Sermons Author: The Very Rev. Dominic Barrington
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May 02, 2021
About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this?
You are setting off on a journey. It is a journey undertaken out of obedience, and it is a journey to a dangerous place. A journey you will undertake on foot, thus carrying very little with you, for the terrain where you are going is challenging.
And it’s not just the terrain. The people will likely be untrustworthy and unfriendly. Indeed, they may actively wish or even cause you harm. But you have a task to do. You have work that has been entrusted to you - work which you intend to do, come what may.
So let me ask: what one thing will you take with you that you think will give you the safety you need to do what you have to do? What are you going to carry?
In a nation in which, as of last November, 32% of adults said they personally own a gun and 44% are members of a gun-owning household, the answer may feel obvious to you.
But if a gun is your answer to the question, then you will be making a couple of assumptions. You will be assuming that your weapon is a more powerful weapon, a mightier weapon than that carried by those who might attack you. You are also assuming that you will be quicker on the draw. The only problem with this approach, as Inspector Harry Callahan explained so simply back in 1971, the only problem is whether or not you feel lucky.
For, as Dirty Harry explains to a wounded bank-robber, he’s holding a Magnum 44 that could blow the man’s head clean off his shoulders. And neither the robber or, apparently, Dirty Harry, can recall whether or not one bullet remains in the chamber. And so the question comes down to whether or not you feel lucky.
So, if the one thing you’d take with you is a gun, and you are happy to go with Dirty Harry’s “well, do you, punk?” approach to personal safety, then you are doing so in the belief that ‘might is right’. For that is the key to Dirty Harry’s success and survival.
But, while I am a huge fan of Clint Eastwood, guns are not the answer I am seeking to my question. And so I want to move you fifteen years onwards from Clint Eastwood to Jeremy Irons to find a very different answer to the question, shown to us in another - but very different - classic movie - The Mission. And the answer, of course, is an oboe.
For those of you who cannot remember or who never saw this poignant movie from 1986, Irons plays Father Gabriel, a Jesuit missionary in South America, who is as under-stated and gentle as Dirty Harry is over-stated and violent. Early on in the movie, we see Gabriel surrounded by a large group of Guarani natives, who had taken great delight in murdering the previous missionary who had dared to come among them.
Being skilled at moving quietly and almost unseen in their jungle territory, they quickly surround Gabriel giving him no opportunity to escape or run. And that is when he reaches into his shoulder bag and produces his oboe - on which he plays one of the most haunting melodies ever composed by the great Ennio Morricone, mesmerizing his would be assailants, and making them realize he has come not to do them harm but good.
And with that realization come a string of remarkable developments, as an incredible mission is built in this remote location ‘above the falls’. Fr Gabriel has realized that ‘religion is ripe for disruption’, and the results are spectacular as the Guarani flock to him and his Jesuit brethren, happily embracing the Christian faith, and creating a utopia of a new home that brings remarkable spiritual and economic blessings, as it echoes the life of the very first Christian communities portrayed in the early chapters of Acts.
One of the great strengths of this wonderful film is that the dialog is fairly minimalistic. The Academy award winning cinematography tells as much of the story, as does the script. So we don’t get to see Father Gabriel ever leading any kind of Bible study with the Guarani, but - in the light of our first reading this morning - it is easy to imagine him sitting with his flock, reading aloud some famous prophetic words from the Hebrew Scriptures, and having one of them ask him, “About whom, may I ask, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
But Fr Gabriel was not the only person to realize that ‘religion is ripe for disruption’. While the phrase is a contemporary one, the sentiment behind it has been present throughout the ages, and was certainly part of what you might call the missional intent of Philip the Deacon, who had the starring role in the drama which we just heard read from the eighth chapter of Acts.
Some would say that the church was not in a good place at this particular moment in the history which Luke recounts for us. Stephen, another of the seven ‘deacons’ appointed by the apostles, has just been martyred, and at the start of this chapter we learn how Saul, who has yet to become Paul, has initiated a severe persecution that has resulted in pretty much every member of the church being ‘scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria’.
And thus Philip, who had been appointed to assist with the daily distribution of food to the needy in Jerusalem - a worthy and necessary operation without doubt, but one based around a church which has already got rather settled and ‘established’ in its operations - as a result of this rather major ‘disruption’ to the life of the church Philip now finds himself as an itinerant preacher. And having initially headed north of Jerusalem to preach in Samaria, this morning we find Philip being raised up by an angel to go south - to go to the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza.
“Get up…” says the angel of the Lord. But, in fact, the angel is saying or hinting at slightly more than that. Philip is not merely being told to stand up and walk in a certain direction. Luke’s choice of Greek word brings more than a little hint of coming to life, possibly even of coming to resurrected life - a state of being of vital importance if Philip is going to be able to share that new life to anyone around him.
