cathedral community was surprised by the announcement that St James Commons, our office building that physically adjoins this church building, is to be put up for sale early next year. One of the many complex parts of the journey this site has seen over those 186 years was the change in ownership of the plant from St James parish to the Bishop and Trustees of the Diocese of Chicago during the 1950s. And the point has come when the Bishop and Trustees feel that it is in the interest of the diocese as a whole that the office building and plaza be sold. The last four weeks have shown me that the announcement of this proposed sale has brought forth a wide range of emotion, both within our own community, amongst our neighbors here in downtown Chicago, and across the diocese, and even across the wider Episcopal church. I have heard many people express - and I have felt myself - feelings of shock, anger and grief at this unsettling news.
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? That was Solomon’s cry to the Lord, when he dedicated a building of greater theological, architectural and historical significance even than St James Cathedral, Chicago. A building which was no more an ‘arrival’ than this one. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians almost six hundred years before the birth of Christ. And the Second Temple, built with a vision even grander than Solomon’s - that, too, was laid to waste, this time by the Romans in 70CE, leaving only its westernmost retaining wall, at which Jews still flock to pray in great numbers. Solomon - whose wisdom was a divine gift and became the stuff of legend - Solomon was rightly wise to raise the question about whether or not God could, indeed, dwell on earth. And it was with good reason that his vast prayer of dedication is threaded through with the refrain, “O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.”
And so it is likely that in a year or so - for deals of this kind are never quick to be finalized - we will learn again just how it is that ‘tower and temple fall to dust’, and the building we call St James Commons will probably be demolished - demolished just like not one but two iterations of the Temple in Jerusalem. And - whatever your feelings about this - we should join with Solomon in asking God to ‘heed
and forgive’, for having immersed myself in the issues around the ownership, operation and maintenance of these buildings, it is very clear that both St James Cathedral and the Diocese of Chicago have, at times, shown failures of leadership and vision as we have traveled to this point. And, like any honest prayer aimed at the God who dwells in heaven, our prayer should reflect a genuine need for forgiveness for those failures. Solomon attempted to ‘seal the deal’ of the Temple’s dedication with the sacrifice or slaughter of 142,000 animals. But the deal went unsealed, because God’s response to the dedication of the Temple and the sacrifices which followed were to give Solomon a very clear choice - a very clear reminder of how actions always have consequences.
“Walk before me with integrity of heart and uprightness - you and your children,” says the Lord, “then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever…” - But, “turn aside… and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight…” And I’m afraid you don’t have to read on through too many more chapters of the Old Testament to discover just how very quickly that ‘turning aside’ started to happen. So will God indeed dwell on the earth? Well, one day they had a shock in the Temple. On one of those stressful and busy days, when a major festival is just about to take place, one of those times when clergy and staff are feeling under particular pressure - who should walk in but a loud, opinionated troublemaker. Quoting the psalms and the prophets, and displaying a uniquely possessed sense of authority to which he did not appear to be entitled, he had a shouting match with the officials on duty, and totally
disrupted the day’s liturgies.
Because on that stressful and busy day, God in Christ travelled hopefully to the Temple, and his arrival was an event that sparked off all kinds of things, leading to the ultimate sacrifice the world has even seen. A proof that, despite Solomon’s best efforts, it is not the quantity of sacrifice which matters, but the quality. For God did come to dwell on earth. To dwell on earth, but without a real home and a real base, and to travel hopefully with the most unlikely handful of followers - travel from a humble birth in a cattle shed in Bethlehem, through the waters of John’s baptism in the Jordan and the arid heat of the desert, into the crowds of Palm Sunday, the inadequacies of the Temple, the desertion of the Garden. God traveled hopefully, traveled to remind the world of the deepest and most profound message of love and inclusion it had even heard.
But finally God arrived. Arrived, not at a glorious building that took people’s breath away, and cost thousands or millions to construct. The structure at which God in Christ arrived cost next to nothing, and required only two pieces of wood and a few nails. God arrived on a hill not inside a city wall, adorned with the greatest building ever known, but outside that wall. And that day there was only one sacrifice being offered.
God arrived, and God did so that we, God’s children, might continue to travel hopefully. And, for all we celebrate the dedication of our church building, our real celebration, today and every day, is the call to travel hopefully. The call to be the pilgrim children of God in Christ, called only ever into temporary stewardship of buildings - or money, or staff, or of any of the many other gifts that God gives. But called, also, to avoid the sinfulness of daring to think that any of these gifts should be to us anything more than the tools of our participation in the mission and ministry of God to God’s world.