And so Philip finds himself in the no-man’s land of that wilderness road that heads towards Gaza - proof that some things don’t change, for the road to Gaza is still something of a wilderness today. And there he finds a eunuch from Ethiopia, sitting in his chariot, reading from the prophecy of Isaiah, as he ‘returns home’, having gone to Jerusalem to worship. Reading words from the Hebrew scriptures that, for Jesus, and thus for Christians, have acquired deep significance. Words that speak of vocation in the ethos of Father Gabriel, and not the ethos of Dirty Harry. Words that tell us that ‘religion is ripe for disruption’, and that might is not, in fact, always right:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.
Philip’s encounter with the eunuch, we should note, happens not as this Ethiopian ‘stranger’ (as he is labeled in one famous hymn) is heading towards Jerusalem, but as he is heading back after he has come to Jerusalem to worship. And he is reading one of the most ‘counter-cultural’ passages in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament, as, presumably, he reflects on what he has experienced when he arrived at the Temple. An experience on which we, too, should reflect
Much of the gospel narrative shows Jesus - who is a Jew both learned and pious - finding himself in conflict with the leaders of the pharisaical Judaism that represented what one might call the ‘established’ Jewish religion of his day. Both in his teaching and preaching ministry in the Galilee, and at the climax of the gospel story in Jerusalem, Jesus is falling foul of the scribes and pharisees, who are sometimes explicitly condemned by him for their teaching and their behavior, which, amongst other failings, Jesus clearly sees as offering an account of God’s love which is too narrow and exclusive to satisfy him.
It is, after all, Luke, who in the first volume of his narrative, has Jesus relate that great parable of radical inclusion: the cry to recognize who one’s neighbor actually is in the story of the ministry of the kind and merciful Samaritan who shows a compassion sadly lacking in the behavior of both priest and Levite.
And even more pertinent to today’s readings, it is Luke who, in the words uttered by Simeon when encountering the baby Jesus in the Temple, recalls very specifically the mission laid on Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’, when he acclaims Jesus as being not only a figure to be glory for the people of Israel, but also to be ‘a light for revelation to the gentiles’.
So, like Philip the Deacon, we are called to see in Jesus the ultimate self-sacrificial ministry that demonstrates the love of the one God for all of God’s children, both Jew and gentile. But, at the point when the eunuch was heading from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, to go and worship at the Temple, this great vision was not one of which he was aware.
The eunuch was probably what is usually termed a ‘God-fearer’. A gentile by birth, but who had come to believe in the Jewish faith, but who had not taken the necessary steps formally to convert to Judaism. Steps, one should remember, that, for an adult man, could bring serious medical risks and pain, let alone anything more spiritual or cultural. Steps one might, perhaps, classify as generating ‘a high level of inconvenience’ to anyone who might be considering them.
And so this man is an outsider. His skin color would have stood out in the crowds in Jerusalem. And while his unusual physical condition would, one assumes, not have been obvious to the naked eye, it was nevertheless a complete bar to his real participation in anything that went on in the Temple - I won’t quote the text, but if you want the proof, simply read the first verse of Deuteronomy 23.
And here is this complex and curious figure, who has somehow heard the call of the one God reaching out to him, and who has traveled to Jerusalem - the epicenter of worship of the one God - now heading home, reading this most complex and curious of texts in the book of Isaiah. And he’s not just heading home - again, the Greek gives us a better hint of what might be the bigger spiritual and emotional picture. He’s heading back to how things were before. Whatever hope of ‘new life’ the worship of the one God might offer those who are deemed acceptable by the priests, the scribes and the pharisees - it’s not been on offer to him.
And so he has no choice, but to ‘return home’, back to how things used to be. And thus, I suspect, it is with a downcast sense of bitter irony that he finds himself reading, of all possible texts, the prophecy about the one who ‘was led to the slaughter’. The eunuch, I strongly suspect was on a wilderness road in more than just the geographical sense.
Or at least he was until the angel of the Lord command Philip to ‘come to life’ - so that he could go and share that disruptive new life with the Ethiopian, with whom he goes down into the deep spiritual waters of death, to bring the eunuch into the life of the baptized, bound to the lamb-who-was-slain not just in death, but in an inclusive new life that, at its best, can change the hearts and lives of God’s children, and thus can change the world.
At which point, of course, Luke takes great care to tell us not that the eunuch is now ‘returning home’ (that is to say, having to assume his old spiritual and emotional identity) - instead he is going on his ‘way’ (a word laced with significance), and now he is doing so ‘rejoicing’.