In a few days time, you will be getting a special email from me. It’s about the fact that - for very obvious reasons - we will not be having a gala this fall. Not an in-person gala, or even a Zoom gala, as is the current fashion - for one can, I believe, have too much Zoom! Instead, I will simply be asking you to spend ten minutes watching one of the most beautiful videos I have watched in a long time. A video that both tells the story of our outreach ministries and reminds us why it is that we undertake them in the first place. And it is my hope - my strong and fervent hope - that your reaction to this video will ensure a level of gifts to these ministries larger and more generous than we have seen even from the most successful of galas. As you watch these ten beautiful minutes, you will hear Anna talking of the many people - people who turn up here probably as regularly as most of you, but yet are not officially ‘on our books’ - the many people who regard St James as ‘home’, as a place of ‘peace and refuge’. And as Anna talks about these ministries, she finally gives Solomon an answer to his question, for, as you will hear, she makes the profound and truthful claim that “God always shows up… and hopefully we will continue to show up for our neighbors in Chicago.”
Yes, Anna - God always shows up - traveling hopefully that God’s mission will always live on not, ultimately in buildings, but in the people who are known to God and to the world as the Body of Christ. For, as Teresa of Avila so famously taught, “Christ has no body now on earth but [ours],"
“Little do you know your own blessedness,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, “for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” God in Christ traveled hopefully and arrived to labour on the cross - and Christ’s Body labors on in his name. And as we remember the founding of this small part of the Body of Christ, as we celebrate the dedication of this church building, and even as we look with anticipation into an ever-complex future, let us remember that God did indeed come to dwell on the earth. God arrived, so that we might travel onwards ever hopefully, not to be the landlords and tenants of grand buildings, but to seek the true success of ensuring that our only labor is done in Christ’s name. Amen.
September 27, 2020
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
What do you think? A man had two sons….
So, which one are you? Are you the arrogant one with attitude, who is happy to tell dad that the family business can go screw itself, and that you’ll do whatever you damn well please? Are you that one? That one who’s made something of a habit of such selfish behavior? And not just selfish - as if that’s not bad enough - selfish and irresponsible.
Because this ‘man’ who is so unlucky as to have such vexing children - this man has a vineyard. That’s property that needs attention. That vineyard needs work. It is quite likely that the ability to put bread on the table and keep a roof over at least four heads is related to that vineyard. The request to ‘go and work in the vineyard today’ isn’t just a suggestion for a hobby or pastime, it’s the nearest thing to a command about keeping the family business going and the family income assured.
But not for the first son - not, that is, unless he wants to do so. Life, with this first son, sounds as if it has to be lived on his terms and nobody else’s. So, I wonder - are you that son - the lazy one?
Or are you the other one? The one who is happy to say what you think other people might like to hear? Are you the one that ducks the truth, and is happy to hide the real, essential facts from other people - even those close to you, even those on whom you depend? Are you the one who can do the smooth talking…. But nothing else, because you can’t be bothered? Are you that son - the liar?
A man had two sons - what do you think?
Frankly, what I think is that neither of them are very nice. The lazy one and the liar. Disagreeable people, both of them. Enough to make you quite upset. Enough, perhaps, to make you cry out - cry out to God - What shall I do with [these] people? And Moses, who was the one crying out this morning - Moses had to deal with more than just two sons. Moses had to deal with what our reading this morning called ‘the whole congregation’ of the Israelites, who - without a trace of irony - are camping at the wilderness of Sin. Camping, grumbling and quarreling, because they are thirsty - very thirsty.
And so Moses turns to the Lord - and, of course, the Lord has a solution to offer. The Lord tells Moses to go to a nearby rock, and that “water will come out of it, so that people may drink”. But let me tell you something strange: A man had two rocks - what do you think? Doesn’t that sound a little strange?
Because the Bible is a complex thing. It takes our Bible sixty-six books to tell the very simple story of God’s love for God’s world and God’s children. And along the way, these sixty-six books pose no end of unresolved questions and issues. You’ll know without me telling you that the four gospels that tell the life of Jesus do so in notably different ways, ranging from carbon copies of some stories and teachings shared between them, to strikingly unique stories picked up by only one of the four evangelists.
And - being a much larger collection of material - what we call the Old Testament is a set of even more complex documents. A complexity that you encounter even in what we sometimes call the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible - which our Jewish sisters and brothers more usually call the Torah. The complexity is there right at the very beginning of it all - because, what do you think - a man had two creations.
For if you open the Hebrew Scriptures to page one, you’ll find that In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis Chapter One sets out the famous six-day narrative of creation at the hands of God, who looks at his achievements noting that it was good.
It’s fabulous stuff, but, just in case you wanted what we would now, in medical terms, call a second opinion, you only have to read as far as Chapter Two to get a completely different account of creation. From a modern literary perspective, you wouldn’t necessarily call this the most deft piece of editing, and the juxtaposition of the two accounts of creation have been the stuff of scholarly and pious debate for many many years.
But never mind that a man had two creations - what I need you to be aware of this morning is that there was a man who had two rocks. What do you think?
And not only did Moses have two rocks, he also had two ‘congregations’ of parched and irritable Israelites. Jump from Exodus 17 to Numbers 20, and you will find that the Israelites are no longer in the Wilderness of Sin - they have arrived in the Wilderness of Zin. That minute difference in name should already put us on our guard that something curious is happening here.
And in both these stories the Israelites are thirsty and grumbling, and in both these stories, they are apparently at a place within this sinful wilderness known as Meribah - a Hebrew pun on the word ‘quarrelsome’. And in both stories, Moses is sent, staff in hand, to a rock, from which the Lord tells him that water will be freely available. And in both stories, Moses strikes the rock, and water flows abundantly.
But something is different. Most scholars would tell you that the literary relationship between these two stories is very strong, and a remarkable number of details are identical. Scholars who are into textual scholarship will tell you that there is a very serious dependence between the thirsty Israelites of Exodus and the thirsty Israelites of Numbers. They will tell you that it is more than a coincidence that Moses finds himself in a sinful sounding wilderness being sent with a staff in his hand to a rock to try to get some water. But for all the similarities between these two accounts, there is one huge difference.
For at the end of ‘our’ story - the one we heard this morning from Exodus, all ends well. There’s been some grumpy behavior and raised tempers, but water flows from the rock, and everyone is happy.
But if you jump ahead to Numbers chapter twenty, you will find a very different ending, because this time - as a result of striking the rock to get the water - Moses is told that he has lost the right to be the one who gets to take the Israelites over the finishing line and into the promised land. And thus it proves, at the end of Deuteronomy, when we see Moses die on the very peak of Mount Nebo, in modern day Jordan. A place from which, on a clear day, you can see across the Jordan River and right across to the summit of the Mount of Olives. Moses dies at a place so close you could almost touch the Promised Land - but because of the second smitten rock, he never quite gets there.
So we should ask why not? What was so very sinful about the second iteration of the thirsty Israelites in the sinful wilderness that makes rock-striking bring such a heavy punishment. The answer - which seems slightly curious at first - lies in a little detail of God’s command to Moses when he sends him to find the rock. Because on this second occasion, the Lord tells Moses that he is to speak to the rock, to ‘command’ it to ‘yield its water’. But whether Moses is simply in auto-pilot mode from the previous rock moment, or whether he wasn’t listening properly, or whether he was just fed up to the back teeth with all the grumbling he kept getting from his followers, Moses strikes the rock. And while - miraculously - out comes water again, Moses has nevertheless crossed the Lord and pays a heavy price.
A man had two rocks… What do you think? Why should one rock be smitten, and the other rock spoken to? Well - to answer that question, we need to see what has happened between Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. And what has happened between these two stories is that the Israelites - and Moses in particular - have had a transformative encounter with the Word of God at Mount Sinai. For in the blaze and drama of fire and cloud, God has spoken to Moses ‘as one speaks to a friend’ and the Law has been given complete with tablets of stone.
And if God’s Word has engaged with the world ‘as one speaks to a friend’, then God’s friends should be relying on the Word - talking, not striking.
But Moses - in this moment of deep frustration - Moses reverts to the more violent part of himself (and let’s not forget that he is a murderer). And through his choice of actions, he has cut himself off from the fulness of God’s promise and God’s presence.