Long-time cathedral member Richard Hoskins was kind enough to share with me an article by Rabbi Ari Lamm published in last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. A counter-blast to the pessimism that many have expressed about the fate of ‘traditional’ religious practice since the pandemic hampered in-person attendance at acts of worship, the rabbi issues an optimistic but challenging call to faith leaders to refocus ‘on what business-school types call the core offering’.
The rabbi claims that ‘religion is ripe for disruption’, and I have quoted his phrase three times in this sermon, for I think he is absolutely correct in saying so. It’s a term he attributes to Silicon Valley, and you’ll find no shortage of articles on the internet that suggest indicators that suggest when an industry is ready for disruption. When you note that these include: ‘lack of customer trust’, being ‘inaccessible to the masses’, and offering ‘high levels of inconvenience’ to the customer, not only can one see why the rabbi might say this today, but, moreover, why in fact it has often been true with what we might broadly call ‘established’ religions across the centuries.
In calling religion back to its ‘core offering’, and reflecting on the success of some digital podcasts about religion this past year, Rabbi Lam asserts that “This is as an invitation to every rabbi, priest and minister in America to do as good spiritual shepherds have always done and come meet their flock where they graze.” And that, of course, is what the angel of the Lord was really making Philip do when he called him to live out his resurrection life by getting up and going to the forbidding terrain of the wilderness road to Gaza.
For there Philip found a beloved child of God who had discovered that the religion he thought he desired was in fact utterly inaccessible to him. And there Philip was able to show this beloved child of God that such a religion had been utterly disrupted by the lamb whose life was ‘taken away’ out of love for him and for all the world.
But, of course, I have to admit to you now that while Philip the Deacon did not go down to the wilderness road with a weapon, he also did not travel there with an oboe. But Father Gabriel traveled with something more than just his oboe, vital to his ministry though it was.
The Mission, as you probably know, is the heart-rending story of the triumph of ‘established religion’ at the expense of inclusive and loving mission and ministry. In the complex disputes between the empires established in South America by Spain and Portugal, the movie narrates the role of the wider church, personified by a cardinal from the Vatican, in supporting the slave trade and demanding the destruction of the Jesuit mission. An even greater example, were it needed, of ignoring the need of the masses, of creating a ‘lack of customer trust’, and of causing the customer ‘high levels of inconvenience’, as the Guarani are callously and needlessly consigned to death or enslavement.
While the other Jesuit brothers take up arms to join the hopeless fight against the over-powering forces of the Portuguese and Spanish that have come to destroy the mission, Fr Gabriel knows that this is not the way of the suffering servant. “If might is right,” he says, only minutes before battle erupts and his mission is destroyed, “then love has no place in the world”.
And so Gabriel, who stands as the antithesis of the Dirty Harry school of mission and ministry, calmly and gracefully goes to his death carrying not a gun but the Bread of the Eucharist held high in a monstrance, with which he has given a final blessing to his flock.
Because when Gabriel first set out to meet his flock ‘where they grazed’, climbing high ‘above the falls’, it was not just an oboe that accompanied him, but the deep knowledge of the lamb that was ‘silent before its shearer’, whom we are blessed to know as the risen Christ.
And finally, when the missions are destroyed, and the Guarini are murdered, enslaved or scattered, miles away from the perils of the jungle, back in the ordered safety of Asunción, we find the Portuguese governor reflecting with the Vatican emissary on the fate of the missions, and the native population for whom they had become not just a home, but the foundation of a new life in Christ Jesus. For the governor, it is all rather unfortunate, but, sadly, it was inevitable collateral damage. For, he says, “We must work in the world; the world is thus,” “No,” the Cardinal responds, “No, thus have we made the world… Thus have I made it.”
“Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me,” said Jesus. It’s when we forget that - it’s when we fail to go and meet God’s beloved children where they graze - especially the ones whom we have allowed to be excluded because their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or their economic or political identity do not fit our prejudices and preferences
It is when we pick up a gun and not an oboe, and when we proclaim that might is right (whether it is the might of military force, economic pressure, political fundamentalism, or social ostracization) it’s then that we fail to bear fruit and thus become part of a system that is ‘ripe for disruption’.
The Ethiopian eunuch found himself reading a uniquely disruptive prophecy about the way God chooses to intervene in the world. He did so, quite possibly, after a bruising encounter with some of those who claimed to worship and follow the one God, and he found himself asking About whom does the prophet say this? And many others, confused by the claims of religion, have been asking that question ever since.
So we should pray that when the question is answered… when they talk about Jesus, when they talk about the lamb who was slain, and then they talk about those who followed in his footsteps, such as Philip the Deacon and the real life equivalent of Father Gabriel - let’s pray, that by the grace and mercy of God, they might just be able to talk about us. Amen.
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