Two rocks. Two sons. What do you think? I’m beginning to think it’s not working out so well. And if it is true for the vineyard owner, and if it is true for Moses, I’m afraid that’s true for someone else as well. For another man had two crowds - two crowds of followers…
And just at the moment, that man is being grilled by the chief priests and the elders. That man is being cross-questioned angrily about the nature of his authority. A question which the vexed and vexatious Jewish authorities think will trap Jesus and allow them to justify arresting him.
But when they demand of him, “By what authority…?” they are saying more about their blindness and ignorance than they are about Jesus, the Word made Flesh.
Because our reading of Matthew’s gospel has taken a bit of a hop skip and a jump since last week. Because we have leaped over two vitally important parts of the gospel story - For a start have leaped over Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
And we have also jumped over the story where, exerting his spiritual authority to the full, Jesus has ‘cleansed’ the Temple. And just as Mount Sinai was a vital revelation of the Word of God that should have changed the lives of God’s children, so too should Jesus’ great entrance to Jerusalem and the Temple have changed the lives of God’s children.
But like Moses at the second rock, the Jewish religious leaders did not allow the revelation of the Word of God to change their self-righteous and arrogant behavior. But the chief priests and elders refuse to allow the Word of God to affect their lives. Instead they persist with their stubborn and arrogant behavior. Like the first son, they refuse to play ball.
And the great crowd that has welcomed Jesus into the city on Palm Sunday. That great crowd is like the second son of the parable. They said the right thing, but they don’t follow through, and as a result, only a few days later their insincere cry will change from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify”. What do you think? A man had two sons.
What do you think? Because your opinion matters, as does mine. Because God call us and all God’s children into what Jesus refers to in that gospel passage as the ‘way of righteousness’. And our response to that call matters. Because God - God did not have two sons.
God had one son, the living Word. And God’s Word was revealed to the world to show us the full nature of the sacrificial and self-giving love of God - a love in which we are called to participate. And that participation should change things - it should change us, and, through us, it should change this world in which we live. It should change us from being like son number one - the selfish one. And it should change us from being like son number two - the liar.
What do you think? A man had two sons - but do you think we really need to be like either of them? Yes, the tax and collectors get to come to the party ahead of the self-righteous pharisees. And do take note that, apparently, everyone is getting to the party eventually. But that doesn’t mean we have to emulate either of the man’s two sons in our own behavior - not when we have God’s One Son to show us a better way. For the truth that I see when I look into the spiritual mirror is that, at times, I am the lazy one and at times I am the lying one. But - thank God - there are also times when I can do better and be better than either of them. And that’s probably true for you as well - especially when you, stop and remind yourself of the presence of the living Word of God in your own life, loving you into the fulness of abundant life, and calling you ever onwards to the ‘way of righteousness’.
A man had two sons. God had one beloved son. We have to work out whom we are called to emulate. What do you think?
September 06, 2020
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
They are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household… your lamb shall be without blemish… the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. In the name of…
In the Spring of 1988, the South African president P.W. Botha publicly condemned Archbishop Desmond Tutu for distorting what he claimed was ‘the true message of Christ’. The reason for this attack was that Archbishop Tutu was bringing the church into what the president regarded as the purely secular political debate about apartheid. Botha’s attack on the Anglican Archbishop was likely intended as the prelude to legal action against the church, which had become the de facto opposition to Botha’s hardline government after it had effectively suppressed the voice of the opposing political parties.
The force of international pressure against the South African government prevented Botha’s campaign going further, but, in truth, Archbishop Tutu was not especially concerned by the charge that he was behaving illegally by mixing politics and religion. His famous line, which I am sure you have heard before, is “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading.”
All of which makes me ask, what are we going to do about it?
Because the situation is critical. The situation is urgent. Truth is compromised so far that it is - to all intents and purposes - simply forgotten. We are dealing with a tyrannical leader - one who, it is quite plain, does not give a damn about those less fortunate than himself.
The evidence of poverty and oppression is plain for all to see. But facts do not matter. Not any more. We are dealing, sadly, with the stubbornness and contempt of a leader who thinks he is uniquely powerful, and who is not prepared to accept the most simple facts when they stare him in the face. We are dealing with a leader who is happy to lie unashamedly, to lie and to make false promises. We are dealing with a leader who is - to use an old-fashioned word - a sinner. A frequent and an unrepentant sinner.
And, lest you should be in any doubt at all, this is not good for society. The behavior of this leader is not good for society, and that has consequences - consequences that are staring everyone in the face, even some of his own officials and supporters. There has already been suffering and there has already been bloodshed, and there is going to be more suffering and there is going to be more bloodshed.
Things will get better, but they are going to get worse before they get better, both in economic terms and in terms of human suffering, misery and death.
But it did not have to be like this. It could have been avoided - so very easily avoided. All it needed was a small amount of respect, decency and dignity - respect, decency and dignity for ‘the other’ - for people of another culture or ethnicity or religion. But there was none - only dishonor, deceit and deliberate destructiveness. And as a result the situation has hardened and hardened, until the present, urgent crisis - when, as we all know only too clearly, it will get worse now, before it can possibly get better.
And all the time, all the time, the refrain has been repeated over and over again by God’s children - that old, old song: “Let my people go.”
But Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go. All they had really wanted - back in the beginning - was the opportunity to practice their own form of religion. But such was Pharaoh’s cruelty that the very request simply provoked a worsening of their working conditions, and an ongoing mistreatment of the ethnic community that was the underclass of Egypt.
And so the cry built up, “Let my people go”. The cry reverberates for all to hear, and is backed up by a growing body of ever more clear and painful evidence that sees Pharaoh either ignore the facts or lie about his intentions and promises. Nine times in the opening chapters of Exodus, nine times do we hear that great cry for an oppressed people.
Blood, frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness. And the cry gets louder and louder - so loud that even some of Pharaoh’s own court is telling him just to get on and do it.
But the cry is ignored. Tragically, the cry is not loud enough to persuade this veritable role model of tyranny to see sense, face facts, and amend his ways.
And so things come to a moment of crisis - a moment of urgency:
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.
And so things come to a moment of bloodshed: For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt…the blood shall be a sign for you.
It’s no wonder that the day would be what the author calls ‘a day of remembrance’. Not something that would be easy to forget, so I should imagine.
And the question remains: what are we going to do about it?
Like me, I am sure that throughout your educational journey, whether in schools or colleges or universities, there were times when you were asked to ‘compare and contrast’. And, as it so happens in our lectionary cycle this morning, we have been given about the ultimate challenge of a ‘compare and contrast’ essay, having just heard two famous passages of Scripture, both of which give us an example of how to deal with disagreement, how to deal with conflict - how to deal, ultimately, with sin.
In that reading from the twelfth chapter of Exodus, we have reached a crisis. Even some of Pharaoh’s own advisors are saying - as it were - Israelite lives matter. But it is to no avail, and the blood of the lamb will save the Israelites from the blood that will be shed as the Lord strikes down the first-born of the land of Egypt in the last and most horrific of the plagues. Plagues sent to try and persuade Pharaoh to free God’s people. Plagues sent to try and persuade Pharaoh to end oppression. Plagues that were sent as the song got louder and louder: “Let my people go.”
And some twelve or thirteen hundred years later, the Lamb whose blood will be shed to free God’s people tells the community of his followers… to sit down in a very reasonable way and resolve your differences. Ideally, do it in private, if that fails, do it within your community, using evidence and reason. And if that fails… God will smite them dead…? No - the Lamb whose blood will be shed is simply saying, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”.
And what does that mean? Are we simply saying that we don’t actually kill them, we just regard them as spiritually dead? No - not even that.
For it is in this very gospel that the eponymous tax collector is summoned from his corrupt and oppressive job to follow Jesus and become an apostle and an evangelist. And it is this same tax collector turned evangelist who tells us also of the gentile woman who so completely rebuffs and astounds Jesus in an argument about dogs and bread, that her mortally sick daughter is healed.
For when Jesus gives that instruction that ‘such a one’ is to be regarded as a Gentile and a tax collector, it is not as a prelude to damnation, death and destruction. For the blood of the Lamb is no longer to be smeared on doorposts to prevent massed slaughter. The blood of this Lamb is shed because God loves the world so very, very much that God’s uniquely precious and sinless son is prepared to be slaughtered himself, so that even gentiles and tax collectors may discover the utter fullness of the love of God.
Compare and contrast indeed - and discover how over those centuries the revelation of God’s love becomes clearer and clearer to the children of God, and the blood of the Lamb becomes a new festival to be celebrated by the children of God, to bind them in community and in communion both with God and with each other.
And so the question remains: what are we going to do about it? Because the era of Pharaoh and Moses was not the only time when there has been a time of division and a time of oppression. The era of Pharaoh and Moses was not the only time that enslavement has led to bloodshed and communities have been set against each other.
As I journeyed back to Chicago last week, I chanced on a remarkable article in the British journal The New Statesmen, written by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. He was reflecting on how the pandemic has heightened our awareness of mortality - both our own and that of other people - and the implications of this.
Drawing on the work of the American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a book called The Denial of Death published shortly after his own premature death from cancer in 1974, Professor Williams explained that
Becker raised the question of “what a person would be like if he did not lie”.
The former Archbishop continues:
Not lying: it’s not a lot to ask, surely? But whenever we think we have taken this on board, the next threat constantly pulls us back into denial. If we can’t quite convince ourselves that we can become invulnerably safe, we look to people who tell us that they will do it for us – and so set ourselves up for a repeating pattern of unrealistic expectation and savage recrimination.
The challenge [he says] is to work out what our role is …
[For] if individual…freedom means a blithe disregard for the well-being of others, [that] intensifies the problem. A summons to faith, courage and energy in the face of death is…to recognize the gentle insistent pressure of a shared reality which tells us to make room for one another.
The Pharaoh with whom Moses had to contend was an archetype of someone who had a ‘blithe disregard for the well-being of others’ and who both ignored facts and lied continuously in his dealings with Moses. Lambs were slaughtered, and lives were lost, as the children of God sought to be free from the chains of oppression and enslavement.
And if it should happen to strike you that such events are - tragically - not confined to the early pages of the Hebrew scriptures, then we need to ensure that we know very clearly what our role is.
For we are the community of the Lamb who was slaughtered that his body and his blood might be shared in perpetuity, shared to draw us closer to God and each other. We are the community called to go out in truth and in peace to find the lost sheep that are gentiles, tax collectors, and any and every one else, and to assure them of that love that was lifted high on the cross, and which was confirmed and not destroyed by death. And never forget that our voice matters - yes, our voice matters. And our voice matters because the Bible and politics are inexorably linked, and have been ever since the events of the book of Exodus and the unstoppable cry, “Let my people go”.
If you think I’m joking, look back at the role of Desmond Tutu and the church in the ending of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Look at the role of the church in the uprisings in Poland that put the first real cracks in the wall of the Soviet control of eastern Europe.
Look closer to home, and with a different political angle, and do not fail to overlook how the electoral significance of evangelical Christians in this country has grown ever more significant since the 1980s. The voice of the community of the Lamb who was slaughtered is not without significance, which means your voice and my voice are not without significance. Because - at our best - we are people who know how to deal with division and discord and sinfulness in a manner which does not have to involve body bags, because, finally, the Lamb was slaughtered once and for all.
Some of you have had the privilege and joy of experiencing the ministry of my dear friend Fr. Lister Tonge, who has visited St James on a number of occasions. Not only has he preached here, but he led a quite remarkable parish retreat 18 months ago that touched deeply the lives of those who were able to attend. Lister is my longest-standing ordained friend, from whom, over very nearly forty years, I have learned so much about life and about faith.
Lister retired from stipendiary ministry last Sunday, having been ordained for 45 years, and at the climax of his final sermon to his own congregation in his own cathedral, he said, “This business of the Christian faith is about how we learn to give ourselves away - because it is what God is and does.” And that is why our role is - always - to seek out lost sheep, and gentiles, and tax collectors - because this God is always telling us ‘to make room for one another’.
And sometimes, as Archbishop Tutu most certainly demonstrated, this requires us to proclaim the truth when others seek to bury it with falsehoods. Sometimes, we are called to model courage and integrity when it feels in short supply elsewhere.
Because one Friday some 2000 years ago, another leader not known for his courage or integrity asked the terrible question, “What is truth?” And in the strange twilight of the darkened sun that afternoon, a Lamb without blemish was slaughtered out of love for each family, out of love for each household of the entire world. And our role - the role of those who now constitute the Body of Christ - our role is to help the world discover the unyielding truth of God’s love.
For this is the love that looks oppression and slavery in the eye and will not back down. This is the love that is the truth personified. This is the love that does not, will not, cannot lie. This is the love that calls us to stand with it, and from generation to generation for as long as it is necessary, this is the love that will keep singing the old song to new tyrants, calling us to join in the chorus and cry out, “Let my people go”.